George East’s Top 10 Tracks of 2015

by George_East on January 3, 2016

I haven’t done this in previous years, sticking instead to lists of gigs, albums and (in February) films. But it seemed an odd omission. As will become clear when I get round to the albums list over the coming days, I think 2015 was a truly superb year for music, with many excellent albums and more good albums than I was able to really do justice to. I hope to get the gig list up tomorrow and the top 50 albums over the course of the next week or so.

But these were my favourite tracks of the year. As is tradition, in reverse order.

#10: Ezra Furman, Can I Sleep In Your Brain?

One of the delights of 2015 was seeing Ezra Furman develop from an interesting-ish artist much beloved of Marc Riley on his great Radio 6 evening show, to the fully formed article. Perpetual Motion People was one of the best guitar albums of the year (just where it figures in my list will be revealed soon enough) full of great songs.

Can I Sleep In Your Brain is the penultimate track on the album. It is a song of escape from the difficulties and pressures of his own life. Ezra’s request isn’t to someone he knows, or at least not someone he is currently intimate with, as he makes clear in the first line. But it is to someone who he thinks will give him solace and shelter.  Can I rest in your head for a bit.

The opening drum beat feel like the thudding thoughts in his head. His vocals are both imploring but hopeful, with the doo wop backing vocal harmonies characteristic of the album underneath.   Half way through the song switches from ballad to singalong rock song, complete with sax solo. Versatile and brilliant.

#9: Low, Lies

Veteran lo fi indie classicists Low have been around for what seems like forever but are still producing more powerful music than most contemporary artists. The stand out track on their wonderful album, Ones and Sixes  was Lies.

As the title suggests it is a song of a relationship coming to an end (made starker of course by the fact that Low are essentially a husband and wife (Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker). Mostly sung by Sparhawk (with Parker providing harmonies), but with one verse by Parker, the song appears to be told from two points of view, but with both recognising the reality. Their vocals, as ever, working perfectly together. The suggestion of desperation is palpable – ‘when they found you by the side of the road, you had a pistol under your coat’.

Musically spare, sad and beautiful, as Sparhawk tries to find the root cause (her mother’s neglect? – ‘But it all started back in ’79. Your mother used to work from sunset to 5’).

The final two lines which bring the song to an end as soon as the last word is sung seem to suggest it really is about the couple themselves:

I should be sleeping by your lonely side. Instead of working on this song all night’

#8: David Bowie, Blackstar

There was huge excitement a few years back when David Bowie released the great Where Are We Now? as the first song from his first album in 10 years, The Next Day. That album also got great reviews but, for me, those reviews ended up sounding more like critics wanting Bowie to return to the dizzying glories of his 70s output rather than a fair assessment of its qualities – it was ok enough, but I really can’t remember the last time I thought I’d like to listen to it.

Blackstar, the first (and title) track released from the Bowie’s new album (due out in a week), engendered similar levels of excitement. And to be fair it is an absolute corker, sounding strange, ethereal and different to anything else out there and yet recognisably Bowie.     There is so much going on in its 9 minutes or so, I don’t really know where to start – it has orchestral aspects, free form jazz aspects and yet also sounds like a piece of Eno like electronic minimalism. The second half with its ‘I’m a black star’ repeated part sounds like Berlin-period peak Bowie.

The encouraging sign though is that the second track which has been aired from the album, Lazarus, is also superb.   Blackstar may well turn out to be the album that the critics wanted The Next Day to be.

#7: The Unthanks, Magpie

From the complexity of Bowie’s new material to a song about as simple as it is possible to be. Just two voices reworking Dave Dodds’ folk take on the classic nursery rhyme, over a single sustained note (from a cello?).

Rachel and Becky Unthanks’ gorgeous Northumbrian voices blend perfectly like only sisters’ voices can (see also First Aid Kit and the Haden Triplets for two), to produce a haunting version of the song. A version which suggests that it is 7 magpies that have been seen and there are many secrets not being told.

#6: Kurt Vile, Pretty Pimpin

From English folk to classic American rock, Kurt Vile’s B’lieve I’m Going Down album was a superb counter to all those who say that guitar music is in the doldrums.

Pretty Pimpin is the opening track and has from the start an infectious foot stomping melody. Kurt’s lazy laid back vocal sound, as ever, belying the tightness of his backing band, the Violators.   This is a song so tuned into classic rock history that you can imagine teenager wannabes learning it in their bedrooms, dreaming of groupies, tours and glory.

The lyrics suggest a man who has woken up to the fact that he has become something he never thought he was. It speaks of confusion.

I couldn’t tell you what the hell it was supposed to mean,

But it was a Monday, no a Tuesday, no Wednesday, Thursday, Friday

Then Saturday came round and I said

“who’s this stupid clown blocking the bathroom sink”’

#5: Ezra Furman, Haunted Head

Ezra’s second entry. Perhaps because of all of the great albums this year, Perpetual Motion People, sounded most like a collection of great singles – with an ear to hooks and an eye to radio play, just like the doo wop and early rock n roll sound that makes the album such a joy to listen to.

Haunted Head starts with a bass doo wop vocal and then goes into a first person opening verse worthy of a great short story:

‘I’m up at six,

I get a slice of bread,

I cut a hole in it – crack a little egg

And I try to get my mind turned off’

The apparent prosaic subject matter and singalong feel of the song is though a way in to a song about Furman’s struggle with depression – hence the haunted head.

#4: Courtney BarnettDepreston

This great song from Courtney Barnett’s first proper album, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit demonstrates why she is such a unique song writing talent at the moment.

It is ostensibly about the depressing prospect of moving to the Melbourne suburb of Preston, presumably because Melbourne proper is too expensive, and viewing a particular bungalow there. She talks about how the lack of coffee shops in the suburb will at least mean that her coffee bill will be reduced by $26 a week, and wonderfully how:

It’s got a lovely garden

A garage for two cars to park in

Or a lot of room for storage

If you’ve just got one’.

But then what begins to fascinate her is the life of the (now dead) former owner – what is the story of the photo of the man in Vietnam (presumably a relation – husband or son maybe, who served in that conflict). The handrail in the shower that suggests that the owner was elderly and frail:

And I can’t think of floorboards anymore

Whether the front room faces north or south

And I wonder what she bought it for’

No one in music at the moment is better able to turn mundane personal experiences into broader insight.

#3: Father John Misty, The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment

This is another great narrative song about personal experience and the stand out track on Father John Misty’s excellent second album, I Love You, Honeybear. The song tells of a particularly bad experience that J Tillman had with a woman.

It is bitter (‘I just love the kind of woman who can walk over a man, I mean like a marching band), at times pretty unpleasant (highlighting her malapropisms and also questioning whether she even knows what that word means) and even a tad misogynistic (a reference to ‘girls’ putting on fake soul accents when singing), but also captures great memories (including singing three part harmony to Silent Night in the bath with the woman and her friend) and their kinked up sex life (‘I obliged later on when you begged me to choke you’).

The song has a sense of honesty about it but also as the title reveals some third person distancing, with its reference to Tillman’s full name, which he doesn’t often use (another song on the album refers to how he doesn’t like the name Joshua). The content of the lyrics though rather suggest that he is far from over this woman – that the anger he feels is still raw despite being ostensibly happily married.

#2: Sufjan Stevens, The Fourth of July

Maybe the saddest song of the year. Truly heartbreaking stuff, as Sufjan Stevens comes to terms with the death of his estranged mother by detailing his final conversation with her on her death bed (from stomach cancer) and the immediate aftermath in the hospital.

The evil it spread

Like a fever ahead

It was the night when you died,

My firefly

Oh could I be the sky

On the Fourth of July’

The song alternates between Sufjan’s perspective and that of his mother. They use terms of endearment to each other (‘my firefly’, ‘my little hawk’, ‘my dragonfly’). They talk about the past (there is no future). It is almost unbearably personal and one of the most purely beautiful songs of recent years. It makes me cry.

#1: Sleaford ModsRupert Trousers

The Sleafords, in a two word song title, manage in their inimitable way to sum up the state of Britain in 2015. Try playing this while seeing Cameron doing his PR trip to flood hit areas of the north, the same areas that have been starved of flood defence funding.   My song of the year. More about its genius here.

For a play through of the full top 10 see:

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