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Emerald Recommends the best songs of 2015

The Emerald has enlisted its Arts and Culture staff to highlight the best songs of 2015, which was a strong year for music. From experimental electronic to garage punk, find out what the Emerald’s favorites songs of the year were.

Meerah Powell’s top songs:

10. Turnover – “Cutting My Fingers Off”

Pop-punk act turned shoegaze-influenced indie rock band Turnover put out one of the most beautifully nostalgic songs of the year through “Cutting My Fingers Off.” Cleverly mixed with reverb-filled guitar and vocals, this track not only sounds great but paints a picture as well through lyrics like: “Losing you was like cutting my fingers off.” And even if you’ve never experienced the specific type of loss that vocalist Austin Getz is putting forth, it’s hard not to sympathize.

9. Camera Shy – “Your Only One”

Filled with overflowing bliss, yet balanced with melancholy, Lexy Morte’s innocently beautiful vocals carry “Your Only One.” From the first cymbal crash, this tune brings forth an unmistakable nostalgia – mirrored greatly in the music video filled with grainy, ‘50s era video of Disneyland. Packaged tightly with indie, dreamy goodness, this song was on constant repeat for me during the summer, though holds up through every other season as well.

8. Tame Impala – “Eventually”

Blasting out of the gates, “Eventually” is a groove-heavy wonderland. Led by Tame Impala’s signature blissful, psychedelic styling, “Eventually” is a feel good song for the ages that’s impossible not to pump at full volume.

7. Missy Elliott – “WTF (Where They From)”

The fact that Missy Elliott is still producing the hardest bangers at 44 years old is impressive to say the least, but, regardless of anything, “WTF” is one of the catchiest tracks to hit the airwaves in a hot second. Carried by Elliott’s signature pulsating flow on a bed of a drumline-esque trap beat, “WTF” serves as both universally powerful and enjoyable.

6. Grimes – “REALiTi (demo)”

Grimes released a more polished mix of this song for her newest album this year, Art Angels, but for some reason the lo-fi qualities of the demo seem to elevate the song to much higher levels. The demo of “REALiTi” serves as a light and airy, yet textured and emotional electronic track only further accentuated by Grimes’ delicate vocals.

5. Kendrick Lamar – “Alright”

“Alright” has gained a place on many a top 2015 music countdown, and rightfully so. Borrowing lines from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (“Alls my life I’ve had to fight”), “Alright” is not only a beautifully put together hip-hop track, but a powerful look into race, uplift and the power of community. In this respect, “Alright” is more of a modern anthem than a song.

4. Dogs on Acid – “Flushed”

Influenced by fuzzy, bittersweet 90s groups like Superchunk, “Flushed” is an incredibly fun-filled, playful track. With relentlessly pounding percussion and all-over-the-place guitar, “Flushed” is reminiscent of a montage of every great summer memory all rolled into one.

3. Fraternal Twin – “Boil”

Although only having a playtime of just under two minutes, Fraternal Twin’s “Boil” packs a sombering punch. This song serves as one of my favorite sad songs of the year, which is saying something. Perfectly mixed with ebbing synth, twangy guitar, deep bass and Tom Christie’s slightly apprehensive, quivering vocals, “Boil” puts forth an unavoidable feeling of sorrow without being cheesy or cliche.

2. Hop Along – “Waitress”

One of the most recognizable features of Hop Along is lead singer Frances Quinlan’s raspy and textured vocals and the incredible range they possess, which is the main feature that pushes “Waitress” to one of the best songs I’ve heard this year. Overall, the song is just about the embarrassment faced by a waitress who sees someone she has been wanting to avoid in her restaurant, but Quinlan’s extremely personal way of singing, along with the band’s instrumentation, takes the simple lyrical plotline to a higher plane. There is something very particular about the way Hop Along executes songs, and honestly there isn’t another band that could have better produced this extremely passion-driven track.

1. Deerhunter – “Breaker”

Inspired by a brush with death from a car accident, “Breaker” focuses on trying to overcome fear and trauma and is probably the most beautiful and emotionally evocative song this year. The song starts off atop a rhythmic, groove-based bass-line accompanied by glimmering guitar and synth and frontman Bradford Cox’s signature charming vocals before skyrocketing into an almost impossibly good chorus. “Breaking the waves again and though I try / The ocean is strong I cannot stem the tide,” Cox croons in perseverance. “Breaker” questions will and determination in a way that’s downright poignant, but does it in a cinematic and untouchable fashion.

Daniel Bromfield’s top songs:

10. “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross” by Sufjan Stevens

Of all the songs on Sufjan Stevens’ confessional Carrie & Lowell, this is perhaps the bravest, in part because the intensely self-destructive behavior he details here threatens to undermine his angelic boy-scout persona. As it turns out, it does. But even more impressively, “No Shade” justifies this by making it very clear that the true Sufjan was never that character in the first place.

9. “Alma Do Meu Pai” by DJ Firmenza

The Portuguese dance genre batida is known for its exuberance – it’s pure party music. On “Alma Do Meu Pai,” young producer DJ Firmeza reimagines it as art music that has more in common with the endless, gradually shifting loops of Steve Reich or Philip Glass than anything else booming out of Lisbon’s clubs.

8. “Best Friend” by Young Thug

Young Thug dips into about 10 different flows on “Best Friend,” and though it’s not entirely clear what the song is about, it makes no less sense than, say, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” In fact, it’s rare for a three-minute pop song to be as consistently surprising as this one, and I still hear new things every time I put it on.

7. “At Your Best (You Are Love)” by Frank Ocean

Adding to the pain of still not having a new Frank Ocean album is this devastating Isley Brothers cover, delivered over only a light keyboard. His stratospheric high notes are showy, but when he hits them you’re less likely to be awed by his talent than to be moved by the sheer emotion he conveys.

6. “Jumpman” by Drake & Future

Simply put, “Jumpman” has the best pop hook of the year. Its mesmerizing repetition comes as close as possible to getting at the great nothing at the core of pop music. It’s proof more than any other song in 2015 that writing a “banger” is just as much of an art as writing a pop song.

5. “No Sleeep” by Janet Jackson

Janet Jackson’s claim to being “the queen of insomnia” on “No Sleeep” might be cringe-inducing if it didn’t perfectly encapsulate her swagger on the lead single from her fantastic new album Unbreakable. It’s a relief to hear an artist with leanings as excessive as Jackson’s deliver a song so economical. Her voice is understated but still commands power, and the same could be said of the loping beat, one of the best from her longtime producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

4. “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” by Jamie xx feat. Young Thug & Popcaan

Who knew such a motley crew of artists – an oddball Southern MC, a Jamaican dancehall star, and a former member of Brit indie pop act the xx – would make the year’s best party song? Popcaan provides a modest hook with his sonorous baritone as xx stabs out neon chords and chops up soul samples. But it’s Young Thug who steals the show, crowing, “I’ma ride in that pussy like a stroller,” as if he’s transcended to godhood.

3. “I Haven’t Been Everywhere But It’s On My List” by DJ Koze

The only original production on DJ Koze’s contribution to the DJ-Kicks mix series starts out as casual, sample-driven, instrumental hip hop. But then the sample begins to convulse, as if it’s sobbing. As the song is about to peak, a pitch-shifted keen, the single most heartrending sound I’ve heard on a record this year, shoots from the background. By the time the beat snaps back in, what started as simple chill-out music has blossomed into a sentimental journey.

2. “Mascara” by Jazmine Sullivan

Jazmine Sullivan is one of R&B’s best songwriters, keenly empathizing with the three-dimensional characters she creates. The protagonist of“Mascara” goes through life on looks alone, and the core question of the song is – well, if it works for her, why shouldn’t she? “Don’t I deserve to be privileged?” she screams, implying a wealth of pain behind the meticulous surface of a character who a lesser songwriter might have treated as a cartoon. All this happens over chord changes so gorgeous its almost painful.

1. “Jugg” by Fetty Wap

“Jugg” didn’t have to be this emotional, but it’s better for it. It’s a pop-rap song about teaching a girl how to sling drugs. It’s also the rawest and most balls-out, soulful vocal performance of the year. Listen to how Fetty’s voice slurs as he starts the first verse before locking into an incredible vibrato, or how he switches to a macho growl to let his girl know she “ain’t fuckin’ with no scrub.” By itself, “Jugg” feels ecstatic, and is an enthusiastic championing of the drug-dealer life. But its parent album Fetty Wap is filled with desperate songs that make it clear he wants to get out of this life as best he can and that his connections to his crew and girlfriend are the only things keeping him sane. In this context, “Jugg” isn’t an advertisement — it’s a cry of desperation.

Craig Wright’s top songs:

5. “Bad Blood” by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams covered all of Taylor Swift’s monster hit 1989, entirely reimagining every song on the album, and in this case, transforming the weakest track on Swift’s album into the strongest track to emerge from either version. Adams proves the universality of Swift’s songwriting, making songs written by a 25 year old woman as believable as when performed by a middle aged man.

4. “English Tongue” by Palma Violets

Propelled by a simple guitar and piano riff, Palma Violets wrote the most straight forward rock song of the year, filled with a simple guitar and piano riff and the story of “Hugh Diver.” The simplistic guitar solos build up to a chant-along bridge worth screaming along to at all hours of the day.

3. “Bored In The USA” by Father John Misty

This disenchanted ballad has Father John Misty lamenting his marriage, country and subprime loan. His prayer to “President Jesus” to save him from the doldrums of life is met with a laugh track mocking each and every one of his wishes. Misty examines the staleness of marriage and leaves listeners wondering if we are supposed to be laughing with the track, or if we are the ones being laughed at.

2. “Too Late To Die Young” by Beach Slang

“Too young to die, too late to die young,” James Alex sings in this haunting song. Alex is accompanied by strings and a light piano while he gently strums an acoustic guitar. As a 41-year old receiving a legitimate second chance at a rock ‘n’ roll life (he was formerly in the band Weston), Alex sings about being in the awkward stage of life where it is easy to quit chasing your dreams, but he refuses, finding comfort in the only place he knows — on stage surrounded by friends and family.

1. “West Coast” by FIDLAR

Zac Carper is lucky to be alive. After surviving multiple overdoses and kicking drugs (meth, heroin and cocaine to name a few) and alcohol for good, Carper wrote the ultimate drugged anthem about dropping out of school and taking a destructive road trip up the West Coast where apparently “you can’t buy liquor in Oregon.” The song flies by, feeling like a patched together series of hazily recalled memories and a desperate desire to escape the suburbs. It mixes an anthemic punk singalong with the insanely catchy bridge about deciding to stay high and dangerous over living a life of safety and boredom. Luckily for listeners, Carper came close to death enough times that he chose safety, hopefully promising strong future albums, such as this year’s Too and FIDLAR’s 2013 self titled debut album.

Emerson Malone’s top songs:

“Elevator Operator” by Courtney Barnett

In three minutes and 14 seconds, Barnett tells you about a man whose attempt at getting some rooftop fresh air is taken as a suicide attempt. “I’m not suicidal, just idling insignificantly; I come up here for perception and clarity,” says the song’s protagonist. “I like to pretend I’m playing Sim City – all the people look like ants from up here!” This track encapsulates Barnett’s idiosyncratic style – vivid imagery (“her hair pulled so tight you can see her skeleton”), a mundane-but-fascinated worldview, and a nod toward how an innocent gesture can be taken to overblown interpretation.

“Change of the Guard” by Kamasi Washington

Washington declares his salt as a bona fide composer on The Epic. True to its namesake in range and length (the LP clocks in at 2 hours, 53 minutes), Washington’s album shines with the same divinity of John Coltrane. This opening cut is a firm fixture on a truly epic collection.

“The Less I Know The Better” by Tame Impala

This track’s a funky jewel on an otherwise dour release from Tame Impala. Currents is a pop-oriented, sort-of sleazy departure from the band’s previous, richer and more introspective albums. “Less I Know” keeps with Currents’ break-up narrative. The bass guitar hook is potent, and the hallucinatory music video – starring a high school gorilla-suited mascot giving cunnilingus to a cheerleader – is a winner.

“Complexity” by Eagles of Death Metal

Before gaining an international focus from the Paris attacks, when 89 people were killed in the Bataclan venue during an EoDM show, the band released Zipper Down, its first release since 2008. With a triumphant opener like “Complexity,” you’d think there wasn’t any seven-year wait since EoDM’s last album. A potent drum roll, fuzz box guitar, and backing brass horns continues right where EoDM left off. It’s a real return to form with its tongue-in-cheek self-righteousness, as Jesse Hughes screams the best tautological lyric of the year: “It’s so easy without complexity!”

Alex Ruby’s top songs:

“Before The World Was Big” by Girlpool

“Before The World Was Big” is a pretty simple song sung by pretty female voices and backed by a bass and a guitar. Because the two-piece band only features those two instruments, the girls’ emotions are much more clear and raw, bringing out a desperation for simpler times. The simple lyrics, are mostly about nostalgia and trying to rediscover simpler thoughts of childhood. These components all come together to evoke that feeling and the end result is one of the most charming songs of the year.

“Loud Places” by Jamie xx feat Romy

In an album full of songs that sound like they could be heard in a UK dance club, this track stands out. It’s a song about finding someone to be alone with in a place that’s anything but lonely. Being a collaboration between Romy and Jamie, it definitely sounds like a song by the xx, and that’s not a problem because it could be considered as one of the best xx songs. Her vocals are both soothing and heartbreaking, but somehow it works with the dancey, poppy production.

“Feel You” by Julia Holter

Julia Holter and her voice are undeniably beautiful. It’s almost heavenly how well her sweet voice and elegant instrumentals work together. It’s also the perfect album opener, giving you a sense of Julia’s style and voice, drawing you in with every breath she takes and every note she sings. The song is almost dreamlike, mixing feelings of mystique, love and tenderness. It can be difficult to figure out what exactly the song is about but the feelings it invokes are clear. Her singing is so good that she makes normal words sound magical, like “Mexico” or “mythological.” It’s an irresistible song that entices you into an irresistible album.

“Sunday Candy” by Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment

Chance the Rapper, Donnie Trumpet, and their full band brought us one of the happiest, cheeriest songs of the year. The lead single from the band’s debut album “Surf” is catchy from start to finish. It begins with only a jumpy piano and Chance’s distinctive voice flowing over the melody, then Jamila Woods’ soulful voice comes in. Just when you think it couldn’t get better, the song explodes into a full chorus and instrumentation and everything picks up. It’s a wonderful collaborative effort that’s worthy of being representative of The Social Experiment itself. There’s just so many elements to it, from Woods’ lovely hook to Chance’s flow to the drums to all the other instruments combining to form a unique work of art from the best Chicago has to offer right now.

“Souvenir” by Milo feat Hemlock Ernst

Milo is a very weird underground hip-hop artist. His producer, Kenny Segal, doesn’t use typical beats, his lyrics aren’t simple (at all), and his references are always off the wall. “Souvenir” is a perfect example of the “lazy theologian’s” uniqueness, bringing together a tantalizing production, layers of lyrics, and a feature from Hemlock Ernst (also known as Sam Herring from Future Islands). But this isn’t even Milo’s best track, the real highlight is witnessing the perfect flow from Hemlock Ernst. He says it himself in the song that he’s trying to copy Milo and it’s clearly evident with his smooth flow and postmodernist references. Hemlock and Milo go so well together that it’s hard to believe that Hemlock is part of a synth pop indie band. The lyrics that the two recite are so deep and layered that they’ll make you want to revisit the song in order to find the hidden meaning. It’s a great example of Milo’s work and a reference for the rest of the layered and diverse album.


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Craig Wright

Craig Wright