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The top 20 albums of 2015

From Shamir’s disco-club debut to Archy Marshall’s surprise ode to south London, we pick this year’s most explosive creations


Artists are often described as ‘genre-blending’, but rarely does this apply like it does to globally minded supergroup Future Brown. Comprised of sonic innovators Fatima Al Qadiri, Jamie Imanian-Friedman (AKA J-Cush), and Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda of Nguzunguzu, the four-piece mash up elements of grime, rap, reggaeton, R&B and dancehall. It’s a forward-facing eclecticism that’s perfectly embodied within their self-titled debut, an album that is packed with unlikely collaborators that twist their sound in startling directions. From emerging stars like Kelela and Tink to established names such as Riko Dan of Roll Deep and Ludacris protege Shawnna, everyone wants a piece of Future Brown.


If you’re a gay woman, lyrics that explicitly refer to other women should hardly be niche or radical in 2015, but in many ways, they still are. Even so, Syd tha Kyd never shies away from using gender-specific pronouns within her lyrics. “We don’t fight, we just fuck / I’m in like, she’s in love / She gave in, I gave up / Can we just live in the moment?” she sings on the KAYTRANDA-featuring track “Girl” (below). But that’s not the only thing that makes Ego Death, the third album from Odd Future’s Cali-soul collective The Internet, stand out. With its vast collection of syrupy, retro R&B gems, and themes that move from love to lust to nonchalance within the length of a breath, the album tackles romance in a way that’s both vivid and relatable.


Sounding like a stripped-back, slowed-down and magnified Shampoo meets Daphne and Celeste, the debut album from Californian duo Girlpool, comprised of Cleo Tucker on guitar and Harmony Tividad on bass, brims with powerful simplicity – just beautiful enough to avoid being too twee, and just raw enough to avoid being overloaded. Shaped with lyricism that flits between fragile intimacy (“We sat on cold concrete / I could only stare at my feet”) sweet poeticisms (“my eyes are swollen full of people I’ve met”) and female empowerment (“I don’t really care about the clothes I wear, I don’t really care to brush my hair”), Before the World Was Big plays out like a long day off in the middle of summer.


In many ways, hip hop’s queer black artists have started a movement that parallels the riot grrrls of 25 years prior. Both rose from the underground and smashed through a genre that marginalised them, and both altered the cultural landscape of music forever. But the title of NYC rapper Le1f’s Riot Boi is not just a nod, but an agenda all of its own. “I wanna chill in cuts, sip these cups / Turn around for what? Not you, bruh bruh,” Le1f raps over a helium-soaked, SOPHIE-produced beat in “Koi” (below). “I kiss boys but it’s just for stunts, I’m not giving them what they want.” Diving into everything from gender and racial oppression to partying – and featuring collabs from Dev Hynes, Junglepussy and House of LaDosha – Le1f’s long-anticipated debut emerges fierce, ferocious and bucketfuls of fun.


I ain’t got no type, bad bitches are the only thing that I like,” auto-raps one half of effervescent ATL duo Rae Sremmurd, a line that has since taken on a life of its own. “You ain’t got no life, cups with the ice and we do this every night.” Paired with Mike WiLL Made-It’s slowed-down, minor key synth hooks, the track sounds like someone empty with indulgence, trying to convince you they’re fine – the result is spectacular. “No Type” (below) isn’t the only standout track on the group’s debut, though. Alongside the uber-infectious strip club anthem “Throw Some Mo” (featuring Nicki Minaj and Young Thug) and the buoyant, popping “No Flex Zone”, SremmLife was this year’s brilliantly unexpected hit. 


Lana Del Rey’s now-familiar slow-burning melodrama, self-aware storytelling and all-American, cinematic romanticism was not so much dialled down on third album Honeymoon as it was cranked up and amplified. “There are violets in your eyes / There are guns that blaze around you / There are roses in between my thighs and fire that surrounds you,” she sings on the album’s title track, offering up one of the most Lana Del Rey-est lyrics to come out of Lana Del Rey’s mouth. However, rather than grow tired of this formula, she still pulls us in with an album that swirls, gleams and hypnotises, the lyrics pinned above swelling strings and rich, fuzzy melodies like a spiralling trail of cigarette smoke.


The debut album from Planet Mu’s latest signing (and the artist behind Rick OwensAW14 soundtrack) Jlin might not have been one of this year’s most talked-about records, but it was certainly one of its most astonishing. Operating on the fringes of Chicago genre footwork, Dark Energy is brimming with unpredictable energy, intricacies and life. “Dark Energy comes from failure and experience,” Jlin told Dazed earlier this year. “It comes from having to face myself, learn myself, and being able to go inside myself and create from the core of all that. I still have much growing to do in all those aspects.” 


This year, nobody executed such a well-publicised U-turn as pop’s moody-faced man-child star Justin Bieber. And while he once seemed to represent everything that felt instinctively wrong with arena-filling chart music – an empty-headed song factory that kept him overworked and overhyped – hating on Bieber has begun to feel a little boring. To that end, fourth album Purpose emerged as 2015’s unlikely pop masterpiece. With the minimal house brilliance of “What Do You Mean?” (below) leading its charge alongside the falsetto-flecked melodies of Jack Ü’s EDM banger “Where Are Ü Now” and dancehall-inspired apology track “Sorry”, the album blends Bieber’s undeniable vocal talent with a heady dose of unexpected sonic innovation.


There’s a reason we placed Atlanta oddball Young Thug firmly on the number one spot of our ‘top 20 tracks of 2015’ list with his explosive, Mike WiLL Made-It-produced smash “Pacifier” – the track was this year’s career-crowning stand-out. Before that, though, came Barter 6, the title a tongue-in-cheek nod to Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter album series. Flitting between outsider, anti-pop anthems (“OD”) and wild vocal experiments (“Halftime”), Barter 6 shows the 24-year-old rapper consistently ripping up the hip hop rulebook to make music like we’ve never heard before.


I’ve seen things, and I’ve felt more pain than some will in their entire lives, all before the age of being able to buy a fucking drink at a bar,” says 20-year-old Bay Area artist Kehlani on the intro to her mixtape You Should Be Here. It’s these bittersweet, kick-in-the-gut truths delivered in distinctive, silky-smooth tones that elevate this album far above the average radio-friendly R&B concoction. With the dance moves of a pop icon and the attitude of a riot grrrl, Kehlani represents a new calibre of star – outspoken, unapologetic and fearlessly talented.


Unlike many of her peers in the electronic music sphere, Holly Herndon has her eyes fixed firmly on the future. “A big thing for me is not relying on nostalgia or past ways of expressing emotion,” the tech-obsessed composer told us in an interview earlier this year. “I think it starts by trying to create new archetypes.” It’s this forward-facing, ever-innovative approach that had us hooked on Platform from the off. With its hyper-intricate concoction of digital shapes and seamless blending of synthetic and organic sounds, Herndon makes music that sits right at the intersection of music, art and technology while still remaining accessible.


It’s been a weird year for our favourite A$AP, what with all those back-to-back LSD-fuelled orgies at SXSW, going nuts at fans and revealing that Madonna is his ultimate sexual fantasy. Thankfully, he also took time out of his busy social schedule to make one of the best albums of the year. From the sweet, psychedelic shapes of “L$D” (below) to the throwback, sample-heavy beats of “Wavybone” (featuring Juicy J and UKG) and the pared-back old school sound of Kanye West collab “Jukebox Joints”, At.Long.Last.A$AP puts shame to the claim that Rocky is all style and no substance.


“I wasn’t old enough to go to raves, so I have a romantic idea of that period and the scenes that were happening before the internet,” Jamie xx told us in an interview earlier this year. His words neatly sum up this glittering solo debut, which crafts a sonic love letter to the dancefloor of yesterday – from the euphoric, acid house-flecked “Loud Places” to dancehall standout “I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times” (featuring Young Thug and Popcaan). Yeah, we might not have made it down to the world’s best parties either, but that doesn’t mean we can’t fantasise.


In the same way that the runway trickles down to the high street in fashion, underground music has always shaped the mainstream, and the past few years have seen Venezuelan producer Arca at the forefront of this process. With his deathly, ice-blipped digital compositions being injected into the sounds of Kanye, FKA twigs and Björk, Arca’s far-reaching ascent and influence have been astonishing. Following on from Xen, second album Mutant offered the perfect manifestation of these talents. Crammed with deep, swirling layers of bass paired with glitch-studded, sonic intricacies, Mutant is beautiful and ugly at the same time, acting as further proof that Arca has become one this generation’s most original artists.


Las Vegas’ shimmering nu-disco child Shamir first graced us with a taste of Ratchet at the end of last year, when he released the cowbell-heavy, party-rap schoolyard taunt “On the Regular”, which still sticks like glue every time we crank it up. The rest of the album speeds along with equal dance-floor finesse, from the electro flamboyance of “Call It Off” (below) to the rapturous, saxophone-injected “In for the Kill”, continually taking the campy, disco-smattered roots of house and twisting them into glittering 21st-century shapes. There are some gloriously introspective moments on the album, too, from gospel-tinged ballad “Darker” to the bittersweet ode to lost love “Demon”, proving that Shamir is more than just a sharp tongue with a sweet charm.


Björk has always drawn the listener into her unique world, but Vulnicura marks one of her most intimate, ambitious and innovative works to date. Alongside underground electronic visionaries Arca and The Haxan Cloak, the Icelandic auteur traces every emotional lurch, dip and stab of a relationship breakdown, twisting her heartbreak into something raw and spectacular. “Did I love you too much?” she sings on “Black Lake”, her question dripping in icy despair over bruised, soaring strings. “Devotion bent me broken, so I rebelled – destroyed the icon.” Alongside its astonishing canon of interactive videos, Vulnicura manages to meld fragility and strength into one fearless creation.


It can be easy to get so enamoured with FKA twigs’ high-concept visuals and perfectly-shaped aesthetic that her music dissolves into just another element of an entire artistic universe. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, the music can stand on its own. At just five tracks long, each track on M3LLI55X bleeds into the next, twigs’ sweet, glassy falsetto pinning the whole together over synthetic whirrs and clicks, bass thuds and twisted walls of distortion. Whether she’s embracing her femininity (“Figure 8”), subverting sexual dominance (“I’m Your Doll”) or standing up to misogyny (“In Time”), the reigning avant-pop auteur continues to reinvent the look, sound and feel of modern music.


Admittedly, this is a last-minute addition – the album only came out last week – but it’s an essential one, nonetheless. Ditching his moniker King Krule for his birth name, Archy Marshall’s surprise release is a fully realised, beautifully intimate masterpiece. Unlike his debut, which saw his voice as the shaking, snarling, blues-punk centrepiece, A New Place 2 Drown allows his guarded croon to melt into the beat, becoming just another element in a sonic landscape that sits between heavy-lidded hip hop swirling, dreamlike electronica. “I’m pretty sure I’m dying as I speak,” he intones over a gorgeously gloomy melody on “Arise Dear Brother” (below), as if he was slinking off into the abyss in front of our very ears.


On her long-awaited fourth album, Grimes sticks a huge middle finger up to outmoded assumptions that women in pop aren’t in charge of their own narrative. Written, produced, shaped and polished by the eccentric engineer herself, Art Angels is a DIY creation with Grimes’ distinctive stamp. From the syrupy-sweet rush of album opener “Flesh Without Blood” to the pop-punk charge of “California” and the riotous chaos of “Scream”(featuring Aristophanes), Art Angels is a collection of pristine pop gems infused with delightfully wayward weirdness. “I think my music used to be more escapist,” Grimes told us earlier this year. “Visions didn’t really acknowledge reality, but this record is more about looking reality in the face.” If reality sounds like this, we’ll stick around.


This year, nobody redefined the radical possibilities of music quite like Kendrick Lamar in his hip hop odyssey To Pimp a Butterfly. Fusing scattered, fluttering shuffles of jazz with dizzyingly skilful wordplay and a tempestuous, gut-punching approach to storytelling, Lamar’s third album is like a piece of literary art reshaped for the speakers.

Steeped in anger directed towards white supremacy, while also celebrating the rich cultural history of black America, the album feels painful and uplifting simultaneously. “Why did I weep when Trayvon was in the street, when gang banging make me kill a n***a blacker than me? Hypocrite!” he roars in “The Blacker the Berry”, his devastation snapping over the hard slap of the beat, forcing the listener into a chokehold. As he darts feverishly through themes of racial oppression, mental illness, self-loathing, self-love and determination, it soon becomes clear that To Pimp a Butterfly is a fearless expression of lyrical and musical genius unlike anything we’ve heard this year.