Ask the nearest hippie: the first half of 2015 has already been a high time for music, if not a golden road. The first six months have given us more ace songs than we'll have time to catch up with over the next six months. Not a year for over-arching trends or zeitgeist-summing masterpieces: just great songs, from all over the musical map. So here are my 25 favorites so far: cheese divas, thug romantics, punk scruffs, disco-ball meltdowns, songs about love and hope and sex and dreams, or songs about hating parties and locking yourself in your room and overthrowing the government. All these songs are guaranteed to drastically improve the rest of your 2015.
So weird for the ultimate Irish rock poet to accept a knighthood — it's the first time Van has bowed before a queen since Madame George. On his fascinatingly bizarre Duets album, he revives "Streets of Arklow," an obscure gem from his most poetic masterwork, Veedon Fleece, except he perversely hands it over to (of all people) the dude from Simply Red. Who sings his ass off and proves he belongs in this song. A perfect example of how Van loves to keep proving he does not give a fuck, not even about his own myth — just another indefensible-yet-brilliant decision in a career made of them.
A boy-girl duo from the concrete jungle of New Paltz, New York, with a totally guileless C86-style guitar ditty about turning 23 in a nowhere boho town where you're too half-assed to bother hanging a shower curtain (which is pretty half-assed). Fuck up some commas? They'd be lucky to bruise a decimal point. Alex Lucianno shares her ideal of domestic bliss: "Watch The Simpsons on my floor/Pretend it's 1994."
This sunlight-averse troubadour has made a string of memorable lo-fi home recordings, but "N.M.S.S." moves into a baroque synth-strings folk-implosion concept, in the spirit of the Zombies or Left Banke, except in that special crippled-by-feelings way. Mat Cothran vows "No more sad songs," as if he's crooning his life story to the socks on his bedroom floor. Spoiler: He writes more sad songs.
The ATL spaceman burns through thousands, hundred thousands, any amount of money with a comma in it, claiming his bold-as-love handle "Future Hendrix." He also boasts about pushing powder so white he calls it "the Katy Perry." How much does he charge for the Bieber?
If you asked me a few months ago how much of my summer I planned to budget for listening to Conor Oberst's new album of pop-punk protest songs, I would have said, "You mean summer 2002? Because I could squeeze in about 10 minutes in early August." So I'm knocked over sideways by how strong this record is, how righteous and overstated and gung-ho every tune is. Conor clobbers his slogans with all his customary tact and subtlety, i.e. slightly less than Mother Nature gave a grizzly bear.
I heart the Nineties, but this is ridiculous. And ridiculousness is exactly what I heart about the Nineties. Speedy Ortiz reveal how it would have sounded if the second Veruca Salt album met the second Letters to Cleo album in Poe's backyard, and they blow that shit up. "Raising the Skate" proudly reps the 1996 modern-rock heyday of feminist breakup songs — it would have been on a million breakup tapes in between Luscious Jackson's "Naked Eye" and Garbage's "Queer." Skate away, Speedy Ortiz.
Did the world really need a new Harry Nilsson ballad? Yes, obviously. A Toronto piano boy goes for a Seventies soft-rock vibe without (the usual mistake) trying to fancy it up, either vocally or instrumentally — just a boy at his piano, a girl named Mary Ann who's smart enough not to believe a word he says, and four minutes of melodic melancholy. Most Nilsson-worthy line: "I lost you in a dream and the dream came true."
A deranged obsessive Lana-like torch song about Selena dressing the part to transform herself into the girl of her dreams — practically the same psychodrama as PJ Harvey's "Dress," except from the teen-pop side of the street. A$AP Rocky does the guest rap, but the song has nothing to do with him or any other guy — all Selena cares about is seducing the demon lover she sees in the mirror. Somewhere, the late, great Lesley Gore is smiling.
I tried to keep my hopes reasonable for the Sleater-Kinney reunion — it's called "adrenaline management" and it's a thing. Except it didn't work, because Sleater-Kinney are not only back at peak strength (the best live band I saw in 1996 is also the best live band I've seen in 2015), they're back with new songs like this punk rock valentine. "Let's destroy a room with this love" sounds like an understatement. None of these three women need each other to make music — they all have other bands — but they prove they can keep evolving together, mutating together, clashing together. As Beyoncé would say: World, stop. Carry on.
The bizarro collaboration between Franz Ferdinand, the tight-trousered Scottish mod boys, and Sparks, the 1970s glam-prog duo who made cult classics like Kimono My House and A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing. Most of their FFS album is ornate art rock, except this crazy little thing — a manic synth-disco ode to a Japanese punk girl who guns them down with a Hello Kitty Uzi. "So Desu Ne" would have been a smash in 1979 or 1983 or 1999 or 2005; no clue what it's doing in 2015, but glad to have it here.
If you're in the market for your summer guitar record — the kind where you don't even learn the names of the songs, you just hit play when you wake up and let it repeat all day — the droid you're looking for is Ultimate Painting's Green Lanes. Two London dudes (who've already made their bones in other fine bands, Mazes and Veronica Falls) knocked out the first Ultimate Painting album last fall, but they're already back with a twice-as-excellent sequel. The tracks are all around two or three minutes, but they add up to a half-hour Velvets/Feelies/Clean guitar buzz with no wasted space, just funny titles ("Two from the Vault," which has nothing to do with the Dead) and breezy ballads ("Out in the Cold") and electric jangle-babble like this one.
This slow-motion sample was the "Funky Drummer" loop of trip-hop — if you wanted a deeply disturbing dead-in-the-funk groove to evoke your most drug-zonked nightmares, you went to this Isaac Hayes beat, resulting in classics like Tricky's "Hell Is Just Around The Corner" or Portishead's "Glory Box." Or this strange summer jam, where a teenage YouTube R&B starlet from Toronto celebrates social anxiety as a way of life. Give her a reason to love you, dude.
The trend of famous people Googling themselves is still going strong. Knock it the fuck off, famous people. I'm just saying you could do better. Unless you're Drake, in which case you can't do better, and "knowing yourself" means lying awake all night beside NDA-signing groupies who asked for your wi-fi code and worrying what total strangers think of you. "Running through the 6 with my woes" is a great hook: Drake might officially claim "woes" are a code name for his bros ("Working on Excellence") but come on, he's Drake — his emotional woes are his bros, not to mention his money-clothes-and-hoez.
Brooklyn boho guitar boys send a hey-what's-up-hello to a very special lady, the one who reminds them of their favorite Silver Jews song, with the mournful chorus, "I keep trying to lose." Or maybe it's the Silver Jews song that reminds them of her. Either way, viva amore. LVL UP have at least a dozen other tunes at this same level, so they can't be slack-shamed. More, please.
The day the Clash kicked out Mick Jones, the song I grieved to was "Complete Control." When Zayn quit 1D, "Clouds" was the one I obsessed over — "love is never ever simple," so true. (Perhaps I overfeel these things.) "No Control" is still my favorite Four track, but "Clouds" is the one that's grown the most over time — anyone can bite the Beatles, but it takes true pop visionaries like 1D to plunder Paul McCartney & Wings. Anybody who doubts Macca's genius as a guitarist — besides everything else he is — needs to consider how 1D could build such a world-beating pop epiphany out of the "Band on the Run" riff.
The moral: Be the "Feeling Myself" you wish to see in the world.
Katie Crutchfield steps way outside her comfort zone, with brittle drum-machine blips and what sure sounds like an oboe solo. She gets more amazing as a result — who knew this adjective-loving word-slinger could write such a killer chorus where the only lyric is "woo-hoo-hoo-hoo"? "I know I feel more than you do" is 2015's funniest Taylor Swift line that Taylor Swift didn't write.
"Introduced her to my stove" is really romantic when you think about it. How many dates did she have with Fetty Wap before she got to meet the stove? Let's face it, we have a stove hidden in our psyche, and the way Fetty shares his with this woman is an inspiration to us all. Not sure how "seen your pretty ass as soon as you came in the door" works unless she backed in, but this is the "Hey what's up hello, I love you, won't you tell me your name" jam of the year. Even though I know Fetty's saying he has "a sack for us to roll," I always think he's giving a shout out to Esther Rolle — R.I.P. Florida Evans.
Two guitar girls from the L.A. underground scene, Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad, sing in unison, not harmony, with a stripped-down sense of raw emotion. In "Chinatown" they sing about the terrors of stepping outside their room and venturing into the night — but the terror is part of what brings them together.
Incredibly spare, yet incredibly massive. It starts out rumbling like Zeus wiping his feet on the Earth's surface, then halfway through it takes off — the airhorn turns into the Clash's "Straight to Hell," then spirals into an elegy for the broken hearts all over the dance floor.
Don't take this the wrong way, Philadelphia, but when exactly did you stop sucking? Philly rock bands have been mercilessly mocked since the dawn of time, or at least since Hall met Oates, but these days half the bands worth hearing seem to live there and the other half are moving in. Respect! Hop Along's Frances Quinlan has no "medium" setting on her vocals — she just cranks the feelings-per-minute ratio into the red. "Sister Cities" is a monster song — the band bangs away at that jagged riff while Quinlan rants about fake friends and crazy old uncles and geraniums and guns and feeling exiled from a sister-city hometown she's never really been to. Best line: "Yeah, I guess I'm still pretty mad." You don't say.
I love how Tay blends every song on the first Pet Shop Boys record (especially "Love Comes Quickly" and "I Want a Lover," but also "West End Girls," plus OK, all of them) into an Eighties synth-pop fantasy about a girl dazzled by how cool and glam and mysterious she is, with a boy who's just a dim reflection of her. Her voice is full of catch-your-breath drama, even when nothing that dramatic is happening. ("He's taking off his coat" — that's a big deal why? He just got home! Why would he keep his coat on?) But Taylor makes it a moment and a half. A great album track that made an even greater pop single — which should happen next to "New Romantics."
Next time you feel like having the most boring hour of your life, buy me a beer and ask for the track-by-track breakdown of how To Pimp a Butterfly is the hip-hop sequel to Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade. It's a concept album about home and why you leave it, why leaving torments you with guilt and grief, how lost you get trying to go back. This song hits the hardest for me: K-Dot meets an old Bible-quoting homeless man at a gas station, gets a creepy vision of his worst-case-scenario future ("Grandpa's old medicine reeking from your skin") and scares himself with how violently he despises this guy. The piano hails from Radiohead's "Pyramid Song," while Ronnie Isley sings the outro — a song where Thom Yorke and the Isleys can soundtrack the same existential crisis.
No idea how this slow jam failed to conquer Top 40 radio, except maybe the fact that the hook is Miguel crooning the line "fucking in the morning" a few dozen times. It sounds like Side Two of Sign O' the Times having sex with Side Three of Sign O' the Times.
Courtney Barnett makes it sound so insultingly easy — why aren't there three or four rock & roll singer-songwriter records this loose and frisky and funny and stout-hearted every year? Maybe it's not that easy. The only song on her album that flops for me is the one about real estate — using cafe latte as a metaphor has been a dead zone since "Drops of Jupiter." But it's not tough to pick the high point — "Pedestrian at Best" shows off her Breeders/Pavement/Phair guitar hooks (although her vocals are more Mark E. Smith than even Stephen Malkmus would have tried to get away with), her cyanide diatribes, her internal monologue of saturated analog.