Top 50 Tracks of 2015 Philip Rice

2015 WAS AN AMAZING year for music. Last December, my friend Richelle Wilson told me about a tradition among her friends to create a list of personal favorite tracks released during the calendar year. Sensing that I wasn't as aware of new music as I'd like to be, I made it my new year's resolution to find at least one new song every week that I could stand behind, and to release the list publicly at year's end. Nothing could have prepared me for what was in store.

2015 was bursting at the seams with with earnest, pleading, sexy, groovy jams from veteran artists and newcomers. Singers were chanting in litanies of desperation—not the kind of cyclic, strophic repetition of pop refrains, but the kind of emphatic echo that says "please believe me." By the end of the year, I had nearly a hundred tracks in my list of favorites, and I had to make some really really really really really really hard decisions (for those who got that reference, don't worry—Carly Rae made it into my final list).

And did I mention music from 2015 was sexy? Oh yeah. If I had to choose a term to characterize all the music of the year, it would be "really sexy." Or maybe "real sexy." Or maybe just "real sex." Anyway, there are some hot tracks on this list, so pour yourself a glass of ice water. This is music that will make you want to move. In a sexual way.

2015, you were so good to us. You gave abundantly and asked for little in return.

Most of all, the music of 2015 was true. By that I don't mean that these songs were uncovering some kind of universal solution to the world's problems. Rather, these are anthems of sincerity, honesty, and realness. The hopes, desires, and ideals of musicians came through this time largely without the gloss of heavy-handed production. Maybe this means postmodernism is really (nearly) over, or maybe it just means that the zeitgeist will always already seem authentic to its contemporaries (aka me). You might notice that I didn't include some superstar artists like Adele, Justin Bieber, or Taylor Swift, despite their having some worthy releases. That's in part because I don't think they need any help from me to get their message(s) across, but it's not because their music was inauthentic. Even their music was less postured than it has been in the past—everyone seemed to be crying on camera this year.

Making this list kept me aware of what music really stuck in my memory and in my headphones, and the results were surprising. I didn't make any rules for myself regarding genre, so what you see is really the top fifty tracks that meant the most to me over the course of the last twelve months. Discovering new music is a profoundly exciting task—Richelle and I had many joyful moments, conversations, and arguments through this process. 2015, you were so good to us. You gave abundantly and asked for little in return. 2015, you were a gracious lover.


John Luther Adams: The Wind in High Places

© 2015 Cold Blue Music

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.

© 2015 Lowercase people records


Jon Foreman: June & Johnny

All Jon Foreman's songs sound the same, but it's a good sound. Foreman is a troubadour for the postmodern age, and "June and Johnny" is a madrigal for the twenty-first century. The lyrics are full of vapid platitudes about love, life, and why. Foreman sings "darling, nothing stays the same" in a cooing voice to simple strummed guitar accompaniment. It even has a "la la la" section a la Thomas Morely. It's hokey, saccharine, sad, and sincere. This is a song to sing to your sweetheart by the campfire.


Max Richter: Sleep

German composer Max Richter has become known for soothing, almost ambient music that has been widely used in the film industry. This year, his new album, Sleep, is an eight hour long composition that is designed to be heard while—you guessed it—sleeping. Richter has composed your dreams, breathing patterns, and sleep cycles for you in this long-form symphony for slumber. Richter's work, typically performed in a concert hall, now takes on a new venue: your bedroom. Although the whole work is meant to be heard from start to finish while unconscious, my favorite excerpt to listen to while awake is "Dream 3 (in the midst of my life)." It's a passacaglia with a slow, throbbing piano piano ostinato overlaid with a languid cello descant.

✪ Indicates that the track has a music video


Day Wave: We Try But We Don't Fit In

© 2015 Day Wave

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.

© 2015 Domino Recording Co. Ltd


Ducktails: Surreal Exposure

The first single released from Ducktails's 2015 album, St. Catherine, sounds unremarkable at first listen, but just beneath the surface is a masterful design. The track opens with a half-choral half-orchestral wash of sound. Ensconcing an unpretentious vocal line, high guitar and keyboard riffs counterpoint against a jaunty bassline. Even the formants of the rhymescheme seem crafted for maximum timbral affect:

Surreal exposure / when you come over / it's crimson and clover / keep my composure [...] surreal exposure / is billowing over

"Surreal Exposure" is indeed billowing over with milky textures and clovery colors. I haven't got the slightest idea what the song is about, but I think it sounds pretty cool.

© 2015 Paradise of Bachelors


The Weather Station: I Mined

If Joni Mitchell were dead, Tamara Lindeman of The Weather Station would be her reincarnation. Her caressingly soft voice leaps up and down like a mourning dove, and her picking technique makes the guitar glimmer like a celtic harp. "I Mined" is one of the quietest tracks on Loyalty, an album fashioned out of old barnwood and decorated with weathered copper stars. It sound world and lyrics have a bucolic wisdom and an urban sensibility that mark it as distinctly Canadian. This is music to listen to while driving north early in the morning when the light is still blue.

© 2015 No Quarter


Joan Shelley: Over and Even

Joan Shelley's EP came to me at that special moment when Summer gives way to Autumn. The expansive melody sounds like leaves detaching from trees and drifting softly toward the ground. High above a babbling-brook bassline, a celeste weaves a quilt of distant migrating birds. The lyrics are about all those things that make the change of seasons so magical:

We sight the morning softly / Take to them easy / The scent of the wood and coffee / Our cup is filling / Outside the river flows / Its course unfolding

Shelley's mahogany voice shifts between registers like light reflecting off the not-quite-dry paint on this watercolor of a woodland scene in late September.


Melody Gardot: Once I Was Loved

© 2015 Decca and Universal Music Operations Ltd

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.

© 2015 Dirty Hit


The Japanese House: Still

The Japanese House is a newcomer to the scene in 2015, and at year's end they have two EPs to show for themselves. Their style is an almost perfect balance of imploring, groovy, and anthemic. "Still" is crafted with tight canonic counterpoint, meticulously engineered sound design, and sensuously jazzy harmonies. A slow finger-snap backbeat gives it a casual temperament—occasionally dropping out for "still" moments of revelation and realization. The lyrics are an account of domestic difficulty and existential crisis overlaid with a sisyphusian hopefulness that has begun to characterize the millennial attitude.

Roomful of Teeth
© 2015 New Amsterdam


Roomful of Teeth: Beneath

Caroline Shaw and her choir/band Roomful of Teeth came to international fame when Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for a work that appeared on their debut self-titled album. This year, the group released a new recording of original and commissioned works. "Beneath" is a wordless vocalise for choir composed by NYC-based violinist and founding member of Alarm Will Sound, Caleb Burhans. It shows off the best of the group's remarkable technical abilities: overtone singing, brassy chest register, flawless intonation, and super-human breath control. The track is a slow burn at just over twelve minutes long, but well worth its weight and worth the wait. When the chaconnic structure of the composition is revealed in unadorned fortissimo block chords two-thirds of the way through, you'll forget to breathe.


Son Lux: Change Is Everything

© 2015 Glassnote Entertainment Group LLC

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

© 2014 Matador Records Ltd

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?
© 2015 Fueled by Ramen LLC and Warner Music Group Company


Nate Ruess: Nothing Without Love

I didn't know anything about Nate Ruess when he was the lead singer for Fun. I came upon his solo album this year by chance because Spotify recommended it to me under new releases. The disc is titled perfectly, and "Nothing Without Love" is exhibit A—this music is shamelessly romantic and childishly bombastic. Nate seems to be completely out of control with emotional rapture, practically shouting the entire song. The music video shows him proclaiming his love from atop a skyscraper and from the bottom of the ocean. Who is this love about whom Nate is so excited? It's the very idea of love itself, of course. Or maybe it's his imaginary girlfriend in a pink dress. You decide.


Kurt Elling: Who Is It (Carry My Joy on the Left, Carry My Pain on the Right)

© 2015 Concord Music Group, Inc.

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.

© 2015 Decca Music Group Ltd


Voces8: Stars

Voces8 brings choral recording to new levels with crystalline audio engineering and flawless vocal blend. Their newest disc is dedicated to musical repertoire about light, and Esenvalds's recent hit composition for choir, Stars, is the album's centerpiece. Sara Teasdale's words come to shimmering, luminous life in this incandescent track. The music video is unexpected, inviting thought about stars as human entities with "beating hearts." Rather than shots of the choir interspersed with images from outer space, the video is a series of breathtaking close-ups of a dancer's body caked with white chalk. I usually shy away from using the term "beauty" to describe anything—I think it's too fraught with semiotic imprecision, and far, far too overused. In this case, there really isn't a better word—this is beautiful music. Let it carry you away.


Nils Frahm: Our Own Roof

© 2015 Erased Tape Records Ltd.

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.

© 2015 Interscope Records


Emile Haynie: Falling Apart

Music producer Emile Haynie deserves serious cred for get so many amazing artists together for his collaborative album, We Fall, this year. Andrew Wyatt, Brian Wilson, Rufus Wainwright, Lana Del Ry, Nate Ruess, Randy Newman, Father John Misty, Julia Holter, and others all worked on "We Fall." The whole album is a ridiculously solid listen for obvious reasons, but the opening track remains my favorite. It's got a stepwise-descent lament bassline, finely crafted canonic counterpoint in the countermelodies, killer backup vox, an expressive rise-and-fall tune, and obligatory toy piano. What more could you ask for?


Travis Bretzer: Lady Red

© 2015 Kemado Records Inc.

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.
© 2015 Brayton Bowman


Brayton Bowman: Jaywalk

Bowman is just twenty years old and he's not ashamed of it. His music is about "keeping it real" and figuring out how to "let go of my first love." His website sports a prominent image of him eating three donuts. I kinda like this guy. Oh, he's also got a killer voice and an infectiously soulful style. "Jaywalk" is a song about breaking the rules and literally "walking away" from past hurt. It's pretty sophomoric, and this track is definitely more produced than my usual fare, but... sometimes you just need a donut, amirite? P.S. idk but I think this song is actually about drugs.

© 2015 Arcade Fire Music, LLC


Arcade Fire: Reflektor

What can I say about Arcade Fire? They're cosmopolitan, groovy, chill, and just a little bit psychedelic. The macaronic lyrics of "Reflektor" betray the band's Quebecois roots and underpin the disorienting carnivalesque quality of the song. It seems to start in one key, and suddenly veers into another ten seconds later. The voices chase each other around, the dynamics shift abruptly and unpredictably, and the lyrics are frantic repetitive chanting.

"It's just a reflection... of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection!!!"

The song ends with a sustained Ligetian chromatic chord cluster that leaves its tonality maximally unconfirmed. The video is frightfully disturbing—band members wear giant papier-mâché heads that seem like a nod to Daft Punk's Electroma. Everything is an echo or a shadow of something else in the hall of mirrors that is "Reflektor." I'll see you on the other side.

© 2015 Virgin EMI Records


Vaults: Cry No More

Vaults released just one single in 2015 (we won't talk about the song they did for 50 Shades of Grey). A band with nary five or six tracks to their name, the world knows virtually nothing about Vaults. Still, "Cry No More" has enough repeat listens up its sleeve to make up for the band's relative scarcity. Haunting windchime-like mallet percussion opens the track before the bass drops and a glitchy drum machine takes over. The chord changes are dark and brooding, and the vocals are ghostly. Fair warning: if you think the music sounds spooky, don't watch the music video. It features the lead singer (what even is her name?) crawling out of her own grave like a zombie to pursue her captor through the woods. A creepy little girl with a gun helps her along the way.


HONNE: Top To Toe

© 2015 Tatemae Recordings

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.

© 2015 Lana Del Rey and Universal Music GmbH


Lana Del Rey: Honeymoon

I approach LDR with some trepidation because her aesthetic is so idiosyncratic. It can get annoying really fast if you're not careful, and so can people who are obsessed with it. The title track from Honeymoon strikes the balance where Lana shines brightest: moody and dark, wispy, foggy, and impossibly depressing. Now that I've typed that out, it doesn't sound balanced at all, but 2015 was a year of extremes, right?

But really, "Honeymoon" isn't obvious or kitschy. Yes, it's sad and dusky and all those things Lana Del Rey is great at, but it's also paced really well and doesn't give away any of its secrets. The track's Hitchcockian scoring gives it a gumshoe quality, and layered self-backup-vocals are will-o'the-wisps of a bygone era. Lana's voice is standing under a flickering streetlamp next to a puddle of motor oil. You sense it out of the corner of your eye, glancing at it over a newspaper you're only pretending to read. It takes a drag from an almost-burned-out cigarette and says, half-whispered,

"We both know that it's not fashionable to love me.
© 2015 Jagjaguwar


Unknown Mortal Orchestra: Multi-love

If you didn't believe that music from 2015 was sexy, I submit to you: "Multi-love." Fleshy harmonies and a lush, smooth-rising melody juxtapose with butterflies-in-your-stomach drum fills in this menagerie of auditory carnal delight. The ever-so-slight phaser on the vox gives it a glistening quality and makes the lyrics just unintelligible enough that words like "woman" and "crazy" are about all you can make out. Emphasis on make out.


Congratulations! We made it to 25! Trust me, I'm as relieved as you are. If you've just been reading and haven't been listening to the music up this point, it's time to start.

Also, it's time for a short apology to one artist who didn't make the cut. Mac Demarco was originally in position 47 until I realized I had made the unforgivable mistake of forgetting to include Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Mac's track was great, but not as memorable or unique as the rest, so he had to go. This felt especially tragic because his song, "Another One" (from an EP of the same name) was about being rejected for another. In my blurb about his work, I compared the track to a musical shrug, but I feel just a little bit sad about shrugging off Mac. So, if you want, check out his song. It's worthy in its own right even if it's another one we truly love.

© 2015 Captured Tracks
© 2015 Domino Recording Co Ltd


Julia Holter: Silhouette

"Feel You," with its cute harpsichord accompaniment and dandelion-blowing melody was the tune the world walked away humming from Julia Holter's new album this year. I chose to include the track that follows it, "Silhouette," because I think it's more musically compelling. The song starts out carefree and breezy, the perfect transition from "Feel You." A minute and a half in, we hear the first "chorus," a more rushed, slightly anxious jog, and the word "silhouette" is heard for the first time. For verse two, we return to the earlier blithe mood, but little interjections of hurried strings alert us to the lingering anxiety introduced at the verse. Where the second chorus should enter, there is an abrupt instrumental break, and Holter's voice becomes a spectral penumbra in a phantasmagoria of panic. The strings pulse in a throbbing, rising accompaniment that sounds like a jewelry commercial from the 90s. Harpsichord returns, chunking out block chords baroque continuo style. Cut to black.

This is the moment that you realize "I have to listen to the whole album now." This is the suture that fastens the opening single to a ten-song arabesque. This is the moment Julia Holter's album becomes what NPR calls a "Driveway Moment."


Cécile McLorin Savant: Fog

© 2015 Mack Avenue Records II, LLC

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

© 2015 Wojtek Records

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

© 2015 Island Records

"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.

© 2015 Pomplamoose Inc


Pomplamoose: Like A Million

I've been a big fan of Pomplamoose for a few years. Their success story gives us all hope—that whole rags-to-riches thing where a monetized YouTube channel actually pays the bills. Well, it turns out making money isn't actually that easy, and the too-cute couple (dare I say "perfect couple") ran into some major financial difficulty following their debut tour, prompting a deflating essay from Jack Conte about the sustainability of commercial music. One of the band's strategies to increase their fanbase and profits was to go completely hog wild on covers—covers of obnoxious ultra-popular tracks that get hundreds of millions of searches online.

Apparently it worked, because their album this year, Besides, was all covers except for one track. And it sucked. Like, it was a terrible album. But that one track that they actually wrote, which is about money (lol), is actually really good (surprise!). It's a catchy, fun, I'm-dancing-with-my-shoulders-while-sitting kind of song. Also, the music video is trippy, creative, and weirdly erotic.

© 2015 Secret City Records Inc.


Patrick Watson: Love Song For Robots

I have no idea what the title track on Patrick Watson's album is about. I can't even tell what the album art is supposed to be. The music is an abstract painting with washes of glorious color, graceful forms, and strokes of inky neon. It's got a nearly-perfect form that rises from silence through a processional of spherical worlds and galaxies of synthetic sounds. It's intricate like a circuit board and expansive like a city full of lights. The human parts of the song (Watson's own voice) are hushed and subdued while the artificial parts soar, float, ebb, and flow majestically. This is a love song, and we all know who it's for.

© 2015 Domino Recording Co Ltd


Matthew E. White: Take Care My Baby

Any song that devotes twenty seconds to an exposed bass guitar and the singer going "mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm" is a winner in my book. Songs with liberal use of the word "baby" are also hugely popular with yours truly, and Matthew E. White spares no expense with iterations of my favorite term of endearment. Matthew's voice is like the chocolatey substance that settles at the bottom of a mug of hot chocolate. It's indulgent, rich, creamy, and lip-smackingly sensuous. His brass-heavy ensemble with soulful backup singers give his sound a slightly bluesy feel that is impossible to resist. The art on his debut album features his bearded self at a piano in a living room with an empty sofa in the foreground. Mmmm.


Alabama Shakes: Don't Wanna Fight

© 2015 Alabama Shakes LLC

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

© 2015 Driftless Recordings, LLC

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.

© 2015 School Boy/Interscope Records


Carly Rae Jepsen: I Really Like You

I don't want to hear any flack from anyone about this. I loved "Call Me Maybe" in 2012, and although I probably don't love this year's whole album, really really really really really really like like it. Its hottest single is infectiously catchy, and like so many other songs this year, it makes exactly zero apologies. It's not trying to be witty. The lyrics don't even really rhyme. It's just a person with feelings telling another person how they feel. It's not sarcastic, sardonic, or suspicious. It is, however, superlative. Also the music video stars Tom Hanks and is hilarious.


Vulfpeck: Back Pocket

I didn't know about Vulfpeck until a few weeks ago. Turns out they're from Michigan! Their music is super funky, and although Thrill of the Arts is largely not a very well-designed album, "Back Pocket" is 100% worthy of keeping on the iPod shuffle shortlist. The way the lead vox double the little percussive lead synth, punctuated by little pops of backup voices—it's tight like a pair of jeans from 2015. It's also impossibly cute and unassuming:

Do you, do you like me? Circle yes or no on this piece of paper 'cuz I really really need to know.

It's also bashful, frustrated, and thoroughly human. Its deft navigation of youthful folly, personal trouble, and frantic fifth-grade crisis reads like a David Sedaris essay. It's identifiable, entertaining, and emotive.

When you kissed me on the playground / I lost my breath I had to lay down / and assess what I had seen / then I had to write the words out 'cuz you took 'em out of my mouth / but it's hard for me to read out loud... oh gee... oh gosh...
© 2015 Grand Jury Music


Avid Dancer: I Want To See You Dance

Avid Dancer wants to see you dance, and they're going to get their wish because you'll be dancing one minute into this song. You might also be doing more than dancing. This is one of those sexy tracks I was talking about earlier... I mean, I don't even know where to start with lyrics like these:

I wanna love, love, love / until I'm outa control / I see your body sweating / I wanna see you dance / I see you breathing heavy / I wanna see you dance

This song is out of control, and so am I. Flash those pretty eyes, Avid Dancer. I'm dancing for you. Side note: the video is shot on a roller rink and one YouTube commenter called it "soul-crushingly hot."


Tame Impala: Let It Happen

© 2015 Modular Recordings

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.

© 2015 Fonograf Records and Capitol Records


Beck: Dreams

After a mysterious hiatus, Beck reappeared last year with a curiously mellow album that left everyone a little confused and maybe even bored. This year, he released just one single with an unexpectedly produced, upbeat, and massive sound. "Dreams" is seriously cool—an almost indulgent bacchanal of auditory stimuli. Beck showcases vocal acrobatics flipping in and out of falsetto, and doing linguistic somersaults "deams, dreams, dreams, d- d- d- dreams." Layer upon layer of electric guitar work, keyboard lines, and chorused vocals stack up to an undeniably impressive track with a playful, intoxicating beat balanced with hints of lyrical sobriety.


Neon Indian: The Glitzy Hive

© 2015 Mom+Pop and Static Tongues

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.

© 2015 Ensemble Records


French Horn Rebellion: Classical Baby

If you are listening to "Classical Baby" in your car and have the bass turned up, when it drops you will lose control of the vehicle. You know how I feel about songs with the word "baby" in them, but to all you classical musicians out there, these lyrics were made for your aid in seduction:

You and I are a chamber group tonight

Heck yes we are. Baby. Oh, also, yes, this track features a real french horn (with ~*some*~ occasional distortion and effects added).

© 2015 Elektra Records and Warner Music Group


Anderson East: Satisfy Me

I can't decide if I love the music or lyrics more in Anderson East's second track on Delilah. Or maybe it's his gritty, gravel-y voice. It could be the totally delirious keytar solo in the bridge. Or it could be the soulful horn work from the ensemble paired with that gospel hammond organ sawing away. Nah, it's definitely this lyric, which is my favorite lyric of the year:

Oh, I got a Ph.D. in T.L.C.


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

© 2015 Asthmatic Kitty Records

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

© 2015 Atlantic Records UK, Warner Music Group

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.

© 2015 True Panther Sounds


Tobias Jesso Jr.: How Could You Babe

This song is, for me, the quintessentially 2015 disposition. This was the year that world realized that everything isn't rosy. Love really isn't enough. Things basically stink. But that's okay, we can still sing about it. Actually....maybe I'm the only one who realized that in 2015, but I'm fairly sure Tobias Jesso Jr. also reached this conclusion. "How Could You Babe" is a musical zoom-in to an incredulous, ugly-crying face. It's a musical interrobang. Like so many songs this year, this one makes no apologies because its speaker is already past his breaking point. The lyrics are over the top—they're absurdly hyperbolic, but they express everything we've all felt when we realize our love has been betrayed. How could you, babe?


José González: Every Age

© 2015 Imperial Recordings

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?

© 2015 Rostrum Records

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

© 2015 Warner Music UK Limited

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

© 2015 Spacebomb Records, Columbia Records, and Sony Music Entertainment

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

2015, our love was a long goodbye, but you understood me. You don't need to repeat yourself—I've been listening—but I won't blame you if you do.

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