"Gimme All Your Love," Alabama Shakes
"Gimme All Your Love" — from the bluesy-rock band Alabama Shakes' second album Sound and Color — blows me away every time. Singer-guitarist Brittany Howard's vocals alternate between a sultry coo and a powerful wail. On an album full of soulful, sexy cuts, it's the standout. –Becca Stanek, staff writer
"Pedestrian at Best," Courtney Barnett
Another year, another brilliant Courtney Barnett album. The compulsively listenable Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit — her follow-up to last year's The Double EP — offers an even more diverse and sophisticated range of tone and style.
The album's first single, "Pedestrian at Best," is also its most accessible cut, and a snappy, self-aware riff on her own burgeoning celebrity. Barnett sing-speaks each of the characteristically deadpan verses before reaching the catharsis of the raging chorus. "Put me on a pedestal and I'll only disappoint you," she sings, spitting out each "P" like a cobra snapping at a particularly vulnerable piece of prey. –Scott Meslow, entertainment editor
"Hotline Bling," Drake
Even before the release of the instantly legendary music video, Drake's midsummer single "Hotline Bling" was everywhere, and for good reason. The song perfectly captures the paradoxical prominence of the cell phone in modern relationships. While enshrining the phone as the pinnacle of connectivity, especially for lovers, "Hotline Bling" also laments this same accessibility when the relationship is over, as we're forced to watch our exes move on from a social media-mandated distance. Drake's moody, regret-tinged vocals lay atop the shimmery, tropical sound, reinforcing the track's light and dark duality. Between the song's ability to tap into the collective consciousness, combined with the insane meme-ability of the accompanying video, "Hotline Bling" is the clear choice for song of the year. –Stephanie Talmadge, editorial assistant
"Echoes in the Rain," Enya
You could plausibly argue that selecting any Enya track at random will keep you in familiar territory. For many music critics, this disqualifies Enya from greatness. I'd argue the opposite is true. Her latest album, Sky Dark Island, doesn't break new ground. It hones previous successes into their sharpest versions yet.
"Echoes In Rain" is the most familiar song on the album, complete with her signature Celtic mood. "Echoes In Rain" never gets more than strident in tone, and yet there are depths that seem fathomless by virtue of their connection to history — both of Ireland and of her own extended ouevre. The song's Celtic DNA just feels old — storied and full of living history — and Enya's beautiful, ethereal, perfectly transcendent voice is the ideal conduit. -Chris Lites, contributing writer
"Port City," I Am the Albatross
Good rock 'n' roll seems like it should be an easy thing to churn out: Three chords, some yelling, maybe a catchy guitar hook, verse-chorus-verse, done. Of course, it isn't. Good rock, like all good music, should have something to say, both lyrically and musically, and "Port City," by the Austin trio I Am the Albatross, has something to say.
What I hear in "Port City" is that life is full of beauty and love that you only see in moments of grace. You may hear something else, because I Am the Albatross isn't overly heavy-handed with its lyrics, so give it a listen and find out for yourself. -Peter Weber, senior editor
"I Didn't Just Come Here to Dance," Carly Rae Jepsen
It's hard to pick just one song from E*MO*TION, Carly Rae Jepsen's stellar pop album. Every tune is a balance of killer hooks and aching sincerity. But as much as I love the whole album, I keep returning to "I Didn't Just Come Here to Dance." Its build-up is inexorable, as the dense combination of synths, bass, piano, and Carly's expressive voice build to an upbeat payoff that'll send any dance party into the stratosphere. Its lyrics are both wholesome and a little suggestive — the kind of song that would make any middle-schooler want to dance with a crush. Even an adult can get swept up in it. Let me put it this way: I'm getting married next year, and "I Didn't Just Come Here to Dance" is the only song from 2015 that I'm putting on my DJ's "must play" list. -Alan Zilberman, contributing writer
"King Kunta," Kendrick Lamar
I climbed aboard the Kendrick Lamar train back with 2012's good kid, m.A.A.d. city, so I could hardly wait for this year's follow-up, To Pimp a Butterfly. But while I was excited for the album to come out, I was also a little bit terrified — I had such high hopes that it seemed impossible Lamar's next record could possibly meet them.
The first two singles off To Pimp a Butterfly, "i" and "Blacker the Berry," hadn't really clicked for me (although later, when I listened to them in the context of the album, I came around). I was getting pretty nervous around the time "King Kunta" finally came on — although upon first listen (and the subsequent loops I put it on for the rest of the day, week, month, and year), I realized I had nothing to worry about. Kendrick was back, and clearly at the height of his game: cocky, brilliant, grown up, and deserving of his throne. Nothing else I've heard this year can touch this song's genius fusion of funk, soul, hip-hop, and good, old-fashioned schoolyard taunting. –Jeva Lange, staff writer
"Good Wife," MIKA
No Place In Heaven is MIKA's fourth album, and the first to explicitly deal with his experiences as a gay man. One song, "Good Wife," broke my heart on first hearing. It's about the unique pain of being deeply in love with a straight friend — one who's just been ditched by an unfaithful wife, no less.
This is simple, unaffected songwriting at its best. The chorus opens with a few wistful lines: "If it was me, I would be a good wife / I would never doubt you, ours would be a good life." It ends with MIKA tenderly singing: "Let's not talk about it / Rest your head upon my shoulder." Every line is a kick to the gut, offering truly unique perspective — and if you'd rather keep things surface-level, it's simply beautiful. –Sally Gao, editorial intern
"Late to the Party," Kacey Musgraves
"Late to the Party," didn't win any awards, and it won't go anywhere near the country or pop charts. On first listen, it's not even particularly remarkable — a couple guitars, light percussion, and Musgraves' home-spun voice, offering a modest celebration of a relationship's particular pleasures.
But it stuck with me in a way no other song in 2015 did. I've loved Musgraves' music — equal parts unsentimental and emotionally precise — since her debut album Same Trailer, Different Park catapulted her to stardom in 2013. This year's follow-up Pageant Material doesn't depart radically from what Musgraves does best. With this brief, quiet, soulful love song, she demonstrates her gift for wordplay and offers a three-minute peek into a relationship bursting with affection. Every time I hear this song, I feel the urge to cry. It needs no grander endorsement than that. -Mark Lieberman, contributing writer
"Anecdotes," Joanna Newsom
There isn't a song in Newsom's discography where her soprano sounds more confident and authoritative than it does on "Anecdotes," where she sings with an operatic vibrato and an enviable, much-improved control of her voice from note to note.
What is most remarkable about "Anecdotes" is that in 6 minutes and 27 seconds — shorter than anything on Ys — the song transforms countless times, forgoing choruses and altering arrangements each verse; relying on extended instrumental transitions to bring her story to another time and location; attaining scope and depth that songs double and triple the length often fail to achieve. "Anecdotes" is as gorgeous and adventurous as anything she has ever written. -Forrest Cardamenis, contributing writer
"Untouchable," Pusha T
That snarl. That snarl, the one that says "I can't be bothered with this," got me through my first half marathon and my most painful breakup. And now it's back. Drake might own the headlines, but Pusha T's been making moves in the background. That's his style, as he points out here: "Drops every once in a blue moon to separate myself from the kings of the YouTube. I am more U2."
With thundering 808 drums and Biggie Smalls' voice filling the spaces, "Untouchable" is everything Pusha fans want from a new single. It's also a nice reminder that his 2013 release My Name Is My Name was probably the year's best, even if it was buried under the lingering praise from Kendrick Lamar's 2012 good kid, m.A.A.d city and the hubbub around Drake's Nothing Was the Same. But Pusha's OK with that. After all, he's taking over Kanye's label, something he uses the song to announce: "The president of G.O.O.D. Music has been announced / A quarter million a year, and that don't bounce." He might never get the spotlight, but does that really matter when you're untouchable? -Travis Andrews, contributing writer
"Let It Happen," Tame Impala
About halfway though "Let It Happen" — the first track off Australian psych-rockers Tame Impala's third album, Currents — a repeated synth note begins to skip. It's enough to make you think for a second that there's something wrong. But suddenly, something transcendent happens: The song takes the skipping in stride, crafting it into a new beat. The moment is more than a sublime musical detour: It's an iconic transition in a song about personal transitions and letting go. "If I never come back, tell my mother I'm sorry," Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker sings shortly before the song takes a turn and hurdles into a stratospheric groove. If this is what reaching the point of no return sounds like, Tame Impala has absolutely nothing to apologize for. –Samantha Rollins, news editor
"Silhouettes," Viet Cong
Heavy in style and intellectual in approach, the Calgary band's eponymous sophomore album has a way of sneaking by at first listen under the guise of merely solid post-punk, with its dissonant guitars and synth experimentation neatly mixed but seemingly unremarkable.
But Viet Cong is more than its competent execution; there's real, raw energy here. Rather than lead with their strongest material, the band members let it speak for itself in glistening synths and chaotic drums that show in parts what their sum total won't tell outright. "Silhouettes" is Viet Cong's ambivalent climax, a cathartic yet restrained release of tension that builds over the preceding tracks. As anxious drums push to outpace the song, Matt Flegel's haunting vocals pull them back as if by incantation. The music stumbles over itself like a hyperactive toddler but never manages to escape its self-made parameters, and the resulting frustration is thrilling to hear. This is a song whose meaning lies in its form. As Flegel chants, "Relay, reply, react, and respond" in strained, almost scared tones, we feel his claustrophobia and all the potential it holds. –Roxie Pell, editorial intern