The 50 Best Songs of 2015

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20. Earl Sweatshirt – “Grief”

Like its ghostly, thermal-imaged music video, “Grief” is a song that’s uncomfortably vivid. His own production is dark, hazy and claustrophobic, a tunnel in which he’s laid down bracing and introspective lyrics. Written from the edge of exhaustion and confinement, the message is about picking yourself back up: “I just want my time and my mind intact / When they’re both gone you can’t buy ‘em back.” – Eric Swedlund

19. The Lone Bellow – “Then Came the Morning”

The first song and title track of The Lone Bellow’s sophomore album wastes no time in announcing a more soulful direction for the Brooklyn band. Produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, there’s an urgency to Zach Williams’ voice, singing about the first stirrings of hopefulness after a difficult break-up. It’s an ode to “It’ll get better,” a kiss-off song calling out a former lover for all the wrongs they’ve done, but backed by harmonies from Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist, it sounds like gospel music—salvation coming in the form of the morning light after the darkness of an unhealthy relationship. Preach it, brother. – Josh Jackson

18. Chvrches – “Leave a Trace”

The lead single from Chvrches’ sophomore album Every Open Eye, “Leave a Trace” encapsulates all that makes the album whole. A steady, syncopated beat and vocal samplers ease in the intro and slowly build into an intensely catchy chorus. Lauren Mayberry has penned a much more personal and introspective album with Every Open Eye, and it shows in the passion of the lyrics as she soars into the chorus, singing “And I know you’ll never fold/But I believe nothing that I’m told.” An intense fight where both parties admit they’re both right and wrong sets the stage for a catchy electro-pop single that lets on a little more with each play, and you know it’ll be on repeat long into the new year. – Eric Van Allen

17. Florence + The Machine – “Delilah”

The first 45 seconds or so of “Delilah” simply feature Florence Welch, backed by a chorus of Florence Welches, doing her atmospheric thing before exploding into the kind of soulful shouter she is so wont to deliver. By the time the pace kicks into gear some 90 seconds in, the listener knows they’re going for a ride with a more confident and savvy Florence than ever, one who has mastered both the artistic and foot-tapping aspects of her art-rock craft. Featuring pulsating piano, handclaps and brief falsetto flourishes from Welch that sound almost like fellow English native La Roux, it’s a perfectly representative slice of her triumphant 2015 LP, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. — Jim Vorel

16. Destroyer – “Dream Lover”

A pop provocateur with a proclivity for polysyllabic phrasing, Dan Bejar’s freak flag flutters to a decidedly different breeze, one powered by his flat-footed sing/speak, lounge-leaning sensibilities, and some of the best horns our neighbors to the north have to offer. Poison Season highlight “Dream Lover” is decidedly gutsy. “Oh shit, here comes the sun,” he sings, paying The Beatles what must be the most backhanded compliment of all time. Do the Canadians have a word for chutzpah? Eh, we’ll just call the track what it is—a damn good time. – Laura Studarus

15. Tobias Jesso Jr. – “How Could You Babe”

This Canadian songwriter’s debut Goon swept us off our feet this year with his simple piano-plus-vocals combination reminiscent of Randy Newman or Harry Nilsson. Lead single “How Could You Babe” starts off with a plucky, pinking chord in a major key. But as soon as Jesso starts singing, you know that happy-sounding accompaniment is just a cover. “Nothing’s as hard to do / as just saying goodbye. / And when love is in the way, you gotta say / ‘I guess love ain’t always right,” he laments. The track ends with Jesso howling “how could you babe?” over and over and honestly, we’re right there crying with him. — Hilary Saunders

14. Sleater-Kinney – “A New Wave”

I don’t think there was anyone out there who actually expected Sleater-Kinney’s reunion to be bad by any stretch of the imagination, but if there were any doubts about whether Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss would be as fierce and flawless as ever on No Cities to Love, they were quickly pushed aside by “A New Wave.” If there was a more triumphant call to arms than “Let’s destroy a room with this love/We can drain out all the power, power/Steal from the makers who had made us/Leave them nothing to devour, devour” this year, I’m still waiting to hear it. – Bonnie Stiernberg

13. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”

The beauty in UMO frontman Ruban Nielsen’s songwriting is how much he gets across without saying a lot and we’re drawn to his punchy rhythms and dance vibes. To Nielson, “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” has a deeper meaning to the overarching hedonistic themes on Multi-Love. But to the naked ear, it serves as a reminder to disconnect ourselves from the digital ball and chain we keep in our pockets or purses. The funky disco synths and catchy hook are part of Nielson’s masterful pop formula and once the track has swathed your ear drums, the chorus continues to linger on the mind. – Adrian Spinelli

12. Dawes- “All Your Favorite Bands”

Mix nostalgic imagery and a chorus that just begs for a singalong, and you have “All Your Favorite Bands”. This song deserves major credit for its musical structure—it starts off with not much more than Taylor Goldsmith’s vocals and simple chords on the piano and guitar, and eventually builds up to a soaring classic rock guitar solo, accompanied by organ and drums. It plays hard on the shared experience of missing your childhood friends, which if you find yourself in just the right sentimental mood could bring a tear or two to your eyes. In a cheeky move, the music video accompanying the track shows several of Dawes’ musical friends lipsyncing and air-guitaring to the lyrics. It’s endearing, to say the least, to see Conor Oberst, Deer Tick’s John McCauley, M. Ward and more sing along to “All Your Favorite Bands”. – Annie Black

11. Missy Elliott – “WTF (Where They From)” [ft. Pharrell Williams]

Between her jaw-dropping Super Bowl halftime cameo and this head-spinning comeback single, Missy Elliott bookended 2015 with two strong reminders that she’s still one of the most visionary and mind-boggling hip-hop artists around, a rapper who traffics in verbal contortions and maximalist beats that conjure strange new worlds. Especially after a 10-year absence, it’s nice to have her back. And yet, “WTF (Where They From)” ought to reek of desperation: The title is a tired abbreviation, that kind of jump-rope rhythm is gone from the radio these days, and Pharrell “Blurred Lines” Williams raps on the bridge. And yet, the song just sounds so damn good—so lively, so weird, so wired, so undeniably fun—that Elliott can’t help but sound timely. This kind of thing never goes out of style, and now that we have her back where she belongs, maybe she should just make all the music from now on. – Stephen Deusner

10. Sufjan Stevens – “Should Have Known Better”

Since Sufjan Stevens’ teased the world with his imaginary 50 States project, he’s followed his adventurous muse from symphonic experiments to electronic folk-art dreams. And although Carrie & Lowell is something of a return to his folkier roots, his songs have been affected by all his musical travels. “Should Have Known Better” is as delicate anything on Illinois with whispered vocals and quietly picked guitar, but it’s as intricate as it is frail. Addressing pains that are as old as his memories, the song is both mournful and stubbornly hopeful, ending with the refrain, “My brother had a daughter / The beauty that she brings, illumination.” – Josh Jackson

9. Tame Impala – “Let It Happen”

It seemed unlikely that Tame Impala—the one-man outfit of Kevin Parker, whose past two albums have garnered comparisons to latter-day Beatles work and Pink Floyd—could craft one of the year’s best pop albums, but that’s exactly what he did. And lead single “Let It Happen,” clocking in at just under eight minutes, sets the tone for Currents, churning out a cosmic synth-heavy structure against a beat-laden backdrop. Parker takes what he knows but pushes his craft in new directions. The song’s multiple movements swell and bloom into the cosmic psych-rock that Tame Impala so cleverly wielded on Innerspeaker and Lonerism, but there’s a new dimension added this time around. “Maybe I was ready all along,” Parker sings as the track reaches its apex, because “Let It Happen”—a song bent on going with the flow and not fighting what comes naturally—is the album’s thesis statement, proving Tame Impala is ready for bigger and bolder things. – Michael Danaher

8. Drake – “Hotline Bling”

With its understated hook and roller-rink sample (courtesy of organ-playing soul man Timmy Thomas), “Hotline Bling” is a stealth earworm. It’s the kind of song that gets under your skin and stays in your system for weeks, thanks as much to nineteen85’s supple production as to Drake’s melancholy vocals and lo-fi dance moves. And it did get under our skin, collectively and culturally, inspiring an unbearable cover by Sufjan, a slow-burn version by Son Little, even a shitty SNL sketch featuring Donald Trump (because unchecked xenophobia and arrogance is always hilarious). But the best version belongs to Erykah Badu, who gender-flipped the song and may have one-upped even Drake. – Stephen Deusner

7. Hop Along – “Waitress”

Philadelphia’s punk sweethearts Hop Along have taken everyone’s hearts this year with the release of their second LP Painted Shut, and the album’s first single “Waitress” illustrates just why. With lead singer Frances Quinlan’s unique vocals at the forefront, the song is reflective and positive, angsty and upbeat, and whether you’re searching yourself or just floating along, it’s a song that demands being on repeat. – Brittany Joyce

6. Leon Bridges – “Lisa Sawyer”

Coming Home, Leon Bridge’s eagerly awaited debut, is filled with tracks out of another decade—doo-wop and soul abound in a way that could be coming straight off vinyl or the FM band in your ‘57 Chevy. “Lisa Sawyer” is a sweet slice of poetry that shows off both Bridges’ honey-coated voice and his ability to tell a story. He paints a picture of his mother in a gorgeous way, comparing her complexion to a sweet praline and calling his family “rich in love” despite their lack of financial security. Pure sweetness. — Jonah Ollman

5. Father John Misty – “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”

The story of I Love You, Honeybear is well told by now: sardonic boy meets beautiful girl, falls in love, and subsequently suffers an identity crisis upon realizing his feels probably constitute a concept more commonly referred to as “love.” Josh Tillman’s second record as Father John Misty explores these themes in the most cynical and romantic ways, and “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” showcases the latter. Tillman begins by describing his now-wife by name: “Emma eats bread and butter / like a queen would have ostrich and cobra wine.” The song serves as an honest recollection of the early days of their relationship, and Tillman manages to romanticize even the most comically droll aspects of cohabitation, while also glorifying the spontaneity of the sentiment. Musically, “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” pays homage to a (supposedly) real life experience that included a mariachi band. As the trumpets mimic Tillman’s original vocal melody, the anticipation builds into a joyful premonition of their new reality, and he asks coyly, “What are you doing with your whole life? How ‘bout forever?” It’s a wealth of emotion for the enigma known as Father John Misty to convey at all, much less in less than three minutes. – Hilary Saunders

4. Natalie Prass – “My Baby Don’t Understand Me”

With a voice so soft and fragile that it could have just recovered from a monastic vow of silence, Nashville soul revivalist Natalie Prass tells us all about her boy problems in “My Baby Don’t Understand Me.” The song veers between triumphant horn section peaks and sedate string accompaniments, and Prass likewise finds herself trapped between conflicting forces. Though she admits that she and her inamorato’s “love is a long goodbye, waiting on the train,” it’s a departure that never occurs—at least in this haunting, tear-streaked confessional. The resulting experience is an exercise in beautiful dissonance, poetic distress so sweet that it never wears out the five minutes it effortlessly occupies. — Sean Edgar

3. The Mountain Goats – “Legend of Chavo Guerro”

Mexican lucha libre may be brutal at times, but it’s nothing compared to the last chorus of this song, when the narrator sings about his dad letting him down and then scattering his ashes to the wind in an act of rebellion. A young boy who needs justice, he finds it in a middleweight champ who defended the downtrodden and raised his boys to fight like him. Like many Mountain Goats songs, the jaunty melody and vivid details of a childhood hero can’t hide the emotions bubbling up underneath. It’s another punch to the gut in a catalog full of them, with a strength that would surely earn a three-count if that punch was delivered in the squared circle. — Josh Jackson

2. Kendrick Lamar – “King Kunta”

“King Kunta” is To Pimp A Butterfly’s most radio-friendly track, but the fact that it trades the jazz and spoken word experiments for funk samples and a Mausberg beat doesn’t mean it lacks the depth of the album’s other songs. When Pharrell first heard it he called it “unapologetically black and amazing,” and that’s really the best way to describe it—Kendrick has us riveted from the moment he first announces “I got a bone to pick,” and it only gets better from there as he proceeds to call out other rappers for using ghostwriters, serve up allusions to Roots and Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man and deliver one of the year’s catchiest hooks. – Bonnie Stiernberg

1. Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian At Best”

The same trobairitz who once proclaimed that she “Should’ve stayed in bed today / I much prefer the mundane” opens her sophomore album with an audacious takedown of both herself and an implied lover. “I think you’re a joke, but I don’t find you very funny,” Courtney Barnett taunts on “Pedestrian at Best,” the breakout track from Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. Barnett shifts from metaphysical folk gardener to aggressive insult comic for a joyride of merciless snares and squelching feedback, hell-bent on undefining whatever previous impressions may have been formed. As she openly admits in the lyrics, this is the mark of an ascending, experimental artist who has clearly outgrown herself. — Sean Edgar

Listen a playlist of the Best Songs of 2015 on Spotify.

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