FEATURE: The Best Songs of 2015
by Chad Jewett
15.) Drake “Hotline Bling”
Despite his rampant success in 2015, one can’t help but feel like Drake landed on awkward footing. Gone is the skinny kid, the thoughtful guy that will take care of you. “Hotline Bling” is Aubrey’s biggest and catchiest hit to date, a track that oozed fuzzy sunrise vibes way before he was feeling himself on a Terrell. Its intoxicating; an ear worm that’s burrowed way before the Cha-Cha knocks, but back when October’s son is simply cooing “You used to, you used to,” in the blooming depths of his register. But somewhere along the line, maybe ten listens deep, maybe more, you remember Aubrey used to be the one bending over backwards for the opposite sex. Now he’s just salty, petty. “Hotline Bling” should have been “Marvin’s Room” with a groove. The music hit the mark. Sadly, the lyrics landed in some neighborhood where Drake hopefully hasn’t put down roots. He’s proven he’s better than ever before at making you dance along, but lyrically, man, “you used to…”
(by Trevor Johnson)
14.) Kendrick Lamar – “Hood Politics”
Most of To Pimp A Butterfly is packed with dazzling mini-suites and modernistic multi-part rap-operas that are layered with overwhelming musical complexity. So when “Hood Politics” shows up ten tracks in, beginning first with a smoky, acoustic-blues intro before settling in to a whittled down boom-bap stomp, the effect is palpably visceral. Yet, this being Kendrick Lamar, “Hood Politics” is never “just” a banger, and in fact, Lamar seems to sense the way tracks built like this tend to get heard, and makes that the self-reflexive frame for the track itself, as he uses “Hood Politics” hard, hungry five minutes to pierce every set of expectations that might limit Lamar’s paradigm-changing vision. Of course its also no surprise that the song (produced by Tae Beast, Sounwave, and Thundercat) melts into surrealism about halfway through, or that it interpolates a Sufjan Stevens song, or that, for all its intoxicating punch, “Hood Politics” suits its vessel – a brief document of challenging, brilliant art philosophy.
13.) Julien Baker – “Brittle Boned”
A gorgeous and emotionally exacting experience, Julien Baker’s Sprained Ankle stands as one of the year’s most affecting releases, undeniably beautiful in its spectral, whispered sound and deeply moving in its quiet, ruminative passages of self reflection. The thing holds together so well as one extended, coherent experience that it’s actually hard to break into moments, but “Brittle Boned”, with its carefully composed gracefulness and a staggering vocal performance from Baker, whose double-tracked voice lends the song a ghostly quality, stands out. Unlike so many of her peers in this kind of hushed, resolutely composed (and forever tasteful) indie-rock, there is something so sharply poignant in Julien Baker’s work. It feels like there are stakes beyond mere studio exactness. So, you might call “Brittle Boned” perfection, or a truly special kind of emotional intelligence, or the kind of record that will keep rewarding you for the difficult yet lovely time you spend with it.
12.) Milemarker – “Conditional Love”
It was the most welcome of surprises to have Milemarker back in the first place, a band whose challenging, gonzo post-hardcore was so far on the margins of emo’s late-90s apex that one could hardly predict their return, even as similarly beloved cult acts like The Jazz June and Rainer Maria began to regroup. Even better is just how great (and really how much fun) that return has proved to be. “Conditional Love”, the A-side of a new single that purports to be a sample of things to come, is a buzzing, infectious marvel, a robo-punk blend of Freedom of Choice-era Devo and all the weirdest Danse Macabre B-sides. Few bands step away for this long and come back with something this special, this galvanizing. Against all odds, the decade absence seems to have proved a boon for Milemarker, who just may have released their best song with “Conditional Love”.
11.) Kendrick Lamar – “Wesley’s Theory”
No song this year did a more complete job announcing the album it was opening, stood in as quite so definitive a synecdoche of the work it was introducing as “Wesley’s Theory”, the dense, free-wheeling, acid-funk opener of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Led by a rubbery, intergalactic bassline from the incredible Thundercat and a state-of-the-self pair of verses from Kendrick that set the album’s complicated socio-political frameworks (punctuated, oh so appropriately by a perfectly raspy George Clinton and a pugnacious Dr. Dre), “Wesley’s Theory” leaves little doubt as to just how expansive, fearless, and ineffable the remaining hour-and-fourteen minutes promise to be. But the sheer explosive energy of the track, the clear sense that everyone here is doing their best work on something so obviously avant-garde, that makes “Wesley’s Theory” an amazing experience unto itself.
10.) Sufjan Stevens – “The Only Thing”
Without “The Only Thing”, Carrie & Lowell would still be Sufjan Stevens most affecting and resolutely harrowing album, undeniable in its gutting memory work. But with “The Only Thing”, a stark, lovely whisper of a song that ebbs and flows between baldly suicidal thoughts, mythic images, and oblique references to the family dramas that power the rest of the album, Stevens does his best work in showing the ways in which emotional trauma, haunting memories, and difficult pasts manifest in the present tense (“Should I tear my eyes out now? / Everything I see returns to you somehow). “The Only Thing” becomes the achievement that Sufjan Stevens has been building to for more than a decade, a song that takes his forever-hungry imagination, with all of its stacked imagery, symbolism, and historical intuition, and condenses it all for gut-level impact. It’s the sound of a whole life’s worth of doubt and sadness experienced as four and a half minutes of quiet devastation.
9.) Vince Staples – “Lift Me Up”
2015 will likely be remembered as both a nadir and a sea-change, a year that saw unrelenting violence against people of color by political structures supposedly there to protect its citizens, and which saw, in the Black Lives Matter movement, an effort at resistance and collective change likely unseen since the height of the Civil Rights movement. It’s in that nexus of systemic abuse and concerted response that a song like “Lift Me Up”, the opening song on Vince Staples’ essential Summertime ’06 truly strikes its righteous chord. Over a slinky, acidic synth and hissing, dragging beat, Staples cycles through the systemic racism that works so monstrously against young black men, reaching an apex in an extended riff on the socio-economic obliviousness of middle-class white kids who will gladly sing Staples’ lyrics back to him but would by no means step foot in the spaces and places that Staples paints with such marked precision (“Wonder if they know I know they won’t go where we kick it at”). “Lift Me Up” is a haunting, fearsomely honest treatise on the United States, circa 2015, from one of hip-hop’s most gifted truth-tellers.
8.) Annabel – “If Only”
Annabel excels at a certain kind of wistful, cautious optimism, producing the sort of songs in which narrators are tentative to step foot in suspiciously comfortable new homes, wary to get too attached to what was once called the American Dream. “If Only” is one of those songs, one of the best of those songs, in fact — a sparkling, airy mid-tempo dispatch that finds singer Ben Hendricks seemingly reassuring himself that “We could plan more than a few years at a time” as if the idea were startlingly unfamiliar. It’s a moving notion, dramatizing a phenomenon specific to this generation, wherein all the stuff we’ve learned not to expect (the same stuff our parents were absolutely taught was somehow their birthright) might actually still be possible. The band deserves serious credit for such nuanced storytelling, and for their rich, always-evolving sound, which, on “If Only” takes the autumnal, glimmering aesthetic of contemporary emo, and adds an ineffable lushness to match the song’s sighing questions.
7.) Waxahatchee – “Under A Rock”
Two minutes, approximately four chords, and one of the year’s absolute best melodies. Waxahatchee, the ongoing project of Alabama singer songwriter Katie Crutchfield, has always proved distinctly economical – one of the best songs off their last album was basically just an electric bass and a kick drum – but usually that spartan quality was designed to reflect itself. You noticed how purposeful every spare choice was. “Under A Rock” does the opposite, sounding positively symphonic (Crutchfield, who co-produced the track, has a wonderful ear for the richness that defines the best power-pop), and all on the strength of just the right chords and just the right hooks, especially in the context of the rest of Ivy Tripp, which is largely hushed and circumspect, making the Superchunk-esque rocket launch of its second track feel so galvanizing a moment. It’s a sly bit of humor that so confident an arrival begins with the words “Well, maybe”, but such is the greatness of “Under A Rock” and Ivy Tripp, an album wonderfully sure about its lack of surety.
6.) Hop Along – “Texas Funeral”
“Texas Funeral” begins with oceanic guitar swells that warp in and out of tune, emblematic of the daring quality that runs throughout Hop Along’s Painted Shut, wherein Francis Quinlan and company seem to be repeatedly challenging themselves to make ideal guitar-pop songs out of only the strangest components. Surrealist stream-of-consciousness narratives, shuddering stop-start rhythms, brief asides that suddenly become giant choruses: just about all of it works, and “Texas Funeral” is the acme of that hot streak, that moment where every shot seems to be going in and the basket might as well be a hoola-hoop. Eventually, after a minute of sharp, ultra-clear indie-pop, those opening swells come back, with Quinlan’s airy melody sparkling just beneath the surface. If that was the extent of “Texas Funeral” it’d still be a success, but then the whole thing curls into an absolutely massive chorus – “None of this is gonna happen to me / None of this is gonna happen to me”, just the kind of bafflingly original work that defines what Quinlan does throughout – take something one of her quixotic characters might say, and turn it into a hook you won’t be able to get out of your head. In a year defined by artists taking their most avant-garde qualities and turning them into infectiously enjoyable gems, Hop Along sets the standard.
5.) Courtney Barnett – “Depreston”
Considering just how much of the winning re-playability of Courtney Barnett’s excellent debut full-length, Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Sit is tied up in the album’s brash basement-indie energy and the hyperspeed anxiety litanies of its lyrics, it speaks to Barnett’s sheer range that one of the album’s two best songs is a markedly slow, ruminative, and hushed country-rock ballad. A whispered, twangy snapshot of a young couple facing the mixed promise and dread of a move to the suburbs, “Depreston” is filled with Barnett’s sharp eye for detail – houses are filled with bittersweet tokens of someone else’s memories (“And I see the handrail in the show / A collection of those canisters for coffee, tea and flour / And a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam”), arrayed like subtle omens of future sadness – and her easy way with a melody that floats her markedly dense lyrics like a calm current. Most of Sometimes I Sit finds Courtney Barnett bashing away at her own darkest thoughts with Malkmus-like dry humor, and the album is largely such a comfy fit precisely for that kind of rugged irony. “Depreston” haunts because it sees nothing to smirk at and no easy way of shaking off its ghosts.
4.) Kendrick Lamar – “u”
In Kendrick Lamar’s bravely experimental, aesthetically intrepid To Pimp A Butterfly — an album that simultaneously serves as a harrowing glimpse at American institutional racism, a love letter to fifty years of African American popular music, and a daring journey into the self — “u” stands as the album’s most despairing, disquieting passage. Set over a quaking bed of free-jazz piano and a tick-tock beat that feels like watch gear’s slowly losing their shape, Lamar looses a torrent of withering self-critique, all punctuated by a desperate howl of a hook: “Loving you is complicated”. Much of the critical attention placed on To Pimp A Butterfly has rightly prized the sheer capaciousness of Lamar’s lyrics and ideas, but there is something absolutely unprecedented about the work that Lamar does on the album as a dramatist, as a performer able to balance a cadre of characters, voices, feelings, contexts, and moods, turning the whole thing into a concept album that doubles as a post-modern opera. With “u”, Lamar offers his most essential work as a musician of voice, and does so as his own most corrosive inner thoughts – making “u” a brave, tour de force of a song.
3.) Vince Staples – “Norf Norf”
Between this year’s masterful Summertime ’06 and last year’s terrific Hell Can Wait (still the best rap EP of the last decade), Vince Staples earned his place at the top of a very short list of rappers that more or less begins with GZA, Nas, and fellow king-of-2015 Kendick Lamar. Namely, what these MCs share is their ability to find the perfect hidden rhythm in any beat – no matter how defiantly avant-garde, warped, or free-form – and instantly turn the results into something almost absurdly catchy. These are rappers that chip away at the soundscapes around them like master jewelers carving into raw gems. In fact, even with his relatively brief discography, Staples might actually be the best rapper in the last two decades in this category, an absolute genius when it comes to the rhythm of language — and “Norf Norf” is his masterpiece. Rapping over a twitching, anxious beat that clicks and clacks beneath a mournful sonar howl and a bass-drop of a chorus, Staples offers more of the intense character studies that make Summertime ’06 so compelling as a document. Yet nothing on the album has quite the jaw-dropping technical wonders of “Norf Norf”, a three minute magnum opus that should more or less cement Vince Staples’ place as one of the genre’s all-time great acrobat-poets.
2.) Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian At Best”
It’s a shame that we get so few songs like this nowadays. As loosely catchy and effortlessly fun as Blur’s “Song 2” – except with actual substance; as wily a garage-punk nugget as the best of the early 2000s New Rock wave – except with actual staying power and lyrics that don’t grow embarrassing when read off the page, Courtney Barnett’s “Pedestrian At Best” is an absolute blast, four minutes, three chords, and a furious stream of wry, acidic poetry. Unfurling like a neurotic’s rewrite of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (“I’m resentful / I’m having an existential time crisis / What bliss! / Daylight Saving’s won’t fix this mess”), “Pedestrian At Best” is simplicity itself – a boiling-over verse and an immense, stomping chorus. But like so much of Sometimes I Think, it excels by dint of Barnett’s ability to crosshatch super-dense, multi-layered stream-of-consciousness narratives over riffs and melodies that hold up even for all of their immediate pleasures as guitar-pop confections. It’s a testament to just how nimble and original a songwriter Courtney Barnett is that the song you were most likely to furiously mime power chords to in 2015 was also one of the year’s absolute funniest and most cannily clever pieces of pop-psychology confessionalism.
1.) Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – “Sunday Candy”
Last year, we chose Chance The Rapper & The Social Experiment’s daring, orchestral re-imagining of “Arthur’s Theme” (redubbed “Wonderful Everyday”) as the song of 2014 for all the ways that the song’s optimism, its beauty, its generosity of spirit and warmth, made it so remarkable a work of imagination. The same is true of “Sunday Candy”, the first single from Surf, a free collaborative album released under Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment (Donnie being the trumpeter of Chance’s band and the deserving headliner for Surf’s swirling, baroque R&B). Where “Wonderful Everyday” inspired with its sincere calls for self-confidence, perseverance, and faith, “Sunday Candy” does the same with its rich, detailed explorations of love and family, finding Chance offering an ode to a beloved grandmother with an earnestness and joy that renders all cynicism entirely moot (“I got a feature so I’m singing for my grandma / You singing too, but your grandma ain’t my grandma!”). Sharing the song’s bright, vibrant gospel-soul bounce is Jamila Woods, whose crisp alto is a welcoming, affecting marvel, lending an intimacy and familiarity to lines like “You better come on in this house, cause it’s gonna rain / Lay down tiger, it’s gonna rain” that underline the sense of place, specificity, and warmth that makes “Sunday Candy” not just a perfect single, but an inspiring experience. Beneath all of this The Social Experiment effortlessly swoop between styles – brassy gospel, quiet piano balladry, retro Motown glimmer, glitch pop-EDM – as if trying to constantly keep the song’s swell of palpable positivity and hopefulness aloft. “Sunday Candy” is the most inspiring and touching of team efforts, a love song for love, a wonder to behold.