a year in review
50. Ryn Weaver – “OctaHate”
Marimba! Voice cracks! Kooky lyrics that range from the overwritten (“Shot through the cracks of the earthquake / My body’s moving into retrograde”) to the unneededly symbolic (“And you’re the dynamite in my chains”) to the purely nonsensical (“You shot me down from the live-wire”)! “OctaHate,” a title ridiculous in itself, is about the untamed joy of breaking away from an unhealthy relationship, and Weaver’s newlyfound freedom is too much for her to take. “I’m feeling loose, feeling untamed,” she claims in the second verse, and her failed attempt to control her emotions results in the liveliest of melodies.
49. Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian at Best”
Grittiness can be good, but when you stuff three huge monologues into a chaotic guitar session, you’re begging for something messy to come out. It’s a fair assessment; much of “Pedestrian at Best” is dirty and bizarre, such as the chorus’ drawn-out declaration of “but I don’t find you very fuu-uu-uu-uu-uu-uu-uu-uuny.” That’s some of the charm, though, because for a song about being a lovesick failure, sometimes you need a bit of unabashed craziness to get over your insecurities. “What would Freud have said?” she eventually asks, and the answer is probably something akin to reaction formation, seen in her desperate attempts at masking her loserhood. But even though it’s as though she’s inviting us to laugh at her, we can’t, because we’re too busy shouting along anyway.
48. J. Cole – “Wet Dreamz”
Rap music is a stereotypically masculine genre, so it’s refreshing to hear a major artist take on a heavy-handed topic (sex, in this case) and demonstrate both humor and sensitivity. Cole is a natural storyteller, and in “Wet Dreamz” he takes us back to his awkward middle school years, when puberty was an alien but unavoidable fact of life, to tell us about the embarrassing build up to his first time. There’s mountains of hooks, a bleating instrumental that sounds like it came from a vintage porno, and, like any great narrative, a twist ending. Bonus points for having the year’s most adorable music video, made for the unlikeliest of songs.
47. Jazmine Sullivan – “Let It Burn”
It appears as though Sullivan is on a mission to condense the tenderest bedroom moments into one song. “Let It Burn” smolders, flares up, and then bursts as her desire grows and grows. She’s the one in control, of course; she never begs, but rather commands, and even the brashest of her demands carry the charm of seduction when delivered in one of the sweetest, deepest voices we have today. Sullivan claims in the song that she’s the one that’s found the love of her life, and her affection manifests in the enveloping warmth of the track.
46. Florence + the Machine – “Ship to Wreck”
Florence’s preferred sound is the yell, and her preferred emotion is anger. Breakup songs are a natural fit, and “Ship to Wreck” has all the hallmarks of a messy relationship and a classic Florence single: overly symbolic lyrics, rock and roll, and lots and lots of yelling. But it’s how she manages to restrain the sound while preserving its energy that elevates the song, like how she cuts away to let the guitars carry the song into the bridge. It’s a necessary drop, for it accentuates the louder parts of the song to make them all the more bombastic, like how her the chorus’ cries crash about like boulders against your eardrums.
45. Janet Jackson feat. J. Cole – “No Sleeep”
The most underrated artist of modern times returns, as sensual and lush as we remembered. Jackson’s legacy has been largely overlooked, and her classic songs have been forgotten for the newer generations, but “No Sleeep” is a necessary reminder of all that made her special. It’s a sultry jam about escaping to the sheets, and while the remix with Cole doesn’t add much, there’s always room for one more person in the bedroom. It’s hypnotizing in its tremulousness, but true to its title, there’s no time for slumber when Jackson’s coos are infinitely more satisfying.
44. f(x) – “4 Walls”
Kpop groups are volatile entities–virtually no major group has gone these past years without a lineup change–but for f(x), nothing was lost with longtime member Sulli’s departure. Four members, four walls: a number characterized by stability and closure, but the wibble-wobble of the chorus’ “love is four wa-wa-wa-walls” hints at something uncertain afoot. All are on point here, especially Amber, who drops some of the best triplets of her career, and producers LDN Noise, who take on house music and outdo the entirety of the western hemisphere. “4 Walls” surrounds you with its tantalizing noise, and while it sounds like it might come crashing down at any moment, you’re paralyzed by its allure.
43. Taylor Swift – “Style”
The undulating synths rise like fog in the headlights as Swift and her lover drive back home, ready to continue their pattern of breakups and make-ups. This is nothing new for Swift, known for songs (and headlines) on her relationships and their fallouts, but now she is keenly aware of both the worthless nature of her desires and her role in continuing the cycle. “Style” is a tribute to sex–physical attraction trumping all other descriptors as Swift watches her lover disrobe, the chorus becoming a laundry list of his ethereal James Dean/James Deen qualities–as it’s the sex that keeps their threadbare relationship chugging along. She knows they’re doomed, but as a departure from the melodrama of her past songs, she’s content to ride it out until the inevitable crash. The result is the crowning jewel of Swift’s progression to pop and to adulthood: a hauntingly beautiful track, as pure as midnight and as timeless as a white t-shirt.
42. Kacey Musgraves feat. Willie Nelson – “Are You Sure”
Take country music’s newest prodigy, one known for her love of the genre’s roots, and pair her with one of its greatest legends. Then fill the room with the most unabashedly country of atmospheres and let the magic happen. Bars, even the most crowded ones, can be the loneliest of places, and in “Are You Sure,” Musgraves and Nelson act as your friends, coming in through the haze to plead with you to come home. It’s fitting that this is the last track of Pageant Material; it’s the slow waltz to conclude the day’s glamour, a gentle reminder that all parties must come to an end. While the album is in many ways a sophomore slump, its closer here reaffirms Musgraves as its current pioneer of not just country music in general, but also of its most beloved sounds.
41. Kendrick Lamar feat. Bilal, Anna Wise & Thundercat – “These Walls”
The concrete walls of jail cells, the white walls of bedrooms, the pink, fleshy walls of a woman: All of these hide intertwining secrets, and all play into Lamar’s twisting narrative of revenge and triumph. “These Walls” is one of his many songs that require a trip to rapgenius; without explanation, it’s a song with glancing references to prison and sex and the like. But the annotations stretch out every line like taffy, and the relations between Lamar, the woman, and the man behind the bars emerge in frightening portensity. When you inevitably rewind the first verse, every wail and coo and muffled shout gain additional significance as Lamar stumbles between the bedroom and the streets, a technicolor glow bathing the scenery. There are secrets galore hidden within the walls, and the mystifying power of the song comes in how every listen peels away, layer by layer, part of the plaster.
40. Tinashe – “All Hands on Deck”
While Tinashe’s breakout hit “2 On” stuck her squarely in the backdrop, a thin voice acting as backup to DJ Mustard’s production, “All Hands on Deck” drops her at the helm of the dancefloor. Lyrically, it’s about getting over an ex and looking to “fill this empty void,” but it’s more about revenge and becoming the baddest you can be. And thus, armed with sinister synths courtesy of Stargate and Cashmere Cat, a walloping bass, and the catchiest pan flutes in recent history, Tinashe sounds every bit as vicious and sexy as such a breakup requires. It’s strong, fierce even, and an ironclad argument for Tinashe’s ever-growing notoriety.
39. Susanne Sundfør – “Accelerate”
There’s a lot of love songs out there. Some of them are tender; others are aggressive. “Accelerate” is love as a type of apocalypse, taking an intimate moment and rocketing it off into the dizzying darkness, as if death is only an inch away from her lips. Sundfør’s lines are chilling (“Many people will get hurt,” shortly followed by “Finish your dessert”), the chorus becomes darker and faster with each iteration, and then that organ solo rips in. Goddamn, that organ solo: demonic and melodious and murderous and utterly captivating. It brings the song to a halt, only for Sundfør to accelerate everything forward once again. Like a train wreck, her love’s a terror that demands your complete attention, no matter how scared you might be to keep going.
38. Vince Staples – “Norf Norf”
“Bitch you thirsty, please grab a Sprite” just might be the best opening and product endorsement of the year. The funny lines don’t end there; he later goes, “Folks need Porsches, hoes need abortions,” “Cut class ‘cause it wasn’t about cash,” and “Sorry I hit your homie five times, better grab chalk.” To say this is a love song for gang culture would be misguided, however. Like much of Summertime ‘06, “Norf Norf” aims for honesty in its depiction of Staples’ time with the Crips in northside (norfside?) Long Beach, and so he comes across as just as invincible and irreverent as when he was a teenager. His voice is disdainful, however, during his bloody, violent narrative, and the demented police siren moaning in the background muddles his experiences further. The song never veers towards outright criticism, but there’s enough discernible regret to reveal his intentions anyway.
37. Beach House – “Sparks”
“Sparks” is built upon a foundation of coarseness: the fuzzy electric guitar that’s probably not plugged in right, the distant and blurring vocals, the off-key organ that occasionally pierces through the song. Lyrically, too, is it rough, with the paradoxical line “And it goes dark again / Just like a spark” closing the chorus. All of this is deliberate, for Beach House make these imperfections melodious and dreamy in their tale of waning creativity. Depression Cherry is the duo’s fifth album after nearly a decade of being in the game, and their closing call to action of “Make it / Wake it / Alive” is their slogan of the mutual dependency of life and art. The song might not be perfect, but what it lacks in precision it makes up for in emotion. Its existence is enough for them, as it is proof they still have what it takes to keep going.
36. Years & Years – “Shine”
When Years & Years won the BBC Sound of Music award in 2015, they were already well on their ways to becoming the country’s synthpop frontmen. “Shine” is their greatest triumph thus far, in part because it has all the hallmarks of a great pop song: catchy hooks, big chorus you can dance to, echoes of Girls Aloud and Kate Bush in the production. It’s not as sparkly and effervescent as their other tracks, but what it has is sensitivity, found in lead singer Olly Alexander’s voice. He sounds intimate, sometimes powerful but always reserved, as he’s on the brink of a revelation about his true feelings. The fact that Alexander is gay adds to the song’s vulnerability; that fact that this song’s narrative is probably taking place at a Clean Bandit concert might not. But the sound of falling in love is beautiful still.
35. Miranda Lambert – “Little Red Wagon”
No other song this year quite understands the importance of momentum. “Little Red Wagon” is a cover, but what its original (which is itself an adaptation of a campfire classic) lacked in force, Lambert makes up for in spades. The song is propelled forward with a classic country sound going intermittently ballistic, and Lambert supplies enough oohs and aahs and dat-dat datdatdatdahs to accelerate everything past the stratosphere. Even when everything drops out does the bridge maintain its inertia, making the final chorus’ goofy frenzy not a surprise but an obvious climax. This is country’s biggest female in her silliest single yet, and it’s a sight both glorious and menacing.
34. Javiera Mena – “Sincronía, Pegaso”
Mena relishes in taking a song and, halfway through, giving it a completely different trajectory. “Sincronía, Pegaso” starts off mellow and emotive, building up a mien of a power ballad. But at the tail end of the second verse, in a flurry of synths and blips, the song takes off, growing wilder and flying higher and never deigning to land. It later bursts into a full three minutes of disco-tinged fury, and that’s when the realization hits you, that this isn’t a ballad, but rather dance music in its strongest form. “Synchronization, Pegasus,” goes the translated title, capturing both the electronic allure of the song and the might of its ascent.
33. The Weeknd – “Can’t Feel My Face”
The Weeknd’s meteoric rise this past year, thanks in part to both Ariana Grande and E. L. James, eventually led him into collaborating with pop production savant Max Martin. Of course “Can’t Feel My Face” would become his biggest hit yet; besides the infectious beat (complete with handclaps and the loudest bassline of the year), this is the closest anyone’s ever gotten to Michael Jackson-level swagger in a long while. The chorus builds up, sinister and seductive, before dropping off to let a buzzy voice croon over the song’s funky foundation. It’s purportedly using another women-as-drugs metaphor, this time about cocaine, but none of that matters because everybody’s too busy dancing to care.
32. Joanna Newsom – “Sapokanikan”
“Sapokanikan” begins with a reference to “Ozymandias,” the Shelley poem meant to impart a lesson on the transitory nature of man’s legacies. But the song isn’t concerned with fictional kingdoms, because Sapokanikan was a name used by the Lenape Native American tribe for their long-gone trading post on present-day Manhattan Island. The music video, which features Newsom walking around New York City, then gains larger significance; this song is about the passage of time and its ability to bury civilizations right underneath our feet (which happens even here at Brown). It’s a deceptively simple song, with Newsom’s slight voice guiding the listener not through verses or choruses, but just up to the climax’s cries of manifest destiny. “Look and despair,” she sings at the end, a reminder of even though it’s important to keep this history in mind, nothing can be done to reverse the process.
31. Kurt Vile – “Pretty Pimpin”
“Pretty Pimpin” is about the protean nature of people and how unexpectedly we can change, a suddenness Vile captures with the lines “I woke up this morning / Didn’t recognize the man in the mirror.” He shifts between the first and third person, alternating between introspection and an inability to recognize himself, as he talks of his desire to live a carefree lifestyle. The goal is admirable, but the tragedy of the song comes towards the end, when he quips the title in the lines “But he was sporting all my clothes / I gotta say, pretty pimpin.” He’s becomes what he wanted to be, but in the process, he’s become a stranger to himself. He can recognize his clothes but not his teeth or his hair–not what’s actually him.
30. Demi Lovato – “Cool for the Summer”
2015 will be remembered as the year Disney Radio finally put a song about lesbian experimentation on rotation. Think “I Kissed a Girl” but with twice the bombast and none of the heteronormativity; Lovato has a craving for the cherry, and as the song oscillates between coquettish rasps and barbaric yawps, a tinkling piano and a searing-hot electric guitar (which share the same riff), not one moment sounds the least bit sorry for wanting a bite. “Cool for the Summer” is bursting with moments of greatness–the pre-chorus that leaps from kissing to dying, a Snoop Dogg reference, a nonsensical f-bomb, how she sings “body type” like she’s drawing curves with her voice–but most importantly, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Music, even the pop variety, has a tendency to get deathly serious and depressing at times. But for an intense three minutes, Lovato takes us down into her paradise, and it’s one like no other.
29. Hudson Mohawke – “Ryderz”
When Post- covered Mohawke in April, Lantern, his second LP, was still in the works. It had been nearly six years since his first, and with his growing fame in the EDM world, bigger names were now added to his songs: Miguel, Jhené Aiko, etc. Lantern’s arrival was preceded by “Ryderz,” which had no big names but a sample from a soul singer instead. It’s an unusual choice for a producer best known for hip-hop, but the vocals are incidental in the end. They sound like another part of Mohawke’s eclectic production, and he toys with them, distorting and masking and bringing them to the forefront of the song once more. The underlying emotion at play is triumph, a fitting one regarding both his skill and his growing popularity.
28. Taylor Swift – “Out of the Woods”
If you take “State of Grace,” the opening track of Red, extract its relentlessly aggressive drums, multiply them, add some echoey shouts, and thrust everything forward, you might end up with something like “Out of the Woods.” Both songs deal with the tumultuous feelings of being in love, but while the former finds solace amidst the din, “Out of the Woods” features an older and infinitely more disillusioned Swift doubting the future of her relationship at every step of the way. The racing force of the chorus is a form of her desperation to believe that their love does have a chance, and it’s proof that you’re never quite out of the woods when it comes to relationships. But is it a 2015 song? Well, let’s not worry too much about that.
27. Nicki Minaj feat. Beyoncé – “Feeling Myself”
Consider this song, in theory: A laundry list of accomplishments from two successful women of color who have undeniably earned the right to brag–Beyoncé especially, whose accomplishments would take multiple albums to properly capture. It’s a natural sequel to the “***Flawless” remix, with the swagger carried over but the music infinitely more accessible. “Feeling Myself” is fierce, sexy, and inherently feminist, and its power comes not only because of the legendary names attached, but also because of the synergy the two superstars have with one another. They snarl and growl, but they also sound like they’re having the time of their lives. With mutual support comes empowerment; they might not sound like they’re actively trying to teach anything, but the song winds up sending a powerful message regardless.
26. Titus Andronicus – “Dimed Out”
An amp is “dimed out” when each of its dial settings has been turned to the max. This doesn’t necessarily it’s louder, but rather more extreme and harder to digest. It’s an appropriate metaphor for Titus Andronicus, who are push all of the parts of the song here to their limits, with slurry and explosive vocals and a rock instrumental both summery and stormy. “Dimed Out” is part of the second act of the opera-album The Most Lamentable Tragedy, where the protagonist’s dopplegänger begins to evaluate his manic approach to making art; the subject matter, as you can see, is as ridiculous as how it’s being portrayed. Amidst all the chaos comes his steadfast individualism and extremism, embodied by the chaos itself, and even if you’re turned off by the turmoil, you have to respect his zeal.
25. Snakehips feat. Tinashe and Chance the Rapper – “All My Friends”
Drug culture, party culture, and millennial culture intertwine more and more the closer the weekend nears. The setting is Friday night, and all three play out their roles; Chance is the one trying but failing his best to keep his friends clean (a fitting character, considering how critical he’s been about Xanax and other drugs), Tinashe is the heartbroken soul slipping down a series of bad decisions in her quest to find a little love, and Snakehips are the directors, setting the scene with a palette of drowsy hip-hop and fleeting bleats that cry and moan. “All My Friends” is precise in the moments it captures: when you’re headed home, when your head’s aching, when you start to regret your past few hours. But a varied range of feelings and motives are on dismal display here, and however small these images are, the sum of their parts manages to capture the gloom of a generation.
24. Kendrick Lamar – “King Kunta”
The day this song was released was the day I went from being a casual fan to counting down the days to the release of To Pimp a Butterfly. It has everything you could ever want from Lamar. You want catchy one-liners? “King Kunta” has more than the standard Beyonce album. (Bonus if you want one-liners about yams.) You want shade? Don’t worry, he’s got a bone to pick: “But a rapper with a ghost writer? What the fuck happened!” (take note, Meek Mill and Drake, on how to do this properly). You want politics? Listen as he takes the name of the famous Roots protagonist and calls himself a king, symbolizing how his nascent success as a rapper contrasts with the prejudices that accompany the color of his skin. And most importantly, do you want the FUNK? Cause he’s got the funkiest song of the year. Lamar’s got his gold throne on a driveway in Compton, and no other rapper has the chops to budge him.
23. Dumblonde – “Dreamsicle”
In the remains of Danity Kane’s failed comebacks lie two factions: the one led by established indie artist Dawn Richard, and the one led by the people Dawn Richard punched in the face. Aubrey O’Day (the recipient of the punch) and Shannon Bex, who reformed as duo Dumblonde, have struggled through these past years of industry drama, but repeated failures have not dimmed their determination. “Dreamsicle” is a glitch-pop call to action that equates sleeping to chasing dreams, and every second is filled with frenzied energy. The prechorus line “I’m getting tired” sounds deliciously sinister, and the chorus’ cold mantra of “We won’t wake up / The dream is never done,” drowning in a sea of synths and massive drums, drills deep into your head and refuses to leave. If sheer determination could make stars, “Dreamsicle” would birth supernovas.
22. IU – “Twenty-Three”
The year hasn’t been kind to South Korean superstar IU. She’s endured accusations of stealing instrumentals, plagiarizing music videos, and sexualizing minors in her lyrics, as well as the usual tabloid bullshit that accompanies being a popular young woman, stuff on her boyfriend and her plastic surgery and her personality behind closed doors. Having to sustain years of such abuses is certainly frustrating, but all this prying into her private life also leaves one unsure of how she wants to be perceived. Written entirely by IU, “Twenty-Three” operates as both a coming-of-age fuck-the-haters anthem and as an exploration of who she thinks she is, what people think of her, and what she wants herself to be. Reading the lyrics, you’d be surprised to hear how joyous a song it is, with her light voice scampering amidst deliciously vicious disco strings and neo-funk painting the scene’s vibrant backdrop. IU understands that despite how exhausting self-discovery can be, and how even though she might not find any answers down the rabbit hole, the thrill of the chase is still a reward in itself.
21. Brandon Flowers – “Can’t Deny My Love”
With a title like that, your love better be worth it. If “Can’t Deny My Love,” everything else left intact, had been sung over an acoustic guitar and some fingersnaps, it would’ve winded up as some Jason Mraz-level douchebaggery, sure to become an unbearable staple at talent shows and campfire circles. But the song gets flung to the heavens, thanks to co-producer Ariel Rechtshaid and his orchestral excess, and Flowers’ love sounds not only desirable, but of cosmic importance. He sounds not like he’s calling for you outside your window, but like he’s standing on a mountaintop, crying out to the storm clouds. It’s a killer love song with an undeniable affection.
20. Kelela – “Rewind”
If “electric” was the word Post- used to describe Kelela last year, “Rewind” is the equivalent of a fountain of sparks, buzzing and fizzing in a pitch black room. The synths and hand claps bounce about, then Kelela drifts in and, after locking eyes with you, declares her desires. It’s a kind of longing that can speed up, slow down, and warp time (and the bass and beats, appearing and disappearing and appearing again at a different tempo, accentuate these changes of pace). It’s the kind that only appears late at night when you’re at your most vulnerable, and Kelela is your hunter, determined to make you hers. “She’s cool, she’s hot, she’s young,” went last year’s article, and now she has something else to add: hungry.
19. Ashley Monroe – “Bombshell”
Monroe was always the gentlest of the Pistol Annies. She could have grit when necessary, but she always sounded more at home on their slower, more languorous tracks. The Blade is, likewise, a sonically conservative album, never getting too loud or too fast; its weight comes from her poignant songwriting, delivered in her devastatingly sweet voice. “Bombshell” is about the power of words, not to cut as much as to incinerate. It’s about the care one needs to take before unleashing pent-up emotions and sentences; here, it’s the eventual declaration of “I can’t love you anymore” that she struggles to say, and so she repeats it to herself, as if as practice, as the song swells around her. Yet uncertainty lingers in the air, about not knowing if the price of telling the truth is worth getting it out there, if lifting the burden off your shoulders outweighs whatever will come afterwards. The ending is a cliffhanger, hanging on an unfulfilled chord, as she musters the courage to light the fuse.
18. D’Angelo and the Vanguard – “Really Love”
“On the sites the critics come and go / Talking of D’Angelo” went one tweet in early January. The Prufrock reference is fairly appropriate; this is a love song, after all. You’d think it’s an intimate one, emerging from some Spanish whispers and giving you a list of things he loves about her; the claim of “I’m in really love with you” sounds kindergarten in nature, but sometimes only childish sayings can get the point across. The lush guitar, simple beats, and soulful vocals fill your ears with gorgeous sounds. But when the introduction is translated, you’re given the woman’s perspective of how his overbearing love has made him want to possess her; “You want to be my owner. But I am free,” she states, albeit seductively, and the following lines are thus mired. “Really Love” can be listened to in two ways: as a tender love song, or as a depiction of the power struggle in an unstable relationship. The fact that both work effectively is a testament to the song’s crafty construction.
17. Fetty Wap – “Trap Queen”
Crafted in a year where the hook “These hoes ain’t loyal” dominated urban radio, “Trap Queen” is a gentle reminder that such a view is grossly pessimistic. Here’s Wap’s modern romance: Meet a girl, woo her, teach her how to make crack, admire how she makes money on her own hustle, and drive your matching Lambos off into the sunset. It’s not an aggressively feminist anthem, but it’s fine this way as a simple portrayal of loyalty, needed in all walks of life. The only thing surpassing Wap’s love for his partner, however, is his apparent glee of being in a studio; listen to his saccharine “yeahhhhh”s infesting the chorus and observe how most rappers couldn’t sound that happy if their lives depended on it. It’s happiness at a magnitude only possible at the very beginning of one’s career, and after stacking on a beat I probably could have mixed myself, and it sounds exactly like that one song the amateur rapper from your hometown has been trying forever to make. And it’s perfect in every conceivable way.
16. Tkay Maidza – “M.O.B.”
Maidza is proof of the still undiscovered talent to be found in the Australian rap scene. Listening to “M.O.B.,” which effortlessly flips the traditional chorus/verse pattern, I find it disheartening to know she’s my age; her flow is impeccable, her energy is limitless, and her work ethic, transmitted through her lyrics and her surging voice, is one that I could have used during finals week. Producer L.K. McKay provides the bubbly, electric landscape for Maidza’s rocketship as she jets far into the universe, never looking back or below. “This song’s about cash / But I’m not about the money,” she later spits paradoxically, and it shows: Even if her bars are about money and bitches, it’s her robust character that’s she’s selling here.
15. Alessia Cara – “Here”
The introvert’s dilemma: What do you do when you’re trapped at a party you’d rather leave, with people you don’t know who keep talking about things you don’t care about? Most of the time, you end up sitting down on a couch and thinking about how much you hate the world. In “Here,” Cara is that introvert sitting on that couch at that party, singing about her depleting sense of belonging as she gazes around at the madness. What makes the song so great, as well as popular enough to break the top ten, is because we’ve all been there regardless, on the couch at that party. Above the lethargic, trudging beat, and aided by a sample from a Portishead song released years before Cara’s birth, “Here” is the perfect song for the ones who won’t sing along.
14. Miguel – “Coffee”
Miguel’s metaphors are abundant here, ones on religion, painting, and the cosmos, but his strongest one is the representation of love (or sex, as the outro would suggest) as the act of making a cup of coffee in the morning. It’s both the conclusion of a night of loving and the start of a new adventure, and the swirls in the liquid are his portal into his lover’s embrace. “Coffee,” as a song, is the sound of an intimacy so strong it moves from the physical to the spiritual, of being so close to someone you’re a part of their dreamscape. There’s hints of M83 in the sparkling, atmospheric instrumental and Prince in the voice, tender and ephemeral. It’s the most seductive lullaby of the year, perfect for whatever you plan on doing in bed.
13. Björk – “Stonemilker”
“Stonemilker” is about the struggle to connect with others, as difficult and oftentimes fruitless as, well, “milking a stone.” Every syllable sounds like it’s being pushed out, forcibly, from deep within Björk’s trachea, unwilling to come out yet necessary if she ever wishes to reach something meaningful. “Who is open?” she wonders aloud, then, “Who has shut up?” as if asking the listener if they’ve found the one yet. Björk understands that life is a search for connections, and it’s a journey that’s long, arduous, but vital to our existence. “We have emotional needs,” she asserts, and it’s true: as unyielding as the stone may be, it’s a task we cannot go without.
12. Sufjan Stevens – “Should Have Known Better”
One of Pitchfork’s year-end features this past December was entitled “This Year in Disappointment.” Its final entry was “Sufjan Album Not Sad Enough Just Kidding,” a reference to Carrie & Lowell and its pervasive but allegedly unsatisfactory sadness. “Should Have Known Better” is plenty sad; the song is an autobiographical tale of how Stevens’ inability to properly mourn his mother’s death has tarnished his memories of her. It’s predictably heavy stuff, and the dismal guitar is a suitable backdrop to his voice that steadily grows more distant. Yet there’s still moments of brightness, like the ending mention of his brother’s daughter and the “beauty that she brings,” hinting at how he may have finally found his way to move on. The song might not be “sad enough,” but sometimes happiness, even in mere driblets, can be just as compelling.
11. Missy Elliott feat. Pharrell Williams – “WTF (Where They From)”
Elliott’s past seven or so years can be summarized as a series of wonky collaborations: Fantasia, Busta Rhymes, Little Mix, G-Dragon, so on and so forth. None of those efforts brought her much screen time, but they proved that she’s always been lurking beneath the surface, biding her time. The overwhelmingly positive reception to her Super Bowl appearance was likely the final sign that the people were ready for her to make a proper comeback, and now she’s finally here. “WTF (Where They From)” is Elliott’s first proper single since 2006, and she hasn’t lost any of her energy and sense of fun. Every syllable sounds like it’s been carefully selected (Elliot is the only rapper who can pull off a line like“blah blah blah blah”), the chorus is a glorious mixture of Miley Cyrus shade and cultural discourse, and Williams’ rap is his greatest and weirdest in years. Like all of Elliott’s greatest singles, “WTF” is a straight-up banger that manages to sound both familiar and ahead of its time.
10. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Run Away With Me”
Jepsen’s career has been overshadowed by “Call Me Maybe” and its immense success, which makes her the poster child of frivolous pop music, which then means, to much of the world, she has no discernible talent, artistry, or personality. That last attribute is the most damning; in a business like music, where sustained success is one part what you hear and twenty parts what you see, a lack of personality can spell doom for anyone, females especially. Jepsen’s return to the music industry this year was riddled with these accusations, and the nature of her comeback single did not help her cause. “I Really Like You,” which substituted the “maybe” with 67 “really”s, was classified as prime for listeners 10 to 20 years Jepsen’s junior (she turned 30 in November). Nevermind its merits: those thumping 80s drums, her short catches of breath in the chorus, or the accurate portrayal of liking someone as a terrifying venture, a quality that continues well into adulthood. It never stood a chance in this cruel, cruel world, and even with Tom Hanks and Justin Bieber appended, the song was a failure stateside.
Fortunately, Jepsen and her team made the best possible decision afterwards, which was to not give a single shit. In an interview with the New York Times, they laid out their goal of creating a critically-acclaimed pop album, which to the general public probably sounds like an oxymoron. Impossible, but it happened; the reviews for her sophomore effort E•MO•TION were roundly positive, even with that personality thing tugging at her scores. Pitchfork claimed her album “lacks the personality of the most memorable pop records,” Spin called her “a woman tagged with the scarlet letter of No Personality,” so on and so forth, in an endless stream of mindless criticism.
But Jepsen does have a personality, and at no moment in E•MO•TION is that more apparent than in its explosive opening track. “Run Away With Me” is about craving someone so much you feel like you’re rocketing to the stars, a chorus of saxophones blaring behind you. This is Jepsen’s expertise, in finding that dark spot in our hearts where we’re at our most vulnerable and filling it with gold. This is where her personality shines; she’s the friend gingerly holding your hand when necessary, but what she really wants to do is run down the street, giggling and yelling and not looking at anyone else in the world but you. This song is love in its most innocent state, the love that we’re all trying to find. This is where you have to say, screw the naysayers, screw the critics, screw the people who refused to give the “Call Me Maybe” singer a chance. This is music–not pop music, music–at its most feeling, at its most emotional, and thus at its most powerful.
9. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment – “Sunday Candy”
Another year has gone by with Chance the Rapper doing everything in the world besides releasing a studio album. It can be frustrating for a fan, since his popularity could rightfully explode with a proper LP release, but you can’t fault him for being lazy. A charity fund to provide the homeless with winter jackets, a lecture at Harvard, and a short film are amongst some of this year’s efforts, but the two greatest things Chance had a part in this 2015 are as follows: the album Surf, a collaborative effort between Chance and an army of others that call themselves Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, and a baby daughter.
“Sunday Candy,” Surf’s first single, is about family. Specifically, grandmothers: The song is a love letter to Chance’s grandmother, an affection that extends down to her smells and is relatable even if you’ve never gone to church. It’s a mixture of gospel, broadway, and honky-tonk turnup, and Chance sounds boyish and sweet, so much so that you can envision him looking up, glossy eyed, towards his grandmother smile. But the heart and soul of the song is Jamila Woods ‘11, who resides in the chorus but spreads her warmth throughout the whole song. She plays the role of the grandmother, and she sells it perfectly; expected, considering her talents as a slam poet. When she tells you to come inside, you listen, because even ignoring the sunshine in her voice, nobody’s going to risk making their grandma sad.
8. Courtney Barnett – “Depreston”
“Depreston” is about buying real estate in the suburb of Preston, Australia, which you’ve probably never heard of for a good reason. Like many of the songs off of Barnett’s debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, it’s narrated through a series of small observations: getting coffee, seeing someone get arrested, grabbing the handrail of the shower. It’s about seeing a home, but instead of life, Barnett is met with the husk of one already gone by. Unable to figure out what promise this dismal home once held for someone long ago, she just sits, letting the listener interpret the images and impressions as a twee medley of strings acts as guides.
I can relate, to an extent. My childhood house has already been sold to a family with two children, and its interior has been turned inside out by renovations and remodeling. I haven’t bothered going back, and I don’t think I ever will, because if Barnett’s experiences are any indication, going back only reinforces how fleeting memories can be without the proper scenery. It’s a weird feeling, like you never really owned then in the first place, and when they’re gone forever, you’re not sure what to think, so you kind of end up just sitting around. Barnett understands that it’s a scary thing, moving on, and while she can’t take away the pain, she can at least let you know you’re not the only one feeling lost.
7. Father John Misty – “I Love You, Honeybear”
Father John Misty is the pseudonym of indie-alt-rock-folk-whateverwhatever singer Josh Tillman. He’s like the Sasha Fierce of hipsters, in the sense that he’s embodying an extreme character: Father John Misty is the ultimate music curmudgeon, or a “chronic over-complainer,” in his words, who is “very suspicious of the mainstream.” He distrusts pop music, distrusts poptimism, and has said that Lou Reed appeared to him in a dream to tell him to delete his covers of Taylor Swift songs (a statement, he claims, was intentionally ridiculous so as to test the media’s tendency to report anything and everything). His overbearing cynicism bleeds into his music, and much of his album I Love You, Honeybear deals with his disillusionment on subjects like America, fidelity, and all that good stuff.
The album’s title track is at once a tender love song and an extremely grotesque one. There’s intimate sex, but they’re on a Rorschach bedsheet of “mascara, blood, ash, and cum,” and their neighbors think they’re “conceiving a Damien.” Inbetween these lines are glancing references to death filling the streets, the global economy’s collapse, and other massively frightening events that fail to deter their affections. At its core, “I Love You, Honeybear” is about the vastness of the world and how we, as microscopic individuals and lovers, fit inside. Love is ugly and inconsequential, but it has the ability to take control of an individual, to shift their outlook from “Everything is doomed” to “Everything is fine,” and to turn the bitterest of cynics into the tenderest of lovers.
6. Jamie xx feat. Young Thug & Popcaan – “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”
As opposed to the previous track, this is a love song that relishes in its grossness. Lines like “She gon’ get on top of this dick / And she gon’ squish it like squish” are some I probably could have gone much of my life without; the onomatopoeic nature of the word “squish” makes the imagery all the more unavoidable. I suppose that’s part of the charm of “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times),” though; its a weird blend of charm and extreme horniness, courtesy of Young Thug’s nonchalant rapping and Popcaan’s irresistible hook. Profanity runs rampant with barely-single entendres–what does it mean to “ride in that pussy like a stroller” anyway? Yuck.
The three of them make for a strange group; Jamie xx especially stands out, a British producer who provides the sunny background for his collaborators’ spunk. “I know” is the predominating phrase of the song, and that confidence seeps into the production, with hints of tropical house, trap, reggae, and doo-wop, but the combination is so unique as to defy categorization. Don’t think that the number of those genres hints at clunkiness; the song breezes by like a summer zephyr, and Jamie xx’s bright production makes even the most profane of sections sound innocent. It takes a lot of effort to sound this carefree and confident.
5. Kendrick Lamar – “Alright”
Maybe it’s the Taylor Swift endorsement, maybe internet critics have more bearing on public opinion than you’d think, maybe To Pimp a Butterfly is just that good of an album, but Lamar’s popularity has grown exponentially over the past year, and “Alright” is at the helm of his growth. Its video was nominated for MTV’s Video of the Year, and the Grammy’s nominated it for four major awards. It’s perched on nearly every year-end list, including at #1 over at Pitchfork. At my 1989 World Tour date over the summer, several songs from Swift’s peers were played before the concert started, female artists like Selena Gomez and Lorde. Then, suddenly, “Alright” came on, very heavily censored. The inclusion made sense, since the “Bad Blood” remix was still a radio staple at that point, but it boggled my mind how a song like this was being played in a place that vanilla.
What troubles me about Lamar’s booming popularity, and how “Alright” has become his defining song, is that its message does not always get passed along. “Alright” holds the distinction of being the only protest song on this list. “Alright” is about being black in America, an experience outside most people’s realm but one we need to do our best to understand. “Alright” deals with police brutality, oppression, being shot dead in the street, and Lucifer. And “Alright” is about finding strength in the face of such evils; it’s no coincidence that Pharrell Williams, best known for “Happy,” is the one chanting the chorus.
To Pimp a Butterfly was released in March, and in the months since, such a song has become all the more pertinent. The pile of names has grown: Jamar Clark, Sandra Bland, Samuel DeBose, Freddie Gray, dozens upon dozens. Justice is as hard to find as ever–Tamir Rice’s murderers got off scot-free before I could finish this list–and repeated protests have been unsuccessful in bringing about change. And just as “Alright” gained popularity, so did resistance against the Black Lives Matter movement. Everywhere has resentment grown, for shutting down the Mall of America, for spreading more racial thinkpieces throughout the internet, for daring to be both angry and black, and many people, who claim they love Lamar and “Alright,” share this feeling. Does that make “Alright” all that more necessary of a song, or does that make it a failure? I can’t decide; only time will tell. But it’s the only song this year that’s managed to weave its way into a revolution, and that speaks volumes about its power. We’ll be alright, the song promises, and it’s that belief we need now more than ever.
4. Tame Impala – “Let It Happen”
The bridge comes in a little over halfway through “Let It Happen,” and it’s, as Kevin Parker admits, pure gibberish, made by “saying words and stringing sentences together that weren’t really words.” They initially intended to come back to the section later and substitute it with actual lyrics, but they never bothered. Live performances have scripted lines, but the song’s bridge is still incomprehensible despite repeated listens. “It will never make sense,” Parker says, “but the song is called ‘Let It Happen,’ and it’s about letting what’s overtaking you to take control.”
The song’s “it” could refer to a number of things, be they death, love, or, apparently, speaking in tongues while recording the bridge of your song. The important part isn’t really the “it” but rather the nearly eight-minute long odyssey; the narrator is surrounded by “all this noise” but only hearing the voice inside goading him to give in to the “it,” and then the steady progression through chaos and into the bliss of being ready to “move along.” At the same time does the song’s rock and roll vibe give into the electronic production, which had been lying dormant since the beginning. Then, steadily, you feel like you’re giving in too, not so much to the music as much as to its titular demand. “Maybe I was ready all along” is the closing line; the song suggests that maybe you’re ready, too, for whatever your “it” might be.
3. FKA twigs – “in time”
Listening to FKA twigs can be a scary experience. Even here, with the love song “in time,” does it start off menacingly, like it’s preceding a samurai showdown and not a meeting between two lovers. The song’s progression only delves deeper into darkness, like you’re entering a new phase of the boss fight every thirty or so seconds. twigs’ voice gets swallowed up by the electronic glitch-hop, making innocuous lines like “I’m your girl in your light” sound suffocating and evil. At times does her bite come through full force, especially with her likewise glitchy cries of “You be testing my sane,” and “You’ve got a goddamn nerve.”
“in time” is about a relationship on the rocks, but the feeling twigs imparts is not really an emotion but rather an effortless sense of movement. She’s a natural dancer–her first music video appearance was as a backup dancer–and any video of hers will be a showcase of her kinesthetic talents. This idea of dancing, combined with the overall menace of the song delivered with her dexterous voice, makes for a conflicting sense of want and fear. “Your hands on my body will resonate through me,” she croons like an invitation towards the beginning, and the rest of the song follows like a waltz through hell: captivating, but you fall under the impression that any misstep could lead to your demise.
2. Julia Holter – “Feel You”
If you’ve been at the SciLi at midnight to work, you’ll know that the human brain is an unreliable machine, prone to digressions and tangents and derailments. It’s not so much a jumble as it is a bizarre string of thoughts, loosely connected but brought up in our subconscious by some unknown force. The psychology behind priming is relatively easy to understand; when we think of one thing, we’re oftentimes reminded of something else. For example, when Holter is reminded of a certain piano, she quickly follows with a plea of “Can I feel you?” which likely is not about the ivory keys of the piano, but of its owner.
“Feel You,” at times, feels like a study of the human brain. Holter’s thoughts are tumbling and tangentially related, going from the rainy days of Mexico City (weather she enjoys, which is surprising for such a bright track) to rush hour traffic to that aforementioned piano and beyond. It’s difficult to determine what portion of these visions are mere memories and what portion are current thoughts; the tenses jumble about and everything ends up blending together, becoming as homogenous and pleasant as the undercutting baroque mix of harpsichord and strings. You can get a sense of the pressure her brain is under here in its exertion to find the answers to her questions and to quell her doubts. There’s no conclusion to her struggles, however, because Holter’s brain is incapable of bringing her what she craves: to feel, to touch, to make a connection that exists in the physical realm. “Feel You” is about illogical love, one the brain cannot follow, and out of the confusion come the tumultuous yet irresistible aspects of desire.
1. Grimes – “Flesh Without Blood”
Pop is a tricky genre to define and an ever harder one to respect. For the former concern, pop is used as shorthand for “popular” music and includes singers ranging from Drake to Adele to Rachel Platten to Fetty Wap, who all differ sonically but are linked by their peaks on the Hot 100. As an aural quality, pop stands for nothing and is thus hard to pin down, and the fact that bloggers and critics love sticking other words onto the word convolutes everything further: synthpop, bubblegum pop, indiepop, pop-rock. For the latter concern, consider the rise of poptimism, which is the idea that pop songs, going by both the first and second definitions, should be given the same scrutiny as everything else. It’s an adaptation of the term rockism, and it means that we should be evaluating Britney Spears and Becky G the same way we would Kate Bush and Kendrick Lamar.
This idea pisses off a lot of people, for some reason. An old New York Times Magazine article, titled “The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism,” bemoaned how many popular songs were being praised by critics, and the author even went as far to quip that if you “find Lady Gaga’s bargain basement David Bowie routine a snooze…[you] are fatally out of touch with the mainstream..[and] are, in short, an old person.” The irony is thick: We’re allowed to mock and insult pop artists, but if you do the same to our beloved artists, all of a sudden you’re an asshole. In many ways is criticland a bubble, but it’s one that poptimism is trying to pop by using the simple argument that just because something sounds a certain way does not necessarily mean it is below critical evaluation.
Where does Grimes fit into all of this? By this, I mean not just this discussion but pop in general. “Flesh Without Blood,” the greatest track off of her widely acclaimed album Art Angels, sounds like pop music by both the former and latter definitions. It’s heavily influenced by late 90s pop, to be specific, and while she layers in multitudes of aural easter eggs and masks her voice behind an unusual reverb, the undercutting soundscape is one familiar to lovers of pop: upbeat production, simple lines, handclaps, hooks upon hooks. It’s about the fallout of a friendship, but the lyrics are vague enough to be construed as one about the death of a relationship, which is a familiar one if you’ve ever turned on a radio.
Yet in many ways does the song, and Grimes in general, defy how we have come to understand pop. For one, she wrote and produced Art Angels entirely by herself, a feat unmatched no matter the genre. For another, while the album follows many rules of pop, it also defies just as many. “Flesh Without Blood” is over four minutes long, but it is far from the longest on the album. Its structure is perfect but standard, and its beauty comes from how Grimes morphs the track over time, devolving more and more into a melancholy haze. “And now I don’t care anymore,” repeated thrice, becomes not just a line in a song, but an attitude towards the opinions of her critics. Pop music can be catchy or complex, easily digestible or hard to swallow, danceable or compelling. With “Flesh Without Blood,” Grimes manages to be all of them at once.