The 25 Best Albums of 2015 So Far

The music of 2015 has been marked, at least so far, by its need to speak from the soul. Though this may sound broad enough to apply to any year’s cultural agenda should you slice it the right way, many of this year’s best albums have expressed the self through bold vulnerability.

There’s the intense: Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples’ soulful rage against systemic oppression, Sufjan Stevens’ most personal album ever, Jenny Hval and Torres’ deep-cutting explorations of identity, Father John Misty’s wild trip through the ego and back. And then there’s the candid: Colleen Green trying to act her age, Courtney Barnett making peace with less than perfection, Miguel trying to “fuck like we’re filming in the Valley.” All make for must-hear listens.

Natalie Prass — Natalie Prass

There was a point in the late 1960s and early 1970s when country and soul fused together, resulting in full-band dramatics across varying taste levels — and the swooning heartbreak that served as those two genres’ common ground thrives again under the whimsical watch of pop singer Natalie Prass. The Nashville newcomer, who previously served as a member of Jenny Lewis’ touring band, updated the brass-y blue-eyed soul of Dusty Springfield perfectly with her self-titled debut released this past January. “I just want to know you violently/ I’ve had enough with talking politely,” she croons sweetly on string-saturated standout “Violently,” though she herself is not one to break character and go HAM on the one who did her wrong. It shows a lot of restraint to funnel that frustration into flute solos and spoken-word passages. — Jillian Mapes

Sleater-Kinney — No Cities To Love

When seminal feminist rock trio Sleater-Kinney released their first album in a decade in January, they proved that not only have they not lost one ounce of their fierceness, they’re dropping more world-weary wisdom than ever. As I wrote in my No Cities To Love review earlier this year, “It’s easy to be pissed off about the way the world is when you’re young. Before any of your earnest attempts to inspire change have gone sideways or been misunderstood. Before the messiness of life demands you tend to it. There is, however, every incentive to be political when you’re older, once you’ve experienced how The Rules affect the way you live. It’s just not typically how it goes in punk rock. We’re lucky to be able to watch Sleater-Kinney explore this underserved territory with heart, wisdom, and energy. No Cities to Love is no uncertain proof of that fact.” —JM

Mark Ronson — Uptown Special

Mark Ronson not only had a bona fide smash on his hands with fourth album Uptown Special, he assembled it using unlikely players: fellow production/songwriting powerhouses like Jeff Bhasker and Andrew Wyatt, future rock gods like Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, superstars like Stevie Wonder and Bruno Mars. Even Mystikal stopped by to wax poetic about flatulence on a James Brown update, “Feel Right.” Each player brought a different shade of vintage soul and psychedelia to Uptown Special, but under Ronson’s careful curation, all find a home on his delicious rainbow of funk, which is the year’s best pop album to date.  — JM

Heems — Eat Pray Thug

Last summer, while his debut solo album was in label purgatory, Heems tweeted, “I don’t make radio hits. Who the fuck you think you signed? I make post-9/11 dystopian brown man rap. Not very radio friendly.” Eat Pray Thug finally saw its release this year, and while the former Das Racist member may not make songs that scream mass appeal, his perspective is worth being heard widely. Eat Pray Thug explores what it means to be of Indian descent in the overly gentrified Brooklyn of 2015. Heems tempers his message-heavy frustrations with plenty of punchlines, commentary on rap itself, and a fascination with old-school New York hip-hop. As Craig Jenkins wrote in Flavorwire’s review of Eat Pray Thug, “Hip-hop needs artists like Heems tossing sidewinders into our shortsighted, America-centric discourse.” — JM

Unknown Mortal Orchestra — Multi-Love

Ruban Nielson, the primary force behind UMO, used his third album as an opportunity to chronicle his own year of magical thinking. As the New Zealand-born musician crafted the Multi-Love‘s warped psych-funk (think Tame Impala but less overtly rock) downstairs in his home studio, he and his wife navigated unknown terrain upstairs by introducing accidental polyamory into their family life. Nielson explores what this means across various levels of subconscious articulation, but the music’s groove stays constant in its ability to, as I phrased in a recent piece, “scratch an itch you didn’t know you had, much like Of Montreal in the band’s mid-’00s prime.” — JM

Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly

Music critics (including us) went batshit about this record on its release, and unless Kanye’s Swish is exponentially better than everyone expects, To Pimp a Butterfly is likely to top end-of-year lists everywhere. With all that said, it remains a strange, unique record — it’s definitely less approachable than good kid, m.A.A.d city, and on first listen it’s more bewildering than thrilling. The best art isn’t always immediately appealing, though, and three months later this still feels like a strange old mansion in which we’re still discovering hidden rooms.  — Tom Hawking

Alabama Shakes — Sound & Color

Alabama Shakes emerged three years ago as promising purveyors of retro rock’n’roll. Singer Brittany Howard’s expressive howl was the best thing about the band’s debut,  Boys & Girls; with Sound & Color, her voice meets its match in songwriting that goes above and beyond indelible riffs and catchy hooks. People may bemoan the lack of bands like Led Zeppelin in our current age, but I’d argue that with the kind of impeccably played alternation between arena rock singles and more experimental jams nodding to psychedelic soul, Alabama Shakes are on their way to assuming the throne.  — JM

Jenny Hval — Apocalypse, girl

If 2013’s Innocence Is Kinky was the album that essentially introduced American audiences to Norwegian art-pop musician, artist, and writer Jenny Hval, then Apocalypse, girl is the album that will allow her to be truly heard. An exploration of the self that navigates childhood memories and gender struggles through Björk-esque belting and orchestral noise-pop, Apocalypse, girl poses such questions as, “What is the deepest human longing?”, “What is it to take care of yourself?” and most crucially, “What is soft-dick rock?” — JM

Shamir — Ratchet 

On his first LP, Vegas-bred newcomer Shamir Bailey finishes what he started on the post-genre menagerie that was his promising debut EP, last year’s Northtown. Ratchet is one of the year’s most energizing and eclectic listens, straddling the lines between disco, house, punk, pop, and R&B, all led by Bailey’s captivating and androgynous vocals. Just 20, Shamir captures the extreme highs and lows of youth by alternating Sylvester-esque polish with James Murphy’s raw approach to dance music. Flavorwire’s Moze Halperin got to the heart of Shamir’s aura in a recent profile. — JM

Holly Herndon — Platform

Describing an album as “interesting” rather than “enjoyable” is usually the kiss of death, an epithet that people tend to use for records they never actually listen to but still feel like they should like. Platform, though, is interesting in the very best sense of the word — at times it’s more like sound art than music, a collage of the sounds that describe and define our existence in the age of internet ennui. But crucially, there’s a human heart beating beneath the noise, making Platform an experience that’s life-affirming rather than alienating. — TH

Father John Misty — I Love You, Honeybear

After leaving Fleet Foxes, singer-songwriter Josh Tillman re-emerged in a big way as Father John Misty with 2012’s Fear Fun. It proved to be one of the year’s best folk-rock albums, balancing dark humor with sobering earnestness, pop hooks with delicate beauty. By contrast, I Love You, Honeybear is, as I said in a profile of Father John Misty earlier this year, “an album that’s so emotionally intense, Tillman’s one-liners about girls who misuse the word ‘literally’ serve as necessary comic relief. The songs on I Love You, Honeybear dive deep into Tillman’s journey from a commitment-phobic, narcissistic wanderer to someone who holds concrete ideas about what it means to love and to be loved — but maybe still struggles with those other things.” Yet with its easy swagger, dreamy slide guitar, and over-the-top strings, I Love You, Honeybear is a satisfying listen that transcends its lofty goals. — JM

Miguel — Wildheart

Though it’s not out for another week, Miguel’s third album must not be missed for fans of any of the genres he caresses: R&B, hip-hop, pop, arena rock, psychedelia, electronic music, funk, soul… oh, that’s most of the genres, then. For 2012’s Kaleidoscope Dream, his charismatic and sexed-up take on R&B-pop, inspired by what was happening outside R&B, drew comparisons to Prince. Wildheart now arrives at the Purple One’s altar with a fully realized vision for making this genre relevant to the masses in the future. Wildheart is streaming now via NPR.

Courtney Barnett — Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

Courtney Barnett’s proper debut is musical Xanax for high-strung rock’n’roll fans. Like any good storyteller, Barnett uses conflict to great effect in her narrative songs. Yet her way of rolling with the punches — when others’ expectations are too much, when trips take a turn, when she’s feeling blue — while still honoring her neurosis is inspired and inspiring. While her lyrical voice has quickly become signature, Barnett’s songs span musical decades, from ’60s psych-pop to ’90s alt via Breeders and Pavement to all eras of jangle-pop. — JM

PC Music — PC Music, Vol. 1

Divisive British electronic collective PC Music graduated from SoundCloud this year with this “greatest hits so far” of sorts. Listening all in a row to songs intended for à la carte internet consumption points out how despite being unified by a chintzy-on-purpose dance-pop vision, PC Music’s main players (leader A.G. Cook, Hannah Diamond, GFOTY, Danny L Harle) vary in how they arrive at this aesthetic. While Hannah Diamond’s “Every Night” is one Jock Jam beat and reverse lobotomy away from making it onto Carly Rae Jepsen’s next album, Girlfriend of the Year’s “USA” walks the line between bubblegum novelty and mischievous experimentation. Much of PC’s output flirts, albeit robotically, with this dichotomy, and that’s a big part of the crew’s fun. — JM

Colleen Green — I Want To Grow Up

Ready to feel understood? Anyone who’s shakily staring down the barrel — or reeling from the impact — of a 30th birthday will find their greatest anxieties echoed in the grunge-pop confessions of Colleen Green. On her third album, the LA-based Green wraps melodies reminiscent of that dog. around such relatable frustrations as the title track’s “I’m sick of wondering what’s gonna become my life/ And I’m tired of having no control” and “Deeper Than Love’s” inquiry into whether she’ll ever find the love of her life — or if she even wants to. And for those who haven’t quite given up all their bad 20-something habits yet, nothing beats the two-part self-flagellation fest “Things That Are Bad For Me,” which transitions beautifully from slow, gloomy fuzz to hooky pop. — Judy Berman

Torres — Sprinter 

On her second full-length, Mackenzie Scott — who records as Torres — abandons the quieter folk-rock inclinations of her promising 2013 self-titled debut in favor of a blistering distortion-rock record, co-produced by PJ Harvey associate Rob Ellis. The task at hand, however, calls for this treatment: it is here that Scott cuts painfully deep into the isolation, fear, and anger that so often accompanies the journey to find oneself, oftentimes on the way out youth’s door. (Read Flavorwire’s recent — and quite intense — interview with Torres.)  — JM

Joey Bada$$ — B4.DA.$$

If you like old-school ’90s rap, then Joey Bada$$ is your man — so much so that it’s undermined his critical kudos in some corners (Pitchfork’s Nate Patrin snipes here, for instance, that “Firsthand truths take longer to sink in when they’re delivered with secondhand styles.”) But really, if you’re gong to embrace your influences, then you could do a lot worse than Illmatic and Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). And anyway, the fact that this record was made in 2015 is a salutary reminder that very little has changed in the intervening 22 years for the residents of New York who don’t live in Manhattan or the gentrified areas of Brooklyn — an observation that the rapper himself makes on “Piece of Mind,” consciously echoing Nas as he notes “Back in New York, same shit is going on.” Same shit, different voice — and a compelling one, at that. — TH

Bully — Feels Like

These Nashville-dwelling disciples of ’90s alt and punk screams released their debut album just this week, but with its tight and tough ‘tude, Feels Like quickly shoots to the top of the 2015’s rock releases. While songs like “Brainfreeze” give away Bully’s Southern garage-rock pedigree, standouts like “Trash” and “Milkman” position them as disciples of Hole who were raised on Pop Goes Punk  compilations. Singer Alicia Bognanno can achieve a Courtney Love scream, but she also possesses a wide vocal range that allows Bully to tap into vulnerability without sounding ragged. — JM

Jessica Pratt — On Your Own Love Again

While California singer-songwriter Jessica Pratt’s subtle debut LP drew comparisons to folk icons like Joni Mitchell and Vashti Bunyan, her vocal inflections transport slow-burning follow-up On Your Own Love Again to another, altogether otherworldly, level. As I wrote when I interviewed her earlier this year, “Pratt’s constantly evolving lilt, nimble acoustic finger picking, and fondness for minor tonality create a sound that is unsettled yet delicately at peace with that fact. Listening to On Your Own Love Again is like staring into a mirror that’s survived decades without cracking but hasn’t escaped its fair share of warping.” — JM

Vince Staples — Summertime ’06

This isn’t even out yet, but fuck it, in the age of the internet, that’s never stopped anyone before, and a couple of listens to the NPR stream (which is here, if you’ve not partaken yet) has been enough to convince us that this deserves a place on any list of the best of 2015 to date. Twenty-two years after Doggystyle, Staples’ lyrics remind us that there’s still a lot of drama in the LBC, and his songs explore both the source of that drama — on “Get Paid,” he notes that “Money is the means of control,” echoing Joey Bada$$’s observation that “It’s the dollar bill that kills y’all” — and the way it perpetuates the neighborhood’s ills. — TH

Jamie xx — In Colour 

On his solo debut, Jamie Smith of The xx offers up a sample-heavy array of electronic sounds that range from, “I need to be alone,” to “I need to be alone yet here I am in a crowded room,” to finally “Fuck it, I might as well enjoy myself while I’m here.” Years in the making, In Colour features three songs involving his associates in The xx — Romy and Oliver Sim — that show his past and give In Colour its quieter moments. But despite Smith’s ability to craft some of the most understated and contemplative dance music in the mainstream, his debut’s finest moments are when he turns his tasteful eye towards bangers and emerges with the dancehall-heavy group jam “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” and the breakbeat parade “Gosh.” — JM

https://soundcloud.com/octobersveryown/drake-6-god

Drake — If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late

When Drake surprise-dropped a new album dressed in a mixtape’s clothes just before Valentine’s Day, the internet rushed to contemplate whether he’d lost ‘it’ or was just mastering his production-fueled tight-pole walk between pop and rap. “This is Drake In Full, an artist near the peak of his talents delivering his most complete vision…” Gary Suarez asserted in Flavorwire’s review of the album.  “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late has red meat for his rap fans while staying palatable for his pop fans, a balancing act very few ever achieve and even less so at this level. Drake is out here shifting both paradigms and units while most rappers are still struggling with the latter.” — JM

Hop Along — Painted Shut

I said it once and I’ll say it again: Hop Along singer Frances Quinlan’s voice has the ability to knock you dead with every little sandpaper catch of her throat. The qualities epitomized by her voice — delicate and agile yet crude and rough around the edges — are mimicked in the music and lyrics here on the Philadelphia band’s stunning sophomore album. This is rock’n’roll made by people who’ve lived a bit — with a strong punk sensibility about them, no less — yet still possess the vulnerable emo-folk sensibilities of Rilo Kiley and Bright Eyes.  The result is truly singular, amidst a sea of would-be soundalikes. — JM

Major Lazer — Peace Is the Mission 

When Diplo side project Major Lazer debuted with Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do in 2009, it would have been hard to envision the Jamaican-made dancehall project’s current direction: hip-hop-inspired bangers and ear-wormy EDM ballads led by female vocalists like Ellie Goulding, Ariana Grande, and MØ. Diplo has proven himself as one of pop’s go-to producers in the last five years, particularly for pop that’s as interesting, at least production-wise, as it is hedonistically satisfying. With Peace Is the Mission, Diplo’s talents fully reflect within Major Lazer.

Sufjan Stevens — Carrie & Lowell

“Carrie & Lowell will undoubtedly end up on the year-end lists of people who crave sad or introspective music, but it won’t be because Stevens focused on mortality and family, two of the most universal topics that exist,” I wrote in my review of this harrowing album a few months back. “The specific circumstances surrounding the album are unique — Stevens’ mother, Carrie, left his family when he was just a year old and remained a sporadic presence in his life due to mental illness and drug abuse, until her death from stomach cancer in late 2012 — but it’s Stevens’ total honesty that allows the listener to understand his experiences and find empathy within them. Without his commitment to a warts-and-all approach, Carrie & Lowell wouldn’t be nearly as powerful. Albums about death are inherently albums about life, and Sufjan Stevens finally told the story of his own.” — JM