soulhead Presents: The 20 Finest Albums of 2015 [YEAR-IN-REVIEW + FULL STREAMS]

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With the rapid proliferation of music streaming services during the past few years—including the much-ballyhooed TIDAL re-launch and high profile Apple Music launch this year—music has never been more accessible and shareable than it is right now. Having millions of songs, the latest album releases, and decades’ worth of artist discographies right at our fingertips seems wonderful in theory, doesn’t it? In practice, however, such widespread on-demand availability can be overwhelming—not to mention time-consuming—for many of us, as we attempt to discern quality amidst the massive quantities of recordings at our immediate disposal.

Here at soulhead, we consume music as if our very lives depend on it. And while a ton of new music comes across our desks each and every day, we love nothing more than sifting through all of it—the good, the mediocre, and the downright awful—and sharing the artists, albums, songs and videos we love with all of you, our fellow soulheads.

To celebrate the music that moved us most profoundly in 2015, we have curated a list of the 20 finest albums of the year, in our humble opinions. Read on below to discover which long players made the cut, and of course, be sure to let us know which albums you rocked the hardest this year!

soulhead Presents: The 20 Finest Albums of 2015

 

#1 The Internet | Ego Death
Odd Future/Columbia

TheInternet_EgoDeath

What we said: “Uncompromisingly imaginative and bold—both sonically and conceptually—Ego Death is propelled by Syd tha Kyd’s softly sensuous vocals and unapologetically sincere lyrics that glide atop lushly atmospheric grooves. Rest assured, when our final Best of the Year list surfaces in December, Ego Death will be represented and most likely near the top of the list. Essential listening, indeed, and unequivocally The Internet’s career breakthrough.”

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#2
Kendrick Lamar | To Pimp a Butterfly
Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope

KendrickLamar_ToPimpAButterfly

What we said: “To Pimp a Butterfly is not so much an album as it is a very public conversation with Black people, Brown people, poor people, and indeed, all who have ears to listen. As good music is, this album is part talk therapy, part overture to a revolution, part dinnertime at Grandma’s table, part frolic in Strawberry Fields, part wanderings in a desert called Wilderness. In the end, Kendrick acknowledges that this plot is bigger than him. But as the proverbial butterfly for which the album is named, he has found his wings and can see past the slovenly ways of the caterpillar and the confines of the cocoon.”

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#3 The Game | The Documentary 2
Blood Money/eOne

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What we said: “Within the contextual backdrop of gang-banging and the complexities of that lifestyle, the album picks up right where his breakthrough 2005 debut LP The Documentary left off a decade ago. Only this time ‘round, The Game has ascended to greater, more expansive musical heights, as the albums’ addictive soundscapes come courtesy of legendary producers like DJ Premier, DJ Quik, Alchemist, and will.i.am, to name a few. Lyrically, he rhymes with his signature potency and aggression that seldom leave much to the imagination.”

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#4 Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment | Surf
Self-released

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Surf may seem like an obscure dark horse of a selection to crack our top 5, but dig a bit deeper and you’ll discover one of the most ambitiously conceived and sonically stunning albums of the year. Spearheaded by trumpeter Nico Segal (a.k.a. Donnie Trumpet) and originally unveiled as a free iTunes download back in May, this genre-blurring, ensemble affair features plenty of familiar names. Beyond The Social Experiment’s most high profile member, Chance the Rapper, guests on the album include Erykah Badu, Big Sean, BJ the Chicago Kid, Busta Rhymes, J. Cole, Janelle Monáe, and Raury, among others, plus a host of lesser known collaborators. In a Fader cover story earlier this year, Chance the Rapper explains that “Every record has like 50 people on it. The idea is to make a singular, four-minute-and-30-second song that feels like a year’s worth of music.” With a ton of unexpected yet rewarding delights that unfurl with each listen, Surf is arguably the most gratifying musical epiphany of the year.

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#5 BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah | Sour Soul
Lex Records

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What we said: “On paper at least, the unorthodox pairing of three scholarly Canadian jazz musicians and the Wu-Tang Clan’s master storyteller Ghostface Killah might not make intuitive sense. But take one listen to the excellent Sour Soul and you’ll recognize just how natural and stirring of a collaboration it is. Taking cues from the Blaxploitation film soundtracks of the past, the trio’s haunting leftfield grooves supply the perfect soundscapes for Ghostface’s super-charged rhymes to shine. An enchanting listen that only gets better with each subsequent spin.”

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#6 Miguel | Wildheart
ByStorm/RCA

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What we said: “Wildheart isn’t entirely something new. But it’s new for Miguel; it is him at peak performance. The compilation of songs, the skillful use of voice, and arrangement of music really helps to make this album a notable follow-up to his previous two, and will very likely surpass the others in popularity. In listening through it, it’s clear that he is comfortable not just simply crafting the songs that will be the promotional “hits” but instead is really focused on the full body of work. Let it be said that with Wildheart, Miguel has more than earned his keep in the hearts of fans and appreciators of soulful R&B.”

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#7 Dr. Dre | Compton: A Soundtrack by Dr. Dre
Aftermath/Interscope

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What we said: “At the risk of stating the obvious, the album simply sounds AWESOME. Dre’s powerful soundscapes are as meticulously crafted as ever, replete with his signature beats, snares and synths, but also featuring several jazz flourishes throughout, which lend the album a more meditative feel overall than Dre’s previous efforts. While the various narratives and reminiscences amount to a grand tribute to Compton, when coupled with Dre’s compositions and imbibed as a unified whole, one realizes that Dre’s hometown isn’t the only thing being celebrated here. Dre and his colleagues are also extolling the virtues of the album as art form, the album as aural cinema.”

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https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/compton/id1025137696

 

#8 Lianne La Havas | Blood
Nonesuch/Warner Bros.

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Our very own Michael A. Gonzales recently penned a solid primer of “Essential British Soul,” and one artist that will unquestionably be included within this category sooner than later is Lianne La Havas. The London-bred, Prince-endorsed songstress captured plenty of acclaim overseas in 2012 with her Mercury Music Prize nominated debut album Is Your Love Big Enough?, and her follow-up effort Blood is an even more dynamic manifestation of her stunning vocals and intelligent songwriting. An understated power pervades the subdued, downtempo fare featured here, with the album’s sweeping, atmospheric sounds supplying the perfect backdrop for La Havas’ majestic voice to shine. Sophisticated soul has seldom sounded as enchanting as this.

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#9 Hiatus Kaiyote | Choose Your Weapon
Flying Buddha

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What we said: “A progressive potpourri of styles—from soul to funk to jazz to breakbeat and beyond—the sophomore LP from Australian quartet Hiatus Kaiyote demands to be played multiple times, so as to repay the listener’s dedication by gradually revealing its myriad sonic nuances and delights. So-called experimental music often has a tendency to sound contrived or forced, favoring innovation at the expense of pleasure. But in the case of the inventive Choose Your Weapon, the results of Hiatus Kaiyote’s ambitious experiments simply sound superb.”

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#10 Blackalicious | Imani, Vol. 1
OGM Recordings

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It was no minor feat for Blackalicious to build upon the lyrical and sonic excellence of their past efforts (Melodica, Nia, Blazing Arrow, The Craft), but the charismatic Bay Area duo overcome the challenge in convincing fashion on their much-anticipated fourth full-length album. The product of a successful crowdfunding initiative via PledgeMusic, Imani, Vol. 1 finds The Gift of Gab’s unbridled vocabulary, provocative lyrics and adept rhymeplay in top form, perfectly complemented by Chief Xcel’s inventive, funky soundscapes. Don’t look now, but Blackalicious is methodically curating one of the most consistently stellar discographies hip-hop has ever seen.

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#11 Disclosure | Caracal
PMR/Island

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What we said: “With the brilliance of their debut album Settle, Disclosure established their own creative bar so astronomically high that their follow-up was destined to bring the Lawrence brothers back down closer to earth, at least according to their own lofty standards and their supporters’ unfair expectations. Indeed, when juxtaposed with Settle, Caracal struggles to compete. However, relative to the lion’s share of new albums that have surfaced this year, Caracal unquestionably makes for a far more gratifying listening experience. So while it would seem that Settle’s massive success has proven both a blessing and a curse for the duo, Caracal is nevertheless a solid manifestation of the group’s sonic evolution that will keep us as eager as ever to discover the next chapter in Disclosure’s blossoming career.”

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#12 Gary Clark Jr. | The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim
Warner Bros.

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What we said: “Praised by Rolling Stone magazine, Eric Clapton and Alicia Keys, contemporary bluesman Gary Clark Jr.’s career has propelled quite nicely since his big-label debut Blak and Blu was released in 2012. Since then, the 31-year-old Austin, Texas native has toured the world, boogied with Beyoncé, and opened for D’Angelo while also managing to record one of the most dynamic albums this year, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim. Although schooled by the blues from the age of 12, Clark is also down with the bop of hip-hop, the bottom of fierce funk, and the dramatics of classic rock. Last year, Clark earned his first Grammy Award for Best Traditional R&B performance for “Please Come Home.” However, as talented as he has proven to be (even making inroads with his producing game as can be heard on the sonically wonderful Sonny Boy Slim), we expect that won’t be the only prize he receives.”

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#13 Robert Glasper | Covered (The Robert Glasper Trio Recorded Live at Capitol Studios)
Blue Note

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What we said: “Covered revisits the acoustic trio structure found on Glasper’s earlier LPs, while simultaneously incorporating echoes of the more iconoclastic spirit that defined both Black Radio efforts. Featuring rousing reinventions of songs by Radiohead, Bilal, Kendrick Lamar, Joni Mitchell, John Legend, Musiq Soulchild, and Jhené Aiko, Covered is an exhilarating return to Glasper’s musical roots and compelling testament to the unassuming beauty of his ever-expansive musical palette.”

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#14 Georgia Anne Muldrow | A Thoughtiverse Unmarred
Mello Music Group

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What we said: “While her previous works and collaborations have certainly incorporated elements of hip-hop, A Thoughtiverse Unmarred is the Los Angeles native’s first rap album explicitly billed as such. A self-proclaimed “seeker and truth-teller,” Muldrow’s eloquent rhymes are as provocative and incisive as any top emcee in the game today. But make no mistake, the album is far from just an intellect-stroking head trip, as producer Chris Keys’ inspired beats make this a thoroughly engaging listen from first song to last. Once you enter Muldrow’s provocatively profound Thoughtiverse, you’ll never want to leave.”

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#15 The Foreign Exchange | Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey
The Foreign Exchange Music

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The dynamic duo of Little Brother alum Phonte Coleman and Dutch producer Nicolay recently expanded to a quintet, adding vocalists Carmen Rodgers and Tamisha Waden, as well as multi-instrumentalist Zo! (Lorenzo Ferguson). Presumably as a result of the bolstered lineup, the group’s sound has matured in exciting ways as well, propelled by euphoric, breezy soul-house that harkens back across eras to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s golden age of psychedelic soul, ‘80s danceable soul, and 90s neo-soul, yet still firmly rooted in contemporary R&B. With album number five, the band has crafted an immersive musical excursion reminiscent of the kaleidoscopic sonic templates embraced by groups such as Incognito, Ananda Project, Stereolab, and 4Hero (who Phonte has collaborated with in the past). If you haven’t already, you need to reserve your ticket to the land of milk and honey…stat.

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#16 Leon Bridges | Coming Home
Columbia

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What we said: “You’d be hard-pressed to find many R&B artists working today—let alone those featured here in this column—that don’t infuse some modicum of vintage soul within their music. But few embody the retro-soul sound and aesthetic as devotedly and unabashedly as the 25 year-old Texas-bred crooner Leon Bridges does. Propelled by a balanced mix of earnest doo-wop ballads, melodic gospel hymns, and gently swinging-and-swaying jams, Bridges’ meticulously crafted debut LP sounds as if it was made fifty-five years ago, and it sounds divine.”

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#17 Wyles & Simpson | Wyles & Simpson
MTA Records

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What we said: “The dynamic English duo of Abigail Wyles and Holly Simpson make shimmering, elegant electro-soul of the most enthralling caliber. Wyles’ elegantly soulful vocals juxtaposed with Simpson’s mellifluously moody soundscapes makes for an intoxicating pairing that you won’t be able to resist. Wyles & Simpson is the kind of under-the-radar album you’ll want to tell all of your friends about, not because you crave the credit for being among the enlightened first-to-know, but rather because you wholeheartedly believe in its brilliance and want others to indulge in it right along with you.”

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#18 Van Hunt | The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets
Godless-Hotspot

VanHunt_TheFunRisesTheFunSets

What we said: “While Van Hunt unquestionably draws inspiration from the forefathers of the Dayton, Ohio sound, he injects his own unique personality and voice throughout his music, and nowhere is this more evident than on his gritty yet gorgeous fifth studio LP. With Van Hunt’s versatile vocals and confessional narratives shining bright throughout, The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets is a thoroughly imaginative and inspired effort that provokes your mind, body, and soul in equal measure.”

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#19 Jazmine Sullivan | Reality Show
RCA

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One of the finest modern-day soul singers, the Philly-bred siren Jazmine Sullivan has consistently imbued her music with unparalleled emotion and sincerity since her debut album Fearless arrived seven years ago. On third album Reality Show, it’s evident that Sullivan’s sound has evolved in thrilling and varied ways, incorporating hip-hop, R&B, jazz, electro-soul, funk, courtesy of a crop of adept producers. Three albums in, and for as wonderful as Sullivan has proven to be thus far, we suspect she hasn’t even remotely come close to her creative peak.

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#20 Slum Village | YES!
Ne’astra Music

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What we said: “The 12-song set features the rousing rhymes of T3 and Young RJ, the production wizardry of the late great J Dilla on nine tracks (four of which are co-produced by Young RJ), plus stellar collaborations with De La Soul, Bilal, Phife Dawg, Black Milk, Jon Connor, BJ the Chicago Kid, Illa J, and J Ivy. Comfortably straddling the line between old-school and new-school hip-hop sensibilities, YES! is proof positive that Slum Village’s knack for crafting memorable tunes shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.”

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