B4.DA.$$ – Joey Bada$$
Mike: I’ve been waiting a long time for Joey’s album to drop after the very promising 1999 mixtape way back in 2012 and his superb 2013 collaboration with DJ Premier on “Unorthodox”. And finally, in early 2015 his debut album, the awesomely named B4.DA.$$ (pronounced “Before Da Money”) finally came out.
Is it worth the wait? Yeah, it’s really really good, if not amazing. Joey’s rhymes are as great as ever and there’s a tonne of killer tunes on here: “Curry Chicken”, “Paper Trail$”, “Christ Conscious”, “No. 99”. But it’s not my favourite hip hop album of the year (that would me Malik B and Mr Green’s Unpredictable) and I’m not sure why. Maybe I was spoilt by the aforementioned Premier collab, but I feel like perhaps the beats could’ve been a bit more interesting or innovative to match such a talented and charismatic rapper. I also find albums that pack the tracks on there (there are 17 tracks on the album) often struggle to maintain focus. I dunno, maybe I’m being picky, or maybe there was just a whole lot of dope hip hop this year. This is undoubtedly a great album, and at 20 years old, Joey has an amazing career ahead of him.
Better Nature – Silversun Pickups
Dave: This is a good record, despite the singer deciding to do some “I’m the Voice Of The Generation” shit and sing about people on the internet just not getting it (on “Connection”), and naming a song “Latchkey Kids” for christ’s sake. Silvers have never been a lyrics band but this really pushes it. That said, “Tapedeck”, “Nightlight” and “Ragamuffin” straight up rule, even if the latter contains what has to be a stylistic dig at The XX. You’ve gotta weigh this joyful rocking out up against the chance you’ll leave the record on until it finishes and catch lyrics like “A world of whistleblowing/ is something to leave far behind/ if you don’t mind.” What do you mean, Brian!? Caveat emptor.
Magic Whip – Blur
Mike: 2015 saw the release of the first new Blur album since 2003. They’d teased us a few times, with their reunion gigs beginning in 2009 and the release of the excellent “Under The Westway” in 2012, but rumours of a new album remained rumours until now. And while I’m not exactly the world’s biggest Blur fan (I was always more into their scruffier, mouthier northern counterparts) I have certainly had a casual appreciation for them over the years, and I found myself really enjoying The Magic Whip.
Opener “Lonesome Street” is classic Blur at it’s finest: whimsical, upbeat and very English. “Ong Ong” is a great tune in the same vein, and arguably ranks as one of their finest tracks to date. Some of the slower numbers I’m not as much of a fan of, but that’s a criticism I could level at any Blur album. That said, extended downbeat jam “Go Out” is excellent, and more than enough to prove thatBlur have still got what it takes to put out relevant music in 2015.
California Nights – Best Coast
Mike: So another year, another Best Coast release for me to rave about. And although it’s their first album on a major label, it’s largely business as usual here, with only the title track providing a noticeable variation on their standard “upbeat songs about California” schtick. California Nights is a very worthy introduction to a wider fanbase, but ultimately I haven’t listened to this album quite as much as I have their previous releases. The songs are as good as ever, but the recording at times is a little too polished. I guess I’m being picky, but I miss the indie grit that permeated their sound and stopped them from being overly saccharine.
But hey, I’m being picky as only an ultra-fan can. California Nights is a great album, and if you haven’t heard Best Coast before, this is as good a place as any to start.
The Scene Between – The Go! Team
Mike: The Go! Team records are as regular as clockwork: every two years or so they put out an album of unique, uplifting indie rock meets hip hop (it makes sense when you listen to it), each one as good as the last. I mean there’s not a huge variety between their albums, but honestly, who cares when you sound like this:
The Very Important Answers Initiative – J W Friedman
Dave: I started laughing in the middle of Tory Street while listening to this and people looked at me funny. It wasn’t my first listen either.
Freedom – Refused
Mike: Another of the great reunion records of 2015, Refused originally split in 1998, shortly after the release of their world beating Shape of Punk to Come album. That album was a monster, combining the band’s traditional hardcore punk with elements of jazz, electronica and more. The fact that they broke up directly after that album’s release has only added to its cult status, and to be fair, on Freedom Refused don’t ever try to emulate its scope, instead putting together an album of straight up riff driven hardcore as only they can. The genre-jumping of its predecessor is largely absent in favour of more solid punk tunes. And while I’m not exactly praising their lack of vision here, its an approach that just feels right.
How do you follow up one of the greatest albums of all time, anyway? Refused’s answer is simply to not try: just do what you do best and do it well. And I respect them for that.
V – Wavves
Mike: Wavves have been a particular favourite of mine since I discovered the equal parts punk rock and psychedelic King of the Beach in 2010. Its follow up, 2011’s EP Life Sux, took the songwriting up a couple of levels and the advance singles from the next album proper seemed to be poised to raise the bar again. Unfortunately the resulting album, 2013’s Afraid of Heights was patchy, combining some of their best work to date with some of their weakest.
So my expectations were reasonably low for album number five. First single “Way Too Much” was incredibly promising – one of the best things they’ve written to date. The next few pre-releases were great too, but this was also the case with the disappointing Afraid of Heights so bets were appropriately hedged. Fortunately V was everything it promised to be. The songs are a tad stripped back from their predecessor, trading in variety for more solid pop punk roots, and there’s a melancholy there that underpins the upbeat sounding tunes. Fantastic songwriter, energetic and consistent delivery. Top stuff.
A Little Night Music – Jonathan Bree
Dave: Literally everything I said about his previous album whenever that was still applies here; it’s quirky, it’s impressive, it’s really good, it’s unsettling. Like an audience with Spector where he tells you what he really thinks, the misanthropy is hard to bear. Though unlike last time around, it now feels like Bree’s gripes are with the entire world rather than just a handful of women, which makes it better somehow. But the humour – I’m assuming it’s humour – and great composition makes it all worthwhile.
Little Victories – The Strypes
Mike: Being the second biggest Strypes fan in the Riot Radio crew (after Dave) it was great to see the lads return reinvigorated and with a new sound in 2015. 2013’s Snapshot paid heavy dues to early rock n roll and rhythmn and blues (think Bo Diddley and the first few Rolling Stones albums) by way of Dr Feelgood, a sound that worked perfectly for them at the time but which had admittedly limited mileage. Little Victories sees them searching for their own sound and the result is more of an anthemic indie rock record – the blues riffs are still there, but overlayed over singalong rock choruses comparable to their UK indie brethren of yesteryear: Franz Ferdinand or The Futureheads, say. Their songwriting’s as solid as ever and it’s good to see that they’ve not rested on their laurels and just released Snapshot 2.
Do I like this album as much as their debut? I’m not yet sure. But it’s great to see that the lads from County Kildare have plenty of staying power.
The Collosus – Cairo Knife Fight
Dave: First full length from this duo, who had a 50% personnel changeover when guitarist Aaron Tokona left between the last EP and this. The loss is immediately felt – the sound of the band becomes less chaotic, less epic, replaced by clipped and marshalled riffing. He’s missed, but it’s not a total loss. CKF built their name on jam-heavy live sets and sprawling EPs, but on this album reorient to crisper song-based material. And the songs are pretty solid. “All in the Game” is as good as hard rock writing gets. There’s lyrical cliches to be had elsewhere, but this is hard rock so… deal with it, plenty do. Overall this is impressive as hell – the electronic elements really lift the sound and the whole effect is something very powerful.
Courting the Squall – Guy Garvey
Dave: Rarest of the rare: a solo record from the singer in an ongoing band which isn’t an absolute object of embarrassment. Well, it is, but for Elbow, not Garvey. Every note on this record surpasses his home band’s most recent efforts with ease. Garvey’s lyrical creativity has always been beyond reproach, but here he matches it with varying styles and song structures which only a man on his own can toss about. A lot of this is familiar Elbow territory, such as the great “Unwind” and “Juggernaut”. But the brass-heavy “Harder Edges” and Paris-jazz inflected “Electricity” are a world apart, as is the very, very Peter Gabriel-esque “Belly of The Whale”. It really should be impossible for a work to be as deep as this while also being as fun.
Star Wars – Wilco
Mike: I hate to be that guy, but Wilco’s recent stuff is not as good as their old stuff. Ever since Jeff Tweedy kicked his drug habit and stopped firing band members willy-nilly a decade or so ago, their music has been much more “safe”. The edginess of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and my personal favourite, A Ghost is Born are long gone in favour of more wholesome melodies and traditional song structures as the band settled into a more comfortable groove. There have been flashes of brilliance since that time of course (“Art of Almost”, for example), but nothing has quite reached the heights of Wilco’s 1998 – 2004 golden era.
And while Star Wars doesn’t quite reach those lofty heights either, it’s by far the most interesting album they’ve put out since those halcyon days. Its method of release – surprise released as a free download from their website – went a long way to side-stepping any expectations based on their previous work: there simply wasn’t time to have a pre-formed opinion. Suddenly it was there and you were listening to it. The fact that it’s a return to their more noise orientated work is also a welcome step in the right direction for for me: everyone’s got a favourite version of Wilco and for me it’s always been their noise-driven more abstract stuff. The melodies and strong songwriting that we’ve come to know from all Wilco releases is there as strongly as ever too. This is Wilco doing what they do best: getting together, jamming out some great songs that reflect where they’re at in their lives right now, with the artistically-freeing knowledge that no-one knew about it. And as a result the album seems to flow more organically. There’s no notion of singles – this is a record from start to finish – and is their most satisfying post-A Ghost Is Born experience to date.
Ten Commandos – Ten Commandos
Dave: You know what a supergroup of 90s rock musicians means; pointless riff soup. And there’s plenty of that here – a good chunk is simply music for musicians. Not least is the lead single where guest vocalist Mark Lanegan has to step through what room is left to try and get some sense of melody across. But the reason this album deserves a mention is the Alain Johannes-fronted tracks. His band Eleven was arguably one of the greatest and most inventive acts of the 90s-2000s, cut short by the death of his wife and bandmate. Whilst he’s had impressive solo acoustic outings since, this record is the first time he’s exercised his immense songwriting and arranging talents on a scale approaching his previous career. The penultimate track “Aware” with its simple bitonal riff serves as the ideal launchpad for Johannes’ guitar lead, and the rest of the all-star group get to properly shine. This is as good a testament as is available to the power of combined rock virtuosity.
Look What this World Did to Us – Red Pill
Dan: When I first heard of Red Pill I must say I was surprised; a white rapper from Detroit, who has ever heard of such a thing!
Look What the World Did To Us is not really a banger; it is a collection of dreary often muted vignettes about alcoholism, loneliness and life as an artist sitting just outside the edge of success. Even the ‘hits’ so to speak (‘Kids’ and ‘All of Us’ are really the natural stand-outs) are glazed with a boozy mutedness. What is most impressive to me about this record is the production – while the lyrics of most of Red Pill’s songs seem to teeter on the edge of being depressing, the tunes follow what I sort of hope is a tradition in Detroit hip-hop of soft, funky, woozy and interesting beats (think Slum Village and J-Dilla’s various manifestations)
If I was going to make another pointless analogy I’d call him hip-hop’s Elliott Smith. I mean, I hope he doesn’t go the same way and all. And not just because he’s white; that would be well racist.
Recreational Love – Bird and the Bee
Dave: Comprised of 70s legend Lowell George’s daughter Inara, and multi-instrumentalist producer extraordinaire Greg Kurstin (best known for his work with Adele), Bird and the Bee’s last full length record was a collection of Hall and Oates covers. Oddly, this wasn’t a vacation – they’ve stuck with a pop-breezy-synth sound for this record too. If you’re new to BatB I’d recommend probably any other album than this to start on, but if you’re into it there’s plenty here. Single “Will You Dance” is easily to pick of the tracks – bouncy and fun. The sort of music than not everybody will like, but if somebody actually hates it you know they’re the problem, not the band.
I Want To Grow Up – Colleen Green
Mike: Ok yeah, so between this and Best Coast, I like my crunchy indie pop-rock to be simple. Would it surprise you to know that I’m a big fan of the Ramones? Anyway, Colleen Green writes the type of perfect power pop from her bedroom that most indie acts can’t emulate on a major label budget. Plus she has another album called Milo Goes To Compton – is that just the most perfect thing ever or what? This lady is badass, and this album is great.
user48736353001 – Aphex Twin
Hayden: While being interviewed on last years revival album “Syro”, Richard D James revealed the existence of an untold amount of unreleased material under his guard. A few months later, a seemingly anonymous SoundCloud account was opened under the innocuous artist name of “user48736353001”. A new track was added every day or so, with the artist posting comments on Aphex Twin’s actual account, thus prompting a dialogue between the “two” artists. Eventually a mass of 110 tracks were added to the user487 account, and rabid AFX and Warp Records fanboys (and girls) clambered to rip the below-quality streamed files from the site. A move which turned out to be a waste of time, as a week later, the mysterious user made the entire dump of tunes available for download. But what are the tunes actually like? Unmistakable Aphex tracks are thrown together with harsh electronic experiments and ambient noodlings, and while covering even a handful of the 100+ tunes would be too much for this review, it’s comforting to know that the golden boy of many an electronic music fan can still surprise and confound us to this day.
Dan: Was there actually an Aphex Twin record out in 2015? Really? Really? Nah. Really?
Summertime 06 – Vince Staples
Dan: In many ways 2015 belonged to two very different forces in LA hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar dropped his chart crushing but experimental To Pimp A Butterfly which showcased a huge swathe of California rap talent. While groundbreaking, To Pimp represented only one side of the story though. While not a member of Odd Future, Staples comes firmly from that wing; with his close associations with Earl Sweatshirt particularly and his work with former Black Hippy members he represents a different but equally creative side to LA hip-hop; one that has become increasingly important in the last few years.
I didn’t know diddly squat about Vince Staples until 2014’s Hell Can Wait E.P came out and I quickly warmed to the politically charged Hand’s Up. Summertime 06 is, on the surface of it, a more chilled and muted record – telling the story of Staples’ life in the summer of 2006 (sort of alludes to it in the title really). Each song reinforces my first impression that Staples is a master storyteller; each song being a life-snapshot short story. While musically this record gives the impression of a thick funky but relatively relaxed album; far from the off the wall hype of To Pimp…, thematically Summertime 06 has a darkness to it without trying to blow the listener away with a bunch of ghetto cliches. As a record it is a soundtrack to grinds, getting by, small celebrations and setbacks.
There’s none of the audio wackery common to a lot of 2015’s West Coast hip hop in Summertime 06, but a solid and understated ride through an interesting artists’ day to day.
Sol Invictus – Faith No More
Dave: It’s weird – you can’t really think of FNM as a band in the common sense. Sure, they broke up in the late 90s like most proper bands, but they were always so aloof and distant in an age of earnestness that they’re hard to place in the archeological record. Their keyboard-led song compositions had very little in common with their hard rock contemporaries, and the lyricism was unabashed fiction – closer to the character-dramas of Tom Waits than the heartrendingly personal wails of their contemporaries. They were a band out of time. Which I guess should mean it shouldn’t be surprising that this new record, released 18 years after the last, sounds utterly unaffected by the break. It’s impressive, and enjoyable, and if you weren’t already looking forward to this record there’s really no point for you.
Wasted on the Dream – JEFF the Brotherhood
Mike: I’d been a casual fan of these guys for a while, but it was the story of this album’s release that really pulled me in this time around. Having released their previous LP, Hypnotic Nights, on a major label, shortly before the release of the awesomely titled Wasted on the Dream, the label – Warner Bros – decided to drop the band, for which (as far as I can tell) no reason was ever given. Personally, I think major labels are almost an obsolete concept to begin with, and the band seemed to decided as much too, releasing the album on their own indie imprint, Ininity Cat. To quote the band: “Luckily, we help to run an indie label that has its shit together more than the big guys”.
And Warner Bros’ loss is undoubtably music fans’ gain, as Wasted on the Dream is without question the band’s best album to date. Until now they were always a solid garage rock duo, better than average but not mind-blowing, but here they’ve really stepped up the songwriting. The album is just chock full of killer hits like “Coat Check Girl”, “Black Cherry” and “Cosmic Vision” as well as the now-ubiquitous appearance from Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast. The songs range from Ramones-esque pop-punk abandon to sludgy Black Sabbath riffs fueld by a steady intake of beer and psychedelics that doesn’t let up for the album’s duration.
Lucky Stars – Don McGlashan
Dave: Prior McGlashan solo albums have followed a bit of a format; a few great GREAT songs which get pinned to the New Zealand coat of arms and sung on television and all that, plus a few more songs which you skip when you’re in the car. This record is not like that – it takes a few listens for the gems of this album to shine through, and they are everywhere on this. McGlashan is our nation’s greatest living songwriter and here proves it, though in a way that won’t get as much attention. Shit business, ain’t it?
Foil Deer – Speedy Ortiz
Dave: Hey, most bands you look forward to the albums and put up with the EPs released in between as morsels to whet your appetite between main courses. Speedy Ortiz buck that trend – so far their EPs between albums have been the better records. This full length doesn’t deliver on the promise shown in the previous “Real Hair EP” but it’s still super good. There’s an effortless cool to Speedy Ortiz, like if The Dandy Warhols still cared about music, and they’re perhaps the best lyrics in rock today. ‘My Dead Girl’ is a great track, reminiscent of the feel of last album’s standout track ‘No Below’. The finale, ‘Dvrk Wvrld’, is the crowning jewel, with its subtle dynamic shifts slowly ratcheting up the tension. Speedy Ortiz are a band whose trajectory is unpredictable, but everything they’ve done has been some degree of great, so why worry.
Luminiferous – High on Fire
Rich: Shirtless riff-master Matt Pike does it again, with the perfect balance of sludge, thrash, and stoner metal. This is probably my “heavy” record of the year, and reinforces my view that Matt Pike is incapable of making a bad record. My faves – “The Cave”, “Slave The Hive”, “The Dark Side of the Compass”.
To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
Mike: First of all: I love everything about Kendrick Lamar. He seems like a stand up dude and he’s constantly pushing the boundaries of hip hop, whilst embracing its classic elements at the same time. And it’s fairly undeniable that To Pimp A Butterfly is one of the albums of the year, if not the decade. But – and this is a fairly pathetic but, I’m ashamed to say – I do find the album a difficult listen, and as such I haven’t listened to it as much this year as I have say, Malik B and Mr Green’s more traditional (and in the context of this argument, ironically named) Unpredictable. That’s not so much a critique of the album or Kendrick’s music so much as it is a criticism of my failings as a hip hop listener. To Pimp A Butterfly to me is like cutting edge jazz (a genre I’ve admittedly not got much fondness for) in that it’s a piece of art. And that doesn’t necessarily make it an easy listen – but hell, revolutionary music shouldn’t be easily digestable right? When the revolution comes, it won’t be Coldplay they’re playing, let’s just say that.
Shape The Random – Phace
Hayden: German drum and bass maestro Phace came out with an absolute cracker of an album this year. Shape The Random does exactly what it says on the tin. Harsh, growling synthesizers crash head-on into meticulously edited beats, some real brain-messing moments align with more than enough funk for the dancefloor. During the opener, “My Mind Is Modular”, Phace decides that techno is too slow and turns up the tempo to set the tone for the rest of the album. Elsewhere, “I Am” dives head first off the crazy cliff, warping breakbeats with vocal snippets to send you to the loony bin, while the title track “Shape The Random” lets loose a barrage of formula one driven drums, reminding us that chaos can often allude to the appearance of being under control.
No Life For Me – Wavves & Cloud Nothings
Dan: There are some things that just go together; coffee and cigarettes, gin and tonic, a good steak and tomato ketchup, Your mum and….well, you get the idea. On their own they might be decent enough but the perfect blend of compliment and contrast makes the combination sweet perfection. Such is the case with Wavves and Cloud Nothings. Both bands have featured pretty prominently on this weblog and I will confess a preference for Cloud Nothings over-all. I have always felt the Cloud Nothings were the better and more varied sonically. In my mind then, The Japandroids and Wavves are filed in my brain under ‘2011’ and range from Cloud Nothings at one end with the lighter straight up indie-pop sound to Wavves at the other end with the buzz-cut punk rock spike.
“Come Down” and “Nothing Hurts” represent my bias towards Cloud Nothings’ poppier sound and are my favourite tunes on the respectably short album but the Wavves-y “Such a Drag” and the title track “No Life for Me” is a top tune and definitely the same. What is decent about No Life for Me (we’re talking about the record now) is it is almost like a greatest hits of any of the rest of their (I think combined 4 albums, I don’t have time to look this shit up). All killer and no filler as a lesser music journalist would say.
Listen to it or I’ll finish that sentence about your mum.
Anthems for Doomed Youth – The Libertines
Mike: It’s hard for me to express what a huge deal a new Libertines album was for me this year. For some reason in New Zealand we never felt the full force of the Libertines phenomenon, which is unusual because we’re usually all over these UK bands here, and rightly so (for further reading see The Arctic Monkeys). The Libertines captured the zeitgeist of early 00s England in a way that no other bands this century have. For some reason in 2001 we got full on The Strokes fever (and, hey The Strokes are great too, just arguably less relevant from a cultural perspective) but fuck all Libertines, which is a real shame because they truly took the UK by storm. Inevitably for such an impassioned band, their career was short lived, with the turbulent relationship between dual songwriter/vocalists Carl Barat and Pete Doherty imploding due to Pete’s well documented drug abuse and super model dating. And that seemed like the end of that.
But in 2015 they reunited in Thailand (Pete was there for rehab, naturally) and announced their reformation and a forthcoming new album, and fuck me if it wasn’t one of the best albums of 2015. It’s one of those reunion albums (see Blur and Refused) where the band just avoided any obvious follow up mentality and said “Here’s the album we recorded. This is what we sound like now.” So you get the reggae tinged “Gunga Din”, the suitably messy “Glasgow Coma Scale Blues” and a couple of ballads that aren’t in any way shithouse (a huge achievement in itself). Also, it’s just great to see Pete back in action again, sweating because of onstage antics rather than “other reasons”.
I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside – Earl Sweatshirt
Brendan: I saw Earl at Laneways a few years back and when I say saw, I mean sat, rather blung, with my girlfriend’s head on my lap while he performed; Yes, my girlfriend was asleep, somehow, despite Earl’s massive, relentless, blimp-like bass booming out over Silo Park captivating the swaying bros and broettes. I didn’t need to get up and dance as just listening was enough, my rib cage rattling away. At that time the album was Doris, another pearl of an album that pushed and bullied its way up the US hiphop charts.
The track that immediately grabbed me from I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside was the chuggy opener, Huey. It’s a classic intro track that sets the album’s style perfectly without revealing too much. Kicking off with a lively organ fanfare, you find yourself pondering, Am I listening to the theme song of the Love Boat or something? But then drops that blimpy Earl bass we love, his vocals surging melodically with the organ. It’s not a song I can sit still too and always has me nodding. Like Burgundy from Doris, it’s epic, bouncy, catchy and Earl’s lazy lyrics capture both the depths and trifles of his soul.
It’s an album lover’s album for sure. Huey, like the rest of the tracks has that signature Earl lo-fi griminess that surges effortlessly forward. That notwithstanding, there is a levity lurking underneath the grim, sparse beats that stops the album from being a heavy, arduous listen. The style is consistent, the lyrics and wordplay musical and intriguing, but it’s Earl’s artistic touches that made this such a highly acclaimed album with lo-fi crunches and bleats used as flourishes, complementing his lyricism perfectly.
The album closes with a cheeky little feat from Vince Staples. Who doesn’t love a bit of Vince? Like his feat on Doris his vocals complement the tambor of the album perfectly and it is a great sign-off track.
Personally, I would put this album up there with To Pimp a Butterfly and Compton for its musical accomplishments in 2015.
Top tracks to check: Huey, AM // Radio featuring Wiki, and DNA
Vulnicura – Björk
Dave: The sentiment behind Wu Tang’s decision to sell the only copy of an album to a single individual was reportedly to challenge the way society values music. In an age where a 99c download is the expensive option, what does it look like to make music that demands to be treated as an art object or museum piece? Wu’s experiment ended up seeing them offload a barely legitimate record of b-roll material to a universally reviled human morality play, so perhaps the point was missed. But also in 2015 Björk’s career retrospective exhibit of costumes, bespoke instruments and audiovisual installations was unveiled at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. To coincide with this was her new work, Vulnicura. 2011’s Biophillia was astonishing in its scope, both sonically and conceptually, as a love letter to the entire universe. I had trouble imagining how much further out she could go.
Against all expectations as usual, Björk turned inwards. Vulnicura emerged as a stripped back and intensely personal record of solely voice, strings and mostly stark, perfunctory beats. The songs are presented in the order they were written during the breakdown of her relationship with the father of her daughter. The first half of the record is an unflinching account of love in decay, at times painful and hopeless, but never short of beautiful. The second half is a bittersweet series of self-affirming songs on the theme of rebuilding and resilience which begin to lift the mood but could never be said to be cheerful. For somebody best known for their kooky 90s persona, this is a heavy album, and the lack of anything approaching a hit song (no singles were released) means non-fans may have trouble finding a handhold here. If you can grab it though, this is a subtle yet astonishingly rich record of brutal emotional honesty. The two epic songs at the heart of the record, Black Lake and Family (18 minutes long in total), are dark, mournful and heartbreaking requiems which showcase compositional and vocal brilliance, ultimately pivoting out of the depths of despair via a rare ounce of quirk into a haunting melody ironically reminiscent of her 1999 hit All Is Full Of Love.
While brilliant and important, this isn’t an album you can play every day – it’s just not emotionally viable to do so. I figure I can listen to the 10 minute Black Lake once or twice a week max, so the idea that its creator be recompensed by micropayments per stream is ludicrous. As it happened, the iTunes release was rushed in the wake of the album leaking to torrent sites two months before its unveiling at MOMA. This is work which needs to be treated as art and there has to be industry infrastructure and consumer behaviour to support it. That won’t come from weird shitty millionaires.
Music Complete – New Order
Dan: The thing about the 1980s is they were largely shitpants. The 1980s in Britain, if any Northerner is to be believed were even worse. One of the things about grim times and grim places is they produce outstanding art that tends to reflect the time and the place (The Smiths, Joy Division, the MC5). Quite often, however, these times and places produce art that draws on this grimness by standing in stark shiny contrast. The history of New Order’s futuristic electronic pop music being forged in the wake of personal tragedy against the backdrop of dreary decline is well documented and mainly of interest here because New Order have produced a record, three decades from this point, that harks back to their energy in the late 1980s.
Music Complete shouldn’t really be a very good album. Nostalgia records usually aren’t and records that so precisely reform a style and feel of a bygone age are normally doomed to novelty. New Order turning the clock back to the time between the release of Technique and the release of Republic should have been a fool’s errand. But it wasn’t.
Part of the reason for why Music Complete works is it pushes two different styles of tune-writing that New Order were really good at, but at different times. New Order were, first and foremost, pop tunesmiths and songs like Superheated and Unlearn This Hatred are just slices of pop genius.
Secondly, New Order are able to do things they were clearly trying to do in 1990, better now. Leaps and bounds in electronic music production have meant that a track like Tutti Frutti, which sounds very much like an early 90’s dance track, is a lot better having been produced in 2015.
Music Complete works because it distills what New Order were great at – writing spine-tingling pop songs and what is essentially house music – into the record they probably should have made instead of 1993’s Republic. They also refrained from doing the things they were crap at but somehow tried their hand at – guitar indie-pop and raps about football.
No Cities To Love – Sleater-Kinney
Mike: There were a slew of reunion albums this year from older bands that had either gone defunct or reunited after a long break: Faith No More, Refused, Blur, The Libertines, and so on. The first of these that I encountered this year was Sleater Kinney’s No Cities To Love. Although the band had never split up, this was their first album and tour in nine years. To be honest I was never a fan of Sleater Kinney in the past – through no fault of their own, I’d just never really taken the time to sit down and really give their music a chance. I’d heard great things about 2002’s One Beat so had given that a few spins in the past and enjoyed it, but nothing really grabbed me like the songs on No Cities To Love. It’s a beautifully recorded album, with the kind of Albini-esque sound that really puts you in the room with the band. There’s gaps around the individual instruments but they’re also unified as one, and the songs are just killer: edgy yet catchy at the same time. To release an album like this so late in a bands career is just great, and they’ve now converted me to a lifelong fan: I’m working my way through their back catalogue as we speak.
Ghost Notes – Veruca Salt
Dave: ‘Kintsugi’ is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with seams of gold. The idea is that the breakage of an object is but a part of the object’s story, that damage doesn’t end its usefulness, and that its beauty can be increased by the mending. Recent hard rock revival albums from the titans of the genre (Soundgarden in 2012, Faith No More this year) have over-focused on showing the bands are no less tough, no less technically able, no less solid for their time off. These have been impressively competent, but not memorable albums. But Veruca Salt’s first album since their 1998 disbandment wears all the cracks and fissures on its sleeve, and absolutely gleams.
Veruca Salt are one of my all time favourite bands. They were amongst the best songwriters of the 1990s, probably the best harmonisers in rock since the Beatles, and Louise Post’s lead guitar work was tonally deep and expressive as few others have ever matched. Yet they never stood above their more mediocre, male competitors in the public eye and looked to forever be remembered as also-rans. Throughout the 2000s I followed both Post’s and Nina Gordon’s solo careers. Post kept the band name and turned out some interesting and powerful records, heavier but lacking hooks and standout melodies. Gordon released two albums of pop-perfect songwriting but with flimsy, middle-of-the-road arrangements. It was clear as day that each one missed the other.
It only takes four tracks into ‘Ghost Notes’ be prove joyously clear that the pieces have been put back together correctly. The opening track ‘Gospel According to Saint Me’ sets the scene; lower gain guitars herald a more airy, mature sound while still rocking along. Track three ‘Eyes On You’ sounds like modern Revolver-era Lennon/McCartney. ‘Prince of Wales’ at track four is the album’s first emotional peak with its mantra-like verses and twin-harmony gutpunch choruses. And it keeps growing from there – by the towering 6 minute lament to heartbreak, deception and loss that is ‘Empty Bottle’ your heart will be in your mouth.
Post and Gordon always wrote about themselves, and one another. At the heart of this record is a 15 year estrangement – the pain and joy at reunion is in the foreground of every song. This is the pinnacle of musical honesty and vulnerability – a mutual musical redemption. Rather than front like the breakup didn’t ruin the band they’re open that it took this journey to arrive at this – the album of their career.
Unpredictable – Malik B and Mr Green
Mike: This album came completely out of nowhere from me. I saw it mentioned on Vinnie Paz from Jedi Mind Tricks’ Facebook page (who also had a very good album out this year) and just fell in love with it. As I mention in the Kendrick Lamar review below, my taste in hip hop can be depressingly straight forward, and Unpredictable is just that: a straight ahead, classic style hip hop album. At the risk of sounding like a Rolling Stone reviewer listening to a rap record for the first time, Unpredictable is not a particularly innovative album, but it’s got it where it counts. Song after song of banging hip hop, and for what it misses in terms of pushing the boundaries, it more than makes up for in pure tunes.
That’s not to say that Unpredictable is cliched and predictable either: there’s no boring bling bling lyricism or misplaced egos here. Just really great beats and stellar rhyming. It’s just a much more traditional rap record released in the same year that gave us the all-encompassing, genre-bending opus that is To Pimp a Butterfly. But that’s hip hop for you: there’s just so much scope within the genre to create amazing music in any style, and I just love that.
This album was a real contender for album of the year for me.
Dan: This masterpiece of an album will forever be associated in my mind with Brendan and myself getting lit and smashing up a bookshelf to board up one of my windows. What is ‘relevant music criticism’ anyway?
Compton: The Soundtrack – Dr Dre
Brendan: Dre finally drops another album, and by that I don’t mean releases, I mean, you know, dropped the album, Detox, the one he’s been harping on about since I can remember, he just nonchalantly kicked it to the kerb. Instead he went with Compton as somewhat of an accompaniment to Straight Outta Compton the movie. But of course you know this and you’d have to be sleeping under a massive Nate Dogg shaped rock to not. But you know what? I ain’t buying it. I’d say all he has dropped is the name as almost certainly most, if not all, tracks from Compton were destined for Detox. It’s such a tight yet diverse collection of songs that seem to capture so many of the styles and subgenres of hip hop that we’ve heard this last ten years. It’s a great album that grows on you with each listen, and barring the entirely superfluous, dated and misogynistic filler track in which a woman is murdered and buried it’s a near perfect album with some absolute belters.
There’s the standard Dre intro paying homage to Compton in newsreel style and then Dre gets his cock out and bangs it firmly and aggressively on the table with Talk about it. It’s quite a different style for Dre, with a Schoolboy Q feel to it, but there’s just so much energy and it helps the album bursts into life like a war cry. “I want it all!” Apparently, he’s just bought California. Lyrically the song pushes the persona we see of Dr Dre in the Compton movie. Alright, you’re hardworking, you’ve made a lot of money and you’re driven, we get it. Mind you, it’s hip hop so you can’t fault a man for big noting, can we.
The thing I really liked about the album, beyond the pristine production, was some of the unique musical hooks. Check out Genocide, featuring everyone’s favourite Kendrick, for it’s unique bassline.
As per usual, Dre is adept at digging up talent, the most notable being Anderson Paak in the highlight of the album, Animals, which also features big swinging dick, Dj Premier. A juicy beat with a relevant message has this as the pick of the album for me. All of Paak’s subsequent work has fulfilled the glimmers and promises of talent he showed in Compton and I would recommend checking his new album out.
But, hold on, there are still the old stalwarts of Dre’s past, with Eminem, Snoop, Ice Cube, X to the Z among others. For me however, their tracks weren’t the highlight of the album, and dare I use the term warmed over? Nah, I won’t, it’s just I enjoyed the newer talent so immensely.
The closer, Talking to my diary, is fantastic and perhaps one of the most g-funk beats ever conceived. And when Dre talks about the pages of his diary you can’t help but feel he’s talking about the album as a chronicle of the work which is so obviously his life.
Compton delivered on Dre’s formula but so excellently added new sounds, more polish and depth. It’s easily one of the top albums of the year.
Mike: Another surprise release: Dre’s first new album since Chronic 2001 (which was confusingly released in 1999 – I swear it made sense at the time). He’d been slow releasing tracks from an album with the working title of Detox since as early as 2004, but it seemed that the >Chinese Democracy aspect of the long-delayed album finally got to him, and he decided to scrap it all in favour of an album inspired by his recent success working on the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton.
The most surprising thing aboutCompton: The Soundtrack is how contemporary it sounds. Dre’s certainly someone that’s known for his musical innovation, but at the same time, there’s certain things you generally expect from a Dre album. Compton eschews these elements in favour of something approaching a hip hop concept album. Songs swing between beats and different rappers (Kendrick Lamar in particular fits in well with this style of album) whilst still staying true to Dre’s roots. There’s no dominance from any one rapper a la Snoop Dogg on The Chronic and as such there’s an edginess and unpredictability here that’s not found on Dre’s other records. And sure, there’s an Eminem verse on here (seriously, has there ever been a rapper whose talent went south as suddenly and as absolutely as Eminem?) but there’s only one and it works fine in the same way as an extended guitar solo is acceptable as long as you don’t have to listen to too many of them.
Is it as good as Dre’s first two albums? At the moment I’m not sure: I’ve had a long time to process those records. It’s certainly a very good record, and different from anything he’s done to date. I can’t help but feel that in time history will view this as a close 3rd.
Dan: In many ways Compton was a massive sampler; a veritable chocolate box of the dominant styles of hip hop around today with an unparallelled number of quality additions this was always going to be an amazing record. From your old favourites like Xzibit and Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg to heavy hitter The Game and wunderkind Kendrick Lamar all contributing it would actually defy whatever science that goes into making a great hip-hop record if it wasn’t in the top records of the year.
If i was to have one criticism (and evidently I do) and wish to continue the ‘chocolate box metaphor’ (which evidently, yes, I do) it is the Eminem contribution is a bit like the Turkish delight – no one really wants it but it is definitely there, and you know it is going to be there basically because between 1999 and 2003 Turkish Delight was one of the most amazing chocolates and everyone liked it. In this case it is a bit like someone took the Turkish Delight and instead wrapped a nugget of shit in the Turkish Delight wrapper. Which could happen.
Every Open Eye – CHVRCHES
Mike: I actually find CHVRCHES really hard to write about. Their music is just so unassumingly awesome, I just have trouble putting that into words. Lauren Mayberry has the kind of vocals that most pop stars would kill for, and add to that the fact that she’s a a no nonsense feminist role model and you’ve got yourself one hell of a frontwoman. Combine that with their trademark huge tunes and driving synth backing and you’ve got a real contender for one of the bands of the decade.
In any case, I feel like our love of CHVRCHES here at Riot Radio is pretty well documented so I won’t go to too much detail here except to say that Every Open Eye improves on everything that their debut The Bones of What You Believe did so well. It was a tough album to top, but they really have here: every single tune could be a massive single. If you haven’t listened to CHVRCHES yet, you’re missing out.
Art Angels – Grimes
Dan: I spent some time trying to convince other-Riot Radio contributor Dave (who you will read stirling segments from on in this blog post) to listen to Grimes. I told him that Grimes’ unique brand of pop music, where the quirky and weird border closely on the art alluded to in the title but remain rooted to pop tunesmithery made her the natural inheritor to Bjork. An artist he is fond of. Anyway, I was right; about both the exciting and above all else, unusual Art Angels and that Dave would like the record. But do I get any credit? No. Where is my parade?
Mike: I wasn’t as sold as a lot of people were on Grimes’ 2012 breakthrough Visions. I mean, there was nothing wrong with it, it just didn’t grab me. That can’t be said about Art Angels: it whacks you over the face with dope tunes and doesn’t let up all album. Opening with a piece of classical music, your initial reaction is “OK, here we go, some pretentious bullshit”. But honestly it’s the perfect lead in to what for me is a near perfectly crafted album. Art Angels veers wildly from electronic folk to pop music, but somehow sounds cohesive. Highlights for me include “California”, “Kill V Maim”, “Belly Of the Beat” and “Flesh Without Blood”, but it’s tricky to pick out individual songs in an album that holds together so well. It’s honestly one of those albums where you just put it on and listen right through every time.
And did I mention the tunes are huge? Like, Jupiter huge.
In Colour – Jamie xx
Dan: There are two things that annoy me. Well, okay, there are literally thousands of things that annoy me, but for the purposes of this anecdote you are going to have to suspend belief for a bit and imagine a world where the two things that wind me up are related to electronic music. The first, I discovered when I was in mmaly teens, was when people called all electronic music ‘techno’ (techno is a very specific type of dance music; what you were thinking of was house or that 2 Unlimited Song off of the sports) the second was people saying that ‘there are no good techno (meaning dance music in general) albums’. The problem with both of these gripes is when I step back and take a cool, well-reasoned and calm view of the situation is neither is actually unfair even if both are untrue. Calling music you are not interested in by a useful catch-all name is really no harm no foul; I call all Country music ‘shit’ and all classical music ‘the music off that bank ad’. I know that both this nomenclature system isn’t accurate or fair, it is just useful for classifying something I don’t care about.
The assertion that there are no good electronic dance music albums is of course not true, but it is actually a pretty fair point. There are very few good electronic dance music records that breakthrough and enjoy critical acclaim despite the fact that there are a lot of individual tunes that attain stratospheric popular success and broad critical appeal. It has often kept me awake at night wondering why the most popular and well-known concept paen to the clubbing experience was written by four Scotsmen with a greasy seventies Rolling Stones fetish. I’m talking about Primal Scream here by the way, .
Jamie xx actually foreshadowed the release of In Colour in 2014 with ‘All Under One Roof Raving’ an epic six minute homage to the threads of music that have made up dance culture; weaving disparate styles into a piece of music that is equally a strange mish-mash but also something you could actually dance to in a club. I was never a massive fan of The xx and, while I got what Jamie xx was trying to do with 2011’s ‘We’re New Here’ (where he partnered up with Gil Scott Heron) the record seemed disjointed and trying so hard to stick to concept that any sense of groove was subsumed by the project. What Jamie xx gbot right with All Under One Roof Raving was the theme and concept synced perfectly into a well structured tune.
I actually have no idea what the theme of In Colour was. I mean, I am sure there was one and I could look it up but who’s got time for that. To me it took All Under One Roof… and expanded the various musical threads across eleven tracks. Each tune has its own unique sound but there is a thread running through each of them. It is hard for me to pick a stand out track, though Gosh and I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times are probably the easiest to name check as singles (because, well, they were). The record to me is a single piece of music. And not just because I’m battered when I listen to it. I’ve listened to it at work and that as well.
Whereas my most recent other ‘break through electronic dance music album’, Porter Robinson’s ‘Worlds’, is most definitely a dance music record In Colour is a thick coagulation of soul, ambient and soft breaks on top of the standard. The best parallel that comes to my ‘rapidly-running-out-of-synonyms-for-’mixture’ mind is DJ Shadow’s 1996 album Entroducing. A record that takes you, for want of a less pretentious idiom, on a journey. From start to tingling finish In Colour takes you a place. Like ketamine. Or jerking off.