1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Too many great albums this year for a mere Top 10 — just cutting it down to my 20 favorites is a challenge. But even in a year as bountiful as 2015, Kendrick loomed over everyone, an already-crowned Greatest Rapper Alive reaching so much further than he needed to. He lives up to all the boasts of “Control” with a sprawling state-of-the-union address that’s also a personal tale of leaving home and getting lost. Even in such a public musical event, it’s full of hushed moments you can pass by for months before rediscovering. The one that hits hardest for me is the president’s favorite: “How Much a Dollar Cost,” where Thom Yorke piano chords and a Ronnie Isley vocal cameo haunt K-Dot’s head while he contemplates everything he dreads about his past and his future.
2. Grimes, Art Angels
My favorite bathroom-wall graffiti of 2015, from the beloved Bushwick rock bar Palisades: “if you like her because you like chaos … and her sadness makes you care … LEAVE HER THE FUCK ALONE.” Apart from making me wish I’d used this bathroom when I was 19, this message is basically the takeaway from Grimes’ synth-pop time bomb. Claire Boucher warps her voice in an electro hall of mirrors, whether she’s playing a bloodthirsty cheerleader in “Kill vs. Maim” or an ingenue in “California,” venting feelings of fury and desire so intense they can devour a heart from the inside. (She sings less like Kate Bush than the Utah Saints sampling Kate Bush, which is quite a feat.) What Room 237 did for The Shining, she does for the fourth Bananarama album. In a year when most worthwhile music was either raging noise or flirty twirl-pop, Grimes wanted to be both.
3. Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
Fact: Every day you don’t air-drum along with Janet Weiss at least once is a waste of your time. Sleater-Kinney came back strong, not just playing the year’s fiercest shows — the best live band I saw in 1996 was the best live band I saw in 2015; no surprise there — but bringing these urgent new tunes when they could have just played the hits. Something I love about their reunion is how un-neurotic it is: There’s no redemption arc, nothing that needed proving, just a bunch of great new songs that wanted to get written, and who else was gonna do it? Renewals like this practically never happen. But this one did. Turn it on, turn it on, turn it on.
4. Royal Headache, High
Best stage banter of 2015, courtesy of Royal Headache singer Shogun: “This song’s about getting older. I like it. Being young sucks. You guys have a lot to look forward to.” I never heard of these Australian punks before, but they kick through their wild mood swings all over High, savagely sincere yet almost always funny, all in half an hour.
5. Ought, Sun Coming Down
Singer Tim Darcey sounds exactly like Mark E. Smith, except he has flickers of compassion for other humans, which means he sounds nothing like Mark E. Smith. The Montreal quartet aims for Mission of Burma clang and the groove-monster side of the Fall — a harsh sound, yet an oddly life-affirming one. Good question: “Excuse me, would you say there’s a chance of bringing this whole fucker down?”
6. Future, DS2
What a time to be quasi-semi-alive. The Atlanta spaceman rebounded huge in 2015: Hope he can remember some of it. On DS2, he reels from breaking up with Ciara, renames himself “Future Hendrix,” goes Axis: Bold AF, sips on that dirty Sprite, pops the wrong pills, fucks up multiple commas, all that synth-slobber in his voice capturing the sound of lying face-down at the strip club in a puddle of bad memories. As Ozzy might say, he’s seen the future and he’s left it behind.
7. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
This year’s “you think it’s easy, but you’re wrong” prize goes to this Australian songwriter, who did a bunch of mega-obvious rock & roll tricks in a mega-obvious Pavement/Hole/Hatfield/Breeders way that nonetheless only gets done right every half-dozen years or so. Most of the ragged-school tunes here couldn’t have taken her more than 20 minutes to write — that’s part of their charm. Late-night driving babble of the year: “Dead Fox.”
8. Selena Gomez, Revival
For reasons too complex to explain, I was spending a lot of time this spring with Alanis’ Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (thank U, India!) and that’s the vibe Selena goes for here, a pop concept album about unloading psychic dead weight. “I mean I could, but why would I want to?” says it all sometimes. It’s practically a greatest-hits album in one go — where the metaphorical gin meets the literal juice.
9. Protomartyr, The Agent Intellect
These Detroit boys have a way of making other music sound timid and vaguely fraudulent. Protomartyr plumb that vibe of booze-soaked noir despair, via Greg Ahee’s guitar — his 22-second solo in “Pontiac 87” stings. Joe Casey remains a darkly comic poet of staring-at-the-nearest-floor moments, especially in “Uncle Mother’s,” the tale of an old folks’ bar where everybody leaves their kids in the parking lot. The moral of the story: “You’re welcome to enter, but if I was you, I would not.”
10. PWR BTTM, Ugly Cherries
Life goals: “I want a boy who thinks it’s sexy when my lipstick bleeds.” All over this debut, the guitar/drum duo extol their ideal of queer punk romance. (“We can do our makeup in the parking lot/ We can get so famous that we both get shot” — that kind of thing.) The peak is “All the Boys,” where these imperial post-teens steal one of my favorite never-stolen-before New Wave guitar hooks, from the Knack’s deep cut “Frustrated” — while the dude singer whimpers about not getting enough action, girl singers chime in: “Bitch, I might be!”
11. Adele, 25
In a year of electric youth, Adele dropped a mom-core manifesto so defiantly adult, the hit single’s about a landline. (AOL Keyword: “feelings.”) Jim Croce, the king of the late-night drunk-dial soft-rock ballad, must be smiling down on Adele here, although she’s not into concrete details like “the number on the matchbook is old and faded,” much less “you can keep the dime.” Nobody can step to Queen Ad-Rock’s dramatic-pause-and-belt game: I hope Samuel L. Jackson covers this entire album, because only he could do it justice. Adele’s record-shattering sales prove how many humans’ idea of fun is to spend 45 minutes or so focusing on something cool, preferably a fellow human with recognizable heart and soul, asking questions we all have: Where do broken hearts go? Why do good things never want to stay? Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore? How do you say goodnight to an answering machine? Third-best line: “You couldn’t handle the hot heat rising.” Second-best line: “It’s so cold out here in your wilderness.” Best line: well, obviously, “It’s so typical of me to talk about myself.”
12. Deafheaven, New Bermuda
The blackgaze warriors make a metal Seventeen Seconds, five long songs enveloped in fluffy blankets of noise. I always love songs about “Baby Blue,” whether Badfinger, Bob Dylan, Gene Vincent, Action Bronson or the Echoes, but Deafheaven’s is the loudest — in the final minutes, it turns into Badfinger, with waves of acoustic guitar and piano. And “Brought to the Water” sounds like Sixpence None the Richer, which is my idea of eclecticism.
13. Drake, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
The title sounds like Drake desperately trying to break his self-Googling phone-tapping habit: Yes, you know it’s stupid; you know it derails your brain; as the computer says about tic-tac-toe at the end of War Games, the only winning move is not to play; but if you’re reading this, it’s too late. (Like the words of the late great Michael O’Donoghue: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life, and already you’ve fucked it up.”) Drizzy gets all in his feelings, griping about the girls in Miami (“too messy”!), groupies who ask for the wi-fi code, the ex he had to drive to her bar exam. But complaining about Drake complaining would be like complaining there’s snow in Toronto — which of course he does.
14. Lana Del Rey, Honeymoon
Lana invites you to “kiss while we do it” like that’s some arcane fetish only the freakiest of the freaks do. Jesus, that’s creepy, and it’s one of the most upbeat songs on an album full of deeply creepy Lananovelas. My sentimental fave is “Salvatore” — oh, the tragedy of falling in love with the ice cream man. Trust me, Lana, nothing but heartbreak in that soft-serve machine. Ciao, amore.
15. Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp
Katie Crutchfield goes for bolder rock moves (dig that “woo-hoo-hoo” chorus in “La Loose”) without losing any of her raw introspective bedroom-poet vibe. “Air” has one of the year’s saddest punch lines: “You were patiently giving me everything that I will never need.”
16. Vince Staples, Summertime’06
Grim tales for grim times: Long Beach gangsta scenarios from a 22-year-old master storyteller who says “fuck gangsta rap,” because there’s no way to glamorize the streets he’s seen. Top boast: “I feel like Mick and Richards/They feel like Muddy Waters.”
17. One Direction, Made in the A.M.
A bittersweet symphony of a goodbye. 1D exit at the height of their fame with songs that indulge the craziest extremes of their pop classicism. Is this the Nilsson Schmilsson of the “making trouble up in hotel rooms” lifestyle or the Odessey and Oracle of the “let’s write a song about Taylor Swift’s cat” era? Both, clearly. Here’s to those solo records.
18. Destruction Unit, Negative Feedback
Psychedelic guitar freaks from the Sonoran Desert make evil noise that burns holes in any substance you expose to it, brain tissue included. Technical note: listening to “Chemical Reaction/Chemical Delight” not on vinyl is like eating gazpacho with a whisk.
19. Hop Along, Painted Shut
Frances Quinlan makes her songs messy on purpose, with her fervently emotional voice spinning all over the place — the song that clinches the album for you might be a deal-breaker for me, and vice versa. Pick of the litter: “Sister Cities,” a high-speed free-association ramble about missing a hometown you’ve never seen.
20. Duran Duran, Paper Gods
Wild boys always shine. As with Sleater-Kinney, of all bands, the Durannies make their shrewdly timed return with a record that aces the Pretend It’s a Debut test. Their artiest, gothiest, most stylistically omnivorous album since the Eighties — not to mention their biggest hit since their white-blazer-with-no-shirt days. And via Eagles of Death Metal’s version of “Save a Prayer,” DD accidentally came to symbolize everything humane and tolerant about secular culture in 2015, as well as its tawdriest pop pleasures. Dance into the fire, indeed.