Earl Sweatshirt, "I Don't Like … I Don't Go Outside" (Tan Cressida/Sony): A meditation on the life of a 21-year-old rapper who earned fame while he was still in high school, Earl Sweatshirt's album rumbles with claustrophobic bass while midrange melodies and plunked piano tones guide tracks forward. As a lyricist, his couplets are precisely rendered and wildly evocative, one of many reasons why fellow Angeleno Kendrick Lamar recently dubbed the record one of his favorites.
Deafheaven, New Bermuda (Anti- Records): "New Bermuda" balances on a razor's edge separating heavenly beauty and hellish darkness. Based in Los Angeles but formed in San Francisco, the quintet built an extreme five-song album whose shortest track exceeds eight minutes. Sheets of guitar recall the shimmering distortion of My Bloody Valentine's noisy Brit-pop, while double bass-kick drums and vocalist George Clark's guttural grunts suggest Norwegian black metal. Harsh, yes, but also a long overdue metallic construct forged for a new era.
Julia Holter, "Have You in My Wilderness" (Domino): Holter's labyrinthine new album is a tough first listen in a way that recalls Joni Mitchell's "The Hissing of Summer Lawns." Both explore musical dialects that approach pop structures without committing to them, gleefully enunciating a language with its own rules and accents. "Lucette Stranded on the Island" seems to hover through its seven minutes, reveling in melodies supported by strings, piano and synthesizers. "Everytime Boots," by contrast, is a romp that suggests Mitchell's "The Jungle Line."
Jlin, "Dark Energy" (Planet Mu): The unsettling, impatient electronic music by the Gary, Ind.-based post-footwork producer born Jerrilynn Patton hits hard. Featuring ridiculous beats that sound unlike anything else issued in 2015, her structurally sophisticated tracks leap from measure to measure like a gymnast working the uneven bars. While oft-disconcerting voice samples — including Faye Dunaway's classic "No wire hangers!" tantrum from "Mommy Dearest" — maneuver through the rhythms, Patton's crisp, clean textures provide instrumental exhilaration.
Kendrick Lamar, "To Pimp a Butterfly" (Top Dawg Entertainment): A complete artistic statement from the most striking voice to come out of Los Angeles in a generation, "To Pimp a Butterfly" draws from a convergence of hip-hop, jazz, funk and experimental electronic music. It's also a Los Angeles unifier, one that gathers together area innovators such as Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Terrace Martin and Flying Lotus to create what's destined to be a California classic.
Natalie Prass, "Natalie Prass" (Spacebomb/Columbia): This orchestral pop album by a new voice with the confidence of a superstar mixes grand arrangements (courtesy of co-producer Matthew E. White) with a vocal approach that lifts each song by the mere virtue of its presence. On opener "My Baby Don't Understand Me," Prass confronts the titular concern with bafflement and, ultimately, resolve. "Your Fool" dwells on the singer's frustrating acceptance of an unbalanced situation, while the showtune-esque "Christy" obsesses over the allure of an ex's new love.
Protomartyr, "The Agent Intellect" (Hardly Art): Protomartyr is a rock band from Detroit, and you can tell. Its no-nonsense approach to post-punk is as unflinchingly direct as it is memorable. That's the result of two things: the nut-and-bolt tightness of the band; and the vocal attack of Joe Casey. In "Boyce or Boice," he rails against the intrusions of the smartphone era — "What have they wrought?/ From screen to self." Elsewhere he rails against pretty much everything else.
Joan Shelley, "Over and Even" (No Quarter): On the surface, "Over and Even" might seem like your standard singer-songwriter album. Songs are driven by folk guitar and Shelley's delicate voice, and explore the kind of intimate emotions that make ripples, not waves. As accompanied by the Grammy-nominated guitarist Nathan Salsburg, Shelley's language is poetic without being pretentious. The title track feels feather-light, opening as it does with morning coffee and a flowing river. But, like the music throughout the album, confusion and despair are seldom far from the surface: "I miss you some inside," she sings to a distant lover. "Or I can ride this/ Over and over."
Sufjan Stevens, "Carrie & Lowell" (Asthmatic Kitty): Like the late singer Elliott Smith, Stevens prefers delicacy to bombast as he tours his back story, and as a result the record approaches, but avoids, the trappings of white-dude soft rock. Or maybe it's just a really good version of the same. Either way, "Carrie & Lowell" is a strikingly successful exploration on youth, mortality and the passage of time.
Kamasi Washington, "The Epic" (Brainfeeder): The shape of jazz to come? If Washington's revelatory album-release performance of "The Epic" at the Regent in downtown L.A. was any indication, most definitely. The joint was packed with twenty- and thirtysomethings rejoicing and applauding with each massive groove, start-stop maneuver or chorale interlude. It made contemporary jazz feel shockingly relevant, and the same could be said for this triple-volume release, one that's as compositionally inventive as it is groove-heavy.