The Best Albums of 2015

We may be wrong but I doubt it.
By    December 20, 2015

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 * D’Angelo – Black Messiah

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As far as I’m concerned, Black Messiah is a Christmas Madeleine, an album inextricably linked to the memory of its moment. Its sudden release in the wake of the Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo acquittals, came ten days before Christmas, following a 14-year hiatus. For me, this means it will live on as an end-of-the year classic.

It’s not often that you get to write with an entire year to digest an album — to live with it and to gain a modicum of perspective. And I can confidently say a year later Black Messiah is a worthy successor to Voodoo, while maintaining its independence and originality as a standalone masterwork. Like one of those holiday classics on cable, you can jump in at anytime and follow it to its conclusion.

It’s a seamless cipher. It’s an an album specific to that moment of state executions of black men, and will be sadly universal for the foreseeable future. It’s a  sentiment the original Black Messiahs could relate to in the late 60s and early 70s, but also one for appalled Americans in 2015 who have to live with hate mongers carrying 35% of a presidential primary, and sitting Supreme Court justices who believe minorities are better off at inferior universities.

Black Messiah is the struggle to reconcile this unbearable reality — at once confrontational (“1000 Deaths”) and escapist (The record’s “Que Sera”, “Back to the Future (Part 1)”). It’s an album about survival by any means necessary. It remains one of this century’s greatest, nothing short of a miracle. –  Abe Beame

* Jeremih – Late Nights

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There are only a couple ways Jeremih could’ve aged out of the adolescent phase of his career. He could’ve become the guy who doubled down on the success of his hit single and marketed “Birthday Sex” artisanal cupcakes to hipsters. Or he could just as easily have jumped the TumblR&B bandwagon as the genre’s elder statesman and done a world tour opening for Jhene “the human healing crystal” Aiko. Instead, he decided to buck every trend and take the most complicated route to R&B success in 2015: making R&B.

The fact that R&B has been going through growing pains for at least the last five years is the music industry’s worst-kept secret. It’s a genre that’s being run by at least four Drake derivatives desperately trying to unionize the industry plants and consolidate their power. Jeremih making an album stocked with potential hit singles not manufactured by label execs seems like the stupidest gamble imaginable. 

Late Nights: The Album is Jeremih flexing, relentlessly belting out hit after hit for an empty room. In a just world “Planez” (sans J. Cole), “Pass Dat,” “Impatient,” “Oui,” “Royalty,” or “Paradise” could keep a lesser artist’s career sustained for at least half a decade. Late Nights: The Album is the sound of an artist reaching his full artistic potential, if not his commercial peak. There are worse ways to age in music than attaining a level of cult status, but it’d be nice if a guy as talented as Jeremih wasn’t singing to himself. — DAN FROM THE INTERNET

50. Toy Light – Sightless, Unless / Versis – Copeaesthetic

versis toy light

The east coast assertion that L.A. is culturally bereft just isn’t true. It wasn’t true when Woody derided the inconsistency of the city’s architecture, and it wasn’t true when Troy Ave flopped. Every artistic arena in the land of women, weed, and weather is flush with talent, but the surfeit of music made here each year is proof enough. Paradoxically, this is also the reason that so many skilled and innovative musicians are undiscovered or poorly covered. Toy Light and Versis, both young and immeasurably gifted L.A. denizens, are in the latter camp. We continually try to rectify that.

Toy Light (Walker Ashby), a Bay Area-bred 23-year-old and graduate of UCLA’s art program, could’ve had a career in painting or photography (he still might). Instead, he became enamored with the subharmonic frequencies that melt walls at Low End Theory. His Alpha Pup debut, Sightless, Unless, ranks among the best music cultivated in the still vibrant beat scene. His Yorkeian falsetto cuts through every the layer of his dense suites, imbuing each with the immediacy and fractured humanity often lost to the repetition of ear-bleeding bass and surreal time signatures. The lines between analog and digital music are blurred beyond recognition.

Ashby synthesizes his influences rather than stealing from them. There are shades of Burial, Trent Reznor, FlyLo, and Radiohead, but never full-color facsimile. Really, the album is a meditation on the incubation of the artist, the internal negotiation of influences and one’s past necessary for the birth of art never seen before.

Copeæsthetic, the independently released and largely self-produced follow-up to Versis’ 2010 debut (iLLCANDESCENT), is an album equally preoccupied with the genesis of art. Rather, it’s intent on negating all thoughts that might deter one from doing so. Paeans for the present evade the shallowness of the “live in the moment” cliche, giving it the depth it always seems to lack elsewhere. The end goal is pursued in spite of self-doubt. This is what happens when complacency is acknowledged, combatted, and beaten.

Sonically, Copeæsthetic is contemporary rap for Native Tongues purists. The booms and baps will knock your Jansport loose, but they are tempered by moody and modern jazz-inflected instrumentation. The production, when combined with Versis’ warm and relaxed delivery, is best for L.A.’s scarce gray days. Though the album’s greatest strength lies in its brevity. This is rap as microfiction. Each word has been worried over. Each song has been distilled to its most essential. Everything feels purposeful, not belabored. In the era where bloated, messy, and undercooked “concept” albums are unanimously lauded, it’s refreshing to hear a rapper who’s taken the hours to figure out exactly how many minutes he needs to convey his message. –MAX BELL

 

49. Oddisee – The Good Fight

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It’s not hard for an album like Oddisee’s The Good Life to get lost. When a no-frills rap record that feels beamed in directly from a different era is unleashed in an environment that thrives on hype and cult of personality, it can sometimes feel too lost, too foreign. But that’s how Oddisee often feels as well: out of place, out of time, disenfranchised. Songs like “Counterclockwise” and “First Choice” have the simple beauty of an era that’s now long gone, but the album’s underlying themes are—if not eternal—decidedly modern. Oddisee’s focus oscillates in and out, from the tangled cultural threads of Washington, D.C. to the experience of the African immigrant family in America. –DOC ZEUS

48. Mdou Moctar – Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazhougi OST

Mdou Moctar

Tuareg guitar music has come a long way since it was first pioneered in the 1980s–and Christopher Kirkley of the label Sahel Sounds certainly makes that clear in Akounak. A low-budget homage to Prince’s Purple Rain set in the West African nation of Niger, this epically titled movie (which translates to “Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It”) stars the Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar as a velvet-robed version of himself: a working musician and aspiring star, shooting for fame on the frontier of the Sahara.

Older Tuareg guitarists honed their music while living in exile and fighting in armed rebellions. Moctar has done nothing of the sort. He’s basically a pop artist—a cool-headed, occasionally goofy sweetheart who sings plaintive melodies, pulls of epic solos on his electric guitar, and has occasionally resorted to the use of auto-tune to expand the reach of his message. There’s no pitch-correction on the official Akounak soundtrack, though. A collection of slick studio recordings with one acoustic folk strummer thrown in (the lovely “Tahoultine”), the album shows Moctar aiming straight for the heart, dishing out evocative poetry in the Tuareg language of Tamashek while backed up by the thumping, galloping beat that’s central to the guitar style popular in Agadez. Needless to say, Moctar’s similarities with the actual Purple One are tenuous at best. But he’ll still win you over with a cosmic charm. — PETER HOLSLIN

47. Red Pill – Look What This World Did To Us

Red Pill

Look What This World Did to Us is on its surface a breakup album, but it’s really more of a rap Lost Weekend. It sounds like a hangover. This is what I imagine depression feels like for most people: not suicidal, just bored and generally bummed out.

Charles Bukowski and Louis C.K. are cited as influences for this album, and Red Pill nails it. If there’s any argument to be made for the continued relevance of angry-solitary-young-men writers like Bukowski, John Fante, and Charles Jackson, it’s that people like Red Pill still exist. He’s an overeducated Michigan native who lives in a shitty apartment and works in a factory. White people problems? For sure, and that’s a reason there are so few worthwhile white rappers, and fewer albums like this one. Fortunately, Red Pill doesn’t take himself so seriously. “I’m more Eeyore than Christian Dior,” he winks on “Rap Game Cranky.”

It’s an album of cigarettes, text messages, and sitting in rooms with the shades down. Any semblance of brightness reeks of sarcasm, like the lively piano cadence on “That’s Okay” and the dreamy vocal samples on “Smoke Rings” and “Drown.”

On the title track, Pill emerges from his fog for four minutes of righteous anger, including the record’s sole acknowledgement that his drinking may be a problem. Sequenced as the penultimate song, it casts a retrospective clarity upon the ten tracks which precede it. Of course, the closer “Ten Year Party” finds him throwing back daiquiris with a gloomy shrug. — PETE TOSIELLO

46. Floating Points – Elaenia

Floating Points

Some criticised Elaenia for being anticlimactic and slight. But anyone who has followed Floating Points since his more club-inspired early work will get it: this is the culmination of a long, slow shift towards a more cerebral beat music, with live instrumentation at its centre.

Sam Shepherd is by this point woven tightly into the narrative of British dance music: son of a Manchester vicar, semi-prodigy (and best bud) of Four Tet, renowned Plastic People resident. And it would be easy to describe Elaenia’s touchstones in those UK sort of terms—4Hero on one of their chamber jazz trips. Cinematic Orchestra if Jason Swinscoe had taken what he’d learnt to the dance floor (rather than whiskey commercials). Adam Curtis documentaries in spiritual jazz form.

But Floating Points is elusive. You could imagine Shepherd slipping in easily next to American west coasters like Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, or Austin Peralta. There’s a restless experimentation that keeps him feeling vital and progressive. And that’s the only problem with an album as good as Elaenia: it finally slaps a stake in the ground, producing something as singular as this will be all the harder the second time around. — MATT SHEA

45. High Tides – High Tides

High Tides

Most analogies to High Tides dive into oceanic territory: gentle waves climbing up the coast, a breeze carrying Pacific saltiness to your lip. That’s all well and good, because the former Red Falcons Projects duo do sound like a day at the beach—but only after a Piña Colada and the gentle haze of native indica creep into your periphery. Sure, work started up again yesterday. As far as they’re concerned? The weekend just got a little longer.

The eponymous debut comes with no baggage, no demands. “Blurring My Day (High Tides Version)” is the sound of every movie made between ‘84 and ’94 fading into credits. “Coastal Cruise 86’” feels like the moment a lavender pink sunset refracts through the windshield of your Thunderbird. Their brand is as much a sensation as sound, synesthesia and pineapple juice put on wax. Nothing to steal your attention from your chosen distractions, no one to inquire the whereabouts of your TPS reports. High Tides is the feeling of having nothing pressing at hand but 42 minutes of being sun kissed in a lounge chair.THOMAS JOHNSON

44. Junglepussy – Pregnant With Success

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On Pregnant With Success Junglepussy again lays a strong claim to being the best New York rapper under 30. While many of her contemporaries are either too hung up on the city’s past or simply copy other locales for new inspiration, Junglepussy is a carving her own niche that is mindful of classic New York sounds, forward thinking and deeply personal all at once. Traces of Lil Kim, Cam’ron and other city stalwarts are clearly in her artistic DNA, evident in her mix of playfully braggadocios wordplay and brash unapologetic sexuality. Yet she rarely, if ever, goes out of her way to pay explicit homage to that heritage. Instead she uses it as a foundation for her own unique style and identity.

The topic of relationships comes up often in her music, serving as a lens through which Junglepussy reveals the nuances of her complex persona. The failings of past engagements are presented with direct honesty but without bitterness. She doles out constructive critiques with biting humor and makes strong suggestions for future improvements that she expects to be heeded, or else. As a thoroughly modern feminist she is well aware of her worth, and is not afraid to ask for it from her prospective partners (or from the universe at large). Her expansive appetites range from fresh vegetables, good sex and trips to the zoo, to Fendi boots and Uber helicopters.

Even if not all of them are meant literally, the items on her ‘picky bitch checklist’ are not just empty jokes or capricious demands. They are tenets of a personal philosophy that deftly intertwines material and spiritual needs. This is who she is, these the kinds of things that make her feel happy and fulfilled and allow her to be her best self.

An unabashed romantic, Junglepussy truly believes that she can find someone willing to give them to her, and she is willing to give equally in return, to create a true parity. But if that doesn’t work out, well… shes more than capable of getting them for herself. After all, self-care is pretty high on her list of priorities too..  — ALEX PIYEVSKY

43. Vic Spencer – Cost of Victory

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Vic Spencer is more than his trash talk. Not that Chicago’s proudest curmudgeon doesn’t relish in throwing meticulous shade—on this project he compares whack rappers to “bed bugs,” “snaggletooth hypes,” “White Castle sliders,” and “gordon setter” dogs—but to act like his biggest moment of the year was calling Mick Jenkins a piñata ignores the ugly wounded glory of Cost of Victory. This is the 34-year-old’s best album, brooding and hilarious raps-as-therapy that cut himself as deep as they do his enemies, clouded in smoke from joints rolled with a bum on the red line.

Vic is the first to laugh at his age. In that cackling sneer, over dank back-alley soul loops, he compares himself to a Sony Walkman and “the gray spot on the head of Rasheed Wallace.” He still uses CD-Rom. His flows are “darker than prune juice.” He’s got “one foot in the grave, the other on the banana peeling.” Vic knows writing 90s boom-bap, fashioning himself the midwest heir to the late Sean Price (who shows up on “Jungle Gym” name-dropping Lou Ferrigno and Teddy Pendergrass, offering victims the option of a knife or a gun), makes him an industry political prisoner. This isn’t revivalism. It’s self-aware “Old Man Yells At Cloud.” After addict parents, his grandma’s diabetes, his aunt abusing his foster care for money, teen years spent in group homes, missing the SAVEMONEY wave, and the birth of two daughters, becoming an old fart is an accomplishment.

Still, the world is grounds for dark sarcasm. To “spit on a blind nigga and tell him that it’s raining” is crude, but less so than what Vic sees all around him: a dude who doesn’t look hungry sticking his head in a garbage can; a friend who loads guns while listening to R&B; youngins hooping on cracked concrete next to old folks coughing up rocks. “Licked my elbows ‘cause they was ashy/An ugly lost kid who found his soul in the trash,” he says on the closer, a teary ode to his grandma’s house. The line is both joke and boast, a crass image full of pride. The album is the year’s best black comedy.- TOSTEN BURKS

42. Nosaj Thing – Fated

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In some ways, Nosaj Thing feels like a last man standing. Flying Lotus has careened off into maximalist jazz. Shlohmo went the other way, gutting his sound to a point where it wasn’t really his anymore. Ras G’s output remains intermittent, Daedalus is as restless as ever. The L.A. beat scene that began with Sketchbook and at one point seemed destined to soak its way into rap music proper is, in 2015, relatively calm.

But not Jason Chung. And it makes sense when you remember he’s been releasing music for almost ten years now. Either way, keeping his restraint intact has allowed the songwriting to eventually come to him, and on Fated it finally matches the mood.

Not that that’s immediately obvious. You don’t exactly dig into a Nosaj Thing record to find the songs—you have to wait for them to come find you. When they do, the rewards are spectacular. There’s “Light 5” and its banks of synths and pattering percussion, or “2k”’s all-encompassing vocal patterns that roll in like a tropical storm. And in a year when Chance the Rapper featured on just about everything, it was Chung who got the best results (that “Baby Blue” verse included) on “Cold Stares.”

A strangely underrated album in some quarters, maybe Chung’s music doesn’t shout enough about its own brilliance for a 2015 audience. But if you can’t stick with Fated to discover its wealth of hidden riches, there’s something wrong with you, not Nosaj Thing. — MATT SHEA

41. Nadastrom – Nadastrom LP

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I have nothing against moombahton. The dance genre that Dave Nada inadvertently spawned in 2009 was in many ways ridiculously over-the-top, but those slowed-down beats were pretty damn sexy, too. But life goes on. Hype fades. There are insects that have longer lifespans than some dance music trends, and Nada and his cohort Matt Nordstrom did a wise thing on their full-length debut—cresting on the moombah fame while veering off from the moombah sound, conjuring grooves that aren’t designed for nightclub ass-shaking so much as headphones musings and late-night trysts.

The first thing you notice is the production itself. This is an album that could only have been made by musicians who love sound; every synth riff, every filter sweep, every slice of the hi-hat sounds like it came as the result of a deep tissue massage. The sensuous BPMs of Nada’s previous invention are still in play on this self-titled effort, but the duo sets a moodier vibe with minimal techno beats, meditative bass-lines, slow-horizon harmonics and a lot of open space in the mix. Singers like RYAT and Jesse Boykins III also add their crystalline voices to the proceedings. The effect is immediate. It’s an album that leaves you short of breath, and wanting more. — PETER HOLSLIN 

40. Action Bronson – Mr. Wonderful

Action Bronson

Action Bronson is the ultimate misfit, a Flushing, Queens rapper with an appearance somewhere between high school janitor and professional wrestler. And yet he has the swagger of half a Summer Jam lineup. His shtick is a caricature of a New York City rapper constantly inventing new levels of absurdity. Or so it was. So-called “debut” albums by established rappers often flounder under the weight of commercial and critical expectations. It’s not hard to imagine Mr. Wonderful turning out like a latter day Simpsons episode, with the charm and jokes exhausted by time and a relentless pace. The album is supposed to bigger and better than the mixtapes, videos, and internet hype.

But for his biggest project thus far, Action Bronson aims higher than Hot 97. Motifs on Mr. Wonderful include blues, hair metal, Billy Joel pop-rock, Easy Rider–basically any garish 70-80s Americana that Bronson can adapt to his routine. “Baby Blue” with Mark Ronson is a remarkably sweet pop ballad for a guy who used to be the lesser-known rapper on a Statik Selektah track. Bronson’s new stature allows more ridiculous boasts and taunts. A sample: “At the piano with a glass of Pinot/ All red silk like I’m Nino/ Custom-made shit, I weigh 140 kilos.” On Mr. Wonderful, Bronson transcends the misfit rapper to become the misfit rockstar. But he’s still an excellent rapper.  Evan Nabavian

39. Busdriver – Thumbs

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Busdriver’s dense, intricately-crafted raps have never been easily digestible, but Thumbs finds the Los Angeles underground legend honing his abstract approach for a slick, stripped-down effort on one of the best-developed projects in his 15 year career. No less complex or heady than past material, the new set nevertheless coaxes the close listens that are necessary to fully appreciate Driver’s work. The slow flows, the poignant irony, the palatably smooth production. Sidechain synth washes meet jazz samples and straight-forward drum machine slaps, allowing Busdriver’s occasionally spastic strings of rhymes to fit comfortably along the smoothness of features from the likes of Anderson .Paak, Del the Funky Homosapien, and Jeremiah Jae.

Expanding on the concepts of cultural and economic homogenization that sprouted throughout last year’s excellent Perfect Hair, Driver is less arcane and more direct in expressing modern labor, racism, and police brutality (for instance, “Ministry of the Torture Couch” gradually develops into a repetition of the phrase “Fuck a cop, fuck a cop/ I’m ready to drop a cop”), and at times he’s able to hit better-realized poppy feel-good jams than he’s ever executed (“MUCH,” “Worlds To Run”). Thanks to a steadily-evolving style, Busdriver’s frenetic, idea-rich work has found a rejuvenated energy in Thumbs, which manages to better communicate his political and artistic understandings without losing his impeccable bombastic spark. — JACK SPENCER

 

38. Dr. Dre – Compton

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The Compton Andre Young grew up in was corroded by the corrupt LAPD, gun violence, and the pernicious sense of nihilism those conditions brought. These problems persist 30 years later. The neighborhood’s overcast with fatality and futility, yet it’s still remained fertile for creativity. Young’s transformation into the legend Dr. Dre is a well-tread story; the man built a style that’s still an active DNA strand in 2015.

What’s going to be another well-tread story is the improbability of Compton. This was a project coming from a 50-year-old brand whose prior Detox singles inspired little confidence. However, Compton turned out to be a cross-generational, wide-lens look at its namesake city, where stars are still born and bred. It weaves through chest-beating id (“Talk About It” with King Mez and Justus) to the classicist street reports. The album shines in the latter; Kendrick Lamar frenetically weaves between metaphorical and physical language (especially on “Deep Water”) and Anderson .Paak beautifully proses on black humanity on “Animals.” Even though it was slightly bloated, Compton was one of the few times in 2015 where we collectively put aside our cynicism: We’re listening to a good Dre album in 2015.

Dr. Dre’s (presumably) final album ends with him earnestly and tidily reminiscing on “Talking to My Diary,” where he brings it full circle by recalling N.W.A before the book closes. Months later, Dre would end up in the public’s crosshairs for his misogynistic and abusive past. Compton shows a lineage of innovation and perseverance. It’s a strong enough foundation on which to say we can’t make those kinds of mistakes anymore. — BRIAN JOSEPHS

37. XL Middleton – Tap Water

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Alright, L.A., the rest of us get it.  There’s clearly something in the water as you’ve become an embarrassment of musical riches to the rest of the world.  Beat scene?  Yep, got that covered with Flying Lotus, Nosaj Thing, and the Low End Theory. Jazz cats? Well, Kamasi Washington and his crew have almost singlehandedly breathed new commercial interest into the genre. And now if you want to commune with the Mother Ship, you’ve got the funk angle covered, too. With folks like Dam-Funk leading the way for funkateers worldwide, local Angelean XL Middleton put his stank on the one with Tap Water, on his own MoFunk label. 

As with all great works, XL finds the middle ground between paying respect to what came before while adding his own indelible mark to the finished product.  An amalgam of roller disco keyboards, Roger Troutman vox box, Bootsy Collins basslines, Rick James sensibilities, Brides of Funkenstein vocals, and G-Funk grooves, the resultant stew is cosmic slop of the highest order. As with all things funky, there’s a rubber band attitude throughout, bouncing from the galactic boogie of tracks like “Bumpin'” to the bedroom back end of “You Know It’s True,” featuring Diamond Oritz.If there was a better case of using the past to move forward, you’ll have to come find me in the stratosphere. — CHRIS DALY

36. Ty Dolla $ign – Free TC

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Free TC is proof that Ty Dolla $ign is the alpha and omega (never beta), the One To Bring Balance To The R&B Force. He’s a sex-crazed Soulquarian, the type of dude to dick you down then cover Erykah Badu’s “In Love With You” on his acoustic guitar while smoking a blunt that he’d had hidden in his dreads the entire time. But between the fun stuff like the Ibiza-leaning “Bring It Out of Me” and “Horses In The Stable,” which challenges Future’s “Codeine Crazy” as modern hip-hop’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”-ian Ultimate Powerballad, there are Ty’s conversations with his incarcerated brother TC, whose vicarious joy that someone from his family has finally made it is palpable. 20 years from now we’re going to look back at this record and say “Holy shit, we did not deserve Ty Dolla $ign.” In conclusion: If you don’t like this album, fuck you. — DREW MILLARD 

35. Rae Sremmurd –  Sremmlife

rae sremmurd

I was in the audience when Rae Sremmurd’s hype died.

It’s a rainy Wednesday night in Austin, Texas during South by Southwest. I go to the Empire Garage and Control Room to see Dipset’s reunion, but arrive hours ahead of time to make sure I won’t miss anything special. (It’s a Boiler Room show, after all, albeit one in 2015.) The owner of the venue meets me outside. We watch the tail end of BadBadNotGood performing with Ghostface Killah and chat about the party I’ll be having there later in the week. He’s an older head, and hasn’t heard of the next act, Rae Sremmurd. Rather than trying to explain, I hum “No Type,” and he nods with recognition.

Released in January, Rae Sremmurd’s Sremmlife is an 11-track manifesto to youth. Every song is tight and bouncy, each hook crafted with Clear Channel in the foreground. Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy revel in (and continually point at) their internet-born lingo: “Lit Like Bic,” “Unlock the Swag,” “This Could Be Us,” “Up Like Trump,” “Throw Sum Mo,” and the other phrases are repeated ad nauseum with ever-increasing energy and polish. If these songs don’t get stuck in your head, you’re an alien.

But when the youthful duo take the stage, the crowd’s anticipation looming over their sinewy, shirtless bodies, they can’t deliver. Fans squash to the front to sing along. Swae and Slim jump up and down, point their mics to the crowd, and occasionally rap over a deafening backing track. Though the set isn’t long enough for people to lose interest entirely (you’d be insane for abandoning your post before Freddie Gibbs), the air after they left the stage is thick with disappointment. It’s the first of a half-dozen SXSW sets for Rae Sremmurd, but it’s the last one with any mystique. By Friday night at the Hype Hotel, it was safe to say that Rae Sremmurd had peaked. But maybe that’s fine. — HALEY POTIKER

34. Royal Headache – High

royal headache

“My hair was wild, my social life was poor.” So roars Royal Headache lead singer Shogun (yeah, he only goes by one name) on High opener “My Own Fantasy.” It, without knowing what ‘it’ is, exactly, has never been so poignantly opined. High is Royal Headache’s sophomore effort, and the record is full of these dollar store aphorisms. “You’re not punk, you’re just scum…You’re garbage,” he sings on the aptly titled “Garbage.” These are punk maxims for the age of disillusionment. High, though, is more versatile than a punk record ought to be. But Royal Headache doesn’t seem interested in being any sort of band you want them to be. The title track is a steadfast look at the road one falls down when a relationship is sustained by substances, not substance. “Carolina” is a bonafide stadium anthem, with shimmering acoustic guitars and star-crossed melodies. Album closer “Electric Shock” is an absolute burner, and the champion of The Dirty 30. Quite the honor.

Rock music isn’t particularly groundbreaking these days, and that’s okay. What makes Royal Headache unique is that the band is both fascinated by and ambivalent towards the history they encounter. Big Star and The Replacements are sonic touchstones, and Royal Headache unabashedly match the former’s ability to craft smart, memorable hooks with the sneering edge of the latter. That’s rare for any band in any era to accomplish. Often times good rock music sends you back to the music you know best, the stuff you grew up on. Perhaps the highest praise I can hurl towards Royal Headache is that listening to High makes me want to listen to High and nothing else. — WILL SCHUBE

33. Boosie Badazz – Touch Down 2 Cause Hell

lil boosie

Look: there’s a distinct possibility that a good 60 percent of all mainstream hip-hop is kayfabe. That’s not to knock it—I love mainstream rap as much as the next guy, and besides, if we actually cared about the notion of the mainstream rapper as auteur, we’d all be jacking off while listening to J. Cole (not that J. Cole is arousing in any way, shape, or form, it’s just that his fans never get laid). But because so much of rap is willfully, almost gleefully fabricated, it fucking resonates when you get slapped in the face with the real.

And that, the soundtrack of the struggle, is what Boosie’s post-jail music is. Boosie might have already been a folk hero when he got locked up, and we can debate until we lose all our Twitter followers if his music was better or worse before pre- or post-incarceration. But it’s indisputable that Boosie is now less a trapper and more the true heir to the blues, who just so happens to rap instead of pick his guitar. There is genuine emotion in Boosie’s voice, his pain imbued within every syllable—even on the fun songs, and trust me, this makes the fun songs better because the counterpoint of strife is ecstatic release. Yeah, it’s called Touch Down 2 Cause Hell, but Boosie doesn’t want to cause hell anymore—he just wants to tell you about the hell he’s been through. DREW MILLARD

32. Ty Money – Cinco De Money

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If drill music’s not rappity, someone forgot to tell Ty Money. The Harvey native’s May mixtape is a lyrical barrage. It’s not just that the imagery culled from his Sibley Boulevard exploits and anxieties is sharp enough to script a film about Chicago street life (someone should really make a film about Chicago street life!). It’s the relentless technicality of it all. Ty threads syllables between hi-hats like a manic mathematician, sprinting through endless strings of trochaic trimeters like he couldn’t step out of rhythm if he tried.

The results are dense and dizzying, belt-fed-bullet flows of bullet-point narratives that collide into collage. Paychecks and payback bleed together; European car purchases turn without warning into phone calls with grandma. The verses aren’t cohesive in the traditional sense, but the erratic swings through disparate moments and moods tell a richer story anyway. The way Twista’s adrenaline rush matched the heart rate of someone running from the gun, Ty’s rapid-fire staccato circles convey the restlessness of a father who can’t cool with his daughter and watch cartoons without always being ready for a call. There is humor here, pain, paranoia, Porsches. Flights to Morocco, shopping sprees at Neiman’s, fallen friends. Rapping that demands many rewinds. — TOSTEN BURKS

31. Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

panda bear

There’s an intersection at which those who hate Animal Collective and those who love Animal Collective meet. That crossroads is Panda Bear: the enigmatic harmony savant for the band and a compelling solo artist in his own right. Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is perhaps his best work, although it’d be hard to convince the legion of Person Pitch devotees that this record displays Panda’s platonic self. I’d argue, though, that Grim Reaper harnesses the experimental excess of Person Pitch towards something more succinct and joyous. The overwhelming obligation to influence from his fourth record, Tomboy, is gone too. No required dub jam for King Tubby, and the fingerprints of producer Sonic Boom are also tightened and minimized on Grim Reaper. In short, the album sounds like Noah Lennox at his most confident. Tight jams, both weird and catchy. Pet Sounds in a blender. Danceable for those who do their best work in solitude.

“Mr Noah” is the obvious hit, but opener “Sequential Circuits” exudes an undying warmness while “Selfish Gene” introduces us to club boy Noah. This album isn’t the surprise that Person Pitch was, but after a run of sustained success, there’s no longer reason to be shocked. And that’s what’s so great about Lennox: he’s the artist whose experiments are able to stray just far enough from himself to stay interesting without becoming alien. That time he met the grim reaper was the strangest and most fun yet. — WILL SCHUBE

30. Erykah Badu – But You Cain’t Use My Phone

erykah badu

Erykah Badu fucked up the game this year. Lately, that’s seemed like a simple matter of course for the R&B legend. At the exact moment when “Hotline Bling” seemed to reach the point of total ubiquity, Erykah released But You Caint Use My Phone, just to make it abundantly clear who deserves your telecommunicative attention.

But You Caint Use My Phone is a concept album about love loss via land line and could’ve just as easily been called Those 3 Little I-Phone Message Dots are Killing Me. The album sets up strict constraints with a rigid concept, but Erykah is such a creative force that she thrives within limits. The writing is so incredibly laser-focused. “Hi,” “Phone Down,” and “U Use To Call Me” are standouts that see Erykah pushing away any preconceived notions about her pop appeal. But You Caint Use My Phone could be seen as one long, trolling statement on how easy it is for a good songwriter to mimic simple aesthetic choices in pop music. She fucked around and gave us an entire mixtape of potential Aubrey ghost raps that would make Quentin Miller blush. Erykah chose inspiration and output over condescension and sneak disses.

Now doesn’t this make Meek Mill look stupid? — DAN FROM THE INTERNET

29. iLoveMakonnen – Drink More Water 5 / iLoveMakonnen 2

makonnen

Even if you didn’t totally love iLoveMakonnen, you couldn’t deny that the dude was at least amicable. It’s very hard to hate on someone who crystalized one of the least likable of weekdays into this melancholic club smash. Take “Tuesday” away and you have another Atlanta native with a noticeably limited vocal range and a hankering for drugs and love. Those two traits should be damning, but Makonnen has now turned them into weapons.

Somewhere in between that glitchy nocturnal production and boyish presence lies a relatable character. Mix that up with solid songwriting ability and you have staying power. iLoveMakonnen 2 finds Makonnen tightening his penchant for sticky anthems. The amateurishness of his voice becomes his wings on opener “Forever,” which features production stripped from a romance that takes place in the distant future of 20XX (Santigold’s stream-of-conscious verse). The whirring weirdness of “Trust Me Danny” works with Makonnen’s confidence at its center. A majority of it all brims with single potential. Drink More Water 5 is a rougher, more unfocused blueprint to Makonnen’s compelling charm. However, moments like “No Ma’m” prove that it is a successful blueprint for an artist straddling between mainstream success and cult status. — BRIAN JOSEPHS

28. Miguel – Wildheart

miguel wildheart

In an era where R&B’s brightest stars qualify as either sexy or cerebral, but rarely both, Miguel has done well by straddling the fence. Quietly, over the last half-decade, he has managed to build up an impressively diverse discography. “What’s Normal Anyway,” a cold and miserable coming-of-age story, is undoubtedly the low point of his third album, Wildheart. It’s a great example of the unfortunate potential of flat, convoluted songwriting; his music, like all music, suffers when he tries to shoehorn his message at the expense of form. Luckily, in the context of an otherwise fantastic album, the song is a blemish rather than a structural fault. Wildheart, despite being light on hits and heavy on weird, cryptic lyrics, is probably his most fun and adventurous project to date. –HAROLD STALLWORTH 

27. billy woods – Today, I Wrote Nothing

billy woods

In 2011, billy woods figured his days might be numbered. His group, the Super Chron Flight Brothers, had disintegrated suddenly. He hadn’t put out a solo album in more than seven years, and the label he founded, Backwoodz Studioz, was struggling to cut through the digital din. When he did put pen to paper, it seized up at the chorus.

But there was a breakthrough: Essexdogs, the producer whose Brooklyn apartment the rapper frequented in that period, was toying with Led Zeppelin’s “In the Light.” woods launched into what would become “Headband,” the song that kicked his mind into the proper gear. Months later, when the unlikely opus was finished, he gave it a tongue-in-cheek title: History Will Absolve Me, from the Castro speech. Time didn’t absolve Castro, and woods thought the same fate might still await him.

It didn’t. Today, I Wrote Nothing is woods’ third solo record in four years (his fifth, if you count his work with Elucid as Armand Hammer). That’s impressive by most measures, staggering when you consider how labyrinthine each has been. Yet tens of thousands of words and hundreds of demos later, he again finds himself staring down the grime reaper—this time, Max B smirk firmly affixed.

The album ends with a wake—the author’s. It’s one of four we see through the 24 fragmented, frequently brilliant songs. woods sinks into those fluorescent lights in hospital halls, into stoop-monopolizing dice games, into dim motels an hour before checkout. The fear of going quietly informs all the loud moments: the skull-rattling “U Boats,” the defiant, breathless “RPMs.”

Yet the finest song might be “Zulu Tolstoy,” a ninety-second vignette about a struggling rapper who spars with a C-list producer and can’t swing an out-of-state trip to SXSW. There’s a dull, persistent hope (“Every time the phone ring, might could be Drake”) that pales in comparison to the hook he just wrote on his phone at the airport. The stakes feel the same as the funerals, because in lots of ways, they are. — PAUL THOMPSON

26. Dungen – Allas Sak

dungen allas ask

Normally when bands take a five-year layoff from recording, they come back either completely reinvented or as an archetype for diminishing returns. At a point in their career, where their mastery of craft has been repurposed and flown to the top of the indie-rock mainstream (at this point, is there really a need for me to make yet another of these jokes at Tame Impala’s expense?), Dungen continues the course they’ve been heading since the start and, perhaps a little unsurprisingly, sound as exploratory and vital as ever. If anything, Allas Sak proves outright what many of us Dungen fans already knew: They’re one of the best jam bands going right now.

I realize what they do is classified as something far from the jam band category, but all psychedelic rock is jam band music for a different kind of stoner. All the components of psych are there: The trance-inducing song structures, the woozy, breathless guitar solos. But more often on Allas Sak than on any of Dungen’s previous releases, there’s this synchronicity that makes even the most methodical tracks on the album sound improvised and off-the-cuff. (Alternately, they’re doing what they’re doing on “Sova,” creating their first full-blown lighters-up anthem.) Of course this is a product of a band having been together for over fifteen years, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive.

You can’t blame Tame Impala for taking Dungen’s style, focusing more on the pop songwriting, and caking off of it. It was a smart move that made them a lot of money. Besides, Dungen is somewhere else entirely, going farther and farther into an astral plane a great distance away. — MARTIN DOUGLAS

 

25. Open Mike Eagle – A Special Episode Of… / Catchers of the Fade

mike eagle

Nobody would have faulted Open Mike Eagle for taking 2015 off.  Hell, nobody would have been surprised if he had a lingering Cup Hangover following the mark he left on 2014. Where most folks would have been more than happy to simply take a victory lap, the L.A. by-way-of Chicago savant instead put out two of the best EPs of the year. The first, A Special Episode Of…, acted like an extension of his 2014 opus, Dark Comedy, in both tone and tenor, giving the listener another earful of the same sing-song rap style that is letting OME soar.  “Dark Comedy Late Show” is among the best tracks he’s ever released, and that was just his opening salvo.

The latter, Catcher of the Fade, is more of a crew exercise, where Mike shares the spotlight with his peers and cohorts including Busdriver and miloBetween the two joints, there are enough gems here to keep your next half-dozen mixtapes bumping with that otherground sound.CHRIS DALY

24. Talk In Tongues – Alone With a Friend

talk in tongues

I’ve tried explaining the taste of the buche (pork stomach) my neighborhood’s all-nite Mexican restaurant serves. The closest I or any of my friends have gotten is that it tastes “meaty” in an a way that’s both indistinct and essential. Talk In Tongues’ Alone With a Friend is the same, but for rock music.

Alone With A Friend is rock undergirded by 1960’s psychedelia, which is to say that Talk In Tongues, like countless others, draw inspiration from a heavily canonized and widely imitated group of current (or would-be) septuagenarians. This isn’t inherently a bad thing–The Jimi Hendrix Experience is an unsurpassable horizon for many, and I’d be loath to disagree–but the world is full of bands who confused intricacy or virtuosity with listenability. McCoy Kirgo and Garrett Zeile share guitar duties, and they never lapse into hallucinogen-fueled dithering–there’s real drive and purpose on Alone With A Friend. No song lasts longer than four-and-a-half minutes, the group careful to avoid the most indulgent tendencies of psychedelic rock. 

The strongest criticism of Alone With A Friend I can proffer is that Talk In Tongues play a number of styles (very) capably without necessarily expanding the creative parameters of their influences. This would be a greater worry if Talk In Tongues’ members weren’t between 18 and 22 years old, and were Alone With A Friend not their first album as a group. (Zeile most notably headlined a group called Jetstream between 2007 and 2012, which toured with Stone Temple Pilots in 2010 and 2011.) The assemblage of psychedelia, shoegaze, 90’s pop, and dance-punk gives the album its buche-like quality: fifty-plus years of musicianship are condensed into roughly 40 minutes. It’s rock music in an fundamental, meaty way. TORII MACADAMS

23. Jamie xx — In Colour

jamie xx

Jamie xx’s In Colour is one of the most divisive albums in recent memory—not that you’d know it reading most music press, which is currently racing itself to crown the record as the EDM moment of 2015. But dig deeper into the online club culture that fuels Jamie Smith’s craft and the accusations of cheap imitation undoubtedly left the 27-year-old with a bloodied nose.

The differences in opinion were extreme, but that didn’t change the fact that the truth lay somewhere in the middle. In Colour is certainly a top-heavy album, its best moments sucking some of the air from those that surround them. But it still manages to work as a whole, generating a giddy momentum during its (admittedly basic) thematic arc.

And the best cuts on here are flat-out inspired. Idris Muhammad samples on “Loud Places.” Young Thug and Popcaan thrown together to produce the (second) greatest rap single of the year. A trio of terrific features from xx bandmates Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. Elsewhere, older songs such as “Girl” remain as resplendent as ever.

Yes, the pirate radio samples and steel drums get a bit much. And no, Jamie Smith isn’t the producer of his generation. But I’m not sure he’s ever pretended to be, and as a simple love letter to British dance music—with all the associated balance of inspiration and gloop that typically comes with such passionate missives—In Colour undeniably works. –MATT SHEA

22. milo – So The Flies Don’t Come

milo

In some ways, milo came into his own about three projects ago, with the one-two punch of Things That Happen at Day and Things That Happen at Night. But So The Flies Don’t Come is where he realized the most precise rendering of himself is. This is what isolation and an overactive mind feels like; Kenny Segal’s production plays out like a sealed room where the air is quickly evaporating. milo’s anxieties trace racial tension on “An Encyclopedia,” or biting cynicism on the Elucid-assisted “Going No Place.” He stews over his place in rap with “Napping Under The Echo Tree” and [email protected]

Prior to its release, milo mentioned that he intended for the album to articulate a more aggressive sound. That’s exactly what he delivers—but the more pointed delivery is a vehicle for frustrated MC. The exasperation because you can’t keep up, the sting because he doesn’t expect you to. THOMAS JOHNSON

21. Kode9 – N0thing

kode9

N0thing is a slippery beast. It resists any sort of genre classification and Kode9 insists it wasn’t part of the grieving process for friends Spaceape and DJ Rashad. It re-imagines his dubstep classic 9 Samurai as a fleet-footed 160BPM drone number at a time when he seems less interested in looking back at dubstep than ever, and tackles sino-grime at a time when he seems suspicious of the genre’s potential gentrification. He’s done more to champion Footwork outside of Chicago than anyone except Mike Paradinas, but when the time came to actually make the stuff, it came out all weird and sounded more like an alternate world soundtrack to ‘90s anime mindfuck Neon Genesis Evangelion than Teklife’s post-millennial soul. PC Music packaged SOPHIE’s album with a dildo, but if N0thing was a physical object it’d probably be carbon fiber spiked bat.

And yet, for all of Kode9’s academic bonafides and the annus horribilis he just went through, N0thing is actually pretty fun. It’s significantly faster than most contemporary dance music and recalls an era where raves were for weirdoes, by weirdoes. At the same time, it does a better job of navigating and refracting trap music than nearly anything out of Atlanta, seeing countless possibilities in hi-hat rushes while trad instrumental producers furrow their brows and dig in their heels. Finally, it takes an honest look at what the future might hold while the rest of us are shitting our pants while contemplating how we’re going to pay our bills next month. Concept albums about abandoned hotels don’t get more honest than that. –– SON RAW

20. Mumdance & Logos – Proto

mumdance & logos

In the ocean’s deepest trenches, where tectonic plates converge, the water reaches sub-freezing temperatures, pressure becomes immense, and photosynthesis ceases. Mumdance & Logos’ Proto sounds like the bioluminescent fish which populate the bathypelagic zone–occasional streaks of light amidst a relentlessly crushing atmosphere.

In the past five years, Mumdance has evolved from from busy, dancehall-infused bloghouse to bone-jarring, submarine bass music. Logos’ career is similarly diffuse; two vinyl releases in the late-2000’s preceded a three year hiatus, followed by a steady stream of excellent 12”’s, EPs, and two full-length projects (Proto included) beginning in 2012. Where Mumdance and Logos converge is grime, or rather, where grime would be had the two not decided to strip away at the sound until nothing but its barest, coldest, most historical bits remained. Proto, culled from Mumdance’s Twists and Turns and the duo’s “Legion/Proto” 12”, is the unyielding result.

The immediacy of Proto owes a debt to acid house, jungle, hardcore, and dubstep–the genres informed one another, and in turn informed grime. Mumdance and Logos recombine liberally, their work suffusing itself in the void where genrefication ceases to suffice. “Legion” is techno until the overbearing dread of the bridge kicks in and a racing heartbeat bass thud chases the hi-hats into the night. “Room 2 Lazer” sounds like one of Jam City’s Classical Curves-era experiments were it beaten with a lead pipe. “Cold,” the final track on Proto, serves as a segue into Logos, Mumdance, and Shapednoise’s group The Sprawl, whose EP1 was post-music sound design that merely hinted at musicality. Proto is a wonderfully beguiling “wot do u call it?” moment, for which there’s probably no answer besides a shrug. TORII MACADAMS

19. The Outfit, TX – Down By the Trinity

the outfit tx

The most interesting personality in rap throughout 2015 was a guy treating his depression by lapsing further into drug addiction and treating his drug addiction by spending money on clothes, toys and sex (and more/better drugs). But what happens when you’re probably depressed, angry, and lacking the funds to self-medicate via anything other than the catharsis that comes from making music?

Down By the Trinity is what happens. Probably. On this effort, the Texas trio withdraws further into their own unique world with a collection of gothic and sparse songs that creep along at a pace that firmly establishes them as dead-eyed misanthropes. Getting lit and dabbing is traded in for a series of lo-fi, claustrophobic lamentations on struggle and despair. One keeps awaiting the release that’s customary with dark efforts like this, but The Outfit, TX don’t meet that expectation because true villains don’t yield. They might be losing their minds but there’s zero fantasy on Down By the Trinity. Seek solace elsewhere if you ever get around to escaping this entrancing fog. MOBB DEEN

18. Nicolas Jaar – Nymphs / Pomegranates

nico jaar

Nicolas Jaar seems distrustful of the groove. It’s as if he views it the same way filmmakers who aren’t Steven Spielberg view the swelling string section: it’s manipulative, cloying. A beat will make you shake your ass to the worst David Guetta tripe, and a string section will make you weep because Channing Tatum got denied for a car loan.

There are almost no grooves on Pomegranates, which is to be expected, as it serves as an alternate soundtrack for Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 film The Color of Pomegranates, an impressionistic portrait of the life of Armenian bard Sayat-Nova. Parajanov infuses the delicate, intentionally stagey mise-en-scéne of early filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and D.W. Griffith with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s violent surrealism. In the credits, Parajanov says he aims not for biopic, but for an invocation of the poet’s “inner life.” A groove would, safe to say, be misplaced.

But even on Nicolas Jaar’s triptych of Nymphs EPs–II through IV; there is no I because it’s fun to be obtuse–the groove does not present itself so much as peek its head out like a chipmunk after a long winter. Both sides of Nymphs II eschew a beat until halfway through their runtime, and even then, it’s not club-worthy.

Jaar, thrillingly, gets his groove back over the course of the three EPs. By the time Fight (Nymphs IV) arrived in October, Jaar is turning out full-on dance epics: “Fight” is a clicky, slinky IDM wonderland.

It’s fitting that Jaar chose to soundtrack a story about Armenia’s most famous itinerant bard: 2015 has revealed Jaar to be one of the most restlessly creative makers of music we have today. It’s anybody’s guess where he’ll travel next. JORDAN PEDERSEN

17. Deradoorian – The Expanding Flower Planet

deradoorian

There’s a moment during “Useful Chamber,” the 6th track from Dirty Projectors’ breakthrough record, Bitte Orca, in which each first time listener’s jaw drops firmly to the ground. After three minutes of rambles and shifts, David Byrne-esque spoken-vocals and intermittent gallops, the band explodes into the chorus. This is the type of transition impossible to describe. The pure result of musical catharsis. However, I find the section after this chorus to be far stranger considering the boundaries the rest of the record exists in. Songwriter/mastermind David Longstreth electronically manipulates the harmonic yelps of Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle, turning their naturally breathtaking voices into something alien and obtuse. This play between the organic and artificial is at the heart of Angel Deradoorian’s debut full-length, The Expanding Flower Planet.

Flower Planet is driven by percussion and Deradoorian’s voice. Those extended, wordless melodic runs she so often showcased with Dirty Projectors become wholly her own on the record. We’ve already discussed the wonderfully kraut-y first single “A Beautiful Woman” on this site, but it’s the slight turns and playful misdirections over the course of the album’s ten tracks that make it one of the year’s best. Subtlety doesn’t always imply lightness, especially in Deradoorian’s case. Flower Planet is cosmic with undertones of the everyday. Space is the Place meets This Must Be The Place. An album for the planets but reachable at any given moment.— WILL SCHUBE

16. Ka – Days With Dr. Yen Lo

ka

“Three key steps to leading a rewarding and enriched life:
(1) Wake up. (2) Be awesome. (3) LISTEN TO PRESERVATION.” – Yasiin Bey

Ka does no features unless you’re an a-alike he’s met in person, and outsources no big name producers on his albums. Up until Days with Dr. Yen Lo, the only producers the mighty Ka from Brownsville had blessed with his smokehouse baritone were Ray West and Roc Marciano. But Ka would never ignore wise words from Yasiin Bey.

Enter Days With Dr. Yen Lo, aka Manchurian Candidate and Chill, the first time Ka has handed over production duties entirely for a full length. Preservation, best known for Bey/Mos Def’s “Quiet Dog (Bite Hard),” handles the album with the same subtle approach to wig smacks found on RE:Ecstatic, his remixed version of Mos’ The Ecstatic. Preservation’s approach doesn’t deviate too far from what worked for Ka on Grief Pedigree and Night’s Gambit–emcees who produce themselves tend to know their strengths. Preservation beefs up the low end, but keeps the M.O. intact: disorienting minimal loops for meditation over ashes spread through Tilden Houses. Grief Pedigree and Night’s Gambit were headphone albums; Days With Dr. Yen Lo is designed for loud speakers, albeit in brainwash cafes. ZILLA ROCCA

15. Dawn Richard – Blackheart

dawn richard

You have to start with Last Train to Paris. Had it not emerged directly in the shadow of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, we’d probably be talking about Diddy’s magnum opus as a turning point. It was lavish and tragic and a little deranged—Diddy staggering through the 16th arrondissement, trashed off Coconut Ciroc, on an Orphic quest for love featuring like a thousand of his richest, most coked-out friends. He was Puffy Hendrix, or Henry Miller in a shiny suit: getting faded to Sade deep cuts, howling at the moon, ruining parties (“I can’t hold down my food, I’m so rude”). Soulful and heartless at the same damn time. But it wouldn’t have worked without Dirty Money—Kalenna Harper and Dawn Richard—giving depth to all the self-indulgence. “Ass on the Floor” is one of those songs that’s so perfect because it comes unnervingly short of being corny, a fine line that was usually drawn by Richard; while Swizz Beats was yelling about haters over Major Lazer drums, Richard was literally offering you her soul. She was the center of it all.

Diddy-Dirty Money died hard, but it doesn’t matter, because Richard’s solo career continues to upstage Last Train’s mythos at every turn. Blackheart, her second and best album, feels just as categorically unclassifiable, but where Dirty Money sprawled across a ParisLondonIbiza fantasy world, Blackheart’s universe hovers liminally between post-Katrina New Orleans, Joan of Arc’s Siege of Orléans victory, and Drexciya’s interdimensional underwater techno colony. Richard’s been expanding her mythic panorama since 2012’s Armor On: a violent, complicated universe where emotion is religion and “love as war” is rendered as genre-resistant Afrofuturist ballet. But Blackheart is easily her peak. The stakes feel impossible. There are alien polyrhythms, visions of a parallel dimension’s Beyonce and Kuedo collab, nihilist spirituals about adderall binges, straight-up balladry to make Demi Lovato weep from spite. “Billie Jean” is the year’s most mercilessly slept-on pop epic, a pre-apocalyptic metropolis lit in flickering neon where nihilist vixens maneuver amongst the dumb and thirsty; it’s the answer to “Pyramids” everyone ignored in their clamor for new Frank Ocean.

Her fantasy battleground used to focus on love; Blackheart feels like a war of the soul. Like… thankless shit. The type of battle that won’t be fun and will last your whole life. It’s going to be terrible. There’s no climax. It just all sucks. If you want to make something great, in 2015 and beyond, you must understand that no one will care. And then you just have to do it anyway. The last time I wrote about Dawn Richard, she emailed me to thank me. Like, herself: this year’s most brilliant R&B visionary, like, “Thanks for writing about me in a list.” And that’s when you remember that we all need to do better. MEAGHAN GARVEY

14. Freddie Gibbs – Shadow of a Doubt

freddie gibbs

I have been singing the praises of nearly every Freddie Gibbs project since the start of the decade. Check the receipts. Each year, Gibbs will release a new album that is almost uniformly excellent and inevitably, I will write a glowing piece–often in this very space–preaching the gospel of Gibbs. I stand by everything I’ve ever said about the man, but it’s getting increasingly harder to come up with ways to talk about his greatness. He’s my favorite rapper of the decade–the rapper’s rapper’s rapper a decade from we all concede will concede was the best of his generation. Of course, his latest project, Shadow Of A Doubt, is yet another brick in the wall of his Hall-Of-Fame career. It’s almost effortless the way he puts words together on a song like “Careless.” The craft that he puts into every aspect of his songwriting from lyrics to melody to hook is peerless and he does it without leaning on gimmicks, overly pretentious artisy-ness or a pointless need to remake what already works. Shadow Of A Doubt is like a great genre film–the quality of the craft only enhances given the familiarity of the beats–and Freddie Gibbs is an auteur’s auteur. Doc Zeus

13. La Luz – Weirdo Shrine

la luz

A little over two years ago, it was unclear as to whether La Luz would ever record music again. While touring their sublime debut album It’s Alive in November 2013, the members of the band survived a brush with death involving their tour van, a semi-truck, and a strip of black ice on the road. Speaking from both experience and observing creativity, coming to grips with mortality is a powerful source of inspiration. Weirdo Shrine is indicative of this idea, paying homage to departed friends and writers haunted by thoughts of suicide in equal measure.

“Oranges,” inspired by the poem of the same name by Richard Brautigan (the aforementioned writer who ended up taking his own life in 1984), is basically the spaghetti western score of a film that ends with someone fading into the afterlife in the orchard Brautigan so dreamily wrote about. The opening track, equal turns glimmering and foreboding, is titled “Sleep Till They Die.” If death doesn’t exactly loom over Weirdo Shrine, its presence is felt often.

Sometimes death inspires a person to be a little better at what they do, which is hard to tell is the case here since La Luz has been an immensely talented group since the beginning. But their talents are fully crystallized: Their harmonies a little more pitch-perfect (“I Can’t Speak”), their instrumentals a little more lively (“Hey Papi”), their songwriting and melodic gifts just a little more ever-present (“True Love Knows”). Regardless of what type of growth there was or what caused it, La Luz came out of all of this one of the finest young bands in America. MARTIN DOUGLAS

12. FKA Twigs – M3LL155X

fka twigs

More than just an EP, FKA Twigs’ M3LL155X is accompanied by a sixteen-and-a-half minute music video. In the visual, an artfully presented yet ultimately doomed relationship results in a pregnancy in which FKA Twigs herself is born. M3LL155X is a story about FKA Twigs, about her mother, about the cycle of female life, and about the truths of mother-daughter relationships. But it’s also a tale of big budgets, fabulous costumes, and elaborate set design. FKA Twigs is a blow up doll lying on a mattress, she’s a pregnant woman in white silk pajamas, she’s leading a dance routine in an all-denim ensemble, she’s giving birth to colored streamers, she’s walking a runway in the wilderness.

Each track on M3LL155X blends flawlessly into the next. The music is lush and dense, made for continuous headphone listening, for those rare moments when the audience is able to fully immerse themselves. FKA Twigs’ music is the height of stylization; deliberate, precise, calculated, and meticulous. And so is her hair. HALEY POTIKER

11. Lil Herb – Ballin’ Like I’m Kobe

lil herb

Lil Herb’s Ballin’ Like I’m Kobe should collapse under the weight of the blocks it was born in. It’s not named for the Lakers’ maddeningly stubborn shooting guard, but rather for Herb’s friend Jacoby Herron, who was killed outside of an E. 79th Street McDonald’s at 4 a.m. in 2013. Herron was 21 at the time, a year older than Herb is right now.

That Chicago violence has turned into a cottage industry doesn’t bother him, though, nor does the fact that the national music press has seemingly moved on from the city’s drill scene, despite a crop of talented rookies and despite he and his partner Lil Bibby’s continued innovation. Instead, Ballin’ Like I’m Kobe is an exercise in form, albeit one that’s colored by the rapper’s preposterously cinematic past.

Almost no living person raps quite like Lil Herb. He doesn’t have the shapeshifting slipperiness of Young Thug or a distinctly emotive voice like Lil Boosie; instead, Herb raps breathlessly and in tightly-wound lyrical exercises. His technical approach seems blunt—and it is, at least in tone—but the ever-increasing intensity is a deft way to stitch together grim recollections and cruel threats.

“L’s” is one of the year’s most heartfelt songs; “Bricks & Mansions” one of its most impossibly menacing. If you step back, if you let things settle, Kobe’s subject matter is all deeply unsettled and unsettling. But broken into three- and four-minute components, it’s the sleekest, meanest hip-hop you’ll hear in 2015. PAUL THOMPSON

10. Letta – Testimony

letta

For a genre whose entire aesthetic is steeped in replicating and reveling in the mechanistic skronk of hyper-modernity, it feels a bit anachronistic to say that Letta’s take on instrumental grime feels old-school. And yet, it is 2015 and that’s exactly what the fuck I’m doing. I don’t mean it strictly in the sense that these tunes could have popped up in a vintage pirate radio set—though given that “The Recluse” is a dead ringer for early, albeit slightly slowed-down Joker, that’s certainly not an impossibility. Instead, the Los Angeles beatmaker and synth nut’s Coyote Records debut (also the UK label’s first proper full-length) feels warm, lived-in, an auteurial statement without being up its own ass about it. Every sound on the album feels selected with a purpose. The minimalism works so well that it makes me feel like a dick for using so many words in this blurb; Letta would have figured out a way to make it work twice as well with half the sprawl.

Letta might have said he made the record on his iPhone earbuds, but if you have access to a vehicle and are not currently in a region of the world in which continuous sunlight is not the norm, I highly recommend plugging in the aux cord and taking a long drive towards nothingness. You don’t need to know about the artist’s personal journey (although trust me Danny, Letta’s got a whopper of a story for you), or some notion that he injects some sort of modern spin on old styles. You don’t need to know anything about instrumental grime, the LA beat scene, or shit, even hip-hop and electronic music to understand why this album is so great. All you need to know is what it feels like to be alone. DREW MILLARD

9. Thundercat – Beyond / Where the Giants Roam

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Like most great EPs, the biggest knock against Thundercat’s third solo project, The Beyond / Where The Giants Roam, is that it’s far too short. The Los Angeles bass prodigy managed to catch lightning in a bottle, but only bothered to release half of it. Living up to both its names, the album carries a big, futuristic sound. With the exception of “Them Changes,” probably his most accessible song to date, the production sounds like it was arranged by David Lynch; his delicate baselines and droning falsetto lend an air of mystery to his cryptic songwriting. But through it all, the music is still warm, fun and true to Thundercat’s curious personality. Even if we only see it in fragments. HAROLD STALLWORTH

8. DJ Koze – DJ Kicks

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The sun smears itself across the bright blue sky. Flowers pop out like a fisheye lens. People skip down the street. Barf, you say? Well, to appreciate the ugly and the moribund and the off-kilter we have to know what joy and beauty to compare it to, and sometimes we have to appreciate joy and beauty in kind.

This year, DJ Koze took the opportunity of being asked to contribute the 50th release of K7!’s wide-ranging (in quality and style) DJ-Kicks mix series by offering up the best installment in its history. Taking a cue from Erlend Oye and the Wolf + Lamb collective (both having created two of the series’ greatest mixes), Koze went beyond simply blending tunes together—he applied some of his own artistry to the mix itself. He did this via two uncanny methods: he contributed many of his own edits and remixes, and he selected radically disparate and unlikely songs that somehow conform to the sound of his own albums. The result is a mix that is at once a brilliant mixtape and a new DJ Koze album. But it’s also a place where William Shatner coexists with Madlib; where a Boards of Canada remix of cLOUDDEAD makes us reevaluate Boards of Canada and, holy shit, cLOUDDEAD; and where, of course, DJ Hi-Tek should have produced the 2 Bears album. Then Koze spins four tech-house tracks that indicate that his club-DJ bona fides are still intact.

Yet DJ Koze’s DJ-Kicks isn’t just a display of impeccable craft, it’s also, perhaps unintentionally, an homage to the mid-to-late 90s, an era when indie rock (Broadcast) is played alongside hip-hop (Homeboy Sandman) and left-field kitsch (uh, William Shatner). And in its colorful, unironically upbeat manner, DJ-Kicks is a reexamination of taste, a reminder that real punks don’t always wear black. TAL ROSENBERG

7. Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

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Listen to Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside late at night, when the neighborhood strays hiss over territorialized chicken bones and the meth dealer next door braves the silence from atop a BMX bike, chain smoking menthols. It’s an album for grey El Niño Sundays, for hooded sweatshirts, for social isolation. It’s the work of a preternaturally gifted teenager in the process of becoming an adult. Painfully.

Earl was thrust into stardom at 16, and, even when sequestered in Samoa, was the subject of rampant Tumblr speculation and chants demanding his release from a school for at-risk boys. The Odd Future devout misread the miracles accompanying Earl’s arrival. They wanted to prostrate themselves before a god-king. They got a teenager who refused to lead his Easter basket-attired flock into a sprinkle donut-colored new dawn. I Don’t Like Shit is, instead, a grayscale horizon, the result of excess and exhaustion.

Looming over the muted colors and despair is “Grief,” a rough beast that slouches toward Bethlehem. “Grief” is about anomie, drug use, Earl’s grandmother’s death, Odd Future’s stylistic successors (biters or Stans, less generously), and the pro-black lessons of a single mother. Any one of those topics would be weighty subject matter, and together they’re smothering, disjointed, and plodding. “Grief” ends with a coda–a bright, brassy sample of Gary Wilson’s “You Were Too Good To Be True”–that feels like it’s mocking the rest of the song for its contrition and vulnerability.

There’s a jangling, rough-hewn quality to Earl’s production that packages his multidirectional sadness as neatly as can be (not very.)–it’s akin to Ka’s unifying grimness, were he shaded by palm trees rather than Section 8 housing. Earl has yet to ascend into the upper echelon of beatsmiths, but he was likely happy to sacrifice some technical mastery for the bespoke snugness of I Don’t Like Shit. Earl’s generation of Supreme-n-Vans teenagers are maturing into adults. His music’s maturing, too. TORII MACADAMS

6. JT the Goon – King Triton

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In a year where every trend-spotting dance label signed a grime-not-grime album from a newschool producer, there’s poetic justice in the fact that 2015’s single best grime LP comes from a 30-something year old originator who never got his due, and that it dropped on a DJ-owned imprint that started in the genre’s dark ages. JT The Goon’s King Triton doesn’t have time for meticulously crafted analog noise: it’s a big, emotional, melodic rollercoaster crafted out of keyboard presets and a defiantly oldschool love of hooky, immediate sounds. The gunshots are not ironic. The squarewaves are not re-imagined. There’s a ton of “AMS Feedback Lead” and if you’re not one of the 100 people on Earth to whom that term means anything, it doesn’t matter cause that means it sounds like the audio equivalent of the fire emoji. It took two bloody years to release because JT, label owner Oil Gang, and engineer Boylan had to do everything themselves, and they took the time to do it right.

It’s an album by and for a specific community that deserves attention from the world at large: it’s one of the most honest pieces of music you’ll hear all year. In an era saturated by trendy bullshit, nothing was more refreshing than hearing an album that was all about the music. There’s no imaginary political discourse to spur on tactless music writers, there’s no overtures to dance music traditionalists looking to cannibalize a smaller scene’s hype, and there aren’t even any emcees. Instead, you get Chinese operas refracted through PS1 game soundtracks from a working-class bloke from East London with a huge imagination and a ton of talent. You get a song called “King Arthur” that sounds like a renaissance waltz for thugs. There’s a track called “50 Days of May” and I’m pretty sure it could and should score Aerith’s death scene in the Final Fantasy VII remake. Ultimately, it’s the rare album that doesn’t give a fuck, but that’s also full of love. –SON RAW

5. Dam-Funk – Invite the Light

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I recently moved from Chicago to Hollywood, where I wake up too early every morning to jackhammers, dodge tourist’s selfies and bums on my bumper-to-bumper commute down Sunset, go to work for dirt temporary wages in an old building with a broken elevator, come home to a noisy cold apartment the utility company still hasn’t blessed with gas, order the same medium-spicy roast duck noodle soup I had two nights ago, and pop a Melatonin to dull the tobacco smoked-out anxiety that would otherwise consume any chance at rest.

It’s been great. Damon Riddick is why. Don’t buy the lie that Ladera Heights’ funkiest motivational speaker only makes sense bumping out of a self-driving hovercar on PCH. I’ve yet to see the Pacific. Invite the Light is most vital to those who need the synth gawd’s imagined Los Angelesphere as escape, or as illusion.

You already know the formula: Steve Arrington’s oddball range, Roger Troutman’s lurching talkbox, Leon Sylvers III’s bouncing bass, Quik’s woozy moog waves, Spock’s sunglasses—all refracted through pastel visions from the future. Here Dâm is more adventurous than ever, veering into prog-disco (“O.B.E.”), exploring the limits of electro-doo-wop (Scatin’), scoring a comic car chase (“Surveillance Escape”), brewing straightforward stank-face bangers (“The Hunt & Murder of Lucifer”). He pulls Q-Tip out of the woodwork twice. Snoop Dogg slides through with the opening line of the year: “Doggonit we ball.” Leon and his son (Leon IV) harmonize about riding a fly roller coaster. There is much whispering and talk of the cosmos.

Throughout, Dâm seeks to uplift, fixated on better days. “Don’t you ever stop, we continue,” goes the album’s first hook. “I’m just tryna survive in this big city” goes the third. “When will we see, virtuous progression’s what we need?” asks the song’s deepest posse cut. Non-pedantic anthems in trying times. For those who question why Kendrick didn’t recruit a keytar if he really wanted the funk. For those who can’t see the ocean, but crave the light. — TOSTEN BURKS

4. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06

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Each disc of Vince Staples’ debut double album Summertime ’06 begins with the lonely cry of those seagulls buzzing ominously above Long Beach. If you close your eyes, you can imagine yourself there, just before dawn, wading into the Pacific. The sun peaks over the palm trees and a day of endless possibilities is dangling in front of you. The opening seconds of “Ramona Park Legend Parts 1 & 2” are among the few brief moments of peace that can be found within Vince’s world. Then a gunshot rings out and we’re sucked back into hell.

Contrary to its title, Summertime ’06 is not a feel-good album–it’s also not nostalgic or sentimental. It’s an uncompromising record about young black lives on the bleeding edge of terrorist police harassment in Donald Trump’s America. It’s not an album that you really want to hear while spending time in a nightclub, nor does it offer much time moralizing with tales of unearned redemption. Instead, Vince refuses to blink, masterfully narrating the story of his life as a young gangbanger with a caustic wit and an potent dose of humanity. 

Musically, Summertime ’06 is as tightly focused as any rap album you will hear this year. Vince, along with his heavyweight collaborators No I.D., Clams Casino, and DJ Dahi, craft an icily vivid soundscape. The mournful melodies and darkly frenetic percussion are oddly reminiscent of Azaelia Banks’ excellent Broke With Expensive Taste. Meanwhile, Vince himself is a supremely gifted young rapper and Summertime ’06 serves to place him in the upper echelon of lyricists working in rap today. His writing on tracks like “Norf Norf,” “Lift Me Up,” and “Señorita” smash with blunt force trauma–no cornball punchlines, forced extended metaphors or cartoon rap voices obscure his talent.

What ultimately makes Summertime ’06 worth listening to is that sense of humanity. Those gangs–both Vince’s and his rivals’–aren’t mindless caricatures, they’re fully realized systems. “Summertime,” the forlorn love song about lost innocence that closes out the first disc, is the album’s best song because it highlights a genuine sense of broken-heartedness hiding beneath the surface of the album’s cynicism. This could be forever. DOC ZEUS

3. Kamasi Washington – The Epic

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If you were in L.A. and paying attention, you saw it coming. Kamasi Washington, Miles Mosley, and the rest of the West Coast Get Down had been gigging behind the scenes and around town for years. Anyone who witnessed one of their intimate Piano Bar concerts pre-The Epic will tell their kids about a night of transcendence half-remembered, the tenor sax solos that stretched temporal limits, the cymbal crashes that shattered glass, and the stand-up bass notes that vibrated their spine. Kendrick Lamar could tell you that he, too, was sitting against one of the venue’s exposed brick walls, alone and listening. Lamar’s expansive sophomore effort from this year, To Pimp a Butterfly, ultimately served as a fine national introduction to Washington and company. But The Epic never needed any assistance. 

For an album that took nearly four years to compose and record, The Epic wastes no time. At three discs and just over 173 minutes (roughly 2.88 hours, if you’re counting), it has any and all room necessary for a build up. Instead, the horns on the presciently titled opener, “Change of the Guard”, blare after mere seconds of plinked piano keys and a truncated drum roll. The choir and the main groove are there, waiting for the frenetic improvisation and bouncy interludes between. The album begins with a leap and never finds terra firma again.

I’m no jazz scholar. I don’t know the argot. I can’t tell you about notation. I can only tell you how it feels when I listen to the record while seated at my desk, driving my car, and laying sprawled out on the living room floor at midnight. The Epic isn’t as black and white as some lauded concept albums (there is a concept here, but that only matters if you want it to) or literary epics. Instead, it encompasses the scope and complexity of every intangible thought and emotion we lack the words to express. There are footprints and giant steps, shades of blue and every other hue. Solos from one instrument bleed into those from the next. Sometimes the percussion pounds unrelentingly, and sometimes it’s the spaces between that hit the hardest. The time and love put into this album is supreme. Listening to it is an experience unique to you, and one best not described any further.

This is not jazz for the hip-hop generation. It is music made by musicians of that generation who’ve been steeped in the purist jazz tradition. The Epic is the rare album that realizes all it purports to represent. Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Terrace Martin, Miles Mosley, and co ushered in the resurgence of a genre that never should’ve been relegated to the back of the record store in the first place. Listen to more of it. Waste no time. MAX BELL

2. Young Thug – Barter 6 / Slime Season 1 / Slime Season 2

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This isn’t what Lyor Cohen signed up for. If you got the 300 brain trust together in a room (definitely on a yacht) twelve months ago, here’s how Young Thug’s 2015 would have ideally played out:

The night after the spring mixtape drops, no one shoots up Lil Wayne’s tour bus, especially not Thug’s tour manager. Thug and Baby aren’t named in the shooter’s indictment; he also doesn’t get charged with threatening to kill a mall cop. There’s no raid on his Georgia house to rustle up minor drug charges. If there is a raid, it doesn’t happen the day his big summer single drops.

Maybe if everything goes according to plan, Hi-Tunes comes out in September and no one has to pretend Fetty Wap is DMX. Maybe Thug is swapping anecdotes with Anne Hathaway on the couch at Jimmy Fallon. (Maybe he stars opposite her and Rob De Niro in a farcical romp where all three of them learn a little something about this thing we call “life.”)

But that’s not what happened. Instead, we got a modest, surprisingly restrained record followed by an avalanche of the best rapping-for-rapping’s sake since Da Drought 3. Between Barter 6 and (especially) the two installments of Slime Season—released six weeks apart from one another this fall—Young Thug re-established himself as the genre’s foremost stylist, warping rap into his orbit with dozen flows he synthesized from dust and Audiomack, and some entirely new ones he pulled from the void.

What’s more: none of that dazzlingly technical rapping disappears within itself, none of it exists in spite of the songs. It’s utilitarian. It’s coupled with a vast array of melodies—not just on the hooks and bridges, but snaking through the tracks, barreling down a Technicolor-red rabbit hole. “Raw (Might Just)” makes a declaration of love feel menacing and naked at the same time. “Can’t Tell” stretches and snaps like a rubber band. “Best Friend” taunts cops and blesses Beanie Sigel around tight corners then opens wide for HOLDUPHOLDUPPROCEEEEEEED.

While Barter 6 and Slime Season 2 have more obvious arcs (the former ends with that beautiful five-song coda), the first Slime Season is home to his best songs of the year, save the homeless “Pacifier.” From “Quarterback”‘s creeping staccato to “That’s All”‘s ten-thousand-dollar vases, it’s a poorly-mastered, barely coherent barrage of pop hooks buried between strings of bizarrely innovative one-take vocals.

Fittingly, the only time all year Thug gets out-rapped is on “Again,” when his mentor, the still-incarcerated Gucci Mane, brings a dozen guns to your house party and tells his girl to dye her hair red–“like Dennis Rodman.” If Thug has one spiritual predecessor, it’s the Bull-turned-North Korean mouthpiece, too ahead of his time for his city or for the Western world. Sorry, Lyor.

PAUL THOMPSON

1. Future – Beast Mode / 56 Nights / Dirty Sprite 2

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Over 365 days, Future gave us 1008 grams on the scale, 56 nights, two mixtapes, two albums, and a pair of Gucci flip-flops. Ugh. These are party songs borne from immense pain, bangers at their most psychedelically bleak. Greek myth as music, the vulture pecking at a liver leaking purple Activis, the Phoenix re-emerging from Backwoods ash to incinerate doubters. A mystic cult for the masses.

We’re better off never knowing what happened between Future and Ciara. All you need to understand is why the best thing he ever did was fall out of love. In the aftermath of Honest, his relationship disintegrated and career stalled. Crossover attempts stripped him of his soul. He might as well have been left for dead, chained to a rock atop the Hollywood sign—a cautionary tale of what happens when industry machine meets ignoble monster.

He took all the pain and ran with it to the top of the charts. Spent time back in Atlanta and conjured the soundtrack for our collective decay: sacraments for dirty Sprite sippers, spirituals for savages, blues in the trap, no comma left unfucked. We needed these songs as catharsis and absolution, to forgive us our lapses of conscience, our immorality and bruised egos, to amplify our debilitated psyche to superhuman levels.

This is what happens when you won’t be all right. When the wounds don’t heal and the drugs can’t kick in fast enough. This is rap from the rubble and the gutter. The inexhaustible strength that can’t be taught; it’s what you’re left with after a psychic and physical holocaust. It’s the indomitability and guilt of the survivor, the hero and the Leviathan made inseparable, the future, the past, and the poisons.

This was a handbook for recovery, a soundtrack to despair, the beast emerging to eradicate the pain of being a man. Out the sewer rose a mumbling, triumphant quartet of D-Boy break-up albums (including overlooked classic, Monster). He celebrates the riches of escape while mourning the problems they create. He’s not asking you to feel sorry for him. He’s nakedly suffering for his sins, stumbling, moaning, growling, barking—black lunged, lean dripping, blood on the money.

Can you really watch the “Codeine Crazy” video and tell me this man isn’t miserable? He’s trying to go numb and exit the earth in a blast of color. You don’t need Big Rube parables to spell out that this is still Dungeon Family. Rico Wade’s little cousin Meathead became the Monster but retained the original lessons: the extraterrestrial transmissions of Andre, the street wisdom of Big Boi, the gangster hustle of Cool Breeze, the voodoo spirituality of Witchdoctor. This is what comes when you’re sanctified in the dungeon and baptized in promethazine.

A song like “Just Like Bruddas” is the anthem to friendship that Taylor Swift wishes she could write. “Peacoat” forever altered the way we’ll think about winter outerwear. “Where I Came From” is Makaveli for the modern world, the hardest music conceivable that leaves you unclear if you want to cry or kill. If the NCAA wanted people to give a fuck about college basketball, their only hope is putting “March Madness” on permanent loop. “ “Trap Niggas” is a doomed prayer, a benediction for the waking dead, a reminder that it’s a minor triumph every time you make it home.

If you didn’t love this, consider yourself lucky. This is a darkness I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It was beautiful and hideous, the reincarnation of a broken corpse, destruction confronted with supernatural determination. When we needed it, there was nothing else.—JEFF WEISS