FEATURE: The Best Songs of 2015 – Part 1
by Chad Jewett
30.) Joanna Gruesome – “Last Year”
Even if you’re well aware of Joanna Gruesome’s whiplash aesthetic, there’s still real joy to be had when, in the middle of “Last Year” – the first song off this year’s Peanut Butter – the song suddenly pivots from roaring, East Coast hardcore to sparkling indie-pop, the song’s serrated minor key torrent magically clearing up to reveal a bright major key ease. Credit since-departed frontwoman Alanna McArdle with being equally adept at the first half’s barbed shouts and the second half’s airy hooks, selling the song’s midway plot-twist as a natural change in weather where it would normally sound punishingly abrupt. Peanut Butter works best whenever it offers this kind of dazzling pop-core, making “Last Year” the album’s tour de force.
29.) Sleater-Kinney” – “Price Tag”
Take it as proof of just how essential No Cities To Love, the lauded return album from Pacific Northwest punk trio Sleater-Kinney, is that more than half the record’s ten-song run could have made this list. The glam-pop tunefulness of “Hey Darling” and the sharp dance-punk workouts of “Fangless” and “Bury Our Friends” were obvious finalists, but No Cities actually hits its apex with its very first note, a fuzzed-out jab that announces the tense, apocalyptic garage-punk of “Price Tag”. The song might as well be Sleater-Kinney’s “London Calling”, a stark, nervy “state-of-the-nation” intro that manages to painstakingly explore America’s ever-increasing economic inequities even as it captivates as one of the band’s most electrifying post-hardcore conflagrations.
28.) Drake – “Energy”
It’s a curious thing that Drake chose to release If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late as a mixtape, and not just because “mixtapes” don’t tend to retail for $12.99. One gets the sense that the Toronto rapper-singer-producer wanted to try out some of his more subtle, avant-garde ideas sans all the pressures and expectations that attach themselves to “Official follow-up to Nothing Was The Same”. Yet If You’re Reading This might just hang together as a single artistic statement (read: album) better than anything Drake has released so far (give or take a Take Care), and “Energy” (produced by Boi-1da and OB O’Brien) is emblematic of that central aesthetic: mood-heavy, slowed down, minimalist, bummed-out – just a washed-out electric piano, a pared-down beat, and Drake’s signature blend of introspection and cinematic narcissism.
27.) Of Montreal “Bassem Sabry”
Kevin Barnes’ ever-changing art-pop collective has released roughly an album a year for the last decade, ranging from the transcendent (Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?) to the exhausted-sounding (False Priest) – which means it’s to Barnes’ great credit that Of Montreal still has its ways of surprising us. In the case of “Bassem Sabry”, the first track off the band’s 2015 return-to-form LP, Aureate Gloom, that means opening with a buzzing, psych-rock flyby that gradually melts down to a velvety disco groove punctuated with gonzo electric piano chatter and one of the best hooks Barnes has crafted in years (“I never follooooowed no master’s vooooiiiice”). The song triumphs for all the ways it synthesizes the band’s various obsessions – hot-and-heavy dance music, outré punk, sixties garage rock, lush Zombies-esque headphone weirdness – and sticks with you by having so much fun in the process.
26.) Brand New – “Mene”
Fans of Brand New will apparently have to continue assiduously reading the tea-leaves of every opaque tweet and live-show aside for signs of a full-length follow-up to the Long Island quartet’s 2009 sleeper, Daisy, but the band did offer a fascinating conciliation prize with “Mene”, a short, fiery two-minute one-off that found the band pairing some of Daisy’s more explosive moments to a rustling, almost alt-country rumble. This being Brand New, the song has its share of biblical allusions and Nirvana-esque anti-hooks (“We don’t feel anything”), delivered in an especially exaggerated version of Jesse Lacey’s melancholy drawl, adding up to everything that makes the band so devoutly adored, compressed into a brusque, wild-eyed 150 seconds.
25.) Girlpool – “Before The World Was Big”
Packed with poignant, arresting detail and boasting structural complexity that belies the austere nature of its arrangement (a guitar, a bass, two voices), “Before The World Was Big” feels like a statement of purpose for Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad – aka Girlpool – filled with short-story snapshots and Proust-esque memories of childhood that are at once joyful and melancholy (“Trying not to think of all the ways this place has changed”). You can sense the duo’s sheer connectivity as the song seems to float effortlessly between it’s pointillist 4/4 verse and its rolling 6/4 chorus, a change that’s tough enough to pull of with drums, let alone sans rhythm section. But Girlpool make the song’s trickiest accomplishments feel wholly natural, the product of two sympatico artists outlining their captivating, Technicolor version of the world.
24.) Refused – “War On The Palaces”
There was always a good amount of Maximum R&B garage-rock in the far corners of The Shape Of Punk To Come, Refused’s 1998 art-punk masterpiece. In fact it was that sound – one part Stax soul, one part MC5, one part Nation of Ulysses – that defined Dennis Lyxzen’s first post-Refused band, The (International) Noise Conspiracy, a band that took the shimmy of songs like “Summerholidays Vs. Punkroutine” and boiled them down to less bombastic, more sinewy frames. So it’s not so much a surprise as it is simply an unalloyed pleasure to hear Refused double-down on the sort of horn-driven, stomping groove that powers “War On The Palaces”, taking the band’s soul-punk instincts and adding their signature heft. Led by a sticky, Beggar’s Banquet-era Stones riff, a “Get Ready”-miming horn chart, and Lyxzen’s best vocal since the band’s late-90s apex, “War On The Palaces” finds Refused reimagining their rambunctious post-hardcore as an infectious Motown A-Side.
23.) Desaparecidos – “City On The Hill”
Payola, the long-awaited follow-up from Omaha post-hardcore quintet Desaprecidos, occasionally suffered from its newly zoomed-out perspective, trading the hyper-specific (and thus entirely convincing) explorations of middle-class desperation and Main Street rot of 2002’s Read Music/Speak Spanish for songs that felt a little too abstract in their critiques of late capitalism and its political inequities. But “City On The Hill”, the album’s first single and its beating heart, turns that more global view into an asset as Conor Oberst, assisted by the song’s jagged fuzz-pop stomp, offers a succinct overview of America’s history of exploitation that leads straight from the early colonies to Top 40 radio to the fairy tales we continue to tell about the nation’s “righteous” origin. It’s a stunning, enervating tour de force, evidence of just how withering and persuasive Desaprecidos’ tuneful agitprop critique can be.
22.) Girl Band – “Paul”
Girl Band have a formula: begin with a little tension, then add time, volume, and a flair for the dramatic, then let it all boil over. And while all their song’s are more less designed like volcanoes, there’s still no denying the raw-nerve suspense that powers the band at their best. “Paul” begins conspicuously quiet – a scaled-down drum figure, a bit of churning bass, and singer Dara Kiely positioned so far to the edge of your headphones that he sounds like’s at the bottom of some dank industrial stairwell. But the song builds and builds, as it’s wont to do, until suddenly it bursts. Then it hushes up again. And then it bursts again, till the whole thing is some wild fray, a hurricane without an eye, a fuse burning at both ends. No band excels quite so brilliantly at shaping sound and fury to their own chaotic ends, and “Paul” is Girl Band’s most exquisite statement yet.
21.) Missy Elliott ft. Pharrell Williams – “WTF”
Missy Elliott does this every five years or so. In 1997 it was the mind-blowing rap futurism of “The Rain”. A half-decade later it was “Get Ur Freak On”, still the gold-standard of Elliot’s partnership with super-producer Timbaland. A few years go by, then all of a sudden there is “Lose Control”, a self-produced Ciara-feautring mini-symphony of hip-hop ingenuity that is deeply underrated for the ways in which it both presaged and influenced the sheer adventurousness that would mark rap production for the next decade. If “Lose Control” was Elliott’s Pet Sounds, then “WTF” is her “Good Vibrations”, a three minute blast that takes all of Missy Elliott’s fearless studio imagination and pairs it to a track so effortlessly catchy and relentlessly fun that it staggers the imagination. With “WTF” Elliott continues her hit-streak of way-left-field pop-rap genius. Someone mark a calendar for 2020.
20.) Belle & Sebastian – “Nobody’s Empire”
With 2010’s Write About Love, one could sense Scottish indie-pop legends Belle & Sebastian beginning to tire of the wispy, literary tastefulness that had made them so essential in the first place. Indeed, the dance-rock reboot that is Girls In Peacetime Want to Dance all but confirms that desire for something new. Yet, ironically, the album’s most essential moment arrives when the band is most in tune with the lovely, sweetly-sad tunefulness of the group’s turn-of-the-millennium peak. “Nobody’s Empire” spends its five minutes led by one of Stuart Murdoch’s finest melodies and a stately bedroom-pop frame that nevertheless finds some room for a grooving Motown bassline that reflects the more propulsive aesthetic of the surrounding album. The results play like the best of both worlds: the same old Belle & Sebastian with a sense of whimsy that is a little more Four Tops than Galaxie 500.
19.) Thee Oh Sees – “Web”
Back when John Dwyer was frontman for the dearly departed garage-punk greats The Coachwhips, you could barely make out what he was saying, his vocals crunched and scratched into a distorted anti-signal that sounded like Fred Schneider singing through a rusted-out practice amp. With Thee Oh Sees, a more cool and collected pysch-rock project that still occasionally makes room for The Coachwhips’ wooly explosions, you can hear Dwyer a hell of a lot better – it’s just no surprise that on “Web”, the opening track from this year’s excellent Mutilator Defeated At Last, his finest moment ends up being a wordless yelp. Indeed, that wild howl, bathed in echo, announcing the song’s sudden transformation from a slinky slow-burn into a sharp, thrumming noise-rock freak-out. Thee Oh Sees may be Dwyer’s outlet for a more measured, painterly kind of sound, but there’s still no denying the man’s utility for a certain kind of pummeling garage-rock avalanche.
18.) Sufjan Stevens – “Should Have Known Better”
Staggeringly sad, arrestingly rich in detail, painfully honest, “Should Have Known Better” finds Sufjan Stevens delivering troubling memories and darkest thoughts in a voice pitched just over a whisper. The song occasionally climbs its way into major keys – delivered at the end of verses like much needed exhales in an anxiously stuffy bedroom – but mostly the song is a gorgeous challenge, the most minimalistic Stevens has dared to be in years, stripped of both the conceptual constructs that made the saddest parts of his Illinois and Michigan albums feel like realistic fiction and the baroque instrumentals that hid those album’s most troubling confessions. When the song’s second half winds its way into the kind of upbeat, chattering electro-pop that elevated 2010’s underrated The Age Of Adz, the effect is momentarily heartening. Yet the sentiment remains: “I should have known better: nothing can be changed / The past is still the past / A bridge to nowhere”.
17.) Hop Along – “The Knock”
One of the best opening-tracks in a year chock-full of great ones, “The Knock” opens Hop Along’s triumphant Painted Shut with an abrupt punch, Francis Quinlan’s scratchy blanket of an alto and the band’s bob-and-weave approach to emo, all swirled-up in a kind of call and response groove that builds and ebbs with grace and ease. But then that chorus comes along, and you realize just how much new ground the Philadelphia quartet have broken in the intervening years since 2012’s beloved Get Disowned. Suddenly there is pop structure, and there are hooks you get a second chance at singing, and there is a clarity and sense of direction that makes all of Quinlan and companies irrepressible energy all the more transporting. Take the chorus as a synecdoche for the whole – a perfect hook devoted to a line like “The witness just wants to talk to you”: pitch-perfect melodies and an entirely singular storytelling imagination.
16.) Sorority Noise – “Art School Wannabe”
For a while, it looked like Sorority Noise was going to be fighting an uphill battle to top the sheer one-in-a-million brilliance of their earliest singles, “Mediocre At Best” and “Still Shrill”. And at first, Joy, Departed, the band’s second, and thus-far, best full-length, doesn’t really seem to be interested in having that conversation in the first place, instead going for a more subtle, painterly approach focused more on moods than moments. But then “Art School Wannabe” arrives, a bright, energetic three minutes that borrows some of Piebald’s bouncy swing and coy self-deprecation, some of In Reverie-era Saves The Day’s ability to suddenly bloom into multi-colored beauty, and, as always, the band’s own sing-along theatrics. The song is gorgeously produced (courtesy of singer Cam Boucher) and wholly adept at the quiet-LOUD dynamics of this kind of outsized pop-punk, finding Sorority Noise capturing lightning in a bottle for a second time, with a few new tricks to boot.