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
In 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
Several 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
Evidently, 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
Collaborations 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
Yet 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
Some 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
Everyone 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
It 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
With 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
This 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
My 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”