Before you venture into the top 40: Make sure you catch up on parts one through three.
What top 40 hits await? Let’s see…
40. Silversun Pickups – Nightlight
Nearly a decade on from Carnavas, SSPU are still finding new ways to refine and utilise their wide-spectrum take on alternative rock. As far as singles go, “Nightlight” is one of their most direct and focused efforts – the snares roll with military precision, the guitars know just when to chime and when to gurgle… and we haven’t even gotten to that clenched-fist chorus yet. The fact this didn’t set radio alight the same way “Lazy Eye” or “Panic Switch” did is one of the year’s bigger mysteries. Not to worry – think of it as our secret to keep.
39. The Go! Team – What D’You Say?
To some, The Go! Team are has-beens. To some even more cynical in nature, they’re never-weres. To the right ears, though, they’re unquestionably coulda-been-champions – one of the most underrated groups of the entire 2000s that deserved the throne and barely got a place at the table. Their (figuratively) fizzing comeback was all kinds of triumphant; detailing a new lease on life and grabbing it by the reins. Across scattered drums and cooed hooks, it truly feels as though the ten years after Thunder Lightning Strike never even happened. “What D’You Say?” Hell yeah – that’s what we say, Team.
38. Ceremony – The Understanding
A band once brimming with the purest of anger has turned cold – almost emotionless in their iciness. A band that once screamed “Pack your fists full of hate/Take a swing at the world” now quietly and gently pleads to an estranged lover over and over: “Baby, say that it’s over.” So what keeps Ceremony being Ceremony aside from purely a recognisable name? Put simply, their chameleonic nature has never failed them. They arrive in this faded, world-weary new territory with purpose and intent. “The Understanding” feels like the seventh stage of grief – it’s letting go in slow motion.
37. Jack R Reilly – Submerged
The solo career of Sydney-via-Kiama’s Jack R. Reilly has consisted of a handful of demos, scattered phone recordings and more than a few revisions of the same song. Indecisive? Perhaps. Uncertain? We’re getting closer, it seems. What joy, then, that “Submerged” – Reilly’s first proper single in years – sounds like he’s never been more sure of anything in his life. Given, it’s a guarantee of letting your past haunt you and your vices rule you; but there’s lots to be said about the way it’s conveyed. To borrow a phrase from Dallas Green: In the water, Reilly is beautiful.
36. Courtney Barnett – Pedestrian at Best
The chorus that came back to bite the armchair philosopher herself square in the arse. The riff that signalled an arrival of a contest/reality-free Australian music star – the first in awhile. The verses – part beat poetry, part near-gibberish (the song, after all, was previously known as simply “Blah” on setlists) – that split audiences right down the middle. As far as lead singles go, you probably couldn’t have picked a more bloodthirsty, guitar-smashing rager to separate the squares from the pedestal-putters. Naturally, it worked: It was here that the Clown of 2013 became the queen bee of 2015.
35. Obscura Hail – Shaky Execution
Sean Conran is the kind of songwriter who forgets better songs than you’ve ever thought of; a prolific whiz-kid with the perspicacity of an English major, the technical proficiency of a music major and the uncanny ability to shift from character to character of a performing-arts major. The chorus – sweetly harmonic, typically verbose – will win you over first. The out-of-nowhere half-speed blues outro will seal the deal. Other dudes with acoustic guitars put in half the effort of “Shaky Execution” and get well-over twice the credit. Unlike them, Conran makes songs that truly feel like home. Bless him.
34. Citizen – Cement
To note the elephant in the room – yes, the Devil and God are unquestionably raging inside Citizen on the opening number of their left-turn second album. Still, let’s face it: Anyone in Citizen’s line of work not at least partly-inspired by Jesse Lacey and co. is straight-up kidding themselves. Onto more important things – the crawling bass-line, seeth-and-snarl guitars and alt-rock detours throwing lefts when you’re expecting rights. “Cement” marked a major turning point, sending Citizen to the point of no return. Not that you’d ever want to go back after writing something as great as this, of course.
33. Florence + The Machine – Ship to Wreck
The contrast between how one feels about Florence Welch and her trusty Machine when you’re not listening to her music and when you are is equivalent to going from 0 to 100 in 3.5. Outside of the heat of the moment, it’s safe to say Welch’s music is comfortably in the “good, not great” zone. For the three-and-a-half minutes that “Ship to Wreck” is on, however, you somehow turn into a grand-gesture hairbrush diva. There’s something about the endorphins that are unleashed with each and every listen – Welch hasn’t delivered with such impact since “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up).”
32. Jason Isbell – 24 Frames
It’s always been a bit of a cliché that country singers are god-fearin’ men, but even Dawkins would tremble at Isbell’s depiction of the man upstairs as “a pipebomb, ready to blow.” In what ended up being the best country track of the year, the newly clean and sober Isbell mined his past to deal with his present; resulting in a collision of worlds that complement one another in a true yin-and-yang fashion. On an album filled with striking honesty and clearly-needed reflections on family, faith and the future, “24 Frames” quietly asserted itself at the front of the pack.
31. Ceremony – The Separation
Five words, one question. “Can you measure the loss?” It rings out into the ether countless times on this stunning single from Ceremony’s darkest, coldest album to date. It’s never answered aside from a few sparse piano notes. It just hangs there amid the busy traffic of churned guitar and rolled snares. It could be considered rhetorical, but it could also be the realisation dawning that the answer is no. Reductive comparisons to Interpol might have been casually tossed off by detractors, but the emotional gauntlet “The Separation” runs is difficult to deny. We’re not in Rohnert Park anymore, Toto.
30. Postblue – Glow Like Crazy
A chorus that starts with the line “Sunny day, but that’s alright” is especially intriguing when it stems from a band that was previously only happy when it rained. Now based in Melbourne and sporting former Hopeless vocalist Brett Sutton on lead guitar, Postblue have dramatically shifted into jangle-pop territory after a few spins of 16 Lovers Lane and Born Sandy Devotional. It chimes out beautifully and dives into its crystallised, shimmering chorus seamlessly. Postblue have been in this neck of the woods for three minutes and are already doing it better than bands struggling with it for three years.
29. Selena Gomez – Good for You
When this comeback single dropped with its thudding beat and A$AP Rocky cameo, it was reasonably entertaining – if not entirely captivating – slightly-dark club-oriented pop. For whatever reason, a new version of the song – no A$AP, no overwhelming beats – was released with the music video. It was here the song took on a new life: Quieter, subtle and wholly intimate. Gomez may as well be singing directly into your ear. It makes the whole thing feel sexier, which is what you want out of a song that casually mentions leaving “this dress a mess on the floor.”
28. The Front Bottoms – Cough It Out
In a haze of weed, indecision and watching the world go by, Brian Sella lead listeners through his private universe on the best Front Bottoms song to date. Owing as much to The Weakerthans as it does to their outsider-indie peers, “Cough It Out” rollicks along with rich harmony, sugary-sweet glockenspiel and some of the most captivating, vivid lyricism Sella has ever penned. “I don’t care if you’re not sorry/I forgive you” is true love; “I like the time it takes to get somewhere” is a succinct reflection on life’s journey. Bands like this matter. Songs like this are why.
27. Speedy Ortiz – The Graduates
When “The Graduates” was initially released, lead singer Sadie Dupuis wrote about how her late father had said it was his favourite song she had ever written. It added sentiment to the song, certainly, but it’s worth clarifying that this is Dupuis’ crowning achievement as a songwriter with or without any outside blessing. It’s a meditation on the pains of growing up, wed in unholy matrimony with the dawning that some things in life will never change, even after the cap is thrown up in the air and you move on out into the quote-unquote “real world.” Keep on living.
26. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Necessary Evil
Most of UMO’s third LP, Multi-Love, deals with the idea of love-songs from unconventional standpoints. Here, it hones in on two people that are clearly meant for one another and feel nothing but affection for the other person. It’s their own insecurities about themselves, however, that have the power to destroy everything – “Loving me,” confesses Ruban Nielson, “could be your fatal flaw.” The call-and-response of the titular phrase and a perfectly-understated trumpet is one of the truest bits of pop genius of the entire year; while the percussive backbeat and whirring keys also play into the song’s masterful execution.
25. Jack Ü feat. Justin Bieber – Where Are Ü Now
In the year we were allowed to Belieb again, it all started here. Skrillex and Diplo decided to take a chance on the much-maligned pop troublemaker, soulfully pining for a flickered-out flame before transforming into the biggest, bassiest and brightest drop on radio in 2015. This renaissance for three people that have all served time as pop music’s public enemy number one was the kick in the pants needed for each. Many imagined the warped vocal sample as a dolphin, diving out of the water. “Where Are Ü Now,” in turn, is the trio’s Free Willy jump into pop freedom.
24. CHVRCHES – Leave a Trace
Aside from making some of the sharpest, smartest and most easily-identifiable pop of the 2010s, CHVRCHES know how to properly meld sugar and spice. It was something the band picked up on previously in singles like “Recover” and “Gun,” and it returned to their focus here on one of the true standouts of their make-or-break second LP. “You talk far too much for someone so unkind,” Lauren Mayberry coldly states, twisting the knife slowly so that the pain lasts longer. Glassy synths ricochet off each word and, rather than stunt the message, they lift it up. Such is CHVRCHES’ craft.
23. Sleater-Kinney – A New Wave
What a twist: The best bass-line of the year came from a band that doesn’t have a bass player. The third single from S-K’s glorious comeback LP was a party-starter, a hip-shaker and a high-kick inducer for the ages; belying both the trio’s collective age and their extended absense away from making music together. Carrie Brownstein can still howl with the best of them, Corin Tucker is still a clever and unique guitarist and Janet Weiss still beats her kit like it owes her money. “A New Wave” fades out, but you can’t help but imagine them jamming continuing endlessly.
22. The Hard Aches – I Get Like This
How’s this for therapy? In coming to a realisation about a vicious cycle in his behaviour, Ben Clennett wrote one of the catchiest and most anthemic choruses in not only his arsenal, but all of Australian music this year. Hyperbole? Like hell – if you’ve been in a room where all you can hear are the screams of this refrain, you’ll know its power. What began as a four piece and then a trio came down to two core members, and this back-to-basics approach paid off in spades as far as their songwriting was concerned. Let’s fuck it up, boys.
21. All in a Year – Neanderthals Invented Cake
It takes the right amount of twists, turns, detours and idea development to take your conventional alt-rock song and turn it into something worthwhile and memorable. There was no greater example of such inventiveness this year than these twenty-somethings out of Newcastle of all places. The striking chord progression, Grohl-sized drum hits and fever-pitch vocals were a complete rush of blood; an adrenalin kick and a left-of-centre hook that made All in a Year far slicker than your average grunge revival. “Neanderthals Invented Cake” proves that a rose by any other ridiculous name would still kick just as much arse.
Next week – the thrilling* conclusion!
* – thrills not guaranteed