Favourite Albums of 2015: 10 – 6
There’s a lot of emphasis on Top Ten lists as a general indicator of quality: maybe it’s simply down to ten being a nice manageable number. Anyhow, I’d like to stress that all albums in this whole countdown are fantastic in my book, and even the ones that didn’t make the final stages of this list deserve their props. Without further ado, though, here are my penultimate favourites of 2015.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
From its very outset, the third album from Ruban Nielson’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra sounds as if it has been dipped in acid – though not the corrosive stuff. The aesthetic of Multi-Love is strikingly viscous; Nielson’s production buffs his instrumentals to a dull gleam, while also squeezing them together into a tight, densely-packed ensemble. The resultant sound is incredibly thick with detail, but the hooks shine through in brilliant displays of pop nous: the wooze and languor of psychedelia made punchy and instantaneous. With the dazed subject matter sliding in and out of focus around drug consumption, digital disconnection, and Nielson’s own polygamous relationship (which, as the lyrics would have it, rapidly churned into a colossal headfuck), the overall effect is intoxicating and mildly hallucinogenic. New melodies ping out of the mix from every angle, from the bait-and-switch beats of the title track to the shivering funk of ‘Can’t Keep Checking My Phone’, right through to the yowling political frustration present in ‘Puzzles’ (“is it wrong to have a zone that isn’t monochrome?”). Multi-Love is Nielson at his most trippy and terrific yet.
“It’s not that this song’s about her / All songs are about her.”
Natalie Prass (Spacebomb)
Natalie Prass’ eponymous album opens with ‘My Baby Don’t Understand Me’: a five-minute ballad of lovesickness that inexorably rolls towards a union’s disintegration. So many artists have sung of heartache that the risk of overegging the pudding with unpalatable clichés is always high. Refreshingly, between the spacious, clean arrangements of the Spacebomb house band and the singer’s soft but resolutely sturdy voice, Prass’ music makes a clean cut straight to the crux of love turned sour. There is drama, but it’s so carefully dealt that the emotions are given enough space to blossom. As Prass herself is aware, the real sadness of heartbreak is not in a full-stop, but in steady estrangement: the “long goodbye” she repeatedly references in ‘My Baby Don’t Understand Me’. The gently soulful arrangements (many of which nod to a Dusty Springfield era of blue-eyed soul) lend an air of timelessness to these songs, so that even when they are cosseted in more sugary instrumentation (as on the twinkling of ‘It is You’), they still captivate. Whether Prass’ voice is set to strutting Motown (‘Why Don’t You Believe in Me’, ‘Bird of Prey’) or mid-tempo orchestration (‘Never Over You’), her voice has a way of coaxing an earnestness from the atmosphere around her. When she asks “what do you do when that happens?”, she sounds genuinely lost, perfectly capturing the weightless, sick feeling of total uncertainty that overtakes when imminent heartbreak looms.
“Oh what do you do when that happens? / Where do you go when the only home that you know is with a stranger?”
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop)
Courtney Barnett expanded upon the success of The Double EP and its champion offering ‘Avant Gardener’ to deliver one of the most entertaining and idiosyncratic singer-songwriter records of the past decade. Barnett’s style is delightfully fresh in its tumbling, tongue-twisting vignettes, but also familiar in its droll, conversational earnestness, sounding like one of your best friends taking the mic at a slam poetry event. ‘Pedestrian at Best’ lets loose a deluge of disclaimers about the level of hyperbole Barnett has waded through, and is able to cut her critics off at the knees while also having fantastic shambolic fun with its grungy thrash. Elsewhere there are terrific punchlines and turns of phrase peppering the likes of ‘Elevator Operator’, ‘Dead Fox’ and ‘Debbie Downer’, all of which pack a short, sharp punch of lo-fi indie. Capping it off are the pearls of quiet poignancy in closer ‘Boxing Day Blues’ and the touching centrepiece ‘Depreston’. Inventive, charming, morbidly funny and remarkably observant, Barnett thoroughly deserves her status as one of 2015’s brightest icons.
“I can’t think of floorboards anymore / Whether the front room faces south or north / And I wonder what she bought it for.”
Have You in My Wilderness (Domino)
Even on her most immediately enjoyable recordings to date, there is a blurriness that consistently fogs the music of Julia Holter; the Los Angeles-based songwriter who soared to become one of 2015’s most acclaimed critics’ darlings. Musically, Holter’s fourth album is utterly gorgeous: delicate and gauzy in places, adventurous and untrammelled in others. And yet, it’s a whole that avoids easy pinpointing, thanks to her enigmatic lyricism and her restless proclivity for jumping from one style to another. Whatever meanings listeners tease out for themselves are hard-earned but ultimately unnecessary for the album to be appreciated and enjoyed: Holter’s is an enveloping, scented atmosphere where her commanding voice unfurls riddles which pick and scratch at the brain, yet whose final answers are somehow irrelevant. Many breakthrough albums of recent years are heralded as such when the artists in question fully realise their signatures and embody particular ideas, perspectives, and worlds with unfaltering commitment. On Have You in My Wilderness, Holter conversely registers a supreme joy at trying on different guises afresh with each new song, and in doing so, she has created something cryptic, malleable, and very, very beautiful, with character and elegance in abundance.
“I hear small words from the shore / No recognised pattern.”
No Cities to Love (Sub Pop)
Rock music powered by brute force so often collapses under the weight of its own self-importance or indulgence, with powerful intent swallowed up by cocksure posturing, endless yawnsome riffs, and sentiments so furiously obvious that they sound like snippets from a pre-teen’s diary. When delivered righteously, however, the elemental harmony of guitar, drums, and group vocals is near-impossible to resist. Sleater-Kinney had this sweet spot nailed throughout their original career until the mid-noughties, bowing out with the grand, dramatic The Woods, and with each member of the trinity retiring to other projects, from Carrie Brownstein’s Portlandia to Corin Tucker’s solo outings. Their surprise return as a team in January, though, was far from the sound of thrills reheated or a nostalgia joyride. No Cities to Love is as aggressive, purposeful, and hook-laden as any you’d expect from a group of snotty débutantes, but with so much more maturity and passion borne from Sleater-Kinney’s years of experience. From the fiery propulsion of exceptional opener ‘Price Tag’, the band stormed back in high gear for ten lean, mean, and on-point punk anthems, shedding the weight of a decade’s absence with the same effortlessness as one of Brownstein’s high-kicks. No Cities to Love transmits the fire of performance seamlessly: Janet Weiss’ ferociously-pummelled toms, the snaking guitar duets of Tucker and Brownstein, and above all, the righteous sense that there’s still work to be done. Great riffs are ten-a-penny, but you can’t fake chemistry as electrifying as this.
“No outline will ever hold us / It’s not a new wave, it’s just you and me.”
Posted on December 30, 2015, in End-of-Year Lists, The Music World and tagged Albums of 2015, Courtney Barnett, Have You in My Wilderness, Julia Holter, Michael Perry, Natalie Prass, No Cities to Love, Sleater-Kinney, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, Top Ten, Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.