We are back after another year of music, film and pop culture! So many publications have decided to jump ahead and release everything they could as soon as December hit. I guess they didn’t remember that they have twice been tricked by these urges (Beyoncé and D’Angelo both had everyone rewriting their lists right away the last two years). Nonetheless, I am still releasing my lists a week at a time, but I have been bursting to share the best of the best. I have known my favorite song, album, performance and film from nearly the very second I have experienced these, and we have been fortunate enough to have experienced some terrific art this year. I can finally now spill the beans.
Let’s start off with the songs of the year. We have had our asses kicked by fearless female performers, and that will definitely be reflected on this list. With over ten songs by solo women performers, it feels like the girl rock of the 90’s is back, and that is spectacular news! We also see some dark poetry (which we will revisit in greater detail with my albums list), the usual love for nostalgia we’ve faced a lot lately, and artists with niches fully utilizing what makes them great with some of their best work to date (this includes veteran performers too). Let’s get started already. Here are my top 25 songs of 2015!
25. You Will Not Take my Heart Alive-Joanna Newsom [October 23]
Harpist extraordinaire Joanna Newsom’s latest album Divers is her most accessible release yet, but that does not limit the amount of talent placed behind it. Case in point is the whimsical ballad You Will Not Take my Heart Alive. Newsom has successfully learned to incorporate her fluttering harp arpeggios deeply into folk pop writings and have them contained enough to work. She tells a story of self determination through her usual complicated lyricism, but when she mentions the title of the track, the song slows down for her. It’s a punctuated moment that hits hard, and we’re not used to seeing Newsom quite this upfront before. It’s a vulnerable request that feels like the world breaks down around you when she speaks these words. Are these feelings of guilt? Remorse? Whatever are, Newsom’s words are still razor sharp even with her sweet voice and youthful howls. Divers was a stunning return for her, and this song is evidence that she clearly knew what she was doing with that album’s tone.
Start this song off, and it’s far from anything that resembles Call Me Maybe. Like that song or not, it’s about the growth a pop artist can have, and Carley Rae Jepsen’s is admirable enough. It’s good to see her album Emotion doing so well on so many end of year lists, even though it didn’t sit as well with me. It is just nice to see someone burst out of being labeled a one hit wonder with such confidence. I did have one trinket from the gift shop, and it’s the throbbing digital dance hit LA Hallucinations. Its bass quivers as soon as it starts, but it bolsters on with much more triumph as it continues. It’s a straight up pop song that simply cannot be ignored, and while it is a by-the-numbers hit, it connects the dots with such a love for the genre. This album was Jepsen’s grip on her youth during the 80’s, and she’s cleverly made it still not sound dated by targeting the biggest radio hitters out there now: Arianna Grande, Sia and even Taylor Swift’s recent dive into the nostalgic abyss with 1989. It’s fun, relevant and undeniably memorable.
23. Wildest Dreams-Taylor Swift [August 30]
Taylor Swift has tried to win everyone over, even after she has made so much buzz about the people she has lost touch with. It was inevitable that she’d win most people who are into popular music over. For me, it was WIldest Dreams. Call it a Lana Del Rey homage or one of the biggest departures from her country pop roots if you must. To me, it is the most honest she’s been about an ex lover. There isn’t any attitude or need for fighting here. No sing-a-long chants about never being together again. No grande music videos with explosions. This is simply Swift longing after the very one she saw a future with. She does have hope that their time together haunts her ex, but that’s only because they haunt her too. She wills to share an experience just once more, even if it’s through damnation. It’s a triumphant break up song that is strong in its yearning for what once was.
Where on earth did this person come from? Even when her self titled release came out in early January, a lot of Natalie Prass’s attention didn’t arrive until much later. Well, her much talked about debut is for good reason. This sleeper hit is a refreshing baroque pop stunner, and it all begins with the professing opener My Baby Don’t Understand Me Anymore. It’s a little bit Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, Joanna Newsom and then some, but it’s personality is all Prass. The orchestration is strong and tightly knit even as it fleets away. In terms of the structure, you have a straight forward ballad that shifts into a march towards self fulfillment that has Prass followed by an army of woodwinds and brass instruments. You stroll into battle with a bit of a strut that wraps things up with umph. It’s a sterling introduction, and you don’t need a better song to get to know newcomer Natalie Prass within minutes.
The comeback of the year goes to Missy Elliott, who both returned as our nostalgia on stage and as a “new and coming artist” at the Super Bowl (Seriously? Missy Elliott is the reason why many of your favorite radio artists make the music they do). WTF came out of the blue and it made us say just that very acronym when we saw the jaw shattering music video (not a shock, but just a thankful welcome back to the queen of visual music). Visuals aside, WTF is a street crushing jam that is as old school as Missy likes it and current enough to squash the current competition. It is goofy and it takes itself very lightly, but it is still concerned enough to make an impact in the year as it appeared towards the tail end of it. Like most Missy tracks, the bass is gargantuan and the sounds are as awkward as they are simply perfect (those vocal samples are simply Missy). Pharrell’s verse, too, is silly and absolutely essential. In a year with a lot of introspective and personal hip hop, we needed Missy Elliott’s fun back in our lives. This time around, don’t you dare forget where they’re from.
Metal fusionists Deafheaven end of their most savage album (New Bermuda) yet with an unquestionably poppy outro. It’s unlike any song they have done until now. There aren’t blast beats, periods of rapid speed or downward spirals. Well, in terms of the latter, you do face a dark song lyrically, where George Clarke divulges suicidal thoughts. The narrator faces the other side and who may face him there: A beautiful yet fragile face of turmoil. Musically, GIfts For the Earth calls forth the teachings of other depressed landscape painters Robert Smith and Johnny Marr, as we have a skip-along beat merged with cheerful guitar strums. It is a dangerous journey but one you don’t feel you walk alone. It is a bittersweet confrontation with death similar to the end of The Seventh Seal. We know we will all face it, but we may as well partake in the dance of death to both warn others to live and to make the most of what may come on the other side. Talk about facing your fears!
Lana Del Rey has strived for this day for years. Honeymoon ended up gifting Rey the accolades she has dreamed of ever since she submitted herself to being a modern variation of the glamorized idols she adored. Her femme fatale’s fatality has come to life, and it’s because of her practice with dramatic cinema music. The Blackest Day is her most visual song yet, and you can almost smell the fields that pan beside your car as you drift down the lonely road. The sun is blistering in your eyes. There’s no one else to be found. It’s a great day and yet you wish it were over. The setting for The Blackest Day is set up so smoothly, that you swear there was a movie for this somewhere. “All I hear is Billie Holiday”, Rey croons, and you almost believe that you can hear one of her songs loom underneath the song’s cries. It’s borderline sensual but most parts overwhelmed, like any confused heart broken sufferer. We’ve waited for this follow up since Video Games, and it is a real winner. This song alone has made Lana Del Rey difficult to dismiss ever again: She’s finally creating the world she’s implored us to live in.
Almost any song on Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is a strong contender for a song of the year list (I mean, Boy’s Latin is purely wonderful weirdness), but the song with the largest staying power for me is Crosswords. It is one of the more innocent songs that doesn’t try to stick out too much with eccentricities the way some of the other songs might. There’s a minimal use of converging noise and oozing abstracts. We have a basic Brian Wilson universe being explored by Noah Lennox’s requests to “just breath”. Of course, many Animal Collective songs can be linked to the Beach Boys, but there’s something about Crosswords that truly surrounds it with good vibrations. Maybe it’s Lennox’s call and response via his own layered harmonies. It could be the tip-toing his singing does when he sneaks around life’s problems. Crosswords is basically a charming song, one of the many staples on Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper and a track that may leave you speechless.
Oh boy. It’s the song that hasn’t avoided any chance to be on the radio, has a trillion hits on line and everyone and their cat has mentioned it a plethora of times. There’s something a bit different about The Weeknd’s biggest hit to date and why it can surpass the two radio deaths a mainstream artist can face: 1) The “done-to-death” formula and 2) the “played-to-death” fate. Can’t Feel My Face grooves like the kind of songs that have emerged lately that have taken a page out of Nile Rodgers’ textbook (a lot of these have popped up after Get Lucky, eh?), but it doesn’t exclusively rely on these rules. The Weeknd himself is still using his voice as his strongest asset, even when he tones it down a bit during the chorus. The lyricism here is the most human The Weeknd gets on Beauty Behind the Madness, and these are themes any of us have experienced (without the kind of juvenile wordsplay The Weeknd is usually attached to). It’s a radio hit that works and can continue to work again and again. Can’t Feel My Face is The Weeknd sprinting with a secret recipe that will surely have many other artists chasing after him (once they are finally done chasing after Daft Punk).
One of Britpop’s biggest bands returned, and they came back with The Magic Whip: A straight up album that contains the catchiest song about overpopulation ever. Wait. What? There are Too Many of Us is serious in tone, but you are easily misled by that marching synth. By the time you realize the song is truly dismal lyrically, you are sucked in by the part Dave Rowntree kicks it into the next gear with a contagious beat. You’ll go down a bit of a psychedelic vortex, and maybe it’s Damon Albarn’s realization that we’ve seen this fate coming from many years ago. It also stays as stationary as possible, even though it leaps forwards in speed. You go a great distance without moving at all. Maybe it’s the reaction to those who speak up but do not participate with actions. What exactly does on do when there are too many people, though? Maybe the song is happy musically because it gave up on worrying about the unstoppable.
This song gets a mentioning just for its incredible promotional execution alone. It landed Adele album sales records that have not been matched since music pirating has kicked into full swing. It shoved every other artist out of the way the very second Adele greeted us to her new music. Its clever title, music video, theme and writing was a package that we have not seen in years. It generated as much power as Beyoncé dropping a visual album for free (and let’s be honest, that album is terrific). It became a pop culture totem for 2015 before many people even heard it for the first time. Back to the music, Hello is legitimately a good song. It’s possibly the strongest song Adele has achieved to date, and it’s because it honors the kind of difficult connection everyone has had to face. Maybe 25 didn’t quite match the ambitions of this song, sans a few key tracks (When We Were Young for instance), but if the album and this single helped bring back an interest in physical album sales, you can’t speak too negatively about that. “Hello? It’s me” was a great way to start the lead single of an awaited album, and it was a relief that Adele was back and better than ever within this one exercise in transcending vocal delivery.
Yes, Hotline Bling was the meme creating, year crushing, colour abusing and dance destructing single that dominated all of 2015. Yes, it is a big guilty pleasure of mine. But there is no way I am letting the fun from that onslaught of pop culture overshadow the best song Drake has made to date. In fact, I never thought I’d even be placing Drake on a list like this, so there’s that, too. But here we are, and we’re here to discuss Drake’s heart wrenching love letter to his mother and the city of Toronto. “You and the 6 raised me right, that shit saved my life” is enough of a statement simply from the way Drake says this line with years behind the words. Then you have the stories he tells about his youth: His search for innocence, his insecurities and his inabilities to deal with the fame that came after his want to not be bad. He willed to be tough, but not to let it ruin him. He credits his caregiver and his native city with making sure he always remembered what goodness is. This honesty and candidness trumps his fly swatting dance moves any day of the year.
13. Quicksand-Björk [January 20]
The final track on Björk’s recovery album Vulnicura, Quicksand is easily the greatest thing Björk has put together in over a decade. The string section harks back to her Play Dead days during her Debut era, the earthquake beats recall Homogenic and her distorted backing vocals resemble Vespertine. She has pulled all of her strengths from her years as one of the avant pop greats right when she needed to: At the end of her rope. As the conclusion of a chronicled separation, Quicksand finds inspiration through Björk’s roots, visions and pursuits. As the song beats forward, you march past depression with a weary smile. The song then caves in on itself, as the strings are reversed; You truly feel like the song dissipates like sand sinking. We imagine it is the titular quicksand, but it could easily be the sand of time leaking into the other half of the hour glass. Time will continue forever, and all shall pass. You just have to experience the flow of it first. Björk knows this, and she’ll lead us through hell if it means we’ll see a happier side of greater times ahead.
2015, you have been gracious. We have had two Beach House albums, and both are spectacular (I’m currently struggling to decide what I should do with them on my Top Albums list). That means we’ve been blessed with so many Beach House songs to pick from. I went with the mysterious The Traveller, a lo-fi dreamy soul search that has Victoria Legrand reaching for the upper echelons in the stars for hope. The keys are the most cheerful aspect of this cautious song, as they try to pull your face to make a smile. Everything else keeps to itself, including the subdued beat and the sliding guitar that pops in and out at its own greeting. The Bilinda Butcher vocal “woos” add a heightened sensation of bliss to this already surreal soundscape. It’s never easy picking out a single song amongst any Beach House album, never mind two, but The Traveller had me within seconds with its storytelling, atmosphere and empathy.
Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance was an attempt to capture Belle and Sebastian’s live charisma on album via disco-esque smaltz, but it simply didn’t work out too well. They’ve managed to dabble in upbeat pop before, but this album just didn’t have a sense of sincerity in doing so. The greatest song on the album, and the one with the most truth behind it, is Nobody’s Empire: A soaring cut that opened up the record almost too well. The song chronicles singer Stuart Murdoch’s chronic-fatigue syndrome that crippled him for years. He describes scenarios that overwhelmed him while describing the things that kept him going. He felt emotionally when he could barely feel mentally. Nobody’s Empire is a terrific way to be lifted up after such turmoil, and the music knows this. It trumpets into a climactic soaring of love in typical Belle and Sebastian fashion. This cut is a good enough reason for me to maybe give the album another go in the future. What could be bad after such a joyful song?
The most recent song on this list just could not be ignored. It’s not because it is an Animal Collective song. It’s because it’s a terrifically heartwarming song. Sure, this new album (named Painting With) is now heavily anticipated, especially with the mysteriously strange album “release” (it was played at Baltimore-Washington International Airport for hours straight over the speakers. Surely the arriving people felt like they entered the wrong country). Take that hype and the name attached to this single away, and what do you have? A hopping bass, soft percussion that allows the other elements to be the rhythm and a surge of painted notes dripping down the walls. Avey Tare and Panda Bear haven’t harmonized quite this well while singing different parts before, as their different lines compliment one another instead of fighting for the spotlight. It’s a loving track that is far more to the point than most Animal Collective songs. It still is a surf-rock throwback (to the point of sampling the manic laughter of Surfaris’ Wipe Out), but this is a new Animal Collective that simply want to have you sit in the room with them and not be taken on winding adventures for once.
In a year full of great female songs, Courtney Barnett has still aced many lists. She killed it at our very first Wayhome and has become a very loud newcomer that has had everyone’s attention since Pedestrian at Best is one of the many pieces of what makes Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit so good, but alone it is a 90’s grunge meltdown. It sounds like youthful PJ Harvey screaming at Hole to turn it up. “I’ll gladly disappoint you” is a promise Barnett makes in this sarcastic rock anthem that reeks of sneer. The guitar chords are so simple and somehow so unsure. How can basic chords still leave you unable to predict where they are going? Pedestrian at Best is a great example of how simplistic rock music can still exist when the world claims that every thing’s been done before. Courtney Barnett will gladly tell you to beat it if you ever told her that. She’s basically said that in many ways this entire year, and the world has responded immediately. Pedestrian at Best is simply the greatest way she has said it thus far, but I can guarantee that her reign is far from over.
Where in dear God’s name is Dear Tommy? Almost a year after it was due back around “Valentine’s Day”, we still haven’t seen this anticipated album’s release. Well, we have heard a good chunk of the tracks off of it already: Cherry and Camera off of the second After Dark compilation, Just Like You and In Films released as singles, and Shadow (a very close runner up here) off of the Adult Swim Singles Program. The best song we got, though, was the shoegaze disco I Can’t Be Myself When You’re Around. By far the most cinematic song Chromatics have released (and let’s be honest, there aren’t many bands currently trying to tap movies quite like this synth pop quartet), this song is also their most explosive musically. It works a bit like a radio rock and pop anthem, but it is submerged in effects enough to sound like a faded memory of a jingle you once permanently had stuck in your head. When the song triumphs with its score-like ending, you feel like you’re wrapping up the hit film of the midnight circuit, but really you’re setting free the emotions trapped within this song quite the same way it releases your own feelings. No matter what the finalized Dear Tommy tracklist may be like, this song better be on there.
Drake may be known for his hip hop dreamscapes, but Earl Sweatshirt crafted a self pity storm that drenches everything with pure darkness with Grief. It is a puzzling production: The bass is booming and massive, but the drum hits sound like they were butchered mid download. It is most certainly an uncomfortable track that rumbles like a Basinski loop while Sweatshirt spits all of his ills. He spews his anguish like he is committing a self exorcism until he simply cannot take it anymore. He drearily slows down and eventually passes out, and the song collapses along with him. In a year where many rappers hid behind auto tune and have hopped on the surreal bandwagon, Sweatshirt allows himself to be suffocated by pure devastation. He pushes to have his name known as he self destructs; He becomes his own worst enemy. Here’s to the best tortured rap song of the year. Just… good grief is all.
Where does one begin with this sublime record? We’ll figure that out on next week’s list, but for now, let’s observe Sufjan Steven’s most complete song on the album. The title track does not outweigh any of the other songs here by any stretch, but it is the easiest song to yank from out of the bunch without feeling like I have sabotaged the painful tapestry that has been knitted for us. Like many songs, Stevens reminisces his loved ones, especially his mother (Carrie) and step father (Lowell), but here he does it directly with the two of them in mind. No daughters he can feel his mothers’ essence through. No self mutilation to deal with grief. Simply the memories of those that raised him. He is a kid looking at scenes of his childhood, as he sees his mother battle with alcoholism and schizophrenia. She collapses onto the floor and dabbles in Thorazine. Lyrically, we hear mostly about Stevens’ mother, but the song’s title and initial line insist that it is Lowell that protected him silently from the harshest dangers of his mothers’ struggles. If that doesn’t make you cry, the circling guitars and banjos on top of funeral keys might. Then there’s that haunting outro that almost forces you to envision young Sufjan’s struggle. It is one of the most hyperrealistic flashbacks in any song this year.
The drum kicks in, but the guitars begin to tell another story. This sharp indie track catches you off guard on an album you already get familiar with. Meg Remy sounds like a youthful Ronnie Spector with the same kind of ass-kicking prowess the latter would have had if rock n’ roll had kept up with her back then. When we get to the poppy sing-a-long chorus, Remy’s vocals skyrocket in a hypnotic fashion. The guitars and bass are fuzzy, but the rest of the production is crisp enough to bring the track back to the present. It’s part fun and part dangerous. It simply is a killer track that I’m surprised hasn’t made a bigger scene. In a year that was rocked by tough female performers, Sed Knife is most certainly– what I personally feel to be–the most overlooked song that doesn’t just fit in with the other notable releases of this nature, it bloody well claims its spot. U.S. Girls has a future ahead of her, and Sed Knife is her razor sharp “I told you so”.
To Pimp a Butterfly was full of power, anger and political rage. It was a huge success when it first dropped and continues to show its relevance towards the end of the year. This is after Kendrick Lamar proclaimed to be the biggest hypocrite of 2015 in his blood ridden rant The Blacker The Berry. It is full of danger and fear, and it ended up being the most vicious song on Lamar’s opus. It violently rips into the demons of racism, the heart of the city and the timidness behind political correctness. Lamar discusses his awareness of what stereotyping is and he challenges it by both admitting and denying that he falls under these accusations. He bluntly takes on any insult to feed himself to become a bigger fighter, and it’s almost terrifying to hear how big he truly gets. When Lamar ends the song off on a twist by insisting that he has killed someone of his own race, we have to ask what he means by that. Is it the character’s confession in the song? Is it Lamar feeling like he has unfortunately helped diminish black culture through his fame? Has he lost track of his history and his heritage? The Blacker The Berry is a deep soul search that ends in blood shed, and it is a relentless look at the finger pointing this world has resorted to.
Grimes is finally back. After she was pelted by hecklers who resented her for going pop (wasn’t she kind of always?), she returned with Flesh Without Blood. This song is possibly even more pop than Go was, but it doesn’t feel that way because of how expertly produced it is. Grimes has toured via pop circuits and has opened for other pop singers, and it felt like it may have been random attempts to get Grimes bigger. We now know that Grimes is probably one of the best pop writers of the last few years, and if Art Angels couldn’t tell you that, this lead single must. The way her voice explores so many different avenues (sultry, animated, archaic, post modern) is a sign of someone who knows the genre inside and out. Then there’s the catchiest beat of the year that soars over the rest of the past months like a speeding UFO. It is sugary and yet bitter. It is a rave and also a high school dance. It is the taste of childhood curiosity and adult regret that Grimes has continuously experimented with. Why were people doubting Grimes again? If they don’t want to be captured by this future-of-pop vehicle, they can get gladly left behind for those of us excited for what we can hear next.
Currents was not seen as a letdown, but critics either ended up simply respecting it or flat out adoring it. The one aspect of it that most people could agree on was that the first single Let It Happen is a standout of both the album and this year. Kevin Parker’s retreat to his younger days– amidst synths, droning soundscapes and a heavy beat– is bittersweet. It circles as much as it lifts. It’s a whirlwind of trial and error to make life simply work. It stops and starts spastically as an effort to keep going, yet it succumbs to its fate by evolving and not simply replaying. It is a strong opener to project Parker’s maturation and the new sound of Currents. It’s also just a flat out awesome ride. You don’t have to look far to find the magic here; Just let it happen.
I’ve been to many outlets to search for a song to be quiet with; Who will take me home. While this is the top of the list and the other songs are also phenomenal, nothing quite came close to this audible painting once I first heard it. Jamie XX captures many lovely moments on In Colour, but he somehow manages the impossible with this dreamy cut: He bottles the euphoria of being lost amidst many sensations. It’s sad, uplifting, cluttered and spacious. It has an ATB-like guitar line and a eurodance snare. It modernizes itself with a bit of a rolling drum behind the music and Romy’s soothing vocals to combat the bubbly singing of early trance tracks. It’s as nostalgic as Four Strings, as entrancing as Mauro Piccotto and as addicting as Eiffel 65.
It also is it’s own being, as it outlives its possibility of being a niche track. It surveys the room while the party is going instead of just going along with the noise. The song dips in and out of consciousness like an anxious person wishing to just have fun. When the track swoops back in, it’s as gratifying as anything you’ll find this year. It’s a throwback that lives for the now. It wonders about the future while it takes care of current business. It’s as gorgeous as it is fun. It is the fleeting love people long for and the eventual response one gets when they revisit it. It is also the fear of losing: Losing love, losing out on life and losing control. All is well in the moment, though. If you can find another song that will make you want to dance and want to tear up simultaneously, be my guest. I don’t think any other song can pull off quite this achievement this year, otherwise. In Colour is a superb release, but Loud Places is the biggest evidence that something special is hidden in the young prodigy that humbly crafted this track between touring and recording. Push play. Get sucked in. Get lost within music. Loud Places is not just the best song of the year, but the best electronic song I have heard in quite some time. It didn’t just take me home, it damn well hit home for me.