I Struggled just to come up with 10 albums that would have contended for my annual list in past years. The top five on this list would hang with the best in most any year, but picking the last few slots was tricky. But it was that kind of year. There were plenty of good albums in 2015, just not many that went next level. I also wasn't as impressed as many music writers with releases by Kendrick Lamar and Drake. They faltered a bit on a musical level for me. Here's how I ranked this year's best albums.
1. Adele "25" (XL/Columbia) – Talk about tough acts to follow. Adele's 2011 album, "21," was a consensus pick by critics for album of the year, won six Grammy Awards (including Album of the Year) and sold a boatload of copies. It turns out her hotly anticipated encore, "25," is easily strong enough to take this year's top spot. The one thing "25" lacks is a song that matches the goosebumps-raising power of "Rolling in the Deep" – although "All I Ask" comes very close. What's refreshing about "25" is some of the best songs ("All I Ask," "Million Years Ago" and "Love in the Dark") feature little more than Adele's vocal and either piano or guitar. That these songs can feel so complete in that setting speaks to the superior quality of the writing and Adele's uncommon singing talent. Three albums in, it's too early in her career to put Adele in a league with the likes of Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin or Janis Joplin. But with "25," she's getting close.
2. Courtney Barnett "Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit" (Mom + Pop Music) – Barnett has the unusual ability to take mundane observations (buying a coffee maker or driving down a highway) and spin them into profound thoughts on topics like adult responsibility, corporate greed or the fragility of life. The music is every bit as good, whether it's spiky and catchy ("Aqua Profunda!" and "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party") or gentler, but still with a little edge ("Small Poppies" or "Depreston"). The raves Barnett is getting for her pithy music and her lyrical wit, insight and rhyming ability are fully justified.
3. D'Angelo "Black Messiah" (RCA) – "Black Messiah" was released too late last year to be included on 2014 best album lists. Nearly a year later, this album—the first from D'Angelo in a decade—sounds just as bold and inventive, as D'Angelo draws from classic 1960s/'70s soul and funk and puts his own modern spin on the sound. The music on "Black Messiah," though, is not straight-ahead soul and the production isn't conventional. The vocals, mainly falsetto, blend into the mix, and the instrumentation washes and swirls through the songs. But rather than sounding muddy, the effect is more pleasantly woozy, drawing in the listener, leaving an intoxicating effect and making us hope we don't have to wait another decade for D'Angelo's next album.
4. The Weeknd "The Beauty Behind The Madness" (XO/Republic) – "The Beauty Behind The Madness" has much more to offer than its great single, "I Can't Feel My Face." There's "Real Life," a dramatic anthem with faux strings and a rock edge. "In The Night" has a nice swing to go with its sweet, soaring vocal melody. "Dark Times" is a deliberate and effectively haunting ballad. They join another 10 sharply crafted songs that have the Weeknd looking like he may be R&B's next major star.
5. Jason Isbell "Something More Than Free" (Southeastern) – Since leaving the Drive-By Truckers, Isbell has cleaned up his life and made good on the potential he showed as a songwriter in that fine rocking group. His 2013 release, "Southeastern," was arguably the best Americana release of that year, and "Something More Than Free" is nearly as good. As on "Southeastern," Isbell, for the most part, downshifts from the more rocking sound of his first three solo albums into more of a spare, often acoustic setting, which is applied to a collection of sharply crafted, often lovely songs, such as the gently assertive country-tinged "If It Takes A Lifetime," "Hudson Commodore" and "24 Frames." Isbell shows his story-telling skills on songs like "Flagship" and "Speed Trap Town," while striking a more personal note on "How To Forget," "The Life You Chose" and the title song. In all cases, the lyrics are vivid, detailed and relatable to anyone trying to find ways to lead a happier, more fulfilling life. This is songwriting at its finest.
6. Florence + The Machine "How Big How Blue How Beautiful" (Island/Republic) – Florence Welch and company show a bit more of a rock edge and a little less opulence on their third album, "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful." Overall, Welch and the band bring more of a rock edge to "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful." Songs like "Ship To Wreck," "Mother" and the title track pack plenty of power while retaining a bit of the grandeur—not to mention the sharp melodies that have always drawn fans to this acclaimed group.
7. Best Coast "California Nights" (Harvest/Virgin EMI) – On their third album, the duo of Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno get a bit edgier and rock a little harder, without losing the buoyant, and well, beachy melodies that have made the previous albums stand out. There's nothing groundbreaking about Best Coast's power pop sound, but the fact is, Best Coast doesn't need trickery. The melodies to songs like "So Unaware," "When Will I Change" and "In My Eyes" are so inviting and timeless that "California Nights" figures to shine and shimmer just as brightly years down the road as it does now.
8. Chris Stapleton "Traveller" (Mercury Nashville) – Stapleton became an overnight star in November when he paired with Justin Timberlake on the CMA Awards and blew away audiences with his song "Tennessee Whiskey" and Timberlake's "Drink You Away." Fans will find Stapleton's debut album, "Traveller," just as impressive. A rare country traditionalist at a time when the genre has gone rock/pop, Stapleton had seen 150 of his songs cut by other artists before making this album. But he saved enough gems to make "Traveller" 2015's best country album.
9. The Arcs "Yours Dearly" (Nonesuch) – Fronted by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, it's no surprise to hear some crossover between the sound of the Arcs and Auerbach's main band. But nearly every song on "Yours Dearly" has at least a stylistic twist that makes it distinctive to the Arcs. And even if this band is a side project, the quality and creativity of "Yours Dearly" suggests Auerbach is as fully invested in the Arcs as the Black Keys.
10. Ashley Monroe "The Blade" (Warner Bros.) – A member (with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley) of Pistol Annies, Monroe continues to make her mark as a solo artist with her lyrically smart, hooky and musically diverse (there's country balladry, spunky pop/rock and even swampy rock) third album.
-Jazmine Sullivan "Reality Show"
-Wilco "Star Wars"
-Dwight Yoakamm "Second Hand Heart"
-Leon Bridges "Coming Home"
-Kendrick Lamar "To Pimp A Butterfly" Death Cab "Kintsugi"
-Sleater-Kinney "No Cities To Love"
-Paul Weller "Saturns Pattern"