Our Favorite Albums of 2015
by Andrew Sacher, Bill Pearis & Amanda Hatfield
photo: Kendrick Lamar at Day For Night 2015 (more by Tim Griffin)
Every year is a good year for new music, but 2015 felt like the best one in a while. It was an especially great year for major label rap, after 2014 was an especially slow one, but it was good for plenty more than that too: folk, post-punk, indie pop, noise, art pop, punk, etc. We only have one metal album on our list, but there's a lot more where that came from at our metal sister site Invisible Oranges, who posted individual writer lists over the past few weeks. 2015 birthed excellent newcomers, and gave us crucial returns from artists who have been doing it for decades. This year, BrooklynVegan crowned a #1 pick for album of the year with the rest of our top 50 listed alphabetically. Some of the records have songs you couldn't leave your house without hearing, and others flew pretty under the radar, but we truly love each one.
Read our top 50 below...
#1. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
It's been a fantastic year for music, but there isn't another record that's simultaneously as singular, enjoyable, culturally significant, and musically groundbreaking as Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly. I'm of the opinion that rap is the only genre of music with any real reach right now that's progressing as rapidly as rock was in the '60s and '70s. With that logic, if My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is our Sgt. Pepper's (because, come on), then To Pimp A Butterfly is our Dark Side of the Moon. TPAB is less instantly satisfying and less of a game-changer than MBDTF; instead it's a deep concept album with layers of intricate instrumentation that takes several listens to unravel. And both will probably be vying with each other on G.O.A.T. lists until the end of time.
Still, as fun and easy as that comparison is to make, it does do TPAB a disservice. The comparison is not just admittedly rockist, but Kendrick also ties together several ends of the music and performance art worlds in ways that a band like Pink Floyd wasn't interested in. He samples James Brown and The Isley Brothers, and even gets Ronald Isley to show up on the record. The equally legendary George Clinton shows up too, on a track produced by nu-jazz/IDM mastermind Flying Lotus. Mentors like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg are here, as is soul singer Bilal, whose work on Common's Electric Circus makes him a natural for genre-crossing rap albums like this. It's more than who he samples and features though. A lot of rap is inspired by soul, funk and jazz, but Kendrick's band takes on those sounds with the same potency as their influences. You can file some parts right next to Coltrane's A Love Supreme but others next to Edwin Starr's "War." And it all still sounds modern. On top of these ever-changing backdrops, Kendrick brings like five different voices and even more different flows. He's indebted to beat poetry and spoken word as much as he is to classic rap, but mostly he's just sounding like himself. The way he shifted from singing to rapping on good kid, m.A.A.d city gained him a few Andre 3000 comparisons, but on TPAB he almost never sounds like other rappers.
Speaking of other rappers, one of my favorite theories that I read this year was Stereogum's Tom Breihan writing, "Kendrick knows Drake could never, ever make a record like this, and maybe that helped drive him to make it." Watching Kendrick and Drake's subtle war continue to play out was the most exciting thing in music for me this year, and if that theory has any truth to it, it's the biggest shot Kendrick ever took. He poked fun at Drake on Dr. Dre's album (a fantastic album that I still can't believe exists, and one that works very well as a companion piece to TPAB), but this hits harder. Even if TPAB wasn't intentionally suggesting "there's no way you could make this," you just know that Drake knows it's true. Drake was the biggest rapper of the year, but Kendrick pushed music forward in a way that Drake (or anyone else this year) did not. "Hotline Bling" was (probably) the biggest rap song of the year, but "Alright" was a unifying cultural anthem at a time when we really needed one. To have those feats achieved on the same record is an incredibly rare thing. - A.S.
Listen to it on Spotify.
The rest of our Top 50 LPs of 2015 are listed alphabetically below...
Amason - Sky City (Ingrid)
Made up of members of Miike Snow, Dungen and Little Majorette, Swedish band Amason make smart, sophisticated pop, that draws from the FM soft-rock '70s. (Whether that's FM the radio bandwidth or initials of a certain group, both are applicable here.) There are a lot of artists that, on paper, are doing the same thing, but Amason never let songs go in obvious, bland directions. Smooth, in this case, is not a bad word at all. - B.P.
Listen to it via Spotify
Julien Baker - Sprained Ankle (6131 Records)
Julien Baker's debut album tackles depression, addiction, and death in a singer-songwriter style that owes little to folkier incarnations of the genre, while not quite fitting in with the other releases on punk label 6131 Records, either. There's minimal backing besides clean electric guitar for Baker's voice to hide behind, sounding raw, urgent, and vulnerable as she discloses truths that seem almost too personal to share. It all comes to a climax in "Rejoice," with Baker considering solace and redemption in the possibility of a higher power. That tiny bit of hope in Baker's repeated declaration of "I rejoice" to close out the song adds further poignancy to the darkness surrounding it. - A.H.
Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop)
There's been no lack of real-deal guitar rock from bold songwriters this year, but none seem like they're on their way to actual fame as much as Courtney Barnett. It's not impossible to see why. She can turn a phrase like few others, working clever wordplay, deadpan wit, and offbeat observations into the same song. If you've seen her live you know Courtney and her band are ready-made stars, and it's only more impressive that she slams away on that guitar without a pick. This record's pretty varied too. It's got the full-on ragers like "Pedestrian At Best," one of the best songs of its kind this year, but she has about as many calm songs as rockin' ones. There's the stoned afternoon vibes of "An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)," the tranquil-sounding "Depreston," and the folky "Boxing Day Blues." Elsewhere she dives into '60s garage-psych ("Debbie Downer") and Crazy Horse-esque jams ("Kim's Caravan"). There's a hell of a lot going on and it's all impressive, especially for what's technically a debut album. - A.S.
Beach Slang - The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us (Polyvinyl)
One of the most unlikely success stories of late, Beach Slang were formed last year by James Alex Snyder of long-running but never exactly revered pop punk band Weston. They put out a four-song EP of Jawbreaker and Replacements worship on their friend Mike's label, and played a few basement shows. One year, one more EP, and about a trillion shows later, they've got a debut album on Polyvinyl, they're selling out headlining gigs, and they've got a great case to be made for them as the most life-affirming rock band around. That album, the perfectly-named The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us, expands on their sound just a bit without losing any of their power. There's a little more atmosphere, a little more embellishment, and an acoustic song with strings thrown right in the middle. But the biggest punch on this album is what James is saying. It's an album for people who heal sadness with rock and roll, who never really fit in but never wanted to anyway, who want to live every night like it's their last. People like to talk about guitar rock being over, but a certain type of music fan will always connect most to fist-raising punk and heartstring-tugging words. For that person, there is Beach Slang. - A.S.
Björk - Vulnicura (One Little Indian)
New York was treated to an unprecedented amount of access to Björk this year: a string of theater shows, a festival appearance, and a retrospective at MoMA in addition to the release of her most obviously personal album yet. Vulnicura details a timeline of the months before, during, and after Björk's breakup with Matthew Barney, with a level of intimacy that feels almost voyueristic. This starkly emotional content plays alongside a dense symphony of electronics, beats, and aching strings. It's a very worthy addition to Björk's incredible library of work. - A.H.
The Chills - Silver Bullets (Fire)
Kiwi pop icon Martin Phillipps returns with his first Chills album in nearly 20 years, which manages to not just be good for a comeback but also one of the best albums he's ever made. (Certainly the best Chills album since 1990's Submarine Bells, the band's crowning achievement.) Using an all-new version of the band, it is nonetheless a Chills record through and through with Phillipps' minor chord melodies, soaring choruses, and lyrics full of wonder and humanity, all in full view. - B.P.
Cold Beat - Into the Air (Crime on the Moon)
With Grass Widow on the backburner, Hannah Lew has been focusing on Cold Beat -- a group that is less obtuse and armed with more snarl. Cold Beat's second album, Into the Air, is a killer mix of post-punk influences, from early '80s scratchy UK indiepop to minimal wave synth and more aggressive guitar blasts. Lew's ethereal vocals and way with melody really tie everything together -- plus every song's a potential single. - B.P.
Martin Courtney - Many Moons (Domino)
For his first solo album, the Real Estate frontman doesn't stray to far from the bucolic, jangly guitar pop of his day job. Not a bad thing at all in this case, as Many Moons is one of 2015's most easily enjoyable albums. Jarvis Taveniere's production makes no wrong moves, with warm strings and keyboards giving things a different, if still pastoral, feel. - B.P.
Deafheaven - New Bermuda (ANTI-)
It's hard to think of what to say about this album that I haven't said already, but it's truly the best metal album of the year. I thought Sunbather was great, but was pretty alone in my opinion that a few other heavy albums topped it, but nothing in that realm came close to New Bermuda for me this year. No longer just building walls of sound, Deafheaven now have exciting guitar leads, pillowy soft passages, and it's their first album where each song is distinctly different from any other. It's an album that brings together the wildly different styles of black metal, thrash, metalcore, screamo, post-rock, classic rock and indie rock into something that's somehow cohesive and never fits too nicely under one of those individual umbrellas. If you like even two of those things, it's hard to imagine finding nothing to like here. - A.S.
Deerhunter - Fading Frontier
Deerhunter's 2010 album Halcyon Digest is still one of the very best rock albums of this current decade, so each followup has had pretty big shoes to fill. Their last, 2013's Monomania, was a trip into raw glammy garage rock and it was good but didn't quite suit them as well as the lush, psych-ish pop of Halcyon. Fading Frontier, however, gets right back to where Halcyon left off. It's their shortest album since their debut, but they really made sure each individual song was a heavy hitter. "All The Same" is the rocker, "Living My Life" is the sunny pop song, "Breaker" is the could-be hit single, the list goes on. In recent interviews and these lyrics, Bradford Cox seems happier than ever. Happiness doesn't always translate to good songwriting, but here it's led to some of Deerhunter's most instantly-satisfying songs. - A.S.
Desaparecidos - Payola (Epitaph)
It's clearer than ever that Conor Oberst is a music lifer. Dude's been making music that people actively obsess over since the '90s, and even his weaker shit is better than a lot of people's best. That said, recent albums have been on the weaker side, but Desaparecidos' long-awaited followup to their 2002 debut is easily the best and most spirited thing he's done in a decade. He had been veering closer and closer to adult contemporary and wearing blazers and neatly combed hair in his press pics. He must have been dying to scruff it up, throw on a t-shirt, and write punk rock songs you could play at sweaty DIY venues, and that's exactly what he did. Payola is an explicitly political record, and you can hear Conor spitting his anger at the status quo in just about every song. And musically it's basically saying, "fuck it, let's rock." They bash on power chords, whip out thrilling leads, and have a rhythm section who seemingly only know how to play loud. Add in that beefed-up but raw production (courtesy of longtime collaborator Mike Mogis), and it's hard to figure out what more you could want from melodic, anthemic punk rock. - A.S.
Disappears - Irreal (Kranky)
Chicago's mercurial Disappears have yet to make the same album twice, having gone from kraut-punk beginnings into much, much darker territory. Irreal is a stark, bleak mood piece, heavy on rhythm and repetition, and perfect for your next dystopian paranoid nightmare. This is not easy music to ingest but play it loud and Irreal will soon get under your skin. - B.P.
Drake - If You're Reading This It's Too Late (Cash Money)
If this spot could be everything Drake's achieved in 2015 instead of just one album, I'd have done that. If You're Reading This It's Too Late isn't Drake's best album (that's still 2011's Take Care), but it does have his best rapping to date and it's certainly filled with some of his best songs. Really though, it was just one of the many things that made Drake unstoppable this year. His random Soundcloud drop "Hotline Bling" became a late contender for Song of the Summer, he helped boost Future's career with their collaborative album that was only slightly less fantastic than each rapper's individual albums, he didn't just beat Meek Mill in their battle -- he squashed him effortlessly, laughed about it, and picked up a Grammy nom for his diss track (making it the first-ever Grammy-nominated diss track). If you're still saying Drake "can't rap" or that he's "soft," you're on another planet. And like I mentioned in the Kendrick Lamar blurb above, watching his subtle war with Kendrick was the most exciting thing in music for me this year. He took shots at Kendrick on The Game's surprisingly-good The Documentary 2, an album that they're both on. And they were good shots!
But to actually talk about IYRTITL, it's the hardest, most minimal-sounding thing he's ever done. Remove his vocals, and it's an electronic record you could picture Tri Angle Records putting out. Put them back in, and he manages to use those sounds as the basis for one of the year's best selling records. That's quite a triumph for forward-thinking music. Not to mention, this thing was stuffed with potential hits from day one. It came out as a surprise release with no proper single, and in less than 24 hours the first five tracks more or less became the singles by the sheer will of Drake's fan base. Those were some of the more aggressive, boastful tracks, but if you prefer melodic, vulnerable Drake, the album has him doing A+ work in that realm too. The best is probably "You & The 6," a monologue that switches from talking about talking to his mother to actually talking to his mother. And even when he's being vulnerable on it, he can't help but brag a little ("I mean I kill' em every time they do a song with me, momma," he says with a tone like he's actually looking for sympathy). Drake suggests on the first song that he's already secured himself legend status. If that didn't sound convincing back in February when this came out, it's pretty tough to debate now. - A.S.
Earl Sweatshirt - I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside (Columbia/Tan Cressida)
At the beginning of this decade, Odd Future came virtually out of nowhere with riotous live shows, countless free albums, and offensive humor and shock value that made them impossible to ignore, even if you wanted to. Earl wasn't around for all that though (his mom made him go to boarding school), but by the time he was out he had a major label deal and the opportunity to get The Neptunes on his album. As Earl draws out on "Mantra" off this year's amazingly-titled I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside, once the fame did hit he wanted nothing to do with it. This album, which is unlike anything else going on in major label rap right now, is his masterful response. He produced all but one track himself, got just a few minor guest verses, and came out with a dark introverted album that sounds like he was literally up at 3 AM in his bedroom recording it. It's the kind of approach you'd associate with a lonesome folk singer sooner than a major label rapper. It also wastes no time at all. Its 10 tracks are over and done with in under a half hour; no skits, interludes, filler songs, nothing. The only time a guest does kind of steal the show is Vince Staples on the closing track, which is totally deserved since Vince's first notable appearance was on Earl's 2010 tape and he's rap's best breakout of 2015. I didn't hear another album this year that sounded like this, which is never an easy thing to say. - A.S.
Eternal Summers - Gold and Stone (Kanine)
After 2013's rocking The Drop Beneath, Virginia trio Eternal Summers dialed back the distortion for their self-produced Gold and Stone. Taking a more shimmery tack that really suits their melodic sensibilities, and working with a collection of their most memorable songs yet, Gold and Stone is Eternal Summers' best LP to date. - B.P.
FFS - FFS (Domino)
Some sort of sonic Reese's Cup magic happened by combining Sparks and Franz Ferdinand's creative sensibilities for this terrific LP. Just hearing the idea of FFS sounded like a no-brainer, but the results are actually even better: smart and funny with hooks to spare. It also doesn't sound quite like anything either band have done before. (It's easily the best thing Franz Ferdinand have done since their debut album.) From the opening seconds of "Johnny Delusional" it's easy to tell both groups had a blast making this album and that really makes FFS a treat from start to finish. - B.P.
Robert Forster - Songs to Play (Tapete)
The more erudite, arch songwriter in The Go-Betweens, Robert Forster's edges haven't dulled in the seven years since his last solo album. With backing from young Australian band The John Steel Singers and perfectly understated production, Forster delivers typically warm, witty batch of songs. Forster remains one of our great musical treasures. A very welcome return. - B.P.
Foxing - Dealer (Triple Crown)
Foxing initially won me over by being such a towering live band (if you haven't seen them, seriously fix that ASAP), but their second album Dealer went the opposite direction of their shows. It goes into more somber, intimate territory, and it's the best thing they've done yet. The album takes on soaring post-rock, tear-jerking piano ballads, downtempo glitch, melancholic horns and strings, and highly vivid lyrics, all brought together by some of the richest-sounding rock production of the year (courtesy of Minus the Bear/Mastodon producer Matt Bayles). It's an album that stops me in my tracks every time I listen to it, whether it's Conor Murphy's gorgeous falsetto or the weight of the keys on "Winding Cloth" or the sudden moments where the band sound twice as large as they are. There's a certain type of record that comes along every now and then, when an indie band swings for the fences but maintains delicacy and evokes real emotion from the listener. I'm thinking of albums like The Antlers' Hospice and self-titled Bon Iver, and now I'd add Dealer to that list too. - A.S.
Future - DS2 (Epic/Free Bandz)
I have to admit, I was pretty late to jump onto the Future train. I thought his first two albums were fine but mostly run-of-the-mill mainstream rap, and I knew his mixtapes were edgier but they were also less thrilling than the pop songs. He never quite reached the pop heights he was expected to though, and DS2 is a reaction to that. As the line in "I Serve the Base" that almost every review quotes goes, they "tried to make me a pop star and they made a monster." Future very quickly abandoned the big-name producers and guest artists he had been working with after last year's Honest, and put out three mixtapes from the span of October 2014 to March 2015. They had him returning to a gritty sound and working with the producers he connected with most, but with more expertise and more fury. Then he turned that sound (and a few of those tracks) into this third full length, Dirty Sprite 2, named as the sequel to his 2011 mixtape Dirty Sprite. Working mostly with Metro Boomin, Southside and Zaytoven on the dark minimal beats, and having no guests except Drake on one song (a pairing that would become even more unstoppable a few months later), Future made the most uncompromising, anti-commercial, and best album of his career.
My favorite summary of it is Complex writer David Drake calling it "more honest than Honest." It's mostly about drugs (usually including but not limited to codeine), sex, strippers, and various combinations of the three. He doesn't use them as bragging points though, he usually sounds really fucking depressed. When Future reveals the vulgarity of "Groupies," it sounds like he's embarrassed to be telling us about it. On "The Percocet & Stripper Joint" (which, with its psychedelic atmosphere is far and away my favorite song on the record) when he says "I just need a whole lot of drugs in my system," it sounds like he wishes he didn't. There are definitely some problematic lyrics on DS2 and I won't defend them, but I'm not sure Future would either. It's the album where he comes off saying, "yeah it's problematic, but it's my real life." That kind of honesty over truly original music doesn't come around too often, and we should treasure it when it does. - A.S.
Girls Names - Arms Around a Vision (Tough Love)
Girls Names were once, basically, the Irish equivelent of Crystal Stilts but have grown into their own sound. Arms Around a Vision is a big leap for them; still drawing from post-punk influences but they really make it their own here. Equal parts snarl and despair, the LP is also tuneful, with inventive arrangements and a big beating heart. - B.P.
Listen to it via Spotify.
Grimes - Art Angels (4AD)
It basically seemed impossible that Grimes could follow up VIsions with another great album. It's one of the most beloved indie albums in recent memory, and even more so "Oblivion" is one of the most beloved songs. Rather than acting quickly on a followup, Grimes just kept talking about it and talking about it, creating a huge myth surrounding the record before it even existed. But lo and behold, it finally came out this year and it's at least as good as its predecessor. It's not perfect though -- it's a flawed album, but it's gloriously flawed. It has Grimes experimenting with everything from bubblegum pop to industrial rap to freaky cheerleader chants, and that's not even the half of it. She hits a few lows along the way, but the highs are some of the best moments of the year. Those cheerleader chant songs ("Kill V. Maim" and "Venus Fly") are two of the craziest and absolute best Grimes songs to date, and some of the poppier moments ("REALiTI" and "Flesh Without Blood") really deserve to be dominating mainstream radio. That probably won't happen anytime soon unfortunately, but it'd be so badass if some young impressionable kid bought this for those songs and then heard "SCREAM." - A.S.
Grooms - Comb the Feelings Through Your Hair (Western Vinyl)
Having existed in one form or another for the better part of a decade, Grooms head in new territory here, taking things into spacier, kraut-ier space -- while still making room for their distinctive, dissonant guitars. Comb the Feelings Through Your Hair, which was the last album recorded at Death by Audio, also boasts Grooms' most memorable songs yet. - B.P.
HEALTH - Death Magic (Loma Vista)
There's always something great about experimental bands who decide to make a pop album. They're often seasoned songwriters and performers at that point, and they probably learned how to write pop music before they started actively avoiding it, so the skills are already there. Best of all, they can never truly let go of their experimental beginnings, making for music that's endlessly listenable but still weird. That's exactly what HEALTH did on Death Magic, their first album since 2009. It's one of the most fun, addictive synth pop records that's come out this year but it's also filled with the eardrum-crushing noise of their earlier albums. It's gotten its fair share of Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails comparisons, and that's not crazy, but none of those bands ever had vocals like this. HEALTH's delicate, higher-pitched singing keeps them more in line with modern indie rock than '80s/'90s industrial, even if the music often echoes the latter. It's a clash of sounds that we don't hear enough. It's sort of nice that these sounds are existing outside of the pop-indie zeitgeist (so we don't get a thousand horrible knockoffs), but still, we need more records like Death Magic. - A.S.
Holly Herndon - Platform (4AD)
Holly Herndon's Platform isn't without precedent (Laurie Anderson's Big Science comes to mind), but there certainly isn't much like it. It pairs avant-garde electronics with Holly's highly unconventional singing style (that actually includes ASMR on one song), and ends up with something that I'd somehow call catchy. I'm usually a sucker for anyone who can make genuinely weird music sound accessible, and Holly spends this entire album doing just that. Accessible as it is though, it's not welcoming. This album demands your time and attention, and it deserves it. It's the kind of album you need to hear on headphones in the dark, not while you're working or cooking dinner or hanging with friends. Once it does hook you, it becomes an addiction. - A.S.
Julia Holter - Have You In My Wilderness (Domino)
If you found Julia Holter's previous records a little too esoteric, she makes it clear that she'd love to have you in her music wilderness this time out. She's not "gone pop" or anything, but there's a greater emphasis on melody, with absolutely gorgeous arrangements and production. Add to this Holter's dreamlike lyrical imagery and clear voice, and you've got a magical world you'd be foolish not to visit. - B.P.
Hooton Tennis Club - Highest Point in Cliff Town (Heavenly)
Ninetees slacker indie rock is still an influence and few are doing it was well as Liverpool's Hooton Tennis Club. Their debut album, produced by former Coral member Bill Ryder-Jones, falls somewhere between Pavement and The Pastels and has all the earmarks of peak college radio: charmingly shambolic, wonderfully wordy, and jam-packed with hooks. - B.P.
Hop Along - Painted Shut (Saddle Creek)
Three years after releasing the underrated indie rock gem Get Disowned, Hop Along signed to the trusty Saddle Creek and put out their first album as a four-piece with producer/live guitarist Joe Reinhart as an official member. Joe's intricate fretwork adds a new edge to the band, but still Hop Along's appeal lies where it always has: in Frances Quinlan's killer voice. She goes from hushed folk singing to raging rock howls, sometimes on the same line. It's a wild voice with a surprising amount of control for how untamed it is, the kind of voice that only comes along every now and then. Frances' talent isn't just in her delivery though; she's also a masterful storyteller and knows her way around a hook. Add to that a seriously strong backbone, and you've got a rock record for the ages. - A.S.
Hot Chip - Why Make Sense? (Domino)
After stumbling a little following The Warning's much-deserved success, Hot Chip got their spark back with 2012's In Our Heads and even more so on the joyful Why Make Sense? It's a tough balancing act being Hot Chip -- humor, pop panache, dancefloor savvy and soulfulness -- but Alexis Taylor, Joe Goddard and the rest of them are especially present here and make it seem effortless. - B.P.
Majical Cloudz - Are You Alone? (Matador)
Devon Welsh begins "Disappeared," the first track off this year's excellent follow up to 2013's Impersonator,, by singing, "those that forever disappear, all I want is for you to talk to me the way you used to do." My 2015 has been marked by personal losses, and as soon as I heard those lines I knew this would be an album that would hurt to listen to, but that I'd wind up loving. Welsh wears his heart on his sleeve in these songs, which are full of big, sincere sentiments of love and sadness, over a palette of synths provided by producer and live collaborator Matthew Otto. The duo's live shows involve a certain amount of discomfort with Welsh's delivery, which borders on embarrassingly direct. The album functions similarly, but in both, the overall effect manages to be powerful and cathartic. - A.H.
mewithoutYou - Pale Horses (Run For Cover)
The ever-changing mewithoutYou never went away or stopped making good albums, but Pale Horses still felt like a comeback, or at least the beginning of a new life for the band. Their two best albums are 2004's Catch For Us The Foxes and 2006's Brother, Sister, albums that blended art rock and post-hardcore and quickly earned them a devoted following. They followed those with two albums that took a foray into whimsical indie folk, and great as they were, it's nice to see them returning to the CFUTF/Brother, Sister style. This year they signed to an exciting new-ish label (Run For Cover), worked with the great producer many of that label's bands work with (Will Yip), and toured with a crop of younger rock bands whose music fit right in with their own (Foxing, Pianos Become the Teeth, Restorations, etc). It wouldn't be crazy to assume that some of those bands' younger fans were hearing mewithoutYou for the first time, and thankfully Pale Horses is the kind of album that's perfect for newcomers and longtime fans alike. It's a return to their best era, but not an exact replica of it. Aaron Weiss often works in the more delicate singing style he developed on the last two albums, but he also saves plenty of time for his trademark speak-shouting. Over music that switches from hushed atmospheres to arty prog riffs to headbanging climaxes, he sounds compelling as ever. - A.S.
Joanna Newsom - Divers (Drag City)
Talk of how Divers is Joanna Newsom's most accessible album to date sells it short. On surface-level early listens, it may have seemed like the first time where she wasn't actively challenging her listeners, but I'd argue that in certain ways she still is. It's out of step with basically any trends in music, it's not really suited to festivals or radio, and since it's not on streaming services you're forced to actually make some effort to hear it. Maybe that doesn't sound like much, but in our fast-paced and instant-access time, it's pretty startling when an album comes along that slows you down. Joanna pays so much attention to detail, with each song carefully arranged and each lyric sounding like she obsessed over every individual word, that it's no wonder it took her five years to get this out. As much as the highly poetic moments (like the lengthy title track) are a thrill to dig through, the moments that are less clouded in wordplay stand out most against the rest of her discography. When she boldly declares, "Love is not a symptom of time; time is just a symptom of love" or "You will not take my heart alive," they feel like devastating statements from an artist whose initial charm was whimsy. - A.S.
Jessica Pratt - On Your Own Love Again (Drag City)
Ever since the internet's granted us easy access to the forgotten (or never even known) psychedelic folk records of the 1960s and early '70s, there's been an obsession with that sound in today's indie music. Because artists like Sibylle Baier, Mark Fry or Linda Perhacs never had a true moment of success, music like this still feels untied to any specific era. It's great that the indie kids still love Brian Wilson and Joy Division, but Smile won a Grammy and even Disney copied Unknown Pleasures; there's rarely if ever new things to say with those sounds. Jessica Pratt's On Your Own Love Again does sound imported directly from 1970, but it hits as hard as the albums that were actually recorded then. With little more than her acoustic guitar and voice, it's such a bare record that feels more like eavesdropping on her playing in her room than listening to music intended for an audience. Most of the albums that defined 2015 for me were these massive artistic statements, but the whole time I was equally captivated by this one that felt like a tiny artifact from an unspecified past. - A.S.
Listen to "Back, Baby" on Soundcloud.
Protomartyr - The Agent Intellect (Hardly Art)
Last year's Under Color of Official Right is a tough act to follow but Protomartyr remain firing on all cylinders. With a chassis (drummer Alex Leonard, bassist Scott Davidson) as precision as anything their Detroit hometown produced in its prime, The Agent Intellect is a showcase for Greg Ahee's endlessly inventive guitar playing and frontman Joe Casey's cynical, wry lyrical POV. There's no stopping 'em. - B.P.
Sauna Youth - Distractions (Upset the Rhythm)
Much has changed since 1977 but dissatisfaction with the status quo remains a nagging influence on music. Thirty-eight years since Buzzcocks' anthem "Boredom," London's Sauna Youth sound just as alive and angry railing against "Monotony," and declaring "I am nervous, I am anxious, I am nervous, I won't stop" on "Modern Living." Both are on the band's second album, Distractions, which hits the ground running and tears through 14 songs in less than 30 minutes, only slowing down once. - B.P.
Sheer Agony - Masterpiece (Couple Skate)
Montreal's Sheer Agony are students of the classics: The Kinks, dB's and Sloan, making quirky guitar pop that tracks frontman Jackson Macintosh's travails through day jobs, social circles and dating. Their sound is is almost entirely out of step with what is currently going on in the musical zeitgeist which is probably exactly where they want to be. Tongue was surely firmly in cheek when naming their debut album Masterpiece, but in its own way, not miles off either. - B.P.
Sleater-Kinney - No Cities To Love (Sub Pop)
Reunion albums have a higher success rate than they tend to get credit for, but how often does one so naturally pick up where the band that left off that you forget they were gone in the first place? That's what happened with No Cities To Love. Sleater-Kinney were broken up for ten years, but then they banged out this all-hits album and toured the hell out of it without showing even a little interest in being a nostalgia act. Their shows have of course had old songs, but there's as much fervor from the band and excitement from the crowd when they play "Price Tag" and "Bury Our Friends" as there is when they play "Dig Me Out." Punk can be a young person's game, one where it's tough for any band to sound as vital now as they did two decades ago. Sleater-Kinney not only pulled it off, sometimes they sound better than ever. - A.S.
Vince Staples - Summertime '06 (Def Jam)
It's been quite the year for colossal rap albums with a unified vision, and right up there with albums by guys who had been leaving a tremendous mark for years was the debut album from young Long Beach rapper Vince Staples. Following just an EP, a few mixtapes, and a few notable guest verses, he came right out of the gate with a double album. Even though it's actually shorter in length than Drake and Kendrick's albums this year, it really plays out like each disc is its own act. It was produced almost entirely by No I.D., who was producing almost-entire albums for Common when Vince was negative one years old, but it doesn't sound like a throwback. Quite the opposite. Vince has the kind of delivery that'll make golden era devotees say "this kid can really rap," but he's not channeling Nas or Biggie or anything (or Common for that matter), and the beats are on some dark futuristic shit that's nowhere near what you'd stereotypically call a hip hop beat. They're the perfect backdrop for his bleak lyrics, that brutally honestly and keenly tell his story of being a young black American in a time where police brutality against blacks is increasingly visible. When a record comes along with a message that's so necessary, a sound that's wholly unique, and the ability to demand your attention from start to finish, it forces you to tune out all the bullshit around you. That's what Summertime '06 did for me since the first time I heard it. For my money, it's the finest debut album of 2015. - A.S.
Stealing Sheep - Not Real (Heavenly)
Stealing Sheep's debut album, Into the Diamond Sun, owed much to early '70s witchy pagan folk. On Not Real, the songwriting hasn't changed, only improved, but the approach has with synthesizers incorporated prominently into the mix. As before the trio's harmonies and proggy rhythms remain at the center but their sound is more complex, and more their own. No other record sounded like it in 2015. - B.P.
Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
Sufjan Stevens ended his last proper album with a 25-minute piece of pop magic, the most ambitious thing he'd done in a career that was rarely not ambitious. It's still one of the most impressive songs to come out of the current era of indie rock, yet somehow by stripping away all of that grandeur for Carrie & Lowell, he wrote his best album yet. It's too good to be true for anyone who ever wanted an entire album of songs like "The Dress Looks Nice On You" and "Casimir Pulaski Day," and even those songs are more fleshed out than most of these. As you've probably read by now, most of the album was inspired by the death of his mother Carrie, who Sufjan never had much contact with throughout his life, and the result is the heaviest and most depressing lyrics he's ever written. They're full of layers of biblical allusions, memories of childhood places, and haunting images of birds. "Fourth of July" mentions loons, doves, hawks, and other winged creatures over the course of its heartrending imagining of a final deathbed conversation between Sufjan and Carrie. Coupled with the following track, "The Only Thing," and the contemplations of self-destruction within, it packs some of the hardest emotional punches on record all year. - A.H. & A.S.
Tame Impala - Currents (Interscope)
I didn't get the hype for the first two Tame Impala records. It's not that I thought they were bad, I just couldn't figure out why I'd want to listen to such an obvious retread of '60s psych rock instead of, you know, the real thing. This time though, Tame Impala took an approach closer to The Flaming Lips, MGMT and Animal Collective, melding those '60s psych influences with more modern sounds and creating something that adds to the conversation, not just parrots it. Kevin Parker may never stop singing like John Lennon, but Currents is the first time you can say The Beatles never sounded like this. It's not just the addition of synths and R&B that makes this better, he's a stronger songwriter than ever too. The music may be more synthetic, but there's more genuine human emotion in his lyrics and delivery -- more melodic twists too. There's not a dud on this thing from start to finish, and when you start an album with a song as massive as "Let It Happen," that's saying something. - A.S.
Twerps - Range Anxiety (Merge)
Melbourne, Australia's Twerps make rambly/shambly indie rock in the grand tradition of The Clean, Galaxie 500, The Pastels, packed with lovely little arrangement touches and no shortage of catchy choruses. Range Anxiety is slack but never lazy, mellow but never dull, and there's not a bum song on the album. - B.P.
U.S Girls - Half Free (4AD)
The handful of reverb-soaked, girl-group-on-weird-drugs albums Meg Remy had released as U.S. Girls over the last five-plus years did not prepare most for the knockout record she delivered as her 4AD debut. Half Free is loaded with showstopper after showstopper, in a variety styles. Her greatest weapon, however, remains her powerfully emotive voice, that tells you everything she's feeling -- no lyric sheet required. - B.P.
Listen to it via Spotify.
Ultimate Painting - Green Lanes (Trouble in Mind)
What began as a side project for James Haore (Veronica Falls) and Jack Cooper (Mazes) became more of a full time gig with Ultimate Painting's second album, Green Lanes. Chill in all the right ways, Haore's '60s pop sensibilities and Jack Cooper's love of the Grateful Dead play well off each other, and sound more relaxed and natural this time around. Green Lanes is a "magic hour" kind of record you can leave on repeat and not notice (or mind). - B.P.
Viet Cong - Viet Cong (Mexican Summer)
While the hubub around their name, which is soon to change, ended up dominating the conversation, the record Viet Cong made remains uncontroversially terrific. While their 2013 cassette toyed with a few styles, their album seems to pull mostly from the dark, arty side of post-punk. If 154 is your favorite Wire album, chances are you're going to like the bleak sonic landscapes explored here. The band fires like an overwound clock and, while single "Continental Shelf" is the closest the album comes to pop, it is a nonetheless captivating listen. - B.P.
Wildhoney - Sleep Through It (Deranged Records)
There are no shortage of bands who draw influence from '90s shoegaze, but Wildhoney are great songwriters first, then apply their myriad pedals after. The band also really know their way around these kind of dynamics and effects, which makes Sleep Through It all the better and stand out in the haze. - B.P.
The Wonder Years - No Closer To Heaven (Hopeless)
With their fifth album No Closer To Heaven, The Wonder Years have made the rare pop punk album that breaks the genre's strictly-defined boundaries without ever losing its unique thrill. It's the only true pop punk album you'll see on this list, because it's the only one that came out this year that's worth talking about. This type of music is very maligned and it's not hard to see why, but songwriting this good is rare to find in any genre so it's a major disservice to let No Closer To Heaven go ignored. Probably anyone reading this can relate to songs about the death of a loved one, and most of this album taps into those feelings in ways that are so relatable it's almost painful to listen to. I'm not gonna quote the whole lyric because you have to hear him sing it, but on "Cigarettes & Saints" when he's talking about picturing his friend in heaven and says "I'm sure you're still singing, but I'll bet that you're still just a bit out of KEY!," it's one of the most impassioned moments I've heard on record all year. With meticulous interplay between the band's three guitarists, atypical song structures, and a heavier emphasis on atmosphere than ever before, The Wonder Years have managed to break ground in a genre that hasn't changed much since blink-182 hit it big in '99. Considering that band basically became modern-day indie rock forefathers, that's a pretty big deal. - A.S.
Woolen Men - Temporary Monument (Woodsist)
Temporary Monument is a focused, angry blast at the current state of affairs, specifically the real estate boom that has changed the literal landscape of their hometown of Portland (and Austin and Brooklyn and San Francisco, etc etc etc). With their usual mix of postpunk and indie rock influences, Woolen Men have never sounded more energized. - B.P.
The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die - Harmlessness (Epitaph)
Harmlessness is The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die's second full length but at least their eleventh release, and it's by far the best thing they've done in the very strange and often fascinating five years they've been a band. It's the kind of record that indie rock fans all over have been losing their shit for since In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The kind where a bunch of people get together with punk ethos, Sgt. Pepper's-sized ambition, and the desire to write the best album of their lives. The Moon & Antarctica did it, You Forgot It In People did it, Funeral did it, and now Harmlessness did it too. TWIABP bring together at least eight people at once, and give us strings, horns, synths, gentle acoustic guitars, crushingly distorted ones, frantic drumming, and multiple overlapping vocalists without ever veering into bombast. The lyrics are deeply honest, tackling sexual assault, unhealthy lifestyles, depression and more, and always leaving you with a sense of hope. At no moment is that hope stronger than during the album's penultimate and best track, "I Can Be Afraid of Anything," when the music turns upbeat and uplifting, and life literally and aurally enters the song. It's the greatest moment of pure musical bliss on an album that's full of them. - A.S.
Younghusband - Dissolver (ATP)
Working with Loop's Robert Hampton at Geoff Barrow's Invada Studios, UK band Younhusband have made a wonderful, lightly psychedelic record that owes debt to early Brian Eno, VU, the C-86 scene, '90s shoegaze...and yet doesn't really sound like any of those things, specifically. Main man Euan Hinshelwood keeps things understated with melody in focus always, making for a perfect Sunday morning record to drift along with. - B.P.
Listen to it via Spotify.
Andrew's Top 10 Metal Records of 2015 HERE.
and here are even...
More 2015 Albums That We Also Liked A Lot
Beach House - Thank Your Lucky Stars
Bully - Feels Like
Chastity Belt - Time to Go Home
Chassol - Big Sun
Colleen Green - I Want to Grow Up
Destruction Unit - Negative Feedback Resistor
Dick Diver - Melbourne, Florida
Dilly Dally - Sore
Downtown Boys - Full Communism
Dr. Dre - Compton
Empress Of - Me
Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear
Future Punx - This is Post Wave
J Fernandez - Many Levels of Laughter
Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free
Lady Lamb - After
Lana Del Rey - Honeymoon
Lower Dens - Escape from Evil
Miguel - Wildheart
Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material
Panda Bear - Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
Radioactivity - Silent Kill
Royal Headache - High
Chris Stapleton - The Traveller
Tamaryn - Cranekiss
Thee Oh Sees - Mutilator Defeated at Last
Title Fight - Hyperview
Titus Andronicus - The Most Lamentable Tragedy
Torres - Sprinter
Tribulation - The Children of the Night
Kurt Vile - b'lieve i'm goin' down...
Waxahatchee - Ivy Tripp
Wire - Wire
Youth Lagoon - Savage Hills Ballroom