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Best of 2015

The 20 Best Albums of 2015

The music that matters: The Fuse staff picks 20 must-hear albums of the year

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In the streaming age, it's become a tougher and tougher sell for artists to make complete bodies of work instead of a collection of singles when it comes to their albums. But the following 20 records aren't important because of the individual songs within them: They beg to be digested in their entireties. 

From rock and rap to dance and K-pop, these are the albums we were listening to front-to-back again and again. Check out the Fuse staff’s picks for the 20 albums that mattered most in 2015, from A$AP to Adele.

Words from Jeff Benjamin, Zach Dionne, Jessica Letkemann, Jason Lipshutz, Maria Sherman and Mark Sundstrom

1 / 20

Kendrick Lamar, 'To Pimp a Butterfly'

Aftermath/Interscope

Kendrick Lamar could have made a sophomore album full of vociferous, "m.A.A.d city"-esque bangers; maybe he will someday, because he certainly has it in him. Until them, he is a student of the album as an art form, and storytelling as the essential component of music. To Pimp a Butterfly is angry, elusive, frantic, jazzy, provocative and personal, but more than anything, it is complete. To remove one song or change the track order would be to leave Kendrick’s message or disrupt a perfect balance. This album is 79 minutes long, and every one is essential.

Listening to To Pimp a Butterfly leads to a new question: How high can Kendrick Lamar now soar on a list of all-time musical artists? With two classic albums and ideas spilling out of his mouth to no end, the Compton MC has become one of the most indispensable artists of the decade, and is working toward creating a towering legacy. He may be interviewing his idol, Tupac Shakur, at the end of To Pimp a Butterfly, but in many ways Kendrick’s already surpassed him as a thinker and leader. Jason Lipshutz

2 / 20

Adele, '25'

XL/Columbia Records

A lot of people have written a lot of words in an effort to explain the eye-popping commercial success of Adele’s 25, but here’s a key detail when it comes to record-breaking sales: The album is usually really, really good! Presenting a wizened version of 21’s heartbreak and even more powerful vocal runs, 25 gives us a vulnerable world-conqueror who knows exactly the kind of song millions of people want to hear.—Jason Lipshutz

3 / 20

Carly Rae Jepsen, 'Emotion'

Interscope

Whether or not you knew it, Carly Rae Jepsen released one of 2012's best pop albums with Kiss in the midst of the "Call Me Maybe" mania. While that humongous single may have overshadowed the accompanying LP, by now hopefully listeners have realized this woman can make seriously great pop music. Emotion not only has addictive jams, but poignant lyrics and universal experiences to go along with it. Carly feels underapperciated ("All That"), is on the verge of self-actualization ("Your Type"), annoyed by her friends ("Boy Problems"), and is dealing with a whole range of emotions (natch) with which any listener can relate. Jeff Benjamin

4 / 20

Alabama Shakes, 'Sound & Color'

ATO Records

Alabama Shakes opened their second album with an dreamy prologue built around Brittany Howard's falsetto and backed by vivid strings and bells. It managed, in its lonesome, resilient narrative, to become one of the absolute best songs of the year. The rest of Sound & Color kept up, with thumpers like "Future People," "Shoegaze" and "Don't Wanna Fight" showing a wider palette than the safe-but-solid rock of their debut. Mind-blowing curveballs included "Gemini," a six-and-a half-minute piece sounding like Black Sabbath soundtrack a Western, and "Dunes," another falsetto-heavy experiment at the edges of the band's previous comfort zone. Hearing Howard successfully expand her range and ambition is the main draw, but the whole four-piece sounds scarily in sync as the forge ahead. Zach Dionne

5 / 20

Sleater-Kinney, 'No Cities to Love'

Sub Pop Records

Comeback records shouldn't sound this vital when there's absolutely nothing to prove. The members of Sleater-Kinney, 10 years removed from their last album and with their legacies in rock very secure, roared back to life with the most on-point guitar melodies and ferocious vocal performances in rock this year. More where this came from, please. —Jason Lipshutz

6 / 20

Rae Sremmurd, 'Sremmlife'

EarDrummers/Interscope Records

The word "unhinged" springs to mind when considering Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy, and the hedonistic kingdom they've created with Rae Sremmurd. That spontaneity breeds excitement: from the opening mumbles of "Lit Like Bic" to the trap party finale of "Sax Sex Pay Checks," SremmLife is unrelenting madness from a couple of wild and crazy guys (#NoSNL, though). —Jason Lipshutz

7 / 20

Jazmine Sullivan, 'Reality Show'

RCA Records

Jazmine Sullivan has never let us down. Her 2008 debut Fearless was a bold and fun album that introduced the world to the then-21 year old's unique mix of stirring soul and tongue-in-cheek songwriting. Her great 2010 follow-up Love Me Back definitely showed signs of growth, both in the singer's sound and lyrical content. Then, it all stopped. For personal reasons (which we now know was a problematic relationship), Jaz announced via Twitter that she was taking a hiatus from the music biz. Years went by and fans were increasingly nervous we'd never hear another note from our soul siren. But five years later, Jazmine returned with this year's Reality Show. It was worth the wait. On Reality Show, Jazmine is (of course) still singing her face off and demonstrating her near-perfect vocal control and dynamic, but the focus here is really her songwriting.

Sullivan has always written her songs, but on Reality Show she goes beyond the expected love and breakup songs R&B is famous for, and really creates something intriguing. On this album, Jazmine upped the bar for herself, writing and singing from the point of views of a diverse set of characters interacting in highly detailed worlds and situations. Upon first listen "Mascara" sounds sexy and seductive, but below the surface the lyrics reveal something a bit darker: Jazmine sings in first-person as a seductive femme fatale who is seemingly confident, but may also be quite insecure under the makeup and bravado. Jazmine never judges or labels these characters—she becomes them and invites you into their world, for better or worse. Another highlight is "Brand New" where Jazmine's storytelling allows the listener to envision another set of characters and their history.

Other favorites on Reality Show include the nostalgic, '80s-inspired R&B jam "Let It Burn," which we named one of the 20 Best Songs of 2015; the jittery, hand-clapping tell off "Stanley" with A+ production from Da Internz; and "Stupid Girl," a first-person cautionary tale of falling too hard for an undeserving man, produced by Philly's Dilemma with JoeLogic and Matt Wong. Mark Sundstrom

8 / 20

Tame Impala, 'Currents'

Interscope Records

The things that come out of Tame Impala songwriter and frontman Kevin Parker's brain always manage to stun. But kicking off a still-early-in-the-career album with an eight-minute odyssey of blippy synths and an orchestra from hell was a quantum leap. "Let It Happen" gave way to 12 more retro-gone-modern songs having a blast with their hallucinogenic nature. Newly personal lyrics from Parker on songs like "Cause I'm a Man," "Love/Paranoia" and "New Person, Same Old Mistakes" gave Currents as much emotional heft as replay value. —Zach Dionne

9 / 20

Drake, 'If You're Reading This It's Too Late'

Cash Money Records Inc.

Moody, Brooding Drake was out in full force on this surprise release, but Experimental Drake also showed up to make this one of his best full-lengths to date. From the viscous Toronto ode "Know Yourself" to the ultra-cocky "6 God" to the meditative final two songs, If You're Reading This It's Too Late depicted a Drake In Transition ahead of Views From the 6 (which we’re still waiting on, sadly). —Jason Lipshutz

10 / 20

Courtney Barnett, 'Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit'

Mom + Pop Music/Marathon Artists/Milk!

That 10-word album title perfectly encapsulates Courtney Barnett’s appeal: The Australian rock savant can be sardonic, but she’s also as down-to-earth as anyone in the genre. Throughout her remarkable debut album, Barnett turns common occurrences into fantastical journeys, positing herself as “normal” while showcasing an otherworldly writing gift. Releasing a debut album this well-rounded and original seems unfair to other artists, but exhilarating for fans. —Jason Lipshutz

11 / 20

Erykah Badu, 'But You Caint Use My Phone'

Motown Records

Ms. Badu's first set since 2010's New Amerykah Part Two is a commercially distributed mixtape recorded in 12 days in producer Zac Witness' Dallas home. Though the six-and-a-half-minute take on Drake's “Hotline Bling”—archly repositioned as “Cel U Lar Device”—is the initial draw, the entire 11-track project sits together as tightly as anything in 2015. The closing duet with André 3000—the father of Badu’s 18-year-old son, Seven—gives Adele a run for her money in the Best New Song Called "Hello" Department. —Zach Dionne

12 / 20

Years & Years, 'Communion'

Polydor/Interscope Records

Years & Years are the London-based electro-pop trio that tackles darker subjects like loneliness and heartbreak with powerful vocals and triumphant productions that essentially make one dance any pain away. The lyrics of debut LP Communion are melancholy (breakout single "Kings" details: "I was a king under your control, and I want to feel like you've let me go"), but there isn't room for moping around with lush compositions like these. —Jeff Benjamin

13 / 20

Future, 'DS2'

Epic

Things the first song on Dirty Sprite 2 avidly celebrates: Using a woman to smuggle drugs; drinking so much Styrofoam-cupped, codeine-laced soda that your pee turns purple; reveling in having "just fucked your bitch in Gucci flip-flops." It's shockingly grimy and never pretends to be anything else. Future fights his past and present demons with 24/7 studio time, rampant empty sex and dangerously steady substance use, declaring "gave up on my conscience, gotta live with it." DS2 capped a year that saw the antihero drop an off-brand, radio-thirsty album, have a son with Ciara, split from the diva and drop three rich mixtapes. It was as fascinating as Breaking Bad and as sonically addictive as anything in music, moral implications be damned. Star-making turns from regular Future producers Southside and Metro Boomin (just 21 years old at the time), plus the glory that is "Fuck Up Some Commas," made it a record we'll come back to for years. —Zach Dionne

14 / 20

A$AP Rocky, 'At.Long.Last.A$AP'

ASAP Worldwide

In 2015, the hip hop game's vibrancy and strength has been evident since Rae Sremmurd set the scene in January. A big part of what made it all so thrilling was how individualistic almost every major rapper's record was. A$AP Rocky's At.Long.Last.A$AP, god-name alias A.L.L.A., was up there with Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly as a sequestered work of omnivorous art centering around one young virtuoso. The sound on A$AP's sophomore album is ridiculously cohesive, cloaked in haze, drowning in psychotropic substances and as sneakily fun-loving as it is nakedly dark. It makes a star of Joe Fox, a previously unknown, at-the-time homeless London kid found busking with an acoustic late one night by the studio. The ingredients guide the guest stars—aces like FutureM.I.A.Lil WayneKanye WestMiguel and Rod effin' Stewart—toward performances that wouldn't and couldn't exist anywhere else this year. —Zach Dionne

15 / 20

Justin Bieber, 'Purpose'

Justin Bieber (@justinbieber on Twitter)

To secure relevancy in an ever-changing pop music climate, young talents are forced to reinvent. If you drop a record a year, you better ensure there's some clear-cut progression in not a lot of time. For Justin Bieber, his return to the spotlight wasn't forced. In interviews, the guy sites God, Skrillex and Diplo as main inspirations: He found himself after years of delinquency, he found other talents willing to channel that pain into something great. "Sorry," "Where Are U Now" and "What Do You Mean?" were not only some of the biggest singles of the year, they were some of the biggest singles in Bieb's career. Within a year, he managed to make everyone fall in love with him and the only other dudes to do that sad boy thing as well are probably Drake and Ed Sheeran; but none of them have a Purpose under the belt. All hail King Justin. Maria Sherman

16 / 20

Marina & The Diamonds, 'Froot'

On the surface, Marina & The Diamonds' Froot is a breakup album, but a deeper dive reveals the LP to be a musical journey of self-discovery. Marina admits that she should call her friends more often, has sex to feel less alone and gets drunk by herself. Before all that, she kicks off the album by declaring, "I have found a way to be happy" on the gorgeous album opener "Happy." The most impressive detail of Froot—a detail that too few people are talking about—is how she wrote the album entirely on her own, which is remarkable in today's pop world. —Jeff Benjamin

17 / 20

Songhoy Blues, 'Music in Exile'

Atlantic Records

Exuberant, intricate, ass-moving rock 'n' roll with a hot guitar and all the emotion in the world transcends language and nation. Witness Malian four-piece Songhoy Blues following a stint opening for Alabama Shakes by packing jaded New Yorkers into the club Mercury Lounge this fall and turning it into a sweaty, joyous party. They thread that experience into every second of the 11 tracks on their debut Music in Exile—a marriage of American blues-rock and African rhythmic accents spiked with raw human feeling from defiance and hurt to happiness and ecstasy. The life this band has lived—fleeing Mali in the face of extremists who banned music —is infused into the album, but the ultimate emotion it leaves you with is positive. "The only message we want is one of unity and joy," bassist Oumar Touré told PRI. Jessica Letkemann

18 / 20

Wonder Girls, 'Reboot'

JYP Entertainment

Wonder Girls became a sensation in South Korea—and even earned a hit single in America—with tunes that brought back the sounds of the '50s and '60s in the catchiest way possible. After years on hiatus and a few member switch-ups (original members Sun and Sohee left while previously departed singer Sunmi returned), the group made their comeback with the '80s-inspired Reboot. The album recalled all aspects of the decade of music, from Madonna-esque pop tunes ("I Feel You," "Candle," "Baby Don't Play") to Pet Shop Boys-esque synth-dance ("Loved," "One Black Night") and even the early (cheesy!) days of hip-hop ("Back"). It wasn't just a successful K-pop comeback, but proved the strength of Wonder Girls' initial concept: They're still a throwback group, but have shifted the focus for further domination. —Jeff Benjamin

19 / 20

Big Sean, 'Dark Sky Paradise'

On the intro to his "I Don't Fuck With You"–led third album, Big Sean rolls his eyes at how "I guess it took 10 years for me to be an overnight success." He's right to be frustrated, but he's also right to be upfront about it, as this is his first record that demands to be heard front to back (with the exception of a couple fast-forward moments in its 50-minute running time). Mentor and G.O.O.D. Music label leader Kanye West drops vocals on three tracks—including "Blessings," alongside Drake—and production work on two. The masterfully selected bench also features Lil Wayne and DJ Mustard plus melodic boosts from John LegendChris BrownJhené Aiko and Ty Dolla $ign. That's all background, though, to Sean's sprinting-toward-the-finish-line flows on explosive cuts like "Paradise," "All Your Fault" and the soul-oozing "Outro." And with lines like "Hit the beat and kerosene it / Scratch that, I white sheet it," there's still no denying Sean's place in the modern canon. —Zach Dionne

20 / 20

Grimes, 'Art Angels'

Grimes (@actuallygrimes on Instagram)

Popular music tends to create spaces for its artists: We can only have one type of thing at a time. No one alerted Grimes to the trope. In the beginning, Grimes was known as some incredible art freak genius from Montreal, operating under crazy production and quiet vocals. She'd whisper-cry; she wouldn't enunciate, but those days feel like a distant past. If anything, her desire to push boundaries of her creation has only expanded. "Flesh Without Blood" is a driving pop-rock single of real resonance, "Scream" is an almost unlistenable tune of asymmetry, and album closer "Butterfly" is essentially a feminist anthem: "I'll never be your dream girl," she sings. If it's a message to the listener, it's a clear one: She'll never be our dream girl, because she's on another planet. It just so happens that she'll invite us to orbit every once in a while. —Maria Sherman

Below, check out Fuse's roundup of artists sharing their favorite albums of 2015:

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