Billboard.com's 10 Best Rock and Alternative Songs of 2015: Critics' Picks

Danny Clinch
Chvrches

With each passing year, it seems our old friend guitar rock fades further and further from the Hot 100 chart. Beneath the top 40, alternative radio is centered on slick, synth-friendly sounds and mainstream rock stations offer little respite from the angst-ridden, all-male bands that dominate the format. But if you do a little digging, you’ll find the world is full of artists fed up with the status quo, working progressive messages and vital world views into rock and alternative music that aims toward a future that makes all the digging worth the while. 

From artists bubbling below the mainstream to those sitting comfortably far, far away from it, here are 10 rock and alternative songs from 2015 that we can’t do without. 

10. U.S. Girls, “Damn That Valley” 

U.S. Girls leader Meg Remy calls her long-running “everywoman” D.I.Y. project a “feminine counterpoint to Bruce Springsteen's work.” For her first single after signing to a bigger label (4AD Records), Remy was inspired to pull a Boss move and turn a protest of American foreign policy into a dancefloor jam. The subject matter is grim. Remy is singing from the perspective of a war widow about Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley, where American soldiers were frequently left as sitting ducks. “I wanted to write a song that was pure emotion, talking about something political,” Remy told Billboard. A left-field dancehall beat may sound like an challenging magic ingredient, but no one ever said making political songs fun was easy. 

9. Speedy Ortiz, “Raising the Skate”

Speedy Ortiz loves Pavement. A lot. Given how often that influence has been mined over the past 20 years, one might expect a band that's at best predictably snarky, or worse, very, very boring. But no! On “Raising the Skate," noted Nicki Minaj scholar Sadie Dupuis takes the essence of those Beyoncé lyric sweatshirts and turns them into a ramshackle pop starship that perfects the blueprint drawn up by their previous album's catchiest track, “Tiger Tank." Case in point -- the underwater, intergalactic effect applied to Dupuis' voice as it slides out of the chorus and into the herky-jerky bed of bass and percussion from Darl Ferm and Mike Falcone. Hooks and effects this tight will make you stand out from a slew of slacker bands. 

8. Makthaverskan, “Witness”

Ah, the one-off single, an outside-the-album-cycle way of releasing creative energy and letting the fans know you're still kicking. But for Swedish punks Makthaverskan, "Witness" was much more, one-upping the highly-competent intensity on their 2014 II LP in a swirling dust devil of post-punk fury. It’s a genre that’s been revived to death, but when vocalist Maja Milner wails through the tempest for one final go of the “Witness your fall” refrain, it’s less like a revival and more like forging a whole new language. Seriously, the 2:23 mark of this song... 

7. Chairlift, “Ch-Ching” 

Chairlift's Caroline Polachek co-wrote and co-produced Beyoncé's "No Angel," and on "Ch-Ching," the Brooklyn duo's first new song in three years, it's clear the pair has been sipping from the same psychosensual R&B fountain. Here's to slipping out of dream pop and slotting comfortably into a steamy world of bassy brass, 808s and finger snaps... and to whoever can figure out what 27-9-9-23 means.  

6. Brand New, “Mene”

By the standards of Brand New -- Long Island's cult band to end all cult bands -- 2015 was actually a highly productive year, giving a cache of 9-year-old demos proper release for the first time and releasing one -- yes, one -- glorious new song, their first in six years. "Mene" is an all-out assault on those who shrugged off the band after the lukewarm reception to its 2009 album Daisy. It's just over two minutes of big ol' country guitar strums, dredged in post-hardcore sludge, pumped and primed for a chorus that reminds us there ain't no angst like Jesse Lacey angst. While most survivors of the early-2000s emo wave stagnate in a pool of nostalgia, Lacey can scream "we don't feel anything" and make believers in the genre's oft-mocked so-called revival feel their past still means something. 

5. Blood Orange, “Sandra’s Smile”

Dev Hynes' R&B sorcery exists in a space just below the mainstream. He's written for Carly Rae Jepsen and Sky Ferreira, and though his own work as Blood Orange is often deeply personal, "Sandra's Smile" tackled some of America's most gripping issues. "Sandra" is Sandra Bland, the black woman who was found dead in a Texas jail cell just days after being pulled over for a routine traffic stop. The loss resonates for Hynes, as does his struggle to come to grips. And when it gets to be too much, a luminous R&B cradle (close your eyes and it feels like a Thriller slow jam) does its best to rock you to peace. 

4. Beck, “Dreams”

What did Beck do four months after his downtempo, melancholy LP Morning Phase won the album of the year Grammy? Release an irresistible radio-ready track with the refrain, “d-d-d-dreams, she’s making me high!” “Dreams” benefited from Beck’s Grammy momentum to dominate its radio lane (it peaked at No. 2 on Alternative Songs) and gave us plenty of reason to anticipate another dramatic LP reinvention from the veteran L.A. hipster. Speaking of which, we’re still waiting. 

3. Courtney Barnett, “Pedestrian at Best”

Since her early EPs, fans have known Courtney Barnett had bars, but this year she proved she had killer hooks to go with her stellar lyricism. Within and in between the crunchy chorus, Barnett weaves a first-person, sad-sack one act so whip-smart, it’s hard to believe her when she sings, “I’ll only disappoint you.” 

2. Grimes, “Flesh Without Blood”

There were several otherworldly pop bangers on GrimesArt Angels, but we’re glad she decided to let this stratospheric kiss-off kick off the album cycle. The artist named Claire Boucher kept us guessing in the album’s long gestation period, sharing “Go,” an EDM banger she’d written for Rihanna, and later admitting she’d scrapped an entire album’s work of material. Doubt was in the air. In the end, she delivered the pop many of her fans were craving, without sacrificing the singular persona that made her a underground star. “Flesh Without Blood” is that in a nutshell -- a sky-scraping hook pulled out of unintelligible vocals, served over an underbelly of humming guitar. 

1. Chvrches, “Leave a Trace”

If anything, Chvrches’ best songs run the risk of sounding too perfect. Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook, and Martin Doherty had the life-affirming synthpop songbook down pat on 2013’s The Bones of What You Believe, so a little second album confidence was enough to push them into the stratosphere. M83 hasn’t released a proper album since they hit the scene, so if Chvrches plan on translating the emotional apexes of your favorite teen dramas into a glistening chorus, the field’s theirs. On this year's Every Open Eye, “Leave a Trace” is exactly that.