With each passing year the better music websites (and no, this doesn’t include the Kanye West fellating, hypster centric, Pitchfork) are publishing their end of year lists well before the year ends, in some cases right at the start of December.
What does this mean? Well, if you’re cynical about the timing of this post (but you’d have to know about this blog and read it, which nobody does), this trend means that if, like me, you’re planning on writing a column such as this, it provides ample opportunity to discover anything you might’ve missed, or to remind you of the albums you did listen to.
But that’s cheating. So I’ve decided to construct a list of the albums, mixes, reissues and EPs that I listened to this year. Not only that, these have to be albums I’ll likely return to in future years. I believe that to be the only relevant criteria that someone writing a best music of the year post on their own blog should abide by. Anyone can peruse the music websites and a multitude of niche forums housing a cabal of folk who know their stuff and derive immense pleasure from the opportunity to display their expertise. Based upon those consensuses you can throw together a list of music that’s critically acclaimed or full of esoteric choices, but who are you doing that for? I’m doing this list to document how my musical tastes are shifting (or if they are at all) from year to year. Re-reading my previous best music of the year columns has already revealed that I’m listening to the genres of techno, ambient and stuff that falls under the umbrella of electro more than ever, more mixes, and that I’m developing a mild fetish for reissues.
No doubt there’s plenty of good shit from 2015 that I missed, but as I can’t find someone daft enough to pay me to sit on my arse all day listening to records or spend my time crate digging, this offering will always be compromised by the limitations of an individual’s taste, consumption and knowledge.
As per usual none of my choices appear in any sort of order, trying to decide on a hierarchy featuring many different genres, lengths of albums and mixes is a complete waste of time, time which none of us have, and on that point, let’s get to it:
Kamasi Washington – The Epic
Ostentatious jazz, as indicated by its conceited title. Unashamedly boasts of its influences; John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Jimmy Smith, and Yusef Lateef are all present and accounted for. Album reaches its zenith, and lives up to its own hype, when the vocals are marginalised, or just done away with altogether, in favour of the playing, which is sublime throughout.
Bad Guys – Bad Guynaecology
Remember that aborted and unintentionally comedic mid-80’s stadium rock stodge that Ozzy Osbourne served up? This is how you do a considered parody of a genre that’s always in danger of becoming too piously self-aware and defensive in the depths of its excesses. They’ve done so by fusing the comedic purpose of This Is Spinal Tap, exaggerated the grizzled screaming vocals of any bad death metal band you care to mention, with a dollop of self-gratification through the use of elongated Slayer-esque chords, and the lyrical and topical absurdity often found on Captain Beefheart’s albums. It’s funny, daft, flamboyant, and the tunes are head-bangingly good.
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe – Secret Thirteen Mix 149
Yeah, yeah, I know, the Secret Thirteen website and some of their mixes and mixers come across as the height conceit and pretentiousness, and of trying too hard to be avant-garde. But producers tend to be attracted to a platform that allows them the freedom to innovate and an audience who expects and wants just that. Here it fits just right. It’s 61 minutes of modulating eerie drone and ambient cuts, with Middle Eastern and African rhythms thrown in, and even better, I’d never heard of any of it. Demands to be listened to wearing your headphones at 4:30 in the morning as you stare at the ceiling.
Fingers Inc. – Another Side (Reissue)
Reissue of an essential house music album from the genre’s infancy when stripped out compositions and sultry vocals were the vogue. It includes the instrumental only version of ‘Can You Feel It’, which, needless to say, is the right version to own.
A Tribe Called Quest – People’s Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm (Reissue)
Yep. Another reissue, and another must own album. As with all Quest albums it uses prime Jazz, Soul and Funk samples, and conveys confidence and pride in blackness and depicts a niche of black culture without resorting to the boastful clichés of gang violence and misogyny that were becoming inexorably associated with rap and r’n’b during that period. Scary to think this was released twenty-five years ago.
Shinchi Atobe – Ship-Scope (EP)
More welcome exposure for the previously obscure (perhaps still?) Japanese techno producer, thanks to the fandom of those more-than-just-expert crate diggers Demdike Stare. Continues where his album “Butterfly Effect”, reissued last year, left off – primal and pointed inflections arise over fascinatingly dense dub and techno soundscapes. ‘Plug and Delay’ wouldn’t look out of place in the Basic Channel discography.
John Coltrane – A Love Supreme (Reissue)
You own it already, right? Plus, it seems to be reissued every other year, but if you haven’t got it (and if not why the fuck not?) then this one’s as good as any. All the versions and extras the budding Jazz connoisseur could ever want and the packaging will impress your mates.
Leif – Taraxacum
Paranoid London – Paranoid London
Technically a release from last year, but only with a limited number of vinyl copies, and granted a CD release this year. A much needed (borrowed?) nostalgia trip, tinged with cynical witticisms, into the griminess and sleaziness of early 90’s acid house. Zomby take note. Okay, so maybe this was the best house music release of the year.
Jam City – Dream A Garden
People moaned it wasn’t “Classical Curves”, but transcending that would be difficult, so by making something different he has. If this list had an order, or hierarchy, this would be at or near the top. Sumptuous abruptions over laminated soundscapes are married with the lyrics of doubt at what’s ahead and what it could all mean. ‘Unhappy’ and ‘Crisis’ in particular best reflect the dysphoric, disengaged void reality now finds itself in as digitalisation, perpetual commercialisation, exploitation and inequality have become the new normal.
Lone & Ross From Friends – NTS Mix 5th November
2015 was the year of NTS, who, along with Resident Advisor, is your best stop for eclectic mixes featuring new and old. Only a partial track list provided with this one, which somehow makes it even more agonising than one without any. Nonetheless it starts off with ‘M’Bondo’ by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, then comes a lovely selection of obscure disco, soul, Blaxploitation funk, a southland negro work song (someone please tell what this is/who it’s by), before delving into house, techno and electro later.
Alexandria – Bad (EP)
Hard to top r’n’b as it should be – stripped back with simple layers of beats, piano loops, synths and hooks imbued by vocal overdubs. My only criticism would be that bizarre quasi-English accent she attempts on ‘Unattainable’, not sure why that happened. Otherwise a stellar release.
Palmbomen – Palmbomen II
All the tracks are built on excessively rich and kitsch buoyant 80’s synth patterns, while most song titles are bestowed their own character specific narrative. At its best soothingly mesmeric. Would work brilliantly as the score for a (proper) Miami Vice reboot, or even a remake of GTA Vice City.
CC Not – Geo Fi (EP)
You just can’t miss with this, the first three tracks offer chilled Nuron like techno, ‘Cylinder Avoidance Test’ is a pugnacious closed loop that slowly unravels its own nuances while on ‘Vtro V 2.0’ sharp melodic layers are built satisfyingly to a crescendo.
The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers (Reissue)
I always feel this one gets overlooked when compared to Exile or Beggars Banquet, but it shouldn’t. Forms part of the quartet of legendary albums from their late 60’s early 70’s height that sits alongside anything in modern music. They’d just freed themselves from their exploitative deal with Decca records, escaped the punitive tax rate on high earners in the UK and the nebulous purgatory caused by Brian Jones’ mental and physical decline had been replaced with Mick Taylor’s deft melodic touch, so it was conceived in relatively harmonious circumstances too. The results speak for themselves.
Holly Herndon – Platform
Concentrate too hard and it’s easy to get lost sifting through all of its constituent parts of which there seems to be more than there are. Fracturing vocal samples and arrangements then transforming them into high frequency glitches that partially form a melodic sequence isn’t a new concept, but few have done so with such ambition and success.
Vito Ricci – I Was Crossing a Bridge – Music From Memory
Reissue and or compilation, depending on your view, bringing the best of Ricci’s works together from his most productive years. Some will be familiar with ‘The Ship Was Sailing’, but there are other gems of electronic minimalism. Be it ‘Bachelor’, or ‘Deep Felt Music’, where the use of strings is reminiscent of ‘Bethlehem’ by Edward Larry Gordon. Without any further research or knowledge of his circumstances, the question remains why his work isn’t more widely known, both then and now.
Grimes – Art Angels
Max indulgence of pleasurable guilt. Initially I was worried as its sensibility borrows from that creepy twee Japanese girl-pop template, and it shifted from the electro-goth aesthetic of her last (excellent) album. But also immediately apparent are the hooks on every track, and on second listen you recognise the sense of humour, replete with moments of bravura vanity, hedonism, self-loathing and defiant bitchiness. Go on, try to resist singing along. If Madonna wasn’t a walking corpse and was still remotely musically relevant she’d be copying this.
Anthony Child – Electronic Recordings From Maui Jungle Volume 1
A similar mode of exploration to Brian Eno’s essential collaboration with Jon Hassell. As with ‘Possible Musics’ this is one of the few that succeeds and makes you believe that the music’s origin – indigenous inspiration, and the personal exploration of one’s own internal musical interpretation of their surroundings – is genuine and not just a randomly selected concept that becomes a weird artefact of pretentious tourism.
Demdike Stare – Testpressing 007 (EP)
Another excellent addition to the discography, and this one does what they do best – highfalutin industrial dub techno. Could’ve picked any of the Testpressing series, but this (last) one was the only one released this year. Creepy drones and distortions give way to pounding electro and distressed sonics that are ultimately joined by frenetic beats or dub-step samples.
M Ashworth – High Drama (Blowing Up The Workshop 41)
There’s the question of how mixes are constructed, do you pick what you like, what you’re listening to, or do you try to impress? This does all three by not trying to do any. An eclectic forty plus minutes featuring a cut of his own spacious dub-step, soothing chill-out, dub, broken beat house, stoner rap, Japanese shitpop and various ambient cuts all spliced together. Gains brownie points from me for having a detailed track list.
Galcher Lustwerk – 31st March Mix for Rinse FM
Two hours of banging deep house and techno cuts. And yeah, of course it has no track list, so at least the mystery will endure, probably forever in my case. The acapella version of ‘I Neva Seen’ and ‘Refraction’ by Caiazzo that appear on this are majestic.
Lil-Ugly Mane – Third Side of The Tape
Fractured elements of musical junk, of what I can only assume are radio snippets, obscure B sides, closed loops, spare beats, aborted mixes, garage recordings, and samples all woven together and distorted further with a bedroom mixing aesthetic. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
FKA Twigs – M3LL155X (EP)
This one eschews the trip hop templates; it’s a mixture of dense distortion, symbols, isolated electro flourishes, broken beat dubstep, and more auto-tune. The additional pauses prolong the agony and abrasiveness, adding gravitas to her subject matter. I mean, pop music is so fucking terrible these days that anything with a modicum of ingenuity shines through. However, Twigs is clearly aiming much higher. This release is another subtle evolution, and the continuation of a process, added to her distinctive style of vocals, that’s cultivated her now unique imagery and sound.
Gnod – Infinity Machines
An engrossing cacophony of heavy basslines, drum snares, and walls of industrial sounds. Deserves better than to be considered a part of a trite, pish terminology like ‘psych’ and it’s just, just on the right side of the pretentiousness line. Think the austereness and lingering dread often conjured by Scott Walker’s last three albums, sans his moments of bespoke peculiarity, mixed with the glibness of British Murder Boys.
Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
Sure, a rap album that, in the main, reminisces about the effects that drug culture had on youth culture, the hood and his youth. Virtually everybody picked Kendrick Lamar’s album in their end of year lists (didn’t they?), but Staples’ vignettes and introspections were just more intriguing. Perhaps it was because they weren’t so insufferably earnest?
Black Zone Myth Chant – Mane Thecel Phares
Electro psychedelic randomness from France. A headclusterfuck that features heavily distorted Aphex Twin-esque vocals, tribal rhythm drums, sinister globular electronic tweaks, bars of frenetic footwork, and always blistered into deliriousness by the relentless midday sun.
Bjork – Vulnicura
Iceland’s finest turned fifty this year, and she always aims to challenge. Here, under soothing orchestral sweeps, bedraggled by rambunctious beats, she considers the nature of her relationships and how and if they truly work, or even can. Throughout “Vulnicura” you can feel the angst, with the microanalysis of her every failure, at the perpetual fear of being left alone, of being emotionally incompatible, and that this may be the norm. Her best full length since “Homogenic”.
Blur – The Magic Whip
Look, it isn’t 1995, mainstream music’s in the middle of culturally conservative and unambitious cycle, and this isn’t “Parklife”, “Modern Life Is Rubbish”, or even bloody “Think Tank”. It fucking shouldn’t be for other reasons; they’re in their forties now; rich, married, domiciled and or raising pigs in the Tory heartland or whatever shitty rural reinvention Alex James has turned to. You suspect the melodies will always be there and the lyrics (mostly) will resonate and intrigue, but that they managed to make a record which captured moments of the self-effacing melancholy at the onset of a hedonist’s early middle age and the transient nature of a successful musician’s existence, without it being in any way irritating, was a welcome surprise.
Ami Shavit – In Alpha Mood (Reissue)
One step beyond Ariel Kalma. The sensibility and structural influences of Indian and Middle Eastern music remain in the underlying slickly soothing melodies, with the synthesizers contriving to punctuate them with high pitched globular and bubbly sounds. It’s almost as relaxing as proper deep mid 80’s acid music.
Sleaford Mods – Key Markets
A vital public service and the antidote to the stupidity of X-Factor, Tory austerity, the futility of White Van Men and UKIP voters, not to mention the hideous lies propagated daily by the Sun and the Daily Mail that are slowly eroding British culture. The Mods continue their mission to bludgeon you with their resentful, feral, undiplomatic rhetoric of common sense and disdain for pretty much everything that’s exasperatingly unfair or illogical about modern society, all done over punk and post-punk head bangers. Sometimes shock scorn is the best way to get you thinking about substantial subjects and your own existence in a sufficiently abstract and detached way.
Floating Points – Elaenia
A vote for meticulousness, and conclusive proof that there’s nothing wrong with aiming high and trying to impress yourself. Its excellence doesn’t ingratiate itself on first listen as the ear candy-esque “Shadows” did. “Elaenia” features more verbose sounds and denser constructs and takes multiple listens to process.
Various Artists – Peru Bravo: Funk, Soul & Psych From Peru’s Radical Decade
Brilliant compilation released late last year, but I only discovered it this. Worth it alone for the psychedelic Latino take on The Metre’s ‘Cissy Strut’ and ‘Hey Joe’ by Jimi Hendrix. The screaming intro to ‘Sungaligali’ by Telegraph Avenue is a majestic moment.
Laurel Halo – In Situ
Spaced out sonics flit in-between a densely deft mixture of deep house, left field and techno. There’s nothing new to be found here, it’s borrows much from the Floating Points “Shadows” and Kassem Mosse “Workshop 19” templates, but you can’t resist production like this.
Shit and Shine – 54 Synth Brass, 38 Metal Guitar, 65 Cathedral
The album title (I’m not sure either) and the song titles; ‘Writing Poetry On Your Forehead With The Tip Of a Hunting Knife’, ‘Egg Mm-Muffin / Pimp Different’ & ‘Goat $hit’ seem to suggest it’s all a bit of laugh and nothing serious, but, don’t be fooled, there’s artistic merit to it. Most tracks feature engrossingly dense base harmonies and drum machine layers to form stoner-punkish instrumentals, embellished with the occasional high pitched or subdued, almost demonically mongoloid, vocal exclamations. It could mean absolutely anything and that, along with it being difficult to classify, makes it interesting.
Aphex Twin – user48736353001
It’s hard to say just what this should be categorised as, for the purposes of this blog post. This material is new to us, but by James’ admission none of it is, as the best cuts from it are quintessential early 90’s ravey club rips or ambient cuts that you suspect didn’t quite make the cut on “Selected Ambient Works II”. It isn’t a reissue, it isn’t an album, it’s a Soundcloud dump of tracks he never had any intention of releasing/finishing. Isn’t the internet brilliant? It has an important contextual purpose, with certain tracks such as ‘2 Dual Acid Ab6’ solidifying the evolutionary link between “Selected Ambient Works II” and the later chaos of the “Windowlicker” and the “Richard D. James” album.
And that’s your lot. I’ll be doing the best songs of 2015 list next week.