EARLY ON IN THE YEAR, the musical fabric of 2015 seemed to be on a historic path. D’Angelo’s stunning late-2014 return still had us high. Björk and Sleater-Kinney also came back to us with dazzling entries to their already-classic discographies. Courtney Barnett gave us the best debut album of the decade. Father John Misty made us question all of our romantic relationships. Kamasi Washington delivered the most ambitious jazz album in years. Sufjan Stevens went back to folk and shed his cerebral trappings to bare his soul. Kendrick Lamar dropped his pièce de résistance right when we needed it most.
The promise of the second half of the year seemed just as strong—albums from Kanye West and Frank Ocean were imminent! Radiohead were working on an album!
Clearly, we never got those albums. But what we got was Jamie xx owning the summer with an album so vivid and colorful, it’s shocking that he’s still associated with these guys. We got pop phenoms like Grimes and Carly Rae Jepsen exercising full artistic autonomy—both within and without the major label system—to deliver the albums of their careers. We got reliably great artists like Joanna Newsom and Neon Indian and Deerhunter expanding their sounds. We got two new Beach House albums.
It’s still December as I write this and because it’s 2015, it’s entirely possible that before the year is out, Beyoncé, or Frank Ocean, or Kanye West, or, hell, even Radiohead will drop in for an Internet-breaking surprise. But even if they don’t, to borrow a line from one of the year’s best songs, we’re gonna be alright. 2015 is still gonna be, arguably, the best year for music in the history of Pretty Much Amazing. And with albums from so many of our favorite artists still outstanding, 2016 is starting to look like a real contender.
Sink your teeth into our 50 favorite LPs of the year, starting with a 3+ hour playlist, available on Spotify and YouTube:
50 Jessica Pratt, On Your Own Love Again
49 Titus Andronicus, A Most Lamentable Tragedy
48 Susanne Sundfør, Ten Love Songs
Though she’s been making increasingly ambitious synthpop since 2007, “Norway’s Kate Bush” Susanne Sundfør had her biggest breakthrough on this side of the Atlantic with Ten Love Songs, an album expertly trafficking in power ballads and big emotions. Impressively, most of the album’s gorgeous compositions—which oscillate between choral chamber music and tight, Berlin-esque synthpop—are largely handled by Sundfør herself, with the likes of M83 and Röyksopp occasionally popping in to lend a hand.
47 Jenny Hval, Apocalypse, Girl
46 Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material
45 Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
Jason Isbell has slyly carved out a space for himself alongside the great American songwriters of the decade. That should come as no surprise to anyone lending half an ear to this former Drive-By Trucker's solo career. Hell, it’s old news to anyone up on Isbell’s contributions to DBT’s glorious run of albums in early-aughts. His first album since 2013 solo breakthrough Southeastern, Something More Than Free is a taut and beautifully realized collection of weatherbeaten tunes that ponder the place and nature of man. It offers more hope—and more heart—than his last one, but sacrifices none of Isbell’s uncanny ability to shade deeply felt characters in under four minutes.
44 Holly Herndon, Platform
43 Thee Oh Sees, Mutilator Defeated at Last
42 Jeremih, Late Nights: The Album
Just like Carly Rae Jepsen did with Emotion, Jeremih (finally) conquers his past blockbuster success with Late Nights. Jeremih is in full-command from the start, showing off his impeccable ear for melodies sung in cadences no one’s ever attempted before. He zooms and prowls between strong verses from guests J. Cole, Jhené Aiko, Future, Juicy J, Big Sean, and Ty Dolla Sign. His voice, singular and buoyant, glides over sinewy, narcotic R&B with an ease that hasn’t been heard since The-Dream’s first two albums. It chops itself with dazzling skill on “Pass Dat”. It embodies minimalism in fits and starts on “Planez”. It makes every utterance a hook on “Oui”. It extracts some real beauty in an ode to oral sex on “Woosah”. It takes a surprisingly serene turn on “Paradise”. Throughout Late Nights his instrument is vibrant and vital.
41 Florence and the Machine, How Big How Blue How Beautiful
Sing, O Goddess, the fury of Florence! Sing her Machine’s devastation, which puts pain and joy thousandfold upon us all. Begin, Muse, when she first broke and then clashed with her enemies. Florence, flame-haired daughter of the weird sisters—Stevie, Kate, and Tori—has countless opponents. Former lovers. Personal demons. Music critics. Many deny the majesty of her Ceremonials. Others decry the power of her Lungs. By Zeus! They are loud, a pack of howling dogs. But Florence is louder yet, dear Muse. Her voice roars, a tidal wave: big, blue, beautiful. And it has returned to our shores, with a crash, to bathe her friends in its glory and wash her foes into the wine-dark sea. — Peter Tabakis
40 Young Thug, Barter 6
39 Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
38 Oneohtrix Point Never, Garden of Delete
37 Churches, Every Open Eye
36 Erykah Badu, But You Caint Use My Phone
At a basic level, But You Caint Use My Phone is just Erykah Badu having fun riffing on the concept of phone-centric love songs. Drake’s “Hotline Bling” acts as the original point of inspiration, and its memorable, circular clockwork beat finds its way into several of the mixtape’s songs. The general, glowing vibe of “Hotline Bling” also helps establish the tone. Drake’s sensual night moves were already incredibly easy to get into, but when paired with Badu, the marquee name in breezy, jazzy vocalizations, the song is nothing less than magnetic. The second half slowdown in particular is a real power move, giving us a completely different take on the song’s core. It’s as if she’s showing off all the different ways she can elevate the original’s infectiousness, all the different avenues her mind takes her. — Justin Pansacola
35 Dr. Dre, Compton
Glancing over Compton’s hefty track listing you’ll notice nothing unusual or even anything all that familiar—the project looks and feels like an entirely fresh start for Dre. In addition, the album is a noticeable departure from his past two solo works. The subject matter, lyrics and overall sound of the album recall the Reagan-era rebelliousness of N.W.A. In fact, it’s quite refreshing. If anything, Dre’s reemergence in 2015 is the Detox we’ve been needing this entire time—in that it has expelled the toxins accumulated over those drawn-out sixteen years. And Compton is the afterglow. — Brooklyn Russell
34 Protomartyr, The Agent Intellect
33 Tobias Jesso Jr., Goon
32 Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: An American Musical
31 Kurt Vile, B’lieve I'm Goin’ Down
Kurt Vile has woken up on yet another pretty daze and he doesn’t recognize the man in the mirror, or at least so begins his sixth studio album B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down. But hey, that new guy in the mirror wearing his clothes looks pretty pimpin’. It’s a fitting metaphor for Vile’s new LP. Rest assured, Vile has maintained his easygoing brand of breezy folk-rock and foolish philosophy, but his songwriting exhibits a precision and directness not seen on previous releases. He’s sharpened up, grown up, and yet the song remains the same. It all makes for a melancholy sense of bemusement—much like the bashful irony of a country-rock singer who entitles a song of self-discovery “Pretty Pimpin’”. — Zach Bernstein
30 Julia Holter, Have You in My Wilderness
29 Beach House, Thank Your Lucky Stars
28 Torres, Sprinter
27 Earl Sweatshirt, I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside
Odd Future’s gaggle of post-Eminem MCs can sometimes feel like raging ids locked in ugly competition. However, although Earl Sweatshirt’s work on third full-length I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside can sometimes read as less urgently feral or technically accomplished than that of the collective’s de facto ringleader Tyler, The Creator or Earl’s own past releases (the rapping here is about half the speed, on average, of the flow heard on Doris), the more time spent with the record, the clearer it becomes that the MC is simply confident. I Don’t Like Shit moves at a stroll not because it’s lazy but because its creator knows exactly what he’s doing, such that there’s no need to show off. While Earl’s on-record persona continues to combine raw autobiographical material (or raw-seeming, as it’s never clear how much hyperbole or outright fabrication is involved) with a fuck-off attitude, he’s stripped his simultaneously fascinating and off-putting style down considerably without diluting its effect, jettisoning the loopy abstractions and lurid detail of Doris in favor of a commanding iciness. — Samuel Catlin
26 Shamir, Ratchet
Shamir needn’t work so hard. The songs off his debut album Ratchet, so springy and indelible, can bear the brunt of fame’s incipient burden. (Should it ever come.) Their milieu spans various genres: disco, house, funk, pop, R&B, and a sprinkling of hip hop. Shamir’s voice, pitched high but not exactly feminine, works as a reverse prism. Sent through his countertenor instrument, these wide-ranging styles sharpen into a laser focus. Throw in, as a bonus, the kaleidoscopic production techniques of GODMODE founder Nick Sylvester. When these jigsaw pieces snap together to reveal the whole, Shamir brushes the dust of the past with a flick of the wrist. Left behind is a technicolor explosion, the burst of an aural confetti cannon. — Peter Tabakis
25 Kamasi Washington, The Epic
24 Joanna Newsom, Divers
23 Destroyer, Poison Season
Like Streethawk: A Seduction, Destroyer’s fourth LP, Poison Season ends where it begins. The album opens with “Times Square, Poison Season I”, a hazy criticism of the record industry. (I guess?) It closes with “Times Square, Poison Season II”, a murky rebuke to commercial radio. (Maybe?) Between these bookends, Dan Bejar employs dream-logic lyricism to air a multiplicity of grievances. There are moments of great beauty (“Girl in a Sling”) and spirit (“Dream Lover”) within the thematic darkness. Poison Season’s first and last tracks meet in the middle on “Times Square”. When they join together, every woe evaporates. — Peter Tabakis
22 Beach House, Depression Cherry
21 Panda Bear, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
20 Empress Of, Me
For a while, it seemed that Lorely Rodriguez, the woman behind Empress Of, had dropped off the face of the earth. In 2013, she released her fantastic Systems EP and a one-off track in “Realize You”, then entered radio silence for the better part of two years. I was surprised and delighted then, to see her as the opener for Kimbra in Brooklyn last fall, where she played the aforementioned song, as well as two cuts that, in retrospect, were probably “Water Water” and “How Do You Do It.” It was a startling departure from the shoegazy, honey-slathered sweetness I had come to identify with Rodriguez, but I wasn’t complaining: the gurgling, menacing, lite-house music she played was something I could definitely get down to.
Fast forward to fall 2015, and Rodriguez’s long-gestating debut has finally arrived. Me showcases Rodriguez’s knack for intelligent songwriting throughout, whether it is via descriptions of modern love on “Make Up” (“Nothing comes between us/But a piece of latex/When you tear my clothes off/Like I was a paycheck”), or a testimony to the twenty-something economic struggle on “Standard” (“I’ve been eyeing your plate of diamonds/With an envy that kills the pride”). What buoys these weighty concepts is Rodriguez’s consistent production, which never drops the baton as it cycles through ten excellent tracks. From the floridly psychotic “Threat”, to the pared down “Icon”, there is something new at every turn to keep the discerning listener engaged. As an artistic statement and an encapsulation of everything that Rodriguez is, Me succeeds on all counts.
Which is why I say, if this is how long it takes to make something of this caliber, then I’m happy to wait all over again for the next installment. In the meantime, I’ll still be trying to convince the DJ to play “How Do You Do It” at the club. — Jean-Luc Marsh
19 Viet Cong, Viet Cong
At first this seemed like one more record on the “adequate-not-revelatory derivatives of Joy Division” pile. Only later did it become clear how much of a headphones listen it was. The band heavying-up the sound of their previous project, Women, and internalizing their influences to make the goth-industrial record of the year. They’re smarter, more diverse, and frankly more honest than Interpol and their branded ilk.
Did I mention this thing is heavy? The suffocating drum loop that opens “March of Progress” for three minutes; the mechanical bass-guitar back-and-forth in “Bunker Buster”; the insistent drive of the bass line two minutes into “Silhouettes” like a hyper-realized car chase in the rain; the feverish swarm of “Death” that thrashes and raves to an apocalypse that’d make the Sonic Youth of Bad Moon Rising proud. It’s probably wise they kept the album to seven tracks in 37 minutes: any more would be exhausting in the wrong way. As is, it’s exhausting like riding a bike really fast on an overcast day is exhausting, all post-punk surge and drone.
It’s impressive how they can work from a sharp, stinging plundering march in opener “Newspaper Spoons” to a pretty, starlit ending in the same track, or how well they do with the machine-gun drum-machine bursts throughout “Pointless Experience” or “Bunker Buster”. Hell, the aforementioned drum loop of “March of Progress”, suffocating as it is, is rendered more hopeful by the keyboard delay overtop, the long buildup throwing the chiming sprint of its second half into thrilling relief.
And they’re good with wordless vocal sections, too, especially in “Bunker Buster” and “Silhouettes”. The words themselves? Well, with lesser backing, lines like “What is the difference between love and hate” or “If we’re lucky, we’ll get old and die” would be insufferable. But the band don’t treat them like they’re profound statements on the human condition—they just accept physical finality as the norm. Is there a way out of this “second-hand industry/rusted out, viciously”? They doubt it, but they run toward it anyway…just in case. It’s Swell Maps’ Jane from Occupied Europe, with hooks! Brilliant! — Nathan Wisnicki
18 Deerhunter, Fading Frontier
I think a lot about how “frontier” is probably the most important word in the complete American consciousness. Of course, then you have to ask yourself, what frontiers remain accessible to us in 2015? The very idea of a fading frontier suggests this thing that defines us has gone so liquid and amorphous as to be indistinct, and it only keeps dissolving. This might very well be the new default American story—what can you make when you resist the myth? Or when the myth resists you?
No one can shuffle, rebuild, and refocus the myth like Deerhunter, who have very successfully been making twisted Southern Gothic records since 2005. All the hauntedness and decay of Faulkner and Flannery and classic Delta blues channeled through Dennis Cooper’s novels and Throbbing Gristle’s industrial opus and put to wax still breathing. Sometimes Deerhunter manage to excavate from the muck a peerless pop record; I would say Fading Frontier is one, but sometimes it is trying to be a rock record (“Snakeskin”) and sometimes it is trying to be an experimental record (“Leather and Wood”) and sometimes it is trying to be a Gary Numan record (“Ad Astra”). Its most straightforward pop tune is “Breaker”, which feels like the single Deerhunter have been trying to make since Microcastle. In the chorus Lockett Pundt sings about being powerless in the face of change, and Bradford Cox picks up what he’s putting down—“It’s been too long since I’ve been driving all night on the back roads winding/under the stars that are slowly dying…”
We know this just from living: change is inexorable; it’s worse than tide. The reassuring thing about all of it is that every time one frontier fades there’s another in its place. Now it’s just a matter of finding out exactly what that is. Fading Frontier might not give us a how-to manual, but it gives us a taste of how it might be done–an indefinable and meditative record for whatever’s beyond. — Genevieve Oliver
17 Hop Along, Painted Shut
The sleeper indie-rock album of the year introduced us—belatedly, alas—to the most viscerally powerful singing I’ve heard on a rock record since…well, since Sleater-Kinney I guess, but let’s pretend for a sec that they didn’t release an album this year.
Frances Quinlan yowls and shreds words and dips into her high register now and then with startling (and often heartbreaking) results, her talent for vocal improvisation and offhand melody-making astonishing and even uncanny as she folds lines over the meters so that the words reveal depths in their repetition that you didn’t know were there: “The witness just wants to talk to you”; “You and some others stick around”; “We all will remember things the same.”
Her stream-of-consciousness musings-cum-mantras really do recall the wistful gnostic spirit of early R.E.M., yet these lyrics are more situational. Indeed, Paul Westerberg himself could envy how Quinlan caps the anguish of “Waitress” (about waiting table for your ex’s new partner) with a small sigh on the word “stick,” just as Stipe could envy how tunefully Quinlan twists the words “go out” in “Buddy in the Parade” or the way her voice trails off fighting into the bridge of “Powerful Man”. Rarely are lines like “Father gets up at 4am to post a motivational video on YouTube again” phrased with so much care and empathy.
Quinlan’s so good it’s easy to overlook the damn good band playing behind her, particularly guitarist Joe Reinhart buzzing through “Sister Cities” with a wagon-ride spring in his step or surging three chords upward in “I Saw My Twin” for Quinlan to shred the words “over the table” in the album’s most gut-roiling moment. Cresting unexpectedly on an insanely catchy song about a failed attempt to track down a father who punched his son as the sun set, this is the late-‘90s golden mean of Pavement, Archers of Loaf, and American Football that we never got, averaging the melody of the first, the controlled discord of the second, and the wistful drama of the third into 10 stirring and true songs about trying to land on rough ground. — Nathan Wisnicki
16 Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Multi-Love
With Multi-Love, Ruban Nielson crafted a retro indie rock album that belongs in the 2010s. It’s a delirious, groovy mélange of tattered lo-fi production, contorting guitars and soulful harmonies, subtle in its ambitions, undeniable in its accessibility. And despite its comfort food familiarity, it’s terrifically inventive. There’s no question that every stretched, compressed or warped note that made the cut sounded exactly how Nielson wants it to. Amidst the polychrome, 4-dimensional arrangements, his beautifully androgynous voice is as versatile an instrument as any. He unspools melodies that never go where you expect and while delivering lyrics disarming in their directness (“She’ll close her mouth and kiss with her eyes”).
Pulling from the likes of Prince, Marvin Gaye, and uh, Frank Zappa, Multi-Love’s nine lithe songs are unified through their surreal take on relationships. To see what differentiates them, all you need to do is listen. Projected through Nielson’s fractured lens, each track has its own distinct flavour. There’s the rickety psychedelia percolating through “Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty”, the woozy string-bending workout of “Ur Life One Night”, the clattering dance beats on “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”. For a man who’s process is decidedly insular, Multi-Love is about as inclusive as they come. It wants to be everything for everyone, and it nearly succeeds. — Brendan Frank
15 Neon Indian, Vega Int’l Night School
The best Prince album of 2015, which is no small feat, considering Prince himself released two albums of his own this year. As with every passing trend, the mavens of chill-wave were inevitably going to need to reinvent themselves. Washed Out went for a more organic, in-studio sound, Toro y Moi diversified his sound with mixed results, and luckily for us, Neon Indian went full-blown pop fantasia.
It would be impossible for anyone with a sweet tooth not to enjoy the saccharine delights of Vega Int’l Night School. Conceived during Alan Polomo’s sojourn on a cruise ship with his musician brother, Polomo’s third effort offers a blindingly neon cocktail of techno-pop (“The Glitzy Hive”), compelling electro compositions (“Slumlord”), and Caribbean inflected lost-80s gem (“Annie”). It’s all a giddy fever dream that passes by in a haze of squiggling synthesizers, clattering drums, and Polomo’s increasingly developing vocal prowess, especially on the sensitive slow jam, “Baby’s Eyes”, and the Penthouse fantasy, “Dear Skorpio Magazine”. Hip-shaking and air-guitar acrobatics will ensue—don’t bother to fight it.
Vega all culminates in one of the one of the most euphoric album closers of the year—“News from the Sun (Live Bootleg)”, which pumps in Purple Rain-style canned audience cheering to greet the exhausted sunrise after an all-night party. Very few albums this year nobly pursued the album’s self-described “Smut!” with quite this much gusto, and it pays off in dividends.
Neon Indian has crafted one of the finest synthpop LPs in recent memory, its pleasures growing more pronounced with every rotation. — Zach Bernstein
14 Vince Staples, Summertime ’06
Everyone thinks where they come from is important. Few people have the chance to create that mythology, and fewer still are as convincing as Vince Staples on Summertime ’06. There is no shortage of rappers mining their personal experience for bars, but Staples, as a writer, is the most intriguing. He writes hefty verses that can drop a dozen references that come together to speak to a broader depiction of life in North Long Beach, and have you head-nodding the whole time. His flow and cadence has its own innate rhythm and melody that allows the beats to be a little weirder and unconventional.
Fittingly, most of the songs almost seem to re-appropriate horror movie sounds to build their atmosphere: “Jump Off the Roof” has a haunting choir, “Senorita” uses eerie spindly pianos and “C.N.B.” is built entirely on an almost undead, ominous mood. When you add in the huge, cavernous, space of the production, it’s one of the most focused albums of the year with a distinct character. “Summertime”, the last track on the first disc, is a powerful outlier. A glowing but dull & thudding synth plays the centerpiece and Staples slows down and descends into it. It’s thick and gloomy unlike any other song on the album, seemingly leaning closer to Joy Division, the band that inspired the album art, and their oppressive atmosphere. It would've been a stirring closing scene, but then there's another gun shot, and we're on to disc two and 10 more songs.
Ultimately it’s an album where the individual strengths are clearly envisioned, and they come together to compliment each other on practically every song. — Justin Pansacola
13 Miguel, Wildheart
Miguel’s transformation into a boundary-pushing musical visionary began with 2012’s Kaleidoscope Dream, but it came to a head with his third album. Wildheart is more lurid and lascivious than its predecessor, but also more experimental, employing plenty of psychedelic quirks and bizarre sounds. Throughout his musical progression, Miguel has grown tremendously as not simply a singer but a songwriter and orchestrator. Wildheart isn’t built as a showcased for his voice, though he has plenty of opportunities to shine on tracks like “Coffee” and “Waves”.
With this record, he goes to dark, fascinating places and indulges urges he had hinted at earlier in his career but never fully embraced. Nothing in his catalogue matches the raw sexuality of “The Valley” and its slow-burning, synth-heavy backdrop. While Miguel has a cerebral, introspective side that comes out plenty on Wildheart, it’s incredible fun to hear him spit game without a care in the world. “I’m your pimp, I’m your pope, I’m your pastor, babe/Confess your sins to me while you masturbate/Shepard Fairey shit, OBEY, like I’m your master babe/This is art babe, play your part babe, then we all get paid,” he sings on the hook, oozing with swagger.
“What's Normal Anyway” is a bit too on-the-nose compared to the rest of the album, but it’s a small misstep in an otherwise flawless and immersive record. Miguel already had one of the best voices in music, and with Wildheart he proved that he's also one of its most important artists, full stop. — Grant Rindner
12 Björk, Vulnicura
For too long Björk has followed cerebral asides that have frequently turned out to be artistic dead ends. Vulnicura, her finest album in almost 20 years, stands as her most personal, and successfully weird, left turn. It’s an aural chronicle of a marriage in complete shambles, told in three parts. Constrained by its singular topic, Vulnicura investigates the psychological corners, mostly dark ones, of a lover battered, bruised, and reborn. Arca, her sonic partner in crime, adorns the album with discordant touches and experimental curlicues. But this is Björk’s show through and through—and her triumphant comeback.
“Show me emotional respect,” Björk pleads, presumably to Matthew Barney, on the album’s grand opener “Stonemilker”. It’s a direct callback to “Jóga” from Homogenic, which seems appropriate, as Vulnicura is in conversation with that string-and-beat opus. This is a thornier affair, particularly in its middle section. But it’s also a harrowing act of musical bloodletting. Vulnicura demands great patience from the listener. Even if you’re in the sturdiest romantic relationship, you can’t help but feel shaken by this devastating song cycle. The upshot is that Björk, and the the listener too, emerges from the crucible stronger, and maybe a bit more emotionally competent. — Peter Tabakis
11 Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love
This autumn saw the release of Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl. The book is tough going all around—a troubled childhood, pervasive misogyny, shingles, pets that eat each other…you know, the works. But the toughest going of all is the tale of Sleater-Kinney’s long, grueling dissolution. The band seems to have been crumbling almost from the moment Brownstein and co-vocalist/co-guitarist Corin Tucker first started playing together, teetering on the brink of collapse even as the accolades mounted during their luminous twelve-year career. In an alternate universe where 2005’s The Woods is indeed the final Sleater-Kinney album, this account would read, in part, as an apology to the fans: Sorry the band broke up, but here, look, it was inevitable, things were awful. Thankfully, we don’t live in that universe.
Here on this good planet, Brownstein, Tucker, and drummer Janet Weiss reunited in 2014. Thus, the memoir reads instead as a testament: to the painful sacrifices these three women were prepared to make for their music, for one another, for their communities, and for themselves; to the reserves of strength and compassion they drew upon in order to make this band work against the odds; and now, to the sheer force of their desire to keep going.
You can feel it all when you listen to No Cities To Love, Sleater-Kinney’s first release in a decade and one of their finest achievements. Brownstein, Tucker, and Weiss have birthed yet another rock’n’roll monster, a record that kicks and stomps, a record that roars, snarls, and breathes some serious fire. I won’t say it’s like Sleater-Kinney was never gone, for their absence has been all too felt. But damn, have they ever returned. “If we are truly dancing our swansong, darling,/Shake it like never before,” howls Tucker on the thunderous closer “Fade”. And so they do. — Samuel Catlin
10 Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion
Poptimism is nothing new, but the buzz on this Carly Rae Jepsen album had me particularly skeptical. For real? The “Call Me Maybe” pop star is cool for music snobs to like now? And she's working with Ariel Rechtshaid, Dev Hynes and Rostam Batmanglij? I worried that all the hype came from the work of a savvy PR team, rather than a genuine excitement for the music.
That is, until I dropped my skepticism and listened to the damn album. Because yes, for real, Carly Rae Jepsen made a masterpiece. And it only takes one listen of Emotion to go from a skeptic to a true believer. It’s not just the unusually sleek production, which perfectly meshes old-school ’80s nostalgia with forward-thinking beats. It’s not just Jepsen's wonderfully warm, breathy voice that carries the songs throughout. No, what really makes Emotion a special pop album is—seriously—the emotion. Much like the best of Robyn and LCD Soundsystem, these songs just pack more of a punch than your typical pop anthem, with sneaky melodies that cut to your heart just as easily as they get stuck in your head. And Carly Rae Jepsen made them. For real. — Adam Offitzer
09 Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, Surf
Swaying with an old-school rap bent from funk to gospel to jazz to psychedelia and beyond without ever breaking its humid atmosphere, no album (I heard) in 2015 was more eclectic than this one. Under the musical direction of trumpeter Nico Segal, Chance the Rapper plays host to a multi-racial, multi-gender collective of rappers and singers both obscure and mega, and the collective approach would be heartening enough on its own. So it’s a fun summer party album that’s also mellow and dreamy—delightful.
But then you get all the sounds, dazzling arrangements and radiant instrumental tone colors the band gathers from same: horns sassy one minute and bleary the next, dusky washes of organ and glitzy synth-funk blasts and swooning strings and sweaty guitar ripples and quirky percussion. You get diverse harmonic and rhythmic sophistication no canonized “jazz-rap” album has dared, and an emotional scope that’s wide and true, capable of breaking your heart in the space of a few seconds and then sweeping you back on your feet moments later.
The celebratory camaraderie is infectious, and yet this music can also pivot on a dime, emotionally, with shattering effects, like how trumpet and synth open “Just Wait” with an glorious fount of joyous melody before the song shifts touchingly into a lament rhyming “fair skin/Afro-American/air’s thin/e’rything.” Or the two horn instrumentals in their aching airy modernism, the first anxious, the second hopeful in its evocation of cranes and skyscrapers in an optimistic expanse.
Two seasons after initially loving this record, little things still make me swoon: blurry tide-pool vocal harmonies in short interlude-type tracks like “Caretaker” or “Questions” (the percussion!); the backing vocals midway through “Slip Slide”; bird-call guitar sounds in “Warm Enough”... God, every track’s a marvel. Full of love and democracy, this album, realistic and hopeful at once. I put Surf #1 on my list, and in this surprisingly good year for pop music I didn’t think it was even close. Consider it a message in a bottle from American bohemia, circa 2015. “What a delicate heart, what a hard head….” — Nathan Wisnicki
08 Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear
It’s a strange paradox, being plugged into the world. The more you understand, the more tempting it becomes to just unplug. In 2015, Father John Misty, Josh Tillman, tried to reconcile that paradox, calling attention to the world’s ills and flippantly shrugging all of it off. He became a romantic, self-loathing anti-hero for our times, a painfully self-aware commentator delivering a state of the union to the disaffected and disenfranchised, the overeducated and underemployed, the consumer slaves and the jerkoffs. All of it in the guise of a love letter to his wife.
I Love You, Honeybear is a folk-pop confection of the highest order, largely because it channels so much of Tillman's personality. He may be the smartest guy in the room, but he couldn't care less. The album was well-timed, too, arriving just a perfect clusterfuck of world events made it seem like the world was ending. But Honeybear is also a place to take refuge, full of beautiful arrangements and melodies, its excess a perfect mirror to the society in which Tillman finds himself entrenched. If the ship really is going down, at least it has the perfect soundtrack. — Brendan Frank
07 Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit
Guitar, bass, drums, anecdotes about house hunting, hooky and road trips to supermarkets. On paper, fewer albums this year were less assuming than Courtney Barnett’s remarkable debut LP. From the opening stomp of “Elevator Operator”, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit crackles with wit, heart and life. There was simply nothing else like it this year. The last time lyrics this sharp showed up on a meat-and-potatoes rock album, it was called Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.
You can feel the invisible hand of precursors like PJ Harvey, Pavement and the Replacements guiding her, but Barnett never sounds like she’s trying to imitate anyone. Hell, it sometimes sounds like she’s barely putting any effort in at all. Every track is essentially her taking casual inventory of her surroundings and emotions, and the results are incisive and unexpectedly thrilling. Barnett can be sweet and sarcastic in the same breath thanks to her ricocheting run-on sentences. But what really sets her apart is her ability to imbue those ramblings with such a limpid sense of personality. It’s like you’re having a conversation with someone you feel you've known all your life but just met for the first time. The corollary, of course, is that in telling her own stories, Courtney Barnett is telling a small piece of yours. —Brendan Frank
06 Tame Impala, Currents
On any given album comprising 10-15 tracks that run four minutes in length on average, I’d consider anything lasting fewer than 1:30 to be more an interlude. I made this observation in 1994, amid my foray into Boyz II Men’s incendiary 1994 LP II. “Khalil (Interlude)” was dope-ass track to begin with, but also, I learned about interludes!
What we’re dealing with on Currents, however, are decidedly not interludes. “Nangs”, “Gossip”, and “Disciples” are bona fide character builders, a moody tripod that injects life-altering doses of woozy melody and somnambulant rhythm into the veins of an already terrific outing. “Disciples”, decidedly the rawest of the three, somehow showcases a keen grit in the process, which is even more impressive.
Lauding the shortest tracks on the album, though deserved, should serve to indicate the holistic strength of Currents. This is a deeply personal record—one that Parker grappled with for months before ever even putting pen to paper—with relatable undertones. Pre-album singles “Let It Happen” and “Eventually” provide audiences a closer, more intimate look into the psyche of a troubled heart. “The Less I Know The Better” and “Reality In Motion” admit the hilarity of how much Parker has yet to learn, while “Yes, I’m Changing” perfectly illustrates how deep in chrysalis he already is.
Then there’s “‘Cause I’m A Man”, the most jarring track on Currents and one of the best tracks of the year. Beautifully charged with the kind of lyrics that would serve every man on earth a dose of self-awareness, “Cause I’m A Man”, is an older, wiser, much more conscious Kevin Parker manually pumping the heart of Currents with admirable stamina and breakneck precision. Tame Impala showed vast matriculation between debut LP Innerspearker and awesome second LP Lonerism, but to even compare either to Currents seems forced. This album is unbelievably good, and Parker is better he’s ever been. — Austin Reed
05 Jamie xx, In Colour
Jamie “xx” Smith works largely within the palette of contemporary British club music, but eschews both the populist grooves of crossover success acts like Disclosure and the relentlessly miserable isolation of artier scene presences like Burial and his followers. Like the latter, Smith trades in sounds that evoke loneliness, but he has a profound faith in the power of club music and culture to bring people together—not just physically, and not just for the duration of a song, but in real, felt, and resounding ways. In Colour, the debut solo LP by the erstwhile xx member, sets about demonstrating this belief with eleven tracks that put the genuine warmth of human affect back into bass music.
Elegant and erotic, In Colour has its moments of heartbreaking solitude (“Loud Places”) and its moments of joyful community (“Good Times”), but as a full-length listen it’s not especially interested in those poles. Instead, these songs track the process of moving from the one to the other, performing the stunned discovery of a human connection where there wasn’t one before. Accordingly, In Colour is consistently unsettling and enchanting at the same time—odd, beautiful, almost holy. When the minimal “Gosh” blossoms into the year’s most entrancing album opener, or when “Loud Places” pans wide on the chorus to comfort a characteristically despondent Romy Madley-Croft with a tearjerking group sing-along, Smith is trying to do more than shift the vibe in the room. He’s pushing hard at the conventional boundaries of contemporary dance music’s emotional territory.
During In Colour’s many highlights, I wonder if that rumble I feel in my chest is the bass or those figurative walls moving slightly outward. Then I remember that, of course, for Jamie xx there is no difference at all. — Samuel Catlin
04 Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
From his 2000 debut all the way to The Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens had been delivering his music in increasingly outsized packages. He probably has it in him to go bigger, even if it’s tough to imagine what that may look like. But in retrospect, doesn’t it seem like this is was the logical direction for him to take? Carrie & Lowell was a startling crash back down to earth, stripped of any extravagance and permeated by the spectre of death and loss. It was unrelenting, punishing even.
And yet every track is memorable. The arrangements are brilliant, and the emotions and intentions that inform them are on startling display. In aggregate they add up to a beautiful, cathartic exhale. Stevens hints at as much on opener “Death with Dignity” when he whispers, “I forgive you mother.” On the rest of the album, he breaks down just how hard it was to say those words. The ghosts of Elliott Smith and Nick Drake rattle around on Carrie & Lowell, but Stevens’ lyrics are so zoomed-in that the album feels shockingly original. Its minimal instrumental palette makes the whole affair seem even braver. In January, it would have seemed unfair to ask anything else of Stevens, a musician who has already given so much. Instead, he offered us more of himself than he ever has, and the finest album of his career. — Brendan Frank
03 Grimes, Art Angels
Almost anything you could say about Grimes, her music or her aesthetic ends up sounding reductive. Artists like Clare Boucher tend to attract a lot of adjectives, but most of the time those adjectives only lead somewhere irrationally broad like “weird” or “fascinating” or “conflicted, but like in a good way.” The equation here is remarkably standard: Her talent and vision far exceed anyone else’s ability to describe them, so we opt for words that are almost good enough. We just can’t seem to get out of our own way.
There are, of course, those rare moments when a doctorate-level idea can be perfectly, wholly and generously summarized with an elementary-level word. The night I got my hands on Grimes fourth LP Art Angels, I played the phenomenal title track for my girlfriend, a woman who almost exclusively listens to Dawes and Sylvan Esso. Her immediate response was something to the effect of, “God, this is fucking cool.” And that’s just it. I had struggled all day with the right words to describe this beast of an album, so naturally my girlfriend comes up with the answer in seconds.
Art Angels is a cool record, and it just so happens to have been written, recorded and produced by one of the world’s coolest artists. Boucher strips down pop music to its gears at will, tricking out the wiring and removing the governor, pushing her sentiment to a near-palpable level. That’s the appeal of tracks like “Kill vs. Maim”, a demented play on “Hey Mickey” featuring Grimes doing her best satire-turned-cannibal cheerleader impersonation. “Belly of the Beat”, meanwhile, exposes a calmer, more emotionally pacified Boucher taking inventory of a better life. “And you’ll never get sad/And you’ll never get sick/And you’ll never get weak/We’re deep in the belly of the beat,” Boucher croons sweetly. No matter the extreme, it’s all remarkably realistic.
Speaking of which, no track of 2015 won like “Realiti” did. You could say I liked this track, or you could say I went around sneakily adding it to my friends’ Spotify playlists when it was still a demo. I was actually surprised to discover a difference between first version and album cut, but surprise was quickly replaced with awe. I didn’t figure there was any conceivable way of making the demo version better than it already was.
And then Grimes came along and did Grimes. She took the best parts of “Realiti,” and made them bigger. She exposed the richest production elements by polishing them. And she added critical clarity to her own voice, exposing a tender, volatile heart that pretty much explained everything. That’s the entire point behind Art Angels, really. Clare Boucher has always been an artist. Now, however, Clare Boucher is an artist to whom we can’t help but relate. So obviously we love her more for it. — Austin Reed
02 D’Angelo, Black Messiah
D’Angelo’s extraordinary Black Messiah arrived —surprise! —as a surprise last December after an excruciating fifteen-year wait. He rushed its release to counter the racial ugliness we’ve grown increasingly familiar with before and, unfortunately, since. Sadly, by dropping an album in the middle of the holiday season, even one this notable, an artist needs the fanfare of a Beyoncé to break through the noise. Black Messiah missed out on 2014 year-end lists, and by the time Kendrick Lamar unleashed To Pimp a Butterfly in March, D’Angelo already seemed like an afterthought.
What a great shame, if not a minor travesty. Black Messiah is the rare delayed followup to an acclaimed record (2000’s Voodoo) that sounds more assured, more vital, more enjoyable even. It’s a masterclass in funky, analogue R&B of a caliber that hasn’t often been attempted since the ’70s. The production isn’t merely immaculate—it’s warm and overstuffed, lived-in and welcoming. The performances are incredible, every bass pluck whopping, every cymbal crash rattling, every vocal harmony haunting. And D’Angelo at times appears overcome with the righteous fury of the Holy Spirit, completely reinvigorated and, yes, reborn.
All of this is in service to a collection of sacred and profane songs that don’t grab you by the lapels but slink into your subconscious. “The Charade” and “1000 Deaths” devastated with their timeliness. But spectacular cuts like “Really Love” and “Sugah Daddy” and “Til It’s Done (Tutu)” were more interested in universality. Calling Black Messiah a sorrowful album would do it a disservice; it misses the point. It’s also sexy, frustrated, puckish, and joyous too. This cornucopia of musical and lyrical riches is hard to cleanly outline. As with any glorious feast, rather than overthink and analyze, it’s best to sit back and bask. Letting out a sigh of immense satisfaction is not just understandable, it’s the highest praise a work this accomplished demands. — Peter Tabakis
01 Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Last December, when D’Angelo surprise-released his long-awaited comeback LP Black Messiah, American race relations seemed to be hurtling toward their most intense point of crisis since Hurricane Katrina, if not the Rodney King riots. In 2015, that crisis arrived. Thankfully, so did Kendrick Lamar’s incisive, brilliant, and generous magnum opus To Pimp A Butterfly. Although this record could function as a commentary on the conditions of black life in America in any period since the implementation of the War on Drugs, it arrived now. As the soundtrack to many listeners’ 2015, it has had a special resonance in a trying time.
Crucially, “Wesley’s Theory” opens the album with a sample from Jamaican singer-songwriter Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger Is A Star”, before Lamar cuts in briskly: “At first I did love you, but now I just wanna fuck.” What Lamar does to the idea of love in that one line, he also does to the whole sentiment of Gardiner’s refrain. The sample falls into doubt, grows first saccharine and then sour, and ultimately comes to seem a biting mockery of post-Civil Rights “African-American Dream.” However, at the other end of the tracklist is penultimate cut “i”, a triumphant self-love anthem that would seem to find nuance and honest truth in Gardiner’s words. Butterfly is a labyrinthine, polyvocal work; one way to begin to make sense of it is to observe how Lamar toggles between sincere and ironic readings of that opening Gardiner sample. What possibilities are there for black dreams and black self-love in a society where blackness itself is a problem to be controlled and eliminated? How to persevere despite the creep of pessimism, “deep depression,” and institutionalized terror? And should his efforts improbably be successful, how can Lamar ensure that such an individual achievement wouldn’t be a divisive one, attained only at the cost of black community?
Butterfly addresses these and many other fraught questions, and every single one turns out to be historical. As on good kid, M.A.A.D. city, Lamar’s own life supplies his material, but he also delves deep into the archives of African-American experience to trace the genealogy of black trauma and black resilience alike. He emerges with revisionist readings of figures like Kunta Kinte, a distant ancestor of Malcom X “autobiographer” Alex Haley. Haley wrote Kinte (1755-1820) into the 1976 novel Roots as a slave whose feet were sawn off after a failed escape from captivity, but in Lamar’s celebratory “King Kunta”, the rapper’s “got a bone to pick”: the common tendency to define Kinte exclusively by the spectacle of black suffering (“True friends, one question:/Bitch, where were you when I was walking?”). In “King Kunta”, the definitive moment is not the gruesome punishment but the escape that prompts it, as an empowered Kinte makes a bold dash for a free horizon. Even as he reckons with the horror of Kinte’s fate, it’s that fiercely self-emancipatory spirit to which Lamar aspires (“Everybody wanna cut the legs off him/Kunta!/Black man taking no losses”). So Butterfly’s dense, nearly hyperactive allusiveness is in fact a courageous political gesture, and it doesn’t stop with Lamar’s lyrics. The who’s who of session musicians and cutting-edge producers assembled for the album embarks on an ambitious historical endeavor of their own, a kaleidoscopic odyssey through late-20th-century African-American musical achievements. Butterfly spreads its wings wide and embraces West Coast gangsta rap, ’90s East Coast hip-hop, ’70s soul and funk, bluesy psych-rock, several decades’ worth of jazz innovations, a bit of dub and early disco, and the contemporary Brainfeeder beat scene, among other sounds—a dizzyingly rich aural panorama of racial-history-as-musical-history.
Consequently, To Pimp A Butterfly has as many facets as it does sources. It’s a proclamation of black excellence in the face of devastating adversity. It’s a personal outpouring of rage and pain. It’s an act of proud resistance (“The Blacker The Berry”) and determined hope (“Alright”). It’s, um, a verse epic about a Faustian relationship with a seductive she-devil named Lucy? Oh, and it’s entertaining as hell. It’s the sound and the story the U.S. urgently needed to hear in 2015. I suspect we will continue to need it for many years to come. I wish we didn’t, but we do, so let’s be grateful and keep listening. — Samuel Catlin