It’s that time again for us to share our ‘Albums of the Year’ list with you, like we have done religiously since 2012. This year especially, has blessed us with some exciting new music, from Afrobeats and Pop, to Grime, Hip Hop and R&B, to Rock, Indie and everything in between. This year also saw Taylor Swift spat with Spotify over music streaming, Meek Mill battle it out with Drake over ghostwriting, and Nicki Minaj come for Miley Cyrus’ neck over the VMAs.
Adele came back and broke every sales record available, One Direction lost Zayn Malik and broke up soon after, and Kendrick Lamar got nominated for 11 Grammy Awards. However all that pales in comparison to the real reason we are here. The first part of our ‘Albums of 2015’ list, curated by Matt Hobbs, William Kitchener, Joshua James, Oli Kuscher, Jack Walters, Qurat-ul-Anne Sikander, Joseph Horne and myself Ayo Adepoju, highlighted the best albums of the year from #50 to #11 and you can check them all out HERE, we continue our countdown from #10 to #1 below.
10. Wolf Alice – My Love is Cool
Wolf Alice as a group has been evolving with their sound throughout their live shows, so this alternative rock debut album My Love is Cool also has new elements with grunge and shoegazing influences. The lyrics centre around love and youth but this album also has a darker side with the female verbal rage onslaught about a creepy guy on the song “You’re A Germ” and another song titled “Fluffy” sounding like it could have been made by Sonic Youth. Wolf Alice has the right mixture of originality and indications of past music, resulting into a forceful and enthralling debut album.
This was perhaps the most eagerly-anticipated debut from a UK band this year, and the four-piece certainly didn’t fail to deliver. There’s a slickness to their sound that accompany moments of intimacy and wistfulness, but just as singer Ellie Rowsell has lulled you into a cosy slumber with her cooing, the band explode into one of their many ferocious whippings. You misjudge them at your peril. There’s an assurance throughout the album, in who they are, and what they stand for. They won’t be pigeonholed, and they want to savour being young for as long as they can, and it’s these elements that make them such a breath of sharp fresh air.
9. Miguel – Wildheart
The last few years have seen Miguel on a one man mission to revive conventional R&B with singles such as “Adorn” and “Sure Thing”. This makes the opening tracks of Wildheart all the more surprising, as it incorporates rock and EDM elements into Miguel’s songwriting. “Coffee”, one of the albums lead singles which was later re-worked with rapper Wale, effortlessly stands out, as do Miguel’s self assured vocals over “Waves” and “Leaves”. Miguel is hard to ignore, even if you’re not the average R&B consumer.
The definition of reinvention is this album by Miguel who adds a somewhat grungy and psychedelic element into his music. The singer’s vocals are stronger than ever and he touches on tough subjects such as isolation and not fitting in because of his biracial heritage. The main hit from the album has to be “Coffee” which sees Miguel at his absolute R&B best, but most of the songs are more personal and biographical than real hit-makers. Despite this, the album shows enough progression and inventiveness to make it a quite incredible piece of art.
8. Ibeyi – Ibeyi
Although Londoner Lianne La Havas brought out an album this year that embraced her Jamaican heritage, French twins Ibeyi delved so deep in their Cuban roots months before in their self-titled debut album that it surpassed the former for intellectually educational power. Yet it’s also tragic at the same time.
Their musical father’s Anga Díaz’s death was the emotional catalyst and his spirit and talent evidentially live through his daughters Lisa and Naomi Díáz. Ibeyi explore how death can dangerously affect a family and the stages of acceptance; rather than convey false strength. They also look further into how it’s conveyed in Cuban traditions and beliefs with such respectable maturity; expected from scholars in “Who Do You Think You Are” but unexpected from a duo so young.
What is also incredibly perceptive is the way they skillfully fuse modern R&B beats with measured minimalism, patient A capella, precise piano and Cuban styles. We also gain a sense of their culture through a multi-lingual collection of memoirs; Spanish, French, English and the Yoruba dialect of their ancestry all flawlessly feature. The way they express their lament and disenchantment both in the detailed lyrics and the sisters’ effectively vulnerable vocal delivery provoke a strong feeling of empathy that lingers on with a listener long after the album has finished. That’s what music should do.
There’s an immediate uncontrollable attraction that happens when you put on Ibeyi. It’s like you’re being reeled in by a completely transfixing and alluring fishing line shimmering underwater in the sun’s reflection. The French-Cuban twins sing in both English and Yoruba – a language spoken in West Africa – and combining their distinctive bilingual delivery with a fusion of jazz and Afro-Cuban musical styles, and wrapping all of that up in electronica-type production that has a downtempo pulse at its core, it makes for something completely and hauntingly beautiful.
7. Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m goin down…
Former The War On Drugs guitarist Kurt Vile is hard to pigeonhole. He has all the songwriting sensibilities of a modern day Neil Young, and yet also the daydreamy, slacker rock aesthetic of bands like Pavement. Album opener “Pretty Pimpin” shows off a more streamlined sound, a clearer exposition of Vile’s sometimes heavy, sometimes playful lyricism. On “That’s Life Tho” Vile describes himself as a “certified badass out on the town” over a comparatively mellow guitar riff – it’s a refreshing moment of tongue-in-cheek and self awareness that lends itself to a brilliant album, in a genre of music that’s so often bogged down by po-faced sincerity.
Kurt Vile’s introspective b’lieve i’m goin down… album varies from the mundane aspects of life to finding oneself in life, Vile sings with downbeat style to accompany the sharp wit storytelling mixed with a relaxed setting created by acoustic guitar, banjo and keyboards. Kurt Vile has already establish himself as an important figurehead in the modern indie rock scene as part of The War On Drugs, but on this album, he transcends the zeitgeist by channelling his influences of 1970s singer-songwriters and Vile reminds us why new music should never be underestimated.
6. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
Courtney Barnett is an Australian musician who released her debut album Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit earlier this year. A lyrically ambitious album with Barnett telling vignettes ranging from the ambiguity of the opening song about a possibly suicidal man to Los Angles house visiting in the song “Depreston”. What we like about this album is how Barnett does not take herself too seriously while presenting serious themes, which also links with her poetic lyrics because there are moments where she uses a word just for the reason it rhymes rather than the context of the word and that playful aspect works. We would recommend this album to anyone who is a fan of great storytelling and indie rock.
5. Hiatus Kaiyote – Choose Your Weapon
Alternative future soul from Melbourne that’s forward-thinking and audacious. A jungle of swarpy afrobeat, funk grooves and piano jazz. Hiatus Kaiyote’s second album Choose Your Weapon is the perfect persuasion to see the quartet live due to their jamming sessions, inconsistent time signatures and free-flowing layers of instrumentation. Counting the style of vocalist Nai Palm in the equation, Haitus Kayoite are like a wilder Little Dragon – a mix of the Swedish group’s entire collection plus other brave ideas. As the album’s gamer title suggests, Hiatus Kaiyote’s soul is drenched in videogame references (“Atari”) and bitpop sounds, but is also an ode to another piece of Japanese innovation; the animation cornerstone Studio Ghibili (“Prince Minikid”, “Laputa”) and it’s pioneering creator Hayao Miyazaki.
These geeky interests make the band more down-to-earth and approachable that their intellectual urban music could have been. Additionally the image that Nai Palm possesses – a cyberpunk and pierces-covered Katy Perry with Egyptian and aboriginal accessories that embrace the fact she raised herself from the age of 14 and connected with nature – adds a subculture twist to their expression. Despite all the seeming acculturation, Hiatus Kaiyote are hugely patriotic about Australia (including naming botany places on the song “The Lung”) and like the quantity of land mass on that country, Choose Your Weapon measures at a lengthy 69 minutes and 14 seconds.
Nonetheless, due to their adhering of a self-proclaimed philosophy of “being an advocate of the possiblity of anything” and promoting the album as a muliti-purpose tool for solving crisis – Nai Paim’s father died in a house fire and inspired one of the best tracks of 2015 “By Fire” – it’s the best overrun therapy one could imagine.
These Aussie neo-soulsters have taken things to the next level with Choose Your Weapon. Their first album, while already a mind-expanding experience, now just feels like mere snippets of ideas and thoughts compared to what’s going on here; like the group were standing on the edge of a towering waterfall, but not just quite ready yet to take the dive. Well. They’ve now dived headfirst into the great below, and have unlocked doors to a myriad of musical universes that they’ve impressively managed to thread together seamlessly to create a truly unique genre-blending sound.
4. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
Alabama Shakes‘ new album was one of the most anticipated albums of 2015, their debut album Boys & Girls was a success, making them a well-known band across the music industry but do not expect Boys & Girls number two on their sophomore album Sound & Color because this is a new chapter in the Alabama Shakes story.
Sound & Color relies less on their previous musical genres of roots, garage rock and southern rock while introducing new musical genres of R&B, funk and Brittany Howard’s soulful vocals albeit retaining her southern grit over the powerful guitar riffs and melodic keyboards to breakthrough with this new Alabama Shakes identity. Furthermore, there are still elements of their previous sound in the songs but Alabama Shakes could have played safe and replicated the sound from their previous album but they took the bold decision to challenge themselves resulting into this remarkable album.
On their first album, Alabama Shakes were a band that had their feet firmly planted in their world of bluesy garage rock, and they were a bunch of ‘Boys & Girls’ that revelled in it. With Sound & Color, there’s still a huge southern motor that drives along their grooves, but they’re painting more of a soundscape now, they’ve added more dimensions to their world, and singer Brittany Howard’s powerhouse vocals splash vibrant colour on the whole thing.
3. Tame Impala – Currents
Australian psychedelic rock band Tame Impala released Currents in the summer, and it received a lot of praise. There is so much space in the songs with the texture never layered on too thickly. You’re left to drift in electronic ambience, as vocalist and founder member Kevin Parker sings in a very Beatles-esque manner above the droning accompaniment.
For music that seems so obviously inspired by the 60s and 70s, Parker is all for pushing technological boundaries -“There’s so many people doing interesting things with the internet and technology, there could be so many ways of making music and listening to it“. We admire this about Tame Impala, combining the old and the new, and trying to build on it and take it forward.
In a recent interview, Kevin Parker, the undeniably Lennon-esque lead singer of Tame Impala described lead single “The Less I Know The Better” as “dorky, white disco funk“. Not the best press release, but perhaps an insight into why Currents is possibly the Australian psychedelic rockers’ finest and most consistent output yet. The band feel much more at ease on this record, and there’s an effortless swagger to their sound.
Recorded in Parker’s home studio, Currents is essentially fifty minutes of the band doing whatever they please. Gone are the stomping, stadium pleasing rock of tracks like “Elephant”; the synths and guitar effects are more retro-sounding than ever before as the band pull you into a fuzzy sonic journey into the unknown.
2. Jamie xx – In Colour
One fourth of super group The xx, Jamie xx has ventured out by himself after countless remixes over the years. His solo album In Colour is something to behold and is held in high regard by critics worldwide. Lead single “I Know There’s Gonna Be” is a smash hit and saw him team up with Bashment artist Popcaan and rising start Young Thug. Jamie’s unique production makes this album stand out above the rest with the textures and patterns created through the album certainly seems to relate to its name ‘In colour’.
In Colour is an incredibly refined release from The XX producer Jamie Smith, his first full solo LP. Tracks such as “Gosh” and “Hold Tight” are shameless, fond throwbacks to early British garage and jungle, with raucous samples of pirate radio MCs over carefully constructed beats. Meanwhile, “Loud Places” and “Stranger in a Room” channel the emotion and minimalism that made The xx one of the most beloved bands of the last decade.
The rainbow cover art perfectly encapsulates the sheer medley of sounds on offer; an unorthodox feature from Atlanta rapper Young Thug is buoyed by Smith’s ingenious production. He’s still not over his questionable penchant for the steel drum. But hey, it works somehow. Jamie xx saves the best until last; album closer “Girl” quite comfortably boasts the bassline of the year and provided the perfect, laid back anthem for the British summer.
1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
Kendrick Lamar was one of the few wordy rappers to make a commercial and critical success in a year where rap music was largely saturated with the influence of trap music and the Chicago drill scene. The Compton-born rapper seamlessly shifts between styles and flows from track to track, morphing from gritty and confrontational, to the reflective and political, on the critically acclaimed and now Grammy Award nominated To Pimp A Butterfly album.
“King Kunta” may have been one of the unexpectedly huge hits of the year, but the album’s more tender moments come on tracks like “How Much a Dollar Cost”. James Fauntleroy and Ronald Isley provide vocals on a poignant track that centres around Lamar’s encounter with a homeless drug addict. “Guilt trippin’ and feelin’ resentment, I never met a transient that demanded attention“. What helps To Pimp A Butterfly to truly shine is its utterly stunning production value; Lamar enlists Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Terrace Martin and many more to provide a backdrop that’s perfect at every turn. Though let’s be honest, Kendrick could drop a few bars over almost anything and it’ll still sound good.
To try and sum up in words what Kendrick Lamar has achieved with his second album is more a mission of futility than anything else. How can you explain or describe something that’s so musically dense, so musically rich, and so musically profound? You quite simply can’t. What can be said is that with this album, Kendrick has put himself at the vanguard of this generation’s musicians, not just rappers. No other artist had their finger on the pulse of the world’s volatile beat as perceptively as Kendrick has, and he’s then turned what he perceived into something dramatically progressive and highly accomplished. It’s an entity that will never run out of its fiery energy and passion, so whenever you need your eyes opened again, throw this on and hit play.
Click HERE for a full list of our Top 50 Albums of 2015!