The 50 Best Albums of 2015

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20. Jamie xx – In Colour
jamie-xx-colour.jpg Jamie xx  isn’t doing anything new—he pulls from dub reggae and West Coast rap; he cribs minimal house as willfully as he dips into shoegaze; he uses steel drums without irony—and yet In Colour feels as refreshing as the work of someone who knows he’s touched upon territory net yet plied. With his official debut (a full-album remix of Gil Scott-Heron’s last LP that, while an endlessly blissful team-up, served as a partnership nonetheless), Jamie Smith has no apparent goals, no clear concept. But, there is the Burial-esque thwomp-n-creak caterwaul of “Gosh” and the smoky “Loud Places,” a song The xx should’ve penned. There’s “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times),” which is somehow ebullient even with the terrible idea of bringing in Young Thug, and the rhythm and blues of “The Rest Is Noise” in which each is given its effortlessly ecstatic due. In total, In Colour isn’t anything in particular, just an irrefutable example that Jamie xx is more than a producer—he’s a composer and curator, a musician with an ear for optimism, a guy with boundless, Technicolor love to give. —Dom Sinacola

19. Beach House – Depression Cherry
bh-depression.jpgIt’s only been three years since Beach House last released an album, but music changes so quickly that it seems like the Baltimore duo had been gone for ages. At any rate, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally are back now with their fifth full-length album, a collection of nine songs that are more intimate than the music on their past few records. That’s not coincidence: as Beach House grew into bigger stages and played for larger crowds, the duo’s sound expanded, too, and the somewhat more streamlined aesthetic of Depression Cherry is their reaction. The songs are still plenty lush, wrapping Legrand’s sleepy voice in gauzy synthesizer drifts adorned here and there with languorous stabs of guitar. What’s different here is the relative simplicity: instead of layer upon layer of instrumentation, Legrand and Scally leave more space in their arrangements. The difference is mostly subtle, but clearing away some of the sonic underbrush helps emphasize the essential elements of their songs and the elegance of their music.—Eric R. Danton

18. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
ji-something.jpgThough Jason Isbell has been releasing albums since he was part of the Drive-By Truckers lineup that made 2003’s Decoration Day, his 2013 release Southeastern was his first consistently great record, full of powerful lyrics on songs that lingered long after the last notes fell quiet. He matches it on his latest, a collection of 11 new tunes by turns mournful, pungent and quietly devastating. Isbell has over the years become a more patient lyricist, carefully honing his words into needle-sharp points that penetrate without making a visible mark. Isbell’s increasing skill as a storyteller, and the natural affinity he has for melody, combine to make Something More Than Free a masterful piece of work. Among Isbell’s considerable talents is the artfully plainspoken way he captures the dreams and disappointments of everyday folks. Even if he’s found meaning lately in sobriety, marriage and fatherhood, he’s more than willing to hold the light steady while the rest of us keep looking. The ability to make that connection is a rare gift in the first place, and Isbell is only getting better at it on every album he makes.—Eric R. Danton

17. Kamasi Washington – The Epic
kw-epic.jpgWith apologies to Titus Andronicus, Kamasi Washington made the best triple album of 2015, a three-hour jazz fantasia full of skronky jazz solos, pounding funk grooves, disembodied choirs, skronky sax solos, roller-rink organ interludes, pillowy string arrangements that suggest a strong undertow tugging these compositions ineluctably forward, and an unruly rhythm section that fights that pull by deconstructing turntable breakbeats into time-stopping exhultations. Washington’s orchestra is an amoeba that absorbs every style and tradition and seemingly every musician in Southern California; it sounds like all of Los Angeles singing and playing together at once, a powerful idea at a time when displays of African American community are popularly dismissed as riots or worse. How could such an act of extreme jazz maximalism be called anything other than The Epic?—Stephen M. Deusner

16. CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye
c-every.jpgWhen Every Open Eye kicks off with “Never Ending Circles,” it sounds as if the song started on its own before you even hit play. It’s proof CHVRCHES know one of the most important rules of writing great pop music: it’s better to sprint than train for a marathon. It’s not to say these songs are really going to pump adrenaline into your veins, but their objective certainly seems to be giving strength and inspiration to the listener. The band has an ability to create very “human” music out of largely mechanical sound. This is one of the easiest albums to dance to in 2015, but it’s also one of the easiest to cry during. The subject matter of Lauren Mayberry’s lyrics touches on elements of heartbreak, betrayal and loss relatable to anyone who has lived 15 or more years on this planet. Every Open Eye is another album you can throw on at a party to get everyone dancing just as easily as you could pensively listen to it alone in your bedroom. They translate so well because they know what they want to say, and one can only hope they keep saying it for some time.—Mack Hayden

15. Torres – Sprinter
torres-sprinter.jpgOn Sprinter, you can hear singer/songwriter Mackenzie Scott breathe. Literally, at times. “The Exchange,” the last and lengthiest cut on the phenomenal sophomore release from Scott, whose recording moniker is Torres, is a study in aural intimacy. Scott’s refrain is a taut, tortured plea: “Mother, father / I’m underwater.” Her voice trembles and cracks the way voices sometimes do when they are conceding something shameful. And between the words, you can just about hear the creaks of the studio chair, the fumbling swipe when someone’s hand brushes the vocal mic. On Sprinter, everything—family, desperation, the songs themselves—is laid bare. Which is not to say it’s all sweet and pretty. Sprinter crackles and explodes, with a dynamic range that’d make Steve Albini blush. It already feels like these songs have been around for a long time, which is reasonable indication that they will be with us for a while. The title track, which most explicitly references Scott’s Baptist origins, winds down from catharsis with another well-worn and memorable refrain: “There’s freedom to / And freedom from / And freedom to run from everyone.” It’s never quite clear what she’s running from, or where to. But on Sprinter, she gets there.—Zach Schonfeld

14. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Style
csh-teens.jpgCar Seat Headrest’s Matador debut, Teens of Style, is remarkable in its ability to both sound fresh and youthful, tinged with the emotional rawness of someone barely in his 20s, and like a well-oiled machine, put together by someone who definitely can’t be just 22. Will Toledo’s got the songwriting chops of someone far beyond his years, and while his music may call to mind bands like Animal Collective or Guided By Voices, there’s a purer pop sensibility that sneaks in on tracks like “The Drum” and reveals that Toledo knows how to pen his share of catchy hooks. His lyrics sound like a scratchy stream of consciousness, perfect for that “not a kid anymore, not quite an adult” time in your life, and yet they—along with all of Teens of Style—reveal a great talent, one we can’t wait to follow into adulthood.—Bonnie Stiernberg

13. Kurt Vile – B’lieve I’m goin down
kv-blieve.jpgPhiladelphian songwriter Kurt Vile has crafted such a definitive identity for himself that it’s easy to forget he used to be a part of The War On Drugs. Over the course of his past six studio albums, Vile continued to grow out his hair, as well as his slacker-rock style. On b’lieve i’m goin down…, Vile set out to return to his earlier, bedroom sad songs. He’s turned down the reverb a little from Wakin on a Pretty Daze and emerged through the haze of Smoke Ring For My Halo. And Vile, who actually had a banjo before a guitar, goes back to that first instrument and other acoustic tools for much of the LP. In fact, much of b’lieve remains mellower and more cognizant than Vile’s previous works, blending organic and inorganic sounds. But even with his musical evolution historical homages, Vile still puns on teenage mantras like, “young, dumb, and full of / come on over to my house” in songs like “Life Like This.” And that is what makes him the lord of the lo-fi loafers.—Hilary Saunders

12. Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect
proto-agent.jpgProtomartyr’s 2012 debut, No Passion All Technique, was savage. Such congruity between a title like “Feral Cats” and the song itself is rare. It was also a sleeper, one that critics caught on to so slowly that the coronation of Protomartyr’s 2014 follow-up, Under Color of Official Right, seemed compensatory, even if the album was excessively polished; Casey strove for conventional vocal melodies and hooks with perceptible difficulty. Fortunately, The Agent Intellect rectifies that, expanding on No Passion All Technique’s sinuous rock with Casey’s lowbrow poetics at a properly dejected cadence and inflection. Essentially, it’s an album of spindly bass, needling guitar and economical drums. And yet, with Protomartyr’s inventive ensemble flare, it sounds like much more. On The Agent Intellect, Casey finds himself as more of a vocal stylist than a singer, shifting his tone to reflect his emotionally textured writing.—Sam Lefebvre

11. The Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ
mg-beat.jpgJohn Darnielle—the songwriter, singer, bandleader and driving force of The Mountain Goats—has a number of somewhat surprising passions. One is death metal, to which he’s paid homage in several songs, notably the classic “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton.” Another is pro wrestling, and it’s into this arena (!) that he brings us in his new record, Beat the Champ. That’s right, every single song here is about pro wrestling (albeit usually of the decidedly minor-league variety). As could be expected, he approaches the subject with uncommon sensitivity and insight, gifting some of his tenderest moments of recognition to the perpetual villains of the melodrama (“Throw my better self overboard / Shoot at him when he comes up for air”). But in an album full of rip-your-heart out moments, for the heels as well as the faces, Darnielle saves the most powder for his ode to a real-life childhood hero of his, Chavo Guerrero. Anyone in the least familiar with Darnielle’s childhood (or too many of our own) can’t help but thrill to the sounds of “I need justice in my life, and here it comes / Look high / It’s my last hope / Chavo Guerrero / Coming off the top rope.” Fly high, Chavo. —Michael Dunaway

10. Deerhunter – Fading Frontier
deer-ff.jpgYou could be the kind of person who complains about Bradford Cox making a comfortable-sounding record, but ask why you’d want to be first. Yes, Fading Frontier is a far cry from the garage rock restructuring he brought to Deerhunter with Monomania. Instead, it’s back to the dreamy textures of Microcastle and Halcyon Digest, but this time around, the dreams are even more pleasant than before. That’s no crime at all. Cox’s songs here aren’t really griping with or trying to tear down “conventional” approaches to indie rock or even rock in general. Fading Frontier is less Pavement and more Peter Gabriel, a record drawn to creating the kind of watery sounds and atmosphere you can float atop without ever feeling like you’re at risk of drowning. Instead of trying to make an experimental oddity for music nerds, he made an indie pop album for music fans. He went for our hearts rather than our heads, and, for a band as cerebral as Deerhunter can be, that’s its own kind of artistic evolution.—Mack Hayden

9. Leon Bridges – Coming Home
lb-coming.jpgFort Worth, Texas’ Leon Bridges has brought us back to an era of soul that few have been able to revive with such style and grace. Bridges evokes shades of the great Sam Cooke at just about every turn on Coming Home and the result is simply beautiful music. The album was co-written by Bridges and a team highlighted by Austin Jenkins and Josh Block of psych-rock band White Denim, who’ve captured a classic, lo-fi feel with production from Niles City Sound. From the dashing romanticism of the title track to the gospel of the magnificent “River” closing out the album, Bridges re-introduces us to American soul music forged alongside the essence of rock ‘n roll. And even decades after this special music peaked, Coming Home still manages to be a sign of the times.—Adrian Spinelli

8. Tame Impala – Currents
ti-currents.jpgTame Impala isn’t exactly an underdog band: Kevin Parker has enjoyed the steadily increasing accolades of the music press, “Elephant” was a huge single, they’re a bigger-font festival band, and their name is almost certainly known to anyone who has bought any overpriced flannel from Urban Outfitters. But Currents is where the internal debate about Tame Impala’s hyped-up legitimacy ends. This is a near-perfect album. It’s a superb progression from their last efforts, a study in internal consistency and just chock full with nearly an hour of great songs. From opener “Let It Happen” to closer “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” Parker manages to never shy away from the spotlight while somehow making you view him as a mere messenger given this incredible album by the muses. There’s a lushness to every instrumental and vocal decision here of a tone smacking of eternality. It’s psychedelic music less as a genre distinction and more as a legitimate description for how much your mind seems to expand when you listen to it. There are rewards aplenty to anyone who’ll give this record many listens, but they’re the kind which will shirk away if they’re sought out. Instead, you’ve just gotta sit back and let them come.—Mack Hayden

7. Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass
natalie-prass.jpgIt’s hard to not fall for Natalie Prass. With an undeniable charm and an inclination towards storytelling that can soothe the most broken heart, the singer/songwriter’s self-titled album, released this past January via Spacebomb, is a striking, smart showcase of Prass’ talent—so much so that it’s almost hard to believe it’s her debut. From the intimate opening track “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” to “It Is You,” the album’s nostalgic closing track, Natalie Prass is a timeless time machine, taking listeners through a well-rounded, refreshing journey into love and loss. —Brittany Joyce

6. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
ss-carrie.jpg Carrie & Lowell was in no way what I wanted or expected from the next Sufjan Stevens album. I wanted something daring and sweeping—a musical progression from Age of Adz in some way. Instead, what we got was a quiet, moody set of songs not unlike something you’d find on a Sufjan Stevens album from the early 2000s at first blush. But there is also something fundamentally different about this album. It’s urgent and spontaneous—the kinds of songs that are written in a rush of cathartic emotion on whatever instrument happened to be laying around. No three-minute orchestral intros to be written or historical facts to be researched. It’s more Elliott Smith’s XO than Illinois—and like XO, it has its eyes focused squarely on death. It stares straight into the hospital rooms, regrets, cloudy memories, and empty bedrooms—and dares to sing a quiet song about it all. Perhaps that ended up being more ambitious than another “State Project” album could have ever been. —Luke Larsen

5. Hop Along – Painted Shut
ha-painted.jpg Painted Shut is Hop Along’s first release since signing with Saddle Creek Records in 2014, a fitting label for Philadelphian four-piece’s sensitive indie rock. Drawing inspiration from punk, freak-folk and emo, Painted Shut is reminiscent of iconic late ‘90s albums from bands like Built to Spill, Saves the Day and Sleater-Kinney. Although Hop Along’s lyrical content can be heavy at times, Painted Shut’s tracks are well-balanced between catchy indie pop with an edge and more discordant fare. It’s a more cohesive statement than 2012’s Get Disowned, and a thorough introduction for new listeners. —Liz Galvao

4. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
sk-no-cities.jpgOf course Sleater-Kinney was going to reunite—everybody reunites these days—but Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss were stealthy about it: the trio didn’t let slip that they had been working on their first album in 10 years until it was already finished. And what an album! The interplay between Brownstein and Tucker has rarely been tighter or more ferocious, their voices and guitars twisting, turning and intertwining over explosive drumming from Weiss on songs that are as tuneful as they are hard-hitting. Sleater-Kinney had built an enviable catalog before dissolving in 2006; No Cities to Love is a staggering return that ranks among their best work. —Eric R. Danton

3. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
cb-sit.jpgFollowing up the double EP that garnered her acclaim far beyond her Australian home, Courtney Barnett recorded 11 tracks matching her ear for melody to an eye for detail. She’s a coffeehouse storyteller with an impish streak of dark wit fronting an honest-to-God rock ‘n’ roll band, begging you to both dig into her lyrics and get up and dance. And the range here is impressive, from the meditative “Depreston” about house-hunting to the thrashing kiss-off “Pedestrian at Best.” It’s filled with singles if there was still a radio station who played music like this. —Josh Jackson

2. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
kl-pimp.jpgThis is what thoughtful hip hop is supposed to sound like. This is the product of a rapper who quickly rose to the upper echelon of hip hop and took a long hard look at the scope of the scene and more importantly, himself, before letting out a visceral, imaginative and musically ambitious production that demands your attention. TPAB further develops jazz fusion in hip hop with seasoned collaborators in Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Robert Glasper, et al., producing a live sound that’s compositionally rich, instrumentally complex and flat-out interesting. Yet, the sceptre for all of TPAB’s energy is Lamar, who brings himself to his knees on deeply reflective jams like “King Kunta” and “How Much A Dollar Cost.” TPAB is a call-out of the hip-hop establishment, by perhaps it’s most self-aware figure, who has no trouble exploring his own vulnerability in order to paint an accurate picture of the harsh, dynamic and inspiring times we’re living in today. —Adrian Spinelli

1. Father John Misty – I Love You Honeybear
fjm-honeybear.jpgTillman’s creative persona feels like a natural extension of his sprawling and strange backstory: He’s part cultural provocateur, part hippie-rock satirist, part soulful balladeer. What’s most surprising about I Love You, Honeybear is how it balances that cartoonish character with the real-life Tillman—who married his current wife, Emma, in 2013. Honeybear thrives on the knife’s edge of that enigmatic split personality, as he attempts to reconcile the love-swept optimist with the world-weary wise-ass. Fittingly, the LP’s most striking moments meditate on the sublime and deeply complicated art of sharing life with a single partner. The title track is an apocalyptic love song submerged in waltzing, Spector-styled orchestrations—with Tillman embracing his wife, at peace as they drown. Sonically, Honeybear finds Tillman in a ruminative mood, favoring lavish strings, sweeping layers of voices and acoustic guitars. But he still has a knack for unexpected flourishes, like the psychedelic guitar solo on “Strange Encounter.” With I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman wrestles with a lot of heady subject matter: modern narcissism (“Bored in the USA”), his own tendency to doom personal relationships (“The Ideal Husband”), the general downfall of mankind (“Holy Shit”). But the less he strains, the more his songs resonate. On threadbare closer “I Went to the Store One Day,” his voice skirts into falsetto over hushed fingerpicking and strings, as he croons about buying a plantation with his wife and letting the yard grow wild—and how that dream originated from a chance parking lot hello. Tillman will probably always write with a wink—but he’s learning to infuse that approach with genuine heart.—Ryan Reed

Listen to songs from all 50 of the Best Albums of 2015 on Spotify and follow Paste here.

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