At the beginning of the year, I wrote that 2015 was going to be a great year for music, and I was not wrong. 2015 was blessed with so many great releases, including a couple of delightful surprises by artists that returned from self-imposed exile with their musical powers undimmed. More than any year in recent memory, 2015 felt like a reward for patience, as long-anticipated albums were finally released and proved well worth the wait.
Below is a list of my favorite songs from 2015. However, rather than try to rank them, I’m simply listing them in alphabetical order by artist.
“The Blacker the Berry” by Kendrick Lamar
Easily the most gripping and incendiary track I heard all year. Kendrick goes for the jugular from the get-go (“I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015”) backed by Boi-1da, Terrace Martin, and KOZ’s dense, claustrophobic production. Throughout the song, he rages against racism and hypocrisy while affirming his own black identity with words that grow more acerbic as the song progresses: “You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture/You’re fuckin’ evil,” “You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’/You made me a killer, emancipation of a real nigga,” and most pointedly, “I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan.”
But the real gut punch comes in the final lines: Kendrick pulls a 180, and instead of shining the spotlight on the hypocrisy out there, shines it on hypocrisy that’s closer to home: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?” The song has not been without controversy, with some criticizing Lamar for promoting respectability politics. But even so, it’s impossible to dismiss “The Blacker the Berry,” such is the conviction, passion, and talent that Lamar brings to bear in every single overwhelming, captivating second.
“Luminous Veil” by Lightning Bug
When done right, there’s absolutely nothing like dreamy, over-driven, fuzzed out, ear-pearcingly loud shoegazer rock — and “Luminous Veil” is one of the most perfect examples that I’ve heard in a long time. The song just hits a real sweet spot for me, especially in the final moments when it achieves a climax worthy of Slowdive at the height of their powers. Lead singer Audrey’s vocals are buried underneath layers of guitar so fuzzed out they seem to distort the very air around your speakers. And then, in the final minute, her voice merges with all of the noise and distortion to form a single, glorious spire of sound that launches itself skyward. (Read my full review of Floaters.)
“Parallel Love” by Luxury
There were so many good songs on Luxury’s first album in 10 years that I went back and forth quite a bit — a fact that, in and of itself, seems like a miracle. After all, we’re talking about a band releasing their finest album after a decade-long hiatus. At first I was going to go with with “Museums in Decline,” a mopey ballad that finds Lee Bozeman’s caustic lyrics perfectly complemented by lush, layered music. But in the end, I had to go with “Parallel Love,” the first single from Trophies.
I still remember the first time I heard it; Luxury had never sounded so raw and aggressive, and yet so assured. The band’s triple-guitar attack makes “Parallel Love” an absolute monster while Bozeman’s croon soars high overhead. I confess, when I first heard that Luxury was releasing a new album, I was pretty skeptical. “Parallel Love” put to rest every doubt I might’ve had about Luxury’s return all by itself. (Read my full review of Trophies.)
“Hand in Hand” by Makeup & Vanity Set
On its surface, Makeup and Vanity Set’s brand of cinematic synthesizer music (“dreamwave”) sounds like Matthew Pusti was trying to compose some long-lost ‘80s sci-fi/cyberpunk soundtrack. Which, in and of itself, would be enough to piqué my interest. However, there’s a sadness and desperation lurking just below his music’s rich textures and ominous beats that transforms it into something more. Wilderness emerged from the experience of watching a loved one die from cancer, so when Jasmin Kaset sings “Let’s go to where you remember, hand in hand” against Matthew Pusti’s delicate, icy synthesizer arpeggios, that sense of loss — of yearning for simple human connection — comes through loud and clear. (Read my full review of Wilderness.)
“Red Cow” by MewithoutYou
Pale Horses found mewithoutYou revisiting many of the musical styles that the band has explored throughout its fifteen years. But arguably, the band’s greatest success has come when they’re in full emo/post-hardcore mode (think Catch For Us the Foxes), and that’s exactly the sort of sound that “Red Cow” explores with wild abandon. Frontman Aaron Weiss uses Nebraska imagery to ponder the genocides and plagues described in the Bible, and what they might reveal about the nature of God (“Was he a violent man? Well, he had his genocidal moments/Or penned by fiction’s hand? To whom could that phrase not apply?”). When Weiss gets into full-on screamo mode, his tremulous voice growing more unhinged against the band’s distorted guitars and punishing rhythms, it’s as thought-provoking as it is exhilarating. (Read my full review of Pale Horses.)
“La Rosa” by Native Lights
I first heard “La Rosa” as a demo that Native Lights posted on their MySpace page waaaaay back in 2009. Six years later, and the band delivered on the promise of that song with their long-awaited self-titled debut. “La Rosa” sounds exactly like what you’d expect from a band comprised of members of Ester Drang and Unwed Sailor. There are soaring vocals and shoegaze-y textures paired with intricate rhythms and a solid low-end groove. A constant tension runs throughout the song: will the ethereal sounds get smothered, or will they undermine and blunt the song’s intensity? That tension only serves to drive the song to greater heights… until its final moments, that is. Then the tension snaps and both sides of the band let loose with all they’ve got, resulting in a gorgeous, riotous cascade of sound.