While it seems silly to rate entire years while ranking their albums—was 2013 better than 2002? — it’s clear that 2015 was an exceptional year in music. The world careened from one viral hit to another, saying “hey what’s up hello” to a new crop of artists and blinging its hotline along with established stars. A host of excellent albums sprung up along the way, leaving a raft of listening material to sift through. The albums below are the ones that stuck with me the most, and in a year like this one, with an immense volume of good music, it’s impossible to say these are the “best.” Nonetheless, take a listen to some of what 2015 had to offer.
For an album released in January, Range Anxiety is incredibly sunny. This makes sense: hailing from New Zealand, Twerps crafted a warm-weather album for themselves. Accordingly, a sense of fulfillment by introspection pervades the album. In a year when many artists pushed the envelope (read: got louder), Twerps harkens back to the laid-back slacker and bright jangle rock of the ‘80s and ‘90s. What sets this album apart, however, is its comfortable closeness and ambitious earnestness. It’s compelling in a fun way, carefully balancing carefree music with a sense of serious feeling.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra—Multi Love
Ruban Nielson, UMO’s front man, is a groovy genius. His discography is consistently very strong, and his latest album earned him more recognition, with appearances on the late-night circuit bringing a wider audience. Multi Love sees a more disco-funk push in Nielson’s sound, and comparisons have been drawn to Prince et al. As always, a heavy cloud of fuzz surrounds the music, and things are not as straightforward as they seem. The lyrical content is quite inventive; songs like “The World Is Crowded” and “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” are incredibly catchy both as music and as a message about the modern condition.
This is my choice for underdog album of the year. Catherine DeGennaro and Suzy Jivotovski created the record long-distance, but the music sounds wholly fused, as if physical separation drove the friends closer together. The songs are quiet and touchingly poetic, featuring warm vocals walking on stilts of splintery guitar. Lyrically, the duo is inventive and powerful; the closing lines of the final song could be part of a poem themselves: “I’d like to exorcise more of you from me / so lift your limbs / and pull your weight away / and let me be again.” The album never falls into folk forgery, instead carving an earnest lo-fi fingerprint. The duo seem like people it would be nice to be friends with, and after listening to Capitol Mill you might feel like you already are.
After her 2012 breakthrough album Visions and the explosion of attention that followed, Claire Boucher was catapulted from Montreal pop weirdo to global star. In the interim, one question loomed large: could she balance the two spheres, reconciling immense attention with the bizarre pop with which she made a name for herself? Art Angels answered this resolutely: she doesn’t have to. Powerful standout moments prove that no matter how far Boucher leans into blue-blooded pop, she will always retain an irreverent art-school bent. Throughout the album, Grimes volleys defiant lyrics that could be core messages to the music industry and fame, from “I’ll never be your dream girl” on “Butterfly” to “When you get bored of me I’ll be back on the shelf” from “California,” a confirmed industry diss track. The listener is left to sort through a sound that is more “strong and aggressive” (her words, from a Billboard interview no less), making sense of Boucher’s world while realizing fully the depth of her talent.
Sufjan Stevens—Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens has proved to be a masterful artist over more than a decade of productivity. His latest album was hailed as a return to the softness of his early material, but on Carrie & Lowell Stevens hardly rests on his acoustic laurels. Both in composition and lyrically, this is a poetic and weighty album that sees the singer-songwriter grappling with the immense themes of love and loss that punctuate our lives. Standout track “Fourth of July” is a profound example of this theme, written as a conversation between Stevens and his mother on her deathbed. It is easily among the most delicate and intricately moving songs I have ever experienced. Barely singing above a whisper, Stevens intimately envelopes you in his world of despair but ultimately acceptance and hope. Perhaps more so than any recent album in memory, Carrie & Lowell creates a singular atmosphere that transcends the power of music alone.
D’Angelo and the Vanguard—Black Messiah
While this album technically came out in 2014, it was just late enough to escape the grip of year-end lists. Perhaps this was intentional, allowing the long-awaited album from the not-so-new king of R&B to transcend the criticism or comparison with albums of its time. Truly, Black Messiah is in a category of its own, and its enduring relevance and power warrants its inclusion here and on any best-of list it qualifies for. This is an album that I truly spent all of 2015 with, and it never wore out. In fact, its striking power lies in its freshness, even after repeated listens. The genre-spanning music skips seamlessly from funk to R&B to jazz to country to Spanish guitar, uniting a unique meld along the way. D’Angelo injects his subtle soul into each song, and it’s hard to image a more nuanced artist today. The lyrical content is poignant and powerful; one song that sticks out after repeated listens is “Back to the Future (Part I),” a slow-building track (with a second part later on) that encapsulates the struggles D’Angelo faced in the wake of his fall from the public eye. He weaves in his hometown (“Back in Richmond”), the public eye “(If you’re wondering about the shape I’m in \ I hope it ain’t my abdomen you’re referring to”), wanting to “go back,” and knowing that the paradox of time will entrap him: he wishes to return to the future that seemed to lay ahead in the past. Urgent, compelling, and essential on every count, the album endured strongly throughout 2015; I have no doubt that it will endure far beyond that.