10. The Weeknd, "Can't Feel My Face" Before his reign at the top of the charts, Canadian crooner Abel Tesfaye had already cemented his status as the king of lascivious, slow-burn underground R&B. But in 2015 he went out on a limb--and totally Off the Wall--with this slick, fizzy homage to love, drugs, and Michael Jackson. "Can't Feel My Face" not only became the song of the summer--it transformed the Weeknd into a bona fide, blazing pop star.
9. Jamie xx (feat. Romy), "Loud Places" The zenith of Jamie xx's stellar debut solo album, In Colour, makes a perfect companion piece to Robyn's "Dancing on My Own." Like that modern classic, "Loud Places"--which features a sample of the '70s funk track "Could Heaven Ever Be Like This" and the British DJ-producer's fellow xx member Romy Madley Croft on vocals--swings from internal longing to outright euphoria, melding lovesick balladry with elevating rave music. When Madley Croft sums up her pain and resignation in the penultimate line "You're in ecstasy without me," it's like a broken bottle to the heart.
8. Father John Misty, "When You're Smiling and Astride Me" Recently married troubadour (and former Fleet Foxes drummer) Josh Tillman is absolutely smitten. But how can a respectable, self-aware dude on a mission to write a heartfelt tribute to his old lady do so without sounding like a trite, spineless sap? The answers lies not only in Tillman's soaring vintage Elton John vocals and his deployment of every single beautiful old-school instrumental flourish he can get his hands on--swooning strings, a twangy guitar, churchly organs, a soulful backup choir--but in his impish sense of humor. The goofy imagery of the song's title is hardly lost on him. This is the same man who, at the start of the track's second verse, thanks his wife for her unconditional love with the line "I've got nothing to hide from you / Kissing my brother in my dreams / Or finding God knows in my jeans." Welcome to the sound of modern wedded bliss, warts and all.
7. Tame Impala, "Eventually" In an ideal world, the word "eventually" will become a succinct, honorable replacement for that old breakup chestnut "It's not you, it's me." Because when Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker uses the word to end his relationship, it's clear he's genuinely sick over the thought of hurting his soon-to-be ex. "Wish I could turn you back into a stranger / Cause if I was never in your life you wouldn't have to change this" he sings in the towering, EDM-inflected highlight from the Aussie psych-rock band's superb third album, Currents. Parker can't rewrite the past, but he can at least find comfort in knowing he's setting a loved one free to pursue a better, brighter future.
6. Natalie Prass, "My Baby Don't Understand Me" On the opening track of her self-titled debut album, newcomer Natalie Prass conjures the countrified soul of Dolly Parton and Dusty Springfield, but she has also crafted a glorious update of Gladys Knight & the Pips' 1973 hit "Midnight Train to Georgia." Her love has already left the station, home is no longer home, and her only recourse is to pick up the pieces and move on. But if her voice sounds timorous and wounded, the song's gorgeous, grand-gesture production--lush strings, elegant woodwinds, the stateliest brass arrangement of the year--is there to back her up. She's got to go, but damned if she won't go out with a bang.
5. Sufjan Stevens, "Should Have Known Better" Over the course of five short minutes, Stevens manages to take us through what feels like his entire grieving process after the death of his mother, a woman with whom he had a less-than-perfect relationship ("When I was three / Three, maybe four / She left us at that video store," he sings). He's in denial, remorseful, resentful, nostalgic, a shell of himself. Then, at the halfway mark, the track's melody suddenly lifts, taking on a childlike lilt, and he steps out of his "black shroud" to see the light. "The past is still the past / The bridge to nowhere," Stevens realizes, his outlook shifting as he describes the birth of his niece as a type of "illumination," a small backup chorus joining him to echo his sentiments. The song swells ever so slightly, growing quietly triumphant, until it becomes a hymn, a celebration of what was, of what will be.
4. Courtney Barnett, "Depreston" Displaying an uncanny knack for visual detail, made all the better by her droll deadpan delivery, queer Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett has quickly become one of rock's most compelling new storytellers (it's a tight race between her and Father John Misty). "Depreston," the centerpiece of her acclaimed 2015 album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, is a delicate but vivid meditation on life's fleetingness. As she recounts a trek out to view a prospective new home in a small, sleepy suburban town called Preston, it's astonishing how much poignancy she wrings out of the mundane. Viewing the property--a deceased estate--she soaks in the garden and the floorboards and the garage, but she also notes the flour and coffee canisters, the handrail in the shower, and a photograph of a soldier in a van during the Vietnam War. These are all relics of someone else's faded existence, and though the song makes a powerful statement, Barnett is too subtle to offer any sort of epiphany or resolution. She simply repeats its final couplet, "If you've got a spare half a million / You could knock it down and start rebuilding," letting her reflections trail off, and leaving us to fill in the blanks.
3. Bjork, "Stonemilker" Whether or not you could digest Bjork's dense, often harrowing 2015 album, Vulnicura, a chronological document of the dissolution of her marriage to artist Matthew Barney, fans could all agree on "Stonemilker," the record's most accessible and heartbreaking track--and the perfect distillation of what the Icelandic icon does best. All of her trademarks are here: charmingly awkward metaphors ("find our mutual coordinates"); billowing, melodramatic strings; industrial, core-shaking beats; and, of course, the singer's peerless vocals. Many have noted that when she implores her increasingly distant husband to "show some emotional respect" she stretches out the word "emotional" the same way she did on "Joga," a ballad from her 1997 masterwork, Homogenic, that details the jolting, out-of-body experience of falling in love. Anyone who's written off "Stonemilker" as a seven-minute, self-indulgent pity party need only listen to these two songs back-to-back to understand just how devastating Bjork's loss has been.
2. Drake, "Hotline Bling" Along with 2015's other runaway hit about phone drama, "Hotline Bling" is that rare single that metastasizes into something so much greater than itself, a musical juggernaut that could take place only in these wonderfully meme-y times. It was released in July with little fanfare, but countless covers (Bieber, Badu, Sam Smith) soon followed. Then came its brilliantly basic video in mid-October, the clip that launched a thousand parodies (lightsaber battles, Carlton Banks, sweeping Drake) and even inspired a limited-edition Christmas sweater (retail price: just $25). Really, what's not to love here? Those insanely curvy, high-waisted-light-denim-wearing hoochie-mama operators? Mystifying. The rapper's hokey, improvised, DGAF choreography? We still can't take our eyes off it--so much so that we deemed it our "Viral Move of the Year." Yes, the song is an infectious, no-bullshit slice of tropical pop, a topical tale of the booty call that got away. But now that's almost beside the point.
Vines Compilation:1. Grimes, "REALiTi (Demo)"
"This song was never finished," Grimes (aka Claire Boucher) wrote when she posted a demo of "REALiTi" on YouTube back in March. The track, which had been kicking around since 2013, was discarded with the rest of her "lost album" (the planned follow-up to her 2012 breakthrough, Visions) and considered a subpar experiment. "It was poorly recorded in the first place and never meant to be heard by anyone, so it's a bit of a mess haha," the Canadian musician added.
In fact, it is anything but, which is a testament to just how skilled and meticulous a producer Grimes has become, just how essential she is to the contemporary pop landscape. Yes, "REALiTi" is a pop song--it has the conventional structure of one, and, like any good pop song, homes in on the giddiness, confusion, fluidity, and riskiness of love. But set against the track's ethereal, digitized, multilayered backdrop (and fantastic Asia-set video), its lyrics hew more toward existentialism; they seem to ponder the inevitability of growing up, and of feeling lost in the rapidly evolving, uber-connected, increasingly isolating cyber age. "When we were young, we used to get so close to it /And you were scared and you were beautiful / I wanna peer over the edge and see in death / If we are always the same," Boucher sings, a cloud of galloping beats, ghostly keys, and warped handclaps swirling around her. It's heavy stuff, executed with a light touch; weird, but catchy and gorgeous enough to keep drawing you in. Fans loved it so much that Boucher changed her mind and ended up including a reworked version of it on her excellent new LP, Art Angels, released last month--a happy ending for a gem from an exciting, innovative new artist whose career is only beginning.