UTNS: Albums of 2015
Music blogger and tireless champion of new music, Mark Perkins, shares with us his best albums of 2015.
The time is upon us. You can’t avoid it forever. You’re going to have to indulge me once again as I trawl through the albums that have floated my boat for more than a few brief moments this year, as I try to collect my thoughts before the onslaught of egg-nog and cheese footballs take their toll. Here we go with the best albums of 2015.
I used to approach the task of sifting the year’s best releases with some trepidation, having to whittle it all down to a certain word length, but with the freedom of the internet, I can drone on as much as I want, and include as many (or few) as I want to. I’ll try and limit it to 20 albums, but who’s counting? There’s no particular order to them, and I’ll see if there’s such a thing as an overall winner at the end.
Public Service Broadcasting: The Race For Space
I picked this as my ‘album of the year’ for the December issue of Exposed magazine, mainly because the editor sent me a text while I was on the bus, and the copy deadline was next day. I’m not sure it was actually the best, but it was the one which sprung immediately to mind as one I’d revisited regularly since its release at the start of the year. That alone must put it near the top of the heap. They played the Foundry soon after its release, and I wrote them a glowing review I seem to remember. The music samples commentaries, announcements and speeches made in the late fifties and throughout the sixties as Russia and the US competed to out-do each other in their space exploration and achievements. What is often forgotten is that Russia beat the Americans to everything; man in space, space walks, unmanned craft on the moon, until the actual lunar landing, which of course the Russians didn’t even attempt. It’s an exciting and superbly played album, which, for those of us old enough to have actually lived through it, captures the spirit of an age of exploration that will never return.
Desperate Journalist: Desperate Journalist
I’ve got local music impresario Neil Hargreaves to thank for introducing me to this lot. He played them on our weekly radio show (don’t miss it. X-Rated, Sheffield Live, Thursday at 1pm), and I was instantly hooked. It was no surprise for me that their Tramlines appearance at Crystal on the Sunday afternoon was one of my live highlights of the year. They were amazing; the most exciting band I’ve seen since I don’t know when, and the intimacy of that superb venue made it all the more special. Their album could never capture the excitement of their live performances, but it doesn’t matter much, because the sonic onslaught of the songs, combined with the sheer presence of lead singer Jo Bevan is irresistible.
Nothing But Thieves: Wake Up Call
I was asked to review this album for Exposed magazine, and I fell for its charms instantly. I even gave a copy to my uncle, who’s not bought a new CD in years, and he loved it. It’s full of confident, exuberant good old fashioned pop music. They’re in Sheffield next year and I’ll be there, singing along, word perfect, as by then I’ll have played this album to death. I wrote this in my review, and it still applies;
There’s a sequence of songs early on; ‘Ban All The Music’, ‘Wake Up Call’ and ‘Itch’, which, if they ever invent a Brit award for ‘Best-3-Tracks-All-In-A-Row’, will knock every other contender out of the park. Astonishing.
This was my favourite set of the recent Sensoria festival, so thanks Jo, for introducing me to Manchester’s finest; Julie Campbell, aka Lonelady. From her earliest recordings, reflecting her obsession with the urban landscape we all find ourselves in, her music has been stark. On Hinterland, her second album, the dance/funk influences are more to the fore, and it’s no surprise then that she’s signed to Warp Records. Listening again takes me back to her set in the Abbeydale Picture House, where she, along with Factory Floor, created an astonishing evening of groovy madness. It’s not an instantly appealing album, but stick it on your headphones and go for a walk round some of our starker inner city architecture, and you might just get what this album is trying to convey.
Sufjan Stevens: Carrie and Lowell
Don’t get me started on Sufjan. He’s a genius and that’s that. No argument. Right now, I’m making my annual visit to his extensive catalogue of Christmas music, but earlier in the year he made what could possibly be his greatest album yet. It certainly stands comparison with his acclaimed earlier works. His wider appeal has diminished a little since albums like Illinois and Michigan, but this is just perfect. Despite being a glorified plea to his recently deceased mother to explain why she abandoned him as a child, it’s an astonishing album, and comes as close to perfection as I reckon he’ll ever achieve.
Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear
With the Fleet Foxes now in hiatus, their drummer, Joshua Tillman has put a bit more effort into his solo career, and released an album which reveals more and more on every listen. The lyrics are the key to this album’s appeal, with some heartfelt, even heart-wrenching prose put to music. This is not an album to be put on in the background while you’re doing something else, these songs demand to be heard. When I first listened I remember being stopped in my tracks several times to try to take in the raw emotion and meaning of what he sang about. Nice to know that there are still ‘proper’ lyricists making successful music at a time when it’s easy to assume success is determined by a groove and a sexy video.
Tame Impala: Currents
Regrets. I’ve had a few. And the biggest one recently was listening to Tame Impala’s first album, Lonerism, the week after they’d played the Leadmill, and realising in a classic Homer Simpson ‘Doooh’ moment what I’d just missed. After this second release, I don’t think they will play such small venues ever again. Here’s an experiment you can try at home. Take a ruler, draw a straight line from the Beatles, through Pink Floyd and The Flaming Lips, and you’ll find it ends up at Tame Impala. Psychedelic guitar pop has never been so catchy. Kevin Parker has taken the band’s sound to another level on their follow-up album, by augmenting the fuzzy guitars with synths and bass. It’s still dreamy pop, but with the added swagger and confidence you can afford when the world is taking notice of music you’ve been making since you were 13.
Collaborations never work for more than a one-off single. Thank goodness. Jagger/Bowie are you listening? Don’t you ever, EVER, try that again. Here we have Franz Ferdinand and Sparks becoming one, and astonishingly, it works! Swimming against the tide is what Sparks generally like to do. Their fantasy musical about Ingmar Bergman was the last time I gave them some serious time on my gramophone, so when they announced that they were to be known as FFS, ie the Franz Ferdinand Sparks collaborative project, I was concerned. Fears, however, proved groundless, as this is a true merging of talents where neither one dominates, and the result is greater than the sum of their parts.
Drenge came of age with the release of this monolithic slab of drum, guitar and vocal. And that’s it. Drum. Guitar. Vocal. Thanks to Sensoria a couple of years back, I got to see Drenge play the back room in the Lescar (international readership take note; it’s the back room of a pub). In a couple of months’ time they’re playing Rock City at £25 a head! This is simple, and home-grown talent, made good. Don’t over complicate things, just stick your head inside the speaker stack and absorb the power of Drenge.
The Unthanks: Mount The Air
I know the purist folky folks look down on The Unthanks, but I like ‘em. OK? Ever since DocFest brought them to the Crucible to play their soundtrack to ‘Songs From The Shipyards’ alongside the film, I’ve been hooked. This is their first release in a few years, and was well worth the wait. It has a gentle, lingering, ethereal feel to it, and is the perfect album to wallow in at the end of a stressful day. You know, one of those days when they sell the last cheese scone just as you walk in Seasons cafe. Yeah, stress. OK, I don’t have very stressful days, but I can empathise can’t I? I saw them live in the City Hall Ballroom earlier this year, and listening again brings back memories of a gentle, lovely night. They are the ying the Drenge’s yang. Who says we don’t do eclectic up here atop the narrow stairs?
Nils Frahm: Solo
This is an album of solo piano music. Hey, where are you going? Come back. This couldn’t be further removed from a Richard Clayderman album if it tried. Which it doesn’t. It flows and ebbs, almost in an organic way, as it taps into some more earthy frequency as Nils combines his piano playing with subtle treatments of the piano sound. It was made available as a free download on Piano Day, March 29th (88th day of the year. If you need more explanation than that you’re now un-friended), so there’s no excuse for not giving it a try. The sound is immense, and is played on a prototype of what is intended to be the world’s largest piano, and the funds from this project go towards the construction of this beast for real. Flippin heck: the longest string will be almost 4m long! The sound is consequently huge, warm and enveloping, so don’t expect to get the full effect on your mp3 player.
Bjork: Vulnicura/Vulnicura Strings
I’ve still not forgiven her for cancelling a show at Sheffield City Hall and not coming back. What do you mean, move on? Well, perhaps she has been forgiven now that she has released this stunning slice of Icelandic, angst-ridden music. Or rather it’s two slices, as she re-mixed and subtly re-recorded a few vocals a few months later for the Vulnicura Strings version. Replacing the instrumentation of the original with strings did little to soften the impact of this break-up album, documenting her recovery (or lack of it) from the end of a 13-year relationship. If anything, the strings gave everything a sharper, colder, more clinical edge. Not an easy listen by any means, but nothing less than we’ve come to expect from someone who is the definition of ‘unique’.
God Speed You! Black Emperor: Asunder, Sweet, and Other Distress
Fans of the Canadian post-rock/drone/dark ambient rockers (choose your preferred category) thought it was all over back in 2002 when they seemingly went on indefinite hiatus, but they’re back with a brooding, atmospheric, solid album, which reveals new and subtle hidden depths every time I listen. Re-visiting this to write this review, some of the tracks feel almost new and unheard, yet I know I played it frequently when it came out. The lack of conventional structure probably adds to that. This album is no more a collection of verse/chorus/verse songs than Kylie Minogue is a hamster. Although she would make a cute hamster.
Some folks might venture the opinion that this isn’t music at all. Not-so-subtly voiced comments from the next room such as, ‘What on earth is that you’re listening to?’ might lend some credence to that school of thought, but I love it. I have Stuart Maconie to thank for introducing me to the music of Daniel Lopatin from Brooklyn via the BBC 6music Freak Zone radio show. If you want to really sample some ‘totally out there’ sounds, give it a go. One minute it sounds like some ambient flowing synth sounds, the next it assaults your senses with an excursion into sampled noise and chaos which makes you think your music player is malfunctioning.
Wolf Alice: My Love Is Cool
This will top most lists of the best albums of the year. It has an appeal which is unstoppable, and manages to delight all types of music fans. I came to this a little later than most, and it’s often tempting when everyone’s going on about a new group to take a stand-offish view, but don’t. This is a cracker of an album and truly deserves the praise it has had, and will continue to have, heaped upon it.
Everything Everything: Get to Heaven
Our magazine editor was surprised that I didn’t pick this as my album of the year, and to be honest, I was a little surprised myself. When it came out I listened to little else for a few weeks, and listening again now, it is a flawless collection of songs. At the time in my review I wrote:
It’s got the clear feel of a truly great album, in that it has that shifting quality where my favourite track changes every time I listen. You’ll not hear a better album this year. I’ll not argue with myself over that. The track ‘Distant Past’ is my favourite individual track of the year.
The Wainwright Sisters: Songs in the Dark
A few years ago I discovered Rufus Wainwright, and then went on to become more acquainted with the musical dynasty that is his family. On this album sisters Martha and Lucy sing songs they both knew from childhood and that they grew up singing. It’s intriguing to imagine what it was like in the Loudon Wainright / Lucy Roche / Kate McGarrigle musical households as these two grew up with the same father, but different mothers, but let’s not dwell on that. Instead celebrate the perfection in the harmonies with which only two sisters can sing; a little in the way of those Unthanks girls.
Todd Rundgren/Emil Nikolaisen/Hans-Peter Lindstrom: Runddans
On every Todd Rundgren album you get a different Todd. No two are ever quite the same, and for someone making music since he was in The Nazz in 1967, that’s an incredible achievement. Runddans is a prog-rock extravaganza, where it’s pointless trying to determine who contributed what, and where one track folds into the next in one long sequence of pieces of music. With track titles such as ‘Liquid Joy From The Womb Of Infinity’ and ‘Wave Of Heavy Red’, there clearly is little point trying to understand what’s going on. It’s the best ’70s album that Todd never made. It will certainly satisfy all his fans who hark back to his days of studio wizardry, and it references lots of his more trippy moments from classic albums such as ‘Todd’ and ‘A Wizard A True Star’. This is the album of the year. The year however, is 1975.
Punch Brothers are the band that Noah and The Whale want to be. After ten minutes of listening to this band, fans of the aforementioned ark-constructor and his accompanying large aquatic mammal have been known to spontaneously combust in sheer frustration at why they have wasted so much time NOT listening to the Punch Brothers. Still sounding fresh and beautiful almost a year after it came out, this is as good a reason as any for learning to play the banjo.
This is simply two hypnotic pieces of music, each around 20 minutes long; Morning Side and Evening Side. Constructed entirely on a computer, I found this endlessly fascinating, in a Brian Eno, ambient, kind of way. Melodies, sounds and vocals drift in and out as the rhythm never lets you go. Go for a walk with this on your headphones and you might find yourself just about anywhere.
Blanck Mass: Dumb Flesh
This is a solo effort, the second in fact, from Benjamin John Power, from the FuckButtons. A track from his previous album was used in the opening ceremony for the London Olympics, and I can see this album having the same appeal to anyone looking to soundtrack an epic live performance/event. It ebbs and flows but never lets up on the beat, which is sometimes barely perceptible within the dense wash of sound, although at others the driving bass almost oozes from the speakers and takes over the room.
Janet Jackson: Unbreakable
I love Janet Jackson. In fact she loves me too I seem to remember. I went to see her in the early nineties at the Sheffield Arena and just about the only thing she said between songs was that she loved each and every one of us. Even though it’s been a while, I still think we’ll hook up soon. Back then, she’d just released her third collaboration with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the studio equivalent of the Coen Brothers. Every song played that night had been written by them, yet as writers and producers, they never even got a mention. The dream-team of Janet, Jimmy and Terry worked together less and less over the intervening 20 years, but hooray! they’re back together for an entire album. Jam and Lewis are masters of the studio-built RnB groove, coming as they do from Minneapolis and having once been protégées of the Purple One. Welcome back.
This is the most infectious album I’ve heard all year. Before I’d finished listening to the album for the first time, I’d already replayed several tracks that I couldn’t wait any longer to hear again. The Go! Team’s fourth album is, even more than the last two, a creation of Ian Parton. He creates the tunes from samples and rhythms, then adds the female vocalist; a different one on each track this time. Then he somehow gives it a retro feel that makes it seem as though it’s been around for years. I found this the much-needed antidote to the modern music scene, and comes within a couple of tunes of being the perfect pop album. Annoyingly, this came out when I was already on holiday, otherwise its lo-fi jangly beats could have become the perfect soundtrack to my summer in the Bahamas drinking cocktails with Kylie Minogue. And that never happened either.
Phew. Done. That was quite a task but it’s all over for another year.
No winner. I’ve decided, my favourite album is always the one I’m currently listening to, so you can choose your own.
Let me know if you agree/disagree with any of the nonsense I’ve been spouting, and more importantly, what you think I’ve missed out. If you discover something in this list to listen to that you would otherwise have missed out on, I’ll be happy. That’s life, Up The Narrow Stairs.
See you in 2016.