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The best albums of 2015 so far

Considering we’re only almost to July, 2015 has seen an abundance of musical riches so far. From new albums by old bands to great albums by new bands, there’s plenty of great material to queue up just from the past six months. Below, The A.V. Club runs down a bunch of our favorite stuff, from Sleater-Kinney to Swervedriver.

Best album that backs up the oppressive hype around it: Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar’s breakthrough album, 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, made its follow-up one of the most anticipated records of the year, and upon its botched release in March, the acclaim arrived in torrents. It’s rare for this kind of hype to match the album, but To Pimp A Butterfly is a masterwork. Brace for another round of accolades once year-end “best of” lists are released. [Kyle Ryan]

Best 1970s Randy Newman impression: Tobias Jesso Jr., Goon

Tobias Jesso Jr. tried for four years to make it in L.A. playing bass, and it didn’t work. In the end it took a return to his native Vancouver and the latter-day discovery of the piano as a vehicle for songwriting for everything to click. With his oddly inflected vocal delivery to go along with a keen ear for whimsical balladry, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between this record and the best of the early ’70s singer-songwriters. [Corbin Reiff]

Most necessary reissue: Los Crudos, Doble LP Discografía

Chicago’s Los Crudos wasn’t the first Spanish-speaking hardcore band, though it may be the most notable. It hasn’t released any new music since its breakup 1998, but over the past few years it’s been playing shows that are as incendiary as the ones the first time around. With the release of Doble LP Discografía there’s no longer a need to track down those rare 7-inch singles in order to experience the band’s brilliance. With liner notes featuring all of Crudos’ lyrics—in both Spanish and English—and testimonials speaking to the band’s legacy, it’s an essential entry point for a band that’s never lost its importance. [David Anthony]

My mom died, how’s your day going?: Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell

What a bummer it would be if Sufjan Stevens’ aural exploration of his feelings about his mother’s life and death turned out hackneyed or overblown. But the singer-songwriter stripped his sound down to its bare essentials and wrote a series of gutting, sometimes celebratory songs about the woman who gave birth to him, but who he never entirely knew. [Josh Modell]

Best record for pretending you’re at a shoegaze gig in London in 1995: Swervedriver, I Wasn’t Born To Lose You

Since reuniting for gigs in the late oughts, fans of England’s hardest-rocking shoegaze band have been waiting for new music, and this album wastes no time picking up right where 1998’s 99th Dream left off. Gauzy, swirling guitars harnessed to steady, pulsing drums, the album continues the mellowing of the group. Then again, all that means is that they’re finally slowing down to the rhythms and rock paces of most of their contemporaries. Getting older looks good on them, but musically, it’s like no time at all has passed. [Alex McCown]

Best posthumous release: Pops Staples, Don’t Lose This

Before Roebuck “Pops” Staples died at 85, the legendary musician and activist started recording a final album. “Don’t lose this,” he told daughters Mavis, Yvonne, and Cleotha. Now finished with production and new accompaniment by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, the album smartly keeps things spare, centering directly on Pops’ vocals and guitar. “Somebody Was Watching” carries the essence of fearlessness, optimism, and determination that guided Pops’ whole life, musically and otherwise. [Eric Swedlund]

Most welcome return: Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love

Though the group’s reunion was rumored for a long time, it would be fair to say that no one really expected Sleater-Kinney to come back as strong as it did. The trio did its comeback the right way, putting out a new record before touring and not just coasting on hits. Better still is the fact that No Cities To Love is, like all other Sleater-Kinney records, a front-to-back ripper, full of excellent track after excellent track. [Marah Eakin]

Best use of lyrical couplets: Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material

Kacey Musgraves is young, but she knows how to turn a phrase. Her latest, Pageant Material, is full of all sorts of great couplets, creative rhymes, and bang-up lines like “I’m always higher than my hair.” Pageant Material is the kind of record that rewards repeated listens just because each new turn shines a light on another one of Musgraves’ cute little jokes. [Marah Eakin]

Best album that sounds like a fatal overdose of Skittles: Passion Pit, Kindred

Considering how jubilant Passion Pit sounded even when frontman Michael Angelakos was struggling with bipolar disorder and singing about his insecurities, fans always wondered the group’s music be like if Angelakos was actually pretty happy. Recorded after his marriage, Kindred is a veritable explosion of sound, a triumphant dazzle emanating from glittering shards of electronic noise and chants and claps—yet just grounded enough by a lingering suspicion that the euphoria can’t last forever. [Christopher Mincher]

Best not-so-subtle coming-of-age indie-pop album: Colleen Green, I Want To Grow Up

Cynicism is the life force of adulthood, and Colleen Green wants you to know she gets it. Beginning with the matter-of-fact title and some brilliant cover art that features Green donning a party hat and a could-give-a-fuck facial expression, the album is only strengthened by its grown-up apathy, like on “TV,” which, surprise, is about the warmth and lasting friendship provided by a TV. And though the clever and sarcastic lyrics don’t leave much up to the imagination, the songwriting is so much better developed and well rounded this time around—the backing band helps—with vocal melodies that gently float above the simple, solid rhythms. [Kevin Warwick]

Best music for your road trip through the Alaskan wilderness: Rachel Grimes, The Clearing

Rachel Grimes’ latest album sounds like it wants to be free of urban trappings. Spare chamber music fused with the restless energy of improvisatory jazz, it feels meant for the outdoors. Moody and searching, these songs are best experienced as you’re driving out of the city—or better yet, driving out of civilization altogether. If the music in the wilderness is this good, it’ll be tough to find a reason to leave. [Alex McCown]

We’re all gonna die alone but that’s okay: Jeff Rosenstock, We Cool?

As the frontman for Bomb The Music Industry!, Jeff Rosenstock is no stranger to culling inspiration from his most depressing experiences. On We Cool?, his second solo record and first since BTMI was officially put to bed, Rosenstock’s songs are comparatively straightforward to his past offerings, but they’re no less dark. At various points Rosenstock is detailing his battles with anxiety, the thoughT that he’s going to die alone, and the likelihood that everyone he loves is probably going to suffer the same fate. But in the midst of all that there’s some positivity, a sense that we’re all in it together, and the fact that sometimes in the face of such crushing reality all you can do is get high and watch Robocop. [David Anthony]

Best instrumental album that probably sounds better on the second night of an outdoor musical festival: Jamie xx, In Colour

For a decade now, Jamie xx has been known to most as the creative center for the celebrated indie pop act The xx. With his second solo effort Jamie steps out again into the spotlight with one of the most surprisingly melodic DJ-curated records yet. If these instrumentals sound anywhere as huge live as they do through a pair of headphones, anyone catching him on the festival circuit this year is in for a real treat. [Corbin Reiff]

Best reissue to make you double-check your fly: The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers

The market these days is absolutely flooded with remastered or remixed reissues of classic records. Most of them are clearly blanket cash grabs, but every once in a while something comes out that’s actually worth that hard-earned cash, like this set from the Stones. Packed with genuinely interesting alternate takes—“Brown Sugar” with Eric Clapton—and dynamic live cuts, this release gives the listener a greater picture of what the band was all about back at its creative peak. [Corbin Reiff]

Best album to motivate you to hate your life: Primitive Man, Home Is Where The Hatred Is

Listening to Primitive Man is akin to getting smothered by an existential bag. When the Denver trio’s February EP isn’t forcing listeners to obsessively focus on the worst parts of themselves via painfully repetitive walls of sludge and feedback, it constricts their windpipes with bursts of violent grindcore. Add Ethan Lee McCarthy’s ether-soaked roars to the mix and you have a slab of misanthropy that will systematically devour anyone’s self-esteem. [J.J. Anselmi]

Best Godspeed You! Black Emperor record in 15 years: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress

When Godspeed You! Black Emperor announced its split in 2003, there was no reason to expect a reunion. The group had said its piece, and its members had side projects. A decade later, however, Godspeed released Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, a powerful record that nevertheless felt transitional. Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress feels like GY!BE’s first proper LP since its return, not to mention its most coherent and moving work since 2000’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven. Asunder is more focused, however, telling its four-part story of fractured hope, opposition, and revolution in just 40 minutes. In Godspeed time, that’s really, really short. [Randall Colburn]

Most lovingly curated box set: The Best Of The Best Show

Even though The Best Show has returned online, an era undoubtedly ended when Tom Scharpling signed off from WFMU in 2014. To commemorate The Best Show’s 13-year run on the station, the Numero Group—one of the premier labels for lovingly assembled tributes—released a 16-disc box set featuring a 100-page hardcover book of essays by famous fans, a cassette-shaped USB drive with bonus material, and much more. No other 2015 release may match its fan service. [Kyle Ryan]

Best stand-up album about someone’s entire family dying: Sean White, Dead & Gone

Chicago comedian Sean White opens his debut album by explaining the audience needs to know a couple of things to understand what follows: First, over a period of two years, he watched his whole family die, and second, in the middle of that, he got a divorce. What follows is bleakly hilarious (check out “Fat Ashes,” about his overweight brother’s cremation) and undeniably cathartic. [Kyle Ryan]

Best marketing tool for the California Tourism Board: Best Coast, California Nights

Best Coast’s California Nights conjures the beauty of the Golden State after the sun goes down—everything from a drive on the 101 at dusk to hanging with pals outside on a sticky summer evening. Musically, the album reinforces this vibe by employing elements from shoegaze and psych-pop—even if the reverb-coated “Heaven Sent,” a hybrid of Letters To Cleo and poppy Hüsker Dü, is the hands-down standout. [Annie Zaleski]

Best reason to get your vinyl pants out of storage: Marilyn Manson, The Pale Emperor

Collaborating with veteran film scorer Tyler Bates was a smart move for goth demagogue Marilyn Manson: The eerie The Pale Emperor is his finest album in years. The record harnesses Manson’s debauched and depraved persona and surrounds it with appropriately sleazy music full of glinting metallic guitars, macabre acoustic guitars, slinky grooves, and cobweb-dusted electronic flourishes. [Annie Zaleski]

Best album for hugging friends and family: Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, Surf

Surf, the debut from Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment (a band that features indie rap phenom Chance The Rapper), is imbued with a warm spirit. Its feel-good music channels the vibes produced by positive human interactions. Last year, the band covered the theme song from the Canadian animated series Arthur, giving it a facelift with a more mature twist. This project exists in that same vein: the carefree, playful energy of adolescence repurposed as adult contemporary. There’s a real sense of community here, partially embodied by the lack of credited features from big name guests like Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, J. Cole, and Big Sean, but mostly because of the selflessness of Chance himself, who shirked a shot at mega-stardom in favor of making weirdo rap-warping artifacts with his friends. [Sheldon Pearce]

Most harrowing divorce record: Björk, Vulnicura

The most remarkable thing about Björk’s latest record is how precise she is about the arc of her separation from ex-husband Matthew Barney. As string swells and skittering electronic beats do battle in the background, she traces their emotional and physical distance, her terror about the impending divorce, and her anxiety about protecting their daughter, before the album eventually reaches an unsteady (but ultimately hopeful) solo equilibrium. [Annie Zaleski]

Record that best solidifies 2015’s standing as a banner year for women in rock: Screaming Females, Rose Mountain

The New Brunswick noisemakers in Screaming Females have steadily been on the ascent for some time, but it took the release of Rose Mountain to shine some well-deserved mainstream attention on not just the band, but its guitar-hero frontwoman, Marissa Paternoster. Rose Mountain is the kind of big, bombastic rock record fans clamor for, and Paternoster’s guitar wizardry only helps further upend the archaic notion that rock ’n’ roll is a man’s game. [Ryan Bray]

Best proof the guys running major labels are still a bunch of idiots: Jeff The Brotherhood, Wasted On The Dream

After being dropped by Warner Bros., Jeff The Brotherhood managed to retrain ownership of this Joe Chiccarelli-produced, expensive-sounding album of super-fun ’70s dirtbag rock and ’90s alternative. With its Weezer hooks, grungy power-pop guitars, and guest spots from Ian Anderson and Bethany Cosentino, it’s perfect summer listening for those who rock Vans and/or drive vans with dragons painted on the side. [Kenneth Partridge]

Best album for staying inside: Earl Sweatshirt, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

The melancholy wonder that is I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside has an ominous cloud swirling overhead with murky production that young savant Earl Sweatshirt wades through with his precise, paced lyricism. And indeed, it’s perfect for staying in on a rainy day. With intricate, knotty raps that warrant careful unpacking and a gloomy, dejected feel that makes you want to curl up in the dark like a mushroom, this record is built precisely for the times when Murphy’s Law is in play. [Sheldon Pearce]

Best agit-rock album that transcends its on-the-nose sloganeering: Desaparecidos, Payola

An album that makes the discographies of Propagandhi and Rise Against look impenetrably subtle by comparison, Payola proudly bears its politics in song titles like “The Left Is Right,” “MariKKKopa,” and “Slacktivist.” There’s no mistaking the passion that seethes in each of Payola’s 14 tracks, some of the most ferociously melodic rock songs released this year. [Kyle Ryan]

Best middle finger to Liam Gallagher: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Chasing Yesterday

Noel Gallagher is clearly not waiting by the phone to be summoned for an Oasis reunion, judging by Chasing Yesterday, the second record from his current band. As its title implies, Gallagher clearly has no interest in looking backward: Chasing Yesterday is a restless, relentless album full of stormy guitars, moody psychedelic jags, steamy saxophones, and even disco swagger. Even the Oasis-like rager “Lock All The Doors” sounds refreshed and streamlined. [Annie Zaleski]

Album most likely to bring flannel shirts back in style: Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp

For all its distortion squeals and shoulder-check hooks, Ivy Tripp anchors itself on the lo-fi pop sensibilities of songwriter Katie Crutchfield’s alt-’90s forebears: Kim Deal, Frances McKee, Teenage Fanclub. Verses and choruses coalesce like a Pixies patch on a pair of ripped jeans, strung together by the raw lilt of Crutchfield’s vocals, so confident among lyrics obsessed with self-doubt and aimlessness. Waxahatchee’s music may scratch and bristle, but it comforts like a thick flannel with unbuttoned sleeves that flop over your fingers. [Randall Colburn]

Best album by a band whose name you don’t want to say out loud: Elvis Depressedly, New Alhambra

“No more sad songs,” Mat Cothran promises on New Alhambra, a lyric that could very well sum up the album’s aim. Because, despite the languid strums, weepy strings, and melancholic tone of Cothran’s gentle croak, New Alhambra ultimately serves to celebrate friendship and idealism. “If we fuck up, it’s all right,” Cothran sings at album’s end, leaving listeners with the kind of smile and shrug that befits a band called Elvis Depressedly. [Randall Colburn]

Best collaboration between a jazz trio and member of Wu-Tang Clan: Badbadnotgood & Ghostface Killah, Sour Soul

Just when Ghostface Killah needed an extra spring in his step, three white kids from Toronto gave him a pair of working moon shoes in the form of 12 brilliantly structured jazz-funk tracks. The result is a reenergized Iron Man pinpointing social ills in the midst of detail-laden narratives and fresh imagery. On Sour Soul, Badbadnotgood creates malleable trip-hop compositions that Ghostface fashions into Molotov cocktails filled with grime. [J.J. Anselmi]

Best deconstruction of a real relationship by a concept artist: Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear

Sometimes it takes wearing a mask to be able to get to the real truth of what’s inside yourself. That certainly seems to be the case for Josh Tillman, who, on his second release as Father John Misty, crafted one of the most magisterially orchestrated and beautiful sounding records of the year and consistently undercut it with a variety of lewd, neurotic, and subversive lyrics. If the sound and the message seem over the top, however, the feelings never do. [Corbin Reiff]

The shape of Riot Grrrl to come: G.L.O.S.S., Demo

Though it doesn’t identify as Riot Grrrl, Olympia, Washington’s G.L.O.S.S.—which stands for “Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit”—feels like a natural growth from the scene that started there over 20 years ago. With music decidedly more D-beat than Riot Grrrl’s initial group of bands, the lyrics on the band’s demo are as charged as anything out of the mid-’90s. With lyrics pointing out the group’s anger at our culture’s ingrained masculinity, the routine dehumanization of transgender people, and the boys’ club in punk and hardcore, G.L.O.S.S. isn’t tiptoeing around charged issues. As G.L.O.S.S. so succinctly puts it, “We’re from the future,” one that all of rock music would benefit from embracing. [David Anthony]

“This is the latest from Saddle Creek” award: Hop Along, Painted Shut

When Tim Kasher uttered the above line in 2001 it was a nod to Saddle Creek Records emerging as the hot, new indie label. It’s a claim that proved prescient, as Kasher’s Cursive, along with Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, and The Faint, would help define the early-2000s indie-rock scene. Now in 2015, Hop Along is the latest from Saddle Creek, and its masterful sophomore album Painted Shut may serve the same purpose. A genre-hopping act anchored by Frances Quinlan, there’s a reason Vulture claimed she’s the best vocalist in rock music today. [David Anthony]

Don’t call it a comeback, they been here for years: The Decemberists, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World

Colin Meloy is a wanderer, and it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate his flights of fancy. But four years away from Decemberists records resulted in the band’s most direct, emotionally resonant album in more than a decade. What A Terrible World draws from the best parts of the band’s entire catalog, but keeps the anachronisms spare and the pop sensibility amped all the way up. [Josh Modell]

Best soundtrack for your own personal horror film: John Carpenter, Lost Themes

The renowned horror-movie auteur may have slowed his directorial output in recent years (or, rather, recent decades), but his muse is clearly alive and well. This collection of music for fictional film soundtracks has all the hallmarks of Carpenter’s best scores: pulsing synths, jagged guitars, and an overwhelming ambience of unease. You’ll swear you’re trapped in a horror movie. [Alex McCown]

Prettiest packaging: Air’s Virgin Suicides soundtrack

Just like the movie it accompanied, Air’s new LP reissue of The Virgin Suicides soundtrack is visually stunning. All red vinyl and glossy heart-shaped cutouts, the box set is a collector’s dream. It even comes with two massive, subway-sized pop art posters promoting the original record that would look perfect framed on the wall in any design magazine spread. Aesthetic squad goals, reached. [Marah Eakin]

Best record named after a numeral: Metz, II

Metz is a really good band. Intense in all the right ways and driven to both put on great live shows and release solid material, the Toronto group always seems like it’s really doing its best. That shows on II, the group’s latest release for Sub Pop. Packed in a sleeve that’s charmingly iridescent, the record is all killer, no filler. [Marah Eakin]

Most appropriately timed reissue: Dead Prez, Let’s Get Free

The past year hasn’t been a great one for black Americans, not that the past 300 or so have been any great shakes. And as such, there’s really never been a better time to listen to Let’s Get Free, Dead Prez’s excellent 2000 album that recently got a fancy vinyl reissue. Packed with poignant and forceful tracks like “Wolves,” “I’m An African,” and “Hip Hop,” it’s a record that’s only grown in power over the past 15 years. [Marah Eakin]

Most blissfully simple album about romance: Hayden, Hey Love

Over his 20-year career, Hayden has spent a lot of time quietly musing about yearning, heartbreak, and the like, but his eighth album, Hey Love, is a beautifully straightforward marvel. In both lyrics and instrumentation, songs are stripped to their elements, serving as unimpeded conduits through which Hayden conveys the raw emotions of relationships. Whether beaming with mirth or lost in melancholic pondering, Hey Love captivates by eschewing complications. [Christopher Mincher]

Best album of new material after 40-plus year layoff: The Sonics, This Is The Sonics

It’s not every day that a pioneering garage-rock band releases its first album of new material since 1967, so the new one from The Sonics rightfully turned some heads. And when the skronk of the sax fully kicks in on “I Don’t Need No Doctor”—a title that again proves double-negatives are hard as hell, even if it is a Nick Ashford cover—The Sonics don’t sound like they’re putting their best cane forward, but instead stamping out a fire in snakeskin boots. Hot licks, thumping drums, and reckless abandon… amen. The album is the perfect mix of glitter and grease and has the bluesy rock ’n’ roll swing that made The Sonics, well, The Sonics. [Kevin Warwick]

Record most likely to make you Google “Chavo Guerrero”: The Mountain Goats, Beat The Champ

John Darnielle has always excelled at plumbing pathos from unlikely places: meth addicts, organ harvesters, even Grendel’s mother. His latest finds the cult singer lending his joyous shriek to the world of professional wrestling, whose muscled denizens—including Chavo Guerrero, Darnielle’s childhood hero—routinely risk death to feel like a superhero, if only for a fleeting moment. Against acoustic strums and ethereal piano plinks, Darnielle captures it all: the travel, the loneliness, the injuries, and how none of that matters once the crowd starts roaring. [Randall Colburn]

The Zen Arcade memorial award: Tenement, Predatory Headlights

Though its fans would be quick to tell you as much, Tenement is one of America’s best rock bands, even if it’s still playing in basements. The four years between full-length albums allowed the trio to make a sprawling double record, one befitting of such grand punk gestures as Double Nickels On The Dime and Zen Arcade. The key difference being that little of Predatory Headlights feels traditionally punk, instead opting to incorporate jazz, classic rock, and music from the Eastern world across its two pieces of vinyl. With songs that range from hummable garage-pop to lengthy, instrumental jazz tracks, it’s an album that falls in line with punk’s more progressive past and is never content to play it straight. [David Anthony]

Best sparse, introspective album by a guy who normally doesn’t mess with that shit: Butch Walker, Afraid Of Ghosts

Butch Walker has spent his career brushing his fingertips against fame without ever grabbing it, and the attempt has usually spurred him to some version of more: more glam, more power pop, more instruments, more harmonies, more energy, more stylistic reinventions. Afraid Of Ghosts throws water on the fireworks for a moody, often chilling set of sad nostalgia and personal ruminations. Luckily, dialing Walker back doesn’t make him any less compelling of a songwriter. [Christopher Mincher]

Most somber musical reinvention: Ceremony, The L-Shaped Man

Ceremony’s first decade busied itself largely with recapturing the early American hardcore sounds of bands like Black Flag and Negative Approach. The moves the group has made away from circle pits and power chords have been huge, so much so that The L-Shaped Man passes over aggression entirely in favor of the gloomy post-punk more representative of bands like New Order and Bauhaus. It’s a major sea change the band weathers well, even if it’s about as far from an uplifting listen as you’ll find so far this year. [Ryan Bray]

Best unofficial part of a franchise: Barter 6, Young Thug

The ugly breakup between New Orleans sensation Lil Wayne and the man who helped foster his success, Brian “Birdman” Williams, was well documented last year, but the saga took an unlikely turn when new Birdman apprentice and Lil Wayne understudy Young Thug decided to name his first independent album on Lyor Cohen’s 300 ENT imprint Carter 6, a continuation of Wayne’s most storied franchise. Thug, a long-time Wayne admirer, planned on making Carter albums long before the rift, but now it took on a new tone. After a brief legal dispute, the name was changed to Barter 6, but the music remained unhindered by the controversy, a dark, cohesive project signaling a changing of the guard for Cash Money. [Sheldon Pearce]

Most welcome Britpop comeback: Blur, The Magic Whip

That all four members of Blur managed to eke out a new record together is nothing short of miraculous. That the record doesn’t tarnish the band’s legacy is much more of a relief. The Magic Whip is full of mysterious pop that combines space-age keyboards with typically wry, strident guitars and abstract lyrics. [Annie Zaleski]

Best hip-hop album that name-drops WTF With Marc Maron: Doomtree, All Hands

Hyper-literate Minneapolis collective Doomtree released another excellent album earlier this year, its densest and most incendiary yet. The references come quickly, so that the album rewards repeat listens to catch them all. Member P.O.S. hits the sweet spot of the Venn diagram of comedy, podcast, and hip-hop fans in “Gray Duck,” when he raps, “All the fuck in your station / All up in your dark / Awkward in your Marc Maron conversations.” Guess we know what Doomtree listens to in the van. [Kyle Ryan]