Now that the big music publications have finished clogging up the airwaves with their end of year lists, we’ve decided to wait a little bit longer before we have our say. Eleven of qmunicate’s best music writers have chipped in with little pieces on the records released last year that made the biggest impact on them: some will feature on most of your own personal lists, some you probably won’t have come across before. Curiously, seven of the eleven albums all came out in March. Have a look and send us some vitriol because your favourite isn’t there (we only received one piece of vitriol in 2015 and man oh man it’s really whet our appetite for more). Looking forward to seeing you up in the QMU boardroom at 5.30pm on Wednesdays for a great year of music, news, film, lifestyle, features and arts in 2016!
KENDRICK LAMAR – TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY (March, Top Dawg Entertainment)
He’s got a bone to pick. Since Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 major label debut good kid m.A.A.d city two things have happened: Messrs Z and West have settled unchallenged into their self-declared throne at the pinnacle of the hip-hop game, and the persecution of African-Americans at the hands of the American system has risen yet again to the fore. His response: To Pimp a Butterfly. An album which sees Lamar tackle issues of race, politics and identity with ire, honesty and wit. In a tonal array of rap, jazz, funk, spoken-word – and everything in the valleys between – Lamar reaffirms his status as the most relevant and, unfortunately, necessary artist of our day. [Ronan Duff]
MADEON – ADVENTURE (March, Columbia)
What’s a 21-year-old French music producer to do after working with Lady Gaga? Produce an electropop record like Adventure – one that glitters, shines and gasps in crackling enthusiasm for life. Including collaborations with Bastille, Foster the People and Passion Pit, Madeon’s debut album is a beacon for pop redemption. (Come home, Rihanna.) [Adam Kaplan]
BENJAMIN CLEMENTINE – AT LEAST FOR NOW (March, Virgin EMI)
This year’s Mercury Prize winner was far from the bookies’ favourite: a debut from a little-known London singer-songwriter full of odd lyrics and virtuoso piano playing. But from the swelling strings which open At Least For Now, Benjamin Clementine is immediately intriguing.
The press love a rags-to-riches story, and much has been made of Clementine’s origins, going from homelessness and busking in Paris and London to becoming a Mercury Prize winner. There is something anachronistic about him, with his Victorian solemnity, jazz age piano playing, bluesy, sincere soulfulness. Pop’s take on the blues is often a paltry, thin imitation, but Clementine has the kind of raw soul not seen since Nina Simone, sharing her rich, smoky vocal tone, her talent for eclectic, dynamic piano playing.
His songwriting is eccentric, quietly bizarre and sharply witty; “if chewing was to show you how much I care/I’d probably be wearing dentures by now” on ‘Nemesis’. Songs break down into passages of spoken word, half-heard conversations and muttered narratives about angels.
At Least for Now is captivating, fascinating and romantic in the literary sense; dramatic, lush and genuinely, startlingly original. [Clare Patterson]
JAM CITY – DREAM A GARDEN (March, Night Slugs)
Dream a Garden, the second Jam City album, is a record that’s tired of the way the world is – with regard to race, poverty, gender, capitalism – and wants to do something about it.
It’s rough around the edges, with a heart-warming centre. Tracks like ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Good Lads, Bad Lads’ are gloomy, stormy and pessimistic, but the clouds part and the storm ends on the tracks that follow, ‘Today’, and the record’s highlight ‘Proud’.
Dream a Garden, by Jam City’s own admission, however, cannot change the world. It’s not a direct protest album. But it’s an album that recognises how bad things are, and how things could be better. And it wants us to take us somewhere else. Where things are different. [Ally Shaw]
SUFJAN STEVENS – CARRIE & LOWELL (March, Asthmatic Kitty)
Stripping back his arrangements to little more than breathy vocals and gentle fingerpicked guitar, Sufjan Stevens unflinchingly unpicks his complex relationship with his oft absent mother, transforming it into a prism through which he muses on faith, death, innocence and abandonment. His deft, light-as-a-feather arrangements are starker and more powerful than ever; an artist rediscovering beauty in simplicity and channelling it into his most personal record to date. [Max Sefton]
STEVEN WILSON – HAND. CANNOT. ERASE. (February, Kscope)
Not one to shy away from the melancholy side of life, Steven Wilson’s latest studio LP takes inspiration from a real-life case where a woman lay dead in her flat for over two years before anyone noticed. How does a popular, carefree young woman disappear and no one goes looking? Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a celebration of a young life, with a nostalgic and a tragic filter on top.
The album has a clear narrative with its upbeat opening songs, and the pop structure of the title track standing out in Wilson’s catalogue simply because it is so conventional. Then, the disappearance in ‘Perfect Life’, a spoken-word haze of a recollection, remembering the time before she vanished. Following this is a song which prompted a member of Wilson’s crew to remark “Steven, you’ve written some sad songs, but this is SAD.” ‘Routine’ is a ten minute epic detailing the coping mechanisms surrounding loss – “routine keeps me in line, helps me pass the time.”
From there, it gets more frantic. ‘Home Invasion’’s complex rhythms are more like what fans of Porcupine Tree will recognise, and would fit comfortably on Fear of a Blank Planet with its disassociation from technology and distrust of everything outside your four walls.
Wilson has never made warm music, yet there is love running through this sad album. The movie based on the event is called Dreams of a Life, and so too could Hand. Cannot. Erase. be in another life. We can only imagine all the events leading up to what happened, and here Wilson puts us right in the middle of it. There is nothing else out there that gives you an experience quite like this. A masterpiece. [Scott Wilson]
YOUNG FATHERS – WHITE MEN ARE BLACK MEN TOO (April, Big Dada)
Young Fathers’ White Men Are Black Men Too is ace. It’s different to DEAD, and distances the band from the hip-hop label that people have attached to them for lack of a better way of describing their unique sound (the band themselves choose pop). ‘Shame’ is the only song that comes close to making me want to dance as much as Kendrick Lamar’s ‘King Kunta’, and ‘Old School Rock and Roll’ meets race head on, pulling no punches whatsoever. This is a band relentlessly going from strength to strength. [Jack Smith]
YEARS & YEARS – COMMUNION (July, Polydor)
The best music is music which makes us feel alive, as corny as that sounds. It’s the songs that make us feel the most emotion, the ones you can’t sit still listening to but have to get up and act out the lyrics or dance around the living room. This album achieves that.
Though, at first, ‘King’ and ‘Desire’ were the only songs from the album to be played on the radio, the rest of Communion holds great merit. From the defiant (‘Worship’ and ‘Eyes Shut’) to the more sentimental (‘Without’ and ‘Memo’), the album takes you on an emotional rollercoaster but does so with catchy choruses and beautiful melodies.
Olly Alexander’s vocals are completely unique as is the style of the band. Their frontman has said the record was written about “this idea that you need someone’s love and attention to feel worthy” and how this is “really fucked up”. This is what makes it an atypical pop album; it doesn’t feel rushed or made with overly vague lyrics to attract the highest fan count possible, but genuine and tender. The bonus tracks on the deluxe edition are really worth it as well! [Yasmina Todd]
COURTNEY BARNETT – SOMETIMES I SIT AND THINK, AND SOMETIMES I JUST SIT (March, House Anxiety/Marathon Artists)
Courtney Barnett’s debut studio LP is nothing short of memorable. Sometimes I Sit… is a witty and hilarious, honest statement by the relaxed Australian with a tousled fringe and an operative sense of humour.
The album is a compilation of relatable and random lyrics braided in clever word play and vivid imagery. Courtney Barnett ingeniously crafts songs from apparently mundane subjects, propelling the ordinary-extraordinary with rough rock’n’roll. ‘Small Poppies’ is a loose blues song around the question of whether to mow her lawn, and ‘An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY)’ is a simple and yet interesting enough lullaby about staring at the ceiling.
She blends deadpan delivery with rambling lyrics, talking (or mumbling) to herself before switching to singing mid-line. There is a definite ease surrounding her music, words and instrumental complementing each other in undisturbed harmony.
The track sequence is well thought-out, resembling a sort of stream of consciousness, or cautious story-telling. Barnett’s music unfailingly turns to herself, her thoughts cruising line to line, rambling back and forth over badass, buzzing guitar riffs. The music is a mix of 90s grunge and 60s garage, although still possesses much of the artist’s imprint.
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit remains one of the most unforgettable albums of 2015, promising sharp and original content without losing any of its upbeat movement. [Candice Walker]
I DON’T LIKE SHIT, I DON’T GO OUTSIDE: AN ALBUM BY EARL SWEATSHIRT – EARL SWEATSHIRT (March, Tan Cressida)
On I Don’t Like Shit… Earl Sweatshirt demonstrates a melancholic bitterness so well executed that it’s more reminiscent of Slint or Codeine than any of his hip-hop contemporaries.
Complacency is arguably the greatest cancer in hip-hop at the moment, and given this it’s nothing short of a miracle that Earl has managed, not only to match, but to refine and improve on the brilliance of 2013’s Doris. The production is incredibly well suited to the subject matter, and as such is often dark and somewhat gothic, with the instrumentals sounding more similar to Burial than, say, Kendrick Lamar.
Music for unproductive days blending into each other without talking to anyone, this album is the epitome of disillusionment with the outside world; an emphasis placed on past relationships, self-destruction and introspection. Confession also plays a central role on this album, with Earl exploring such personal demons as his mortality and his family’s, alcoholism, loneliness, drug abuse, ex-girlfriends, absent fathers and duplicitous friends. These themes mostly crop up at random, giving the record a stream-of-consciousness feel which, along with the concise 30 minute-runtime, prevents it from getting old after just a few listens. [Nour El-Issa]
THE FRONT BOTTOMS – BACK ON TOP (September, Fueled by Ramen)
Their first album on a major label, definitely less DIY, more radio-ready than anything they’ve made before and probably the most musically ambitious and diverse of their works so far. It still feels sort of like hearing your best friend’s band play a house show in someone’s basement, but it proves that TFB are more than just a bunch of sad indie boys with acoustic guitars. All in all, if this is what “selling out” results in, I’m all for my favourite bands selling out all day every day. [Wiktoria Muryn]
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