The Best Albums of 2015 (So Far!)
So, it's June now. (In a few more days, anyway.) That's insane, right? We were only just watching deliriously happy strangers exchange messy, frigid kisses in the middle of Times Square mere weeks ago, weren't we? Time: It goes by!
The year-end retrospective list has become music journalism tradition come every December (or late November for some of the increasingly trigger-happy publications out there), but we thought we'd take a midyear breather to take a look back and appreciate all of the goods we've been given this year so far, from January to June.
From Madonna to Snoop Dogg to Marina And The Diamonds to Fall Out Boy, these are the albums that got us through the (seemingly endless) final throes of winter, cured our springtime blues and began heating up our summer playlists for the year.
Didn't see an album you loved on our list? Let us know in the comments!
Following a glorious heyday of girl group mania throughout the early '00s, from Girls Aloud to the Sugababes to The Pussycat Dolls and Danity Kane, a severe drought has formed in the world of sweet harmonies and synchronized hair flips — especially within American pop. Until now, anyway.
Fifth Harmony is the next great girl group hope, built for the #selfie generation. Not only are they capable vocalists, but they're in tune with what's #trending — an essential to survive as a Top 40 pop act today: Hook-filled bops like "Reflection" and "Them Girls Be Like" are full of #NoFilter Instagram and Twitter references to please the teens. And with each single from their long-delayed debut LP, they continue to move up the ranks, from their finger-wagging, sass-filled Michelle Obama ode "Bo$$," which plays like an unreleased Burlesque jam (a compliment in my book) to the pristine power pop of "Sledgehammer" to the horn-heavy "Worth It (which has since become their first Top 20 hit!), the capable troupe continues to prove why they're leading the American girl group revival...and they've only just begun. — Bradley Stern
If Kelly Clarkson is pop music’s vocal superhero, she’s decided to spend the year as Clark Kent and, at least for now, plainclothes suit her just fine.
The Grammy Award winner’s seventh studio album, which was released in February in the wake of the Greg Kurstin-produced “Heartbeat Song,” considers a world in which the opera-trained powerhouse doesn’t have to shout from the rooftop just because she can. Sure, Piece By Piece’s “Run Run Run,” which features John Legend, and “I Had a Dream,” a 2015 take-back-your-power-ladies manifesto, find Clarkson flirting with her preferred upper-register, but the album’s real magic is (surprisingly) rooted in what’s most subdued: “Piece By Piece,” “Someone” and bonus track “Into the Blue,” all manage to cut through steel without sending the neighborhood’s dogs into a tailspin.
Piece By Piece, the bulk of which the Grammy Award-winner recorded while pregnant, is precisely what new mom Clarkson hoped it would be: a largely midtempo soundtrack to a film that’s nearing its happy ending. No, it’s not as radio-ready as Breakaway and doesn’t pack Stronger’s walloping punch, but it wasn’t designed to. The album amounts to a vocal titan decidedly showing some restraint; instead of defaulting to her trademark howling at the moon, she’s proven how pleasing it can be when she curls up and purrs, instead. — Matthew Donnelly
Big Data is actually one normal-sized man — producer Alan Wilkis — but he performs with a larger band live, and his debut full-length is packed with guests. A feature-heavy album can often be a gimmicky attention grab, or a way to distract from otherwise thin material. Yet 2.0 enlists each artist as a veritable band member, maximizing the assets they bring to the table.
Album standout “Dangerous” hit No. 1 on the Billboard US Alternative chart as a digital single last year, and its sexy-meets-scary feel is largely responsible for its success. 2.0’s songs share a cohesive, twitchy electro sound that reflects Wilkis’ evident preoccupation with the technology-ridden Patriot Act world we’re living in.
That fixation presents itself in everything from the broken HTML code-inspired cover art to lyrics such as those in “The Glow” featuring Kimbra: “Ain't nobody gotta know / Everybody's in the glow.” But 2.0’s vocals save it from being as cold as a pile of USB cables: Jamie Lidell warms “Clean” up with his blue-eyed soul wails, and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner infuses “Automatic” with romance. This is an “album” in the pre-streaming era sense, worthy of repeat listens. — Samantha Vincenty
Fall Out Boy have never been considered much of a respectable band, and it’s a title they’ve embraced over the years, often pandering to the misfits of suburbia in a way that their pop-punk counterparts did not. But while bands like Taking Back Sunday have long since faded from the general public’s memory, preferring to settle somewhere comfortably in the niche of those remaining uber-fans unwilling to let the past stay dead, Fall Out Boy have embraced change, challenged themselves and evolved. They’re intent on making guitar music cool again...despite being patently uncool themselves.
And sure, they’re decidedly more pop than punk at this point, but they know what works for them. Their sixth studio album, the genre-spanning American Beauty/American Psycho demonstrates perfectly that which they do best: turn a Motley Crue sample into an unabashed pop song, draw guitar riffs from '70s glam rock, while keeping things totally ‘80s pop, reference Uma Thurman a la Pulp Fiction in a way that only just works. (No Fall Out Boy album would be complete without an over-saturation of pop culture references, after all.)
There’s a newfound confidence in Stump’s singing, not to mention some solid enunciation on his end. Not only can he manipulate his vocals to suit the different genres the band sets out to conquer here — raging from heavy rock to electro-pop to R&B — but he takes on Wentz’s signature melodramatic lyrics (“And I love the way you hurt me”) with a fervor we haven’t quite heard before. These songs are stadium-rock anthems, no doubt, but they’re nuanced and layered enough to warrant a closer listen. We kind of believe Stump when sings “We’ll go down in history / Remember me for centuries"...no matter how self-aware and ironic he means it to come across. — Ali Szubiak
Calvin Broadus, Jr. is nothing if not prolific, and he released two albums just two years ago: The largely unnecessary Reincarnated under his reggae moniker Snoop Lion, and the strong, George Clinton-inspired 7 Days of Funk collaboration with Dâm-Funk. How a man who rivals Willie Nelson for the honor of “world’s most famous stoner” gets so much done is a puzzle, yet Snoop's returned with his 13th studio album just in time for summer — and it's terrific.
Produced by Pharrell, with help from his Neptunes counterpart Chad Hugo, Bush is as smooth as a vintage Pontiac drop-top on a freshly paved piece of Pacific Coast Highway.
Album opener “California Roll” begins with a stuttering clap that’s part Chicago juke and part blatantly ripped from Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$)”, before melting into a sunny ode to Los Angeles featuring Pharrell and the one and only Stevie Wonder. “R U A Freak” and “So Many Pros” harken back to his 7 Days album and the synths of 2008’s “Sensual Seduction,” and Kendrick Lamar and Rick Ross add hip-hop bona fides to “I’m Ya Dogg.” Sure, the overly sexual lyrics get unapologetically goofy and there’s nothing revolutionary here, but when it works it works. Bush will take you from the party to the roller rink, and then to the dispensary where you buy all your weed lollipops — and if you don’t have any, you’re gonna want one by the end of track 10. — Samantha Vincenty
The 33-year-old vocalist, who first went solo in 2010 with Flamingo, has taken the best of ‘80s nightclubs, added a touch of and funk and, with the help of producer Ariel Rechtshaid, whipped up what he’s deservedly deemed The Desired Effect. And as soon as the album’s third track, “I Can Change,” Flowers speaks directly to the art of shifting gears.
“I can bend, I can break / I can shift, I can shape / Blaze a trail through the driving rain / Girl, I can change,” he urgently pleads across a piano-and-synth dreamscape that could find its way into the best of The Eurythmics. And joined with “Still Want You,” a single that boasts a bit of retro-soul and the thrilling “Can’t Deny My Love,” which includes production worthy of any Rocky Balboa training montage, The Desired Effect will transport you to a crowded line outside The Roxy, where you’ll be happy to spend the night.
Mr. Brightside may have moved across town, but the neighborhood’s replacement tenant will throw parties the cul-de-sac has yet to see. Get to know him. — Matthew Donnelly
Perhaps you saw her tonguing Drake down on stage at Coachella. Or, maybe you saw her straddle a table at the TIDAL livestream announcement. You might have even caught her take the lyrics of "Living For Love" to a horrifying literal sense as she flung backwards atop a staircase at the 2015 BRIT Awards. In any case, Madonna has made this year her bitch — in tumble and triumph.
Rebel Heart is Madonna's 13th studio album, which is appropriate, as it is undoubtedly her most unlucky record to date: The album hit the Internet months ahead of schedule in unfinished form. But Israeli leakers and controversial Instagram #RebelHeart promo be damned: Rebel Heart remains her best record in over a decade.
The album is an eclectic and euphoric mixture of earnest dance floor anthems ("Living For Love"), refreshing vulnerability ("Joan Of Arc") and noisy #UnapologeticBitch Diplo bangers best suited for the hashtag-happy Queen Of Pop who refuses to sit down. And for every potential grimace-inducing moment (watch out for that golden shower reference in "S.E.X."!), there's a pure and earnest melody ("Rebel Heart") that reminds us of her ability to deliver true pop greatness.
Amid sexist and agist backlash aplenty in the media, Madge continues to challenge the notion of "acting her age" and push the boundaries of what a woman, a mother and — not least of all! — the Queen Of Pop could and should be. We're lucky to have her...no matter how messy her Instagram account may be. — Bradley Stern
Anyone who truly believes pop music can’t be elevated past the point of dense, bubblegum garbage fitting only as background noise in between swipes of mascara has never heard a record by Marina And The Diamonds.
With her bizarre, operatic vocals and quirky lyrics, Marina emerged in 2010 as an indie-pop artist with her slightly disjointed-but-respectable first album, The Family Jewels. She went weirder with Electra Heart, establishing a darker sound, a solid fanbase and a gimmicky persona. But it’s her latest album, Froot, that sees her at her most sonically consistent. And it makes sense: she ditched the Electra Heart veil and went more — and more vulnerable. She’s finally found herself, certainly as an artist, and maybe even as a person navigating the world through all its intricacies...and all its bullshit.
The songs certainly showcase her evolution: Her decision to ditch the glossy pop that made her slightly more marketable with Electra Heart was a bold one. There is, truthfully, no radio-friendly mega-hit on Froot. It’s a move that reeks of the kind of self-assuredness that was missing from her earlier works. (And, to be fair, she deserves it.) Perhaps the most impressive thing about Froot is just how far removed it is from the current pop landscape. It has elements of synth-pop without being overtly '80s, but that’s a lazy comparison, as Froot manages to remain firmly rooted in the present. Dreamy, morbid and celebratory, the album is the kind of oxymoron that wouldn’t really work for any other artist: It is decidedly Marina. — Ali Szubiak