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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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    Wilco Star Wars album surprise free30. Wilco – Star Wars

    In hindsight, it was a pretty simple solution. Turns out all Wilco had to do to neutralize the colossal expectations of a new Wilco album — expectations that very likely bore some responsibility for that frustrating, not-quite-there inconsistency that loomed over the band’s prior two albums — were two things: Kill the expectations (by literally telling no one that it’s happening) and challenge the criteria of an “album.” Star Wars had no campaign, no release date, no price tag, no respect for these silly things. Star Wars had hooks. Star Wars had fuzzy Fender Champ amplifiers. Star Wars had fun, and Star Wars happened because its creators felt no obligation to make it. Within 10 minutes of it showing up unannounced — the fourth track, to be precise, a five-minute crescendo by the invincible name of “You Satellite” — it was already clear that this was a band with no quotas or deadlines to meet. On Star Wars, Wilco worked in their own time, and it worked. –Steven Arroyo

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    Holly Herndon - Platform album29. Holly Herndon – Platform

    In some ways, Holly Herndon’s second studio album feels like a spiritual successor to Oneohtrix Point Never’s 2013 LP, R Plus Seven. Both records mire in anxiety, shredding voices into startled fragments and glossing them over with a digitized stew. But while OPN keeps a decidedly apolitical stance on his work, Herndon interests herself with the dangers and the capability of hyperconnectivity. Platform ruminates on power, examining the ways that technology can consolidate it among already privileged groups. It also looks at the ways in which affective labor — especially feminized labor — becomes undervalued and exploited in the age of the immaterial. But Platform doesn’t set a heady bar. Herndon’s electronic grooves run as steady as her convictions, and she arms her latest work with a healthy helping of play and humor. For every melancholy meditation on inherent human worth (“Unequal”), there’s a cheeky ASMR roleplay (“Lonely at the Top”). Herndon knows that beauty can be political, and the beauty she achieves here only bolsters her visions of a freer future. –Sasha Geffen

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    Drake - new mixtape28. Drake – If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late

    A lot of people used to laugh at Drake. He was the dude from Degrassi, the sad-sack rapper, the guy sitting courtside with a lint roller. It’s getting harder and harder to laugh. The 6 God had himself a year: He savaged Meek Mill, wallpapered the Internet in dancing memes, and teamed up with Future for a project that somehow didn’t sink under the excessive weight of their combined star power. But the key to his impressive 2015 was the excellent If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Tellingly, the record totally embraces the braggadocio that he used to soften. Instead, you’ve got songs like “Know Yourself”, exposing the beastly glowing core. He starts out already a “Legend” and becomes the “6 God”. He’s not trying to win you over, powered instead by undeniable swagger and confidence, and, as a result, wins you over even more. There are a few sappy, sentimental moments (we are talking Drizzy, after all), but for the most part, this is the kind of stuff you’ll want to boom while riding around your city, darkness falling, gritting your teeth and nodding along. –Adam Kivel

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    Braids - Deep In The Iris album27. Braids – Deep in the Iris

    Made in various bucolic locations across North America, Deep in the Iris is Braids’ sunniest record, their third album and their second to be nominated for the Polaris Music Prize. The Calgary trio give their songs more room to breathe and their hooks more space to swell on Deep in the Iris, making it more accessible and welcoming than the dense, hermeneutic worlds of Flourish // Perish and Native Speaker. But as its album art indicates, Deep in the Iris also emerged from swirling maelstroms of emotion – much of it bruised and raw, all of it deeply human. Take “Miniskirt”, the album’s standout track and lead single. Much has been made of its condemnation of slut-shaming and defiance against gendered double standards, but what of the overwhelming pain in its bridge, where Raphaelle Standell-Preston sings of surviving family trauma? She reaches deep within herself and comes up with seething, wounded images: “All our boxes on the lawn/ Women’s shelter for nine months/ Cross the street to the church/ Pray confusedly about what hurts.” It’s in moments like these that you realize drawing open the curtains for sunlight wasn’t a mere option for Braids: it was a necessity. –Karen Gwee

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    Social Experiment Surf26. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Surf

    Ever since he dropped Acid Rap in 2013, Chance the Rapper has continued to establish himself as a populist for hip-hop heads by releasing all his music for free. Late last year, the Chicago emcee teased a new music project called Surf, which finally arrived in 2015 after his band the Social Experiment posted upbeat jams like “Sunday Candy” and “Wonderful Everyday: Arthur” (which remained a standalone single). For Surf, it was actually bandmate Donnie Trumpet who took the lead on the record. Boasting a genre-crossing blend of funk, soul, jazz, and hip-hop, the album exemplified how hip-hop artists are increasingly incorporating live bands into their recordings and performances, while also highlighting the variety of sounds brought to the table by Chance’s crew. “We’ve been trying to take in all these cool, different outside cultural experiences,” Chance explained to Billboard, “and make that into a free listenable project.” Surf’s surprise release as a free download through iTunes — the first of its kind — netted over half a million downloads in its first week. –Killian Young

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    New-Order-Music-Complete-album25. New Order – Music Complete

    It’s unusual that a band ever crafts an exceptional album 35 years into their career. New Order pulled it off while trying to convince listeners of their new rhythm resurrection. (If you recall, the ever-venomous Peter Hook exited stage left while the ever-gifted Gillian Gilbert returned after 10 years of motherhood.) As such, Music Complete swells with a renewed sense of urgency, tightly wound with a belief that there’s always something brand-new to unravel. The album changes shape delicately, until you’re not so much lost in the music as living in it. “We are forever moving, like the dancing of the flame/ Life is so unstable, always changing, it never stays the same,” a world-weary Iggy Pop proclaims in a spoken-word narration fit for a psychiatrist’s couch. Fear is a great instigator, the worry your fire will burn out or stay the same, and Bernard Sumner uses it to create a wild and witty art-rock statement built out of stray details, like the guitar chord that revs up the foundation of “Academic” or the subtle drum shifting seamlessly into swirls of rock stadium-ferocity during “Nothing but a Fool”. “Singularity” sucks you in through the electronic wires, and you’re running along them like a character in a video game. It’s their passion that makes the loudest bang, and New Order command the simple pleasure of uplifting dance music. –Lior Phillips

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    Carly Rae Jepsen EMOTION album24. Carly Rae Jepsen – E•MO•TION

    A marvelous art pop artifact, Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION has some of the same certifiable Top 40-ready tunes that helped the Canadian pop singer breakthrough with Kiss (like the title track and “Gimmie Love”), but it mostly tries on sleeker, alt-leaning production with great success. Her voice has a bubbly quality to it that makes almost everything sound innocent, but in the lower registers it can communicate anything on the emotional spectrum, from longing to despair. E•MO•TION shifts from universal everygirl anthems to more personal writing with mature(ish) themes on a dime. It’s sonically diverse and sometimes emotionally dense. There’s a lot to unpack, but it still functions well as a standard dance pop record, too. –Sheldon Pearce

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    Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon23. Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon

    This year made plenty of room for the pensive singer-songwriter, and sprinkled in among Father John Misty, Sufjan Stevens, Natalie Prass, and plenty of others, we met Tobias Jesso Jr. Standing at 6’ 7”, Jesso’s physical presence looms much larger than his earnest, shy-guy persona. For its part, Goon taps into music’s inexplicable ability to sound the same as much of what has come before yet carry a unique personality that makes it feel fresh and present. In “How Could You Babe” and “Just a Dream”, we hear a McCartney-like sweetness and purity that explains much of Jesso’s allure, but below the surface, we also find endearing imperfection. Just listen as his voice cracks at the top of his register or loses a tiny hint of grace when it’s forced to flutter; these are not flaws, but gradients in the honesty that make each song feel quintessentially independent. As his list of songwriting credits grows — check out 25s liner notes — Jesso will no doubt be a staple of ballad culture for years to come. –Kevin McMahon

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    Disasterpeace It Follows22. Disasterpeace – It Follows

    A long time ago, it wasn’t rare that most horror films featured a terrifying score: Psycho (Bernard Herrmann), The Omen (Jerry Goldsmith), and Halloween (John Carpenter) all won most of their scares simply by having a signature soundtrack. Some, like William Friedkin (The Exorcist), George Romero (Night of the Living Dead), and Stanley Kubrick (The Shining), wisely pieced together classical compositions or warped stock music to add their respective spine-tingling chills. Today? It’s typically a copy-and-paste job that underwhelms at best — which is why David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows grabbed us by our jackets last winter and tossed us into the aisles. Electronic composer and songwriter Disasterpeace, aka Richard Vreeland, dropped dozens of NES consoles into hell and pulled them back to deliver the most frightening score the silver screen has experienced in years. There’s something to be said about his use of 8-bit material, the way it subverts our most comfortable escapes, crushing us with its claustrophobic dread and aggression (see: “Heels”, “Old Maid”, “Company”). Yet similar to Carpenter’s work on Halloween, there are a number of tranquil moments that are blissfully melancholy and hypnotically paranoid (see: “Jay”, “Detroit”, “Playpen”). Disasterpeace has undoubtedly influenced a number of composers here, and horror fans should rejoice. Or maybe cower.  –Michael Roffman

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    Deafheaven - New Bermuda album21. Deafheaven – New Bermuda

    Deafheaven keep getting mentioned in lists of best metal bands for people who don’t like metal, but New Bermuda proves that the San Fransisco outfit are in it to expand the genre, not reach outside of it. Many non-listeners assume that the metal world is entirely driven by darkness, all grit, grime, and sludge. Sunbather was such a crossover because it used its post-metal and shoegaze tendencies to bring out some of the prettier shades of black in the genre’s palette, gloriously soaring through the sky. There’s some more of that soupy quality to the follow-up, but there’s as much swampy depth here as there is ethereal beauty. From the black metal punch of its opening, to the Metallica-esque sweep of “Baby Blue”, to the relatively straightforward ’90s crunch of “Gifts to the Earth”, New Bermuda explores the outer limits of metal’s reach, only to prove that those “outer limits” aren’t limits at all, merely presumed borders that George Clarke, Kerry McCoy, and co. wisely disregard. Deafheaven faced a remarkable challenge in trying to follow one of metal’s biggest crossover successes in years, and did so with a bold, experimental, challenging album that should still widen their audience even further. –Adam Kivel

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    Lady Lamb the Beekeeper - After album20. Lady Lamb – After

    For someone who took five years to go from writing to releasing her debut album, Lady Lamb sure moved quickly on the follow-up. Thankfully, the speed of After coming together only translated to an album fully more immediate than its predecessor. Aly Spaltro’s songwriting skills have matured intensely, as evident on tracks like “Violet Clementine” that stretch from tinny banjo to stark gang bridges to beautifully sinister horns, somehow remaining whole at the end of it all. She’s long demonstrated a deft hand at moving from quiet to loud and back, but the expansive arrangements found on “Spat Out Spit” and “Vena Cava” awe with their daring range. Yet for all the magnificence you can pick out in the multi-instrumentalist’s musical skills, her lyrics are still what make her such a wonder of a songwriter. Whether reflecting upon days gone by with her siblings (“Ten”) or the moving simplicity hidden within the crowds of major cities (“Billions of Eyes”), her songs are consistently filled with nimble wordplay and a smirking nature. There are dozens of twentysomethings attempting to offer insight into their lives, but few manage it with the talent and honesty of Lady Lamb. –Ben Kaye

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    Natalie-Prass-SB006-Cover-Art-Lo-Res-119. Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass

    A candy-voiced Nashville singer-songwriter has trouble gaining a foothold in the music biz, moves back to her hometown to collaborate with her high school friend, and records a critically acclaimed debut album. This is the lore behind Natalie Prass’ self-titled introduction, laid down at Richmond, Virginia’s, Spacebomb Studios. The nine-track album is cast with an air of melancholy, but Prass’ persona is too bright and fresh to ever let things get too grave. Songs like “Bird of Prey” and “It Is You” are catchy and memorable as hell, and if you’re self-conscious about singing lyrics like “It has all been a ruin without you” to yourself under your breath, well, don’t be. Much has been said about the album’s lush string and horn arrangements and Prass’ “Disney princess” voice (“somewhere on the spectrum near Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Janet Jackson,” wrote Grantland), but what really seals the deal, aside from the three dozen musicians that contributed to the album’s jazz orchestra sound, is Prass’ confidence in her delivery in the face of all that romantic uncertainty. –Katherine Flynn

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    districts_flourish_LP18. The Districts – A Flourish And A Spoil

    The Districts rarely make it through an interview without the journalist remarking on the ages of the band members. They have nobody to blame but themselves, though. This is what you get when you craft a near-perfect guitar album before all the guys in your band can even legally buy a drink. Their full-length debut, A Flourish and a Spoil, produced by John Congleton (St. Vincent, Modest Mouse), runs the gamut across 10 songs: from stop-and-go rallying (“4th and Roebling” ) and fuzzed-out melodies (“Peaches”) to lo-fi acoustics (“6 AM”) and a sprawling jam (“Young Blood”) – each song its own animal but of the same genus and roaming together instinctively. Much of the album deals with the frustrations of growing up in a small town, which frontman Rob Grote lays bare on “Suburban Smell”. With only an acoustic guitar and the palpable weariness in Grote’s voice, we are left feeling all the disgust, defiance, and desperation of a young man who refuses to fall into a life that’s beneath him. How old are these guys again? Remarkable. –Matt Melis

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    Windhand-grief-infernal-flower17. Windhand – Grief’s Infernal Flower

    Windhand perfected their brand of majestic doom metal on Grief’s Infernal Flower. Opening with a pattering of rain and distant thunder, it’s that rare record that can enclose the listener in its general ambience, temporarily transporting us to a world of catharsis and ominous romanticism. Frontwoman Dorthia Cottrell has established herself as one of the most idiosyncratic voices in metal — her deep croons beautifully placed atop crushing stoner-doom rhythms and down-tuned guitar sludge. Windhand move between pop songs (“Two Urns”, “Crypt Key”), sparse folk (“Sparrow”), and droning epics (“Hesperus”, “Kingfisher”) to create both an emotionally vast and sonically diverse record, which has, to no surprise, crossed over and earned favor in alternative music circles outside the doom circuit where Windhand have been a mainstay. There’s a power and realness to Grief’s Infernal Flower that transcends labels and genres, a universal sadness that’s palpable. –Jon Hadusek

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    Bjork new album Vulnicura16. Björk – Vulnicura

    The irony of Vulnicura’s early release, which was thrust into the clutches of the Internet before its time, is that amid the ravenous demand of fans eager to hear the latest from Björk, stood an artist who has perhaps never felt more alone. Vulnicura is a breakup album like Björk is a pop artist: both defy conventions and choose the unfamiliar path at every fork in the road. In collaboration with Arca and The Haxan Cloak, Björk lays bare the timeline of a failed love, taking listeners from the beginning of the end in “Stonemilker” through to an ambiguous, fractured hope found in the album’s final three tracks. Björk’s co-producers make their presence felt, layering stuttered percussion and electronic blemishes atop pristine strings as the story unfolds, culminating in the 10-minute ruin of “Black Lake”, a devastating coda to a romance’s demise. But true to life, the album goes on. By the time the final notes of closer “Quicksand” dissipate into silence, we are not left in mourning, but looking forward, the future unknown but a future nonetheless. –Zack Ruskin

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    DanDeaconGlissRifferCVR240015. Dan Deacon – Gliss Riffer

    Dan Deacon’s album openers are usually thematic apéritifs for the sonic buffet that’s about to follow. The zany Spiderman of the Rings started with a chuckling Woody Woodpecker laugh while Bromst built up a lot of dense voices into a very small area. But now, with polished and maturated opener “Feel the Lightning”, Deacon demonstrates that Gliss Riffer is ready to pick up where LCD Soundsystem left off. The album’s title was partially inspired by the musical notation glissando, which represents a glide from one pitch to another. This makes sense, as the record shifts, bends, and rips apart during “Mind on Fire” and “When I Was Done Dying” before quilting itself back together into a marvelous pocket protector symphony. The title is also a call back to Deacon’s music conservatory days, where he first learned how to shred sheet music in order to confront his own anxieties about art. This cathartic deconstruction continues on to great effect across the frenetic pace of “Sheathed Wings”, the surprisingly atmospheric loops of “Meme Generator”, and the worldly vibe of “Take It to the Max”, proving that Deacon will continue on making plenty of noise. –Dan Pfleegor

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    Circuit des Yeux - In Plain Speech new album14. Circuit Des Yeux – In Plain Speech

    To say that an artist “finds their voice” on a particularly outbreaking exhibition might sound like a passive compliment, too polite and unspecific to hang a hat on, but in the case of In Plain Speech, Haley Fohr’s best work as Circuit Des Yeux, it’s true on levels. Yes, Fohr has an incomparable singing voice that can hit a seismic vibrato or an immobilizing saturation, and yes, she’s been focusing on it for years. But it’s the way that In Plain Speech manages to eschew obvious sonic and structural templates and still sound totally deliberate with every step that reveals a detectable voice, and not just a vocal prowess, within Fohr. Long, temperate passages that explore the limits of strings suggest wheel-spinning, up until Fohr calmly uncorks a devastating lyric time and again to reassure that she’s taking us somewhere — we’ll know where when we get there. Indeed, In Plain Speech is anything but. –Steven Arroyo

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    Protomartyr-agent-intellect13. Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect

    The Agent Intellect explodes on impact. Spiny post-punk opener “The Devil in his Youth” finds vocalist Joe Casey venting in strained, muted moments, revealing the many shades of gray that make up utter anguish. Exorcising his demons, near frantic to elude the Reaper, he sings about a suburban boy’s cushy upbringing that loses ground over time. While Intellect draws its title from a philosophical idea about how our souls grasp the concept of immortality, it actually surveys a landscape littered with the agency of everyday life. For all of its melancholy, the Detroit foursome sing about consuming loss with big-grin rebounds of “I Forgive You” and “Pontiac 87”, because self-restoration is always a good excuse to flip that middle finger and start dancing. “There’s no use being sad about it/ What’s the point of crying about it?” It’s a sneering approval of the Forrest Gump-style clichés that people resort to at times. It’s clear the only way Casey can move on is by pulling pain from the depths of his internal puddle, face it heart first, and reflect. Drawing on the death of his father, and his mother’s Alzheimer’s, “Why Does It Shake?” tackles the illness, while the love song “Ellen”, told from the perspective of his father to his mother, eschews one major facet of Protomartyr’s genius — the brilliance beneath the punk-roar. Befriending mortality makes you feel more alive. –Lior Phillips

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    TORRES-sprinter-1500x150012. Torres – Sprinter

    Mackenzie Scott begins her second album as Torres in a fury and ends it in a deep melancholy. From “Strange Hellos” to “The Exchange”, Sprinter dives into the extremes inherent in burning away your past and coming into your own present — to finding a place to house the ashes of the person you used to be. Deeply informed by Scott’s Christian upbringing in Macon, Georgia, Sprinter neither disparages nor unilaterally embraces faith. Torres seeks out the paradoxes and contradictions in her own life as both an earnest follower of Christ and a young musician trying to speak truth to her struggles. She renders the upheavals between who she was and who she is with a newfound intensity, wailing over grunge guitars on “Sprinter” or musing on loneliness on “Ferris Wheel”. From old enemies to objects of unrequited love, Scott holds everything in her gaze with deep compassion. She learns to feel compassion for herself, too. Finding yourself is an empty pursuit unless you can accept what you find, and on Sprinter, Torres extends an offering of peace to herself and everyone she sees. –Sasha Geffen

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    Father John Misty11. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

    Love is equal parts connecting with an individual and overcoming your personal hangups, and no one has captured those dueling aspects of 21st century romance better than Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty. Self-deprecating and caustically amusing, I Love You, Honeybear confronts modern American amour with an almost ironic irony; on the astounding “The Ideal Husband”, Tillman lists out his flaws over frantic instrumentals, only to ask for his paramour’s hand at the end. His barbs aren’t reserved just for courtship, either, as finding your place in love runs parallel to understanding your place in the world. On the instantly iconic “Bored in the USA” and the postmodern “We Didn’t Start the Fire” of “Holy Shit”, Tillman deconstructs his surroundings with the sort of despondent satire Millennials only strive for. But he can also be incredibly tender, as on the title track and the achingly sweet “Chateau Lobby 4 (in C for Two Virgins)” (there may be no more passionate verse written all year than the final bridge of the latter). Witty and articulate while staying compositionally miles ahead of any indie folk rock album of the year, this could easily become Father John Misty’s masterpiece. –Ben Kaye

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    Vince Staples - Summertime '06 album10. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06

    “Life is the important part. This isn’t the important part. The music will never matter without life. So life is the important part,” Vince Staples told NPR in an interview promoting his absolute stunner of a debut album, Summertime ’06. In an Instagram post depicting the album’s cover, he listed those he had lost, starting in the year of the title, the year he turned 13. These, he notes, are just some of the names. There are too many to count.

    This is the world he reproduces in his songs, one that can be taken away at a moment’s notice. While so much art runs on a warm wave of nostalgia, Summertime ’06 gets sucked under in its tides, reminded constantly of the numerous tragedies in Staples’ rearview, some much nearer than others, the line seemingly unending. But he’s watching the road ahead too, taking on recurring issues of racism, the prison complex, and, occasionally, brief glimpses of hope for a world of peace, love, and sunshine.

    Few artists deliver double albums this wholly formed, this coolly confident, this emotionally resonant, let alone as debuts. But Vince Staples does just that, taking an incredibly powerful step into the spotlight. –Adam Kivel

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    The Most Lamentable Tragedy new album09. Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy

    It begins with a discordant sunrise; there’s a 12-note chord glowing with ambition coupled with deeply found disillusionment and frustration. From there, the 93-minute epic that is Titus Andronicus’ striking The Most Lamentable Tragedy grabs listeners by ear and heart alike, as Patrick Stickles and co. guide them through the cathartic and manic journey of Our Hero, the main character of 2015’s most remarkable rock opera. Contained within is a story of immense inner struggle and outward sexual vexation that feels both very personal to Stickles and refreshingly welcoming to those coming to terms with adulthood in 2015.

    In our interview with Stickles, the singer-songwriter acknowledges his wish to be understood as an artist, and it’s with The Most Lamentable Tragedy that he succeeds. Through the album’s weaved-in allegory that spotlights his own manic depression, Stickles openly invites listeners to examine his struggles as well as their own in a truly Shakespearean effort to involve both artist and audience alike in a communal process to achieve both self-realization and self-acceptance.

    With every listen and subsequent analyzation, The Most Lamentable Tragedy storms with new loves and deep-rooted troubles. Once passed, the trick isn’t unearthing yourself from the debris to search for something better, it’s situating yourself with all the remaining pieces, old and new, with the knowledge that while more struggles lie ahead, you’ll be able to handle them a little better each time.

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    Titus Andronicus Forever. –Sean Barry

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    Sleater Kinney Sub Pop Reunion

    08. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love

    There’s a script for reunion albums. They bring you back to the good old days, or if you weren’t alive for a band’s peak, they draw you into a back catalog you might never have otherwise explored. Sleater-Kinney was only on hiatus for a decade, but their return kicked off the year in rock with a triumphant crash. No one saw this coming — not even them.

    No Cities to Love exhibits a tuned-up version of the Sleater-Kinney that called it quits after The Woods in 2005. The album’s production is brighter, crisper, a little more refined, though it all only serves to show off how unhinged Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein can get on the frets, how raw they can make their voices when pressed. The record, in a way, is about settling down — about realizing your limitations as a musician and as a person, and making peace with them — but it flows with as much adrenaline as it would if Sleater-Kinney were actually bent on world domination.

    Tucker and Brownstein, along with Janet Weiss, have always written songs about each other, but No Cities to Love plays like a love letter to the band as a community in itself, as well as all the communities it’s inspired around it. It’s worldly but never cynical, and it knows that there’s no one tougher than the person who’s learned how to stick with her friends for the long haul. There’s no new wave, no music revolution on the horizon; there’s just the people you love and how well you’re able to love them.  –Sasha Geffen

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    D'Angelo Black Messiah

    07. D’Angelo & The Vanguard – Black Messiah

    Prior to last winter, news of D’Angelo’s long-awaited third album felt like nothing more than rumors. That changed in December on a dime when D’Angelo returned with his first album in 14 years, the masterful Black Messiah. The album was initially slated to come out in early 2015, but D’Angelo decided he had to make a statement while watching the grand jury refusing to indict the officer who shot Michael Brown. “The only way I do speak out is through music,” D’Angelo said in a statement.

    Black Messiah came out weeks later and served as the protest album America needed at the time. The record was remarkably current, with songs like “The Charade” and “1000 Deaths” speaking out on the current state of race in this country, but also timeless, as the soulful funk of “Prayer” or “Betray My Heart” could have come from any decade in the past half-century. Black Messiah was a triumphant record, with songs like “Really Love” or “Ain’t That Easy” marking some of the heights of the reclusive legend’s career. Given the deaths of Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray, not much has changed in the past year.

    Sadly, the themes on Black Messiah will always be relevant, and a year later, the record already feels like a classic that has been a part of the cultural landscape for much, much longer. Few records are worth a 14-year wait, but Black Messiah was something special, a work that could only come from the circumstances of its time yet exists outside of it by being familiar, refreshing, and essential. –David Sackllah

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    The xx - Jamie xx - solo new album06. Jamie xx – In Colour

    What does the inside of Jamie Smith’s (aka Jamie xx’s) mind look like? What part of his psyche guided him to connect one disparate sound to another, creating the glorious, seamless patchwork that is In Colour? No other album this year was both so strangely comforting and brilliantly original, from the hushed, intimate “Loud Places” (featuring Romy Croft, his bandmate from The xx) to euphoric bangers like “The Rest Is Noise” to the steel drum waltz of “Obvs”. Is this dance music? Sure. But to put it in a box that narrow feels like an injustice, because this is music for any variety of verbs. This is music to laugh to, to run or walk to, to drive to, to be alone to or with someone else. Its utility is endless.

    Thanks to contributions and samples from dancehall vocalists to jazz drummers and everything in between, In Colour is also an album that can be hard for music purists to listen to without the Wikipedia page open. However, this is the only way in which its content is esoteric — you don’t need to know that the sample in “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” is from a 1971 song by The Persuasions to be able to love it. Smith’s musical instincts on display in this record prove themselves to be almost 100 percent flawless, and In Colour succeeds in being both cultured and populist.

    In Colour is indisputably a technical marvel, but it’s also an album to love and cherish and revisit, an album that is difficult to tire of no matter how many times you spin it. Amid a swirl of industrial-grade bass, the kind you feel down to your bones, vocal tracks and samples that can sometimes be elegant and other times border on the comical, In Colour is like a layered confection, each level sweeter than the last. –Katherine Flynn

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