50. Samantha Crain - Under Branch & Thorn & Tree
Samantha Crain has a way of burrowing entirely into the psyches of the characters she occupies, using them less as puppets and more as conduits for the entire human experience. She portrays the stories that are so often overlooked in music, the tales of people who still yearn to take chances they didn’t years ago, of the ones who cannot distinguish between missing a person or the intrigue they provided. Crain makes these people flesh in her delicate and fervent folk music, making their stories indelible onto the brain and their spirits unshakeable in the heart.
Download: “Elk City”, “You or Mystery”, “If I Had a Dollar”
49. Tamaryn - Cranekiss
This album is all about atmosphere and creating layers of sound to dust sugar and mystique onto what could pass for traditional pop songs. Chroruses like those on “Cranekiss” and particularly “Last” could be the anthemic vows of a pop diva, but instead the production takes them into darker, more mysterious territory, sickly sweet with electronic reverb and glittering with 1990’s shoe gaze sensibilities. A perfect example of updating old sounds for a modern era.
Download: “Hands All Over Me”, “Last”, “Softcore”
48. Carly Rae Jepsen - E.MO.TION
Carly Rae Jepsen’s sophomore album is the perfect paradox of music that is so quintessentially the paradigm of pop, and yet never manages to break the mainstream. By all logistical measures, this album should be as popular as 1989 or 25; each song feels like a laser-cut diamond to be presented on a golden band to the pop charts. The production is on-point, the choruses transcendent and unforgettable. Songs like “Run Away with Me” seem to take flight, propelled into the sky by pure momentum. A masterful example of how blissful and euphoric pop music can be.
Download: “Run Away with Me”, “Gimme Love”, “Making the Most of the Night”
47. Mitski - Bury Me at Makeout Creek
Mitski’s album is fried and gutsy and wild, full of massive singalong choruses and chillingly morbid metaphors - see how the triumphant chant of album highlight “Townie” starts with “I want a love that falls like a body from the balcony”. The music is abrasive indie pop with either dour predictions about Mitski’s future, which she’s sacrificed in pursuit of momentary pleasures, or of inarticulate and passionate longing for a lover beyond what another human can provide. Mitski is sensitive and blunt, rash and thoughtful all at once, and a surprising and vital new voice to the indie rock field.
Download: “Francis Forever”, “Townie”, “First Love / Late Spring”
46. Big Grams - Big Grams
Occasionally, artists collaborate and find a perfect balance, a comfortable symbiosis in which their skills and moods amplify each others’. Big Grams is one such experiment, a collaboration between Outkast’s Big Boi and the electronic pop duo Phantogram. All three parties add unique and powerful elements to the brew, from Big Boi’s confident swaggering raps to Sarah Barthel’s warm, sensual vocals and atmospheric keyboards to Josh Carter’s lush layers of guitars. Big Grams is a sun-soaked EP filled with life and verve, and the fun that the collaborators had in creating it is infectious.
Download: “Fell in the Sun”, “Goldmine Junkie”, “Born to Shine”
45. Bully - Feels Like
Bully’s Feels Like is an alternate reality version of Hole’s debut. It’s raw, blatant feminism, rooted in the daily trials of menstruation and belittlement, of small reminders of one’s place in society. Alicia Bognanno imbues her songs with honest frustration, and her screams and yowls in “I Remember” and “Trying” are impossible not to sing along with. Bully takes the torch from 1990’s feminist rock and carries it forward into a new day, keeping it modern while paying homage to its forebears.
Download: “Trying”, “I Remember”, “Trash”
44. Lizzo - Big Grrrl Small World
Lizzo is a spitfire rapper completely at home within her own skin, firing off missives attacking anyone who’s ever tried to hold her down - be they creepy dudes at at bars (to which she suggests a support group of “men without Lizzo”) to the culture that tells her she’s less than a white man (“En Love”). The tracks are witty and bolstered by her intense talent, her rapid wit, her overblown yet completely earned confidence and her way around a hook. A fantastic rap album.
Download: "En Love", "Ain't I", "The Fade"
43. GEMS - Kill the One You Love
GEMS releases their debut album with little fanfare but with a powerful intuition for hooks and mood. The fuzzed-out vocals drive memorable choruses, but the strongest element is GEMS’ sense of atmosphere. Each song feels like a long smear of sound in the best way, a thesis within the first note and then an argument up until the final chorus. GEMS’ music is the dreamy juxtaposition of shoe gaze and electronic pop, forged together into an industrial beast that’s all about environment.
Download: “Living as a Ghost”, “W/O U”, “Heartbreaker”
42. Beach House - Thank Your Lucky Stars
Beach House’s surprise second album of the year, Thank Your Lucky Stars pulls jagged edges out of the soft, dreamy atmosphere that Beach House so eagerly cultivates. See, for example, the moment in “She’s So Lovely” where Beach House deliberately chooses a note out of key to dedicate their fuzzy guitars and drums to - Thank Your Lucky Stars balances the beauty of a dreamscape with the ugliness of audacity, and emerges a strong, beautiful album.
Download: “Majorette”, “She’s So Lovely”, “All Your Yeahs”
41. Doomtree - All Hands
Doomtree’s third album is a lean killing machine. Stripped of experiments and excursions, the album is a collection of cohesive, solid rap songs with tight beats and rapid-fire lyricism. Doomtree doesn’t bother to be accessible here; each verse is laden with allusion and local slang and every sort of inside reference. The beats are tight, the production slick, and rappers like Sims and Mike Mictlan bring their best here, elevating themselves towards the goal of solidarity. They get there, and they represent well.
Download: “The Bends”, “Beastface”, “Marathon”
40. Destroyer - Poison Season
Poison Season is an album that rewards multiple listens, with the way it pulls from and renovates genres we’ve come to recognize as more subtle than the mainstream - it’s indebted to jazz and 1970’s folk, rather than 80’s synth pop like the majority of its peers. Often, these genres turn music challenging, as we aren’t used to absorbing them so quickly, and Destroyer uses that to his advantage, layering esoteric lyrics with an album that sharply defies categorization and expectation. The album is brashly individual, sounding like no one else on the scene now or in the past, and is in equal measure elegant, dour and sunny.
Download: “Dream Lover”, “Midnight Meets the Rain”, “Times Square”
39. Lady Lamb the Beekeeper - After
Lady Lamb the Beekeeper’s sophomore album isn’t so experimental as her debut, and she chooses instead to produce tight indie-pop songs that touch on a variety of millennial anxieties. Her sentiments are, at times, so universal you might wonder why they haven’t been turned into postcards (“I just want to jump in a pile of warm laundry”) and yet maintain her unique worldview. Even the more allegorical tracks (“Sunday Shoes”) have an honest heart to them, trying to muddle its way through the world and explain itself in catchy, smart, folk-influenced alternative rock music.
Download: “Spat Out Spit”, “Penny Licks”, “Sunday Shoes”
38. Sorority Noise - Joy, Departed
Sorority Noise’s album is a surprisingly personal and more importantly, surprisingly genuine excursion into emo music. The band melds the singalong hooks that made bands like Dashboard Confessional and Panic at the Disco so popular, while maintaining a brutally honest core that underlines songs like “Using” with genuine pathos. This is music to give hugs to and to dance to, maybe all at once.
Download: “Using”, “Art School Wannabe”, “When I See You (Timberwolf)”
37. Elvis Depressedly - New Alhambra
There’s a kind of easy optimism to Elvis Depressedly’s album New Alhambra. It isn’t that the album is itself positive, but that it delves into the darker aspects of human nature and emerges with a motto: “no more sad songs”. This is an album that both touches on mournful subjects and then chooses to pass them by. It’s quiet and calm and influenced by drone as much as anything else, and a strangely uplifting listen.
Download: “Thou Shall Not Murder”, “N.M.S.S.”, “Ease”
36. Dawn Richard - Blackheart
Blackheart plumbs the depths of modern R&B and drags the most visceral, painful emotions into the spotlight. Richard, in a striking departure from her top 40 girl group Danity Kane, has carved out a bold brand for herself in experimental and extremely personal music. Songs meld into extended outros, filled with strong and surprising production; ballads find themselves split down the middle by electronic avantism. Richard bares her heart and soul here on this eulogy to her father and to her commercial success, and emerges with an artistic tour de force.
Download: “Choices (Interlude)”, “Adderrall / Sold”, “Calypso”
35. Petite Noir - La Vie Est Belle / Life is Beautiful
Petite Noir takes one of the most British, fey brands of music - New Wave - and turns it on its head through a South African perspective, scavenging the best of the former to bolster the message of the latter. Petite Noir openly uses his cultural upbringing to inform what serves as the backbone and thesis for the album: a deep and knowledgeable appreciation of beauty and freedom. Noir’s throaty voice and ease in the studio solidify tracks that sound both of an era and entirely brand new, a witch’s brew of old influences and new ideas.
Download: “Stay (Seventeen)”, “La Vie Est Belle / Life is Beautiful”, “Down”
34. Angel Haze - Back to the Woods
Angel Haze’s return to form is right there in the title, and she lives up to it entirely, alternating between furious bars where she eviscerates other rappers and the deeply empathetic, motivational sing-songing that marked her debut album. The beats feel wild - not necessarily more energetic or untamed, but more organic, and Haze seems more comfortable than ever carving out her particular brand of rap and pop and alt-rock. At no point does she seem to have anything to prove, because she makes her delivery effortless: “just chilling at Jesus’ feet” indeed.
Download: “Moonrise Kingdom”, “Babe Ruthless”, “The Wolves”
33. Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass
Few artists are as elegant in their debuts as Natalie Prass is, nor as precise in delivering what must be a complete and coherent ‘sound’. Pass marries her 70’s folk rock-esque songwriting to Disney princess sensibilities, never needing to belt when she can coo or let a rush of strings or woodwinds do the sighing for her. The songs all cut at very real parts of relationships, which Prass all but tiptoes into, dainty and poised and entirely confident in her delivery and message. The album reminds me of nothing more than a hollowed-out and painted egg - clean, delicate and ornate.
Download: “My Baby Don’t Understand Me”, “Bird of Prey”, “Why Don’t You Believe in Me”
32. SOAK - Before We Forgot How to Dream
It’s hard to believe Irish artist SOAK is only a teenager, because while her voice is certainly youthful enough (a brusque, daydreamy mumble) her actual songwriting far surpasses what most people her age or even much older are capable of. Armed primarily with her guitar, with additions from occasional other artists, SOAK has a discerning eye for detail and an even better ear for melody, crafting Virginia Woolf-esque vignettes about life as a young woman.
Download: “Sea Creatures”, “Reckless Behavior”, “Wait”
31. Soko - My Dreams Dictate My Reality
French artist Soko’s 2015 album is a delightful 80’s pastiche that has no qualms about getting a little cheesy or self-indulgent with its New Wave and goth references. “Temporary Mood Swings” and “Who Wears the Pants??” would be at home next to Siouxsie & the Banshees, equally spry and whimsical in their darkness, while tracks like opener “I Come in Peace” and “Lovetrap” dip into a melancholy that’s always enjoyable and melodramatic rather than consuming and sorrowful. My Dreams Dictate My Reality is a campy, well-executed homage to the morbid, self-aware titans of old.
Download: “Temporary Mood Swings”, “I Come in Peace”, “Lovetrap”
30. Lana Del Rey - Honeymoon
You go into a Lana Del Rey album knowing what to expect: breathy, weary vocals, sweeping strings and cinematic soundscapes, and lyrics that detail but never deviate from the sad glamour girl persona Del Rey has so artfully built up. Honeymoon is another brick in Del Rey’s foundation, rather than a branch away from it, but features some of her strongest songwriting and vocals yet. “24” sounds like an undiscovered Bond song, and “Terrence Loves You” features Del Rey at some of her most languorous and devastated. Finally, “The Blackest Day”, the lynchpin of the record, is the breakup song Del Rey’s been trying to write for two albums and an EP: forceful, dramatic, pained, defiant, and in every way a declaration of artistry.
Download: “The Blackest Day”, “Terrence Loves You”, “Art Deco”
29. FKA Twigs - M3LL155X
FKA Twigs’ surprise record is darker and stranger than her debut LP, which flirted with unpleasantness while still keeping structures that would generally fall into the category of pop or R&B. Here, the glimmers of pop structures only just peek through the cracks, and Barnett doesn’t bother to disguise the strange, visceral and often unpleasant sounds her breathy voice and stripped beats can make. The entire experience is both challenging and enchanting, with tracks like “In Time” and “Glass and Patron” offering the most palatable listening, leading into the meat of Barnett’s vision.
Download: “I’m Your Doll”, “In Time”, “Figure 8”
28. Julia Holter - Have You In My Wilderness
Holter’s Have You in My Wilderness is an album of beautiful avant-garde chamber pop, balancing a coy sense of humor with sweeping and beautiful instrumental arrangements. Holter crafts landscapes, allowing the bridges and flourishes of each song room to breathe and expand, and her verses and choruses come in like the foam atop a wave with the same sort of soothing, irregular predictability. She treats music as a sandbox in which to experiment, and then brings the best of her concoctions to the fore with clever embellishments and aching vocals, creating a record that is wholly hers and entirely unique.
Download: “Night Song”, “Lucette Stranded On the Island”, “Feel You”
27. Panda Bear - Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
Panda Bear, one of the members of Animal Collective, has a sound that’s an obvious offshoot from the band that brought him to fame (at least in the hipster sphere): woozy, complicated, highly-syncopated electronic splashes and nigh-incomprehensible choirboy vocals in a miasma of psychedelic noise. It would be enjoyable enough, but the songs are actually laden with genuine emotion rather than just being experiments in sound. Take, for example, the centerpiece, “Tropic of Cancer”, a touching and unique song addressed to the disease itself that took Panda Bear’s father.
Download: “Tropic of Cancer”, “Mr. Noah”, “Boys Latin”
26. Ashley Monroe - The Blade
My country album of the year is a collection from a tried and true artist with old-school sensibilities, weaving a little sardonic, self-effacing cleverness into her tales of gambling and woe. There’s a reverence for traditional country music here, and Monroe’s voice is angelic and pure, lending itself to plaintive beauty in “The Weight of the Load” and “If the Devil Don’t Want Me”, two songs which showcase that country music, when heartfelt, is home to some of the loveliest ballads. On the other side of the coin, Monroe’s twisted wit make stompers like the gothic breakup anthem “I Buried Your Love Alive” and the ironic “Winning Streak” charming breaks from the melancholy.
Download: “Dixie”, “I Buried Your Love Alive”, “If the Devil Don’t Want Me”
25. Magical Cloudz - Are You Alone?
Magical Cloudz is a terrible band name for a duo that makes music so heartfelt and solemn. Here, their sobriety doesn’t service just anxiety but also love and bliss, underscoring even the most heady rushes of emotions with a certain grounding and thus, humanity. Euphoria doesn’t just fly up into the ether from Magical Cloudz; it grows and is tended and nurtured like a seed in the earth. The wisps of electronic arrangements and the plainspoken vocals only add to the gravitas.
Download: “So Blue”, “Game Show”, “Downtown”
24. Purity Ring - Another Eternity
While Purity Ring’s sophomore album never quite hits the highs of “Fineshrines” or “Belispeak” again, what they have produced this time is a far slicker and more cohesive project, one which marries the sensibilities of pop music to the creepier side of electronic music. It’s significantly more Lorde than it is witch-house, but Another Eternity is still pushing the boundaries of futuristic pop music. The grotesque, visceral lyrics are still there - for every metaphor of suns and moon, there’s an image of eyes being bored out by flames, or broken spines - but this time the songs they’re wearing are more coherent and sleeker, with stronger melodies to buoy them up.
Download: “Flood on the Floor”, “Bodyache”, “Begin Again”
23. Twin Shadow - Eclipse
Twin Shadow’s Eclipse is the ultimate 2015 singalong record, outranking other heavy hitters like Carly Rae Jepsen’s E.mo.tion and Sorority Noise’s Joy, Departed for the album I most frequently and passionately belted along to while heading to work. The choruses are like sledgehammers, shattering the ability to think of any other song when they hit, and the 1980’s-style instrumentation adds a certain melodrama to every track. The album has a little bit of groove, a little bit of power ballad, and plenty of pomp.
Download: “Flatliners”, “To the Top”, “Old Love / New Love”
22. Kississippi - We Have No Future, We’re All Doomed
Kississippi’s debut EP shows remarkable vision and cohesion. The songs are simple sketches, all centered around the theme of longing and detachment and the need for human closeness. “Indigo” finds the narrator dreaming of staying in an uncomfortable bed with her beloved, happy only because he is, and “Googly Eyes” has a gut-wrenching delivery on the closing couplet “I think longing’s another thing I share with you / but not for me, like I for you”. The lyrics are intimate and focus on specific shared moments - half-remembered car rides, late night chats, foot cramps - with artful specificity and plainspoken earnestness, and the twinkles of electric guitars provide a moving backdrop.
Download: “Googly Eyes”, “Indigo”, “Dogmas”
21. Beach House - Depression Cherry
One of Beach House’s two albums this year (the other being the similarly-soothing and gentle Thank Your Lucky Stars), Depression Cherry is a world unto itself, filled with warmth and nostalgia and muted sadness. The instruments are fuzzy, and the vocals coated in a cozy reverb that gives the songs a pastel-like feeling. This isn’t shallow people-pleasing, though; within the record there’s a sense of loss, a vacancy that all these warm tones are arching and orbiting around, the titular inability to connect.
Download: “Days of Candy”, “Levitation”, “Beyond Love”
20. All Dogs - Kicking Every Day
Kicking Every Day is a painful listen. It’s messy, exposed, and honest, and despite all its questions about meaning or hope it never provides any answers. When lead singer Maryn Jones sighs that there’s “something damning inside me, get it out, get it out” there’s no way to not want to obey her command, and simultaneously no way not to identity with it. The music, like her voice, is sun-cracked guitars jangling loosely over pop punk songs that have a fervent energy to them, and an undeniable sing-along quality. Don’t be surprised if your voice cracks a few times when you sing along to the chorus of “Leading Me Back to You”.
Download: “That Kind of Girl”, “Leading Me Back to You”, “The Garden”
19. The Weeknd - Beauty Behind the Madness
The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness is proof positive that the pop machine needn’t necessarily sand the edges off a dark performer. Despite the polish and structure of Max Martin co-writes and Kanye West producer cameos, The Weeknd still has his own definitive identity, as grimy as a crackhouse floor and libidinous and detached. The songs here are undeniably top 40 songs, but also clever, either with self-aware drug references or painfully serious verses that undercut the bombastic choruses. A step above the usual albums that chart that score a slew of number one hits.
Download: “In the Night”, “Losers”, “Can’t Feel My Face”
18. Joanna Newsom - Divers
Joanna Newsom’s latest album is a remarkable exploration of love, much like Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear (also listed here) but more cerebral where Misty focused on tangible. Describing love as “learning to invite death in” because to love is to fear loss, Newsom has a portrayal of the emotion that could be morbid and lugubrious - but instead, the lightness of her voice and the playfulness of her arrangements make the gravity of her sentiments easy to swallow. And what sentiments they are; Newsom’s lyrics are some of her most powerful and poetic here, filled with allusion and pathos, and her arrangements are her most daring as she supplements her harp and piano-playing with drums and harsh guitars and even a banjo.
Download: “Sapokanikan”, “A Pin Light Bent”, “Time, As a Symptom”
17. Holly Herndon - Platform
This album, to me, is best described as a robot hymnal. Too often when musicians attempt to tackle technology as an artistic subject, the result is hamfisted and preachy; here, Holly Herndon avoids those expectations entirely, by creating a masterful series of pieces that utilize modern digital practices in their very DNA, chopping up and distorting vocals and instruments to create a wholly inorganic sensation. However, Herndon’s vision isn’t necessarily apocalyptic, but is instead multifaceted and nuanced. Herndon doesn’t dismiss technology, but shows learned cautiousness about fully embracing it, and tackles both the oft spoken of isolation this generation feels alongside the communion of billions of minds across the globe via new inventions.
Download: “Home”, “Morning Sun”, “New Ways to Love”
16. Nadine Shah - Fast Food
Nadine Shah’s sophomore record tackles heavy subject matter and yet somehow feels weightless. Her voice is deep and throaty, nearly androgynous, and is the gravity around which everything else is arranged. With a traditional drums, guitars and bass setup, Shah nonetheless impressed a full-bodied sensibility to otherwise strong but uneventful arrangements, elevating songs to statements. Her voice is capable of deep passions, of yearning and sensuality beyond any other vocalist this year or of scorn that can make the hair on the back of a man’s neck rise.
Download: “Fool”, “Stealing Cars”, “Living”
15. CHVRCHES - Every Open Eye
CHVRCHES’ sophomore album does exactly what their debut did, only with more precision and grandiosity: they perform really catchy, ebullient pop songs that feel triumphant but with a tinge of regret or injury. The hooks are huge, and encompass not only singalong choruses but also the verses, and the beats and synthesizers rain down like a mid-90’s party, encouraging jumping around and waving both hands in the air with abandon. Lauren Mayberry’s childlike vocals are full of purity and fire, and the entire record feels clean, polished and precise. An admirable entry to modern-day synth pop.
Download: “Leave a Trace”, “Playing Dead”, “Afterglow”
14. Kelela - Hallucinogen
Kelela’s Hallucinogen EP is the story of a relationship told in reverse, from the end to the initial flirtation. The concept of an album tracking such events is not new (Tove Lo’s Queen of the Clouds last year covered the same territory well), but Kelela is distinct in the R&B/pop sphere right now, with her sensual, free-association melodies and dreamy arrangements that feel ethereal enough to melt before you get a chance to really absorb them. Hallucinogen is aptly titled, paying tribute to otherworldly, subconscious experiences as well as genuine rushes of emotion.
Download: “Rewind”, “Gomenasai”, “A Message”
13. Hop Along - Painted Shut
Painted Shut is a striking album of portraits, detailing figures both semi-famous and entirely fictional, with a keen eye for nuance and dualities. Frances Quinlan’s teeth-gritted, livelier vocals are the centerpiece around which the band orbits, and she well-serves the lyrics, which deal deftly with the transcendent beauty and ugly banality of life, mental health, funerals, diners, Jehovah’s witnesses and failed attempts at moving to a new city. The songs are packed with allusions to history and poetry and the music that came before it, but still feel fresh, like an entirely novel take on older ideas.
Download: “The Knock”, “Well-Dressed”, “Texas Funeral”
12. Nicole Dollanganger - Natural Born Losers
Sounding like Lana Del Rey’s agoraphobic little sister, Nicole Dollanganger released a confident debut album that meshes her nymph-like voice with harrowing, gruesome subject matter - but it’s not the songs where she’s singing about serial killers and rape that really enthrall so much as the times she explores the real horror of ennui and aimlessness, as on standout track “American Tradition”. Dollanganger’s work is decidedly adolescent at the moment, but her sense of melody is impeccable, and her voice is perfectly-suited to communicating the eerie fragility of isolated femininity. Natural Born Losers is a strong start from a unique voice in the field.
Download: “American Tradition”, “You’re So Cool”, “White Trashing”
11. Björk - Vulnicura
Björk’s best album since Medúlla, Vulnicura is a raw, painful and masterful testimony of a breakup. With harsh electronics, ghostly arrangements and elegant strings, Björk takes us through the beginning of the dissolution of her marriage (the inadequate communications, the desperate lovemaking knowing it may be the last) to the devastated aftermath. She pulls no punches exposing us to her anger and grief and sense of betrayal, and her voice is possibly more organic than ever; few people sing from the heart like Björk does and still have all the force of an avalanche.
Download: “Black Lake”, “Lionsong”, “Stonemilker”
10. Icky Blossoms - Mask
Icky Blossoms’ sophomore album, Mask, doesn’t have grand statements to make - or if it does, they are obscured in the absolute mastery they hold over their ability to present a hook and an atmosphere with complete confidence. Through nine tracks of acidic psychedelic electro-punk, the band crafts undeniably danceable songs that make even the basest emotions - lust (“Want You So Bad”), betrayal (“Silver Tongue”), paranoia (“Terror Nothing”) into outright jams that demand a headbang and a hat-tip to their high-powered energy and sense of arrangement. A criminally underrated release.
Download: “Living in Fiction”, “Away from You”, “Phantasmagoria”
9. Braids - Deep in the Iris
Braids’ most recent album is a hushed and devastating affair that never loses track of its pop hooks; Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s achingly personal lyrics are set to arrangements of soft but active electronics, skipping about as she examines her feelings on domestic abuse, pornography, loneliness and affection. Sandell-Preston cuts into topics rarely-discussed but all too familiar to anyone who’s ever felt disillusioned; rather than declaring “fuck the world”, Sandell-Preston meditates on the benefits of loving an animal, and rather than throwing herself into hyper-sexualization, she touches on a much more nuanced discussion of wanting to benefit from traditional beauty standards without supporting them. Deep in the Iris is a thoughtful, complicated work that requires multiple listens and a lyrics sheet to truly appreciate, and is well-worth the effort.
Download: “Taste”, “Mini-Skirt”, “Letting Go”
8. Foxing - Dealer
Someone on a message board said that they go to music for either ecstasy or catharsis, and that that is how they determine whether an album is good or not. Such an analysis holds true 80% of the time, but fails to account for albums like Dealer, which withhold catharsis like a fickle lover and deny ecstasy as a heaven to pure for sinners sullied by war and depression. The arrangements arch upwards, grand and ornate as cathedrals, and the yelps and coos of lead vocalist Conor Murphy never quite hit the sweet point of oblivion - but that restraint makes the record all the more admirable. Grand but never bombastic, Dealer is a notable entry in emo’s revival, a thoughtful and nuanced take on everything from religion to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Download: “The Magdalene”, “Night Channels”, “Glass Coughs”
7. Vince Staples - Summertime ’06
Occasionally a rap album comes along that unapologetically reflects an individual experience, allowing the lush colors of that microcosm to bleed out and inform the social situation around it. Summertime ’06 is one such record, filled with claustrophobic whispers and clatters of beats that reflect the grim despair of Staples’ time as a Crip. Staples drapes his vocals over each track, inviting guests on not to showcase them but to add ambiance to the painstakingly detailed world he’s created, the time capsule he’s produced of Long Beach in 2006. This is a remarkable record, telling not just a personal story but a generational one.
Download: “Jump Off the Roof”, “Summertime”, “Norf Norf”
6. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear
With his aggressive cynicism and bitter wit, Father John Misty doesn’t cut a terribly likable or even relatable figure - which makes the purity of his feelings for his wife all the more potent, as they cut through the sardonic brew with complete, open-hearted conviction. I Love You, Honeybear is a testament to love and its power to uplift, salvage and brainwash, a monument to letting down your guard and allowing someone else to find out your deepest secrets, a counterpoint to that steely caviler’s attitude. The album is a joyous celebration of matrimony in all its complexities, in its inadequacies as well as its overwhelming highs, all dosed in 1970’s rock sensibilities and with misanthropic, snappy lyrics that many listeners can immediately connect with.
Download: “Chateau #4 (In C for Two Virgins)”, “Bored in the USA”, “Holy Shit”
5. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie and Lowell
Sufjan Stevens’ opus comes from perhaps the most conflicting and difficult struggle he’s publicly faced: the loss of his estranged mother. Over ten tracks, Stevens dissects a complicated relationship with grace and gentleness, treating Carrie as the hurricane she was throughout his life without vilifying her. The ornate but intimate arrangements are among the best in his career, with moments of true transcendence in tracks like “The Only Thing” and “Should’ve Known Better” and genuine, breathy pathos on tracks like “Blue Bucket of Gold” and “Fourth of July”. This record is a painfully personal but relatable listen, made all the more powerful by how conflicted it is.
Download: “The Only Thing”, “Should’ve Known Better”, “Fourth of July”
4. Julien Baker - Sprained Ankle
The songs on Julien Baker’s debut album are so fragile and packed with sorrow that it’s astonishing that she’s only 20; her music has the sort of sincerity that musicians twice her age strive for. Each song is spindly and delicate, gentle even when she cries out in pain, ornate even with the sparse acoustic instrumentation, like a snowflake melting. Her voice is unassuming and fearless, devoting itself fullheartedly to notes beyond its range without ever sounding ugly for ugly’s sake; her lyrics are harsh in their honesty, unforgiving in the portraits of drug-addiction and grief that they paint. The songs rarely repeat their choruses, as if the mere act of getting that far has exhausted them. This is confessional music at its purest form, easy to relate to but hard to accept.
Download: “Rejoice”, “Sprained Ankle”, “Go Home”
3. Colleen Green - I Want to Grow Up
There’s a meme going around on tumblr that simply says “90’s kid? Don’t you mean sad adult?”. It’s the sort of you-laugh-because-it’s-true humor that’s a hallmark on Colleen Green’s I Want to Grow Up, an indictment of the perpetual adolescence that accompanies being twenty-something in 2015 and a celebration of making it to adulthood and defining it on your own terms. Green’s lyrics cut mercilessly into the anxieties of our generation, the self-defeating but not quite self-destructive addictions we’ve developed to television and mediocre relationships, the ignoring tactics we’ve deluded ourselves into believing are coping mechanisms. Her songs are whip-smart and undeniably singable, with no-duh choruses like “TV is my friend” and “gotta stop doing things that are bad for me” and poppy power chords hiding surprisingly nuanced and incredibly relatable messages.
Download: “TV”, “Deeper Than Love”, “Whatever I Want”
2. Torres - Sprinter
Torres’ Sprinter is an album so raw that it seems the musical version of her own bloody spine, ripped right from her back. Through nine harrowing and diverse tracks, Torres moves from howling rage to the devastated wreckage of depression to the easy happiness of friendship without a single inauthentic note - her sensual forays into lesbianism on “A Proper Polish Welcome” and her stripped acoustic examination of anxiety on “The Exchange” come across as equally honest and surprisingly insightful. There is no emotion too difficult or obscure for Torres to tackle, and she approaches each with punchy, powerful songwriting, frayed-nerve lyrics and a voice that could command a hurricane.
Download: “Strange Hellos”, “A Proper Polish Welcome”, “The Exchange”
1. Grimes - Art Angels
Rarely does a perfect vision come along. Usually, forces beyond the artist’s control buckle an idea, or alternative routes are taken, for better or worse, diluting the purity of the artist’s original inspiration. Not so here.
There isn’t a bit of this record that wasn’t entirely in Grimes’ control. Art Angels is unapologetic hyperfeminine id, brazen in its touchpoints and fearless in its own identity - no one but Grimes could have created this record, and no one could have improved upon it. The production is superlatively detailed, both immediately pleasing and highly technical; you could spend a year cataloguing every flourish Grimes puts into the arrangements. The content is the result of a woman refusing to feel ashamed of where she came from or what brought her here, whether it’s nümetal and 808 club music or butterflies and the Spice Girls. Grimes wields her influences and her production like a finely-honed sword. The hooks are massive, strong enough to anchor any top 40 pop song but wild enough to keep a foot firmly in the alternative sphere, and the energy is breakneck. The entire record comes across not like a posture but like a fighting stance, defiant, rebellious and untamable.
In a world where women and girls are pressured to apologize for merely existing, much less enjoying something, Art Angels is a triumphant middle finger.
Download: “Kill v. Maim”, “California”, “Pin”