So here we are again, at the end of another year of remarkable music. Due to the sheer volume of music we’ve managed to consume this year wheedling this list down to a mere twenty, and then somehow shaping them into some sort of order was a highly taxing task, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. Nearly every record on this list at some point or other worthy of the ‘album of the year’ title, and we can only hope you’ll enjoy discovering, or re-discovering them as much as we did.
So without further ado, let us begin our walk through the records that to our ears shaped the musical landscape of 2015, although we do begin by heading back to 1985…
It may been recorded some thirty years previously, but 2015 was the year that South-London’s Normil Hawaiians lost album became found. Recorded back in 1985, what is most remarkable about the bands politically charged third album is just how fresh, vibrant and apt it still sounds. The climate of austerity and suffering at the hands of a Conservative government that was present when it was written have returned, and whilst time may have passed this is a record that sounds as relevant now as it would have done had it come out when it was originally written.
However, it isn’t just the message that sounds fresh, the bands blend of post-punk and lo-fi art-rock doesn’t seem to have aged a day. There’s Sianne Don’t Work In A Factory, building from an atonal blast of industrial-noise to a claustrophobic Joy Division recalling sonic-fog, and Guy’s voice certainly bears a likeness to Ian Curtis. The scouse-spoken word Slums Still Stand, is the sound of the working-classes struggles, cries for help and rage at the Political classes. Elsewhere they seem to take influence from kraut-rock, folk and even prog. They’re at the best, as on the stand out Battle Of Stonehenge, when they seamlessly blend the influences into a sound all their own. Return Of The Ranters is an album equal parts remarkable and harrowing, a reminder that for all our advances in the past three decades, so many of the problems still remain.
In an industry where being a band is seemingly governed by a series of unwritten rules for finding success, few bands have broken as many of them as Joanna Gruesome. They admit to rarely practising before they play live, they live separate lives dotted around the country in different cities, and they wrote a second album that was only just over twenty minutes long. Nothing about that approach should work, which is quite possibly why it did, it’s perhaps exactly why they stand out so much from the hordes of polished, careerist musicians, and perhaps why they sound so utterly thrilling.
Peanut Butter was a significant step-up from their debut album, Weird Sister, it was the record where they managed to harness their gloriously energetic live show and somehow replicate it onto tape. It was perfectly summarised by opening track Last Yr, a brutal assault of feedback, drums and Alanna’s enraged howl of a vocal; it was also simultaneously accessible, jangling and catchy. It was these disparate elements that characterised Peanut Butter, a record that lurched from brutal to beautiful without ever pausing for breath. It was only on closing track, Hey I Wanna Be Yr Best Friend, that they slowed it down and showed they could do touching, only to throw a ludicrous guitar solo over the end to remind you never to take things with Joanna Gruesome too seriously. Singer Alanna would sadly leave the band shortly after Peanut Butter’s release, that they’ve replaced her with two different singers says a lot about how important to band’s sound she was. Whether this is the end of Joanna Gruesome’s recording career or not, a short, sharp and utterly thrilling blast of output seems oddly fitting for a band who always looked more likely to burn out than to fade away.
(N.B. Fortuna Pop have since confirmed it wont be the end of their recording career, new single coming soon – excellent news!)
Read the full review of Peanut Butter – HERE
Upon its release we must admit the second album by Illinois psych-folk songwriter Ryley Walker entirely passed us by. It was only an intriguing passage in the End Of The Road programme that drew us to the Garden Stage on a particularly wonderful Friday morning in Dorset; and thank heavens we went! His set that day was fantastic, prog-tinged folk which injected a less than fashionable genre of music with a virtuosity and vitality not heard since the back end of the 1960’s.
From that set we discovered the charms of Ryley’s record from the start of the year, Primrose Green. In a year where shoegaze and slacker-rock seemed to be the order of the day on the alternative music-scene there was something refreshingly unfashionable about Ryley’s music. It took clear influence from the likes of Bert Jansch, Van Morrison, perhaps a touch of John Fahey, but it was all delivered with enough fresh enthusiasm and musical talent to lift this beyond mere parody. Whether it was the full blown prog-jamming of Love Can Be Cruel or the stripped back acoustic of the closing solo-cut, Hide In The Roses; this was a record that whilst reminding us of the great musicians of the past, marked Ryley out as their equal not their replica.
17. NRVS LVRS – THE GOLDEN WEST (Breakup Records)
The Golden West, the debut album by NRVS LVRS, was a simultaneous love letter and warning shot to their home city of San Francisco. It was a record that quietly mourned the slow strangulation of a city in the grips of gentrification, rent crisis and artistic decline.
It’s one of the strongest lyrical records of the year, and luckily they had the tunes to match it; Black Diamonds was a jangling blast of Indie-Pop, 2YOUNG2KNOW recalled the tear-stained danceability of Stars, whilst Cordoba Grey was The Human League grabbing Ladytron’s hand and taking them on a perfectly harmonised killing spree. The stand out moment though was the stunning title track, The Golden West, the sound of a melancholic Flaming Lips, heartbroken by the site of tech-migrants who, “don’t care about this town, they only heard there’s gold out west.” A chillingly beautiful record.
Read our interview with NRVS LVRS – HERE
Edinburgh quartet The Spook School’s second album, Try To Be Hopeful, was probably one of the most triumphant albums of 2015. The album was recorded whilst guitarist Nye Todd was going through testosterone therapy, a crucial step in him embracing his trans-identity. It was a huge event in his life, and as such it in many ways shaped the formation of the albums own identity. It was an album of noisy, triumphant and tuneful pop-songs, that explored the topics of sexuality, identity, and most of all embracing the spirit of being yourself, no matter who that is.
Burn Masculinity was about still having to challenge the casually sexist world of “lads” even though you were now, gender-speaking, one of them and Binary questioned why the world try’s to place us into their hexadecimal, black and white world of gender. Although it wasn’t all serious gender politics, I Want To Kiss You was about wanting to kiss people (obviously). It managed to tred the difficult line of tackling important issues, but with enough humour, attitude and hooks to make it just as enjoyable as it was important.
Read our article on The Spook School – HERE
Cardiff-based multi-instrumentalist Rosie Smith may have called her second album Difficult Second Chair, but it appeared only a year after her debut, and it sounded anything but difficult. Indeed, this collection of tracks was a significant step-up, the sound of a musician working out not just the sound she wants to create, but making achieving it sound effortless and thrilling.
This collection of short, witty, lo-fi gems showcased Rosie’s crooked-pop snapshots, blending playful instrumentation and off-beat song structures. They were tracks that on first listen could easily be mistaken as light-hearted or flippant, but on repeat listens there was both a darker-side and plenty of emotive depth. A record of quiet-triumphs, it was one of the most unique and intriguing albums of the year, and one that proved you can still breathe new life into bedroom recordings, casio-keyboards, and age old tales of heartbreak and romance.
Read our article on Oh Peas! – HERE
John Grant’s third solo album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, was arguably the record where he completed his transformation from underground unknown to mainstream success story. Thankfully that didn’t affect either his approach or the results, because this was a record that was every bit as barbed, angry, charming, witty, brutal and beautiful as the two records that preceded it.
Arguably, it lacked the focus of Pale Green Ghosts, perhaps it wasn’t quite the emotional tour de force of Queen Of Denmark, but in reality that was just a case of us as listeners setting the bar impossibly high. Some moments, the attempted biblical epic Magma or the overly-sleazy disco of Snug Slacks, may have fallen a little short, but the highlights more than made up for that. There was the disco-inspired single Disappointing, a collaboration with Tracey Thorn who sounded better than ever, the title track that showed his trademark brutal whit remained as sharp as ever, and in Global Warming he showed his ability to even make climate change all about him, with hilarious and beautiful results. This was John’s album about love, and in its many highlights it was an album that had an awful lot to love about it.
Read the full review of Grey Tickles, Black Pressure HERE.
2015 marked twenty five years of the legendary Heavenly Recordings label, they celebrated by releasing arguably some of their best output, and unquestionably some of there most interesting. There were albums from Gwenno, Stealing Sheep and Hooton Tennis Club that all caught our ear, but a pair of fabulous records make our top twenty, the first of which was the latest master-piece from H.Hawkline.
In The Pink Of Condition was Huw Evans’ third album under the H.Hawkline moniker, and his first for Heavenly. Featuring production from label mate, and fellow Welsh wonder, Cate Le Bon, it was his most ambitious and intriguing collection to date, foregoing some of his more acoustic-tendencies for a record that expanded his sound, merging the wonky art-pop world of bands like Television or Gang Of Four with the pop sensibilities of Gruff Rhys or The Kinks. Spooky Dog buzzes with a delightfully unhinged guitar riff, In Love V2 is as downbeat a song about being in love as you’ll ever hear with a gorgeous choppy piano sound, whilst Moons In My Mirror was just a beautifully odd and surprisingly accessible track. It was an album that was in many ways perfect pop, only in a way that nobody has ever done, or even thought of before.
Chorusgirl started out as the solo project of Silvi Wersing, now expanded to a four piece band. Their self-titled, debut album, recorded over three years, took inspiration from the likes of The Dum-Dum Girls, The Breeders and Vivian Girls. It was the sound of Silvi stepping out of the shadows and into the limelight, it also had a few guitar lines that sounded a bit like The Shadows thrown in for good measure.
From the geniusly catchy-pop of lead single, Oh To Be A Defector, to the brooding Jesus & Mary Chain-like Shivers and the scuzzy tribute to a teenage best friend, Girls Of 1926, this was an album that shaped the band’s influences into something timeless, but also surprisingly on trend in 2015. A stunning album, packed with fascinating ideas, polished production and more than enough wonderful tunes, it was a record that far exceeded expectations and was one of the finest debuts of the year.
Read our interview with Chorusgirl – HERE
How often when two musicians come together do we end up with something far less than the sum of their parts? Luckily when Cate Le Bon and White Fence’s Tim Presley went into the studio together, they became the exception to the rule. The merger of the Welsh songstress and the San Franciscan lo-fi psych guitarist was a match made in heaven, it didn’t sound like Cate Le Bon, it didn’t sound like Tim Presley, it just sounded uniquely, and brilliantly, like DRINKS.
Hermits On Holiday sounded not just unlike Cate or Tim’s work, but unlike any other record being made now, or perhaps ever; there were nods to Liars, The Velvet Underground perhaps Vic Goddard, but nothing that lasted long enough to really make you think it sounds like any of them in particular. On first listen it does admittedly sound almost unlistenable; avant-garde meets post-punk, improvised guitar noodling meets lyrics about hermits, whether or not Cate likes Lemon The Dog and complete nonsense. On repeat listen though patterns emerge, the unexpected juxtaposition of styles become fascinating, and out of the jarring noise comes something intriguing and challenging. In less skilled musicians hands this would just be a huge mess, with talent like Cate and Tim at the helm it’s one of the most fascinating and idiosyncratic records of the year.
Read our full review of Hermits On Holiday – HERE