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45 Best Albums of 2015 So Far

From Kendrick to Kacey, the best LPs from the first six months

45 Best Albums

Bob Dylan's 'Shadows in the Night' and Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp a Butterfly.'

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.

Fifth Harmony, 'Reflection'

Fifth Harmony, ‘Reflection’

We Say: On the debut from Fifth Harmony (which formed during the second season of The X Factor, in 2012), high self-esteem feels like a party. Infectious lyrics like "Think I'm in love, 'cause you so sexy/Boy, I ain't talkin' 'bout you, I'm talkin' to my own reflection" complement club-ready beats that leave no room for saccharine ballads.

Kamasi Washington, 'The Epic'

Kamasi Washington, ‘The Epic’

We SayPart of an exploding network of L.A. visionaries, Kamasi Washington is the sax-wielding jazz guru on recent masterpieces by Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus. Now he's made one of his own — a three-disc debut on FlyLo's label with a 10-piece band, plus choir and strings. To be sure, it's a jazz album, as much about tradition as expanding it: It's clearly shaped by crate-digger funk and film scores, hip-hop collage and gospel.

Learn More: 10 New Artists You Need to Know: Kamasi Washington

Rhiannon Giddens, 'Tomorrow Is My Turn'

Rhiannon Giddens, ‘Tomorrow Is My Turn’

We Say: Over the past two years, Rhiannon Giddens has become one of the most promising voices in American roots music. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, Tomorrow Is My Turn is a feminist tour of the American roots canon — from Nina Simone to Dolly Parton to Odetta. Giddens digs into the tortured lost tales of folk-song heroines like Geeshie Wiley and Elizabeth Cotten. Giddens imbues these classics with a freshness and vitality that feel right at home in 2015.

Learn More: Rhiannon Giddens' Old-Time Religion

refused

Refused, ‘Freedom’

We Say: Refused’s 1998 album, The Shape of Punk to Come, rewrote the hardcore rulebook with its audacious mix of aggro rock, electronica, free jazz and hip-hop. The Swedish band broke up shortly after the record's release, but 17 years later Refused have made an even more adventurous follow-up. Daft Punky electro-funk (“Servants of Death”), big-band horns ("War on the Palaces") and cheerleader chant-alongs (“Françafrique”) bump up against Black Flag-waving ragers, including two improbably helmed by Taylor Swift producer Shellback, who let Refused run wild. 

Learn More: Refused on First Album in 17 Years: 'F–k What People Expect of Us'

Joey Bada$$, 'B4.DA.$$'

Joey Bada$$, ‘B4.DA.$$’

We Say: Brooklyn's Joey Bada$$ made his name with a couple of mixtapes released while he was still in his teens, trading on classic boom-bap New York rap. His official debut LP still sounds like it's stuck in the past, with solid production from old-school legend DJ Premier and his latter-day disciple Statik Selektah. But tracks like "Piece of Mind," about the day-to-day struggle of being a black youth, explore fresh lyrical ideas.

Metz, 'II'

Metz, ‘II’

We Say: On II, the trio has taken its sound – think Nirvana's In Utero with zero apologies, Black Flag brawling Big Black, the Jesus Lizard and Mary Chain – in an even less polished and accessible direction. The record twitches with the flying-off-the-rails urgency of the band's live shows as Metz sandblasts the industrial precision of their first album into a nastier, more shambolic attack.

leon bridges

Leon Bridges, ‘Coming Home’

We Say: Leon Bridges is a throwback to the days when guys did things like “swim the Mississippi” to impress their dates (“Better Man”). But this retro-soul man doesn’t have to work so hard to win you over on his debut LP: His smooth, Sam Cooke-esque croon makes Coming Home the best kind of nostalgia trip. Tunes like the tender title track dance right back to the late Fifties, and album closer “River” is a gospel-blues testimony that runs deep.

Learn More: 10 Artists You Need to Know: Leon Bridges

Steven Wilson, 'Hand. Cannot. Erase.'

Steven Wilson, ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase.’

We Say: Porcupine Tree leader Steven Wilson's fourth solo effort is a concept album based on a true story, but the grandest gestures here are found in the music. The 10-minute-plus "3 Years Older," for one, brings together Wilson's mannered, erudite vocals with Rush-like guitar blasts, ELP-esque keyboard freakouts, stately piano tinklings, swelling strings, CSN-style harmonies, shimmery acoustic guitars and warped, tech-doom soloing — and that's just the first full song. "It’s not complicated," Wilson sings at one point. Right, and neither is quantum physics.

Jazmine Sullivan, 'Reality Show'

Jazmine Sullivan, ‘Reality Show’

We Say: Before releasing Reality Show, 28-year-old R&B star Jazmine Sullivan already had two excellent, modernly classic albums under her belt. With her latest, the Philadelphia singer has solidified her status, crafting a collection of bass-heavy songs filled with pain, hope and introspection that explore the love of others as much as the love of self. Reality Show is not Sullivan's reality, but intense character studies that shift from reflections on self-image ("Mascara") to bad romance ("Stanley"), all sung from her consistently maturing voice. 

Bosse-de-Nage, 'All Fours'

Bosse-de-Nage, ‘All Fours’

We Say: Like their pals in Deafheaven, Bosse-De-Nage are a Bay Area black-metal duo with indie- and post-rock inclinations — but their music is as dark, gnarled and introspective as the former's is epic and expansive. On All Fours, Bosse-De-Nage whisper secrets like Slint ("Washerwoman") and blaze the sky like Darkthrone ("A Subtle Change"), but what takes the album to an unnerving next level is vocalist-lyricist Bryan Manning's surreal psychosexual imagery, which could be straight out of Georges Bataille's worst nightmares.

Learn More: 10 Artists You Need to Know: Bosse-De-Nage

Mbongwana Star, 'From Kinshasha'

Mbongwana Star, ‘From Kinshasha’

We Say: This heady and high-energy Afrofuturist collaboration unites former members of Kinshasa's crippled Staff Benda Bilili crew and the Irish-expatriate producer known as Doctor L. As agents of change (that's what 'mbongwana' means in Lingala), the seven-member group sounds like the inevitable sequel to the D.I.Y. Congolese techno-folk hybrid pioneered by Konono No. 1 (who guest in "Malukayi"). Distorted guitars, sci-fi synths and roadside percussion sketch strategies far from the sweet rumba and soukous riffs that bubble up and fade away.

Downtown Boys, 'Full Communism'

Downtown Boys, ‘Full Communism’

We Say: This six-piece Rhode Island punk act gets its unabashedly Marxist-feminist message across in ways that are both fun and furious. The group's first full-length album flies by in a boisterous, intoxicating rush, 24 minutes of saxophone-laced noise and radical slogans. Downtown Boys' bilingual lyrics are a powerful statement in their own right, a key part of their mission to invade and upend the traditionally white, male punk scene.

Death Grips, 'The Powers That B'

Death Grips, ‘The Powers That B’

We Say: Once intended to be the death knell of the cagey noise-rap trio, fourth album The Powers that B instead paves a twisted road forward. The first disc treats Björk's elastic voice as a "found object," sampling the singer into electronic drum pads and making her sputter, flicker and hiccup. But the leap forward is on disc two, where the band connects with washed out shoegaze wash, hardcore guitars and colorful noise that swirls instead of shocks. 

Hop Along, 'Painted Shut'

Hop Along, ‘Painted Shut’

We Say: What's up with Philly lately? The most-mocked city in indie rock is suddenly bustling with fantastic young guitar bands like Hop Along. Their second album is a deep dive into raw emotions and ragged melodies.

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