20-to-1: The Best Music of 2015

… at least, the tracks that made the end of year mix tape.

2015 art

If buying music the legitimate way is your scene, then head to your local record store and fork over some dosh for the albums upon which you’ll find the following 20 tracks. This mix tape ought to keep your toes tapping over the New Year, and bode well for the year to come.

20. ‘Funky Little Drummer Boy’ – Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, from It’s a Holiday Soul Party

Yes, you can dance to a traditional Christmas song. Dance, or do whatever else you want to. Sharon Jones and Co. seem to make every day Throwback Thursday. And when you’re as good as this, it’s something to be welcomed and embraced. ‘Tis the season, after all (and as far as covering this song is concerned, spare a thought for the fact that in the 70s, Bing Crosby recorded this for a TV special he did… with David Bowie).

19. ‘Blues in the Morning’ – Keith Richards, from Crosseyed Heart
The Stones haven’t released a new album since 2005’s A Bigger Bang. And while the band has been touring with some regularity in the ensuing time, new material doesn’t seem to be high on a list of priorities (and having listened to the Jagger-led Superheavy, we can be grateful for this). Keef’s focus has always been on guitar blues, and Crosseyed Heart is an album of him having fun with his mates. Nothing wrong with that.

18. ‘Heaven Sent’ – Best Coast, from California Nights
There are few artists who wear their influences on their sleeves more than West Coast rockers Best Coast, who could not come across as more Californian if they were wearing Muscle Beach t-shirts in a Disneyland selfie with a surfer dude named Devon or Brodie. In an album of rockin’, slammin’ guitar cuts, the album opener ‘Feeling OK’ might best capture their milieu, which is playfully ironic: lyrically downbeat but acoustically energetic. But ‘Heaven Sent’ just blasts the roof off the joint.

17. ‘I Broadcast’ – Blur, from The Magic Whip
A return after many years, solo projects and apparent depth sees the ‘Parklife’ lads in a new, dark and exotic soundscape. Damon Albarn has used the ensuing years (16) and side projects (Gorillaz, The Good The Bad and The Queen) to infuse this reunion-album-of-sorts with a glorious hybrid of three styles and influences. A great song from a great pop record.

16. ‘Better Man’ – Leon Bridges, from Coming Home
What if the best gospel-soul album of 1963 turns out to have been recorded and released in 2015? By embracing the stripped down, low-fi simplicity and genius of early Motown, what we have in his debut album is a 26-year-old Texan with more soul than every last fibre of every being you ever met in your life combined.

15. ‘The Less I Know the Better’ – Tame Impala, from Currents
Dude from Fremantle records an epic, broad electro-pop record with allusions to Pink Floyd. Records it in his garage. In Fremantle. Hits the world stage. Local boy done good.

14. ‘Black Sun’ – Death Cab For Cutie, from Kintsugi
Sombre, yet soulful, Death Cab For Cutie – among the best names for a band in history – have in this track, and their album Kintsugi crafted some dark, Radiohead-like notions, meditating on the world, on loss, on pain, but with hope amid the despair. ‘There is beauty in the failure…’ indeed.

13. ‘Elevator Operator’ – Courtney Barnett, from Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
Glad to hear a local girl done good story; this one singing about the #96 tram line and a house in Preston, all of which speaks to the author because it is near his house. Proximity infatuations aside and the rare novelty of hearing a girl sing with her native accent, Courtney Barnett’s album is a great piece of work, infusing a solid pub rock sound with her girlish sensibility. Quite a find.

12. ‘Hey Now’ – Matt & Kim, from New Glow
Broad, silly fun is had in volumes here. And they’re a drums ‘n’ keyboards duo with hooks like “oh-whoah-oh”. You’re supposed to sing along, surrender to the energy and let the block party buzz drown out the bad vibes.

11. ‘I Just Wanna Rock n Roll’ – Thunderbitch, from Thunderbitch
The second track on this list of best-of efforts from Alabama Shakes frontierswoman Brittany Howard on a side-project that’s better than 90% of what’s out there at the moment. Again, you have no choice but to let her do as she wishes. She wants to rock and roll. Let there be rock and roll.

10. Falling From the Sky – Calexico, from Edge of the Sun
Edge of the Sun’s, and Calexico’s strength lies in its diversity, its cacophony of sounds and influences; it is an album of measured pace, atmosphere, grace and consistency.” Can’t remember what we meant by that when it was reviewed back in April, but this track’s a good’n.

9. ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience’ – The Decemberists, from What a Beautiful World, What a Terrible World
The duality of existence, no less, is explored in The Decemberists’ follow up to 2011’s The King is Dead, the title is taken from the thoughts of lead singer Colin Meloy, who finds himself happily married, all the while horrible things continue to happen in the world that surrounds him.

8. ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.’ – Father John Misty, from I Love You Honeybear
See, the thing is, Father John Misty IS Josh Tillman. And he’s singing about some insufferable girl, not himself. We’re all very esoteric and post-modern when adopting alter-egos, aren’t we? Fine piece of merciless character assassination here, from a former Fleet Fox turned throwback raconteur, very much in the Harry Nilsson mould.

7. ‘Newmeyer’s Roof’ – Craig Finn, from Faith in the Future
Is there ever not room for a song by Craig Finn? The man not only fronts the Greatest Band in the World (The Hold Steady), but in his down time puts out heartfelt, folksy solo records – learning a valuable lesson in the frame of not duplicating your band’s output with your solo work; striking new sonic ground yet not straying too far from the source of inspiration.

6. ‘Ansel’ – Modest Mouse, from Strangers to Ourselves
There’s a real depth and earnestness to Modest Mouse’s 2015 output, in a way drawing parallels to their previous (and amusingly titled) album Good News For People Who Like Bad News, but at the same time striking new thematic ground. Standout song on one of the year’s best records.

5. ‘Catch’ – Dresses, from Let Down (EP)
Taking a few cues from the She & Him-slash-The Head and the Heart school of off-kilter, quirky indi-pop, Portland outfit Dresses make their sophomore effort with the delightful, wholly pleasing EP Let Down. On this track, the duo vocalists make a plea for the state of a relationship: ‘Don’t wanna be the one that you throw back; this is a two-way street, not a cul-de-sac.’ We love a good couplet.

mbOn the heels of their debut album Wildlife, LA synth-pop duo Magic Bronson kept a busy schedule in 2015 of live gigs, and headed right back into the studio to record their follow-up LP (due in first quarter 2016). For a taste of things to come, they released a decidedly electro and Bronson-esque cover of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Coconut’. One half of the duo, Matt Lieberman, chimed in via email on that, and ‘Dog Fight’s’ origins.

This is some nice work; curious choice of cut and its interpretation is out there, pal. Just west of Jupiter, I’m sure Harry Nilsson would approve (in one way or another). Tell me, was this a jam session that you stumbled onto some magic (forgive the pun)? Or were you going for something else? A favourite from the archives?
We both have always been fans of the song and after I watched the Harry Nilsson documentary on Netflix we starting talking about doing a cover of it and it just worked. We always start off in the studio recording and Mike did a great job of capturing the vibe while still putting the Magic Bronson stamp on it. Also it’s been going over great live so that’s always nice.

How different an experience is it to working on your own stuff?
Well, with our own stuff we usually start off from a demo recording idea or a synth line and I usually come up with the verses and stories and we collaborate on a hook so doing a cover is a little different. I let Mike handle the crafting of the beat and he’s very good at picking up parts quickly and laying them down. I’ll track bass and then my main role is helping to produce Mike’s vocal takes and really try to capture what we love about the original in our own version.

In our ‘20 Best Songs of the Year’, ‘All Night Dog Fight’ cracked the top 5 – you’re #4, so well done there.
That’s awesome! It’s definitely one of our favourites and one we always play live. It’s just so weird and fun.

What’s the background and influences behind it? It has breaks in it that remind me of Kanye West’s ‘Black Skinhead’. Am I on the same page as you or off my trolley?
The idea for the verse cadence came from a Django Django song that I was obsessed with and we came up with the verse lyrics and music first. I actually had to leave the studio for the night and when Mike emailed me the track it had that amazing chorus section in it and I pretty much freaked out. I know we were listening to lot of Yeezus at the time and I know me and Mike were both pretty inspired by the trumpets on ‘Blood on the Leaves’ and the heaviness of ‘Black Skinhead’. So, yeah I’d say you nailed it!

Keep up the great work; looking forward to the new record next year.
Thank you!

skReunion albums are fraught with danger. A lot of recent band reunions seem to have been based more around a cash grab than any real artistic endeavour and albums produced out of these reunions mostly sound like a band unsuccessfully trying to replicate their sound and chemistry of years passed. Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities to Love not only avoids sounding forced, it is quite possibly the band’s finest album. Rather than the ten year hiatus between albums lessening the unique chemistry between Corin, Carrie and Janet, their sound is now tighter and more determined than where they left off with 2005’s The Woods. Lyrically, like a lot of Carrie Brownstein’s writing on the album, ‘A New Wave’ deals with the frustrations of fame and appreciating those moments when “No one here is taking notice”. A deceptively complex song, it’s filled with contradictions. Its upbeat and incredibly catchy opening is matched with the first line “Well every day I throw a little party”, before three lines later asking “Should I leap or go on living, living?” The buoyant tempo is abruptly ended in the middle, as Corin and Carrie’s guitars furiously break it apart over Janet’s brutal drumbeat, before defiantly returning to the chorus with a stripped back arrangement. Picking up where it started, it ends on a long, exuberant fadeout. ‘A New Wave’ is a standout track on No Cities to Love.

(Tim Leggoe’s highly informed slant on substantial pop culture matters has its own corner of the internet, www.marvelpresentssalo.com Then afterwards, harass him on Twitter via @leggoet)

2. ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ – The Weeknd, from Beauty Behind the Madness
Tom Cruise did a lip synch battle with Jimmy Fallon on an episode of The Tonight Show, and the broader world was thus exposed to this ludicrously infectious earworm (that skit was probably a first, the only time an Oscar nominee has pretended to sing a song about cocaine on a TV show). A slick, stylish and well-shot music video helped matters as well. The Weeknd (aka 25-year-old Ethiopian-Canadian Abel Tesfaye) seems to have picked up Michael Jackson’s mantle and run with it. The musical mantle, that is. Not the other stuff.

1. ‘Don’t Wanna Fight’ – Alabama Shakes, from Sound & Color
The album of the year has unsurprisingly produced the year’s best song. When lead singer-guitarist Brittany Howard sounds her barbaric yawp and tells you she don’t wanna fight no more, how can you possibly not believe her, and take requisite action? Alabama Shakes are a band for the ages.

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