With new albums from Adele, Drake and Coldplay, not to mention some stunning debut releases across all sections of the musical spectrum, 2015 will doubtlessly be looked upon as a classic year for both mainstream and alternative music. Though the ‘Hello’ singer dominated headlines by obliterating UK and US records in the year’s final couple of months, there was certainly more to it than that, with some real surprises in the alternative environment standing up to the big guns.
From Jamie XX to Sufjan Stevens, Grimes to Brandon Flowers, there is plenty to feast your eyes on in our list of 2015’s best LPs. Eclectic tastes shall not go unsatisfied.
The Icarus Line – All Things Under Heaven No album will make you feel more tuned in to your satanic side than this evil beast. All Things Under Heaven is a scathing satire on a technology obsessed, brand enslaved generation that will make for uncomfortable but necessary listening for those whose concept of social commentary is romanticised working class indie-pop. You know that part in Mad Max: Fury Road where the flames come out of the guitar? That’s exactly how this album feels. Every power chord burns further down into the depths of the soul, each added layer of distortion and effects is like fresh wood to a bonfire. Thrilling, disturbing, engulfing. LR
Eccentronic Research Council – Johnny Rocket, Narcissist and Music Machine…I’m Your Biggest FanMaxine Peake, she of TV shows such as Silk and Shameless, narrates a psychological tale of cosmic proportions as she takes on the role of superstar Johnny Rocket’s (lead singer of fictional band The Moonlandingz played by the Fat White Family) deranged stalker. One part synth-pop, two parts goth-punk and with a generous helping of gritty northern performance poetry, Johnny Rocket… places its listener in a smoky pub, a distant planet and the devil’s living room all at once. And yet, despite its great scope and ambition, the one place it explores the most is the human mind, as it dissects the sensations of lust and obsession to unnerving effect. LR
Health – Death MagicSix years is a long time between albums but LA electro-noise rockers Health returned with a record that was definitely worth the wait. Slicker and more polished than their previous work, Death Magic brought the noise with tracks like the bludgeoning ‘Stonefist’ and apocalyptically brooding ‘New Coke’ but it also often saw Health dipping into unapologetically poppier territory. Songs like ‘Life’ and ‘LA Looks’ are shamelessly glossy slices of synthpop that show Health don’t necessarily need to be confrontational to be compelling. KB
Grimes – Art Angels Grimes used to paint in nocturnal, monochromatic tones but on Art Angels her canvas is covered in day-glow colour. Claire Boucher’s latest work positions her closer to other modern-day radio pop stars whilst simultaneously twisting the formula in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways. Boucher is clearly having a blast upending expectations and trying new things and nowhere is this more apparent than tracks like ‘Kill V. Main’ where her vocals shift from ethereal to animal over a deliriously hyperactive backbeat. ‘Flesh without Blood’ is a pretty good candidate for single of the year but nearly every song here is as accomplished. If only all pop was as full-blooded and strange as this. KB
Oh Wonder – Oh WonderProving that an album doesn’t need to be big and bold to be brilliant, Oh Wonder’s self-titled debut is a subtle and low-key record that charms and disarms with its gentle vocals and lyrical beats. It produced one of my favourite songs of the year – ‘Technicolour Beat’ – but all 15 songs on the album make for a soothing listen. There’s an easy coolness to Oh Wonder’s music, a feel that the duo have nothing to prove, something that’s quite refreshing in an industry where artists are battling to be noticed. Oh Wonder is the perfect accompaniment to a cosy winter’s eve or a chilled out summer’s day. It’s not fussy. NX
Brandon Flowers – The Desired EffectYou’d think that after four albums with The Killers and his debut solo record making its appearance in 2010, Brandon Flowers would be tapped out on the making-music front. Luckily for the world, The Desired Effect proved he still has a lot to sing about, and Flowers brought us this news in an album crafted with ’80s-style synth beats, catchy hooks and clever lyrics for a pop-rock album worth waiting for. Each of the album’s ten tracks tells a story, with singles ‘Lonely Town’, ‘I Can Change’, ‘Can’t Deny My Love’, and ‘Still Want You’ providing a perfect example of the tone of the rest of the record, and inspiring the urge to replay the album repeatedly from the moment you download it. MD
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & LowellIt’s been over a decade since Sufjan was this stripped down instrumentally. After the folk orchestra working on Illinois, and the electronic extravaganza of The Age of Adz, the subtle intensity of Carrie & Lowell takes a while to adjust to. If this is Sufjan pared back musically, it’s also his most penetratingly personal album. Exploring the troubled relationship with his now deceased mother, he approaches the same subject from multiple angles, drawing pain, disappointment and love in turn. It’s a complex album, subtle and personal, and yes, beautiful. SM
Gabrielle Aplin – Light Up The DarkPerhaps known best for a cover of a certain power ballad for a John Lewis ad a few years ago, Gabrielle Aplin returned this year with a new album that’s altogether bluesier, rockier and, well, more ballsy, than anything that’s come before. The album cries out to be played loud and sung along to – with a nationwide tour coming up in early 2016 the songs here are set to translate brilliantly into the live setting. For fans of Aplin’s earlier work, there’s still a touch of the softer, acoustic musician to be found – ‘Heavy Heart’ and ‘Hurt’ are fine examples of a more introspective method, while still standing up to the punchier tracks. Buy this album and play it loud in the car – Christmas travel won’t seem quite so terrible. Promise. LS
Lucy Rose – Work It OutLucy Rose’s second album Work It Out is an instant hit. Adopting a more poppy sound than her previous work, the album is packed full of sing-along tracks and tunes you’ll find yourself humming for days after listening. Rose’s vocals are crisp and clear and the lyrics deal with everything from unrequited love to self-discovery. Stand out tracks are without doubt ‘Our Eyes’, which has “indie dancefloor” written all over it, and the utterly lovely ‘Like An Arrow’ – Rose’s voice really shines here and the music will transport you back to carefree summer days and beachside barbeques. What more could you want in this soggy December weather? LS
The Maccabees – Marks to Prove ItBack with a more mature and progressive offering, The Maccabees provided undoubtedly one of the best guitar albums of this year. Introducing the album to a sold out audience at the Elephant and Castle Coronet Theatre earlier in the year, the London based four piece confirmed why they are still top of their game and much loved by their adoring fans, all of whom were singing every lyric in unison. Stand out tracks on the album include the slightly heavier ‘Spit It Out’, the melodic and dreamlike ‘Ribbon Road’, and album title ‘Marks To Prove It’. AA
Jamie XX – In ColourThe highly anticipated debut album by one third of The XX, Mr Jamie Smith, was released in May this year and caught the attention of Radio One listeners and Mercury Prize admirers alike. With singles such as ‘Sleep Sound’ and ‘Girl’ already rocketing on the online realms, the rest of the album provided a reinvigorated stance on new-age house with Jamie’s trademark steel drums alongside wistful vocals. Fellow XX band mates Romy and Oliver Sim also feature on the album, alongside hip-hop’s new talent Young Thug. With ‘I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)’ being the festival hit of the summer, 2015 has certainly been the year for one of the most innovative and genre blending electronic artists around. AA
Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)While no surprise to anyone who’s kept their ear to the ground regarding the world of Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s second musical, Hamilton: An American Musical, took the world by storm when it finally dropped onto Broadway this summer. It recounts the story of oft forgotten founding father Alexander Hamilton, played by Miranda himself, and told by Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr), by whom he was eventually fatally shot in a duel (not a spoiler – we’re told this in the first musical number). Combined with the fact that its cast is almost entirely comprised of people of colour – save for King George, played by Glee and Looking’s Jonathan Groff – and that its musical style of choice is mostly hip hop, it sounds like just about the most bonkers thing ever. Until you hear it, that is.
For anyone unable to hop onto a plane in July – the best time to find tickets – the cast album is the next best thing and will not disappoint. A tribute to hip-hop as well as musical theatre, words like fresh, innovative and ground-breaking have all been attached, and rightly so. To sum it up: you have never heard anything like this. MK
Wolf Alice – My Love Is CoolMy Love is Cool by North London four piece Wolf Alice was released last summer, and it’s been getting more and more recognition since then. ‘Giant Peach’ helped make Wolf Alice well-known, proving they’ve got what it takes to be a successful young band on both sides of the Atlantic, while still having fun at the same time. The track is a raucous and confident introduction which sounds as if it’s performed by a much older, more experienced band. The vulnerability in tracks such as ‘Bros’ and ‘You’re a Germ’, with front woman Ellie Rowell’s soft, delicate vocals, has a grunge influence that will take listeners back to the 90’s when the genre was at the forefront of the music scene. Scuzzy guitars and head banging choruses help make this album the standout of 2015. CD
Blur – The Magic WhipRecorded in Hong Kong and London, The Magic Whip is the 8th studio album from Blur. The opening track, ‘Lonesome Street’, is classic Blur with its cheeky lyrics, upbeat guitars and a slick bass. The track eases listeners into an album that shows a change of direction for the four-piece band. With the chimes and keys in the introduction, ‘Pyongyang’ feels true to the Hong Kong recording. However, the highlight of the album is ‘Go Out’, a track more reminiscent of previous Blur songs like ‘Beetlebum’ and ‘Song 2’. The Magic Whip is a beautifully produced record, showcasing the band’s transition from 90’s kids to mature adults. CD