Firstly, here’s my Top 30 Albums of 2015
And now, here are 10 songs that I liked that were released this year, in no particular order.
1. Courtney Barnett – Dead Fox
On this blog in 2013 I wrote about Courtney Barnett: “I hope she takes over the world.” Since then, well, guess what? She has. Without major label backing and before she even released an album, she played on Jimmy Fallon, hung out with Steve Tyler and sung a locally specific song about house hunting in Preston (where I used to live. Yes, it can be depressing.) to millions of Americans on the Ellen DeGeneres show, which I find particularly freaky considering how culturally self-absorbed the U.S. is. (Did the U.S. have to remake The Office? Australia’s The Slap? Why can’t they just watch the original? The Bridge? The Killing? They can’t read subtitles?)
Courtney Barnett has followed through with the potential of her first couple of EPs with a stellar debut album. My two daughters love it, too and I’m ordered to put it on every time I’m in the car with them: “Play the origami song” (Pedestrian At Best), “play the swimming song” (Aqua Profunda!), “play the song that goes quiet and then loud” (Kim’s Caravan). Dead Fox is my favourite track from Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit. I love the opening verse:
Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables
And I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first
A little pesticide can’t hurt
Never having too much money, I get the cheap stuff at the supermarket
But they’re all pumped up with shit
A friend told me that they stick nicotine in the apples
And then the chorus soars. Speaking of soaring, I must mention that Courtney’s guitar playing (so much attention is placed upon her lyrics) throughout the album totally rocks out.
Maybe I shouldn’t care so much about whether Australian acts make it big overseas or not but I am hoping her success will draw overseas eyes on other good local bands which she has done a good job at plugging. Will Melbourne’s dolewave scene become the next early 90s Seattle? Careful what you wish for.
2. Darren Hanlon – My Love Is An Ocean Away
Courtney Barnett’s biggest influence, as far as her cutely detailed narrative lyric style goes, appears to be Darren Hanlon. She took him out on the road as a support slot in the U.S. this year and voted for this song in Triple J’s Hottest 100. I’ve been a big fan of all of Dazza’s albums ever since I discovered his debut, Hello Stranger, at the Coburg Library.
A few of the tracks on his fifth album go back to traditional, passed-along song forms. The great, very funny Chattanooga Shoot Shoot, for instance, is lifted from Bob Dylan’s early jokey narrative tunes, which were no doubt lifted from other folkies like Woody Guthrie.
I find some of the tracks off Where Did You Come From? to be a bit too light and breezy but My Love Is An Ocean Away is first-rate. Behind a lone finger-picked acoustic guitar and a simple but strong melody, his emotions go from sad drudgery (“every moment moves through clay”) to a bitterness and jealousy towards those who don’t understand the perils of a long distant relationship. Love has no divide? “Well, that’s easy for them to say.” There’s also the oddity of him soaking up the ocean with tissue paper which could only come from the mind of Darren Hanlon.
3. Blur – Go Out
This is another song my four-year-old likes (“Play the O, o, o, oh song.” It’s Ok. I don’t think she realises that the song is about masturbation.)
For a late-period album that appeared to be made quickly, The Magic Whip is not too shabby. It’s a mixture of Damon Albarn’s whimsically melancholy solo album from last year, Everyday Robots, and the 90s Blur of old. My favourite Blur phase was the late nineties ‘America’s alright’ period of Blur and 13. By the mid-90s they needed to move away from the Britpop scene and get weirder and they did, leaving rival bands like Oasis far behind. Graham Coxon’s guitar work on 13 is out of this world.
The other song I was thinking of choosing was There Are Too Many Of Us which refers to Daman’s experience of being stuck in a hotel room above Sydney’s 2014 hostage crisis while staring off distantly at the news screens. So close yet so far.
4. Shana Cleveland and the Sandcastles – Holy Rollers
Shana Cleveland is the leader of surf rock band La Luz and they released an album I enjoyed this year called Weirdo Shrine. She also released a kind of solo album I liked even more called Oh Man, Cover the Ground. The very organic sounding folk style on this album is comparable to early Cat Power, though this song chugs along at a perky pace. It’s, as you young people would say, ‘groovy’.
5. Sufjan Stevens – Fourth Of July
The new Sufjan Stevens album has received pretty much universal acclaim in some measure because it has an authentic narrative behind it, i.e. it’s about the death of Sufjan’s mother who died in 2012. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this personal narrative thread, in fact I think Sun Kil Moon’s Benji from last year, an album also about death, is a masterpiece partly because of its thematic unity. After the overly cluttered electronics of The Age Of Adz, I certainly welcomed the return to the simple folk sound of Seven Swans, but his strongest album of songs for me is still Illinoise. Even though I think Carrie & Lowell is not his highest achievement, I think this song is certainly one of his best and most heart-wrenching.
6. Tica Douglas – I Didn’t
This is a great song about not doing something. I was thinking of writing about it, but I didn’t.
7. Joanna Newsom – Sapokanikan
I recall, back when she was going out with Bill Callahan, Joanna Newsom talking in an interview about how Bill listens to music. He takes his shoes off, sits cross-legged in front of the record player and listens to the album from start-to-finish with his eyes closed. The music of Joanna Newsom is designed to be listened to like this. The orchestration on her new album, Divers, are (like her lyrics), particularly dense and take some time to get your head around, which is not such a bad thing.
Divers is another great album from Joanna Newsom and although it may not be quite her strongest collection of songs, her voice is sounding much more confident and shrill than it was on Have One On Me (she momentarily lost her voice during the recording of that one). It’s the sound the words make as she sings that are just as compelling as the meaning.
What was that? You don’t like her voice? You’re crazy.
8. Palehound – Dry Food
“You made beauty a monster to me. So I’m kissing all the ugly things I see.”
A new discovery of 2015 for me was the band Palehound and their debut album, Dry Food. The off-kilter but strong melodies remind me of The Breeders. The music chops-and-changes a bit like Deerhoof but not in a disruptive way. For $8 on bandcamp, the album is a bargain.
9. Built To Spill – When I’m Blind
I’ve never got into Built To Spill before but I quite liked their new album Untethered Moon. This song rocks out like it’s 1993 and has an awesome face-melting chaotic guitar jam that sounds like a hell of a lot of fun to play and is, consequently, fun to hear.
10. Dick Diver – Leftovers
I don’t know how you can listen to this song without feeling good.
Dick Diver’s third album, Melbourne, Florida affirms their place as the best Australian band of the 2010s. I like this album more than their last, Calendar Days, which I found too uneven and eclectic, though I still like their first album, New Start Again, best, with its Television-like guitar jams. Melbourne, Florida sees them introducing horns to many of the tracks and the muted guitar playing with light touches of synth give the songs an 80s tinge. As usual, the Steph Hughes tracks are among the highlights (You should check out her work with Boomgates). Her songs just ooze with her own gorgeousness. If you didn’t know she was a national songwriting treasure, well, now you do.
Hear Simon’s (slightly different) 10 Good Songs From 2015 on Spotify.