The last 12 months have been bruising almost beyond measure.
The world, it seems, is perpetually just around the corner from some fresh hell — another senseless shooting; another violent clash between races, religions or creeds; another fanatical demagogue spewing corrosive rhetoric; another grim reminder that, even as humanity becomes more connected than ever, there are forces fighting hard to tear it all apart.
Within this troubling, tiring atmosphere, music proved restorative, but wasn’t above introducing discomfort of its own.
Some of the records that stayed with me over the last year were not purely escapist.
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Whether by charting the complicated emotional weather of parental relationships, surveying the smoldering state of race relations in America or reaching back 30 years to find a way forward in a pop landscape fragmenting further with each passing nanosecond, these 10 albums released in 2015 made a profound, lasting impression on me.
1. Sufjan Stevens, ‘Carrie & Lowell’
The sound of scars turned into love. Sufjan Stevens’ seventh studio album is a profoundly harrowing, gorgeous plunge into the singer-songwriter’s life. On Carrie & Lowell, the often-precious musician strips away everything but the feeling, creating cinematic landscapes in which he considers the wounds inflicted — intentionally or not — by his biological mother. These 11 nominally folk songs ease the pain with beauty, reminding you that hurt and hope can often reside in uncomfortably close proximity.
2. Chvrches, ‘Every Open Eye’
In perhaps the most confident sophomore outing in recent memory, Scottish synth-pop trio Chvrches seizes its moment in the spotlight with this unswervingly assured collection. Vocalist Lauren Mayberry sings beautifully of brutal things — the stomping, loping Never Ending Circles is simultaneously a sky-scraping anthem and a kiss-off to a suffocating lover — and makes the case for Chvrches as one of modern music’s most underrated acts.
3. The Mavericks, ‘Mono’
Raul Malo and his Mavericks bandmates keep their second act steaming right along with this irresistible follow-up to 2013’s comeback, In Time. The band’s freewheeling sound is no more definable than it was when Malo and company burst onto the scene back in the early 1990s — Mono album opener All Night Long features a brief detour into Spanish lyrics, against a rolling backbeat equally at home in Havana or Harlem — but that doesn’t diminish Mono’s ample pleasures in the least.
4. Kendrick Lamar, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’
The atmosphere into which wunderkind rapper Kendrick Lamar unleashed his much-anticipated third album was thick with spasms of racial violence and uncertainty. Over the course of To Pimp a Butterfly, a vivid, roiling meditation on what it means to be young, black and successful in America in 2015, Lamar doesn’t shy away from blunt provocation: “You hate my people; your plan is to terminate my culture,” he seethes on The Blacker the Berry. A gripping reckoning with America’s original sin.
5. Jason Isbell, ‘Something More Than Free’
He has long been the poet laureate of the PBR set, but 2015 marked the year that the wider musical world caught up with the bleary-eyed poetry of Jason Isbell. The singer-songwriter rose to the occasion with his finest album to date, a collection of songs mined from the marrow of his bones (Children of Children is exquisite in its devastated regret). For some troubadours, success arrives only after compromise, but Something More Than Free assured that Isbell wouldn’t be giving up anything to reach more ears — if anything, he’ll likely burrow deeper into his scarred soul.
6. Brandi Carlile, ‘The Firewatcher’s Daughter’
Having settled down with wife and child, Brandi Carlile crafted a luminous song cycle celebrating adulthood’s unexpected pleasures. Domesticity can rob some artists of proper motivation — living fast, dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse does have its enduring allure, after all — but Carlile accepts home into her heart with the same ferocity she’s always shown. By the time she sweetly croons “Maybe I was meant to be under your lock and key” on Beginning to Feel the Years, it’s entirely possible you’ll feel your soul glowing.
7. Alabama Shakes, ‘Sound & Color’
No less than the outer reaches of the galaxy would do for Alabama Shakes’ hotly anticipated second LP. Led by the irrepressible Brittany Howard — whose singular voice deserves no less than enshrinement in the Smithsonian — the Deep South indie-rock group exploded expectations for more of the same on Sound & Color, reaching for any old inspiration it pleased. From gently psychedelic rock to full-blooded gospel to freaked-out R&B and disco — Alabama Shakes chased its muse into deeply odd and thoroughly pleasing corners.
8. Kacey Musgraves, ‘Pageant Material’
The girl from Golden continued her ascent from East Texas to Nashville’s center stage, never forgetting, as she sings on one of Pageant Material’s many sparkling selections, where she’s been or where she’s going. Underestimate Kacey Musgraves as just another pretty face in Music City at your peril: Precious few can muster the sort of incisive songwriting Musgraves showcases throughout this 13-song collection. The figurative torch being passed between Musgraves and Willie Nelson on the album’s final, “hidden” track is as moving as it is fitting.
9. Tame Impala, ‘Currents’
Australian psych-rock quintet Tame Impala did something pretty radical for its third album: It made the impenetrable accessible. Led by the idiosyncratic Kevin Parker, who handled all of the instruments and whose ghostly, soaring vocals thread through the synth-heavy Currents, Tame Impala took tentative steps toward the mainstream. By dialing down the abrasive guitars and embracing luscious melody, Parker found the sweet spot between weird and wonderful, making Currents a delirious delight.
10. Carly Rae Jepsen, ‘Emotion’
Few would have pegged the singer of Call Me Maybe as a savvy pop stylist, but, well, here we are. The Canadian vocalist strip-mines 1980s mall pop, with the help of some A-list producers, to create a glorious evocation of Reagan-era radio jams on Emotion. What lifts these dozen songs above so many others attempting something similar in 2015 is Carly Rae Jepsen’s inherent understanding of the melancholy and desperation at the core of the Me Decade’s pop music: “ ’Cause I want what I want/Do you think I want too much?” she sighs on the gleaming, pulsing Gimmie Love.