Best Of 2015

31 December, 2015 in Features

Best Of 2015

As a brand new year beckons, we look back at the singers, songs and songwriters that made 2015 their own

It’s that time of year again, folks! We’re sure you’ve spent the last few months on tenterhooks, as you ponder just who will make the cut for Songwriting’s annual ‘Best Of’ list… well wait no more, as we unveil our selection of 2015’s finest, right here, right now. As always, this year’s list has been a topic of fierce debate, with chairs thrown, tears cried and blood spilled (okay, we’re exaggerating – a bit). But after all that, here are the songwriters, artists, albums, songs and moments that we felt truly made 2015…


Best songwriter

SiaSIA
2015 saw the Australian songwriter, who’s penned hits for the likes of Rihanna, Kylie and Beyonce, building on the success of her album 1000 Forms Of Fear with singles Big Girls Cry and Elastic Heart. Sia also continued to co-write prolifically, with Carly Rae Jepsen, Shakira, Jessie J and Kelly Clarkson among others. For her combined achievements as a solo artist and in-demand collaborator, Sia gets our vote as Best Songwriter, and that’s before you even consider her contributions to movie soundtracks such as Fifty Shades Of Grey and AnnieAS [Pic: Shutterstock]

Runners-up:

CHRIS STAPLETON
A dominant force in country since arriving on the Nashville scene 15 years ago, Chris Stapleton has chalked up six No 1s for the likes of Kenny Chesney, George Strait and Darius Rucker and 150 of his songs have appeared on albums by such artists as Adele, Tim McGraw and Dierks Bentley. In 2015, he released his debut album Traveller, which won him numerous CMA Awards and four Grammy nominations. AS

MAX MARTIN
The Swedish songwriting/production machine has spent yet another year flexing his hit-making muscles. Just when you thought his Midas touch might start waning, he managed to co-write a song on Adele’s 25, a swathe of tracks on Ellie Goulding’s album Delerium, and several more for the likes of Adam Lambert, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez. Oh, and Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood was released as a single this year – he co-write that, too. AS

GREG KURSTIN
Californian multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin is also a successful backroom songwriter who contributed to Adele’s and Ellie Goulding’s albums. In fact, Kurstin is also linked with Sia, as the two wrote much of 1000 Forms of Fear together and both contributed to Kelly Clarkson’s Piece By Piece. By Kurstin’s standards, 2015 hasn’t been the most prolific year, but just for writing Hello with Adele, this has to go down as a job well done. AS

JOANNA NEWSOM
Combining a career as an actress with that of a harp-playing solo artist, this multi-talented Californian songwriter has steadily taken her Appalachian-infused folk to bigger audiences. Her fourth album Divers was released this year, charting on both sides of the Atlantic and being widely selected as one of the best albums of 2015. AS

COURTNEY BARNETT
Another talented Australian female songwriter, but Courtney Barnett’s rugged, alt-folk sound and quirky lyrics set her apart from Sia’s poppier stylings. A couple of EPs released earlier had hinted at her songwriting potential, but it was Barnett’s debut album Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, which arrived in 2015, that brought her widespread critical acclaim. AS


Best album

John GrantJOHN GRANT – GREY TICKLES, BLACK PRESSURE
Having already been named Album Of The Month in Issue 5 of the Songwriting magazine app, the third album from John Grant has now gone one better to become our album of the year. An often humorous take on the dreaded mid-life crisis, the record was both immediately gratifying and one that rewarded repeat listens. Ultra-catchy efforts such as You & Him and Snug Slacks combined with more stirring tracks like Global Warming and Magma Arrives to create Grant’s strongest offering to date. That this mischievous, squelchy homage to growing old disgracefully managed to hang together cohesively is testament to Grant’s immense talent as a songwriter. DH

Runners up:

ESKA – ESKA
In the case of Eska Mtungwazi, good things really did come to those who wait. After spending years as a session musician and backing vocalist, her self-titled debut was a stunningly unique take on the English folk music that inspired her: experimental, soulful and well deserving of its Mercury nomination. DH

NATALIE PRASS – NATALIE PRASS
Another astonishingly accomplished debut, Natalie Prass’ album of mature orchestral pop was a delight from start to finish. Her seductive vocals danced through clever arrangements which straddled the line between show tunes and chamber music. With a start this assured, we can’t wait to see what comes next. DH

JOANNA GRUESOME – PEANUT BUTTER
Peanut Butter was a confident progression from Joanna Gruesome’s excellent debut, without even the merest hint of difficult second album syndrome. By retaining the exhilarating bursts of indie-pop and supplementing them with stronger vocals and additional synths, the Welsh quartet created a stunning follow-up. DH

MIGUEL – WILD HEART
Soaring guitars and falsetto vocals collided on Wild Heart, a present-day R&B album with a difference that saw Miguel channel his idols Prince and Freddy Mercury. This album was no mere pastiche, though: instead it was a futuristic tale of lust and love which sparkled with sweaty invention and might just be the most exhilarating release of the year. DH

EVERYTHING EVERYTHING – GET TO HEAVEN
On their third album the band’s eccentric urges, off-kilter time signatures and seemingly unintelligible lyrics remained, but a new emphasis on catchy choruses helped make it their most accessible record yet. Fear not though, Everything Everything are still a band who will gladly delve into the farthest reaches of their imagination for your listening pleasure. DH


Best single

Taylor Swift TAYLOR SWIFT – BAD BLOOD
With her 2014 album 1989, Taylor Swift confirmed her place at the very head of the pop table and charmed most of the listening world in the process. Bad Blood was taken from that album but came with added Kendrick Lamar, and an all-star female cast in the accompanying kick-ass video. This was Taylor at her edgiest, far removed from her country origins. Other divas may have made more headlines in 2015 but none released a single as thrillingly modern as this, and for anyone who’s in any doubt, a quick listen to Ryan Adam’s cover version reveals the timeless sentiment at the song’s heart. DH

Runners up:

ADELE – HELLO
Adele returned to the music world with the most heartfelt greeting since Lionel Ritchie’s 1984 namesake. Reconnecting with an old friend, and her audience in the process, Hello was an instant reminder of Adele’s ability to capture a universal sentiment, and record selling prowess. It’s great to have her back. DH

GHOSTPOET – BE RIGHT BACK, MOVING HOUSE
The standout track from Shedding Skin, Ghostpoet’s Mercury-nominated third album, Be Right Back, Moving House was a brooding reflection on enduring life’s monotony. Maximo Park’s Paul Smith provided a fittingly detached backing vocal which only added to the claustrophobic atmosphere. Modern malaise has never sounded so cool. DH

YEARS & YEARS – KING
The infectious groove and 90s beat of King deservedly earned Years & Years their first UK No 1. Led by Olly Alexander’s quietly confident vocals, it was an alt-pop smash fit for any dancefloor which remains the highlight from the London band’s impressive debut album, Communion. DH

TAME IMPALA – CAUSE I’M A MAN
Kevin Parker sounded more vulnerable than ever on Cause I’m A Man, as he admitted to his mistakes and the crushing realisation that he’s likely to keep on making them. The sonic lullaby which accompanied his confession just might have been enough to earn him another chance. DH

JAMES BAY – LET IT GO
Originally released back in 2014, Let It Go was given a second chance after the success of Hold Back The River, and if anything it was the superior of the two tracks. Bay’s powerful croon soared over layered guitars to provide the perfect distillation of his songwriting talent. DH


Best pop song

Little MixLITTLE MIX – LOVE ME LIKE YOU
These X-Factor runners-up might not win any prizes for credibility, but the elite songwriting team – Steve Mac, Iain James, James Newman and Camille Purcell – behind this hit certainly deserve our praise. With its bombastic, Phil Spector-esque production, Love Me Like You sounds like a 60s standard that surely could’ve been a hit for an earlier generation of all-girl pop group, which just goes to show that timeless, mature songwriting has enduring appeal. Following the equally catchy Black Magic earlier this year, Love Me Like You cemented Little Mix’s place in 2015’s pop success stories. AS

Runners-up:

THE WEEKND – CAN’T FEEL MY FACE
Canada’s The Weeknd had already started taking control of the mainstream music scene with his second album Beauty Behind The Madness, before this single stormed the charts worldwide. Co-written with big-hitters Savan Kotecha and Max Martin (with Ali Payami and Peter Svensson), Can’t Feel My Face taps into the universal appeal of dancefloor disco, syncopated melodies and vocal hooks that Michael Jackson made famous. AS

FLEUR EAST – SAX
This lead single from X-Factor’s 2014 runner-up was clearly “inspired by” Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk, but there was no faulting its brass hooks and flawless production. A proven songwriting/production team in the form of Norwegian duo Electric (Edvard Førre Erfjord and Henrik Michelsen), aided by James Abrahart and Camille Purcell, helped Fleur East craft this winning formula. AS

CARLY RAE JEPSEN – I REALLY LIKE YOU
Deceptively simple and ridiculously catchy, this 3.5-minute pop ditty had one of the most catchy hooks of the year and didn’t really need the Tom Hanks-starring video to make it an instant hit. Written and produced by another Swedish pop talent in Peter Svensson of The Cardigans – with Jepsen and Jacob Kasher – I Really Like You is a great example of the power of repetition in pop songwriting. AS

JESS GLYNNE – HOLD MY HAND
From the opening piano bars and rising vocal line, it was clear that Hold My Hand was the perfect vehicle to launch Glynne’s career in 2015. The chorus is the perfect, uplifting resolution that begs to be danced and sung along to. No wonder it hit the top of the UK Singles Chart and stayed there for three weeks. Props to the songwriting team of Jack Patterson, Janee Bennett, Ina Wroldsen and Glynne, and to Starsmith for the production. AS

IGGY AZALEA – TROUBLE
With Jennifer Hudson singing the chorus, Trouble mixed Azalea’s feisty rap verses with the sassiness of a 60s Motown backbeat. It proved an irrestible combination for the UK and Australia where it went reached the Top 10, as well as charting in other territories including the US and Canada. The songwriting royalties will have to be spread quite thinly, though: the team consisted of Azalea, Judith Hill, Isabella Summers, The Invisible Men, Salt Wives and Jon Turner. AS


Best rock song

Wolf AliceWOLF ALICE – BROS
What a year it’s been for the London alt-rock quartet! Tipped as a breakthrough act at the start of 2015, one UK No 2 album and a series of killer festivals later they’ve more than matched the expectation heaped on them. Bros was one of the standouts on their brilliant debut long-player My Love Is Cool and its watery alt-rock tones are a microcosm of everything the band do best, with delicious distortion, supreme pop melodies and hooks a-plenty highlighting them as one of the finest guitar bands to have emerged in years. DG

Runners up:

EAGLES OF DEATH METAL – I LOVE YOU ALL THE TIME
In a year where tragedy has forced the actual music of Eagles Of Death Metal to take something of a back seat, it’s important to remember that they’re also a rollicking rock band. I Love You All The Time is a countrified slab which reminds you just why they are so beloved. DG

ALABAMA SHAKES – DON’T WANNA FIGHT
It seems an age since Alabama Shakes burst on the scene and proved – with their soulful, blues-infused sound – that rock is still very much alive. This year they released their second album Sound & Colour and the pulsating Don’t Wanna Fight confirmed that success has done nothing to dim their groove. DG

JOANNA GRUESOME – LAST YEAR
Much has been said on Songwriting about the brilliance of the lightspeed indie-pop troupe Joanna Gruesome, and with good reason. Last Year mixes the grit of grunge, the energy of post-hardcore and the glorious sheen of lo-fi pop to underline just why Joanna Gruesome are the most vital punk act since At The Drive-In. DG

TAME IMPALA – LET IT HAPPEN
Can Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker do anything wrong? Not if Let It Happen is anything to go buy. After the ebullient psychedelia of 2012’s Lonerism, he had a free had for his next release and Let It Happen emphasizes not just Parker’s shift into more electronic pastures, but the correctness of his decision. DG

TRUST FUND – CUT ME OUT
Cut Me Out is a brilliant track, and one to remind you that rock isn’t just about stadiums, sweat and solos, but also about feeling and catharsis. Built on a riff that’s so catchy it should apologise for wearing out Spotify’s queue function, it makes an insider of outsider rock. DG


Breakthrough artist

Wolf AliceWOLF ALICE
We put Wolf Alice on the cover of the Songwriting magazine app back in the summer, and they very kindly returned the favour by going to No 2 on the UK albums chart with My Love Is Cool a couple of weeks after the issue came out. Since then they’ve picked up Mercury and Grammy nominations, as well as invading the Billboard Top 10 with the reissued single Moaning Lisa Smile and wowing crowds at several of the UK’s leading festivals including Reading, Latitude. T In The Park and Calling. With the band still in their early 20s, their reign at the top of the alt-rock tree looks set to continue for a while. RD

Runners-up:

JESS GLYNNE
Jess Glynne first rose to prominence in 2014 as a featured vocalist for the likes of Clean Bandit and Route 94, before going it alone with Right Here. But this year saw her moving away from dance music and more firmly into the pop arena – and scoring a No 1 album with I Cry When I Laugh for her trouble. RD

JAMES BAY
2014’s smash single Hold Back The River set the stage for Bay’s meteoric rise to the top in 2015, with a No 1 UK album in Chaos And The Calm (which also went to No 15 in the US), the prestigious Critics’ Choice Award at the BRITS and no fewer than three Grammy nominations. Mind you, supporting Taylor Swift on the European leg of her 1989 world tour probably didn’t hurt… RD

ESKA
We did well for talent-spotting in our Summer issue: as well as putting Wolf Alice on the cover we had Eska Mtungwazi in one of our Introducing… slots. The Zimbabwe-born south Londoner went on to see her self-titled debut album nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, proving that the decision to step out on her own without the likes of Matthew Herbert and Zero 7 behind her was the correct one. RD

COURTNEY BARNETT
A far cry from the standard-issue 2015-style pop princess, Barnett cut her teeth in grunge and psych bands in her native Melbourne before first coming to international attention with a couple of solo EPs in 2013. But it was her 2015 debut album Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, which went Top 20 in the UK and US as well as down under, that cemented her position in indie-rock’s upper echelons. RD

YEARS & YEARS
The British dance-pop trio have been around since the start of the decade, but 2015 has definitely been their year, racking up a No 1 single in King, a No 1 album in Communion, a Critics’ Choice nomination at the BRITS and a BBC Sound Of 2015 award. RD


Most overlooked artist

Diagrams DIAGRAMS
Diagrams’ main man Sam Genders may be known to the keener followers of indie-folk among you, having featured as a member of both Tunng and The Accidental – or you may, of course, have just read our interview with the man. As Diagrams, he adopts a more subtle approach than with Tunng, with melodies carved from clouds rather than twisting folk branches. Strangely, despite the more palatable tones than Tunng, Diagrams remains a relatively unknown quantity even among scenesters. Fans of mid-career Blur will find as much to enjoy in Diagrams’ music as nu-folkies, so we suggest you open your ears and discover a true songwriting gem. DG

Runners up:

EZTV
Indie’s had so much time for jangle-pop in the last few years that it seems anyone who’s googled The Byrds can be a star on the scene. We thought, though, that EZTV would be one band that would break out from their peers and make their name known. We still hold out hope. DG

FLOWERS
Flowers make indie-pop in the beatific, gorgeously harmonic style that saw 80s heroes The Sundays and 10,000 Maniacs making cardigan-wearing lovelies of a generation of indie kids. Bringing back the Black Tambourine distortion of their earlier releases has made their recent songs even more infectious listening. DG

TRUST FUND
Not one but two brilliant albums were released by Trust Fund in 2015, and that many people still don’t know their name highlights the chasm between the recognition they have and that which they should possess. Wonderfully catchy indie-rock with superb lyrics: this is music for fans who wished Elliott Smith rocked out more. DG

ELVIS DEPRESSEDLY
2014 transformed Alex G from bedroom indie-pop artist to critical darling. Elvis Depressedly’s Mat Cothran helped Alex G to play his first live show, yet broader acknowledgment eludes his band. Listen to their lo-fi masterpiece New Alhambra and you’ll be as delighted by its existence as you are baffled by Elvis Depressedly’s unknown status. DG

TORRES
Torres is the vehicle for Mackenzie Scott, a writer who evokes the glorious fuzzy rock of early PJ Harvey and who has featured as a guest artist on Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There?. Despite releasing an excellent sophomore album in Sprinter, 2015 wasn’t a breakthrough year, but we think 2016 might be. DG


Moment of 2015

BataclanTHE TRAGEDY AT THE BATACLAN
Believe us when we say that we really, really wish that ISIL’s terror attack in Paris on 13 November hadn’t been the standout moment in the history of popular music in 2015, and that we didn’t have to write about it. But what else were we going to do – publish a review of the year that says Adele releasing a single was more important news than 86 people being murdered simply for the ‘crime’ of attending a rock concert? Rest in peace all those that died – our thoughts are with their friends, family and loved ones, as we’re sure are those of music-lovers all around the world. RD

Runners-up:

THE RETURN OF ADELE
It took the girl from Tottenham nearly five years to follow up 21… but given the way 25 has been smashing sales records left, right and centre since its release in November, fans didn’t seem to mind too much! The single Hello blazed the trail, and 25 – on which she worked with the likes of Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth, Max Martin, Mark Ronson and Ryan Tedder – came storming through the charts and the airwaves like a juggernaut in its wake. RD

BIEBER’S NO 1 DOUBLE-WHAMMY
Back at the start of December, Justin Bieber managed to knock himself off the No 1 spot on the UK charts, with Love Yourself replacing Sorry – making him the first living artist to pull off this feat since The Beatles in 1963. Love him or loathe him, it was further proof of Bieber’s seemingly unassailable position as the world’s biggest teen pop icon. RD

STREAMING WARS HEAT UP
There were no shortage of services to choose from already, but with the relaunch of Tidal by Jay-Z and a host of celebrity friends in March, followed by the arrival on the scene of Apple Music in June, the music streaming industry became even more competitive in 2015. With competition for exclusives fierce, it’ll be interesting to see which of the big players are still around in another year or two… RD

THE VINYL REVIVAL
Depending on who you choose to listen to, good old-fashioned records either a) made a huge comeback this year or b) merely remained the format of choice for older buyers, augmented by a smattering of hipster types. However you parse it, though, the launch of dedicated vinyl single and album charts, plus Tesco’s decision in September to start stocking the black stuff again, were a sure sign that something was happening! RD

FLORENCE REPLACES FOO FIGHTERS
This year we got a second go-around of all the ‘who’s going to headline Glastonbury?’ nonsense, when Dave Grohl broke his leg, forcing Foo Fighters to pull out of their scheduled Friday night slot on the Pyramid Stage. Luckily, Florence and her mechanistic pals proved more than capable of filling their shoes – even in chucking in a cover of Learn To Love Again in Grohl’s honour. RD

Words: Damien Girling, Duncan Haskell, Aaron Slater, Russell Deeks

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