1. Ghost: Meliora (8.5/10)
Meliora is Ghost's third LP, released in late summer of 2015. The title is a Latin adjective meaning "better" and so it is that the album continues an upward trajectory for the Swedish occult-metal band, adding to their mock-ecclesiastical mythos. Ghost's breakout debut Opus Eponymous mined a spooky mediaeval aesthetic exemplified by a traditional proto-metal sound, while their playful sophomore album Infetissumam (previously reviewed here) skewed baroque, incorporating disparate elements like disco, surf-rock, and choral music. By contrast, Meliora is the band's take on 20th century modernity and futurism (its cover references Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis) .
Meliora's singles, high octane "From The Pinnacle to The Pit," epic "Cirice" (the band's best so far), and swaggering "Majesty" hit all the right marks - drawing musical influence from Metallica and Deep Purple - but the album really pays off when it challenges expectations. "He Is," a sentimental ballad anchored by delicate acoustic guitar and piano, recalls Roxette's saccharine late 80's hits, while "Mummy Dust" resembles a more aggressive outtake from Queen's Flash Gordon soundtrack released earlier that decade, finding the band in high gear with its galloping rhythm, chugging riffs, and a laser-sharp keytar solo - a live show highlight.
Meliora debuted in the Billboard top-ten, earned a Grammy nomination, and secured Ghost a national audience with a TV performance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. No small feat for a band whose members are perpetually anonymous, never appear publicly out of mask and costume, and have a cheeky obsession with the devil. Have they sold their souls at the crossroads? Nah. Ghost's success is built squarely on hard work and talent - conceptual focus and clever marketing, inclusive commitment to the fans, and acute dedication to the spectacle of rock & roll. Meliora is a high point for the band and one of the most entertaining albums of the year.
2. Black Breath: Slaves Beyond Death (8/10)
Future prospects for Seattle death metal five-piece and blazing live force Black Breath were uncertain after drummer Jamie Byrum was struck by a car in 2014, but the sticksman made a full recovery and the band roared back better than ever in 2015. On their third full-length, Slaves Beyond Death, with first-rate production by Kurt Ballou, the band transition from the simple hardcore punk motifs of previous albums toward more complex compositions. Guitarist Eric Wallace ups his game with some beautiful leads while frontman Neil McAdams ditches his usual husky bark and goes full-on growl.
3. High on Fire: Luminiferous (8/10)
Matt Pike and his dependably righteous thrash-meets-sludge metal power trio High on Fire returned last year with their seventh album, Luminiferous, also produced superbly by Kurt Ballou. 2012 saw a resurgent band release one of their most brutal and uncompromising albums yet, De Vermis Mysteriis, so this time Pike shifts course - experimenting with more vocal melody, catchier hooks, and stylistic variation while maintaining the savage energy fans expect.
Savannah progressive sludge metal foursome Baroness bounced back with their fourth and best album in 2015 after a three year hiatus caused by a catastrophic tour bus accident in England, and subsequent lineup change, while promoting their overlong and meandering dad-metal double disc Yellow & Green. By comparison, Purple is lean, ferocious, and focused - built on urgent tempos, fist-pumping hooks, epic singalongs, and a triumphant mood that catapults the band into entirely new territory.
5. Mini Mansions: The Great Pretenders (8/10)
Los Angeles three-piece Mini Mansions - co-founded by Queens of the Stone Age bass player Mike Shuman - released an excellent sophomore album early last year. The Great Pretenders is a swirling musical cocktail that shakes up an infectious mixture of glam, new-wave, and psychedelia while roping in a few of the band's friends like The Arctic Monkey's Alex Turner and The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson to lend some vocals. Not entirely vintage but not entirely contemporary, the band flexes some serious songcraft on this album (previously reviewed here).
6. Blur: The Magic Whip (7.5/10)
After a twelve year absence, beloved Brit-pop foursome Blur made a rare comeback in 2015 with an understated and quirky grower that sometimes recalls material from the band's popular "Life-trilogy" series of albums while exploring new and varied textures. Though their last record Think Tank received critical acclaim, co-founder and lead guitarist Graham Coxon's absence was sorely missed. To many fans the band went out on a sour note so The Magic Whip is a welcome, if sentimental, reunion.
7. Tame Impala: Currents (7/10)
Previously marketed as a "band", it turns out psych-rock phenom Kevin Parker wrote and recorded Tame Impala's first couple breakout albums alone. Though Parker still takes a rotating crew of fellow Aussie bandmates on tour (previously reviewed here), his third album Currents sounds even less like a group effort - less wall of guitars, more Off The Wall. Channeling Michael Jackson via Boards of Canada, Parker creates a sensuous and drowsy collage of slithery basslines, boom-bap rhythms, and falsetto vocals - all bathed in a degraded melt of vintage synthesizers, filters, and vocoders.
8. Failure: The Heart is a Monster (7/10)
Dormant for nearly two decades, LA-based alternative rockers Failure embarked on a stellar reunion tour in 2014. Fan reaction was so fervent that the band launched a crowdfunded effort to record and release a fourth album The Heart is a Monster - an ambitious collection of new songs, instrumentals, and re-tooled b-sides dating back to the band's inception. Most of the album measures up to Failure's classic material, mixing undeniable pop hooks with off-kilter noise rock, but it's frustratingly overlong and poorly sequenced. With tighter editing this could've been an AOTY contender.
9. Eagles of Death Metal: Zipper Down (7/10)
Up until recent months, Jesse Hughes and his merry band of greaseball rockers Eagles of Death Metal were relatively unknown - reserving their energy for the devoted few but still drawing sizeable crowds at mid-size clubs like the Bataclan in Paris. Tragedy aside, fans of the band - cofounded by Hughes' bromantic bestie Josh Homme of desert rockers Queens of the Stone Age - were treated last year, after a seven year hiatus, to another untamed mix of T. Rex and Rolling Stones pastiche carefully designed to get asses shaking.
10. Windhand: Grief's Infernal Flower (7/10)
With it's bluesy aesthetics and clean vocals doom metal is fairly inoffensive, even getting affectionate coverage in high-brow media like NPR, but when hookless songs lumber on for ten, fifteen, and thirty minutes things can get tedious. Windhand, fronted by honey-voiced Dorthia Cottrell, buck that trend on their third album Grief's Infernal Flower - helmed by veteran Seattle-based producer Jack Endino. This time the band shorten song lengths, dial back the monotonous dread, boost the vocals, and focus on sticky melodies and grunge-era guitar pyrotechnics.