2015: Music in Review

2015 was hyped throughout its duration as an all-time year for albums, beginning in the dark days of January when the nuclear bomb that was Black Messiah was still radiating after its surprise late-December '14 release, and continuing to Grimes' ascension to the top of the art-pop heap in December. In between those developments, many long-gone artists made comebacks worthy of their legacy, currently in-favor people made strong albums, and a host of newcomers announced their arrival on the scene. In other words, not all that different from any previous year, but somehow, THIS year was bigger and bolder. Why?

It is because the majority of music critics (especially the ones not in print media, the ones I tend to follow) are my own age: slowly but inexorably receding into middle age, desperate to make their opinion of an album count, clinging onto the illusion that the louder we scream about the music we like, the less likely we are to become obscure. The more insistent we are about the music we love, the more likely we are to ignore the fact that we are slipping away from true music fandom and into mere musical tourists in love with the Newest. Are we the last of the critics? Are we even true critics? We have a constant, endless resource of music, and we consume it - nay, binge on it - as if it was to disappear tomorrow. We have to be the first to comment, the first to tweet and like and shout about the newest.

I probably just fully bought into it, but I definitely did feel like this was a year that kept bringing the big hitters: when I started to assemble and organize the list I keep through the year, it was over 100 albums long and I had problems attempting to narrow it down to 50. I even briefly entertained a top 75 (heaven forbid!) Trying to rank them was even tougher: the top 10 of any year are always the cream and usually are easily identifiable as such, but the top 20 albums (maybe even the top 25) this year would have been acceptable for those ten positions. I'll see what I think in hindsight, but I am certain that this was a very good year for albums, with at least one certifiable Classic, and several other excellent LPs.

Anyone who has read my write-ups from the past several years will have read nothing new here: this seems to be the place for me to air my existential crises about getting older in general, and listening to more music at an increasingly shallow depth. Perhaps I am hoping to pass along some of my interest to my little girl, who fell in love with Queen and loves to emulate Freddie's stage theatrics while singing her endearing nonsense. Seeing the purity of a child's love of music reminds me of my own beginnings, and indeed this year was the 20th anniversary of my own Year One in terms of music: I have provided a list further along of some of the best from that epochal year. Much as I enjoyed this year's crop, it seems unlikely now that any of these albums will rank with the best of 1995. But who can say? Let's go.

Albums of the Year

50. Motorhead, Bad Magic

The most inimitable and uncompromising metal band of their time (in other words, all time), Lemmy Kilmister's passion project had no business still being in the game after forty years of such hard living and heavy rocking, let alone putting out one of their very best albums. But that is exactly the case here: you can hear the ravages of Father Time on Lemmy's distinct growl, but there is no stopping the band from displaying their most concise and powerful set of songs in years. Putting the cherry on the cake is their straightforward cover of "Sympathy for the Devil", doing justice to the song that so many others have butchered: hearing Lemmy speaking those immortal lines is as close to the truth as you can get. Long may they rock.

Victory Or Die

49. King Midas Sound / Fennesz, Edition 1

The first of four planned collaborative albums that Kevin Martin's dub project has scheduled, Edition 1 brings them together with Viennese sonic architect Christian Fennesz, and the result is as much of a seamless fit as you would expect. Midas' smoky dub is overlain with Fennesz's gauzy and ethereal textures, with Roger and Kiki providing their inimitable vocals on top. Very interested to see who is up next.


48. Young Fathers, White Men Are Black Men Too

The Scottish trio wasted little time in following up their Mercury Prize-winning album Dead with this colorful explosion of future politi-pop, reinterpreting black British life through a pastiche of influences that give the album the quality of being timeless: this could have been recorded anytime in the past 20 years (and you'd be forgiven for hearing more than a little TVOTR in the mix).


47. Graveyard, Innocence & Decadence

Blues is the foundation of rock, and there are a lot of bands that use the blues template to create their own sound: there are few that do it as well as Sweden's Graveyard. After the amazing one-two of 2011's Hisingen Blues and 2012's Lights Out, it was foolish to expect anything so soon, and the three-year wait was worth it, as they bring another batch of soulful ballads, crushing riffs and autumnal moods.

The Apple and the Tree

46. Iron Maiden, The Book of Souls

Another example of a metal band many decades and several health scares into their career, Iron Maiden had been on a tremendous streak since 2000 that was nearly derailed by singer Bruce Dickinson's cancer scare. As if to atone for the five-year break, they released a majestic double album which culminates in the operatic 18-minute long "Empire of the Clouds". Their pace has settled into a stately march, and some of their prog choices can be questionable, but there is no doubt that Maiden does things their way (just listen to the live feel of the songs to understand what a difference studio touch-ups can do), and if a metal band can deliver thrills like this after 35 years, who are we to complain?

Speed of Light

45. Dr. Dre, Compton: A Soundtrack

Detox is dead, long may it reign. The albatross around Dre's neck for the better part of two decades, his long-gestating project was finally relegated to the ash bin of history, and his direct influence on the West Coast resurgence this year (the N.W.A. biopic's success, Kendrick's ascension) sparked Dre to record this project stuffed with the usual assortment of newcomers elevated to the highest levels (the VIP being Anderson .Paak). This is widescreen hip-hop with nary a hit in sight, but rather a focused and expensive sound design - whether this follows his previous two albums' respective influences on the game remains to be seen. However, all the big names offer their strongest performances in years, and if this is Dre's swan song, it's a great way to exit stage left.

44. Leon Bridges, Coming Home

As successful a throwback album as we have seen recently, everything from the classic artwork to the production, to Bridges' own silky voice, will have you convinced this is a lost album from the golden years of R&B. Recalling the old masters like Sam Cooke, this is a deeply satisfying cut of gospel-infused music, and should establish Leon Bridges as a promising young act to follow.

Coming Home

43. DJ Koze, DJ-Kicks

After nearly 20 years in operation, K7!'s DJ-Kicks series knocked it out of the park this year: first, Actress put in a deliciously off-kilter mix, and then groovy weirdo Stefan Kozalla set a high-water mark with the 50th installment, a woozy and psychedelic journey full of downcast hip-hop and William Shatner spoken word lounge-jazz. His song choices could have you believing this is an all-original work, so closely do the tracks resemble his own strange style, while the mixing is never showy or seamless. As a vehicle for introducing you to new music in unorthodox construction, this mix is nearly flawless.

I Haven't Been Everywhere But It's On My List

42. LHF, For the Thrown

The Keysound collection of producers has always functioned as a four-man collective with four distinct visions tied together, but have started to dole out duties to individual members, and for their sophomore album, it is Amen Ra who dominated proceedings. If the album cover wasn't notice enough, this is a colorful album awash in new age synth and hollow broken beats. Any drum-n-bass that is allowed here is simply for its jazzy tendencies, and you could mistake some of the ambiance for cosmic prog rock. It will be fascinating to see where the next level is.

Wet Harmonic

41. Girl Band, Holding Hands With Jamie

This Dublin quartet (full disclosure: all boys) offer up a monumental noise-rock album where the pieces are all present but in completely different arrangements: vicious blasts of noise straddling nonsense lyrics, or krautrock chugs that build and build to no release. Alternately maddening and fascinating.


40. Blur, The Magic Whip

Blur can reasonably lay claim to being the best album band of the 1990's: five LP's that are all important achievements, regardless of associations with certain musical fads. Their most recent album with all four members was released in 1999, and they have been absent in nearly all forms since 2003. After rumblings of a full reunion (following a couple of shows), we were in for a huge surprise at the consistency and quality of The Magic Whip, a work that brought together the disparate strands the individual members had been working with in recent years, and one you could slot comfortably into their best works. Asian cultural misappropriation aside, this cements their already impressive legacy and is hopefully a first step into a new phase.

Ong Ong

39. Christian Mistress, To Your Death

An extended period of inactivity followed this band's 2012 debut Possession, only to be triumphantly broken here with an expansive and soulful collection of Thin Lizzy by way of NWOBHM blues rock. The drawing point was always Christine Davis' smoky rasp, but the entire package is again perfect: the riffs are hard, the solos blistering, and the melodies instantly memorable. You can drink a beer to this, cruise down the highway to this - just don't ignore this.

Open Road

38. Baroness, Purple

What might have been one of rock's saddest what-if's instead turned into a triumphant comeback: while touring for their acclaimed 2012 album Yellow & Green, Baroness were involved in a catastrophic bus accident that left them broken and bruised. Instead of giving in, Baizley and crew spent years in recovery, and have delivered a career-best, a summation of all their strengths with no filler, rocking even harder than they ever did. Purple bruises fade into golden tunes.

Shock Me

37. Algiers, Algiers

The Aughties did an awful lot to strip the phrase "post-punk" of its power, as a variety of landfill indie acts were labeled as such. Algiers has come to restore the fire and passion, and especially the experimentation, worthy of the tag - there are elements of gospel, industrial and soul here, with confrontational and powerful lyrics that touch on singer Franklin Fisher's experiences in Atlanta. That the band members could come up with something so startling and original through an intercontinental online relationship makes you shudder to think of what they will accomplish after spending some time touring and becoming a band. Expect great things.

And When You Fall

36. Neon Indian, VEGA INTL. Night School

This album reeks. Put it on your plate, and you are transported into the seedy, neon-lit underbelly of 1982 New York City, glitzier and shinier than anything that era ever served up, redolent with synths and the smells of sweat and joy on the dancefloor.

Street Level

35. Earl Sweatshirt, I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside

Already a legend at 16, Earl famously spent time in an African boarding school at the height of Odd Future's fame and became a cause celebre of the crew without contributing any music. Now that OFWGKTA are a non-functioning unit, and after an uneven debut album, Earl produces and raps on this ice-cold, mercifully brief blast of misery, introspection and introversion. Nihilistically satisfying.


34. Hot Chip, Why Make Sense

Hot Chip are in the unenviable position of being so acclaimed, so middle of the road popular, that they can consistently release critically acclaimed albums (their five albums since 2006's The Warning have a range of Metacritic scores from 78 to 81) that somehow never make any noise at the end of the year. No matter: they have spent a decade honing their distinct sound, and every full-length is reliably funky and melodic work of pop art. Don't take them for granted.

Need You Now

33. Jlin, Dark Energy

Footwork for the masses! Highly unlikely that this album breaks down the mainstream doors, but Jlin puts her own stamp on the genre with the same commanding presence that Burial did on dubstep ten years ago. This is recognizably the ilk of the Chicago style, but in its short 38 minutes maps out a startling future direction whose first step is right here.

Unknown Tongues

32. Kode9, Nothing

Steve Goodman's first solo album is a melancholy affair: his previous two releases were both co-credited to the baritone voice of doom Spaceape, who passed away last year. Coupled with his label Hyperdub's rising star DJ Rashad's own untimely passing just months before, Goodman is reflective and downbeat here, imagining a fully functioning, post-human world, and laying down some of his most somber and exhilarating work to date. At times you wish there was more, but it's called Nothing for a reason.


31. Bilal, In Another Life

Bilal is one of the great casualties of the nu-soul vanguard, a hugely touted talent whose attempt at a mainstream breakthrough (the vastly underrated 2001 debut 1st Born Second fizzled, and spent years in the wilderness. No matter. This is his fourth album, and continues an upward trajectory of brilliance. A couple of memorable appearances on Kendrick's album has brought his name forward slightly, and hopefully can only point people to explore his considerable talents on his solo albums. Written and recorded with musician extraordinaire Adrian Younge, this classicist effort recalls legends like Jimi, Sly, Stevie, and Prince, and could compete with the best of them.

Pleasure Toy

30. Tobias Jesso Jr., Goon

Turning lemons into lemonade, Jesso left his failed attempts in Hollywood and moved back to his native Vancouver: he learned piano at the age of 27, wrote a song about those failings which caught Adele's attention to the point that she tweeted about it, which in turn led to primetime late show appearances before his debut was even released, and by year's end had a hugely acclaimed album as well as a single on Adele's meteoric bestseller. Needless to say, it will be worthwhile to keep an eye on this tasteful songwriter and where he goes now.

How Could You Babe

29. Four Tet, Morning / Evening

Kieran Hebden has built his career on leftfield turns. For all the genres he's dabbled in and improved on, meditative Bolly-trance is not one of them. Two 20-minute tracks, the first exploring the wonder of awakening, the other of drifting off to sleep, both with his now-trademark house stylings and burbling sound structure. Both make extensive use of Lata Mangeshkar's instantly recognizable voice (a sample from the 1983 track "Main Teri Chhoti Behana Hoon"), and are less cultural appropriation (he is of Indian descent) than an assertion of belonging and maybe childhood remembrance. The easiest album to get lost in this year.

Morning Side

28. Panda Bear, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

Noah Lennox, the most successful solo member of Animal Collective, is that rare artist who gets weirder and more esoteric as he ages: this gnarly, labyrinthine dark disco melange is quite far away from his masterful breakthrough Person Pitch's breezy psychedelia. If the Grim Reaper points towards the sounds of the upcoming AC album, we will be in for a treat.

Mr. Noah

27. Chvrches, Every Open Eye

Chvrches can reasonably lay claim to being one of the most influential artists of the decade, being that T.Swift rode the distinct synth-and-breathy-vocals formula of The Bones of What You Believe to multi-platinum success. As fantastic as their debut was, and as many red alerts the sophomore album initially raised (same studio! same personnel! same sound?), this is a non-stop barrage of hooks and songs that rivals 1989's hit ratio. The closest parallel to Chvrches (in keeping with the spirit of '95) is probably Garbage: anonymous production wizards fronted by a feisty singer.

Leave a Trace

26. Magic Circle, Journey Blind

A love of Sabbath and organ; a rip-roaring riff attack fronted by a metal David Lee Roth, this Boston band's sophomore album is a swaggering beast, demanding a double horn salute and copious headbanging.

Lightning Cage

25. The Game, The Documentary 2

Cementing his status as one of the game's (sorry) most under-rated (or at least unfairly stigmatized) rappers, The Game outdoes himself in every way with this modern gangsta classic, a double album (released a week apart as 2 and 2.5) absolutely loaded with guests and sonic innovation, two plus hours of nearly all killer, almost flawlessly sequenced and as hard-hitting as 2Pac. Despite all the guest rappers, he himself is the star; he raps as if possessed, as if since he named Kendrick his successor years ago - and then seeing this year what Lamar could do - he has to battle Kendrick to prove his relevancy. A worthy addition to his surprisingly stacked legacy.

Standing on Ferraris

24. Arca, Mutant

Alejandro Ghersi has been on a rare streak in the past two years: he built his reputation as a producer with work for fka Twigs, Bjork and Kanye West, and has several EPs and last year's full-length Xen to his credit, but none of these past works can prepare you for Mutant's formless and deconstructed onslaught of weaponized artistry. Completely disorienting and chilling, and deeply personal if you allow it, it is a work that demands suspension of belief.


23. Golden Void, Berkana

Now on their second album, this psych-rock band throws in more pastoral flourishes to their earthy and cosmic churn, sharpening the songwriting for some truly inspired bits of counter-melody and a groove that rarely lets up. Only one of the seven songs lasts less than five minutes, and the extended structure allows the band to explore the "Astral Plane" to its full extent. Satisfying.

Burbank's Dream

22. Future, DS2

As much a nod to his prolific year (this LP and three killer mixtapes) as it is recognition of his renewed focus, Atlanta's Future has been a frustratingly meddled-with rapper throughout his career. He has been weighed down with ballads and excessive attempts at hit-making, and he knows it ("tryna make me a pop star and they made a monster"). His syrupy drawl and alien voice were often put to great use on the radio, but they are just savage here, as he wallows in the worst times and has the best time doing so. Add in the almost uniform, blazing production (my wife was sure a ten-minute stretch of three songs were the same one), and you have a fitting ambassador for 2015.

Where Ya At

21. Ufomammut, Ecate

The Italian doom-psych-metal masters probably exhausted the concept album with their 90-minute song cycle Oro in 2012, and kept things straightforward on their new slab of sludge. A more pronounced industrial feel, with less space synths, give the album a gloriously punishing feel, and if you missed them on their first ever American tour, more's the shame. Crank it and let it consume you.


20. Levon Vincent, Levon Vincent

It's unbelievable that it took so long for Vincent to finally put together a full-length after so long in the game: this house delight is slow-burning, expressive and almost funereal, and his slavish devotion to vinyl only results in a deeper appreciation of the craft. You almost yearn for a brutal kick drum groove to come along and shock the proceedings, but this stately collection of songs is content to beguile you and have you flip back to side A.

Anti-Corporate Music

19. Jamie xx, In Colour

The shadowy man behind the xx's distinct style, Jamie xx has been chafing at his restrains for a few years now, and offers a technicolor showcase of his production with this concise collection: unironic steel drums, aqueous beats and guest spots from his bandmates, with the album itself as the star that ties all the disparate strands together. Sure, the Oliver collab ("Stranger In a Room") is a bit of a snooze, and the hailed Young Thug/Popcaan single is grating despite its near-iconic success, but there were few better pop pleasures to soundtrack the summer.

Loud Places

18. Pusha T, King Push - Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude

Newly appointed president of G.O.O.D. Music, this atrociously titled album counts as Push's second official album, and if this is a mere warm-up for next year's King Push - if this is what he can release separately as a teaser - the rest of hip-hop can take the year off. In an increasingly melodic era for hip-hop, Pusha remains ice cold over bruising beats, spinning those cocaine narratives better than anyone not named Chris Wallace, and dropping a nuanced and devastating bit of commentary on the American race situation on "Sunshine". Cannot wait to see what the main course will be like.

Crutches, Crosses, Caskets

17. Oneohtrix Point Never, Garden of Delete

At some point, Daniel Lopatin will dive headfirst and irrevocably into total obscurantism, but first he has some unsettling and amazingly retconed statements to make. Something about an interview with a pimply alien named Ezra stretching back into the mid-90's, an "hypergrunge" band named Kaoss Edge, countless pictures of decay and destruction - whatever it all means, it all adds up to his most barbarous album to date, with the influence of tourmates Nine Inch Nails readily apparent. If his previous works recalled the nebulous memories of childhood, call this his teen angst album.

I Bite Through It

16. Floating Points, Elaenia

Neurophysicist Sam Shepherd has teased us with morsels of EPs for years now, and his debut album initially underwhelmed me. A seemingly slight 7 tracks and 43 minutes, a couple of which are ambient to the point of being silent, and a tremendous built-up cut so suddenly I thought it was a malfunction. However, this is an album that rewards repeat listens, revealing a richly nuanced layering and firm control of the genres he forces together in harmony. Another triumph in an eclectic career full of them.


15. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, Surf

It takes stones to ignore the pleas of the public to follow up your acclaimed mixtape with an album proper, instead using your new clout to lump together superstars with no-namers, crafting a song cycle celebrating everyday life and the joys of being yourself, with your name nowhere in sight in the publicity. Ignoring hip-hop's tendency for self-loathing and nihilism, and instead of thunder, letting the sun shine in. Such are the stones that make him one of our best and most eagerly followed rappers.

Sunday Candy

14. Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear

As a member of Fleet Foxes, Josh Tillman was always going to be known for his angelic tenor. As Father John Misty, he was revealed as a merry prankster playing "sad wizard songs", and his sophomore album builds on that reputation. Louche lounge rock, acerbic and witty lyrics, and a tongue-in-cheek delivery highlight this concept album where Misty lets go of his Lothario persona and inner demons in favor of love, all within an increasingly disconnected and shallow world of social media. There is plenty of sweet to balance the bitter, and you'll be hard pressed not to smile by the time he meets his future wife at the grocery store.

The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment

13. Joanna Newsom, Divers

Joanna Newsom is a national treasure, fearlessly following her muse. Would she recreate the grating childish yelping of her debut? The 5,000-word novellas and gorgeous orchestral pomp of Ys? The epic triple-album sprawl of Have One On Me? The answer lies somewhere between, as this album is as close to conventional as Newsom seems capable of - which in her case is hardly conventional at all. The meticulous arrangements are still here, courtesy of Nico Muhly and Dave Longstreth among others; the dense verbosity and storytelling is as vivid as ever; and her voice retains its upper range while fleshing out the middle. A true delight on a crisp fall day, and a wonder for years to come.


12. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

A near-perfect throwback from the alt-rock golden age of the 90's, Barnett's debut album doesn't do much for breaking musical boundaries, but gets great mileage out of her insouciant Aussie charm and shambling delivery of lyrics so painfully detailed and natural, it's like reading a book.

Pedestrian At Best

11. Bjork, Vulnicura

Bjork has not made a truly pleasurable album since 2001, though I always greet her efforts with initial (breathless) anticipation: she is one of the last vanguards of risk-taking, and is clearly an artist getting more confrontational and enigmatic as time goes on. File this under Difficult Listen. The lyrics detail, in voyeuristic pain, the dissolution of her long-term relationship and its effect on their family. Her vocal performances are as expressive as the lyrics demand. Much was made of the production provided by notorious leftfielders Arca and Haxan Cloak, but proves to be a red herring: Vulnicura soars on its complex orchestral arrangements, with skeleton beats. I can't say I enjoy listening to it, but it is a formidable addition to her discography.


10. Vince Staples, Summertime '06

It takes brass to release a double album as your debut full-length. However, being that the entire project barely clocks in at an hour, with no skits or repetition, you begin to understand Staples' reasoning and see his genius. The two discs are heavy and detailed, with production that never overwhelms the sobering, furious and resigned storytelling, a reminiscence of the summer of 2006 when he was 13 years old - the time of year when the murder rate rises in his Long Beach. Staples is a rapper of rare talent and restraint, never flashy or condescending (considering the wealth of amazing lines he could have played up), and refuses to humanize the plight, casting a clinical eye on the cesspools of crime and poverty. The dark side to Kendrick Lamar's empathy.

Norf Norf

9. Julia Holter, Have You In My Wilderness

A glorious art-rock triumph, this is Holter's first work without an overarching storyline (previous album Loud City Song was loosely based on the 1958 musical Gigi), and is all the better for it. These lovingly rendered vignettes touch on characters appearing and disappearing almost at will, with truly fascinating drumming and melodies plucked from the ether. She has long been one of the most fascinating musicians and songwriters, and in a just world this would have been a huge commercial hit.

Sea Calls Me Home

8. Deafheaven, New Bermuda

Sunbather is rightly regarded as a modern classic, though it took me some getting warmed to. All that is for moot, because Deafheaven knocks it out of the park on their follow-up: a near-perfect blend of the disparate genre they were aiming for before, with heavier riffs, more balanced vocals, and prettier melodies. The live band spent two years on the road playing together, and it shows in every level on this brilliant album.

Brought To The Water

7. Tame Impala, Currents

Kevin Parker's studio rat project has become the premier rock band of its generation on the back of his production acumen and some killer songs, lost transmissions from a psychedelic 70's stadium-rock show. Why not update the sound and flash forward a few years? Synths, more drum filters for the haters to hate, his New Order-level of melodic bass, and his best batch of melodies to stick in your brain.

'Cause I'm A Man

6. Lonelady, Hinterland

Julie Campbell must have taken the past five years to work on her theory of brutalist architecture, then decided to dance about it. Nerve Up was a frigid blast of wiry Manchester pop-punk, but Hinterland is an altogether greater beast, trading in shards of guitar for Remain In Light-era pop-funk, a relentless synth-pop assault equal parts Chic and Factory Records, and a wall-to-wall dance floor delight. I can only hope it isn't another five years before the next album.


5. Kamasi Washington, The Epic

Even the most casual jazz fan would be thrilled about this album's high profile, likely solely due to Washington's status as Kendrick's arranger on the album of the year (spoiler alert!). Even the most casual jazz fan would find a lot to love about this three-hour odyssey that marks Washington's splashy coming-out as a jazz band leader: it is intimidating and overwhelming, but also a great joy to immerse yourself in. Two drummers, two bassists (including Thundercat), a choir in the dozens, all servicing an uplifting musical sermon.

Miss Understanding

4. Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love

It wasn't enough that Sleater-Kinney bothered to come back after a ten year hiatus: they had nothing to prove, and no reason to add to (or, heaven forbid, detract from) their legacy. The Woods would have been a perfect career finale, but instead they roared back with 10 tracks and 34 minutes of their tightest melodies and playing, a full-throated life-affirming shriek of vitality and joy. Essential.


3. Shamir, Ratchet

In the day-to-day life of a toddler, music can play an important role, and they are insistent on what they like. My little girl isn't an obsessive list-maker, but I feel that Shamir Bailey's sparkling debut would be high on her list. Sparkling is selling it short: these ten tracks are flawless, ridiculously catchy and mature, paying homage to the countless others who came before, while setting himself apart and ahead with absolute prejudice. Very much the work of a raw outsider, this is idealistic dance-pop-R&B with a killer lyrical streak, throwing shade with the best of the divas, in an acquired taste of a voice. Considering that Shamir himself is barely older than a toddler (he's only 20! I think back on myself at that age and weep at his accomplishment), I can safely say he is a pure prodigy, and a force to be reckoned with.

On the Regular

2. Grimes, Art Angels

Grimes supposedly scrapped an entire album's worth of music in search of the follow-up to 2012's Visions: we needn't have been worried about her vision. This is the year's greatest ambassador, the encapsulation of all the weirdness and genre-blending craziness inherent in our pop obsessions, the fearless visionary expanding on her previous works and putting herself light-years ahead of the competition. Wherever she goes from here will set the next boundary for pop.

Flesh Without Blood / Life in the Vivid Dream

1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly

K. Dot initially only set himself up for great expectations after his instant classic debut good kid, but he probably just shot himself in both legs with the followup. The term instant classic was created with albums like this in mind: all-encompassing works of messy, scattered and bloody glory; a giant array of planets (Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Bilal, Snoop Dogg, Pharrell, etc.) revolving around a blazing star going nova, chasing a unified vision; a startling statement of black art and power; a prescient and timely commentary on the most inflammatory civil unrest in decades. An album that has room for "These Walls", for "u" and "i", an on-going free-form slam poem and an interview with the ghost of 2Pac. "Alright" galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement and became an anthem. "King Kunta" stomped on the idea of Kendrick being caught up in the fame and glory. "The Blacker the Berry" seethed with a ferocious and righteous anger so rarely heard in the mainstream. There was no doubt of its incredible achievement in March, and there will be no doubt of its relevance in five, ten, twenty, or fifty years: this is a masterpiece of rare proportions.


King Kunta

Honorable Mentions

Follakzoid, III
A Krautrock-psych-drone-trance album by Chilean cosmic masters, fog-enshrouded and utterly bewitching grooves.

Madonna, Rebel Heart
Saying that this is her best album in a decade is a gross understatement, but so it is. Equally ballsy and vulnerable, few artists age so well.

Miguel, Wildheart
Thorny and complicated, just like the relationships and love that he sings so angelically of.

Carly Rae Jepsen, E.MO.TION
The stickiest one-hit wonder of the decade has defied expectation and created a Pop Album of the utmost magnitude. Unbelievable!

Wolf Alice, My Love is Cool
London-based cool-kid collective with guitars, equal parts gnarly wolf and sweet Alice. A jangly treat.

Viet Cong, Viet Cong
Major controversy over their name has shifted the attention from the taut post-punk within.

Max Richter, Sleep
You should sleep eight hours every night: Richter has made the eight-hour classical soundtrack for your sleep.

New Order, Music Complete
Also aging well on their first album in a decade; their most synth-driven release in two decades, though the loss of Peter Hook is readily apparent.

Destroyer, Poison Season
Kaputt is such a beast even four years later than Dan Bejar's latest is unfairly compared to it when it has nothing to do with it. As lyrically dense as ever, and much more varied to boot.

Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
They settle their raucous noise to become impeccably produced mainstream artists. No wonder Brittany Howard had to form Thunderbitch to shake loose.

Tribulation, The Children of the Night
Bully, Feels Like
Deradoorian, The Expanding Flower Planet
Thundercat, The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam
fka Twigs, M3LL155X EP
Kelela, Hallucinogen EP
D'Angelo & the Vanguard, Black Messiah

It's just that damn good.

Disappointments / Overrated

Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Stevens' most recent album The Age of Adz came five years ago, and his return was loudly praised: startlingly bleak confessional songs with nothing more than an acoustic guitar, something like an ersatz Nick Drake. I suspect it will stand up in the future, but despite initially being blown away, it does not hold up to repeated exposure. Could it really be ten years since the magic of Illinois? Does even that album hold up? I think I may be rethinking Sufjan!

Sunn O))), Kannon
This is probably a case of being a spoiled brat complaining, but we waited six years for this? Sure, Sunn hasn't been totally absent in that time, but the first missive from them in six years is this slight little thing? Three songs, barely 33 minutes, and appallingly half-finished from the sounds of it. These tracks seem to want to go somewhere but decide to just stay in place, and then its over. Again, I can't complain when it sounds so good (and it definitely does), but this feels like it was released before it was completed.

Adele, 25
So really, just an excuse for me to rave about the commercial performance of this album. I lament not writing my initial thoughts somewhere before it was released on my birthday: I suspected it would sell 2 million its first week, sell at least a million during the week up to Christmas, and have sold 6 million before New Year's. I was, ahem, cautious: 3.48 million first week, and 7.4 million up to the end of the year. And this in a little over six weeks! Needless to say, it seems like the 15-year-old girls who powered NSync's previous record are now 30-year-old women enjoying this with girlfriends and a bottle of wine. Oh, the music itself? Umm, yeah, it's okay...could have gone for a bit more "Rolling in the Deep" and less "Someone Like You".

A$AP Rocky, At.Long.Last.A$AP
Most likely it was the spectre of A$AP Yams' accidental death during recording of this charismatic rapper's sophomore album, but something about the entire album felt wrong. We won't know how much of the album was finished at the time of Yams' death, but there is a clear lack of focus and discipline here, as if Rocky blindly chased any passing fancy and hoped his charisma would be enough to tether it. Perhaps it truly functions better when you are high; maybe the absence of Clams Casino exacerbates it. Either way, there is a lot of promising production and good hooks wasted here, and we can only hope for better.

Worst of the Year

Coldplay, A Head Full of Dreams
Coldplay, simply put, are magicians. I can think of few other bands who have built such a charmed career out of such insane mood swings and shifts in quality: if we were to draw out their progression, it would look like a seismograph measuring a 9.0 earthquake. Chris Martin referenced the Harry Potter series in the build-up to their seventh album, with the feel of the end of an era. If so, they will surely go out with a trembling whimper, or a wet fart. Retreating to the garish maximalism of previous low-water mark Mylo Xyloto, everything is dialed up off the charts except the songs. For all their faults in the past 15 years (the warmed-over pomp of X&Y, the half-finished sigh of Ghost Stories), they at least never failed to deliver at least a small batch of melodies that stick in your head, even if their lyrics have devolved into inane drivel (at this point, the sentiments on Parachutes may as well have been written by T.S. Eliot). Whether it's Martin wishing to tap into the EDM zeitgeist at the expense of the other three guys, or just a lack of will to live, Coldplay are essentially done.

Muse, Drones
I can't even bother to write a proper review for this pompous, arrogant, self-important tripe, so I will just let Matt Bellamy shout: WAR IS BAD. MIND CONTROL. BRAINWASHING. YOU ARE A PUSSY I SAID SHOW ME YOUR WAR FACE. MY HEART HAS BECOME A COLD AND IMPASSIVE MACHINE. I JUST NEEDED TO BE LOVED. NOW YOU CAN KILL FROM THE SAFETY OF YOUR HOME WITH DRONES AMEN.

Giorgio Moroder, Deja Vu
Woof. The man's legacy was bulletproof, but took a severe hit with this unnecessary and second-rate attempt at hits, a lifeless collection of haute sounds and vacuous songwriting that pleasures your ears but leaves you feeling unclean and used. Another abomination we can thank Daft Punk for.

Mumford & Sons, Wilder Mind
If you are known as a foot-stomping, banjo-picking folk band embraced by the mainstream, but trade in that distinct sound for plodding U2-level grandiosity with none of the charm, what does that make you? Zero. Granted I've always been a vocal adversary of their pompous self-seriousness, but this move into rock (oh so loosely used term) puts them in the fast lane to being the Nickelback of the new decade. A total shitstain.

Martin Shkreli vs. Wu-Tang
Speaking of total shitstains, Shkreli has no business here: he is a pharmaceutical CEO whose company jacked up the price of an HIV drug by 5000% simply because capitalism. What brought him here is that he famously purchased the sole copy of Wu-Tang Clan's notorious art project Once Upon a Time in Shaolin for a cool $2M. RZA quickly announced that the proceeds will be donated, because there is such a thing as dirty money. Shkreli has since been arrested on charges of securities fraud, and we are all eagerly awaiting the clause in the contract that allows Bill Murray to steal back the album.

1995: An Appreciation

20 years ago was when I fully joined the musical rat race. Billy Corgan was the Zero-shirted hero kicking open the door in the iconic "Bullet With Butterfly Wings", and that was the moment when I felt like part of the scene, like this was meant for me as an 11-year-old kid, absorbing the iconography of the still-important music video: Alanis wailing in the desert while the guitars of Dave Navarro shrieked; the Red Hot Chili Peppers slithering through an artsy video; Shirley Manson like a ginger goddess waiting to break your soul apart - '95 at the time was an alt-rock wasteland, full of Seven Mary Threes and Bushes, with the occasional gems poking through the rubble However, it was an important rite of passage: a young boy discovering Spin magazine and Q magazine, reading Rolling Stone and NME at the library, then heading off to the cassette section to find the artists written about; this is the innocent and methodical way that music is discovered, and cherished for life, a process that streaming songs cannot hold a candle to. Just take a look at this list of albums and not think that it was a golden year for music.

1. Tricky, Maxinquaye
2. Bjork, Post
3. The Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
4. Pulp, Different Class
5. Goldie, Timeless
6. Elastica, Elastica 7. GZA, Liquid Swords
8. D'Angelo, Brown Sugar
9. Garbage, Garbage
10. PJ Harvey, To Bring You My Love
11. Radiohead, The Bends
12. Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill
13. Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...
14. Blur, The Great Escape
15. Mobb Deep, The Infamous
16. Autechre, Tri Repetae
17. Oval, 94 Diskont
18. Aphex Twin, I Care Because You Do...
19. The Chemical Brothers, Exit Planet Dust
20. Leftfield, Leftism

Lemmy (1945-2015)

I wrote the review for my 50th album of the year on December 27, three days after Lemmy's 70th birthday. The next day, my social media veritably exploded with commiseration, grief and wonderment at his passing, possibly at the fact that he even lived so long. Anyone with a passing interest in rock, or metal, or punk, knew of Lemmy: his was an image that came wholly natural, with no artifice or thought. It was just who he was, and the the music he created over the past fifty years with Hawkwind and Motorhead was hugely important in so many ways.

There was a popular anecdote that said: when the apocalypse comes, only the roaches and Lemmy will survive. His recent health battles were common knowledge, but the rapidity of his passing was shocking: he learned of his "aggressive cancer" on December 26, and two days later he was gone. Who knows how long the illness had been afflicting him - what matters is that he never flinched or stopped what he loved, and that was music. Bad Magic is the 25th Motorhead album, and it's no small thing to call it one of their best, a cohesive and consistent, relentless work that shows the effects of time only to laugh in its face. We all hoped Lemmy would rock into his hundreds, but its a pleasure that we got this much from him for so little in return. Play his music loud in his honor.