"Dubby" [ft. Danny Brown]
Don't let Danny Brown's overstated rep as a drug-rap hedonist overshadow his essential musicality—the yelping sing-song variation of his flow may have been initially inspired by Adderall, but his Detroit-raised enthusiasm for a wide scope of electronic music propels the way he goes in. The through-line between Detroit ghettotech and Chicago ghetto house means the already-eclectic Brown knows what to do over peak-level juke beats from the immortal team of DJ Spinn and the late DJ Rashad. "Dubby" nails the sweet spot between relentless percussion and gliding soul-jazz atmosphere, and with all that lineage to ricochet off, Brown's verses feel as much like a merging of formative interests as it does an opportunity to show off. The graceful rampage of his choppy, on-the-kick delivery ("Idon'tknow'aboutwhereyafrom butthisishow my! hood! work!") makes the track's aggressive joy breathe deep. Never mind getting high to it—get high from it. —Nate Patrin
- Asthmatic Kitty
- Sufjan Stevens
"Fourth of July"
After trying on a variety of different stylistic hats over the past few years—folk troubadour, unwitting historian, electronic dabblist, full-time Christmas caroler—the mercurial Sufjan Stevens got back to his roots with Carrie & Lowell, both literally and figuratively. A meticulous examination of his childhood and the complicated relationship between himself, his stepfather, and late mother, the album delivers the kind of emotional wallop that made his early records such commanding listens. It offers the kind of lyrical directness and emotional candor that, from a lesser artist, could be treacly and precious. In Sufjan’s hands, however, the songs soar, offering a reverie bordering—as so much of his best work does—on the religious.
"Fourth of July" is the album’s emotional centerpiece, a rumination on his mother’s death that doesn’t flinch when broaching mortality—both hers and ours. "It was night when you died, my firefly," he sings. "What could I have said to raise you from the dead?/ Oh, could I be the sky on the Fourth of July?" The song itself is a kind of hushed explosion—at once a dialogue between Sufjan and his mother ("Shall we look at the moon, my little loon/ Why do you cry?" she asks him) and bittersweet examination of how we choose to face our ends. It’s hard to imagine too many artists capable of selling the line "We’re all gonna die" and wringing out so many layers of meaning. As the line is repeated—surrounded by hushed piano and a choir of backup voices—it becomes less a nihilist warning or an admission of defeat. It’s a reminder to live, to embrace, to remember, to sing. —T. Cole Rachel
- One Little Indian
A nine-song play-by-play of the demise of her relationship with artist Matthew Barney, Vulnicura was one of 2015’s most emotionally rending releases—densely layered, meticulously produced, and as creatively ambitious as anything Björk has ever done (which is no small statement). "Lionsong" is not necessarily the most devastating track on the album, but it’s arguably the best. The song documents a painful limbo—the claustrophobia of being held hostage by someone else’s emotions. "Maybe he will come out of this loving me/ Maybe he won't," she sings, as a cauldron of strings, electronic blips, and her own soaring, multi-tracked voice surges around her. The song is less of a plea for love as it is a request for respect. "I demand clarity," she sings, before admitting, "Somehow I'm not too bothered/ I'd just like to know." Like the rest of Vulnicura, the song seems to exist in a realm beyond intimacy—the sound of an artist at her most stunningly vulnerable. By so fearlessly and meticulously cataloguing her own emotional anguish, Björk manages a rare trick. She explores one of the most primal and well trod of all human narratives—heartbreak, the collapse of family—and still ends up sounding strangely like the future. —T. Cole Rachel
- EarDrummers / Interscope
- Rae Sremmurd
"This Could Be Us"
"This Could Be Us" is the most irresistible track on Rae Sremmurd's relentlessly catchy debut album SremmLife. It's the record's ebullient light amid forceful club-ready bangers. While the Sremm brothers spend much of the album doubling up on the success of 2014 hits "No Flex Zone" and "No Type" with songs filled with heavy bass, scattered synth, and loudly chanted hooks, "This Could Be Us" finds younger brother Swae Lee free to sing his heart out. His high-pitched vocals are endearingly sweet, especially when combined with a consistent "Chopsticks"-like piano melody and innocent one-liners like, "I ball like Tracy McGrady." Further, Rae Sremmurd take an otherwise ironic meme in #ThisCouldBeUsButYouPlayin—useful for scoffing at potential paramours’ lack of interest—and use it with complete sincerity to plea for a second chance at love. Such wide-eyed innocence and giddiness give the track a palpable joy. On tracks like this, Rae Sremmurd successfully turn hip-hop into pop. "This Could Be Us" is what happens when they focus hard on just the latter part of the equation. —Matthew Strauss
"Dumb" [ft. Meek Mill]
R&B’s tradition of tell-off records runs deep. When the genre was last in the spotlight, in the late '90s, we saw some classics of the form, including Destiny’s Child's "Bills Bills Bills" and Blu Cantrell’s "Hit ’Em Up Style (Oops!)". But those looking for a more contemporary example of the staple should start with the track that kicked off Jazmine Sullivan’s album Reality Show.
Sullivan had grown disenchanted with the music industry after slugging it out in the trenches since signing to Jive Records at 15. In 2011, she announced that she would be retiring. "Dumb" was a ferocious annunciation of her return to music, its drumline rhythms and foreboding Greek chorus supporting her fierce declaration of superiority over the song’s subject, a man foolish enough to cheat. Sullivan has said that the song wasn’t based on anything that had happened to her, but that she wanted to be sure to do "a woman’s anthem" for her first song back. It’s a fitting sentiment for an era where the voices of black women are finding new arenas in which they can be heard, dismissing any and all of those who would deny them that space. —Jonah Bromwich
"Living My Life"
"Live in the now!" Garth so famously beseeched Wayne. That’s much easier said than done, particularly from the dark side of 30. Deerhunter attempt to make this bitterest of pills easier to swallow with maximum yacht pop creaminess on "Living My Life", a languid grudge match between pure mindfulness and past and future ghosts. If "will you tell me how to conquer all this fear?" is a riddle Bradford Cox poses to himself, "living my life" is the mantra-like answer he incessantly chants in reply. Couched in a gauzy, anesthetized splash of guitars and electronics, this dilemma achieves the sort of wary, anthemic grandeur we demand of our high-grade rock'n'roll: a sad song that feels happy, or at the very least capably anesthetizing. Yet no matter how many times any of us listen to "Living My Life" on repeat, a moment will arrive where headphones or earbuds must be cast aside to confront the very frightening, very tense world beyond ourselves, with all its attendant fear and loathing. —Raymond Cummings
"Angels" [ft. Saba]
On "Angels"—the rumored first single from Chance the Rapper’s next mixtape—which debuted on "Colbert", Chance addresses the flimsy narrative that he’s the conscious pop star ego to Chief Keef’s guttural id head-on, confidently telling the world, "Oooh, I might share my next one with Keef/ Got the industry in disbelief/ They be asking for beef." Take these lyrics to heart: Kill the drill vs. conscious mentality you have about Chicago’s rap scene.
Norwegian producer Lido (Halsey, Banks) channels a sunny day driving down Lake Shore Drive with equal parts gospel harmony and kettledrum, while Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment provide a big, cushioned horn section. Not just a feel-good throwaway in a year that needed some sunshine, "Angels" also served as a commendable guerilla radio promotion by a local act that barely saw love on the air. The play worked, by the way. You can hear Saba’s flawless "City so great/ I feel like Alexand'" hook during morning and afternoon rush now. (It’s important to call this out as a lot of local acts don’t get that shine. If you regularly listen to Chicago radio, you’d think Drake was the one born in Chatham, not Chance.)
Be it overhyped controversy over Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq or underhyped controversy over various cover-ups in local government, in 2015 we needed a megaphone reminding the world that these statistics you see on the news are still humans, that good people still live out south in Chicago and that it’s still juking out here. Lucky for us, "Angels" had our back. —Ernest Wilkins
Chance the Rapper: "Angels" [ft. Saba]
- Italians Do It Better
- Adult Swim
After years of searching, Johnny Jewel and his nightbreed cohort have perfected the afterlife love ballad, which means they’ve perfected the Chromatics song. "Shadow", a post-disco "Teen Angel", slipped out this year while we waited for Jewel to finish tinkering with the perpetually imminent Dear Tommy. We’re still waiting, but judging by this necromantic teen dream, like M83 minus the bombast, it will be worth it. With an immaculately moonlit minimal house setting and a radiant hook worthy of peak Cure, "Shadow" is so subtle it blurs out into timeless myth—or maybe it is just a breakup. But the forensic evidence is there. A gleaming knife of guitar is swaddled in black-velvet ambiance like a hidden murder weapon. A couple is driving at night, trying to escape a dead-end town. "We’re watching all the streetlights fade," Ruth Radelet sighs in a silvered voice the size of a drive-in screen, "and now you’re just a stranger’s dream." Think about that—streetlights might recede as you drive away, or just wink out, but why would they "fade"? The verb seems to fatally ricochet back onto the speaker, who must be turning into a ghost to see things that way. Likewise, the amorphous music lingers at a threshold. Precisely where does that haunting stepwise arpeggio, twisting our couple so inexorably toward their fates, overtake that knocking drum, like footsteps approaching down a hallway? Where do the cold vapors trailing from the vocals stop and the warm ones curling off the guitar begin? What’s at the distant end of this purgatorial tunnel of reverb? "For the last time," Radelet sings eight times, as if she knows but isn’t saying. —Brian Howe
"Sandra's Smile" isn't a protest song as much as a platform for Dev Hynes to grapple with the kaleidoscope of emotions he experienced as a result of the death of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who was arrested for a minor traffic violation in July only to be found dead in her Waller County jail cell three days later. A haunting, shimmering slice of R&B with a beat that eerily recalls a beating heart, the track captures a remarkable range of emotions in just over three minutes: exhaustion, confusion, anger, deep-rooted fear, all buoyed by a hopefulness that cannot be extinguished. "Sandra's Smile" refuses to admit defeat, forcing us to confront an ugly—and for too many, literally deadly—reality head on without sanitizing its message so that it goes down easier. —Renato Pagnani
"G.L.O.S.S. (We're From the Future)"
"Singing in G.L.O.S.S. is kind of like getting to be a superhero," Sadie Switchblade told Bitch earlier this year. "Like weaponizing a lifetime of anguish and alienation." On their demo tape, the Olympia hardcore band burn the no-future scripture of punk history to the ground. Its opening track is pure insurrectionism—Sadie delivers a monologue for her fellow transwomen with a thrilling rage ("we’re fucking future girls, living outside society’s shit!"), before blasting off into a 90-second blur of furious noise. And she makes the group’s total irreverence unmistakably clear: "The straight boy canon is a royal bore," she shouts, emptying her lungs with soul-cleansing gale-force. It’s a tough-as-hell mission statement from the most necessary hardcore band of 2015. —Jenn Pelly