In 2015, we saw the return of Adele, and Janet Jackson; two of music’s most absent divas. Following in the footsteps of the now beloved Sam Smith, we also saw gay singer-songwriters like Troye Sivan and Steve Grand become more accepted among pop music fans. Pop stars like Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato and Jordin Sparks returned and shed the glossy pretense of their youth’s past. Meanwhile, new forces entered the pop world in Halsey, Tori Kelly, and crossover R&B star The Weeknd. R&B saw the return of some of its most beloved acts, old and new: Jill Scott, Jazmine Sullivan, Tamar Braxton, Tamia, and Miguel. Quality hip-hop had an exciting year too, with releases from Lupe Fiasco, Drake, and King Kendrick. But, whose album was the best?
At EST. 1997, we chose the 19 “97” albums of 2015, which simply means the 19 best albums of 2015. If you’re familiar with the way we review songs/albums, then you know that “97” is our top score. We love every album on this list, ranked them according to how much, and weighed in with a few thoughts about each. Please feel free to comment with your thoughts, as well! We’d love to hear from you and engage in any discussion. Now, without any further adieu…
19. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful by Florence + the Machine (May 29th)
You don’t just break Florence Welch’s heart; you put her in the throes of the belly of the beast. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is full of similarly grand declarations of hurt, longing and despair which doesn’t sound like the kind of album that you would want to listen to for days. But, as with most works of art steeped in subject matter that requires the artist to burst a blood vessel every line or so (see: “Various Storms and Saints”), Florence + The Machine’s third album serves as a marvelous vessel for all these grandiloquent proclamations of heartaches with majestic aplomb. Too much? Well, as mentioned in this review, Florence and company’s largeness of sound and feeling is hard to shake off and the infectiousness carries on. —Patrick
18. Woman by Jill Scott (July 24th)
While her last album, The Light of the Sun, was a bit subpar in comparison to her first three, with one word: Woman, she proved that she’s still got it. Jill is a respected and revered name in the world of R&B/Soul for many reasons: for her poetry, her storytelling, her no-holds-barred topics of song and revelations, and for that phenomenal voice. While she is certainly not innocent, her music is simply pure; honest. There’s nothing she won’t say – if she feels it, she says it – and she uses her fair share of sonic experimentation and vocal acrobatics to accentuate her fearless words. Woman is no different. It begins with an engaging, spoken word poem-intro, “Wild Cookie,” and is followed by the introspective “Prepared,” about making herself a better self. Meanwhile, songs like “Run Run Run,” “You Don’t Know,” and “Coming to You” showcase a ferocious, old school sound, and are as energetic as they are emotional. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Jill Scott album without a little unabashed sexuality; here it is found on the lustful “Can’t Wait.” Other highlights include slow jams “Fools Gold,” “Cruisin’” and “Lighthouse,” as well as the touching dedication to her son, “Back Together.” However, the album’s standout, for sure, is “Closure,” which placed at #15 on our singles list. With Woman, Jill Scott reclaimed her throne and reminded everyone why Jilly from Philly should always has a place in our hearts. –Vincent
17. All American Boy by Steve Grand (March 23rd)
Steve Grand got his fair share of press over the past year for a few reasons: Being mislabeled as an openly gay country artist (his music blends together elements of rock, pop, and country), being less-than-clothed in his pre-music career to raise funds for his music career (he looks pretty damned good in his underwear, okay?), and most importantly, for being the third-highest funded Kickstarter music campaigns to date. His debut album is a breath of fresh air, unapologetically using gender pronouns to express his feelings and address his love interests. Songs like “Say You Love Me” and the title track “All American Boy” perfectly tackle and capture the essence of the gay guy who falls in love with his straight best friend (been there). Not limiting himself lyrically by any stretch, there’s also the charming country love song “Stay”, the Gaga-inspired LGBT anthem “We Are The Night”, and a moment of channeling his inner Springsteen on “Run” and “Red, White, and Blue”. His diverse blend of musical styles, combined with trailblazing lyricism and catchy melodies make All American Boy a must listen. –Andrew
16. Right Here, Right Now by Jordin Sparks (August 21st)
After falling off the map as an aspiring Pop star post-American Idol (“No Air,” her duet with Chris Brown, is still a notable moment from that era, though), Jordin Sparks picked up her pen and a pad and went into the studio to craft her best material to date: Right Here, Right Now. She may have had to give up the top 10 hit “The Way” to Ariana Grande because of label politics, but Right Here Right Now is worth it nonetheless. While it could use a bit less of the forced ratchetness on the midtempos, the ballads are its best moments. Current production and a little something for the throwback lovers, including an Aaliyah hommage on the ethereal “100 Years,” make the album a notable progression in her career. Jordin’s vocals are clear and crisp, and she’s never sounded as confident as she does on this album. Highlights: “They Don’t Give,” “Tell Him That I Love Him,” “Silhouette.” –Mario
15. Confident by Demi Lovato (October 16th)
The transition from Disney star to respected musical artist is never an easy or seamless transition. It’s a true display of artist development when executed successfully, and that is exactly what Demi Lovato accomplished with Confident. From the breezy yet seasonal “Cool For The Summer” to the Gary Glitter “Rock’N’Roll Parts 1 & 2” recalling title track, Lovato proves that she has the upbeat pop chops for the charts. However, it’s when she tackles the ballads, most notably “Stone Cold” and “Father,” with full soul and voice that she solidifies her place as a major player in today’s pop stratosphere. –Andrew
14. Tetsuo & Youth by Lupe Fiasco (January 20th)
The curious case of Lupe Fiasco… upon his debut, he was seemingly free to do as he pleased: he had his deal, and he made great, quality hip-hop that he genuinely loved and was proud of. Then, he made the mistake of having an actual hit single that crossed over (“Superstar”). From then on, his label’s goal was to repeat that success and forced Lupe into some questionable predicaments as far as his reputation was concerned. While he was seemingly given freedom for Food & Liquor II, the road to Tetsuo & Youth was yet another battle against label-propagated crossover tracks. As a result, Lupe recorded a bunch of overtly edgy tracks to counterbalance the label fluff he was strongly encouraged (read: forced) to record (“Old School Love” with Ed Sheeran, anyone?). Eventually, with a little help from Anonymous, the label subsided and Lupe was able to craft Tetsuo & Youth, an album the way he liked it… and thankfully, it is as good as you’d hope. The one flaw in Lupe’s music has always been the lack of a hook: on Tetsuo, he met that challenge with one of the album’s highlights: “Mural,” a 9 minute long flow – with no breaks, and no hook. Meanwhile, on “Chopper,” a 10 minute long trap track featuring a jukebox of verses from 6 of Lupe’s favorite rappers, the hook takes a backseat to the realness of the featured artists’ bars. In typical Lupe fashion, the album is filled with metaphors (“The Adoration of the Magi”), social commentary (“Deliver”), and an alternative, rock inspired jam featuring a male vocalist (“Blur My Hands”), among other quality moments. It is a quintessential Lupe Fiasco album that any fan of his, or lover of hip-hop, would enjoy. –Vincent
13. Unbreakable Smile by Tori Kelly (June 23rd)
2016 Grammy nominee for Best New Artist, Tori Kelly, gained notoriety this year thanks to a moderate hit (“Nobody Love”), a Pepsi commercial, a lot of good word of mouth, and most importantly: a phenomenal voice. Truly, if anyone deserves to be compared to Mariah Carey, it’s not Ariana Grande – it’s Tori Kelly. Also from a mixed race background, Tori, like Mariah, is a talented not only as a singer but also as a songwriter (and guitarist), who crosses the boundaries of race and genre: her sound is R&B, pop, and hip-hop. She can riff up, down, and all around, leaving the listener blown away… and yet, in the same song, she can drop a 16 that’ll make you wonder if there’s a featured artist on the track. With a little less label pressure, more creative freedom, and a little bit more life experience, Tori Kelly could turn out the next Miseducation, ala Lauryn Hill. It’s an album that deserves a listen, and your undivided attention. Highlights include a live performance of “Funny,” on which her vocals will leave you hollering “YASSSS!”, the undeniable bop of a title track, the sassy “Bottled Up,” and ballads “Falling Slow” and “First Heartbreak.” So, do yourself a favor and get your life by letting Miss Tori Kelly into your life. –Vincent
12. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late by Drake (February 13th)
Released as a digital surprise, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was originally intended by Drake as a mixtape more than an album. It bears, however, the coherence we’re used to find in a Drake album: all the songs have a sonic cohesiveness and deal with the themes that are most true to Drizzy’s artistry. Such themes include fame, success, relationships and Toronto, the city that’s still so dear to the rapper even as a superstar. The melodic sadness the beats bring, even to the songs about being victorious against the enemies, is a typical Drake trait. The catchphrases the album spurred are now essential online lingo. The 6 God can literally do no wrong, even in the trying times such as when he’s accused of not writing his bars, he still wins because he essentially remains his true self. Highlights: “Know Yourself,” “Energy,” “Jungle.” –Mario
11. Blue Neighbourhood by Troye Sivan (December 4th)
What is a day in the life of a 20-year-old gay boy? Listen to Troye Sivan’s Blue Neighbourhood and get a generally realistic perspective on the day-to-day, with an electro/alt-pop backdrop. The reincorporated songs that originated on the WILD EP (released earlier this year as a pre-cursor to the LP) provide a good introduction to the new songs which solidify that his pen is mighty and his voice a force to be reckoned with. From catchy alt-pop bops like “YOUTH” to the sincerely beautiful “for him.” (“You don’t have to say ‘I love you’ to say ‘I love you’”), all the way to the tragically beautiful “LOST BOY” (“I’m just some dumb kid tryna kid myself that I’ve got my shit together”) and the pensive “HEAVEN” (“Without losing a piece of me, how do I get to heaven?”), Troye proves song after song to be important new voice in pop. –Andrew
10. Badlands by Halsey (August 28th)
A newcomer on the scene, Halsey has certainly made some noise, and a promising name for herself. Her debut album, Badlands, is one of this year’s most interesting releases that has generated a great amount of buzz. It begins with the cinematic “Castle” that will leave you with the same feels you’d expect from a Lana Del Rey track, yet sounds nothing like her; aside from having a similarly cinematic quality (and it’s perfectly featured in the trailer for Huntsman: Winter’s War). Badlands is a journey through the curious young mind of Halsey that drops off an anthem or two: “New Americana” for the rebellious youth, “Hurricane” if you’re just a bad bitch, and “Castle” if you’re simply a QUEEN. Other tracks, like “Drive,” show off her creative and compelling storytelling skills. On songs like “Ghost,” she makes her hip-hop influence clear with a rapid-fire delivery and a hard-hitting bassline. You may see Halsey defined as Electronic, or Alternative, but she is a hard one to pigeonhole. Certainly, her sound was influenced by a multitude of genres and that makes her Badlands undeniable, captivating, and, frankly, genius. –Vincent
09. Purpose by Justin Bieber (November 13th)
Who would have thought that 2015 would be the year of the Bieber? After a string of public mishaps and the messiness surrounding Journals, Justin reemerged triumphant. This year brought a string of hot singles (“Where Are U Now?,” “What Do You Mean?,” “Sorry,” and “Love Yourself,” so far) and a bevy of music videos (see Purpose: The Movement) showing that Justin Bieber’s return was one that everyone wanted to see come to fruition, positively. As a child star in his teens, Bieber was beloved and cherished until the fame got to him and he became a bit of a disappointment. As he’s stated, he felt as though he lost his purpose, but with this album, he reclaimed it – and wanted to offer “hope and light” to others who might feel the same as he once did. Songs like “Mark My Words,” “I’ll Show You,” “All In It” and the title track show that this is a new confident man who’s successfully matured his sense of self, and image. Not only is it more mature in lyrical content, but in sound, too; he has transcended the confines of teen pop and has become a formidable, respectable, adult artist. A rekindled collaboration with Big Sean (“No Pressure”), an embrace of newcomer Halsey (“The Feeling”), and the cosign of hip-hop veteran Nas (“We Are”) add to his credibility. With a world tour beginning in 2016, it’s clear that Team Bieber has no intentions of slowing down, and with an album this good they don’t have any need to. –Reece & Vincent
08. Calling All Lovers by Tamar Braxton (October 2nd)
Tamar Braxton released her 3rd album at a time when she couldn’t really give music all her attention, busy as she’s been with her other ventures. The lack of commercial success for Calling All Lovers wasn’t, however, due to the quality of its tracks. The album is the result of careful work, with which Tamar ditched everything that made her breakthrough two years ago sound a tad bit silly and dated. She focused instead on a more mature and classic R&B sound and on making her musical influences shine. The album is cohesive, maybe a bit too much for some, but it shares a story, Tamar’s story, and it feels honest and heartfelt. Highlights: “Circles,” “Angels & Demons,” “I Love You.” –Mario
07. Wildheart by Miguel (June 29th)
If you don’t pay attention to the words, you’d think Miguel is simply singing about wanting to fornicate in some valley in “The Valley”. You’d think the song is nothing but a minimally produced anthem for perversity which it is of course not. Themes of lust-sickness, being simultaneously ‘immoral for the Christians and moral for the cut-throat’, and falling back to The Only One all mesh perfectly in Wildheart. Not that playing close attention is key to enjoying Miguel’s discovery of a sound that just about puts him ahead of his peers, the tight group of falsettoing R&B men. Wildheart is a patchwork of organic sounds that separate him from the Chris Browns and the Jason Derulos (whose Everything is 4, is, to be fair, quite excellent). Twisty vocal arrangements cocooned in melodic crooning (“waves”), understated sexiness (“FLESH”), brilliant wordplay (“Coffee [Fucking]”), and going back to one’s true love (“Face the Sun”) are the sort of tracks that Miguel, if we’re lucky, would sing in his legacy concert tours 15-20 years from now. Can’t wait. –Patrick
06. Beauty Behind the Madness by The Weeknd (August 28th)
The biggest breakout star from 2015, seemingly new to many, isn’t new at the very least. 2015 just so happens to be the year the mainstream public decided to take notice when The Weeknd released his sophomore album, Beauty Behind The Madness. The Weeknd retains his dark, moody, experimental, electronic R&B vibe on the album. Songs like “Can’t Feel My Face,” and “The Hills,” both of which became Billboard Hot 100 number 1 hits, still feature themes like drugs and sex. The mid-tempo standout “Acquainted,” leaked as “Girls In The 90s,” features The Weeknd serenading a lover he’s glad to put time in with. The Album of The Year, Grammy nominated LP even sees The Weeknd collaborate with a diverse group of artists. Ed Sheeran duets with The Weeknd on “Dark Times,” about continuing bad habits and always “going back to the street,” again and again. Fellow moody, experimental, pop/electronic act Lana Del Rey joins for “Prisoner,” which speaks to the struggles of addiction. Beauty Behind The Madness is the album you’re looking for if you want a unique spin to that classic, usual R&B album. There are elements of Pop, Dance, and Electronic music, but at its core its a soulful, honest record. Fair warning listeners, get ready to hear the beauty and the madness! The Weeknd explores real topics that make the world and this thing called life enjoyable, harsh, and painful. Like the opening track says, “thats real life.” –Keenan
05. Love Life by Tamia (June 9th)
Tamia’s return was far from the spectacle it should have been. Her first body of work in 3 years is easily one of the most cohesive and memorable R&B albums of the year. From the enchanting opening progressions of “Love Falls Over Me” to the slinky perfection that is “Sandwich and a Soda”, all the way to the soaring cover of “Black Butterfly” that closes things out, Tamia excels in sharing the happiness and love of in life. It’s an inspiration, and a motivation, down to the breathtakingly beautiful marriage ballad “Day One”. –Andrew
04. Reality Show by Jazmine Sullivan (January 13th)
Thank God Jazmine decided her hiatus had to be brief, because the R&B world needed more of her soulful touch. Reality Show, Sullivan’s 3rd album, is her best effort yet. Bringing some contemporary themes and sounds into her classic R&B/Soul repertoire, it shows that her pen game is still sharp and her beautiful voice is still able to touch its listeners’ hearts with its unique grit. The honesty of Jazmine’s approach to music makes her one of the best R&B artists out right now and one who will continue to make great music for as long as she’ll be able to. Her talent is undeniable. Highlights: “Mascara,” “Let It Burn,” “Brand New.” –Mario
03. 25 by Adele (November 20th)
It’s not the year’s best-selling album for no reason. While 25 is by no means a groundbreaking work, it is simply damn good. There is a simple formula to Adele’s success, really: honesty, and soul. She is not afraid to unabashedly share her feelings with us, and sing wholeheartedly. The carefree nature of her music makes it have such mass appeal. There is a certain undefinable quality to Adele that makes her all the more accessible to the masses. Perhaps its her transparency; her celebrity is not one shrouded in extraneous fanfare: she makes music, she sometimes tours, she has a son, a boyfriend, and not a single fuck to give about what anyone thinks about her or her life. What is most important, though, is that she indeed makes great music. Such examples on 25 are a six minutes long song of yearning that drips in sensuality (“I Miss You”), yet another hometown ode (“River Lea”), a perhaps-Mariah-inspired Spanish guitar ballad (“Million Years Ago”), next single “When We Were Young,” and should-be single “Water Under the Bridge.” Many will tell you that 25 is no 21, and that’s true. Lyrically, it is more mature; happier, and a bit more reflective rather than reactive. Sonically, she has delved in some sounds that are new, but, again, nothing shocking and nothing that doesn’t still feel like her old self. It probably won’t become her best selling album (21 will be hard to topple), nor is it her best (for me, 19 still reigns), but there is a progression that makes one thing very clear: her best is yet to come. —Vincent
02. To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar (March 15)
Funky. Jazzy. Important. If there are three words to accurately describe Kendrick Lamar’s heavily anticipated To Pimp A Butterfly, those are the best ones without overstating, or underestimating what kind of staying power it may have. He scat-raps “this dick ain’t free” and “you really think we could make a baby named Mercedes without a Mercedes Benz?” over a jazzy upright bass, promotes self-love on the superior mock-live version of “i,” falls apart on the dark, anxious, introverted “u,” provides the timely and necessary chant of “we gon be alright” to the Black Lives Matter movement on “Alright,” embraces the funk on “King Kunta,” and gets aggressive on “The Blacker the Berry.” It’s entertaining to watch as people debate and try to diminish the value, musicality, and relevance of this album as 2015 comes to a close, but listening to it for the first time in a few months, it is as powerful and thought-provoking as it was when released in March. –Andrew
01. Unbreakable by Janet Jackson (October 2nd)
When deciding what the year’s best album is, it is important to not only consider the quality of the album and its success among fans and the general public, but also the relevance of its content, to society and culture. We won’t pretend that Janet Jackson’s Unbreakable was a cultural phenomenon that sold 5 million copies in a month; no, that was Adele. We won’t pretend it was the most critically lauded album of 2015; that was probably Kendrick Lamar. However, if any album released in 2015 best represents the year’s events, on a global scale, it is indeed Unbreakable.
The foundation of the album, its concept and namesake, is the notion that love’s bonds are unbreakable in all forms, whether it be romantic, familial, friendship, or something greater. Unbreakable was Janet’s way of starting a conversation about the state of the world today, like she did back in 1989 with Rhythm Nation. The album’s title track introduced its theme, and “Dammn Baby” speaks of said conversation. Naturally, most of the album was likely recorded prior to 2015, however, its themes and sentiments rang all too true. The year, it seemed, was more troubled than others, but there were also some notable highs. One of said highs, in the United States, was the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. Janet’s “The Great Forever” is not only a defense of her own marriage to a Muslim man, but of marriage equality in general. On the track, she questions why anyone else should be concerned with the object of others’ affections. It is subtle, yet perhaps one of the best (and not forced in our face; looking at you, Gaga) anthems that exists for the LGBT community in regards to marriage equality.
Such socially conscious sentiments are continued on “Shoulda Known Better,” a reflective song about the way history seems to repeat itself. It is a general song that could be applied to multiple situations, but she refers to casualties of war, racism, and the need to cure social ills and abuses that exist in the world today. On the song, she encourages us all to have open minds to help make the world a better place. Later in the album, she reflects on her travels and displays her own openmindedness, singing about the beauty of all the different cultures and races around the world (“Well Travelled”).
One of the songs that became particularly relevant in light of the terror attacks in Paris, and the world’s reaction to Muslims and Syrians following it, is “Black Eagle.” It is a song about racism and inequality, and its message of acceptance and compassion is a much needed lesson for many. Other songs, like “Promise of You” speak of the value of self-worth and judgment; a message that the gunmen of the year’s many shootings might’ve needed to hear. With so many victims of hate this year a song of love and loss like Janet’s dedication to her brother Michael, “Broken Hearts Heal,” is another anthem that the family and friends of such victims might relate to. Meanwhile, on “Take Me Away,” Janet yearns to escape to a peaceful place, no doubt a yearning we all can relate to after so many saddening events this year. However, the album does end on a positive, hopeful note with “Gon’ B Alright,” ala Kendrick Lamar.
Janet may have decided to remain silent even after the album was released, but that’s because she let the songs she put together be the topic of discussion. Unbreakable is her way to reconnect with a fanbase that felt the need to hear from their idol again and she chose to do it in the most precious way, by giving them herself on record. Reuniting with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis also made the experience even more special, because it brought back the team behind the classic music she’s delivered in a career spanning almost three decades.
She may have not gotten into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but Janet’s worth this year has been cemented and her contribution to Pop music is very much evident.
–Vincent & Mario
For your listening pleasure, we’ve compiled a playlist of our favorite tracks mentioned within our reviews of the above listed albums. Enjoy!