Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop). This Aussie upstart captures the dread and drollness of mundane life in clever, poignant lyrics that touch on house-hunting, ecology and insomnia over pliable garage-rock, a ready canvas for her delightfully accented drawl.
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly (Aftermath/Interscope). The Compton kid achieves grand metamorphosis, rapping about fame, race, ego and insecurity, even conjuring a conversation with Tupac. Co-producer Flying Lotus taps George Clinton among varied guests as Lamar channels funk and jazz (much like D’Angelo did on his also-landmark Black Messiah) into a dense, scathing hip-hop cauldron.
Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop). Josh Tillman blurs lines between his cynical persona and his real-life marriage in melodramatic songs that recall early Elton John tunes and prove both amusingly caustic and sweetly affecting.
Kamasi Washington, The Epic (Brainfeeder). Before working on Kendrick Lamar’s Butterfly, this saxophonist/composer shared marathon sessions with fellow young tigers from LA to build a three-album opus that swirls from avant-garde big band (think Sun Ra, Coltrane) to smoother jazz, full-sized choir and Malcolm X tribute.
Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color (ATO). A left turn that refracts the band’s soulful roots-rock through funky, minimalist prisms, this album is a crystalline contrast to the Shakes’ earth-moving shows, though it likewise hinges on Brittany Howard’s galactic voice.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love (Sub Pop). After a nine-year hiatus, the great Northwest punk trio of Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein (coming from her comedy gig Portlandia) and Janet Weiss dig us out like they never left, mashing guitars and drum kit into pointed power plays that ring personal and political.
Leon Bridges, Coming Home (Columbia). There’s nothing flashy about this young singer from Fort Worth, Texas. Yet with a hand from members of Austin rockers White Denim, Bridges has taken subtle, steady, ’60s-style soul that evokes Sam Cooke, added hints of doo-wop and Texas swing, and refreshed it for a new generation.
My Morning Jacket, The Waterfall (Capitol). Jim James’ falsetto-to-a-roar voice soars as the Kentucky-born rockers roll over the edge on their evocative seventh album, blending direct R&B/folk balladry with cascading prog-rock ambitions.
Jessica Pratt, On Your Own Love Again (Drag City). Hushed, hypnotic folk-pop that’s fit for overcast days comes from a Californian whose delicate vocals and shadowy fingerpicking echo another time and place. This album was recorded lo-fi at home and is more mysterious for it.
Andra Day, Cheers to the Fall (Warner Bros.). This San Diego singer can evoke Amy Winehouse, but get past the eyeliner wings and do-rag; Day’s voice projects brassy power closer to Mary J. Blige or Adele. Day co-wrote this retro-soul debut’s songs about a failed relationship, and her boosters include co-producer Raphael Saadiq and Stevie Wonder, her duet partner in an Apple holiday ad. In fact, Day is ubiquitous with TV performances of “Rise Up.” She should continue to rise in 2016.
“Call It Off,” Shamir. This pulsing ode to self-empowerment comes from an androgynous Vegas singer who encourages you to ping-pong on the dance floor. “Speed Trap Town,” Jason Isbell. Here’s another striking piece of songwriting from an alt-country singer whose stark, earthy details evoke Nebraska-era Springsteen. “Can’t Feel My Face,” The Weeknd. Drug is the love this R&B star is thinking of in this sleek, Michael Jackson-catchy creation with busy co-producer Max Martin. “Then Came the Morning,” The Lone Bellow. Choral harmonies bring sunrise to the piano-based title track on the latest album by this Brooklyn country-gospel band. “Fourth of July,” Sufjan Stevens. A haunting account of the singer’s last words with his dying mother, who left him as a child and simply imparts, “We’re all gonna die.”