2015 was a tremendous year for new music. Everyone from burgeoning indie-folk darlings to longtime scene stalwarts turned in albums that not only delivered in terms of musical scope, but also restlessly examined the state of the world today. On the other end of the coin, when an artist turned in a great song that was also concise and relatable, it felt sweet and refreshing – like coming up for air. Together, the music we listened to most this year represents both the turbulence of the times and the fact that we often looked to our musicians as often for a thesis as we did for solace. (If you wanted to give aliens a sense of what the year 2015 was like in America, a list of the 50 best songs would do just fine.)
Below, we've compiled the first half of our favorite 50 songs of this year — songs that taught us something new, spoke to us about ourselves and gave us a little rest from the from the instability and confusion that ruled the day.
My Morning Jacket'Like a River'
My Morning Jacket released their most tightly controlled, true-to-form album in more than a decade this year and "Like a River" is its apotheosis. It's a pastoral yet complex tune that, while settled musically, gives ample room to Jim James' ever-transcendent pipes.
The Decemberists'The Singer Addresses His Audience'
"The Singer Addresses His Audience" derives its power both from the simplicity of its message ("We know we belong to you / We know you built your life around us") and from its feel-good, late-Beatles boogie breakdown. They're both signs that the Decemberists (guided by the wisdom that comes with age) have pared down as they've grown older.
Death Cab for Cutie'No Room in Frame'
Kintsugi may not have lived up to the hype, but "No Room in Frame" is classic Death Cab — melancholy pop enveloped in gentle noise courtesy of Chris Walla. And it turned out to be his parting gift to the band – Walla left after the production of the album.
Tobias Jesso Jr.'How Could You Babe'
Tobias Jesso Jr. distills the shattering pain of heartbreak into three minutes of pristine pop. But the earnestness Jesso brings to the craft (not to mention a wash of nostalgia for '70s piano ballads) makes songs like "How Could You Babe" not only infinitely replayable, but also universally relatable in a way that only the very best pop can be.
Mumford and Sons'Believe'
Mumford and Sons' transition on Wilder Mind from barn burning neo-folk to chilly pop ala Coldplay wasn't 100 percent smooth, but did have its moments; particularly "Believe," which features a hook full of desperation and melodrama and Marcus Mumford sounding like a bona fide rock frontman.
Courtney Barnett'Pedestrian at Best'
"Put me on a pedestal and I'll only disappoint you," Courtney Barnett warns us, as we contemplate while listening to "Pedestrian at Best" that she might be the closest thing to a cross between Kurt Cobain and Bob Dylan we'll ever get.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra'Can't Keep Checking My Phone'
Ruban Nielsen of Unknown Mortal Orchestra continues his run of gritty, jittery funk-rock on this year's Multi-Love and no tune captures his sound (simultaneously over-caffeinated and half-awake like a tripper staring at a black-light poster) as well as "Can't Keep Checking My Phone."
The field of exceptional, no-frills indie rock bands from Philadelphia is surprisingly large, but Hop Along stick out thanks largely to Frances Quinlan's merciless vocals which are always pushed just short of the breaking point. Lines like "I just wanted a happy ending / for your little sister wherever she is" hint at entire universes of untold stories.
Surely there's nothing we need in these times of social upheaval as much as a good Clash-style punk song and Conor Oberst's side project Desaparecidos delivers them in spades. In particular, "Golden Parachutes" is an anthem for the post-Occupy world and a no-holds caricature of the real-life wolves of Wall Street.
Wilco'Random Name Generator'
Wilco havent been this blissed-out and fun since Summerteeth, riding twisting guitar lines that sound more at home here than they did on Sky Blue Sky and finally setting into the looser sound they've been developing for almost a decade now.
Irony is dead; 2015 was all about sheer, naked sincerity. So we knew from the get-go that Ryan Adams' take on Taylor Swift's 1989 was dead serious, and if there was any doubt, behold as alt-country's master of feels takes on "Blank Space" in all its emotional bombast.
It's refreshing to hear the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach cut loose a bit, as he does on this classically funky soul number about the burdens of love.
Big Grams'Goldmine Junkie'
"Goldmine Junkie," the best tune from this year's Big Boi/Phantogram collaboration, is a song like a glass of champagne: its intoxicating effect is enhanced by its soft sparkle. By the time you're halfway through the glass, you're tipsy enough just to close your eyes and enjoy the ride.
Alabama Shakes'The Greatest'
On an album that sometimes departs sharply from its predecessor, "The Greatest" is the tune most liable to make you forget Alabama Shakes were ever "neo-soul" to begin with. It's shambling punk, then it's Elvis Costello-style new wave, and then all of a sudden, we're back into the soulful territory the band staked out from the start. It's as if they wanted to show us (with whiplash speed) they could go all the way out there and get back again in under a minute.
Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn's recollections of watching the World Trade Center fall on 9/11 become a subtle meditiation on the struggle to make meaning out of meaninglessness.
Kendrick Lamar'King Kunta'
'King Kunta' combines Lamar's thrilling braggadocio ("Most of y'all sharing bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two man cell") with the nagging suspicion that there's temptation lurking around the corner waiting to sabotage to him. It's also the hardest song on an album that makes little effort to dilute the torrent of words.
Florence and the Machine'Ship to Wreck'
Florence Welch is a virtuoso and "Ship to Wreck" is this year's "Dog Days Are Over." It's a song with enough drama to allow Welch to bring her voice to its operatic peak.
Sufjan Stevens'All of Me Wants All of You'
Carrie and Lowell has largely been praised for its lyrics, in which Sufjan Stevens comes to terms with his relationship with his mother. But the words on "All of Me Wants All of You" are relatively pared down, letting Stevens' desolate, truly gorgeous aural textures do much of the talking.
Titus Andronicus'Dimed Out'
Patrick Stickles' song about emerging from self-inflicted solitary confinement is an anthem for anyone with a sudden hunger for life and sound. "Whatever's inside / Let it climb out," he advises with equal measures violence and bliss.
Jamie xx'I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times) ft. Young Thug, Popcaan'
A Persuasions sample, a cold concrete beat and a loopy half-sung verse from Young Thug combine under Jamie xx's auspices to form a song for those who prefer their summer anthems low-key and drizzled in codeine.
The Weeknd'Can't Feel My Face'
The Weeknd stepped fully out of mystery and into the pop limelight with "Can't Feel My Face," a subtly funky and intoxicating late-nite cruiser.
'Desire' is punk rock as slow-churning emotional exorcism. It's an ugly, heaving beast of a song from the Toronto "#softgrunge" newcomers.
Sleater-Kinney'A New Wave'
"No outline will ever hold us," Sleater-Kinney announced in a year they transcended the narrative and delivered a helluva record, comeback or not. (The song is, of course, paired best with its Bob's Burgers themed video.)
Dawes'All Your Favorite Bands'
This year, Dawes gave us the goodbye anthem of 2015, as well as a new way to say so long to those we care about most: "May all your favorite bands stay together."
"Magnetized" is peak Jeff Tweedy. It's got lyrics that (while mostly indecipherable) are full of images that evoke a particular "where do I belong in all of this?" reflection. Couple that with music anxious and muted (including a cautious, tentative guitar break that's like wandering outside a compact interior world for a quick peek) and you've got one of Wilco's best tunes in at least a decade.