Friday, January 1, 2016

the top 50 best songs of 2015

And now we're onto the list that's always the hardest for me to make, mostly because it requires by far the most work: the best songs of the year, overall. Not just hits, but singles and deep cuts from album ranging from widely successful to barely out of the underground.

And this year was harder than most, mostly because it was a damn great year for music. The charts may have been strong, but that was nothing compared to the cavalcade of great music we got, which meant that cutting this list down from thousands to around 630 to 165 to the fifty we have meant that there were a lot of painful cuts, so much so that I seriously considered instituting a one-song-per-album rule. In the end... I couldn't do it, because there were some records that were so unbelievably good that I had to include multiple entries. Now we'll be covering those albums in greater detail a bit later this week, but in the end I held to the rule that at most I could put three songs from any one album on this list - and that we easily had more of those makes my argument that was a damn solid year of music, probably better than last year's, all the more powerful. 

One more thing before we start: while I can describe music well and why it works for me on a technical level, most of the songs on this list cut a fair bit deeper than that, and thus I'll endeavor to provide some emotional context as to why they worked so well beyond a purely intellectual exercise. And of course it's my picks - there might some common overlap between my choices and other critics, but it would be disingenuous to choose tracks for 'cultural importance' rather than what really got to me more deeply.

So let's start with a track that completely threw me off-guard.



50. 'Shock Me' by Baroness ('Purple')



I was expecting to like Baroness' comeback release Purple, but I wasn't expecting it to hit me the way it did, marrying the explosive metal flavour of their earliest releases to the intricate melodies of Yellow & Green. And no song got that better than 'Shock Me', which started off with shimmering synthesizers you'd hear from the mid-80s before breaking into the anthemic crunch of a killer progressive sludge metal track. And what intensifies that explosion is how my surprise at this song kicking all amounts of ass mirrored in the lyrics, as the narrator sees his own success flipped out beneath his feet, the shock to the system that he so desperately needed. Coupled with how Fridmann's warping synth production swallows the cacophonous bridge until the triumphant guitar solo roars free, it's the latest entry onto this list, but my god, it earns it.

49. 'Happy Returns' by Steven Wilson ('Hand. Cannot. Erase')




I did not expect this to creep up on me the way it did. The finale track on Steven Wilson's gorgeously tragic solo record, it takes the form of a letter to the narrator's brother, penned against the piano and acoustic guitar touched storm, it strips the poetry down to pure prose, seeking a desperate connection to a family member lost as time has slipped away. It's a cry for help masked in simple aching language... and yet as the liquid-smooth electric guitars and gorgeously subtle swells of strings come in against , you realize that it's a letter that was never sent. It's the tragedy of being forgotten translated perhaps better than any other this year, the one that cuts all the deeper when you wonder beyond my videos or my short stories and book will actually be remembered...

48. 'Record Year' by Eric Church ('Mr. Misunderstood')




Of course, you're also going to get those songs that show the narrator retreating inward and finding something worthwhile, and coming out all the stronger. Eric Church turned me around in a big way with his surprise record Mr. Misunderstood this year, and songs like 'Record Year' are the reason why. This is a guy finding relief from heartbreak in a stack of vinyl and long-forgotten art and plenty of booze, beginning with a loop over organ swell - and yet, it's not one that's always pretty, and shows how it's not the only thing you need to find true relief. And yet even then, that needle drags over a rattled bassline, layers of guitars, and I found myself living my own record year with Eric Church. If only for pure music nerd symmetry, this song gets it, and is on this list.

47. 'Queens' by MisterWives ('Our Own House')




When MisterWives made their stab at indie pop exuberance, I was expecting the record to wear on me pretty quickly - and yet stripping away the technocolor to faded keys and liquid guitars, the band found something more grounded and explosive than most of that debut. Mandy Lee Duffy pulls back into something more soulful as she sings from the frigid shithole of the dive bar, admitting the ragged truth behind their genesis into an anthem for their borough of New York City that feels authentic and real. Don't get me wrong, I love tracks like 'Reflections' and 'Not Your Way', but this touches something with texture that can speak to anyone clawing themselves out of a rougher part of a city - mostly because it's real. 

46. 'Girl In A Sling' by Destroyer ('Poison Season')




One thing I know about myself is that I love music made about the creative process, and it's definitely going to be reflected on my list of my favourite albums - and as such, 'Girl In A Sling' was going to make this list. As always, Dan Bejar's beautifully poignant lyrics have real resonant power as on the surface he tries to extend some sympathy to an alienated girl looking out on commercial emptiness, all over an empty, piano and strings touched mix with that gorgeous horns interlude... but of course it runs deeper. This is Bejar looking into the flickering eyes of his muse, contemplating his recent run of success and the emptiness he feels yawing at his feet as she sways on hers as he could step towards greater success at the cost of his art - he knows what his muse is going through, he's going through it too. It's so aching simple, and yet cuts so deep every time, with one of the most poignant strings outros you'll hear all year. Not easy to always revisit, but always worth it.

45. 'One Shot, One Kill' by Dr. Dre ft. Snoop Dogg & Jon Connor ('Compton')


(no video because Dre doesn't do YouTube apparently)


It's funny how the best moment of Dr. Dre's Compton only features him on production - and yet in the hyper-stylized and riveting explosion that was that album, it was the most powerful moment, where Anderson .Paak is saved from death in the water by a figure that the roiling guitar riffs breaking into a killer bass groove paint as a reincarnated antihero. And while I'd be remiss not to highlight Jon Connor's delirious hook and yet meticulously constructed verse, this is a track where Snoop Dogg delivers his performance in decades, showing just why his career has lasted with the sort of ruthlessly violent charisma I didn't know he was capable of anymore. It's pure careening gangsta momentum, and almost enough to justify Compton's existence on its own - and if that's not saying something, I don't know what is.

44. 'Everytime Boots' by Julia Holter ('Have You In My Wilderness')




The funny thing about 'Everytime Boots' is that it's easily the most rollicking and bouncy track that Julia Holter has ever made with the skittering piano lines, bubbly drum and bass line and ebbing swells of strings, that plays borderline comedic with its tone. And yet with the wispy hissing of snakes on the bridge that build into a fantastic crescendo, this is Julia Holter taking her firm stand for equal ground, against the dusty winds that would push her back or lock her in motorcycle-riding orbit around her man. The song has a great exasperated quality about it that I really love, just craving the same sort of adulation she's expected to give her partner, and while it's never clear if she gets it here, it shows she's more than capable of rising above Western pin-up to easy rider on her own.

43. 'Gang Bang Anyway' by The Game ft. Schoolboy Q & Jay Rock ('The Documentary 2.5')




I was probably one of the harshest critics on The Game's double release this year - but that didn't mean there weren't gang-related songs that cut me to the core. And this boundary-crossing track, with Bloods The Game and Jay Rock on verses and Crip Schoolboy Q on the hook and leading out the song, is the best possible example. And what's chilling is how simple it is - a bleak piano line against a dirty beat that builds to thunderous darkness on the hook, and then Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock spraying rounds across a scene of frightening normality, undercutting any glorification with references to crippling injury and hearses. But The Game is the one who takes this song into far more powerful territory, hitting the sketchy politics that lie at the roots of the gangs and the misunderstanding that sparked the war. The final lines are particularly chilling: they know the history and that this shit could end any day - showing that Crips and Bloods could step away and end this contrived war... but as Schoolboy Q spits on the hook, they'll still gang-bang anyway, because it's the only thing they know. The history, the well-structured and nuanced rhymes, the bombastic yet haunting production - this is gangsta rap at its finest.

42. 'Empty Bottles' by Yelawolf ('Love Story')




If the violence of the last song was focused outward with no endpoint in sight, 'Empty Bottles' flips it inward to focus on his alcoholism, and it doesn't pull any punches. The brittle acoustic strums against the deeper guitar tone against the menacing beat, it's a song that evokes the imagery of chintzy dive bars filled with desperate poverty and drunks alone in their own self-loathing misery, especially as that piano comes into to augment the melody. And with the tempo shift on the bridge punctuated by gunshots, the creeping feeling of inevitability that underscores this track. As for why it's on this list - well, the things I've seen this year, there are things you talk about, and things you don't.

41. 'Mistress Named Music' by Eric Church ('Mr. Misunderstood')




Now to pivot to something that's a little brighter, if 'Record Year' was Eric Church finding his inner music nerd, 'Mistress Named Music' is him letting it run free in a way that hits me far more effectively than any of the overwrought explosions of The Outsiders. Sure enough in itself to drench itself in fantastically textured acoustic guitar, sparse percussion, piano and organ swelling beneath it, tracing Eric Church's evolution from hellraiser to something more responsible... and yet that dream and mistress has never left left him all the way. Coupled with one of the best crescendos you'll hear all year that kicks from skittering snares and cymbals into a electric solo, it's all so much rock star wish fulfilment, but this time, it earns it by soaking the song in soul and gospel - and I wouldn't have it any other way.

40. '24 Frames' by Jason Isbell ('Something More Than Free')




One of the key elements that underscores Jason Isbell's absolutely incredible record Something More Than Free is the role of the observer, placing that necessary distance in order to move on with your life - and '24 Frames' casts this in impressively sharp focus, showing every step the narrator must take to move past a messy divorce that subtly provides a critique for that observer as well, how that detachment can be just as brutal, especially with the biggest observer of all having been the one to light the pipe bombs going off in slow motion. And what's kind of amazing is how unassuming this song commits to that detachment, with Dave Cobb's subtle work in emphasizing the bass beneath the acoustic groove and Jason Isbell's tense delivery working wonders against that instantly memorable guitar line. And if you've ever had a reckless moment when watching things collapse around you as you try to detach, put this on - trust me.

39. 'She Loves Me' by James McMurtry ('Complicated Game')




It seems like there's a pattern I notice with anyone who gets into James McMurtry - they spend a few weeks trying to figure out what the hell he really means with his intricate lyrics and then spend the rest of the time raving about how he's one of the best songwriters near independent country. And 'She Loves Me' is no exception - for an album loaded with explorations of maturity, 'She Loves Me' is an impressively modern and stunningly articulated picture of a relationship where McMurtry goes on tour and his partner hooks up with another - and while he's none too sure how well it'll work out or if he's remotely comfortable with it against a gentle acoustic rollick and understated piano that transitions into borderline doo-wop after a great low-end solo - the song ends with her coming back, because she does indeed love him. And you know, for as much as this feels like a Dan Savage wet dream come true, there's something so refreshingly straightforward and candid about the airport novella nature of it all that really stuck with me, proving once again one of the best songwriters in the industry could do it again.

38. 'King Kunta' by Kendrick Lamar ('To Pimp A Butterfly')




Of course, if we were looking for songwriters everyone else would recognize, you have the closest thing on this list to a hit with 'King Kunta' that rides off a bassline made of liquidified funk into kooky female vocals and a guitar line that anchored that killer west-coast bounce. And Kendrick is just on fire on this track, a brag track that shows him on top but the knives coming ever closer to his throat with all of the vices loaded to bring him down just like it did other icons like Bill Clinton, Richard Pryor, and Michael Jackson himself. And after this it ends with a guitar solo that reminded me more than a bit of Stankonia-era Outkast because why the hell not. It's a song that walks the tightrope between ego and those brought down by it, and on a year where I've had more success with this channel than ever, I definitely needed that message.

37. 'Grey Duck' by Doomtree ('All Hands')




On the other hand, if you want a track that's a classic example that's all complicated bars piling against a huge glitchy melody, skittering hi-hats, and anthemic vocals that make mosh pits inevitable - trust me, I was two of their shows this year, I know - you have this. It might appear to be all bragging, until you note how many of the off-kilter vibe seems to have palpable desperation baked into it, all the more aware of what will happen if their bragging can't back it up. And every MC is on fire here, but the two big standouts are Dessa and Sims, the former dropping into triple-time as lightning sparks on her off-kilter car without brakes and the latter dropping the only reference to Crystal Pepsi you'll hear in hip-hop. Well, it appears that paid off, because Crystal Pepsi is now back and Doomtree hasn't managed to run into the ground just yet - because this is pure anthemic awesome that puts the lie to every ignorant hip-hop act that says bars aren't necessary.

36. 'Give Me A Try' by The Wombats ('Glitterbug')




And yet it appears reckless desperation is a running theme on this list, because The Wombats brought in spades with their demented euphoria on this song. Sure, it's not quite as loose as their glory days, but when the lyrics highlight exploding out of a frigid world into a drug-addled frenzy, it's hard not to be dragged along for the ride. And yeah, it's wild as hell, all panic and rubbery synths bouncing off glittering fragments and a surprisingly prominent bass-groove - to say nothing of a wild and well-earned guitar solo - but there's something infectious about this coked out track that stuck with me on those nights where you just want to cut loose. Explosive, riotous, and ridiculously fun, if only for scattered moments, it was destined for this list.

35. 'Wildfire' by Marianas Trench ('Astoria')




There's an explosion on this track too, but it's much more subtle - mostly because Josh Ramsey has been through this all before and he's shaken to his core to find the girl who broke his heart and called off the wedding back in his life willing to try again. And of course he's second-guessing it and mistrustful, not wanting to hope against hope it's actually true as the muted piano builds off of the ebbing waves of guitar and drums, with the strings augmenting that swell all the more powerfully. And while I love Ramsey's heartfelt power all the more here, it's the writing that's the star of this track, as his howls of wildfire show just how much he's aware how much any reunion would burn and consume them both. And as for why the song hits me... look, I'll be talking about Astoria more later, but pop music needed a song like this, and it definitely fills its role.

34. 'Pageant Material' by Kacey Musgraves ('Pageant Material')


There's a part of me that really wishes all of Kacey Musgraves' album this year had been like this song, but that's only because it is the best possible distillation of combining her brilliantly progressive writing with a traditional country veneer subverted at every point. Sure, it lampoons how hyperbolic and ridiculous pageant culture is, but it also doesn't take shots at the girls who do it - the much bigger target seems to be on the culture that endorses it - she just is very much aware it's not for her, when she'd rather bounce off that great kick-drum, warm acoustic guitar, and that fantastic swell of steel guitar against a great groove. Combined with that great balance of strings and guitar melody on the bridge with Kacey's weary desire to just get drunk and high and not be primped on image over her excellent writing, it feels both authentic and cutting in the way her best songs are.

33. 'Something To Believe In' by Fashawn ft. Nas & Aloe Blacc ('The Ecology')




I keep getting the feeling everyone slept on Fashawn's sophomore record and this song in particular - because in the months leading into summer, this was one of my go-to tracks, featuring huge horns and organ against dusty percussion as Fashawn and Nas ride off of the momentum of hitting a crossroads of belief and finding one's true path. And what I really love about this song is how it never passes judgement on finding that path, just that aimless lack of direction is the real killer in a hostile world - and none of these men are shy about hitting that urgency. There's a soulful power to this track, and while part of that was inevitable thanks to Aloe Blacc's incredible hook, this might just be one of Nas' best verses in years. In other words, if I'm looking for a track that fills me with purpose, it's this one.

32. 'The Life You Chose' by Jason Isbell ('Something More Than Free')




On the flip side, what happens when you encounter someone who does have their life together, where you should have moved on and old emotions are stirring? Like Marianas Trench, Jason Isbell gets the complexities behind a similar dynamic, this time as he reconnects with an old ex. And it's that sort of conversation we've all had - pointed questions that cut more deeply than anyone would want, bragging that feels a little hollow, reminiscences that feel a little awkward, and a hope against logic that something might reignite, even if it's spurred on the wrong impulses and you know it'll never happen. Again, the writing is by far the star of the show here, but I'd be remiss not to mention that fantastic melodic hook against the gentle acoustic guitar and subtle strings beneath the cymbals. Not always the most comfortable of songs, but for me this year... again, we needed a track like this, if only to accent the necessity of moving on.

31. 'Deliver' by Lupe Fiasco ft. Ty Dolla $ign ('Tetsuo & Youth')




Right from the pummelling bass to the chilling keys, Lupe Fiasco manages something that I've always admired about his best work: taking a concept that might seem mundane and using it to make a far more potent point. In this case, pizza delivery - and how there are certain impoverished inner cities in where it's not safe to deliver, depriving them of one of the simplest of pleasures. There's no peace here, and Lupe isn't shy about anchoring his verses in the systemic racism that feeds into this broken system - and then he brings it together with one of the best hooks of his career as the grime floods the bottom of the mix as Ty Dolla $ign's mournful tone heralds a chorus of voices mourning a loss that means something so much more. And there's not even much of an emotional takeaway here - it's brilliantly written, brilliantly executed conceptual hip-hop, and proves Lupe is finally back on his game.

30. 'High Enough To Cary You Over' by CHVRCHES ('Every Open Eye')




Of all the choices on this list, I'm imagining this one to be the most controversial - the CHRVCHES song where Martin Doherty takes the microphone and not Lauren Mayberry? And yet I stand by this song being the reason why Every Open Eye works as well as it does, flipping the script on Mayberry's strident kiss-off anthems to show the other side of the picture against mid-80s spikes of glossy synth and a sparse beat that leads to one of my favourite choruses all year. And yeah, it's a little dickish as Doherty delivers the same sort of pissy break-up anthem that Mayberry gave earlier on the record, setting up the necessary mirror of context that's the lynchpin of the entire album. Hell, it's enough to explain exactly why Mayberry might have been drawn to him in the first place. And beyond just being a superbly crafted pop song, music isn't always here to indulge our best impulses, and when properly framed like this, it strikes gold every time.

29. 'From The Pinnacle To The Pit' by Ghost ('Meliora')




So maybe it wasn't the best idea to break to my family over the Christmas holidays that I had been listening to blatantly Satanic music all year, but when it's this good, can you blame me? Anchored in a massive rhythm groove with great brittle percussion and a fantastic melodic foundation that only gets better on the symphonic hook, Ghost tells the broad strokes of Lucifer's fall and mirrors it in the papal figure, showing just how steep that fall can be when true understanding can come. But really, when the hook is that ridiculously catchy and hammers on with the soaring power that comes a song spanning heaven and hell, who cares about any more than that?

28. 'Children Of Children' by Jason Isbell ('Something More Than Free')




This is arguably one of the most enigmatic songs of Jason Isbell's career, what some might see as a sepia-toned wistful reminiscence peeling through old photographs anchored by reverb-touched vocals and gentle acoustic rollick with some great bass work... except there's no nostalgia here, as Jason Isbell sees his avoidance of teen pregnancy and loveless marriage as the moment that breaks the cycle - acknowledgement of looking back, but always eyes fixed on going forward, slamming that door on the past with a crack of the kickdrum as the violins and guitars flood in for the most glorious instrumental outro outside of a Steven Wilson track. This is progressive country rooted in fantastic interweaving melodies on guitar and Mellotron that never loses its foundation, with phenomenal vintage texture that sends a chill down my spine every time. And if that's not enough, nothing is.

27. 'Leave A Trace' by CHVRCHES ('Every Open Eye')




Hey, I might have said Doherty's track is the reason the album works - it wasn't the best song, and Lauren Mayberry reasserts how much this story is really hers with 'Leave No Trace', anchored in a ridiculously solid wiry synth against a wet shimmering backdrop with sparse percussion and a vocal performance that walks the damn near perfect line between vulnerability and righteously pissed. And the lyrics back it up, attacking a guy who is hellbent on trashing her after getting dumped when his lack of honesty led to things going to hell in the first place - and yet, it's well-framed enough to know that neither person is entirely to blame in this mess. It's a killer break-up song, easily one of CHVRCHES' best, and a sign that mainstream pop should just get onboard already!

26. 'Curveballs' by The Wombats ('Glitterbug')




Of course, complicated relationships are not solely the territory of CHVRCHES, and the comedown from the high of 'Give Me A Try' lends 'Curveballs' all the more poignancy as an album closer, where he tries to come down into his normal relationship... only to see flagrant evidence of her cheating on him in plain sight, and no matter how hard he tries, he's not about to gloss over it. Anchored in a great bass line that's later mirrored in the washed out guitars and cymbals, not even the glitz of the synth can disguise the hollowness creeping through. It's a song that rides on profound unease - only for the gutpunch moment of quiet as the bridge concludes that shows the inevitable as the backing vocals fade away. This song was probably one that grew on me the most this year, and it's not an easy song to like - but it stuck with me, and I cannot deny that.

25. 'Veil Of Elysium' by Kamelot ('Haven')




Look, I'm not going to say that Haven was a great album - in the pantheon of Kamelot records, it's far from their best. But it also gave us two of the band's best ever songs as highpoints of symphonic metal, the first of which is here. Huge strings and horns that lead into an infectious guitar line that drives the incredibly catchy hook and key changes, I could go on about the melodies driving this song for hours, but the secret weapon is how the lyrics actually deal with facing the death of a lover and regaining some fragment of hope that you'll know her come your own passing. And you'd think that it would feel awkward for such massive instrumentation, but instead it cranks the desperate drama to cosmic levels that justify the stellar guitar solo and fantastic drum work, with Tommy Karevik displaying his huge vocal presence. Honestly, not a lot to analyze deeper here, this is just a kick-ass symphonic metal song, and of course it's going to land on this list.

24. 'Pretty Pimpin' by Kurt Vile ('b'lieve i'm goin down...')




This was another of those songs that kind of snuck up on me, mostly because of how simple it is - a great layered and textured groove that just roils on with the hint of something feeling a tad amiss with spikes of melody and swells of synth. And yet for Kurt Vile the normalcy of the track's haze becomes its biggest secret weapon, as days slip by and Vile's perturbed observances about how he himself is seen as a spaced out genius - and in this case, he's just going to roll with it, even if he knows the craziness and is just detached enough to laugh at how flat absurd this is. It's chuckling at the mistaken assumptions of others and then playing into them because why the hell not - it could be fun! There's a certain amount of wry detachment to this track I absolutely love, and if you ever see me playing 'into type' - imagine this song playing, it might make a bit more sense.

23. 'Marathon' by Doomtree ('All Hands')




It's rare that a song's title so aptly encapsulates what it can feel like, but Doomtree's unbelievably potent album closer is the best possible example. Verse after verse of tightly knitted bars and references and punchlines piling up over seven minutes against a roaring synth that contorts and warps against a sparse piano and beat, this is a song that takes every rapper on this song and cuts to the core of their personalities - Dessa's complicated and borderline feral femininity, Mike Mictian's internal struggles with death and legacy, Cecil Otter's exhausted vulnerability in the face of success he doesn't feel he's earned, Sims' fiery detachment leaving nothing in his wake, and P.O.S.'s political rage. And all of it has been refined down to its core, the sort of ineffable mission statement that can't help but feel exhausting, but invigorating all the same. As such, it shouldn't be a surprise this was one of my go-to work-out tracks all year - because if we're boiling all down to bones - where the differences are really so insignificant - I still want to make my mark.

22. 'How Much A Dollar Cost' by Kendrick Lamar ft. James Fauntleroy & Ronald Isley  ('To Pimp A Butterfly')


(no video because Kendrick hasn't made it yet...)


It was President Obama's favourite song of 2015 - and he's got good taste, because it is one of the most damning personal indictments Kendrick makes about himself that cuts incredibly deep for anyone who has ever encountered a homeless panhandler. The interesting thing is that song initially plays as a morality fable against the thicker clap against the seedy horns and sparse piano, showing Kendrick approached by a man in South Africa asking for a pittance and raising the question how much that dollar is really worth. And while Kendrick is initially sympathetic, his selfishness kicks in and he supports it reason - he can smell liquor, he can see the con, why should he give of what he worked so damn hard to get - although ironically when he had less he would have given, showing Lucy's corruption coming with cash. And then the homeless man reveals himself on a swell of strings - he is God, and that dollar was the price for Kendrick's spot in Heaven. A powerful track, especially when you delve into how it delves deep into systemic poverty, but not an easy listen - and yet I'd be doing everyone a disservice by not putting it here.

21. 'I Love You, Honeybear' by Father John Misty ('I Love You, Honeybear')




For as much as Father John Misty calls back to the gorgeous opulence of the overwritten love songs of the singer-songwriter era, the title track of I Love You Honeybear hits that delicate balance with subtle fuzzy guitars against the seedy organs and grand swells of strings and keys... and yet it's a complete bacchanal of over-the-top sex as the world crumbles around them. It's the sort of debauchery that seems designed to provoke scandalized pearl-clutching as the two want to screw over every available surface before grabbing a Cadillac and hitting the road... and yet I can't help but adore this song. I think a lot of it comes in the same reason why I like the FXX TV show You're The Worst, which may be debauched, ugly, lacking in empathy, and altogether featuring some reprehensibly relatable people, but through straightforward earnest honesty cuts through to the purity of the universal emotion beneath it. You have to want to love like this, and that's a dream that's definitely worth chasing.

20. 'Heartbreak' by Yelawolf ('Love Story')




On the other hand, there weren't many break-up songs that felt more righteously pissed and brutal than this. Yelawolf is not mincing words as he rips into an ex blowing his money as he's struggling to provide for his kids with haphazard album sales, and a golddigger is the last thing he possibly needs. And no, with a pretty barebones piano melody and percussion, this is a pretty simple anthem to bitter heartbreak - but I'd argue it's the best possible version of it, intensified by one of Yelawolf's best ever hooks, the warping of the opulent synth on the bridge, and the howled rage in his backing vocals. It's not pretty, it's not flattering - but I'd be lying if I said there weren't parts of this year where I blasted this song, and oh, the catharsis was worth it.

19. 'Dearly Departed' by Marianas Trench ('Astoria')




Of course, then you have the sober moments when you face reality, and never did I expect that I'd find so much of it distilled into a stripped back ukulele ballad with only hints of strings as Josh Ramsey sits in the wreckage of his failed engagement and tries to pull something out of it. And yet - like so much of Astoria is - the gutpunch runs deeper, as Josh Ramsey must put to bed all of the songs he wrote about this girl, which leads to a heartbreaking bridge where he namechecks eleven of them. And I'll be blunt - the bridge is the reason this song is on this list, because not only does it encapsulate the emotional closure he's desperate to find, but also all of the love and passion he poured into some of his best work - now wiped away if he wants to move on. And look, I'll admit right out of the gate this song hits me so much harder because I've been a fan of Marianas Trench, but regardless, it's rare when a song can balance being so intimate with such scope, and this is the album midpoint where they just knock it out of the park.

18. 'Ansel' by Modest Mouse ('Strangers To Ourselves')




It's rare when a band like Modest Mouse gets personal - at least over a decade after that was more common for them - and the story about the loss of Isaac Brock's brother initially doesn't seem to get there. It plays off a punchy drum line and the sound of planes taking off before breaking into a jangly guitar rollick that would only break into something thicker after verses or to swap out for darker basslines. And there's a seething, off-putting darkness to the track as well, highlighting the last time he spent any time with the titular character, unaware it'd be the last time Issac would see him before his death on the mountain. And then it pulls out the chilling question that subverts the bouncy deflection of the song - would you really want to know the last time you'd ever see someone? It's not one you're bound to get an answer - even he spits back that 'you can't know' - and yet you get a snapshot into that darkness that's underscored so much of Brock's writing that gives this song an impressive edge. I might not have faced death intimately this year, but songs like this always kept me uneasy - in the right way, of course. 

17. 'At The Edge Of Time' by Blind Guardian ('Beyond The Red Mirror')




It's hard to decode Blind Guardian's high-concept Beyond The Red Mirror, the sequel to their 1995 classic, but if I were to pick the point where it snapped into blinding focus, it'd be the title track for their 2010 album included here. The menacing guitar as the protagonist stares into the last mirror between worlds that explodes into the orchestral strings and horns that defines this brand of huge power metal, driven forth by one of the most tremendous voices in the genre. Hansi Kursch really is one of the biggest reasons why this works, riding the soaring tides of melody as his protagonist stares in the face of impending doom and takes up the banner to cross the barrier. And there are so many instrumental moments that kick all amounts of ass - the horns and guitar solo that comes after the second chorus, the pre-chorus that crests with huge force on the chugging riffs as the bells toll, the rollick that breaks after prechorus as the symphonic choirs swell up behind him, this is a song that spans worlds, and given that I'm a guy who loves his huge fantasy epics... yeah, no surprise it's here.

16. 'Who Killed Russell Jones?' by B. Dolan ('Kill The Wolf')




I struggled a lot whether I even should include this: I mean, it's barely a song. The elements of instrumentation are swells of cymbal, guitar, and woodwinds. But at the end of the day, I had to - B.Dolan's spoken word poetry has always been the highlight of all of his work, and 'Who Killed Russell Jones' is a masterstroke. It tries to find the culprit behind the death of Ole Dirty Bastard, from the other members of Wu-Tang Clan to record executives to the judge who sent him to prison instead of rehab to the dealers to you and I, the fans who fed into the image and lifestyle that eventually brought him down. And while nobody can be directly blamed, it's very clear that everyone shares a bit of it, by being complicit in the tragedy of his life and death - to the point where I'm still amazed a Wu affiliate hasn't paid B. Dolan a visit. It is a harrowing piece with striking nuance and some stunning technical poetry - and yeah, it sends a chill down my spine every time. 

15. 'What Kind Of Man' by Florence + The Machine ('How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful')




There's a part of me that's a little terrified and simultaneously thrilled by this track, mostly because I was not expecting for it to hit me the way it does. Sure, I dig the dark slow build and that killer guitar and horns that hit with a ton of power after nearly a minute of build-up, but it anchors the huge percussion in melodic crunch that hit with a ton of force as Florence screams out her disdainful rage at the partner that dragged her into a hellish relationship of distance and neglect where she has to claw herself back from the brink. And yet like on Sara Bareilles' 'King Of Everything', it's one of the frighteningly precise tracks that feel like I could easily be that guy in question given my own tendencies - only in this case it's cranked up a hundredfold because Florence Welch is one of the most powerful singers working today. I might be so vain to kind of crave for this jawdroppingly potent song to be sung back at me by an ex, but I think that's a craving it'd be best I quash, if only for my own safety down the line.

14. 'Happiness, Missouri' by EL VY ('Return To The Moon')


(no video because it's THAT UNDERGROUND, GUYS)


This is another song I debated putting on this list, if only because it feels a bit incomplete without the opening piece 'Sad Case', but in the end, I couldn't ignore how much I enjoyed the hell out of it regardless. Now a lot of people say that it and the preceding track are about the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson - I personally doubt this, half because I could find no interview evidence to support it and that this song works far more effectively in the album's overarching narrative. It explodes into a fantastic chugging riff anchored by dark piano keys and a scratchy guitar melody that punctuates each verse as the Michael character tries - and fails - to revive his girl from her messed up depression. It was never going to work in the first place, and here that is all the more intensified. And yet for such a frustrated, seething song, it clicked for me in a way I never expected, even if it is barely two minutes. 

13. 'To Die In L.A.' by Lower Dens ('Escape From Evil')




There's always going to be one of those anthemic songs lurking around the indie scene, with an instantly memorable melodic progression that relies on a midtempo slow burn before exploding into the sort of chorus that'll stay lodged in your head for months for all of the best reasons. Last year it was 'Red Eyes' by The War On Drugs, and this year it's 'To Die In L.A.', a forgotten gem from the criminally underrated Lower Dens record Escape From Evil. And what's remarkable is how simple it is - a synth-driven melodic loop against some surprisingly bright post-punk-esque guitars, and Jana Hunter's sparse words heralding a turn towards something better with time that bursts free on one of the orchestral swell lifting one of the best choruses you'll hear this year. Honest, but hopeful, it's a song that makes the spirit soar every time you hear it, and we all need a song like that.

12. 'The Bends' by Doomtree ('All Hands')



When I saw Doomtree live this year, they opened their set with this - and the more I thought about it, the more it worked. From the eerie vocal sample against the clicking Asian-inspired sample with the fragments of strings before breaking into the alien morass of the mix with buzzy, mutating synths, hazy clouds of hi-hats, and animalistic howls breaking through the mix, this is a track that leads the listener into the haunted darkness, with Dessa's cryptic instructions leading the way to the violence of the rest of the group around her as organ swell clashes with guitar and warping drones. It's the point where every meticulously detailed verse drags the listener deeper and deeper into the wilderness, and you won't come out unscathed on the other side. And in this case, I'd fight to be first in line.

11. 'Loud Places' by Jamie xx ft. Romy ('In Colour')




This year I went to a lot of EDM festivals - and no song captures that strange mix of euphoria and odd melancholy I was feeling more appropriately than this one. Jamie xx didn't just deliver one of my favourite electronic albums of the year, with 'Loud Places' he cuts with plain language to the moments where we're just looking for those little connections, even if that person who left you in the past is hunting for the same thing, perhaps even at the same place. And what I love about this song is the sense of atmosphere - sparse rounded piano, tinkling percussion against a gentle beat against the rollick as the crowd rushes around you, and the sample that blends the melancholy of Romy's vocals into another finding love in the swirling crowd as the liquid guitar drifts over the mix. This is festival music of the best kind, and for better or for worse, it was the soundtrack for the majority of my summer - make of that what you will.

10. 'And When You Fall' by Algiers ('Algiers')




I've talked about cultural appropriation a few times on this show, and one thing I've never really talked about is the response - how do other artists respond when they encounter it? Well, Algiers has an answer, fusing gospel swell with initially a sparse beat as the noisy beat fills up the background to kick the tempo ever quicker, a stalking anthem promising not direct retribution, but the inevitable crushing fist that'll hit when the thieves of black culture get caught and face due punishment. And while so much of this song is anchored in Franklin James Fisher's fiery delivery, there's also the seething crescendo built of a creeping bassline, noisy, gnashing riff, rattling blast of percussion that might seem to break for a moment of relief, until the waves of fuzz creep back with the bass, always a shadowy half-step behind as the washed out melody tolls over the outro. This is righteous fury fused through into a gothic structure that only enhances its soulful rage, the sort of song you never knew you needed it until it came.

9. 'The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment' by Father John Misty ('I Love You, Honeybear')




If you want to find a song that epitomizes why I love Father John Misty, it'd be this one. The brilliant twinkling melody against a gentle swell of guitars and accents of strings, Josh Tillman's honeyed vocals, and some of the most subtly spiteful yet ridiculously funny lyrics you'll hear this year. It plays like a rambling gossip session that goes entirely too far and from a narrator that isn't nearly as smart as he thinks he is. That's the biggest laugh of this song - for as much as he cusses his paramour out for not understanding the word 'literally' or playing to wisdom she doesn't have or, hell, even a slice of cultural appropriation that I'm certain would raise eyebrows - Tillman is just as much at fault, misusing his own linguistic criticisms and not being able to get it up when he's trying to screw some sense into her, only able to deliver when she asks to be choked later. It's so unbelievably clever and well-framed that I can't help but love this track, even if nobody remotely comes out looking good, especially in the context of the album. But for as much as you can laugh at it, if you run in circles like I do... well, you've seen it all play out, and the reality makes it really connect.

8. 'Prisoner 1 & 2' by Lupe Fiasco ft. Ayesha Jaco ('Tetsuo & Youth')




If this song was just 'Prisoner 1', it would top my list for this year - I don't think I've ever heard a more frighteningly detailed, visceral picture of the prison-industrial complex than this eight-and-a-half minute monstrosity that starts from the questionable arrest and goes into hunger strikes, protests, prison rape, gang warfare, executions, jail breaks, and racial profiling - and that's in the first half of this song. The second half goes into the other prisoners - the guards that who eye the men trying everything to enrich themselves while incarcerated and who'll eventually get a chance to leave, unlike them, which fuels into the sick stockholm syndrome of their side. Oh, and the entire song might be a giant metaphor for Lupe's issues with the record industry and his desperation to break free and not becoming the sort that would imprison others there - and while the metaphor really makes a ton of sense if you decode the song, I'm honestly not a huge fan of it, if only because Lupe's layered metaphors about prison gain so much more weight when it's just laser-focused on that issue. Oh, and it's paired with huge, sizzling guitars against squealing strings that feature a great melodic shift in the hook, and that's before we get the thunderous third verse that sends a chill down my spine every time. If only the production on the second half of the track clicked quite as well after Ayesha Jaco's poetic interlude with the oily synth against the lockstep percussion, but regardless, if it wasn't for one other song later on this list, it'd be the best hip-hop song of this year, powerful, brilliantly written, and frightening for the reality behind every word.

7. 'Astoria' by Marianas Trench ('Astoria')




One of my favourite albums of all time is Quadrophenia by The Who - and in 2015 and especially with this opening track, Marianas Trench came the closest I've heard in decades to following in their legacy. From the cascading keyboard melodies to Josh Ramsey's voice-shredding vocals to the grand guitar riffs that somehow shift into a brittle synth driven hookup rife with falsetto and stiff wisps of percussion, before shifting again into a huge punchy rollick before the reprise. And like any opener with this sort of operatic scope, it almost sketches the arc of the coming album, opening the tale of heartbreak and rebirth that will span one of the best albums of this year. And yet on its own the song asks the question what is needed to break past that blackest pearl, what will have to be sacrificed, what bad decisions will have to be made, until he knows the only way the story will save him is through the music itself - quite literally, the truth will set him free. This song is the best album opener you will hear all year, the sort of cinematic scope you rarely ever hear materialize in pop music... and yet, it wasn't the best pop song of the year.

6. 'Hand Cannot Erase' by Steven Wilson ('Hand. Cannot. Erase.')




I can't be the only one amused that while 'Astoria' got complicated, borderline-progressive, Steven Wilson simplified things and didn't just make one of the best songs of his career, but the best pop song of 2015. It's simply astounding how much simple pathos this song wrings out of a washed out guitar lick, sparse beat, and the sentiment that life and distance doesn't have to destroy a relationship, knowing that trust can transcend that distance. And sure, you're going to get that progressive rock swell off of the heavier riffs that anchor the chorus and the phenomenal drumwork and the instrumental interlude that brings together a killer melody interweaving from bass to guitar and... it's just beautiful, all soaring hope and an unbreakable connection, the sort for which we should all aspire. Best pop song of the year, hands down... and yet, still five more songs to go...

5. 'Under Grey Skies' by Kamelot ft. Charlotte Wessels ('Haven')




I've always made the comment that the absolute best power ballads come from metal - because what other genre can nail the scope of it all? And Kamelot went above and beyond here, recruiting Troy Donockley from Nightwish and Charlotte Wessels from Delain to construct a titan of a track and easily one of the best of this year. From the acoustic guitar anchored against the strings and tin whistle as Tommy Karevik works to sell his dreams of the future to a partner all the willing to believe, even despite the encroaching darkness around them. And then the metal guitars break on the second chorus and the solo and you know you've found something special, that earns that bombast with a full backing choir that feels like we're witnessing the eye of the cinematic whirlwind around them. I don't even know what more to say about this, it's the sort of power ballad that'll go down as a symphonic classic and would have been the best of the year... except for this.

4. 'He Is' by Ghost ('Meliora')




If you had told me that one of my favourite songs of 2015 was a progressive metal power ballad about a pair of lovers finding true love in Lucifer... well, I would have been skeptical, but Ghost did it. My god, I love this song, from the opening layers of acoustic guitar to the ebbing waves of strings to just enough reverb to give the vocals real swell to the fact that Ghost outright embraces a soaring melodic swell that wouldn't be out of place in Christian music but done so much better. I'm not going to deny there's a hint of a transgressive thrill to a track like this, but that shouldn't discount how well-composed and executed the entire song is, from the subtle kickdrum punctuation on the chorus to the irrepressible hook to the gorgeous guitar line that ends the track. Calling back to the best of progressive rock and metal, it was my favourite metal song of this year... what could be better?

3. 'El Dorado' by Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen ('Hold My Beer, Vol 1')


(video not available because country has no YouTube presence - GET ON THAT)


When most people think about the Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen team-up record this year, they think of the anti-establishment 'Standards', lambasting an industry that would pigeonhole them with committee-designed songs. And yet while 'Standards' was good, 'El Dorado' takes its blunt commentary and plays more abstractly with it, taking to a gold rush on a flood of fiddles and guitar as they wonder why one would bother seeking some hidden gold. And there's so many bits of little nuance I really love to this song - how there is a certain resignation at giving up the gold rush, but it's not so much tired as admitting that life takes you in a different direction, and it never disparages those who still have hope to find that hidden gold, even if it's a desperate hope indeed and such a journey can blind to the real reasons why you're even chasing it... and I love it's never really revealed if he found it or not, although the bridge seems to imply he found some sort of revelation. But even without the high concept and the vocal harmonies and the superb hook and the production that bleeds real country music, this song makes this list because of the final chorus and that outro, filled with solo after solo with different guitar tones as the fiddle glides through the background. For all of you who get exasperated whenever I rip on Sam Hunt or Luke Bryan for not being country - this is why. 

2. 'The Blacker The Berry' by Kendrick Lamar ('To Pimp A Butterfly')


(no video yet - although seriously, Kendrick, if there's one song that deserves it...)


For as much as 'Alright' was the anthem of #BlackLivesMatter this year, there's a part of me that feels 'The Blacker The Berry' was always more appropriate, if only because the hauntingly visceral, masterfully political, and incredibly cutting track seemed to cut to the root of the real emotions beneath it all. The percussion is blunt, the atmosphere runs the horns through a filter of grime, the background guitar has the feel of a horror film with the vocal fragments echoing through the murk, and then Kendrick erupts out of the darkness with bars that runs right over the line of respectability politics to embrace and reclaim every slur, every derogatory comment, feeding off of the regressive hatred to further empower himself, even as the haunting pre-chorus highlights Kendrick's choice has only made him a bigger target. And then Assassin leaps onto a hook where he only further highlights how the industry has only refined its slavery, when in reality everyone sprang from the same root. And Kendrick's not shying away from making his blackness all the more stark to those who think we live in a post-racial society by pointing out the prejudices that still lurk beneath the surface. And yet every verse is opened with admissions of his own hypocrisy, how no matter how he celebrates his culture, the toxic nature of systemic racism means that a gang-bang might force him to take another black man's life, and the hypocrisy of it all cuts him deeper - especially when you realize the 'you' he refers to can mean not just white culture, but black culture looking on with disapproval, or even his own better instincts staring in horror at the blood on his hands. This is one of the most fiery yet nuanced hip-hop songs probably ever written... and yet if I'm being completely honest with myself, there's one track that cut a bit deeper, if only for me. And here it is...

1. 'Long Island Sound' by James McMurtry ('Complicated Game')




If I were to look at the music that resonated most with me this year, much of it focused on maturity and growing up and confronting one's own demons with as much reason as you can muster. And on the first few listens, this track takes a bit of an odd way of looking at it. Unlike the rest of James McMurtry's Complicated Game, the acoustic guitar is backing with bagpipes, accordion and strings, evoking a New England tavern that's a little dilapidated around the edges but always cleaner than it should be. It's a song about a man who moved into the city from the country and sees his life improving on all counts, even as he leaves his heritage behind - most of which never appeared all that likeable in the first place. And yet even as he sings along with a bunch of friends at that tavern, partway between traffic jams on the bridge where he can see the project, reminding him of a rougher world he left behind, the mood is cheery but tinged with the melancholy that comes with knowing something isn't quite right. He looks back on what might have been, and in his context he wishes that girl found the same success he did - though he'll never know. And the contrast in this track is really profound - by all accounts bright futures ahead, for him and his three kids, but at what cost in what was left behind or cordoned away, the guitar and shotgun tucked away, the song that knows too much never sung. It's the moment where he runs a flat, has to dig through the glovebox to find the jack he'd never otherwise use, and finds instead remnants of what was left of that life. 

And James McMurtry, being a songwriter who can create such stunningly evocative stories out of the simplest of details, never casts a moral judgement one way or the other. It's not a nostalgia trip but a realization of change, of maturity that comes in buying a round to hail your teams as the piano plays the countermelody against the acoustic groove against the gentle percussion, the rattling snare and the subtle harmonica. It's never forgetting where you're from and holding onto your passion, but also knowing where you are. And if that leads that leads to a complicated emotion... hell, when you grow up, life's a complicated game. And for me, 'Long Island Sound' is easily my favourite song of 2015.

2 comments:

  1. Can't you embed hashtag-[artist name] YouTube videos on this blog post? For instance, "How Much a Dollar Cost" can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJT3b4urwcU

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm actually kind of surprised the Now You Know by Icon For Hire didn't end up on this list, but overall, I think it's a great list.

    ReplyDelete