2015 was a year full of masterful singles and great isolated tracks, frequently aimed at anonymous loners known only by first names, stretched across almost every conceivable genre. We selected our 25 favorites, from pop titans like Adele and the Weeknd to lesser known newcomers like Sweet Spirit and the Posterz.
Adele- “When We Were Young”
When Adele sold her soul to a sea witch or whatever in order to attain world domination, one of the stipulations in the deal was that she could never be happy in music again. Every song must be about a failed relationship or she’ll be stuck playing casinos and singing the “In Memoriam” section of Golden Globes forever. Thank god Adele is an incredible songwriter and performer and has somehow managed to make another legendary song that can stand up with “Someone Like You.”
Unlike her signature song, Adele isn’t longing for the man she once loved or someone like him, all she wants is a memory. A memory of a time with a man she sees at a party before age made them jaded. It doesn’t matter that their relationship ended, presumably by her ex basically faking his death, just coming back together and posing for a facsimile of happiness is enough to spark some synapse in the brain that hasn’t gone off in some time. Love is the drug and Adele needs to score. But in the meantime, this photograph will do. – Dylan Garsee
Florence and the Machine- “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful”
For starters, the song shrouds us in a macabre swath of Florence-ian imagery: “Between a crucifix and a Hollywood sign/We decided to get hurt.” But then Flo does something different—she pulls back the veil. By the song’s holy final moments, it’s become horn-heralded celebration of breathing and being that’s almost Malick-esque in its untrammeled grandeur. Better yet, it does all this without ever losing the spinny strangeness that’s Flo’s and Flo’s alone. – Mason Walker
Father John Misty- “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)”
Back when he first posted the video for “Chateau Lobby” to social media, Father John Misty (AKA Josh Tillman) also penned a miniature manifesto explaining the video’s genesis. The song is essentially his proposal to his wife augmented with Tillman’s typical descriptive flair (“Emma eats bread and butter/The way a Queen would have ostrich and cobra wine”) and selfeffacing charm. Originally he intended the video to involve a cat wedding in a bid for a potentially viral video, but cat wranglers turned out to be unfeasibly expensive. But, more importantly, he realized just how important the song was to him. While “sentimentality brutalizes emotion,” he observed, so would an ironic music video.
I think the reason Father John Misty’s music strikes such a powerful chord with so many of my peers and me is because it manages to tackle what irony is truly aboutthe tension between uninhibited feeling and a necessary, illuminating selfconsciousness. Back in November I had the privilege of attending the wedding of two of my best friends. About halfway through the reception, the groom, who happened to be the very person who first introduced me to Father John Misty, asked me if I had this song saved on phone. I told him that of course I did and he directed me to plug it into the stereo and play it for their first dance. As the song filled the hall the two of them swayed, eyes locked as more than a few family members blushed at the lyrics “I wanna take you in the kitchen/Lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in.” But my friends didn’t seem to care and neither did I. – Joshua Palmer
Girlpool – “Emily”
On “Emily,” in voices clear and delicate, Cleo Tucker and Harmony Kividad of Girlpool sing an ode–part love song, part lament–to the titular Emily. The narrator of the song hopes she’s doing better and yet begs her to remember that “I’m still here.” The song, with spare-but-lovely details like basement seances and “the way your body moves,” evokes the burning, all-consuming love and intimacy of many girls’ first relationships–friendship and otherwise.
There’s an incredible sense of heartbreak, as well as tinges of admiration, in the simple instrumental melody of “Emily.” it sounds like an “oh” you choke out when your closest friend suddenly feels a million miles away and you don’t know whose house to go to after school anymore. With “Emily,” Girlpool captures the magic, romance, and confusion of growing up as a girl (and learning what that means) and manages to provide earnest yet gracefully unsentimental reflections worthy of the nuanced subject matter. – Kayleigh Hughes
Hop Along- “Waitress”
I once had to wait on my ex and his new boyfriend. While we were friendly, I spent my entire shift in my head. “Why did he bring his new boyfriend here? He knows I work here. What is he telling the new guy about? Should I just ask them to move?” Hop Along perfectly captures this horrible horrible feeling so perfectly in a weirdly welcoming and warm song even though it features no clear pop or rock structure. Just guitars and probably the most propulsive female rock vocalist since PJ Harvey. Every crack, break, growl, and other imperfections give this song and the rest of the tracks on their debut album such great and unique soul. But what makes this song stand out and show that she truly knows how terrible it is to work at a restaurant is that the resentment toward the seeing her ex’s new SO shifts from hating her as a threat and hating her as a table that won’t leave your section even after closing. There’s absolutely nothing worse than campers, except maybe genocide. – DG
The Mountain Goats- “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”
“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” was the first single from Beat the Champ, showcasing John Darnielle’s childhood hero. It’s not the most musically adventurous song at first, a safe choice to release as a single for a niche, themed album, but on the second listen I heard Peter Hughes’ bass thrumming underneath Darnielle’s guitar. I noticed the faint shaker throughout the verses, disappearing for a much more energetic tambourine during the chorus of “Look high/It’s my last hope/Chavo Guerrero/Coming off the top rope.” And the lyrics grew in depth, importance, and power.
While I enjoy the music of the Mountain Goats (especially now that Matt Douglas and his horns seem to have become semi-permanent members), many fans are here for the lyrics and raw emotional displays first, with the music serving to accentuate that often than not. “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” starts off like a Wikipedia-esque bio, but it very quickly gets personal. The context of Chavo Guerrero as Darnielle’s hero is integral to discovering the emotional depth of that short, short chorus. Darnielle leaned on wrestling in a way that some of us might lean on comics or games or movies (or the music of the Mountain Goats), using it to get through the hard times that were his teen years in an abusive home. Chavo Guerrero was a personification of righteousness and goodness. He was supposed to win, and each victory was a reminder to Darnielle that there could indeed be justice in the world.
Despite fans branding the lyrics as overly simple for Darnielle, the verses build. The introduction might feel like spitting out facts about Chavo Guerrero with a few personal touches, but the second verse tells the listener just why this man is the singer’s hero. As quickly as we hit the chorus, the band brings us back in with a bridge where Darnielle wishes for any who oppose his hero to face a fiery death — it’s the kind of personal response you might wish for people who have wronged a friend or loved one, someone who means the world to you.
“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” builds up the life of the wrestler in a song until we are forced to believe in him as a hero, just as Darnielle did, and the song deserves the attention of fans of The Sunset Tree for the gut punch of sheer joy that comes with the final verse. Give it a listen. – David “lol what are word count limits” Fairbanks
Sweet Spirit- “Baby When I Close My Eyes”
Being on a mostly local Austin music beat these days means that I don’t go as deep with the big releases all my peers are hyping. A lot of times that leaves me feeling isolated and famished because like any scene, Austin’s is full of pretenders and also-rans and mediocre veterans getting copy just by virtue of their prolonged survival. But if any band helped me break out of those local doldrums this year, it was Sweet Spirit, a Big Deal project that comes with the Britt Daniel seal of approval and a legend in the making leader in the form of Sabrina Ellis.
Sweet Spirit’s debut full length Cokomo was packed full of ‘70s indebted singles, but they proved the flexibility of their sound with “Baby When I Close My Eyes,” a propulsive and dancey bit of melancholic fun that had Ellis’ unveiling a sweeter side of her voice over a Blondie-like arrangement. Cokomo has songs that are more ferocious and perhaps better to long term fans, but on “Baby When I Close My Eyes,” the band silenced anyone who questioned whether anyone in Austin could hit the big time without leaving the city. Maybe “Baby When I Close My Eyes” didn’t top any national charts, but you listen to it and tell me you don’t hear future superstars. – Nick Hanover
Birthday Boy and Drew Howard- “Benny & Lil Ze”
As the world waits with bated breath for Drake to drop his imminent magnum opus Views from the 6, a slightly younger batch of hiphop artists are provoking what Canadian critic Anupa Mistry has called “a sea change” in the city’s musical landscape. Enter producer/DJ Birthday Boy and rapper Drew Howard. These two relatively unheralded Toronto luminaries quietly dropped Music to Soothe the Savage Youth back in October and it is one of the most exquisitely crafted hiphop releases of 2015. While comparisons of any given Torontonian hiphop artist to Drake may seem plainly reductive, such comparisons seem inevitable given his role in establishing what many consider to be the “Toronto Sound”slowburning, melancholic rhymes laid out against a backdrop of syrupy trap beats. But Drake owes much of his crossover appeal to his ability to dole out his sensitivebro stylings judiciously before darting back to more conventional braggadocio. Drew Howard and Birthday Boy differ and excel by burrowing even deeper into that somnolent aesthetic while bringing a more dynamic and nuanced lyricism to the table. For an example of this, look no further than album highlight “Benny & Lil Ze.”
Birthday Boy is a true craftsman; he builds his beats with a tight internal logic giving Howard the proper scaffolding to stretch out and pull back in equal measure. Here he toys with South American and Caribbean rhythms to tease out what sounds like a reggaeton beat wading through molasses. For his part, Howard’s rhymes move seamlessly from blithe narcissism to devastating vulnerability: “She gon’ talk like she want this D/Cause she gon need it when she get weeded/This my diary but just don’t read it.” But even the most stunning lines (“Narcissistic a bit conceited/Fell in love once but then I cheated/She knew better she would’ve seen it/She don’t know cause I act like Jesus”) are tempered with a gentle irony and delivered with a wry grin. When so much hiphop seems like an attempt to make the biggest, boldest statement possible, this kind of subtlety feels like a triumph. – JP
Greg Loftus- “Cinder and Soot”
One excruciating thing about Austin is that everyone loves to worship Willie Nelson like some leather faced messiah but they can’t be bothered to support any of the new crop of twangy singer-songwriters churning out incredible work. Take Greg Loftus, a troubadour I’d never heard of before stumbling across “Cinder and Soot” one day, immediately thereafter shouting “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH ALL OF YOU?” to a packed café spinning “On the Road Again” for the umpteenth fucking time.
“Cinder and Soot” is another entry into the canon of murderous road ballads by mysterious Texans, only Loftus’ delivery is less gruff Steve Earle acolyte than y’all accented Nick Drake, earnest and sorrowful and fragile, instilled with the velveteen fluidity of rattlesnake venom in a whiskey shot, painful and warm at once. It’s a remarkable song that is plainly and lovingly arranged, lacking the flair and bombast of bigger alt-country acts and all the more remarkable for it. I don’t know where Loftus came from or why he has been hidden from me for all these years, but now that I’ve found him, I’m preemptively campaigning to get him his own statue out front of city hall. – NH
Adult Mom – “Survival”
If Girlpool expresses the magic and melancholy of beginning to make sense of the world and your place in it, Adult Mom is what happens after, when you’re sitting on the subway, older than you ever wanted to be and still feeling too young, and you come to terms with the fact that you’ll never be able to make sense of anything and now it’s time to make sense of that.
Like Liz Phair sneaking the brutal “even when I was twelve” into her searing, iconic “Fuck and Run” more than twenty years earlier, Steph Knipe of Adult Mom drops statements like “I don’t know if my mom loves me anymore” and “maybe in a year I will not feel like a bad queer” with alarming matter-of-factness. These honest insecurities, which reveal much about the ways in which people can be bad to one another and the ways we learn to cope with that, are delivered in a voice that is delicate but strong, wrapped in a melody you’ll want to listen to over and over again. “Survival” is subtle but sharp, and the best track of its kind from 2015. – KH
James McMurtry- “Copper Canteen”
Plenty of songwriters write in a novelistic style, but James McMurtry actually tries to shoehorn whole short stories into his music. As a result, the general vibe is often a trifle heavy and unmelodic. But if you’re willing to weather the deluge, you get memorable and heartbreaking lines like this: “We grew up hard and our children don’t know what that means/We turned into our parents before we were out of our teens.” – MW
Danny L Harle- “Broken Flowers”
Here’s a word you never hear when talking about PC Music: restraint. Yet the label/genre/movement’s new poster child Danny L Harle is a master in maintaining the over the tope A E S T H E T I C of PC Music while also reigning in the insanity that plagues the rest of the the collective’s musical output.
“Broken Flowers,” the title track from his debut EP is a swirling disco pop gem that swirls around your brain as you listen like day-glo fireflies. While the lyrics lament the loss of a lover, the song is so addictively dancey that it wouldn’t feel out of place sobbing in bed or 2:15AM in a gay bar bathroom. PC Music’s MO seems to be “imagine dance music if it were____” While most of the other releases tend to fill that blank with “unlistenable”, Danny L Harle thinks more positively: “excellent.” – DG
Joanna Newsom- “Sapokanikan”
In one sense, “Sapokanikan” is a liberal arts major’s wet dream; Joanna Newsom deftly weaves together layered references to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” gilded age politics, art history, and New York City political monuments to effectively squeeze a Great American Novel into a five minute pop song. But what I love most about Newsom is how she refuses to use her gift for metaphor as a mere parlor trick. Instead, these interlocking allusions paint a portrait of New York City that highlights those who have been erased by history“Sapokanikan” is the name of a Lenape village that stood where Greenwich Village stands nowin favor of heroes whose monuments must face the ravages of timeand then to what end? “History is taller than space is wide,” she sings later in the album.
By the song’s end, we’ve done a complete 180 from playful, showtune romp to Newsom howling at the top of her lungs, “All exeunt! All go out!/Await the hunter, to decipher the stone/(and what lies under, now)/The city is gone.” The arrangement thins out while recorders dolefully accompany her voice trundling down and petering out. In her final words we hear Newsom echoing Shelley echoing Ozymandias, the lines bearing the weight of ever more irony with each degree removed: “Look and despair/Look and despair.” – JP
Girl Band- “Paul”
I’d say 75% of people’s reactions when I play Girl Band for them for the first time is a blank expression that could be interchangeable with a confused face emoji. Which in all fairness, Girl Band is confusing. I mean what are they? “Noise rock” hardly does it justice but trying to explain them in less than five words in any other way will simply leave you stuttering and grasping for a earth-word equivalent. For those that just don’t get it, I usually respond “Well, you have to see them live,” which held true for awhile, you just couldn’t fully appreciate them if you hadn’t witnessed each piece of the puzzle come together onstage. That all changed with the release of “Paul.”
A rumbling beer bottle bass intro backs vocalist Dara Kiely’s unsettling discord that perpetually sounds as if it were barely ushered out by some eerie unseen force rather than purposefully projected. The unnerving hum of the guitar eventually joins the cacophony as “Paul” remains wrought with tension and a disarming unease in what is easily the slowest burn of any of their tracks to date. We near the 3 minute mark before even a taste of the full spectrum of noise insanity is revealed. After that, all bets are off as “Paul” ceases to be a song and instead becomes an experiment designed to toy with your sanity like a mad scientist gone punk. There’s a great moment of relative quiet with the click clack of the drums and an indeterminable fuzz before a warped out strenuous hook yanks you back into the nightmare.
Perhaps my absolute favorite aspect of Paul though is not just the song itself but the accompanying video directed by Bob Gallagher. Not only easily the best music video of the year with expert casting, great lighting and a wonderful visual concept, it is perhaps my favorite in the past decade as it truly conveys the experience of witnessing Girl Band. – Nate Abernethy
This song was as unpredictable a listening experience as any I had last year. Shifting between formality and vernacular, between Dickinson-esque reflection and present-day pains, Torres mirrors the vertiginous feelings wrought by religious doubt. We never know when she’s going to shift from lyricism to slang, from then to now—and we never know when that chugging backbeat will fall out entirely, dropping us into the reverberant vastness of an incomprehensible cosmos. – MW
The Weeknd – “I Can’t Feel My Face”
First there was “Often.” Then came “The Hills.” But it wasn’t until “I Can’t Feel My Face” that it became abundantly clear just how tight The Weeknd’s grip on us was–and how much we liked it that way. “I Can’t Feel My Face” is pure undeniable energy, joy so surging and intense that there’s no way it’s not artificial. And it is. The sensations this track provokes do not come from a deep well of inner peace and contentment. It’s lust and drugs, friends, and it’s that way-deep-down but obvious truth that we love how it feels to do things that are bad for us. “I Can’t Feel My Face” captures this state of affairs so completely that the song itself has the same effect as a substance, which of course is proof enough of its greatness. – KH
Kali Uchis- “Lottery”
There were ample ‘50s throwbacks in the pop sphere in 2015 but I think you’d have a hard time naming any that managed to sound as paradoxically forward thinking as Kali Uchis does on “Lottery.” Over a twinkling keyboard line and some slinky bass, Uchis comes across like someone who skipped university and devoted four years to studying what made Amy Winehouse so great. Uchis may have ditched the neo-soul in favor of dream pop balladry, but she’s got Winehouse’s knack for communicating longing and heartbreak in the pauses between phrase, each hiccupy vocal dip a squeeze on your aorta.
But don’t mistake “Lottery” for a throwback to a throwback. This is timeless pop, constructed from noteworthy traits from acts no longer creating new material but unmistakably unique. Uchis’ voice has impressive range and stretch, never breaking as it strains for high notes and then comes back down to a comforting coo. If you didn’t include this on a mixtape for a crush in 2015, you better step up your game and slot it into whatever your Valentine’s plans are. – NH
The first song of 25 was like the sequel to a franchise blockbuster—it had a lot of mythology to deal with, and a lot of new stuff to set in motion. This song does all that like gangbusters. Perched on the edge of meta, the opening lines acknowledge the story and style of 21. Then the chorus comes crashing down to move us past it. Throughout, the song showcases all the greatest things about That Voice, from its paradoxically sophisticated rawness to its shiver-inducing riffs. Starting with that perfect intoned opening line, you can tell that Adele’s still spinning her sorrows—and all her other feelings—into treasured gold. – MW
Jamie xx feat. Young Thug and Popcaan- “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”
In what has to be the year’s most unlikely collaboration, we find Atlanta firebrand Young Thug rapping over a technicolor beat by indie demigod Jamie xx all while the Jamaican dancehall singer popcaan toasts over the chorus. But the lynchpin of the whole operation is that blissful sample of “Good Times” by the 70s a cappella group The Persuasions. The bonhomie of Young Thug’s slurred flow is simply contagious and lines like “She gon get on top of this dick and she gon squish it like squish” and “I’mma ride in that pussy like a stroller” are as hilarious as they are iconic. Jamie xx’s quicksilver arrangement bends and melts while Popcaan toasts effortlessly against the sample resulting in a dazzling counterpoint. 2015 may have seen some of the most severe and polarizing social unrest of the century thus far, but “Good Times” is a brilliant respite of unbridled joy. – JP
Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian at Best”
How many times in rock do you see a scruffy dude in a T-shirt shredding on a electric guitar, sneering, and shouting about how he’s underworked and oversexed? How many times is that dude a girl? The kind of grungy, scummy, electrifying music that Courtney Barnett puts out shouldn’t be stereotypically “guy music,” and yet it often is considered exactly that. “Pedestrian at Best” is a great example of how and why women’s and nonmale voices matter in music: the lyrics themselves are gender neutral, but lines like “put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you” and “I’m a fake, I’m a phoney, I’m awake, I’m alone, I’m homely, I’m a Scorpio” gain valuable meaning when spoken by a woman, highlighting the ways in which feelings like insecurity, inadequacy, and furious listlessness are universal and yet acquire unique shades and nuances when taken as part of the overall experience of being a woman in the world today. Plus, again, this song fucking rocks. – KH
Open Mike Eagle- “Ziggy Starfish”
Open Mike Eagle’s “Ziggy Starfish” was a notably morose art party track even before its namesake passed away, but now it’s on another plane of cosmic meaning. Aided by a particularly frenetic Gold Panda beat, Open Mike Eagle worships at the altar of our lost leper messiah, navigating alternate timelines to follow in Ziggy’s footsteps, remarking on how he “Landed some place I ain’t never been, yet again” in his role as a “Space travel veteran, never blend.” The verses are dizzying in their intensity, faster and more anxious than Open Mike Eagle’s usual art rap lethargy but it’s the chorus that is the most eye opening, sweet and surreal, OME weaving in and out of Gold Panda’s frothy glitch artwork.
“Same places, different continents/And my head-space is an island” may seem indiscernible but it’s a simple chorus mantra, a comment on the interconnectiveness of the internet era, the way we’re all occupying the same places no matter how many miles apart, sharing in anxieties and frustrations and even in the losses of treasured pop icon. When we were planning this list, David Bowie was still alive and this was just a great track. Now it’s a great track and an artifact of mourning, a profound expression of my grief not by design but by time and circumstance and coincidence. – NH
The Posterz- “Bulalay”
I’ve already talked at length about my love for The Posterz’s EP Junga which lacks a single weak spot, but if I’m forced to pick one shining moment from the release it would without a doubt be “Bulalay.” Tribal chants, drums and even some chicken clucks thrown in let you know you’ve entered the jungle as Husser with his relaxed poise and effortless spitting guides you through the festive affair like a king commanding atop his throne. Things soon turn downright groovy when the first electric guitar strum that any rock god would envy kicks in. Mamoru Kobayakawa contributes the electric guitar on this track that paired with Joey Sherrett’s deft hand at the knobs highlights The Posterz lyrical ability even when at their absolute minimalist.
There’s a fantastic duality at play here as the tribal chants blends with the thumping guitar when we reach the breezy vocal hook; by the time Kris The $pirit enters with his soft spoken and super smooth verse we witness the melding of the primitive jungle with a modern concrete Junga. From the moment this duality becomes apparent, the track immediately elevates to an absolute elite level. Everything about The Posterz is methodical as the chants and verses become more pointed and punchy revealing an absolute party lurking beneath the track’s surface. An abrupt fadeout out to a delightful chopped and screwed outro promises the foreboding that we’ve barely scratched the surface of The Posterz’s capability. – NA
Red Velvet- “Automatic”
The power of this song lies in its ability to narcotize without hypnotizing, to quiet the mind while appealing directly to the senses. But if you, like me, don’t understand a word of Korean, there’s a good chance that that might heighten the experience. I’d be lying if I said these snippets of English shuffled in with the Korean weren’t a significant factor in my love of Kpopespecially in a song like “Automatic.” “I love the way” then they break off into Korean until the prechorus, “Skin…lips…eyes…It just comes so natural/It just comes automatic.” The English piques my understanding before veering left into a more sensually seductive approach“Just hold on.” Lest I ruin the magic, I’ve intentionally avoided reading any translations of this song, but what more could there be to say than what’s whispered at the song’s beginning: “How…how do you like that beat? Natural and automatic.” – JP
Christine and the Queens- “Jonathan”
I don’t normally keep sad songs on loop unless I’m in some impenetrable downward spiral of fading twentysomething bleakness. But Christine and the Queens captured me with the siren song “Jonathan,” an affecting, icy single that gets its hooks in through a number of means, from Perfume Genius’ vocal contributions to that simple but debilitating organ line.
“Jonathan” is a song that swells and expands, the various string and synth sounds more rhythmic than the exclamatory bits of percussive debris. The song is heavy but you don’t notice that until it’s too late, like a work break that dissolves into a nap with no warning. I listen to it constantly not because I want to wrap myself in misery but because this is a song of sadness that brings joy in discovery. – NH
Grimes – “Flesh without Blood”
Remember when Weezer dropped their embarrassing pukefest of a single “Thank God For Girls” the same day Grimes released the “Flesh without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream” dual video?
The perfection of this blessed paragon of a kiss-off song is only made more obvious in comparison to Rivers Cuomo’s sloppy, thirsty desperation. “Flesh without Blood” is total anti-thirst. Lines like “you never liked me anyway,” rather than sounding at all like self-pity, are delivered in such a way that they register as scathingly honest critique. It’s like the subject of the song begged her to tell them what went wrong and in response she shrugged and started dancing and this song, with that bounciest of beats and those vocals clear as bell, just came out. You can’t beat Grimes, not that she’d care or even notice if you tried. – KH