The Top Albums of 2015

Why we like the music we do is a matter of personal history—and in at least one case, a profound experience of hearing David Bowie

The Top Albums of 2015
Holly Herndon. Credit: Suzy Poling.

This is how music recommendations work now: When you’re looking for something new, you get what’s essentially more of the same. “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought.” The friend feed. Lists like these—maybe they help? It depends on you and your taste and me and my taste. It may depend on more than that, on everything you’ve ever heard and I’ve ever heard.

But someday it will work like this: I’m listening to music, and the song ends. At which point, depending on the day and the hour, or how awake or tired I might be, or any other combination of factors, my Spotify-like thing queues up something I’ve never heard before. The track begins in familiar territory, not unlike some other piece of music the system already knows I like. Then the song changes in some unanticipated way. Perhaps a key change or a switch in the rhythm. My interest is piqued. The system is now challenging me to decide whether or not I like this song. Whatever I think I decide (I will probably think I hate it), sensors in the room or car or on my wrist detect other reactions—my pupils dilating or possibly frisson at the back of my neck. The system continually updates my profile, logging where next to push me, when, and how much.

And if I’m living far enough into the future, the system knows everything I’ve ever listened to, liked, hated, want to hear more of, and hope never to hear again. To structure all that data and how queries are handled, the system will use: David Bowie.

Each of us has a formative moment in our personal music history. One morning during winter break when I was 15, I’d had my wisdom teeth out the day before, and I was afloat on a couch watching VH1 and open to suggestion. The video for “Modern Love” came on, by then an old, uncool hit. Under normal circumstances I would have turned the channel. And then over the next four minutes this song expressed everything I wanted to understand and was only beginning to comprehend. Passion and intelligence. Sex and art.

Bowie became my blueprint. Each iconic album, Space Oddity through Scary Monsters, a node pointing me elsewhere: Eno, Iggy, Brel. And from there, further afield: soul, punk, hip-hop, classical, dance, and whatever I listened to this morning. No matter how far I get, all roads eventually lead back to Bowie.

(Of course there are more Bowie albums beyond the Space Oddity-Scary Monsters timeframe, and more worth hearing, but these are the ones that made a significant imprint on me. Let’s Dance gave me “Modern Love,” but otherwise it didn’t lock into my brain like what came before.)

None of my favorite albums from 2015 sound like David Bowie—what does David Bowie “sound like” anyway?—but I can trace my listening today to the signposts his catalog established in my mind. This year I overdosed on Max Richter’s eight-hour-long From Sleep, which in my brain sits beside a lot of other things like Dead Can Dance and Chopin and Slowdive, but perhaps most importantly (in my head) alongside Discreet Music by Brian Eno, whom I first heard on Low, his collaboration with Bowie. Richter’s work doesn’t sound at all like Low, but I wonder whether I would have listened to it otherwise, or have been so drawn to it.

Rather than ranking my favorite albums of 2015 in a meaningless least-best-to-best, I’ve instead applied the most useful order to me and you (if you really, really like David Bowie) and my future music-recommending OS: the chronology of Bowie albums that made such an imprint on what I like. If I’m in the mood to hear any of the below Bowie albums—and I always am—these are the albums that might also fit similar moods.

And if you don’t really, really like David Bowie, then these are my favorite albums of 2015 in a peculiar order. And if you really, really don’t like David Bowie, you’re not going to like what you’re about to see.

Spotify Playlists

“Life on Mars” music video

Space Oddity

  • Tame Impala, Currents
  • Deradoorian, The Expanding Flower Planet
  • Bibio, Fi
  • A Sunny Day in Glasgow, Planning Weed Like It’s Acid / Life Is Loss

The Man Who Sold the World

  • Little Simz, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons
  • Mbongwana Star, From Kinshasa
  • Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy
  • Baroness, Purple
  • Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
  • Viet Cong, Viet Cong

Hunky Dory

  • Hauschka, A NDO C Y
  • Archy Marshall, A New Place 2 Drown
  • Chilly Gonzales, Chambers
  • Beach House, Depression Cherry
  • Drake, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
  • Panda Bear, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
  • Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People
“My Death” from Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars

  • Tobias Jesso Jr., Goon
  • Circuit Des Yeux, In Plain Speech
  • Le1f, Riot Boi
  • Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly

Aladdin Sane

  • Girlpool, Before the World Was Big
  • US Girls, Half Free
  • Julia Holter, Have You in My Wilderness
  • Holly Herndon, Platform
  • Kuba Kapsa Ensemble, Vantdraught 10 Vol. 1
  • Iannis Xenakis, Xenakis: Piano Works

Diamond Dogs

  • Jenny Hval, Apocalypse, girl
  • Dr. Yen Lo, Days With Dr. Yen Lo
  • Golden Ratio Syrup, Golden Ratio Syrup
From The Man Who Fell to Earth

Young Americans

  • Autre Ne Veut, Age of Transparency
  • Majical Cloudz, Are You Alone?
  • Purple, Silence & Remorse

Station to Station

  • Cassandra Wilson, Coming Forth by Day
  • The Soft Moon, Deeper
  • Ghost Culture, Ghost Culture
  • Deafheaven, New Bermuda
  • Sannhet, Revisionist


  • William Basinski, Cascade
  • Ólafur Arnalds & Alice Sara Ott, The Chopin Project
  • Rachel Grimes, The Clearing
  • Shlohmo, Dark Red
  • Noveller, Fantastic Planet
  • Max Richter, From Sleep
  • Rival Consoles, Howl
  • Gora Sou, Ramifications
  • Kara Lis Coverdale and LXV, Sirens
  • Nils Frahm, Solo
  • Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, A Year With 13 Moons
Live at Earls Court, 1978, from the Stage tour


  • Erik Luebs, Absolute Presence
  • JLin, Dark Energy
  • Health, DEATH MAGIC
  • Leandro Fresco, El Reino Invisible
  • Bell Witch, Four Phantoms
  • Prurient, Frozen Niagara Falls
  • Zenker Brothers, Immersion
  • Gnod, Infinity Machines
  • Sunn O))), Kannon
  • James Place, Living on Superstition
  • Lakker, Tundra
  • 36, Void Dance


  • Colleen, Captain of None
  • Floating Points, Elaenia
  • Nico Niquo, Epitaph
  • Mike Cooper, Fratello Mare
  • Thore Pfeiffer, Im Blickfeld
  • Jamie xx, In Colour
  • Kneeboy, Kneedelus

Scary Monsters

  • Grimes, Art Angels
  • Oneohtrix Point Never, Garden of Delete
  • High Wolf, Growing Wild
  • Petite Noir, La Vie Est Belle
  • Hudson Mohawke, Lantern
  • Event Cloak, Life Strategies

Originally published at The Morning News