Category Archives: End-of-Year Lists
Album of the Year
Not Even Happiness
One of the symptoms of an album becoming a favourite of mine is how protective and selfish I start to feel about it. I’m not alone in this sensation of course; there are some works of art that connect on such a level that you wonder if anybody else quite appreciates just how much they mean to you. For me, Julie Byrne’s Not Even Happiness is one such album: there were definitely times at which I would privately insist that this record struck a specific connection with me alone, even as I shared discussions, listens, and live shows of its material with friends and fellow fans. Amid the chaos and the longueurs and the near-overwhelming cynicism of 2017, it became the album I most wanted to reach for in times of light and dark; the rock in the choppy seas of a year that never fully relented.
I assess and reassess my opinions all the time. Days, months, years later, I come back and reconsider my preferences in lists like these. I missed a lot of albums this year as it is, but I’m aware that even among those I did give time to, there are arguably more ambitious, creative, and timely records than Not Even Happiness. But this is the one I love more than any other. Within its half-hour span, I’ve found musical and emotional nourishment that still has me glowing in awe of and in gratitude for its creator.
I suppose that more than anything else, I’ve found a lot of comfort in Not Even Happiness. Not comfort in the “easy listening” sense, but because its marriage of words and music – and the expressions thereof – resonate so directly. I find something extraordinarily beautiful in the sound of this woman, playing her father’s guitar, singing of “seeking God within” as she navigates various states of impermanence, self-imposed and otherwise. In sound, the album is as crisp as a breeze rolling across a plain, the production rendering these songs in crystal-clear panoramas in which Byrne’s gorgeous voice hovers like a beacon. The stray instrumental embellishments here and there are lovely, from the pillowy, airy synthesisers of ‘I Live Now as a Singer’ to the flutes that bookend ‘Melting Grid’, but there’s little required beyond Byrne’s voice and her flickering fingerpicking to keep me enthralled.
In its structuring, Not Even Happiness brings to mind a written essay, one that’s meandering but never pauses to prattle. Comparatively speaking, it’s slight yet perfectly formed, every element in its brief runtime resting in a comfortable balance, aligned in style and concept without sounding meticulously engineered to the point of coldness. As these nine songs progress, and Byrne orbits ideas of solitude, travel, love and questing both geographically and spiritually, her writing recalls works such as Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse. That these works also hone in on travel as a key theme is another thing entirely, but I’m reminded more of how these writers produce works that drift along seamlessly, organised loosely around a central theme but touching astutely on various philosophies, micro and macro.
It’s in this way that Byrne lets her thoughts unfurl, composed in numerous junctures during her time spent touring the United States. She is fascinated by and beholden to the constant transience her career as a musician has placed her in, and she gazes at her physical and mental surroundings not in disenfranchisement but in wonder, with the occasional tinge of melancholy or weariness. ‘Sleepwalker’ is the most revealing entry in this regard, Byrne singing from a place of sorrow but not one of self-pity. “I travelled only in service of my dreams,” she states, tussling with previous beliefs that to become attached to another is too dicey a prospect in her circumstances. “Before you, had I ever known love?” she asks. Then: “or had I only known misuse of the power another had over me?”
She crosses the country, keyless and open-eyed, searching not for personal revelations but for equanimity as she goes. Sometimes it is enough to feel liberated in her nomadic state, gratefully observing the splendour of the cities and the people she passes by, whereas at others, her reveries come with pangs. Solitude is one thing, loneliness another, and in treading the ground between the two, Byrne finds exquisite reserves of feeling: “will I know a truer time / Than when I stood alone in the snow / And the moon was in the sky and it shone / And all the land glimmered beneath”. On ‘Follow My Voice’, she sings in falsetto that “to me this city’s hell / But I know you call it home”, and emphasises with sadness but no regret that “I’ve been called heartbreaker / For doing justice to my own”. Her journey is unselfishly her own, and it’s a beautiful thing to follow.
Gentle pockets of wisdom are scattered throughout Not Even Happiness, but it’s clear Byrne understands she is no oracle. Even when making peace with the changes and compromises her choices have wrought upon her life, there is still much that mystifies and eludes her in this world. She closes the album with an open question: “shall I be ever near the edge of your mystery?” Yet while she may not know all there is, she places her faith in the sublime, confident that natural wonders will continue to give her solace no matter where she travels or what she experiences. At the heart of the album, ‘Natural Blue’ most directly articulates this idea. I am constantly stirred by Byrne’s repeated mantra on this song, offered between wordless sighs and an aching string arrangement: a touchingly simple and powerful ode to the everyday phenomena that can leave us humbled and moved beyond belief.
On Not Even Happiness, Byrne is so effective at communicating these thoughts and emotions with poise and intimacy, and I’m grateful to have had it as a companion in 2017, wherever I have been. As winter took hold, I was lucky enough to see Byrne perform at London’s Union Chapel with one of my best friends. Sat in the pews, cradling mugs of hot chocolate with our feet slowly thawing from the cold, we and the hundreds present watched and listened so raptly, the atmosphere was one of hushed and hallowed awe. After the show, I got to meet Julie at the back of the hall, and she signed my copy of Not Even Happiness with a line from Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘Morning’: “if there is a place further from me, I beg you do not go”. Fittingly, this is an album I haven’t wanted to stray far from for quite some time. I treasure it like no other album of the past year.
“Follow my voice. I am right here.”
A round of applause for one last selection of five albums I’ve loved this year; some of the most emotionally resounding, aurally sublime, and addictively listenable records of 2017. Not all of them are made for comfortable listening, but all deserve high praise by my reckoning, especially considering the gruelling circumstances that several of these artists had to undergo in bringing their works out into the light.
Turn Out the Lights
“It stopped me in my tracks” is such a clunky expression. Like most clichés, it’s old, it’s tired, and it only seems to exist as a filler phrase, deployed without any honest gravity. But also like most clichés, while it’s hokey 99% of the time, there can quite unexpectedly come a moment when it suddenly lands a direct hit, the meaning behind it fitting the sentiment exactly. Julien Baker’s second album genuinely stopped me in my tracks: playing Turn Out the Lights for the first time was one of those holy shit, put down your tools and just FUCKING LISTEN experiences that left me in awe.
Baker’s raw, expressive voice, the intimate braiding of piano and guitar, the repeated structures of build and release; these are all touchstones of confessional songwriting, as familiar as the clichés mentioned above, but as it has always been, it’s how you breathe life into your words that proves the vitality therein. The songs on Turn Out the Lights are raw and unflinching, Baker’s lyrics placed with purpose rather than to fill blank spaces. Her agonies are her own yet are communicated relatably, circling rejection and nebulous distance – from a friend, from a lover, from God. She scrutinises, dismisses and pleads for her own self-worth, and keeps glancing her past struggles in the rear-view on her quest. Substance abuse, broken bonds and residual guilt are demons that never fully disappear when they exist in unforgettable memories, and these are songs not of redemption, but of continuous reckoning: no person is complete or comfortable forever. Through Baker’s translations of her own emotional state, her words – delivered in that steely voice – expand to provide listeners with a surrogate of uncommon acuity. “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright,” she wonders aloud. “I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is. I have to believe that it is.”
“The harder I swim the faster I sink.”
A spectacular leap forward after the promising Pure Heroine, Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s second album as Lorde exceeds all expectations, which were admittedly mixed to begin with. The hype was intimidatingly tangible and potentially destructive, and with O’Connor catapulted from suburban disenfranchisement (reckon she still hasn’t seen a diamond in the flesh?) to rubbing shoulders with Taylor Swift and pals (cough), it was hard to imagine Melodrama escaping the fate of so many difficult second albums.
Mercifully it does, and by quite a distance. This is one of the most enjoyable, accessible, and pristinely packaged LPs of the year; a suite of songs that are thematically, emotionally and sonically entwined with a hit rate that never dips, even as risks are taken (Kate Bush-league vocal leaps, sudden house pianos, a chorus that spells out “loveless” letter by letter) and the lyrics flirt with the stuff of first world problems. The latter are arguably unavoidable at this stage, but O’Connor keeps her head screwed on; she’s not in this to rack up sad emojis, but to mine the emotional whirly-dirly of jettisoning one’s teenage years with sympathy, frankness, and a splash of withering self-effacement.
O’Connor’s presence is magnetic. Throughout Melodrama she’s confident in a broader range of tones, her voice and her wordplay sharper and more focused than they were four years ago. Her knack for a snappy observation is constantly primed, whether she’s catching bitter glimpses of a past flame (“she thinks you love the beach / You’re such a damn liar”), or savouring her sweetheart, psychopathic crushes (“we’re the greatest / They’ll hang us in the Louvre / Down the back, but who cares? / Still the Louvre”). Between finding comfort in herself (the sublime ‘Liability’) to understanding – and appreciating – that hedonistic recklessness is a mere distraction from her insecurity (‘Sober’, ‘Perfect Places’), Melodrama chronicles not what fame has done to Lorde, but what she’s able to do with her fame, growing as an artist and a woman rather than getting chewed up along the industry’s assembly line. Having tackled teenage ennui and the messy mood swings of her early twenties, there’s plenty of fertile ground for her to cover in the future. It’ll be the property ladder and credit ratings next, just you wait.
“It’s just another graceless night.”
Mike Hadreas has been plagued with bigots, homophobes and haters his whole life. Earlier Perfume Genius records were rife with trauma, chronicling the despair of Hadreas’ life as an outcast in the throes of drug addiction and Crohn’s disease, not to mention the horrific prejudices that at times endangered his life. As his musical career has progressed, it’s been nothing short of exhilarating to see him begin to strut in defiance, from the quivering anger of Learning to the swaggering confidence he flaunted on Too Bright. His fourth full-length release is his boldest and most aurally dazzling of all; a hurricane of emotional and stylistic expressions that defines straightforward labelling, but one that is rousing from start to finish.
Producer Blake Mills deserves props for how incredible No Shape sounds. As Hadreas strides with aplomb through a genre pick-n-mix, Mills renders everything with crystalline precision. The deafening explosion of electronic glitter that punctures ‘Otherside’, the cathedral-friendly strings that aggravate ‘Choir’, the insouciant jam of ‘Sides’ with its terrific Weyes Blood back-and-forth; Mills captures it all in rich, sensuous clarity. What is exposed is an abundance of feeling, Hadreas’ emotional onslaughts given spectacular musical foils that range from the refined to the decadent, but bookending the jumble of No Shape are two pockets of genuine happiness. ‘Slip Away’ is a pounding race towards an ecstatic profession of unity that flies in the face of the oppressors (“they’ll never break the shape we take”), and ‘Alan’ is a heavenly ode to Hadreas’ long-time musical and romantic partner Alan Wyffels. In a discography – and a life – so upsettingly weighted with despondency and social stigma, these are moments to be cherished, and across the No Shape, the hard-won beauty of Hadreas’ arc and creativity is stunning.
“I want to feel the days go by / Not stack up.”
Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels 3
Back in September, I wondered if there would be a more compulsively listenable record than Run the Jewels 3 arriving anytime soon. Four months and a new calendar sheet later, I’m still waiting. El-P and Killer Mike’s third mission statement is baggier than its predecessors but just as blisteringly great; a rap epic that leans into the duo’s strengths as they relish the opportunity to dole out more phenomenal bars steeped in righteous fury and kush-scented camaraderie, laying down their testaments with the verve and energy of fiery upstarts. Assisted by an impressive roster of comrades-in-arms (Danny Brown, Zack de la Rocha and Kamasi Washington taking primary positions), Run the Jewels’ third is scaled-up and sharp, sounding thick and muscular from first to last.
Killer Mike has been the stronger – and more politically active – of the two personalities since before he and El-P hooked up, and he continues to lead the charge with some of the finest and most impassioned diatribes of his career. Yet his partner isn’t overshadowed this time, continuing to raise his game to match Mike’s mastery. El-P shines on RTJ3, both in his spectacular efforts as producer and beatmaker (seriously, the sounds on this album are ridiculous in all the right ways) and as a rapper. He sounds so much more at ease in his flows now than he did on the duo’s first team-up, and when the two emcees weave around one another with ardent ferocity as they do on ‘2100’ and ‘Everybody Stay Calm’, nobody holds a candle to their unstoppable charisma. The bruising one-two punch of ‘Down’ and ‘Talk to Me’ sets the bar for the rollercoaster to follow: hypocrites, tyrants, and Presidents are raked over hot coals, tributes are paid to departed idols and friends, dystopias within sight are surveyed with impassioned cries to rail against what could be. Getting to hear El-P and Killer Mike booming through some of these cuts at Primavera Sound was an easy high-point of my 2017, and going into 2018, the shine’s still not off this gem. The jewel runners reign supreme: the top tag team for another summer, at least.
“Dad, Uncle El, stay gold.”
A Crow Looked at Me
For four years running, without zero intention on my part, my second-favourite album of the year (at each time of writing) has been one formed in the shadow of death. Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell, Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree. Death is the centrifuge for these works, each artist having processed and been affected by it in a manners that are naturally very different and incredibly nuanced, their albums wracked with emotional turmoil. All three are inimitable works of humanism and spirit, but also of art.
A Crow Looked at Me is different. Phil Elverum’s document of his wife’s death and its immediate aftermath is not art – the singer admits as much in the first seconds of ‘Real Death’. While it remains a cornerstone theme in art and performance across all mediums, when death actually touches one’s own experience, in those real, immediate moments that are endured, it’s not an experience for art or measured thought. “All poetry is dumb,” Elverum states plainly. “Someone’s there and then they’re not.” In A Crow Looked at Me, he reports exactly what he goes through, with barely a trace of analysis, artistic projection or delusions of meaning. He tries to take care of his infant daughter. He throws out his wife’s detritus – her toothbrushes and her tissues. He receives items in the mail that she ordered before dying. He gets spooked, he gets bored, he breaks down at sudden moments. He begins to feel photos overtaking real moments: “the actual experience of you here, I can feel those memories escaping.” There is no filter on any of this, and as you’d expect, it’s tough. But living through the death of a loved one is tough, and for the overwhelming majority, it’s inevitable.
Concluding with one of the most haunting final lines ever put to record, A Crow Looked at Me is almost unbearably sad and difficult to look in the eye, let alone discuss at length. But by following Elverum’s commentary, it’s a listening experience that I’m grateful for: a report from a dark state that none of us ever want to comprehend, but one that we are likely to one day know: the numbness, the pain, the frustration, the vast and unthinkable loss. A Crow Looked at Me is not beautiful or devastating or cathartic. It’s a document, and one from which the listener looks at the world with fresh eyes. It seems more desolate, but a little clearer, too.
“I don’t want to learn anything from this. I love you.”
Album of the Year
Everybody experiences ★ differently. Naturally, there is consensus to be found in the obvious places, where criticisms overlap in the adulation and recognition of particular aspects of the album. But David Bowie and his music made such a personal impression on each listener: his presence was so huge, so totemic, meaning so much to so many in different ways, that his final work – and how his death irrevocably factors into it – affects its audience with myriad permutations. As such, we can only approach ★ with our own individual perspectives. There is so often a general temptation to give an artist too much credit in thinking that they have specifically planned and engineered audience reactions from the start, but in truth, most are simply smart enough to know how much space to leave in their work. Bowie was such an artist, and ★ is no less forward-thinking than his other masterpieces.
I am writing this piece exactly a year on from the man’s death, and I can remember the strangely vertiginous reaction I felt when the news reached me. Losing Bowie seemed unthinkable, more so than any other cultural icon. Even when he wasn’t present at the forefront of culture (or present at all, such as the lengthy period of silence preceding The Next Day), he still felt like an unconquerable and indispensable part of the world we understood. We relied on him, even if we didn’t directly acknowledge it. From the announcement of his death, throughout the entirety of 2016, I struggled to get past it, and specifically, I couldn’t get past ★. There have been other albums whose circumstances of release have irrevocably altered how they are heard, and 2016 alone seemed to offer more than its fair share (You Want it Darker, Skeleton Tree, HOPELESSNESS). But ★ is singular in its effect.
Trying to fully grasp that Bowie knew he was dying during the album’s creation is a challenge. For one thing, the energy alone that this undertaking must have demanded is mind-boggling to consider, and beyond this there is the haunting matter of how Bowie approached his looming mortality and channeled it into his music. Self-aware references to his own state and outright farewells poke out of the album with each listen, and some of the additional coincidences of its lyrics are just too much to process (“where the fuck did Monday go?”, we all gasped along with ‘Girl Loves Me’ on the 11th January). It’s too significant to dismiss the fact that ★ faces down death, but in pursuing this intense artistic vision, Bowie sounded reinvigorated to a degree unheard since his 1970s zenith.
Recruiting Donny McCaslin and a team of boundary-trampling jazz musicians yielded dazzling collaborative results that would have blown minds even if the context of the album was of little note. The music of ★ is magisterial and adventurous: a restless and excited leap into bold territory that pays dividends for the attentive listener. The assembled group complement Bowie’s focus perfectly, nailing an intensity and kinetic force that is guided with precision by the steady hands of Tony Visconti. I get goosebumps at every bump and stab of ‘Lazarus’ alone: the tremble in Bowie’s voice as he cries “look up here, man / I’m in danger”, the slicing guitars that punctuate the verses. Most powerful of all is the dramatic, terrifying ascension of McCaslin’s saxophone, relentlessly building to a feverish apex before a dizzying tumble back to darkness. If we choose to understand ★ as an exploration of death, then ‘Lazarus’ is its gravest dispatch.
But in a beautiful subversion of conventional expectations, Bowie never once sounds maudlin or self-pitying. Even in staring down death, he exhibits that characteristic playfulness that ran through even his most avant-garde outings. The unsettling moods of ★ are counterbalanced with Bowie’s nose-thumbing glee and occasional lapses into pure whimsy. “I’m the Great, I am!” he brags delightfully during the title track, slipping a few wisecracks into the song’s mantra as he goes (“I’m not a gangster”, “I’m not a flam star”, “I’m not a porn star”). It alludes to the zest for life and music that powered ★, and by God, it makes for wonderful listening. Teaming up with old and new faces alike one more time was a clear source of excitement for Bowie, and his exaltation to work alongside such talents is palpable on the magnificent ‘’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’. (Apologies, but I have to break from pseudo-professionalism for a second. Fuck me, what a song this is.) The track is irrepressibly alive: Mark Guiliana’s pounding propulsion, the increasingly chaotic squalls of McCaslin’s sax, those gorgeous, brief twinkles of keys that give the verses a starry-eyed wonder. And then there are the lyrics: a jumble of weird, funny-dark imagery (“Black struck the kiss / She kept my cock”) before Bowie abandons words altogether and just screams in exhilaration.
The album’s moody centre is adventurous in a different fashion: the frantic, heavy groove of ‘Sue (In a Season of Crime)’ and the intoxicatingly sinister nonsense of ‘Girl Loves Me’ bear witness further to the passion Bowie poured into his last studio efforts, before ‘Dollar Days’ finally brings ★ to its stunningly emotional conclusion. ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ is the perfect ending to an album, and to a life’s work. There will surely be more songs exhumed and released in the years to come (as ‘No Plan’ was only a few days ago), but ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ is Bowie’s final farewell, curated by the man himself. A beautiful, tender and brilliant work of songwriting, it earns its beaming, unfussy sentimentality as Bowie throws everything into his vocal performance, his rallying partners giving ★ its final, triumphant push towards the stars. And then it – and Bowie – is gone.
For all that ★ is filled with life, its subject is death, and across the album, Bowie confronts it with various attitudes: with fear, with defiance, with humour. Above all, however, he meets it with the same spirit of adventure that was the constant throughout his career, whether the results were adored, panned, or shrugged off. It’s testament not just to Bowie’s artistry, but to his own strength and personality that his final work matches the vigour of his very finest albums. We all view it differently, and for me personally, ★ is more than a masterpiece, and occupies a wholly unique place in the canon of recorded music.
It may only have been a year since ★ was released, but I have no doubt that it will continue to resonate as powerfully through the coming decades as it does currently. No matter the milieu, in times of joy, strife, optimism, and need, I will always lean on the music and the mythos of David Bowie. The man himself may have left the mortal world, but we need never say goodbye to the eternal art he gifted it. In his life and works, wherever he went and whatever he did, Bowie was always our spaceman, our adventurer, our great explorer of sound, style, life and more. Our Blackstar.
“Ain’t that just like me?”
A Seat at the Table
Solange Knowles worked on A Seat at the Table in fits and starts through the eight years preceding its completion, and consequently, there’s a lot to unpack in the finished product. “I’ve got a lot to be mad about,” she makes clear early on, and the tensions and injustices she has felt and witnessed as a black woman propel the entire album. And yet, her anger is channelled into a search for redemption rather than aggressive diatribes: a calm flipside to her sister’s Lemonade, and a moving celebration of black lives and culture that argues for belonging above all else. A Seat at the Table is a fitting title for a record that sounds so inviting: it welcomes its audience to the discussion, its anecdotes and manifestos detailed with grace and patience.
‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ is the kind of protest song that resembles an open palm rather than a clenched fist, its force radiating without the need for dramatics. The same goes for its peers: ‘Cranes in the Sky’ and ‘F.U.B.U.’ firmly push against the bigotry and hypocrisy Solange and so many others are victims to, while remaining admirably open-hearted and generous in spirit. The sound is absolutely wonderful: laced with tasteful touches of Motown and soft funk, A Seat at the Table is heaped with earworms that flutter and snap alongside these celebrations of the self. Solange pitches her tone with fine precision, balancing her steely proclamations with joyous forays into liberating movement – not least on the effervescent ‘Junie’. There’s a lot to be proud about, too: when her mother venerates “the beauty of being black” during one interlude, her plainspoken honesty gets to the warmth at the core of her daughter’s album.
“I hope my son will bang this song so loud / That he almost makes his walls fall down.”
For several years, Angel Olsen’s talent has been in bloom for all to hear, but My Woman is undoubtedly a significant leap forward. No longer the preserve of alt-rock magpies, she has delivered the vigorous pop record that her music previously hinted towards, but seemed to shy away from. She hasn’t abandoned her signatures in compromise, but rather has embellished and fortified them further: the emotional charge is ramped up rather than watered down, and her zeal fills every note, whether her voice is trembling with vulnerability or raw with intensity. Olsen shows more of herself than ever before as both singer and songwriter: whether she’s howling through ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ or crooning dreamily as she does in the blissful ‘Those Were the Days’, her presence is generously multifaceted.
On an album that merges her folk and grunge trademarks with soulful deliveries and country pep, Olsen’s nous is apparent through the smoothness of the whole. Intentionally sequenced as an album of two halves, My Woman fits together perfectly, the winding jams of the latter side sounding like the natural comedown after the emotional expenditure of the album’s opening salvo. Her techniques as a songwriter are consistent, but she employs them to admirably inventive effect: where the guitar crescendos on ‘Not Gonna Kill You’ forcibly burst out of the song’s fabric, on the spectacular ‘Sister’, the build is akin to seeing fireworks launched in slow-motion: a revelatory moment of wide-eyed wonder that suits Olsen’s own ascension.
“All my life I thought I’d change.”
Channel Orange was far from simple in its constitution, but Blonde is thick with content to such a degree that a full analysis could easily fill a book. There is so much to be derived from its density that it invites patience and investment, coaxing its listeners into blurry, headier places than Frank Ocean’s previous full-lengths. Even if this less straightforward approach makes for a less gratifying listen than the slicker R&B of old, Ocean’s supreme knack for melody keeps Blonde welcoming. ‘Pink + White’, ‘Godspeed’, ‘Self Control’, ‘White Ferrari’: these tracks aren’t always forthright in their hooks, but the care of construction has yielded handsome results that make repeat plays appealing. ‘Solo’ is as rich in meaning as any other cut, but Ocean’s grasp and control of melody and flow elevate the song into a heavenly experience. Even based around minimal tools, ‘Nights’ sounds like a full feast of ideas; an impressive transformation from an anthemic montage of “everyday shit” to a coda of lounge soul, via a sequence of videogame guitar licks.
Blonde presents an opus of life’s makeup through fast years and rough hours. There are narcoleptic hazes (“skipping showers and switching socks / Sleeping good and long”), sudden jitters and outbursts (as nailed by André 3000), stark poetry (“weed crumbles into glitter”) and eloquently-expressed pangs of very modern fear and exhaustion. Ocean acknowledges that he is expected to be a spokesman, but Blonde connects with its broad span of followers by withdrawing into the intensely personal, as in Ocean’s reference to Trayvon Martin. It’s a tiny glimpse at an individual reaction: a haunting gut-punch rather than a polemic.
So often on Blonde, Ocean works magic by hitching deeply complex thoughts to the most mellifluous tunes. His formidable hit-rate would make such accomplishments seem effortless, were it not for the four-year gestation that alludes to the hard graft at this music’s core. This album presents a challenge to Ocean’s peers and listeners alike to match the ambition of his own creativity: a demand that we all raise our game to suit works of this intricacy and power.
“Want to see nirvana but don’t want to die yet.”
Car Seat Headrest
Teens of Denial
Whoever you are, if you’re in your twenties – or at the very least, can recall those hard knots of bewilderment and confusion that pierced (and possibly defined) your twenties – then you absolutely need this album. It’s essential. Coming across as a short story collection written with wit and candour, it’s a painfully acute opus set to subtly inventive lo-fi thrills. Will Toledo is no guitar hero, but his second major label album with Car Seat Headrest is thoroughly inspiring. The basic struts of garage rock are present and correct, but they’re dismantled and reassembled with dynamism belying the slacker-band languor Car Seat Headrest are audibly in thrall to. In seventy minutes, not a single hook fails to land.
But it’s Toledo who takes precedence, surrendering feelings towards himself from the very start: “if I was split in two, I would just take my fists / So I could beat up the rest of me”. From this sunny opening, Toledo eloquently stumbles from one ill-fated scenario to another: sobbing after a shakedown with some cops, screaming through an onset of social anxiety during a gig, trying not to piss his pants during a disappointing drug trip. Teens of Denial is brimful of honesty, hilarity, bewilderment and pathos, bound up in these unfortunate anecdotes that are joyous to hear. Toledo may shrug his way through some of these commentaries, but the lion’s share of them contain genuinely profound observations that stick as fast as the riffery. More ambitious and balanced than 2015’s Teens of Style, Teens of Denial lives up to its delightful song titles and then some. “You haven’t tried hard enough to like it”? It’s impossible to adore this album enough.
“Good people give good advice / Get a job, eat an apple, it’ll work itself out.”
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Nick Cave’s sixteenth studio album with the Bad Seeds is an unequivocal masterpiece. It’s a wrenchingly sad, haunting, and courageous work from a veteran who revealed a whole new depth of personal and artistic mettle in its creation. Questions regarding what aspects of Skeleton Tree were completed before and after Arthur Cave’s death are hard to dispel, but ultimately, they are rendered irrelevant by a work throughout which the weight of grief, pain and loss is articulated with devastating potency.
On these eight songs, Cave peers into the inky blackness of his imagination, sifting through lurid memories and conjuring surrealist imagery of slow-moving dread. The stalwart Bad Seeds match the desolate subject matter with brooding and eerie soundscapes, on which conventional choruses are few and far between. These songs unspool in oppressive clouds of rumbling distortion and disquieting flickers of noise. ‘Rings of Saturn’ hints towards gorgeousness but consistently retreats, the singer “too tongue-tied to drink it up and swallow back the pain”. The trembles in his voice contribute to the effect of the whole: the stony tone he adopts suggests his deeper anguish is shelled away, but there are times when this protective layer cracks and the monstrous emotional flood begins to pour out. The album’s final stretch is equally agonising and delicate. ‘I Need You’ is almost impossible to stomach as Cave’s relentless refrains become choked with yearning: his wail of “I will miss you when you’re gone” must have been unbearable to witness in the studio. Yet ‘Distant Sky’ and the title track combine to form a touchingly human coda to the sorrows that came before: pleas to let go of the suffering while nurturing the love that we are able to carry further.
In many of these songs, Cave calls out beseechingly into the abyss, and receives no answer. By the album’s end, he hasn’t found peace, but has steadied himself enough to reach a resolution of sorts, albeit a fragile, irrevocably altered one. Skeleton Tree may be forever haunted by its shatteringly tragic context, but ultimately, the music herein is of such power that it is magisterial in of itself. It’s an album I won’t forget: its abstract articulations of pain and grief beyond imagining are profoundly disturbing, but that same despair bears forth a terribly unique beauty.
“You believe in God / But you get no special dispensation for this belief now.”
Christine and the Queens
Chaleur Humaine technically counts as an album of 2014, but Héloïse Letissier’s crossover into UK success seemed to come when we Brits needed it most, as if to prove that not every cultural trend in 2016 had to come loaded with shady subtext. Witnessing her accelerated rise to fame since the release of a translated edition of her début has been joyous, her refreshingly spacious take on dance- and synth-pop matched note-for-note by a thumping heartbeat. Chaleur Humaine is an album of self-appreciation beyond Letissier’s own pansexuality: these songs cohere around her own arc of embracing herself, while simultaneously reaching out and inviting others to do the same. Underpinning it all, these are slick and concise pop songs, written (and translated, with varying degrees of faithfulness) with care but without fussiness: the truths are presented clearly and coolly, without recourse to melodrama. This inclusive and unpretentious brand of music was a heartfelt delight for many this year, and only a stone-faced bastard would begrudge Letissier the acclaim she has received. “I am actually good” she presses on the now-ubiquitous ‘Tilted’, and she’s right in so many ways.
“I’m in my right place / Don’t be a downer.”
A Moon Shaped Pool
If you really do want to, you can go snooping through A Moon Shaped Pool – and everything in its orbit – in attempts to dredge up evidence to validate the recent gossip (is it their last? Does it hint at what’s coming next? What of Thom Yorke’s marriage?), but there are times when burrowing down rabbit-holes is a pointless exercise. With Radiohead albums, there has occasionally been the risk that the more obsessive fans can’t see the wood for the trees, and while I’m in no doubt that plenty of significance is buried within these eleven tracks, simply listening to them as they are makes for a gorgeous experience.
Really, the true appeal of A Moon Shaped Pool is the music itself: this haunting hodgepodge of tunes, many of which have finally found a home after years of floating about on the peripheries (rare live footage, muddy demos, general rumours from one album drop to the next). They may not sit alongside one another in a way that brings cohesion to the whole, but the collection has scooped up beautiful oddities like ‘Decks Dark’, and demonstrates the breadth of Radiohead’s forward-thinking prowess as it shifts from the throbbing intensity of ‘Ful Stop’ to the steely rallying cry of ‘The Numbers’. While the album largely laps in dreamlike opalescence, the overall sense one gathers from it is that of restlessness: the sound of a group still not settling into an easily-defined routine. Radiohead are as cryptic as ever, but amid the fog of A Moon Shaped Pool, beautiful shapes loom into view, and it’s a pleasure to drift into this album over and over again.
“Just don’t leave / Don’t leave.”
Discovering that I loved this album was weird for me at first. I suppose I’m not in the main demographic for Lemonade: I’m a scrawny, speccy white guy who works in a bookshop and spent my teens bopping along to pleasantly anonymous indie-rock. I didn’t fully delve into a Beyoncé album until her surprise 2013 release, but it’s Lemonade which really stunned me into paying full attention, and it’s so outrageously good that there’s little to do beyond joining the rest of the universe in applauding it. No matter how much credence you give the dramatics behind the album’s release, Lemonade makes for a tremendous, tense, and hugely entertaining listen: a rallying cry with all the self-empowerment of Chaleur Humaine but thrice the gusto. Musically, it pushes the envelope of modern R&B by successfully assimilating almost every other genre under the sun, while its HBO release was a masterful demonstration of how albums can be presented and consumed through alternative means.
This album gives the impression of sounding universally irresistible (maybe not for Jay-Z, but let’s see how this whole saga pans out, hoax or not): its combination of Beyoncé’s no-fucks charisma and to-the-nines production is shocking and exuberant. There’s baseball bat swagger, tremulous vulnerability, and a levelling of blame and graciousness in equal measure. Knotty emotions are wrestled with even amid the fiercest cuts: ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ and ‘Freedom’ crack with visceral aggression while plunging into headspinning quandaries, never once deflated by simplification. By the time Beyoncé invites all ladies present to get in formation, there’s no doubting her regal prowess. From open to close, Lemonade dazzles.
“I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself back up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”
Although there’s apparently little that’s original in the topics covered on Puberty 2 (the uncertainty of fledgling adulthood, relationship angst, the struggle to secure happiness on a long-term basis), what sets Mitski Miyawaki apart from her peers is that she absolutely nails the nuances beneath the blanket terms. The fears and insecurities that she purges over backdrops of fuzz guitar kick against simplification: in her writing she sidesteps the obvious and outlines the full weight of feeling behind each moment of (in)decision. The depression that plagues her is frustratingly nebulous: there are moments when she notices it like a knife in her leg, whereas during others she is fully conscious of being engulfed. This awareness she demonstrates gives significant heft to the songs on which she really lets rip, even as she staunchly avoids definitive catharsis: “I’d better ace that interview / I should tell them that I’m not afraid to die!”
‘Happy’ and ‘Fireworks’ distill the fickle nature of contentment without recourse to patronising Mitski or her audience, the singer’s turns of phrase sharply constructed rather than overwrought. ‘Your Best American Girl’ lingers on the building doubts and quiet acceptance behind a breakup rather than the turmoil of heartache: the verses capture the fragility of late-night worry, while the towering chorus emerges emboldened by honesty (not to mention a wonderful eruption of noise). Each song clicks brilliantly even when the whole sounds deceptively simple: listeners need to look closely to see just how well executed the trick is. There may be no shortage of confused twentysomethings attempting to churn their plight into art, but few have accessed the level of honesty and empathy attained by Mitski on Puberty 2.
“Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I finally do.”
22, A Million
(This article is leet-free, because I find it confusing and annoying to type.)
There’s a moment partway through 22, A Million which has lodged in my mind, and I’ve started to anticipate it with each play of the record. At the climax of the dizzyingly beautiful ‘33 “GOD”’, a distorted and barely perceptible voice croaks over the final piano notes: “why are you so far from saving me?” It’s an open question directly lifted from Psalms 22, and more than any one of the many cryptic phrases, declarations and entreaties scattered across the album’s length, this one feels integral to the whole project: the plea at the nexus of the emotional storm Justin Vernon weathered in the wake of the extensive touring for 2011’s Bon Iver.
Vernon is hardly a man forsaken, and when his situation is viewed in a broad perspective, he’s got to be pretty far down a Divine Entity’s prioritised list of people to save. And yet, his cries into apparent silence don’t rankle as first-world problems, but rather as a relatable and sympathetic crisis: the sound of a man whose uncertainties extend to what his own purpose is in life, and why it matters. He struggled through the past few years with writer’s block and panic attacks, recoiling against the rush of fame, and struggling to find adequate ways in which to communicate his fractured mindset to a now-huge audience.
22, A Million breaks down these matters in its form and content. The results frequently break away from the backwoods folk of old, and in place of catharsis, there are ellipses at every turn. Even when Vernon’s lyrics are at their most emotive and striking (“goddamn turn around now, you’re my A Team!”), they are rendered blurry by their context; a shuffled pack of surreal observations. But even if full understanding is out of reach, these songs remain touchingly accessible: once past the clattering abrasions of ’10 (Death Breast)’, the album is shot through with disarming beauty, not least on the gorgeous swells of ‘8 (Circle)’ and ‘#29 Strafford Apts’. It may not be handsome in a straightforward sense, but 22, A Million is a captivating and rewarding listen; an album to hold close in troubled times for the hard-won moments of solidarity it offers.
“I could go forward in the light / Well, I’d better fold my clothes.”
Well, at least the music was great.
The Hope Six Demolition Project
I didn’t find the time to write about the gigs I attended during 2016, but possibly my favourite live experience was PJ Harvey’s headline show at Field Day festival. Backed by a fearsome phalanx of tight-knit musicians and largely sticking with her new material, she sounded magnetic, gutsy, and utterly commanding from start-to-finish. It was a show that accentuated the strengths of The Hope Six Demolition Project, which casts a cold look at American foreign policy and the damage is has increasingly wrought on a global scale. Harvey’s reportage is less concentrated in its focus than 2011’s mighty Let England Shake, and more loosely bound in both sound and vision, but it’s no less unflinching in its coverage of the failures of government and communities alike. With her band strafing confidently between rollicking rallies (‘The Community of Hope’), militant stomps (‘Chain of Keys’) and eerie hymnals (‘River Anacostia’), Harvey presides over a rich tableau of sound, one whose edges are roughened and fraying to match her snapshots of poverty and decay. The results are frequently remarkable: ‘The Ministry of Defence’ lands like a hammerblow, and the combination of queasy, surging blues and Harvey’s steely refrains on ‘The Wheel’ still sends goosebumps shuddering up my back.
“Hey little children, don’t disappear / I heard it was twenty-eight thousand.”
Over the course of the year, I came to consider Boy King as something of a guilty pleasure. While it was far from panned, the general consensus among critics (and friends) has been that Wild Beasts’ fifth is below par for the group: a bold but disappointing swerve into uncharacteristically simple scuzz-rock. Well, sod those claims, and sod any notions of this record as a “guilty” pleasure. Its overall effect may be less spellbinding and poetic than that of its predecessors, but I love Boy King for its neon-hued aesthetic and unapologetically punchy approach. Here is the sound of a band following its gut instincts and going for broke: taking small but significant stylistic risks and sounding alive with glee as a result. As their delightful live shows this year proved, Wild Beasts are invigorated afresh as a quartet, and on record, the muscular production of John Congleton suits the relapse of Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming’s more salacious appetites: the vocalists skewering the perils of modern masculinity while simultaneously basking in its intoxicating glow. In a nutshell, Boy King is a simmering platter of thumping beats, grimy grooves, and low-slung sleaze from one of my favourite contemporary bands. That’s how I get my bang.
“These are blessed times that we’re living in / Down here on Earth all is forgiven.”
A Tribe Called Quest
We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
In modern times, it has become tiresomely easy to spot the bands whose comebacks have been hastened for the sake of self-indulgence, financial necessity, or even boredom. The spark of true relevance and artistic purpose is unmistakable, and the return of A Tribe Called Quest not only feels genuine in intentions, it’s an aching relief to witness their return at this particular time. Since Tribe last put their manifestos to record in 1998, a lot has changed – in the music industry itself, let alone on a global scale. But in other cases, some things haven’t changed enough, and as 2016’s headlines were apparently keen to attest, the world is rapidly backsliding at an alarming pace. Such is the climate in which Tribe were finally compelled to drop new material: equal parts aural balm and calms to mobilise. Urgency runs deep through We Got It From Here…, which runs to an hour of knotty, hard-hitting polemics without once losing its fire. With an intimidating roster of personnel ensuring that the production is tighter than ever, the bond of Tribe’s core members gleams at the heart of this record; the group ensuring that humanism shines through every bar. Just as they did twenty years ago, Tribe sound galvanised to be at the fray’s forefront, demanding that unity and happiness are recognised as more than abstract ideals: they’re rights.
“Motherfuck your numbers and your statisticians / Fuck y’all know about true competition?”
If her past albums released as Antony Hegarty were quiet in their potency, the first album released under Anohni’s new moniker ruthlessly stamps such tremulous beauty into memory with all-consuming rage. HOPELESSNESS is an unflinching riposte to the western world that lets nobody off the hook – including the listener. She spends these eleven cuts shooting from different perspectives and taking aim at various figures in a takedown of ideological apathy on topics ranging from climate change to drone warfare, treatment of terrorists and beyond. It’s a scattergun approach, but Anohni and her collaborators have produced a record of such ruthless directness that it lands with explosive force. The icy bluster of the music (largely courtesy of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never) is dramatic to the point of confrontational: ‘4 Degrees’ strikes with booming severity, Anohni eviscerating our collective complicity in natural destruction for the sake of our own comfort. Elsewhere, execution is presented as a facet of the American dream over sparkling keys, the creepy ‘Obama’ levels crushed disappointment and fury at the outgoing President, and ‘Crisis’ is wrenchingly direct in its empathy with innocent victims of America’s military force. You could reasonably summarise the whole enterprise as heavy-handed and clunky, but given the scale of Anohni’s ambitions and the blatant horrors in her firing line, her sober tone is more than suitable: it cuts through our willful silence with severity.
“We are all Americans now.”
Cate Le Bon
Cate Le Bon’s own website summarises the songwriter’s fourth album as “a coalition of inescapable feelings and fabricated nonsense, each propping the other up”. It’s a suitably muzzy description for an album that combines clear, gorgeous melodies with fragmented observations, each tinged with a dreamlike quality. Yet beneath the wonky neo-psychedelia and playful riddles, what impresses most over repeated listens is the melodic muscle on display from Le Bon and her group. The overall ambience is akin to being invited into Le Bon’s own home, and peering through the vibrant clutter that fills all spaces in sight: the coat hangers, the crumby cookbooks, handprints on the windows, dusty cream blinds. Amid these environs, she sings and performs with a lightness of touch; her delivery artful but far from precious, high on wonder rather than a thickly fragrant haze. The results are intimate, inventive, and companionable: her influences are plain to see, but it’s a delight to sit with Crab Day and surrender to Le Bon’s melodic and lyrical fancies.
“All the towns are miniature / All the girls are beautiful ghosts.”
[Insert Europe pun here.] Top Five time. What a year. ’nuff said. Let’s do this!
Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear (Bella Union)
(If it’s not too wanky to start by quoting Oscar Wilde…) “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
In constructing the ostentatious persona Father John Misty, Joshua Tillman has revealed more of himself than he perhaps ever could in the solo career under his own name. The character (and ergo, Tillman himself) is occasionally repellent, prone to fits of arrogance, caustic put-downs, and unbridled outbursts that are partly romantic, partly insane (‘The Ideal Husband’squarely falling into the latter during one of the album’s greatest crescendos). I Love You, Honeybear is thus not without its absurdity, and for passing listeners, at times it can sound downright repugnant and inconsistent. Yet dealing in inconsistency seems to be Tillman’s exact intention: skirting cookie-cutter definitions and instead cracking open the messy truth that no one person is defined by a single trait. Across I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman bounds from overwhelmingly soppy to unbearably cynical, cripplingly insecure to self-aggrandising and pompous. In doing so, he displays many clashing sides of himself, and while the overall picture is far from easily comprehensible, it’s much more realistic than the binary self-presentations that are so common in music and beyond. Every one of us is contradictory, never solely defined by a beautiful or ugly side, and Tillman opens up this idea in a manner which is bewildering at first, yet astonishingly perceptive on further listening. I Love You, Honeybear forms a strikingly clever enquiry into ideas of love and the self, while remaining dazzlingly entertaining, from the decadent instrumentation to Tillman’s knack for a knife-in-the-ribs punchline. Tillman finds new ways to explore identity, romance, and authenticity in a thoughtful way, while also delivering a fantastic sequence of some of the year’s lushest arrangements.
“Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity / But what I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me.”
To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope)
To Pimp a Butterfly is exhausting, uncomfortable, fearsomely complex, and completely necessary. Kendrick Lamar’s previous output succeeded in affirming the Compton-born rapper as an artist capable of greater nuance and political focus than many of his contemporaries. The bar was set high by 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, but Lamar more than cleared it with its follow-up. Working with a sprawling team of A-list producers, Lamar has crafted a crossover success that hits hard not just as a musical statement, but as a powerful rumination on black lives in a post-millennial America, surveying the violence, hypocrisy and rage that reached boiling point amid the succession of horrific acts of persecution increasingly seen in recent months. Music that’s taken as a successful social critique or commentary often revolves around a protest message, and Lamar’s output is no different. What elevates him to a different league, however, is that his music works as more than reflection: while he doesn’t claim to speak for everyone, his fierce verses articulate the tangled emotions of so many, and have been recognised for their salience everywhere from music awards to educational debates about black culture in America.
From the personal exorcisms in ‘u’ and ‘i’ to bolder attempts to grapple with the broader concerns of a community or a nation, To Pimp a Butterfly unpacks so many complicated factors while always sounding heavy-hitting and coherent. To understand the scale of its impact, simply check the popular breadth it has received in critical and commercial camps – even on this very blog. As this whole list makes abundantly clear, I’m not well-versed in rap music, but To Pimp a Butterfly is so pressing, so unavoidable, so on-point, that its achievement cannot go unrecognised. It offers a profound statement on our times and the futility of defining a single community. The gut-punch that comes at the end of ‘The Blacker the Berry’ is the record’s agonising peak, and as Lamar’s vocal rises to a barely-suppressed roar, all of the fury, sadness and frustration in the face of injustices perpetuated (by the oppressed as well as the oppressors) is so tangible that it’s almost painful to hear. On hearing it for the first time, I had to take a few minutes to catch my breath. Given the album’s reception, it’s likely many others responded in the same way.
“I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015 / When I finish this if you listening then sure you will agree.”
In Colour (Young Turks)
It felt like In Colour was being listened to everywhere – and by everyone – in 2015. For my year at least, it’s formed an inextricable soundtrack to memories of summer and beyond. As well as being the album I have allegedly listened to more than any other this year (according to iTunes at least), there were snippets of its various segments being broadcast everywhere: through the open doors of nightclubs and high street shops, blasted from passing cars or bleeding through somebody’s headphones on a night bus, augmenting adverts on television and the internet, and dropped into between-set music at festivals. Speaking of, I caught Jamie xx’s cavernous set during this year’s Green Man shindig, and the reshuffled running order of In Colour’s tracks shone new light on just how immaculate and engaging each piece is when taken individually. Nevertheless, In Colour is at its most satisfying (which is to say marvellously so) when it can be heard from ‘Gosh’ to ‘Girl’. Drifting dreamily from one room of the club to another, In Colour lives up to its title with a full-spectrum tribute to the UK club scene, incorporating a range of styles in an inventive but organic blend. It’s a love letter to rave culture which still locates the bittersweet tinge that mingles with the joy, the isolation alongside the unity, and in doing so emerges as an inclusive and stirring whole. The softly-spoken beat-maker has stepped a little further out of the shadows with an inescapable but totally escapist invitation to embrace the noise.
“I know there’s gonna be good times.”
Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
Sufjan Stevens’ seventh album is an intimate lament neither heavy-handed nor excessively fragile. For Carrie & Lowell, Stevens corrals a tangle of messy emotions and memories into a beautiful and deftly melodic collection, while eschewing anything close to straightforward catharsis. It’s touching, certainly, but in a way that becomes more acute with each fresh listen, the full depths of Stevens’ emotions only made apparent through familiarity and time. The death of the songwriter’s estranged mother (the Carrie of the album title) found Stevens racked with a fierce swathe of clashing emotions; an intimidating matter to approach, as he frequently references in his lyrics, chiefly on opener ‘Death with Dignity’: “I don’t know where to begin.”
This crucially makes Stevens’ unfathomable pain accessible rather than overbearing, and he unpacks the strands of his grief gently, touching upon feelings of disconnection or references to the mundane amid the emotional maelstrom. “You checked your text while I masturbated,” Stevens mumbles partway through ‘All of Me Wants All of You’, while on ‘Eugene’, he teases brief snapshots of childhood (“lemon yoghurt, remember I pulled at your shirt / I dropped the ashtray on the floor”) from his memory in an attempt to find something worth cherishing. All he can come up with is a general desire for closeness to his mother, which he was left longing for throughout much of his life.
It’s genuinely heartbreaking, but the revelations are sparing in melodrama, instead deployed quietly and with grace. Stevens’ delivery of “fuck me, I’m falling apart” during ‘No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’ is more of an exhalation than a gasp; the sound of a man too exhausted to fully feel the weight on his shoulders. It’s perhaps telling that Stevens entitled the record Carrie & Lowell rather than giving it a more abstract, artistic name. It feels clean and factual, a little detached, but also redolent of a tribute stripped of excesses: modest, dignified, and with much left unspoken. In many senses, that’s exactly what the album is: a small, sad portrayal of grief and guilt, but one which is so balanced in its emotional scope that it still manages to bring a moving degree of comfort.
“I forgive you mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end.”
Divers (Drag City)
For various reasons, I don’t think that Joanna Newsom’s Divers was the best album released in 2015, but I do consider it my favourite album of the past year. Naturally, there’s a difference between what we consider to be “great” works in the arts, and our personal preferences. Truthfully, there’s little doubt in my mind that Kendrick Lamar’s record is the most salient and hard-hitting release of the year, and numerous other albums both featured in and omitted from this list are wholly deserving of high praise. Several have subverted expectations to deliver original works that entertain listeners while also inviting them reappraise the abilities and natures of the artists in question. However, even after reshuffling the bulk of this list time and time again, I’ve always thought that Divers deserved its place at the top of the pile. I still can’t quite articulate exactly why it affected me so; as with The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream, I naturally felt that it was my favourite as the weeks ticked down through November and December.
Put simply, Divers entranced (and continues to entrance) me more than anything else I heard in 2015. From the second Newsom sings of “sending the first scouts over” in the dewy opening seconds of ‘Anecdotes’, a small shiver goes up my spine, and I feel that I’m listening to something uncommonly profound. Newsom sings of Time in its unearthly wonder while grieving over how it ravages all in its wake, pondering both the fate of the wider worlds she envisages around her (some fictional, some authentic), as well as her own position at its mercy. At times, her thoughts can turn fanciful, never more so than during the sci-fi sea shanty ‘Waltz of the 101st Lightborne’, whose narrator proclaims that “Time is taller than Space is wide” amid a tale of love, war, and the dichotomy between natural and artificial landscapes. As with most other compositions here, there’s a great amount to take in, but Newsom’s concerns are grounded in a pathos so perfectly transmitted that the emotional heft cleaves to the heart and mind: a clear-eyed understanding that little will last of us, but in the present there is great beauty to be savoured and preserved.
The musical accomplishments here are just incredible, from the range of instrumentation that Newsom weaves into the sumptuous whole, to the painstaking amount of time she spent overdubbing and re-mastering the songs until they gleam as brightly as they do in their final versions. You can really perceive the effort and attention that was poured into the making of this album. Newsom’s music has been strikingly detailed from 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender onwards, and by her standards, this level of care can almost scan as effortless. However, when placed alongside her peers, Newsom rises above the fray as an artist with crystal-clear vision and the tenacious commitment required to realise it fully.
For a more specific insight into what I loved about Divers – as well as several of the other entries in this list – check out my full reviews. For now, in closing, I’d like to celebrate this album as the one that spun a magic beyond any other this year. If anything even comes close to matching this record in 2016… I won’t get ahead of myself, but it’s safe to say I won’t shut up about it until next New Year’s Eve.
“And daughter, when you are able / Come down and join! The kettle’s on / And your family’s ’round the table. / Will you come down before the sun is gone?”
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.”
Five more fantastic records of 2015 to celebrate before I dive into my personal Top Ten for the year. From terrified art-pop to blazing brass compositions, industrial northern England playgrounds to Icelandic volcanoes, they’re a colourful bunch this time. They came, they saw, they helped us escape from evil.
Poison Season (Merge)
The release of Kaputt in 2011 proved to be something of a watershed moment for the Destroyer name. After eight albums of burgeoning if relatively hushed approval, suddenly Dan Bejar’s collective became overnight critical darlings, materialising in end-of-year lists from hitherto uninitiated sources. However, even with greater attention turned towards his project’s tenth studio album, Dan Bejar characteristically sniffed in the face of commentators and continued operating under his own steam with the same tight-lipped visage. Kaputt‘s eventual follow-up maintains the widescreen aesthetic of its predecessor, but feels less much less sprawling in its execution. Likewise, Poison Season perhaps lacks some of the knottier nuances that hardcore fans adored in previous records, but it contains musical and lyrical poetry worthy to rank with Bejar’s greatest peaks. Anchored by the three-part suite ‘Times Square’, Bejar has helmed another record of exquisite lushness, tempered as it is with a ragged weariness akin to ob Dylan’s more disillusioned ruminations. Even as ‘Dream Lover’ barrels out of the gate, its squealing, squawking brass sections and Bejar’s croak make the song sound as if the whole thing is on the verge of an asthma attack. Nevertheless, although it’s sometimes tough to gauge how earnest or sardonic Bejar is being in his writing, it’s hard not to be whisked away on the wings of the sumptuous instrumentation. Whether it’s the jaunty coda of ‘Hell’, the smoky waltz ‘Archer on the Beach’, or the starry-eyed romance of ‘Girl in a Sling’, there are so many moments of enrapturing beauty peppering Poison Season that Bejar’s wry wit sometimes slips past in the moments of magic.
“The writing on the wall wasn’t writing at all.”
Grey Tickles, Black Pressure (Bella Union)
“I am the greatest motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet,” John Grant bragged on 2013’s ‘GMF’, perfecting his talent for lacing irony with authentically bitter personal insights, in a manner that accesses a remarkable level of emotional honesty. Given a new lease of life with his solo career after the Czars disbanded in 2004, Grant has traded in painfully frank articulation from 2010’s Queen of Denmark onwards, though from the outset, a deliciously dark, wry humour has permeated his lyrics, constantly grounding his anguish as something tangibly human. Whether employed as a coping mechanism or a means of rendering his darker confessionals accessible, it’s this acidic wit which makes Grant such a fascinating figure: the close interweaving of sarcasm and sweetness enriching the whole as a reflection of somebody recognisably flawed. On Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, Grant turns up both the humour and self-laceration, whether poring over his HIV diagnosis, relationship frustrations, or the animosity directed at him from within and without. With John Congleton’s swift fingers at the controls, Grant simmers over twelve beautifully produced works of spleen-venting, at times tender and heartfelt, at others hysterical and fanged, and consistently studded with dazzling lyricism. Who knew the sound of a man opening the lid on his midlife crisis would be this much fun?
“Everybody these days thinks that they’re a badass.”
Escape from Evil (Ribbon Music)
Having caught Lower Dens live in London twice in 2015, I’ve had ample opportunities to let Escape from Evil sink in since its arrival in spring. With each album the Baltimore quartet have broadened their palette, tidying the murkier edges of their sound and incorporating characteristics of krautrock, dream-pop and art-rock, binding it all in an increasingly glossy coating that doffs its cap to tasteful 1980s synth-pop. Following this pattern further, Escape from Evil is the group’s sleekest and most inviting package yet, and although it has its clear standouts (‘Ondine’, ‘Electric Current’, and the majestic ‘To Die in L.A.’), it took several months of sporadic listening before it had me completely compelled. The secret ingredient at work which benefits the group and lets Escape from Evil transcend its foundations is a sense of confidence which quietly, triumphantly radiates through these songs. With help from Chris Coady, Jana Hunter and her bandmates have sharpened their dexterity for strong hooks without jettisoning the shadowy unease that has always swirled through their music, resulting in smart pop songs which sound comfortable enough not to require bells and whistles. Hunter’s voice, which previously cloaked her music in mystery (and occasionally confrontation) has also ripened to a fine instrument in its own right, whether she’s holding a bellowed chorus note or revealing the tremulous side of her register. Matched with the sharp precision of Lower Dens’ gleaming music, it synthesises into a liberating experience; one which taps into a sense of triumph steadily earned and thoroughly deserved, moving past hurt and disquiet and towards hard-won joy.
“I’m just glad to be alive.”
Lonelady’s sophomore escapes into a dreamlike fervour of lithe, guitar-flecked dance, despite being inextricably affiliated with the industrial landscapes of deepest Manchester. With Hinterland, Julie Campbell invites us into the world that apparently, only she was able to see amid the rubble and belching chimney stacks on the outskirts of the city, with the album mostly inspired by her frequent wanders through the terrain. Contrarily, rather than oppressive and stark, Hinterland is kinetic and filled-to-bursting with propulsive, irresistible grooves. It takes only a few seconds to hear her alchemy working clearly: the post-punk lineage of Manchester is refitted to something equally cavernous, but offering a much more joyous form of release. Mammoth jams such as ‘Silvering’ and ‘Groove it Out’ are at their most potent when heard performed live, but the precise alchemy is translated almost perfectly onto record, with Campbell’s ear for well-timed details seldom failing her on this nine-track odyssey that will appeal to fans of LCD Soundsystem and La Roux alike. If Hinterland is a party happening inside her head, then at least she remembered to invite the rest of us along.
“Put a record on / Make a connection.”
Get to Heaven (Sony RCA)
One of the most pleasant surprises of 2015, Everything Everything’s third album had me holding up my hands and admitting I had grossly underestimated the Manchester group. Although I found Arc largely enjoyable in 2012, for some reason I was prepared to shrug my shoulders at its follow-up. This was probably out of some misplaced sense of fatigue with the group’s output, but the delightful truth is that in a righteous world, Get to Heaven should have catapulted Everything Everything to the higher echelons of contemporary British flag-bearers. If nothing else, the group (and frontman Jonathan Higgs, in particular) deserve recognition for bringing a clear focus and palpable heart to mainstream alt-rock. With its eye on current affairs and the extreme terrors faced by the world over the past two years, Get to Heaven holds up a mirror to the chaos of the 21st Century, assimilating the most troubling concerns of our time and reflecting its urgent reactions in blasts of fiery, inventive guitar music, packing choruses that also happen to stick to the brain with the ferocity of Matilda-brand superglue. Higgs has admitted he was anxious that he had written a repugnant “horror bible” after penning the album’s frequently upsetting lyrics. For my money, he shouldn’t apologise for sticking to his guns and helping to create a conscientious and compassionate album that defiantly broadcasts against violence and complacency alike. Get to Heaven is spectacular, with its bounteous supply of savvy melodies only outmatched by its humanity.
“I don’t want this, I never spoke up enough.”