We've compiled our 18 favorite album releases of 2015—in alphabetical order, because ranking them is impossible. Treat your ears to powerful female vocals and mesmerizing instrumentals as you drift from blues to rock and dream pop to hip hop.
Sound & Color is Alabama Shakes’ follow-up to their tremendously successful debut, Boys & Girls, and it’s anything but a sophomore slump. The blues-rock band from Athens, GA, once again proves that the most resonant music comes from raw emotion—and there isn’t one uncomplicated love song in the batch.
Lead singer Brittany Howard’s powerful voice is captivating, flirting with ugliness, and threatening to climb out of her control, though it never does. “Gimme All Your Love” and “Don’t Wanna Fight” are standout, multi-faceted tracks that show how the group has grown as musicians. Sound & Color was highly anticipated, and happily, it doesn’t disappoint.
Over the course of their first four albums, Beach House so carefully honed their sound, their name has basically become shorthand for dream pop. The duo doesn’t shed that descriptor on Depression Cherry, but the pair does peel back some of the hazy layers to reveal a crispness that wasn’t apparent on 2012’s Bloom. Victoria Legrand’s vocals are clearer than they’ve ever been, as is Alex Scally’s guitar, which approaches downright grittiness, in its distortion on “Sparks” and “Beyond Love.” The trademark Beach House sound is still there, but you can feel the band pushing itself out of its comfort zone, in small but potent ways.
-Eliza C. Thompson
Fans of Björk know that the only thing predictable about her work is constant change. The Icelandic multi-instrumentalist’s last album, 2011’s Biophilia, was a conceptual (and somewhat bloodless) multimedia project, but Vulnicura is a deeply intimate chronicle of heartbreak. Written in real time, these nine tracks detail an excruciating break-up with her longtime partner. Although it ends on a hopeful note, Vulnicura puts the listener through the emotional wringer—“Black Lake” in particular is a devastating listen.
Of course, it’s all done Björk-style, which means intellectually complex, musically innovative, and exquisitely produced songs. Vulnicura is honest, painful, and beautiful—a true masterpiece, and a highlight in Björk’s illustrious 30-year career.
-Sarah C. Jones
If placing Childbirth’s debut album in a record store bin, you might struggle between “punk” or “comedy albums.” The Seattle supergroup’s unabashedly crude sense of humor could come off as dismissive, but Women’s Rights does more than laugh at lame Tinder guys and shrug about giving cocaine as a baby shower gift.
Over grungy guitar rifts, vocalist Julia Shapiro attacks hygiene standards (“Nasty Girls”), calls out sexist dudes (“Tech Bro”), and mocks politically incorrect exes (“Since When Are You Gay?”). Childbirth’s “if-I-didn’t-laugh-I’d-cry” approach is empowering and sly, bolstered by the trio’s innovative song structures and melodic punk rock abandon.
Like an embroidered caftan that looks straight out of 1964 but was designed in 2015, Diane Coffee is an experiment in reanimating the retro. Shaun Fleming, sometimes drummer for Foxygen, brings his side project Diane Coffee to life again for a second full-length album, Everybody’s A Good Dog. Skipping from David Bowie-style vocals, to melodies straight off an album from the Association, to full-on Motown celebrations with horn sections, the album sounds like forgotten glam gems that may have played on the local classic rock radio station of your dreams. Tracks like the wonderfully psychedelic “Spring Breathes” are so fun and invigorating in their exuberance, you might forget which decade you’re in—and you won’t care.
In 2012, musician Beth Jeans Houghton released a self-titled, intimate, acoustic debut album. Now Houghton has returned with a new name, Du Blonde, and a new take-no-prisoners attitude on her full-length Welcome Back to Milk. Placing her in the rock chick hierarchy with Chrissie Hynde, PJ Harvey, and Brody Dalle, songs like “Black Flag,” “Hard to Please,” and “Mr. Hyde” find Houghton more than managing a wailing, blues-influenced guitar. When she’s not tearing it up, she’s sitting down at the piano for gospel-influenced pop numbers like “Raw Honey,” which would make Dusty Springfield, Annie Lennox, and Adele proud to call her their blue-eyed soul sister.
(In the Red Records)
By now we know that California native Ty Segall can do ’60s pop, psych-rock, garage punk, noise, and many variations on those themes. But his project Fuzz is an outlet for his inner stoner, one who grew up on sludge and glam metal. Segall remains the strongest voice of the trio on II, his tweaked-out vocals bursting frantically through the record’s massive riffs and spattering drum fills. Standout track “Say Hello” builds from a grungy, two-minute intro to an explosion of noise. Between moments of electrifying convulsion and slow-burning tension, Fuzz has found its perfect equilibrium.
Electronic musician and producer Grimes made a landmark record with 2012’s Visions, a DIY, feminist work of art that took inspiration from such varied sources as Nine Inch Nails and Mariah Carey. Her new album, the much-anticipated follow-up Art Angels, is more focused in its scope: pure pop for 2015.
Though Art Angels is a distinctly more accessible pop record than Visions, there are still plenty of moments of Grimes-as-weirdo-outsider-artist. A standout track is “Scream,” in which Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes carries the vocals (entirely in Mandarin), and Grimes contributes a haunting scream that acts as the chorus. Grimes also embraces the higher end of her vocal range on this album, a bold, challenging choice with inherent feminist implications.
- Liz Galvao
When it comes to writing music, Los Angeles artist Julia Holter has a truly unique perspective on the human condition. For her fourth full-length album, Have You in My Wilderness, Holter worked with producer and engineer Cole Greif-Neill to form an intimate sound.
The 10-track album is similar in its feel to Holter’s previous works; her sooting and melodic voice takes the lead on tracks like “Silhouette” and “Have You in My Wilderness.” “Night Song” has a sensual and slow-paced beat, while “Everytime Boots” is a more upbeat track. Have You in My Wilderness offers a peek into the imaginative mind of its creator.
It’s been three years since Lianne La Havas blessed us with a project, and she finally returns with Blood. Her follow-up to Is Your Love Big Enough? brings the same level of trippy soul, as La Havas glides through opener “Unstoppable.” Other cuts like “Green & Gold” beg for a rap remix, while “Tokyo” will have you on Expedia booking the first flight out of your city.
At only 10 tracks, Blood could use a little more body, but the selection (especially the simplistically beautiful “Ghost”) is enough to sate us until the next release. Hopefully it won’t be another three years.
(Hardly Art Records)
Seattle quartet La Luz’s second full-length album, Weirdo Shrine, is an invigorating continuation of their debut, 2013’s It’s Alive. Here, La Luz sticks to what they do best—pysched-out, guitar driven surf rock, which feels nostalgic and modern allin the same bar.
The band soars through 11 tracks, from dance-party appropriate instrumentals like “Hey Papi,” to classic ballads like “I’ll be True,” where lyrics like “No one else treats me like you do” float over sinister-yet-sweet melodies. Never slipping from start to finish, Weirdo Shrine serves as the perfect soundtrack to late-summer bonfires, and the first bittersweet chill of fall.
Lizzo’s music was once described as “no-genre hip-hop,” and it’s a label she embraces on her second full-length album, Big GRRRL Small World. The Minnesotan rapper borrows from chill wave on “Ride,” a song about coming to terms with success, and embraces trap on “B.G.S.W.” and “En Love,” two empowering odes to self-love. Big Grrrl is a more challenging listen than 2013’s LIZZOBANGERS, constantly shifting direction, occasionally falling silent, and tinged with sadness. It’s ultimately an album with the baggage that comes with fame. Though there are rappers with an easier flow, Lizzo stands proudly, powerfully in her truth.
After five years away, freak folk goddess Joanna Newsom returns with a new batch of stories on Divers, an album full of wonderful surprises. Newsom’s vocals are practically operatic here, reaching new heights and adding drama to “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive” and “Sapokanikan.”
Other tracks are bold in what they leave out, such as slow burners “A Pin-Light Bent” and “Divers,” which both leave room for Newsom’s harp work to take the forefront. Divers also features arrangements from collaborators like Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth, and they contribute to a rich, rewarding journey—where Newsom is our trusted guide.
(I U She Music via INgrooves)
On her first full-length album in six years, electro-pop veteran Merrill Beth Nisker shows us what else is in the teaches of Peaches. Constantly switching between the clever and the juvenile, the queen of filth shows no signs of slowing down—or growing up. While Peaches’ sound hasn’t changed much since 2006’s Impeach My Bush, her confrontational and subversive style never feels stale. Album standouts like “Light in Places” and the punk rock-infused “Sick in the Head” prove that she can still make one hell of an earworm. Who else could deliver a line like “catch the wave coming off my meat drip?”
-Sarah C. Jones
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals’ leading lady is stepping out on her own, and she’s pulling out all the stops. Potter’s debut solo LP, Midnight, boasts her blazing talent and style as a rock vocalist. “Alive Tonight,” the albums first single, is an anthem; “Delirious” is ’80s-inspired; and “Let You Go,” is a delicate piano ballad. The theme of the album is one of transformation, from the opener, “Hot To The Touch,” about wanting someone so bad you question if it’s normal, through the defiant “What We’ve Become” to the final stripped-down song, “Nobody’s Born With A Broken Heart.” Here, Potter captures the journey one must take to find self-love.
(Sub Pop Records)
Sleater Kinney’s first record in 10 years is a little more technical than their previous releases—think Johnny Marrera Modest Mouse. And while the lyrics are still aggressive and pointed, the vocals are more restrained. Songs like “A New Wave” and “Bury Our Friends” focus on feelings of obscurity and sinking into the background, while “No Anthems” has a more traditional, aggressive SK sound.
No Cities to Love keeps alive the Sleater-Kinney penchant for pushing the envelope and defying any kind of norm. A clear fit for any fan’s collection, this record proves that these women are capable of much more than traditional riot grrrl.
-Emilie von Unwerth
(Rough Trade Records)
Ireland's Bridie Monds-Watson (aka SOAK) has been writing since the tender age of 13. Now 18, the singer/songwriter brings new meaning to the phrase “wise beyond her years” with Before We Forgot How to Dream. These songs offer incredibly emotive stories with an outpouring of worldly commentary, and a unique, yet wholly relatable flare. After opening with a muffled soundscape, the album moves from hushed confessions to a soaring instrumentation.
There’s the bluesy “Sea Creatures,” the pulsing folk of “Garden,” and the devastatingly stripped back “B a noBody.” Though SOAK has created an impressively varied album, it’s her words that will stay with you for days.
The indie landscape has taken a turn toward darkness of late, but goth/metal/industrial queen Chelsea Wolfe is truly in a class all her own. On her fifth album, the Los Angeles-based musician goes in for the kill, with some of her heaviest material to date. Single “Iron Moon” has a stomach-dropping drone at its center, lifted by Wolfe’s whispery vocals, while other tracks like “After the Fall” follow in the more electronic direction Wolfe took on her previous album, Pain is Beauty. It’s devastating music that’s not for the faint of heart. Trent Reznor better watch his back.
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