Craven Hermit’s Top Albums of 2015

Happy New Year! Now that the odometer has rolled over for a brand new circuit around the sun, it’s a good time to revisit the musical highlights of 2015.

Let’s start with a few of the usual caveats. This is a list of the ten albums that brought me the most enjoyment this year. They aren’t necessarily groundbreaking or avant-garde or genre defining – but they appeal to my personal penchant for rhythm and melody. And I am not a professional music writer, I’m just an avid fan, so I don’t get to hear hundreds or even thousands of new records each year. The only records on my radar are the ones that I ponied up my own hard-earned money to buy, based on recommendations from friends, website, magazines, satellite radio, and the blogosphere at large. So don’t expect to see Peruvian folk music or Hungarian techno or even American hip-hop on my list, because my tastes just don’t run that way! I like what I like.

All that said, I think that a number of very good albums were released over the past year. Many people have celebrated 2015 as the “new golden era of television”, with quality programming spread across a myriad of platforms. In my estimation, popular music is also at a high water mark. No, it’s not like the 1960’s or early 1970’s where a dozen or so bands seemed to rule the earth. But even if there is a dearth of modern artists that can cut across genres and demographics, there is an embarrassment of riches that awaits discovery by music fans who make a modest effort to seek it out.

If you enjoy alternative rock, indie rock, or something closer to pop, the following albums may be worth a listen whenever you get a chance. Sorted alphabetically by artist, these are my favourite albums of 2015.

Every Open Eye by Chvrches

Chvrches - Every Open EyeIn mid-2015 during an interview for Q Magazine, the members of Chvrches pulled a prank on their manager. Invited into the studio to hear some samples of the Scottish dance-poppers upcoming second album, the manager was treated to an unholy “atonal din”. It was all a joke of course. On Every Open Eye, the trio haven’t turned to grunge or industrial or noise rock. Sensibly, they’ve followed up their well-received 2013 debut with even bigger Euro-pop choruses and sharper melodies. Most of the songs feature the clarion call of Lauren Mayberry’s distinctive vocals, though whenever keyboardist Martin Doherty steps up to the microphone the album takes on an interesting 80’s throwback vibe. Sometimes acerbic, sometimes playful, sometimes melancholy, but entertaining through and through.
Key track: “Leave a Trace”

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World by The Decemberists

Decemberists - What a Terrible WorldSeveral years on from the success of 2011’s The King Is Dead, the Decemberists might have been forgiven for returning to their artesian well of R.E.M. flavoured Americana. Instead, new album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is a wonderful distillation of the entire Decemberists catalogue in the guise of a modern-sounding rock record. Elements of proggy folk music, sea shanties, and tales of youthful angst peek through the knotholes, even if the songs sound radio-ready on first listen. Unabashedly literate, uncluttered, melodic, and anthemic in good measure, it’s a feast for the ears.
Key track:
“Till The Water’s All Long Gone”

Born Under Saturn by Django Django

Django Django - Born Under SaturnEvidently, 2015 was an excellent year for Scottish sophomore albums. Like Chvrches, the year saw the return of electro-indie-surf act Django Django with an album that improves upon the template of their debut. The rhythms are still mechanical yet humanistic, drawing inspiration from forebears like Kraftwerk and more modern contemporaries like Hot Chip or the Beta Band. The melodies, meanwhile, are playful and bright and perhaps a smidge easier to digest this time out. It’s very easy for the listener to get caught up in the polyrhythmic fun. One imagines that smart-arse a cappella groups at universities from Auckland to Yale are obsessively studying every twist and turn of Born Under Saturn as we speak.
Key track: “Giant”

Return To The Moon by El Vy

El Vy - Return To The MoonCollaborations can be a trainwreck (case in point: Metallica and Lou Reed), but occasionally they draw upon the strengths of both artists. Matt Berninger and Brent Knopf first met years ago while their bands (the National and Menomena, respectively) were touring together. The songs resulting from their collaboration explore many different avenues of indie rock – from the punchy guitars of the title track and “Sad Case” to the wistful synth-driven pop of “Paul is Alive” to the slinky soul of “Sleeping Light” to the downbeat efficiency of “No Time To Crank The Sun”. The kaleidoscopic songwriting is deftly glued together by Berninger’s instantly recognizable baritone. The vocals are simultaneously miserable and playful, melancholy and hilarious, defeated yet defiant.

Key track: “Return To The Moon (Political Song for Didi Bloome to Sing, with Crescendo)”

FFS by Franz Ferdinand + Sparks

FFSYet another collaboration this year brought us FFS, a new joint venture of Glaswegian pop-rockers Franz Ferdinand and veteran LA experimental pop artists Sparks. Almost a decade in the making, the wittily named FFS marks the return of both acts to the rarified air of top-of-the-pops craftsmanship. Franz Ferdinand have always employed a fondness for arty dance-rock with massive choruses. Injecting their tunes with the witty misanthropy and eccentricities of the Mael brothers was a masterstroke. The fact that they included a catchy number called “Collaborations Don’t Work” among these 16 tracks tells you something about the kind of humour at play behind the hooks.
Key track: “Johnny Delusional”

Chasing Yesterday by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds

Noel Gallagher - Chasing YesterdaySome people continue to pine for an Oasis reunion, but I’m not one of them. The allure of Hefty bags full of cash makes a reunion of the Gallagher brothers all but inevitable. Which will be a shame, because shedding himself of the distractions of sibling rivalry has helped Noel Gallagher take his songwriting chops to a higher level. It’s highly doubtful that melancholic masterpieces like “Riverman” or “The Right Stuff” would have worked on an Oasis album, yet on Chasing Yesterday they are two of the album’s strongest tunes. Noel can still howl and rock out when he wants to – as he and his happy minstrels do on “Lock All The Doors” and “The Mexican”. But it’s the album closer “Ballad of the Mighty I” that stands proudly among the best things the man has ever written, and that’s saying a lot.
Key track: “Ballad of the Mighty I”

In Colour by Jamie xx

Jamie xx - In ColourEveryone seemed to fall in love this album in 2015, and with good reason. Among all the studio production wizardry and guest vocalists, there are tunes galore. I will admit that, on first listen, I was thrown awry by the lead-off track “Gosh” which spends its first two and a half minutes of drum ‘n’ bass going precisely nowhere. But once melody lines start floating in from the ether on spacey synthesizers, the album is finally off and running. This is the sound of an introvert’s dance party – bouncy and rhythmic and tuneful without feeling the need to be an attention whore. On “Loud Places”, Jamie xx draws a masterful vocal performance out of frequent collaborator Romy Madley Croft, painting in sonic watercolours the sound of the conflict inside every shy person’s head whenever it’s time to go out.
Key track: “Loud Places”

Drones by Muse

Muse - DronesIt was hard to guess which way the ever-evolving Muse would pivot for their seventh studio album, coming on the heels of the thermodynamic glam of 2012’s The 2nd Law. With the benefit of hindsight, their choice of producer – none other than Robert John “Mutt” Lange – should have been a tell. Drones is a loud and slinky collection of massive guitar riffs and thumping drums and bass, shot through with Matt Bellamy’s politically paranoid themes. The sequencing of songs is also hugely entertaining. Upbeat radio ballad “Mercy” (this album’s closest cousin to “Starlight”) is followed up by the vicious “Reapers”, wherein Matt Bellamy attempts to out-tap Eddie Van Halen. It’s preposterous, it’s dramatic, and it’s about as subtle as a punch to the throat. In short, it’s a prototypical Muse album – and a pretty good one at that.
Key track: “Psycho”

Music Complete by New Order

New Order - Music CompleteWith the high-profile departure of irascible yet indispensible bassist Peter Hook, alarm bells were ringing regarding the future of New Order. Hooky’s instantly recognizable bass tones have been at the core of the band’s sound for the better part of three decades. Who would fill all that sonic space? Keyboardist Gillian Gilbert has rejoined the band in the studio, and a few high-profile collaborators were invited to participate in the new recordings. The results are better than most reasonable people might have expected. The melodies and bottom-end ‘thump’ harken back to the band’s 1980s heyday, while the production is very much up-to-date. The lyrics are still as banal as ever – one gets the feeling that Coldplay’s Chris Martin probably mumbles better lyrics in his sleep than Bernard Sumner pens on his best day. But listening to New Order songs in search of lyrical genius is sort of like going to McDonalds for a salad. Just enjoy the electro-disco stylings and dance like nobody’s watching.
Key track: “Plastic”

Currents by Tame Impala

Tame Impala - CurrentsThis was one of the most hotly anticipated albums of the year, and Currents did not disappoint. After a few years of dabbling in various pet projects, Kevin Parker returned to the studio to put together this follow-up to his 2012 breakthrough album Lonerism. Folks expecting the face-shredding fuzz of “Elephant part 2” may have been confused by the new album’s chilled-out, lethargic vibe. But those who chose to give it a few spins before passing judgment were able to discover the rewards lurking within. The layers of keyboards and disembodied vocals are like a soothing bath where the listener can revel in his or her own introspective glory. Just listening to the drum fills on “Let It Happen” flip inside out fills me with wonder. Maybe next time, Parker will choose to once again strap on a guitar and deliver the psychedelic rock masterpiece that so many listeners crave. For now, we will have this disillusioned, misanthropic masterpiece to console us.
Key track: “The Less I Know The Better”

And now for a special bonus! I don’t normally put live albums on my “Best Of” lists, but this year I will make an exception because it’s just so bloody good.

Royal Albert Hall by Eels

Eels - Royal Albert HallMy favourite live album of the last year is this recording by Eels at London’s vaunted Royal Albert Hall. Mark Oliver Everett is at his self-deprecating best, leading his nattily attired bandmates through an extended set of the world’s finest “bummer rock”. ‘E’ has always had a gift for making the most heart-broken tunes of misery and sorrow sound life-affirming, and this live set reveals the true depth of his songwriting talent. My personal favorites are “Fresh Feeling”, “My Timing Is Off”, “Grace Kelly Blues”, and the incomparable “Last Stop This Town” but, really, it’s all pretty great stuff. ‘E’ makes sure to thank “Albert” for the invitation to play his lovely hall, then proceeds to tell the audience how his request to play the venue’s mighty pipe organ has been rebuffed not once but twice by the stuffed suits in charge of such things. Will he ever get to make those hallowed pipes roar? Stay tuned…
Key track: “Fresh Feeling”


4 thoughts on “Craven Hermit’s Top Albums of 2015

  1. Congratulations on giving the world the first list that isn’t topped by Kendrick Lamar!

    Seriously, why is that pimped butterfly thing infecting every single list from All Music to Pitchfork? Do those talentless guilty white hipster fad-shapers of the world REALLY think that it’s still 1994 and we all yearn to fill our lives with gangster rap straight outta Compton? Get real people.

    Here’s my list for comparison (we had zero records in common this year which is actually a GOOD thing for all curious onlookers!) Now get out there and LISTEN TO SOME NEW MUSIC PEOPLE!

    My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall
    Blitzen Trapper – All Across This Land
    Widespread Panic – Street Dogs
    Ryan Adams – 1989
    Wolf Alice – My Love Is Cool
    Israel Nash – Silver Season
    Edie Brickell & Steve Martin – So Familiar
    Boy & Bear – Limit of Love
    Built To Spill – Untethered Moon
    Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit
    The Amazing – Picture You
    Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
    Wilco – Star Wars
    Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
    Slayer – Repentless

    • Hey – thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving such a great comment.

      I also don’t know what to make of the love-in for Kendrick Lamar. I’ve sampled some of the music online and, while it seems to be pretty original, it just doesn’t do anything emotionally for me. Same goes for Run The Jewels, too. I’m just a suburban dude with a pasty complexion that likes Beatlesque melodies and interesting rhythms. To my ears, modern hip-hop is much more focused on the vocals and the message. To each his own, I suppose. I doubt the kids in South Central L.A. are rocking out to Sufjan Stevens.

      Our top-ten lists (you listed 15, so you cheated a little!) almost had some overlap. A few months ago I might have nominated that My Morning Jacket record. But the more I listened to it, the more I grew bored of some of the songs. It starts with a brilliant one-two punch, and the rest of the album definitely has its moments (“Tropics” is hauntingly beautiful), but in the end it just didn’t make my shortlist.

      I would have put Blitzen Trapper on my list, but I couldn’t find their record until just before Christmas, and I didn’t have enough time to listen to it properly. They’re definitely going for more of a ’70s Jackson Browne vibe now, instead of that weird folky-country-rock thing that I fell in love with on Furr. But they do it very well (better than Dawes and Avett Brothers recently), and the songs are catchy. Definitely worth a recommendation.

      I’m also just about the biggest Wilco fan I know. But I got off to a bad start with “Star Wars”. I still listen to most of The Whole Love on a monthly basis, if not more. So I was super-excited when a link to the new album appeared unexpectedly in my in-box. I stayed up late, downloaded the files, plugged them into iTunes, fired them up on the stereo, and then… 76 seconds of crushing disappointment. Holy shit do I ever hate the leadoff song “EKG”. It’s just awful. It’s like starting off a steak dinner with a tablespoon of castor oil. I’d rather listen to Jeff Tweedy’s headache song “Less Than You Think” on repeat than ever hear “EKG” again. After I deleted this song across my various devices and gave Star Wars a proper listen, I quite liked it. It’s still kind of a random shambolic mess (which might have been half the point), but “Random Name Generator” hits all the right buttons and I can see listening to “You Satellite” for many years to come. Looking forward to hearing it in concert, where even the most difficult Wilco songs seem to take on a new life.

      I didn’t care too much for the “new” Ryan Adams album. I had high expectations based on the advance press, but… meh. It’s okay, but I can’t see myself listening to it much in future years. I like the arrangements, but I think he’s got better stories to tell than Taylor Swift does.

      I do not understand the adulation for Courtney Barnett. She’s got an admirable songwriting style and a spunky spirit, and the lyrics look cool as words on a page. But I hate her voice, which is kind of a problem. But don’t take my word for it – I’m very picky about girl singers. Don’t even get me started on that lady from Alabama Shakes 🙂

      But don’t fret just yet. I’ve never heard of Wolf Alice, Israel Nash, or The Amazing but I’ll be checking them out soon, based on your high praise!

      Thanks again for taking a few moments to post a reply and expand all of our musical horizons.

      • Is 15 records in a year-end list a lot? Most critics and music websites go all the way to 50 or even 100. When you consider that true music freaks like you and me might hear 100 new albums in a year, getting it down to 10 is tough! Especially in an especially good year (like 2014). 2015 wasn’t nearly as wonderful (unless you were an Adele fan) but I still managed to make a list of 35 albums back in mid-December. The 15 I posted above weren’t my “top 15” necessarily, but rather the 15 I think most folks would enjoy the most. In other words, the crowd-pleasers. Here are my other 20 (in no particular order) for the adventurous:

        Los Lobos – Gates of Gold
        Lamb of God – VII: Sturm Und Drang
        Warren Haynes – Ashes & Dust
        Sonny Landreth – Bound By The Blues
        Best Coast – California Nights
        Iron Maiden – Book of Souls
        Lucero – All A Man Should Do
        Blur – The Magic Whip
        Great Lake Swimmers – A Forest of Arms *token Cannuck band
        Milo Greene – Control
        Mark Knopfler – Tracker
        Gary Clark Jr – The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim
        Chris Stapleton – Traveler
        Chris Bridges – Coming Home
        Steve Earle – Terraplane
        Pure Bathing Culture – Pray For Rain
        Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
        Joanna Newsome – Divers *Winner of Trippiest Album Of The Year
        James Taylor – Before This World
        Buddy Guy – Born To Play Guitar

        (But if I had to pick TWO albums from my 35 that I could magically make everyone hear, it would be Wolf Alice’s and the new one from The Amazing, they are the ones I predict I will still be listening to in 2025.)

      • Fair enough. Fifteen isn’t so many records 🙂

        I would agree that 2014 was a stronger year for new album releases than 2015. Looking forward to hearing what comes out in 2016. Radiohead, Chromatics and Beck have albums ready to go (or so I’ve read). Shearwater, Underworld, Yeasayer, Steve Mason, M. Ward, White Denim and Band of Horses have all graced my previous best-of lists, and could find themselves there again in December. Even Kula Shaker and Nine Inch Nails have new records coming out. Maybe Noel Gallagher will reconsider and put out his Amorphous Androgynous side-project anyway? LCD Soundsystem are getting back together. And will the Wrens finally release a follow-up to The Meadowlands? Finding out should be fun!

        Maybe I’ll post a “next ten” for 2015 this weekend. Like you, I heard a bunch of records last year that were worthy of praise but are maybe a little too esoteric or uneven for a Top Ten.

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