The 50 Best Albums Of 2015 So Far

Michaela Schuett

The 50 Best Albums Of 2015 So Far

Michaela Schuett

The amount of great music in the past six months has been almost unfair. As in: How are we supposed to process all this? How can we fully appreciate one major piece of work when there’s always another one coming right around the corner. And when the huge, fully-formed masterpieces are dropping from the sky with no notice whatsoever, is it even safe to tear our faces away from the internet for a day or two? These are good problems to have.

Thus far, 2015 has been stuffed with major artists setting their sights terrifyingly high and then somehow hitting their targets. There have been disappointments, for sure, but they’ve been few and far between. More often, people are trying out insanely ambitious ideas and pulling them off. Kendrick Lamar pulled from spoken-word and abstract jazz to make an opus about what it’s like to be black in America in 2015. It worked. Bjork turned to experimental electronic music to help her cope with the open wound of her divorce. It worked. Chance The Rapper subsumed his talents into a full-band soul-gospel-jazz odyssey about being in love with life. It worked. Sufjan Stevens stripped back all his orchestral indulgences and tried making a devastatingly direct record about family and loss. It worked. Everything worked.

Amidst the avalanche of bigger releases, though, there was plenty going on on the margins: Great indie-pop from Colleen Green and Hop Along and Yowler, great extreme metal from Tribulation and Elder and Leviathan, great folk-rock from the Staves and the Weather Station and Johanna Warren, great partied-out rap music from Rae Sremmurd and Action Bronson and Young Thug. If slick pop music was your thing, Drake and Mark Ronson and Brandon Flowers did their respective things as well as anyone could’ve hoped. If loud, clangy guitars suited your mood better, Screaming Females and Viet Cong and Speedy Ortiz had you covered. Even the reunion albums held up; Sleater-Kinney and Blur’s new albums hold their own in hall-of-fame catalogs.

Any new full-length album released or announced for release between 1/1/15 to 6/30/15 was eligible for this list, and there was so much great stuff that it’ll take us at least until the end of the year to properly appreciate all of it. The next six months have a whole lot to live up to.


The Mountain Goats - Beat The Champ (Merge)

Those of us who love professional wrestling love it because wrestlers are the closest things we'll ever see to real-life superheroes. (Some of us love rap music for the same reason.) For a young John Darnielle, wrestling represented escape from a tough home life. And with this album, he crawls into the head of the wrestlers he watched and a few who came after, digging into the question of what that escape means, and what prices those wrestlers paid to help others escape. It's an album made with great dignity, about a profession presumed to have none. --Tom



Sorority Noise - Joy, Departed (Topshelf Records)

Making a meme out of depression is the shittiest thing my generation has done so far. When you're not sure whether to fave or reach out to help when someone says that they want to die, we have a problem. But there's nothing funny about Joy, Departed, even though its often sunny-sounding exterior may say otherwise. Frontman Cameron Boucher uses the album as a bloodletting to confront his demons -- struggles with addiction, depression, alienation, and love -- but he comes out the other end as a more positive, stronger person, and Joy, Departed encourages us to look inside ourselves and do the same. --James



Downtown Boys - Full Communism

Some music just has to come out or else it'll gnaw away at your insides. Full Communism is that kind of music, a primal and vital 25-minute onslaught of politically-charged punk. There's no handwringing here -- whether through Downtown Boys or side gig Malportado Kids, Victoria Ruiz and co. are interested in dismantling systemic oppression brick by messy brick, and they take no detours in doing so. "She's brown, she's smart," and she's not going to take any more shit. --James



Purity Ring - Another Eternity (4AD)

While Purity Ring took their time crafting Another Eternity, the rest of the world caught up to the magic they captured on Shrines, so you'll have to forgive the record for sounding a little old hat. But Megan James and Corin Roddick still do their body-bending electronic/R&B melt the best. They are at their most mystifying during the quieter moments -- like the closing one-two cosmic twinkle of "Sea Castle" and "Stillness In Woe" -- but the more expansive jams hit hard, even if the blueprint is a bit familiar. And, in this case, familiarity isn't a bad thing. --James



Leviathan - Scar Sighted (Profound Lore)

In 2011, Jef Whitehead -- aka Wrest, the man behind the long-running black metal project Leviathan -- was arrested, facing a litany of sexual-assault charges and life behind bars. Ultimately, the great majority of those charges were dropped; he was found not guilty on all but one, and sentenced to two years probation. With the worst chapter of his life behind him, Whitehead moved from Chicago to Oregon, sobered up, and fell in love with fellow musician/tattoo artist Stevie Floyd. And in that environment, he made the confident, warm Scar Sighted. Wrest's music still feels vast and labyrinthine, discordant and gnarly, but here it's robust -- wondrous, even. It doesn't merely submerge you in darkness; it illuminates the cavern's every detail, its depth, its dimensions. And once inside, you can see: This thing is enormous. --Michael



Brandon Flowers - The Desired Effect (Island/Virgin EMI)

Pairing with of-the-moment pop/indie production wizard Ariel Rechtshaid has served Brandon Flowers well: Before the initial singles, nobody would've expected the Killers' frontman's second solo offering to have any business being this good. Flowers has actually called every song on The Desired Effect a single, and while he might be overstating that a bit considering the album's slower-burn second half, for once his customary self-aggrandizement is well-deserved. "Can't Deny My Love," "I Can Change," "I Still Want You," and "Lonely Town" are all driven by monstrous hooks, and they stay infectious after a ton of listens. --Ryan



Johanna Warren - nūmūn (Team Love)

Johanna Warren traverses emotional boundaries more graciously than most, and her latest offering, nūmūn, teeters on the edge of darkness and light more deftly than dusk. It's all at once sad, triumphant, confident, and fearful, with lyrical bits of advice and pieces of wisdom ladled out in generous portions. Warren plays shrewd, but any careful parsing of her lyricism reveals her to be just as anxious as any other twenty-something trying to figure their shit out. Even so, you don’t really need to listen to a word she says on this record if you don’t want to; her cadences and masterful guitar work alone are alluring enough to shatter your inhibitions. --Gabriela



Mew - +- (Play It Again Sam)

At the risk of trivializing Mew's gorgeous new album, the songs on +- remind me of iPhones: Underneath the sleek, glimmering exterior, they're unimaginably complex -- musical supercomputers built to transmit the human experience. Except we all know handheld devices are actually destroying our human connection, whereas this impeccable Danish prog-pop inspires me to spread my arms wide and shoots electricity into my heart. It's the kind of technological advancement even a Luddite could love. --Chris



Young Thug - Barter 6

For the past few years, Young Thug has been one of music's great agents of disruption and instinctive chaos, a streak that extends to this album's fight-picking title. But Barter 6 isn't the electric-yelp riot that we might've expected. Instead, it's a deep-funk mood piece, the sound of a deeply talented rapper crawling into his own head and finding a new groove. What makes Thug matter isn't what he says or what he wears. It's the things he does with his voice: the counterintuitive melodies, the surprise pitch-changes, the alien syntax. And in that respect, Barter 6 is a master class. --Tom



Pile - You're Better Than This (Exploding In Sound)

"Rock and roll with the customer in mind," says a tape-worn voice towards the end of Pile's latest opus. "#2 Hit Single" declares one song -- not a hopeful declaration, just an extension of a song on a previous album. For a band that seems so fixated on the commodification of rock, they make no moves to fit in with the rest of the pack. Instead, they're about five miles ahead of it, tongues lolling about in their mouths: "But I'll never be Elvis/ Just one big, moist pile of garbage." --James



Earl Sweatshirt - I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside (Columbia)

On I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, Earl spits revelations like his mouth is overflowing. Sometimes these thoughts sound like dribble, other times they're sharply worded and angry. But all of Earl's upsets look inward on this new record, his prose arranged in stream-of-consciousness circuitry. It's here that we learn how not-OK Earl is, how fame and subsequent depression has made him bitter and self-depreciating, "mind in the trash next to where my fuckin' passion went." The intense privacy of these roundabout thoughts is what makes I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside so stirring, as if Earl's looking out as his intruding fans and asking, "What are you even doing here, anyway?" --Gabriela



The Weather Station - Loyalty (Paradise of Bachelors)

Tamara Lindeman makes calm music about tempestuous things. Loyalty, her third album as the Weather Station, is a collection of skeletal folk songs that render tiny miseries into tender comforts. We are drawn to voices not only for how they sound but for what they tell us. On Loyalty, Lindeman's voice is a coo, a solace, a caress; in soothing tones it tells of aching. Wry and compassionate, it points toward healing -- guitar and voice, reducing the world to its most relevant parts. --Caitlin



My Morning Jacket - The Waterfall (Capital/ATO)

There have only been two My Morning Jacket records since 2005's Z, but, yes, The Waterfall is the band's best album in a decade. It's also quite possibly MMJ's densest record to date. As they've gotten older and sharper as a unit, they're set on reaching the heavens in less time and less reverb. Waterfall tracks like "Spring (Among The Living)," "Like A River," and "Tropics (Erase Traces)" are compact epics with rapidly shifting moods and sections, the pillars on an album that's equal parts moodily psychedelic and satisfyingly direct, representing the best of what MMJ has to offer in-studio or onstage alike. --Ryan



Speedy Ortiz - Foil Deer (Carpark)

Speedy Ortiz are some of the best technical players in the game right now, and they use Foil Deer to show off their impressive chops. The word "angular" has been beaten to death to describe them since they were mourning their own death, but it's an apt one. The interlocking mechanisms pile on top of each other like a Jenga tower that's ready to topple but never does. Deft, complicated, and uncompromising -- three words that could be used to describe their melodies or Sadie Dupuis' sharp, MFA-bred lyrics, which confront life with brutal honesty and wit. --James



Rae Sremmurd - Sremm Life

Fuck contemplative rap, Rae Sremmurd wanted nothing more than to make a banger of a debut, and they succeeded in unbeatable ways. SremmLife is a party album, but it works because it's a really weird party album. The Brothers Sremm make shit rhyme that you didn't even know could rhyme over Mike WiLL-produced beats, they turn Donald Trump into a winking hook, and they barely enunciate any of these clever moments, because why bother? SremmLife is just trying to make you feel some type of way. --Gabriela



Faith Healer - Cosmic Troubles (Mint)

Jessica Jalbert's astral, deadpan psychedelia is the best Lou Reed tribute you'll ever hear. Instead of stripping the Velvet Underground for parts, Jalbert latches onto the weird renderings of tiny details that made that band iconic and coats them in her own reverb, coppery harmonies, and blown-out guitars. That'd be a reason unto itself to listen to Cosmic Troubles, but factor in her incisive, sardonic songwriting and the appeal increases exponentially. Here's an uncharted universe of wry, golden fuzz-pop replete with barbed phrases, eyerolls and towering analogue dreaminess. Somewhere out there in the cosmos, Lou is humming along. --Caitlin



Ryley Walker - Primrose Green (Dead Oceans)

Ryley Walker's Primrose Green is the guitarist's second LP in less than a year, and he's already gotten way better. Last year's All Kinds Of You was a good meditative folk record. Primrose Green has that, too, but it also has highlights like "Summer Dress" and "Love Can Be Cruel," songs that incorporate jazz and psychedelia, unfolding into strange and exhilarating passages. It has roots in the British jazz-folk of the '70s, but in 2015 it feels like it's born from some other place entirely, or at least from Walker's custom cocktail for which the album's titled: whiskey with morning glory seeds. --Ryan



Action Bronson - Mr. Wonderful (Atlantic/Vice)

In which rap's leading Falstaffian punchline machine learns how to stop making freestyles and start making songs. Bronson's talent has always been a chaotic, unstable thing, but now he's managed to pound it into verse-and-chorus structure without losing its singular goofiness. Sometimes, that means making dazed bangers like the Chance The Rapper collab "Baby Blue" or the Noah "40" Shebib-produced "Actin Crazy," and that's awesome. Sometimes, that means singing like a wooly '70s psych-funk growler. And you know what? That's awesome, too. It doesn't hurt that the punchlines keep coming; "I'm in the Humvee, looking like a young me" might be the year's finest. --Tom



Yowler - The Offer (Double Double Whammy)

Maryn Jones elicits chills in the context of All Dogs' clangorous pop-punk and Saintseneca's newfangled folk, but Yowler presents her purest essence: voice, guitar, and atmospheric swirls of noise that descend just when the heart starts to race. The Offer is an eerily intimate singer-songwriter record, one that almost feels like spying on someone else's private moment of beauty. It transfers a trembling K Records sensibility to a Midwest metropolis that only feels haunted when you're alone at night -- or "alone in the bathroom, filled with love for fluorescent light." --Chris



A$AP Rocky - At.Long.Last.A$AP. (A$AP Worldwide/Pologrounds Music/RCA Records)

Though it might not be as thematically harrowing or galvanizing as To Pimp A Butterfly, At.Long.Last.A$AP is another of the year's anticipated rap sequels that, on the surface, doesn't give us what we expected or wanted and winds up being all the more impressive for it. Rocky's music has always been druggy, but where Long.Live.A$AP had a kind of luxe, fashion-world nightclub decadence to it, its successor is frayed and loopy, meandering down all sorts of hallucinogenic rabbitholes. For a minute there, Rocky made the songs for the moment when the night peaks, but he might be even better at the stuff for the ragged comedown, the walks home during a bleary sunrise. --Ryan



Blur - The Magic Whip (Parlophone)

Don't call it a comeback. Why? Because that shit is reductive -- it forces you to engage with The Magic Whip on compromised terms; it suggests lower stakes. The Magic Whip doesn't need any simplified context to make it a great record. It is a great record, period. It's a joyous, melancholy, vibrant, urgent thing. It's as fastidiously detailed as Parklife, as raw and intimate as 13, as exploratory and expansive Think Tank ... but it doesn't ask you to get those references to get it. The Magic Whip feels like a gift, maybe even a miracle, and it's not just worthy of Blur's estimable legacy, it's very much a part of that legacy. Hell, it elevates that legacy. It's not a comeback at all; it's another classic. --Michael



Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress (Constellation)

Patient grandeur has always been this shadowy post-rock collective's thing: Long, creeping builds to long, explosive climaxes. This time around, they're not making us wait. Asunder, Sweet kicks off with an elephantine guitar-groove and keeps piling on the heavy shit. It's not that they've abandoned dynamics; the whole middle stretch of their new album works as one long ambient piece. But on this album, they've stripped away many of their distancing techniques -- the crackling samples, the radio-static hiss -- and given in to sounding like a rock band. And while every Godspeed album is great, it's extra-great to have one that could possibly incite headbanging. --Tom



Eskimeaux - OK (Double Double Whammy)

There's a heart at the middle of Eskimeaux's new record that refuses to stop beating. From the momentous swells of "The Thunder Answered Back" to the quiet contemplation of its closing track, Gabrielle Smith paints a clear picture: You need to be OK with not being OK. You need to accept that your emotions are legitimate -- sometimes they're beautiful, and sometimes they're very, very not, but they are real. OK acts like a salve for an open wound. It acknowledges that it's scary to be alone, and encourages you to find strength in the tremendous warmth of friendship. --James



Miguel - Wildheart (RCA)

Think of WILDHEART as Black Messiah fighting Voodoo's crusade. In Miguel's contribution to the recent avalanche of funk-soul-jazz-rock odysseys from America's black music braintrust, the bedroom is the battlefield. Feral fuzz guitars and blunt metaphors roam the fried sonic landscape, Miguel's miraculous voice piercing the noise with more than enough grace to sell (a) direct references to the San Fernando Valley's infamous porn industry (b) orgasms described as atom bombs (c) pop music's umpteenth sex-as-religion analogy (d) all of the above. Whereas Kaleidoscope Dream perfected a dark, sleek, seductive sound all Miguel's own, WILDHEART pushes that sound until it frays at the seams, mirroring the freaky adventurous streak he's always howling about. --Chris


Bjork - Vulnicura (One Little Indian)

Björk doesn’t sing, she emotes. The turbulence of a lifetime fits inside her every vowel, the particular way she rolls her Rs releasing that emotionalism and allowing it to sink inside you. In turn, Björk’s sorrows become our own, and Vulnicura is like an unrelenting onslaught of sobs made digestible by Arca’s inimitable production flourishes. We can contextualize this record and pick out every allusion to Matthew Barney, to family wreckage and despair, but in the end, Vulnicura is a straight-up soul-crushing achievement because it's an experiment in empathy. It makes you feel things -- big, initially unfamiliar, things. --Gabriela



Viet Cong - Viet Cong (Jagjaguwar/Flemish Eye)

It’s clichéd to say that a post-punk band sounds “thunderous,” but there isn’t a more apt descriptor for Viet Cong’s debut full-length. The reverberating drums that inaugurate “Newspaper Spoons” continue throughout, the twang of a 12-string guitar slicing into the torrent like carefully aimed bolts of lightning. But that guitar work lends this record a certain sense of optimism not easily found amidst other bands of their typified genre leaning, and there are certain parts – like the breakdown of “March Of Progress” – that sound straight-up psychedelic. This is a tense record, but all of its unease is pulled taught by Viet Cong’s meticulously-ordered, audacious arrangements. They envelop you. --Gabriela



Screaming Females - Rose Mountain (Don Giovanni)

Screaming Females were so good at being unhinged no-frills basement-punk shit-rippers that it's amazing to hear how good they are at other things, too. On Rose Mountain, their scrappiness is intact, but they're after bigger things: Riffs and grooves and hooks so big that they demand to be blasted from open windows of 1975 Camaros, catharsis too vast for a basement to contain. This is the moment they stop being one of our great punk bands and become, instead, one of our great rock bands. After all, how many working bands can write choruses like these? --Tom



Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass (Spacebomb)

Oh, that first hiccuped startle is all any of us really needed to descend, tongue-tied, into the sad-eyed dreamworld of Natalie Prass. Each track on her self-titled debut unfolds from the center of her marvelous, trembling-lip voice into the fullness of Spacebomb's majestic orchestra. It's a lush, humid album that sweats out heartbreak, jealousy, and sulkiness with such irresistible desperation you can't imagine the fever will ever break. Natalie Prass is so full of heady, lagoon-bloom richness you almost forget these songs are about pain at all. Almost. --Caitlin



Fred Thomas - All Are Saved (Polyvinyl)

Fred Thomas’ anecdotal rationalism defies perceived definitions of adulthood. In order to break down all of the reasons why he leaves every situation "invariably feeling dumb," Thomas reverts to adolescent whimsy, reducing crippling insecurities by employing the kind of specific memories that make you stiffen and recall your own when you hear them in the right moment. This is a celebratory album, riddled with rhetorical questions and commandments, gentle reminders that things aren’t always as serious as they may seem. It’s only life, man; accepting its unpredictable fluidity is Thomas’ salvation. It could be yours, too. --Gabriela



Mark Ronson - Uptown Special (Sony)

The indelible single "Uptown Funk" might still be Uptown Special's deserved calling card, but it also belies the strength of the album overall. Ronson's fourth solo outing, it's also his most cohesive and strongest. "Uptown Funk" is a relative stylistic outlier; that and the Mystikal collab "Feel Right" are the funkiest tracks amongst a strange blend of coked-out late '70s yacht-rock and psychedelia-tinged soul. For the record, "Daffodils," featuring Tame Impala's Kevin Parker, is almost as earworm-y as "Uptown Funk." But the whole album is a giddy, ultra-confident party, complete with the blissed-out comedown at the end. --Ryan



Chris Stapleton - Traveller (Mercury Nashville)

Chris Stapleton's debut album Traveller blazes and smokes like a campfire, billowing tall flames one minute and smoldering coals the next. Stapleton is country to the bone -- a Kentucky songwriter with a bluegrass pedigree -- and he makes no radio plays here, opting instead to remold country waltzes and simmer through brooding outlaw instincts. For all its crackling rebellion, though, the real draw in Traveller is the way it illuminates the country genre for what it really is, and more importantly, what it could be. --Caitlin



Elder - Lore (Stickman)

Elder came to this world as a Conan-themed(!) stoner-doom band, but they've outgrown and transcended all their old self-imposed limitations. Their third LP offers five Odyssean epics filled with aching melodies, monumental riffs, and dazzling guitar leads -- and Elder have brought all those elements into such sharp focus that their collective impact is heightened tenfold. Lore isn't hazy or monolithic; it's crystal clear, impeccably crafted, and not just impressive but thrilling. The most undeniable element here is frontman Nick DiSalvo's guitar work, which seems at times superhuman. But the whole is still greater than the sum of its parts: Lore is something to behold, something to be awed by, an apex. --Michael



The Staves - If I Was (Nonesuch/Atlantic)

Some albums demand gushing, so here goes: Once I got past thinking of the Staveley-Taylor sisters as Justin Vernon's pet project or the English folk-rock Haim and immersed myself in If I Was, I scoffed at past-me for ever seeing them as anything but the Staves, one of the greatest bands in the universe. These 12 elegies for a failed romance are brutally honest and unimaginably beautiful. And if those adjectives don't sell you, what if I told you the album actually does sound like a cross between Haim and Bon Iver, and it's as good as any release by either of those acts? It does, and it is. --Chris



Tobias Jesso Jr. - Goon (True Panther)

People love to break out the '70s singer-songwriter distinction to connote something that is rare in this millennium: gentleness. Tobias Jesso Jr.'s debut album Goon is absolutely drenched in that slight, sweet tenderness, a paean to the wide-eyed existential terrors that seem to plague only artists and sleepless children. Maybe that's because the rest of us are too numb or fearful to confront those aches head-on. Lucky for us, Jesso is possessed of the particular kind of bravery that emerges when you've got nothing left to lose. He hurts out loud all over this album, contorting honeyed piano-pop into miniature tragedies. Don't forget, gentleness isn't weakness; it's power restrained. --Caitlin



Hop Along - Painted Shut (Saddle Creek)

It’s impossible to write about Hop Along without fawning over Frances Quinlan's voice. The universe fits inside its range, turbulent lyrical refrains expelled by her sweet-and-sour rasp. But Quinlan isn’t the only star on Painted Shut, a record that boasts the kind of spare instrumental intricacies that impress without pretension. Nothing about it is simple except for her straightforward mouthfuls of vitriol and remorse. Painted Shut is a rage-fueled attempt at resuscitation, startling listeners out of the realm of unfeeling and reminding them that anger is always justified when it’s righteous. --Gabriela



Girlpool - Before The World Was Big (Wichita)

Sometimes, growing up feels like walking backwards, moving toward a new sense of self while consciously looking back on your upbringing to remind yourself where you came from. The young women of Girlpool illustrate this predicament especially well; their debut album is poignant without sounding saccharine, all naivety stripped and laid bare when they ask bottomless questions like: "Do you feel restless when you realize you’re alive?" Before The World Was Big is an exemplary chronicle of what it feels like to recognize this sense of inadequacy, embracing the awkward moments of adolescence that bruise and batter your self-esteem before the scabs heal over well into adulthood. --Gabriela



Drake - If You're Reading This It's Too Late (Cash Money)

Toronto's resident rap-god shrugged off Take Care's moody emotionalism and Nothing Was The Same's luxe, druggy wooze to pump out If You're Reading This It's Too Late like a careless shotgun shell. Even when he casually drops a mixtape just to toy with our feelings, Drake is all gossamer steel excellence. This is not that Drake from four years ago, no. This is a detached but still vulnerable kingpin who surveys his mounting fame with a quizzical eye. Assuming the mantle of success he's always expected, Drake is left to grapple with perfection's inevitable companion -- loneliness. And if Views From The 6 can stare that phantom down, he'll truly be a legend. --Caitlin



Tribulation - Children Of The Night (Century Media Records)

Purism in metal tends to produce more bands aping greatness than the genuine article, but on their fourth LP, Sweden's Tribulation have delivered one for the ages. The Children Of The Night contains 10 songs and comes in at some 57 minutes, and there's not a wasted second. Every song has a hook (or several) that might be the best hook I've heard this year. Every song has an Olympian guitar lead. The progressions throughout are totally unexpected and always satisfying. It often reminds me of Metallica's 1986 monument Master Of Puppets, partly because of its construction, ambitions, melodies, and force. But also like Master, The Children Of The Night feels like the product of a confident band in complete control of their estimable powers. --Michael



Vince Staples - Summertime '06 (Def Jam)

“In gang culture, the summer is when people start dying.” That’s what Vince Staples said about the title of his debut full-length, and so, Summertime ‘06 commences with the harmonious noise of seagulls and lapping waves before a gun shot paralyzes the sounds of typified American leisure. This double album is as big of a statement as a debut can be, as much an homage to Staples’ hometown as it is a critique of inequity. Long Beach natives sling dope before turning around to ask why the fuck they should have to, and repurposed chants of “Hands up, don’t shoot” echo when Staples wonders, "Do doves cry when a black man die?" Staples was 13 during that formative summer of '06, and now he's a 21-year-old rapper poised for greatness. But it's blistering this time of year where he comes from, and there’s still no shade to shelter. --Gabriela



Sleater-Kinney - No Cities To Love (Sub Pop)

First off, the mere existence of this thing is cause for celebration: One of the greatest rock bands of the past 20 years springs upon the world the news that they're back together after nearly a decade and, oh yeah, they've got a new album loaded up and ready to go. And even if No Cities isn't the best Sleater-Kinney album, a ridiculous thing to ask for, it's still Sleater-Kinney back together and sounding like a band again, bouncing spring-loaded riffs and soaring harmonies off of each other. And that's still better than almost everything else. --Tom



Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop)

Courtney Barnett's wordy musings are a joy to maneuver through. They zig when you think they should zag, lift up just when you expect them to sag. She's an exemplar of how the oddly specific blossoms into a universal truth, bridging the gap of human experience. "Don't ask me what I really need/ I am just a reflection of what you want to see." Barnett invites us to take parts of her piecemeal -- the parts of her we need -- because she knows as well as anyone that it's impossible to deal with the whole of someone. Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit is catchy when it wants to be, but mostly it's concerned with navigating the tricky patterns of human behavior. Perpetually doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result -- insanity or just a fact of life? --James



Jim O'Rourke - Simple Songs (Drag City)

Even with Jim O'Rourke's background in jazz and post-rock, naming his first pop album in 14 years Simple Songs comes off as sardonic as his lyrics. Standouts "Friends With Benefits," "Half Life Crisis," "Last Year," and "All Your Love" are all one part wildly adept singer-songwriter exercises, one part intricate puzzles set to unravel and burst into passages that are, yeah, transcendent. There's a precise lived-in quality throughout -- suggested sprawl and raggedness, all meticulously arranged. The end result is just about a perfect album, and something we didn't necessarily think we'd receive: one more transmission from O'Rourke's twisted, alternate history visions of classic rock. --Ryan



Waxahatchee - Ivy Tripp (Merge)

Home-recorded DIY punk rock does not have to sound like aural dogshit. Case in point: Katie Crutchfield and a couple of friends rented a house in Long Island, played around with the acoustics in different rooms, and knocked out a handful of songs about longing and frustration. They walked away with a huge, gleaming song-cycle, a towering heap of melodies and feelings. And if they can make something they did on their own sound this amazing, why can't the rest of us? --Tom



Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop/Bella Union)

On paper, I Love You, Honeybear is a nightmare: Suave yet cripplingly self-aware bearded bohemian millennial falls madly in love, grapples at length with becoming a different kind of walking cliché, and tops it off with an on-the-nose takedown of the American Dream. But what some listeners might register as smug self-indulgence strikes me as one of 2015's realest and rawest dissertations. Josh Tillman's misanthropy is far-reaching; he's an equal-opportunity roaster, sparing no target including himself. His lyrical eviscerations are on-point and often laugh-out-loud funny, and they're couched in throwback lounge-lizard arrangements far too pretty to be retro kitsch. Plus he sweetens the deal with some truly romantic declarations of love. This album is every bit as smart and beautiful as Tillman believes it is. --Chris



Shamir - Ratchet (XL)

It's almost like Shamir was born to do this -- "I wanted a guitar before I wanted a bike," he admits coyly. It's as if someone preordained him to become an acolyte for millions of kids who feel like they're never going to find a place where they'll fit in. He mines the sound of the diva era and, in the process, becomes a diva figure himself. Ratchet is a celebration of queerness and individuality, a encouragement to say "fuck you" to society's rigid structure and just be yourself. Even when he's at his darkest and even when he's battling his inner demon, this album is happy to be alive. --James



Jamie xx - In Colour (Young Turks)

In Colour isn't a dance album. It's an album made from a sense of nostalgia for the rave era, a time that Jamie xx was too young to experience. Jamie's gift isn't for pirate-radio hardcore; it's for sparse, pretty bass-music architecture. And here, he turns party music into something sad and fond and warm and reflective. Jamie's xx bandmates show up with stars in their eyes, finding peace in chaos. And then Young Thug and Popcaan show up to bless the album's one honest-to-god pop song, pulling us out of our heads and onto the floor. --Tom



Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - Surf

Chance The Rapper abandoned rap, the coolest genre du jour, for the deeply uncool alternative: an experimental jazz collective of which he's merely another voice. Surf set its sights higher than cool; it preaches a footwork gospel of self-love that just might fuck around and convert you into someone who likes themselves. Chance is the album's pastor, conducting the spiritual flow, refocusing and refining his congregation's worship, allowing an ever-flowing improvisation. Surf is a wave that should by all rights fold back into the sea, but his pop sensibilities thrust it forward, accumulating glorious, monstrous force until there's no shore in sight. --Caitlin



Colleen Green - I Want To Grow Up (Hardly Art)

On one of 2013's greatest albums, Ezra Koenig posited, "Wisdom's a gift, but you'd trade it for youth/ 'Age is an honor' -- it's still not the truth." On one of 2015's best, Colleen Green responds, "I'm tired of having no control/ I've had my fun/ I want to be old." After years of self-destructive decisions, she wouldn't mind some of that maturity that allegedly comes with decades. And over the course of this small-scale movie-as-album, she finds some.

Lots of artists write vividly about their neuroses, but few besides Green make insecurity and antisocial behavior seem so charming. On I Want To Grow Up, the L.A. fuzz-rocker matches almost comically straightforward musings about her deepest anxieties with smart melodies and industrial grade post-Weezer studio sludge via JEFF The Brotherhood's Jake Orrall. While navigating her competing fears of daily human interaction and dying alone, Green cops to dependence on her loser ex-boyfriend, television, drugs, booze -- everything but herself, basically -- before landing on an epiphany: "I can do whatever I want." From the towering overture of the title track to the revealing lows of "Deeper Than Love," the album proves Green is indeed getting better with age. --Chris



Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly (Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath Entertainment)

To Pimp A Butterfly dropped in the midst of one of the most pivotal times in this country’s history. The album is, at its heart, a detailed rendering of the black experience in America as told through a painfully personal lens. It’s an intimidating work to summarize, but the premise in brief can be interpreted as follows: Kendrick Lamar reaches insurmountable levels of fame and realizes that this country isn’t changing fast enough for him to comfortably fit into his new roles as a big-money rapper/role-model/celebrity/artist/activist. TPAB’s narrative interludes are conveyed with the kind of urgency that sounds claustrophobic, because historically, Lamar can’t squeeze himself between prescribed boundaries of what famous people should act like, look like, and most importantly: speak up about. He knows how to spin contemporary issues into personal narratives with a story-arch worthy of fiction, but while Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City had its celebratory conclusion, TPAB's loose threads of improvisation and samples that repeat like mantras leave us hanging. None of the societal struggles that Lamar wrestles with throughout have been laid to rest. There are dozens of appropriated moments that surface like ghosts throughout this record to reflect a conflict greater than his own self-reckoning, but a nod to The Color Purple in the "Alright" intro is especially climactic: "Alls my life I has to fight, nigga." With that, Lamar reminds himself that his "deep depression" is justified – because not all of us have to. --Gabriela



Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)

Before the year was even two weeks old, we were greeted with the wonderful, welcome news that Sufjan Stevens had an album on the way, a return to his "folk roots." It was about time! After a run of three classics in three years -- 2003's Michigan, 2004's Seven Swans, and 2005's Illinois -- Stevens wandered around the wilderness for a decade, reporting back only with sporadic esoterica: The BQE; The Age Of Adz; Sisyphus. It was easy to imagine we'd lost him forever. But no! Here we found ourselves in the early hours of 2015, joyous, because Sufjan Stevens was coming home.

When Carrie & Lowell arrived, though, we realized it wasn't a return to anything. Like so many soldiers, convicts, and mystics, Stevens had been irretrievably altered in his time away. The guy who made Illinois was gone. On that record, Stevens occasionally tackled subjects such as substance abuse and mental illness and mortality (all three in the same song on "John Wayne Gacy"), but he did so with the postmodern distance and stylistic excess of a Don DeLillo novel. On Carrie & Lowell, Stevens is directly singing about his own mother's drug addiction, her schizophrenia, her death from stomach cancer. He's singing about his own terror and sadness and loss -- his own childhood, his own grief. There's no glockenspiel, no grand concept; there's little more than a finger-picked acoustic guitar and a whispering, quivering voice. And that voice doesn't just sound haunted; it sounds like a fucking ghost. Listening to Carrie & Lowell on headphones, alone, it doesn't feel like Stevens is singing to you; it feels like he's singing inside you.

It's a discomfiting experience. Stevens' most obvious musical touchstone here is Elliott Smith -- another damaged person who wrestled with demons his whole life -- but Carrie & Lowell is somehow even more devastating than any of Smith's records. That's partly because Stevens' soft voice is so prominent in the mix. Elliott Smith buried his vocals in layers, tangled them in knots; you can listen to an Elliott Smith record and just get lost in the loveliness of the sound if you don't want to think about the ferocious pain conveyed in the words. Carrie & Lowell refuses you that option: You get trapped in the loveliness of the sound, and then, you get annihilated.

But Carrie & Lowell isn't a morbid record. Like Stephanie Wittels' magnificent eulogy for her brother, Harris, or the best moments of Sun Kil Moon's Benji, it is meditative, honest, and open. It claws at the world. It fights back at the darkness. It rips you to shreds and moves you to tears, but it's not asking you to dwell on death -- it is forcing you to experience life. And when I immerse myself in Carrie & Lowell, I'm engaging with every single verse, but here, now, I will engage only with this one, which closes "Eugene":

"What's left is only bittersweet/ For the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me/ Now I'm drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away/ What's the point of singing songs/ If they'll never even hear you?"

Carrie & Lowell captures a life full of bittersweetness -- several lives, really. And in the music, all those voices, the living and the dead, are reflected, amplified, abundant. I disagree with the artist on this point, though: The best is not behind Sufjan Stevens. He has never been better than this, never really even been close. He can push the world away and walk off into the woods if he wants -- he's done it before, and we can't force him to stay here with us -- but he's got to know this much: If we never even heard him when he was singing his old songs, that's partly because he made it so hard for us to hear him. He was hidden behind arch exercises or smudged to the point of disintegration in vague imagery. Not anymore. Carrie & Lowell forces us to hear everything, to feel everything. What's the point of singing songs? Sufjan, man, you need them. We need them. We hear them. We hear you. --Michael


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