Monroe, and Bakersfield legend Dwight Yoakam, who returned with his best effort in years. It was veteran-tunesmith-turnedsolo-artist Chris Stapleton, however, whose debut at age 37, “Traveller,” shockingly earned him four Country Music Association awards and who led the pack with his no-fuss, catchyas-heck throwback.
Folk/singer-songwriter: Former Drive-by Trucker Jason Isbell continued his streak as Americana’s darling with another eclectic, finely etched effort. Sufjan Stevens resurfaced with the most heart-rending album of his career. And Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops stunned with her solo debut. But indie veteran J. Tillman, releasing “I Love You, Honeybear,” his second album as Father John Misty, delivered the most gorgeous record of the year, layered with jaw-dropping melodies and personal lyrics that managed to be at once snarky and moving.
Jazz: You probably don’t know any of their names, but there are a lot of exciting young performers in jazz today. Suffice to say any year that sees new releases from Robert Glasper, Maria Schneider, and the Bad Plus teaming with Joshua Redman is a very good year. I give the edge, however, to 77-yearold Memphis-born saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who continued his incredible late-career revival with “Wild Man Dance,” a 2013 live recording of an original six-part jazz suite.
R&B/RAP: I know. This is a wide spectrum to pack into one category, a span represented by the two front-runners. In the world of rap, Kendrick Lamar, with his third album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” wrestles with real world issues in meaningful, interesting ways. On the other side is Texas retro-soul man Leon Bridges, who, with his debut “Coming Home,” excavated the simple, soulful pleasure at the heart of both R&B and rap. I give the slight edge to the more enjoyable Bridges, but it’s a coin toss. Honorable mention to the women of R&B — Jazmine Sullivan, Jill Scott, Angie Stone, Bettye Lavette, Lalah Hathaway, and Lizz Wright — all of whom represented with strong outings this year.
Rock: Another ridiculously broad lumping that embraces pop and includes everything from Keith Richards to Selena Gomez, who both had strong entries. Australian indie-rocker Courtney Barnett is topping a lot of lists, and the best of class should also i nclude Wilco, Tame Impala, and a promising young singer named Adele. But it was another powerhouse vocalist, Brittany Howard, and her band the Alabama Shakes who rocked the most in 2015 with “Sound & Color.”
“To Pimp a Butterfly” — Kendrick Lamar: This one was an easy choice: a sprawling and sonically ambitious document of manic creativity from hip-hop’s most important young star. It also served as a soundtrack of sorts (particularly the anthem “Alright”) to Black Lives Matter and the justice movement that helped define the year.
“The Epic” — Kamasi Washington: This could be the jazz companion piece to Lamar’s “Pimp.” Washington, a young tenor sax dynamo from Los Angeles, delivers an audacious triple-album door-stopper full of righteous fury and transcendent wailing. With shades of Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane and the later works of Charles Mingus, it’s the most exciting jazz album to come out in ages.
“Multi-love” — Unknown Mortal Orchestra: The New Zealand/portland-based project led by Kiwi popster Ruban Nielson (formerly of influential garage-pop act the Mint Chicks) effectively merges psychedelic pop with Todd Rundgren-esque studio rock and a bit of funky disco. Don’t miss the stunning animated videos.
“Tomorrow Is My Turn” — Rhiannon Giddens: The operatically trained frontwoman of roots-folk act Carolina Chocolate Drops pays tribute to songs made famous by women, from Rosetta Tharpe to Nina Simone to Dolly Parton. Produced by T Bone Burnett, it’s a proudly feminist effort to bring folk music back onto the cultural front lines. And it’s beautiful to hear.
“Greasepaint Smile” — Elyse Weinberg: A singer-songwriter from the same Toronto scene that gave us Joni Mitchell, Weinberg only had one album come out (1968’s “Elyse”) before her label went under and she changed her name and left the music business. This is a reissue of her unreleased second album from 1969, and it’s magnificent. Just 23 at the time, Weinberg’s rough-hewn voice sounds like broken glass and cigarette butts. Imagine Janis Joplin singing with The Band.
Scharpling & Wurster
“Multi-love” — Unknown Mortal Orchestra
“Greasepaint Smile” — Elyse Weinberg
“The Epic” — Kamasi Washington