I’ve always struggled with the thought of trying to compile a year-end list. Whether you’re cataloguing music, movies, books, or any other commercialized art form, there’s simply too much content out there to do a thorough job on your own. If I were working for a critical hub like Pitchfork and had dozens of experts to help fill in the blanks it might be a different story, but alas, I’m no more than a one man army writing for free.
Still, annual reflection is fun and important, so I settled on a different way of going about it. I limited the field to music released in 2015 that I had heard, and instead of trying to isolate the highest quality songs, I went for the ones that I didn’t think I would ever get tired of listening to—although there’s definitely quite a bit of overlap. Hypothetically, if I were stuck on a deserted island and couldn’t bring anything except a 15-song collection of music from the year 2015 (and the means to play it endlessly), what would that look like? Before we get there, let’s go over the rules and criteria for the Deserted Island 2015 Mixtape.
1. There will be 15 songs. Because it’s 2015 (this is an appropriate use of that cliché, unlike this).
2. Each song needs to have been released in 2015. This is pretty evident from the previous paragraph, but there are some special cases—like the phenomenal D’Angelo & The Vanguard album Black Messiah—that got released at the very end of 2014 when peoples’ verdicts on the year had for the most part been made already and have the potential to cause confusion. But I’m gonna make the executive decision to limit all selections to the 2015 calendar year (now watch Kanye go and release his long-anticipated upcoming album on December 30 and make me regret writing this early).
3. An artist can only have one of their songs on the mixtape. For diversity’s sake, and also so I didn’t just put 15/16ths of To Pimp a Butterfly on there. In cases where an individual artist is just featured on another artist’s track, that track can make the list in addition to one of his or her own songs. This stipulation comes in handy for Chance the Rapper and Kamasi Washington.
4. I need to have really heard the song. If there was a song that I heard once on the radio or had a friend show me briefly, it doesn’t count. I didn’t want to start considering songs I had loosely internalized and try to track them down and pass a quick verdict on them now. As much as I was tempted to consider music by Vince Staples, Joanna Newsom, and Grimes that I plan to eventually listen to properly and may enjoy more than the songs I ended up choosing, it wasn’t in the cards.
5. Order matters only for listening purposes. This track list isn’t determined by which songs I liked the most/least, but it is meaningful. I put the songs in this order because I felt that they would fit well together this way. A lot of them occupy these positions on their respective albums and many of them blend into the following track nicely. If I’m condemned to a life of wiling away the hours with no remnant of civilization but this playlist, it better at least flow nicely and allow me to get into a nice rhythm with it.
Alright, I think that’s everything, here we go!
“Stupid Dream” – Born Ruffians
With its “Footloose”-esque intro and groovy chord progression, this seemed like the best way to kick off the mixtape. Since discovering Born Ruffians about four years ago, I’ve always admired the band for its eccentric songwriting. Although the group’s 2015 album Ruff didn’t quite stack up to previous releases for me in terms of uniqueness and overall quality, it still offers up a number of cuts worth coming back to. “Stupid Dream” wormed its way into my head after the first listen and hasn’t let up since. Its lyrics take a playful look at creative frustration (“I am not the cream of the crop/ And I am never gonna stop/ Oh no”) and its rhythm is upbeat but not too pop-y, which adds up to a whirlwind track that won’t wear out its welcome anytime soon.
“Baby Blue ft. Chance the Rapper” – Action Bronson
The frustration angle segues nicely into “Baby Blue,” whose light instrumental is in no way reflective of its unhappy lyrics. Bronson raps about a failed relationship where the woman was constantly cold towards him and unappreciative of everything he gave her. The hook and production on the track are fantastic, but the real highlight is Chance the Rapper’s closing verse. After Bronson airs all his grievances, Chance leaves us with a wish list of ill-intentioned and inconvenient—but not quite unforgivably evil—things that he hopes happen to this ex: “I hope you get a paper cut on your tongue/ From a razor in a paper cup/ I hope every soda you drink already shaken up/ I hope your dreams dry like raisins in the baking sun.” With “Baby Blue,” Bronson, Chance, and producer/writer Mark Ronson give us hip hop’s version of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Evil Woman.”
“King Kunta” – Kendrick Lamar
I had a lot of trouble picking this one. Not because I wasn’t sure it belonged on the list, but because trying to pick a single song to listen to forever from Kendrick’s brilliant album To Pimp a Butterfly is an exceedingly difficult task. Both musically and lyrically, it feels like the benchmark for hip hop perfection. Kendrick raps with potent precision and unparalleled scope, digging deep into the annals of African American culture to deliver a beautifully articulated response to the injustices that are regularly done towards black people in our troubling times. “These Walls,” “The Blacker the Berry,” “Alright,” and “How Much a Dollar Cost” were all contenders for the Kendrick Lamar entry on the mixtape, but because the selections are based on repetitive listening, I ultimately went with “King Kunta.” One of the few criticisms that To Pimp a Butterfly commonly received is that it wasn’t an album you could just sit down with, chill out, and enjoy listening to. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but in any case, most would agree that “King Kunta” is immune from that designation. It’s funky, catchy, and smooth as hell—I don’t think there’s a single song I would rather hear come on at a party. It’s also pretty meaningful. “King Kunta” is a metaphor for the story of Kunta Kinte, a fictional slave in an Alex Haley novel who has his right foot cut off as punishment for trying to escape from his plantation. Kendrick empowers Kinte and compares the story to his own experience as a rapper, where others are now trying to “cut the legs off him” to try and slow down his success. At this point, I doubt any other rapper in the world is capable of doing that.
“Solace’s Bride” – Destroyer
Few artists convey haunting beauty in a song more adeptly than Dan Bejar and his current project, Destroyer. “Solace’s Bride” is the newest example of that, a simplistic tune—much like 2011 hit “Chinatown”—that evokes feelings of emptiness and doubt, but in a strangely comforting way. Muted bongo drumming, stagnant piano chords, and complementary guitar/violin fuse together for a subdued but mesmerizing sound. It’s the type of music that I would want to listen to night after night on a deserted beach, looking up at the sprawling starry sky. There aren’t many lyrics to “Solace’s Bride,” but Bejar makes the most of them. When he voices the words from the bridge, “I stare at the sky so I know which way’s up/ I drink my wine from a porcelain cup/ I fall,” it’s like he’s reading a lost passage from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
“Gabe’s Song” – Fleece
Unlike the artists from other entries on this mixtape, Fleece isn’t all that famous—unless you count the fact that two of the band members recorded an Alt-J parody video that has almost three million views on YouTube. But the group is insanely talented and its 2015 debut album Scavenger stacks up to most established rock fusion/indie acts’ work pretty nicely. “Gabe’s Song” is a jazzy track that uses a mellow, eerie verse (“my lullaby shines a light on a lonely road”) to build up to a fiery chorus that goes all out with a full horns section. A little farther in, listeners get to feast their ears on one of the better bass solos they’ll ever hear (and I’m not just saying that because bass solos are incredibly rare—it’s legit). I savour all 300 seconds of this ethereal goodness.
“Should Have Known Better” – Sufjan Stevens
No song I have ever listened to embodies both despair and hope better than this one does. Over a gorgeously fingerpicked chord progression, Sufjan spends the first portion of the song opening up about his feelings following the death of his troubled mother, Carrie. His voice is hushed and his verses are relatively short and vague, but the listener gets the sense that, from an emotional standpoint, he is standing naked in front of us. The rare passages like “When I was three, three maybe four/ She left us at that video store” give us some concrete idea of memories he associates with her, while others like “My black shroud/ Holding down my feelings/ A pillar for my enemies” respond to those experiences and turn their resonating effects into stunning poetry. It all turns around in the second part of the song, which shifts into an uplifting keyboard-based movement that is just as sonically pleasing as the fingerpicking. An ordinary revelation like “My brother had a daughter” will never sound as beautiful as it does in this track.
“Another One” – Mac DeMarco
And to follow up Sufjan’s sensational synthesized keyboard playing, I give you Mac DeMarco’s sublimely chill synthesized keyboard playing! Honestly, there’s just something about the guy that ekes out coolness—both in terms of being relaxed and of deserving everyone’s social admiration. His 2015 release Another One didn’t get quite the same level of critical acclaim as 2014’s Salad Days, but a song like this one reminds us why there’s no one out there who can do whatever the heck it is Mac is doing quite like Mac. Like “Solace’s Bride” and “Should Have Known Better” the lyrics are pretty brief and simple, but all three artists perform with such measured force that the absence of complexity speaks volumes. The final song on the album is called “My House By The Water” and it just consists of non-structured synth notes over the sound of flowing water (presumably from Mac’s property), followed by him giving out his address and inviting listeners to come hang and have a cup of coffee. “Another One” doesn’t contain any actual water effects, but it has the internal rhythm of the tide on a lazy afternoon—which would be a welcome complement to the numerous afternoons I would spend staring out at the ocean from my deserted island vantage point.
“Strange Encounter” – Father John Misty
I didn’t buy into the Father John Misty hype quite as much as many others did—I thought both of the Fleet Foxes albums he was a part of were far superior to I Love You, Honeybear—but “Strange Encounter” was the one 2015 Josh Tillman tune that I couldn’t get enough of. The song describes a dramatic encounter in which a girl in the narrator’s home has gotten dangerously sick (presumably from drugs and/or alcohol poisoning) and could theoretically die there. Musically, it takes us through unsettling sequences, symphonic buildups, and intense flourishes. Although Tillman’s vocals display a melodic calmness, the instrumental sounds completely reflect the direness and emotional toll of the situation. For some it might be a tough sell as a ‘listen to this forever’ type of track, but, much like a daring theme park visitor would feel about a challenging roller coaster, I’m always hyped for the next ride through the peaks and valleys of “Strange Encounter.”
“Cherokee” – Kamasi Washington
Many of the tracks on Washington’s triple-disc album The Epic sound like they could serve as the musical score for a battle sequence from a literary epic like The Iliad, but “Cherokee” is not one of them. Washington, who was responsible for a good chunk of the production on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, shows off his versatility, creativity, and mastery of jazz fusion by completely reinventing this jazz standard (first performed in 1938). Sax and keyboard come together to produce a groovy main riff that sounds even better on top of the song’s lively percussion. And Patrice Quinn absolutely kills it with her delicate but commanding vocals. “Cherokee” emanates nothing but the best kind of vibes; it’s the sonic equivalent of sailing behind a nice breeze on a cloudless summer day. I could get carried away with it and listen to that riff for eight hours—let alone the song’s 8:15 runtime.
“Life Like This” – Kurt Vile
Even when you’re picking a playlist to listen to for an ungodly amount of time, there’s a risk of picking something that sounds too repetitive. That’s a legitimate concern to bring up regarding the homostrophic “Life Like This,” but ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. The song is built around a single minimalistic piano riff that eventually gets layered with other instruments. Not even the lyrics vary all that much. Yet, like “Cherokee,” it just kind of draws you in and makes you forget about the things around you. “Life Like This” deals with introspective themes and it makes you want to turn inwards and do the same. Vile reflects on his own experiences with visceral honesty and asks the listener, “Wanna live, wanna live/ Live a life like mine.” Some of the extended rhymes in the verse are delivered so casually that they almost go unnoticed: “Maybe you don’t hear me talking strange/ Well, hang on you better wait/ Maybe you didn’t hear me right/ Well it’s up and down and out of sight/ Do you got what it takes?/ Well, I think you might.”
“What Do You Mean” – Justin Bieber
Until I heard this I had never enjoyed a single Justin Bieber song. I wasn’t adopting some kind of ‘screw this snot-nosed kid’ attitude, I just legitimately never cared for any of his work. And then with this, everything changed. Every Top 40 song is designed be an earworm, but this one is just in peak form all the way through. From the clock metronome to the bouncy piano to the perfectly placed flute to the tropical synths (does anything scream deserted island more than this instrumentation?), it’s just a nice airy track. Certainly not the deepest or most nuanced view of a struggling relationship (“Wanna argue all day, make love all night”), but something that succeeds in providing a pleasant distraction. And that’s not such a bad thing for a mixtape featuring as many heavy themes as this one.
“Return to the Moon (Political Song for Didi Bloome to Sing, With Crescendo)” – EL VY
The radio-friendly sound continues with “Return to the Moon,” the lead single from The National frontman Matt Berninger’s side project EL VY. For me, it was actually one of the rare songs I discovered via radio. The instrumentation simultaneously crunches and chimes; it sounds kind of like an iteration of The Police where Sting is replaced by a baritone vocalist. I couldn’t figure out what the hell its obscure lyrics were about at the time and I still have trouble doing so now, but regardless, they etched their way into my memory pretty quickly. How is something like “Bought a saltwater fish from a colourblind witch/ Cause she said she loved it” not gonna resonate? Well, at least I would have years to myself on the island to try and figure it out.
“Energy” – Drake
One of the directors form the camp I’ve spent a few summers working at has this philosophy about talking to campers when you’re angry with them and they need to be disciplined. She tells us to imagine our volume level is a 12 inch ruler. Instead of taking things up to an 11 or 12, she argues that a shit talk delivered at a 2 or 3 is far more effective. On “Energy,” that’s basically Drake’s approach as well. He’s calling out his enemies, but both his voice and the beat are pretty low-key. Kind of like the opposite of “King Kunta” where Kendrick aggressively calls out rappers with ghostwriters and any rappers with intentions of challenging him. Drake’s lyrics are nowhere near as complex as Kendrick’s, but his flow is arguably as good it’s ever been, and it really works with the instrumental part of the track. It’s frankly a testament to Drake’s rapping career that he can spit goofy bars like “I got bitches askin’ me about the code for the Wi-Fi/ So they can talk about they Timeline/ And show me pictures of they friends/ Just to tell me they ain’t really friends” and not come across sounding like a complete goon. In terms of deserted island context, it would be fitting to hear “They trying to take the waaaaaaave” as massive waves come down on the shore—not to mention the Toronto references that would remind me of my home as memories of civilization begin to totally recede.
“Sunday Candy” – Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment
On both its album Surf and this mixtape, “Sunday Candy” occupies the penultimate spot on the track list. I kept it that way because I’d like to think of it as the climax of the playlist—not the finale where everything is resolved, but the moment that the rising action builds up to. These are appropriate terms to use because “Sunday Candy” is largely a theatrical song. Its music video depicts various scenes taking place on an elaborate stage, and it’s really just deserves the grandest of atmospheres and audiences. This church-themed track also beautifully embodies the participative nature of gospel music. Chance the Rapper guides the song with his trademark wacky rapping (“I got a future so I’m singing for my grandma/ You singing too, but your grandma ain’t my grandma!”) while Jamila Woods brings down the house with her magnificent rendition of the chorus. “Sunday Candy” is uproarious, unadulterated fun. God bless it.
“Dark Bird Is Home” – The Tallest Man On Earth
Of all the song ordering on the Deserted Island 2015 Mixtape, this was the position I was most certain of. In fact, it’s also the music I was most certain of, since “Dark Bird Is Home” was unquestionably my favourite song released this year. Kristian Matsson’s fourth studio album comes on the heels of a divorce, and that’s what this closing title track deals with. It’s painful ground to trod over, and Matsson certainly conveys that to the listener in a pretty straightforward manner: “I fall in love but keep on falling/ I held you for life/ But letting go rope in hand/ There’s just leaving now.” Like “Should Have Known Better,” it’s a tune that builds up to a more uplifting finale, but “Dark Bird Is Home” is far less downcast in the beginning, and its outstanding main riff reflects that sentiment. Matsson is a master at coming up with lovely guitar melodies in unusual tunings, but this might be his best work yet. His lyrical phrasing is distinctly in sync with the complex riff and it’s addictive to listen to. As things progress past the riff portion of the song, he gives the situation some closure: “No this is not the end and no final tears/ That we need to show/ I thought that this would last for a million years/ But now I need to go/ Oh, fuck.” And with those summative words, Matsson rides off into the next adventure, leaving us with a dazzling outro and a head full of perspective.