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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
40

Songhoy Blues, ‘Music in Exile’

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.

50 Best Albums of 2015
39

Muse, ‘Drones’

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.

50 Best Albums of 2015
38

Ashley Monroe, ‘The Blade’

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.

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.