The Top 42 Songs of 2015
Each year I try to rank my choices for the year’s best song. Sometimes I do it. Sometimes I don’t. This year I did, and I did 42, with write-ups.
2015 was not a great year in music. We had few elite albums — “To Pimp a Butterfly” by Kendrick Lamar and “Currents” by Tame Impala. Beyond that we had a couple really good albums, then a bunch of random things that percolated.
We’re ending a period of musical transition, one where some of the best songs are actually some of the most popular songs. As you’ll see, many of the songs listed here were hits of some sort, including quite a few No. 1 songs. That’s pretty crazy — normally the best songs are way under the radar, with just a few pop hits sprinkled in. What this says is in 2015, the internet and digital life have completely taken over. Good music is easier to find than ever before. But it also means that good music becomes mainstream, which then becomes diluted. What does that mean? By like two or three years from now, the best music will sound completely different and completely underground.
Basically, 2015 was a little like 1989, when a whole lot of genres were angling for the charts creating an entire batch of stars.
For the Top 42 I included only popular genres (pop, hip-hop, dance, rock, R&B, Americana, country) because I didn’t listen to everything. Also, I didn’t listen to everything, so this isn’t definitive. But hey, what is?
42. Dime Store Cowgirl — Kacey Musgraves
Usually the “this is where I’m from” country song is more rousing and shameless, but Kacey Musgraves’ “Dime Store Cowgirl” is an understated, sweet track off her 2015 album “Pageant Material.” It’s nothing new or revolutionary, just sweet slide and banjo picking and Musgraves’ smooth but tangy vocal.
41. Before the World Was Big — Girlpool
Part school singalong, part low-fi garage mini-masterpiece, “Before the World Was Big,” the title track from Girlpool’s 2015 release, is both playful and anthemic. Everyone can relate to the childhood simplicity evoked in the song; sometimes simpler is better.
40. Sorry — Justin Bieber
The kid still has a lot of growing up to do (“cause I’m missing more than just your body”) but damn if “Sorry” isn’t an irresistible song. Maybe it’s that fresh little Latin horn punctuating the chorus or the ghostly and well-produced “oohs” sprinkled throughout the cool house beat. Not sure. Jury’s still out on Bieber long-term, but “Purpose” has good beats, and “Sorry” is fun.
39. Bad Blood — Ryan Adams
Taylor Swift’s “1989” has a couple songs we’ll remember for quite a while — “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space,” “Style,” “Out of the Woods.” “Bad Blood” was a big hit in itself, but it took Ryan Adams to give it the right environment in which to thrive.
Swift’s original was fine, but its production (sort of the “Mickey” style) didn’t offer the emotional weight necessary. Adams’ Americana treatment works because it basically allows the track to breathe. And Adams’ weathered voice actually makes you feel like there might be some bad blood — despite the chiming guitar work. Of all of Adams’ covers of Swift, this one resonates and elevates.
38. Sister of Pearl — Baio
I’m a sucker for Vampire Weekend. “Sister of Pearl” was the hot track from Baio, who is Chris Baio of Vampire Weekend. It has the same harpsichord flavor as his full-time band, the same cooing harmonies as his full-time band, and the same defiant tone. Some description said Bryan Ferry was in there, too. I get it. I get all of it. Fun and danceable stuff.
37. I Serve the Base — Future
The biggest and deepest beat of 2015 is the definitive Future song, the true portrait of a misunderstood talent who doesn’t need your love. Sounds a little like an old-school Sega video game soundtrack, which I’d assume was purposeful. “”Full of so much chronic need a detox” is a dope line.
36. Huarache Lights — Hot Chip
At some point technological convenience will move on, leaving you with nothing but a human shell that needs a soul. That’s what’s going on inside and outside of “Huarache Lights” from Hot Chip. It’s a group confident in its growth, exemplified by its whirlwind cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” Nothing’s getting in the way.
35. Fine — Kacey Musgraves
Few opening lines get better than “I pick those tomatoes we grew off the vine / They look out the window just killing time.” Kacey Musgraves’ “Fine” is a superb heartbreak track, slow, plodding and sweetly sad. She has a gift for songwriting that’s sorely needed today … and not just in country music.
34. Coffee — Miguel
A great song that probably could be a little better. “coffee” is very good. A very good hook. A very good concept. A very good sound. It’s just lacking the extra inch. Still one of the best, a deep dream slipping through in the earliest part of the dawn. Miguel keeps getting better.
33. Traveller — Chris Stapleton
One of the best pound-for-pound songs in 2015 was an old slide guitar, a tight backing band and a growling vocal courtesy Chris Stapleton, the longtime Nashville musician who finally hit the spotlight. About losing his father and attempting to move on from the pain, “Traveller” showcases a beautiful sentiment wrapped in a great little country song. It was great to hear it in 2015.
32. Pedestrian at Best — Courtney Barnett
“I’m a fake, I’m a phony, I’m awake, I’m homely, I’m a Scorpio” is in the running for the best lyric in music in 2015. This is “Subterranean Homesick Blues” for the introverted, a garage rock poem to anyone who’s attempting to define anyone else.
31. Eventually — Tame Impala
One of the more accessible tracks from “Currents,” “Eventually” dissects the end of a relationship — really any kind — with a pop hook (“But I know that I’ll be happier, and I know you will too / Eventually / Ah”) It’s the core track from “Currents,” a necessity, and one of the better breakup tracks in the canon.
30. California Nights — Best Coast
God this thing sounds like California nights. Hard and brutal but swooning and sweeping. Could’ve been written in the mid 1990s, for all we know.
29. The Hills — The Weeknd
No artist was more 2015 than the Weeknd — egotistical, self-absorbed, tired, distressed, freeform, creative, in the present without a care about tomorrow. “The Hills” is his most Weeknd song. So “The Hills” is the Song of 2015. Not the best song, not by any stretch, but it’s the Song of the year. It’ll be way outdated in 15 years. It couldn’t have been made 15 years ago. But here it is, a lazy drug haze that honestly couldn’t have taken a lot of work to do, and yet it’s a superb combination of energies.
28. Sound & Color — Alabama Shakes
This isn’t the screaming barnburner you’d expect. Not the glass-breaking, wall-shattering bluesy rave you’d think. The title track of Alabama Shakes’ “Sound & Color” is a fully realized soundscape of vocal and percussive prowess. With a gorgeous little hook.
27. Here — Alessia Cara
So much of 2015 was about the Millennial who doesn’t care about anything but him or herself and the drugs he or she is taking, the people he or she is sleeping with, and the calm of his or her space (thanks Drake, but really thanks Kanye West). “Here” is right at the top of this pretty tired genre, meaning it’s a good song at the end of an era. A little Alicia Keys, a little Mary J Blige, a little Lorde, one supposes.
26. Run Away With Me — Carly Rae Jepsen
Blinding synth zips by. Drums patter forward. Cheerleader “hey” moments. And Carly Rae swoons a perfect pop vocal. She’s somewhere between Katy and Robyn and she’ll find her true place pretty soon.
25. Fourth of July — Sufjan Stevens
Negotiating the loss of his mother, someone who left him early in his life, Sufjan Stevens lays bare the deeply sensitive relationship between them in “Fourth of July.” Sparse and haunting, it pulls from very distinct memory while grounding the listener in the hospital, right there with Sufjan, as mother Carrie dies.
Very few artists have tackled such deeply personal content for an entire album. Stevens, a true luminary in modern Western music, is a fitting catalyst for such an emotional substance. “Fourth of July” is the center of his “Carrie & Lowell,” that substance, one of the finest collections of music in 2015.
24. Hollywood Dreams — Miguel
The guitar hook in the chorus is everything in this song. Miguel’s proselytizing from on high about the thrills and ills of boozy, hazy Hollywood, is just a cherry.
23. Fool For Love — Lord Huron
Something told me to stick by this group for 2015, and “Strange Tails,” Lord Huron’s reflective folk-rock album, justified that intuition. “Fool For Love,” the radio track, is as jumpy and poppy as any folk-rock song going, a sure summer banger.
22. King Kunta — Kendrick Lamar
So Drake once did “Started From the Bottom.” Yeah Drake, sure.
Under a haze of funk, “King Kunta” puts Kendrick’s ascension into perspective — rapper, black man, historical figure. All in the “belly of the beast.” It bounces as much as Kendrick’s lines rip through fantastically. Kendrick Lamar is the star we need today; hopefully he continues to balance his place with the same visionary perspective.
21. Flesh — Miguel
Miguel’s “Wildheart” didn’t produce the best song of 2015. It did produce a few mini stunners, like “Flesh,” which crawls in sweat, crawls from tub to door, crawls from door to bed. It has the same hazy effect as some of 2015’s most iconic songs, but does it without the obvious winks and overdone confessions. Or, “Flesh” is kind of what the Dream would’ve done if the Dream was, you know, nuanced.
20. Copper Canteen — James McMurtry
A couple, married for decades, sees their faded hopes, their denied promises, their ills and jokes and dead failures. But, through the gorgeous development of strings in “Copper Canteen,” they see themselves still in love. And they still dance on the floor of the place they still love. Beautiful, rich storytelling.
19. Flesh Without Blood — Grimes
Sometimes you can’t simply describe what a song is about, you just sit there and bob your head and move your shoulders and start dancing. And you’re 17 again. And everything is thrilling once again. That’s “Flesh Without Blood.” And that’s Grimes, who seems to be devoted to taking us back to our teenage thrills.
18. Hotline Bling — Drake
The video is meme city, but the song actually has as many memes. Or you might call them hooks, but we’re in 2015, remember. Drake is a genius of turning very little into very much, and “Hotline Bling” may be his best example. The sparse Barbados beat courtesy of Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together” (which is a better song, by the way) is the perfect accompaniment. It says very little (like a lot of 2015) but is very delicious.
17. Clearest Blue — CHVRCHES
“Every Open Eye” is CHVRCHES’ true alarm bell to indie pop-rock. The trio has arrived. “Clearest Blue” points to one of the band’s biggest influences, Depeche Mode, with a carbon copy of “Just Can’t Get Enough.” The song reminds us that despite the electronic bells and whistles, and despite the dopey fanboys who sadly clamor to define Lauren Mayberry, CHVRCHES is all about anger and power.
16. Norf Norf — Vince Staples
“I ain’t never run from nothing but the police.” If that’s all Staples ever said in his debut “Summertime ‘06,” we’d totally understand. Over an expansive, museum-sized beat with echo, motor and steel, Staples lays out his story about living the street life. No holds barred, no glamorization, just the facts.
15. Bored in the USA — Father John Misty
With a tremor of a vocal that recalls Elton John at his most confrontational, Father John Misty’s “Bored in the USA” skewers the knife into the now-hilarious “American Dream.” “They gave me a useless education (which he twists upward) / Sub-prime loan / Craftsman home / Keep my prescriptions filled / And now I can’t get off / But I can kind of deal / OH! with being! / bored in the USA.” A laugh track fills the space.
It’s one of the best moments of music in 2015, if not the best.
14. The Less I Know the Better — Tame Impala
Talk about an earworm. “The Less I Know the Better” has an instantly delicious fuzz bass lick, leading to a lightly funky groove about telling a lady to get away from him and come home to papa. It’s the same theme done in a number of songs, like, you know, “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” by the Backstreet Boys. But you can’t deny the groove, made for Apple commercials, apparently.
13. On the Regular — Shamir
The first impression is “What is this?” Then it’s “What’s the gender here?” Then it’s “What’s he saying?” Then it’s “How deep is this freaking production?” Every question here matters to one of the best tracks of 2015, a throwback that points completely ahead.
The 21-year-old’s personal statement stops you cold, has you dancing and makes you think. All at once. His countertenor is a sharp instrument that can bend, fold and twist like a guitar chord, and once you accept that — which you must — you then and only then can start unpacking “On the Regular” as a jeremiad delivered by a young man in control of his talent. Then you can get to the cowbell and synth.
12. California — Grimes
“California” is so refreshing. So, so, so refreshing. The backstory is, apparently, “California” is the Canadian dance-pop lady prince’s dig at listeners, critics, and basically anyone who attempts to package her as one thing or another based on a very short sample (a song or 10). But it sounds open and buoyant, and funny enough, feels like a track worthy of having “California” in the title (songs like that have to be a certain way, don’t they?).
In short, “California” is a song that sounds like nothing, but says plenty about people who think she says nothing. Or something. Grimes is savvy. She’s damn good.
11. ’Cause I’m a Man — Tame Impala
The first sniff of music from “Currents” in 2015 was this widescreen, sexy track about standing up and telling a girl that “I’m a man.” Well, sort of. It’s actually a very personal dissection of Kevin Parker’s psyche, like many male psyches, which is usually pretty messed up and in need of constant assessment. But it’s so sexy!
10. Blood on the Money — Future
There’s a whole subgenre of hip-hop devoted to drug dealing, but Future’s “Blood on the Money” is one of the few tracks involved with a jazzy atmosphere over a deep beat with a choir of angels wailing far back in the distance. It’s one of the few drug dealing songs where you can feel the frustrated pain and truth of the primary actor. That’s what Future needs to stick to from hereon.
9. Depreston — Courtney Barnett
Few writers have burst onto the scene with such vigor as Courtney Barnett, whose “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” topped many year-end charts in 2015. “Depreston” is a fine, melancholy example of her ability to write such a beautiful and expansive world with such little space. A couple looks over a house to purchase, throwing around comments about metal ceilings and storage space. But then it turns into a mediation over its former owner with an interesting history. Then the hammer: “If you’ve got a spare half a million, you could knock it down and start rebuildin’.” Damned young people.
8. The Blacker the Berry — Kendrick Lamar
“The Blacker the Berry” is what people might call dark or disturbed. But it’s just another portion of reality for Kendrick Lamar in his year-best “To Pimp a Butterfly.” It’s the reality of black Americans killing other black Americans in the face of white America killing black Americans. “Hypocrite” is the key word in the song, of course, as Kendrick details all the ways in which he can’t think of himself as a clean freedom fighter.
“The Blacker the Berry” hits right away. It demands multiple listens. It’s necessary, especially in 2015, but especially all the time. It’s as important as a chapter in a history book. Makes sense: “To Pimp a Butterfly” is a history book on its own.
7. Can’t Feel My Face — The Weeknd
As you’ve seen, many of the year’s best songs were actually some of the year’s biggest songs. We’ve been trending this way for a few years now. The internet era has finally completely saturated our mainstream pulse. And young people have finally taken the charts. So here we are, at a time we haven’t quite seen since maybe 1982, when the music of the youth was the best music everyone heard.
“Can’t Feel My Face” is the realization of this era. The Weeknd doesn’t happen unless evolution leads us here. And “Can’t Feel My Face,” a drug song and love song built as an R&B bleeder with hip-hop elements and dance elements completely fresh for 2015 and 2015 alone, is maybe the biggest song of the year. It’s everything all in one, wrapped up in a perfect pop song ready for all to consume. Nobody got sick of it in 2015. Nobody will get sick of it 15 years from now. It’s that good.
6. Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins) — Father John Misty
If we go our lives without acknowledging Josh Tillman as one of our greatest generational songwriters, we’ll have fallen hard with lies. “Chateau Lobby #4” has just a few knock-down beautiful lines (“Dating for twenty years just feels pretty civilian,” “You take my last name,” “You left a note in your perfect script: ‘Stay as long as you want’ / I haven’t left your bed since,” and of course, “What are you doing with your whole life? How about forever?”)
With that is some mariachi, and escalating drama, creating one of the finest love songs of recent memory. God, thank you for Josh Tillman.
5. i — Kendrick Lamar
It’s an important song, putting self-empowerment in the forefront despite the ugliness of the world because, hell, we’re here and we’re here now. Love’s gotta rule (though the song doesn’t forget the institutional racism and bigotry spread thick in America and worldwide).
The Isley Brothers sample is perfect. The loose live-performance feel is perfect. The background vocals are perfect. A perfect song.
4. Let It Happen — Tame Impala
I haven’t listened to any song more in 2015 than “Let It Happen.” The lead of Tame Impala’s “Currents,” it’s sonically incredible, spacious, pounding, pulsing, danceable, thinkable and relentlessly engaging.
About learning to let the world come to you, “Let It Happen” opens an album that investigates a number of emotional struggles. Kevin Parker — the force behind Tame Impala — finds himself questioning and answering quite a few things about himself and humans in general throughout the album, but it’s in “Let It Happen” that the whole arrangement is set. And in a highly infectious journey of nearly eight minutes that never feels that long.
No album quite struck me like “Currents” since “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” which is actually a beautiful companion piece, both sonically and thematically. “Let It Happen” is to the former what “My Girls” is to the latter: a pronouncement of personal magnitude presented as a universal anthem. It’s a huge track, one of the finest of the year without a doubt.
3. Hello — Adele
Sometimes you just know a song is destined for the top of the charts, to blow past any and all question, to sit pretty for a while. And so we have “Hello.” We’re now at Peak Adele, a confident and strong and charismatic woman who isn’t a diva, isn’t a torch singer, isn’t a lounge cat, and certainly doesn’t have to change herself from album to album, because her albums show her changes. Adele is beyond chart veterans Taylor, Katy and Gaga, beyond near newcomers Ariana and Ellie. She’s more like Madonna, but she’s not at all like Madonna. Madonna forced the issue. Adele lives and breathes in the evolution.
“Hello” is Adele’s best song. It used to be “Chasing Pavements,” and that song was about teenage uncertainty and frustration (better than anything Taylor could ever attempt). This one is about affirmation, especially in that little run at the end of the final time she sings “hello from the outside.” Nobody is in more command of her songcraft than Adele, and the millions who gobbled it up just wanted to get a closer to that kind of command at the end of a turbulent 2015.
2. Want to Want Me — Jason Derulo
It’s so great that Jason Derulo performed the best mainstream pop song of 2015, because the dude deserves it. More than anyone. He’s a capable singer. He’s a fine dancer. He’s enjoyable on “So You Think You Can Dance.” He seems like a really good guy, too, unlike the disgusting doppelganger of his in Chris Brown.
“Want to Want Me” is the kind of song Michael Jackson released as the fourth single of an album. For Derulo it’s a lead, and it’s a catchy, sprite, infectious jam clocking in at a succinct 3:27. Its production dates it maybe a year or two, as 2015’s biggest hits were more drug-infested crawls than bright dance tracks. But whatever — this is a really good song.
1. Alright — Kendrick Lamar
Nothing deserves more attention right now than the systemic American racism that is history yesterday and today. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” pushes it right up front, but not in the demanding, forceful way of “The Blacker the Berry.” “Alright” is presented as a breezy, jazzy reading, the kind of reading “white” Americans might consider palatable. Even Pharrell is on the hook, you know, the guy who did “Happy.” So don’t worry, right? “We gon’ be alright!”
The genius of Kendrick, and the reality of America 2015 — and before and after — are in the verses. “What you want, a house or a car, 40 acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar?” Can a black American have the “American Dream,” or is the “Dream” just a white system not designed for black Americans, because hell, there’s the 40 acres and a mule, and there’s the piano and guitar, because the only way a black can make it in the eyes of the white American is by being an entertainer.
“Alright” does the same thing thousands of other good rock ’n’ roll songs have done — say something pessimistic in the face of an optimistic color palette. The “Alright” hook became a chant upon its release. It became President Barack Obama’s favorite song of the year. It became the hope of a people. But it’s really another piece of a painful, unfair, never-ending history of inequality.
It’s an incredible song, the best of 2015.