I’m not particularly bothered with balance here, these are quite simply my favourite twenty songs from 2015 placed in an approximate order of greatness. Subsequently I’m not going to impose any arbitrary rules on my selections, such as trying to find some kind of equilibrium between genres or limiting artists to a single song. As a result, this selection will almost certainly contain a disproportionate number of tracks from talented female musicians and men with luxurious beards. I can also absolutely guarantee that there will be several songs by Sleater-Kinney. Enjoy!
1. Sleater-Kinney – Price Tag
The opening track of Sleater-Kinney’s first album for ten years made it obvious that the spark that Sleater-Kinney regularly made into a wall of fire was still there. Everything that was great and unique to the band was turned up to eleven on “Price Tag”: An arresting opening riff from Corin is joined a few seconds later by Janet’s crashing drums and a contrasting riff from Carrie, while Corin and Carrie’s guitars are in conversation with each other, we hear the full range of Corin’s remarkable voice, until a change in tempo gives us a doom laden riff (somewhat reminiscent of The Breeders awesome “Safari”) and Carrie stridently singing a bridge, which turns into a conversation as Corin sings the chorus over Carrie singing the bridge. On about the tenth or eleventh listen, the lyrics reveal themselves to be not only a commentary on the post-GFC stresses of ordinary families, but also the corporate machine of the music industry and the battle between art and commerce. Awesome.
2. Father John Misty – The Night Josh Tillman Came to our Apartment
What a magnificent, odious song this is. Musically, “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment” is a wonderful 70s AOR throwback, lyrically it is an often hilarious, but mostly very nasty song in which absolutely no one leaves unscathed. The writing on this song is so endlessly fascinating that I could spend the next week or so analysing it, but I’ll try to keep things somewhat brief. More than any other song on I Love You, Honeybear, which Josh Tillman has described as his alter-ego Father John Misty’s concept album about Josh Tillman, the perspective is all over the place, given that the song names Josh Tillman in the third person in the title and the song is sung in the first person it could be sung from anyone’s perspective. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll take the quadruple negative and just assume that the song is autobiographical (and if you want to confuse things further watch the music video in which Tillman seduces himself). In the song Tillman projects his loathing and disgust onto a lover for exhibiting a laundry list of petty faults which he then goes on to show are faults that they share (such as expressing his disgust at her misuse of the word “literally”, by misusing the word “malaprops”). As a guest at the apartment Tillman is a mess, he seemingly hates everyone and is waiting for the conversation to end so that he can seduce this woman he openly despises. Once alone with her he isn’t the Lothario he made himself out to be (“I feel so unconvincing/And I fumble with your buttons”) and ultimately impotent (“Oh my God, I swear this never happens”). The song ends with the ugly image of Tillman only being able to satisfy her (and himself) through erotic asphyxiation (“I obliged later on when you begged me to choke ya”). I think I need to take a shower.
3. John Grant – You & Him
John Grant’s third album Grey Tickles, Black Pressure finds him in a much happier place than on Pale Green Ghosts, so that even when he does turns his acerbic wit onto someone deserving of his scorn, as he does on “You & Him”, it is done with glee rather than the bitterness and self-loathing of tracks like “You Don’t Have To” and “I Hate This Town”. “You & Him” sounds like a great lost Devo track and finds Grant cheerfully mocking a former lover (“You’re not thinking, you have trouble with that/You think you’re super special but you’re just a big twat”), before being joined by Amanda Palmer in a brutal and hilarious chorus suggesting his ex would be a suitable match for a certain dictator (“You and Hitler oughta get together/You oughta learn to knit and wear matching sweaters”).
4. Kendrick Lamar – King Kunta
Kendrick Lamar’s Interminably catchy “King Kunta” is one of those songs that gets instantly under the skin. Driven by Thundercat’s phenomenal bass line, “King Kunta” is part Sign O’ The Times era Prince and part “The Payback” era James Brown, with Lamar as self-proclaimed King making the case for his divine right. Greedily referencing everything from Kunta Kinte from Alex Hailey’s Roots to P-Funk to Michael Jackson to MLK to Richard Pryor to Geto Boys and so many more, Lamar puts himself in great company. As the track builds, Lamar’s effortless flow becomes more and more impressive, before the track closes with a few tips of the hat to Parliament and you press repeat.
5. Laura Marling – False Hope
Written while Marling was visiting friends in New York as the city was shut down by Hurricane Sandy (“A storm hits the city and the lights go out before/I can prepare/The whole downtown looks dark like no one lives there”), “False Hope” is one of several songs on the excellent Short Movie which reflects on solitude and alienation, with the narrator alternately fearing isolation (“Is it still okay that I don’t know how to be alone?”) and company (“There’s a party uptown but I just don’t feel like I belong at all/Do I?”). With Short Movie, Laura Marling picked up an electric guitar for the first time and “False Hope”, which is reminiscent both musically and thematically of PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, proves just how proficient a rock performer she is.
6. Belle And Sebastian – Nobody’s Empire
Belle And Sebastian’s ninth album Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance is a bit of a mess, seemingly an attempt to crossover to the world of dancy pop music, on the whole, it really doesn’t work. This disappointment becomes all the more pronounced following the magnificent first track “Nobody’s Empire”. About as Belle And Sebastian-y as a song can be, “Nobody’s Empire” opens the album with a lyric that really couldn’t be written by anyone other than Stuart Murdoch: “Lying on my bed I was reading French/With the light too bright for my senses”. Detailing Murdoch’s battle with chronic fatigue syndrome and the spirituality which he credits with his healing, “Nobody’s Empire” is one of Murdoch’s most unambiguously autobiographical songs and benefits greatly from being treated with a more considered and less playful musical foundation than is present on the rest of the album.
7. Florence + The Machine – Ship To Wreck
“Ship To Wreck”, opens Florence + The Machine’s third studio album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful with a rousing, stadium-friendly anthem about self-destruction and regret. Over a seafaring metaphor, Florence contemplates how she sabotaged her relationship, belting out the question to her lover “And, ah, my love remind me, what was it that I did?/Did I drink too much? Am I losing touch?/Did I build a ship to wreck?”. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was a great return to form for Florence + The Machine following the uninspired Ceremonials and “Ship To Wreck” set the scene perfectly for the album that follows.
8. Sleater-Kinney – Hey Darling
“Hey Darling” sees Sleater-Kinney brilliantly channel the first Pretenders album, to the extent that I replaced the less than great “Space Invader” with this song as track five on my iTunes copy of Pretenders and finally made that album perfect. On “Hey Darling” Corin eloquently sings of the destruction and reformation of Sleater-Kinney, which Carrie describes in an equally eloquent, but less succinct way in her excellent memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl. In a song seemingly directed at the band’s fans, Corin recognises the questions hanging over the band’s hiatus in the opening verse (“Explanations are thin/But I feel it’s time/You want to know where I’ve been for such a long time/Disappearing act right before your eyes”), before the second verse describes its necessity and promises a new beginning (“Hey Darling the situation was justified/There were some things I saw before I realized/That I was meant to be infinitely by your side/Distractions always hit but we’re good this time”).
9. Matthew E. White – Rock & Roll Is Cold
The first single from Matthew E. White’s excellent Fresh Blood “Rock & Roll Is Cold” is based around a fairly traditional blues structure (think the Velvet Underground’s Run Run Run), but lifted by beautiful orchestration and White’s distinctive delivery of tongue in cheek lyrics. In the song White shuts down a critic who has accused him of faking the sincerity of R&B and gospel in his music, pointing out that unlike rock and roll, these genres require too much honesty for that to be possible.
10. Courtney Barnett – Depreston
One of the quieter, more contemplative tracks on Courtney Barnett’s excellent debut album Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, “Depreston” is a song which perfectly showcases Courtney Barnett’s ability to write about the details of the every day to tell a larger story. “Depreston” stops being a witty story about the frustrations of house hunting in Melbourne’s inner north (“We don’t need to be around all these coffee shops”) and something far greater after the perfectly realised detail “Then I see the handrail in the shower, a collection of those canisters for coffee tea and flour/And a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam” leaves her preoccupied with the deceased owner and disinterested in the property itself. As the song ends she is brought out of her thoughts by the real estate agent who talking purely in economics, speaks of the ease with which the final traces of the previous owner can be removed (“If you’ve got a spare half a million/You could knock it down and start rebuildin’”).
11. Torres – Sprinter
Mackenzie Scott’s second album Sprinter is a quantum leap from her stripped back folky debut. Recorded in Dorset by PJ Harvey’s producer and original drummer Rob Ellis, along with original PJ Harvey bassist Ian Olliver, there are many moments on this album when the presence of the rhythm section from PJ Harvey’s towering debut Dry perfectly informs Scott’s songs. Like many of the songs on Sprinter, the title track reflects on her religious upbringing and her loss of faith which led to her running away. “Sprinter” is a perfectly realised throwback to the 90s indie rock “loud quiet loud” format, with Scott’s vocals and lyrics bringing a depth to the song that was rare in its predecessors.
12. Sufjan Stevens – Should Have Known Better
Carrie & Lowell is Sufjan Stevens’ attempt three years later to understand the distance and emptiness he felt following his absent mother’s death and to finally grieve. He quietly summarises the album’s intent on it’s second track “Should Have Known Better”: “I should have wrote a letter/And grieve what I happen to grieve/My black shroud/I never trust my feelings/I waited for the remedy”. While Carrie & Lowell is emotionally raw, Stevens never judges his mother, he simply tries to find understanding and forgiveness. “Should Have Known Better” is reminiscent of Elliott Smith, built around Stevens’ incredibly fragile vocals floating above simple guitar lines over a light synth base. However, it is the songwriting and performance which is central to the song, with the music often seeming to fall away leaving just Stevens’ remarkable lyrics. “Should Have Known Better” grapples with his abandonment (“When I was three, three maybe four, she left us at that video store”) and trying to beat depression (“Don’t back down, concentrate on seeing/The breakers in the bar, the neighbour’s greeting), before ending on a note of hope for his family (“My brother had a daughter/The beauty that she brings, illumination”).
13. Hamilton Original Broadway Cast – Cabinet Battle #1
Hamilton: An American Musical has a mostly African-American cast tell the complicated story of the life of “The ten-dollar founding father without a father” Alexander Hamilton through a brilliant hip hop soundtrack. Given Hamilton’s notoriety for verbosity, hearing his words in fast paced rhymes is brilliant, wonderful and often hilarious. “Cabinet Battle #1” takes Hamilton’s verbal sparring with Thomas Jefferson over taxation and the assumption of state debts and turns it into a rap battle straight out of 8 Mile. “Cabinet Battle #1” (like much of Hamilton: An American Musical) is a completely baffling concept that shouldn’t work at all, but absolutely does… See also “Cabinet Battle #2” with Hamilton and Jefferson sparring over whether or not to support the French in their war against England.
14. The Decemberists – The Singer Addresses His Audience
A quiet contemplative song about the passive-aggressive relationship betweens artists and their fans. The commercially successful “singer” in the song tries to justify unpopular artistic and commercial choices, with the wonderful line “So when your bridal processional/Is a televised confessional/To the benefits of Axe shampoo” about a fan’s choice of their song for their wedding being “tarnished” by that song being sold for a shampoo commercial. The scrutiny and devotion to every aspect of the singer’s existence is perfectly summarised (in a sly nod Pavement’s “Cut Your Hair”) by their lack of ownership of even their own hairstyles (“We’re aware that you cut your hair/In a style that our drummer wore/In the video). The song builds as the singer accepts his duty to pander to the audience’s demands (“Cause we know, we know, we belong to ya/We know you built your life around us”), explaining that any minor changes that the band has made have been to make it easier to give the audience what they want “And would we change, we had to change some/You know, to belong to you”). “The Singer Addresses His Audience” is a fascinating take on the relationship between expectations, art and commerce.
15. John Grant – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
The title track of John Grant’s third album calls back to the lush soundscapes of songs like “Leopard And Lamb” and “Marz” from his collaboration with Midlake on the Queen Of Denmark, while speaking quite frankly about his HIV diagnosis. Like the best of his songs (and it is certainly one of those) it is filled with not only vulnerability and fear, but also with great wit and self-deprecating humour. Connecting the personal to the global, the lyrics are so sublime that it is tempting to simply quote them all here, but suffice to say he does discuss the use of the word “parapraxis”, reference “my favourite scene in Scanners” and work “I’d rather lose my arm inside of a corn thresher/Just like Uncle Paul” into the chorus. His resignation over his condition is perfectly realised with the verse “I can’t believe I missed New York during the 70s/I could have gotten a head start in the world of disease/I’m sure I would have contracted every single solitary thing”, before he then undermines his self-pity with the refrain “And there are children who have cancer/And so all bets are off/Cause I can’t compete with that”.
16. Sleater-Kinney – A New Wave
The third single from No Cities To Love, “A New Wave” is filled with contradictions. The song’s upbeat and incredibly catchy opening is matched with Carrie’s opening line “Well every day I throw a little party”, before three lines later asking “Should I leap or go on living, living?”. Lyrically “A New Wave” feels like the flipside to “Hey Darling”, with Carrie still grappling with the doubts and fears (“Hear the voices venomous and thrilling/In my head they’re always calling) which have been banished to the past in Corin’s “Hey Darling”, but with hope that they will be defeated (“Let’s destroy a room with this love”). The buoyant tempo of the song is abruptly ended in the middle as Corin and Carrie’s guitars furiously break the song apart over Janet’s brutal drumbeat, before defiantly returning to the chorus with a stripped back arrangement. Picking up where it started, the song then ends on a long, exuberant fadeout.
17. Mark Ronson (Featuring Mystikal) – Feel Right
I’m not sure there were too many songs released in 2015 that were as much fun as “Feel Right”. The third track on Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special, it seemed to get lost somewhere in the wall of love surrounding “Uptown Funk”, his collaboration with Bruno Mars. “Feel Right” draws heavily on 70s funk and soul in general and Chic and James Brown in particular, with the criminally underrated (although quite sweary) Mystikal putting in a phenomenal James Brown impersonation in the chorus.
18. Robert Forster – Learn To Burn
2015 brought with it Songs To Play, Robert Forster’s first album since 2008’s The Evangelist, which had started out as a Go-Betweens album until the death of Grant McLennan in 2006 left Forster with a handful of songs and fragments, which he crafted into an album to dedicate to his late friend. Songs To Play finds Forster relaxed and enjoying his music, filled with Forster’s customary intelligence and dry wit, it’s an excellent collection of songs. “Learn To Burn” plays like a track from the Modern Lovers debut album, with Forster flippantly reeling off bon mots over a simple guitar hook and it’s perfect.
19. Blur – Lonesome Street
So, after all of their misadventures and couples counselling , Blur reformed and released Magic Whip, their first album since 2003’s quite underrated Think Tank and it sounded exactly like a Blur album. Exactly like a Blur album. Exactly. What the album lacked in originality, it made up for by simply being a perfectly manufactured burst of nostalgia. I particularly loved “Lonesome Street” despite myself, a song that steals so shamelessly from “For Tomorrow” (and a little bit from “Country House” for good measure), it’s a reminder of why Blur were/are a great band.
20. The Dead Weather – I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)
There’s been a bit of a diminishing return on The Dead Weather albums, with the band’s third album Dodge And Burn not really matching the highs of Sea Of Cowards, which didn’t really match the highs of Horehound. A lot of this seems to come down to the band not playing to their strengths, I mean, why have Jack White sing lead vocals on anything if you have Alison Mosshart in the studio, or the state or even the same country? Thankfully the opening track “I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)” gets it right: Alison Mosshart testing out her entire vocal range over a heavy riff which may as well be Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. As good as this song is, I can’t help but think we would have all been better off if we just got a new album from The Kills instead.