The Key’s Top 15 Albums of 2015

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The albums that moved us in 2015
This is the music that moved us in 2015

It was a year of powerful records. Of loud guitars and brazen beats, of electronic tapestries and vocal abandon. It was a year of personal introspection and rallying cries for social change. It was a year when music felt inextricably tied to the world around us. When it felt more important than it had in a long time. Like we’ve said before, to narrow 12 months of incredible music down to a “top 15 albums of 2015” list is to exclude dozens of other worthy releases. This year, we had 26 writers and photographers cite a collective 82 albums as their favorites – you can view everybody’s top fives here, and I know fully well that had I asked The Key crew to give me top tens, I’d be easily looking at quadruple the titles. But we’ll go deep when our annual Year-End Mania roundup launches tomorrow. Today we take the long view and explore what rose to the surface of consensus in 2015, from the expressive moments of Kamasi Washington, Joanna Newsom and Jamie xx, to the pop permutations of Carly Rae Jepsen and Grimes , rock and/or roll from Courtney Barnett and Alabama Shakes, Philly representation from The Districts, Waxahatchee and of course, Hop Along‘s incredible breakout LP Painted Shut, which alongside the great Kendrick Lamar rose right to the top of our voting. Let’s recap the year. 

15. Miguel – Wildheart (RCA) – Miguel has one inspirational wheelhouse that works really, really well for him. But on his latest album Wildheart, the exceptional R&B/Rock/pop crossover artist elevates this basis into existential poetry. Songs about raunchy sex (“The Valley”), fierce individuality (“What’s normal anyway?”) and ecstatic fatalism  (“…goingtohell) are laced with the same respect for thrill-seeking as divine labor. Intentionally or not, Wildheart is 2015’s best ode to young adulthood, capturing the deep yearning for simultaneous connection and individuality in the heart of a generation that chases good times and hot love like it’s “destinado a morir” at any second. – Sameer Rao

14. Kamasi Washington – The Epic (Brainfeeder) – A literal “epic” album of roughly three hours, Kamasi and the rest of the West Coast Get Down have brought jazz to the masses.  Throughout the year, critics and music fans cited The Epic as an album that needs to be heard, and thanks to his collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, this impressive record channeled attention from beyond the jazz world. Highlights include the powerful “Malcolm’s Theme,”  the playful “Leroy and Lanisha,” and the sprawling “Re Run Home,” which was as engaging when Washington and his band played it at World Cafe Live this summer as it is on the album. – Maureen Walsh

13. Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp (Merge) – Living in a world bent on the vanity of selfies, gaining followers and sharing posts makes an album as earnest as Waxahatchee’s Ivy Tripp even more fulfilling. Whether Katie Crutchfield is brooding away on “Breathless” or bouncing about on “La Loose,” she plays pop songs with nervous tension and doesn’t get bogged down by overwhelming emotion. The three years since releasing Cerulean Salt may have garnered her new perspectives for expression, as Ivy Tripp has a bit more variety while keeping the driving and fuzzed alt-rock moments (“The Dirt”) and poetic license which she’s thrived on. Ivy Tripp’s stripped down moments such as “Stale by Noon” come alive with Wurlitzer piano, while the heart-on-sleeve balladry of “Half Moon” showcase the singer’s confidence on a platform seldom heard heard from her prior, which is refreshing and adds color to the album as a whole. Ultimately, this thirteen-song record has a reflective vibe that captures of a single small patch of Crutchfield’s life, as if dissecting life events of a time that’s behind her. Through Waxahatchee’s honesty and nostalgic passion, the rest of us are lent an escape from the self-absorption found elsewhere in our world. – Brian Wilensky

12. The Districts – A Flourish and a Spoil (Fat Possum) – If you’re looking for more than just raw emotion, take The Districts’ A Flourish and a Spoil and blast it into your earholes. Flourish displays the band’s heartfelt stresses of growing up in a suburban wasteland where the roads – and often the lives of those who live there – lead to nowhere in particular. But it does so with loud guitars. And thundering drums. And rollicking bass lines, and the Neil Young-esque nasal croon of Robby Grote. What it doesn’t do is give any indication of a sophomore slump; In fact, the band built upon the catchiness of its debut album, Telephone, with “4th and Roebling,” “Peaches” and “Heavy Begs” being some of the most exciting moments. But what really takes the cake is the tempestuous eight and a half minute ballad “Young Blood.” This album might be our twelfth best of the year, but if this was a list of the best songs of the year, It’s hard to believe “Young Blood” would be anywhere outside of the top three. – Tom Beck

11. Alabama Shakes – Sound and Color (ATO) – “Shit man, Alabama Shakes ain’t messin’ around.” That was my first thought when I heard the beginning vibraphone phrase off “Sound & Color,” the opening track off the band’s sophomore album of the same name. A vibraphone you say? Who the hell uses vibraphones in modern rock? Alabama freakin’ Shakes does, that’s who. Right off the bat, you knew this wasn’t just going to be a copy of the Shakes debut, which was a bluesy, soul-infused southern rock sandwich in and of itself. Not at all! This would be more. Sound & Color is a triple decker sandwich, complete not only with the bluesy, soul-filled sourthernness we all know and love, but with added indie tomatoes, jazz lettuce, funk onions, pop cheese and Americana meat. Oh, and with some extra punksauce on the side. It’s a zesty combination of flavors that’ll burn you if you’re not ready for it. So be ready for it. – Tom Beck

10. Joanna Newsom – Divers (Drag City) – Where Joanna Newsom’s first three records leap-frogged one another in exponential increments of scope and ambition, her fourth seemed, at least initially, to represent a scaling back: a mere, manageable eleven songs, none of which – even the breathtakingly graceful, heartbreakingly stoic seven-minute title track – really revisits the epic forms explored on her past two albums.  Turns out, that’s because it’s the album as a whole which is the epic.  Divers is easily Newsom’s most tightly-woven, rigorously conceptual opus to date, dense with historical, literary and scientific allusions, self-referentially and multivalent language play fully befitting someone who recently – in essence – embodied Thomas Pynchon, as the narrator of P. T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice.  What’s it about?  Oh, just the inexorability of time, the cyclical nature of existence and the relativistic relationship between death and love, rendered via country-pop, sea shanties, baroque pomp and orchestral flourishes. Divers houses many of Newsom’s absolute finest melodies, including, at its heart, the arrestingly simple, rueful piano ballad “The Things I Say.”  Plus it’s got a happy ending: in contrast to the emotional devastation that prevailed on her last album, this one is, ultimately, a celebration.  Nice to hear she’s doing well. – k. Ross Hoffman

9. Carly Rae Jepsen – E·MO·TION (Interscope) – Arguably the smartest pop album of the year, Carly Rae Jepsen’s third full-length bursts the “Call Me Maybe” bubble, showing that not only does she have the chops to stand on her own against genre heavyweights like Taylor Swift, but she was able to avoid the one-hit wonder curse. Meticulously crafted with a roster of all-star collaborators like Sia, Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid, Jepsen was able to capitalize on smart networking opportunities to turn her own listening preferences into a streamlined collection of glossy ‘80s dance anthems. A masterwork of sexy, heart-racing songs bouncing between the “I don’t need you anymore!” period of a relationship and the “I have a huge crush on you!” moments, Jepsen takes traditional pop themes and sprinkles them with exciting surprises, whether it be the underlying funk in “All That” or Springsteen-esque sax on album opener “Run Away With Me.” The only thing Jepsen didn’t achieve with E·MO·TION was commercial success, which is, arguably, the most disheartening pop-related moment of the year. – Allie Volpe

8. Jamie xx – In Colour (Young Turks) – In a year where dance music was heavily dominated by the Skrillexes, Diplos and Martin Garrixes of the world, it took someone like Jamie xx to remind us that dance music can exist outside of a frat house basement. Moody, disillusioned, blistering, tropical, extraterrestrial, In Colour is brilliantly varied and independent, yet assured and on task. Jamie Smith, the production mastermind in London band The xx, takes listeners into the club with him on his solo debut. Whether it be an underground party in London, a posh, dimly lit gathering or a banger-ready dance floor, Smith displays a swelling array of inviting warm rhythms, layers and samples. Like a fever dream and a master class in sampling and influencers, In Colour makes noisy, bustling bars small and intimate and your bedroom a rave space. – Allie Volpe

7. Tame Impala – Currents (Interscope) – Tame Impala’s Currents is an intriguing sonic journey into the sometimes dark, sometimes uplifting audio realm of group founder, Kevin Parker. The trip of an album explores the different perspectives of romantic relationships and takes psychedelic rock to new territory in the process. The production is impeccable, with heavy, hypnotic beats and drifty, waterlogged synths creating a cohesive feeling of disconnection throughout the album’s entirety. It’s a reflection on the hardships of love by someone at their most fragile, with lyrics showcasing the speaker’s wickedly selfish and wildly flippant trains of thought intermingled with sweet sentiments and daydreamy scenarios. Currents gives us an honest, no-bullshit look at love in its many forms, whether it be a dismantled relationship, a brief encounter, or even your regard for yourself. Above all, it’s Currents’ ability to convey the detached headspace of someone experiencing (or coping with) love that makes the album one of my all time favorites of 2015. – Sarah Hughes

6. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty) – As a superfan of Michigan (2003) and Illinois (’05), Carrie & Lowell hits that sweet spot for Sufjan Stevens connoisseurs – deeply thoughtful, full of meditative instrumentation and peaceful production values, and devastatingly emotional. Sure, Age of Adz gave us some high quality avant indie rock five years ago – it was loudly angular, brash and complex. But I’ll take my Stevens with hushed, whispery simplicity any day; even if it’s explicitly about death, humanity, and grief. The one-two of the first two tracks, “Death with Dignity” and “Should Have Known Better,” are outstanding opening statements with goosebump-inducing lyrics, gorgeous interludes or bridges, and classic imagery like “she left us at the video store.” “Fourth of July” holds some of the most vivid lyricism of 2015 with a dual refrain of “Why do you cry?” and “We’re all gonna die.” What follows, “The Only Thing” and the title track, carry listeners into the airy, ethereal beauty of the record’s back end with “Blue Bucket of Gold” an apt closer. It’s got lush swirls of orchestral touches, choral wooing and echoing, ominous noise. It’s almost as if you’re being pulled by an angel to the bright light at the end of the tunnel. After all, we ARE all gonna die. – Bill Chenevert

5. Ryley Walker – Primrose Green (Dead Oceans) – When Ryley Walker yawps and howls on “Summer Dress,” you might think Van Morrison. When he croons with that soft, sad accent — whether real or affected — on “The High Road,” you might think Nick Drake. When the young Chicago guitarist fingerpicks his acoustic on “Griffiths Bucks Blues,” you might think John Fahey. When he plunges hard into folk-blues oblivion on “Same Minds,” you might think John Martyn. When Walker’s band kicks in, flips out and gets weird, you might think “free jazz” — and that makes a lot of sense because his band consists of many renowned Chicago avant-jazz players, including drummer Frank Rosaly and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz. Or you might not think any of these things when you hear Primrose Green — and that’s fine too. You might just think Ryley Walker, because nothing else sounded like Primrose Green this year or last year or in a long time. Though shaped by the past, Walker’s is a new voice and his vision is a new one too. A blast from the present. – Elliott Sharp

4. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom & Pop) – I like to think of Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, the debut LP from 28-year-old Australian songwriter Courtney Barnett, as the Seinfeld of records: on the surface, it’s about not much, but it’s also about everything. It’s a record concerned with the tiny banalities of life: buying vegetables and mowing the lawn, deciding whether to go out or stay in on Friday night (and reminding yourself that no one cares). Like Seinfeld, Barnett has a way of imbuing these little moments with humor and meaning; presenting herself as a voicebox for all 20- and 30-somethings who are bored, broken and confused (though perhaps not as eloquent).  It doesn’t hurt that it’s extremely catchy too: ricocheting between stomp-y Brit-rock and grungy ragers, all grounded by her perfect, talk-y vocals and cool accent. I want Courtney to narrate my life, and I want her as my friend: sitting on the couch together, drinking and shooting the shit, or maybe just sitting. – Kate Bracaglia

3. Grimes – Art Angels (4AD) – Pop music, despite all of the wordy articles telling us it’s doomed and doing worse than ever before and science can prove this, is actually doing quite well.  If there is a battle to be fought, it has its flag bearers in the Swifts and Adeles, but its real weapon lies with artists like Grimes.  Likely to have Madonnas Confessions on A Dance Floor sitting next to Burial’s Untrue on a shelf somewhere, Claire Boucher is the collection of all that came before, made ready for the future.  Her songs, despite any influences, are all her own, from beginning to end.  Her most recent effort, Art Angels, is an explosion of infectious beats, backed by angelic vocals, ready to speak out against an industry that poisons the artists it promotes, lash out against lovers, and overall, just have fun. – Matthew Shaver

2. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg Entertainment) –  Hip-hop never stopped being a vehicle for truth-to-power indictments of American oppression, but it wasn’t getting all that much attention for the past couple years. But thanks to activism-driven sea changes in the nation’s racial justice climate, this music became more necessary than ever in 2015, and the inspired To Pimp A Butterfly made Kendrick this year’s most necessary artist. The sprawling album empowered the background concerns of good kid, m.a.d.d. City with unapologetic urgency, as bangers like “The Blacker The Berry” infused with jazz-inflected epics like “These Walls” to create a sonically-innovative ode to the trade off of darkness and blinding brilliance at the heart of the era of #BlackLivesMatter. It’s no wonder that “Alright” became a rallying cry for those protesting state violence against black communities. Even if To Pimp A Butterfly wasn’t your favorite album of the year, it was easily the most important, riding sustained relevance in difficult times. – Sameer Rao

1. Hop Along – Painted Shut (Saddle Creek) – “8:45 a.m., the dream just escaped me again” Frances Quinlan sings in the very first moments of Painted Shut, the Philadelphia four-piece’s outstanding sophomore LP. “The Knock” is a great song, one of many on this record that brims with ‘90s rock vibes, Quinlan’s absolutely incredible and intoxicating vocals, and a host of visuals and narratives that are seared into our collective brains. Forever. “The witness just wants to talk to you,” from the aforementioned opener, allows for all kinds of imaginative nuance. What witness? To what? The creative and thoughtful songwriting on this record raises the bar – some songs are about obscure-but-powerfully-influential musicians (“Buddy in the Parade” and “Horseshow Crabs”), others about memory and its distinct power (“Powerful Man”), even the mundane misery of the service industry (“Waitress”). “I was the only other adult around” from “Powerful Man” still rings out of my mouth when riding around Philadelphia by second nature. The track is easily one of the best of the year. The visceral image of watching a child get abused and not being able to do anything about it – Quinlan makes us feel like we witnessed it, too. Slower songs like “Happy to See Me” or “Texas Funeral” don’t disappoint, either, with her awe-inspiring vocals bending and mutating to suit quieter, thoughtful songs with proportionately less cacophony. The contributions of Quinlan’s brother Mark on the drums, Tyler Long’s nuanced and full bass lines, or Joe Reinhart’s expert guitar work make these vivid songs truly shine. Their time together as a band is starting to show – they’re tight and clean when necessary, wildly improvisational when possible. It all comes together so powerfully, especially on the closer “Sister Cities,” where the crash of all forces falls onto the record after Frances’ vicious couplet “And this fiend has no family / So he will outlive you and me.” The ensuing dust-up of guitars and drums is just deliciously cathartic, reminiscent of a Thermals or Sleater-Kinney or Pavement whir of kinetic rock ‘n roll. We’ve seen Painted Shut show up real high on some national lists and it’s no surprise it tops this one – we are proud AF. Not only does this record rip times 1,000 but they made it right here at The Headroom in Kensington with thoughtful, minimal guidance provided by badass John Agnello. 2012’s Get Disowned is perhaps just a bit less perfect, but this band is building a body of work that will be remembered and blasted for years to come. – Bill Chenevert

[PREVIOUSLY: The Key’s Top 15 Albums of 2014]

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