Benjamin Booker, Benjamin Booker (ATO). It’s hard to believe this New Orleans rocker was writing songs for only a few years before this invigorating debut, a raw but consummate cocktail of garage-punk and folk-blues with Hendrixian strokes.
Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso (Partisan). These indie-folk drifters hatched a danceable electro-pop debut that maintains a lightness of being. Coming from a cappella experience in Mountain Man, Boston native Amelia Meath floats and flirts across Megafaun bassist-turned-producer Nick Sanborn’s processed pulses with melodic joy.
Nikki Lane, All or Nothin’ (New West). Recasting outlaw country, this Carolina-born songstress nods to Loretta Lynn, adds girl-group pop flair and caps it all with modern style and sass, abetted by producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal). It’s double the fun and fury from the hip-hop duo of former Outkast cohort Killer Mike and Definitive Jux label head El-P. The two MCs mesh coarse, quick-tongued tradeoffs and El-P’s equally pointed, ominous production for a relentless bounce and flow that even seamlessly tucks in a cool cameo by Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha.
Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjaguwar). “I feel so much at once that I could scream,” the Missouri-bred Olsen sings. But she pulls it together for a refocused second album, combining grungy rock and country swagger with melancholy, nuanced folk ruminations that soberly plumb her heart.
FKA twigs, LP1 (Young Turks). R&B on an abstract, impressionistic plane: Tahliah Barnett scales her vocal trapeze with aching, primal sensuality. That she earns comparisons to Aaliyah, Portishead and Björk underscores her subtle breadth.
Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (High Top Mountain). This Kentucky singer updates the conversational tone of classic Waylon Jennings with psychedelic icing and philosophical musings on love, religion, drugs and aliens.
Ambrose Akinmusire, The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint (Blue Note). This jazz trumpeter’s sprawling canvas stretches from post-bop burning to collaborative glides into modern classical and soul—and a prescient tone-poem in which a child recites the names of young black men killed by police fire.
Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence (Interscope). The hyped femme fatale turns it around for her sophomore dance. Busy producer Auerbach wraps Del Rey’s bewitching voice in gauzy, cinematic shades that match her languid, noirish tales of bad romance.
Zammuto, Anchor (Temporary Residence). Ex-Books principal Nick Zammuto’s second release proves that an album can serve as a snapshot of its environment. Recorded last winter in a tractor shed-turned-studio on his Vermont farm, it’s electronic yet earthy, experimental yet accessible, and truly of his own world.
“Avant Gardener,” Courtney Barnett (Mom + Pop). This Aussie indie-rocker drawls in heady free association about a near-fatal asthma attack.
“Birth in Reverse,” St. Vincent (Loma Vista). Twitchy electro-rock pumps with singer Annie Clark’s skronky lead guitar.
“Tie Up the Tides,” Quilt (Mexican Summer). Homegrown psych-pop swirls around Anna Fox Rochinski’s beguiling voice.
“Take Me to Church,” Hozier (Columbia). The Irish upstart delivers a starkly resonant gospel ballad, echoing vintage Elton John.
“You Go Down Smooth,” Lake Street Dive (Signature Sounds). The Boston-groomed combo puts harmonic levitation behind soul-jazz powerhouse Rachael Price.
“So Blonde,” EMA (Matador). A South Dakota native proves to be so good at futuristic grunge-pop.
“Forgotten Man,” Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (Reprise). The band’s return-to-form Hypnotic Eye serves a snarling slice of rock ’n’ roll.
“Stay With Me,” Sam Smith (Capitol). The Brit soulman preaches to the quickly converted.
“Could You,” TV on the Radio (Harvest). The former Brooklyn art-rockers find an accessible new groove.
“No Rest for the Wicked,” Lykke Li (Atlantic). With a grand sweep, this Swedish chanteuse conveys heartache in fragile tones.