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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

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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

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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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

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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

Buy: Amazon

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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

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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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

Buy: Amazon

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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

Buy: Amazon

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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

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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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

Buy: Amazon

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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

Buy: Amazon

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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

Buy: Amazon

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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

Buy: Amazon

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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

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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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

Buy: Amazon

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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

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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

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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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

Buy: Amazon

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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

Buy: Amazon

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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

Listen: Spotify

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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

Buy: Amazon

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Vince Staples - Summertime '06 album30. Vince Staples – “Señorita”

Summertime ’06

Vince Staples is much more than the Dennis the Menace of Long Beach. Sure, he agitates the suburbs, beefs with baby boomers, and there was even a weapon in his back pocket as he came of age. But it’d be a mistake for the Mr. Wilsons of the world to write off this brilliant 22-year-old emcee as a disrespectful, young troublemaker, especially after Staples demonstrated real maturity with a look back on one of the most impactful summers of his life. “Señorita” — lead single off the two-disc Summertime ‘06 — finds an introspective Staples tracing the street warfare and police state of his childhood back to present-day controversies. It’s candid and shocking, especially when you realize how Staples’ previous struggles continue to haunt his outlook. But it’s also remarkably cathartic to hear Staples go on an angry tear while the sounds of minor piano chords and Future’s rapid-fire chorus sound off in the background. –Dan Pfleegor

Listen: Spotify

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UMO album29. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”

Multi-Love

The tension between digital and analog is baked right into the beat of “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”. Handclaps compete with a wobbly synth for the listener’s attention, much in the same way the attractions and distractions of the modern world compete with a deeper, more organic understanding of our own bodies. Even Unknown Mortal Orchestra frontman Ruban Nielson is caught in the gap between man and machine, his voice heavily processed as he laments his insatiable desire for contact via technology.

UMO’s disco-infused Multi-Love is an album about dueling identities, and no song better highlights how we’re all really two people: one that exists in the here and now, and another that’s drifting off in the digital somewhere. It’s an unsettling thought, but Nielson and his band make it more palatable by couching it inside a funky melody that’s ready for the dance floor. Sure, it might be some cold, futuristic dance floor where nobody touches and everyone moves to the beat alone, but it’s still a dance floor. –Collin Brennan

Listen: Spotify

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ELDER-Lore-2LP-PREORDER28. Elder – “Compendium”

Lore

Elder have never been much for keeping things succinct. It’s the sprawl that they’re after, and “Compendium”, the lead opus on the trio’s 2015 riff-fest, Lore, gives listeners just about all the meandering prog metal mayhem they can handle. Taking the best parts of bands like Black Sabbath, Sleep, and Hawkwind to heart, it’s a loud, dense tour de force that keeps you hanging on for all 10-plus minutes. On a list full of catchy three-minute pop joints, Elder represents the metal contingent this year by moving swiftly in the complete opposite direction. –Ryan Bray

Listen: Spotify

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Sleater Kinney Sub Pop Reunion27. Sleater-Kinney – “A New Wave”

No Cities to Love

Hiatus be damned, Sleater-Kinney never really went away. The trio of Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss actually became vital to more and more people (including the band members themselves) as the project hibernated – circumstances that made returning the right way all the more critical. “We needed to reboot the band for the present time,” Tucker explained to NPR following the release of their return album, No Cities to Love. “We needed to think critically about what in our music we relate to the most now: the melody, the story, and the energy.”

Those essential elements can’t be ignored on the album’s third single, “A New Wave”, a song that latches on immediately, prods a universal nerve, and bounces furiously in our headspace. “No outline will ever hold us/ It’s not a new wave/ It’s just you and me/ … Invent our own kind of obscurity,” echo Tucker and Brownstein on the choruses. Whether we opt to apply those lines to the three reemerging as a band or internalize them to be about staking claims and carving out spaces in our own lives, the song brims with the unique amalgam of fervor, defiance, and celebration that has defined Sleater-Kinney’s return. –Matt Melis     

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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kanye west so help me god Top 50 Songs of 201526. Kanye West feat. Allan Kingdom, Theophilus London, Paul McCartney – “All Day”

In 1999, Paul McCartney sat down for an interview on the British talk show Parkinson and spoke about the birth of his child, Mary. He describes hanging around the hospital and seeing a Picasso painting of a man playing a guitar and trying to figure out what two-finger chord the figure was playing. McCartney then plays the audience a whistling tune he wrote based off this chord. Fast-forward to 2015: McCartney resurrects this same whistling on the end of Kanye West’s rap odyssey, “All Day”. Not only that, but McCartney’s melody basically becomes the root that the entire song grows out of. For an artist like West, who has prided himself on being a purveyor of fine art, it’s fitting that his song would be birthed out of a Picasso painting and assisted by a living Beatle. It’s a feverish track, giving West room to embrace his braggadocious mindset with the perfect canvas. Not just that, but it’s further proof that West is looking deeper into his own work than he may get credit for. –Dusty Henry

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Carly Rae Jepsen EMOTION album25. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Run Away with Me”

E•MO•TION

In a year when pop music hit new heights of excess and over-stimulation, Carly Rae Jepsen boiled things down to their essence: passion, desire, and compelling vocals. No song displays that as succinctly as “Run Away with Me”, a clarion call of ’80s synths, gang-shouted hooks, and a skipping beat. She delivers the chorus like marching orders, her romantic interest no longer hinged on a maybe. Feeling “up in the clouds/ High as a kite” isn’t exactly groundbreaking writing for a pop love song, but Jepsen has a way of delivering every cliche as a heartfelt truth. Simply put: Her seemingly endless well of sincerity and positivity is utterly charming. Jepsen describes herself as “an old-school romantic at heart,” and, as such, it’s unsurprising that her songs lack the cough medicine sweetness, sidelong darkness, and winking acknowledgment of artifice that riddle other pop albums. She believes in this kind of all-encompassing passion and love, and that comes through loud and clear on “Run Away with Me”. –Adam Kivel

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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D'Angelo Black Messiah24. D’Angelo & The Vanguard – “The Charade”

Black Messiah

Black Messiah came out at the close of 2014 on the heels of unspeakably tense moments throughout the country spurred by police brutality. “The Charade”, in particular, is a song of solidarity and hope in the face of this incredible injustice. Unsurprisingly, it is the most poignant, lyrically developed track on the album. With most D’Angelo cuts, the focal point is buried deep in the pocket that drummer ?uestlove burrows; and while his lyrics always express bare-naked emotion, they don’t often require further study. “The Charade” lays it on thick, giving the listener lines that are tucked just enough below the surface that they demand a Google. It’s a song filled with stunners, like, “All the dreamers have gone to the side of the road, which we will lay on/ Inundated by media, virtual mind-fucks in streams,” and, “Relegated to savages bound by the way of the deceivers/ So anchors be sure that you’re sure we ain’t no amateurs.” With the agonizingly slow rate of progress this country is known for, “The Charade” is sure to remain a communal statement of truth and yearning for years to come. –Kevin McMahon

Listen: Spotify

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TORRES-sprinter-1500x150023. Torres – “Strange Hellos”

Sprinter

Explicitly stating true, deep-seated love and hate — particularly hate — can be a very difficult thing. There is, however, always a breaking point at which the pains of the fallout from expressing yourself seem far easier than the pains of keeping it inside. “Strange Hellos”, the opener to TorresSprinter, represents that breaking point for Mackenzie Scott. “While writing that song, I was reading Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, and he writes about getting your true loves and your true hates onto the paper,” she told Pitchfork. “Strange Hellos” does just that, mixing it all into a single explosive track.

The song opens with a stunningly direct address, Scott singing to Heather, a woman going through her own personal issues but who has also clearly wronged Scott in some deep way. “Heather I dreamt that I forgave/ That only comes in waves/ I hate you all the same,” she sings with an icy calm, over muted percussive plucks. The fire burns brighter as the track goes on, Scott’s voice shredding and cracking as the guitars burn brighter and the cymbals splash heavier. She gets her hate out on the page, but she gets some love out too, likely part of why this is so explosive: “I love you all the same,” she repeats in the second verse, the hurt feelings from the end of a relationship still carrying an extra hurt from the weight the love once held (and maybe still does). The track feels like it could burn up at any moment, an incendiary introduction to one of the year’s most cathartic, compelling records. –Adam Kivel

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Social Experiment Surf22. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – “Sunday Candy”

Surf

There was plenty of socially complex hip-hop to go around in 2015, much of it delivered by Chance the Rapper on Surf, his ensemble dramedy with Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment. But the album’s best song is also its simplest. Yes, “Sunday Candy” is about going to church and loving your grandma. So, it makes sense that, musically, it takes its cues from old-school Chicago soul music, drawing a warm bath of gospel vocals from Jamila Woods and full-bodied piano that sounds best when played on — when else — Sunday, of course. This is holiday piano, living-room piano, the kind of piano where your entire family huddles around the ivories while the elder matriarch tickles them. Lots of terrible events have happened in Chance’s stomping grounds over the past 12 months, events that he outright addressed both within his music and elsewhere. But it’s also important to keep positive things on one’s mind during tragedy, and as “Sunday Candy” and the recent birth of his daughter prove, 2015 was a year of family for the young rapper, as every year, even the darker ones, should be. –Dan Caffrey

Listen: Spotify

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majical cloudz are you alone album stream Top 50 Songs of 201521. Majical Cloudz – “Downtown”

Are You Alone?

Though given ample time to find love in this world, the knowledge that love may end makes us crazy. Sometimes we’d rather not bother at all. Devon Welsh knows this and still doesn’t care. This arrives near the end of “Downtown”, his most devastatingly beautiful piece of pop yet, as the Majical Cloudz songwriter’s voice lowers to a heavenly chant. “There’s one thing I’ll do, if it ever goes wrong/ I’ll write you into all of my songs,” he gently sings and then brings a revelation, a flash of motivation: “And if suddenly I die/ I hope they will say/ That he was obsessed, and it was okay.” Welsh floats over this enraptured swell, an ending that spreads like sun streaming through rain. It’s not the only moment during the album, Are You Alone?, where Welsh puts his love boots on to go stamping the earth into tender submission. But, unlike Impersonator, there’s no defeatism here. He’ll fall from grace and sail away on a perfect purring organ droning over drum echoes. The message in “Downtown” is straightforward, implying there’s solitude that comes with loving someone, the answer to the question asked by his album’s title. And, yes, we might be alone, but this transcendent ode to borrowing pain from the past to illuminate life whether it’s with someone or not — it makes it feel okay. –Lior Phillips

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adele 25 album new Top 50 Songs of 201520. Adele – “Hello”

25

Over four years had passed since Adele’s platinum-selling 21, and the British singer had mostly stepped out of the spotlight since “Skyfall”. Then, suddenly, the powerhouse vocalist burst back onto the scene with the mournful, piano-driven “Hello”. Although musically similar to her early work, the lyrics dealt with her new record’s overarching themes of coming to terms with growing up, motherhood, and relationships. And, of course, the singer’s soaring voice took center stage, rising throughout the haunting chorus: “Hello from the other side.”

“It sounds a bit morbid, like I’m dead,” Adele told Rolling Stone. “But it’s actually just from the other side of becoming an adult, making it out alive from your late teens, early 20s.” Just how great was the public demand for new Adele? The music video shattered Vevo records for most views within 24 hours of its release (27.7 million), also becoming the fastest to 100 million views. –Killian Young

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grimes art angels album stream listen Top 50 Songs of 201519. Grimes – “Kill V. Maim”

Art Angels

“You only like me when you think I’m looking sad,” sang Grimes on another song from this year’s Dimension X pop masterwork, Art Angels. I personally fall into the opposite category. Visions, Halfaxa, and the rest of Claire Boucher’s back catalog may not be sad in the Merriam-Webster sense of the word, but each album has a cosmic darkness to it that, for me, never successfully dovetails with her pop sensibilities. It’s kept me from being a fan for quite some time. On, Art Angels, however, Boucher hoists those sensibilities out of the haunted well and into the sunlight, which results in songs like “Kill V. Maim”. I don’t necessarily get that it’s about Al Pacino as a transgender vampire, although it could definitely score a film about Al Pacino as a transgender vampire, perhaps a scene where he struts into a nightclub and sinks his bedazzled fangs into an enemy’s jugular while strobe lights flash around him. That’s dark (Boucher’s yelps become raw-throated screams for “Don’t! Know! Me!”), but danceable (she chants like a cheerleader on the chorus), and whatever the opposite word is for sad. For Grimes, that probably means something more complex than just “happy.” –Dan Caffrey

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Future_56_Nights_(mixtape)18. Future – “March Madness”

56 Nights

No one in music had a year like Future Hendrix. After trying to push his sound towards the mainstream on 2014’s Honest, which disappointed critically, he spent the next year pushing the landscape of modern rap towards where he was. With a now legendary run of releases from Monster to DS2, Future crafted an uncompromising body of work that may be the best of his career. Plagued by addiction, depression, and heartbreak, Future made masterpieces delving into the desperation that comes from trying to fill a void with drugs and sex, less glorifying a lifestyle than lamenting the tragic feelings of loss that drove him to where he is. This is most evident on “March Madness”, the single from 56 Nights, his mixtape with DJ Esco, in which he addresses all these issues and more, including racially charged police violence. With 808 Mafia & Tarentino’s thunderous production, Future synthesized all his pain into his most immediate and memorable song of a landmark year. For four minutes, listeners could understand the allure of giving into destructive impulses to get through the darkness, even if they still felt as empty at the end of the day. –David Sackllah

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Leon-bridges-stream-coming-home-album17. Leon Bridges – “River”

Coming Home

On his debut album, Coming Home, soulful singer-songwriter Leon Bridges pays tribute to the greats: Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, and Al Green. While it’s a blast to hear him grooving and twisting, adorable to hear him sing about his mother, it’s the stunning “River” that brings to bear the true depth at which Bridges has delved into the spiritual waters of his musical forebears. “It’s basically the turning point, really just surrendering to God,” Bridges explains on the song’s Genius page. “The river represents being Baptized, and really just turning everything to God.” The song swims in the same waters as so many soul songs looking for absolution. Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” sings of being born by the river, and Bridges wants to leave behind his pains and sins, to return to that purity. There are also more obvious echoes of Green’s “Take Me to the River” — both sing of the overwhelming power of love as a river, but Bridges’ version of dipping into the Jordan is purely spiritual. As such, his crystalline voice rings sweet and true, an astonishing thing that radiates beauty. –Adam Kivel

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The xx - Jamie xx - solo new album16. Jamie xx – “Gosh”

In Colour

If 2015 made anything clear, it’s that young Jamie Smith — better known as Jamie xx — is one of the best producers on the market. “Gosh”, the opening track from his solo debut, In Color, is a resounding introduction to the variety of sound the record amalgamates. Within five minutes, the listener is exposed to UK garage, drum & bass, and dub, with high-pitched synths adding a simplistic veil of melody that brings it home. It’s a track so invested in movement that the hi-hat sample Smith chooses sounds a lot like the heavy breathing of an inexhaustible club-goer. “Gosh” is also a stark reminder of what the producer is capable of when not confined by the sleepy guitar-driven spirit behind The xx. Although Jamie xx’s solo popularity pales in comparison to that of his band, “Gosh” is one of the first steps toward his inevitable eclipse of them. –Kevin McMahon

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autre ne veut age transparency stream album Top 50 Songs of 201515. Autre Ne Veut – “Age of Transparency”

Age of Transparency

The six-minute centerpiece of Autre Ne Veut’s Age of Transparency sounds like a pop song that’s developed an anxiety disorder. It sounds like a glitch in the Matrix or a nightmare in which you take a lavishly appointed elevator to the top of a skyscraper, only to look down and see that the floor has dropped out from under you. Nothing about “Age of Transparency” sounds safe, least of all Arthur Ashin’s voice, a powerful weapon that the singer wrestles with rather than controls. This same principle of instability governs the piano and saxophone tracks, which flutter about like a hundred different moths in search of a flame. Autre Ne Veut is often lumped in with “indie R&B” artists like How to Dress Well and Twin Shadow, but Ashin’s music is becoming more distinctly his own with each album. The version that appears on Age of Transparency is unhinged and unpredictable, but also recognizably human. The album’s title track best exemplifies this, with its mournful lyrics and cabinet of alluring imperfections. A breakdown (or a breakup, for that matter) has rarely sounded so brutal and so beautiful at once. –Collin Brennan

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Courtney Barnett Sometimes I Sit and Think Sometimes I Just Sit14. Courtney Barnett – “Depreston”

Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

There’s a lot that Courtney Barnett does well. She’s apt to flex muscular guitar, shoot off lines with self-deprecating humor and sly self-awareness, and evoke indie rock luminaries with her tone, her melodies, and her authenticity. But “Depreston” is a different beast, easily the prettiest song she’s written yet and the one that broods with the most existential longing. The story is simple: Barnett and a significant other go house-hunting in the Melbourne suburb of Preston, but quickly the little quips about the town’s suburban crime and the house’s features turn to something more reflective. Like the best of songs, the place it ends is far from where it begins, with the singer discovering the house she looks at is a “deceased estate,” making all the ephemera in the home puzzles for her to search for meaning. It’s all pretty heavy and the better for it, with Barnett saying about that song: “When I write songs like that, I just try and hone in on the smaller details and focus on a small occasion, like that day or that moment, and extract everything out of it.” And that’s it; the moment winds up bleeding with sadness, empathy, and longing that makes everything else, even half a million dollars, seem small in comparison. –Philip Cosores

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Heems Eat Pray Thug13. Heems – “Flag Shopping”

Eat Pray Thug

Growing up in Queens, NY, of Punjabi-Indian descent, rapper Himanshu Suri (aka Heems) was 16 on September 11, 2001, attending school blocks away from where the towers fell. Over the course of Eat Pray Thug, his first studio album since the end of Das Racist, Suri delves into what life was like for him and other Indian-Americans living in post-9/11 NY. The boldest statement comes from “Flag Shopping”, which outlines the steps that he and others like him took to adapt, from shortening their names (“They want to Toby us like we Kunta Kinte”) to buying American flags to display around their homes. While Suri is not Muslim, his songs explain how rampant Islamophobia affects anyone who is perceived in a certain way by many Americans, regardless of their actual ethnicity or religion. At a time when fear and hate is spreading again, you can already find individuals draping themselves in American flag paraphernalia while appearing on news programs. “Flag Shopping” was already one of the most powerful songs of the year in how it addressed racism in America and unfortunately remained one of the most relevant throughout 2015. –David Sackllah

Listen: YouTube

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Bully Feels Like12. Bully – “Trying”

Feels Like

The search for clarity is a quest we all undertake at some point, but it’s usually an intensely personal one. With “Trying”, Bully frontwoman Alicia Bognanno makes it public in equally intense measure. She openly “question[s] everything,” from her pregnancy status to her “stupid degree,” all those things a twentysomething beats themselves over. There are no answers, either, as she repeatedly belts out, “Why am I?” during the song’s concluding moments. But it’s screaming about that hair-pulling self-doubt itself that feels cathartic, not the solving of the problem, and that’s amplified by the music itself. Bognanno can move from surprisingly sweet harmonies to scratchy yelps in an instant, swayed by the type of fuzzy guitar lines and can-kicking bass that call to mind the perky angst of ’90s indie rock in all the right ways. This bewailing uncertainty would creep into uncomfortable territory if presented any other way. “That song is definitely stuff I don’t have dinner conversations about,” Bognanno told NME about the track. “But it feels good to sing ‘cos it’s so brutally honest, it’s almost a stress-reliever.” Listening to it provides the same kind of release for the same reasons: It’s refreshing to just scream about it sometimes. –Ben Kaye

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kendrick lamar to pimp a butterfly vinyl release11. Kendrick Lamar – “King Kunta”

To Pimp a Butterfly

On first listen, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t exactly inaccessible — there’s just a lot to sift through. Even eight months later, we’re still poring over the bitch’s brew of free jazz, spoken word, funk, and obscure samples. We’re still marinating on lyrics that explore so many facets of black culture and Lamar’s own life: poverty leading to self-hatred, self-hatred leading to rapping, rapping leading to wealth, wealth leading to more self-hatred, and all of it leading to love, both for one’s self and their community. “King Kunta” addresses many of these themes head-on, but also functions as a traditional braggadocio rap. Just because Lamar’s boasts have more to do with black empowerment than materialism doesn’t make them any less sneaker-stomping or dick-swinging. Just because he opts for a beat from the mighty Mausberg (himself gunned down in Compton when he was just 21) over the improvised horns found elsewhere on Butterfly doesn’t make the song any less intelligent. The thump actually makes it more intelligent, dropping the brain into the stomach for a hit that’s both cerebral and visceral. Come for the party, stay for the message. –Dan Caffrey

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the weeknd new album beauty madness1 Top 50 Songs of 201510. The Weeknd – “Can’t Feel My Face”

Beauty Behind the Madness

Consider Abel Tesfaye’s quick ascension to the peak of pop startdom complete. Social media has been carrying Tesfaye and his music as The Weeknd on its shoulders for the better part of a half decade, but it took an irrefutable crossover smash to complete his transformation from buzz-worthy boy wonder to certified R&B superstar. “Can’t Feel My Face” is that monumental single, the kind that artists who aspire to scale pop music’s great heights hope and dream for. Arguably the breezy boy-girl jam of the year, the song captures the current musical zeitgeist perfectly. It’s relaxed, cool, sexy, funky, and fun, soaking itself in the kind of escapist chill that the eager twentysomething crowd he caters to would bottle up in a heartbeat if only it had the opportunity. But like all great pop songs, the true value of “Can’t Feel My Face” is derived from the way it makes you feel. Adele’s pipes can leave you legless, Katy Perry songs make you want to party, and so on. “Can’t Feel My Face”, on the other hand, makes listeners feel damn near invincible in its celebration of young love. It revels in a place that’s uncorrupted by the stresses and demands that exist outside of its bubble, opting instead to drink in everything the present has to offer. It’s a song that plays out like a millennial fantasy, and it works like a charm. –Ryan Bray

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The Most Lamentable Tragedy new album09. Titus Andronicus – “Dimed Out”

The Most Lamentable Tragedy

For god’s sake, lukewarm just doesn’t cut it in this world anymore. If you want to breathe in life, you better crank it up a notch, tackle it with your whole heart — feel its weight pressing down on you so that the dark textures and shattering core feel so heavy it’ll burst right open. Rock titans Titus Andronicus understand this, and “Dimed Out” emerging during Act II of their five-act rock opera, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, is such a damn near flawless move that you’ll need a vaudeville hook to peel you away. It’s music with enough heart and wordsmithery to make listeners feel the ground shake; “Whatever’s inside, let it climb out,” sings Patrick Stickles, and nobody can fault this virtuoso laying claim to rock’s cruel heart. “I Lost My Voice (+@)” did a good job on the promise of blending punk anarchy and basic rebellion, and Stickles’ voice — a voice that feels like blissed-out chaos — uses the fickle-as-fuck world as a sieve to sift through the emotional wreckage of life. But when an amp is “dimed out,” every sound parameter is set to maximum volume, while knowing you can always switch the toggles back if needed. One of Titus Andronicus’ biggest assets has been their ability to build the empathy necessary to transcend their loud lyrics and fall back on the other side — that hard-hitting defiance is toned down by way of warm, rhythmic throb. So, you’re here, you’re there, being significant, being nobody, wondering why the past haunts you, wondering how to live life at full volume and speak about the pain of the past. Here’s a song that just speaks. Like a contemporary confessional — no preacher, just a band pushing passed muck and mire. Two minutes and 58 seconds is yours. –Lior Phillips

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alabama shakes sound and color08. Alabama Shakes – “Don’t Wanna Fight”

Sound & Color

Musically, “Don’t Wanna Fight” shows why Alabama Shakes are alone atop the ranks of any perceptible deep soul re-emergence. With a fury that bubbles up along Zac Cockrell’s bass line, the song digs its heels in with a stalking rhythm and Heath Fogg’s simply classic funk guitar parts. Few vocalists can hold a candle up to Brittany Howard’s powerful pipes, from the falsetto chorus to all the subtle inflections of the final verse. The opening squeal perks you up and arrests your attention before you can even grasp what’s just happened, leaving you scurrying to pick up your jaw as you follow her into the lyrics.

For those unable to gather themselves after that crooning white rabbit, you’d be surprised what’s articulated in those words. It’s easy — and not necessarily inaccurate — to take Howard’s lyrics to be about relationship struggles, but there’s a greater connotation in there. The chorus (“I don’t wanna fight no more”) isn’t just referring to a lover, but to society. In a year where division seemed a disturbingly dominant trend in headlines, social media posts, and the mouths of political leaders, this song encapsulates the futility many of us feel. “Attacking, defending/ Until there’s nothing left worth winning,” Howard sings out in frustration. “Your pride and my pride/ Don’t waste my time.”

Too often modern society is at war with itself, and too often we can’t express the resulting exasperation. From chords to choruses, “Don’t Wanna Fight” does so potently. –Ben Kaye

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Sufjan Stevens Carrie and Lowell07. Sufjan Stevens – “Should Have Known Better”

Carrie & Lowell

“I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make-believe,” Sufjan Stevens said of Carrie & Lowell’s creation, citing the myriad behavioral extremes he cycled through both during and after his mother’s death. Carrie was his mother, but she was also a stranger. Stevens spent his youth creating narratives for her in his head, creating chapters upon chapters of what-ifs and maybes. To confront the reality of her, then, left him without a foothold. “I was trying to gather as much as I could of her,” he continues, “in my mind, my memory, my recollections, but I have nothing.” There’s an immediacy to “Should Have Known Better”, a sense that you’re sitting alongside Stevens in the hospital. Love, hate, desperation, resentment, hope, acceptance — each has its place in the grieving process, but none are so simple to step aside to make room for the next. They exist in fluidity, coalescing then separating.

Against gentle acoustic finger-picking and bright keyboard, “Should Have Known Better” eschews reflection on these topics for the immediacy of living with them. Beneath a “black shroud,” Stevens slips in and out of despair, pleading for simplicity (“be my rest, be my fantasy”), grappling with regret (“I should have wrote a letter”), withering beneath painful memories (“When I was three, three maybe four, she left us at that video store”), and grasping at the hope that lives within his niece. Stevens’ best songs have always felt like a stream of consciousness, places where concrete images flicker in succession, giving way to deep wells of emotion. “Should Have Known Better” is one of these songs, but bears a sepia-toned tenderness that separates itself from the kaleidoscopic grandeur of Illinois and Age of Adz. The standalone images he conjures (“the neighbor’s greeting,” “Rose of Aaron’s beard,” “a drunken sailor”) are so abstract that they register as mere wisps, touchstones that perhaps only Carrie herself would understand. “Should Have Known Better” exists within that space where Stevens was “trying to gather as much as I could of her.” That he fails to do so gives it its power. This is grief. –Randall Colburn

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drake hotline bling Top 50 Songs of 201506. Drake – “Hotline Bling”

How did a thirst plea set to a Mario Kart click track become one of the biggest singles of the year — and Drake’s biggest single to date?

That’s part of the 6 God’s alchemy. He’s at his most powerful when he’s at his most pathetic, and in 2015, nothing could better undercut the bite of singles like “Energy” and diss track “Back to Back” than “Hotline Bling”, a return to the classic Drake look of pining after someone who’s moved on with her life. He even goes back to the “good girl” epithet that he scattered throughout 2013’s Nothing Was the Same. It’s condescending and absurd to want a woman to be “good” for you even when you’re not around, sure, but the object of Drake’s whining is out there having the time of her life, and he knows it better than anyone.

What turns Drake songs into wildfire memes isn’t the lyrics but the way he bends them, and “Hotline Bling” is less about him than it is about her. “Ever since I left the city, you,” he sings in one gulp, drawing out the last word and giving it the most space. And then there’s the way he turns “bling” from a dated noun into a verb that’s unmistakably now. It might be the least boring way to describe your phone lighting up late at night. We love Drake when he’s absurd and he knows it, and he’s never hit the sweet spot of his persona quite like he does on “Hotline Bling”. He indulges our own ridiculous longings and clears space for us to laugh at ourselves, too. Long live peak Drake. –Sasha Geffen

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grimes art angels album stream listen Top 50 Songs of 201505. Grimes – “Realiti”

Art Angels

After the success of singles “Genesis” and “Oblivion” in 2012, Canadian producer Claire Boucher fell under the pressure of her fans, critics, and, most importantly, herself when trying to top her songwriting as Grimes. “Realiti” was the first taste we got of Art Angels — even though she said, at the time, that it wouldn’t surface on this year’s LP — which allowed it to shape what we expected to come. In many ways, Grimes herself is an angel. By gifting listeners the opacity and honesty of her role as Human Making Music Who Refuses to Settle, she reminded us what it means to come to terms with yourself and what you’re capable of, particularly when you’ve been dubbed the leader of Tumblr aesthetics instead of, well, your musical strength.

Like her rejected Rihanna demo “Go”, “Realiti” takes the ideas of big pop and flattens them into a single, cohesive, handclap-decorated song with late-night questions of mental endurance rephrased as lyrics. “Every morning there are mountains to climb/ Taking all my time/ When I get up, this is what I see,” she sings, later adding, “I wanna peer over the edge and see in death/ If we are always the same.” Reality may be daunting and death may be warped, but Grimes isn’t afraid anymore. Each word is stated coolly. “Realiti” is a much needed reminder that solitude is a necessary evil, progress is a damaging endurance test, and we have the ability to reshape reality into a playful challenge as long as we give ourselves time. –Nina Corcoran

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Kurt Vile b'lieve i'm going down... album artwork04. Kurt Vile – “Pretty Pimpin'”

b’lieve i’m goin down

Kurt Vile is a musical magician. On “Pretty Pimpin’”, the lead single off his latest album, b’lieve I’m goin down, he manages to make somber introspection catchy, layering contemplative lyrics over the infectious guitar lines that have become his signature. The song’s opening lines, “I woke up this mornin’/ Didn’t recognize the man in the mirror/ Then I laughed and I said, ‘Oh silly me, that’s just me,’” are the thesis statement of a wandering meditation on the nature of self and what it means to change. While “Pretty Pimpin’” features synth from Rob Laakso, backing vocals, electric organ, and the percussion of Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa, this is a song painted in guitar and words. With the latter, Vile uses the image of himself at a bathroom mirror to refract his own insecurities about who he wants to be and the man he actually is. His desires take the form of a third-person pronoun at odds with the narrator (although both are not much for brushing their hair), a parallel that plays out in wistful melodies and hazy refrains. It’s the words unspoken that perhaps speak the loudest, the subtle hieroglyphics of a lyricist well-versed in the Elliott Smith school of combining majesty with melancholy. Speaking with Consequence of Sound earlier this year, Vile defined his career as “[having] to climb step by step to the top of the world.” Whichever step “Pretty Pimpin’” has left him at, there can’t be many more to go. –Zack Ruskin

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The xx - Jamie xx - solo new album03. Jamie xx ft. Young Thug & Popcaan – “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”

In Colour

This relentlessly optimistic jam from the triumphant In Colour bases its magic in a sample from a 1971 song by The Persuasions before taking off with a verse from Jamaican dancehall artist Popcaan. Jamie Smith, aka Jamie xx, blends finger-snap beats with Atlanta-bred rapper Young Thug’s joyfully debaucherous raps and Popcaan’s lilting, island-accented singing. It’s nearly impossible to listen to this song and not smile, not only because Young Thug seems to take great joy in repping some of the most fun (and sometimes head-scratching) innuendos you’ve ever heard (e.g., “I’ma ride in that pussy like a stroller” or “We gon’ ball, Walter Payton”).

Throwing around terms like “instant classic” is clichéd at this point, but it’s hard to imagine a world in which this song isn’t held up as an example of what some of the best music of this year, or even this decade, could be. As popular music increasingly resists pigeonholing, it seems fair to say that songs like this one could be seen as the way forward, even though it’s hard to imagine the outcome of this particular collaboration in the hands of a producer less capable than Smith. What he has to offer others who may come after him, though, is a flawless, seamless sensibility and vision, a tireless creativity that will likely inspire a whole generation of beat-driven kids in their bedrooms with laptops. But for now, as Young Thug says, “Good times, there’s gon’ be some good times.” –Katherine Flynn

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tame impala currents02. Tame Impala – “Let It Happen”

Currents

Long regarded as a studio rat, it should have surprised no one when Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker emerged out of a quiet period with a first taste of his next album as elaborate as “Let It Happen”. ”To me, it sounds totally different from anything ever,” he told Under the Radar, adding, “I’m hoping that’s how it comes across to other people, as well.” Running nearly eight minutes, the song blurs the boundaries between producer and band, striving for similar builds and releases found in EDM. For a project previously known as a psych rock band, the boldness of the move was grossly underplayed, mostly because Parker made the song still fit within the Tame Impala oeuvre. When placed in the context of 2015, “Let It Happen” didn’t seem like a complete reinvention, but just the ambitious next step from an artist looking to put out the best product of his career.

And he did. It’s the best song he’s ever written from the best album he’s ever made. In a live context, the numerous transitions earn their own mid-song rounds of applause, like he’s taking the audience up and down on a roller coaster as notable for the smoothness of the ride as the drastic shifts within it. Midway through, the song takes a sort of break and sounds like a record skipping, only to see a wave of symphonic strings gently redirect the forward momentum. It manages to make what is regarded as the worst sound in existence seem fresh and beautiful in its own right. It’s enough to make a generation of fellow studio rats dive back into their bedrooms, the bar now set unrealistically high for what a lone person can cook up in a studio when given some time and resources. And the lasting lesson: If the goal isn’t to make something different than everything that came before, you aren’t trying hard enough. –Philip Cosores

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Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly01. Kendrick Lamar – “Alright”

To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus, To Pimp a Butterfly, has no shortage of beautiful and dark songs that encapsulate the Black American experience. “Complexion” is a soulful number that tackles colorism with an outstanding guest verse from Rapsody. “i” taps into self-love, while “u” flips the script and goes in on self-hate. “The Blacker the Berry” castigates murderers of every creed and code. The body of work is almost exhaustingly thorough, but “Alright” sticks out like a reasonably intelligent person at a Trump rally. We’re ushered in as a choir’s soulful harmony meets Pharrell’s patented four count start. Lamar screams, “Alls my life, I had to fight,” referencing Sophia’s heartfelt soliloquy in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and then we’re guided through Lamar’s complex yearning for some version of Eden.

“Alright” is buoyant, festive, serious, personal, and all-encompassing. Only a song so brilliant in so many ways could earn the honor of becoming a protest song, effectively dethroning “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, a gospel hymnal that’s been widely considered the Black American National Album for more than a century. Over the last couple of years, police brutality, systemic oppression, and racism have become a focal point in the American consciousness. It’s nothing new — Richard Pryor spoke on it years ago, as did Dick Gregory and a host of other impossibly smart comedians. Rodney King was beaten like a rag doll and the officers who did so were punished with a slap on the wrist. As a new laundry list of names enter the fold — Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, the victims of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church terrorist attacks, etc., etc., ad infinitum — “Alright” has played as an antihistamine to the pain that’s so frequently been doled out to Black Americans.

If time, history, and practicality are any indicator, we’re probably not going to be alright — at least not in this lifetime. But the point of gospel is having faith in what isn’t there. You have to have faith in something that isn’t exactly tangible, a deep and spiritual faith. “Alright” isn’t about determination; it’s about forgetting cold, harsh reality and hoping for something brighter and better if only for three minutes and 39 seconds.

“Alright” is the gospel song we need in these trying times, and gospel is also about community — your brothers and sisters, if you will. Above all, “Alright” is a damn fun song, and that’s what puts it leagues ahead of tracks with similar content. In 2015, all across America, in the clubs, bars, and concert halls, dozens and dozens, sometimes hundreds or thousands of black and brown and white and yellow folks have proudly and joyfully screamed, “We gon’ be alright.” With that kind of love, fuck practicality, time, and history. Maybe we actually will be alright. –H. Drew Blackburn

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Listen to the Top 50 Songs of 2015 on Spotify.

01. Kendrick Lamar – “Alright”
02. Tame Impala – “Let It Happen”
03. Jamie xx feat. Young Thug & Popcaan – “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”
04. Kurt Vile – “Pretty Pimpin'”
05. Grimes – “Realiti”
06. Drake – “Hotline Bling”
07. Sufjan Stevens – “Should Have Known Better”
08. Alabama Shakes – “Don’t Wanna Fight”
09. Titus Andronicus – “Dimed Out”
10. The Weeknd – “Can’t Feel My Face”
11. Kendrick Lamar – “King Kunta”
12. Bully – “Trying”
13. Heems – “Flag Shopping”
14. Courtney Barnett – “Depreston”
15. Autre Ne Veut – “Age of Transparency”
16. Jamie xx – “Gosh”
17. Leon Bridges – “River”
18. Future – “March Madness”
19. Grimes – “Kill V. Maim”
20. Adele – “Hello”
21. Majical Cloudz – “Downtown”
22. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – “Sunday Candy”
23. Torres – “Strange Hellos”
24. D’Angelo & The Vanguard – “The Charade”
25. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Run Away With Me”
26. Kanye West feat. Allan Kingdom, Theophilus London, Paul McCartney – “All Day”
27. Sleater-Kinney – “A New Wave”
28. Elder – “Compendium”
29. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”
30. Vince Staples – “Señorita”
31. Miguel feat. Wale – “Coffee”
32. Natalie Prass – “My Baby Don’t Understand Me”
33. Circuit Des Yeux – “Fantasize the Scene”
34. Florence + The Machine – “Ship to Wreck”
35. Protomartyr – “Ellen”
36. Wondaland Records – “Hell You Talmbout”
37. Julia Holter – “Feel You”
38. All Dogs – “That Kind of Girl”
39. Rihanna, Kanye West, Paul McCartney – “FourFiveSeconds”
40. Nicole Dollanganger – “You’re So Cool”
41. Ought – “Beautiful Blue Sky”
42. Alessia Cara – “Here”
43. Janet Jackson – “No Sleeep”
44. Hop Along – “Happy to See Me”
45. John Carpenter – “Vortex”
46. Tink – “Ratchet Commandments”
47. Disclosure feat. Sam Smith – “Omen”
48. Kelela – “Rewind”
49. Ezra Furman – “Lousy Connection”
50. Lana Del Rey – “Honeymoon”

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