Massive thanks to everyone who introduced me to these songs: there is a ridiculously large number of you, and you are all great. Usual rules apply: no more than one song per artist, the songs get better as you go down the list, and no songs by anyone I know personally, as it would be weird to try and rank them against each other. But if I was including stuff by people I knew, then you'd probably see appearances from:
- Threepenny Bit, who are a magnificently tight, inventive and exuberant instrumental folk band, and who released a blindingly good album this year. The best track is “Cabbage” (http://threepennybit.bandcamp.com/track/cabbage), a galumphing speeding bullet of a tune, which never quite twists off in the direction you expect it to, but always twists off in the best direction possible.
- Ben Parker, whose song Broke as Hell (http://benparkerofficial.bandcamp.com/track/broke-as-hell) is in the grand tradition of mashing together upbeat pop songwriting with ragged punkery: it's an excellently boozy celebration of irresponsibility
50. Carousel Ride – Rubblebucket https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QirwI-p0ZP4
Let's start with some pop. Sweet, cheerful pop, torn between crunching chunks of a guitar on one side and loose, squelching synthesisers on the other. The lack of coherence is presumably the point.
49. A Place Called Space – The Juan Maclean https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmlIZRUet5c
Endless retro-synth futurism, and presumably the favourite song of every all-night day-glo spaceship racer. The first time I heard it I thought “this reminds me of a song that I like, but I can't think what it is”. Turns out the song it reminded me of was the Scissor Sisters' cover of Comfortably Numb, and I now have to face the horrifying possibility that there's part of my subconscious that thinks the Scissor Sisters' cover of Comfortably Numb is a good thing.
48. Gethsemane – Dry the River https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OdyudQwQEKE
Earnest, low-key guitar stuff that switches between great lyrics (“It started with the moon that turned an inexpensive room into St Peter's”) and awful lyrics (“There's a parabolic story but it's boring”) with disorientating speed, but I'm a sucker for vague religious symbolism, and there's a winning intensity of feeling here.
47. Pro Anti Anti – Liars https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkkljKDeMvs
Monotone non-sequiturs intoned over militaristic thumping and juddering. Or at least, one hopes the lyrics are non-sequiturs, and not some sort of peculiarly danceable satanic summoning ritual.
46. The Courier – Seth Lakeman https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDyXVsPwUZs
Seth Lakeman probably influenced my current fiddle style more than anyone else. Unfortunately, Seth Lakeman regularly wrecks his bows while playing, and now I have to go to a violin shop about once a year to get my bow repaired. Thanks Seth Lakeman.
45. Side 2, Pt. 1: Sum – Pink Floyd https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJWppwotHJw
Pleasant surprise of the year: how good the new Pink Floyd album was. On the one hand, it's nothing we haven't heard before. On the other hand, it's excellent to hear it again. A bed of loose, wobbly clouds, and David Gilmour romping about in them, like a crystal lion.
44. The Night is Young – Moulettes
An old fashioned waltz, drenched with luxury: velvet, wood-panelling, and the unusual items found hidden in the backgrounds of Holbein paintings.
43. Be Free – Polar Bear https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIr4eeWgX24
Jazz of the spiky, muttering variety. Squawking brass playing with frayed subterranean circuits, which flick on and off like the lighting in horror-movie warehouses. You keep spotting tunes, but they vanish like ghosts in the dark, until you're no longer sure if they were ever there.
42. New York Morning – Elbow https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSLzZJ9vLfI
Songs about how great New York aren't exactly rare. But thankfully, New York is pretty great, and the songs aren't running out of material. New York Morning is a great song on a bad album: Elbow may have struggled to recapture the low-key experimental warmth of their best work, but they still have a way with stadium belters. They can still sound as if a kindly wizard had turned U2 into self-aware Mancunians. They can still slip twists of unexpected poetry in between blasts of major-key grandeur.
41. 74 is the New 24 – Giorgio Moroder https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u5c-Qndqio
The title is the only lyric in the song, repeated in a metallic rasp over what sounds like a bouncy, upbeat version of the end credits music from Blade Runner. Giorgio Moroder is actually 74, and I see no better way of welcoming the conquering robo-geriatric armies than with pounding dance music.
40. Mansions of Millions of Years – Mammal Hands ttp://mammalhands.bandcamp.com/track/mansions-of-millions-of-years
Lovely jazz, rolling softly across moonlit fields. There's a crescendo, and the expected further proof that jazz drummers are better than other drummers, but even then the whole piece feels distant, hushed, as if watched patiently from afar.
39. Make You Better – The Decemberists https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xq76aQRmbQA
So it's song about weary romantic longing, in the time-honoured indie-rock style. But the language feels slightly off, growing like strangely coloured mosses on old trees, as if nothing quite means what the cliches say they should mean. And Colin Meloy has a hell of a way with a melody. It's cathartic, but it's far from clear what's being released.
38. On with the Business – The Hold Steady https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIOgfFm27K8
The Hold Steady aren't the best-band-in-the-universe titans they were in, say, 2007, but they can still build bulletproof old-fashioned rock music with lyrics that straddle Big Themes and sharply captured images of grubby times, grubby places, and grubby people. As the guitars howl apocalyptically, the narrator takes the part of a jittery, loquacious small-time drug dealer. The words rattle with the rhythms of panicked speech: “I said a couple things that probably weren't technically true. Conventional wisdom says we should probably cruise.”
37. All Things Transient – Maybeshewill https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2kXiPw33qQ Maybeshewill make the most accessible kind of sweeping instrumental post-rock: they're a one trick pony, but it's an excellent trick, throwing out grandiose build-and-release after grandiose build-and-release. This song is dense with hooks, sparking off each other in bright patterns.
36. Booty Call – Sisyphus http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2eAVPTuUDhg
I don't listen to enough hip-hop to feel qualified to judge it. I don't understand a lot of the stuff that gets critically lauded – Run the Jewels this year, or Kendrick Lamar last year, for example. And it's not that I disliked those albums, or that I thought the critical consensus was wrong. Just that the music was so alien to my established points of reference that I couldn't grasp what people loved about them. So when I find something like this song, I don't know if I'd be spotting the things that would be spotted by a connoisseur, or if my judgement is to be trusted. But the production here is wonderful: stuttering, shifting, threatening rhythms that build a knotted, nervous prison of words before finally, in the last twenty seconds, releasing the shimmering ghost of a melody.
35. Flashlight – Bonobo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5gbk0xjRWI
A warm, lovely electronic den. Like stroking a dog, if the act of stroking the dog was going to give you the power to control lightning, but you don't need to go out and use your lightning powers until tomorrow, and stroking the dog is really nice, so you think you'll keep doing it for a while.
34. Plentyn – 9Bach
Welsh language folk trip-hop with heavy use of harp, so it's already getting points for originality. The song is a fairly invincible argument that more things should be sung in Welsh, and it's happy to take its own time, to grow and breathe without pressure.
33. Every Other Freckle – alt-J https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-mhgfXgwdls
Every Other Freckle revels in its own artifice and unpleasantness. Wizened goblin vocals leer across a faux-funk swagger, far too clinical and pristine to have anything to do with the raw lust it pretends to mimic. The lyrics describe sexual desire with imagery so bizarre that any actual feeling is wiped clean away. What is left feels like a threat, or a microscope trained at all of pop music's most unhealthy faultlines.
32. Parallels – Eels https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_myUVbK49JM
Middle aged man with guitar; stellar levels of craft.
31. DBF – Eno and Hyde https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwnxypgED6s
Karl Hyde (from Underworld) and Brian Eno (from being Brian Eno) collaborate on a jagged, messy onslaught of half-formed riffs and boiling rhythms. The noises are familiar enough for you to keep expecting that structures and melodies will emerge, but there's no signal: just accept the noise.
30. Mr Tembo – Damon Albarn https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODG3VRkncBc
Most of Albarn's album from this year was dour and ponderous. The one shaft of light was this joyously laid-back song about a baby elephant. Wrapped up in gospel choirs, 1950s comedy samples and a sun-drenched horn section, it somehow totally avoids schmaltz.
29. Eternal Rains Will Come – Opeth https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoW3Sywb5xQ
1970s-style prog-revivalism, but unlike the majority of bands writing songs like this today, they don't just sound like a faded copy of their influences. There's an aggressive tightness here gained from their years as a metal band, technical brilliance in the service of a chunky, meaty stomp.
28. The Queen's Nose – Slow Club https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zHEY5sImlM
It's all about the vocal performance, which rises to full nuclear assault without even seeming ruffled, while storms of trumpets and fuzzy guitars blast into orbit.
27. Class Historian – Class Historian https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFo-Fp2eJWQ
The kind of timeless, infuriatingly catchy pop song that could have been released in any year since about 1963. There's something undefinably sleazy about the lyrics and the vocal delivery, but that only adds to the fun.
26. The Sailor's Bonnet – The Gloaming http://thegloamingbrassland.bandcamp.com/track/the-sailors-bonnet
At first, it's a display of extraordinary Irish fiddle playing, which would be enough to merit its inclusion here. But once the masterful groundwork has been laid, a piano enters, dancing around the melody with clockwork precision, rippling the still pond.
25. Music for Insomniacs, Part 1 – Matt Berry
Yes, this is the actor Matt Berry, with the booming voice, from The IT Crowd and The Mighty Boosh. Who is, apparently an insomniac, and who decided that the best way to cure other insomniacs was to create sprawling pieces of electronic music in the mode of Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. It's questionable how successful this would be at sending anyone to sleep: it's far from ambient and its twenty minute length is soaked with melodies. And, despite its dreamlike slow-burn, it occasionally slips suddenly into nightmare: barely audible voices whispering “Just... watch your step”, or the volume suddenly surging, or distant panicked shouts heard behind the wailings of choirs.
24. Frogs Singing – Andrew Bird https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxgfWETcapo
An American indie-folk cover that was apparently planned and recorded very quickly. And that's audible in the simple, unvarnished freshness of the track. But my God the fiddle hooks are marvellous.
23. Remurdered – Mogwai https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZ5nEuG-CRc
Now that the ice-caps have melted and all of our cities have sunk beneath the waves, let's throw away our touchscreen technology and have a submarine war. Our computers will be made of rusting metal and battered plastic, their displays flickering blurred numbers and blinding green light, whirring, groaning and bleeping under the weight of their calculations. But we will hunt you down, no matter how silently your engines are running. We are waiting, beneath the lightless waves.
22. Moon Hooch – No. 6 (Not on Spotify, https://soundcloud.com/moon-hooch/no-6)
A joyous, squawking, honking racket. Moon Hooch build electronic dance tracks, then work out the sheet music and play it live with two saxophones and a drumkit. They've been banned from large chunks of the New York Subway system due to the impromptu parties which tend to break out when they arrive.
21. Liquid Spirit – Gregory Porter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07rb7QQYk7E
Gregory Porter asks the listener to “Clap your hands now” exactly thirteen times in Liquid Spirit. There's no need. This is tight, high energy jazz, Porter has a fantastic voice, and there's a killer piano solo. The happiest you can be in a minor key.
20. Phoenix Island – Sam Lee https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ss24LSJqcqY
Sam Lee, a young man with a much older man's voice, is making weirder, messier music than anyone else I've heard doing traditional folk at the moment. Sounds layer chaotically, and then suddenly make sense. Rhythms shift, clicking into focus, then dispersing. Brass, or other vocalists, drift in and out. But it's all in the service of the song's words and melody, which structure the haziness like hard, bright bone.
19. Dead Man's Tetris – Flying Lotus
A warped subterranean night journey, haunted by the ghosts of broken arcade machines and toy handguns. And like all the best subterranean night journeys, Snoop Dogg shows up at the end.
18. Digital Witness – St. Vincent https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVAxUMuhz98
Digital Witness feels like pop music has been solved mathematically, as if the song is running on an engine that has been tuned for maximum efficiency, and then cleaned with disturbing thoroughness. It's clinical, streamlined, and catchy as hell.
17. Glitter Recession – East India Youth https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_WPP03DDOI
A slow instrumental crescendo – broken arpeggios clamber over each other as icebergs the size of cities collide and shatter into static.
16. Garden Dog Barbecue – GoGo Penguin http://gogopenguin.bandcamp.com/track/garden-dog-barbecue
An acoustic piano-jazz trio who will occasionally throw in dubstep drops. And who bounce a storm of notes off each that would probably take a weather-predicting supercomputer to keep track of. As a feat of engineering and technical skill, this is exhilarating. That it barrels along with such infectious energy is just a bonus.
15. Lazaretto – Jack White https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qI-95cTMeLM
I think I've finally worked out why people like Jack White: he looks like he's having more fun than anyone else. Rock-rapping nonsense over one of those riffs so satisfying and simple that it's a wonder no one has used it before, and then unleashing a stupendous, vicious fiddle duet. It should all feel horribly derivative, and I think it's just White's bloody-minded confidence that means it doesn't.
14. Little Maggie – Robert Plant https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlEJeZcvK4g
Plant should not have been able grow old as gracefully as this. A traditional song which seems to have been plugged into a dozen types of folk music. The singing is restrained, kept at arm's length from the swelling flow of American, African and European instrumentation and the warm buzz of electronics.
13. Palace – The Antlers https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_I2bRwU1N4
Sparkle and wooze, in the grand old tradition of indie-rock melancholia. Trumpets call out across the dusky landscape, and an androgynous voice documents complex emotional states with the melodic control of Iron & Wine and the fearsome attention to detail of The National.
12. Lights On – FKA twigs https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqFnLSGBVCY
Everything hangs on a contradiction. On the one hand, there's the vocals: vulnerable, raw, stark. And then there's everything else, doing precisely the opposite: showily theatrical production throwing out attention-shimmering effects and cloaking everything in a spectral fog of emotional detachment. All of which leads to a hefty sense of unease: what can you trust when you are hearing both a visceral portrait of human insecurity and a carefully choreographed performance of the same?
11. Madman – Sean Rowe https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ess11y1oFiE
Firstly, my goodness, what a voice. And when the infrasonic rumble of that voice is twinned with an arrangement thrumming with satisfyingly hefty thumps, and when all of this almost parodic hypermasculinity is infused with with and light and warmth, you'll have the rare slice of Americana that I like very much indeed.
10. A Little Lost – Sufjan Stevens https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnofnB5gNBY
A Little Lost is a cover of a love song that Stevens recorded for a charity album. It's bursting with near-saccharine sentimentality, but is floating so far out in its own dreamlike haze that considerations like taste and emotional restraint don't apply.
9. Kirsten Supine – Swans
Two years ago, Swans released an astonishing, brutal, terrifying, beautiful, sprawling album, in what one assumed was a near impossible act of effort. This year, they pretty much did the same thing again, as if making stuff like this was no big deal. Swans excel at looming threat and hammering assault, and here you get excellent samples of both. Also, it's apparently about Kirsten Dunst, though goodness knows how or why.
8. Bittersweet Genesis for Him AND Her – Kishi Bashi http://kishibashi.bandcamp.com/track/bittersweet-genesis-for-him-and-her
Stickily biological creation myth, eco-apocalypse, biography of a marriage, three minute pop song: you can't criticise this for lack of ambition. And as the orchestra swells and scatters, it feels as if Kishi Bashi is calmly and patiently explaining a distant universe you can never really hope to understand.
7. Jack Lintel – Bellowhead https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6fVC7Kclvs
I think we can now be confident that Bellowhead have given up experimenting, and are happy to stick with what they do best. Thankfully they're still better at explosive, widescreen folk music than anyone else. And explosive, widescreen folk is the kind of thing I'll keep coming back for, again and again and again and again.
6. Get Up – clipping. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTPWY8MMGOk
A male rapper, a female singer, the bleep of an alarm clock. There are no other elements: the arrangement is almost obnoxiously minimal. But the performance is absolutely maximal: a vicious torrent of vocal gymnastics given space and flight by the lack of musical support behind it. It's also a masterful experiment in what happens when you take away even the most basic musical flourishes, and leave the arrangement in the simplest possible shape: with so little to keep track of, the slightest shifts in production can generate earth-shattering sensory responses.
5. Water Fountain – tUnE-yArDs https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-KulvW2TUQ
A bouncing, technicolour playground chant, overflowing marvellous clattering percussion and laid-back bass-grooves. But just when the party is at its most ecstatic, you notice the lyrics: warped images of poverty, violence, capitalist excess, all thrown out with cartoon intensity. The jelly is full of razor blades, and the balloon animals are feral.
4. Everything is AWESOME!!! - Tegan and Sara feat. The Lonely Island https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StTqXEQ2l-Y
As featured in The Lego Movie, it's a merciless parody of contemporary pop music and also an incredibly catchy pop song. It's a skewering of the numbing banality of huge swathes of culture, and also a celebration of the joy that can be found in the numbing and the banal. In context, it's a warning that conformity of opinion can lead to monotony and oppression, and also a singalong affirmation of the strength of community and togetherness. It's an advert, and also art. It's making every point and counterpoint too fast for you to argue against either side.
3. Micheline – Sun Kil Moon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QvNAHBI1V4o
Sun Kil Moon attempts to strip away the conventions of songwriting. His lyrics are unvarnished and journalistic: lines like “He had an aneurysm triggered by a nerve in his hand from the strain he was putting on it” or “In '99 I was on tour in Sweden when I called home to tell my Mom I got a part in a movie” don't sound like song, or poetry. But they do sound true, and the three meandering vignettes that make up this song are all vividly real pieces of storytelling, sharp imagery and graceful elisions rolling with the waves of memory. The links between the vignettes are hinted at, but never really drawn – they're all stories about different kinds of love and different kinds of death and the gulf between the narrator's feelings and his understanding of these feelings. But maybe there's not any grand thesis being made; maybe telling these stories is simply a way of honouring the past.
2. Marshall Law – Kate Tempest https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VaNh4J7qghI Kate Tempest is a London hip-hop artist and award-winning performance poet. She has an absolutely magnificent way with words – an unsentimental grit, an infinite compassion, witty and playful (but never forced or strenuous) even when trawling through the banal or the hellish. There are so many fantastically quotable moments in this song, but I don't want spoil the excellence of Tempest delivering them against thundering, propulsive walls of electronic noise, which shift as perspectives change or new characters emerge. Because this is music about characters: like early Hold Steady records (and I know of no higher compliment than “like early Hold Steady records”) this is the first part of a novelistic story which grows and deepens as the album continues. You'll want to stick around for the whole thing.
1. Did I Ever Love You – Leonard Cohen https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wo0C1_wb8yA
Leonard Cohen is eighty, and this is a song about age. His weatherbeaten husk of a voice, rich with every shade of yearning and bitterness, is watched over by the oddly plastic sheen of a youthful choir, who seem simultaneously a source of compassion and of cruelty, pouring out singing that an old man's body could never produce. It's a song about forgetting: about decades of history being blurred and erased. It's a song about doubt and self-worth: about wondering whether even one's most basic emotions are real enough to count. It's a song about accepting all of this, about dignity. And every line is perfect, every line is devastating. The only hope it allows is that, sometimes, knowledge of the darkness allows moments as beautiful as this to shine through the cracks.