The Top 100 Songs of 2015, Part One: 100 – 81

It’s about that time, folks. You know how this one goes. Good, clean fight to the finish. All genres, countries and ages accepted. Only one rule: No touching of the hair or face. Alright, let’s get it on!

To pre-game, why not take a listen to this supplementary list of 50 great songs that just missed out on the top 100?

As always, DISCLAIMER: This is not a list of the most popular songs, nor is it a list curated by anyone except myself. These are, in my view, the best songs of the year. Disagreement and discussion is welcomed, but ultimately if you have any real issues with any songs that are ranked too low, too high or not at all… make your own list!

DJY, December 2015

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100. Cosmic Psychos – Fuckwit City

The greatest moments in the 30-plus year canon of Cosmic Psychos have been helmed by the infamous snarl of Ross Knight, so it’s a rare treat to hear a lead vocal from the band’s pot-bellied riff-bearer, John “Mad Macca” McKeering. Macca’s no crooner – but, then again, neither’s Knighty. It’s not exactly a top priority when there’s a big, stomping riff and a middle-finger-waving chorus to smash through. The accompanying video, which sees the band smashing tinnies and chowing down on snags, gets the point across better than words ever could: them’s the Psychos. They’re not to be fucked with.

99. Kissing Booth – Battlefield

“Battlefield” has been a staple of Kissing Booth’s live shows more or less since their formation, and it’s easy to see why – if it’s not Tom Jenkins’ thunderous tom rolls that lead it in, it’s the earnest, raised-fist chorus and undying mantra of “you’ve got the strength in you to succeed” that will firmly seal the deal. Recorded at long last for their debut, Never Settle, “Battlefield” became a highlight once again – it’s a slow-waltz through love-and-war metaphors and swinging twin-guitar warmth, reeling in listeners before bowling them over. If love is a battlefield, consider Kissing Booth victorious.

98. You Beauty – Illywhacka

They’re not pioneers of writing about love from a hardened, cynical perspective – and Lord knows they won’t be the last. What spices up the title track to You Beauty’s second album is knowing it’s from the perspective of a scam artist – someone who makes a living saying things but never meaning them. “If I misuse the words/I’m not the first,” he justifies at one point; “I do believe it’s unconscious like the rest,” he affirms at another. Throw in some thwacking snare rolls and a Johnny Marr-worthy guitar tone and you’re ready to fall for anything he says.

97. Frank Turner – The Next Storm

Positive Songs for Negative People, Turner’s comeback LP from the middle of 2015, was thematically centred on Turner refusing to let pessimism and a slew of personal ordeals serve as the obstacles they once were. As bar-room piano leads him into a fist-wielding rock shuffle, Turner takes a matter as pedestrian as the weather and lets it blossom into the perfect metaphor for his sunnier outlook. It might seem naff – especially if Turner has ever felt too endearing – but it’s hard to deny a shout-along to a refrain as wonderfully succinct as “Rejoice! Rebuild! The storm has passed!”

96. Young Fathers – Rain or Shine

Young Fathers are in it to win it, because having the Mercury just wasn’t enough. The trio – alongside Sleaford Mods – were two major acts to properly turn British music on its head and expose a darker, more unpleasant side of their respective homelands last year. It’s telling that both immediately followed up their world-class 2014 breakthroughs in 2015; equaling – and occasionally bettering – their predecessors. This slab of sweet-and-sour alt-hop stays true to its name; throwing a Motown worthy ‘hey-hey-hey’ into the blender with some deadpan abstract poetry. Theirs is a revolution that is still… well, revolving.

95. Alabama Shakes – Don’t Wanna Fight

Perhaps the most piercing, indescribable squeal this side of Kings of Leon’s “Charmer” is what lead us into the first single from Alabama Shakes’ long-awaited second album. The groove was very much still in the heart for Brittany Howard and co., shuffling through a head-nodding lick and a driving four-on-the-floor beat before letting loose a truly righteous falsetto-disco chorus that takes on double duty as a harken-back to vintage soul. Much like their finest moments from Boys & Girls, “Don’t Wanna Fight” is some kind of genre Voltron. In the right context, it’s a fully-formed and unstoppable machine. Right on.

94. Horrorshow feat. Thelma Plum, Jimblah and Urthboy – Any Other Name

This protest song, dropped in the wake of horrendous abuse toward now-retired AFL player Adam Goodes, is an endlessly-quotable all-star tirade against the systemic, institutionalised racism that has become more and more prevalent in modern Australian society. Each artist brings their A-game across the track’s runtime, laying their heart out on their sleeves and making it exceptionally clear who is in the wrong. The track’s mic-drop moment comes with Solo’s damning, defiant final point: “Racist is as racist does/So if you’re doing something racist/Hate to break it, you’re a racist, cuz.” This is our wake-up call. Australia, this is you.

93. Hockey Dad – Can’t Have Them

2014 was the year of Zach Stephenson and Billy Fleming, the Windang wunderkinds that wrote the best Australian song of the year and sent audiences young and old into a hair-flipping frenzy. It would have been entirely understandable if they wanted to go for their afternoon nap this year, but it appears the red cordial is still running through their veins. This stand-alone single is a bright, bouncy hip-shaker that strengthens Stephenson’s knack for cooed, wordless refrains and Fleming’s primitive boom-thwack Ringo fills. It bodes considerably well for the band’s imminent debut LP next year. Game on, you little scamps.

92. Drake – Know Yourself

The mixtape lifestyle suited Drake this year. Dropping new material when he felt like it with no label pressure and no pushing for a greater ambition meant that the man born Aubrey Graham was allowed to have a lot more fun. Amid the dozen-plus new songs that arrived on the If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late mixtape, it was this centrepiece that sent fans into a tailspin. Its clanking trap beat, its obnoxious sub-bass and that hook – Drizzy can make this shit happen without even trying these days. You know how that shit go. Airhorns at the ready.

91. Beach Slang – Bad Art & Weirdo Ideas

In the same year that Weston, the pop-punk band James Alex was a part of in the 90s, reunited for a handful of shows; Alex also got a second wind with the momentum of his new band, Beach Slang, who became one of 2015’s most hyped rock bands. It’s easy to both see and hear why this was the case: the paint-splatter ride cymbal, its two-chord fury; not to mention the wordless refrains one has to unlock their jaw in order to properly sing out. We are all in the garage, but some of us are looking at the stars.

90. Endless Heights – Teach You How to Leave

Every year, Endless Heights inch further and further away from the forthright melodic hardcore with which they made their name. Every year, Endless Heights write sharper, smarter songs with a greater level of introspect, heart and poignancy. Simply put: Every year, Endless Heights get flat-out better. This, the title-track to their third EP, feels like an endgame of sorts – the kind of low-key, artfully-quiet song that they have worked towards on previous efforts. It’s able to do more in less than three minutes than what may of the band’s contemporaries can achieve with five-plus. A bright, beautiful slow-burn.

89. The Bennies – Party Machine

From one end to the other, The Bennies can become a million different things – post-punk hip-shakers, knees-up ska bouncers, heavy disco (pardon the pun) ravers. When it all rolls together, it becomes something full of wild-eyed energy; a measured defiance of restrictive guidelines and genre semantics. With a third album looming, “Party Machine” feels like the Bennies single that has the most to prove – that they are ready to take this shit higher than ever before. It passes accordingly with all the flying colours of a hallucinogenic rainbow. The machine rages on. The party is just getting started.

88. Pity Sex – What Might Soothe You?

There are those that haven’t quite known what to make of Pity Sex in the past – too much of an indie band for shoegaze nerds, too much of a shoegaze band for indie kids. On their first new material in two years, the band play up their limbo with a song accentuating both sides of the coin. Twee, unisex vocals are placed under the same spotlight as hazed-out, Daydream Nation-worthy guitar fuzz – at once joyously bright and uniformly morose. Putting genre semantics aside and appreciating a great song for what it is – it, indeed, might soothe you.

87. Miguel – leaves

Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan was given a songwriting credit to this end-of-summer lament after Miguel claimed he was accidentally inspired by the Pumpkins’ hit “1979.” The similarities certainly present themselves – particularly in the off-kilter guitar patterns – but “leaves” substitutes the mid-west teenage dreaming for west-coast heartbreak and Corgan’s adenoidal nostalgia for a smooth, love-lorn crooning. Along with being a standout moment of Miguel’s excellent Wildheart LP, it certainly stands as the best thing Corgan has been attached to in well over a decade – and it says a lot that he wasn’t directly involved at all.

86. Darren Hanlon – The Chattanooga Shoot-Shoot

He’s spent over a decade as one of the country’s smartest, most celebrated songwriters – even his peers can’t help but be amazed by the way he wondrously weaves his wayward words. The standout track from his fifth album takes the Gympie couchsurfer about as far from home as he’s ever been – travelling to Tennessee on a budget bus. To borrow a phrase from Upworthy, you won’t believe what happens next. The “Folsom Prison Blues” chord progression and timely snare hits are a nice touch, too. Of all of Hanlon’s tales, this one hits number one with a bullet.

85. Micachu and the Shapes – Oh Baby

“It’s not us to give up in a rush,” crows Mica Levi over a hypnotic boom-bap rhythm and underwater synths blubbering from afar. She’s got a point, y’know – it might have been three years since we heard from Levi, Raisa Khan and Marc Pell; but they re-enter the fray as if they were never really gone. Reverb-laden crooning and an experimental hip-hop flavour to the song’s lo-fi production add spice and texture, but theirs is a dynamic so constantly-shifting and fascinating that these two aspects could just as well be just scratching the surface. Just like that, it vanishes.

84. Best Coast – Heaven Sent

Not to get all Rick Astley on the situation, but Best Coast are no strangers to love. Their knack lies in their ability to make it sound as fresh and dewy-eyed as that of young romance. No-one else in the current indie-rock climate could drop something as sappy as “You are the one that I adore” atop a major chord and not only get away with it, but be commended for it. There’s a method and an art-form to all of this – and the only ones that know the secret recipe are Bethany and Bobb. Love rules, yeah yeah.

83. Bad//Dreems – Cuffed and Collared

What other band in Australia right now could simultaneously recall God’s “My Pal” and The Remembrandt’s sole hit “I’ll Be There for You” in a single bound? It could well have something to do with how “Cuffed and Collared” vividly mashes together the fury and bounding energy of the former with the unmistakable pop ear-worms of the latter. It might be a song that details a violent altercation, sure; but you’ll be damned if you aren’t grinning every time that the hook in question rolls around – and it’s on a near-frequent loop. With Dreems like these, who needs Friends?

82. Foals – What Went Down

What the ever-loving fuck is going on here? From its seasick organ drone to its detour into a thick three-note riff – not to mention its subsequent tear-down and empirical rebuild – “What Went Down” is one of the most head-spinning, ferocious compositions that Foals have ever committed to wax. What else does it have in store? Abstract imagery! A piercing, screamed refrain! Constant, unpredictable swerves that threaten to throw the entire goddamn thing off a cliff! To paraphrase a quote from Blades of Glory‘s Chazz Michael-Michaels: No-one knows what went down, but it’s provocative. It gets the people going.

81. The Hard Aches – Knots

One of the true signs of great, honest songwriting is when the writer in question turns the knife – or, in this case, the much-mightier pen – on themselves. The Hard Aches’ Ben David exposes his flaws on this key track from the band’s debut, Pheromones; bitterly portraying himself as a pathological, unrepentant liar in a constant state of exhaustion. Towards the song’s thrilling conclusion, however, he indicates that he’s on the road to bettering himself – and his is such a blunt, forthright delivery that you just know that he’ll get there. The untying process slowly but surely begins.

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Part Two will be posted next Monday!

To download the podcast version of Part One, click here.

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INTERVIEW: The Specials (UK), April 2012

To this day, I count this feature as one of the best I’ve ever written. It was easily the best feature I’d done up to this point, and one of my favourite interviews I’ve had the pleasure of doing over the six or so years I’ve been doing them. I had no idea what Horace would be like to interview – I figured Terry would be very blunt, and that Neville would be incredibly bubbly and talkative. But what of the man holding it down up the back? Well, as it turned out, he was an incredibly insightful, polite and very charming interviewee. Incredibly grateful for having been able to chat with this legend. See for yourself.

– DJY, October 2014

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They were a pioneering force of ska music that not only brought the genre to attention in the U.K, but inspired countless other bands to do the same. They’ve fought political and social injustices as hard as they’ve fought with one another. There’s been fall-ins, fall-outs, alleged backstabbing and lyrical controversy in career that spans decades and a history as fruitful (and tumultuous) as any. And here you were thinking they were just that band with that Ghost Town song.

The Specials have cemented a legacy as one of the most important U.K. bands of the 70s, depicting the troubles of their beloved country in a way that had never quite been attempted before. Issues such as racial division and teen pregnancy were brought to life in a mix of proto-reggae and rhythm-and-blues, with upbeat drums, big horns and even bigger chorus sing-alongs. Commonly referred to as the 2-Tone sound – after the label started by former keyboardist Jerry Dammers – The Specials achieved a remarkable amount in their considerably short initial run, lasting less than a decade before splitting in 1984.

To mark thirty years since their inception, the band reunited in 2008, featuring every member from the line-up that recorded 1979’s iconic Specials record (excluding Dammers). Fast forward to 2012, and the current line-up of the band – which also features keyboardist Nik Torp and a new horn section – are still actively touring across the world, returning this month to Australian shores for only the second time in the band’s career. It must be asked, given the brief time originally spent together as a band, did the Specials ever expect their 21st century form to last as long as it has?

“No, no I didn’t,” says bassist Horace Panter with a laugh. “I didn’t anticipate the reaction. I knew we’d be well-received, but I didn’t think there’d be as many people out there to receive us well, if you know what I mean. The numbers in the audiences have exceeded my expectations.” He goes on to describe the culture shock of seeing a new generation of Specials fans coming out to the shows. “We spent 2010 doing festivals in Europe, and we would play in front of up to ten thousand children that obviously hadn’t been born when these songs were recorded. But they were singing all the words! We were playing places like Belgium where this was happening – it was just crazy.”

Of course, there are several ways that younger fans may have found their way to The Specials, particularly through cultural references and their influence on many other bands and genres. One name that comes up, however, is the late Amy Winehouse: the troubled singer was a huge fan of the band, covering their Hey Little Rich Girl as a B-side on her Back to Black single and performing a version of Monkey Man that drew far much more from The Specials’ version than the original by Toots and the Mayals. As talk turns to Amy, Panter shares a very peculiar story about performing with the late star.

“We were playing on the V Festivals, it must have been 2009,” he recalls. “Terry [Hall] went off stage for one song that Roddy [Radiation] sang. She was standing side of stage and she started asking Terry if she could come on and do a song. Terry ends up saying ‘Alright, then.’ We decided to do You’re Wondering Now, and then Terry announced to everyone that ‘We’re going to be joined by our friend Amy here.’ We all looked around the stage at one another and just went ‘What?’

“This stick-thin creature with huge hair comes out of nowhere,” he continues, “and just starts singing. It was extraordinary. She did quite a good job, too. She was either going to be really, really dreadful; or she was going to be great – and she was pretty amazing, actually.”

Of course, Winehouse’s career was one that was cut tragically short due to issues with drugs and alcohol. Although Panter more often than not found himself surrounded by drug culture in most guises, he emphasises that it was never something that he truly immersed himself within. “I was always the boring one. If you read Pauline Black’s autobiography, I’m actually castigated by her because I didn’t take drugs. I was once offered a joint by Keith Richards, and I turned it down. He looked at me and said ‘Man, you have got a problem!’” He laughs, followed by an adding, in a lower tone: “Pretty rich coming from him, if you ask me.”

“The problem in the band originally was that there was different cultures – alcohol culture, marijuana culture, powder culture,” says Panter, analysing some of the smaller things that assisted in the band’s untimely demise during their initial run. If we were all drunks, or all cokeheads or all dope fiends…it probably would have been better, because at least it would have meant that we were all on the same level. The dope smokers were really mellow, whereas the ones out of their mind on coke were always asking if we could play the song faster. The drunk ones were just having trouble tying their shoelaces.”

Surviving drug culture is one thing, but surviving issues within Specials songs such as racism, social justice, gang violence, unemployment and the ever-looming corporate rat race is a different matter entirely. It seems both positive and disappointing that songs written so many years ago still have sentiment and meaning that rings true within today’s society – the former because it presents these songs as timeless, but also the latter because it suggests that very little has changed in that time. It’s something that weighs upon Panter’s mind, too:

“Injustice is timeless, isn’t it?” he questions, wearily. “Exploitation is always going to be prevalent, I think. It’s human nature. Although racism still manages to rear its ugly head every now and then, I feel it’s a problem that is far better handled by subsequent generations than it was 30 years ago. I think that’s because children have grown up with kids from other races – they’ve gone to school with them, played football with them.”

“But am I disappointed that these issues still exist?” He poses the question back at himself, starting a couple of sentences before leaving them hanging in the air. “I was never expecting a Utopia, to be honest,” he concedes finally. “I don’t think that exists. If we’ve helped people make their minds up, then at least that’s good. It’s a difficult thing – I don’t want to come across as pretentious, and I don’t know how you’re supposed to do market research on that, y’know? Tick the box: ‘Yes, I have listened to The Specials lyrics, they’ve changed my life!’ All I can really hope is that we’ve been a part of some sort of process that’s had a positive outcome.”

Whatever you make of what legacy the Specials will leave behind when it ends (again), there’s no denying its impact. Panter himself has been there for the majority of it, having been a part of The Automatics alongside school friend Dammers in ’77, leaving the fold in 1981 with the majority of the original line-up, playing in the group Special Beat in the first half of the 90s and returning to the Specials name in the second half, sans Hall, Dammers and drummer John Bradbury. Having been a part of nearly every version of the band for over 30 years, what has brought Panter back to the fold so many times over in spite of a turbulent history? The answer is quite simple: Panter feels as though he was born to do it.

“I suppose it’s what defines me,” he says. “It’s what I do. It’ll be on my gravestone: ‘He was the bassist in The Specials.’ It won’t be ‘He was a pretty good art teacher’ or ‘He drove a pretty good van.’ It’s my destiny.”