What can be said about Kendrick's good kid, m.A.A.d city follow-up that hasn't already been said, three months ago, in the days and weeks after it slid into iTunes that late fated night? Not much, except that it's aged (three months in 2015 counts as "aged," yes) as well as it was obviously destined to. To Pimp a Butterfly is a true classic in an era when so many pieces of art are called, mostly incorrectly, "a classic." –Zach Dionne
With Alabama Shakes' 2012 debut Boys & Girls still in heavy rotation for us, we wondered if the follow-up would stick to the rock 'n' soul formula and cement the band as more or less Brittany Howard's solo act. From the drowsy, dreamy, dramatic opener of Sound & Color, it's clear that everyone was instrumental in expanding and progressing the sound. Brittany's still our hero, but her bandmates are bringing it, too. This is a play-it-three-times-in-a-row album, and one with barbecue-ready one-offs like "Future People," "Don't Wanna Fight" and "Guess Who." –Zach Dionne
For Froot, Marina & the Diamonds stripped away the all-star producers and kitschy glamour of sophomore album Electra Heart for heartbreakingly gorgeous results. On the surface, this is a breakup album, but dive deeper and you're taken on a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Marina admits that she has sex to feel less lonely and prefers getting drunk alone, but also declares that she's "found a way to be happy" on the soaring opening track, "Happy."
Probably the best part though? She wrote the entire LP all on her own. –Jeff Benjamin
One would think a dramatic breakup three months after you and your famous fiance had a kid would steer Ciara toward a similarly dramatic and dark album. But save for the delicious kiss-off single "I Bet," Ciara's latest LP is full of light, positivity and loads of gooey pop-R&B gems. There's the hip hop/pop hybrid "Fly," the feel-good jam "All Good," the Janet Jackson-esque "One Woman Army," her Missy Elliott/Pitbull banger "That's How I'm Feelin'" and "I Got You" featuring loads of adorable baby coos from her son Future.
Yeah, motherhood (and the single life!) sounds real good on CiCi. –Jeff Benjamin
Fall Out Boy are trying to put their emo past behind them, and American Beauty, American Psycho has them getting pretty close. The most dynamic song on the album is "Uma Thurman," a less-than-self-deprecating tune about female protagonist...oh, and it samples The Munsters' theme song. If you're looking for FOB at their most dynamic and strange, you've found it here. –Maria Sherman
"Oh my god, If I die, I'm a motherfucking legend."
That's Aubrey Drake Graham, talking too soon and talking too true. He's 28 going on 28 years of people talking about him, minimum. So what does it matter if If You're Reading This dropped like a mixtape and plays like a mixtape? This isn't blockbuster 40-on-Martin-Scorsese rap like Nothing Was the Same; it's something rawer and actually more addictive. And "runnin thru the 6 with my woes" actually unseated "started from the bottom now we here." (Which usurped "YOLO.") It's the most quotable album of the year by the most quotable artist since Dr. K. West. –Zach Dionne
The world needed Sleater-Kinney to reunite in 2015. The iconic feminist punk band lead by Portlandia's Carrie Brownstein mercifully did it via No Cities to Love, an angry, pointed record that deals directly with ideas of emotional, societal and personal oppression. It's powerful stuff—just ask My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, Fred Armisen, Ellen Page, Andy Samberg, Sarah Silverman, Natasha Lyonne and all the other stars of the title track's music video. –Maria Sherman
There's something about Kehlani. I can't remember when or where I first heard her voice, but I remember thinking "WHO is this?" At first listen her voice is simple and innocent on the surface, but then it's also edgy and arresting. The Oakland native's debut album You Should Be Here evokes '90s R&B with a modern, synthy twist. The songs and sounds flow together perfectly—it's one of those albums you can start playing and before you know it it's over and you feel like you were listening to one long, really awesome song. When Kehlani performed and sat down for Fuse's SKEE TV (watch the full episode now) she reminded DJ SKEE the project is actually just a mixtape and her proper debut album is still to come. If THIS is just a mixtape, I'm excited to hear what Kehlani does next! Check out standout tracks like the single/title track "You Should Be Here" (above), "The Way" featuring Chance the Rapper, "How That Taste", and "Bright". –Mark Sundstrom
Rocky's second album plays more like an album than anything except To Pimp a Butterfly so far in the 2015 rap game. Unlike Butterfly, it's happy to ride with a single claustrophobic-in-a-good-way vibe. (Kind of like...Drake's entry on the list.) At.Long.Last.A$AP also has more unexpected, diamond cameos than anything in a long time, not just 2015. This is kind of a new, lower-key My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. This record's the reason we don't need Kanye to rush Swish out quite yet. –Zach Dionne
Australia's Courtney Barnett's songwriting is surprisingly dense...it's like hip hop in that way, the words seeming to climb on top of one another. The sound is '90s slackerdom at its finest, long songs that feel like road trips. Even better, the single from her fantastic Sometimes I sit and think, Sometimes I Just Sit is "Depreston," a song about apartment hunting in Melbourne. The fact that such a peculiar tune can elicit a response worldwide is pretty impressive. –Maria Sherman
Heems hasn't seemed to determine what "being a rapper" means to him yet, which makes this album almost perfect. Himanshu Kumar Suri doesn't give a fuck, and what bleeds out is stuff you savor like a vampire. If you watched Das Racist unfold and implode, or Heems as he turned out Wild Water Kingdom, you knew the anticipation for a genuine solo record was serious. The pop, rap, jokes, and spoken word first-person history of being an Indian-American in Manhattan on 9/11 and in Queens during all the panicked racist aftermath—it's a lot to process, and a joy to try. Eat Pray Thug's still gonna be big in December, and the next December, and ones years after that one. –Zach Dionne
Girlpool were one of our favorite acts at SXSW this year, the best friend duo making a crowd of industry heads and diehard music fans fall to their knees with little more than two chords. The power is found in their simplicity, a band fascinated and driven by youth. For a debut, Before the World Was Big is a triumph. –Maria Sherman
Big Sean's not quite an album guy yet, and that doesn't matter. With the Kanye-featuring "All Your Fault," an extended version of "Paradise," the Drake-featuring "Blessings," and an outro that's too soulful to be any kind of afterthought, Detroit's most persistent rapper made his most respectable project yet. Also: "I Don't Fuck With You." Still. Forever. –Zach Dionne
Things looked different this time around for Death Cab for Cutie, with Kintsugi marking the last album with the outfit's longtime guitarist/producer. But the guys proved there's still much more to be heard from them with this album marking their most delightfully experimental yet, adding dreamy synths and loads of '80s influences into the mix. But fear not, hardcore Death Cab riders: Ben Gibbard's voice is still as comforting as ever and ties all the different directions together. –Jeff Benjamin
In many ways, All Time Low feel like an exception to the pop-punk paradigm: They've managed to stay relevant with subtle reinvention, penning songs and whole albums that feel familiar, but never the same as the last. A lot of it comes from the place they write from, a place of unabashed honesty. Future Hearts, and its singles "Something's Gotta Give" and "Kids in the Dark," reflect that. Frontman Alex Gaskarth told Fuse: "The idea of it is that we're all in this together. We can overcome all things together." –Maria Sherman
No one knew if the "No Flex Zone" and "No Type" kids from the ATL could sustain their anarchic energy for a full album, even if god producer Mike WiLL Made-It was producing basically the whole thing. And they did it. They totally did it. Nothing's as good as those singles, but cuts like "Lit Like Bic" and "Unlock the Swag" redefine what bangers look like in 2015, and "This Could Be Us" and "Safe Sex Pay Checks" reveal a nuanced, poppy side we didn't know the brothers possessed.
The biggest hip hop albums of 2015 have been Statements with Big Visions; SremmLife is the sound of pure, relistenable fun. –Zach Dionne
In 2011, Jazmine Sullivan, one of the most promising new voices with eight GRAMMY nominations under her belt already, announced that she was indefinitely leaving the music industry. Luckily that didn't last too long; Jazzy dropped her return to the scene with Reality Show at the top of the year. Like her last two (excellent) albums, Jazmine glides through different genres but lets her honest songwriting and emotive vocals be the star of the show. On "Mascara" (above) she playfully plays the role of a girl who refuses to leave the house without makeup in case she meets a man, while she has an Eartha Kitt moment on "Stupid Girls," delivering smart lyrics with a dramatic flair previously unheard in past LPs.
Jazmine, don't leave us ever again, okay? –Jeff Benjamin
Bronson's been a cameo king and a mixtape master for almost five years. But any good album is a bid to take things to the next level, and the Albanian, Jewish, jumbo Queens MC made the leap with grace and a grin. Mr. Wonderful is up there with To Pimp a Butterfly in terms of flavors, colors, and modes. It shuffles perfectly, and it plays front-to-back real nice. –Zach Dionne
As promised, Desaparecidos delivered a politically driven punk record that’s "louder, and angrier" than their debut release. Hitting social and economic issues fist-first, the band managed to create an album of singalong anthems catchier than their earlier work, but no less raw. Payola is exactly what we’ve been waiting for from the Omaha rockers, with Oberst’s familiar vocals paired with that addictive sense urgency that makes us feel as if we’re a part of something bigger then ourselves. –Rose Campbell
The experience of getting a surprise Lil Wayne mixtape—one that shades his label for holding his Carter V record hostage—was better than the experience of any other sudden album sneak attack in the first half of this year. The tracks Weezy picked to rap over are well chosen and fully torn up. There was a new Wayne/Drake track on par with their 2014 team-ups. And it featured a grab bag of new Tunechi lines we'll be carrying around for a long time. –Zach Dionne
When Smallpools dropped their self-titled debut EP back in 2013, they seemed to appear out of nowhere with a perfect four-song effort. We listened to those precious few tracks on repeat for over a year, sang along to “Dreaming” on the radio and impatiently waited for more.
Well, it was worth the wait. Lovetap is one of those cleverly flawless pop/rock records with catchy hooks and sing along choruses—yet it has enough substance that it’s not embarrassing to dance and sing along with. Well done Smallpools; you win. –Rose Campbell
You'd be hard pressed to find an album packed with more poppy goodness than Fifth Harmony's long-awaited debut LP. From Destiny's Child-ish empowerment anthems ("Worth It," "Brave Honest Beautiful," "BO$$") to glossy singalong-in-the-car jams ("This Is How We Roll," "Top Down," "Sledgehammer"), Reflection explores loads of different styles and each member's unique personality gets its shine on different tracks making 5H feel like five solo artists who came together for one bangin' record—a refreshing change-up from your usual girl group. –Jeff Benjamin
We're not sure what big, blue and beautiful thing Florence and her machine are referencing with their third studio album, but we're here for it. We were first given a mystifying tease of the title track before Flo and crew dropped "What Kind of Man," both tunes flirting with witchy delicacy and anger over a scorned lover. There's a reason Rihanna loves the English singer so much! –Maria Sherman
When they hit the K-pop scene in 2013, BTS was an underdog boy band touring a hardcore hip hop sound that at times was too aggressive and at other times felt too weak. But with the release of The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 1, the guys have created their most solid work to date and did so by finding an awesome balance. The album's intro opens with a dreamy production as member Suga gives an Eminem-like rap performance while lead single "I Need U" opens with lush synthesizers and soft coos before moving into it's explosive chorus. Is a Pt. 2 coming? Because we think the guys could break out even bigger with it. –Jeff Benjamin
While jokes about guitar-based music enter the forefront of cultural conversation, it's hard to be a rock band and relevant. More often than not, you have to pick one or the other...or, you know, you could be inventive, meaningful, and possess an admirable work ethic. So goes the tale of Massachusetts' Speedy Ortiz, who put out one of the best indie rock records of the year. Listen to "Raising the Skate" above and try not to get that "I'm not bossy I'm the boss" line stuck in your head. –Maria Sherman
Hey if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? Calvin Harris' signature EDM formula is to grab a superstar guest, let them handle the verses and chorus and then top it all off with a pounding, instrumental dance breakdown. He sticks to that throughout almost all of Motion and it still ends up sounding fresh thanks to the explorations of genres (Western-tinged strings on "Open Wide" with Big Sean, girl-power rock on HAIM collabo "Pray to God", soul-pop with "Blame" featuring John Newman). Along with Harris' expected electro-pop bangers (with other standouts featuring Ellie Goulding, Tinashe and Gwen Stefani), consider this the ultimate workout CD. –Jeff Benjamin
May the first half of 2015 be forever immortalized by the Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars collabo "Uptown Funk." The song was the stuff of unavoidable genius, and carries much of the weight of producer Ronson's fourth studio album Uptown Special. If you like the track, you'll love the album. It's that simple. –Maria Sherman