Another year, another best-of list. 2015 was the first year in which I felt truly engaged with modern and contemporary music, perhaps as a result of a greater quantity of quality music, or more likely due to a degree of effort on my part to actually listen to the damn stuff. Needless to say I thought this this year had a superb array of music, not just alternative / underground but also mainstream, which I think is reflected with the choices in my list. These are the songs & tracks I enjoyed the most this year, limited to 30 and arranged alphabetically.
Kicking off my list of favourite songs this year is Kendrick’s anthem of positive reinforcement, “Alright” from the album To Pimp a Butterfly. Based on themes of hope and assurance, the song’s message was so powerful it was adopted by Black Lives Matter protesters, chanting the refrain of “we gon’ be alright”. A defining moment of 2015’s soundtrack for sure.
Loved this track from the first listen, previously I’ve only heard Anderson .Paak appear here and there as a featured artist, but his fresh brand of West Coast neo-soul & g-funk is really exciting on this track. Look out for him to explode on the scene in early 2016 with a full-length project, having been recently signed by Dr. Dre.
This one’s more on the light-hearted and silly side, but the Motown-inspired piano, rhythm and sax elements in this track are irresistibly groovy, and chef-turned-rapper Action Bronson surprises with some great singing and delivers trademark food-related funny lines like “the specialty is white snake and underwear sauce”. Chance the Rapper just caps it off with an equally funny verse, very much in the style of OutKast’s “Roses”.
The legend marches on! Bowie continues to fuck with the edges of genre, releasing this experimental, 10-minute progressive set piece. The middle section is what really blew me away, where the tempo changes and Bowie proves he can still hit those glam notes. Still in the process of deciphering what exactly this is about. Something occult? Major Tom Part 3? All might become clearer/foggier come January 8.
The jam that was everywhere this year when it dropped, skyrocketing Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd to #1 for the first time in his six-year career. It’s also evidence of Michael Jackson’s legacy and influence continuing to inspire, it’s got that kind of synth-funk-R&B vibe that MJ executed so perfectly in Off the Wall and Thriller, clearly a timeless sound.
This song is just incredibly addictive, the frantic handclap-disco beat, (reminds me a lot of Santa Esmerelda’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”) THICK bass line and kinda wonky guitar all mesh perfectly. Superb production, obviously a lot of work went on in the studio. Gotta say that this music video is one of my favourites for the year too. Has a kind of mid-1970s sci-fi feel to it, with gorgeous cinematography.
Always love a bit of soul infusion into hip hop, particularly with capable producers at the helm to channel the grooves, and Madlib is one of the best at this. Aloe Blacc steals the show with the hook, “She got style and grace / Oooh she’s a beauty”, no disrespect to MED and Blu, but their verses take a back seat in this track. There were a couple of other tracks I enjoyed from Bad Neighbor (Knock Knock with MF DOOM, The Strip with Anderson .Paak) but this is too damn fresh to ignore.
Striking. That’s one word I’d use to describe this group, their sound, and especially that album artwork (made by kiwi illustrator Andrew Archer, by the way). This is the title track from Everything Everything’s Get to Heaven, a straight psych-pop-rock-electronic banger, full of colourful melodies and soaring falsettos from lead singer Jonathan Higgs. Gotta love the refrains like “what was my password?” and “where in the blazes did I park my car?”
The Magic Whip isn’t a typical Blur album, and this isn’t a typical Blur track either. The instrumentation is unusual, (57 seconds in you’ll hear air escaping a balloon) the lyrics mention places in Hong Kong like Kowloon and Po Lin, but it’s got a strong groove section, and Albarn’s crooning manages to shift from forlorn to impassioned and back again in the space of 4:50. It’s just a great, intimate little track.
Erykah Badu saved the best for last with her phone-themed mixtape But You Caint Use My Phone, with this closing track featuring her baby-daddy Andre 3000. Yes, “ice cold” Andre 3-stacks casually drops an incredible verse, then proceeds to sing with Badu. This is the kinda thing I recall hearing on The Love Below, and I absolutely love it. Was a real surprise and delight to suddenly get this so late in the year, especially as a huge fan of Badu and OutKast.
From Erykah’s mixtape to what inspired the mixtape. This joint is just straight up infectious, the Timmy Thomas sample works perfectly, and for once Drake’s flow is pretty damn good! Caps off what was an extremely successful year for the Canadian rapper, and if he were to continue making catchy pop rap in this vein, I wouldn’t mind hearing it.
I GOT A BONE TO PICK! Check that bubbling, deep, nasty West Coast funk. Kendrick’s re-assertion of his dominance in the rap game is everything it needed to be, not only is he dissing his contemporaries but he’s doing it over one of the hottest beats of the year. “I can dig rapping, but a rapper with a ghost writer? What the fuck happened? Oh no! I swore I wouldn’t tell, but most of y’all sharing bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two-man cell” just lay down and take that gunfire.
What a comeback! Iconic Dunedin group The Chills came through with one of my favourite releases this year, their first since 1996. I could’ve picked any one of the tracks on Silver Bullets, but I particularly enjoy the closer “Molten Gold” which harks back to the bright, upbeat Chills from the psychedelic soundings of “Kaleidoscope World” alongside the heavenly pop jangles of the Submarine Bells-era.
Wu-Tang Clan’s Inspectah Deck and underground duo 7L & Esoteric teamed up this year to release the comic book villain-themed Every Hero Needs a Villain under the name Czarface. Featuring some very inventive sampling of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” (the original lyric “when lights close” is morphed to say “nightcrawl”) and Wu-Tang heavyweight Method Man, “Nightcrawler” is old school boom bap at its finest, with a couple GOAT microphone fiends.
Up-and-coming Houston-based rapper Travi$ Scott has injected a healthy dose of creativity into the Southern Hip Hop trap scene this year. This track’s actually split into two parts – “Oh My” is the hook-laden trap banger, 2 minutes in it switches to “Dis Side” where the beat changes and seamlessly transforms into an introspective and reflective piece, by the end Travi$ trails off completely and leaves us with a skeletal beat. A real rollercoaster of a track.
This is one for the old school hip hop heads. Produced by the legendary DJ Premier, “Paper Trailquot; sets the scene in Joey Bada$$’ superb album B4.DA.$$ (pronounced ‘before da money’), detailing the Brooklyn rapper’s perspectives on the pursuit of money as a corrosive but necessary evil in modern society. He interpolates Wu-Tang’s immortal socio-economic anthem ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ but twists it up – it’s now “cash ruin everything around me” and “it’s the dolla bill that kills, y’all”. Definitely among my favourite hip hop tracks this year.
Going through all these songs has made me realise how many great collaborations there were in 2015, among these was the project Sour Soul between Canadian jazz/electronic/instrumental hip hop outfit BadBadNotGood and Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah. Love the instrumental portion in this cut, feels very reminiscent of the funk-filled blaxploitation soundtracks of the 1970s, and hearing Ghost go toe-to-toe with MF DOOM exceeded my expectations. Bodes well for their future project Doomstarks.
As someone who loves synthpop and electronic-based music, I was spoiled with an abundance of quality this year. Case and point right here with this absolute monster banger by Claire Boucher aka Grimes. For a song that she originally classified as a “demo”, “REALiTi” absolutely floors me with every listen, due to its gorgeously airy vocals pitched all across the spectrum and boisterous interweaving synth melodies. Great hook, too: “Get up this is what I see / Welcome to reality”, if I had a top 10 this would be way up there.
If someone asked me for proof of a powerful, danceable pop song from 2015, I’d play this to them on repeat for the foreseeable future. The blaring saxophone melody sets it up, supported by a driving synth beat and Carly’s vocals match both perfectly. It’s indicative of the high level of songwriting and composition present in her acclaimed album Emotion, which she described as a love letter to 80s pop music. “Run Away With Me” is my summer party anthem of the year.
Singer/songwriter Julia Holter seems to have a knack of combining heavenly vocal harmonies with punchy instrumentation, in this case harpsichord, strings and a kickass saxophone solo. “Sea Calls Me Home” represents everything I love about her music – soothing and upbeat with complex melodies that really just leave you wanting MORE.
New Order’s comeback LP Music Complete was a powerful reminder of the Manchester group’s influence and status as pioneers in the electronic, synthpop, dance and alternative movements during the mid-1980s and beyond. Tracks like “Singularity” offer a fresh but familiar take on their classic sound, a throwback to their output between 1981 and 1989. Pulsating, driving synth beats and guitars, thick bass lines and soaring vocals from Bernard Summer all combine to make one of my favourites from the year.
“Slumlord” is the centrepiece in Neon Indian’s third album VEGA INTL. Night School, a conceptual project based around a love for the 1980s musical aesthetic – analogue synthesizers dominate the aural landscape, coupled with vocals reminiscent of ’80s titans Prince and Michael Jackson. But “Slumlord”, as with many other tracks on this great project, is as fresh as it gets in 2015. It’s an ambitious, extended piece that builds, has a great climax with a stunning hook, is extremely danceable and still manages to blow my socks clean off with every listen.
Shades of ’77-era Talking Heads in this track from Deerhunter’s Fading Frontier, which saw the group opting for a crisper, funk-sprinkled rock-based sound as opposed to their earlier psychedelic and experimental works. It’s a rollicking foot-stamper with some howling vocals by lead singer Bradford Cox, one of the great rock tracks this year.
Baltimore dream-pop duo Beach House were back in full force in 2015, releasing Depression Cherry in August and following up with the surprise album Thank Your Lucky Stars in October. The quality of music on Depression Cherry can partly be attributed to its rich and layered production, evident in “Space Song” among others. The achingly beautiful, almost drawn out guitar melodies, along with Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally’s harmonised vocals that seem to glide in gracefully then retreat with an echo, it’s a gorgeous piece of music that pulls at the emotions a wee bit.
Experimental & electronic producer/composer Oneohtrix Point Never’s Garden of Delete was one of the most unnerving, atmospheric and creepy listening experiences I’ve ever had. “Sticky Drama” is a good representation of the overall vibe of the project, it’s electronic-based on the surface but there’s elements of industrial, noise and distortion, the glitchy vocals are unintelligible but does that really matter? Somewhere in this wilderness there’s a melody that surfaces briefly then dissipates before you get too comfortable. Stylistically, this stands so far apart from anything else I heard this year. It confuses the fuck out of me, and for that I have to give it respect.
I remember hearing glimpses of old-school gospel in Chance the Rapper’s previous project Acid Rap but he never went the whole hog with it, until this absolute stunner of a track surfaced leading up to the release of Surf by his backing band/posse Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment. Starting with a light, playful piano intro, Chance toes the line between rapping and sing-speak, but the song ascends to a new plateau when Jamila Woods delivers the rousing gospel-infused hook “You gotta move it slowly / Take and eat my body like it’s holy”, tying in the religious motif with a love story. Old school freshness.
Brooklyn hip hop duo The Underachiever’s LP Evermore: The Art of Duality is partly a concept piece split into two halves, the first being thoughtful and introspective with classic 1990s jazz rap production, the second being more contemporary with catchy energetic hooks, 808s and trap fills as a contrast. From the first half is this highlight “The Dualist” which emanates vibes from the peak of the jazz rap era – along the lines of Tribe, De La Soul and Gang Starr. There’s plenty of intelligence in the lyricism and a particularly well-crafted sound with jazzy trumpet loops and boom bap beats. Under the guidance of Flying Lotus these two should be in good hands.
Damn you, Kevin Parker. Damn this track and its finger-snaps, livewire bass line, psychedelic guitars, hovering synths and wailing falsettos. “The Less I Know the Better” is essentially everything a pop song aspires to be, insatiably catchy but far from repetitive. Be warned, it’ll wriggle into your subconscious like the earworm it is, and before you know it you’ll be belting out the refrains “Oh, my love / Can’t you see yourself by my siiiiiiiiiiide” while busting out your best slappa-da-bass impression (the bass line really is that groovy and distinctive). Of all my picks so far, this was probably the best one I heard this year. Tame Impala deserve the damn grammy.
Usually frenetic and wild, power pop Sydneysiders Royal Headache showed their versatility in tracks like “Wouldn’t You Know” from their follow-up release High. Typically their sound is a captivating mix of late-70s British punk rock, Strokes-esque garage rock and a dash of soul from lead singer Shogun, however this plays as a sort of emphatic power ballad with a beautiful melody, sticking out like a blistered finger amongst the chaotic garage-punk that drives the rest of the album.
Missy Misdemeanour is back! This song brought back all the great memories I have of her output during the late ’90s – early 2000s, when she was amongst the best of the new wave of contemporary r&b / hip hop artists, utilising hard-hitting beats with a slightly exotic or unusual flair, and that’s exactly what this brings. Gotta love the hook which fires not-so-subtle shots at a certain M. Cyrus (fair game) “The dance that you doing is dumb, how they do where you from? Stickin’ out your tongue girl, but you know you’re too young”