Compiling this list made me realize how truly great 2015 was for music. While reading other outlets' lists, I was excited to see such a wide array of genres being represented.
My own taste leans heavily towards pop, and boy was it a year for the genre. Because the heavy hitters remained quiet or focused on other ventures, lesser-known artists were able to shine. However, 2016 already promises new albums from the likes of Lady Gaga, Robyn, Britney Spears, and maybe even Rihanna.
Until then, these are the 25 albums I believe best represent my 2015. Plenty of great records didn't make the list, and some might have made it had I not discovered them so late (Cam's Untamed is one that stands out). They're soundtracks for the highs and lows, and I hope my write-up inspires to listen to anything you haven't heard yet. A playlist of the key tracks from each album, minus any record not available on Spotify, is below.
25. Adele - 25: The biggest selling album of 2015, and it was released at the end of November. Nobody in the music industry has the power of Adele, but it’d do everybody good to step back from the numbers and really listen to 25 itself. While it has its fair share of predictable, signature Adele ballads, there are some interesting moments that justify her hype. The sweeping darkness of “I Miss You” reminds us why we care about Adele; underneath that voice is an artist capable of capturing emotion in ways few vocalists can. There aren’t any songs with the same bite of some of her previous singles, but she manages to craft a calming yet familiar record that sits nicely in her canon. Key Tracks: Hello, Water Under The Bridge, I Miss You
24. Christine and The Queens - Christine and The Queens: A gender queer French pop star whose stage name comes from her love of drag queens - what more do you need to know? Much like she does with her appearance, Christine bends her brand of pop in a thousand different directions, making for a compelling, cool listen. Key Tracks: iT, Titled, Jonathan (Ft. Perfume Genius).
23. Ryn Weaver - The Fool: Ryn Weaver hatched out of nowhere with her mammoth song “OctaHate.” The Fool is the album that followed, featuring laser precise production permeating each song, but also a carefree vibe in line with Ryn’s own free-spiritedness. Key Tracks: OctaHate, Pierre, The Fool
22. Tove Styrke - Kiddo: This Tove has a little more bite than the more widely-known Tove Lo, but Tove Styrke is just as ferocious and sure of her pop sensibilities. A record that sounds exuberantly youthful with an infectious confidence, Kiddo’s melodies sink into your brain until you find yourself humming bits of every song. Key Tracks: Ego, Borderline, Number One
21. Torres - Sprinter: The venom Torres spews on “Strange Hellos”, the lead song from her second album, is unsettling in the best way. The disgust she sings with as the crunching guitars roar louder and louder until the song’s explosive climax mirrors a bold record that makes you wonder what sounds she’ll dance with next. Uncomfortable honesty anchors every song, creating a confessional album not often found in today’s musical climate. Key Tracks: Strange Hellos, Cowboy Guilt, Sprinter.
20. Laura Marling - Short Movie: On her fifth album, Laura Marling plugs in not only her guitar to bring an electric undercurrent to her stream-of-conscious songwriting, but she also gives more of herself than she ever has. Born out of disillusionment with her life and career, Short Movie revels in frustration and empowerment. Key Tracks: False Hope, Short Movie, Warrior (Director’s Cut)
19. Patty Griffin - Servant of Love: Heartbreak yields devastation in many forms. For Patty Griffin, she forces us to consider the idea of a perfect love and how it’s not only unattainable, but perhaps even self-destructive. Sparse arrangements create an intimacy that’s almost painful to listen to, but nobody captures emotion like Patty Griffin. Key Tracks: Servant of Love, Everything’s Changed, Rider of Days
18. Vanessa Carlton - Liberman: If you haven’t invested in the reincarnation of Vanessa Carlton, let Liberman be your jumping in point. Not that there’s anything wrong with Vanessa’s earlier work, but she’s evolved in every way. Her lyrics have never been more beautiful or introspective, her voice as fragile or assured, and her atmospheres more thick. Liberman is nostalgic, wise, and haunting. Key Tracks: Take It Easy, Willow, Nothing Where Something Used To Be.
17. Susanne Sundfør - Ten Love Songs: Ten Love Songs proves why we still need albums. This is a collection of songs that make so much sense when digested as a whole. While Susanne can certainly execute one-off singles, hearing the songs blend into each other, all orbiting the album’s 10 minute centerpiece "Memorial", locks everything in place. Key Tracks: Fade Away, Accelerate, Delirious
16. Sleater-Kinney - No Cities To Love: The return of Sleater-Kinney cemented the trio as one of our most important, accomplished bands. There’s no re-branding, no change in sound; in fact, this may be the best they’ve ever sounded. Politics and societal stumbling blocks act as the context in which they navigate their unmistakable brand of feminism and punk. If this were their final album, it’d be the highest note of their career. Hopefully, there’s more to come. Key Tracks: Price Tag, Bury Your Friends, No Cities to Love
15. Janet Jackson - Unbreakable: When a legend delivers her best album since 2001, it’s cause for celebration. The creative rut that Janet Jackson found herself for almost a decade made some think we’d never hear another record with the same creative passion and R&B masterfulness we expect from her. For Unbreakable, Janet drew inspiration from the world’s instability to bring introspection and wisdom to her most cohesive effort in years. No more breathy-coos, no unnecessary hypersexuality - just pure R&B with Janet reminding us why she’s always been the best Jackson. Key Tracks: Unbreakable, Shoulda Known Better, No Sleeep
14. Jewel - Picking Up The Pieces: Jewel simply doesn’t get credit for her incredible pipes. It’s easy to write her off based on her hits, but this is an unhinged record full of some of her absolute best songwriting and vocals. Most of these songs predate her debut and have been fan favorites for decades. Finally, songs like “Carnivore” and “Boy Needs a Bike” have a home on what’s easily Jewel’s best album since 2001. Key Tracks: Carnivore, Here When Gone
13. Wolf Alice - My Love Is Cool: This British upstart is already a Mercury Prize-nominated band, and this is their first record. Wolf Alice jump through genres with ease, navigating a punk song like “Fluffy” and a poppy kiss-off like “Freazy” like veterans. Having a British band that’s not a pack of lads and instead has a badass female frontwoman like Ellie Rowsell also adds to the magic of Wolf Alice. Key Tracks: Bros, You’re a Germ, Freazy
12. Lianne La Havas - Blood: Rarely does a sophomore album eclipse its acclaimed predecessor, but Lianne La Havas’ Blood sounds like an artist finding the perfect groove. Lianne’s vocals are unquestionably powerful, soulful, and controlled. Its her main instrument, in addition to intricate guitar work that sets cascading moods like the late night chill of "Tokyo" or the swirling "Unstoppable." A lesser-known treasure who will only keep growing. Key Tracks: Green & Gold, What You Don’t Do, Midnight
11. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell: Many of us feel as if we’ve grown with Sufjan Stevens. He’s soundtracked our awkward high school years, college confusion, and the stumbling we do into adulthood. On an album dedicated to his late mother and stepfather, Sufjan sings about mortality and death in ways that capture the complexity of life. Instantly his most intimate and personal set of songs, the sparse arrangements of eloquently plucked guitar, gorgeous harmonies, and subtle electronic flourishes makes the gut-wrenching subject matter a little easier to digest. Key Tracks: Death With Dignity, Should Have Known Better, The Only Thing.
10. Lana Del Rey - Honeymoon: At this point, there shouldn’t be many surprises when you listen to a Lana Del Rey record. It’s easy to trace her evolution from her self-released debut to Honeymoon, the record where she fine-tunes her aesthetic and brings us deeper into her world than ever before. Those longing for Born To Die-style hooks and accessibility will have to keep longing, but Honeymoon features an artist gracefully settling into a world that’s completely her own. Key Tracks: Music To Watch Boys To, Terrence Loves You, High By The Beach
09. Joanna Newsom - Divers: One of our greatest living composers once again challenges us to think beyond traditional structures and immerse ourselves in her songs. Calling Divers Joanna Newsom’s most accessible album speaks less of the album’s actual sound, and more to a meticulously constructed, musical vision. The nautical themes that permeate throughout the record, as well as some of her most gorgeous vocal work to date, places Divers comfortably alongside the other epics of her catalogue. Key Tracks: Sapokanikan, Anecdotes, Divers
08. CHVRCHES - Every Open Eye: Being a critically acclaimed band with a critically acclaimed debut layers the pressure on thick to release a quality follow-up. Thankfully, CHVRCHES took everything we love about them and added a healthy pop glow. Everything sounds more jubilant; take “Clearest Blue” for example. It’s a rush of a song that builds higher and higher, until an instrumental climax explodes. It’s a moment made for huge festival crowds, unifying dancefloors across the globe. Lead vocalist Lauren Mayberry shows dramatic improvement, singing with a confidence that lends itself well to kiss-offs like “Leave a Trace” and “Empty Threat.” Every Open Eye sounds like a band making the music they're meant to make. Key Tracks: Clearest Blue, Empty Threat, Leave a Trace
07. Miley Cyrus - Miley Cyrus And Her Dead Petz: Miley Cyrus’ current hippie incarnation is polarizing, to say the least. Most listeners probably didn’t bother with the free album she did with The Flaming Lips, due to her persona eclipsing her actual music talent. Those who braved it uncovered one of the most fascinating evolutions of a pop star in recent memory. While “Dead Petz” is an affectionate name for the Flaming Lips, who provide the backing for each song, it’s actually a literal reference to the album’s subject matter; the loss of various animals she shared a bond with, including a dog, a blowfish, and a friend’s cat. A few albums on this list cover loss in its various forms; Sufjan losing his parents, Patty Griffin losing love, Adele losing her youth. But losing a pet? That might be one of the most profound losses one can experience. A love so pure as the one shared between pet and owner, untainted by the complications that accompany love in its human forms, is particularly devastating when lost. Miley not only wrote every song, she also produced the 23 song set. It may be a detour of sorts, but it’s a bold release by anyone’s standards, not just Miley Cyrus’. Key Tracks: Karen Don’t Be Sad, Lighter, BB Talk
06. Florence + The Machine - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful: The power of Florence Welch’s voice is unmatched. Nobody sings with the same drama and power, especially within the rock music realm. After two albums that sound like the fury of the storm, it’s arresting and satisfying to hear Florence grip her voice with white-knuckled control. The songs are still big, but the moments of fragility, like “Long & Lost” and “St Jude”, are softer side of Florence + The Machine that’s been missing from their sound. Key Tracks: Ship to Wreck, Queen of Peace, St Jude
05. Ashley Monroe - The Blade: It’s a tough call between Ashley Monroe and Kacey Musgraves releasing the year’s best country album. Ashley came so close, and still has one of the most critically acclaimed records of the year in any genre. Like all country greats, Ashley Monroe knows how to tell a story; the sincerity with which she sings makes you believe her every word. Plus, when you can make a ballad like “The Blade” have a catchy chorus, you know you’ve done something right. While she may not be lighting the charts on fire, The Blade is a classic-sounding record by a young yet wise artist that's worth everybody's attention. Key Tracks: On To Something Good, Bombshell, The Blade
04. Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material: Kacey Musgraves is at the forefront of artists guiding fallen country fans back to the fold. Gone are the usual cliches found on top 40 country radio, and back are the stories that we grew up with. On her sophomore album Pageant Material, Kacey further defines who she is as an artist. There’s a bit more twang compared to her flawless debut, Same Trailer Different Park, but in a delightful way. “Biscuits” features the lyric “Pissing in my yard won’t make yours any greener.” It’s tongue-in-cheek, yet earnest, which sums up Kacey’s ability to use her wit to write evocative, empathetic songs. She’s already pushed country out of its comfort zone by singing about same sex love, drugs, and other taboos. Pageant Material is another trip to Kacey’s world of small towns, nosey families, and free spiritedness. Key Tracks: Dime Store Cowgirl, Late To The Party, Biscuits
03. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit: Being 27 is weird. You’re young, but have a lot of life to live. You’re wise, but feel as if you know nothing. On her debut album, Courtney Barnett captures that confusion with songs that make the mundane sound profound, and the profound sound mundane. It’s as if she could have an A-ha! moment doing something as trivial as taking out the trash. Courtney’s genius is that she can sing lyrics like this back-to-back: “You said we should look out further, I guess it wouldn't hurt us / We don't have to be around all these coffee shops.” She means exactly what she says, but sings like she has all of the answers. Musically, Courtney’s Australian drawl and plane engine guitars are the backdrop for songs that could be born in a few different decades. For example, there’s a distinctly 90s, early Sheryl Crow-vibe on the opening song “Elevator Operator.” It’ll be hard to top a debut like this, and maybe she won’t...but she probably will. Key Tracks: Elevator Operator, Pedestrian at Best, Depreston.
02. Grimes - Art Angels: Art Angels is a video game soundtrack. It’s a collection of Anime theme songs. It’s fearless pop odyssey from an incredible composer. Since she started releasing music, Claire Boucher has championed pure pop in its many incarnations. She’s an out and proud Mariah Carey fan, constantly posts links to pop videos on her Tumblr, and of course draws influence for her own music. Therefore, to hear an entire album of bombastic production and instant melodies doesn’t feel like a shock; the shocking part is that it’s 100% Claire. Not that anybody should be shocked by her ability to write, perform, and produce her entire album own her own - she’s been doing it since the beginning. More so, Art Angels could go head-to-head with some of the best pop albums created by huge teams of people. For instance, lead single “Flesh without Blood” has monstrous hooks that some of the best pop producers could only dream of crafting. Same “Kill V Maim”, a modern take on the hybrid pop/rock/grunge sound Garbage pioneered. Grimes even enlists music visionary Janelle Monae to add extra flare to the thundering “Venus Fly.” For anybody put off by Grimes’ shift to a more effervescent sound, they can listen to “California”, or as she calls it “a hate track for Pitchfork." With a deceptively sweet melody and the closest thing Grimes has come to country, “California” is a confessional, intensely personal track in which she acknowledges being effected by critics, but making peace with not being able to please them. As music listeners and lovers, we should all be pleased with a record so unapologetic, adventurous, and magical as Art Angels. Key Tracks: California, Flesh without Blood, Kill V Maim
01. Carly Rae Jepsen - E•MO•TION: While pop music technically refers to music that’s popular, the definition and descriptors morph with each decade. The vibrant yet melancholy sound of the 80s, pioneered by acts like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, George Michael, and our beloved David Bowie, remains a trusty template for an artist to combine accessibility and songwriting. That’s why it’s a perfect fit for somebody like Carly Rae Jepsen, an artist who gravitates toward tight lyrical structures that support the high levels of sweetness in her music. For those not listening closely, Carly Rae Jepsen songs might sound just as brainless and aimless like 99% of what top 40 radio plays. The genius of Jepsen is in her simplicity; countless couplets on E•MO•TION pack punches of all sorts, ranging from confessions of teenage-style longing to self-empowerment anthems. Take “Warm Blood”, one of the album’s most sonically striking songs. It’s about unapologetically wanting somebody, and Carly Rae captures that fearless feeling so nicely: “I saw myself tonight / Caught my reflection in the mirror / My hands and heart were tied / But I was scared of almost nothing at all.” If you listened to any of Carly Rae’s last album Kiss beyond its singles, E•MO•TION wouldn’t sound that out of nowhere. But for the majority of fans and especially critics, it’s emerged as not only the best pop album of the year by quantifiable measures, but it also rebrands and relaunches an artist completely connected to her craft. With a total of 17 new songs connected to this era, the consistent quality and countless hooks are a bit awe-inspiring. Not to mention, the spectrum of sound Jepsen covers makes for an engaging experience that delights and thrills from start to finish. E•MO•TION is less sugary than Kiss, which allows its songs to breathe and mutate within their short durations. E•MO•TION is also an example of an album divorced of persona and hype. Carly Rae doesn’t have a squad. There isn’t an (official) rabid fan base with weird nicknames, or TMZ articles detailing her wild nights out. If she has any of these, they’re not the biggest part of her, nor does she allow them to eclipse her music. This allows E•MO•TION to stand firmly as a meticulously crafted set that doubles as a celebration of an entire genre of music, and an incredibly gifted artist. Key Tracks: Run Away With Me, Warm Blood, When I Needed You