Starting today and continuing through Thursday, I’m counting down my 40 favorite albums of 2015. The usual caveat applies: I truly love all this music, but take the rankings with a grain of salt. And please bear in mind that I’m not trying to be definitive. (Also, I consider D’Angelo’s excellent Black Messiah to be a 2014 release, which is why you won’t see it here anywhere—due to a poorly timed move, though, I didn’t manage to make a list last year.)
40) Cairo Gang, Goes Missing (God?)
I’ll never figure out why Cairo Gang capo Emmett Kelly isn’t a rock star—it seems like he’s got almost all the qualifications, aside from hubris and arrogance. Once again, playing nearly every instrument himself, he’s served up a gem of a record that’s redolent of the Beatles, Kinks, and the Byrds without sounding stuck in the past. Wake up, people!
39) Laura Marling, Short Movie (Ribbon Music)
This preternaturally gifted British folksinger plugged in for Short Movie. Her previous album was a breakup record, but here she’s clearly regained her confidence, not only choosing a stronger, more aggressive sound but also alternating between songs that strut and ones that admit vulnerability. I was afraid that this record would suffer because it lacks some of the subtlety in her acoustic work, but revisiting it this week proved otherwise.
38) Phaedra, Blackwinged Night (Rune Grammofon)
Norwegian singer Ingvild Langgård gave her sparkling music a stronger backbone on Blackwinged Night, the second album she’s made as Phaedra, but that new extroversion doesn’t impinge upon the beauty of her melodies—they’re as strong as hooky pop tunes, but their sophistication and patience suggest medieval madrigals. Few contemporary artists manage this sort of woozy temporal displacement so effectively.
37) Laura Cannell, Beneath Swooping Talons (Front & Follow)
I never expected to fall for an album that leans so heavily on solo recorder, but this Brit bowled me over with bracing works for that beleaguered instrument (and more significant, for violin). These ten pieces blur the line between improvisation and composition, drawing inspiration from early-music composers Hildegard von Bingen and Guillaume de Machaut but transforming that source material with a folk-rooted sensibility and a ferocious attack. Stark, brutal, and beautiful.
36) Nate Wooley Quintet, (Dance to) the Early Music (Clean Feed)
If you were to learn that one of today’s most thoughtful and original improvisers was taking on the early repertoire of jazz traditionalist Wynton Marsalis, you might assume you’d be in for an arch exercise in ironic distance. But there’s nothing insincere about Nate Wooley’s investigation of this body of work—he says it “left an indelible mark” on him as a youngster. Leading a terrific quintet, the trumpeter fills the tunes with his own ideas while respecting the drive and swagger that a young Marsalis brought to the solo records he made before he turned overtly neocon. The results tell us something about each artist.
35) Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope/Aftermath/Top Dawg)
I’ve lost touch with much of the hip-hop world over the past few years, mostly because there are only so many hours in the day and too many records. But there’s no denying the second album by LA rapper Kendrick Lamar, a recording as rich, varied, and unstoppable as anything I heard this year. His eloquent rage and rigorous contemplation provide a verbal analogue to the ingenious production and live-band arrangements.
34) Melia Watras, Ispirare (Sono Luminus)
Seattle-based violist Melia Watras knocked the wind out of me with the dramatically dark beauty of this recording—her fourth album, but the first I’ve heard. She commissioned a dark-timbred, utterly transporting solo viola piece by Chicago composer Shulamit Ran, with lines inspired in part by Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs. In fact, it’s followed by a take on Berio’s adaptation of “Black Is the Color . . . ,” sung beautifully by Galia Arad, and a version of Berio’s Naturale (Su Melodie Siciliane) that ends the album with a powerful shudder.
33) Julia Holter, Have You in My Wilderness (Domino)
Beguiling LA singer-songwriter Julia Holter delivers her most direct and hard-hitting batch of songs yet, and while I miss some of the more experimental impulses she brought to her orchestration and arrangements, I can’t complain. Holter’s singing has improved markedly—she projects powerfully without diminishing the aerated beauty and tonal purity of her voice—and her melodies have never been more sumptuous.
32) Thee Oh Sees, Mutilator Defeated at Last (Castle Face)
The latest from the current LA incarnation of John Dwyer’s mighty Thee Oh Sees sounds pretty slick compared to previous outings, but that just means every fuzzed-out tone and slashing lick comes through with more oomph. More notable than the relative depth of the recording is the fact that this material—whether it’s a blammo freak-out over a motorik groove or a creepy psych ballad—is as strong, consistent, and memorable as anything in the band’s oeuvre.
31) Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love (Sub Pop)
One good way to render moot any speculation about the motive behind your band’s reunion: make a record as a vital, driving, and sophisticated as No Cities to Love. Sleater-Kinney pick up where they left off in 2006, but also acknowledge that nearly a decade has elapsed. The songs address adult concerns, the sound evolves into the present with subtly deployed keyboards, and Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss sure as fuck seem to mean it as much as ever.