Saturday, February 6, 2016

Albums of 2015

Yes, yes. I know. We’re practically a tenth of the way through 2016 already and everythingsgonegreen is still living in the past. Even more than it usually does. Still wrapping up the formalities of bidding 2015 a fairly fond farewell. And other “F” words. But being late is nothing unusual for this blog. To be fair, I would have published this a fortnight ago, but my AA meeting went on longer than planned, and the barman wouldn’t let me leave.

And so these are the albums that made the most impact on me throughout 2015. Not “the best albums”, not the most popular or critically acclaimed, but the albums that were significant to my world. The music I played the most, I guess is the best criteria to use. I make no apologies for the local bias. The only prerequisite for an album’s inclusion was that I had to have my own copy of it in one form or another. Spotify and streaming mean nothing to me.

10. Blur – The Magic Whip

Damon Albarn has his moments, and I think The Magic Whip is one of his better ones. I really didn’t need any more Blur, and Modern Life Is Rubbish was always going to be enough for me, but this turned out to be a lovely unexpected bonus, and a real grower as the year progressed. My original review can be found here.

9. Adrian Sherwood – At The Controls Volume 1 1979 – 1984

It probably goes against all of the unwritten rules of music blogging to include a sneaky retro-compilation on these sorts of year-end lists. But everythingsgonegreen despises rules, especially those pesky unwritten ones, so here it is, another superb set of tunes from ace producer Adrian Sherwood. I loved this, and I dribble from the mouth a wee bit when pondering just how deep the yet-to-be-released On-U Sound archives might run. Despite being a huge fan of the label and of the Eighties, I was gobsmacked to discover a couple of bands here that I’d never even heard of before. And then there was the primo Shriekback track I knew nothing at all about. We’re nothing if not current and cutting edge up here at everythingsgonegreen towers … or the tree hut at the bottom of the backyard as it’s otherwise known. Shame – with some mitigating circumstances – on the hapless JB Hi Fi guy who didn’t know this album even existed. My original review can be found here.

8. Fat Freddy’s Drop – Bays

It's no secret that everythingsgonegreen is a massive fan of local dub/reggae/funk crossover merchants Fat Freddy's Drop. But even I baulked at the option of paying something close to $150 for two tickets to the band's recent NYE (2015/2016) gig at Petone beach. It was effectively a homecoming or hometown gig, but nothing about that price was especially festive or neighbourly, and it was all a little too rich for yours truly. Less disappointing and even less prohibitive was the $24.99 I'd already forked out for a copy of Bays, the band's rather excellent fifth album from earlier in 2015. All of the regular Fat Freddy's touchstones are present and accounted for on Bays – bass, horns, drops, laid back grooves, and songs about food. You mostly know what you're going to get with these guys. Some (local) critics will doubtlessly argue that's a bad thing, but I reckon the intense progressive electro vibes found on 'Razor' and 'Novak' actually do represent something quite different here. Of course it won’t be enough to satisfy those naysayers, nor the bandwagon-hoppers who continue to tag the band with the lazy and tiresome "barbecue reggae" label. But who really cares about unimaginative worn-out labels? Beyond wanting to give one or two regular grizzlers a poke in the eye with a particularly sharp stick, the band obviously couldn’t care less.

7. Belle and Sebastian – Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance

We live in a topsy-turvy world. A world where everything we once believed is now in danger of being turned completely on its head at any given moment. For proof of such a claim, look no further than Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance. A rare and barely imagined two-headed beastie; a disco-pop album made by long-time kings of bedsit twee, Belle and Sebastian. An album that challenges all of the things I thought I knew about Stuart Murdoch and his stalwart gang of Scottish indie pop perfectionists. Two decades into their journey, album number nine feels like something quite special for the band. It’s clever stuff, charmingly existential, as ever, while shamelessly strutting its way across the dancefloor with its arse hanging out. Always a good look. And I don’t know if Belle and Sebastian have peaked inside the Top 10 of the ‘fishal UK album charts all that often, but Girls In Peacetime did exactly that, by hook over crook, all part of the plan, as espoused on notional centrepiece ‘The Everlasting Muse’ … “a subtle gift to modern rock, she says ‘be popular, play pop’ … and you will win my love”. I’ve had a fractured relationship with Belle and Sebastian over the years, but who doesn’t love a happy ending?

6. Mel Parsons – Drylands

Mel Parsons is a huge talent. As a musician, as a vocalist, and as a songwriter. Drylands represents exhibit A, and is, from all accounts, her best work yet. It’s also an album that just gets better with each and every listen. My original review can be found here. 

5. New Order – Music Complete

When it first arrived, I never expected Music Complete to wind up on any year-end lists. But then, when it comes to New Order in context of 2015, I really had no expectations at all. Why would I? The band has nothing left to prove, and this barely anticipated late addition to an already astounding musical legacy was the band's best full length work since 1989's Technique. And if you think that's merely a case of blatant fanboy hyperbole (which it partly might be) then it's still a long way short of Mojo magazine's rating of New Order as its 2015 band of the year. Yes, really. My original review can be found here.

4. She's So Rad – Tango

Tango was such a long time in coming that by the time it arrived I'd already heard most of it in one form or another. But that did nothing to dampen my enjoyment of it. Circles, the band's 2011 debut, largely flew under my radar, and to some extent a steady drip-feed diet of this stuff has given Tango an impetus the first album probably lacked. Main Rad dude, Jeremy Toy, wears his musical influences on his sleeve for all to see, and Tango is an exercise in blending a strong Eighties synthpop aesthetic with copious helpings of early Nineties shoegaze. And who doesn’t love a little bit of both of those things? But it’s not all retro-centric, with David Dallas’ straight-outta-Auckland hip hop cameo on ‘Say The Word’ taking things to another place entirely. Best bits: ‘Levels’, ‘Cool It’, ‘Confetti’, and ‘Sewn Up Sunshine’.

3. Yoko-Zuna – This Place Here

When I spoke to Cam Duncan, this album’s producer, early last month, he talked a little bit about how music fans can *feel* music before they actually *hear* it. That was all a bit flowery and “out there” for a mere layman and pragmatist like me, but I think I partly knew what he was trying to get at. For me, This Place Here conjures up widescreen cinematic imagery the very instant I do hear it, so I suppose that’s close enough. It’s probably just the sax and the wider jazzy feel, but I’m reminded of that scene in Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, where there’s a downpour and a narrative/voiceover describing how the rains arrive to cleanse the streets of all the gunk and grime. All of mankind’s sins are washed away, as if the drenching was all part of some great masterplan (Travis: “someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets”). It’s Seventies New York at twilight, dusky downtown streets, and film noir black and white imagery. Only it isn’t really New York. This Place Here is a trip. It’s an album conceived on the streets of urban Auckland, on Grafton Road, on Queen Street, and on K Road. In the small clubs and jam-bars in the side streets off the main drag. And that voiceover? … it comes in the form of multiple narratives from some of the best hip hop exponents those streets have to offer – from David Dallas to Team Dynamite, Spycc, and others. In more simple terms, the album was a mature, multi-collaborative, and perfectly formed mix of hip hop, RnB, and jazz. With a super-sized “just jamming with mates” feel right at its core. My original review can be found here.

2. The Phoenix Foundation – Give Up Your Dreams

I reckon The Phoenix Foundation might just about be the best band in New Zealand right now. And I'm not saying that just because they're regular neighbourhood guys from just down the road; the band's output across more than a decade speaks for itself, and album number six, Give Up Your Dreams, is arguably the best work yet. With its capacity for musical surprises and a more than generous sprinkling of lyrical brilliance, it certainly appeals as the band's most consistent full-length effort. From the psych-rock of opener 'Mountain' to the electro-pop textures and harmonies of closer 'Myth', and everything in between, The Phoenix Foundation effortlessly conjure up a masterclass in state-of-the-art pop on GUYD. While it’s tempting to single out the bouncy hooks of 'Bob Lennon John Dylan', or the title track itself as highpoints, no single track really stands out ahead of the rest, and it’s the sheer variety on offer that ultimately leaves the longest lasting impression. A career high for the band.

1. Of Monsters And Men – Beneath The Skin

I’m not sure whether I should feel guilt pangs for loving Of Monsters And Men as much as I do. But, just quietly, sometimes I do feel that way. I have form for this sort of thing. Back in 2012, the band’s excellent debut, My Head Is An Animal, also featured highly (number 2) on the blog’s end-of-year album wrap. There’s just something so damned irresistible about Of Monsters And Men. Is it still too soon to call them Iceland’s best pop export since Bjork’s imperious Sugarcubes? There’s a strong argument to be made there, it has to be said. If the debut was all about embracing childlike magic and feelgood triggers, and I think it was, then 2015’s Beneath The Skin is a far more adult and grown-up affair. As an album it’s altogether an earthier, more grounded, inward-looking work. But being a little darker lyrically, and unafraid to broach some of life’s more existential questions, just means the band’s music is all the broader in appeal this time out. Thankfully, none of the quirk or charm of previous work was lost in the process of giving this stuff a more introspective or serious hue. For the absence of any doubt, check out ‘Crystals’, ‘Empire’, ‘I of the Storm’, and ‘Wolves Without Teeth’. Guilty pleasures be damned, I can’t wait for album number three already.

Honourable mentions:

The Orb’s Moonbuilding 2703 AD, a four-track epic spanning some 52 minutes, making it rather reminiscent of the now archaic Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld. Without being quite as good as that particular masterpiece.

Leftfield’s Alternative Light Source, which was effectively Neil Barnes and a whole list of collaborators making Leftfield’s first set of new and original material this century. I especially enjoyed the contribution of James Williamson (Sleaford Mods) on the mildly amusing but nonetheless slightly disturbing ‘Head and Shoulders’.

St Germain’s “comeback” work St Germain, a self-titled third album for French producer Ludovic Navarre. While this one was not quite in the same league as its predecessor, Tourist (2000), I thought it was a wonderful exercise in exploring the concept of rhythm, specifically as it relates to Africa and naturally, the blues. Put like that, it might also have been about the meaning of life …

Oxford band Foals released What Went Down mid-year and for a long time it was a stick-on certainty to make this list. But as the year wore on, the more I listened to it, the more bored I became. A decent collection of songs, just lacking one special element … even if I’m not entirely sure what that element was. I preferred 2013’s Holy Fire, but still love Foals, and this one possibly suffered from me becoming overly familiar with it a little too quickly.

Finally, Jamie xx’s In Colour was hailed everywhere else, and while I liked the vast majority of it, the stuff I didn’t like – and I include the big “hit” ‘I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)’ in that – really put me off. When he’s good, he’s great. When he’s not, he’s … well, not. In Colour was, for me, despite all of the bouquets, a patchwork album. But still worthy of an honourable mention.

Biggest disappointment of 2015: The Pop Group’s Citizen Zombie. A 35-year wait. For that? Really? I expected more from Mark Stewart. Because I know what he’s really capable of. But then, that’s easy for me to say. I’m not a once angry young man who has grown old. I’m a once happy (and extremely handsome!) young man who has grown angry.

Was there also a Prince album I could get my knickers knotted over? I think there might have been. It’ll be the one in the recycle bin.

Best reissue: Paul Hardcastle’s 30th anniversary edition of ‘19’. You probably knew that was coming. So many different versions, so many of them truly epic. Seemingly more relevant today than it was back in 1985.

Best live album: The abbreviated version of Live at Carnegie Hall from Ryan Adams (not the sprawling three-album set), which set me up nicely for seeing Adams live at Wellington’s Opera House in July. It was my first time seeing him and he was truly impressive.

Best gig: I’m tempted to say Ryan Adams, but Fleetwood Mac in Auckland was pretty special. The swirling wind and monsoon conditions made it difficult at times, but boy oh boy did it up the drama quotient tenfold. I’ll never forget Stevie Nicks taking ‘Gold Dust Woman’ somewhere very special indeed, just as the heavens opened one last time. It was a thoroughly mental but very memorable 24-hour blast getting up there and back.

Just quickly, another thing on Fleetwood Mac: I couldn’t include the three-disc Rumours deluxe box in the best reissues because it was released as far back as 2013. But it was new to me this year and quite special in its own right. Aside from the additional disc of alternative takes and demos, there’s live tracks from the band’s 1977 World tour – which somehow seemed especially poignant and timely.

So that more or less wraps things up, and puts 2015 where it belongs – in a big fuck-off box. And ties the bow. I’m reaching up and placing it on the shelf beside the others right now. Thanks for reading. You had the easy bit. I think.


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