Saturday, December 19, 2015

Top ten albums of 2015

I won't remember 2015 as a great year for new music, and in a few years time I doubt I'll rank any albums from this year among my all-time favourites.  However, there was a steady stream of quality music trickling out all year long, and I don't think I fully appreciated that until I started putting together this list and realized how many notable albums there were to choose from.

I wrote the previous paragraph as an intro to last year's top ten list.  Technically, only the first part of it is still true.  I remain conflicted about several of these albums -- will I still be listening to them regularly in one year's time?  From last year's list, only Fennesz and Alcest have remained in heavy rotation throughout 2015.  Are they great albums, or only fleetingly great when you binge listen to them when they're new?  Are they only great when you compare them to lesser albums from the same year?  What happens once the year passes and those albums have to hold their own against other great albums, rather than against the detritus released that same year?

As for the second half of that opening paragraph, I did appreciate the steady stream of quality music throughout the year, and was consistently surprised this year by albums that exceeded my expectations.  That includes most of the albums on this year's top ten.  However, looking back at 2015 as a whole, the sum seems less than the sum of its parts.  Almost nothing disappointed me, and there was a lot of like, but perhaps not enough music to truly love.

I don't want to reprint that opening paragraph every year, but is this the start of a trend?  Hopefully not.  The music on my 2011-2013 lists was strong enough to cast a shadow over the music from the past two years.  Every decade has its uncharacteristically strong years, and its recovery years.


10.  Shapednoise, "Different Selves" (Type)

You don't need descriptors for the music on a Shapednoise album.  Everything you need to know is in the name.  A throwback to the heyday of Ant-zen and the rhythmic noise of more than a decade ago, except in place of danceable rhythms, there's nothing but scraping, earsplitting ... er, shaped noise in place of anything that would be reasonably expected to make you move your body.

9.  Auscultation, "L’etreinte Imaginaire" (100% Silk)

In a year when Aphex Twin confirmed the legends about dozens of albums that had been recorded and hoarded away since the mid 90's by giving away hundreds of tracks for free, the most faithful reproduction of his career best work as Polygon Window was released by a much more obscure talent from the very non alien-like Madison, Wisconsin.

8.  Chelsea Wolfe, "Abyss" (Sargent House)

This fantastic album cover builds a powerful narrative even before you hear a note of the music: infernal, ghostly, reeking of death.  And the music?  Like the more expressive PJ Harvey of the 2010's returning to her more raw, visceral sound of the 1990's.  In a blues metal style.

7.  Nils Frahm, "Solo" (Erased Tapes)

Nils Frahm appeared on a few albums this year, but the best was the free one.  There's nothing particularly fancy going on here, just stark, wordless, stargazing piano ballads that work a special kind of magic.

6.  New Order, "Music Complete" (Mute)

Every generation can't have its own New Order, because the original keeps coming back.  How is it that nobody has bettered their particular style of dance rock in the thirty years that have passed since they first introduced it?  And how does their sound never seem to age?  The only thing that changes over the years is the guest vocalists.

5.  Prurient, "Frozen Niagara Falls" (Profound Lore)

Easily the most well-rounded Prurient album I've heard, this 90-minute double album takes in an epic sweep of noise subgenres.  

4.  Anthony Child, " Electronic Recordings from Maui Jungle Vol. 1" (Editions Mego)

The title is very misleading and nearly turned me away from hearing the album in the first place.  Is it yet another album of pysch-tinged field recordings and ghostly ambience? Actually, far from it -- you can sense the serenity of the jungle in these recordings, but this music isn't meant for quiet meditation.  The key influence of the natural surroundings is one of isolation, where nobody will complain about the droning noises and nobody will randomly come along to interrupt the recording.  So Child lets his compositions slowly envelop the listener, shoving all outside distractions into the deep background, and forcing time to stand still.

3.  Howling, "Sacred Ground" (Monkeytown)

The last two Moderat albums may have failed to set the world on fire like they should have, but Monkeytown Records haven't given up trying to recapture that same aesthetic.  This collaboration between earthy Australian Ry X and Ame's Frank Wiedemann is the latest genre-bending experiment to emerge from the Monkeytown camp, and very likely the best.  Dance remixes of indie acoustic songs have been huge hits in Europe over the past few years, but Howling decided to skip the remix step and make the records themselves.  

2.  Brandon Flowers, "The Desired Effect" (Island)

Last year, Future Islands' "Seasons" was a phenomenon, an 80's throwback that was so uncool it couldn't help but be cool.  It was the top track on Pitchfork's list.  It won single of the year on Pazz and Jop.  This year, Brandon Flowers released his own version of uncool 80's music, and ... what, was the uncool barrier somehow crossed?  Getting people to hear the album after they'd trained themselves to tune out the Killers years ago was an uphill battle.

1.  Beach House, "Depression Cherry" (Sub Pop)

For the second straight year, my top pick is an album that originally disappointed me greatly.  Both were among my favourite acts in music and carried high expectations.  It doesn't take a genius to believe that these things are related.  Look, I'm not even sure whether "Depression Cherry" is a great album.  But I spent more time dissecting it this year than the rest of the albums on this list combined.  I tried to unwrap its many layers and pinpoint what made these simple, lullaby-like songs sound so rich and textured.  I tried to analyze it track by track versus "Bloom" and understand what it meant for Beach House in the long term (which became even more difficult when they surprised fans with a second and very different album, "Thank Your Lucky Stars", only a couple of months later).  Was it really a search for a more insular existence, a reaction to their growing fame and the pressure to play louder and louder to fill up larger concert halls?  "Days of Candy" says yes, "Sparks" says emphatically no.  Did anything make me feel more at peace this year than "Levitation" and "Space Song" (no).  And so on, until the end of the year, and probably well into future years.  

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