My Top Ten – Albums of 2015

It’s that time of year when it has to be done – my top ten albums of 2015!

I had more candidates this year than in previous ones, as I’ve spent a lot of time listening BBC 6 Music and consequently hearing so many good new sounds. Mostly Marc Riley’s weekday evening show, but also Gideon Coe, Mary Anne Hobbs, Lauren Laverne, Don Letts, Tom Ravenscroft and, of course, Gilles Peterson. With the book finished (though editing and now indexing has taken me all this year) I’m not spending quite so much of my time listening to past music, though of course I’m listening to the old playlists a lot still.

So, it’s a year in which indie and sounds with a folky edge dominate, but with a leavening of rap and jazz. A very good year.

No 1. A Dream Outside, by Gengahr

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Best indie guitar album I’ve heard since, well, probably the Arctic Monkeys’ first, and The Strokes before them. Swirling guitars, eerie falsetto vocals, a hint of psychedelia and some lovely, uplifting melodies. Live, it really rocks when the guitars hit top gear. Favourite songs: the twisted “Powder”, the simply uplifting “She’s a Witch” (the crowd favourite), the REM-influenced “Heroine” and the dreamy melody of “Lonely as a Shark”. An exciting start for Gengahr – can they go on to great things?

No 2. If I Was, by The Staves

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The Staves’ second album, produced by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. To the beautiful folk-rooted pop of the first album, the Watford trio have added a sheen of Americana and continued their exploration of what you might call prog-folk. Live, it works fantastically well. And their vocals are as wonderful as ever. The duo of songs, “No You, No Me, No More” and “Let Me Down” have the best vocal harmonies and interplay they have managed yet. Justin Vernon was apparently blown away by the beauty of their singing. I am every time.

No 3. Bashed Out, by This Is The Kit.

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Fronted by singer, banjo player and guitarist Kate Stables, This Is The Kit play the most beautiful, wistful folk, with a modern and occasionally quirky touch. There are hints of John Martyn when they go electric – that really comes out live. Favourite tracks include “In Cahoots”, which is the one that introduced me to the band, and the lovely opener, “Misunderstanding”. That one echoed through my head during our summer holiday in Antibes. It felt right in a place I where had so much time to think and imagine, sitting on the balcony on balmy evenings. This is a wonderful, rather moving album from start to finish.

No 4. Every Open Eye, by Chvrches

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Chvrches’ debut, “The Bones of What You Believe” was my top album of 2013. “Every Open Eye” is similar in style, but with a bigger and brighter production. Lauren Mayberry’s delicate but feisty vocals still float over the punching electro-pop beats and swirls. I found it less distinctive than the first album initially, but it grew and grew on me, as I knew it would. Favourite track: the absolutely banging “Keep You on my Side”. Ought to become a dancefloor classic, though Chrvches’ audience is student indie rather than younger teens.

No 5. Light on our Limbs, by Daisy Vaughan

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A recent discovery for me, although the album came out in March. It’s an extended EP really: seven tracks of simple, unerring beauty. Poetic and entrancing. Daisy has a beautiful voice – one to soothe the soul. The musical backing is spare – almost non-existent at times – but a perfect accompaniment to that voice. I just haven’t stopped playing this since I first heard it. I was tempted to put it right in at No 1, but thought that might be too hasty. Wonderful stuff though.

No 6. The Epic, by Kamasi Washington

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“The Epic” is, well, epic! Awesome in its scope, its sound, its ambition, its length. Kamasi Washington himself plays saxophone in a jazz ensemble that takes the form to all its boundaries. At first it’s rather overwhelming, such is its scope and layeredness. But in time the individual songs truly reveal themselves. I saw him and his band play live at the Barbican in November – that convinced me of his and the album’s greatness. And he played a big part in album No 8…

No 7. Mount the Air, by The Unthanks

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One of the most beautiful, affecting songs I have heard all year is “Flutter” by The Unthanks. The album gives you more in that vein. A sound rooted in traditional folk but with a modern take. The backdrop to “Flutter” has an electronic drum beat and violins that sound like they strolled out of a James Bond movie. Another soothing, enveloping album.

No 8. To Pimp a Butterfly, by Kendrick Lamar

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One of the most ambitious rap albums of all time, sonically. The moment when Kendrick Lamar truly reaches back into his heritage, especially jazz as well as soul. Sometimes I find myself thinking of Prince as I listen. This is fusion at its complex best. Lyrics a little wearing at times and self-indulgent, but that’s fairly typical of rap. Part of the product. It’s the sound that gets me loving this one. And no surprise that it is so ambitious when you know that Kamasi Washington produced and played on it.

No 9. Faded Gloryville, by Lindi Ortega

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Readers of this blog will know that I think Lindi Ortega sings some of the finest country songs known to mankind. She defines the sad song with an awesome beauty. The slower ones are the ones that drew me in and there are less of them on this, her fourth Nashville album. So I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t blown away. But it reveals itself after a few listens and is a fine addition to her collection. She tours the UK in February 2016. Go and see her.

No 10. Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I just Sit, by Courtney Barnett

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Courtney Barnett is an Aussie who plays a rocking, sometimes bluesy indie, peppered with sharp, humorous observations about modern life – and how she copes with it. It’s engaging rock’n’roll and brilliant live.  “Sometimes” follows 2013’s double EP, a collection of songs up to that point, called “ A Sea of Split Peas”. I often play the two albums together, on shuffle. It’s a jumble of sounds whose spirit belongs in punk and new wave. Which I guess is part of the reason I love it.

The best of the rest…

So many other good ones, all of which could easily have made the ten (Wolf Alice and C Duncan especially). All worth a listen.

My Love is Cool – Wolf Alice – indie thrash and pop collide to make one of the hit bands of this year’s festivals; Architect – C Duncan – lush and dreamy, made in his bedroom; Under Branch & Thorn & Tree – Samantha Crain – real downhome authentic sounds from the heart of America; The Magic Whip – Blur – a return to form that surpassed expectations and brilliant at Hyde Park; Modern Streets – Beat Spacekthese are the London streets in electronica; What Went Down – Foals – stadium rockers now, but still a bit of that math rock; Everything Else Matters – Pinkshinyultrablast – Russian take on the big sounds of U2, The Horrors, Cocteau Twins and Radiohead; Short Movie – Laura Marling – a beautiful anguished piece of folk-soul; Born in the Echoes – The Chemical Brothers – still pumping out those awesome electro-beats; Friend – Rozi Plain – a delicate almost insubstantial thing, like a spider’s web – and Rozi plays bass in This is the Kit; Time to go Home – Chastity Belt – fair to say early REM are an influence; We Go to Dream – Astrid Williamson – bit like London Grammar and with the hymn-like “Saint Saviour”

Great singles

The double single, “Human Troll” by Monotony and “Transmitters” by Sauna Youth, was the best punky noise I heard all year.

And David Bowie’s awesome ten minute piece, “Blackstar” is, I think, genuinely the best thing he’s done since “Let’s Dance” in 1983. Its use of jazz textures in quite this way is a new direction for Bowie and if the promise of “Blackstar” is fulfilled in the forthcoming album, we could be in “Heroes”/”Low” 2016-style territory. Maybe he should team up with Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamar. Now that would be epic.

Rediscoveries of 2015

Early this year I had a big encounter with the music of Sharon van Etten. Suddenly the true beauty and despair of it hit me. The catalyst was the wonderful “Give Out” from 2012 album, “Tramp”. I just couldn’t get that one out of my head and played it constantly on my guitar too. “Tramp” is a great album, as is “Are We There?” from 2014. I had them both already, but now they became special. Patti Smith, Bruce, Joni Mitchell, country heartbreak – it was all there. She was superb live, at Shepherd’s Bush O2 Empire.

I delved into her back catalogue too, and discovered 2009’s “Because I was In Love”, which had a song called “Keep” on it, which was one of the most impossibly lovely, wistful songs I’ve ever heard. One that Daisy Vaughan would sing beautifully too.

I also finally got The National. And the song that did it for me was “Pink Rabbits” with its tortured lyrics and classic sad melody. Lyric of the year for me was you didn’t see me, I was falling apart; I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park. Genius.

So 2015… it was a very good year.

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love outside work: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. And anything else that I happen to think is worth writing about!
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8 Responses to My Top Ten – Albums of 2015

  1. dc says:

    interesting dominance of female musicians in this selection. haven’t heard most of it. was thinking it was the opposite of a good year for new music (and spoke to a music biz exec last night who was saying he thought it had been a shocker). all about opinions and i guess the harder you look the more you will find the good stuff. will try and listen to some of this over the xmas hols to see what i can salvage from 2015 new music wise.

    • John S says:

      Thought I’d replied to this, but maybe I never pressed send. Yeah the women have it, but chance really. As for your jaded music exec, maybe he’s looking for the next big thing, or a movement. Doubt my selection meets either of those criteria (as there is no justice) but it’s still very fine music. There’s so much good stuff around if you just listen and look for it.

  2. Good list, great taste as usual John. With the exception of Daisy Vaighan, I’ve heard them all. All deserving entries.

  3. Resa says:

    Always enjoy your lists! Honestly, I know half of your top 10 list from reading your blog!
    Happy Holidays, John!

  4. Victoria Elliott says:

    Hi John, in my fantasy future life (when I will have lots more time to spend on music…), I will listen to all your selections! As usual, I’m very ignorant of most of the bands/artists you mention but you won’t be surprised to hear that I know the Unthanks and The Staves. In fact, I feel I `discovered’ the latter (ha ha!) by picking them out from an otherwise fairly forgettable line-up at the Celtic Connections festival in Jan 14. I’ll get you properly into folk in 2016 with a few suggestions back! Happy Xmas, Victoria

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