The Best Albums of the Year
Miley went psychedelic, Carly brought the hooks, and Wilco channeled their inner Han Solo. See who made the cut for Entertainment Weekly’s list of 40 Best Albums of the Year, ahead.
1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
“Anybody can get it. The hard part is keeping it, motherf—er,” Dr. Dre reminds his protégé Kendrick Lamar on his third LP, the defining album of 2015. Happy to shoulder his burden as hip-hop’s next great savior, the MC delivered an insightful depiction of what it’s like to be black in America now, whether he’s skewering cable news wolves who’ve trivialized #BlackLivesMatter or providing protesters with inspiring refrains. Sonically he draws on a century of African-American music — be-bop, funk, R&B, soul, old-school hip-hop — and fuses those elements into a raucous stew. At times it sounds as if everything might fall apart — it doesn’t — yet it’s that tension that keeps things so riveting. Like Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On or N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton, this is the kind of cultural document that years from now we’ll never know how we could have lived without. On “King Kunta” Lamar raps, “I should probably run for mayor when I’m done, to be honest.” To be honest? Kendrick for President. —Kyle Anderson
2. Carly Rae Jepsen, E•MO•TION
The Canadian singer didn’t crack the top 10 with her second album and had no single to match the success of her breakout 2012 single, “Call Me Maybe.” Which makes you wonder: Just what were music fans smoking in 2015? From the fist-pumping opener “Run Away With Me” to the glossy closing anthem “When I Needed You,” the 30-year-old (and a team of top-shelf studio wizards like Dev Hynes, Shellback, and Greg Kurstin) drew upon ’80s mall-pop queens Tiffany and Debbie Gibson to create a classic G-rated bubblegum record about good boys, bad boys, and the boy-crazy girls who love them. E•MO•TION is one of those rare albums where every song sticks—and will still sound fresh a decade from now. —Kevin O’Donnell
3. Adele, 25
What does the world’s most beloved pop icon of the 21st century do for her follow-up spin around the block? She recruits a bunch of new co-pilots (Max Martin, Bruno Mars, Tobias Jesso Jr.), finds fuel beyond heartbreak, and lets her remarkable instrument (that voice) do the steering. Adele’s 25 is like a luxurious automobile: sleek and smooth, with a raw power you can feel in your bones. —K.A.
4. Jamie xx, In Colour
The ragga-kissed rave-up “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” is more than a song title — it’s a promise. Playing joyful hooky from his day job with dream-pop trio the xx, the artist born Jamie Smith assembles an album that feels like the best kind of portable house party: heady, eclectic, and full of possibilities. Forget the idea of dance music as a cold digital alloy; over 10 lushly layered tracks, Colour takes it to a place way beyond beats that go bump in the night. —Leah Greenblatt
5. A$AP Rocky, At.Long.Last.A$AP
He should have called it Rocky in Wonderland: The Harlem-bred MC, 27, dives headfirst down the rabbit hole on his hypnotic second studio album—a record as steeped in murky psychedelia as it is in the luxury-rap swagger of his star-making 2013 debut. Subterranean beats (supplied by Mark Ronson and Danger Mouse, among others) pulse and roll like deep-sea Doppler as A$AP spits knotty verses about sex, lies, and LSD…and flips a far-out sample of Rod Stewart circa 1972, just because he can. —L.G.
6. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
In an otherwise underwhelming year for rock music, this 28-year-old Australian served up the most headbanging collection of bedroom jams — a nice throwback to the days when female guitar heroes like the Breeders ruled MTV’s Buzz Bin. But this isn’t just a nostalgia trip. Barnett has established herself as one of pop’s most gifted new storytellers. Never have songs about staring at walls or shopping for groceries on the cheap or killing time by playing SimCity rung so true or packed such punchlines. “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” she sings. Not a chance. — Jessica Goodman
7. Chris Stapleton, Traveller
For years Stapleton has been one of Nashville’s top hitmakers, penning No. 1’s for Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, and others. This year the 37-year-old went solo and delivered the year’s best country record, largely by bucking the slick sounds of a genre he’s mastered. Doused in tales of heartache (and a few fifths of whiskey), Traveller meshes Allman Brothers-style swagger with Texas-dancehall charm and gritty blues. Johnny Cash would approve of outlaw-country’s new keeper of the flame. — Madison Vain
8. Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear
Is troubadour Josh Tillman, better known as Father John Misty, indie’s most cynical romantic or its most romantic cynic? On his resplendent second album, the 34-year-old blurs the distinction, wedging sincere ballads in with sidesplitting satires of love in the digital age. One constant: Every tune is loaded with gorgeous strings, twangy guitars, and Tillman’s angelic voice. — Eric Renner Brown
9. Wilco, Star Wars
After the CGI overkill and hammy writing of the prequels, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has resurrected hope in the franchise thanks to a more charmingly ragged old-school approach to storytelling. Same goes for Wilco’s ninth album, which eschews studio fussiness in favor of a looser, more lived-in sound. With this album’s kick-the-PA fuzz and cooly shrugged-out melodies, frontman Jeff Tweedy has finally found his inner Han Solo. — K.A.
10. Miley Cyrus, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz
Two years after releasing her smash Bangerz, the 23-year-old rode her wrecking ball once again — only this time she sidestepped her major label and released a freebie on SoundCloud. The result? The year’s most WTF record, created with the help of indie rock’s reigning weirdos the Flaming Lips and producer Mike WiLL Made-It. Sure, Dead Petz is at times a comically glorious trainwreck — the less said about “Bang Me Box” the better. But from the morphine-drip-slow groove “Slab of Butter” to the stoner-love ballad “Lighter,” there are moments of genuine psychedelic-pop transcendence. And in a time when every celebrity’s persona is Instagram-filtered to death, Miss Miley offered an uncensored look inside her weird, wild world. Music needs more fearless risk takers like her. — K.O.
11. Janet Jackson, Unbreakable
After releasing 2008’s underwhelming Discipline, which she cut with a crew of producers like Tricky Stewart, Ne-Yo and Jermaine Dupri, Janet went back to her trusted confidantes Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for her 11th studio album. A good move: Unbreakable is a perfect survey of Janet’s three-decade-long career. There’s dance-floor-igniting pop (“BURNITUP!”), sexy boudoir jams (“Black Eagle”), horn-powered rave-ups (“Gon’ B Alright”), and gorgeous R&B ballads dedicated to her family and devoted fans (“Unbreakable”) — all delivered with her lithe voice. Of course, the ghost of Michael looms large — at points, Janet sounds like a dead-ringer for her late brother — so it’s fitting that the album’s best track “Broken Hearts Heal,” with its Off the Wall-style disco sheen and densely-layered vocal harmonies, also stands as one of the best of her career. – K.O
12. Miguel, Wildheart
In its final seasons, Mad Men painted California as a mysterious dreamland, full of beautiful people and perpetual sunshine but also dotted by black holes and overrun by monsters. Miguel and Don Draper would have a lot to talk about, and not just because they both love women. On his third album, Miguel lets the magic of the West wash over him, leaving him reborn but disoriented and ready to indulge in all the bliss and hedonism SoCal has to offer. Using meticulously-constructed post-Prince funk (and one killer riff borrowed from Smashing Pumpkins), Wildheart captures how Los Angeles feels: beautiful and dangerous. – K.A.
13. Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
The Alabama quartet took a quantum leap forward on their second album, expanding beyond their debut album’s dive-bar blues for a next-level blend of psych-rock, dub, soul, and funk. Exceptional as their songwriting may be, frontwoman Brittany Howard’s take-no-prisoners croon remains the band’s crown jewel. – E.R.B.
14. Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
If you thought one of rock’s all-time great trios couldn’t top their finest album — that’d be 2005’s Led Zep-biting stoner-rock opus The Woods — think again. Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss roared back to life after an almost decade-long hiatus with this fierce, fiery 10-track set. – K.O.
15. Florence + The Machine, How Big How Blue How Beautiful
It’s insane to consider, but it’s true: How Big is Florence Welch’s most pared-down album, having shed much of the operatic drama of Ceremonials. Still, this isn’t Welch’s folk album; her voice remains a galactic force capable of swallowing entire planets whole. There are just fewer draperies hanging off her rousing choruses and blissful melodies, which lets everything shimmer and explode. – K.A.
16. Drake, If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late
Dropped without warning back in February, Drake continues to refer to If You’re Reading This as a mixtape even though you had to pay to get it. More vitally, though, this full-length is by far the most cohesive release of Drake’s already-bonkers career. His flow has always been hard to pin down: he wants to be club-ready but he’s perpetually hung up on his droopy-eyed interior life. Yet with theoretically no stakes for this release, he sounds comfortable and in the pocket, from his casual boasting on “10 Bands” and “Legend” to his ode to his mother on “You & The 6.” And over the icy Armageddon funk of “Energy,” when he complains that he hates giving girls the code to his wifi, he reaches peak Drake. – K.A.
17. Justin Bieber, Purpose
In which the world’s most scrutinized pop star grows up — and delivers a remarkably self-aware reflection on fame and love, delivered with of-the-moment R&B-meets-EDM grooves. – M.V.
18. Tame Impala, Currents
For his third outing as Tame Impala, studio wizard Kevin Parker leavened his psych-rock riffage with electronic experimentation (“Let It Happen”) and slinky funk that’d make Michael Jackson proud (“The Less I Know The Better”). Lyrically, heartbroken odes like “Eventually” and “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” cement the Aussie as one of indie’s most inventive songwriters in the game. – E.R.B.
19. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Multi-Love
Forget that it had 2015’s most perfect distillation of our digitally distracted times, “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”; the multinational foursome’s third full-length is a back-to-front gem of blown-out disco and distorted boogie: full of fuzz and melody and, if you listen to the lyrics buried beneath, some of the darkest sentiments this side of a Nick Cave novel. – L.G.
20. Vince Staples, Summertime '06
As dense as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is expansive, Staples astutely addresses issues of race, violence, and inequality on a double album that’s the year’s best hip-hop debut. – E.R.B.
21. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, Surf
Chicago MC Chance the Rapper is one of the finest rhyme slingers in hip-hop’s hashtag-happy post-everything universe, so it’s mildly frustrating that he’s more interested in folding himself into a jazz collective than crafting a proper mic-dropping follow-up to his watershed 2013 mixtape Acid Rap. But Surf is such an unabashedly joyous summer barbecue of a record that it’s easy to forgive Chance for following his muse, particularly because he’s so skilled at bouncing between funky roof-raisers (like the brass-bodied “Slip Slide”) and groovier stuff like “Familiar.” It turns out Chance isn’t just a good rapper — he’s good at everything. – K.A.
22. Eric Church, Mr. Misunderstood
If 2014’s The Outsiders was his most brazen display of musicality, Eric Church’s fifth, which arrived in November a la Beyoncé’s 2013 surprise album, is his most tender. Over ten tracks, he unspools a love letter to music — the tunes that made him, the songs he still chases, and the notes that keep him going. “If I’m proof of anything,” he croons on the delightfully sparse “Holdin’ My Own,” “God sure loves Troubadour.” He’s not the only one. – M.V.
23. Rae Sremmurd, Sremmlife
The Rae Sremmurd formula is pretty straightforward: Find a throbbing Mike WiLL Made-It beat, invent a catch phrase, shout repeatedly, and watch crowds go utterly insane. Stunningly simple but deeply compelling, Sremmlife is the sound of pure adrenalized youth, spouted by two charismatic volcanoes. – K.A.
24. Algiers, Algiers
A rugged stew of post-punk formalism, righteous noise, gospel revivalism and a healthy sense of militant skepticism, Algiers’ invigorating debut excavated a huge patch of sonic ruins, vibrant enough to be curious about answers but willing to burn the whole thing down if necessary. Rarely has an album this complex also sounded so dangerous. – K.A.
25. Marina and the Diamonds, Froot
A star without a stadium (at least not Stateside), this tiny Welsh supernova released yet another set of gleaming art-pop anthems that somehow failed to reach beyond her small but wildly devoted fanbase. That’s too bad, because any listener with names like Lana, Florence, and Ellie in their iTunes and half an ear turned toward the Hot 100 would probably love her latest — if they knew it existed. – L.G.
26. CHVRCHES, Every Open Eye
The Glasgow synth-pop trio broke out on their 2013 debut The Bones Of What You Believe but they’ve hit their stride on their follow-up. Sure, it may be a break-up album, but with thumping beats, irresistible synth hooks, and singer Lauren Mayberry’s bright vocals, never has heartbreak sounded so joyous. – M.V.
27. Metz, II
The sludgy, tinnitus-inducing sound of the ’90s’ Seattle Sound lives on with this Toronto trio. From the thumping bass lines of album opener “Acetate” to the deafening wall of distortion of closer “Kicking a Can of Worms,” II is ten rounds of pummeling noise-rock that never lets up. – K.O.
28. 5 Seconds of Summer, Sounds Good Feels Good
There’s nothing punk about 5 Seconds of Summer. Despite their haircuts, cut up T-shirts, and the fact that they draw their influences from the nth-wavers who spun Ramones mania into radio gold at the turn of the century, they are ultimately a squeaky-clean machine designed to give tweens their first taste of rock and roll danger. What they lack in rawness gets made up in execution, as Sounds Good Feels Good takes a huge leap forward from the band’s self-titled debut, bombarding tightly-constructed post-alt crunch with snotty melodies and fist-pumping choruses. – K.A.
29. Coldplay, A Head Full of Dreams
After 2014’s bummer of a record Ghost Stories, Chris Martin and Co. have bounced back with a joyful celebration of love, family and friendship. Cornball as that may sound, A Head Full of Dreams will go down as one of the group’s most celebratory records: it’s packed with arena-guitar melodies, Martin’s uplifting vocals, and a who’s-who of guest collaborators, from pop producers Stargate to Beyonce to Martin’s ex-wife Gwyneth Paltrow. In a year where the world was bombarded by the grimmest of daily headlines, Coldplay offered a much-needed glimmer of light. – K.O.
30. Bob Moses, Days Gone By
If Jakob Dylan fronted revered electronic duo Boards of Canada, the results might sound a lot like the second album from this Vancouver duo. Singer Tommy Howie and keyboardist Jimmy Valance’s lay out 10 tracks of delicately pulsing grooves, reverb-soaked synth melodies, and Howie’s achingly gorgeous, nicotine-stained croon. One of the year’s most underrated electronic albums. – K.O.
31. The Arcs, Yours, Dreamily
In a year full of side projects, The Arcs — the low-stakes offering from Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and friends — towered above them all, offering up an airtight debut packed with homages to hip-hop, funk, mariachi, and, of course, the blues. Auerbach’s music hasn’t sounded this loose and fun in a long time. – E.R.B.
32. Selena Gomez, Revival
The former Disney star went to Mexico with her go-to team of songwriters to write many of the tracks that ended up on Revival—and that laid-back approach shines through on this album’s 11 tracks, from the simple whistle melodies of “Kill Em With Kindness” to the spare snaps and wispy synths of “Same Old Love.” Where most of the Hot 100 was crowded with airhorned choruses for an easily-distracted generation in 2015, Revival is proof that good pop needn’t always be so in your face. – K.O.
33. Joanna Newsom, Divers
With dense orchestrations and hyper-literate lyrics steeped in history, Joanna Newsom’s highly-sophisticated album continues to reveal new snatches of melody and beautiful turns of phrase — no album this year offered as many new surprises with every subsequent listen. – K.O.
34. Deerhunter, Fading Frontier
Madcap genius Bradford Cox and his band jettison the garage-rock experiments of 2013’s Monomania for their most serene and reserved record yet. Standouts like “Living My Life” and “Breaker” aren’t flashy — they’re just some of the best tunes the band has ever written. – E.R.B.
35. Hop Along, Painted Shut
Frances Quinlan is this Philadelphia group’s secret weapon: she’s got one of the best voices in rock music today. And on the group’s third LP, her raw, sprawling vocals are eloquantly showcased against wailing guitars — but they get out of the way so can deliver wallop after wallop. – J.G.
36. Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
The former Drive-By Trucker chronicled his struggle getting sober on 2013’s massively-lauded opus Southeastern. Something More Than Free feels less personal, but Isbell continues to deliver sepia-toned vignettes about blue-collar life, proving this 36-year-old is one of America’s greatest (and continually underrated) songsmiths. – M.V.
37. Bully, Feels Like
Nope, you didn’t accidentally start a “1995 alt-rock” station on Pandora. The Nashville pop-punks come out swinging on their debut, which joins instantly memorable riffs with singer Alicia Bognanno’s bubblegum-meets-Courtney-Love howl. – E.R.B.
38. Gary Clark Jr., The Story of Sonny Boy Slim
The rocker who’s been praised by greats like Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton served up another compulsively listenable collection of scorching blues-rock, stacked with the guitar acrobatics and the silky vocals fans of his have come to know and love. – E.R.B
39. Björk, Vulnicura
Nobody really wants to be a member of the Breakup Record Club, but it’s hard to argue with the brilliant stuff that comes from torpedoed relationships: Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Elvis Costello’s Blood & Chocolate, Adele’s 21. Add to that list Bjork’s devastating chronicle of the demise of her marriage to artist Matthew Barney, culminating in the ten-minute evisceration/spiritual divorce decree “Black Lake”: ”You fear my limitless emotions/I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions/Did I love you too much?/Devotion bent me broken.” Brütal. — L.G.