Favorite Songs of 2015
Usually around this time of year I try to determine what I think was the best song and album of the past year. But this year, for me, both competitions were 100% over by mid-March:
So instead, I’ll just run through ten (well, eleven) songs that I really liked from 2015. In no particular order:
Wesley’s Theory Kendrick Lamar
I could have put many tracks from Kendrick on this list, but I’ll limit myself to one that I think sort of flew under the radar. Tracks from To Pimp A Butterfly like “King Kunta,” “Alright,” “For Free?” and “The Blacker The Berry” get a lot of love, but I think “Wesley’s Theory” is up there as one of the best. The production on this track is incredible: it’s got jazz, funk, hip hop influences, prog rock-esque organs, and the pace is so rapid that it keeps you guessing for the entire song. It also serves as the introduction to To Pimp A Butterfly, and does so with bravado, showcasing its eclecticism while still being a hard-hitting Kendrick track.
Joe Alabama Shakes
Alabama Shakes’ sophomore album Sound & Color has rightfully garnered a lot of year-end attention (including an Album of the Year nomination at the Grammys), but the best song released by Brittany Howard & co. this year might not have been on that record. There is no studio recording of “Joe” — its only official release is a live version from ACL. “Joe” is raw emotion; I can’t imagine a studio version would convey this feeling more than the live version does. Brittany Howard can rip off incredible guitar riffs and solos, but sometimes simplicity is just perfect.
Past Life Tame Impala
“Let It Happen” was the best song of the year in my view, and the most ridiculous song of the year comes from the same album. “Past Life” is absurd at first listen: a comically low-pitched vocal about going to the dry cleaners, plus a drop of jarring synths. But eventually you realize that the title “Past Life” and the witness protection program voice wasn’t a coincidence. All this in addition to the classic Tame Impala flanging and phasing make this a bizarre favorite of mine.
American Money BØRNS
I really like BØRNS’s debut album, Dopamine. You might know the song “Electric Love,” which is his most popular single so far. My favorite is actually the song “The Emotion,” which sounds like a cousin of “The Funeral” by Band of Horses. But “American Money” is the most interesting song to talk about. It has a sort of young defiance about it, reminiscent of Lorde, who actually tweeted about the song. I’m not sure if the song actually has any deeper meaning beyond a girl having green eyes, but the production certainly makes it feel like it does. Either way, it’s an interesting track that makes me feel like BØRNS has a bright future ahead of him.
The Globalist Muse
I have long argued that Muse’s various critical shortcomings can be buoyed by the fact that no one else attempts to write music like what they produce. And “The Globalist” is a prime example of Muse’s songwriting being on a different level from everyone else. This song clocks in at 10:08, and has three sections: a subdued orchestral beginning, a heavy metal breakdown, and a piano outro. Sure, it’s not perfect — the first part could certainly be shorter; the heavy part could be longer — but the scale of “The Globalist” is something rarely seen in music nowadays.
I Gave It All Aquilo
Aquilo is notable for writing very subdued, downbeat songs while also sounding very 2015. The electronic elements of this song are atypical for a sad piano ballad, but they are typical of music nowadays. Aquilo bridges the two quite nicely without compromising the emotion of the song. Certainly an achievement to sound modern in a song that at its core is very different from what’s popular nowadays.
Ship to Wreck Florence + the Machine
All I can say is I’m thankful Florence didn’t listen to her producer Markus Dravs when he told her she wasn’t allowed to write any more songs about water. “Ship to Wreck” might not have the rhythm of “Dog Days Are Over” or the grandeur of “Shake It Out,” but it is unmistakably Florence. Part of the song’s appeal is that it is rather straightforward and fun without compromising any of its Florence-ness. A very solid addition to the band’s already stellar repertoire.
Clearest Blue CHVRCHES
Every Open Eye is a strong album from start to finish, and one of the few I found myself listening to multiple times this year. “Clearest Blue” is probably my favorite on the album: it’s not the most complicated, and it’s not “The Mother We Share,” but it’s the most fun song on a synthpop record. The song is really a buildup to one drop, but if you’ve got a drop that works as well as this one, you don’t really need much else. The whole album is excellent, and “Clearest Blue” is the centerpiece.
Water Ra Ra Riot & Rostam
Yet another example of excellent production by Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij. It would have been easy to add more instrumentation to this, but it already has enough. The vocal and melody is so strong here that it doesn’t need much behind it to work. It’s just a well-produced, great song.
Elevator Operator & Pedestrian At Best Courtney Barnett
Nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammys, Barnett is a very unique voice in 2015. Her blasé vocal style and indie rock songs aren’t supposed to be the path to success in the age of crystalline female vocals and quantized production. Her songs force you to pay attention to her lyrics, and they don’t disappoint. “Elevator Operator” tells the very specific story of a 20 year old named Oliver Paul quitting his job in downtown Melbourne and then going to admire the view from atop the Nicholas Building only to be confronted by an older woman who thinks he’s there to commit suicide. It’s quite a detailed story to describe in less than four minutes.
“Pedestrian At Best” takes aim at the music industry and Barnett’s own rapid rise to fame with lines such as “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you / Tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you” and the rather blunt “I have no idea how I even got here.” Ironically “Pedestrian At Best” has become her most popular song. It’ll be very intriguing to see what happens to Courtney Barnett from here, and how she eventually tries to follow up her excellent debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. An appropriate ending to a look back at 2015 as we now get excited about what’s to come in 2016.
(There are definitely critically acclaimed things that I haven’t listened to — Sufjan Stevens, Grimes, etc. — so I’m fully aware I could be missing out. I’ll get to them eventually…)
Other Songs I Liked
Sound & Color (entire album) Alabama Shakes
Live, Vol. Four (entire album) The Avett Brothers
Let It All Go Birdy & RHODES
Dopamine (entire album) BØRNS
Murder in the City Brandi Carlisle
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (entire album) Courtney Barnett
Fingers Crossed COIN
Magnets Disclosure, feat. Lorde
Sunday Candy Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment
Love Me Like You Do Ellie Goulding
What Kind of Man Florence + the Machine
I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) Jamie xx, feat. Young Thug & Popcaan
Everyday People Jon Batiste & Stay Human, feat. Mavis Staples, et al. (from the Late Show premiere)
To Pimp A Butterfly (entire album) Kendrick Lamar
String Quartet Live! (entire album) Kishi Bashi
Get Loose Lil Jon
Downtown Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, feat. Eric Nally, et al.
Daffodils Mark Ronson, feat. Kevin Parker
The Wolf Mumford & Sons
The Handler Muse
Crystals Of Monsters & Men
Jealousy Robert DeLong
Bird Set Free Sia
Change Is Everything Son Lux
Currents (entire album) Tame Impala
How Could You Babe Tobias Jesso, Jr.
Hold Vera Blue