Top 50 Tracks of 2015 Philip Rice
John Luther Adams: The Wind in High Places
John Luther Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2014 for his orchestral epic, Become Ocean. His work has frontlined the acoustic ecology movement for the past decade or so. This year he released a stunning recording of works for string quartet and string orchestra. "The Wind In High Places" is a tapestry of intricate harmonics and perfectly tuned shapeshifting sonorities. It sounds cold and peaceful, like an ice formation high in a mountain pass.
Day Wave: We Try But We Don't Fit In
Day Wave's style is the musical equivalent of an Instagram. It sounds washed-out but not washed-up. Heavy distortion on the vox gives it a foggy, faded sound. Jackson Phillips's lyrics are expressive of millennial sentiments—the struggle to accomplish the impossible task of finding authenticity in one's social identity.
I've made a mess with all of my friends / I've made a mess, I'll do it again / All my friends, we're just the same / We all pretend that we're okay.
Yeah, Jackson, I've made a mess too, and I'm not okay. I just want to know how you made your music sound sepia tone. Did you use the Earlybird filter or was it Valencia?
RYAT: Drifting Hearts
Ambient electronica, half-spoken/half-looped poetry, and arcade drum machines are RYAT's jam. The track's hook is a glittery synthesized arpeggiator overlaid with siren-song vocalise. You're floating in darkness. You see something in the distance opening like a flower. Is that an 8-bit representation of Björk drifting near a black hole? No, it's your own heart hurtling toward you riding the edge of a laser beam.
Melody Gardot: Once I Was Loved
If you don't already know Melody Gardot's life story, take a moment to read her article on Wikipedia. Dry your eyes. Now you are ready to listen to "Once I Was Loved." Although her 2015 release was pretty uneven on the whole when compared with her earlier work, its postlude track has all the marks of Gardot's signature rainy-day aesthetic: smokey vocals, film-noir-esque string orchestra, distant saloon piano, heartachey lyrics. This is music viewed through sunglasses on an overcast afternoon.
Son Lux: Change Is Everything
Son Lux continues to blur the line between live/performed musical material and sampled/recorded electronic sounds in the highly anticipated album, Bones. The all the tracks are interconnected, and can rightly be heard as a single piece of music, but the opening track introduces most of the material used throughout. The lyrics play up the ambiguity of mishearing the words "this moment change is everything" as "this moment changes everything." Like the lyrics, the timbres of the song are alloyed. From the opening choir/orchestra/synthesizer hits, it's nearly impossible to tell what is human and what is machine.
Belle and Sebastian: Perfect Couples
Belle and Sebastian's "Perfect Couples" is pure fun. Its hummable tune, thick conga/bongo beat, straightforward electric guitar work, and silly lyrics make it a great party jam or one to crank up on the commute to work. This is grin-worthy music: I mean, come on, who doesn't want all those perfect couples to break up already? I was initially a little wary of Belle and Sebastian because they've come to be associated with a certain brand of domestic hipsterdom that I don't necessarily endorse. "Perfect Couples" shows that the group is keenly aware of that subculture and are more than willing to make fun of it. The song disparages the pretense and charade of the twee and tweed life.
Sexual tension at the fridge / He makes for the organic figs / Belmondo lips, dangling a cig
And she, just back from her hike / And to the gallery she might glide by / With a basket on her bike / They've got issues too / But what can you do?
Kurt Elling: Who Is It (Carry My Joy on the Left, Carry My Pain on the Right)
Björk released a new album in 2015. It was great, but I didn't include it in this list because something even more remarkable happened: Kurt Elling released a cover of a Björk song. Yes, let that sink in for a moment. Kurt Elling sang a Björk song in a smooth, sultry, lounge jazz style. And it's actually... awesome. The original is one of my personal favorites, owing in no small part to the fact that the music video features Björk wandering the tundra wearing a dress made entirely of bells accompanied by a pair of aboriginal children. Elling's cover is the only good track from his 2015 album, but I'm okay with that. It's deliciously re-harmonized and sung to perfection. Pass one of those ornaments my way, Kurt. Hand it over.
Nils Frahm: Our Own Roof
Nils Frahm was busy this year. He released three new albums and one remixed re-release. Although Late Night Tales received the most press attention, it was his incidental music for the film Victoria to which I found myself returning over and over. Frahm is a master of ambient music that intersects composition and sound art. "Our Own Roof" is a profoundly quiet track that somehow feels both melancholic and gratified, with the slightest hint of lingering dread. A single sustained violin harmonic underscores (overscores?) the full duration of the track along with the faint patter of distant rain. Dead center, a chorale on prepared piano gently disturbs the glassy surface.
Travis Bretzer: Lady Red
Travis Bretzer's debut album is retro-y and feel-good. There's nothing complicated or sophisticated about it, but it feels right when you start playing it. It was the first single released on Waxing Romantic and it remained a permanent fixture on my list of songs-that-will-instantly-put-me-in-a-good-mood. If you like slow-crescendo drum fills, 80s-style synth lead, and chorus-pedal vox, this song is for you. It's an apology song that makes no apologies for itself.
Sweet lady red, I'm sorry for the things I said / sweet lady red, I'll make it right.
HONNE: Top To Toe
HONNE released a number of singles and EPs based around singles during 2015. It was all a little hard to keep track of, but "Top To Toe" stuck with me throughout the year. Something about the scotch-snap dotted-rhythm of the titular lyrics, the up—up—up—beat of the syncopated piano accompaniment, and the hi-hat heavy drumset work puts a spring in my step. Andy's glottal vocal attacks that coincide with the bassline combined with his close-mic almost-distorted technique gives the track's textures a velvety quality that I really like. Or maybe I'm just thinking about his beard.
Cécile McLorin Savant: Fog
Jazz, it happens, is really hard to do well. Especially vocal jazz. It always seems to turn out sounding too lounge-lizard, or too Broadway, or too square, or some combination thereof. That's the great irony, of course, because great jazz sounds effortless. Cécile McLorin Salvant is once-in-a-generation vocal jazz done right. This is jazz singing that deserves to go in playlists with Ella and Billie. Cécile has about seven different voices and they all appear in "Fog," a track that runs the gamut of human emotions. If you don't believe me, try to learn the melody and sing along (good luck). Cécile and her knock-out ensemble emerge from the mist enwreathed in figments of Debussy; they explain life's mysteries in the style of Cole Porter and recede back into Brigadoon without a trace.
Mutemath: Used To
I'm obsessed with this song largely for its opening chord. It just sounds really cool. It sounds like a rainbow. Or maybe a lithograph of a rainbow. The the track has that same kind of prickly satisfying quality as HONNE's track from earlier... it kind of feels like popping bubble wrap: tactile, tight, taut. The beat sinches everything together like shoelaces threaded perfectly through brass eyelets of oscillators and graintable synths. The vocals are polished, squeaky leather soles. You're walking on air in Mutemath's "Used To."
Brandon Flowers: Lonely Town
"Lonely Town" is a trip. It's an almost perfectly crafted replica of a genuine early 80s power ballad. I actually thought it was a re-release when I first heard it. I didn't want to believe it was from 2015. But then I heard this little distinctive computer beeping sound that is so 2015 (you'll hear that same beeping sound later in Young Ejecta's track). "Lonely Town" has two important moments that will make you nod and quietly mutter "yes, yes, this is right" under your breath. The first moment is around 1:35 when Brandon's voice breaks out into shameless autotune (another clue that it's not really from the 80s). The second moment is one minute later when a soulful backup singer breaks out into ecstatic melismatic vocalise (also tune in at 3:00 when the whole ensemble cuts out and the singer sustains a siren belt).
The music video indulges the fantasy that the song is authentically retro: in it, a girl "discovers" the song on an old cassette tape, pops it into her walkman, and proceeds to jam out at home by herself.
Alabama Shakes: Don't Wanna Fight
The rhythms in "Don't Wanna Fight" could be on a continuous loop for 24 hours and I wouldn't get sick of it. This is the definition of soul. This is music you can't really even listen to with your eyes open. The vocal styling is rhapsodic and performed with abandon. I don't know what we're fighting about but I don't wanna anymore. I just wanna sing along but, jk, the ca. two-octave range of this song is probably too much for me. Actually, I'm out of breath because I've been moving my hips to the beat of this track for the last four minutes.
Young Ejecta: Into Your Heart
I can't figure out if Young Ejecta is two people or one person. They say they're a duo but I don't buy it. Are they twins? Also, their genre is listed as "dream pop." And literally all of their promotional photos are done in the nude. Their second album, The Planet came out in January and has hovered around me all twelve months. It's got some really interesting sounds including a weird computer beeping noise that seemed to be showing up everywhere after I heard it (probably a case of frequency illusion). One of the most distinctive sounds in the track resembles a radio with a variable frequency knob searching for a clear signal. Stop searching, you've found it! Young Ejecta's music is original, memorable, and finely tuned.
Tame Impala: Let It Happen
I'm convinced that if audiophiles could purchase Tame Impala's album on reel-to-reel tape they would pay any amount of money to make it happen. Music critics went wild for Currents, and they're not wrong. Like a Michelangelo sculpture plucked from the Platonic ether, "Let It Happen" seems to be an emergent property of the universe herself. Downbeats become upbeats in a checkerboard of looped auditory illusions. Time stands still in Tame Impala's opus, and you'll wonder if your vinyl is skipping or you're high. The answer is neither, you just need to let go and let it happen.
Neon Indian: The Glitzy Hive
If Neon Indian's album is pure sexual energy (and it def is), then "The Glizty Hive" is... well, let's just say it's the climax of the album. No one seems to know what the lyrics are, but they're one of the following:
Body / she wants my body / body / body
...or they could be...
Party / she wants to party / party / party
I'm convinced that we're not supposed to know, and I'm totally satisfied with both versions tied up in Schrodinger's box. Things you need to know about this song: This song has no intro, it hits the ground running. It's got a sick bridge and a sweet fade out. I don't know what it sounds like with the volume turned down because I've never listened to it at levels lower than 10.
BØRNS: Holy Ghost
The lyrics to the opening of the first and second verses in BØRNS's "Holy Ghost" are, respectively,
Baby, baby, baby / Baby, baby, baby, baby
So, it's automatically top ten material. It's also got a constant stream of the cleverest lyrics. Seriously read them before you listen. Try to, um, not be offended if you're religious... this one is NSFC. Sacrilegiousness aside, the music is a kind of heaven and BØRNS is its archangel. There's an sempiternal sparkle of high keyboard work and tambourine that sustains this whole track, along with an ecstatic throng of voices resounding with the praises of love. Are they all incarnations BØRNS or the souls of an uncountable host?
Sufjan Stevens: Should Have Known Better
I'll commit the ultimate blasphemy and say that Sufjan's highly anticipated release this year isn't my favorite of his albums. And that's saying something coming from a person who's had anywhere between five and ten dreams about marrying the darling of indie folk. The album is a little too monothematic in its depressive mood and doesn't show off Sufjan's orchestral colors and lyrical skills as much as I would have liked. Nevertheless, it contains some breathtaking tracks that are works of art in their own right. "Fourth of July" and "I Should Have Known Better" are right up there with "Chicago" and "For the Widows in Paradise."
I chose "Should Have Known Better" because of its remarkable formal structure that sets up and defines the character of the entire album. The song begins in a minor key and seems firmly planted there. Suddenly, partway through, an abrupt picardy-third shift in modality changes the tone of the piece from regretful to hopeful. The lyrics change from looking back on past mistakes to looking forward to new life,
My brother had a daughter / the beauty that she brings / illumination.
From that moment on, you know the album is not a pity party, it's a grieving process. It's complicated, and defined as much by faith as it is colored by remorse. This isn't the emo rambling of a teenage religious nutcase (although even those moments in Sufjan's career were stunning). This is sophisticated and mature—a rhetoric and an aesthetic of reason and grace.
The Staves: Blood I Bled
When I describe "Blood I Bled" to people who haven't heard it, I find I always use the same phrase: "rising on the wings of dawn." This song has an expansive rural elegance that makes you want to get up early in the morning and follow the sun to wherever it leads you: to golden fields, steep mountain passes, and delicate flowers by a dusty roadside.
This song is four minutes long and performed in two dramatic acts. At around two minutes the music diminishes to complete silence before a snare drum roll and stacked imitative entries introduce the sublime advent of major mode with electrifying, scintillating harmonies. When that happens, it feels as if every wrong, every regret, every trace of ugliness and pain in the world is washed away. I would rank the experience of listening to this track with the feeling one gets when listening to Elgar's "Nimrod" from the Enigma Variations. Whatever you were doing at that moment in time suddenly becomes consumed by incalculable dignity and grace.
José González: Every Age
González's simple guitar accompaniment and puppy-dog-eyes vocal style is a surefire tearjerker every time. Like Sufjan's arrival at an authentically mature aesthetic, González's lyrics are patinaed with the timeless wisdom of ancestors. I've often talked about a strange sensation I sometimes feel that can only be described as "nostalgia for the future." González captures that feeling in a ballad with music lucid enough to sound like a real folksong, with lyrics that inspire both hope for tomorrow and reverence to yesterday. In these times of tremendous unrest and change, "Every Age" is a balm to our ailing hearts and a brick on the road to a better world.
We don't choose where we're born / we don't choose in what pocket or form / but we can learn to know / ourselves on this globe in the void
take this mind, take this pen / take this dream of a better land / take your time, build a home / build a place where we all can belong.
Bird and the Bee: Will You Dance?
The Bird and the Bee have a great track record (no puns intended I swear) for quality singles. They lost their footing a bit with their album of covers in 2010 which seemed like a Pomplamoosian ploy at name-dropping largely doomed to failure because of aesthetic incompatibilities. The British jazz fusion duo came roaring back this year with Recreational Love, a stellar album with ten totally worthy tracks. "Will You Dance" ran ahead of the pack as the lead single. It seethes that absolutely carefree "haters gonna hate" attitude that 2015 has offered so freely:
I don't mind just wasting time / wasting time is all there's ever been / I don't care if people stare / people stare at all the wrong things / Whatcha gonna do?
The music video stars Patton Oswalt and Simon Helberg and is a hilarious narrative of a dance party in an office restroom.
Lianne La Havas: What You Don't Do
When God created the world, he looked down on his creation and said "it is good, but it's not perfect... brb gonna start working on Lianne La Havas." The Lord finished his work in 2015 and behold, Lianne released her second studio album, Blood.
There is literally nothing I can say about "What You Don't Do" that can make you understand its genius. If you haven't already heard it, please listen to it approximately twenty times. This is music you start loving the instant the chorus hits. Everyone I've told about Lianne La Havas has thanked me, and some were angry that I didn't tell them sooner. If on the off chance you're feeling like you don't want your life to be meaningless, I also strongly recommend watching her Tiny Desk concert where she proves that she is total angel of music even when there is no studio equipment present.
P.S. If anyone can get me tickets to see her live in Philly this February, I will marry you.
Natalie Prass: My Baby Don't Understand Me
Natalie Prass was the darling of the music critics this year, but I just want to say... I knew about her before she was cool. Entirely unknown to the music word before her debut self-titled album released in January, she was my very first 2015 new music discovery. I happened on her masterpiece quite by accident through an NPR First Listen article. She's not number one just because she showed up first, she's number one because she embodies everything 2015 was and always will be. Unapologetic, imploring, rhapsodic, anthemic iterations of "baby" and a full orchestral accompaniment that draws the best sounds from folk rock artists like Feist and Sufjan, while maintaining a form that is truly eclectic—with traces of Broadway and even minimalist influences. The takeaway lyric, repeated over and over, is a poem in its own right:
Our love is a long goodbye