It’s album of the year time. HOORAY! Or BOO! (flavour to taste). Having canvassed your opinion on discs that you lot are rather partial to, well over a hundred were nominated; the point being (I think) that amongst some rather obvious titles, there’s a wash of fascinating LPs that are very much worth exploring. So: thank you for taking time out to cast your votes – after a few hours of fun dicking about with a spreadsheet, below are the twenty-five albums thus deemed essential. I may not agree with much of it (in fact I don’t; my own AotY pieces – overlong diatribes for the most part – will be up on this site in a day or so), but it remains a pretty strong list – even if the disc at number 25 makes me want to smash my head relentlessly into the nearest concrete bollard…
25 – Key Markets / Sleaford Mods
“Sometimes Jason Williamson sings, after a fashion, which is where Key Markets gets weird, in much the same way that early Fall records got weird when Mark E. Smith tried to carry a tune. (The creepily catchy ‘Tarantula Deadly Cargo’, which may or may not be a scatological joke, would fit right in on the Fall’s Dragnet, especially Fearn’s asthmatic guitar plinks.) ‘No One’s Bothered’ is another sung one, the closest thing here to the form of the ’70s punk that’s deeply embedded in Sleaford Mods’ art, and it’s built on a smart trick from Fearn. His rhythm track is a three-minute extension of a punk song’s bolting bass-and-drums intro, a loop of the few seconds before the guitar inevitably dives in—which it never does here. “You’re trapped? Me too,” Williamson snaps. “Alienation? No one’s bothered.” The punk rock on which Williamson and Fearn grew up promised a lot of catharses that weren’t actually forthcoming, so they don’t even hint at those. But they’ve adopted its raw elements—crudity, spittle, black humour and unpretty voices—as durable tools to express discontent.” – Douglas Wolk, Pitchfork.
24 – Universal Themes / Sun Kil Moon
“It’s the uncensored story of the travelling salesman blues; a revealing ethnographic diary of Kozelek’s uniquely crafted thick description set to mellow yet caustic instrumentation. Although only eight tracks long, the disc running time is over seventy minutes (do the maths). Truthfully, even as a fan, it’s a tough listen that often struggles for your attention let alone imagination. Taken as a journeyed whole, the best way to experience the record perhaps, it’s much less immediate than Benji (2014) or Among The Leaves (2012) but the lyrics tell similar tales of stolen kisses and conversations, vacant hotel life, random gig encounters, odd deaths and entrances and European film sets. There is no hint of metaphor or analogy here, just literal, straight-edged accounts of whatever tends to happen in Kozelek’s touring life and whatever is thought about in his big, beautiful head. You are tempted to use the word ‘narratives’ but doubtless that would risk the on-stage ire of our man from Ohio. The thing is, a sense of mystery has have long left the building and, I suppose, you either get this or you don’t.” – Colin Clark, Lazer Guided Melody
23 – Sleep / Max Richter
“On one level, Max Richter’s latest album is straight-up ambient post-minimalism, all hushed and precious moodiness, but there’s concept behind the mellow loops and drones and wordless floaty vocals. A decent night’s sleep lasts for eight hours; Richter’s epic durational work Sleep clocks in at the same. The German-British composer calls it both a “personal lullaby for a frenetic world” and a “very deliberate political statement” on the way we engage with our sonic environment. He wants to know how our brains deal with music while we dream: it is neurological research by incredibly low-key stealth.” – Kate Molleson, The Guardian
22 – Have You In My Wilderness / Julia Holter
“While still dreamlike, Have You in My Wilderness, Holter’s fourth album, is something clearly felt — the ocean spray on the warm breeze, the sun baking exposed limbs, a hand glancing across your skin before drifting away. Her first three albums each felt thematically tied together in smart, artful packages based on preexisting literature and film: Tragedy ran on Euripedes, Ekstasis worked with modern poetry, and Loud City Song rotated around 1958 romantic musical Gigi. The choice of personal pronoun in this album’s title feels designed, as the songs no longer hinge on an external source. Her previous work didn’t necessarily require any outside reading to unlock its pleasures, but Have You in My Wilderness cuts extraordinarily quickly to the core.” – Adam Kivel, Consequence of Sound
21 – b’lieve i’m goin down / Kurt Vile
“The making of b’lieve i’m goin down, Vile’s sixth album and fourth of his fruitful tenure on Matador, brought the singer-songwriter out to the California desert, specifically to Joshua Tree’s Rancho de la Luna, a recording studio frequented by Queens of the Stone Age (among many others) and mythologized on Dave Grohl’s HBO documentary series from last year. He laid down tracks in a few other locations (studios in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Athens, Georgia), but it’s the desert setting that blankets the album and looms largest in Vile’s mind ‘I recorded one of my favourite songs ever,” he said. “Everybody went to bed and I couldn’t sleep. I kept listening and then the sun came up and all of a sudden I just looked around me and I could see everything for miles and I was like, ‘Man, I just recorded my best song ever and I’m here in the middle of nowhere in the most beautiful, mystical, magical desert.’” – Kyle McGovern, Spin
20 – Shedding Skin / Ghostpoet
“Ghostpoet has, until now, been a gritty realist… but on Shedding Skin, he takes up the rose tinted guise of a tertiary sector Bruce Springsteen, leading live set up of Joe Newman, John Calvert and John Blease. While he’s never strictly been hip hop at all, and his production has always been multifaceted, this marks a distinct stylistic shift. Making what he has described as a ‘guitar album’ (which features among others Maximo Park’s Paul Smith) invites a whole new set of comparisons. He’s left his safe niche as a slightly obscure, left field, poet and producer, to take his stories to the wider world with ambitions of bandleader and storyteller in the great tradition.” – John Platt, The Line of Best Fit
19 – Y Dydd Olaf / Gwenno
“This ain’t your Granddaddy’s dystopia. The overt dread and gloominess of the apocalypse have become all too frequent, but the hallmarks of the popular sci-fi genre are all but absent on Welsh songstress Gwenno’s debut LP Y Dydd Olaf. Instead, she scores her dystopic opus with neon bright synths, highly danceable beats, and galvanizing hooks—especially on the opening tracks ‘Chwyldro’ and ‘Patriarchaeth’ – which, while sung in her native tongue, are nonetheless hummable for listeners of any language. (The album takes its name from one of her homeland’s acclaimed sci-fi novels about a man who thwarts brainwashing robots by communicating in Welsh.)” – Kyle Mullin, Under the Radar
18 – How To Die in The North / BC Camplight
“It’s too lazy to call How To Die In The North a catharsis for BC Camplight. True, a descent from critical acclaim to alcoholism, drug use and homelessness in Philadelphia did lead to a Leaving Las Vegas-style move to Manchester, to prove his ability and destroy himself in the process; but the songwriter’s third record feels more like a starting point than a purge.
Themes of loss (‘Atom Bomb’), relationship failure (‘Grim Cinema’) and distrust of love (most of the album) are sent on beguiling journeys that pull in everything from neo-psychedelia, on opener ‘You Should Have Gone To School’, to string-laden surf pop on ‘Thieves In Antigua’ and Nilsson-esque balladry on ‘Why Doesn’t Anybody Fall In Love?’ It suggests a man’s mind running riot with possibilities rather than pain, held together by crisp, unforgettable melodies. Dying never sounded more alive.” – Simon Jay Catling, The Skinny
17 – Hand. Cannot. Erase. / Steven Wilson
“As modern progressive rock’s undisputed figurehead and chief workaholic, Steven Wilson has little to prove, and yet his fourth solo album is anything but a cosy reassertion of values. In contrast to his much-lauded Victorian ghost-stories set The Raven that Refused to Sing from 2013, Hand. Cannot. Erase. is an album rooted in sonic and spiritual modernity, largely eschewing early prog tropes in favour of an inventive blend of bleak and brooding industrial soundscapes and rugged, muscular ensemble performances from Wilson’s virtuoso henchmen. Inspired by the strange real-life story of young and vital Joyce Carol Vincent, who lay dead in her apartment for nearly three years before being discovered, this is a rich musical journey with numerous moments of vivid melodic simplicity, but weighed down by thoughts of urban alienation and societal detachment. Wilson’s refined skill as a songwriter and studio guru combine to fashion songs that deserve a much wider audience than one that views his work as a modern equivalent of Pink Floyd and Genesis. For them, Guthrie Govan’s sky-scorching guitar solos will seal the deal; for everyone else, this is a smart, soulful and immersive work of art.” – Dom Lawson, The Guardian
16 – Modern Nature / The Charlatans
“Two years after founding drummer Jon Brookes died of a brain tumour, the band once dismissed as the also-rans of the early Nineties baggy scene are back with a triumphant 12th album: the high watermark of a 25-year career that has already seen them survive the 1996 death of keyboardist Rob Collins and the serious addictions of singer Tim Burgess.
Reuniting in a Cheshire studio six months after Brookes’s death, they decided to respond to their loss with an ‘uplifting,’ ‘soulful’ record. They’ve succeeded. Deeply infused with rich, subtle hooks, Modern Nature is a patient album that warms the bones with a steady fusion of mid-tempo Curtis Mayfield soul (muzzy organ, bongos and funk guitar), with memories of Madchester club nights (baggy beats, chunky chords, shoegazer vocals) and tasteful string arrangements.” – Helen Brown, The Telegraph
15 – The Agent Intellect / Protomartyr
“Whilst The Agent Intellect is a brilliantly burdensome excursion for the most part, relief – both mawkish and droll – is rarely far from reach. Whether you look to the likes of album peak ‘Ellen’, a wonderfully rousing expulsion named after [Joe] Casey’s mother and written from the perspective of his late father or a repeated ear-worming couplet on ‘Pontiac ’87’ – ‘It’s no use in being sad about it/What’s the point in crying about it’ – Protomartyr temper demons and despondence by ensuring contempt for psychic pain and the crueller machinations of modernity is thoroughly accounted for. Granted full leeway to pontificate, Casey is defiant in the jaws of loss but at no point does it ever feel irrevocably hopeless. All positions considered, The Agent Intellect probably isn’t a record to be throwing on every evening after (or indeed without) work. Distilling the sheer fallibility of the human condition across twelve insistent tracks, each full listen feels like an investment in the slow-burning revelation of some bigger picture, delivered with the ardent persuasion of a band fully able to defend wasting no time in capturing the magic.” – Brian Coney, The Quietus
14 – Everyone Was A Bird / Grasscut
Composer/producer/ vocalist Andrew Phillips and manager/musician Marcus O’Dair (who wrote last year’s superb biography of Robert Wyatt) fuse themes, including identity, home, familiarity and ancestry, with an impressive if not immersive array of song, ambient textures and layered electronica.
Coming across like a mix of early Pink Floyd, classic Pet Shop Boys, Lemon Jelly, Nick Drake and extracts from the Bodleian Library catalogue, this is beautifully simple music – as much experimental as pop-oriented – with guest vocalists including Irish musicians Adrian Crowley and Seamus Fogarty.” – Tony Clayton-Lea, The Irish Times
13 – No Cities To Love / Sleater-Kinney
“Now is the time: breaking the decade of relative silence that followed Sleater-Kinney’s prodigious supposed finale, 2005’s The Woods, the girls are back in town. We have arrived at the critical reappraisal and celebrated comeback of music’s most revered feminist saviours of American rock’n’roll. It is 2015 and we are staring down Sleater-Kinney’s wise eighth album—exactly 50 years removed from the birth of ‘R-e-s-p-e-c-t’, exactly 40 years removed from the birth of Horses, exactly 30 years removed from when Kim Gordon first yells ‘brave men run away from me’ in the Mojave Desert, exactly 20 years removed from Sleater-Kinney, a primal, insurrectionist warning shot from the margins. Ever since, we have had Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss to soundtrack our societal chaos and progressing zeitgeist: tangled agitation, pummelled norms, principled wit, sublimity, sadness, friction, kicks.” – Jenn Pelly, Pitchfork
12 – Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance / Belle and Sebastian
“New producer Ben H. Allen III does a sterling job of making Belle and Sebastian most stylistically eclectic record into something coherent and crunchily satisfying. Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance is one of those records which sees the artists going back to the past – even if it means revisiting bad memories – in order to remind themselves why they bother, and move forward. It’s the collective’s best since Dear Catastrophe Waitress, and sees off the potential chronic fatigue syndrome of being Belle & Sebastian for just a little too long.” – Garry Mulholland, Uncut
11 – Music Complete / New Order
“Given the acrimony following Peter Hook’s exit in 2007, the album title could read as provocation: just how ‘complete’ can this New Order music be? Collective identity matters, especially in groups with such deep history; Hook clearly provided a signature element. But as the bassist himself doubtless realised the moment he spluttered his Frosties upon first hearing The Cure’s ‘Inbetween Days’, signatures can be forged. Throughout these 11 songs, if the cast sheet didn’t say it was Tom Chapman playing bass, rather than Peter Hook, there would be no way of telling.
Music Complete is closer to the popular conception of New Order – a rock band making electronic music – than either of the last two New Order albums. Both 2001’s hulking Get Ready and 2005’s lacklustre Waiting For The Sirens’ Call were made without keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, whose return here seems to have lightened the mood. Chairs are cleared, shoes kicked off. With its droll Club Med bump’n’grind, ‘Tutti Frutti’ features La Roux’s Elly Jackson duetting with Bernard Sumner for an aerated house thrill evoking ‘Fine Time’ from 1989’s Technique. More generally, that album’s dancefloor melancholia is the reference for both propulsive opener ‘Restless’ and the closing ‘Superheated’, sweeping synth lines and semi-acoustic textures wrapped in a regretful embrace.” – Keith Cameron, Mojo
10 – Dumb Flesh / Blanck Mass
Thematically – from the enigmatic artwork and album/track titles out – there’s a sense of contusion that has Dumb Flesh hanging from its own unique meat hook. Explorations of mental and physical fallibility that permeate throughout its eight tracks (as well as the ambient ‘Life Science’ piece included on the vinyl edition), and a seam of flux that mirrors the artist’s own experiences during the disc’s genesis.
We live in an era where electronica has become as predisposed to vogue as any other genre; not that there’s anything wrong with channelling Motorik grooves, John Carpenter soundtracks and incidental music from weird 1970’s TV shows (to pick a few recent tropes), but when such reference points start cropping up in looser and looser contexts, the impact grows diluted.
Yet Dumb Flesh exists beyond the default settings of stylistic convention. A widescreen album that’s never scared to focus upon detail. It’s as big or as intimate as you want it to be – the only guarantee being that it’s never going to take the exact same dimensions on your next listen.” – Duncan Harman, The Skinny
(That last hack, if you didn’t know, being me).
9 – Mutilator Defeated At Last / Thee Oh Sees
“When Thee Oh Sees sink their teeth into a groove they are like a ravenous dog with a juicy bone. ‘Lupine Ossuary’ is a vampiric tour de force, where the multi layered reverb and riffs shadow dance over repetitive rhythms like Nosferatu trying to creep up on a victim whilst being blown back by a wind machine. This pivotal moment in the band’s sixth album in five years and the second since that phantom non-sequitur split. ‘Lupine Ossuary’ is the spiritual other to ‘Lupine Dominus’ from their last truly great album Putrifiers II and not just in name.
There’s plenty to get the incisors into before that though. Mutilator Defeated At Last starts with a gratifyingly spooky sonic blast. After the paisley whimsy of a band regrouping on last year’s Drop, this album is back to the plaid wearing minotaur-slaying monstrousness of Floating Coffins. ‘Withered Hand’ is both a super-heavy second song and a description of how garage doyen John Dwyer’s digits must be after the bone crunching fretwork of the frantic brace of songs at the head of Mutilator.” – Nick Hutchings, The Quietus
8 – Architect / C Duncan
“If pop music is all about timing, then Christopher Duncan appears, at least at first, to be in trouble. A July heatwave seems a spectacularly ill-suited release date for songs such as Say or Silence and Air, which boast choral passages so wintery you can practically hear Britain’s transport infrastructure collapsing. Then again, Duncan doesn’t appear to be interested in typical working methods. The 25-year-old Glaswegian is a classical composer who studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and in this debut he incorporates complex choral work into more pop settings. He seamlessly merges interweaving vocals with the sounds of pastoral English folk and lush, 4ADesque dreampop. On ‘He Believes in Miracles’ and the title track, both of which have a psychedelic shimmer, you realise that Duncan is just as comfortable when creating music to suit sunnier climes, making this a magical record for all seasons.” Tim Jonze, The Guardian
7 – O Shudder / Dutch Uncles
“This is Dutch Uncles at their busiest, with layer after sound after noise after weird instrument (including a fucking laser harp!) artfully piled in. What’s striking though is that a band known for a very particular sound can produce such individually distinct pop songs, with equal aplomb, while remaining within their self-defined parameters of ‘the Dutch Uncles sound’. Yes, I’m aware this sentence makes me sound like a wanker.
‘But what about those lovely, lush strings that characterised their last album, Out of Touch in the Wild?’ I hear you cry. They’re pushed to the back end of the album here, with the final four tracks taking on a mellower vibe. This concentration gives Robin Richards’ string arrangements greater prominence, transforming them from canvas into vivid brushstrokes. The closer, ‘Be Right Back’, with its backing vocals from Liverpudlians Stealing Sheep, showcases this to dizzying effect.” – Dan Lucas, Drowned in Sound
6 – To Pimp A Butterfly / Kendrick Lamar
“Thanks to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, 2015 will be remembered as the year radical Black politics and for-real Black music resurged in tandem to converge on the nation’s pop mainstream. Malcolm X said our African ancestors didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us. The cover of Lamar’s second major-label LP flips that maxim with a fantasia of bare-chested young hoodrocks flashing cash and booze on the White House grounds, Amerikkka’s Most Unwanted victoriously swarming a toppled symbol of pale-skinned patriarchy.
To Pimp a Butterfly is a densely packed, dizzying rush of unfiltered rage and unapologetic romanticism, true-crime confessionals, come-to-Jesus sidebars, blunted-swing sophistication, scathing self-critique and rap-quotable riot acts. Roll over Beethoven, tell Thomas Jefferson and his overseer Bull Connor the news: Kendrick Lamar and his jazzy guerrilla hands just mob-deeped the new Jim Crow, then stomped a mud hole out that ass.” – Greg Tate, Rolling Stone
5 – Hinterland / Lonelady
“To say that this album is derivative of other Mancunian acts would be completely inappropriate. Instead, there is something purposefully, intentionally collectivist about Hinterland. LoneLady here does not seek to disassociate herself from Manchester’s past, but rather, through it become part of the city which she has adopted for herself. What the album falls down on slightly is a lack of dynamics. Although standalone each song is catchy and refreshingly danceable, they don’t add up towards a comprehensive album experience. There is little variation from the funk-punk, and slower tracks like ‘Flee!’ feel weaker to their more nervy counterparts.
That shouldn’t make you overlook those songs like ‘Hinterland’, which is an excellent standalone pop song, or ‘Groove It Out’, though. In contrast to her debut, and to its namesake, Hinterland feels joyous, celebratory in places (especially on ‘Groove It Out’) and so only reflects a more relaxed, happy Manchester. One where people are free to explore, inquire, and take a tour of its heritage. It fits her with ease.” – Lottie Brazier, The 405
4 – I Love You, Honeybear / Father John Misty
“Following a lengthy stint as a brooding solo singer-songwriter and as the drummer for choral-folk outfit Fleet Foxes, Josh Tillman decided to rebrand himself as Father John Misty. Originating after a mushroom-fuelled revelation, the moniker became a full-on persona, a goofy, mystical Lothario who sang about Canadian shamans, talking dogs, the pretensions of writing a novel, and ass-based skin grafts on his promising 2012 debut Fear Fun. Preternaturally self-aware and simultaneously difficult and endearing, like a less divisive Lana Del Rey-type, Tillman’s musical alter-ego found him approaching music from a satirical and almost cartoonish head space. Be it through pretending to strike the chords on a player piano on Letterman or creating an elaborate, tongue-in-cheek streaming service SAP, which “streamed” his sophomore album I Love You, Honeybear via terrible MIDI sounds, Misty works to challenge as much as entertain.
Apart from the lush compositions and layered autobiographical themes, I Love You, Honeybear also succeeds perhaps most obviously from Tillman’s own incredible voice. With a welcoming tenor and a likeably schmaltzy delivery that finds him displaying loads of range and emotions, he’s able to give his subject matter the unforgiving and ultimately warm treatment it deserves.” – Josh Terry, AV Club
3 – Carrie & Lowell / Sufjan Stevens
“Stevens’s mother died of cancer in 2012, after a life complicated by schizophrenia and alcoholism, and Carrie & Lowell is all about coming to terms with her passing, with his unorthodox upbringing and, more formally, after a number of experimental albums, with straightforward songwriting. On this level, Carrie & Lowell is an easy listen. Stevens’s The BQE (released as a recording in 2009) was a soundtrack to a road; 2010’s The Age of Adz was an electronic symphony to anxiety loosely framed around the work of schizophrenic outsider artist Royal Robertson (some of it sampled on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly).
By contrast, Carrie & Lowell is song after first-person song, in which Stevens accompanies himself on banjo, acoustic guitar and some piano, with a few unobtrusive accessory sounds and guest spots. It is very like Stevens’s haunting declaration of faith, Seven Swans (2004). This time, though, references to faith and mythology (Poseidon, Perseus and Pegasus all figure) occur in the context of explorations of past bewilderment, recent grief and his double abandonment.” – Kitty Empire, The Observer
2 – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit / Courtney Barnett
“Courtney Barnett is only on her first proper album, but she’s already setting herself apart as one of the sharpest, most original songwriters around — at any level, in any genre. The Australian singer-guitarist, 27, is a self-strafing humourist à la Lena Dunham who’s also a Dylan-style word ninja, spooling out honest, funny, indelible stories wrung from the everyday stuff even a good novelist might overlook. Her loose, conversational lyrics are full of images you can’t shake and characters you need to know more about. You don’t just quote a Courtney Barnett song, you recap it.
Barnett puts her own apathy and insecurities front and centre. But she writes empathetically about other people, too, like the guy in ‘Elevator Operator,’ who gets confused for a suicide case when he skips work to daydream on a roof. Some of the album’s most striking moments are the most reflective ones, particularly the heart-ripping ‘Depreston,’ a pretty folk-pop mumbler. Barnett sings about driving out to the suburbs to look at a house in her price range; the place seems great, but darker details start to crowd her mind. The woman who used to live there has died, and there’s a photo of a young man (her husband? her son?) in Vietnam. Barnett realizes she’d have to level the house and start over, respecting these strangers’ past by destroying it — which she doesn’t have the money to do. Oh, well, back to renting. But wherever Barnett ends up, we’re going to want to go with her. She’s a talent we’ll be following for decades.” – John Dolan, Rolling Stone
1 – Ones and Sixes / Low
“It’s fairly common knowledge that tortoises owe their epic lifespans, hundreds of years in some cases, to their excruciatingly slow metabolism. The same holds true for other large, slow beasts, like whales, elephants, and Duluth, Minnesota’s pioneering slowcore purveyors, Low. Alan Sparhawk and his romantic and musical partner Mimi Parker’s eleventh record in a little over two decades, Ones and Sixes, might be the product of a similar phenomenon: ‘I can’t explain / The slowing of my brain / The underlying vein / That flows right into you,’ says the latter, who shares vocal duties with her husband, on the oh-so-slow ‘Into You,’ a wooden block tap-tapping almost inaudibly under keyboard chords that bleed into each other like those lyrical fluids.
Ones and Sixes often flares with that kind of tension musically and lyrically: “Congregation” marches to a drum machine constantly skipping and then righting itself, falling on wrought-iron piano bars as Parker moans about death and jail; but “Lies” features perhaps the most complex architecture of the bunch, opening with a familial backstory tracing back thirty years and somewhat knocking off aphorisms like lazy afternoon fly balls (‘Time is keeping score,’ ‘the blind leading the blind,’ sweeping things underneath rugs, etc.). Sparhawk tentatively hits highs in Wayne Coyne territory, imbuing the canyon-filling swirls of background synths and simple, sad, jangly riff with echoes of The Soft Bulletin.” – Harley Brown, Spin