This is it, folks. Over the top. Presenting the 20 best songs of 2015. Thanks so much for reading and taking an interest in my little nerdy list! See you next time, I’m sure.
20. Carly Rae Jepsen – I Really Like You
2015 may have been the year Carly Rae Jepsen turned 30, but her third album proved that she still knows how to rock the cradle of love – or, at the very least, “like” – better than many of her barely-legal contemporaries. “IRLY” did bigger business on Popjustice than Billboard, but it felt like the kind of song that deserved to take over the universe. There’s enough power in the snare to set off the Richter scale, and that amazing technicolour chorus feels like a ride on a super-fun happy-slide. “I know this isn’t love,” sighs Jepsen. Au contraire, mademoiselle.
19. Tired Lion – I Don’t Think You Like Me
In the 2000s, a documentary was made about the music of Perth entitled “Something in the Water,” so named on account of having no other way to explain how they manage to make such consistently interesting and exciting music over that way. There’s something about the immediacy, attitude and energy in “I Don’t Think You Like Me” that harkens back to that time. Best believe, however, this ain’t no cheap nostalgia pop – it’s a vital blood-rush of pedal-stomping alt-rock that ran rings around near everything that emerged from this great southern land afterward. Tired? This kitty’s just getting started.
18. Refused – Elektra
They say the classics never go out of style, but they do. Somehow, baby, we thought we’d never hear another classic from these punk-shaping Swedes. 17 years removed from “New Noise,” however, we got just that. The backlash was swift and forceful, but Refused were not going to go down without a fight. It’s their head-spinning time signatures, howling guitars and the simple but all-important mantra (“nothing has changed”) that truly set “Elektra” apart. The song is fearless, defiant and a great reflection on a band adapting and evolving. Will history be kind to Refused 2.0? One can only hope.
17. Waxahatchee – Under a Rock
No-one quite trims the fat the way Katie Crutchfield does. Give her 132 seconds to work with and she’ll brew up a soaring melody, warm beds of guitar layering and an uncanny songwriting ability that allows for “Under a Rock” to simultaneously feel urgent and bustling as well as quaint and restrained. For a song that centres its key lyrics around the word “maybe,” it’s a song that’s remarkably sure of itself. Nothing goes to waste and nothing feels out of place. Crutchfield has been thriving in this economy since P.S. Eliot, but as Waxahatchee she has scaled new heights.
16. The Mountain Goats – The Legend of Chavo Guerrero
If the crossover-cool of CM Punk didn’t get the cool kids back into wrestling, John Darnielle’s Beat the Champ effort surely would have drawn some backs off the way and toward the squared circle. Here, he mixes memoir storytelling a la The Sunset Tree with a brief history on one of Mexico’s most celebrated professional wrestlers. The way that Darnielle shifts from being a young mark, glued to the television, to an adult reflecting on both his and Guerrero’s life is a pure masterstroke. “Legend…” is a top-rope maneuvre that is worthy of a huge pop and a major push.
15. Purity Ring – Begin Again
Syncopated synths chime out with all the subtlety of a car alarm. The kick-snare sounds as though it’s being hurtled through the stratosphere. By means of perfect contrast, Megan James’ sweet and sunny delivery is on the perfect teetering point of unassuming and self-reserved. It’s love that’s being rekindled, flourishing before our very eyes. The kind that has the power to move the heavens and the earth, as demonstrated so vividly through Corin Roddick’s wide-net production aesthetic. “Begin Again” is the kind of pop song that presents an immediate accessibility without compromising what made Purity Ring great to begin with.
14. Turnover – New Scream
It’s a familiar feeling, that which wanders the halls of the second single from Turnover’s Peripheral Vision LP. A mix of helplessness, despondency, confusion and dysphoria. This might be why “New Scream” strikes such a chord – not only for its relatable nature, but how Turnover works through it. The melodies will linger for days on end, while the guitars shimmer and shine radiantly over the gloomy interior. For what can feel like a truly low moment, “New Scream” chases that high and catches it. Songs like this truly make you wonder why Turnover didn’t phase into this style sooner.
13. Mew – Water Slides
When you’ve been making dreams come true with your oft-imitated dream-pop for nearly twenty years, it’s a considerable feat to still be writing songs on par with your most beloved singular moments. Although six years separated +- from No More Stories…, Mew picked up exactly where they left off, sweeping listeners off their feet with floaty, pristine soundscapes. With the inimitable Kimbra providing subtle but touching harmonies, “Water Slides” gently eases you into Mew’s private universe of cavernous echoes and gliding, glassy keys. When it connects, it simply cannot be beaten. No-one does it quite like Mew. No-one ever will.
12. Brandon Flowers – Can’t Deny My Love
The reason Flowers’ debut solo album, Flamingo, didn’t quite inspire any great fanfare was that it went the opposite way of Icarus – it flew as far away from the sun as possible; taking no risks, placing no bets. Several years removed, Flowers tried again with far greater results. “Can’t Deny…” is unquestionably in the same league as The Killers’ best, but the key difference is that he’s not playing the same game. Bombastic percussive rhythms, Chic guitar funk and even a dab of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it slap bass… this is what separates Brandon Flowers, solo artist; and allows him to thrive.
11. Tame Impala – Let It Happen
The voyages of Kevin Parker’s one-man band studio sessions have always lent themselves to long-form exploration – see the six-minute “Apocalypse Dreams” from Lonerism, or the seven-minute “Runway, Houses, City, Clouds” from Innerspeaker. No surprise, then, that Tame Impala’s longest single to date also doubles as one of their key crowning achievements. It’s a dazzling, dizzying and at times breathtaking journey through flanged-out drums, twirling keyboard melodies and a stressful fake-out of record-skipping. Considering how much is packed into a regular-sized Tame Impala track, you’d best believe the kitchen sink is clattering around somewhere in the back of this fucker.
10. The Weeknd – Can’t Feel My Face
Abel Tesfaye might have started his 20s as an underground king, but he arrived in the middle of them as a pop commodity so hot that he is figuratively engulfed in flames in his breakout hit’s now-famous music video. Perhaps the most exciting thing about “Can’t Feel My Face” is how it heralded The Weeknd’s arrival into the mainstream without entirely compromising what made The Weeknd to begin with. There’s the left-field touchstones, for a start – the grid-locked beats, the insurmountable depths of synth layering and that unmistakable vibrato-laden MJ vocal quiver. It hooks up with some new tricks – a cleaner aesthetic, a funkier rhythm section – and road-trips into some kind of pop utopia. This is the kind of chart smash to not only get fucked up to, but get fucked up on – it’s as addictive as any substance, snorted or smoked.
9. Kurt Vile – Pretty Pimpin’
This slacker veteran has been telling tales as tall as his lanky frame and as long as his frizzy mane for the better part of this century, emulating the likes of Neil Young and Daniel Johnston while still forging forth in an ongoing quest for his own identity. His rambling ways lead him to this, the opening number from his top-tier b’lieve i’m goin down… LP, as well as its lead single. “Pretty Pimpin’” is, as George Constanza might pitch it, a song about nothing… seemingly, at least. Vile mumbles something about brushing his teeth and his hair, living his life like a son of a gun and whatever else have you, the guitars twanging about and the kick-snare keeping a striding pace. Delve a little further, however, and one can find themes of dysmorphia and detachment – on the outside of his own life, somehow looking in from a different perspective. “Pretty Pimpin’” runs deeper and deeper with every listen… and, b’lieve it, there’s quite a few listens to be had.
8. Courtney Barnett – Depreston
At the start of 2014, Courtney Barnett would incorporate a then-brand-new song into the tail-end of her setlists, telling a seemingly everyday and non-descript story about looking for a house out in the suburbs of her now-native Melbourne. Fast forward a year and the song, “Depreston,” has evolved into a set staple. The story, now fleshed out with greater and more intimate detail, echoes the sentiment of her contemporary Darren Hanlon in the sense that each house that was once a home to someone can still tell their story long after that person has left. When Barnett confesses that she “can’t think of floorboards anymore,” it’s not on account of house-hunting exhaustion – although certainly a contributing factor. Rather, it’s about her seeing the bigger picture, gaining a new outlook on the places she seeks out toward the end of the tramline. It’s a moment of quaint reflection, and in turn has rightfully evolved into the closest thing she may ever have to an anthem.
7. Justin Bieber – What Do You Mean?
In the first season of Workaholics, the character of Jillian Belk asks her longtime crush (and fellow Justin Bieber fan) an all-important question: “Are you a true Belieber?” You don’t need to know the context. All you need to know is that this is a figure of 2010s pop stardom that has built a fanbase around what can often simply be deemed blind faith. As is well-documented, the coming-of-age singer has given his fans precious little to justify their “Beliebing” in the long-haul wait between his overlooked Believe album in 2012 and his second-coming revival circulating around November’s Purpose. Thankfully, his striving for redemption and re-invention that began earlier in the year with “Where Are Ü Now” meant that, by the time “What Do You Mean?” hit the airwaves, the floodgates were once again wide open. Emerging from the metronomic tick of a clock, soon surrounded by muted rave-synth and watery pan-pipes, Bieber and his A-team of producers certifiably swung for the fences with this single. It paid off in dividends, and lead to a full-on conversion from tabloid whipping boy to poptimist pin-up. So, are you a true Belieber? Post-”What Do You Mean?,” all you can do is nod your head yes.
6. Alpine – Foolish
The interesting thing about Alpine has been their chameleonic shifts through sound and style; rapidly evolving somewhat of a defiant nature toward the boundaries of genre moulds across their first two releases, the Zurich EP and their debut album, A is for Alpine. Three years on from the latter, it was high-time that the winds of change bristled again. It had to be something seismic – something to leave everything that came before it choking on dust. Enter Christian O’Brien, matching up Nile Rodgers guitar swagger and near-unrecognisable chord inversions to not a Stratocaster, but a classic nylon-string. Everything around “Foolish” falls into place around this (up)stroke of genius – Tim Royall’s synth-orchestra straight out of a French pop handbook, Ryan Lamb and Phil Tucker’s inseperable rhythm section groove. Then, of course, there’s the twin magic of Lou James and Phoebe Baker, losing themselves in the sheer romance of it all and channelling their desires into every last breathless coo and come-on. Alpine have always been somewhat of the Voltron of Australian indie-pop. Here, they have defended the universe to the point where they may well have eradicated all evil. How wonderful life is, now “Foolish” is in the world.
5. Turnover – Take My Head
Sometimes, a hook is so deceptively-cheerful that it completely distracts from the immediate subject matter and the further lyrical content. Do you think you’d have ever sung along as loudly to “Semi-Charmed Life,” for instance, if you knew the entire time just how fucked up it was? This is definitely the case with “Take My Head,” which is surely the poppiest song that Turnover have ever put their name too. By chance, it’s also simultaneously their most graphically morbid: “Cut my brain into hemispheres/I want to smash my face ’til it’s nothing but ears.” Jesus. Even Cannibal Corpse would blush at a rhyming couplet like that. Somehow, there’s something about the way Turnover pull it all off that distracts enough from their misanthropy and cements its status at the top of their songwriting achievements. Borrowing from The Cure circa-”In Between Days,” all chirping lead guitar and brisk drums, Turnover have lit a candle in their dark, dark world. Is it a mirage? Merely fantasy? It all depends, really, on what “Take My Head” does for you as a listener. It’s out of the band’s hands now. See where it takes you.
4. Adventures – Heavenly
“There’s much more here to see than you think,” sings out Reba Meyers on “Heavenly,” the lead single from Adventures’ debut LP that arrived less than a fortnight into the new year. If there’s anyone who knows about there being more than meets the eye, it’s Meyers: Not 12 months prior, she and fellow Adventures bandmates Jami Morgan and Joe Goldman released I am King, the skull-crushing and riot-starting second album for Code Orange, the metallic hardcore outfit that is ostensibly their ‘day job.’ This dramatic shift is less Superman to Clark Kent and more Hyde to Jekyll, such is its unexpected nature of transmogrification. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of it all, however, is just how damn good Meyers and co. are at both ends of the spectrum – much like a song like “My World” from I am King makes one want to headbang until their neck is detached, “Heavenly” makes one want to exude their flood of emotions in a wave of pedal boards and sticky-sweet vocal harmony. It’s indie rock with a beating heart and enough soul to save Bart, Milhouse and their entire respective families. It’s not afraid to show its innermost feelings, and it invites you to do the same. Opening up to “Heavenly” might have been one of the most constructive things a music consumer could have done with their entire year.
3. Kendrick Lamar – King Kunta
There’s a moment after the second line in “King Kunta” where another voice that isn’t Lamar’s flies past. It’s a voice talking a mile a minute down in the mix, so it’s difficult to pick up exactly what he’s saying the first few times. It’s revealed, verbatim, to be a man proclaiming “It’s Kendrick, man! He’s back in the hood!” There’s a frantic element to his voice, mixed to sound as if he’s running past to warn the others. He might as well be shouting “the British are coming.” Such is the fear that Kendrick Lamar strikes into the hearts of men – both fictional and real-life. He arrives on the scene with little more than a funky bass walk and a hat-heavy drum strut and gives them so much power that they practically turn into a steamroller. Lamar is the only hip-hop artist right now, save for maybe Kanye at a stretch, that could successfully and convincingly drop a line like “I run the game” and actually have some weight behind it. “King Kunta” wasn’t just the biggest hip-hop song of 2015 – it was an unwieldy, snarling beast unto itself. Nothing hit pop radio with such force and such anger. Nothing could pull together Jonny Greenwood-style guitar chime, minor-chord detours and a truly Funkadelic outro the way this masterpiece did. Kendrick remembers how you were conflicted, but it was never about “King Kunta.” Few things have ever been so clear cut in the world of hip-hop.
2. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love
There has never been a more open-minded and informative time to be discovering things about love, sex, relationships and intimacy. We are developing further into the grey areas that exist in this spectrum and disambiguating them in order to gain a greater knowledge of such matters. Only in this environment could a song like “Multi-Love” thrive from a purely thematic and conceptual standpoint. The music itself is not being brought into question – this is a hooky, groovy single of alt-leaning and head-nodding pop that stretches from the east (the subtle ring of the sitar) to the west (the hi-hat triplet that also served as the year’s most distinctive drum fill). When it comes to the lyrical content, however, things become even more fascinating. The entire story behind the album is documented in a fantastic Pitchfork feature, but the Cliffnotes version reads thus: frontman Ruban Nielsen, happily married, has his world turned upside down when a woman he bonded with at a show comes to stay with his family. He begins to question everything about his own desires and whether it is right – and, indeed, even possible – to truly love more than one person. Gender fluidity plays its part (“She don’t want to be your man or a woman”), as does the idea of the bizarre love triangle (“We were one/then become three”). Even a few years ago, this would have been found to be quite a challenging topic to address in this medium. “Multi-Love” is both a product of its environment and a sign of the times. You’lll be half-crazy, all for the love of it.
1. Sweater Season – Top Heavy
At the time of writing and recording “Top Heavy,” the four people that make up Sydney’s Sweater Season had only played together for less than a year. They had – at a generous pinch – played all of half a dozen shows. Let that sink in for a moment as this impeccably-crafted piece of hazy-eyed, warm-blooded and sun-drenched piece of shoegazing indie-spectrum mastery settles its way into the back of your mind. What could well have been a classic single from a band several years and releases into their career has instead sprung from the very first song released by a ragtag crew of outer-suburban Sydney kids. It doesn’t seem to make any kind of sense at first. How did this fall into place so perfectly? How could this band have known what it was that they had on their hands? Honestly, who can say. It ultimately stems from the fact Sweater Season, for all their shyness and introverted ways, are sure of themselves. They know exactly what it is that they are after from a sonic standpoint, and they actively pursue it. “Top Heavy” builds up to its chorus steadily, the release coming through a hook that must be sung as loudly as humanly possible. Its key lyric of self-deprecation – “I think we could do this if I wasn’t acting so senseless” – hits home to anyone who has struggled with their own actions or questioned their own abilities. By the time the bridge rolls around, and Jacob Rossi draws out the stunning couplet “Lying awake all night/Hoping to start a fight,” it feels like the universe has some how sped up and slowed down at the same time. There is a world unto itself that exists within the structure of “Top Heavy.” It’s enough to leave one truly at a loss for words when pressed on exactly how they struck such riches at a time when they could well have been figuring out exactly what it is they wanted out of playing with one another. There’s just too much here to dismiss it as a fluke. Sweater Season have arrived.
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