Anna Prater, Chattanooga, Tenn. – This was the year seasoned artists made comebacks and up-and-coming talents solidified their places in the hearts of critics. From sophomore standouts to records with years of anticipation, narrowing down this list to just five albums wasn’t an easy task.

Sufjan Stevens – “Carrie & Lowell”

Stevens’ long-awaited seventh studio record is the most intimate piece of a career that is full of brutally honest storytelling. The simple compositions accompanied by soft harmonies give listeners the feeling that Stevens is desperately whispering his confessions and fears into their ears on a cold night. “Carrie & Lowell” is a heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of death and the aftermath of losing a loved one. Stand out tracks: “Should Have Known Better,” “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” and “Fourth of July.”

Courtney Barnett – “Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit”

“Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit” is completely unique from every other album released this year, and a large reason for that is found in the lyrics.
Though Barnett is fairly young and this is only her second album, she is one of the cleverest and most entertaining songwriters working today. She packs in more words than most, and speak-sings them in a way reminiscent of Bob Dylan. And as the title of the record suggests, she’s often ambivalent about where this talent has taken her. Stand out tracks: “Depreston,” “Pedestrian at Best,” and “Dead Fox.”

Father John Misty – “I Love You, Honeybear”

Josh Tillman, otherwise known as Father John Misty, uses a sharp contrast between gentle music and abrasive lyrics to demonstrate his back-and-forth between optimism and realism. “I Love You, Honeybear” is Tillman’s way of navigating the good and bad, sentimental and disillusioned aspects of a long-term relationship. He’s no stranger to composing haunting music – most are familiar with his previous band Fleet Foxes – and accomplishes some of his most powerful songwriting yet. “I Love You, Honeybear” is a record of love songs for realists. Stand out tracks: “Chateau Lobby #4,” “Bored in the U.S.A.,” and “I Went to the Store One Day.”

Sleater Kinney – “No Cities to Love”

“No Cities to Love” is the first Sleater Kinney record in almost a decade. After breaking up in 2005, each of the three members went on to work on individual projects, one of which is Carrie Brownstein’s hit show “Portlandia.” But the Pacific Northwest rockers came back for a reunion album and tour this year, and it was worth the wait. They returned to show how far they’ve come, while still addressing the pressure that comes with a highly-anticipated comeback. Stand out tracks: “A New Wave,” “No Anthems,” and “Bury Our Friends.”

Kacey Musgraves – “Pageant Material”

Though Musgraves is a country singer, her music fits in better with the likes of Dolly Parton, June Carter and John Prine. She’s raw and honest, doesn’t follow the typical Nashville standards, and plays by her own rules. Her songwriting is charming and introspective, and she earnestly speaks of discomfort with fame and wealth. “Pageant Material” has Musgraves struggling with the expectations of a society that values beauty and her own values of staying true to yourself in the midst of all that. Stand out tracks: “Biscuits,” “Dime Store Cowgirl,” and “Family is Family.”