I write basically the same thing in this introduction every year. My music tastes are mine alone, so this list is less of a proclamation about what was definitively the best music than it is simply a list of my favorites. I’m not a real music critic, and you can find plenty of year-end lists that are more wide-ranging or that better fit your own personal style.
Nevertheless, I find it fun to chronicle my favorites for each year, and this is that list. Hopefully you’ll find it interesting too.
This year I’m not bothering to rank albums as I have in the past. I find that as my leisure time is spent more and more on my kids, staying in shape and on “leisure work” for church and other side pursuits, I don’t really listen to many albums in full anymore, and this exercise should reflect that.
I’m not going to include links to music videos anymore either. You can find these songs on YouTube, Spotify, or your streaming service of choice. If you use Spotify as I do, I have created a playlist (below) that counts the songs down in reverse order. You can also find my top-100 of the 2010s on Spotify (link), which I plan to keep reasonably up-to-date.
Now then, let’s go through the list, starting with the songs that barely missed the cut (in alphabetical order by artist).
JR JR “In The Middle”
Mumford & Sons “Believe”
Purity Ring “Begin Again”
St. Lucia “Dancing On Glass”
Twenty One Pilots “Stressed Out”
40. Muse “Dead Inside”
Muse is not scaling the same heights they were in 2006 with Black Holes and Revelations. Both The Resistance (2009) and The 2nd Law (2012) were a step down from their best, and Drones is yet another notch further downhill from those albums. “Dead Inside” finishes a bit too much like their last album’s lead single “Madness,” and it lacks the punch of that track, which is still among my favorites of this decade. But it’s still bombastic in its own way and thus very clearly and likably Muse.
39. Romans “The Agony and The Ecstasy”
English Pop/rock/soul singer Romans broke out on his own this year after starting out as a featured player in rap/R&B. You mostly won’t find those genres on my lists because I don’t enjoy them the same way I do rock/pop/electronic music. This song has a guitar part, but it’s really all about the voice, which was enough to just sneak into my top-40.
38. Finish Ticket “Color”
Album: When Night Becomes Day
The lead single off of this San Francisco–based group’s album is about as mainstream a rock single as possible. Brendan Hoye’s vocals are strongly reminiscent of Sameer Gadhia of Young The Giant, another California band, and Finish Ticket opened on Twenty One Pilots’ 2015 tour, which might give you a sense of the direction they want to go.
37. Nothing But Thieves “Wake Up Call”
Album: Nothing But Thieves
Nothing But Thieves has the feel of Muse without the crazy guitars (which I like about Muse) or paranoid lyrics (which I could take or leave). So it’s a rangy vocalist (Conor Mason) fronting a backing band which may also have some playing talent that has not yet fully formed. With that caveat, I still plan to download their debut album when it is available stateside (it already debuted overseas). “Wake Up Call” is the lead single, although if you play sports games, you may be more familiar with “Ban All The Music” from Madden or “Trip Switch” from FIFA this year.
36. CHVRCHES “Clearest Blue”
Album: Every Open Eye
In a way, this is the title track to CHVRCHES’ excellent second album, in the sense that it contains the “every open eye” lyric. It’s the third single off the album, and for me, the third-best song. No one really does electro-pop at their level, and this pulsating, layered song is a prime example of their talent.
35. Florence + The Machine “Ship To Wreck”
Album: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
It has all been downhill for me since Florence Welch debuted her band in 2009 with Lungs, but since that is still one of my favorite albums of the last 10 years, she has had a long way to fall. “Ship To Wreck” has a little more of a fast-driving beat than lead single “What Kind Of Man” and is a slight favorite to me, but both are solid songs. Her voice is still fantastic.
34. Mutemath “Monument”
Placing only two songs on my year-end list might qualify as a letdown for Mutemath, which has occupied a spot at the front of my virtual music catalog for the better part of six years now, after the release of Armistice of 2009 got me interested in the band and introduced me to their self-titled 2006 debut. The entire Vitals album dials down the frenetic drums from the ridiculous heights of Odd Soul, and since Darren King has always been my favorite part of the band, Vitals just doesn’t hold up to the rest of their albums for me. “Monument” is the lead single and (as with every song they do) is different live—it comes off a bit muted on the record.
33. Passion Pit “Lifted Up (1985)”
I guess we can indulge Passion Pit in wanting the main title to be something other than just “1985,” but the part of the chorus discussing the relative quality of said year is the earworm for me. Passion Pit is indeed an earworm factory of a pop band, but with actual interesting lyrics compared to most of the chart-toppers. (I’m looking at you, “Hello.” Adele has an incomparable voice, but in what alternate version of 2015 is it believable that a 27-year-old person uses a land line? It ruins the whole song for me.)
32. Frank Turner “Get Better”
Album: Positive Songs For Negative People
There’s nothing special about the backing band, but the hook+lyrics+delivery combo make Frank Turner pretty compelling to me, at least on this song. I was not as big a fan of 2013’s “Recovery,” even though this song is pretty much cut from the same cloth, a little bit more direct and violent than your average rocker.
31. Metric “The Shade”
Album: Pagans In Vegas
Apparently 2009 is the theme of this portion of the list. As with Mutemath and Florence + The Machine, 2009 was also the year I was introduced to Metric, through their album Fantasies. I still prefer songs on that album like “Help, I’m Alive” out of their overall body of work, but “The Shade” is the most interesting song they have released since then.
30. St. Vincent “Teenage Talk”
I will admit not really “getting” critical darling St. Vincent completely, but “Teenage Talk” is a very accessible song that shows off both her range and lyrical talent. This song was a one-off release in 2015 following her acclaimed self-titled album in 2014. I don’t watch the show but understand it was featured on Girls this year.
29. Twenty One Pilots “Tear In My Heart”
Twenty One Pilots are hit or miss for me. I’m not a huge fan of the verse-chorus-entirely-different-song progression they frequently employ, including in this song. Other groups like “fun.” use this style, and it often throws me out of the song instead of adding an interesting wrinkle to it, a problem of being too clever by half. But this one is pretty inventive and interesting in spite of that technique.
28. Ash “Let’s Ride”
The best guitar solo on my list usually rates a song higher than #28, but those couple of seconds far outshine the rest of the song, which a catchy tune but nothing truly special from this veteran Northern Irish trio.
27. San Fermin “Parasites”
This is the first of four entries from San Fermin, who also happen to be the only band on the list that I managed to see live this year (at Miller Park in Chattanooga). Their sophomore album Jackrabbit was less structured but just as good as their debut. As a baritone sax player in my band days, it is hard to stay objective about this song in particular, which features my former instrument of choice.
26. Muse “Mercy”
The thing I loved about “old” Muse was their ability to combine (a) hard rock guitars and bass with (b) soaring, powerful vocals and melodies (c) in an accessible way. Lately they have done more (c) at the expense of some of their other talents, and “Mercy” is probably as close as the Drones album gets to combining all three elements.
25. Atlas Genius “Stockholm”
Album: Inanimate Objects
The Atlas Genius blend of rock/electronic alternative is right in my wheelhouse from a genre standpoint. Their high points aren’t generally up with the very best of that genre, but the Jeffery brothers are pretty solid all-around. Looking back, I’m not sure Inanimate Objects is as strong as their 2013 debut When It Was Now, but “Stockholm” is probably my favorite track on either album, with a unique melody in its chorus.
24. Superhumanoids “Norwegian Black Metal”
Album: Do You Feel OK?
The lead single from Do You Feel OK?—”Anxious In Venice”—is an interesting song in its own right, but the winner from this album is “Norwegian Black Metal.” As a synth-pop song written in English (the band is from Los Angeles), it is curiously void of any of those titular elements, but it is a good song nonetheless. Presumably the title is some kind of reference to the cult-like early 90s scene that birthed the modern black metal genre (as well as some gruesome violence), although I can’t say I get it completely.
23. Telegraph Canyon “Why Let It Go”
Album: You From Before
Horns and a funky bass line rule the day over the subdued, brooding vocals of “Why Let It Go” from Fort Worth folk-rockers Telegraph Canyon. Put together, it’s an interesting song with a couple of different hooks throughout the verses and chorus. If you search for it, make sure you include the “why,” lest you get stuck in a mind-numbing YouTube hole of Disney covers.
22. San Fermin “Emily”
Singer Allen Tate provides the groove for this one, an R&B-sounding song which represents the genre-bending nature of San Fermin’s music. My boys were always asking to hear this one, just to listen for the horns.
21. Modest Mouse “Lampshades On Fire”
Album: Strangers To Ourselves
From the moment of Isaac Brock’s first vocals, “Lampshades On Fire” is unmistakably Modest Mouse. Eccentric as ever, and catchy as anything they’ve written, save perhaps “Float On.”
20. Broken Bells “It’s That Talk Again”
Whether it’s with The Shins or Broken Bells, James Mercer cuts to the heart with his lyrics, and “It’s That Talk Again” is another perfect example.
19. Kid Astray “Cornerstone”
Album: Home Before The Dark
Look up a live version of this song, and you’ll have trouble finding the people in the video amidst all the keyboards. Even if it’s a bit overkill, I like the sound of this Norwegian synth band, and “Cornerstone” is the first of their two entries on this year’s list.
18. Foals “Mountain At My Gates”
Album: What Went Down
The title track of What Went Down is a little too much for me, but “Mountain At My Gates” is just a catchy rock song that would have fit well with “Inhaler” or “My Number” on 2013’s Holy Fire.
17. Passion Pit “Until We Can’t (Let’s Go)”
There are few stronger pop writers than Michael Angelakos of Passion Pit. “Until We Can’t” is a beautiful upbeat song about two people trying to make a failing relationship work. Lines like “Where you live can cause you suffering, guess that’s something else that’s wrong with our room” make this more than just a catchy tune.
16. Northern Faces “Wait, Wait, Wait”
Album: Northern Faces
One of my boys’ favorite songs of the year, “Wait, Wait, Wait” certainly is a clapping pop-rock tune. The bass and guitar function like additional voices in the song, more than just a rhythm section.
15. Purity Ring “Push Pull”
Album: Another Eternity
Megan James’ vocals make this pop song soar over the unique triplet electronic beat, generating the sound of flying after the verse’s “climb up in the air” line trails off. I would like to see Purity Ring diversify themselves a bit from the overtly adult themes of this and other songs on Another Eternity, but it’s a cool song.
14. Civil Twilight “Holy Dove”
Album: Story of an Immigrant
I saw these guys open for Mutemath in 2012, and they were impressive enough, even if they are not in the same league as live bands. “Holy Dove” is a nice step in Civil Twilight’s forward progression, although 2010’s “Letters From The Sky” is still their most memorable song.
13. Boxed In “Mystery”
Album: Boxed In
Good luck getting the opening line of the chorus out of your head, “Check a little later, and I will go…” The off-beat piano keeps it moving, and the breakdown is pretty cool too.
12. Beck “Dreams”
“Dreams” is easily Beck’s catchiest song since the days of “Loser” over 20 years ago, probably even better, and certainly an improvement over the songs on 2014’s Morning Phase, which never really caught me.
11. Rationale “Fuel to the Fire”
Album: Fuel to the Fire (EP)
If there is one song I might regret ranking so low this year, it’s probably “Fuel to the Fire,” a passionate cry from the debut EP of London singer Rationale. Such a unique voice.
10. CHVRCHES “Leave A Trace”
Album: Every Open Eye
With typically beautiful vocals from Lauren Mayberry, “Leave A Trace” is an excellent lead single showing a bit of evolution from their last album’s sound but the same piercing lyrical style. “Take care to leave a trace of a man”…ouch.
9. Django Django “Shake & Tremble”
Album: Born Under Saturn
Django Django might have the most distinctive sound right now that isn’t predicated entirely on the singer’s voice. Indeed, Vincent Neff blends perfectly into the harmony, and the bass and piano drive along this excellent lead single from Born Under Saturn.
8. Nothing But Thieves “Trip Switch”
Album: Nothing But Thieves
Conor Mason somehow manages to carry Nothing But Thieves despite steadfastly refusing to enunciate. There’s not really a comparable voice in mainstream rock, and with hooks like this, Nothing But Thieves should be able to thrive for quite a while.
7. Kid Astray “Diver”
Album: Home Before The Dark
Synth hooks and a nicely moving bass line back up a strong upbeat lyric and easy sing-along pop chorus. The bridge is the kicker for me, though.
6. Courtney Barnett “Pedestrian At Best”
Album: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Undoubtedly the most creative lyricist on the list, Courtney Barnett zings back and forth between uncertainty and self-deprecation (“I’ve tried my very best, I guess”), disgust (“I think you’re a joke”), and even a little cultural commentary (“Daylight Savings won’t fix this mess”). It can be hard to keep up with her at first, but this song rewards your persistence.
5. Django Django “Pause Repeat”
Album: Born Under Saturn
My son Matt has recently started requesting this one by name, so I’ll probably be playing “the Pause Repeat song” on, well, repeat. Piano, drums, harmony, everything just comes together wonderfully here.
4. San Fermin “Jackrabbit”
As I was saying before, Jackrabbit is less of a concept album than San Fermin’s eponymous debut, the album with an almost unbelievable Canadian Rockies origin story. Ellis Ludwig-Leone proved he wasn’t a one-hit songwriting wonder with terrific tracks like this one all over their 2015 follow-up. “Jackrabbit” shows as much pop sensibility as anything in their arsenal, yet it makes terrific use of the entire eight-piece ensemble.
3. CHVRCHES “Never Ending Circles”
Album: Every Open Eye
The first song (second single) from Every Open Eye has punishing synths and another inventive and infecting chorus. Right from the start, Mayberry and company cast aside the expectations with a not-so-subtle reference to their debut album, and her confidence is striking throughout. I’m not sure they will ever write another “The Mother We Share,” but this song would be a crowning achievement for many other bands.
2. Mutemath “Used To”
I can appreciate that Mutemath want to focus on songwriting over technical prowess every now and then, but not every song on Vitals is as strong as “Used To” without the crazy drums. It’s a simple lyric and message well-delivered by Paul Meany, and there are a few nice Darren King touches throughout the song. It all builds to a soaring final chorus at the *clap clap* end.
1. San Fermin “No Devil”
Album: Jackrabbit (Deluxe Edition)
A late addition to the deluxe edition of Jackrabbit, it’s the strongest song on the record for me. Allen Tate sings in my range, so I love the songs where he is the featured vocalist, but the whole band really comes together for a powerful, introspective, genre-defying song, the best of 2015.