The 20 Best Rock Albums Of 2015

Waxahatchee Ivy Tripp

Rock music needs no defending. It’s absolutely awesome, and probably a big part of the reason why most people started loving music in the first place. Truthfully though, a lot of the elements that made rock interesting several decades ago started to become boring upon endless repetition. But then, something incredible happened. Different voices began to take those elements and bend them to fit different agendas. Women began to gain confidence, and came for a genre that long excluded them. Queer and otherwise marginalized voices thundered out their experience over tried-and-true riffs. Instead of trying to seem dangerous, rock became a weapon. The results helped us all fight against the dying of the light. Long live rock and roll.

20. Cold Beat — Into The Air
Cold Beat Into The Air
At this point, the most debatable part of “Hey, maybe the future isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?” is the maybe. The second record by Hannah Lew’s Cold Beat suggests a tech startup app designed to digitize human optimism. Grass Widow, Lew’s other stellar San Francisco band, did their ram-shackling with a pervasive warmth. Into the Air starts out similarly shaggy and progressively lowers the temperature. Though it never fully sterilizes to some Gary-Numan-in-a-UFO sort of thing, Lew now deftly uses synth-tones to approximate unease.—Jeff Klingman

19. Car Seat Headrest — Teens Of Style
Car Seat Headrest Teens Of Style
On his Matador Records debut, young Will Toledo wears lo-fi crackle and pocket echo like a worn-out cap and sweatshirt, so comfortable that they confer a convincing air of panache. Some songs on Teens of Style date back almost four years, picked out from a stacked pile of BandCamp “records” that can’t take up physical space, rerecorded for one that will. He’s lived with bedroom demos so long, you can tell he fell in love with some degree of roughage. But the record’s run-down sonics aren’t camo to hide poor songwriting. Toledo’s self-selected retrospective has got some great-ish hits.—Jeff Klingman

18. Palehound — Dry Food
Palehound Dry Food
Sometimes Ellen Kempner spits words out like she can barely stand the taste, and her debut album Dry Food certainly covers disgusting things. Kempner cleverly dissects life’s wrinkly underbelly with light and airy folk-rock that oozes empathy and loathing in equal parts. There’s something animalistic about her music, a muted savagery that recalls our own evolutionary roots. Then her razor-sharp wit will reemerge, with a line like, “you made beauty a monster to me,” and her pointed intelligence snaps back into focus. Listening to Dry Food reminds you of the care that humans require though, and the oozing pain that results when we’re mistreated. Here, Kempner has issued a rebuff that’s vulnerable and strong-willed. That’s only natural.—Caitlin White

17. Bully — Feels Like
Bully Feels Like
Back in June I wrote that Bully’s Feels Like was the only rock record of 2015 I cared about. Rightly, I received some flack for ignoring a host of other high-octane girl-driven albums that have been dominating this year, and I ended up caring deeply about plenty of those. But Feels Like connected with me so immediately, it felt like the manifestation of a friend itself, like that tough-as-nails chick you instantly want to be best friends with. That’s because Alicia Bognanno isn’t afraid to let you into the darkest corners of her world, translating that angst into brilliant, pulsing rock and roll that can’t be sung, only screamed. These are sharp, hooky riffs that wail over the minutia that afflicts a woman–like praying for your period to please please show up–with unflinching authority. Months later, I still want to shout about Feels Like from the rooftops, even if I’ve added a few other names to my rock album list.—Caitlin White

16. Palm — Trading Basics
Palm Trading Basics
Palm’s debut LP, Trading Basics, finds the Philly art-rockers just barely inching towards a pop center from a dense, instrumental wilderness. Odd, floating vocal bits now serve as rounded safety stoppers on their jutting, overlain guitar lines. Still, Palm lean in to their complications, sounding effortful but not labored, and never careful. It’s math-rock, more or less, but they run too hot for it to ever feel studious.—Jeff Klingman

15. Protomartyr — The Agent Intellect
Protomartyr The Agent Intellect
Joe Casey possesses a familiar, boozy old poet spirit that’s long been welcome in rock and roll–for dudes, at least. He wrote lyrics for the Detroit band’s third album with Aristotle’s ancient theories on the thought-process rattling around his head. He let them spill into bracing, introspective-yet-assualtive songs about sadness, hurt, evil, perseverance, why we do things, and how we feel about them later. Greg Ahee’s guitar—sometimes chiming, sometimes serrating—is nearly as adept in caustic conversation, just as key to this record’s bad-mood/bar-stool tone.—Jeff Klingman

14. Fred Thomas — All Are Saved
Fred Thomas All Are Saved
In decidedly non-lucrative indie music circles, the term “lifer” suggests both a passion found and a sentence served. Almost everything written this year about Michigan scene staple Fred Thomas used that description, which befits a guy who’s made records, on his own and with his indie-pop band Saturday Looks Good to Me, with a prolificacy that suggests compulsion. (He released a second 2015 LP, The Beguilers, just a week ago.) But All Are Saved stands out, clear-eyed, noise-corroded, and at times frankly bitter about the path Thomas still takes. Throughout he remains kinda grateful for the “acid stomach mornings and [the] nights of deep survival,” that bookend all the mundane, daytime bummers in between.—Jeff Klingman

13. Deerhunter —Fading Frontier
Deerhunter Fading Frontier
In a discography built on looming decay and romantic isolation, this is Deerhunter’s breeziest by far. Not that Bradford Cox’s preoccupations have lightened much. He starts the swaggering “Snakeskin” noting, “I was born already nailed to the cross.” He still feels cursed at his relative funkiest. But where older records brood, this one glides. Cox’s lyrics once found an adolescent’s idea of dark glamour in a death wish, but he’s since gained perspective. “Jack-knifed, on the side street crossing,” he sings, likely referencing the car that sideswiped him last winter to great pain, but eventual recovery. “I’m still alive, and that’s something.”—Jeff Klingman

12. Sleater-Kinney — No Cities To Love
Sleater-Kinney No Cities To Love
Late 2014 when Wondering Sound (pour one out) reported that Sleater-Kinney would be releasing new music, the world held its breath. Was the iconic trio really returning to the stage? Even after Carrie Brownstein’s Portlandia stint and a decade-long hiatus? They were and they did, with such thundering force that No Cities To Love is planted like a flag, permanently marking one of the most triumphant returns that a band has ever pulled off. All their same possessed snarling is here, and all the same tangled beauty. They didn’t have to reinvent the wheel because they already invented the goddamn wheel itself. No Cities To Love covers no new ground, it just digs down even deeper into the land they’ve already staked out for themselves. Who knows what they’ll dig up next.—Caitlin White

11. Speedy Ortiz — Foil Deer
Speedy Ortiz Foil Deer
Sadie Dupuis is an insanely talented lyricist and musician, but this year she made a name for herself as something else too: An ally. While indie rock spaces can be fraught with toxic competitiveness, catty gossip and narrow-minded cruelty, Dupuis has fought tooth and nail to make women and other marginalized groups feel safe, secure confident in their place in the rock world. Foil Deer is her band Speedy Ortiz’s second full-length album–and it builds steadily on their intricate, coiled slant-rock sound–but Dupuis is a veteran of the New York music industry scene, and conducts herself like the fearless leader of a new movement within this ever-shifting microcosm. “I’m not bossy I’m the boss,” she sings on “Raising The Skate,” and later, “Boys be sensitive and girls be, be aggressive,” on “Mr. Difficult.” Under her tutelage, these alterations will easily become hard and fast rules.—Caitlin White

10. Kurt Vile — b’lieve i’m goin down…
Kurt Vile b'lieve i'm goin down
It’s always hard to determine whether Kurt Vile is folk or rock, and I think he likes it that way. For all the country and acoustic underpinnings that inform Vile’s guitar playing and past output, his sixth studio album b’lieve i’m goin down… is decidedly on the rock end of the folk-rock spectrum. It kicks off with the age-defying dad-joke “Pretty Pimping” and meanders on through a mess of psych-rock poetry that will slake the thirst of any and all Vile diehards. And even as Vile ages into his excellent primary role as a dad and husband, his conversational style and endless guitar noodling never get old.—Caitlin White

09. No Joy — More Faithful
No Joy More Faithful
More Faithful is the third record by Montreal’s No Joy, and by far their most successful work at making the commonplace tics of shoegaze seem strange and wonderful again. Instead of straining their volume further or pushing their distortion even harder, the band unclutters. They make room in the mix for strong, if circuitous vocal melodies. On a gorgeous song like “Moon in My Mouth”, they slow down to a bobbing waltz. There are noise bursts too, but subtle layering builds-up without burying. These songs display real confidence, declining to confuse.—Jeff Klingman

08. Waxahatchee — Ivy Tripp
Waxahatchee Ivy Tripp
Katie Crutchfield is only 26 and she’s already released three silvery, sighing albums of gilded rock under the name Waxahatchee, and has managed to contribute to countless other musical projects while she’s at it. Ivy Tripp is a crackling refinement of all her earlier impulses, it’s crystalline rock that sounds a far cry from the creakiness of her lo-fi debut American Weekend, or even 2013’s Cerulean Salt. Yet, the intimate, often scathing poetics that inhabited that record remain intact, this time burnished with vocal flourishes and crisp production that sear the words into your brain. “You’re someone else’s mess tonight,” Crutchfield wails on “Under A Rock,” a blessed, rueful declaration of her freedom. Ivy Tripp is littered with these wise one-offs, blistering knowledge from a woman still coming into her own. —Caitlin White

07. All Dogs — Kicking Every Day
All Dogs Kicking Every Day
We’re gonna have to make a new genre just for Maryn Jones. All Dogs is only one of her bands that released records this year, she released Yowler’s The Offer back in February, and is also part of the Columbus, Ohio group Saintseneca who put out Such Things in October. On all of these projects, Jones is influenced by the gnarled, tough-and-tender grunge of the ’90s, but she also imbues these brittle melodies with diaristic lyrics that elide the confessional in favor of brutal honesty. Anyone can complain about life’s gut-punches, but it takes a real fighter to punch back, and then sing about that. On “That Kind Of Girl” Jones sings: “I am underneath the water / KICKING. EVERY. DAY.” As long as she kicks, you can too. The world always needs the one who kicks.—Caitlin White

06. Viet Cong — Viet Cong
Viet Cong Viet Cong
For the Calgary band who are, for now, still called Viet Cong, a triumphant year took a definite pivot. Oberlin college cancelled a scheduled performance after Vietnamese students took offense to the name, pointing out tragic connotations that white Canadian guys had no claim to, whether they thought it sounded badass or not. The idea of demanding an alteration in artistic expression, deep or shallow, in the face of third-party offense is a thorny one that’s very much still playing out in our culture at large. In this case the band relented, vowing a change to be named later. They were unwilling to assert a moral defense for something they conceded as essentially thoughtless.

The episode was sort of a fascinating time capsule for a quickly shifting discourse, that shed little light on the dark, thrilling record these guys made. Thoughtless is the last thing I’d call their music, which reconciles arch, metallic post-punk like This Heat’s with sly, spiritual melodies like George Harrison’s, and tackled big existential issues with poetry and empathy. Bandmates Matt Flegel and Mike Wallace were previous members of Women, an excellent band that ended with the sudden, shocking death of their guitarist Christopher Reimer. So when Flegel lands a gut-punch line like, “If we’re lucky, we’ll get old and die!”, it’s not as a grim, glib punchline, but a bit of hard-won wisdom, drenched in tragedy and imbued with the gratitude of getting through. They’re well aware that a band name is low on the list of things that really matter. —Jeff Klingman

05. PWR BTTM — Ugly Cherries
PWR BTTM ugly cherries
Pressed to say, I might decide that PWR BTTM makes power-pop as opposed to pop-punk? The Brooklyn duo’s brisk debut radiates too much joy to be defined by its angst. It would have been foolish to expect a band riding into battle with the spoken name “power bottom” to waste time being coy, but there is something necessary in the matter-of-fact way Ugly Cherries claims old rock tropes to depict queer romance. A big, exultant guitar solo has long been recognizable shorthand for the first rush of infatuation taking hold, but the number of rock or punk albums that make queer lives explicit is still comparatively slim. PWR BTTM sing from the shower, apply makeup in the parking lot, throw lingering bard.edu email addresses out to cute boys, and generally have a blast being in flux, trying to hit just the right mix of smart and dumb that allows adventure but prevents disaster. Catchy hooks and glitter-bomb riffs abound here and are, to a large degree, the point. Those tools will increasingly be used to tell stories from distinct viewpoints, that still end up revealing the feelings shared by everyone with a frail, open heart. PWR BTTM point toward a stronger, purer way we might associate these sounds with confidence, freedom, and youth. —Jeff Klingman

04. Tame Impala — Currents
Currents Tame Impala
Once in a while an artist with a vision so enormous comes along that whether or not you are usually interested in their particular line of thought, you’re drawn into their orbit anyway. That is the kind of vision Kevin Parker possesses, and one that he has enacted with painstaking detail on all of Tame Impala’s discography. Parker has turned psychedelic rock into a decidedly 21st-century affair, and even if he’s deeply influenced by the wandering blooms of the genre’s past, he has grown far beyond merely aping the Beatles and their ilk. Innerspeaker and Lonerism established the foundations of Parker’s sound, long, bleeding lines of synths and mantra-like lyrics that reel into spacey psych-pop, but Currents is the capstone of his movement. As such, it pivots in some ways, allowing more personal touches into a previously pristine, tight-lipped oblique style. Getting stoned at Governor’s Ball and listening to this Australian band play their final show of that tour was my favorite live experience of 2015. This is an artist whose vision is best shared in person, and preferably, stoned. Even if you’re not usually interested in that particular line of thought, try thinking it through once or twice. Currents will grip you, change you, then peaceably let you go. That’s how visionaries work.—Caitlin White

03. Dilly Dally — Sore
Dilly Dally Sore
Sore, the debut record from Toronto’s Dilly Dally is a dark and fragile post-punk album that deeply concerns itself with gender dynamics and sexual expression. Despite clear feminist underpinnings, all these girls had in mind at the time was making rock music that reflected their experience. “We were really just trying to make a rock album,” lead singer Katie Monks told me in an interview earlier this year. Then her fellow founding member Liz Ball quickly followed that up: “[Sore] is obviously resonating really deeply for both sexes. Which is the goal, and which is quite feminist I guess.” Whatever the intention, the result is clear: Sore is a combustible, seething collection of honey-sweet, venomous rock songs that achieved all the goals Monks and Ball might have had and more. Dilly Dally burned their way to the top, pegging themselves as one of this year’s most exciting bands to watch, and establishing Toronto’s burgeoning rock scene in the process.—Caitlin White

02. Colleen Green — I Want To Grow Up
Colleen Green I Want To Grow Up
One of the dominant themes in television criticism this year was the rise of the so-called “sadcom,” half-hour comedies like You’re the Worst, Louie, or BoJack Horseman, that mine their humor from dejection, depression, and unshakeable pain. There’s a similar appeal to I Want to Grow Up, the third album by L.A. rocker Colleen Green. Her whip-smart, hook-heavy songs are fueled by disappointment, social anxiety, and the feeling of continually fucking up. Yet somehow, she made one of the most fun and funny records of the year. Humor is an exceedingly common coping mechanism, and a chronically undervalued songwriting strength. Green’s comic timing within the album structure is remarkable. Few songwriters would pull the rug out from under a feelin’ good, gettin’ my life together, empowerment anthem like “Things That Are Bad For Me (part I)” as deftly and completely as she does with the sudden Sabbath crunch that starts its second act, with the lines, “I want to do drugs right now.” She sends up girl-group, woe-is-me passivity on “Wild One”, and follows it with a near-romantic ode to watching TV alone. The only place the wit really slips is on the album’s juggernaut krautpop centerpiece, “Deeper Than Love”, which ditches bright tones entirely to get really real about the crippling fear of intimacy she worries she’ll never shake. Green drills down into the core feeling of unlovability she’s trying so hard to grow up out of, the itch in the back of her mind she’s joking to outwardly conceal. But the album ends on uplift, not dreading getting older but sucking small comfort from the fact that, as shitty as you might occasionally feel, at least nobody can tell you what to do.—Jeff Klingman

01. The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die — Harmlessness
The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die Harmlessness
There’s a difference between being alive and wanting to be alive. Earlier this year I published a pretty unvarnished piece about coming to terms with my father’s true identity as a transgender woman, and the trauma of a dark childhood unwittingly marked by this secret. For many, many months before and during the writing of that piece, I felt like the world was an ugly place, too ugly to want to be in anymore. During that time, I stumbled upon Harmlessness, a record so raw and yet so orchestral and masterfully arranged, that it crawls under your skin and begins to blossom light underneath it. Every day, listening to their album on my commute, I’d repeat the band name to myself, believing it again a little more with each repetition. My favorite moment in music this year is at 4:58 on “January 10th, 2014,” that lightning-jolt thrill of their thundering declaration to place “OUR HANDS ON THE SAME WEAPON / MAKE EVIL AFRAID OF EVIL’S SHADOW.” This is what makes the world beautiful, our urge toward good. Our innate understanding that whatever evil things have crawled into our lives do not belong there, that we can crawl away from them, and learn to stand and walk and even run freely again. The sprawling eight-piece collective have done what rock music was always supposed to do–fuck up the status quo by refusing to leave the most pressing topics of our current time alone. Depression is killing us. Hiding away our true selves, putting on a show for other people is killing us. Depression and repression are insidious enemies, and the only way to fight them is to draw it out into the light. That is exactly what Harmlessness does, marrying the unrelenting emotion of the emo movement with an undeniable spirit of rock and roll in the truest sense of the phrase. The best rock album of 2015 is Harmlessness, a record that made me want to be here. A record so beautiful it makes the world seem so, too.—Caitlin White

For more year-end music coverage check out look back at the ten best albums of the year and check out our best folk, country, pop, experimental, and rap albums.

Around Brooklyn

See More

2 COMMENTS

  1. Beautifully written, Caitlin. I have struggled with depression and you’re absolutely right that this album teaches us things. It teaches us to wear our pain and I appreciate you on your marvelous elaboration on it. All smiles and hugs.

LEAVE A REPLY