As in previous years, here’s my top five albums of 2015. They’re in no particular order, and the process of selection is far from scientific. There is a vague criterion that the albums here collected should do something interesting or different with their chosen form, but even this is a pretty bendable rule of thumb. On the other hand, these aren’t necessarily the quintet of records I’ve listened to most this year – accessibility or suitability as background music aren’t scored factors.
In other words, this list comes with a health warning and a disclaimer a mile wide. Should you wish to continue reading, here we go …
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats – Self-titled
This record probably accounts for my insistence above that the ‘new and different’ rule is bendable. In some ways, its inclusion is a sort of belated penance for the absence in my 2010 list of Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three’s Riverboat Soul, since this consciously retro record’s virtues are the same: an unaccountably tight band, a total commitment to concept, and great tunes. Not only that, but Rateliff’s story is compelling: tilling for years the fields of earnest indie folk, he has, at the age of 37, hit considerably more gold with this endeavour – and taken humble, jobbing musicians from his native Denver with him. Together, they’ve surely had the most fund – and made the most entertaining – record of the year. If the novelty may wear off by album number two, then for now Paste Magazine have it about right: “while the singer and his band are drawing on a classic form, their interpretation makes for an exciting and contemporary sound.”
Natalie Prass – Self-titled
In all honesty, I didn’t expect this album to have the staying power it has proven to have. The ineffable quality of Prass’s vocals and songwriting had me fooled – this diaphanous LP has spent the year with me and still come out on top. I don’t disagree with anything I wrote about it back in the month of its release: “There is a sense – in the skinny angles of current electronica, the ironic posing of the grizzled hangover of indie rock, or the heritage atmosphere of much current alt.country or anti-folk – that sentiment is no longer welcome in pop music. If that’s true, then Natalie Prass’s debut album – long-delayed following the unexpected success of label-mate Matthew E White took all of Spacebomb’s attention and resources – is a sort of New Sincerity manifesto for the 21st-century album. Drenched in brass and strings, keeningly hurting, and unafraid of the quiver of the torch-song, this is a tear-jerking, crafted, unabashed LP more Dusty Springfield than Lana Del Rey. Which, y’know. Is pretty fashionable after all.” Except I’d say she’s more Dolly than Dusty. So it’s improved in my estimation, then.
Panda Bear – Panda Bear vs the Grim Reaper
Important fact: the grim reaper never really shows up. Despite that, this is a record that may represent Panda Bear’s crowning achievement so far: entirely devoted to melody, and yet absolutely uninterested in received forms and modes, this is an LP which swerves and turns at every bar, and yet has a consistency of identity it maintains right through to the surely deliberate seamless loop from the close of the final track to the first notes of the opening. This is the quality which ensures the album’s place on this list: a never-ending enthusiasm for sound and song, that manifests in an impish inventiveness but also none of the coolness which is often associated with experimental or electronic music. There are both emotions and mathematics on display here, and each align to re-enforce the other. A really super bit of work.
Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
Or “Reasons That It’s A Good Thing That The Author Is Dead”. Martin Lewis of another parish and I are currently working on a joint essay/blogged dialogue about this record and its intersections with its creator: are the songs here a joke, or honest expressions of opinion? To what extent is the singer’s insistence in one song that he’d like to choke an annoying woman at a party a knowing self-parody, an instance of unthinking misogyny, or something in between? It’s my contention that from the “text” itself the only viable reading – with the over-elaborate production and competing narrative points of view – is that I Love You, Honeybear is an entirely conscious and wry look at twenty-first-century love, that fortunately also has fantastic melodies, memorable lyrics and good arrangements. It’s a complete album. That Martin has looked beyond the text is a conversation for another forthcoming post … keep your eyes peeled, gang.
Joanna Newsom – Divers
In an earlier life, would I have been a Kate Bush fan? I am avowedly not, and yet based on my contemporary and undying love for Joanna Newsom, I have to hold out the possibility that, had I been born a decade or more earlier, I could have become all that I hate in pseudish aficionados of 1980s caterwauling. Divers feels like a step away from Newsomish excesses – no grand Ys-ish formal constraints here, no Have One On Me triple album packaging. But from the title onwards this is as uncompromising an album as Newsom has ever made: her vocal, matured since her last release into a fully controlled but no less eccentric instrument, is used to impart in often bizarre phrasing lyrics that impart an over-arching consideration of the dregadations of time. Newsom fans like me will tell you that this results in a gloriously rich, surprising, and rewarding record of intellect and musicality; Kate Bush detractors will tell you that it’s all just self-consciously kooky tat. But they’d be wrong, right?