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From Jazz To Latin To R&B, NPR Music's Favorite Albums Of 2015 So Far


Let's talk about music. Do you remember the last time you bought a full album - actually sat down and stuck with something for the entire track list? If you're a fan of the full album experience, you might feel like you're in a shrinking minority. It is the age of streaming singles and one-off YouTube links. But you album fans have some friends. NPR Music has spent the last month listening to, arguing about and voting on a list of their 25 favorite albums from the first half of 2015.


ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) My life, your life. Don't cross them lines.


SINGER KACEY MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Because I'm just a dime store cowgirl.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).


MARTIN: From Kamasi Washington saxophone to the Alabama Shakes, NPR music editor Jacob Ganz is here to talk through some of these selection. Hey, Jacob.

JACOB GANZ, BYLINE: Howdy, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK, so aside from Taylor Swift or Beyonce, album sales have fallen steadily since 2000. And there have been a whole lot of think pieces by music critics eulogizing the album. I happen to know you disagree. Tell me why the album is not dead.

GANZ: The album is definitely not dead, if only because it makes an absolute coherent statement. It's the quickest way to deeply understand where a musician is coming from. A single might give you a burst of energy or a really quick hit of something that you need in a specific moment. But when you commit to an album, it's really a deeper understanding, a longer soak in what they're doing. That's sort of what we try to do with this list.

MARTIN: All right, OK, I buy it. I buy it.

GANZ: Whether or not the albums are selling well...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GANZ: ...Is another question. That is a definitive no.

MARTIN: OK, so let's get right into it. There's one album that you did not have to argue about. It had to be on the list. We're talking about Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp A Butterfly."


KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) Where were you when I was walking? Now I run the game, for the whole world talking. King Kunta - everybody want to cut the legs off him - Kunta. That man taking no losses, oh yeah.

MARTIN: It's a great album.

GANZ: Yeah. I mean, probably the most acclaimed album of the year so far from any genre. He's an extremely compelling voice, first off. You can hear in just the way he delivers his rhymes.


LAMAR: (Rapping) The yam is the power that be.

GANZ: He's got that grittiness to his voice. He packs so much into this - references to Kunta Kinte from Alex Haley's "Roots." He makes him royalty in this song, "King Kunta." You know, there's references to music that dates back to the early '90s.

MARTIN: But tell me why it's worth my time to sit through the whole thing.

GANZ: It's worth your time because Kendrick Lamar - you know, like, this song is incredibly catchy, but it deepens and he makes everything more complex the longer that you listen to it.


LAMAR: (Rapping) Something's in the water.

GANZ: He starts out with it from a perspective that you might think - OK, he's commenting on race in America in 2015, but he's doing that not necessarily from a political standpoint, but from a personal standpoint. And he does it in a way that doesn't provide easy answers. By the time you get to the end of this record, you've not necessarily got a cleaner understanding of the way things are in the world, but you've got a very, very vivid portrait of a man trying to understand those issues.

MARTIN: OK, next one. You all agreed on this album - Courtney Barnett's "Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit." Let's take a listen to this track. It's called "Pedestrian At Best."


COURTNEY BARNETT: (Singing) I love you. I hate you. I'm on the fence. It all depends. Whether I'm up or down, I'm on the mend, transcending all reality. I like you, despise you, admire you. What are we going to do when everything all falls through?

MARTIN: So Courtney Barnett has dabbled in some other genres, but this is pretty much just straight up rock 'n roll.

GANZ: Yeah, and that's actually the biggest development for Courtney Barnett here. She's always been an incredible wordsmith, a great writer. She starts off small. Where Kendrick Lamar maybe starts off huge and narrows it down to a specific person's focus, she usually starts off with a tiny, little observation and then widens things. And maybe something starts off with just a song about a road trip, and it becomes a treatise on industrial agriculture and it's...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GANZ: Seriously. Or maybe - there's a song on the record called "Depreston."


BARNETT: (Singing) We drive to a house in Preston. We see police arresting a man with his hand in a bag.

GANZ: It's about hunting for a new house and then realizing, through the things that are in the house, that somebody has lived there before, that it has a history, that there's...

MARTIN: She's a great songwriter - storyteller.

GANZ: She's a great storyteller, but the music here has a lot more energy and a lot more power than the stuff that she had released previously. It was a total no-brainer for us.


BARNETT: (Singing) It's got a lovely garden, a garage for two cars to park in, or a lot of room for storage if you've just got one.

MARTIN: OK. And, as you mentioned, it's a diverse list, right? You've got some classical albums on here as well?

GANZ: Yeah, totally. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project performed a very recent classical piece by a composer named Andrew Norman. It's called "Play," and it's intense.

MARTIN: All right, let's listen.


MARTIN: OK, I realize this may be complicated and acclaimed, but I don't know if that - what I just heard is drawing in and makes we want to sit for 45 minutes and listen to more. Is that OK to say?

GANZ: That is totally fair. You know, that's the very beginning of the piece. It's meant to overwhelm you. It's meant to sweep you away, to either blow your mind or, like, make you take a step back.

MARTIN: Andrew Norman is a young composer. He's 35 years old. He structured the piece into three sections. Like, what you might call movements, he calls them levels, like in videogames - level one, level two, level three - that feel completely different, but all sort of cohere together in a really interesting way.

MARTIN: And getting back to the videogame thing, I mean, levels one, two, three, that suggests there's a payoff. Like, if you get to level three, you're going to be wowed.

GANZ: There is a catharsis, and there is a sort of moment where everything builds to a climax at the end of level three. It's a pretty remarkable piece. I mean, I wish that I could see it.


MARTIN: OK, last pick. It's a holiday weekend, Jacob, so we need a groove. Give me a groove. I need a party song he. You got one of those?

GANZ: Yeah, let's listen to something from the album "Amanecer" by the Columbian band Bomba Estereo.


BOMBA ESTEREO: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: Tell me about this.

GANZ: All right. This is, as I said, the Colombian band, Bomba Estereo. This is sort of everything we like at NPR Music all thrown into one big bag.


BOMBA ESTEREO: (Singing in Spanish).

GANZ: This band has a lot of traditional Latin elements in it, but they pull from everywhere. There's rap in here. There's baile funk. This is one of those things that if you heard a single song, you might think, oh, I get it, right? This is sort of a bouncy party song. And it has a couple of elements from other things. If you listen to this album across the entire dozen tracks...


GANZ: ...You get a sense of this band pulling from the entire world. It's not just picking and choosing a couple things. They really want to incorporate as many different things as they possibly can into what they're doing. And just that sense of aggregation, that sense of density, that sense of being totally open to a world of a party, is what makes this band incredible. This album is total fun front to back.


BOMBA ESTEREO: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: So we've walked through four of these albums that you guys put on this list. There are 25 in total, right?

GANZ: There are 25, yeah. There are 21 more. And also we made and app where you can listen to almost 200 of our favorite songs of the year. Just, like, hit play and let them all roll past you.

MARTIN: If you're looking for something to do this holiday weekend.

GANZ: Yeah, if you have a little bit of time over the holiday weekend - maybe a barbecue. We've got a few things for you.

MARTIN: Plenty of ways to sit down and spend some quality time. NPR music editor Jacob Ganz. Thanks for walking us through it, Jacob.

GANZ: My pleasure, Rachel.


BOMBA ESTEREO: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.