Music

The 80 Best Albums of 2015

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving hip-hop scene... from R&B, country and jazz to rocking and popping indie... 2015 was a stellar year for new music.

Artist: Ought

Album: Sun Coming Down

Label: Constellation

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Ought
Sun Coming Down

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

 
Artist: U.S. Girls

Album: Half Free

Label: 4AD

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List number: 79

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U.S. Girls
Half Free

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

 
Artist: Cam

Album: Welcome to Cam Country

Label: Arista Nashville

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List number: 78

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Cam
Welcome to Cam Country

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

 
Artist: Gwenno

Album: Y Dydd Olaf

Label: Heavenly

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Gwenno
Y Dydd Olaf

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

 
Artist: Rae Sremmurd

Album: Sremm Life

Label: EarDrummers / Interscope

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Rae Sremmurd
Sremm Life

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

 
Artist: Ruby Amanfu

Album: Standing Still

Label: Thirty Tigers / Rival & Co.

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List number: 75

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Ruby Amanfu
Standing Still

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

 
Artist: Dawn Richard

Album: Blackheart

Label: Our Dawn

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Dawn Richard
Blackheart

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

 
Artist: Girl Band

Album: Hold Hands with Jamie

Label: Rough Trade

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Girl Band
Hold Hands with Jamie

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

 
Artist: Titus Andronicus

Album: The Most Lamentable Tragedy

Label: Merge

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Titus Andronicus
The Most Lamentable Tragedy

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

 
Artist: Jaga Jazzist

Album: Starfire

Label: Ninja Tune

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Jaga Jazzist
Starfire

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

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