Radio & Music

One Year Late Review: On the songs of 2015

It is December 2016. Another year in music has come and gone, and—in my usual perverse way—I’m refusing to talk about it. Instead I’m going to talk about songs that had come and gone before 2016 even started. Welcome back to the One Year Late Review.

Let me take you back — the year was 2015. It was before The Event, a time when we still had hope in our hearts. In those days, things were either True or False, even if it was occasionally hard to figure out which category they fit in. Seldom were they both. Never were they neither. Such naïve days. Such strange days.

It was a time when our vision of the future looked more like the ‘after’ scenes in a home makeover show and less like the ‘after’ scenes in T2: Judgment Day.

I’m sure you remember, right? Right?

Me either. This is all a trick. I’m not Tom. I’m the future cockroach equivalent of Casey Kasem (NB. Dated Reference, Fix in Post) reconstructing this entire piece from fragments found in an old Apple Music datacenter. I plan to send it back through my timeline to warn of the Oft-Coming Stürm. But until then, and should I fail in my mission, long live the Blattodean Survivors of the Great Karmic Trumpocalypse!

Anyway, I’ve done this before — at the end of 2015 I wrote about the songs of 2014 and at the end of 2014 I wrote about the songs of 2013. There’s (some) method to my madness — increasingly we seem to lurch from Hot Take straight into History without pausing for a moment to get a sense of what the crap actually just happened. This whole ‘One Year Later Review’ is a half-hearted attempt to get people to remember that. And since ‘End of Year’ lists in music are almost the worst possible of non-political hot takes (the year hasn’t even bloody finished for God’s sake) and are no longer valuable in working out what music to get your Gran to buy you for Christmas, it seems reasonable to pause for a second and wait just long enough to get a sense of what songs actually stick with you and what you thought of them. So with no further ado…

Hot Chip: Huarache Lights

This year’s award for most ‘Compulsively Energising Song that Helps Me Get Out of the House and Feel Dynamic in the Mornings’ was hard-fought but in the end goes to the exemplary Huarache Lights by Hot Chip. I’m not 100% sure what it is about this track that works so well for me, but—from the first moment I heard it—it found a place in my head that it resolutely refuses to leave. It’s like that guest at a party that won’t leave when you want to go to bed, except the guest is awesome and they’re also quite hot and they seem to like you and also they have all these great stories about cool people they say they can introduce you to and… what’s that? They have a pet tiger who is also awesome? And a time machine? Wow. That’s actually super fucking great. This is such a fun evening. Maybe you shouldn’t go to bed after all.

There’s something hypnotic about this song, even hypnogogic at times — it creates a sort of dynamic pattern and then buggers around with it in a whole range of interesting ways before bringing them all together in a way that fits together super nicely. And the final mélange it generates is somehow psychopharmacologically active and puts you into a weird but thoroughly pleasant kind of Disco Trance. It’s got hints of all kinds of stuff in it. I even feel like there’s a thin slice of pungent Pet Shop Boys-flavoured cheese jammed in there somewhere. And yet when they come together it fuses into something that feels inevitable and right and bouncy and ridiculous and clever and witty and odd and fun.

Jai Wolf: Indian Summer

In recent years it feels like music from artists with Indian backgrounds or using Indian samples has finally discovered a way to push into whatever isolated little musical bubble I’m unknowingly trapped within, and honestly I couldn’t be happier. There’s such artful, joyous and elegant stuff being made in the overlaps between styles and cultures—such wonderful new opportunities for exploration and play—and Jai Wolf’s Indian Summer is among my absolute favorites. It has this wonderful euphoric sense to it and this deep love of noise. And at its heart there’s that beautiful sample that surfs the waves across the song before turning and spraying some cool, refreshing, salty endorphins across my hot, dry and welcoming brain. It’s just wonderful.

Beck: Dreams

The more I do these little musical recaps, the more I realise how predictable I am. Stick a bit of syncopation in a song, a jangly guitar riff, some over-processed 80s-style rock drums, and a bit in the song where it goes quiet for a minute and I’ll probably be happy. Make it go a bit wrong halfway through — maybe make all the rhythms or harmonies get a bit out of whack — and then build it all together again, and my eyes will roll back in my head with joy. Dreams isn’t a complex song. It’s not a song full of deep meaning. But it’s a perfect piece of craft that I listen to all the time. It’s a really fun, bouncy, enthusiastic, hook-laden, pop song and it makes me really happy.

Father John Misty: Bored in the USA

It’s not all joy and dancing at Chez Coates, much as my public persona might lead you to believe otherwise. I have dark periods of late-night worrying like any other barely human male. There’s only so much Purposeful and Passionate Striding Confidently into a New Future of Promise and Wonder that one guy can do before he needs to sit at home staring into space thinking about What He’s Done. And when I want to wallow in that bed-ridden feeling of 3am angst and stress—which for some reason, like most humans, I seem to want to do on a surprisingly regular basis—I turn to Father John Misty.

Bored in the USA is an almost startlingly apposite song for me, to the extent that when listening to it I occasionally feel the need to look around to see if he’s in a bush nearby watching me, carefully making notes in his tiny precise handwriting for his next song of early-middle-aged disappointment and frustration. It’s apposite to the point that you can almost ricochet off it as it lowers itself down to the darkest depths of a human’s own self-loathing. And then just when you think it’s all getting a bit too serious and dark, he sticks a laugh track in the song itself to remind you how absurd and petty and small your bleakness and wide-eyed moments of total abject terror actually are. I should want to punch him for this, but instead I want to buy him a drink. That he can carry off this trick is the reason this song is in this list.

NB. This is a cheat, because Bored in the USA actually came out at the very furthest arse-end of 2014. But Ralph Waldo Emerson once said a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, and while I don’t agree with him, I’m assuming enough of you will to let me off the hook this once.

Kiiara: Gold

Probably my favourite song of 2015, ‘Gold’ is both one of the most popular and also one of the strangest. There’s almost nothing there. Thin synth base twonk noises poke out intermittantly around some kind of rhythmic ‘pop’ sound. Occasionally sparse electronic hi-hats appear so you know something exciting is happening. And in the foreground a woman sings about biting out other people’s fillings. The chorus feels like sliced bits of other songs arranged pseudo-randomly. And somewhere from all its sparseness, classiness and over-designed contrast, something quite extraordinary falls out. I can’t really describe it. You’ve probably heard it thousands of times. But if you haven’t, you’re in for a treat.

Melanie Martinez: Soap

Somewhere in the last few years pop music got really bloody weird. I’m not complaining about this at all — it’s actually kind of amazing that there are people playing in pretty mainstream pop with sounds and structures that sound so extraordinarily different. There’s an experimental dynamism that blurs club and pop and art in what seems to me to be a new and interesting way. Is it actually new and interesting? I have no idea and wouldn’t be qualified to comment even if it were— I’m old and weird and my memory is failing me. But it seems pretty great. Let me give you an example. Ladies and Gentleman, I present to you ‘Soap’:

If I had to describe this song and its associated video in one word, the word would probably be ‘batshit’. But if I had two words, the second would be ‘awesome’. Unfortunately for you poor bastards, I also have a whole range of other words at my disposal, so let me dig into what I think makes this such oddly compulsive listening.

It seems to be a song about baths and soap, except those things at various points are probably euphemisms or metaphors for something. But it’s not entirely clear what they’re metaphors for, and they seem to shift and move. And somehow this song about baths and soap and saying stupid things and being embarrassed is then merged in with a stripped-down club-style fist-in-the-air banger. And it doesn’t sound stupid. It sounds cool. And then for some reason they add in some tuned simulations of the noise of bubbles popping. And they don’t sound cool and should be embarrassingly awful. And they are embarrassingly awful. And yet it doesn’t matter. The whole thing should be a novelty record and yet somehow it holds together and when taken as some kind of auditory speedball becomes something more than you’d expect from its various parts. And the more times you listen to it, the more its oddness worms its way into your brain. I don’t understand it, I’m not sure why it exists or what it’s trying to communicate. But I like it. I like it a hell of a lot.

Gunship: Tech Noir

If I had to pick out a couple of trends from my musical selections this year it would be a tendency for contemporary music to border on parody and yet still work, and also the solid straight-down-the-line weirdness of contemporary pop.

Tech Noir is a song by a band by Gunship. It is named after the club in Terminator where Arnie comes for SAAAAH COH-NA, whips out a sawn-off shotgun and blows everyone to hell. And the video is about a man watching a movie on VHS who transports himself into an eighties movie to become claymation. And the music itself is in many ways an experimental hybridization of a ridiculous number of eighties auditory clichés.

But the song is actually really beautiful. It lives in that post-M83 space of artists exploring and reappropriating the 8os, from synth sounds to fake hand-claps. But through this oddly cold and computerized space snakes this beautiful lyric and rich emotive and expressive chorus. As someone who spent most of his teenage years trapped in the 1980s, I often find myself puzzled by why anyone would want to feel nostalgia for it, or think of it as a period worth mining for creative ideas. Not being weird, but it basically sucked. But maybe if the 80s had been more like this, I’d feel differently?

Major Lazer & DJ Snake feat. MØ: Lean On

I don’t know about you, but when I see a bunch of white people dressed up like Indian people doing Indian-style dancing surrounded by Indian people in India to promote a pop song, it doesn’t 100% feel right. There’s something uncomfortably appropriative about it in a way that having an Indian artist play in the overlap between cultures doesn’t. Still, a tacky video does not make a tacky song, and MØ, DJ Snake and Major Lazer between them made something fascinating in Lean On.

Y.A.C.H.T: L.A. Plays Itself

Last year and the year before I talked about how irritating I find it when artists write songs about technology. This is because they almost always seem to come at it from the perspective of ‘technology is somehow diminishing us all while only art nourishes and enriches us as individuals’, which seems both oddly (and obviously) self-serving and often highly ironic given how much tech these artists use in the creation of their songs, their videos, and in the crafting of their public personae.

In 2013 for example it was Arcade Fire complaining about how social media didn’t actually connect you to other people in Reflektor. You can follow Arcade Fire on Twitter here: Arcade Fire on Twitter. In 2014 it was St Vincent complaining about how annoying it is that people keep making videos to get famous and how they only feel validated when they’re on the internet. You can follow her stylishly created and ostentatiously ‘look at me’ videos on the Internet on YouTube here: St Vincent on YouTube. I’m just saying.

But there is (I believe) at least one band that explores the weirdness and power and threats of modern technology well in their songs without sounding absurd. And that band is Y.A.C.H.T.

Now I’m biased in favour of Y.A.C.H.T. generally because at one point this year I was lucky enough to be backstage one of their gigs in San Francisco. A lovely old friend who knows them well took me to meet the band. It was super fun. I yammered on trying to sound interesting for a while while they got ready to perform. We actually had a really interesting conversation about the good and bad bits of tech and tech culture and what it means for the wider world. They were almost certainly humoring me but I really don’t care. They were really ridiculously super nice and friendly and I had a very nice time.

They also produced a great song this year about tech which I’d love to include in this list. It’s called “I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler” and it’s definitely worth your time.

Unfortunately though, they also did another song, called LA Plays Itself and it is better! And it is more fun. And it’s proper pop disco in a slightly unfashionable but oddly awesome way. And here it is…

Max Richter: Sleep

My second-to-last selection isn’t exactly a song. It isn’t even exactly an album. It’s eight hours of music under the name ‘Sleep’ by Max Richter.

This is a strange one, but it has had such an impact on me since it came out that I couldn’t ignore it. I think it’s truly exceptional and fascinating and totally involving and that you should all go and buy it immediately. You don’t want to buy the short truncated hour-long one. That’s bullshit. You have to commit. You want the full $35 eight hour long epic. Don’t wuss out. It’s amazing.

The premise is in itself extraordinary. Richter’s epic is music that is designed to be played when you are falling asleep, and then to provide background music to you while you sleep and dream, and while you slowly rouse yourself in the morning into a new day. It’s supposed to follow the natural rhythms of a normal night’s sleep and for each piece to complement a different part of the sleep cycle. It’s a bizarre idea — music you won’t hear in any conscious state, but music that could permeate your subconscious, influence your dreams and your thoughts and is designed to carry you through the night in a beautiful, backgrounded way.

Such an idea conjures in the mind terrible self-hypnosis tapes and some kind of hackneyed tape-based collection of whale song, but this isn’t ambient noise or new age hand-waving.

Each piece is long, melodic, artfully and beautifully played and recorded, and arcs and repeats itself, with simple themes on the piano and violin (and other instruments and voices) emerging and falling away. Structure appears and then collapses into the background again. Melodies surface and then sink deep only to return four or five hours later. And it’s all done so slowly and smoothly. I’ve put it on many nights to help me sleep — I find it immediately calming and relaxing—and later found myself half awake in the middle of the night letting some new piece of beauty arc and cascade around me, feeling new melodies drift across my mind like clouds across the moon. I’ve listened to it while working or when stressed and found its simplicity beautiful and calming and centering.

If you come to it impatient, unwilling to let it drift around you and take you away, it will do nothing for you. But if you go with it, you may find it becomes one of the most important and life-affirming pieces of music you’ve ever lived with.

David Bowie: ★

Finally, I want to leave you with the most important song of the year for me. And unfortunately—just as 2015 turned into 2016—this is where my cheerful mood and mischief stops dead in its tracks. Please bear with me.

I’ve been a deep Bowie fan for the majority of my life. I came to him a little later than many of my generation but once I’d found him I consumed him whole and completely. This bizarre, queer, straight, apocalyptic, danceable, questioning, literate, bizarre eccentric crafting these bizarre and beautiful little mind castles you could live in for a while — he was fascinating. And songs with such rhythms! Such bizarre harmonies! And just a little bit of joyfully embraced menace… Good god, I loved it.

For me it all started with Hunky Dory, picked up on CD at an Our Price in the UK sometime in the late eighties. It’s an album from the year of my birth that still feels like it defined much of the music of the next fifty years. Here it was all laid out before you right from the beginning. And it continued through Starman — beautiful hymn to escape and magic—through The Man Who Stole The World and Heroes and Ashes to Ashes and Let’s Dance and… I could go on indefinitely.

Of all of his albums in the end it was Station to Station that has stayed with me the longest. It’s such a dense, complicated, confusing record. It took me so long to get my head around it. Perhaps one of the reasons it still fascinates me so much is because there are still bits of it that surprise me and weird me out.

But despite loving so much of his work even in the late eighties I knew that all of his creative best had come and gone before I’d really discovered him. And then—late in November of 2015—something really odd happened. Bowie sprang back into the spotlight as if he’d never left, and released (from some previously untapped reservoir within him) a ten minute bizarre musical epic. Odd beats, saxophones and three complex, interwoven major musical themes cavorted around an incredibly stylish and bizarre video featuring bible thumpers, twitching dancers and blinded singers with buttons for eyes.

For the first time in decades, Bowie was absolutely and totally pushing the future forward, making something so fascinating and unusual and interesting that it felt like the world turned towards it. Generations of Bowie fans felt a reignition of a passion and excitement within them — a new album, a creative renaissance, and we might get to be there to enjoy Bowie at his best again. It felt absolutely extraordinary.

Six weeks later, as the rough beast of 2016 finally dragged its shit-filled carcass into the world, he would be dead.

That’s it for now. Join me again next year at the One Year Later Review for the songs of 2016, where most likely I will talk at length about Beyoncé.