We heard it again and again in 2015: This year in music is so good that any attempt to make sense of it is going to be a fool’s errand. And it’s true. We always agonize over our year-end lists, but we agonized harder over this one than we usually do. There are albums that at least a few members of your Stereogum staff absolutely loved that aren’t represented on this list. There are albums that once felt like all-time classics that are buried in the lists’s second half. So it goes. We are living through a great time for music — for music from just about every possible cultural strata — and it’s a full-time job just to keep up with all of it. That means plenty of great music is going to go unrecognized. It also means our list is straight-up top-to-bottom gold.
If there’s a lesson from 2015’s top 50 albums, it’s this: You can never be too famous to push yourself. There are plenty of relative unknowns in the group — DIY home-recording auteurs, underground extreme-metal blood-churners, edge-of-noise experimenters. But especially in the upper reaches of this year’s list, you will find plenty of people who were already famous when 2015 began. None of them found their way onto this list by making the same sorts of music they’ve always made. All of them found new ways to tinker with their voices, to make them even more powerful.
In our countdown you’ll find rap stars who got weird and intense and expressive. You’ll find pop stars who retooled their sounds for maximum effectiveness. And you’ll find indie stars who took apart what they were already doing and put it back together in strange and different ways. All of them took risks, and all of those risks paid off.
In a rare-for-us twist, the Stereogum team who put together this year’s list is almost the exact same as the one who put together last year’s: Me, Scott Lapatine, Michael Nelson, Chris DeVille, Gabriela Tully Claymore, James Rettig, and Ryan Leas. The only addition is Peter Helman, the site’s intrepid new staff writer. So even though this year’s list looks nothing like that of last year, it’s not because of staff turmoil. It’s because of musical turmoil. It’s because 2015 looks like no other year in musical history. Let’s celebrate it. –Tom Breihan
50 Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness (Domino)
Julia Holter’s experimentalist pop symphonies have always been gorgeous, but in the past, even the catchiest of her compositions had a tendency to float off into airy abstraction. Have You In My Wilderness, on the other hand, has an immediacy to it, tethering her to reality in a way that feels liberating instead of constricting. There’s no conceptual framework, no Greek tragedies or MGM musicals, just Holter and her own idiosyncratic vision, that shapeshifting voice pushed to the front of the mix where it belongs. As she cries on “Sea Calls Me Home,” “It’s lucidity! So clear!” It’s exhilarating. —Peter
49 Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden Of Delete (Warp)
All of Daniel Lopatin’s music sounds like someone tossed the entire internet into a blender. But on Garden Of Delete, it doesn’t liquefy all the way, and the leftover pieces are jagged, bringing a new heaviness into his hypnotic synth-drone smoothies. In the tangle of apocrypha surrounding the album, Lopatin says that it’s a collaboration with an alien going through puberty, and there’s something of that in the way these tracks veer off into ugliness like an adolescent voice-crack. But this is no immature work; this is an artist in complete command of his craft. In the Garden Of Delete, Daniel Lopatin is G.O.D. —Peter
48 Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m goin down… (Matador)
After the primary colors and stoner dad contentment of 2013’s Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze, it seemed we were in for a different kind of Kurt Vile from now on: older, happier, family man. Then you get an album called b’lieve i’m goin down…, and it kicks off with an existential spiral of the I-don’t-recognize-myself variety, the stunning “Pretty Pimpin.” In moody, drifting songs like “That’s Life, Tho (Almost Hate To Say)” or “Wild Imagination,” Vile’s back to evoking the overcast Coal Country days of his home state Pennsylvania. It might be a smaller work, but it suits him better. Vile always works best in greyscale. —Ryan
47 Beach House – Depression Cherry (Sub Pop)
The narrative surrounding Depression Cherry isn’t particularly interesting, just a very good band making another very good album. But to dismiss it as “just another Beach House album” would be a disservice to what it really is: a paring back of the sweeping grandeur to reveal the bittersweet humanity underneath. On first listen, it sounds surprisingly small. But that’s also its greatest strength — instead of pulling you into an expansive universe of sound, it meets you on your level, makes room for your emotions. Bloom made me feel like I was flying, but Depression Cherry offers me a hand up. —Peter
46 Sorority Noise – Joy, Departed (Topshelf)
There are many inspiring moments on Joy, Departed, the kinds of isolated flickers of genius that most triumphant rock music is made of: fiery guitar squalls, drum fills that hit like avalanches, roaring swells of bombast, and especially Cameron Boucher’s clever, heart-wrecking turns of phrase. These details are so plentiful and so frequent that it’s possible to appreciate the album on a micro level, as a series of nonstop thrills, without ever zooming out. But the big picture, an honest portrait of pressing through addiction and depression, is worth meditating on long after the endorphin rush is gone. —Chris
45 Viet Cong – Viet Cong (Jagjaguwar)
The Artists Formerly Known As Viet Cong make post-punk for the 21st century. Not the slick, too-cool-for-school version of early ’00s NYC, but the stuff born of crumbling post-industrial landscapes throughout North America. Viet Cong is claustrophobic music, corroded and corrosive simultaneously, pounding through clattering layers of guitars and drums that sound like old machinery moving in fits. In “March Of Progress,” “Silhouettes,” and “Death,” chiming guitar arpeggios and retro synths cut through the wreckage, like little weapons of precision built to lacerate 21st century overload. They’re the little glimmers of hope on a bleak album, visions of the future amidst the wasteland. —Ryan
44 Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer (Carpark)
Most were first introduced to Speedy Ortiz and Sadie Dupuis’ tongue-tied lyricism by way of 2013’s Major Arcana, a noisy rock album that honed in on heartbreak. Foil Deer is a worthy follow-up, but not because it showcases similar anxieties. This is an empowered collection of songs that take the total bummers of 21st century existence and pose solutions, all while investigating a dextrous new sonic landscape that the band can call their own. The instrumentation on Foil Deer is calculated and playful, reasserting that Speedy is one of the best young rock bands in the game — if not the best. —Gabriela
43 Chris Stapleton – Traveller (Mercury Nashville)
Chris Stapleton spent a long time as a cog in Nashville’s country-music machine, writing hits for people like Kenny Chesney and George Strait. Now, after duetting with Justin Timberlake and winning an armful of trophies at this fall’s CMA Awards, he’s the toast of the town. To get there, he had to link up with Sturgill Simpson/Jamey Johnson producer Dave Cobb and make a gale-force Southern-rock album that challenges every piece of conventional Nashville wisdom. On Traveller, Stapleton is hard and craggy and intense, his voice huge and ancient and elemental. It’s rare to hear someone put out an old-school outlaw-country album this confident and fully-formed, and it’s even more rare to watch that album take over the world. —Tom
42 Deerhunter – Fading Frontier (4AD)
Last year, Bradford Cox got hit by a car, and he came out of the resulting depression with his gentlest, most comfortable collection of songs yet. Fading Frontier isn’t a happy album, exactly — there’s still anxiety and uncertainty and a nagging preoccupation with the looming specter of mortality. But those are all essential parts of human existence, and it seems that Cox has made peace with them. That maturity could translate to a lack of urgency, and Fading Frontier doesn’t feel like a statement on the level of something like Monomania. But when you’ve got songs this good, who cares? —Peter
41 Girlpool – Before The World Was Big (Wichita)
The world is fucking huge! That realization usually hits us sometime in our teens, and we start to come to terms with the fact that we’ll never get to go everywhere we want to go or do everything we want to do. It’s such an old way of thinking when we’re so young — setting ourselves up for disappointment before anything even happens — but it’s a thing that we humans do, and Girlpool’s debut often feels like yearning for a life that’s too short. The duo is out there seeing the world now, but this album was mostly written before any of that seemed like a possibility. They sound both impossibly young and already weary. That’s a bad place to be, but it’s our natural state. —James