Top 25 records of 2015

Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens released the best record of 2015.

Man, oh man. Picking a “best of” list of music in 2015 has been a tough assignment. The past 12 months have been the most fruitful in recent memory, particularly for sterling returns from legendary acts. Take, for example, Faith No More’s monstrous reappearance or the anticipated comeback from indie heroes Built to Spill. And it was a year of ambitious output from a host of esteemed artists across varied genres, from Kamasi Washington’s three-hour jazz opus, to the stripped-back rumination of Sufjan Stevens – two sonic polar opposites of arguable genius and emotional grandeur.

I usually only pick 20 albums each year, but that proved impossible in 2015. So here is a top 25, one that I could no doubt deliberate over for most of 2016. Please note that I omitted covers records. If I hadn’t employed this self-imposed criteria, then Ryan Adams’ 1989 and Hollywood Vampires’ raucous self-titled release would have made the cut.

MARLON WILLIAMS25. MARLON WILLIAMS

Marlon Williams

The Kiwi with the golden tonsils, Marlon Williams, broke through into Australia’s collective consciousness, fuelled by word-of-mouth, stunning live shows and his impressive debut record. The self-titled collection, a mix of originals and reimagined gems, has a haunted atmosphere, arrangements rising and falling with echoed ghostly backing vocals ebbing and flowing throughout. Williams keeps alive the spirit of early Americana and country masters, straddling gospel and bluegrass, weaving the magic together with his stunning, glassy voice. From the galloping ‘Hello Miss Lonesome’ to the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired spooky lullaby ‘Strange Things’, Williams provides evidence of his burgeoning talents as a songwriter. But the real scene-stealer is the wrenching recreation of Teddy Randazzo’s ‘Lost Without You’, with its swelling strings and Williams’ soaring voice in full flight.

Marilyn Manson24. MARILYN MANSON

The Pale Emperor

Manson’s decision to co-write his ninth studio record with film composer Tyler Bates (Guardians of the Galaxy) reaped giant dividends. The result is a suitably bombastic rock record that relies more on genuine hooks than twisted industrial growling. And while it might be Manson’s face on the cover, all the music on The Pale Emperor is the work of Bates. The lyrics, however, are unmistakably Manson’s. The collaboration is a reinvigorating one for fans, one that’s consistently robust and sexy. One of the year’s best tracks, ‘Deep Six’, is undoubtedly Manson’s most glorious offering since ‘The Beautiful People’.

My Morning Jacket23. MY MORNING JACKET

The Waterfall

After dividing opinion with their playful space-funk rock experimentation on 2008’s Evil Urges – an eccentric direction that bled into 2011’s Circuital – My Morning Jacket returned to sunny, pastoral rock jams with The Waterfall. It’s a return to the 2003 It Still Moves era, full of lush melodic folk (‘The River’ and ‘Get the Point’) and big prog-rock freak-outs (‘Tropics [Erase Traces]’ and ‘In its Infancy [The Waterfall]’). There’s a buoyant radiance to The Waterfall, with the group indulging in big pop hooks (‘Compound Fracture’), echoed harmonies, buzzing keyboards and Jim Jones’ stinging falsetto. For all their fun sojourns to the distant corners of the rock universe, it seems My Morning Jacket are mostly at home in the montane wilderness, amongst pine trees and flowing, crystal waters – for now.

kurt vile22. KURT VILE

B’lieve I’m Goin Down

Ever the alt-country slacker rock star, Kurt Vile’s aloof charisma gives the impression of someone making zero effort. But the quality of his songwriting belies this laconic charm. On his sixth studio record, the Pennsylvanian lo-fi hero manages to evoke the mood of masters like Leonard Cohen [‘That’s Life, Tho (Almost Hate to Say)’] and Lou Reed (‘Lost My Head There’) in a collection of exemplary Americana. On B’lieve I’m Goin Down, Vile tones down the electric fuzz of 2013’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze in favour of a cleaner, classic sound. Opening with one of the year’s best tracks, ‘Pretty Pimpin’, in which Vile has an existential crisis one morning in front of his bathroom mirror, the record is also a showcase for some wry, ambling and often arresting lyricism. In the aforementioned ‘That’s Life Tho’, the long-haired songsmith shifts from a nonchalant stoner opening verse (“When I go out, I take pills to take the edge off, or to just take a chillax, man and forget about it, just a certified badass out for a night on the town…”) into powerful fatalism ( “The laws of physics have shown that a man must walk through life via peaks and valleys, it was a man, a big-old-hearted man that we all put on a pedestal and when he left this earth, but he left so many loved ones behind…”). It proves a potent mix.

Josh-Pyke-BUT-FOR-ALL-THESE-SHRINKING-HEARTS21. JOSH PYKE

But For All These Shrinking Hearts

With five studio records in eight years, plus brief outings with the Basement Birds supergroup and Beatles tribute nights, Josh Pyke has remained a steady force on the music scene. And his evolution has been just as organic as any of his folk contemporaries around the world, with each release building on his previous collections, adding or subtracting to the layers of sound but always searching through rich, hard-to-resist melodies. Pyke has seemingly always known how to write a hook that gets under your skin – and he’s always been aware of the restless power of a good maritime metaphor – but Shrinking Hearts is his most consistent and sublime collection. From its Wilco-esque opener ‘Book of Revelations’ to the stunning celebration of a long-term relationship in ‘Still Some Big Deal’, this latest statement suggests a songwriter with a wet sail. The horizon will prove no boundary.

WEEKND20. THE WEEKND

Beauty Behind the Madness

Michael Jackson never sang lyrics like, “And some dope dimes on some coke lines, gimme head all night, cum four times, baby girl just wanna smoke a pound, do an ounce, get some dick, tell her friends about it….” but you can’t help but hear the ghost of The King of Pop in the angelic voice of Abel Tesfaye. Beauty Behind the Madness is a far broader production than the raw sexuality of his breakthrough Trilogy mixtapes, but the sensuous drug-fucked hedonism that makes his music so irresistible remains at the fore. And The Weeknd’s sweet voice continues to subvert his graphic tales of all-night parties and sexual conquests. Creatively, Tesfaye surrounded himself with an array of writers and producers. Kanye West had input on ‘Tell Your Friends’ and on ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ it was super-hit writer Max Martin, the man responsible for The Backstreet Boys’ ‘I Want it That Way’, Britney Spears’ ‘…Baby One More Time’ and Bon Jovi’s ‘It’s My Life’. But, in 2015, The Weeknd left every other mainstream pop singer for dead.

immigrant_union_anyway_051519. IMMIGRANT UNION

Anyway

Oregon’s loss was certainly Melbourne’s gain when Dandy Warhols drummer Brent DeBoer moved to Australia to marry a local gal and form Immigrant Union with musicians gleaned from the local scene. Essentially a songwriting partnership with Bob Harrow – they both pen the tunes and share vocal duties – this project is a warm and fuzzy celebration of alt-country and psychedelia. You can detect the Dandy’s DNA in the meandering and lysergic title track, and also in the stand-out dream-pop single ‘I Can’t Return’, but Harrow’s presence on ‘Alison’ and ‘Wake up and Cry’ adds further colours to Immigrant Union’s sonic palette. While there may be echoes of other power pop groups on Anyway, from Teenage Fanclub right back to The Byrds, there’s an unmistakably classic feel to this lush second record.

FAITH NO MORE18. FAITH NO MORE

Sol Invictus

A band that has gleefully thumbed their noses at categorisation since their envelope-pushing 1992 record, Angel Dust, Faith No More returned in 2015 with their first record in 18 years. And what a mighty comeback it was. The genre-bending group picked up where they left off, managing to still sound ahead of their time. Are they avant-garde rock? Experimental metal? Your guess is as good as mine. Piano interludes throughout create a sense of heavy melodrama, the tension heightened by singer Mike Patton’s menacing vocal acrobatics. Masters of dynamics, the tracks on Sol Invictus include more hairpin turns than a rally race track.

Strangers to Ourselves17. MODEST MOUSE

Strangers to Ourselves

Some critics derided Modest Mouse’s sixth studio record – their first in eight long years – for lacking cohesion and an obvious evolution beyond from what came before it. That’s debatable. What is absolutely certain, however, is that Modest Mouse remain one of the most fiercely original rock bands on the planet. Another fact: the album features one of their best-ever tracks, ‘The Ground Walks, With Time In a Box’. The instantly recognisable eccentricities of singer and songwriter Isaac Brock bring with them playful energy, surprise hooks and irresistible shifts in tempo. The group are a melting pot of influences and genres that’s difficult to squeeze into an elevator pitch, with original drummer Jeremiah Green’s rhythmic palette as essential and character-building as Brock’s Montana drawl. The whole concoction sounds wonderfully unhinged, a treasure trove of odd ideas and peculiar lyrics that provides echoes of Talking Heads, The Beta Band and Ween. Let’s hope it’s not another eight years before record number seven.

Untethered Moon16. BUILT TO SPILL

Untethered Moon

Indie-rock legends Built to Spill made a triumphant return with their first record since 2009’s There is No Enemy. There’s no reinvention on their eighth effort, Untethered Moon, but certainly a revived energy and directness. This could be due to the addition of new drummer Steve Gere and bassist Jason Albertini, included as part of mastermind Doug Bartsch’s long-held desire to record each album with a different line-up. Martsch’s soft, chiming voice and scintillating guitar work on tracks like ‘C.R.E.B.’ echoes of a young Neil Young – it’s both sweet and abrasive. But key is Martsch’s angry and melodic axe interplay with original member Brett Netson, which builds to an unholy climax on the monstrous eight-minute closer ‘When I’m Blind’. Guitar muscle over bare rhythmic bones. This is what Built to Spill fans love. This is why we’ve waited six long years.

TheSwordHighCountry15. THE SWORD

High Country

Texas rockers The Sword shifted away from their Sabbath-esque brand of heavy metal on fifth offering, High Country, opting for a Southern-fried brand of hard rock. The result is a beefy ode to other ’70s greats, from Thin Lizzy to ZZ Top and Wishbone Ash. There’s big helpings of boogie and blues through this mighty album, every song presenting classic riffs and lyrics pulled straight from the annals of metal’s ancient sorcery and magic; hunted men run through unforgiving landscapes. There may be some Sabbath left in the breakdowns and arrangements of tracks like ‘Empty Temples’ and ‘Tears Like Diamonds’, but when homage is paid this magnificently – and with so much thundering psychedelic grandeur – you can’t help but be swept away by the barrage of grooves (see the title track) and balls-to-the-wall energy (see the instrumental ‘Suffer No Fools’). This is music to get stoned to. Throw on High Country, crank it to eleven, pull The Sword from their sheath and lift high the goblet of rock. May it forever overfloweth.

EL VY14. EL VY

Return to the Moon

For the small number of us that have struggled to embrace the dour earnestness of The National, a band weighed and restrained by their unwavering seriousness, the playfulness of vocalist Matt Berninger’s EL VY project will be embraced with open arms. A collaboration with former Menomena member and current Ramona Falls frontman Brent Knopf, Return to the Moon is as experimental as it is melodically arresting. Tracks like ‘Paul is Alive’ play to the strengths of Berninger’s warm baritone voice, with Knopf providing a dreamy and dark sonic playground for his singer to show-off his cheeky side. The structures and rhythms feel plucked from black and white movies and old musicals, but hum with synths and other left-of-centre anachronistic flourishes. EL VY is not a vast departure from Berninger’s famous band, with tracks like the yearning ‘No Time to Crank the Sun’ like bumping into an old friend. But spacey oddities like ‘I’m the Man To Be’ will be revelatory for National fans. And, such is the emotional strength and inventiveness of Return to the Moon, one hopes that Berninger now divides his time equally between the two.

title fight13. TITLE FIGHT

Hyperview

Taking a concerted step away from the post-rock and hardcore leanings of their first two records, Pennsylvania’s Title Fight released the dreamy, shoe-gaze opus of 2015. But they didn’t shed their rock leanings completely on Hyperview, with tracks like single ‘Chlorine’ giving the record’s sonic peaks a sizzling, primal energy. Thundering drums ripple throughout walls of guitar and lurking bass lines. It’s an album that absorbs deeper into the subconscious with every listen, dynamics shifting between stunning, restless tranquillity (‘Your Pain is Mine Now’) and jagged, guitar fuzz (‘Hypernight’). Hyperview is a transformation, of sorts, and perhaps the bridge toward an undisputed classic.

Villagers_'Darling_Arithmetic'_album_cover12. VILLAGERS

Darling Arithmetic

Irish folk auteur Conor O’Brien bunkered down in his Dublin home in the second half of 2014 to write, record, produce and mix the third release from his musical outlet, Villagers. The result is an intimate, ghostly collection of incisive lyrical introspection and minimal production. Eerie opener ‘Courage’ sets a serene scene, the first of nine songs to showcase O’Brien’s fragile and child-like voice -a cousin in timbre and tone to Conor Oberst and Robin Pecknold. A response to the rhythmic full-band arrangements and electronic glitches that punctuated its intoxicating precursor, {Awayland}, this third album shifts the focus to potent vocal melodies, languid tempos and intricate guitar repetition, stripping away studio jewellery. It’s a mesmeric approach. And, with a fourth album scheduled for a January 2016 release, it seems O’Brien’s haunting muse is far from silenced.

Currents_artwork_(Tame_Impala_album)11. TAME IMPALA

Currents

One of the hallmarks of Kevin Parker’s music has been its timeless and universal quality, in so far as it sounds unattached to any particular decade or corner of the globe. What began as a bedroom project -with Parker playing every instrument and releasing self-recorded tracks that he never intended the world to hear – has grown into a stadium act of interstellar proportions. Where previous records drew on lush guitar-driven psychedelia, Currents uses synthesisers to rocket Tame Impala into the stratosphere. This is space music for cosmic travellers, uplifting and enveloping; warm waves of synth hum over sensual rhythms, while Parker’s weightless vocals conjure images of distant galaxies and sex in zero gravity. Metamorphosis seems to be Parker’s mantra, with tracks ‘Yes I’m Changing’, ‘Let it Happen’, ‘Eventually’, ‘Past Life’ and ”Cause I’m a Man’ all joyous acknowledgements of the inescapable future.

BEN SALTER10. BEN SALTER

The Stars My Destination

Ben Salter, one of the songwriters in The Gin Club, Giants of Science and The Wilson Pickers, returned to the spotlight with his second solo record. The literate songwriter toured as far as Italy and Iceland to workshop songs with a variety of other artists, then knuckled down on a Queensland cattle property to record this dreamy, enigmatic master work. The tracks unfold with each play, revealing lyrics laden with self-assessment and a desire to vanish, leaving the tribulations of life in his wake. ‘I Gotta Move’ and ‘I Just Can’t Live Like This Anymore’ signal this intention, as does the stirring and anthemic title track that opens the record: “One day I’m gonna take off, I’ll hit the road one night, yeah I’ll just disappear one day, you know how much I hate goodbyes…” The folk movements of different eras each have their fingerprints on The Stars My Destination, woven together and reimagined by a dedicated student. The result is a songbook of subtle melodies, lush production and evidence of a wry, distinctly Australian story-teller.

SARAH-BLASKO-ETERNAL-RETURN09. SARAH BLASKO

Eternal Return

It’s been 13 years since the distinctive, sweet vocals of Sarah Blasko started catching ears, cooing sophisticated folk-pop with stinging fragility. In the ensuing years the Sydney native has proven one of Australia’s most consistently interesting pop songwriters. Every release has been a clearly plotted and astute step into fresh musical terrain, shifting from sparse instrumentation to lush string orchestration, with poetic lyricism and invariably catchy hooks. In the shadow of her 40th birthday, Blasko turned to analogue synthesizers to craft her sexiest record, a night-time carpet ride that demands a bottle of red wine and a living room floor to dance upon. While the inspiration for Eternal Flame might be steeped in nostalgia, a throw-back to the synth-pop ’80s acts of Blasko’s youth, the shift feels anything but contrived or forced. The direction fits Blasko like a shimmering glove – and it’s her strongest and most stunning vocal performance.

SetWidth280-Syzmon08. SZYMON

Tigersapp

If it wasn’t genius, then it was certainly a talent beyond his 23 years. The Newcastle bedroom composer Szymon Borzestowski didn’t work out that he could compose music until his final year of high school. He did it all himself on cheap equipment. His dad sent a demo to EMI and they signed him on the strength of his lo-fi, gentle and intensely melodic approach to folk pop. Borzestowski recorded Tigersapp, submitted it to his record label and then tragically succumbed to severe clinical depression. He took his own life in December 2012. Borzetowski’s family and EMI brought in Rusty Santos to mix (who had worked with Animal Collective, an influence on Szymon) and engineer Ian Pritchett. The result is 12 stunning songs that sounds like Kings of Convenience’s dreamy folk fed on a diet of echoed glacial synth chimes and brass samples. There’s also parallels with Newcastle’s other masters of the soundscape, Firekites, and elements of early Royksopp. Tigersapp is a cocktail of influences from a mind that was clearly overflowing with ideas and inspiration. Truly a stunning gift to leave to the world.

Father John Misty07. FATHER JOHN MISTY

I Love You, Honeybear

Joshua Tillman followed up his stunning debut under the moniker Father John Misty with another lush, absorbing album of dreamy Americana. The title track is a cinematic soundscape that feels like a collaboration between Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson. Infused with Tillman’s dry yet razor-sharp humour, and twisted sense of romance (see perfect lyrics like ‘I want to take you in the kitchen, lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in‘), I Love You, Honeybear was another beautifully melodic record of verbose lyricism – a marriage of sardonic observation and requited love. It feels timeless, it feels like a classic.

EPIC06. KAMASI WASHINGTON

The Epic

Epic by name, epic by nature. American saxophonist Kamasi Washington, whose flourishes added much of the cinematic mystique to another giant 2015 record, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, threatened to make jazz cool again with this sprawling 173-minute masterwork. The Epic sounds like aliens heard John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme broadcast over soundwaves projected into deep space, studied and reimagined, then descended to Earth with their own otherworldly vision. Washington’s a virtuoso on the tenor saxophone, and he takes the instrument through a gamut of emotions, from sweet harmonies to screamed broken notes of pure catharsis. African beats, shimmering piano and choirs of angelic harmonies dance and float throughout The Epic, which has its giant running length broken into three sections: The Plan, The Glorious Tale and The Historic Repetition.

The big question is: how many babies is The Epic responsible for this year?

MEW05. MEW

+

Since the release of their dark and astounding rock album And The Glass Handed Kites, which is composed as one continuous piece of music – a method that, perhaps correctly, branded them purveyors of “prog-rock” – Danish group Mew have been the best band on the planet. Only Radiohead have matched their innovation and fierce evolution. The eagerly anticipated +-, their sixth album, landed from outer space in 2015, six years after their glorious masterpiece No More Stories…. The return of original bassist Johan Wohlert helped Mew uncover a fresh vein of creativity, the result being a celebratory album that embraces what makes the band utterly unique. Soaring melodies and unusual arrangements manage to capture the vast dichotomies of the human spirit in a single song. Beauty, love, melancholy and joy are sewn together by Jonas Bjerre’s distinctive, aching and other-worldy falsetto.

Decemberists04. THE DECEMBERISTS

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

Arguably one of the world’s most consistent and fascinating narrative songwriters, Colin Meloy arrived at the writing of What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World after a country rock sojourn on 2011’s The King is Dead and three children’s books written with his illustrator wife, Carson Ellis. It seems his hunger to tell whimsical allegories and gothic fairytales was quenched by these other outlets, because What a Terrible World sees Meloy delve into personal reflections, the songwriter and his characters overlapping more than ever. Served by his brilliant mainstay band, keyboardist and backing singer Jenny Conlee, guitarist Chris Funk, drummer John Moen and bassist Nate Query – this seventh record is a collection of lush folk rock songs and stirring ballads, without a distinctive thread as grand as their 2009 rock-opera masterpiece The Hazards of Love. But in its own sweet way, this latest offering is every bit as literate and rich in texture, and includes some instant classics, from the irresistible brass-driven pop of ‘Cavalry Captain’ to the gentle, poetic ebb of ‘Lake Song’. One of the many gems is ’12/17/12′, a lyric from which gives the album its name. The date in the title is the day Barack Obama made his speech following the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

primrose green03. RYLEY WALKER

Primrose Green

For the follow-up to his 2014 folk debut, guitar master and Illinois native Ryley Walker surrounded himself with a group of Chicago’s finest jazz musicians. The result is the heady concoction Primrose Green, aptly named after a hallucinogenic cocktail of whiskey and morning glory seeds. Echoing of ’60s luminaries like Tim Buckley, Van Morrison and Bert Jansch, Walker croons lyrics in a Jim Morrison-esque freeform, weaving pastoral summertime imagery with the predilections of youth, as on ‘Summer Dress’: a belly full of wine and a pretty girl. The arrangements are a sensuous mix of rhythmic jazz drums, piano flourishes, double bass and Walker’s assured, intricate guitar work. He’d have been at home amongst the flower children of the late ’60s, adrift in peaceful counterculture and psychedelic drugs. Luckily for us, Walker’s restless soul has been transplanted to 2015 – and is already hard at work on a third album due in 2016.

To Pimp a Butterfly02. KENDRICK LAMAR

To Pimp a Butterfly

It only took one listen of To Pimp a Butterfly to know that it would be more than an album release. It was a cultural event. And it’s no surprise that Kendrick Lamar’s visionary masterpiece has featured at the pointy end of most end-of-year “best of 2015” lists. Lamar brought virtuosos from other fields into the studio – saxophonist Kamasi Washington, bassist Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Sufjan Stevens and George Clinton – to create a sonic journey that’s both vast and cinematic, but also full of personal examination. The Compton native wrestles with existential crisis, the guilt of being financially successful and his place in modern society, against a backdrop of soul, funk and jazz. The result is the year’s most discussed and dissected musical work, an ambitious emotional journey that culminates in a dialogue between Lamar and Tupac Shakur: a powerful meeting of the minds across space and time It’s an appropriately powerful and audacious finale.

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Sufjan_Stevens_-_Carrie_&_Lowell01. SUFJAN STEVENS

Carrie & Lowell

There are some recording artists whose album releases become a genuine cultural event, drawing a landslide of critical and public expectation. Such is the case for 40-year-old Detroit native Sufjan Stevens, who not only lived up to both hype and his aura of mystique with seventh record Carrie & Lowell but surpassed and transcended them. This devastatingly personal and intimate songbook is a revealing insight into a famously private and spiritual musician, a haunting portrait of his sporadic relationship with a troubled mother. In stark contrast to the monumental record that came 10 years before it – the lush, layered and symphonic pop record Illinois – Carrie & Lowell is hushed and haunted, a diary of simple and searing poetic imagery. When these words are matched with Stevens’ uncanny ability to shape heartbreaking melodies with his gentle, child-like vocals, the result is utterly devastating.

 

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