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Top 50 Songs of 2015

A year when music got wilder, weirder, and more vital

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    Every single year, music gets braver. It gets broader, too — for every faithful soul revivalist, there’s a button-pusher breaking down the walls of what we know pop music to be. 2015 saw plenty of every stripe of artist issuing every kind of song in abundance. It’s been a provocative year and also an especially generous one.

    In five years, 2015 might look like a turning point, a moment when music got wilder and weirder and a lot more vital — when the indie kitsch and nihilistic bent of the aughts started to fade into distant memory. It’s hard to look back on a year like that and figure out what music meant the most to us when we’ve been bombarded with all kinds of brilliance every week, but we gave it our best. To kick off our 2015 Annual Report, here are the 50 best five-minute slices of the year.
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    lana del rey honeymoon album stream50. Lana Del Rey – “Honeymoon”

    Honeymoon

    There’s been a trend in movie trailers lately where the film (usually a romantic thriller) gets scored by a slowed-down, minor-key version of a doe-eyed pop song. The most prominent example that comes to mind is Beyoncé, who redid her own “Crazy in Love” as a codependent funeral dirge for Fifty Shades of Grey. What was once brassy hip-hop suddenly becomes a mournful torch song. With “Honeymoon”, Lana Del Rey cuts out the middle man by crafting something already steeped in emotional complexity: ominous chamber pop and lyrics that Jekyll and Hyde between adoration, spite, and horror. If it’s a torch song, then the flame’s long since been doused, the fire used by Del Rey to immolate herself and her lover. How’s that for a movie trailer? Screw the film — “Honeymoon” is cinematic enough on its own. –Dan Caffrey

    Listen: Spotify

    Buy: Amazon


    Ezra Furman Perpetual Motion People49. Ezra Furman – “Lousy Connection”

    Perpetual Motion People

    Ezra Furman’s work has always been that of the outsider, but today’s individual rarely ever feels part of the crowd. Given that, there’s no better anthem for modern alienation than Furman’s “Lousy Connection”. The powerful swing, horns, and “nonsense cartoon lyrics” in the track’s updated doo-wop may be wonderfully throwback, but the lyricism is pointedly present. The sly witticisms create a disarmingly honest reflection of all those who “can’t fit in” and “just head for the fringes.” But while the song laments that “the clarity we knew is degraded” and that “maybe the message was lost,” Furman’s just as adrift as the rest of us, unable to do much more than hold up the mirror: “I’ve got the world’s ear; I’m all fucking mumbles.” By tucking this squirming discomfort inside such a superbly orchestrated package, however, the singer-songwriter at least leaves us feeling good and maybe even hopeful. –Ben Kaye

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    Kelela-Hallucinogen-EP-new48. Kelela – “Rewind”

    Hallucinogen EP

    Kelela is one of several singers operating at the intersection of R&B and electronic music, but she is the purest distillation of the two genres, and her clicking falsetto-filled single, “Rewind”, is a reminder of how good she is at closing the distance between them. Produced by Kelela with longtime collaborator Kingdom and LA producer Nugget, the song takes the frame of a dance track and squeezes soul into it, manufacturing new age bass music. On “Rewind”, Kelela longs to return to a very specific moment in time, one that signifies the point of no return — the exact instance where interest turned to love, but she can’t, and she repeats the sentiment over and over as if in denial, lamenting inside a pulsating synth loop refusing to resolve. –Sheldon Pearce

    Listen: Spotify

    Buy: Amazon


    disclosure caracal album stream Top 50 Songs of 201547. Disclosure feat. Sam Smith – “Omen”

    Caracal

    Disclosure and Sam Smith were fated to be together. “Latch” was a major breakthrough for both artists, weaving Disclosure’s stuttering production with Smith’s liveliest vocal performance to date. Since then, they’ve reached radio ubiquity. Their second collaboration together, “Omen”, reinforces how perfect a pairing they are. The dub-influenced production alone would be enough to make it a dance floor jam. However, throw in Smith’s smooth falsetto and soulful inflections, and it quickly becomes clear that they’re destined to be pop royalty. When Smith calls out, “All, all, all, all night” on the chorus, it feels like an orchestrated revelation for clubbers at last call. –Dusty Henry

    Listen: Spotify

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    tink ratchet commandments Top 50 Songs of 201546. Tink – “Ratchet Commandments”

    Think Tink

    It takes a lot of guts to take your own riff on a Biggie track, but that’s exactly what 19-year-old rapper Tink did for “Ratchet Commandments”. The track echoes “Ten Crack Commandments” in structure — a list of “shalt not”s delivered with superior fire — but Tink agilely shifts from elastic verses to a croon that echoes Mean Girls (“Y’all can’t sit with us”). The commandments focus on teaching the women of a “generation of ignorance” how to live better: no Instagram-attention-seeking, no clubbing without paying the bills first, no social media obsession, no dependence on men. But lest you think this is just Tink calling out other women, she turns the “Commandments” onto the ratchet men too: “You fake fathers never held your daughters, never had a conversation.” In an increasingly social media-driven world of desperation for attention and connection, Tink’s here to put us all on notice — and sounds great doing it. –Adam Kivel

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    John-Carpenter-Lost-Themes45. John Carpenter – “Vortex”

    Lost Themes

    One of the more enjoyable surprises of 2015 was seeing John Carpenter back in the spotlight. For too long, the cult director and composer has existed in the shadows, where his influence has preyed upon the most creative (see: Adam Wingard, David Robert Mitchell, Chromatics). So, when Lost Themes was announced in late 2014, and they offered up the first track, “Vortex”, it felt as if we were being transported back to 1981. The way the sultry synths, cardiac bass lines, and menacing piano work coalesce together only proves that few, if any, can ever make chump meat out of the maestro. It’s just a damn shame that whatever film or production it’s for is locked in our imagination forever. Unless he decides to use it for one of those four TV shows he’s currently kicking around. The man works in mysterious ways … clearly. –Michael Roffman

    Listen: Spotify

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    Hop Along new album44. Hop Along – “Happy to See Me”

    Painted Shut

    “Happy to See Me” is the emotional centerpiece of Hop Along’s rocker-filled third album, Painted Shut. Coming halfway through the collection, frontperson Frances Quinlan creates an intimate space to delve into the idea of perception vs. reality. “Trying to change my mind about how everything went,” she begins, cued by warnings of the dangers of defeated soldiers, the symbolism of a headstone, and how birds and bats look the same at night. As the song unfolds, Quinlan presents the importance of shared experience, whether it’s her father reminding people via YouTube videos that “nobody loves you half as much as I am trying to” or her own wish: a desire to meet everyone from her past, all of their memories matching up, and everyone being happy to see her. The impression is that the opposite of this just happened, though we never find out exactly what spurred the train of thought from Quinlan. But the meaning of the song hinges on Quinlan’s gutsy delivery, unafraid to hit the wrong notes as she sings with abandon, going full Westerberg while she repeats, “We all will remember things the same.” It’s one of the most powerfully vulnerable moments on record this year, mixing lyrical subtlety and emotional ferociousness. –Philip Cosores

    Listen: Spotify

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    janet jackson unbreakable album43. Janet Jackson – “No Sleeep”

    Unbreakable

    New lovers spend a lot of time under the sheets. But entering a REM cycle is usually the last thing on the agenda. Insomniac queen Janet Jackson would rather toss and turn through one of the year’s sultriest nocturnal tracks than catch a full eight hours of rest. True to her form and pop legacy, “No Sleeep” is a sensual slow jam about weekend sex sessions and the come-hither tension that blankets bedtime companions. Likewise, the song marks Jackson’s return to the mainstage with her first proper release in seven years. Though two versions of the track exist, J. Cole’s appearance on the album cut enhances the atmosphere by bringing a new playmate to her bedchamber. The song’s allure also proves Jackson has been doing more with her downtime than just catching 40 winks. –Dan Pfleegor

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    alessia cara know it all album stream Top 50 Songs of 201542. Alessia Cara – “Here”

    Know It All

    Earlier this year, Courtney Barnett released her charming debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, featuring what would later be its third single, “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party”, about, well, nobody caring if you don’t go to the party. In a twist of irony, a month later, Canadian singer and R&B newcomer Alessia Cara would disprove that theory with her debut single, “Here”. It’s an anti-party slow jam turned viral sleeper hit writhing around in the alienating fog that saturates social gatherings and leads to peer pressure. It’s an explainer that breaks down detail by detail the pitfalls of partying from the perspective of a wallflower, and it does so in a way that doesn’t seem preachy or tiresome. “Here” retools an uncomfortable social experience for easy listening. It’s theme music for introverts. –Sheldon Pearce

    Listen: Spotify

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    ought sun coming down Top 50 Songs of 201541. Ought – “Beautiful Blue Sky”

    Sun Coming Down

    Ought frontman Tim Darcy is a decorated scholar in the field of repeating words to yourself so many times they become phonetic nonsense. “War plane. Condo. Oil freighter,” he drones towards the start of “Beautiful Blue Sky”, like a continuation of Rob Delaney’s joke about the overused punctuated-list-as-Twitter-bio method. But within a couple minutes, the song’s bass line ascends in conjunction with his sights. By the time his drone becomes rhythm (“Beautiful weather today! Beautiful weather today!”), Darcy is clawing to hang on to the reaction that beautiful weather is supposed to elicit — and the suddenly stirred-up rock band behind him chugging forward in lockstep lets you know that he’s doing it, so far. Then he remembers what humans do in the little moments of victory, something else that’s rendered random and meaningless when you lose touch: “I’m no longer afraid to dance tonight.” –Steven Arroyo

    Listen: Spotify

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    nicole dollanganger natural born losers40. Nicole Dollanganger – “You’re So Cool”

    Natural Born Losers

    Nicole Dollanganger earns her frequent comparisons to Lana Del Rey, but she’s a version of Del Rey that hangs out in dungeons rather than swimming pools. The Canadian artist often sings of love in a fatalist sense and from the perspective of one who’s felt the worst of its barbs, but she’s the ghost just as often as she’s the one being haunted. The other artist Dollanganger instantly recalls is Claire Boucher’s Grimes, and that’s no coincidence; Boucher started a new record label (Eerie Organization) just to release Dollanganger’s work. “You’re So Cool” justifies her confidence with its sparse, ethereal guitar track and mesmerizing vocal performance. “When I’m good, I’m very good/ But when I’m bad, I’m better,” Dollanganger sings in the chorus. In anyone else’s hands, it might sound a little teasing, a little playful. But there’s a slippery kind of desperation in Dollanganger’s high-pitched voice, the kind that hints at something menacing lurking beneath the surface. –Collin Brennan

    Listen: Spotify

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    rihanna anti new album release Top 50 Songs of 201539. Rihanna, Kanye West, Paul McCartney – “FourFiveSeconds”

    Anti

    Rihanna and Kanye West both had highly anticipated records, and “FourFiveSeconds” gave fans an unexpected glimpse of what might be in store. (The track has officially been tapped for Anti, but could also appear on Kanye’s new record, according to Rolling Stone.) The collaboration, which also includes Paul McCartney, is remarkable in its own right, fusing together McCartney’s gentle acoustic guitar strumming with ’Ye singing and trading off pared-down verses with Rihanna. The mellow instrumentation, assisted by a subtle organ interlude, diverts from the track’s lyrical message: being true to yourself in the face of the haters while feeling like you’re about to lose your shit. (“See all of my kindness is taken for weakness,” Kanye and Rihanna harmonize on the song.) Sure, the concept of dealing with fame isn’t revolutionary territory for ’Ye, but as the world eagerly awaits Yeezus’ follow-up, any clue to the lyrical or sonic direction it may take is enticing. –Killian Young

    Listen: Spotify

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    All Dogs Kicking Every Day38. All Dogs – “That Kind of Girl”

    Kicking Every Day

    Maryn Jones was 2015’s patron saint of heartbreak. Her work with Saintseneca and her solo debut as Yowler showcased her remarkably poignant lyricism and affecting vocals. But her role fronting All Dogs saw her embracing her stirring ethos with a greater energy. Each song on their debut, Kicking Every Day, explores dejection and loneliness in profound ways. On “That Kind of Girl”, however, she steps away from the loathing and delivers a revitalizing anthem. Blistering guitars swirl underneath her vocals as she delivers the killer opening line: “And I know that I’m always fucking up your world.” She clearly and concisely distances herself from being somebody else’s excuse for not moving on, even going as far as wishing her former lover “clear water, love, and health.” In breakups with martyrs, someone is bound to be vilified. In the aftermath, Jones is just making it clear that she’s not that kind of girl. –Dusty Henry

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    Julia-Holter-have-you-in-my-wilderness37. Julia Holter – “Feel You”

    Have You in My Wilderness

    When Julia Holter thinks incessantly about rain, she ends up with one of the sunniest-sounding tracks of the year. Don’t be surprised; Holter is nothing if not disjointed, a constantly distracted dreamer whose lines seem to always reach the verge of completion before cutting off and somehow smoothly run-landing into an unrelated one immediately. “You know I love to run away from sun,” she sings while the world’s brightest string-and-vocal choir glows around her. Later, “the memory of your piano” stops her verse dead in its tracks — underscored by a harpsichord, of course. If it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, that’s more or less the point; she’s not trying to know anything here — she’s trying to feel. –Steven Arroyo

    Listen: Spotify

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    artworks 000126249679 9ujawi t500x500 Top 50 Songs of 201536. Wondaland Records – “Hell You Talmbout”

    One of the joys of pop music is its escapist quality. It’s typically light, fun fare, but that doesn’t mean it can’t go for the jugular when the occasion calls for it. To that end, “Hell You Talmbout” is powerful protest music for the millennial age. Anchored by militant percussion and an army of impassioned backup singers, Janelle Monáe and Wonderland Records deliver a piercing commentary on Ferguson and the vicious cycle of racial hysteria that has seemingly followed it since. There are no winners or losers, just the frustration that comes with trying to exist in a world where racial strife continues to rear its ugly head. Few other songs this year drive home such a powerful message so effectively, and that’s a win in and of itself. –Ryan Bray

    Listen: Soundcloud


    Protomartyr-agent-intellect35. Protomartyr – “Ellen”

    The Agent Intellect

    So much of 2014’s Under Color of Official Right sounded driven by disgust, frustration, and sardonicism. It was a powerfully cathartic record, something that crackled and burned like a trashcan fire to warm yourself by on a cold, dark night in a depressed urban setting. That’s not to say they were all grit and grime, but nothing compared to the soaring blue-toned prettiness of “Ellen”, the climax of Protomartyr’s excellent follow-up, The Agent Intellect. But that dually sweet and teary beauty comes when one takes on the role of their own dead father singing to the wife he left behind. Joe Casey leaves behind his steely yelp and mumble for an almost warm tone when taking on the role, describing the endless wait he will endure to reunite with her. “I’ll pass the time/ With our memories/ For Ellen/ I took them on ahead/ I kept them safe/ For Ellen,” he sings, eventually fading everything to silence — but then it all rises back up. That denial of finality is a tear-wrenching moment of utter beauty from a band usually bombastically barking about the collapse of civilization and proves to be one of the year’s most uplifting rock moments. –Adam Kivel

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    Florence-Machine-How-Big-How-Blue-How-Beautiful-Stream34. Florence + The Machine – “Ship to Wreck”

    How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

    I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of the type of sweeping grandiosity that Florence and the Machine bring to the otherwise unassuming indie rock arena. But, fuck it, sometimes you just have to turn your brain off and give in to a good song when you hear one. So I’ll stop protesting and say that “Ship to Wreck” represents Flo and company at their best — wrapping her powerful vocals, a catchy melody, and highbrow lyrics into a perfectly poppy cocoon (“I can’t help to pull the Earth around me to make my bed” has to be in contention for lyric of the year). The song is a testament that big doesn’t always equate to bad, especially if you can bring a song down to earth with a delicate ear and a heavy heart. –Ryan Bray

    Listen: Spotify

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    Circuit des Yeux - In Plain Speech new album33. Circuit Des Yeux – “Fantasize the Scene”

    In Plain Speech

    Who would’ve thought that, in another album exploring social disconnection through her low register and lots of effects pedals, Haley Fohr would make her Zeppelin move with “Fantasize the Scene”. Aside from the title conjuring Robert Plant’s whim, her shadowy finger-plucking takes on a Page-like weight, and the lyrics find Fohr raking the dust of the failure of a potential relationship — as with so many classic rock songs, a shambled romance instills the same dread as an apocalyptic wasteland. But unlike Fohr’s previous work under the Circuit des Yeux nom de plume, there’s a glimmer of hope among the heartbreak. “Maybe I’ll meet you there/ In a world where we’ll go all the way,” she ponders. That makes “Fantasize the Scene” not about disconnection, but potential connection, which in turn, makes it not her Zeppelin move, but her Haley Fohr move. –Dan Caffrey

    Listen: Spotify

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    Natalie-Prass-SB006-Cover-Art-Lo-Res-132. Natalie Prass – “My Baby Don’t Understand Me”

    Natalie Prass

    Lots of long-term relationships don’t work out. And when they don’t, they usually survive way, way, way longer than they should. Have you ever met a divorcee who said, “Oh yeah, my partner and I ended our marriage at the exact right time”? Me neither. Romance is like a mosquito in that way, draining the lifeblood of a couple before they even know the proboscis has punctured their skin. By the time they realize that all is lost, they’re already husks of their former selves. Natalie Prass knows this, and that’s why “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” is such a slow burn. On the opener of her self-titled debut, she doesn’t hold off on revealing her pocket orchestra of horns, woodwinds, and strings, but she does keep it circling her voice with hesitant steps. You want the orchestration to explode; you want that moment of catharsis where it propels a breakup into a triumph, but like I said, these things take time, and Prass waits a full minute-and-a-half before kicking everything into high gear. Even then, the arrangement retreats to the periphery again after the chorus. Only during the uplifting final crescendo (about 4:30 in) do we know that the separation is a good thing for both parties, which makes “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” not only the most observant and realistic breakup song of 2015, but also the best. –Dan Caffrey

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    Miguel Wildheart31. Miguel feat. Wale – “Coffee”

    Wildheart

    Miguel spent the majority of the summer seducing crowds across the US with his soulful crooning (and eight-pack). The LA native’s latest record, Wildheart, truly feels like a throwback snapshot of the City of Angels: a soundtrack for finding love — or sex — on neon-drenched boulevards on sultry nights. No song better exemplifies this than the lead single, “Coffee”, with its eager, skittering synths and excited drum hits. Sure, on the track, the evening leads to “drugs, sex, Polaroids,” but what elevates Miguel’s songwriting over rote R&B fare is his subsequent compassion and attention to the intimacy of sex. As the song winds down, the instrumentals give way to simple, swirling synths and Miguel’s stripped-down vocals. There’s something sweet and beautiful about the way he gently sings, “I don’t wanna wake you/ I just wanna watch you sleep/ It’s the smell of your hair/ And it’s the way that we feel.” –Killian Young

    Listen: Spotify

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