SPIN’s The 50 Best Albums of 2015 So Far

We’re nearly halfway through 2015, so we’ve taken it upon ourselves to once again assemble your summer-listening list: triumphant returns from riot grrrl and Britpop vets, a disco-house phenom’s debut, a feminist post-punk manifesto, post-breakup records from an R&B underdog and an art-rock luminary, and so much more, arranged alphabetically by artist.

Action Bronson, Mr. Wonderful 

Action Bronson’s major-label debut is the rare rap album that actually rewards its mixtape following. For one, it doesn’t stray from the collaborators who made him great in the first place — Party Supplies and the Alchemist are all over this thing and brought their A-game, and even the few high-profile risks were worth the trouble, like when Noah “40” Shebib departs from the atmospheric style that made Drake famous to put a mind-bending backwards accordion loop on the first single, “Actin’ Crazy.” At this moment, Bronson has the best ear for classic East Coast beats in the world; try the GZA-ready organ plinks of “Falconry,” or big finale “Easy Rider,” which vrooms off into the sunset on the back of some psychedelic Sahara guitar reminiscent of Group Doueh or Tinariwen. — DAN WEISS

Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color

Alabama Shakes epitomize what a rock band should be in this era, mostly for what they lack. Confidence oozes out of every note that pours from singer Brittany Howard’s mouth, but it doesn’t translate to a big-headed ego. And most importantly, they manage to channel a spectrum of musical influences — including Southern soul and glam rock — without retreading the well-worn paths that others are content to glide on. On their second full-length, Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes aren’t even comfortable following in their own footsteps, as successful as they were — and this time around, guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockerell, and drummer Steve Johnson let the world know that they’re more than just a backing band for a powerful set of pipes. Howard’s boisterous voice, inarguably the sparkling lure that hooked listeners on 2012’sBoys and Girls, is as present as ever, but noticeably muted at times. It seems like an odd choice to bury something so precious under layers of effects, but it proves they needn’t rely on her wild force to succeed. — NATASHA AFTANDILIANS

American Wrestlers, American Wrestlers
(Fat Possum)

The term “lo-fi” has come to be predominantly associated in underground rock with the omnipresent hiss and static of a 20-song Robert Pollard LP, but the audio of American Wrestlers is shitty in a more 21st-century way: poorly compressed, tinny-sounding, and frayed around the edges. That sounds problematic and might be a hard workaround for some audiophiles, but it’s a good match for the album’s tunes, which are gloriously open-armed and instantly connective. The soupy sonics, looping guitar riffs, and surprise shredding of one-man band Gary McClure may put American Wrestlers in league with acts like Real Estate and War on Drugs, but the melodies are pure ’70s AM gold. You could go mad trying to recall what crossover classics the heart-clutching hooks to jams like “There’s No Crying Over Me” and “I Can Do No Wrong” are vaguely reminiscent of, but it’s more that the music is in McClure’s DNA, less him pulling off any specifically insidious thefts. —ANDREW UNTERBERGER

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba, Ba Power

Bassekou Kouyaté’s band is Ngoni Ba, whichtranslates roughly as “The Big Ngoni,” a pretty terrific description of what Kouyaté’s selling, if you know what an “ngoni” is. “Lute” is the usual approximation, and that’s accurate insofar as the wood- or gourd-based ngoni is a Malian variant (even if the West African-derived and more percussive banjo seems a closer spiritual cousin). But Kouyaté’s ngoni collection has been retrofitted into hybridized electric instruments festooned with pickups, decked out with additional strings, and gloriously hooked through wah-wah pedals. The blueprint for much of Ba Power is the most raucous track from his 2013 breakout album, Jama Ko: the galloping “Ne Me Fatigue Pas,” memorably punctuated by organ jabs suggestive of classic Afrobeat. Kouyaté offers an even more explicit nod towards Nigeria’s Fela Kuti this time around via the propulsive “Waati.” Kicking off with sharp riff cuts as koras skitter around the edges and the drums blast forth, it’s a swift Afro-rock tour de force. But more idyllic sections resonate, too: The lovely “Te Duniya Laban” rivals anything off of Jama Ko, a lilting ode floating atop gentle blues/country ngoni. — JASON GUBBELS

Best Coast, California Nights

Best Coast’s most ambitious full-length to date, California Nights dims the sunlight, juices up the turmoil, and demands a second look at a band that’s actually been subverting its own pigeonhole since 2009. The laziest way to approach this LP would be to tag it as the duo’s “serious album,” which makes sense if you completely ignored the fine-tuned heartbreak of Crazy for You and its miserably beautiful, Jon Brion-arranged successor, The Only Place. But the story with California Nights is much less emotional than sonic: It’s a case study in Going BiggerTM while fending off the inevitable “struggle to maintain artistic integrity” charge. The tracks aren’t quite the bedroom-fidelity sleepers they leaned on in the past, but zigging when you could easily just — pardon me — coast is all the more commendable. — BRENNAN CARLEY

Björk, Vulnicura
(One Little Indian)

Vulnicura doesn’t have the reach-out-and-grab-your-attention quality of Björk’s more technicolor works, but it possesses a dramatic weight in its own right, moving along a Kübler-Ross model as Björk examines the death of her relationship and the end of her world, touching on early denial with “Lionsong” (“Maybe he will come out of this loving me”), anger (“I am bored of your / Apocalyptic obsessions,” which also feels like a pretty wicked burn on Barney’s Cremaster Cycle), and depression (the slow, wordless coda on centerpiece “Black Lake”) as well as, if not hope, at least moving forward on “Mouth Mantra” (“Now I sacrifice this scar / Can you cut it off?”). All the while the backing tracks shift from mournful and defeated to… slightly less mournful and defeated. After a decade of diving deep into the abstract, Björk’s now more grounded and human than ever, thanks to the two most unfathomable ideas of them all: love and heartache. — MICHAEL TEDDER

Black Cilice, Mysteries
(Iron Bonehead)

Black Cilice has remained willfully esoteric for the entirety of their existence, but now that they’ve sworn allegiance to the underground darlings at the Iron Bonehead label, those days are numbered. WithMysteries, this Portuguese entity has recorded its best album yet, and one of 2015’s early triumphs. This kind of raw, atmospheric black metal harkens back to when the genre was still wet with afterbirth. Here, simplicity is paramount, though there’s more to these songs than one might immediately assume from the lo-fi production and stark aesthetic. Its melodies stagger through storms of wicked tremolo, slicing through the hypnotically repetitive riffs like a scythe. Mysteries may demand complete attention in order to unlock its secrets, but luckily for Black Cilice — and for us — it’s worth it. — KIM KELLY

Blur, The Magic Whip

What Magic Whip shares with the rest of Blur’s catalog, and the thing that reminds you about what a special band this is, is its general sense of unpredictability. Even without the roadblock riffers of the last few albums, or the oom-pah instrumentals of the “Life” trilogy, there’s a variety of left turns taken on Magic Whip, with the sizzling new-wave guitar-pop of “I Broadcast” zooming out of nowhere to enliven the album’s middle stretch, and the spectral builds to tracks like “Spaceman” and “Pyongyang” elevating those songs into stratospheres far beyond what you’d expect from their earthbound intros. Even without a pop classic like “Girls & Boys” or “For Tomorrow” to its credit, or a song suite as affecting as 13‘s brutal second half, Magic Whip finds enough majesty and intrigue in the band’s more meditative days to remain worthy company to any of the band’s classic LPs. — A.U.

The Body / Thou, You, Whom I Have Always Hated
(Thrill Jockey)

Thanks to their shared, self-assigned task of redefining what “doom metal” can be, the Body and Thou are two of the most important names in extreme music right now; critics love them, fansreally love them, and best of all, the two entities love each other. You, Whom I Have Always Hated packages together six new songs with Released from Love, a limited collaborative EP the superduo released in 2014. It sees their respective chaos energies feeding off one another to culminate in a 50-minute-long Ouroborosian orgy of feedback, fuzz, debilitating riffs, and nerve-wracking noise. Their mutual love for industrial surfaces in a chilling Nine Inch Nails cover, and their buried, sludgy roots often lumber into view. Every note sounds instinctual, every moment fluid; this is what happens when good friends come together to watch the world burn. — K.K.

Cannibal Ox, The Blade of Ronin

Besides the usual mystical imagination of two guys prone to titling songs “Battle for Asgard,” a rōnin is a samurai with no masters. Sounds about right; Cannibal Ox have nothing to lose and loads to prove. But let’s not get too swept up in an underdog story.Ronin is a very good album and new producer BILL COSMIQ’s beats run along the lines of “contemplative orchestral fanfare,” with washes of psychedelia and Shaolin-style code-speak. Thirty-seven-year-old, gruff-voiced headliner Vast Aire still has an instantly recognizable delivery unlike almost anyone else — Freeway meets, uh, Lyrics Born maybe? — and still crafts deliriously beautiful rhyme origami punctuated by non-sequiturs. His boasts can be fantastically bizarre (“I’m the spy who loved your daughter / But on this night I’m the sergeant of slaughter”), and on “Psalm 82″ he utters the most menacing “Olly olly oxen free!” of all time. Sometimes he falls flat (“Hey, ain’t you that dude who got caught touching Pikachu?”), but overall the new Ox benefits well from the changed landscape; with production shorn of El-P’s weirdness ten years ago, tracks like “Blade (The Art of Ox)” or the Doom-assisted “Iron Rose” would’ve registered as high-grade Jedi Mind Tricks. Now they’re sweeping vestiges of a lost art, avant-rap with something to chew on. — D.W.

Chastity Belt, Time to Go Home
(Hardly Art)

Gather your crystals, because the sophomore album by Seattle post-punk quartet Chastity Belt fluoresces like a neon sign for a $10 palm read. Recorded in a deconstructed cathedral and mixed by legendary Wire guitarist Matthew Sims, Time to Go Home is a throwback to the mid-’80s. Stirring anthems like “Time to Go Home” and “Drone” put Chastity Belt up there with fellow goth revivalists like Cold Cave, Wax Idols, or even Dum Dum Girls on their last record. All that’s missing are the synths. And though Time to Go Home does address classic gothic tropes (fog, death, apathy), lyrics like, “He was just another man trying to teach me something” (“Drone”) and “So what? We like to fuck” (“Cool Slut”) invoke a feminist creed as brazen as an early ’90s riot grrrl outfit.Time to Go Home breaks new personal and political ground as Chastity Belt trades clichéd nihilism for proactively feminist post-punk. — BRYN LOVITT

Ciara, Jackie

Ciara’s most invective track, 2006’s incredible “Like a Boy,” asked calm questions about a cheater’s exploits and what kind of double standard he expects going forward, while a chopped-and-screwed taunt implied that the scrub wasn’t taking it well. You might say that she could see the Future. The trickily enjambed, vibrantly harmonized “I Bet” indeed hinges on a similar premise and does away with it: “I bet you’ll start loving me / Soon as I start loving someone else / Somebody better than you.” It’s “Irreplaceable” made vulnerable, its vengeful wit notched down to an all-too-aware sigh. There’s no “he’ll be here in a minute” because CiCi doesn’t pretend that her problems are suddenly solved, that she didn’t just have a baby with the creep. She could walk the Sahara without getting thirsty. — D.W.

Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld,Never were the way she was

Never were the way she was is a forceful collection of eight tracks patiently carving a sonic landscape, like the desert winds of the American Southwest. While soothing, those quietly elliptical moments aren’t nearly as powerful as when Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld agitate each other. Opener “The sun roars into view” has perhaps the most graceful arc of any song here: sounds of rainfall fizzle into Neufeld’s violin see-sawing back and forth over contrapuntal motions from the higher range of Stetson’s horn. The pair push and pull each other into a fevered dream-sweat by song’s end, setting a high bar matched only by “The rest of us,” which gallops like the four horsemen of the apocalypse over a roiling cauldron of bellows and Neufeld’s ghostly vocalizations. On the whole, Never is a cohesive meditation on the legacy of avant-garde greats like Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt and peers such as Tim Hecker — and, of course, an essential part of Stetson and Neufeld’s own impressive canons. — HARLEY BROWN

Colleen Green, I Want to Grow Up
(Hardly Art)

Bubble-grunge stoner Colleen Green (yep, her Facebook URL is “colleengreen420“) poses a neat juxtaposition on her third and least-bedsick album, I Want to Grow Up: crunchy Clinton-era sonics associated with apathy and irony, reappropriated here for confessions so direct that she might as well be singing from a kneeler. With help from JEFF the Brotherhood’s Jake Orrall and Diarrhea Planet’s Casey Weissbuch, her simple chord progressions recreateVeruca Salt and the Muffs more faithfully than most of her faux-’90s brethren, including her bandmates’ proper outfits. Shadows of classic Ronettes and surf-pop creep in  she is from Los Angeles, after all  but the heart of I Want to Grow Up is in alt-radio throwaways like Superdrag and Ammonia on buzzing tunelets like “Pay Attention” and “TV.” — D.W.

Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
(Mom + Pop)

Courtney Barnett’s song subjects generally fall into two categories: the unavoidable perils of 21st-century living, and the necessary terrors of social interaction. The latter would encompass songs like “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party,” which takes on the age-old “I wanna go out but I wanna stay home” dilemma with yelped concerns like, “You say you’ll sleep when you’re dead / I’m scared I’ll die in my sleep!” The former includes songs like “Dead Fox,” in which our narrator deliberates the merits of organic vegetable shopping, weighing cost concerns against rumors of nicotine-laced apples, and frets about animals spreading disease, declaring, “Sometimes I think a sneeze could be the end of us.”

Barnett shares with Kurt Cobain the exceptional ability to find artistic strength in her personal weaknesses, to put all of her shit out there and still manage to sound like a goddamn rock star for doing so, not the least bit whiny or self-pitying. Kurt sang a song called “I Hate Myself and I Wanna Die” and sounded like a funny little shit doing so; Courtney sings, “I used to hate myself but now I think I’m all right” on “Small Poppies” and sounds even funnier. The insecurity of her lyrics is refreshing; not because crippling self-doubt and civil paranoia are anything new in rock music, but because she’s the incredibly rare anxiety-attacked lyricist who doesn’t let the worrying seep into her music. — A.U.

Dan Deacon, Gliss Riffer

After tackling an entire continent on his last album (2012’s America), iconoclastic electronic expert Dan Deacon decided to scale back for Gliss Riffer, resulting in his most intimate — but still deliriously fun — album yet. Through tracks like “Learning to Relax”and “When I Was Done Dying,” the Baltimore composer uses imaginative imagery to explore the restless and at times somewhat darker aspects of his own psyche: “So I fell asleep softly at the edge of a cave / But I should have gone deeper but I’m not so brave.” Deacon counterbalances this anxiety with layers upon layers of vibrant, complex synths for a euphoric, but nowhere near empty barrage of sound. — JAMES GREBEY

DΔWN, Blackheart
(Our Dawn)

Her voice pulled to Frippertronic ribbons on a so-called “interlude” like “Choices,” this is where the 31-year-old Danity Kane alumna joins Robyn and Ferreira and Lambert as another prefab non-headliner gone rogue as a weirdo genius. Richard is studio adept unlike any of the above-named though, and on the second album of her “Heart” trilogy she improves on the LinnDrum sonics of her debut by offering gourd piano, Flaming Lips-fried vocoder, treated bell simulacra worthy of Aphex Twin, a seven-minute Adderall threnody that would make ScHoolboy Q green, an original called “Billie Jean” with the word “pussy” in it, and the half-wordless opener “Calypso,” whose runaway train intro admittedly defies description — but try “Skrillex covering Gloria Estefan.” — D.W.

Drake, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late

“Please don’t speak to me like I’m that Drake from four years ago,” Drake warns on “No Tellin’,” probably the definitive song on his surprise-release mixtape, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. No worry of that here: On Too Late, Drake is definitely still on his worst behavior, and in case you couldn’t tell from the beats and lyrics, he references his new signature song on two separate tracks on the tape. It’s no secret, though: Sonically and thematically, this not-album is easily the harshest release of Drizzy’s career, a brooding, unsettling listen with few respites offered from its sense of creeping dread. It’s the toughest-talking Drake full-length by far, but also the toughest-sounding: The drums are sparse and piercing, the pianos are low and foreboding, and the samples are often minimal to the point of being subsonic, as if trapped beneath the icy productions. Appropriate for the mixtape’s title, the world of Too Late is a cold one. — A.U.

Dwight Yoakam, Second Hand Heart

Treating vowels like rubber bands would seem the mark of a love man, but Dwight Yoakam instead has spent 30 years counting the ways to be wicked. The light, glancing “Off Your Mind” sketches I-don’t-care-if-you-don’t standoffs that lots of pairings thrive on. “Regret is all we ever learn to see,” he sings on “Believe,” rather proudly. Meanwhile, new guitarists Brian Whelan and Eugene Edwards strum und twang through a ferocious “Man of Constant Sorrow,” a standard I’d thought had too much dirt on its coffin. Yoakam original “Liar” is even louder: It’s got Buck Owens in its melodies and Emotional Rescue-era Stones in its Telecasters. The elegant symmetry of their riffing (and Yoakam’s electric rhythm thrashing) gives Second Hand Heart a fetching thickness; this album sounds really f—king good, meant for car-stereo blasting. — ALFRED SOTO

Earl Sweatshirt, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
(Columbia/Tan Cressida) 

As evidenced by his taut, very good sophomore studio album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, Earl Sweatshirt’s unease has only multiplied. Not only does he actually say he’s reaching for a Xanax as he ruminates on his grandmother’s death, a breakup, and the short list of who he trusts, his production — he handles almost all of it here — reflects that state of mind, too. With its artificial cheeriness, like a traveling circus full of alcoholic clowns trudging from town to town, opener “Huey” strikes a particularly familiar, fucked-up chord. His paranoia is as thick as Drake’s on the similarly inward If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. However, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is a much leaner, less showy effort, and Earl turns his pen on himself, not just everybody else. On the gentle “Inside” he fleshes out the unwieldy album title: “I blow a spliff before the ink dries on the paper / And lately I don’t like shit, I been inside on the daily.” Fortunately, he lets us visit him there. — REBECCA HAITHCOAT

Eye, The Future Will Be Repeated
(Ba Da Bing)

When it comes to scuzz-rock geography, never sleep on New Zealand. Though the Dead C, the Clean, Tall Dwarfs, and the 3Ds leap to mind immediately, keep an ear open for Dunedin-based Eye, an emerging quartet featuring current and former members of Double Leopards, Sandoz Lab Technicians, and the Terminals. Third LP The Future Will Be Repeated is blurred and indecisive in all of the best ways, a half-dozen awesome out instrumentals that dodder in place delightfully. On opener “Loader,” Eye overflow with effects and samples, coming off like a less fastidious Mountains. “Owls at Noon” howls with cavernous feedback and flaunts shuddering, elephantine squeal, a skeletal backbeat spattering beneath. By the time the mutant piano-jazz of “Gentle” arrives, your consciousness will have been turned inside out. — RAYMOND CUMMINGS


Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear
(Sub Pop)

Josh Tillman’s debut in the Father John Misty guise — 2012’s Fear Fun — was a compelling wander through a carefully tilled garden of psych-folk. Conversely, the encore, I Love You, Honeybear, is littered with carefully wired bombs meant to blow up in the face of those seeking straightforward love songs. For an album so reverent of its romantic gestures, this LP often spits serious venom. “She says, like, ‘literally,’ music is the air she breathes / And the malaprops make me wanna fuckin’ scream / I wonder if she even knows what that word means,” he deadpans on “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment.” It’s grimly funny stuff, Disney schmaltz by way ofJohn Oliver, a mindfuck that slashes expectations just as it conforms to them.

In the same breath, though, the recently married singer-songwriter can’t manage to suppress the cheerful twinkle in his eye. Goopy doesn’t even begin to touch the sincerity of a song like “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” which unearths the mush-mouthed romantic within. “You left a note in your perfect script / ‘Stay as long as you want’ / And I haven’t left your bed since,” he sings in 2015’s most down-to-earth relationship scene thus far. If Tillman’s this brilliantly pointed as a paramour, we’re scared to hear the breakup album. — B.C.

Fifth Harmony, Reflection

For an album two years in the making (one that sports collaborations with Meghan Trainor, Dr. Luke, and Cirkut), Fifth Harmony’s Reflection sounds both cohesive and modern. That said, as a debut LP, it’s a bit of a muffled statement: We’re here, we’re full of cheer, and… that’s pretty much it. But musically, Fifth Harmony never abandon their on-point hairography or picture-perfect grins for a second. Each member of the group plays to her respective strengths consistently. Their MVP, Camila Cabello, lobs piercing vocals upwards, teeming with oversized spunk and personality. Normani Kordei treats her voice like a weapon with endless ammunition, scaling notes without fear; Dinah Jane Hansen growls with control; Ally Brooke has a caramelized belt that often lilts; and Lauren Jauregui brings a wisdom beyond her 18 years to her phrasing and delivery. Together, they harmonize without faltering — an improbability in today’s mostly group-free pop landscape. — B.C.

Girl Band, The Early Years EP
(Rough Trade)

Ask John Lydon: Anger is an energy, but disco is a weapon. Like so many other first-wave punks and post-punks — Wire, Joy Division, the Clash, and Blondie — Johnny Rotten eventually discovered that setting his shredding guitars and caterwauling vocals to a dance-floor thump gave his music a power and an immediacy beyond just going faster, louder, and further out of control. The lesson has been well-heeded since, with disco-punk briefly bubbling up as the Sound of the Moment in the early-mid-’00s, led by bands like the Rapture, !!!, and LCD Soundsystem. But none of those acts blends the two styles quite like Girl Band, who eschew finding the midpoint between dance-floor momentum and punk rawness for something that instead pushes both sounds to the very extremes of their fringes, swirling them into a Molotov cocktail of throbbing devastation. Their squall is as destructive as ever, but now it’s been streamlined to nuclear levels with the integration of groove, making the band’s abrasive fury undeniable and giving them a sound entirely their own. — A.U.

Heems, Eat Pray Thug

It shouldn’t be news that there was a lot more to Das Racist than jokes (or “trolling,” a term favored by the kind of white rap critics who deserve to be trolled). But the debut solo album from Himanshu Suri (a.k.a. former DR rapper Heems) uses the medium that Chuck D once famously referred to as “the black CNN” to examine NYC’s broken heart from a far less voiced POV than Jay Z or Woody Allen (and far more directly affected). The centerpiece is “Flag Shopping,” which reports how 9/11 really affected Suri: “They’re staring at our turbans / They’re calling them rags / They’re calling them towels.” The lifelong city-proud 29-year-old was plainly confused by the sudden uptick in racism: “We sad like they sad.” In many ways, Eat Pray Thug is a prequel to Das Racist, filling in the biographical gaps of a seemingly inscrutable wiseass from when he had to cry before he could laugh. — D.W.

iLoveMakonnen, Drink More Water 5

Unless Drake’s Views From the 6 enlists a Celtic harp player, Drink More Water 5 will be the prettiest rap release of 2015. Makonnen Sheran has amped up his voice, for one thing — gone is the shy-sounding dork who (winningly) mumbled the word “choos-ay” like he was still trying to fill a placeholder rhyme for “Tuesday.” Here, he confidently glides across the title phrase in “Whip It (Remix),” while Migos skitter giddily in the other direction. The eponymous opening freestyle finds Makonnen scrunching himself into a stoned, Heems-like growl, and “Super Clean” follows with a complete 180, rhyming over ersatz film-score keyboard pads in a simple pattern reminiscent of P.M. Dawn or De La Soul’s “Me, Myself and I.” The crystalline “Other Guys” sounds, of all things, like Animal Collective circa Feels or Strawberry Jam. And on the gloriously twinkly centerpiece “Slow It Down” he creates a low/high call-and-response with himself, cresting his pitch on surprisingly blunt reveals like “All your friends sell cocaine too!” Sheran could’ve named this If You’re Hearing This There’s Plenty of Time: one of those mixtapes where you can hear the raw talent turning pro fast. — D.W.


Jack Ü, Jack Ü
(Atlantic/Mad Decent/OWSLA)

Last year, Skrillex’s long-awaited full-length debutRecess was a surprisingly rigid stab at artistic respectability, but Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Üreturns him to classic Bangarang territory: 35 minutes of all the ADHD-riddled dance music and off-the-wall guests you can stand. Leave it to Diplo, the 36-year-old human embodiment of the entire Spring Breakers movie, to return Skrillex to his roots — laying perfectly corroded, blue-screen-of-death synth pretzels under the clap-happy statement-of-purpose “Beats Knockin’” and the bleeding-amplifier reggaeton of “Jungle Bae.” Even the trolololololol Justin Bieber PBR&B showcase “Where Are Ü Now” comes outfitted with an addictive bent rainforest flute thing that wouldn’t sound out of place on, say, M.I.A.’s Kala. As a guileless continuation of the escapist, dub-tinged blowout that Diplo effortlessly pursued with Major Lazer, Jack Ü is one of the beatiest prizes of the year so far: a proud celebrity fiasco with audio popcorn galore snapping every which way. — D.W.

Juan Wauters, Who Me?
(Captured Tracks)

Like a movie that is good (in his words), Juan Wauters’ songs require your attention. The Queens-via-Uruguay singer songwriter has one of the year’s best new albums on Who Me?, his second LP sinceleaving punk group the Beets to go solo and his most fully-formed work yet. The collection features 13 mostly autobiographical but relatable tales: daytime insomnia on “There’s Something Still There,” vicarious parental living “This Is I,” and relationship limbo on “Woodside Queens.” They’re all endearingly direct but cleverly detailed. Even the couple of songs performed in Spanish are unmistakably imbued with his winning personality, playful and intimate and as cool as the album cover, an arresting image featuring Wauters calmly holding up traffic on New York’s Queensboro Bridge. — A.U.

Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
(Top Dawg/Interscope)

This album is mandatory listening; serious rap fans who shun Mr. West due to his interfering personality (or Wayne, Drake, Nicki, Jay, and Em) don’t have that out here because Kendrick doesn’t pretend to be Hova or Yeezus — just another young black man that Uncle Sam’s ready to fuck up. Survivor’s guilt drivesTo Pimp a Butterfly, whether he’s castigating himself on “The Blacker the Berry” for being no better than the police, or chiding anyone listening to “Institutionalized” that “Shit don’t change until you wash your ass.”

Listenability is the difference between the majesty of this 79-minute behemoth on paper, and the songs it needs to succeed. So let’s give it up to the astounding thicket of music here, the best-produced rap since the dawn of Drake: shades of Miles Davis’ On the Corner and free jazz all over (which follows the news that jazz has become the lowest-selling music genre), as well as Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Funkadelic and Erykah Badu’s similarly wah-crazy but comparatively lo-fi New Amerykah: 4th World War. The drums on “Momma” click metallically like some unholy matrimony between the Neptunes and Einstürzende Neubauten. When he samples Sufjan Stevens, it’s from The Age of fucking Adz. — D.W.

The Knocks, So Classic EP
(Big Beat)

If you’re looking to hear what New York City streets at 5 a.m. sound like on any given morning, bump the Knocks’ excellent new EP up as loud as you can. It’s short — four tracks and a remix — but it slinks and struts all over the cobblestone like drunken partygoers in surprising command of their senses. “Dancing With Myself” finds James “JPatt” Patterson laying down vocals so slick that you might slip right into his grasp, with the song’s cascading sax solo bringing everything to a close as the sun comes up. “Collect My Love” employs Glee‘s Alex Newell for the most theatrical rendition of a Daft Punk antecedent anyone could’ve imagined, but the duo reigns him in just enough with their secret weapon: impressively nuanced production that still knocks. —B.C.

Laura Marling, Short Movie
(Ribbon Music)

Calling Short Movie Laura Marling’s most mature album seems redundant, if not downright insulting— it’s her latest effort and she’s barely 25 years old,of course it’s her most mature album  but the pervading sensation of the LP is one of the singer-songwriter growing into her second skin. From the first track, “Warrior,” she’s casting off dudes that aren’t worthy of her support, declaring, “You have my love but it will not make you grow / I can’t be your horse anymore / You’re not the warrior I would die for.” It’s a Beyoncé-like sentiment, but delivered more with matter-of-fact empathy than spitting disdain, almost maternal in its deep disappointment. That feeling lasts until closer “Worship Me,” which Marling starts off with the admonishment “Little boy I know you want something from me / Yes, I might be blind but I am free / Don’t you try and take that away from me,” leading to her offering, “It’s God you need / Sit down and worship me.” The self-assuredness is remarkable, expressed with such minimal bravado that it sounds like a reasonable enough proposal. — A.U.

Levon Vincent, Levon Vincent
(Novel Sound)

Levon Vincent has achieved near mythical status in dance music’s underground, sending down brilliant dance-floor bombs from on high once or twice per year. He begins 2015 with his largest work to date: a self-titled 4xLP album embracing home listeners within club-friendly structures. His unexpectedly light-touch percussion leaves plenty of room for widescreen melodies to reveal their hypnotic beauty, aided by impeccable sound design. He makes time for a few bangers as well, like the anthemic “Anti-Corporate Music” and “Junkies on Herman Strasse.” But above all, the album feels epic in scope, imbuing the banality of everyday life with stunning tension and emotional weight in a way few producers can hope to touch. — STEVE MIZEK

Liturgy, The Ark Work
(Thrill Jockey)

Any listener who insists on evaluating Liturgy only on a scale from brutal-to-exuberant will be disappointed with The Ark Work’s refusal to yield to simplistic future-of-metal narratives. The burst-oriented metal sections of “Follow” and “Follow II” feel more like intermissions, and the most vintage guitar-terror moments on “Reign Array” and “Total War” could use some of the emotional release we took for granted on AesthethicaArk Work is best at its most explorative rather than its most punishing. For a band previously hailed and reviled for its supposedly sacrilege approach, this is the real radical departure worthy of admiration. — J.J. LANG

Marina & the Diamonds, Froot

After closing the door on her Electra Heart era, Marina Diamandis knew she needed to reinvent her persona. Froot achieves just that, adeptly flirting with chart sugar on the title track and “Better Than That” but more often than not, digging her heels into raw, nail-biting reality. “Happy” is anything but, a somber but wholly necessary trudge through a relationship’s unfurling. All throughout, Diamandis’ voice hits the biggest, gnarliest trills, stamping Froot with a uniquely personal touch. Is the payoff immediate? No, but that’s what makes Marina such an interesting character in the pop landscape. Her work asks for work back, just like life does. You get from it what you give. You ain’t got her number and you can’t pin her down. — B.C.

(Sub Pop)

On METZ’s clangorous, self-titled debut, every compositional tool in their rehearsal space was a sledgehammer and every song looked like a nail. Like a host of similarly acerbic power trios before them, the Toronto three-piece relied on the unified clatter and roar of guitar, bass, and drums as the nauseating bedrock for their monolithic constructions. While their second full-length largely hangs onto that architectural austerity, it also throws a spanner in the works. With found-sound recordings, more idiosyncratic arrangements, and a general willingness to get a little weird, the band’s picked up a whole new toolbox — one that allows them a precision and depth to match their assault. It’s common for bands bent on destruction to dial things back as they move ahead, but METZ has no such designs. II, like the record that preceded it, is still a seasick and unyielding document of brutalist experimentation. But because the band is willing to explore different avenues, there’s more corners to get lost in. They’ve realized that tools other than a sledgehammer can do some serious damage — that say, a screwdriver, a jackhammer, a table saw, can be used for even more creative mutilation. — COLIN JOYCE

Monster Rally & Jay Stone, Foreign Pedestrians
(Gold Robot)

At just seven songs and 22 minutes (twice that if you count the instrumentals of each track, which appear in the same order after the album proper is through), Foreign Pedestrians is as brisk and enjoyable a listen as you’ll find in early 2015. There may be a kind of inherent retro-ness to the album, by virtue of both the ’50s and ’60s-style soundscapes that producer Monster Rally (real name: Ted Feighan) samples and of the ’90s-era influences that clearly weigh heavily on the sound and style of both Rally and rapper Jay Stone; but a large part of that feeling just comes from the fact that there’s so little out there in hip-hop right now that sounds like this. And based on how satisfying their debut effort is, it may have been something we were missing more than we realize — and something it’s tough not to crave more of once the too-brief LP is over. — A.U.

Panda Bear, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

Despite building his popularity on two pop-aware records (2007’s Person Pitch and 2011’s Tomboy), Noah Lennox — a.k.a. Animal Collective’s Panda Bear — returns to, embraces, and (in some cases) redefines his strain of experimental music on his fourth solo album, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. Compared to the freak-folkish Young Prayer (2004), the pop-minded Person Pitch, or the frostily electronic Tomboy, it’s the 36-year-old’s most explorative effort yet, in a catalog not lacking in curiosity. With his sincere reluctance to create the same thing twice, Lennox understands how to be as fluid and malleable as the very esoteric orchestrations he births. Grim Reaper is an unedited adventure of blossoming soundscapes, vision-blurring, dissonant melodies, and cheerful robot dance numbers. If this is what meeting the grim reaper sounds like, then let’s draw up a will and meet Lennox at the cemetery gates. — RACHEL BRODSKY

The Paranoid Style, Rock & Roll Just Can’t Recall EP
(Battle Worldwide)

It’s a blessing and a curse that Timothy Bracy forms bands with his romantic partners, which live and die with the relationship — rest in peace the Mendoza Line, and here’s hoping with the Paranoid Style, whose 2015 EP is some of the smartest rip-and-roar you’ll hear in a season mostly notable for its plethora of excellent releases by hungry rappers. Elizabeth Nelson Bracy’s a wordsmith too, the kind who names her band after a 1964 political essay. Her arch delivery echoes Sally Timms of the Mekons, a band the Bracys love, with the twang bled out and guitars churnt up, especially on “Bound to Be Vacant,” the sub-two-minute highlight of this 15-minute manifesto/eye roll, followed by a four-way tie that includes the inescapable hook of “National Sunday Law” and a cover of the obscure “Master Jack,” by Four Jacks and a Jill, whom you might remember from a tiny reference in This Is Spinal Tap. Despite the cautionary title, they recall plenty, and they rock’n’roll too. If they knew any more, we’d have to kill them. — D.W.

Screaming Females, Rose Mountain
(Don Giovanni)

After ten years and six albums with Screaming Females, Marissa Paternoster has found her voice. Not that it was exactly missing in the New Brunswick basement punks’ earlier work — witness the powerfully delivered “I Don’t Mind It,” from 2010’sCastle Talk. But now the firmly DIY Don Giovanni headliners (whose ranks also include bassist Michael Abbate and drummer Jarrett Dougherty) have unleashed Rose Mountain, and the trio’s musical evolution is impossible to miss even in its gradual subtlety. This latest effort shift boils down to two key foci: bolder, less guarded lyrical choices (much of the record deals with Paternoster’s ongoing battle with chronic mono) and more strategic space for the frontwoman’s legendary guitar solos. — R.B.

Shamir, Ratchet

Matter-of-fact honesty is part of the charm of Shamir Bailey, a 20-year-old, male-pronoun-approving, gender-fluid African-American who grew up in Las Vegas; simply put, it’s nice to have a pro-breakup anthem like “Call It Off” invoke the words “mental health.” James Murphy himself could learn from the three straight highlights on Side A of Shamir’s full-length debut,Ratchet, all of which barely brush the three-minute mark. And when the disco-house singer — armed with an electric-fence falsetto — goes on longer, he makes it count. The slow-motion bounce of the opening “Vegas” introduces elements like shaker and horn, block by block, before the familiar-yet-streamlined one-note funk of “Make a Scene” struts in. Cowbell-crazy closer “Head in the Clouds” breaks from the advice and scene-setting to do what five minutes of synths resembling 303-simulated farts and unraveling car alarms should: dancing out into the Nevada sunset with no more idea of What’s Next than any other 20-year-old. — D.W.

Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
(Sub Pop)

Sleater-Kinney’s eighth album sounds queasy and wrong on first listen and fluent in rock languages that have barely been decoded yet by the third. As usual, the intelligent lyrics are almost never the reason you’re listening. They have their moments though: “We’re wild and weary but we won’t give in” is a nice enough kiss-off to complacency, and opening with the class analysis “Price Tag” is a nice rebuke to the expectations of a punk guitarist who wasn’t Emmy-nominated when her band last put one out. They even mock their own accrued cultural capital every time the “Exhume our idols” refrain comes round in “Bury Our Friends.” On their debut 20 years ago, the finest living rock band promised to show us “How to Play Dead.” We’re still waiting. — D.W.

Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
(Asthmatic Kitty)

Carrie & Lowell is such a deeply, deeply personal statement from Sufjan Stevens that its smallness sometimes shows. Though it’s easily his best and most powerful album since 2005’s Illinois, it never quite reaches the same sweeping highs of that epic concept album. But this effort — named after Stevens’ largely absent, bipolar, and schizophrenic mother and her husband, Lowell Brams, Stevens’ stepfather and Asthmatic Kitty co-founder — is a success on its own terms, hushed as its triumphs may be. The specificity of the lyrics, like when Stevens alludes to his stepfather as “The man who taught me to swim / He couldn’t quite say my first name,” really place Carrie & Lowell as the singer-songwriter’s story. He’s not detailing the bond between a mother and child, he’s detailing the troubled bond between his mother and her child. And yet even the most casual listener can feel (and hope for) his catharsis. — J.G.

Timeghost, Cellular

Drawing a bead on Cellular is tricky business. This album crumbles almost everywhere one grazes it, with murmured narrations from Timeghost major domo Adam Morosky (of Providence, Rhode Island) to provide occasional scaffolding. The music itself is an entropic blend of bleeps, clicks, and whirrs, with field-recordings bleeding through — suggesting the dreamy malice of a video arcade at some moments, and goth-rave ambiance or petri-dish fractal randomness at others. Quoting Boredoms’ Soul Discharge and, more liberally, aspects of Melt-Banana’s Cell-Scape, Cellular engulfs but never allows you to fully relax. When, on “Phantom Ring,” Morosky asks, “Do you feel something on your leg? / It’s moving now, how do you respond?” he’s sketching the album’s mission statement. — R.C.

Torche, Restarter

Many have come to refer to Torche as pop metal or even bubblegum metal, but that’s not really accurate especially for the band’s newest album, Restarter, which is lighter on the percolating riffs and firecracker drums than 2012’s Harmonicraft. Pop songcraft is an influence but not an imperative for the Miami quartet, they’re just as content to stretch on a lurching, sun-baked groove for seven minutes as they are to power through two verses, two choruses, and a bridge in under 3:30. This Steel for Brains interview with singer-guitarist Steve Brooks really hits the nail on the head: Torche is just Fun Metal, as buoyant as it is heavy, as sweet as it is sludgy, as toe-tapping as it is head-banging. They prioritize engagement over extremity a rare-enough preference for the genre. — A.U.

Various Artists, PC Music Vol. 1
(PC Music)

This is where A. G. Cook’s PC Music collective, whose exuberantly subversive singles and radio mixes operate outside of salable constrictions, gets audited for iTunes approval. What’s curious about PC Music Volume 1 is the seeming randomness of how it was chosen. At first it seems to have shafted the shadow label’s satirical side to just throw all the pop anthems — Hannah Diamond’s vending machine roller-disco “Every Night,” A. G. Cook’s helium-hoarding “Beautiful,” and Thy Slaughter’s clap-o-matic “Bronze” in a row. But it turns out the collective knows more than we do about iTunes: At almost 30 minutes exactly, PC Music Volume 1 quits while it’s ahead.This sampler encapsulates both the warped obstacles and celestial melodies — in the Lipgloss Twins, and easyFun’s keep-skidding-into-the-roller-rink-wall “Laplander,” respectively — that make the crew the most engaging puzzle in surge-protected pop. — D.W.

Viet Cong, Viet Cong
(Jagjaguwar/Flemish Eye)

While waiting for “Death,” the 11-minute reckoning that closes their first album, consider that out of the ashes of Women have risen something bigger called Viet Cong, a krautrock/garage/psych/noise/post-punk amalgam that basically operates under its own ecosystem. Following a demo cassette they released quietly last year, Viet Cong’s self-titled introductory LP feeds off of itself and builds out ideas to create the first truly non-derivative piece in the drone-rock genre since maybe Deerhunter’s Cryptograms. Considering the record’s ambitious, desolate scope, maybe Viet Cong tried to write the last post-punk album — and it would be okay if that turned out to be the case. — JEREMY D. LARSON

Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp

Ivy Tripp — Waxahatchee’s third full-length and first for major indie Merge — is certainly Crutchfield’s biggest leap forward to date, at least musically. Although the record is no less sparse than her previous albums, it boasts far more diverse instrumental detail: static-fuzzy distorted keyboard drone (the molasses-viscous daydream “Breathless”); wistful piano (“Half Moon”); lullaby-like organ (“Stale By Noon”); and a cheerful drum machine (“La Loose”). Each of these additions is purposeful, whether it’s to underscore the skepticism that a romance could be real and stable on “Breathless,” or adding levity to the hints of madness on “La Loose.” Crutchfield is just as deliberate with her vocal embellishments — harmonizing with herself, layering complementary (if disparate) melodies over one another, echoing lines of a verse at a slightly higher interval.

On “Half Moon,” there’s a hint of sandpaper roughness in her voice, as the song’s protagonist realizes the harsh truth that relying on the past — a poisonous romantic foil, a wrenching piece of art, the support of an old friend — is an impediment to progress. Only by acknowledging (and then letting go of) habits and precedent allows for forward motion: “The pain that you make never dies / I hung it up in a wistful disguise.” With Ivy Tripp, Crutchfield is doing something similar; she hasn’t cut her sadness loose or resolved every uncertainty — but she’s better equipped to wrangle (and overcome) the turbulence. — ANNIE ZALESKI

Young Fathers, White Men Are Black Men Too
(Big Dada)

As a mixed-race, genre-crossing U.K. trio with at least a tendril or two in the hip-hop world and an ineffable sense of cool pervading their every move, Young Fathers’ most obvious past reference point would be trip-hop forefathers Massive Attack. But whereas Daddy G, 3D, and Mushroom only got more sonically paranoid and claustrophobic with each successive ’90s release, Young Fathers have loosened up significantly since the days of early-’10s scorched-earth EPs Tape One and Tape Two. There’s a ton to unpack with White Men Are Black Men Too, but the main difference between this album and the band’s past work is that they’ve now allowed you to do so at your own leisure. You can tackle the struggle of morality and mortality that is “Still Running,” with all of its afterlife anxiety, or you can enjoy the song’s delightful xylophone hook and metronomic bass pulse. Or both. The LP is the group’s most enjoyable, but also their most potent, all the more menacing for its unlikely grinning. Young Fathers haven’t started pulling their punches, but they’ll dance around a good deal while throwing ‘em now. Their science is sweeter than ever for it. A.U.

Young Guv, Ripe 4 Luv

This is where Fucked Up guitarist David Cook frees himself from the constraints of Damian Abraham’s one-track bellow to bestow upon us indie-rock’s greatest — and possibly only — tribute to Marshall Crenshaw, “Crawling Back to You,” as well as ones for some other singers whom you can actually notate. These include Nick Gilder (“Ripe 4 Luv”), Wreckless Eric (“Crushing Sensation”) and uh, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen (“Wrong Crowd”). “Dear Drew” wisely resuscitates the shuffling “Ballroom Blitz” beat because, until Jet reunites anyway, it can’t be overused enough. But what elevates Ripe 4 Luv beyond four absolute bangers and four darn-good in-betweens is how it uncovers the creepiness of power pop relationship dynamics, literally on standout “Kelly, I’m Not a Creep” and, in the multi-tracked loneliness Cook’s filtered falsetto, the inherent unhealthiness of crawling back to whomever. He’s been hanging with the wrong crowd, and he’s ready to move on — over E-Z listening bass slaps. — D.W.

Young Thug, Barter 6

It shouldn’t be surprising that SPIN’s 2014 Rapper of the Year did something unpredictable and made a slow-burning, uncommercial, pretty record whose rewards don’t quite reveal themselves in time for the takes to remain hot. But Jeffrey Williams continues to make us unexpect the expected, rapping like a bored, exuberant kid drawing half-shapes on his Etch-a-Sketch before shaking it up and resetting his creative thought process over and over. Your move, Young Tunechi. — D.W.

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