2015 was a year of bounty for the music world. Every genre seemed to burst forth with releases from its own tried-and-true stars, swaggering newcomers and left field success stories. Amid offerings from every corner of a quickly shifting business, here’s ten albums that represent the cream of the crop. These are the ones that makes us forget it’s a business altogether, and lose ourselves in absorbing the art.
Vince Staples’ bruising deadpan is more elastic than ever on his official debut Summertime ’06. Never has a double album felt so necessary, urgent and imminent. The Long Beach rapper muscles through despair over merciless, spartan beats provided mostly by veteran midwest producer No I.D.. Staples coaxes grandeur out of his collaborators and himself, narrating and deconstructing the cloying stickiness of LA’s corrupt, broken corners. Death rapped into defeat. Almost.
Some people look at the night sky and see the unabridged cosmos. Others, assign shapes and meaning, creating constellations. Beach House give us the space to do both. On Depression Cherry the Baltimore duo perfected their dream pop möbius strip into nine tracks of anguish and wonder. Blissed out bursts of organs drone through scratchy drums and predictably somber synths. Victoria Legrand’s lyrics soar above it all, distilling enormous truths into tiny, personal myths.
Something More Than Free
If 2013’s Southeastern was a bloodletting, this year’s follow-up Something More Than Free is scar tissue. Instead of looking his demons dead in the eye, Jason Isbell and his jail-break heart are looking right past them. He plumbs the depths of busted-up love ballads, belts southern rock anthems and croons existential lullabies. You only lose what you cling to, and on this record Isbell holds the entire world in his open hand.
Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
Courtney Barnett specializes in lackadaisical, stream-of-consciousness songwriting that pulls insouciance into her own punk orbit. Barnett’s excellence isn’t quite accidental; she’s a scathing songwriter with an earnest streak, casually weighing down exuberant 60s psych with zippy grunge. But nonchalance isn’t usually this graceful, internal monologues rarely so interesting. Listening to the strange, brilliant phrases that spill forth, it gets easier and easier to believe she did in fact create 2015’s finest rock album by sitting and staring off into space.
Neglected Nashville princess Natalie Prass moons over long-lost love on her self-titled debut. Natalie Prass is expertly guided by Spacebomb figurehead Matthew White, and her destroyed velvet voice is flanked on all sides by magnificent, cathedral-ready strings and horns provided by the studio’s ample cohort. Few vocalists can sound so queenly and composed while singing of abandon, betrayal and misunderstanding. These are lush, sulky songs that run hot with emotion but never break a sweat.
In Colour reminisces over the breathless glamour of traditional house music, recasting it to suit the needs of 2015. Those familiar with The xx already felt the inevitability of Jamie Smith’s ascendance as Jamie xx. Who else could’ve possibly imagined dancehall sensation Popcaan, impish Atlanta rapper Young Thug and a Persuasions sample together on a single track? Smith expands the smeared, ambient palette of house music future, while plundering the past for nostalgic, self-referential ecstasy.
Carly Rae Jepsen
Carly Rae Jepsen rarely gets the guy over the course of E•MO•TION, but the frustration and desire that goes into her botched attempts is more romantic than most happily concluded love stories. This an album of sugary chirrups spun so fine they approach elegiac, matters of the heart rendered by a team of pop masterminds and one tender, entirely hapless star.
New Bermuda builds on Deafheaven’s previously established reputation for spinning between black metal’s guttural darkness and an effervescent, deeply melodic shoegaze. In 2013, Sunbather brought people outside of metal’s closely-guarded gates into the fold, and with them came conversations about boundaries and genres that obscured the most important point: Deafheaven is one of the best bands making music in your lifetime and New Bermuda is their pinnacle. Don’t let a phrase, stereotype or genre distinction stop you from discovering that.
Carrie & Lowell
Traditionally, folk music is fueled by a flicker of personal pain that can only be extinguished in the telling. Sufjan Stevens is perhaps the first folk singer since the millennium turned to quit borrowing grief from the past, instead infusing his own trauma into the easy acoustic folds of a generous form. Carrie & Lowell is a work of such specific tragedy that it nearly eclipses form itself in favor of spiritual communication. Hammering painful childhood memories into silvery, featherweight songs is a feat of immense strength, but listening to them makes us stronger still.
Traveller is a collection of moonlit country wisdom from a gruff veteran songwriter who shirked the spotlight until his father’s death finally compelled him to tell his own story. After embarking on a rather literal cross-country journey, Stapleton hunkered down, pouring his heart into the fourteen spitfire tracks that became his solo debut. Resurrected country ballads, blazing anthems of regret and whiskey-laced standards blend together in a timeless country tale of survival, revival, and remembrance.
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, rock and rap albums. Oh, and if you’re feeling critical, we also catalogued the 10 most overrated albums.