10. Miranda Lambert, ‘Wildcard’
After flooding a sublime double-disc album with her post-divorce feelings (hey, divorce is hard!), Miranda Lambert got her groove back and then finally decided that life is “pretty bitchin,’” a sentiment she shares on ‘Wildcard’. “Yeah, I’m a turner,” she sings on the standout “Bluebird,” casually cool, earning your own optimistic tears. “I turn pages all the time. Don’t like where I’m at, 34 was bad, so I just turned to 35.” Lambert also, in many ways, turned the page on what a country music artist could sound like, experimenting with a punch of classic-rock on “Track Record” and a charged psychedelic-rock edge on “Mess With My Head.” Then there’s Lambert, the observer, on the nod to her country roots, “Dark Bars,” which will make you feel like even when you actually are, you’re never truly drinking alone. And the rest? Pretty bitchin’, too.
9. Sturgill Simpson, ‘Sound & Fury’
Country-rocker Sturgill Simpson’s ‘Sound & Fury’ was spectacularly insane. I was enveloped by it. I was scared by it. I couldn’t stop listening to it. It rides in tame enough with “Ronin,” before blasting into action and never letting up, each track fusing into the next, a big fuck you to – well, to a lot. Including nosy music journalists. It bombards you with a constant procession of heavy, loud feelings that whip through you at a fast and furious pace, and if you’re never walked into a fire after getting into a car accident, well, at least now you can say you feel like you have.
8. The Highwomen, ‘The Highwomen’
Having Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires join forces for these songs about women, written by women and sung by women is perfectly in tune with the times. With women’s stories and experiences taking center stage in a broader sense, the leading ladies assembled as a powerful and necessary collective, The Highwomen, to show the male-dominated country music genre just what women can do. Their smart, witty and emotional self-titled debut explores love, family and politics with a keen sense of their place in the world. “Redesigning Women” already sounds like a modern-day classic, and the rousing story-driven title track honors persecuted women. Through and through, the quartet demonstrates what I’ve always known to be true: Women do it better than men.
7. Ariana Grande, ‘Thank U, Next’
Bop on bop on bop. Before ‘Thank U, Next’ I was half sold on Ariana Grande, but I’ve finally come around to the pop star after this fusion of pop and hip-hop, stacked with moods and hooks and enough vocal flutters to give a clipped bird its wings. It’s the first time I’ve truly thought of Grande as a tastemaker – and also a human being. The proof is evident in what I found to be her warmest song to date, “thank u, next,” which reshapes a cheeky kiss-off into a message of authenticity, positivity and self-love. And when Grande wasn’t giving you reasons to love yourself, she was – with “7 rings,” a satirical take on millennial greed – making you feel like you deserve anything you want, with a wink.
6. Sharon Van Etten, ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’
I couldn’t shake Sharon Van Etten’s emotionally piercing fifth album, but it was “Seventeen” that made me want to roll down the windows, pop open my moon roof, and then, ‘Perks of Being a Wallflower’ style, cruise the interstate. Sung to her 17-year-old self, it is the centerpiece of Van Etten’s latest work and also a downright masterpiece, with its Springsteenian lyrics capturing a mood relatable to anyone who managed to survive that year: “I see you so uncomfortably alone, I wish I could you show how much you’ve grown.” If your 17 was anything like Van Etten’s 17 (or my 17), you’ll lament a time that seems so far gone now, but yet, through Van Etten’s wistful lens, not so distant at all.
5. Tanya Tucker, ‘While I’m Livin’’
You get the impression Tanya Tucker might not have made another album after her last, released in 2009, if it weren’t for Brandi Carlile, one of the most talented singer-songwriters of our time and now a true gay saint for getting a country legend back in the saddle. Produced and co-written by Carlile, Shooter Jennings and Carlile’s longtime collaborators, twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth, Tucker’s resurgence takes a few notes from Carlile’s own sincerely real methodology, delivered by way of Tucker’s sincerely real (see: ragged, husky) voice. These are classic country songs that cut deep, and that’s palpable on Tucker’s version of “The House That Built Me,” which movingly compliments Miranda Lambert’s original cut. Lambert longed for home as a child who’d grown up and moved away; with a few lyrical tweaks, Tucker is the longing mother whose children are grown and gone. There’s even more feeling packed into “Bring My Flowers Now,” a heartbreakingly vulnerable piano elegy that’s like looking at a life through the rear-view mirror.
4. Bon Iver, ‘i, i’
I once listened to Justin Vernon, the songwriter and frontman of the group Bon Iver, play underneath a blanket of stars. My body on scraps of grass, I just let him take me away. I approached listening to ‘i, i’ in a similar way, which is to say, I didn’t overthink his enigmatic verses and baffling non sequiturs. Based on the spiritual connection I feel – feel, since this is music that speaks to you in weird, discordant tones – I’m finally coming to the realization that maybe understanding any of this isn’t the point anyway. By the end of ‘i, i,’ which I’ve only listened to alone – no stars, no festival crowd, just whatever language I may one day distill from all of this – I felt not alone but connected to something much bigger.
3. Carly Rae Jepsen, ‘Dedicated’
Where could Carly Rae Jepsen go after ‘E•MO•TION’? A career-defining body of work, it was also arguably the best pop album of 2015. It seemed nothing could even remotely come close to achieving that same level of pop greatness. Upon their release, songs from ‘Dedicated’ felt looser, more low-key, though the coyly sexual, Cyndi Lauper-inspired, Squeeze-ish “Want You in My Room” was a sure bet from the get-go. For ‘Dedicated’, Jepsen let ‘E•MO•TION’ be ‘E•MO•TION’ and created something entirely special in its own intimate, pleasurably dialed-back right.
2. Vampire Weekend, ‘Father of the Bride’
My favorite album of last year, Kacey Musgraves’s ‘Rainbow’, imparted breath and light into our dark, disquieting global climate; that same serenity runs through Vampire Weekend’s buoyant ‘Father of the Bride’. Recorded without former member Rostam Batmanglij, Ezra Koenig’s sound isn’t fussy, instead leaning into a majestic simplicity that stands out against Vampire Weekend’s other albums, the haunting ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ and the punchy ‘Contra’. In many ways, this feels like the band at their most earnest, with a relaxed, traversing sound as new and invigorating as daybreak.
1. Lana Del Rey, ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’
Even if Lana Del Rey’s ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ wasn’t the best-sounding album of the year, it certainly would be one of the most important. But Del Rey’s best work yet manages both feats. Elegant and cool thanks to Jack Antonoff’s understated production, the album is fitted with Del Rey’s casual delivery of a commentary (sometimes earnest, sometimes low-key caustic) on American politics, celebrity and suitably, given our current patriarchal times, the perpetual state of men as disappointments (but she’s not giving up just yet, as she concludes, “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it”). One of modern music’s greatest songwriters, Del Ray writes incisively and vividly about her longing for her past and the America we lost. The collective spirit of ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ is euphoric and seductive, and like a flower in bloom, fuller and even more captivating over time.