Adele may have been the artist to recharge record sales in 2015’s last quarter, but across all genres, the year had a strong showing for album-length projects. From Courtney Barnett’s witty garage-rock to Madonna and Adam Lambert’s EDM turns, here is a look at the year’s best releases, as voted by our readers.
Readers’ Poll: The 10 Best Albums of 2015
See which records beat Kendrick Lamar and Adele
10. Kendrick Lamar, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’
The most politically-charged release of the year, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly served as the music world’s conscience. For the LP, the Compton-raised rapper went old-school, fusing funk and soul samples into his music as well as guest spots from artists like George Clinton, Thundercat, Snoop Dogg and Ronald Isley. The final product is not only one of the year’s most musically consistent releases but also one of its most lyrically powerful as Lamar grapples with his growing fame within a climate growing tense with racial injustice.
9. Adele, ’25’
Not a murmur was heard from Adele until October of this year, and within only three months she’s dominated 2015. Single “Hello” promised big vocals and even bigger feelings for her third and long-awaited album 25. On her latest, Adele proved that she didn’t have to write straightforward break-up songs to tug at the world’s heartstrings; she channeled remorse, nostalgia and all the most intricate aspects of falling in love and then losing it.
8. Chris Cornell, ‘Higher Truth’
Over the course of his solo career, Soundgarden and Audioslave’s Chris Cornell has always teased the flexibility of genre lines — the grunge icon even went Timbaland-assisted dance-pop on his 2009 effort Scream. With Higher Truth, Cornell found comfort in Seventies folk, channeling Led Zeppelin at their most tender for tracks like lead single “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart.” The new direction for the powerhouse vocalist worked: Higher Truth contains some of his most intimate and soul-bearing music in years.
7. Muse, ‘Drones’
On Drones, space-y arena rockers Muse proved that they don’t need EDM tricks to channel the future. The concept album tackles modern warfare and has the band channeling Rush and Pink Floyd; the latter influence especially comes across in the Drill Sergeant interlude that recalls the aggressive teacher from “Another Brick in the Wall.”
6. Tame Impala, ‘Currents’
Psych-rockers Tame Impala moved away from the head and focused on the entire body for fourth album Currents, which saw Kevin Parker have a little fun and even get dance-y. The synth-heavy LP takes a strong turn into disco territory and is one of Tame Impala’s catchiest and most soulful efforts yet. The shift works surprisingly well for Parker as he settles nicely into his pop zone.
5. 5 Seconds of Summer, ‘Sounds Good Feels Good’
5 Seconds of Summer proved to be more than just One Direction’s opening act this year, solidifying their fervent fanbase and releasing a strong sophomore LP that revived the fun, irreverent pop-punk of the early Aughts. With the help of Goldfinger’s John Feldmann, Good Charlotte’s Benji and Joel Madden and All Time Low’s Alex Gaskarth, the Australian quartet became the new princes of style, mixing their irresistible hooks with emotional lyrics and chunky riffs. Singles “She’s Kinda Hot” and “Jet Black Heart” showcased the powerful dichotomy the band represents to fans, balancing boyish cheekiness with strong messages.
4. Courtney Barnett, ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit’
Aussie Courtney Barnett’s debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit was this year’s most refreshing rock breakthrough, featuring the singer and guitarist rambling smartly above tough riffs. Barnett’s performance of her songs was as raw and emotional as the lyrics, and, most important, she proved unafraid of having a little fun in the process. Searing single “Pedestrian at Best” is the perfect summary of the album’s greatest attributes; it’s a fiery dose of stream of consciousness lyrics that bursts open with energy.
3. One Direction, ‘Made in the A.M.’
If Made in the A.M. is One Direction’s final LP, the album is a strong finish for the boys. With four remaining members, 1D went full classic rock on the LP, channeling the Beatles, the Stones and Fleetwood Mac all over the pop-rock collections. It may be their most passionate project yet and is definitely the most cohesive showcase of their identity yet, solidifying the folk-rock path the band launched with 2013 album Midnight Memories and honed further on 2014’s Four. Even when channeling their inner Seventies rock gods, One Direction are still pop savants: Single “Perfect” is a choice slice of bubblegum and perfect response to the Harry Styles-inspired Taylor Swift single “Style.”
2. Madonna, ‘Rebel Heart’
The Queen of Pop went trap and EDM for her latest, which had a rough launch due to an early leak of several tracks. Despite the setback, Rebel Heart was a strong turn for Madonna and had her teaming up with Diplo, Avicii, Kanye West, Travi$ Scott and Ariel Rechtshaid, to name a few, and getting guest features from the likes of Chance the Rapper, Mike Tyson and Nicki Minaj. The album not only gave Madonna a space to experiment with multiple genres at once, but she also assessed her own identity and iconography, as best showcased on playful single “Bitch I’m Madonna.”
1. Adam Lambert, ‘The Original High’
Three years after his excellent dance-pop sophomore effort Trespassing and fresh off a run as the lead singer of Queen, American Idol alum Adam Lambert returned on a high note — in every sense — with his house- and funk-inflected album The Original High. The singer, whose vocals are as massive as his performances, teamed up with elite pop producers Max Martin and Shellback on the LP and got assists from “Talking Body” singer and newcomer Tove Lo as well as Queen’s Brian May along the way. Led by singles “Ghost Town” and “Another Lonely Night,” Lambert achieved a balance of club fun with raw emotion on the solid album.