Welcome to another edition of the annual Sunday Barrel Year-End Celebration, where we’ll take a look back at the best music to come out of 2015. December is the time of year where music blogs such as this like to pretend that music is a sport that can easily be broken down into rankings so readers like you can grumble and complain. That’s what the internet is all about, right? As with any “sport,” there are bound to be winners and losers (unless you play in Bettman’s NHL, then EVERYONE’s a winner), let’s take a look at some of the biggest winners and losers of 2015.
No offense, Philadelphia, but when did you become cool?* As I was looking through my favorite music from this and recent years, I noticed a startling number of bands come from Philadelphia or the surrounding area. I mean, look at this list:
- The War on Drugs
- Kurt Vile
- Pissed Jeans
- Hop Along
- Free Energy
- Amanda X
- Strand of Oaks
- Beach Slang
This city is stacked! If there was such a thing as a Fantasy Music League, Philadelphia would dominate. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are many great musicians in the ranks, playing shows at great Philly venues like World Café Live, MilkBoy, Johnny Brendas, First Unitarian Church, etc., waiting their turn for national recognition. Thanks to these bands, venues, and radio stations like WXPN and Radio 104.5, Philadelphia’s music scene is truly thriving.
*This is no way an endorsement for any major sport team based in Philadelphia. Also, please note that the phrase “No offense, Philadelphia” is a trademark of all Philadelphia sports.
Another aspect I noticed about my favorite music from this and recent years is the amount of women just killing it in music right now. Most of the bands I listen to feature at least one female member. Music is now led by women, and it’s about damn time we recognize. Adele is setting fire to the rain and the billboard charts, single-handedly saving the music industry (and perhaps destroying the music streaming) in the process. Meanwhile, Taylor Swift and her ever-growing squad have taken over the radio and your local arenas, Beyoncé will probably drop a surprise album tomorrow, and a new Rihanna album is right around the corner (we think). But I’m not just talking about pop starlets, as there are many powerful, strong, and talented young women making noise away from the Top 40 charts. Female-fronted artists like Bully, Screaming Females, Grimes, CHVRCHES, Hop Along, and Courtney Barnett all released some of the best music this year, and they’re only getting started.
Tom freakin’ Petty
I’m not sure how it happened, but Tom Petty is inescapable. Not Tom Petty himself, but his sound. Who knew Tom Petty was so prolific? The dude started his 2015 off by winning a lawsuit for songwriting credits on Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” as it was decided that it sounds a little too close to Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” How did Petty handle it? He called it “a musical accident,” saying in a statement, “All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. The word lawsuit was never even said and was never my intention. I wish Sam all the best for his ongoing career. Peace and love to all.“ How chill is that? The dude abides, man. If only the Gaye Family Estate was half as sympathetic. Legally, many new artists and veterans alike are getting in on the Tom Petty action. Last year, The War on Drugs carried the Petty torch with their magnificent roots-rock opus Lost in a Dream. In 2015, the “Petty Trend” continued. On his latest album, b’lieve I’m goin down, Kurt Vile (a friend of The War on Drugs, of course) is at the top of his Petty game. The great song “Pretty Pimpin’” recalls Petty’s laid-back, stoner’s brand of classic rock. But it’s not just Kurt Vile who’s livin’ like a refugee. Ryan Adams, who had a great 2015 of his own, nailed a Tom Petty-covering-Taylor-Swift impression on his version of Swift’s 1989. Hell, even Deerhunter and Tallest Man on Earth took the Petty sound for a spin on their respective albums. So, tell your dad or your uncle: classic rock is back baby! I, for one, can’t wait for the year when the Peter Frampton sound comes around.
I’m done defending this band. When word of a new Coldplay album in 2015 surfaced, I felt they had every chance to make a truly great album after breaking new ground on Ghost Stories. That album, while a little uneven, had some inspired moments, reminding us that Coldplay is one of the few mainstream pop acts that challenges their listeners which each release. But this pile of crap – their seventh (and possibly last) album, A Head Full of Dreams – I cannot defend. I never thought I’d say it, but it makes me yearn for the days when Coldplay had rushes of blood in their head rather than meaningless dreams (A Rush of Blood to the Head is a great pop album that will only get better with age). What happened to the old Coldplay? Songs like “Clocks,” “Magic,” or even “Paradise,” I can defend. But “Adventure of a Lifetime”? I can’t even. There is no redeeming quality about this new album. There are no hooks and no earworms here, both of which Chris Martin always had a knack for. A Head Full of Dreams is just a mish-mash of sound, and I now know what Coldplay sounds like to people who hate them.
Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music – Streaming Music
I get the feeling that the major music industry still doesn’t know what to do with the Internet. 15 years since Napster came in like a wrecking ball, major labels have seemingly shrugged their shoulders and said “fuck it”, giving the music away for free after all with little-to-no benefit to the actual artists. Streaming music is now controlled by three major services: Spotify, Tidal, and Apple Music. This past year saw these services aggressively competing for real estate on the same barren island. It’s like Lord of the Flies, and Jay Z is Piggy. The millionaire posse of artists representing Tidal spent most of 2015 practically begging for our business, with not much to offer but “exclusive” videos and shows. Their main schtik was that they’d be working “for the artists”, but so far, very few listeners have bought into it. While it’s fundamentally great to have free and open access to this amount of music, it’s not benefitting anyone but label owners. Artists like Coldplay, Taylor Swift, and Adele – arguably the world’s biggest pop stars – have not offered their music for streaming. Adele’s new album 25 has sold 6 million copies in four weeks in the US alone. In today’s world, that kind of number is unheard of! And you want to know how she was able to do this? She did not make 25 available on music streaming services. If you wanted to hear the album, you had to shell out the dough. It’s a great strategy for her, but unfortunately, smaller artists wouldn’t be able to get away with this. While free exposure on the internet is great for any new band, they’d be lying if they said that money wasn’t a concern. Something needs to be done for the up-and-comers so they can get their fair share. What that plan might look like, I haven’t a clue, but I’m sure something can be done. It’s too bad Jay Z and his friends are more worried about the money in their own pockets.
YouTube and David Letterman
This might be one that only matters to me, but remember those great performances on Late Night with David Letterman over the years? I’m talking Ryan Adams, Future Islands, The Strokes, etc. Well, they’re all gone! None of these legendary performances are available to watch on YouTube anymore… well, at least the ones on the now-deleted Letterman YouTube channel. Come on, man! Just because Letterman retired, doesn’t mean all the great musical moments from the show should go too.
TOP SONGS of 2015
Watching Every Channel At Once, Slonk Donkerson
Style, Ryan Adams
Can’t Keep Checking My Phone, Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Continental Shelf, Viet Cong
Never Get You Right, Brandon Flowers
Gifts for the Earth, Deafheaven
Trace Me Onto You, Title Fight
50. Lonely Town, Brandon Flowers
49. 679 (feat. Remy Boyz), Fetty Wap
48. Desperate Guy, The Fratellis
47. Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party, Courtney Barnett
46. Ship To Wreck, Florence and the Machine
45. The Less I Know The Better, Tame Impala
44. Pretty Pimpin, Kurt Vile
43. Multi-Love, Unknown Mortal Orchestra
42. Forget It’s A Dream, Communions
41. All Day, Kanye West
40. Darkness of the Dream, The Tallest Man On Earth
39. I Can Do No Wrong, American Wrestlers
38. Powerful Man, Hop Along
37. Bought to the Water, Deafheaven
36. Six, Bully
35. The Ideal Husband, Father John Misty
34. Repetition, Purity Ring
33. Complexity, Eagles of Death Metal
32. Levels, Nick Jonas
31. Ripe, Screaming Females
30. I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) (feat. Young Thug & Popcaan), Jamie xx
29. Feeling Ok, Best Coast
28. Thief, The Fratellis
27. Push Pull, Purity Ring
26. My Body, Armstrong Leigh
25. Rose Of Sharon, Title Fight
24. Depreston, Courtney Barnett
23. Breaker, Deerhunter
22. Kill V. Maim, Grimes
21. The Moment, Tame Impala
20. How Much a Dollar Cost (feat. James Fauntleroy & Ronald Isley), Kendrick Lamar
19. Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins), Father John Misty
18. Necessary Evil, Unknown Mortal Orchestra
17. Snakeskin, Deerhunter
16. Leave A Trace, CHVRCHES
15. The Blacker the Berry, Kendrick Lamar
14. Flesh Without Blood, Grimes
13. Gosh, Jamie xx
12. Uptown Funk (featuring Bruno Mars), Mark Ronson
11. Lock All The Doors, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
10.Can’t Feel My Face, The Weeknd
It’s weird we now live in a world where The Weeknd is one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. It wasn’t that long ago when Abel Tesfaye was releasing mysterious mixtapes of drugged-out, moody R&B songs whilst remaining anonymous to the public. Tesfaye’s still got a little bit of that baggage with him, but he hits the nail on the head on “Can’t Feel My Face,” a song that struts and grooves like a smooth criminal. It’s definitely the best Top 40 song of the year for me.
- Down Side Of Me, CHVRCHES
What I like about CHVCHES, other than the juicy synths in each song, is that on their newest album, Every Open Eye, they didn’t rush to change their sound on what’s only their 2nd record. Instead, they improved every aspect of what made their first album so great. The production is a little slicker, the melodies are a little catchier, and Lauren Mayberry’s voice gets stronger with every performance. “Down Side of Me” is a deep cut from an album full of radio-friendly bangers, but I think it’s the most emotionally powerful of the bunch.
- Trying, Bully
It’s a damn shame this band wasn’t around 20 years ago, because this song would be everywhere, after every final Cobain chord fades. In a way, that’s exactly what Bully does on their debut album: pick up where Nirvana left off, that is if Nirvana was fronted by the lovechild of Courtney Love and Gwen Stefani. Guitarist/Vocalist Alicia Bognanno is a leading force, delivering her brutally honest lyrics with scorching tongue. Plus, she produced the whole thing herself. Somewhere in the heart of Chicago, Steve Albini must be proud of his former intern.
- Pedestrian at Best, Courtney Barnett
“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you / Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you.” Courtney Barnett has quickly become one of the best lyricists this generation has to offer. Her words are funny, poignant, and strong. I was blown away when I first heard this song back in March. At times on her A Sea of Split Peas Double EP, Courtney’s songs, much like her words, tended to ramble on as her mind would audibly wander. On “Pedestrian,” Courtney and her backing band of scoundrels have found a laser-sharp focus with more than enough pep to knock you off your feet.
- Sister Cities, Hop Along
Hop Along’s newest album, Painted Shut, is a revealing set of angsty indie-rock. Everything about it is so human, which has a lot to do with the urgency in the music and Quinlan’s voice. Hailing from Philly, Hop Along’s songs are about growing up quickly despite feeling helpless and weak at times. On “Sister Cities,” Frances Quinlan’s voice strains with a defeated exasperation, like she’s just so sick of this shit around her, although she’s not yet ready to give up.
- Alright, Kendrick Lamar
I’m already sick of hearing about the upcoming presidential election. They’re all fart-sniffers and snake-oil salesmen/women, in my humble opinion. Everyone has their different and respective opinions on what are the big issues in America, but there’s no denying that one of the biggest issues plaguing out country is the continuing racial divide. On Kendrick Lamar’s hip-hop masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly, he speaks of the real life struggles black Americans face every day, against some of the very people who are supposed to be protecting them. On the best song of the album, “Alright,” he paints a bleak picture, citing the oppression and depression he’s experienced in his hometown: “We hate popo / wanna kill us dead in the street for sure.” When all seems hopeless, Kendrick proudly reminds us that despite all this, “we gon be alright.” It’s a simple, universal message that points to a peaceful future. It seeks to unite, not divide, and points to a future of opportunity. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, yellow, purple, or blue… the message is the same: “we gon be alright,” Now THAT’S a change I can believe in.
4. Luna, Deafheaven
Following up a groundbreaking album like 2013’s Sunbather can be a daunting task, but Deafheaven are hitting their stride. New Bermuda is a different but better album. “Luna,” the second of five songs on the album, pulverizes anything on Sunbather. The first half of the song is absolutely brutal, as George Clarke pushes his screams to the limit over guitarist Kerry McCoy’s Slayer-like attack. The wonderful thing about Deafheaven, and what makes them so great, is that as dark as things get with them, there is always a moment of relief and light around the corner that counterbalances the darkness. The final few minutes of “Luna” is an eruption of ecstasy and relief so powerful, it’ll make you cry. I have no idea what Clark is singing on this song (or the whole album, really) but quite frankly, it doesn’t matter. The one word I can make out at the end is “suburbia,” and in the moment on the song, it’s the most beautiful word I’ve ever heard.
- I Went To The Store One Day, Father John Misty
Father John Misty is one cynical bastard. Every word he utters on the gorgeous I Love You, Honeybear is sung with a sly grin and a tongue firmly in cheek. Father John Misty, himself, is a persona Josh Tillman can hide behind so he can get away with singing about love, marriage, and changing his dastardly ways without sounding like a complete asshole with an acoustic guitar. As much as I like the sarcastic Father John Misty, the album’s best moment is when the mask is stripped away and it’s Josh Tillman, just another asshole with an acoustic guitar. On the album closer, “I Went To the Store One Day,” Tillman is at his most vulnerable, talking about his desire for a lifelong marriage and a quiet life in the south. He doesn’t mince words or make any jokes here. This love between him and his new wife Emma is complicated, beautiful, and real. Yet, it started out so simply at some grocery store in southern California. Out of all the great lyrics on I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman save’s his best and most impactful for the very end.
- Let It Happen, Tame Impala
Kevin Parker, the mastermind behind Tame Impala, doesn’t want to get caught in the same place for too long. Like any great musician, he’s changing but he still wants us to come along for the ride. It’s a theme that’s omnipresent on his brilliant new album Currents. Sure, Parker could’ve easily pulled another psych-rock opus like Lonerism out of his ass, and it probably would’ve been great. But thanks to Currents, we now know that’s not how Parker’s mind works. That’s not how anything works in life, and sometimes, you just gotta let it happen. That’s what Kevin Parker struggles with on his best album opener to date. It’s an urgent and frantic song that borrows traits from Tame Impala’s past songs while hinting at the change that blooms on the rest of the album. The music itself highlights the struggle in Kevin Parker’s mind, but in the end, he does what he wants and moves forward. The sound is progressive as the song twists and turns, leading up to a exhilarating vocoder-assisted climax. If you had told me Daft Punk produced the middle section, I would’ve believed you. But no, this is all Kevin Parker, and on “Let It Happen,” it’s amazing what he can do no matter what muse he follows.
- REALiTi (Demo), Grimes
It’s been a long time since we heard from Grimes. Her last album, Visions, gave her some major street-cred among indie critics and fans alike. Despite it’s spacey weirdness, Visions was a pop-album at heart straight out of the mind of an eccentric young woman out of Canada named Claire Boucher. However, after nearly 3 years since that album’s release, we didn’t hear much from Boucher. In 2014, she gave us “Go,” a Skrillex-ed out jam that was originally written for Rihanna (who didn’t want it) and was supposed to be featured on a Grimes album that Boucher herself abandoned to start from scratch. At this point, fans were left to wonder if Visions was just a fluke. Little did we know, Boucher spent the better of three years teaching herself how to play different instruments like the guitar and violin, as well as mastering her production skills. Finally, in March, we heard the initial fruits of Boucher’s labor: an unmastered/unmixed demo called “REALiTi,” released only to hold fans over for her November album Art Angels. I know what you’re thinking (other than “do I have to read this whole thing?”): a demo? Really? Yes, really. This demo is hardly a demo at all. In fact, this unfinished product is so well-produced, it’s miles better than your highly polished Top 40 summer jam. But that’s not the only thing that makes this song so great. “REALiTi” is smooth combination of chill-wave, synth-pop, and Napster-era techno, making for an irresistible jam that can only be made by Grimes. There’s simply nothing like it.
TOP ALBUMS of 2015
30. 1989, Ryan Adams
29. II, METZ
28. Sounds & Color, Alabama Shakes
27. California Nights, Best Coast
26. The Lunar Martini Motorcycle Club, Slonk Donkerson
25. Dark Bird Is Home, The Tallest Man On Earth
24. Another Eternity, Purity Ring
23. American Wrestlers, American Wrestlers
22. The Desired Effect, Brandon Flowers
21. b’lieve i’m goin down…, Kurt Vile
20. Chasing Yesterday, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
19. Communions EP, Communions
18. Fading Frontier, Deerhunter
17. The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us, Beach Slang
16. Zipper Down, Eagles Of Death Metal
15. The Magic Whip, Blur
14. Painted Shut, Hop Along
13. Rose Mountain, Screaming Females
12. Multi-Love, Unknown Mortal Orchestra
11. Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied, The Fratellis
10. Hyperview , Title Fight
9. Feels Like, Bully
8. To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar
7. Every Open Eye, CHVRCHES
6. In Colour, Jamie xx
5. I Love You, Honeybear, Father John Misty
4. Art Angels, Grimes
3. Currents, Tame Impala
2. Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, Courtney Barnett
1 New Bermuda, Deafheaven
2015 was an embarrassment of riches for music geeks like me. I highly recommend listening to all of the albums I listed above, as each of them could easily be #1. It’s been THAT good of a year in music.
If you’re still one of those people who ignorantly believes that there’s no good music out there anymore, there’s no better time than now to turn off the radio and try one of these albums out. I’m not saying to completely disregard everything in the Top 40, because there’s a lot of good stuff there too. But if you think that’s all the new music there is, that’s like drinking Bud Light all your life without ever tasting an IPA or a fine wine. There’s a lot of beauty out there, you just have to know where to listen.
For example, Courtney Barnett, a talented young woman from Australia, released an incredible new album chock full of fun, honest rock and roll. Barnett’s a gifted songwriter who has a unique way with words. She tells stories that will make you laugh and break your heart, squeezing every last word out of her head until she runs out of breath before the next verse. Sometimes I Sit and Think is one hell of a debut from a musician that has a truly bright and exciting future. If you’re going to start with any album from this list, make sure it’s hers.
As for me, my favorite album from this year is Deafheaven’s New Bermuda. I’ve written about it extensively in the past, so at this point, there’s not much more to say except I still can’t get enough of it. I’ve never had an album punch me so hard in the gut emotionally and musically. If death-metal isn’t your thing, I totally understand. It isn’t mine either, and it’s too bad the death-metal moniker is going to scare a lot of people away from this great band. The thing about Deafheaven is they aren’t interested in adhering to the metal genre as it is traditionally known. Out of all the genres of music, metal tends to be the most stubborn. Metal fans are like a cult, and if any band deviates from the norm (that is, if a band tries to evolve as any good band should), they’re spit upon. Deafheaven is a band that can’t be pigeon-holed into one genre. They’re too unique for that; too forward-thinking. New Bermuda defies any single genre. The album is a seamless blend of thrash metal Metallica, Explosions in the Sky and their post-rock grandeur, and Oasis at the peak of Britpop. The result is absolutely breathtaking, and for that, it is my favorite album of 2015.