One sensible reaction to living in an insensible world is to create a world of your own, and that’s exactly what we heard on many of the year’s best recordings. Here they are, ranked and pondered.
1. Rap beyond lyricism
Rap is made with words, but what if those words were just containers for oozing moods and profound metaphysical yearning? What if they’ve always been?
It might help explain why rap’s leading radicals, Young Thug and Future, sounded more spiritual than stylish this year. As lyricists, they were brilliantly elastic, but language still seemed insufficient for what they needed to get out. And they were prolific, too. Future released two stellar mix tapes, “56 Nights” and “DS2,” while Thug dropped three, “Barter 6,” “Slime Season” and “Slime Season 2.”
But respectively, their music came from disparate zones. Future has never sounded deeper, lower or more depleted, as if he’d been digging holes in the Mariana Trench. Above sea level, Young Thug’s ecstatic babble continued to detonate like transcendental fireworks high up in the exosphere – a flashing, combustible brilliance burning at the edge of a vast darkness.
2. Revenge of the lead singers
Rock ‘n’ roll is still dead, which forces the cool zombies who still sing it to try harder at sounding alive.
So there’s this guy, Shogun (a stage name), from the Australian band Royal Headache, who shout-sings through his band’s outstanding second album, “High,” as if the only way to blast through life’s biggest disappointments is by chasing even bigger desires.
Joe Casey sounds alive, too, but just barely. On Protomartyr’s taut third album, “The Agent Intellect,” the Detroit frontman is alone at the end of the bar, scribbling deadpan poetry on coasters, sketching escape routes out of this doomed world.
And while Philadelphia’s Sheer Mag released only four songs this year – they appear on an EP titled “II” – “Fan the Flames” was one of 2015’s best, thanks to singer Christina Halladay, whose melodic growl was as serrated as her bandmates’ guitars.
3. Ellie Goulding, “Delirium”
It seems like typical, big-hearted, big-tent radio stuff on first touch, but this album is an achievement. More than any other contemporary singer, Goulding has become one with the pop machine, finding ways to make her voice sound every bit as gigantic, beautiful, fake and hyper-real as the electronic melodies she surrounds herself with. She’s vapor-locked inside of these songs.
4. Kelela, “Hallucinogen”
Contemporary R&B is heavily populated with old souls and neo-souls. Genuine tomorrow-souls? Those are rare. But across this exquisite six-song EP, Kelela sounds like one of the few – a futurist in the mold of Janet, Mariah and Aaliyah, sending us love letters from the 22nd century.
5. Fetty Wap’s endless summer
Remember in the springtime when “Trap Queen” felt like a lock for the song of the summer and the guy singing it was en route to one-hit-wonderland? Then Fetty dropped “679.” And then he dropped “My Way.” And then he dropped “Again.” And then he dropped an album filled with even more wild-hearted rap songs that should make us wonder if Labor Day ever really happened.
6. Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker The Berry” and “Alright”
“To Pimp a Butterfly” wasn’t a perfect album, but imagine its two most perfect songs on a 12-inch vinyl single, fury on one side, hope on the flip, two sides of a coin, a piece of American currency that isn’t going out of circulation in this broken republic anytime soon.
7. Bjork, “Vulnicura”
Visionaries rarely throw us anything as straightforward as a breakup album, but it would be wrongheaded to dismiss “Vulnicura” as some kind of concession or self-indulgence. Bjork has always been masterful at making pop abstractions feel familiar. Is there anything more familiar and abstract than the madness of a human heartbreak?
8. Liturgy, “The Ark Work”
Metal taxonomists have wasted so much energy building their dumb little jail for this band to live in, but if you elevate your listening above the genre’s border disputes, you’ll hear bandleader Hunter Hunt-Hendrix creating his own lavish sound-world out of guitar-generated turbulence, computer-generated brass and the muscle-generated rhythms of Greg Fox, one of the greatest drummers doing it.
9. Superb country singers singing superbly
This year, country music’s messy civil wars over stylistic authenticity and gender inequity on the airwaves continued to inspire debate over who should be singing what in Nashville. But did anyone remember to listen to the singing itself?
Some of the year’s finest singing – in any genre – could be found on Ashley Monroe’s “The Blade,” a rich and sturdy songbook where Monroe handles her most devastating lines with her most delicate touch.
Almost as nuanced was “Mr. Misunderstood,” the sixth studio album from Eric Church, a born balladeer who is slowly, wisely abandoning toughness for tenderness.
10. Windhand, “Grief’s Infernal Flower”
Here’s a heavy-metal band with an obvious love for decibels and a discreet contempt for momentum. The riffs churn slow and steady, but they always go on for a little too long – and then once you’ve reacclimated to the expanse, everything grinds to a halt. It’s music that steals your life, then gives you a little more.