End of year lists can be an exhausting affair, with critics clamouring for credibility by listing the obscure, challenging, or pseudo-intellectual records as the best thing since sliced bread.
I present to you what I believe have been the best 20 songs and best 15 albums of 2015, with something for everyone, great song writing, accessible, no degree necessary.
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit
One of the few records on this list that is critically acclaimed, commercially successful and very accessible. Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett presents her unique perspective of Australian life through melodic electric guitar and a broad Australian drawl. A very charming indie rock record for fans of You Am I, The Lemonheads, The Hoodoo Gurus.
Oh Mercy – When We Talk About Love
Oh Mercy is really just a moniker for chief songwriter and front man Alex Gow, who had veered into a less acoustic, more funk direction on his last record ‘Deep Heat’. This album focuses much more on Gow’s acoustic guitar and songwriting (much like his second record ‘Great Barrier Grief’, and is a tight, beautiful album of mostly upbeat heartbreak songs. For fans of The Go Betweens, Josh Pyke and Bob Evans.
Josh Pyke – But For All These Shrinking Hearts
Josh Pyke is ever consistent, the sound of his voice floats, double tracked across five full length records, and a couple of strong EPs of acoustic guitar-led pop songs. The key to this record however, as with his last is a youthful energy, a knack for chord changes and melody that was a little lost around his second and third albums. It’s rare for an artist to regain the spark of their first EP, but on tracks like Songlines and Be Your boy, it’s clear that Pyke has. This record is for fans of Oh Mercy, Bob Evans, great melodies and acoustic guitars.
You Am I - Porridge and Hotsauce
The tenth record from Australian rock icons You Am I, recorded in New York and performed across sweaty clubs around the country. It’s tight, inventive rock music with a pinch of horns, and keys swirling around searing guitars. This record is also notable because of the first time guitarist Davey Lane, who has fronted the band on vocals for two tracks, and he indeed proves himself. This record may not set the world on fire, but it’ll wear the tread off your tyres as you burn down the highway this holiday period. For fans of Australian rock.
Tim Rogers & The Bamboo’s – The Rules Of Attraction
You Am I front man had his first hit Triple J single in sometime with Melbourne funk outfit The Bamboo’s on 2013’s ‘I Got Burned’. Naturally, the band got Rogers back for a whole record of incredibly tight funk tracks with hints of everyone from James Brown, to Jackson 5 and The Police. Rogers’ high register stretches and wails over smooth horns, crisp guitars and funky basslines that are guaranteed to get you dancing. For fans of Motown, 70’s funk, The Jackson 5 and You Am I.
Mustered Courage – White Lies and Melodies
If you’re into country or bluegrass then you’re going to love this – if you aren’t, stick around because there is more to this record than banjos. Mustered Courage are an Australian group with a bonus yank thrown in, that breakdown the bluegrass genre, infusing pop, soul and hip hop elements throughout the album to great result. For fans of country and blue grass, but also for those who love big harmonies and a cheeky attitude.
Tame Impala – Currents
Another record that is both critically and commercially successful, Tame Impala embrace synthesizers and pop melody on their third full length record Currents. Their cover of Michael Jackson’s ‘Stranger In Moscow’ months before the record’s release foreshadowed its tone, with many early fans being turned off by the guitar light sound. However at its heart ‘Currents’ reflects the musical evolution of ship’s captain Kevin Parker to a smoother, more unique sound. For fans of Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Synth Pop and Psychadelia.
Daniel Johns – Talk
Daniel Johns initiated Silverchair’s split some years ago, not with a plan to drastically change up his sound, immediately anyway, but with a plan to live the teenage and university years he spent on the road with his hugely successful band. After years of experimentation with synths and vocoders, making music that may never see the light of day – Johns started building bits and pieces, musical ideas into a new sound for his debut solo record.
It is a tight, experimental pop record, based less around organic instrumentation, and more around what sounds can be created in the box, and with the voice. It is not far removed from the sort of music Johns was creating with Paul Mac on The Dissociatives, and ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Rock’ records. ‘Talk’, like these records is a singular vision voiced through the experiences of an extraordinary songwriter, never afraid to evolve. For fans of Silverchair, The Dissociative, James Blake, Jamie XX.
Thirsty Merc – Shifting Gears
A commercially successful Australian band, with jazz chops and songwriting nouse, that is often critically maligned or passed over for its commercial sound or influence. If you’ve ever loved a classic Beatles record, or a Beach Boys harmony, then you’d be making a mistake to pass this one up. Frontman Rai Thistlethwayte takes his multi instrumental, pop songwriting to new heights, placing beautiful chord structures, jazz chords and inventive vocal melodies amongst his band’s incredibly tight and well- recorded arrangements.
Lead single ‘The Good Life’ may be reminiscent of their biggest hit ‘In The Summertime’, but opening track ‘Understanding Love’ is a commercial radio hit if ever I’ve heard one. ‘I Fall In Love’ is a style the band calls ‘Rock Sinatra’ and the grind is a perfectly crafted slice of 80’s synth rock, with the best vocal breakdown section of the year.
Darren Hanlon – Where Did You Come From
Australian folk institution Darren Hanlon has a loyal audience around the world for his lyrical and often stripped-back records, and this record is no exception – having been recorded in various locations around the world on Hanlon’s travels. It is warm, acoustic and distinctly Australian folk which is often soulful and full sounding despite its minimalism. In stark contrast to the indie folk popularity gracing the mainstream right now, Darren Hanlon is a true folk storyteller and charming as hell.
The Paper Kites – Twelvefour
In a bid to break writer’s block and be more creative, chief songwriter Sam wrote this album between the hours of midnight and four AM. Whether these songs could have been written at any other hour is irrelevant, because the notion of the project has leant a midnight haze to these acoustic-led pop songs. The boy/girl harmonies and floating instrumentation make this the perfect late night or Sunday afternoon holiday record, with enough in there for those looking for something a little deeper.
Paul Mac – Holiday From Me
Paul Mac got his fantastic reputation as a DJ, but across his solo discography, has proved himself to be an excellent songwriter. On this, his third record, he adds to his catalogue of sophisticated electro pop with personal songs voiced by Newcastle’s own Kira Puru, Megan Washington, Brendan Mclean, Ngaiire and Dappled Citie’s Tim Derricourt. It’s the perfect record for people who love slick modern pop, excellent dance production, or raw personal song writing.
Sleater Kinney – No Cities To Love
Sleater Kinney have obviously benefited from a nine year hiatus, returning with an exceptional rock record to rival any of their male counterpart’s in 2015. An integral part of the Riot Grrl movement in the mid ‘90s, Sleater Kinney’s new record is intelligent, tight and loud. Touring in 2016, this record is a must for any alt rock fan.
Royal Headache – High
An Australian group that sounds like a late seventies British punk band. This idea could go very, very wrong, or sound derivative of an era more about its message than its music, but Royal Headache channel bands like The Clash through a modern Australian filter, and manage to sound fresh, short, fast and most importantly loud – through wonderful vocal melodies and guitars turned up to 11.
Mark Ronson – Uptown Special
The record that spawned arguably the best pop song of the decade in Uptown Funk, offers more than slick straight up funk pop. Opening with a harmonica solo from none other than Stevie Wonder, this conceptual record goes on to feature some of the most interesting rhythmic and chord changes heard on radio in some time. Bouncing between radio pop, bossa rhythms, funk, and hip hop whilst featuring cameos from Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Mystikal, Bruno Mars and Andrew Wyatt. This record is as close as you’ll get to Michael Jackson’s classic ‘Thriller’ level pop in 2015.
Tim Wheeler – Feels Like Summer
The opening song and main theme to this year’s ‘Shaun The Sheep’ movie is not just a song for kids. Written by Tim Wheeler (of rock band Ash), score composer Ilan Eshkeri and former-Kaiser Chief Nick Hodgson, this song is for fans of the Beach Boys, and ‘90s rock bands Ash and Teenage Fanclub.
Robert Forster – Learn To Burn
From ‘Songs To Play’, the new solo record by Go Betweens founder Robert Foster. The vocals recall David Byrne of the Talking Heads, while the angular guitar evokes Television’s classic Marquee Moon.
Saskwatch – Down the Stairs
Different in style to their earlier work, ‘Down the Stairs’ sounds more like The Smiths than classic soul music. However, vocalist Nkechi’s voice, and the bands’ proven songwriting skills shine through.
The Basics – Roundabout
Once again, a song with a call-back to an earlier sound (Born to Handjive, and just about anything with that rhythm). The Basics are a tight rhythm, blues and pop band and a lot of fun. If you dig deeper you’ll find a lot more political tracks on this record, but this track is just a whole lot of fun, with drummer Wally De Backer (Gotye) on lead vocals.
Brian Wilson – On The Island / Saturday Night.
Beach Boy’s songwriter and known musical genius Brian Wilson, has notably lost a lot of his trademark falsetto voice in recent years, so not surprisingly his songs on the new record ‘No Pier Pressure’ are at their best when voiced by others. On The Island, sees Zooey Deschenel and M Ward of She & Him lay down Hammond organ, laid back vocals and tropical guitar feel for a classic beach feel. While Fun’s Nate Ruess lends his wistful vocals to an almost subtle ‘80s Beach Boys sound and beautiful chorus.
Rai Thistlethwayte – Go Nuts
Frontman of Thirsty Merc Rai Thistlethwayte is a more talented instrumentalist than people seem to realise, but his low key solo record proved the man has Prince-level synth and guitar chops in addition to his already proven songwriting skills. To put it simply – ‘Go Nuts’ could have been a huge summer hit single in any year since 1985, so get in now and crank it up at your next party.
Lianne La Havas - What You Don’t Do
Lianne La Havas is a London singer-songwriter who has been travelling in celebrity circles for some time, having been mentored by Paloma Faith and hosting a press conference for Prince in her tiny London flat. She proved her own this year and released her debut record, but while the record may be a grower, this is the standout track – with a smooth voice and catchy chorus.
Marcus Marr & Chet Faker – The Trouble With Us
Chet Faker has been the bearded indie darling of Australian music for the last couple of years, but never has he been this funky. This crisp catchy funk track that sees him team up with UK producer Marcus Marr is for fans of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky.
Sia – Alive
Sia made her mark writing low key, experimental balladry across a number of albums and voicing tracks for UK chill out pop DJs Zero Seven. She broke through to a worldwide audience however, by expanding her songwriting to radio pop and writing for the likes of Rhianna and Britney. Her best writing is clearly saved for herself however, with Alive taking out the best dramatic radio pop of the year. A huge chorus and great rhythms to air drum along to.
Dan Parsons – Baby Wants to Hold My Hand
Melbourne singer songwriter Dan Parsons has a voice like James Taylor, and the songwriting chops to back it up – need I say more? Check out his latest record Valleywood.
Alpine – Foolish
Melbourne pop band Alpine build on their atmospheric sound on this record with expert pop songs like Foolish and Damn Baby, that evoke a ‘90s pop and RnB sound, while still sounding fresh. Incredibly sexy, catchy, smooth and perfect for late nights and lazy afternoons.
Lanu – Dragon Sun
Lance Ferguson’s day job is leader of Australia’s best funk band The Bamboo’s, and slick pop songwriter too. His side project however is creating fun instrumental pop and ambient dance music under the name Lanu. Frequent collaborator Megan Washington voices this track, the first taste of his new album to be released in 2016. A perfect chill out pop song, with melodic bells and elements of Asian music, this track is a beautiful summer holiday song to take with you into the New Year.
Ryan Adams – Bad Blood
Easily the most hyped record of the year, Ryan Adam’s cover of Taylor Swift’s mega hit album ‘1989’ does not live up to expectations. What it does do though is present some fantastic songs to an audience that may have been too cool to appreciate them. This is best seen on ‘Bad Blood’, the highlight on Adam’s tribute to Swift.
Cold Chisel – The Backroom
Cold Chisel have had enough hits over the years to rest on their laurels, but they don’t. The Backroom is a hard rocking song about the Hunter region, a particular studio and a particular local couple.
Kurt Vile – Pretty Pimpin
The fact that Kurt Vile is a cool, long-haired character cut from the critically acclaimed band ‘War On Drugs’ is not important. His record ‘B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down’ is dark, yet fun, and perfect for fans of Neil Young.
Florence + The Machine – Ship To Wreck
Florence + The Machine’s epic, Kate Bush-esque shtick may be getting old for some, and only just beginning to intrigue others. But the opening track off her latest record ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’ is her best track in years, at least since ‘Shake It Out’.
Ben Folds – Phone In A Pool
Ben Folds made his name as the piano punk pioneer in the Ben Folds Five, blending the attitude of the grunge era with the piano pop chops of Elton John. Folds is daring to be different these days however, by educating himself and writing a classical concerto for his latest record ‘So There’. He does however still include songs that recall the humour of his earlier work, like this story of throwing his phone in a pool in New Orleans.
Darwin Deez – Kill Your Attitude.
Darwin Deez has not reached the success of his hit indie single ‘Radar Detector’, released two albums ago. But ‘Kill Your Attitude’ shows the same pop writing skills, wrapped in angular guitar and fantastic chord changes.
Justin Beiber – What Do You Mean?
Justin Beiber is a divisive artist, not for his music or message – but for his brattish public persona and very public failings (though what do you expect when you give a good looking teenager seemingly endless money and fame). Though, it seems to be his attempt at redemption that is honing his focus back on the work. ‘What Do You Mean’ is an expert pop song from his new album ‘Purpose’ that many well be too cool to like, or dismiss over his public persona – but they’d be missing out