After working my way through the multitude of music releases I’ve amassed in 2015 I’ve whittled them down to a final ten, my favourite ten of the year. I should stress the word ‘favourite’, because these are by no means the best ten records of the year, simply the ones I’ve enjoyed the most. That’s probably worth mentioning. considering number ten…
10) Halsey – Badlands I don’t listen to much pop music, or alt-pop music, if that’s the category Halsey falls into as an artist. There’s a reason this list lacks many records released in that vein, and there’s a reason Halsey is one of few such artists to place, and place this highly also. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a record like Badlands and not felt a little bit odd for doing so, and that’s because Halsey’s music carries an appeal which makes it endearing to those who’d normally disregard it in light of its nature – or the fact that it charted at No.2 on the Billboard 200. I went into it sceptical based on a friends recommendation, and came out of it converted enough to recommend it to other friends. Halsey’s debut full-length is honest and perhaps daring in a way you wouldn’t expect it to be, a record for disenfranchised youths looking for a voice within the mainstream. Even though I find it to be one of the lesser tracks on the album, New Americana seems to give them this voice, or certainly tries to, hence why it flooded the airwaves earlier in the year. Elsewhere, highlights Ghost, Colours and Roman Holiday display an earnest, vulnerable delivery which is easily commendable, offering an insight into an artist only just in her 20’s and making waves. Flickering with subtle synths and delicate vocal licks, Badlands is a pop album an alternative audience can enjoy, carrying shades of CHVRCHES, Lights and Lana Del Rey, but almost always sounding comfortably original in the process. There’s a reason Halsey is poised to be the new Queen of the American scene, and that reason seems to pulse throughout Badlands, which has been my favourite mainstream US release of the year. Maybe I shouldn’t like it as much as I do (I probably shouldn’t), but if Badlands started off as a guilty pleasure, it isn’t anymore.
9) The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die – Harmlessness I looked back on my end of year list for 2013, and was surprised to see that The World Is A Beautiful Place’s debut full-length Whenever, If Ever placed at number sixty-four. I know that there was a reason I stuck it there at the time, but in retrospect it’s weird to see it there, given how highly I value that record now. Harmlessness places at number nine in 2015 because it’s a better record in almost every way. It builds upon Whenever, If Ever considerably, and the areas in which that release fell short are tidied up here; things are far less messy whilst still breathtakingly intricate. The many different voices of that album become one (two at times), and in lessening the more bizarre aspects of their music the bands second LP is streamlined without losing that essential emo appeal, a mature release which is still vulnerable enough to display cracks in a newfound level of composure. There’s a song on Harmlessness which opens with the lines ‘Before I die, take me to the place where we wrote our names wrong, but they shared a place‘, and later in the same song: ‘We’ll build a fire so high they’ll turn all the lights out and all will sing: I am alive and I deserve to be.’ That song is Rage Against The Dying of The Light, and it’s a song I listened to today, twice, when I listened to the entire album once. The song, and these lines, resonates with me, as does the record, and when listening to it today I put it to a test, in an effort it to see just how much the songs here matter to me. I went for a walk, and I took The World Is… with me, playing their second LP in its entirety as I climbed higher and higher above the town I live in, the wind whipping through hair I forgot to cut at University – or couldn’t be bothered to. I’ve taken Harmlessness on similar treks plenty of times this year, but I’ve never enjoyed it as much as I did this time, the likes of January 10th, 2014 and We Need More Skulls bleeding a warm calm into my bones, raising goosebumps on chilled skin, stretching the barren landscape in front of me all the way to the horizon. Harmlessness passed the test, because it brings things to life, brightening surroundings, and it courses through headphones in ripples of wondrous noise, a release which seems to eclipse and dwarf with its detailed composition. To me now, if not in 2013, The World Is A Beautiful Place… are a special band making special music, and I find it difficult to write about Harmlessness, because I think it’s a difficult release to give thought to. It’s introspective, confessional, daring and defiant, resistant to categorisation and bold in its delivery. It sparks and dances across a stunning fifty-four minutes, falls and rises in gorgeous waves, hypnotic and mesmerising. Harmlessness made me feel alive this year, or at least more alive than I felt capable of being prior to listening to it, and I wish I knew how to do it proper justice. (Bandcamp)
8) Sorority Noise – Joy, Departed Improving on their debut LP Forgettable in almost every way, Sorority Noise upped their game on their second full-length, and the result was one of 2015’s boldest alternative releases. Tackling addiction, depression and death amongst other subjects, whilst always tackling them with a heartfelt intensity, Cameron Boucher and co. laid their hearts on their sleeves, playing with a passionate determination. Poetic and personal lyrics were amplified alongside huge instrumentals and radio-friendly hooks, catchy whilst immensely cathartic, ten songs sparking sympathy across thirty-five minutes. The fifth, Your Soft Blood, displayed a dark, brooding side to the band, black and bullish, whilst Fuchsia is delicate and heart-rending in its sombre approach, Boucher lamenting over sympathetic guitars. It’s all very moving, highly emotional, and on the numerous occasions I’ve visited it since June I’ve been moved every single time. It’s sad, morose, but it’s also anthemic and oddly jubilant – see Using – and for every moment that threatens to tilt things too far into bleak territory, there’s a punch which encourages some sort of energetic reaction. It’s weighted and waiting for something better, but there’s also a sense of resolute solidarity to be found amidst it all which suggests that if this is it then that’s not a bad thing either. I gave Joy, Departed a 9/10 upon its release, and I stand by that score, as well as the praise I heaped upon the record at the time, because the album has lost none of its appeal since then – in fact, closer When I See You (Timberwolf) has only grown more powerful over the last few months. Sorority Noise became one of the most important bands in the emo / alternative scene in 2015, and Joy, Departed pulses with more than enough life to typify this explosive rise to peerless prominence. (Bandcamp / My Review)
7) Hop Along – Painted Shut You know those records you hear, and immediately fall in love with? Painted Shut was one such release this year, and it took maybe one or two songs for the Philadelphia quartet to secure a spot such as high as this one. Hop Along’s second record following 2012’s excellent Get Disowned is all about magnifying tiny moments and making them feel suitably huge; it’s a release which thrives on a penchant for expressive storytelling, small scenarios and situations given a vibrant charm and emotive output. It’s quirky whilst perky, giving thought to a variety of stories somehow painfully awkward, painfully funny, and sometimes just plain painful. It’s an indie-rock record with a knack for expressive conviction, told by vocalist Frances Quinlan, whose delivery is unique to say the least. Her lines are jarring in a good way, her vocals grating yet only grating because of the passion behind them. She sings uninhibited, and it’s the task of her band-mates to somehow match this, which they do. Painted Shut is unusual, but it’s brilliant because it stands apart, be it on opener The Knock or highlight Waitress, both of which resonate a great deal. Powerful Man is chunky and catchy enough to get under your skin and stay there, whilst Horseshoe Crabs paints a vivid picture punctuated by sweeping vocals and clean guitars, almost nostalgic and seeking, in a present setting. Every song sounds different, each delightful in a strange sense, and across the ten tracks featured Hop Along manage to construct one of the most memorable releases of the year. (Bandcamp)
6) Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle I’m 100% certain that 90% of the time I spend I listening to Sprained Ankle it’s breaking my heart, and I don’t mind that it is. Sometimes I want to put on a record and feel myself crumble under the emotional weight it carries; I want to be crippled in that capacity. It’s a need that dates back as far as I can remember musically-speaking, and over the years I’ve developed an affinity for the saddest songs, those which leave me feeling broken enough that I have to put the pieces back together. It’s a strange compulsion I have, to look for those tracks which seem to purify the contemplative and melancholic seeking of the human condition. Music, for myself, is the truest conveyer of emotion, it strips a person bare, lays their soul down in a song, and I lap it up like a dog laps at leftover food, greedy to swallow someone else’s self-deprecating sad songs as a means to help gain clarity about the way I feel, hoping to bring that sense of feeling to the surface in order to inspect and understand it. A sad song, for me, is never just a sad song, it’s something to relate to, something that helps, and there’s nine of them on Sprained Ankle. Julien Baker’s debut is a raw portrait of a tortured individual, sparse soundscapes settled alongside pining, pained vocals lyrically addressing faith, inner turmoil, addiction and love. It’s minimalistic, as delicate as records come, and its sombre subtle nature cuts incredibly deep; it’s heavy emotionally and light sonically. Listening to Sprained Ankle is to open up a wound and then, with its help, stitch it shut again. Baker knows these are sad songs, that’s part of the appeal, and this is an artist self-conscious of her sadness (‘Wish I could write songs about anything other than death’ she sings on the title track), and instead she uses her music to channel it, this level of self-awareness allowing her music to ripple outwards to an audience without proving overbearing or desperate to affect. It’s not a record to encourage wallowing, allowing it temporarily, but it’s a release which also carries a strange sense of optimism in light of its nature. It’s a difficult quality to put into words, but if Go Home leaves me vulnerable it also leaves me cleansed on conclusion. It makes me wish that I could give word to the way I feel as well as Baker does, but at the same time, I don’t need to, because I couldn’t do it as well anyway. Sprained Ankle is the saddest thing I’ve heard in 2015, but at the same time isn’t, because sadness shouldn’t make me feel this okay about being sad – I think I needed that sort of reassurance this year, and Baker provided it. (Bandcamp)
5) Wolf Alice – My Love Is Cool 2015, in UK music, has undoubtedly belonged to Wolf Alice, from a stellar set at Reading & Leeds to their debut record, My Love Is Cool, which slid into the chart just behind Florence And The Machine back in June. The hype behind the London-based four-piece has been slowly building, and peaked with the records release, which critics the world over commended highly, leading to a rating of 78 on Metacritic. A fuzzy, fun blend of feel-good upbeat numbers (Freazy) and ballsy rock songs (Lisbon), My Love Is Cool showcased a striking amount of creativity from a relatively young band, building on the promise of earlier EPs and delivering a record which seemed to be brimming with an energy and inventiveness, endearing it to audiences across the country. From the slow fade of Swallowtail to the mesmeric and epic Silk, Wolf Alice absolutely nailed it, releasing a debut LP way too confident to be a debut LP, packing a punch in a way which is entirely self-assured, the bands confidence emphasising every note and line. After deceptive, delicate opener Turn To Dust the record is a boiling pot of activity, a surprise in every new song, and as a result it’s a record which never really loses a listener, instead leaving them to ponder on what it all means, what’s coming next; the beauty is the unpredictability of it all. My Love Is Cool is wondrous, a near flawless debut, perhaps the most impressive the UK has seen since Arctic Monkey’s Whatever People Say I Am… That feels like high praise, a bold statement, and I’m almost certain that I mean it.
4) Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Sit From one incredible debut record to another, making the small leap from England to Australia. Following on from The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas, Melbourne native Courtney Barnett brought her lovable brand of slacker-pop to a global audience, and in doing so became the breakout star of 2015, finishing it recording with the likes of Jack White. Barnett is not your typical larger-than-life music personality, and that shines through in her music, which is wholly self-aware and grounded; her songs sounding effortlessly cool, almost lazily so. Maybe it’s the fact that the record was recorded in eight days, or the fact that her band only saw the songs seven days prior to that, but Sometimes… feels raw, entirely genuine, taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary. Songs about viewing houses, or swimming, or insomnia probably shouldn’t be this entertaining, but Barnett’s penchant for storytelling makes them just that, painting pictures with a jaded tongue. It’s all very convincing, and it’s a record which is very, very easy to enjoy, full of excellent songs which require minimal exposure to make their mark. These are songs which don’t require your affection, but they end up with it regardless. From the sprawling, charismatic Depreston (one of my favourite songs of 2015) to the fun and frolicking Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party, Barnett is forever the dejected picture of collected cool, and she doesn’t even know it – or maybe she does. It all seems so easy, and for this reason amongst others Barnett’s debut is the most listenable record of the year, one which cruises, but also one which succeeds on multiple levels. It’s funny (Aqua Profunda!), maybe morbidly so (Elevator Operator), but it also has its bleaker moments (Kim’s Caravan and its thoughts on mortality and The Great Barrier Reef) and there’s a mix which still keeps things relatively light, pleasingly enjoyable. Regardless of the tone or topic, Barnett proves herself to be an exceptionally talented songwriter, compelling and absorbing throughout, the distinctive voice of 2015, and the record never has a dull moment; there’s always something happening, and it’s always worth hearing. (Bandcamp)
3) The Wonder Years – No Closer To Heaven The Wonder Years have reached the point in their career now where, after three genre-defining releases, every new record is expected to be enough to better the one before it. With each new album, that task should grow more difficult, but that never seems to faze the Philadelphia sextet. With 2013’s The Greatest Generation The Wonder Years raised the bar, and No Closer To Heaven raised it all over again this year. Their fifth LP is their finest, rife with hooks and heart, but it also reaches new levels of songwriting ability, journeying into more emotive territory, making for a record which is weighted lyrically but pretty upbeat musically. It’s a line that The Wonder Years have walked often, but this time around the balance is so finely tuned that the record seems constantly on the verge of something darker even in its brighter moments, a thrilling and thought-provoking journey. Thanks For The Ride is catchy and dynamic, but lyrically it’s also seeking, pleading (‘Hey Hannah, don’t go / We could’ve given you such a beautiful home’), and the same could be said for I Wanted So Badly To Brave, a call for help masked by a towering chorus. With Campbell’s experience in Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties put to excellent use The Wonder Years stepped up their game in terms of songwriting on No Closer To Heaven, delivering an emotive and overlapping narrative which isn’t afraid to hold back, see Cigarettes & Saints and Stained Glass Ceilings, the latter featuring my favourite guest appearance of the year as Jason Butler of letlive. is letloose. For a few years now The Wonder Years have been the spokespersons for the scene, the most important band in pop-punk, and with LP number five they further cemented their place as the best, no other band from the genre having this much to offer me in 2015. (My Review)
2) Foxing – Dealer At the start of 2015, before I’d heard any of the records on this list, Foxing were my favourites to release my album of the year – and hey, they came pretty close. In fact, as the days grew shorter, and the nights descended earlier, the temptation to assign the Missouri five-piece that honour only increased. Dealer dropped at exactly the right time of year, on the cusp of winter, and now that the season is here the magic that Foxing create only seems all the more fitting, and all the more affecting. This is a record for cold nights, for darkened roadsides, for frosted field footpaths, for snowfall on the 22nd of December – incidentally the day I write this, watching it fall outside my window. I have Dealer playing in the background as well, because how could I not? On their second LP Foxing captured a specific mood using a sombre, subtle tone sculpted towards a certain season, and in every second Dealer breathes a warm life into chilled air, a crackling fire on the other side of windows glistening with frost. Listening to Dealer in such a scenario is to transport yourself, and I’ve done so plenty of times in the last few months. Since its release in October my iTunes reckons I’ve played it a good fifty-seven times, and I’ve spun the vinyl version at least five times since coming home from University last week. It’s also worth mentioning that that number, fifty-seven, is more or less consistent with each track (only The Magdalene passes sixty), and this is because once I start Dealer I don’t tend to break the hold it has on me. I can’t play favourites with its eleven song tracklist, nor can I skip certain selections. It’s because Dealer, taken collectively, is a stunning work of art, a rich tapestry of melancholic moments and lifting laments. Night Channels is an incredible example of Foxing at their best, a pained but pulsating epic, whilst Indica is exceptionally emotional, cutting deep each time. The instrumental Winding Cloth cocoons where Three On A Match cripples with its low-fi longing, and there isn’t a song on here which doesn’t offer something worth cherishing. By streamlining their sound and settling for a style, Foxing found their sonic sweetspot, and Dealer is a special record as a result. I wrote a glowing review of it back in October, and in December I reaffirm my gushing affection for it, because this a landmark release, an intricately crafted and marvelously expressive release which lingers long after its final note – and does so until its first note sets things into vibrant motion once again. A worthy number two so close to being a number one. (Bandcamp / My Review)
1) mewithoutYou – Pale Horses I’ve read plenty of end of year lists over the last few weeks, perusing them whenever they crop up on Twitter, or skimming through magazines in newsagents, and I’m not sure I’ve seen mewithoutYou’s incredible Pale Horses mentioned on any of them. I’ve been trying to work out why that is, listening to it in the hope of finding it undeserving of an accolade, and I fail to see why this record seems to have been forgotten so quickly by so many of the big guns. Maybe it’s because the record is a difficult one to grasp conceptually speaking, maybe it’s because it doesn’t appeal to the widespread music media. Then again, maybe it’s none of those reasons and something is just simply off with the music universe and its governing bodies. Whatever the reason, it’s not one which I’m guilty of. No other release from 2015 inspires the kind of response in me that Pale Horses does; I’m hooked every time I press play, immediately immersed in what has been the best experience alternative music has provided this year. mewithoutYou’s sixth LP is a cinematic and absorbing work, a spellbinding, atmospheric and incredibly dense record which is as engrossing as it is enigmatic. It’s an easy listen which doesn’t always sound like an easy listen, and the extent to which it toes that line depends on how invested you become in it. Over the last few months I’ve become heavily invested in the grandiose nature of Pale Horses, and despite having listened to it numerous times (probably pushing sixty) since it’s June release I’m still somewhat baffled by the lyrical complexity it possesses. Frontman Aaron Weiss is not your everyday lyricist, and his lines twist and spin in a way which seems to resist an easy interpretation, heavy in spiritual imagery and dancing from one scene to the next while you’re still trying to piece together the lines before. Just because you know the words, which I do by now, doesn’t mean that you know the words – not really. This is one of the many reasons that I love Pale Horses as much as I do; I can’t remember ever being challenged this much by a release this cryptic before. It’s so layered, so intricate, so wonderfully weird, that it’s a record which never proves boring, serving up something new to latch onto with every playthrough. As a listener who often turns immediately to the lyrical side of a record, Pale Horses caught me off guard, and then reeled me back in song by song, asking for consideration if not necessarily understanding. It helps that, musically speaking Pale Horses is also excellent, and the instrumental arrangements negate the need to make sense of the lyrical aspects. Magic Lantern Days ribbons warmly, a slow, gentle embrace, whilst Mexican War Streets is explosive after a foreboding build, Weiss matching the aggression on show. Monolithic closer Rainbow Signs signals an impending apocalypse, and is breathtaking at its tumultuous peak, a crashing cacophony which makes the idea of an apocalypse tame in comparison. This grand finish presents one of several moods traced with an earnest ear on Pale Horses, and it contrasts the more subtle Blue Hen or Red Cow, which are both brilliant, the latter my favourite track on the album, magic. I was critical of tenth track Birnam Wood in my initial review, but over the months it’s gone from the weakest link to one of the stronger selections, the sonic shifts carried off flawlessly as Weiss asks ‘And can we not call it a nervous breakdown, my nervous system breaking down?’ It’s eclectic and electrifying, as is all of Pale Horses, and it adds to a sonically lush palette, ripe with melodic musings, mellow guitars meeting reserved drums for a laid-back, lucid effect. It’s moments as thick and thoughtful as these which helped to set mewithoutYou above their contemporaries this year, and there’s plenty of them on display. Pale Horses is a rare release, one which seems to get everything right, and it’s hard to ever see myself ever tiring of it – I don’t know how I could, considering how much it has to offer. There’s a reason Pale Horses is the only release I’ve rated highly enough to assign a 10/10 to this year, and the reason is that mewithoutYou’s sixth LP is a work of supreme majesty, rightly taking the crown for 2015. (Bandcamp / My Review)