Perhaps a weird list, these are my favorite songs from 2015. These songs didn’t necessarily come out in 2015. These aren’t necessarily the songs I listened to the most in 2015. But when I hear one of these songs years from now, I will almost certainly be reminded of very specific places and times from this year.
Governor’s Ball – Conor Oberst
This year marked a welcome return to form for Conor Oberst, one of my all time favorite lyricists. This Conor felt freer than ever before, both unburdened from the expectations that came with his earlier moniker, Bright Eyes, and finally comfortable in his solo-artist-skin. This song, in particular, sparked vivid imagery and a stirring narrative of a drug-induced spiritual awakening at a crowded music festival.
Capable of Anything – Ben Folds
Ever evolving, I will be surprised the day Ben Folds can no longer strike pop-music-gold. On his recent release, Folds folds to the glamour of polished production including lush orchestration. He uses this new aesthetic medium to his advantage, escalating his blend of humor and sadness to new heights. Here, he turns a sunny but vapid adage into a tale of animosity and heartbreak in a way only Ben Folds can.
Take My Pain Away – Anarbor
My band opened for Anarbor in 2007, back when they were pretty much a local boy band (a seriously talented one). I haven’t seen the guys since, but we really got along and we clearly shared tastes when it came to songwriting. I enjoyed watching them explode onto a national stage, but failed to listen to their most recent release until this year. Though some might find it cheesy, their tongue-in-cheek, tough-guy lyrics remind me of new country legend Eric Church, and Anarbor delivers these brief punk-rock tales with more swagger, skill and sincerity than any other act I know.
Can I Sleep in Your Arms – Willie Nelson
This is not a new song to me, but I listened to a lot of Willie Nelson before writing and recording my new album this summer. This will always be my favorite Willie. Never has a song expressed such a need for the warmth of the human touch. No song will ever top it. This was the sole influence for my favorite track from my album, Searchin’. Now I can not only thank Willie for great times, but also for inspiring the best song I’ve penned to date.
Julep – Punch Brothers
I was lucky enough to see these guys perform a free show at UNL a couple months ago. This track, off their recent album, was perhaps the most striking in its simplicity. While it plays into their theme of the interplay between technology, intimacy and time, it also tells a deeper, spiritually-soothing tale of a man who reaches heaven, only to find he is back on the porch with his complementary love, as they sip mint juleps in their adjacent rocking chairs. This is a perfect song, simple as that.
When It Pleases You – Sara Watkins
Like Chris Thile of Punch Brothers, Sara Watkins was also a member of former member of Teenage supergroup Nickel Creek. Unlike Thile, her solo career is only just beginning to blossom. Her most recent album Sun Midnight Sun was a constant reference while tracking my newest album, and will always be a subject of my envy for the perfection it embodies. This bold work, supported by my current favorite producer Blake Mills, is exemplified on this desperate, exasperated track that balances along a tightrope of eclectic and grungy percussion loops.
Thinking About You – Typhoon
This spacey track, originally by Frank Ocean, ponders aspects of love and infinite time, and matches every aspect of the composition perfectly to the lyrics. It constantly surprises the listener with lush synthesizer pads and glissandos of ever varying tones and tambours, rarely providing a moment to breathe. When a chance for oxygen intake occurs, it will likely be accompanied with goosebumps brought on by the emotional wails that might actually improve on those of Ocean.
Anyone Who Had a Heart – Burt Bacharach
I’m very late to the Burt Bacharach party. I only recently discovered his work, after hearing Elvis Costello cite him as a major influence in an interview. I was immediately drawn to this song for the maddening (and apparently infamous) time signature changes. However, the meter of the song is not the only way in which Bacharach builds tension, his greatest strength as a songwriter. For both students of composition and fans of emotive, vocal-centric ballads, this song is an absolute classic.
Strawberry – Paul Baribeau
Paul Baribeau shares the imperfect and thus perfectly earnest sound of artists like Daniel Johnston and Aaron Weiss. While that sort of aesthetic can often fail to hold my attention, this 2 & 1/2 minute gem of a song is my favorite musical embodiment of the youthful tickle one feels when they first declare their love for someone in earnest. I heard this song after experiencing the feeling myself for the first time, so I can tell you its pretty spot-on. I will never write a song this good. That’s why my songs are sad, instead.
Oh What A World – Rufus Wainwright
The tense orchestration, erratic changes in pace and measured but extensive vocal harmonies remind me of the first time I ever heard Brian Wilson’s release of Smile, my favorite record of all time. While Wainwright’s remaining songs fail to reach the same heights, it’s all still very good and I’m very grateful for this masterful single. It presents a disorienting, optimistic view of the world from an otherwise dark perspective, lonely and alone in a fast-moving crowd.
Fryer – You Won’t
Probably my favorite song of the year, certainly my most played. This haunting contemplation of suicide, is aided by a chorused blend of droning acoustic guitars and smooth shifts between two octaves of vocal melody (which is great, because I can never choose which I like more as I listen). For as dark as the song is, it paradoxically draws me in with what are perhaps the catchiest, brightest melodies I’ve ever heard. It’s one of the few songs I’ve ever been able to play on repeat without eventually hating it.
Sing to Me – Walter Martin
This duet with Karen O captures the joyful, childlike aesthetic of Martin, while building a metaphor about a wonderful romantic relationship around the duet itself. The relaxed approach and soft, almost pizzicato composition extends the playful atmosphere in a way that somehow brings me to the edge of my seat. I can’t imagine my neurotic brain ever penning this sort of a song. As a result, I largely enjoy Martin’s work out of both amazement and envy.
Wildfires – Mariachi El Bronx
While on the subject of composition styles out of my comfort zone, Mariachi El Bronx. The level of energy and swagger in this song can only be approached from the perspective of an appreciative audience member. There’s no picking apart this perfection. All one can do is sit back and take in the dizzying latin rhythms, catchy vocal melodies and smooth, nervous builds at each turn of the chorus.
Bigger Than Love – Benjamin Gibbard
I’ve never been a Ben Gibbard fan. His melodies never clicked with me, his voice sounded goofy and he always seemed to represent some self-congratulatory attempt at evolving pop music aesthetics. I’m finally getting over this, slowly to be sure. This track off his recent solo effort particularly excited me. It tells such a passionate and raw story of love and divorce that it can only be autobiographical. Somehow it’s not (it’s actually based on F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife), but I can’t help but imagine Ben’s looming divorce played a role in the emotional character of the song. The frantic pace of the drums and guitar bring home the immediacy and importance of each line.
I am a man of constant sorrow – Élage Diouf
Earlier in the year, I was still toying with how to merge my then musical aesthetic with the Americana sounds I had begun to obsess over. When I found Élage Diouf, the challenge melted before my eyes. It’s hard to imagine or explain exactly how Diouf’s blend of Senegalese mbalax and American bluegrass was the biggest influence on my album, but I would argue it was. He somehow taught me how one blends styles in an earnest way that doesn’t scream, “look at me.”
Carousel Ride – Rubblebucket
There’s something very cool about a soft feminine voice of a budding indie band strutting through a Drake-esque vocal delivery, while one-upping the best emotive R&B rappers in the game from a different playing field. It’s even cooler when that voice explodes into the powerful and quirky chorus fans have learned to expect from Rubblebucket.
Burning Down The House – Talking Heads
This is not the first, and will not be the last, time I fall back in love with Talking Heads. This time my girlfriend got me spinning them again. There’s a reason this band is legendary. The danceable rhythms and catchy melodies can catch the weird-averse off guard, while maintaining their odd aesthetic and complex compositions for the musically adventurous.
Bread & Cheese – A Tribe Called Red
This one is also my girlfriend’s fault. I’ve always been fascinated by a blend of intensely traditional and natural aesthetics with modern electronic music. The messy nature of the one offsets the otherwise redundant and predictable nature of the other, often to moving results. In particular, I was extremely excited by the presence of large ceremonial tension drums that one could never reasonably expect to see in any other musical context.
7 Stars – The Apples In Stereo
I nearly wore a hole in this record when I first started my undergrad at ASU. I had a welcome reunion with this quirky and dreamy collection of songs this year, when I began my graduate work. The recent play of the record was probably burgeoned by my affinity for the lead singer Robert Schneider, who is also working towards a PhD in mathematics at the moment. This lush track provides me an energized feeling of love and contentment. Is that what the lyrics are about? Not really.
The Floyd Song (Sunrise) – Miley Cyrus
I didn’t expect Miley to make the list, but she made it easily. How can the psychedelic instrumentation by the Flaming Lips and the raw, emotional vocal performance not move you? Sure, the song is about her dog dying, but far more petty topics have been covered in the world of pop music. There is something fascinating about how well Miley couches her first-world problems in these deeply emotional songs. There’s something meaningful and, dare I say, philosophical about it. Since Miley’s album is not yet on Spotify, I had to post this last track below.