Friday, 18 December 2015

2015 Music

Well, this, by and large ...

Having said that and noted the truth in it, I did consider opting out of my usual rundown on the year's music, not because of the sheer banality of the enterprise, but more because I was slightly disappointed at how closely my own favourites do conform to the usual suspects you'll see in various critic's polls.

So easily is it possible to track critical consensus on various ratings sites that I sometimes wonder, especially through the prism of 20 years of taking on music journalists' scores and opinions, whether I even have a personal, pure response to music any more.

And, this year, as it happens, there was pretty significant consensus from music critics as to the Number 1 album of the year: To Pimp a Butterfly - Kendrick Lamar. And, unusually, this album received not only vast critical acclaim but also achieved considerable sales, being one of the 10 best selling albums of the year in the USA and a Number 1 here.

But not the best selling album of the year. No, we know what that is. Perhaps any attempt to provide a brief survey of popular music in 2015 without talking about Adele's 25 is absurd, but that's pretty much how it has to be with me. I haven't listened to the Adele album, nor am I likely to. I note the stats, this remarkable and rare dwarfing of  a culture by an individual entity, like Harry Potter and the publishing industry. McDonalds and fast food, Hoover and hoovers. The first week her album was Number 1 it sold more than the next, what was it, 86 put together? Coldplay, supposedly the biggest band in the world, can't top her this week,  can't even get close despite it being her third week in the charts.

Oh yes, people like Adele. Adele will have sold multiple times more than all the people I'm going to talk about put together many times over. But not for me. I remember hearing her first single Hometown Glory before it came out, highly recommended, and I just instinctively, immediately, didn't like her tone or diction and have never been able to get past that, and still can't.

Daftly, then, one of my favourite albums of the year is 'Divers' by Joanna Newsom. I appreciate I am in a minority to find Adele's tone and diction more of a hindrance to musical enjoyment than Joanna Newsom.

Adele's '25' may be a masterpiece. I'll never know as I'll never be able to give it fair listen. 'Divers' may be a masterpiece. I can't quite decide. It suffers only by comparison in my mind to its predecessor, 'Have One On Me', which I consider pretty much the greatest collection in modern song. 'Divers' has affected me somewhat less than 'Have One On Me', but I'd still say it's the album I've listened to and re-listened to and enjoyed the most this year.

Newsom is at the forefront of modern singer-songwriters, almost all female, shaping songs into new forms with literacy, imagination and virtuosity which adds to, but does not overshadow, the simpler pleasures in the songs, all the time ducking reductive descriptions like "ethereal", "elfin", "delicate" etc.

Sleater-Kinney might not be described as ethereal, elfin or delicate. Their comeback record 'No Cities to Love' was probably the rock album I enjoyed most this year - short, sharp, serious and anthemic. It came out early but nothing really topped it.

Likewise, Natalie Prass' debut self-titled album. One of those records where the first review of an artist unknown to me got me thinking "Hmm, I like the sound of that" - 8 out of 10 times the album in question is a little disappointing after that, but in this case the very first song 'My Baby Don't Understand Me', alerted me to the possibility this might be a classic. Sad and soulful, incredible brass, string and woodwind arrangement, understated but memorably tuneful, it turned out to be the best song on the album, though the rest was not far behind.

In fact, if I were to pick one, 'My Baby Don't Understand Me' would be my favourite song of the year, just ahead of Sleater-Kinney's 'Hey Darling'.

The good thing about this newfangled streaming business is, of course, that you get to listen to everything, to give things a spin you wouldn't necessary spend a tenner on because it's not particularly your preferred genre, just to see whether the reviews and the hype are true. But equally it means they can be quickly disregarded in the way that a significant investment wouldn't allow. So, I think "what I ended up listening to most" is the fairest test of what my favourite albums were.

[I don't know if other people find this with streaming but, for me, it's meant I've almost always been listening to albums all the way through, as opposed to a lot of buying individual songs or creating playlists very quickly from my favourite songs on albums which is what tended to happen in my 8 years on iTunes].

I listened to 'To Pimp a Butterfly' just to see what the hype was about, really. I wasn't a big fan of the Kendrick Lamar tunes I'd heard from his last album. I knew it was going to be far too long (almost 80 minutes), far too jazz, far too smug. Yet I have listened to it more than anything else apart from Joanna Newsom this year. It has gradually but entirely won me over with each listen.

Until a couple of months ago, I was thinking, it's great, but it could lose 15 minutes, but now I've given up even that line of resistance. It seems very much like the greatest hip-hop album I've heard, like the hip-hop album to convert non-fans, like a genuinely major work for good in the music world, like Bob Dylan, The Clash, Public Enemy. He's ahead of you at every step, answering your objections, questioning his own motives, funny, then angry, then showing off, then stealthily virtuoso. It's bristling with great tunes and great arrangements, with surprises and slogans, it'll be hard for him or anyone else to top.

If there was another masterpiece this year, I think it was 'Carrie and Lowell' by Sufjan Stevens - it couldn't be much more different than 'To Pimp a Butterfly'. Singularly focused rather than expansive, about half the length, as free of showing off as you can possibly imagine. Just a collection of songs about something very sad, short on the flair that Sufjan (no relation to Cat) is often associated with.

It contains many devastatingly sad songs. Almost two decades ago, prompted by the a section in the book 'High Fidelity' which talks about pop/rock music's dearth of songs dealing with death, I got it into my head to search out the saddest songs in the canon. I made tapes and tapes of sad songs. Aah, happy days!

Well, sad songs have a new reigning and undisputed champion. 'Fourth of July' by Sufjan Stevens is the Gennady Golovkin of sad songs - polite, composed, understated, deceptively cheery, unostentatious, it slowly corners you, traps you and decimates you, leaves you collapsed and destroyed. Well, maybe. It's pretty sad, anyway.

What else? Lots of bands and people I've always liked released records, some to more notice and acclaim than others. Blur's 'The Magic Whip' was fairly delightful, albeit hard to make a conclusive decision on. It kind of tricked the listener by being so back-loaded. The first few times I listened all the way through I left with the feeling it was a classic, so strong was the impression the second half made. But the first half is, truthfully, a bit average. I don't know how many Blur fans will have listened to the first half thinking "well, ok, it's nice to have them back and it is at least Blurry" only to be so pleasantly surprised by the run of top-class Blur songs in the second half - My Terracotta Heart, Pyongyang and Ong Ong ticked all the Blur boxes and no mistake. Overall, I'd definitely put it among the top half of Blur albums and that's good enough for me.

You might have heard that one, but probably not 'Kablammo!' by Ash, which passed without trace .. - but if we're talking mid-90s bands still doing what they're good at really well, I say 'Kablammo!' was 'The Magic Whip''s equal. If you remember Ash fondly, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Idlewild, Josh Rouse, Josh Ritter, The Decemberists, Stornoway, Squeeze, Bob Dylan, Paul Weller - people I like who did stuff this year which was fine and good without changing the world.

Roots Manuva, Wilco, My Morning Jacket ... people I like who did very very enjoyable albums.

Belle and Sebastian - a band I like who, for me, came out with their first genuine stinker this year. They're just trying to make a type of music they're not that good at making, and they've been doing that for too long. Lost a bit of hope in them.

Bjork's 'Vulnicura' is a fabulous album. I'm quite a late convert to Bjork, but this album, like most of the best of this year (apart from Kendrick Lamar, whose album rambled all over the place) had a discipline, a focus, a concentrated emotional centre. Wonderful music, not for the faint-hearted.

I'd also say, if you like the kind of thing (which I don't particularly) Public Service Broadcasting's The Race for Space is a really fun record - kind of prog storytelling about the space race which is a little bit like being in a cool teacher's primary science class.

Well, I had some big theory that I was going to try to formulate, about how popular song has now become a primarily feminine form, and I was going to posit several specious reasons for this. Thank goodness for everyone, I won't be doing that. Maybe the next years most of the best albums will be by chaps, anyway. Can't wait for the new Howard Jones album to blow the opposition away.

My favourite 10 songs, I think ...
  1. My Baby Don't Understand Me - Natalie Prass
  2. Hey Darling - Sleater-Kinney
  3. Fourth of July - Sufjan Stevens
  4. King Kunta - Kendrick Lamar
  5. Time, as a Symptom - Joanna Newsom
  6. What Went Down - Foals
  7. Ong Ong - Blur
  8. London - Benjamin Clementine
  9. All Your Favourite Bands - Dawes
  10. Damn It All - The Staves
My favourite albums
  1. Divers - Joanna Newsom
  2. To Pimp a Butterfly - Kendrick Lamar
  3. Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass
  4. Carrie and Lowell - Sufjan Stevens
  5. No Cities to Love - Sleater-Kinney
  6. Vulnicura - Bjork
  7. The Magic Whip - Blur
  8. If I Was - The Staves
  9. Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit - Courtney Barnett
  10. Bleeds - Roots Manuva
But these were also divertingly pleasant and interesting to listen to

On Your Own Love Again - Jessica Pratt
Kablammo! - Ash
Have You In My Wilderness - Julia Holter
The Waterfall - My Morning Jacket
Short Movie - Laura Marling
Art Angels - Grimes
Bonxie - Stornoway
Every Open Eye - Chvrches
What Went Down - Foals
Star Wars - Wilco
Eska - Eska
At Least for Now - Benjamin Clementine
Blood - Lianne La Havas
Love Songs for Robots - Patrick Watson
In Colour - Jamie XX

and, actually, quite a few others.

Generally, nearly all those who've been my favourite people in all music - eg Super Furry Animals, Bob Dylan, Wilco, Blur, Joanna Newsom ... did something or other this year. Watching the Furries was my favourite musical experience of the year, and hopefully they'll record something and that'll be the best album of next year.

I've listened to less chart pop music this year than usual (I usually try to stay on top of it for work as much as anything else) which I think is probably a good sign. Obviously Uptown Funk was, before Adele, the overwhelming hit of the year, and now it seems like there are lots of other things trying to copy that formula - well, there are worse things chart pop can sound like.

But, above all, I have this vague sense that songs and albums are just getting better, for some reason, whatever that means. That this is some kind of golden age for the artistry of the whole thing, across different genres. It's easy not to think that, especially if your favourite thing has generally been guitar bands, which mine has, because it's not guitar bands making the best songs and albums right now. But that might change next year.