I listened to a lot of music in 2015, but I also changed the way I listened to music. I stopped subscribing to emusic’s download service, and instead started buying CDs and vinyl again, both as part of Rough Trade‘s album of the month subscription and by visiting record stores to buy things (something I’d not done for a while). I bought less albums, but spent more time with each one, and also had access to Spotify to listen to those things I wanted to hear but had no desire to own. By the end of 2015 pretty much everything about how I consumed music had changed, as as such I expect this list will reflect that change somewhat.
And so, without further ado, (and in no particular order) my records of the year:
Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs
This year has been a year where a fair few of my heroes made records I was not expecting to hear. Jim O’Rourke’s first album of conventional songs since 2001 was probably the biggest shock of all, coming as it does after years of releasing largely instrumental, collaborative and avant-garde recordings from his new home base in Tokyo. Simple Songs contains eight songs, all with vocals, but none of them could really be described as simple. The sound is not unlike his previous vocal records (Eureka, Insignificance and Half Way to a Threeway), and the lyrics seem straightforward on the surface, but then reveal a barbed undertone that reminds me of his work with Loose Fur a few years ago. I expected I would like this record a lot, but I didn’t expect I’d end up playing it more than any other record this year, and if I did have to pick one of these records to put at the top of my list then it would probably be this one.
Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
I had not heard of Father John Misty before February this year. February was the month that I signed up to Rough Trade’s Album of the month deal, and also asked them to send me one additional CD as part of their albums by adventure subscription. This was what I was sent the first month, and I couldn’t stop playing it for most of the year. It’s lush orchestrated pop music with excellent and slightly humorous lyrics, and in some ways it reminds me a lot of the record directly above it on this list. I’d highly recommend this to anyone, and would also recommend the limited edition live record that followed it (which I’ll write more about later). I Love You, Honeybear has accompanied me on many a morning commute, and I suspect it’s probably a record for late night and early morning; when it’s dark and hazy and yesterday begins to blur into tomorrow.
Grimes – Art Angels
I don’t often put records released in December in my end of year list. This is the exception, partly because it was released digitally a few weeks earlier, and partly because it’s one of the best examples of modern pop music that I’ve heard for years. So many other records on this list could have been made in any year, but Art Angels is a record for 2015, and builds on everything Grimes has done up to this point and then takes it to the next level. This record deserves to be huge, with almost every song worthy of being a hit single, and I’d be quite interested to find out how it does sales-wise, because I’ve seen a lot of much worse records sell very well this year. NME made this their record of the year, and said “We already knew Grimes could write a killer pop song, but ‘Art Angels’ proved she could deliver 14 of them in a row. ‘Art Angels’ was not so much the sound of an artist trying to fit into the pop landscape as one trying to shape it in their own image. The best album of the year, from the most exciting artist of a generation.”
New Order – Music Complete
I am a big New Order fan, and own multiple copies of most of their records. Until this year I did not expect them to make another record, let alone make a record that was as good as anything they had released since the late 1980s. Music Complete does what it says on the tin – it’s music, and it’s complete. It contains a lot of the things that New Order do well, and there is very little in the way of filler material (which makes a nice change after the last couple of records which seemed to be mostly filler). If you’ve never heard New Order before then buy this along with one of the many compilations that are out there and you’ll get a decent idea of what they are about. If you’re a fan like me then I’d be interested where you would place this record in the all-time list (for me it comes after Low Life and Brotherhood but is fighting with Technique and Power, Corruption and Lies for 3rd place). I would also recommend the CD singles they have released from this album – I got the Tutti Frutti one for Christmas and it’s 51 minutes of music.
Tame Impala – Currents
Tame Impala’s previous records were guitar driven, but Currents changes the musical palate a lot, and contains more keyboards and synths (and almost no guitars). It reminds me a little of when The Cure switched from the dark and sombre sound of Pornography to the much more commercial sound of Let’s Go To Bed and The Lovecats. It’s a brave move, but one that works really well, and the end result is an interesting record that sounds nothing like anything else they have released. The first song sets the blueprint for the whole record, with soaring vocals, melodic synths, and genuine human emotion with the rough edges removed by technology. After listening to this many times over the last few months I’m very interested to see what their next move is, and I’m also interested to hear what people who have never heard this artist before think of this record, as I’m approaching it as someone who has heard (and liked) everything else they have made.
Max Richter – From Sleep
There are some records that I wouldn’t recommend to most people I know, despite really liking them and listening to them a lot. There are a few of them on this list, but From Sleep is probably the most unusual. It’s a distillation of a eight hour musical suite by German composer Max Richter; with the full length version designed to accompany a full either hours of sleep. This is the shorter version, and it has accompanied me through many an evening of trying to wind down after a hard day sufficiently to sleep. Part music, part medicine, I’ve heard nothing else like it all year, and I’d also recommend the full 8 hour version as it explores a few more ambient themes, and takes the melodies in some interesting directions.
Destroyer – Poison Season
I’m a big fan of Destroyer. I’ve got all their albums, and Kaputt was fairly high up my end-of-list the year it came out. Poison Season operates in the same lyrical and melodic areas, but replaces synths and electronics with strings and a much more organic sound. I wouldn’t say it’s better than Kaputt, but it’s certainly on a par, and it’s a record I’ve found myself coming back to over and over again in the second half of this year. The vinyl version is very well put together, but I find myself wishing it was all on one disk instead of being spread over four relatively short sides of vinyl.
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
It’s been a while since Sufjan Stevens made a record, and I was beginning to wonder if he has disappeared off the face of the earth. Carrie and Lowell is sparser than anything else he’s done, which allows the songs to shine through in a way that hasn’t been the case with his previous records. There is also a timeless quality to the music, and this record could have been made in any decade since the 1960s, although lyrically it feels contemporary and relevant to the here and now. Carrie and Lowell is an intimate and personal record that makes the listener feel privileged to be allowed to hear it, and it’s a record I played over and over again during the summer, and one that I still come back to a few months later.
Sun Kil Moon – Universal Themes
Another year, another great Sun Kil Moon record. Universal Themes picks up where Benji left off, and is another record full of sparse instrumentation, witty lyrical observations, and the kind of story-telling that you don’t really see outside folk music. The songs are longer this time around, but the basic premise is the same – Mark Kozelek sings about his life, and things that have happened to him recently. The songs are interesting because his life is interesting, and I enjoy listening to the observations of someone who is around my age and likes a lot of the things I like (music, travel etc.). I suspect this record might not work for people who are younger, or who don’t buy into the mythology of Mark Kozelek and the records he’s made with Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon, and various other people, and as such this isn’t a record I’d recommend as such – I just really like it and enjoy listening to it.
Georgia – Georgia
Another artist I discovered via Rough Trade, and a record I wasn’t sure about at first but that ended up being one of the first records I added to this list. Georgia’s debut album hops between genres, but I’d probably describe it as electronica, or dance music, or something far removed from the type of music I usually listen to. When I read the description of it I wasn’t sure, but after a couple of listens it started to make sense, and listening to this record has certainly made me open to trying more music with a similar sound (the Grimes record for instance, which I’ve listened to a great deal in the last few weeks of the year). I’m interested in what she might do next; this is a solid debut, but I wonder if the next record will be more of the same or an interesting tangent into something new.
FFS – FFS
FFS stands for Franz Ferdinand & Sparks rather than anything else you might think of, and it was a double blast from the past that I don’t think anyone expected. It’s a proper double album, with sixteen songs spread over 4 sides of vinyl, and each song manages to combine the sound of two bands who sound nothing like each other, and who came to prominence decades apart. The standout track is called Collaborations Don’t Work but this record proves that they most certainly do.
Ezra Furman – Perpetual Motion People
Another Rough Trade album of the month, and one that I found myself coming back to throughout the year. It’s intelligent pop music, which deals with themes of gender and self-identity very well, and which also manages to be very catchy. These songs would work on the radio (although you probably won’t hear them on the radio), and despite the music sounding like it could belong to any decade since the 70s, the lyrics are very much a picture of life in 2015.
John Grant – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
I’d been looking forward to the new John Grant record for a while, and it ended up being Rough Trade’s album of the month (as well as coming with a CD version, so I have 2 copies). Grey Tickles, Black Pressures sounds like the best bits of his first two records re-imaged, which is just fine by me, and even the pink and orange vinyl didn’t put me off too much. It’s a record that needs repeated listens, and I also think that the variety of musical styles makes it the sort of record that works on a random playlist.
Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect
In October I discovered a record by Protomartyr (about who I knew very little). The reviews mentioned Joy Division, and it came on green marbled vinyl with a small pamphlet of lyrics and other artwork. The Agent Intellect is a classic 45 minute 12 song album that doesn’t stick around too long but is a perfect example of what it is trying to be. Although my musical taste has broadened over the years, I still like loud guitar-based rock music best of all, and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of discovering new music in this genre.
Joanna Newsom – Divers
I’ve been a fan of Joanna Newsom since I bought Ys on the day of release (largely because Jim O’Rourke had produced it and it had some very long songs on it). Divers has neither of those selling points, but is a great record nonetheless, and if you’ve not heard any of Joanna Newsom’s other records then it’s a good enough place to start. You won’t find this on Spotify, and it does take about 10 listens to start to make sense of it, but it is definitely time and money well spent.
Floating Points – Elaenia
The Rough Trade album of the month for November was Elaenia by Floating Points. It’s a largely instrumental record which genre-hops a fair bit, but which in some ways reminds me of a vocal-free re-imaging of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden crossed with something more electronic. It took a couple of listens before I got into it, but now I really like it and think it’s probably the best electronic/instrumental record of the year.
Stara Rzeka – Zamknęły się oczy ziemi
Stara Rzeka are from Poland, and this is their second (and rumored to be final) release. It moves between melodic acoustic soundscapes and something more esoteric, and the fact that the vocals are in Polish mean I have absolutely no idea what the songs are about. The guitars remind me a little of Jim O’Rourke’s Bad Timing, and the shorter songs in particular are an excellent example of the kind of music I like to listen to when I’m writing or doing some other kind of task that requires concentration but also needs music to block out the interference of the outside world.
Mac Demarco – Another One
I think this is probably the shortest record on this list, but also one of the most immediate. Mac Demarco makes literate melodic pop music that works from the first listen, and this is probably the best example of his work that I’ve heard so far. He’s someone who deserves to be a lot more famous than he is, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with in 2016 (I’m sure there will be at least one record, there has been every other year).
Clarence Clarity – No Now
This is another Rough Trade albums by adventure find, and is another record I would certainly have never listened to otherwise. No Now is a 20 track collection of mostly electronic music that manages to be danceable, multi-textured and incredibly clever at the same time. I have no idea what most of the songs are about, but it’s a great record that deserves more exposure. Most of the tracks have vocals, but my copy came with a bonus CD of instrumental versions which is also well worth a listen.
Emile Haynie – We Fall
I’m not normally a fan of this sort of record, where a producer will line up a load of their favourite singers to add vocals to instrumental tracks they have recorded. We Fall manages to do very well with the concept, partly because Emile Haynie’s songs are very good, and partly because his roster of vocalists includes Brian Wilson, Father John Misty, Rufus Wainwright and Lana Del Ray. From what I can tell it’s a concept album about lost love, and it’s exactly what song-based pop music should sound like in 2015. In another world this would have been a huge hit, but in the world of Coldplay and Adele it will just have to settle for being a cult classic.
Todd Rundgren/Emil Nikolaisen/Hans-Peter Lindstrom – Runddans
In the year where Todd Rundgren made his best solo record for decades, he was also involved in the creation of this mini-masterpierce. It’s one long song, lasting around 36 minutes, which fuses electronic and experimental music with Todd’s vocals and lyrics, with the end result being something unlike anything I’ve ever listened to before. The CD splits it into individual tracks (with names), but I’d recommend treating it as one long song (which it is), and I hesitated before adding it to my Spotify playlist because I’m not sure how well it works when it is carved up into smaller chunks.
Benjamin Clementine – At Least For Now
I had not heard of Benjamin Clementine before he was nominated for the Mercury Music prize, but his debut record is something really special and was a well deserved winner. It reminds me a little of Anthony and the Johnsons (not a bad thing), but there is also a real energy in each song that you don’t often get from piano/vocal music, and I still get goosebumps each time I listen to it, which can only be a good thing. Copies of this were fairly scarce for a while, but a deluxe edition has just been released (with bonus tracks, and one song slightly extended) and at time of writing could be picked up for £4.99 on CD.
Ghost Culture – Ghost Culture
January seems a long time ago now, but this record was released right at the start of the year and soundtracked many a frozen walk to work. It’s melodic electronica, with enough melody to appeal to fans of pop music, but enough interesting electronic textures to remain interesting long past the first few listens. Another debut album (there seems to be quite a few in my list this year) that makes me wonder what the artist will come up with next.
Django Django – Born Under Saturn
As I look through the list of records I’ve already written about it strikes me that many of them are what I’d call pop music. Of course, my definition of pop music is probably quite different than a lot of people, but there is a lot here that is melodic, catchy, and would work as well on the radio as on a dance floor. Born Under Saturn epitomises this idea, and represents a very good example of all that is good in English pop music in 2015. Over 13 songs Django Django manage to create something that is melodic, but also experimental; something that never forgets that it’s a pop record but at the same time doesn’t compromise anything in terms of lyrics, arrangements or instrumentation. There are very few people I wouldn’t recommend this record to, and it is one I found myself coming back to over and over again throughout the year.
Bachar Mar-Khalifé – Ya Balad
I remember the night of the Paris attacks very well. I was sat at my computer watching the news come in and struggling to comprehend what I was seeing. In the aftermath of the attacks there were only three records that made sense. One was British Sea Power’s Do You Like Rock Music?, one was the Benjamin Clementine record (that was largely conceived in Paris and has a very Parisian sound), and the third was this album. Bachar Mar-Khalife was born in the Lebanon, lives in France, and made this record as an open letter to his native country. It’s largely sung in Arabic and French, but the music is powerful and beautiful, and I found myself coming back to it again and again during the darker months of the year.
The following playlist contains all but two of my top 25 records of the year.
The best of the rest
Other records I liked but don’t really have a lot to say about include:
Autre Ne Veut – Age Of Transparency
Jlin – Dark Energy
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
Bill Ryder-Jones – West Kirkby County Primary
Royal Headache – High
Desaparecidos – Payola
Faith No More Sol Invictus
Chvrches – Every Open Eye
Paul Smith and the Intimations – Contradictions
Wand – Golem
Nadine Shah – Fast Food
The Districts – A Flourish and a Spoil
Peter Broderick – Colours of the Night
Matthew E White – Fresh Blood
Klezmerson – Amon : The Book of Angels vol. 24
The Spike Orchestra – Cerebus : The Book of Angels vol. 26
Nordic Giants – A Seance of Dark Delusions
Liam Hayes – Slurrup
Will Butler – Policy
The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
The Indelicates – Elevator Music
Steven Wilson – Hand Cannot Erase
Guy Garvey – Courting the Squall
The Fall – Sublingual Tablet
Wilco – Star Wars
Duke Special — Look Out Machines!
The Unthanks – Mount the Air
Ghostpoet — Shedding Skin
El VY – Return to the Moon
The following playlist contains most of the above, plus a few other things I’ve listened to over the last 12 months.
Live albums, compilations etc.
There are also a fair few records that don’t qualify for my main list due to being live albums/reissues etc.
The Twilight Sad – Oran Mor Session
My love of this band is well known, and I wrote about their last record this time last year in glowing terms. This year’s offering contains acoustic re-workings of 6 songs from No-One Wants To Be Here & No-One Wants To Leave along with one b-side and one cover version. The songs gain new life and new perspective from this stripped down approach, and I’d highly recommend this release to fans of the band and lovers of acoustic music alike.
Father John Misty – Live at Rough Trade
Another stripped down live record that takes an album I already love and sheds new light on it. This one is just vocals and acoustic guitar, but also contains some great banter with the audience, and manages to sound very different from I Love You, Honeybear (from which all but one of the songs originate). I don’t think you can buy this one in the shops, but I believe Rough Trade still have a few left.
British Sea Power – Sea of Brass
This record contains re-workings of old songs, with the addition of a brass band, which adds additional texture and a whole new twist on songs I’ve listened to many times before. The choice of songs is quite eclectic, with quite a few b-sides and obscure fan favourites, but quite honestly I’d be happy with any BSP song being included here as I love them all. I pre-ordered this months before it came out, and am also booked in to see them playing live with a brass band at Birmingham Town Hall in February, which I’m very much looking forward to.
Keiji Haino / Jim O’Rourke / Oren Ambarchi – Tea time for those determined to completely exhaust every bit of this body they’ve been given
This takes some getting used to, and is quite abrasive in places, but it makes quite a nice counterpoint to Jim O’Rourke’s more conventional song based music, and the more minimalistic collaborations between O’Rourke and Oren Ambarchi that were also released this year. It’s the second release documenting an improvised concert in 2013 (the first part came out last year and is also worth checking out), and it features three experimental musicians in perfect harmony, creating something that they probably only played once.
Golden Teacher – First Three EPs
I’d not heard of Golden Teacher until I received their record through the post, but I really like it (both the 8 song vinyl version and the 12 song CD). They remind me a lot of late 70s/early 80s post-punk/funk, which is not a bad thing for something to remind me of at all. There is a lot of energy in this record, and every track here would work well on the dance floor (although I’m not sure how you would dance to some of it).
Bardo Pond – Record Store Day Trilogy
Bardo Pond have released a record for Record Store Day each year since 2013. This triple CD gathers them all together in one place, which is a good thing as it’s hard to track down the vinyl now. Each record has the same concept – take two songs by existing artists and play them for about 20 minutes in the Bardo Pond style. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and hearing all three records back to back works surprisingly well.
Marsheaux – A Broken Frame & An Extended Broken Frame
This is a note-for-note cover of Depeche Mode’s A Broken Frame, which does a very good job of making the songs sound like they were written in 2015. If you like the original then you’ll love this, and the remix album that was released later in the year is also well worth a listen.
John Zorn – The Album Project (live)
This is a live rendition of songs written by combining existing John Zorn compositions with new lyrics (written by Mike Patton, amongst others). The performances shed new light on the music, and the end result is far greater than the sum of the parts. It’s not available on Spotify, but a version of the concert is available on youtube.