Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Best Albums of 2015 : 1-5

Hi all,

We're approaching the time of year when most music publications fling out their best of the year lists so I figured it'd be an opportune time to publish my own list just to get in on the action. As Del from Primal Radio has asked myself and the other contributors to knock up a top five I'll start with my favourites and broaden the list to a more comprehensive top fifty over the next few weeks. So let's begin with the year's best and go from there. Ready?

1. Tamaryn - Cranekiss
Picking a favourite record is a tricky business. You can think yourself into all sorts of knots by trying to select one album that acts as both a sign of the times and a stylistic move forward or you can just filter out all the static and plump for the record that brought you more joy than any other. 'Cranekiss' is just that, a crystal-filtered lovebomb that flooded the room with light upon first listen and lay smouldering in my record collection for the rest of the year. It was an unexpected yet not entirely implausible thrill, the Kiwi native's first two LPs having brushed past earlier in the decade with an engagingly lysergic brand of sense-stroking dream pop but there was a sense that she was swimming with the tide and had yet to mark out her own territory in the genre's creative terrain. When I spotted her third long player on the new release lists I was vaguely curious but nothing more and the background gave no reason to get unduly excited - her involvement in the Dum Dum Girls' underwhelming third LP from last year did nothing to endear her to me and she seemed destined for the creative quagmire that had swallowed up most of her class of 2010 alumni. 

I elected to give it a spin anyway. Whilst familiar signposts were audible from the outset - delay effects, weightless breathy vocals and Wild Nothing style 80s cloud pop production - it was the set of reference points that brought it into a field of its own. There are certain outfits amongst indie's ranks who have had to go digging for the right set of influences in vinyl culture like archeological students sifting through craters whereas others have had them stored in their head since childhood and can simply match sound with sensation when they enter the studio. Listening to 'Cranekiss' the first record that came to my mind after the obvious 'Loveless' comparison was Madonna's 'True Blue', the moment her precocious 80s pop starting morphing into something more adult, the plinky plonky synth riffs replaced with a fuller studio sound and meatier subject matter without sacrificing the route one pop appeal that won over the hearts of millions. Tamaryn's sound arrives at the same point via a totally different route, one that takes in shoegaze's pitchbending beauty and the cloud-skipping joy of loved-up dream pop along the way to craft a product so streamlined and graceful that it could swoosh its way onto any radio playlist the world over without creating a stir. You won't have to look far for potential hits, the hook-laden likes of 'Hands All Over Me', 'Collection' and the title track setting the tone over a dazzling first half but it's in the depth that 'Cranekiss' reveals its richer seam of quality, the nightime glide of 'Last' channelling the magic of The Bangles and A-ha at their soft focus peak. The Wild Nothing comparison is valid in the sense that their worship of 1985's dry ice aesthetics provides the backdrop for Tamaryn's trip through VHS reruns of Top of the Pops but she's drawn to the widescreen romance and shameless hooks of the following year's heroes, those who didn't feel the need to hide behind their haircuts when delivering perfect pop. Think the colourful debuts of Erasure and Pet Shop Boys, Eurthymics' glacial soul pop and even the high concept romance of Berlin's 'Take My Breath Away' - these sounds aren't for skulking in your bedroom, they're for going out feeling confident enough to get your own way. If 'Cranekiss' walked into the room your eyes would follow it everywhere it went - it's a beautiful, elegant record but also a strident, self-assured one that hits the target with every track like a sharp suited interview candidate notching themselves a well-paid promotion. I love it because it's a joy to listen to but it's perhaps my favourite record of the year because I'm impressed she could knock together something this dazzling, so crystalline and consistent that repeated listens - and I have listened to this a LOT - don't even make a dent in its streamlined surface.

'Cranekiss' will stand up to scrutiny from production nerds, indie purists or even those looking for the positive soundtrack to face 2015's darker moments but the record has a capacity to reach out and touch hearts much further afield than indie's critical heartlands. The tunes on here tap into a rich seam of romantic fantasy and atmospheric orchestration that stretches back thirty years and their journey back factors in the most appealing elements of indie's sonic arsenal along the way from MBV's sublime soundwarp to the Sundays' melodic balladeering. Everything you love about music may well be waiting for you amongst the ten flawless slabs of gorgeous dream pop that make up Tamaryn's third outing - indeed, it might just remind you what falling in love felt like the first time round. Superb stuff.

Check out : 'Hands All Over Me', the spirit of '86 filtered through today's lens.

2. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think....
Kookiness is a prized commodity amongst singer-songwriters. Factor in just enough to set yourself apart from the pack and you might see your own take on the world strike a chord with hordes of potential devotees but lay it on too thick and you risk becoming a fifteen minute novelty along the lines of 'One Of Us', 'I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker With Flowers In My Hair' or Phoebe's 'Smelly Cat' song from Friends. Courtney Barnett's breakthrough success saw various well-meaning online observers attempt to rope her into whatever cultural shift they were hoping to achieve but the best thing about her stonking debut full length is that it was solid enough to mark its own territory without needing the slavering press attention - good riffs, sharp witty lyrics and languid Aussie delivery were the basic ingredients in crafting what turned out to be one of the year's most loveable records.

The title 'Sometimes I sit and think and sometimes I just sit' encapsulates the record's appeal - Barnett is aware that her lyrical strength comes from her ability to observe the minutiae of everyday life and fill in the blanks with her own imagination but she's grounded enough to know that she doesn't have all the answers and is just as capable of zoning out and staring at the ceiling if it all gets a bit too heavy. There's humour here in the transformation of mundane detail into goofy internal debate with trips to the supermarket and the swimming pool becoming subjects for wry self-analysis and nerdy flights of fancy, pinging off on tangents with the pace and poise of a well-honed stand up comic but always bringing it back to a hook, a chorus and a well-timed punchline. Like the best stand ups she leaves you going home happy, any venom tuned down to let the positive mood be carried by the doe-eyed indie rock that becomes her signature - there's shades of Evan Dando in there, particularly the oft-overlooked 'Car Button Cloth' LP that saw him cast off his stoner pin-up image and strike the right balance between cute, catchy and touching with a string of memorable radio tunes. Joy and melancholy coexist comfortably across the tracks here, 'Depreston' exposing the nerves surrounding a house move and lingering on sadness just long enough to acknowledge its presence without sinking into woe-is-me indulgence.On whilst on the flipside there's the almost impossibly jaunty 'Debbie Downer' which is the sort of thing only an Aussie could write, a 'cheer up mate' pick me up worthy of Robert Smith during The Cure's so-happy-I-could-burst moments. Most songwriters would have turned such fare into a cack-handed message of self empowerment but Courtney knows her audience well enough not to lay it all on too thick and it's the pitch that wins it for her here, knowing when to let determination switches places with ambivalence to avoid alienating anyone and her success in banging out a level-headed, non-judgemental LP against a backdrop of armchair activism and polarised online debate makes her all the more appealing in today's musical climate. Missing out on this would be like sleeping through the perfect spontaneous house party - there's still time to show up late so if you haven't had the pleasure yet then get yourself down here with a few tinnies and enjoy the festivities.

Check out : 'Debbie Downer', the year's finest morale booster.

3. Lonelady - Hinterland
Feels like things are getting organic again in Manchester. Whilst her civic peers are often too busy navel-gazing to grab the ‘Next Big Thing’ ball and run with it, Lonelady’s Julie Ann Campbell looks like she might just be ready to catch a wave and break from the pack with her stonking second LP ‘Hinterland’. It’s not that she resonates star quality or anything, the girl just gets it. Having soaked up the city’s musical culture at art college she banged out some 4 tracks that got her signed to Warp in the late noughties and released her highly danceable debut ‘Nerve Up’ in 2010 - the intervening years have been spent honing her craft and distilling her danceable post punk to a potent blend that packs out 'Hinterland's nine tracks and lays out the year's most joyously rhythmic concoction. 

Campbell draws on the dancefloor friendly post-punk of oft-overlooked Manc stalwarts A Certain Ratio and The Durutti Column for a heady mix of tremulous basslines, skittering drum patterns and tightly wound riffs that’ll go straight to your hips and still leave a little leftover for your brain to ponder. That five year gap between records suggested she’s accustomed to taking her time and that notion is born out over the tracks here, songs frequently edging the six minute mark but it’s never wasted time – the tracks build up slowly like classic House whilst retaining their humanity, kinda like the way Warpaint manage to do danceable while keeping the individual instruments distinctly recognisable in the mix. And hey, those gals left a hefty pause between first and second records so maybe that’s the secret? There’s shades of Talking Heads on the title track in the way they fuse funk with arthouse post-punk without sounding like a bunch of honky plagiarists and the aptly-titled ‘Groove It Out’ manages to achieve subtly what Friendly Fires seem to overshoot with most of their material. Campbell knows when to take her foot off the pedal, letting the ingredients breathe and find their place in the mix without shoving them to the forefront in case we don’t notice. ‘Silvering’ sounds like early Bloc Party kicking into gear while ‘Red Scrap’ whisks gracefully by with the poise and precision of fellow Mancs Dutch Uncles (who are worth checking out too while I’m at it) and she kicks it up a notch on the scrambling punk torrent ‘(I Can See) Landscapes’, each time showing those hours poring over yesterday’s records have paid off as she crafts something potently fresh with the results. Lead single ‘Bunkerpop’ is possibly the pick of a very fine bunch, everything gradually falling into place over five and a half stealthily-handled minutes as she serves up a fresh product drawing on the finest early 80s funk pop to leave the listener with a big old grin on their face. ‘Hinterland’ is solid proof that Manchester’s still got soul, Britain’s still got talent and that 2015 has had its share of classics.

Check out : ‘Bunkerpop’ – this year’s ‘Undertow’? You go ahead and prove me wrong.

4. Future - Horizons
France's indie scene is in pretty good shape these days. I mean I would say that, having spent most of the year covering it with Matthew over at where you can hear all about the nation's finest new indie exports every week. Ahem. Anyway, FUTURE finished the year at the head of a reassuringly vibrant pack of new bands jostling for your attention and 'Horizons' was as bold a statement of intent as you could hope for to win over hordes of potential devotees. They're a softly spoken bunch in real life but it's often the quiet ones that you need to watch out for and every track here lands like a meteorite piercing the atmosphere in a fug of riotous noise and unstoppable momentum, the aftershock as vital as the impact itself as they charter shockwaves across the landscape and transform your whole listening experience into a physical onslaught on the senses. Distorted riffs beam through your skull like radioactive deathrays, slews of warped noise liquify your brain and leave you spinning in an alternate reality of gloopy reverb and drum machine triggers march relentlessly through the remains of your ribcage like an invading army introducing a new regime of ruthless efficiency. 

Strapped with guitar, bass and a drum machine plus a small arsenal of effects pedals, the FUTURE approach is to bypass traditional band dynamics to instead hit you with a three channel noise blast akin to being scorched with a triple barrel hairdryer. The momentum comes not from the root but in the reaction, a quest to regain balance that continues throughout the record as their blend of effects pedal theatrics and mesmeric electronica succeeds in scorching eyebrows whilst still retaining a metronomic pulse to keep you dancing through the storm. Groove and catharsis trade off perfectly here and the whole thing is executed with enough panache to leave you thinking that these guys are in it to be full blown rock stars as opposed to just another basement indie racket. 'Horizons' lands somewhere in the dark glasses end of the fuzz rock spectrum - think Crocodiles, 'Honey's Dead'-era Mary Chain and the better bits of APTBS. I'd even go as far as to throw in a Kasabian comparison if only for their cocksure attitude and fondness for riff muscle and dancefloor theatrics - you could pout and strut to this if it weren't piled on thick enough to bend floorboards and shatter glass. Both times I've seen them this year they've not had the sound desk to themselves and so their delivery has been subject to some sort of volume-based compromise - they've still been pretty devastating and imagining how stunning this would sound with the safety off is the stuff of dreams indeed. For the time being we'll have to settle with a debut LP that channels their stadium-sized imagination perfectly into ten slabs of pulverising psych rock laced with just enough glamour and invention to win over the hearts of countless future acolytes. A bold, brazen attempt at world domination and one that time may well prove to be the perfect opening gambit.

Check out : 'Side Effects', a veritable rocket up the shoegaze fundament.

5. Gwenno - Y Dydd Olaf
The Welsh music scene gets a bit of token attention every so often from the rest of the UK and is otherwise happy to flourish away from the media spotlight. Peel back the curtain and you'll find a self sufficient subculture frolicking merrily away despite the absence of international exposure and quite often they're happy to keep it that way. Gwenno Saunders began life making quirky Welsh language pop before finding some measure of breakthrough success with Sunday afternoon polka dot festival types The Pipettes but you felt she was perhaps wasted on such an inoffensive project and the singer's decision to return to her roots has given forth to one of the year's surprise treats. 'Y Dydd Olaf' is a delectable hybrid of 60s kook pop, Stereolabesque indie hum and weightless electro shimmer that balances elegance with shape-shifting invention to produce a breezy pop record loaded with baffling Alice in Wonderland illusory passages, graceful pop hooks and gorgeous melodic glide. The back story is ultimately irrelevant - as an opening gambit to hook in the listener there's pretty much everything you could ask for provided here so all that's left to do is turn to page one and start to lose yourself.

'Y Dydd Olaf' heads down a rabbithole that'll be familiar to those of you partial to Saint Etienne, Moloko and the crystalline end of British indie although the metropolitan wine bar swagger of the former is supplanted with something altogether more otherworldly here. Synth hooks underpin the action but it's the resonant piano and vibraphone motifs that ride upfront as Saunders' vocals weave around the melodies like sprites encircling lost travellers. The Welsh language lyrics have a wispy, mystical feel to those of us whose linguistic horizons don't stretch that far but their contribution to the record's appeal is in the way her weightless coo envelops the words like she's inhaling them and blowing them out again in intriguing new forms - it's a musical language indeed. The music moves through shades of crystal filtered chill out in the vein of Boards of Canada and Tycho's majestic 'Dive' LP from a couple of years back with and there's perhaps even a shade of Broadcast's twinkle toed Peel Session pop but there's something in the delivery here that makes you think Gwenno is aiming for an audience beyond that provided by All Tomorrow's Parties - indeed when you factor in the considerable success of her previous outfit there's no reason to imagine that she'd be in any way uncomfortable with bagging herself a massive radio hit on the back of this splendid debut. There's a couple of contenders for that breakthrough single too, 'Golau Arall' channels the grace of Gallic 60s kook pop, 'Patriarchaerth' factors in a glittering synth hook that propels it off into the stratosphere, 'Stwff' packs a lipstick pop punch in the vein of mid-80s Madonna and the insanely catchy 'Fratolish Hiang Perpeshki' is easily a match for the cinematic radio gold churned out by Visage and Ultravox back in the early 1980s. 'Y Dydd Olaf' is peerless not only for its leftfield charm and intriguing mix of pleasures but for the streamlined delivery that makes enjoying it an entirely effortless experience - nobody's going to spend any time outside their own comfort zone listening to this regardless of how familiar they may or may not be with the Welsh music scene. This is way too good to be a niche market success - 'Y Dydd Olaf' is coated in stardust from head to toe.

Check out : 'Fratolish Hiang Perpeshki', surely this year's undiscovered pop classic.

I'll post the full 50 later on - stay tuned!!


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