2015 was another great year for new music, but not all those tracks made it onto the best albums. The album is not an easy thing to get right. Some hit it with their debut and then fail to reach those heights again, others get it right second time around, still more take several attempts or never get there. Rare is the artist who reaches a high level of consistency. Rarer still those that keep getting better. This year proves that there are few certainties in music with a list that includes first timers, second chancers, late bloomers and old faithfuls, and omits just as many1.
Some of these records appear on many other end of year lists, but they are not here to make the list seem relevant. Others are much less celebrated, but they are not included in an attempt to appear iconoclastic. Rather, these 20 albums are those that have moved and excited me the most, the ones I still can’t stop playing, the ones that I love the most. Any other measure is meaningless.
20. Baio The Names
This could have been just a space filler from the nerdiest looking member of a nerdy looking band, but Vampire Weekend bassist Chris Baio has made good on his promise of an album of “Bowie and Ferry-influenced pop songs and dumbsmart arena techno”. Keeping it to a compact nine-songs-in-39-minutes, he has delivered a record with songs as charming, hooky and interesting as his day job band. Baio’s speak-singing voice suits the songs well thanks to his well judged and mannered phrasing. The tunes are instant, but continue to reveal further charms with every listen. It’s bizarre that this album has been so overlooked. What coverage it received has been good, but the likes of Pitchfork, The Guardian and NME failed to even review it. Clowns!
Recommended tracks: ‘Sister of Pearl’, ‘Brainwash Yyrr Face’, ‘I Was Born In A Marathon’, ‘Needs’.
19. Cristobal and the Sea Sugar Now
London-based Anglo / Portugese / Spanish / Corsican fourpiece with debut album of upbeat, trippy psych pop and tropicalia funk. This record got left a few people perplexed or wnderwhelmed on its release back in October, but the sense of joie de vivre and the lightness of touch with which it blends its influences have kept me coming back to it over the last few months. Packed full of charm and its best songs are unlike anything else released this year.
Recommended tracks: ‘Sunset of Our Troubles’, ‘Counting Smiles’, ‘Happy Living Things’, ‘Fish Eye’
18. Gun Outfit Dream All Over
The fourth album from the Olympia band led by guitarist / vocalist Dylan Sharp and Carrie Keith feels like riding through a sunblasted plain. You can feel the heat and taste the dust as the country noir and desert dreampop unfolds over 41 minutes with twelve songs that bear the imprint of folk, Sonic Youth, psych and krautrock. The near-motorik beats and meadnering guitars of ‘Gotta Wanna’, the sitar-like sounds of ‘Matters to a Head’, the slow stoned sprawl of ‘Scorpios Vegas’ and the closing ‘Only Ever Over’ are just some of the highlights.
Recommended tracks: ‘Gotta Wanna’, ‘Matters to a Head’, ‘Scorpios Vegas’, ‘Only Ever Over’.
17. Protomartyr The Agent Intellect
Detroit post-punk infuenced band’s third album bridges the gap between Girls Against Boys and Cop Shoot Cop. Unlike those band’s there’s no twin bass attack, but there are unhinged rhythms, and a cold, jagged, metallic edge to the guitars while Joe Casey’s vocal style is part declamatory, part detached observer.
Recommended tracks: ‘Cowards Starve’, ‘I Forgive You’, ‘The Devil in His Youth’
16. Wolf Alice My Love Is Cool
The north London band retain some of the grunge-influences of their earlier EPs on their debut album – particularly on ‘Your Loves Whore’, ‘Fluffy’, ‘You’re A Germ’ and the alt-rock muscularity of ‘Giant Peach’. But they also deliver the claustrophobic noir of ‘Silk’ and bring an assured pop sensibility to the likes of ‘Freazy’, ‘Bros’ and the breezily upbeat ode to stalkerish obsession ‘Lisbon’. It’s an excellent debut that defies attempts at pigeonholing.
Recommended tracks: ‘Bros’, ‘Lisbon’, ‘Silk’, ‘Your Loves Whore’
15. La Luz Weirdo Shrine
Surf rock meets pop noir on the Seattle band’s second album. Produced by sometime tour companion Ty Segall, who encouraged the band to take a more relaxed, less perfectionist attitude into the studio and talked singer / guitarist Shana Cleveland into embracing judicious use of a fuzz pedal. Coupled with lyrics in part inspired by Black Hole (Charles Burns’ allegorical graphic novel about a mutation-causing STI) this is one of 2015’s most beguiling albums.
Recommended tracks: ‘Sleep Till They Die’, ‘I Wanna Be Alone (With You)’, ‘Don’t Wanna Be Anywhere’, ‘I’ll Be True’
14. Low Ones and Sixes
Over 20 years on from their slowcore origins, Low continue to develop their sound. Ones and Sixes assimilates all the elements of their past while continuing to move forward. There’s barely restrained anger and beauty in the music, frustration and love running through the lyrics. Drums are sometimes processed or replaced by machines, guitars and piano are distorted and an air of menace or at least foreboding underpins many of the songs (‘Gentle’, ‘No Comprende’, ‘Innocents’), even the prettiest of pop songs ‘What Part of Me’ has something dark stirring beneath the surface. But as with all Low records, beauty is never far away in the voices of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, whose shared vocals hit a high on the wonderful ‘Lies’.
Recommended tracks: ‘Lies’, ‘Innocents’, ‘No Comprende’, ‘Congregation’, ‘What Part of Me’
13. Sufjan Stevens Carrie and Lowell
Inspired by the brief time spent with his schizophrenic, alcoholic mother and her husband when Stevens was still a child, this album can’t help but at first appear like a complete downer. Drum-free and relying (mainly) on acoustic instrumentation, lyrics touching on religion, loss, mental illness and death, this isn’t always an easy listen and it’s not something that you can just put on in the background. But what saves it from ultimate wrist-slitter status are the vocals (even the “we’re all going to die” refrain of ‘Fourth of July’ sounds more beautiful than bleak) and some sparse yet nuanced arrangements (especially on the relatively uplifting ‘The Only Thing’ and ‘Eugene’). If you make it through the first time, each successive listen is more rewarding as the album reveals its complex moods. You might want to follow it up with some Carly Rae Jepson, though.
Recommended tracks: ‘Fourth of July’, ‘The Only Thing’, ‘Should Have Known Better’
12. Hop Along Painted Shut
Like Courtney Barnett, Kurt Vile, The Drink’s Derbhla Minogue and Royal Headache’s Shogun, Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan’s is a voice apart in 2015. A band with a distinctive sound that owes something to the 90s alt rock and even emo, on this their second album much of the power comes from the balance of restraint and release employed by Quinlan and her band as these ten compelling vignettes, touching on blues and jazz musicians, waffle house doppelgangers, humiliation and uncannily radiant teenagers, depression and abuse.
Recommended tracks: ‘Horseshoe Crabs’, ‘Waitress’, ‘Powerful Man’, ‘The Knock’
11. Courtney Barnett Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
A singular talent whose keen eye finds relatable detail in the mundane details of both extraordinary and everyday situations and combines it with a storytelling ability that is at once quintessentially Australian and oddly universal in its appeal. Add the sometimes laidback / sometimes enervated singing style and her stellar guitar playing to create one of the most compelling artists of the decade (at least). Since the bundling of her first two EPs as A Sea of Split Peas, the world has been awaiting this debut album proper and, while the production doesn’t always do the live versions of the songs justice (and ‘Depreston’ is near-murdered by the shuffle beat and country-twang), this is still a great album.
Recommended tracks: ‘Elevator Operator’, ‘Pedestrian at Best’, ‘Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party’, ‘Aqua Profunda!’, ‘Dead Fox’
10. Beach House Depression Cherry
The first of two albums released this year by the Baltimore duo. For me, this one just edges out Thank Your Lucky Stars. Warm keyboard washes and drones and Victoria Legrand’s enveloping vocals contrast with drum machine beats and Alex Scally’s distorted guitar tones to create woozy, otherworldly dreampop. An initially comforting and familiar listen that reveals its idiosyncrasies on repeated listens (the girl-group like spoken intro to ‘PPP’, the indecipherable vocal loop that intros and runs through ‘Spark’). Like its predecessor, Bloom (2012), this feels like a gentle pushing of the boundaries of the sound that they first fully realised on third album Teen Dream (2010).
Recommended tracks: ‘Levitation’, ‘Spark’, ‘Space Song’, ‘PPP’.
9. Kurt Vile b’lieve i’m goin’ down
Even more so than Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze (2013), B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down feels like the release that should bring Kurt Vile to a wider audience. Despite being recorded at six different studios with a variety of producers, engineers, mixers and musicians (including Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa) this album sounds seamless. Though Vile is (quite rightly) noted for his electric guitar playing, he’s no slouch on the acoustic (‘That’s Life, tho’, ‘Kidding Around’), banjo (‘I’m an Outlaw’) and piano (‘Lost My Head There’, ‘Bad Omens’). The lyrics are often self-referential and full of humour, with first single and opener ‘Pretty Pimpin’’ he’s written a classic slacker anthem and one of 2015’s best tunes. But just as importantly, he’s maintained that high level of songwriting across the record, an achievement that even extends to the triple-album version’s bonus tracks. Essential.
Recommended tracks: ‘Pretty Pimpin”, ‘Lost My Head There’, ‘Dust Bunnies’, ‘That’s Life tho”
8. Royal Headache High
Four years on from their brilliant debut, Sydney’s premier garage-punk-soul band return with the second album that almost didn’t happen. Clocking in at just under half an hour, there’s an urgency to these ten songs that is lacking from much of what else is out there. ‘Need You’ and ‘Love Her If I Tried’ are northern soul as played by a bunch of garage punks; ‘Garbage’ swaps out the soul for filthy, distorted, metallic guitar; ‘Carolina’ is breezy, elegiac pop while ‘Another World’ alternates between disgust and longing with its “You ate my face to take my place so you can shine in another world / Cause you can’t discern I need a friend who makes me wanna fly to another world” refrain. All of it is elevated by a melodic sensibility and Shogun’s full-throated vocals.
Recommended tracks: ‘Love Her If I Tried’, ‘Another World’, ‘Garbage’, ‘Carolina’
7. Torres Sprinter
Two years on from her excellent debut, Mackenzie Scott returns with a follow up that finds an artist really coming into her own. All the elements – songwriting, lyrics, vocals, performance, arrangements – have moved on from the debut. If not entirely confessional (Scott is as likely to sing in character as she is in the first person) these are deeply personal songs, with lyrics that deal directly or tangentially with identity and finding one’s place in the world; relationships; fear of loss, betrayal. For the album, Scott enlisted original PJ Harvey drummer and bass player Robert Ellis and Ian Oliver (the former also in the producer’s chair) plus Portishead’s Adrian Utley. Their support is felt the most on the triumvirate of most rocking numbers (‘Strange Hellos’, ‘New Skin’ and the title track) as well as the assured and understated ‘Ferris Wheel’ and the re-recorded ‘The Harshest Light’ (previously available in demo form as an RSD 7”). But Sprinter’s most affecting number, the closing ‘The Exchange’, finds Scott solo with acoustic guitar (and some accompanying, ambient birdsong) touching on all the album’s themes through the prism of her adoptive mother’s own adoption.
Recommended tracks: ‘Sprinter’,’New Skin’, ‘Harshest Light’, ‘The Exchange’, ‘Ferris Wheel’, ‘Strange Hellos’
6. Dick Diver Melbourne Florida
Melbourne, Asutralia purveyors of superior, literate guitar pop manages to leap forward while looking backwards. Previously, the band had been compared with the lo-fi jangle of early Go-Betweens and the more melodic of the vintage Flying Nun bands (esp. The Clean, though it’s an influence the band refute). On this their third album they have expanded the scope of their sound and while there’s still plenty of jangle, there’s also some harmonic psych pop chiming on the likes of ‘Waste The Alphabet’ and ‘Tearing The Posters Down’ which recalls first-album era-The Church while ‘Year in Pictures’ has people citing Icehouse’s ‘Great Southern Land’. Mainly-drummer Steph Hughes lead vocals may only appear on a couple of tracks but, as with ‘Gap Life’ on Calendar Days, ‘Leftovers’ leaves an indelible impression.
Recommended tracks: all of them, but try any of ‘Waste The Alphabet’, ‘Year In Pictures’, ‘Competition’, ‘Tearing The Posters Down’, ‘Leftovers’, ‘Private Number’
5. Tame Impala Currents
After two essential albums of guitar-heavy psychedelic rock, Kevin Parker shifts styles on the third Tame Impala album to embrace elements of 70s soul and 80s electronic pop. Despite the electronic production techniques that gave the earlier records much of their distinct flavour (and despite the fact that they have never really translated those solo studio creations into a compelling live experience) the lack of obvious rock guitar has polarized fans. Both of the band’s previous albums made my personal top five’s in their respective year of release and I’d consider them to both be near perfect. The same goes for Currents. I’ll admit, I don’t think I even registered exactly how different and relegated the guitars are from this album until I’d listened to it a few times. It’s such a dense, encapsulating listening experience, and even though they are expressed differently, the influence of psychedelia and late-period Beatles are as strong as ever. As is the quality of the song writing and construction. It comes across as an obvious (but no less brilliant) evolution.
Recommended tracks: ‘Let It Happen’, ‘Eventually’, ‘Disciples’, ‘Reality In Motion’:
4. Desperate Journalist Desperate Journalist
The jangle and chime of Rob Hardy’s 12 string Rickenbaker and Jo Bevan’s impassioned vocals often recall the pairing of Morrissey and Marr at their peak, but there’s also the influence of early-R.E.M., 90s alternative bands and the gothier end of post-punk (the name’s a Cure reference and you can hear the imprint of Joy Division, Siouxsie and The Banshees and The Cult’s Billy Duffy in there too). This debut album’s eleven songs bring a power, beauty, brightness and focus to a quintessentially English-take on post-punk and early-80s indie. If this isn’t on your end of year list, you just haven’t heard it yet, baby.
Recommended tracks: ‘Control’, ‘Cristina’, ‘Eulogy’
3. Father John Misty I Love You, Honeybear
A marriage of concept, songwriting, performance and arrangement that few artists manage to achieve, yet alone sustain for an entire album. This is a leap forward from 2012’s excellent Fear Fun (and even further forward from the stripped down solo works as J. Tillman). From the lush orchestrated title track, to the mariachi horns and strings that adorn ‘Chateau Lobby #4’ to the 80s-influenced synth pop of ‘True Affection’, to the soulful backing vocals and mournful guitar that permeate ‘When You’re Smiling and Astride Me’, to the rising hysteria and stabbing keyboards of ‘The Ideal Husband’ to the near acapella ‘Bored in the USA’ and the acoustic-backed stream of consciousness platitudes / treatise on life and love that is ‘Holy Shit’. This is a diverse album that works as a whole. Some will label this Americana, but that would be inappropriate for an album whose strongest sonic influence appears to be late period Beatles.
Recommended tracks: all of them, but you could start with ‘Chateau Lobby #4’, ‘Bored in the USA’, ‘Ideal Husband’, ‘Holy Shit’
2. Joanna Newsom Divers
Five years on from her magnum opus triple album Have One On Me, Joanna Newsom returned, with what initially looked like a modest record for such a long time away, but soon revealed itself as a major triumph. The songs herein (many about love, place and time) are all of the highest quality, and Newsom’s playing is exceptional, not only on the harp but also a variety of instruments from Moog to Mellotron to Marxophone (and that’s just the Ms). While spending a lot of time mixing a record is usually a sign that the whole project is fucked, on Divers the extension of that period from two weeks to four months has paid off (read a great, non-nerdy article on the process here). As ever, her lyrics are esoteric, full of obscure historical references that often require one key phrase to be deciphered to reveal what the whole is about, but the songs also work on their own, knowing what they are about is not a pre-requisite for falling in love with them. And while her voice will probably always have its detractors, Newsom now has more range and subtly exhibits control without losing any of the character that is so important to the delivery of the songs.
Recommended tracks: all of them, but you could start with ‘A Pin-Light Bent’, ‘Leaving The City’, ‘Goose Eggs’, ‘Divers’.
1. The Drink Capital
After last year’s exceptional compilation Company, London-based three-piece The Drink released their debut album proper in November. Where Company was more angular, with much of the energy derived by how the guitar lines sat at odds with the rest of the instruments, Capital’s performances are more sinuous and fluid, the songs emboldened by the confidence and experience of the players, with elements of post-punk, afropop, goth, and prog rock feeding into their “odd, dark folk pop”.This is an album (not unlike Life Without Buildings’ Any Other City) that combines previously unrelated sweet spots from music’s past into something that sounds like it could only have been made in 2015. If there’s a song at the heart of the album it’s ‘You Won’t Come Back at All’, which builds to the extended instrumental outro on the last minute-and-a-half as Derbhla Minogue runs free with her guitar, weaving in and out of the rhythm laid down by Daniel Fordham (drums) and David Stewart (bass). It’s a lesson in the power of economy, like Neil Young playing a free range one-note guitar solo while Crazy Horse keep it locked in, or more recently, like Hospitality’s ‘I Miss Your Bones’. ‘The Coming Rain’ manages to skirt prog and disco funk and at the same time remain a sing-along indie pop song, while the closing ‘No Memory’ is propelled by a near constant minor tone of deep psych fuzz organ.
Recommended tracks: All of them – this album is ten near-perfect tracks, but if you aren’t hooked by the opening trio of ‘Like A River’, ‘You Won’t Come Back at All’ and ‘Potter’s Grave’, I don’t know what to tell ya.
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1I listened to nearly 500 new albums in 2015. Most of them were rubbish, but there were many great albums that didn’t quite reach the heights of the twenty above. Here’s an incomplete list of some of the best of the rest: Speedy Ortiz Foil Deer, !!! As If, Ryley Walker Primrose Green, Beach House Thank Your Lucky Stars, The Dodos Individ, Sleater-Kinney No Cities to Love, Novella Land, Julia Holter Have You In My Wilderness, Shunkan The Pink Noise, Cold Beat Into The Air, Battles La Di Da Di, Twerps Range Anxiety, Radical Dads Universal Coolers, Colleen Captain of None, Mondo Drag Mondo Drag, All Dogs Kicking Everyday, Soccer Team Real Lessons in Cynicism, Sports All of Something, Fidlar Too, TRAAMS Modern Dancing, U.S. Girls Half Free, Empress Of Me, Robert Forster Songs to Play, Shannon and the Clams Gone By the Dawn, Martin Courtney Many Moons, PWR BTTM Ugly Cherries, Lana Del Rey Honeymoon, Destroyer Poison Season, Au.Ra Jane’s Lament, Sarah Neufeld / Colin Stetson Never Were The Way She Was, Best Coast California Nights, White Reaper White Reaper Do It Again, Wilco Star Wars, White Fang Chunks,Lower Dens Escape From Evil, Houndstooth No News from Home, The Mountain Goats Beat The Champ, My Morning Jacket The Waterfall, The Decemberists What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, Built to Spill Untethered Moon, Ducktails St Catherine.