First, a confession: 2015 has been a strange and vaguely disconnected year. It began in Hungary, shifted back to England, and ended in the realisation that I didn't have much of a clue about which new albums I'd actually managed to listen to since January. A severe income shortage resulted in missing out on (or not yet having enough time to quite figure out how I felt about) a host of releases that might otherwise have found their way into this final run-down. Some of those you might find pictured above, but not written about below.
That said, some elements of this list I knew all along: my #1 album, for example. It's not an uplifting album, and in a personally not altogether uplifting year perhaps not an obvious choice of companion, but I struggle to think of another album that's captivated and moved me in quite the same way in all my years of searching.
As for the rest? Well, you should give them all a go, but for the most part don't get too hung up on the placement, relative or absolute. I'm sure you can't believe I like A more than B, but you can be just as sure that to me this is not a very interesting observation: all these albums are wonderful in their own way. In my opinion, yes, but in my heart also, which is where this selection comes from. Please treat it kindly.
25 Marika Hackman - We Slept At Last
Released and listened to back in the first months of the year, We Slept At Last almost feels like something from a different lifetime altogether. Add to that its ghostly, ethereal atmosphere, symbolism, tragic heroines, tragic happenings, and you have a very unsettling beast, but one that you nonetheless can't resist getting just close enough to in the hope of feeling the sweet pain of a glancing blow.
24 Static in Verona - Odd Anthem
Given that I managed to review less than a handful of albums in the whole of 2015, and this was one of them, and given how blown away I was at the time, there should be no surprise to see Odd Anthem pop up here. Your first thought should be: how have I not heard this before? Your second thought should be: how fortunate am I to live in an age where artists will let you download this sort of anthemic music for free? Your third thought should be: actually, if I like it, maybe I should pay for it, so Rob Merz feels like making another one.
23 The Leisure Society - The Fine Art of Hanging On
In a world of music critics falling over themselves to say something impressive about important music, is it a dereliction of my duty as a writer to retreat, once again, to familiar ground? Or is it enough that I find Nick Hemming's way of combining a tune with its lyric so beguiling and exquisite that The Fine Art of Hanging On feels, to me at least, in my comfortable, white middle class western European environs, surrounded by wildlife and calm (as long as the neighbours have gone out), just as worthwhile, albeit for very different reasons.
Consider the birds...
22 Jemima Surrender - The Uninhabited World
Cheer up Jenny you'll soon be dead
Can't you make an effort for me dear?
Smart and sharp, Jemima Surrender's debut album The Uninhabited World revealed a band of wit with the songwriting and guitar-crunching chops (often in a 90s-indie style, if you'll pardon the over-used comparison) to more than back up the threats. The tracklisting reads like a roll-call of characters up to no good ("Thomas Quick", "Gentleman Jerk"), those having no good done unto them ("Sylvia", "Jenny"), and generally inauspicious-sounding events ("Something Awful", "The Cull", "In Sickness"). The overall result is as dark as it is glorious.
21 The Maccabees - Marks To Prove It
Earning its place here as much as anything for the element of surprise, Marks To Prove It is a great example of how good things can happen to those with open minds. I'd previously associated The Maccabees with what is often (somewhat cruelly) known as "landfill indie" - a movement characterised by a dullness of tone, complexion and melody. Marks To Prove It, however, suffers from none of the above, rising from the morass with energy and verve.
20 C Duncan - Architect
Let's hear it for the Mercury Prize, shall we? OK, so it took a FIFA-esque amount of time for BBC 6 Music to announce the complete shortlist, and by the end there was the somewhat unpleasant stench of a list selected mostly on the basis that it would all be palatable enough for that station's audience. Which is not a criticism of said audience - after all, I'm a proud member of the "6 Music is actually a pretty good station, all things considered" club. It was just a bit unexciting, is all.
It did, however, introduce me to C Duncan, for which I'm very grateful indeed. Architect is full of electro-acoustic atmosphere, all breathy vocals and gently undulating melodies. It's as unassuming as it is entrancing.
19 Jennie Vee - Spying
At the same time as playing bass for both Tamaryn and Courtney Love, Jennie Vee has assuredly been building a solo career. Early EPs and cover versions were followed in 2015 by her full length debut.
Spying - "inspired by love, heartbreak, NYC life and finding the light in the dark" - is the dream-pop-punk album you've probably forgotten you were waiting for these past 20 years or so. Hooks aplenty, and no excuse for not being carried along on the album's sheer verve if you ask me.
18 Ezra Furman - Perpetual Motion People
What a perplexingly rewarding album we find in Perpetual Motion People! There are moments during "Hour of Deepest Need" when I'm reminded of listening to After The Gold Rush-era Neil Young for the first time, minus the divisive Young vocal. It's an outlier on an album of outliers: irrepressible brass stabs pop up here and there; sax plays a surprisingly big role; doo-wop is occasionally deployed as a deterrent. It's hard to know what to make of it, but perhaps the best advice you could ever give anyone listening to something for the first time comes in the opening lines of Ordinary Life:
I'm sick of this record already
let's wreck all the preconceived notions we bring to it
check all the baggage or better yet burn it
and start all over again
17 Pinkshinyultrablast - Everything Else Matters
While listening to Everything Else Matters for this end of year review there was a moment near the beginning of "Metamorphosis" when my media played wigged out and embarked on an infinite loop of a few bars. Crescendo / fade / crescendo / fade… So beat-perfect was the cut it took me a surprisingly long time to remember that something was up. Now, that probably tells you something about my pre-lunch focus levels, but it's also a mark of how Everything Else Matters is more about the flow between ethereal dream-pop and hard-hitting walls of guitar and the thrill of cutting between the two, than it is about hits and killer hooks. You can't just dip a toe into this plunge pool and hope to be invigorated, but immerse yourself and you'll be rewarded.
16 Torres - Sprinter
Mackenzie Scott's second album is (auto)biographical, intense, and utterly compelling. Just don't call it confessional.
Sprinter hits you with quiet, devastating blows, as on "Ferris Wheel" and the laying bare of closing track "The Exchange", but also fights with the beauty of rage and a 90s guitar on "New Skin" and the title track.
15 Annalibera - Nevermind I Love You
That Nevermind I Love You contains a good deal of emotional and musical depth should not surprise: singer Anna Gebhardt grew up around folk music, studied classical, and for a time was in a relationship with guitarist Ryan Stier. Bloom is their post-breakup song, while "Black Cat White Cat" takes in homesickness and the corresponding guilt of being away. Proving once again the power of the personal connection, it came at a time when I was ready to return to England, ready to start again. I've carried it in my heart ever since.
It's about how we say, "Let's not deal with our bullshit. Let's stay safe and keep doing this the wrong way because we're scared, okay? Because I can just say I love you and we feel better for a second".Anna Gebhardt
14 The Lonely Wild - Chasing White Light
You can download "An Introduction to The Lonely Wild" from Noisetrade. There, it suggests the band as being:
For Fans Of: Arcade Fire, Lord Huron, Calexico, Fleet Foxes, Ennio Morricone
If you can imagine Arcade Fire without some of the Glee school theatrics, Calexico with hearts of darkness, and a tilting Ennio Morricone then you more or less have it. Recorded with John Vanderslice guiding the band through a more fluidly developing recording process than on debut album The Sun As It Comes, Chasing White Light is the americana your soul has been crying out for.
13 Hooton Tennis Club - Highest Point in Cliff Town
I don't really want to play "hey, d'ya know who this reminds me of?", but let's just agree on Pavement meets Teenage Fanclub for this one. Except the strange thing is, there isn't one era of TFC that Highest Point in Cliff Town particularly feels like so much as a general feeling. Or perhaps it's the sense that they've cut their sound from the same power-pop cloth, even if they've fashioned a more raucous, reckless garment from it.
12 Lisa Alma - Sweater
If Club 8 (spoiler alert: see below…) are the party inside the white walls and glass of a modernist house overlooking the sea, Sweater is the grass in the wind and the swirling sand outside. Its beauty, eerily silent when observed from the home's sleek interior, can only be felt by stepping outside and drinking in the sounds, the smells, the exfoliating feel of the grains.
Perhaps you feel that offers no true explanation of the album. Perhaps you should give it a go and report back.
11 Joanna Gruesome - Peanut Butter
If I missed this on its release it's perhaps because when I'd listened to Joanna Gruesome in the past I hadn't managed to get through the scuzz and the fuzz to the sweetness that lies beneath. Encouraged by a friend to give Peanut Butter a go, I heard instantly what I'd failed to spot before, namely a super-abundance of silver linings in the Joanna Gruesome clouds. Like Club 8's Pleasure, Peanut Butter is short enough to be a lingering EP, but as an album its a short sharp indie-pop high.
10 Susanne Sundfør - Ten Love Songs
Half way through Ten Love Songs, the ten-minute "Memorial" appears. It starts out all ballady, teetering between 80s power ballads you love and 80s power ballads you love, but only ironically. It then has a dangerously lingering glance over at musical theatre, and spends several minutes indulging in romanticism, before remembering what it came in for and closing out with more of its opening melody. It is the most unexpectedly brilliant delight of the year.
In its own way it encapsulates what makes Ten Love Songs so gloriously enriching, so completely enjoyable. This is pop done big, done right, never more so than on euroelectropop single of the year, "Fade Away".
9 Stornoway - Bonxie
If Club 8 are… if Lisa Alma is… (see below, see above…) then Bonxie is the naturalist striding with full-hearted joy through the landscape, charting the movements and patterns of the indigenous wildlife. Bucolic indie-folk with sweet lyrics, a knitted sweater and a penchant for David Attenborough homage, and what's not to like about that? From opening track "Between The Saltmarsh And The Sea", replete with foghorn into synth chord intro, all the way through to "Love Song Of The Beta Male", Bonxie is pure delight.
8 Michael Price - Entanglement
File under: Modern Classical. Except don't: file under transporting modern music, or don't even file at all. Just keep it out front where you can see it, play regularly, and cherish every note. When your friends pop over for a soiree and enquire about it, tell them it's by the bloke who did the Sherlock theme. How much of the rest you want to share is entirely up to you.
If my friends ask, I'll tell them that the announcement you can just about make out at the beginning of "Budapest" was recorded one morning on Metro Line 1, at Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út station. It's an announcement I've heard hundreds of times; knowing it was a part of the inspiration behind the music it prefaces adds so much personal resonance with the music and only makes me love Entanglement all the more.
7 The Unthanks - Mount The Air
Music serves many masters, performing a multitude of duties for them all: for some, rebellion; for others, validation. From the thrilling calm of The Unthanks there comes a tantalising glimpse of other worlds, of stories become real, legends transformed into fact. Above all, there's the opportunity to listen to awe-inspiring harmonies and melodies, and exquisite story-telling and to never once have to feel guilty that you found it in the section marked "Folk".
6 Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
You don't "get" Courtney Barnett. I get that. You don't see what the fuss is about. I get that, too. You don't like her voice, and the music's not all that, so why exactly is everyone going nuts for her?
That, I can't say. I can say where my love comes from, though: it could be the lyrics, it could be the attitude, or even a combination of the two: smart and knowing, arch and self-deprecating, not so much a stream of consciousness as a carefully laid brick wall. Each barb, whether it's directed in or out, pricks something or someone; each word plays games of its own design. It's a document of sorts, written in the razor-sharp observations of a drifter's mind.
Head on over to page 2 for my top five albums of 2015.