This year, musicians protested through shouts and rhymes, exposed painful wounds, gave the middle finger to haters and, most of all, perfectly captured the essence of the here and now through their songs. In no particular order, here are 12 musical highlights from our soundtrack to 2015, including everything from uneasy electronica to acoustic tearjerkers. Revisit the songs we noted in our Listen section (updated on a daily basis) via our ListenUp 2015 playlist.
1. Erykah Badu: But You Caint Use My Phone
Since releasing her seven-minute take on Hotline Bling and another track “Phone Down,” her R&B highness Erykah Badu had us waiting impatiently for her mixtape “But You Caint Use My Phone”—where every song is related to the device that keeps us connected (or not). There’s interpolations of New Edition’s “Mr Telephone Man” and Usher’s “U Don’t Have Call,” even a riff off her own song “Tyrone.” Former partner André 3000 even guests on the last track “Hello.” Badu’s a modern-day oracle (armed with deadpan humor and a timeless voice) delivering her learned wisdom through this surreal, dazzling and mystical mixtape that will long outlive your current iPhone model.
2. Gwilym Gold: Flex
In this simple yet spellbinding 3D-rendered video (directed by visual artist and regular collaborator Eddie Peake) for Gwilym Gold’s sorrowful, electronic track “Flex,” two characters have an intimate encounter that many are familiar with. But the ambiguity, paired with affection, offers a different, almost uneasy perspective. Inhabiting this seemingly empty fictitious space, Gwilym Gold builds, layer by forlorn layer, harmonies and synths and percussive hits into a climax that never quite resolves, just echoes back.
3. Tame Impala: ‘Cause I’m A Man
Rock’n’roll will never die and Tame Impala is making sure of that. The Australian band’s third studio album Currents became one of the main soundtracks to this past summer, and fulfilled Kevin Parker’s desire (and capabilities) to move his music forward. Lush, synth-heavy singles like “Cause I’m A Man” saw the band’s layered, ’70s-tinged sound further evolve into a style of its own. Moving from the garage to the studio, the sound is noticeably cleaned up yet manages to retain the soul of a seemingly bygone era of psychedelic rock music.
4. Romare: Motherless Child
London-based producer Archie Fairhurst aka Romare (who takes his name from the cut’n’paste artist Romare Bearden) expertly manipulates samples to create new songs—or rather, musical essays—that move the body as much as they do the mind. Romare’s debut album Projections was released in February 2015 via Ninja Tunes and made a considerable first impression. Keep an ear out for the sample of the African-American spiritual in his slow burning track “Motherless Child,” and note that his self-directed music video for the track partially pays tribute to John Lennon, who lost his mother at a young age.
5. Grimes: Flesh Without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream
Just before Halloween, Grimes channeled multiple characters—from Marie Antoinette behind sunglasses to a radiant cowboy angel to a dancing high roller—for her two-part music video, “Flesh Without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream” (written, directed, edited, colored and art-directed by Grimes herself). This rock-pop banger was the first sampling of her long-awaited album Art Angels, where Grimes screams and sings and jams furiously in her most purposeful production yet.
6. Janelle Monáe: Hell You Talmbout
Janelle Monáe—a day after leading a Black Lives Matter march in Philadelphia, back in August—released a new version of “Hell You Talmbout,” a bonus track from her most recent album The Electric Lady. A heartbreaking and powerful protest song, it is six minutes of military-style tattoo percussion with chants of “Say his/her name!” as the performers list victims of police brutality. Monáe—along with Deep Cotton, George 2.0, St Beauty, Jidenna and Roman GianArthur—passionately shout names including Sandra Bland, Philip White, Trayvon Martin and others, so we don’t ever forget.
7. Here We Go Magic: Ordinary Feeling
While Here We Go Magic got the Rockaway Beach locals dancing in their music video for “Falling,” thanks to the song’s upbeat energy, they soon juxtaposed it with the second offering from their new album Be Small (released October 2015 via Secretly Canadian). The unhurried “Ordinary Feeling” especially shows off the interwoven, intimate nuances of the self-produced, home-recorded album (a notable creative decision considering they worked with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich for their previous, 2012’s A Different Ship). Starting bare with acoustic guitar and a simple drum set-up, Luke Temple’s voice later drifts to another world, carried away by synths like gossamer.
8. Björk: Vulnicura
Fans were surprised with a two-month early official release of Björk’s new album Vulnicura in January 2015 after it was leaked online. The experimental Icelandic artist described her ninth studio offering as a “complete heartbreak album” that documents the “emotional chronology” of her own personal breakup from beginning to end: “the wound and a healing of a wound.” Since then, Björk kept busy with her MoMA retrospective exhibition in March as well as releasing an installment of remixes and an “acoustic” strings version of Vulnicura—continuing to find new perspectives and reveals of the original material.
9. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly
Closing out the final episode of the Colbert Report with the anthemic line, “We don’t die, we multiply,” Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly in March. Spitting hyper-aware lyrics with his signature acrobatic flow, Lamar brings in jazzy instrumentals and some old school beats to make yet another groundbreaking record, working not only with hip-hop titans like Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams but a plethora of critically-acclaimed jazz musicians like Robert Glasper, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington and Ambrose Akinmusire. All in all, To Pimp a Butterfly truly set a new standard while doling out poetic justice as it’s best served: hot and fresh.
10. Unknown Mortal Orchestra: Multi-Love
On their first two albums, Portland-based Unknown Mortal Orchestra charmed fans with dirty low-fi tracks—poppy but unafraid to be thought-provoking—recorded out of a basement studio. Their third and latest effort, Multi-Love (out via Jagjaguwar) was born in the same basement studio, but from the ashes of exhaustion, depression and too many drugs. Like a phoenix reborn in explosive sheen of disco and R&B and analog synthesizers, Multi-Love exudes an energized maturity and complexity. From the deluge of new releases this year, it stood out out as each lyrical and musical gesture, down to its atom, tugs on a personal level. The single of the same name, “Multi-Love” remembers a recent polyamorous relationship between frontman Ruban Nielson, his wife and a third party; and the instruments seem to echo this movement together in kaleidoscopic motion.
11. Hamilton the Musical
It’s not just a Broadway show about a revolution—Hamilton is one in itself. Written by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also composed the music and lyrics for the Tony Award-winning “In the Heights”), “Hamilton” is a fresh musical rebel: from its multi-racial cast to storytelling through hip-hop, rap, ’90s pop and ballads without losing any of that Broadway theatricality. The life of founding father Alexander Hamilton is a story primed for feature film drama: an illegitimate son born in the British West Indies—an immigrant—whose ambitions led him to become a Revolutionary War hero and influential politician. He even weathered a public sex scandal and died too soon at about 49 years of age, mortally wounded in a duel by his nemesis Aaron Burr. The cast recording satisfies all of the hype; listen to the rhythmic opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” and you’ll be hooked regardless of your musical preferences.
12. Christine and the Queens: No Harm is Done
Through her trouser-suit-outfitted stage persona, Christine (of Christine and the Queens), French singer-songwriter Héloïse Letissier finds the courage and freedom to sing of melancholy, anger, her scars and her desire to take back power. Her debut LP Chaleur Humaine was first a sensation in France, before an English version was released in October 2015, simply titled Christine and the Queens. It features three new tracks, one of which is the dark and restrained “No Harm is Done” featuring Philadelphia-bred rapper Tunji Ige. Letissier describes the song as “a picture of the moment before: before something happens, before we choose in which fight we want to engage.”