A Year in the Ear: The Best Albums of 2015
by Thomas Blake
26. Hawthonn – Hawthonn
Eerie, arty, site-specific post-psych from Phil Legard, the artist formerly known as Xenis Emputae Travelling Band.
25. Colleen – Captain of None
Lambent, onieric instrumental vignettes nestle beside clear-eyed lyrical pieces, the 15th century viola da gamba sounding like an instrument from the future.
24. Stick in the Wheel – From Here
Cockney folk-punk with a high-energy DIY approach that conceals some serious musicianship. Breathing new life into old forms.
23. Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ
The best concept album about pro wrestling of the year, definitely.
22. Wilco – Star Wars
Instrumental opener EKJ is basically Frank Zappa with a train to catch, and closer The Magnetized is like White Album-era Beatles on some heavy downers. This is the sound of a band having fun with their undeserved dad-rock image whilst proving they’ve still got the will to experiment.
21. Brad Gallagher, Bill Lowman and Alasdair Roberts – Missed Flights and Fist Fights
Scottish folk dude Roberts teams up with a pair of Chicagoan multi-instrumentalists for an album heavy with Jew’s harp, twisty guitar and good old fashioned bonhomie.
20. Algiers – Algiers
The history of black music collides with a raging, international psych-soul future dystopia. With beats. Lean, riveting and genuinely groundbreaking.
19. Kurt Vile – B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down
There’s nothing new in the constituent parts of Vile’s slacker-rock, but the way he puts them together is fresh and, somehow, funky. And in Pretty Pimpin’, he’s managed to turn a song that sounds like a Lynyrd Skynyrd demo into one of the tracks of the year.
18. Amanda Feery and Michael Tanner – To Run the Easting Down
Shimmering drones, haunted handbells, muffled piano, arrangements that border on sound collage – this is the most avant-garde album to fall under the ‘folk’ banner this year. Influenced more by LaMonte Young and John Cage than by traditional music, it is immersive, time-consuming stuff, but strangely accessible.
17. Belle and Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
It’s too big, and too much of a mixed bag, to be considered amongst their best work, but when it his the right note, it is a glorious proof that Stuart Murdoch can still come up with some of the best pop songs around.
16. Darren Hayman – Florence
Quiet, introspective and slightly jaded, Florence is one of Hayman’s strongest post-Hefner records. Here’s a review.
15. Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs
Few songwriters can structure a song as well as O’Rourke does. Even fewer do it with such apparent ease. The production on Simple Songs demands that you do a bit of digging before the tunes give up their secrets but the reward is mighty. Consummate stuff.
14. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
The intimate details might be too much for some, and there is no denying J. Tillman loves himself a bit too much, but we can forgive the former Fleet Fox for that. Honeybear is packed full of smart musical ideas and lyrical tricks, most of which come off. An album drenched in the sounds of 70s excess, but with a thoroughly modern, even post-modern, edge.
13. Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete
Following up the utterly incredible R Plus Seven was always going to be a tough ask for Daniel Lopatin, but he has achieved it by pressing the button marked ‘bonkers’ and bringing all his cleverness to to the table – along with his penchant for industrial metal, trance and digitised modern pop. Mad, but brilliant.
12. Trembling Bells – The Sovereign Self
Psychier and proggier than their previous work – elements of King Crimson and even Deep Purple rub shoulders with the old touchstones of Fairport Convention and Incredible String Band – Alex Neilson and co have crafted their most consistent and energetic record yet. They wear their influences lightly – there is nothing reactionary or reductionist about their music. Instead it sounds like the upgrade that folk rock was so much in need of.
11. Laura Cannell – Beneath Swooping Talons
Cannell uses ancient techniques – usually involving a fiddle or two simultaneously played recorders – to make music that seems at first to be all drones and dissonance, but contains vast, hidden pastoral depths and surprising melodies. It is bracing, elemental stuff.
10. Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again
This sounds like a lost relic from 1970, unearthed in some cabin in the California hills. The songs are melancholy, fleeting and beautiful, and Pratt’s idiosyncratic voice forms the words almost as if they are entirely new to her.
9. Björk – Vulnicura
The best thing she’s done since the incomparable Vespertine. While that album dealt with the possibilities of a new love, this one attempts to deal with the remains of a recently ended relationship. The Icelandic snow queen is at her blippy, bizarre best.
8. Yo La Tengo – Stuff Like That There
Mostly a covers album, but what a covers album. Great takes on the Parliaments and Sun Ra, among others, and the sprinkling of original material is stunning too.
7. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Simply the most exciting thing to happen in hip-hop for over a decade. There are ideas everywhere, and the delivery is stunning. There are constant nods to the history of African-American music, particularly jazz and funk, but the message is vibrant and forward-thinking.
6. Low – Ones and Sixes
Low have become one of those trustworthy bands who couldn’t make a substandard record if they tried. But this is a high point even for them, maybe their best record since C’mon, maybe even better than that. The guitars, as ever, are like walls of ice. The drums are like cracks in that ice. Low found their signature sound a while back, now they’ve perfected it.
5. Ezra Furman – Perpetual Motion People
A truly important piece of work addressing body image and identity, but also an album crammed full of fun, clever pop songs. Like the Violent Femmes with a conscience, or a punkier Dylan for a spunkier generation, or a postmodern Modern Lovers.
4. Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, Girl
Avant-garde Norwegian feminist pop anyone? This could go so wrong, but with Hval’s intelligent lyrics, cool delivery and some arty musical settings, it is so, so right. This is necessary, spirited political pop music, spearing capitalism and chauvinism equally mercilessly.
3. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Stevens’s most consistent album yet, and his most beautiful, shimmering and heartbreaking, deals mainly with the death of his mother. In the hands of lesser artists the theme could drag the listener down, but such is the lightness with which the most haunting lyrics are delivered that you get the feeling that hope and redemption are as certain as death and sadness.
2. Joanna Newsom – Divers
Newsom is still mesmerisingly clever and entirely unique. In years to come scholars will be dissecting her lyrics in the same way they do with those of Dylan, and practically no-one else. Musically she’s branched out a bit – the electric guitars on Leaving The City, for example – but at the root of it all is still that one-of-a-kind voice and the daring and complex way in which she constructs a song.
1. Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness
Holter is on a run of immaculate records. This one is less conceptual and more song-led than previous efforts, but the experimental and classical touches that define her are still present and correct. Melodies drift in and out of washes of sound. The effect is of a collection of dreamlike short stories whose meanings are glimpsed but remain just out of reach.