Top Ten Nonlocal Albums of 2015

1. Kendrick Lamar, "To Pimp A Butterfly" (Interscope/Aftermath/Top Dawg Entertainment) This swirling postmodern novel of a "real hip-hop" album on race, responsibility, legacy, capitalism, and Christianity features among many, many other things: 'Alright,' an empowering, comforting song (and quasi-tribute to Clipse's 'When The Last Time') that has become the anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement; 'How Much A Dollar Cost,' a Cynthia Ozick-meets-Octavia Butler-ish short story of a song about God as a homeless man, which the president named his favorite song of 2015; 'King Kunta,' a swaggering galloping song of self; and 'The Blacker The Berry,' a baffling Bomb Squad-sounding song countered by rhetoric that's one part Eldridge Cleaver and one part Rudy Ray Moore. Also! King Kendrick talks to the ghost of Tupac, spits hot fire over bebopping beats, turns the Isley Brothers into skronking noise-rap, and in general releases one of the most dense and dizzying albums of recent memory—at least since Kendrick's 2012 album, "good kid, m.A.A.d city." No other pop album means as much as this one this year. (Brandon Soderberg)

2. Jamie xx, "In Colour" (Young Turks) Dance producer Jamie xx's solo debut isn't so much for the club but about the club. On 'Loud Places,' Romy Madley Croft sings, "I go to loud places to search for someone to be quiet with," highlighting the club as a hookup spot and possibly the place where something more lasting might just begin. And songs such as 'Gosh,' an ominous rave track, hip-hop/electro-tinged 'Hold Tight,' and 'I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times),' an effervescent collaboration with Young Thug and Popcaan (and a woolly Persuasions sample), present the club as a space where nostalgia and zeitgeist fist-pump together. There's almost something professorial about "In Colour," but Jamie xx is as melancholy as he is brainy and these moody tracks capture the multitudes of a night out drunk, rolling, and dancing—the pit-of-the-stomach joy and dance-my-pain-away escape—teasing the bittersweet realization that the lights will come up and you'll have to go home and deal with yourself soon enough. (BS)

3. Carly Rae Jepsen, "E•MO•TION" (Interscope/School Boy Records) Carly Rae Jepsen's synth-pop-infused "E•MO•TION" is not mere '80s kitsch; it understands that the space between synth stabs and soaring saxophones can be a dark alley only so much neon can shed light on. And so, 'Warm Blood' uses body-horror imagery to paint romance as vampiric consumption and 'LA Hallucinations' understands shopping as a Kanye-esque copacetic for black-hole-level existential woes. But Jepsen doesn't set up residence in melancholy, she uses it as a residency to work through her troubles (see: 'Boy Problems' and 'Making the Most of the Night,' which anthemically ditches dudes for solidarity with her girls). While "E•MO•TION" fulfills pop templates (and each song here is a confirmed banger) it's more useful to explore how she confounds them. Even if this record was a commercial failure, it was an artistic triumph. (Adam Katzman)

4. Courtney Barnett, "Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit" (Mom + Pop) Australia's Courtney Barnett shouldn't be so damned pleasing. Her voice is part Natalie Maines growl and Mark Arm gasp. Her lyrics are part Stephen Malkmus contorted and Joni Mitchell personal. She crafts seemingly boilerplate indie rock. And to top it off, the songs on "Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit" live at the intersection of apathy and ambivalence. Yet with every listen, something—the electric burr of her voice, a rhyming line's sting, a shambolic break during a bridge—infuses it all with an intoxicating defiance, disarmingly hitting that emotional place where it feels like it'd be easy to give up on everything if we just didn't give so much of a damn. (Bret McCabe)

5. Kacey Musgraves, "Pageant Material" (Mercury Records) Country seems to be the genre most cited as "I like anything but . . ." or "I only listen to . . ." That might be because a lot of country pop appeals to a pretty specific set of interests (trucks, God, jingoism, and such, though that is changing) which sucks for those of us who aren't into that stuff but still like slide guitars and sweet, twangy harmonies. But Kacey Musgraves makes a point of being for everyone. "We're all good but we ain't angels/ We all sin but we ain't devils" she sings on 'Somebody To Love.' And with lyrics that are seriously clever (echoes of Elvis Costello) and touchingly earnest, "Pageant Material" is like a humanist life coach who knows how to have a good time and can craft a pop song. (Shannon Gormley)

6. Vince Staples, "Summertime '06" (Def Jam/ARTium) The trap double-CD "Summertime '06" appears to set for itself is formidable: how best to make abject hopelessness bang, let alone resonate? But Long Beach-born MC Vince Staples sells the gaping bleakness of his debut via affect-free flows hammered flat or curlicued into imposing tangles. An inky haze of hard knock, ominous murk, and swirled gospel—coordinated by producer/Def Jam chieftain No I.D.—frames Staples' dispassionate reportage from the expiration of innocence. So what's happening out there? Casual and not-so-casual racism, the most desperate of straits, economic stasis, the coldest of braggadocio, flashed steel, palmed glassiness. You know, the usual, only you've never heard it quite like this before: no joy, just the facts. (Raymond Cummings)

7. Future, "DS2" (Epic Records/Freebandz) Even as the lines continue to blur between free "mixtapes" and retail "albums," mainstream rappers often stumble on star-studded major label releases that fail to stay true to the sound of tapes that built their fan base. Future already made that mistake on 2014's "Honest," so when a trio of mixtapes brought his buzz roaring back, he was ready to serve his base with the dark, hard-hitting sound of sleeper hits like 'Fuck Up Some Commas' and 'Trap Niggas.' A spiritual sequel to his 2011 breakthrough mixtape "Dirty Sprite," "DS2" is lean on guest appearances (aside from the obligatory Drake verse), and heavy on playfully ornate bangers from such longtime producers as Metro Boomin and Zaytoven. (Al Shipley)

8. Grimes, "Art Angels" (4AD) "Art Angels" is overwhelming. It evokes Enya, B*Witched's 'C'est La Vie,' Scritti Politti's blithe bitterness as too-sweet pop perfection, Big Beat omnivorousness, Peter Hook's brazenly moronic melodic bass, Cyndi Lauper's affected, almost-parodic pop vocals, OutKast's idea of a hoedown comedown off molly, and something resembling a surf-rock jam by a locked-in yet technically incompetent Fugazi cover band featuring a frontwoman flaunting as much charisma as Guy Picciotto falling out of a basketball hoop. "Art Angels" is so many sounds combining with such precise idiosyncrasy it's easy to lose yourself in it, but Grimes pulls you through with her single-minded focus. She refuses to forget the pain and anger of being a woman—a woman insistent on retaining a feminine sense of self in an industry that sells women, but forces limited agency on them as a part of the deal. "Art Angels" is too rich to swallow, but thankfully music is for the ears. (Brian Line)

9. Kurt Vile, "b'lieve i'm goin down. . ." (Matador Records) If you walk a lot, you need good walking music. Something that's chill enough to balance out (or drown out) city sounds, but keeps up with your pace. Something that's not just background noise, that you could sing along to if you wanted to, but don't feel like you have to. You want something that won't bum you out or amp you up too much, but gets you thinking about how beautiful, ragged, interesting, complicated, and simple life can be all at once. Basically, you want Kurt Vile's latest album, 60 minutes of ambling melodies and simple-enough yet discursive (and funny) observations in his lyrics. From 'Dust Bunnies': "You think you're tired, put your face in my place/ We swap faces and I see you're tired." Standouts include 'Wheelhouse,' a slow-building, meditative/almost-religious jam about how "you gotta be alone to figure things out sometimes," and 'Stand Inside,' a short living-room love song with nods to Dylan and 'Scarborough Fair.' The whole album is comfortable and familiar but makes you want to pay close attention to all of the little things around you. (Rebekah Kirkman)

10. Oneohtrix Point Never, "Garden of Delete" (Warp Records) 0PN's latest is like hearing all the pretty EDM-ish music out there right now being eaten, digested, and diarrheaed out by all the ugly music of the recent past: nu-metal, hardstyle, noise, free jazz, etc. Big dumb festival EDM's whole entire zeitgeist is inhaled and evacuated by Daniel Lopatin on this high-concept album about adolescence, dread, the suburbs, the '90s, and more. The creepy, yipping parts of a Skrillex song get bonked over the head by the clipping aggro parts of dubstep or the goofball freak-out parts of a Korn album counter sterile jazz fusion guitar. Meanwhile, heroin-high sample tweaking and hyper-pleasant new age chillax in the background. "Garden of Delete" mines a specific kind of emotional maximalism which makes rage and sadness mythic but it has a sense of humor about it all too, like an adult looking back and feeling the goth rage they felt at 13, but feeling thankful they got through it or have at least found new ways to freak the hell out. (BS)

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