Three Music Writers Debate the Most Important Song of 2015

Kendrick’s head at the center of the bracket doesn’t necessarily mean he won, fyi.

By Michael Tyler, Max Alspach and Jake Harle, University of Texas at Austin


Partially inspired by Shea Serrano’s Rap Yearbook, and partially inspired by the jaw droppingly good, historically saturated year of music that was 2015, Study Breaks enlisted three music writers and critics to settle their differences, squash their beefs and come together to decide on The Most Important Song of 2015.

Before we start, it’s necessary that we point your attention to the word Important, because this list is not about commercial success, popularity, award nominations or downloads.

No, Important to yr. faithful writers means two things: highly influential to the “thing” that music is, i.e. innovative, provocative, game-changing or paradigm shifting to the actual sounds that come out of speakers; and two, a watermark of the year 2015, as in indicative or reflective of the year and its general zeitgeist.

Also important to note: these are the opinions of three music savants yes, but they are in no way universal, impartial, or necessarily even correct.

Several important lacunae, such as the absence of female musicians, were not oversights (and in fact caused great consternation to the jurors), but the list of songs and artists they chose is ultimately what they, in their heart of hearts, found to be the best representation of Important Music in 2015.

Top 8 of 2015:

  1. Fetty Wap – Trap Queen
  2. Kendrick Lamar – Alright
  3. Jamie xx – Good Times (featuring Popcaan and Young Thug)
  4. Sufjan Stevens – John My Beloved
  5. Kurt Vile – Lost my Head there
  6. Drake – Know Yourself
  7. Panda Bear – Come to Your Senses
  8. London O’Connor – Nobody Hangs Out Anymore

 

ROUND 1

Matchup #1: Fetty Wap – Trap Queen v. Drake – Know Yourself

The beginning of Drake’s subjugation of 2015 began with a tweet one evening in February. It offered a link to an iTunes album featuring prayer hands and the text “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” hand-drawn in black letters across a white backdrop.

And pretty much from that point on, Drake was everywhere. That of course makes the biggest song from the year’s biggest artist on the year’s best selling rap album important, and that song was “Know Yourself.”

Champagne PapiThe ripple effect from Drake’s four-and-a-half-minute Ode to Himself made its presence felt throughout the entire year, and now everyone with ears is all too familiar with woe’s (Working On Excellence) the six (Toronto) and other Drizzyisms all courtesy of “Know Yourself.”

It became a massive commercial success, and for a good portion of the year was the only song you really ever needed to throw on if granted aux privileges. It also marked the drying of the ink on a long-coming divorce between the Drizzy we knew from Degrassi and the new paranoid, I’m too real and I’m too big Drizzy that choked out music in 2015.

None of this is meant to discredit Fetty Wap of course. “Trap Queen” did historically well, as did his debut album. With the releases of “My Way,” “679” and “Again,” Fetty undeniably disproved anyone who had called him a one hit wonder.

Unfortunately, his unique yelping delivery wasn’t enough to beat out Drake. “Trap Queen” was a loveable party song that served its purpose, but at one point in 2015, Drake had every single song from IYRTITL on the Billboard Top 100. That’s the power of Drake, and “Know Yourself” is that power’s thesis statement.

Winner: Drake – Know Yourself

 

Matchup #2: Kendrick Lamar – Alright v. Panda Bear – Come to Your Senses

Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper was released a year ago in the bitter cold of January, but the fifth album from Noah Lennox, bka Panda Bear, became instantly synonymous with the blithe feel of summer.

Through the colorful and bouncy synths that built on each other, Lennox was able to create a universe of equal parts beautiful day glo and bad acid trip.

The Good KidIts subject matter is heavy—Lennox is trying to cope with emotional realities of his father’s death—but it’s delivered with soaring vocals layered over a rolling acidic groove that was unlike anything else created this year. “Come to Your Senses” is an example of what the album offers as a whole, but despite the work being Lennox’s most accessible solo work to date, it can’t knock off the King of West Coast Rap.

Unlike many of the other chaos and outrage-filled songs on To Pimp A Butterfly, the Pharrell Williams produced “Alright” largely draws its appeal from its positivity, while still pushing the central message of TPAB.

The theme of the 2015 Million Man March was “Justice or Else!” and last October when thousands of activists (including rappers such as J. Cole, Jay Electronica, and Common) congregated at the National Mall in Washington D.C. to honor the anniversary, it was the chorus of the To Pimp a Butterfly standout track that they chanted: “We gon’ be alright!”

Winner: Kendrick Lamar – Alright

 

 

Matchup #3: Jamie xx – I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) (featuring Popcaan and Young Thug) v. Kurt Vile – Lost my Head there

In the autumn of 2015, Kurt Vile put out a phenomenal album in the form of b’lieve i’m goin down, a work that kept listeners’ heads nodding and feet moving to his new wave, folk and country-straddling brand of rock.

Songs like “Pretty Pimpin” and “I’m an Outlaw” displayed his knack for combining charmingly quotidian lyrics with a perspicacity that’ve become Vile’s signature songwriting tics.

Jamie xx“Lost my Head there” is the song that most encapsulated the album’s overall theme, a motif echoed by the hypnotic, dreamy weightlessness of the extended four-minute outro. The album is as solid of a rock-folk hybrid as you’ll hear, but it doesn’t compare with the masterpiece that was Jamie xx’s In Colour.

Easily one of the top five albums of the year, the collection was strong from top to bottom. More importantly, it included the certified Banger of the Year “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times),” which featured the dancehall phenom Popcaan and rap’s dress-wearing lyrical chameleon Young Thug.

While Kurt’s album kept us going through the fall, compared to Thugger yelling “I’ma ride in that pussy like a stroller” on the tail of Jamie xx’s glimmering beat, there’s not much of a competition here.

Winner: Jamie xx – I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) (featuring Popcaan and Young Thug)

 

Matchup #4: Sufjan Stevens – John My Beloved v. London O’Connor – Nobody Hangs Out Anymore

London O’Connor is a 24-year old singer/rapper from New York. His debut album, O∆, (Circle Triangle) was released in June, and reflects with a fresh poignancy the confinement of suburban life and a finger-on-the-pulse take on growing up in 2015.

“Nobody Hangs Out Anymore” is the best song off the album. In it, O’Connor, accuses his friends of wasting their time on the Internet and not hanging out irl, as well as his growing displeasure with their reclusion. It’s all very 2015.

The song offers a unique vantage point on the Way Things Are that has value as a sort of bookmark of the times. In other words—it’s one of the most accurate and accessible social commentaries of any song all year. Despite this, it’s safe to say that O’Connor’s best singing and rapping days are ahead of him, while Sufjan, on the other hand, presented a vulnerable album that showed his maturation as an artist and a person.

Sufjan & StevensIn Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens unpacks personal sorrow as he deals with the reality of his mother’s death. With sparse lyrics that often recall specific childhood remembrances, Sufjan paints a picture of the distant relationship he had with his mom. And no other song on Carrie & Lowell quite captures his battle against estrangement quite like “John My Beloved.”

His crooning in the latter half of the song—along with the large, stunningly cold breath he takes in at the song’s close—hint at the inexpressibility of his grief. The production is simple and minimal, but the music’s strength is in its barrenness. In what is some of the best Sufjan we’ve seen thus far, “John My Beloved” wins this matchup in a landslide.

Winner: Sufjan Stevens – John My Beloved

 

ROUND 2

Semifinal #1: Drake – Know Yourself v. Jamie xx – I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) (featuring Popcaan and Young Thug)

Commercially, there’s little contest that Drake won the year. But his 2015 oeuvre was less ascendency than dominance—less game-changing than throne watching.

Back in 2011 when he released Take Care, it was significant and boundary pushing.

He put Kendrick Lamar on an album before anyone even knew who Kendrick Lamar was. He had Jamie xx produce “Take Care” before anyone knew who Jamie xx was.

He was putting mystery R&B acts like the Weeknd—now floating in the mega pop stratosphere—on his album. Foresight like that is industry shaking because it makes an album remarkable at its outset, but even more remarkable in hindsight. It’s trailblazing of that accord that makes a song a Song of the Year.

And while it took five years for Jamie xx to create his debut album—the same amount of time it took Drake to release five records—it’s time for Jamie xx’s turn in the spotlight.

The producer created a musical masterpiece that effortlessly merged the once-disparate genres of rap and electronic. He had the confidence and talent to make a mind-bending digital album at a time when the masculinity of dubstep was threatening to kill the genre.

He’s also at least partly responsible for bringing Jamaica’s Popcaan to the masses in the US, as well as further solidifying Young Thug’s position in mainstream music. He’s been teasing us ever since “Far Nearer,” and his time is finally here.

Winner: Jamie xx – I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) (featuring Popcaan and Young Thug)

 

Semifinal #2: Kendrick Lamar – Alright v. Sufjan Stevens – John My Beloved

Interestingly, this matchup pitted two emotionally charged songs against each other, whose only real difference is the direction in which they point their emotional charge. Sufjan’s album, on the one hand, practically shakes with an introspective vulnerability, as “John My Beloved” acts as a kind of roadmap pockmarked with the artist’s personal scars. It’s as haunting and sober of a song as a victory song could possibly be.

To Pimp a ButterflyKendrick, on the other hand, exclaims outward to a listenership that’s in pain and trying to heal: The difference between the two is the difference between a silent prayer and a rallying cry.

In To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick essentially presents two sides of the same album: one, an unvarnished, chaotic work filled with unpolished emotions and hectic sounds; the other, one of the most memorable works of the year and one of the most powerful albums to deal with race ever recorded.

Ultimately, Kendrick wins this matchup because this year his album and his music were bigger than him. Is “Alright” sonically or lyrically better than “John My Beloved”? Not necessarily, but in 2015 it’s more important.

Winner: Kendrick Lamar – Alright

 

FINAL ROUND

Championship Game: Kendrick Lamar – Alright v. Jamie xx – I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) (featuring Popcaan and Young Thug)

It’s only right that it would come to this.

Deciding between “Alright” and “I Know There’s Gonne Be (Good Times)” feels a lot like Solomon splitting the baby, because it’s not really about the music. Our decision here really reflects the criteria that we used for choosing The Most Important Song of 2015. In fact, it almost breaks clean down semantically—“The Most Important Song” versus “of 2015.”

Sonically, audibly, musically, influentially—the winner would be Jamie xx’s “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times).” The song represents a sort of an Xzibit meme of boundary-blurring: It combines Jamie xx’s electronic/indie fusion and Young Thug’s rapper/singer/gender-bender persona into a mixture of pre-mixed mixtures.

It’s everything beautiful about music in the digital age, drawing influences from England, Jamaica, Atlanta, the 1970s, soul, dubstep, rap, electronic music—it’s a mishmash of potpourri and a blurring of the blurry. It’s innovative, it’s catchy, it’s fun, and it sounds so so good.

But it cannot win.

2015 was a scary year. So many bad things happened. Mass shootings, indiscriminate terrorism, epidemic disease, xenophobia, truculent politics—for people our age, it’s not a far cry to say that 2015 was the worst year we’ve ever lived through.

And in America, above all else, 2015 was the year of the Black Lives Matter campaign. The movement, what it was forced to fight for and who it was forced to fight against, transcended every other tragedy that happened worldwide and at home, because domestic racial injustice is a uniquely and disgustingly American problem, and 2015 finally brought out into the open just how grotesquely the land of the free treats its black citizens.

Following good kid, m.A.A.d City, Kendrick Lamar was in a position to launch his career into the stars with an album of bangers. He could’ve worked his fanbase into a frenzy with well calculated PR, dropped some teasing singles and then become a multi-millionaire overnight with the right mix of catchy and edgy.

But he didn’t. He released an unapologetically political album, a manifesto of black pride that polarized listeners and threatened his mainstream reception, the bravery of which is something that’s probably very near impossible for you or me to understand.

When To Pimp a Butterfly dropped in March, there’s no way Kendrick could’ve predicted how the rest of 2015 would unfurl, but when it did, and police brutality after racial injustice after thinly veiled murder stirred the black community into virile, violent protest, Kendrick’s “Alright” became the de facto anthem of protest.

There’s no denying that Jamie xx and Young Thug’s collaboration changed music for the better, but Kendrick’s “Alright” helped change lives for the better, communities for the better, grieving families for the better, and that’s why it’s The Most Important Song of the 2015.

Winner: Kendrick Lamar – Alright