10. Joanna Gruesome - “Last Year” (Peanut Butter)
The way this song shapeshifts from a fun and capable punk jam into the catchiest, most blissful twee pop tune you’ve heard in ages is one of my favorite musical feats of the year. Just give it a listen and try not to be charmed so hard you immediately hit the back button.
9. Craig Finn - “Saint Peter Upside Down” (Faith in the Future)
The Hold Steady have grown out of their drunken bar band persona into a more grown up one, and that’s probably because the band, despite flourishes of youthful reverie still found in their music, is getting old. Finn has been sounding more world weary on his recent releases, and boy oh boy does he sound world weary here. No more than on Faith in the Future’s “Maggie I’ve Been Searching for Our Son.” I coulda picked that one. I love that song, but the martial energy of “Saint Peter Upside Down” felt like the sort of music I wish the Hold Steady were making right now. It’s got cryptic hallmarks, it takes place in a bar, and has references to saints, mysterious seedy characters, and lines like “Now she’s up in her room watching Disney cartoons/ She always cries when they’re kissing the prince.” It’s a tremendous little song buried in the back half of Faith in the Future, but Finn has more confidence and swagger here than he’s had in years and man oh man I hope he carries that with him.
8. Natalie Prass - “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” (Natalie Prass)
Holy SHIT. That’s my reaction every time this song ends. It’s like musical theater or something. If you strip this song down to its bones it’s an aching and vulnerable little tune about a broken relationship. It passes the test of being a beautiful song on its own merits, but the insane amount of orchestration that is crammed into this one by Prass and producer Matthew E. White is astounding. It should sound like a mess, and instead it sounds freaking epic. It has it all. hushed woodwinds ultimately give way to big brassy horns and the shifting instrumentation punctuates the shifting emotion Prass imbues into every chorus. The vocals veer from fragile to empowered over the chorus of five minutes. The line “Our love is a long goodbye” sounds sad and heartbreaking at first and by its refrain at the end it sounds matter of fact. It’s an incredibly moving track, but every five listens or so I put aside a listen to just admire the musicianship and production because goddamn, I don’t know how the hell you make music that sounds this rich.
7. Frank Turner - “Silent Key” (Positive Songs for Negative People)
Frank Turner's Positive Songs for Negative People is his most radio friendly to date, and I thought a lot of the songs ended up feeling a little rote, a little too slick, a little too tailored to a broad audience. It doesn't feel like he's actively selling out or anything like that, and it feels like Mr. Turner is making a progression as he sees fit, but the results are just...fine, you know what I mean? So once you come across "Silent Key" on the back end of the record it knocks you flat on your ass. It's a huge song, and it's one of the most earnest and emotional tracks of the year. It's what Frank Turner excels at when he's on his game. The song plays out as a fictionalized conversation between astronaut Christa McAuliffe and a four-year-old Frank Turner having a conversation over ham radio in the minutes following the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. It's a devastating piece of work that elevates the whole album.
6. Hop Along - “Powerful Man” (Painted Shut)
Frances Quinlan might not be a world famous superstar, but holy shit does she sound like one on Painted Shut. The pipes on this woman, goddamn. Just give this track a spin and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
5. Beach Slang - “Too Late to Die Young” (The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us)
A terrific article on Grantland called Beach Slang “2015’s Best, Most Sincere Rock Band” and I’m hard pressed to come up with a better one-line description of this band. The songs feel mainlined from frontman James Alex’s heart and on the showstopping standout “Too Late to Die Young,” you feel the weight of his forty years (and 20 in punk rock) like a burden, but not one that’s too heavy to overcome. It’s strange calling someone who’s been in the business for as long as Alex one of the best new voices in indie rock, but it’s hard not to when his songs feel like the most honest and optimistic songs of the year.
4. Father John Misty - “Chateau Lobby 4 (in C for Two Virgins)” (I Love You, Honeybear)
You’re going to be hard pressed to find a more romantic song released this year, and that it’s coming from someone with a curmudgeonly reputation (if it’s not all an act, which I’m not ruling out) is like one of those news stories where they find someone alive trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building after a week. Perhaps it’s Josh Tillman’s seriousness that makes these deeply personal songs about his love for his wife and finding real love in a world full of morons make you feel like you’re a part of a triumph of the human spirit. That even in the darkest and beardiest of places, love wins.
3. Fred Thomas - “Bad Blood” (All Are Saved)
One thing I love about “Bad Blood” is that the vocals get faded out, but looking at the lyrics sheet, there are more words. But they’re blasted out by a droning synthesizer. “Bad Blood” isn’t the catchiest song on All Are Saved, but it’s the one that I kept coming back to. It’s basically a dirge about having to deal with people you straight up hate, two-facedness, and being stuck in the “scene” and I got stuck on it. I was amazed at some of the stream of consciousness one liners Thomas drops in this track
2. Courtney Barnett - “Elevator Operator” (Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit)
Trader Joes, day after Thanksgiving, there 5 minutes before open to pick up milk on my way to work. “Elevator Operator” is blaring from the speakers outside usually reserved for more subdued grocery store fare. I love hearing songs in unexpected places. I’d listened to Courtney Barnett’s debut LP a dozen times already, but hearing “Elevator Operator” there and then turned the song on its head. I had nothing to do but stand there and listen and appreciate Barnett’s unique brand of storytelling songwriting that calls back heyday Craig Finn. Someone finally unlocked the door and the music kept playing as I walked back to the dairy section before abruptly shutting off right before I grabbed a gallon of milk. Pure unbridled fun and joy, that song, right there.
1. The Mountain Goats - “Heel Turn 2” (Beat the Champ)