The 10 Best Albums
Placing Miguel Pimentel into a box is a fool’s errand–his 2012 breakthrough hit “Adorn” might have been an R&B chart topper, but its amalgam of rock, pop, psych and soul made for a heady stew. On this set, Miguel delves into the mythology of Los Angeles and the allure of fame with bold, twisty tracks. Sex is still a big part of the equation, but Miguel’s brand of sensuality runs deep, revealing his desire to blend the body and the mind with his style of soul.
No Cities to Love
An eight-year hiatus didn’t soften the edges of one of the most singular rock bands to emerge from the Pacific Northwest. In fact, the trio only got fiercer. With drummer Janet Weiss anchoring them, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein trade sinewy guitar riffs as tough as shark skin and spit out lyrics that are casual in their devastation. “Only I get to be sickened by me,” Brownstein quivers on “Bury Our Friends.” But everyone can rejoice in their return.
3 KENDRICK LAMAR
To Pimp a Butterfly
4 CARLY RAE JEPSEN
(See page 170)
5 GIRL BAND
Holding Hands With Jamie
The notion of the rock foursome–guitar, bass, drums, vocals–gets turned on its ear by this all-male Irish quartet, who approach their individual instruments less as things to play than as puzzles to solve. What results is an ambitious, noisy debut full of surprises, not to mention the occasional guitar part that sounds like a broken washing machine. (In a very good way.)
6 KACEY MUSGRAVES
Musgraves veered from country tradition on her 2013 major-label debut when she criticized small-town life instead of celebrating it. But on this year’s follow-up, her sweet, twangy anthems about individuality and minding your own business are poignant reminders that we’re all trying to live our best lives, no matter the terms. “Just tryin’ to hold it all together/We all wish our best was better,” she sings on “Somebody to Love.” Here, her best is hard to beat.
7 COURTNEY BARNETT
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” Barnett claims on her debut album. Yet put her brain under a microscope and the 28-year-old Australian will thrill you. Her clever one-liners and rambling monologues transform the most mundane details of everyday life–sleepless nights, the merits of organic vegetables–into character studies as sharp as her guitar riffs.
8 VIJAY IYER TRIO
Pianist Vijay Iyer builds on the traditions of jazz while borrowing inspiration from a large chunk of the musical map on his trio’s latest exhilarating collection. The 2013 MacArthur Fellow’s stylistic range is dazzling without coming off as too self-impressed; he showcases his instrument’s percussive power on the manic “Hood,” and gracefully dips in and out of his collaborators’ parts like a darting bird on “Geese.”
9 JAMIE XX
This solo LP from a member of British band the xx doesn’t thump as hard as the average nightclub playlist, but it’s steeped in dance-music history nonetheless. DJ-producer Jamie Smith adds and rearranges samples like Jenga blocks, using pulse-spiking beats and merry-go-round steel drums to pay tribute to the past while still blazing a trail forward.
10 ASHLEY MONROE
On her third solo album, Monroe commands the spotlight with a sweet, steadfast voice that recalls Dolly Parton and whip-smart lyrics that quickly reveal she’s nobody’s fool. Even when she’s unlucky in love and money, Monroe’s can-do attitude makes The Blade a razor-sharp collection of newly minted, instantly classic country.
To Pimp a Butterfly
On this looser and funkier follow-up to his 2012 breakthrough, Kendrick Lamar (right) asks tough questions about what it means to be a black man living in America today. You may not always agree with his conclusions, but it’s riveting to witness his process.
The 10 Best Songs
“Flesh Without Blood”
It usually takes a team of hitmakers to craft a pop song this spine-tingling, but Grimes does it all on her own, making this tale of a falling-out over her success even more electrifying.
2 CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS
Queerness is a frequent theme of French singer Héloïse Letissier’s deceptively titled solo project, yet this outsiders’ rallying cry can speak to listeners of all identities.
3 JASON DERULO
“Want to Want Me”
A skipping-stone synth beat, along with Derulo’s falsetto, makes “Want to Want Me” the most joy-filled trip to Erotic City in 2015–he even tips his cabdriver well.
“When We Were Young”
A 27-year-old singing about age anxiety doesn’t cry out for audiences’ sympathies, but Adele eloquently captures the pain of watching the years slip through your fingers.
5 THE WEEKND
The song’s video finds the R&B star escaping a car crash. How fitting: his sinister melodies make “The Hills,” like some wrecks, hard to turn away from.
6 JOHN GRANT FEAT. TRACEY THORN
Grant’s mannered, almost haughty baritone radiates enough love to inspire a synth-pop fever dream.
7 TAME IMPALA
“Let It Happen”
The psych-rock band offers music’s trippiest ride of the year: lava-lamp keyboards evaporate into gaseous soundscapes, while robot voices morph into fuzzy guitar licks.
If drunk-texting your ex after stalking his or her Instagram had a theme song, this bubbly hit would be it.
9 JANELLE MONÁE AND JIDENNA
Only an artist as left-field as Monáe could make yoga into both a sex metaphor and a statement about not letting society police your individuality.
10 YEARS & YEARS
This U.K. chart topper should have taken off in the U.S.–it’s as thrillingly danceable as any ’90s house jam, with plenty of heart to match.
At its best, pop music serves up pure feeling, and Carly Rae Jepsen (left) is a master of the form. Working with a hypercolor palette and using her delicate yet knowing voice to personalize each track, she has crafted an opus for anyone who’s been in love.
This appears in the December 21, 2015 issue of TIME.