b’lieve i’m goin’ down saw Kurt Vile extend his reign as the king of the American indie underground. Though it was musically a continuation of the stylistic shift towards electric guitars he made with 2013’s successful Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze, this follow-up was recorded in a total of ten different studios across the States during the extensive touring he undertook for that album. Consequently, it had a distinctly indigent atmosphere that set it apart from its two predecessors, but still retained the self-effacing charms that have made him the underground superstar that he is.
As ever, Vile took a series of introspective trips inside his own mind. As ever, the music was impeccably mixed and scanned fundamentally as rock, but set free of the genre’s obvious verse-chorus-verse structures and left to weft and wind to their own natural conclusions, b’lieve… was a dreamy and disconnected alternate universe to get lost in. And, as ever, snatches of country and folk also embedded it in a rich history of dusty, road-bound Americana… To be honest, Vile’s become so much of a natural at what he does that it would be easy to take him for granted, but exceptional talent deserves continued recognition. Let’s hope his golden streak goes on for many years to come. (EB) (LISTEN)
Returning for his first ‘proper studio album’ in five years, Sufjan Stevens proved why he’s one of the greatest singer-songwriters currently in operation. Carrie & Lowell was ostensibly a biographical tribute to his late mother and stepfather, but used memories of them as a jumping-off point for childhood reveries and meditations on past and present trauma. Dealing intelligently and respectfully with topics such as religion and ideas of the afterlife, although he frequently came to cynical conclusions, Stevens was always poignant but never overwrought or mawkish.
The drama and tragedy spoke for itself, with lyrics like “the hospital asked should the body be cast / before I say goodbye, my star in the sky” providing moments of philosophical and emotional strength that counterpointed the fragility of the music. Constructed almost entirely from acoustic stringed instruments, the atmosphere was reminiscent of the great Elliott Smith. Truly, there was no response other than stunned, hushed silence. Where you would ultimately place it in your personal list of top Stevens albums depends very much on how you ‘like your Sufjan’: stripped-down and direct, or sprawling and conceptual. However, nobody could argue that Carrie & Lowell is not going to be up there with his very best work. (EB) (LISTEN)
Living proof of how talent can truly flourish without the crushing weight of hype and expectation, plus the personal strength to pursue artistic greatness over the more easily-chosen path of commercial reward, Laura Marling’s career arc is putting her up there with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush and PJ Harvey. Yes, she really, really is that good. Recharging her batteries by temporarily relocating to America after 2013’s gothic, magnificent Once I Was An Eagle, Marling ditched the quintessentially English folk reference points of her past, picked up an electric guitar and opted for lived-in, panoramic Americana for her fifth album, Short Movie.
Whereas before, Marling had always felt insecurity and alienation through the impermanence of never living in one place during her early twenties, on Short Movie she embraced it, or at least came to terms with the ennui. Everything just sounded airier and brighter than on previous works, particularly the claustrophobia of …Eagle, and it was occasionally reminiscent of the travelogue atmosphere of Mitchell’s Hejira as Marling demonstrated an innate understanding of the interplay between folk and rock, and their contrasting disciplines. To have become such an accomplished writer, storyteller and musician by the age of just 25 (!) is astonishing, and the only question now worth asking is: how much better can she really get? (EB) (LISTEN)
Back in February, when Blur announced their first album in over a decade, and with Graham Coxon since 1999, the jubilant reaction soon subsided into fears, from some fans, over the question of legacy. After all, how many artists are truly as great as they once were 25 years into their career? Recorded quite by chance, in a Hong Kong studio during an enforced five-day delay caused by a cancelled festival appearance and constructed from song sketches, The Magic Whip was an unqualified success precisely because they consciously decided not to measure up against some externally imposed idea of themselves and what they should sound like, and simply chose to create something they wanted to.
With guitars mainly taking a back seat to slow arrangements set to electronic and piano accompaniments, it was a different kind of Great Blur Record. Inspired by the vertical cityscape of Hong Kong itself, and questions of population and sustainability that such unnatural landscapes pose (stated most explicitly on ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’ and ‘New World Towers’), Albarn’s conflation of personal issues of loneliness and reliance on technology with global, socio-economic themes dovetailed perfectly with Coxon’s art-rock structures, and resulted in a healthy number of Instant Blur Classics one could imagine destined for a future ‘best of’. With The Magic Whip, Blur sounded more united and collaborative than at any point since Parklife, and a British musical institution returned with their legacy not just intact, but polished. (EB) (LISTEN)
Though the world has been waiting for a third xx album for over three years, the public’s patience was rewarded this summer with a first solo album from the group’s musical mastermind, Jamie Smith, fleshing these eleven songs from fragments recorded on his laptop over more than half a decade of touring. But In Colour was not some niche release designed for hipsters and musos; rather, it presented an accessible, all-encompassing vision for a future of inventive, credible British dance music free from Calvin Harris. Cutting out all the tyrannies of fashion and elitism that have attached themselves to dance over the years, Smith spoke to the original, egalitarian vision of the dancefloor that dated back to the introduction of rave.
Smith did two things simultaneously with In Colour, which every truly great solo album should. Firstly, it told us more about his passions, for indulging in obscurantism and crate-digging while fusing it to a template familiar to fans of The xx; secondly, it pointed a way forward for the genre. Armed primarily with his trusty sampler and array of beats, Smith’s sense of economy was once again the key to success. An enthralling kaleidoscope of dubstep, minimalist techno, house, jungle, hip-hop and all manner of other sub-genres, In Colour was like a curated beginner’s guide to 25 years of British dance music, with an unspoken clue as to where the next 25 will take us. (EB) (LISTEN)
Expectations were astronomical for Kendrick Lamar to follow up 2012’s star-making debut good kid, m.A.A.d city, but what he delivered not only matched it in terms of music but exceeded it in terms of themes. From opener ‘Wesley’s Theory’ to twelve minute album closer ‘Mortal Man’, To Pimp A Butterfly is a state of the nation address, engaging, challenging and motivating the listener. It’s a clever, literate celebration of black culture with influences from jazz, gospel and motown; ‘Alright’ begins with the words of Sophia from Alice Walker novel ‘The Colour Purple’ when she says: “All my life I had to fight”, a line Lamar repeats and adds on “but if God got us, then we gon’ be alright”. ‘Alright’ is just one example of the anthemic protesting on the record; every song, whilst confronting the listeners, sticks in the head – a quality that has not been seen since the days of Richey Edwards of when writing the Manics’ 1994 masterpiece The Holy Bible.
To Pimp A Butterfly is the work of a man who has something to say, and in saying it Lamar has become the voice of a generation; during hit single – and song of the year contender – ‘The Blacker The Berry’, Lamar speaks of the pride he finds in his skin colour whilst contrasting the racism that still exists in America (especially after an incident still so raw in the American consciousness as Ferguson) as he defines himself as a “proud monkey”. But it is the self-awareness of the track which stays as the narrator constantly refers to himself as “the biggest hypocrite of 2015”, a statement we don’t initially understand until the inward confrontation becomes apparent – what right does he have to be mad at white people for killing a black man, when he seems to admit [for dramatic effect] on record that he has killed black men too? This one track is an effective microcosm of its parent album: To Pimp A Butterfly sends the listener on a journey and is an album which harks back to the greats Tupac, Sam Cooke, N.W.A. etc., but after To Pimp A Butterfly, after receiving 11 Grammy nominations, Lamar is now among these greats. (JT) (LISTEN)
It took five years for Joanna Newsom to release the follow-up to Have One On Me, but to say Divers was worth the wait would be an understatement. Newsom has it all, from lyrical poise to divine instrumental arrangements and this is never more apparent than in lead single ‘Sapokanikan’, a track which sees Newsom combine twinkling pianos with Disney-esque strings. There is an intellectual integrity to Newsom which makes her worthy of the number four spot on our list, as she discusses everything from the dangers of attachment during ‘Anecdotes’ to the work of Van Gogh.
The fact that she is able to combine all these factors into what is her most accessible album yet emphasises the brilliance of Divers. However, to accuse Newsom of sacrificing her beautiful elegance in favour of accessibility would be wrong; title-track ‘Divers’ sees Newsom let herself go for six and a half minutes and with harp in full swing and vocals reminiscent of Regina Spektor, it’s a real standout on one of 2015’s best albums. Divers is a work of wonder and majesty and is criminally distant from the public eye – perhaps it’s an album that should be available to stream, simply for greater awareness. Many thought it would be impossible for Newsom to top her past efforts – but here, she has done just that. (JT)
Having attracted a significant cult following with 2013’s double EP A Sea Of Split Peas, the shy and hesitant figure of Melbourne’s Courtney Barnett suddenly became the focus of huge expectations to become the next big thing from the indie community, with predictions that her debut album proper would revitalise guitar music. Taking her time rather than rushing it, Barnett doubled down on her existing talent for writing dreamy, grungey-pop nuggets that made the everyday into something wondrous. Sometimes I Sit And Think… was much more mature, though, and the guitar soundscapes that she and her band conjured up felt much less incidental to the lyrics than on that double EP. Her sound was tweaked and honed, rather than overhauled.
Lyrically, Barnett took mundane, everyday situations like house hunting (‘Depreston’), swimming (‘Aqua Profunda!’) and being overtaken on the motorway (‘Dead Fox’) and used them as jumping off points for her sense of daydreaming and wanderlust. However, philosophical moments like this were balanced out by lighter, more bizarre moments like ‘Pedestrian At Best’ and ‘Debbie Downer’ that leavened the package with deadpan humour. The music, alternating between shimmering reveries and grimy garage-pop, served as a stable mooring for it. Sometimes I Sit And Think… was as great as debuts come, modest yet confident and important, and also highlighted the fallacy that guitar music demands constant revolution to stay relevant. Barnett’s ingredients – ’60s garage pop, ‘90s grunge and ‘10s indie – were well established, but she turned it into something distinctively hers and no-one else’s. (EB) (LISTEN)
After winning huge critical praise and no small amount of commercial success for 2012’s Lonerism, the stakes were high for Kevin Parker and Tame Impala in delivering a follow-up. The DNA of ‘60s-inspired nu-psychedelia was still there, but this time the setting moved from the beach to the disco for a fun-filled night of synth-pop, and the shift was thematic as well as musical. Where Lonerism dealt with loneliness and introversion, this had a slightly sunnier disposition but still retained that sweet sense of melancholy. There may have been no obvious hit single like ‘Elephant’, but Parker was at a crossroads anyway: take the easy route and make more psych-rock, or use his platform to challenge his audience. That he chose the latter for Currents speaks to his integrity as an artist.
The main difference was in the finessed production, which felt like clear fresh air where its predecessors were smoky and humid, with the drum sounds much cleaner and accented with hip-hop-style production where before they sounded dirty. The bass was more prominent, and delicate flourishes of ‘80s synth completed these delicious alt-rock confections. With tracks like ‘Cause I’m A Man’ and ‘Eventually’, they were at their most accessible yet, but longer exercises such as ‘Let It Happen’ and ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’ allowed them greater freedom to explore their new sound. How Tame Impala executed this stylistic shift so brilliantly was that Parker made it so easy for you to come along with him on the journey. He’s fast becoming the most important indie artist of the decade. (LJ & EB) (LISTEN)
Two and a half years for a debut album is an absolute eternity in today’s rapidly changing music scene, with trends rising and falling and hype dissipating faster than ever before. So keeping the world waiting for My Love Is Cool for that long was immensely brave but ultimately rewarding for London quartet Wolf Alice, who produced nothing less than the best British guitar debut of the decade so far. Refreshingly free of the verse/chorus/verse mundanity of so much British indie, they played around with structure and genre to fantastic effect, producing all manner of curious tracks that would often change direction halfway through, covering a vast amount of influences in the process. But Ellie Rowsell and her group were no dilettantes, demonstrating an inherent understanding of all the genres on which they touched, with a self-awareness to all these multiple identities, a knowledge of all the great kinds of band they could be in the future.
My Love Is Cool often felt less like an album and more like a mixtape, with selections of highlights taken from lots of different types of great album. There was the grunge storm of ‘You’re A Germ’; the ‘10s arena indie vibe of ‘Lisbon’; the poppy riot-grrl leanings of ‘Fluffy’; the ‘90s retro of ‘Bros’; the shoegaze flamethrower of ‘Swallowtail’… truly bewildering, not to mention the balance between beauty and raw power in Rowsell’s performance, which was more than capable of bearing the heavy load of the music her bandmates wanted to create. Bands as instinctive and varied as Wolf Alice come along once in a generation, and My Love Is Cool could well be looked back upon in ten years’ time as the start of one of the greatest careers in indie. (EB) (LISTEN)
Do you agree with our list? What would be your Album of the Year? Anything we missed out? Tell us below!
Tags: albums of the year, Angel Haze, Beach House, Benjamin Clementine, best albums of 2015, Bjork, Blur, Chemical Brothers, Courtney Barnett, Deafheaven, Deerhunter, Dr. Dre, Drenge, Ed Biggs, Empress Of, Ezra Furman, Father John Misty, FFS, Florence + The Machine, Foals, Gengahr, Ghostpoet, Grimes, Hannah Binns, Holly Herndon, Idlewild, Jamie xx, Joanna Newsom, John Tindale, Julia Holter, Kagoule, Kendrick Lamar, Kurt Vile, Lana Del Rey, Laura Marling, Lauren James, Majical Cloudz, Matthew Langham, Mini Mansions, Panda Bear, Pond, Public Service Broadcasting, Richard Hawley, Shopping, Sleaford Mods, Sleater-Kinney, Speedy Ortiz, Sufjan Stevens, Tame Impala, The Cribs, The Dead Weather, The Maccabees, Titus Andronicus, Top 50 albums of 2015, U.S. Girls, Viet Cong, Wolf Alice, Young Fathers
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