It’s been a few years since I recommitted to the task of offering up a yearly list of my personal favorite albums from the preceding twelve months of music, doing so because I was writing for Spectrum Culture. It was part of our year-end obligation as music critics. Because my top three albums that year prominently featured women performers, the editor-in-chief decided I was some sort of swooning sucker for female musicians. Never mind that my pick for best of the year matched the whole site’s collective selection for the same honor and that male-dominated acts comprised exactly half my top ten, which, you know, mirrors the male-female ratio in the world. To him, I was forever tagged as the music writer who’d grant women performers some sort of critical assessment affirmative action. Were I still writing for Spectrum Culture, he’d never let me hear the end of it once I turned in my list of the best albums of 2015. I’m not, though. This list belongs to me.
There are all sorts of rapturously received records that are not represented here. Maybe I’m out of step, but I found many of the year’s critical darlings — Sufjan Stevens, Tame Impala, Julia Holter — to be on the snoozy side. And here I’ll admit my prevailing indifference against most rap and hip hop since Public Enemy slipped into irrelevance leaves me shrugging my shoulders at Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, probably the consensus pick for album of the year. Still, this list shouldn’t be about what I couldn’t warm to. Great music is for celebrating, and I’m not actually claiming this list to be authoritative. It’s personal, albeit informed. So no more dwelling on omissions. Here are my choices for the best albums of 2015:
1. Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material — Plain and simple, Musgraves and her collaborators deliver the best songwriting of the year. There’s a little subversion to the messages contained therein, including charming but pointed refutations of the confining tropes of the current country music model. Pageant Material is a declaration of fierce independence, powered by deviously good hooks, expert playing, and lyrical turns of phrase that are both endlessly clever and natural as can be. It offers a sly revolution, with a wink and a smile, and then the occasional blindsiding roundhouse. Other albums in 2015 were more baldly innovative, but none were more consistently perfect.
2. Grimes, Art Angels — This is the masterful music that has been the longterm promise of Claire Boucher’s unabashed explorations. Art Angels is a slam-bang inversion of pop and dance music, ferocious and coy at the same time. It’s a sonic sparkler sending off unexpected flares in all directions. For all the wild experimentation, it’s always clear that Boucher is in complete control. Hers has been an intriguing voice for some time. Now it’s the voice that’s leading the charge into next wave of borderless possibility.
3. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit — Punchy and witty, Barnett’s proper full-length debut resonates through the paradoxical assurance of its groping hesitancy. The Australian singer-songwriter gives the impression of someone feeling her way through her own songs, as if the potency of her slacker revelations are a scalding surprise.
4. Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear — The bedraggled troubadour continues his headlong tromping through the marshy wilds of his psyche. The gloomily grandiose alter ego of J. Tillman reflects on his place in world, most notable a courtship that proves settling down can leave one even more uneasy than before, but that the perpetual discombobulation is the most gratifying part of the experience.
5. Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love — The needle was merely lifted. The record spun on. Sleater-Kinney’s comeback record doesn’t redeem the notion of band reunion, but it does further cement their place as the greatest rock band of their generation. The give-and-take between the trio is spectacular and properly exhausting. The whole album fairly glistens with a coating of salty sweat that comes from a night in the mosh pit.
6. Kurt Vile, B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down — Easy-going and intimate, as if Vile decided to pull back a little bit after the fulsomeness of 2013’s fine Wakin on a Pretty Daze (there are no songs lolling toward the ten-minute mark here). It’s a good call. He doesn’t need the sprawl. It obscures the intricate smarts of his songwriting, a quality that has never been more upfront.
7. John Grant, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure — Grant continues dispensing his signature soundscapes of the rapturously odd. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure offers up an engaging blend of cascading melody, gonzo pop culture references, and offhand morbidity. There are comparisons to be made — Nick Cave comes to mind — and yet no one really like him.
8. Chvrches, Every Open Eye — Say a prayer for the buzzy band on their sophomore album. Many of the champions of the Scottish dance-pop trio Chvrches vanished upon the release of Every Open Eye. It’s too bad. This album is better: just as strong at the peaks and far more consistent.
9. Colleen Green, I Want to Grow Up — Every generation gets the Jen Trynin they deserve. The millennials have clearly but up a lot of good karma, because their Jen Trynin is fantastic.
10. Shamir, Ratchet — Airy electronica and funk from inner space, coiled into unexpected textures that are somehow reassuring. It’s a debut album that feels like the thumbprint suggested by the cover: distinct, individualistic, and surely impossible to reproduce.