Since the digital age transformed the way people consume music, many have lamented the death of the album. And though it's true that playlists and algorithm-crunching radio stations have for some supplanted the start-to-finish album listening session, there are still countless artists who hold the form sacred.
From a crop of newcomers, oldies-but-goodies and comeback queens alike, TIME selects this year's albums (so far) that gave us the greatest reason to sit down and hear the whole thing out:
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
The Compton rapper’s follow-up to good kid, m.A.A.d city is funkier and looser than its predecessor—which is a better match for Kendrick, really, as his rapping really never colored inside the lines. It's also angrier. Over songs that ooze and unsettle, Lamar asks tough questions about what it means to be a black man in America today. “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” he snarls on the politically charged “The Blacker the Berry.” No, he’s just making sense of his own contradictions like everybody else does. You may not like some of his conclusions, but there's no arguing that his process is riveting.
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
Courtney Barnett has the uncanny ability to take a topic as mundane as staring at the ceiling or reading the safety warning on a truck—"If you can't see me I can't see you"—and build a palpable world around it. Her jaunty little rockers, carried by the laidback confidence of her ever-so-slightly gravelly voice, are like little dioramas you can enter and exit at will, tactile down to the Vegemite crumbs on the floor.
Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp
Alabama native Katie Crutchfield's third album as Waxahatchee marks a shift from introspection to external observation, as Ivy Tripp explores the ethos of a generation given to a prolonged, meandering search for fulfillment. Though her vibe has been described as evoking the '90s alt-rock scene, her themes are unmistakably of the here and now.
Mark Ronson, Uptown Special
It's always satisfying when a left-of-center talent has a mainstream hit, and with his new album, Ronson is getting his biggest name-on-the-door commercial success yet. Uptown Special has all the intelligence of the musician/producer's previous work, with a hearty helping of retro fun and big-hitting collaborations with the likes of Bruno Mars.
Pop culture talks about Björk like she’s an alien. It’s half true: even as her ninth album does away with the high concepts of her last few records—2004’s Medulla was all a capella, 2011’s Biophilia was the world’s first “app album”—she still sounds like she sailed in from another dimension on the back of the swan that became her Oscars dress. Yet Vulnicura’s almost real-time account of her split from longtime partner and artist Matthew Barney is heart-wrenchingly human.
Jamie xx, In Color
This solo LP from one member of shift key-averse minimalists the xx doesn’t always sound like something you’d hear in the average club, but it’s steeped in dance-music history nonetheless. Jamie adds and re-arranges samples like Jenga bricks, using the song’s ever-changing architecture to both play tribute to the past and look forward. Aggressive breakbeats keep up the album’s pulse, while warm layers of keyboards and synths envelop the listener like a fog that's well worth getting lost in.
“I have no gender, no sexuality, and no f-cks to give,” 20-year-old Shamir tweeted in March, just a few days after winning over crowds at SXSW. In a country that’s still learning there’s a difference between the first two items in his list, such a statement could have overshadowed his music. Instead, Shamir made Ratchet, a magnetic debut album that’s far more interesting than questions about his identity thanks to dark, woozy beats that anchor his attitude-filled falsetto. You’ll be itching for a night out with Shamir after just one listen.
Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear
Call him a pessimist, a cynic or just a plain old realist, but Father John Misty (real name Josh Tillman) is nothing if not searingly honest; his lyrics are packed with acerbic observations about himself and the world around him. The lyrics and music on his latest album are often playfully at odds, as on an electronic number that laments what's lost in electronic communication or a jingly folk tune about an unbearable woman who thinks she sings like Sarah Vaughan ("Why don't you move to the Delta?" he suggests sarcastically).
Tove Styrke, Kiddo
Instead of making the kind of shimmering dance music Sweden is best known these days—the kind of music she made as a teenager following her stint on Swedish Idol—22-year-old Tove Styrke loads Kiddo with playful, island-inflected pop and subversive feminist messages about smashing the patriarchy. What else did you expect from a record named after the heroine from Kill Bill?
Laura Marling, Short Movie
At this point it's a bit belated to call the 25-year-old Marling wise beyond her years. But wise, plain and simple, continues to apply to the British folk musician. With a voice that seems mystically linked to Joni Mitchell circa 1970 and the lyrical sensibility of a poet, Marling is sharp as ever on her fifth album as she explores, with equal parts vulnerability and tenacity, how to be alone and how to be in love.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
It’s almost unfair that one of the very first albums released in 2015 could also be the year’s best—at least to other musicians putting out new music, not to the listeners who get treated to 33 minutes of unbridled ferocity on the band’s first LP since 2005. Guitarist-vocalists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker trade sinewy guitar riffs as tough as shark skin while spitting out lyrics that are casual in their devastation: “Only I get to be sickened by me,” Brownstein quivers on the highlight “Bury Our Friends.”