Connor Layden’s Picks
1) Kendrick Lamar – “The Blacker the Berry”, To Pimp A Butterfly
When I first heard this song, I was blown away. Kendrick never fails to come out of nowhere and drop a song that rattles the hip-hop, no, the music world. Every lyric is filled to the brim with sociopolitical commentary that’s relevant now more than ever. No, it’s not a happy-go-lucky clubbing song; to make this list, it doesn’t have to be.
2) Tyler, The Creator – “Smuckers”, Cherry Bomb
Tyler, The Creator is another artist that is maturing with every release. Cherry Bomb was a shot in the dark, a work that completely halted any momentum Wolf created. “Smuckers” brought forth the best of Tyler; he was provocative and spit the truth. What really pushed this song into 2015’s upper echelon was the amazing verses Tyler had Kanye and Lil Wayne rap. He brought out the more talented sides of the two, legitimizing his status as a rapper to be reckoned with in this process.
3) The Weeknd – “Earned It”, Fifty Shades of Grey Soundtrack
Abel Tesfaye, known in the music industry as The Weeknd, has always won the hearts of listeners with a soothing voice and relatable subject matter. His hit “Earned It” was not only an incredible song, but was featured in the wildly popular film, “Fifty Shades of Grey”. This dramatic beat, paired with The Weeknd’s praising croons, made the track one of the best of 2015.
4) Big Sean – “Blessings”, Dark Sky Paradise
A rapidly maturing Big Sean released Dark Sky Paradise earlier this year. Featuring an impressive tracklist, the album marks a significant point in Big Sean’s discography. This work is considered his best; tracks like “Blessings” explain why. With a confident flow, he’s able to traverse various subject matters: the trials and tribulations of fame, its effects on past relationships, and the loss of family. Drake’s commanding guest appearance is the cherry on top.
5) Kanye West ft. Sia and Vic Mensa – “Wolves”, Single
Yes, Kanye has made the list again, but for a drastically different song. West has a knack for handpicking artists, uncovering their talents, and exposing them through his following. He’s done it again with Vic Mensa. An up and comer from Chicago, Mensa sings a hook on the eerie “Wolves”. The high-pitched, smooth howls compliment the longing lyrics Mensa and West sing.
6) Kanye West – “All Day”, Single
I was lucky enough to hear this song live at Coachella; and I’ll tell you, it sounds just as amazing as it does through headphones. The track is a mix of Yeezus and the earlier, more vintage West. Although his lyrics are shorter, they remain witty, with substance as well. The production is magnificent, as expected, and the song is an effective teaser for his upcoming album.
7) Kendrick Lamar – “Mortal Man”, To Pimp A Butterfly
This song was most definitely not the most popular song on To Pimp A Butterfly, but I think it’s the most profound. In fact, I think it’s the most profound on the year. The conversation with Tupac at the end of the song should give any listener goosebumps. The embodiment of Lamar’s concept is summarized and reflected upon in this last song.
8) Drake – “Know Yourself”, If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late
I didn’t think If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late was Drake’s best. The album is very exclamatory, but also exploratory. His status as one of the best in the game is never understated and the sound of the album is full of banging beats to softer samples. “Know Yourself” has the biggest hook of the year and a scathing verse by the Toronto native.
9) Kendrick Lamar – “King Kunta”, To Pimp A Butterfly
Three. This is Lamar’s third appearance on this list and rightfully so. He isn’t the best rapper in the game right now for nothing. “King Kunta” has a funky sound, with a bubbly, but serious Kendrick. Based upon a historical reference to an African American slave, this track is an uncontrollable head nodder.
10) Action Bronson (feat. Chance the Rapper) – “Baby Blue”, Mr. Wonderful
He’s one of the most entertaining hip-hop artists today. From Queens, New York, the culinarily skilled Bronson released Mr. Wonderful earlier this year. He’s also earned a spot at major music festivals, such as Coachella and Sasquatch. Songs like “Baby Blue” are the reason why. He has a unique, old-fashioned flow capable of stringing together the most complicated of lyrics. Having Chance the Rapper feature with his trick of the trade rhyme style completed the song and made it shine.
11) George Ezra – “Blame It On Me”, Wanted on Voyage
“Budapest” is considered his go-to song, but I think it’s “Blame It On Me.” The twenty-one year old English singer uses his heavy accent to his advantage. He possesses a wide range of vocal tone, altering his delivery as the song progresses. A fairly simple hook seals the deal, making “Blame It On Me” an excellent song.
12) Ellie Goulding – “Love Me Like You Do”, Fifty Shades of Grey Soundtrack
Although I’m certainly not endorsing Fifty Shades, 2015 saw another one of its best tracks come from this film’s playlist. “Love Me Like You Do” is an upbeat, vibrant song with a chorus as catchy as can be. Goulding is already a well-recognized artist in the music industry, and if she keeps churning out hits like these, she’s going to remain that way.
13) Kanye West, Rihanna, Paul McCartney – “FourFiveSeconds”, Single
When I saw the artist names, I couldn’t believe it either. Before listening, I considered the track a massive hit or a massive miss. It took time for the track to grow on me, but I came to appreciate Kanye’s experiment with different artists and sound. The song has an almost wistful country-like twang to it; so hearing Kanye’s voice on it was a confusing experience. West is an innovator, and innovate he did.
14) Tame Impala – “Cause I’m a Man”, Single
Tame Impala continued to advance their sound, while maintaining the original style that made them famous. The yearning, psychedelic vibe is present in “Cause I’m a Man”; the same vibe that was introduced on Lonerism. It’s refreshing to see a band that doesn’t constantly change their sound – if something isn’t broken, don’t bother fixing it.
15) Earl Sweatshirt (feat. Vince Staples) – “Wool”, I Don’t Like ***, I Don’t Go Outside
The always interesting, yet monotonous Earl released I Don’t Like ****, I Don’t Go Outside in 2015. One of the album’s best tracks is “Wool”, a balanced, yet hard-hitting tune. His lyricism is jaw-dropping as always; he’s capable of connecting words in ways no other artist can. What’s scary is that he’s still so young.
Jimmy Shaw’s Picks
- “The Only Thing” by Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
In my opinion, the best song off the best album (so far, but I can only predict it being contested with a possible Kanye album or a Tame Impala album) of 2015. Steven’s gentle finger picking and mesmerizing overlaid vocals carry this song to its full potential, and the full potential of Sufjan Stevens is second to none.
- “‘Cause I’m a Man” by Tame Impala, Single
If there were any doubts about Tame Impala’s consistency, i.e. if they can keep producing music parallelling the tier of their last album, Lonerism, their 2015 releases have answered all of the questions. Tame Impala is has proved both their uniqueness and greatness, intertwining catchy choruses and beautiful psychedelic production to create masterpieces and continue advancing their sound.
- “All Day” by Kanye West, Single
He’s back. I don’t want to say better than ever quite yet, because his “ever” is equivalent to the best ever, but he’s definitely back. And even with a gritty hype track like “All Day”, he puts his characteristic Ye stamp on it, rapping over nearly flawless instrumentals filled with spacey background synthetic vocal oscillations and clearly defined synths. By now, everyone knows what Kanye is capable of; we are all just waiting anxiously to see what he decides to foster next with that talent.
- “Reconfiguration” by Other Lives, Rituals
Rituals is a huge step for Other Lives, as they finally begin to experiment with electronic sounds and an overall more complex production. “Reconfiguration” itself meshes The National with pseudo-Milky Chance vocals with greater range, making for an interestingly incredible sound. Great chorus, great verses, and a great final product for a band that has always deserved more recognition.
- “Baby Blue” by Action Bronson (feat. Chance the Rapper), Mr. Wonderful
Action Bronson clearly defines himself in a rap world overrun with redundancy. His powerful raspy voice drops definitive impact on his grainy, simplistic beats, giving his reputation as a true competitor in the talented rap game validity. Of course, Chance the Rapper helps make “Baby Blue” Action’s best song yet, as the seemingly incredibly different pair of rappers mesh together perfectly on the track.
- “The Headless Boy” by The Amazing, Picture You
In an album chock-full of long winded electric guitar melodies and distorted textures, The Amazing slows down the pace for “The Headless Boy”, producing a beautiful, and nearly folky, harmonized ballad. This could’ve easily been higher on the list.
- “Eventually” by Tame Impala, Single
The new Tame Impala album is shaping up to be one of the best albums of the decade, with every new single they release enhancing that premature premonition. “Eventually” is the latest track to complete that task, drawing characteristic rough guitar strum comparisons from Lonersism’s “Mind Mischief”, yet putting a completely new spin on things by bringing in electronic synths for the perfect chorus. Yes, it’s perfect.
- “Let It Happen” by Tame Impala, Single
Sorry, just reinforcing how good this album will be. And how excited we all should be for it to completely change music and rock n’ roll as we know it. Featuring over four minutes of pure synth and drum instrumentals, somehow this song still manages to hit home in ways I can’t even put into words. Just please listen. I’ve included three Tame Impala songs in here for a good reason.
- “Carrie & Lowell” by Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
A bit different from “The Only Thing” and not as critically acclaimed, “Carrie & Lowell” is probably the most electronically-oriented track off of Sufjan Steven’s newest album. Yet, with self-harmonies that could make Art Garfunkel long for another chance with Paul Simon, Stevens’ true understanding of music shines through yet again.
- “The Blacker the Berry” by Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
I was going to try to be bold and leave Kendrick completely off of this list. Maybe I’m just being ignorant, but I didn’t fancy To Pimp a Butterfly as much as the rest of the world apparently did. Sure, the lyricism is legendary, but the music didn’t do it for me. However, there is no mistaking “The Blacker the Berry” with mediocrity, as Kendrick demolishes every verse. It is pure power.
- “Only One” by Kanye West, Single
After the release of “All Day”, Kanye’s soft, autotuned “Only One” began to slowly slip through the cracks. It’s by no means forgotten about, but it needs the spotlight again. This is no 808s & Heartbreak autotune – this carries the weight of love, a flurry of emotions, some of Kanye’s most meaningful lyrics, and the songwriting ability of the McCartney-West collab.
- “RealiTi (Demo)” by Grimes, Single
Even when Grimes is releasing music that she didn’t see fit for her standards, the material is still amazing. Per usual, her heavenly high-pitched voice echoes over heavily-layered electronics and experimental instrumentals; the synergy of it all creates a cheerful and upbeat track that should make every listener should question “Why did she ever see this as unfit in the first place?”
- “Actin Crazy” by Action Bronson, Mr. Wonderful
When he played this song at Coachella, the over-300 pound Action Bronson climbed off the stage, making his way into the audience to show them what acting crazy is really about. He grabbed shirts, smoked unmentionables, and took selfies with the entire midday audience. Maybe this experience made me biased; regardless, it’s classic piece of rap art from an up-and-coming rap superstar.
- “Without You” by Tobias Jesso Jr., Goon
It’s hard to impress with just piano and vocals, but Tobias Jesso Jr. does just that, reviving the Billy Joel or Elton John way of music making and giving it a fresh modern take.
- “One Man Can Change the World” by Big Sean (feat. Kanye West and John Legend), Dark Sky Paradise
A rap song, but not like the rest on this list. This one is slow and full of an unspoken beauty, showing Big Sean’s maturity and finesse. I’ve never been a huge Big Sean fan, but this song really made me give him a more in depth listen.