The 50 Best Albums of 2015
If you’re reading this, it’s late 2015. To complement our list of the year’s 101 Best Songs, we’ve collected the 50 Best Albums from the past 12 months. So join us as we look back on all of the California Nights and Honeymoons, as we revisit the Poison Season and the Fading Frontier. B’lieve we’re countin down…
50. Janet Jackson
A funny thing happened in the eight-year break between proper Janet Jackson studio albums: Slowly but surely, the specific strain of wispy, intimate sex positivity she championed in her heyday became one of R&B’s central threads once more, as artists like Jhené Aiko and Tinashe accessed the milky grooves and late night moods of 1993’s janet. A comeback, then, was as easy as Janet being Janet, surveying the soul she tilled and getting a whiff of the flowers. Unbreakable makes light work of it, as Janet and her go-to producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, churn out airtight boom bap, freestyle music, light EDM, and leagues more for the singer to grace with wise musings on life, love, and loss. “Broken Hearts Heal” pulls off the impossible: a love letter to Michael that toasts the fallen legend by channeling him instead of eulogizing him. — CRAIG JENKINS
Before the World Was Big
To follow the bitter, winking societal critiques of their earliest material, Girlpool looked inward and backward on Before the World Was Big. The Philadelphia-based duo of Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker evoke a time of youthful innocence, of “matching dresses,” and “growing in the garden,” back when your whole existence was contained within your hometown. Their creaking, wobbly take on twee structures is an appropriate mirror for this sort of nostalgic self-reflection, twirling and teetering strands of guitar and bass like tinker toys. These ten spare, mostly acoustic songs are beautifully time-warped, rose-colored, misremembered. There are few records in recent memory that are as compelling a snapshot of the bittersweet process of growing up. You get sick. You regret things. You lay in bed and yearn for smaller times. — COLIN JOYCE
48. Majical Cloudz
Are You Alone?
Majical Cloudz make gorgeous pop sculptures out of a dearth of building blocks, subsisting on the light touch of multi-instrumentalist Matthew Otto’s organs and drum programming and the roiling, clarion tenor of singer Devon Welsh. Welsh is to Otto what high tide is to the beach; he washes through his producer’s ramparts in a deluge of emotion. A pall of sadness hangs as a backdrop for many of the songs comprising the duo’s third album, Are You Alone?, and in the hands of a less expressive pair of performers, these songs might drag because of it. But Otto’s arrangements pulse with a livening sweetness, and Welsh’s soaring vocals belie the bleakness of his writing. “Silver Car Crash” tweezes peace in the inevitability of death out of the scene of an automotive accident, while “Downtown” muses that love never really has to end because Welsh can keep it alive in song long after the physical connection dissolves. Are You Alone? seems at home in its darkness, stark but somehow never dreadful. — CRAIG JENKINS
47. RP Boo
Fingers, Bank Pads & Shoe Prints
Kavain Space is a little punk, and that’s a good thing. On the disorienting “1-2D-20’2,” over a descending riff that sounds like an SNES character dying on endless repeat, comes the following snippet: “I got your bitch to ride my dick.” Later, the more explicit “Heat from Us” contains threats to “Burn this phony sucker on the floor,” set against a loop of taunting munchkins. Sure, this footwork minimalist’s regionalism is as obnoxious as a Duke Blue Devils fan, but it’s also far more worth your time, whether he’s dropping stuttered-out Chicago street names on the mesmerizing “Bang’n on King Dr” or flipping the same Luther Vandross loop from Kanye’s “Slow Jamz” as a hometown tribute in the sly. Just when you think you need a breather from the recurring between-Nas-and-Ka rasp and the endless rattle of sparse 808s comes “Let’s Dance Again,” which has actual harmonies. And an opera sample, which might actually be the rudest thing on the record. — DAN WEISS
46. Mount Eerie
Almost 15 years ago, Washington state eccentric Phil Elverum used two simple words as a rallying cry and an exclamation point: “I’m Small!” He shouted this big, grand climax on the Microphones’ The Glow Pt. 2, the collection of studio experimentation and existential musings that’s still widely regarded as his finest moment. Elverum was a veritable kid then, but at 37 — hairline receding and under a new name, Mount Eerie — he’s still holding onto that majestic moment of cosmic insignificance.
His seventh album under the Mount Eerie banner, Sauna, is a humble set of folk-minded, but haphazardly constructed, abstractions built on that sort of casual deference to the Great Unknown. When making a morning cup of coffee, he can’t remember when (or if) he woke up. A smashed pumpkin on the rocks sparks musings of mundanity (“I walked to the bookstore”) that’d bring a smile to the oft-furrowed visage of Mark Kozelek. He sings of searching within yourself in tiny spaces, retreating from the world outside and all its vastness — to find where you stand in relation to its grandeur, reflected here in humming tape collages and the celestial thrum of doom-metal riffs. There are never any answers, just smallness. A face in the mirror. A drone. The void. — COLIN JOYCE
45. Seinabo Sey
Seinabo Sey’s voice is among the most chameleonic in pop, capable of conveying love, longing, fury, indifference, and passion, often within the space of a single song. And the 25-year-old Swede’s neon-lit debut, Pretend, swaddles her vocals in suitable dressing: hollow percussion, stargazing keyboards, and staccato guitar riffs reminiscent of Max Martin’s pop blockbusters. Though never “stripped down” in the traditional sense, the soul-pop set still keeps it real. “I’m just a brick / In your ruin of love,” she sings on the gospel-inflected “Ruin.” She’s not simply dwelling on a failed romance, she’s putting to rest the memory of a sweet love gone sour, a romance buried beneath the rubble. — BRENNAN CARLEY
The most talked-about black-metal guitarists working write parts that feel like solar flares, but Krallice’s Ygg Hurr feels like the absolute inverse. As guitarists Mick Barr and Colin Marston conjure wiry, laborious tumult out of their six-strings they’re able to suck hope and light from everything that surrounds it. Tracks like “Tyranny of Thought” thrive on frigidity and disorientation, making them snowblind intersections of the Slint-takes-Norway guitar and drum work that’s so brisk it occasionally verges on drone. In that moment — and the 35 minutes like it — listening to Krallice is akin to other horrifying natural phenomena, like watching the great wave of a tsunami rise up, the terror building as quickly as its immensity. And then it crushes everything in sight. — COLIN JOYCE
Every Open Eye
CHVRCHES often sing of compromise, but they rarely engage in the act themselves — at least from a musical standpoint. The Glaswegian trio’s sophomore record never sacrifices honest songwriting for a hook; their plainly first-person narratives are always diamond-strong, even when they’re a pleasure to simply marvel at. Expanding upon their debut’s neatly parceled MIDI melodies, CHVRCHES draw with bolder, better-defined lines on Every Open Eye, filling the patterns in with glossier instrumentation and glimmering vocals. “I never asked to know / Never planned / Till it was swept out of my hand,” frontwoman Lauren Mayberry sings sweetly as she moves onward from a crumbled past. The strobing “Clearest Blue” — a worthy homage to Depeche Mode’s blippy 1981 single “Just Can’t Get Enough” — refracts its meet-me-halfway pleas off of a twirling disco ball. The dance floor’s never been so thoughtfully polished. — BRENNAN CARLEY
42. Best Coast
As someone who grew up in San Francisco and lives in New York, I’m doubly primed to hate Los Angeles, but Best Coast make a convincing case for SoCal with their third full-length, a dreamy, dusky ode to California Nights. Bethany Cosentino’s warm, build-and-release guitar riffs crash and wash over the listener on this return to form, which leaves behind the wide-open pastures of 2012’s underappreciated The Only Place and refines the promise of 2013’s stopgap mini-album Fade Away. Even when Cosentino’s grappling with anxiety, insomnia, and nagging self-doubt, she’s always got one eye fixed on the shoreline. “Today I know I feel OK,” the 29-year-old announces on the opening track. She’s singing about the restorative power of love, but her greatest romance isn’t with any one person — it’s with her home, the (ahem) only place that makes persevering possible. — JAMES GREBEY
41. Fetty Wap
“Hey, what’s up? Hello!” With those four warb/garbled words, Paterson, New Jersey’s most inspiring drug dealer-turned-SoundCloud-success story introduced himself. After the 2015 he’s had, though, the richest one-eyed rapper in history barely needs any introduction. Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” may have only ridden its street-cracking hydraulics, and rubber-lipped bay-beh to de facto Song-of-the-Summer status (the official honor went to OMI’s comparatively colorless “Cheerleader”) — but his self-titled debut makes good on the single’s record-breaking run on Billboard’s Top 10 Rap Songs chart. And it didn’t even need Drake to get there: Instead, Fetty and his Remy Boyz associate Monty put together a satisfying album on their own, pumping the 17-song platter with twinkling trance synths, gassy trap blasts, and Fetty’s noodle-y yayeeaaahhhs. This was a banner year for hip-hop, but at a time when the landscape was pocked by culture-swallowing beefs, big-budget mixtapes that might not have actually happened, and alleged assassination plots, it was a relief to have Fetty Wap spread some much-needed love. — HARLEY BROWN
40. Mbongwana Star
There’s always a fear that music under the “world” umbrella — an icky term in itself — will be fetishized out of some kind of imagined nostalgia for a mythologized paradise that’s war-torn and fraught in actuality. So rather than taking it back to the good ol’ days of when the Democratic Republic of the Congo was the dictatorship of Zaire, let’s celebrate how this indescribable seven-piece resists pigeonholing from even the most burnt Burning Man guest as anything but the future. “Masobélé” challenges our idea of hip-hop just as “Kala” conjures up Kraftwerk at their most motorik, and the range of intensity encompassing both the lackadaisical Hawaiian ragtime of “Coco Blues” and the frenetic seizure “Nganshé” is startling. If you recall Konono No. 1’s surprisingly indie-beloved Congotronics, the rapturously distorted thumb pianos on “Malukayi” will set you adrift on memory bliss for 2005. Now that’s nostalgia. — DAN WEISS
“I question everything: my focus, my figure, my sexuality,” Bully’s Alicia Bognanno shares on “Trying,” the centerpiece of her band’s ferocious debut album. “And how much it matters or why it would mean anything.” That sort of tangible self-doubt fuels Feels Like and can tip, in the flip of a chorus, into a flashback-inducing alt-rock freakout. Yes, like so many of their contemporaries, this Nashville foursome deals in ‘90s nostalgia (often sounding like a reverb-bathed Blake Babies), but Bognanno’s confessional songwriting and scream-sing ache keeps Bully from playing like a bunch of faceless imitators chasing Nirvana. The spitfire opener “I Remember” might, for some, recall modern-rock airwaves during the first Clinton administration, but for the frontwoman it’s obviously much rawer and more personal, as she sifts through the pieces of a broken relationship, bellowing, “I remember that box of letters / I remember that naked photo / And I remember things getting better.” Now we do too. — HAZEL CILLS
38. FKA twigs
“I’ll make my own damn way,” FKA twigs, born Tahliah Barnett, purrs on the closing track to last year’s luscious, ominous LP1. She’s always done so, ever since the queasy slow-motion seduction in the video for 2013’s “Papi Pacify” flexed on interracial sexual dynamics, but she slashes and burns a whole new path on M3LL155X. A glittering garbage compactor of creaking, clanking trap beats strung together by dismantled vocal and synth samples, the five-track EP builds on sound signatures laid down on LP1 while simultaneously torturing them into new dimensions. Barnett’s billowing intoxicant of a voice is alternately sped up to helium-laced frequencies and distorted into a scraped-out death rattle. Along with the accompanying 15-minute film — a nightmare fantasia that imagines Barnett as a blow-up doll, pregnant, and part of a vogueing posse, among other things — M3LL155X explodes FKA twigs’ dystopian relationship exegeses into her most intimidating artistic self-expression yet. — HARLEY BROWN
The Magic Whip
It takes all of 18 seconds for The Magic Whip to remind the world of what’s been missing from Damon Albarn’s richly dystopian, gorgeously melancholic, and often digitized songbook. (And yes, from Blur’s 2003 LP, Think Tank, too.) It’s the lifeblood that rushes into “Lonesome Street” the moment the classic lineup fires up, as Graham Coxon’s hot, angular stroke cuts through the rising fog, flanked by springy bass and downright gleeful drumming. The triumph, though, is that despite being a piece with Blur’s best work, this ain’t a retread. Albarn’s still in spiritual/sonic Sherpa mode, leading us into distant vistas once unheard. But “Thought I Was a Spaceman” only sounds like Malian pop played by Radiohead until it’s cracked wide open by an honest-to-God snare smack. And the futzed beatwork of “I Broadcast” is immediately matched by ’90s-alt shreddage that makes for something as fun and adventurous as Gorillaz, except, holy s**t, this is Blur, back after 12 years and cementing the legend of the punkest, artiest Britpop band that ever was. Can I get a woo-hoo, or what? — CHRIS MARTINS
36. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment
Chance the Rapper’s first big project since 2013’s breakthrough Acid Rap mixtape wasn’t the “new album” suggested by early headlines. Instead, billed to trumpeter Nico Segal (Donnie, natch) along with the Chance-featuring Social Experiment band, Surf is something almost as thrilling: It’s further, sonically luxuriant proof of Chancelor Bennett’s stubborn conviction to, as he puts on the funk-underpinned “Wanna Be Cool,” simply “be me.” With Chance, that typically means being as life-affirmingly joyful as he is morally mindful and artistically unpredictable, traits the Chicago rapper has gone on to show again on a fine collaborative mixtape with Lil B and a wonderful, Late Show-debuted single, “Angels.”
Here’s where Surf differs from expectations: Donnie deserves having his name go first. Trumpet’s horn buttresses an eclectic set that, in its nods to jazz and slam poetry as well as its blend of technical virtuosity and social commentary, arrives as a wistful Second City corollary to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Chance’s moniker isn’t the only one absent from the official iTunes track list, however; all guests are subsumed into the democratic spirit (and they are legion: Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, J. Cole, Big Sean, BJ the Chicago Kid, and Noname Gypsy, to name several). Miraculously, Chance still hasn’t yet released a proper, commercially available album, and when he warns, on self-avowed favorite “Windows,” not to “look up to” him, that feels like an ethical statement: a heroic refusal to play the hero. — MARC HOGAN
Communion was 2015’s best body-horror movie, a violent and disturbing story of revulsion and decay told with corrosive synths, slimy bass, and machine-gun drums. Austin-based producer Rabit (real name: Eric Burton) has expressed his reluctance for his music being referred to as “grime,” but the literal description is apt: His debut LP encroaches like a spreading toxic mildew, attacking your nervous system slowly, slowly, and then all at once. For 32 minutes of physical and/or spiritual unease, Communion twitches with the desire to shed its own skin: “Trapped in This Body” reads the final song title, and the album alternately lurks and explodes like Rabit’s trying to stage a corporeal jailbreak. It’s a powerful reminder of how visceral electronic music can be even when it has absolutely no interest in making you dance. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
34. Chastity Belt
Time to Go Home
On Time to Go Home, the unapologetic and goofball Chastity Belt — who sang of nip-slips and “Pussy Weed Beer” on their 2013 debut, No Regerts — take their noodling party-girl rock to darker depths. Rather than dispensing with punchlines, the Seattle quartet uses their sophomore full-length to wrestle with the idea that “Nothing’s serious / Everything’s a joke.” Guided by Julia Shapiro’s drawn-out vocals, the self-described “neo-post-post-punks” ruminate on messed-up relationships, vulnerability, and what it means to know when the party’s ended and it’s, yes, time to go home. All throughout, the chilly, meandering instrumentals match the gloomy existentialism the band mines lyrically: “I made choices without reason / Invite strangers in and meet them,” Shapiro sings sorrowfully on “Drone.” Lines like that might read like pure melancholy on paper, but Chastity Belt spin them into a steady, enveloping record about facing one’s fears — and oneself — head-on. — HAZEL CILLS
33. Jason Derulo
Everything Is 4
JaYYY-Suuunn Duuh-RULE-ohhh’s fourth album drops his admittedly delicious branding gimmick in favor of something even more filling: impeccably fashioned pop song after impeccably fashioned pop song. The 25-year-old’s breathy crooning fills both his plea to “Try Me” and his want to be wanted with a buoyant, authentic zest as he effortlessly struts atop crackling turbo-pop hooks and seductive ‘80s synths. Or perhaps it’s better to say that he moonwalks around them — in terms of raw dance-floor craftsmanship and radio-friendly passion, Derulo might just be the unlikely inheritor of MJ’s rhinestone glove, dazzling us all with an effortless-seeming Top 40 panache. — JAMES GREBEY
32. Titus Andronicus
The Most Lamentable Tragedy
For all of its classic angry-young-man rock-opera tropes, what The Most Lamentable Tragedy might really represent for Titus Andronicus is the fruition of frontman Patrick Stickles’ infatuation with the grand drama of hip-hop. The cinematic ambition and storytelling of the Wu-Tang Clan, the hero/villain role-playing of the Weeknd, the brutal self-examination and planetary narcissism of Kanye West — all play as large a part in informing the shape and scope of the punk true believers’ five-act, double-LP concept album as the Who and Hüsker Dü. Maybe it’s just that in an increasingly downsized rock landscape, Titus would almost have to look to rap to inspire an album with such a widescreen sweep: the strutting misanthropy of “Lonely Boy,” the psychotic horniness of “(S)he Said, (S)he Said,” and the giggling puppy love of “Come On, Siobhán,” all within a semi-autobiographical framework that keeps it eight more than 92 about its singer-songwriter’s real-life personal demons. But if the Brooklyn-based Stickles’ primary musical goal is indeed to be the Notorious B.I.G.’s successor as the King of New York, then TMLT is a mic-drop that the rest of the five boroughs would be wise to respond to sooner rather than later. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
31. Colleen Green
I Want to Grow Up
Colleen Green admits that conversation isn’t her strong suit, so for her third album (and first recorded in a proper studio), the Los Angeles neurotic monologues for 38 minutes, spilling her deepest fears and labeling herself an overgrown teenager. Paralyzed at the prospect of true intimacy (“You know, the kind they say happens psychologically”) and prone to grinding her teeth, the now-31-year-old cops to being an immature bore who’s desperate to know real love but even more preoccupied with learning life hacks. She’s fed up with being self-absorbed and worn out by her nonexistent attention span, but in the midst of this probing inventory, somehow Colleen overlooks one of her most winning attributes: her songwriting. I Want to Grow Up leaves no section of its creator’s psyche unexplored, and is clearly the work of someone fond of bubblegum and bongs; a so-called slacker who drafted JEFF the Brotherhood guitarist Jake Orrall and ex-Diarrhea Planet drummer Casey Weissbuch to play backing band. By record’s end, Colleen realizes the beauty of adulthood: “I can do whatever I want.” Coming from a teen, that assertion would scan as a tantrum; coming from Colleen, it’s empowering, the words of someone whose entire life lies ahead of her. — KYLE MCGOVERN
30. Oneohtrix Point Never
Garden of Delete
God is in the details on Garden of Delete, the sixth album by Massachusetts producer Daniel Lopatin as Oneohtrix Point Never. It’s not so much an album, though, as an engrossing multimedia project recasting the auteur’s coming of age in the grunge era as the tale of a mysterious alien’s lanky adolescence. Lopatin calls Garden of Delete his rock album, and it makes a fractious sense; this body of songs stretches from ambient pastures through nightmarish industrial and heavy-metal bricolage, its only constant the unpredictability of its manic moves and an exceptional, unshakeable heaviness. It’s an apocalyptic racket that vaults from ghoulish menace to peaceful repose at a moment’s notice, total chaos until a closer listen reveals a guiding hand giving these productions purpose and grace. Lyrically, Lopatin is focused almost singularly on death here, and the march from the album-opening intro through the doleful closer “No Good” feels like nothing short of a screaming trip into the pitch-black silence of life’s end. — CRAIG JENKINS
29. Kurt Vile
b’lieve i’m goin down…
Cynics might assume there’s a lack of substance to Kurt Vile’s perennial placidity. (Honestly, how many times can you squeeze “daze” into a title before your audience also glazes over?) But the Philly-based daydreamer’s brand is a deceivingly vigorous one that’s now been successfully rolled out for six sublime albums. His most recent, the mumble-mouthed b’lieve i’m goin down…, was partially recorded at the bucolic Rancho de la Luna in Joshua Tree, and thus sounds even more loose-limbed than its already-tranquil predecessors — a subtle shift that relies on Vile’s aptitude for melody every bit as much as its stripped-down aesthetic.
Instead of achieving emotional nirvana via his once-favored reverb and coterie of jangly arrangements, Vile eases into meandering minimal guitar (“All in a Daze Work“), Old-West banjo (“I’m an Outlaw”), walk-with-me kickdrum (“Pretty Pimpin”), and looping piano melodies (“Life Like This”). The compositions are so transportive, actually, that you can practically see the desert dust dirtying Vile’s walking boots as he ponders What It All Means. To that end, the droopy-eyed folkie’s vision isn’t too hazed to make a series of astute observations on music’s therapeutic qualities (“I was buggin’ out ’bout a couple-two-three things / Picked up my microphone and started to sing”) and, on the lovingly fingerpicked “That’s Life tho (almost hate to say),” the sometimes-harsh unfairness of simply existing. — RACHEL BRODSKY
Since her chattering pop experiments way back with the Sugarcubes, Björk’s elastic personality, voice, and frame have been mutated and twisted into an almost unimaginable number of paradoxical permutations: Homogenic’s cyborg futurism, Vespertine’s icy hush, Biophilia’s humid didacticism. But on Vulnicura, at last, she ripped herself and her compositions open. In the wake of a painful separation from her husband, conceptual artist Matthew Barney, the Icelandic auteur offered more of herself than ever before, singing of love, sex, pain, and death with a literalness that she previously seemed averse to. Strings swirl and swell into comforting cocoons as dagger-like electronic shards slash holes in the security blanket, and leave everything raw and vulnerable. But even as she somberly whispers about the emotional terror of feeling “every single f**k [they] had together,” the album’s not-so-secretly an optimistic one, with the relative triumphs of “Mouth Mantra” and “Quicksand” sprouting from the volcanic ash of what came before. That hole in her chest on the cover of the album isn’t just a wound, it’s the start of her molting. Vulnicura begins with a tear, but by the end she’s brand new — the beauty’s in the transformation. — COLIN JOYCE
27. Earl Sweatshirt
I Don’t Like S**t, I Don’t Go Outside
“Good grief,” exclaims the rapper born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, writing large his most obvious comic-strip corollary, and also providing the most succinct review yet penned of his third album, I Don’t Like S**t, I Don’t Go Outside. Downscaling from 2013’s overstuffed Doris with ten tracks of glum-fi insularity, Outside is spellbinding in its accurate depiction of the womb-like comfort found in self-imposed isolation, along with the soul-eroding numbness. Tracks pass with a mix of hollow cheerfulness and reverberating stillness, Earl calmy deciding that neither his bros nor his hoes are worth his allegiance and expressing more interest in the sound of his dripping faucet than that of his phone ringing off in the distance. The album has no dramatic highs or lows, designed to be listened to on an unobtrusive loop while you spend another day wishing your blinds did a better job of blocking out the sun. It’s an All-Too-Relatable Emptiness, Earl Sweatshirt. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
Not even a bad case of the flu and a passing desire to projectile-vomit could keep Grimes from lasering a recent New York audience with Art Angels’ unapologetically ambitious and pinwheeling pop. Such setbacks have been par for the course for Claire Boucher, who false-started her fourth record’s laborious process with “Go,” the wubbly banger she originally co-wrote with Blood Diamonds (now Blood Pop) for Rihanna in 2014. Between then and now, Grimes’ creative vision grew to ingest Hildegard von Bingen, The Godfather Part II, Taiwanese rap, and Comic Con, as if she’d gotten lost down too many YouTube rabbit holes — not necessarily a reassuring post-Visions vision. But from these disparate flavors and textures Claire Boucher conjured 2015’s musical equivalent of molecular gastronomy: sugar-spun K-Pop bleeds into throat-tearing invocations of male identity, which then begets burbling 8-bit arpeggios and tectonic drum’n’bass. Chopped, swirled, and melded together, they make a listening pleasure so acute it’s almost guilt-inducing. — HARLEY BROWN
In a clip for last year’s “Melba’s Call,” a collaboration with producer Bok Bok, Kelela Mizanekristos can be seen on a flickering screen, singing about someone who won’t answer her calls. It looks like she’s in a video chat with an empty studio, probably sometime in the not-so-distant future. Plenty about that striking visual could also apply to Hallucinogen. Though the L.A.-via-D.C. singer-songwriter set her template — airy, ’90s-tinged vocals paired with forward-thinking, slow-burning dance production — with 2013’s Cut 4 Me mixtape, and has continued to explore it since on a few excellent one-offs, this six-song EP is her most cohesive work to date.
If the thesis, per the title, is ultimately that love’s a trip, then it’s one Kelela takes in reverse, from the sinuously Prince-hinting anguish of “A Message” to the murky instant-attraction ecstasy of “The High.” To her past stable of producers from London’s Night Slugs crew she adds not only FKA twigs collaborator Arca and Beyoncé’s not-so-secret weapon Boots, but also herself. In the context of the EP’s Memento-like backwards narrative, uptempo standout “Rewind” — co-produced by Kelela, and telling of dance-floor eye contact that can’t be scrubbed — gains added significance. If hallucinations cleanse the doors of perception, Kelela’s gifts should now be clearer than ever. — MARC HOGAN
Double-digit LPs into the outfit’s career, Dan Bejar’s Destroyer project doesn’t feel as much like a band as an anthology series, each album using a different cast of characters to tell a different story, with Bejar’s narrative voice one of the few consistent elements. This time around, Destroyer assume the role of a Radio City-ready ‘70s orch-rock crew, Van Morrison with E Street aspirations. The grayscale cover is appropriate, as Poison Season is as gorgeously evocative of winter overcast as 2011’s Kaputt was of the rain-soaked spring: Anxious strings and taut winds put a chill into the whisper-croons of “Forces From Above” and “Girl in a Sling,” while the sleeting horns and tambourine of “Dream Lover” are so dazzling that Bejar sounds heartbroken to announce, “S**t, here comes the sun” at the end. Times Square is never actually as romantic to a true New Yorker as it comes off spread across its titular three-part theme here, but Poison Season sounds the way its primary locale looks on TV during New Year’s Eve: Punishingly cold but bursting with possibility, and all too easy to fall in love with. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
The nasty title scrawl and its soupçon of suicide felt like something cribbed from Earl Sweatshirt’s depressed basement of rap. And in an unavoidably self-absorbed way, this mixtape/album is something like Drake’s version of The Night’s Gambit by Ka: an intensely sour worldview, an emphasis on head-down hustle, a neighborhood granted dreadful mythos (#woes), and a raging, earned paranoia set to the rainiest day’s worth of minimal, claustrophobia-inducing beats. For a star of Drake’s stature, Reading is a gambit indeed. There’s risk, in that there’s not a single pop track to be heard, but also great reward: the hooks slither out, catchy like drugs and sticky like sex. And at the center is this very public figure — who can charm his way through an SNL hosting stint, and dance like an adorable grandpa in his latest video — sounding raw and conflicted and undersexed and overworked, but also really damned great without trying so hard. Gone is the wedding singer of “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” Here is the antisocial-rap offspring of Yeezus, Clipse, and Cannibal Ox. — CHRIS MARTINS
22. Carly Rae Jepsen
When Carly Rae Jepsen’s world-conquering, crush-drunk single “Call Me Maybe” eclipsed her sophomore album back in 2012, a life of one-year wonderdom for the Canadian singer looked all too likely. But Jepsen’s third full-length, the glittering and sugary-sweet E•MO•TION, bursts with booming, raspy-voiced beauties from beginning to end, some penned and produced by pop masterminds like Ariel Rechtshaid, Dev Hynes, and Peter Svensson. Amidst the record’s sax-laden landscape, Jepsen sings sultrily about the sort of love that makes your blood pump harder, your nights sleepless, and your mind drift toward fantasies of you and your paramour running away together never to return. No song on this synth-pop-inspired LP has ruled the charts the same way “Call Me Maybe” did, but another hit isn’t what Jepsen needed. What she really needed was a front-to-back, capital-a Album to her name and that’s what she assembled with E•MO•TION: a gorgeous record with cool-kid cred that more than earns its place in 2015’s pop-culture time capsule. — HAZEL CILLS
21. Sufjan Stevens
Carrie & Lowell
About halfway through Sufjan Stevens’ seventh and most profoundly affecting album, Carrie & Lowell, he gently repeats, “We’re all gonna die.” It’s a truism so glaring that it has been used by many other songwriters, but more often in a way that softens the blow — as a call to party while we’re still alive, say, or to fight, or as an ironic commentary. When Stevens sings the words, it’s with a delivery so tender, and an arrangement so stark, and between such lovingly precise lyrical details, that the universal fate of ourselves and everyone we care about becomes devastatingly personal.
Carrie & Lowell is, in fact, personal for Stevens. His mother, Carrie, who left the family when Stevens was young, died of stomach cancer in 2012; his stepfather, Lowell Brams, was married to Carrie for five years and now runs Stevens’ label. On the album, quasi-autobiographical childhood references — to being left in a video store “When I was three / Three, maybe four,” and specifically to Oregon, where Stevens spent three summers with Carrie and Lowell — merge with Biblical allusions and grimly unsparing depictions of an adult now “falling apart.” Since 2004’s similarly folky Seven Swans, Stevens has tended toward maximalism, as in 2007’s symphonic-cinematic The BQE or the gloomy electronic sprawl of 2010’s The Age of Adz. But never has he has so maximally portrayed the rawness and grace of one human’s experience. — MARC HOGAN
The Agent Intellect
Another Protomartyr album, another transmission from our inevitable End of Days. Detroit is easily caricatured as a wasteland, but Joe Casey, with his deep everyman grumble and grasp of arcane Christian lore, makes the city feel like ground zero in an Illuminati plot. If last year’s Under Color of Official Right LP found him thrashing against surface-level goons, this bleak-booming punk document preaches begrudging acceptance of evisceration in the shadow of looming evil. As the lyrics of “Clandestine Time” put it, “The proof we are here is the dust that they’re breathing,” and then comes the captive’s snarl, “The proof we’re apart is the fact they’re still living.” Whether the enemy is God, the devil, the one percent, an array of gnostic archon puppeteers, or just too much effin’ weed, man (see “Cowards Starve”), it’s clear who Casey’s allies are: the band that meets the weight of his Atlas-crushed slump with enough lean muscle and veiny flex to float all of this pathos above the muck. It’s pretty stuff, carved from vile materials. — CHRIS MARTINS
There are regions of the U.S. where “pop” is interchangeable with “soda,” and SOPHIE intends to make the same true for music, advertising a beverage (in this case, “Lemonade”) for when you get “that fizzy feeling,” or instructing on “Vyzee” to “Shake it up and make it fizz.” The PC Music silent partner’s 25-minute debut/compilation/butt-plug companion takes the “product” thing seriously by pretending pleasure’s for sale throughout, with “I can make you feel better” a good opening promise and “It makes me feel like I don’t ever wanna say goodbye” an even better closing testimonial. But beneath PRODUCT’s faux-corporate veneer, there’s nothing cynical about its post-Aphex swordplay or its Prince-emulated-on-vacuum-cleaners synths. Not an empty calorie in sight. — DAN WEISS
18. Lana Del Rey
A seeming eternity after an endless-feeling online kerfuffle over whether Lizzie Grant was for real, her creation Lana Del Rey has become indelibly so. With the languorously cinematic Honeymoon, Del Rey’s third major-label album, the New York-born, Los Angeles-based artist finds a narcotic middle ground between the trip-hop lavishness and rap-slangy provocations that characterized 2012’s Born to Die and the psych-rock expansiveness of 2014’s Ultraviolence, but is still gorgeously rich in its own right. The mere fact that such distinctions can be made drives home how rarified Del Rey’s position is, that of a glamorous pop star with broad, intense appeal and yet still no bigger hit single than an unrepresentative house remix.
In 2012, a mash-up of Del Rey’s early smash “Video Games” with Morrissey’s vocals on top surfaced online, and while others have noted similarities between the two singers, their abundance on Honeymoon warrants further elaboration, starting with a shared interest in old Hollywood, young ruffians, and arch melodrama that’s easily mistaken for humorless melancholy. The Weeknd — who, also in 2012, sampled Morrissey’s voice — has said of Del Rey, “She is the girl in my music, and I am the guy in her music.” Make no mistake, though: Del Rey is an American original. Honeymoon’s appropriations — the Lil Wayne-via-jj synth-flickers on breakup anthem “High by the Beach”; the brilliantly surface-level pop-culture references (“Hotel California,” “Rapper’s Delight,” Billie Holliday); Del Rey’s second Nina Simone cover; her first spoken-word reading of T.S. Eliot — serve to cast a unique light (that never goes out) on sex, artifice, and the American dream. If Honeymoon is any indication, Del Rey may one day serve as someone else’s lyrical shorthand herself. — MARC HOGAN
The sequel that should’ve been subtitled Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Throat Aches. Future’s third studio album nabs its title from the Atlanta rapper’s 2011 Dirty Sprite mixtape, but DS2 is informed by more than just that purple-tinted collection. There are traces of the soul-baring prose that distinguished his debut, 2012’s love-bitten Pluto; references to last year’s whelming Honest and the private (but very public) turmoil that followed, namely his still-messy breakup with fiancée Ciara; and of course there’s a hangover from the trio of career-invigorating mixtapes that served as DS2’s red carpet — 2014’s Monster, January’s Beast Mode, and March’s 56 Nights.
But rather than popping a B12 and hibernating in bed, Future descends further into the haze, surrounding himself with enablers: ATL production MVPs Metro Boomin and Southside, both of whom have left fingerprints all over Future’s recent output and handle the bulk of the board-work here. Starting with the foreboding flip-flop-fizz-fizz of “Thought It Was a Drought,” the one-time astronaut fanatic burrows to the depths of addiction, croaking, wheezing, and crooning about his habits and conquests, Percocet and strippers, gains both ill-gotten and earned through tireless work ethic. Understatement of the year to say Future stayed busy these past 12 months — counting his September team-up with Drake, he basically released a new record for every season — but DS2 is the most cohesive and sprawling piece he assembled this year. Consider it his codeine-dipped crown jewel. — KYLE MCGOVERN
16. Beach House
Can an entire career be a Blue Period? A painting from Pablo Picasso’s famously melancholy phase went up for auction through Sotheby’s in early November, and its description may bring to mind Beach House: Named after slang for a scantily dressed café singer, painted after the suicide of a close friend, “La Gommeuse” portrays a “gorgeous cabaret performer” in “an absinthian haze of sexual ennui… a high priestess of melancholy and a siren of joie de vivre.” Such a coexistence of death-haunted sadness and erotic bliss, of the mystic and the vaguely unwholesome, has characterized the patiently progressing dream-pop of the Baltimore duo’s first four albums.
Beach House’s fifth LP, Depression Cherry, captures that duality right in the title. Victoria Legrand, Alex Scally, and longtime producer Chris Coady eschewed any temptation to keep building out their style for bigger stages, as gradually happened across 2010’s Teen Dream and 2012’s Bloom, instead wisely recognizing their music exists in its own world: “There’s a place I want to take you,” Legrand repeats over the constant hum of billowing opener “Levitation.” Within that aching yet seductive realm, Depression Cherry does offer a few refinements: more My Bloody Valentine than Mazzy Star in the guitars, some spoken-word, and even choral harmonies; Legrand’s dusky voice is often softer and in a higher register. When, on surprise 2015 follow-up Thank Your Lucky Stars, Beach House steadfastly explore a few more shades of cerulean — Johnny Jewel-like eeriness here, a soaring guitar solo there — it extends one of the past decade’s great pas de deux. The color of Depression Cherry’s cover artwork? Deep red, of course. — MARC HOGAN
15. Royal Headache
Last year, Shogun, the mononym’d frontman for Sydney soul-punk outfit Royal Headache, announced that his band was calling it quits — but first they had to finish, release, and tour in support of their second album. Lucky for us, the foursome held it together long enough to honor his word. Royal Headache’s impassioned High builds on the promise of their 2011 self-titled debut, elevating Shogun’s blood-and-guts vocals (rightly recognized as the group’s defining trait) and spotlighting his potentially disastrous internal conflicts (self-diagnosed as stemming from a “very erratic, very impulsive, and very emotional” personality). There’s extreme longing in the title track, the hope for redemption in the discordant “Love Her If I Tried,” and, in the pleading “Another World,” deep remorse, all of which are bolstered by sweetly sloppy guitar and the singer’s heart-splitting wail. And at ten tracks and 29 minutes, it’s simply the most economical rock record of the year — no other band in 2015 stuffed so much ache and turmoil and romance into such a scant run time. But the most flattering endorsement comes from the band members themselves, who, in the afterglow of High, have decided to press onward: “In as much as we can be sure of things,” Shogun told Grantland in August, “yes, the band is back on.” — RACHEL BRODSKY
“I can make you go down,” Miguel boasts over strip pole-sparkling synths and funk-affirming plucked-bass blasts on “DEAL.” Oh, we know. Set to the technicolor production of his home city’s luridly smeared sunsets, WILDHEART revs guitars that growl as loud as Venice Beach street races and then cakes them with gritty studio soot, like a Camaro you’d rather trace initials into than wash. If the come-hither moments on Miguel’s 2012 creative and chart breakthrough, Kaleidoscope Dream (“Adorn” — say no more), convinced us to go home with the proud Angeleno, 2015’s follow-up shows us why we’re still with him three years later: A sinner and your salvation, he’s the kind of crazy/sexy/cool(/dangerous?) lover who values pillow talk as much as foreplay on the album’s milky-sweet ode to morning sex — but will also ask you, while nibbling your ear, to f**k like you’re filming a porno. (Anything goes for a slinger of scuzzy riffs and chest-pounding drums that appeal to both Kurupt and Lenny Kravitz.) It can get dark on WILDHEART when Miguel pulls the blinds, but he’ll always make you coffee in the morning. — HARLEY BROWN
13. Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear
And the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay goes to Josh Tillman. The singer-songwriter known to his disciples as Father John Misty penned the year’s fullest and sloppiest — in other words, most honest — romance with I Love You, Honeybear, the second album credited to his nom de swoon. Inspired by his partnership with his wife of two years, photographer Emma Elizabeth Tillman (née Garr), Honeybear embraces its nature as a love-song cycle but also aims side-eye at the saccharine tradition of which it takes part. Father John’s hopelessly devoted during certain sections of the story, pledging himself to his companion as they roll around “the Rorschach sheets,” but he’s an open-shirted Casanova at other points, tossing empty champagne flutes over his shoulder as he prowls from target to target, waiting for some kind of cosmic annihilation. He serenades with promises of “satanic Christmas Eve” on the mariachi-accented “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” but laments middle-class mediocrity on the grim, piano-led “Bored in the U.S.A.”
When the scope widens beyond Tillman’s lead characters and his questionable choices, it fills an IMAX screen. A global financial meltdown unfolds in the background of the title track; on “Holy S**t,” ancient holy wars weigh just as heavily on the mind as infotainment pollution. But our scribe never loses sight of the thing that means most to him: He answers the planet’s slow decay by turning to his bride and saying simply, “What I fail to see / Is what that’s got to do with you and me.” End scene. — KYLE MCGOVERN
Like the Replacements, Deafheaven just make what comes out of them and they don’t ask why. Lyrically, lead bellower George Clark fries his larynx despairing in classic antisocial ways (“My world closes its eyes to / Sex and laughter”) in addition to more paranoid, almost domestic maladies (“Confined to a house that never remains clean”). But sonically, New Bermuda is black metal’s very own version of the ‘Mats’ Let It Be, as unexpectedly jangly as it is isometrically fearsome, and a little bit country. The opening sways of “Baby Blue,” the Ryan Adams-worthy slide guitar ending to “Come Back,” and especially the Foo Fighters fever dream “Gifts for the Earth” could all conceivably trick your dad for a few minutes, should you run this landmark album in reverse. Instead, its five songs are brilliantly sequenced to give the headbangers something first, before peeling away its acrid spines to reveal, uh, “Planet Telex.” You can kiss it, you can break all the rules. — DAN WEISS
No Cities to Love
“It seems to me the only thing that comes from fame is mediocrity,” Corin Tucker sings on the No Cities to Love track “Hey Darling.” That song — and that line in particular — could explain why Sleater-Kinney went on a seemingly indefinite hiatus a decade or so ago, not long after hitting a creative peak with 2005’s The Woods. Yet, in 2015, the beloved trio is back and more famous than ever before, what with the solo records, side projects, Carrie Brownstein’s comedy crossover by way of Portlandia, and a peerless catalog that now has a deserving new entry. Churning tight classic-rock canon, female empowerment, and impassioned views on family, love, and friendship together, the band imbues every breath and jagged Brownstein riff on No Cities with staggering power.
It’s a reunion in which every deeply personal statement made also acts as a message for S-K’s audience. On “No Anthems,” Tucker declares, “I once was an anthem / But now there are no anthems / All I can hear is an echo and the ring,” as if to acknowledge how Sleater-Kinney’s songs become valorized not just on their own value, but also because in their entire nine-year absence, no other band stepped in to take their place in rock culture — indie or otherwise. For so many rock groups, fame would and does breed mediocrity, a compromise of politics and passion in favor of accessibility. But not for Tucker, Brownstein, and drummer Janet Weiss. This is a band with too much to teach its listeners — about the price of being artists and performers, about fighting for conviction and love, about staying not just relevant, but brilliant. Here’s to the next one. — HAZEL CILLS
10. Alex G
If this generation of openhearted home-recorders picked up anything from their patron saint Lou Barlow, it’s his documentarian spirit. Alex Giannascoli, for example, filled his seventh LP (and first for indie institution Domino Records) with pitched-up cartoon voices, slurry saloon songs, and guitar lines that flop and flail like parboiled pasta — a stylistic multiplicity reflective of a cinéma vérité approach to songwriting. You’re listening to the record but it’s you’re also listening to him make the record — each wart only underscoring the purity of its best moments. But the musician best known as Alex G diverts from his DIY antecedents’ (sometimes literally) effortless tape exercises because of his ability to spit-shine the small flaws into a more comical, more human depiction of reality.
Like on the six full-lengths he released prior to Beach Music, here the 22-year-old demonstrates a casual knack for wrenching out disparate miniatures that light the same darkened doorways that Doug Martsch and Duster have loomed in for the past two decades. But he proves that his low-key devastating songs know no boundaries. He’s spent years turning half-lidded whispers into menacing roars, but when he sings, “I want to be alone” at the heart of “Salt” — a synth-driven song sticky as a seabreeze and one of his strangest compositions on a Bandcamp page full of idiosyncrasies — he whispers his record’s solipsistic mission statement. He holed up by himself and made something that only a shut-in could: fractured, obsessed-over, imperfect, and unimpeachable. — COLIN JOYCE
Shamir Bailey isn’t the easiest pop figure to categorize, but here goes anyway: A 21-year-old who records under his first name, the former country song-slinger is a gender-neutral Vegas native who carries on like he was born in the balconies of Studio 54. His svelte, stellar debut record — the bedazzled Ratchet — isn’t overtly autobiographical, but it is infused with Shamir’s own truth. His oft-discussed, shrinkingly shrill vocals and no-f**ks-given lyricism make the brisk, ten-track effort both intricately wound and innately pleasurable. And though it’s plenty tight, Shamir finds room for nuance and loads of (sometimes literal) bells and whistles: hooks that lean heavily on repetition, pristinely polished synthesizers primed for takeoff (courtesy of producer Nick Sylvester), and some damn good face (and tea) serving, too.
He raps and sings and tut-tuts with the timbre of a pitched-up glockenspiel, and matches that pizazz with genuine personality — if you’re not already, get familiar with the finger-pointing ass-shaker “Hot Mess” and the acid-washed “Call It Off.” For all its new-eyed wonder, though, Ratchet maintains a darker pulse beneath its paper-thin skin. “If I’m a demon, baby / You’re the beast that made me,” Shamir sings on “Demon,” the LP’s Bonnie and Clyde-invoking centerpiece. If this is how self-assured our favorite newcomer is on LP No. 1, stay tuned for the sequel. — BRENNAN CARLEY
8. Kacey Musgraves
After the runaway success of the stoned, genteel Same Trailer Different Park, Kacey Musgraves was posited by many within the country establishment as a force perpendicular to the genre’s reigning good ol’ boys club. It’s true that the Texan singer-songwriter sticks out in the landscape of popular 2010s country as a nudie suit- and fringe-loving throwback to different days (she rejects chugging rock guitars and tailgate tales in favor of a drug-positive radical individualism), but her music is still plenty poppy. And Musgraves is comfortable living inside of that accessibility on this year’s Pageant Material; beginning with “High Time,” the album’s breezy countrypolitan opener, on through “Are You Sure,” the hidden Willie Nelson duet after proper waltzing closer “Fine,” Musgraves lets violins, pedal steel, bells, and whistles eddy around her as she rolls out increasingly terse koans about leading a simple life.
The 27-year-old’s arch talent is folding universal quirks of American living into cheeky turns of phrase that seek to make wise sense of it, and her second major-label LP brings a baker’s dozen: “Just ‘cause it don’t cost a lot, don’t mean it’s cheap.” “Mind your own biscuits, and life will be gravy.” “Friends come in handy, but family is family.” Pageant Material’s messages — to hang onto love and stay weird and unique no matter the cost — are broad without sacrificing depth, uncomplicated but never dull, and charming without ever coming across as cutesy. The weightlessness of the balance, alongside the natural beauty of the arrangements, is incontrovertible proof of a master at work. The “pageant” is pointless — there is no competition. — CRAIG JENKINS
You never want to wish ill upon another person — let alone one as artily blessed as Bradford Cox — but would it be so wrong to give dap to the reckless ass who drove into Deerhunter’s genius leader while he was out walking the dog? Okay, yes, but on the beachy-beautiful “Breaker,” Cox himself makes the case for our offensive query: “Jack-knifed on the side street, crossing / I’m still alive and that’s something / And when I die there will be nothing to say / Except I tried not to waste another day.” To be clear, Atlanta’s premiere art-rock-noise-pop-ambient-punk band hasn’t wasted a second on the road to now, but they’ve trod an abstruse path through creative highs and emotional lows, and 2013’s Monomania was a hard left into awesome abrasion. Sure, it can feel miraculous to survive a near-death accident, but what we have here is actual manna from heaven: a Deerhunter album that’s as abridged as it is alluring, as unfussy as it is innovative, and as accessible as it is demonstrative of the singular churning brilliance Cox and Co. have projected all along.
Fading Frontier isn’t full of blithe Kumbayas, although the glistening Eno-tronica of “Living My Life” does play like a mantra. Rather, these nine dreamy songs make good on Cox’s oft-quoted raison d’être at the start of the album: “Take your handicaps / Channel them and feed them back / Till they become your strengths.” He’s forever an introvert on the inside, and a consummate outsider’s kind of outsider, spewing poetry cryptic and complex, that’s often dark or overcome with ennui. It all comes out bent, like how closing title “Carrion” is a homonym for the song’s refrain, “Carry on.” But there’s something in that pun about spirit transcending body that’s also captured on the LP’s cover: the Pacific Ocean’s cerulean shot from a burnt building’s interior. It’s the revelation of razing the vessel nearly to the soil, then having a good look at what was there all along. — CHRIS MARTINS
“I’m not trying to have it all,” warns several dubs of Katie Crutchfield on Ivy Tripp’s droning opener, “Breathless.” Maybe it’s preemptively defensive of her switch from DIY stalwarts Don Giovanni to DIY major-leaguers Merge, or the embarrassment of foregrounded hooks that pour from the best album of her career. You know the kind, “ooh-ooh-ooh-ooooohs” on “La Loose,” tranquil mantras of “Running water / Running” on “Blue,” and libraries of euphoric harmonies on “Poison,” all so familiar and unpretentiously listenable that they get taken for granted. Crutchfield’s third full-length as Waxahatchee is subtle about how obvious it is, tucking away every corner of its massive craft like origami so the blinding sugar rush of a loose Vaselines homage (“The Dirt”) or a blatant tribute to Juliana Hatfield Three’s “Spin the Bottle” (“Grey Hair”) feels like nbd. It has experiments too; Tame Impala’s given a run for their money when Crutchfield lets two incongruent drum tracks tumble over each other psychedelically on “<.” She’s not trying to have it all. But she gets it anyway. — DAN WEISS
5. Vince Staples
Back in 1995, a G-funk group called the Dove Shack released “Summertime in the LBC.” It’s a breezy, laid-back ode to Long Beach’s endless season, full of BBQ ribs and Daisy Dukes and lowriders. This isn’t then. Vince Staples’ Def Jam debut, Summertime ’06, might be set in the same city, but that shiny soundtrack has been replaced by beats that recall a different kind of summer, one with dry, hot, airless days and stuffy houses on Poppy Street that have the shades drawn against far more sinister elements than the sun.
Staples is our guide, a sober (both figuratively and literally — “I ain’t never did a drug / When you doing what I does, need your mind right,” he explains on “Loca”), sharp-eyed agnostic who believes in telling nothing but the truth. He spills it well — his verses and delivery brim with biting sociopolitical satire, and people want to shut him up so desperately, the double album ends in the middle of a sentence, static replacing his voice. On standout track “Norf Norf,” Staples cruises through Clams Casino’s tunnel-like beat, yelping lyrics like, “Know a change gonna come, like Obama and them say / But they shootin’ everyday round my mama and them way” before turning deadly serious on the chorus: “I ain’t never ran from nothing but the police.”
From what Staples has witnessed, Black Lives Matter, but not as much as money; on the sparse, chilling “Surf,” he asks and answers, “What’s the price on a life in this dark world? / Couple hundred where I come from.” The lack of cash propels the vicious cycle just as much as gang activity — and that includes the too-often-merciless crew known as the Fraternal Order of Police. Summertime ’06 is no day at the beach. It’s a day in Long Beach, and Staples makes it clear the two have nothing in common but a name. — REBECCA HAITHCOAT
4. Tame Impala
Despite the interstellar travel ambitions of psych-rock ingénieur Kevin Parker — and the eight minutes of parallaxed Currents opener “Let It Happen,” which stamps his passport to the fifth dimension — Tame Impala’s third album is their best because its soul actually lies in Motown. Exchange the band-in-a-box sonics for lush strings and sunny bass, hold the mic a little closer to Parker’s mouth, and “Eventually” and “The Less I Know the Better” would be the best Smokey Robinson songs of the 21st century, honest and guileless ballads of love and loss delivered in heavenly falsetto. For as long as he’s been stretching grooves and guitar solos, Currents finds Parker the singer-songwriter coming to the epiphany that no amount of pitch- and time-shifting will screw with your perception of reality as much as a lyric that’s as direct and true as “They say people never change but that’s bulls**t / They do.” Mind expansion only lasts as long as the trip, heart expansion stays with you forever. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
3. Jamie xx
One of the most evocative lyrics uttered this year is, simply, “Oh my gosh!” It’s not remarkable because of the depth of its writing (duh) or the warped male vocals that proclaim it. It’s the way in which Jamie xx takes this line, a sample pulled from an unaired Radio 1 show, and uses it as a gateway for In Colour’s opener, “Gosh,” a mechanical, looping electronic track of majestic proportions. Halfway through the song and you don’t even hear the title phrase anymore; you don’t need spoken words to describe what you feel. Because the ways in which the song’s dramatic synths build and build — meeting and eventually succumbing to the song’s squeaky, swelling keyboard solo — is like watching a lunar eclipse happen three feet above your head.
The record that follows, the solo debut from the British producer and xx member, is one of beautiful minimalism, devoid of dance-music cliché or era-specific trends. Often, the songs that make up In Colour exist in a state of sorrow but still maintain optimism. “I go to loud places to search for someone / To be quiet with, who will take me home,” fellow xx member Romy Croft confesses amid dull club chatter and preaching on “Loud Places.” Tracks like “Sleep Sound” and “Girl” bury voices, lift them, then bury them again, as if they’re ghosts haunting the edges of the throbbing bass. The steel-drum spark of the dancehall-flavored “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” brings relief, a chance to bask in the kaleidoscopic warmth promised on the album’s cover, alongside featured guests Young Thug and Popcaan.
But those who come to Jamie xx’s dance floor will find something more substantial than a good time. In Colour spins absorbing music for introverts who shy away from the club rather than embrace it as a social hub; more often than not, the 11-track sets opts for whispery, vague vocals and clipped samples over gloomy instrumentals rather than MCs doling out upbeat self-helpism. The textures here demand a surrender because perhaps these noises know what you’re feeling — what you want to feel — better than you do. — HAZEL CILLS
2. Courtney Barnett
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Courtney Barnett, 28 years old, head crowded with details, worries she’s getting dull. And the Australian singer-guitarist is right to be concerned — she is a little bit dull, just like every other overeducated ‘80s baby flailing towards 30. “I’m growing older every time I blink my eyes / Boring, neurotic, everything that I despise,” she dispenses on the paradoxically chipper “Debbie Downer,” making quick work of her insecurities. Those are the words of a homebody who’s too restless to be satisfied with staying in, an insomniac who spends her nights-to-mornings staring at the walls and ceiling, an artist who actually assigned her debut album the title Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.
But at the same time, Barnett’s far from dull, just like every other hyperarticulate, once-in-a-generation songwriter before her. She’s not a snooze when she’s debating whether or not to leave the house on “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” — she’s splitting the difference between Sheryl Crow and Kurt Cobain, becoming a patron saint for the casually antisocial. When she’s tossing and turning, painting “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY),” Barnett isn’t rambling nonsense about how everything’s papier-mâché — she’s coloring in the specifics of the scene, counting the cracks in the plaster and pondering her love-line. Her album’s non-title isn’t lifeless — it’s a shrugged punchline delivered by someone fond of deadpan, a way of toying with the format, of straightening a Slinky, so to speak.
At her most urgent, the Melbourne talent wields 2015’s best rock song, “Pedestrian at Best,” a pressure-cooker of a lead single, a near-nervous breakdown rendered as defiant anthem. At her most human, Barnett’s lost in thought on the swaying “Depreston,” visiting an open house and wondering about the lives of the people who lived there before. The songwriter left out a few of her other attributes when she rattled off “boring” and “neurotic” — “perceptive” and “empathetic” come to mind immediately. We’re not suggesting we put Courtney Barnett on a pedestal, but if we did, we highly doubt she’d disappoint. — KYLE MCGOVERN
1. Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp a Butterfly
Does anyone else think Kendrick was humoring Dre when he told the N.W.A oldster he wanted a house like his one day? That weird voicemail bit in To Pimp a Butterfly’s opening minutes — where the good Doctor performs a wooden recital of the tough-guy affectation he helped pioneer — is the most out-of-place component on a record full of strange, symbolic oddments, but it does serve as a study in contrasts. Perhaps the K-Dot of 2010 really was trying to build himself a mansion, but when it comes to album-making in 2015, Lamar’s sole focus seems to be demolishing every figurative wall that still stands between his sequestered soul and the open air. He wants to fly, if only by dint of shoving off about 400 years of baggage and straightening his spine. But it’ll take inordinate amounts of guts, intellect, creativity, ability, and self-analysis to do so. And so, he does.
As the mock powwow between Lamar and 2Pac’s ghost at the end of the, yes, 12-minute closing track makes explicit, the album’s concept goes thusly: Cynical Caterpillar Lamar exploits his Inner Talent Butterfly for profit, which makes him complicit in a system that previously saw him as a pest. This drives him into the Cocoon of Self-Loathing, where he has revelations about wealth, God, family, friends, and love, before growing wings and becoming Super Saiyan Butterfly Lamar or whatever (this likely isn’t even his final form). Okay, so it’s no secret that this is a tale of metamorphosis. Or that like Franz Kafka before him, Lamar aims to tell us something about Identity and Otherness. But Butterfly is neither the tidy novella of a freshman lit assignment, nor the didactic textbook-rap of MCs past. It’s so layered and so personal and so fraught — this is the stuff of entire graduate courses.
Our hero even seems to get it wrong at times, like on “The Blacker the Berry” when he says, “Why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street / When gang-banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!” But when he growls out that indictment, he gives voice to a legit concern: people both in and outside of his Compton who mistake symptom for cause. It’s a little different than proclaiming, “I’m a proud monkey!” on the same song, but surely related to the double-consciousness Lamar illustrates by trying to play both Good Capitalist (pimping his butterfly in a literal sense) and Hood Savior (when he returns “home” in the lengthy poem that functions as epigraph between songs). These are impossible, problematic roles that can’t help but validate the oppressor even as they seem like the only way to flout the oppression. It’s this tension that gives us the very real split personality that comes to define Butterfly.
Remember how jarring “i” was when you first heard it back in September of 2014? That bubblegum groove and its blithe refrain — “I love myself!” — felt like betrayal coming from an artist so thoughtful. Well, it’s funny what a little context can do. Because this LP also contains “u,” a scream-spattered nightmare where Lamar contemplates suicide between simulated gulps of liquor. (He’s constantly deploying styles to cue up different selves or characters.) It’s a hard spiritual crawl before we hit “i” at track 15; before all that frenzied jazz and cartoonish funk gives way to neo-soul and empowerment rap; and before album antagonists Uncle Sam and his girl Lucy (a.k.a. Lucifer) stop whispering in his ear, drop their money bags, and cede the stage to names like Malcolm, Martin, and Nelson. It takes 14 songs of really intense s**t for Kendrick F**king Lamar, the most universally adored MC of his time, to say out loud that he loves himself. That’s an experience relatable to anyone who’s been at the wrong end of a stacked deck, but especially those people whose ancestors’ blood and bone make up the cornerstones of the society they’re trying to thrive in today. It’s hard to love yourself if others constantly deny your worth, and tough too when your value becomes dollar-quantifiable.
Lamar bucking the cycle with such humanity is a herculean feat. It’s why To Pimp a Butterfly is the Album of the Year. A recent discussion of the work furthered a muddled narrative about its Overwhelming Blackness in both lyrics and music. If this record is too Black for America, then America is too Black for America. This nation’s truths are too red, its lies are too white, and its vibe is too blue. This country is going through a collective unpacking right now, in 2015, as the term “Black Lives Matter” wends its way into presidential debates. As often (and intentionally) misconstrued as the phrase can be, it’s out there rattling around and radiating its imperative, a call to assert the sort of self-love that can’t be denied. Butterfly opens with a bit of a litmus test — a voice from a 1973 Blaxploitation film, cooing, “Every nigger is a star.” To those who would cringe at either the word or the idea of an entire body of abused humans averring prosperous individualism… As Lamar might pose it, “One question:” Isn’t that your American Dream? — CHRIS MARTINS