The Best 50 Songs of 2015 (Part Two)
2015 was a tremendous year for new music. Everyone from burgeoning indie-folk darlings to longtime scene stalwarts turned in albums that not only delivered in terms of musical scope, but also restlessly examined the state of the world today. On the other end of the coin, when an artist turned in a great song that was also concise and relatable, it felt sweet and refreshing – like coming up for air. Together, the music we listened to most this year represents both the turbulence of the times and the fact that we often looked to our musicians as often for a thesis as we did for solace. (If you wanted to give aliens a sense of what the year 2015 was like in America, a list of the 50 best songs would do just fine.)
Below, we’ve compiled the second half (here's the first) of our favorite 50 songs of this year — songs that taught us something new, spoke to us about ourselves and gave us a little rest from the from the instability and confusion that ruled the day.
"[Men] don’t have any self-control and are pathetic, basically," says Tame Impala's Kevin Parker. That alone makes "'Cause I'm a Man" one of the sultriest sarcastic rants we've ever heard.
There's no shortage of sharp and self-reflective material on Kacey Musgraves' much-hyped Pageant Material, but we can't get enough of "High Time" — a swooning, countrypolitan ditty about getting back to the basics and getting to know yourself.
I Love You Honeybear (as we're sure you've heard) is Father John Misty's intoxicated ode to newfound love. Nowhere does that sentiment gel with as much perfectly schmaltzy drama as on the title track, complete with soaring strings and a bombastic chorus.
In an interview, Torres (aka songwriter Mackenzie Scott) said she'd decided she would commit to channeling the hate she was feeling into her songwriting on Sprinter. "Strange Hellos" is so naked in its hate, so raw, that it almost feels inappropriate to listen to it. But for anyone who's been racked by feelings of betrayal, it's also unspeakably satisfying.
It's a foggy sonic expedition enclosing a zen poem about going for a walk and encountering half a pumpkin washed up on the rocks. In other words, it's classic Phil Elverum and one of our favorite distinct musical moments of 2015.
Denver has exported some fine beards to the rest of us in the last few years, and this year's beard comes with a hell of a voice. On "S.O.B.," Nathaniel Rateliff (satisfyingly) yells, "Son of a bitch!" before chasing it with: "If I can't get clean / I'm gonna drink my life away." The scope of his big-ass voice covers both the thrill of getting plastered and the sad realities at the bottom of the bottle.
Sound and Color took Alabama Shakes to a lot of new places musically, but "Don't Wanna Fight" reminded us that listening to Brittany Howard tear it up over a dusty guitar lick is one of life's sublime joys. (Also, there's something about the way she chokes out the words "I'm going to work myself to death" that sounds like she's threatening to break her right out of the confines of the song and shake you by the shoulders.)
The most personal song on an album that merged deep reflection with a newfound concision (and more of Animal Collective's Noah Lennox's pop chops than we're accustomed to hearing in one place), "Tropic of Cancer" has Lennox crooning over a sample of Tchaikovsky's "Pas De Deux" about his father's cancer. "Sick has to eat well too," he sings, almost reassuringly.
Venezuelan producer Alejandro Ghersi (also known as Arca) helped Björk add some of the more slippery textures to her 2015 album Vulnicura. But his own debut Mutant was an entity itself worthy of admiration. Its full of suites like "Vanity" with soft, yet mechanized swatches of hyper-processed melody sound like the lingering remnants of music found on the dance floor from the night before.
The sheer intensity of Adele's vocal delivery could turn a trip to the grocery store into an emotional odyssey, so it's worth noting that "Hello" has the most powerful, consuming hook of any song from any genre we heard this year. And even though Adele could make you weep singing about whether to pick Granny Smith or golden delicious apples, "Hello" is a tidy reflection on the ways the passage of time can warp our emotions with increasing speed.
"Let It Happen" is one of those things we didn't realize we needed until we got it. It's an eight-minute funk-prog adventure that constitutes Tame Impala's best work yet, realizing Kevin Parker's potential not only as an accomplished studio rat, but also as one of the most fun, most ambitious artists out there.
Grimes stepped off the cliff into full-on pop music this year with surprisingly fulfilling results: "Realiti" is her most fully realized pop song. It's a neon maze not unlike how you'd imagine the inner passages of her own mind.
One of the most surprising things about I Love You Honeybear is its more sincere moments — surprising largely because of the piercing sarcasm of its first single, "Bored in the USA," a piano ballad worthy of Elton John about existential discontentment in the lap of luxury, featuring exhortations like "Save me, President Jesus!"
"Strange Faces" is an addictive country shuffle a la Willie Nelson with a weird side. Yes, Romano is lost and confused. But, um, why does he want to touch so many people's faces again? Romano is an artist truly pushing the alt-country genre outside its rootsy boundaries, and "Strange Faces" is his strongest song yet.
Tributes to Songs:Ohia and Magnolia Electric Company singer-songwriter Jason Molina have been trickling in continuously since his death in 2013, but none of them have the soot and the sorrow of Molina's original recordings like Glen Hansard's aching take on "Being in Love."
They really don't make songwriters like this anymore, so thank God for Courtney Barnett. The easiest compass point is Dylan. But the way Barnett knits together snatches of dialogue and pithy observations are never more poignant than on "Depression" (her melancholy song about moving out to the 'burbs) that also recalls Paul Simon, John Prine, Joni Mitchell, Gil Scott-Heron and scores of other great 20th century voices who had as much to say about themselves as they did about the world around them.
Why did we love Tobias Jesso, Jr. so much in 2015? Maybe because in the midst of all the chaos, it was nice to partake in simple acts of piano-pop catharsis alongside this young songwriting master. "Without Out" is liable to go down as one of the great breezy-yet-sorrowful ballads of the last decade.
Viet Cong were on a mission to send a chill through your brittle bones in 2015 and, on "Continental Shelf," they laid it all out on the table. It's got Peter Murphy-style gothicism, guitar lines as sharp and cold as ice picks and apocalyptic imagery about ice on the horizon and the skyline folding in.
"Gosh" is a downright beautiful electronic composition, beautiful chiefly in its minimalism and the way it builds from a couple of elemental deep-bass-and-beats tracks to total transcendence. It's a song that launches Jamie xx of the xx into a category of masters like Four Tet and Aphex Twin who make worlds of sound from limited materials.
A long rant about shutting yourself away from life in the big city is one thing. But a rant that's deftly backed by Springsteen-indebted blues-rock grandiosity — sometimes loping, sometimes sprinting, always over wailing sax? Well, that's one of rock's sharpest, angriest and most ambitious bands doing what they do best.
The best rock melody of the year goes to Speedy Ortiz for this woozy live wire, with a lyric ("I'm not bossy, I'm the boss") and guitar sparks to match.
"Maybe he will come out of this / Maybe he won't," Björk repeats with slight variations for the duration of this song – a journey to the end of words across doubt, confusion, self-assurance and self-examination while strings heave like deep breaths and the beat ping-pongs like a restless mind.
"Pretty Pimpin'" is a rumbling, lethargic rock song phasing in and out of lucidity, at once cool and confused, an anthem for anyone who never felt comfortable with anthems. In fact, no song we've heard this year seems so comfortable with such a disoriented sense of self; as Vile notices his dissociated body blocking the sink, he's bewildered, but he also decides he looks "pretty pimpin'."
Kendrick Lamar's approach with To Pimp a Butterfly seemed to have one motivating principle: Just keep writing. On "Alright," he tears through the perils of money and fame, his own feelings of indebtedness and the way that all the typically struggles of "making it" are compounded by the feeling that institutions (like the police) have it out for him. Still, with plenty of menace but with nothing approaching doubt, Lamar assures us that things will be alright. At least, they will be for him, after he's able to exorcise every last demon. "My rights, my wrongs," he raps. "I write till I'm right with God."
In a year when self-examination was the norm, Sufjan Stevens earnestly dissected his feelings about the loss of his mother, combining (as he does so perfectly on "Should Have Known Better") understated but utterly symphonic melodies with three-pronged biblical-geographical-personal allusions, snapshots of his childhood and blunt evaluations of his own emotions.