2014 ended with the release of Kanye West’s sparse, heartfelt ballad of “Only One” on New Year’s Eve. The song was an inauguration of sorts for what has been a fantastic 12 months for music. 2015 saw pop turn a sonic corner, rap had one of its most prolific years ever and new bands continue to dispute the idiom that rock is dead.
Below are 10 of the best songs released in 2015, a mixtape of sorts for the year that was.
“REALiTi” by Grimes
While Claire Elise Boucher, known by her stage name of Grimes, may never be a pop star on the level of Ariana Grande, she pushed the genre more than anyone on this year’s album “Art Angels.”
“REALiTi,” first released in March and later included on “Art Angels,” expands on Boucher’s previous sound: diverse in melody while remaining trance-like.
The rest of the record is more straightforward in its poptimism, but “REALiTi” shows a time when Grimes had only begun to set out in that direction.
“‘Cause I’m a Man” by Tame Impala
Tame Impala’s impish psychedelia was fully indulged on the group’s first two albums, interspersing instrumental exploration with moments of songwriting and sonic genius. “Currents,” the band’s album released this year, saw the songwriting move to the forefront, featuring a much more prominent taste.
Groovy bass and drums, piercing guitar and singer Kevin Park’s faraway vocals come together on “‘Cause I’m a Man,” one of Tame Impala’s most neatly packed tracks and one of the year’s best.
“Hotline Bling” by Drake
Although it may have seemed impossible last year, Drake’s star somehow continued to rise in 2015. He unexpectedly released a mixtape of sorts in February (“If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late”), put out a collaborative album with the only rapper challenging him for hip-hop’s biggest figure (Future on “What a Time to be Alive”) and brushed off ghostwriting accusations without ever really denying it.
“Hotline Bling” was a one-off release, its instrumental based on D.R.A.M.’s viral hit “Cha Cha.” Drake does his Drake thing, bemoaning an old booty call companion. This is still what the man does best — finding space somewhere between rapping and singing, continuing to reach new avenues and paths for his sound. He found a great one in “Hotline Bling.”
“Trying” by Bully
The main strip in Nashville, Tennessee, might be the center of the industry for honky-tonk bars and kitschy Johnny Cash gift shops, but elsewhere in the state’s capital lives a thriving rock scene, one that this year introduced us to Bully.
Dirty guitars, gritty, yet beautiful, vocals and themes of doubt and isolation are prominent on its debut LP, a modern rock record in its purest form. “Trying” is an anthem of overthought, with singer and guitarist Alicia Bognanno belting that she’s “trying to hide from (her) mind” over fuzzy guitars and pounding drums. Every year needs at least one grunge-ish hit, and Bully can check that off for 2015.
“March Madness” by Future
Future has been riding a wave since before the first of the year. A trio of three mixtapes, one solo album and one collaborative album, released in a little over a year (with a few more rumored to be on the way), has made him the hottest rapper in the world —TMZ reported that he commands $150,000 per 45-minute set.
On the third mixtape, “56 Nights,” the fast-life themes seem to come down more than turn up. “March Madness” is a dark song, touching on police murder and drug use, but is still commonplace in bars and clubs. It’s that dichotomy of Future, during sporting events while still feeling like Lil Wayne did on “I Feel Like Dying.” It’s this complexity that makes Future one of the most interesting voices in rap today.
“Loud Places” by Jamie xx ft. Romy
This duet — between the producer and singer and the guitarist of The xx for Jamie’s solo record, “In Colour” — sounds like the turn from the darkest time of night to sunrise. Romy’s verses about lost love and loud places are forlorn, the hook subtly rises, and the chorus booms, “I feel music in your heights / I have never seen such heights.”
Jamie’s production is airtight, managing to alternate between minimalism and sweeping grandiosity. It’s a technique he has damn near mastered.
“Depreston” by Courtney Barnett
Barnett’s Bob Dylan-esque stream of consequence on the album “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” often touches on the minutiae of daily life — from a conversation with an elevator operator on one track to an open house in the suburbs on “Depreston.” The scene is set sadly, with a mournful guitar riff in the background, as Barnett notes objects around the house like “a handrail in the shower” or “a picture of a young man in Vietnam.”
A young adult who is choosing between planting roots and cutting them off, Barnett seems to decide on the latter, closing the song by singing “If you’ve got a spare half a million / You could knock it down and start rebuilding.”
“Alright” by Kendrick Lamar
No one made a more important album than Kendrick Lamar in 2015. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is a magnum opus of hip-hop, a social justice protest record with incredibly intricate jazz-influenced instrumentals and brilliant lyrical storytelling.
It’s not unreasonable to be pessimistic about the prospects of solving racial injustice, and it’s not the artist’s job to make you feel OK about what is happening in the world. On the contrary, it is probably more important that art makes the audience uncomfortable, forced to swallow certain truths. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is that moment of truth, but “Alright” is the hope that one day, everyone will be just that.
“Continental Shelf” by Viet Cong
The band formerly known as Viet Cong plays post-punk for a post-industrial world. Its music sounds like rusted out, abandoned factories. There’s a sense of hopelessness and dread, with crunchy guitars and a wall of white noise in the background but beauty in melody.
“Continental Shelf” alternates between pulsating verses and soothing choruses, a glimmer of sunlight pushing through a dark cloud, leaving some chance for light at the end of the tunnel.
“Where Are Ü Now” by Jack Ü ft. Justin Bieber
The Justin Bieber redemption tour is in full swing, with a kinder, reformed public image and his new album receiving surprising critical acclaim. This song came around somewhere near the beginning of the “matured” Bieber. The demo was remade by electro wizards Diplo and Skrillex. The fact something interesting can still be made from a bass drop is in and of itself impressive, but the post drop riff made from a mutilated Bieber vocal line makes this song even more interesting.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on Dec. 8 to correct that “56 Nights” is Future’s third mixtape, not his second.