2015 – My top 20 of the year

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2015 has been a great year for music and Radiohead even snuck their Bond theme in when we least expected it, but putting together a top 20 of the year has proven to be an absolute devil to get right. In fact, just a few minutes before I got the list finalised, one song was swapped entirely for a formerly absent track. It just goes to show much much good stuff has been going into my ears.

The Spotify playlist is here

1 Sufjan Stevens – All of you wants all of me

The song that put me through the emotional wringer more than any other this year. In the simple but devastating  line “you checked your texts while I masturbated”, Sufjan produced more heartbreak than Kleenex can comfortably deal with. ‘Carrie and Lowell’ is a rare album that is more than the sum of its parts, one that deserves to be listened to without distraction, repeatedly. Of them all, this track stands tall in an album that has towered over 2015 like a Sequoia amongst shrubs.

2 Marina and the Diamonds – Froot

The greatest pop song of the year by a glittery mile is also a shockingly well produced song. Put on some headphones and be blown away by the warm bed of synths and sounds of a real band working in harmony with Marina’s effortless falsetto ducking and diving into a diva-worthy chorus.

Everything here is a blueprint for how pop songs should be written and performed; Marina needs to get the patent on it. ‘Froot’ is Marina’s most coherent album yet, thanks to her inspired decision to ditch the major label disease of multiple song writers, choosing to write and compose everything herself. It’s paying off.

3 Beck – Dreams

Unbelievably, Beck made this straight-up accessible, funky masterpiece as “something that would sound good live” and I can attest that it sounds good at any time and in any place. Armed with a chorus audible from space, Beck is doing a giant u-turn on his previous album’s introspection, reminding his fans of his incredible versatility.

4 John Grant feat. Tracey Thorn – Disappointing

It’s John Grant. It’s Tracey Thorn. They both sing. That is all that you need to know about this. Well, there’s also the superb video featuring a birthday cake in a gay sauna.

5 Brandon Flowers – I can change

Brandon Flowers has always been a fan of British pop; the Killer’s debut album ‘Hot Fuss’ sounded like the best Manchester 80s band that never existed. Now, Flowers has come full circle as a solo artist, sampling one of the best 80s pop songs on one of this decade’s best pop songs. It is incredibly catchy, mixing the best sort of synths with a beat propelling you ever closer to the dancefloor. And that chorus is a thing of great beauty. I’d wager this song will age gracefully.

6 Tame Impala – Let it Happen

When I first heard of Tame Impala, they were doing some excellent psychedelic stuff, but the opening notes of Let It Happen declare that a major upgrade has taken place and this is a very good thing indeed. Let It Happen seems to gain its magic by being a smooth synth-rock track embedded in a disco track inside a dreamscape. The dream breaks up dramatically around four minutes in when the songs starts to loop itself and then release itself again. It’s headphone music, and for a song pushing seven minutes, it’s remarkably accessible.

7 Carly Rae Jepsen – I really like you

An impossibly catchy pop masterpiece that would feel at home dropped into any of the past 25 years. If you inserted this into an 80s teen movie, would anyone notice? No. Because they’d be too busy dancing along. The video is a joy, with the peerless Tom Hanks dancing about the streets of New York being all Tom Hanksian. What a great combo.

8 Grimes – Flesh Without Blood

I get the distinct impression that 2015 is the year that I fell deeply for warm bass, beats that propel songs endlessly forward and crystal clear production. Flesh Without Blood works because it has so much going on but succeeds in making space for every little note, every unexpected clatter, all of Grimes’ utterances and swooping notes. Grimes’ is in a league of her own when it comes to making layered, complex pop with SCREAM being another notable track from her ‘Art Angels’ album.

9 Everything Everything – Distant Past

Did you know that bands used to make albums full of great songs to be listened to sequentially? It’s hard to imagine now when switching between devices and streaming services is so easy but so perfunctory. There is something almost romantic about putting on an album, deactivating shuffle and focusing entirely on the music and Everything Everything’s third album is one such album to get lost in. From the opening bars of To the Blade, the album’s intent is clear: this will be rock and roll but with added jaggy edges, electronic bleeps and songs you can dance wildly to.

10 New Order – Tutti Frutti

Who knew! The award for the most remarkable comeback of the year goes to New Order with ‘Music Complete’ which I hope isn’t their way of saying this is their last effort. To go out like this would be to go out on a high though. The album is liberally sprinkled with their genius but this is also an album free of New Order trying to keep up with the new kids, or trying to use their past as a springboard – rather, they are refining their signature sound on opener Restless, providing a masterclass in how electronica can merge with rock on ‘Singularity’ and on Tutti Frutti they have produced an outstanding disco track, with a relentless bass that builds throughout the song, some lovely vocals by Elly Jackson and a lightness that has perhaps evaded them in the past. It’d be fair to say the new album is a high watermark for New Order; ‘Music Complete’ is easily their best work in two decades and they sounds reborn.

11 Duran Duran – Pressure Off

Hurrah, for it’s another wondrous return to form! Duran Duran already did a great comeback record with ‘All you Need is Now’ but ‘Paper Gods’ somehow doesn’t hit the same heights. Pressure Off is a taste of what could have been if Mark Ronson had stuck with production duties. With Ronson and Nile Rodgers on board, magical things happened. If another act was to release this, it’d have been a huge radio hit but regardless, this is sublime pop. I was touched to find out that the album’s main producer, Mr Hudson, is a Birmingham resident, nicely reflecting the band’s association with the city.

12 The Wkend – I Can’t Feel My Face

A pop song that ate the competition, with Tom Cruise lip-synching it on the telly, perhaps not grasping that he was miming along to a song about cocaine. But this song is the sort of thing that stops wars, brings tribes out of the Amazon and into the clubs and induces people to write drivel like this about it. It’s as if Michael Jackson has come back with a hell of a tune. Woah, mama! Video’s a bit crap though.

13 Chairlift – Ch-Ching

An afternoon power-walking through Stockholm with this cropping up regularly embedded this in my head for the back-end of the year. A heady mix of pop and RnB that demands you dance along.

14 Ghostpoet – Off Peak Dreams

One of Britain’s best lyricists who also spent lots of time living in the West Midlands, thus scoring highly in my books. I’ve been following Ghost Poet for quite some time and his third album moves his sound into interesting corners, all the while still focusing on everyday struggles, running out of cash and “mugs of tea and bacon sarnies”.

15 The Chemical Brothers – Go

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that an act releasing some of their greatest songs 15 years after their heyday is a rare thing indeed. Go is that rare thing; an absolutely rollocking blast of sound that shows the Chemical Brothers have lost none of their skill at making dance music that is both complex and fun.

16 Django Django – Giant

I find myself bored of guitar bands for large chunks of most years. Giant is the sort of music that draws me back to indie bands. Guitars, drums, singers wooing and aaahhing, piano and a build up that dreams are made of. This is superb.

17 Foals – Lonely Hunter

Foals tend to come back on the scene with a massive beast of a song – they did that this year with What Went Down which is as raucous as they’ve ever been. But noise fades where beauty flourishes and Foals are so much more suited to songs like Lonely Hunter that highlight Yan’s warm vocals and the wall-of-sound-chorus.

18 Will Young – Promise Me

I bloody love Will Young. His last album, Echoes, stood out for the chilly electronica and stunning vocal performances, and his latest effort, ’85%’ can’t reach those heights, butt does have a clutch of tracks that show a more adventurous side to Young that he’d be wise to pursue. Brave Man, Love Revolution, U Think I’m Sexy and Thank You all redefine his sound but none so much as Promise Me. There’s a fast tempo, clattering drums and keyboards that hint at acts like Disclosure and some serious falsetto work going on.

19 The Maccabees – Marks To Prove It

Included purely because it sounds like the band went to the seaside, took out the Wurlitzer organ and played all their instruments incredibly fast and loud. Believe me, it works.

20 The Wombats – Greek Tragedy

I’d always had a soft spot for The Wombats, but their third album, ‘Glitterbug’ offered a more nuanced take on their ever-chirpy pop. I suppose it’s called growing up, and on tracks like Greek Tragedy, it works really well because the band have evolved their sound but haven’t forgotten why people liked them in the first place. There is first-rate song writing going on here and other tracks like Emoticons manage to pack in a sense of excitement and urgency into four minute gems.