I believe, very deeply, that every year is the best ever (so far) for music, or what’s the point? And if I ever feel otherwise, it seems churlishly arrogant to think anything other than “I must have been listening in the wrong places, to the wrong things”; Great Things Are Always Going Down, with or without the company of your ears.
These are my 38 favourite records of 2015, the Best Year Ever (So Far) for Music. I note that it doesn’t tally hugely with the End Of Year lists for the titles I contribute to, nor many other outlets out there. For sure, I know I need to listen closer to the Julia Holter and Kendrick Lamar albums; I liked what I heard on first listen, but ended up getting distracted and going to listen to other stuff that, I guess, most of m’learned colleagues weren’t listening to – and really, isn’t that how it should be? Below, then, is what I was listening to. It is all worthy of your time, and plenty of it is pretty fucking awesome.
Bring on 2016.
38/ Dornik, Dornik
The diaphanous futurist confections of Brit-soul auteur Dornik’s debut album plot post-midnight paths drawing influence from the synth-slaked soft neon bliss of early-80s soul and electro-jazz, reupholstered for the 21st Century, coloured by intriguing bruises of melancholy and finished with wispy, delectable, Jacko-esque vocals. And perhaps an album’s-worth those confections are a little to sweet to devour in one sitting, but in small bites his debut proves Dornik much more than just the UK’s answer to Miguel.
37/ Matthew E White, Fresh Blood
That the second album from the Spacebomb supremo doesn’t figure higher on this list is due, perhaps, to the fact that the bewitching and deceptively ersatz sound on his debut – casting the warm soul-funk glide of Hi Records far adrift from its Memphis moorings, and topping it with drily guileful vocals – is familiar enough to lack the flash of surprise this time around. But there is plenty to charm on Fresh Blood, and the twisted erotic tales hiding within the lyric sheet are well worth untangling.
36/ Paul Vickers & The Leg, Greengrocer
The one-time frontman of Dawn Of The Replicants, who always seemed like he might walk offstage and into a Police Telephone box that would thence dematerialise off into time and space, Vickers returns with a vividly magical, endearingly maverick concept story involving grocery and altogether darker arts, with a bustling folk-prog sound that, together, suggests the League Of Gentlemen covering the weirder and more bucolic parts of Genesis’ Selling England By The Pound. And right now I’m ruing that the wonderful Vickers has not shared any of this opus on Youtube, as I’m itching to prove how accurate this seemingly random description actually is.
35/ Alchemist, Israeli Salad
Hipped to this by Neil Kulkarni. Alchemist is a DJ/producer who’s previously collaborated with an eclectic rogue’s gallery including Eminem, Oh No and Dilated Peoples, and Israeli Salad is the latest in a serious of home-cooked instrumental mix-tapes, looping and stealing from a pile of Middle Eastern wax to create forty or so minutes of beats, ambience, looped-hooks and fried psychedelic guitar that dislocates and disorientates like all the best instrumental hip-hop – a landscape that shifts with enough flair and restless invention that you never miss the absent MC, building up new skylines from the rubble of ancient and discarded wax. On this evidence, Alchemist is a man who never digs a crate without turning up magic of some kind, an admirable trick.
34/ Carlton Melton, Out To Sea
As our Loose Lips Sink Ships feature explains, Carlton Melton are perhaps best known as those fried psychedelicists who record all of their acid-damaged heavy rock jams from within a geodesic dome. Only on Out To Sea, the trio have instead installed themselves in a proper working studio, to see if their lysergic inspirations will survive the transit. Long story short: they do, and from the magnificent Peaking Duck (eight minutes of morphing, shimmering guitar warp, HULK SMASH drumming and mind-rewiring fuzz) onwards, Out To Sea takes the willing listener on a twilight glide through uncharted waters, with a soundtrack that combines the awesome and unknowable might of nature with the endless potential of electricity and FX boxes. This is the music you sleep-play air-guitar to while dreaming at your most lucid.
33/ Janelle Monae, Hell You Talmbout
If the Black Lives Matter movement needed a soundtrack, well, here it is. It’s been a couple of years where the murder of young black Americans (either by cops or by non-black civilian shooters who somehow curiously pass through the justice system unscathed) has risen to epidemic levels – or maybe it’s just that the proliferation of video cameras and social networking systems have helped bring an already-extant phenomenon to a wider audience; a catalogue of injustices which, if you muse upon them for too long, might leave you incapacitated with the tragedy of it all (if, of course, you have the luxury of probably-never-being-murdered-by-police yourself), or might lead you to take to the streets and try desperately, the only way you know how, to assert black lives as something other than Tragedies-In-Waiting. Hell You Talmbout, then, is an assertion that Black Lives Matter, in the most direct and profound manner, as Monae and her compatriots at Wondaland Records call out the names of the dead over martial drum tattoos and fiery gospel chorus. Some of the names – Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sean Bell – will be familiar to anyone who keeps up with the news; others will not, but the way these voices break as they shout “Say his name! Say his name! Won’t you say his name!” underscores that these names are more than mere tragic headlines to be tutted over and then forgotten. Harrowing, righteous, moving, the track is a protest song of the purest and most powerful sort, and when Emmett Till’s name is called out at 4:35, it’s a grim reminder that there’s a long, sorry history here that needs to be brought to an end somehow.
32/ Wavves, V
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is one of pop’s hoariest clichés, often deployed to excuse any manner of autopilot dullardry from artists who should know (and do) better. But hey, it also applies to the Ramones, who peeled out more genius ramalama from the same simple formula than most bands with a wealth of further chords at their disposal. And it’s no criticism to point out that the fifth Wavves album finds bandleader Nathan Williams veering not a jot from his well-honed sound, plying pop-punk tuneage that’s stickier and bitter-sweeter than a vat-full of strychnine-spiked candy floss, drenched with ear-wrecking FX and shot-through with lyrics that throb with adolescent heartbreak and unforgivable micro-betrayals. Williams turns 30 this year, so perhaps 2016 will see him change his game, but Wavves’ fifth hits all the spots it needs to in under 30 minutes, so gabba gabba HEY!
31/ The Membranes, Dark Matter/Dark Energy
It didn’t take much to bring Blackpool post-punk institution The Membranes back from a couple of decades on ice – only the Higgs-Boson scientists’ cataclysmic endeavours to discover the last remaining secrets of creation. Yes, the group’s epic double Dark Matter/Dark Energy is a concept suite, inspired directly by the Large Hadron Collider and its acceleration of particles, but one doesn’t need to be au fait with applied physics to grok frontman John Robb’s snarled invitation to “Dance to the rhythm of eternal war / Dance to the clash of the cash machine”, or to relish the broken-glass funk of Space Junk, or to feel the parched agonies of In The Graveyard, which ditches the Sci-Fi vibe to visit Robb’s grief over the loss of his father, a raw and roaring cold-front that feels like it fell off the first PiL album. Masterful stuff, suggesting the Membranes’ powder as combustible as ever.
30/ Low, Ones And Sixes
Quietly (though their records now are rarely as hushed as when they debuted), Duluth, Minnesota’s Low have been enjoying a creative purple patch of late; 2013’s The Invisible Way was one of the group’s strongest albums in a career that was then celebrating its twentieth year. Its follow-up, Ones And Sixes, does not quite share its predecessor’s succinctness or bittersweet clarity; more bare and electronic, it’s a darker, colder beast, but Alan Sparhawk has never sounded quite so focused, quite so hungry as on No Comprende, while Mimi Parker’s gift for aching, powerful and sad pop shines through on The Innocents. The closing DJ, meanwhile, delivers that trademark Low haunt, and harmonies that will chill you to the very bone.
29/ Kurt Vile, b’lieve i’m goin down…
The title is almost stereotypically Vile: lower case throughout (like he thinks he’s bell hooks), apostrophes covering for missed syllables and missing from the third word, the stoner ellipses drawing it to a hazy, lazy close… You almost expect Kurt’s sixth full-length to sound like a plaid shirt left crumpled on the bedroom floor, but a closer listen to b’lieve i’m goin down… reveals that, behind the overall slackadaiscal vibe, lies a singer/songwriter in the lineage of Tom Petty or Lindsey Buckingham, with a clear gift for loose melodic genius, and deceptive, drawled lyrical smarts. Vile’s music sounds so effortless, tunes pulled out of the ether or the tangle of acoustic strings within a chord, but that ability to make his work seem like a cinch is only one of his many skills surfacing on his best (and most ‘Kurt Vile’) album yet.
28/ East India Youth, Culture Of Volume
William Doyle’s second full-length is bigger and bolder than 2014 debut Total Strife Forever, and if I found myself missing the scattershot of pining bedsit symphonies, giddy mood-swings and ambient passages, all was forgiven when the album hit its peak with the resonant, breath-taking Carousel, like David Sylvian reclining on clouds of ambience wheezed from a church organ’s pipes, or Erasure at their most-bereft and least-pop, a track that stills time, that does something to the soul. Venture further out, William, brilliance awaits you there.
27/ Giant Sand, Heartbreak Pass
On their previous album, Tucson, Howe Gelb’s multi-handed dustbowl arkestra adopted a second ‘Giant’ in honour of their most expanded line-up yet. Though shrunk back down to just ‘Giant Sand’ for Heartbreak Pass – their 20somethingth full-length, my eyes blur when I try to tot up their discography – Gelb and crew sprawl further and wider still, on a set that passes through all points previously explored by the Arizonan weirdsmith and picking up new ideas en route. Highlights: the garbled, stop-start train-of-thought running through Texting Feist, and Gelb’s stark and charming duet with his young daughter Talula on Forever And Always. Giant Sand is still All Over The Map.
26/ Deerhunter, Fading Frontier
Following the emotional tumult that fuelled their previous album Monomania, and the physical trauma Bradford Cox sustained after being knocked down by a car, Deerhunter’s seventh was the sound of healing – wounds examined and licked, a tentative positivity abounding, a flinch from possible future trauma detectable beneath the gleam of their brightest, clearest pop yet. And if Fading Frontier never quite hits the unhinged brilliance of the previous album’s title track, Cox’s tales of lives in transition, of uncertainty in the face of change, deliver some of the most charming, affecting songs of his discography.
25/ Jill Scott, Woman
I was tipped off to this by the eternally wonderful Neil Kulkarni. In the past, I’ve been guilty of mistaking Jill Scott as some more earthbound, worthy kind of neo-soul artist, despite moments of brilliance like Golden, and her live duet of You Got Me with Erykah Badu and The Roots at Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. And while, on the surface, Scott isn’t a weirdo maverick in the Badu vein, or a D’Angelo daring Icarus-like falls from grace, there’s invention at play here that impresses throughout, while Scott’s lyrical poise and vocal strength remain inspirational. The imperial glide of Prepared is a masterful slow-jam; the barn-burning Stax/Motown mash-up of Run Run Run reinvents Scott as stage-stomping diva deserving of a pop crossover; the sunset haunt of Cruisin stirs up a dreamy, magical quiet storm. And when, on the eerie, existential, past-midnight pulse of Lighthouse, Scott murmurs “It’s a fact that in the universe sometimes life is pain and it can hurt,” it’s her sureness of that fact (a by-product of maturity) that makes her following line, “But I know that it’ll get better”, powerful. Scott knows how bad it can get. Scott knows it doesn’t stay bad forever.
24/ Golden Rules, Golden Ticket
An unlikely charmer, this one. MC Eric Biddenes hails from Florida; producer Paul White is a bloke from South London. Their first album together as Golden Rules opens as an eerily accurate Dirty South pastiche, the slow party jam of Auntie Pearl’s House worthy of Outkast at their stankiest. Soon, though, the push-and-pull of their style, influences and backgrounds takes Golden Ticket in some unexpected and fruitful directions, from the satiny, x-rated blend of raunch and melancholy of Play Some Luther, to the marching band stomp of Holy Macaroni. The bittersweet Barbadian blues of Never Die (featuring Yasiin bey, aka Mos Def, at his mightiest) is the highlight, but don’t miss the album’s darkly psychedelic closers, the burned-out brood of Life’s Power, and the mystical spirit-quest of Golden Ticket.
23/ Offshore, Offshore
This posthumous collection of instrumentals by Offshore – AKA Aberdonian producer Ewan Robertson, who passed away in 2012 while undergoing heart surgery – reminds me a little of J Dilla’s Donuts, in part because Offshore, like Dilla, was an idiosyncratic soundsmith whose beats were charting a path divergent from any of his contemporaries, and because, like Dilla, his premature passing has robbed us of a vital creative voice, and lends perhaps-unintended poignancy to his wordless sketches and dramas. Robertson’s visions stray between clanky, brittle, post-punk DIYisms – Make It Up, which quotes the two-note salvos pock-marking Buzzcocks’ Boredoms – to punchy funk miniatures like Barden’s Burden, to the polyrhythmic panoramas of Off Peak; all his music really shares with its label-mates at Big Dada is a communal sense of adventurousness, a pointed avoidance of pigeonhole. As with all releases under such tragic circumstances, Offshore leaves us with a nagging sense of what could have been, where else Robertson might have strayed, how these nascent ideas might have developed. But these clues to those stolen futures are enough to enchant curious listeners.
22/ Faith No More, Sol Invictus
Faith No More’s seventh album arrived eighteen years after predecessor Album Of The Year, and some six years after their initial reformation, and even its mere existence as a potential project was a tightly kept secret until mere months before its release, with the group vowed to quietly smother their offspring mid-term if it didn’t prove a worthy successor to one of rock’s most perverse and impressive discographies. Thankfully, Sol Invictus found all of the group’s myriad parts alive and intact, not just its venomous, muscular sense of physicality – note the savage riffage and ferocity that bookends the stately choruses of Superhero – but its black sense of humour, its unashamed mastery of both smarts and smart-assery, its underappreciated gift for grand tunefulness. The grindfunk crawl of Motherfucker, the ground-shaking mammoth Sunny Side Up and the Jesus Lizard filth of Cone Of Shame were all highlights on an album that shouldn’t have been this good, and that wouldn’t have been at all, if it had risked shaming that which came before it.
21/ Colleen Green, I Want To Grow Up
Literally no-one would let me review this. Baffled, as the arch and winning Green seems an easy-sell in my book, with a pop-knack akin to Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, and a fine line in self-deprecating and wry lyricism. Her third album, I Want To Grow Up intends that echo of the classic Descendents album – Green’s tunes are as bright and harmonious as Milo and co’s, and her story-telling every bit as self-lacerating, funny and honest, as she details her frustrations, her anxieties and her lame tendencies. Her style reaches its apotheosis on TV, which updates The Lemonheads’ The Outdoor Type for the Netflix-And-Chill generation, Green in love with the exquisite loneliness of nights in with the box, noting the unhealthiness of her fixation with television as she admits “it’s easier than being with somebody else in my world”, delivered like a classic power-pop anthem.
20/ Deafheaven, New Bermuda
When I interviewed San Francisco’s Deafheaven last year for the Guardian I half-expected the comments section underneath to be filled by the kind of frothing Death-To-False-Metal-types the group seemed to have stirred up among metal’s most-faithful. I don’t have an awful lot of interest in the kind of orthodoxy or purism preached by this group’s most-vocal detractors, and I’m not interested in whether or not their fulfil some mandatory level of severity to qualify for its place in the Heavy Metal Parking Lot. And while the bared-teeth roar of Deafheaven in full flight is enough to raise the hairs on my arms, it’s that looming, aching guitar line three-and-a-half minutes into Brought to The Water, the oceanic, tender tones six minutes in Luna, and the airy, eerie rumble of Gifts For The Earth that draw me back to New Bermuda again and again.
19/ Danny & The Champions Of The World, What Kind Of Love
One of my favourite-ever songwriters, Danny Wilson’s come a long way since the desolate tones of Grand Drive’s Wrong Notes. With the magic touch to revitalise the sounds of the past like the era of ‘irony’ were only a scary bedtime story, Danny plays it from the heart but never plays it heavy, and What Kind Of Love is the Champs’ most ebullient, charismatic set yet. Opener Clear Water remains my favourite of a killer bunch, golden Celtic soul in the gleaming vein of Van Morrison or Dexys channelling Van Morrison, just utterly joyous, ageless, timeless and guileless. The warm, earnest yearn of Precious Cargo is another keeper, while the slide-scored gospel of the title track is Danny in excelsis: raising the homely and the everyday to something heroic and powerful, without ever sounding hokey. Nothing guilty here, only pleasure.
18/ Tyler, The Creator, Cherry Bomb
A fair chunk of this album is the kind of puerile, out-to-offend-for-its-own-sake ish that’s turned me off Odd Future since day one and leaves me feeling like someone’s grumpy grandpa, though I get a thrill off dissonant noise-rap opener Deathcamp, which sounds like a widescreen Death Grips. But then Find Your Wings kicks in, and Tyler’s third album-proper takes flight (or swan-dive) into a neon-lit, squelchy-funk dream-world first imagined by the psychedelic-soul middle passage of Stevie Wonder’s Superwoman, all waxing and waning synths, twilit jazz chords and creamy backing vocals conducted in service of Tyler’s bloody-minded and perverse visions. The sheer twisted smooth-funk overload of tracks like Blow My Load, 2Seater and Fucking Young/Perfect beg your indulgence, and make Cherry Bomb a mixed but often mesmerising experience.
17/ Miss Red, Murder
An Israeli MC who first hooked-up with Kevin ‘The Bug’ Martin at a rave in Haifa a few years back, Miss Red looked up the British dub noisenik upon completing her mandatory military service. This mixtape, available free from her website [http://www.miss-red.com/], is the first longform fruit of their collaboration, and sees Miss Red take to combat over beats by Mark Pritchard, Evian Christ, Mumdance and, of course, Martin himself. It is, unsurprisingly, speaker-bothering stuff of a high standard, the beats raspy and loud, the ambience heavy with menace, as Miss Red sing-songs like an imp-perverse skipping about the apocalypse, the likes of the needling Sugar or the yowling, leonine Lean Back fashioning dub-damaged ear candy you’ll find it impossible to shake. Bring on her debut-proper.
16/ Erykah Badu, But You Caint Use My Phone
There was a brilliant passage during the greatest show I ever saw Erykah Badu perform (at Brixton Academy on the Worldwide Underground tour), where Erykah seemed to ditch the setlist and ditch her band and, for twenty or so minutes, just kind of dicked-around with her drum machine and her microphone and seemingly improvised a bunch of weird and wonderful shit for us all, oblivious that she was in a roomful of paying punters and acting as if she was simply fucking about in her home-studio. And this mix-tape release – a much-needed stopgap abridging the silence since her brilliant New Amerykah one-two punch – is a similarly dizzy, charming, loose and fun project, a suite of tracks themed on the technical development that has so profoundly reshaped our lives this past decade-and-change: the cellphone. But You Caint Use My Phone’s eleven tracks take Badu’s theme and run wild with it, vamping on Drake’s Hotline Bling (Cel-U-Lar Device) and Badu’s own Tyrone (Caint Use My Phone (Suite), and even connecting the decline of the honey bee to the tones and frequencies emitted by the everyday cellphone (Dial’Afreaq, which incorporates Siri’s proprietary beeps into its beat). It’s loose and fast stuff, in the vein of the similarly stopgap Worldwide Underground EP, and if Erykah wants to continue letting us fans eavesdrop on her creative process, that’s fine by me.
15/ Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts, Manhattan
In which the anti-folk troubadour and genius comic illustrator bemoans the ongoing gentrification of his beloved Big Apple, the city that shaped who he is and what he does. But Manhattan, the album, is much more than that, and even when Jeff’s waxing pessimistic about the way New York is changing (and swiftly chasing away artists like himself), it’s more with a wry and winning sense of humour than any hectoring. As is Lewis’s way, these are personal stories rather than parables, about the small details rather than any polemic: an encounter with his old school bully (Scowling Crackhead Ian) finds Lewis reflecting that both are now outsiders within the commercial revitalisation of New York. The city he knows is no checklist of iconic locations from movies and TV; Brooklyn Bridge exists for Jeff as the scene of an awkward walk home, where he slowly uncouples from his girlfriend, and ruminates on love, relationships, isolation and more (the atmospheric, unhurried and wonderful Back To Manhattan), the map reference tied inexorably to a diary entry. Elsewhere, reality encroaches and makes his musical dreams a little harder to bring to life on Support Tours and Have A Baby; the wit and charm with which Lewis visits these challenges, however, makes you hope and believe he can overcome and continue fashioning albums like this.
14/ Young Fathers, White Men Are Black Men Too
Young Fathers’ second album had to be great. It just had to. There was too much at stake – not just shaking off any sense their Mercury win could have been a curse, like it was for Speech Debelle, that other Big Dada Records artist who scored the gong for her debut album, but also proving wrong Telegraph pop critic Neil McCormick, who bloviated that so multi-cultural and underground a group as Young Fathers didn’t deserve the Mercury Prize. McCormick – infamous for a fealty to Mr Bono Vox that often veers into gross self-parody – wrote of Young Fathers’ triumph: “A Liberian, a Nigerian and a Scotsman went to an awards ceremony and won album of the year. This is not a joke” (suggesting… what? That Mercury Prize-winners shouldn’t hail from Liberia, or Nigeria, or… Scotland? Again: what?), while the Telegraph’s commenter-ship doubtless nodded in bovine agreement that this was a rum situation indeed. McCormick then sourly called time on Young Fathers’ career two months after their victory, bafflingly claiming that everything they did had been done before by Method Man, and noting with customary insight that the band had “promptly disappeared without a trace”. Actually, Young Fathers had taken their Mercury winnings and repaired to Berlin to record this wonderful, essential follow-up, where the murky left-handed pop instincts of debut album Dead and preceding mix-tapes flourished alongside experimental and chaotic sounds that pushed their riot in an ever-bolder direction, sounding quite unlike anything else in 2015. And White Men Are Black Men Too’s genius isn’t a matter of subjective opinion, but objective mathematical fact: McCormick’s beloved U2 scored perhaps their biggest hit with One, but Young Fathers’ standout moment here is the enigmatic happy/sad throb of 27, which, primary school-level maths tells us, must be at least 26 times better than that hokey U2 ballad. Ergo, Young Fathers win again.
13/ Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
Courtney Barnett’s debut full-length scored highly in the year-end lists, and why not? It’s hard to think of a more likable album: its unshakable tunefulness, the satisfying crunch of its occasional moments of adrenalised and eminently-pogoable kinetics, and Barnett’s ability to slide between dry sarcasm, economic and grin-inducing character sketches and glimpses into her own darker side (Kim’s Caravan, Depreston). And there’s an endearing ease, an effortlessness and apparent artlessness to the album, which belies the pains Barnett takes in song-writing. I spoke to her just before Christmas for a feature in the current MOJO magazine, and she said “writing a song can be a tedious, fuckin’ heart-breaking, crazy-making process, and every time, it feels like a fluke.” And that’s the thing: to evoke so much in lyrics possessed equally by pith and insight takes a hell of a lot of hard work and a whole lot more magic, especially to do it as well as Barnett does here. And Sometimes I Think… is the like that character in your run of friends who can just completely nail things in a few devastatingly funny and perspicacious words, only now they also ply a fine line in grunge-tossed tuneage.
12/ Thee Oh Sees, Mutilator Defeated At Last
With each album since 2008’s The Master’s Bedroom Is Worth Spending A Night In (which saw bandleader John Dwyer finally ditch the lo-fi confessionals he’d coined on the earlier OCS releases), The Oh Sees have further refined a most excellent formula, cross-pollinating psych-damaged garage-punk with frenzied, frenetic freak-beat rhythms of an occasionally Kraut-y bent. Nothing, it seems, can shake Dwyer from his fascination with this sound – not moving from San Francisco to Los Angeles, after incubating the Bay Area’s resurgent psych-punk scene, nor going on a brief hiatus in 2013, nor sizably re-jigging the group’s line-up upon reanimating – and nor should it, as The Oh Sees’ fourteenth full-length sees him discovering further fresh new thrills within the din and the dervish. Mutilator Defeated At Last is a treat for the air-guitarists within The Oh Sees’ fandom, Lupine Ossary (sequel to Putrifiers II’s similarly adrenalised Lupine Dominus) shot through with feedback-soaked guitar breaks that fuse Hendrix with Husker Du and rocket about the tracks with juggling-chainsaws-on-a-tightrope-without-a-net levels of bravado, while Withered Hand’s storming thrash plays host to lucid, breakneck solos that only seem to amp up the velocity of Thee Oh Sees’ psychedelic hurricane rock. It’s also an album awash with swaggering pop songwriting flourishes – the glammy “Woohs” on the T-Rex-y Turned Out Light, the haunting Poor Queen sounding like sweet folksong run through fields of righteous electricity, Palace Doctor turning down those amps only to turn up the bruised spook – and enough freaked-out wit and brilliance to suggest Dwyer one of the American underground’s more consistently inspired cultists.
11/ Fuzz, II
Scion of the SF psych scene, it’s not just the high standard of Ty Segall’s output that’s deserving of mention, but the sheer amount of it – a seemingly unstemmable tide of noise-blasted psych-punk and twisted pop of a united spirit but arriving in a rainbow of hues, from blasted solo busks, to full-on psychedelic freakouts, to drone-y acid-folk suites, to nuggets of battered pop perfection. One of a number of projects the no-dozin’ Segall runs on the side, Fuzz sees Ty team up with Charles Moothart (guitarist with the Ty Segall Band) and Chad Ubovich (leader of the underrated Meatbodies) to play out their Sabbath fantasies and come up with the greatest albums the Ozzy-fronted first incarnation of the group never recorded. Their second LP electrifies with the gonzo fervour they apply to this mission, from the muscular panic of opener The 7th Terror, to the tempo-scrambling breakdown of Rat Race, to the needling low-end bulldozer that is Pollinate: this is proto-metal as glorious body music, as anti-cerebral, cro-magnon trip, running a gamut from Black Sabbath to Blue Cheer but never retreading those groups’ achievements, instead getting drunk on their brawny spirits and creating havok anew. Meanwhile, amid all the sludgy headnod groovers here, the punked-up garage-thrash of Red Flag is like shotgunning a case of Red Bull and going sky-diving after spending the afternoon chugging cough medicine, and damn right you’ll keep skipping back to it.
10/ Natalie Prass, Natalie Prass
Wherein the in-house band at Matthew E White’s Spacebomb studio bring to life the handsomely anguished pop-soul confections of this Nashville singer-songwriter, their gift for blending eerily-ersatz antique sounds playing well to Prass’s balance of aching country-pop, keening southern soul and a melodic sensibility that owes as much to Jam & Lewis-era R’n’B as more old school influences. The Spacebomb crew thrill throughout, from the tumbledown funk at the heart of Why Don’t You Believe Me, which could have slipped quietly on the second album by The Band, to the parched American Gothic creep of Cristy (a bleak Jolene rewrite that lends so exquisitely summery album a brief wintery chill), to the sweetly bubblegum lightness-of-touch of Your Fool, to the haunted, atomised delirium of that song’s Reprise. But it’s Prass’s songs truly captivate, the way she captures the doomed love chronicled on My Baby Don’t Understand Me with the cold impact of revelations like “what can you do when the only home you know is with a stranger?”, with the way she sings “our love is a long goodbye / waiting on a train to cry” over and over again on the outro, caught in an emotional tailspin she won’t be able to break until too late. Her pop is sugary on the surface, sure, but there’s a broken heart beneath, and the tension between the two is what makes Prass’s debut more than just a pretty sound.
9/ King Midas Sound & Fennesz, Edition 1
The first in a series of collaborative albums finds King Midas Sound joining forces with Austrian experimentalist noiser Fennesz, on a suite of near-beatless torch songs heavy on a gloom as luminous as the northern lights, on the unknowable mysteries of love, the endless depths of loss, the way the burn of an old flame can keep you up at night. Over brooding, icy ambient soundscapes from Fennesz and Kevin ‘The Bug’ Martin, Roger Robinson and Kiki Hitomi muse on wounds that won’t heal, on the exquisite agonies of longing, like a Wong Kar-Wei movie melted into wax, its characters suspended forever in bruised amber, in a blues they can’t shake. “You’re mine / You’re on my mind” murmurs Hitomi, over minimal electronic pulses and Lovers’ Rock basslines from the next room, like its 4am and she knows whatever’s kept her up this later won’t let go of her before sunrise. “Away from her, it’s the small tings I remember,” offers Robinson, on Melt, “The small tings I mustn’t think about / Like how she bite my lips when we kissed… None of them small tings not helping no-one.” When King Midas Sound and Fennesz performed this beautifully bereft music at St John In The Field’s last Autumn, the dry-ice was so thick you felt like you were alone in that cavernous church. It’s a similar emotional intensity that makes Edition 1 such a dark triumph. This is an album that knows those long dark nights of the soul too well, that inhabits them and invokes them like some 21st Century In The Wee Small Hours.
8/ Chastity Belt, Time To Go Home
When they formed as a college prank in Walla Walla, Washington, Chastity Belt specialised in joke songs like Pussy, Weed, Beer and Giant (Vagina), designed to slay wasted audiences at the parties they used to gatecrash. When the group relocated to nearby Seattle, however, singer Julia Shapiro noticed her songs take on a more serious tone, and ambitions beyond making drunk kids laugh. Which is not to say the group’s second album isn’t any fun; the deadpan Shapiro, infamous for posing a press shot where she raised her skirt displaying a raw steak where her genitals would be, has a gift for saying what she means and entertaining at the same time. On Cool Slut (“Ladies, its okay to be / okay to be slutty”) she’s laconically but uncompromisingly feminist; on Drone, she glides woozily through the college party scene, dispatching a lame mansplainer with a merciless “He was just another man tryin’ to teach me something”, like Clint Eastwood murmuring over the fresh corpse of a bad guy he’d had to waste. The band, meanwhile, happen upon this wonderfully untutored groove, gelling together perfectly with simple strums that build and build, the stoner reveries of On The Floor drifting away on a dreamy extended jam, a stargazing levitational chug as meditative and exploratory, in its own unflashy way, as Marquee Moon.
7/ My Morning Jacket, The Waterfall
Always the most magical, the most heartfelt, the most subtly-weird of the New American Mystics that surfaced in the early 00s, My Morning Jacket have plotted a most unpredictable path since the ragged, psychedelic classic-rock moves of At Dawn and It Still Moves, band-leader Jim James dealing with both catastrophic health disasters and an indefatigable muse which – after the Jacket electrified the retro-rock paradigm with the resurrectionary passions of It Still Moves – fractured in a million different directions. The albums since have found James making ever sharper sense of this stylistic restlessness, and if Evil Urges confused with its schizophrenic changes of gear, its desperation to not be It Still Moves Part Two, follow-up Circuital began translating this writhing creative sensibility into something closer to sense, and The Waterfall strikes an even finer balance between James’ cosmic weirdness and his gift for woolly and wondrous songcraft that always feels like home somehow. So the album opens with the crazily hyper-optimistic rush of Believe (Nobody Knows), an ecstatic James calling listeners to “Believe!” over ever-rising power-chords, this manic frenzy doubtless a necessary corrective to the dark times that inspired the album. So In Its Infancy (The Waterfall) sounds like two different songs (one marrying Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross-era trippiness with its Rumours-era pop savvy, the other grand, rousing and heavy like Zeppelin at their deepest and most spiritual) welded together, a Frankenstein’s monster moving with unlikely grace. So Spring (Among The Living) finds James sounding like a total badass, as his group hit their most widescreen, epic crescendos yet. Its quieter moments impress, too, Get The Point an exquisitely sad and insightful rewrite of Dear Prudence’s melody and a Dear John letter’s essence, Only Memories Remain sounding like the sweetest song you might find on the jukebox in a midwest dive-bar in 1974. A master shape-shifter who loves his music too much to ever play simple pastiche, to ever sully his creations by not meaning it, James (and his great, great band) are at their very best on The Waterfall.
6/ Baroness, Purple
Savannah, Georgia’s Baroness were in the UK, touring their acclaimed album Yellow & Green album – their next step towards a seemingly inevitable heavy metal canonisation – when their bus was involved in an accident that saw all four members sustain injuries serious enough that drummer Allen Blickle and bassist Matt Maggioni would never again return to the group, while singer/guitarist John Baizley required months of physical therapy. The accident casts a heavy shadow over their next album, but ultimately Purple triumphs, turning the pain and the trauma into songs that are unabashedly moving and inspirational. With a grace that outdoes even kindred spirits Mastodon, Baroness align their metallic edge, their proggy dexterity, with an anthemic sensibility bold and powerful enough to make sense in the big leagues the album shamelessly proves them worthy of. David Fridmann’s typically in-the-red production sharpens the dramatic peaks, but it’s the compelling nature of Baizley’s songcraft – the bruises beneath the clear, ringing choruses of Shock Me, the darkness anchoring the stridency of Kerosene (and dig those epic closing rumbles), the serious-as-your-life power balladry of If I Had To Wake Up (Would You Stop The Rain?), which shows Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters how to play ‘having feelings’ on the metal stage without one iota of mawkishness – that makes Purple so remarkable, so moving. The song that owes the most to that awful near-tragedy, Chlorine And Wine digs into the misery of recovery, the desperation of Baizley’s period of hospitalisation, to wrench hope from the depths, choosing existence over oblivion and finally pleading “Please, don’t lay me down”, one last golden, harmony-slaked gasp, one last resistance against the dying of the light. From the jaws of death, then, life is snatched. And how sweet it is.
5/ THEESatisfaction, EarthEE
The second full-length from this Seattle duo took their avant-rap to celestial realms, inspired equally by Anita Baker and Alice Coltrane and Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Zora Neale Hurston, its Blade Runner beats foregrounded by futurist tales of sex, spirituality, drugs, identity, race, culture politics, existentialism, neo-colonialism, the environment, and more. The confidence Cat and Stas have accumulated since debut LP awE naturalE is heady, and sees them spin their music outwards, without fear – drifting, as Cat croons on the spaced-out robofunk of No GMO, “We drift to where no-one even knows”, but never losing the dulcet future-funk thread that binds these thirteen spaced-out dashes of brilliance together. “There’s a lot of music out there that is really just copies of replicas,” Stas told me, early last year. “Boring, and succubus, and leech, and appropriating, and inauthentic.” Rest assured, none of those words could ever apply to the bewitching, otherworldly astro-jazz of EarthEE.
4/ Roots Manuva, Bleeds
When I interviewed Rodney late last year, he said that his latest album Bleeds is having “a really good laugh at the direness of it all. It’s so dire, it becomes a joke. And a lot of people miss that, and start going off about how ‘serious’ it is. But then, they do say humour is a serious business.” Listen to Bleeds, though, and it’s hard to hear where Rodney’s laughing; the hard-edged chill of Crying even builds an unnerving hook out of his pain-wracked sob. Bleeds is an album that opens with Hard Bastards, a State-Of-The-Nation address which sourly notes “most broke cunts are all true bastards / And most rich cunts are even more bastards”, observing “things are getting bleak, we ain’t seen the worst”, and that “the underclass, the lowly class with no damn togetherness” are kept down by “cheap food and cheap booze that keeps them out of shape”. An album that then turns its grave observations upon Rodney himself, who admits “I look inside my head and find it all disgusting”. While Rodney’s always kept one rudder in the darkness, on his latest (and, I reckon, greatest) full-length he plays weighty on every single track (which possibly explains why Bleeds is a lean, flab-free ten tracks; too much of this would be too much). Even the glimmers of hope that appear late in the album hardly make for easy-listening, the spiritual re-awakenings within Stepping Hard and Me Up! bearing the weight of truth and the accumulation of regrets and anxieties that come with age and maturity. And it strikes me, that Rodney is of a generation of rappers still making some of their finest music in their forties, demonstrating a degree of career longevity that would have been unthinkable back at the dawn of hip-hop, and that perhaps we can expect more albums like this from the genre: albums carrying with them a bleak wisdom that comes from the passage of years. And Bleeds is the sound of a man who has lived more years than perhaps he once expected, and has seen enough of life and how it goes to have developed a clarity untarnished even by his chemical intake; the sound of a long, slow, sad exhale, and maybe a silent, hopeless, helpless chuckle at how fucked-up things are, and how little one man can do about it, and how that fucked-up-ness is part of his nature too. This is serious stuff, but it offers more rewards with every further listen.
3/ Girlpool, Before The World Was Big
Girlpool’s debut is an elemental masterpiece, the product of a few very fine ingredients: two guitars, two voices, little else. Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad come on like Simon & Garfunkel if they’d been brought up on K Records and Riot Grrrl and the early 90s US DIY scene, their harmonies imperfect and more bewitching for that, their guitars spare and unadorned and sounding like battered junk-store acoustics played with the care of hands that can afford little better. In moments like the magical, lopsided chirrup of Cherry Picking, they recall the Deal twins at their giddiest and most manic. And then there are songs like the title track, sparse notes plucked on well-thumbed strings, Tucker and Tividad finding something poignant beyond nostalgia in the passing of the years, reflecting on “how many ways my mind has changed”, then, like a flash of panic, asking “Mom and Dad, I love you, do I show it enough?”, and then reflecting on how your exit from childhood means bidding farewell to things you didn’t even know you’d miss (like standing with your sibling “wearing matching dresses, before the world was big”); maybe it’s my own sentimentalism showing through, or the fact I have a young daughter who’ll find the world changing around her at a pace faster than she can register, but this swift avalanche of emotions – reflecting on how she’s developed as a person, then a sudden, chilling sense of her parents’ mortality, and the memory of a moment gone forever that she didn’t even know she cherished until now – can’t fail to leave me choked. And then there’s Chinatown, a sleepy-eyed rumble sorting through a jumble of transitory twenty-something anxieties before switching its gaze from itself and looking the listener (a partner? a friend? certainly someone you’d want to know the real you, intimately, and not recoil) direct in the heart, asking “Do you feel restless when you realise you’re alive?” in homely harmonies that feel like a feather brushed down your spine, like warm sunshine on your neck and shoulders, like an electronic charge completing its circuit, a sound so warm and so magical it’s hard to concentrate on anything else. It’s a big world and it’s only getting bigger; Girlpool’s debut is something small you’ll treasure forever.
2/ Girl Band, Holding Hands With Jamie
There are moments when Girl Band’s debut full-length sounds like three different Sonic Youth records playing at once, with some bloke in the corner screaming ecstatic, panic-driven babble. And those aren’t even the best bits. Following up on a slew of rare seven-inches and that genius cover of Blawan’s chilling house stomper Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage, the debut LP from these Dublin cacophonic youths is noisier than a month of Sundays at Café Oto, but there’s little cerebral about these nine tracks. Girl Band play noise – guitars that sound like shorting power cables and chainsaws plummeting through stairwells and tornados of broken glass – for kicks, hoping the sudden jerks from tranquility to extreme noise terror will give you the willies as surely as Tony Perkins dressed as his mum scarpering across the landing, as surely as a rollercoaster lurching from slow to fast to nosebleed kamikaze. But even if this is no egghead amp-abuse pow-wow, there’s plenty that’s smart about this band, and the way they guide their songs slaloming into frantic speakerpocalypses, while frontman Dara’s impenetrable and haunting babble lends the noisenik bloodshed a deeper, darker thrill. Live, they’re a riot. And on record, they’re even better. Read more here.
1/ The Icarus Line, All Things Under Heaven
For a while there, it was enough just that the Icarus Line were still alive. Drug-damaged, falling apart, with mercurial guitarist disappearing through the window into oblivion, a decade or so ago it seemed as if group were living out the final act of a career that had drawn much inspiration from The Stooges, and was now about to mimic their ignominious and unjust and inevitable demise. And then frontman Joe Cardamone did a wonderful, unexpected thing, and cleaned himself up, and built his own studio, and began a process that would allow The Icarus Line – a band which, even during that brief window when the media loved them and record labels wanted to throw money at them, seemed only to derive pleasure from glorious self-sabotage – to function on their own terms. And if 2010’s Wild Life wasn’t quite on a par with their 2004 peak Penance Soiree, it was enough to still have them around, for them to be still rocking to enough of a degree that didn’t embarrass their history. It was enough.
And then came 2013’s Slave Vows. On this infernal masterpiece, The Icarus Line raged again, harder and heavier than ever before, the songs running long, with Cardamone’s own guitar playing writhing about the tracks, bitter and slick like mercury, like poison screaming through veins, this self-declared rock’n’roll cockroach no longer okay with simply still breathing after years in the rock’n’roll gutter, but now possessed by a righteous anger that was ready to take ass and kick names. He was the Marathon Man; he’d had years of taking this shit, but stamina can only get you so far, and here it turned out his capacity to withstand the slings and arrows of bullshit people was just one half of a delicious long-game of rope-a-dope, and now it was time to fight back. Slave Vows (incidentally, that year’s best album) started a fire, one which engulfs Cardamone and his loyal, hardy shipmates on All Things Under Heaven. It’s a long, dark, uncompromising listen, and you won’t get it all on first listen. In fact, I still find it hard to listen to the whole thing in one go; it is, in a very real sense, too much. But how glorious it is, how deserving of your effort, how rewarding both in the long and short term. Ride Or Die (and yes, that is the kind of uncompromising logic Cardamone is playing with here; he does not have time to fuck around) torches the joint for openers, guitars and oscillator howls and crashing cymbals spraying gasoline everyone, and an ice cold Cardamone dropping the match. The rest of the album, however, mostly favours a slow burn, be it the acrid smoulder of Total Pandemonium, the muted post-apocalyptic-Iggy snarl of El Sereno, the unearthly rumble of closer Sleep Now, Cardamone crying for sweet oblivion but cursed, as a cockroach, never to be released.
This is music that could eat pretty much everyone, bar Swans, for breakfast. There are moments of blackest humour; Millennial Prayer plays like a Maggot Brain for the iPhone generation, over squawking free-sax and amp rumble. There are moments of ecstatic rock catharsis, like all twelve or so minutes of Incinerator Blues, which sounds like Exile On Main Street on a savage bummer of a comedown, guitars splaying like rusted razor-wire, Cardamone shredding mics and speakers with his rasp. There are moments of impossible intensity, when it seems like the whole thing is going to collapse in on itself, like on the seasick, tempestuous seesaw of Mirror. And throughout, there is Cardamone, voice twisted in a rictus of disgust, like Sissy Spacek in the movie Carrie, returned from the grave and still spattered with blood but ready to claim his revenge on every loser, chancer and faker in rock’n’roll. Here’s one cockroach who knows he should be cock of the block, and isn’t ready for rock’n’roll’s scavengers to pick up his records in a decade’s time and decide they’re brilliant. He’s impatient but, more than that, he doesn’t care. Joe Cardamone knows no-one’s listening, or at best a precious few, but he’s going all out anyway, and maybe the art’s better for that, focused and sharpened by the desperation, the impossibly high stakes.
“Oh my baby,” he murmurs, over the shipwrecked, Warren Ellis-aided ambience of Bedlam Blue, “I am done.” Indeed, I’ve no idea how long he can keep this up, and it seems like a superhuman act of will to make such wilful, powerful, soulful and unforgiving music, mostly in obscurity, definitely in poverty. And for Joe Cardamone, right now, the music is its own reward; it has to be. It’s enough to be alive, maybe, to have made something so pure, to have given your all and to know not a single compromise was considered. This is a remarkable album, and you should hear it at your soonest opportunity.