Men made a lot of good music in 2015. There’s Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell, a beautiful and existential musing on mortality and memory; Miguel’s Wildheart, an album with little subtlety and a truly powerful commitment to sensuality; Justin Bieber’s Purpose, which is itself alright but which features some of the best songs of the year, if not the best chorus of the year.
This isn’t about the men. Below are thirty albums that rocked our world in 2015, all featuring female soloists and frontwomen and, more importantly perhaps, women producing, women writing, and women taking charge of musical and artistic visions. These albums, mixtapes, and EPs weren’t necessarily the biggest releases of the year, but they all touch upon and push the limits on, but not of, women’s voices.
27. Christine and the Queens – Christine and the Queens
Technically, this album isn’t really an all-original album and is more of an amalgam of Héloïse Letissier’s previous releases with a few new tracks. But as an introduction to Letissier’s performance character Christine, her bilingual lyricism, and gender exploration, Christine and the Queens is fantastic and, more importantly, the songs are very, very good.
Listen while: Doing your makeup and then dramatically wiping off half of your face, à la Mulan
Best moments: “iT”; “No Harm Is Done” ft. Tunji Ige; “Jonathan” ft. Perfume Genius
26. Kelela – Hallucinogen
Kelela sounds like the kind of person who gives fantastic love advice to her friends but maybe doesn’t have the easiest time taking it to heart for herself. Her songs are maelstroms of desire and less-than-legal escape, centered on love and lust and the complicated intersections and omissions between the two. She’s yet to release a full album, but Hallucinogen is a harbinger of what’s to come.
Listen while: Going to a party in your best freakum dress and a full face of makeup, only to spend it smoking outside
Best moments: “A Message”; the production fade on “Rewind”; “All The Way Down”
25. Girlpool – Before the World Was Big
For most people, the music they make in their teenage years is stuff that they’ll bury away. For Girlpool members Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad, their austere guitar and bass musings (no drums for this duo) were born out of mutual appreciation (they met at a show) and a desire to reflect nothing more or less than the teen girl mind, by and for themselves. It’s simple for sure, but sometimes that’s best.
Listen while: Braiding your bestie’s hair and reminiscing about your childhood crushes
Best moments: “Chinatown”; “Cherry Picking”; “Emily”
24. Ryn Weaver – The Fool
“OctaHate,” a song with a weird name and a strange, solid chorus, was Weaver’s first dip into the pop waters, and it became her ticket to the mainstream music world. Now, she’s writing for artists like JoJo and Gwen Stefani, but it’s what’s on debut album The Fool that should cement her artistic merits: Sparkling, maximalist pop jams, with hypnotic riffs and a malleable, magnetic voice.
Listen while: Getting back home after a night at a stranger’s, teetering between hopeful wonder and jaded acceptance as to whether it meant more
Best moments: “Stay Low”; “The Fool”; “Free”
23. Tinashe – Amethyst
Tinashe has had a meteoric rise through the R&B world, thanks to her 2014 debut Aquarius and its can’t-be-killed hit “2 On.” Her smoke-addled siren vibe is a seductive hook, but she’s capable of turning it on and off. Amethyst is what she creates when she’s letting off steam, and its shyness and sonic intimacy are refreshing and revealing.
Listen while: Lip-syncing and attempting to dance suggestively in the glow of your candlelit bedroom, after a few glasses of wine
Best moments: The chorale at the end of “Dreams So Real”; “Wrong”; her disses on “Looking 4 It”
22. Joanna Newsom – Divers
Newsom has a voice that, if you’re being generous, is an “acquired taste,” but such is the case for so many of our now most-famed, generation-defining vocalists. In her case, moonbeam-clear, effected vocals mix with full-bodied classical and classical-adjacent instrumentation (including her harp) to weave tapestries of naturalistic and mythological detail. Divers is her most “accessible” effort yet, but it holds back none of her weirdness, instead magnifying and shaping it in new ways.
Listen while: Running through a wind-swept meadow with a coterie of animal friends and the ghosts of long-forgotten others who’ve walked your road before
Best moments: “Sapokanikan”;”Divers”; “A Pin-Light Bent”
21. Tei Shi – Verde
There are few things as cathartic as a steady build and sudden release in a song; an acquaintance of mine once described it as “whisper to boom,” and while it’s a production trope at this point, it’s also deadly when it’s done right. Tei Shi’s “Bassically” is the best example of that in recent memory, and the rest of the EP coasts on and basks in the song’s phosphorescent glow.
Listen while: Shadow-dancing under dramatic lighting, à la your favorite dance movie of choice
Best moments: The boom in “Bassically”; “See Me”; “Go Slow”
20. Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness
Julia Holter’s music sounds familiar at first, but she spins and warps the indie folk sound aesthetic into something a little stranger, a little more opaque, cinematic in its scope and ambition. Have You shimmers on the surface, but dip your toe into its waters and you’ll find yourself sinking fast.
Listen while: Rafting in a state park in the American Northeast, mimicking bird calls and drifting for hours at a time
Best moments: “Feel You”; the crescendoing build on “Lucette Stranded on the Island”; “Everytime Boots”
19. Kehlani – You Should Be Here
The subtitle of this mixtape should be, “I’ve been through some sh-t.” Kehlani is only 20, but she writes and sings with the exasperation of someone who’s lived a thousand lives already, and the hurt that permeates so much of You Should Be Here, whether directed at people who are already gone from her life or will shortly be out, is real no matter what age you are.
Listen while: Bumping into your ex in public while looking absolutely amazing
Best moments: “How That Taste”; “Wanted”; “The Way” ft. Chance the Rapper
18. Björk – Vulnicura
The cover of Björk’s latest, lamenting album (it was made in the aftermath of a breakup with her longtime partner) literally features an open wound, and the imagery is apt. The singer’s lyrics are pointed in subject and delivery, peppering the funereal, labyrinthian production with crystallized couplets of sadness. Grab tissues before you dive in.
Listen while: Wearing a long black dress, ugly-crying your eye makeup into streaks and writing anguished poetry
Best moments: “Stonemilker”; “History of Touches”; “Black Lake”
17. Torres – Sprinter
Even on sprightlier tracks off the anchor-esque (ironically so) Sprinter, Torres sounds permanently haunted, bolted to a destiny that, for every two steps she takes, drags her back one. Mackenzie Scott’s low, low voice evokes many husky rock goddesses of old, but the only thing seductive about Scott’s vocals is how alluring they make her song’s idiosyncratic, brilliant stories seem, even as they delve into darkness.
Listen while: Half-heartedly attending your high school reunion, clutching a strong drink and trying not to look anyone in the eyes
Best moments: The back half of “Strange Hellos”; “Sprinter”; “Cowboy Guilt”
16. Susanne Sundfør – Ten Love Songs
Sundfør has a bit of a homicidal bent in the lyrics on Ten Love Songs, which explores love and loving through different lenses and moods. From crushing lust to dangerous infatuation to the waning of affections, Sundfør channels Scandinavian pop of yore (namely ABBA) and stakes her own claim in its hallowed company. You’ll get chills.
Listen while: Walking through a new snowfall and timing your steps to come down on the beat
Best moments: “Accelerate”; “Memorial”; “Delirious”
15. Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion
The shadow of “Call Me Maybe” could’ve hung over Carly Rae Jepsen for the rest of her life (or at least her pop career). Instead, her sophomore album is a genre masterpiece, a blank slate for those of us who’ve ever fell under the spell of infatuation, been frustrated by our own feelings, traced the name of a crush over and over with your pen cap.
Listen while: Skipping down the sidewalk with your eyes closed, pretending that you’re starring in a romcom
Best moments: The penultimate chorus of “Run Away With Me”; “LA Hallucinations”; “When I Needed You”
14. Natalia Lafourcade – Hasta la raíz
For whatever reason, people love using mid-century French pop songs to signal romantic significance. (See: The entire Francophile media canon, the continued resurgence of yé-yé.) Natalia Lafourcade’s music has that same accented lovecrush feeling, but in another Romance language, and the moody, lush orchestration on Hasta la raíz makes the case for her international stardom. Not that she really needs any help: Her album’s nominated for all the big Latin Grammy categories.
Listen while: Wearing your best floaty sundress, walking by a willow-draped riverbank and sighing over your past loves
Best moments: “Hasta la Raíz”; “Ya No Te Puede Querer”; “Palomas Blancas”
13. Dilly Dally – Sore
The Toronto band Dilly Dally has the name of a children’s book and the physical punch of a shot of cloudy liquor. With its bloody iconography and vocalist Katie Monks’s shrieks of discontent, it’s not necessarily easy to listen to Sore, but if you can get over that initial “What is this?”, you won’t be able to stop head-banging along.
Listen while: Hate-stalking your scumbag ex on social media and thinking about dramatically smashing something (but not actually doing that)
Best moments: “Desire”; the screaming chorus that closes “The Touch”; “Purple Rage”
12. Made in Heights – Without My Enemy What Would I Do
Made in Heights has been generally overlooked by much of music press, indie and otherwise, and when listening to sophomore album Without My Enemy, you have to ask, why? Their songs, first released as mysterious Soundcloud singles, are delicately constructed mood capsules that gain sentience and sentiment through Kelsey Bulkin’s supernatural voice.
Listen while: Meditating in an empty room, reflecting on the material and spiritual goodness that’s passed through your life and you
Best moments: “Pirouette”; the hit on “Murakami”; “Forgiveness”
11. Hiatus Kaiyote – Choose Your Weapon
Australian funk/soul/goth-glitch band Hiatus Kaiyote mixes and manipulates genres in a way that would be frightening if it didn’t sound so good. Choose Your Weapon touches on video games, anime idols, and spirituality; it features a live recording of an owl; it is a phantasmagoria of sounds and influences that is both bonkers and also deeply groovy.
Listen while: Spending a day at a botanical garden, preferably one that one has a vivid greenhouse
Best moments: “Laputa”; “Breathing Underwater”; the bass break in “Atari”
10. Colleen Green – I Want To Grow Up
Colleen Green is one of those indie treasures who’s been steadily shaping her sound and vision. I Want To Grow Up is the apotheosis (so far) of her musical catalogue, and besides being her first foray into fuller instrumentation, it’s a direct line to a particular kind of faux-blasé feeling: You can hear Green rolling her eyes while covertly reflecting on the uncertainty that blooms from boredom, rejection, and, yes, growing up.
Listen while: Cracking open a beer (or something stronger) and watching the sun dip below the horizon
Best moments: “Pay Attention”; “Deeper Than Love”; when “Things That Are Bad For Me (Part 1)” seamlessly, wrenchingly transitions into “Things That Are Bad For Me (Part 2)”
9. Empress Of – Me
Lorely Rodriguez knows what she wants, and she wants it all. Her mellowed out cover of Katy Perry’s hit “Hot N Cold” made the music blog rounds, but it’s her incredible vocal range and elastic production that makes Me one of the best releases of the year. When I went to see her on a recent tour stop, I was stunned by how practiced and professional her live vocals already are — and how fluid, formless, and ecstatic her stage presence was.
Listen while: Aggressively dancing past catcallers who are trying to dull your shine
Best moments: The bubbly chorus of “How Do You Do It”; the rolling bass of “To Get By”; “Kitty Kat”
8. Purity Ring – Another Eternity
The first time you listen to Purity Ring is like catching a glimpse of yourself in a funhouse mirror: Their songs aren’t structurally too unorthodox, but there’s something else there within their sonic vision, just out of your eyeline (or, your earline?). Going from glitter to grime in a beat, Another Eternity is a sparkling, startling sophomore album anchored by Megan James’s voice — and as Purity Ring has easily one of the best live shows in the world right now, go listen in person for the full, tremendous effect.
Listen while: Staring up at a pristine night sky miles away from civilization, watching shooting stars weave alien patterns
Best moments: “heartsigh”; “bodyache”; when the chorus hits in “flood on the floor”
7. Eskimeaux – O.K.
Gabrielle Smith doesn’t have a traditionally strong voice, which is evident when she strains to the upper reaches of her range. But it’s the perfect vehicle for her music as Eskimeaux (she’s also in the indie pop group Frankie Cosmos); every tremor, every delicate intonation, adds to the approachable, magnetic warmth of every song on the album. Smith’s lyrics slide into your head like a hot knife — and when they twist, you’ll unlock feelings you haven’t felt in years.
Listen while: Going through high school yearbooks and reveling in the Sharpie scripted HAGS, repeating over and over like an unofficial wallpaper of adolescence
Best moments: The closing line of “Broken Necks”; “I Admit I’m Scared”; “The Thunder Answered Back”
6. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Barnett sounds like she’s permanently sauntering into her songs, with an eye for detail that makes Sometimes I Sit one of the most verbally dense albums of the year. The vivacity of her lyrical picture-painting is matched by the evocative quality of her guitar-playing; sometimes you just play a Barnett song and laugh, and sometimes you play through the entire thing and inexplicably break out into tears.
Listen while: Hanging out at your favorite local dive bar surrounded by friends, getting manageably rowdy and then coming down gently together
Best moments: “Pedestrian at Best”; the breakdown at the end of “Depreston”; “Dead Fox”
5. Ibeyi – Ibeyi
You’ll be disarmed and charmed when you first listen to Ibeyi — these French-Cuban twin sisters are multi-instrumentalists who switch between English and Nigerian Yoruba with ease, using language as part of their artistic arsenal. Their song “River” has many high profile fans, but the rest of their debut album is similarly packed with boiling bass, stellar harmony lines, and moving vocal performances.
Listen while: Casting spells you found on the Internet to commune with those you lost too soon
Best moments: The first percussion hit in “Oya”; “Ghosts”; “Weatherman”
4. Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer
Speedy Ortiz is at the leading wave of bands using activist language and support to help dismantle rock patriarchy from the inside, but just as important as their work and the work they signal-boost, they’re producing some fantastic music. With a quirky album cover created by frontwoman Sadie Dupuis, Foil Deer is full of Escher-esque melody and lyrical lines (which makes sense, as the band’s a fan of David Lynch), and “My Dead Girl” might just be the most chilling song of the year.
Listen while: Exploring abandoned houses with your home town best friends, armed with flashlights, Scooby Doo dreams, and nostalgia
Best moments: “The Graduates”; “Swell Content”; when the lyrics “turn” on “My Dead Girl”
3. FKA Twigs – M3LL155X
The rise of FKA Twigs is one of the best developments in the music world. As we get closer and closer to pop idol saturation, twigs’s self-reliant, deeply personal feminine perspective is iconic for our new cultural age. M3LL155X isn’t as dramatic of a statement as her first album, but it builds on the promise of twigs’s radical vision: Female, fearless, and freaky, and predicated on a future that’s unfolding in the now.
Listen while: Whipping your hair and limbs at the club, wearing brutal jewelry and an outfit that makes you feel powerful
Best moments: “Figure 8”; “In Time”; every time she whispers “Now hold that pose for me” in “Glass & Patron”
2. Sleater Kinney – No Cities To Love
In the run-up to Sleater-Kinney’s first new album in what seemed like millennia, it was fair to wonder if it was actually going to be any good. Well, the women who’d energized and empowered a generation of fans not only still had “it,” but dropped an instant classic in the newest chapter of their legacy. No Cities To Love is dark and focused, cerebral without being alienating, a case for growth without regret.
Listen while: Staying up all night while working on a passion project, running on empty but still going strong
Best moments: The desperate vocals on “Surface Envy”; “Gimme Love”; “Bury Our Friends”
1. Grimes – Art Angels
If you’d ever heard any of Grimes’s music before (minimal, electronic, eccentrically strange), Art Angels was a slap in the face, an enervating jolt — something that, on the surface, was merely shocking. (And, I mean, just look at that album art.) But within this aural orgy of musical-and-otherwise inspirations, Claire Boucher has managed a total metamorphosis, and emerged with one of the most thrilling, kaleidoscopic pieces of art of our time.
Listen while: Walking through a new city for the first time, lights glittering off neon and holographic surfaces, the smells of sewer stink and cloying perfumed sweetness enveloping you totally in a hallucinogenic sensory experience
Best moments: The bratty chant in “Kill v Maim”; “Pin”; “Butterfly”