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Five most heartbreaking songs of 2015: Another year, another tear

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(Ben Houdijk/Daily Collegian)

(Ben Houdijk/Flickr)

The top releases of 2015 offered listeners catchy, upbeat hits, as reflected in Mark Ronson’s hugely successful “Uptown Funk.” Justin Bieber and OMI brought us their tropical dance hits, “What Do You Mean?” and “Cheerleader,” respectively. Aside from these hot hits, music in 2015 frequently ventured into a world of heartbreak. These five heartbreaking releases set a heavier undertone for the year.

  1. Panda Bear – “Tropic of Cancer”

Noah Lennox loves his family.

“There isn’t much that I feel I need/But with a little girl, and by my spouse/I only want a proper house,” Lennox sang on Animal Collective’s “My Girls.” That song’s stray, dark undertone – the death of Lennox’s father – was the subject of Panda Bear’s 2004 sparse, notebook-like album “Young Prayer.” It’s only on “Tropic of Cancer,” a standout from this year’s “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper,” that the subject is given a sense of immediacy while  Lennox repeats – over a gleaming harp sample from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” – “and you can’t get back, you won’t come back, you can’t come back to it.” It’s touching enough that this passing had such an impact on Lennox more than a decade after the fact, but “Tropic of Cancer” stands as a powerful testament to the affecting power of loving and being loved by your parents.

  1. Blood Orange – “Sandra’s Smile”

Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes used his lyrics in 2015 to raise awareness for anti-black violence, namely calling out those who choose to stay silent in its presence.

“How many times have you heard of some celebrity whose career is indebted to black people and their love of black people, who then… become(s) deafly silent when we really need their help or voice?” he wrote in an annotation for “Sandra’s Smile,” a meditation on the unjust death of Sandra Bland. Musically, the song has Hynes’s signature breezy R&B style, but it carries a sentiment weightier than anything he has released before.

Hynes asks in his lyrics: “Look, an hour ago, I read Sybrina’s quote. I mean, why should she forgive? D’we lose you if, we don’t?” Hynes references Sybrina Fulton’s – mother of Trayvon Martin – response when asked by New York Magazine if she forgives her son’s killer, George Zimmerman. The events evoked by this song are not just heartbreaking; they’re enraging.

  1. Sufjan Stevens – “Fourth of July”

Most songs from Sufjan Stevens’ album “Carrie and Lowell” merit the title “heartbreaking,” but none hit quite as hard as his song, “Fourth of July.” The record unpacks Sufjan’s time with his schizophrenic mother and “Fourth of July” takes listeners to the night of her death.

“The hospital asked should the body be cast before I say goodbye, my star in the sky,” he whispers midway through the song. In other contexts, the series of pet names Stevens employs could fall under the “adorkable” category, but here they feel like bare coping mechanisms.

Its opportunistic placement in the track list allows its reverberated piano to finally cut through the haze of hushed finger-picking and synthetic atmospheres, making it especially poignant as a highlight on the album. While there is some obviousness or melodrama attached to a repeated closing line like, “We’re all gonna die,” the preceding four minutes of torrential, emotional downpour make him believable.

  1. Björk – “Black Lake

Björk’s eighth album, “Vulnicura,” chronicles the several months surrounding her breakup with husband Matthew Barney, piquing with the 10-minute track, “Black Lake.” The song takes place two months after their split and finds Björk more devastated and direct than she has ever allowed herself to be on tape before. Her tendency to let her music breathe has previously come off as self-indulgent; the extended sections of orchestral drone that separate her stanzas feel like moments of dangerous isolation, as though they’re the space where she dives deeper into her psyche to pull out lines like, “You have nothing to give, your heart is hollow.”

Following the release of “Vulnicura,” Billboard insulted Bjork by describing “Black Lake” as a “Matthew Barney diss-track.” This description does the song a disservice. As “Black Lake” demonstrates, you’re not looking to ”diss” someone during that seemingly endless healing process – you’re just hurt.

  1. Adele – “Hello”

Few things are more crushing than feeling like you’ve let someone down, but are unable to make things right. For Adele, this notion is what makes “Hello” so crushing. Sure, she’s secured her spot in a lineage of legendary songstresses, but her cries of apology on “Hello” are falling on deaf ears; for all the tears, she’s ultimately wailing into the void. The “other side” she refers to in the chorus represents someone letting down their armor, waving a white flag to a kingdom that could care less. And it seems Adele’s sorrow turns inward as well. The line, “it clearly doesn’t tear you apart anymore” is a heavy self-laceration – an assumption that despite your feelings of heavy guilt toward another person, they don’t feel anything for you at all.

As a single, Adele playing it safe with “Hello,” but while it should surprise no one that another one of her tear-jerking ballads dominated the charts, the underlying message is a new one, and she has never sounded more three-dimensional.

 

William Doolittle can be reached at [email protected]

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