Monday, 21 December 2015

My Favourite Albums of 2015: Part 2

Right then. Anyone who's missed part one have a clicky clicky here. Before I carry on I thought I'd give brief mention to some individual songs that tickled my taste buds.

Honourable Mentions (Tracks)

  • Everything Everything - "Regret": Another surprising Mercury Prize snub, Get To Heaven was EE's best album to date, and this was one of their most succulent singles. Requisite dance move: raising alternate arms in turn each time I hear "Re-gret!", like a Motown singer. 
  • The Cribs - "Burning For No One"/"Different Angle": Some vintage Cribs right here, big shouty choruses and catchy guitars tailor made for radio. Requisite dance moves: air bass after the bridge of "Burning For No One", bobbing my head, cooing like a pigeon at the oohs in "Different Angle".
  • Songhoy Blues - "Al Hassidi Terei": These Malians make such happy music for a band with blues in their name. This is just a massively funky tune that always raises a smile. Requisite dance move: raising my hands for the high vocals, then floating them back down for the low vocals. Wash rinse repeat.
  • Drenge - "Running Wild": Another band that's grown leaps and bounds this year, and this song in particular is an absolute monster. Filthy, sleazy, jaw-breaking guitars echo out everywhere and it's brilliant. Requisite dance move: stomping from foot to foot and swaying my head like a shark through water.
  • Sharon Van Etten - "I Don't Want To Let You Down"/"Just Like Blood": 2014 was filled with Shazza-shaped goodness with her incredible Are We There album and a fabulous gig at Manchester Cathedral. As she toured into 2015 Sharon gave us another fabulous nugget of awesome in her I Don't Want To Let You Down EP. The title track is a lot more driven and rockier than usual with some lush guitar work, while the other highlight "Just Like Blood" is yet another marvellous, captivating vocal performance. Requisite dance move: foetal position.

Alrighty then, onwards we go!

5. Ashley Monroe - The Blade

Don't listen to that idiot who compared women in country music to tomatoes, there were loads of great country albums by females that won't leave you thinking "needs more lettuce/Luke Bryan". I've already mentioned Lindi Ortega, but in addition Kacey Musgraves, Alison Moorer and Gretchen Peters also made some really rewarding records, and ex-Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe brought us what hopefully will be viewed as a classic for years to come in The Blade.

This album has that winning combination of tremendous depth of material and, in Monroe, a wonderful performer who can offer enthusiasm, energy, sincerity, anxiety and heartbreak at the drop of a hat. Opening song "On To Something Good" is a truly infectious tune that's enough to make you brush off all your worries ("Hard times roll up but they don't hang around") but it's far too modest, Ashley's on to something great here. Many of the songs here have arrangements much brighter than the situations the characters in them face, which is a great way of getting you to root for them, such as on "If Love Was Fair" and "Dixie" ("I don't hate the weather, I don't hate the land; But if I had my way I'd never see this place again").

This album has lots of toe tappers and your toe will be tapping a hole in the floor at the magical "Winning Streak", which along with "I'm Good At Leaving" is when Ashley turns the honky tonk meter up to max. On the flip side, Monroe is equally impressive in gentler scenarios, offering consolation on the likes of "Weight Of The Load" ("True love's gonna find you; This much I know") and "Time To Time" ("Someday you'll be fine, sweet as wine; But it's alright to remember"), and reflecting on or living with decisions you've made like on the title track ("That's the risk you run when you love... and you give it all you've got to give") and "I Buried Your Love Alive". My favourite track, "Bombshell" is very much in this vein, telling the tale of someone weighting up the burden of ending a love gone wrong.
I guarantee you'll enjoy this much more than a tomato.

Standouts: "On To Something Good", "Bombshell", "The Blade"

4. Richard Hawley - Hollow Meadows

After the heavier, headier 2012's Standing At The Sky's Edge, Richard appears to have calmed down a bit and returned to something more akin to the romantic, delicate joys of Cole's Corner. Don't confuse "returning to a familiar sound" with "regression" though. I mean, you're completely entitled to think like that but it's at your own peril - you'll be missing out on one of the most luscious albums of the year.

That's not to say the beefy guitar work of Sky's Edge has been completely cast aside either; check out the fuzzy "Which Way" and the driving "Heart Of Oak". "Welcome The Sun" also shares a lot of its DNA with the starker moments of Truelove's Gutter. Undeniably, however, the most glorious moments on the record come from the gentler songs. The sweet "Serenade Of Blue" ("The stars are out tonight and they are all aligned; You can take it as a sign"), "Tuesday PM" ("Girl, oh you've been unfair; I think the game, it had some rules you didn't declare") and utterly gorgeous album closer "What Love Means" all contain the ability to melt any hearts within a hundred paces of them.

The passage of time is a key theme throughout the album and its subject matter, cropping up on the three best tracks in particular. Opener "I Still Want You" almost feels aimed at the listener - "Sorry I've been away so long; I needed just a little more time" Richard croons, in a voice that makes the three years between albums instantly forgiveable. "Long Time Down" meanwhile, is home to some of the album's best lyrics ("We caught us a blue train, what other way is there to ride?") and one of the best examples of Hawley's excellent work with his backing vocalists, the so-called "Hicks St. Chip Shop singers", bringing out the best in a wonderful chorus. "You know I've waited so long; Honey, where do we go now?" Beyond a shadow of a doubt it is "Nothing Like A Friend", quite rightly the centrepiece of the album, that is the high point of the record. A sparse song lyrically, it is again the wistful chorus where Hawley excels - "Will these city streets remember us? We walked them long ago; Blown apart by a bitter wind that took us far from home". And of course in the spirit of things old mate Jarvis Cocker is there to play "super bass".
Unsurprisingly, then, this national treasure delivers again, and long may he continue to do so.

Standouts: "I Still Want You","Long Time Down" , "Nothing Like A Friend"

3. Chris Stapleton - Traveller

In a world where everybody is still over-emphasising this "bro-country" epidemic it is distressing to see quality artists going under the radar, creating the impression that nobody is doing things the old fashioned way in the face of shite like Florida Georgia Line. Which is what makes the success of Chris Stapleton one of the most heartening stories of the year. His TRIPLE CMA award haul and star-making performance of "Tennessee Whiskey" with Justin Timberlake saw a hard working, well respected writer get the credit they deserve for a record that is simply a revelation.

Much like Ashley Monroe, Chris has collected a broad range of material to showcase himself, illustrating what an incredible voice he has both vocally and, with twelve of the fourteen songs crediting him as writer or co-writer, lyrically also. From inflective contemplations like "Whiskey And You" ("One's a devil, one keeps driving me insane") and "Daddy Don't Pray Anymore" to "fuck it, I'm screwed anyway" missives in the shape of "Nobody To Blame" ("I know what got her gone; Turned my life into this country song") and "Might As Well Get Stoned" by way of riotous stadium fillers such as the title track and "Parachute" ("You only need a roof when it's raining; Only need a fire when it's cold"). Stapleton's voice is by turns powerful, reflective, tender and warm.

Credit must also go Chris's co producer Dave Cobb. Together the pair have brought a crisp, rich sound out of every instrument and vocalist involved. Speaking of which, Chris' wife Morgane also deserves some major credit here. As one might expect of a husband and wife pairing, Mr and Mrs Stapleton have incredible chemistry when singing together. The pairing are wonderful on the title track and "Tennessee Whiskey", while the delightful "More Of You" sees them nigh on reach Johnny and June level. That sense of romanticism somehow seems to reach even greater heights on the utterly fantastic "When The Stars Come Out" which never ceases to give me butterflies and convince me that there's some magic in the air tonight.
Make it your duty to keep your eye on Chris. This feels like the beginning of something special.

Standouts: "Tennessee Whiskey", "Parachute", "When The Stars Come Out"

2. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear 

His sense of humour might divide many, but personally I find a personality like Josh Tillman's Father John Misty persona a breath of fresh air when there are so many utterly bland pop stars around at the minute. Give me Misty trolling the media claiming Lou Reed asked him in a dream to take down his "Blank Space" cover over non-events like Justin Bieber wearing some band's T-shirt any day.

Believe it or not, I Love You, Honeybear is actually a pretty personal record, the vast majority of which is based around Tillman's relationship with his wife Emma. The "just kidding! bluster" as Tillman himself puts it is all a way of making him more comfortable with putting it out there. "Chateau Lobby #4" is all about the two meeting for the first time but of course in typical "tongue in cheek" fashion Misty twists his first experiences of love around virginal language ("Baby be gentle it's my first time I've got you inside"), in addition to being "cloaked in Disney" by the beautiful mariachi  arrangements. A clever turn of phrase like "When You're Smiling And Astride Me" is merely a diversion tactic from the song's true sentiment; "I can hardly believe I found you and I'm terrified by that".

On occasion, though, self awareness goes out of the window, like on "The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment". The intro has a real sit-com feel, and the lyrics seem to maintain that pretence with the narrator's put downs appearing to expose flaws in both himself and his subject equally. The line "She blames her excess on my influence but gladly Hoovers all my drugs." just gets me every time. "Bored In The USA" is another instance where opening one's mouth does more harm than good, as Misty's "first world problems" get cut down by laughter "They gave me a useless education *guffaws*, a subprime loan *more laughs* a craftsman home *ahahahaha*". It's these kind of quirks both musically and lyrically that make the Misty character and this album so fascinating and very rewarding upon repeat listens. The world would be a much more interesting place if there were more characters like this.

Standouts: "Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)", "The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment", "Bored In The USA"

1. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

Nobody can touch Courtney Barnett for crafting relatable, humorous tales filled with wit, attention to detail, self deprecation, and intelligence. Continual barrages of masterful turns of phrase leave you captivated. One article wound me up by focusing on all the technicalities her voice lacks which is utter bollocks: there's a greater depth of character and authenticity to her voice than 100 "competent" landfill indie singers put together. Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (a wonderfully defeatist title, the origins of which either derive from Winnie The Pooh or some baseball player depending on the part of the internet you look) should hopefully see Courtney take off from cult favourite to globally renowned genius.

Opening track "Elevator Operator" is as immediate an introduction to an artist's many qualities as one could find: characters who are a little lost ("not suicidal just idling insignificantly") captured in vivid detail ("Oliver Paul, twenty years old; Thick head of hair worries he's going bald", "Her heels are high and her bag is snakeskin; Hair pulled so tight you can see her skeleton"). And who hasn't felt like Oliver, really? "I'm not going to work today; Gonna count the minutes that the trains run late". "I come up here for perception of clarity; I like to imagine I'm playing Sim City".

The entire album is littered with this kind of charm and many similarly pacey, catchy nuggets of rock. The sweet "Illustration Of Loneliness (Sleepless In New York)" somehow even makes an "I'm going to notice stuff 'til I'm asleep" narrative entertaining; "I lay awake at 3, staring at the ceiling; It's a kinda off-white, maybe it's a cream?" "Aqua Profunda!" perfectly captures the weirdly magnetic need to impress a stranger and naturally failing ("I took a tumble turn for the worse; It's a curse, my lack of athleticism"). Meanwhile "Dead Fox" sees Courtney's mind wander from organic food ("a little pesticide can't hurt") to conservation ("Maybe we should mull over culling cars instead of sharks?") via road safety ("a possum Jackson Pollock is painted on the tar").

While all the above are typically quite jolly and poppy, we also get some Lou Reed style introversion, with "Small Poppies"sees the prospect of mowing the lawn drawing a bit of an identity crisis - "I don't know quite who I am, oh but man I am trying", "I used to hate myself but now I think I'm alright", a position she finds herself in again on the even darker "Kim's Caravan" ("Don't ask me what I really mean; I am just a reflection of what you really wanna see") before appearing lost again on "Boxing Day Blues" ("I love all of your ideas; You love the idea of me; Lover, I've got no idea"). It is "Depreston" that provides the album's best quiet moment though, as Australia's infamous property issues hamper one couple's ambitions.

While the quieter and slower songs are perfectly captivating, it is the grungier material where Barnett excels the most and in the blistering "Pedestrian At Best" she has arguably written the song of the year. Channelling Eddie Vedder flitting between "Push Me, Pull Me" and "Do The Evolution", Courtney blasts through a sensational performance bemoaning her luck; "Daylight savings won't fix this mess", "I've made a mess of what should be a small success; But I digress, at least I tried my very best I guess".
You sure did Courtney, and you've made a record for the ages in doing so.

Standouts: "Elevator Operator", "Pedestrian At Best", "Dead Fox"

Merry Christmas everyone, here's to 2016.