The 50 Best Albums of 2015

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2015 saw some highly anticipated returns by some of our favorite artists—Sleater-Kinney, Wilco, Kendrick Lamar, Father John Misty, Sufjan Stevens—but what perhaps what was most notable about this year in music was the amount of remarkable debut albums from new artists. Leon Bridges, Tobias Jesso Jr, Beach Slang, Palehound and Natalie Prass all wowed us with their very first full-length efforts—a reason to celebrate this year’s work but also look ahead to the great music that they might produce in 2016 and beyond. For this year’s list, we polled Paste editors, writers and interns and wound up with votes for over 200 albums. Whittling that down to 50 was no easy task, but without further ado, we present the Best Albums of 2015.

50. Calexico – Edge of the Sun
calexico-edge.jpgEspecially in a year when political rhetoric surrounding immigrants and refugees has veered toward rabidly xenophobic, Calexico are sadly more timely than ever on their ninth album. Frontman Joey Burns writes songs out of immense empathy, wondering about the lives and dreams and fears and desires of the kinds of people most often viewed as statistics in the United States. Songs like “Beneath the City of Dreams” and “Cumbia Donde” are about real people loose in the world, finding power and identity in their own rootlessness—an idea echoed in the music itself. Edge of the Sun brings together artists from all over the world, including Mexican songwriters (Carla Morrison, Gaby Moreno), Spanish vocalists (Amparo Sánchez), a Greek band (Tikam), and North American indie artists (Ben Bridwell, Neko Case). It’s a sturdy vision of world music, lively and passionate and thoughtful and—especially at the beginning of closer “Follow the River”—very often beautiful. —Stephen M. Deusner

49. Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle
jb-sprained.jpgShe may be uncomfortable talking about her drug and alcohol abuse, a near-death experience and failed relationships, but Memphis singer-songwriter Julien Baker sees her music as safe space to examine past troubles. Baker’s skill lies in her narrative songwriting, which pierces her experiences to the bone. Now, completely sober, having quit even cigarettes, Baker works out her troubles on Sprained Ankle, collection of beautifully arranged folk songs using mostly her voice, a guitar and reverb. After playing in a post-rock band in high school, she began to rein in her demons and write on her own. Out came lyrics about wrapping a car around a streetlamp, having more whiskey than blood in her veins, time spent in ambulances, of an unbearable break-up with her girlfriend, and facing mortality. The new songs were more personal than her earlier efforts, and rather than take a poetic look at her misgivings, Baker is brutally honest about the ugliness she faced. Her lyrical battles are not only with herself, but also with God; like Jacob wrestling the angel. The result is a thing of beauty.—Roman Gokhman

48. Dilly Dally – Sore
dilly-sore.jpgThe ‘90s influence on Dilly Dally’s debut album, Sore, is undeniable, but to simply describe them in terms of Hole and the Pixies does a disservice to frontwoman Katie Monks, who somehow manages to blend together all those influences and come out with something unique and relevant to modern times. On “Snake Heads,” she’s Medusa, shrugging “Man, this bitch has gone crazy/she’ll make you turn to stone,” and on “Desire,” her gritty howl unapologetically leads an anthem to female wants “coming at you from against the world,” with the titular emotion “calling all my ladies.” Sure, you’ll love Sore if you’re a fan of Courtney Love or Frank Black, but ultimately it’s a skillful product of its time—an essential listen in 2015.—Bonnie Stiernberg

47. Pops Staples – Don’t Lose This
pops-dont.jpgThe posthumous release of Pops Staples’ Don’t Lose This is a reminder of the undeniable charisma of Pops, the patriarch of one of music’s great family acts, The Staples Singers. Recording on the album began in 1999, originally intended to be the last Staples Singers album, but was never finished after Pops passed away. In its completed state, it features both original vocal recordings from Pops and Mavis Staples, as well as bass and drums from Spencer and Jeff Tweedy, who handled the newer production. It doesn’t reveal its piecemeal construction in the slightest—rather, it sounds like a perfectly organic, relaxed blues/gospel session, capturing some masters simply enjoying each others’ companies on tracks such as “Somebody Was Watching” and “No News is Good News.” It feels like a family gathering that could have happened on the porch of a country house somewhere, rather than a recording studio—full of heart and love and earnest appreciation for the music.—Jim Vorel

46. Beirut – No No No
beirut-no.jpgBeirut may have begun as the solo project of singer/songwriter Zach Condon, but the musical globetrotter credits the rest of his now-five-piece band for helping turn all the fragments of songs he’d written during the tumultuous period since 2011’s The Rip Tide into a cohesive album. Few bands operate in musical territory all their own, but the way horns weave through these tender ballads remains unique and gives the music a distinct bittersweetness as teasingly joyous melodies belie Condon’s snippets of loneliness and heartache. Every time a song like “Perth,” offers a cheery groove, Condon undercuts it with lyrics like “You saw me at my worst / Ragged tires burning for miles / I ran until it hurt.” Condon lost and found love while writing these songs, but rather than write songs about either, each song on the record seems to carry bits of both, a beautiful jumble of emotions that hit you all at once.—Josh Jackson

45. Desaparecidos – Payola
d-payola.jpgAfter the success of Oberst’s Bright Eyes, the punk-leaning Desaparecidos seemed inked in the Nebraska indie history books as a one-and-done project after releasing the Read Music / Speak Spanish LP in 2002. But after Bright Eyes waned in the public spotlight, the band regrouped in 2010 for Nebraska’s Concert for Equality, an event that aimed to aide the repeal of anti-immigrant legislation in Fremont, Nebraska. A mini-tour in 2012 followed, and the ball started rolling on new material from the five-piece outfit. The inevitable LP doesn’t play out like an old band finding its footing. With an election just around the corner, Oberst and Co. seem anxious not only to churn out some great punk tunes, but to also turn that high-gain energy toward the political landscape. That energy is Payola’s best asset. Though its 14 tracks were recorded sporadically across something like three years with co-producer Mike Mogis, you’d be hard-pressed to hear a lack of momentum or consistency. The tracks cover a wide-range topically but with Oberst cutting any and all metaphorical fat, his points rise above the glorious racket of gliding synths and feedback. Rebellion hasn’t sounded this awesome—or honest—in a long time.—Tyler R. Kane

44. Purity Ring – Another Eternity
purity-ae.jpgPurity Ring have held stake to the claim of “most copied indie band of the last two years.” Like TV on the Radio and Animal Collective who came before them, having this title puts pressure on an artist to do something different yet still impactful the next time around. And this is where we find Purity Ring, on their sophomore album, Another Eternity, with producer Corin Roddick embracing a deeper influence in hip-hop and trap beats to pair with Megan James’ smooth, atmospheric and anatomical lyrics. The album’s crowning moment, and perhaps the most brilliant production from anyone in 2015, comes on “Flood on The Floor.” The intense trap keys that open the song build into a progressive composition that’s big, poppy and meant to resonate in everything from dance floors to headphones to cars with tricked-out stereo systems. It’s the kind of track you want to rewind and blast again on every listen. Another Eternity represents the confluence of hard trap beats with the formula for electro that gave rise to prevailing styles in indie music. It’s enough of a creative leap to perhaps usher in more copycats, but Purity Ring again checks in first.—Adrian Spinelli

43. Majical Cloudz – Are You Alone?
mc-alone.jpgFor singer Devon Welsh, the question posed by the title of his album is always rhetorical: Of course I’m alone—aren’t you? We’re each just selfish, isolated vessels: trapped by ourselves inside ourselves. So, throughout this, Majical Cloudz’s third full-length, Welsh and partner Matthew Otto inspect that loneliness as it manifests physically, Welsh pushing his voice to its uncomfortable fringes, and Otto rubbing out the already spare soundscapes of 2013’s Impersonator until they’re nothing but notions, ghosts of instruments and melodies. Between gauzy synths and the static-laced, leathery hint of a drum beat, Welsh describes one attempt at physical intimacy after another, from dancing in another’s shoes (“Control”), to sharing a Cronenberg-ian death with a lover mid-car-crash (“Silver Car Crash”), to straight-up ripping off Radiohead (“Are You Alone?”) to just trying to literally put on a happy face so as not to bum anyone out (“So Blue”). In “If You’re Lonely,” he belts, “I was lonely, but I felt afraid / Of being loved / I thought I didn’t need the pain / I thought that in my heart I had to be alone.” And then he quickly learns better: “So if you’re lonely, you don’t have to be…” Can it be so simple? With music this elemental, for a passing moment, it sure feels like it could be. —Dom Sinacola

42. My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall
mmj-waterfall.jpg My Morning Jacket’s seventh album is musically their most ambitious and emotionally their thorniest. The Waterfall was reportedly inspired by a bad break-up, and Jim James waxes philosophical about the experience, using the trauma to ponder the nature of love and existence. It’s a tough-minded album, arguably James’ best work as a lyric writer, and he neither retreats from harsh sentiments nor acts like he’s anything other than compromised and blameworthy. That dire quality, however, is offset by the generosity of the music, which skips around from ’80s power balladry to splintered krautrock to distressed Philly soul to fragmented reggae. Rarely have they sounded quite so dark or quite so human.—Stephen M. Deusner

41. Beach Slang – The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us
bs-things.jpgThe opening seconds of Beach Slang’s debut record sound like the release of years of bottled-up energy, an inextricable surge of frustration and determination. The cranked rhythm, loud, distorted guitars and gruff vocals of James Alex are the touchstones of Beach Slang’s melodic, meat-and-potatoes punk rock, but the beating heart of the band’s music is Alex’s earnest, forthcoming songwriting. A perpetual unease frames these songs, and the antidote, the lifeline that Alex hangs onto, comes from the music itself, mined from the same portion of the soul where Beach Slang heroes like The Replacements and Jawbreaker toiled. The Things We Do is a record for anyone who’s ever felt, even for a moment, that music is what matters the most. For any hard-luck kid or nowhere bum who needs it, that escape is heaven.—Eric Swedlund

40. Ryan Adams – 1989
ra-1989.jpgFor the year’s highest-profile covers record, Ryan Adams took pop princess Taylor Swift’s record-breaking 1989 and transformed it from made-for-Top 40 hits into something less radio-friendly, but far more complex. The lyrics are almost unchanged but the layers behind Swift’s songwriting have been peeled back, revealing something raw and vulnerable, completely changing what the song conveyed in many cases. In “All You Had To Do Was Stay,” Swift’s sassy confidence is replaced by Adams’ pleading heartbreak. Adams’ gravelly, monotone delivery in “Shake It Off” contrasts with Swift’s peppy horn-filled melody, making the song much less happy-go-lucky than Swift intended. It’s simple to manipulate a song into evoking a new emotion by changing major keys to minor, but it’s not easy to give completely different interpretations to the lyrics by adjusting arrangements. Swift has a knack for catchy lyrics relatable to millennials, but Adams makes it clear that her skill set goes beyond that. The former Whiskeytown frontman challenged himself to take conventional pop music and make it his own using his 20-plus years of musical experience. This unlikely pairing of talents created one of the most surprisingly moving albums of the year, and for that we have both artists to thank.—Annie Black

39. The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
decemberists-terrible.jpgIt was a welcome return after a four-year hiatus for The Decemberists, especially on a raucous live tour in support of the new album, but the source material also holds up quite well. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World seems to draw its influences from the beginning to the present of the band’s catalog—less twangy and Americana-infused than The King is Dead but certainly more grounded in reality than the hyper-literate days of Picaresque. It’s not the concept album of The Hazards of Love, but 14 bounding, stand-alone folk-pop numbers that can still dazzle with their imagery just as easy as they can relax into foot-stompers. The Decemberists as both a live and studio act have little left to prove, and What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is another fine entry in an impressive catalog.— Jim Vorel

38. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
as-sound.jpgThere are no more limits for Alabama Shakes—not even the sky. Staring down the dreaded slump that so often accompanies second albums, the band defied all Boys & Girls-based expectations, kicked “the box” to pieces and put together a 12-song set that is, in badass lead singer Brittany Howard’s words, “beautiful and strange” above all else. Tracks like “Shoegaze” and “Miss You” are reminiscent of the soulful yet straightforward retro blues-rock that defined the band’s Grammy-nominated first outing, but beyond that, Sound & Color sees the Shakes growing in a far deeper and more dynamic direction. Howard and company have never been funkier than they are on the irresistible “Don’t Wanna Fight” and “Future People,” while “Gemini” and the dreamy title track demonstrate that the Shakes are just as comfortable floating through space as they are on solid ground. —Scott Russell

37. Ashley Monroe – The Blade
am-blade.jpgAshley Monroe has, for the most part, been relegated to something of a support role in her career, working with Jack White, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton. On her own, Monroe has garnered some critical accolades and the respect of her peers, but little movement commercially. On The Blade, Monroe and her collaborators’ work have the perfect earworm hooks and dynamics that would sound great nestled in between Shelton’s ode to “Sangria” or Joe Nichols’ lustful tailgate party, but these songs aren’t bombastic enough to break through the easily distracted mindset of the modern country radio programmer. The hooks are there—and they stick in deep—but there’s no EDM bluster or rock histrionics cooked into the stew. Monroe and her producers Vince Gill and Justin Niebank have created something a lot more even-keeled. That puts a heck of a lot of pressure on Monroe to take charge throughout, but she rises to the challenge, belting out “I’m Good At Leavin’” like she was aiming for the cheap seats at the Grand Ole Opry, gently purring through “Mayflowers,” and throwing a little Loretta Lynn sass down on the rave-up “Winning Streak.” She knows she’s the star of this show, and she burns brightly throughout.—Robert Ham

36. Battles – La Di Da Di
battles-lddd.jpgFrom the opening moments of “The Yabba,” the first track from Battles’ third studio LP La Di Da Di, a kind of tribal bemusement rears its digital maw. Bedazzled by a crescendo of reversed, looped blips, sleigh bells and the persistence of some unknown looming catharsis, “The Yabba” unfolds like a hard-drive nightmare and blooms suddenly into a pixelated psychedelic wonderland. It’s a sign of things to come on the tech-themed La Di Da Di, and a highly listenable mishmash of weirdness that only Battles could have dreamed up. The group now functions without a vocalist, and in compositions readymade for bumper music, video games, commercials for shiny tech things, the soundtrack to a motherboard’s biopic and other flexible uses, La Di Da Di is a unique listen, giving large responsibility to the listener to determine or interpret the parameters of its far-reaching sonic liberties. However you decipher the 1s and 0s, the songs comprising La Di Da Di are timeless vestiges of sound, and by that virtue alone are going to be around for a long time. The fact that they just so happen to be timeless vestiges of sound that are exceedingly pleasing to listen to is icing on the cake for all of mankind, and probably some of robotkind, too.—Ryan J. Prado

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