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Best Songs of 2015 (So Far): Kanye West, Leon Bridges, A$AP Rocky and More

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  ( Carolyn Menyes/Music Times )

Six months down and six months to go: Music Times just can't wait until the end of 2015 to release its list of the best songs released this year, so we're giving you a free preview with our midyear favorites. We left no stone unturned, considering music from the East Coast (A$AP Rocky), West Coast (Kendrick Lamar) and the Central Coast (Kanye West)...rock both electric and acoustic...fashions from miniskirts (Braids) to Mexican Lucha Libre masks (The Mountain Goats).

It wasn't easy. The core staff at Music Times—Ryan Book, Kyle Dowling, Carolyn Menyes, Ryan Middleton and Jon Niles—agree on things about as well as The Eagles on a bad day. One Ryan is at home in the club, while the other may or may not actually have a home. Kyle is a dog person and Carolyn is a cat person...Snoop Dogg and Cat Power that is.

With that in mind, we present our picks for the Best Songs of 2015...so far:

20. "Waitress" by Hop Along

The title character in Hop Along's "Waitress" must face some specter attached to her past—whether it's the new girlfriend of her ex or the high school classmate who found her Harry Potter fan fiction isn't clarified…but odds are it's the former. Frontwoman and lyricist Fran Quinlan takes us into the head of the embarrassed employee, detailing a scenario that, in the grand scheme of things, may come across as rather petty, but in the minds of the millions who have dealt with a similar situation (which is all of us), that seemingly meaningless moment is the new Vietnam. Quinlan's signature vocal style—impassioned and prone to cracking—summarizes the will of the protagonist, being pushed to its breaking point and yet refusing, or simply unable, to break.-RB

19. "Memory Remains" by Oberhofer

This is easily one of the most fun songs of the year. There’s nothing wrong with the straightforward structure from pop rock songwriter Brad Oberhofer because we know we’re in for a treat from beginning to end. Even the subject matter screams 1950s and early '60s pop tune, but the modern twists thrown in every so often really makes this song stick out during a year of usually successful experimentation. “If it isn’t broke, keep rocking,” is what I imagine the motto for every Oberhofer song, but “Memory Remains” is a prime example. -JN

18. "Everybody Needs Salvation" by Weezer

Whenever Weezer releases a new song, especially recently, people are always claiming that the band is getting back to their roots, and said song sounds like Pinkerton. This is frustrating because it’s simply never true. What’s strange is that not many people said this when the band released this song, because it is exactly what I’ve been waiting to hear since 1996. There’s no point being stubborn about this one; it is everything a Weezer fan could want! This song could honestly get me on one of those weird cruises that the band puts together. -JN

17. "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero" by The Mountain Goats

Sentimentality has its place in songwriting, reflecting on loves lost and legends long-retired. There may be too much on Beat The Champ, an album focusing on Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle's fascination with professional wrestling. "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero," the lead single, serves as more than just a for-dummies primer on the Guerrero dynasty however. Although the childlike joy expressed by Darnielle while recollecting Chavo's championships warms the heart, repressed memories escape ("you let me down by Chavo never once did"). Guerrero puts Darnielle's issues, whatever they may be, into a cathartic chokehold. But perhaps a masked Mexican wrestler was just the closest thing to a real superhero that a boy could find. -RB

16. "I Feel Your Love" by Laura Marling

In 2015, Laura Marling released Short Movie, an album that experimented more with electric guitar rather than her usual acoustic, folk sound. There was one track, however, which stayed true to her roots and was a standout song of 2015. In “I Feel Your Love,” Marling is at her best—strumming, fingerpicking and emoting the anguish that romance embodies in her mind. Her voice is so unique and in this song you can hear the lump in her throat during strains of heartache. There’s only a string arrangement behind her, but the song exudes loneliness in so many ways. -JN

15. "Lampshades on Fire" by Modest Mouse

As the band’s first release since 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, Strangers to Ourselves found itself holding quite a bit to live up to. Fans were eager to hear just what Isaac Brock and the boys in the band would churn out. And when “Lampshades on Fire” was released, it appeared certain that whatever fears or trepidations they held were pushed by the wayside. The single is Modest Mouse to the core. From Brock’s unique vocal patterns to the music’s overall composition, “Lampshades on Fire” proves that even with an eight-year gap, the band hasn’t lost any momentum. -KD

14. "Excuse Me" by A$AP Rocky

Hip-hop has had a banner year when it comes to albums. We have had standout efforts from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, A$AP Rocky, Drake and others, with more on the way. One of the tracks on Rocky’s sophomore artist album At.Long.Last.A$AP, “Excuse Me,” showed the new direction Rocky approached with the LP with, mixing and merging new musical elements to the psychedelic work. Where this track really separates itself from the album is the hook, where Rocky shows his development as an artist, singing the string-led hook instead of a harder rap. -RM

13. "Lean On" by Major Lazer ft. DJ Snake and MØ

The superlative for “song of the summer” is applied to countless songs each year, but there are few that actually manage to dominate playlists and the airwaves. Major Lazer’s collaboration with DJ Snake and MØ, “Lean On,” is one of those tracks that has earned that title. The subdued tune combines the Caribbean influences found in a Major Lazer tune with a carnival-like atmosphere. MØ ties the whole track together with a happy and catchy hook—“All we need is somebody to lean on”—that is resonates with a large audience. -RM

12. "Without You" by Tobias Jesso Jr.

“Why can’t you just love me?” is the first line to be sung in Tobias Jesso Jr.’s piano-led track. And if you’ve got any emotions at all, then it’s enough to grab at your heartstrings. The musician performed the track on CONAN and left the host and audience in sheer awe. With simplistic yet heart-wrenching lyrics, “Without You” is a song that speaks from the heart to the soul and is only heightened in brilliance by its live performance. -KD

11. "Dark Bird Is Home" by The Tallest Man On Earth

There’s always going to be something about a simple man with a guitar, and that’s what we got from The Tallest Man on Earth’s “Dark Bird Is Home,” the title track from Kristian Matsson’s latest record. Around a simple yet entrancing melody, Matsson tackles what seems to be a loved one’s final days, singing soothingly “still we’re in the light of day / With our ghosts within” as the chorus wraps up. It’s entrancing, melodic, simple, satisfying and stunning a.k.a. everything an indie rock song should be at the end of the day. -CM

10. "All Day" by Kanye West

Last year was a quiet one for Kanye West on the release front as he toured the world on the back of 2013’s Yeezus. At the end of the year there were rumblings of a new LP in the works, and he kicked off the year by dropping his intensely personal track with Paul McCartney, “Only One,” as a dedication to North West. The work with McCartney continued and has culminated thus far in the booming “All Day” with Theophilus London. The tune is both a big, turn-up anthem with braggadocio lines from 'Ye, repping his city of Chicago hard. He also attacks those of who have opposed him in the fashion industry and rampant consumerism (which he benefits from). Whenever SWISH comes out, we will be listening to it all day. -RM

09. "Miniskirt" by Braids

This song is such a trip. It starts off as a feminist ballad about rape culture and double standards, but transitions into an autobiographical, Canadian anthem. As the first single off of the impressive Deep in the Iris, “Miniskirt” laid the foundation of Braids’ next evolution. The title itself catches your attention, but soaring vocal melodies and lyrics of frontwoman Raphaelle Standell-Preston brings you deeper into this very personal song and its message. Strong words like “slut,” “bitch” and “whore” jump out early on in the track, adding a taste of taboo, but the second layer’s dizzying drum beat takes over until we’re ready to rewind the track for countless repeats. -JN

08. "Don't Wanna Fight" by Alabama Shakes

Alabama Shakes might be one of the most talked-about bands of 2015. Listen to “Don’t Wanna Fight” and you’ll be able to understand the conversation. From the very strum of the first few notes, it’s a single that easily lends itself to a tap of the foot, a nod of the head, and—dare we say—a little dance. “Don’t Wanna Fight” is a bright light in a group of stars that fills the band’s 2015 release Sound & Color. With a simple vocal line in the chorus matching a modest guitar rhythm throughout the tune, this single is a sure standout for the group, and one that will probably go down as one of their best. -KD

07. "River" by Leon Bridges

There has to be a word for describing a song that transports a listener back to a time period that they never experienced. It isn’t retro, a revival or anything like that; in Leon Bridges’ “River,” I truly felt like I was alive 20 years before I was even born. Whatever the word is, that’s the only one to describe this song. It has that ‘60s folk/gospel feel to it, embodying so much more than music, voice and lyrics. Bridges proves he’s one of a kind in 2015, and is possibly starting a music movement bigger than we can imagine. -JN

06. "Pedestrian At Best" by Courtney Barnett

Ask anyone with a sense of neuroses, and they will promise to disappoint you. In the thrashing lead single from her new album Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit, Coutney Barnett brings in this sense of self-doubt and contradictory thinking in the snappiest four minutes of the year. Half spoken, half sung, “Pedestrian at Best” takes us inside the tizzy that is Barnett’s brain as she bites back at the music industry, taking on her newfound stardom by telling them “I think you’re a joke / But I don’t find you very funny.” BAM! -CM

05. "Chateau Lobby #4" by Father John Misty

When listening to any Father John Misty song, it’s safe to say that you’re always in for a ride, and “Chateau Lobby #4” is no exception. As the second single off his 2015 album I Love You, Honeybear, the tune is a trip through singer Josh Tillman’s first adventure in Los Angeles with his wife Emma. And while each track on the singer’s latest album is undoubtedly wonderful, “Chateau Lobby #4” holds a unique sound, matched perfectly with a mariachi-like tempo that gives the listener a feeling of going along for the ride with both Tillman and Emma. -KD

04. "Big Decisions" by My Morning Jacket

Like most fans of My Morning Jacket, I couldn’t get enough of “Big Decisions” when the track was released. It gave us a juice of excitement that we’d been waiting for since the back released Circuital in 2011. And as per usual, we knew there’d be a different feel to the overall album, but were thrilled to find that “Big Decisions” was still raw in its ability to rock. Whether or not that goes for every track on The Waterfall is somewhat debatable, but “Big Decisions” landed exactly where it was supposed to: at the top of many of our favorite playlists. -KD

03. "Should Have Known Better" by Surfjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens’ 2015 album Carrie & Lowell is just another testament to his true artistry, an album that is at once deeply personal and universal. The centerpiece of this record is its stunning lead single “Should Have Known Better.” Here, Stevens works through his complicated relationship with his newly-deceased mother who left him at a video store when he was “three, maybe four.” At first, he’s contemplative and forlorn, but soon this song takes a hopeful turn when he learns that life goes on. It’s a life cycle in musical form and one of the year’s pure bests.

02. "What Kind of Man" by Florence + The Machine

Much ado was made regarding Mumford & Sons announcing the abandonment of unplugged instruments for a more typical electric guitar. Yet the most shocking chord we would hear during the first half of 2015 would come from Florence + The Machine. Perhaps it's because we've always looked at it as simple "Florence," riding on the swells of Welch's epic vocals. Perhaps it's because the vocalist had already hypnotized us with a gentle melody for nearly a minute. The riff itself is nothing noteworthy, short and simple, yet it serves as a stone…breaking the glass that keeps all of the big, blue, beautiful ocean of Welch's talent in. She and the rest of The Machine ride that wave into one of the year's highest-rising hooks, the tour-de-force we've come to expect from the vocalist. -RB

01. "King Kunta" by Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly is the most ambitious hip-hop album since Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, tracing the history of black music up until the present day, where one of the two aforementioned rappers now stands on top—from the jazz of Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper to the funk of George Clinton and Fela Kuti, to the concluding "interview" with Tupac Shakur—Lamar leaves no stone unturned. Single "King Kunta" capitalizes on the theme, as the emcee borrows the persona of Roots' Kunta Kinte, a slave brought to the United States during the mid-18th Century. It's taken a while, as evidenced by the timeline of influences introduced by Lamar, but Kunta has finally risen to the throne. If To Pimp A Butterfly and "King Kunta" are any indication…then long may he reign. -RB

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