20 Viet Cong
Controversial name aside, Canadian post-punk band Viet Cong’s self-titled album is the thing to listen to if you want motivation. With fierce, psychadelic instrumentals, the album deals in a ferocity which screams “listen to me”. Reminiscent of Joy Division, the opening song ‘Newspaper Spoons’ is almost chant-like, with pounding drums and echoing vocals. The six minute centre piece ‘March of Progress’ is ironically creative, ridiculing the style of music criticism that is present today and cleverly highlighting its repetitiveness. The introductions to songs such as ‘Bunker Buster’ hit your core with heavy bassline and guitar, not good for relaxing but fuelled by raw emotion. Matt Flegel’s vocals chime with their melodies, and create an overall sense of reflection. This record will be many people’s first interaction with the band, and they make a fine introduction; musical ability seeps from the pores of each instrument, making Viet Cong not just a satisfying listen, but one that should compel any listener to rummage through their back catalogue.
19 Joanna Newsom
Divers is the fourth album of American harpist, pianist and vocalist Joanna Newsom. Debuting more than a decade ago with her first album The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom has since risen in experience and fame, with Divers scoring rave reviews: Pitchfork heralded it as her “most dynamic and exhilarating album”, and both the Guardian and Rolling Stone wrote glowing four star reviews. At times, the tracks are fairly surreal and difficult to catch hold of a tune for longer than a few moments, yet the undeniable originality and talent of Newsom shines through. The expertly played harp in the title track is relaxing, yet swoons with intrigue, whilst the playful piano in ‘Sapokanikan’ was one of the highlights of the album. It is impossible to ignore Newsom’s hauntingly compelling and beguiling voice, which weaves effortlessly within and around the accompaniment. It is also very difficult to pinpoint an exact musical influence: her voice is incredibly reminiscent of Kate Bush, and the ethereal lyrics and tone remind me of Florence and the Machine, yet Joni Mitchell and Bjork can also be heard at times. Despite this, Newsom channels such a unique, distinguishable sound, that she is no one but herself, with a style which veers somewhere between blues, avant-garde, jazz and folk. Overall, Newsom creates a perfect album to prance through a field or festival to – or simply just to power through those pesky deadlines.
18 Songhoy Blues
Music In Exile
Music in Exile seems a fitting title of an album for a band who were forced to flee from their hometown when armed jihadists took control of northern Mali in spring 2012. The nature of the album is thus set: the rebellious cry for freedom; the feeling that life is short, and beyond all – unmistakable emotion. The tone of the album, however, is far from depressing. It is not misery or loss, but hope – the hope of a brighter future, the hope that music and passion can bring to a life when all hope appears lost. The lyrics tell us a different story, of course, one more illustrative of the torment and loss they have suffered, but the stark contrast to the upbeat background music carves their music and gives it its unique character. One is not intimidated by the sounds and the emotions to which they cannot relate – but instead intrigued. We are invited to listen and experience their culture through the best way they know how to express it: Blues. Their unique ability to make the listener feel multiple emotions at once – tranquillity, intrigue, fear, sadness – is perhaps one of the most commendable qualities of the band. Blues is not for everyone, but there is something almost everybody can take away from Music in Exile. Whether it is simply the funky guitar riff at the beginning of ‘Desert Melodie’, or being put to sleep by ‘Petit Metier’ – the Songhoy Blues do not alienate any listeners. They are inclusive, and they are wonderfully tormented.
Gallows’s brief flirtation with the mainstream back in 2009 saw them lose the edge that was displayed on their debut record Orchestra Of Wolves. However, with Frank and Steph Carter leaving the band in 2011 and 2013, respectively, and former Alexisonfire member Wade MacNeil joining, Gallows have been left as a brutal, raw and guttural four-piece. Desolation Sounds is the epitome of this new sound, with this record soaked in moody, hard-hitting and dark songs, with MacNeil taking the band to new sonic heights, especially on the albums lead single ‘Chains’, which has one of the creepiest and darkest music videos ever made accompanying it. Despite Gallows’ hardcore punk sound, this album is definitely not devoid of strong choruses, such as that on ‘Mystic Death’, which has one of the best hooks on the album, “even bad dreams are too good, too good for you”. Gallows’ fourth album sees the band at their sharpest, with their songwriting and sound maturing massively compared to their previous three albums.
Check out our interview with Gallows here.
16 Alex G
Alex G, once again, has proved himself as one of the best secret songwriters out there. Real name Alex Giannascoli, this is the Philadelphian native’s seventh album – an extraordinary feat, given that he’s still only 22. Beach Music is his richest effort yet. Whilst the record promises the same enchanting sound-mix that first earned him his loyal underground following (watery acoustic guitar, tinny vocals, keyboard synth), six albums’ worth of self-recording and self-releasing has allowed the singer-songwriter to fully explore his sound; in his latest release, Giannascoli is pushing up against the boundaries of the indie-pop/indie-rock genres to produce something entirely his own. What is most impressive about the singer-songwriter is his rare ability to create music that is both unassuming in nature and profound in depth (“Roll around on your kitchen floor, I can tell what’s getting to you”). Each song on the album flows seamlessly into the next whilst still sounding separate from the one before. ‘Salt’, ‘Brite Boy’ and ‘Snot’ are particular album highlights, but the whole record is a wave of lo-fi, dream-pop experimentation that blossoms with each listen. And there’s something undeniably charming about the fact Giannascoli recorded the entire album in his apartment studio, too – it’s like he’s hand-crafted it just for you. His debut release under indie heavyweight label Domino, this is still only the beginning for Alex G – even so, Beach Music is something to treasure.
15 Jamie xx
Jamie xx’s first solo release, In Colour, is not merely a kaleidoscopic pining for the London rave scene that was. Instead, Jamie Smith transforms this sense of nostalgia into something transcendental, the result being an 11-track response to the question of not whether we can exceed the boundaries of existence, but how far. From the softly melancholic Loud Places, featuring xx bandmate Romy, to the soul-fuelled disco anthem, I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times), every track is as important as the last. The technique is ‘less is more’, and In Colour is perhaps the best poster-album for this to have been released in a long time. It’s the minimalistic moments of stripped back reflection that ironically provide the scope for the greatest invocation of creativity and the releasing of inhibitions. It is an album of elements; the bellowing, mechanical baseline of Gosh and the sweetly soft synths of Sleep Sound are examples of how purposeful but easily-overlooked details piece together like a jigsaw and form a pathway through the maze of electronic euphoria. Jamie xx is leading us by the hand through an introverted rave as we assume the positions of both an onlooker and a participator. He has not created an album, but an experience.
14 Ezra Furman
Perpetual Motion People
In first impressions, Chicago musician Ezra Furman’s third album Perpetual Motion People seems quirky and upbeat. But a closer listen reveals lyrics containing a strong sense of alienation, and an uneasy anxiety about modern life. The first track, ‘Restless Year’ exemplifies ambiguity between optimism and sadness with melancholic undertones to its superficial cheeriness, which sets the tone for the rest of the album. Like the 28-year-old’s two previous solo efforts, Perpetual Motion People doesn’t shy away from references to Furman’s personal struggles with gender identity and mental illness, particularly depression. His lyrics are frank and honest, with nothing hiding behind metaphors, but the self-reflective candidness comes packaged in a delightfully witty and funny self-deprecation. The album is frenzied and energetic, overflowing with ideas, from the joyous celebration and body positivity of ‘Body Was Made’, to anxiety about the modern paradox of hyper-connectivity and loneliness on ‘Lousy Connection’; pinpointed by Furman’s lyrics, “there’s nothing happening, it’s happening too fast”. The songs skip between genres, exploring everything from folk and bluesy saxophone to jangly punk rock, from pop to gospel, with a heavy reliance on Fifties-style doo-wop backing vocals. Furman’s absolute refusal to conform is refreshing, and makes Perpetual Motion People an album which constantly surprises.
13 New Order
The 2010s has seen revivals for many beloved artists, Bowie, Pink Floyd and Jeff Lynne to name a few. Although shaken by the ongoing disputes with famed bassist Peter Hook, New Order have thrown their metaphorical hat into the ring of 2015. A big name in the 80s and 90s, New Order grew into the public consciousness through their hits ‘Blue Monday’ (trust me, you’ll have heard it) and ‘Temptation’, and since then have grown in dominance over the UK synth-rock scene. The ill-fated departure of keystone Hook in 2007, coupled with the disappointing Waiting for the Sirens’ Call in 2005, all-but consigned New Order to the musical history books. However their recent resurgence into the public eye has been an unexpected trip down memory lane. Music Complete sees the Mancunian assembly stay true to their early 1980s influences, a sound that saw them propelled into stardom with the bestselling 12” of all time. A refreshing collaboration with existing artists old and new, Iggy Pop and La Roux’s Elly Jackson to name a couple, give the seasoned veterans a new surge of energy. The void left by the departed Hook is suitably occupied by new bassist Tom Chapman, who adds a more deep-funk feel to the dance-rock outfit. An overall upbeat and pleasing sound help create New Order’s best album for years; a successful revival worthy of one of the scenes biggest names.
Read our full review of New Order’s Music Complete here.
12 Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear
Thanks to dirge-folk acts like Passenger, folk as a genre has become a somewhat bastardized shell of itself. Most listeners seem to see it as being suited only to either misery-guts-and-a-guitar troubadours or a derivative banjo collective. Refreshingly, this album is neither of these. Instead, Misty recruits ‘80s synthesizers, drum machines, live brass and soaring strings, alongside a plethora of other tricks and technology to construct his sonic tapestries, leaving no stones untouched. You could argue that this threatens to date the album, but it conversely provides it with an almost timeless feel. This is still folk music, but it’s folk music that’s been written with intelligence, as opposed to insatiability. Indeed, whilst it’s generally difficult to make stream-of-consciousness lyrics fit with music, Misty succeeds effortlessly. His warm and inviting voice reels you into the songs, and invests you in his little four-minute novels with a flick of the tongue. Coupling this with various flecks of everything from the psychedelic to the progressive means that one will remain obsessed with his craft for days on end. This is an album that you’ll be able to keep coming back to, with each new listen offering up its own new rewards. You’ll want to close up tight to it in the evenings, and let it serve its purpose; an ideal, if temporary, escape from the world. I’d heartily recommend giving it a go.
Theodore Stone, Online Features Editor
11 Beach House
You may have seen Depression Cherry at your local music emporium as the only album with a cover made of fuzzy red felt. Not just a novelty, this is a continuation the shoegaze trend of subtle, blurry album covers started by My Bloody Valentine with their indistinguishable Loveless. I can only imagine the future of shoegaze albums, which I assume will all be released on amorphous lumps of sludge that you stuff into your ears in order to experience music. While the label ‘shoegaze’ is one purists might be hesitant to apply to Depression Cherry, often thought of as ‘dream-pop’, the justification for this (and the fuzzy red felt), is where the album shines: its textures. The album is deep and wide open with echoing vocals that mould themselves around the swirling layers of trance-inducing synths and guitars. Alex Scally and Victoria Lagrand – the Beach House duo – notoriously would repeat parts of each song for hours at a time until they ‘fell into place’. This may seem tedious but actually this approach is exactly why such an extended period of listening wouldn’t be tedious: the care and flow is subtle and astounding. And the best thing is, despite their meticulousness, Beach House isn’t too pretentious to include some gorgeous, swaying riffs and hooks. If anything, the melodic nature coaxes you into the depths of the metaphorical Beach House even more willingly and won’t let you leave until you concede it is one of the best albums of the year.
Read our full review of Beach House’s Depression Cherry here.
Ivy Tripp is to instrumentation what a Lidl fruit and vegetable aisle is to the world of healthy produce. It takes you a minute or two to realise why you’ve entered the Lidl; Sainsbury’s is closer and the Co-op does an NUS discount. The layout is a little unconventional – spread out and unfamiliar. How do you even pronounce Lidl? But then you approach the fruit and vegetables. There’s everything you know and love; Pink Lady apples to your left and a row of sweet peppers on your right. But next to them are yams, a durian, jackfruit and a rambutan or two. Nothing is excluded in the newfoundland where all vegetable produce is treated equally. Native to Birmingham, Alabama, Waxahatchee takes her name from the Waxahatchee Creek on the Coosa River. Her third record Ivy Tripp is the perfect example of when pop comes to play with indie and punk. Synthesisers, keyboards and 12-string guitars nestle down on acoustic reverbs and strong basslines. It is both the perfect continuation from 2013’s Cerulean Salt and a beautifully aimless statement of its own. Where Cerulean Salt was her existential childhood ending epiphany, Ivy Tripp is a masterclass of experimentation and texture. Just as, when faced with the vast array of vegetables, you may linger for a second, pick up a yam and weigh it in your palm in deliberation, Ivy Tripp isn’t about being in love or falling out of love, it’s about being tangled up in the fuddled realms of the glorious centre.
For a genre that deals in positive aggression, groovy tempo shifts, and socio-political lyrics, laying claim to such legendary acts as Fugazi and Have Heart, hardcore is often exceedingly dull, more often than not a tick-box exercise. Baltimore’s Turnstile, however, have defined the hardcore mould for the last couple of years. Taking the genre’s minor and pentatonic guitar riffs and grooving them up to James Brown levels, Turnstile combine them with syncopated drums, tempo-change “drops” a lá dance music, and the most boyish yet furious vocals in hardcore to create a genuinely inventive (and extremely enjoyable) sound. Following 2013’s acclaimed Step 2 Rhythm, which made hardcore seem fun again in a scene dominated by dumb, laddish Beatdown bands, Nonstop Feeling is the crystallisation of Turnstile’s positive, vibey, groovey ethos, combining their roots with radio-friendly rock and NYC hip-hop. The album’s artwork is dominated by a font in primary colours that Keith Haring would be proud of, and things get stranger still: opening track ‘Gravity’ begins with a chant of “If feeling is what they want, then feeling is what they get!”, leading into a riff that’s almost pop-punk, neither major nor minor. However, hardcore’s punch is always present – it’s just more tastefully applied. ‘Bring It Back’ is a masterclass in stop-start riffage, whilst ‘Drop’ has, well, one of the best drops in recent memory. The grooves on the album are so numerous they are almost uncountable, and whilst the record sounds samey at points, it’s simply a case of Turnstile sounding like Turnstile. Nonstop Feeling is the best hardcore record in years, and if the band’s wild live shows are anything to go by, shattering the mold is actually the best thing a band can do.
Joe Stewart, Online Music Editor
8 Title Fight
Every fan of Title Fight will have a different impression of the band’s sound. Many will describe the self loathing pop punk proclamations of their debut The Last Thing You Forget. Whereas others will recall the professional sultry attitude portrayed through more grunge vocals and reverb effects on guitars. However now there’s a new player in the saga. Hyperview sees the continuation of the band’s movement toward grunge and shoegaze. Chorus bands reign throughout the record as well as vocals pushed back in the mix created a fatter and (positively) alienating effect. Stand out songs like the opener ‘Murder Your Memory’ and ‘Rose of Sharon’ display hard hitting execution of what is essentially the four piece staying true to their end roots, yet experimenting with new sounds as the front runners in their scene. This sound has inevitably been adapted by their contemporaries and now shoegaze in the emo scene is a norm, but this record is one that does it so boldly and effectively that transforms each song into an emotive powerhouse. Even down tempo songs such as ‘Liar’s Love’ and ‘Your Pain Is Mine Now’ manage to force an atmosphere of cathartic release through intelligent lyricism and well moulded bass progressions to fortify this impulse.
7 Florence and the Machine
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
This year saw Florence return bigger than ever with her third studio album. Distinctively and satisfyingly Florence, albeit on a grander scale, the album sold just under 70,000 copies in its first week of sales to make it to Number 1 in the UK Album Charts as well as receiving a nomination for the 2015 Mercury Prize Award. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is a cohesive album, with consistency in the production showing a maturity from her early goth-girl days as seen with the inclusion of striking orchestral elements over tribal drums, bar ‘Third Eye’ which harks back to beefy early releases such as ‘Dog Days are Over’. Similarly, there is unity in the lyrical themes, such as the recurring metaphors of moody storms and nautical imagery which reflect the tumultuous year Welch experienced prior to the making of the album. In a press statement, Welch described this album as her ‘trying to learn how to live and…love in the world rather than trying to escape from it’ and this pervading sense of Welch being adrift on a raging sea comes across making How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful an emotional listen at times. There is no denying that this is an impressive album, but is it the album of 2015? It is almost too consistent, to the point that it becomes hard to maintain focus as songs blend, and this lack of un-predictableness and move into the mainstream is sad from a band once considered so eccentric.
Read our full review of Florence and the Machine’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful here.
6 Leon Bridges
Listening to Texan-born Leon Bridges’ debut album Coming Home is like stepping into the past. It brings to mind American diners, movie drive-ins, frilly skirts and red lipstick, and does so with a skill that keeps it from sounding dated. After a surprisingly short time on the music scene, after being spotted at a gig by Austin Jenkins of White Denim, Bridges has already been compared to the greats like Sam Cooke and Otis Reading in his sweet sounding gospel-soul album. Coming Home moves seamlessly from the slower waltzes of ‘Lisa Sawyer’ and ‘Shine’ to the upbeat jive tracks like ‘Flowers’, with each song being the perfectly produced nugget of vintage tone. Themes covered on the record range from failed relationships to the geography of America, to Bridges’ own mother’s biography. With each of these, he manages to do what so many fail at, and fully immerse himself in the infectious gospel rock n roll of the 50s and 60s. As if that wasn’t enough, Bridges’ voice is soft and velvety; the perfect sound for the smooth soul he does so well. Coming Home is a faultless album of nostalgic tracks, which he manages to perfect without sounding like a cheap tribute.
Read our full review of Leon Bridges’s Coming Home here.
5 Mac Demarco
DeMarco knows what works. From last year’s Salad Days, he keeps to the same recipe of twinkling, twangy guitars and funky bass lines to make this album the spectacle that it is. Its impossibly chilled out vibes are made for those lazy summer evenings that don’t seem to end, of laughter, empty beer cans and a long burnt out barbeque. With a mixture of sleepy, slow tracks like ‘Another One’ and ‘A Heart Like Hers’, and more the upbeat, rinkty-tink, country influenced songs, such as ‘The Way You’d Love Her’ and ‘Just to Put Me Down’, this shorter album by DeMarco will keep fans of this hypnotic stoner ambience craving for more. The final track, ‘House by the Water’, plays the sound of running water for thirty seconds. Some brief, minimalistic melodies play over the top, then the airy noise of what might be an aeroplane. It fades to what you would think is the end, but DeMarco surprises us after twenty seconds of silence by reciting his address and inviting us for coffee. I might just take you up on that offer.
4 Kurt Vile
b’lieve i’m goin down…
b’lieve i’m going down… is lazy indie-rock in the best way possible. Kurt Vile’s sixth studio album is a genuinely captivating piece of work, its infectiously laidback pace dealt by a subtle and continuous rhythm akin to a heartbeat. It has been expertly produced with a huge amount of depth in the instrumentals, layered perfectly alongside a consistently heavy baseline through tracks. Opening with ‘Pretty Pimpin’, Vile draws out his syllables to limit, alongside a crisp guitar track that sounds a little bit country and a regular, thumping beat that follows us through the rest of the album. Vile’s individuality is best shown by his use of the banjo, particularly in ‘I’m an Outlaw’ where it brings a folky undertone that is refreshing in a potentially repetitive genre of music. The layering of cyclic instrumentals paradoxically enthrals your attention as you drift through the tracks in a haze of shaky speak-sing vocals and fuzzy guitar strumming. The piano melody in ‘Life Like This’ is on a constant loop that pulls you through the track at an easy speed, with the vocals and lyrics totally in the foreground. The album generally requires very little effort to listen to, its super chilled vibe leaving you in a relaxed headspace as lethargic as Vile’s voice sounds. At times the vocals can be a little shaky, but everything links together and flows so well that this brilliant album is awesome to listen to.
Jack Powys Maurice
Read a full review of Kurt Vile’s b’lieve i’m goin down here.
3 Courtney Barnett
Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Sit.
After a great deal of hype and a string of EPs, Australian slacker Courtney Barnett finally landed the highly anticipated Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Over the past few years Barnett has built a growing fan base with her brand of observational suburban poetry and this album does not disappoint. Delivered as a meandering stream of consciousness, Barnett’s debut explores topics ranging from road kill (‘Dead Fox’), swimming (‘Aqua Profound!’) and house hunting (‘Depreston’) in an effortlessly witty fashion. A surreal and eclectic collection of slacker rock tunes that manages to make the mundane insane! Even with the omission of two of her biggest previous singles in ‘Avant Gardner’ and ‘History Eraser’, Barnett provides a very strong album, filled with the wit and humour of her earlier work. Musically Barnett and her band are more than adept, drifting between the hard rocking grunge of tracks like ‘Pedestrian at Best’ to the indie pop of ‘Elevator Operator’ and with the messy, distorted guitars complementing her nonchalant delivery, that sees her almost talking in many of the songs. A true standard bearer for intelligent guitar music, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is easily one of the year’s, if not decade’s, greatest albums and shows the birth of one of this generation’s most naturally talented lyricists.
Read our full review of Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit here.
2 Sufjan Stevens
Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie and Lowell is his best record since his 2005 breakthrough Illinois. That is undeniable. But the fact that the record abandons that album’s avant-garde maximalism in favour of stripped back, intimate tracks filled with anguish and personal reflection is something of a revelation. The album autobiographies the death of his mother, and his relationship to her. There are no extended musical codas. No songs about famous serial killers or journey’s to Chicago. Oh, and there are, thankfully, no tracks with as anti-iPod titles as “The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You’re Going to Have to Leave Now, or, I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!” Instead, we get poignant songs about Sufjan’s childhood in the form of ‘Eugene’ and the title track, and, in a way, Carrie & Lowell can still be seen as something of a career-summary for those who have followed Stevens over the years. Obviously owing more to the equally stripped back Seven Swans than any of Sufjan’s other albums, there are still shades of the electronic experimentation of Stevens’s previous Age of Adz in the extended ending to ‘Should Have Known Better’, which equals Radiohead’s Kid A in terms of electronic music capable of articulating genuine human emotion. Equally, the record matches the musical ambitions of Illinois, albeit in terms of it possessing the most personal and direct lyrics Sufjan has ever written. Never has Sufjan sounded more as if he is speaking directly to the listener; the lyrics act more as a confession from a close friend than generalised platitudes. 2015 has been a year of the loud, pushing the boundaries of how many instruments and genres can sit on an individual record. With Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan has created something more intimate, but no less complex.
Read our full review of Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell here.
1 Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp A Butterfly
There are a few albums which can only be talked about in hushed reverence. Illmatic by Nas. The almost self-titled Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. N.W.A.’s seminal Straight Outta Compton. Madvillain’s Madvillainy. And the next entrance into that pantheon is To Pimp A Butterfly. I remember waking up one cold January morning, crusty-eyed, cursing the world, opening my phone and seeing a text from a friend: “THE NEW KENDRICK IS OUT EARLY, AND IT’S GREAT.” Now, I’ve been following Kendrick Lamar’s work for a couple of years now, so that woke me the fuck up. Three years of rumour and hype were building up to that first listen, but I still wasn’t prepared. From the opening Flying Lotus beat on ‘Wesley’s Theory’ to the electrifying final ‘interview’ with Tupac on ‘Mortal Man’, I was rapt. A lot of you might dismiss this as just the latest Pitchfork-core token rap album to throw at the top of the list, but To Pimp A Butterfly is so much more than that. Lamar’s art has a novelistic, confessional aspect to it quite unlike anything I’ve heard before. Maybe that’s why there’s a spoken word poem at the centre of the album, sharing more with Sylvia Plath than Drake. Since the hip-hop renaissance of the 1990s, people have been wondering who could possibly match legends like Nas and Tupac. With Kendrick Lamar’s evolution into conscious street-poet on To Pimp A Butterfly, we have an answer.
(Feature Image: Natasa Christofidou)