At the beginning of the year, I wrote that 2015 was going to be a great year for music, and I was not wrong. 2015 was blessed with so many great releases, including a couple of delightful surprises by artists that returned from self-imposed exile with their musical powers undimmed. More than any year in recent memory, 2015 felt like a reward for patience, as long-anticipated albums were finally released and proved well worth the wait.
Below is a list of my favorite songs from 2015. However, rather than try to rank them, I’m simply listing them in alphabetical order by artist.
“A River Runs Through This City” by Esmerine
If you’re like me, you’ve spent some time mourning the demise of Pinetop Seven — and you’ve been wondering who might take their place as fine purveyors of gloomy-yet-glorious chamber music. I’m not sure if Esmerine is quite ready to take on that role, but “A River Runs Through This City” reveals they’re definitely a contender. By turns seductive, smoky, and menacing, the song suggests a neo-noir set in some American Southwest river town; indeed, one half-expects to hear Darren Richard’s haunting voice chime in with another tale of heartache, loss, and brokenness.
“Subtext” by John Foxx, Harold Budd
A little Harold Budd goes a long way, which seems odd to say since there’s so little to Budd’s minimalist, piano-based ambience to begin with. I don’t mean that as a slight; his songs are altogether lovely, with each reverb-drenched piano note left to suspend in mid-air, shimmering like a precious jewel. But his music can be so minimal that individual songs blur together. So if you’re going to focus on a single Budd composition, you could do far worse than “Subtext,” the first track from Translucence/Drift Music, a double album from 2003 that was reissued earlier this year. “Subtext” is Budd at his most minimal and restrained; subsequently, the full beauty and emotional weight of each and every piano note is magnified tenfold.
“The World Looks Down” by Richard Hawley
Richard Hawley risks sounding like a curmudgeon on “The World Looks Down” as he laments how technology (smartphones, social media) have robbed life of wonder and mystery. “How did we ever dream at night, before the screen took hold?” he asks. Later, he sings, “You can stare off into space the new invention says/Don’t look up at the stars, look in your hands/The world looks down.” But this is a case where delivery is everything, starting with Hawley’s rich baritone, which makes every word drip with emotion and meaning. Hawley has always felt like man out of time and dreadfully old-fashioned, but if that means he sounds this good, then maybe there’s something to his curmudgeonliness.
“Skeletontonguedworld” by Nature and Organisation
“Skeletontonguedworld” originally appeared on 1994’s Beauty Reaps the Blood of Solitude, which soon went out of print (though a couple of unofficial versions were released, including one by a Russian bootleg label). But earlier this year, the good folks at Trisol released Snow Leopard Messiah, a two-disc set that includes nearly everything ever released by Michael Cashmore’s Nature and Organisation project. Which finally gives folks a chance to hear one of the neo-folk genre’s unsung heroes. “Skeletontonguedworld” is neo-folk par excellence; while David Tibet’s unique sing-song vocals and abstract lyrics (“And as she sleeps around her bed/The blinding deadbled world spins”) might receive the initial attention, you ultimately find yourself captivated by Cashmore’s lovely, plaintive arrangements for guitar, strings, and flute.
“Underneath the Maple Tree” by Pigeons
If you find yourself going through withdrawal for The Clientele’s brand of woozy-doozy pop, then may I suggest checking out Pigeons’ The Bower? While they may not have all of the snappy hooks and melodies that Alasdair MacLean et al. possess in abundance, “Underneath the Maple Tree” finds the New York-based trio tapping into the same sort of lazy, autumnal ephemeral-ness that makes The Clientele’s music so beguiling.
“The Last Goodbye” by Pilotpriest
Pilotpriest is the musical project of filmmaker Anthony Scott Burns; not surprisingly, there’s a cinematic aspect to “The Last Goodbye.” Indeed, the song plays like the closing theme to some long-lost ’80s sci-fi epic. There’s an emotional resonance in the song’s slowly building synths, while the crisp beats and solid groove get the nostalgia flowing nicely. Along with Makeup and Vanity Set, Pilotpriest raised the bar for synthwave/dreamwave music. While many dreamwave artists seem content to recycle ‘80s music tropes, Makeup and Vanity Set and Pilotpriest have been exploring the genre’s emotional nuances. In other words, this is no mere retro music exercise; it’s something much more interesting and beautiful.
“Second Wave” by Yumi Zouma
Yumi Zouma’s music is clear, cool, and breezy… just the sort of thing to listen to on a cold January evening when you’re wishing for warmer climates. And like Club 8, the band blends dreamy female vocals, graceful melodies, and just the right amount of heartache and melancholy in their music.