2015 provided as exciting a year in music as ever before: Sleater-Kinney’s hard hitting reunion, Kendrick Lamar’s highly anticipated follow up to good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Beach House double album drops – the list goes on. Here, NUCH1 music correspondents do their best to pick 100 seminal tracks, or at least 100 tracks worth talking about.
“Small Poppies” – Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett burst on the scene this year with her brand of sharp-tongued lyricism and garage rock fuzz. “Small Poppies” cruises by with its rockabilly guitars that are perfect to match the self-deprecating tone.
“Them Changes” – Thundercat feat. Flying Lotus
Thundercat is a phenomenally talented, multi-genre bassist whose contributions on To Pimp A Butterfly alone would give him a banner year. Taking into account his solo album, which combines his skills with the Kamasi Washington, he may be the best in the world at his craft. “Them Changes” is a suitable crash course into his smooth, strange, pulsing style of funk.
“Minimal Affection” – The Vaccines
I wouldn’t recommend the rest of the album, but “Minimal Affection” has the nimble pop rock styling that Phoenix and The Strokes do so well. Turn it on and turn it up.
“Vertigo” – Mini Mansions
This is my personal pick for single of the year. With the aid of the Arctic Monkey’s Alex Turner, Mini Mansions crafts a slinking ode to the line between love and lust. The descending piano intro and Draconian bass riff portends the song’s trip into the world of the bizarre and the sexy.
“Genghis Khan” – Miike Snow
This song starts where most songs dream to be: It’s got a chitter-chatter drumbeat and a pumping synth orchestra to support Snow’s flightly voice. Then the final minute adds Snow’s trademark piano noodlings and the whole thing coalesces into the best that indie pop can deliver: crisp and clean fun.
“Holy Ghost” – Børns
If The Weeknd takes the trophy for the dirtiest songwriting in the mainstream ear, Børns gets the silver medal. This song combines the holy/sexy dichotomy of Nine Inch Nail’s classic “Closer,” with the stunning pop rock of the late David Bowie gone full glam. The end result creates a gospel of shagging so potent, it should be listened to with protection.
“No Sleeep” – Janet Jackson
I couldn’t guess that I’d include a Janet Jackson song in a year end wrap up. But the first time I heard the laid back, RnB groove, I knew it was something special. After an intro featuring the sounds of waves crashing and rain, the song scales way back to a simple organ progression and a deceptively simple drumbeat. Jackson’s time honored subject matter – making love – is given a feather light touch in this instant classic jam.
“Ain’t to Cool” – Lunchmoney Lewis
What a name, and what a song! Lunchmoney Lewis (of the retro-pop song “Bills”) goes straight for the dance floor. There isn’t much sophistication to this dance track, but the superb production that makes nods to disco, 80s, and current electronic tendencies elevates the song to “banger” status.
“Pistol Made of Bones” – The Arcs
Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys has bazillion side projects, none as cool as The Arcs, a rather tongue-in cheek attempt at what I will term “underbelly rock” – the intersection between psychedelic, blues, garage, and country. For my money, the arch “Pistol Made of Bones” succeeds the most, providing the kind of skullduggery to back up the skull adorned album cover.
“Peaches and Cream” – Snoop Dogg
From his earliest days as a G-funk wunderkind, Snoop Dogg has made an effort to keep his rhymes smooth and his style smoother. This return to form has the West Coast master collaborating with his good friend Pharrell, as well as a host of icons from Charlie Wilson to Gwen Stefani. Look no further than “Peaches and Cream” for evidence that when it comes to a good time, nobody does it better than Snoop D – O – Double – G.
“Look in Too” – Together Pangea
I have a massive soft spot for surf-tinged punk rock, which there is no shortage of these days. For the uninitiated, start with Together Pangea: their head-banging chords and sing-a-long choruses will have you itching to hit the beach and drink.
“The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box” – Modest Mouse
Modest Mouse’s long awaited return spans radio friendly hits (“Lampshades on Fire”) to introspective ballads (“Strangers to Ourselves”), but their most successful piece is the 6 minute experiment “The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box.” I’d be an idiot not to point out the breakdown which mixes animals noises and horns, but the unsung hero of the songs is the urgent guitar riff. It more than conveys the songs central theme about the chaos of a world in constant disruption.
“Sparks” – Beach House
Dreamy, dissonant — whether it’s Coleridge’s Kubla Khan or Nolan’s Inception, it’s not hard to transport an audience into a dream state. But what shoegaze does, more than just “dream pop,” is situate that dreamscape within a context of dissonance, thereby blurring the line between dream and reality. Not a nightmare, just a dream you’d rather not have. Here accomplished with plenty of intoxicating guitar fuzz, drudging organs and a haunting background vocal track on loop.
“Sugah Daddy” — D’Angelo and the Vanguard
Mischievous and creeping, like he’s the big bad wolf tip toeing around hatching whimsical schemes of world domination. I’d like to think that’s what D’Angelo’s been doing the last 15 years. But a ridiculous hour-long explosion of neo-soul, funk, elements of jazz and pop sensibility will have to do.
“Let It Happen” — Tame Impala
When it came out in March, it was Kevin Parker’s declaration of change. It was the magna carta for his new R&B flavored brand of psych rock, with a jolt of dance and lathered with synths. It’s a behemoth and perhaps not completely accessible to all listeners. It’s eight minutes of a madman unleashing his genius upon us. Long live Kevin Parker.
“Like Acid Rain” — Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Boasting a drum track that sounds like you’re getting smacked in a comic video game, Sly Cooper or some other Naughty Dog masterpiece, this New Zealander psych rock track bounces, hop, skips and croons its way to your ear drum’s sweet spot. It’s subtly punchy bass gives way to slightly manic vocal intonations, and before you can slow down and try to hear each layer, it’s gone, barely clocking in at two minutes. Psychedelic music is alive and well over in Oceania.
“Lift Me Up” — Vince Staples
A gritty cry for help from the depths of his own experience growing up in Long Beach, California, Vince Staples reveals the bleak pain that accompanies not only his geographical station, but that which comes from the racial undercurrents driving the despondent social climate around him. His lamentations include being held back from superstardom on account of his race (a la Muddy Waters) and the reality that when you’re stuck living in LBC, the norm is being fed a greater cultural narrative constantly glorifying that which you do not have. Meanwhile, white folks (and plenty of other folk who don’t share his immediate experience, I imagine) bob their heads and chant along to his bars while remaining blissfully ignorant of the pains he carries, which are essential to his music. You cannot separate his flow or his production or any of his ethos —which is hardened by trial, but never cold — from his experience. An intelligent, talented dude who’s going places.
“Sound & Color” — Alabama Shakes
Sonically a surprise, nobody thought the blues garage rockers would turn out the next Apollo mission on their sophomore effort. But that’s just what they did. Still as good as it was when it dropped last spring.
“Children of Children” — Jason Isbell
Here stands Isbell, giving you a tender, affection for life that can only be found in heartland music. His work is resurrecting the ethos of the restless, wild American spirit which we’ve rather dismembered with all of our urban hymns of electronica and hip hop. Isbell reminds us that there’s still a place for “country” ballads (albeit an alternative and creative development of “country”), while telling heart wrenching stories of every day folk. Immunization for the headaches of modern America.
“Gimme love” — Sleater-Kinney
Taking a drill bit to your ears and leaving you either disoriented or head bobbing or both, the return of the most important all-female punk rock band of the last twenty years is triumphant. Tucker, Brownstein, and Weiss are rumored to be riding onto stage on massive stallions bred in the tumbling Mongolian steppe.
“Should’ve Known Better”— Sufjan Stevens
An explicit demonstration of why sadness and beauty coexist well, Stevens documents his grief following his mother’s death while also detailing her desertion of the family. And all of that living alongside a genuine longing to see her again. His emotions match the twisting intricacies of his melodies and ghostly whisper of a voice.
“Sleeping Light (featuring Ural Thomas)” — EL VY
Both tough sounding (credit his baritone voice) and adept at expressing tender emotion, Matt Berninger is one of the few songwriters of the past decade or so who could really go toe-to-toe with Sufjan. “Sleeping Light” is centered around a persistently sad melody and lyrically documenting the relationship between insomnia and loneliness. The former causes the latter; the latter is accentuated by the former.
“Pretty Pimpin'”— Kurt Vile
Buzzing and warm, Vile’s picking is likelier to have come out of the American south than his native Philadelphia suburbia. But that detracts neither from its acute purpose embedded within his tongue-in-cheek story telling, nor his genuineness. See Vile sounds like a bumbling fool (it’s understandable if you can’t get past his vocals), but is actually a contemplative and self-aware genius of a songwriter. “Pretty Pimpin” gives language to the unsettling distinction between body and mind. Vile’s consciousness is disrupted by his “clownish” appearance in the mirror; he doesn’t realize that it’s really him until he recognizes his clothes on whoever’s body that is. All coherence of reality thankfully then restored, Vile brilliantly concludes about his appearance: “Gotta say, pretty pimpin’.”
“Smooth Sailin'” — Leon Bridges
In retrospect, God agreed with us. Sam Cooke left us too early (died at 33 in 1964). So we have gratefully received Leon Bridges to ease the pain. Time to go glide around in my tube socks and drift into this immaculate time capsule.
“Smooth (featuring Rob Thomas)” — Santana
What an incredible run they’re having. 16* straight years! Amazing!
An additional note on one particular musical trend of 2015:
Whether it was dream pop, shoegaze, electronic, jazz-based, or any other music lulling you away from reality, 2015 was overrun with an obsession for the dreamy. Some are forthright with their processes; you expect to end up somewhere otherworldly when psychedelic and electronic acts take the stage. But some are more subtle, accomplishing other work alongside their dream induction. Some deal with harsh realities (see Donnie Trumpet) and some are named Drake, who are only concerned with building themselves up. From our list, here are the tunes of your hazy visions and your more unrestrained mental wanderings. Close your eyes and float away for a spell:
Alabama Shakes — “Sound & Color”
Beach House — “Sparks,” “All Your Yeahs” [all of their material, really]
Blur — “My Terracotta Heart”
Deerhunter — “Breaker”
Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment — “Nothing Came to Me,” “Something Came to Me”
EL VY — “Sleeping Light,” “Sad Case” [for nightmares], “Return to the Moon (?)”
Hot Chip —“Huarache Lights,” “Dark Nights”
Jamie xx —“Loud Places” [see rest of “In Colour”]
Janet Jackson – “No Sleeep;” three E’s for the extra sleepy
Mac Demarco —“Another One” [again, this is his style]
Mini Mansions – “Vertigo”
My Morning Jacket – “Compound Fracture,” cascades guitars keep this on the soft side of rock.
Pond —“Waiting Around For Grace,” “Outside is the Right Side”
Sports – “You Are the Right One” – Prince grooves mixed with some cough syrup.
Sufjan Stevens — all of Carrie & Lowell works for dreams of pure sorrow, not nightmares but the resurfacing of deep cognitive aches; “Death With Dignity,” “Should Have Known”
Tame Impala — all of Currents; “Let It Happen,” “The Less I Know the Better,” “Reality in Motion”
Thundercat — entire The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam; “Song for the Dead”
Unknown Mortal Orchestra — all of Multi-Love, they’re also making a run for psych rock kingship; “Like Acid Rain,” “Puzzles” [a troubled dream, perhaps]
The Walters – “Hunk Beach,” as effortlessly smooth surf rock as the Beach Boys in their prime.
Wolf Alice —“Bros,” “Your Loves Whore” and most of My Love is Cool.
Yo La Tengo — naturalistic longings of Thoreau surface on “The Ball of Red Buckets”, staring out into a hilly wilderness that to us is too far away. — Phil