Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Best Albums of 2015

Time to look over the shoulder at the year that was, 2015 felt like a good year musically a lot of the bands I love put out albums that exceeded my lofty expectations. I made some new discoveries and as usual couldn't quite find the time to blog about all the albums I listened to. The following are in no particular order I never like to play favourites but these albums stood out for their passion, originality and integrity. Each of the artists listed to me broke new ground with their releases this year whether it was blasting off into the ether or looking at something from the past and revitalising it.

Next year I'll be taking on the role of music editor for the Northsider which is a local publication covering the inner Northern suburbs of Melbourne so the Nighthawk will be taking a back seat to some extent. Thanks to those who have read my blog and follow me on Twitter.

Father John Misty-I Love You Honeybear

Very few artists can articulate in such a tortured manner the fear and uncertainty of love and relationships. Father John Misty did that and more his caustic wit and sarcasm was evident but so was something more profoundly affecting. His aimlessness and self doubt was replaced with the solidity of a lasting relationship, even if it did scare him half to death! Far from leading to complacency it led to him to question the nature of love and commitment and how it's judged by society. Father John created an eclectic musical backdrop, from the electronica of True Affection to the mariachi sounds of Chateu Lobby #4. The dramatic Bored In The USA took a blowtorch to the fabric of a consumerist society, exposing it's contradictions and traps. The elegant I Went To The Store One Day documents his first encounter with wife Emma. This album has a revealing honesty which you rarely here these days, it's easy to skirt the edges and never touch those uncomfortable depths but J Tillman does it in a remarkable fashion.

Dawes-All Your Favourite Bands

Dawes are a band that with each album you can hear the songwriting and musicianship mature and develop. Taylor Goldsmith has an intimate songwriting style deeply rooted in that reflective LA sound pioneered by the likes of Jackson Browne. All Your Favourite Bands captured the unpredictably of life as an adult, leaving family and friends facing situations with a nagging uncertainty. Goldsmith reflected on the transitory nature of life, perhaps reflecting on his life as a touring musician, the title track Things Happen examined the fortuitous and unexpected nature of life. Somewhere Along The Way examined regret LA style a city that offers so much but often delivers very little. The nostalgic All Your Favourite Bands hopes that the years and distance haven't changed those left behind. An album that looked at the darker side of nostalgia and the choices we make.

Courtney Barnett-Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit

A local release and a dynamic one at that Barnett has a wry observational style, her debut album exhibits her self doubt and antipathy towards her success. Pedestrian At Best acts as a warning maybe to herself maybe to others not to expect to much from her. She creates a panorama of life in Melbourne, coffee shops and rising house prices in the inner north. Her attempts to impress a fellow swimmer at the Fitzroy Pool on Aqua Profunda nearly results in a near death experience. Barnett's album captures the doubt and unpredictability of life and that feeling that we are never quite sure of our next step.

Kendrick Lamar-To Pimp A Butterfly

West Coast hip hop needed a shot in the arm and Kendrick Lamar delivered with his second album, it was a masterpiece seizing the anger and resentment of a city and nation before turning inwards where Lamar waged an existential battle between Lucy (the devil) and himself. On tracks like For Free Kendrick encapsulates the anger that still permeates through a new generation of young black American's, the system still unchanged and the odds still against them. For Sale is more personal, with success comes influence and stature but with it also comes temptation. Kendrick wages that battle matching resentment with a steadfast desire not to be conflicted and to rise above the inner and outer turmoil that he faces. Not only did he push the boundaries lyrically he also drove through them musically with the likes of Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington and Thundercat delivering a bruising melange of free jazz, P funk and jagged distorted rhythms.

Keith Richards-Cross Eyed Heart 

Still defiant, still unapologetic and still deeply in thrall with musical vistas of the deep south. Sometimes you forget how important Richards was to the Stones' sound, continually pushing them to delve deeper in the legacy of blues and country music. There is a touching honesty it's as though Richards is documenting all the jagged paths of his life. Nothing On Me is typical Richards, uncompromising and bowing down to no one, Heartstopper is Richards with his heart pinned on his sleeve. The music is ragged, there are no frills just how Richards wants it but never does he fail to convey on a personal or musical level with this delight of an album.

Dave Rawlings Machine-Nashville Obsolete

It's an interesting title because the Nashville sound we know is certainly obsolete when it comes to the work of Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch. Always unpredictable (in a refreshing manner) but always so heartfelt and honest Dave Rawlings made an album drawing less on Nashville and more on the West Coast. This album has a very literary feel to it, in my blog I likened it to a Cormac McCarthy novel because of the foreboding landscape and the desultory characters that were present in each song. I've always loved the sly darkness of their  material and this album is no exception. From the southern gothic stylings of Short Haired Woman Blues to the drifting laconic nature of The Trip, the destination is always a reward in itself.

Tame Impala-Currents

On Currents Kevin Parker moved away from the noodling psychedelia of Lonerism to dense synths and 80's drenched funk, it was a grand and rewarding experiment. He used his musical progression to document his personal one, it was an album that signalled the closing of a chapter from West Australian garage band to trend setting collaborator with the likes of Mark Ronson. The change of sound didn't effect the experimentation Parker expanded and created space not completely abandoning the ethos of previous albums.

Leon Bridges-Coming Home

This amazing album bought home the spirit of Sam Cooke but in an understated way, Coming home was lo fi, it was subtle and stripped back and provided the perfect foil for Bridges vocals. A young soul took to old soul like a veteran, Brown Skinned Girl sounded like the Impressions from 1964, Coming Home sounded like it was one of the first recordings made at a tiny studio in Florence Alabama. The dignified Lisa Sawyer is a tribute to Bridges' mother with a wonderfully laid back doo-wop feel. River is Bridges' A Change Gonna Come complete with wistful gospel harmonies this is a great song about finding redemption in the cleansing waters of the river.

Alabama Shakes-Sound and Colour

The second album blues can be a real devil on the shoulder especially when your first album has created so much hype and expectation. Rather than play it safe and replicate album number one Alabama Shakes throughout the handbook and with producer Blake Mills created a cavernous piece of work that mixed elements of soul, garage rock, R&B and psychedelia. The highlight was the slow disintegration of Dunes which sounded like Pink Floyd at their ominous best. Gimme All Your Love had lead singer Brittany Howard channelling the great Curtis Mayfield during his glory years pioneering Chicago soul.

Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats-Self Titled

This album was one out of left field, a burning sanctified testament to soul but with some late 60's Nashville country thrown in for good measure. I Need Never Get Old was quasi Stax soul with barnstorming horn refrains and Rateliff who at times sounds like a mix between Waylon Jennings and Otis Redding. Howling at The Moon sounded like Sam Cooke recording in a Texas garage with the local gospel choir, it was raw and affecting. SOB took things up a notch Rateliff brilliantly laid out the temptations of the bottle and sounded like James Brown in the process. Mellow Out was country soul at it's best, here he sounded like Waylon Jennings recording at somewhere like American studios. There was a relentless driving energy connected to this album that made it stand out for me during the year.

My Morning Jacket-The Waterfall

My Morning Jacket's seventh studio album loomed large with an expansive sound, more concise than Circuitual it didn't take a step back from their melodic dense sound. Jim James is a writer who likes to explore beyond modern conventionalities but he also discussed more everyday concerns, Big Decisions concerned the frustration of second guessing while Get The Point was a poignant break up song. There were anthems and they were brilliant Believe opened the album on a grand encompassing note, In It's Infancy (The Waterfall) embraced the concept of facing life on your own terms as best as possible.

Jason Isbell-Something More Than Free

Fast becoming my favourite artist Something More Than Free built on Isbell's inimitable reputation as a masterful storyteller. While still retaining the same personal honesty as Southeastern he broadened his scope reflecting on the struggles of life in small town America. The great thing about this album and of his songwriting in general is that Isbell never falls for cliche, the good and bad of small town life are addressed. If It Takes A Lifetime focuses on what can happen when we drift too far from our homes and families. Speed Trap Town is a classic spin on the feeling of being trapped in a small town and fearing you will never leave. I've always loved the immediacy of Isbell's music when you listen to this album you can still hear a man attempting to heal, it's a joyful heartening listen.

Phil Cook-Southland Mission

There a lot of artists keeping the flame of early blues and country alive, many are gravitating to North Carolina and one of those musicians is Phil Cook whose Southland Mission captured the authenticity of that old time sound whilst providing it with a modern context. It's an album built around the foundations of blues, folk and old time country, it also displays a keen observation of the hard times many experienced in America post WWI. The literary history of writers like John Steinbeck and William Faulkner inform a lot of the material on the album. 1922 written with fellow practitioner Charlie Parr was very much in the Steinbeck tradition, that struggle with life on the land and the often insurmountable obstacles that are faced. Great Tide was out of that great southern gothic tradition of the second coming.

Sarah Blasko-Eternal Return

One of the best local releases this year, it saw Sarah Blasko taking a new path dispensing with the more layered despairing sound with the embrace of synths which created a more uplifting and assured sound. Eternal Return was a sublime declaration of love and happiness. Only One was pure ear candy, taking all the great elements of 80's synth pop this was an ecstatic declaration of inner peace and love.

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