The 20 Best Albums That Rocked Our Turntables In 2015
By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 11, 2016 8:00PM
Photo by Travis Wiens
Now that 2015 is finally and completely over, and every release has been properly digested, let's take a look back at some of the best music produced that year.
This year's list is heavy on the rock and light on the pop. This is largely due to the fact that, while pop producers continued to release some great singles, cohesive albums were harder to come by in that realm. This year's list is also heavily weighted towards female fronted bands. I'm not sure that's any sort of statement on the industry as a whole as much as it's simply a sign that a lot of women are making really good music. Maybe next year we'll be able to completely dispense with even having to point that out? In a perfect world, right?
In my 2014 list I pointed out the current trends in pop, rock, R&B, hip-hop and dance were creating lots of good music, but not so much great music. This year's list was the first time I almost extended by selections to the top 25 albums of 2015, because there were so many solid, heavy-hitting LPs to choose from. It's been a while since I actually had to agonize over keeping the list to 20 albums, so this was a nice problem to have.
I listened to almost 600 new releases in 2015, all the way through. Add in another hundred or so that I sampled (some things you simply can't listen to all the way through), countless singles and EPs, and god knows how many back catalog albums that I spun for my mere self enjoyment, and you walk away with a pretty good picture of where music is trending right now.
Sound-wise, music is still trending backwards—the '90s seem to be holding an unusually amount of influence, especially over guitar driven rock. And while this isn't exactly something that I have any issues with,—the bands these folks are pulling influences from veer towards the classic indie of that decade—I am curious to see where we go from here. Some clues are offered by artists like HEALTH or Grimes, as they take the pop song structure and bend and twist it into something that feels fresh and new, and sometimes even exciting or scary.
So, here are the 20 albums—in no particular order—I listened to the most in 2015 and still can't stop spinning.
Veruca Salt - Ghost Notes
Some bands try to recreate their classic sound when they regroup. Some go in a different direction. Veruca Salt got the original line-up back together to recreate their classic sound with a new life and confidence they didn't have at the outset. If this is what the band sounds when they're getting along, it's a shame they ever fought! There's an argument for this being the best album of their career and I've yet to get bored of this album.
Nai Harvest - Hairball
File this one under "unexpected gems that make listening to hundreds of albums a year totally worth it." Nai Harvest's entire debut album Hairball is a high octane, turbo-charged, guitar-glorious sugar rush from start to finish. And to think, all of this sound from a two-piece! This is one of those discs that snaps you to attention from its opening beats and doesn't let up let you go for the next 36 minutes.
Blur - The Magic Whip
Another unlikely reunion, Blur's return in 2015 yielded The Magic Whip. In the progression of Blur albums, it sounds like what might have come after their self-titled 1997 LP had they not taken a hard left into the much more experimental terrain of 13. (Which is one of my favorite albums of their ever.) Mixing a few mid-tempo and more inward looking songs with a few straight up Britpop rockers means The Magic Whip delivers on all expectations. It may not be the best album of Blur's career, but it proves the band still has something to say.
Cafeine - New Love
Xavier Cafeine is a couple albums into his career already, though I'd never heard of him before this year. The Canadian relocated to LA and turned out one of the most most insanely, consistently catchy albums of the year. It's straight ahead, new wave-driven power pop. There isn't a dud in the entire track-listing, and I dare you to listen to it once and not feel compelled to repeat the whole thing all over again. This is a rock and roll dance party you won't be able to crash over and over again, I guarantee it.
Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Courtney Barnett is a critical darling, and her reputation is completely driven by her amazing songwriting chops and explosive live shows. Her panache for storytelling drives the music, though sometimes it feels like her more inventive phrasing is driven by the need to fit more syllables than should be physically possible into a measure of music. But Barnett manages to make it work, all while slashing away at the strings and stomping on the fuzz pedal of her guitar.
Best Coast - California Nights
Best Coast's California Nights sounds exactly like you think an album with that title would sound. It's big guitars, sing-along choruses, and good vibes perfectly suited to riving along the coastline heading to a beachfront campfire. Bethany Cosentino's vocals drip with pure sunshine while Bobb Bruno's guitar leads pump copious amounts of pop genius into the mix.
Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly
Can you even call this a hip-hop album? I feel it shares more DNA with jazz improvisation than with conventional hip-hop, but maybe that's the point Kendrick Lamar is trying to make. Instead of delivering on tired tropes he bends the genre to his will to create one of the most inventive and satisfying albums of the year. Every time I listen to this the songs slither around and reveal something new every time. I once described this as what P-Funk would sound like if they were formed in 2025. I think that's still pretty accurate.
Bully - Feels Like
Alicia Bognanno and Bully would sound perfectly home on a Sub-Pop sampler circa 1991. Punk aggression and unexpected melodic twists bump up against Bognanno's tortured, screaming delivery to deliver music that laves a trail of bloodied wreckage in its wake. And live the band turns it up to 11 to whip the audience into an uncontrollable frenzy. If you're not there to mosh you probably want to get the hell out.
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin - The High Country
On The High Country, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin crafted the best album of the band's career. The guitars are turned up, and while the songs are still masterfully crafted there's a new looseness and urgency running though the delivery that humanizes the work in a new way. By the band's own account, this album is an attempt to capture the energy of their live show and the result is fun, energizing and the kind of album that keeps drawing this writer back for more. They basically kept the vocals and melodies from their more twee days and cranked every amp in the room to the breaking point. If Weezer was still writing good albums they might sound like this.
Colleen Green - I Want To Grow Up
Colleen Green obviously has a big '90s album collection, and this LP see her cranking out lo-fi guitar pop while her sweet vocals cut through the noise to deliver biting lyrics wrapped in huge hummable melodies. There's a healthy dose of early Veruca Salt and Juliana Hatfield going on here, and I am totally OK with that. I saw her on tour and she played with a single guitar and no backing band, and still managed to totally rock out and fill the room with energy.
Local H - Hey, Killer
When this came out I said, "Hey, Killer comes across as more a "greatest hits before they're hits" album, each song striped to its clearest path to attack so every note lands effectively." That still seems pretty right-on. Local H's first album with new drummer Ryan Harding shows Scott Lucas still has plenty of good music left in him. Two and half decades into his career, Lucas is still maintaining an enviable track record of consistently excellent albums.
The Kickback - Sorry All Over The Place
Chicago's The Kickback took their sweet time releasing this album, it's been finished for a number of years, but it was worth the wait. The album is full of danceable rock and/or roll numbers that have you humming along with them before you realize that lyrically they're driven by a narrator who is mostly miserable. But who cares when it's this catchy! It's a winning juxtaposition of mood, lyrics and melody that makes this one of my absolute favorite listens of the year.
HEALTH - DEATH MAGIC
So is this what transgressive pop sound like? DEATH creates MASSIVE sounds, powers them by HUGE beats, and a very non-ironic attempt to mine these dense slabs of sound for hooks and melody. Apparently this was recorded and scrapped three times before they were finally satisfied? The perfectionism shows through; each song stands as a singular accomplishment and an engineering marvel. How they get the noise level to the stratospheric height they reach without blowing speakers or pushing every gauge into the red is beyond me. But I'm glad they figured it out since this is an album that's a pure delight if you allow it to overtake you.
Carly Rae Jepsen - E•MO•TION
This is the best pop album of 2015 that apparently no one outside music critics and a handful of fans heard in 2015. Which is a true tragedy since E•MO•TION is a delight from start to finish. Don't write Jepsen off as a one-hit wonder, though her management's dubious choice of the "Call Me Maybe" soundalike "I Really Like You" did her no favors. Outside that one tune, which really isn't even bad, E•MO•TION is filled with '80s dance-pop that feels more vibrant and honest than anything on Taylor Swift's similar sounding 1989. And that's not a slam on Swift, her album is great too, but more a testament to just how sharp Jepsen's songwriting is.
CHVRCHES - Every Open Eye
CHVRCHES has alway been solid but they nail perfection on this one. Buoyant, catchy synths lift up Lauren Mayberry's vocals and the result is bliss. They create something that feels almost spiritual on the album's center piece, the slowly building "Clearest Blue," a song that finally crescendos into a jubilant final act. It's a highpoint on an album that soars.
Grimes - Art Angels
Grimes finally teeters into pop bliss while still dragging enough of her sonic weirdness into the mix to keep things interesting. Her instincts are nigh unerring and this is by far her best release yet. If you don't find yourself dancing along to the Satanic cheerleader chants of a song like "Kill V. Maim" you may want to get your reflexes checked out.
YACHT - I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler
Their best yet. Sonically inventive and all over the place while still delivering earworms and pop hooks galore. They've completely melded their art and commerce sides into something amazing. This is art pop in all the best ways. The title track has tongue firmly planted in cheek while calling you to the dance floor, and even the ridiculously titled "I Wanna Fuck You Till I'm Dead" is a little slice of dance rock bliss built on sunshine melodies.
Laura Stevenson - Cocksure
This collection of insanely strong rock and pop was a true gem to stumble over unexpectedly when it was released last fall. it's maybe the most straightforward and "conventional" rock album on this list, but it's also a testament to Stevenson's unerring songwriting instincts. You don't always have to defy convention in order to deliver music that thrills.
Beach Slang - The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us
Beach Slang is all big guitars and aggressive tunes, driven by melodies you could hum along to yourself in the shower. They share a healthy dose of DNA with mid-period Replacements and deliver sloppy and raw bar rock. this isn't the deepest record on this list, but it's possibly the most fun.
Alessia Cara - Know-It-All
Far more interesting than expected. I love "Here" but originally wrote Cara off as a pop gimmick since you can't really go wrong with a song that that floats along a classic Isaac Hayes sample. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the late year release revealed the rest of the album is remarkably accomplished, and probably the "deepest" and most honest and straightforward pop album I heard all year! if she's already this good at only 19 I'm really looking forward to seeing where her next steps of her career take us.
Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear: Baroque pop and stainless steel storytelling.
Sam Vicari - Giving Up: Heart tugging love songs you'll immediately sing along with.
Jeremih - Late Nights: The Album: Late nights are perfectly suited to the sonic sex flowing through this album.
Heyrocco - Teenage Movie Soundtrack: Indie power pop fueled by adolescent angst that's catchy as all get out.
Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - Surf: 2016 is gonna be Chance The Rapper's year.