The Best Music Albums of 2015: Kendrick Lamar, ‘Hamilton,’ and More

All the greatest albums of the year, from an Obama-approved rap manifesto to riot grrrl legends’ roaring comeback.

12.14.15 9:46 AM ET

Adele may have conquered the sales charts, with her third album 25 moving an insane 3.38 million units in its first week, and Taylor Swift’s seemingly endless, cameo-filled 1989 tour dominated the concert circuit, but many of the year’s finest music albums came from less-publicized places.

Now, this marks the fifth year of my compiling The Daily Beast’s annual Top 10 albums list. The first came in 2011, when The Weeknd’s debut mixtape House of Balloons and Drake’s sophomore behemoth Take Care were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. They’ve gotten considerably bigger since then, with Drake’s Grammy-nominated Meek Mill diss track “Back to Back” and silly “Hotline Bling” video ruling the Internet roost, and The Weeknd’s radio-friendly Beauty Behind the Madness granting him the mainstream attention he’s so long deserved.

This year marked a vast improvement over 2014, and saw exceptional releases from a wide variety of places.

What a year Carrie Brownstein’s had. She not only starred in the fifth season of her acclaimed TV series Portlandia, popped up in the brilliant film Carol, and released her memoir, but the rock goddess also helped revive her seminal riot grrrl group Sleater-Kinney for their first album in a decade. And boy, was it worth the wait. A 32-minute post-punk gut punch, No Cities is crammed with angular guitars, fiery wails, and feverish energy; a relentless onslaught of one 3-minute Siouxsie Sioux-meets-Wire burst after another. The perfect blend of Sleater-Kinney and Brownstein’s standout side project, Wild Flag, this is perhaps the finest album yet in the Olympia band’s illustrious canon.

Lauded by everyone from President Obama, who crowned it his favorite album of the year, to Taylor Swift, who endorsed it with a truly unfortunate tweet, the third album from the diminutive Compton wordsmith provided his most cohesive vision yet. Buoyed by an eclectic blend of funk, jazz, and beat poetry, Butterfly bristles with manic energy, and tackles heady topics ranging from racism and African-American heritage to police brutality. The latter is addressed with Kendrick’s typical eloquence on “Alright,” which became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter Movement. While self-indulgent in parts and lacking the bangers of previous effort good kid, m.A.A.d city, this record is the most urgent of the year; an essential soundtrack to the ongoing discussion of what it’s like to be young and black in America. 

His ambitious 50 states’ project may be a thing of the past, but the Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist’s first studio album in five years is his most heartrending and elegiac effort to date, and a pared-down return to his folksy roots. The album is inspired by the 2012 death of his mother, Carrie, and his supportive stepfather, Lowell, and, with its richly evocative lyrics touching on memories lost and found, feels like ingesting 8 mm home videos of Sufjan’s childhood in musical form. As you delve deeper and deeper into the lyrics and deceptively spare instrumentation, Carrie & Lowell will conjure hazy images of your own halcyon youth, leaving you wistful, and enriched.

While K-Dot garnered the bulk of the critical plaudits in 2015, and Drake lorded over the blogosphere with his meme-happy slaying of Meek Mill, the year belonged to Future. The Atlanta rapper, aided by a fleet of top-notch producers including DJ Esco, Zaytoven, and Metro Boomin, released two killer mixtapes and the uneven Drake team-up What a Time To Be Alive. But it was his third studio album, DS2, that cemented the auto-tune-loving emcee’s status as a member of the hip-hop elite. A sequel of sorts to his ’11 mixtape Dirty Sprite, the album combines hard-hitting, loopy beats, triumphant club anthems, and melancholy remembrances—like a fantastic voyage through Future’s two sides: the lover and the leaver.

To label Newsom’s expansive fourth studio album avant-garde would be a fantastic understatement. The harp-strumming musical prodigy’s latest incorporates a ridiculous amount of instrumentation, from clavichords to autoharps to the entire City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, in order to create this enchantingly enigmatic record. Each subsequent listen peels back excess layers, leading you ever closer to Newsom’s delightfully quirky soul. Andy Samberg is a lucky man, indeed. 

There exists a certain critical bias when it comes to modern metal music. Perhaps it comes down to personal taste(s), or the wrongheaded assumption that the genre is less musically daring, but regardless, Deafheaven are doing their best to change the conversation. The San Franciscans’ third studio album sees them pushing their unique brand of prog-metal further into the future, shifting from ethereal, shoegaze-y anthems to head-banging riffage at the drop of a dime, and moving metal one step closer to the mainstream.  

The artist formerly known as J. Tillman—and ex-drummer of Fleet Foxes—is back with his second album under the moniker Father John Misty. And Honeybear sees the bearded folkster at his most introspective, offering a wormhole into his confused mind as he navigates his stormy relationship with his wife, Emma. As such, the lyrics are equal parts cynical and hopeful, romantic and vindictive, and always imbued with FJM’s trademark thumb-nosing that we’ve all learned to know and love. 

As you’ve no doubt heard, Hamilton is the most revelatory Broadway musical to come along in… maybe ever. And a great deal of its power comes down to the music, with strident orchestral arrangements augmenting the impact of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant rap lyrics. An inventive fusion of urban and urbane, hip-hop and history, Hamilton is in a league of its own. So if you can’t swing the real deal, settle for this. You will wear it out.

Claire Boucher, aka Grimes, once joined her boyfriend in packing all of their belongings (and chickens) onto a raft with the hope of sailing it down the Mississippi. That didn’t go so well. Her music career has fared much better, and while the lispy electronic artist’s latest is missing some of Visions’ deranged, drugged-out beauty, it boasts ace production work—she used GarageBand for Visions, and Ableton for Angels—and her signature humor. It’s also very much a pop album, and as such, is Grimes’s most easily accessible work to date.

The most exciting voice to come along in hip-hop since Kendrick, the Long Beach native’s debut album contains fabulous production from Kanye collaborator (and Def Jam exec) No I.D., and an overarching narrative about the summer of ’06—three months that changed a then 13-year-old Staples’s life. It’s a concept album crammed with dense, slice-of-life vignettes that suck you into the 22-year-old’s mad world. Far and away the best rap debut of the year.

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Honorable Mentions:

Chvrches – Every Open Eye
Spritely lead singer Lauren Mayberry’s strident, achingly emotional vocals slice through catchy synth beats in the Scottish band’s best effort yet.

Laura Marling – Short Movie
The angel-voiced British folk singer goes electric, channeling her inner Annie Clark in what proved to be a much smoother musical transition than that of her ex’s band Mumford & Sons.

Tame Impala – Currents
Aussie’s reigning kings of psychedelic rock are back with their symphony of distorted guitars and existential musings, showcasing frontman Kevin Parker’s evolution as a songwriter.

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit
The Aussie rocker channels her inner Courtney Love with a collection of angsty, alt-rock tunes that transport you back to the ’90s.  

Jamie XX – In Colour
The XX’s knob wizard puts his production mastery on full display in this five-years-in-the-making achievement combining dancehall stompers, moody ballads, and weird circuitry.