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Top 50 Albums of 2015

This year belonged to the artists hungry to tell the truth

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    There are years in which some albums rise significantly above the pack, a bundle that so far outshine the rest that we can fill out a set of 50 relatively easily. And then there are years like 2015, years in which it seems every writer’s ballot felt entirely unique. Each draft of this list seemed to miss out on a couple dozen albums that our writers could convincingly and passionately argue needed to make the cut — or even jump to the top.

    That’s true, too, of every single genre; no matter what type of music you’re into, the year featured more than a few absolutely stellar records. Some were smash hits we’d been anticipating for a long time while others popped up seemingly out of nowhere. Some artists helped us escape from reality and find absolute beauty, and some brought us face to face with the world in all its brutality. No matter what the circumstances, though, 2015 was a year driven by artists expressing their own unique truths, no matter what boundaries stood in their way.
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    joanna newsom divers50. Joanna Newsom – Divers

    The only fair comparison while discussing Joanna Newsom appears to be Newsom herself. Most reviews of her latest work are limited to the singer-songwriter’s own discography in seeking points of contrast, and for good reason. Newsom’s delicate voice is unparalleled in the indie music landscape, and her harp work is a striking alternative to a vast sea of familiar sounds. In Divers, her fourth full-length album and the first since her marriage to Andy Samberg in 2013, Newsom mines the depths of potential grief in a series of prescient ballads that explore the tender bliss of love — but more so what it might mean to one day have it taken away. Peppered with mythological references and anchored by vocals that are simultaneously present and of another world entirely, Divers eschews the more operatic overtures of its predecessor, Have One on Me, to steep in solemn and gorgeous brevity. –Zack Ruskin

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    White-Reaper-Does-It-Again49. White Reaper – Does It Again

    Garage rock has become as blurry a genre definition as anything since its recent resurgence. But if you want something fuzzy, loud, and lick-tastic, there were few albums in 2015 that did it with the flair found on White Reaper Does It Again. Even fewer managed it with the type of pop-minded hooks that you can hear on tracks like “Pills” and “Candy”, where something akin to surf rock gets chewed up in the distortion of a punk band. Perhaps, though, that’s really the core of the sound we’ve come to consider garage. More than just a matter of quick, pummeling cuts screaming out the glories and pitfalls of drugs, girls, and growing up (though there’s plenty of that), it’s about sweat-drenched elation. As keyboardist Ryan Hater told us himself about White Reaper’s sudden rise over the few months, “The only way to put it is that it’s just incredible fun. It’s exceeded all possible expectations.” For an upstart band from Louisville to put together a collection of joyous ear-splitters like this, there’s really no better description to be made. –Ben Kaye

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    Angel Haze back to the woods48. Angel Haze – Back to the Woods

    Throughout an often testing, tragic, brutal year, the hip-hop world has delivered some of the best protest music in recent memory — the kind of stuff that speaks truth to power, eases some of the weight, and insists upon its own existence. On Back to the Woods, Angel Haze takes on that tall order on a much more personal basis. The raw-nerve record feels entirely necessary, the kind of thing that they needed to produce to keep going. With the help of Tk Kayembe, they scratch and dig at every open wound, exposing every insecurity, pain, and struggle. Though the results are often remarkably dark and claustrophobic, there’s a powerful escapist energy to songs like “Angels & Airwaves”, in which Haze fights off suicidal thoughts. “Every time I howl, wolves come, and you get bit,” Haze adds on “The Wolves”. They’re simultaneously a lone wolf, wandering the desolate wilderness, and a mystic warrior, capable of tearing anyone apart who stands in their way. That dichotomy might seem fragile or messy, but the ferocious rapper somehow fuses those disparate halves together, both fragile and invincible at once. They’re the kind of example that can bring strength to anyone in their darkest days, a force unafraid to face the world’s pains head on. –Adam Kivel

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    majical cloudz are you alone album stream Top 50 Albums of 201547. Majical Cloudz – Are You Alone?

    Majical Cloudz’s Devon Welsh can say the wrong thing. On his third full-length collaboration with Matthew Otto, Are You Alone?, there are a handful of lines that say too much, are too on the nose, or feel awkward in their nakedness. But even in these moments, the album and the project are more admirable than anything. There is a fearlessness in Majical Cloudz lyrics, pushed front and center where the arrangements can never bail out Welsh’s blunt sentiments. And this makes any lyrical missteps more than forgivable; they are collateral damage for a noble battle from the duo. They give Welsh the freedom to wax poetic about a desire to connect, the human need to both know and be known, and the beauty that can be found in something as simple as the interaction between people. These concerns, Welsh’s wide-eyed delivery, and the warm melodies result in incredibly human music, songs that empower in their risk of failure, trading the occasional corny moment for countless honest ones. –Philip Cosores

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    fidlar new album46. FIDLAR – Too

    Saying out loud that a band like FIDLAR has “matured” comes off the tongue weird. Perhaps that’s why the shelf life of many a party punk band is decidedly short. On Too, FIDLAR show that they aren’t just your average party punk band. The album features their first outside producer in Jay Joyce, and he adds a tempered flow to the LP that allows FIDLAR’s indie-to-punk ricochet to flourish. The details in percussion and textures on songs like “40 Oz on repeat ” and “Overdose” far outmatch the patience displayed on the California outfit’s past recordings. Some of this new maturity was quite literally a matter of life or death. Having overdosed three times within a month, lead singer Zac Carper pulled together and has stayed sober over a year now. A good chunk of Too reflects on these trials and tribulations, and as evidenced by Carper’s admission in our cover story earlier this year, “I still want to kill myself every day, but you know, that’s part of life,” the demons are still very present. With Too, FIDLAR have shown they can party with the best, sober up, and be able to make some sense of it all. Hopefully they have passed their darkest hour. –Kevin McMahon

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    Asap rocky new album45. ASAP Rocky – At. Long. Last. ASAP

    A$AP Rocky traveled to SXSW this year to hype his pending sophomore release. While in Austin, he also carved out some time to indulge in the trappings of his fame through a series of acid-spiced orgies. And it’s this combination of business and pleasure, hustle and flow that makes At. Long. Last. A$AP one of 2015’s most entertaining and creative records. It’s also one of the most psychedelic hip-hop albums in recent memory. Coming off the heels of 2013’s guest-heavy Long.Live.A$AP., A.L.L.A. continues the trend of bringing friends along for a fantastic voyage. Whether it’s the Mark Ronson-produced “Everyday”, which finds Rocky sharing vocal duties with Miguel and Rod Stewart, Juicy J’s infectious “Wavybone” featuring UGK (RIP Pimp C), or standout appearances by ScHoolboy Q, M.I.A., and Kendrick Lamar, A.L.L.A. has the feel of an all-star game. But even with so many competing voices, Rocky still manages to stand out as the champ, especially when he combines his merry prankster and merry gangster personas on “L$D”. –Dan Pfleegor

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    Hop Along new album44. Hop Along – Painted Shut

    Hop Along have steadily been a “band to watch” for a couple years now, centered on Frances Quinlan’s volatile voice and an even sharper knack for kicking the listener in the gut with her songwriting. After a handful of promising releases, Painted Shut , their first album for Saddle Creek, delivered on nearly every measure. The album combined the band’s indie rock and pop punk influences in a way that was truly explosive. Quinlan crafted songs about anxiety, depression, and mental illness, providing a nuanced look at all those issues while still retaining the group’s nervous tension that propel their material. While Quinlan stunned on tracks like “Waitress” and “Happy to See Me” with her vocal acrobatics and the band followed suit with impassioned performances, a second look revealed the crushing poignancy behind the lyrics. Some songs turned the most fleeting life experiences into the most intense ones, and others used restraint while depicting the most horrifying experiences, all with a similar undercurrent of tension and nervous energy throughout. Hop Along blew away expectations on Painted Shut and left little doubt that they will be able to do so again. –David Sackllah

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    Prurient new album43. Prurient – Frozen Niagara Falls

    Dominick Fernow has been recording under the Prurient moniker since the late ’90s, all of it culminating with the release of his magnum opus, Frozen Niagara Falls. Through the amorphous template of synth and harsh noise — Fernow’s specialty, taking inspiration from the works of Merzbow — the album is a poetic journey through the human condition and plays out like a noise-industrial symphony. Fernow plays the doomed protagonist, unleashing death metal howls across various sonic palettes. Laced with metaphor and symbolism, his pain is vaguely personal and always existential; some tracks sound like a lament to lost love or some personalized, selfish lust, while the harsher pieces sound like Fernow is channeling the collective anguish of the entire human race, almost in rejection of his aforementioned narcissism. Frozen Niagara Falls is a difficult album because of its absolute darkness, but when listened to in the right mood, it’s a poignant reminder of our imminent demise, which is strangely comforting. –Jon Hadusek

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    Bully Feels Like42. Bully – Feels Like

    Bully’s Alicia Bognanno is so honest it hurts. Each song on her band’s debut, Feels Like, feels like candid snapshots from life’s harshest moments. On “Reason”, she sings, “I thought that he would never hit a girl/ But I guess you never know/ And that’s the world.” It’s a startling confession in the middle of a jaunty punk track, but even more jarring is the unaffected way in which she delivers the line. She sounds jaded and over it. Later, on “Trying”, she recalls praying for her period to come and questioning everything about herself. But in each song she emerges from these depths to deliver a powerful, howling chorus. The context makes these soaring moments feel even more life-affirming. She’s seen the lowest lows and rises above with a “fuck you” attitude and a sense of fight. Her screams and guitar assaults just get more and more visceral throughout, coalescing into the band’s guttural, namesake closer, “Bully”. Bognanno is preaching the truth, and the truth isn’t always nice. –Dusty Henry

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    How Big How Blue How Beautiful album cover41. Florence and the Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

    On Florence and the Machine’s third LP, Florence Welch ended her three-year-plus hiatus by showing that less could absolutely be more, musically and lyrically. Teaming up with producer Markus Dravs (known for Björk’s Homogenic, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, and Mumford and Sons’ Sigh No More, among others) led to simpler, cleaner arrangements that highlighted Welch’s powerhouse vocals. The record also made Florence and the Machine a must-see festival headliner throughout the summer, as Welch jumped, twirled, and sang her way into the hearts of thousands of fans across the world. And how could she not? Lyrically, she proved to be as sharp as ever, crooning through grandiose metaphors for self-destruction (“Ship to Wreck”) and heartbreak (“Queen of Peace”). How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful also ran the gamut from its loud moments to its quiet respites, from the energizing riff and monstrous drumbeat of “What Kind of Man” to the contemplative, mournful “Long & Lost”. –Killian Young

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    Future Dirty Sprite 240. Future – Dirty Sprite 2

    2015 was a strong year for hip-hop, but let’s be real: This was the year that Future became ubiquitous. At some point, it becomes just a numbers game. The Atlanta rapper dropped four (!) mixtapes this year, including a collaboration with reigning superstar Drake. All of this set up Dirty Sprite 2 to take Future to the top of the game. His codeine-influenced flow also set him apart, letting each word drip out of his mouth drenched in Auto-Tune. It can be off-putting at first, especially since it’s hard to understand what he’s saying half the time. But the brilliance in his performance is that he uses his voice more as an embellishment of the production. For those who were on the fence, DS2 solidified the approach as worthwhile. And if the title wasn’t clear enough, syrup is a big part of Future’s aesthetic. Opener “Thought It Was a Drought” is basically a thesis statement for his career as he mumbles, “I just took a piss and I seen codeine coming out.” It’s not a lifestyle anyone could condone with a clear conscience, but it’s fascinating seeing the world through Future’s oozing words and purple haze. –Dusty Henry

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    Courtney Barnett Sometimes I Sit and Think Sometimes I Just Sit39. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

    It’s tempting to dismiss Courtney Barnett as a novelty – a mellow, habitually t-shirted Aussie songwriter who talk-sings oddball observations and spouts seemingly non sequiturs about daily mundanity over indie rock guitars. But, as Adam Kivel notes in his review of her full-length debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, to reduce Barnett to a “Seinfeld-ian joker pointing out life’s little quirks” criminally misses the point. Just as she first gained our attention a couple years back with the single “Avant Gardener”, in which a do-nothing day in the garden leads to an uncomfortable realization and a panic attack, the very best of Sometimes I Sit locates the significance in the experiences that most of us ignore. For instance, album standout “Depreston” finds its narrator going on a humdrum house-hunting outing only to realize that she’s touring a “deceased estate” – that beginning a life in this new home would mean a kind of sad and cruel finality for those who lived there prior. Not what the real estate agent had in mind, I’m sure, but that’s how Barnett’s mind works. While the rest of us sweat life’s big stuff, she opts to count cracks on the wall, note the guy pushing the elevator button for the roof, or contemplate a stranger’s shower handrail. Her most affecting songs make us suspect that we’re actually the ones foolishly letting life pass us by. –Matt Melis

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    kurt vile b lieve im down album stream listen Top 50 Albums of 201538. Kurt Vile – b’lieve I’m going down…

    If Kurt Vile’s b’lieve i’m goin down has an issue, it’s Vile’s own consistency. Following Smoke Ring for My Halo and Wakin on a Pretty Daze, it’s easy to take an album like this for granted. But doing so is not fair to b’lieve, which does set itself apart in both arrangement subtleties and lyrical themes. “I think I do top every record, in just a matter of refinement,” Vile told Pure Volume after the record’s release. And from the foot-stomping single “Pretty Pimpin” to “Wheelhouse”, which Vile has said is the best song he’s ever written, the confidence of a mature artist aware he is reaching his prime shines through. But maybe the most important song comes last: “Wild Imagination”, where Vile looks at the past, both in photographs and in memories of believers, lovers, druggers, dreamers, drunkards, and schemers. He admits that his emotions are difficult to express because they are so complicated, but he also requests in the refrain to “give it some time.” It’s a captivating ending that suggests the stories and melodies of Vile are a deep well to draw from, with the consistent refinement of Vile’s skills something fans should grow to expect. –Philip Cosores

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    Ratatat Magnifique new album37. Ratatat – Magnifique

    Ratatat’s first four records will sound even better now that we know what they were leading up to all along. In “Loud Pipes” — the bulldozing bombastic twist of high-speed funk and churning machine screams that centered their second album — Mike Stroud and Evan Mast created the early ’00s experimental rock-electronic, an indie monster with rock guts and instrumental vocal chords. During Magnifique, especially the dreamy anthemic swirl of Springwater cover “I Will Return” and the grinding, steel-stringed disco-funk surge of “Cream on Chrome”, the Brooklynites go back to form, slicing and dicing complex arrangements stemming from a single sound blown to reconstructed shards. As a result, Magnifique captures Ratatat in all their dance floor-shaking ferocity, using every pluck of a guitar string like a cracked mirror, allowing them to reflect on every sound from different angles. It’s the sound of real musicians stuck on their own potency, building propulsive dance music that is a matter of both body and mind. –Lior Phillips

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    Alabama Shakes Sound & Color36. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

    From the first chime of Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes make it abundantly clear just how intertwined these two senses are. The listener starts out in between lush threads of vibraphone and tremolo, which hum and swirl into a fully realized quilt of texture and space. It’s an eclectic body of work, as much MC5 and Moon Safari as it is Superfly and Janis Joplin. When the Shakes broke out with 2012’s Boys & Girls, they were heralded as revivalists, champions of roots rock and R&B from their native South. But, for Brittany Howard, the term never fit. “I always knew we had so much more to offer musically. And it was exciting to have more time in the studio and to experiment and see where things would end up,” she explained in an interview with Vanity Fair earlier this year. Despite this, Sound & Color does not feel reactionary, but evolutionary, confirming the band as the torchbearers they have been all along. –Kevin McMahon

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    deerhunter fading frontier Top 50 Albums of 201535. Deerhunter – Fading Frontier

    Some critics complained that Fading Frontier wasn’t weird enough for Deerhunter, not realizing that, when it comes to the music of Bradford Cox (and, to a lesser extent, Lockett Pundt), stability is the new weird. Serenity is the new weird. Relaxing at home with a dog is the new weird. I’ll admit, when I first saw that dog in the music video for “Snakeskin”, I assumed Cox was parodying the concept of folksy seclusion, never stopping to think that maybe he just likes lounging around an old, creaky house in his overalls. That’s what makes Fading Frontier as surprising and adventurous as Halcyon Digest or any of the other surreal high marks in Deerhunter’s catalog. It’s about settling down, even if that means swearing off sex, family, and your own traditional maleness, as the father does in opener “All the Same”. That may not be your version of happiness, but it’s definitely someone’s. And if you only pay attention to the music and not the lyrics, you get a more conventional idea of relaxation, from the dreamy tropicalia of “Living My Life” to the ’80s slow-dance of “Take Care”. Those titles are peaceful mantras to live by, too. –Dan Caffrey

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    arca mutant album Top 50 Albums of 201534. Arca – Mutant

    Nearly one year to the day, Venezuela’s Alejandro Ghersi (bka Arca) followed up his highly acclaimed debut, Xen, with the equally demanding Mutant. Growing up in a self-proclaimed bubble, and with initial difficulties claiming his sexuality, Arca’s tortured electronics have continued to represent the mystery, complexity, and hard-fought comfort of adolescence in our current digital era. Much like life, one must challenge her/himself to discover the beauty buried beneath the tumult. On a personal journey of acceptance, this aural diary offers a moment of reflection for all those in a similar position: tracks like “Alive”, “Sinner”, and “Gratitud” exploring the true nature of those sensations in a way language simply cannot. We have all felt like mutants — those moments when we just don’t fit into our own skin, the conversation, or our pre-determined surroundings. By owning those eccentricities in the artistic form, Arca has developed a production palette that is uniquely his. An honest outlet that has been amplified with his well-deserved Kanye West associations. And by choosing his own journey, Arca finds new bliss, best exemplified by the down-tempo sway of “Else” and “Front Load”. Please heed the message. –Derek Staples

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    Sun Kil Moon new album33. Sun Kil Moon – Universal Themes

    Mark Kozelek has become a reverse-butterfly, a majestic being who once delivered beauty and has now retreated back into his cocoon to become a caterpillar — furry, warted, and ponderous of the world around him. While that sometimes results in ugliness, it always results in honesty. And honesty will always be interesting. So if Sun Kil Moon’s latest, Universal Themes, is an open wound that faces mortality head-on, it’s a wound we can’t stop looking at (or listening to), whether Kozelek’s screaming himself hoarse about a sick friend or going into a spoken-word interlude that empathizes with a dying possum. When revisiting that second song, I’m reminded that every creature is valuable because every creature has to fight for its life. So maybe some caterpillars are beautiful after all, just like some butterflies have to survive by eating shit. On Universal Themes, Kozelek does both. –Dan Caffrey

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    UMO album32. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love

    Most albums about marital infidelity assume a wounded, bitter stance. Unknown Mortal Orchestra see no reason not to throw a dance party about it. The band’s third album is their most concrete and personal, as frontman Ruban Nielson parses his whirlwind polyamory to sticky disco beats. Nielson produced and mixed the entire album — his first time doing so — and its consistency in tone allows his voice and lyrics to push to the forefront. He’s conveniently got one hell of a story to tell while he’s at it. Multi-Love tells of brilliant, life-saving affection that also has the potential to break your mind if you’re not careful with it. Now that open relationships and polyamory are increasingly encroaching on the mainstream, UMO have made one hell of an ode to unconstrained devotion outside the hetero-monogamy model. And with the slamming “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”, they’ve also made one of the least corny tunes about cell phones in recent memory. Anxiety never sounded so fun. –Sasha Geffen

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    Bell Witch new album31. Bell Witch – Four Phantoms

    Four Phantoms is an album with presence. Or presences, rather. Here, the Seattle-based funeral doom duo Bell Witch have crafted four deeply haunting ghost stories that each detail the purgatorial plight of some tortured spirit caught within the natural elements of earth, fire, water, and air. Each engrossing visitation is filled with eternal sorrow, and with such atmosphere laid thickly throughout thanks to some heavy instrumentation and bone-chilling vocals, it is difficult to let this album remain independent of your thoughts. In our review earlier this year, we compared Four Phantoms to a paranormal experience, and that still rings true as no other album this year has maintained such a haunting quality. The stories of misery and loss evoke feelings of the inability to escape and, frighteningly enough, no desire to do so. With track lengths over 10 minutes, and two at twice that, Bell Witch’s purgatory becomes comforting in a way that you’d rather give up the ghost and join the spirits presented therein. –Sean Barry

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