George East’s Top 50 Albums of 2015: #50-#41

by George_East on January 24, 2016

Delayed for a bit to allow for our David Bowie tribute theme week, it is now time for the main act. After ample support provided by my Top 10 Tracks and Top 10 Gigs, we move on to my no doubt hotly anticipated (and definitive) top 50 albums of 2015 list.

2015 was I think a superb year for albums. Any of my top 6 (to be revealed in due course) could have been my album of the year in some previous years and the top 20 overall is jam packed with absolutely cracking albums.

One notable trend in the year was the how the vinyl revival powered on. The US experienced their highest sales of vinyl in a year since 1989 and vinyl is becoming ever easier to buy again. From a position only a few years ago where a trip to the decreasing numbers of indie record shops was necessary if you wanted the vinyl version of the album to Tescos getting in on the act, the transition has been extraordinary. Not only is vinyl now likely to outlive the CD, but there is every chance that it will outlive the download too (given the ubiquity of streaming services such as Spotify).   By my reckoning I bought 16 of my top 20 albums on vinyl this year and it is gradually resuming its position it had 20 years or so ago, as my default format.

The critics’ album of the year was Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly (which headed the Guardian, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork lists and was runner up in the Mojo, Uncut, Time Out and Drowned In Sound lists). Next was probably Julia Holter’s Have You In My Wilderness which topped the Uncut and Mojo lists. Rough Trade were a bit of an outlier for the second year running, plumping for Bjork’s Vulnicura as their best of 2015.

To my embarrassment I have still not even heard the Kendrick Lamar album. Some other highly placed albums I haven’t heard (or at least didn’t hear before my strict 31 December 2015 cut off date) include Art Angels by Grimes, From Kinshasa by Mbongwana Star, Complicated Game by James McMurty, Dark Energy by Jlin (which topped the excellent on-line music magazine, The Quietus’ list), Simple Songs by Jim O’Rourke and Eleana by Floating Points.   Whether any of these would have made my list cannot now be known.

But now to the beginning of the great unveiling. As is traditional, in reverse order:

50: Blur – Magic Whip

For the third year in a row, the 50th slot goes to a big name (after Morrissey in 2014 and his former Smiths-mate,Blur Magic Whip Johnny Marr in 2013). Blur’s first album since 2003’s came as something of a surprise, as despite the reunion gigs which have been part of the circuit since the wonderful 2009 Hyde Park gigs, there had actually only been one new single: 2012’s Under The Westway.

So news that Blur were back in the studio in Hong Kong recording a new album resulted in much anticipation. It is one thing for the creative heart of the band, in Graham Coxon and Damon Albarn to have patched it up enough to play on the same stage again, another altogether for them to be able to work in the studio effectively. The last album Think Tank after all feels a bit of a mess precisely because of the tensions in the band that saw Graham Coxon leave during its recording (though I don’t know about you, but it is an album that after all of this time has begun to grow on me).

When it arrived back in April Magic Whip didn’t disappoint. It is an album that in musical terms feels a bit like a continuation of Think Tank in that it is not full of the big hooks of Parklife or Blur and has overall a melancholy feel. There is though a greater coherence reflecting a band not at war with itself and maybe knowing that this is their last hurrah.   There is also something in Magic Whip of the spacey dance qualities of the great The Good, The Bad and The Queen album that Damon Albarn recorded with Mick Jones and Paul Simonon back in 2007 – and that is high praise indeed.

 

49. Richard Hawley – Hollow Meadows 

After the rockier feel of 2012’s superb Standing At The Sky’s Edge, Hollow Meadows saw Richard Hawley return to the crooner sounds that made his solo Richard Hawley - Hollow Meadowsname a decade or more ago. This is an album with Roy Orbison-like echoes on the vocal and big orchestral arrangements and the wonderful opening track, I Still Want You is an instant Hawley classic.

There are a few more rocky numbers, like Which Way, but these are generally the weaker tracks with guitar workouts edging into Nigel Tufnell territory.

If in terms of the music and production Hollow Meadows has little new, lyrically it is an extremely personal album. The closing track, What Love Means, about his daughter leaving home is as painfully sad as anything he has written:

The least of us collides,

From north to south as she flies

Child of mine, bereft

I’ll never forget’

 

48. Mercury Rev – The Light In You

The second come back album in the list (out of three albums so far!), The Light In You was Mercury Rev’s first album since 2008’s disappointing Snowflake Mercury Rev The Light In YouMidnight. If this is a far cry from the genius of their 1998 masterpiece, Deserter’s Songs (for my money one of the best albums of the second half of the 1990s) or its wonderful, The Light In You it captures that sense of grandiosity that made the Mercury Rev of that period one of the greatest bands around. Jonathan Donahue’s vocals still have that almost falsetto overworldness that give the whole sound a dreamlike quality.

The first side of the album appears to be a struggle to find the light of the title. Amelie is a junkie’s desperate plea not to lose their lover: ‘I’ll break the habit, this is my final score’.   The darker material on this side is better than the more upbeat material of the second half, where the light appears to have been found but some of the song feels a little contrived.

Whether Jonathan Donahue’s journey through the album reflects a personal battle with addiction now won or is about someone else doesn’t really matter, as we appear to have got Mercury Rev back and that is good for the rest of us, as well as him.

 

47: Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts – Manhattan

The great anti-folk singer songwriter returned at the very end of the year with a pretty low key album, Manhattan than a few songs being played on Marc Riley’sJeffrey Lewis Manhattan  Radio 6 show, barely seemed to get a mention.   On Manhattan Jeffrey Lewis’s New York slightly nasally folk vocal is backed superbly by Britain’s The Wave Pictures, who appear as Los Bolts.

This is real shame because Manhattan is chock full of the kind of songs that make Jeffery Lewis such a unique talent in the first place. In my view it is best album since his covers album that did what it says on the tin: 12 Crass Songs.   You cannot really go wrong with an album, which starts with a song called, Scowling Crackhead Ian, which also does what it says on the tin as it recounts the story of its subject.

The best song on the album though and one that only just missed the cut on my top 10 tracks of the year, is Support Tours, which in graphic detail tells just how shitty it is for musicians desperately trying to get the support slots on the tours of bigger artists, something that Jeffrey Lewis has no doubt experienced on more occasions than he can count:

I don’t wanna leave my home to do a tour with crummy pay

But if they make an offer to you, what you really gonna say?

It’s hard to play an empty room, it’s hard to book a tour

so you pray some bigger band might say that you can come support

 

46. Bully – Feels Like

One of the most energetic albums of the year came from Nashville punks Bully, with their debut, Feels Like.   This is the kind of power punk that Green Day Bully Feels Likethink they are but aren’t. Great chunky guitar chords and distortion pedals, with simple and direct heartfelt lyrics.

Singer Alicia Bognanno has something of the young Courtney Love about her in attitude: ‘I remember getting too fucked up. And I remember throwing up in your car’ (opener I Remember). The guitar sound though is perhaps a little more Breeders than Hole, even if some of the screamed vocals are more Love than Kim Deal. And no worse for that.

Some of the songs though speak of pure pain, of being fucked over by dickish blokes and feeling shit as result. In the tellingly entitled Trash Bognanno sings:

I wonder

What else you’ve lied about

I could ask just why you did it

But I know just why you did it

And I wonder

What else you’ve been up to’

The CD booklet says that Stewart Copeland played drums on the album. Pretty certain it cannot be that Stewart Copeland!

On the strength of this if not yet the fully formed article, Bully are definitely a band to watch.

 

45. Drenge – Undertow 

Drenge’s eponymous debut made No 22 in my Top 50 albums of 2013. On their excellent follow up album, Undertow, the Loveless brothers have added a Drenge - Undertowbassist for fuller sound.

The album feels like an attempt to move more into the mainstream from the wonderful noisenik indie of their debut.   There is still those repetitive guitar figures and the incessant drums (check out Favourite Son), but there are more hooks here and the feedback has a couple fade outs aside, more or less gone. Undertow is Drenge’s Darklands to the debut’s Psychocandy,if you like. But Darklands recorded by, say, the Queens of the Stone Age.

We Can Do What We Want has a punk message of defiance, with a singalong chorus that keeps just the right side of The Vaccines. Whereas The Snake speaks of sexual obsession:

We kiss like it’s the first time,

And our bodies intertwined

I feel like I’ve been satisfied

Writhing, twisting, squirming, further

Biting, kicking, screaming, I love you’

We’ve all been there or at least wish we were there.

 

44. Samantha Crain – Under Branch, Thorn and TreeSamantha Crain - Under Branch

The follow up to the great Kid Face (No 20 in my Albums of 2014 list), is further evidence that Samantha Crain is one of the best new(ish) female singer songwriters out there at the moment. Under Branch Thorn and Tree is, in fact, Crain’s fourth album, but Kid Face was the first to get a European release.

The album is a blend of folk, rock and country styles, with a little bit of Joanna Newsom style eccentric art rock into the mix, on songs like the opener, Killer. Crain also has a great narrative approach to songwriting, which reminds me a little of Richmond Fontaine’s Willy Vlutin.

The country infused Elk City tells of a 17 year old girl who after being dumped by her boyfriend has a one night stand in the town of the title, only to find herself pregnant:

that night turned into nine months

sittin’ on my ass

waiting for the baby

which would be by first and last’.

Powerful stuff.

43. Destroyer – Poison Season

To be honest the new Destroyer album has faded a bit for me since it came out back at the end of the summer, but its qualities shouldn’t be overlooked.   In Destroyer Poison Seasonsome ways Poison Season is the War on Drugs’ Lost In The Dream of 2015. All epic songs that sound like they should be the soundtrack to driving down long open roads.

The production is big, the Springsteen influences abound (particularly in the sax sound) and that is all to the good. But this is Dan Bejar, so there are also reference points from soft rock, lounge jazz, the poppier end of Dylan and Broadway show tunes.

On the great Times Square (the stand out track on the album for me), this all blends together perfectly in a song which seems to be about a break up in New York but which also has references back to earlier Destroyer songs and the music business.   Yet the song actually appears on the album three times in different versions, and some of this feels a little overworked.

42. Tame Impala – Currents

Maybe the most over-reviewed album of the year, but nonetheless not one to overlook.   The sometimes to my ears turgid Australian psych-rockers produced Tame Impala Currentstheir best work yet with an album that was more indebted to Daft Punk than Nuggets.

Currents is a dreamy collage of falsetto vocals, mixing desk fades and tricks (effects that suggest the CD/Vinyl has got stuck etc), echoes and electro pop hooks (at times a little reminiscent of Arcade Fire’s great  Reflector.   It is I think one of the great background music albums of the year, even if some of its studio jiggery pokery grates after a couple of listens. It is an album to put on while you are cooking or have got friends round – when you can enjoy the music through hearing, without really having the environment to listen.

Yet underneath this it is an album that demands to be listened to. This is an album of heartbreak and break up, all told from the perspective of the person breaking up the relationship (presumably Kevin Parker, who effectively is Tame Impala, himself). Those easy to singalong to vocals on closer appreciation turn out to be things like ‘why did I do it?’ (on the epic almost 8 minute opener Let It Happen) or ‘I know I said that I could never hurt you, well this is the very very last time I’m going to’ (on Eventually).

41. Bjork – Vulnicura

Rough Trade Shops’ album of the year and Bjork’s 9th solo album, Vulnicura didn’t break any new ground sonically but underlined once again why Bjork (likeBjork Vulnicara say Kate Bush) is an totally unique artist who has a sound apart.   The production on this record is done by the great, Arc, who produced FKA Twigs’ superb LP1 last year (as well as working with Kanye on Yeezus).

But despite the presence of a producer of Arc’s quality, this is a deeply personal album about the break up of Bjork’s relationship with artist Matthew Barney. On the lyric sheet that comes with the album each of the first 6 songs (of 9) is expressly placed in a time line around the relationship’s end, from Stonemilker’s9 months before’ to Notget’s ’11 months after’.

By 5 months before and Lionsong she can sing: ‘Maybe he will come out of this, maybe he won’t, somehow I’m not too bothered either way’.   Yet that ‘not being bothered’ has become devastation by Black Lake (2 months after):

Our bond is broken

My shield is gone

My protection is taken

I am one wound

My pulsating body

Suffering again’.

 

 

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ray_North January 29, 2016 at 10:39 am

Great work Georgie Boy.
I’m glad to see Blur in there and very much enjoyed Richard Hawley and Bjork – 3 artists who are consistently excellent.
Interestingly, I have heard the Grimes album – which, having really enjoyed some of her earlier work, I struggled with a bit.
Viva vinyl.

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