Hey, wassup, hello. We may not have gotten albums from Kanye, Frank O, or Rihanna (yet) – but 2015 was, across the board, an awesome year for music. The ascendancy of a new Chicago rap clique; Atlanta trap crashing the mainstream; the return of several legends; a pantheon musical; and a bunch of pop music that was actually more than tolerable. Here are the songs of the year. (Apple music playlist here)
John, My Beloved, Sufjan Stevens
Glass & Patron, FKA twigs
The Copout Slot
The only song that immediately inspired me to write an imitation. (Coming soon to a bandcamp near you.)
The Songs of the Year
- Trap Queen, Fetty Wap
There was a period over the summer when “Trap Queen” was inescapable. Whenever I would venture out of my Harlem apartment, I would here Fetty’s gleeful “yaaa!” booming out of every jeep, bodega, loudspeaker, and trap house. Fetty was the new kid on the first day of second grade: overeager, running around everywhere making introductions with untouched earnesty and bounding enthusiasm. He may have become grating, but you couldn’t help but love the little scamp.
- Waitress, Hop Along
The first time hearing Frances Quinlan’s voice makes you concerned for her health—and sanity. She shreds her voice to bits, as if making a sacrifice to the god of Janis Joplin, and it’s breathtaking and shocking with every listen. Taking in her intensity, you’d never know this banger is simply about the doldrums of the restaurant late shift.
- Bird of Prey, Natalie Prass
I fell in love very briefly in January. It was all too idealistic, really; a date at a private Guggenheim party, followed by a trek across muddied ice floes to Rough Trade, where the adorable Natalie Prass covered Janet Jackson and encouraged the crowd to slow dance.
Of course, I never saw the girl again. And the appeal of this song – its coy cutesiness – has faded a bit, just like a first crush. But with every listen my cheeks still flush.
- Perception, Mick Jenkins
You have no idea what’s peeking around the corner of the next four bar turn on “Perception,” the closer of Mick Jenkins’ excellent mixtape “Wave[s].” The impeccable production from Mulatto Beats & THEMPeople features an off-kilter plucked harp, dread-filled slow strings, floating keyboards and echoing choruses. Meanwhile, the young Chicago rapper goes in over several flows, starting with an old school southern drawl before ramping up his energy, his words pouncing forth in front of every snare.
- Sippy Cup, Melanie Martinez
Hide ya kids, hide ya wives. It’s 20-year-old Melanie Martinez creeping into your home to tell you the truth about your fucked up family. “Kids are still depressed when you dress them up,” she confesses in a singsong voice. No one is spared, from the morally compromised breadwinner to the shallow housewife to the doctor writing the prescription. It’s pop music at its most elegant and pristine, with an important lesson: when you need a shoulder to cry on, there’s no one to turn to but yourself.
- Alone at the Party, Eskimeaux
While Melanie Martinez wields a knife and a devilish grin, Gabrielle Smith, aka Eskimeaux, weaponizes the truth in the form of a stone arrow straight to the heart. Smith works on a tiny scale: she has a small voice, a simple rock setup, unadventurous arrangements, and plays at cozy venues. But despite, or perhaps because of this, her material cuts through to the largest themes of all: love, friendship, alienation, self-identity. “Alone at the Party” is both a cry for help and a pledge of support; a diary confessional hidden within a furious rocker.
14. Kill V. Maim
13. Flesh Without Blood, Grimes
The two biggest stompers off the best album of the year, brought to you by an indie-pop darling from Vancouver who casually decided to become the pop-game Don Corleone and dismantle the patriarchy. “Italiana mobster, looking so precious,” she chants on “Kill v. Maim,” like Avril Lavigne on ten lines of cocaine. Meanwhile, “Flesh Without Blood” is the ultimate kiss-off song, buoyed by a furious guitar riff and one or two insane melodic choices.
- Four Five Seconds, Rihanna, Kanye West & Paul McCartney
A collab between the Greatest Pop Songwriter Ever, the Greatest Hip Hop Artist Ever, and the Greatest Pop Star of our Era? This was a lock pretty much no matter what. (sorry for fanboying)
- Constantly Hating, Young Thug
It wasn’t easy choosing one song from the hundred plus the Thugger dropped on our blessed heads in 2015. That’s thousands of words, most of them unintelligible; hundreds of hooks and micro-hooks; dozens of “yahs” and “sheeshs” and “ulghs” and “SLIIIIMES.” In the end, the first track off the now-classic mixtape “Barter 6” won out. It shows Thug to be an expert in mood-setting and mood-breaking (that “we not friendly either, you know it” yelp cuts straight through the placidity), a shrewd ear for songcraft, and most of all, a soulful, melodic monster. I vibe to this song so hard I’ll even forgive Birdman’s dumb-ass verse and cringeworthy quip about my people.
- Wait For It, “Hamilton” soundtrack
Lin-Manuel Miranda has a tall order in front of him before Aaron Burr emerges for his soliloquy in Act I of “Hamilton:” to make the sniveling, snide, cowardly Burr as sympathetic and complex as the show’s hero. He does it, in three minutes. “Wait For It” is a masterful character portrait, showing a young man desperately trying to hold onto his steadfast calm in the face of rash change and terrible tragedy.
And addition to unlocking Burr’s character, telling a pithy history lesson and informing the rest of the narrative, “Wait For It” is simply a great standalone pop song. There’s no reason that Dancehall x “Rent” shouldn’t be the worst thing ever—but from the echoing chorus to the murmuring bass and syncopated piano riff, there isn’t a note out of place.
- Christ Conscious, Joey Bada$$
I spent over 400 hours on the New York City subway this year. And this was my MTA theme song, with its churning, clattering pace and low-end griminess. Just as the subway isn’t really an actual place, “Christ Conscious” isn’t really an actual song, but more of a connector piece between more interesting conceptual pieces on Joey’s debut album, “B4.da.$$.” (Being a Flatbush kid, he’s no stranger to the subway, either.) It’s one verse without a hook, a glorified freestyle; like many things heard on the subway, it’s a set of words said with utter conviction meaning nothing in particular. Except this prophet happens to be a virtuoso; the rhyme scheme is as dense and confounding as one from another certain rapper who used to call Brooklyn home.
- Unstoppable, Lianne La Havas
I don’t usually fall for motivational uplift. I roll my eyes whenever “Lose Yourself” is blasted in the fourth quarter and never have, or will voluntarily listen to a P!nk song. The first time I heard “Unstoppable,” though, I felt like I was floating. Maybe it’s that guitar, delicately plucked on two repeating notes; maybe it’s the deep, reassuring low end; or the string part, ascending through the clear night sky. But probably, it’s La Havas herself. She sings the soaring chorus with such triumph and indefatigability it’s really, really hard to not toss aside all cynicism and simply believe her.
- L$D/Excuse Me, A$AP Rocky
Disclaimer: the lyrics on “L$D,” Rocky’s foray into psychedelic slow jam music, are bad. That never seemed to bother him, though; after all, this is the man who put out a song with the hook “Life is like a bitch / A bitch is like a ho,” that ended up being one of the best of 2011. Hell, Rocky could whisper an inane thing like “I dream about her all day / I think about her with her clothes off” into my ear, and he would probably seduce me.
The instrumentation, from the gentle guitar to swooping synth bass, perfectly complements his croon, veiled with just a touch of Autotune. And in the video, an aesthetic and narrative wonder, the wooziness of L$D is interrupted by the startling clarity of “Excuse Me,” like a splash of water to the face after a long night of imbibing. You realize at the end the girl was just a mirage: a tender touch of vulnerability from the pretty motherfucker from Harlem.
- Pretend, Seinabo Sey
Excerpted from my #thinkpiece on Sey and the state of R&B:
“‘Pretend’ deals with identity crisis lyrically, but also musically. It is steeped in R&B traditions, with its soaring, slightly hoarse vocals and bluesy melody. But it revels in cutting-edge production values: the deepness of the drums and the pounding bass synthesizer veer toward house, and the ghostly, distorted vocal figure just might be snatched up by Skrillex and Diplo tomorrow. For me, the most intriguing part of the song isn’t even any of those bits of defiant modernity – it’s the rhythmic pattern of blips that sit low in the mix, teetering back and forth, not quite exactly on the beat. Are they organically wooden or punched out on Abelton? Are they funky or emotionless? They push the beat forward, both insistently and tentatively, through genres, familiar to nothing but Sey herself.”
- Falling Apart, Emile Haynie ft. Andrew Wyatt & Brian Wilson
“Falling Apart” is at war with itself, divided by a primary question: how terrible was the past? Its lyrics are steeped with bitterness and regret, staring back on a wasted youth full of soul-crushing one night stands and heartbreak. “Now it’s gone and I’m dark, and your heart is still crawling,” sings Andrew Wyatt. The present sucks because you messed up the past, and the march of time is irreversible.
And yet—the song begins with soaring strings out of an overture from Hollywood’s Golden Age. There are lulling harmonies and warm piano and a crisp snare drum. This is music from a simpler, better time, without the bleep-bloops of Ableton or the wub-wubs of EDM, when talented songwriters wrote gorgeous melodies for analog instruments, and that was enough.
So which side wins out? The only answer we receive is from the lone final chorus from Brian Wilson, a ghost of the sun bleached past, singing forlornly. He’s a reminder that torment and joy are often intertwined, and that the past never really was what it seemed to be.
- Ship To Wreck, Florence + The Machine
We ended day one of Governors Ball in 2015 in a sorry state. My friend Nerlens, high out of his mind on all sorts of drugs, had straight wiped out in the middle of the day, leaving my other friend Marnie alone, lost and out of phone battery. We consumed way too much alcohol early, leaving us parched and sleepy. Two years ago, I came for the first time, delirious and in awe of the spectacle; this year, I felt myself being crushed by bloat.
And nothing was more emblematic of the behemoth and its crazed contradictions than Florence and the Machine’s “Ship To Wreck.” After years of hard work to end up at a publication which let me snag a press pass, after walking across the exhaust-pipe filled and garbage strewn Triboro Bridge, after fighting our way through security, after chugging rum from a water bottle to Rae Sremmurd, and after waiting for half an hour, packed in tight like sardines by the NYC Govball Stage, she emerged, a majestic flash of red, a biblical eyesore, the female Samson.
And as she started her set with torrid guitars and aching piano chords, wouldn’t you know it, my friend Jackson’s eyes glazed over, his neck snapping back, his legs buckling. As we led him out of the neverending horde, a sea of nameless faces frowning upon our sins, we heard Florence crying out the most beautiful melody I’d ever heard, the one conscientious siren calling out from the rocks:
Ah my love remind me, what was it that I did?
Did I drink too much? Am I losing touch?
Did I build a ship to wreck?
And when she let loose the chorus, “to wreeeeeeeeeck!” I gasped, flailing to avoid the wooden shards, desperately trying to keep my head above water. I hopped aboard the life raft of the propulsive groove and have been paddling away every since.
- The Charade, D’Angelo
With a hiatus of 15 years, you’d think D’Angelo would have more of a triumphant comeback than the beginning lines of “The Charade:” “crawling through the…crawling through the…crawling through the….crawling through the systematic maze to demise.” The melody forces itself up out of the haze of guitars, struggling to finish its own thought, desperate to land on a hopeful note. It’s not there.
In 2015, we saw some 300 mass shootings. We saw over a thousand unarmed deaths at the hands of police officers. At my own alma mater, the bastion of liberal thought, we saw portraits of black faculty defaced. And we saw thousands of people protest across the country for change.
And no song captured the state of terror, and the essentiality of the Black Lives Matter movement, better than “The Charade.” Musically, it shows D’Angelo doing what he does best: taking a simple construct and turning it into something otherworldly with a dank groove and an extraterrestrial voice.
Esteeemed Jazz Head and Professional Shit Talker Nic Payton blasted the album, and the song, for its “barrage of sterile sixteenth notes.” Well, Uncle Nic, this is not your daddy’s R&B protest music. “People Get Ready” featured lilting harmonies, a gentle swing, and a message of uplift. But as D’Angelo sings: “All the dreamers have gone to the side of the road which we relay on.” “Charade” is a rock n roll fight song that hits your body in a way that very few pieces of music do. The harmonies are hard-edged, as desperate voices clash and bounce off each other; Questlove attacks the snare like a machine gun; and Pino Palladino ties everything together with the bassline of the year.
This is anger to the point of near detachment. But a glimmer of hope sparks in the bridge inside a bubbling melody: “And we’ll march on / And it really won’t take too long.” This isn’t uplift, but the sound of anguish and effort: the sound of a real life revolution clawing its way to the fore.
- Pretty Pimpin, Kurt Vile
“Pretty Pimpin” is not all that memorable on first listen. But after a while “Pretty Pimpin” seeps into the fabric of your core until you are unsure if you are a listener or the one singing, or are the quivering leaf inside the song, or if it is the echo of someone else a thousand miles away you start to question what exactly makes up identity is it the pure thoughts that form inside your head before they come out jumbled is it the specific way you shave and the tiny bits of DNA flooding into the drain or the feelings of relief that well up after an intense week or is it just your fashion sense the first microsecond of consciousness after waking or the synapses firing sharply as you fully collect yourself the way you process a devastatingly bended blues lick or how you put aside these things and push through every waking hour with strength and vitality is it your sex drive or your ultimate motivations what part of self do you lose when the hair on your chin circles the drain is the boy in the mirror the same face that others see the same boy that existed fifteen years ago is it the real you is it the real you is it the patient melody sitting always in the back of your mind that lulls you to sleep
- Hotline Bling, Drake
In 2015, Aubrey Graham put out two mixtapes I didn’t like, performed a concert I saw but I didn’t like, cosigned a bunch of artists I didn’t like, rooted for teams I didn’t like, and eviscerated a rapper I didn’t care about.
But “Hotline Bling” isn’t really about Drake. “Hotline Bling” is an entity in itself. And it belongs to all of us. It was hardly Drake’s to begin with. He cribbed a beat from a cross-cultural oddity in D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha” and mumbled some sweet nothings over it for the B-side to the towering “Back to Back.” “Imagine if we got one beat and every single person—me, this guy, this guy, all these guys—had to do a song on that one beat,” Drake later offered as explanation. “Hotline Bling” was his personal spin on a phenomenon. Soon enough, it became a phenomenon to spin off itself.
The brilliance of “Hotline Bling” emerged as each new musician brought out a different aspect of the source material: wistfulness, seduction, isolation, frustration, and of course, silliness. All of these covers and memes formed a certifiably modern feedback loop, and a crazed and crazily poignant portrait of the Tinder Age in all of its ecstasies and frustrations. Just for a little bit, the people took back the music industry. See you next year.