In a way, 2015’s soundscape was all about contradictions. There was no obvious, domineering trend. It was a year of comebacks and comedowns, progression and regression, confrontation via art and distraction through entertainment. Surfacing out of those competing extremes, the following records were unmissable.
Believe the hype—this was Kendrick Lamar’s year. Opening with a sample of soul classic “Every Nigger Is a Star” by Boris Gardiner, the Compton-bred rapper’s sophomore album delivers chills as it overflows with wholehearted black pride and silver-tongued, righteous rage. Politically scorching, infectiously danceable, tearfully honest, and gleefully eclectic all at once, To Pimp a Butterfly is an important odyssey of revolt.
New Order bears the bejewelled crown of one of the greatest, most influential bands in music history, plus the band that has made me weep more than any other in my iTunes library. And despite the departure of founding member Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner and company’s 10th record sounds surprisingly joyful, quintessential, and fresh—a luminous addition to their Midas-touched career.
My Love Is Cool
There is something heartbreakingly endearing about Wolf Alice, the band of neo-grunge champions whose ability to craft exquisitely catchy melodies is perfectly matched to their tenacious emotional core. The Londoners’ pristinely produced songs stick in your head like English treacle, while packing just the right amount of piercing, distortion-heavy bite.
This World Is Not Enough
In Iceage frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s side project Marching Church, the Danish punk has fully embraced his remarkably Nick Cave–ish charisma and storytelling flair. Blending jazz, soul, freak-folk, and postpunk influences, Marching Church’s debut is wild yet tender and completely enthralling. Somewhere between sobbing and lustful moaning, Rønnenfelt’s voice bleeds gut-wrenching pain over a tapestry of experimental instrumentation.
Deep in the Iris
On Calgary-bred indie band Braids’ third record, frontwoman Raphaelle Standell-Preston is bravely speaking out. With her soft but strong voice, she illuminates the shadows of sexual abuse, incest, and systemic misogyny, before stating with dark humour, “I’m not a man-hater, I enjoy them like cake.” All of this while bubbling, Nigel Godrich–esque beats, sprinkled with piano and guitar glitter, provide further radiance.
The Garden’s wonderfully twisted sound is difficult to pin down, like an ever-mutating, indeterminate life form. Wriggling strains of punk, no-wave, electroclash, and avant-garde pop intermingle on the Orange County–based twin brothers’ sophomore release. Equal parts abrasive and strangely charming, Haha is an absorbing trip.
Grimes’s fourth record may not hold a candle to the genre-defying tunesmith’s 2012 stroke of genius Visions, but Art Angels is still a brain-scrambling gem of prismatic delight. Looking fondly towards but keeping resolute distance from the world of radio-friendly pop, Grimes is more palatable here but no less darkly magical and sonically inventive.
Carrie & Lowell
Inspired by the death of his mother, Sufjan Stevens’s seventh album weaves lyrical themes of grief, memory, self-destruction, and faith as masterfully as the fretwork on his acoustic guitar, which tumbles gently throughout like a babbling brook. The varied imagery of fabled gold mines, bloody blades, and “sea lion caves in the dark” is beautifully mysterious and moving.
While garnering comparisons to the likes of PJ Harvey and St. Vincent, Torres—aka Mackenzie Scott—shows wisdom far beyond her years on her sophomore release, Sprinter. Fusing elements of anthemic pop-rock with folk, the Brooklyn-based singer-guitarist wields a tigress howl that’s combined with stirring melodies, and sharply poetic, confessional songwriting.
The Magic Whip
After 12 years apart, Blur fulfilled the dreams of Britpop fans the world over by reuniting for its eighth record, a comeback that is as surprising in its subtlety as in its spontaneity. Written and recorded over a period of just five days in Hong Kong back in 2013, The Magic Whip glows brightly with a rejuvenated, tight-knit energy and a seemingly endless flow of original ideas.