Because I listened to most of my music in 2015 via a steaming service, I got a handy report last weekend telling me that the first song I listened to this year was ‘Wanderlust’ by Wild Beasts and that since then I have listened to 26,000 minutes of music by 525 different artists across 2,992 different tracks. Which is nice to know. Those are the sorts of life-stats that make me wish there really was a tally-keeping God after all.
Amidst this all-you-can-hear aural buffet I also bought records, although only 12 were made in 2015. These were those, in no particular order:
Kendrick Lamar – ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’
On the face of it ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ fulfils the role of record of the year. Of the choices available to me, and being upfront about the fact that I don’t follow this sort of thing at all, this album feels like the one that landed hardest and made the biggest mark.
Every time I listen to it, it kills. It’s fresh, dilligent, wild, focused, sweeping, whip smart in the way it plays with genre, style, influence. On top of all this, it’s musically gripping.
So why hasn’t it had me coming back time after time? I dunno. Maybe it’s just too much. Maybe I like it at arms length. I think I feel a little too reverential about it. I certainly don’t want to wear it out. Whatever. the result is that it could be both my album of the year and the one most unfairly left behind.
John Grant – ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressures’
Goodness only knows how hard John Grant has to work to make his records sound so effortlessly engaging, honest, funny and heartfelt. Proof once again that it’s possible to be cynical, downcast, self-loathing and confused whilst remaining charming and fun to be with (paging Father John Misty…). ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressures’ ramps up the schizophrenia of the soundscape in order to match the lyrics, switching between winningly lumbering power ballads and head-cracking, space-age glam-rackets. As well as some of the best words of the year, this record also has some of the best noises of the year. I present as exhibit A whatever sort of saxophone (oboe?) it is that squiggles around the bottom end of ‘Down Here’ like a lost sea snake trying to bury itself in the sand.
Oneohtrix Point Never – ‘Garden of Delete’
I feel like if I was asked to ditch all the other records from this year and carry only one forward into 2016 then I would reach for ‘Garden of Delete’. I’m only just getting used to it, but Daniel Lopatin seems to be doing something no-one else within the range of my hearing is managing. Yes his music is inventive, evocative, provocative and exquisite but it also seems, in some mysterious way, to be anticipatory. His touch and feel for the things around him and how to fold them together into new possibilities that also echo the fractured times we are living in is unsurpassed. This might not be one I will want to crack open and play to the grandkids in 40 years time (jeez I love the idea that Oneohtrix Point Never will sound Carpenters-tame in the future) but right now it’s the only departing liferaft I want to jump on, desperate to see where it washes up.
Vince Staples – ‘Summertime 06′
Woozy, committed, blunt, serious hip-hop, building a world from sea-sounds, heartbeats and a dark insistence. On ‘Summertime 06’ Vince Staples sounds like he’s still in the thick of it, trying to force his way out through sheer force of will. Where Kendrick Lamar is battling depression, politics, fame and expectations, Staples is mired in families, partners, gangs, deals and expectations. This may not show the wild stylistic vamping of ’To Pimp A Butterfly’ but as a singular statement of how it feels to be a teenager in Long Beach, Los Angeles, it’s enveloping and compelling.
Courtney Barnett – ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit’
For a while at the start of the year it seemed like this was the only record around. And fair enough, who could begrudge Courtney Barnett, the bed-head poet slicing through the mores of suburban Australia with her band of miscreants in step behind her? The record is sharp in both the important ways: it bites and it cuts and in doing so it draws laughter and tears. ‘Pedestrian At Best’ may have copped one of the most lifted riffs in history, but when it’s put to such laceratingly joyful use, who cares? Topped off with a piledriving monotone vocal it’s still one of the tracks of the year despite my efforts to wear it down, and there are 6 or 7 almost as good on this long-player.
Viet Cong – ‘Viet Cong’
A record which I could have sworn was released last year, but apparently not. I like the idea of Viet Cong and I like what I hear when the idea becomes reality, but somehow it feels more of a technical accomplishment (look guys! look who we managed to sound like, all mixed up together!) than a musical one. There’s stuff on here that I really really like, and I’m nowhere near done with it yet, but ultimately it’s smartness of the sounds that seems to keep bringing me back, rather than the brilliance of the songs.
Olafur Arnalds and Alice Sara Ott – ‘The Chopin Project’
I did not expect to be buying new releases on the Mercury Classics label this year, but hearing a beautiful, mournful track on ‘All Songs Considered’ led me to this album on Spotify and I’ve barely stopped listening to it since. The result of a collaboration between Olafur Arnalds, Icelandic composer, multi-instrumentalist and all-round renaissance man, and classical pianist Alice Sara Ott, the collection comprises pieces reinterpreted from, or inspired by Chopin, pulled together on various instruments and pieces of vintage recording equipment around Reykjavik. The result builds a bridge between the quiet restraint of a classical chamber piano recital and the minimalist modern compositions of Nils Frahm or Stars of the Lid.
This has been the easiest record for me to reach for this year, a feeling supported by my end of year Spotify report which tells me I listened to the album 128 times. Perfect for work, home, foreground or background. More often than not, when I’ve been unsure what I want to listen to, this is what I played. It has yet to disappoint.
Joanna Newsom – ‘Divers’
I’m not quite there yet with ‘Divers’. The vinyl splits 50 minutes of music across four sides of vinyl with no digital download to give you a hand up so it’s not been easy to get to grips with. I like what I hear. I get some of the gripes i’ve heard, that the lyrics, an honest and deep examination of what time does to love and vice versa, come over a little sixth form. I guess it’s easy to conclude that back when Newsom was singing about meteorites, monkeys and meadows then her words were essentially unparseable and therefore unimpeachable. On ‘Divers’ she is stepping out from behind them and baring her most intimate fears. There are things in the record that should touch everyone and, like it or not, the attempt is worthy of applause. I think I’ll like it a lot.
Torres – ‘Sprinter’
One of only a couple of records I picked from the shelves without having listened significantly before online. One of ‘Sprinter’s most distinctive traits was an early barrier for me. Produced in PJ Harvey’s birthplace (Bridport, Dorset) by PJ Harvey’s drummer (Rob Ellis) who also picked up sticks for this record, the dynamic expansion of Mackenzie Scott’s sound takes her directly into the territory somewhere between ‘Dry’ and ‘Rid of Me’ on half the songs on the record. Whilst those are the most accessible, there’s also such a resonance of Polly Jean that it’s hard to hear them on their own merits. The secret key lies in the more melancholy tracks and in the lyrics throughout which are distraught, confused, seeking and heartbreaking. Once I had properly digested the devastating closer ‘The Exchange’ the rest of the record opened up like a dark, musky flower.
Grimes – ‘Art Angels’
It sounds like a sad cliche, but this year, the one when I turned 44 years old, was also the year when I started to let bold, bright chart pop music back into my life, by my reckoning for the first time since the Human League and Frankie Goes To Hollywood ruled the hit parade. It’s a tragic stereotype, the middle-aged man who suddenly drops the worthy music habit he’s spent his life curating and dives head first into a world of chirruping young folk and rampant poptimism. I’m not quite there yet (although let’s be clear, if there’s a mid-life crisis on offer then i’ll take three please).
Up until my early 30s, through radio exposure, I still knew what was in the charts. Whilst I never had a dogmatic aversion to pop music, I eventually just wanted to spend my time listening to other stuff. Since then, I just lost touch. That’s fine. I now use the radio to find out what’s happening in the world instead of in pop music although I can’t honestly say it’s made me happier. All the while amazing ‘pop’ music was finding it’s way in to my records, from Missy Elliott to Destiny’s Child to Adele.
This year, there was some sort of breach. Somewhere in the space between Katy Perry riding into the Superbowl on a massive space tiger and me hearing Charlie XCX’s ‘Doing It’ via a Pitchfork playlist, the door began to creak open. The breach was cemented by ‘Switched On Pop’, a great podcast in which two musicologists gleefully deconstruct the big pop songs of the day giving them the full treatment as befits the jewel-encrusted works of art they so often are, and with Carly Rae Jepsen and others getting glowing notices and end-of year placings right across the board, it did feel like a shift of some sort, for me at least.
Grimes closes the loop. She’s an artist I struggled to get to grips with when I thought she was a 4AD electronic twinkler. As soon as I heard ‘Kill Vs Maim’ I knew I had her all wrong all along. The whole record is savage, screaming, electrifying pop, and listening to it and placing it in the landscape seems to magically bring together whole genres and sub-cultures so they can hold hands and lace daisies into one another’s hair.
Nils Frahm – ‘Solo’
Here’s another of the most reachable records of the year, or any year come to think of it. Alongside ‘The Chopin Project’, ‘Solo’ and has accompanied more of my thinking and doing time in 2015 than any other sound. We’ve been over this ground before, worrying about the utility of music instead of just getting on and utilising it. This is a beautiful record full stop and that cannot be lessened by the use I have made of it. In fact, far from being mere tools for filling backgrounds, if there are two records from this year that give me a warm and fuzzy feeling of gratitude when I think about them then it’s these two.
There were whole stretches in the autumn when I couldn’t write without ‘Solo’ playing in the background. I’d be lying if I didn’t put its utility down to its smooth surfaces and the absence of hooks to lodge in the mind. But also, perhaps subconsciously, there is something about this record that speaks directly to notions of creativity and the image of a human at work. Nils Frahm created these pieces during a mammoth improvisation session on a handmade, 12-foot tall upright piano. As in some of his earlier work you can hear and feel the join between man and mechanism as keys are depressed, hammers lifted and wires struck. There’s a sense of a blank page, of someone sitting down to figure out what can possibly be done and then how to go about doing it.
It’s still, spacious and gorgeous.
SWANS – ‘The Gate’
All things considered I think this may be the most expensive record I own. It’s strictly limited edition, has a sleeve that is handmade and signed by Michael Gira, and had to be shipped here from the U.S. On top of that I even chucked in a load more money just for the heck of it.
I haven’t listened to it yet, and that doesn’t really matter. One day I will, when I have 2-3 hours free and have been able to clear a perimeter around the house, preferably of a quarter of a mile or so.
I paid a bunch for ‘The Gate’ because it is the latest in SWANS established cycle of releasing live albums to crowd-fund the recording of their next studio release. I want to hear their next album (and I missed the tour that ‘The Gate’ comes from) and so I did my bit. In a year when I listened to the vast majority of music through streaming services, including almost all of the above, I still chose to buy physical copies of some of my most-listened to albums of the year, partly to have them, and partly to support the artists making such life-enhancing art. I chose to buy this one too, to help one of my favourite bands continue making music, and so ‘The Gate’ is officially my least-listened to album of 2015.