How good of a year did L.A. have for new music? So good that this list of the 20 best albums and EPs to emerge from our city in 2015 could easily have been twice as long.
It's a list dominated by hip-hop, thanks to some keepers of the gangsta-rap flame and a trio of rule-breaking young guns (Kendrick, Earl, Vince). But there are other storylines to be found here, as well: a huge resurgence in jazz, led by game-changer Kamasi Washington; R&B and funk releases both sacred and profane — or, in the case of Miguel, a little of both; enough good rock albums to make me admit I was wrong about the health (no pun intended) of L.A.'s rock scene; transplants (specifically, Grimes and Deafheaven) continuing to infuse our city with new energy and sounds; and yet another year of creative dominance by Brainfeeder, with three of their releases making the cut.
Truly, 2015 brought us an embarrassment of riches, of which the below list (and accompanying Spotify playlist) only scratches the surface. We hope you're as excited as we are to see what 2016 has in store. — Andy Hermann, music editor
20. Kneebody & Daedelus, Kneedelus (Brainfeeder)
Saxophonist Ben Wendel and DJ Alfred Darlington, friends since high school, have each cultivated tremendous success making music on the outer limits of imagination and innovation, Wendel with the Grammy-nominated progressive-jazz group Kneebody and Darlington as a pioneering DJ and electronic artist under his moniker Daedelus. Kneebody and Daedelus have collaborated on live shows since 2009, and their off-and-on flirtations have finally produced this mutant love-child of an album, which retains special powers from both parents. There are surprising amounts of elongated space; vast, bleak landscapes evoking Daedelus' pensive 2014 masterpiece, The Light Brigade. Those who like to get their groove on need not fear, for there are also moments of sheer rhythmic and sonic catalyst, a concoction of jazz, rock and electronica fast approaching its creators' stated goal of "technological singularity," where humans and computers meet and meld in indistinguishable perfection. —Gary Fukushima
19. J*Davey, Pomp (ILLAV8R)
Pomp serves up more of the timeless, undefinable, multigenre-influenced sound that has come to characterize J*Davey since the duo emerged nearly a decade ago. The eight-song EP features synth-heavy, midtempo dance tracks like “Strong Anticipation” and “High on Life,” the flirtatious, Pat Benatar–esque “For Love” and dark disco tune “Coulda Shoulda Woulda.” Pomp also showcases the rapping skills of lead singer Miss Jack Davey on the “Bit of Banter” intro and outro, as well as the dancehall-tinged “Libido.” —Jacqueline Michael Whatley
18. FIDLAR, Too (Mom + Pop)
It may be cliché for a hard-charging young garage-rock band to "mature" on their sophomore album, but FIDLAR managed to breathe new life into that narrative on Too. Singer-guitarist Zac Carper's addiction struggles and subsequent sobriety are themes throughout the record. But don't think the band has gone soft; if anything, the quartet has become even more defiant, retaining the brash sound that made them DIY favorites. Recorded in Nashville, Too reveals a FIDLAR at once bolder and more polished, proving that growing up sometimes isn't as bad as it's made out to be. —Daniel Kohn
17. Game, Documentary 2 (Blood Money)
In the year of To Pimp a Butterfly and Straight Outta Compton, the Hub City has been portrayed as a home of shattered dreams, broken promises and success stories turned sour. Who better to embody this than Compton’s last gangsta-rap star, who’s spent the last decade straddling the line between self-immolation and self-parody? Game may be a clown to some, but he’s probably the only man who can assemble Dre, Cube, Diddy, Snoop, Kendrick, Drake and Kanye on the same record. In the company of so many collaborators, Game almost becomes a cover artist, seamlessly adopting their flows and themes, weaving together a patchwork tribute to the little city that’s both his hometown and the birthplace of gangsta rap as we know it. Documentary 2 is classic Game in all his name-dropping, punchline-stretching glory, but he's also absorbed Kendrick’s cinematic tendencies, inserting snippets of dialogue to create a sense of place. The familiar samples enhance the nostalgia, and there’s a supplementary disc, Documentary 2.5, almost as good as the first. An event album in the truest sense, Documentary 2 isn’t Game’s best record, but it might be his most important. —Pete Tosiello
16. Best Coast, California Nights (Harvest)
Best Coast are a bit like a game of hopscotch. The strategy is simple: Take a few hops forward, sometimes inside the box, sometimes outside, and with enough practice at the reliable pattern comes enough skill to exercise a little style in your step. 2010’s Crazy for You laid the basics of Best Coast’s game — earnest lyrics about being stoned and in love, interspersed with a few ooh’s and ahh’s, and unbelievably catchy hooks drenched in honey, sunshine and surf. California Nights shows off the tricks Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno have mastered after many run-throughs of that formula since — opening track “Feeling OK” is incredibly polished, while the title track is a hazy, gliding departure from the crunchy pop we’ve come to depend on from the duo. In its familiar patterns, California Nights is as endearing as any Best Coast release to date. —Artemis Thomas-Hansard
15. Talk in Tongues, Alone With a Friend (Fairfax)
Shoegaze is in good hands with these incredibly talented (and incredibly young — when we profiled them in April, no one in the band was over 22) L.A. natives, who cranked up the flanger pedals and vocal harmonies on their shimmering debut. "Mas Doper (Love Me Probably)" reimagines Toro y Moi's lava-lamp chillwave for the Eastside psych-rock crowd; lead single "Still Don't Seem to Care" oozes out of the speakers like a lost Slowdive B-side. McCoy Kirgo and Garrett Zeile's gauzy guitar effects are what first grab you, but repeat listens reveal a muscular rhythm section in bassist Waylon Rector and drummer Bryan De Leon, especially on the casually funky "While Everyone Was Waiting" and the hard-charging "She Lives in My House," a highlight of their live set. Perhaps because of their youth, Talk in Tongues' undeniably retro sound never feels like mere pastiche or rehash — instead, it brims with inspiration and precocious raw talent. —Andy Hermann
14. Dr. Dre, Compton (Aftermath)
Let’s be honest. The fact that Dr. Dre made an album at all, after 16 years of hemming and hawing about Detox — not to mention teasing a concept album he claimed was his “interpretation of what each planet sounds like” (?!) — is cause for celebration. The fact that it was actually good, and not an overstuffed hot mess à la Chinese Democracy, is astounding. But even if we’re not grading on a curve here, there’s a lot to love about Compton. Much of the album is grounded in the youthful vigor of Dre’s newest protégé, Kendrick Lamar, as well as the relative newcomer Anderson .Paak, who came out of left field to steal the album’s spotlight with his soulful and sticky hooks. Meanwhile, Dre turns to old cohorts such as Game, Eminem, Ice Cube, Xzibit and Cold 187um — not to mention samples of Eazy-E and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony — to provide a peek into Dre’s past as well as the history of Los Angeles itself. And as the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton showed, Dre's history and L.A.'s have often been one and the same. —Drew Millard
13. Health, Death Magic (Loma Vista)
After six years with only a remix album and a soundtrack to the Max Payne 3 video game to occupy fans’ attention, DIY heroes Health finally returned, now on the same label as Marilyn Manson and St. Vincent. The band’s blistering, experimental noise is still present on Death Magic; “Men Today” appears early in the collection to calm longtime followers with pulverizing percussion and blown-speaker textures. But what makes the album captivating is the turn to radio-ready structures, with tracks such as “Stonefist” and “Life” delivering the kind of darkwave industrial that KROQ might play if it were a little more adventurous. Death Magic is 2015’s update on the aesthetic of Trent Reznor and the midnight melodies of Depeche Mode, a sound achieved without sacrificing the identity that Health has been honing for a decade, since the band emerged out of the Smell as one of L.A.'s most promising acts. —Philip Cosores
12. Freddie Gibbs, Shadow of a Doubt (ESGN)
Freddie Gibbs is the most believable gangsta rapper working today. It’s the conviction in the Gary, Indiana, native’s voice as much as it is the repetition of the macabre details. Anyone who raps about split keys, emptied clips and closed caskets with such fervency and frequency isn’t lying. Shadow of a Doubt is another hand-to-brick testament. Over suites that temper the unforgiving percussion of trap rap with the swirling atmospherics of cloud rap, Gibbs glides. He relays the felonious with a markedly Midwestern delivery, his fluid double-time direct from Twista, and his melodic half-sung lines borrowed from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. It’s reverent reinterpretation, not paint-by-numbers pastiche. Shadow of a Doubt doesn’t tread any new territory, but it’s a cohesive, meticulously sequenced album that expands the sonic template of contemporary gangsta rap. Given L.A.’s history with the subgenre, it’s only right that the album was made here. —Max Bell
11. Deafheaven, New Bermuda (Anti-)
Deafheaven's floral artillery sounds black metal–ish, but also manages to create something beautiful amid the onslaught of rage. On their third album, New Bermuda, Deafheaven continue to augment metal with their juxtaposition of blinding light and blackness. Singer George Clarke's endless growl blends each song together into one monolithic slab of major-minor chord progressions that quickly go from hazy to pyrotechnic — as if controls are set for the heart of the sun, on a journey from frozen space into fiery doom. Without the need for bridge piercings and faux-Satanist gimmickry, the quintet has managed to gain the respect of black-metal snobs since 2013's critically acclaimed Sunbather. New Bermuda is 47 minutes of painkilling in the key of brutal holiness — like watching a California wildfire soundtracked by medieval opera overtures in an opioid haze. — Art Tavana
10. Dam-Funk, Invite the Light (Stones Throw)
There’s something truly holy about this 20-track, 80-minute masterpiece. It took Dam-Funk six years to make, and while it doesn’t have the same political edge or pop focus as some of the other funk-influenced efforts to arrive this year (e.g., Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special), it contains within its bosom of luxurious synthesizer groove an epic vision of surveillance, style, weirdness, realness, desire and death. Absorbing the wide span of this music’s history, the musician born Damon Riddick has honed a sound that is both deeply personal and convivial in nature. Long a disciple of the funk, Dam has proven himself a master, as well. —Peter Holslin
9. Josh Nelson, Exploring Mars (Origin)
Josh Nelson is a jazz pianist unstuck in time. On his latest release, he tackles frizzy prog-rock freakouts, interstellar balladry (with the achingly golden-toned vocalist Kathleen Grace) and even Gustav Holst’s 100-year-old reflections on our solar system, The Planets, with a bit of welcome studio trickery. Nelson has been a fixture on local piano benches since the end of the last century but has increased his profile lately by adding art installations to his live shows, tying intricate, swirling immersions of flickering light with his churning chamber ensemble — the perfect soundtrack to another night in a Martian bunker. The resulting album is an engaging work of swinging theatricality, brimming with soaring musicianship unbound from jazz’s usual gravitational pull. —Sean J. O'Connell
8. Colleen Green, I Want to Grow Up (Hardly Art)
“Cuz I’m sick of being immature, I wanna be responsible,” is something we definitely did not expect to hear out of stoner-pop queen Colleen Green. In the past, weed has been the backbone to her songs as much as her drum machine. Her unexpected turn, I Want to Grow Up, is evocative of the struggle each of us goes through as we are smacked in the face with adulthood. “TV” is both charmingly hooky and depressingly relatable, sung from a place of social anxiety and isolation, while “Deeper Than Love” explores fears of intimacy with poignant simplicity. The latter song's chorus, which repeats “I don’t wanna think about it, it’s too scary,” is revealing of a person on the threshold of existential crisis — which, somehow, Green still manages to make sound good. —Artemis Thomas-Hansard
7. Thundercat, The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam (Brainfeeder)
Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner's six-track “mini-album” showcases the bassist's marriage of jazz, electronic and hip-hop at its most thought-provoking. On the album's opener, ”Hard Times," Bruner sings, "Time to shed some skin," setting the tone for 16 minutes of vulnerability and anguish. On “Song for the Dead,” he reflects upon racism and tragedy in the United States and on the loss of his friend, fellow Brainfeeder artist Austin Peralta, who lost his life at 22 in 2012. On the single “Them Changes,” featuring Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington, Bruner sings, “Why in the world would I give my heart to you/Just to watch you throw it in the trash?” On the album’s last track, “Where The Giants Roam/Field of the Nephilim,” Bruner reveals that he’s still coming to terms with personal tragedy with the hauntingly gorgeous lyrics, "Where the giants roam, down in your mind/Somewhere between space and time/Watching, waiting for their time." — Layne Weiss
6. Grimes, Art Angels (4AD)
Drawing from Japanese kawaii and gothic Lolitas, Claire Boucher aka Grimes appeared on the cover of the September issue of Fader looking "sweet, but with teeth." Grimes' demon-angel feminism has upgraded through the years, like a graphics processor going from 8-bit on her debut, Geidi Primes, to anime superheroine on this year's Art Angels. Grimes' digital samurai sword drips with skywalking diss tracks, bleeding cartoon eyeballs, Japanese detective drama, Indian folk and the digital charm of a Final Fantasy RPG set in the hills of Hollywood — Grimes' new home, where she continues to power up as electronic auteur, designer and disco diva with a falsetto that liquefies the male gaze. —Art Tavana
5. Miguel, Wildheart (RCA)
From the opening, throbbing guitar riffs on “a beautiful exit” to the heartbeatlike percussion underscoring “face the sun,” Miguel’s Wildheart is everything The Weeknd’s music wishes it could be. Miguel’s crooning voice envelops the listener, rendering the profane (like “the valley,” an ode to a woman’s sensuality) sacred. The album isn’t just about sex, though — Miguel also gets introspective on tracks like “what’s normal anyway” and “Hollywood Dreams,” examining both his racial and artistic identity. The crown jewel is the album’s lead single, “coffee,” which combines a catchy hook with specific imagery that comes to life with incredible ease. —Katie Buenneke
4. Earl Sweatshirt, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside (Columbia/Tan Cressida)
Rappers these days live in a world driven by hooks and clicks, where pressure to produce at an insane rate is goaded on by legions of opinionated bloggers and 16-year-old Instagram trolls. The momentum must be invigorating for some, but I Don’t Like Shit is all about what happens when you finally slam on the brakes to examine who you really are. Earl’s thoughts are as intricate as his raps, as he mercilessly dissects a host of fakers and hangers-on while keeping his real friends close (in the form of guest spots, such as Na’kel’s breathtaking verse on “DNA”). But more importantly, he digs into his own issues. Backed up by potent, self-produced beats, he sounds more confident on the mic than ever, yet reflects on how his path can lead to self-destruction. It’s an album full of painful but necessary realizations, and anyone who's been there can likely relate. —Peter Holslin
3. Vince Staples, Summertime ’06 (Def Jam)
“Fight between my conscience, and the skin that's on my body/Man, I need to fight the power, but I need that new Ferrari,” Vince Staples raps on “Lift Me Up,” the astounding opening track on Summertime ‘06, his formal debut on Def Jam. In a scant two lines, the 22-year-old rapper from Long Beach manages to summarize much of the debate swirling around hip-hop in 2015: the struggle between the brain and the body, between the political and the hedonistic. But like much of the best rap from this year, Staples proves these binaries are false simply by virtue of his existence. Staples hits the sweet spot between the sweeping rhetoric of Kendrick Lamar and the hyper-focused introspection of Earl Sweatshirt, using his own experiences to illustrate the sociopolitical damnation of the 'hood. Throw in the fact that he’s got one of the funniest Twitter accounts around, and Vince Staples had one hell of a 2015. —Drew Millard
2. Kamasi Washington, The Epic (Brainfeeder)
Three-hour jazz records are flat-capped old-man and freaky beatnik grad-student territory, right? In this case, hardly. Saxophone savant and bandleader Kamasi Washington gives us full permission to drop those tired tropes at every twist and turn of The Epic's picaresque journey through the stylistic devices and conceits of historical and contemporary jazz. He might as well have called it Fuck What You Thought, given his uncanny ability to reframe the narrative of what jazz ought to be in 2015.
Usually a side man to hip-hop luminaries (see below), this record is definitely his own odyssey. He plies us with strings and choruses while playing with funk, freak and even smooth notes over nods to past masters — Coltrane and Davis, most emphatically. He stays in cool territory throughout, however, almost to remind us that his roots are firmly planted on the West Coast. While The Epic isn’t the only great jazz record that came out this year (based on the press it's gotten, you'd be forgiven for thinking so), it significantly extends the tidal limit for everything in the genre that follows. —Paul T. Bradley
1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly (Aftermath/Interscope/TDE)
Kendrick Lamar Duckworth loves to position himself as the heir apparent to 2Pac — even going so far as to edit together an imaginary conversation between himself and the martyred West Coast icon at the conclusion of this, his staggering third LP. But like many things in the brilliant Compton rapper's music and lyrics, it's a bit of a red herring. Kendrick is sui generis, a street poet with the soul of an old jazz man, James Baldwin in black sclera contact lenses, the anointed savior of hip-hop who rejects radio-friendly beats and insider beefs in favor of Flying Lotus collabs and Roots references (Alex Haley, not Questlove).
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To Pimp a Butterfly is his sprawling, messy, nakedly ambitious masterpiece. Beginning with Dr. Dre and George Clinton, and ending with 2Pac and the Isley Brothers, Kendrick seems determined to cram the past 50 years of African-American music into a single album — and thanks mainly to stellar contributions from a who's-who of L.A. jazz, hip-hop and beat scene players, notably Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington and Thundercat, he comes remarkably close to succeeding. Thematically, the record is just as far-reaching, touching on everything from Trayvon Martin to gang violence to Kendrick's own struggles with survivor's guilt as an escapee from the violence and poverty of his neighborhood. It's tough stuff, and the album's most musically seductive moments are often there to ease the blow of K-Dot's most lacerating narratives — as on "These Walls," in which the rapper half-boasts, half-confesses to revenge-fucking the girlfriend of a man in jail for murdering one of his friends.
The key track on To Pimp a Butterfly is "The Blacker the Berry," a meditation on hypocrisy — the hypocrisy of racism, the hypocrisy of being a commercially successful but politically aware rapper in 2015 and, most scathingly, the hypocrisy of gang-related black-on-black violence in this era of Black Lives Matter ("So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?/When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?"). No other rapper of Lamar's generation has the rhetorical skills to even attempt anything so controversial. That he's fearless enough to unpack such difficult subjects is commendable; that he's talented enough to do it with such artistry is a gift our contentious era desperately needs. —Andy Hermann