(Album art links to Amazon, title links to Spotify)
1. Florence & the Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Elegant but powerful, raucous but tender. A huge step forward from the sonic sameness of Ceremonials. The biggest voice in pop has declared herself the “Queen of Peace”, and we’re not worthy.
2. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material
Her debut had a couple good ideas, but a lot of filler. This is overflowing with the former and none of the latter. The wordplay and songcraft is second to none. The soundtrack to small town libertarianism.
3. Dead Sara – Pleasure to Meet You
A rousing, anthemic followup for the LA garage band. If Courtney Love’s tortured, ruinous existence paved the way for this band’s sound, it all would’ve been worth it.
4. The Weeknd – Beauty in the Madness
Who knew filtering Abel Tesfaye’s filthy r&b nihilism through Michael Jackson’s back catalog would create the perfect pop masterpiece for the 2010s? And now we know what our version of Flock of Seagulls hair will be.
5. Troye Sivan – Blue Neighborhood
The most gloomy and inventive album of the year is from a 20-year old South African twink. Of course. He’s far too young to have this many troubles, but pop is in good hands for a long time if he sticks with it.
6. Chvrches – Every Open Eye
The magic Scottish cover fairies are back with their second flawless album of shimmering electro-pop. The beats are harder, the vocals stronger, the urgency heavier.
7. Twenty-One Pilots – Blurryface
I didn’t think it was possible to follow the unique genius of Vessel, but they’ve done it. Drum and piano rap has never sounded this unsure of itself and powerful at the same time.
8. Muse – Drones
Thematically, their whole career feels like it was building to this – a concept album about soldiers as reprogrammed remote-controlled government drones. Their most uniformly heavy release in a decade.
9. Ellie Goulding – Delirium
Her last album was the 21-track Halcyon Days reissue just two years ago, but she’s already back with another 23 fiercely independent pop gems for radio to play until we hate them. Bring it on.
10. Skrillex & Diplo – Jack Ü
The two hardest working, hardest partying men in EDM each released their own albums just a year ago, but this funky, fresh collaboration might be better than either, Justin Bieber appearance included.
11. Mumford & Sons – Wilder Mind
What do you get when you replace Mumford & Sons’ banjos and acoustic guitars with electrics? The same thing, just louder. Emotional, powerful, driving rock romance. “The Wolf” may be their best since “The Cave”.
12. Nothing More – Nothing More
The most important voice in hard rock in years came out of nowhere with a message for the masses delivered with style, smarts, and intensity. A little Incubus, a little Korn, a little Disturbed, a lot good.
13. Adele – 25
We knew it was coming, just not when, but we had our cash ready. 5 million albums (and counting…) sold in just 3 weeks. Some of it feels unnecessarily weighted down, but where it doesn’t (“Send My Love”) it soars.
14. Awolnation – Run
A surprisingly somber and sedate follow-up to the smash alternative debut, but it still delivers where it counts.
15. The Dreaming – Rise Again
With other former members of Stabbing Westward joining their singer Christopher Hall’s newer band, it was billed as a reunion of sorts for the late 90s cult faves, and feels just as good in parts.
16. Disturbed – Immortalized
Another surprise release from a long-dormant powerhouse, the rhythmic rockers haven’t missed a beat. Their haunting and shocking cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” is one for the ages.
17. Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor
Your parents’ worst nightmare faded into obscurity for a while, but he’s back with an innovative, bluesy romp that both hearkens back to and pushes forward from his last great album, the Bowiesque Mechanical Animals.
18. Puscifer – Money Shot
Maynard’s clearest and strongest vocal performance with his third but most prolific band yet. Their quirky, all-over-the-place sound has really been honed into a singular thing. “Grand Canyon” is a sweeping masterpiece nearly as majestic as its namesake.
19. Death Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi
The Grammy nominations moved them from alternative to rock. I’m not sure why, but if it gives them a better chance of winning, fine. Solid album from the always reliable kings of smart-rock.
20. Dustin Kensrue – Carry the Fire
Sounding even more like a Bruce Springsteen tribute album on his fourth solo effort, the erstwhile Thrice singer’s songwriting is getting even better.
Sara Bareilles – What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress
A concept album with a less interesting sound than her previous incredible releases, but “She Used to Be Mine” is one of her best ever.
Brandon Flowers – The Desired Effect
Still haven’t listened to the whole thing, but the single is great!
Patty Griffin – Servant of Love
Patty never disappoints, even when I don’t make time to listen to her music.
Halestorm – Into the Wild Life
A bit of a disappointment after the rolicking, rough-riding The Strange Case Of…, but Lizzy’s voice is still one in a million.
Joy Williams – Venus
A surprisingly girl-powerful effort from the former Civil Wars singer.
Josh Groban – Stages
The Phantom of the Opera duet with Kelly Clarkson is worth the price of admission alone (though if you’re going to his upcoming tour with Sarah McLachlan, that price is pretty steep).