Pickled Priest Mixtape: Our Favorite Songs of 2015
The second decade of this century has been a blur. As I was choosing songs for this tape I realized that if I was quizzed on the year certain songs from 2010-2019 were released I would fail miserably. (And I don't wonder why; see Time Magazine cover above.) I've said this before, but as you get older the amount of landmark moments in your own life greatly diminish. Current events often act as a replacement for your own experiences. As a result, you are rarely associating a song with a key life event like when you were young. "Oh, I remember this song! It was playing in Costco when we decided to buy that sectional sofa!" It just doesn't have the same importance. That said, 2015 was packed with songs I love and this list could go three tapes deep and still be of high quality. Apologies to many great songs left on the cutting room floor. Some day you will get your just desserts.
26 “Pretty Pimpin” / Kurt Vile
A great song by a dude who has made rolling out of bed at 1:30 in the afternoon his full-time job. At least that’s what it sounds like since his melodies and lyrics tumble forward like lazy dominoes with crusty dots. You might assume we’ve got a slacker on our hands, but he’s actually pretty prolific by today’s lax standards. And you might also assume he’s a West Coast beach bum seeking “a cool buzz” and “a tasty wave,” to quote Jeff Spicoli, but he’s really East Coast Philly at his core. And on some days it’s not easy being human. We look in the mirror and don’t understand what we see or what we’ve become. Is this me or am I observing someone else? This feeling has been known to last a long time for certain individuals. It makes you want to go back to bed and start the day all over again...tomorrow.
25 “Beautiful Blue Sky” / Ought
Like an adolescent with severe ADHD crossed with Tourette Syndrome, Ought singer Tim Darcy is someone who’s hard to ignore—there’s so much battling to take over his body at any minute, you want to be there if the levee breaks. Be it to protect or help or just listen. With a disposition not far removed from a young David Byrne, Darcy presents as a peculiar, perhaps troubled, teenager who may have discovered a stash of unlabeled pills in the school nurse’s office. With focus at a minimum, he has the benefit of a band that keeps him regulated with light angular corrections. It’s as if the music soothes Darcy’s overactive mind. When that happens, the results can be strangely therapeutic for all of us, as they are on “Beautiful Blue Sky.” His mantras, which perseverate on a series of repeated ideas and phrases, suddenly sound eerily close to our everyday realities.
24 “Into the Deep” / Galactic w/ Macy Gray
This is more Macy Gray w/ Galactic than the other way around, but no matter, just add it to Macy’s long parade of modern R&B classics. If this isn’t being played at every wedding, it should be. "Into the Deep" is both a warning and an exciting journey at the same time. If you don’t have the guts to get down there to explore shipwrecks of old, don’t even bother trying to sail the sea. You might find treasure or you might find tragedy, perhaps both, but know this—everything real happens below the surface.
23 “Changes” / Langhorne Slim & the Law
Many of our most beloved songs are also the most simple. When you hear them, you assume they’ve existed for years. The beauty of this one is that we’re all going through changes all the time, so it’s always applicable.
22 “100% 13” / Bixiga 70
This Sao Paula ten-piece brings Brazilian music to life in a contemporary style while also highlighting the region’s natural cross-oceanic rhythmic brethren in Africa (hence the name, a tribute of sorts to Fela Kuti’s Africa 70 band). “100% 13” is an absolute instrumental dynamo—impossible to turn off once it gets cooking. If you need a soundtrack for a thrilling spy mission in Rio de Janeiro, here it is.
21 “Your Brain is Made of Candy” / Mourn
Things I wish I’d known much earlier. Leave it to a female-led indie-rock band from Barcelona to write a catchy pop song centered around eating a lover’s brain for dinner (sans fava beans and a nice chianti). “Oh, your brain’s made of candy/At first I thought it was rancid/But now I know it’s sweet/So that’s what I’m going to eat.”
20 “Esturra Leão / The Baggios
This big, brassy Brazilian parade float careens wildly like a runaway rollercoaster and the kids sound like they're having a blast during every unexpected twist and turn. They take fuzzy guitars, add blaring horns, and then push everything into the red, hooting and hollering with delight all the way. If this is the sound of Brazil's new generation, we're in for quite a ride.
19 “Danny’s Out of Money” / Low Cut Connie
If you don't love Low Cut Connie, you don't love rock & roll. I hate when people say shit like that, but here it's true. They are a modern-day version of NRBQ, decked out in suits of critical Teflon, influenced by everything, but hogtied to nothing. In this track alone, listen for the Four Tops, Elton John, Little Feat, and Southside Chicago gospel. No wonder Danny would sell his kidney to keep the band together!
18 “All in My Head” / Rayland Baxter
I know immediately when I find an album I’ll play for a long, long time and Rayland Baxter’s Imaginary Man is one of those records. I love most of the songs, so finding one song to represent the album was difficult. They all swim around in my head waiting for their turn. Suddenly, the choice became a no-brainer.
17 “Never Be the Same” / Built to Spill
Built to Spill was built to last as it turns out. Back in the 90s, nobody was really sure which of the countless bands signed in the alternative feeding frenzy would still be standing at decade’s end, let alone over twenty years later. It’s hard to believe, but their masterpiece, Perfect From Now On, was released way back in 1997. Amazingly, it almost sounds better today than it did then, perhaps due to the dearth of great alternative rock and roll bands these days. I've come to appreciate it even more. After laying dormant for too long the original BTS returned in 2015 with Untethered Moon and it shockingly didn’t miss a beat. My recommendation is to not break down their albums for parts, but “Never Be the Same” proves that no band sounded quite like them during their prime and nobody does now.
16 “Sunday Candy” / Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment
An irresistible hip-hop hymn about a beloved O.G. (Original Grandmother) featuring Chance the Rapper and Jamila Woods teaming up to deliver a spiritual gem that would eventually be performed at the Obama White House (like I had to clarify!) with the gospel background vocals turned up to 10.
15 “Ship to Wreck” / Florence + the Machine
The greatest songs often reveal universal truths. Here, we examine human nature. We try so hard to build our lives, so why do we so often sabotage them? While “Ship to Wreck” and the blistering “What Kind of Man” jumped off of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful thanks to Florence Welch’s hurricane of a voice, there’s more to Florence than her than epic singles—the rest of the record reveals an artist with a much longer agenda. The record gets better the deeper it goes, revealing subtleties and attention to detail when you would forgive her for blasting through such qualities with her barrelhouse vocals. So go deep. But that said, this Titanic track cannot be sunk. Or can it?
14 “Make You Better” / The Decemberists
It’s hard to pick a song to represent the Decemberists’ What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (or its companion EP Florasongs). Variety abounds, as is the band’s hallmark, and each forges its own distinct identity. It’s no wonder much of this world doesn’t quite know what to make of them—borderline suspicious, even. One sure way to know you’ve become a great band is when you start getting mixed reviews. People adopt and value music for highly personal reasons and there’s simply no way to satisfy everyone all the time. Meloy says as much in the album’s opening track “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” with the paraphrased disclaimer, “We know we belong to ya…but we had to change some.” There are some who have launched attacks on Meloy personally, citing his overly ornamental lyrics as evidence of artifice—part antique dealer, part Civil War general—but his latest model, featured here, leans toward simplicity and economy in both music and lyrics. "Make You Better" is a moving love song, no less. So why can’t we all agree just this once? Surely this song finds common ground.
13 “Bury Our Friends” / Sleater-Kinney
“Exhume our idols and bury our friends, we’re wild and weary but we won’t give in.” What a great way to summarize the triumphant return of a much-needed band on the masterful No Cities to Love. Sleater-Kinney had been on a ten-year break prior to this album, but came back arguably stronger and more determined than ever.
12 “Lisa Sawyer” / Leon Bridges
In this moving tribute to his mother, Leon’s smooth soul croon negotiates its way past conventional rhythms with intent, not allowing any aspect of her life to seem anything less than magical, anything less than purposeful. This is how mothers should be remembered; holistically, nostalgically, empathetically. “She grew up on Louisa Street/Chaos around but inside, cozy/Small, but a mansion in her eyes.” “She had the complexion of sweet praline/Hair long as the sea/Heart warm like Louisiana sun/Voice like a symphony.” Yep, this is exactly what she deserves.
11 “Feel You” / Julia Holter
“There I stood mystified / I could give no reason for my frozen stare.” This lyric from “Feel You” perfectly summarizes how I interact with the song. It transports me into an isolation chamber of sorts where my mind suspends input for a few minutes, allowing my perception of structure to be compromised and my sense of direction to be inverted. There’s a distinct feeling of wanting to move toward something in this song, but the singer doesn’t seem quite sure how to get there.
10 “Tilted” / Christine and the Queens
A minimalist, part-English, part-French synth-pop song from crossover artist Heloise Letissier, aka Christine, that manages to hold your attention mainly because everything about it is slightly off, which explains its title (intentional, I presume). I once saw her and band play this song on Later…with Jools Holland and she did a strange, stop-action dance routine while singing it that to this day, I think about. Then later, I read an interview with her where she basically said that even a fall can be turned into a dance step with imagination. And then it all kind of made sense. That’s the kind of thinking that sticks with you and why this peculiar little pop song has lodged in my brain for years.
9 “Time Will Wait” / Kristin Diable
This isn’t the first time a white female singer has pulled off a convincing blue-eyed soul record (Amy Winehouse, Dusty Springfield, Duffy, etc.), but it’s among the best. I’m still not sure why this didn’t gain a larger audience in 2015. It’s accessible and it is loaded with potential hits. Plural. The New Orleans-based Diable has a big, rich, expressive voice, but doesn’t bring the diva at all. It’s all about the song, and when the songs are this strong, that makes sense. Where has she gone since? A victim of public apathy? I don’t know, but the album from whence this came was titled Create Your Own Mythology, so maybe therein lies the answer.
8 “False Hope” / Laura Marling
Another great New York tale that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on PJ Harvey’s Songs From the City, Songs From the Sea, Patti Smith’s Horses, or even Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp (which came out three years prior). One thing is for sure; a big city like New York can fuck with your mind until you start questioning everything you thought you knew about yourself.
7 “Cathedrals” / Ruby Amanfu
It’s rare that a cover makes my Top 10 list in any year, but to be fair, I wasn’t aware of its origin when I first heard it. Somehow the original version by Jump, Little Children eluded me upon its release in 1998. (To my defense, there were about 6-billion indie bands circulating through record labels throughout the 1990s.) I don’t know how one-time Jack White backing vocalist Ruby Amanfu found it, but her 2015 record Standing Still featured songs from a pretty diverse group of artists (Richard Hawley, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Kanye West, Bob Dylan, etc.) so she’s a either got a well-honed radar or she has scouts on the lookout for worthy material. “Cathedrals” is an abstract wonder, much like the buildings it glorifies in its lyrics. As we travel to witness man’s greatest creations, sometimes it can make a person seem small and insignificant by comparison. Is that why, at some point in every vacation, you have a strange desire to go back home? Ruby’s version of the song takes the original, rebuilds and simplifies it, and returns with something dramatic and majestic that never fails to mesmerize me.
6 “Dear Arkansas Daughter” / Lady Lamb
Snaking through the Ozarks in search of, or running away from, something that once resembled love, Aly Spaltro, aka Lady Lamb, simmers on the flats then careens downhill with unexpected yet exhilarating force. One of the decade’s most slept-on talents.
5 “24 Frames” / Jason Isbell
There are plenty of songs on Something More Than Free worthy of attention, but the chorus of “24 Frames” was possibly the best of 2015: “You thought God was an architect / Now you know / He’s something like a pipe-bomb ready to blow.”
4 “Miss You” / Alabama Shakes
From their previous record to Sound and Color, not an evolution as much as a revelation. Everything that needed to be worked out was not only worked out, but obliterated. This is where Howard became the hurricane creative force she’s continued to be to this day. It has to be said, however, that Blake Mills’ production elevates the entire project—rarely have I heard a record with the sonic space and detail presented so perfectly. If there’s any record from the last five years you need on vinyl, this is it. On “Miss You,” selected because this is a mixtape and that’s what the task requires, Brittany reinvents the soft/loud dynamic with a performance for the ages. She is nothing short of a force of nature as she pleads, begs even, to know just what the fuck has happened.
3 “Pedestrian at Best” / Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett’s music is all about the next line, which makes it difficult for those of us who like to savor a perfectly cracked lyrical egg. “Give me all your money and I’ll make some origami, honey.” Before you have a moment to enjoy the splendor of that expertly deployed firecracker, she’s already tossing the next one at your feet. “I think you’re a joke, but I don’t find you very funny.” While I’m telling myself I’ve got to remember that line, she’s deep into the second verse already. Before you know it, lines like “My internal monologue is saturated analog,” blaze by and soon you realize you just need to give up and let the song flip its cards like Bob Dylan doing “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in a New York alley.
2 “King Kunta” / Kendrick Lamar
A sweaty, muscular, badass workout that wouldn’t have been out of place on an early-70’s James Brown record.
1 “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.” / Father John Misty
“Oh, I just love the kind of woman who can walk over a man/I mean like a goddamn marching band.” There are two main angles to take on this song: a humorous takedown of a pretentious girlfriend whose shelf-life has long since expired or the condescending complaints of a privileged, budding rock star with a man-sized ego. Feel free to take them both at the same time, if you like. Personally, I find it absolutely hilarious and always have, especially in the context of the cheerful, almost nursery rhyme tempo the song is built upon. When I first heard it five years ago, I didn’t know if my love would last, but like a classic comedy sketch, sometimes your appreciation literally increases with time. Especially with golden moments like this:
She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes
And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream
I wonder if she even knows what that word means
Well, it’s literally not that
So ends another year-end mixtape. The next time we time-travel, we're going to get back to the 1970s. Why? Let's just say we have some unfinished business to attend to and it things are going to get real.
Until then, cheers,