2015 had some huge album drops for us, many coming out of the blue (Beach House, Grimes) and some paying off from huge pressure and hype (Tame Impala), but it’s also important to respect those debut albums from bands putting their music into the world for the first time. They won’t always hit the mark, but for many of 2015’s new bands, it could be an opening statement or a hint of something more to come. December is generally a slow month for music, so hopefully we don’t have a masterpiece arriving on our doorsteps in the next thirty days. We really hope Rihanna don’t drop Anti tomorrow. Please?
Vulnicura // Björk
Björk was becoming dangerously close to considering the ‘aesthetic’ of her music over the content when Biophilia came out, which was based on an app and the music played second fiddle to the vast concept that Björk had mapped out. Granted, Vulnicura was also vast in concept, but as it was leaked early, Björk had the unfortunate but fresh problem of releasing her album before the rest of the extensions (a book and an exhibition) came out. The music was front and centre this time, and so it should be. It was Björk’s most personal, most emotional album yet, documenting her break-up from long-time partner and father of her child Matthew Barney. Björk is angry with not just him, but herself, and that part makes the best music. Vulnicura was also notable for how close it sounded like Homogenic, arguably Björk’s first masterpiece and was similarly heartbreaking. Björk didn’t exactly retread the sound – if she had just reworked Homogenic it would sound dated, but with help from modern experimental electronic producers The Haxan Cloak and Arca it blended the orchestral heights with the cold electronic elements which balances out the warmth that the orchestra brings. Björk is back on form.
Fading Frontier // Deerhunter
One of the best modern rock bands continued their experimental streak after the dreamy masterpiece Halcyon Digest and the noisy punk of Monomania, Fading Frontier‘s opening tracks finished off the remaining angst of Monomania before descending into dream-pop accessibility but still in-keeping with Bradford Cox, their ever-present frontman, and his eccentricities. They tamed down the psychedelia, tamed down the punk and somehow still managed to stay relevant. So where are Deerhunter even at anymore? They’re the best genre-hoppers around, who’ve dipped their toes in genres just long enough to make a masterpiece then surprise again. Part of Deerhunter’s appeal is the appeal of their next album – it could go anywhere. Fading Frontier was a wise choice to slow down that exploration, focus on the present and allow Bradford Cox to explain his reaction to being hit by a car in late 2014. They explored their own fading boundaries as well as music’s in general and it was perfect.
My Love Is Cool // Wolf Alice
Surprisingly, the hype actually paid off for Wolf Alice. After two years of EPs and honing their craft live, Wolf Alice were unfortunately lumped in with the hype train that so often disappoints (Peace and Palma Violets spring to mind). However, Wolf Alice actually delivered on My Love Is Cool, incorporating pop songs (‘Bros’, ‘Freazy’) and grungey guitar music like ‘Giant Peach’ and old favourite ‘Fluffy’). The deeper cuts didn’t mean Wolf Alice dipping into their back catalogue of EPs, with only ‘Bros’ and ‘Fluffy’ being older songs. They brought fresh music to an album which could have so easily been more of the same. And if My Love Is Cool is anything to go by, Ellie Rowsell is this generation’s best front-person with her combination of soft-harsh vocals and relatable lyrics.
M3LL155X // FKA Twigs
FKA Twigs dropped the ‘EP1/LP1’ style for a good purpose. Mill155X (Or Melissa) went beyond her established style as an experimental popstar into something even weirder, even more interesting and even more avant-garde. The instrumentation went overboard, more so than LP1, on its cold electronica that takes inspiration from trip-hop, R’n’b and the Arca-led wave of fluttering alien electronic music which surprises and confuses in equal amount. Bursts of huge sound on ‘Figure 8’ and ‘I’m Your Doll’ were entirely new, as was Twigs’ lyrics, which got more explicitly sexual than LP1, but it was always an examination of the energy of sex. It was clinical, creepily so. As Twigs continues her strong series of music, she goes from strength to strength. She’s exploring new territories with music, and wherever she goes she seems to touch gold.
Sprained Ankle // Julien Baker
This album completely passed us by at the Funnel when it was released, but discovering it was like finding your new favourite artist all over agin. Baker makes incredibly heartfelt songs that become personal and often break the fourth wall. Sometimes listening to it sounds like hearing Baker fall apart over the course of 30 minutes, but by the end you feel as if you’ve gone through the exact same pain as Baker. Songs such as ‘Brittle Boned’ are about Baker in the hospital, describing in minute detail the uncomfortableness of hospitals. She even goes as far in the chorus as to sing ‘Cause I’m so good at hurting myself’, before letting the phrase hang between softly-strummed acoustic guitar. ‘Everybody Does’ is an even harder song to listen to, despite a more optimistic guitar. The outro consists of Baker repeating ‘You’re gonna run / It’s alright, everybody does’ and calls herself ‘a pile of filthy wreckage’. Baker’s voice works especially harder on this track, her vocals almost breaking on the chorus. It’s an uncomfortable, beautiful, essential listen.
Every Open Eye // CHVRCHES
There were some glaring problems with CHVRCHES’ debut, The Mother We Share, but it was pristine pop that you could get invested in. Every Open Eye was an improvement in every way, especially since Martin Doherty’s track on the album was just as good as when their prime vocalist, Lauren Mayberry, was on the microphone. Mayberry’s presence is arguably one of the best features of CHVRCHES as her voice elevates the band beyond some of their peers and her lyrics are pure pop reliability. ‘Empty Threat’, ‘Bury It’ and ‘Leave A Trace’ show Mayberry winning the argument and taking control of the person that she wants to be. The optimism of CHVRCHES is so endearing and the way they deliver it is coated in so much pop shimmer that it can’t possibly rub you the wrong way.
New Bermuda // Deafheaven
The Funnel is not a metal site, but New Bermuda definitely did it for us. That was probably because Deafheaven’s third album was the most accessible the band have ever been, even more so than their breakthrough, Sunbather. There aren’t many traces of ‘black metal’, in them, despite this being the genre they most identify with. That’s because underneath all of that black and screaming, there’s a soft-hearted shoegaze band lurking underneath. Often in their ten-minute songs, maybe a third will be George Clarke’s powerful scream describing the utter misery he found when moving to the West Coast, but the other two-thirds will be the indie band underneath, wriggling out melodic guitar lines which are covered in effects that Slowdive would be proud of and culminate in a post-rock crescendo. Don’t enter this album with metal’s stigma that is still unfortunately attached, because Deafheaven really aren’t too bothered about death and satanism.
Ivy Tripp // Waxahatchee
Back in June, this was one of our favourite albums. And here it is in December, still warming our hearts with indie-rock and then breaking them with frank lyrics about relationships breaking up and the aimlessness of being a twenty-something. Continuing the indie-rock sound that began with Cerulean Salt, Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield went fully into the realm of her college-rock contemporaries like her sister band Swearin’ or Kurt Vile with songs like ‘The Dirt’ and ‘Under A Rock’, which was the best two-minute songs of 2015. Somehow, Crutchfield still managed to make time for her more traditional acoustic songs such as ‘Summer of Love’ and the piano-led ‘Half Moon’, but the best moments were when Waxahatchee bridged her career in songs like ‘Poison’ and ‘Air’, which was a huge step forward. It will be very interesting to keep an eye on where Crutchfield goes next.
Divers // Joanna Newsom
Condense, condense, condense. That was the mantra of Newsom for Divers, which managed to tighten her sprawling three-disc LP from 2010, Have One On Me, into a mere 51 minutes, which is more like thirty seconds for someone like Newsom, who crafts intense concept albums. Divers was no-different, but it made up in quality where there was less quantity. Her harpwork still rings out across the songs, but extra instrumentation such as drums from her brother Pete and even an electric guitar on ‘Leaving The City’ showed Newsom exploring new territory. Her lyrics are just as mesmerising as ever, creating pockets of worlds within songs like ‘Sapokanikan’, which turned an oral history of New York and its boy mayor into a beautiful song that blooms with horns and piano.
Thank Your Lucky Stars // Beach House
Before we explore Thank Your Lucky Stars’ sister album, Depression Cherry, a word about the misunderstood younger sibling. ..Stars’ big story of its release unfortunately undermined the quality of the music, but it was a nostalgic moment for Beach House to look back at their early records and transform their dusty, homemade quality into the glossy dream-pop that gave their break-out Teen Dream so much critical acclaim. There was something different about …Stars. It had a different quality to Depression Cherry, in that it sounded lost in time, trapped in a dimension where Beach House perform at lofty 1950s high school balls for confused teenagers, put into words in songs such as ‘She’s So Lovely’ and ‘Somewhere Tonight’. Beach House’s strangest, but also most interesting, record yet.
No Cities To Love // Sleater-Kinney
Thank god for Sleater-Kinney. Released just as 2015 began, No Cities To Love began the year with one of the best reforming bands from the 90s yet. No, Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss didn’t hate recording together. No, they had not lost what made them so appealing in the first place. No, they were not antiquated rock stars who were relics of the 90s. They mattered, and most importantly, they could play even better than some of their original material. How quickly Sleater-Kinney got back into the swing of things is astounding, as is how well-crafted and tight the songs are on No Cities To Love. Listen to ‘No Cities To Love’ and ‘Fangless’ and then compare them with Sleater-Kinney at their best (We’re definitely talking either The Hot Rock or The Woods). There is no drop-off. The ‘best rock band in the world’ are still killing it.
B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down // Kurt Vile
Kurt Vile’s going to have to keep making records until he makes a bad one. It’s been a long time since Vile has made albums that aren’t as high a quality as Smoke Ring For My Halo, Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze and B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down. It might seem like Kurt repeated the same dusty americana as his previous records, but there are always splashes of indie-rock like ‘Pretty Pimpin’ or psychedelic side-tracks like ‘Life Like This’. It isn’t a surprise that recently Vile’s been collaborating with Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa, The National and even covered the Velvet Underground with Kim Gordon (Just repeat that last one again to yourself). Vile’s becoming an underground hero, making music that’s unique and also sounds buried in the past.
Sore // Dilly Dally
Dilly Dally were one of the most impressive new bands making a debut in 2015. They had all of the great grunge combinations – a bassist who could throw around low-slung lines like no-one’s business, a guitarist that is capable of twinkling melodies and crunchy riffs, a drummer that was capable of erupting at short notice and a vocalist who sounds like Courtney Love’s lost child. Katie Monks’ vocals are one of the best parts of Dilly Dally, mostly because she makes vocals that drag words around and screams at every opportunity possible sound like it was easy. That was most apparent on lead single ‘Desire’, but also ‘Ballin Chain’ and ‘Green’. This is the kind of band you want to see in a tiny basement that you can barely breathe in.
Art Angels // Grimes
Claire Boucher deserves a medal. Or some kind of Canadian honour. She actually persevered against all of the pressure and polarising opinion that had been piled on top of her after her third album Visions that culminated in the quick-drop of Art Angels. She went full-on pop this time, never sacrificing the eccentricities that made her music appealing. It’s pop, but in Grimes’ world of pop Taiwanese rapping, orchestral intros and songs called ‘Kill V. Maim’ pass for pop. Just look at the front cover – the average pop consumer of Justin Bieber, Calvin Harris and Adele might be hesitant to pick up an album that is bubbling with youthful creativity right up to the three-eye alien on the front cover. This doesn’t take away from the music – which is just one banger after the other, often getting better and better towards the back end.
Time To Go Home // Chastity Belt
Never has such a dreamy, bubbly and hazy recording ever surprised us more than Time To Go Home. Chastity Belt completely revamped since their 2013 album No Regerts, with frontwoman Julia Shapiro withdrawing the funnier, punkier moments for her side-project Childbirth (who also released a good record this year) and instead using Time To Go Home to document the come-down after the Saturday night-out that was No Regerts. Guitarist Lydia Lund came out of the blue with her contribution on ‘Lydia’, which brings a fresh, talented songwriter out of Chastity Belt and Shapiro’s moments were just as good. ‘Joke’ was their lengthy jam session, ‘Cool Slut’ was Shapiro’s feminist lyrics direct and centre and ‘Time To Go Home’ was their ending masterpiece. Just listen to it already.
Currents // Tame Impala
Tame Impala, or as they are better known – Kevin Parker – slipped into a suitably less psychedelic skin for Currents, just as their flagbearers-for-psych schtick was becoming a little dated (and as every psych band crawled out from under a rock to copy them), they made a pop record. Frequently sounding like John Lennon had a mid-life disco-crisis in the 70s, Currents was chock-full of danceable moments such as ‘The Less I Know The Better’ with that bassline and ‘The Moment’ was acid-tripping on the dance-floor. Parker’s vocals and lyrics became more human and personal and the album was significantly less hazy than their previous two records. This was the sound that Tame Impala were meant to be, never mind that psychedelic nonsense. What was Lonerism again?
Have You In My Wilderness // Julia Holter
One of the more subtle transformations of 2015 was Julia Holter’s change from experimental musician to avant-garde balladeer. Have You In My Wilderness stripped back the extra instrumentation that layered Loud City Song for something more organic and simple. Piano was Holter’s instrument of choice, strings were optional. Her voice became less like background music and it was brought forward like the powerful instrument it is. There were remainders of her old style that were scattered across the record, including the spoken-word and frenetic ‘Vasquez’, which sounds something like Radiohead’s experimental phase on Amnesiac (Think ‘Pulk / Pull Revolving Doors’), but the best moments were when the music became pure and simple, like on ‘Lucette Stranded On An Island’. Stylish and pretty like a picture.
Depression Cherry // Beach House
My money is on Bloom for Beach House’s best record, so that was a hard act to follow up. Beach House did that by pulling in two directions – in one way towards the nostalgic bedroom-quality of their early records, but also towards new territories with their shoegazey guitars and Victoria Legrand experimenting with her voice more. It makes sense. Instead of pressure from fans to either return to their roots or experiment in new directions, why not do both at once? This idea was carried to further extremes on Thank Your Lucky Stars, but Depression Cherry was the genesis of the idea and the glossier partner. It felt more fully-formed, came with a concept (Depression Cherry is ‘a colour, a place, a feeling’) and was layered in beautiful lyrics from Legrand that stood alone as poetic and vivid.
Sprinter // Torres
Sprinter really was something else. Torres (like Chastity Belt) completely changed her image for her second album. Her debut was quiet and acoustic-based, but Sprinter sounded more like a PJ Harvey-influenced record (possibly due to the involvement of Harvey collaborator Rob Ellis in the recording). Lead single ‘Strange Hellos’ was something completely unexpected, with Mackenzie Scott’s vocals getting torn up and a grunge influence taking over. But that didn’t mean this was Scott’s ‘grunge’ record. There was an enormous amount of diversity in the tracks, such as the brittle pop of ‘Cowboy Guilt’ and the atmospherics of ‘Son You Are No Island’. Scott’s lyrics often focussed on faith, but she never supported or dismissed it, she just allowed the vicious imagery to flow from it.
The Agent Intellect // Protomartyr
Just when post-punk seems to go dead, another artist pops up to revitalise it. Savages brought some aggression back to the genre in 2013 and Protomartyr have followed on their excellent second album, Under Cover of Official Right with the even better The Agent Intellect. Frontman Joe Casey is an everyman, even more so than Ian Curtis, but he describes the crippling misery of living in a city (‘I Forgive You’ is almost a series of area-specific Detroitisms) as well as becoming more personal on tracks like ‘Ellen’, which is about his mother, who has Alzheimers. ‘Ellen’ marks a change for Casey, who strips down his wordy head-scratchers for simple phrases such as ‘I will wait / for Ellen’, which arguably works much better than a lofty monologue.
That’s it! It’s all done for another year. Some of the biggest artists dropped career-highs this year and some artists debuted their material for the first time. Remember to support those bands honing their craft; they might not always get it right first time (Remember Pablo Honey, anyone?) but can surprise by releasing a masterpiece ten years into their career. As long as you aren’t Wolf Alice releasing My Love Is Cool as their first album, anyway. Damn those talented scamps.