2015 was quite the year in the world of music. While much of this writer’s work comes within some corner of dance music, many of my favorites this year fell somewhere between the worlds of electronic-pop and every different iteration of indie one could come up with. We finally got those largely anticipated LP’s from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Beach House, Tame Impala, Disclosure, Grimes & more (heck even New Order made a resurgence), but we were knocked off balance by more than a few surprises as well. While many critics and blogs were busy championing those aforementioned artists & albums; tunes from Lower Dens, Calvin Love, Thundercat, Youth Lagoon, Kurt Vile, Motorama, Mas Ysa, GEMS, Autre Ne Veut, and loads more quietly stirred their fair share of competition into the pot. While whittling down to just 15 songs (plus even more ‘Honorable Mentions’ at the bottom) was perhaps one of the more painstaking things you could put a (semi) serious music journalist through, it was an enriching undertaking and hopefully I managed to dig up a few tunes you may have missed in 2015 to your end-of-the-year lists. Enjoy, and let’s hope 2016 offers just as many amazing highs.
15.) Gilligan Moss – “Stasis”
One of the more exciting producers to grab our attention in 2015, Brooklyn via Chicago producer & sound artist Gilligan Moss released one of the most neglectfully under-reviewed entries into this year’s list of album contenders, the excellent, genre-skirting EP Ceremonial. It was tough to choose just one single, but we arrived on the EP’s closing tune:”Stasis”. Hopping out of the gates with a rolling arpeggiated synth, clicky percussion and a light dose of grand piano, “Stasis” chases down a synth-pop prognosis and smashes it to bits with hints of a sensible psych influence and club-first house foundation. Gilligan Moss treats the tune’s vocal just as craftily as his instrumentation, cutting and looping effortlessly through hazy and delicate incantations that sound somewhere between Sean Ryder’s most indulgent bellows and the Macintosh computer SimpleText application used on OK Computer’s “Fitter Happier”. Just beautiful stuff to our Ninja ears really. For a real taste of Moss’ range, don’t skip on the rest of Moss’ Ceremonial either, to get a much clearer grasp on why he’s been targeted as one of our ‘ones to watch in 2016′ list.
14.) Lower Dens – “Ondine”
Coming in with one of the most criminally underrated albums this year, Escape From Evil, and hailing from one of the more overlooked indie scenes in Baltimore (see: Future Islands, Beach House), Lower Dens also quietly dropped one of the most beautiful singles of the year in “Ondine”. At first glance, “Ondine” appears to be a sugary-sweet pop ditty, as its syncopated drum-machine cadence, light & glittery synths, and cherry guitar layering set the perfect backdrop for Jana Hunter’s aching lyrics to unfold on. But, when she repeats the song’s devastating vocal hook -“I will treat you better” then bellows the most painful iteration of “Hold On” we’ve ever heard- you just can’t help but to fall like a broken feather into its center. Hold on for a minute while we go cry.
13.) Neon Indian – “Annie”
“Annie” was the alt-pop posterchild of 2015. With its asymmetrically bent synth stabs and Palomo’s breathy incantations, it’s the kind of breezy, faux-dub/tropical pop synthesis that acts like Tears For Fears and Duran Duran concocted to mass pop stardom in the early 80’s. “Annie” fluidly bends a kind of electronic instrumentation that soothes the most vicious of new-wave revivalists with the kind of forward thinking, pop experimentalism that seems to excite those *ahem* droves of snooty music writers as well. If you missed it, back in October Ninja Dom put together an incredible review of Neon Indian’s 2015 return to the LP format VEGA INT’l Night School, which does much more justice to each track than this writer ever could.
12.) Brothertiger – “Wake”
2015 was a huge year for Brooklyn based multi-instrumentalist John Jagos, and this was the single that started it all. “Wake” sputters out a balmy, smooth vocal wrapped around his usual brand of off-kilter, hand-keyed electronic pop structuring for a feel that is simultaneously familiar, unique and addictive. “Wake” leans ever so slightly toward a corner of yacht-rock that would make Bill Hader & Fred Armisen’s Documentary Now! fictional supergroup ‘The Blue-Jean Committee’ tip their hats, but the ambient tones utilized here wash over its listener like an enveloping fog to create a soundscape that touches upon numerous aural aesthetics. “Wake”, was an entrancing and utterly lovely tune combining a number of things we love about Jagos’ Brothertiger project and a welcome peak into his excellent 2015 Out Of Touch LP.
11.) Deerhunter “Living My Life”
Long time staples of every indie-writer-in-the-know’s list of genre pushing acts, Deerhunter’s follow up to 2013’s Monomania, Fading Frontier, delivered more than a few bright spots. On “Living My Life”, Deerhunter delivers a special kind of syrupy pop creaminess –which hasn’t been the most affixed comparison to their experimental pop catalog. Encased in a gauzy, droning splash of guitar and precisely sourced electronics, “Living My Life” wields the kind of majesty that so many critics demand of their most high-minded musicians; especially of Bradford Cox. Quite simply, it’s a sad song that feels happy, and an incredible single entry into one of the decade’s most impressive libraries.
10.) DIIV – “Bent” (Roi’s Song)
From the reverby, amorphous guitar chords to its paced drumming; “Bent” lets its listener settle in warmly before Zachary Cole Smith’s icy vocals penetrate its sonic terrain. On this record, Smith’s cadence is an achy one, rising and falling like the sleeping chest of whoever you’re sharing your bed with, but without nearly as many affectations as were in play on their debut long-player Oshin. But his incantations aren’t distant either, coming across as intimately as a shared conversation over a pillow case, while Devin Ruben Perez’s bassline plucks along heartily enough to subtly captivate its listener without delineating from the rest of the tune’s lovely instrumentation. We’re chomping at the bit for the release of 2016’s Is The Is Are and this was one of the biggest reasons why.
9.) Jamie xx – “Gosh”
“Gosh” (and pretty much all of Jamie xx’s amazing 2015 LP In Colour) is a musical study in perspective. What starts under a fully magnified scope focused on heavy bass and a simple vocal hook, gradually pans further and further out, flipping from a microscopic gaze to a telescopic overview, until its almighty, high-pitched synth crescendo clobbers through a soup of chopped and sampled percussion to shatter everything apart, simultaneously opening even more space for In Colour to rebuild with a sort of Big Bang cyclicality. There’s just so much at play within this one 3 minute sonic trek, it’s overwhelming. With two solo albums and two albums with The xx under his belt, yung Jamie has quickly become the genre-pushing “it-boy” amongst both the underground dance heads and indie nostalgists all at once. And it’s tunes like this which help solidify his place in the spotlight.
8.) Roosevelt – “Night Moves”
Roosevelt has long felt like an act waiting for that one crossover hit before spilling over into mainstream consciousness. While we’ve been waiting pretty patiently for another full body of work after 2013’s phenomenal Elliot EP, we were luckily held over by “Night Moves” as a single which popped up unannounced on Greco-Roman Records’ Soundcloud earlier this year. On “Night Moves”, all of Roosevelt’s sonic elements for which we’ve grown to love are still there; the warm and suffuse melodies, the soothing psychedelia and the streamlined pop structures, but this time around they’ve wrapped themselves much more closely than ever to the realm of dance music. Carefully layed out acid synth -which leans into Phuture’s 1987 vision more than his tastemaking contemporaries might stray towards- worms its way throughout a thick sea of pop mutations, while a steady four-four kick never relinquishes its hold on the entire track. We could go on for hours about the finely tuned single that was “Night Moves”, but we’ll just let you listen instead.
7.) Youth Lagoon – “Highway Patrol Stun Gun”
6.) Kurt Vile – “Pretty Pimpin”
A simple, fingerpicked indie-folk guitar loop dominates most of Kurt Vile’s beautiful b’lieve i’m goin down opener “Pretty Pimpin”, but it’s in the rolling opus’ lyrical details where it all blossoms into something much more. A most basic encounter with his reflection in the bathroom mirror sends him into a daze: “Who’s that stupid clown blocking the bathroom sink?” he quips, trying to “recognize” and come to grips with “the man in the mirror”. Vile’s Slick Rick level of storytelling is on full display on “Pretty Pimpin” and cracks the door wide open for by far one of the brightest LP entries to 2015. Clearly Vile’s time since leaving THe War On Drugs has done the dazed superstar a world of good.
5.) Mac DeMarco – “The Way You’d Love Her”
In just two-and-a-half minutes, “The Way You’d Love Her” displays just about everything we love about Canadian indie-maestro. Perhaps there is none better at dragging a wave of sarcastic ribbing through the wide-eyed, hopeful, heartfelt ballad than Mac DeMarco. On “The Way You’d Love Her”, Demarco’s faintly mumbled reverberations take center stage as with much of his most stirring work; hypnotizing and drawing its listener into the romance – until he gives a little yelp and breaks the mood with a classically Demarco, pitch-controlled, indie-surf guitar solo to wrap things up. How could you not just swoon to this one?
4.) Mas Ysa – “Look Up”
Perhaps the most exciting and perplexing artistic entry into this writer’s constantly expanding list of new groundbreaking acts, Thomas Arsenault’s Mas Ysa project shot straight into our hearts with a bullet this year; especially behind power-single “Look Up”. Hurtling drums and cascades of synth propel “Look Up” forward throughout its quick duration, but the most welcoming addition to Mas Ysa’s sonic toolbox, and one we think pulled him from art-house-hipster’s iPods into more mainstream territory, was an acoustic guitar that plays like it was lifted straight from Ben Gibbard’s The Photo Album stem collection. “Look Up”‘s end result wonderfully displays a compelling growth in Mas Ysa’s craft, and one that’s got us beyond excited for what 2016 brings from Mas Ysa.
3.) Shamir – “On The Regular”
How one unique kid from North Las Vegas managed to take the entire indie-pop world by storm will always be beyond me. Shamir Bailey never had an army of press or publicicsts behind him; rather the wunderkind producer/singer/songwriter let his debut LP Ratchet and its gorgeous slices of tuneage speak for him instead. Hell, it wasn’t even until at least four months after Ratchet‘s release that it was even available on torrent clients. Now, in 2015 that, ninjas, is called flying under the radar. But, it was largely the radio success of lead single “On The Regular” which pushed Shamir from a cooped up bedroom artist to ‘Late Show’ darling. “On The Regular” was the hyper addictive blend of Warehouse era Chicago house swing, 80’s synths that lean in on you like the arm of someone on a NY subway, pop structuring and of course Shamir’s delicate refrain; which all resulted into our favorite purely pop cut of the year.
2.) Tame Impala – “Let It Happen”
The sea-change from the deepest throws of psych-rock displayed on Innerspeaker and Lonerism presents itself immediately on Currents’ opener “Let It Happen”- a tune we’re sure you’re familiar with. Right off the bat, Tame Impala diehards may have noticed an immediate structural change as an analog four-four snare and kickdrum pattern takes center stage with next to nothing in the realm of those scuzzy and heavy guitars we’ve grown accustomed from Kevin Parker’s baby. That is of course, until six minutes in, you’re clobbered by a loopy and simple four-chord guitar progression which only really enhances this track’s ambient minutiae. But it’s the entire build and movement that seals its listener into Currents from this one single. There’s more nuanced hi-pass drum filtering put into “Let It Happen” than most bands would dream of utilizing in their entire careers, save for cdance producers (which after “Elephant” isn’t too surprising really) signaling Tame Impala’s careful and precise attention to not only their lead single, but the album as a whole. “Let It Happen” simultaneously cracks open Currents like a punch in the gut, while giving the long-player the necessary room it needs to breathe and evolve as an entire movement. Quite honestly, it may be this writer’s favorite opening to any album within the annals of time, and if you it, be sure to check out another one of Ninja Dom’s insightful and captivating LP reviews for Currents here.
1.) Thundercat – “Them Changes”
On “Them Changes”, the six-string Brainfeeder bass virtuoso known as Thundercat has strayed from the post-breakup day-to-day struggle thematically found frequently on his last LP Apocalypse, and this time glumly arrived at full-blown devastation. The tune is a warning shot of sorts, as “Nobody Move/There’s Blood On The Floor” forms the first line and only digs further into the overwhelming finality and acceptance of heartbreak similar to a cop stumbling across a murder scene. While lyrically, “Them Changes” is a morbidly morose view into Thundercat’s expansive headspace, musically, he’s built one of the richest soundscapes of any 3:00 minute single in history. It’s got emotional turmoil sung in a masculine yet delicate falsetto, and it’s got a heaping spoonful of noodly, six-string bass funk. Two worlds have never collided so beautifully. It’s only fitting that Thundercat’s most notable Brainfeeder cohorts Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington make appearances -albeit in small doses- on his biggest, perhaps even career-defining single. No one wanted to miss out on the fun of “Them Changes” in 2015.
Honorable Mentions: Tame Impala – “Disciples”, “The Less I Know The Better”, “Eventually”, “‘Cause I’m a Man”; Tobias Jesso Jr. – “Hollywood”; Chromatics – “Shadow”; NITE-FUNK (Nite Jewel & Dâm-Funk) – Can U Read Me; Disclosure – “Nocturnal”; Tundran – “Kimono”; Drake – “Know Yourself”, “Hotline Bling”; Grimes – “Flesh Without Blood”; Beach House – “Sparks”; Tanlines – “Pieces”; The Arcs – “Put A Flower In Your Pocket”; Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – “S.O.B.”; U.S. Girls – “Window Shades”; – Best Coast – “Feeling Ok”; YACHT – “I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler”; A Sunny Day In Glasgow – “Days & More Nights”; Motorama – “Heavy Wave”, “Impractical Advice”; Kelela – “Rewind”; Favored Nations – “I Can See You”; Calvin Love – “Automaton”; Viet Cong – “Silhouettes”, “Continental Shelf”; Autre Ne Veut – “Panic Room”; GEMS – “Living As a Ghost”