By Tobias Berchtold
Honourable mentions that were good but didn’t quite make my list:
- Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
- Miguel – Wildheart
- Freddie Gibbs – Shadow of a Doubt
- Algiers – Algiers
- Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
15. Hiatus Kaiyote – Choose Your Weapon
After discovering them through their excellent previous release “Tawk Tomahawk” I was looking forward to this album massively, and it continued much in the same vein as one before it. Combining elements of funk, soul and jazz they succeed in creating a smooth album that is incredibly easy and fun to pick up and listen to all the way through (several times).
Favourite Tracks: Shaolin Monk Motherfunk, Breathing Underwater
14. Viet Cong – Viet Cong
The self-titled album by Canadian band Viet Cong is far and away my favourite rock album of the year. They lived up to all of their hype and controversy by delivering a truly excellent post-punk album, complemented by their tight instrumentals and adventurous songcraft. The album sounds chaotic and dark but what stands out to me are the little snippets of delicate instrumentation that added an interesting twist into the usually heavily reverbed songs. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next, albeit likely with a new name as it was deemed that the current one is unnecessarily inflammatory (probably a wise move, as it’s gotten them banned from several venues in the USA).
Favourite Tracks: Continental Shelf, Death, March of Progress
13. Oddisee – The Good Fight
Oddisee seems to churn out a solid release every few years or so, and this one is likely my favourite thus far. The album has really excellent production, with the themes of humility fitting the understated and subtle music very well. Oddisee’s experience as an instrumentalist shines through on every track, and coupled with his eloquent and charismatically witty lyrics it makes this album a pleasure to listen to.
Favourite Tracks: That’s Love, Want Something Done, First Choice
12. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Stretch Music
Christian Scott attempts to blend several different genres together with his style, hence ‘stretching’ the genre of jazz into new and uncharted territories. On this record he involves a lot of African rhythms, alongside other elements of African music and it works to great effect. Four years ago he extended his name by adding aTunde Adjuah, which are supposedly Ghanaian cities of ancestral significance to Christian Scott. It seems that this record is part of his journey to reclaim and rediscover his home culture, whilst infusing it into a modern sound.
The highlight throughout this album is the interplay between the 9 instruments in his band, which combine to create a cohesive jazz ensemble with some interspersed glimpses of Scott’s genre-bending – for example, occasionally, out of the blue, a jagged electric guitar chord will accompany his trumpet, before being joined by sampled African drum beats – this combination makes this a very nice listen.
Favourite Tracks: Sunrise in Beijing, Perspectives, West of the West
11. Archy Marshall – A New Place 2 Drown
Also known as King Krule, Archy Marshall seemingly used this joint multimedia project with his brother to transition slowly from songwriter into producer. He utilises samples much more in this release and for me it pays off. I have to confess that I’m a bit of a King Krule fanboy anyway but I feel that his continued experimentation with his music has made him more three-dimensional, and the introspective nature of the lyrics makes for an interesting listen. You follow Archy as he explores themes to do with loneliness and solitude, and he even gets to the point where he seemingly finds pleasure and solace in being alone (which I can thoroughly relate to).
The main criticism that I’ve heard about this album is that the songs seem to kind of blend together, but me this isn’t a major issue as it is accompanied by an art book (bought separately) which suits the music brilliantly. I’ve found myself leafing through the book with the album on in the background on several occasions already and I’ve really enjoyed both sides of this project.
That’s right Mo Hafeez, I’m calling you out. Fight me. 1v1.
Favourite Tracks: Ammi Ammi, Any God of Yours, Swell
10. Mbongwana Star – From Kinshasa
This one caught me by surprise. I can’t even remember how I stumbled across this but the Congolese band’s album quickly became one that I had on repeat for weeks. In terms of sensation, I’d have to agree with The Guardian’s review that likened it to arriving in an unfamiliar city, bustling and exciting. It creates a sensory overload because there is just so much going on, and in doing this it completely immerses you and makes it a joy to experience.
The album shines all the way through but it started to really interesting at “Malukayi” where it became clear to me that this album isn’t really like anything I’ve heard before, in part due to the many different instruments that are interacting on all of the tracks. Every listen I seem to discover a new layer to each song, which has made it a staple for me this year. The highlight for me is “Kala” as it seemingly explodes into life right at the end of the album, and on my first listen it made me want to listen to the whole thing through again straight away.
Favourite Tracks: Malukayi, Kala, Suzanna
9. Clarence Clarity – NO NOW
I’m not really sure how to describe this album because it’s absolutely bonkers. And I love it. There are so many different inspirations on this album and where most artists would pick and choose which ones to use on separate songs, Clarence Clarity seems to throw them all into every single one.
It’s incredibly sonically dense and an almost maximalist approach to music, yet it still has a strong sense of rhythm and is catchy too. I went into this album not really sure what to expect, and to be honest I’ve still not quite reached a conclusion. Clarence Clarity makes songs that are so outlandish that they seem familiar again, which results in this album having a remarkable amount of replayability which is rare for a project as experimental and unusual as this.
Favourite Tracks: Will to Believe, Bloodbarf, The Gospel Truth
8. Björk – Vulnicura
Break up albums are nothing new, but trust Björk to bring a new and refreshing take to the table. She’s done it again, her ninth (!) studio release is a unique and brave take on coping with emotional pain. It’s not always necessarily an easy listen but once you’ve found your way in she keeps you engaged through her almost poetic lyrics, and oddly intoxicating instrumentals. It feels a bit similar to Vespertine which is my favourite album in Björk’s discography, and that’s why probably why I love this so much.
I found it really hard to put this album down after I finally managed to get my head around it, and it really helped me work through some difficult times this year due to its emotional openness, intimacy and sincere tone on break-ups and loss. The lyrics are intense, haunting, and at points are heartbreaking so I wouldn’t recommend listening to this if you’re having a good day.
Favourite Tracks: Stonemilker, Lionsong, Black Lake
7. BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul
While they may not be the best individual musicians the world has ever seen, BBNG’s take on jazz gained them a lot of well-deserved hype last year. This latest project saw them team up with Wu Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah to cement their status as the current kings of fusing hip hop with jazz.
Ghostface’s vocals suit the instrumentals well, while still allowing BBNG’s flair to shine through and some well-placed features from people such as Danny Brown and DOOM make this album really stand out. BBNG’s input isn’t nearly as experimental as on previous projects like “BBNG 2” but the addition of Ghostface more than makes up for it. The only real disappointment that I have with this album is the fact that there’s just not enough of it, clocking in at just over half an hour. Short but sweet, as they say.
Favourite Tracks: Sour Soul, Gunshowers, Ray Gun, Street Knowledge
6. Lupe Fiasco – Tetsuo & Youth
In some ways this is probably Lupe’s most ambitious project yet, and after the disappointments of his previous few releases he really needed this one to be a success to put him back into the game. And a success it was.
This release is littered with 8-9 minute long songs with enough good bars in each to fill a full length album. Of these, “Mural” is a the best and the song title definitely does it justice – it’s a work of art, and in its almost 9 minutes of runtime there isn’t a second that feels like it could be cut. If I was pushed to give an answer, I’d probably say that it’s my favourite song of this year. Every song on this album is filled with Lupe’s intricate and intelligent lyrics, playing with metaphors to convey his messages about growing up and breaking out of the ghetto (particularly effective on “Deliver”).
Lupe recently announced that he’d be releasing three full length albums in 2016, and if any one of them is even close to being as good as this one then I’ll be a very happy bunny.
Favourite Tracks: Mural, Deliver, Madonna, Prisoners 1&2
5. Jamie xx – In Colour
Bangers. Bangers galore. This is probably the easiest listen on this list. Jamie xx has had a few projects in the past that I have enjoyed (in particular his Gil-Scott Heron mixes) and I’m glad that the hype surrounding this debut record didn’t disappoint. He maintains his trademark sound throughout the album, yet still manages to push the boat out a bit further on some of the songs. “Gosh” in particular is a departure from the usual light beats that Jamie likes to produce and seems slightly more experimental than the rest of the album, and it was a bold call to put it as the opener but one that in my eyes paid off.
“Good Times” was released as a single before the album came out, and it really surprised me because even though I’m usually not a massive Young Thug fan I absolutely love this song. It was a mix of smooth beats with Young Thug’s ridiculous lyrics made it one of my favourite singles of the year. On this album (this song in particular) Jamie uses of a lot of vocal samples, and this is a welcome addition to his sound.
This album really impressed me with its mixture of tried-and-tested Jamie xx type songs featuring xx running mate Romy and some slightly more ambitious risk taking. As much as I love this album I do wish that there were one or two more songs that pushed Jamie out of his comfort zone – another song like “Gosh” or even “Good Times” would have made this album challenge some of those higher on this list for me.
Favourite Tracks: Gosh, Good Times (There’s Gonna Be), Loud Places
4. FKA twigs – M3LL155X
After a strong debut with LP1, twigs continued in a very similar fashion on this five track EP. LP1 was weird and eccentric, and this album builds on that further while adding a slightly darker and creepier tone. The production quality is fantastic throughout, the same as with her previous release, but what really caught my attention with this project was the narrative that she managed to spin across only five songs. The tracks “I’m your doll” and “in time” are powerful statements about the self – they’re almost uncomfortable in the way that they play with your emotions and it almost feels as though she’s talking directly to you amongst the music.
Accompanying this project were self-choreographed and self-directed videos that only further the sense that twigs is getting more and more confident and self-assured, and if this is anything to go by I expect the next full length album to be even better than the first. It feels like this EP was twigs flexing her skills and showing what she’s capable of as a producer and as an all round creative force. Where LP1 was good, I think M3LL155X is excellent.
Then again I’m likely biased due to my absolutely astronomical crush on twigs, but that’s neither here nor there.
Favourite Tracks: in time, i’m your doll, glass and patron
3. D’Angelo – Black Messiah
I’m cheating a bit with this one, as it was released right at the end of 2014 but I only really gave it a go at the start of this year, so I’m going to sneak it in here anyway.
After a 14 year break since his last release Voodoo, D’Angelo returns with a record on which he hasn’t changed his style, but has refined it into something even better. Smooth, soulful R&B tracks are his forté and this album is filled to the brim with exactly that. Combining strong messages dealing with black rights with the type of music that we’ve come to expect from D’Angelo, this release is absolutely spectacular and in my eyes is D’Angelo’s best record to date. The mix of retro with modern twists alongside layers and layers of vocals, guitar, strings and keyboards make this album refreshingly different – it’s like D’Angelo has perfected and transcended R&B.
“Sugah Daddy” in particular caught my attention – the old school offbeat rhythm is ridiculously catchy, and really does sound like the D’Angelo of old. It’s almost as though the previous 14 years of his absence never happened, in the best possible way.
Favourite Tracks: Really Love, Sugah Daddy, Ain’t That Easy, The Charade
2. Kamasi Washington – The Epic
2015 has been a terrific year for Kamasi Washington – he was the sax lead on “To Pimp a Butterfly” and upon release of his solo album he went on his first ever world tour (which I frustratingly couldn’t get tickets for).
The title of the album is likely the best way of describing it. Three hours of jazz fusion magic rolled into one fantastic release. The album is split into three parts, each of which could easily function as its own entity, however putting them all into one makes this truly world class. Each part on its own is more than worthy of a listen but if you’re having a lazy day and haven’t got much planned, whack this on in the background and listen through the whole 3 hours and I promise you won’t regret it.
If you haven’t found your way into jazz and are interested, this is probably your best bet – it’s very accessible alongside being far and away the best jazz release of this year (and in my opinion also of the past few years).
Favourite Tracks: Change of the Guard, Askim, Final Thought, The Rhythm Changes, Isabelle
1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
This decision wasn’t even remotely close. If I’m being honest this is probably my favourite album ever. There’s not much I can say about it that hasn’t been said before, it’s an absolute masterpiece. I really thought there was no way Kendrick was going to be able to top “Good Kid M.A.A.D City” but he’s bettered it in every possible way.
The concept is in itself incredible, the poem that is slowly built piece by piece throughout the songs as they pass is a genius idea that I don’t recall ever hearing in an album before. Kendrick must have balls of steel to create that Tupac interview at the end – someone who is generally considered one of the best hip hop artists to have ever lived. Kendrick seems to want to continue his legacy with his insightful commentary on society, particularly in the black community (as the tracks “Hood Politics,” “Alright” and “The Blacker the Berry” in particular show). He paints this picture while outlining his personal struggles with fame and the massive expectations placed on him – “u” is so raw and intense that it really feels as though Kendrick is bearing his all through his music and it feels incredibly authentic and heartfelt.
The instrumentation and production is again pretty much perfection, as Kendrick enlisted the help of people like Thundercat and Kamasi Washington (as mentioned earlier) which helps him skip between different styles of hip hop with ease, from the wailing G-Funk synth sounds on “Wesley’s Theory” and “King Kunta” to the more R&B like sound on “These Walls.”
I usually don’t like it when I read a review and they give an album a perfect score, but I have to say that for this album I’m inclined to say that it’s justified. I really can’t think of a single thing Kendrick could have possibly done better with this project.
In my eyes Kendrick is the king of hip hop right now, after creating two albums (this one and GKMC) that could easily be argued to be amongst the best hip hop albums of this decade.
Favourite Tracks: N/A, all of it
Overall, 2015 has been a stellar year for music and 2016 will have to be pretty special to top it. However with a release from David Bowie, (hopefully) one from Kanye, three from Lupe Fiasco, and a Kendrick and J Cole collaboration on the horizon I have high hopes for the coming months.
On top of those I’m still blindly hoping that Jai Paul may arise from the land of the dead, but with his prolonged silence since the leak it’s unfortunately looking increasingly unlikely. Jai Paul will make a comeback. #believe