- One Direction, “Made In The A.M.”
This is an album full of assembly-line pop songs that were built in expensive studios. There is no “vibe” or “dirt” to this album, every strength is in its surgical precision to grab you by the ear and not let go. “Made In The A.M.” is relentless in its ability to dig into your brain. The highlights of this album are the singles “History,” and “Drag Me Down,” because fucking of course they are.
- The John Whites, “Beautiful Strangers”
Reno’s The John White’s terrifically crafty songwriting paired with Alex Korostinsky’s purposefully lo-fi production techniques make for an oddly nostalgic listening experience from the very first spin. White’s vocals have never been stronger and he seems to be in full control of his emotive powers with a backdrop as romantic as the subject matter of “Beautiful Strangers.”
- Leon Bridges, “Coming Home”
This soulful throwback is essentially a how-to manual in playing to your artistic strengths. Leon Bridges doesn’t have the powerhouse vocal ability of a Sam Cooke or a Marvin Gaye but he does have a sultry voice that, in a fairly limited range, sounds beautifully vintage. The simplistic songwriting and reverb-soaked instrumentation take center-stage on “Coming Home” and make it one of the highlights of 2015.
- Vince Staples, “Summertime 06”
I’m a sucker for lyrical deftness over minimalist beats and Vince Staples masterfully delivers both on his follow up to 2014s “Hell Can Wait.” “In the Planned Parenthood playing God with your mom’s check/ You ain’t even been to prom yet” Staples raps on “Surf.” Staples doesn’t shy away from the darker corners of his psyche, instead opting to tackle each demon with the ample ferocity of his lyrics and the terse nature of his delivery.
- Moondog Matinee, “Carry Me, Rosie”
Reno rock and roll five-piece Moondog Matinee showed considerable growth between its debut “Vacancy At The Wonder Lodge” and “Carry Me, Rosie.” Lead singer Pete Barnato’s howl is bolstered throughout by an inventively tight rhythm section and a two guitar attack that feels like ten. Moondog’s ability to capture its live sound carries “Rosie” from beginning to end.
- Alabama Shakes, “Sound & Color”
After this year and, specifically, this album, the argument could be made that the Alabama Shakes are the baddest rock band in the world. Lead singer Brittany Howard’s emotive vocals are the album’s strongest suit but the band’s musical transition from the Americana group that released 2012’s “Boys & Girls” was surprisingly natural. They became more psychedelic and modern without losing one iota of their genuine charm.
- Nathaniel Rateliff & The Nightsweats, “Nathaniel Rateliff & The Nightsweats”
In a year chock full of vintage-soul reboots, this Stax records signee was the most ear-grabbing of them all. Nathaniel Rateliff’s transition from Denver-based singer-songwriter to a throwback Memphis-soul band leader (complete with a faux southern accent) wreaks of a marketing ploy but the songs are too damn good for me to care.
- MED, Blu, & Mad Lib, “Bad Neighbor”
This album features some of Blu’s most well-written bars since 2010s “Her Favorite Colo(u)r” and with the help of LA based rapper MED and sonic architect Mad Lib, it delivers all of the vintage muscle of West Coast underground hip-hop with none of the fluff.
- Joan & The Rivers, “Lovebumps”
San Jose trio Joan & The Rivers is the most creative rock band on the West Coast. There, I said it. Their sloppy, drunken, sonically brilliant mess of an EP is unlike anything I’ve heard. Its flexible relationship with timing allows it to feel as unhinged as the lyrics suggest it is. Hooks such as “I only really like you when you’re drunk” are at once alarming and anthemic.
- Lianne La Havas, “Blood”
On her sophomore album, breakout artist Lianne La Havas delivers the innocent earthiness of Corinne Bailey Rae with the neo-soul swagger of Jill Scott. It’s been five years since the British singer was signed to Warner Bros but with an album of cohesive material and production it would appear that she has hit her stride.
- The Arcs, “Yours, Dreamily”
I rolled my eyes when I first saw that Rolling Stone gave this album a four star review, not because I thought the album was bad (I hadn’t listened to it yet), but because lead singer, and one half of The Black Keys, Dan Auerbach could send RS a bowl of his own feces wrapped in barbed-wire and they would put it in their top 20 of the year. Then I listened to it. Dammit. It feels like a sequel to “Brothers” in the best way possible. It’s soulful, fuzzy, and tonally engaging. It’s nothing new from Auerbach, just more of what has made him one of the best songwriters and producers in rock and roll today.
- Earl Sweatshirt, “I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside”
I can’t stop listening to this album, I’ve tried but I can’t. Its lonely nature and bare-your-soul lyricism make it feel like a portal into someone’s diary. In a year that saw society obsessed with Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” I saw Sweatshirt’s 30-minute release as the stronger, infinitely more focused effort. Where “Butterfly” felt like a ride on D’Angelo’s coat tails, Sweatshirt essentially released an album of internal conflicts with no denouement in sight. In a year like 2015, not a whole lot feels more realistic.