The List 2015

At the end of each year I make a list of the twenty albums I enjoyed the most. To be eligible, a record has to be of album length (at least ~30 mins), and contain entirely (or almost entirely) new material; live albums, cover records, and compilations are ineligible.

  1. The Necks — Vertigo

Kicked off in 2006 when I fell hard for Chemist, and continuing through a dalliance with the peerless Silverwater (2009) as well as an unforgettable Barbican live performance, my love affair with The Necks continues. There have been a few releases in between, but the 44 minutes of Vertigo’s single track have been the first to stick firmly in my mind and find me consistently playing a Necks release in a little while.

If you’re familiar with the band’s sound this is exactly what you’d expect, and if you’re not it’s very difficult to describe. The tags you’d apply to it—’improvised’ & ‘jazz’ chief amongst them—are useful to a point, but not necessarily indicative of just how successfully this trio create a singular-feeling music: unrepeatable and yet entirely consistent in terms of the levels of interest and intrigue it sustains. All of which makes it even less palatable that I was in London on the final night of their Café Oto residency and did not manage to secure a ticket!

  1. Battles — La Di Da Di

When the new Battles line-up dropped Dross Glop in 2012, five years on and one member down from the glorious debut Mirrored (2007) I was super-excited, and then — once the sugar rush had abated — a little disappointed with the result. The album had its moments, but the loss of Tyondai Braxton was notable (indeed, in retrospect, Braxton’s solo album Central Market (2009) was the stronger post-Mirrored output). It’s gratifying then to find Battles, a couple of years into the new lineup, genuinely returned to their full strength. Opener here ‘The Yabba’ (the track titles make as little sense as ever) is as strong as anything on the debut; both ‘Dot Net’ and ‘FF Bada’ repurpose drum patterns familiar from that first record but find new and inventive ways to use them - woven in with an instrumental palate that has the strange honour of now feeling totally familiar as well as distinctly off-kilter.

There’s certainly the odd moment when you wonder whether a line has been crossed (such as on the impenetrable opening minute of ‘Tricentennial’) but those can be waived in light of how good it is to hear this band back to their endlessly inventive best.

  1. Florence + The Machine — How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

I haven’t paid all that much attention to Florence Welch since debut album Lungs arrived alongside debuts from Little Boots & La Roux in 2009. It was ‘Bulletproof’ & ‘In For The Kill’ from the latter that stuck with me that year, and then all three artists kind of faded from view for me.

After an underwhelming return by La Roux last year, it comes as a welcome surprise that F+TM’s record really got to me this time around. I read a review at the time that pointed out the symbolic importance of Welch’s facing forward on the album cover for the first time. And indeed this does feel like a more directly addressed, more personal set of songs. Less obtuse, adorned with less in the way of theatrics, the record embraces naked emotionality as its throughline. There are certainly poetic flourishes to the lyrics, and the album isn’t without bombast (‘Queen of Peace’ rises and blooms like a firework display), but it feels somehow more personal than both the artist’s previous output and that of the majority of her contemporaries.

It should be mentioned also, that the 4-minute white rapids journey of opener ‘Ship to Wreck’ is quite possibly the best song I heard all year.

  1. Squarepusher — Damogen Furies

Over a 20+ year career I’ve payed far too little attention to Squarepusher. The closest I got previously was a dip into 2010’s Shobaleader One: d’Demonstrator - itself a kind of spin-off album featuring an expanded lineup. Damogen Furies is my first exposure to Squarepusher-prime, and it’s left me a little shaken but thrilled and hungry for more. Comprising a host of somewhat raw-sounding electronica elements, settled in a bed of off-kilter, low wind instruments, or 16-bit era videogame chiptune soundscapes, the overall tone of the album is somewhere between menacing and schizophrenic — not dissimilar to Reznor’s OST for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

At its most frenetic the drum patterning walks a line between highly measured and almost-freeform jazz, ricocheting all over the map and pulling the melodies into any number of new, convoluted forms. (One of my favourite examples of this is once ‘Baltang Ort’ gets past the 4.30 mark and loses its composure a bit; that last minute is insane.) It’s a remarkable achievement to make something so mechanical seem at the same time organic - responsive to shifts in the music’s mood.

  1. Will Butler — Policy

Will Butler, here, has the same thing going for him as going against him: his membership of Arcade Fire. It’s doubtful — or at least significantly less likely — that I would have picked up this record without that background, and yet it comes freighted with a baggage that is entirely unfair. What Butler has produced is nothing more and nothing less than a collection of simple songs. Each one has an emotional directness familiar to listeners of his previous works, and they move between valences with aplomb. ‘Finish What I Started’ is a two-minute plea from the heart, and then it’s straight into ‘Son of God’: something close to an understated call for revolution.

There’s a smattering of multi-instrumentalism, but it sounds more like one man jumping from piano to keyboard to guitar, and less like the glorious, polychromatic racket that the collective of which he’s an integral part are capable of building. There’s also the nagging fact of how close Will’s voice is to that of brother Win. In a year without an Arcade Fire album this was a welcome dose of some watered-down substitute. That’s a very unfair thing to say about a pretty great album of alt-pop songs, but it was the feeling I couldn’t shake on the many occasions I listened to it. Sorry Will.

  1. Wolf Alice — My Love is Cool

The list of bands I listened to religiously in the mid-to-late 90s and early 2000s that are obvious influences on Wolf Alice is long. And there’s no effort made to disguise that here, on an album that feels both a little familiar and oddly quaint in its delivery of a 20+ year old sound. Opener ‘Turn to Dust’ is as pretty as it is alluring, with just a hint of sadness enough to make you wonder what other colours the band will paint with. It’s the sort of effortless conjuring of mood that Laura Marling displayed time and again on her first couple of albums. When, after just over 3 minutes, the album shifts into ‘Bros’, the listener is assured that they’re in safe hands; I certainly didn’t hear a prettier straight-ahead, guitar-led pop song this year - so simple in its construction, yet executed beautifully enough to bring a tear to my eye on several listens.

I’m left with questions about what the future holds for Wolf Alice: another collection of easygoing pop-rock singalongs that risks diminishing returns, or the temptation to risk something that may be outside their comfort zone? For now though, we have a really solid debut that does one thing very well indeed.

  1. Fort Romeau — Insides

I’d made the decision before the start of the year to listen to every 2015 release that Ghostly International put out, so — even if this hadn’t come recommended by Kieran Hebden — I would have run across it eventually.

It’s easy to see why the man behind Four Tet likes what fellow Brit Mike Greene is doing here: it occupies largely the same space as Hebden’s own Rounds (2003): a kind of warm, comfortable, trancelike feeling somewhere between early morning tiredness and lazy sunbeam comfort. There are denser moments, such as the bass-driven ‘All I Want’, but they are swells upon an otherwise even-tempered expanse of musical ocean.

(This ended up being my favourite eligible Ghostly release for the year, though Shigeto’s Intermission EP, would be way up there if it was a little longer than 6 tracks & ~20 minutes.)

  1. Ibeyi — Ibeyi

The two voices at the heart of Ibeyi’s self-titled debut are almost indistinguishable, belonging as they do to twins: Naomi & Lisa-Kaindé Díaz. Both are light, playful, and soulful, painting flowing lines over beds of minimal piano and simple beats. At times they’re also haunting, used to great effect in mirroring or weaving in and out of each other, such as on album highlight ‘River’ where they hold a kind of conversation amid the waves of their own background harmonising.

It no doubt helps that I first heard this record when we were in Copenhagen in February, and it’s linked in my mind with a great week we spent out there. The album’s sonic warmth conjures for me, every time, the warmth of the apartment we were staying in, and to which we returned after days walking in biting cold.

  1. Nils Frahm — Solo

In much the same way that Ghostly International started to colonise great swathes of my listening time a couple of years ago, London-based label Erased Tapes have made a huge impact for me recently: I got a lot of listening out of Kiasmos’s self-titled LP last year; A Winged Victory for the Sullen provided me with an unforgettable live experience in a Danish church this February… and there’s another ET artist elsewhere on this list. Hence it’s fitting that I came to Frahm via labelmate Ólafur Arnalds, a kindred spirit and sometime collaborator (they put out an EP together this year actually, which — though ineligible for The List — is a recommended listen also).

In terms of the album itself — a collection of masterfully constructed piano pieces —there’s not too much to say. There is some variation: the slightness of ‘Chant’ and the swell of ‘Wall’, but the album is best considered of a piece, and the mood it evokes is singular. The Pitchfork review phrased it this way:

“[I]t’s spare, it’s lyrical, it’s generally quiet, and it’s very pretty. Your mileage will vary based on whether that is enough.”

For me, it was, easily. On several occasions this year it was precisely the record I needed, and to which I turned when nothing else would do.

  1. The Sidekicks — Runners in the Nerved World

I’m not sure how I came to listen to this; a January release that has stuck around tenaciously to claim a spot on The List, and has done so by charm more than anything else. Touchstones here are bands like The Shins and Saves the Day, and this record firmly filled the same spot this year as Local Natives’ Hummingbird a couple of years ago: the best example that happened to cross into my awareness of a musical style far more prevalent on these lists in the early 2000s and appearing with increasing rarity since. Nevertheless this is the real thing and faithfully delivered. Steve Ciolek’s voice is an empathetic through-line with a range between falsetto fragility and convincing moments of emotional conviction.

‘Blissfield, MI’ is the record’s high point, though its driving bravado is something of an outlier on an album primarily comprising prettier pop-rock. The track also contains the album’s best lyric; the kind of glimpse into personal emotional-geography that late ’90s / early ’00s emo at its best did so well:

I feel like how the Bulls felt in 1993
I feel like how my head felt the last time you kissed me

  1. Shamir — Ratchet

Another debut album for The List, and another distinct vocal - Shamir Bailey’s performance is by turns fragile (in the manner of a Michael Jackson ballad), cocky, or occasionally fierce. Low-key opener ‘Vegas’ keys the listener into a couple of the record’s themes — sin, pleasure — but is quickly undercut in a piece of genius sequencing by ‘Make A Scene’: a none-more-pop chant littered with unidentifiable sound effects, something that sounds distinctly like cow-bell, and a vaulting laser effect that draws the listener’s ear up and over Bailey’s falsetto.

There are plenty of catchy — if insubstantial — pleasures on offer, but the best track on the album is inarguably ‘On The Regular’, also probably 2015’s most infectious song. Its blend of lightness, self-assurance, and touches of thematic darkness are a good microcosm of the album in general. In the final analysis though, it was Shamir’s ear for a hook and the wit of his lyrics that brought me back to this time and again.

  1. Purity Ring — Another Eternity

For whatever reason Purity Ring’s debut (Shrines (2012)) didn’t make it onto my radar, and my introduction to the band came when I asked Siri to identify a song which turned out to be ‘Bodyache’ in a coffee shop this summer. Not long after that I was hooked on an album delicately balancing bright, dense synths and a similarly-toned female vocal. There are a few rhythm & blues touches here and there (the cadence of ‘Repetition’ for example), but it’s one influence among a spectrum, all blended here amongst warm synth-swaths to produce an album it’s easy to submerge yourself in and not want to emerge from.

There’s nothing even slightly revolutionary here, but it’s an album — like Metric’s Synthetica (2012) and SBTRKT’s Wonder Where We Land (2014) — that builds a cohesive and vibrant world of sound that pulled me in and kept me entranced.

  1. Jamie xx — In Colour

There’s something very smart about Jamie xx’s marking this solo release by calling out in the title (and album cover) the contrast to The xx’s predominantly monochrome aesthetic. That relationship is carried through to the music also, with the record feeling more expansive, more energetic, and wider-ranging than the (superb) work Jamie’s put out alongside Romy Madley Croft & Oliver Sim. Touching on the same positive-vibes club scene sound as Four Tet’s recent output, the record moves at a pace and imparts a real warmth without ever moving much beyond third gear.

Opener ‘Gosh’ is a cheeky statement of intent. ’Stranger in a Room’ is night-driving music; traffic-lights refracted through rain music - cool in tone and soporific. ‘Hold Tight’ is a helter-skelter, hypnotic headphone trip. ’Obvs’ even manages to make good use of one of my least-favourite instruments: the steel drum.

I got a real kick out of this collection of assorted brighter, club-electronica sounds, and it’s left me even more excited for a third LP from The xx in 2016.

  1. Rival Consoles — Howl

And here’s that other member of the Erased Tapes roster alluded to earlier. Ryan Lee West’s set of constantly shifting soundscapes put a spell on me this year. As with Squarepusher earlier in this list, this is electronic music engaged in the exploration of what happens when a pattern is disrupted, complicated, and altered. Not as fraught as the music on Damogen Furies, but just as restless, this is an album for headphones not just because of its density and intricacy, but also because of its propulsiveness. It’s music to walk to, run to, and ride rails to.

Each track is distinct, none outstay their welcome, and West knows when he’s stretched a beat to its breaking point, and thus when to move on. There’s a melancholy to some of the album’s lower tones, but elsewhere there’s a playfulness, and energy to spare (such as displayed by the shuffling brush-played drums underneath album highlight ‘Low’). Closing track ‘Looming’ is perhaps the collection’s tightest package; the euphoric shivers of synth that run through it ringing out like harbingers of a sunrise.

  1. Nosaj Thing — Fated

There’s a tone and a tempo of electronica that I’ve been continuously hunting since Flying Lotus’s Cosmogramma put me under its spell in 2010. Shigeto’s No Better Time Than Now satisfied the itch in 2013, and last year the role was played by Submerse’s Slow Waves; in 2015 the honour goes to the third record by Jason Chung a.k.a. Nosaj Thing.

Laid back to the point of near-horizontality, and characterised by nothing so much as a pervading sense of warmth, this is a species of electronic music that finds soul and humanity within the machines - blood in the wires. If I could pick a record of 2015 to live inside, it might well be Fated. The cover image is a simple black & white photo of Chung holding up a fork by the tines, a butter knife suspended from it at 6 o’clock, pulled by gravity and held by some quirk of magnetism. The album somehow feels the same: a long, suspended moment, slightly magical, in tune with chance. For whatever reason I think of this sub-category as liminal electronica - and, considering that that’s a musical genre that doesn’t exist outside of my head, Chung does a remarkable job of getting it just right.

  1. Metric — Pagans in Vegas

This album’s a disappointment within the limited framework of comparison to its predecessor: the flawless Synthetica (2012). Still present are the sure-footedly executed balance of pop sensibilities and underlying electro menace, the flawless understanding of what a key-change or lyrical twist can accomplish, and the sense of a band exploring every corner of their alt-electro-synth-pop palate.

When the pace dipped I found myself losing interest just a little — something that never happened throughout Synthetica — and overall the quality is merely outstanding rather than genre-defining. There are exceptions: the effervescent ‘The Shade’, and the sly, shifting ’Cascades’ are every bit as good as I’d come to expect from Metric. In the final analysis this is a really solid continuation of the band’s sound, somewhat unfairly made to feel slight in comparison to a vastly superior previous album. And yet, these things must be put in context and this place in the top five is richly deserved.

  1. Toro y Moi — What For?

This is an album possessed of both a distinct sense of the mood it wants to invoke, and also a sense of humour about the single-mindedness with which it sets about the task. Smart, effortlessly cool, and rendered with a fresh clarity, the soul influences are worn as a badge of honour whilst the mismatch of laid-back delivery and sometimes heavier content is endlessly compelling.

The vocals are liberally treated with effects, but its done with such a holistic sense of the album’s sonic world that instead of risking distraction it instead echoes the warm distortion of the guitars, and serves to deepen the rich, swaying textures of the lower- tempo tracks. When the pace picks up on tracks like ‘Empty Nesters’ it takes the edge off the more cutting lyrics (“Call Mom & Dad because their nest is empty, and so are you”) and keeps the mood light. Aaron Gold’s drums perform the same trick throughout, keeping things light and moving swiftly.

The record’s finest moment comes in the shape of ‘Spell It Out’: a three-minute sideswipe that comes off like a simultaneous slap and kiss to the cheek.

  1. Grimes — Art Angels

Rumour has it that after the unexpected level of attention garnered by 2012’s Visions, Clare Boucher made an album’s worth of material — including ill-conceived single release ’Go’ — before scrapping the whole thing and starting again. If true it’s perhaps indicative of how seriously Boucher sees the task of representing herself truthfully through her art in the glare of intensified media interest.

She starts, simply, on the introductory ‘Laughing and Not Being Normal’, by reminding us that she has a spectacular voice, sometimes overlooked in commentary that focusses on her layering techniques and beat-making. From there she progresses into the achingly-beautiful ‘California’, which contains perhaps Grimes’s clearest method statement: “I love this music / It sounds just like my soul”. And so unfolds a record democratic in its tastes, eclectic in its tone and tempo, and yet singularly focussed on the task of pure artistic expression. Whatever reception the release received it seems clear that the most important thing to the artist here was making a record she was happy with. And so she indulges every whim for the duration that it retains her attention: sweetness, savagery, choral melody, multi-layered spiral-staircase beats… and on.

‘Kill V. Maim’ is the album’s centrepiece, a crucible for all this particularly brilliant form of compositional madness, and — by some miracle — one of the best synth-pop anthems since Robyn’s Body Talk five years ago.

  1. Sleater-Kinney — No Cities to Love

Where did this come from?

I had a slight familiarity with S-K’s previous album: The Woods (2005), but that was a decade ago, and prior to that — in the pre-streaming / pre-download era — they’d never really crossed my radar other than as mentions in articles analysing the impact of grunge, listed alongside Belly and Sonic Youth, and a dozen other bands I never really connected with for whatever reason. So it comes as something of a surprise that I fell so hard for this album, having tuned in after hearing it compared to Wild Flag’s 2011 debut. (It’s pretty funny how clearly I had that influence the wrong way around.) Released not three weeks into the year it was immediately obvious that this album would stick around for a place on The List. ‘Price Tag’ might be the best opening track of any album this year, and like ‘Surface Envy’, ‘A New Wave’ and… well, most of the album, it’s a ~3-minute masterpiece of concentrated energy driving forward a smart lyric. This collection of songs is near bursting at the seams with ideas, energy and new directionality; it’s possible that after 10 years away the three members of Sleater-Kinney came back together with so many ideas that No Cities to Love represents the finest 10 tracks of dozens recorded. Whatever the case, they’ve produced a near-perfect rock album with just the right levels of enthusiasm, menace, sadness, and empowering anger. The title track deserves special mention for balancing these elements particularly flawlessly, whilst showcasing the poppy lightness that keeps the whole record effervescing.

  1. Chvrches — Every Open Eye

Chvrches’ debut album reached number 4 on my 2013 list and so it’s fitting that this record, which represents a simultaneous strengthening and deepening of their sound, claims a higher spot. In truth the top three here came together pretty late. With Sleater-Kinney having been in pole position since release in Jan, and the Grimes LP not arriving until fairly late in the year, there was a bunch of late-in-the-day shuffling going on.

The Bones of What You Believe was one of those records that I loved but which left me with questions as to how it would be followed up. The answer Chvrches have elected to go with — perhaps wisely — is to double down on what they’re indisputably great at: a propulsive strain of synth-pop, underpinned by a strong rhythm section, and shot through with a hint of darkness. Lauren Mayberry’s voice remains the band’s secret weapon: sometimes fragile-seeming and bruised, it is uniquely suited to making anthemic vocals feel tender and personal. It is not Hayley Williams’s absolute siren of a vocal style, but matches it for its ability to make the synaptic connection between head and heart.

The album is near-flawless; even the questionable choice to leave vocals to Martin Doherty on ‘High Enough to Carry You Over’ shifts the album temporarily into a slightly different tone, following which ‘Empty Threat’ (the record’s poppiest moment) feels something like the lifting of a headache or a low mood.

Perhaps the album’s signal moment comes just over two minutes into ‘Clearest Blue’, when the tender build-up crescendos into a euphoric dance beat. Somehow the fact that it resembles nothing more closely than The Pet Shop Boys does nothing to dilute the sheer joy of it.

It’s telling that album number two has pushed Chvrches straight to the top of my list of acts to see live ASAP. Bright, sweet, imbued with boundless energy, and yet knowing and highly polished, this record is a confection but one over which I carry no guilt for adoring.

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