20. Earl Sweatshirt
I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
Throughout his career, Earl Sweatshirt has matured faster than he can make albums. As a result, he’s suffered from an identity crisis; he’s only got three releases to his name, and it’s a different Earl on each of them. The MC solves this problem on his second studio album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside by being…just Earl. In uncomfortable detail, he discusses his tenuous relationships with friends, family and fans. It’s easy to call this album “unflinchingly honest,” but that implies a clarity of thought that’s absent here. He’s never sure if he’s doing drugs because he enjoys them or because he’s addicted, if he’s enjoying life or just refusing to stop and think about his situation.
“Earl Sweatshirt” is, of course, both a person and a pop star, and one of I Don’t Like Shit’s greatest strengths is its awareness of this. Confessional pop albums tend to avoid talking about fame, if only because it’s hard to write about being famous and unhappy without garnering skepticism. It’s a testament to Sweatshirt’s skill at communicating his emotions that he’s able to make a line like “they the reason that the paper in your trousers thick” sound like a genuine show of appreciation towards his fans.
The decision to make this album only 30 minutes long also feels like a gesture of goodwill towards his listeners. “WHEN YOU GET DONE LISTENING TO IT, LISTEN TO IT AGAIN,” went Sweatshirt’s tweet that accompanied the album release. It might seem like an odd way to sell an album this harrowing. But I Don’t Like Shit is designed, above all else, to be listened to. It’s an exorcism that also serves to show the world who Earl Sweatshirt really is, and why you should pay attention. – Daniel Bromfield
19. Tame Impala
It’s always a risky venture opening your album with a nine-minute extended dance-apocalyptic jam like “Let It Happen,” but for Kevin Parker & Co., the audacious opener is just a hint of the majesty to come. Behold Currents, Tame Impala’s third and best LP—a masterful synthesis of melody and mood, a Day-Glo fantasia that doubles its rewards with every repeated listen.
Currents is Parker’s airiest recording yet, trading the Lennon-aping psychedelia and pounding guitar hooks of Lonerism for spritely synths and gorgeously disembodied vocals. Yet, even as he cultivates a characteristic sound, Parker’s songwriting itself remains as pleasantly versatile as ever. Currents offers, in equal measure, sexy bedroom funk (“Cause I’m A Man”), ramshackle rockers (“Eventually”), unclassifiable trippy experiments (“Past Life”) and good old-fashioned pop ditties (“The Moment,” “Disciples”), all awash in a gorgeous cosmic sheen.
What makes Currents all the more impressive is that even as it reaches musically and epically for the stars, it remains lyrically grounded in the romantic confusion and inner turmoil of Parker’s own mind. Parker has always been an introvert, a loner, but here his ruminations radiate with greater significance while simultaneously remaining relatable. The synapses of the brain resemble lunar bodies to traverse, every heartbreak becomes an unstoppable force of nature. Had this been released in 1976, it would now be an AM rock classic, and yet, an album like Currents could only truly emerge this beautifully in the present moment. With all due respect to the great Hans Zimmer, this is what an interstellar journey should sound like. As Parker sings on “Yes I’m Changing,” “And if you don’t think it’s a crime, you can come along with me”. Trust me, go along with him—it’s one voyage you won’t regret. – Zachary Bernstein
18. Julia Holter
Have You in My Wilderness
Well, this was unexpected. No one would have pegged Julia Holter to make an album as approachable as Have You in My Wilderness. The album floats in with a gentle breeze, with many of Holter’s more experimental tendencies nowhere to be seen. On the surface, it would appear as if Wilderness lacks substance, especially in comparison to darker records like Loud City Song. Light and sweet doesn’t always equal empty, though, and Wilderness is still a tremendous piece of work from an artist at the peak of her powers. Holter uses this more accessible aesthetic to draw the listener in for a more intimate experience. “Sea Calls Me Home” recalls a more ornate Joni Mitchell or a brighter Nick Drake. Elsewhere, as on the down-tempo “How Long?,” her iciness returns in a way that really cuts deep into the listener. There’s not much precedent in Holter’s catalog for a record like Have You in My Wilderness, but the joy remains even after the shock wears off. This is music that’s easy to listen to, as opposed to “easy listening.” By grounding herself in something slightly more tangible, Julia Holter has opened up a completely different side of her music, one that we can all embrace. – Kevin Korber
17. Tobias Jesso, Jr.
[True Panther Sounds]
With a sound that harkens back to a bygone era, Tobias Jesso, Jr. proved himself in 2015 to be an admirable torchbearer for what has essentially amounted to a revitalization of emotionally resonant, confessional singer-songwriters. On his debut album, Goon, Jesso’s piano-based compositions fall nicely in line with the work of such ‘70s luminaries as Harry Nilsson, Carole King and Todd Rundgren. Like his predecessors, Jesso manages on Goon to convey a host of deeply personal lyrical sentiments with a subtle universality that lends the album a broad appeal. Relying almost solely on his voice and piano, Jesso’s sparse arrangements tap into the heart of the human condition by unleashing subtle and deftly executed bits of emotional nuance. In particular, opening track “Can’t Stop Thinking about You” sets the tone for the whole of Goon in its plainspoken, emotionally charged narrative.
With this in mind, it should come as little surprise that in addition to releasing his stellar debut, 2015 also saw Jesso contributing to one of the biggest albums of the new millennium in Adele’s 25. By co-writing and performing on that album’s “When We Were Young,” Jesso has set himself up for what should amount to a career that reaches the heights of his most direct inspirations. It’s not for nothing that Goon features songs with titles like “Without You,” “Can We Still Be Friends” and “For You,”—each an original composition that cheekily employs the names of hits by the likes of Nilsson, Rundgren and Springsteen—that function as a direct parallel to the artists and sounds within which the album itself is rooted. It may not be the most original release of 2015 given its inherent familiarity, but like its sonic and emotional source material, Goon possesses the potential to transcend the year of its release and join the pantheon of exceptional singer-songwriter debuts. – John Paul
Why even bother dance to anything else? Boasting two of the catchiest singles released in 2015, “Call It Off” and “On the Regular,” Shamir’s Ratchet is a pitch-perfect, ear-wormy album of postgender pop that defies expectations from the very first song. While Shamir rose to fame on the back of his peppy synth and bouncy falsetto, “Vegas” opens the album with meditations on sin and hedonism, clearly establishing the darker, more mature and no less infectious tone of their debut LP. With soaring party tracks like “Make a Scene” dishing out hot takes on “stranger kisses,” “pixie dust” and the difficulty of finding good guys, Shamir pushes a nuanced exploration of romance, gender and contemporary youth from the fringes of modern pop to its most danceable center. It’s smart, it’s progressive and it’s as musically fresh as it is socially instructive.
More than anything else, Ratchet emphasizes the immediate, the indulgent, the pleasurable narcissism of being young and having fun, not matter what that makes others think about you. While they may indict the “ka-ching, ka-ching” symphonies of sin and slot machines, Shamir is always quick to remind us that such selfish acts of pleasure are all right, “at least at night.” – Jesse Nee-Vogelman