Ok, so we have one final best of list to round out the week and then I promise you we’re done. Our illustrious Editor in Chief Gareth Hugh Evans has sifted through the wealth of music that’s been released this year and whittled it down to his top 25 tracks of 2015. Some of these are album tracks that haven’t been released as singles, some are singles from albums that were released last year and at least one or two have only seen light as live versions – but one thing that’s certain is that this is a pretty good snapshot of all of the music we’ve been loving throughout the year.
So without further ado please enjoy Gareth Hugh Evans’ Top 25 Tracks of 2015.
1. Sufjan Stevens – “Should Have Known Better”
While I loved the direction that Sufjan Stevens took with his Age of Adz album, when “Should Have Known Better” dropped earlier this year I almost wept. This was Stevens leaning back into to his acoustic roots without denying where his sound has evolved in recent years (the electronic middle eight in the track is a nice nod to Age of Adz). Despite the heavy subject matter of the track (“When I was three, three maybe four, She left us at that video store”) it is overwhelmingly uplifting and I can’t help but smile as I let the melody wash over me. It’s good to have you back Sufjan!
2. John Flanagan – “The Last of the Cassette Men”
A core element of “folk music” as an overarching genre is the story song and John Flanagan has written the best story song of the year, recounting the time Flanagan was tasked with driving his songwriting hero Paul Kelly to a show. John Flanagan’s easygoing, personal narrative style works perfectly in this track, almost aping the songwriting style of Kelly without descending into parody. With this track John Flanagan has proven himself a songwriting force to keep an eye on.
3. Packwood – “All Smoke Must Find Its Way Home”
With four EPs released this year there’s a wealth new Packwood material to choose from, but I can’t help but come back to “All Smoke Must Find Its Way Home”, his first single from 2015. The track is everything I want from a Packwood song – soaring melodies, delicate finger-picked guitar, orchestral arrangements (including a choir!) and Bayden Hine’s vulnerable vocal style. Another work of genius from Australia’s king of chamber folk.
4. Patrick James – “Bugs”
“Bugs” has been a standard of Patrick James’ live set for much of his career, including his time as a busker, but it’s only in 2015 that it’s been released as a single thanks to his debut album Outlier. What makes “Bugs” such a great song is hands down the chorus: a catchy, loopy piece of music that always stimulates a sing along. With live versions of “Bugs” available on the internet for years now I’m glad James has not gone crazy on the production of this track, keeping the arrangement subtle and familiar.
5. The Morrisons – “Wild Eleanor”
Despite being probably the most recognisable Bluegrass band in Sydney the amount of recorded music available from The Morrisons is pretty light on the ground. Which is why I’m so chuffed they’ve chosen to record and release one of my favourite of their tracks, “Wild Eleanor”. The frantic single shows off just how skilled each of the members of The Morrisons are. And yes, I even like the hokey clip shot at Sydney’s Hibernian House.
6. Laura Marling – “False Hope”
This is Laura Marling’s Dylan-going-electric moment. When “False Hope” hit earlier this year the first thing that fans noted was just how rock driven it was- Marling has swapped the acoustic guitar for a choppy electric and surrounded herself with a traditional rock lineup. But Laura Marling’s lyrical style and vocals shine through – you know this song is unmistakably a Laura Marling track despite the instrumentation and for that reason alone it’s something special.
7. Kate Burke & Ruth Hazleton – “Waly Waly”
I was trying to put my finger on what it is about “Waly Waly” that stands out for me on the excellent album Declaration from Kate Burke & Ruth Hazleton and it hit me – about halfway through the song Ruth Hazleton brings in this minor led banjo lick that just, well, grooves. It’s that lick, and the minor arrangement over the chorus, that gets my toe tapping and my head bobbing every time. It’s not often that you mention the word “groove” in reference to a Child Ballad but that’s how clever Declaration from Kate Burke & Ruth Hazleton are.
8. Mumford & Sons – “Ditmas”
“But this is all I ever was, And this is all you came across those years ago, Now you go too far, Don’t tell me that I’ve changed because that’s not the truth, And now I’m losing you”. Could this be the catchiest chorus of 2015? Forget that Mumford & Sons ditched the banjo and the acoustic guitar – what they’ve created in “Ditmas” is the perfect Mumford & Sons song. Restrained verses, blistering choruses and lyrics you want to sing along to at the top of your lungs.
9. The Paper Kites – “A Silent Cause”
To be honest “Electric Indigo” has been the track on highest rotation from twelvefour for me this year, but every time I’m listening to the album from start to finish I always have to go back and listen to “A Silent Cause” again and again. It’s such a simple song – lead vocals, guitar and subtle vocal harmonies – but it’s just mesmerising. It’s a nod to The Paper Kites’ earlier work and there’s a real Paul Simon feel to the way its been written. “A Silent Cause” has not (yet) been released as a single from twelvefour but it’s definitely the standout for me.
10. Fanny Lumsden – “Soapbox”
Fanny Lumsden’s incredibly catchy single “Soapbox” is the driving force behind the success of her album Small Town Big Shot. The track’s driving back-beat courtesy of the clapping percussion drives the song forward and that banjo riff is so hum worthy. I love how crisp Lumsden’s vocals are on this track – you get to follow the narrative elements of the song without having to distance yourself from the rest of the instrumentation. It’s a great track to see live as well!
11. William Fitzsimmons – “Pittsburgh”
There’s such a lean-in quality to William Fitzsimmons’ voice – it’s so delicate over the top of his acoustic guitar and the result is beautiful. The album version of this song is supplemented by subtle piano, electric guitar and backing vocals but if you’ve managed to hear any of the live versions floating around Youtube you’ll know just how good this song is with just Fitzsimmons and his guitar.
12. Matt Corby – “Monday”
The first new music from Matt Corby in quite a while ends up being classic Matt Corby. That layered, looped vocal and hand percussion. The blues inspired melody. That voice. It’s good to have you back Matt Corby.
13. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – “S.O.B.”
The transformation of Nathaniel Rateliff from sensitive acoustic singer-songwriter to full blown gospel-blues master has been one of the unexpected joys of 2015. Together with his outstanding band The Night Sweats, Rateliff released one of the year’s catchiest tunes in “S.O.B.” complete with a Blue Brothers inspired video.
14. Bellowhead – “Roll Alabama”
Bellowhead tempered the news that they’d be wrapping things up this year with the release of their new single “Roll Alabama”. The track is filled with Bellowhead’s usual bombast but also manages to balance this with fine arrangement – at no point is the song overwhelmed by the instrumentation. The clip for “Roll Alabama” is a loving ode to Bellowhead as a live band, making me wish they’d made the trip to Australia at least once.
15. The East Pointers – “The Drift”
I love that the tenor banjo, after being maligned by its five stringed cousin in recent years, is making a bit of a resurgence. And Canadian trio The East Pointers are leading the tenor banjo charge. I love the way “The Drift” plays with tempos and instrumentation, building and dropping throughout, providing texture to the traditionally inspired music. A highlight from Secret Victory which is stuffed full of amazing tracks.
16. Yetis – “Luckiest Guy Alive”
Yetis were another band that we said goodbye to in 2015 but who left us with an amazing goodbye track. “Luckiest Guy Alive” is beautiful – five part harmonies over a solo piano – and it just seems to sore. I’m not sure Yetis every really reached their full potential and I would have loved to have seen more from them before they went their seperate ways – but “Luckiest Guy Alive” is a nice way to say goodbye.
17. Boy & Bear – “Walk the Wire”
Boy & Bear have embraced the 70s and early 80s on their new album Limit of Love and the greatest example of this is “Walk the Wire”. Embracing synths and crisp guitars, “Walk the Wire” still has that undeniable Boy & Bear groove to bop your head along to. The video is also hilarious – don’t just listen to this track on YouTube in the backgound, make sure you give it your full attention.
18. Ruby Boots – “Wrap Me In A Fever”
No this is country music. Ruby Boots’ big voice just powers through this track as the drums shuffle, the steel guitar twangs and an organ adds just a touch of class. “Wrap Me In A Fever” is a song full of heartbreak and lonliness but Ruby Boots also imbues a sense of strength into it with her big voice.
19. Gurrumul & Paul Kelly – “Amazing Grace”
The moment I heard that Gurrumul was turning his voice to gospel music for his latest album my first thought was “why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?”. The fact that he’s joined by Paul Kelly on possibly the most iconic gospel song of all time is just incredible. Here are two artists at their best breathing life into a classic and reinventing it for an Australian audience.
20. Passenger – “Fools Gold”
The ever prolific Passenger this year released an album (Whispers II) and then a series of videos for brand new songs that were shot while he toured the world. To be honest I could have picked any number of the songs that Passenger released this year but this is the one that stuck in my head. The song is textbook Passenger – delicate vocals over finger-picked guitar – but that little lick at the start and the “Hey-ey-ey” of the chorus are what gives “Fools Gold” the ear-worm quality.
21. Josh Pyke – “Hollering Hearts”
From the opening ukulele to the “oh oh oh” backing vocals there’s something insanely catchy about this song. No one quite writes folk-flavoured pop music like Josh Pyke and “Hollering Hearts” is pretty much a perfect Josh Pyke tune. I’m not sure how I feel about the lyric video (if you’re going to go to that much effort animating it why not just make a video?) but at the end of the day this is all about the music.
22. Falls – “When We Were Young”
I chose to post the live version of this song purely for the nostalgia of it. This is Falls performing at the Hotel Hollywood in Sydney during one of their rare visits back to our shores – and for these guys this is where it all started. I love how infectious this song is, almost willing you to clap along and stomp your feet. Of all the new material on Omaha this is the track that really captured me – I feel like it’s the bridge between their Hollywood EP and the tracks they’ve been writing since they’ve relocated to the USA.
23. Sam Amidon – “Blue Mountains”
“Blue Mountains” is not taken from Sam Amidon’s 2015 album of home and field recordings Home Alone Inside My Head but is rather the final single from his amazing 2014 record Lily-O. This is Amidon at his most coherent and accessible – the track has a pretty conservative structure and vocal line which is something he’s not always known for. I love the 6/8 drum beat that comes in about half way through this song giving it that extra drive, and of course Amidon’s meandering fiddle lines are just beautiful.
24. We Banjo 3 feat. Sharon Shannon – “The Fox”
This is traditional music at its most polished, with none of the rough edges you’ll find on other versions of this classic track. But that’s not a bad thing – We Banjo 3 have perfectly captured the rollicking fun of “The Fox”. Strangely Sharon Shannon’s accordion seems to be relegated to the back of the mix until they break into the reel two thirds of the way through (known as “Clumsy Lover” for those of you playing at home) – but I guess that’s why this is We Banjo 3 featuring Sharon Shannon and not the other way around.
25. Nick Payne – “Old Sydney Town”
I’ve had the pleasure of watching Nick Payne workshopping his convict folk song at jam sessions and festivals over the past 18 months and what he’s managed to capture on tape is pretty bang on what you’ll get live. I love the old time feel of this track and the fine group of musicians he’s managed to amass to accompany him (including many members of his band Dear Orphans) elevate the song to another level. I love the “behind the music” style of the video as well – very nice.