1.) To Pimp A Butterfly — Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar’s follow-up to 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city was perhaps the most anticipated album of the year. It seemed impossible that Lamar could equal the accomplishment of his perfect debut. Instead, he blew it away in scope, ambition and depth. Across 16 tracks and nearly 80 minutes, Lamar burrows into complex issues, using his dexterous voice to produce an astounding variety of tones and emotions, from anger to false bravado to introspection to drunken sobbing. The music itself is a history lesson in modern African-American music, blending jazz, funk, soul and classic hip-hop into one omnivorous, fluid sound. The most important thing about To Pimp a Butterfly, in the end, is Lamar’s refusal to settle for easy answers about racial conflict and institutional racism; Instead, he raises question after question.
— Jack Jones
2.) E•MO•TION – Carly Rae Jepsen
When Emotion came out, I wrote it a 1700 word, five star review for this section. Before that, my critical oeuvre looked about as pretentious as you would expect from some ostentatious college music nerd who thinks that using the word “oeuvre” is ever acceptable to describe his own corpus of distended writing: that is, chock full of 12 hour ambient dark metal albums and Bandcamp releases that tens upon tens of people have ever even heard. I’m not going to say that Emotion necessarily changed my musical perspective or anything so extreme; but I will say that, for what it’s worth, Emotion was the first true blue pop album I ever enjoyed, start to finish. That isn’t to say that it’s the first good pop album I ever listened to, but just that Carly Rae does something irresistible with her music. Even if I had tried to hate Emotion (which I did) I wouldn’t have been able to (which I wasn’t). Which, if my shallow little example of revelation is worth anything at all, should be proof enough that Emotion was, without any shadow of a doubt, the best pop album of 2015; and importantly, it wasn’t anything more.
3.) No Cities To Love — Sleater-Kinney
If you needed proof that rock is not dead, Sleater Kinney delivered some conclusive evidence with No Cities To Love. Described by our own Mike Sosnick as “feminist dad rock” No Cities is indeed the product of matured riot grrrls. The album is intellectual, grounded and emotionally complex in a way their sound wasn’t (and didn’t need to be) before their nine-year hiatus, but still captures the potent pissed-offness and corporeal punk moxie that is inherent to their sound. As political as it is personal, Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss have delivered an album accessible and energetic: a burning but cooled off story of themselves as a collective, changed and changing.
4.) Savage Hills Ballroom — Youth Lagoon
Youth Lagoon, a.k.a. Trevor Powers, vastly scaled back the musical excesses of his previous albums to craft his sharp, distilled third release. Whereas Powers probed his own tumultuous psyche on The Year of Hibernation and Wondrous Bughouse, he turns a sardonic eye on society in Savage Hills Ballroom. The resulting tracks are utterly unprecedented in Powers’ career. The melancholy “Rotten Human” and bittersweet “Kerry” reach emotional depths he couldn’t quite grasp before. Powers also eschews the carnival-esque vamps of Wondrous Bughouse for a refined approach that emphasizes specific timbres, including Powers’ beautiful voice. Perhaps most importantly, he retains Youth Lagoon’s distinctive, genre-defying sound that endeared listeners to it in the first place. This time, however, the album sounds like the creation of an experienced, careful songwriter.
5.) Ivy Tripp — Waxahatchee
Growing from P.S. Eliot, a project with her twin sister, into Waxahatchee’s first record, Cerulean Salt, Katie Crutchfield’s confidence blossomed exponentially. Always confessional, her songs’ gentle coos tugged at heartstrings in a way that felt, above all, genuine. With Ivy Tripp, Crutchfield has taken full control over her sound. It’s more powerful now, without relinquishing any of her intimacy and warmth. Her maturity projects her contentedly wistful lyrics with just a little more force than before, like “La Loose’s” hyper-self-aware diary entry of a verse. Dripping with authenticity, Ivy Tripp feels both immediate and timeless.
6.) Summertime ’06 — Vince Staples
This gritty widescreen take on SoCal inner-city decay grows in depth and effectiveness with each listen. The dark, minimalist production hints at menace without ever becoming ponderous or unsubtle, and Vince’s monotone flow is positively hypnotic. The man is a realist with no joy in his music, but that doesn’t rob him of listenability and panache. Ultimately, his debut album is lean, spare, austere and engaging. You won’t find a more concise, powerful metaphor than “I’m stop and popping like a shooting guard” on any record this year.
—Max Van Zile
7.) Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens made perhaps the best album of his long and varied career by stripping away all of the musical complexity and experimentalism for which he is known. Carrie & Lowell is, instead, a beautiful, melancholy 45 minutes of acoustic folk. Inspired by the death of his mother, the album meditates on the broadest of themes (life, death, memory), but does so in profoundly intimate, personal terms. His delicate fingerpicking, hushed cooing and elegiac melodies come together to create something more than the sum of their simple, unvarnished parts. Carrie & Lowell may be an album about Stevens’s personal life, but it also feels universal enough that anybody might hear the echoes of themselves in its songs.
8.) Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit — Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett is as much a raconteur as a singer-songwriter on Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Think. The album, whose title is simultaneously quite clever and incredibly frustrating to type, reads like a window into Barnett’s life. But there is little tender about her delivery; rather, it’s very matter of fact and at ease. Instead of baring all and wallowing, she keeps Sometimes I Sit lighthearted and upfront — even when discussing an artist’s experience with Melbourne gentrification on “Depreston.” Sometimes I Sit is an easy, welcoming album without any stifling blankets of sadness. It wraps you in, but the relationship always feels like a friendship, never smothering.
9.) Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean, by providence impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar? Everything and more has been written about Hamilton and its landmark cast recording. Half rap, half classic Broadway, it seamlessly bridges the historically vast gap between theatregoers and hip-hop fans. Billboard’s review of the album — produced by Questlove and Black Thought of The Roots — called the cast recording the best rap album of 2015, ahead of Drake and even Kendrick Lamar. A bold claim, but not without merit. Tickets for Hamilton are essentially sold-out through the next year, but you can (and should) listen to the album if you have any interest in great rap or great musical theatre. Do not throw away your shot.
10.) Ugly Cherries — PWR BTTM
Back in January, I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting the genre-spread of the Sun’s Top Ten Albums of 2015 to look like; all I am sure of is that I didn’t foresee myself hailing an album like Ugly Cherries as one of the best of the year. And that’s not because it doesn’t fit into my stylistic wheelhouse, or because it was some difficult gem of challenging obscurity that took me listen upon grueling listen to absorb; actually, I loved it from the first note. Rather, I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with an album like Ugly Cherries because I just wasn’t expecting an album like Ugly Cherries. It’s flagrant while being accessible. It’s challenging to your conceptions while being agreeable to your ears. It’s something you’ve never heard, built with all of the tried and true tools that you know can never miss. But most importantly, it’s unequivocally, unabashedly, unavoidably gay, without it’s gayness being what makes it a great record. What makes it a great record is the music — the loud, thrashing, tender, thoughtful, brainless, corporeal rock n’ roll as it was meant to be played.