Right, you’ve had our Top 50 Albums and Hidden Gems of the year. This one is all about the songs that properly resonated with us this year – sure, if you want to talk about popularity then you can have your King, your Hotline Bling, your Sorry and your Hello, even your Lean On. But we’re plumbing a different depth here, and while those songs are all pretty great, here’s what sung to us the most in 2015 (with a handy playlist at the end, as usual).
50Maribou State – Steal (feat. Holly Walker)
“Standing in a field of clouds/ Cerebral voices the loudest/ All hollering your name…”
There were slow-build songs this year, and then there was Steal by Maribou State. The way the production outfit used Holly Walker‘s hugely underrated and impassioned vocal talents on this track was a marvel, wrapping her ever so gently in atmospheric trip-hop production. It was the standout of their album, an elastic piece of work that takes its time to kick in but sticks with you as soon as it does.
49Willow – Wait A Minute!
“I left my consciousness in the 6th dimension…”
A late entry here that surprised us all, really. Especially given Willow‘s album was largely comprised of self-indulgent misfires, but Wait A Minute! was one of the tracks that really showed off what she can do when perfectly bridging her brand of psych-R&B with commercial bent. It’s catchy, it gets you moving, and it more than exhibits that star quality we expect from the Smith scion.
48Denai Moore – Blame
“Blame it on love/ What else could it be?/ Causing all this misery…”
As far as simplicity of sentiment goes, Denai Moore‘s Blame pretty much delivered what you hear. But the way she builds her tale of woe is astounding, her sparse aching at the beginning suddenly supported by a massive arrangement around the chorus, as if suddenly those walls come crashing down to reveal another side of the true self. Well worth your time.
47Tinashe – Player
“You better keep up, player.”
Tinashe didn’t give us much this year – hell, she didn’t need to – but even a casual single from her ends up being a total globe-conquering jam. The thing we like about her is that she makes songs you can properly imagine music-TV choreography for, and Player doesn’t fail to deliver on that front. Obviously we’d recommend the Chris Brown-free version, but if you can even make that pillock sound fresh then you’re really doing something right.
46Marissa Nadler – Carnival
“Never love someone until you fall.”
Marissa Nadler had a pretty quiet year, but one of the few tracks she did put out this year was an absolute stunner. Carnival was a contribution to a compilation to raise awareness for mental health, and the song is as deep and haunting as you’d expect from such an accomplished songwriter writing about such a dense topic. It sounds like a lost Mazzy Star song but with that Nadler stamp – greyscale, solemn, and unremittingly haunting.
45Doe Paoro – Growth/Decay
“Maybe I can find out one day/ Why I had to grow to face decay…”
Doe Paoro is special. Her album was also special, and Growth/Decay was by far one of the year’s most glistening alt-pop gems. It almost comes across like a more mainstream FKA twigs, in that its production lurches and haunts like clockwork in an empty hall, while Paoro exhorts her existential musings. Evolve or die is the mantra, and this is one woman whose music very much sets its own standard for evolution.
44Lianne La Havas – What You Don’t Do
“I know you love me, I don’t need proof.”
Truth: a lot of this list is filled with diss tracks, or heartbreak jams, or seductive songs. So it’s a relief when Lianne La Havas came along and made happiness sound so damn attractive. What You Don’t Do is the perfect celebration of a relationship, channeling her soul vibes with massive orchestration for a song that really nails the hardest (and usually most boring) emotion in music.
43Selena Gomez – Good For You (feat. A$AP Rocky)
“Do my hair up real, real nice/ And syncopate my skin to how you’re breathing.”
These words, would you believe, came from teen star Selena Gomez in a coming-of-age that rivalled her ex-boyfriend. In fact, all of Gomez’s album was disarmingly good, but lead single Good For You eschewed massive pop banger status to deliver something mature, sensual, and unadulterated proof of her readiness for total domination. The best kind of surprise, this.
42Bob Moses – Talk
“You’re so concerned with making it fit/ ‘Cause if you give it all away/ Then can you tell me what we have left?”
Bob Moses might have a totally unassuming name, but they’ll have you hooked with their brand of atmospheric electronica. Talk recalls the halcyon days of Massive Attack and their ilk, where beats were balanced with lyricism to create a trip-hoppy symbiosis. But Bob Moses go further and deal with more than just abstract concepts, as you can see from the lyrics above. They’re dealing with some seriously relatable shit, and they’re doing it swathed in darkness.
41Marika Hackman – Before I Sleep
“I foresee this ending in a shower of flame/ So drink your holy water soon.”
Marika Hackman was a revelation this year. Like a more macabre Marling, her melancholic acoustica transported us to a magical place. Before I Sleep may have influenced by a Frost poem but is steeped in no less poetry itself, a sparse but enchanting little missive that’ll haunt you for days to come.
40Wyles & Simpson – Stormy Skies
“Keep looking forward.”
One of the year’s most criminally underrated albums was from London duo Wyles & Simpson. Stormy Skies explains why that is, given Abigail Wyles and Holly Simpson’s deep understanding of form and melody, having written and produced everything themselves. The way Wyles’s velvety voice cascades over that atmospheric electronica is very much like the beacon on the dark waves, deep in the confidence that they possess the strength to withstand that eponymous threat.
39Empress Of – Everything Is You
“Don’t tell me who I am.”
Empress Of – aka Lorely Rodriguez – is a force. Her album very much proved that, and there was no better way to open it than with the disarming coo of Everything Is You. It’s almost half tongue-in-cheek, given Rodriguez is the sort of person who feels no need to be submissive, and very much retains an air of an autonomy even as it compromises. Tough to pull off, and done so brilliantly here (especially that little breakdown at the end).
38Tori Kelly – Should’ve Been Us
“Should’ve been a fire, should’ve been the perfect storm.”
At the beginning of the year, you’d be forgiven for wondering what the hell a Tori Kelly is. By the end, she may have felt a bit rammed down our throats but as far as straight-up chart-bothering R&B-pop goes, Kelly had it properly nailed on Should’ve Been Us. It’s the best of its kind in 2015, that massive chorus giving way to an even better middle-eight and cementing its singer as someone who really does deserve a bit more credit.
37Adele – River Lea
“So I blame it on the River Lea.”
Look, let’s be honest: Adele‘s album wasn’t nearly as good as we all wanted it to be. Except in one regard, that being the stupendously good River Lea. Adele takes a break from both heartbreak-revenge and cloying motherhood to just hold her hands up and say, yep, I’m just as fucked up as anyone. It ends up being the song that we all relate to the most, and with it comes the very welcome knowledge that the world’s biggest star still has the power to surprise us.
36Jazmine Sullivan – Dumb (feat. Meek Mill)
“So now what I hate the most, is you think you’re so smart/ You think you’re fooling me.”
Thing that we would consider dumb: 1) stepping out on Jazmine Sullivan, 2) underestimating her as an artist. Dumb was one of the most ferocious comebacks of the year, an absolute militaristic stomp of a track that sat at the top of a very worthy album. Sleep (around) on this at your peril, because it actually makes us want our partner to cheat just for ball-chopping sass herein.
35On An On – Icon Love
“It’s good/ It’s why we hold so tight/ Cause it could/ But it don’t feel right…”
If you wanted spectacular indie this year, you should go straight to On An On. Their record was full of dizzying variation on the genre, each deep and inventive in their own way. The highlight? Icon Love, a simply constructed but fantastically entrancing mid-tempo track that has a vocal yearning you don’t often see with a band like this. Tremendous business.
34Bleachers – Entropy (feat. Grimes)
“Calculate the entropy/ Running out of energy/ A lack of love or empathy/ Leave me lonely…”
Spoiler: this is one of two times that Grimes will feature on this list, and also one of two times a song from the Girls soundtrack will as well. Entropy‘s mix of Bleachers‘ laid-back beats with that disaffected vocal was a perfect fit for the credits of that show, the words in the chorus above perfectly chronicling the existential ennui faced by a globe of twentysomethings. To nail that in a song is an impressive achievement, and to do it so well is worthy of ovation.
33Rae Morris – This Time
“In the heat of, of this moment/ Maybe I’m not made of something/ Strong enough to withstand what you do/ Do to my guard to tear it down…”
Piano balladry has been all the rage since, well, time began, but very few managed to do it so immaculately and with as much emotional heft as Rae Morris. This Time, from her stunning album, crystallised everything we love about her – sparse piano, a bravura vocal performance, and enough sentiment to leave us winded. This girl really is the real deal.
32Ibeyi – River
“Carry away my dead leaves/ Let me baptize my soul with the help of your waters.”
This may come as a surprise, but one of our Top 5 records of the year was actually a devotional one. Franco-Cuban twins Ibeyi twirled through a sparse but impeccably constructed album that, for the most part, invoked Yoruba deities. River is the dedication to the goddess of water, resulting in a song that feels as pure as the pool she presides over and ends up being just as fresh and restorative.
31Beck – Dreams
“If you want to fall in a dream/ You could put the weight right onto me.”
It’s nice when someone lightens the fuck up, isn’t it? As Beck came off a stellar year with his last album – which, while brilliant, was really quite a melancholy affair – he surprised everyone by delivering Dreams. This is Beck at his most playful, his most charming, his most pop, with those joyous guitar flicks and that romping chorus proving that he’s still very much capable of bothering a chart if he wants to.
30Alpine – Foolish
“You brought too much metaphor to the relationship/ To what I see/ To how I kiss…/ Yuck.”
We love a band that just wants to have fun while being a little bit on the sassy side, and Australia’s Alpine really did that on Yuck. It’s a soaring romp of an indie-pop song, concocted in flight almost, which has no qualms in wickedly insulting its subject with the perfect four-letter word. What’s more, it’s wrapped in immaculate construction, full proof that when this lot switch it on you really need to take note.
29Ciara – Dance Like We’re Making Love
“Sweat dripping from my body, we both at this party/ So come and show me your moves…”
Oh, Ciara. If the rest of your album was like Dance Like We’re Making Love, there could have been quite the worthy comeback on your hands. But this song just stole the show, head and shoulders above the rest, a sexual slow jam that puts Ciara in control while remaining effortlessly sultry. One of her finest moments to date, without doubt.
28Tamaryn – Hands All Over Me
“Waste another moment with me/ It’s a matter of courtesy”
The moment Hands All Over Me by Tamaryn starts, you know you’re in for a good time. It’s a far cry from her days with songs like The Garden, channeling instead some serious 80s power-pop through those sun-flecked chords. It’s full of cheek, fun, seductive charm and a chorus that wants to make you feel like you’ve just wound your windows down on a sunshine coast. Bliss.
27Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion
“Let your feelings be revealing/ That you can’t forget me…”
Ah, Carly Rae Jepsen. A year in which she finally gained pop credibility, but it remained very much in the realms of internet-famous. A shame really. And even though most of said quarter flipped for Run Away With Me, we sought refuge in Emotion‘s stellar title track. It has an innocence with that brilliant hook, and a chorus that really sells how much its owner has the pop game nailed.
26Susanne Sundfør – Delirious
“I hope you got, a safety net/ Cause I’m gonna push you over the edge…”
The opening to Susanne Sundfør’s Delirious is almost unbearable. Like a cinematic thriller it builds with deeply etching strings, till Sundfør steps forward as the unrepentant villain. She is by turns alluring and, well, terrifying, as this song scales the heights of drama to deliver truly epic pop. Word of warning: do not fuck with this woman.
25Zhala – Holy Bubbles
“Oh my holy lover/ I’m just so excited/ Don’t care about the others…”
One of the things we loved about Zhala‘s debut album is just how inventive and, well, bat-shit mental it was while being a veritable melting pot of all her influences. Eastern European lineage, Bollywood fandom, and of course a Swedish pop sensibility all come together quite spectacularly on Holy Bubbles, a trance-like moment that ends up a leftfield gem.
24Lana Del Rey – Terrence Loves You
“And I still get trashed, honey, when I hear your tunes.”
You know, people take the piss out of Lana Del Rey for being a bit dour and droning on with zero pep. But if you actually stop and listen to something like Terrence Loves You – the highlight of her weakest album to date – you’ll know why her direction is perfect. This is like the world’s most depressing Bond theme (in the best way), a failed Hollywood romance that’s playing out in full technicolour while backed by a cinematic orchestra. She might enjoy playing a certain role, but by the Christ does Lana do it well on this one.
23Beach House – Bluebird
“If they should come up much before you/ I would not ever try to capture you/ Bluebird, where you gonna go now?”
It’s amazing what Beach House can do with what essentially is the same pattern of chords. Of course, they did it too much in one year which is why a surprise second album maybe diluted the impact of the first, from which Bluebird was a highlight. It’s got their gauzy dream-pop trademark all over it, with Victoria Legrand’s voice at its most wistful (not to mention clear). The symbol of the bluebird and its freedom balanced with lines of leading to the gallows essentially encompassing both the depression and the sweet cherry that made this such a memorable record.
22Braids – Taste
“Take me by the throat/ Will you push me up against this wall/ And spit all your hurt on me/ So I can feel my reach…”
It was hard to pick just one standout from Braids‘ incredible album. Miniskirt was the fiercest feminist fightback the year ever did see, but Taste felt more accessible as a song. It’s a deceptively heady admission of being part of a destructive relationship, assenting to destruction and thinking it’s what we deserve. “But you’re exactly what I like,” sings Raphaelle Standell, and so begins the most bittersweet cycle once again.
21LA Priest – Oino
“How long’s it gonna take to rewind time?”
You might think us mad for placing a song like Oino so high on this list. After all, it has just the same three lines repeated all the way through, and sacrifices a traditional structure for a 12-measure breakdown of psychedlic synth. And yet it is so. Bloody. Good. Infuriatingly so, in fact, as LA Priest takes this warped hook and turns it into something so addictive and bat-shit brilliant that you just have to take the damn trip and love every minute.
20Cyril Hahn – Inferno (feat. Say Lou Lou)
“I’d rather stay and burn forever/ than find a strange heart to love…”
Has mutual destruction ever sounded so beautiful? Cyril Hahn has always been able to get the best out of his collaborators, but he elevated things to the next level on Inferno. When Say Lou Lou‘s own album was a little bit superficial, it took the super-producer to bathe them in glacial, dreamy synth-pop that sounds like it’s being sung from high heavens. It’s the best the duo have ever sounded, and it seems like a cakewalk for Hahn.
19CHVRCHES – Leave A Trace
“Take care to leave a trace of a man.”
If you were any other act remotely worried about commercial prowess, you might choose to abandon your activism. Thank God for CHVRCHES, then, who couldn’t give a flying shit about the headlines around them and still created pulsing, fiery and independent pop smashes. Leave A Trace is the perfect passive-aggressive kiss-off, its chorus slyly wonderful as it tears down the male ego with synth-powered barbs. Don’t even go in for a rebuttal, lads. You’ve already lost.
18Kendrick Lamar – King Kunta
“But a rapper with a ghost writer? What the fuck happened?”
Who got flow like Kendrick Lamar? Very few people this year, and neither did anyone come close to the searing political and existential commentary of his album. King Kunta is one of the reasons he is where he is, taking that funk-soul beat and smattering it with unrelenting verse, spitting alternations of brimstone and knowing barbs. You can’t help but marvel, really.
17Future Brown – Dangerzone (feat. Kelela & Ian Isiah)
“We ’bout to go blood for blood/ I’m in the dangerzone, can’t somebody please save me?”
They really, really don’t make them like this any more. This is one of two times that Kelela is going to appear on this list, but in a completely different milieu: on Dangerzone, Future Brown use her in the most sensual way, the perfect foil for Ian Isiah as the duo go back and forth for some nocturnal, almost erotic R&B that’s all about giving in to the desire. If it’s presented in this way, who can blame them?
16Roisin Murphy – Evil Eyes
“Hocus/ Hocus pocus/ Cast a spell and hope to hell/ The Gods are listening…”
There aren’t many people who can get away with throwing in a babbling incantation to a mainstream album, but Roisin Murphy is never going to conform to any of your standards. Even though her Hairless Toys were a mixed bag to play with, Evil Eyes stood out as a fantastically low-key yet adaptable. It reminded us very much of some of her glory days, and captured that wild eccentricity with a perfectly-pitched net of commercial sound.
15St. Vincent – Teenage Talk
“Well, that’s just teenage talk/ Pinky swear that you won’t go changing…”
The second entry here from the Girls soundtrack, and boy is it a doozy. St Vincent didn’t share much but this little gem is one of her finest moments – it’s so beautifully understated that it may pass you by on first listen, but the very personal nature of it all is so detailed, so relatable, that it’s hard not love it more and more with each listen. Hindsight may be a bitch, but the joyous folly of youth has never been captured with such clarity.
14Best Coast – California Nights
“California nights/ Make me feel so happy I could die…”
Even though we didn’t overly warm to the new Best Coast album, when Bethany Cosentino gets it right she bloody nails it. It’s hard to find a song this year that so fully encompasses its title in a soundscape, as we’re immediately transported to a hazy LA sunset as soon as those riffs hit. The dream-pop vibe, the intoxicated delivery – anyone who’s ever set foot in the state will practically be able to taste the air again when they hear California Nights. That, in itself, is a remarkable achievement.
13Tove Styrke – Ego
“I wanna love you but you’re making it impossible.”
When we first heard Ego by Tove Styrke, we were a bit underwhelmed. Where was the massive chorus we were used to from Scandi-pop acts, especially from the person who gave us stomping tracks from the same album? But Ego is way, way more special than a disposable pop track. It’s Styrke doing her very subtle but pointed brand of feminism, taking down the patriarchy not with a banger but soft, addictive choruses. Minimal fuss and maximum emasculation; take notes, everyone.
12Janet Jackson – No Sleeep
“So you better get ready, my king/ Cause I’ma be the queen of insomnia.”
If there were a Nobel Prize for seduction, Janet Jackson would have won it without a fight this year. No Sleeep is how it’s done, a lesson in everything modern R&B should be and perfectly polished with layers of class. It’s all breathy and insinuated bedroom talk, without Ms Jackson ever descending to the genre’s usual levels of subservience, and it gives us something so steamy we need to have a bit of a lie down when it’s done.
11FKA twigs – Glass & Patron
“One… Two… Three/ Now hold that pose for me.”
FKA twigs was great in 2015 for many reasons, but fighting back the trolls with such creativity and brilliance was without doubt her crowning moment. Glass & Patron – adequately summed up in both the fragility and intoxication of the production here – was just one track where twigs took the press attention (and her own commodification) and turned it into a very uncomfortable mirror. The calls for a photo op start to feel like threats, and the line “Will you fuck me while I stare at the sun?” simply feels like the most intense charge at celebrity journalism you’re ever likely to hear
10Kelela – Rewind
“I’m giving you eyes, but you misread the signs/ And I can’t rewind…”
When we reviewed Kelela‘s excellent EP, we addressed the talk of her being the second coming of Aaliyah. In order to be that, however, we don’t need her to be repeating a past that can’t be touched. Instead, what Kelela does specifically on Rewind is take all the modern tropes of R&B, all the electronic tinkering, and turns it into a genre classic that very few people could touch this year.
9Nicole Dollanganger – Poacher’s Pride
“I shot an angel with my father’s rifle/ I should have set it free, but I let it bleed/ Made it into taxidermy, hung it on my wall…”
It’s no wonder Grimes signed Nicole Dollanganger. Behind that angelic voice lies a darkness displayed on Poacher’s Pride, symptomatic of an album that explores the evil of those seemingly well-adjusted. It’s a strangely transfixing listening experience, like the fascination we get from a morbid news story, and one that mercilessly draws us into this girl’s world and completely eviscerates both our expectations and a bit of our soul.
8The Internet – Girl
“Chapters turning, so old fashioned and natural/ Potions got me falling for you…”
We’ve had a lot of sultry R&B jams on this list but, really, when it came down to it, The Internet stole a march on everyone with the help of Kaytranada. And the funny thing is that Girl is probably not even written from the traditional boy-girl perspective that the genre is normally shackled to. Instead, Syd focuses on the purity of the equation, allowing her to explore its depth without getting too carnal. It never feels exclusive to any gender, though, and it still remains the ultimate seduction jam of the year.
7Tame Impala – ‘Cause I’m A Man
“Like the brutal autumn sun/ It dawns on me, what have I done?”
In some ways, ‘Cause I’m A Man is the best song by a band that shouldn’t have actually been sung by the band. Why? Because it took a Haim revamp for the proper sentiment of Tame Impala to get across, as opposed to the controversy-courting the original did. If you’re taking Kevin Parker literally then you’re kind of missing the point, as the song doesn’t use manhood to justify being a cunt so much as making light of the watery excuses men tend to offer. Oh, and it’s a psych-rock masterpiece at the same time, which never hurts anyone’s case really.
6Christine and the Queens – iT
“I’m a man now.”
As far as the realms of intelligent pop go, it’s safe to say that entire theses could be written about Christine and the Queens‘ song iT. “It” being the placement of herself as a man in society, or perhaps being in transition, or at least adopting the force and perceived confidence that comes with living this life. Whatever it is, it’s delivered with such brilliance that it becomes both social commentary and spectacular pop song all in one, a feat that very few artists could pull off in 2015.
5The Weather Station – Way It Is, Way It Could Be
“All that we hoped for and all that we dreamed/ the way it is and the way it could be… both are.”
If there’s one thing that we could take away from Tamara Lindeman’s album as The Weather Station – one of our records of the year – it’s that there’s beauty in simplicity. And there was really very little more beautiful than this song Way It Is, Way It Could Be, which completely envelops you the moment you hit play. It’s a road song that actually feels like a road song, with guitar galloping like it’s passing breathtaking Canadian landscape. More to the point, it makes us consider the reason Lindeman might be taking the trip, the nature of her companion, and the very immediate dichotomy of reality and fantasy. Stunning work, this.
4Grimes – Artangels
“Everything I love is consolation after you.”
Pop record of the year? That would have come from Grimes, and Artangels demonstrates exactly why. It might not be the one everyone talked about, but it is one massive smile of a song, a love letter to Montreal that shows why Claire Boucher is at the top of her game. It takes note from 90s radio pop-rock but never feels derivative, and that chorus is just one of the most feelgood moments that music has had in a hell of a long time. We dare you not to find pure joy in this.
3Björk – Stonemilker
“Show me emotional respect.”
Crikey. When Björk delivered Vulnicura, her take on the break-up album, we never thought we’d be rubble after just the first song alone. Stonemilker is an absolute gut-wrencher of a song, one that tugs your heart so gently that you haven’t even noticed it start to rip out of your chest. That’s the power of this track, backed as it is by the most moving strings, and Björk begging for her dues. It’s no wonder she had to abandon her live shows – this song is so tough to listen to that performing it must be devastating on a whole other level.
2Sufjan Stevens – Fourth of July
“We’re all gonna die.”
In just one simple phrase, Sufjan Stevens destroyed us. You don’t even need to know the backstory about his recently deceased mother for Fourth of July to be remotely affecting, so simple in its construction and so bloody Sufjan in the way that it takes mundane observations and turns them into inescapable moments of heartbreak. In a live setting, Stevens adds an enormous coda that sounds like all his instruments giving a guttural wail, but in a room, on our own, that’s what it feels like both he and we are repressing. Add to that the personal touches, the terms of endearment, that final valediction ending with an existential compromise with mortality, and you have a song that will be irreplaceable for anyone who’s ever lost someone. Song of the year, by an alt-country mile.