Five years is an eternity in the life of a record. And after the shit show that was 2020, it’s no wonder we wanted to run for the sweet sounds of a time before Donald Trump took office.

When coming up with this feature, the question the Spectrum Culture staff pondered was this: “How well do these albums play NOW!” Not five years ago, but how have they aged in our memories. While some acclaimed albums of 2015 remain strong on our list, some critically-lauded ones didn’t have the staying power. In Colour, Art Angels and Wildheart all didn’t make the cut. This list is designed to give new perspective on things five years old. Thank you so much for reading! Here is what we said in 2015.

10. Low – Ones and Sixes [Sub Pop]

Change was inevitable for the Duluth, MN trio and long-running slowcore giants Low. After the diminishing returns from 2013’s underappreciated (and Jeff Tweedy-produced) The Invisible Way, Low pivoted in an unexpected way by hiring the still relatively obscure producer BJ Burton to helm the triad’s 11th studio album, Ones and Sixes. Recorded at Justin Vernon’s April Base Studios, Low realigned themselves for the next phase in their career and proved that they could reinvent themselves.

Songs like “No Comprende” and “No End” aren’t usual Low tracks, with rock-pop tendencies stretched out across the Low landscapes. It’s still very much a Low record, but these instances revitalized an act that was still good but feeling stagnant at the start of the 2010s. It doesn’t land in the band’s top five albums of all time, but it does mark a tremendous reappraisal of what they can do. When the tandem of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker coalesce on “What Part of Me,” it’s akin to watching perfect latte art poured from a pitcher—it all fits together and warms the soul.

There’s hardly a misstep on Ones and Sixes. It encompasses so much of what the band has been doing over the decades, and highlights their strongest elements culled from their best albums like Things We Lost in the Fire and Drums and Guns. Long appreciated for their density in craft, Low shine some much-needed clarity on their music and BJ Burton holds the light in place for that. Burton’s production and mixing would catch the eye of Bon Iver and lead him towards great appreciation with 22, A Million and standout moments with Chance the Rapper and Francis and the Lights on their blossoming projects. This new beginning for the band didn’t course-correct, it simply laid out the pieces, so that when Low returned to Burton for Double Negative, the foundation was already there. – Tim Sentz

9. Joanna Newsom – Divers [Drag City]

Joanna Newsom has been quiet since the release of Divers in 2015. Yet if the Californian, classically trained harpist never issues anything again, her fourth album will remain a stunning distillation of her artistic vision.

There were few signs of where she’d head when she emerged in 2004 as part of the freak-folk movement. The Milk-Eyed Mender had moments of charm but it also seemed determined to be kooky. Its follow ups – Ys and Have One on Me – made huge artistic leaps forward but challenged the listener by being a five-song concept suite and a triple album, respectively.

Divers took this creative ambition and compacted it to its essential elements. In just under one-hour, she delivers on her promise and more, being just as experimental as her two previous albums but also striving to be accessible. Or as accessible as it’s possible to be with lyrics that hardcore fans believe reference everyone from van Gogh to former New York mayor John Purroy Mitchel.
When it was released, it sounded like nothing else around, and five years later that hasn’t changed. The baroque strings, arranged by eight musicians including Nico Muhly and variously performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, are influenced by the folk of the Incredible String Band. Her mannered, childlike delivery has earned her oft-mentioned comparisons to Kate Bush. Yet she blends these into material that’s completely and idiosyncratically her own.

The attention to detail is the one area she does warrant parallels to Bush. She told Entertainment Weekly that she’d spent a couple of years on the instrumental arrangements and overdubs alone. Further, the album forms a continuous loop with final song “Time, As a Symptom” ending on the word “trans-“ (abbreviated from transcend) and the first word on opening track “Anecdotes” being “sending.”

The album is concerned with the twin themes of love and death but it sounds more like “the joy of life.” Transporting the listener into another time and space, it may not be perfect, but it’s difficult to imagine how it could be bettered. – Susan Darlington

8. Kamasi Washington – The Epic [Brainfeeder]

The last decade has been an embarrassment of riches for jazz fans. It’s a huge genre, with plenty of idiosyncrasies – that is, it can be intimidating to get into. It doesn’t help that old heads can be prone to gatekeeping, or finding any excuse to talk about why the jazz of years past is better than the new stuff. But forget them. As far as such things can be said to exist, you’re living through a golden age of jazz. And while Kamasi Washington’s The Epic – appropriately named, given that it comes in at just under three hours – may not be the very best record of this golden era, it might be the best place to start.

Opener “Change of the Guard” sets the tone with a cosmic choir foregrounded by rotating solo improvisations, all driven by lithe percussion. Occasionally, vocals take center stage, like on the Sun Ra influenced “The Rhythm Changes” and jazz standard “Cherokee,” which is injected with an undertone of funk. “Re Run” begins with dramatic orchestral sweep before mining harsher territory. As hour three draws near, the band’s rendition of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” provides a theatrical respite – with a groove so deep you could crawl into it – before the blistering closers: “Malcolm’s Theme” and “The Message.”

Clearly, 2015 was Kamasi Washington’s year, releasing this, his long-awaited major label debut, and appearing prominently on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. But between the two, The Epic is the one I’ve returned to most since, the one I’ve put on when hanging out with friends, the one I’ve pushed eagerly into the hands of the jazz-curious. It’s a beautiful summation of where jazz has been over the last 50 years, and an impressive gateway for those curious about where it might go in the next half-century. – Ian Maxton

7. Tame Impala – Currents [Interscope]

The tired old “rockism vs. poptimism” debate reared its head again in the mid-2010s as the indiesphere embraced pop stars like Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and Carly Rae Jepsen. But Tame Impala was one of the most notable acts for whom the pendulum swung the other way, with singer/songwriter/studio-wizard Kevin Parker crossing over from indie darling to Max Martin wannabe. Tame Impala’s third album, Currents, arrived right in the middle of that transformation – too few guitars to be a rock album, too weird to be a mainstream pop album. Then again, no other rock band, and no pop artist, made an album as sleek and catchy and chameleonic as Currents in 2015. I don’t know if anyone else even could have.

It wasn’t released as a single, but “Yes I’m Changing” functions as the record’s thesis statement – not just an acceptance of change, but an invitation to it. “Yes I’m changing, yes I’m gone/ …And if you don’t think it’s a crime/ You can come along with me,” Parker croons. It’s a breakup song, though he doesn’t sound too heartsick about it, reassuring his ex that there’s a new future for her with someone else. (He flips the sentiment on its head on the very next track, singing, “I know that I’ll be happier/ And I know you will too—eventually.”) But Currents marks the end of more than just a relationship – it’s the end of Tame Impala as a rock band, or even an actual band. Say hello to Kevin Parker the sonic auteur, who cooks up dazzling psychedelic disco tracks like “Let It Happen” and “The Less I Know the Better.” This is a guy who can write “‘Cause I’m a Man” and make it sound like it could’ve been sung by Marvin Gaye, and “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” which actually was sung by Rihanna.

Shit, there’s more energy packed into “Nangs” and “Disciples,” two songs that don’t even add up to four minutes, than on half of last year’s The Slow Rush. And that’s why, five years later, we still can’t get enough of Currents: It doesn’t matter whether it’s a rock album or a pop album. It’s just one of the year’s finest collections of songs in any genre, produced by a master craftsman at the peak of his powers. – Jacob Nierenberg

6. Björk – Vulnicura [One Little Indian]

In just the third line of Björk’s eighth studio album, Vulnicura, the singer provides the thesis for the record: “Moments of clarity are so rare/ I have to document this.” Every generation gets the divorce record it deserves, from In the Wee Small Hours to Sea Change, and Vulnicura is no exception. It proves to be a scathing look into the leadup to, and aftermath of, her divorce from her longtime husband, Cremaster and Drawing Restraint 9 director Matthew Barney. The artist bares her whole soul, mining every emotion she can dredge up: “Lionsong” tackles it with forced acceptance, while the wholly remarkable “Black Lake” seeks to elegantly slice her ex-lover open. One song later, she’s asking him where to “pay respects to the death of my family.” It’s not gentle, and it’s better for it.

That lack of gentleness is Vulnicura’s greatest strength. The album cover, featuring Björk with an exceedingly yonic hole in her sternum, represents the album’s everlasting theme of being “open-chested” in her grieving. She spends a chunk of the record wallowing in that sadness, with songs like “History of Touches” and “Black Lake” examining the moment of impact like a crime scene analyst. On “Mouth Mantra,” she uncannily draws a line from a throat surgery to a desire to triumph over feeling voiceless. It ends on a wholly positive note with Björk’s fragmenting voice celebrating the wholeness she feels as a mother to her daughter, Ísadóra.
For as much as the artist lost, Vulnicura does provide a birth: it marks her first collaboration with Venezuelan avant-garde producer Arca, who has proven to be her most fruitful muse since Matmos left their fingerprints all over Vespertine. The pairing is blissfully natural, to the point where their talents seem like they were made for each other; her production is a remarkable blend of beautifully crafted beats and evocative strings, all of which meld in ways both innovative and classically Björkian.
In a career rife with alien emotions and landscapes, Vulnicura felt like it did more to show the inner life of Björk as a human being than anything else she’s made to date. It’s a triumph of the heart and spirit, and more than anything she’s created, it feels like an album only she could make. – Holly Hazelwood

5. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit [Mom + Pop Music]

Think of those moments when you seek out a particular YouTube video, but through recommendations and your need for curiosity or comfort, you go down a rabbit hole of unrelated content for an hour. That’s what it’s like listening to Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. On her debut, Courtney Barnett brings a near-singular ability to turn the chaos of our wandering minds into songs that add up to something. Whether serious, silly or sanguine, she sings, plays and writes with an effortless, conversational style that instantly connects.

In Barnett’s hands, mundane aspects of everyday life are given gravity. On “Depreston,” over a melody you can listen to for hours, house-hunting evolves into a sobering look at the passage of time and the disposability of modern society. “Dead Fox” and its warped, taut guitar turn lyrics about traveling trucks into a point on the harmful nature of big business. “Kim’s Caravan” blows up this viewpoint to a lament on the environmental devastation of our planet.

Some of Barnett’s best songs go not only into her own head and heart, but all of ours too. On “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York),” Barnett wanders from books she “skim-read in a surgery” to the art-deco style of her apartment, but centers herself and the song with a romantic line – “I’m thinking of you too.” During “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party,” she harmonizes a simple chorus of “I wanna go out but I wanna stay home,” a thought that virtually everyone has had at one time or another. “Pedestrian at Best” remains one of the catchiest rock songs of the last five years, where Barnett’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics rise in intensity with her grungy guitar until exploding into a pulse-racing, singalong chorus.

It’s no surprise that Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit sent Barnett into the stratosphere. Sometimes, an artist lives up to the hype, and she certainly has, continuing to write powerful music and lyrics that relate to the thoughts bouncing around our minds day after day. – Joe Marvilli

4. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06 [Def Jam]

Summertime ‘06 came out when the prevailing trends that pointed towards rap’s future were pill-addled Soundcloud beats or self-pitying club tracks, and it plants itself somewhere far removed from either of those. This isn’t to say that Vince Staples is a socially conscious throwback; while his rhymes are very much grounded in his experience as a Black kid growing up poor in Los Angeles, he doesn’t search for positivity where there isn’t any, nor does he make pleas to the power structures that have so often marginalized people like him. Instead, Vince presents things as they are on Summertime ‘06, and his focused disengagement is something truly compelling. The ennui expressed throughout the album is palpable; Vince does everything he can to make this world of drugs, gangs and violence seem both real and utterly soul-crushing. Even when he allows for a moment of happiness on “Summertime,” he makes it feel like a dream or hallucination, as if feeling anything would have to be a figment of his imagination.

Vince doesn’t do all the lifting in making this icy, empty atmosphere take shape. Summertime ‘06 is one of the most sonically captivating rap albums of the decade, a minimalist masterpiece of synths and percussion that creates a mood more despondent than the post-punk that Staples took inspiration from in choosing the album’s artwork. Overseen by No I.D., the album is the best project he’s worked on since Yeezus, and the utterly impeccable beats from Clams Casino deserve special attention. He works “Norf Norf” into the rare rap single that fits in with the album that it’s on while also having enough hooks for radio, a particularly rare accomplishment in the current musical landscape. For all of the collaborative work, though, Summertime still belongs to Vince Staples, an all-time great who established the essential nature of his work right from the start. – Kevin Korber

3. Carly Rae Jepsen – E·MO·TION [Interscope]

There’s something a little nonsensical about the lyrical content of Carly Rae Jepsen’s E·MO·TION, but that’s its romantic touch. Gazing at the stars, the whole thing is a vision of that nebulous phrase at its center: “All that we could do with this emotion.” This vision springs from feeling (hers and ours, shared like a secret), and, as we listen, it’s hard to suppress the notion that any privately held dream could come true. Longing travels to every place along emotion’s spectrum, and this album is about the realization of that as it unfolds at the meeting place of intimacy and grandeur. It’s major-label music that sounds out with the deep interiority of small-scale pop, thanks to Jepsen’s immersive dedication to her craft and the collaborating producers and writers that connect us to that dedication’s affective pulse: Dev Hynes, Haim, Max Martin, Rostam Batmanglij, Robyn.

The result is a distillation of desire that gets at emotional complexity through expansive means: it favors broad impressions that feel like revelations when embraced and imagined out into life’s pellucid infinity. “Over the weekend, we can turn the world to gold,” she sings on soaring opener “Run Away with Me,” and the album proceeds to run-dance to the fulfillment of an even greater promise: world to gold, finely spun, in only 44 minutes.

The leadup to its release was an equally beautiful thing, a careful extension of that sublime flirtation she’d captured but not taken seriously enough on “Call Me Maybe,” which was overplayed to oblivion anyways. Lead single “I Really Like You” was the logical earwormy follow-up to the song that propelled her to the top of the charts, and later pre-release drops like “Warm Blood” and “Making the Most of the Night” hinted at how that PG-rated declaration of affection could morph into an expression of spiritual purity, the kind usually left unspoken for fear of coming across as naive. E·MO·TION reveals an artist discovering and fully inhabiting her sound instead of shaping it to others’ expectations, and, for this reason, it’s a masterpiece of lived pop sensation, alive in every ‘80s-wrought, synthesized pulse. – Jeff Heinzl

2. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell [Asthmatic Kitty]

“Fourth of July,” the devastating centerpiece of Carrie & Lowell, closes with a despondent Sufjan Stevens repeating “We’re all gonna die.” While the somber studio recording clouds with grief in its final minute, the live version, released two years later on Carrie & Lowell Live, builds to an explosive, cathartic climax of drums and heavy synths as Sufjan adds the lyric “But I’m still alive.”

This final glimmer of hope separates all the songs on the live record from the studio album, the latter of which portrays the indie icon’s struggles in coping with the death of his mother, Carrie. The live versions break out into euphoric finales while the tender studio recordings refuse to offer any sign of recovery. Sufjan finds healing in his audience as he begs “Tell me you want me in your life,” leaning on the human connection that escapes him in the studio takes.

Still brilliant on its own, Carrie & Lowell has revealed itself to be one side of a coin. Five years and a live album later, Stevens’ seventh studio album empowers us to feel grief in order to survive and grow from it. Now that we’ve seen Sufjan heal through these songs, his attempts to hide from his grief through drugs, sex, religion and memories ironically allow us to experience mourning directly.

Sonically, Carrie & Lowell still puts us in such a headspace. Often touted as Sufjan’s “return to folk,” the album is underappreciated in its masterful electronic production. Sure, he returns to guitar-driven songwriting, but each track is slowly taken over by droning synths and brooding ambient effects. Instrumental grief overwhelms Stevens’ misty-eyed singing as angelic backing vocals sing like ghosts. Death is felt in such a unique and poignant way on Carrie & Lowell, and the listening experience has only been enhanced by time and Sufjan’s equally well-documented recovery through these same songs. – Aaron Paskin

1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly [Interscope/Aftermath/Top Dawg]

While it may be easier than ever to access great music, the end of monoculture has made epoch-defining, event albums an extreme rarity. Barring Beyoncé’s self-titled and Lemonade LPs, arguably no record of the 2010s proved more zeitgeist-defining and universally acclaimed than Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Building on the immense wave of hype of its predecessor, Lamar’s third album expanded on its mixture of introspective confessionals and social commentary, delivering a record as brittle and insular as it is massive and far-seeing. Lamar seems increasingly out of step in a hip-hop scene that has ascended to cultural dominance with blends of pop and R&B; his own vision instead feels like a belated synthesis of the East Coast vs. West Coast feud of the 1990s, blending L.A.’s damp G-funk sonic grounding with the more clear-eyed, critical lyricism of New York rap.

And yet, Lamar’s lyrical subjects were entirely of-the-moment. On “King Kunta,” he turns stereotypical imagery of Black people against itself, reclaiming it to raze it to the ground, while “The Blacker the Berry” captures the ferocious id-response to current events like the Trayvon Martin slaying and the wave of protests against police brutality even as it questions violence within the Black community. Tracks like “u,” on the other hand, delved into his mental health issues even as “These Walls” broadened out into complex ruminations on sex, love and self-image. Whether Lamar has the best flow or lyrics of his generation is for the heads to debate, but the forcefulness of his worldview undoubtedly shines through. Nowhere is this more evident than on “Alright,” perhaps the closest thing to a true generational anthem in the fractured 2010s when it became the definitive song for Black Lives Matter protests and a defiant assertion of will in an increasingly hopeless society. Culture is processed and forgotten at a record pace now, but To Pimp a Butterfly proudly lives on years later, if anything only strengthened by retrospective evaluations of a turbulent decade of sociopolitics and art alike. – Jake Cole

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