It’s my 13th consecutive year of reviewing my favorite music, so you can’t blame me for showing up late to the party. Luckily, I don’t care what the calendars say. Take a trip back to 2015 with me in this signature special feature. You might just discover some music that missed your radar the first time around.
In recent years, artists like Lights, Tegan and Sara, Jack White, and Foo Fighters have claimed #1 on my year-end music reviews. But before we can get there this year, it’s time again to travel through the seasons. Just 40 albums can make the cut, so as usual, I’ll start with a review of singles by other artists that I listened to the most throughout the course of the year.
I saved the best for first again. Sirena started the year with an amazing single. I listened to “Chemicals” more than any other song in 2015.
Rihanna and Kanye West“FourFiveSeconds” f/ Paul McCartney
I love it that this happened, I love the chill vibe, I don’t care what you think.
Two Gallants“We Are Undone”
These guys played at Late Night with Seth Meyers when I went to a taping the day after SNL40, so I’ll forever associate them with that. Good stuff!
Say Lou Lou“Everything We Touch”
We all know the best pop comes from Sweden. Say Lou Lou are no exception.
Ex Cops“Black Soap”
An ethereal thinker of a jam that gets in your head and doesn’t get out.
Fifth Harmony“Worth It” f/ Kid Ink
These ladies know what’s up. This follow-up to “Bo$$” is even more anthemic.
One of the many top-notch discoveries from the closing credits of Girls.
Kelly Clarkson“Heartbeat Song”
Kelly has been doing her thing for 13 years now and we’re all better off for it.
TV On The Radio“Happy Idiot”
I think this crossed over from the edge of last year. Nice to see these guys.
Mark Ronson f/ Mystikal“Feel Right”
He could’ve retired after “Uptown Funk” took over the world at the end of 2014, but nope, Mark Ronson immediately gifted us this unreal Mystikal track.
Death Cab For Cutie“Black Sun”
It’s DCFC doing DCFC. Nothing earth-shattering here, but nice to listen to.
I think I over-use the word “haunting” in my reviews, but Chromatics earn it.
Becky G“Can’t Stop Dancin’”
In case you thought “Shower” wasn’t addictive enough, Becky G offers this.
Alt-J“Left Hand Free”
I don’t know much about Alt-J, but I love the quirky rock thing going on here.
Colbie Caillat“Never Gonna Let You Down”
Can’t go wrong with Colbie. Hell, I still listen to “Bubbly” a lot after 8 years.
Alesso f/ Tove Lo“Heroes”
The first of many EDM person and pop singer combos you’ll see in this list.
Samantha Jade“Sweet Talk”
A true confectionery of a song that reminds me of Kylie Minogue’s early years.
Ashley Monroe“On To Something Good”
Pure country, but in the best way. As in, I don’t just tolerate it, I really like it.
This song is hilarious and speaks to the truth of daily life. Blunt and brilliant.
Matt & Kim“Get It”
Let’s face it, they’ve been on autopilot for years, but this is a great earworm.
Zedd f/ Selena Gomez“I Want You To Know”
He may be named after the Power Rangers villain, but he knows what he’s doing.
Walk The Moon“Different Colors”
Man, these guys were everywhere this year. Maybe a little too everywhere?
Saint Motel“My Type”
Ummm… it’s a catchy song. Sorry, I don’t know the first thing about this band.
Alabama Shakes“Don’t Wanna Fight”
There is one truth, and that truth is that Alabama Shakes can do no wrong.
AronChupa“I’m An Albatraoz” f/ Nora Ekberg
Straight nonsense. Almost infuriating by design. And yet, I honestly loved it.
Infectious ear candy from a Finnish YouTube star who wanted an extra “A”.
Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy. Line of the year. Let’s just stop here.
Lilly Wood & The Prick“Prayer In C” f/ Robin Schulz
At once calming, contemplative, meaningful, troubling. I couldn’t put it down.
AlunaGeorge“You Know You Like It” f/ DJ Snake
DJ Snake has mastered the whole “beat as chorus” thing. Undeniable. Fire.
Rachel Platten“Fight Song”
An empowering sleeper hit that struck all the right chords in 2015, even though Rachel’s album Wildfire didn’t drop until the first day of 2016.
Oh man, I can’t think of a better way to kick off the spring. A true banger if I ever heard one. Take the pain and let that motherfucker burn.
Rowdy and raw, Diet Cig aren’t afraid one bit to tell you how they really feel.
Taylor Swift “Bad Blood” f/ Kendrick Lamar
When I said Taylor Swift was “on top of the world” in my 1989 review last year, I was underestimating her. This is her world, we’re just living in it.
I’m so happy that Hilary is making music again. And she made gray hair cool!
Flo Rida“GDFR” f/ Sage The Gemini and Lookas
I think of “GDFR” as 2015’s “Turn Down For What”. Say whatever you want about Flo Rida, but the guy knows how to crank out the hits.
This brooding, rock-infused singer-songwriter jam hit the spot this year.
Best Coast“Feeling OK”
Since their 2010 debut, I’m always happy to hear from Bethany and friends.
Britney Spears f/ Iggy Azalea“Pretty Girls”
It was a tough year for Iggy Iggs. Her bubble sure burst quickly. Still, it’s Britney, bitch. I got to see Brit in Vegas! Two-word review: YAS QUEEN.
Lady Lamb“Billions Of Eyes”
Lady Lamb is a fantastic emerging indie folk musician you should go listen to.
Gin Wigmore“New Rush”
New music from Gin Wigmore! She looks a bit like Kesha here. #FreeKesha
Kathryn Calder“Take A Little Time”
One of my favourite Canadians gave us some great new solo music this year.
I feel sort of depressed whenever I listen to Dawes, but like… in a good way.
Of Monsters & Men“Crystals”
These guys are endlessly charming. Always a good time listening to their stuff.
Betty Who“High Society”
Did I sleep on Betty Who’s album last year or what? She is amazing! I saw her perform live at a pride festival this year and she owned that place.
My fav virtual unknown (2013’s “Cops And Robbers”… anybody?) came back!
Even after it was everywhere, this song was pretty cool and pleasantly chill.
Here begins a bunch of discoveries from Beats 1, which debuted around the end of the spring and, at least for a hot minute, made radio cool again.
Statik Selektah“Beautiful Life” f/ Joey Bada$$
It’s hard to argue with a track that proudly begins, I don’t give a fuck, y’aaallll.
Slaves“Cheer Up London”
You need some raucous rock every now and then. “Cheer Up London” delivers.
Shamir“On The Regular”
An innovative, gender- and genre-bending singer with an unmistakable voice.
It’s kinda like “Sonsick” part 2, and I loved that song so much, sign me up.
Are we still taking Pharrell seriously? I don’t care, “Freedom” is a great track.
Years & Years“King”
I don’t know how to describe these guys. Electronica? Whatever, they’re great.
Little Boots“No Pressure”
My only wish is that Little Boots will someday make another album as wonderful and emotionally deep and affecting as Hands, but this will do.
Oliver Heldens“Shades Of Grey” f/ Delaney Jane
50 shades? Nope, more like 420 shades. I will see myself out now, goodbye.
I’d continue the puns, but I already promised to leave, so that’d be awkward.
Lauryn Hill“Feeling Good”
Oh my goodness. A tribute to Nina Simone only Ms. Lauryn Hill could pull off.
Jess Glynne“Hold My Hand”
I really love Jess Glynne. Her music brightens your day. Positively radiant.
“Dreams” has gotta be one of the best one-off singles ever. Beck has still got it.
Major Lazer“Lean On” f/ MØ and DJ Snake
Now this here is a winner. Months later, it’s still not out of my head, and I’m not complaining. Bonus: You’ll see more from MØ later on.
No relation to the Kiesza track of the same name. With comparisons to young Beyoncé and Lorde, Daya is one of the top emerging pop artists to watch.
Katy Tiz“Whistle (While You Work It)”
A song that encourages us to believe in ourselves and get through hard times.
Another up-and-coming artist who became a favorite of Beats 1 and Hits 1.
Carrie Underwood“Smoke Break”
Carrie Underwood has now cemented her status as the queen of country-pop.
Little Big Town“Girl Crush”
Pushing boundaries and making traditional country radio people uncomfortable in all the right ways. “Girl Crush” is the jolt the genre needed.
Rihanna“Bitch Better Have My Money”
Mostly resulted in me shouting the title out of context at random intervals.
Bright, soft, meaningful synthpop from an emerging British singer-songwriter.
Son of a bitch! This song tackles a lifelong drinking problem in a rowdy way.
Bring Me The Horizon“Happy Song”
An ironic title, to be sure. No happiness, just a lot of anger to be found here.
Veruca Salt“Laughing In The Sugar Bowl”
Veruca Salt, man! The original lineup reunited for the first time in 15+ years.
Whoa. An all-out assault on the senses that harkens back to late ’80s industrial.
Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique“Love Is Free” f/ Maluca
The unstoppable Robyn brought us another new collaborative effort this year.
Craig Wedren“Heart Attack Love”
Wait, what? Craig Wedren made the music for Wet Hot American Summer, and the brilliant short track “Heart Attack Love” sounds like it’s straight out of 1981.
Alesso f/ Sirena“Sweet Escape”
Sirena strikes back! This collab with Alesso introduced her voice to pop radio.
The Band Perry“Live Forever”
Fun fact: Every song they’ve ever done has something to do with mortality.
FKA Twigs“Figure 8”
I think FKA Twigs set out to haunt our souls with every track… and it worked.
Shakey Graves“Dearly Departed” f/ Esmé Patterson
You and I both know, you can’t not sing along with this one when it comes on.
Show your colors, girl! Genevieve has the power to uplift just about anybody.
Chris Cornell“Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart”
CORNELL. The old standby we all know and love returned with new solo music.
Andra Day“Rise Up”
An old soul for modern times, her voice soars and takes R&B to new heights.
Kelela makes futuristic electronic music that feels a little bit out of this world.
Belle and Sebastian“The Party Line”
Look who’s back! The indie pop collective put out this irresistible addiction.
“Thunder” could be Leona’s most powerful track ever, and that’s saying a lot.
One of the most emotionally affecting songs released by any artist this year.
Lowell f/ Icona Pop“Ride”
Lowell crashed onto the scene and nearly topped my list last year. She returned this summer for a crazy, monster collaboration with Icona Pop.
Icona Pop“Emergency” f/ Sam Feldt
More Icona! The Sam Feldt mix of “Emergency” is almost criminally dancey.
Hailee Steinfeld“Love Myself”
In the tradition of Cyndi Lauper, Divinyls, Britney Spears, Tweet, and others who came before, it’s the defining “self service” anthem for a new era.
A$AP Rocky“Everyday” f/ Rod Stewart and Miguel
Mark Ronson somehow helped make this mind-bending collaboration happen.
Meg Mac“Never Be”
With “Never Be”, I think Meg Mac is a modern-day master of blue-eyed soul.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis“Downtown”
Patently ridiculous and self-aware of that fact, I had to love “Downtown” for its resurrection and reunion of hip hop legends and pioneers.
They broke last year as the duo Deers, but now this four-piece lo-fi garage rock band from Madrid is poised to rule the world. Look out, 2016.
Seven Lions f/ Lights“Falling Away”
Little Machines was my #1 album of 2014, and this year I got to see Lights live for the first time since 2009. It was so good. Ugh, she is the best.
Big Grams“Fell In The Sun”
Phantogram and Big Boi seem like an unlikely collaboration, but wow! It works.
Sia’s follow-up to her last amazing album drops in early 2016. This is a taste.
Selena Gomez“Same Old Love”
Selena continues to do the grown-up thing on this calm, stripped-down track.
Ryan Adams“Bad Blood”
I still cannot believe Ryan Adams covered all of 1989 and how great that was.
Rudimental f/ Ed Sheeran“Lay It All On Me”
This has gotta be my favorite song either by or featuring Ed Sheeran to date.
Pure Bathing Culture“Pray For Rain”
I like these guys a lot. Great follow-up here to last year’s peaceful “Pendulum”.
What you’ve got here is jangly rock that makes for an easy-going autumn day.
Audien f/ Lady Antebellum“Something Better”
Now we’ve got EDM guys featuring entire bands on their songs. What a world!
Conrad Sewell“Hold Me Up”
For once, a male pop singer-songwriter who made a song that I really love.
This up-and-coming acoustic/folk musician is a young talent and an old soul.
Disclosure f/ Lorde“Magnets”
I think it’s about time for another Lorde album. But man, this is a hot track.
The 1975“Love Me”
The opening chords of this song remind me of classic INXS, and it hooked me.
Twenty One Pilots“Tear In My Heart”
I once asked a friend of mine, “What are Twenty One Pilots?” I still don’t have an answer, but they’re starting to win me over. And everyone, apparently.
Gwen Stefani“Used To Love You”
Imagine knowing in 1998 that Gwen would one day be a judge on a reality show hosted by Carson Daly and dating a country singer who is also on that show.
It’s like “Problem”, part 2. Not as great as the original, but a decent sequel.
Santigold“Can’t Get Enough Of Myself” f/ B.C.
I’m eagerly awaiting Santigold’s upcoming 3rd album, which isn’t so far away!
Sara Bareilles“She Used To Be Mine”
A highlight from an album of songs that Sara created for the musical Waitress.
Good luck finding this singer on Google, but “Hoops” is great futuristic pop.
Foo Fighters“Saint Cecilia”
Part of a free EP given as a gift to fans, this is raw Foos. RACH out the house.
This song almost scares me. Banks’ album made my top ten last year and it had some haunting tracks, but this is on some next-level EMA shit.
The UK DJ reinterpreted The Jackson 5’s “ABC” as a modern dance-pop song.
K-pop group 2NE1’s frontwoman went solo with this insane, over-the-top jam.
Miike Snow f/ Run The Jewels“Heart Is Full”
El-P and Killer Mike bring a hot new sound and verse to this Miike Snow track.
Described as “electro music with guts” and compared to everybody from Grimes to Siouxsie Sioux, get ready y’all, MØ has arrived.
This is the NYE-is-approaching dance section. In 2012, there was a bonkers song “Bom Bom” by Sam And The Womp. I see “Sax” as 2015’s answer to that.
KDA f/ Tinie Tempah and Katy B“Turn The Music Louder”
KDA and friends absolutely killed it with this one. Listen and dance for days.
DNCE“Cake By The Ocean”
Are you dancing yet? It’s the name of this group ffs. Also, look, it’s Joe Jonas!
You think you know Charlift? No. This is a new Chairlift, folks. Upbeat, confident, swagger. See ya, 2015. Now crack that combination, 27-9-9-23!
40Colleen GreenI Want To Grow Up
Let’s ease into the top 40 with some breezy, lo-fi indie pop that carries a stoner-friendly vibe similar to early Best Coast. But listen closely and you’ll find Colleen Green tackles some existential topics with eye-opening intensity.
With last year’s “Ghost”, Halsey gave us a preview of her next-generation pop prowess. Badlands delivers, pushing forward with “New Americana”, “Drive”, and other tracks that feel like a bold declaration: Move aside, old guard.
38MetricPagans In Vegas
It didn’t connect with me on a deep, emotional level like Fantasies or “Breathing Underwater”, but Pagans In Vegas is still a solid album. From “The Shade” to “Fortunes” and “Celebrate”, there’s a lot to like here, and Metric remains as one of the preeminent bands in synth-infused indie rock.
37The Dead WeatherDodge And Burn
Dodge And Burn could have made this list based on the album cover alone. How awesome is that thing? Anyway, on their newest album, Alison Mosshart, Jack White, and friends reunite after 5 years to keep doing what they do best. “I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)” crashed through the doors with force this fall.
36Duran DuranPaper Gods
I don’t need to tell you Duran Duran is one of the most influential pop bands in history. But who knew they’d put out a remarkably relevant and forward-thinking album in 2015? Working with everyone from Nile Rodgers and Mark Ronson to Janelle Monáe, Kiesza, and even (yes!) Lindsay Lohan, Paper Gods is a boundary-pushing collaborative effort that honestly took me by surprise.
They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but the title of Brutal and that vaguely threatening snarl on the artwork pretty accurately sets the scene. This trio from Toronto deliver loud, punk-inspired rock on their excellent debut.
File under 2015 regrets: When I got to see Lights in concert, her first opening act was Phases, but I arrived too late to hear them play. After checking out For Life, I couldn’t believe I missed them. This is cheery, mid-tempo indie pop at its finest. If you need an introduction, take a few minutes for “I’m In Love With My Life”.
The last time an instrumental album landed on my top 40 was way back in 2007 with Beastie Boys’ The Mix-Up (oddly enough, it was also #33). So it’s a testament to Ratatat that you’re reading this. Drawing inspiration from classic psychedelic rock bands, Magnifique brings an electronica, chillwave-ish, 45-minute vocal-free jam. “Cream On Chrome” and “Abrasive” are highlights.
32Mumford & SonsWilder Mind
Mumford & Sons turned from critical darling to hipster punchline faster than you can say “Coldplay”, but I enjoyed Wilder Mind nonetheless. The signature banjo is gone, but tracks like “Believe”, “The Wolf”, and “Ditmas” are top shelf.
31Sleater-KinneyNo Cities To Love
How cool is it that Sleater-Kinney reunited and released their first new album in 10 years? No Cities To Love is efficient, too: 10 tracks, one half-hour, no messing around. It’s punchy, explosive, and urgent — and not to mention, a priceless gift to children of the riot grrrl movement. When “Bury Our Friends” hit late last fall, the writing was on the wall: No Cities would be something special.
30Lianne La HavasBlood
I owe this discovery to Beats 1, which was definitely out in front of the Lianne La Havas train. Described as soul, folk, and R&B (I would also add electro-rock-ish percussion to that; confused yet?), you owe it to yourself to check out this multi-instrumentalist. The spiraling “Never Get Enough” is my favorite.
29Bea MillerNot An Apology
It’s only a matter of time until an artist born in the 2000s makes it to my top 40 albums, and Bea Miller is only 10 months away. Her elimination from The X Factor a while back didn’t stop her from reaching pop success this year. “Young Blood”, “Fire N Gold”, “I Dare You”, and “Enemy Fire” were in constant rotation for me.
28Little MixGet Weird
Speaking of The X Factor, these UK ladies have been on the rise the past couple of years and are basically the modern-day Spice Girls. Get Weird is their best album to date, with the highly addictive “Black Magic” and “Weird People” as highlights. I love how it’s cool these days to let your freak flag fly. You go, Little Mix.
27Wolf AliceMy Love Is Cool
Wolf Alice are not from Canada (they’re from London), but I happened to be in Canada when I heard “Moaning Lisa Smile” on the radio for the first time, and as you might imagine, I had to Shazam that shit immediately. The crunchy post-grunge sound on that track gives way to a subtler folk rock vibe on the majority of My Love Is Cool, which is equally appealing and pleasantly surprising.
I’m pretty sure it’s been a while since I’ve heard a song as heartfelt as “My Baby Don’t Understand Me”, which hooked me on Natalie Prass early in the year. Her self-titled album is home to 40 minutes of beautiful chamber/baroque pop with lush instrumentation and elaborate horn and string arrangements.
25Speedy OrtizFoil Deer
Though it’s their second full-length album, Foil Deer is the first I heard of Speedy Ortiz, the indie rock band headed by Sadie Dupuis. The righteously indignant, noisy and raucous “Raising The Skate” is the track that led me to the album and remains my favorite from it. I’m not bossy, I’m the boss, caller of the shots!
24Tori KellyUnbreakable Smile
She’s been on her YouTube game since 2007, but 2015 was the year Tori Kelly broke. The pop/R&B singer and musician released the bombastic “Nobody Love” and it’s been pure fire ever since. “Should’ve Been Us” and “Hollow” kept the momentum going in the summer and fall, but her defining moment might have been her VMA performance, which was the only one I can recall that featured a headline performer playing live instruments. She tore the roof off.
23The WeekndBeauty Behind The Madness
It was also a breakout year for The Weeknd, who was featured on a number of high-profile tracks the past few years but became unstoppable and ubiquitous with the release of Beauty Behind The Madness. The pop/R&B talent from Toronto was everywhere in 2015 with “The Hills”, “In The Night”, and of course “Can’t Feel My Face”, which channeled MJ and hit #1 around the world.
My favourite nation up above also gifted us Alessia Cara in 2015, who disrupted pop music with “Here”, her introvert anthem that featured impressive lyricism and an inventive array of samples from Portishead to Isaac Hayes. A favorite of Beats 1 from day 1, “Here” turned out to be a sleeper hit that remains in regular rotation on pop radio as I write this. But Alessia didn’t stop there: Know-It-All is a finely crafted debut. “Seventeen” and “Wild Things” are other highlights.
The other uncannily amazing nation for pop artists, Sweden, sent Tove Styrke to take over the planet this year. I slept on her 2010 debut, but her second release Kiddo hit my radar and there was no turning back. With new wave and synthpop sounds along the lines of Robyn, Lykke Li, and Tove Lo (no relation), plus lovably quirky vocals and instrumentation, we have a winner. “Borderline” and “Number One” are super fun, and you must hear her mind-bending, totally reinterpreted cover of Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time”.
20Marina & The DiamondsFroot
Where could Marina & The Diamonds possibly go from the front-to-back concept of Electra Heart? It’s the type of thing that can’t and shouldn’t be topped by an even more elaborate concept, so instead, Marina turned introspective, reflecting on life and the world from outside the confines of a character. Froot exhibits a newfound confidence in songwriting on Marina’s part and an even more diverse, complicated, dreamy musical composition. The title track as well as “Blue”, “I’m A Ruin”, and “Savages” are some of my favorites.
19Kendrick LamarTo Pimp A Butterfly
If this were a review of the most culturally important albums of 2015, To Pimp A Butterfly would almost certainly be #1. The phrase “socially conscious” is thrown around a lot in hip hop, but Kendrick Lamar pulled off a vision that far exceeds simplistic labels. And it came at a critical time: Black Lives Matter as a movement went hand-in-hand with this album, with “Alright” turning into a rallying cry. The music pushes boundaries of its own, blending funk, jazz, and spoken word. My personal highlights from the album include “Wesley’s Theory”, “King Kunta”, and of course “i”, but it’s properly experienced as a complete work.
18Ryn WeaverThe Fool
Ryn Weaver debuted on the scene late last year with “OctaHate”, a work of pop genius she made with the help of Charli XCX. It’s intense, commanding, urgent, sparkling, sweeping, and an earworm like no other. The rest of The Fool carries more of a calming presence, experimental in the same vein as Imogen Heap or Florence & The Machine, with tracks like “Runaway” and “Promises” setting the scene. But watch out, because at the end of the album, “OctaHate” strikes back with an even crazier remix by Cashmere Cat that’s an absolute rush.
17Elle KingLove Stuff
Elle King is unmistakably American in a way I can relate to. After listening to a record by The Donnas at the age of 9, she decided she wanted to be a musician, learned guitar, and discovered inspiration in our country’s greatest greats: Otis Redding, Johnny Cash, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Hank Williams, The Runaways, and Blondie. What a shortlist! And she has an attitude to match the influence: Love Stuff is gloriously brash and unapologetic. It’s southern, bluesy, conversational. Elle is the real deal. You know “Ex’s & Oh’s”; I also loved “Where The Devil Don’t Go”, “Under The Influence”, and “Last Damn Night”.
16Kurt VileB’lieve I’m Goin’ Down
Most music critics and followers of all things rock have been paying attention to Kurt Vile since at least 2011, when his album Smoke Ring For My Halo caught the eye of tastemakers. But for whatever reason, it took me until this year to notice. The song that sounded the alarm for me was “Pretty Pimpin’”, which if you never heard it, is the sonic opposite of its title. His lyrical style and delivery is witty and clever, but the music underneath is folksy, and the mood is often existential. It’s vulnerable, grounded, and human. B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down is a trip that brings that feeling throughout and really resonated with me.
Waxahatchee, the name of an indie rock/folk project by singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield of Alabama, has been a thing for a few years now but first registered to me this year when I heard “Under A Rock”, a refreshing and short track that transported me back 20 years to 1995. The music video deliberately looks like it came off of a VHS tape and even includes burned-in old-style MTV titles. And as for the song itself, it would’ve fit the mid-’90s post-riot grrrl alternative rock era like a glove. No surprise, I was charmed. “Air” and the rest of Ivy Tripp keep it up: The theme of the album explores the sincere, often debilitating dissatisfaction of a generation that wants more than a simple kind of life.
14Christine And The Queens
Christine And The Queens is weird af. As a weird person who loves weird things, trust me, that’s the highest compliment. Listening to this breakout French singer-songwriter’s self-titled album is a weaving and winding, eclectic and artistic journey. She jumps back and forth between French and English before you even have time to realize what happened. At one point, she softly sings the lyrics to Kanye West’s “Heartless” over a space-like, dreamy backdrop. Suddenly, it’s over too soon and you want to listen again and again. “iT”, “Saint Claude”, “Tilted”, and “Paradis Perdus” are essential tracks. She has described her genre of music as “freakpop”, a wonderful descriptor. This is a rare gem.
Demi has been through a world of ups and downs since I first started following her music way back in 2009. But with Confident, you could say she has emerged better and stronger than ever. In her own words, there was no room for sob stories here. It’s compelling, bold, relentless, and out to make a statement. The lead single “Cool For The Summer” represented that attitude well. “Old Ways”, “Kingdom Come”, and especially title track “Confident” were equally bombastic. Back in July, I got to see Demi live for the first time ever at a free concert for the All-Star Game, where she replaced Ariana Grande at the last minute following donutgate. 30,000 people — her largest crowd to date — turned out to see her. She was beaming, radiant, and thankful. She made it.
12ChvrchesEvery Open Eye
I think it only took one listen of “The Mother We Share” a few years ago to make me a fan of Chvrches, masters of electronic indie synthpop from Scotland. So it’s no stretch of the imagination that I was eagerly anticipating Every Open Eye, their second album. The lyrical content is as emotional as ever, but the music packs a little more punch this time around and is generally more up-tempo and dazzling throughout the album. Between the infectious singles “Leave A Trace”, “Never Ending Circles”, “Clearest Blue”, and the rest of the similarly spirited tracks, Every Open Eye is a worthy and addictive entry into the Chvrches canon.
11MS MRHow Does It Feel
MS MR first hit the shores with “Hurricane” and Secondhand Rapture two years ago, and now they’ve returned with the fiery follow-up How Does It Feel. Always hard to categorize (common labels include “dream pop” and “dark wave”), there’s something a little unsettling about MS MR’s music — as usual, I obviously mean that in a good way. This time, the first single off the album, “Painted”, brought a beginning-to-end, heart-rate-increasing, urgent intensity. “Criminals”, my favorite track, is more melodic but just as immediate. “Wrong Victory” and “Reckless” are other highlights, while the rest of the album takes it a little easier. I look forward to what this red-hot duo brings us next.
10First Aid KitStay Gold
Usually when an album comes out and I don’t know of it until the following year, I pack it up and move on. But I had to make a rare exception for Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit, whose Stay Gold was released back in 2014. I first took notice when David Letterman invited them on one of his final Late Show episodes to perform a graceful and beautiful cover of “America” by Simon & Garfunkel; I was hooked immediately. Once I heard the album, songs like “Master Pretender” and the title track “Stay Gold” stood out, but one song, “My Silver Lining”, changed everything. Johanna Söderberg explains: “Everyone has the feeling sometimes of, ‘What’s the point? Why am I doing this?’, and this song is about trying to find that glimpse of light that makes it all worthwhile.” Facing a devastating loss in my family this fall, “My Silver Lining” spoke to me deeply. It’s a song I know I’ll keep in mind forever. I have to hand it to First Aid Kit for creating something so elegantly plain-spoken, poignant, and celestial — it’s like the work of angels.
As much as I’ve loved “A Thousand Miles” for 13 years, you might as well forget that it ever existed if you want to understand and appreciate Liberman, Vanessa Carlton’s new album that boldly throws out every pop formula. The songs are mellow, serene, low-key, quiet, and meditative. I was taken by surprise when she released her Blue Pool EP, which contained “Take It Easy”, “Blue Pool”, and live acoustic versions of two additional album tracks. Named after her grandfather, Liberman invokes a reflective mood with an ethereal spirit. To listen to it in its entirety is to pause the world for a brief moment and experience an immersive, beautiful escape. Bravo to Vanessa Carlton for this accomplishment.
8Carly Rae JepsenE•MO•TION
Here we have the most criminally underrated album of 2015. With E•MO•TION, Carly Rae Jepsen deserved to reset the dance pop landscape and emerge as the preeminent talent of the genre. A love letter to the ’80s, E•MO•TION feels so authentic that you could take Carly’s name off of it, hand it to someone and tell them it was from 1985, and they’d probably believe you. All of the elements are here: The passionate vocals, the dance beats, the guitars, the synthesizers, and the saxophones — oh, that sax. Singles “I Really Like You” and “Your Type”, the title track, “Boy Problems”, and “All That” are excellent, but if you ask me, I think the pinnacle of E•MO•TION is “Run Away With Me”, a work of art that exemplifies how great this album is. I’m disappointed it didn’t perform better commercially, but for critics and fans, this is a masterpiece to remember.
7Purity RingAnother Eternity
Three years ago, I described this Canadian electronic duo as “merging ridiculously honey-sweet vocals with mysterious, dark, and ominous lyrics”, and their excellent debut album Shrines as “candy-coated and crawling with demons”. Their follow-up Another Eternity feels a little less chopped-and-screwed and a little more polished, but it’s every bit as ominous and mysterious. Some of my favorite tracks from the album include “Bodyache”, “Push Pull”, “Dust Hymn”, and “Blood On The Floor”, but the standouts here are “Begin Again” and “Sea Castle”. I got to see Purity Ring live for the first time in September; it was a visual and auditory trip for the ages. I can’t wait to see where they go from here.
6Courtney BarnettSometimes I Sit And Think
It was just last year that Courtney Barnett shook up the music industry with How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose, a short EP so great that it landed in the top half of my ’14 year-end albums chart. If I could borrow my own words from that review, I described her eclectic songs as “more like stories that she rambles through with spectacular wit and deadpan delivery”, and that’s a truer statement than ever on Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, Courtney’s debut full-length album. The Australian singer-songwriter and guitarist is unlike anyone else in the game right now. “Pedestrian At Best” is an absolute shellacking of a song that’s truly inspired — hard rock at its finest. “Depreston” is a down-tempo, universally relatable story. “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party” sells itself in the title alone. Courtney Barnett weaves together humor, dry wit, emotion, and sincerity so well in her music, we’re lucky to be alive to hear it.
Ellie Goulding decided to go hard or go home with Delirium, her third full-length album. In her own words, she said it’s “an experiment to make a big pop album; I made a conscious decision that I wanted it to be on another level.” And big it is: The powerful beat and infectious repetition of “On My Mind” is impressive, as is the building intensity and strong, uplifting, anthem-like quality of “Army”, one of my favorite tracks. “Something In The Way You Move” is masterful and addictive. “Love Me Like You Do”, originally from the Fifty Shades soundtrack, is irresistible. Across the album, from front to back, most of the songs you’ll find are absolute monsters of dance and synthpop. My only issue with Delirium is that there’s too much of it: 21 tracks on the deluxe edition, clocking in at 75 minutes. With Lights and Halcyon, Ellie split additional tracks into their own follow-up EPs that came a year later — this time, we got it all at once. An album this long and expansive is difficult to navigate, and I feel like some of the tracks get lost in the shuffle. Even so, the songs that stuck with me are beyond great, and they’re easily enough to catapult Delirium past nearly every other album released in 2015. Ellie Goulding remains one of the world’s foremost talents in pop music.
It’s been three years since the inventive Canadian singer, director, and producer Grimes (a.k.a. Claire Boucher) released Visions, a definitive album that made the world take notice — as I described it at the time, an “almost indescribable brand of digitally self-produced, avant-garde, experimental music”, a version of art pop that’s “creative, strange, dreamy but a bit creepy, and certainly hypnotic”. But if Visions was just a little too out there to comprehend, Art Angels is just accessible enough to put it all together. It certainly crossed a threshold for me, taking her music from something I appreciated to something I love. “REALiTi” was the song that did it, released as a demo early in the year and later as a newly-composed final version on the album. It’s my favorite individual song of 2015 by any artist. The title track, “California”, “Flesh Without Blood”, “Kill V. Maim,” and “Venus Fly” featuring Janelle Monáe are just a few of my favorite songs here. Art Angels is a meticulous marvel to behold: Both inviting and terrifying, polished and abrasive at times, but ambitious and imaginative throughout.
3Florence & The MachineHow Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
I’ve been a fan of Florence & The Machine from more-or-less the beginning, but there’s something about How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful that took it to another level. This album was a long time coming: After the one-two punch of Lungs and Ceremonials in 2010 and 2011, some three or four years passed without any new material from Florence and friends. And then, one day in February, there it was: “What Kind Of Man”. Holy effing eff, “What Kind Of Man”. It’s like a progressively building fire captured in the form of a song. The moment that beat sets in and demands your undivided attention is unarguably the best. My goodness. Beyond that, “Ship To Wreck”, the title track, “Queen Of Peace”, and “Delilah” are a few of my highlights. How Big is a refined, carefully honed effort from Florence blending the baroque pop we’ve come to expect with influences of gospel, blues, folk, and soul. I still can’t get enough of it. This one will be hard to top.
I love it when a previously unknown band comes crashing in near the top of my year-end reviews. It’s happened in the past with artists like Lily Allen, Santogold, Lady Gaga, EMA, Japandroids, Haim, Chvrches, and Lowell. This year, say hello to Bully, whose debut album Feels Like was far-and-away my favorite rock record of 2015 and singlehandedly brought new life, vibrance, and relevance to the genre. Hailing from Nashville, Bully is fronted by Alicia Bognanno, a singer and guitarist who pulls no punches both vocally and instrumentally. Much of Feels Like is no-holds-barred, hardcore punk-inspired rock that will unapologetically leave your speakers in shambles. “Trying”, the lead single that first caught my attention, is the most melodic and pop-friendly track here, but not without some screaming in the chorus. What I loved the most about “Trying” and Feels Like is the intensity and realness of the lyrics, which are uncompromising and spoken directly, as if personally to the listener. The grittier “I Remember”, “Reason”, “Too Tough”, and “Bully” are among my other favorites from the album, but try “Trash” on for size if you want a real kick to the stomach. I saw Bully live in September and, as you might imagine, they brought the house down. This band is without any question my favorite new discovery of the year.
Why would I choose the best selling album of the year by a mile as my favorite? After all, the most popular thing in any given category is rarely the highest quality or the most exceptional. But in this case, it is. Every now and then, the planets happen to align, and with Adele’s 25, the commercial and critical worlds of music fused together in a way I’ve never seen before.
Back in 2008, Adele’s debut, 19, was my #7 album of that year. I said then, “I’m glad Adele has seen the success she so greatly deserved, and I hope she’s around for a long time.” Ha! Little did I know then that she would hardly need any of my well wishes. Her follow-up, 21, moved a few slots up to #4 on my 2011 review. By that time, I noted “her permeation of culture was obvious”. Follow the pattern — though it’s really more happenstance — and here we are now, with 25 moving up three more spaces to top my year-end review this time around. I often award this crown to artists who I have followed from the beginning and whose moment is now, at least as I see it. In past years, it was Tegan and Sara, Robyn, Foo Fighters, Jack White, and Lights. Now it’s Adele, and it’s incredibly well deserved.
The anticipation for 25 was like nothing else. In the four years since 21, Adele has only grown more respected around the world and is now firmly in the category of universally-recognizable first-name artists like Cher, Madonna, and Prince. She is the transcendent, distinguished, peerless, reigning queen of a generation. Adele commands the stage with grace, and whenever she’s not singing, she carries with her an almost unbelievable level of humility, humor, and humanity. Oh and also, it helps that her music is really, really good. Adele reinvented blue-eyed soul, pop, and R&B. Her honest, heartfelt lyrics and grand, sweeping musical arrangements are unprecedented and unparalleled.
It started this October with “Hello” and continued with “When We Were Young”, “Water Under The Bridge”, “River Lea”, “Sweetest Devotion”, and really, the entire album. At this time, it’s impossible to know or even imagine where Adele might go from here. But I know this: Despite its late November release, I listened to and connected with 25 more than any other piece of music throughout the course of the year. Make no mistake about it, 25 is my #1 album of 2015.
Sirena – “Chemicals”
Rihanna and Kanye West f/ Paul McCartney – “FourFiveSeconds”
Two Gallants – “We Are Undone”
Say Lou Lou – “Everything We Touch”
Ex Cops – “Black Soap”
Fifth Harmony f/ Kid Ink – “Worth It”
Matrimony – “Giant”
Kelly Clarkson – “Heartbeat Song”
TV On The Radio – “Happy Idiot”
Mark Ronson f/ Mystikal – “Feel Right”
Death Cab For Cutie – “Black Sun”
Chromatics – “Cherry”
Becky G – “Can’t Stop Dancin’”
Alt-J – “Left Hand Free”
Colbie Caillat – “Never Gonna Let You Down”
Alesso f/ Tove Lo – “Heroes”
Samantha Jade – “Sweet Talk”
Ashley Monroe – “On To Something Good”
Lunchmoney Lewis – “Bills”
Matt & Kim – “Get It”
Zedd f/ Selena Gomez – “I Want You To Know”
Walk The Moon – “Different Colors”
Saint Motel – “My Type”
Alabama Shakes – “Don’t Wanna Fight”
AronChupa f/ Nora Ekberg – “I’m An Albatraoz”
SAARA – “Ur Cool”
Kacey Musgraves – “Biscuits”
Lilly Wood & The Prick f/ Robin Schulz – “Prayer In C”
AlunaGeorge f/ DJ Snake – “You Know You Like It”
Rachel Platten – “Fight Song”
Ella Eyre – “Comeback”
Diet Cig – “Harvard”
Taylor Swift f/ Kendrick Lamar – “Bad Blood”
Hilary Duff – “Sparks”
Flo Rida f/ Sage The Gemini and Lookas – “GDFR”
Meg Myers – “Sorry”
Best Coast – “Feeling OK”
Britney Spears f/ Iggy Azalea – “Pretty Girls”
Lady Lamb – “Billions Of Eyes”
Gin Wigmore – “New Rush”
Kathryn Calder – “Take A Little Time”
Dawes – “Things Happen”
Of Monsters & Men – “Crystals”
Betty Who – “High Society”
Bean – “Wildfire”
X Ambassadors – “Renegades”
Spring King – “City”
Statik Selektah f/ Joey Bada$$ – “Beautiful Life”
Slaves – “Cheer Up London”
Shamir – “On The Regular”
San Fermin – “Jackrabbit”
Pharrell Williams – “Freedom”
Years & Years – “King”
Little Boots – “No Pressure”
Oliver Heldens f/ Delaney Jane – “Shades Of Grey”
Zella Day – “High”
Lauryn Hill – “Feeling Good”
Jess Glynne – “Hold My Hand”
Beck – “Dreams”
Major Lazer f/ MØ and DJ Snake – “Lean On”
Daya – “Hide Away”
Katy Tiz – “Whistle (While You Work It)”
Phoebe Ryan – “Mine”
Carrie Underwood – “Smoke Break”
Little Big Town – “Girl Crush”
Rihanna – “Bitch Better Have My Money”
Shura – “White Light”
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – “S.O.B.”
Bring Me The Horizon – “Happy Song”
Veruca Salt – “Laughing In The Sugar Bowl”
Health – “Stonefist”
Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique f/ Maluca – “Love Is Free”
Craig Wedren – “Heart Attack Love”
Alesso f/ Sirena – “Sweet Escape”
The Band Perry – “Live Forever”
FKA Twigs – “Figure 8”
Shakey Graves f/ Esmé Patterson – “Dearly Departed”
Genevieve – “Colors”
Chris Cornell – “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart”
Andra Day – “Rise Up”
Kelela – “Rewind”
Belle and Sebastian – “The Party Line”
Leona Lewis – “Thunder”
Jack Garratt – “Weathered”
Lowell f/ Icona Pop – “Ride”
Icona Pop f/ Sam Feldt – “Emergency”
Hailee Steinfeld – “Love Myself”
A$AP Rocky f/ Rod Stewart and Miguel – “Everyday”
Meg Mac – “Never Be”
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – “Downtown”
Hinds – “Garden”
Seven Lions f/ Lights – “Falling Away”
Big Grams – “Fell In The Sun”
Sia – “Alive”
Selena Gomez – “Same Old Love”
Ryan Adams – “Bad Blood”
Rudimental f/ Ed Sheeran – “Lay It All On Me”
Pure Bathing Culture – “Pray For Rain”
Deerhunter – “Breaker”
Audien f/ Lady Antebellum – “Something Better”
Conrad Sewell – “Hold Me Up”
Billie Marten – “Bird”
Disclosure f/ Lorde – “Magnets”
The 1975 – “Love Me”
Twenty One Pilots – “Tear In My Heart”
Gwen Stefani – “Used To Love You”
Ariana Grande – “Focus”
Santigold f/ B.C. – “Can’t Get Enough Of Myself”
Sara Bareilles – “She Used To Be Mine”
JONES – “Hoops”
Foo Fighters – “Saint Cecilia”
Banks – “Better”
Sigala – “Easy Love”
CL – “Hello Bitches”
Miike Snow f/ Run The Jewels – “Heart Is Full”
MØ – “Kamikaze”
Fleur East – “Sax”
KDA f/ Tinie Tempah and Katy B – “Turn The Music Louder”
DNCE – “Cake By The Ocean”
Chairlift – “Ch-Ching”
Top 40 albums
40. Colleen Green – I Want To Grow Up
39. Halsey – Badlands
38. Metric – Pagans In Vegas
37. The Dead Weather – Dodge And Burn
36. Duran Duran – Paper Gods
35. The Beverleys – Brutal
34. Phases – For Life
33. Ratatat – Magnifique
32. Mumford & Sons – Wilder Mind
31. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love
30. Lianne La Havas – Blood
29. Bea Miller – Not An Apology
28. Little Mix – Get Weird
27. Wolf Alice – My Love Is Cool
26. Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass
25. Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer
24. Tori Kelly – Unbreakable Smile
23. The Weeknd – Beauty Behind The Madness
22. Alessia Cara – Know-It-All
21. Tove Styrke – Kiddo
20. Marina & The Diamonds – Froot
19. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
18. Ryn Weaver – The Fool
17. Elle King – Love Stuff
16. Kurt Vile – B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down
15. Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp
14. Christine And The Queens – Christine And The Queens
13. Demi Lovato – Confident
12. Chvrches – Every Open Eye
11. MS MR – How Does It Feel
10. First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
9. Vanessa Carlton – Liberman
8. Carly Rae Jepsen – E•MO•TION
7. Purity Ring – Another Eternity
6. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
5. Ellie Goulding – Delirium
4. Grimes – Art Angels
3. Florence & The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
2. Bully – Feels Like
1. Adele – 25
Each year it feels like it becomes more difficult to devote the time and energy to completing these reviews, but once I finish it, I’m always glad I did. I hope you enjoyed reading along and that you discovered something new here you haven’t heard before. As I write this, it’s only 30 days into 2016, but I’m already excited about what the next year of music is bringing us. That’s it for TC’s top 40 albums of 2015. Thanks for checking it out!