As the curtain falls on 2015, it might be hard to remember any albums released during the year besides Adele's record-breaking 25. But there was so much more to hear. Kendrick Lamar's Molotov-cocktail-tossing hip-hop, D'Angelo's razor-sharp R&B and Kamasi Washington's restorative jazz all made major statements, feeling like three crucial dispatches from the #BlackLivesMatter protests under three black-and-white covers. Jason Isbell made roots-rock that shouts out Sylvia Plath, and both Rhiannon Giddens and Bob Dylan took turns running the American songbook through their unique prisms. 2015 saw some fantastic releases from Rock & Roll Hall of Famers (Keith Richards, Don Henley, Darlene Love), along with a few strong returns from the alt-rock heroes of the Nineties (Blur, Sleater-Kinney, Wilco). R&B innovators like the Weeknd and Miguel walked a reverb-saturated lane into the future and past, while locally there was a mix of newcomers (Gang of Youths, Bad//Dreems) and old hands (Sarah Blasko, Oh Mercy, Shane Nicholson) that knocked it out of the park.
Here are the 50 records that defined our year.
Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch's second outing as DRM – The Machine here comprises alt. country luminaries Willie Watson (ex-Old Crow), fiddler Brittany Haas (Crooked Still), and Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert – is the best thing to come out of Nashville this year, obsolete or otherwise. In true Welch-Rawlings style, Nashville Obsolete weds peerless acoustic picking to soaring, dovetailed harmonies, surveying Seventies folk storytelling and classic Antebellum American sounds: from skewed Appalachian nursery rhyme "Candy", to ragtime-inspired jaunt "The Last Pharaoh", to meandering 11-minute talking folk centrepiece "The Trip" (‘what's a bullet-hole or two, between friends?'). Novelistic in scope, it's an album peppered with exquisite textual ambiguities (‘what became of the red rooster after the tragedy?') and populated by hazy, sepia-toned figures surfacing with vanishing clarity from the now-faded past.
For Bob Dylan, the Great American Songbook was always more than Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers and Leadbelly. Dylan was already covering "That Lucky Old Sun" – a 1949 hit for Frankie Laine, and the last track on this album of songs once recorded by Frank Sinatra – in his early-Nineties shows. But Shadows in the Night is more than homage. It is a poignant, decisive exploration of the deep-blue turmoil that ran through much of the the apparent innocence in romantic pre-rock songwriting. Dylan recorded these chestnuts – "Autumn Leaves," Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do," Sinatra's obscure 1964 single "Stay With Me" – at the famed Capitol studio in Los Angeles, in minimalist arrangements with his empathic road band. The effect is a profound vulnerability carried by Dylan's best, most focused and evocative singing in years. That tender, wounded growl in "I'm a Fool to Want You," co-written by Sinatra in 1951, isn't crooning. It is desperate longing charged with the thrill of memory – epic pop, as blue as it gets.
When Baroness released their double album, Yellow & Green, in July 2012, they were fresh off a tour with Metallica and, if conventional wisdom was any guide, set to breakthrough to the next level. Just over a month later the brakes failed on their tour bus while in Bath, England, and it careened off a viaduct, falling almost 10 metres to the ground. Amongst the myriad life-threatening injuries suffered by the quartet, vocalist/guitarist John Baizley's arm was so badly crushed they didn't know if it could be saved; the back injuries sustained by the band's rhythm section were such that they soon had to leave the band. During the dark hours of recuperation Baizley and guitarist Peter Adams resolved to find replacements and continue, spending the next year writing and learning how to play with new recruits Nick Jost (bass) and drummer Sebastian Thomson. When they finally entered the studio with producer Dave Fridmann, the four-piece ended up crafting a modern metal classic in Purple – melodic ("Shock Me"), progressive ("Chlorine & Wine") heavy ("Desperation Burns") and emotional (every song). That breakthrough is now surely theirs for the taking.
James Taylor spent the years after the release of his 2002 LP October Road playing gigs with Carole King, raising his two young sons, recording an album of cover songs and touring all over the world. Just about the only thing he didn't do was write new songs. "I got out of the habit," he told Rolling Stone. "I just never prioritized it." That changed two years ago when he holed himself up in a Newport, Rhode Island apartment and emerged with the material on Before This World. It's a folky collection that evokes memories of his finest 1970s albums, though the subject matter is rooted firmly in the 21st century. "Angels of Fenway" is a reflection on the Boston Red Sox's miraculous 2004 season, while "Watchin' Over Me" focuses on Taylor's continuous efforts to maintain his sobriety. "Stretch of the Highway" is a road song, complete with a reference to Chicago's "first-class poontang." Amazingly, it became Taylor's first Number One album of his entire career.
On her first solo album, the singer and multi-instrumentalist from African-American folk archaeologists the Carolina Chocolate Drops addresses struggle and empowerment in a rainbow set of covers, finding the common ground and emotional bonds in Geeshie Wiley's Depression-era blues "Last Kind Words," Patsy Cline's country surrender "She's Got You" and Nina Simone's signature conquest of the title song written by Charles Aznavour. Giddens' singular union of country-church fire, concentrated hurt and operatic poise is especially compelling in the earthy restraint of T Bone Burnett's production. That Giddens also has a future as a songwriter is clear in "Angel City," written at the end of her spell with Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford and Jim James in the Bob Dylan-reclamation project, Lost in the River: The New Basement Tapes. "I am closer to free/Heart unbound," she sings, a rare voice bound for glory.
How did it take this long for Madonna to write herself a theme song titled "Unapologetic Bitch"? No apologies offered or needed – Rebel Heart was the queen's finest album in a decade, picking up the disco-stick baton of her 2005 Confessions on a Dance Floor as Madonna voyages back into the groove and reflects on where she's been lately. "Ghosttown," "Devil Pray" and "Living My Life" offer state-of-the-art radio beats with producers like Diplo and Avicii, while she testifies about endurance in the aftermath of divorce. Yet she's even stronger when she gets further out, as in the Nicki Minaj-seasoned "Bitch I'm Madonna," or her conspiracy-minded Kanye collabo "Illuminati," which comes on like a "Vogue" for the New World Order. She also throws down with rappers from the new school (Chance The Rapper), the old school (Nas), and the non-school (Mike Tyson). Of course she goes too far – this is a Madonna album, capisce? – with "S.E.X." ("Perfume, switchblade, absinthe, Novocaine / Chopsticks, underwear, bar of soap, dental chair") and "Holy Water," where she chants, "Yeezus loves my pussy best." Bitch, get off her pole.
The first solo studio release from Aussie indie/country nonpareil Shane Nicholson after a fertile stretch spent in the producer's chair draws together the various stylistic thread-ends of the Pretty Violet Stain founder's stellar catalogue, including country salvo Bad Machines and Nicholson's two Americana collabs with former wife Kasey Chambers. Laconic, yet reflective as ever, Nicholson carves out a sprawling sonic space and fills it with soaring indie-pop ("Secondhand Man"), heartworn confessionals ("Hermannsburg"), a chain-gang-style stomp ("Irons & Chains"), earthy old-time country ("Eyes On the Prize"), and affecting devotional piano ballad "Single Fathers". Nicholson's is a uniquely compelling voice in Australian songwriting – it lives and breathes in the songsmith's singular melodies, crooked humour, and short, pithy lines gently delivered. Hell Breaks Loose is a candid, immersive portrait of the artist.
The 24-year-old New Zealander already having fronted Christchurch outfit The Unfaithful Ways' debut LP and co-helmed weird-country triptych Sad But True Vols I – III (with Delaney Davidson), Williams' solo debut was overdue. The former chorister delivered on every promise, summoning the vocal performance of the year with an antique penny thrown into a haunted mineshaft: see "When I Was a Young Girl", Williams' desolate take on American folk standard "One Morning In May". From Western TV-theme charge "Hello Miss Lonesome" to "Dark Child" – a flaying indie-rock elegy for a youth destroyed and birthright forfeited – to haunted house phantasy "Strange Things" (‘she left me alone in a seven-bedroom home built upon the bones of fallen soldiers'), Williams shrouds so much timeless country-folk brilliance in the same creeping, lingering sense of disquiet.
An opulently-ornamented wound, Björk's ninth solo set is a riveting document of grief, reported and recorded around the end of her marriage to artist Matthew Barney. With visceral electronic assists from Kanye associate Arca and U.K. bass abstractionist Haxan Cloak alongside wide-screen strings arranged by Björk herself, the music moves slowly, like storm systems, emotions flashing in lightning-like bursts. Extraordinarily detailed, it's a set about being thrown back onto your own island, and made to be savored in headphones – or elaborately-engineered museum installations, like the advanced multi-speaker room built at New York's Museum of Modern Art built specifically to present "Black Lake," Vulnicura's dramatic 10-minute centerpiece. Yet ultimately it's her voice – breaking, trilling, soaring, each word sharpened – that cuts deepest, the instrumental backdrops shaping themselves around her articulations like scars. As the stream of Vulnicura remakes and remixes shows, the woman keeps moving forward, ex-husbands and art critics be damned.
After years of sweat-soaked jamming in an Inglewood, California, backyard and gigs across unexpected Los Angeles hangouts, squeal-to-flutter tenor sax dynamo Kamasi Washington splatters and explodes across three discs with the seven members of the West Coast Get Down. The Epic is nearly three hours of furious yet restrained chops, near-telepathic interplay and hard-swung grooves that recall the early Seventies work of Pharoah Sanders and Weather Report. The real feat, however, is that Washington makes a long-out-of-vogue strain of jazz feel wholly contemporary, just a funky lick away from the spiritual, revolutionary-minded music of D'Angelo or Washington's collaborator Kendrick Lamar. Everything here feels outsized, from the beaming 14-piece choir, to the Debussy cover, to the 173-minute running time, to the dueling drum kits on "Final Thought" and "Re Run Home" – a giant step that has done more to increase the cool factor of 21st-century jazz than anyone West of the Bad Plus.
To find the heaviest-hitting blues-rock of the year, take a sharp left at the Mississippi Delta until you're in the deserts of Mali. Though rooted in the nation's world-famous guitar lineage and chugging with the rollicking Saharan-rock rhythms made popular by contemporary bands like Tinariwen and Terakraft, Songhoy Blues are a far harder and punkier affair: Think Ali Farka Touré's iconic desert blues shredded out by kids raised on hip-hop and Jimi Hendrix. Their debut album, produced by Marc-Antoine Moreau and Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner, is the blazing solution to a year without a new Black Keys or Jack White album, full of lyrical solos, entrancing rhythms and melancholy lyrics like those of "Desert Melodie," a protest of the jihadists who outlawed music in the northern part of their country.
The seventh album from U.K. prog-rock vets Muse is a mirror for these times, a searing commentary on our era's vague dread, computer-driven death from above and Orwellian political climate. Muse take us into a warzone where the death happens over there and the casualties are lost values over here. They drive home their doom gospel with a precision-strike muscularity that makes for the most straight-ahead music they've delivered in years, pairing the ornamental excess of their equally high-concept 2012 album The 2nd Law down to pure lunging force. Legendary AC/DC and Def Leppard producer Robert "Mutt" Lange helps focus the band's power-trio impact, giving Seventies and Eighties arena heroism a mordant cast that can suggest a real-time image of today's collapsed idealism. "I am crushed and pulverized/Because you need control," singer-guitarist Matt Bellamy wails in the stark opening electro-funk of "Dead Inside," like Bono calling out from inside an episode of Mr. Robot. It was the year's most convincing howl from the abyss.
Released posthumously, Tigersapp is the fully-realised vision of a songwriting prodigy taken too soon. Newcastle-born singer Szymon Borzestowski tragically took his own life aged just 23, but this intractably layered album provides a glimpse into his fascinating inner-world. Using a pair of cheap Kmart speakers and some entry level recording software, Szymon pieced these songs together in his bedroom like a patchwork quilt. And it really has not right to be this good. Inspired by the likes of Röyksopp and Bonobo, the album seamlessly melds electronic sounds with organic instruments, all underpinned by Szymon’s haunting falsetto. His childhood love of jazz shines through on the bossa nova beats and sax of "Zoo Story", while tracks like "Golden" and "Medusa" are poignant reminders of one of the year’s most bittersweet records.
Alabama Shakes' 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, was an instant-vintage roots-rock triumph. But that wasn't enough for these free-spirited, hot-blooded rock & rollers, and their follow-up is a different beast entirely: One of the year's most daring interstellar groove journeys. Lead singer Brittany Howard is still a one-of-a-kind stunner, and there's plenty of Memphis fire from guitarist Heath Fogg to go around. But the songs come wrapped in a heady blend of organs, vibraphones, strings and synths – rich new hues that tear through the dividing line between old-school soul and the newer, weirder stuff. This is the sound of a band with whole galaxies ahead of it. No wonder both Paul McCartney and Prince heard this album and wanted to get in on the fun.
After the colourful detour of Deep Heat (2012), Oh Mercy's ARIA-winning singer Alexander Gow relocated to the US, where things didn't go necessarily as planned. Recorded across three cities, When We Talk About Love is rife with homesickness, lovesickness and nods to Gow's heroes – from Raymond Carver, to Burt Bacharach, the Triffids to the Go-Betweens. Opener “Without You” is expansive and evocative, with sweeping string arrangements and the kind of honest vocal delivery that pours out like an open wound. "I'm always thinking of you with some other guy," he deadpans. Songs like "I Don't Really Want To Know" and "Sandy" pull off that great songwriter's trick of pairing a melancholic lyric with an optimistic melody, but it all comes to a head on Lady Eucalyptus, a lush finger-picked take on Ovid's Metamorphoses. "My cards are all dealt and done," he sings like a man who's burned everything to the ground just to start again.
Vince Staples followed up his name-making 2014 EP, Hell Can Wait, with a double-disc debut that was as dark, melodically minimalist and as explosive as it was inner-directed — some of the year's most thought-provoking hip-hop. He fills these 20 songs with the clash between his conscience and his desires. "Man, I need to fight the power, but I need that new Ferrari," he says on "Lift Me Up," a track that finds him looking to God for elevation, and considering "pills and potions" if he doesn't come through. The stripped-down tracks — built on rhythms that could be banged out on a lunch table — recall the hollow boom of criminal-minded Eighties hip hop, with Staples spinning tales of youth, the pull of thug life, and the consequences therein. He plays the dopeman one moment and the addict the next. "When the smoke clear, why was the war fought?" he asks as he weighs the price of gangsta dreams in "Surf." "'Bout time you abandon the folklore."
With The Pale Emperor, Marilyn Manson finally realised the goth-metal album he had been threatening to make since he declared himself the "Antichrist Superstar" back in '96. All he needed was a little restraint. Where the Manson of yore reveled in over-the-top, garish showmanship – the first words he bellowed on his 1994 debut were "I am the God of Fuck" – the stately Pale Emperor, age 46, would rather swagger his way through eerie textures, primal drums and whining guitar to whisper about feeling lonely before, naturally, dubbing himself the "Mephistopheles of Los Angeles" on one of the record's standouts. Moody tracks like "Third Day of a Seven Day Binge" and "Odds of Even" serve as treatises on the after-effects of decadence, while the disco-ish "Deep Six" is the best dance-floor banger he's come up with since "The Beautiful People." Gone, though, are the thumping signposts of nu-metal (save a couple of cheeky one-liners), replaced instead with echoes of Bauhaus, Bowie and, most surprising, the blues. For once, Manson's true voice – husky, morose, full – shines through. Our boy's all grown up.
Listening to a new Beach House album feels like plunging back into a favourite dream for the thousandth time. The Baltimore duo's fifth album refined their shimmering shoegaze formula in subtle but key ways, turning up the reverb on Alex Scally's slow-motion guitar starbursts and pushing Victoria Legrand's sweetly yearning melodies to the front. The production is as rich and fuzzy as the red velvet on the physical album cover (how's that for a reason to buy a hard copy?), and Legrand gives some of her most alluring vocal performances ever on swoon-worthy highlights like "Sparks," "Space Song" and "PPP." Was she falling in love or mourning a lost one? The fact that you could never quite tell was just one more reason to hit "play" again when the album ended – and the unexpected release of a second new LP, Thank Your Lucky Stars, two months after Depression Cherry made this officially the best year ever to be a Beach House fan.
What Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" was to the hippie era, Jamie xx's solo debut is to British club culture: a wistful valentine conjuring a more innocent time. Exhibit A is "Gosh," which flips a sound bite from a pioneering U.K. jungle broadcast. But the track isn't jungle per se, because the head chef of the xx shoots for moods, not rote styles — which is why he's among pop's greatest producers.
You'd be forgiven if you thought you were listening to a lost soul record from the mid-Sixties when you first threw on Leon Bridges' debut – the similarity is uncanny, right down to the earthy recording quality. But Bridges, a young singer-guitarist from Fort Worth, Texas, is after more than just a well-crafted retro sound. Coming Home is the best kind of nostalgia trip, freewheeling, loose and more interested in good times than mere reverence. On "Twistin' And Groovin'," Bridges gives Sam Cooke a shot of Texas blues fire, and he splashes psychedelic fuzz on the hip-hugging dance tune "Smooth Sailin'." If Cooke had tried singing a song with a title "Brown Skin Girl" in 1963, his crossover chances would've been sunk; 50 years later, Bridges imagines a utopian past where he could've done it with pride. And on "Better Man," when he tells his baby, "I'll swim the Mississippi River if you'll give me another start," you'll want to jump right in behind him.
With 11 Bandcamp-posted albums to his name, twenty-something, Virginia-raised singer-songwriter Will Toledo has built an impressive catalog of highly-catchy low-fi noise-pop. For this coming-out-party – his first LP for Matador Records -- he culled the best songs from those free releases and reworked them into a record that switches effortlessly between grotty indie rock and heroic classic rock – a mix he nails with more self-assurance than anyone since golden-age Guided By Voices. "Sunburned Shirts" starts off as Robert Pollard-style faux-British Invasion basement burnout, then upshifts into a riff worthy of Hole's "Miss World"; and "Something Soon" submerges Beach Boys harmonies in murky tape-deck static, with Toledo delivering lines that'll make sense to anyone who ever spent time with John Lennon or Kurt Cobain: "Biting my clothes to keep from screaming/Taking pills to keep from dreaming." Like those guys, he makes his anxiety the stuff of FM radio glory.
Joanna Newsom has been one of the most singular talents in indie-rock for over a decade, and without a doubt the most popular harpist on the planet. And while her instrument of choice hasn't had much of a pop music profile since the Renaissance, her California art-hippie ingenuity is utterly innovative. Newsom's first album since her star-turn in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice scales back some of the wide-ranging orchestrations of her last album, 2010's three-disc opus Have One On Me; this time, she tackles big themes like history, mortality, memory, love, time and World War IV over some of the homiest folk-rock melodies she's ever unspooled. The music – played on harp and piano, leavened by clavichords, electric harpsichords and vintage synths – can shade into Celtic folk or baroque classical or psychedelic pop, and Newsom's playfully ruminative vocals lead the listener down forked paths of biting revelation: "We mean to stop, in increments, but can't commit/We post and sit, in impotence," she sings on the lustrous "Leaving the City," like the poet laureate the world doesn't even know it needs.
Hazy, rhythmically shape shifting and full of heavy guitar mysticism, Wildheart is both one of 2015's best R&B albums and one of its best psychedelic rock albums. "I'm your pimp, I'm your pope," Miguel sings as he celebrates pornographic pleasures on "The Valley" while a drugged out keyboard bass line is slapped awake over and over by a synth-drum beat. On the next track, "Coffee," he's getting off on just smelling his lady's hair while she sleeps. Throughout, Miguel comes off as a seeker lost in a world where dreams, religion, sex and art are tangled up with their own dark, addictive mirror images – it could be the Los Angeles he lives in, or it could be the Internet any of us plug into. The music he comes up with is polymorphous, mixing wide-open rock guitar with dense, clotted trunk beats and spare rhythm-box experiments. The boundary crossing is purposeful. "Too proper for the black kids, too black for the Mexicans," he sings of his heritage in "What's Normal Anyway?" "I look around and I feel alone ... I want to feel like I belong." Mixing sounds and cultures, he creates his own context.
The 2012 passing of Sufjan Stevens' estranged mother, Carrie, sparked an existential crisis in the 39-year-old singer-songwriter. Here, on his most emotionally draining album, he joins Nick Drake and Elliott Smith in the canon of artists who channel suicidal thoughts into impossibly pretty songs. Stevens strips his sound far enough to reveal his deepest anguish.
Timothy Carroll and Oscar Dawson first met in 2003 when they were teaching English in Thailand. It took eight years for the duo to start writing songs together, and another two to actually become Holy Holy. Since that point in 2013, however, the pace has stepped up a notch, building to the release of their debut album, When the Storms Would Come, in 2015. A gorgeously seductive blend of psych, folk and rock, it pairs Carroll's pastoral lilt with Dawson's expressive, at times fiery guitar work ("You Cannot Call For Love Like A Dog") to create a record that's garnered critical praise and even the odd celebrity endorsement (former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher, no less). And in a song like “A Heroine”, it's imbued with a Seventies haze that reaches out of your headphones and envelopes you in a warm hug.
In 1962, her towering vocals were the heart of the Phil Spector-produced "He's a Rebel" and "He's Sure the Boy I Loved," with her expression of female desire answered by her own strength. But through a career that's included time on Broadway, stints as a duet partner for Bruce Springsteen and Bette Midler, and a scene-stealing moment at the 2014 Oscars when 20 Feet From Stardom won for best documentary, it's taken Darlene Love six decades to reintroduce herself in proper style on this LP. Lovingly produced by Steve Van Zandt and featuring new songs from Springsteen and Elvis Costello, the album runs from super-charged bar-band soul to the string-fueled Jimmy Webb epic "Who Under Heaven." At 74, Love's voice has deepened a bit but lost none of its power – if anything, it's shifted from a marvel of indomitability to a miracle of agelessness. Highlights include the bluesy and horn-charged "Painkiller," a cover of "River Deep Mountain High" scored for strings and power chords, and the Springsteen-penned "Night Closing In," which gets the Wall of Sound treatment and suggests a girl-group makeover of Born to Run. After a set of songs about trials and tribulations, the album closer — "Jesus is the Rock that Keeps Me Rolling," written by Van Zandt — finds Love getting happy in the name of the lord. It's a burst of pure joy from a singer whose art and example have never let up.
From the playful opening line of "making up in your make up" through to the abstracted "name in number plates" to the bluntly-delivered "Europe's fucked, probably", it would be easy to define Melbourne, Florida, the third full-length from Melbourne's Dick Diver, by its economically sharp quips. And while the band's signature drawl-drenched observations of the everyday are prominent throughout, it's the intersection of loose Dunedin guitar-pop and surprise stabs of brass and piano that help craft what is the quartet's most refined and — even with the rotated lead vocalist — most consistent release to date. Graduating from the now-stigma-ed school of "dole wave", Melbourne, Florida proves Dick Diver's comfort in their own sound, thankfully without any substitute of their colloquial charm.
With Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler fronted one of the biggest bands of the Eighties – but reliving those old glories, let alone staging a big reunion tour, is the furthest thing from his mind. Instead, at 66, he's interested in working out his own stately version of rock & roll with subtlety and detailed interplay on songs that look back to bygone times with wistful dignity. Tracker opens with "Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes," a song that evokes Dave Brubeck's jazz standard "Take Five," before turning into a Celtic folk-influenced reflection on happy youthful poverty. Elsewhere, Dylan and the Grateful Dead pop up as touchstones. Knopfler reflects on past loves ("Long Cool Girl"), bad jobs ("Basil") and lost fistfights ("Broken Bones"), shading each reminiscence with understated guitar work that fits the album's balance of resignation and contentment. Another pleasure: witnessing the simple joy Knopfler gets from practicing his craft on his terms at his own pace: "I do what I want/And I don't give a damn about a thing," he sings on the lovely, Jerry Garcia-flavored country number "Skydiver." This is an album to live with, and a satisfaction to envy.
Florence Welch's most personal, vulnerable and moving album to date explodes with confusion from the very first song, the urgent and catchy "Ship to Wreck." From there, though, it's the uplifting and often anthemic way she exorcises her doubts, fears and anxieties that makes the LP one of the most moving and inspiring breakup albums in recent years. She howls in disgust on the pounding, almost Zeppelin-esque "What Kind of Man," condemning the lover who's holding her heart captive. She writhes amongst orchestral strings and funky horns on "Queen of Peace," declaring "all that's left is hurt." She finds some solace in St. Jude, the "patron saint of the lost cause." And she welcomes an executioner to end the relationship on the surprisingly upbeat final track "Make Up Your Mind." With songs that drift between disco, hard rock and impressionistic pop – while all retaining that beguiling Florence feel – the record makes for the best kind of concept album: a journey on which each song she sings has a life of its own.
Sarah Blasko is in love. It's something she makes unapologetically clear on her fifth studio album, and it marks a buoyant departure from 2009's As Day Follows Night and 2012's I Awake. Both records were brilliant, beautifully drawn navigations of Blasko's darker waters, which might have caused fans to approach Eternal Return with trepidation: Blasko does sadness and pain so well, and the last thing we need is another bloody record about love, surely? Doubters, breathe a sigh of relief; it turns out that Blasko in love is a lovely thing indeed. It's brought with it a completely new sound on her most electronic, purest pop record to date, her favoured piano replaced with a Prophet synthesiser and the guitars almost completely stripped away to help create a sound palette that references new wave Eighties music.
The Eagles singer-drummer's first solo album in 15 years is a record of minimal strumming, steel-guitar raindrops and warming vocal blends – country music the way Henley heard it the first time around in Cass County, the East Texas region where he grew up. Written and produced with ex-Tom Petty drummer Stan Lynch, Cass County is quietly, defiantly purist – absolutely free of millennial-country glitz and vernacular. The long line of celebrity guests – many of them women, such as Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood and Alison Krauss – mostly serve in the backing harmonies. (A notable exception: Henley, Miranda Lambert and Mick Jagger exchanging verses in a cover of Tift Merritt's "Bramble Rose.") But Henley is also a determined modernist, and his character studies and matured reflection in songs like "Waiting on Tables," "Praying for Rain" and "Take a Picture of This" are loaded with quietly visceral immediacy, contemporary portraits of everyday crisis and the search for solace. After more than 40 years in L.A.-outlaw country, Henley has finally made an album of stories that sound like home.
Kurt Vile is a master of stoner-rock exploration and cotton-brained existential whimsy, and this was his most introspective tapestry yet. "It's hard to think with a squashed brain," he sings on "Dust Bunnies." Or is it? Vile spaces out brilliantly all over the place, from the cobwebbed banjo reverie "I'm An Outlaw" to ringing guitar escapades like "Pretty Pimpin'" to the droney spaciousness of "Bad Omens." B'lieve I'm Goin' Down... digs deep into the folk roots that undergird his signature finger-picking style. On "Stand Inside," his acoustic playing evokes Simon & Garfunkel as he offers a homebody's come-on: "That's my good girl/Whole world turnin' on my couch." That kind of living-room intimacy also comes out on piano-led tunes like "Lost My Head There" and "Life Like This," where squashed-brained philosophising seems like a wonderful parlour game and couch-surfing sounds like an excellent vacation option.
For their debut album, Bad//Dreems, the country's best (and only?) purveyors of "outsider rock" worked with legendary producer Mark Opitz (The Angels, AC/DC, Cold Chisel), updating the "Oz Rock" template of working-class romanticism for a whole new generation. For the most part it's thematically kept within arms-length, with vocalist Ben Marwe wearing his heart on the non-existent sleeves of his blue Chesty Bonds. An approach of front-foot assertiveness adapted equally for heartache ("used to love her, now it's fucked") and hatred ("you'll never take me, ya dog"), with his guttural vocals slicing through the slickness of the stadium-ready production. Quintessentially Australian without any shades of cultural cringe.
The Rolling Stones guitarist's first studio album outside his day job in 23 years opens with the short title fragment: Richards picking and singing a rare acoustic blues. It is rock's most enduring outlaw evoking the Delta ghosts and early-country spirits that still haunt and inspire his life and band – and a perfect entry into a record that is at once loud, ragged delight, driven by Richards' trademark barbed-treble riffs, and shot through with a surprising, reflective urgency. "They laid it on thick/They couldn't make it stick," Richards sings with gravelly defiance in "Nothing on Me." The guitarist also concedes the mounting price of age in "Amnesia," a song about fading strength and memories. Richards made Crosseyed Heart with reliable old friends including his late-Eighties side crew the X-Pensive Winos, singer Aaron Neville and the Stones' late saxophonist Bobby Keys, whose robust playing, among his last on record, underscores Richards' admission here that there is an end to every ride – and his determination to make every mile count.
Unofficially introduced in May via a now-legendary hometown show at the Sydney Opera House — which was shut down early after an over-enthusiastic crowd invaded the stage — the punk quartet's long-awaited second-coming is a far more eclectic spread than most would've expected. Shades of Cold Chisel, chaotic shambles of punk rock pits and crooning minimalism all get a run. And at the centre — ever-reluctant frontman, Shogun, who despite threatening to quit throughout the turbulent lead up to release, ends up not only as the record's constant, but also further embracing the spotlight role. His commanding, often emotionally-strained, vocal delivery sounding equally comfortable berating the listener ("you belong down in Melbourne") on antagonising tantrum, "Garbage", as it does moments earlier on the soulful serenade and album highlight, "Wouldn't You Know".
The stylish bearded singer-songwriter of the year, Josh Tillman, made an artistic breakthrough with his second album as Father John Misty Tillman's songs were just as ornately pretty as the music he'd had a hand in creating as drummer in neo-folk golden-throats Fleet Foxes – but where his old band went for CSNY grandeur, Tillman's solo material cuts lush melodies with the biting ironies of Seventies L.A. dons like Randy Newman, John Phillips and Harry Nilsson. "Save me, white Jesus.../They gave me a useless education/And a subprime loan on a Craftsman home," he sings on the somber piano ballad "Bored In the U.S.A." From the aimless ecstatic drift of "When You're Smiling And Astride Me" to the aching countrified lope of "Nothing Good Ever Happens At the Goddamn Thirsty Crow," Tillman always found the perfect musical backdrop for his evocations of love and desire gone off the rails. His wit can have a vicious edge (his takedown of a pretentious young woman "The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt," drew feminist fire). But even at their most barbed, his songs come with such lush melodies you couldn't help but admire their uncanny beauty.
Wilco turned 20 this year, and they celebrated in style with their best record in a decade, touching on everything that makes them great: refined noise, genre-bending sonic weaves, easy-riding car-radio tunefulness and Jeff Tweedy's honeyed songcraft – often all in the same song. As its brilliantly timely title implies, Star Wars was all about rediscovering bedrock pleasures, with echoes of the bandshell-in-the-summer fun and ease of albums like 1995's A.M. and 1999's Summerteeth seasoned by years of life experience and musical growth. From the torqued up glam-rock shoogity-oogity of "Random Noise Generator" to the sky-writing Wowee Zowee-era Pavement guitar action of "The Joke Explained" to the country-rock confection "Taste the Ceiling" to the tight-gyred free-rock workout "You Satellite," the songs flowed together like a greatest hits album, except every one of them was brand new. It was hard to not hear echoes of the Grateful Dead when Tweedy sang about generating "a miracle every once in awhile," and that's exactly the kind of American institution Wilco is turning into. 20 more years, please.
Tame Impala's Kevin Parker is the sort of psychedelic studio wizard who can make finger snaps sound like a spaced-out revelation. The Aussie dreamer packed Currents full of weightless vocals and synthesised funk, for a set that's both blissed-out and mournful, like a set of diary entries from an astronaut floating off into oblivion. Three years ago, Tame Impala broke through with the foot-stomping beats and dirty glam guitar of "Elephant." But this time out, Parker dialed down the amps and pumped up the keyboards. Songs like "Yes I'm Changing" and "'Cause I'm a Man" are slow-moving tales of personal metamorphosis, and when guitar thunder does break out on "Eventually," it quickly gives way to sunshine-y organ. Song after song address relationship challenges, but the album closer, "New Person, Same Old Mistakes," suggests Parker has an easier time remaking his music than himself. That musical rethink, though, is expansive, resulting in wide-screen adventures like "Let It Happen," which jumps off from a melody lifted from the Supremes, then sails into the cosmos, where everything is lonely but beautiful.
"We both know that it's not fashionable to love me," Lana Del Rey intones at the beginning of her third album. It's quite a way to kick off a Honeymoon, and exactly the kind of sultry gloominess we've come to expect and love from the high priestess of moody torch-pop. After injecting some garage-y guitars into 2014's Dan Auerbach-produced Ultraviolence, Del Rey returned to the cinematic trip-hop of her star-making 2012 debut Born to Die, balancing catchy slow-burn come-ons like "Freaks" and the hit single "High By the Beach" with artier moments like "Burnt Norton," her dreamy recitation of a T.S. Eliot poem, and the goth-soul Nina Simone/Animals cover "Don't Let Me Be Understood." Her gauzily distracted Peggy Lee persona and coolly sensual vocals were as alluringly provocative as ever ("you're so art deco baby out on the floor," she sings on "Art Deco"). But it was the haunting sense of heartache and aloneness in her evocations of the emulsified L.A. high-life that made Honeymoon such a devastating listen.
It was the surprise comeback nobody saw coming – not even diehard fans had any idea the three punk women of Sleater-Kinney were back in the studio, after nearly 10 years apart. But not only did the Nineties' fiercest band spring a new album on the world, they made it one of their toughest and loudest ever. No Cities To Love charges with a renewed sense of urgency in songs like "Price Tag" and "A New Wave," in Corin Tucker's sky-scraping high notes, Carrie Brownstein's kiss-off sneer, Janet Weiss' gut-punch drums. The songs are full of humor (which figures, given Brownstein's rebirth as a comedian on Portlandia) but also rage, facing up to adult questions. "Hope's a burden or it sets you free," they sing in the title tune – a line Bruce Springsteen could have written. It would have been easier to spend their reunion tour just playing the oldies, but what mattered more to them was speaking up about right now. After all these years, Sleater-Kinney still sound gloriously untamed. And they prove Brownstein wasn't just kidding on Portlandia: The dream of the Nineties is alive and well.
Blur recorded most of their first original-quartet album since 1999 in Hong Kong, and named it after a brand of Chinese firecracker – an apt allusion to the explosive jolts and emotional shrapnel embedded in the Kinks-like stroll of "Lonesome Street" and the Martian-desert glow of the closing ballad "Mirrorball." In the lost-in-orbit dream "Thought I Was a Spaceman," singer Damon Albarn sounds quietly desperate for liftoff in a gorgeous galaxy of silvery guitar and milky-reverb electronics. It's an album about urgent motion without lasting connection – "Log in your name and pray 24 hours," Albarn sings in "New World Towers" – made by a band that has rediscovered its exploratory bond and pop-song grip. Twenty years after the peak of Brit-pop, Blur are back in style, with substance.
Apparently Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach isn't busy enough with that band, his Nashville studio Easy Eye and production jobs for Dr. John, Lana Del Rey and Cage the Elephant, among others. His debut album with the Arcs – a loose combo of friends and associates including drummer Richard Swift of the Shins and multi-instrumentalist Leon Michels of the New York neo-soul production team Truth and Soul – is a riveting extension of the Keys' progressive-blues aesthetic. "Stay in My Corner" and "Velvet Ditch" are turbulent R&B noir, spiked with psychedelic flourishes; "Put a Flower in Your Pocket" is spectral hip-hop coated in crusty mellotron. Auerbach laces the spare, loping ballad "Chains of Love" with the vocal sensuality of the female mariachi ensemble Mariachi Flor de Toloache and drops a prairie-doo-wop hook in "Cold Companion," sounding like the Eagles had just busted through the saloon door. With the fun and promise in details like that, the Arcs could be a band with a future – if Auerbach can find the time.
Talk about turning a negative into a positive. When in 2012 David Le'aupepe's then-wife received the news that the cancer she'd beaten into remission had returned, the singer turned to music as a coping mechanism. Enlisting the help of his best friends, he started writing and recording songs, some of which would end up on Gang of Youths' debut album, The Positions. At times heartbreaking ("Knuckles White Dry"), at points uplifting ("Magnolia", easily the most upbeat song you'll hear about a near-suicide attempt), and always affecting, its 10 songs heralded the arrival of a songwriter who could distil love, hate, life, pain, heartache and joy into a song, and with him a band capable of bringing that vision to life in incendiary fashion. Together they took an album cloaked by the spectre of death and turned it into a celebration of life.
Jason Isbell chronicled hard-won sobriety and marriage on 2013's breakthrough Southeastern. Instead of remaking that album on this follow-up, the most thoughtful roots-rock singer-songwriter of his generation delivered a stunning chronicle of Southern life, full of unforgettable characters and indelible images like "Jack and Coke in your mama's car/You were reading The Bell Jar." Isbell's subjects are overworked and underprivileged – a bored police officer who kills time pulling over women, factory workers "just happy to have the work," old high school girlfriends who took the wrong turns. The best is "Speed Trap Town," a Nebraska-steeped acoustic ballad about a guy who sneaks a bottle into a high-school game and finally decides to leave town. It's hard to believe he ever really escapes.
The year's best debut came from a 27-year-old Melbourne singer-songwriter who marries the observational wit of Jerry Seinfeld, the word-ninja flow of Bob Dylan circa '65 and the guitar poetry of Stephen Malkmus. As its title implies, these are songs wrought from a specific type of everyday quarter-life malaise – one brilliant song is about the stuff that runs through your mind when you can't fall asleep, another is about a botched meet-cute at a swimming pool. But Barnett's ability to pack her songs about nothing with vivid imagery and insight, literary detail and political insight, is astonishing. "Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables/And I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first/A little pesticide can't hurt," she sings on the springy rocker "Dead Fox," which somehow morphs into a hilarious, catchy driving tune. Songs like "Pedestrian At Best" and "Debbie Downer" update the rich tradition of self-doubting Nineties alt-rock; other moments, like the heartbreaking "Depreston," have a wisdom – about aging, class anxiety, economics and relationships – that seems almost impossible for someone who's only beginning to find the depth of her artistic gifts. All signs suggest those gifts could be bottomless.
Canada's Abel Tesfaye redefined what it means to be an R&B auteur with his breakthrough second LP. After a series of mysterious mixtape releases built around weeded-out goth moodiness (and one half-baked major-label debut, in 2011), he went for full-on Top 40 grandeur this time, without diluting any of his eerie allure. The sumptuous Max Martin joint "Can't Feel My Face" got America dancing to a sex-as-cocaine metaphor, thanks to a joyful hook Michael Jackson could have moonwalked to; "In the Night" amped up the violent undercurrents of MJ circa Bad while still feeling like a party; and bleary ballads like "Earned It" and "The Hills" spun gossamer sensuality into unlikely hit singles. Who else but the Weeknd could make a line like "Only my mother could love me for me" work as pillow talk? It's just that kind of raw honesty that makes him such a revolutionary player.
Does this guy know how to pick a moment, or what? D'Angelo dropped his first LP since 2000 in the final days of 2014, as his big statement on America in a year of deep racial turmoil. After a year of listening, Black Messiah stands even taller. The songs take their time to build a plush, meditative live-band soul groove in the vein of Sly Stone or Prince. D speaks his piece about police violence in "The Charade" ("All we wanted was a chance to talk/'Stead we only got outlined in chalk") and unleashes his inner guitar hero in "1000 Deaths". The showstopper is "Another Life" – six minutes of piano, sitar and falsetto, stretching into D'Angelo's infinite future. Even if we have to wait another 15 years for the next chapter, it'll take at least that long to truly absorb Black Messiah.
What a time to be Drake. Toronto's finest enjoyed a hell of a year, and it all started with this – his purest hip-hop move in ages, which he called a mixtape even though it sold through the roof. No pop hooks, no romance, just a tightly sequenced set of rap cuts where he plays directly to his base by venting his anger and paranoia. He disses his own record label and kvetches about groupies as only he can: "I got bitches asking me about the code for the Wi-Fi." He even complains about driving his girl to her bar exam through the snow – perhaps the most Drake-ish grouse ever. This is the darkest record he's ever made, yet it easily cleared a million copies sold in a year when virtually no one else did. Even when Aubrey Drake Graham downplays his pop side, he runs the game.
The feverish four-year wait for the follow-up to Adele's triple-platinum blockbuster, 21, was unlike anything we've seen this decade – and she didn't disappoint on this thunderous triumph. 25 tells the story of a young woman making her uneasy peace with adulthood, like Carole King on Tapestry. The pop-savvy "Water Under the Bridge" and the soaring piano ballad "Remedy" take on relationship drama with realist fire, while the lighthearted "Sweetest Devotion" dances right into ecstasy. Adele and her A-list co-conspirators (Max Martin, Tobias Jesso Jr.) fly from drum-cannon Eighties balladry to classic gospel and blues to the kind of piano power surges that are her epic signature, holding it all together with the nuanced, towering vocal performances that have already made her iconic. "If you're not the one for me/Then how come I can bring you to your knees?" she sings. On 25, she does it over and over again.
Musically, lyrically and emotionally, Kendrick Lamar's third album is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece – a sprawling epic that's both the year's most bumptious party music and its most gripping therapy session. A rap superstar at last, after years on the underground grind, Lamar wrestles with the depression and survivor's guilt that followed his fame and success by turning to heroes from Ralph Ellison and Richard Pryor to Smokey Robinson and Kris Kross to Nelson Mandela and Tupac. He lives large. He contains multitudes.
The pleasures and rewards of To Pimp a Butterfly aren't easy. Leading the charge to bring live instrumentation back to hip-hop, Lamar and producer Sounwave call forth a sound as ambitious, free-associative and challenging as his rhymes: sci-fi funk on "Wesley's Theory," snatches of free jazz on "For Free?," steady-rolling G-funk on "King Kunta." Over all this, Lamar – his voice raw or multitracked into its own chorus – interrogates himself and a country where everything from his ancestors to his art has always been for sale. He repeatedly returns to a moment when he found himself alone in a hotel room, distraught and screaming. "I didn't want to self-destruct," he says. "So I went running for answers." The search is never-ending.
Topics: Best of 2015