2015 was a year filled with inescapable mega-hits from pop phenomenons like Adele, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, and Drake. The songs that dominated the airwaves always take the forefront of the music conversation. The songs become cultural touchstones. The artists become famous paparazzi-hounded icons. What often gets eclipsed are the diamonds in the rough. There is so much #Content on the interwebz that great songs can often be released to little or no attention, but that absolutely does not mean they do not deserve some recognition. Below is a list of 30 songs that were largely slept on but it’s time to wake up and give credit where credit is due.
The Weeknd | “Tell Your Friends”
Abel Tesfaye’s lyrics are at their most blatantly obvious, comically ignorant, and familiarly debaucherous in “Tell Your Friends.” They hit critical mass with the final line of the chorus acting as a declaration of his notorious identity: “I’m that nigga with the hair / Singing ’bout popping pills, fucking bitches, living life so trill.” Kanye West helped produce this bleak soulful burner, the closest thing The Weeknd gets to a romantic ballad.
Shamir | “Demon”
Las Vegas native Shamir’s just-left-of-center pop debut “Ratchet” employs bouncy synths and 808 drum kicks while he gently sings about sins, mistakes, the fast lane, and late night young love. “Demon” bops around telling the story of Shamir and his partner in crime, “If I’m a demon, baby / You’re the beast that made me.”
Empress Of | “Make Up”
Empress Of, aka Lorely Rodriguez, has been classified in every genre from indie rock to experimental pop to avant-R&B, which goes to show just how talented and versatile a songwriter she is. Her 2015 album simply titled “Me” highlights her ability to shift through styles while still creating a single cohesive piece. The alternating synths and grand piano keys lined up with the deep percussion on “Make Up” are only matched by the sexiness of her lyrics, “Nothing comes between us/ But a piece of latex/ When you tear my clothes off/ Like I was a paycheck.”
BEA1991 | “Filthy Believer”
Dutch singer BEA1991’s single-shot video for “Filthy Believer” is nothing more than the young girl wearing a heavy pink sweater with pink cotton shorts awkwardly dancing in front of a pink backdrop. Over the course of the 3:45 minute video, the dancing feels less like awkwardness than unbridled joy. I think this is what people mean when they tell you to dance like no one is watching.
Christine and the Queens | “Tilted”
French singer and songwriter Héloïse Letissier promises that she’s “actually good” over and over throughout “Tilted” before launching into the original French version’s spoken word lyrics that translate to stanzas about broken arms, bizarre children, and scratching posts. My French is not great (non-existent) but these sparse phrases mixed with her English lyrics about trampling over beauty and mended souls seem to paint quite a picture.
Youth Lagoon | “Highway Patrol Stun Gun”
“Highway Patrol Stun Gun” begins with a steady synth bass, an elegant string section, and bright piano before Trevor Powers begins to sing, “Possessed by something in the wind / They watch me like I’m a threat to them.” In an interview with The Fader he has described the song as his way of dealing with police brutality, corrupt people in high places, and elements of loss.
School of Seven Bells | “Open Your Eyes”
In December of 2013, Benjamin Curtis, a founding member of the synth-pop duo School of Seven Bells, died at the young age of 35 after being diagnosed with T-cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma, a form of leukemia. Their final album “SVIIB,” which was still being recording when Curtis passed, is due to be released in early 2016 with “Open Your Eyes” as the first single. Singer Alejandra Deheza described it as “a love letter from start to finish.”
Mac Demarco | “Another One”
His self-proclaimed favorite song and off his mini-LP of just 8 songs also titled “Another One” is a bit of a departure from Mac Demarco’s signature twangy guitar sound. For this song Mac decided to pick up a synthesizer and sing about longing for a someone he is in love with but can never fully have because the object of his affection must have someone else he doesn’t know about. A sad tale tried and true.
Soko (feat. Ariel Pink) | “Lovetrap”
Enfant terrible bedroom-pop weirdo Ariel Pink is featured on “Lovetrap” where does what he does best: mixing catchy hooks with bizarro lyrics. French singer and actress Soko is the ideal candidate for a Pink duet. “Lovetrap” describes Ariel as “a mermaid man not half a man” as Soko “bursts [his] heart with her laser eyes.” The video features Soko running around imitating Pink in a TMZ nightmare.
SOPHIE | “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye”
SOPHIE is the alias of London-based producer Samuel Long. SOPHIE songs tend to use heavy, powerful synths and a pitch-shifted vocal track sped up to dance up and down all over the place; the drums are an afterthought if even thought of at all. “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye” thuds along like an 80’s bubble-gum pop jam with lyrics that begin, “We were young and out of control / I hadn’t seen you since I was about, hmm, sixteen years old.”
20. LCMDF | “Fooled”
The Finnish group formerly known as Le Corps Mince de Françoise is comprised of sisters Emma and Mia Kemppainen. Their sound is a relentless collage of screaming high pitched synths, marching band snare drums, megalith bass kicks, and the sisters’ smiling harmonies.
Blood Orange | “Sandra’s Song”
Dev Hynes penned and released “Sandra’s Song” under his Blood Orange moniker as an ode to Sandra Bland, a woman who suspiciously died while in police custody in Texas this July spurring already fervent claims of police brutality though it was officially ruled a suicide. The bass, drums, and low end horns compliment the multi-tracks of Hyne’s harmonized chorus.
Connan Mockasin & Devonté Hynes | “Feelin’ Lovely”
Dev Hynes once again, ladies and gentlemen. This silky smooth jam features psych-pop singer Connan Mockasin and was recorded for a tiny little EP the two made together in just a few days this March. The aesthetic is when you are a few too many bourbons deep, dragging on a cigarette in a dimly lit lounge, when a beautiful stranger walks in from the outside and suddenly makes eye contact with you. Now what?
Tame Impala | “Cause I’m a Man (Haim Remix)”
For all intents and purposes, this is more of a cover than a remix of the Tame Impala song. Kevin Parker’s voice is nearly irreplaceable, but if anyone can take on the task it’s the sisters Haim. Context is flipped when we hear “Cause I’m a maaaaaan, womaaaaaan / Not often proud of what I choose.”
Purity Ring | “heartsigh”
The video for “heartsigh” is just as spectral and glimmering as the song itself. Amidst the infinite black void we see twinkling stars. Those stars are what hope looks like. This song is what hope sounds like.
Mark Ronson (feat. Kevin Parker) | “Leaving Los Feliz”
Kevin Parker from Tame Impala has been playing guitar with Mark Ronson for years, and even as Tame Impala became one of the biggest bands in the world, Parker still found time to sing and play on three different tracks on Ronson’s “Uptown Special” album. “Leaving Los Feliz” has Ronson’s signature drum sounds that match perfectly with Parker’s hooky guitars riffs and nasal melodies. “Uptown Funk” may be one of the biggest hits of 2015 but “Leaving Los Feliz” is the real hidden gem on the album.
Jamie xx (ft. Romy) | “Loud Places”
Jamie xx’s solo album “In Colour” has an electronic palette that is both similar and dissimilar to his work in his band The xx. “Loud Places” is one of the two songs that feature The xx’s wispy-sultry singer Romy and the resulting effect is all in the title. It’s louder than we are used to hearing from the pair but feels like an xx after-party where the mood has shifted from morose to celebratory.
Kelela | “The High”
L.A. singer Kelela walks the line between pop and R&B on this minimal track. The bass throbs like a heartbeat as she coos, “I’d do anything for the high / That’s what you said.” She told The Fader that the song is, “…about being enthralled. [The EP entitled Hallucinogen] is a cycle—starting on a somber note and going through all the phases of excitement and power and loss to come back around again.
Hot Chip | “Huarache Lights”
If you ask me, this song is ostensibly about Nike’s Air Huarache Light sneakers. These shoes have a trim of what’s known as 3M reflective material that allows them to bounce the night light off and “beam” in the dark. The video features a giant pulsating light installation dancing against a pitch black background.
M.I.A. | “Borders”
In late November, M.I.A. released the first song off her upcoming fifth album “Matahdatah.” “Borders” features an unrelenting trap beat with the ever-provocative politically conscious singer posing questions at a time when the fear-mongering news cycle is focusing on Mexican walls, Syrian refugees, and Muslim immigration policies. It focuses on the relationship between art and politics; what we decide to allow traveling through our borders (“50 million Taylor Swift records to people in Africa”) and what we strategically keep out (“migrants who believed in the aggressiveness of our sale of democracy”).
Frankie Cosmos | “Young”
“Young” is light, short, and full of hope despite perpetual melancholy. It sounds like singer Greta Kline is singing to herself, sliding her finger on the inside of her steamed up window, looking at the great big moon from little old Earth. The keyboards shimmer behind steady drum loop. “I just wanna be alive, that’s it.”
Majical Cloudz | “Control”
Majical Cloudz songs tend to be very bare bones and vulnerable and “Control” is a perfect example. They pack such an emotional punch with the sparse synths and simple snare essentially just keeping time as singer Devon Welsh sings about wanting to change to the dismay of the person he is singing to. Their fantastic 2015 album “Are You Alone” came out just as they finished a tour opening for Lorde.
Chairlift | “Romeo”
Last year, Chairlift contributed to Beyoncé’s self-titled album by producing the song “No Angel.” This year they came back strong with their own album “Moth” and their second single “Romeo” is one of the many dance floor highlights. In a press release, the synth-pop duo stated this song was from the perspective of Atalanta, a Greek mythological character who was a virgin huntress, unwilling to marry, and loved by many men.
Lower Dens | “To Die in L.A.”
This song just feels like you’re running away from something, anything, and heading West where the sun sets behind the infinite Pacific and the past can be washed away. The chorus is just a repeated mantra, “Time will turn the tide” like a meditative affirmation that everything will be just fine even if it won’t.
Tobias Jesso, Jr. | “True Love”
Tobias Jesso, Jr. seemingly appeared out of nowhere with this heartbreaking song aptly titled “True Love” about two real people trying to make ends meet and just barely getting by because they truly, truly love each other. Jesso’s self-recorded singles quickly garnered him Internet fame, a record deal, and the opportunity to co-write the ballad “When We Were Young” with Adele on one of the biggest albums of all time.
Peaches | “Dumb Fuck”
The most straightforward pop song on Peaches’ 2015 album “Rub” has a thumping bass and heavy synths that slowly build until the chanting chorus “You Dumb Fuck!” It has all the veracity of “sucking on my titties like you wanted me” without losing any of the provocative catchiness that can only be mastered by the one and only Peaches.
Chromatics | “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” / “Girls Just Wanna Have Some”
Ok, it might be cheating to throw two songs as a single entry on this list, but really these two very different covers of Cyndi Lauper’s legendary bratty pop masterpiece are companion pieces and really should never be too far apart. The cover art of the Chromatics’ single is has split photos of model icons Kate Moss & Cara Delevingne as the song was originally created for a Mango fashion ad. The ad features the upbeat version, which is true to the original, but the alternate version is a downbeat sultry cover that is throws the song into an entirely new context. I’d say the former is Cara’s and the latter’s is Kate, but hey, maybe that’s just me and my fantasies.
Chvrches | “Leave a Trace”
The lead single from their 2015 album “Every Open Eye” is evokes the power of many an anthemic Chvrches song. The bridge refrain’s only two words are “I Know” repeated as if singer Lauren Mayberry is shaking her head at herself in the mirror, angry but not hopeless. It’s freeing, it’s liberating, it’s leaving the past behind and leaning forward.
Grimes | “California”
Grime’s latest album “Art Angels” is being heralded as one of the best releases this year. For such a happy, upbeat song she sings about California only liking her when she looks sad. In an interview with siriusXM she explained that part of this song is about how indie music journalists will obscure her narratives and misinterpret her lyrics and write about how she has less control of her aesthetic and art than she really does… which is all of it.
Tame Impala | “The Less I Know The Better”
No song has better encapsulated the “ignorance is bliss” mantra better than this one. Psych-pop virtuoso Kevin Parker told Under The Radar earlier this year that “The Less I Know The Better” shouldn’t be on a Tame Impala album because it has this “dorky, white disco funk.” That funk is exactly the sound that propelled his band’s latest album “Currents” to the number 4 spot on the Billboard 200.