2016 may already be upon us, but it’s never too late to look back on 2015 and the musical treasures it gave us. Today starts a brief but jam-packed series of posts celebrating a glorious year in music, culminating of course with my annual Top Albums list.
In my earliest years on the blog, I did a few songs-of-the-year lists, which were fairly scientific ventures based on my iTunes most played songs playlist. This year, I decided to do a Top Songs of 2015 list, and its basis is still a bit scientific–all 25 songs were indeed selected from the ones I played the most this past year, both on Spotify and iTunes/Apple Music. That said, I personally narrowed things down to 25 songs, and even did a little bit of quick ranking, hence the included numbers and the countdown-style format. I also made a personal rule to not repeat any artists on the list, which in some cases required me picking my favorite out of the multiple songs certain artists had on my playlists. Without further ado, my favorite 25 songs of this past year:
25. Mount The Air — The Unthanks: This gently sweeping, hauntingly beautiful 10-minute opus by folk-sister duo The Unthanks is riveting and powerful, in its own quiet way. The build on this thing is absolutely stunning. Rarely does 10 minutes pass by so quickly in music.
24. The Wolf — Mumford & Sons: A relentlessly driving electric showcase for Mumford & Sons’ departure from a more acoustic sound, this track never lets go from start to finish. It simply crackles with energy and life.
23. Who Is It (Carry My Joy on the Left, Carry My Pain on the Right) — Kurt Elling: The first few times I listened to this song, performed by leading male jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, I thought it was an original song of his. Turns out it’s a cover of a Bjork song. Warm and assured, yet inventive and revelatory, it really does wonders in bringing out the nuances in Bjork’s songwriting, helping us see her song in a whole new light.
22. Sound & Color — Alabama Shakes: Both the opening and title track to the band’s breakthrough album this year, things start off with just a few bare chords before building into swirling, cacophonous crescendo of voices and guitars. Short, and oh so sweet.
21. Déjà vu — Giorgio Moroder feat. Sia: Legendary pop producer Giorgio Moroder teams up with rising superstar Sia, and the results are delicious. Catchy, dance-friendly, irresistible–and on top of that, a dang good song.
20. Sparks — The Family Crest: Featured on Songs for Tibet: The Art of Peace II charity album, this darkly propulsive, effortlessly gorgeous cut by orchestral indie band the Family Crest is a brilliant, unique encapsulation of just what happens when “sparks” start to fly.
19. Cheers to the Fall — Andra Day: Andra Day burst onto the music scene this past year, thanks in part to the backing of Apple itself. She proves she deserves the hype with this title track from her debut album, singing her heart out on this uplifting, meticulously crafted anthem.
18. Black & White — The Staves: Folk trio The Staves, composed of three sisters singing in stunningly beautiful harmony, breaks out of their shell with this earthy, raw song reflecting the pain and confusion of a doomed relationship. This is a perfect showcase for their many musical gifts.
17. Thinkin Bout You — Becca Stevens Band: Much like Kurt Elling’s aforementioned cover of “Who Is It,” when I first heard this I wasn’t aware it was a cover (in this case of a Frank Ocean tune). With her breathlessly vulnerable yet powerful vocals and killer arrangement, Becca most certainly takes ownership of an already stellar song.
16. Our Own House — MisterWives: “Reflections” was just a warmup, folks. Lead vocalist Mandy Lee, against a fearless disco-inspired beat, tears things up on this track that skillfully manages to keep the band’s light, sunny aesthetic wonderfully grounded in high-quality songcraft.
15. Unstoppable — Lianne La Havas: Both a thrilling artistic evolution and a reinforcement of everything that was great about Lianne La Havas’ debut a few years ago, “Unstoppable” is, well, unstoppable. Beginning with a shimmer and ending with a bang, with Lianne’s vocals alternating between honey-sweet and gorgeously booming, you’ll want to be along for this ride.
14. Nothing But the Radio — Maia Sharp: Playful and infectious, yet mature and full of soul, ace songwriter Maia Sharp (she’s written for artists as diverse as the Dixie Chicks and Cher) continues a distinguished recording and performing career with this effortlessly fun and captivating single.
13. A Head Full of Dreams — Coldplay: Driven by a dance beat but with a palpable, beating heart, this opening track to Coldplay’s new album is breathtaking. By the time they get to the chanting chorus in the latter half of the song, you’re already pretty darn well hooked.
12. Ecos de amor — Jesse & Joy: Brother-sister duo Jesse & Joy sure know their way around a ballad, and this showstopper from their new album is no exception. Joy’s vocals are passionate and heartbreaking, and the whole thing is crafted to absolute perfection.
11. Letters to Ghosts — Lucie Silvas: Singer-songwriter Lucie Silvas storms out of the gate with this fiery, take-no-prisoners title track to her first album in nearly 10 years. A very memorable song combined with a very memorable voice? Recipe for success.
10. Same To You — Melody Gardot: Melody Gardot continues her musical journey with this gritty, soulful, even a bit sexy single that’s markedly different from her previous work, but every bit a natural progression. You can’t get enough of this.
9. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood — Jamie Cullum & Gregory Porter: One of my absolute favorite artists, Jamie Cullum, who masterfully mixes jazz, pop, rock, and everything else imaginable into his music, decided to go back to his classic jazz roots with his most recent album. Here he duets with the terrific Gregory Porter on an old chestnut, with outstanding results.
8. FourFiveSeconds — Rihanna, Kanye West, & Paul McCartney: Never did I think these three people would ever do a song together. Even less likely was that I would like what they came up with, which was why I was so surprised just how excellent their collaboration turned out to be. Sir Paul’s presence seems to elevate both Rihanna’s and Kanye’s game immensely (he sings rather than raps here), with them both arguably turning in their best, most accessible stuff in quite some time.
7. Run Run Run — Kelly Clarkson & John Legend: Another great collaboration (this seems to be a theme at this portion of the list), Kelly Clarkson & John Legend absolutely tear things up with this heartrending, powerful ballad. The climax of the song is particularly stunning.
6. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful — Florence + the Machine: With a fairly straightforward musical approach, bolstered by sweeping, gorgeous orchestration, Florence Welch has tons of room to breathe on this expansive track, and she uses every inch of it to thrilling effect.
5. Make A Child — Yael Naim: Bright and bouncy yet haunting at the same time, Yael Naim continues to prove she’s more than “New Soul” with this outstanding track that just begs for the repeat button.
4. Hello — Adele: It was quite arguably the biggest song of 2015. It’s also one of its best. Adele burst her way right back into our lives with this grandly constructed, deeply felt ballad that’s a perfect reminder of just how incredible Adele and her music are.
3. So There — Ben Folds: With wry, clever lyrics and stellar backing by the strings and woodwinds of yMusic, Ben Folds really can’t go wrong here–and he doesn’t. Jittery, kinetic and inventively arranged, with a riveting instrumental break that borders on the virtuosic, this is, quite simply, amazing music.
2. Shadowlands — Laila Biali & the Radiance Project: Laila Biali has won many hearts over the years in her work as a terrific jazz singer/pianist/songwriter. This track from her ambitious, outstanding new pop-tinged project is a radical departure from anything she’s done before, but it’s a pure, unadulterated delight. Backed by swelling brass and the top-notch voices of the Toronto Mass Choir, Laila takes flight and creates 4 minutes of musical bliss.
And the top song of 2015? The honor belongs to…
1. Hasta la raíz — Natalia Lafourcade: According to Spotify, I’ve played this song a whopping 105 times over the past year. I doubt I can perfectly relay in words exactly why I’ve been so captivated by “Hasta la raíz.” (I made a valiant attempt earlier this year, in a Song of the Day post.) Perhaps it’s Natalia’s fearlessly intimate vocals. Maybe it’s the perfect mix of jangling guitars and sweeping strings. The breathtaking bridge is definitely a prime factor. Overall, though–it’s just a song that stays with you, and holds you tight, and won’t let go. Even now, nearly a year after it was released, I find myself playing it once or twice a day, at the very least. My youngest sister, who doesn’t really listen to Latin alternative music, heard this song and now has it on her favorites playlist on Spotify. This is the power of truly good music at work, at folks, and that’s why I’m proud to unequivocally state that “Hasta la raíz” is the best song of 2015.
Below I’ve included a Spotify playlist featuring these fantastic musical highlights from 2015, as well as a live video of “Make A Child” (it’s currently unavailable on Spotify). The next time I post, I’ll be beginning my grand unveiling of my Top Albums of 2015 list. Spoiler alert: it’s big this year. 100 albums big, to be exact. The project took on more of a life of its own than I ever expected this year, owing to me taking on active music discovery from January 1. (Heck, I think I even started populating the list before 2014 was over.) It’s a huge undertaking, which means it may be a bit delayed getting out in full (I plan to do the 100 main albums in 4 posts, with an honorable mentions and top EPs post, as usual, to follow), but I’m so, so excited to share it with all of you. For now, enjoy these songs below, and I’ll see you soon with my picks for the best albums this past year!