Best Albums of 2015 (Part 1)

Pausing only to reiterate once again how fundamentally definitive and provisional are all lists, here we go with my countdown of 2015’s best albums, starting with numbers 40 to 21. Part 2 tomorrow.

40 | Andrew Liles – Miscellany – Lussuoso (Electronics: 1990 to 2015)

The first of several epics on the list, Andrew Liles’ consistently unpredictable output was dominated in 2015 by this dazzling three-hour celebration of diverse electronic works dating back a quarter of a century. As the name implies, Miscellany is a veritable hotchpotch, one with a distinct leaning toward the more raw end of electronics. But this is merely the basis for a kaleidoscope of works encompassing radiophonic mayhem, intense beat-driven numbers overlaid with John Carpenter-esque basslines and/or Wendy Carlos-esque baroque twiddling, expansive ambient vistas and delicate, multi-layered bits of melodic tracery. It all makes for an entirely bewildering yet mesmerising experience. [self-released]

39 | Benge – Forms 4 – Moor Music

The latest in Ben Edwards’ ongoing ‘Forms’ series (begun in 2013) is this fine album, created using just a single synthesiser, the Yamaha VL1-m. The sense of evocation here, mingled with elements of nostalgia and retro sensibilities, is strong, conjuring up a soundworld that’s abstract and elemental yet drenched with connotations and allusions. And on top of all that it’s really very beautiful. [self-released – free download]

38 | Kate Havnevik – &i

Punchy, imaginative pop that builds directly upon the foundations set out on her 2011 album YOU. Smooth electronica is still the music’s most prevalent quality, but Havnevik keeps it informed with gruff basslines and itchy rhythmic diversions. Her voice is as gorgeous and indeed gymnastic as ever, turning endless cartwheels and somersaults which both reinforce the emotive core and embody the anthemic frivolity of her exquisite songs. [self-released]

37 | IAMX – Metanoia

The product of a runaway success crowdfunding venture, Metanoia finds Chris Corner extending further the utterly unique IAMX sound. His songs have always inhabited the widest of extremes in order to capture faithfully life’s emotional highs and lows, embracing grit and grime as well as the most ecstatic heights of elation (that voice!), and this album is no exception. Song titles like ‘No Maker Made Me’, ‘Say Hello Melancholia’ and ‘Oh Cruel Darkness Embrace Me’ are simultaneously brave—potentially suggesting a rather off-putting emo sensibility at work—and profoundly honest; yet the beat goes on, and while there’s more than an element of danse macabre permeating these songs, the restlessness of their rhythms keeps them from becoming self-indulgent. [self-released]

36 | Alva Noto – Xerrox Vol. 3

Xerrox Vol. 3 inhabits a very personal environment, founded upon broad washes of soft ambience, overlaid with bursts of electronic babble and semi-arbitrary burblings that more-or-less coalesce into melodic shapes. The slow, sedate manner of the first two Xerrox albums often suggested the solemnity of a ceremony, but Nicolai keeps things lighter on this occasion: materials are thinly-layered and clearly demarcated, and the general tone is one of buoyancy and lift, each track practically floating on its own thermal currents […] Avoiding the tendencies so many ambient composers make when attempting to tap into the idea of outer space, Xerrox Vol. 3 instead offers something that manages to evoke immensity and things unknowable from the perspective of a lone, small individual, at once infinite and intimate.” (reviewed in June) [Raster-Noton]

35 | East India Youth – Culture of Volume

William Doyle’s second album is a little hard to pin down. “The end result is not what was in mind” he sings, and it’s tempting to hear that as a descriptor for Culture of Volume itself. At its heart is a light-footed pop sensibility—Doyle is an irresistible melody-maker—yet this sits within a context of convoluted structures that often feel like miniature operas, their drawn-out dramas telescoped into four-to-six minute time spans. Whether expressed over an unstoppable pulse or through long-form lyrical lines (as in album highlight ‘Carousel’), they make Culture of Volume one of the year’s most beguilingly off-kilter pop albums. [XL]

34 | Eivør – Slør

Faroese singer-songwriter Eivør has brought out two albums in 2015. Whereas Bridges articulates itself in the folk-rooted idiom that typifies her output over the last 15 years, Slør is altogether more experimental, infused with extrinsic elements that gently overturn and refashion the songs’ inherent delicacy. Eivør’s presence is still paramount (sacrasanct, even) but her incredibly beautiful vocals—always simultaneously earthy and ethereal—are now borne aloft with a much broader sense of scope and vision, turning each track into a paean sung across an endless vista. [Tutl]

33 | Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon

In some ways both a return to and a development of the rich, heavy lyricism of her debut album Born To Die (which was somewhat sidestepped on last year’s Ultraviolence). The result is that Lana Del Rey lightens the load—the title track, which might otherwise become a dirge, has its funereality shot through with a little air—yet sacrifices none of her sincerity and single- (one might say bloody-)minded self-awareness. Love and longing permeate every aching line of these songs, which begin to hurt the moment Del Rey opens her mouth, all the more exquisitely painful as, for the most part, she restricts both the tenor and the dynamic of her vocals, emphasising their fragility in the midst of such lush, romantic arrangements. [Amazon]

32 | Jennifer Walshe (et al.) – Historical Documents of the Irish Avant-Garde

“A recurring theme […], expressed surprisingly polemically, is the off-hand way with which the avant-garde tends to be summarily dismissed by society. […] there’s a potent sense of righteous anger lurking beneath the otherwise celebratory text, which in turn invites consideration for how the avant-garde is regarded and marginalised today. More positively, though, the book captures something of the sheer exhilaration, for both artists and audiences alike, that surrounds so much avant-garde music-making, which only makes the accompanying musical examples so tantalising, offering all-too-brief insights into this vivid imaginary world. […] It’s a discombobulating, provocative and joyous experience to read, listen to, research and ponder upon Historical Documents of the Irish Avant-Garde, which encapsulates the essence of Jennifer Walshe’s music, full of depth and mischief.” (reviewed in April) [Aisteach]

31 | Vanbot – Perfect Storm

It’s been an impatient four years since Vanbot’s superb self-titled debut album, but Perfect Storm was worth the wait. Her music is coloured by a kind of darkness that distinguishes her from other Scandinavian female electronica artists, something that feels emphasised here. Perhaps the most striking example is ‘Shake’, where her voice is surprisingly subdued, seemingly at odds with the song’s brisk pace and bright tone. Only occasionally does she really let rip, and when she does (‘Secrets’ being perhaps the most powerful example) the contrast is huge and there seem to be no heights that the songs can’t reach. [Vanbot]

30 | Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow – Ex_Machina (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

2015 has been a good year for less conventional movie soundtracks, and Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score for Ex_Machina (itself one of the year’s finest movies) is among the very best of them. The über-technology at the heart of the narrative finds a parallel in a clean, synthetic score, yet Salisbury and Barrow tap into the film’s deeply ominous mood by ensuring the music keeps its distance: soft notes protruding in darkness, faint noise, burbling pulses and textures, unidentifiable sounds lurching far off, and unnervingly intense crescendos. Its most telling moment, though, is when the claustrophobic ambience parts to reveal a melody for the character of Ava, soft and simple, like a child playing with a toy glockenspiel, a spell-binding moment. [Invada]

29 | Ingar Zach & Miguel Angel Tolosa – Loner

Two musicians of whose work i was previously unaware, this is only the first time that Ingar Zach and Miguel Angel Tolosa have collaborated, but on the strength of Loner, you’d never know it. Their respective percussion and electric guitar are seamlessly melded into the electronics and field recordings that they both wield, resulting in dense tracts of careful, pensive expression, where organisation and improvisation are impossible to disentangle. Noise—constantly changing its form and its visage—is practically an omnipresence, and while in ‘Whirlworlds’ it gradually comes to dominate, consuming everything, elsewhere Zach and Tolosa render it simply one element among many, coloured by an assortment of bells and other pitched sounds rich in overtones. One of the most deeply immersive albums of the year. [Sofa]

28 | Somatic Responses – The Motor of Decay

John and Paul Healy’s preoccupation with beats has become increasingly strained in more recent times, resulting in some of their most mature and individual work to date, and The Motor of Decay may just be the best of them all. Most of it is entirely beatless, the duo opting instead for more abstract explorations where loops are layered and manipulated, and amorphous shapes slowly find their form—or, more often, don’t, juxtaposed with other sound objects of varying levels of (non-)concreteness. The subtlety on display here, working with such elusive materials, is highly impressive, each track deftly structured such that one’s imagination steps in to construct its own elaborate narrative. [self-released – free download]

27 | Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Wilson’s most far-reaching album since Insurgentes (which remains his masterpiece). While its soundworld is almost defiantly rooted in the over-familiar (and, to some extent, tired) tropes of prog rock, the breadth of imagination Wilson brings to bear on them is considerable, resulting in lengthy songs that follow divergent trains of interconnected thought without becoming derailed by their own wistfulness. As a result, they’re able to retain an almost blushing simplicity with the lightest of touches (‘Perfect Life’) yet allowing for large-scale unpredictably rhapsodic expansions that tease out further nuances in Wilson’s heartfelt narrative (‘Routine’, ‘Ancestral’). As ever, the production values are outstanding, with subtle use of electronics keeping the album’s lyrical guitar focus centre-stage. [Steven Wilson]

26 | Purity Ring – Another Eternity

For their sophomore album, Purity Ring seem to have distilled and concentrated the most telling elements from their exciting debut release, 2012’s Shines. Of overriding importance is the way their songs push pitch outwards to the edges, pitting Megan James’ pliable vocals against deep sawtooth-edged basslines, like the duet of a twirling angel above a circling shark. This is what gives their music its constant frisson of uncertainty, at once light as a feather yet heavy as a lead weight. It’s a tantalising friction that is taken to a higher level throughout Another Eternity, a song cycle of the utmost intimacy yet drenched as much with a kind of haunted disconnect as it undoubtedly is with love. Carried along by languorous punch/slap beats, this is music caught between nightmares and dreams, and a great deal of it is just unutterably lovely. [4AD]

25 | Kreng – The Summoner

“… a veritable showcase of imposing atmospherics […], not so much beginning as emerging, as though it was becoming visible as our eyes adjust to the darkness. All six parts of the album take place within gloom-ridden spaces—not inappropriately, considering The Summoner is exploring stages of grieving—and display the kind of structural instability one might well associate with emotional distress. […] This challenging and deliberately counterintuitive approach to the expression of emotional states is what makes the The Summoner so profoundly engaging, and so profound. It simply feels very, very real. From nothing, crescendos expand and roar—and then just stop; intricate textures fashioned from individual tapping sounds congeal into droning sticky substances; muted rhythms resemble a funeral cortège turning in a circle; the trappings of shoegaze indulge a soporific kind of numbness. All of these acts and actions feel simultaneously arbitrary yet utterly necessary. Grief is precisely like this, and the occasions when Kreng suddenly focuses everything—as in a sequence of intoning brass chords in part 4, ‘Depression’—the pain beneath the music is all too apparent.” (reviewed in March) [Miasmah]

24 | Björk – Vulnicura

For a time, since Medúlla really, the assumption seemed to be that Björk was going to spiral out into ever more vast and rarified waters, like a kind of musical Voyager I, engaged in a lifelong urge to experiment, experiment, experiment. However, while it would hardly be inaccurate to describe her work as having distinctly alien characteristics—her approach to beats and basslines has always been wonderfully odd—it’s been interesting to hear how rooted Björk’s music remains in things fundamentally human. She’s always been lyrically staggering—both in her actual lyrics as well as the melodies (or whatever word would do them better justice) she employs to articulate them—and Vulnicura finds that lyrical heart beating louder than ever. From the seemingly unending lines of ‘Stonemilker’ (something of a successor to ‘Jóga’) to the overlapping vocal tendrils of ‘Mouth Mantra’ to the drenched washes of ‘Family’, it’s tempting to hear in Björk’s continual reinvention of song something we might call an “emancipation of the consonance” – where various forms of tonality, modality, folk idioms and the like are all assimilated and converted into something altogether new, innately familiar yet utterly strange. [One Little Indian]

23 | Cemeteries – Barrow

Following a trio of 7-inches and a brace of mid-length releases comes Barrow, Kyle Reigle’s first full-length album. The demonstratively dreamy qualities that first made their presence felt on 2013’s Hiss//Husk (in ‘Old Souls’) have become the defining feature of the Cemeteries sound. In Reigle’s hands they manifest as a kind of ecstasy at dusk, a kind of weary glory, like the brilliance of gold captured in monochrome. There’s some delicious use of harmony going on here, while the vocals are surrounded with sufficient reverberation suggesting a cathedral-like sympathetic vastness, but which at the same time threatens to swallow everything up. As a result the songs appear small and intimate while seeming to loom large. ‘Luna (Moon of Claiming)’ may well be my song of the year. [self-released – free download]

22 | Gilles Gobeil – Les lointains

“Gobeil’s particular take on acousmatics is extremely heavily inflected with sharp attacks redolent of industrial machinery. Big impacts litter his music, acting both as material element and structural marker; as such they become antagonistic pivot points about which each piece spasmodically turns and contorts. One ends up feeling rather small listening to these pieces, but not just due to their blunt force trauma; Gobeil also punctuates his music with periods of repose that are more void-like and ambient (albeit edgy), broad but delicate vistas that seemingly stretch into infinity, gradually becoming filled with raw material for the next episode of onslaught. The scale, the force, the immensity, the drama—it all adds up to a sequence of experiences that go beyond simply being immersive; one feels enveloped by these six pieces, surrounded on all sides by danger and beauty of utmost intensity.” (reviewed in September) [empreintes DIGITALes]

21 | Coppice – Cores/Eruct | Spans: Three Perspectival Accounts | Matches

It’s been a remarkable year for Noé Cuéllar and Joseph Kramer. Back in February came Cores/Eruct, which “continues to push the bar ever higher. Drones are pivotal to several of its five pieces; […] most striking is the 13-minute piece at the album’s epicentre, ‘While Like Teem Or Bloom Comes (Tipping)’, which alone features recognisable consonance, in the form of frail pitched sounds […]; these are intercut with repetitive percussive mechanisms and grindings, forming a jump-cut cluster of symmetrically-balanced episodes, with noise at its core but book-ended by beauty” (from my June review). June brought Spans: Three Perspectival Accounts where, in something of a contrast to the duo’s wider interests, pitch was almost solely at the fore, mustered into varying kinds of purity and/or clusters. And in September came Matches, refocussing on Coppice’s “three-pronged exploration of sound, noise and silence, confronting once again what might otherwise be called ‘deliberate’ and ‘extraneous’ quantities, and to some extent rendering both terms entirely moot. ‘Held Cascade’ throws together a boombox and a prepared pump organ to yield a heartbeat of exhalations modulated with electronic buzzing, a soundworld expanded considerably in ‘Labile Form’, where the organ is replaced with accordions, transmitters and an oscillator, resulting in an ever-shifting firmament of emergent tones and hard-edged, aggressive regularity. […] ‘Bramble’ is surely one of their most engrossing works to date, encompassing miniature movements and huge imposing razor-edged buzzsaw tones and hydraulic pressure. Utterly wonderful.” (reviewed in October) [Future Vessel/Rhizome]

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