The Top 30 Albums of 2015

The trappings of the holiday season are numerous and familiar: family, parades, travel, fancy dinners, pleasant 70 degree weather all along the east coast… oh wait, that last one is just this year. But nestled in between Thanksgiving and the celebration of the New Year is a very special holiday near and dear to the hearts of music lovers everywhere: Listmas!

Year-end music lists provide an excellent opportunity to revisit all the great new music that was released over the past year, highlight the things we liked and, perhaps most importantly, discover the artists, albums and songs that passed us by or might deserve a second look. While the accolades of being #1 or the fun of comparing top ten lists might be nice, the sharing and discovery function has always been my main attraction to these year-end lists. Since there’s no meaningful prestige associated with my list (which, this year, includes one album I found on other lists!), I like to think of this as a personal recommendation to the friends who stop by looking to find some great new music.

Although I listed to a little over 650 artists on Spotify in 2015, plus some others I heard via Bandcamp, YouTube, and my own music library, there’s a bunch of albums I would have liked to spend more time with. After all, a quick sample or a couple of album spins aren’t always enough to make a reasonable judgment. Four of the artists on this year’s list produced albums that were either honorable mentions or completely unmentioned when the 2011, 2012 and 2013 editions of this list were written up, only to be reconsidered after the fact, such that I now consider them all to be among the top 20, if not top ten albums from their respective years. Sometimes it just takes a while to sink in.

Another trend among this year’s listed albums is psychedelia. Psychedelic rock, psych-pop, psych-metal, psych-disco, psychedelic Motown… they’re all here and they’re all great. Click through the write ups and reviews and you might think I spent half the year high on Robitussin, but no, there were just a bunch of great freaky sounds out there this year.

Oh, and since I’m not a music writer, I’ve left the album descriptions to the pros here, providing excerpted blurbs from reviews that resonated with me. I’ve also provided a link to a collection of reviews over at Album of the Year if you’d like to know more about any of the choices. Also, the album titles link to album playlists on YouTube if you want to listen in while you read up.

2015 was a good year for music, so there were lots of candidates for the top spots and not everything worthwhile made the cut. Here’s ten honorable mentions (roughly in order, 40 to 31) before we get to this year’s top 30:
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, Mas Ysa – Seraph, Gramatik – Coffee Shop Selection, The Bird and the Bee – Recreational Love, Noveller – Fantastic Planet, Girl Band – Holding Hands With Jamie, A Shelter in the Desert – Pequeñas Hiroshimas, Pure Bathing Culture – Pray For Rain, Floating Points – Elaenia, PINS – Wild Nights

30. YACHT – I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler
“YACHT isn’t out for shock, even if they want to inspire a few double-takes. They’re here to make high-concept pop with easy entry points, to ruminate on the future without getting bogged down in nihilism. The fact that they manage to have so much fun while pondering the extinction of the human race is testament to Evans and Bechtolt’s skill as songwriters.” – Consequence of Sound | I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler on AotY
29. Viet Cong – Viet Cong
“For all of Viet Cong’s well-worn ugliness — not least of which their immature tendency to conflate personal suffering with historical atrocity — their desperate, life-or-death romanticism ultimately leaves a stronger impression than mere shock value.” – Tiny Mix Tapes | Viet Cong on AotY
28. Holly Herndon – Platform
“The huge beats, massive-sounding production and layers of laptop genius make this an album of consistent, complex pleasures. Herndon’s voice is looped, bent and time-stretched.” – A Closer Listen | Platform on AotY
27. Public Service Broadcasting – The Race for Space
“The real story is told through the music, and that’s what elevates Public Service Broadcasting way out of the novelty dangerzone. Make no bones about it, this is a beautiful record, which tells a story of ambition, tragedy and triumph using a palette of vintage electronica, swelling strings, ethereal voices and some properly funky drumming.” – Drowned in Sound | The Race for Space on AotY
26. Colleen – Captain of None
“On first listen, these seem like straight-ahead acoustic tracks, but their brilliance is hidden beneath the surface. The simplest, “Soul Alphabet,” might be the album’s crown jewel: soft, scratchy and vaguely mysterious, it loops simple ideas until they seem profound.” – Resident Advisor | Captain of None on AotY
25. Baio – The Names
“‘The Names’ has been a long time in the making, and that devotion is evident in every breezy refrain, chiming melody, and pulsating rhythm. Take a glance behind those things, peer underneath the contagious hooks and echoing choruses, and what you’re left with is an ode to devotion, passion, and emotion. Each track is infused with a love for it’s own creation, and that enjoyment echoes in every verse and chorus hook. ” – DIY | The Names on AotY
24. FFS – FFS
“[T]he self-titled debut album from this six-piece group is impeccable and slyly funny, full of songwriting that’s clever and intelligent without devolving into smugness … FFS also seamlessly meshes the sonic styles of the two bands. Jaunty piano, cheeky keyboards, glammy guitars, rhythmic digital jolts and theatrical arrangements lead to music that’s akin to a mashup of Broadway musicals, ’70s classic rock, and perforated electropop. ” – A.V. Club | FFS on AotY
23. Baroness – Purple
“You’d never go so far as to say this is a happy record, but there’s plenty of intact hopes and dreams stirred amid the spilled blood and broken bones. ‘If I Have To Wake Up (Would You Stop The Rain?) is the black clouds parting, beams of brilliant light pointing the way forward again – it quite literally sounds the bells of a revitalised Baroness.” – Drowned in Sound | Purple on AotY
22. Wilco – Star Wars
“Star Wars continues a precedent set by the band’s previous 2011 effort The Whole Love in an effort to move away from the complacent, “dad rock”-flirting lite country of its late-Aughts releases. The record boasts snappy hooks, passive-aggressive bon mots, and plenty of noise, proving that Tweedy has no intention of calming down anytime soon.” – Pretty Much Amazing | Star Wars on AotY
21. Cayucas – Dancing at the Blue Lagoon
“There are tons of things to fall in love with about Dancing at the Blue Lagoon; songs are packed full of catchy hooks and swiftly shifting melodies and rhythms, making for an unpredictable and riveting listening experience.” – Paste | Dancing at the Blue Lagoon on AotY
20. LoneLady – Hinterland
“Effusive, highly danceable and crammed with hooks, Hinterland plays like a greatest hits from a parallel universe.” – Line of Best Fit | Hinterland on AotY
19. Diane Coffee – Everybody’s A Good Dog
“Defined by the musician himself as “Psychedelic Motown” (he gets no argument from me there), Everybody’s a Good Dog is glammy, soulful, and full of comfortable musical corners.” – The 405 | Everybody’s A Good Dog on AotY
18. Grimes- Art Angels
“She routinely riffs on uncool or dated sounds, from pop-punk guitars to swirling late-’90s electronica, and sends it all through the lens of her kaleidoscope. Art Angels isn’t any weirder than past records—Boucher is just more sharply in focus.” – Resident Advisor | Art Angels on AotY
17. Deafheaven – New Bermuda
“All of these references, which bring together many bands that wouldn’t normally have much to do with one another, points to something dreamlike and uncanny in Deafheaven’s grand sound. At a moment when guitar-centric music feels less central to the conversation, and great indie-rock bands have retreated into hardy local scenes, Deafheaven play like a beautiful, abstracted dream of guitar music’s transportive power.” – Pitchfork | New Bermuda on AotY
16. Destroyer – Poison Season
“[T]he stirring E-Street rock of lead single Dream Lover suggested Bejar had liberated his inner Springsteen, setting aside the previous album’s rich sophisti-pop for something more openly heart on sleeve. But, true to form, Poison Season’s true nature is more nuanced and idiosyncratic, taking cues from a spectrum of influences from chamber pop to nocturnal jazz.” – The Skinny | Poison Season on AotY
15. Screaming Females – Rose Mountain
“[T]his is the sort of music that gives the phrase “power trio” a good name, with the musicians bringing their fair share to the performances without getting in one another’s way, and Rose Mountain is dominated by full-bodied and emotionally powerful music that doesn’t overplay its hand.” – AllMusic | Rose Mountain on AotY
14. Belle and Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
“Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance is the purest expression of the big, bright sounds that have always been within the band, visions of Belle & Sebastian as Naked-era Talking Heads or an ABBA for 2015.” – A.V. Club | Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance on AotY
13. Jacco Gardner – Hypnophobia
“[N]arrative sleights of hand are matched by surprise instrumental breaks, chord changes, and codas which function like trapdoors and secret passageways into new compositional avenues.” – Under the Radar | Hypnophobia on AotY
12. Haiku Salut – Etch and Etch Deep
“[T]he quirky and imaginative sound world the band have created makes itself known, full of slight but utterly charming changes of gear, with light and shade, seriousness and humour, intimacy and tub thumping, all wrapped up in one package.” – MusicOMH | Etch and Etch Deep on AotY
11. Julia Holter – Have You in My Wilderness
“‘Ornamental’, ‘fantastic’, ‘maze’, ‘labyrinth’. These words make perfect sense in the context of Holter’s songs. Have You in My Wilderness drops the overarching themes which informed her previous three albums in order to accomplish something more intuitive and intimate.” – Drowned in Sound | Have You in My Wilderness on AotY
10. Battles – La Di Da Di
“La Di Da Di is that increasingly rare thing in the age of streaming and multi-choice. It’s a record that you have to take in as one complete whole. You’ll enjoy individual slices, but won’t be truly fulfilled unless you take a deep dive straight in and luxuriate in all its sonic weirdness and insane brilliance.” – Music OMH | La Di Da Di on AotY
9. EL VY – Return to the Moon
“Berninger’s storytelling struts through the occasionally unnerving terrain of American suburbia with an illumined eye and wicked tongue, and with the help of Knopf’s pristine and protean arrangements it’s never sounded so good.” – Loud and Quiet | Return to the Moon on AotY
8. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love
“By abandoning familiar touchstones and rebuilding strangely shaped new things from the scratch, Nielson and Unknown Mortal Orchestra have created a genuinely psychedelic pop gem in the sense that it has virtually zero on in common with what psych-pop is supposed to sound like.” – Line of Best Fit | Multi-Love on AotY
7. Will Butler – Policy
“This record’s like a charming stroll through a garden maze with ludicrous traps and surprises around each hedge, dashing lyrical expectations aside and plumbing emotionally fraught harmonies in the same breath.” – Spin | Policy on AotY
6. Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy
“To understand everything about this album requires a working knowledge of English literature, Greek mythology, and Australian punk rock, but you don’t really need any of the above to enjoy this album for what it is: a batshit crazy rock opera about what it’s like to be batshit crazy.” – Consequence of Sound | The Most Lamentable Tragedy on AotY
5. Mikal Cronin – MCIII
“The mixing on MCIII is superb, deep but supple; it’s no wall of sound—there’s just enough space between every instrument to tell what’s doing what—but the layering of acoustic and electric guitars, the occasional pianos and strings and horns, and the beautiful vocal harmonies all coalesce into a rich, warm lather.” – Paste | MCIII on AotY
4. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
“Courtney Barnett’s skill is in making the pedestrian sound poignant. Everyday observations and mundane afterthoughts become focal points. … Who else writes songs – really good songs, to be precise – about roadkill, hayfever, organic vegetables and doing backstroke without coming off like a bit of a prat?” – DIY | Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit on AotY
3. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love
“With no song longer than four minutes, the hooks—both vocal and instrumental—dominate the mood of each track. Whether it’s Tucker’s sweetly melodic chorus in “Hey Darling” or the deranged guitar interludes on “No Anthems”, there’s an immediately memorable section in each song, making for what is probably the band’s most widely accessible album to date.” – PopMatters | No Cities To Love on AotY
2. Susanne Sundfør – Ten Love Songs
“These may be 10 love songs, but the focus is very much on the darker, more obsessive side of love – anyone wanting a fluffy selection of tracks to celebrate Valentine’s Day is best off looking elsewhere. For everyone else though, Ten Love Songs is an enormously creative, endlessly surprising album.” – Music OMH | Ten Love Songs on AotY
1. Tame Impala – Currents
“It’s a despairing, open-ended psych-disco hybrid whose closest modern analog is Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories — a record that cast disco, yacht rock, and dance pop as shared founts of old-school, hands-on music-making … And make no mistake, Parker is writing pop songs here, and doing them justice.” – Pitchfork | Currents on AotY
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