Year in Review: Top albums in 2015

Bill Lamb, Contributing writer

R&B Album of the Year: Kendrick Lamar. ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’

Appearing at the height of national discussion about police violence targeting black people, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is a messy and powerful document about the state of being black in America. At times it is so dense it feels practically unlistenable. At other times, you may find yourself singing along to a chorus. Lamar delivered on the promise of his debut album and his work riveted attention like few other albums in 2015. 

Even if you believe you do not like hip-hop, I encourage you to listen to this album. It has much to say, and songs like “King Kunta” and “i” will have an emotional impact while remaining accessible enough for most pop audiences. They may encourage you to dig deeper, finding stories like that of “How Much a Dollar Cost” or the head-on confrontation of racism in “The Blacker the Berry.”

Honorable mentions deservedly go to Drake and Miguel. Drake’s surprise release If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late depicts the Canadian rapper at his peak. Until Adele came along, it was the biggest album of 2015. The gift of Drake is how he digs deep into his own personal experiences with an artful and often endearingly catchy, context. He has never sounded as idiosyncratic as on this collection of songs, and that’s a very good thing.

Miguel’s eagerly awaited third album Wildheart blurs the lines between R&B and psychedelic rock, and, at times, it is almost as difficult to get a handle on that sound. Keep Jimi Hendrix in the back of your mind and you’ll be fine; his influence is prominent. Perhaps more than most major album releases this year, Wildheart sounds like a multi-faceted journey into the artist’s soul.

Pop Album of the Year: Adele, ‘25’

Album quality and massive international commercial appeal do not always go hand in hand. Happily, in the case of Adele’s third album 25, they do. 

A strong argument could be made that no solo artist has ever kicked off a career with three consecutive albums that maintain such consistently high quality as Adele’s 19, 21 and 25.

On 25, she surrounds herself with such stellar collaborators as Max Martin, Greg Kurstin and Bruno Mars, but it is Adele’s voice that shines through clear and true.

The theme of the album this time around is the strength found when the shock and immediate pain of a failed relationship fade. However, like all of Adele’s work, the broader theme is the intimate emotional experience of relationships. 

From the moment she kicks off the album with the words, “Hello, it’s me,” on her massive No. 1 pop hit single “Hello” to “Sweetest Devotion’s” swaying, confident, “I wasn’t ready then, I’m ready now,” there is a bracing sense of personal and musical confidence on 25. 

Honorable mentions go to The Weeknd and Madonna. Some may argue that Beauty Behind the Madness by Canadian artist Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, is most properly an R&B album, but it is in songs like the Max Martin collaboration “Can’t Feel My Face,” inspired by the best pop instincts of Michael Jackson, that his work truly soars. This album brought a very promising rising artist to much-deserved widespread attention.

Madonna’s Rebel Heart is the kind of album many past pop kings and queens would like to make in their late 50s. It is her best in 15 years and she sounds free and optimistic about the future. The album acknowledges her glorious past well and is an outstanding example of a pop artist aging gracefully. 

Rock Album of the Year: Courtney Barnett ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit’

The debut album from 28-year-old Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett earned her a surprising but well-deserved Grammy Award nomination for Best New Artist. She combines relentlessly infectious garage rock riffs with deadpan lyrics that sparkle with wit and intelligence.

There is nothing particularly new in Courtney Barnett’s approach. What is arresting is how “right” this all sounds. 

Songs like her breakthrough “Pedestrian At Best” get your attention with squealing guitar and thunderous drums, then launch into a flat vocal delivery drawing maximum attention to words like, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you. Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you.” 

Somewhere legends like Patti Smith are smiling when they listen to Courtney Barnett. She is proof that while rock may not be in the spotlight as often today, it is still alive and kicking as fiercely as ever.

Honorable mentions in the rock category go to Coldplay and Fall Out Boy. Taken together, the bands represent the peak of commercial success for rock in today’s popular music climate. Coldplay’s recently released A Head Full of Dreams finds the band blurring boundaries between rock and danceable pop, collaborating with producers StarGate and including guest appearances from Beyoncé and Tove Lo. The result is the big, warm, hopeful sound we have come to expect from Coldplay. The moodiness of last year’s Ghost Stories has given way to songs like “Everglow,” a hymn to connections that remain even after the breakup of a romantic relationship.

Fall Out Boy proved 2013’s comeback was no fluke on American Beauty / American Psycho. From the infusion of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” into the bombastic top 10 hit “Centuries” to the good-humored sampling of The Munsters’ theme song in “Uma Thurman,” the album pulls together pop culture references in a good-natured stew of catchy riffs and sing-a-long choruses.