As much as I like lionizing the past, the fact is that finding the best songs of the year has always been a hassle. Even during the best years there were long dry spells where I’d spend hours shovelling through garbage to find one great song. So for all my bellyaching about the state of music this year, I ended up with a pretty solid year-end list that’s actually better than the past two years’ lists. There were, in fact, some good tunes this year among the many many disappointments.
Here they are:
The Top 25 Songs of 2015
25. Te Amo Camila Vallejo– Desaparecidos— Bright Eyes may be gone, but Conor Oberst continues to write and deliver masterful lyrics with his long dormant punk band.
24. Bad Ideas– Saintseneca— It was worrisome when the band called this their “most minimal, sparse song to date”, but that turned out to be a red herring and this is far from minimal. If anything there are more layers in this song than on most of their other material.
23. All of This and Nothing– Dave Gahan & Soulsavers– A little time away from Depeche Mode did the frontman some good, as he churned out this triumphant rocker rather than another lifeless dirge found so readily on his main band’s last album.
22. Uptown Funk– Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars— This song is just one hook after another. Not just that, but it’s one meme after another. It’s endlessly quotable and an instant classic.
21. Connection– Silversun Pickups– The band goes back to shorter, more uptempo rockers after the sprawling, unfocused previous record and it pays off nicely with tracks like this one.
20. Psychic Reader– Bad Bad Hats– A sort of compromise between early 2000s music trends. It’s Vanessa Carlton meets Rilo Kiley.
19. Wildest Dreams– Ryan Adams– Imagine if the band Real Estate actually knew how to write a good song? It might sound like this. A golden-hued alt-country rendition of the Taylor Swift single that suits the melody far better than the original arrangement did. Particularly great is the way Adams revises the vocal hook, integrating the falsetto note into the lyrics rather than the weird hiccup-sigh Swift does in her version.
18. Emily– San Fermin– The band’s bid for the mainstream may not have gotten them the attention they wanted/deserved, but it gave us a pretty great song nonetheless.
17. The Party Line– Belle and Sebastian– There’s an air of ineffable coolness to Stuart Murdoch’s vocals that help sell the band as a dance act as opposed to their usual folk leanings.
16. Irish Margaritas (RAC Mix)- Harriet– Some remixes simply add a new beat or speed up a song. This one fundamentally reshapes the original, changing the chord progression so that the song actually has a chance at being catchy. Harriet ought to be very grateful to RAC.
15. 61 Cygni Ave– Neon Indian– Tucked away the the end of a miserably bad album, this mutant funk track redeems the record by recalling the band’s history as a chillwave act.
14. Pray For Rain– Pure Bathing Culture– A good example of the fact that familiar parts can still be added up into a new and interesting song.
13. The Sunshine of Your Youth– Cheerleader– Is there anything rarer in modern rock than three people with guitars, one on drums, making songs with two verses, one bridge and three choruses? Cheerleader recall a simpler, more straightforward time when songs ended with the fade out of guitar feedback. They’re also good at wistful melodies- but we’ll get to that later.
12. Mercy– Young Empires– It seems like every band nowadays has to write their own adrenaline anthem, and this is Young Empires’. Fortunately they put their own spin on the formula and throw in some chopped indie-R&B vocals that give the track some nice accents.
11. I Can Change– Brandon Flowers– Flowers’ first use of a sample works out incredibly well, with a surging, straightforward piece of electro-pop.
Eclipse was thrashed severely upon release, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on any “Most Disappointing Albums” year-end lists. Make no mistake, the album is largely a trainwreck. But even though George Lewis Jr. failed at making a pop crossover hit, he also failed at being a failure. Buried amongst the 80’s soft rock ballads were two legitimately great songs- “Alone” and this one.
They seem to reinforce the notion that Lewis works best when he’s wounded. Dark drama has fed his best songs, and this one is no different. When his voice gets hoarse as he yells the last climactic chorus it shows that he actually cares about what he’s singing about. Let’s hope he keeps that sort of passion in mind for the next album.
Although there’s been a lot of commotion about the “emo revival” scene, there hasn’t been much quality music to justify it. A few decent songs here and there, but no breakout stars or crossover hits, especially not from the Topshelf label that’s purportedly the epicentre of this revival. It’s unclear whether Heyrocco want to be grouped in with this scene, considering the connotation the label “emo” has taken on over the past decade, but “First Song” is a genuine, straight up emo song. It’s a throwback both musically and lyrically, and could have fit just as easily on a playlist in 1994 as it could have in 2001. It’s the undistilled essence of youthful angst, without the baggage of the “scene” to weigh it down.
8. Witness– Mew—
The album…largely a mess. But thankfully there were two big, reliable Mew tracks on it, this being the best. Mew have long dealt in “epic”, but this is the first they’ve ever sounded “heroic”. That’s undeniably the best descriptor for the guitars that burst onto the scene at the start of the track. There’s someone else singing the verses, but Jonas Bjerre jumps in at the choruses like Harrison Ford in The Force Awakens, a welcome return to form that makes those parts sound even better.
One of the most underrated radio hits of the year, this rework of Killdeer’s 2011 song is a future club classic. It’s all the best parts of dark house wrapped up in one song Sultry vocals, a sinewy bass riff, smoky guitars and a string section all work together in one concise, perfectly climactic pop package.
Imagine for a moment that One Direction hadn’t won a televised talent show and instead squirreled away in a flat somewhere listening to turn-of-the-millennium alternative rock. That’s what Cheerleader sound like. A more artisan version of 1D, or perhaps a less cheesy update of BBMak. Like the Replacements’ legacy taken to its logical conclusion. It’s straight-up-no-holds-barred pop rock, but there’s just enough haze in there to keep it from landing on the other side of the dial. The guitar hook here is much more simple than on “Sunshine of Your Youth”, but its simplicity works in its favour, bouncing along with the power-pop drums with an authenticity that Styles and co. have yet to display.
As bizarre as it is to write, M83 has been having some bad luck with cinematic music lately. The master of widescreen electronic anthems had a terrible experience scoring the indie flick Black Hole, then had an even worse time scoring big-time movie Oblivion. Plus, the last two songs he’s done were for the Divergent movies and they’ve both been incredibly boring. He’s the king of music meant to be played in movies, but Anthony Gonzalez and movies just don’t mix.
Here he’s just a featured artist, teaming up with his role model, the inimitable Jean-Michel Jarre. The pairing works fantastically and shows that both French composers still have the touch. The video is once again iconic. Perhaps Gonzalez just needs to stay away from movies and focus on the music.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I really dislike Daft Punk‘s “Get Lucky”, and most of the accompanying album that was Random Access Memories. Not only did they betray their fanbase by completely ditching the groundbreaking sound they established, but they did it by taking on reductive, derivative funk. If that’s not bad enough, the sound caught on and soon every artist, pop and indie alike, were noodling around on jangly guitars. Even artists who had absolutely no business doing so, like Death Cab for Cutie and Nickelback.
“Pay No Mind” is what Daft Punk’s 2013 release should have sounded like. It does incorporate a few funk signatories, but it melds them with modern sensibilities so the song actually sounds like something new, something fresh. It’s also the best Passion Pit track of the year, miles ahead of their stinkbomb of a new album. Madeon is a talent to watch out for, as he’s part of a new wave of EDM artists (along with Urban Cone and Porter Robinson) more concerned about melody and structure rather than pumping a crowd of drug-addled kids up. In time he could be as celebrated as the now-stale Avicii. Let’s just hope he doesn’t take a bizarre left turn like Daft Punk.
3. REALiTi- Grimes—
When it was released as a demo earlier this year, the whole indiesphere was perplexed. “This is a demo?” they asked, referring to the decent production value and incredible songwriting. Grimes took the positive feedback to heart and rerecorded the song for her new album and for a moment there was hesitation among the fanbase. Would the song still be good? Or would Claire Boucher have the drum track drop out during the chorus? Or turn it into a minimalist dirge?
The fears were unfounded and the song went largely untouched, but it was cleaned up and the difference between this and the demo version makes clear why the first take was a demo. Everything about the new version is crisp and more confident, a strong and florid collection of hooks upon hooks. It’s exciting to be around during an artist’s best years, and it looks like Boucher’s are just beginning.
(note: link goes to demo version as album version not available on youtube)
Before Daft Punk came around and derailed pop music with funk, the rising sound was maximalist electro. It yielded some great, huge, big hits and was on the cusp of evolving before everyone ditched it to pretend they were back in 1975. It’s starting to get back on track- pop singer Sia is a fan of the sound, and Purity Ring have adopted it as well.
It’s paid off immensely. While their debut album was interesting, it leaned a little too far into xx-aping territory, and the dark minimalist sound got stale over the course of the record. Here, they’ve gone from timid to unstoppable. A devastatingly powerful hook is coupled with a crushing chorus that explodes unlike anything on the radio nowadays. But let me tell you exactly what it is that makes this song great-
During the first part of the chorus, the chords stop and start. They’re dry. It’s still big, but then it gets bigger. The second part of the chorus lets the chords blend into each other, continuous. It also throws in a skittering hi-hat that makes the flow even stronger, and increases momentum tenfold. That is exactly what elevates this song to great status, and what music in 2015 should sound like. Why don’t other bands get this? This is essentially a perfect song, and what every artist should strive to create.
And the best song of 2015 is….
whoops my bad it’s actually
When Flowers released his first solo album, he didn’t really know who he wanted to be. As a result, Flamingo felt unfocused and strangely rough at times, a sort of demo collection that wasn’t really fleshed out. On The Desired Effect, Flowers knows exactly who he wants to be. He’s the Dragonball Z style fusion of Bryan Ferry and Bruce Springsteen. A lounge lizard with a heart of gold. A Vegas crooner with dreams of the heartland. The album itself gets spotty at times, but it produces some of Flowers’ best material to date, with or without The Killers. It’s doubly fresh because the last two songs the Killers released before the hiatus were total soft rock duds and it seemed like that was the direction any new material would head.
Instead we’ve gotten a dark, almost sinister cut of 80’s-indebted synth-rock. It’s a kitchen-sink single where every part fits so well (that one flute part!) that it’s almost too much of a good thing. There’s almost too many hooks. There’s almost too many accents. But Flowers knows to rein it in and keep it from getting overly crowded, setting himself apart from overproduced contemporaries. It’s a fantastic song and hopefully a sign that The Killers will one day slay again.
The 10 Best Albums of 2015 –
Here are the most well-rounded efforts taken into consideration as a whole piece of work:
10. [Kintsugi]- Death Cab for Cutie
(Choice Cuts: “Little Wanderer”, “Ingenue”, “Black Sun”)
9. [How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful]- Florence + The Machine
(Choice Cuts: “Pure Feeling”, “Hiding”, “Queen of Peace”)
8. [What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World]- The Decemberists
(Choice Cuts: “Make You Better”, “Cavalry Captain”, “Beginning Song”)
7. [ONE]- Kate Boy
(Choice Cuts: “Northern Lights”, “In Your Eyes”, “The Way We Are”)
6. [Savage Hills Ballroom]- Youth Lagoon
(Choice Cuts: “Rotten Human”, “Highway Patrol Stun Gun”, “No One Can Tell”)
5. [As If]- !!!
(Choice Cuts: “ooo”, “Lucy Mongoosey”, “Every Little Bit Counts”)
4. [Another Eternity]- Purity Ring
(Choice Cuts: “Begin Again”, “Flood on the Floor”, “Heartsigh”)
3. [E-MO-TION]- Carly Rae Jepsen
(Choice Cuts: “I Really Like You”, “Run Away With Me”, “Your Type”)
2. [Better Nature]- Silversun Pickups
(Choice Cuts: “Connection”, “Tapedeck”, “Pins and Needles”)
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
1. [Art Angels]- Grimes
(Choice Cuts: “REALiTi”, “World Princess Pt. II”, “Flesh Without Blood”…and the rest of the album)
[It’s hard to begin describing how good this album is, but the key point to take away here is that every single song is listenable. This is a true front-to-back record, which is unthinkable in 2015. Where other albums struggle to have 50% good songs, this one easily goes past 90%.
Claire Boucher has crafted an instantly recognizable sound with meticulous production, but more importantly, she has written good melodies to back up all that production. You can throw all the patches, samples, and augmented chords you want into a track, but it will amount to nothing if the song doesn’t have a catchy hook. This album has hooks in spades, outclassing not only every album this year, but possibly every album from the past 5 years. It’s a big middle finger to all the MOR indie-alternative acts trying to be experimental and failing miserably. The only problem is that now there is absolutely no reason to accept any less than this from anyone. Why listen to horrible music when something this good is capable of being made? Tolerance for generic music should now be at zero.]
THE WORST OF 2015
I change the format of this section nearly every year, sometimes even forgoing it. This year… it’s going to be just a short bit of me being right, followed by a list.
I’ve already done plenty of moaning and groaning about the sad state of affairs in the music biz, so more would be repeating myself. But just as proof of how bad it is, these were the only “hit” songs of 2015:
Uptown Funk– Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars
What Do You Mean?– Justin Bieber
Can’t Feel My Face– The Weeknd
Hotline Bling– Drake
That’s it. 5 songs for the whole year. Nothing else burrowed its way into public consciousness like those 5 songs. And just like in 2014, there was no song of the summer. This was one of the lowest years for #1 turnarounds on the charts (Uptown Funk stayed there for the better part of early 2015). Music as a commodity is almost completely dead.
But really, who can blame people? When the majority of albums released are as terrible as the following few, perhaps it’s time to pare down what is developed by the industry and place songwriting over marketability.
These are the most disappointing albums of 2015. Not necessarily the worst, because that would just be a lot of underground bands like Diamond Youth, Night Beds, and Painted Palms.
These were albums that were anticipated, hyped, and failed to deliver. So although they might be better than other albums as a whole, the listening experience was worse because of the magnified failure.
10. [Poison Season]- Destroyer— [This is some straight up goofy pretentious nonsense.]
9. [California Nights]- Best Coast— [Bethany Cosentino faces her second failed attempt at stardom with an album songs that are almost good but then… aren’t.]
8. [Wiped Out!]- The Neighbourhood— [Once again the band ruins incredibly interesting sonic
textures with embarrassing lyrics and flat, meandering melodies. Title track is a huge total mess
7.[Descensus]- Circa Survive— [A sad reminder that nearly all hard rock bands from the 2000s are now long past their prime.]
6. [Bones]- Son Lux— [You’d think being in a Gillette commercial would give him the idea that making music people like to listen to is a good thing, but nope, Ryan Lott prefers to self-sabotage every single song and turn it into an incoherent mess.]
5. [Death Magic]- HEALTH— [We waited 5 years for this? All that talk about new sounds and pop crossover hits for a half-baked, unfocused filler album?]
4. [Drones]- Muse— [Muse have almost completely devolved into total meathead rock.]
3. [Kindred]- Passion Pit — [Lacking the emotional core of their previous album, Kindred displays Passion Pit as a shell of their former selves.]
2. [Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper]- Panda Bear— [An unlistenable mess that seems intent on proving Panda Bear hates writing enjoyable music.]
1. [Wilder Mind]- Mumford & Sons— [Ditching the banjos is one thing, but aping every “big indie” act on the radio is another, leading this album into entirely disposable MOR rock territory. Every single song sabotages itself somehow, whether it be with unconventional song structure (“Believe”), an anticlimactic ending (“Snake Eyes”), or terrible sound mixing (“Wilder Mind”). ]
On that note, bye!