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Music

The 90 Best Songs of 2015

Photo by Austin Rich on Unsplash

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with fabulous songs. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 90 songs as best of the year.


80. Christopher Paul Stelling - "Scarecrow"

One of the standout tracks from his Anti- Records debut Labor Against Waste, the mournfully beautiful "Scarecrow", finds Christopher Paul Stelling equating the lonely fortitude of a scarecrow on a hill with that of Christ, isolated, then punished "for what he held inside his heart that he could no longer hide". It's a statement on the burden of being a truth-teller in these highly divisive, reactionary times. The song's chorus serves as a tonic, a prayer or mantra: "Breathe, breathe it out / Lay your burdens down to rest / Breathe through the doubt / Never let them get the best of you."

Stelling's longtime partner Julia Christgau adds a bright, keening vocal that counters the weariness of the lead, offering a sense of hopefulness against the troubles of the world. Stelling made his Newport Folk Festival debut in July. The set was so well-received he was given an encore, during which he and Christgau performed this song. As a testament to hopefulness in the face of an indifferent world, Stelling knelt on the stage and proposed to Christgau at the song's conclusion. She accepted, to a wave of applause. -- Edward Whitelock

79. Death - "Look at Your Life"

Trailblazing punk band capitalizes on decades of esteem by releasing a new album decades after its initial run. Album tanks and stains the discography. Such was the state of the Stooges in 2007, as well as Black Flag in 2013, a year that saw that band fracture in a number of ways. Death, a group whose present visibility comes from the relatively recent discovery of its groundbreaking punk recordings from the early 1970s, avoids this pitfall by delivering the goods amid late-career acclaim. The dynamic "Look at Your Life" from 2015 album N.E.W. commands listeners to consider the nature of their existence. The structure of the song corresponds to the lyrical premise. It's a song that refuses to settle, alternating fast-tempo punk rock with silences, with a tight rhythm section, guitar solos, and a mid-song moment of reflection. Compositionally, "Look at Your Life" is somewhat similar to System of a Down's "Chop Suey!" but without that song's fixation on death. -- Thomas Britt

78. Charli XCX feat. Rita Ora - "Doing It"

Youth in 2015 is threatened. I don't mean just the British or American youth (especially the former), but I also state that the ideal of youth has been pulverized. In this context, "Doing It" sounds like a pop miracle. For little less than four minutes, Charli XCX and Rita Ora (who adds a lot more than simply radio allure to the track) detain the sound of invincibility, which for a group of twentysomethings somewhere in the world means staying all night, never slowing down, being united forevermore. Indeed, the whole spectacle sounds pretty dumb -- and I'm convinced it was thought out this way -- but who cares about that when "Doing It" is pure bubblegum perfection? -- Danilo Bortoli

77. Björk - "Stonemilker"

"Moments of clarity are so rare", Björk sang, and she couldn't be more right. The stormy, black waters of Vulnicura were devoid of light, outside of the sentinel that was "Stonemilker". A graceful introduction to Björk's ninth album, "Stonemilker" was the lighthouse in the midst of a howling tempest. Stately strings, languid percussion, and Björk's ever brilliant vocals created a somber, yet healing, foray in to one of Björk's finest records. It didn't just harken back to "Joga" and "Hyperballad", it stood strong as its own piece of gorgeous work, a song that nestles itself comfortably as an excellent performance in a discography filled with them. -- Nathan Stevens

76. Blood Orange - "Sandra's Smile"

Listen to any one of Devonte Hynes' songs, and you can pick up on the deep pangs of emotion that he infuses in every note. "Sandra's Smile", like many of Blood Orange's songs, wears its heart on its sleeve, even as the subject matter of the song makes that heart heavier than usual. In the face of tragedy, Hynes can barely bring himself to keep going. Still, as the chorus slowly builds, he finds the strength to hold on, even in the face of a hopeless situation. There are almost too many ideas for Hynes to wrangle into one song; the fact that he does it and makes it into something great is all the more impressive. -- Kevin Korber

75. Braids - "Taste"

"You're exactly what I like... exactly", le mot juste, not just with regards to the perfect word, but how it's sung. Like licking your lips to collect all the sugar water left over at the bottom of your lemonade. The joyous backing music calling to mind the pounding of the heart near a crush. With references to Perks of Being a Wallflower and White Noise, this is a heady song aiming directly for the heart. -- Brian Duricy

74. Bully - "Six"

Without ever using the word itself, Alicia Bognanno compacts more ways of speaking love to another in this song than it seems able to contain. Maybe this is because sibling, same-sex, and platonic love get so little play in rock, even in the feminist grunge from which Bully derive most of their ideas before inverting them with the self-consciousness that Courtney Love couldn't afford. After a sort of familial trauma -- accidentally breaking her sister's arm -- Alicia searches for concrete penance that is more powerful for (finally!) decentering her feelings of love in favor of the good that love can do, and mean, for another person. It's a form of knowledge: "They don't know you're great, but I do". She only feels something herself when she refuses to allow her broken arm to set -- a token to her sister. -- Michael Opal

73. Father John Misty - "The Ideal Husband"

"The Ideal Husband" opens with "Julian [Assange] is gonna take my files", immediately tying in to a common fear that our pasts will forever come back to haunt us. Against this backdrop, Father John Misty goes on the offensive, reeling off a despicable litany of his failures as a human. The track builds to a swirling climax as he plows through the darkness to arrive at his lover's house and profess his love, finishing the grim self-assessment with "Let's put a baby in the oven / wouldn't I make the ideal husband?" In The Ideal Husband, the play from which this beleaguered tale takes its name, Oscar Wilde wrote, "Sooner or later, we shall all have to pay for what we do." In Misty's universe, no truism has ever been truer. -- Adam Finley

72. Jake Xerxes Fussell - "Raggy Levy"

North Carolina's Jake Xerxes Fussell is as much historian as musician on his excellent, eponymous debut album, and "Raggy Levy" is the best evidence of this. Originally a stevedore tune from the Georgia shores, Fussell's version feels both uniquely his and deeply indebted to his own past. Though Fussell makes structural and melodic changes to the song as he does in other places on the record, it still rings with the grit and fortitude of all other work songs of the Georgia Sea Islands. Despite all that history, Fussell's take never sounds old-timey. Instead, every time he belts out that phrase, it feels all the more fresh, all the more vital. -- Matthew Fiander

71. Lera Lynn - "Lately"

True Detective's second season may have been maligned, but what's undeniable is the haunting depth in the original songs delivered by Lera Lynn as a junky barroom chanteuse. Aired in the finalé, "Lately" is her strongest number, and most distinct from the pack. Pounding drums and phasing synth effects create a mood of pure ominousness. A warbling guitar part swirls around Lynn's smoky voice, which seems to be emerging from a cocoon metamorphosed into a new resolve. "There's no future... There's no past" Lynn sings, infecting you with the lust to launch yourself on a suicide mission, simply for the glory that will come with it. With the bulk of her material, both in True Detective and outside of it, being firmly in the alt-country realm, this clattering dirge is something apart, and a galvanizing number it is. -- Cole Waterman

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