A departure for DRC to mark the end of 2015. Instead of enforcing the traditional ‘Album Of The Year’ we were essentially able to bring whatever we wanted to fill a 50 minute slot, an idea that came from our compadres in Exeter Record Club who felt they wanted to exhibit playlists of the year rather than album of the year.
I’ll save you the usual unoriginal musing about how our listening habits are changing, but let’s note that this feels like a different approach for now different times. I bought and listened to and loved a number of albums this year, but none of them stood out as a clear record of my 2015. The majority of my listening was through spotify and various grab-bag podcasts and 2015 for me has indeed been about an evolving playlist rather than monumental records.
My full playlist of the year, compiled as it happened, is here, but boiling it down to 50 minutes left me with just 13. I paired these up thematically and then constructed a pyramid structure to support by song of the year (I’m sure you all did the same, didn’t you?). Those pairs looked like this:
Charli XCX (feat. Rita Ora) – ‘Doing It’
Grimes – ‘Kill Vs. Maim’
Pop music. I don’t know what it is any more but I know what I think it is when I think i’ve heard it. Let’s approach this from a different angle. It has been many many years since I could look a the singles chart, or a playlist put together by anyone under the age of 20, and have recognise anything at all, let alone engage with it on any meaningful level. I just don’t encounter this music any more. To be fair, or to be more precise, I don’t take the half step necessary to reach it. The music is more and more present in the same places, the same websites, where I go looking for the stuff I feel I do actually want. The poptimist school have forced a breach that seem permanent and now the reality is not just that pop music should be considered on a par with all other forms, but that some of the most sophisticated, innovative and intoxicating music being made anywhere also happens to be landing in the top 10.
So, anyway, this year I found myself hit between the eyes by a handful of pop songs, some old and some new. ‘Doing It’ was the first, I listened to it consistently through the year, I still play it several times a week eleven months after it was released. It is, in short, a banger, and this year, after all these years, it seems fine to say I love it.
The Grimes album closes the pop circle for me. I tried her earlier, critically lauded record ‘Visions’ a couple of times and just never got a grip of it. I don’t know what I expected, I don’t know what I think I got, but it never came into focus. I’ve been reliably informed since then that what she was actually doing was making pop music with an arty slant and a jewellers eye for detail. So now ‘Art Angels’ makes perfect sense. It’s razor sharp pop with lashings of artistic smarts and it also just kills. Best of all, putting it side by side with Charli XCX helps me to understand some obvious but fundamental truth. It doesn’t matter whether you got here from art school or the Brit School, playing warehouse PAs or playing the Pitchfork festival, these two songs are neighbours and stand shoulder to shoulder with each other in the same place.
Olafur Arnalds and Alice Sara Ott – ‘Reminiscence’
Nils Frahm – ‘Ode’
The two albums that I listened to most this year, according to Spotify, each more than 100 times. Both are subdued, intimate, deeply human and resonantly beautiful. ‘Reminiscence’ comes from ‘The Chopin Project’, an attempt by composer and electronic artist Olafur Arnalds and classical pianist Alice Sara Ott to combine works and motifs from Chopin with their own extrapolations, soundscapes and interpretations. The results are intriguing, involving and gorgeous, slipping between centuries, styles and instrumentation to create compositions that sound both classical and modern.
‘Ode’ is the lead track from a collection of solo improvisations played on the M370, a unique 12 foot tall upright piano. It’s careful, sparing, warm. As with much of his work you can hear the mechanism chiming, the deep humming of the strings, the breathing of the player and the ambience of the space. Most of all you can hear the lustrous sound of an instrument being explored by a minimalist master.
Father John Misty – ‘Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)’
John Grant – ‘You & Him’
Filed together under ‘Cynical Post-Pop Men with Beards’. I fell hard for ‘Chateau Lobby #4’ the first time I heard it on the radio. The heady cocktail of swooning misanthropy and 70s high-rolling singer-songwriting hooked me in and I immediately wanted to listen to it all day. So much so that the album felt like a let down. I need to give it another chance. No such problem with John Grant. ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressures’ kicks off with one of the most striking opening tracks I’ve ever heard and then goes on fully to deliver on this promise. ‘You & Him’ is the flat out funniest track, but it also neatly showcases Grant’s knack for writing an irresistible melody and delivering it with wild and heady instrumentation, in this case a rasping glam rock stomp forcing home the delicious slight of the best chorus of the year.
Vince Staples – ‘Summertime 06′
Kendrick Lamar – ‘The Blacker The Berry’
Hip-hop was vital this year and while Drake was whinging on about feeling a bit down in the dumps, Kendrick Lamar delivered a generation-defining album and Vince Staples followed shortly after with, effectively, a record that took the premise of Lamar’s last record, ‘Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City’, of a teenager trying to navigate life in the poorest neighbourhoods, and dialled in the focus and intensity.
Where ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is a wild-wheeling confrontation with the chaos, confusion, self-doubt and destruction set against an equally giddy musical backdrop running the range of a century of pioneering African-American music, ‘Summertime’ is an intimate, nagging, claustrophic experience, dragging the listener in close to what it’s like to be a 13-year old boy in Long Beach, California, growing up in a world that seems only to offer options of despair or destruction.
Both beautiful, both bleak, both brilliant.
Oneohtrix Point Never – ‘Sticky Drama’
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – ‘Multi-Love’
A highly tenuous pairing under ‘electronic’ a label which hardly does either any favours. ‘Multi-Love’ is one of the hookiest tunes if the year, specifically the visciously repeatable opening line ‘Checked into my heart and trashed it, like a hotel room’, but mainly the incredible drum pattern that kicks in like John Shuttleworth going bonkers on finding a new button on his bontempi.
‘Sticky Drama’ is a completely different beast, a savagely inverted r&b punctured by the sudden arrival of the devil searching for his asthma inhaler. In his distressed songs, compressed together from the digital detritus of a diseased pop culture, Daniel Lopatin is finding new and vital ways to interpret the world around us and foreshadow the places it may be going to.
Courtney Barnett – ‘Pedestrian At Best’
Natalie Prass – ‘My Baby Don’t Understand Me’
Old tricks, new life. Neither Courtney Barnett nor Natalie Prass are doing anything particularly new, but each is breathing hot new life into old approaches. ‘Pedestrian At Best’ is THAT riff, but hooked to Barnett’s overclocked vocal rant, veering from sneering to self-doubt and packing in many of the best lines of the year into a still-irresistible 4-minute romp.
‘My Baby Don’t Understand Me’ was the first song I put into my ‘2015’ playlist. It pursues an old-fashioned approach to song-making with admirable commitment, achieving a timeless, swooning delicacy as it sweeps between phases, Prass using her beautiful voice with measure and control.
Daughter – ‘Doing The Right Thing
‘Doing The Right Thing’ is my song of the year. I don’t know whether it’s my favourite, or the one I’ll remember in years to come, and yet it stands head and shoulders about the rest. The lead track from an album that will follow next year, it is as fine a testament to the value and power of songwriting as an artform. Put simply, it deals, poetically, with dementia, but more broadly it demonstrates how words and music can combine to force a new perspective and, even if only briefly, pierce the heart of life itself. No other song came together to such effect this year.