First off, happy New Year to all, and to all a good, peaceful, and sonically interesting 2016! As 2015 fades to a dusky glimmer in our rear-view mirrors, let’s take a moment to pump up our speakers and bow down before some of the ladies who made badass, game-changing music over the past year. Before I get into it: no knocks at either of the musical juggernauts referenced in my title, whose albums have been devouring the pop charts of recent memory. In a year that was, commercially speaking, terrible for female musicians and producers, it’s unquestionably rad that Adele’s 25 is smashing basically every sales record available to a seven-week-old album and that Taylor has extended the singles-studded comet trail of 1989 for so long that it’s easy to forget “Shake It Off” was released back in the dark ages of 2014.
But let’s put those queens aside for a moment and get into some of 2015’s less publicized bright spots: the art that lived pleasantly on the outskirts of commercial pop, or, in some cases, out in the wilds far away from it. The mix kicks off with the opening track from Torres’s Sprinter, the album that most thoroughly consumed, enchanted, and emotionally wrecked me this year. On “Strange Hellos,” you can hear the full range of Mackenzie Scott’s voice—tremulous to screaming—and a preview of the tautly wound emotions that explode, recede, and simmer throughout her masterpiece. I follow Torres with the reigning sirens of riot grrrl, Sleater-Kinney, whose track “Bury Our Friends” shores up the trademarks of the band’s sound—chiefly, the friction between Corin Tucker’s and Carrie Brownstein’s voices and guitars—into a ferocious anthem that confronts just a few casual topics like self-esteem, fame, income inequality, and death.
Like Torres, many female musicians this year found space for their voices and points of view in the scruffy corridors of ’90s grunge and post-punk. Electric guitar distortion underpins songs by Waxahatchee and Wolf Alice here, though a longer list would include in this subcategory Courtney Barnett, Speedy Ortiz, Bully, Palehound, and SOAK. Hell, even Laura Marling plugged in and found in the electric guitar the perfect interlocutor for her voice on Short Movie. It’s easy to lose yourself for hours in these poetic, introspective, at times abrasive—I mean that as a compliment—records.
Sleater-Kinney was one among many eagerly anticipated returns this year. Missy Elliott’s collaboration with Pharrell, “WTF (Where They From),” is pure funk-rap glory that resituates Missy’s signature swagger in a 21st-century sonic idiom, all of which makes me giddy with anticipation for her full-length comeback in 2016. Mavis Staples’s track “Fight” isn’t so much a return—at age 76, Mavis hasn’t slowed down one bit—as a slight left turn: her collaboration with Son Little adds contemporary beats to her gospel vocal, which minces no words in speaking truth to power: “Freedom and justice well they ain’t your plaything / Prop up your puppets and you kill the real kings.” Amen, Mavis.
Pop-wise, I’ve got some addictive ear candy for you that I personally couldn’t stop consuming in 2015. Ryn Weaver, Lianne La Havas, and Parlour Tricks bring that Florence-level vocal grandeur underpinned by tight, danceworthy production. Grimes’s Art Angels was the DIY triumph of the year: Claire Boucher produced and engineered the entire album and played every instrument on it; “Flesh Without Blood” gives a taste of its sound. Finally, Carly Rae Jepsen gifted us a perfect pop song in “Run Away With Me.” That slinky sax, that buildup after the bridge into the complement chorus … Just sit back and let its splendor wash over you. By way of country, I’ve sidestepped Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe, whose albums are brilliant and deserve a full listen, in favor of newcomer Maren Morris, whose bold and blasphemous single “My Church” achieves the wordplay and rhetorical inversions that distinguish the best country songwriting.
Everything else on this list defies categorization, so just enjoy and don’t think too hard about it (unless you feel like unpacking all the references in Joanna Newsom’s “Sapokanikan,” in which case, good luck). Let’s face it: 2015 was a rough one for the world. Bless these musicians, and many others, who make beauty amidst commotion.
1. Torres, “Strange Hellos,” Sprinter
2. Sleater-Kinney, “Bury Our Friends,” No Cities to Love
3. Missy Elliott, “WTF (Where They From) [feat. Pharell Williams],” single
4. Ryn Weaver, “OctaHate,” The Fool
5. Lianne La Havas, “What You Don’t Do,” Blood
6. Ibeyi, “Ghosts,” Ibeyi
7. Wolf Alice, “Bros,” My Love Is Cool
8. Waxahatchee, “Poison,” Ivy Tripp
9. Rhiannon Giddens, “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind,” Tomorrow Is My Turn
10. Parlour Tricks, “Lovesongs,” Broken Hearts / Bones
11. Carla Morrison, “Vez Primera,” Amor Supremo
12. Oh Pep! “Tea, Milk & Honey,” Living
13. Laura Marling, “Gurdjieff’s Daughter,” Short Movie
14. Joanna Newsom, “Sapokanikan,” Divers
15. Alabama Shakes, “This Feeling,” Sound and Color
16. Grimes, “Flesh Without Blood,” Art Angels
17. Odessa, “Hummed Low,” Odessa
18. Mavis Staples, “Fight,” Your Good Fortune
19. Maren Morris, “My Church,” Maren Morris EP
20. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Run Away With Me,” Emotion