The 50 Best Albums of 2015

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35. Palehound – Dry Food
pale-df.jpgTwenty-one-year-old Ellen Kempner’s guitar prowess is Palehound’s staff of light, a six-stringed burning ember that guides you through her fractured song structures and doleful take on coming-of-age, the basis of Dry Food, an eight-song exploration of Kempner’s mental inner space during the period of 2013 and ‘14. Complex dynamics keep the album’s tracks from blending together into a giant collage, like the colorful travel magazine cutouts that create the cover art. The only constants are Kempner’s guitar and whispering vocals, which draw you into her dark world on tracks like “Molly,” where her counter-melody guitar riff gets attacked by fuzzed-out power chords. Kempner’s soft vocals puncture the heart with earnestness on tracks like “Dry Food” and create distance with the reverb-soaked “Cinnamon,” where her voice interweaves masterfully with gently strummed guitar chords. Dry Food bleeds with emotional truth through a thorny lineage to Kurt Cobain-esque dissociation and mental anguish—which is why it was written in isolation, with Kempner playing all the parts except for drums. Dry Food seems possessed by the ghost of Elliott Smith. There are painful reminders all over this record of what it feels like to be tortured, lonely, abused and directionless—which can be exhausting through eight sugar-free songs. Most of Kempner’s lyrics aren’t easy to decipher, either, but combined with nuanced minor key changes, and juxtaposed with her childlike falsetto, they remind you of the dark-twinkle in the eyes of Sylvia Plath, where nothing is as it seems—like daydreaming over magazine cutouts of paradise, beyond reach.—Art Tavana

34. JD McPherson – Let the Good Times Roll
jd-good.jpgJD McPherson passed the follow-up album test with flying colors, dropping Let the Good Times Roll in February like a bomb of good old-fashioned retro rock ‘n roll. The swagger and charisma of the entire band oozes through the speakers in tracks like “Head Over Heels,” with syncopated handclaps that make you want to jump up and pretend you’re dancing in the audience of his live show. Together, they’re a group that has achieved a wonderful degree of comfortableness and understanding of their characters—like time-traveling, hair-slicked vagabonds, they arrive with a certain irreverence and nostalgia for sweaty, burger joint-appropriate rock, like something from the soundtrack of American Graffiti. Songs like “Mother of Lies” and “You Must Have Met Little Caroline?” are electrified master classes in the seemingly simple synthesis between fuzzy guitars and pounding piano keys. — Jim Vorel

33. Twerps – Range Anxiety
twerps-ra.jpgMelbourne, Australia’s Twerps don’t deviate far from the formula on Range Anxiety, their second album. Their songs are made of simple hooks with intricate guitar lines and picking on top of jangling chords. There’s often a hint of sadness, but they rarely sound dejected or resigned. Tempos don’t stray far from a steady lilt, and the rhythms remain straightforward. It’s simple and direct, and anybody who’s ever picked up a guitar or tried to write a song knows how hard it is to sound this easy. But even at their most technically complex, Twerps still maintain a low-key, laidback, indie-rock appeal. They pull off charming pop that sounds tender and thrilling at the same time. On “Back to You” Frawley sings “somebody out there is doing better than me,” but when it comes to this kind of pop music, nobody right now is doing it better than Twerps. —Garrett Martin

32. Royal Headache – High
rh-high.jpgPop-punk, as a term, might be irretrievably soiled, killed by malls and Hot Topic and every late ’90s teen comedy soundtrack. In the past, though, it was the entirely accurate description of all-timers like the Buzzcocks, the Jam and the Undertones, bands who united punk’s volume and energy with the hooks of pop music. Royal Headache’s second album masterfully taps into that original strain of pop-punk, blitzing through 10 primordially catchy songs in a half-hour. High slots easily into any number of rock ’n’ roll sub-genres—garage, punk, indie-rock—and even diehard ’60’s nostalgists could support Shogun’s blue-eyed soul vocals, which owe as much to Rod Stewart and Steve Marriott as any punk singer. Like the band’s first album, High is a new classic that sounds both fresh and out-of-time at once, and unlike anything you’d hear from the many other bands working in similar territory today.—Garrett Martin

31. Wilco – Star Wars
wilco-sw.jpgFrom its first discordant chords, Star Wars reintroduces a band that is toying with its own legacy. “EKG” is one minute, 15 seconds of jagged guitar notes, and on top of that it’s called “EKG.” It plays like a pretty withering parody of the migraine-soundtracking guitar spazz-outs that all but defined their 2004 album a ghost is born. Once the actual songs kick in, Wilco sound spryer, looser, livelier, wittier, and more fun than they have in years. And when was the last time anyone used “fun” to describe this serious band? As Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting has grown less linear and more impressionistic, the former alt-country band’s sound has expanded to encompass sounds and styles once relegated to the avant-garde margins: drone, motorik beats, distortion, dissonance, musique concrète. Star Wars incorporates all of that into its 10 songs, yet the results are somehow much different. They make “tossed-off” and “slight” sound like the utmost virtues, and most of these songs sound like they were recorded in real time, a handful musicians gathered in a circle at Pieholden Suite in Chicago. Star Wars might sound too clever by half if Jeff Tweedy didn’t take such obvious joy in the act of creation, and he hadn’t been couching his songs in domestic and professional life for years now, even decades. And yet, Wilco always withhold much more than they divulge, with lyrics hanging in the air, never quite settled or specific. That sense of life being just beyond his control lends the album an unexpected emotional heft, which keeps you listening over and over, trying to unlock the essential mysteries of this curious little album.—Stephen M. Deusner

30. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
nr-ns.jpgBefore Nathaniel Rateliff put together his new soul band the Night Sweats, the Denver musician was regarded as a latter-day folk singer on the fringes of Mumford & Sons’ neo-roots revival. Given his music, the designation was understandable, but it was also incomplete. There’s always been more than a little soul coursing through his songs, too. The Night Sweats, then, isn’t a new direction for Rateliff so much as a reconnection to music he’s been singing at least since it helped him pass the hours when he worked on a Denver loading dock before becoming a full-time musician. It’s a natural sound for Rateliff, so much so that this 11-song collection found a home on Stax, the revived Memphis label that was such a big part of soul music in the 1960s and ’70s. Indeed, these tunes have a vintage air about them in the trebly guitar riffs, bright sprays of brass and punchy basslines, circling tightly around rock-solid drums. Atop such a powerful engine, Rateliff glories in his role as soul shouter. And while the singer and his band are drawing on a classic form, their interpretation makes for an exciting and contemporary sound.—Eric R. Danton

29. Florence + Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
fm-how-big.jpgOn her followup to 2011’s one-dimensional Ceremonials, Florence Welch finds clever ways to enrich her bewitching blend of alt-pop, soul and art-rock. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful shows the British singer wringing out her usual quota of widescreen melodrama, but without the overwrought theatricality that dragged down much of her previous work. The 11 songs on Beautiful resonate in a deeper way by varying the sonic palette and focusing her words inward. Veering from soulful shouters (“Delilah”) to measured electro-pop ballads (“St. Jude”), Welch sounds liberated in Beautiful’s sprawl. —Ryan Reed

28. Guantanamo Baywatch – Darling, It’s Too Late
gb-darling.jpgIf there’s a single word that comes to mind when it comes to Guantanamo Baywatch’s latest endeavor Darling… It’s Too Late, it’s “fun.” The Portland rockers’ third LP was released via Suicide Squeeze Records this past May (peaches-and-cream vinyl notably available), and encompasses youthful mayhem, golden summers and good, ol’ fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. From instrumental tracks and sound effects paying homage to yesterday’s surf rock to dance-inducing lyricism and DIY undertones, the album is as debaucherous as ever, but also represents a new vision for the band—one that’s fully developed, pulling Guantanamo Baywatch away from their pun, and into a category all their own. Just don’t forget your sunscreen.—Brittany Joyce

27. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material
km-pageant.jpg Same Trailer, Different Park made Kacey Musgraves the darling outsider’s voice in today’s modern Nashville. The toast of the press, a sweet-voiced champion of where individualism meets alternative lifestyles, and truth-teller for the hypocrisy settles into a fuller, lusher sound on Pageant Material that draws on Glen Campbell, Bobbie Gentry, Ronnie Milsap, mid-career Haggard, ’60s pop and a bit of Laurel Canyon. Musgraves’ gospel of just getting along fleshes out with wit and a wink. Co-produced with Luke Laird and Shane McAnally, the album features a range of influences. There’s the high-plains, almost Mexican country that returns to one’s roots on “High Time,” the satin-smooth pop of the romantic languisher on “Late for the Party,” and the retro-waltz a la John Prine at his most poignant on “Fine.” At 26, Musgraves has kept her wonder, honed her focus and remained true to her core.—Holly Gleason

26. Vince Staples – Summertime ‘06
vs-summer.jpgThough Vince Staples’ proof was already in Stolen Youth, the 2013 mixtape he spit out with Mac Miller (Larry Fisherman), his major label debut—and first official full length—Summertime ’06 acts as an all-consuming testament to a talent far beyond its years. Not to sell Youth short, but Miller’s loosely saccharine production fit a Staples who’s cooled quite a bit since then. Today the rapper is all ice-cold edge, inside and out: refined, honed, sharp enough to cut subcutaneously. And so, on Summertime ’06, an older, wiser Staples digs in with Clams Casino, No I.D. and DJ Dahi, producers who represent the best of most generations of hip-hop, to help him carve out a sonic space better fit for his aging worldview. In turn, the album is more than an ambitious kind of coming-of-age chronicle, it’s a blithely sad thing, one in which institutional racism (“Lift Me Up”), addiction (“Jump Off the Roof”), and even loneliness (“Summertime”) feel impossible to overcome. Staples hasn’t gotten harder, just smarter—and his producers, balancing industrial clank with cloudy dope-scapes, have allowed him a sturdy vulnerability off which he can bounce his feelings. Though Staples hails from Long Beach—sharing a year of assured hip-hop releases with Boogie, another brilliant rapper from the area who’s finally getting his due—his tracks rarely feel exclusive. He’s ready to mine deeper bedrock. And rarely has the sound of an artist scraping bottom been this assured. —Dom Sinacola

25. The Lone Bellow – Then Came The Morning
lb-morning.jpgWhen I heard the gospel-like harmonies at the end of the “Then Came The Morning” back in late December, I knew that The Lone Bellow’s sophomore album would be a stunner. Teaming up with The National’s Aaron Dessner for production duties, Then Came The Morning certainly shows off a slicker side to the folksy Southern trio from Brooklyn. Some experiments on work better than others here, like the particularly stark “Watch Over Us” in which lead guitarist Brian Elmquist sings lead and the brief, and the interlude-like “To The Woods” with its high-strung guitar arpeggios. But the most remarkable thing that this record proves is that when Zach Williams, Kanene Pipkin and Elmquist sing their hearts out together, this band is unstoppable. —Hilary Saunders

24. Grimes – Art Angels
grimes-art.jpgGrimes closes out Art Angels with a song called “Butterfly.” There couldn’t be a more apt summation of the metamorphosis happening on Claire Boucher’s fourth album. (It’s also worth noting that her hero Mariah Carey released an album called Butterfly 18 years ago.) All of Art Angels feels like Boucher emerging from a cocoon to make a type of music that more people would find beautiful. She has traded in the sadder more mysterious material that defined her first few releases for diss tracks and bouncy dance numbers that go straight for the hooks. This poppier Grimes is not a compromise or a sell-out though, she just has something more concrete to say, so she rocks out with a guitar and puts her voice up front. And a lot of what she has to say is really pissed off. “Everybody dies, we cut out their eyes and dance like angels do/Breaking our name in a world that feigns some knowledge of you,” she sings in “Belly of the Beat.” This is far from your standard teenybopper lyric. Art Angels is the sound of an artist finding the confidence to indulge both her artsy and poppy sides, and exercising the wisdom to choose which to use when.—Pat Healy

23. Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again
jp-on-your.jpgPratt was a terminally unknown singer/songwriter from Northern California whose notoriety came only after her initial batch of home-recorded songs were some five or six years old, and she’d played only a handful of shows. All that interference, however, ought to be ignored when listening to Pratt’s second full-length record?and first for Drag City?On Your Own Love Again. At its core, this follow-up to 2012’s JP is as whimsically experimental as it is steeped and reveling in its own revivalism. Armed with little more than a guitar, some rudimentary tape-tracking recording materials and a a treasure trove of inventive vocal harmonies, Pratt’s darkly ambitious compositions are fleshed out into alcoves of aural mischief, served mystical and with a kind of dark magic, vacillating as they do between optimism and pessimism.—Ryan J. Prado

22. Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon
tjj-goon.jpgWhat Tobias Jesso Jr. has delivered is a record that needs no context, that can exist outside of time and place. Jesso, in short, has crafted a masterpiece, with the only connection of real significance being between him and his audience. While the comparisons to Harry Nilsson and John Lennon hold up over the course of the debut, what may be the most surprising is the range that Jesso shows throughout. Goon isn’t all piano ballads; hell, it isn’t all ballads, period. “Crocodile Tears” is a mid-tempo, psych-tinted strut that finds Jesso boo-hoo-hooing his way into unexpected territory. “Leaving L.A.” is something totally different, lounge-y in its instrumental breaks, allowing Jesso freedom to veer from straight-ahead singer/songwriter territory. Throw in the guitar backbones of “The Wait” and “Tell the Truth,” and Goon contains plenty of variety in both tone and arrangement, carefully placed gaps in the ultimate strengths of the album.—Philip Cosores

21. Holly Herndon – Platform
hh-platform.jpgThe San Francisco-based cyber sociologist with a degree in composition, dissects the nuances, paranoia and stark reality of our ever-increasing digital lives on the Kraftwerk-cum-neo-electronica Platform, and it’s nothing like we’ve ever experienced. Platform could be seen as a contemporary art project. Where on a track like “Home,” Herndon addresses the freaky possibility that the National Security Agency could be getting pinged when I type the harmless acronym on a Google doc. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but hers is the voice from which we look over our shoulder towards the window in an empty room. Herndon’s socio-digital commentary is one that has never been packaged with this kind of accessibility before, and on the legendary 4AD label no less. Herndon’s most successful endeavor is carving a niche for her work to be heard by indie blogs and mainstream music media alike, without resorting to a watered-down pop formula to get her message across. Platform is still avant-garde enough to only be appreciated by some, but those who break through the surface, will understand this album for being the important, temporal work that it is.—Adrian Spinelli

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