2015 looks destined to be a year that will be looked back on as a vintage one for music.
Whether the stars were aligned or the tectonic plates of political and societal tensions were just perfectly set for inspiration, there must have been something in the air to influence so many great musical triumphs.
There were two particularly outstanding albums which I will get to but there was plenty to enjoy elsewhere.
It was a particularly strong year for female artists. Really strong albums from Julia Holter who was rightly lauded, the dependably innovative Bjork, folk hero Laura Marling and Aussie newby Courtney Barnett. It also saw a welcome return of riot-grrrl rockers Sleater-Kinney. Their first album in a decade, No Cities to Love was an all killer, no filler, 10 song masterclass in indie-rock.
They weren’t the only ones to make a welcome return in 2015. In fact at times it felt like 1995 with very good offerings from former-Supergrass frontman Gaz Coombes, The Charlatans, Leftfield and particularly Blur, whose The Magic Whip sounded like a Far-Eastern take on Modern Life is Rubbish.
The highpoint of Leftfield’s Alternative Light Source LP came with their Sleaford Mods’ collaboration Head and Shoulders. The Sleafords had already by that point released arguably their strongest work to date in Key Markets which cemented their place as one of the UK’s most engaging acts.
Two solo-performers from the UK that particularly impressed me, and more importantly for them garnered them each with deserved Mercury Music Award nominations, were Ghostpoet, who proved he’s here to stay with his rockier urban Shedding Skin and C. Duncan who gave us possibly the debut of the year with Architect.
Highlights from across the pond were the lyrically dexterous Father John Misty’s endearingly eclectic I Love You, Honeybear and the sublime southern blues of Alabama Shakes on Sound & Color. Meanwhile Philadelphian singer-songwriter Kurt Vile made it a hat-trick of superb solo albums with his latest outing b’lieve I’m goin down while Wilco yet again proved themselves as the consistently satisfying band around with their latest collection of glorious Americana-inspired rock on the album Star Wars.
All the above are all worth multiple listens but none could quite compete with the year’s two best offerings. In many other 12-month periods the likes of Father John Misty and Sleater-Kinney could have claims to album of the year but this happened to be a year when two instant classic long-players graced us with their presence.
First up there was Sufjan Stephen’s deeply personal Carrie and Lowell. It’s a touching album inspired by the recent death of his estranged Mother. At times mournful but also quite playful, it’s got a childlike innocence to it even though the theme of loss is at its core.
At first Carrie and Lowell seems low key and sparse, but even after nearly nine months of listening I’m still finding new things to enjoy on every play. By contrast the next of my favourite albums of the year can seem a little daunting on the first few plays as there is so much to it. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is overflowing with creativity, brimming with musical and lyrical flourishes.
Like Carrie and Lowell, it has some devastatingly honest and personal moments, but it is a work much broader and political in its scope.
It is an album of its time, yet it carries the weight of so many influences, and it’s not surprising that it’s been put on a pedestal already next to hip-hop classics such as Illmatic and It Take A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, but also other nailed-on American classics such as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On and some of Curtis Mayfield’s earliest and best work.
Alright became an anthem of the Black Lives Matter cause and it was fitting for that to come from a record so unafraid of being challenging and confrontational.
If I had to plump for one of the two it would be Lamar’s poetic masterpiece simply because of it being so relevant to the climate of 2015.
Check out my Best of 2015 Playlist on Spotify.