At the beginning of the year, I wrote that 2015 was going to be a great year for music, and I was not wrong. 2015 was blessed with so many great releases, including a couple of delightful surprises by artists that returned from self-imposed exile with their musical powers undimmed. More than any year in recent memory, 2015 felt like a reward for patience, as long-anticipated albums were finally released and proved well worth the wait.
Below is a list of my favorite songs from 2015. However, rather than try to rank them, I’m simply listing them in alphabetical order by artist.
To Pimp a Butterfly was, without a doubt, the hip-hop release of 2015. But truth be told, I listened to Eons D’s Physics on Paper EP far more often. Working with fellow producers Tone Jonez and Knaladeus, Eons D delivered one cut of soulful, jazz-inflected hip-hop after another. Musically, the EP just flows and flows. Which makes it all the easier for the thought-provoking lyrics to slip in and work their way into your heart and mind.
On “I Got It,” Eons D wrestles with the idea of Christian praxis: how, exactly, does one live out Christian convictions in a world where women are abused and abducted, celebrities and media figures spout hollow platitudes, and racial tensions run high? By the song’s end, Eons D has raised more questions than he’s answered, and all that’s left is a humble request: “Lord help me, I don’t want to be religious/Lord help me, I just want to make a difference.” Considering how often hip-hop seems defined by swagger and bravado, such humility is inspiring.
I’ve been a fan of Carlos Forster ever since I heard his golden voice fronting the sterling indie-pop group For Stars. However, there’s very little that’s “pop” about 2015 Disasters. Instead, Forster’s latest is full of lo-fi psychedelia that owes as much to The Flaming Lips and My Bloody Valentine as anyone. However, the lo-fi haze does nothing to blunt his songs’ emotional effect; if anything, it allows them to envelope the listener more fully, increasing their emotional impact.
Case in point: “Alice,” the album’s final song, in which Forster warns his young daughter about the heartache she’ll inevitably experience as she grows up. Against reverb-drenched piano, cavernous drones, and sad strings, he sings “Everybody knows/But no one wants to tell you/That everybody goes” before concluding “I wanna tell you just how much I love you.” As the song winds down, he repeats a single, plaintive word — “Smile” — as he fades out, a sad-yet-perfect audio representation of both a father’s undying hope for, and waning influence on, his child. (Read my full review of Disasters.)
There was about a three-week stretch where I listened to The Green Kingdom’s Vapor Sequences non-stop, especially during late-night coding sessions. Michael Cottone’s hazy, highly ambient take on dub music was just the sort of thing for those times when I was staring, bleary-eyed, at code around one or two in the morning. The shimmering, morphing electronics and faint, pulsing beats make for a hypnotic listen, while some distant, forlorn trumpet adds some emotional warmth to the song’s otherwise austere nature.
I was initially taken aback by just how unabashedly and straightforwardly poppy the first singles from Grimes’ Art Angels were (e.g., “Flesh Without Blood,” “SCREAM”). I suppose I was looking for more of the skewed poppiness that typified 2012’s Visions; in my cynicism, I thought she was toning down her sound. (Or, dare I say, selling out.) But then I heard “Realiti” and realized I was totally fine with the newer, poppier Claire Boucher. “Realiti” is the closest Grimes has come to an honest-to-goodness club banger; it’s full of soaring beats and synthesizer crescendos, and Boucher’s helium-filled “little girl lost” vocals are full of wonder and urgency (“Oh, I fear that no life will ever be like this again/’Cause your love kept me alive and it made me insane”).
The opening seconds of “Interference” are a swelling chaos: countless snippets of melodies, beats, and vocals collide and ping pong off each other like subatomic particles in a cloud chamber. The effect is rather sterile and artificial-sounding… at first. But there are several amazing things about “Interference.” First is how surprisingly listenable, and even poppy it gets. Second is how emotional and joyous it sounds. By the mid-way point, “Interference” reaches a euphoric moment as Herndon’s homemade software generates wave after wave of abstract, kaleidoscopic sound. The result is a song that, while definitely not pop music in any technical sense, sounds like the best parts of a million pop songs collapsed into a single entity, and in the process, sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard. (Read my full review of Platform.)
Psychedelic folk music often hides behind layers of hazy sound and abstract arrangements that sound totally mind-blowing man but at the expense of forging any true emotional connection. Not so with In Gowan Ring’s “Set a Candle in the Night.” The song doesn’t eschew the hazy and psychedelic entirely (hence the ghostly choir lurking in the song’s background) while singer/songwriter B’eirth muses on doubt, despair, and even something like a religious experience. Accompanied by an organ and some gracefully picked acoustic guitar, B’eirth sings “And the angels singing choir… They pierce my breast and flood my mind/The Light Eternal leaves me blind and struck dumb at the cross.” It’s one of the most hushed, subdued moments in B’eirth’s considerable repertoire, and without a doubt, one of the most beautiful.