It might sound cliché at this point, but in 2015, the music industry bounced back. Maybe not all the way back to its mid-’90s peaks of excess, but relatively speaking in today’s terms. Taylor Swift made buckets of money touring her 1989 record, Adele broke long-held sales records with 25, and everyone with a radio and a slight interest in pop music waited with bated breath to see whether Kanye West, Beyoncé, and Rihanna would turn and drop a surprise record. (No, no, and yes, if a week’s notice still constitutes a surprise.) But the records that made the biggest impact this year were by the musical warriors, the artists that—like Kendrick Lamar—draw as much critical praise for their genius brains as they do label bucks for their relative fame. These acts might not be selling out Swift-sized arenas yet, but the work they’re doing is incredibly important, both for the music industry and for our culture as a whole. These artists are speaking to inequalities in gender, race, and class, and they’re doing it in a way that you can dance to, gosh darn it.
The A.V. Club is proud to recognize these artists for their landmark works with our list of the 15 best records of 2015.
When To Pimp A Butterfly was released digitally March 15—a week ahead of schedule—the accolades came quickly. At the bottom of a story explaining how the early release was no accident, Billboard writer Andrew Flanagan said, “A cursory first listen strongly backs the case that Lamar has, again, made a monumental piece of work.” Sprawling (16 tracks, nearly 80 minutes), dense, and heady, To Pimp A Butterfly overwhelmed from the start, and it was clear that Lamar had achieved something special—that its status as a “monumental piece of work” would only grow more pronounced on repeat listening. In our review of the album, A.V. Club writer Evan Rytlewski described To Pimp A Butterfly as “an 80-minute pileup of loose ends, unfinished thoughts, and contradictions.” That should be terrible, but in the hands of Lamar and a slew of producers, it’s a deeply revealing look into the mind of someone who beat long odds to find success, but remains haunted by his good fortune because of the people who weren’t so lucky (“U”), the traps still lurking in his path (“Wesley’s Theory”), and pronounced racial strife (“King Kunta,” “The Blacker The Berry,” “I”). To Pimp A Butterfly perfectly captures its era, but immortality awaits. [Kyle Ryan]
It’s no surprise that Sleater-Kinney’s first record since returning from their extended hiatus is as good as everything else in their catalog. What’s more gratifying is that No Cities To Love achieves this while pushing the band into even more empowering territory. As on 2005’s The Woods, the trio—vocalists-guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss—favors denser sonic directions. The resulting songs are fluid-sounding and free of rigid genre constraints—from the post-punk strut “Surface Envy” and taut disco-punk highlight “Fangless,” to the fuzzy, simmering classic rock nod “A New Wave” and “Bury Our Friends,” whose blackened blues-rock grooves are mesmerizing.
Thematically, No Cities To Love expresses disappointment toward a broken economic system decimated by greed (“Price Tag”), castigates the weakness of a once-powerful entity (“Fangless”), and criticizes fame’s insincerity (“Bury Our Friends”). Its mightiest moments, however, espouse the powerful, nourishing nature of friendship and community: The title track and “Surface Envy” cite personal alliances as a way to protect against uncertainty and inequality, while “Hey Darling” is about how much the band members themselves value each other’s support. In the end, No Cities To Love honors and respects Sleater-Kinney’s legacy, but doesn’t handcuff the band to the past. [Annie Zaleski]
Sufjan Stevens went maximal on 2010’s The Age Of Adz, a Technicolor extravaganza that ditched his penchant both for hushed emotion and banjo. Five years later, he’s pushed to the opposite extreme with Carrie & Lowell, a muted, gorgeous album that might as well be dedicated to Death himself: Many of the songs feature Stevens working through the passing of his mother, who largely stepped out of his life when he was a baby. (You can imagine there are mixed emotions.) Most of Carrie sounds like it was recorded in a closet with the lights turned off to keep the tears hidden; it’s so naked that it’s almost discomfiting. But like Elliott Smith, who’s Stevens’ spiritual forebear here, all that crushing sadness somehow alchemizes into beauty—sometimes cathartic, sometimes just crushing. It’s tricky business, getting this vulnerable, but Stevens has made a pretty astonishing career by following his heart to high and low places. [Josh Modell]
After the release of Visions—her third album under the Grimes moniker—Claire Boucher’s rise to fame had the unintended consequence of saddling her with the expectations of an audience hungry for more. It appears that, with Art Angels, Boucher took to pushing back against these outside pressures with pitch-perfect pop songs. Where Visions had a more ’80s, dream-pop sensibility, on Art Angels she crafts tracks that are endlessly danceable, wildly ferocious, and decidedly more modern. On both “California” and “Flesh Without Blood” she offers the first Grimes songs that could conceivably be staples on Top 40 radio stations across the country. Even when Boucher welcomes collaborators on Art Angels—such as Janelle Monáe on “Venus Fly”—it’s as if she’s absorbed their essence and is presenting them as another character in her all-consuming world. By its end, Art Angels proves that even when Boucher goes for broke with pop hooks, her songs will always bare the distinct mark of Grimes. [David Anthony]
If life’s a joke, then love is the punch line, and Father John Misty is happy to tell you why it’s so funny. Prickly and cynical, Josh Tillman’s charade as a folk-pop showboater may not be the easiest pill for some to swallow, but he endears by exploring his vulnerabilities and shortcomings on I Love You, Honeybear. The former Fleet Foxes drummer applies the band’s lush musical arrangements to his warped worldview, delivering a sweeping album about love that is keenly aware that it’s a cliché. Lyrically, Tillman is at the top of his game, making plenty of room for witty barbs (“And now every insufferable convo / Features her patiently explaining the cosmos / Of which she’s in the middle”) and surprisingly sweet declarations (“I haven’t hated all the same things as somebody else / Since I remember”). From the canned laughter backing “Bored In The USA” to the bombastic horns of “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins),” I Love You, Honeybear jokes about its own sappiness, but it’s the moments of sincerity that make the biggest impression. Closing with “I Went To The Store One Day,” Tillman muses over a monogamous relationship lasting until the “golden years.” Even misanthropes fall in love. [Cameron Scheetz]
Vince Staples’ vital 2014 output left no doubt that the curmudgeonly Cali native was a great rapper, but as hip-hop fans know all too well, being a great rapper and making a great album are two very different things. Even Staples’ biggest backers, then, didn’t expect that he had a debut record in him as daring, as meaty, and as graceful as Summertime ’06, a fleet double album that feels a good 20 minutes shorter than its hour run time. It’s an album that never sees the need to announce its own importance, yet its examinations of race, violence, and morality are every bit as provocative and insightful as Kendrick Lamar’s more formal explorations of the same subjects on To Pimp A Butterfly. And while some critics pushed back against Lamar’s record as overly serious or simply not fun enough, those criticisms don’t apply here: Even when its themes get heavy, Summertime ’06 crackles with speaker-rattling menace. [Evan Rytlewski]
Weston was a band that not a lot of people heard in the ’90s, but one that accrued a cult following for its earnest, ambitious pop-punk. All these years later, Weston alum James Alex Snyder has found a new lease on punk with Beach Slang. The group’s debut full-length, The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us, not only channels the gleeful abandon that made the ’90s pop-punk underground so vital, it stirs in an intoxicating dose of gruff, Replacements-esque songcraft. Weathered and wistful, The Things We Do is an open letter to youth, heartbreak, and the clutter of memory that makes us who we are. [Jason Heller]
2015 was the year Katie Crutchfield finally made the record that coalesced her solo project Waxahatchee into a coherent and organic whole. The fuzzy throb of noise that seeped into Ivy Tripp was the missing ingredient that made the ongoing alternations between hushed, spare confessionals and joyous pop-rock come across as of a piece, rather than simply paired together via necessity of the album format. Combining Rainer Maria-esque rock workouts with potent homespun meanderings, Crutchfield now comes across proudly confident, even at her most stripped and raw. It sounds good on her. [Alex McCown]
Courtney Barnett is a wry, straightforward Aussie songwriter with a peripatetic mind and musical sensibility that blends ’60s ramble-rock with ’90s crunch. On her magnificent LP, Barnett’s lyrics often outpace the infectious amble of her guitar, with poignant images dissolving into banal observations as the singer discovers, then abandons, characters, settings, and ideas in ways that feel thrillingly conversational. Shaggy and noncommittal, the songs feel bigger than these recordings, as if they’re simply sketches that Barnett could amend at a moment’s notice. Or maybe that’s just her greatest trick as a songwriter, exuding wit and pathos without veering into pretension or fastidiousness. You can sit and think about them, or you can just sit with them. Barnett doesn’t care either way. [Randall Colburn]
Torres’ Mackenzie Scott began as raw and emotionally direct on her 2013 debut, but on follow-up Sprinter, those characteristics are magnified and honed. Lyrically, Scott sings about family, faith, and heartache with clear-eyed honesty, even going as far to tackle the very topic of honest communication in the album’s alt-rock opener “Strange Hellos.” But the record’s frequent turns into distortion and rage serve as the perfect foil for Scott’s drawn-out and bare masterpieces, “Ferris Wheel” and “The Exchange.” On the latter, the sound of her fingers moving up and down the fretboard are often as loud as her guitar plucks, capping off an intimate experience where details are shared not because they are universal, but because they are real. [Philip Cosores]
The follow up to the group’s excellent 2014 record, Under Color Of Official Right, which made last year’s list, The Agent Intellect is a dark and driving LP that touches on everything from sex-offending priests to frontman Joe Casey’s love for his parents. It’s not a huge departure for Protomartyr, but that’s not a bad thing, especially considering the Rust Belt-based post punk act is pretty darn solid already. The Agent Intellect is the kind of record that makes struggles with fucked-up society and crippling depression feel almost tolerable, just because if you listen to this, you know at least someone else gets it. [Marah Eakin]
B’lieve I’m Goin Down is Kurt Vile’s most introspective and emotionally resonant album to date. There is an impressive cohesion to this collection of hazy songs, but the way that they alternate between twangy Americana and jangly indie rock keeps things from bogging down into a miasma of sameness. The way they each individually soundtrack Vile’s own intense self-analysis is crushingly powerful. “Pretty Pimpin” is an obvious choice for a single, as it is endlessly catchy and charmingly ham-fisted, but the best song here the album closing “Wild Imagination.” It’s actually framed in nearly the same way as the former track, but is remarkable for its nearly undercut earnestness and touching delivery. It’s everything great about Vile in one gorgeously performed song. [Corbin Reiff]
Part of what makes Sprained Ankle so magical is how genuinely surprising it is. Julien Baker’s previous band—Forrister—was hardly a household name, and Sprained Ankle wasn’t intended for a wide audience. It was just something Baker made for herself, with no real expectations. In a way, it’s all been an accident. While the album’s been pegged as a sad listen—due to Baker tackling subjects such as substance abuse, death, break-ups, and a crisis of faith—it’s welcoming in the catharsis it offers. Baker plumbs the depths of her soul, creating a record that culminates in a calming exhale for anyone who accompanies her on this harrowing journey. [David Anthony]
Wilco caught everyone sleeping with the release of its ninth studio record in July. But even without the hype that comes with a surprise roll out, Star Wars succeeds on its own merit. If 2011’s The Whole Love recaptured some of the band’s experimental pluck, then Star Wars goes all in for the band’s most angular record since Jeff Tweedy wrestled his personal demons on A Ghost Is Born. Bringing everything from fuzzy psychedelia to languid space pop into its sonic wheelhouse, Wilco celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2015 with some of its most unusual but rewarding songs to date. [Ryan Bray]
There’s no shortage of visceral guitar rock on this list, but the second album from Philadelphia’s Hop Along, Painted Shut, boasts a distinct voice that separates the band from the rest of the pack. While the wait for this album was long, coming three years after their debut, the songs are urgent and alive, from the chaotic guitar breakdown of opening track “The Knock” to the deeply felt “Waitress.” A lot of that has to do with the vocals of lead singer Frances Quinlan, who can shift and vary inflections and tones to convey emotional distance, hurt, joy, or angst when the melody calls for it, which is appropriate, because Painted Shut is an album that explores what it means to be alive, for both better and worse. [Kyle Fowle]