Musically, 2015 started with a bang. On January 20th Sleater-Kinney released what was pretty obviously going to be my album of the year, Belle And Sebastian brought me down with what was the most disappointing album of the year and The Decemberists left me pleasantly surprised with a fantastic album which only just missed out on my top ten. In fact, my favourite albums of 2015 ended up heavily stacked towards the start of the year, with seven of the ten albums released by March 31st. Looking at the final list of albums, it seems pretty well balanced between phenomenally talented women, men with luxurious beards, incredibly innovative hip hop and albums with commas in their titles.
1. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love
Sleater-Kinney have been my favourite band for well over the decade since their previous album The Woods and while there had been some genuinely great music from the band members in recent years (the eponymous Wild Flag by Carrie and Janet’s “supergroup” was my album of the year in 2011 and Corin Tucker Band’s Kill My Blues was my album of the year in 2012), none of that music was able to capture that perfect chemistry that the three of them playing together had brought since 1997’s Dig Me Out. Also, given the large number of recent band reunions based more on financial rather than artistic imperatives and the awful paint by numbers albums which have inevitably followed, there was always a bit of a nagging concern that No Cities To Love may not live up to the far higher standards that I expect from Sleater-Kinney over any other band. That said, the two tracks that the band released in 2014 prior to the album’s release (“Bury Our Friends” and “Surface Envy”) went a long way towards removing any doubts that I had, as did the involvement of producer John Goodmanson who had worked with the band on One Beat and Dig Me Out, my two favourite Sleater-Kinney albums.
From the opening track “Price Tag”, it was obvious that that spark that Sleater-Kinney regularly made into a wall of fire was still there. Everything so great and unique to Sleater-Kinney was turned up to eleven on “Price Tag”: An arresting opening riff from Corin is joined a few seconds later by Janet’s crashing drums and a contrasting riff from Carrie, while Corin and Carrie’s guitars are in conversation with each other, we hear the full range of Corin’s remarkable voice, until a change in tempo gives us a doom laden riff (somewhat reminiscent of The Breeders awesome “Safari”) and Carrie stridently singing a bridge, which turns into a conversation as Corin sings the chorus over Carrie singing the bridge. On about the tenth or eleventh listen, the lyrics reveal themselves to be not only a commentary on the post-GFC stresses of ordinary families, but also the corporate machine of the music industry and the battle between art and commerce. Awesome… And that’s just the first track.
With its ten songs clocking in at just over half an hour, No Cities To Love is furious but focussed, possibly Sleater-Kinney’s most perfectly crafted album and almost certainly their most accessible. The combination of Corin and Carrie’s distinctive guitars and vocals locked in a call and response accompanied by Janet’s peerless drumming drives Sleater-Kinney’s unique sound. Subsequently when you hear the influence of Gang Of Four (“Fangless”, “No Cities To Love”, “A New Wave”), The Pretenders (“Hey Darling”) or even Duran Duran (“No Cities To Love”) and Queen (“Fade”), this is absorbed as homage into what is distinctly a Sleater-Kinney song, rather than as some kind of facsimile of the original. Lyrically, the album is a meditation on fame and family, with “Surface Envy”, in particular, a celebration of Sleater-Kinney’s reunion (“I feel so much stronger now that you’re here/We’ve got so much to do, let me make that clear… We win, we lose/Only together do we make the rules”). Despite what I have read elsewhere, No Cities To Love absolutely doesn’t pick up where The Woods left off in 2005, it picks up from where the band would have been if they had recorded an album in 2014. This is not the sound of a band stuck somewhere in their past reliving their glory days, but the sound of the greatest band on the planet showing everyone else how it is done.
Key Track: “Price Tag”
2. John Grant – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
It seems a bit strange to see a John Grant album sitting at #2 on my albums of the year list, given that his debut solo album Queen Of Denmark was my 2010 album of the year and its follow up Pale Green Ghosts was my 2013 album of the year. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is musically a natural progression from his previous work, adding a wonderful hint of New Wave to his palate of 70s AOR, 80s synth-pop and the occasional soaring anthem present on his previous albums. The album takes its title from a couple of wonderfully evocative literal translations: “Grey Tickles” is an Icelandic phrase for a mid-life crisis and “Black Pressure” is a Turkish description of a nightmare. In a typically self-deprecating fashion, the album finds 47 year old Grant mocking his own “mid-life crisis nightmare” from the opening line: “I did not think I was the one being addressed/In haemorrhoid commercials on the TV set”. John Grant’s Grey Tickles, Black Pressure confirms his status as one of the most consistently brilliant songwriters of recent years, maintaining his singular humour and great wit, but without the same anger and self-loathing of his previous albums. A full review of Grey Tickles, Black Pressure can be found here.
Key Track: “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure”
3. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Courtney Barnett’s debut album Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit draws brilliantly on so much Australian music history, yet Barnett is able to bring her own considerable personality and wit to the table making an album that is not only fresh and original, but universal. Barnett’s half-spoken conversational style of singing calls back to the great Paul Kelly albums of the late 80s, as does her ability to write about the details of the every day to tell a larger story. “Depreston” stops being a witty story about the frustrations of house hunting in Melbourne’s inner north and something far greater after the perfectly realised detail “Then I see the handrail in the shower, a collection of those canisters for coffee tea and flour/And a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam”. As “Depreston” indicates, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit also has a strong sense of place, like a lot of the best songs by Skyhooks, Paul Kelly, Weddings Parties Anything and (of course) TISM, these are unmistakably songs about Melbourne, yet the stories are universal (although I’ll remain eternally disappointed that on “Elevator Operator” she missed the opportunity to name check the 86 tram and went instead for the more posh 96 tram). Musically, Courtney Barnett calls back to the Australian indie rock bands of the early 90s, a sound that was brilliantly lifted by The Lemonheads on It’s A Shame About Ray, yet her endlessly quotable lyrics somehow give that sound a new depth.
Key Track: “Pedestrian At Best”
4. Matthew E White – Fresh Blood
Matthew E White is a genuine original, looking somewhat like a benevolent cult leader, White works out of his Richmond, Virginia analog studio as composer, arranger and producer and founder of the collaborative label Spacebomb Records. An incredibly productive 2015 also saw White produce and release Natalie Prass’ impressive debut album. While I liked White’s 2012 debut album Big Inner enough to seek out his follow-up on release, Big Inner never resonated with me the way that Fresh Blood has. There is an obvious influence and outright love of R&B and gospel present throughout the album, with Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye being obvious touchstones, but the soundscape is decidedly more complex with magnificent orchestration reminiscent of the best of Spiritualized and a rootsy feel calling back to The Band. The opening track “Take Care My Baby” sets the tone for the album. It’s a soulful declaration of love, which like the best R&B songs says so much more in the tone of the vocals than the lyrics do, or ever could (although “Let me look at you/Oh, I’m pumping fresh blood for you” are pretty damn fine lyrics). Not that White has what would be defined as a great soul voice, his vocals are quite understated and often at odds with the lush music, but that contradiction is what makes this album so unique and one of the reasons I think I keep going back to it. A full review of Fresh Blood can be found here.
Key Track: “Rock & Roll Is Cold”
5. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
Father John Misty is one of the great characters in music today, the alter-ego of Josh Tillman, he can be relied on by the music press for hilarious quotes and random shenanigans, famously weighing in on the Ryan Adams/Taylor Swift love-in by covering Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” in the style of The Velvet Underground (needless to say, it was perfect). If at any point you think you have the perspectives of the songs on I Love You, Honeybear nailed down, Josh Tillman has described this album from his alter ego Father John Misty, as a concept album about Josh Tillman. The album dissects Josh Tillman’s romantic life, reflecting on previous bad behaviour (“The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment”, “Strange Encounter”), frustrations (“Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow”, “True Affection”) and his relationship with his wife (“Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”, “I Went To The Record Store One Day”). I Love You, Honeybear is a deeply personal album about love and regret, which is incongruously filled with a dark humour and acerbic wit which is seemingly designed to throw the listener off-balance. No better is this contradiction illustrated than on “Bored With The USA” where halfway through the song a laugh track is added beneath what is essentially an angry rant about contemporary life.
Key Track: “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment”
6. Lin-Manuel Miranda – Hamilton: An American Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
This is absolutely the most innovative album that I heard all year and given that this is the soundtrack to a Broadway show, I can’t help but think that there is even more to Hamilton: An American Musical than can be gleaned from the music alone. Hamilton: An American Musical has a mostly African-American cast tell the complicated story of the life of “The ten-dollar founding father without a father” Alexander Hamilton through a brilliant hip hop soundtrack, looking to answer the question “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a/Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a/Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence/Impoverished, in squalor/Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”. Given Hamilton’s notoriety for verbosity, hearing his words in fast paced rhymes is brilliant, wonderful and often hilarious. My two favourite tracks on the album (“Cabinet Battle #1” and “Cabinet Battle #2”) take Hamilton’s verbal sparring with Thomas Jefferson in important debates in US history and turns them into rap battles straight out of 8 Mile. Hamilton: An American Musical is not only filled with great music and performances, but is smart, funny and you might even learn something.
Key Track: “Cabinet Battle #1”
7. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Named for his mother and stepfather, Carrie & Lowell is a starkly autobiographical meditation on Sufjan Stevens’ relationship with his mother who died in 2012, but had abandoned him long before following struggles with schizophrenia, depression and substance abuse. Carrie & Lowell is Stevens’ attempt three years later to understand the distance and emptiness he felt following her death and to finally grieve, quietly summarising the album’s intent on “Should Have Known Better”: “I should have wrote a letter/And grieve what I happen to grieve/My black shroud/I never trust my feelings/I waited for the remedy”. While Carrie & Lowell is emotionally raw, Stevens never judges his mother, he simply tries to find understanding and forgiveness. The songs on Carrie & Lowell are often reminiscent of Elliott Smith, built around Stevens’ incredibly fragile vocals floating above simple guitar lines over a light synth base. It is the songwriting and performance which are central to the album, with the music often seeming to fall away leaving just Stevens’ remarkable words (I have heard few more affecting lyrics than “when I was three, three maybe four, she left us at that video store” from “Should Have Known Better”) and moments like the inhale of breath at the end of “John My Beloved” which says more in a moment than most artists say in a career. While there is a sadness that permeates much of the album, he reflects fondly over the five years when Lowell Brams was married to his mother and who as manager of Stevens’ record label Asthmatic Kitty, is still very much an important part of his life. It is during this time where his mother was more present in his life and where his happiest memories lie, referring to it in the track “Carrie & Lowell” as the “season of hope”.
Key Track: “Should Have Known Better”
8. Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Florence + The Machine seemingly appeared out of nowhere in 2009 with their extraordinary debut album Lungs. Florence Welch’s monumental vocals brought with them a sense of larger than life drama to instantly memorable songs like “Dog Days Are Over”, “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)” and “You’ve Got The Love”, which although they crossed genres were given a unity by Welch’s voice. Unfortunately, 2011’s follow-up Ceremonials simply didn’t match the variety of the debut album, with Florence’s vocals dramatically towering over nothing much of interest. Thankfully, this year’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful more than living up to its title with Florence’s formidable vocals matched to an equally formidable selection of songs. “Ship To Wreck”, the rousing, stadium-friendly anthem about self-destruction and regret opens the album with Florence belting out the question “And, ah, my love remind me, what was it that I did?/Did I drink too much? Am I losing touch?/Did I build a ship to wreck?”. Unlike its predecessor, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful moves easily between themes and styles, with the straight up rock song “What Kind Of Man”, sitting comfortably next to the brass and strings of the title track, the percussion heavy exploration of intense longing “Delilah” and the quietly contemplative “St Jude”… and while there was no bigger and more dramatic album in 2015, it would be remiss of me not to mention “The Odyssey” cycle of videos directed by Vince Haycock to support the album, which somehow manage to bring even more drama to these songs.
Key Track: “Ship To Wreck”
9. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
I’m pretty sure that it’s some kind of criminal offence to put together a list of the best albums of 2015 and not put Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly in there somewhere. By far the best critically received album of the year, To Pimp A Butterfly is a genre smashing album which like The Roots’ Phrenology, Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique before it, is steeped in hip hop history, but draws on a diverse series of musical styles, seemingly creating its own unique universe from this broad range of components. Like the music, which seamlessly flows from P-Funk to jazz to soul to G-funk, from song to song the album thematically shifts from the political to the personal, with Lamar reflecting on fame, mental health, racism, religion and community. It took me a very long time to get into To Pimp A Butterfly, not because of any negative reaction to the album, but simply because the third track “King Kunta” is so damn good that every time I tried to listen to the album, I’d get to the third track and play it over and over again, subsequently becoming very familiar with the first three tracks before I actually managed to listen to the whole album. To Pimp A Butterfly is an extraordinary album whose influence on not just hip hop, but popular music we will no doubt be hearing for years to come.
Key Track: “King Kunta”
10. Laura Marling – Short Movie
Laura Marling’s fifth album Short Movie is a dramatic shift from her previous work. Soon after the release of 2013’s Once I Was An Eagle and subsequent tour, Marling settled in Los Angeles and wrote and recorded an album of songs. Dissatisfied with the results, she immediately scrapped the album and, you know, like Caine in Kung Fu: Walked from place to place, meeting people and getting into adventures. During this time she experimented with other forms of narrative writing, became a qualified yoga instructor and applied for and was rejected by clearly the dumbest university on the planet to study poetry. When she returned to the studio, she not only had a swag of exceptional new songs, but a Gibson electric guitar, which brought an entirely new dimension to not only her songs, but her vocals (when she asks “Do I look like I’m f—ing around?” on “Don’t Let Me Bring You Down” it sounds like Chrissie Hynde has taken over the song). In Short Movie, Marling reflects on her period of solitude, grappling with community, personal growth and loneliness. The first track “Warrior” serves as a bridge from Once I Was An Eagle, as Marling with a solitary acoustic guitar and confessional vocals (almost mimicking Court And Spark era Joni Mitchell), dismisses a lover, beneath the song a disquieting noise builds after the spurned lover stabs her in the leg. The next track “False Hope” sees a dramatic shift in tone as Marling belts through what is essentially her first rock song and it is a cracker. Short Movie captures that great moment when an established artist defies expectations to create something that, while building on their previous work, is significantly more complex and rewarding… and who doesn’t love it when a great folk singer goes electric?
Key Track: “False Hope”