Playlists at the ready - Eamon Carr's Top 10 albums of 2015
Sometimes it's almost impossible to decide which album, of thousands released each year, could make the premier collection of the last 12 months.
This year, we've had releases from some of the big names: Dave Gilmour, Coldplay, Tom Petty and Neil Young among them.
But the album that made the biggest impression - the one that might just stop you in your tracks and dazzle you with its thrilling combination of garage dub narcotic, vintage Brill Building melody, and avant-grade performance art sensibility is:
1 U.S. Girls - Half Free (4AD)
That the "band" is a flag of convenience for the creative explorations of one woman, Meghan Remy, makes this even more exciting. Describing the album to Simon Carmody recently, I blurted out, "It's like Laurie Anderson fronting the Shangri-Las…"
In reality, that only acknowledges a fraction of the story. Like Russian matryoshka dolls, there are many layers to Remy's writing and production. Part of the charm of Half Free is its slow-burn revelation process. Remy, who has an engaging voice, is the living embodiment of the old adage "pop will eat itself". Compared to the schlock that clogs the airwaves, this work of audacious experimentation is refreshingly challenging, lo-fi and edgy.
2. Lana Del Rey - Honeymoon (Interscope)
It seems half the country lives on its nerves. Some time ago, I dropped some tunes on a friend who was having a psychotic episode. As you do. She came back pretty quickly, enthusing wildly about this set from the self-styled queen of broken-hearted noir. When Lizzie Grant figured out what she wanted to do with her life, she became Lana Del Rey, choosing "a name that sounded as beautiful as the music". The woman who broke big with Video Games is still on message.
Her orchestrated exotica creates the effects of an anaesthetic. But teasing out the boundaries of loneliness and vulnerability, Del Rey taps into something timeless and brings a sense of assurance and survival. "A minor pop masterpiece," is how I described this some months back. It's a stayer.
3. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly (Polydor)
In a year that celebrated the old-school struggles of NWA, hip-hop, that once vibrant genre, seemed to have become so diluted as to be nothing more than a fashion accessory, along comes Lamar with a stun-gun collection that mashes up the most potent of music styles in a breathtaking, kaleidoscopic street-savvy narrative. Lamar is out of Compton. He's new school. He's angry. He's got soul. And, like the greats before him, he's telling it like it is and calling for change.#
4. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitten)
This album opens with an admission and a question. "I don't know where to begin… what is that song you sing for the dead?"
An album of intimate songs inspired by the death of the artist's mother (who left him with his father when he was a baby) mightn't seem too inviting. But these songs are wonderful. They're warm and, ultimately, redemptive. Sure, they deal with missed opportunities. But they sing of salvation.
5. Grimes - Art Angels (4AD)
Sisters are doing it. Claire "Grimes" Boucher has moved into the mainstream with this ambitious set. She still bangs stuff around. A big riff here, a scream there. Watch out, here comes her girly "coo". She's a brain-box, knows her onions and can whip up a melody and a bed of electronica with the best of them. Great stuff.
6. Tame Impala - Currents (Fiction)
Subversive rock'n'roll hasn't gone away, y'know. Kinda like when Bobby Gillespie embraced rave culture, Kevin Parker says this album was inspired by listening to the Bee Gees after he'd consumed some mushrooms. So let's hear it for synth-soul meets psyche-rock and delightful with it. Pink Floyd did it with Dark Side of the Moon, so who knows where Tame Impala might go next.
7. Bob Dylan - Shadows in the Night (Columbia)
The idea of an old geezer singing a bunch of Frank Sinatra covers doesn't sound too hot on paper, now does it? But Dylan explained he wasn't covering these songs but "uncovering" them. Therein lies the key to this magnificent exploration of meaningful songs that exemplify the art of songwriting. Dylan inhabits each song with heartfelt nuance and brings a world weariness and ancient stoicism to the interpretation of each lyric. Inspired.
8. Blur - The Magic Whip (Parlophone)
Sixteen years later, Blur came back as a fully-functioning quartet with an intriguing set that's unmistakably the band whose breezy musical intelligence defined Brit Pop as the musical wing of the YBA visual-art explosion. They cover all bases here with a sound and world view that has evolved.
9. Julia Holter - Have You In My Wilderness (Domino)
Holter has already shown she knows how to construct beguiling soundscapes and here she pushes on, ramping up the multi-layering of strings, drums, harpsichord and sundry chintzy accompaniment to adorn whimsical vocal melodies that might have escaped a 60s stoner session in Laurel Canyon.
10. Ryley Walker - Primrose Green (Bella Union)
A jazz-folk jam that's sonically stimulating and aesthetically pleasing. Gorgeous instrumental interplay by this Chicago dude and his mates is on a par with John Martyn, Tim Buckley and even Van's Astral Weeks.