Rankstravaganza 2015: My 25 favorite songs of the year

The Watkins Family Hour gang was responsible for my favorite track of the year. Photo by Roman Cho, courtesy of Sacks and Co.

The Watkins Family Hour gang was responsible for my favorite track of the year. [photo by Roman Cho, courtesy of Sacks & Co]

Ha! You thought this blog was done for. Surprise! I’m back. (Fair warning, though: There might not be another post until New Year’s Eve 2016. I am, however, staying somewhat active with posting both music- and planning-related stuff on this site’s Facebook page, though. Check ‘er out.)

Only 25 songs this year (*insert frowny emoticon here*), because I didn’t feel like I listened to enough new music in 2015 to warrant the usual 30. (Grad school, it seems, has a way of eating into not just blogging time but music-exploration time.) I feel strongly about these 25, though. They are all imminently listenable songs that any other aging wannabe hipsters out there should be able to get behind. You’ll find plenty of Americana and unobjectionable modern indie pop, a little bit of garage punk, some female-fronted ‘90s grunge throwbacks, and (this being 2015, after all) some trendy ‘80s synthpop throwbacks. Soooo much synthpop out there. If only synthpop could somehow counteract carbon emissions, climate change would be as quaint a concern as the hole in the ozone layer. (The hole in the ozone layer isn’t a concern anymore, right? I’m just assuming because I haven’t heard anything about it in 20 years.)

Well, that was a strange tangent. Here are the songs:

25. “Send Me Home,” Murder By Death

Clearly the best thing to come out of Bloomington, Indiana, since Johnny Cougar, Murder By Death was always one of those bands of which I knew I should be a huge fan, but I never quite got around to giving them a serious listen. This song finally got me into the group and confirmed that, yup, I really should have been listening to its brand of gothic alt-country for the last decade.

24. “Then Came the Morning,” The Lone Below

I know these are troubling times we live in and folks are struggling, but everything is going to turn out OK. How do I know? Because this song exists. Brooklyn singer-songwriter Zach Williams’ project gets tagged as alt-country, too, but it’s as lush and stirring as Murder By Death is dark and brooding. You can practically feel the dawn breaking on your face when that sol-me-re-do-do motif kicks in.

23. “Shine a Different Way,” Patty Griffin

The Nashville folksinger’s latest album is a darker affair than her last, which was one of my favorites of 2013, but this track would easily have fit in on that previous effort. This is a delicate song, full of evocative, drawn-out suspension chords played on a mandolin—which, for all you non-music-theory types out there, means there’s a lot of dramatic tension and release.

22. “Dreams,” Beck

Morning Phase, Beck’s Grammy-winning 2014 album, is a fine, heartfelt, slow, acoustic, immersive listen—which means the songs don’t really fit in at a Beck concert. (He practically apologized for playing a couple when I saw him last year.) The alt-rock icon reportedly wrote this danceable, uptempo jam so that he’d have something new to perform that he wouldn’t have to explain to everybody who showed up to hear “Loser” and “Where It’s At.”

21. “Under a Rock,” Waxahatchee

This song is such an irresistible listen that it’s always a shame when it concludes after just 2 minutes and 10 seconds—although its brevity is part of its charm. A female songwriter singing a great melody over some crunchy electric guitar and walloping drums technically qualifies as a ’90s throwback, I suppose, but I don’t think Alabama native Katie Crutchfield is going for nostalgia here. This is just what she thinks great rock ’n’ roll sounds like. And she’s right.

20. “When I Was a Boy,” Jeff Lynne’s ELO

Electric Light Orchestra is back! Kind of. It’s pretty much just Jeff Lynne in the studio, but the man can still craft an opulent Beatles-esque ballad better than anybody who wasn’t in The Beatles.

19. “What I Want,” Will Butler

“I know this great recipe for pony macaroni” takes this year’s prize for the strangest lyric. Taking a break from his day job as Arcade Fire’s multi-instrumentalist and being Win Butler’s brother, Will Butler’s solo debut is full of this type of high-strung, edge-of-absurd art-pop.

18. “Return,” Strange Names

And this year’s prize for sounding like a forgotten radio hit from 1985 goes to this Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis synthpop trio.

17. “What Part of Me,” Low

The Minnesota band has been going strong, slow, sad, and steady for more than 20 years. As is so often the case, the vocal harmonies of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker are the highlight on this new track.

16. “Make Me Wanna Die,” White Reaper

Yeeeeaaahhh! Garage punk! It’s back! Deal with it and then freak out with the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s frenetic contribution to the revival. This was the leadoff track to Polyvinyl Record’s fantastic free summer sampler. There’s one other track from that mix that managed to crack this list, but there were at least five other great tracks that I discovered. Go stream it or—if you’re old like me—download it right now.

15. “Laughing at the Sugar Bowl,” Veruca Salt

I’m not sure anyone was really clamoring for a reunion of Chicago’s third (or maybe fourth or fifth?) biggest participant in the Great ‘90s Alt-Rock Boom and Bust, but here it is anyway. And, like the Seether, it’s pointless to fight it; give in and enjoy the female-fronted, grunge-tastic ride.

14. “Find Yourself,” Jacco Gardner

And here is the other track from that Polyvinyl sampler. Gardner’s music is spacey, psychedelic and technically Dutch (though the lyrics are in English). Far out.

13. “Bird of Prey,” Natalie Prass

Can bubblegum be bittersweet? This chanteuse out of Richmond, Virginia, says yes! Yes, you can combine Feist and Dusty Springfield and come out sounding like a genius. Prass displays real talent in both singing and songwriting, but it’s the horn and string arrangements (by Matthew E. White and Trey Pollard, respectively) that take things to a whole other level.

12. “Empty Threat,” Chvrches

There was no shortage of catchy indie synthpop in 2015, but nobody made retro quite so relevant as the Scottish trio. A great video featuring goths at the waterpark doesn’t hurt, either.

11. “Getting Ready to Get Down,” Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter is incapable of making a bad album, but his latest, Sermon on the Rocks, displays a level of engagement and effort that hasn’t been totally evident with his last few efforts. Take this song. The lyrics are a stream of 1,000-syllable-a-minute rhyming patter that still manage to a) tell a moving story of rebellious young woman returning to her puritanical, repressive hometown, b) execute some clever wordplay and humorous zingers, and c) function as a party anthem. That right there is a miracle.

10. “Gone,” Jr. Jr.

Until this year, the only negative thing most people could say about the amiable Detroit indie pop duo Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. was that the band had a terrible name. The group shut down that vein of criticism when it released this single and announced it was dropping the “Dale Earnhardt” (mostly because they were embarrassed about and the requests they kept getting for autographs for terminally ill NASCAR fans, not to mention all the confused racing enthusiasts who kept showing up at concerts).The name may be different, but the song is more of what Daniel Zott and Joshua Epstein have always done well: charming, danceable, harmonious indie pop.

9. “Nothing Without Love,” Nate Ruess

The frontman of The Format and fun. has always been unapologetically schmaltzy, but for his solo debut he aimed for full on adult-contemporary, stadium-ready balladry. If that means a bit less Freddy Mercury and a bit more Peter Cetera, well, dammit, I’m on board. Take me to your castle far away, Nate.

8. “Cream on Chrome,” Ratatat

Oh, great, another damn Brooklyn-based, indie electronica fusion duo. You fucking hipsters can forget it! You’re not seducing me with your … irresistible beat. And instantly memorable riffs. Nope. Nope nope nope.

*struts down the street listening to “Cream on Chrome,” feeling way cooler than he looks*

7. “Another Loser Fuck Up,” Christopher Owens

Nothing very mysterious here. Just a good ol’ slice of power pop with a self-effacing, profane title by the former frontman for Girls (the San Francisco band, not the TV show).

6. “Price Tag,” Sleater-Kinney

The legendary Riot Grrrls of the Pacific Northwest launch an angular punk salvo against the Walmart-ization of the American economy and our tendency to not think about costs—fiscal and societal. It’s a rousing start to a solid reunion album.

5. “Mystery,” Boxed In

All I know about Boxed In is what I just looked up on Wikipedia—it’s a British dude who used to be in a band called Keith—and that I listened to this tune and it’s syncopated piano rhythms an awful lot in 2015.

4. “Phone in a Pool,” Ben Folds [feat. yMusic Ensemble]

How good are Ben Folds’ songwriting abilities? So good that I can overlook the fact that the chorus contains the words “Y’all knows what I means.” This song was allegedly inspired by true events. The Nashville-based piano man got so fed up with constant calls that he tossed his cell phone in a swimming pool, only to have Ke$ha (yes, that Ke$ha) dive in and rescue it for him.

3. “Pickled Ginger,” Wilco

Clocking in only slightly longer than the Waxahatchee song at No. 21, this song was first featured on the Parks and Recreation Season 6 finale, as performed by the fictional band Land Ho!, with Jeff Tweedy playing the fictional frontman. Nerds everywhere were delighted when Land Ho!’s fuzzed out guitars, falsetto vocals, and pure-‘70s-trash stylings showed up on the surprise album Wilco released this summer. Tweedy has always been good at treading that line which separates a goofy lark from a rock anthem, but with “Pickled Ginger” he has perfected the act.

2. “Foreign Object,” The Mountain Goats

Reasons why this is the best track off John Darnielle’s better-than-expected concept album about the regional wrestlers he idolized as a kid: a) the line, “I personally will stab you in the eye with a foreign object”; b) all dat baritone sax. One, two, three, match over!

1. “Steal Your Heart Away,” Watkins Family Hour

The Watkins Siblings have done it again. Last year they sat atop my list as members of the reunited Nickel Creek. This year, Sara and Sean took their long-running variety show at L.A.’s Largo nightclub and turned it into a studio album with help from their house band and Fiona Apple. Watkins Family Hour is an all-covers affair, specializing in under-appreciated gems (like this deep cut from a not-terribly-beloved 2003 Fleetwood Mac album) and making them sound like folksy, country standards ready for the next broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion. The players are all phenomenally talented, of course, and that pedal steel solo is pretty dang good, but this song belongs to Sara Watkins and her clear, impassioned vocals.

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