Top 45 Songs of 2015 (45–21)
In which I wax poetic.
There were a lot of songs this year. I loved some of them.
45. “Silly Me”- Sleaford Mods
Sleaford Mods usually work off a furious logic, all rusty beats and crusty yells that expound on economic depression and societal stagnation. For Key Markets, the Nottingham duo toned it down a bit, ready to experiment with tempos that weren’t so break-neck and “Silly Me” was the finest product of their testing. Over a nearly funky rhythm section, lead complainer Jason Williamson uses a subtler croak that still cuts to the bone. “You run a crap club in Brom, you lose” he sneers at a passing hipster. It’s less vicious, less speedy, but just as rude and commanding as ever.
44. “Holy”- American Wrestlers
Dude sure knows how to make an introduction. With that friendly tiger on the cover and “Holy” serving as the main earworm, Scottish dude Gary McClure’s debut as American Wrestlers hooks instantly. “Holy” has just the right combo of fuzzed out guitars and 80s slickness, as much Pavement as it was Springsteen.
43. “Obey”- Dope Body
For most of the thudding Kunk, Baltimore cavemen Dope Body relied on a thick layer of sludge, howls and sheer noise to burst any nearby ear drums, but, somehow, they got even scarier when they calmed down. Though that’s probably underselling the pure creep factor of “Obey.” Dope Body’s version of southern blues is deep fried, covered in tar and fed through a broken amp just for good measure. As the chugging riff becomes thicker and thicker, lead screamer Andrew Laumann proclaims you’re “Under my spell” and the black magic only becomes stronger.
42. “House of Bricks”- Despot
New York’s slacker king has been promising a solo album for over a decade, and with constant guest features with buddies Killer Mike and El-P, each verse makes it more and more painful that Despot’s debut will probably go down as the underground version of Detox. Still, we are not without hope thanks to “House of Bricks.” After kicking around a demo version of the song for a few years, the Ratatat produced banger finally found its way to the studio and loudly reminded the East Coast why a dude without a single album to his name is one of the best above the Mason-Dixon line. Despot’s gritty flow out bellows even the booming beat, casually proclaiming his greatness and defiantly sticking his tongue out (“Green means go/ Red means go/ I’m color-blind motherfucker I don’t know!”) Unfortunately this puts us back to square one. WHEN’S THE ALBUM DROPPING DUDE?
41. “Vice City”- Black Hippy
As with all great posse cuts, every member of Black Hippy takes a different prize. Kendrick uses the broken and stumbling flow the best, Jay Rock is clearly having the most fun, Ab-Soul gets punchline of the year (“Get so deep in that water/ They should call my johnson a harpoon”) and School Boy’s cracked, hyperactive charisma puts an appropriate curtain call on this strange trip.
40. “I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States”- Death Grips
“I DON’T CARE ABOUT REAL LIFE” bellows MC Ride, providing yet another tagline for the undefinable and bat-shit insane rap-punks Death Grips. The opener to the balls to the walls craziness that was Jenny Death, “I Break Mirrors” was Death Grips’ ode to embracing manic passion. Ride is as terrifying as he is charismatic and Zack Hill’s steely drums tick along like they were played by coked up robots. H.P. Love Craft once wrote “If I am mad, it is mercy! May the gods pity the man who in his callousness can remain sane to the hideous end!” It’s probably not close to the end for Death Grips, but they’ve already been granted the mercy of madness, and “I Break Mirrors” is their proclamation of insanity.
39. “Shatter You Through”- Daughn Gibson
The exceptionally underrated Carnation found Daughn Gibson in his element: whispering seductive sweet-nothings with just a hint of danger clinging at the hazy edges. “Shatter You Through” had Gibson playing in a parallel universe where The Smiths were Texans, crafting the swooning ebb and flow of the main piano line and the darkly charming bass line. With Gibson’s delicious baritone, his promise to shatter you is as threatening as it is sexy.
38. “Breaker”- Deerhunter
A warning to Bradford Cox’s enemies: what doesn’t kill him makes him write better songs. After a debilitating car crash, Cox and Co. came back with the sleek Fading Frontier, with “Breaker” serving as its core. With a great opening line (“Christ?/ Or credit?”), “Breaker” could have been just another great Deerhunter tune, but the sudden unrush of the heavenly chorus that seems to come out of nowhere made it ascend into the upper echelon of their catalogue.
37. “Asgore”- Toby Fox
The soundtrack to the excellent and irreverent Undertale bounded from genre to genre with ease, so it’s surprising, yet oddly fitting, that its finest song harkens to the history of video game music rather than chamber, folk or metal. “Asgore” can’t be mistaken as anything other than a final boss theme, there are too many booming instruments, too many moments of build and climax. It’s a perfect foil to what happens during that battle, but, even outside of the game’s context, “Asgore” thrills. There’s a passionate desperation to every note, the rushing drums in particular propelling the tension, but there are also beautiful threads of hope here. When the music calms down for a moment, it descends into a gorgeous piano and synthesizer duet. But this is a final boss after all, and it can only pick back up into a war cry.
36. “Call it Off”- Shamir
Landing somewhere between MGMT and Prince, “Call it Off” became the calling card of young pop star Shamir. The Las Vegas native used his impossible, angelic voice to ping-pong off of neon colored synths and peach scented bass lines, giving the middle finger to an ex who was all too happy to degrade Shamir’s mental health. Shamir delivers the song’s tagline on the delirious bridge: “No more basic ratchet guys!” The message is clear: ain’t nobody got time for fuckboys. But everybody got time for Shamir.
35. “Age of the Sea”- Paul De Jong
Paul De Jong’s IF found its bouncing energy by cutting up strange samples together and thrived in the rowdy, playful atmosphere that enveloped the first half of the album. At the midway point, the mood had shifted to a more somber position with “Golden Gate” and “Debt Free,” but nothing quite had the same slow elegance of “Age of the Sea.” It’s a wordless hymn, cocooned in soft guitars and a slowly rising string section. There’s an air of tranquilness that asks for peace and thoughtfulness. It could be played at a funeral or at a wedding. The interpretation of these swelling lines and gorgeous harmonies is up to the listener. Only the beauty remains constant.
34. “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”- Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Such a pastoral sound for such a modern problem. UMO’s gorgeous funk sounds like an amalgamation of all that was good in the 1970s, with classy synths, thumping bass lines and a stoic horn section all mixing into psychedelic disco. Ruban Nielson’s light falsetto meanwhile laments his IPhone addiction that causes him to look at the screen every five minutes to see if his lover has sent him an oh-so precious text. Deep conversations over how the “universe might be holographic” keep his interest temporarily, but the longing in his voice calls out for something more than Skype calls and missed voice mails. And with music like this, who wouldn’t want more from Nielson?
33. “Cirice”- Ghost
A great man once said that all you need to be metal was to: 1. Hunch all up on yourself 2. Pretend you’re holding two ominous orbs 3. Let the evil flow forth. I’d add a fourth there: listen to “Cirice” while trying to summon the dark lord. Unionized evil minions Ghost delivered an excellent tribute to classic rock and metal with Meliora, all Blue Oyster Cult and Black Sabbath mixed with a fine layer of camp and“Cirice” was the centerpiece. It has everything, a badass riff, a howling vocal performance and a sudden influx of beautiful piano to tempt the mortals to join his unholyness.
32. “The Glass City”- Pender Street Steppers
The real life Glass City is apparently Toledo, Ohio, but I don’t think Pender Street Steppers had the fourth largest city in the Buckeye State in mind when they crafted this gorgeous piece of house. Jack J, one half of PSS, made a similarly scintillating track in 2013 with “Something (On My Mind),” but “The Glass City” has a bit more joy in its backbone. It takes its sweet time, never working up into a boil, just simmering wonderfully over that clapping beat and stritch-scratch percussion. The melody lines are sleek and captivating and the whole enterprise does conjure up some utopia, where house music rules the charts and people dance in the streets.
31. “Day 3”- Dr. Yen Lo
Fitting that there was nothing more hypnotizing this year than Dr. Yen Lo. A combination of New York residents Preservation and Ka, the duo created a semi-concept album based around Frank Sinatra staring psychological-thriller The Manchurian Candidate. Through the strange, snaking narrative, “Day 3” was the focal point and template for the entire enterprise. Ka’s numb flow unraveled layers upon layers of mystery as Preservation’s minimalistic beat swung back and forth like a hypnotist’s pendulum.
30. “Seeds”- Moses Sumney
With only an EP and a few singles to his name, Moses Sumney found himself opening for Sufjan Stevens in 2015. It made sense, as Sufjan had started playing the stark decimation of Carrie and Lowell live while Sumney debuted this ghostly piece, the most haunting song of 2015. Sumney sounds like a phantom, his light falsetto floating above gentle guitar, using looping pedals to create a chorus of spirits worrying over failed growth and a murky future. The ending is a rapturous ascent into the other side. “I cannot resolve what I do not know” Sumney cooed as he entered into an alien world and took us along for the flight.
29. “Israel”- Chance the Rapper ft. Noname Gypsy
Despite not releasing a solo album (or mixtape for that matter), 2015 was Chance’s. “Sunday Candy,” an SNL performance and a trio of excellent singles had Chance putting up a strong resume as 2015’s MVP. His live shows became legendary and his hyperkinetic bursts on Surf proved his charismatic energy. Yet, his best moment came when he meditated. “Israel,” featuring fellow Chicago MC Noname Gypsy, finds the two friends joking and discussing over a heavenly beat. Chance proclaims himself the “scariest jack in the pumpkin patch” and Gyspsy reminisces over long days filled with family and Capri Sun packets. It’s got the hazy feel of late nights spent parsing through the mysteries of the universe with good friends. It never gets too serious and the whole thing ends with a laughing fit because it wouldn’t be Chance without a jovial ray of light.
28. “Rubble Kings Theme (Dynamite)”- Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels usually talks in the language of blunt, bludgeoning weapons. But “Rubble Kings,” with a short run time, gang related narrative and sharp production, is a shiny switchblade; hidden and deadly. We were sorely missing RTJ related noise in 2015, but “Rubble Kings,” despite the minute length, was damn near enough to tide us over. Killer Mike and El-P only get a verse a piece, but they do more in a few bars than most rappers can do in an entire song. El-P does his usual dystopian stick, noting “Everythin’ out here is broken, or blemished and battered, and tattered, but mine.” Mike, continuing his run as BAMF of the year, proclaims himself King of the Rubble and no one argued.
27. “Screen Play”- Cavanaugh
The beat that haunts my dreams.
Open Mike Eagle and Serengeti are dukes of anxiety raps, so a team up would undoubtedly make something shivering and uncomfortable, but I didn’t think it would be this harrowing. Serengeti realizes how much debt he’s in and Mike spits about looking into the abyss and trying to find cheat code that’ll save him. That’s all par for the course, but Mike’s heart of darkness beat is glossy death, click-clack drums the only thing held down by gravity as the warped keyboard noises welcome hell.
26. “Sprained Ankle” — Julien Baker
“Wish I could write songs about anything other than death…” It’s quite a statement, but Julien Baker has the sort of musical and lyrical palette to pull off Smiths-like odes to the supercharged emotions of a 20 something. Sounding like a mix between American Football and Torres, “Sprained Ankle” in its gentle beauty, was the centerpiece of her debut album. Nearly hymn like in construction, it’s only composed of shimmering guitar, Baker’s wondrous voice and light additions of ghostly voices as the song comes to its somber, but heavenly, ending.
25. “Learning to Relax”- Dan Deacon
Dan Deacon is a self-proclaimed stress addict. It’s a more common affliction than you may realize. It’s the sort of insidious thing that forces your body and mind to work, refusing any real iota of relaxation because FUCK THERE MIGHT BE MORE WORK TO DO. Deacon’s electronic odyssies have proven him to be a workhorse (or a “Baltihorse”), but his new record Gliss Riffer found him composing with rest in mind. Not that “Learning to Relax” beams out tranquil vibes, it’s much more interested in radiating joy. The chopped up vocal samples join Deacon’s own warped voice as he proclaims “I wanna take a ride!” and that buzzying, giddy synth guides the whole enterprise, right up until the scatter-brained bridge zooms into view. In an interview with Popmatters, Deacon commented on the idea of boredom: “If you never get lost in thought, you’re never gonna think something you wouldn’t have thought otherwise.” In a way, “Learning to Relax” feels like a perfectly hyperactive day dream, his thoughts bouncing to something healthier, more joyous and maybe even relaxing.
24. “Clair De Lune”- Kamasi Washington
When I interviewed Washington earlier this year, he described his vision for recording the Debussy classic “Clair De Lune” as turning the piece into a “bubblebath love song.” He did that, and so much more.
Coming just before the end of the three-hour journey with Washington, “Clair De Lune” serves as a breath of fresh air. There are solos of course, but the feeling of the song is so much more important. The romantic waltz imbued by the glorious piano intro and the wall of loving horns creates a veil of comfort rarely composed. It’s about as downtempo as Washington and his friends get, but it offers a shoulder to talk to. In a frantic, political album that couldn’t be called easy in anyway, “Clair De Lune” was a brief, glorious sanctuary.
23. “Norf Norf”- Vince Staples
After starting with the only punchline on the entire album (“Bitch you thirsty/ Please grab Sprite”) Vince Staples quickly ushers in the darkness. Clams Casino’s woozy beat sounds like a siren rising from hell, appropriate, as Staples claims he’s never felt afraid, except when it comes to the LAPD. “I ain’t never from nothing but the police” he declares on the chorus. And, in another year filled with people of color cut down by the boys in blue, the visage of the police becomes a stand in for the Grim Reaper, always waiting in the corner.
22. “The Valley”- Miguel
It hasn’t been nine months since the release of “The Valley,” so I can’t test my theory on the correlation of American birthrates and Miguel’s monstrous sex jam. Sounding like the bastard love child of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” and The Weeknd’s “Glasstable Girls,” “The Valley” wouldn’t work if it wasn’t Miguel. His slippery charisma rides perfectly over the stuttering, woozy beat. “Confess your sins to me,” he coos. It would be corny, but Miguel sells it 110% with the temperature rising with every word. Delightfully NSFW.
21. “Grief”- Earl Sweatshirt
Alternative title: “We Need to Talk About Earl.” The cavernous production of Mr. Sweatshirt houses serpents, suicidal thoughts and “fishy niggas,” all of them swirling around Earl’s Xanax-addled brain. “Lately I’ve panicking a lot” he spits as the decaying beat wades deeper into the black. Forget industrial or experimental hip-hop, this is abyssal hip-hop.