We’re closing up shop for another year, which means our obligatory look at the year that was – and, like in the past two years, it’s in the form of ten songs, arranged alphabetically by artist. And it’s been an interesting year, indeed. Pop music was, once again, no longer a guilty pleasure. The much-anticipated comeback of guitar music did not happen, but we had some genre-pushing, if not outright weird, alternative anyway. We’ve seen new acts make a legitimate splash, but it wasn’t for the sake of a new voice. We’ve seen old acts make triumphant returns, but nostalgia wasn’t the biggest thing. Things have not settled down to the way people want it to be (and that could mean anything depending on who you ask) but things have never looked this good in recent years either. It is weird. Interesting, but weird.
As for us here on the blog, well, it has been weird. I guess it’s the whole “brand new frontiers” thing, with a bunch of not-really-ambitious-but-let’s-say-it-is-anyway new features, plus the slow creep towards (finally) more coverage of local music… and the fact that we somehow reached less people with that. But anyway. We’ll be back on 4 January with more of the same, and then some. We’ve got some more things cooking up in the coming year, because this has gotten way too serious than we first imagined it. For now, though, those ten songs. And yes, I know, ten songs are not representative of the year, nor enough to cover what I liked. But we’ve done this for three times now; this is the fourth. You know. [NB]
“Here” by Alessia Cara | YouTube has given a lot of artists a break, but for some reason they’ve either stayed stuck with the niche “YouTube artist”, or rocketed straight to the teen market, where they languished. (It took Justin Bieber a long time to be accepted by the snotty crowd, for one, with the release of his latest album Purpose.) But with a song documenting the problems of every self-declared introvert, Alessia Cara busted through those barriers, comfortably sitting on both pop stations and more credible ones as soon as it came out. “Here” first draws one in with her velvety voice and, to me at least, the way she breathlessly delivered the litany of anxieties that formed the song’s chorus. And that song’s sentiments – admittedly a refreshing take on a heavily-trodden theme – made it shine even more. And thankfully, her debut album, Know-It-All, shows that “Here” is no fluke.
“Come Home Baby” by the Charlatans | In the lead-up to the release of their twelfth album, Modern Nature, British band the Charlatans found themselves in familiar territory: another band member passed away (drummer Jon Brookes succumbed to brain cancer in 2013) and, with it, an unspoken pressure to live up to past glories in honor of the departed. The album did not disappoint, with a new channeling of the band’s familiar mix of alternative, psychedelic and funky. “Come Home Baby” – the third single from the album – captures that sound: a slow burn reaching an anthemic climax, with snazzy keyboards and a subdued feel. The group managed to toe that line between sounding familiar and sounding fresh, and all that, without breaking a sweat.
“Depreston” by Courtney Barnett | Putting Courtney Barnett on this list is inevitable, considering she was one of the bigger successes of 2015, and the fact that we’ve been on to her before most of everybody else. Her debut full-length, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, was both highly anticipated and heavily applauded – we called it “mind-blowing” and “disarming” – making her an unlikely successor to Gotye as flag-waver for all of Aussie music. I could have chosen “Dead Fox” or “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” or, well, any of the other tracks, but I keep on squaring in to “Depreston”, a beaut of a track that starts in one place and ends in a completely different one, a place filled with contemplation and sadness, of endings amidst beginnings. Perhaps the most interesting part is that all that came from Courtney, whose writing focused on the immediate in her last two EPs.
“Make It Better” by the Decemberists | Maybe this is cheating, as “Make It Better” began making rounds in 2014, but the album it was in, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, was released this year. (It was a busy year for the Decemberists; they released an EP later this year.) This year I have begun to pay attention to these folk-y artists a bit more, with new releases from Glen Hansard and Dawes, as well as Brandi Carlile coming into my view. But it’s “Make It Better” – a tender sing-along anthem, if there is such a thing – that captured my heart most this year. I wouldn’t call it a response to pop music being more ubiquitous – it’s not that I ever avoided it – but I guess I just needed a bit of a breather with something more down-to-earth. Or maybe it’s me getting old.
“Twenty-three” by IU | See? I did not avoid pop. This year was when we went head-on with K-pop, going as far as doing a seven-week primer on it. And while I’m not positioned to definitively say whether it’s been a particularly good year for K-pop, there have been some noteworthy releases: new stuff from Girls’ Generation, Super Junior and a returning Wonder Girls; a new album from my official favorite girl group Mamamoo; and, of course, the groups fans can’t help but scream about. You know who they are. But it’s IU’s Chat-Shire that turned out to be perhaps the most interesting release of the year, thanks to her continuing exploration of age and growing up (sometimes controversially, in the case of “Zeze”) through an ever-changing sonic palette. “Twenty-three” is pretty much her first foray towards dance, and for some reason, it works: there’s something about the interplay between her vocals and the production that keeps me hitting play.
“Loud Places” by Jamie xx featuring Romy Madley-Croft | Jamie xx’s debut album, In Colour, is perhaps one of the most anticipated of the year, especially considering how he helped define the sound of the xx – and alter pop music along the way. While the reception towards his exploration of feelings through a history of dance music was more mixed than expected, the lead single off it, “Loud Places”, still stands as a proper slice of pop. While it helps that it sounds familiar, both because of vocals from his co-xx-er Romy Madley-Croft and from the decision to sample a 70s soul record, it also captures a new sensibility, if not a new sound. As with the Charlatans earlier, Jamie xx’s record sounds fresh in its explorations and appropriations, capturing something so universal and yet so specific to this day and age. Even if, well, I’m not really the type to go on dance floors.
“Baby Love” by Petite Meller | Now this one’s interesting: a song I’ve heard of for months but only really crept up to me in the past few weeks. In the past couple of years Petite Meller’s done some subliminal yet catchy pop: a cross of your stereotypical indie affectations – the twee sound, the quirky vocals, the all-around feel of arrested development – and the most polished of pop characteristics: an outwardly bouncy sound, a hyperstylized look, a square aim at the dance floor. Released earlier this year, “Baby Love” puts these ingredients together to good use: not-exactly-disparate influences thrown together, building up to one hell of a shake – but not hard enough that it allows for delights in December as it did in February.
“A New Wave” by Sleater-Kinney | Sleater-Kinney reunited this year after ten years of solo projects, and it was a triumphant one indeed; their record No Cities to Love is lauded not as a return to form but a continuation of it. Now, I only really discovered the group when they first split, and haven’t really immersed in them, so their significance as a major proponent of the grrl movement is likely lost on me. But I cannot deny the tunes, and “A New Wave” – not particularly because of the involvement of Bob’s Burgers on the music video – captures both the craft and the revolutionary fervor Sleater-Kinney have done so well before.
“Sea Creatures” by Soak | When I first heard Soak’s “Sea Creatures” I remarked on how beautiful a song it was. Now, months after the release of her debut album Before We Forgot How To Dream, I think it’s a very sad song. Bridie Monds-Watson wrote this song around four years ago or so, but only now did it get attention outside Irish circles. People may complain about how the new version’s production prettied up the song too much, but to me, it plays up the inherent gloom of the song very well: the simple lyrics (about fish, inexplicably) lurk behind a shimmering soundscape, and captures the charm of Soak’s debut: she has all these thoughts, and she has to express them somehow.
“The Less I Know The Better” by Tame Impala | Tame Impala’s newest album, Currents, may have been a bit different from their two prior releases, but it’s still filled with that tendency to groove. “The Less I Know The Better” didn’t pop out the first time I heard it, but in isolation it did: an infectious track essentially documenting a one-sided relationship, raw and visceral, cloaked in Tame Impala’s grooviest of funks. Like this blog, really. Sometimes – and more so this year – I found myself saying this song’s title in frustration. But, we’re still here, for better or for worse. More or less.