2015 was a strong, compelling year in music. Adele broke sales records. Dr. Dre returned to the mic. Mötley Crüe finally retired! Labels started releasing albums on Fridays in North America, which matched the release dates set across the pond and destroyed our editorial process at Unsung.
Apple Music started up, Rdio shut down, Tidal was openly laughed at, and Jay-Z suddenly had another problem on his hands in addition to his other 99. Hip hop was celebrated on the big screen with Straight Outta Compton, a film and celebration of a movement that couldn’t be more timely against a new wave of unbelievable racism and violence across the United States. Few music quotes were more powerful this year than Ice Cube’s “I got something to say.”
But an incredible amount of artists did have something new to say. Some of them challenged us. Some of them broke our hearts. Some of them made us feel good. The best of them are gathered here for your perusal. Cheers to 2015, and here’s to the year to come.
Coming Home is a record that should have existed in the 1960s. Leon Bridges is performing music that intersects perfectly with soul and R&B and gospel music. Who knew that this nostalgic sound could be so formidable in 2015?
What Bridges lacks in originality — even Bridges would say he owes Sam Cooke a beer — it makes up for with songwriting and smooth style. Leon Bridges’ debut is a comeback record for 1960s R&B/soul, but it’s also a hugely compelling charmer that makes Bridges feel like one of the most exciting soul performers of his generation — despite his retro leanings.
Before the World Was Big
Girlpool’s charming folk-influenced pop music feels startlingly original while remaining clearly influenced by greats like Velvet Underground. At just twenty-five minutes, Before the World Was Big feels like a giant tease, as if the band is still warming up to something bigger.
But they never break free of their simple guitar riffs and dual harmonies. In spite of that, the record holds some sort of mysterious raw power and energy to it: when Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad sing together, it doesn’t matter whether they’re intentionally ironically stripping away both folk and punk at the same time. The two of them have the emotional weight of an eighteen-wheeler. The rest of it is just candy.
The Shape of Brat Pop to Come
HOLYCHILD came out of nowhere and claimed to invent a new genre of pop music. While that’s not necessarily the case, the band sounds amazing and has a ton of momentum going for them. This duo is politically aware and socially conscious, with lyrics that read more like scathing indictments of the genre than they do pop songs.
Almost every track on Brat Pop is insanely catchy, and the biting tone — one that is both sarcastic and glaringly truthful — doesn’t spare anybody in its path. HOLYCHILD’s debut was glossed over by mainstream publications last year, but it’s a record you shouldn’t miss.
La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful
South African Yannick Ilunga doesn’t care about your conception of pop music. His experimental electronic pop dares to be completely different and sounds entirely new. While he’s not necessarily have writing tracks you can dance to, his 80s-influenced, genre-mashing take on the genre feels like something straight out of the future and completely ahead of its time.
La Vie Est Belle (Life Is Beautiful) feels like a near-perfect record that dares to dream. It’s music that doesn’t believe in the boundaries of genre, and in the process of defying convention while remaining deeply rooted in what’s come before, Petite Noir’s debut earns respect and commands attention.
The Epic is authentic jazz. For a brief moment in time, Kamasi Washington was “that guy who played on Kendrick’s new record”. Immediately after The Epic dropped, he became the jazz aficionado who appeared out of nowhere, dropping what may be one of the genre’s masterpieces as a debut.
The Epic is remarkably unhinged. Just shy of three hours long, Washington somehow keeps his jazz music accessible despite his monolithic-sized ideas. It’s the product of a virtuoso clearly obsessed with defying expectations of critics and the culture surrounding jazz, and it’s hard to say that any other record in the genre has commanded as much attention in the past year.
All We Need
All We Need establishes nineteen-year-old Raury Tullis as a voice to be reckoned with in modern hip hop music. With influences that range from Kid Cudi and Kanye West to Marvin Gaye, Father John Misty, and Bon Iver, he’s also got an incredibly compelling and eclectic sound that separates him from many of his peers.
This sound feels nearly perfectly-honed on All We Need, an immense debut that surprises — particularly because of his age. The genre-jumping album is comfortable with melancholy, comfortable with doling out wisdom, and dealing with doling out the unexpected. He’s the opposite of cynical, and that makes his record one of hip hop’s best in a very strong year.
Sound & Color
Sound & Color feels more varied than its predecessor, with Alabama Shakes spreading their wings on their sophomore effort and beginning to welcome their inner weird. While their first album was incredibly strong, Sound & Color reveals that the band has much more to say. Sound & Color is, as the title alludes, as much about texture as it is about the album’s pure unhinged sonic qualities.
Most importantly, though, Alabama Shakes avoids the sophomore slump with their expanded palette and collection of new sounds. With some of the most beautiful songs put on record in 2015, and a smattering of fantastic singles, Sound & Color makes a strong statement that Alabama Shakes is at the top of their game.
No Cities to Love
Sleater-Kinney’s first record in ten years is one of 2015’s best. The rock band’s comeback is more a statement that urges and commands our attention, nearly staccato with intensely brief three-minute tracks that sound more punk than they do rock ’n roll.
It’s easy to forget that the women in Sleater-Kinney are some of rock’s elder states-women when it sounds like the band still has so much to say. As political as ever, No Cities to Love carries a sense of urgency in its riffs that would make Dave Grohl jealous. While the trio was nothing to scoff at before, their new album is undoubtedly their best work: an absolute celebration of a band aging well and perhaps finally at their best.
Claire Boucher said she wrote hundreds of songs for Art Angels, but ended up scrapping most of them. What’s left behind are fourteen perfectly-polished alt-pop tracks that are somehow radio-friendly without ever pandering to her audience. As Grimes, Boucher grabs the pop wheel and — instead of re-inventing things that are never broken — just takes the whole convertible off-roading.
Art Angels is fearless and incredibly ambitious as a result, broad and friendly while remaining singularly weird and individual. Refusing to be white-washed into everybody else’s definition of pop songwriting, Claire Boucher instead made a visionary and uncompromising pop record that the genres’ fans and detractors can listen to with pride.
Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens isn’t know for his predictability. He’s leaped from one genre to the next, even making multiple Christmas albums, but Carrie & Lowell feels like a return to his original form as a lo-fi singer/songwriter. As Sufjan charts the life and death of his mother, as well as reflect on his own complicated feelings about her, it strikes not with grand musical statements, but with a series of small, gut-wrenching emotional moments.
Carrie & Lowell is perhaps the epitome of Sufjan Stevens’ sound, stripped back to its most basic and essential. As a result, in a career with seemingly one golden album after another, it could be the best record he’s ever made.
Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear
Josh Tillman’s sophomore effort as Father John Misty, he continues to demonstrate his outstanding songwriting ability. Better than his solo debut by any reviewer’s metric, I Love You, Honeybear feels challenging and rewarding without losing any of its approachability. Lush and complex soundscapes are perfectly produced, revealing the mastery Tillman has over his genre at this point in his career.
There’s a lot to take apart with the album, but it’s Tillman’s lyrical approach that truly sets it apart. Most of the album explores the relationship he has with his wife, and he’s at turns loving and cynical about their time together and their future. The fascination of I Love You, Honeybear is trying to decode the way Tillman sings about his wife and their life together into something understandable and comfortable — because the staggering openness that Tillman presents as Father John Misty feels nearly voyeuristic.
To Pimp a Butterfly
It wasn’t surprising that Kendrick’s latest record was good; it was largely expected to be an excellent record from one of hip hop’s brightest stars. But the level of intelligence and thought surrounding the album, the provocative way that Lamar literally takes it to the White House, took us all by surprise.
To Pimp a Butterfly is an album that shines because of Lamar’s singular skill as a lyricist and a storyteller. Music aside — and the backing music on TPAB is worth deeper discussion in and of itself — the record shines because Kendrick shines behind the mic. More than the best record of the year, it feels like an important moment in pop culture.