If 2015 has felt musically overstuffed, that's at least in part because the year's many highlights seem to spring from every musical direction. This is just one writer's list of favorites — fueled by a unique set of biases, personal circumstances, genre preferences, neuroses and disorders — and yet it's broad enough to include dreamy folk-pop ballads, a hip-hop opus, a wordy poet finding her inner megaphone, a young country singer's latest crop of mission statements, a veteran band that's transformed spare ingredients into a career highlight after a dozen albums and a minimalist punk duo whose abrasiveness cloaks bracing beauty.
It's been a year full of music that feels not only great, but necessary: These 10 albums plumb emotional depths, deliver powerful messages and, just when you need them most, soothe worried minds in a year when a bit of calm is a priceless commodity.
Stephen Thompson's Top 10 Albums Of 2015
1. Joan Shelley, 'Over And Even'
Other albums were bolder, more ambitious, farther-reaching. But Kentucky singer-songwriter Joan Shelley, with a key assist from guitarist Nathan Salsburg, made the medicinal musical balm 2015 needed. Calm and quietly stated, with notes of Fairport Convention, all 12 of these gorgeous acoustic songs were made to tamp down raw nerves, with comforting lyrics — "Easy now / It's almost over" — to match Shelley's honeyed delivery. There's not a misstep on Over And Even, a collection of feel-better music that settles over the skin like a security blanket.
Carrie & Lowell examines Sufjan Stevens' relationship with several of his departed loved ones — most notably his troubled mother, who died in 2012. As such, it's a quietly intense, conflicted, melancholy, bruised and deeply ambivalent reflection on loss and memory, and listening isn't always easy. But Carrie & Lowell is so thoughtful, so delicate, so beautiful that its tenderness and generosity can't help but radiate through every note. "Fourth Of July," sung from the perspective of Stevens' late mother, hits hardest of all: It comes to stark and difficult conclusions, but it's awash in forgiveness and understanding, with kindness that reaches well beyond this mortal coil.
"I remember you was conflicted." To Pimp A Butterfly returns to those words often, as rapper Kendrick Lamar unfurls a radical and complex look at his place in the world — a world of strife and conflict, in a continuum that reaches back to the bloody legacy of slavery. At nearly 80 minutes, it's a dense and astonishing accomplishment: a fierce, uncompromising, endlessly quotable, periodically frustrating statement with room for playfulness, poetry and rage. No mere collection of singles, To Pimp A Butterfly functions as a bold and unified whole, bursting with ideas yet held together through their sheer collective power.
4. Courtney Barnett, 'Sometimes I Sit And Think...'
The ambling, rambling sounds of Courtney Barnett's breakthrough collection, last year's The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas, barely hinted at the big, playful, frequently blistering rock 'n' roll of her official full-length debut. The Australian fills her songs with lots and lots of words, often arranged with remarkable intricacy, but here she sees fit to match them with stadium-sized bluster. "Pedestrian At Best" may be 2015's most quotable song — "Give me all your money and I'll make some origami, honey / I think you're a joke, but I don't find you very funny" — but it's also a booming, crowd-pleasing speaker-blower.
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Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit.
Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit.
Kacey Musgraves isn't just a country singer; she's a country persona, complete with a fully conceived worldview that helps her transform catchy songs into mantras of individuality and opposition to the forces of judgment. Pageant Material is full of mission statements, complete with defiant odes to independence ("Good Ol' Boys Club"), minding one's own business ("Biscuits"), seizing life while we've got it ("Die Fun"), and staying true to the worthiest forces that made you ("Dime Store Cowgirl," "Family Is Family"). Every time a song threatens to devolve into mere sloganeering, Musgraves brings it to heel with just the right mix of sunniness and poignancy.
Mackenzie Scott, who performs as Torres, finds herself on Sprinter, a remarkable and revealing set of seething songs about faith and the forces that test it. PJ Harvey is the clearest musical reference point here — Sprinter is even produced by Rob Ellis, who's worked extensively with Harvey — but Scott's clear-eyed stories are her own, elevating her songs to works that recall no one but herself. Still only in her mid-20s, Scott has a way with examining her past struggles while demonstrating just how much stronger they've made her.
At one point on Ones And Sixes, Low's 12th album in a career spanning more than 20 years, Mimi Parker coos a line so softly and prettily, it pierces the mix like a siren song. Around her is the tense, uneasy crackle of a slow-moving arrangement that jerks along unsettlingly, so it's hard not to tether yourself to that moment of sweet clarity at its core. That is, until you make out her words: "Our house is on fire." Ones And Sixes takes Low's deceptively simple palette — voices, a guitar or two, brushes of snare, a few effects, spare lyrics — and forms them into complex songs that haunt and soothe, sometimes simultaneously.
For all the considerable talents Patty Griffin has honed in the past two decades — a tremendous voice, a knack for confidently fusing genres from folk and pop to blues and gospel — the greatest of all is her emotional credibility; her ability to make every word she sings sound like immutable truth. Servant Of Love is full of somber meditations on loss and acceptance, though it swings in spots like the gospel-tinged "There Isn't One Way," and its epiphanies and sharp turns of phrase hit hard. It can read like poetry or a letter from a friend, but it's always wise, always thoughtfully crafted, always trustworthy.
9. Saintseneca, 'Such Things'
Saintseneca's Zac Little describes "Sleeper Hold," from the band's second album Such Things, as "a pop song about the physics of consciousness." Sure enough, if you listen closely, that's exactly what his band has made: a booming, crowd-pleasing single that also happens to be fascinated with the life of the mind. Throughout Such Things, Little fuses grabby pop blasts with smart thickets of words — "If there isn't any rest for the weary / And no weariness for the rest, I guess / But ever if you leave me / Every pill that Elvis ever ate wouldn't shake the ache" — allowing Saintseneca to sound brainy and brawny at once.
Girlpool doesn't sound like many other bands, in part because of the unique limitations the duo places on itself. Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad sing and play guitars (no drums necessary) and almost always overlap each other, sometimes going so far as to sing in the round. The resulting sound is playful and primitive, but it's got sharp teeth, too. Beneath it all, at frequent but unexpected moments, Girlpool's songs hit on moving, universal truths — most notably in Before The World Was Big's powerhouse title track, in which a gauzy childhood memory gives way to a heartfelt admission of gratitude and doubt: "Mom and Dad, I love you / Do I show it enough?"