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.