It's nearly half over, but the year of the dueling streaming services has already given us plenty of reasons to press play. Mumford went electric, Dylan went Rat Pack and Mark Ronson went to the top of the charts. D'Angelo made a huge impact on 2015 with his bold return (after 14 years without a new album), which was followed by comeback LPs from Faith No More (after 18 years) and the Sonics (49 years). And of course there has been no shortage of newcomers — indie wordsmith Courtney Barnett, hip-hop's giddy Rae Sremmurd, high-concept dance crew Future Brown — turned heads as well. Here's the best of 2015's first six months.
We Say: Thanks to D'Angelo's Black Messiah and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, 2015 will be remembered as the year radical Black politics and for-real Black music resurged in tandem to converge on the nation's pop mainstream. To Pimp a Butterfly is a densely packed, dizzying rush of unfiltered rage and unapologetic romanticism, true-crime confessionals, come-to-Jesus sidebars, blunted-swing sophistication, scathing self-critique and rap-quotable riot acts. Roll over Beethoven, tell Thomas Jefferson and his overseer Bull Connor the news: Kendrick Lamar and his jazzy guerrilla hands just mob-deeped the new Jim Crow, then stomped a mud hole out that ass.
We Say: Courtney Barnett is only on her first proper album, but she's already setting herself apart as one of the sharpest, most original songwriters around — at any level, in any genre. The Australian singer-guitarist, 27, is a self-strafing humorist à la Lena Dunham who's also a Dylan-style word ninja, spooling out honest, funny, indelible stories wrung from the everyday stuff even a good novelist might overlook. Her loose, conversational lyrics are full of images you can't shake and characters you need to know more about. You don't just quote a Courtney Barnett song, you recap it.
We Say: D'Angelo has kept the world fiending 14 years for the follow-up to his Crisco-thick R&B classic, Voodoo, but as the man himself purrs in "Sugah Daddy," "Can't snatch the meat out of the lioness' mouth/Sometimes you gotta just ease it out." Black Messiah shows how deep easy can go. D'Angelo and his band have built an avant-soul dream palace to get lost in, for 56 minutes of heaven.
Learn More: The Second Coming of D'Angelo
We Say: Dylan transforms everything on Shadows in the Night — 10 slow-dance covers, mostly romantic standards from the pre-rock era of American popular songwriting — into a barely-there noir of bowed bass and throaty shivers of electric guitar. Frank Sinatra is a connecting presence: He recorded all of these songs, and Dylan made Shadows at the Capitol Records studio in Los Angeles where Sinatra did his immortal work for that label. Yet Shadows in the Night is less a tribute to Sinatra than a belated successor to Dylan's 1992 and '93 LPs of solo folk and blues covers, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong: a spare, restorative turn to voices that have, in some way, always been present in his own.
We Say: The 17 tracks that Drake released at midnight on a recent Thursday hit harder and hold together more cohesively than most big-budget event albums. There's nothing resembling a radio single on If You're Reading This It's Too Late, and not many of the seductively sung hooks that rocketed the Toronto MC to fame. Lyrically, he's in pure stunt mode, using his star power to turn obscure slang into the height of style. ("Running through the six with my woes" sounds cooler than "Hanging out in Toronto with my friends," doesn't it?) The lower stakes for this project let him refine and focus his strengths; the brags are less humble, the threats more pointed.
We Say: Rebel Heart is a long, passionate, self-referential meditation on losing love and finding purpose in chilling times. It's also a chance for the Queen of Pop to floss a bit and reflect on how she painstakingly carved a path others have happily twerked down in the years since her 1983 debut. The über-fit 56-year-old star gleefully enunciates "bitch" on the refreshing, reggae-tinged "Unapologetic Bitch" and the frenetic, Nicki Minaj-assisted "Bitch I'm Madonna," both featuring Diplo's ear-tingling airhorn blasts.
We Say: Björk's 2011 Biophilia addressed the universe, from molecular to cosmic levels, and was presented in elaborate formats, including an interactive app. Her latest couldn't be simpler: a breakup album, that most common pop coin. But with Björk, even simplicity is intricate business. Arranged for voice with orchestral strings and electronic beats, Vulnicura is a unified set of nine dark, swarming, melodically distended songs. There is clearly some autobiography here about her relationship with artist/co-parent Matthew Barney. But whatever informed it, this may be the most heart-rending music she's ever made.
We Say: Superproducer Mark Ronson first branded himself via Sixties pop-soul flavors with Amy Winehouse. This LP moves on to Seventies and Eighties funk, with more sharp casting: Stevie Wonder offers a harmonica benediction alongside session guitarists Carlos Alomar (David Bowie) and the late Teenie Hodges (Al Green); Kanye point man Jeff Bhasker rocks verses by novelist Michael Chabon; and Tame Impala's Kevin Parker morphs from psych-rocker to space-funker.
We Say: Skrillex and Diplo's first album together has one purpose: moving bodies. But that simple quest has led the duo to a wonderfully trim set that's as forward-sounding as any dance release in recent memory. In dubstep's peak days, Skrillex blasted through songs like these with overpowering explosions of computer-generated noise. Here, he and Diplo flip the script: On "Jungle Bae," "Febreze" (which features 2 Chainz) and the single "Take Ü There," sparse bass drops act as black holes, using negative space to change the gravitational pull of an entire track.
We Say: Mumford & Sons are the defining act of the past few years' folk revival, but there's always been more rock in their blood than that label suggests. Folkie fans shouldn't be too alarmed, though. Even amid all the new sounds on Wilder Mind, the impassioned earnestness that made Mumford & Sons stars is still their driving force. The same clear-eyed, full-hearted intensity that set the table for fellow U.K. roots newcomers like Laura Marling and Jake Bugg animates highlights like "Believe" and "Only Love," where lyrics about balancing doubt and hope in the face of fading romance take on a universal power.
We Say: Kacey Musgraves' follow-up to 2013's Same Trailer Different Park is more calculated and confident, intent on both courting and bending the mainstream with wit and timeless arrangements. It misses some of Trailer's storytelling wistfulness and formal experiments – but track for track, it's stronger, an object lesson in Nashville songwriting. Songs like the title track allude to Musgraves' whiplash fame, but she dodges any second-album slump with weed jokes and homegirl charm.
We Say: Florence and the Machine's 2012 MTV Unplugged set was startling. The band's first LP since that session seems informed by it: Finally, Welch is leaning hard into the classic rock and soul sounds her vocals always flirted with, like Ophelia in a Mondrian miniskirt. Gone are the signature African-goth drums, replaced by a dry, midtempo Motown backbeat dressed in tambourine shimmer and orchestral flourishes.
We Say: Drones is a truly guilty pleasure, like watching The Daily Show and knowing Jon Stewart's best jokes start with someone else's colossal error or hurt. The concept here is even darker than Muse's 2012 planet-death treatise, The 2nd Law: the long-distance killing of modern warfare and the collateral damage in conscience and ideals. But Drones is also Muse's welcome jump back from recent ornamental extremes to the simpler brawn and riff heroism of 2001's Origin of Symmetry. The heart of the action in most of these songs is a chunky update of the guitar-bass-drums charge of Origin's "New Born" and "Stockholm Syndrome" on 2003's Absolution. It's what Muse do best; it's good to hear a lot more of it.
We Say: This deep set by the great R&B-gospel mediator Roebuck "Pops" Staples is a rare example of a posthumous reclamation that feels stronger than the original might've been. Working with unfinished 1999 tracks (originally intended for a lost Staple Singers album), producer Jeff Tweedy isolated voices and Pops' quicksilver guitar — like his singing here, an object lesson in tender power — using minimal additions. The result is bracing, timeless gospel blues.
We Say: Blur's classic lineup — singer Damon Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree — has made its first new album in 16 years, one as quixotic and seductive in its modern searching and subversive pop highs as their Nineties winners.
Learn More: How Blur (Finally) Got Back in the Studio
We Say: What Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" was to the hippie era, Jamie xx's solo debut is to British club culture: a wistful valentine conjuring a more innocent time. Exhibit A is "Gosh," which flips a sound bite from a pioneering U.K. jungle broadcast. But the track isn't jungle per se, because the head chef of the xx shoots for moods, not rote styles — which is why he's among pop's greatest producers.
We Say: Now 44, Kid Rock finds himself looking back wistfully, tracking the passage of time. First Kiss presents few surprises, mostly because Kid Rock's journey from abrasive rap metal to unreconstructed heartland rock has landed him in a sweet spot: big guitars, big drums, big choruses and gravelly vocals. "I know what's right," he declares on the thumping "Ain't Enough Whiskey," and there's no arguing with music offered with this degree of energy, joy and conviction.
Learn More: The Killer Inside Kid Rock
We Say: Sleater-Kinney called it quits in 2006, after a 12-year run as America's fiercest punk band. Once you get over your shock that this album exists, it comes on like one of their toughest ever — 10 songs in 33 minutes, not a dud in the bunch, all surging in uptempo stomp-down-the-door mode. There's more low-end thud to their sound than before. The whole album crackles with the palpable excitement of three rock lifers in a room, eager to see what happens when they plug in and let it rip.
Learn More: Sleater Kinney: Return of the Roar
We Say: This brother duo from Elvis Presley's hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi, radiate an inescapable exuberance, shouting with the zeal of freshly minted stars as they build off the joyous bounce of last year's hits "No Flex Zone" and "No Type." Producer Mike Will Made It's phantasmagoric funk is a perfect backdrop for rhymes about safe sex and paychecks, emptying out the ATM, and the raw thrill of making it big.
We Say: On The Pale Emperor, Manson puts himself forward as a sort of trash-culture elder statesman, a freak of wealth and taste – "the Mephistopheles of Los Angeles," as he dubs himself on one pounding track. He wrote these songs with producer Tyler Bates, a movie and video-game composer whose résumé includes plenty of action and horror flicks. The music has a kind of sweeping creepiness that reflects that background. But it's usually pretty grungy, like Nirvana at their blankest or the Doors pulling an all-nighter in Trent Reznor's dungeon.
We Say: On their 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, Alabama Shakes coined a hot retro mix of black Southern soul and white rock & roll that made the Shakes a rare success story among new guitar bands in the streaming era. Sticking to that formula must have been tempting, but Sound & Color shows that this band aspires to be much more than roots-rock poster children. This is a weirder, woozier, fiercer and sexier record than their debut in nearly every way.
We Say: The fourth live album to come out of Leonard Cohen's 2008-2013 world tour is a fascinating glimpse into his creative process. More than half of its 10 songs were recorded in soundchecks, where Cohen and his band were able to test new tunes and refurbish standards like 1971's "Joan of Arc," heard here in a lustrous duet with Sharon Robinson.
We Say: Sol Invictus, the band's first record since 1997's underrated Album of the Year, offers newer, better versions of Faith No More's formula: spaghetti-Western guitars ("Cone of Shame"), proggy keyboard drama ("Matador") and tons of vocal contortions from lead singer Mike Patton ("Rise of the Fall").
We Say: They triangulate country bounce, classic-rock flex and jam-band wiggle like crossover wizards. Their frontman has a buttery midrange tenor, can sell the heck out of a song, and keeps his lumberjack beard nicely trimmed. With the possible exception of their relentless likability, there's nothing unlikable about the Zac Brown Band. On their fourth LP, they bang out styles with such preposterous ease — Seventies Philly soul, old-timey gospel, Celtic folk, metal, reggae, jazz — they could incorporate as a single-band music-placement agency.
We Say: The 2012 passing of Sufjan Stevens' estranged mother, Carrie, sparked an existential crisis in the 39-year-old singer-songwriter. Here, on his most emotionally draining album, he joins Nick Drake and Elliott Smith in the canon of artists who channel suicidal thoughts into impossibly pretty songs. Stevens strips his sound far enough to reveal his deepest anguish.
We Say: On his excellent second LP, Earl Sweatshirt keeps deepening his game — spooling out dense, mordant rhymes over zombifically blunted tracks as he somehow sucks you into his sunless reality. It's sometimes dark and paranoid enough to make There's a Riot Goin' On sound like the Three's Company theme. It's amazing that music so claustrophobic can be this engrossing.
We Say: Punk before punk, garage rock before anyone flagged it, the Sonics' 1965 Here Are the Sonics mixed Chuck Berry and Little Richard with greaseball white-boy originals. This reunion concedes nothing to the following half-century. The new songs sound vintage; so do the covers: Their take on the Kinks' "The Hard Way" out-rocks the original, echoing the Brits' more loutish "You Really Got Me." They can still teach their garage offspring a thing or two.
Learn More: The Sonics Go Back to the Garage After 49 Years