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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.

Sleater-Kinney, 'No Cities to Love'

Sleater-Kinney, ‘No Cities to Love’

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

Rae Sremmurd, 'SremmLife'

Rae Sremmurd, ‘SremmLife’

We SayThis 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.

Learn More: Flex Appeal: Meet Hip-Hop's Hottest Duo Rae Sremmurd

Marilyn Manson, 'The Pale Emperor'

Marilyn Manson, ‘The Pale Emperor’

We SayOn 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.

Learn More: Marilyn Manson: The Vampire of the Hollywood Hills

Alabama Shakes, 'Sound & Color'

Alabama Shakes, ‘Sound & Color’

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. 

Learn More: How Alabama Shakes Gambled Big on Wild Second Album 'Sound & Color'

Leonard Cohen, 'Can't Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour'

Leonard Cohen, ‘Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour’

We SayThe 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.

Learn More: Leonard Cohen on Longevity, Money, Poetry and Sandwiches

Zac Brown Band, 'Jekyll + Hyde'

Zac Brown Band, ‘Jekyll + Hyde’

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.

Learn More: Zac Brown Band Take Chances at Jekyll + Hyde Tour Opener

Sufjan Stevens, 'Carrie & Lowell'

Sufjan Stevens, ‘Carrie & Lowell’

We SayThe 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.

Earl Sweatshirt, 'I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside'

Earl Sweatshirt, ‘I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside’

We SayOn 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.

The Sonics, 'This Is the Sonics'

The Sonics, ‘This Is the Sonics’

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

Speedy Ortiz, 'Foil Deer'

Speedy Ortiz, ‘Foil Deer’

We SayMassachusetts indie rockers Speedy Ortiz take a plunge down the rabbit hole on their second LP. Frontwoman Sadie Dupuis is their bedraggled Alice in Wonderland, tumbling past the cartoonish faces of every ex-friend and bitter stranger, with plenty of Mad Hatter-worthy wordplay along the way ("We were the law-school rejects/So we quarreled at the bar instead").

Learn More: Speedy Ortiz Outsmart the World

Chris Stapleton, 'Traveller'

Chris Stapleton, ‘Traveller’

We Say: Old-school country mixed with Southern rock, a voice like a soul singer and no flashy production. If Chris Stapleton's debut album Traveller feels old, well that's the point. "If somebody tells me it sounds dated, I'd say that's great, as long as the date is 1978," says the lauded songwriter with the impressive vocal range. From autobiographical weepers such as "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore" to the soaring, arena-ready "Parachute," each of the album's 14 tracks go straight for the emotional jugular and give a glimpse inside a wildly introspective mind.

Learn More: Chris Stapleton on Why Stunning New Album 'Traveller' Isn't for Kids

Future Brown, 'Future Brown'

Future Brown, ‘Future Brown’

We Say: Future Brown feels like a genuine next-generation moment. Dominican-American MC Maluca spits hot Spanish over a synthesized koto melody, dancehall queen Timberlee rides a sci-fi bounce, and grime vet Riko Dan flows basso profundo. Opening and closing the proceedings is rising Chicago bad girl Tink, sounding like Scarlett Johansson's Her character after too much digital tequila.

Father John Misty, 'I Love You, Honeybear'

Father John Misty, ‘I Love You, Honeybear’

We Say: Upping the spectacle from Fear Fun, his 2012 debut, I Love You, Honeybear is an autobiographical set about love, marriage and derangement that's both ironic and empathic — an approach connecting singer-songwriter Josh Tillman less to his previous band, Fleet Foxes, than to the SoCal tradition of Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson and Beck. Shaped by folk-rock swami Jonathan Wilson, the details bring it home: the corny poignancy of mariachi horns and strings on "Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)," a cage match with sentimentality; the scalding guitar on "The Ideal Husband," a lover's panic attack. 

Learn More: The Gospel of Father John Misty

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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