Even for Panda Bear, a guy whose whole career has been a celebration of mind-bending psychedelic musical experiences, listening to Boys Latin in headphones is revelatory. The song assails the ears from every conceivable direction, Noah Lennox's shimmering voice reverberating and echoing around the track's seemingly endless space, and doing so over a far meaner soundscape than we're used to hearing him attend. "A dark cloud has surfaced again," Lennox informs us on a variety of occasions, and while this is undoubtably more gloomy material than we're used to hearing from the Animal Collective alumnus, a simple binary of light and dark doesn't begin to describe Boys Latin's brain-altering powers. Perhaps not the verse-chorus-verse experience you expect from a top 10 song of the year, but the first single from Panda Bear's latest finds its spot on the list not by slowly descending down the rabbit hole, but by diving in head first.
It's not always easy to put a finger on exactly what it is that endears eardrums to a particular song, but with Mountain at My Gates, Foals make that distinction awfully easy on us. Yannis Philippakis and Jimmy Smith's guitar lines intertwine elegantly and immediately, their lithe interplay soon underscored by Walter Gervers' pounding drums, and a deeply funky bass line. The verse ascends into a skyward-looking chorus, an amplification of the song's intensity upon each and every repetition. The train finally leaves the tracks in the song's last minute, a hoedown-tinged exhibit of pure rock-and-roll force, complete with merciless tempo, and Philippakis' raspy wails. Mountain's pleasures are readily discernible, five individuals each performing at the peak of their powers in order to create something both grand and bombastic.
On an album that's no stranger to enormity, Loud Places stands out as both In Colour's show-stopping centerpiece, and rich emotional core. "I go to loud places/to search for someone/to be quiet with," Romy intones in the song's lyrics, her loneliness already underscored by the crowd noise that serves as our opening salvo, and ushered into the track by melodically clinking bottles. It's lovesick and ravishing in equal measure, but serves as a mere throat-clearing in the face of the tune's towering chorus, a recklessly over-the-top reverie that's among the year's finest. The choir chants, the empties 16 ounces continue their jubilant bounce, and Romy shows listeners just how much can be done with a voice that stays the course even when its parent song is rocketing straight out into the cosmos.
And the award for 2015's short story writer of the year is... Courtney Barnett! With a sound somehow equally split between Sheryl Crow and Nirvana, the 28-year-old Australian somehow manages to gain more attention through her wordy, hyper-detailed storytelling. Depreston is a tale of the wordsmith and her paramour going house shopping, and the deceased estate that inspires Barnett's limitless imagination to conceptualize a variety of scenarios. A song for the autumn if ever there was one, the guitar solo that ushers us out of the tune's breezy paradigm brings to mind the saturated colors that abound in the year's third quarter. It's a light, alluring little wonder of a song, mysterious and intricate yet undeniably warm and comforting.
Kim's Caravan, on the other hand, is really none of these things. Expanding out into a foreboding and ultimately earth-shattering seven minutes, it serves as the winter storm to Depreston's mellowed-out orange glow, a journey where the aforementioned tune is more of a destination. The guttural bass line trudge of the track's opening moments predicts doom for each and every member of the song's narrative, a strange rattling taking place behind Barnett's tale of a suicidal seal, hallucinations of a judgmental jesus, and the powerful balm that chips and a drink provide. From the opening's nearly inaudible rumblings to the crashing chaos of the number's conclusion, Caravan just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and for all of the knotty specificity of Barnett's lyrics, her words are best understood by embracing the song's repeated mantra: "Don't ask me what I really mean/Take what you want from me."
Epic American films of the 50's and 60's, like Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia, open with massive overtures, a sampler platter of not only the sounds but also the emotions their audiences were about to experience. Tame Impala's Currents begins in the very same fashion, and while nothing found in Let It Happen's domineering eight-minute life-span is revisited over the course of the album, it aptly conveys every feeling and texture contained within. The basic groove is simple, a sharply-tuned guitar refrain and simple, steady drums, but Tame Impala innumerable sonic avenues within this forthright structure, each tricked-out with studio specificity that truly cannot be overstated. Each instrument takes turns as the song's lead player, the only true constant taking the form of Kevin Parker's wispy, etherial falsetto.
In the back half of 2015, the title track from Alabama Shakes' latest record was heard in two prominent places; the season finale of Mr. Robot, soundtracking the collapse of the modern world, and an ipad pro commercial, an advertisement that uses gorgeous images of our solar system as its primary visuals. The point is, people feel the world shaking beneath them when Sound & Color plays, an odd but undeniable experience brought about by a song that barely elevates beyond its initial hushed whisper. Brittany Howard's remarkable voice has never been put to greater use, covered here in tinny keyboard plunks and patiently rolling drums, layered atop itself, and yearning for connection. The deeply emotive tune proves yet again something that all too many artists tend to forget; sometimes stripping a song down to almost nothing is the only way to make it feel enormous.
Kendrick Lamar's staggering, imperfectly ideal masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly is defined by the incredible number of angles from which it observes blackness in modern America, and between these two songs, situated right as the towering epic is about to conclude, capture the astounding breadth of his vision. Berry is just about the boldest, bravest rap song imaginable to emerge from the mouth of a legitimate super, unfiltered rage emanating from its every pore. Not only does Lamar not mind exploring the stereotypes leveled against young African Americans, he even steers into the skid, crassly aligning himself with the negative perceptions that media and culture have leveled against him, baiting any number of uncomfortable reactions over Boi-1da's hard-as-bricks beat. Don't think for a moment that Kendrick is fully assimilating himself with the labels he's exploring; the MC even doubles back on his last verse to question black culture's culpability in the matter, fearlessly accepting the readily foreseeable backlash that was soon to come. It's a question that inevitably irked some fans, a sacrifice Lamar was willing to make in order to get the wheels of discussion turning.
i also risks being assigned a 'victim blaming' label, but skirts the confusion and frustration of the aforementioned track to concoct a beautiful ode to self-empowerment. The song was released almost a year in advance of its parent album as a glossy single about the power of loving one's self, but by the time we reached To Pimp a Butterfly's penultimate number in March of last year, the track was wearing wholly unfamiliar clothes. Through a combination of live recording and studio trickery, the song is presented as though being performed live, complete with crowd noise, looser and unmixed instrumentation, and Lamar's words delivered with a fervor that the original recording couldn't quite capture. The most important distinction, however, arrives at the three minute mark, where the Compton MC cuts the song short in order to quell a disturbance in the crowd, and follows it up with one of the most powerful spoken-word efforts the genre has ever seen. Analyzing the slew of ideas and arguments contained within is useless; the points he makes speak for themselves, and it's impossible to imagine anyone articulating them more eloquently. As powerful and emotional as the album at large, this is i's most perfect iteration, and the most important hip hop song of 2015.
No one understands the feeling of laughing while your heart is breaking quite like Josh Tillman, as mentally and emotionally dexterous a songwriter as we have working today. A kernel of unbearable truth rests at the core of his every joke, while humor seeps into even his most wrought and hopeless sentiments. Bored in the U.S.A. is his attempt to write a new national anthem, one more attuned to America's modern zeitgeist, and even if you find his paradigm a touch distressing, there's no arguing the beauty with which it's presented. A beguiling piano ballad fitted with melancholy violins and deeply-rooted pessimism, the song is so grand and nakedly wounded that we almost need the piped-in studio audience laughter that cuts into some of Tillman's most dour statements. As with all things Father John Misty, there's no right way to feel about the lyrics and the notions contained therein, but even if the former Fleet Fox is just having a laugh, he almost made me cry while doing so. It takes a sense of humor to understand listless devastation, and an acute awareness of depression to craft a black-hearted joke. Misty's has both, as well as the best song of 2015.
Hype Starts Here's Top 50 Albums of 2015
Hype Starts Here's Top 100 Songs of 2015