Presenting his entirely subjective list for 2015, Adrian Lee picks his ten best albums of the year.*
(*Yes, he cheats a bit. And includes an honourable mentions list, too. It was a good year in music, okay?)
10. Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear. Josh Tillman’s trademark drugged-out straightforwardness, but cast upon the sticky spaces and saccharine psyches of an entirely earnest love album? It’s like witnessing the purest, least-comfortable kind of PDA.
9. Adele, 25. Seven million people around the world—the number of expected sales by the end of the year—can’t be wrong, right? Well, that’s not necessarily true—but the fact that Adele managed to break N’Sync’s first-week sales record from 2000—an era before music piracy changed the game—is a testament to her powers. And sonically, her powers are all on display, and she shows evolution as she tries fewer ballads and more straight-ahead pop, like on the excellent Water Under The Bridge.
8. Carly Rae Jepsen, E•MO•TION. Jepsen shares one trait with Adele: We know very little about her as a personality, even as she purveys a brand of music that revels in the personal. And yet the sales for her followup to the mediocre Kiss were truly disastrous—around 16,000 first-week sales in the US, the equivalent of a total face-plant. The big difference between her and Adele, of course, is that Jepsen’s career has been swallowed whole by the shadow of one mammoth song (Call Me Maybe), and she was saddled with an inexplicable promotion plan (a tour half a year after the album release?) and an ill-conceived distribution plan that let the album be released early in Japan and then leak out weeks in advance. It’s all too bad, because with interesting pop collaborators like Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, this is an artfully crafted pop banger, a tribute to 80’s synths and un-self-conscious joy, with songs that in some cases feature better bones than the ones on Taylor Swift’s beloved 1989.
7. Miguel, Wildheart. Animalistic; distorted; unapologetically hedonistic; political. The L.A. R&B man’s latest is in every way a keyed-up version of brief ideas that flitted across his fantastic Kaleidoscope Dream; he stalks around the album’s 13 tracks, sure and swaggering, and shows an evolution away from his lothario image toward a man who’s less yearning and more burning—though there’s still nothing he won’t say, and make work, across a smoggy, ragged funk landscape (see: “The Valley”).
6. Grimes, Art Angels. There’s no greater proof that pop music is receiving its due as “legitimate music” than Grimes, that inveterate weirdo, plumbing its depths. The album is bleepy, bloopy, buzzing, alien, and as catchy as it is fascinating.
5. Kehlani, You Should Be Here. Eschewing the chilly, distant sound that is the outsize legacy of the late Aaliyah, the Oakland native’s music is effusive, as if she’s singing it smiling. And while her lyrics can approach maudlin inspirational-poster territory, she avoids sticky cliche because of the harsh reality of her life story (essentially orphaned, formerly homeless). Make sure to listen to The Way, perhaps the year’s sexiest song. She nabbed a Grammy nomination for the mixtape—and she’s only 20.
4. Drake, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. He didn’t put out an official album, and yet 2015 was a year that managed to entirely recalibrate the persona of the man we already thought was the world’s most vital rapper. This mixtape kicked it all off, a brooding, paranoid banger that converted the word “woe” from a symbol of whimpering despair to one of power—a fitting microcosm for what Drake was able to do in a brawling, boisterous, and commercially booming 2015.
3. A$AP Rocky, At Long Last A$AP. In a year where regionality in rap music meant less than ever—or at least, was being redefined broadly—A$AP Rocky restored lustre to New York City with a rap album that sounds nothing like New York rap is supposed to sound (snappy snares, lyrical daggers) and instead sounds like New York City itself: woozy, preening, self-assured.
Tie, 1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly
Tie, 1. Vince Staples, Summertime ’06
The expectations for Kendrick Lamar’s follow-up his critical smash good kid, m.a.a.d. city were unfathomable. The Compton emcee was one album away from establishing himself as a true superstar. And so to release this tough, searing interrogation of blackness, an overtly religious unapologetically political, and Charles Mingus-infused pitch-black jazz document, is as bold as it comes. It’s an album about Lamar’s self-flagellating shame, his certain strength, and the impossibility of leaving a past behind: “You ain’t no brother, you ain’t no disciple, you ain’t no friend.” Alright became an anthem for something more than a movement—it was a chant that willed promise to become real.
A few months later, another Los Angeles rapper, Vince Staples, released his debut album, the furious portrait of a young black man as an artist: a two-side disk that grapples with living his own community and what it means to perform it, to have to gang-bang to live, but also live for the fallen who never got his opportunity: “I need to fight the power/But I need that new Ferrari.” The two albums from two young Angelenos tie at the top of my list because they offer two glimpses at answering the same essential question: What does it mean to be black in 2015? Both are dark, sometimes hard-to-listen-to efforts—but the year’s best albums are the best because they’re 2015’s most important ones.
Nao, February 15 EP. An effervescent groove fest that, at its best, summons up dusk in the summer and fresh lime zest. It’s as close as we got to a Jai Paul release this year—the London chanteuse collaborated with the brother of the ghost who put out one of the best efforts of 2013 and didn’t even mean to—and I’ll take it.
Young Thug, Barter 6. The yawping, weird, tuneful Southerner was prolific this year, but his best release was this album, channeling Lil Wayne’s woozy flow and warping it in what’s become Thugga’s trademark way: using his vocal box as a playground, a voice that can be alternately menacing or gleeful.
Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material. It wasn’t the genre-busting country record that Musgraves made us expect after her remarkable Same Trailer Different Park. But the songs here are more traditional and in some cases more sturdily built, including a cover of Willie Nelson’s Are You Sure featuring Willie himself. The same park isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness. The last musician to take cues from pop-production heavyweights and emerge with an album that proves to be a document of artistic identity? Taylor Swift—and now, Toronto’s The Weeknd, who toys with being a Michael Jackson figure without sacrificing the drugged-out badboy he is at his core. After all, his masterwork song Can’t Feel My Face, is a song that’s about love as it is about cocaine, in a music video inspired by Richard Pryor’s free-basing self-immolation.
Jason Derulo, Everything Is 4. He’s perceived as a disposable lightweight. And that’s despite releasing one of the low-key best pop songs of the year, the under-appreciated Want To Want Me and daring to play around in pop’s strict sandbox (see: saxophone, harmonica, singing with both Keith Urban and Stevie Wonder on the same song). He’s one heartbreak album away from being the next Usher.
Justin Bieber, Purpose. This album teeters just on the edge of this best-of list, because as an album, it’s bloated, unfairly full of itself, and repetitive. But throw away about half of the tracks—including the abhorrent Children (Bieber, singing about how to inspire the kids, is the World Vision ad no one asked for)—and you’re left with some of the defining tracks of the year.
In what was a banner year for Canadian pop music, Michael Barclay names his favourite Canadian albums of the year.
Buffy Sainte-Marie, Power in the Blood (True North). Anyone who knows Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 50+ years of recordings have never heard the 74-year-old sound as glorious as she does here; anyone who didn’t know her at all now has plenty of reasons to dig deep into one of the most underrated and fascinating figures in the tower of song. Here, for the first time in at least 35 years, the production enhances rather than distracts from everything that makes this woman such a vital force: her positivity, her politics, her passion.
Terra Lightfoot, Every Time My Mind Runs Wild (Sonic Unyon). This Hamilton performer went from wallflower to full power in no time, by turning up her guitar amp, writing songs that fit seamlessly into 40 years of rock’n’roll, and hiring a producer, Gus Van Go, who also happened to make two more of the best Canadian albums of 2015 (Whitehorse, Rah Rah). Lightfoot’s androgynous voice is a powerhouse on par with Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard (who didn’t have such a bad year herself), and she also possesses a strange ability to rock out in waltz time. Here’s hoping her mind always runs as wild as it does here.
Majical Cloudz, Are You Alone? (Arts and Crafts). Devon Welsh’s father, Kenneth, is one of Canada’s finest—and most intense—stage actors, best known for playing Windom Earle on Twin Peaks. The younger Welsh’s music is just as eerie and unsettling, his stark baritone set to lapping waves of electronic textures that sound like hymns, his raw-nerve poetry intended to disarm, his delivery is the aural equivalent of an unblinking stare, an extended hand, an empathetic embrace. Should you trust this guy? What the hell does he want, anyway? Why should any of this make us feel uncomfortable? What’s wrong with us, anyway? Are we so alone?
Jean Leloup, À Paradis City (Grosse Boîte). No, silly anglophone, this has nothing to do with a certain Guns N Roses song. This is a giant of Quebecois culture emerging from a six-year long silence with sparse, simple record with few bells and whistles: some Sam Roberts-style rockers (and let’s be clear that Leloup preceded Roberts by a good 10 years), some haunting minor-key ballads that Leonard Cohen could easily inhabit, some stream-of-consciousness pop songs that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Beck’s better albums. Leloup, of course, is unique in his own right, and ideally needs no facile comparison points—and yet he does, if only because he’s such a non-entity in the rest of the country, a country that still hasn’t bothered to make Coeur de Pirate into the massive superstar she deserves to be coast to coast at home, not just in Quebec and France (speaking of whom, her 2015 album Roses is easily her best yet). À Paradis City was one of only three Canadian albums released in 2015 to go platinum, and Leloup cleaned up at the recent Felix awards (the Quebec equivalent of the Junos). It’s time you found out why.
Geoff Berner – We Are Going to Bremen to Become Musicians (Coax). Vancouver’s most acerbic and acidic songwriter brings his accordion and his band to Montreal, where he meets producer SoCalled (Josh Dolgin) and creates a widescreen technicolour cabaret of klezmer, German folk tales, urban planning screeds, schadenfreude, summer dresses, and a song called, yes, “Swing a Chicken 3 Times Over Your Head.” Berner wants you to both laugh and scream at the horrors of the world, which, in a year with headlines like 2015, never goes out of style. But it’s the power of his pen, the strength of his band, and the vision of his producer that elevate this above mere satire or protest songs—these songs are tools for survival.
Read more of Michael Barclay’s 2015 picks, including non-Canadian releases, here.
Related: Our Missed It List highlights underrated items from arts and culture
Best of 2015 Canadian hip-hop and R&B
It was a banner year for Drake, but Canadian hip-hop and R&B was plenty fertile if you look past the Six God. Here, Adrian Lee selects tracks released in 2015 by Canadian hip-hop or R&B artists that may have slid under your radar—none of which were produced by Aubrey Drake Graham.
Jimmy B- Scarborough. Drake made Scarborough’s West African patois a global concern. But he’s from chichi Forest Hill. So let Jimmy B, the self-styled prince of the Toronto suburb, really tell you about the bridge, Kennedy Road, and some ‘Borough tings.
Jazz Cartier- Dead Or Alive. His album Marauding in Paradise is fully-formed, albeit uneven—but the Toronto native is at his best when he’s channelling Kanye West and Travis $cott, as he does here. This is a star in the making.
Sean Leon- This Ain’t 2012. A woozy, ferocious gyre of a track produced by Canadian wunderkind Wondagurl, featuring the ever-hungry lyrics of one of Toronto’s most driven emcees. It’s not 2012, but here’s hoping 2016 is even better for Leon.
BadBadNotGood feat. Ghostface Killah and Elzhi, Gunshowers. Toronto producers BadBadNotGood had a GoodGoodNotBad year, snagging a Polaris Prize shortlist nomination and various other accolades. This track off the brooding, funky Sour Soul, an album-length collaboration with Wu-Tang Clan growler Ghostface Killah, exemplifies the album’s sour soul, and features Elzhi, a Detroit rapper whose verses are consistently lyrical gifts. (And we may as well adopt him as Canadian, since Toronto was so eager to be Detroit in 2015.)
K-os feat. Saukrates, Shad, Kardinal Offishall, Choclair and King Reign, Boyz II Men. What would Northern Touch, a still-seminal Canadian rap track, sound like if it was being recorded in 2015? Well, exactly like this.
Backburner Crew, Bottlecaps. You may be surprised to learn that Nova Scotia has a surprisingly fertile rap scene, but don’t be: this group of like-minded associates have been long producing comfort-food boom-bap hip-hop reminiscent of hip-hop’s better known East Coast. Come for the cooler-than-though verses riven with internal rhymes; stay for the kitchen-party feel.
Classified, Filthy. Speaking of Halifax hip-hop and New York City, Classified—the scene’s eminence grise—teams up with New York’s O.G. boom-bap producer, and it’s the worthy sum of its parts.
Daniel Caesar, Paradise. Forget about Frank Ocean’s still-unreleased album—Toronto has its own version, and Caesar’s soulful EP, Pilgrim Paradise, is a triumph.
PartyNextDoor, Kehlani’s Freestyle. Kehlani didn’t just put out one of the best albums of the year—her breakup with PartyNextDoor also inspired this lovely song from the Drake associate, who has quietly been proving again and again that he’s worth seeing as more than second-fiddle in OVO.
Seth Kay, Zay’s Verse. The Vancouver emcee picks up where Drake’s sound left off in 2011 with a tribute to his young son, soaked in a “Marvin’s Room” aesthetic. Kay is the perfect example of someone who should be more prominent than he is, but isn’t—proof that Canada needs more than one hip-hop gatekeeper.
Jenn Grant feat. Buck 65, Spades. More folk song than rap track, it’s nevertheless lilting and lovely, with Grant’s clarion vocals paired perfectly with Buck 65’s low, baleful tones. You can read it as a love song, or a love letter to the home that these two Nova Scotia ex-pats left behind. It’s beautiful either way.