#40: Helen – The Original Faces
Liz Harris takes a break from her day job as the screamingly quiet poet of the interior monologue in Grouper and puts together an actual band instead. True to form, though, Helen makes music that is blurred, lo-fi, and straight out of the cassette tape dream pop of 1992.
#39: Beach House – Depression Cherry
Depression Cherry brought the Chillest Band on Earth into new places in 2015: distorted, heavier places that took the smooth beds of organs and synthesizers and made them darker, dirtier, even somewhat menacing. It was a sidestep from their usual way of doing things, and it solidly affirmed their position as one of the most consistently great bands working today.
#38: Blanck Mass – Dumb Flesh
For Dumb Flesh Benjamin Power, primarily of English drone masters Fuck Buttons, signed to Sacred Bones and produced a collection of noisy, mysterious industrial rock. Like Nine Inch Nails, if you strip away the pretension at being a “rock star”.
#37: The Internet – Ego Death
Sydney Bennett – producer Syd Tha Kid of OFWGKTA – was for a long time the secret weapon in her L.A. skate-rap collective. While the goofball MCs (and Frank Ocean) stole the show, she carved out her own corner of off-kilter neo-soul work. While the early music of The Internet was immature, self-obsessed adolescence, Ego Death marks her group out as one of the contemporary soul bands to watch. Cutting, chilling, and eminently listenable.
#36: Bilal – In Another Life
Bilal Oliver came running out of the gate in 2001 and had his legs cut out from under him. After a decade of struggle, he began his career again. That career has described an arc that leads up to his massive presence on Kendrick Lamar’s album, and his subsequent success all throughout 2015. On his own album, he finds a groove that is lightly funky, deeply soulful, and symbolic of his personal triumphs.
#35: Van Hunt – The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets
Another triumph from another man whose career has been a study in adversity, singer and multi-instrumentalist Van Hunt showed everyone why he’s still in it, and the fundamental injustice in the fact that relatively few people still know it.
#34: Lightning Bolt – Fantasy Empire
The Rhode Island noise band celebrated their twentieth year of carving out pure sonics by releasing arguably the best album of their entire career, and the only one to have a featured spot in a Rock Band game. What a time to be alive.
#33: Blur – The Magic Whip
After the last Blur album, the last Gorillaz album, and that odd foray with the disappointingly mediocre The Good, The Bad, and The Queen, it could be said that Damon Albarn had at long last run out of gas. Then The Magic Whip arrived to show that the fundamental concept behind this was utterly wrong. The record recaptures the magic of the The Great Escape or Parklife more or less intact, mixing a variety of eclectic rock influences into that strange beast known as Britpop.
#32: The Dodos – Individ
The wintry companion to their earlier, sunnier work, Individ found the kitchen-sink twee group deepening the grooves and adding a sharper chill to their sound. It’s still sugary with the sunnier side of the 1960s, but there’s an odd swing and crunch to it now that betrays the darker side of that decade.
#31: Tame Impala – Currents
Kevin Parker has high and being driven around L.A. at twilight when he heard the Bee Gees come on. Inspiration struck, and he steered his neo-psych Tame Impala into a more Seventies direction. Currents amalgamates disco, soul, hip hop, and that old time psychedelic into a thick, bassy stew of modernity.
#30: Miley Cyrus – Miley Cyrus And Her Dead Petz
Miley Cyrus grew up in public, the daughter of an annoying one-hit-wonder country singer and the face of Disney’s star-making television system. Like many such fresh-faced young girls, as she grew closer to the age of majority her brand grew tired, and a new crop of young Disney hopefuls crowded behind her. Unlike the others, whose grasp on relevance was mired in innumerable shallow pop albums, Miley Cyrus has tried to exaggerate her own blossoming embrace of drugs and sexuality. While the results have been on and off thus far, Dead Petz stands alone as a monument to the messiness of being young, rich, and in your early twenties. Backed by the best parts of the Flaming Lips, she goes balls-out into an exploration of pop, psychedelic rock, noise, and sheer ego.
#29: Ryan Adams – 1989
The question on a lot of music site surveys this year is: 1989 – Taylor Swift or Ryan Adams? The answer is, unequivocally, Ryan Adams. The ability to turn a Max Martin number like “Shake It Off” and play it off like it’s “I’m On Fire” is, alone, worth the price of admission.
#28: Baio – The Names
Chris Baio – bassist for indie superstars Vampire Weekend – turned out to be one of the rare people that can step out from the shadow of their ultra-famous day band and still hold their own. The Names is a pop album that manages to be memorable, fun, and throbbing.
#27: Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss
There’s frigid gothic atmosphere and then there’s Chelsea Wolfe.
#26: Tobias Jesso, Jr – Goon
Before Goon, Tobias Jesso, Jr. was another hopeful songwriter adrift in a vast L.A. scene of hopeful songwriters. Following personal and family trouble he left his dream of writing songs for Adele and went back home to Vancouver, where a collection of very cool people (members of the Black Keys, the New Pornographers, and Haim) helped to produce Goon. Now he’s a critical darling writing songs with Adele. That’s Hollywood, baby.
#25: The Decemberists – What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
The King Is Dead was a foray into what the Oregon band called “American folk” – code for Neil Young and R.E.M. It was, admittedly, pretty great, but it sidestepped the fact that they had largely disappeared up the ass of their own fey English style on The Hazards Of Love. What A Terrible World resolves this, dialing back the self-indulgence to return to a streamlined version of what made them great in the past. This is the Decemberists of “O Valencia” and “Odalisque”, and it’s a welcome return to form.
#24: Death Grips – The Powers That B
Niggas On The Moon, the first disc of the two-sided The Powers That B, had already been released for free. The band promised a second side, Jenny Death, which became the subject of an internet meme – “Jenny Death When”. Given the band’s infamy as mercurial noise terrorists – more performance art than actual band – it was a legitimate question whether Jenny Death would ever actually exist. The Niggas On The Moon side was greeted mainly with confusion, after all; it was much more experimental and ambiently bizarre than anything the already experimental and bizarre group had released. When Jenny Death dropped it caused a frenzy, and as an album it serves to sum up the band’s career: it had elements of each of their previous releases, from the wilful indulgence of The Money Store to the crushing grind of Government Plates. “I like my iPod more than fucking” Ride declared on “Inanimate Sensation” and it’s absolutely true. The Powers That B is raw and sexual, music made to aggressively penetrate the listener with deeply personal force.
#23: Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden Of Delete
Daniel Lopatin signed to Warp and celebrated with R Plus Seven, an album that embraced the almost-joke genre of vaporwave with abandon. Moving beyond that, Garden Of Delete widens his range to include industrial and metal influences cribbed from his tour with Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden. These influences are dealt with in a playfully chaotic way, being amalgamated in much the same way that a tornado amalgamates a whole town into itself. If R Plus Seven existed almost entirely on the surface (and, further, what that surface meant to the listener, in terms of generational discomfort or nostalgia) Garden Of Delete exists in the ever-deepening spirals it casts down with each new sliced-and-diced sample that is presented.
#22: Joanna Newsom – Divers
Divers is a summation of everything that makes Joanna Newsom great: the far-flung prog sensibilities, the pre-modern instrumentation, the odd melodic sense that is at once slightly reminiscent of Joni Mitchell and yet sharper, wittier, and – more to the point – altogether more unique than such a comparison can really transmit. Her lyrics are even denser than her music, requiring a lyric sheet, an English degree, and a love of the theatrical to tease out all the most rewarding moments. A modern classic from one of the most fully realized artists of the 21st Century.
#21: Beach House – Thank Your Lucky Stars
If Depression Cherry was the strangely distorted deviation, the jagged wrong notes in the orchestral dream, Thank Your Lucky Stars is the return to bliss, a comforting settling-back-in that expands on their breakthrough album Bloom with a deepening sense of instrumental placement. Everything on Thank Your Lucky Stars seems weighed and measured, crafted with a sense of how it would all play out together in a small room. It was a complete surprise; a month or so after Depression Cherry, the band casually mentioned that they had an entire new album already recorded and ready to go. As far as out-of-the-blue statements from bands, this was one of the best in recent memory.