As the year 2015 A.D. comes to a close, there is simply no better way to recap the passage of time than to indulge in the time-honored tradition of making trivial lists. This particular list will cover my favorite 60 songs of the year, while over the coming days I will also post my 20 favorite albums of 2015 along with 10 honorable mentions and the requisite gleeful gushing about each one I wind up including. It’s a great time to be alive!
Before I get into the meat of this post (the list, of course; this post will contain no actual meat), I have to do a bit of housekeeping. Because ranking individual songs seems a bit too unruly a task for me, every track on this list will appear alphabetically by artist. I will rank my favorite albums of the year, as the sample size makes doing so something about which I am much more comfortable. No artist will appear on the song list more than once so as to provide a much wider snapshot of my year in music; for instance, listing every song on Deafheaven’s New Bermuda among my top 60 just feels like it would somewhat defeat the purpose of the exercise.
Lastly, I’m writing this as someone who loves music. Everything I present in my year-end lists is here because I’m really into it. Music is as subjective and personalized an art form as exists, so I’m not going to pretend I possess the right to proclaim one song or album “better” than another. This is simply my favorite stuff released over the past calendar year, and I’m thrilled to get to share my enthusiasm for it. Below this paragraph, you’ll see an embedded Spotify playlist of these songs. Let’s do this shit!
Adventures, “Dream Blue Haze”: After releasing a couple of interesting and occasionally inspired EPs over the past couple of years, the Pittsburgh throwback rock outfit Adventures finally dropped the full-length Supersonic Home in 2015. The album is spearheaded by its tumbling opener, “Dream Blue Haze.” Pulling out every move from the Official 1990s Indie Rock Handbook, Adventures empower the song with a jet-packed main riff, a quick but tight solo, and a really cool outro most bands would have tried to turn into another full track.
And So I Watch You From Afar, “Heirs”: The title track from ASIWYFA’s new album (sorry, I can’t bring myself to type that whole thing out) is prog rock via technology, an opus set to bring stodgy guitar heroism kicking and screaming into a new day and age. Rising out of the dirt with strings and then thudding bass with promises of happier times, “Heirs” uses instruments in place of human voices whenever possible. The hints at a greater darkness are always present, but it takes over four minutes to even hit the bottom. From there on out, it’s a damaged joyride that lifts to new heights an already accomplished album.
Lou Barlow, “Wave”: Best known as the lo-fi luminary heading Sebadoh, Lou Barlow shows up shaggy and reflective on his solo album Brace the Wave, and “Wave” stands proudly at its broken center. “Wave” is a brief, acoustic song using only muted strums for percussion, and the bittersweet air of Barlow’s distant voice melds wonderfully with his trademark “something’s off here” chord changes to leave me feeling a little dizzy every time.
Baroness, “Chlorine & Wine”: It’s been such a long road for Baroness, the sludge-cum-introspective rock band that had two members drop out after a near-fatal bus accident three years back. Recovery has been difficult, and it shows on the sprawling and uplifting “Chlorine & Wine.” As is often the case on the best Baroness jams, “Chlorine” takes its sweet time to get going by laboring through a whole lot of mood setting. Once the inspirational and all-around good guy John Baizley brings his voice into the mix with those rollicking drums, it’s pretty clear the song will be an unforgettable one. By the time the gang vocals and twin guitar leads deal out an unexpected left hook, it’s easy to fall in love with Baroness all over again. I feel like I should be wearing a crown when I listen to this.
Battles, “The Yabba”: I still can’t figure out if Battles ever give me what I want when I listen to “The Yabba.” Long a critical darling thanks to a boundless willingness to experiment, Battles change things up all over the place across this song’s considerable duration. Electronica leanings blend with rock tendencies blend with start-and-stop sensibility to make sure there’s no way to feel safe underfoot; you won’t know exactly where things are headed until you’ve heard this song a handful of times. Even then, does it reach fruition? I don’t know, but it’s fascinating.
Beach House, “Sparks”: I’ve long been a fan of Beach House’s sneaky dream pop, as the duo has always found a way to reward repeat listeners and refine its formula with each new release. “Sparks” represents the band’s new high water mark, breezing through comforting verses and every now and then bringing back that squalling lead guitar that just makes the song. I’ve never taken a nap on a cloud while dreaming about retiring before, but I’d bet that shit sounds exactly like this.
Bjork, “Lionsong”: I will confess to being exhausted by Bjork at times. The Icelandic songstress has always been experimental and consequently interesting, but at times her soaring vocal proclivities and stuttering rhythms start to feel a little too familiar after all these years. It can feel like all of the magic is gone. “Lionsong” changes all of this by simply using strings, Bjork’s distinct voice, and a deeply melancholy atmosphere to paint a complicated and lingering portrait of jaded love.
Braids, “Miniskirt”: Deep In The Iris is a really good electronic album, pulsing and spacious in equal measure, and “Miniskirt” is the best example of the band throwing everything in a blender and making it work. Singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston (whose name required multiple Alt+Tab commands to ensure correctness) tackles rape culture and the objectification of women with bluntness as “Miniskirt” picks up steam, adds in instrumentation, and never manages to lose its listenability along the way.
Built to Spill, “All Our Songs”: Built to Spill’s signature sound remains largely unchanged from two decades ago, and that isn’t a bad thing. What continually surprises me is how fresh and full of vigor the band still manages to come across even as members revolve, and we can all thank guitar mastermind Doug Martsch for that. Martsch does some of his finest work in “All Our Songs,” a track that builds, flies off the handle a bit, and features the layered and heavens-dwelling guitar work he has perfected over the years. It’s an album opener that functions as a primer to the fantastic Untethered Moon in all the right ways.
Bully, “Trying”: Bully will remind you of any number of ’90s indie bands with startling frequency, but the band accomplishes this feat without ever directly aping its heroes. “Trying” works so well thanks to its central bass line, a bouncy little thing designed to keep the feet moving even if you don’t realize they are. Singer Alicia Bognanno also busts out a new trick with her badass snarl, and I hope she plans on keeping it around for future test drives.
Will Butler, “What I Want”: As uneven as the first full album from Arcade Fire’s Will Butler is, “What I Want” stands out as a really fun way to spend four minutes. Jaunty and injected with as many nonsensical lyrics as even the most idiosyncratic listener could possibly want (pony macaroni, anyone?), “What I Want” milks its main progression for all it’s worth before burning it down into a bizarre haunted house bridge and then returning for a choppy solo. Butler is all over the place, but this time his vision sticks.
California X, “Nights In The Dark”: I don’t really know what California X’s deal is. The bizarre, fantasy-inspired cover art screams “shit-kicker castle metal!” to the high heavens, but lo and behold, here is a fun band that appears to wear its weirdo imagery at least semi-ironically. “Nights In The Dark” is a high-energy romp of catchy distorted chords and pleasant vocal hooks that also happens to contain a half-cheesy solo and ramble on for five-and-a-half minutes. Not a whole lot of depth is revealed despite the length of the song, but it’s hard to care when it’s this much fun.
Chvrches, “Leave a Trace”: I’m on record (mostly to myself, I guess?) as loving Lauren Mayberry’s purdy voice, but I don’t always like the total package when it comes to Chvrches’ brand of stadium-ready electro-pop. “Leave a Trace” is one of the really good ones, building up wisely with progressions that push the emotion straight out of Mayberry’s prized voice. The chorus hook is the second strongest of the band’s young career, trailing only the indisputably great “The Mother We Share.” Seriously, I’d get in a passive-aggressive verbal argument to defend that song.
Coheed and Cambria, “Here to Mars”: Equally prog-driven and poppy over their decade-plus career, Coheed and Cambria aim for the latter on the love letter “Here to Mars.” A straightforward pop/rock song, “Here to Mars” gets ridiculous and flaunts the badge earnestly. That shouty, keyboard-driven bridge brings a smile to my face every time, as I’ve always preferred my Coheed songs to be a little bit on the indulgent side so long as the energy is there to back it up.
Mikal Cronin, “iv) Ready”: Mikal Cronin’s MCII was a well-crafted ode to all things guitar music, but nothing on it got as openly forceful as “iv) Ready,” the fourth track in a song suite contained within the singer-songwriter’s third full album. Nothing about the song is complicated, and I’m aware of complaints that the lengthy digression into the chorus at the end is overkill. I disagree, as I probably could have dealt with the golden-voiced Cronin pounding away for even longer.
Daughter, “Numbers”: Daughter won’t have a full-length album out until January 2016, but that album will thankfully include the stunning “Numbers.” Oozing atmosphere near its beginning and blazing sky-first into the sun later on, “Numbers” grabbed my attention on first listen in a, ahem, “number” of ways. There’s just something about singer Elena Tonra’s subdued register being juxtaposed with the chaos of the musical dam beginning to break that really leaves a mark.
Dan Deacon, “Feel the Lightning”: Dan Deacon has long been crafting exciting and twitchy electro-songs, and “Feel the Lightning” is a superb example of what he does so well. Pleasant, catchy, and overloaded with words, “Lightning” has proved itself as a perfect nighttime listen for me. The male-female vocal interplay here is executed flawlessly, and I’m not sure which of the song’s movements is my favorite. Lurching and swirling synths provide the backdrop for a memorable album opener that is one of my most treasured of 2015.
Deafheaven, “Luna”: I alluded to my love for Deafheaven’s newest expansive blood-curdler New Bermuda in the opening of this post, and “Luna” is perhaps the finest single-serve encapsulation of the many things the band does well. Starting off with a jarring guitar riff and the band’s typically brutal black metal drumming, it’s immediately notable how much more present George Clarke’s howls are in the mix compared to those on 2013’s equally incredible Sunbather. He doesn’t waste the opportunity, as the absolutely gorgeous “chorus” that follows tones things down just a bit. But don’t expect Deafheaven to ever settle into one place; “Luna” churns, crashes, careens, and eventually triumphs with an ending as anthemic and grandiose as anything in the band’s catalog.
Death Cab for Cutie, “Black Sun”: I have been very split on everything the once enormously popular Death Cab for Cutie have done in the past decade, so I was okay with it when I heard Chris Walla would be stepping away as the band prepared to release another advanced-age album. Unfortunately, most of the album doesn’t feel new or imbued with a sense of purpose, but “Black Sun” has the grooved verse, shimmering chorus, and stupid-but-functional solo to make the band feel alive again. I may still wish Ben Gibbard’s vocals sounded like they were delivered through a tin can, but this is a song that has managed to stick with me all year nonetheless.
Deerhunter, “Snakeskin”: Everyone has a crystal clear picture of what White Dude Indie Rock means, but Deerhunter have never been interested in playing the part. Bradford Cox continues his restless approach, following up the garage rock of Monomania with a new lead single like “Snakeskin,” a sexy and sticky homage to funk and ’70s guitar rock. “Snakeskin” creates a sonic separation from anything else Deerhunter have ever done while still retaining the same sense of song craft, thus re-upping my belief that this is a collection of musicians capable of virtually anything.
Desaparecidos, “Golden Parachutes”: The Conor Oberst-fronted punk outfit Desaparecidos hadn’t released an album in 13 years when Payola hit the literal and digital shelves in 2015, and it’s impossible to tell. “Golden Parachutes” (like the entirety of Payola) is a frenzied punk diatribe respectable in its over-the-top political fervor and lovable in its relentless catchiness. This is a fun way to spend a couple of minutes, and the chorus is as instantly memorable as anything Oberst has ever created. It’s good to hear the guy back to yelling and–it sounds like–having a lot of fun doing it.
Father John Misty, “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment”: Father John Misty (who is actually named Josh Tillman) makes all sorts of waves on his outspoken I Love You, Honeybear, but the caustic cynicism of “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment” is hilariously blunt in its approach. Tillman doesn’t pull any punches, flashing his Leonard Cohen and Elton John influences musically while opening his song with the following couplet: “Oh, I just love the kind of woman who can walk over a man/I mean like a god-damn marching band.” Tillman doesn’t calm down after his thesis statement, picking apart a relationship and its female participant with startling precision.
FIDLAR, “West Coast”: Always fond of detailing substance (ab)use and general debauchery, the absurdly named FIDLAR are back with singer and guitarist Zac Carper a drug-free man. This is excellent news for Carper, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t still going to tell us all about his free-wheeling awfulness. “West Coast” boasts some pretty generalized lyrics about getting high, looking for liquor, and driving up the coast. Guess what? I don’t care, because this song gets forcibly stuck in my head every time I hear it. “West Coast” is awfully shiny for what used to be a significantly scrappier band, but its winning hooks are all that matter despite the dozen or so things a cynical listener might bring up.
Craig Finn, “Maggie, I’ve Been Searching For Our Son”: The Hold Steady didn’t release an album this year, so Craig Finn figured it would be a dandy time for his second solo effort. Finn is at his usual lyrical best here, plodding along with his half-spoken nasal voice to tell us a tale of mysticism and yearning. As seems to be the case in his solo work, Finn’s music shuffles along at Americana pace rather than aiming for the cheap seats like his big, loud main band. It’s not often as effective for me, but this song is gorgeous in its simplicity.
Fightstar, “Titan”: Fightstar have long been able to work several angles of the guitar rock world, poppy as all hell one moment and dark and screamy the next. After a lengthy hiatus, the band have returned with a much more overtly aggressive new album, and “Titan” does a fantastic job of showing the range at play here. While “Titan” gets a lot softer and sweeter in spots than any Deftones song would try to venture, the chorus and bone-snap ending would feel right at home in the hands of Chino Moreno and company.
Floating Points, “Peroration Six”: Sam Shepherd is an electronic seer who just so happens to make his music feel breathtakingly human. The closing track to his wonderful new album Elaenia, “Peroration Six” is proof of Shepherd’s miracle; full of nervous tics and foreboding bass, the song builds and builds and builds and then just…ends. Shepherd plays with emotions throughout his work, and denying us our expected results is an effective way to get his message across. If you’re adamant that electronic compositions aren’t really music, listen to this and then try to defend yourself.
The Fratellis, “Baby Don’t You Lie To Me!”: I can’t claim to have ever been a Fratellis fan, but once in a while the band whips out a song I can’t help but throw my hands up and shamelessly enjoy. Enter “Baby Don’t You Lie To Me!,” a snappy pop number that mines ’50s staples in its verses and then abuses a well-worn chord progression to great effect in its stupid chorus. There is absolutely a part of me that would prefer to not like this song, but that simply isn’t a realistic expectation at this time.
Grimes, “Kill V. Maim”: Fucking Grimes. I could have gone with any number of songs from the infinitely replayable Art Angels, but I went ahead and chose the one that always seems to serve as five or six Monster Rehabs in one. The multi-talented Claire Boucher has ditched a lot of her old school proclivities to offer her skewed take on modern pop, and the results are impressive. “Kill V. Maim” is Boucher’s feminist declaration, as she delivers lines like “I’m only a man/Do what I can” with a rabid fervor. It also contains no fewer than 8,000 hooks; I have no idea what portion of this song is my favorite, but the moment Boucher breaks down into a scream that hastens in a far-away solo gets me every time.
Gunship, “Kitsune”: Gunship is a synth-wave project started by members of the versatile, well-polished Fightstar (see above!), and it somehow fucking works most of the time. “Kitsune” is maybe the biggest example of a song on Gunship’s debut album that has no right to be good; it relishes its own faux-sad atmosphere, chucks in laughable drums, piles on the synthesizers, and might as well have been pulled from a John Hughes movie soundtrack 30 years back. Yet somehow along the way “Kitsune” manages to be both affecting and infectious, snuffing out any preconceived notions at once.
HEALTH, “FLESH WORLD (UK)”: HEALTH are back after a long hiatus with their most accessible album thus far, although the nervous tics remain more than just background noise. The band continues to dwell in the lyrical doldrums, talking about flesh and blood while sounding like a well-oiled doomsday machine. “FLESH WORLD (UK)” probably has the catchiest chorus of any song in the band’s repertoire, but it also looms like a dangerous threat to offset just how comfortable you might start to get.
Hop Along, “Horseshoe Crabs”: I’m new to Hop Along, and as a result I’m also new to Frances Quinlan’s voice. While somewhat polarizing, it’s a hell of an instrument; Quinlan can be vulnerable, delicate, brutal, or chipper at the drop of a hat. This versatility reveals itself in spades on “Horseshoe Crabs,” a song that builds into a soaring climax that features Quinlan summoning all her powers at once as the band gets jangly and wistful. This thing often still gives me goosebumps. I noted this as one of my favorite songs of the year without hesitation the very first time I heard it.
Jamie xx (featuring Romy), “Loud Places”: Jamie xx and featured singer Romy are both best-known for their work in the divisive and decidedly low-key band The xx. A similar aesthetic is used across the verses on “Loud Places,” as instrumentation is sparse but appropriate. In the chorus, though, Jamie takes things up a notch, getting downright poppy and infectious. While I loved the first xx album, much of Jamie’s solo work paves the way for a new xx world, and “Loud Places” represents the pinnacle of his stylistic melting pot.
Kendrick Lamar, “King Kunta”: You’d be forgiven for mistaking Kendrick Lamar’s fuck-funk on “King Kunta” as the backing track for a lost Michael Jackson single. Seriously, that fucking bass line. Lamar has clearly become quite interested in instrumentation, and “King Kunta” bumps and rumbles its way to a new path going forward. Maybe if all thoughtful ascents into cultural divides were this fun to listen to, the world would be a much better place to live.
Lil Dicky, “Lemme Freak”: Once a YouTube sensation, the oft-hated rapper David Burd is getting better and better at toeing the line between being an actual rapper and a White Rapper With Jokes. “Lemme Freak” is downright solid in terms of its structure, and it’s clear Burd has the rhythmic skills and knowledge of the genre beats to succeed. Above all, though, Burd is really funny here as he details a relationship that begins as an attempted one-night stand and winds up spanning his entire life. This is how I prefer Lil Dicky songs to be: fun to listen to and aggressively interested in poking fun at life’s minutia.
Mates of State, “Staring Contest”: I accidentally stumbled across Mates of State because of a friend over a decade ago, and while the overall result is sometimes displeasing, the husband-and-wife team often come into their own for memorable key-driven pop songs. “Staring Contest” boasts a snappy chorus with starts, stops, and a sing-along hook; this is the kind of song that fucking should be popular. It has a lot of charm, and it would likely appeal to anyone with a pair of intact ears willing to give it a listen.
Metric, “Cascades”: Metric are back, and they seem perfectly willing to lean more electronically than ever before. While the band certainly sound increasingly dedicated to machines, the warmth is still there, and a lot of that warmth comes courtesy of the pleasant familiarity in Emily Haines’ voice. “Cascades” is one of those songs that actually sounds like its name, tumbling up and down and all around until that fist-pumping synth climax. I’d blare this shit while driving 1,000 miles-per-hour on the Autobahn if I could. Is the Autobahn still a thing?
Modest Mouse, “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996): “Pistol” is one of the dumbest fucking songs the legendary Modest Mouse have ever released out into the world, and I love it. Isaac Brock is as weird as he’s ever been on this one, barking and doubling up his own vocals as he spits some serious nonsense into his microphone. The rest of his band are up to the task, as “Pistol” conjures up the kind of indie murder-funk no one should ever try to write in the first place. This is a band past its prime, but it isn’t a band lacking ingenuity.
Nothing, “Guilty of Everything”: Nothing have a simple but effective band name, and those qualities extend to the gauzy shoegaze the group pedals to the ears of the willing. Nothing’s excellent album creates its own undeniable soundscape, but the title track that closes the collection of songs is the most transcendent. Oozing along at a calming pace, it feels completely earned when the distortion waves hit, like something bigger than all of us is taking over and it’s best just to give in. “Guilty of Everything” is a the best possible way to put a cap on one of my favorite albums of 2015.
Passion Pit, “Until We Can’t (Let’s Go)”: Odds are strong that Passion Pit will show up on any year-end song list I ever do so long as the band releases something. Maybe this kind of thing doesn’t always hold up for a dozen songs, but it sure is effective in short spurts. “Until We Can’t” is a synthed-up pop raver screaming to turn the heads of even those who only hear music in the most mainstream ways possible. It’s the kind of song you’ll like as long as you aren’t the worst.
Radical Dads, “In The Water”: Spacey and lo-fi in its production, “In the Water” is an indie rock song that benefits greatly from its lack of sheen. The martial drum beat and vocals that sound like they were recorded in a pretty nice bathroom add to the atmosphere and lend a sense of urgency to the song. While I didn’t think the album Universal Coolers was all that cohesive as a whole, “In The Water” gives me hope for more when it comes to Radical Dads.
Jeff Rosenstock, “You, In Weird Cities”: Formerly the frontman for the explosive and sloppy pop-punk outfit Bomb the Music Industry, Jeff Rosenstock’s solo work finds him, well, explosive and sloppy. “You, In Weird Cities” is a quick and propulsive punk song about getting older without really growing up and acknowledging your shortcomings and true desires. Aside from being both hook-laden and rough around the edges, the song also features some of my favorite Rosenstock lyrics to date. There isn’t anything to guess about when you hear the line “nothing makes me happy, I’m like a shitty child.” Jeff just wants to go make out with you in a different city on a road trip again, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He’s fine.
Sleater-Kinney, “No Anthems”: It’s been a decade since the ladies of Sleater-Kinney were last seen assaulting the ears of innocent passersby with their brutish guitars, and it’s more than good to have them back in the fold. On an album full of songs I thoroughly enjoy, the lurching and sometimes foreboding “No Anthems” stands as my favorite, sneering and spitting the whole way through. Add in those verse grooves and you have one of the most potent rock songs of the year.
Speedy Ortiz, “Dot X”: I sure do love Speedy Ortiz, the Sadie Dupuis-fronted rock band alarmingly well-versed in the off-kilter riffage that made bands like Pavement and Helium households names for weirdos 20 years back. Dupuis takes things a bit slower than usual on “Dot X,” a grim and foreboding exercise in control that always feels like it’s coming apart at the seams. When she orders “don’t ever touch my blade,” you would really have to be a fool to disobey her.
Vince Staples, “Norf Norf”: No one could possibly be listening to Vince Staples’ dark rap opuses for pure fun. “Norf Norf” is such a departure from the norm, underlined with unexplored anger and taking on all of the eerie qualities one would expect from a horror movie. Dense and moaning, the song allows Staples to unfold one of his many straight-ahead takes of growing up in a shitty situation. Hell, the hook in the thunderously low chorus is “I ain’t never run from nothin’ but the police.”
Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”: Sufjan Stevens made his name on full-blown orchestral compositions, turning indie kids onto his brand of pomp and circumstance with his outstanding and overwhelming Illinois a decade back. “No Shade” finds good ol’ Sufjan turning the clock back further, back to when he tried his damnedest to make everyone weep with his acoustic guitar. On an album detailing the demise of Sufjan’s mother and the history of her relationship with his stepfather, this is the most haunting account. “No Shade” is packed with haunting imagery, and the sparse beauty of its arrangement is utterly captivating. Sometimes keeping things simple works just fine.
Laura Stevenson, “Claustrophobe”: Ahhh! The guitar riff and accompanying lead notes that open and punctuate “Claustrophobe” are so majestic and familiar at the same time that after hearing the song I just want to go back and listen to the entire Pixies catalog in one sitting. (Well, okay, not fucking Indie Cindy.) Laura Stevenson is quite adept at trudging through her knowledge of ’90s rock and coming out of the murk with something of her own, but “Claustrophobe” is head-and-shoulders above the rest of her work so far.
Superhumanoids, “Touch Me”: Just when I think synth-driven indie/electronica is a thing I just don’t want much to do with any longer, there’s always a group that comes along and shocks me. Enter Superhumanoids, who give “Touch Me” a whole lot of chunky texture and go to the trouble of creating changes that actually matter. The chorus works off the verse riff before revealing a fucking fantastic and somewhat maniacal synth lead over the top of the delightful Sarah Chernoff asking desperately, “can you help me?” It’s a great moment that I’m thankful returns later in the song for added emphasis.
Surfer Blood, “I Can’t Explain”: Surfer Blood is the kind of occasionally bland indie rock band that hasn’t ever managed to grab my attention for long. While I still haven’t latched on to the band’s aesthetic overall, “I Can’t Explain” rolls out a pleasant and inoffensive two-chord progression punctuated with a couple of different memorable leads and solid vocal interplay. This is a relaxing song that didn’t really snag me until after a few listens, and now I keep coming back to it.
Thundercat, “Them Changes (featuring Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington)”: The warble-funk of “Them Changes” is a perfect fit for Stephen Bruner’s smooth croons. Aside from the thick, modern production, this song could fit in any of the last four decades. I mean that in a good way, as this is a timeless example of a song one might make sweet, sweet love to. There’s a slight dark edge to the proceedings thanks to some inspired chord choices, but hey, you’re kind of into that anyway.
Torres, “Strange Hellos”: Mackenzie Scott is only 24-years-old, but her approach to tackling communication gaps on “Strange Hellos” is chucked face-first at the listener with mature precision. At first a low-key and fractured rock track, “Strange Hellos” escalates the situation by piling on the distortion and increasing the impact of its drum work. Then there’s Scott’s voice, which is already unusual for a woman in indie rock but becomes something new entirely as her anger turns into a tangible thing at the song’s pinnacle.
Kurt Vile, “Pretty Pimpin”: Always laid back and always deceptively showy, Kurt Vile is back again with another mostly-acoustic album of sprawl and introspection. “Pretty Pimpin” is his latest elongated exploration of apostrophe hatred and nimble fingers, as the singer questions himself, tries to reaffirm his own confidence, and keeps a straight face the whole time. The main progression of the song feels epic, as if it should lead into something bigger. Vile is a smart songwriter, though, and he knows the journey is so often much more valuable than the destination. In an age when most songs by somewhat well-known guys with acoustic guitars are unbearable, “Pretty Pimpin” is yet another triumph for one of the exceptions to the rule.
Kamasi Washington, “Change of the Guard”: Probably still best known for helping out the much more famous Kendrick Lamar on his To Pimp A Butterfly, Kamasi Washington’s own music is also something of an eyebrow-raiser in 2015. Washington, an obviously gifted multi-instrumentalist and composer, pulls out all the stops on the jazz freakout “Change of the Guard,” pushing and pulling himself in a million different directions and letting the notes do all of the talking. Mystical choirs, dancing piano keys, and jittery drums create the framework for a song that (in a good way) feels wildly out of place in the modern landscape.
Wavves + Cloud Nothings, “Nervous”: For a couple of imaginative guys, Cloud Nothings’ Dylan Baldi and Wavves’ Nathan Williams sure couldn’t be bothered to come up with much of a band name for their 2015 collaborative album. That’s fine, though, as the admittedly short record has a few guitar pop gems like “Nervous,” a two-minute song that never wears out its welcome and demands plenty of listens. The chorus is a whole lot of fun, and it always makes me wish it appeared again after another verse. If you like either of the bands involved at all, this is a slam dunk.
Wavves, “My Head Hurts”: Remember Nathan Williams, the guy behind Wavves whom I mentioned two seconds ago? Here he is again with “My Head Hurts,” a quick little burst of guitar pop featuring dusty guitar tones and all the “oooh-oooh-oooh” overlapping a listener could ever want. Until 2015, I had very little interest in Williams’ work. That’s changing in a hurry.
Waxahatchee, “Under a Rock”: I was blown away by Katie Crutchfield’s minimalist intensity two years back on Cerulean Salt, and while Ivy Tripp isn’t as affecting, it sure does have some stand out moments. The much fuller sound Crutchfield rips out of her bag of tricks comes into play on “Under a Rock,” as she creates a big indie rock song worthy of all the foot taps and head nods it generates.
The Weeknd, “The Hills”: It’s been four years since Abel Tesfaye burst onto the scene with a trio of mix tapes that garnered him immediate media attention, and the guy can still sing and spew shockingly vulgar turns of phrase with the best of ’em. As usual, Tesfaye excels when his borderline callous lyrics collide with hook-filled songs touching on modern R & B and electronic elements. “The Hills” is undeniably a fitting radio single, but in a day and age where this is increasingly rare, it’s a really good one.
Wolf Alice, “You’re a Germ”: I really like Wolf Alice even if I often don’t know exactly what kind of band I’m listening to when I choose them. That has to be the point, though, as “You’re a Germ” starts out tranquilized and winds up chugging though a Sleigh Bells-worthy arena stomp not that much further along the sonic timeline. Those backing chants bleeding into Ellie Roswell’s gradual vocal disintegration fucking kill; seriously, Roswell yells and eventually laughs as the song draws to a close.
Chelsea Wolfe, “Iron Moon”: Most sites list Chelsea Wolfe’s designated genre as “folk,” which was already narrow-minded before she went and eradicated any notion of strict classification with this year’s Abyss. “Iron Moon” opens with a glut of guitar density, slow and all-consuming, before giving way to a sparse and beautiful verse. Russian Circles’ Mike Sullivan handles the six-string work here, and he sounds like he’s built a funnel straight to Satan’s mouth. “Iron Moon” is the sonic equivalent of watching someone with a mouth full of blood laugh at you and then hand you a kitten, and it’s the surest sign yet that Chelsea Wolfe has more than one foot in the elitist-metal door.
Young Fathers, “Shame”: “Shame” starts out like it was recorded on someone’s shitty Casio. This is no small detail, as the approach earns Young Fathers a certain degree of charm before the band even gets to the soulful crux of the song, a deceptive progression sculpted from layered vocals and a persistent bass line. It’s the kind of song maybe anyone could write, but Young Fathers actually bothered to follow through on it. This one’ll get legitimately implanted in your brain.
Youth Lagoon, “The Knower”: Youth Lagoon’s Trevor Powers has been ambitious from the start, but it would have been difficult to predict that the bedroom pop of his debut would have led to the slinky, horn-laced “The Knower.” The song has a certain menace to it, and as it continually adds layers and ups the percussion ante, it delivers on all of its promises. Much shinier on the surface, Powers is clearly starting to dig deeper for new–and creepier–ways to project himself into his music.