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50 Best Albums of 2015

Kendrick fought the power, Adele soared higher, D’Angelo shocked the world and more

2015

Illustration by Ryan Casey

As the curtain falls on 2015, it might be hard to remember any albums released this year besides Adele's record-breaking, generation-uniting, triple-platinum-and-counting 25. But there was so much more to hear. Kendrick Lamar's Molotov-cocktail-tossing hip-hop, D'Angelo’s razor-sharp R&B and Kamasi Washington's restorative jazz all made major statements, feeling like three crucial dispatches from the #BlackLivesMatter protests under three black-and-white covers. Over on the pop charts, Halsey celebrated the "New Americana" (rhymes with "Biggie and Nirvana"), and some of 2015's best albums upended the old one: Upstart Chris Stapleton sang country songs like Sam Cooke, Jason Isbell made roots-rock that shouts out Sylvia Plath, and both Rhiannon Giddens and Bob Dylan took turns running the American songbook through their unique prisms. This year saw some fantastic releases from Rock & Roll Hall of Famers (Keith Richards, Don Henley, Darlene Love), along with a few strong returns from the alt-rock heroes of the Nineties (Blur, Sleater-Kinney, Wilco). R&B innovators like the Weeknd and Miguel walked a reverb-saturated lane into the future and past, while rappers like Drake, Future and Rae Sremmrurd brought cohesive, immediate statements for the Internet's insatiable now. Here are the 50 records that defined our year.

50 Best Albums of 2015
37

Alabama Shakes, ‘Sound & Color’

Alabama Shakes' 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, was an instant-vintage roots-rock triumph. But that wasn't enough for these free-spirited, hot-blooded rock & rollers, and their follow-up is a different beast entirely: One of the year's most daring interstellar groove journeys. Lead singer Brittany Howard is still a one-of-a-kind stunner, and there's plenty of Memphis fire from guitarist Heath Fogg to go around. But the songs come wrapped in a heady blend of organs, vibraphones, strings and synths – rich new hues that tear through the dividing line between old-school soul and the newer, weirder stuff. This is the sound of a band with whole galaxies ahead of it. No wonder both Paul McCartney and Prince heard this album and wanted to get in on the fun.

50 Best Albums of 2015
36

Hop Along, ‘Painted Shut’

This Philadelphia indie crew goes hard on their second album, with Frances Quinlan telling her stories in a hungry yowl. "Waitress" might be the most agonized song ever written about working the late shift at the diner when your ex's new girl walks in – and that's about as upbeat as Hop Along get on Painted Shut. The band whips up a folk-punk racket to keep up with Quinlan in stream-of-consciousness rants like "Sister Cities," in the mode of kindred spirits like Waxahatchee, Swearin' or Radiator Hospital. Her voice has a way of drawing you into the quiet moments of despair she sings about, whether she's "staring at the asscrack of dawn" or emphasizing with a lonely dad who gets up at 4 A.M. to post a message to the world on YouTube. In the ballad "Horseshoe Crab," she plays the role of the doomed Sixties folkie Jackson C. Frank bumming around New York, "looking for Paul Simon." Quinlan doesn't have the pretty voice of a Simon, much less a Garfunkel – but like them, she sings to the darkness like it's an old friend.

50 Best Albums of 2015
35

Vince Staples, ‘Summertime ’06’

Vince Staples followed up his name-making 2014 EP, Hell Can Wait, with a double-disc debut that was as dark, melodically minimalist and as explosive as it was inner-directed — some of the year's most thought-provoking hip-hop. He fills these 20 songs with the clash between his conscience and his desires. "Man, I need to fight the power, but I need that new Ferrari," he says on "Lift Me Up," a track that finds him looking to God for elevation, and considering "pills and potions" if he doesn't come through. The stripped-down tracks — built on rhythms that could be banged out on a lunch table — recall the hollow boom of criminal-minded Eighties hip hop, with Staples spinning tales of youth, the pull of thug life, and the consequences therein. He plays the dopeman one moment and the addict the next. "When the smoke clear, why was the war fought?" he asks as he weighs the price of gangsta dreams in "Surf." "'Bout time you abandon the folklore."

50 Best Albums of 2015
34

Marilyn Manson, ‘The Pale Emperor’

With The Pale Emperor, Marilyn Manson finally realized the goth-metal album he had been threatening to make since he declared himself the "Antichrist Superstar" back in '96. All he needed was a little restraint. Where the Manson of yore reveled in over-the-top, garish showmanship – the first words he bellowed on his 1994 debut were "I am the God of Fuck" – the stately Pale Emperor, age 46, would rather swagger his way through eerie textures, primal drums and whining guitar to whisper about feeling lonely before, naturally, dubbing himself the "Mephistopheles of Los Angeles" on one of the record's standouts. Moody tracks like "Third Day of a Seven Day Binge" and "Odds of Even" serve as treatises on the after-effects of decadence, while the disco-ish "Deep Six" is the best dance-floor banger he's come up with since "The Beautiful People." Gone, though, are the thumping signposts of nu-metal (save a couple of cheeky one-liners), replaced instead with echoes of Bauhaus, Bowie and, most surprising, the blues. For once, Manson's true voice – husky, morose, full – shines through. Our boy's all grown up.

50 Best Albums of 2015
33

Beach House, ‘Depression Cherry’

Listening to a new Beach House album feels like plunging back into a favorite dream for the thousandth time. The Baltimore duo's fifth album refined their shimmering shoegaze formula in subtle but key ways, turning up the reverb on Alex Scally's slow-motion guitar starbursts and pushing Victoria Legrand's sweetly yearning melodies to the front. The production is as rich and fuzzy as the red velvet on the physical album cover (how's that for a reason to buy a hard copy?), and Legrand gives some of her most alluring vocal performances ever on swoon-worthy highlights like "Sparks," "Space Song" and "PPP." Was she falling in love or mourning a lost one? The fact that you could never quite tell was just one more reason to hit "play" again when the album ended – and the unexpected release of a second new LP, Thank Your Lucky Stars, two months after Depression Cherry made this officially the best year ever to be a Beach House fan.

50 Best Albums of 2015
32

Jazmine Sullivan, ‘Reality Show’

Before this year, the biggest hits to burst from the versatile, virtuosic pipes of R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan were "Need U Bad," a song about needing a man like oxygen, and "Bust Your Windows," a song about leaving him with a pile of broken windshield shards. While no single on her first album in five years had the impact of those two, Sullivan proved herself even more capable of painting love's joys and messes as vivid tableaus. Like Lauryn Hill or Mary J. Blige, she has a voice that can ping-pong from an assured croon to a stressed rasp, adding the proper level of drama while exasperated at a cheating lover (played by Meek Mill), treating lovesickness like drug withdrawal or demanding that her man pay attention and "maybe take a bitch to dinner" on the New Wave rave-up "Stanley." She's a one-woman off-Broadway show, cycling through evocative characters with emotion and chops.

50 Best Albums of 2015
31

Leon Bridges, ‘Coming Home’

You'd be forgiven if you thought you were listening to a lost soul record from the mid-Sixties when you first threw on Leon Bridges' debut – the similarity is uncanny, right down to the earthy recording quality. But Bridges, a young singer-guitarist from Fort Worth, Texas, is after more than just a well-crafted retro sound. Coming Home is the best kind of nostalgia trip, freewheeling, loose and more interested in good times than mere reverence. On "Twistin' And Groovin'," Bridges gives Sam Cooke a shot of Texas blues fire, and he splashes psychedelic fuzz on the hip-hugging dance tune "Smooth Sailin'." If Cooke had tried singing a song with a title "Brown Skin Girl" in 1963, his crossover chances would've been sunk; 50 years later, Bridges imagines a utopian past where he could've done it with pride. And on "Better Man," when he tells his baby, "I'll swim the Mississippi River if you'll give me another start," you'll want to jump right in behind him.

50 Best Albums of 2015
30

Car Seat Headrest, ‘Teens of Style’

With 11 Bandcamp-posted albums to his name, twenty-something, Virginia-raised singer-songwriter Will Toledo has built an impressive catalog of highly-catchy low-fi noise-pop. For this coming-out-party – his first LP for Matador Records — he culled the best songs from those free releases and reworked them into a record that switches effortlessly between grotty indie rock and heroic classic rock – a mix he nails with more self-assurance than anyone since golden-age Guided By Voices. "Sunburned Shirts" starts off as Robert Pollard-style faux-British Invasion basement burnout, then upshifts into a riff worthy of Hole's "Miss World"; and "Something Soon" submerges Beach Boys harmonies in murky tape-deck static, with Toledo delivering lines that'll make sense to anyone who ever spent time with John Lennon or Kurt Cobain: "Biting my clothes to keep from screaming/Taking pills to keep from dreaming." Like those guys, he makes his anxiety the stuff of FM radio glory.

50 Best Albums of 2015
29

Joanna Newsom, ‘Divers’

Joanna Newsom has been one of the most singular talents in indie-rock for over a decade, and without a doubt the most popular harpist on the planet. And while her instrument of choice hasn't had much of a pop music profile since the Renaissance, her California art-hippie ingenuity is utterly innovative. Newsom's first album since her star-turn in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice scales back some of the wide-ranging orchestrations of her last album, 2010's three-disc opus Have One On Me; this time, she tackles big themes like history, mortality, memory, love, time and World War IV over some of the homiest folk-rock melodies she's ever unspooled. The music – played on harp and piano, leavened by clavichords, electric harpsichords and vintage synths – can shade into Celtic folk or baroque classical or psychedelic pop, and Newsom's playfully ruminative vocals lead the listener down forked paths of biting revelation: "We mean to stop, in increments, but can't commit/We post and sit, in impotence," she sings on the lustrous "Leaving the City," like the poet laureate the world doesn't even know it needs.

50 Best Albums of 2015
28

Miguel, ‘Wildheart’

Hazy, rhythmically shape shifting and full of heavy guitar mysticism, Wildheart is both one of 2015's best R&B albums and one of its best psychedelic rock albums. "I'm your pimp, I'm your pope," Miguel sings as he celebrates pornographic pleasures on "The Valley" while a drugged out keyboard bass line is slapped awake over and over by a synth-drum beat. On the next track, "Coffee," he's getting off on just smelling his lady's hair while she sleeps. Throughout, Miguel comes off as a seeker lost in a world where dreams, religion, sex and art are tangled up with their own dark, addictive mirror images – it could be the Los Angeles he lives in, or it could be the Internet any of us plug into. The music he comes up with is polymorphous, mixing wide-open rock guitar with dense, clotted trunk beats and spare rhythm-box experiments. The boundary crossing is purposeful. "Too proper for the black kids, too black for the Mexicans," he sings of his heritage in "What's Normal Anyway?" "I look around and I feel alone … I want to feel like I belong." Mixing sounds and cultures, he creates his own context.

50 Best Albums of 2015
27

Eric Church, ‘Mr. Misunderstood’

If pop stars and rap gods can have surprise-release album events, why can't a Southern badass like Eric Church? He snuck his fifth LP into fan-club inboxes in November, just a few weeks after cutting it in secret at a Nashville studio. But Mr. Misunderstood is much more than a gimmick. It's full of vivid stories about schoolroom outcasts ("Mr. Misunderstood"), killers on the loose ("Knives of New Orleans"), and broken hearts at the bar ("Mixed Drinks About Feelings"), unspooled over fresh, inventive, restless music. Just check Church's loosey-goosey falsetto on the funk-gospel wiggler "Chattanooga Lucy" for a taste of how unbound by any genre's rules he is. Rock heads might have been drawn to this album for the way Church name-checked Wilco's Jeff Tweedy (and bit off a piece of one of his best mid-Nineties anthems) on the title track, but they stuck around for the songcraft and the soul.

50 Best Albums of 2015
26

Future, ‘DS2’

No one better articulated the narcotized politics of personal pleasure this year than Future, whose Number One  album was led by two singles about his endless cash supply ("Fuck Up Some Commas" and "Blow a Bag") and then opened with a track in which he brags about being so high he pisses codeine. How much sex is Future having? He devotes an entire song, "Rich $ex," to doing it with his gold chains on. DS2 — a sequel to his 2011 mixtape Dirty Sprite — is the first major-label album where Future gets to be Future. No attempts at radio-friendly unit shifters, just the dope sound of Atlanta: oceans of bass, trap drums, eerie keyboards and hallucinatory backing vocal effects popping out of the mix. "Tried to make me a pop star and they made a monster," he explains on "I Serve the Base" — the title of which punningly pledges allegiance to the sound of his music, his core audience and cocaine. But not total allegiance: pot, molly, Percocet and Xanax are in the mix as well, and paranoia and hell are frequently mentioned. The politics of personal pleasure do not, it turns out, bring complete freedom, at least not from worry or the need for more dirty Sprite.

50 Best Albums of 2015
25

Darlene Love, ‘Introducing Darlene Love’

In 1962, her towering vocals were the heart of the Phil Spector-produced "He's a Rebel" and "He's Sure the Boy I Loved," with her expression of female desire answered by her own strength. But through a career that's included time on Broadway, stints as a duet partner for Bruce Springsteen and Bette Midler, and a scene-stealing moment at the 2014 Oscars when 20 Feet From Stardom won for best documentary, it's taken Darlene Love six decades to reintroduce herself in proper style on this LP. Lovingly produced by Steve Van Zandt and featuring new songs from Springsteen and Elvis Costello, the album runs from super-charged bar-band soul to the string-fueled Jimmy Webb epic "Who Under Heaven." At 74, Love's voice has deepened a bit but lost none of its power – if anything, it's shifted from a marvel of indomitability to a miracle of agelessness. Highlights include the bluesy and horn-charged "Painkiller," a cover of "River Deep Mountain High" scored for strings and power chords, and the Springsteen-penned "Night Closing In," which gets the Wall of Sound treatment and suggests a girl-group makeover of Born to Run. After a set of songs about trials and tribulations, the album closer — "Jesus is the Rock that Keeps Me Rolling," written by Van Zandt — finds Love getting happy in the name of the lord. It's a burst of pure joy from a singer whose art and example have never let up.

50 Best Albums of 2015
24

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, ‘Surf’

Two years ago, Chance the Rapper became one of hip-hop's hottest talents with his self-released mixtape Acid Rap. His follow-up isn't credited to his own name, and in a sense it's no follow-up at all: It's a sublime hip-hop/jazz fusion project led by Chance's pal Donnie Trumpet (a.k.a. Nico Segal), with extensive vocal and arrangement contributions by the unbilled star himself. Together, the Social Experiment gathered burgeoning newcomers (D.R.A.M., B.J. the Chicago Kid, Jamila Woods) and serious vets (Erykah Badu, Busta Rhymes) on their way to creating one of the year's warmest LPs. From top to bottom, Surf charms with its freedom, youth and whimsical spirit. As easily as it can evoke pure heart – see "Sunday Candy," "Caretaker" and "Warm Enough" – this album also has a joyful sense of humor, heard on the irrepressible "Wanna Be Cool." For fans who dared to connect with Surf, it stood as the soul and conscience of music in 2015.

50 Best Albums of 2015
23

Mark Knopfler, ‘Tracker’

With Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler fronted one of the biggest bands of the Eighties – but reliving those old glories, let alone staging a big reunion tour, is the furthest thing from his mind. Instead, at 66, he's interested in working out his own stately version of rock & roll with subtlety and detailed interplay on songs that look back to bygone times with wistful dignity. Tracker opens with "Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes," a song that evokes Dave Brubeck's jazz standard "Take Five," before turning into a Celtic folk-influenced reflection on happy youthful poverty. Elsewhere, Dylan and the Grateful Dead pop up as touchstones. Knopfler reflects on past loves ("Long Cool Girl"), bad jobs ("Basil") and lost fistfights ("Broken Bones"), shading each reminiscence with understated guitar work that fits the  album's balance of resignation and contentment. Another pleasure: witnessing the simple joy Knopfler gets from practicing his craft on his terms at his own pace:  "I do what I want/And I don't give a damn about a thing," he sings on the lovely, Jerry Garcia-flavored country number "Skydiver." This is an album to live with, and a satisfaction to envy.

50 Best Albums of 2015
22

Florence and the Machine, ‘How Big How Blue How Beautiful’

Florence Welch's most personal, vulnerable and moving album to date explodes with confusion from the very first song, the urgent and catchy "Ship to Wreck." From there, though, it's the uplifting and often anthemic way she exorcises her doubts, fears and anxieties that makes the LP one of the most moving and inspiring breakup albums in recent years. She howls in disgust on the pounding, almost Zeppelin-esque "What Kind of Man," condemning the lover who's holding her heart captive. She writhes amongst orchestral strings and funky horns on "Queen of Peace," declaring "all that's left is hurt." She finds some solace in St. Jude, the "patron saint of the lost cause." And she welcomes an executioner to end the relationship on the surprisingly upbeat final track "Make Up Your Mind." With songs that drift between disco, hard rock and impressionistic pop – while all retaining that beguiling Florence feel – the record makes for the best kind of concept album: a journey on which each song she sings has a life of its own.