Saturday, December 19, 2015

Year in Song - Best Records of 2015

Each year there seems to be more "end of year" best of charts than the last. "Album of the year" has gone to Sufjan Stevens, Kendrick Lamar, Julia Holter, Grimes, Tame Impala and Bjork on this side of the Atlantic. Holter managing to top the usually esoteric Piccadilly Records poll as well as the Uncut best of. High places for New Order, Jamie XX, Father John Misty and Courtney Barnett. Close observers will notice how few of these artists are British, which may be why the obscure Benjamin Clementine topped the Mercury Prize. Also, a quick check across the pond and the top 4 on Pitchfork are all on the list of albums above, with Tame Impala number one. We can honestly say that the Pitchfork-isation of British music is now complete. I suspect this is the inheritance of a generation who voted for "Automatic for the People" and "OK Computer" as the best albums of all time.

How tasteful they all are! I've yet to hear the Bjork album, but wonder if it can ever be as good as "Post" or "Homogenic", respectively her angriest and best records, whilst I picked up Holter based on these recommendations and its not really forced its way on to my record player as much as a true classic surely would. This is also the year I didn't get the Fall album when it was released. "Sub Lingual Tablet" having some great tracks but also some throwaways.

Although I've probably spent more time listening to catalogue music than ever before there's been a clutch of new albums that I've liked for various reasons.

Great name, great band. I'm frankly amazed this album wasn't in everyone's top ten. It's lively, loud, fun and in its own way, pop. Short stabs of guitar led energy, with enough sonic difference to make this much more than just another indie album. I saw them live in a tiny venue at the ever reliable Sounds from the Other City and they were a highlight of the day.

My friend Julie Campbell's second album "Hinterland" was a revelation - literally so, as she'd kept these songs from us until they started filtering out last Christmas. The album is a near perfect selection, with the "singles" "Bunkerpop" and "Groove it Out", complemented by the immense title track - but not a single filler to be found. She's been able to tour the album to ever bigger crowds during the year  and the songs just keep sounding better. It made a fair showing in a number of best of the year lists, and got great reviews, but the fact that it didn't get the ubiquity of Jamie XX and others, probably indicates how little attached to any prevalent zeitgeist it is - sounding perilously modern and quirkily retro.

I saw these ex-Egyptian Hip-hoppers last year at SFTOC but the album slipped out to indifference earlier this year. No idea why, as it seems to fuse that Cocteau Twins/shoegaze classic sound to an inventive electronica far better than most. Maybe the album's a little lightweight in parts, but I keep coming back to it, and its best songs are superb.

Whilst their debut album "Girls Like Us" had a killer title track and managed to translate their just formed live energy into a frenetic suite of pop-punk, "Wild Nights" is a more considered and accomplished affair - but whereas girl bands in the past have sometimes brushed up, added a musical lipgloss and lost some of their brio as they hit the charts, the route Manchester's PINS have taken was a different one. Garage band turned surf-pop, whilst the fun and exuberance remains. In a more sensible world "Wild Nights" would have soundtracked the summer (it soundtracked mine) but of course our summer was one of those touch-and-go ones where you were lucky to manage more than one al fresco drink before the rain came down. Another SFTOC alumni (a pattern emerging here) they are still playing a wide mix of venues, and were a great support for Wire earlier in the year. Still emerging, but still fantastic.

Their 3rd "proper" album, I saw them live in the autumn playing to much larger crowds and teetering on the edge of possible parody as the students and beer boys swelled the audience - yet they were still pretty mesmerising, and the reason is that the songs on this album were as good as the ones we know and love. The tumult of lyrics matches Mark E. Smith at his finest, whilst the taut beats, just a backing tape on stage, fizz out of the speakers in the living room. Despite the contemporary nature of their lyrics in Cameron's Britain, its the oddball tracks like "Tarantula Deadly Cargo" which set them apart. John Lennon once said he wanted his albums to be like newspapers, before coming up with his weakest album, "Some Time in New York City" - Sleaford Mods are like newspapers, but as likely to be the sports pages or the Fortean Times as a Daily Mirror op ed.

John Grant's "Queen of Denmark" became an unexpected pleasure and the songs were strong enough to dominate his excellent live album with the  BBC Phil last year. Second solo album "Pale Green Ghosts" ditched the alt country stylings of Midlake for some more electronica, and was enjoyable, well regarded, but didn't grab me as much. His third album is the most out of kilter record from a semi-major artist all year. No surprise, really, as he's moved to Iceland, announced to the world that he's HIV positive, and is the wonderful sound of a great artist doing whatever he wants. It's strange, unsettling, beautiful, and sonically the year's most fascinating record.

This album came out with every cover a "unique" one. Marketing gimmicks sometimes indicate something to hide, and perhaps this didn't quite have the success of their previous records, but I loved it. Probably my favourite electronic-inclined album of the year with just a great feel all the way through, and full of good songs.

At over 70  minutes its too long, but Janet Jackson's return is also a return to form, working with Jam and Lewis again, it sounds as immaculate as you'd expect - her voice is fantastic and seems such a different instrument than so many of the soul divas we hear nowadays. My favourite Jackson track was always the pillow whispering of "Let's Wait Awhile" and there's still a sense that she understands the dynamics (and the dynamics of the love song) better than most. If it tails off towards the end, there's enough to like in the first three quarters of the album to make it a genuine contender. With her brother gone, and neither Madonna or Prince at their best on recent albums, its good to see one eighties superstar still making a great record.

I don't remember Sleater Kinney being such a darling of mainstream critics when they were around first time, being definitely a cult band even when their mesmerising final album "The Woods" came out. This return perhaps lacked the strangeness of that album but brought the energy of their earlier work to the fore, in a powerful blast of playful, energetic noise. They even got a place on Jools Holland, the UK's own music heritage programme, but like Sleaford Mods, sounded too good for that haven of the middlebrow. Its a great rock record, which in 2015, where such beasts were rare, was reason enough for it to be lauded. 

"Uptown Funk" dominated the year (alongside Taylor Swift - both came out last year however), so perhaps the album was never going to be quite as big a success. Any doubts that Ronson is a magpie rather than originator probably went out the window with "Uptown Funk" itself, but the album is a veritable jukebox. Its also a great fun party record, with that track still likely to be on rotate as long as their are cocktail bars and hen parties. I like the album alot - in a year that mainstream pop became ever more in the model of Max Martin etc. and where a certain timorously thin pop-soul a la Ed Sheeran/Justin Beiber dominated the charts - it was a record that even old duffers like me could get behind.

So that's 10 for now - with some time over Xmas I'm sure I'll maybe add a couple of others I haven't yet got round to listening to or remember one I bought but had forgotten.


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