Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.
80. Ought - Sun Coming Down [Constellation]
An anti-establishment mood courses through the veins of art rockers Ought, but not in the way you'd exactly expect. The Montreal-based quartet are oddly noncompliant with their sardonic one-liners, tossing out pointed non-sequiturs with a quick-tempered agitation that highlights their post-collegiate malaise. Sun Coming Down is chiefly about one's place when entering the so-called "real world", one in which conformity is an everyday concern and the idea of buying in to an absolutist credo is frightening. Lead singer Tim Darcy addresses these issues with snarky vocal intonations that are purposely unsympathetic, backed with tricky, atonal compositions that are passionate and refreshingly open minded. Still, this isn't your familiar brand of barbed, boisterous post-punk; it's a smart, though approachable listen that's destined to hold its ground with the passage of time. -- Juan Edgardo Rodriguez
79. U.S. Girls - Half Free [4AD]
U.S. Girls' Half Free takes its battles inside and outside the nuclear family. When Meghan Remy tells her audience that her character will hang herself on the family tree, she means it. The protagonists exploring the record are those living lives considered antiquated, dealing with the impact of the second-shift ("Window Shades") and eventually considering children to be foes ("Navy & Cream"). Instead of making an album that critiques the family dynamic and attacks conservative notions of what living means, Remy allows listeners to position themselves as the women in her album. It is an odd choice, considering that these characters don't own themselves ("New Age Thriller"), but it is necessary to show how liberation is important. While Top 40 pop considers love flawless, Half Free locates conflicts within the presumptuously joyous subject. But Remy notes, with a hint of hope, that her conclusion will be that of a woman luxuriously sitting in a limousine. -- Dustin Ragucos
78. Cam - Welcome to Cam Country [Arista Nashville]
Cam's major label debut is only four songs, ranging from very good to doubleplusgood, each showcasing a different side of one of the most promising singer-songwriters in mainstream country. "My Mistake" is forthright and sexy, Cam's harmonies draped across guitars and rumbling piano. "Burning House" is the delicately picked folk single, wherein Cam recounts a dream full of Symbol and Portent, turning her into a sleeeeeeepwalker at the parties where she still encounters her ex.
"Half Broke Heart" uses a chewy New Orleans groove to deliver its wisdom, a rebuttal to the "horseshoes and handgrenades" theory of completeness. "Runaway Train" sounds more like its awesome subject than comparable songs from Soul Asylum, Brad Paisley, Rosanne Cash, etc. -- it's sinister and exhilarating. The production, by Cam collaborator Tyler Johnson and country interloper Jeff "Fun." Bhasker, is spacious and brilliant with sparkly details. Cam's full-length album drops in December and may render this EP redundant, but it won't be obsolete, because how do you top four perfectly realized songs? -- Josh Langhoff
77. Gwenno - Y Dydd Olaf [Heavenly]
A decade after winning the hearts of many as a member of indie pop group the Pipettes, Gwenno Saunders has since reinvented herself as a pop auteur by veering off in a direction that few could pull off. The fact that she has crafted a beautiful, shimmering sci-fi krautpop concept album is impressive enough, but the fact that it's sung entirely in Welsh (and one song in Cornish) makes it stand out even more. Inspired by Welsh author Owain Owain's 1976 novel of the same name, Y Dydd Olaf combines pulsating, hypnotic motorik beats reminiscent of Kraftwerk and Neu!, spacey kosmische arrangements that echo Stereolab and Can, and best of all, sumptuous vocal hooks. Led by a trio of phenomenal tracks in "Chwyldro", "Patriarchaeth", and "Calon Peiriant", it all makes for a dreamy, entrancing experience like none other in 2015. -- Adrien Begrand
76. Rae Sremmurd - Sremmlife [EarDrummers / Interscope]
Imagine a party. Scratch that, imagine your house and life suddenly overtaken by two puckish mischief-makers whose energy never flags. Amid cries of "Shot! Shot! Shot!", our new friends -- think of Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy as Sremm 1 and Sremm 2 -- seduce all the women and make a giant stack of fancy watches on the kitchen counter, filling your bathtub with paper money, Solo cups, and condoms. It all sounds great, I know, until Swae corners you for an hour with his Donald Trump books and copies of Forbes.
Meanwhile the air is full of deep Mike WiLL Made-It beats, hypnotizing you with layers of glockenspiel and bass, barks and little falsetto "laaaaa"s, underlining the two Sremms' extravagant claims. (Jimmy's contemplating a run for governor! Let's hope he approves Mississippi's Medicaid expansion.) Their guests, including Nicki Minaj and Young Thug, join the festive spirit, with Thug providing tips for better kitchen sex ("Don't use dirty dishes!"), a helpful addendum to Lil Wayne's bathroom verse in "Truffle Butter". The 11th song arrives too soon. While producer Da Honorable C.N.O.T.E. brings that chill Owl City synth shit, the Sremms sum up their message of safe sex and paychecks, and everyone anticipates the hangovers to come. No babies! -- Josh Langhoff
75. Ruby Amanfu - Standing Still [Thirty Tigers / Rival & Co.]
Standing Still was hands-down the best covers album of 2015. Juxtaposing it with Ryan Adams's higher-profile but lower-rewards 1989 makes the difference painfully obvious. 1989 was just Adams singing Taylor Swift, and for all the novelty it offered, it didn't stick. Standing Still is something far more vital, an album that digs deep and unifies tracks from a range of eras and artists -- Bob Dylan, Kanye West, Brandi Carlile, and many more -- with the power of interpretation. Amanfu reinvented each song here and truly made it her own. The result is just beautiful. Factor in expert performances by the band and some so-good-you-don't-see-it production, and you have an album that actually transcends the genre, elevating it to new heights so that it becomes the elusive gold standard for covers, and the highest compliment you can pay an artist's covers: it sounds like she wrote every single one herself. -- Adam Finley
74. Dawn Richard - Blackheart [Our Dawn]
The middle act to a "heart" trilogy following Goldenheart, Blackheart is most definitely The Empire Strikes Back, full of darkness and despair and following its initial muse with both excitement and innovation. It's one of those "throes of fame" LPs, but if like many of us you find that whole conceit dull prima facie just try throwing this record on without emerging slack-jawed in awe. After a brief but moving intro, the listener is cast into "Calypso" (not a retro inculcation of whimsical Belafonte-isms but an ode to the mythical Greek nymph), a track as eclectic and outre as anything Oneohtrix Point Never or Arca could dream up. This from a former reality TV star/ Dirty Money sideliner/ TMZ fodder is impressive enough a feat, but the album just gets better from there, the first 25 minutes or so an untouchable song suite culminating in a seven-minute mutant opus about Adderrall whose refrain, the heart of the album, proclaims "She was living like she was dying soon."
Key here is the producer Scott Bruzenak of Noisecastle III who infuses the mix with jungle percussion, electro, steel drums, loads of vocal manipulation, and every weird pop trick in the galaxy without every diffusing its streamlined pop heart. Here, Richard's careful use space and setting allows the production to truly complement as well as complicate so that melisma itself is not carrying the weight of the entire song. Which is not to see that it couldn't. By the time she gets to the more familiar EDM uplift of "Phoenix", she's earned the self-empowering maxims she preaches. With Blackheart, she has created a singularity. -- Timothy Gabriele
73. Girl Band - Holding Hands with Jamie [Rough Trade]
Girl Band's debut album was born of fits and starts. Their breakthrough early singles, "Lawman" and a scorched-earth-policy rendering of Blawan's "Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage", surfaced in the first half of 2014, but it wasn't until earlier this spring that they were compiled with a few other tracks and officially re-released as The Early Years EP by Rough Trade. When they checked into Bow Lane studios in Dublin, their hometown, to begin recording Holding Hands with Jamie, they spent four days just setting up, but after all the deliberation about feng shui and microphone placement, seven of the record's nine songs poured out of them in half that time.
Girl Band's boil and scrape has its precedents: My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult's "A Daisy Chain 4 Satan", Einstürzende Neubauten's neo-primitive percussion, Liars' aloof provocation. Still, Holding Hands with Jamie defies prefab categorizations and insists on a reevaluation of what rock music can be in 2015. -- Ian King
72. Titus Andronicus - The Most Lamentable Tragedy [Merge]
The narrative concept album is often a messy thing, with even the best examples sacrificing comprehensibility for cohesion, story for songs. The Most Lamentable Tragedy takes this messiness to new levels. It eschews most expected traits of the form -- overall flow, graceful musical transitions and linkages -- to accompany a heavily symbolic rendering of frontman Patrick Stickles' manic depression. On first listen, Tragedy is harrowing and interminable enough to make you long for the days when Stickles kept it simple, like fusing autobiography with Civil War history and Jersey imagery.
Hold off on creating that "The Most Lamentable Tragedy (Filler-Free Version)" playlist, though. This is the spiritual descendent not just of inward-focused, controlled-sprawl rock operas like Quadrophenia The Wall, and Zen Arcade, but of perfectly imperfect accident-classics like Exile on Main Street and the Replacements' Let It Be. The anthems stand taller on the shoulders of the charmingly slapdash covers (the Pogues and Daniel Johnston here) and half-assed riffs, and, for Stickles' purposes, the see-saw pacing has an appropriately bipolar logic.
And while this means there are dirges, fragments, and intermissions scattered throughout, the mood swings also inspire some of the best song-to-song interplay of the year. The acceleration from "Fired Up" to "Dimed Out" might have been the best segue in recent memory if it hadn't been for the focused 'Mats-meets-Bruce riffs and Thin Lizzy soloing that "Fatal Flaw" conjures from the chaos of "Funny Feeling". -- David Bloom
71. Jaga Jazzist - Starfire [Ninja Tune]
It didn't seem as though Norwegian experimental jazz collective Jaga Jazzist would ever be able to top the overwhelming brilliance of their 2010 album One-Armed Bandit, but they managed to achieve this by taking a step sideways. Rather than chasing the dragon of meticulous composition that was all over One-Armed Bandit and their 2013 live album with the Britten Sinfonia, they ramped up the synthetic angle on Starfire.
Instead of playing everything live off the floor with the whole band, composer Lars Horntveth moved to Los Angeles, where he was visited sparingly by his partners in crime, making Starfire the creation of studio wizardry, and they successfully ran with the concept. There are only five tracks on this album, but there is a staggering amount of substance packed into each composition, sprawling and unfurling like time-lapse footage of the entire history of L.A. compressed into mere ten minute pieces. Few, if any, albums made in 2015 attempted this level of craftsmanship. -- Alan Ranta
70. Dungen - Allas Sak [Mexican Summer/Smalltown Supersound]
The eclectic sound of Swedish band Dungen's early albums has become more focused with each successive release. On Allas Sak (translation: "Everyone's Thing"), the group, led by founder and multi-instrumentalist Gustav Ejstes, turned in their most cohesive album thus far. Theirs is a sound rooted in progressive, psychedelic, and classic rock, but also the folk heritage of their Scandinavian homeland (echoed in the flute which graces many tracks). Allas Sak is full of mind expanding guitar-based music, which sounds the way the colorful album cover art looks. The clincher is that, unlike many other similarly adventurous psych/prog bands, Dungen makes music with plenty of memorable hooks.
These songs are very immediate and engaging, due in no small part to the drumming of Johan Holmgard, which manages to swing and be both melodic and grounding at the same time. With the album divided between instrumentals and songs with vocals in Swedish, the listening experience isn't dependent on understanding the meaning of the words. In fact, Ejstes says "I hope people can create their own stories around the music." This elasticity gives the album a further strength and staying power. Oh, and "Franks Kaktus" is one of the best song titles of the year. -- Rob Caldwell
69. Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats - Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats [Stax]
There are a few ways to work up the night sweats, and Nathaniel Rateliff covers them all on this raucous '60s R&B indebted platter. Sure, there's the sexy way, as on the sultry "Shake", but Rateliff -- formerly dba as an earnest folkie before his metamorphosis into a louche soulman -- is more interested in exploring the darker side of his new band's moniker. Despite the sonic party – horn section, gospel singers, fuzzed-out guitar -- going on around him over the course of the album's 38 minutes, one can picture the hirsute Rateliff tossing and turning in bed, soaking the sheets and fretting over damaged friends and spurned lovers on anxious tracks like "Trying So Hard Not to Know", "I've Been Failing" and the rootsy "Wasting Time" (the song titles are dead giveaways that not all is well in Rateliff's world).
And, of course, there's the self-proclaimed "joke song" turned breakthrough worldbeater, "S.O.B.", an unflinching self-examination of alcoholism and detoxification that (ironically) fueled parties everywhere this year. Yes, Rateliff's in character (and yes, lawyers for Sam Cooke and Van Morrison are likely drafting cease-and-desist paperwork for "Howling at Nothing" and "Mellow Out", respectively, as you read this), but in this era of reinvention, Rateliff still manages to find dark truths among the artifice. -- Stephen Haag
68. Shamir - Ratchet [XL]
I shudder to think what R&B in 2015 would be without someone as colorful and interesting as Shamir. If we didn't have Ratchet, all we would have would be a swarm of sexually frustrated beta-male wimps. Thankfully, we do have Shamir, and his debut album is a brilliant example of how far this genre can go in the right hands. His dizzying mix of pop, groove, and electronica is thrilling and daring, while he deftly toes the line between kitsch and high art. The playfulness of songs like "Make a Scene" don't quite conceal a maturity, but he manages to toy with ideas with all the skill and craftsmanship of a seasoned songwriter. And he's only 20 years old. Perhaps this is the fearlessness that comes with youth, but it's something that Shamir shouldn't abandon as he gets older. He may yet grow as an artist, but Ratchet is a thoroughly impressive starting point nonetheless. -- Kevin Korber
67. Clarence Clarity - No Now [Bella Union]
On his masterful debut, London-based musician Clarence Clarity positions sleek and sexy R&B hooks alongside demented noise to the point where all genre confinements fly out the window. The music oscillates rapidly between unabashedly pop melodies of *NSYNC and progressive compositions of Oneohtrix Point Never. His repeated chanting of "oops!" in "Those Who Can't, Cheat" evokes a pig-tailed Britney Spears, circa 2000, while its South Asian-tinged breakdown affirms the ease of musical appropriation in the Internet Age. Likewise, the visual style of his videos -- the gouged out eyes of Justin Timberlake on a magazine cover in "Bloodbarf" -- speaks to his love-hate relationship with mass-produced excess.
In an implosion of bytes and latex, he foists upon us the oppressive weight of information readily available to anyone with a Wi-Fi connection. In a strange resurrection of cultural detritus, No Now effectively bridges the worlds of the avant-garde and corporate pop music, reminding us that the same sound systems that spill chrome-plated R&B into our urban malls also amplify the tradition of Western art music. -- A. Noah Harrison
66. The Weeknd - Beauty Behind the Madness [Republic]
To follow the music of the Weeknd (the nom de guerre of Abel Tesfaye) is to follow the increasingly perilous climb of a modern day Icarus about to be scorched by the lights of the club. From the bleary-eyed opening notes of "High for This" at the beginning of the Weeknd's breakthrough Trilogy to the huge commercial success of his sophomore outing, Beauty Behind the Madness, hedonistic desires are simultaneously sated and questioned. On the smoky Lana Del Rey feature "Prisoner", Tesfaye sings, "I'm addicted to a life that's so empty and cold", even though a few songs earlier, the instant pop classic "Can't Feel My Face" has him dancing away to the numbness that follows the rush of drugs.
The three mixtapes of Trilogy may be the purest distillation of the Weeknd's ethos, but Beauty Behind the Madness finds him successfully marrying his opiate-blurred production with solid pop hooks. Far from the Weeknd's "sell-out" album, Beauty Behind the Madness is a tasteful refining of an inimitable sound. By the end, it's uncertain just how much wax has melted off his wings, but it's clear that he's going to keep soaring upward; to quote the stellar "Losers": "We did it all alone / Now we're coming for the throne." -- Brice Ezell
65. Leon Bridges - Coming Home [Columbia]
Much has been made of Leon Bridges' vocal resemblance to early soul music greats such as Sam Cooke. Sure, there is a clear resemblance, but it's the obvious differences that make Bridges' more than a just good retro act. Bridges refuses to be subtle, in a positive way. He wears his heart on his sleeve. His velvety vocals make a paean to a "Brown Skinned Girl" simultaneously sound chaste and sinful. He understands they are just two sides of the same coin. He's that smooth. Coming Home is full of richly sung odes to love with a side of thoughtfulness.
Bridges croons to God, his mother, and to girlfriends with equal felicity to an affected lo-fi accompaniment that suggests just how special his voice is. The horns in particular are muted to a throaty ache that contrasts with Bridges vocal purity, like pairing deep fried chicken nuggets with a fine sparkling red wine to bring out the grapes' distinctive flavors. One needs to sip slowly and linger over each song on the disc to fully appreciate Bridges' talents. -- Steve Horowitz
64. Jlin - Dark Energy [Planet Mu]
To a large degree, many in the Chicago Teklife crew have stepped up their game in the year and a half following footwork icon DJ Rashad's death. However, while many have created tracks as thrilling as any in the genre's history, few felt the need to innovate beyond the already loose playbook laid out. Enter Dark Energy which sets a new standard. An outsider if there ever was one -- a female steelworker from Gary, Indiana who nevertheless found herself on the second edition of Bang and Works, Jlin has made an austere minimalist monolith, every instrument and sample turned into rhythm, repetition carefully arranged into disorientation at every step. Anti-maximalist, its stark dynamics distill its targets into hollow setpieces.
Centerpiece "Guantanamo" finds a clinical bureaucratic voice intoning "cause of death… unknown" and blurts out fractions of sentences like "tortured" between squeals and screams as if these words were the unredacted moments of a war tribunal report hurtling back into the world. Meanwhile the stabs of synth and kick drum blurt and scrape like a waterboard drip or some kind of primitive sonic warfare.
It's clear from the song titles and brief clips of dialogue parsed throughout that this is an album with things to say about blackness, colonialism, surveillance, and the like, but its form is abstract not explicit. It speaks in "unknown tongues", its language far closer to the experimental edges of Drexciyan techno than Rashad's blunted and soulful footwork. An essential listen for those eager to here what's coming from just around the corner in what continues to be one of music's most exciting scenes. -- Timothy Gabriele
63. Heems - Eat Pray Thug [Megaforce]
Himanshu Suri, better known as Heems, put himself in a tough spot. Being one half of the "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" group -- Das Racist -- set him up for polite dismissal, the type that acknowledges his lyrical bona fides but remains unconvinced of his passion and depth. After Das Racist broke up, Heems went on a contemplative journey, signaled by the album's titular riff on Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love.
The result is a combination of heartache, in the form of woozy electropop, and reactions to post-9/11 prejudice and oppression. Tackling disparate themes at once is the hallmark of a scattershot affair, lyrically and sonically. Yet, Heems paints a self-portrait that allows us to see the totality of his world, as fragmented as it may be. While the view he presents isn't as much fun as it was from the Das Racist window, the intensity and engagement he delivers is more than a passable substitute -- it's quite the reward. -- Quentin Huff
62. Battles - La Di Da Di [Warp]
When multi-instrumentalist wunderkind Tyondai Braxton left post-rock powerhouse Battles in 2010, there were many who assumed that he was about to take a very valuable part of the band with him. Indeed, the trio attempted to fill the empty space with a variety of guest vocalists on their second full length Gloss Drop. With La Di Da Di however, Battles have indeed found their footing as a three-piece band. A natural progression from what came before it, Battles's third album is propelled by relentlessly interlocking grooves coupled polyphonic pointillism from seemingly a half-dozen different sounds at once. It's the soundtrack to a mad scientist's lab boiling over, yet it all somehow manages to "rock" just the same. A band that sounded incredibly bold in 2007 manages to still sound bold in 2015 just by sounding like themselves. This is why Battles are a big deal. -- John Garratt
61. Deradoorian - The Expanding Flower Planet [Anticon]
The title of the debut album by former Dirty Projectors member Angel Deradoorian has a literal connection, inspired by an embroidered flower mandala tapestry that hangs in her studio, but it works perfectly to capture the spirit of the release. The Expanding Flower Planet is an evocative neo-psychedelic art-pop deconstruction, entirely written and largely performed by Angel herself, drawing sounds from her Armenian heritage. It's like an acoustic interpretation of the obscure White Noise classic An Electric Storm, informed as much by the Creatures and Kate Bush as Can and Dorothy Ashby.
The album is flush with exploratory arrangements, combining foreboding vocal harmonies and versatile instrumentation into dense, kaleidoscopic textures. Few artists this side of Laetita Sadier and Jane Weaver would be capable of making an album simultaneously this far out there and in there. Each track on The Expanding Flower Planet is a world unto itself, exploring the infinity of inner space and the cosmos in equal measure. -- Alan Ranta
60. Omar Souleyman - Bahdeni Nami [Monkeytown]
Earlier this year, Omar Souleyman announced he would dedicate every one of his live shows "to help Syrian people fleeing to a better life elsewhere". A Syrian native himself, who gained his fame as a wedding singer, Souleyman said that his homeland was once "heaven on earth" and you can hear it in his music. Bahdeni Nami is a grand, delirious dance party, meant to exhaust and thrill in equal amounts. Most songs stretch over the six-minute mark, Souleyman's Dabke odysseys force you to dance until you drop. It's nearly brutal in a way, but that's the point, it makes you forget, your entire body and mind entrapped by Souleyman's music. It takes us, if only briefly, away from the world where Souleyman and his countrymen must flee their homes. It is healing through dance and song. -- Nathan Stevens
59. Doldrums - The Air Conditioned Nightmare [Sub Pop]
Welcome to the paranoid, twitchy world of Airick Woodhead. Thanks to his Canadian background, he was lumped together with Grimes and Majical Cloudz, but while those two indulged in more and more pop fantasies, Woodhead dived deeper into the abyss, coming back up with The Air Conditioned Nightmare in his feverish hands. Conceptually based on the Henry Miller book of the same name, Woodhead's newest creation is filled with decaying electronics and an addiction to computer screens. The music informs his nightmares, forming a jittering mess of drums, booming synths, and infectious hooks. So, follow him down the rabbit hole. Just remember that it's hard to find your way back. -- Nathan Stevens
58. DJ Spooky with Kronos Quartet - Rebirth of a Nation [Cantaloupe]
What if social media had existed back when DW Griffith shot his racially-charged 1915 film The Birth of a Nation? We can make a pretty good guess that a lot of people wouldn't have let the director off the hook -- ever. In fact a blessing from the American president might not have been in the cards at all. While we cannot rewrite history, we can certainly change the way we think about it. Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, can acknowledge The Birth of a Nation for the technological breakthrough that it was for cinema without giving it an ounce more of slack.
Spooky takes over the narrative with his own edit of the film, complete with a score performed by the noteworthy Kronos Quartet. Musically, Rebirth of a Nation belongs to many genres, all of which are heavy on mood and atmosphere. Ideologically, it begs for a sensible glance at the past in order to create a tolerant future. Miller going up against Griffith may seem like a mismatched fight, but that's before factoring in the power of music. -- John Garratt
57. John Grant - Grey Tickles, Black Pressure [Partisan]
John Grant is ready to fight or fuck on his fiery third solo record. Grant reaches back to the hedonistic dance clubs of late '70s New York City, Berlin, and other underground, pansexual scenes for inspiration, presenting a cycle of songs made of equal parts anger and seduction. Whirls, blips, and bloops dominate the album's sonics as Grant reaches back to analog technology while projecting his musical vision forward. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure translates, in Grant's mashup of Icelandic and Turkish inspirations, to "mid-life crisis nightmare", yet this crazed dream sequence is a consistent joy to follow.
Grant is on the attack throughout, skewering identity politics on "Global Warming", engaging in insult comedy with Amanda Palmer on "You & Him", or, on "Down Here", bemoaning the "oceans of longing" of this world where "All we're doing is learning how to die." But, in Grant's estimation, if death is imminent, then life should be a bacchanal. Get pissed and get laid. And for every depressing thought, there's a counter-declaration of "Fuck it." On "Snug Slacks", Grant overcomes his perpetual sense of uncool (mistaking Joan as Police Woman for Joan Baez) to develop a "high tolerance for inappropriate behavior" and to declare that "Joan Baez makes G.G. Allin look like Charlene Tilton".
Meanwhile, "Disappointing" finds Grant in full seduction mode, its accompanying video celebrating the homoerotic and offering an unapologetic nod to the bath-house scene of the early 1980s. In all, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure presents Grant as one of the most versatile, slyly subversive, and danceable songwriters at work today. -- Ed Whitelock
56. Max Richter - Sleep [Deutsche Grammophon]
Sleep is an experiment first and foremost. Living legend and constant tinkerer Max Richter brought to life a nine-hour long album meant to flow with the body's natural REM cycles, giving the listener the most relaxing rest possible. Beyond that test though, Richter also made one of the most beautiful albums in recent memory, a languid release filled with gorgeous motifs and tranquil passages played with piano, voice, and strings. It might well give you the best nap you've ever had, but it may also be a guiding hand in your waking life. A reminder that, though we live in an interconnected, frantic world, our mind and body can slow down the pace and find peace, with a little help from Mr. Richter. -- Nathan Stevens
55. Iron Maiden - The Book of Souls [Sanctuary Copyrights]
Iron Maiden are in a place in their career where they could very easily spend the autumn years of their career resting on their laurels. Instead, the older the band has gotten, the braver they've become, showing a willingness to take massive creative -- and financial -- risks so fearlessly it shames metal bands half their age. That Maiden's 16th album is a 92-minute double album was a big enough surprise in 2015, but that was nothing compared to how successful The Book of Souls turned out to be. Best experienced as two separate halves, the album's rewards are plentiful.
The first half is the best-paced 45 minutes of music since 1984's classic Powerslave, bolstered by the rampaging "Speed of Light" and the soaring title track. The second half, meanwhile, is all about the 18-minute suite "Empire of the Clouds", an inspired piece of heavy metal theater unlike anything the band has ever recorded. Throughout the album the energy among the sextet is fierce and palpable, and singer Bruce Dickinson, who beat throat cancer this year, sounds indomitable. This is an astonishing late-career masterpiece by one of heavy metal's all-time greats. -- Adrien Begrand
54. Bell Witch - Four Phantoms [Profound Lore]
Extreme metal, and the funeral doom subgenre in particular, often fixates on the contrast between darkness and light, but rarely has this juxtaposition been achieved more brilliantly than on Bell Witch's sophomore record Four Phantoms. As only a two-piece band, Bell Witch manages to create more variation and space in their sound than bands with three times as many members. Funeral doom hopes to articulate strong emotions of loss, longing, and poignancy; such attempts can often devolve into melodrama.
On Four Phantoms Bell Witch evoke notions of something beautiful and nameless that is slipping away forever beneath the waves. The harsh vocals on Four Phantoms are large enough to fill caverns, but it is really their unparalleled use of clean vocals that sets this record apart from its peers. When the harmonizing clean vocals rise up out of the storm during the climax of "Suffocation, A Drowning II: Somniloquy (The Distance Forever)", Bell Witch will have long-time doomlords in ecstasy, and those yet to be converted re-evaluating what they thought they knew about extreme music. -- Benjamin Hedge Olson
53. Chelsea Wolfe - Abyss [Sargent House]
There is not, and never has been, anyone else quite like Chelsea Wolfe. Ever cloaked in a nigh inconceivable darkness, she bridges gaps previously thought to exist in difference dimensions, incorporating forms such as gothic folk, post-grunge and baroque-pop like normal people put on different shirts. As such, Abyss is the perfect title for her fifth full-length. Producer and longtime collaborator Ben Chisholm helped make this her heaviest album yet, in sharp contrast to 2012's acoustic Unknown Rooms and 2013's rather distant-sounding Pain Is Beauty. In addition to contributing synth, bass, piano, and photography to Abyss, he ramped up its dark Trent Reznor-esque electronic edge, and the effect is palpable. It feels like being crushed for most of its running time, yet there is still room for the little moments of introspective character, for lilts of haunting strings and that hint of vulnerability on Wolfe's spellbinding vocals. Simply put, Abyss is uniquely transcendent. -- Alan Ranta
52. Ryley Walker - Primrose Green [Dead Oceans]
Somewhere between his last, largely instrumental album and the release of Primrose Green, Ryley Walker elected to embark on a journey into the realm of spectral jazz folk. Borrowing heavily from the leading lights of the late '60s British folk rock boom (Bert Jansch/Pentagle, Fairport Convention, et. al.) and the more pop-leaning sensibilities of Van Morrison, Walker created a modern amalgamation of a very old sound, one largely out of place within the current crop of synth-heavy electronic music.
Flying in the face of the conventional, Walker instead sticks to the warm, analog sound of several generations ago to create an album stunning in both its brazen anachronistic qualities and brilliant song craft. Long since having proven himself as a guitarist, here Walker definitively makes his case for inclusion on the list of some of the greatest contemporary songwriters and performers. Primrose Green is nothing short of an unexpectedly welcome marvel. -- John Paul
51. Bully - Feels Like [Columbia]
For many, Bully's meteoric rise from self-released cassette to major label album in two short years seems head-spinningly fast but perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised. The band is the brainchild of Alicia Bognanno who majored in audio engineering then interned at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio Studios before moving to Nashville to record as well as play in local group King Arthur. With that kind of experience under her belt, it's clear that she had the technical chops but what really made Bully such a heatseeker was the songwriting.
Although the sound on Feels Like drew heavy comparisons to '90s grunge heavies like Sonic Youth and the Breeders, Bognanno has insisted that she's not overly familiar with the genre. This makes sense when you look at her personal and often-autobiographical lyrics which are more reminiscent of Rilo Kiley and Waxahatchee. At it's heart, Feels Like is a post-collegiate coming of age record. Bognanno kicks around her old hometown, thinks about old boyfriends and regrets fighting with her sister all while wondering what the hell she's supposed to be doing with her life.
Songs like "Trying", "I Remember" and "Milkman" are so immediately accessible that they already feel like old mixtape favorites. Given the strength of both the music and words, it's not wonder Bully got so big so quick. We can only hope their second act is equally accomplished. -- John M. Tryneski
50. Young Fathers - White Men Are Black Men Too [Big Dada]
White Men Are Black Men Too is a departure from Young Fathers' last record, Dead. Where Dead dealt in creeping dread, White Men prefers to cast everything in technicolor. It's like Dead's biggest choruses mutated into their own songs. "Still Running" and "Shame", the opening duo, feel like one long sing-along, pulsing with thudding energy. That energy is what's consistent here; it's been there since the first Young Fathers release, and they've pushed it into maximalism even more now. Don't be fooled by the experimentation and rushing choruses. Yeah "let the good times roll", but that line starts with "call me John Doe". Much like TV on the Radio, every moment of buoyant celebration is tethered with apocalypse.
The album's centerpiece, "Sirens", traces a history of violence from Cairo to Ferguson, stilted and swelling violins risings as the trio sings about the titular sound of warming. It's a morsel sized "Dead Flag Blues". Like Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Young Fathers wrap the end of the world in stunning tension. This is why Young Fathers' radicalization of pop is so important and thrilling. They have something to say. They hate conventions of race, music, and politics. Even in an age full of oddballs, Young Fathers' weirdness feels vital, singular. They might have to destroy pop to save it, but if anyone has a vision for a great new musical world, it's Young Fathers. -- Nathan Stevens
49. Prurient - Frozen Niagara Falls [Profound Lore]
Prurient's vast, exhausting, yet totally enthralling Frozen Niagara Falls is a world unto itself. Clocking in at over an hour and a half, the length of this record is only part of what makes it so intimidating. There is more sound, texture, madness, and viscera in five minutes of Frozen Niagara Falls than in most musicians' entire discography. On Frozen Niagara Falls, Prurient continues developing the unnamable and incomparable sound that he turned loose on 2011's excellent Bermuda Drain, but on Frozen Niagara Falls Dominick Fernow (aka Prurient) brings back some of the harsh noise elements that he was well known for in years gone by. The result is something like one of those long, difficult nights of sleep filled with indescribable dreams, episodes of sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic hallucinations. We awake feeling as if something awful and profound has been revealed to us, but we cannot quite remember what it was. -- Benjamin Hedge Olson
48. C Duncan - Architect [FatCat]
On his breathtaking debut album Architect, 26-year-old Glaswegian composer Christopher Duncan sings, "I'll take you everywhere I go… I'll take you everywhere I know. It's all so wonderful." That's exactly what the Mercury Prize-nominated multi-instrumentalist does over the course of 49 minutes, and it's anything but hyperbole to declare that "wonderful" is quite the understatement. From delicate, pastoral dream pop to intimate, electronic-tinged folk, Duncan's luxuriant vocal harmonies and intricate compositions dazzle with ingenuity.
For over a year the singer-songwriter isolated himself within his bedroom studio as he crafted the album's 12 songs. Unencumbered by time constraints or the influence of outside producers, Duncan painstakingly layers guitars, synths, handclaps, found objects and vocal lines on top one another. The resulting product is astonishing, not simply because of how disarmingly beautiful it all is, but more that the record is the result of one man's labor of love, not the work of an entire studio full of musicians. These songs breathe with life. Timeless, genre-defiant, and endlessly inventive, Architect is as accomplished a debut as any in recent memory. -- Ryan Lathan
47. Rhiannon Giddens - Tomorrow Is My Turn [Nonesuch]
The Carolina Chocolate Drops' old-timey banjo frailing, 1930s-era, string-band folk, and jug-band flatfooting exposed a whole new audience to a rich musical legacy, and in the center of the band was the captivating girl with the fiddle and the blue-diamond voice. Then came the 2013 New York concert celebrating the music from the film Inside Llewyn Davis, at which Rhiannon Giddens' breathtaking performance was unanimously hailed as the evening's highlight. In that moment, a major American solo artist arrived. Joining forces with Americana super-producer T-Bone Burnett, Giddens released Tomorrow Is My Turn, her stunning solo debut. The album, a collection of songs popularized by women (Patsy Cline, Nina Simone, Dolly Parton), further showcases Giddens' unparalleled vocal mastery, charged with both operatic grace and field-holler mettle. Rhiannon rings like a bell in the night. Her voice is a living history. Her turn is today. -- Steve Leftridge
46. Future Brown - Future Brown [Warp]
The first great metamodern album, Future Brown's self-titled debut is a brilliantly multilayered affair that, in the true spirit of the philosophy, works to collapse distances on numerous fronts. Geographical, age, and genre distances are disregarded in favor of the simplest layer of the group's ethos: get people dancing. While scholars can appreciate the album as a response to late/neo-capitalism, the true genius of this album is its ability to package the depth in accessible forms that are fresh and vary so that they never wear out their welcome. -- Brian Duricy
45. Dâm-Funk - Invite the Light [Stones Throw]
Dâm-Funk has made a name for himself creating near note-perfect replications of a very specific type of synthetic funk, one that came to prominence in the early part of the 1980s. Where others generally explore similar sonic territory ironically, Dâm-Funk's approach is nothing but earnest, often bordering on the reverential. That he manages his highly mechanized beats and often thin synthesized approach to funk and R&B with a straight face is a testament to his dedication to an often overlooked or unfairly maligned era of popular music.
Positioning his music within the album's narrative as mankind's hope for a future full of funk doesn't hurt either. And given the quality and range of the material on Invite the Light, it's hard to argue the point as Dâm-Funk has clearly positioned himself as one of the 21st century's preeminent funk prophets. Were these recordings made in period, Invite the Light might well be hailed as a lost classic, one criminally overlooked and relegated to the dustbin of pop cultural history.
As it stands, it's a very good approximation of a very specific sound and furthers Dâm-Funk's reputation and worthiness of his chosen sobriquet. A modern-day prophet for the funk, his is a musical philosophy well worth investigating further. -- John Paul
44. Florence and the Machine - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful [Island]
Going by the title of Florence and the Machine's third LP, one might expect a collection of songs that look outward, searching for profundity in the expanses above us. Instead, we get the opposite. These tracks are so focused on the internal workings of their creator that they make a delayed phone conversation feel like a burgeoning electrical storm, giving love the power to hurl us into canyons – breaking bones, but not our devotion. Florence Welch isn't merely exploring her emotions here. She's calling them to the mat, with a voice that could bend street signs. Factor in sweeping arrangements that rise like tempers, and we have a record that transforms the daily commute into a grand, cathartic singalong. Because while the universe is vast and intimidating, it's got nothing against the fear that goes hand in hand with falling for someone. -- Joe Sweeney
43. Majical Cloudz - Are You Alone? [Sub Pop]
"I am your friend 'til I lie in the ground." Sometimes you just know that an album or artist is gonna walk beside you for a long, long time. Elliott Smith. Nick Drake. Cohen. Joni. Eels. Good Samaritans you'll reach for when you're broken, beaten and blue. They'll be that dark passenger who'll hold your hand through the scary, long nights of life. They'll whisper "You are not alone" and sit with you 'til sunrise. Guardian angels. Majical Cloudz' last record Impersonator may've proved a bit too severe, stark and witching hour chilly for many but Are You Alone? flickers with hope and a heartfelt wish that everything might be alright if only we hold on. Singer Devon Welsh recently joked that he possessed business cards stating "Majical Cloudz - We pull on your heartstrings". He was only half joking. There's genuine magic in this soulful night music and yes, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. -- Matt James
42. CHVRCHES - Every Open Eye [Glassnote]
With a pristine single like "The Mother We Share" under its belt -- to say nothing of the many other gems on 2013's The Bones of What You Believe -- CHVRCHES faced a great deal of hype leading up to the release of Every Open Eye, its sophomore outing. But while this record doesn't have the smack-you-in-the-face single that Bones does, it has one important thing its predecessor does not: sustain. From the rushed opening gallop of "Never Ending Circles" all the way to the luminescent "Afterglow", Every Open Eye never ceases to captivate. The album's peaks (see the breakout moment on "Clearest Blue") find these Glaswegians hitting new highs, and its calm, meditative moments (the moonlight-bathed "Down Side of Me") show a previously unseen emotive side to the band. With CHVRCHES' pop chops at their best on this record, it's no exaggeration to say that every open ear ought to hear Every Open Eye. -- Brice Ezell
41. FKA twigs - M3LL155X [Young Turks]
When she released LP1 last year, FKA twigs' debut quickly became the most instantly loved albums by fans and critics alike, due to her amazing sense of creativity and innovation within her production and singing style within R&B. A year later, she's somehow managed to match that success with the release of her EP M3LL155X (pronounced Melissa.) The five-track release may only have been half the running time of her first album, but it is just as potent and creative. From the live instrumentation heard on "I'm Your Doll" to the trap influences heard on "In Time", the futuristic dance of "Glass and Patron" to the confessional pieces "Figure 8" and "Mothercreep", not a single track feels out of place. The EP could have left many a fan longing for some more songs, but this release shows FKA twigs only getting better from here. -- Devone Jones
40. Beach House - Depression Cherry [Sub Pop]
Their fifth full-length and first of two releases in 2015, Depression Cherry stands as yet another strong outing from Beach House. Opening with the hypnotic "Levitation" and ending with the gorgeous "Days of Candy", Depression Cherry is everything Beach House does so well, from the pulsing "Sparks" to the enthralling "Space Song" to the sweeping "PPP" it uses shimmering guitars, opaque lyrics, and Victoria Legrand's distinct vocals to expand the band's signature sound in ways that feel both new and familiar. Songs build and grow to reward repeated listens, making Depression Cherry feel like a complete album, from start to finish -- one that continues the success of the equally beautiful Teen Dream and Bloom. At this point it's obvious that Beach House is at the top of their creative powers, and they've crafted another album of lush, atmospheric music imbued with real emotion to create a sonic landscape wholly their own. -- Jessica Suarez
39. Skylar Spence - Prom King [Carpark]
Pop music has certainly been growing up lately. Whether it be the cathartic catchiness of Robyn's immaculate songcraft or the classicist maturity of Adele's latest opus, the serious work of crafting pop hits taken on new dimensions in the past decade, and some of pop's most lasting, beautiful recent singles have been running neck-and-neck with "Turn Down For What" for the most cultural capital. Yet as that war rages on, few albums have come out this year that are like Skylar Spence's Prom King, because what the young Ryan DeRobertis has done is craft a flawless set of joyous dance songs that radiate with a genuine love of the genre.
There isn't any sass nor irony to be found here: just pop songs that are in love with their own reflections, digging up disco strings and '80s jangle guitars to create a sleek LP where each and every individual song is laced with enough standalone hooks for an entire album of its own. DeRobertis plays with tone and texture, quietly questions his every move in his lyrics, and still comes out with one perfect pop moment after the other, with the disco escapism of "Can't You See" sounding nothing like the mid-tempo heartbreak of "Affairs" which itself sounds nothing like the sleek guitar riffing of "I Can't Be Your Superman".
Each new track is a surprise into itself, but the real surprise is how often you keep coming back to Prom King, which seems to have so much fun merely existing that it forgets to take notice of the fact that it's going to go down as the best pop album to come out in the last five years. The accolades don't get more grown up than that. -- Evan Sawdey
38. Ashley Monroe - The Blade [Warner Music Nashville]
Ashley Monroe's choice of metaphor for her latest album title reflects the slightly harder edge that she's discovered since 2013's Like a Rose. While that record achieved gentleness and grace by balancing delicate guitar arpeggios, muted percussion, and Monroe's gossamer soprano, The Blade digs in deeper in almost every possible way, surrounding her voice with grittier matter and finding in that contrast fertile ground for exploring heartache, inertia, and the kind of romantic regret that surfaces after too many glasses of whisky.
Monroe writes with an economy of language that can capture complex feelings with a single turn of phrase (see the title track), and Vince Gill and Justin Niebank's production stages suggestive conversations between instruments, such as the minor-key guitar parts and cheeky violin and piano licks in "Dixie". Stylistically, the album teaches a survey class on country music of the last half-century, nodding at honky-tonk on "Winning Streak," early '90s CMT and radio hits with "On to Something Good", and the kind of sultry, vaguely threatening post-breakup number ("I Buried Your Love Alive") that Monroe has perfected alongside Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley in their side project Pistol Annies. There's a canniness and willingness to explore on The Blade that has attracted the affection of country fans and country skeptics alike. -- Annie Galvin
37. Holly Herndon - Platform [4AD]
Holly Herndon's third record proves itself a lovely display of the dichotomy between intimacy and alienation in the digital age. As a work of sousveillance (subversive self-surveillance), the album utilizes a breadth of sonic vocabulary -- hard drive whir recorded with a contact mic, for instance -- showcasing the ever-pervasive ways we may monitor ourselves. Platform also marks Herndon's first forays as a vocalist, often as chopped up gasps, croaks, and mews. The album, despite its serendipitous peaks, is stunningly inconsistent, lacking any narrative through-line.
While "Morning Sun", initiated by the iPhone unlock sound and the lyric "Wake up, gotta wake up," is an impeccable pop tune, the unmusical, ASMR-inspired "Lonely at the Top feat. Claire Tolan", with its breathy come-ons, achieves a level of awkward rarely seen in music. Still, tracks like "Chorus" and "Home", with their colossal, clunking grooves, more than redeem Herndon as a meticulous yet frustrating composer. It's fair to say if you're unfamiliar with her work, you've never heard anything like it -- EDM-streaked sound collage, at once robotic and deeply personal. -- A. Noah Harrison
36. Deafheaven - New Bermuda [Anti-]
When Deafheaven rose to fame with Sunbather, eyes and ears were all over them. It was a matter of whether their kind of black metal was something that Americanized the genre, making it something "hipster". This was and still is a vapid view of their fantastic work. Talks of their metal finesse were not in proximity to Emperor, but with similar American acts like Liturgy. However, the band should be heralded as modern metal greats. The main question became whether they could gain further acclaim with the even darker New Bermuda. Yet again fusing shoegaze, post-rock, and several strands of metal, the passion that Deafheaven had searched for was right before them. The box others have created for the band is ravaged by the beast that is George Clarke when he screams for the world to surrender to blackness ("Brought to the Water"). New Bermuda is a land with the blackest nights and the most beautiful suns. -- Dustin Ragucos
35. Torres - Sprinter [Partisan]
Mackenzie Scott, who performs as Torres, is a ferocious auteur, the kind of artist whose imprimatur is on every beat of every track even when she's working with ace collaborators like Rob Ellis (who's produced for such legends as Marianne Faithfull, Anna Calvi, and PJ Harvey). Immersing oneself in Torres' second album Sprinter feels like dreaming in a state of moderate anxiety, with guitar effects and reverberating synths whirling around lyrics that weave scraps of emotion together with the kind of suggestive references -- to Polish swimmer Beata Kamínska, to Poseidon, to a Christian God and a profane pastor -- that might crop up in states of estranged reverie.
Scott's vocal instrument ranges from self-consciously fragile on "The Exchange", a bare-bones composition about her own adoption, to a menacing growl on "Son You Are No Island", in which she takes on the voice of God in damning a young man for his hubris. Sprinter burrows deep into its listener's subconscious -- the kind of album that can live in your head for months but reveal new contours of itself with every listen. -- Annie Galvin
34. Earl Sweatshirt - I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside [Tan Cressida/Columbia]
There's an argument to be made that I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside sounds like a rough draft of ideas that were meant to be expanded into longer songs. To say that's what gives the album its charm would be lazy. I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside is brilliant because it's a snapshot of an artist at a vulnerable moment. Earl Sweatshirt has transformed from a young wordsmith being hyped up for his lyrical potential into one of the most transparent rappers the genre has ever seen.
Listening to I Don't Like Shit is like peeling apart the pages of Earl's grimy personal journal and unearthing the troubled thoughts of a 21-year-old clouded by ennui, questions of purpose, and personal loss. It's completely open and honest without sacrificing what brought ears to Earl in the first place. Witty lyricism with the technical ability of a veteran is complemented with dark, self-produced beats that create the atmosphere. I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside represents the evolution of an artist, and it gives us just enough to keep us waiting for Early Man Season to come back around. -- Logan Smithson
33. Between the Buried and Me - Coma Ecliptic [Metal Blade]
With their fourth studio offering, 2007's Colors, American quintet Between the Buried and Me cemented their place as one of today's most unique, ambitious, intriguing, and reliable progressive metal groups. In the years since, the band have released three more incredible LPs, and while their latest, Coma Ecliptic, doesn't quite best its predecessor (and Between the Buried and Me's crowning achievement), 2012's The Parallax II: Future Sequence, it comes very close. In fact, it's likely the best metal album of 2015.
Like its precursors, Coma Ecliptic is a concept album, and naturally, Between the Buried and Me tell their tale through a perfected balance of chaotic intricacy and emotional tranquility. For instance, the serene warmth of tracks like "Node" and "Life in Velvet" contrast wonderfully with the madness of "Famine Wolf" and "The Ectopic Stroll". Of course, there's also "Memory Palace", whose dynamic shifts and melodic intrigue make it arguably the greatest track the band has ever made. All in all, Coma Ecliptic proves that Between the Buried and Me may still be the best metal band around. -- Jordan Blum
32. Josh Ritter - Sermon on the Rocks [Pytheas/Thirty Tigers]
Two years after The Beast in Its Tracks, an emotional breakup album, Josh Ritter returns revitalized with Sermon on the Rocks. Replacing the solemn folk acoustics of his last record with driving electric guitar and cantering percussive textures, Ritter crafts a collection of vignettes that are both sonically and lyrically robust. The album's music is a rugged and propulsive brand of rock that takes notes from Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, and Paul Simon. Situating these influences in a more contemporary pop-rock context, Ritter deftly steers from the bouncing "Where the Night Goes" and the apocalyptic "Birds of the Meadow" to the effervescent "Cumberland".
Always a verbose songwriter, Ritter unleashes torrents of wordplay in each song, at times sketching narratives within the Gothic realms of traditional folk ("Seeing Me 'Round"), and at others, indulging in refreshing and subversive humor ("Getting Ready to Get Down"). Songs like "Homecoming" epitomize Ritter's resilient optimism, as it provides a redemptive embrace to the darker nooks of his narrative sketches. Altogether, Sermon on the Rocks is a tour-de-force of what Ritter himself has called "messianic oracular honky-tonk", and with it, Ritter firmly reestablishes his position as one of this generation's premier auteurs. -- Ethan King
31. Lupe Fiasco - Tetsuo & Youth [Atlantic]
Lupe Fiasco's Tetsuo & Youth has garnered Great Gatsby-like levels of interest for its symbolism: in Lupe's heightened lyricism, in his own abstract artwork gracing the cover, in the theory that the songs tell one story in the album's current sequence but a different story in reverse order. The songs do operate on several levels, where rhapsodic "Adoration of the Magi" simultaneously alludes to a baby Messiah, touches on social stratification, and contains a chorus referencing famous album covers (like Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die and Nirvana's Nevermind) depicting youngsters.
But, even better than the symbolism is the energetic creativity of a refocused Lupe Fiasco, forever the "nerd game" purist who thinks video game references make perfect sense alongside Mandelbrot sets and "southern cities with large moons". Amazingly, he is able to hold our attention through the nearly nine-minute-long epic "Mural", creating two competing dystopian viewpoints of the prison industrial complex in "Prisoner 1 & 2", serenading the strength of our mothers in "Madonna (And Other Mothers in the Hood)", and summarizing racial hegemony through pizza delivery practices in "Deliver" (Oh, wait. Doesn't "deliver" spell "reviled" backwards? Maybe the symbolism theories aren't so far off!).
Following Tetsuo & Youth with his excellent Pharaoh Height mixtape, it looks Lupe's last record for Atlantic will be lauded as the first in his creative renaissance. -- Quentin Huff
30. Miguel - Wildheart [RCA]
In a year when the top R&B song was an ode to the joys of facial numbness, Miguel's third album was the sound of feeling returning. On his previous records, the Los Angeles vocalist did striking things within the confines of the late '90s neo-soul sound that so clearly inspired him. But Wildheart is something else entirely. Earthy and psychedelic, introspective and sex positive, it's one of those thrilling documents of an artist ditching the old templates and exploring what's underneath. It never strikes poses.
"The Valley" weaves religious metaphors into its lustful narrative, not to seem controversial, just to make the point that great sex is spiritual. "Coffee" celebrates the context of making love with its simple, elegant arc of a chorus, placing conversations and caffeine on the same sensual pedestal as the act itself. "Face the Sun" positions true love as a moment where we see the light. Miguel has never been more confident in what he's saying, in the sounds he wants to hear, in the sensations he thinks we all should get to feel. And that is a turn on. -- Joe Sweeney
29. The Mountain Goats - Beat the Champ [Merge]
The Mountain Goats' mastermind John Darnielle has done themed albums before; about topics like a crumbling relationship, Biblical verses, and Texas. But Beat the Champ may be his most outwardly absurd: an entire record set in the world of professional wrestling. But Darnielle is only tangentially interested in what happens inside of the ring. Lyrically the album's first song, "Southwestern Territory", is much more about the life on the road that goes with being a mid-level journeyman. And the song's gentle, piano and clarinet based music announces that Darnielle is once again exploring expanded sonic textures.
With other moments like the contemporaneous two-minute piano solo that closes "Heel Turn 2", the harsh, spoken word story of "Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan", and the acoustic heavy metal of "Werewolf Gimmick", Beat the Champ lets Darnielle go far beyond his old "a couple of chords to buttress the story" songwriting method. Which isn't to say that the album doesn't have classic Mountain Goats moments, too. "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero" is a power-pop gem, "The Ballad of Bull Ramos" rolls along pleasantly, building to Darnielle's "Never die! Never die!" chorus. And "Foreign Object" combines the old and new school, chugging along on a bed of baritone saxophones while Danielle gleefully sings "I'm gonna stab you in the eye / With a foreign object."
The combination of catchy and contemplative makes it one of the year's most entertaining albums. -- Chris Conaton
28. Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass [Spacebomb]
A Nashville transplant by way of Virginia, Natalie Prass released a live-in-the-studio EP earlier in the year that revealed an unsurprising debt to Americana traditions, although even on that short showcase it was obvious Prass worked with her own uncommon materials. Her self-titled debut (which sat on her label's shelf for three years) delivers on that promise, with Southern soul touches that are reminiscent -- although nowhere near as overt -- as Cat Power's love letter to Memphis, The Greatest. Prass's songbird soul places equal importance on a classic vein of orchestral pop, where horns and strings weave around each other to somehow keep things simultaneously airborne and earthbound. It's rare that an album can punch a listener's Dusty Springfield, Kate Bush, or Harry Nilsson buttons -- much less all three at once -- but Natalie Prass satisfies, managing just that impressive feat. -- Andrew Gilstrap
27. Steven Wilson - Hand. Cannot. Erase. [K-Scope]
"Routine", a tragic account of the doldrums experienced by a mother whose children have left the house, concludes with one of Steven Wilson's best lyrics: "With the hum of the bees in the jasmine sway / Don't ever let go / Try to let go." These lines, sung at the end of an emotionally wrenching nine minutes, come only halfway through Hand. Cannot. Erase., Wilson's fourth solo record and one of his best. Hand. Cannot. Erase. tells a tale inspired by the shocking case of Joyce Carol Vincent, a London woman found dead in her flat two years after her death.
As its paint-splashed sleeve art suggests, Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a vivid and dynamic sonic canvas, flecked with flourishes of electronica ("Perfect Life"), ambience ("Transience"), and even pop (the title tune). Musical dexterity is replete on this album, as can be expected from Wilson, but what makes Hand. Cannot. Erase. so brilliant is that it is a great tale told well. Be warned: "Routine" is a visceral catharsis halfway through the album, and the music still has many tests for the soul in the back half. -- Brice Ezell
26. Houndmouth - Little Neon Limelight [Rough Trade]
The Indiana four-piece Houndmouth writes songs that are cinematic -- not because they reach for the sonic grandiosity of a John Williams score or a post-rock album, but rather because their lyrics are populated by eccentric and often mythical characters sketched with the fine-grained detail that one might find in a Coen Brothers script. Part-time preachers, blacklisted screenwriters, thieving physicists, and scorned women plotting arson make cameos throughout Little Neon Limelight, and lead single "Sedona" is a sand-blasted elegy for the Arizona town once known as "Little Hollywood" back when Westerns were hip.
Recorded live with almost no overdubbing in about a week, Little Neon Limelight's sound is lean, classic, earnest, and playful: a dispatch from the brains of four young people who are breathing life into the Americana scene by putting their own zany stamp on the kind of no-frills, roughly hewn roots rock that never really goes out of style. -- Annie Galvin
25. Jamie xx - In Colour [Young Turks]
In Colour is a lot of things. It's Jamie xx's first proper follow-up to 2011's We're New Here remix album, which reshaped Gil-Scott Heron's album to interesting effects. It's also Jamie Smith's solo debut album and, finally, his first official departure from the xx's sonic palette. Strangely, none of this feels dramatic. In Colouris meant to depict the last six years of the English producer's career. It's a mixture of rave, balearic beats and soul music, making up a nicely cohesive conjuncture. It's, above all, introspective music that could have only been conceived inside the inner workings of a solitary mind. It feels deeply personal, just like the technicolor illusion we've been expecting him to release since that eventful 2009 album, the xx's debut xx. -- Danilo Bortoli
24. John Moreland - High on Tulsa Heat [Old Omens/Thirty Tigers]
Like the dream-inspired "Cherokee" from High on Tulsa Heat, words pour forth from John Moreland. Tapping a universal vein of emotion on his third album, Moreland paints surrealist tapestries of love, longing and guilt with lines like "Won't you roll out that red carpet / When we all wind up dead / Your smoke rings fade like a memory / You were honest as a ghost, baby / Twice as free" ("Heart's Too Heavy") and "I'd still feel your fingers on my soul" ("Cleveland County Blues"). Already influencing the next generation of Americana artists, it's not too early to utter Moreland's name in the same breath as Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. -- Eric Risch
23. Arca - Mutant [Mute]
Mutant has Arca throwing everything -- glitch, IDM, dubstep, industrial, techno, ambient, noise and world music -- into an experimental microcosm of a record, an electronic hothouse where every conceivable touchstone coexists in an awkward, ugly but ultimately breathtaking harmony. Its bustling, condensed epics refuse to present a single, easily digestible vision of the world, yet in so doing they end up revealing this world in all its beautifully chaotic truth. His second album is maelstrom of unresolved differences and pluralities, yet in accentuating these differences and pluralities rather than forcing them to compromise with each other, he's crafted a record to get lost in, to lose your mind in, and to recast it in more enlightened form all over again.
Truly, the Venezuelan's brand of inchoate, diversified electronica is music for a globalized world, for an Earth in which ancient traditions sit alongside the often devastating power of new technologies, and in which human potential could be realized to an unprecedented extent if only we were inclined to use such technology humanely. Maybe we'll never reach such a stage on the level of politics and economics, but at the very least, Arca has shown us how it can be reached on the level of art. -- Simon Chandler
22. Tame Impala - Currents [Interscope]
There's a gorgeous, and utterly disorienting moment about two minutes into Tame Impala's Currents' opening salvo "Let It Happen" where it feels like you, as a listener, stepped into another room while the track was pulsating. It's a great musical effect. Not too show-offy, but it gets you in the mindset that literally anything could happen in the next 50 minutes. There is a theme of transitioning throughout Kevin Parker's latest studio odyssey. On the appropriately-named "Yes, I'm Changing", Parker sings plaintively "They say people change, but that's bullshit, they do." And appropriately, Currents finds Parker transitioning from the insular, psychedelic heaviness of his first two Tame Impala albums to a more communal (read dance floor) environment.
Any time you take away guitar as your dominant sound, you take an artistic risk, especially if the guitar was one of the most endearing elements of your band to many fans. U2 found this out with Achtung Baby. Radiohead found out about this with Kid A. Parker takes a similar risk with Currents, but perhaps his biggest risk is emerging from his sonic wall to sing something as heartfelt and open as "'Cause I'm a Man". With Currents, Parker takes steps to bring in a wider audience, but lyrically, his heart is still in the bedroom, gazing skyward. -- Sean McCarthy
21. Björk - Vulnicura [One Little Independent]
The most heartbreaking moment in Vulnicura is also its smallest. It's not the maelstrom of "Black Lake", the destructive paranoia of "Lion Song", or the declaration of a family devoid of love in "Notget". It's the album's shortest song, with it's simplest sentiment. On "History of Touches", Björk reminisces, "Every single fuck / We had together / Is in a wondrous time lapse." She can see her marriage dissolving around her while she desperately recalls joyous moments, attempting to banish the rising darkness.
Björk is often seen as something alien, something other. A spirit descended to earth with wonderful, otherworldly music flowing from her mind. It's here on "History of Touches" and on all of Vulnicura that we see someone once unstoppable, once untouchable, shattered. Yet, in the darkest moments, we see her bones knit and heart heal. "When she is broken / She is whole!" Björk proclaims on finale "Quicksand". And with Vulnicura she undoubtedly is. By showing her depression, her nightmare, her weakness, she is even stronger. -- Nathan Stevens
20. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment - Surf [Independent]
Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment pair mega-popstars like J. Cole and Big Sean with relative no-names like Noname Gypsy and Kyle on the same track in an album that's full of lyrics about celebrating yourself no matter how big or small you are. This album's message of self-love and self-respect is just as important as that of To Pimp a Butterfly, and while Kyle's verse on "Wanna Be Cool" might not be the most technically impressive verse of the year, it's certainly one of the most endearing; "Okay let's remember that shopping at Payless / It just means that you pay less, it don't make you bae-less / If you don't get re-tweets, it don't mean you say less, okay?"
People criticized the lack of songs: a few jazz instrumentals, a lot of short skit-lengthed songs mostly used as showcases for artists like Saba and Jamila Woods. But what results from the instrumental integrity and revolving door of artists is a communal sweep that starts with the quiet contemplation of "Miracle" and culminates in the church-choir climax of "Sunday Candy".
People starving for more Chance the Rapper after 2013's Acid Rap get a handful of great verses ("Miracle", "Rememory", "Sunday Candy") and some great choruses that'll have you singing along before the first instance finishes ("Slip Slide", "Wanna Be Cool"). Meanwhile, people starving for good music get it, about 16 songs worth. -- Marshall Gu
19. Preoccupations - Viet Cong [Jagjaguwar]
It was easy to understand why this album coursed so violently through the committed hold-outs for rock 'n' roll. For once, here was a record so confident in its power that it borrowed so little outside its own creative purview. And when it did reference, it culled from the good stuff: Wolf Parade, Brit-punk, My Bloody Valentine. Preoccupations define the concept of a "headphone album" in a genre that rarely requires that. They devours the stereo field with their novel guitar arrangements and thundering, distorted rhythm section. Matt Flegel's darkly existential lyrics avoid becoming totally depressing if only because they are swept up in rapid dialogue with quick, moody melodies and angular grooves. Viet Cong is an "I told you so" record, with regard to the schizophrenic argument many of us are having (with no one) about the continued survival of rock and roll. -- Ryan Dieringer
18. Joanna Newsom - Divers [Drag City]
Change is identified as one of the crucial components of time in J.M.E. McTaggart's landmark paper "The Unreality of Time". Though he never specified what changes are exactly necessary, Joanna Newsom offers a powerful case for love as the most compelling example of definitive change in a person's life on her intricate, stunning, and most accessible album yet, Divers. Not that this is a "love" album in the conventional sense; it's about the terrifying mortality recognized in others (and yourself) when love enters your life. Thankfully, the existential crises pondered on arguably the best-written album of the year are married to complex baroque pop that alone is worth diving into again and again, hoping that time doesn't exist to fully appreciate music this good. -- Brian Duricy
17. Protomartyr - The Agent Intellect [Hardly Art]
After the brash outburst of No Passion All Technique, Detroit's Protomartyr dug into the emotional murk behind all that lashing out on last year's excellent Under Color of Official Right. This year's The Agent Intellect continued to expand the scope to brilliant effect. The band's layers are puzzling and infectious, from the rolling chords of "The Devil in His Youth" to the haunting echoes of "Pontiac 87" to the desperate rumble of "Why Does it Shake?" Vocalist Joe Casey is at finest, playing like a barfly flung drunk and sneering out into the streets. So we get the chopped-up storytelling of "I Forgive You" or the deeply embedded memories of "Pontiac 87" or the near resignation of "Dope Cloud".
Throughout the record, crisis and calamity are about to fall on Casey's head, but it feels like it's going to hit us all. The Agent Intellect is an aching yet confrontational look at mortality and at our most isolated moments in a world that seems to keep flinging us into isolation. On this record, we all seem to feel the pain more than we feel the people around. What makes the record remarkable is that it never folds its cards. It spits and sneers at every indignity suffered. It flings its arms out in all directions to find another's hand. And if all we find to grip is the bars of the cell around us? Well then shake the shit out of them until they fall.
Yes, The Agent Intellect is most directly an excellent rock record. But more than that it's the sound of pushing back when all you've got left is the shaking in your arms. In 2015, that's exactly what we need. -- Matthew Fiander
16. Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love [Sub Pop]
It's one thing to have "a comeback album", but it's another thing altogether to go on hiatus for a decade and then come back with not only the best album of your storied career, but one of the best rock albums to be released all year (and this came out in friggin' January, let's not forget). Teased with the new song "Bury Our Friends" off of the career-spanning Start Together box set in October 2014, the excitement of a Sleater-Kinney reunion was palpable at least until you remembered that their last effort was the wildly-divisive 2005 swan song The Woods, which was then followed by numerous attempts at solo careers and, of course, Carrie Brownstein's burgeoning media empire.
Yet no matter which way journalists tried to spin the narrative, the thesis was the same: holy shit No Cities to Love kicks ass. Sure, it's the most melodically optimistic album they've ever released, not to mention the band's most accessible by a mile, but the energy that Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss share is damn near untouchable, resulting in an all-killer/no-filler set of rockers where your favorite song seems to change depending on the day, or (more likely) whichever one is next on your playlist. It may have been a long wait, but Sleater-Kinney entered 2015 with 10 brand new songs and exited it as the reunited champions we always knew they were. Take your crown ladies: it was yours the second you got here. -- Evan Sawdey
15. Grimes - Art Angels [4AD]
Art Angels is an uncompromisingly colorful conception of pop music's kaleidoscopic future, a clash between modern dance pop conventions and the independent sensibility of a singular artist. In a pop music climate more sensitive to the creative input of auteurs than ever, Grimes has made her many talents accessible to the mainstream to an extent she's never pursued before. Art Angels is the arrival of a underground juggernaut into the heavily-guarded realm of mainstream pop, an entrance which leaves behind only the ephemera of lo-fi bedroom production and puts in its place a fearlessly manic display of pop prowess, laudable not only for the level of confidence involved but also for its fundamental individuality.
In the fiercely competitive pop world, the coalescence of earworm melodies, lush production, and dynamic performances is usually the unlikely result of an ensemble effort of high-salaried professionals; alone, Grimes beats them at their own game and then some with one of the most rebellious, uncommonly bizarre records of the young post-modern pop era. -- Colin Fitzgerald
14. Julia Holter - Have You in My Wilderness [Domino]
On Have You in My Wilderness, Julia Holter invites us into her world, in essence a wilderness world of ideas, emotions and intellect. The stories and vignettes within are often based on, or about, external characters, yet as a whole the collection feels very introspective. Importantly, though, the overall picture is not so inward looking that it loses the plot or becomes too obscure. Yes, the lyrics are frequently enigmatic, but the music gives them substance and accessibility. A lot of ground is covered on the album, from the invigorating "Feel You" and "Sea Calls Me Home" to the dirge-like "How Long?" and the playful "Everytime Boots".
The long track "Vasquez", coming near the end of the album with its partly spoken, languid poetics, acts as a sort of cornerstone. Holter's music comes from a mind full of curiosity and obvious joy in the process of creating. She seemed to be searching with her previous albums, but with this one -- one of the most ambitious of the year by anybody -- it all comes together. Not since Kate Bush at her peak has a songwriter merged art and pop so successfully in quite this way. -- Rob Caldwell
13. Algiers - Algiers [Matador]
Algiers purvey a sound that, on paper, should not gel. As a fusion gospel and soul elements with the din of post-punk and clamorous industrial, the components should cleave against rather than complement one another. Yet by wrangling these disparate parts together, this trio of Atlanta natives craft something wholly original. Steeped in atmosphere, the record sounds as though it was recorded in a haunted rock quarry or in the bowels of an abandoned factory.
Vocalist/guitarist Franklin James Fisher's delivery alternates from fire-spitting indignation to ghostly crooning, while guitarist Lee Tesche and bassist Ryan Mahan conjure all manner of spooky tones and textures. Politically-charged, challenging, and fearless, yet still groovy as hell, Algiers have made one of the best, most thoroughly captivating debuts of the year. At once eerie and energizing, Algiers is a dispatch from survivors of a Southern Gothic world laid waste in an apocalypse. -- Cole Waterman
12. Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material [Mercury Nashville]
Kacey Musgrave's small town affections reveal an open mind and a vulnerable heart. Her country metaphors about home, family, and everyday life ("family is family in church or in prison") are matched by simple melodies that take unexpected turns into something strange and honest (i.e., "If misery loves company than I can't keep you company no more"). Even when she spouts platitudes, she does so to show their essential truth or their opposite intent with a warm smile and a bit of silliness (re: "Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy", indeed). She's a lover not a fighter, but Musgrave's sweet voice doesn't hide her smarts.
Despite their separate topics, her self-penned songs such as "Die Fun", "Dime Store Cowgirl", and the title track suggest that we count our blessings and tolerate others who may be different than we are just as we want to be tolerated by them. Listening to her contemplative vocals is almost like taking a secular communion. Musgrave's music brings us together and reminds us that time passes too quickly to spend it being mad at others or disappointed in ourselves. She proves that a woman doesn't have to be a redneck to be real country, whatever those terms may mean in our ever changing musical world. -- Steve Horowitz
11. Carly Rae Jepsen - E·MO·TION [Silent]
E·MO·TION is so bold an album title that it's a wonder and no surprise that this is the first album of its name with any profile. Good for us Carly Rae Jepsen nabbed it, because on this unstoppable 1980s pastiche, she confirms that she has the most sophisticated and diverse understanding of emotional life that has come with a groove. If "emotion" here means "romance", so be it; her denials have as much power as her come-ons. With one song after another for 15 tracks (including three indispensable B-sides), yoking deftly articulated emotional nuance to funky, thumping synthpop, this is one of the most consistent albums of the year. It pays great on shuffle, better straight through, best on repeat, and always with more melodic, rhythmic, productive invention than one could hope to remember -- excuses to play it again. -- Michael Opal
10. Alabama Shakes - Sound and Color [ATO/Rough Trade]
After "Hold On" came out and Alabama Shakes exploded into the forefront of the cultural consciousness, critics heralded them as the second coming of R&B-tinged roots rock. Whereas early reviews compared them to Janis Joplin or Aretha Franklin, they claimed their influences came more from chameleons like David Bowie or Led Zeppelin But with this year's Sound and Color, they've established themselves not as nostalgic revivalists but instead, the most important and innovative rock band of the here and now.
Alabama Shakes diversified their sonic palette, adding in unique flares like the vibes on "Sound and Color", the electronic drums on "Guess Who", or the string lines on "This Feeling". The core instruments sound tighter than ever, constructing angular, rhythmic grooves like the badass strut of lead single "Don't Wanna Fight" or the face-melting opening of "Future People". And as their claim to fame, lead singer Brittany Howard's voice remains as viscerally thrilling as always. On album closer "Over My Head", she sings layer upon layer, sounding like a one-woman church choir.
The album's highlight though surely lay in second single "Gimme All Your Love". The song opens with thunderous full band chords that break open to reveal a gently soulful bounce. The song builds into a barn-burning explosion, Brittany screaming the chorus like an Alabaman banshee and then breaks again. A gentle Rhodes line. And then a two-guitar showdown that could put any of the 1960s "rock gods" to shame. -- Logan Austin
9. Vince Staples - Summertime '06 [Def Jam]
In 2015 West Coast hip-hop momentarily took over the national pop-culture conversation again, between Kendrick Lamar's ambitious To Pimp a Butterfly and the nostalgic N.W.A. biopic. I can only assume music-eggheads are plotting dozens of West Coast thinkpieces for year-end features. Instead of travelling back through Hollywood, a more visceral, less escapist look at life in urban California awaited listeners of Vince Staples' double-disc debut, a hip-hop highlight that also deserves to be heard by all music fans, period. Staples bested his acclaimed mixtapes by lyrically and musically constructing a vivid world of personal struggle through rapid-fire, idea-dense rhymes and cinematic music.
Summertime '06 is a mental trip back into his summer 2006 life and mindset in Long Beach, California, which he depicts as a place where gang life and civic life are one and the same. This is an intense ride, taking the racial and economic divides of the US and drilling down into how they impact people's lives. Even as Staples is looking back nine years, the album has much to say about today as yesterday; listeners experience it at the gut-and-heart level, not at the remove that looking back might represent. We also feel the music in our bones; the bass alone is a monster, one of the most intense, redemptive musical characters of the year in music. -- Dave Heaton
8. Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free [Southeastern]
It's not impossible to find records that sound as effortless as Something More Than Free but it's difficult. Jason Isbell's comfort across this collection is rare, suggesting that they've been lived in, worn down to their essential points over time. His vocals and melodies are a confluence of gospel, soul, country and the barest essence of rock and his words are eerily timeless and reminiscent of great American writers such as Flannery O'Connor and Breece D'J Pancake. The production, too, is boiled down only to the necessary touches calling to mind John Prine's debut of John Hiatt's Crossing Muddy Waters.
"If It Takes a Life Time" is one of the most discussed songs of 2015 but "Hudson Commodore", "Children of Children" and "To a Band That I Love" are glimpses of lives that exist just at the corner of memory and thus their fading causes us to ache all the more. If you haven't lived the life Isbell describes in these songs you will surely feel that you have after one thorough listen. -- Jedd Beaudoin
7. Oneohtrix Point Never - Garden of Delete [Warp]
The influence of Oneohtrix Point Never, aka vaporwave godfather Daniel Lopatin, is difficult overstate. Amidst a decade of work often described (though somewhat inadequately) as progressive electronic, Garden of Delete stands out as one of Lopatin's finest records. His music famously polarizes listeners. Some will recoil at the dated synths and hairpin excursions; others will find them irresistible.
The album would provide an excellent starting point for those willing to take the plunge, a striking union of compositional complexity and wonderfully simple hooks. It proves an expressly maximalist venture for the artist, crushingly heavy yet intensely purifying -- as if you commissioned Tim Hecker to create a work using only air horns and unlimited digital processing. Highlights include "Sticky Drama", with its blissful, pitched-up vocal line, and the closer, "No Good", which could strip parts off the space station. Garden of Delete is guaranteed to leave you asking, "What the hell is that sound?" once every few seconds, and in the best way possible. -- A. Noah Harrison
6. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell [Asthmatic Kitty]
Folk albums about abandonment and brokenness and death are tricky prospects. There is the potential for undeniable emotional power, as in the Antlers' Hospice. Yet most albums like these, even the good ones, are only a small step away from falling into the dead-on satirical send-up of Mitch Cohen's Callin' It Quits from A Mighty Wind. There's more than one way for a singer to dig his own grave. Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell is an album whose fabric is built from a mother's absence and death.
As the singer shares the devastating ongoing threads of those events, listening to his melodic accounting of life's sadness seems like prying. Many of the songs' lyrical details would be considered too personal to share if the context were polite conversation. But Stevens' knowing acknowledgement of intimacy and discomfort helps to distinguish Carrie & Lowell as a deathly album with a wise heart, or at least in search of one.
Among the songwriters of his generation, Stevens proves to be uniquely skilled at this sort of communicability regarding dire subject matter. Songs from earlier in his career hinted at his awareness of characters in dark places, in need of intervention or deliverance. Here, he is that character. The songs collectively form an engagement with mourning, the effects of which exceed any similarly expressive musical release in recent memory. And while the album's musical merits are many, there is something limiting about calling Carrie & Lowell a folk album. It follows the tradition of A Grief Observed, "On Being Ill", and Ecclesiastes 7, works and words that point to [as said in the title track] a "season of hope (after the flood)." -- Thomas Britt
5. Chris Stapleton - Traveller [Mercury Nashville]
The road that Chris Stapleton had travelled to get to where he is now is more of a winding path than many of us realize. He first gained recognition behind the scenes as a writer of songs ranging from Josh Turner's "Your Man" to Luke Bryan's "Drink a Beer", with stints as the lead singer of both the SteelDrivers and Jompson Brothers scattered throughout the roughly 15-year upwards trajectory.
Traveller takes all of the traditional tropes of conventional country music, from the copious references to alcohol, the countryside, and beyond, but goes so far as revamping these themes with zero frills and a load of soul. Stapleton delivers what so many within the music industry often don't, and that's authenticity; as a bonus, he has it in spades. From the sobered and windswept title track to his notable take on the blues in closer "Sometimes I Cry", Traveller is an impressive showcase of Stapleton's true worth as a singer-songwriter and interpreter. -- Jonathan Frahm
4. Kamasi Washington - The Epic [Brainfeeder]
Who would've guessed that one of the best albums of 2015 would be a sprawling, three-disc jazz opus? Having played a prominent role on Kendrick Lamar's equally brilliant To Pimp a Butterfly, saxophonist Kamasi Washington helped bring a much-needed changing of the proverbial guard in the somewhat staid world of contemporary jazz. Equally informed by his spiritual jazz predecessors and modern hip-hop, The Epic is a masterful blending of old and new to create a vibrant, engaging album that truly lives up to its name.
With the help of fellow West Coast musicians, many of whom Washington has been playing since he was a kid, he helps establish the long overdue case for jazz as a vital 21st century art form. By bridging the generational gap with his own unique approach to the music and its legacy, Washington has managed to create an organic, modern jazz classic in an era overrun by preprograming and electronically generated sounds. The Epic serves a clarion call for modern jazz performers to rise to the occasion and further the exemplary work Washington and his sprawling collective deliver here. -- John Paul
3. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear [Sub Pop]
"Harrowing" isn't a word typically associated with acoustic rock albums about falling in love and staying there, but Father John Misty's I Love You, Honeybear was one of the most harrowing albums of the year, a booze-soaked party with every skeleton in Josh Tillman's closet. The songs are marked by humor as black as the most jaded comedian (obvious from his incredible piece of performance art on Letterman) but also by eclectic, gentle instrumentation: swirling strings, acoustic guitar, and solo piano.
It's possibly the most tender album ever about being a complete fuck-up, and that juxtaposition of biting cynicism and bleary-eyed hope keeps the listener on edge as an existentially wrecked Tillman hits every high -- forgiveness, infatuation, true love -- via a highway of lows: self-hatred, near-fatal overdoses, not attending family funerals. Redemption is ultimately found amidst the human carnage, and the payoff is that much sweeter knowing the hell that came before it. -- Adam Finley
2. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit [Mom+Pop/Marathon Artists]
In 2015, Courtney Barnett has unequivocally proved that it's still possible to make novel indie rock record with little more than clean guitars and great lyrics. Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit is great not because it simply reminds us of a different era of indie rock, but because it's something so personal and musically liberated that somehow avoids the perils of the current independent music scene (amateur bedroom production, elaborate effects chains) and, in doing so, becomes something simultaneously fresh and timeless.
It's also a record of the now, if not in sound then in theme; it takes modern suburban anxiety and pokes fun at it, nurtures it, and explores it in a more fulfilling way than has been done in some time. Courtney Barnett is an artist of thousands of anachronisms and idiosyncrasies, but through that she's made one of the most universally appealing rock albums of the year. -- Colin Fitzgerald
1. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly [Interscope]
There's perhaps no album more 2015 than Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly. No album seemed more designed for our times and was equally received by them. Those demanding justice chanted it from Ferguson to Baltimore to Mizzou and beyond. "We gonna be alright," a moment of reassurance from a dismal vantage -- black youth being murdered for their skin amidst a convivial mainstream embrace of systemic racism. If Lamar owned 2015, he did so by distorting chronology, confusing it so that George Clinton can jam with Thundercat, Tupac is still alive and up for interviews, Compton is the heart of conscious and introspection is pure gangsta, and jazz and spoken word are among the best 21st century tools to fight the power.
Yet for all the self-reflection and poetic self-abdication, Lamar can still throw invectives with the best of them -- try finding another record with a line as brutal and on point as "You hate my people / Your plan is to terminate my culture, you're fucking evil." In the same song, he proclaims "you vandalize my perception" referring to white supremacy's tendency to make young black men internalize its own hatred, but with any luck he's vandalizing our perception too.
There's a sense in which this LP fits some old, cozy rockist notions of artistry, authenticity, technical prowess, et al. But from the cover art of young exposed bodies crowded over a toppled white patriarch to the character/caricature studies of malignant gold-diggers to the ownership of one's hypocrisy to the stereotypes Lamar identifies with in "The Blacker the Berry" and "King Kunta" to the insistence that the troublesome word "nigga" derives from the Ethiopian royal title Negus, this entire affair is all about discomfort, facing it and coming to terms with it. After all, like grandma said "Shit don't change until you get up and wash yo' ass off."
To Pimp a Butterfly is not intended to be a closed loop. It's a conversation starter. It starts from a place of both intimacy and community and urges us to hold our own feet to the fire. Did I mention that for a concept album with dozens of stylistic change-ups and heady interludes, the album of 2015 is eminently listenable? Ball's in your court, 2016. -- Timothy Gabriele
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This article was originally published in December 2015.