John Ricatto, with his extensive knowledge of the music of 2015, produced for you the list of the very best albums 2015 had to offer. This diverse portfolio caters to many different styles of music and shows the diverging work that the music industry produced this past year.
Riley Hopkins and Halley Posner, Co-Managing Arts and Leisure Editors
To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar
Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 release has been widely praised for capturing the spirit of a tenuous moment in American history. Built over wild free-jazz horns and funky 70’s grooves, Lamar raps about the horrors of police brutality, gang violence, and mass incarceration. Exploring these issues with nuance and passion, To Pimp a Butterfly has become an artistic touchstone for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In addition to its analysis of political issues, To Pimp a Butterfly also explores the moral and spiritual conflicts that engulf Lamar. On the song, “For Sale-Interlude,” Lamar raps in the voice of Lucifer, trying to pacify himself with promises of wealth and fame. This temptation is countered on the song, “u,” where Lamar viciously attacks himself for leaving his hometown of Compton “for profit,” diving into a pit of alcohol fueled hopelessness. The aggressive “The Blacker the Berry” finds Lamar lambasting the violent racism of white America while calling himself a “hypocrite” for killing another black man in his youth. The tortuous battles that take place inside Lamar’s mind symbolize the extent to which oppression, and in turn freedom, are both external and internal states.
Carrie and Lowell by Sufjan Stevens
“The past is just the past, a bridge to nowhere,” indie folk icon Sufjan Stevens sings in the song, “Should Have Known Better.” Despite this kernel of wisdom, Stevens centers his new album, Carrie and Lowell, on the process of digging up the old dark memories of childhood and his grief following his mother’s death. With whispered vocals and gentle acoustic guitar, Stevens archives incredible intimacy with the listener, inviting them into the most broken and melancholy parts of himself.
Much of what drives Carrie and Lowell is Stevens’ complicated relationship with his mother, who was absent in his childhood due to mental health issues. Throughout the album, Stevens tries to come to terms with a figure who was rarely there for him. On the track, “The Only Thing,” he wonders whether his mother ever really loved him.
Frequently on the album, Sufjan reflects on his own mortality and Christian faith in the wake of his mother’s death. On the song, “Drawn to the Blood,” Stevens sings “for my prayer there has always been love” before asking, “what did I do to deserve this?” Bearing hard and painful truths about death and grief, Carrie and Lowell is an affecting and powerful piece of work.
Surf by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment
In a modern hip-hop culture that all too often favors narcissistic boasting and the celebration of drug use, Chicago MC Chance the Rapper is defiant in his abundant positivity and thoughtfulness. Teaming up with jazz instrumentalist Donnie Trumpet, Chance’s side project, The Social Experiment, has created an all-out explosion of joy and spontaneous musical energy in the form of their 2015 album Surf.
Through his humor and energy, Chance is able to make his “lameness” abundantly interesting. The song, “Wanna Be Cool,” with its lecturing about the virtues of being yourself, sounds trite and preachy on paper. In reality, it’s an incessantly upbeat, groovy piece of pop, built on Chance’s sincerity and self-confidence. One of the album’s best tracks, “Sunday Candy” is a heart-felt dedication to Chance’s grandma. With island grooves, sputtering saxophones and a church choir behind him, Chance raps about his grandma’s “hand-made, pan fried, Southside” goodness.
Chance’s sincerity and unashamed sentimentality are a breath of fresh air in a rap scene where posturing and image often dominate.
Another One by Mac Demarco
With its laid back sparkling guitars and calm, detached vocal delivery, the music of Mac Demarco can be wrongly categorized as easy listening. Playing into this misconception even more is the singer-songwriter’s public persona, which is one of a goofy, charming, couch-surfing stoner. But like the music of groups such as the Grateful Dead, there is a melancholic poetry behind DeMarco’s laid-back vibes.
At its core, Mac Demarco’s latest release, Another One, is a pure breakup album. In the album’s opening track, “The Way You’d Love Her,” Demarco wistfully sings that he “never really got the chance to show her what it really means to love her” over tranquil, rolling guitars. Equally longing and resigned is the track, “No Other Heart,” in which he remarks, “now her heart belongs to another, and no other heart will do.” Demarco’s lyrics have a calm, sad simplicity to them reminiscent of the greats Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. Demarco’s pain is presented with soothing musical delivery, but its sad truth still remains.