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.
Colombian electro-cumbia duo Bomba Estéreo ramp up the bass tenfold on their major label debut, delivering an electrifying, Latin-pop wake-up call. A vast departure from the introspective, lounge-y feel of 2013's Elegancia Tropical, vocalist Li Saumet gets raunchy as ever on "Caderas" before rocking gently towards eternal commitment to the undulating reggaeton of "Somos Dos." Saumet's intimations of love exude more eroticism than any of the jaunty, hip-grinding club hits that Bomba's known for, though lead single "Fiesta" is a sweaty highlight, holding its own as a dubstep and kwaito-infused Carnaval banger. Saumet indulges her tender side with an entrancing whistle in "To My Love," and crests with indigenous pride in the bare-bones folk ballad "Raíz." By record's end, the Santa Marta party girl has metamorphosed into a warm-hearted earth mother.
For Bob Dylan, the Great American Songbook was always more than Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers and Leadbelly. Dylan was already covering "That Lucky Old Sun" – a 1949 hit for Frankie Laine, and the last track on this album of songs once recorded by Frank Sinatra – in his early-Nineties shows. But Shadows in the Night is more than homage. It is a poignant, decisive exploration of the deep-blue turmoil that ran through much of the the apparent innocence in romantic pre-rock songwriting. Dylan recorded these chestnuts – "Autumn Leaves," Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do," Sinatra's obscure 1964 single "Stay With Me" – at the famed Capitol studio in Los Angeles, in minimalist arrangements with his empathic road band. The effect is a profound vulnerability carried by Dylan's best, most focused and evocative singing in years. That tender, wounded growl in "I'm a Fool to Want You," co-written by Sinatra in 1951, isn't crooning. It is desperate longing charged with the thrill of memory – epic pop, as blue as it gets.
On Emotion, Carly Rae Jepsen moves past 2012's still-stuck-in-your-head "Call Me Maybe" in a way that solidifies her as not only one of the strongest pop writers of her generation but also one of the most compelling pop stars of the moment. Her second album revels in neon-lit 1985 textures, filled to the brim with long night-drive soundtracks and lyrical pining that broaches the debate of what is more intense: crushing hard or being crushed. Even when tackling heartbreak, Jepsen serves as a beam of light and a sister-in-arms. Plus, the Sia-assisted "Boy Problems" was a criminally overlooked addition to a year of songs about phone calls.
James Taylor spent the years after the release of his 2002 LP October Road playing gigs with Carole King, raising his two young sons, recording an album of cover songs and touring all over the world. Just about the only thing he didn't do was write new songs. "I got out of the habit," he told Rolling Stone. "I just never prioritized it." That changed two years ago when he holed himself up in a Newport, Rhode Island apartment and emerged with the material on Before This World. It's a folky collection that evokes memories of his finest 1970s albums, though the subject matter is rooted firmly in the 21st century. "Angels of Fenway" is a reflection on the Boston Red Sox's miraculous 2004 season, while "Watchin' Over Me" focuses on Taylor's continuous efforts to maintain his sobriety. "Stretch of the Highway" is a road song, complete with a reference to Chicago's "first-class poontang." Amazingly, it became Taylor's first Number One album of his entire career.
On her first solo album, the singer and multi-instrumentalist from African-American folk archaeologists the Carolina Chocolate Drops addresses struggle and empowerment in a rainbow set of covers, finding the common ground and emotional bonds in Geeshie Wiley's Depression-era blues "Last Kind Words," Patsy Cline's country surrender "She's Got You" and Nina Simone's signature conquest of the title song written by Charles Aznavour. Giddens' singular union of country-church fire, concentrated hurt and operatic poise is especially compelling in the earthy restraint of T Bone Burnett's production. That Giddens also has a future as a songwriter is clear in "Angel City," written at the end of her spell with Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford and Jim James in the Bob Dylan-reclamation project, Lost in the River: The New Basement Tapes. "I am closer to free/Heart unbound," she sings, a rare voice bound for glory.
How did it take this long for Madonna to write herself a theme song titled "Unapologetic Bitch"? No apologies offered or needed – Rebel Heart was the queen's finest album in a decade, picking up the disco-stick baton of her 2005 Confessions on a Dance Floor as Madonna voyages back into the groove and reflects on where she's been lately. "Ghosttown," "Devil Pray" and "Living My Life" offer state-of-the-art radio beats with producers like Diplo and Avicii, while she testifies about endurance in the aftermath of divorce. Yet she's even stronger when she gets further out, as in the Nicki Minaj-seasoned "Bitch I'm Madonna," or her conspiracy-minded Kanye collabo "Illuminati," which comes on like a "Vogue" for the New World Order. She also throws down with rappers from the new school (Chance The Rapper), the old school (Nas), and the non-school (Mike Tyson). Of course she goes too far – this is a Madonna album, capisce? – with "S.E.X." ("Perfume, switchblade, absinthe, Novocaine / Chopsticks, underwear, bar of soap, dental chair") and "Holy Water," where she chants, "Yeezus loves my pussy best." Bitch, get off her pole.
After the massive success of "No Flex Zone" and "No Type," charismatic Atlanta-via-Tupelo rappers Rae Sremmurd released an ebullient debut that sounded like it complimented their hits with nine more singles. Under the production and tutelage of Mike Will Made It, who infuses the album's club-ready anthems with dark, ominous synths, the Gen Y duo (Swae Lee's 20; Slim Jimmy's 21) deftly appropriate memes ("This Could Be Us"), shout prescient brags ("Up Like Trump") and exude witty confidence ("Come Get Her"). Easily the most fun hip-hop album of the year.
Gomez's loyal fans are probably the only people who expected the former Disney star to make one of the most three-dimensional pop albums of 2015, but she pulled it off with flying colors. She steps up her game in every way on Revival: The production is cooler, the melodies are stickier, the lyrics are sexier and her vocals are more comfortable and confident than ever. There are no duds to be found as Gomez takes a spin on the dance floor with Max Martin ("Hands to Myself"), plays a self-possessed femme fatale ("Good For You") and air-kisses goodbye to a no-good ex ("Sober," "Same Old Love"), all with the same understated flair. The wildest part? The heartfelt ballads ("Camouflage") are some of the smartest and best-crafted songs here. If Gomez started the year as one of many bright young celebrity faces, she ended it as a pop star who demands to be taken seriously.
An opulently-ornamented wound, Björk's ninth solo set is a riveting document of grief, reported and recorded around the end of her marriage to artist Matthew Barney. With visceral electronic assists from Kanye associate Arca and U.K. bass abstractionist Haxan Cloak alongside wide-screen strings arranged by Björk herself, the music moves slowly, like storm systems, emotions flashing in lightning-like bursts. Extraordinarily detailed, it's a set about being thrown back onto your own island, and made to be savored in headphones – or elaborately-engineered museum installations, like the advanced multi-speaker room built at New York's Museum of Modern Art built specifically to present "Black Lake," Vulnicura's dramatic 10-minute centerpiece. Yet ultimately it's her voice – breaking, trilling, soaring, each word sharpened – that cuts deepest, the instrumental backdrops shaping themselves around her articulations like scars. As the stream of Vulnicura remakes and remixes shows, the woman keeps moving forward, ex-husbands and art critics be damned.
After years of sweat-soaked jamming in an Inglewood, California, backyard and gigs across unexpected Los Angeles hangouts, squeal-to-flutter tenor sax dynamo Kamasi Washington splatters and explodes across three discs with the seven members of the West Coast Get Down. The Epic is nearly three hours of furious yet restrained chops, near-telepathic interplay and hard-swung grooves that recall the early Seventies work of Pharoah Sanders and Weather Report. The real feat, however, is that Washington makes a long-out-of-vogue strain of jazz feel wholly contemporary, just a funky lick away from the spiritual, revolutionary-minded music of D'Angelo or Washington's collaborator Kendrick Lamar. Everything here feels outsized, from the beaming 14-piece choir, to the Debussy cover, to the 173-minute running time, to the dueling drum kits on "Final Thought" and "Re Run Home" – a giant step that has done more to increase the cool factor of 21st-century jazz than anyone West of the Bad Plus.
To find the heaviest-hitting blues-rock of the year, take a sharp left at the Mississippi Delta until you're in the deserts of Mali. Though rooted in the nation's world-famous guitar lineage and chugging with the rollicking Saharan-rock rhythms made popular by contemporary bands like Tinariwen and Terakraft, Songhoy Blues are a far harder and punkier affair: Think Ali Farka Touré's iconic desert blues shredded out by kids raised on hip-hop and Jimi Hendrix. Their debut album, produced by Marc-Antoine Moreau and Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner, is the blazing solution to a year without a new Black Keys or Jack White album, full of lyrical solos, entrancing rhythms and melancholy lyrics like those of "Desert Melodie," a protest of the jihadists who outlawed music in the northern part of their country.
The seventh album from U.K. prog-rock vets Muse is a mirror for these times, a searing commentary on our era's vague dread, computer-driven death from above and Orwellian political climate. Muse take us into a warzone where the death happens over there and the casualties are lost values over here. They drive home their doom gospel with a precision-strike muscularity that makes for the most straight-ahead music they've delivered in years, pairing the ornamental excess of their equally high-concept 2012 album The 2nd Law down to pure lunging force. Legendary AC/DC and Def Leppard producer Robert "Mutt" Lange helps focus the band's power-trio impact, giving Seventies and Eighties arena heroism a mordant cast that can suggest a real-time image of today's collapsed idealism. "I am crushed and pulverized/Because you need control," singer-guitarist Matt Bellamy wails in the stark opening electro-funk of "Dead Inside," like Bono calling out from inside an episode of Mr. Robot. It was the year's most convincing howl from the abyss.
At this moment, no country singers do feel-bad better than Monroe. See the honky-tonk-weeper title track of her third LP, an extended love-gone-wrong metaphor delivered with immaculate phrasing and a devastating tremor, and "Bombshell," about the pain of truth-telling, where Monroe twists the aforementioned blade by turning a rejection into a self-realizing triumph. She can still be cheeky, but even those songs get dark: The stately old-time waltz "I'm Good At Leavin'" ends with a sting: "I'm bad at hearing babies screamin'/I'm good at leavin.'" And on front-porch picker "Mayflowers," she has the cojones to rhyme "April showers" with "May flowers" – twice! – but the melody, vocal harmonies and arrangement mesh so poignantly, they'll melt even hardened hearts. Touring on the album this year, Monroe used Loretta Lynn's "You're Lookin' At Country" as walk-on music, and she sure enough earned it.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chris Stapleton has spent the past decade writing radio-friendly songs for a who's who of country superstars. But on his debut album, Stapleton digs deeper and gets personal, leading a master class in old-school country songcraft with 14 songs full of weary life lessons and whiskey-induced heartbreak. It's old-school country mixed with Southern rock, delivered in a voice like a soul singer's and with no flashy production. Traveller may feel old – well, that's the point. From autobiographical weepers such as "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore" to the soaring, arena-ready "Parachute," every track goes straight for the emotional jugular and give a glimpse inside a wildly introspective mind. Acoustic ballads like "Whiskey and You" and "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore" provide the highlights, with Stapleton's soulful Kentucky baritone taking center stage. With a recent viral duet with Justin Timberlake and a handful of CMAs now under his belt, the secret is finally out: Stapleton is a major talent.
The Eagles singer-drummer's first solo album in 15 years is a record of minimal strumming, steel-guitar raindrops and warming vocal blends – country music the way Henley heard it the first time around in Cass County, the East Texas region where he grew up. Written and produced with ex-Tom Petty drummer Stan Lynch, Cass County is quietly, defiantly purist – absolutely free of millennial-country glitz and vernacular. The long line of celebrity guests – many of them women, such as Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood and Alison Krauss – mostly serve in the backing harmonies. (A notable exception: Henley, Miranda Lambert and Mick Jagger exchanging verses in a cover of Tift Merritt's "Bramble Rose.") But Henley is also a determined modernist, and his character studies and matured reflection in songs like "Waiting on Tables," "Praying for Rain" and "Take a Picture of This" are loaded with quietly visceral immediacy, contemporary portraits of everyday crisis and the search for solace. After more than 40 years in L.A.-outlaw country, Henley has finally made an album of stories that sound like home.
Kurt Vile is a master of stoner-rock exploration and cotton-brained existential whimsy, and this was his most introspective tapestry yet. "It's hard to think with a squashed brain," he sings on "Dust Bunnies." Or is it? Vile spaces out brilliantly all over the place, from the cobwebbed banjo reverie "I'm An Outlaw" to ringing guitar escapades like "Pretty Pimpin'" to the droney spaciousness of "Bad Omens." B'lieve I'm Goin' Down… digs deep into the folk roots that undergird his signature finger-picking style. On "Stand Inside," his acoustic playing evokes Simon & Garfunkel as he offers a homebody's come-on: "That's my good girl/Whole world turnin' on my couch." That kind of living-room intimacy also comes out on piano-led tunes like "Lost My Head There" and "Life Like This," where squashed-brained philosophizing seems like a wonderful parlor game and couch-surfing sounds like an excellent vacation option.
Scaggs delivered a concise history of Southern soul on A Fool to Care, the most recent in a string of albums built around musical themes (see 2013's Memphis). There's a heavy dose of New Orleans strut, with takes on classics by Fats Domino and Huey "Piano" Smith and a version of white-soul singer Bobby Charles' "Small Town Talk." Scaggs' take on Al Green's "Full of Fire" recalls the disco-soul of his own Seventies hit Silk Degrees, and there are detours to Philly (the Spinners' "Love Don't Love Nobody") and Chicago (the Impressions' "I'm So Proud"). Aided by an ace band that includes guitarist Ray Parker Jr., bassist Willie Weeks and drummer Steve Jordan, who also produced the album, Scaggs is at home in every style, tying each selection together with his warm, textured singing. The lone original composition is "Hell To Pay," a rugged blues duet with Bonnie Raitt. A Fool to Care closes beautifully with another duet, a stately, deeply-felt take on the Band's "Whispering Pines," where Scaggs is joined by Lucinda Williams – not a soul standard, exactly, but it sure feels like one.
The Rolling Stones guitarist's first studio album outside his day job in 23 years opens with the short title fragment: Richards picking and singing a rare acoustic blues. It is rock's most enduring outlaw evoking the Delta ghosts and early-country spirits that still haunt and inspire his life and band – and a perfect entry into a record that is at once loud, ragged delight, driven by Richards' trademark barbed-treble riffs, and shot through with a surprising, reflective urgency. "They laid it on thick/They couldn't make it stick," Richards sings with gravelly defiance in "Nothing on Me." The guitarist also concedes the mounting price of age in "Amnesia," a song about fading strength and memories. Richards made Crosseyed Heart with reliable old friends including his late-Eighties side crew the X-Pensive Winos, singer Aaron Neville and the Stones' late saxophonist Bobby Keys, whose robust playing, among his last on record, underscores Richards' admission here that there is an end to every ride – and his determination to make every mile count.
The world's top beat freaks pulled off a remarkable feat with their superduo collaboration: Instead of bringing a little EDM flavor to pop, they made some of pop's biggest stars hop over the fence to their mind-bending EDM fiesta. The big hit was "Where Are Ü Now," the inescapable single that redeemed Justin Bieber's career. But beyond that high, Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü hangs together surprisingly well as an album, standing as one of the most accessible and gloriously turnt-up sets of the Electric Daisy era. It's got a soca adventure ("Jungle Bae" featuring Bunji Garlin and MX Prime), a dreamy, ethereal ballad ("To Ü" featuring AlunaGeorge) and a quirky, underrated trap jam with 2 Chainz ("Febreze"). Taken together, the album packed one of dance music's biggest punches in 2015 and pointed to a new way forward for the EDM revolution.
The stylish bearded singer-songwriter of the year, Josh Tillman, made an artistic breakthrough with his second album as Father John Misty Tillman's songs were just as ornately pretty as the music he'd had a hand in creating as drummer in neo-folk golden-throats Fleet Foxes – but where his old band went for CSNY grandeur, Tillman's solo material cuts lush melodies with the biting ironies of Seventies L.A. dons like Randy Newman, John Phillips and Harry Nilsson. "Save me, white Jesus…/They gave me a useless education/And a subprime loan on a Craftsman home," he sings on the somber piano ballad "Bored In the U.S.A." From the aimless ecstatic drift of "When You're Smiling And Astride Me" to the aching countrified lope of "Nothing Good Ever Happens At the Goddamn Thirsty Crow," Tillman always found the perfect musical backdrop for his evocations of love and desire gone off the rails. His wit can have a vicious edge (his takedown of a pretentious young woman "The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt," drew feminist fire). But even at their most barbed, his songs come with such lush melodies you couldn't help but admire their uncanny beauty.
Wilco turned 20 this year, and they celebrated in style with their best record in a decade, touching on everything that makes them great: refined noise, genre-bending sonic weaves, easy-riding car-radio tunefulness and Jeff Tweedy's honeyed songcraft – often all in the same song. As its brilliantly timely title implies, Star Wars was all about rediscovering bedrock pleasures, with echoes of the bandshell-in-the-summer fun and ease of albums like 1995's A.M. and 1999's Summerteeth seasoned by years of life experience and musical growth. From the torqued up glam-rock shoogity-oogity of "Random Noise Generator" to the sky-writing Wowee Zowee-era Pavement guitar action of "The Joke Explained" to the country-rock confection "Taste the Ceiling" to the tight-gyred free-rock workout "You Satellite," the songs flowed together like a greatest hits album, except every one of them was brand new. It was hard to not hear echoes of the Grateful Dead when Tweedy sang about generating "a miracle every once in awhile," and that's exactly the kind of American institution Wilco is turning into. 20 more years, please.
Tame Impala's Kevin Parker is the sort of psychedelic studio wizard who can make finger snaps sound like a spaced-out revelation. The Aussie dreamer packed Currents full of weightless vocals and synthesized funk, for a set that's both blissed-out and mournful, like a set of diary entries from an astronaut floating off into oblivion. Three years ago, Tame Impala broke through with the foot-stomping beats and dirty glam guitar of "Elephant." But this time out, Parker dialed down the amps and pumped up the keyboards. Songs like "Yes I'm Changing" and "'Cause I'm a Man" are slow-moving tales of personal metamorphosis, and when guitar thunder does break out on "Eventually," it quickly gives way to sunshine-y organ. Song after song address relationship challenges, but the album closer, "New Person, Same Old Mistakes," suggests Parker has an easier time remaking his music than himself. That musical rethink, though, is expansive, resulting in wide-screen adventures like "Let It Happen," which jumps off from a melody lifted from the Supremes, then sails into the cosmos, where everything is lonely but beautiful.
"We both know that it's not fashionable to love me," Lana Del Rey intones at the beginning of her third album. It's quite a way to kick off a Honeymoon, and exactly the kind of sultry gloominess we've come to expect and love from the high priestess of moody torch-pop. After injecting some garage-y guitars into 2014's Dan Auerbach-produced Ultraviolence, Del Rey returned to the cinematic trip-hop of her star-making 2012 debut Born to Die, balancing catchy slow-burn come-ons like "Freaks" and the hit single "High By the Beach" with artier moments like "Burnt Norton," her dreamy recitation of a T.S. Eliot poem, and the goth-soul Nina Simone/Animals cover "Don't Let Me Be Understood." Her gauzily distracted Peggy Lee persona and coolly sensual vocals were as alluringly provocative as ever ("you're so art deco baby out on the floor," she sings on "Art Deco"). But it was the haunting sense of heartache and aloneness in her evocations of the emulsified L.A. high-life that made Honeymoon such a devastating listen.
It was the surprise comeback nobody saw coming – not even diehard fans had any idea the three punk women of Sleater-Kinney were back in the studio, after nearly 10 years apart. But not only did the Nineties' fiercest band spring a new album on the world, they made it one of their toughest and loudest ever. No Cities To Love charges with a renewed sense of urgency in songs like "Price Tag" and "A New Wave," in Corin Tucker's sky-scraping high notes, Carrie Brownstein's kiss-off sneer, Janet Weiss' gut-punch drums. The songs are full of humor (which figures, given Brownstein's rebirth as a comedian on Portlandia) but also rage, facing up to adult questions. "Hope's a burden or it sets you free," they sing in the title tune – a line Bruce Springsteen could have written. It would have been easier to spend their reunion tour just playing the oldies, but what mattered more to them was speaking up about right now. After all these years, Sleater-Kinney still sound gloriously untamed. And they prove Brownstein wasn't just kidding on Portlandia: The dream of the Nineties is alive and well.
Blur recorded most of their first original-quartet album since 1999 in Hong Kong, and named it after a brand of Chinese firecracker – an apt allusion to the explosive jolts and emotional shrapnel embedded in the Kinks-like stroll of "Lonesome Street" and the Martian-desert glow of the closing ballad "Mirrorball." In the lost-in-orbit dream "Thought I Was a Spaceman," singer Damon Albarn sounds quietly desperate for liftoff in a gorgeous galaxy of silvery guitar and milky-reverb electronics. It's an album about urgent motion without lasting connection – "Log in your name and pray 24 hours," Albarn sings in "New World Towers" – made by a band that has rediscovered its exploratory bond and pop-song grip. Twenty years after the peak of Brit-pop, Blur are back in style, with substance.
Apparently Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach isn't busy enough with that band, his Nashville studio Easy Eye and production jobs for Dr. John, Lana Del Rey and Cage the Elephant, among others. His debut album with the Arcs – a loose combo of friends and associates including drummer Richard Swift of the Shins and multi-instrumentalist Leon Michels of the New York neo-soul production team Truth and Soul – is a riveting extension of the Keys' progressive-blues aesthetic. "Stay in My Corner" and "Velvet Ditch" are turbulent R&B noir, spiked with psychedelic flourishes; "Put a Flower in Your Pocket" is spectral hip-hop coated in crusty mellotron. Auerbach laces the spare, loping ballad "Chains of Love" with the vocal sensuality of the female mariachi ensemble Mariachi Flor de Toloache and drops a prairie-doo-wop hook in "Cold Companion," sounding like the Eagles had just busted through the saloon door. With the fun and promise in details like that, the Arcs could be a band with a future – if Auerbach can find the time.
A nearly three-hour Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton ("the ten dollar founding father without a father") might, on paper, sound like a tough feat to pull off. Writer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also plays the lead role, made it look easy with a book of modern hip-hop and R&B songs that could've been played on the radio. Even if you didn't get to see the show, the soundtrack album still works as a fantastically fun ride of its own. It helps that the Caribbean-born orphan who became our first Treasury Secretary lived a perfect hip-hop life – hustling his way from poverty to "young, scrappy and hungry" New York success story, fighting a bitter North-South regional battle with Thomas Jefferson and finally going down at the hands of punk-ass Aaron Burr when beef turned lethal. In Hamilton, the complex policy debates of the early Republic are rendered in verses worthy of Kanye. But along with being outrageously thrilling living history, it projects brilliantly into our own election season. As Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette sing after whooping ass on the British: "Immigrants, we get the job done." Take notice, King Donald.
Jason Isbell chronicled hard-won sobriety and marriage on 2013's breakthrough Southeastern. Instead of remaking that album on this follow-up, the most thoughtful roots-rock singer-songwriter of his generation delivered a stunning chronicle of Southern life, full of unforgettable characters and indelible images like "Jack and Coke in your mama's car/You were reading The Bell Jar." Isbell's subjects are overworked and underprivileged – a bored police officer who kills time pulling over women, factory workers "just happy to have the work," old high school girlfriends who took the wrong turns. The best is "Speed Trap Town," a Nebraska-steeped acoustic ballad about a guy who sneaks a bottle into a high-school game and finally decides to leave town. It's hard to believe he ever really escapes.
The year's best debut came from a 27-year-old Australian singer-songwriter who marries the observational wit of Jerry Seinfeld, the word-ninja flow of Bob Dylan circa '65 and the guitar poetry of Stephen Malkmus. As its title implies, these are songs wrought from a specific type of everyday quarter-life malaise – one brilliant song is about the stuff that runs through your mind when you can't fall asleep, another is about a botched meet-cute at a swimming pool. But Barnett's ability to pack her songs about nothing with vivid imagery and insight, literary detail and political insight, is astonishing. "Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables/And I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first/A little pesticide can't hurt," she sings on the springy rocker "Dead Fox," which somehow morphs into a hilarious, catchy driving tune. Songs like "Pedestrian At Best" and "Debbie Downer" update the rich tradition of self-doubting Nineties alt-rock; other moments, like the heartbreaking "Depreston," have a wisdom – about aging, class anxiety, economics and relationships – that seems almost impossible for someone who's only beginning to find the depth of her artistic gifts. All signs suggest those gifts could be bottomless.
Canada's Abel Tesfaye redefined what it means to be an R&B auteur with his breakthrough second LP. After a series of mysterious mixtape releases built around weeded-out goth moodiness (and one half-baked major-label debut, in 2011), he went for full-on Top 40 grandeur this time, without diluting any of his eerie allure. The sumptuous Max Martin joint "Can't Feel My Face" got America dancing to a sex-as-cocaine metaphor, thanks to a joyful hook Michael Jackson could have moonwalked to; "In the Night" amped up the violent undercurrents of MJ circa Bad while still feeling like a party; and bleary ballads like "Earned It" and "The Hills" spun gossamer sensuality into unlikely hit singles. Who else but the Weeknd could make a line like "Only my mother could love me for me" work as pillow talk? It's just that kind of raw honesty that makes him such a revolutionary player.
Does this guy know how to pick a moment, or what? D'Angelo dropped his first LP since 2000 in the final days of 2014, as his big statement on America in a year of deep racial turmoil. At first it might have sounded too good to be true, but after a year of listening, Black Messiah stands even taller. The songs take their time to build a plush, meditative live-band soul groove in the vein of Sly Stone, Prince or Al Green circa The Belle Album. D speaks his piece about police violence in "The Charade" ("All we wanted was a chance to talk/'Stead we only got outlined in chalk"), whistles the blues hook of "The Door" and unleashes his inner guitar hero in "1000 Deaths." The showstopper is "Another Life" – six minutes of piano, sitar and falsetto, stretching into D'Angelo's infinite future. Even if we have to wait another 15 years for the next chapter, it'll take at least that long to truly absorb Black Messiah.
What a time to be Drake. Toronto's finest enjoyed a hell of a year – his beef with Meek Mill turned out to be the most lopsided rap battle since LL Cool J crushed Canibus, and he dominated playlists from "Know Yourself" in the winter to "Hotline Bling" in the fall. It all started with this, his purest hip-hop move in ages, which he called a mixtape even though it sold through the roof. No pop hooks, no romance, just a tightly sequenced set of rap cuts where he plays directly to his base by venting his anger and paranoia. He disses his own record label and kvetches about groupies as only he can: "I got bitches asking me about the code for the Wi-Fi." He even complains about driving his girl to her bar exam through the snow – perhaps the most Drake-ish grouse ever. This is the darkest record he's ever made, yet it easily cleared a million copies sold in a year when virtually no one else did. Even when Aubrey Drake Graham downplays his pop side, he runs the game.
The feverish four-year wait for the follow-up to Adele's triple-platinum blockbuster, 21, was unlike anything we've seen this decade – and she didn't disappoint on this thunderous triumph. 25 tells the story of a young woman making her uneasy peace with adulthood, like Carole King on Tapestry. The pop-savvy "Water Under the Bridge" and the soaring piano ballad "Remedy" take on relationship drama with realist fire, while the lighthearted "Sweetest Devotion" dances right into ecstasy. Adele and her A-list co-conspirators (Max Martin, Tobias Jesso Jr.) fly from drum-cannon Eighties balladry to classic gospel and blues to the kind of piano power surges that are her epic signature, holding it all together with the nuanced, towering vocal performances that have already made her iconic. "If you're not the one for me/Then how come I can bring you to your knees?" she sings. On 25, she does it over and over again.
Musically, lyrically and emotionally, Kendrick Lamar's third album is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece – a sprawling epic that's both the year's most bumptious party music and its most gripping therapy session. A rap superstar at last, after years on the underground grind, Lamar wrestles with the depression and survivor's guilt that followed his fame and success by turning to heroes from Ralph Ellison and Richard Pryor to Smokey Robinson and Kris Kross to Nelson Mandela and Tupac. He lives large. He contains multitudes.
The pleasures and rewards of To Pimp a Butterfly aren't easy. Leading the charge to bring live instrumentation back to hip-hop, Lamar and producer Sounwave call forth a sound as ambitious, free-associative and challenging as his rhymes: sci-fi funk on "Wesley's Theory," snatches of free jazz on "For Free?," steady-rolling G-funk on "King Kunta." Over all this, Lamar – his voice raw or multitracked into its own chorus – interrogates himself and a country where everything from his ancestors to his art has always been for sale. He repeatedly returns to a moment when he found himself alone in a hotel room, distraught and screaming. "I didn't want to self-destruct," he says. "So I went running for answers." The search is never-ending.