The Best Music of 2015

Like last year, my year has been framed more by songs than full albums. Lyrically it was a magnificent year, and one where so many established greats quietly released new records (Decembrists, My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Low). It was also a rocking year for female vocalists and bands, and my Top 30 Best Songs Playlist reflects that.

1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

sufjan

Sufjan Stevens released the most moving record of the year, a devastatingly sad and beautiful return to his singer/songwriter roots. Stevens unpacks issues surrounding mental illness and the reasons his mother abandoned him with ice cold honesty. Becoming a parent opens up all sorts of emotional vulnerabilities and at least for me, seeing this record performed live was a life-changing experience. For further reading you can’t do better than this Pitchfork interview.

2. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit

courtney barnett

Courtney Barnett released the best debut album of 2015, a confident and casual authentic celebration of rock. The raw guitars and basic progressions are the best thing to happen to Garage Rock in a long time. Barnett’s thick Australian accent and direct lyrics encourage the most unlikely singable moments (and my favourite lyric of the year) “I think you’re a joke but I don’t find you very funny.”

3. Ryan Adams – 1989

1989

Ryan Adams’ cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 is the best guilty pleasure of 2015. When he sings “That’s How You Get The Girl,” he’s really saying how he lost the girl, and much of the album is this kind of antithesis/call and response that plays with Swift’s original. It’s basically the best pop record turned into the best breakup record.

4. Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m going down

b'lieve

Kurt Vile is the most sophisticated slacker on this list. He ditched his electric guitar for a more mellow sound incorporating piano and banjos. It’s a perfect alluring record that balances fun and soothing in a lazy acoustic fashion.

5. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
6. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
7. Olafur Arnalds & Alice Sarah Ott – The Chopin Project

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Father John Misty’s cheeky and wry record was constant positive highlight of the year, filled with love and a healthy dose of cynicism. Alabama Shakes’ second record turned out to be a ballsy swamp-Rock statement that they’re edgy and soulful and ready to experiment. Olafur Arnalds and Alice Sarah Ott released the most inviting Classical Pop album of the year. The simplicity in their approach to Chopin come across as effortless and familiar while the acoustic detail they capture with their instruments is an audio feast.

8. Sleater-Kinney – No City To Love
9. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress
10. Torres – Sprinter

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Sleater-Kinney reformed this year to release a tight collection of hooks and melodies. I don’t know their back catalogue but this record starts, goes determinedly forth and conquers in just over 30 badass minutes. The new Godspeed album is the most succinct record of their sound to date, immediately recognisable but more refined. It’s beauty lies in the band favouring a more subtle classical approach rather than their familiar Noise Rock style. Torres released an impressive debut album filled with honest songwriting and raw emotional delivery. She keeps it mature though and along with her minimalist band she created the best Grunge song ever (see playlist).

There are still many of this year’s releases that I’m listening to. I’m not quite into the Wilco yet but I’m a big fan and I’m trying. I’ve just discovered Youth Lagoon and Rhiannon Giddens, both of whom may have made the Top 10. Finally it’s long overdue but I’m also getting into these artist’s records: Natalie Prass, Shamir, Fred Thomas, Joan Shelley, Julia Holter.

Below are the Spotify, Apple Music and iTunes playlist versions of my top 30 Best Songs of 2015. I did sequence them but feel free to hit shuffle if that’s how you roll. Some are from my best albums, most are songs that consistently had me turning up the volume.

Here’s the Apple Music playlist, I’ve just noticed that “Harrison Ford” by Darlingside isn’t available on Apple Music or iTunes but you can listen to it here on YouTube. I’ll add a Youtube playlist next year when all of the songs are available or have videos. You can also buy the rest of these songs on iTunes.

Update: Here’s the Soundsgood player with all the tracks across various platforms.
https://soundsgood.co/embed/574c9c2c9c98dacc1ebafd1c

Best Albums of 2010

1. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

arcade fire

They can’t set a foot wrong, and their third full studio album is full of surprises that continue to set them apart as a serious creative force in music. The Suburbs kicks against the boredom and mediocrity that is middle class whilst experiencing the realisation that the kids in Funeral have become those having kids in The Suburbs. An entire story about where we were and where we’re going is played out in ups and downs of triumphant orchestral arrangements and pumping rhythms. To create such a monumental album (at 16 tracks and 64.07 minutes), Arcade Fire rocket directly to the #1 spot.

2. Broken Bells – Broken Bells

Broken Bells - Broken Bells

Danger Mouse and James Mercer from The Shins teamed up on a project that resulted in so much more than the sum of its parts. Broken Bells is a sublime, sorrowful, graceful and victorious album. Both changed their approach when working on this album: Danger Mouse laid off the heavy sampling and kept it simple, and James Mercer extended his vocals far beyond what he’d previously done with The Shins. It’s not often that you find brilliant music that everyone from your friends to your mom loves, but at the same time has immense depth and subtlety when you listen to it alone.

3. The Black Keys – Brothers

black keys

Brothers is an instant hit album, grabbing your rock ‘n roll heart and exposing it to a bleeding blues guitar, drumming that shakes your bones, restrained vocals that pull at your nerves and so much soul it hurts. Most of the original tracks and the cover of the Motown classic “Never Gonna Give You Up” cry like pure, undiscovered gold. Brothers is a squarely a roots album that’s so loose, dirty and crafted, it turns out to be the coolest listening pleasure possible.

4. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz

Sufjan Stevens

The Age of Adz departs from the gentle settings of Steven’s previous albums, diving headlong into a Radiohead-esque sea of electronic sounds. It’s a far cry from everything else he’s done, and that’s precisely what makes this album remarkable. Instead of weaving stories on the strength of his lyrics, this album basks in the liberation of crashing drums and humming synths, woven together with his hallmark gift of melodic arrangement. The Age of Adz will take many listens for you to get in to and wouldn’t sound out of place as a sci-fi soundtrack, but may be Sufjan Stevens’ best work yet. Given more listening time on my behalf (I just got the album the other day) this weird and exceptional album may have climbed further up on this list.

5. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

Mumford

This British indie-folk group have made an album that sounds like heartache with syrup on an overcast day. Banjos and big acoustic moments lead up to sweet harmonies and down-to-earth impassioned pleas, with the odd a cappella thrown in there with wonderous colour. All in all a perfect blend of British and American folk that rises up to slay the dragon of pretentious grey indie British music.

6. MGMT – Congratulations

MGMT

What impresses me most about this band is that they’re so committed to their sound, it seems like they’re oblivious to what people think of their music. That’s a good thing for cred, but not always for an album. Congratulations follows in the synth-pop psychedelic vein of Oracular Spectacular, but morphs into whole clouds of other songs within songs, making it not quite as accessible as their previous album, but a brilliant and hazy musical journey worth tripping to on a regular basis.

7. Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse – Dark Night Of The Soul

Dark Night

This side project between Danger Mouse and Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) is the most underrated album of the year. Dark Night Of The Soul features an all-star list of guest artists, and the album is as beautiful and twisted as the story surrounding it’s release. To cut it short, Danger Mouse’s record company weren’t happy with the royalty split so the album was shelved. After leaking online and both Mark Linkous and Vic Chesnutt committing suicide, it was finally released. Even with so many different voices on the album (Wayne Coyne of Flaming Lips, Jason Lytle of Grandaddy, Frank Black of The Pixies, Suzanne Vega, Nina Person of The Cardigans) the sound is homogeneous and beautifully elegant.

8. Best Coast – Crazy For You

best coast

Lead singer Bethany Cosentino’s voice has the same rich, honey-like quality as Neko Case’s singing, but instead of Americana or Country influences pulling the music together, Best Coast put out carefree surf-rock tunes with a touch of indie charm. This is the sound of a lazy summer afternoon at the beach, young infatuated love and ice cream. It’s a short album, but the songs are so stripped down, simple and sunny that this album is instantly likable.

9. The Dead Weather – Sea Of Cowards

dead weather

This should have been The Dead Weather’s debut album instead of their second studio album, since it completely sets the band apart from Jack White’s other projects. Alison Mosshart and Jack White compete on vocals to the extent that you can’t always tell who is singing, turning Sea Of Cowards into a balls-to-the-wall revenge Rock album with careless swagger and discordant guitars. It’s the picture of booze and dirty sex in a graphic novel: utterly extravagant, enticing and an overindulgent ‘fuck you’ that leaves you wanting to join in on the fun.

10. The National – High Violet

the national

High Violet is a difficult album to write about, and I know that everything I write will come out sounding wrong. It defies being categorised. It’s melancholic, but not sad. It’s introspective, but not paranoid. It’s serious, but not grandiose. Mostly, this album is a friend and companion, like someone who has your back and understands how you feel. When I was busy doing other things this year, The National quietly made an album that crept into my heart and stayed there.

In other news, Kanye West made a few #1 spots, but I’ve listened to his album it’s okay. The man is a great producer and his lyrics are clever, but he shouldn’t rap. He’s probably gotten all this attention because of the wide range of songs he’s sampled that lie outside the normal pool where hip-hop draws inspiration from (everyone from King Chrimson to Gene Clarke & Rodger McGuinn from The Byrds) as well as the variety of people who appear on the album (Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, La Roux, Elton John, and the usual hot-at-the-moment hip-hop crowd that always collaborate on each other’s albums). With that being said, Danger Mouse features twice on the list above, and can probably kick Kanye’s ass in a studio.

Unfortunately I didn’t get around to the new full albums of Deer Tick, Neil Young, Grinderman, Rogue Wave and a few others, but I will, and if they rock I’ll write about them. But for now, this top 10 is a list of albums you really, really should be listening to. It’s been a great year for music.