Albums of the Year 2015: #6 – #1

Since I’m probably never going to find the time to do proper reviews for all these albums now 2015 is over, I figured I’d put them all up here with just a couple of sentences each. I slightly underestimated how long it would take to write twenty album reviews in the space of a month, and to be honest I just ran out of steam with so much writing. So sorry for anyone whos actually reading these!

I’ll be doing this again for 2016, but this time I’ll be writing the reviews throughout the year so I can post them every day of December leading up to christmas. That way I don’t have to cram writing these into every minute of free time I have after work.And it’ll be a good way to keep me writing throughout the year.

OK – lets countdown my remaining favourite albums of 2015:

#6 Father John Misty  – I Love You, Honeybear

8a2cb994

Father John Misty’s second album was a heartwarming, honest and hilarious record that I found myself returning to perhaps more than any other album last year. It’s bright, lightly psychedelic folk instrumentation proved to be endlessly inviting, and even on the 10th, 20th, 30th listen I was still discovering new lyrical gems.

#5 FKA Twigs – M3LL15X

91be6bde

Twigs pushed her sound into new directions on this EP, combining alternative R&B with elements of IDM, trip hop and art pop to create something truly unique. Much like it’s cover, M3LL15X was dark, alien and sexy, sounding like nothing else. Twigs’ most mature release yet.

#4 Nicolas Jaar – Nymphs EPs

nicholas-jaar b225f132 nymphs4

 

 

 

 

 

Nicolas Jaar’s fantastic EP series, Nymphs 2, 3 and 4, which released thoughout 2015, proved to be my favourite electronic releases of the year. Taken as a whole they constituted an albums length of heady, experimental techno and house, with each disc exploring a different aspect of the sound. Perhaps the best of all was the sparse, melancholy and dreamlike Nymphs 2, full of inscrutable samples and stuffed full of ideas.

#3 Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness

cover

Where previous Julia Holter records have perhaps been easier to admire than to love, Have You In My Wilderness pulled back the curtain on the woman behind some of the decades most instriguing experimental pop music. This was a record full of personality and achingly beautiful arrangements. A modern chamber-pop classic.

#2 Joanna Newsom – Divers

Cover

How does Joanna Newsom follow up a career-defining triple album that is, in my opinion, the greatest album of the century so far? With Divers, yet another classic from the lady I firmly believe is the greatest songwriter of our time. On this album the instrumental pallette was expanded to include synthesizers and even electric guitars, and yet Newsom manages to bend every instrument here to her mystical purpose. Her lyrics are spellbinding throughout, as she turns her expansive imagination away from love and meditates on the eternal theme of time. In the process, she has created yet another album that will be remembered long, long into the future.

#1 Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Z8jONqb4

I’ve sometimes wondered what it must have been like to be a music lover on the exact day that an album like Sgt Peppers or Dark Side of the Moon was released – to be a part of the collective realization that you were listeneing to something monumental. In March 2015, I feel like I got a taste of that experience. To Pimp a Butterfly released amid a thunderstorm of hype, and the year that has passed since then has done nothing to lessen the feeling that Kendrick’s latest is a Very Important Album.

Sonically it was restless, exploring cosmic jazz rap, g-funk, boom bap and everything in between. Structurally it was ambitious, proceeding along the lines of a slowly unfolding narrative poem that culminated in a prophetic conversation with a reanimated 2pac. And lyrically it was completely off the charts, Kendrick shifting from braggadocious to political to personal on a dime, and wrapping it all around labyrinthine flows and rhyme patterns. A landmark for the hip-hop genre.

 

Thanks for reading!

Albums of the Year 2015: #7 Viet Cong – Viet Cong

0004053794_10

And here’s my punk album of the year. Viet Cong, released over a year ago now, is a megaton bomb of a record that marches to a violent and martial drum. Fusing indie rock and post-punk seamlessly together, the band emerge with a unique sound in which moments of bleak distortion and fuzz are set against artillery bursts of euphoric guitar, and bass as thick as trench-mud sticks in every corner of the mix. The prevailing theme is war: senseless violence; death and the fear of it; torture; power. And the music conveys all this chaos through its relentless onslaught of instrumental shrapnel. From the very first moments of ‘Newspaper Spoons’, where the drums form an aggressive call to arms, all the way to the final, breathless moments of ‘Death’, this is an album that just never lets the pace down for one moment.

‘March Of Progress’ is perhaps the tune that best represents the synthesis of sounds this album was aiming for. At six minutes long, the song begins with an experimental passage of programmed drums and wheezing synthesizers, sounding a bit like something This Heat might have made in the 80s, before building to a sinister climax. Then, right as the song threatens to explode, it suddenly shifts into a jumpy indie rock tune that is by far the most upbeat moment on the record. It shouldn’t work, but this final passage of the song is so infectious that it somehow fits perfectly.

But let’s talk about ‘Death’, the final track on the album. Because holy fucking fuck. This song is just nuts. Eleven minutes long and staggeringly intense, it brings the albums lyrical themes to a head and closes out the album with what I can only describe as an aural depiction of what it feels like to die. And not just to die, but to be fucking blasted to pieces on a war-torn beach and then to slowly bleed out in a state of escalating panic and complete terror. Beginning with a melodic guitar line and some punchy, off-kilter drumming, ‘Death’ continues to grow and grow into a huge, monstrous beast of a song. Panning synthesizers are introduced across the speaker channels, sounding like bomber planes circling overhead. Then, at the three minute mark, the song collapses under its own weight and transforms into a heavy hardcore punk chug of guitar feedback and relentless drums: pure fear in the face of death. At the 6 minute mark, it reaches a moment of almost zen-like musical intensity as the guitar begins to play just one single chord, over and over and over again as if replaying the moment of falling from an enormous precipice. Matt Flegel’s vocals become an incomprehensible howl, building and building in ferocity until the song, and the album, collapses in heap of bloodlust and frustration.

It might just be my favourite song of 2015, and seeing it performed live in Leeds earlier this year was utterly, utterly ridiculous. The perfect bookend to an incredible album, and one of last year’s absolute best.

Albums of the Year 2015: #8 Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again

Cover

On Your Own Love Again is a whisper-quiet collection of secret haunting nasal dark folk songs from Jessica Pratt, occupying the lonely spirit of Nick Drake in a musical séance wielding nothing but a Ouija board and a battered old cobweb-riddled guitar. Recorded so intimately that you can hear the walls sweating and every shift of Jessica’s spindly fingers moving up and down the fretboard and every note of a voice that sounds like both a witch and an infant child at one and the same time.

I know you’re searching all the time…through the corners of your mind

9 songs and 30 minutes of soporific music that sways with the regular rhythm of a hypnotists pendulum and hums with the heartbroken lyrics of its enigmatic creator. On Your Own Love Again is populated by otherworldly stories of distance and separation and turmoil but, like the eye of an enormous storm, the music contained within it is eerily calm.

When I look into your eyes, I’ve got a feeling…

Listen to it long enough and you begin to feel like you’re in the very same room with Jessica Pratt as she plays it, warming cold hands with sad songs and fire. Or perhaps at the bottom of a well where the sound echoes off the walls and has nowhere to go but up, like smoke.

Sometimes I pray for the rain…

No album in 2015 was as mysterious or as sinister as this. A truly remarkable example of how simple recording techniques and uncomplicated instrumentation can be imaginatively moulded into entire sonic landscapes.

Albums of the Year 2015: #9 Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect

protomartyr-agent-intellect

2015 was a good year for post-punk. Protomartyr’s The Agent Intellect is the second of a trifecta of fantastic albums in the genre that made it onto my top 20 list, and it’s probably the angriest of the three. The guitars on this record are distorted and razor-sharp, played with a ferocity throughout to match the loud, pummelling drums that underpin the music. And the vocals are delivered with a glassy-eyed apathy in a deep, sinister baritone that makes this a seriously atmospheric album.

It’s also a fucking loud album: the production brings the drums and the bass high up in the mix to make each of these 12 tracks feel incredibly turbulent, and you can’t help but get swept along the destructive path that tracks like ‘The Devil in His Youth’ and ‘The Hermit’ blaze through the desolate landscape of the album. Other highlights include the epic 6 minute ‘Ellen’ and the all too brief closing track ‘Feast of Stephen’, which has some of my favourite vocals on the album – deep, low pitch and just completely drained of energy and melody, as if the album that preceded them had completely defeated the singer. And all thats left is a frustrated, chemical lullaby:

Then get stoned until I fall asleep…

Albums of the Year 2015: #10 Shinichi Atobe – Ship-Scope

shipscope

I’m slightly cheating with this one since Shinichi Atobe’s Ship-Scope was actually released way back in 2001, but it seems to have slipped entirely under the radar and didn’t turn any heads until it was reissued earlier this year on Demdike Stare. It probably shouldn’t feature on a ‘best music of 2015’ list but hey, guess what? It’s my list so I can do whatever the fuck I want.

Ship-Scope is a 4-track EP of ambient/dub techno that initially surfaced on Chain Reaction, the same label that released Porter Ricks Biokinetics, one of my favourite techno albums of all time. Musically it fits the same washed out, bass-heavy mould as that album, with a focus on texture over melody or drums. These 4 tracks are thick, beautiful and dreary – they pulsate like waves breaking on a deserted beach in the rain, and they are guaranteed to push the low end of your speakers to the limit. It’s this quality that makes Ship-Scope the most elusive of techno treasures: introspective headphone music that can simultaneously move a dancefloor.

Opener ‘Ship-Scope’ kicks things off in much more ambient territory, however, with a beatless swirl of keyboards and strange, receding tones creating a sense of alien melancholy. After this, the record starts to move. ‘Plug and Delay’ introduces tectonic basslines and skittery drums into the mix, all slathered in aquatic reverb until it sounds like the first warning sign of an underwater earthquake. The arrangement of these tracks is economic throughout – none of them are busy with detail, and there are no explosive drops or hooks. Instead, they settle into a steady groove and then elaborate on it with all kinds of subtle sonic detail.

This is certainly the case for the stunning final track on the record, the eight minute long ‘The Red Line’. Opening with a heavy bass pulse and a simple, affecting keyboard melody, it gradually brings a host of other inscrutable sounds into the mix: a wash of white noise that could be the wind blowing through sails, and something that sounds like a sample of a rattlesnake hissing. All of this is brought to a beautiful, stirring climax as the song builds and then eventually dissipates, receding back into the swampy mist it came from.

It’s the attention to detail contained within these 4 tracks that sets Ship-Scope apart and makes it (even if it was released 14 years ago) one the most engaging pieces of electronic music I set my ears on in 2015.

Albums of the Year 2015: #11 Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

dbfa1978

2015’s most personal record, Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell, isn’t an easy listen. From start to finish, this is an emotionally taxing album that comes from a genuinely tortured period of the artists life. It finds Sufjan dealing with the recent death of his estranged mother, who left him at a very young age and who hangs over the entire record like a terrible Freudian spectre. Stevens’ lyrics on Carrie & Lowell are frequently addressed directly to his mother, and say the things he wishes he could have told her while she was alive. For this reason, listening to the album has an almost voyeuristic quality to it: there are very few musicians brave enough to lay the entirety of their tormented psyche bare as Stevens does here. Take the lyrics of opener ‘Death With Dignity’, for example, which seems to take place in the immediate aftermath of Carrie’s death:

‘I forgive you, mother, I can hear you / And I want to be near you / But every road leads to an end / Your apparition passes through me’

The way that Stevens voice picks up those final two words and stretches them out into a delicate falsetto is absolutely heartbreaking, and the plucked banjo underneath provides a simple yet beautiful musical backdrop. Throughout the album, Stevens’ playing is similarly sparse, with a number of tracks consisting of nothing but banjo and voice. But his raw, vocal honesty and ambiguous imagery make these tracks feel much more complex than they are. ‘Drawn to the Blood’, one of the bleakest songs on the record, features some wonderfully symbolic lyrics on top of darkly strummed chords:

‘I’m drawn to the blood / The flight of a one-winged dove / How did this happen?’

Perhaps my favourite track on the record, though, is ‘No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’, a track with a gorgeous, winding acoustic guitar melody that serves as the climax to Stevens psychological turmoil:

‘I’ll drive that stake through the center of my heart / Lonely vampire inhaling its fire / I’m chasing the dragon too far / There’s blood on that blade / Fuck me, I’m falling apart’

And then, at the very end of the track, he finds solace in faith: ‘There’s no shade in the shadow of the cross’. It’s an ambiguous emotional resolution, but one that suggests a path to recovery, and in this way it strikes me as representative of the record as a whole. Carrie & Lowell is an album about working through emotional trauma and coming out on the right side of it, and it’s this cathartic quality that makes the album so universal. Whatever kind of pain the listener brings to it, Carrie & Lowell will be there with a comforting hand on the shoulder, saying things are fucked, but lets try and understand them.

Albums of the Year 2015: #12 Benjamin Clementine – At Least For Now

cover

I listened to Benjamin Clementine’s At Least For Now a couple of times back in January when it was released, but it wasn’t until the album won the 2015 Mercury Prize that I really took notice and gave it a proper listen. I’m glad I did – this has been a real grower of a record that’s steadily become one of my favourite singer-songwriter releases of the year. The album is stuffed back to front with powerful, somewhat eccentric ballads delivered in Clementine’s deep baritone, and the vocal performances are consistently fantastic throughout. “Then I Heard a Bachelor’s Cry” and “Cornerstone” in particular contain some of the most hair-raising vocals I’ve heard all year: you owe it to yourself to watch the video for the latter track, which I’ve linked at the bottom of this review. It’s nothing but Benjamin, a piano and a camera in a dimly lit room, but the pure emotion in his face and in his voice gives me chills every time I watch it.

Clementine’s piano playing is as forceful as his vocal delivery, and tends to favour short musical phrases played quickly and powerfully. ‘Cornerstone’ is a great example of this, as is ‘Adios’, a track with an off-kilter, almost ragtime-esque melody which breaks down into a soaring ambient hymn in the bridge. Here, and on the following track ‘St-Clementine-on-tea-and-Croissants’, the sinister undertones and vocal eccentricities display a touch of Tom Waits influence, but Clementine has a lot of personality of his own. Throughout the album he remains both vulnerable and commanding, performing with an enormous amount of confidence. At Least For Now also contains some lovely string arrangements to compliment Clementine’s piano and vocals. ‘London’ is the album’s most single-worthy track, and it boasts a sweeping chorus of strings and steady drums which come together to stirring effect. ‘Nemesis’ also uses strings to great effect in the chorus, forming the backdrop to Clementine’s parental mantra: “Treat others the way you want to be treated”. And ‘The People And I’ is another highlight, a lovely, doe-eyed ballad that sounds like it could have come straight out of Joni Mitchell’s Blue.

You have to commend the Mercury Prize judges for awarding Clementine this year’s award: his album is an unusual one as far as piano-centric singer-songwriter albums go, and there are a number of more conventionally trendy records among the nominees like Jamie XX or Wolf Alice who could’ve easily taken it. But this is an album full of raw emotion and wonderful performances that fully deserves the recognition it’s receiving, and hopefully serves as a rebuttal to Clementine’s self-directed pessimism on ‘London’: “look at you, look at you, the game is over / your cup is full, your cup is full, stop praying for more exposure”.