10. Madonna, ‘Rebel Heart’
In 2015, it was strange hearing Madonna sound so… human. A cluster of cuts from the queen’s 13th studio album imparted a rare authenticity and striking vulnerability typically not ascribed to music’s self-proclaimed Unapologetic Bitch. Madonna caring about people’s opinions of Madonna – and confessing those feelings? Yup. At least on “Joan of Arc.” Madonna lifting you up, hugging your heart and making this “mad, mad world” just a little easier to cope with? Yes, that too: “Ghosttown” – also the heyday throwback “Living for Love” – reveals, for the first time in years, a deeper, more poignant pop queen.
9. Miguel, ‘Wild Heart’
Look beyond Miguel’s piercing peepers, winning smirk and that perfectly coiffed just-after-5 o’clock shadow – just try real hard, you can do it – and what you’ll find is a real music man. That’s right: His underheard “Wild Heart” is as dreamy as he is, all SoCal Prince vibes and hypersexual playfulness (put a condom on when you listen to “the valley”), but also genuinely affecting. Highlights are the introspective, identity-questioning “what’s normal anyway” and “leaves,” an amping guitar-riffed wonder that hurts as much as it heals.
8. Brandi Carlile, ‘The Firewatcher’s Daughter’
“I miss the days when I was just a kid,” Brandi Carlile sings, sweetly, longingly. Now 30, and out and married and mothering, Carlile was self-reflective on her rustic release “Firewatcher’s Daughter,” living for tomorrow but remembering today and yesterday. On arguably the album’s most impassioned ditty, “Wherever Is Your Heart,” the Seattle-born singer-songwriter relishes being “born to roam,” which is precisely what this, her first major-label-less release, does. The journey pauses in the past but lives, powerfully, in the present.
7. Adele, ’25’
“Hello.” One short, simple word, but it was enough. A gift. A gif. That brief salutation brought Adele back into our lives as if she’d been gone for a lifetime. In pop years, it sure seemed that way, and the meme-worthy lyrics of her first single served as a “Hi, I’m back, bitches” moment and also a searing reminder of the heartbreak the record-breaking belter can inflict when she powers through a sad song. Like “All I Ask,” a gutting assertion to an imminent ex. Like “When We Were Young,” a reminder that your youth is dead, gone, bye forever. So good, though. Yes: Hello from the other side of crappy album sales, Auto Tune and general imperfection.
6. Kendrick Lamar, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’
Kendrick Lamar changed hip-hop last year. Turned it up, down, sideways. And he even had time to team with Taylor Swift for “Bad Blood,” scoring him his first No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Not that he needed Swift – Lamar’s second major-label album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” speaks for itself. And it speaks boldly, declaring painful truths about race and his own personal demons with rage-filled cinematic flair and simmering jazz flavor.
5. Susanne Sundfor, ‘Ten Love Songs’
It isn’t just the ominous lure of mad love on the deliciously fuming “Delirious” – “I hope you have a safety net, because I’m going to push you over the edge” – that lands Susanne Sundfor a spot on the list. It’s certainly enough, though. She ravages every word of that song with a shark’s bite, and it’s a magical moment among many (give “Darlings” all the vocal awards) nestled within the front-to-back brilliance of 10 love songs that are equal parts euphoric, enchanting and enraged.
4. CHVRCHES, ‘Every Open Eye’
I remember hearing CHVRCHES for the first time at a festival even before obsessing over their then-unreleased debut, “The Bones of What You Believe.” The music was alive, bursting with retro shimmer and sowing the same kind of emotional catharsis of, say, Robyn. I was hooked. The disc did not disappoint, nor did its follow-up, the also-marvelous “Every Open Eye.” CHVRCHES’ sound is still deeply rooted in the wondrous midnight-hour sonic wheelhouse they mapped on “Bones,” and, once again, to staggering effect. A slump-less sophomore album as divine as their name.
3. Patty Griffin, ‘Servant of Love’
What does the world need? Peace and Patty Griffin’s voice. The former is especially apparent to anyone who, you know, is living right now, but: Have you heard Griffin’s most recent Grammy-nominated release? The alt-folk phenom sings like angels must; “Rider of Days” sounds like thousands of winged beauties, soaring to the afterlife, dancing through the clouds. It’s a sweet reverie, and one of the most gorgeous pieces of music this universe has ever heard. But also, it’s a rare sliver of light on yet another one of Griffin’s masterworks, a brooding, beautiful catharsis of a world on fire.
2. Carly Rae Jepsen, ‘E*MO*TION’
People, what gives? One of 2015’s greatest unsolved mysteries, Carly Rae Jepsen’s absurdly looked-over “E*MO*TION” didn’t find its commercial sweet spot. And fine. Their loss. Our gain: the charming Sia-written jam “Making the Most of the Night,” a punchy piece of pick-me-up pop; “Warm Blood,” a cuddly come-down; and “When I Needed You,” which sounds like her winning audition to be the fifth member of The Go-Go’s. And on and on and on. Yes, Carly: I really really really like this.
1. Sufjan Stevens, ‘Carrie & Lowell’
On “Carrie & Lowell,” Sufjan Stevens’ quiet descent into the dark corners of grief and despair after the loss of his mother, the sexually ambiguous singer-songwriter says so much with so little. Leaning on minimalist atmospherics, his open-book outing sounds as if it were recorded in the late hours of the night in the quiet of his bedroom, just Sufjan’s guitar and his lonely stream-of-conscious. It’s powerful and potent. And it’s death, and it’s life. The weirdly comforting truth that “we’re all gonna die” on the lullaby-like “Fourth of July” – a final exchange with his passing mother – is a stinging reality, and “Blue Bucket of Gold” feels like a dream.