It’s a bad sign for the year in music when it’s a struggle just to come up with 10 albums that would have contended for my annual list in past years. The top five on this list would hang with the best in most any year, but picking the last few slots was tricky. But it was that kind of year. There were plenty of good albums in 2015, just not many that went next level. Here’s how I ranked this year’s best albums.
1) Adele: “25” (XL/Columbia) – Adele has done what many would have considered nearly impossible – followed up her consensus 2011 album of the year, “21,” with 2015’s best album in “25.” What’s especially impressive — and refreshing — about “25” is some of the best songs (“All I Ask,” “Million Years Ago” and “Love in the Dark”) feature little more than Adele’s vocal and either piano or guitar. That these songs feel complete in that setting speaks to the superior quality of the writing and Adele’s uncommon singing talent.
2) Courtney Barnett: “Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit” (Mom + Pop Music) – Barnett has the unusual ability to take mundane observations (buying a coffee maker or driving down a highway) and spin them into profound thoughts on topics like adult responsibility, corporate greed or the fragility of life. The music is every bit as good, whether it’s spiky and catchy (“Aqua Profunda!” and “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party”) or gentler, but still a little edgy (“Small Poppies” or “Depreston”).
3) D’Angelo: “Black Messiah” (RCA) – “Black Messiah” may draw from familiar roots, such as ‘60s/’70s soul and funk, but D’Angelo’s sound is unique, and the production isn’t conventional, either. The vocals, mainly falsetto, blend into the mix, and the instrumentation washes and swirls through the songs. But rather than sounding muddy, the effect is more pleasantly woozy, drawing in the listener and leaving an intoxicating effect.
4) The Weeknd: “The Beauty Behind The Madness” (XO/Republic) – “The Beauty Behind The Madness” has much more to offer than its great single, “I Can’t Feel My Face.” There’s “Real Life,” a dramatic anthem with faux strings and a rock edge. “In The Night” has a nice swing to go with its sweet, soaring vocal melody. “Dark Times” is a deliberate and effectively haunting ballad. They join another 10 sharply crafted songs that have the Weeknd looking like he may be R&B’s next major star.
5) Jason Isbell: “Something More Than Free” (Southeastern) – With “Something More Than Free, Isbell sustains the impressive quality of his 2013 release, “Southeastern.” As on “Southeastern,” Isbell favors a mostly acoustic setting, which works perfectly on songs like the gently assertive country-tinged “If It Takes A Lifetime,” “Hudson Commodore” and “24 Frames.” Isbell has also developed into a top-rank lyricist, and these songs should resonate with anyone looking to lead a happier, more fulfilling life.
6) Florence + The Machine: “How Big How Blue How Beautiful” (Island/Republic) – Florence Welch and company show a bit more of a rock edge and a little less opulence on their third album, “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.” Songs like “Ship To Wreck,” “Mother” and the title track pack plenty of power – not to mention the sharp melodies that have always drawn fans to this acclaimed group.
7) Best Coast: “California Nights” (Harvest/Virgin EMI) – On their third album, the duo of Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno rock a little harder, while creating melodies that are so inviting and timeless that “California Nights” figures to shine and shimmer just as brightly years down the road as it does now.
8) Chris Stapleton: “Traveller” (Mercury Nashville) – Stapleton became an overnight star in November when he paired with Justin Timberlake on the CMA Awards and blew away audiences with his song “Tennessee Whiskey” and Timberlake’s “Drink You Away.” Fans will find Stapleton’s debut album, “Traveller,” just as impressive. A country traditionalist, Stapleton had seen 150 of his songs cut by other artists before making this album. But he saved enough gems to make “Traveller” 2015’s best country album.
9) The Arcs: “Yours Dearly” (Nonesuch) – Fronted by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, it’s no surprise to hear some crossover between the sound of the Arcs and Auerbach’s main band. But nearly every song on “Yours Dearly” has at least a stylistic twist that makes it distinctive to the Arcs. And even if this band a side project, the quality and creativity of “Yours Dearly” suggests Auerbach is as fully invested in the Arcs as the Black Keys.
10) Ashley Monroe: “The Blade” (Warner Bros.) – A member (with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley) of Pistol Annies, Monroe continues to make her mark as a solo artist with her lyrically smart, hooky and musically diverse (there’s country balladry, spunky pop/rock and even swampy rock) third album.
Honorable mention: Jazmine Sullivan: “Reality Show”; Wilco: “Star Wars”; Dwight Yoakam: “Second Hand Heart”; Leon Bridges: “Coming Home”; Kendrick Lamar: “To Pimp A Butterfly”; Death Cab: “Kintsugi”; Sleater-Kinney: “No Cities To Love”; Paul Weller: “Saturns Pattern”; Natalie Prass: “Natalie Prass”; Father John Misty: “I Love You, Honeybear”