Our Best of 2015 albums lists by genre continue with our staff picks for the 20 best pop and rock albums this year. Yesterday (December 2), we rolled out albums 20 to 11; today, you can see the final part of the list, albums 10 through 1.
Click to the next page to read through the albums one by one, or use the list below to skip ahead to your favourites.
To see more of Exclaim!'s Best of 2015 lists, head here.
Top 20 Pop & Rock Albums, 10-1:
- 10. Alabama Shakes - Sound + Color
- 9. Tobias Jesso Jr. - Goon
- 8. Tame Impala - Currents
- 7. Destroyer - Poison Season
- 6. Björk - Vulnicura
- 5. Carly Rae Jepsen - EMOTION
- 4. Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love
- 3. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear
- 2. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
- 1. Grimes - Art Angels
10. Alabama Shakes
Sound + Color
The proverbial difficult second album was always going to be doubly so for Alabama Shakes. They had to figure out a way to discard their unwanted label as soul revivalists without alienating their well-earned fans. Amazingly, their approach was to just lay it all out, play in every style that they adored and let singer Brittany Howard do her thing — and boy did she. Her voice here is simultaneously tough and fragile, mournful and exuberant, booming and subtle, the perfect complement to Sound & Color's extensive range.
Yet, despite the number of styles covered here, you still never get the impression that Alabama Shakes are showing off or stubbornly refusing to be pigeonholed. Every genre tackled on Sound & Color is played with all the grit and passion of experts in their field. This album is played and characterized by love; it's something you can't fake, and it's what makes Sound & Color one of 2015's true gems.
9. Tobias Jesso Jr.
(Arts & Crafts)
How could a bass player from North Vancouver so expertly capture the spirit of '70s AM pop on his first try? The typical answer might be, "Well, nobody's truly an overnight sensation — he's obviously been at it for years." But Tobias Jesso Jr. may actually be the closest thing to an overnight sensation that you can get; Adele worked on 25 longer than Jesso Jr.'s been playing the piano.
Starting out as a member of reality show-winning alt-rock band the Sessions, Tobias bumped around L.A., performing in teen-pop singer Melissa Cavatti's band before writing the songs that would make up his debut album, Goon. The secret to his debut's charm just may be Jesso Jr.'s easygoing nature, as Goon's 12 masterfully crafted tracks come off unhurried, unrestrained and wondrously imperfect, like a singer-songwriter feeling out what the next step in his career will be and then putting it down on tape. Call Tobias Jesso Jr. an overnight sensation if you must, but the songs on Goon sounds like he had it all figured out long before midnight.
8. Tame Impala
Currents is an auditory journey of stellar proportions that simultaneously explores the future and mines the past, suggesting that while Tame Impala are in the far reaches of space now, they still recall the grainy texture of TVs across the continent when we'd only first reached the moon.
First single "Let It Happen" heralds the album nicely, all synth-y hooks and morphing loops that change so subtly that they tug your mind gently along with them; this is psychedelia filtered through mastermind Kevin Parker's pop sensibilities and production wizardry, as he weaves enough ideas for six songs into one. If the hypnotic bass and swooning grooves of "Yes I'm Changing" and "'Cause I'm a Man" sound like the contemplation of one's place in the cosmos, it's because "Let It Happen" has launched us there.
Thematically strong and emotionally rich, these songs convey a sense that Parker's in transition. But when the Currents are this strong, why not let them take you?
Though Destroyer — helmed by occasional New Pornographer Dan Bejar — has enjoyed a fairly consistent decade, it's seemed like every time the project produced a masterpiece, as with 2001's Streethawk: A Seduction and 2006's Rubies, the follow-up seemed destined for mediocrity (see This Night and Trouble in Dreams, respectively).
Thankfully, Poison Season bucks the trend. The follow-up to 2011's jazz pop epic Kaputt, Poison Season is a slab of dark and ornate orchestral rock flecked with Bowie glam and speakeasy swing, punctuating its happiest moments with lyrical jabs of distraction and ennui. Featuring some of Bejar's dourest work (the appropriately sombre "Solace's Bride") and his most accessible (the radio-ready "Dream Lover" and "Times Square"), the record maintains cohesion thanks to Bejar's ever-present melodic ear and winding lyricism.
Adding a new, classical dimension to the Destroyer canon, Poison Season serves as an accessible entry point for new listeners, offering something new yet familiar for longtime fans and providing a fitting hangover after chasing girls (all right, chasing cocaine) through the back rooms of the world all night.
(One Little Indian)
"Moments of clarity are so rare, I'd better document this," Björk sings in the opening seconds of Vulnicura, a record that unravels the tightly controlled chaos of the musician's internal trauma: the dissolution of her longtime partnership. When most people dissect something, they put it under a microscope; Björk uses a kaleidoscope, distorting all of her feelings and thoughts in a thousand different colours, textures and patterns, manifested in beats and instrumentation, lyrics and composition.
Björk's vocals are Vulnicura's beating heart; her trademark stilted phrasing, all awkward angles and jagged breath giving way to gorgeous, full-throated choruses, volcanoes of distortion and densely layered harmonies. She sings in fits and bursts, her voice in constant negotiation with and in opposition to the atmosphere and orbit of her lush arrangements, orchestral swells, atonal strings and digital beats. There is a great deal of clarity here, emotional and intellectual, even if it seems obscured by Vulnicura's vast, brilliant expanses.
5. Carly Rae Jepsen
Carly Rae Jepsen's EMOTION is proof that collaboration — even when it's organized in the upper reaches of major label boardrooms, where money often comes first and artistry second — can work wonders. Assembled by a small army of hotly tipped songwriters and producers (including Ariel Rechtshaid, Dev Hynes, Sia, the Cardigans' Peter Svennson and the Zolas' Zachary Gray), the album mixes a variety of sounds into a brilliant pop smorgasbord.
Rather, it demonstrates Jepsen's vast pop star abilities through a variety of sonic palettes. There's playful, Janet Jackson-esque pop ("I Really Like You"), slowed-down 'n' sexy R&B ("All That"), post-"Get Lucky" funk-pop ("Boy Problems"), radio-ready pop hits ("EMOTION") and worldly rockers ("When I Needed You"). The resulting album demolishes the notion of Jepsen as a one-hit wonder, establishing her as a top-tier collaborator with excellent taste. If forward-thinking producers want to work on some timeless pop that'll reach a wide audience, they should call her, definitely.
No Cities to Love
In January, Sleater-Kinney swept back into the scene with the visceral, engaging No Cities to Love. After going on hiatus in 2006 after touring 2005's The Woods — which led to the members pursuing a variety of other projects — their return cemented the band as being greater than the sum of its parts, a driven and thunderous force to be reckoned with.
No Cities to Love is the sound of a completely assured band unapologetically expressing their views, heard in everything from the commentary on economic realities facing Americans today on "Price Tag" to the monstrous stomp and conviction of "Surface Envy."
Carrie Brownstein's inventive guitar lines, Janet Weiss's strong drumming and Corin Tucker's insistent vocals coalesce to form music that grabs the listener and shakes them. These are meaningful, powerful songs — a fitting medium to trumpet the return of one of the best bands of the past few decades.
3. Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear
With its title track, Father John Misty's sophomore album starts big: "Everything is doomed, and nothing will be spared," J. Tillman croons on its first chorus, "but I love you, honeybear." It's not the last time the record conjures an impossibly massive moment; on I Love You, Honeybear, he confronts sentimentality, caustic jealousy and near-apocalyptic self-loathing. But by the end of its runtime, it's obvious there is a single, most important moment at the center of Tillman's universe: his marriage to the love of his life.
Over '70s-inspired California songwriter vibes, mariachi grooves, orchestral jaunts, folk balladry and even glitchy electro-pop, Tillman lays out his life and the different worlds he's inhabited before and after the life-altering moment with clinical, almost severe honesty. The album's closer, and one of the most beautiful love songs of the year — "I Went to the Store One Day," which paints a picture of his passionate relationship, from the day he meets Emma to their deaths — makes it clear that his marriage is the sun around which the rest of his worlds orbit.
And what could be more refreshingly anachronistic in 2015 than genuine, hopeless love?
2. Courtney Barnett
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Think
(Mom + Pop)
Courtney Barnett's debut record, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, was one of the most talked-about records of 2015. After releasing two EPs in 2012 and 2013, respectively, rumblings about Barnett grew from her home of Melbourne, Australia, and were eventually felt, and then quickly amplified, across North America — right before her debut LP came out in March, Barnett even performed on The Ellen Show.
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit was worth the hype: Barnett's sing-speak narrations of the personal and public are honest, funny and, most crucially, painfully relatable. Self-deprecating but never sorry for herself, hilarious but never cartoonish, Barnett tells her story straightforwardly here, but with nuance, never falling back on clichés or caricatures.
Sweeping from brash to gentle to energetic, Barnett deftly wields her lefty guitar and makes carefully crafted pop rock to match her raw stories of anxiety ("Pedestrian at Best," "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party"), consumer consciousness ("Dead Fox") and gentrification ("Depreston"), just to name a few. Barnett writes powerful, refreshingly genuine songs that speak, in a way few records do, to a dissatisfied, hyper-self-aware generation — not bad for a debut album.
(4AD/Eerie Organization/Crystal Math)
Though populist in its intentions, mainstream pop music is typically constructed through production systems that are highly controlled, increasingly consolidated and off-limits to most. Even as technology's democratizing effects expand access to pop music's tools, the form itself still comes loaded with the sentiment — spoken and unspoken — that it's not "ours" to play with, or at least to succeed with. That goes doubly for women, whose authorship within music culture is questioned and doubted at nearly every turn, still — even in the era of Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Lorde and others.
Visions, Grimes' 2012 breakthrough, sounded like a rebel record in the way Claire Boucher presumed her right to play with pop sound and structure. Art Angels, its thrilling, staggeringly confident follow-up, goes further: It's not "playing" at all. Its revolutionary designs are to simply claim pop as her own native turf. Writing, producing and engineering the entire album herself, Boucher has crafted some of the year's catchiest songs on any terms ("indie" be damned) while maintaining the outsider edges that distinguish them as the work of a genuine, bona fide auteur. From the cathartic release of bangers like "Kill V. Maim" and "Flesh Without Blood" to the gripping harshness of a track like "Scream," Art Angels is a masterwork of provocative, powerful pop.
To see Part One of this list, from 20 to 11, head here.