Best Albums of 2015
The recurring theme amongst commentators in virtually all end of year lists has been, ‘hasn’t 2015 been a great year for music?’ Well, if I’m being honest, it hasn’t! Compared to last year, with its surprise breakthroughs (St Vincent and Angel Olsen) and records worthy of instant classic status (‘RTJ2’ and Beck’s ‘Morning Phase’), 2015 has been a slightly understated affair for the LP as an art form. Nevertheless, there have been a number of records that have really impressed, challenged and captivated. Despite the endless swamp of digital hype and noise, old hands and vibrant pioneers have broken through the murk, and produced records that more than justify the price of entry into their world. A key theme has been that of the personal, with many of the year’s best drawing on the sheer transcendental energy that comes from expressing your true feelings. None personify this more than Bjork’s monumental ‘Vulnicura’, an artistic triumph over any semblance of convention, that towers and almost overwhelms the listener with its pure intimacy.
Best Albums of 2015 Video Digest:
1. Bjork – ‘Vulnicura’
‘Vulnicura’ is one of those records that is so powerful that it is actually almost impossible to listen to it the whole way through in one sitting. In a time where the LP as an artform is being dramatically undermined, Bjork has made a significant contribution to restoring its reputation as a singular concept. The track sequencing, artwork, production and instrumentation share a unified aim that is unique yet simple: is it possible to totally share every aspect of yourself completely? The result are a group of flowing songs that are profoundly uncompromising in their intimacy. Bjork’s lyrics chronicle the breakdown of her marriage in a fashion that completely lacks orchestration, the words at times stark in their anger and doubt, whilst at other times reeling off in uncontrollably waves of euphoric desire at the chance of reconciliation, memory or freedom. On paper the idea of doing a ‘break up’ record sounds unbelievably simple and perhaps even a bit beneath an artist like Bjork, whose last record was a full fledged multimedia arts and science education programme, but just like the human heart, ‘Vulnicura’ is riddled with complexity, with many of its songs revelling in their contradictory statements and actions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its centrepiece ‘Black Lake,’ a song that brings its listener to the witching hour of the darkest night in a relationship that is in free fall. It would be remiss of me not to mention the other aspects of ‘Vulnicura’ that take its experience and ambition beyond the typically alternative music notions. The staggering level of involvement and detail in the multimedia aspects of the project are unprecedented, even for Bjork. First was the Moma exhibition in New York, despite receiving much criticism from the press, when viewed in conjunction with the other aspects of ‘Vulnicura’, the content of much of the show was rather cleverly thought out. The exhibition’s main experience was a maze of rooms littered with personal items and lyric notebooks, on first sight these looked at little out of place when compared to the blockbuster budget projections of Bjork’s music videos but in the context of ‘Vulnicura’, this underwhelming aspect of the show actually makes a lot of sense. The items at first look fabricated and way too well preserved to be real but this is the point of ‘Vulnicura,’ is it ever possible to try share total intimacy? To attempt to ask this question and apply it to millions of members of the public is extraordinarily ambitious. Bjork also experimented with a 360 degree music video for ‘Stonemilker’ (which you can now download as an app for VR headsets) and an immersive split screen sound installation for ‘Black Lake,’ not to mention a series of stunning and intimate theatre show. In fact, the level of details goes right down to even the liner notes, which act as another method of engagement, with diary-like dates attributed to the songs. Every creative action that makes up ‘Vulnicura’ has been carefully considered (but also contradictorily carrying the air of impulsiveness), with its ultimate prerogative to engage its audience utterly and completely. It was an event that if you even remotely became engaged with, left a very deep personal impression.
2. Blur – ‘The Magic Whip’
I’ve never been the greatest of Blur fans (although I do consider Blur’s self-titled album to be something of a classic), which is why I was rather surprised by the inescapable heavy spell ‘The Magic Whip’ cast on me. It is easily the record I listened to the most this year, and often for hours on end on a loop. Everything about how ‘The Magic Whip’ was constructed shouldn’t really work; its a heady mishmash of Brit pop callbacks, electronica-infused ‘sad Damon’ ballads, indulgent Graham Coxon guitar flourishes, world music and features lyrics phoned in later (via a disjointed recording process) that amount to a ‘concept album’ of subject matter that on paper could be at a potentially lethal level of pretension. It is to their immense credit then that despite a ridiculous sounding idea (Brit pop band reform and make a concept album about Hong Kong), ‘The Magic Whip’ is a staggeringly great record. Damon Albans lyrics have never been better; oblique, intelligent and infused with a weary pathos that elevates everything with this incredible sense of weight. On ‘Go Out,’ his delivery is that of a man having a drunken second-wind at the end of a high-stakes game of poker. Album highlight and Bowie inspired ‘Thought I Was a Spaceman,’ is a heartbreaking triumph, expertly extrapolating on the recent disappearances of commercial airplanes, to discuss the folly of technological progress and globalisation in the face of nature. Damon’s emotionally powerful presence may take centre stage but the music that underpins it is equally fascinating. Adventurous and harmonious, songs like ‘There Are Too Many of Us’ certainly don’t sound like a 90s band coasting on nostalgia and reforming for the cash. This is a set of musicians at the height of their powers and filled with an united purpose. ‘The Magic Whip’ is an uncommercial, unpretentious and throughly ambitious piece of work, with important things to say about the economic impact of capitalism on the personal, the environment and even dares to asks questions about the nature of human existence itself. It is also one of the best British records made in the 21st Century.
3. Shiro Sagisu – ‘The World! Evangelion Jazz Night’
A massive guilty pleasure, the accomplished ‘modern opera’ that soundtracks the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise is one of my all time favourite things to listen to. ‘Evangelion Jazz Night’ is a fantastic reinterpretation of many of the themes from the various Evangelion films and tv series, seamlessly blending them into an extremely accomplished Jazz record, with plenty of great vocal contributions in both English and Japanese. The musicians orchestrated by franchise composer Shiro Sagsu and director/creator Hideaki Anno, have created a perfect blend of emotional nighttime ballads and electrifying dancehall swingers. For fans and non-fans alike, ‘Evangelion Jazz Night’ is extremely listenable and just plain great fun. Out of all the records on this list, it’s the one that virtually no,one reading this will have heard of but really should give a listen. Basically anyone who loves music will get an enormous amount of pleasure out of it, I guarantee it!
4. Metric – ‘Pagans in Vegas’
Metric, one of Canada’s most intriguing bands, have had an extremely interesting career. On the verge of commercial and cross-over success with their extremely popular record ‘, they have since recently taken a sideways turn back into the pursuing their experimental underground electro-rock. ‘Pagans in Vegas’ is a great vindication of this decision to remain free and independent (Metric are still not signed to a major label), it’s a brave adventure that represents a great departure from both Metric’s signature sound and Emily Haines’ much celebrated confessional style of lyricism. The words here are simplified, short, ambiguous and loose; with the subject matter a strange mix of the Metric staples of personal exploration and crisis, along with more general ideas of celebrity culture obsession and commercialism. In a big surprise, the band even eschews Haines’ presence (undoubtedly the main draw of Metric) entirely towards the end, with the record closing with lengthy back to back instrumental pieces. ‘Pagans in Vegas’ was clearly a divisive entry for fans of the band but like all classic ‘grower’ records, it hugely rewards repeated listens. In fact, there are a number of songs here that rank among Metric’s best and on further examination are awe-inspiringly clever. ‘Cascades’ is a superb example of this. On the first listen, it comes across as a strange auto-tuned pop song, perhaps even a bit too twisted and over-baked with layers of over-production, but listen closer and the puzzle unravels itself, revealing a moving and deeply philosophical exploration of life and death in the digital age. ‘Too Bad, So Sad’ similarly is a smashing electro-pomp, that hides beneath its fun exterior a darkly cynical heart, that alternates powerfully between joy and doubt. There are plenty of other delights to discover, making ‘Pagans in Vegas’ one of the most compelling mysteries to unpack this year.
5. Wavves – ‘V’
Wavves, San Digeo’s finest, made a big landfall with their outstanding last album ‘Afraid of Heights.’ ‘V’ finds them taking their characteristic blend of grunge and pop kicks and reducing it down further into a series of refined old school punky anthem sing-alongs. On first listen it might appear that Wavves have gone back rather forwards, but before long ‘V’ starts to get under your skin. Its simplistic pleasures and neo-nostalgia makes it a near perfect entry into a rare group of records that belong to what I would term ‘drunkards melodies.’ ‘V’ is basically the perfect accompaniment to pretty much any drinking occasion and also acts as a relatable self-pitying hangover listen too. Indeed, I would argue that the only way to truly ‘understand’ Nathan’s tales of grouchy paranoid woe is to be utterly smashed in the process!
6. The Icarus Line – ‘All Things Under Heaven’
The Icarus Line remain as one of my all time favourite bands and hands down the best American band active today. A force of nature, and forever surrounded by chaos, their records are uniformly excellent and with each instalment, the band’s sound continues to develop and evolve into its next ‘perfect form.’ ‘All Things Under Heaven’ is true to this tradition, with its pulsing weirdness and refreshingly honest authenticity blowing away virtually every punk rock record in existence. Dubbed as ‘evil sounding’ by critics, the songs here are in actuality about overcoming deep adversity and personal loss. The truth is that the Icarus Line are the most incredible group of rock and roll survivors in the business, and songs like ‘Solar Plexus’ and ‘Little Horn’ chronicle the endless catalogue of personal sacrifices they have made just to continue making records. A howling, bellowing whirlwind of guitar riffs and blues, the band have never sounded more alive and powerful. By refusing to sell out or give up, they’ve endured death, disease, addiction and poverty. Still, frontman and ringleader Joe Cardamone keeps on trucking, despite the heavy risks involved. When people come to write and look back at the music of the 2000s, The Icarus Line will be there, mentioned as a band too real and truthful to ever really be understood by a public that would rather choose to forget reality than confront it. I choose the red pill and so do the Icarus Line.
7. Eagles of Death Metal – ‘Zipper Down’
It’s hard to write about the Eagles of Death Metal without discussing their tragic involvement in the attacks at their gig in Paris. ‘Zipper Down’ (released shortly before the event) is their best record yet, with Josh Homme and Jesse Hughes fusing their respective talents to produce a slick, fun and downright danceable set of hits. It is such a shame that such an enjoyable and harmless set of cheeky rock tunes will be associated with a terrible historic tragedy for many people. I sincerely hope that both the music and the band can move beyond such a tragedy.
8. The Dead Weather – ‘Dodge and Burn’
There have been plenty of old school pleasures this year but ‘Dodge and Burn’ is probably the one that wears its influences the most on its sleeves. After last year’s disappointingly self-indulgent solo record, Jack White redeems himself by taking a far more collaborative approach with the Dead Weather. Indeed, his vocals and lyrics take a backseat, with the main attraction here being Alison Mosshart’s searing performances. In fact, the shift in balance has enabled the Dead Weather project to reach full maturity, with every song on this record being a resounding success. Whilst it doesn’t strive to reinvent the wheel, there’s no getting away from the sheer charisma and seductive old fashioned charms of ‘Dodge and Burn.’
9. Thundercat – ‘The Beyond/Where Wild Things Roam’
I don’t know a lot about Thundercat except that he shares my love for Japanese culture (see here manga inspired ‘Wolf and Cub’) and he was one of the key collaborators on Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly.’ ‘The Beyond’ has moments of true haunting beauty, its queazy mix of funk, soul and electronica, creating an atmospheric listen that you almost hope will never end. Definitely a talent to check out.
10. Cornelius – ‘Constellations of Music/ Ghost in the Shell OST’
I’ve been a massive Cornelius fan for many years and have been delighted by the sudden appearance of material over the last few years, after quite a few hiatuses. Cornelius makes music that is indescribably beautiful, layered with a production that has to be heard to be believed. Both of his records in 2015, the climax of his cyberpunk inspired soundtrack work for ‘Ghost in The Shell’ and a compilation of recent collaborations, demonstrate his incredible ability to instil emotion using a range of diverse instruments and electronic sounds. Cornelius really has taken on Bowie and Eno’s mission to push music to its frontiers. A modern pioneer, I dare anyone to listen to ‘Heart Grenade’ featuring Sean Lennon or ‘Heart Throbs and Apple Seeds’ and not feel this warm wave that crashes and engulfs.
11. The Megaphonic Thrift – ‘Sun Stare Sound’
Psychedelic Scandinavian shoegaze.
12. Le Butcherettes – ‘A Raw Youth’
Mad Mexican alternate rock.
13. Kendrick Lamar – ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’
Powerful political rap.
14. Cheatahs – ‘Mythologies’
Thoughtful, dreamy, bookish shoegaze.
15. Boom Boom Satellites – ‘Shine Like a Billion Suns’
Bombastic Japanese Electro rock.
16. Capsule – ‘Wave Runner’
EDM inspired but still utterly unique dance music legends.
17. Various Artists – ‘Metal Gear Solid V OST’
Hilariously overwrought but suspenseful fun.
18. Peaches – ‘Rub’
Dirty genius from the queen of rude dance.
19. Purity Ring – ‘Another Eternity’
Canadians on ice.
20. Towa Tei – ‘Cute’
Japanese sound collages.
Biggest missed opportunity of 2015:
Muse – ‘Drones.’ One word – Why?
Most pointless band reunion of 2015:
Sleater Kinney – I love Portlandia but despite the hype it might be best for Carrie to stick to comedy.
Best gig of 2015:
Bjork – NYC City Centre
Most overrated album of the year:
Father John Misty – ‘I Love You Honeybear’
Most Underrated album of the year:
The Icarus Line – ‘All Things Under Heaven’
Most exciting records to look forward to in 2016:
New stuff from: Portishead, Bowie, Beck, PJ Harvey, QOTSA, Fat White Family, Sleigh Bells, Bloc Party and Shiina Ringo
Also for comparison:
Best albums of 2014
1. Manic Street Preachers – ‘Futurology’
2. Run the Jewels – ‘RTJ2’
3. Shiina Ringo – ‘Reimport: Ports and Harbours Bureau’
4. Beck – ‘Morning Phase’
5. St Vincent – ‘St Vincent’
6. Antemasque – ‘Antemasque’
7. The Horrors – ‘Luminous’
8. Le Butcherettes- ‘Cry is For Flies’
9. Cibo Matto – ‘Hotel Valentine’
10. Nina Pearson – ‘Animal Heart’
11. Howling Bells – ‘Heartstrings’
12. Haunted Hearts – ‘Initiation’
13. Cheatahs- ‘Cheatahs’
14. Lykke Li – ‘I Never Learn’
15. Kasabian – ’48:12′
16. Brody Dalle – ‘Diploid Love’
17. Thurston Moore – ‘The Best Day’
18. Jenny Lewis – ‘The Voyager’
19. Angel Olsen – ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’
20. EMA – ‘The Future’s Void’