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Top 50 Songs of 2015

on November 30, 2015, 12:00am
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Every single year, music gets braver. It gets broader, too — for every faithful soul revivalist, there’s a button-pusher breaking down the walls of what we know pop music to be. 2015 saw plenty of every stripe of artist issuing every kind of song in abundance. It’s been a provocative year and also an especially generous one.

In five years, 2015 might look like a turning point, a moment when music got wilder and weirder and a lot more vital — when the indie kitsch and nihilistic bent of the aughts started to fade into distant memory. It’s hard to look back on a year like that and figure out what music meant the most to us when we’ve been bombarded with all kinds of brilliance every week, but we gave it our best. To kick off our 2015 Annual Report, here are the 50 best five-minute slices of the year.

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lana del rey honeymoon album stream50. Lana Del Rey – “Honeymoon”

Honeymoon

There’s been a trend in movie trailers lately where the film (usually a romantic thriller) gets scored by a slowed-down, minor-key version of a doe-eyed pop song. The most prominent example that comes to mind is Beyoncé, who redid her own “Crazy in Love” as a codependent funeral dirge for Fifty Shades of Grey. What was once brassy hip-hop suddenly becomes a mournful torch song. With “Honeymoon”, Lana Del Rey cuts out the middle man by crafting something already steeped in emotional complexity: ominous chamber pop and lyrics that Jekyll and Hyde between adoration, spite, and horror. If it’s a torch song, then the flame’s long since been doused, the fire used by Del Rey to immolate herself and her lover. How’s that for a movie trailer? Screw the film — “Honeymoon” is cinematic enough on its own. –Dan Caffrey

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Ezra Furman Perpetual Motion People49. Ezra Furman – “Lousy Connection”

Perpetual Motion People

Ezra Furman’s work has always been that of the outsider, but today’s individual rarely ever feels part of the crowd. Given that, there’s no better anthem for modern alienation than Furman’s “Lousy Connection”. The powerful swing, horns, and “nonsense cartoon lyrics” in the track’s updated doo-wop may be wonderfully throwback, but the lyricism is pointedly present. The sly witticisms create a disarmingly honest reflection of all those who “can’t fit in” and “just head for the fringes.” But while the song laments that “the clarity we knew is degraded” and that “maybe the message was lost,” Furman’s just as adrift as the rest of us, unable to do much more than hold up the mirror: “I’ve got the world’s ear; I’m all fucking mumbles.” By tucking this squirming discomfort inside such a superbly orchestrated package, however, the singer-songwriter at least leaves us feeling good and maybe even hopeful. –Ben Kaye

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Kelela-Hallucinogen-EP-new48. Kelela – “Rewind”

Hallucinogen EP

Kelela is one of several singers operating at the intersection of R&B and electronic music, but she is the purest distillation of the two genres, and her clicking falsetto-filled single, “Rewind”, is a reminder of how good she is at closing the distance between them. Produced by Kelela with longtime collaborator Kingdom and LA producer Nugget, the song takes the frame of a dance track and squeezes soul into it, manufacturing new age bass music. On “Rewind”, Kelela longs to return to a very specific moment in time, one that signifies the point of no return — the exact instance where interest turned to love, but she can’t, and she repeats the sentiment over and over as if in denial, lamenting inside a pulsating synth loop refusing to resolve. –Sheldon Pearce

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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disclosure caracal album stream Top 50 Songs of 201547. Disclosure feat. Sam Smith – “Omen”

Caracal

Disclosure and Sam Smith were fated to be together. “Latch” was a major breakthrough for both artists, weaving Disclosure’s stuttering production with Smith’s liveliest vocal performance to date. Since then, they’ve reached radio ubiquity. Their second collaboration together, “Omen”, reinforces how perfect a pairing they are. The dub-influenced production alone would be enough to make it a dance floor jam. However, throw in Smith’s smooth falsetto and soulful inflections, and it quickly becomes clear that they’re destined to be pop royalty. When Smith calls out, “All, all, all, all night” on the chorus, it feels like an orchestrated revelation for clubbers at last call. –Dusty Henry

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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tink ratchet commandments Top 50 Songs of 201546. Tink – “Ratchet Commandments”

Think Tink

It takes a lot of guts to take your own riff on a Biggie track, but that’s exactly what 19-year-old rapper Tink did for “Ratchet Commandments”. The track echoes “Ten Crack Commandments” in structure — a list of “shalt not”s delivered with superior fire — but Tink agilely shifts from elastic verses to a croon that echoes Mean Girls (“Y’all can’t sit with us”). The commandments focus on teaching the women of a “generation of ignorance” how to live better: no Instagram-attention-seeking, no clubbing without paying the bills first, no social media obsession, no dependence on men. But lest you think this is just Tink calling out other women, she turns the “Commandments” onto the ratchet men too: “You fake fathers never held your daughters, never had a conversation.” In an increasingly social media-driven world of desperation for attention and connection, Tink’s here to put us all on notice — and sounds great doing it. –Adam Kivel

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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John-Carpenter-Lost-Themes45. John Carpenter – “Vortex”

Lost Themes

One of the more enjoyable surprises of 2015 was seeing John Carpenter back in the spotlight. For too long, the cult director and composer has existed in the shadows, where his influence has preyed upon the most creative (see: Adam Wingard, David Robert Mitchell, Chromatics). So, when Lost Themes was announced in late 2014, and they offered up the first track, “Vortex”, it felt as if we were being transported back to 1981. The way the sultry synths, cardiac bass lines, and menacing piano work coalesce together only proves that few, if any, can ever make chump meat out of the maestro. It’s just a damn shame that whatever film or production it’s for is locked in our imagination forever. Unless he decides to use it for one of those four TV shows he’s currently kicking around. The man works in mysterious ways … clearly. –Michael Roffman

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Hop Along new album44. Hop Along – “Happy to See Me”

Painted Shut

“Happy to See Me” is the emotional centerpiece of Hop Along’s rocker-filled third album, Painted Shut. Coming halfway through the collection, frontperson Frances Quinlan creates an intimate space to delve into the idea of perception vs. reality. “Trying to change my mind about how everything went,” she begins, cued by warnings of the dangers of defeated soldiers, the symbolism of a headstone, and how birds and bats look the same at night. As the song unfolds, Quinlan presents the importance of shared experience, whether it’s her father reminding people via YouTube videos that “nobody loves you half as much as I am trying to” or her own wish: a desire to meet everyone from her past, all of their memories matching up, and everyone being happy to see her. The impression is that the opposite of this just happened, though we never find out exactly what spurred the train of thought from Quinlan. But the meaning of the song hinges on Quinlan’s gutsy delivery, unafraid to hit the wrong notes as she sings with abandon, going full Westerberg while she repeats, “We all will remember things the same.” It’s one of the most powerfully vulnerable moments on record this year, mixing lyrical subtlety and emotional ferociousness. –Philip Cosores

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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janet jackson unbreakable album43. Janet Jackson – “No Sleeep”

Unbreakable

New lovers spend a lot of time under the sheets. But entering a REM cycle is usually the last thing on the agenda. Insomniac queen Janet Jackson would rather toss and turn through one of the year’s sultriest nocturnal tracks than catch a full eight hours of rest. True to her form and pop legacy, “No Sleeep” is a sensual slow jam about weekend sex sessions and the come-hither tension that blankets bedtime companions. Likewise, the song marks Jackson’s return to the mainstage with her first proper release in seven years. Though two versions of the track exist, J. Cole’s appearance on the album cut enhances the atmosphere by bringing a new playmate to her bedchamber. The song’s allure also proves Jackson has been doing more with her downtime than just catching 40 winks. –Dan Pfleegor

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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alessia cara know it all album stream Top 50 Songs of 201542. Alessia Cara – “Here”

Know It All

Earlier this year, Courtney Barnett released her charming debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, featuring what would later be its third single, “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party”, about, well, nobody caring if you don’t go to the party. In a twist of irony, a month later, Canadian singer and R&B newcomer Alessia Cara would disprove that theory with her debut single, “Here”. It’s an anti-party slow jam turned viral sleeper hit writhing around in the alienating fog that saturates social gatherings and leads to peer pressure. It’s an explainer that breaks down detail by detail the pitfalls of partying from the perspective of a wallflower, and it does so in a way that doesn’t seem preachy or tiresome. “Here” retools an uncomfortable social experience for easy listening. It’s theme music for introverts. –Sheldon Pearce

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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ought sun coming down Top 50 Songs of 201541. Ought – “Beautiful Blue Sky”

Sun Coming Down

Ought frontman Tim Darcy is a decorated scholar in the field of repeating words to yourself so many times they become phonetic nonsense. “War plane. Condo. Oil freighter,” he drones towards the start of “Beautiful Blue Sky”, like a continuation of Rob Delaney’s joke about the overused punctuated-list-as-Twitter-bio method. But within a couple minutes, the song’s bass line ascends in conjunction with his sights. By the time his drone becomes rhythm (“Beautiful weather today! Beautiful weather today!”), Darcy is clawing to hang on to the reaction that beautiful weather is supposed to elicit — and the suddenly stirred-up rock band behind him chugging forward in lockstep lets you know that he’s doing it, so far. Then he remembers what humans do in the little moments of victory, something else that’s rendered random and meaningless when you lose touch: “I’m no longer afraid to dance tonight.” –Steven Arroyo

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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