We were provided with an embarrassment of riches in 2015. Beloved artists returned with flawless albums (Sufjan Stevens, Sleater-Kinney), artists in their peak pushed the boundaries into completely new territory (Kendrick Lamar, Grimes, Tame Impala), and newcomers hearkened back to classics from days past (Leon Bridges, Natalie Prass, Tobias Jesso Jr.). This was my favorite year for music since 2012 — there were so many songs that would have qualified for this list if they had come out any other year, but the competition was just too much in 2015.
Also, special thanks to Taylor for the awesome cover art.
Before we get to the top 50, here are 15 honorable mentions that it killed me to exclude.
Tuxedo: Do It
Leon Bridges: Lisa Sawyer
Viet Cong: Bunker Buster
Yumi Zouma: Right, Off the Bridge
The Amazing: Picture You
Tame Impala: Eventually
The Arcs: Stay in My Corner
Nai Harvest: All the Time
Summer Heart: Thinkin of U
Drake: 10 Bands
CHVRCHES: Leave a Trace
Beach House: Elegy to the Void
My Morning Jacket: In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)
Okay, now onto the top 50. Thank you for indulging me.
50. Big Sean feat. Drake & Kanye West: Blessings
I guess Big Sean is good now. He’s always been a joke to me, and while “Blessings” certainly isn’t some dramatic left turn from him, it does represent a move toward a little more gravitas. This song will always be associated with the Golden State Warriors in my mind. First, the team sang it on their plane. Then Steph Curry’s 3-year-old daughter Riley, as part of her world domination during the Warriors’ playoff run, took to the mic at a press conference and immortalized the words, “WAYYY UP, I FEEL BWESSED.”
49. Miguel: Coffee
Miguel, the smooth-operating soul singer (and force behind one of my favorite songs of the past five years) released Wildheart this year, an ambitious fusion of funk, soul, jazz, and rock. On lead single “Coffee,” Miguel is completely comfortable in his skin. He sounds cool and confident, but also ardent and passionate. Miguel could easily sing over any generic beat of the moment — and catapult to the top of the charts — just on the strength of his flawless voice. But the thing I love most about him is his excellent taste in production, and “Coffee” only furthers this reputation. Like many of his songs, it pushes current R&B boundaries, employing a unique, seamless blend of soul, indie, and arena rock. Miguel said that he “just wanted this album to look and feel and taste like twilight in L.A.” Well, he succeeded. In the last minute of the song, you can even hear the keyboard and sound effect loops twinkle into the night sky.
Disclosure, the electronic DJ duo from Britain, followed their incredibly successful (and really good) 2013 album Settle with this year’s Caracal. Though the album is inferior in every way to the more nuanced and consistent Settle, it has some gems. The biggest gem of them all is the Lorde-featuring “Magnets.” It has plenty of memorable lines (“Pretty girls don’t know the things that I know”) and a subtle, mid-tempo beat. Lorde continues to impress me — if she’s singing on a track, it’s only a matter of time before I fall under her spell.
47. Nico Yaryan: Just Tell Me
“Just Tell Me” took me completely by surprise. I’ve never heard of Nico Yaryan — and honestly know nothing about him — but he brings a good early 70’s Van Morrison vibe to this song.
46. Vince Staples: Loca
Hip-hop is full of fresh, young forces of nature, and Vince Staples is one of the leaders of the pack (with Chance the Rapper right alongside him). I really like the singles from his new album, Summertime ’06, especially “Norf Norf” with its “I ain’t never ran from nothing but the police” refrain, but I can’t get enough of the beat on “Loca.” This snapping, popping, toe-tapping, simple beat is sinuous and addictive.
45. Day Wave: Drag
It’s possible that Jackson Phillips, the Oakland native and Berklee College of Music graduate behind Day Wave, broke into the Drums’ studio and stole their entire song-making template. We’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that he’s really good at what he does — dreamy, lo-fi indie pop.
44. Tobias Jesso Jr.: Without You
Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Elton John, James Taylor. Those are the names that come to mind when listening to Tobias Jesso Jr. He is a singer-songwriter in the true sense of the term. His sense of melody is on par with the greats — when you hear “Without You,” you’ll swear you’ve heard it before. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the song — it’s got “Let it Be”-style piano chords and a soft but soaring chorus — but it’s so well-constructed, and the melody burrows itself in your head.
43. American Wrestlers: I Can Do No Wrong
This band took me completely by surprise. “I Can Do No Wrong” is reminiscent of a lot of indie pop/rock out there, but it’s more nuanced and invigorating. The song seamlessly weaves three different kinds of guitar sounds together — gritty guitar chords, jangly guitar arpeggios, and an acoustic guitar backdrop. The part that takes this song from “really good” to “great” occurs at 2:17, when the “gritty” guitar stops, leaving just the beautifully upbeat, acoustic guitar chord changes and a drum machine. The singer comes in with a catchy melody (“Nobody hates my term, cause I’m so young…”) and the rest is history. It’s a perfect slice of mid-2000’s-style indie, but with a twist that makes it wholly modern.
In the unofficial “Song of the Summer” competition, “Lean On” was certainly one of the finalists. It was hard to go anywhere without hearing it, but I didn’t mind one bit. The beat is nuanced enough to keep me interested, but also catchy enough to cause me to bop up and down uncontrollably. Hopefully “Lean On” lives on in dance playlists and road trips for years to come.
41. Alabama Shakes: Gimme All Your Love
“Gimme All Your Love” is the textbook “slow-burn” song. It simmers during the verses, but brings out a blowtorch for the “If you just GIVE ME ALL YOUR LOVE” chorus. It actually reminds me of Led Zeppelin. Zeppelin were masters of contrast, able to alternate between loud and soft at the drop of a hat (or more like the smash of a snare). Alabama Shakes prove to be just as adept at contrast on “Gimme All Your Love.” Not to mention, singer Brittany Howard’s yowl easily rivals Robert Plant’s. After doing the slow alternations for a couple minutes, they transition to a rollicking groove with the best sounding guitar-bass-drum combo I’ve heard in a while.
40. Adele: Hello
“Hello, it’s me.” After over four years, it was a fitting way to reintroduce herself to us. It’s no secret that Adele’s voice is a marvel. Every one of her songs has her vocals front and center, as they should. But the thing that causes me to love an Adele song is when the quality of the song itself matches the quality of her voice — when it’s well structured, when the melody is perfect, when it balances that fine line between dramatic and melodramatic. That’s why “Rolling in the Deep” is so great to me — the bluesy style, the background vocals, all of it was on point. On “Hello,” everything is on point again. The dynamic melody is a natural fit for Adele, allowing her to really get into it and let her voice shine. The muffled drums give it a weighty feel, perfect for the lyrical subject matter, and the background vocals are subtle and haunting.
39. Death Cab for Cutie: No Room in Frame
Death Cab have hit their stride again. Sadly, their stride seems to only exist in a space where Ben Gibbard is heartbroken. The production on “No Room in Frame” sounds crystal clear and really catchy, as Gibbard makes mournful references to driving across California — the “hum of the 5 in the early morning,” “Up through Coalinga through the Valley,” “It catches you on the coast / or on the cliffs of the Palisades” — as well as his failed relationship with ex-wife Zooey Deschanel — “Was I in your way when the cameras turned to face you?” and “We will both go on getting lonely with someone else.”
People who know me well know of my obsession with “Call Me Maybe”. I would call it a guilty pleasure, but the thing is, I don’t feel in the least bit guilty. Jepsen released a new album called Emotion this year, and despite flying mostly under the radar, it’s actually a really solid collection of catchy, modern-sounding pop. “Run Away With Me” opens with a stratospheric saxophone line that calls back to the 80’s in the same way that M83 does, and the hooks just keep coming. The production and melody capture all the thrills and exhilaration of a night with your crush. “Run Away With Me” isn’t as much of a novelty as “Call Me Maybe,” but it’s bigger, bolder, and more self-assured.
37. Drake: Energy
“I got enemies, got a lot of enemies, got a lot of people tryin’ to drain me of this energy.” It seems that Drake will continue to dominate every single year, and I am completely okay with that. Early this year he dropped what he dubbed a “mixtape” (although it was for sale, and on iTunes no less, so I’d hardly call it a mixtape) If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, in lieu of his promised forthcoming album Views from the 6, and it showed Drake at his most bare-bones. Though he often splices rap and R&B together, this was strictly a rap album. It was stacked with catchy tracks and new phrases for the kids to use (“I was running through the 6 with my WOES!”), but the standout is “Energy.” The beat is hard AF (another thing the kids say) and Drake’s flow, while annoying to some, is captivating to me.
36. Natalie Prass: Why Don’t You Believe in Me
Get used to seeing Natalie Prass on this list. Her warm brand of Dusty Springfield-style soul is impeccably produced and beautifully crafted. There are so many instrumental touches that I love here — the random, syncopated bursts of piano, the muted horns, the little descending guitar licks during the first verse, and my favorite part, the loopy flutes floating over the background during the second verse (at 2:05). Oh, and Prass’s voice is understatedly gorgeous.
35. Albert Hammond, Jr.: Born Slippy
Albert Hammond, Jr. made his name as the curly-haired guitarist for a little band called the Strokes. His smattering of solo material over the years has served as a showcase for his tightly-knit riffs and keen sense of melody. It’s clear that he was an important influence over the Strokes’ successfully catchy sound. “Born Slippy” is a delectable slice of guitar pop, complete with an earworm-of-a-melody that’s guaranteed to stay in your head.
Earlier this year, I wrote about how Sufjan Stevens’ album Carrie & Lowell (which touches on Stevens’s summers spent in Oregon with his mentally-ill mother) name-checked a lot of places in Eugene, Oregon that I hold dear. But as I also explained, there is no way that my memories of Eugene ever came close to the emotional pain that those Oregon memories brought on Stevens, especially in the wake of his mother’s death. On “Should Have Known Better,” Stevens mentions a time when his mother abandoned him: “When I was three, three maybe four, she left us at that video store.” The song is a pensive, sobering look into Stevens’s psyche, struggling to comprehend the “black shroud, captain of [his] feelings.” The song ends on a hopeful note, picking up steam (and a major key) in the second half, as Stevens comes to terms with the “empty feeling” of the past and finding positives — “My brother had a daughter, the beauty that she brings, illumination.”
33. Courtney Barnett: Pedestrian at Best
Barnett broke onto the scene about a year ago with her brilliant, idiosyncratic lyrics and stoned guitar rock (check out “Avant Gardener”, one of the best songs of last year). Her new single, “Pedestrian at Best,” turns the amps all the way up and perfectly captures the 90’s slacker, alternative vibe, in both word and sound. The best line: “I think you’re a joke, but I don’t find you very funny.”
You might be under the impression that Tame Impala is a band in the true sense of the word, with some collaboration between members in songwriting and recording. To the contrary, mastermind Kevin Parker did 100% of the songwriting and recording on Tame Impala’s brilliant third album, Currents. The album fully proves Parker’s creative genius and growth. A few years ago, you could have accurately pigeon-holed Tame Impala as simply a classic rock nostalgia act, but Currents has a completely distinctive sound, touching on multiple genres. Nothing sounds quite like it. “The Less I Know the Better” is a full-blown funk song, with its bright bass line and keyboard licks. Often, Parker’s best melodies are contained in the bass lines, and this track is no exception. The lyrics are powerful, dealing with Parker’s unrequited love: “I was doing fine without you, till I saw your face, now I can’t erase… Is this what you want? Is this who you are? I was doing fine without you, till I saw your eyes turn away from mine.” And, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the production value Parker brings to this track (and every other Tame Impala track) is unparalleled. The sound is crystal clear and perfect.
Alessia Cara is just 19 years old, but already has the voice of a seasoned soul singer. She sings about how much she hates parties on “Here,” apologizing for seeming uninterested and saying “I would rather be at home all by myself, not in this room with people who don’t even care about my well-being.” “Here” has gotten some attention and radio play of late, which is a sign of good things to come for Cara.
30. Grimes: Flesh Without Blood
“Flesh Without Blood” is teeming with unexpected sound effects sprinkled throughout. Grimes skillfully adds and takes away elements at just the right time, and the various intersecting melodies are perfect. The lyrics are well-constructed and vivid: “Your voice, it had the perfect flow / It got lost when you gave it up though” and “I don’t see the light I saw in you before.” And did I mention it was catchy? This is a blast-in-the-car type of song.
I have an irrational love for White Reaper. They play snot-nosed garage-punk in the most fun way possible. It’s not original in any sense, but it is executed SO well. “Pills” feels so alive, with its vibrant riff and cheap Casio keyboard lines. It enters another gear at 1:46, when it adds a Van Halen-esque guitar arpeggio to the mix. “Pills” reminds me of high school in the best way possible.
Beck is back! And in a big way. If you remember, last year he released Morning Phase, a gorgeously melancholy collection of songs that won an Album of the Year grammy and the ire of Kanye West (Kanye apologized soon after and reiterated that he was wrong about him). I thought Morning Phase was beautiful to be sure, but I also thought it was probably Beck’s worst album. It was monochromatic and often flat-out boring. On “Dreams,” Beck turns it up again. Beck said himself that “Dreams” is the “opposite” of Morning Phase — he couldn’t be more correct. It’s huge and hooky, perfect for dance floors and car stereos. It kind of sounds like MGMT’s “Electric Feel” — in fact, it sounds a lot like it. Beck has been a 90’s alt-rock god, a sampling master, a funk hero, and an acoustic sad sack, but he’s at his best in psych-rock/dance mode. Hail “Dreams.”
WOW, this song is catchy. But it’s Missy Elliott and Pharrell — of course it’s catchy. Missy Elliott, who hasn’t released new music in a decade, reintroduced herself to the world with a bang. A gigantic, modern, infectious bang. If this doesn’t play at the next party you go to, rectify that situation immediately.
26. Kurt Vile: Wild Imagination
Kurt Vile has quietly been making some of the best albums of the past few years. His album Wakin On a Pretty Daze, one of my top 5 favorites of 2013, is perhaps his grandest statement, but he also excels in a more low-key lane. His newest record, the oddly titled b’lieve i’m goin down…, moves along at a leisurely pace, but exudes confidence the whole way through. “Wild Imagination” is understated, but perfect for an album closer — contemplative, with a subtle groove. An acoustic guitar, mild percussion and bass, and a short section of flutes accompany Vile and his unique voice. He reminds me of Neil Young, not just in the sound of his songs, but the special quality of his voice — it will never win him American Idol, but you can tell it’s a voice that’s been places.
“My Baby Don’t Understand Me” is another one of Natalie Prass’s throwbacks to late 60’s/early 70’s studio brilliance. Prass talks about falling out of love, asking “Where do you go when the only home that you know is with a stranger?” She ends the slow-burning song by repeating “Our love is a long goodbye” over a smattering of orchestral instruments that gain steam as they go along, mirroring Prass’s growing confidence and comfort in declaring that her relationship has run its course.
24. Kanye West feat. Paul McCartney: Only One
Kanye West’s last album, Yeezus, was released back in 2013, just as his daughter was born. It was an angry, loud, abrasive collection of tracks, pouring straight out of Kanye’s id. We hadn’t heard much of a peep from Kanye until New Year’s Day this year, when he released “Only One” featuring none other than Paul McCartney. It’s the biggest left turn he’s taken since his despondent, melodic 808’s and Heartbreak in 2008 (an album that basically birthed the modern movement of alternative R&B). Also, I mean, he basically gave this guy Paul McCarthy a career.
“Only One” could not be more different than Yeezus. It’s a warm, simple, easy-listening song with nothing more than Kanye’s heavily auto-tuned singing, background vocals, and Paul’s gorgeous electric keyboard. Kanye wrote the song from the perspective of his late mother looking down on him, encouraging him and telling him how proud she is of him. The sentiment behind it is uplifting and beautiful as she speaks words of wisdom to him (something Paul is all too familiar with), such as “You’re not perfect, but you’re not your mistakes.” And that keyboard outro from Paul is impeccable.
There’s only one thing that could have made the song better — lighter auto-tune. Kanye is remarkably terrible at singing, so a certain amount of pitch correction is necessary. But there are ways of making the auto-tune effect less egregious, as he demonstrated on his other McCartney (and Rihanna) collaboration from this year, “FourFiveSeconds”. Regardless, Kanye showed his incredible melodic sensibility, songwriting prowess, and ability to thoroughly change pace on “Only One.”
23. Kendrick Lamar: How Much a Dollar Cost
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is a marvel — daring, unique, creative, the work of a visionary. Of the many highlights on the album, one of the very brightest comes on the back half. “How Much a Dollar Cost” opens with an ominous piano-chord beat, reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” (which is, in turn, reminiscent of jazz great Charles Mingus). The beat plods on while Kendrick poignantly tells what basically amounts to a parable. He talks about a homeless man approaching him at a gas station, asking for a dollar, but Kendrick refuses, thinking it would just feed a drug addiction. The homeless man then reveals that he is God — the plea for money was a test and Kendrick failed it. The message contained here is powerful, and Kendrick’s lyrics paint a vivid, incisive picture. Oh and by the way, President Obama said this was his favorite song of 2015.
22. Martin Courtney: Vestiges
Martin Courtney’s day job is lead singer of Real Estate, one of my absolute favorite modern bands. Courtney paints with the same palette as his band on “Vestiges,” his first foray into solo work. It’s a slice of 1970’s AM radio gold, with soft-edged guitars, background harmonies, and a killer bass line. No one is better than Courtney at setting nostalgic scenes, creating an aural atmosphere for memories to flood your brain — “vestiges of springs and falls long gone.”
This song is so uniquely ‘2015.’ Jamie xx’s album In Colour was an atmospheric masterpiece, mostly instrumental tracks with subtle production touches. It’s nighttime music at its finest. But then out of nowhere, a burst of broad daylight hits as soon as you hear the opening sample of the Persuasions singing “Gooooood times, good times”. This was the most outright fun song of the year, by far. Jamie xx tapped enigmatic Atlanta rapper Young Thug to buoyantly rap over a bright bell-filled beat and, while completely out of left field, it works better than anyone could have expected.
20. Jidenna feat. Roman GianArthur: Classic Man
Take the beat for Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”, add 100 times the swagger and panache, and now you have “Classic Man.” In an interview, Jidenna explained what he means by “classic man”: “I don’t think it’s about fashion. It’s not about capital, it’s not about age; it’s about character.” Jidenna oozes so much confidence on the track, beckoning others to join him in his pursuit of old-fashioned values. It’s just incredibly enjoyable. Also, I wish I could get married again, just so I could have my groomsmen do a dance to “Classic Man.”
19. Drake: Hotline Bling
Drake is an unparalleled hitmaker. His non-album tracks and seemingly random Soundcloud releases are as good as his official singles. He does both rap and R&B equally well, always uses top-notch, compelling production, and coins catchphrases that never die. All this from a freaking Canadian child actor! You may think he’s overstaying his welcome in the public consciousness, but you can’t deny hits. On “Hotline Bling,” Drake, not a stranger to melodrama, croons about petty jealousy, acknowledging feelings we’ve all felt but never wanted to admit. The beat is laid-back but still busy and the melody is memorable, especially at “You used to call me on my cellphone / late night when you need my love.” It’s about as Drakey as it gets, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: August 2015)
18. Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love
Sleater-Kinney got back together this year after a long hiatus, and thank goodness they did. The title track on their consistently killer album No Cities to Love is fierce, urgent, and anthemic, as Carrie Brownstein absolutely slays both the vocal and guitar lines. After despondently declaring that cities can’t be loved and exploring whether it’s actually the weather that draws us to the energy of cities, they end with “it’s not the weather, it’s the people we love!” This, my friends, is rock and roll.
17. Björk: Stonemilker
No one is better at creating atmosphere than Björk. You can completely submerge yourself into her best songs and become fully enveloped by the sounds and feelings swirling around you. Her 1997 track “Jóga” had this effect on me from the very first listen. It took me to a place I had never been before. The opening track (“Stonemilker”) on her newest album Vulnicura did the exact same thing. Vulnicura fully qualifies as a breakup album, with all the emotional turmoil that comes with it, and “Stonemilker” perfectly sets the tone. “Moments of clarity are so rare, I better document this,” she says, finally feeling like she can grasp onto the whirlwind of thoughts in her head and commit them to wax. The whole song makes you feel like you’re being tossed around in a storm, as Björk’s melody goes up and down, and as the orchestra roils on in the background. You can feel her pain and vulnerability seeping through, which can get uncomfortable, but sometimes the catharsis of just feeling something, anything, is worth it. (Also, for an in-depth look into the making of “Stonemilker,” I recommend listening to Song Exploder’s podcast episode about it).
16. Leon Bridges: Coming Home
Leon Bridges is a 25-year-old from Forth Worth, Texas who was certainly interested in music as a kid, but more into dance and artists like Ginuwine and Usher. He thought his voice was passable, but didn’t have the confidence to use it. Eventually, upon hearing Sam Cooke, he got hooked on the 1960’s R&B sound, started writing songs, doing small gigs in Forth Worth, and then signed to Columbia and took the Internet by storm. “Coming Home,” Bridges’ lead single, is a pure re-creation of that sound 60’s R&B sound. It’s not overly showy — its small guitar and organ flourishes provide a an impeccable complement to Bridges’ voice and melody. Even though we’ve heard this sound many times before, the songs themselves sound so good that it doesn’t matter — they stand on their own. That’s what separates Bridges from the pack. Not to mention that these songs also benefit from modern production, which allows for a warmth and clarity that was tougher to achieve in the studio 50 years ago.
(Paragraph adapted from my post on Leon Bridges, Selma, and the revival of 1960’s R&B)
15. Deerhunter: Breaker
Bradford Cox is the face of Deerhunter, known for his stream-of-conscious style of writing and erratic genius, but the band’s secret weapon is Lockett Pundt, guitarist and occasional songwriter. Pundt released a solo album under the moniker Lotus Plaza in 2012 that was very important to me during three months that I spent in Chile. It was a time when, being in a new place, my vulnerabilities were more raw, and thus, the music I was listening to was especially potent and life-affirming. The highlight from that album was “Remember Our Days”, which featured beautiful guitar interplay and a simple but welcoming melody singing “If I don’t see you again, I’m glad that you were my friend, I’ll remember our days.”
Rarely does Pundt emerge from the background on Deerhunter songs, but he shares vocal duties with Cox on “Breaker,” one of two excellent singles released from their forthcoming album Fading Frontier. They harmonize gracefully on the verses, before Pundt takes over on the chorus — and let me just say that the chorus is straight-up amazing. It bursts open with a melody so good (and simple) that I can hear Paul McCartney singing it (which, by the way, is basically the highest compliment you can pay to a melody). “Breaking the waves, I can not, no, I tried, I can’t seem to stem the tide.”
(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: September 2015)
14. The Weeknd: Can’t Feel My Face
If this were a Friends episode, it would be called “The One Where The Weeknd Becomes a Pop Star.” Max Martin, the brain behind smash hits like “Since U Been Gone”, “Teenage Dream”, and “Shake It Off”, co-wrote and produced “Can’t Feel My Face,” and thank goodness he did. Martin is a master of bringing sound effects in and out on a whim in a way that propels the song forward and keeps the listener guessing. The swinging synth bass here anchors the track and is the primary reason that your foot is vigorously tapping. Abel Tesfaye brings it 100% on the vocal as well. “Can’t Feel My Face” is barely a few weeks old, but it feels timeless — it sounds like Michael Jackson, but also sounds wholly contemporary at the same time. This was the undisputed song of the summer. If you think otherwise, I’m sorry, but you’re just wrong.
(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: June 2015)
13. The Decemberists: Make You Better
The world isn’t as interested in the Decemberists as they used to be. As the indie music zeitgeist pushes at its own boundaries, Colin Meloy and his poetic folk rock are fading from attention. However, there is something redeeming about staying in your lane and excelling at it. The Decemberists’ seventh album, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World came and went early this year with barely the bat of an eye, but it was a solid, consistent album with well-thought-out songs (never mind that it was a bit too long and lacked their usual level of cohesion). My favorite element of “Make You Better” is the opening electric guitar chords, wistful and full of feeling, complemented perfectly by Meloy singing, “I want you, thin fingers, I wanted you, thin fingernails” followed by “I’ll love you in springtime, I lost you when summer came.”
12. Kendrick Lamar: King Kunta
THAT BASS LINE. I couldn’t get over it from the first time I heard heard “King Kunta.” The g-funk bass anchors the song, making it impossible not to bop along to the beat. Kendrick calls out other rappers who use ghostwriters for their lyrics: “Most of y’all sharing bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two-man cell.” He then talks about how important it is to stay honest and put in your own work: “And if I gotta brown-nose for some gold, then I’d rather be a bum than a ****** baller.” In the current hip-hop landscape, Drake has the catchiest hooks, Kanye has the most interesting idiosyncrasies, but Kendrick has the best sense of self.
(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: March 2015)
11. Sufjan Stevens: Death With Dignity
Sufjan Stevens’ penchant for simple, clear beauty is unparalleled. On his latest album, Carrie & Lowell, Stevens bares his soul about coping with the recent death of his mother, who struggled with mental illness and abandoned him and his family when he was a year old. He ended up spending three summers with his mother (Carrie) and stepfather (Lowell) in Eugene, Oregon, which provided the only real memories that he has of Carrie. Carrie & Lowell opens with “Death With Dignity,” an incredibly pretty song that sets the stage for the emotional depth to come on the album. “Spirit of my silence, I can hear you, but I’m afraid to be near you, and I don’t know where to begin.” The song is full of lyrical gut-punches: “What is that song you sing for the dead?”, “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you, and I long to be near you, but every road leads to an end.” As far as the music goes, Stevens does what he absolutely does best — laying his quiet, haunting voice over a finger-picking acoustic guitar (and just the right amount of piano touches). At the end, the instruments cut out, leaving a choir of Sufjans, blending their voices together mutedly from a distance. The moment is perfect, the song is perfect, the album is perfect.
(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: March 2015)
10. Courtney Barnett: Depreston
Courtney Barnett has a knack for channelling Nirvana, due to her loud, arresting guitars and hilarious turns of phrase about mundane, but highly relatable life situations. On “Depreston,” she keeps the turns of phrase, but ditches the loud guitars in favor of something more introspective and beautiful. Barnett talks about looking for a house to rent in a depressing suburb, telling us about how “Now we’ve got that percolator, never made a latte greater, I’m saving twenty-three dollars a week.” As she looks around the house, she finds relics of the previous elderly owner, who had a “handrail in the shower, a collection of those canisters for coffee tea and flour, and a photo of young man in a van in Vietnam.” The incredibly specific lyrics could seem weird in another context, but Barnett adeptly uses these thoughts to paint a picture that captures her wistfulness and anxiety over growing up.
(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: March 2015)
9. Brandon Flowers: Can’t Deny My Love
We have fully entered the 1980’s music revival period, with acts like M83, Passion Pit, the War on Drugs, and Ryan Adams all conjuring different flavors of pop and rock from three decades ago. Brandon Flowers, whose day job is fronting the Killers, adds his hat to the ring with his second solo album, The Desired Effect. Lead single “Can’t Deny My Love” is the album’s extremely catchy, impassioned standout. The chorus is such a pure jolt of energy (starting at 1:55 in the video below). It’s as infectious as humanly possible, and I don’t say that lightly. I listened to it one day after getting home from work and air-guitared across the floor while belting out “BUT YOU’RE NOT GONNA, NOT GONNA DENY, NO YOU’RE NOT GONNA, NOT GONNA DENY MY LOVE!”, followed by a quick double-check of the house to make sure Taylor wasn’t there. I promise, it’s that good.
(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: May 2015)
8. Natalie Prass: Bird of Prey
Natalie Prass’s debut album showcased not only her great voice and songwriting, but her exquisite taste in production. “Bird of Prey” sounds like an intimate live concert or a dusty vinyl record. Every part of it, from the woodwinds to the horns, from the strings to the plucky piano chords, is expertly balanced and molded together. The melody is beautiful, the piano and bouncy beat are catchy, and Prass proves to be a star in the making.
7. Father John Misty: I Went to the Store One Day
Josh Tillman (otherwise known as Father John Misty), whose outsized personality was a little too big to stay drumming for the more straight-laced Fleet Foxes, released his second solo album I Love You, Honeybear this year. On his debut album Fear Fun (check out the excellent “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”, complete with video featuring Aubrey Plaza), Tillman introduced us to his penchant for sarcasm and disdain. On I Love You, Honeybear, he grapples with a quality that doesn’t come naturally to him: sincerity. Closing track “I Went to the Store One Day” is not only gorgeous musically, with Tillman’s pretty-much-perfect baritone voice and acoustic picking, but lyrically as well, as he details how he met his now-wife at a country store in Laurel Canyon. He still peppers the lyrics with his idiosyncratic musings — “Don’t let me die in a hospital, I’ll save the big one for the last time we make love” — but he also hints at the innocent wonder he feels in meeting his wife — “For love to find us of all people / I never thought it’d be so simple.” The whole song is brilliant.
(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: February 2015)
6. Majical Cloudz: Downtown
Once it gets to October, I have a pretty good idea of what songs constitute the upper echelon of 2015 musical output. There is some shuffling of rankings here and there, along with a few late releases that winnow their way into this list, but for the most part, the core of the list is in place. But sometimes an unexpected song can come out of nowhere and completely grab hold of me, and that’s an amazing feeling. Experiencing an unwavering, immediate affinity for a song, especially when you weren’t familiar with the artist’s work previously, is special. That’s exactly what happened with “Downtown.” It’s repetitive, simple, bare, vulnerable, emotionally honest, and its heart is firmly on its sleeve. I found it impossible to get out of my head, and by the third listen, it was giving me literal chills.
5. Sufjan Stevens: Fourth of July
In an album teeming with heartbreak and loss, “Fourth of July” is the emotional low point of it all. Those quiet, haunting piano chords are deafening in their pain. Sufjan alternates between talking from his own perspective (“sitting at the bed with the halo at your head” and “the hospital asked should the body be cast”) and that of his dying mother (“Did you get enough love, my little dove / Why do you cry? / And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best / though it never felt right” and “Make the most of your life, while it is rife / while it is light”). He ends the song by almost endlessly repeating the refrain “We’re all going to die.” “Fourth of July” is as heavy as they come. It’s achingly, despairingly beautiful.
(Paragraph excerpted from my post on Sufjan Stevens and our parallel memories of Eugene, Oregon)
4. Julien Baker: Something
“Something,” from newcomer Julien Baker, is as sparse as they come — nothing more than a finger-picked electric guitar and Baker’s voice (and a tiny, almost unnoticeable bit of flute adornment). And wow, does she have a great voice. It’s stark and sorrowful, full of passion and anguish. At 2:00, it kicks up a notch, her distress burns: “I should have said something, something, something, I couldn’t find something to say, so I just said nothing, nothing, nothing, sat and watched you drive away,” the repeated somethings and nothings burrowing into you. She goes on: “I just let the parking lot swallow me up, choking your tires and kicking up dust, asking aloud why you’re leaving, but the pavement won’t answer me.” It’s a crystal clear portrait of heartache.
(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: August 2015)
3. Grimes: REALiTi
The feeling of escapism that “REALiTI” gives me is almost indescribable. It sounds mysterious but accessible. It has a melody fit for top-40 pop, but is weird enough (a.k.a. ‘Grimes’ enough) to give it more of an edge. It’s mesmerizing in a way that makes me want to just sit and contemplate while simultaneously wanting to just get up and dance. The lyrics are thoughtful (“I wanna peer over the edge and see in death if we are always the same”), Grimes’s voice is ghostly in parts (“I fear that no life will ever be like this again”) and grounded in other parts (“Welcome to reality”), and the production expertly captures the feeling of wanting to break free. “REALiTi” takes me places.
2. Jamie xx feat. Romy: Loud Places
You may know Jamie as the producer and third member of The xx. His solo album came out this year, which thankfully included “Loud Places,” featuring Romy Madley-Croft, who you’ll also recognize from The xx. “Loud Places” is one of those rare songs that immediately feels special. It completely engulfed me. The production is subtle, but there’s so much going on — drum beats coming in and out of focus, little guitar licks, wistful piano chords, all manner of random percussion instruments, and most importantly, a triumphant chorus of voices that made me smile ear to ear because it was so perfect. Nobody matches Jamie xx’s ability to fill electronic sounds with so much warmth. I insist that you listen to the song with headphones or really good speakers. Just let it take you over a few minutes.
1. Tame Impala: Let it Happen
Eight minutes of perfection — that’s how Tame Impala reintroduced themselves to us this year. The second this was released, in advance of their third album Currents, it felt special. Tame Impala were seemingly born with a fully formed sound — the heavy guitars of Led Zeppelin + the psychedelia of Pink Floyd + a voice like John Lennon. Since then, they’ve evolved, incorporating more unique ideas (and more keyboards), while still maintaining the same booming sound and psychedelic tendencies. “Let it Happen” represents the culmination of mastermind Kevin Parker’s growth. It’s conceptually brilliant, perfectly executed. It almost has a disco feel, with its continuous, thumping bass drum, but it’s much more dreamy and nuanced than your typical Bee Gees song.
Also, can I just take a moment to emphasize how amazing every single instrument sounds? The round bass line, the bells and whistles, the otherworldly effects on Kevin Parker’s melody. Different instruments and melodies come in and fade out, either in front or in the back, all at the perfect time, for the perfect length, at the perfect volume. (Don’t worry, the gushing is only getting started.)
The song really comprises three parts, each just as incredible on their own as they are as part of the greater whole. In the first part, Parker shares his wisdom with us on how to overcome anxiety: “It’s always around me, all this noise. Not nearly as loud as the voice saying, ‘let it happen.’” Parker’s voice soars over the pulsating beat and recurring guitar/synth licks. I can’t stress enough how much Parker sounds like John Lennon, which makes “Let it Happen” sound like if the Beatles took “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or “A Day in the Life,” time-travelled to 2015, and went off on a tangent into some glorious modern-day psych classic. My favorite element of this first part of the song is how it gradually fades in and out of focus, as the drums move from front and center to a fuzzy backdrop and back again.
Then we get to the second part, where the drums freak out and go into a seemingly endless loop. You might think the record is skipping, but Parker is just slowly building anticipation. The official music video cuts this second part out so that the video clocks in at a more “manageable for the masses” length of 4 minutes, but the repetitive middle part only makes the resolution sweeter.
That resolution comes at 5:06, when a brief pause is followed by an extremely satisfying beat kicking in. That’s when the juicy groove really gets going. Parker then sings some Daft Punk-like robotic harmonies, which give way to a gigantic guitar riff at 6:15. The riff sounds like Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath playing over an electronic dance party.
Finally, we get to my absolute favorite part — at 7:00, the moment when, after bringing back the Daft Punk harmonies, Parker layers another killer melody over everything, singing “Baby, now I’m ready, move along / Oh maybe I was ready all along.” It is so cathartic and satisfying and groovy and flat-out amazing.
“Let it Happen” is a masterpiece. It’s psychedelic, it’s electronic, it’s rock and roll, it’s disco, it’s brilliant. It was stuck in my head for probably the whole month of August. Continuously. It was easily, without question, my favorite song of 2015.
(Portions taken from Five Quality Tracks: March 2015)