It's the time of year when everybody has to compile lists... for once, it's not just me.
2015 has been a fine year in music... if you know where to look. I've no idea what's happening in the mainstream anymore, and I've no idea what the musos will pick for their end of year lists. But it was easy enough to work out My Top Ten Albums of 2015.
Before I get onto those, here are a few also rans. Many fine records, worthy of note, if you're into this kind of thing...
20. Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott - Wisdom, Laughter & Lines
Paul Heaton's long-awaited reunion with his former Beautiful South chanteuse easily made my Top Ten last year, so I'm not really sure why its follow-up barely scraped into this year's Twenty. I've been a Heato fan since the Housemartins, and while he rarely puts a foot wrong, this one didn't quite do it for me. He's long made a career contrasting catchy, upbeat, Radio 2 friendly melodies with arch, cynically caustic lyrics... that's exactly why I love him. However, Wisdom, Laughter & Lines occasionally felt like a step too far: the tunes just a little too perky, the lyrics just a little too wilfully obnoxious. It's most noticeable on Heatongrad, which frankly sounds like Chas 'n' Dave singing NWA. Ironically, the best song on here is the mock-Morrissey tune, Horse & Groom. Well, if Moz is too busy writing crap novels and sacking his record company to put out a new record, perhaps Heato can fill his old rival's shoes...
Top Track: Horse & Groom
19. Wolf Alice - My Love Is Cool
I still need to listen to this one a bit more, but what I've heard so far has convinced me this Elastica-esque four piece have a bright future. If indie guitar bands have any future at all, that is. Reminds me very much of the music I listened to twenty years ago, without being too derivative. A lot will be written about them by the cooler sections of the music press in the year end lists, so go read those guys if you want to know more. I'm just gonna turn them up and party like it's 1993.
Top Track: You're A Germ
18. Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material
Now that Taylor Swift's gone all pop, Nashville needed another young female singer songwriter to carry her baton, and Kacey Musgraves seems made to order. Although this is her second mainstream album, she had self-released three before signing to a major label and at 27, she's actually 2 years older than Taylor. She's also much more of a rebel - her songs tend to be more outspoken, referencing drugs and teenage pregnancy while taking potshots at beauty pageants and the male-dominated music industry. She also sounds a lot more traditional country than many of her peers, with steel guitar, banjo and mandolin to the forefront.
Top Track: Family Is Family
17. Idlewild - Everything Ever Written
Idlewild were always one of my favourite post-Britpop guitar bands, but I'd long since given up hope of hearing anything new from Roddy Woomble and the boys.
Their first album in six years then was a welcome surprise, filled with the kind of tuneful and heartfelt Scottish indie anthems that made them 'famous' (and more of Woomble's fascinatingly evocative lyrics). The stand-out track was the album closer, Utopia, a haunting piano-based melody that promises much for the future path of this band... if they choose to follow it.
Top Track - Utopia
16. Public Service Broadcasting - The Race For Space
The second full PSB record is an elegy to the space race, and if anything is going to bring home to you how much of that is now ancient history - in an era where the most interstellar excitement we can get is the Mars Rover - this will do it.
As on their previous releases, PSB have raided the archives of the British Film Institute to provide the "lyrics" of their tracks. Rather than the old Public Information Films that made up much of the their last LP, they've used instead old news reports and actual recordings from the NASA control room.
The album sets its stall with JFK's inspirational speech about going into space "not because <it's> easy but because <it's> hard". After that we cross to the Soviet Union where the signal from Sputnik is used as the basis for a powerful piece of electronica, followed by a jazzy celebration of the world's first superstar cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin.
There's a massive shift in tone on track 4, built around a news report on the death of the Apollo 1 crew and backed by static and moody Vangelis-synths. It's a moving piece, so hard to listen to the band have refused to play it live, but it seems necessary to remember the lows as well as the high of the quest for space.
It's fair to say the second half of the record isn't quite as strong - though I have to applaud PSB for not going the obvious route and using Neil Armstrong's famous moon landing speech (or maybe they just couldn't afford it). However, while the first PSB record felt like a greatest hits collection with its magpie's eye and eclectic subject matter, here I found one subject (even one as vast as space travel) struggled to fill a whole album. It's still an extremely inspiring, affecting and, ultimately, sad listening experience... one that makes you long for the new hopes JFK outlined in his speech... while wondering whether we'll ever see those days again.
Top Track: Gagarin
15. Eric Church - The Outsiders
My love affair with contemporary country grew deeper this year, even though none of my favourites (Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Lucinda Williams) released any new material. The one album I listened to more than probably any other this year was Shelton's ultra-catchy Bringing Back The Sunshine, but as that was released in 2014 it was ineligible for consideration in this list.
Anyway, I'd just about given up on anyone but Kacey Musgraves representing country here (there is, arguably, a country record in my Top Ten... but I'm the one arguing it's more a rock album) when Eric Church popped up with The Outsiders. I'd encountered Church before when he brought out his heart-punchingly catchy Springsteen tribute in 2011, but this was the first time he won me over with an entire album. He very much sees himself as the bad boy of 21st Century Nashville, and that's something he plays up more than ever before on this record, which - like Johnny and Waylon - finds the down 'n' and dirty ditch where country meets rock 'n' roll... and then kicks up a dust storm there. Especially on tracks like The Outsiders, Devil Devil and Dark Side. Most impressive of all though is his mission statement song, That's Damned Rock 'n' Roll, wherein he name-drops Hendrix, Joplin, The Clash and Nirvana...
It ain't a needle in a veinElsewhere, Church wants to have his cake and eat it. Roller Coaster Ride is as shamelessly poppy as anything Shelton's put out, while Talladega recalls the sweet sunset nostalgia of Springsteen (the song, if not the artist). Both are great songs, but they feel a little out of place on a record that's otherwise trying so hard to build a rebellious reputation.
It ain't backstage sex
It ain't lines of cocaine on a private jet
It ain't havin' a posse full of hangers-on following you around
It ain't long hair, tattoos, playin' too loud
It ain't a middle finger on a T-shirt, the establishment's tryin' to sell
It's a guy with the balls to tell the establishment to go to hell
It ain't about the money you make, when a record gets sold
It's about doin' it for nothin', 'cause it lives in your soul
That's damn rock and roll
Top Track: That's Damned Rock 'n' Roll
14. Brandon Flowers - The Desired Effect
There's no denying the fact that Brandon Flowers really, really, really wants to be a pop star. It's not enough being the lead singer of one of the biggest alt-pop bands of the 21st Century, he wants to be Bruce Springsteen too. Not the young and hip Born To Run Bruce or the old, respected Statesman of Rock Bruce we know today. No, Brandon wants to be Born In The USA-era Bruce. With a bit of Raspberry Beret-era Prince and True Blue-era Madonna thrown in. He wants to be a global megastar, a household name, a pop star of the kind they don't make any more... hell, the kind they haven't really made since 1985.
That's why he released his second solo album album, a record accompanied by the boast that "every song is a single". And to a large extent, he's telling the truth. Every track here is as shamelessly insincere and gloriously overblown and ridiculously catchy as the very best pop songs of my youth (though it turns out Brandon is 9 years younger than me, so why exactly he's so enamoured of my 13th year on the planet - when he would only have been 4 - I have no idea). But time has moved on, and the days of the global megastar are gone (Adele excepted), so The Desired Effect probably didn't have the desired effect for Brandon. For me, it worked just fine. Even the track where he steals the tune of Jimmy Sommerville's Smalltown Boy, almost as though he's being forced to admit his own failures. Still, while most of today's pop stars are lying in the gutters... Brandon keeps reaching for the stars.
Top Track: Dreams Come True
13. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear
Josh Tillman isn't the only singing drummer to make my end of year list in 2015, though he certainly is the strangest. Plus, he's written probably my favourite opening verse this year on the eponymously crafty Top Track below...
Oh, I just love the kind of woman who can walk over a manThat's the kind of distinctively sarcastic lyric you'll find me praising very soon on this year's winning album, so I'm not sure exactly why Father John only made it to Number 13... except that I didn't fall for I Love You, Honeybear quite as much as I did for its predecessor, Fear Fun. And it didn't stay with me in the car as long as any of the records that follow. Maybe it's one to revisit in the New Year...
I mean like a god damn marching band
She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes
And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream
I wonder if she even knows what that word means
Well, it's literally not that...
Top Track: The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment
12. Mercury Rev- The Light In You
For the first time in foreverI'd just about given up on Mercury Rev. In fact, I didn't think I'd even bought their last album, 2008's Snowflake Midnight, although it turns out it did make its way into my collection somehow. Listening to it now, it confirms my growing problem with the band: they'd just become too twee. Too mystical and airy-fairy hippy-shit. Too bollocks.
I laid the needle down inside the groove
For the first time in forever
I held my breath, waiting for side two...
So I wasn't holding out much hope for The Light In You, and with a track-list including Queen of Swans, Amelie, Sunflower and Moth Light, it seemed my prejudices were about to be confirmed. What a relief then to find them returning to form with the kind of upbeat, singalong, life-affirming alt-pop songs that made Deserter's Songs and All Is Dream such wonderful records.Bands crash and people cry,
Everyone here is really shook
Trying hard, the kids can't shake it
You can't fool ol' Peter HookThey really want to but they just can't fake it,
Trying hard to look old and worn
Facebook butterflies flap their wings and
Suddenly a Brooklyn band is born
Top track: Rainy Day Record
11. The Indelicates - Elevator Music
A new Indelicates album is always a source of great excitement in this house. This is the band who, with their debut single, created - if not my favourite song of the 21st Century, then certainly the one against which I measure all others. "I love it... but do I love it as much as We Hate The Kids?" The answer is invariably no.
Five albums in and things have changed a lot for Simon and Julia Indelicate. They're no longer the darlings of the blogosphere, as they were back in 2006/7. Those kids they hate won't ever hear their music nowadays... and neither will many other people, save the devoted few. They're not cool anymore (where they ever?) and despite running their own record label, and recently becoming parents, you get the feeling time has passed The Indelicates by. Which is one of the greatest tragedies in "popular" music, if you ask me. But you didn't, did you?
All that said, there's really nothing to stop them making their latest album another (totally unhip) concept album, based around a mind-stretching sci-fi story about "the singularity, virtual realities and the generation stuck between space ages". If nobody's listening, you can be true to yourself and do whatever you like: and thus is true art born.
Anyway, I've listened to this record quite a bit and while I don't quite agree with the band's pronouncement that it's their best yet (if I did, it'd be Number 1, not Number 11), it's certainly their most varied and experimental (the video below is "an immersive 360 degree spherical video" - which is kind of like watching a pop video on google earth... and just as annoying). While their last concept album, 2011's excellent David Koresh Superstar, shared Trey Parker and Matt Stone's unabashed loved of huge American musicals (along with a splash of the South Park boys' irreverent humour), this one goes for broke with earthy folk songs, lush piano instrumentals and (as on previous records) huge rock numbers that sit firmly in the Venn diagram intersection between Bertolt Brecht, Carter USM and Jim Steinman. Beyond the moments which echo Public Service Broadcasting's lamentation for the death of the space race, I've no idea what any of this is truly about, but it is the most honest and individual record you'll hear all year, completely unconcerned with the vagaries of fashion. A lot is written these days about the death of indie, but that's just hogwash. The true spirit of indie will live on as long as the Indelicates are making their own music their own way.
Go here to find out more... and then share the love with anyone else you can.
So, those were the records that would have been my favourites this year... if not for ten other, slightly better releases. I'll begin revealing what they were in just a couple of days...
I bet you can hardly wait.