Positive Feedback Logo

My Top Picks for New Songs in 2015

12-27-2015 | By David Williamson | Issue 83

The 20 songs I played a lot more than other songs this year, in alphabetical-artist-order, that were released in 2015 and that ended up on a list I made at the end of the year in 2015…


Action Bronson – Mr. Wonderful "Baby Blue"

Action Bronson takes himself, and his music, juuuusssttt seriously enough to bring the audience in on the joke (but it's not all jokes, the guy has chops). Putting aside the obvious buffoonery of Riff Raff, this is the funnest (it's a word) and most self-aware "white rapper" going right now. Action Bronson brings a swagger that never feels outsized (yes! weight/image puns!) and a certain sartorial sense that extends past his wardrobe, bleeding into his lyrics, guest-stars and even his female video casting choices (see HERE). Skipping his videos is to miss out on an artist showing you the other half of their vision for the music, fully developing the imagery the music can and does evoke. This songs' video brings the visual buffoonery to his tale of heartache, with a very extra special cameo from Chance the Rapper. Reminiscent of Biz Markie's "Just A Friend"…fun, fun, fun and stuck on repeat on my mobile.


Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color "Don't Wanna Fight"

Ugh! Bring that peace! If you don't "get it" in the first thirty seconds, stop listening because at about forty seconds in Brittany Howard breaks shit. She just throws it at the wall, turns to the mic and proceeds to let loose her soul. In a zig-zaggy roundabout way she follows the path of cease-fire musicianship laid down by Tina Turner (and not just because they both have songs sharing the same name). The low end and the top coexist in a tense standoff, with the struggle personified in the Turner-esque vocals Howard brings. Least you leave with the impression that this is all Howard's show I will now heap praises upon the rest of the band. Oh Yes! Amen! This is what I want in the soul-funk-blues corner of my world. I need music like this. It's strong music, confident and assured. This is what I want to hear every time I walk into a bar after midnight, coming onto the jukebox as I order a drink. Preach!


Best Coast – California Nights "Feeling OK"

This takes me back to Dakoda Motor Company and Weezer and my teenage introduction to pop-punk-surf music. This is the album I'll be giving my nieces for Christmas this year and what I listen to when I need a blast of Californian sun on a rainy Portland day.


Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit "Pedestrian At Best"

First thought? It sounds like the intro to "Molly's Chambers" by Kings of Leon. But nah…it's better than that. Riding what feels like a Krist Novoselic bass line is the stream-of-consciousness highlight of the year. The lyrics and delivery actually fall in line with Kurt Cobain as well, lending the entire affair an easy (lazy? lazy…) comparison to Nirvana. I find Barnett's self-awareness more acerbic and pointed then the dazed wanderer/observational-vibe I get from Kurt Vile (another standout, see below) but I enjoy them in the same vein. This is a good walking or working jam, something I can get things done to. Accomplishment music…I can dig that.


Death Cab For Cutie – Kintsugi "Black Sun"

Well hell…that took a quick turn for the depressing. Such a stark and melancholy beauty written in the ashes of a failed marriage is a tough thing for me to listen to (my marriage is just fine, as far as I know, but still). The lyrics sharply parse the relationship into its most brutal aspects, striking through the hope of the future with the cruel certainty that deep knowledge of a failure brings (sample lyric "and there's a dumpster in the driveway, of all the plans that came undone"). I'll just lazily quote the lead singer and lyric author talking in an interview here: "I wrote from a point of biting empathy". Ouch! The weight is carried on this song, evident in the dark electro-overtones and the slow burn-crescendo at 3:10 in the song. My biggest regret here is that we will never get to hear Johnny Cash cover this and make it his own (like he did with "Hurt"). Ponder that for a minute, this amazingly written and performed song, in the hands of Johnny Cash. Yeah, that hurts…


The Decemberists – What A Terrible World, What a Beautiful World "Make You Better"

This is music for my wife. Not music she listens to but music I wish I had written for her. She does listen to it though. I've got a regional soft-spot for these guys that in no way colors or diminishes my awe at what they've done here: written a touching and honest song about love, not as we wish it to be but as we actually experience it. My wife really does make me better and this song reaches into the part of me that (too infrequently) realizes just how much better she makes me.


Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart "She"

What my uncle called "Yeehaw Music". With a bit of punk ethos. That Dwight Yoakam shared a stage with luminaries like X is a well reported and known historical tidbit. So knowing that, this album in 2015 should suggest to you that this here cowboy has been around awhile and has the skills to keep paying the bills. Sure, "Believe" sounds suspiciously like Pearl Jam's "Given to Fly"  but in turn that song sounds remarkably similar to Led Zeppelin's "Going to California", so I guess you really can't hold it against him. Second Hand Heart is what you'd expect from a just-shy-of-sixty-year-old genre-pioneering country rocker, living in Los Angeles, still wearing a Stetson unironically and still kicking shit up. He does his own thing, he releases his music on his own label and he gets Beck to co-produce songs and do hand-claps on his records (3 Pears in 2012). "She" is the kind of "yeehaw music" I love, a little bit of The Rolling Stones mixed with a little bit of The Cars and a whole damn bunch of attitude. When I need a spurs and chaps fix I'm more likely than not going straight to Dwight Yoakam and this year I've been mostly reaching for this release. Yeehaw!


Father John Misty – I Love You, Honey Bear "Bored In The USA"

A superbly recorded album. The sound on this is fantastic; reaching and surrounding and penetrating sound that is sooooo easy to listen to. But we're here specifically for the track. Beyond the Elton-John-beautiful voice Father John Misty has been blessed with, his lyrical perceptiveness is astounding. His cultural awareness and commentary are spot-on and bordering on cruelty. We're treated to cynicism and sarcasm balancing each other out, topped with a world-weary funk (the mood, not the genre of music) that on paper seems like it should be a nihilist's emo-wet dream and yet comes across more accurately like a lamentation. I never felt any depression radiating from his song, this was more an allegorical warning, a mirror held up to a country he hasn't given up on. I can hear the pain and resignation in his performance and still feel a hope permeating his music, rooted in the sincerity from which he writes and sings. "Look" he seems to say, "look and behold your paradise. This is shit. Please do something else. You'll thank me later." The only paradise I see or hear is the one he's crafted with his music, a staggering and brilliant album that leaves me sweaty and anxious for his next release. Amazing stuff.


Hamilton – Original Broadway Cast Recording

I'm just counting the whole album here as one entry. If you haven't heard of this show/recording/phenomenon yet, you're welcome. There are many, MANY words already written on this show, from its historical accuracy to the composer's influences and intentions to a track-by-track breakdown of the album. I just liked it. Despite a slant of perspective owing to the individual in musical-question, which off put a close friend of mine (they're a history buff with a rather broad and deep knowledge base that I may challenge at my own peril), most folks I shared this recording with found it delightful and educational (as did I obviously). Engaging, occasionally insightful and most of all musically competent. A pop-history doctoral dissertation by way of a Broadway Musical? Absolutely!


Haste The Day – Coward "Reconcile"

Oh wow. These guys! My 20's come roaring back, roaring being the operative word. The band (of many lineups and congenial personnel changes) disbanded in 2011, after five albums and ten years. Towards the end, their sound had jelled into something approaching my own personal ideal of heavy perfection, entire albums transcending tracks to coalesce into "works". I approached this album hesitant but unafraid; expectant and excited. Could they carry forward the work they'd previously done, possibly improve upon it? If anything the recording here transcends my expectations. It shows the confidence of a returning band that has been there and done that and walked away on their own terms. This was a funded album, kickstarter/indie-go-go type of deal. No label expectations, no bills to pay, just music to be made. The years have been exceedingly kind to these guys and the album reflects that. It was such an unexpected and welcome surprise to discover this album this year. This track may not be the most representative of the overall oeuvre of the band, but it is the one that brings me the most emotional dissonance and creates the most introspection, feelings I specifically seek and treasure with this band. One of my most played and loved albums this year.


Kurt Vile – B'lieve I'm Goin Down "Pretty Pimpin", "That's Life, Tho"

I'm counting these two songs as one song for the sake of this paragraph, violating the rather loose structure I imposed with the title of this article. I'll get over it. I can't choose between these two songs. "Pretty Pimpin" is the stream-of-consciousness, guitar-played-like-a-banjo, rock-folk, over-hyphenated jam I'd been searching for all year. Seriously, by the time I finally heard this song I knew with a surety that my (subconscious) search was over. I must have played it twelve or thirteen times in a row then, just soaking in the pure rightness of it. "That's Life Tho" is my own personal lyrical b-side to the musical perfection of "Pretty Pimpin". The story telling on this track hits me the same way Doug Paisley did last year on his gem of an album Strong Feelings. I get the feels here, all of them. There's no formula to get me there, I just know it when I hear it, sound and phrasing combining for the win. Both tracks here help make up to one of my favorite albums of the year…but again this isn't about albums here, so onwards…


Lupe Fiasco – Tetsuo & Youth "Prisoner 1 & 2"

"You may start the conversation now."


Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor "Killing Strangers"

This does it for me. I've never been a big Marilyn Manson guy, but this puts me in the same headspace as the David Bowie/Trent Reznor remix collaboration "I'm Afraid of Americans". I loved that song something fierce when it dropped in the late 90's. The slowed-down, bass heavy, funeral march on this track is a great audio-emotional palate cleanser. I found myself putting this on during walks or when I was crunching work on a deadline.


Modest Mouse – Strangers To Ourselves "Lampshades On Fire"

When Modest Mouse burns it all down to start over it may sound very, very familiar. The "Float On" fellows have merged the hooks that propelled their last two albums to such mainstream success with the desperation and fatalism that defined their early albums. Their first album post-Johnny Marr is a stellar culmination of every thought and note previously thrown onto a Modest Mouse album, mixed and stirred and served neat. Very refreshing, very good, partying in the ashes at the end of the world (a party I'd most willingly attend).


Mumford & Sons – Wilder Minds "Tompkins Square Park/Believe/The Wolf"

The best three song opening in recent memory? Yes! My favorite opening track sequence on an album in FOREVERS! I'll put these three tracks up against anything that has come out this year. To the naysayers: Yes, it's not the same folk music performed on standup bass by gents in wee vests and corduroy. Yes, their going electric is not on the (exact same, identical, culturally-earthshaking) level as Dylan going electric. Yes, it sounds different. Deal. With. It. Comparisons to U2 are ubiquitous and not without merit. I think the comparisons fall apart when you consider the general sense of hope that accompanies all the sparkly grandeur that U2 projects these days. Bono is never going to sing "No flame lasts forever", he's going to sing "The eternal flame burns brighter than ever". This is more U2 by way of The Strokes, The Walkmen, or The Hold Steady…all amazing bands with a level of driving intensity U2 hasn't seen in years (no knock to U2, love you guys!). Wilder Minds is also one of my top albums of the year that I'm not talking about here because this is about the singles…next…


Ryan Adams – 1989 "Blank Space"

Another one of my top five albums of the year (sorry Taylor). Ryan Adams' album may share song titles and lyrics with Taylor Swift's 1989 but this is not the same album. He has totally, absolutely, without question made this his own album. It's not a cover so much as a makeover. A complete rebuild in mechanic's parlance. The man went through a reportedly brutal divorce, took the bubble-gummiest album of the year as a personal salve to his soul, then covered it (in his worries and pain) and in doing so reinvented the wheel. With a big ‘ol fuck you, he'll start the song "Bad Blood" using a chord progression that feels lifted from Oasis' Wonderwall and you will not care. He turns the upbeat and positive "Shake It Off" into a junkie-dirge, where he repeats the chorus "baby I'm just gonna shake" over and over like a lament to lost sobriety. He makes the overly dramatic and hopeful "Blank Space" into an Elliot Smith b-side, knit cap and long sleeves to hide the scars. I don't care if you are the biggest Taylor Swift fan-person in the world or utterly dismissive of everything she's ever done…this "cover" is her shining achievement and the most important thing to come from her yet…and it really isn't hers. The irony delights me. This song and album thrill me. Listen to Ryan Adams 1989. Do it.


Silver Sun Pickups – Better Nature "Nightlight"

I've already talked about this song and this album HERE. I still stand by all of that. I can report that of the close friends who took my advice and cranked this album to eleven, all of them responded positively to the results and look favorably on the "more-is-more" volume suggestion I made. Broken clocks/twice a day and all that.


They Might Be Giants – Why? "Omnicorn"

In what was to me the most surprising addition to this list, They Might Be Giants most recent children's album makes an appearance thanks to its frequent car ride airplay time when my two boys are stuck in a vehicle with me. I can't fault TMBG for moving into a musical genre that they so clearly have the skills to dominate. That they already have two Grammy's semi-establishes their bona fides and making a move that's financially sound is hardly a knock on their musical legacy. What the album comes down to is taking TMBG's pre-existing whimsy and joy, marrying it to the educational wonder children's music requires and ending up with a recipe for both commercial success and repeated listening in my house (well, car). Well done gentlemen.


The Weekend – Beauty Behind The Madness "Can't Feel My Face"

The track that brings us the closest thing to Michael Jackson since Bruno Mars sang on "Uptown Funk". It's just that Michael never gave us this same kind of clever/naughty wordplay, comparing love to the white powdered nose-candy of the 80's (I really wanted to make an "on-the-nose" or "missing a nose" joke there) (I guess I just did). This ear worm was my go-to dance song (not that I dance, at all) this year; the kind of song that I played during our weekly family YouTube dance sessions (OK, I dance with the kids, with the blinds closed and doors shut and all recording devices turned off). Excellent stuff, the kind of song careers are built upon.


Wolf Alice – My Love Is Cool "Moaning Lisa Smile"

Wolf Alice is prime Lilith Fair (Second Stage) material. That they sound like Veruca Salt covering Tori Amos by way of L7 is something I feel comfortable saying (since I was active listener AND in the key demographic for all three of those acts in the 90's) (well, the key male demographics…all three were/are rather female oriented). I adore this band and am immediately transported back to my high school days of sturm und drang every time this song comes on. If I had a teenage daughter I would find a way to casually leave a vinyl copy of this album lying about the house, most likely with a sticky note on it that implied an intended prohibition of her listening to it. Reverse psychology…it works still, right?