2015 was an all-around amazing year for music. There were some astounding debuts, great surprises by bands that hadn’t been heard from in years, and high-quality albums by artists that have yet to let us down. There were also a number of good-but-not great albums by indie heavyweights (The Decemberists, Belle and Sebastian, Modest Mouse) and a slew of excellent songs that really stood out from their albums.
Below are my top 10 albums of 2015. I listened to a total of 46 albums that came out this year, so know that if your favorite album didn’t make it, there’s a good chance that I didn’t actually listen to it yet. This includes a lot of artists that have made other top 10 countdowns including Sufjan Stevens, Father John Misty, Grimes, and Kendrick Lamar. While I could have gone and listened to all of these albums during the last month, it would just feel insincere and like I was trying to make this top 10 look like all the others. Make of this what you will. Anyways, here it is…
Will Butler – Policy: Arcade Fire singer Win Butler is known for his somber musical persona that asks listeners questions like “is anything as strange as a normal person?” His bandmate and little brother Will meanwhile wants you to know that if he could fly, he’d “beat the shit out of some birds” and he “knows a great recipe for pony macaroni.” Clearly the bigger smartass of the two, Will Butler’s debut album Policy was part Arcade Fire-sounding rock songs, a couple ballads, and some experimental electronic pop tunes. It was certainly all over the place and potentially could have made a better EP (it’s less than 30 minutes long), but songs like “Take My Side,” “Anna” and “Witness” got me excited for whatever he releases next.
Wolf Alice – My Love Is Cool: Another promising full-length debut, My Love Is Cool seems to be heavily inspired by 90s alt-rock, its fuzzy guitar riffs recalling the better parts of what grunge had to offer. And while the album frequently rocks out, touches like the reverberating notes on the tender “Bros” are the more memorable instrumental moments. Of course, the real reason My Love Is Cool stands out is singer Ellie Rosewell’s vocals, which go from soft and sweet on “Turn to Dust” to shouting “you’re a dodgy fucker as well” on “You’re A Germ.” Despite a few missteps, the stronger points of this debut make Wolf Alice a band to keep your eye on.
- The Libertines – Anthems For Doomed Youth
Genre: British Indie Rock, Garage Rock Revival
Considering their last album was released in 2004 when the band was in the throes of one of the most high-profile and substance abuse-filled breakups in indie rock history (the subject of the video above), it’s still fairly strange to discuss a new Libertines album in 2015. Granted frontmen Carl Barât and Pete Doherty have kept themselves busy with other bands in the past decade, but it seemed like The Libertines were to remain a two-album act with near legendary status until their reunion last year. Third album Anthems for Doomed Youth reflects on these interceding years and the band’s legacy, showing a great deal of personal growth. This new maturity means the Libertines didn’t release another frantic garage rock album, although tracks like “Heart of the Matter” and “Glasgow Coma Scale Blues” show the band can still pull off this sound when they want. Elsewhere, the reggae-tinged songs “Barbarians” and “Gunga Din” along with the softer “Anthem for Doomed Youth” demonstrate the Libertines’ aptitudes with differing styles. The album may not live up to the decade of hype that has built up around it, but it shouldn’t disappoint either, particularly in the context of what the band has been though. To quote the song above: “with all the battering it’s taken, I’m surprised it’s still ticking.”
Standout Tracks: “Barbarians” “Anthem for Doomed Youth” “Heart of the Matter”
- Miami Horror – All Possible Futures
Genre: Electronic, Dance, Nu-Disco
Australian electronic group Miami Horror released an EP in 2008 and their full-length debut Illumination in 2010, both packed to the brim with disco-inspired synthpop songs that would sound great on any dancefloor. A glut of synthesizer-driven indietronica bands have emerged since this time, but few had the unabashed dance music appeal of Miami Horror. I always wondered when/if they would come back, and if so, would they tone things down? Well I got my answer as soon as the disco bassline kicks in on “American Dream,” the opener of second album All Possible Futures. It’s essentially a 15-track party that rarely lets up, going between modern synthpop, disco throwbacks, and straight up pop. There are some slower songs that dampen the mood a bit, especially on its second half, but for the most part the album is bristling with energy. It’s at its best when it totally lets loose on tracks like “Love Like Mine,” “Cellophane (So Cruel),” and “Out of Sight,” but even tracks like the milder “Real Slow” demand attention. While Illumination had a vague 70s feel, All Possible Futures recalls a more pastel-accented 80s and seems like it would be at home in a sunny, palm-tree filled city. Only there seems to be a sense of loss or pining behind many of the lyrics, as if this sunny city has a darker side, and…wait, that’s literally the band’s name.
Standout Tracks: “American Dream” “Real Slow” “Cellophane (So Cruel)”
- Beach House – Depression Cherry
Genre: Dream Pop
As mention in the top songs not on the top albums countdown, Beach House did the unthinkable in 2015 by releasing two studio albums less than two months apart from each other. While the second album Thank Your Lucky Stars was a very strong release and had some great moments, the first album Depression Cherry really stole the show and overshadowed its successor. Unlike their highly acclaimed 2012 album Bloom, Depression Cherry is a scaled-back album, relying on very basic instrumentation to make an incredibly full and lush sound. For example, the note that opens first track “Levitation” remains steady throughout the entire song as gentle drumming, guitar, and keyboard lines come and go. This might make the album seem straight-up boring to some, and to be sure its mellowness isn’t for every occasion, but it contains enough hooks and small touches to keep listeners coming back. The guitar melody and keyboard arpeggios on “Space Song” make it one of the catchiest tracks, and the subtle drums of “PPP” keep the dynamic guitar notes moving in a waltz-like tempo. As expected with most pretty much every Beach House album, each song features singer Victoria Legrand spouting sorrowful lines in her distinct croon, this time featuring phrases like “I know it comes too soon, the universe is riding off with you.” Depression Cherry might not be all new terrain for Beach House, but it is exceptionally well done for something so simple.
Standout Tracks: “Levitation” “Space Song” “PPP”
- Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
Genre: Experimental, Electronic, Psychedelic
Animal Collective member Panda Bear (Noah Lennox, in case you wanted his real name) is nothing if not an evolving musician, releasing albums that all sound significantly different from one another. His influential 2007 album Person Pitch was known for its looping samples and two 12 minute tracks, while 2011’s Tomboy was more pop-influenced and direct. Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is potentially his most experimental solo release to date, and while you may have forgotten about it since it came out in January, it’s far from forgettable. Apart from the expected synthesizer melodies, the album is laden with unconventional electronic noises that range from robotic droning to various bleeps and bloops that sound vaguely like glitches. But the real standout of the album are the two tracks that draw heavily from classical music, “Tropic of Cancer” and “Lonely Wanderer.” The former sounds absolutely heavenly, with a harp sample drawn from the Nutcracker Suite’s “Pas De Deux,” while the latter has a delicate piano sample from Claude Debussy’s “Arabesque No. 1.” Both tracks are unexpected albeit beautiful additions to the album. If you can’t tell from the title, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is lyrically introspective, with song “Mr. Noah” being a third person account of Lennox and “Tropic of Cancer” describing Lennox’s father’s death at the hands of the titular disease. This introspection comes to a head at the lengthy “Come To Your Senses,” when Lennox asks himself “are you mad?” repeatedly, only to admit “yeah, I’m mad.” There are some straightforward moments that are lost amidst the albums eccentricities, but it’s overall incredibly strong release that moves in multiple new directions.
Standout Tracks: “Boys Latin” “Come To Your Senses” “Tropic of Cancer”
- Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy
Genre: Indie Rock, Punk Rock
While Titus Andronicus have two lo-fi indie punk albums under their belt, they are probably best known for their acclaimed 2010 album The Monitor, a concept album about the Civil War. This past experience with unusual and grandiose concepts may help explain why Titus Andronicus’s fourth album The Most Lamentable Tragedy is a 29-track hour-and-a-half long rock opera about manic depression. Yes, it’s a behemoth of an album that pulls out all of the stops imaginable, and in case you doubted the “rock opera” part, watch any part of the video above (which is actually a compilation of six tracks from the album). As you can guess, not every single one of the 29 tracks is a winner, including a few interludes, an unexpected rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” and two tracks that are literally just silence. But these flaws shouldn’t overshadow the great rock tracks, which range from 30 seconds to almost ten minutes in length. Most of the tracks are designed to flow into each other to create great medleys, but some like “Dimed Out,” “Come On, Siobhán,” and “No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant” are good enough to stand on their own. As mentioned previously the subject of this rock opera is manic depression, which is reflected in lyrics like “I look alive but inside I’m dead” and one track where the only lyrics are “I’m going insane.” They do have a lighter side too, with witty lines like “and everywhere you turn there are hundreds of humans/all opening the door saying “Hello, Newman” referencing Seinfeld. The Most Lamentable Tragedy may be a daunting listen because of its length and intensity, but it definitely is a triumph and not a tragedy of ambition.
Standout Tracks: “No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant” “Dimed Out” “Come On, Siobhán”
- Neon Indian – VEGA INTL. Night School
Genre: Electronic, Dance, Psychedelic, ….Chillwave?
As one of the pioneers of the subgenre chillwave, Alan Palomo (the man behind Neon Indian) worked with distorted looped samples to create his hazy 2009 debut Psychic Chasms. Its 2011 follow-up Era Extraña cleaned things up a bit, but was still full of synthesizer layers, sample loops, and retro sound effects. Now with VEGA INTL. Night School Palomo works glam, house, and funk into his formula, making it his most dance-friendly album yet. Right from when the beat picks up with first track “Hit Parade,” it essentially never stops (until speedbump “Baby’s Eyes”). This is aided by tracks that segue into each other, like “Bozo” into “The Glitzy Hive” and “Slumlord” into “Slumlord’s Re-lease” to keep the party going. The album is largely devoid of looped samples and heavy effects processing, which shows Neon Indian may have graduated from chillwave, but its layers of synthesizer over funky basslines still recall some 80s nostalgia. The other major development on VEGA INTL. Night School is Palomo’s voice, which is no longer a subdued tone under layers of distortion. Instead, his voice regularly goes into a Michael Jackson or Prince-like falsetto that is most noticeable on closer “News From the Sun (Live Bootleg).” It’s an extremely cohesive album that’s a great listen from start to finish, and is easily one of the most fun albums you’ll hear this year.
Standout Tracks: “Annie” “The Glitzy Hive” “Slumlord”
- Destroyer – Poison Season
Genre: Indie Rock, Baroque Pop, Smooth Jazz
Aside from being one of the most misleadingly named bands ever, Destroyer gained prominence with their 2011 album Kaputt, which combined traditional indie rock stylings with enough smooth jazz that you’d think an ‘adult film’ was about to start. Destroyer’s frontman Dan Bejar is probably still best-known for his work with pop-infused indie rock group the New Pornographers, where his distinctive voice takes the lead on a few jovial songs per album, but Bejar’s main project Destroyer casts him in a more sullen and mysterious light. I mean the album cover for this year’s release Poison Season is literally him sitting in the shadows. It’s an altogether brooding album, and the horns that make their way onto almost every track evoke a calmer lounge scene, not a hopping jazz club. Sure, there are some lively and pop-infused moments on the album with “Dream Lover” and the rock version of “Times Square” (the version in the above video), but Bejar actually apologized for their inclusion and called them “aberrations.” To his dismay, listeners will probably love them. Otherwise he’s on target with his mellower vision, with several tracks featuring amazing string compositions alongside their horns. It’s these touches that really set the album apart, from the violins on “Hell” and “Girl in a Sling” to the bongos of “Forces from Above.” And of course, it wouldn’t be Destroyer without Bejar’s cryptic lyrics, this time delivering lines like “ah shit, here comes the sun” and “it sucks when there’s nothing but gold in those hills.” Though Kaputt was more accessible with its moments of splendor, Poison Season is instead both relaxing and unsettling, with incredible attention to detail.
Standout Tracks: “Dream Lover” “Forces From Above” “Sun in the Sky”
- Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
Genre: Indie rock, Indie folk
Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett was relatively unknown to the indie music world as recently as a couple years ago, as her first EP was only released in 2012. The release of her 2014 double EP A Sea of Split Peas gave her some prominence, and defined her as an unconventional deadpan singer with amusing lyrics like “The paramedic thinks I’m clever cause I play guitar/I think she’s clever cause she stops people dying.” Now Barnett’s popularity has exploded with her full-length debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, and rightfully so. It’s pretty much impossible to discuss the album without using the word “witty,” so let’s get that out of the way. The lyrics go from telling stories like “Elevator Operator” and “Aqua Profunda!” to making unusual commentary like “More people die on the road then they do in the ocean. Maybe we should pull over culling cars instead of sharks.” Elsewhere, she can be self-deprecating (“Debbie Downer”) or endearingly earnest (“An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY)”). These lyrics make it an album to listen to intently, since you don’t want to miss Barnett’s wordplay or circuitous observations. Musically it’s mostly mid-tempo rock without any frills, but the album rocks out on “Pedestrian at Best” and “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party.” However, perhaps the greatest standout track is the gentle “Depreston,” where Barnett sings softly about house-hunting and contemplating previous residents over a mild guitar line. There were many promising debuts in 2015, but Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is easily the most memorable.
Standout Tracks: “Pedestrian at Best” “Depreston” “Dead Fox”
- Tame Impala – Currents
Genre: Psychedelic rock, Electronic, Indie Rock
Tame Impala managed to gather a significant following after releasing Innerspeaker in 2010 and Lonerism in 2012, each album drawing heavily from the psychedelic rock of the 60s. To the displeasure of many fans, they eventually wanted to move beyond this sound and not make something so reminiscent of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The result is this year’s album Currents, which infuses the psychedelic pop with some glam and funk. Despite being credited to Tame Impala, Currents is essentially the creation of frontman Kevin Parker, who wrote, recorded, and produced all the tracks…only to call the end result “unlistenable.” But don’t listen to him, since it’s an incredible album. Opener “Let It Happen” is one of the best songs of the year, with an infectious synthesizer hook that kicks on and off and forceful guitar riffs at the end, all over a steady drumroll. The music video contains an abridged version, as the full seven-minute version contains a supremely trippy interlude where everything spaces out before the hook returns to pull you back in. Elsewhere, the thumping bassline of “The Less I Know the Better” and the crashing guitars of “Eventually” are musical highlights that show Parker’s versatility aside from the synthesizers that permeate each track. The albums lyrics deal heavily with loss and moving on, which combined with the psychedelic nature make it a fever dream of a breakup album. They’re also really blunt, sometimes to a fault, with lines like “they say people never change but that’s bullshit, they do” and “but I know that I’ll be happier, and I know you will too” that would be a lot more eyeroll-inducing if not backed by such awesome music. There’s also a robotic voice monologue on “Past Life” that’s only enjoyable if you imagine Zordon from Power Rangers saying it. For an essentially one-man production that went in an ambitious new direction, Currents is a great result and the standout rock album of 2015.
Standout Tracks: “Let It Happen” “Eventually” “The Less I Know The Better”
- Jamie xx- In Colour
Genre: Electronic, House, Future Garage
If you’ve ever listened to popular band the xx, you’ve probably been most focused Romy Madley Croft’s guitar, Oliver Sim’s bass, and both of their vocals. You may have noticed the quality electronic beats and production by third member Jamie xx (Jamie Smith), but it would be a bit of a stretch to say these took center stage. Smith had tried his hand at solo work before with his 2011 Gil Scott-Heron remix album We’re New Here, but at the end of the day it was still a remix album credited to both Jamie xx and Gil Scott-Heron. If you had ever wondered what would happen if Smith was given free rein to create a project all his own, then In Colour should blow you away. From start to finish it’s an amazing feat of production where no two tracks sound alike. Opener “Gosh” immediately kicks things into high gear with a breakbeat and samples of “oh my gosh,” immediately distancing the album from the xx. Only the track “Stranger in a Room” sounds like it could have been an xx outtake, as Smith seems more interested in producing dance beats than minimalism. Speaking of the xx, both of Smith’s bandmates feature as guest vocalists, along with rapper Young Thug and reggae singer Popcaan. If that sounds unusual, it’s because In Colour is an extremely eclectic album with lyrics that range from Romy Madley Croft quietly confessing “I saw my heart break in two/I saw her again with you” on “SeeSaw” to Young Thug rapping “I’ma ride in that pussy like a stroller” on “Good Times.” There are only four tracks that have vocals at all though, and for a largely instrumental album Smith has done a great job of making tracks that all stand out from one another. “Sleep Sound” for instance rushes between hushed tones and lofty snares, while “Obvs” is probably the most solemn steel drum-centered song written. As cliché as it sounds, the album brings up an air of nostalgia at times, particularly on “The Rest is Noise.” In Color is meticulously crafted, with each note carefully placed and each sample judiciously selected. Beyond that, it’s also fun, easily accessible, and infinitely replayable.
Standout Tracks: “Sleep Sound” “SeeSaw” “Loud Places”