the list of our hands-down favorite albums of 2015 will drop tomorrow. to sate your appetite for the time being, digest the work of the following five artists; each offered up a project that informed the tone of music this year, continued to shape their own artistic personae, or contributed heavily to social commentary. a few hit all three categories. links to stream are imbedded in each title; dig in below.
d’angelo & the vanguard – black messiah
without black messiah, kendrick lamar’s to pimp a butterfly would exist in a very different capacity, or perhaps not at all. d’angelo’s first album in fourteen years so profoundly affected producer terrace martin at the tail-end of 2014 that he immediately began to retouch and rework tracks on lamar’s impending release to integrate its sound into a very similar contemporary social commentary. black messiah exists in much of the same vein as sly & the family stone’s 1971 classic there’s a riot goin’ on and innervisions-era stevie wonder, with near-flawless levels of funk arrangements and intra-ensemble musicianship (questlove and pino palladino contributed heavily; d’angelo’s near-virtuosic vocal abilities and synth construction are incredible in their own right) compounded by a mixture of romantic odysseys and searing examinations of race relations. indeed, d’angelo bumped up the release date of the album he had so painstakingly labored over in direct response to the death of eric garner, the decision in ferguson not to indict darren wilson in the death of michael brown, and the protests that surrounded these events. the urgency of black messiah only became more pertinent, as 2015 ticked off killing after killing of unarmed black citizens at the hands of law enforcement; in forty years, the album will undoubtedly be one of the more salient cultural snapshots of the persisting racism in early twenty-first century america.
after a lackluster outing in 2014, you’d be slightly forgiven for assuming that nayvadius wilburn would post a similar performance this year. but only slightly. the artist better known as future instead turned in a critically-lauded résumé of two solo mixtapes (with a third purportedly on its way before the year’s end), a high-profile collaboration with drake, and his third studio album, ds2. future relies heavily on atlanta mainstays metro boomin and zaytoven to craft the dystopian harmonies that accompany his codeine-laced trap hymns on ds2 as he weaves through chest-thumping accounts of bravado (“i serve the base”) and drug-fueled debauchery (“freak hoes”) to balance out the perpetual bleakness of his persona. future could have hung his head and feebly released snippets of material after failing to live up to his expectations last year; instead, ds2 triumphantly caps off a quest for redemption that has reinstated future as a viable frontrunner for trap’s iron throne. what a time to be alive.
“i’m so new york / i still don’t bump tupac,” himanshu suri brags at the outset of “so n.y.,” the second track on eat pray thug. performing as heems while a member of das rascist and now on his own, suri has made a name for himself with brazen, laugh-out-loud statements like this one, but you can usually bet on there being underlying context. suri embodies a very particular subset of new york identity: coming of age as a brown man in post-9/11 america. on eat pray thug, suri relies on personal anecdotes to drive home the laundry list of domestic injustices faced by residents of southeast asian and middle eastern descent in the wake of the attacks, from forced assimilation (“flag shopping”) to heartbreaking consequences of racial profiling (“patriot act”). the album is a long-overdue narrative in hip-hop, one that is – in a cruel twist of events – still incredibly salient in the face of renewed xenophobia incurred by the attacks in san bernardino and paris.
lana del rey has absolutely no qualms about burning slowly for an entire hour on her third major-label full-length. honeymoon arrives on the heels of last summer’s ultraviolence and sinks even deeper into the realm of full-blown noir, a territory elizabeth grant has been meticulously constructing since the birth of her alter ego. now it’s just flat-out extravagant. the central thesis of “high by the beach,” a rare, trap-inspired moment of momentum on the album, comes off as the furthest thing from ridiculous precisely due to the effortless elegance del rey has slowly woven into her music; cinematic centerpieces “music to watch boys to” and “salvatore” follow this rationale closely as well. it speaks volumes to her artistic growth and confidence that lana del rey no longer has the proclivity for the blatantly provocative. instead, she just buries them in confessionals against a backdrop of polychromatic orchestration.
don’t kid yourself that currents bears any semblance of a revolutionary or landmark album; it doesn’t. but once you put it in its proper place, this year’s model of tame impala does turn into something special. kevin parker’s psychedelic magnum opus “let it happen” was one of the most immediately impressionable tracks of the year; the opening number on currents trudges resolutely through a succession of lush soundscapes before reaching an extended epiphany, but it’s parker’s ability and willingness to extend his odyssey that makes the album truly worthwhile. every wandering, slow-burning moment (ie. “yes i’m changing,” “past life”) is balanced out by adroit slices of straight-up pop (ie. “the less i know the better,” “disciples”), adding a crucial third dimension that’s ultimately responsible for binding currents together.