Today, we roll out our first in a series of lists of the best albums of the year, by genre, starting with the first ten of our Top 20 Pop & Rock Albums of 2015. We're beginning with albums ranked 20 to 11 today; you'll have to wait until tomorrow (December 3) for albums 10 through 1.
Click next to read through the albums one by one, or use the list below to skip ahead to your favourites.
Update: You can now see albums 10 through 1 here, and see more of Exclaim!'s Best of 2015 lists here.
Top 20 Pop & Rock Albums, 20 to 11:
- 20. Panda Bear - Panda Bear Meers the Grim Reaper
- 19. Deerhunter - Fading Frontier
- 18. Braids - Deep in the Iris
- 17. U.S. Girls - Half Free
- 16. Majical Cloudz - Are You Alone?
- 15. Beach Slang - The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us
- 14. Dilly Dally - Sore
- 13. Ought - Sun Coming Down
- 12. Viet Cong - Viet Cong
- 11. Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass
20. Panda Bear
Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
Speaking with Exclaim! upon the release of his fifth solo album, Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear) revealed he had returned to working with a sampler to piece together the instrumental loops, samples and drum breaks that form Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. From early album highlight "Mr. Noah" to the lengthy "Come to Your Senses," the record's tracks rarely stray from their rigid construction of loops and impeccably groovy rhythms. What makes their repetitive nature so captivating is Lennox's attention to melody in his own vocal performance, coupled with the wash of wet and watery dub-informed production that Lennox has said to be "the most consistently influential type of sound" for his aesthetic.
Lennox's return to the instrument yielded fruitful results; Grim Reaper's strength largely comes from its unique fusion of electronic, hip-hop and dub music in a fashion that is distinctly his own.
The common first impression after hearing Fading Frontier was that it failed to be as loud or as provocative as 2013's Monomania. And yet with this surprise, Deerhunter continued their decade-long tradition of moving forward and discovering new territory.
Sonically, the progression isn't as obvious as on previous records. The songs here are more melodious and pleasant than ever, and bringing in Stereolab's Tim Gane and Broadcast's James Cargill to help achieve new sounds was a novel idea. But the biggest change proved to be Bradford Cox's own personal evolution.
Last year, Cox was struck by a car and left completely immobilized for a period of time. And although he's been flippant about that incident's influence on the album, it's clear that mortality was weighing on his mind. "Snakeskin" alludes to struggles with overcoming a personal calamity, "Living My Life" blissfully recounts the joys of Cox leaving his public persona behind him, and "Take Care" finds him diving deep into existentialism.
It's these revelations that made Fading Frontier such a fresh new take on the band's sound, and as such, continued Deerhunter's streak as one of the most thrilling bands out there.
Deep in the Iris
Braids maintained the trajectory set by their career-redefining sophomore release, Flourish // Perish on this year's Deep in the Iris, solidifying their status as one of the most meticulous sets of songwriters to marry electro-acoustic experimentation to the undeniable strength of soul-tugging pop sensibilities. The album initially comes across as a more focused, less expansive effort than its epic predecessor, and it certainly does bear the structural marks of tighter craftsmanship and a leaner runtime, but upon absorption, it's more a matter of the plethora of ideas Braids bring to bear being more condensed in this outing than the ambition being narrower.
The deeper you listen, the deeper Iris unfolds. Each and every note, beat and frequency has been meticulously sculpted to create the strongest possible emotional response, and there's a near-inexhaustible amount of textural detail and rhythmic nuance available to those keen on taking the plunge. While Raphaelle Standell-Preston's incredibly expressive and versatile voice is the group's obvious centerpiece, and her insightful, heart-baring lyrics receive due emphasis, drummer Austin Tufts deserves to be praised as one of the most dexterous, accomplished and tasteful beat makers in the business, seamlessly and dynamically coupling electronic and acoustic sources.
Deep in the Iris is the sound of a group brimming with a rare combination of skill, ambition, confidence, creativity and purpose, making it easily one of the year's most accomplished albums from one of the most forward-thinking bands currently making music.
17. U.S. Girls
Meg Remy's latest masterpiece mostly steers away from the glam swerve of her U.S. Girls project's 2012 full-length, GEM, instead sharpening the groove-laden skills she employed on 2013's Free Advice Column EP. The end result is an album that is equal parts decadent, desolate and danceable.
Her most eclectic LP, Half Free offers listeners everything from sun-cooked and warped dub tones ("Damn That Valley"), to shattered mirror ball sadness ("Window Shades"), to a lurching and luscious, chopped-and-screwed approach to Quiet Storm soul ("Navy & Cream"). Above this, Rehmy delivers a series of bleak stories, whether from the perspective of a military-questioning war widow or a betrothed but betrayed woman contemplating throwing a noose around her neck and swinging from the family tree. Though grim, the passion in her occasionally cracking vibrato makes each character portrait a compelling, essential listen.
Stacked with hip-shuffling, sensual rhythms and jet-black personal analysis, Half Free is the most moving, macabre and masterful U.S. Girls entry yet.
16. Majical Cloudz
Are You Alone?
(Arts & Crafts)
Building on the minimalist beauty of their 2013 debut Impersonator, 2015's Are You Alone? saw Majical Cloudz' Devon Welsh and Matthew Otto further evolving their already sparse sound into something even more pared-down. The stark instrumentation and melancholy vocals remain, but what really sets this record apart is the deceptive power of its songs. Simple, direct and achingly earnest, taken as a whole this 12-song collection has a cathartic force that feels completely unique and new.
Are You Alone? is the ideal soundtrack for after the after-party, perfectly inhabiting that time between the end of the night and the start of the morning. Themes of love and loneliness abound, but Majical Cloudz somehow make all of the heartache feel hopeful. On album closer "Call On Me," Welsh reassures a friend: "I remember how it ends, we survive / And the audience sighs, yeah."
Heard in the context of the harrowing events of late 2015, Are You Alone? is much-needed headphone therapy for a weary world.
15. Beach Slang
The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us
Few albums in 2015 feel as genuine and direct as Beach Slang's anticipated debut, The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us. The Philadelphia group's restless energy and earnest, emotionally driven punk rock is anchored by honesty; it's hard not to believe the sincerity of frontman James Alex.
Sung by anyone else, some of the lines from The Things We Do could come across as corny or mere rock'n'roll clichés, but Alex goes all in when he declares things like, "I feel most alive / when I'm listening / to every record that hits harder than the pain" on the shoegaze-influenced "Ride the Wild Haze," and it pays off nearly every time.
The group's Jawbreaker-meets-Replacements-via-early-Goo Goo Dolls vibe found on their first two EPs becomes more broad on this album, channelling a big, boisterous wall-of-sound approach that matches the anthemic quality of Alex's songs. Beach Slang may not be breaking new ground, but that doesn't dampen the impact of anything on their impressive debut.
14. Dilly Dally
After bubbling under the surface of Toronto's music scene for years — worshipping grunge, mimicking the Pixies (literally, one Halloween) and crafting their own incarnation of abrasive indie rock on a handful of singles — Dilly Dally exploded in 2015, delivering their defiantly in-your-face debut full-length, Sore. Opening with a strangled scream of "1-2-3-4!" from the incomparable Katie Monks on "Desire," it's immediately clear that something special is being counted in.
Across the record, Monks' voice bounces between drunken drawl and grizzled growl, entirely entrancing in its emotional rawness and unpredictability. Liz Ball's screeching, melodic guitar lines provide the perfect accompaniment to Monks' brash showmanship, coming together to slice through a heavy haze of distortion and carve out a sound that wears its nostalgic influences on its sleeve but nevertheless prickles with energy that's absolutely invigorating and new.
Sun Coming Down
Ought's debut album More Than Any Other Day revelled in feelings of uneasy malaise; one year later, the Montreal-based quartet returned with the equally unsettling Sun Coming Down. Rather than evoking panic with chaotic outbursts this time around, the band incite a thrilling sort of anxiety with their eerie, plainspoken calmness. Tim Darcy's bleak yet composed musings tell of a man who is entirely aware of harsh times, such that he's deliberately detached from his observations.
It all reaches a peak on album centrepiece "Beautiful Blue Sky," wherein Darcy claims "I am no longer afraid to die, because that is all that I have left," which he punctuates with a simple "yes." Sun Coming Down is earnest and compelling, embracing directness in an age of hyperbole and pseudo-sincerities while building such tension that even the slightest twitch feels monumental. In this way, Ought's seemingly unaffected compositions have somehow yielded one of the most impassioned offerings of 2015.
12. Viet Cong
We're still unhappy that the band formerly known as Viet Cong haven't changed their name yet, but to be fair, their Polaris-nominated self-titled debut LP still stood out as one of the most intoxicating albums in recent memory. Comprising only seven well-paced songs recorded in a barn-turned-studio in rural Ontario, the album leaves no room for filler — only expertly composed tracks layered in heavy, industrial tones.
While the band have drawn comparisons to a handful of post-punk groups from eras past, their music still manages to carry a distinct weight of its own. Somehow familiar yet entirely new, songs like "March of Progress" and "Death" subvert expectations by changing key at a moment's notice, launching the guitars into the sonic stratosphere while the strong rhythm section keeps things grounded. Having gained traction thanks to their stellar live shows and extensive touring, Viet Cong manage to pack explosive sound into extremely controlled setting, making Viet Cong one of the most surprisingly stirring albums of this past year.
11. Natalie Prass
Natalie Prass has a unique ability to take classic forms and make them contemporary. In a year that produced a number of stunning records indebted to the early 1970s stable of singer-songwriters, Prass, a Nashville vet who previously did time in Jenny Lewis's backing band, emerged as the lone bridge between eras, embodying the sonic spirit of the past while penning timeless, broken-hearted confessionals.
Some of the credit for her debut's success has to go to Prass's co-conspirators at Spacebomb Studios in Richmond, VA, particularly mastermind Matthew E. White. Working with the studio's house band, White created dense orchestral arrangements that elevate Prass's work while neither falling prey to the tropes of the era nor overwhelming her lilting voice.
Ultimately, though, each of nine towering compositions that make up the record are impressive stripped down to just a piano or guitar. There's an emotional depth to the album that belies aesthetic choices, growing deeper on repeated listens.
Look for the second instalment of Exclaim!'s Top 20 Pop & Rock Albums of 2015, featuring No. 10 to No. 1, to arrive tomorrow (December 3).