Alternative music and the album format are still best friends after all these years.
But as genre lines blur and the playing field levels, what is alternative even an alternative to these days? Some of our picks below champion voices less heard and influences less obvious, or at best, both. And what’s more, valuing the hit album over the hit single is increasingly alternative itself. None of out critical picks for top rock and alternative albums featured Hot 100 smashes, but two of them earned their artists major Grammy nominations. Two of them premiered atop the Billboard 200. Others existed far below the mainstream, yet showcased voices we can only hope inspire many more. The album format is an old one, but these artists demanded our attention across two (or four) sides of an LP like few others.
10. Downtown Boys, Full Communism
Political music is often pretty lame. But when political music is performed by people who truly seem to be railing against their own oppression, that can be something else entirely. That’s what we have with Providence-based Downtown Boys’ manifestos against income gaps, police violence and white superiority, which also come via turnt-up guitar-and-sax punk jams sung in both English and Spanish. A raucous and most welcome challenge to the mainstream that also happens to be pretty damn catchy.
9. The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, Harmlessness
Listening to the second full-length from the band sometimes abbreviated TWIABP is kind of like hearing Arcade Fire’s Funeral for the first time. There’s the expansive, constantly shifting lineup. There are male and female voices in play, voices that deliver heavy, life-or-death news, but with a communal atmosphere that hints at a happy ending. Their long-winded name may not be sincere, but just about everything else is.
8. Beach Slang, The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us
Beach Slang is a band that makes you want to make music. Featuring at least one member in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, the Philadelphia punk quartet crafted a debut album featuring 10 absolute burners, each reflecting its punk rock 101 mission statement of an album title. Beach Slang is much more than the best band with “beach” in its name (no small feat itself); it’s an earnest call to believe in yourself, wherever you may be in life, and fight for those things you believe in.
7. HEALTH, Death Magic
On their first studio album in six years, self-described “modern heavy rock band” HEALTH crafted an album of rattling, dystopian hooks. Death Magic, chiseled by former fellow L.A. noise scenester Lars Stalfors, is glossed in contemporary hip-hop production from regular Kanye West engineer Andrew Dawson, and opens on either side of the wax with a macabre instrumental from producer Haxan Cloak. “A Katy Perry song hits harder than a hard rock song now,” frontman Jake Duzsik told Billboard earlier this month. “It’s the language of sub-bass and electronics.” Death Magic failed to reach a mass audience — surprise — but there’s a lot to learn from these guys.
6. Florence + the Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
On her third album — and first No. 1 — Florence Welch took the advice of Taylor Swift and poured more personal experience into her music. It’s evident on the opening couplet of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful — “Don’t touch the sleeping pills, they mess with my head.” But by the end of the stanza, she’s singing about great white sharks and killer whales, proving the fantasy world hasn’t vanished entirely. The rest of the album wrestles with Welch’s old bombast and a newfound directness, both in the words and music. Rest assured, one of the greatest festival headliners we’ve got going knows how to grow in the studio, too.
5. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
If you told Courtney Barnett at the start of 2015 that she’d be nominated for one of the four major Grammys by year’s end, she might’ve laughed in your face. Yet here we are — the self-deprecating Australian has been nominated for best new artist behind the sort of LP that just demands you listen with the lyrics at your side. Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit will inspire you to turn your most shiftless, sad-sack moments into great art, until you realize you’re not that good at turning a trip through a depressing Australian suburb into a rock song.
4. Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
There was no way they were going to let the kids of the 2010s grow up thinking of Carrie Brownstein simply as “that actress from Portlandia.” After a near-decade break, Brownstein, fellow guitar goddess Corin Tucker, and drummer Janet Weiss put their magic rings together and reformed the beloved Sleater-Kinney. Powerhouse chorus after powerhouse chorus, No Cities to Love sounds absolutely essential, a much-needed return from a seminal band, just when many of their disciples were starting to come of age. Could their most accessible album also be their best?
3. Father John Misty, I Love You Honeybear
Singer-songwriter J. Tillman is a former drummer in Fleet Foxes who writes about sex 100 percent more openly than his old band. Actually, aside from the beard, there’s nothing much else that band shares with Tillman’s recording as Father John Misty. His second such album is a rollicking folktronica circus, written as an ode to his wife (whose beauty he loves to brag about) and how she turned him away from his old playboy ways. It’s one of the year’s most lyrically frank albums, which makes for some uncomfortable moments. But that’s also a lot of what makes it great.
2. Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
There’s retro soul in Sound & Color‘s DNA, but Brittany Howard’s shape-shifting vocals and the band’s unexpected arrangements are alien enough to shake the revivalist tag. It’s a powerhouse of an album that put Howard and her Alabama Shakes on the map this year, even earning an album of the year Grammy nomination. The Shakes may seem like a longshot, going up against 1989 and To Pimp a Butterfly. But they said the same thing about Beck last year, and just ask Kanye how that one turned out.
1. Grimes, Art Angels
Three years since the analog glory of her breakout album Visions, Claire Boucher — aka Grimes — delivered 2015’s most futuristic pop album. Boucher (who self-produces all her material) didn’t falter behind the big hooks; instead she took us on a cosmic joyride that included reggaeton beats, nu metal guitars, and the Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes on this collection of extraterrestrial songs that somehow sound like they belong on alternative radio.