The 25 Best Albums of 2015 (So Far)

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July. It’s that time of the year when the sun shines bright and hot, the beer suds rise and froth, and the fireworks crack and sparkle. It’s also when we here at Paste pause for a moment to think back at what music made our past six months. Although we’re sure that our lists will change by December, our editors, contributors and interns voted on their favorite records and came up with the best albums of 2015…so far.

25. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment – Surf

For the casual observer, it might seem strange that a red-hot rapper whose second mixtape has attained legendary status, and who has been asked for verses by everyone from Madonna to Justin Bieber, should for his debut album collaborate on a sunny record with a trumpet player and a group of players with influences trending more towards jazz and gospel than hip hop. But for anyone who’s followed Chance the Rapper more closely, it’s no surprise at all that he would jag in his own direction. And what an album that jag took him to—Surf is part Songs in the Key of Life-era Stevie Wonder, part Kirk Franklin, part De La Soul, but feels completely of the moment. There are big-name features here, as well—B.o.B., Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, J. Cole, and Janelle Monae—but their appearances feel more like tributes to Chance’s stunning talent and the feelgood hit of the summer that he and his merry band of brothers have delivered. —Michael Dunaway

24. The Lowest Pair – The Sacred Heart Sessions

The Lowest Pair is everything right with Americana today. Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee share equal weight in songwriting, singing and yearning, lovely harmonizing. And on The Sacred Heart Sessions, just their sophomore LP (in just 13 months!), this girl-guy, banjo-totin’ duo sings songs of ranging from regret-filled love odes like lead single “Rosie” to barn-blazin’ country pickins like “Fourth Time’s A Charm.” While The Lowest Pair is still way far under the pop music radar, they blew us away at SXSW and we’re hopeful that The Sacred Heart Sessions represents the beginning of what these two have to create and give. —Hilary Saunders

23. Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear – Skeleton Crew

The idea of a mother and son playing music is charming on its own, but when it is as incredible as this debut from Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, it’s impossible to just not fall head-over-heels in love with it. Madisen Ward’s distinctive timbre is as warm and full-bodied as it is emotive and unforgettable. But it is ultimately Mama Bear’s energetic and technically sound guitar playing and rich, harmonious singing that make this act truly incredible. This is an album that will stay in your vinyl collection for a long, long time. —Amy McCarthy

22. The Lone Bellow – Then Came The Morning

When 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

21. Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon

What 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

20. Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer

If this album came out in the year that it sounds like it’s from, I may not have noticed. But in 2015, Speedy Ortiz are the only ones picking up Pavement’s stray slack from the mid-1990s, and that’s a good thing. There really should only be one band like this at a time, doing fuzzy, chunky indie rock that you can’t resist looking up the lyrics to. Seriously, who has the audacity to begin a lead single with a line about a “hypnic jerk” and as effortlessly describes herself as “just a ratchet kid”? Sadie Dupuis, that’s who! — Pat Healy

19. Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield – Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith

If the title wasn’t clear enough, Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith is an LP in which The Avett Brothers’ Seth Avett and singer Jessica Lea Mayfield came together and covered 12 Elliott Smith tracks coursing the songwriter’s career—from 1994’s Roman Candle to 2004’s posthumous release From A Basement On A Hill. The late Smith has been an inspiration and influence to many a singer/songwriter and, as such, should be honored in a way that pays tribute while also offering an honest interpretation. And although covering another artist will always fundamentally be derivative, that doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be purely imitative. What Mayfield and Avett have done on this record is at once commemorative of a mutual hero as well as sonically gorgeous, combining the Ohio singer’s angelic vocals with Avett’s bluegrass brass to full effect. The melodies were already stirring, the words haunting and true. If a good cover of one that is less a borrowing of lyrics and melodies and instead a lending of talents and artistic perspective to the songs themselves, then this sparse yet beautiful album is a home run. —Carson Quiros

18. Braids – Deep in the Iris

Breakup records are nothing new. They’re one of the most practiced concoctions in pop music today—but every now and then, one comes along that pushes the art form in new directions. Deep in the Iris, the third album from Montreal trio Braids, is one such album. Rather than continuing the evolution of their former sound—as displayed on 2013’s stark, searing Flourish//Perish—the band instead takes a softer, sunnier approach. While the lyrics are as cutting and introspective as anything you’ll come across, the music is anything but. Departing from jarring arrangements, the band employs warm Björk-esque beats and inviting rhythmic soundscapes as a backdrop to Raphaelle Standell’s stunning vocal work. Deep in the Iris doesn’t so much explore new depths as it does new heights. It isn’t the sound of fracturing, but healing. —Michael Danaher

17. Jamie xx – In Colour

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

16. Guantanamo Baywatch – Darling… It’s Too Late

If 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

15. JD McPherson – Let the Good Times Roll

JD 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

14. Florence and the Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

On 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

13. Twerps – Range Anxiety

Melbourne, 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

12. Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass

It’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

11. The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

It 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 sure to satisfy the majority of their fans. — Jim Vorel

10. Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart

While the critics of the world lament country music’s current emphasis on douchey dudes and gauche EDM leanings, along comes Dwight Yoakam to remind them (and the rest of the world, for that matter) that there are other options. Pushing 60 and three decades deep into an already storied career, the Californian sounds as hungry and youthful as ever on his 14th studio album. It helps that he dove back into the stomping, hard-edged sound that earned him a place in the Los Angeles. club scene when he shared stages with The Blasters and X. With short, punchy originals, a rockabilly rewrite of “Man Of Constant Sorrow,” and attitude to burn, Yoakam just re-announced his presence with authority. — Robert Ham

9. Hop Along – Painted Shut

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

8. Leon Bridges – Coming Home

Fort 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

7. The Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ

John 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

6. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

There 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

5. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love

Of 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

4. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

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

3. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

Following 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

This 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

Josh Tillman is part cultural provocateur, part hippie-rock satirist, part soulful balladeer. What’s most surprising about I Love You, Honeybear, his long-awaited sequel, 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. 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. On the breeze-swept chamber-folk strummer “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins),” he daydreams about the formative stages of a romance, reflecting on jarringly intimate details—kitchen sex, his wife’s crime-scene wedding dress—amid mariachi horn blasts and crackling percussion. 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