10 Deafheaven – New Bermuda (ANTI-)
Were Deafheaven openly courting metal traditionalists with New Bermuda, after alienating so many of them with 2013’s Sunbather? Maybe they were. The high percentage of thrash/speed/death riffs on display here certainly suggests a band attempting to prove its mettle (or, um, metal). But Deafheaven employ those sounds in wholly unfamiliar contexts, resulting in an experience that is at once disorienting and thrilling. I hedged at first, but with the benefit of a few months’ hindsight, I’m comfortable saying New Bermuda is a better album than Sunbather — a verdict substantiated by the band’s recent live shows, at which the old songs sounded ever-so-slightly two-dimensional in contrast to the sensory-overloading new ones. Like metal’s best-ever albums — from Master Of Reality to Appetite For Destruction to Blackwater Park to Marrow Of The Spirit — New Bermuda embraces the genre’s primary elements while expanding beyond them as though they were merely dollops of paint on a palette rather than lines in which to color. New Bermuda is not paying tribute to anyone, not seeking any particular approval. It is a distinct, decisive, masterful work of art. It doesn’t exist to be admired, however; it exists to elevate you, to astonish you, to envelop you. For Deafheaven, New Bermuda is a triumph. For you, though, New Bermuda is a gift. —Michael
09 Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs (Drag City)
On one hand, Simple Songs is one of 2015’s most classicist records. But Jim O’Rourke has spent two decades as one of indie’s most mercurial fringe characters, and this is an outsider’s interpretation of the classic rock canon. At first it comes off with the warmth and intimacy of ’70s singer-songwriter tradition, but with subtle influence from his jazz and experimental work and impeccable performances by a group of musicians from his adopted hometown of Tokyo, Simple Songs is a pristinely tangled eight song collection that continues to yield revelations in its minor ruptures months later. This isn’t the kind of album that dominates the year in terms of conversation or narrative, but it’s a small-scale masterpiece rich enough to sustain us if O’Rourke waits another 14 years to release a new pop album. —Ryan
08 Colleen Green – I Want To Grow Up (Hardly Art)
For a generation that has their attention being pulled in 10 different directions at once, I Want To Grow Up may very well serve as our guiding light to confronting our stunted emotions, learning how to focus on what matters, and coming out on the other side all grown up. Colleen Green’s mind clicks at a hyperactive pace; whether she’s combing through knotty intimacy issues on “Deeper Than Love” or celebrating the use of “TV” as an emotional sedative, she’s funny and insecure and occasionally depressing, but always wholly understandable. I Want To Grow Up is comfort food, knowing that there’s someone out there grappling with all these feelings that sometimes sound too hollow to address head-on: It’s OK to be in your head all the time, but it’s probably not the healthiest option. But, also, do whatever you want. It’s your life. —James
07 Hop Along – Painted Shut (Saddle Creek)
Every discussion of Hop Along begins with Frances Quinlan’s voice. It’s a force of nature, yes, but it’s also human, often painfully so, and she uses it to relate stories of humanity in all its rawness and imperfection, its ugliness and its grace. The band match her thorny intensity with knife-sharp guitars and rhythms, see-sawing from sweetness to noise, building to moments of musical and emotional catharsis that detonate with the force of a land-mine. So much of Painted Shut is about feeling small, feeling weak, letting people down and being let down, but Hop Along turn that into something explosive and strong and beautiful and triumphant. Powerlessness has never sounded so powerful. —Peter
06 Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop/Marathon Artists/Milk!)
Here’s something crazy to consider: This magnificently confident collection of head-buzz riffs and pointed observations is Barnett’s debut album. She’s been with us for a few years, and 2013’s The Double EP worked like an album, but this is the first time she’s headed into the studio to make a full-length statement. If you’ve heard “Avant Gardener,” you won’t be surprised at how smart and funny it is, but you might be surprised at how hard it rocks, all this intelligence compressed into raggedly tuneful power-pop that would kick your ass even if you didn’t speak English. She’s already at the top of her game — This Year’s Model-era Elvis Costello reappearing in the form of a badass Australian stoner lady with a better record collection than anyone you know. I can’t wait to hear what she does next. —Tom
05 Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
Carrie & Lowell was touted as a back-to-basics album due to its acoustic inclinations, but really it’s unlike anything else in Sufjan Stevens’ catalog: singleminded in sound and substance, its hope overpowered by despair, its narrator’s previous flights of fancy not just grounded but gone splat. Stevens’ reckoning with his estranged mother’s death is a work of gorgeous simplicity, as if his only respite from emotional turmoil was to craft something streamlined and detail-perfect. It sounds like the calm, but it feels like the storm. —Chris
04 Vince Staples – Summertime ’06 (ARTium/Def Jam)
“Youth was stolen from my city that Summer and I’m left alone to tell the story,” Staples wrote in a post featuring the recontextualized Joy Division artwork that marks his debut. “This might not make sense, but that’s because none of it does. We’re stuck. Love tore us all apart.” Summertime ’06 is an ambitious double album that paints Staples’ Long Beach upbringing in bleak terms; its relatively short length in comparison to other double albums only highlights how young he still is. It’s the portrait of a community, one that’s built on an untenable, perpetuating cycle of violence and pain. Staples makes it clear that he’s only one voice of many, but he forgoes the tendency to pack a rap debut with guests, instead creating a singular, often claustrophobic vision whose most notable feature is an uncredited Future sample. He inhabits sharply realized characters from his hometown, slipping in between them seamlessly, and puts himself and his world up to the microscope: “Will your name hold weight when the curtains close?” he asks on “Señorita.” Because of ’06, Staples’ surely will. —James
03 Carly Rae Jepsen – E•MO•TION (604/School Boy/Interscope)
E•MO•TION initiates with a saxophone trill, a call-to-arms before Carly Rae Jepsen sets the mood with a commandment: “Take me to the feeling!” This isn’t really an album about being in love so much as it is about feeling like you could be in love if that other person would just release their inhibitions and give in to you. And when the chase is over and your heart is broken into billions of tiny, reflective pieces, E•MO•TION has the defiant post-breakup bangers to put you back together again. Jepsen doesn’t achieve this through lyrics alone; this is an album built on blown-out, titanic production that hearkens back to pop songs of the past, and it repurposes long-since retired motifs for this millennium. The horns (“Run Away With Me”), the slap bass (“When I Needed You”), the sultry, cascading synth lines (“All That”). On E•MO•TION, these sounds coalesce to create something all at once familiar and totally new. Like when you catch yourself falling in love all over again, but it feels like it’s for the first time. —Gabriela
02 Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly (Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath/Interscope)
A lot going on here: The consensus Best Rapper Alive faced the pressure of equaling or surpassing his instant-classic debut album, backing up the monumental boasts of the most talked-about verse in recent memory, staying true to his God/his people/his heroes/himself amidst fame and fortune’s endless barrage of devilish temptations, and, oh, delivering a profound creative statement on behalf of black America just as a horrifying series of events boiled over into a modern Civil Rights movement. Kendrick Lamar answered that chaos with more chaos.
You cannot put this album in a bow tie. Whereas good kid, m.A.A.d. city, with its familiar redemption arc, was billed as “a short film by Kendrick Lamar,” the labyrinthine To Pimp A Butterfly reminded us that the world is much bigger than a cinema screen and life is much messier than a movie. A knot of neuroses writ large by a cast of musical luminaries, it sounded like a crate of old jazz, soul, funk, rock, and hip-hop records subjected to the forces that left Kendrick screaming in a hotel room and then splattered across the full length of a compact disc. Loving it was complicated. —Chris
01 Grimes – Art Angels (4AD/Eerie Organization)
Contrary to the prevailing notions, the philosophical antithesis of poptimism is not rockism, but auteurism. Even our most celebrated border-defying visionaries — from Kanye West to Taylor Swift to Beck — employ departments of collaborators, contractors, specialists, and secret weapons. In that respect, Art Angels is the opposite of a pop album: Claire Boucher didn’t delegate or commission anything here; she outsourced a couple of key features (Aristophanes on “SCREAM”; Janelle Monáe on “Venus Fly”), but wrote, composed, performed, recorded, produced, and engineered everything else herself. That is not, in and of itself, some inherent virtue. We’ve got more than enough isolated GarageBand mechanics generating infinite universes of myopic, monotonous music. Art Angels is not myopic or monotonous — it’s spacious as a stadium; as polished as a Porsche on the showroom floor. It feels alien at points, but it doesn’t seek to alienate anyone: Even at its most combative, it’s asking you to fight alongside it, not against it.
In that respect, Art Angels is very much a pop album. And it kinda sounds like pop music, too! But pop music doesn’t sound like this. Art Angels leaves me scrambling for comparisons, and returning not with E•MO•TION or 1989, but Yeezus and Nevermind. Closer still: Art Angels reminds me of Garbage’s self-titled debut album — a genre-agnostic postmodern blur of dance music, shoegaze, new wave, industrial, alt-rock, trip-hop, and whatever the hell else was at hand — with Boucher playing the roles of both Shirley Manson and Butch Vig. Garbage was seen as something of a sweet but insubstantial confection upon its release, but that album turned 20 this year, and its anniversary was justly celebrated — not so much because it eventually signaled some alternative direction for popular music, but because it was (and remains) defiantly singular: the product of strong personalities, creative individuals, and technical wizards blending previously incompatible sounds into an unexpected, immediate, wholly other new one. It rejected definition and reached listeners just the same — and over the course of two decades (and counting), it stayed with many of those listeners, and found lots more, too.
Of course, Art Angels is both weirder and more urgent today than Garbage was in 1995. It’s better, too. And if you don’t think it’ll be here 20 years from now, you’re wrong. By then, it’ll be seen as a blueprint, early evidence of a new paradigm: experimentalism as populism; processed synthetic sound as raw human emotion; studio-genius auteur as universal pop star; singular as plural; future as present. In 2035, Art Angels will sound just as good as it did in 2015. And in 2015, nothing sounded better than Art Angels. —Michael