Slow Thrills Albums of 2016

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At the end of a disappointing year, for reasons both public and private, the greatest tribute I can pay 2016 is waiting until it's over before I post this. In doing this the blog archive for 2016 remains blank. This isn't fair of course, as there was as much good music in 2016 as any other year, it's just that I didn't experience as much of it as I normally do. I went to about half as many gigs as recent years - and NO festivals! - and I heard half as many albums as usual.
I got it together to list my top 10 gigs on twitter and now I've managed to collate my favourite albums as well. As is the style with such lists, the top 5 are solidly set and numbers below that are interchangeable. In common with recent years I don't see much of a pattern in my list. If anything I have a tendency to surround myself with familiar names such as the late Bowie and Cohen but also Dinosaur Jr, Teenage Fanclub and Tortoise, many of whom released their best music in ages. One other personal trend I only noticed when compiling this list was that I found myself drawn towards both ambient/ electronic music and traditional songwriting, whilst the garage/psych acts that I have been enjoying over the last decade took a back seat. Anyway, here's my list. Over and out...

1. Emma Pollock 'In Search of Harperfield' (Chemikal Underground)
2. Brigid Mae Power s/t (Tompkins Square)
3. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds 'Skeleton Tree' (Bad Seed Ltd)
4. David Bowie 'Blackstar' (ISO)
5. The Avalanches 'Wildflower' (XL)
6. Cavern of Anti-Matter 'Void Beats/ Invocation Trex' (Duophonic)
7. Dinosaur Jr 'Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not' (Jagjaguwar)
8. Anna Meredith 'Varmints' (Moshi Moshi)
9. Julianna Barwick 'Will' (Dead Oceans)
10. Teenage Fanclub 'Here' (PeMa)
11. Piano Magic 'Closure' (Second Language)
12. Sea Pinks 'Soft Days' (cf records)
13. PJ Harvey 'The Hope Six Demolition Project' (Island)
14. Hannah Peel 'Awake but Always Dreaming' (Juno)
15. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith 'Ears' (Western Vinyl)
16. Solange 'A Seat at the Table' (Saint/ Columbia)
17. The Body 'No One Deserves Happiness' (Thrill Jockey)
18. Mitski 'Puberty 2' (Dead Oceans)
19. Tortoise 'The Catastrophist' (Thrill Jockey)
20. Vanishing Twin 'Choose your Own Adventure' (Soundway)
21. Josephine Öhrn + The Liberation 'Mirage' (Rocket Recordings)
22. The Goon Sax 'Up to Anything' (Chapter Music)
23. Cate Le Bon 'Crab Day' (Drag City)
24. Leonard Cohen 'You Want it Darker' (Columbia)
25. Brian Eno 'The Ship' (Beat Records)

Slow Thrills albums of 2015: Noise

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Don't forget that the top 25 is here

Lovely noise (s)=stream via Spotify (r)= my review

Godspeed You! Black Emperor 'Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress' (s) | Sauna Youth 'Distractions' (s) | Lighting Bolt 'Fantasy Empire (s) (r) | A Place to Bury Strangers 'Transfixiation' (s) | Spectres 'Dying' (s) (r) | Butterfly Child 'Futures' (s) | Pinkshinyultrablast 'Everything Else Matters' (s) (r)| Teeth of the Sea 'Highly Deadly Black Tarantula' (s) | The Underground Youth 'Haunted' (s)| King Midas Sound 'Edition 1' (s)| Helen 'The Original Faces' (s)| Hey Colossus 'Radio Static High' (s)

If you aren't familiar with these albums then I'd recommend that you just dig into these via the streaming links "(s)" above.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Lightning Bolt both returned heavier than before, Pinkshinyultrablast came from St Petersburg and channelled the Cocteau Twins to great effect. Kevin Martin aka King Midas Sound collaborated with Christian Fennesz on the moody, engaging Edition1. Sauna Youth proved that there was still a place for shouty punk and The Underground Youth did the same for 80s goth. Teeth of the Sea created another imaginary soundtrack for dystopian film and Hey Colossus were in such great form that they released two of their best albums within months of each other. Spectres and A Place to Bury Strangers gave us some mightily abrasive interpretations of shoegaze, and the Butterfly Child released their first album for 15 years, which combined the sound of its predecessor Soft Explosives with their earlier guitar-based material. The most surprising of this lot was the debut by Helen, a band put together by Liz Harris aka Grouper, which was a delightful revisit of c86 style indie-pop.

Slow Thrills albums of 2015: collaborations and others

Don't forget that the top 25 is here

collaborations... and those that are hard to classify (s)=stream via Spotify (r)= my review

Tess Parks and Anton Newcombe 'I Declare Nothing' (s) | Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld 'Never were the way she was' (s) (r) | EL VY 'Return to the Moon' (s) (r) | DRINKS 'Hermits on Holiday' (r) (s) | Mbongwana Star 'From Kinshasa' (s) | Soccer Team 'Real Lessons in Cynicism' (s) | La Luz 'Weirdo Shrine' (s) | Telekinesis 'Ad Infinitum' (s) | The Go! Team 'the Scene Between' (s) | Public Service Broadcasting 'The Race for Space' (s) | Young Fathers 'White Men are Black Men Too' (s) | Kamasi Washington 'The Epic' (s)

This instalment illustrates that 2015 was a rich and varied year for music. Tess Parks and Anton Newcombe created a fine slice of woozy psychedelia, Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld made some eerie sounds together, and Tim Presley and Cate le Bon teamed up as DRINKS to deliver some quirky psych-rock which owed a lot to Faust (and the Fall!).

It should be a complement to be in this section as it means that your music isn't easily classified. No one illustrates this better than Mbongwana Star, a Congolese band who dabble with a blend of psych-rock and electronica. Kamasi Washington's aptly named The Epic was definitely jazz, and will be seen in years to come as a classic - in fact it is only outside the main list as I have only listened to it all the way through once.

There was plenty of decent music on the sidelines of pop too. Edinburgh's Young Fathers for a start, and the hybrid of The National and Menomena -EL VY - who end up sounding like a cross between Leonard Cohen and Fine Young Cannibals - and the Go! Team who made the best sunny indie-pop album of the year whilst besotted with the poppier side of MBV. Public Service Broadcasting silenced those who dismissed them as a gimmick by releasing an emotional concept album about the space race.
Soccer Team and Telekinesis made two of the best indie-rock albums of the year, and it was unfortunate that I didn't discover La Luz earlier in the year, because their take on garage-rock on Weirdo Shrine was a real thrill.

Final section next >>> Noise >>>>>

Slow Thrills albums of 2015: comeback specials

Don't forget that the overall top 25 is here

Comeback specials (and some who never went away) (s)=stream via Spotify (r)= my review

Sleater-Kinney 'No Cities to Love' (s) | Yo La Tengo 'Stuff Like that There' (s) | Swervedriver 'I Wasn't Born to Lose You' (s) | Loop 'Array 1' (s) | Mountain Goats 'Beat the Champ' (s) | The Fall 'Sub-Lingual Tablet | Wilco 'Star Wars' (s) | Deerhunter 'Fading Frontier' (s) | Beach House 'Depression Cherry' (s)/ 'Thank Your lucky Stars' (s)

Some band re-boots work better than others but Sleater-Kinney's comeback album was pretty triumphant. I still find Loop's return an unlikely one, but 'Array 1' did not disappoint, their old analogue fuzz seemed to have a clearer, almost digital sheen. Out of all the bands making a comeback the most pleasant surprise was Swervedriver, whose 2015 album must rank amongst their best work.
Yo La Tengo joined back up with Doug Schramm and revisited their Fakebook format a quarter century on, whilst the Fall continued to show why they are the best garage-rock band around on Sub Lingual Tablet. Wilco surprised us with an album called 'Star Wars' out of nowhere, the Mountain Goats embraced the world of wrestling for a loose concept album, and Deerhunter returned with a much slicker, tuneful record than Monomania a few years back. Beach House also went for a surprise tactic by releasing a second full length ('TYLS') - which was a slightly darker follow-up to the excellent 'Depression Cherry' - just six weeks later.

Next >>>> collaborations and some that we couldn't categorise >>>>

Slow Thrills albums of 2015: solo acts

Last year I was ridiculously pleased to get my list down to a tidy top 20, and this year I stretched it to a top 25. Many fine albums just missed inclusion, and they are so close together in quality that I thought that a longer post would be the only way to do them justice. I have bunched together these forty or so albums into four vague categories in order to escape the monotony of an unwieldy chart.

Solo acts 1 - experimental approaches (s)=stream via Spotify (r)= my review
Colleen 'Captain of None' (s) | Anna Von Hausswolff 'The Miraculous' (s) | Eric Chenaux 'Skullsplitter' (s) | Holly Herndon 'Platform' (s) | Chelsea Wolfe 'Abyss' (s) | Lonelady 'Hinterland' (s) | Circuit des Yeux 'in Plain Speech' (s) | Jenny Hval ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ (s)

Is it a coincidence that seven of these eight albums are made by female acts? Anna von Hausswolff and Chelsea Wolfe (distant cousins perhaps?) did a great job of incorporating heavier elements into their cathartic music. Colleen made a comeback of sorts with a haunting dub-influenced record performed solely on the viola de gamba, whilst Lonelady built on the strengths of her first few singles to release a full-length which delivered an infectiously funky take on post-punk. Eric Chenaux mangled his guitar into strange but beautiful shapes, Holly Herndon embraced ASMR for an album of challenging electronica which never seemed to sound the same twice. Jenny Hval took similar sonic leaps and moved further away from the rock influences of Innocence is Kinky and Circuit des Yeux pitched herself somewhere between Scott Walker and Nico foe her engaging In Plain Speech.

Solo acts 2 - the singer and the song

Sarah Cracknell 'Red Kite' (s) | Jessica Pratt 'On Your Own Love Again' (r) | Ryley Walker 'Primrose Green' (s) | Dan Mangan & Blacksmith 'Club Meds' (r) (s) | Ezra Furman 'Perpetual Motion People' (s) | Jeffrey Lewis and Los Bolts 'Manhattan' (s)

Dare we call this lot singer-songwriters? The craft of songwriting was still alive and kicking in 2015, with the likes of Courtney Barnet and Fr John Misty dominating many end-of-year charts. For whatever reason, those two acts didn’t click with me in the way that these others did. Jessica Pratt continued write some oddly beautiful psychedelic folk tunes and Ryley Walker mined the same period of musical history, paying faithful tribute to Tim Buckley along the way. Ezra Furman also dug deep into rock n roll’s past glories and made a record that got close to the energy of his remarkable live shows. A similar point could be made about Jeffrey Lewis whose lovingly packaged Manhattan was packed full of folk songs with a post-punk flavour. Sarah Cracknell broke away from her long term home of Saint Etienne to deliver a lovely record of gentle folk-pop, and Dan Mangan brought his backing band Blacksmith on to equal footing on the bleak, downbeat and sadly overlooked Club Meds.

Coming next>>>> comeback special - and some who never went away.... >>>>

Slow Thrills albums of 2015, top 25

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Counting down from 25 to 1. By the way, some albums which nearly made the top 25 are explored in four other posts: solo acts, comebacks, collaborations and noise.

25. The Cairo Gang 'Goes Missing' (God?)
On which Emmett Kelly and co step out from backing Bonnie Prince Billy and deliver a record which takes its cue from guitar-pop as practiced by the Byrds and more recently, Guided By Voices. From Paste Magazine: "The whole album is charming. The pop dregs it siphons have had recent conjurers—White Fence’s Tim Presley, The Fresh and Onlys’ Tim Cohen to name a few. What Kelly has summoned is a shot of the good stuff from the wellspring of material everyone has to work with, and in the process he’s produced one of the best albums of 2015."

24. Robert Forster 'Songs to Play' (Tapete)
It has been seven years since Robert Forster's previous album, The Evangelist, a record which was downbeat and reflective in the aftermath of the sudden death of his fellow Go-Between, Grant McLennan. Recorded live to tape somewhere in remote Australia, with two of the John Steel Singers as his band, Songs to Play sees him recovering some of his wit and playfulness and shows that his gift for writing superb lyrics remains undiminished.

23. Destroyer 'Poison Season' (Dead Oceans)
Like his previous album Kaputt, Poison Season is awash with saxophones, as well as strings and percussion as Dan Bejar fleshes out his well-crafted songs. A.V. Club review: "Bejar sounds completely comfortable in any setting. No matter what the context—horn-section rave-up, string quartet, druggy miasma—he sounds completely at home. Poison Season is the sound of an artist in complete control of the strange chaos around him."

22. Ought 'Sun Coming Down' (Constellation)
Drowned in Sound review: "Ought’s brand of schizophrenic, paranoid, patchwork songwriting could well make for an uneasy listen, but with every passage of brutal sonic assault they offer a warm bed of AM hooks, balancing every handful of poison with a batch of antidote. There’s a marked step forward in the deceptive depth of Sun Coming Down, and Ought perhaps traded in some of their debut longplayer’s immediacy in getting it, but their wit and emotional complexity remain stronger than ever."

21. Kendrick Lamar 'To Pimp a Butterfly' (Top Dawg)
There is no doubt that this is arguably the most important album of 2015. Far from a conventional hip-hop release, this opened the ears of many to free jazz (and the mighty Kamasi Washington), and as a protest record it was uncomprising and overwhelming. I found it quite a difficult listen at first, and I think that was its intention. This piece from Complex sums up its impenetrable nature as well as its importance.


20. Four Tet 'Morning/ Evening' (Text)
A lovely sprawling release from Four Tet, two twenty minute pieces, one per side - one for 'Morning', one for 'Evening'. It blends modern electronica with samples of Indian singer Lata Mangeshkar. This review, from Pretty Much Amazing, totally gets it: "In a world drowning in nocturnal “brooding” electronica... it’s a pleasure to get a clear-eyed electronic record from a guy who’s actively trying to evoke a fragile, non-angsty repose."

19. Gwenno 'Y Dydd Olaf' (Heavenly)
A political concept album, mainly in Welsh, based on a dystopian sci-fi novel where robots have taken over the world, created by a former Pipette; it's fair to say that Gwenno's debut was a surprisingly successful one, creeping up on people the way Jane Weaver did last year. It does not matter about what language it is in (there's a track in Cornish too) as the synth-pop tunes are so well sequenced that the whole album is a joy to listen to.


18. Low 'Ones and Sixes' (Sub Pop)
Low's best album for a while, Ones and Sixes is more electronic than their previous album the Invisible Way. They mix pretty tunes and dark moods better than anyone, and the instrumentation here really suits the material. The centrepiece is the epic ten minute 'Landslide'. Their eleventh album, and on this evidence, there will be many many more.


17. Follakzoid 'III' (Sacred Bones)
This was the album where Follakzoid found their own voice. This Chilean bunch are learning and developing all the time. Their previous album ('II') was great but devotees of Krautrock or late 80s psych-rock would have found much of it familiar. 'III' sees them developing their electronic side over four lengthy tracks - it's less of a freak-out, more of a trance-like immersion - and the vocals are used sparingly, creeping up on you like a ghost in the mix.


16. Floating Points 'Elaenia' (Pluto)
Sam Shepherd's debut album as Floating Points will surprise people who only know him as a (very eclectic) club DJ. Beats seem less important than texture over the relatively brief 43 minute running time. Instruments are played live by a large group, and they touch on jazz and post-rock. The best tip I got before I listened to this album was to play it loud, mainly because the quiet parts are equally worth hearing. A dynamic range worth exploring.


15. Bjork 'Vulnicura' (One Little Indian)
Bjork's return to the high points of Homogenic and Vespertine is a very uneasy listen. Vulnicura is not just a break-up album, it is an intimate study of heartbreak. Tiny Mix Tapes review: "This is broken music. This is tortured, wracked noise. This is music that gnaws at your bones. And it is nothing short of breathtaking."


14. Rozi Plain 'Friend' (Lost Map)
Aided this time around by Alexis from Hot Chip, Serafina Steer, and some members of This is the Kit and Francois and the Atlas Mountains, Rozi Plain's third solo album is a delicately beautiful affair. Deviate magazine said "a mesmerising collection of alt-folk songs that capture the fragile depths of “a difficult year, a tumultuous year” and the potent rejuvenating power of music and companionship," which sums it up beautifully I think.


13. Death And Vanilla 'To Where the Wild Things Are' (Fire)
Death and Vanilla are a Swedish band who tread that delicate line between sixties psychedelia, dream pop and hauntology. Oh, and there are some beats thrown in for good measure. They wear their influences proudly - from Silver Apples to Broadcast - yet ultimately this album has enough in the form of pretty tunes and interesting atmospherics to stand as a valid contemporary release. In fact you would be hard pushed to find a better record within those genres in 2015.


12. Haiku Salut 'Etch and Etch Deep' (How Does It Feel to be Loved)
My review of this on the 405: "This music recalls the minimal quirkiness of múm, the melodic sweeps of Sigur Rós, and at times comes across like Yann Tiersen's Amelie soundtrack if had been transported to the recent future. It is still surprising to find that Haiku Salut have created all this in Derbyshire and not somewhere more exotic. Ultimately though, it is about mixing disparate influences and seeing how they blend together. Happily for all of us, this approach works brilliantly."


11. Documenta 'Drone Pop 1' (Touch Sensitive)
Always a pleasure to include music that comes from Northern Ireland, and I'm even more pleased to say this is my favourite drone pop (for want of a better description) release of the year. Spacemen 3 and Kosmische influences are to the fore, and there is a sprinkling of 90s indie too. Backseat Mafia said "‘Drone Pop #1′ is an intelligent literate foray, a rich and expansive, magpie’s eye treasure trove of wonders, the romance of a Byronic “Grand Tour” for a disposed generation," so there!


10. Trembling Bells 'The Sovereign Self' (Tin Angel)
Whilst I have enjoyed most of the Trembling Bells releases to date, this is the first one that I absolutely love. What has changed? Well, for a start there's an extra (electric) guitarist which manages to skew their already heady brew of psychedelic rock and traditional folk towards something leaner like Television. The main reason this album works is that the songs are stronger this time around, and their vocals, as always, are something to behold.


9. Julia Holter 'Have you in My Wilderness' (Domino)

A worthy follow-up to the excellent Loud City Song, this release saw Holter step away from the city towards a more pastoral setting. This time her songs are refined and accessible, her voice taking centre stage, crystal clear. Great review from MusicOMH here.


8. Mac McCaughan 'Non-Believers' (Merge)
Brilliantly surprising debut solo album from the mainman behind Superchunk, a kind of song-cycle detailing the lives of a couple of goth kids in the early 80s, and unashamedly in love with synth-pop. This is the sound of someone feeling their way back into the music of their youth, and the end result is so much more than a vanity side project. I reviewed it here (but I like it even more now) and interviewed Mac about it here


7. Oneohtrix Point Never 'Garden of Delete' (Warp)
Garden of Delete is so audacious and so ambitious, and despite being the maddest record on this list, parts of it also qualify as some of the most accessible music which Daniel Lopatin has made. For a start there are some sung vocals, and electronic glitches sit beside soft rock and somehow it all works. Its accessibility may stem from the fact that all this music has a back story, and Lopatin invented imaginary bands and characters through blogs like this.


6. Jim O'Rourke 'Simple Songs' (Drag City)
Recorded in his adopted home of Tokyo with some great Japanese musicians, Simple Songs sounds fantastic, and the intricate arrangements mean that every time you come back to the songs they reveal something new. Most of all it gives a snapshot into the contradictions which make Jim O’Rourke so fascinating. Lyrically this is the grumblings of a middle-aged man and musically this ends up somewhere between easy listening and math-rock. This is widescreen music, not for background listening.


5. Kathryn Joseph 'Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I've Spilled' (Hits the Fan)
Awards may be regarded as useless by many of my peers but if Kathryn Joseph had not won the Scottish Album of the Year Award, I doubt that I would've heard this. The album is still under-reviewed and I know little about her. The songs here are haunting and sometimes intense, her striking voice accompanied mostly by minimal acoustic piano. This review from Herald Scotland explains a bit more


4. Girl Band 'Holding Hands with Jamie' (Rough Trade)
Whilst watching Girl Band's London show, I was shoved out of the way by a guy who forced his way to the front to take a picture of the guitarist's effects board. Like me, he must have been wondering, "how do they sound like that?" They are probably the single "guitar" band pushing things forward and this debut further proves that. It passes over some of their astonishing early singles in favour of a set of fresh new songs. Paste Magazine sums it up nicely: "Girl Band’s latest is a startling upending of any and all expectations you would dare place upon a modern rock group."


3. Joanna Newsom 'Divers' (Drag City)
It's a cliche to say that an album rewards repeated listening, but this is definitely true of Joanna Newsom's latest. Divers is one of a few albums on this list that people will still be listening to and marvelling over decades in the future. The arrangements are stunning, it is beautifully recorded (by Steve Albini of course) but most of all it is proof that if you write fantastic songs then you can't really fail, and there isn't a songwriter to touch her in terms of talent right now.


2. Thee Oh Sees 'Mutilator Defeated at Last' (Castle Face)
My favourite rock album of the year, by one of the best rock bands around today. It's hardly a dramatic change in sound after the major line-up change a couple of years ago, and in fact this even trumps 2013's fab Floating Coffin. Thee Oh Sees would be a classic power trio if only they hadn't added the extra drummer, and instead they come across as a Nuggets style garage band who are overdosing on Can. This review from the Quietus sums up how good it is.

1. Sufjan Stevens 'Carrie and Lowell' (Asthmatic Kitty)
This was always going to be my number one. 2015 was a year where I spent various visits to my old family home picking through the remnants of my childhood - old diaries and photographs. This album resonated like no other. Sufjan's other two masterpieces (Michigan and Illinois) were expansive and ambitious records, and Carrie & Lowell sits proudly beside them, although it is a much more personal introspective work, focusing on his long distance childhood relationship with his mum and step-Dad. He articulates the difficult family circumstances of his upbringing with this set of simple, beautiful songs.