The 25 Best Songs of 2015 (So Far)

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For the fifth time running, Paste presents the best songs of the half-year. Polling editors, contributors and interns left us with all kinds of goodies from the past six months—from omnipresent pop songs to singles from some of our Best Albums of 2015 (So Far) list and deep cuts from other LPs. So, here are our 25 Best Songs of 2015 (So Far). Let us know your favorites in the comments below.

25. Holly Herndon – “Chorus”

Holly Herndon isn’t so much concerned with how technology shapes our everyday lives as she is with how technology dissects them into ever-shrinking bits. Increments of time, of nourishment, of commercial branding—all of this is measurable, reducible, and, perhaps, inevitably meaningless. Herndon finds this fascinating, the ways in which we keep scraping away layers, hoping to find something empirical, a foundation to our online lives. Take “Chorus,” in which a traditional pop song structure is severed, chipped apart until all that matters is its nougat-y core. Herndon knows what you want; she knows that you are willing to wade through “interesting” but alienating noises—as if a computer was left to its own devices (pun intended) to pull a rhythm together from its default sounds library—to reach the relief of melody. Two minutes in, she grants the listener this moment. The song becomes its own chorus (and thus, “Chorus”), taking stock of modern electronic music composition—from Skrillex to Oneohtrix Point Never—to echolocate where it is that computer and human brains can peacefully meet. It is, in any context, achingly gorgeous. —Dom Sinacola

24. Viet Cong – “March of Progress”

The problem with hype is that it can undercut you. One of the year’s most anticipated debuts comes from Calgary’s Viet Cong, whose self-titled debut picks up where last year’s Cassette EP left off. Viet Cong’s brand of dire, deconstructed indie has the chops to stand up to any doubters. One of the best cuts comes in “March of Progress,” a glimmering and grinding three-part mini-feature of lo-fi garage rock, spaced-out guitar glam, and blooming songcraft—all stuffed into a continuum of a dingy, diverse song structure. In the span of six minutes and twenty seconds, the track captures everything that makes the band so captivating. —Michael Danaher

23. Tanlines – “Pieces”

This Brooklyn-based electro-pop duo returned with its sophomore LP Highlights this year. While overall not as consistent as 2012’s Mixed Emotions, “Pieces” is a pretty much a perfect lead single. Opening with a synthy bass line, the moody, mid-tempo breakup song doesn’t build past drums, bass, and Eric Emm’s vocals until two thirds of the way through the song. But when the electronic faux-brass swoops in, “Pieces” morphs into a dance floor track that’ll make you forget what those pesky relationship lyrics were all about. —Hilary Saunders

22. Sufjan Stevens – “Death With Dignity”

Spoiler Alert: Sufjan Stevens made the best album of 2015, and nothing short of a death-faking John Lennon teaming with a death-faking Elliott Smith can dislodge that reality. [Ed. We ranked it No. 4 on our list.] Stevens once dreamed of writing a series of books illustrating the Walt Whitman-esque scope of human history, defined by the quiet victory of religion, family and hard work. His discography has largely represented that grandiose scope, hiding a few personal journeys within. Carrie & Lowell skins that bigness down to Steven’s emotional core while retaining the same potency, framed by the musician’s anemic relationship with his mother.

Ever unconventional, Stevens unleashes the album’s emotional climax in album opener “Death with Dignity,” offering forgiveness, admitting vulnerability and embracing finality among a cascade of acoustic arpeggios. Final lines “Your apparition passes through me in the willows….You’ll never see us again” provide a bizarre and immediate catharsis for the tension and acceptance that define the following ten tracks. Yet knowing the ending of the story doesn’t make Carrie & Lowell any less of a soul-shaking tour de force: it simply offers a bittersweet roadmap. —Sean Edgar

21. Mikal Cronin – “iv) Ready”

The six-song medley on MCIII’s second side snaps to life with “iv) Ready,” perhaps the biggest rock moment on an album that seamlessly balances those with introspective moments. “Ready” is both at once, two triumphant riffs welded together underneath Cronin’s weary voice and words of inadequacy. It’s resignation as classic rock and the highpoint of a fine album. —Garrett Martin

20. Kacey Musgraves – “Biscuits”

As country music’s peppiest outsider, Kacey Musgraves’ infectious message of individuality and acceptance is irresistible. The metaphor in “Biscuits” is simple— ‘mind your own biscuits/and life will be gravy”—but it is one that we would all do well to pay much more attention to. As part of Musgraves’ June release Pageant Material, “Biscuits” is an infectious, feel-good tune with plenty of important life lessons. Even if you don’t like country music, this song is a must for that playlist that you listen to on gloomy days. —Amy McCarthy

19. Tame Impala – “’Cause I’m a Man”

“’Cause I’m A Man,” the first official advance track from the Australian rockers’ forthcoming third album, Currents, is undeniably delightful. The excellent single lives on the line between what we’ll call the old Tame Impala—hard-charging, mind-expanding psych rock—and the new—a more danceable, melodic twist on the band. From the relaxed rhythm and ethereal synth strokes of the song’s opening seconds, it’s clear that this is a band in flux, yet in control. The entrancing track manages to sound old-school and futuristic simultaneously. And on top of all that, lyricist (and singer, and guitarist, and producer, etc.) Kevin Parker provides the ultimate excuse for a dude in the doghouse: “’Cause I’m a man.” —Scott Russell

18. My Morning Jacket – “Believe (Nobody Knows)”

Back when Z reconfigured My Morning Jacket—up until then known best as a jam band on the cusp of going legend—as a neo-soul outfit capable of anything, their opening track became their state-of-the-union calling card. Then it was “Wordless Chorus,” an echo-y throwback in thrall to Elton John, which readily admitted that a singer of Jim James’s caliber is best served trusting his gut: “Tell me spirit, what has not been done? / I’ll rush out and do it, or are we doin’ it now?” Now, with their seventh album, MMJ opens on “Believe (Nobody Knows),” a go-for-broke anthem as indebted to some sort of mellifluous spirit as anything they’ve done before. “Believe (Nobody Knows)” has definitely been done, what with its cascading choruses and bubbly synths reminiscent of any ‘80s radio hit to the point of blasphemy, but James and co. sound so magnificent intoning the titular word, they deserve to have a congregation witness at their feet. While the band may have long past transcended their lo-fi, country-warm beginnings, they’re still beholden to something otherworldly—and sounding absolutely brand new for it. —Dom Sinacola

17. The National – “Sunshine on my Back”

The best part about “Sunshine On My Back” is that, contrary to what its title suggests, it’s not a sunny song. It doesn’t make you want to put the top down on a pretty day, or bop around in a tank and sunglasses. Like so many of The National’s ballads, it’s a more suitable soundtrack to a rainstorm: The song is about loneliness. “Sunshine on my back/is the only kind I like / Sunshine in my brain / is the lonely kind of pain / It’s the sunshine / of a lonely mind.” In its first (surprise) release since Trouble Will Find Me, The National employs its usual fail-proof subdued instrumentals that, here, grow into the above chorus with crescendoing violin, met with harmonic vocals from Sharon Van Etten. She returns in the bridge, too—a wrenching bit of dialogue from a lover who offers an ultimatum (“You can’t try to stay / you either will or you won’t”). And although it’s sung at the highest pitch of the track, its lyrics make it, simultaneously, the most melancholy. Perhaps that makes a sunstorm more suitable for this one. — Meagan Flynn

16. Florence and 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 new LP, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. —Jim Vorel

15. Dawes – “Things Happen”

With that slow, heat-flattened groove, Dawes hits the intersection of exhaustion and surrender with complete transparency. Taylor Goldsmith, on track to be the 21st century Jackson Browne, waxes philosophical on a song of romantic erosion, stitched together with the kinds of details that make moments palpable. Driving up the California coast, it’s a moment of pure realization over an agave melody drenched with shimmering guitars, a few piano notes falling like rain. Sighing, he turns into the chorus with an even hand, “Let’s make a list of all the things to all the things that happened to you / Let’s raise a glass to all the people you’re not speaking to / I don’t know what else that you want me to say to you… Things happen, that’s all they ever do.” —Holly Gleason

14. 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

13. Purity Ring – “bodyache”

Purity Ring’s another eternity saw the duo sharper than ever, refining their trap drum-driven, hook-laden synth-pop while retaining an underlying aesthetic that borders on the macabre. “bodyache” is a stand-out example of the group’s newly-streamlined sound: singer Megan James makes physical suffering sound strangely sweet while producer Corin Roddick’s bone-deep beat, underpinned by fluttering keys, anchors the track. The stomp-clap of the insidiously catchy chorus belies the sensual darkness of James’ lyrics, making it difficult not to be bewitched by “bodyache.” “I want to know what’s your quietest feeling,” James purrs, and all I can tell her is that this isn’t it. —Scott Russell

12. JD McPherson – “Head Over Heels”

Sure, JD McPherson can play vintage rock ’n’ roll like it’s 1955, but what happens when he broadens his palette on new album Let the Good Times Roll? Easy: He delivers scorching tracks like “Head Over Heels,” leavening his old-school sensibility with subtle modern touches—that massive, perfectly dialed-in echo effect on McPherson’s guitar, for example—that supercharge the tune in a way that skirts the edges of your conscious mind. Turn it up loud and let the adrenaline flow. —Eric R. Danton

11. Kanye West – “All Day”

Strip away all the outer layers of Kanye West’s persona—the political statements, the tabloid fodder, the avant-garde experimentation, the dichotomous blend of paralyzing self-doubt and overwhelming self-mythologizing—and what do you have left? Raw, unfiltered braggadocio. On “All Day,” Kanye indulges in all his favorite hobbies, namely reminding us that he makes more money than us, sells out more arenas than us, owns more clothes than us, has a hotter wife than us and ultimately is a better person than we could ever hope to be. Don’t bother protesting; he can’t hear you. A killer trap beat, earworm chorus and bizarrely compelling guest spot from none other than Paul McCartney are enough to keep you bumping this song—you guessed it—all day. —Bryan Rolli

10. Drake – “Know Yourself”

Before you feel any sense of sympathy for Aubrey Drake Graham, check yourself. Know yourself. Such feelings indicate that you are, in fact, a self-aware human being with a healthy capacity for empathy. Drake, on the other hand, is potentially not: When he recalls that he was “runnin’ through the 6 with [his] woes,” he feigns reflection and sadness—he is an Emo Drake emoticon. Yet, “woes” refers to his crew, not the travails of his quotidian, and so at once Drake conjures up a scene of a lonely, misunderstood artist riding the subway, searching for meaning, while simultaneously proffering the image of a young multi-millionaire filling up the veins of his hometown with his allies and hangers-on. The brilliance of Drake in 2015 is that with an awkward, ambiguous phrase chanted a bit callously over a sumptuous, midnight-damp synth track, a mega-pop-star allows you to reach out and understand his pain, even if that star is too self-absorbed, too damned bright, to give a shit about your own. —Dom Sinacola

9. Alabama Shakes – “Gimme All Your Love”

Brittany Howard has always been the focus of Alabama Shakes’ music. But with this track, the gigantic fuzzed-out guitars helmed by Howard and Heath Fogg co-headline the song. People complain about a lack of dynamic range in music these days, and this song is as full of range as can be with enormous, screaming, freak-out choruses interspersed with tender verses. After a debut album of straight ahead (yet fantastic) blues rock, this is the new sound of Alabama Shakes and boy, am I happy about it. —Jonah Ollman

8. 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 money. Pure sweetness. —Jonah Ollman

7. 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

6. Twerps – “Back to You”

The first single off the Australians’ February record titled Range Anxiety, “Back to You” has the beat of a nail-biting teenager and the lyrical humility of a 20-something shy guy. The vocals are neither assertive nor punchy, but just happy to be here. And the whistling synth and breezy strumming are sunny enough for a picnic. Yeah, Marty Frawley might be jealous of the other guy out there sitting on his patio “sipping an iced tea,” but by the end of the first verse, “Don’t mind me,” Frawley sings, “I’m hanging in the trees and singing out at the leaves.” Despite the thin veil of anxiety cloaking the record, it doesn’t seem to get any more pleasant than that. —Meagan Flynn

5. Mark Ronson f/ Bruno Mars – “Uptown Funk”

This tune hit its stride in January and could have been the song of the summer if it was released just a few months later. Even if the charts won’t reflect it, you know there will come a day this summer when you’ll be answering a seasonal weather complaint of “I’m too hot” with “Call the police and the fireman” and “I make a dragon wanna retire, man!” And then the song will be in your head all day at the beach. And then you’ll lose your mind on the dance floor when you hear it at the club that night. That’s the appeal of this song: Its funky inclusiveness demands continued participation. Don’t believe me? Just watch! —Pat Healy

[Ed.: “Uptown Funk” first dropped as a single after we published our Best of 2014 lists in late December 2014. Since the album version appeared on Uptown Special in January 2015, we’re deeming the song eligible for this list.]

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

Mexican wrestling may be brutal but it’s nothing compared to the last chorus of this song, when the narrator sings about his dad letting him down. 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. —Josh Jackson

3. Father John Misty – “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.”

Literally, the only thing you need to know about this song is that it successfully uses the word “malaprops.” That, and Father John Misty (real name: Josh Tillman) shreds anybody who misuses the word “literally.” Oops. “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.” is equal parts scathing wit, self-deprecation and even sadomasochism, as could only be conceived by the most deranged soft rock apologist. Tillman’s old fling is just, like, way too into herself, always broadcasting her “petty, vogue ideas” and copping all his drugs, blaming his influence all the while. Even when he’s singing “Silent Night” in the tub with this girl and her best friend, Tillman can’t be satisfied; she compares herself to Sarah Vaughan and derails the whole kinky escapade. At least he gets his way in the bedroom, where he’s all too happy to oblige her choking request. Actually, that’s probably not a good thing. — Bryan Rolli

2. 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

1. Kendrick Lamar – “King Kunta”

No matter how one feels about To Pimp a Butterfly, that the album is a bloated product of the zeitgeist isn’t really up for debate. Like its title, Kendrick Lamar’s full-length is a mess of contradictions—apoplectic rage set against Flying Lotus’s ultra-smooth free jazz and a pessimistic purview amidst sappy conversations with ghosts. “King Kunta” is its representative microcosm—the royal figure of oppression, the powerful African American who must defend his “yams” from a society which, in 2015, still refuses to accept his cultural success. Culling pieces from James Brown and Ahmad Lewis (among so much funky detritus), Sounwave’s beat is a galaxy unto itself, seemingly outside of our time and space, impossible to not allow unmitigated into one’s whole heart and soul. It, without exaggeration, sounds bigger than us all, tapped into something empirical to which us mere mortals are banned—that is, until its guitar solo, which pretty much sounds like crap. Then there’s the line “Life ain’t shit but a fat vagina,” an ugly and practically obscene image, followed immediately by a genuine showing of concern cribbed from “Smooth Criminal.” Every genius idea is accompanied by something equally terrible, and in “King Kunta” we sense all of the bitterness, anxiety, confidence and arrogance of a young genius still wrestling with his muses. —Dom Sinacola