Year in Review: The top 20 albums of 2015

Andy Downing, Columbus Alive
Courtney Barnett

20. Ezra Furman:Perpetual Motion People (Bella Union)

19. Oneohtrix Point Never:Garden of Delete (Warp)

18. Sleater-Kinney:No Cities to Love (Sub Pop)

17. St. Lenox:Ten Songs About Memory and Hope (Anyway)

16. Earl Sweatshirt:I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside (Columbia/Tan Cressida)

15. Ashley Monroe:The Blade (Warner Bros.)

14. Screaming Females:Rose Mountain (Don Giovanni)

13. Deafheaven:New Bermuda (Anti)

12. Lightning Bolt:Fantasy Empire(Thrill Jockey)

11. Bully:Feels Like(Columbia/StarTime)

10. Sports:All of Something (Father/Daughter)

Sports originated a stone's throw (or at least a Pelatonia pedal) away in Gambier, though most of its members have since scattered following graduation from Kenyon College. If this album marks the end, what a way to go out. In right around 20 minutes, the band blazes through 10 scrappy indie-rock tunes about broken relationships, busted hearts and the real-world responsibilities that loom somewhere just over the horizon.

9. Shamir:Ratchet (XL)

Shamir might be from Las Vegas, but his solo debut draws heavily upon Chicago's musical past, combining throwback house beats steeped in disco and soul with the musician's androgynous countertenor, which he skillfully employs on "Clueless"-worthy smackdowns ("Don't try me I'm not a free sample," he cautions on one tune) and more thoughtful, introspective fare like the soaring "Darker."

8. Elder:Lore (Armageddon Shop)

In "The Big Lebowski," the Dude offers up a range of nicknames (His Dudeness, El Duderino) for those "not into the whole brevity thing." Listening toLore, where the average song clocks in over 11 minutes, one could imagine the brainy, metal-loving youngsters in the Boston trio Elder embracing any of these alternate monikers. Regardless, songs never overstay their welcome, and it's a tribute to the band's prodigious talents that labyrinthine cuts like "Legend" would continue to hold interest even at twice the length.

7. Kendrick Lamar:To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath/Interscope)

The latest from the visionary Compton, California, rapper can be uncomfortably personal, with Lamar alternately unburdening and eviscerating himself atop a musical backdrop steeped in funk, free jazz and celestial soul. Throughout, he struggles with issues of race and identity - "You hate me don't you? You hate my people," he growls on the ferocious "The Blacker the Berry" - making the record play, at times, like a musical companion to writer Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me."

6. High on Fire:Luminiferous (eOne Music)

In a 2013 interview with Alive, newly sober High on Fire frontman Matt Pike promised clean living wouldn't negatively impact the band's devastation-causing sound. "We're not going to do anything that doesn't completely destroy," he said. Consider this album, which builds on towering riffs, drums that thunder like armies of cloven-hoofed beasts and Pike's muscular bellow, a promise kept.

5. Jason Isbell:Something More Than Free(Southeastern)

"A man is a product of all the people that he ever loved," Jason Isbell songs near the onset of his latest. "It don't make a difference how it ended up." Older and (arguably) wiser, Isbell sounds wholly at peace on this set of warm, folk-and-Americana flavored tunes, which tend to explore the knotty paths that lead us ever so gradually to adulthood.

4. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment:Surf(self-released)

The debut from Chance the Rapper's trumpeter plays like a sprawling family reunion - a feel that extends from its guest list (big names like Chance, Busta Rhymes and Erykah Badu happily mingle with the likes of Peter Cottontale and Nate Fox) to the music's optimistic, inclusive vibe, which surfaces in songs about embracing individuality and learning to stand firm amidst adversity, like a hip-hop reboot ofFree to Be… You and Me.

3. Protomartyr:The Agent Intellect (Hardly Art)

The post-punk quartet originated in Detroit, and it specializes in music as dour and desolate as the national image often projected upon its hometown. But, much like the city itself, Protomartyr's sound is far from one-dimensional, and there are glimpses of humanity ("Ellen," named for sing-speaker Joe Casey's mother and delivered from the point of view of his deceased father) and acidic humor (the taut, propulsive "I Forgive You") that help to break up the surrounding gloom.

2. Vince Staples:Summertime '06 (Artium Recordings/DefJam)

In the midst of "Summertime," the Long Beach, California, native delves into his conflicted lineage, crooning, "My teachers told me we was slaves/ My mama told me we was kings." On Staples' cinematic debut LP, which plays, at times, like a vintage Spike Lee joint, the rapper frequently explores this limbo, turning out thoughtful, artfully crafted verses about his gang-banging past and his desire to carve out a better future.

1. Courtney Barnett:Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit(Mom & Pop/Marathon Artists/Milk!)

Like "Seinfeld," the Australian musician's full-length debut is about nothing and everything at once. Over the course of the album's 11 tracks, Barnett, who drifts between thrashing, Nirvana-inspired burners ("Pedestrian at Best") and mellower, more reflective fare ("Depreston"), watches the grass grow, swims laps at a public pool and logs solitary time staring at the ceiling in an NYC hotel room. The singer's mind, however, is never idle, and she brings ample wit, pathos and humor to songs that explore the various anxieties, insecurities and fears that move in a constant churn beneath the more-composed exterior folks generally present to the world.