Each year I make playlists of whatever I'm listening to each month, searching for what will endure. It becomes a harder task all the time: as I wrote last year in this space, music increasingly feels like it's passing me by. It remains as vital as ever culturally, but less of it connects personally. Each year I begin to feel more acutely how the music of the day is being made for someone else. In my 20s I listened to music emotionally; today I feel a bit more like an anthropologist.
2015 marks the first year that I lost all confidence in my picks for this list. They are an outstanding group of songs, to be sure, but it's less clear to me which of them matter the most. I have a list of 40 or so songs, 25 of which I made an effort to rank; I believe I'll be listening to them for many years. But I might not! It's hard to say: I've never gotten old before.
Here's what I do know. The year's most important listen was Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly. I also know I listened to it less than I should have, because I found it so overwhelming. I spent a good amount of time with it, particularly in the spring. But I want to spend more time with it.
The most important music to me personally was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the auteur behind the sensational Hamilton. It had been 20 years since I had fallen in love with a musical — the last one was Rent, obviously — and the deeper I fell, the less I could believe it was happening. Miranda is a superlative performer, but I am drawn to him most as a writer: he took a full year to write "My Shot," and every time I listen to it unfold I am dazzled by the craftsmanship.
I love Hamilton for what it says about America, about immigration, about bringing people of color to the forefront of our storytelling. But emotionally what I respond to, every time, is that writing: the dizzying internal rhymes, the effortless callbacks to previous songs, the marvelous sense of the whole you get from every individual piece. I paid a fuck ton of money to see the original cast perform Hamilton by myself on Broadway this month, and it was the happiest I was all year.
Lastly, in a year where albums from old favorites like Beach House and Deerhunter left me absolutely cold, I wanted to praise two artists that surprised me in the best of ways. Visions was a powerful debut, but it never resonated with me much personally. On Art Angels, though, Grimes revealed a stunning pop sensibility that elevated her entire catalog in my eyes. And while I've never been much for Sufjan Stevens — his lies about writing an album for every state struck me as the most cynical kind of publicity stunt — on Carrie & Lowell, he delivered some of the most honest and beautiful music I've ever heard. In its specificity about his childhood he captured something universal about loneliness and pain. It had the quality of an album-length lullaby — a tearjerking goodbye to a mother he could never understand — and it probably says a lot about me that I often put this album on late at night and let it carry me all the way to sleep.
So go to sleep now, 2015. And may 2016 improve upon you in every way.
My list (which you can play exclusively on Spotify because Rdio died this year! RIP Rdio.):
1. "The Room Where It Happens," Hamilton. A song about being on the outside and looking in — and about how that feeling can both inspire and corrupt. In the play, this is the moment in the second act where Aaron Burr's lust for power finally drives him into action, with terrible results. But in an era where so much feels beyond our control — "dark as a tomb where it happens," as Burr sings, in one of my favorite one-off rhymes in the play — in 2015 "The Room Where It Happens" felt like a necessary meditation on inclusion.
2. "King Kunta," Kendrick Lamar. The song has an appealing swagger to it: when Kendrick raps “Life ain’t shit but a fat vagina,” you hear echoes of “Backseat Freestyle,” with its giddy pledge to fuck the world. But Kunta Kinte was of course a slave, and a man who had his foot cut off to prevent him from escaping from his plantation. Even as Kendrick brags about rising “from a peasant to a prince to a motherfucking king,” he knows he is crippled by a country whose inattention to its founding prejudices is tragic and deadly. Not to mention inexcusable. I tried to reckon with that this year. I'm still reckoning.
3. "Kill V. Maim," Grimes. Listening to this, my favorite track off Art Angels, I think about Nicki Minaj's immortal verse on Kanye's "Monster" — the way she seems to be playing a dozen characters at once, each meticulously conceived, each playing her part with enchanting precision. "Kill V. Maim" feels like that to me, too — Grimes' voice bends and stretches, inflates with helium, flattens out into a roar. A marvelous, even unsettling demonstration of her powers.
4. "Should Have Known Better," Sufjan Stevens. "When I was 3, maybe 4, she left us at that video store" — did any line in a song wreck you more this year? It leaps out of "Should Have Known Better" like a man with a knife, and haunts you forever. "The past is still the past — the bridge to nowhere," Stevens sings. But this year it took him further in his songwriting than anything he's written to date.
5. "Where are Ü Now," Jack Ü feat. Justin Bieber. The absolute coolest thing I saw on the web this year was The New York Times' eight-minute mini-documentary about how this song got made. It doubles as an explanation for everything I love about it. Watch it! Watch it again!
6. "King," Years & Years. The role of Legendary Queer Dance-Pop Band has gone sadly unfilled ever since Erasure drifted away from us. Then Years & Years showed up this spring and made me forget the words to "A Little Respect." "King" is an opaque bit of EDM pop with a chorus you can ride to the moon, and the fact that it's sung by an adorable British twink with the voice of an angel pushed it only further into my wheelhouse. I overpaid to see the band live in September, and I and loved every minute.
7. "Reality in Motion," Tame Impala. Currents turned out to be one of those records that everyone agreed was a masterpiece — and then completely disagreed about which of its songs was the best. Mark me down for "Reality In Motion" — just beneath the psychedelic languor there's a hell of a pop song. If the rest of chillwave showed this level of craftsmanship, it probably would have lasted longer than 10 minutes.
8. "WTF (Where They From)," Missy Elliott feat. Pharrell. Let me be clear: this is not a nostalgia pick. This is not me remembering how much I love "Get Ur Freak On" or "Work It." Missy was the year's most welcome return, obviously, but "WTF" would have been in my top 10 in any year, past or future. Listening to Missy I often wonder whether anyone has ever had as much fun as she does making sounds with her mouth.
9. "The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment," Father John Misty. This song is so fucking mean! It would be unlistenable misogyny if its criticisms weren't so devastatingly specific: "her petty, vogue ideas; somebody's been told too many times she's beyond her years." But the narrator (Josh Tillman??) is still having sex with her, and you can tell he kind of hates himself for it ("I can't stop the wheels from spinning; lately, I feel so unconvincing.") The villain of the song is revealed as the man singing it.
10. "Gosh," Jamie XX. Like a lot of music in XX-land, In Colour sounded good in nearly any setting — from the office to the dinner party to the hotel lobby — and so I never quite trusted it. It all sounded good — "Gosh" in particular sounded very good — but was it, really? In previous years I would have interrogated myself a bit further on this point, but looking at my Last.fm data, it's clear that I adored In Colour. The more I listen, the more it feels like the XX album that Coexist should have been.
11. "Mine," Phoebe Ryan. Sparkling indie pop from a woman much stronger than you might guess, were you only to hear that kittenish voice. And what an earworm.
12. "I Break Guitars," Beach Slang. Indie rock spent 2015 mostly asleep, but Beach Slang made a solid effort to wake it up. "I Break Guitars" was the year's best pro-wrestler entrance music.
13. "Even If You Don't," Blitzen Trapper. In the grand tradition of "Furr" and "Don't Be A Stranger," Blitzen Trapper's latest album contained another sweet little gem I'll be humming forever.
14. "Can't Feel My Face," the Weeknd. This was my top pick of the year before I began to find the Weeknd's don't-fuck-me-I'll-just-destroy-you-but-seriously-we-should-fuck schtick just totally insufferable. I keep trying to forgive the song, which is incredible, but there's always that damned schtick: "the worst is yet to come / all the misery was necessary ..." With that, the song is just ruined for me. And it was so fucking close.
15. "Fourth of July," Sufjan Stevens. Another Carrie & Lowell number that unlocks your heart and climbs inside and just punches the insides until it's done with you. Those little nicknames stack up on you — "my little hawk," "my little dove" — until you're just looking around the house to see if there's anyone who can just hold you and love you through the rest of the song. "Why do you cry?" GTFO Sufjan. YOU KNOW WHY.
16. "Something Good," Dead Sara. Scuzzbucket major-label rock that misses the '80s but not so much it's content to just sing covers. The lead singer is named Emily Armstrong and she could sing a corpse back to life. Something good — indeed!
17. "Only One," Kanye West. This one got slept on in best-of lists, but I loved it for two things: the sheer Kanye hubris of writing a song in his dead mother's voice paying tribute to him, which like many Kanye things somehow eventually managed to seem unbearably poignant and relatable; and for Paul McCartney's contributions to the melody, which were just beautifully elegant and understated. Also: what is it with songs about moms this year? What would a Kanye / Sufjan collabo sound like and is there a Change dot org petition I can sign?
18, "I Wanna Boi," PWR BTTM. If Sam Smith stopped moping for 10 minutes and just let himself sing a song about wanting to fuck — as opposed to, you know, wanting someone to stay — we'd all be the better off for it. In the meantime we have this thirsty three-chord number from PWR BTTM, whose lead singer goes so far as to give out his email address in the song asking for nudes. Pop is the new Grindr — and I really hope he responds to my email.
19. "California," Grimes. You know how when a band is performing in your city there's a point in the show where they go WHAT'S UP TALLAHASSEE? Yeah well Grimes wrote a song about my state and it's upbeat as hell! At least, it sounds upbeat. Lyrically it's about how California makes you sad and want to drown. Look, 2015 was a fucked-up year.
20. "Got to Work it Out," Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique. For all the intractable social problems we faced in 2015, very few voices called for us to simply work it out. Robyn was one of a handful that did. In this track with "La Bagatelle Magique" — which is a French bakery? I guess? — told us to make a fist, shake it, and just basically work it out. Gonna give it a shot.
21. "Girl in a Country Song," Maddie & Tae. Look if you want to make a perfect pop song about how so many other perfect pop songs are actually decrepit bro fantasies, just know it's going to be very hard to beat this one.
22. "Queen's Speech 4," Lady Leshurr. I don't know enough about British slang to know whether "Brush your teeth!" is cool drug slang or if this is actually a children's song — and I don't care.
23. "Something," Julien Baker. There are a lot of sad man songs on my list this year, but it's important to note that many women were sad in 2015 as well. How sad was Julien Baker? "The walls of my skull bend backwards, and like in a labyrinth, I knew I was wasting my time." After that it starts to get pretty sad.
24. "Tom's Diner," Georgio Moroder feat. Britney Spears. If I were one of those gays who just shout "Yasss queen! Slay!" at everything they like, that would probably be my entire comment about this delirious Suzanne Vega cover. And I think it would be a lot of fun to be one of those gays, so.
25. "I Lost My Mind," Titus Andronicus. And we'll leave it there, 2015! Do not keep in touch! Blocked and reported for spam!!