When it comes to music, 2015 has been pretty ridiculous. It seems like all year long we’ve found ourselves wrapping our head around a recently released masterpiece only to be subjected (in the best possible way, of course) to yet another massive release within a matter of weeks. This isn’t exactly a problem but it’s still worth pointing out. The truth is, something huge and strange is happening, particularly in rap and R&B, right now. A paradigm shift is taking place. Rappers can’t just rap, they have to sing now. The music is becoming increasingly poly-rhythmic and complicated. EDM has completely changed the game, but surprisingly, so too has an unexpected trend toward live instrumentation (as we’ve seen on records by Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat and D’Angelo). It’s the sort of thing you see once every 50 years or so and it feels important. When you look at the current state of rap music, it seems like every major artist is presently at the top of their game.
Still, as great as urban music has been this year, we didn’t want to overlook everything else. So I’ve enlisted the help of Mark Milner (he’s one of the resident experts on rock, pop & soul music here at B.G.M. and one of my favorite writers on the site) and we’ve put our heads together to give you this list. Turns out there’s been some terrific rock, indie, and pop music in 2015, too. To whittle this list down to 20 albums was a feat, this year saw incredible records from Bjork, Young Thug, Jamie XX, Big Sean, Kamasi Washington, Panda Bear, and Sufjan Stevens (just to name a few) that didn’t make this list. All of those records are worth your time but we wanted to recommend only the crème de la crème. In any case, without further ado here are the 20 very best records of 2015 (so far) according to us. They’re in no particular order. -Dan
It’s probably not a coincidence that the cover of Sleater Kinney’s eighth album, No Cities To Love, shows a vase of wilting flowers. The metaphor isn’t lost on me. Sleater Kinney are getting older and the artwork is coy acknowledgement of that. When they busted out of the pacific northwest during the late 90s, there was an insatiable demand for quirky indie rock from that part of the country (see also Modest Mouse, Elliot Smith, and Beck). But that time is long gone now, and the brand of guitar rock that sounded so fresh in 1998 often feels outdated today. Which is why making a record that, stylistically, sounds pretty much exactly like 1999’s The Hot Rock was the boldest move Sleater Kinney could have made. After a decade long hiatus, it’s clear their songwriting chops haven’t diminished in the slightest. They could have tried to be relevant, incorporate electronic music for example, but ultimately, they decided to just do what they’ve always done best: a Sleater Kinney album. The result was perhaps their best record to date. Wilted flowers? I think not. – Dan
At this point, I should probably confess: I’d never really listened to Sleater Kinney before this record. But maybe it was better that way since hearing this kind of music, executed so masterfully in 2015 no less, is kind of what blew me away. The guitars screech and slash, the rhythm chops in and out. At times it reminds me of the way the Au Pair’s first record used dub rhythms to give their music a nervous edge: on the title cut, it almost sounds like they’re playing in different rooms until they all crash together for the chorus; I love it when a plan comes together. In a year where post-punkers like Gang of Four and Wire released underwhelming new records, Sleater-Kinney showed how it’s supposed to sound. – Mark
If there’s been a better #1 song than Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” in the past 20 years I’d love to hear it. Hopefully this is a harbinger of things to come. Frankly, in general, the top 40 is pretty solid right now (The Weeknd, Silento, OMI, Fetty, Rihanna, Meek Mill, Jidenna, and Rich Homie Quan all have great tunes on the charts). “Trap Queen” is special, though. Not only is it a joyous banger with hooks for days, the story of how Fetty achieved superstar status is as inspiring as it is unlikely. Here was a one-eyed guy living in Paterson New Jersey (a hotbed of rap music, it ain’t). He had no label and little more than a Soundcloud page to promote his music–he’s not exactly the type of dude that you’d expect to conquer the charts. Yet, he did. And he did it employing the blunt force of his talent and personality. Best of all, it turns out he’s no fluke. His soundcloud page is a veritable treasure trove of street rap anthems unlike anything else out there. Viva la Fetty! -Dan
I love that a song like “Hot Mess” exists. It’s the most vapid, shallow, shit I’ve ever heard, but it’s endearing all the same. At some point while making it Shamir must have asked himself, “Hmmm, should I really have a chorus that just goes, ‘He’s a hot mess, aaaaaaand he’s a hot mess, aaaaaaand’ so on?'” Ultimately, I think he made the right decision. Shamir doesn’t trouble himself with politics or seriousness of any kind on Ratchet. Instead he channels the power of his greatest asset, his goofy personality, and in doing so, manages to deliver some of the most lovable dance music since Wham! “We’re giving up on all of our dreams, so why not go out and make a scene?” asks Shamir on another standout cut, “Make A Scene.” And frankly, it’s a pretty astute observation of his generation. Sure it’s nihilistic as fuck, but trussmedaddy, Shamir is consistently on point, even if he is being ridiculous the whole time. In a year of serious, often dark, albums, Shamir’s impossibly catchy Ratchet stands out not in spite of it’s unapologetic obsession with silliness, but because of it. -Dan
Although we might live in a time where trans issues have never been so mainstream – Caitlyn Jenner, Laura Jane Grace, Laverne Cox, et al – it’s an indie pop record from a bedroom in Chicago with the most to say on the subject. Masculinity and Other Inconveniences is a literate mix of queer politics, gender issues and pop hooks. “You won’t understand until you’re living with it,” they sing, but by record’s end, they’ve covered everything from dysphoria to alienation to riding bikes with your friends and even if you won’t completely understand, you’ll at least have an idea where they’re coming from. And I dare you not sing along with “What Is Hard Femme,” too. -Mark
Earl doesn’t have the same juice on the street as Future or Meek Mill. He lacks the superhuman ego of Drake or Miguel. He produces his own beats instead of having hit makers like Mike Will or DJ Mustard do it for him. It’s pretty hard to imagine him doing a feature with 2 Chainz or Drake or really most other rappers. Simply put, he’s an outsider. Yet, Earl has emerged as one of the finest rappers of his generation, and the only one who’s gained this much traction with a staunch DIY ethic. IDLSIDGO finds a fully-formed artist who does shit on his own terms. The few features here (other than the one with long-time collaborator, Vince Staples) are all little-known MCs who nevertheless crush it. Earl’s work is smart, but subtle, which causes it to be overlooked even as it subverts rap’s often tired status quo. Still, by my count this is his third masterpiece in a row (see also 2013’s Doris and 2010’s Earl—both of which have stood the test of time). “Fishy niggas stick to eating off of hooks / Think you eating but we see you getting cooked, nigga,” raps Sweatshirt on “Grief,” and it’s his idea of a hook–perhaps not immediately accessible, but it gets into you just the same, and in due time, it reels you in. -Dan
When Skepta releases his much-delayed album Konnichiwa (probably later this year), there’s a good chance it’ll propel him into the highest echelons of fame. People like me will no doubt write think pieces about whether or not he’s the most important rapper alive–that’s the kind of album Konnichiwa promises to be. It’s Skepta’s moment, and frankly, everyone is salivating over the prospect of his new shit. Then there’s JME. Who is by all accounts an excellent rapper with impeccable taste in beats. Unfortunately for him, he’s Skepta’s little brother. So you’ve gotta feel for him the same way you would for Venus Williams or Jermaine Jackson. And while every grime artist today must live in Skepta’s enormous shadow, that’s especially true for JME. But here’s the thing: JME released a thoroughly solid record this year, and in the feverish anticipation of a Skepta album that still hasn’t arrived, no one seems to have noticed. Crazy that. -Dan
“What kind of man loves like this?” shouts a singer from England channeling late-70s LA. She repeats it until you realize it’s not really a question. In an album that starts with Florence Welsh playing a wreck, it doesn’t get more direct than this. She hollers and yells over stomping percussion and an almost primal guitar riff. Her words dripping with malice; “Go Your Own Way” seems almost tame by comparison. It’s maybe the most vicious pop single of the year. The video, with some downright violent choreography, is no slouch, either. -Mark
Neil Young got pretty peeved when Donald Trump used “Rockin’ In The Free World” at one of his speeches, apparently without permission. It must suck to be a racist politician (and current Republican frontrunner) on some level. For one thing, no one wants you using their music. With that in mind, just imagine what a turn-around it could be for Trump’s campaign if he had the balls to make Rae Sremmurd’s “Up Like Trump” his theme song. First of all, if you’re the Donald there’s literally no downside to playing a song that basically celebrates how aspiring to be you is awesome.
Here, the Sremmurd boys rap their asses off, to the point of almost losing their voice–they mean what they’re saying. And what they’re saying: we’re such no-bullshit ballers that only comparing ourselves to Donald Trump will do. It’s a rags-to-riches story, actually. You know, social mobility (sort of). And that’s an issue Trump pretends to care about. So what if it’s incendiary, ridiculous, and provocative. So is Trump. Playing it would only be right. Though, I must admit, it might have the unintended effect of scaring the living shit out of his supporters–but I call that a win-win! Oh! And yeah, there’s like 10 other great songs on this record, too. -Dan
On the Fade Away EP, Best Coast stripped away the slick polish and made some of the best music of their career. Now Bethany Cosentino upped the ante: her music isn’t simply about getting high or her cat, but about herself, real life and growing up. And unlike some singer/songwriter types, she’s not dumping problems on the listener, rather she explains how to find your way out: “I know it’s hard to understand / but you’ve got to let it go, the situation’s out of your hands.” The crazy thing: Bethany Cosentino might only just be finding her narrative voice. -Mark
A few weeks back Miguel said in an interview that he thought his music was better than Frank Ocean’s. It was unprovoked and completely unnecessary and, you know, maybe true. It was kind of a dick move, but nothing close to the stupid shit Young Thug seems to be up to (he made a great album this year, too, but he might have attempted to murder Lil’ Wayne, fucking idiot). The point is, Wildheart rules even if it’s creator is a bit full of himself. Like Prince before him, Miguel has made a marvelous rock album that everyone seems to think is a R&B record simply because Miguel made it. And that’s just fine because what really matters is the quality anyway, and on that front Miguel delivers like Karl Malone dunking on Michael Jordan. Which is to say, it might be a pyrrhic victory once Ocean releases his album, blows everyone’s mind, and everyone forgets about this one (kidding). Anyway, while Wildheart might not be the R&B album everyone wanted, I can tell you this: if it isn’t part of your love-making soundtrack this summer, you might want to reevaluate your priorities. -Dan
I fucking hated Alabama Shakes’ first record. It sounded like a poor man’s Black Keys to me. But I was wrong–not about them sounding like Black Keys (they totally do) but if you compare this year’s Sound And Color to say, Brothers, for example, you’ll notice a lot of similarities but you’ll also be left with an undeniable impression: The Shakes are a way tighter band with much better songs. Simply put, The Black Keys have solid chops to exploit and ex-girlfriends to sing about, but The Shakes have gravitas. Another thing the Shakes have is Brittany Howard. She’s a peerless songwriter in the rock world and a vocalist with frightening conviction who can make simple lines like, “why don’t you just talk to me for a little while?” feel like monumental statements. So if you (like me) found yourself hating on their first effort, do yourself a favor and clue in. -Dan
Guitar soundscapes, musical textures that sound like a desert one moment and like sandpaper the next. Sarah Lipstate’s playing is alternately understated and domineering, rolling in like a wave. A guitar record to restore your faith in the instrument. Play it loud. -Mark
If you think this is a ploy to sneak in three extra records on this list, you’re right. The fact remains that these four EPs are excellent. Nao is a british neo soul mastermind. Her EP, February 15, is so unforgettably groovy it’s probably redundant to point out how she’s practically Sade’s rightful heir. Thundercat is R&B’s awesome answer to Flea and including this masterful EP, he’s been on three of 2015’s best records, (see also Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and Kamasi Washington’s The Epic). There’s also Kehlani, she’s a unique and up-and-coming soul singer/rapper who (mark my words) will be a household name within a year or two. And lastly, there is Freddie Gibbs, he continues to rule after rightfully earning B.G.M.’s album of the year last year. I wish I had more space to tell you about these artists but frankly there’s only so much room and honestly, our cups runneth over. -Dan
No. Realti an album, per se, but like The Kinks before her, Grimes now has a famous lost album. Does it all sound like her 2014 single “Go”? Probably not, since she produces all her own music now. So maybe it sounds like this: spooky, layered, and filled with keyboards with maybe a hint of nostalgia: “There were moments when it seemed okay,” she sings, “there was a time when the music would play.” This is Claire Boucher at the top of her game, mixing sharp insights under catchy beats so they slowly unravel the more you listen. And to think: it won’t even be on her next album. -Mark
What do you do with a rap album that completely bucks the system? One of the many amazing moments on Surf is when Busta Rhymes comes in laughing, “Yo! Mr. Chance The Rapper I greatly appreciate the way you rolled out the red carpet allowing me to articulate myself on how I stand on my own two, beloved!” then he proceeds to kill it in his verse. This is important because frankly, there couldn’t be a more “uncool” MC in 2015 than Busta Rhymes (nevermind that he’s a fucking legend). The point is, the whole album is like this and I’ll be goddamned if it isn’t heartwarming. Who cares if the whole enterprise sounds like a gang of A-list rappers and soul singers hijacked a really good Vampire Weekend record (Erykah Badu, Jeremih, Big Sean, and Quavo from Migos just to name a few).
Perhaps that description sounds like shit on paper and in practice, I must admit, it can get a little cheesy. But by and large it works. And it works because this is a such an adventurous record. There is a song here about how trying to be cool is pointless. There’s a song about how love is fleeting. There’s a song about how wonderful Grandmothers are. What there isn’t: any rapping about trap houses, bitches, or money. That fact alone should make you take notice of this singular album, which focuses the many talents involved on making joyous, yet complicated music. Chance the Rapper is probably the most important creative force behind the album (though Donnie Trumpet’s orchestration is brilliant, and Eryn Allen Kane is awesome and about to blow the fuck up). Still, it is Chance’s vision that, while kindhearted, has never been so razor sharp. The results are nothing short of revolutionary. Chance knows that the universals are powerful. That a well-placed turn of phrase like, “Good things come and they go,” can hit even harder than another rhyme about slinging dope. -Dan
Look, I hate to break it to you, but I doubt Views From The 6 will ever see the light of day. In all probability, this was the album Drake had been working on all along. My guess is that Drake just decided to change the name and call it a mixtape. The biggest indication of all that this was Drake’s ode to the 6 is he spends this whole album rapping about how, “Shit’s hot up in the six, boi!” So we should probably recognize. Which isn’t to say that Drake won’t drop another full length this year. He very well might, and if he does, I imagine it’ll be pretty darn great. But let’s quit pretending like IYRTITL isn’t a legit album of straight-up fire. Nearly half the songs have spent some time on the Billboard top 40 this year, and for good reason: they’re golden. -Dan
Tame Impala’s crucial new album, Currents, represents if not a complete 180 for them, it’s at least a tacit acknowledgment that music is changing rapidly and that these guys are willing to change right along with it. Currents finds them embracing electronic music and more complicated songwriting wholeheartedly. Perhaps the best entry point to the album is “Cause I’m a man.” Usually, I tire easily of songs where a guy sings about being a guy, but here, I find myself liking how it never devolves into bragging. Kevin Parker offers up lines like: “‘Cause I’m a man, woman / (I) don’t always think before I do.” As far as rock choruses go, that’s pretty honest. So is “I’ll never be as strong as you.” And while I think the guitar riff and atmospheric keyboards are nice, too, the muppet-led video really seals it for me. -Mark & Dan
Assuming Def Jam releases everything they’ve promised this year (presumably Frank Ocean, Jeremih, Rihanna and Kanye West all have records forthcoming), the label should have a pretty fantastic 2015. But even if none of those albums materialize they still have Vince Staples’ unfuckwithable Summertime ‘06. He begins the record rapping, “I’m just a nigga / Until I fill my pockets / And then I’m Mr. Nigga” then he spends the next hour pumping out a fascinating stream of music meditating on the black experience in America.
Nothing about this album came easy and it never provides simple answers. Staples is frustrated, he’s haunted by his past, he’s determined to shape his future and he’s saddened by white America’s ambivalence. Perhaps the most telling moment of Staples head space, though, is how he ends the album, “There’s niggas gettin’ paid over there / These niggas got it made over there,” he raps and it’s a rare moment of hope but the song is rudely cut short by the sound of someone turning the music off–no one is interested in hearing about “niggas gettin’ paid.” -Dan
When it comes to the city of Atlanta and her magnificent contribution to hip-hop consider this: it took Outkast the better part of nine years to release as much good music as Future has done in the past nine months. That’s no dis on Outkast either. Obviously they’re amazing. But in 2015, Future is determined to prove to the rap world that he owns this shit. He’s made a pretty good case for himself. Since October he’s released three mixtapes (Monster, Beast Mode, and 56 Nights) and an album (DS2)–every one of them is essential.
It’s also worth mentioning that Atlanta’s best producers (i.e. Metro Boomin, Zaytoven, Mike Will, Sonny Digital and 808 Mafia, all of whom Future has worked with extensively on these albums) might be the most exciting producers on earth. All of this adds up to a pretty colossal year for Future. There is little doubt that he’s inspired (he sounds great even dropping rhymes like, “I ain’t got no manners for no sluts / I’m’a put my thumb in her butt!”). My best guess as to the source of his inspiration is that his (very public) breakup with R&B singer Ciara might have had something to do with it. “Pussy good enough to make me love you,” he raps emphatically on “Groupies,” as if it were both a weakness and a deep regret, only to repeat the line again with even more feeling. This is a broken man, deeply distrustful of women, engaging in questionable behavior including excessive drug use. Fame has let him down, love has let him down, life has let him down, he’s clearly just diving head first into his art as an escape. His heart seems to be pumping pure fire. It’s fascinating to watch. -Dan
There’s a lot of things that the Fox News crowd doesn’t get about Kendrick Lamar but the biggest among them is that he is actively fighting against divisiveness. The absolutely racist commentary by Geraldo in the wake of Kendrick’s awesome performance at the BET awards showcases this ignorance in it’s full glory. The most interesting part of the whole debacle is that Geraldo by and large got away with it because so much of white America finds it impossible to imagine that there could ever be a rapper as committed to peace as Kendrick Lamar–rappers, to them, are thugs. Thankfully, ideas like this are becoming increasingly marginalized. One day, hopefully this kind of bullshit will be seen for what it is: complete propaganda meant to reinforce backward and racist ideologies.
Meanwhile, for those of us willing to look, there is a lot of insight on Kendrick Lamar’s most recent album, the complicated and visionary To Pimp A Butterfly. He calls our political parties “Democrips and Rebloodlicans,” he extols the virtues of motherhood on “Mamma,” and perhaps most importantly, he exposes the hypocrisy on both sides of America’s racial divide on “The Blacker The Berry.” The first verse feels like it’s dedicated to white America, Kendrick raps, “You never liked us anyway / Fuck your friendship / I meant it,” and he goes on, “My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide / You hate me don’t you? / You hate my people / You’re plan is to terminate my culture / You’re fucking evil and I want you to recognize I’m a proud monkey … You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin / You made me a killer / Emancipation of a real nigga.”
It’s an impassioned plea for white America to understand how institutionalized racism marginalizes and causes strife and if you can listen to it without getting goosebumps you’re a colder motherfucker than I. But Kendrick doesn’t spare Compton either. On the last verse he raps, “It’s funny how Zulu and Xhosa might go to war / Two tribal armies that want to build and destroy / Remind me of those Compton crip gangs that live next door / Beefin’ with Pirus, only death settle the score … So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin in the street when gang bangin’ make me kill a nigga blacker than me? / Hypocrite!”
It’s enough to make you think or at least it ought to be. -Dan
(Editor’s Note: I fully agree with all the choices here by Mark and Dan, but I have to throw in some of this year’s amazing rock-type releases as well ( I know this really messes up the whole ’20 Best of Thing’, sorry!): Cloakroom – Further Out, Title Fight – Hyperview, Marriages – Salome, Failure – The Heart Is A Monster, Torche – Restarter, and last but not least the amazing new album from Cherubs – 2 Ynfynyty. – Jon)
Here’s the Spotify playlist:
is a freelance writer and hipster emeritus. His work has appeared in various impressive publications including the one you’re enjoying now and he has his own music blog where he reviews music both old and new: oldnewborrowedblew.blogspot.com