And so another year passes. As per tradition a large chunk of the internet spent the final month of 2015 seeking to make sense out of the ceaseless avalanche of music that descended upon us throughout the year by ranking the crap out of it. How else can we be sure that any of it meant anything it we don’t put our chosen records into a pile and demand that strangers look at it and agree that that our choices are indeed righteous? Where would humanity be without our ability to decree one thing to be better than another thing until we have a sufficient number of things to make a list? Why we’d surely be lost, flailing in the dark, forced to confront the futility of our endeavours.
Well fear not: today I can add my own list to the internet and stave off any such epiphany for a little while longer. My top 20 appeared alongside those of 60 other writers in Echoes & Dusts Record of the Year interactive jamboree. Which is a treasure trove of obscure gems one could easily get lost in until the next listing season is upon us.
10 Cloakroom – Further Out (Run for Cover Records)
“[Cloakroom] sound.. like a slowcore band with fuzzed out doomy guitar tones filling the gaps in the arrangements of the likes of Low or Red House Painters. With their sad-sack vocals and slow hand riffery there’s an unassuming quality to them – so much so that I discounted their debut Further Out on first listen. I kept coming back to it and leaving slightly underwhelmed – yet over time it’s wheedled it’s way into my psyche and become one of my favourite records of the year. It’s full of slouching sadness, so much so that it’s weirdly uplifting at times, so content it is in resignation – it’s like a comforting hand on your shoulder and a reassuring sigh of, “it’s not gonna be alright – but that’s ok.”
9 Hey Colossus – Radio Static High (Rocket Recordings)
“Sensing the iron was at the very least warming up they decided to strike with a second record for the year, Radio Static High. On announcement I thought that even by their prolific standards this might be a bit much, but the results just show that when you’re on a streak you may as well milk it for all it’s worth.. ‘March of the Headaches’ comes on like Primus’ Winona’s Big Brown Beaver with less frat humour and more corrosive, venomous intent. Hop the Railings is propelled along with the kind of almost motorik rhythm that can put some verve into the most languid of steps as gradually builds quietly to something of a stealthy crescendo. I’ve been listening to it on my morning walk to work and I swear I’m getting in 5-10 minutes earlier than usual. Unfortunately it also has the kind of don’t-give-a-fuck swagger that can lead to wanton jaywalking – there’s been at least on instance of me stepping out into traffic at the “if something’s worth doing/it’s worth doing wrong/you better run along” refrain, feeling so full of piss n’ vinegar that I figured that the cars better get the hell out of my way if they know what’s good for them.”
8 Tempel – The Moon Lit Our Path (Prosthetic Records)
It seemed like a quick turnaround between Tempel’s splendid début record On the Steps of the Tempel and it’s follow up, with little over a year separating the two. But there was a lot of fucking around between them finishing the recording their first album and getting it out to the masses, giving them a lot more time to craft it’s successor than the release dates would suggest.
Personally I wasn’t quite ready to take another epic instrumental metal journey with the Pheonix, Arizona pair when The Moon Lit Our Path dropped – I was still worn out after following them up the long, draining mountain ascent of their first outing. That came second in my album of the year 2014 list -and if I’m honest there’s a chance this would have scored higher if I’d had a little longer between albums. It does what a good second album should – takes the template of the first record and both expand upon it and refine it. But with the first record still fresh in my memory it felt as if it stuck too close to it’s template; the arc of the 5 song journey mirrors the first one almost exactly. Whereas that was an ascent to touch this sky this is a descent into the bowels of the earth through tombs and labyrinths. There’s a sense of not being defeated by the elements but in being lost, enclosed, possibly buried forever. No one quite takes you on an odyssey quite like Tempel do, no one grabs you by the hand and drags you through pits of post-metal sludge and races with you in blasts of black metal desperate action. And no-one shows you wonders in the well earned crescendos of Descending into the Labyrinth quite like they do. They’re a true one off, a weird par of headbanging aural explorers, like leather clad Indian Jones’ always ready for another adventure.
Me, I’d like to rest up before the next one though.
7 Elder – Lore (Stickman Records)
“They may be at different ends of the stoner rock axis but it reminds me of Hark’s Crystalline in that it feels like a work of as much graft as it is craft; the work of a band throwing everything it’s got at creating a defining statement. When they relax and shed the everything-at-once bluster that kicks off the record they’re undeniable, frequently having you scooping your jaw from the floor as they bombard you with riff after the riff after god damn riff. Lore is blessed with the kind of towering peaks that should have their names on the lips of every fan of lengthy rock epics – stoner, prog or otherwise.”
6 Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
Some records, over the course of a year (or, outside of these arbitrary list making deadlines we set ourselves, a lifetime) grab your attention in bursts, different songs resonating during separate listens. But as a whole it might not click for you – maybe it’s something you think you’ve heard done better before, it’s from a genre or an artist you’ve never been partial to or maybe there’s just so much to listen to you’ve neglected to take the time to get to know the album as whole properly. But they keep following you around, tugging at your trouser leg until you turn around and find you can’t ignore it anymore.
In the case of Carrie & Lowell I didn’t really pay attention to it because I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready when the back and forth between the living and the dead on Fourth of July, for the line, “we’re all gonna die” to be delicately intoned into my ears in a plain, matter of fact manner that had me wiping tears from my eyes while walking down Ninian Road, probably looking like a crazy person to the kids just leaving school passing by. I wasn’t ready when giving it a cursory listen while doing the washing up and hearing the words, “The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm/Cross hatch warm bath Holiday inn after dark/sign and wonders; water stain writing the wall,” and being taken back to a hotel bathroom staring into a mirror in a mourning daze trying to catch a glimpse of someone I had loved had just passed on. I wasn’t ready for the question: “Do I care if I survive this?”
I wasn’t ready because Carrie and Lowell is a minor miracle, an album that takes on the topic of death and grief head on, unafraid to impart things as trite as the fact we’re all going to die and the fact that the grieving process never truly ends – things we kick down the road each day knowing we’ll have to deal with them sooner or later and keep praying it’ll be later – and does so with a seemingly endless well of humanity. The opening track is called Death with Dignity and that’s precisely what it’s about. I say it’s a miracle because it’s packed with details, so specific in its descriptions yet it somehow attains a sense of the universal that doesn’t soften its impact.
I’m convinced that anyone who’s ever lost someone will find something heartbreakingly true in Carrie & Lowell. Not least the plain truth that you’re never ready, no matter how the inevitability of the death of those we love clings to you every day you live and breath. You’re never ready. No one ever is.
5. Follakzoid – III (Sacred Bones)
It seems that Chile’s Föllakzoid took exception to the reductive krautrock tag they’d were pegged with after the excellent II (which, to be honest, did blatantly take Krautrock ground zero Hallogallo as it’s starting point) and decided to go away and do something different. What they came up with changed up the rhythms from motorik to something closer to minimalist techno or house music, blended with something more tribal. They also stretched things outwards, giving themselves longer to work their groove, to slowly twist it into your mind . Now they undeniably sound like Föllakzoid – no one else operates with such a dark, narcotic sway. It’s a groove to get lost in, possessed by, consumed by. The dynamic of loud and quiet is inverted – the moments where things swell and become more urgent are there to highlight the quiet, insistent pattern it replaced, not the other way around. 2015 wasn’t short of lengthy psych workouts but none dragged me into their world like Föllakzoid’s III did.
4. Big Brave – Au De La (Southern Lord)
Big | Brave certainly pulled the surprise of the year out of the bag with Au De La. Coming from seemingly out of nowhere they dropped a whole heap of jaws with their début record, an intoxicating cocktail of latter era Swans, sparse post-punk and an almost doom like sense of uneasy, pounding rhythm. Singer/guitarist Robin Wattie puts in one of the most beguiling vocal performances of recent years, a blend of stark poetry and visceral, spontaneous expulsions. They arrived somehow both fully formed and full of promise, a strange enigma that demands to be unravelled. I can’t quite keep my eyes (and indeed ears) off them.
3. Locrian – Infinite Dissolution (Relapse Records)
Locrian made their most accessible record to date in Infinite Dissolution – but given the harsh, unforgiving nature of the work they’ve done previously that wasn’t a high bar to clear. What s remarkable is despite still being a dense, difficult album, and as ever with Locrian one with mankind’s impending extinction being the primary focus, there’s something hopeful and redemptive in the desolate drone, the corrosive back metal, the wild guitar solos, the harsh vocals that sound like screams from the bottom of a well no one would ever want to look down. There’s beauty in Infinite Dissolution, as corroded and doomed as it is, not least on the magnificent An Index of Air, a song with an ending that’s almost heartbreaking in it’s wounded glory. Locrian have captured the sound of man’s demise before – but here they somehow make it sound appealing.
2. Hey Colossus – In Black & Gold (Rocket Recordings)
Hey Colossus have had one hell of a year. There was some discussion between E&D writers about allowing In Black & Gold and Radio Static High in as one entry, which for my money would have seen them stand head and shoulders above everyone in 2015. But it didn’t feel right: they’re both unique records that deserve to stand on their own.
For me In Black & Gold just about pips it’s sister record. There’s a more pronounced note of world-weary melancholy and of bitterness in it’s cosmic grooves. Radio Static High sounds a bit more confident and hopeful by comparison, as you’d expect with the year they’ve had. I’m just a sucker for a bit of sadness I guess. And it had the element of surprise on it’s side – up till In Black & Gold Hey Colossus had never quite sounded this complete before. And it really rather suits them.
1. Mutoid Man – Bleeder (Sargeant House)
If I’d have made this list a little earlier Bleeder might not have made it into my top 20 at all. I severely overplayed it on release, gorging myself on it’s deliriously addictive bottle rocket paced riffery, until I was pretty bored of it. Given it to review for Echoes & Dust was like being a kid left alone with all the Easter eggs. I made myself sick almost before the damn thing was released. I only came back to it a few weeks ago, expecting to still feel jaded by overexposure. But no – it was somehow like hearing it for the first time. Each ridiculous guitar line, each absurd drum pattern, every scream and wail – I was hooked all over again. It’s up here at the top of the pile because nothing put a big stupid grin on my face in 2015 like Bleeder did – and because I can see me repeating this binge/purge pattern for a long, long time.
Numbers 11 – 20
11. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I sit and think.. (Milk! Records)
12. Enablers – The Rightful Pivot (Lancashire and Somerset)
13. Petrels – Flailing Tomb (Denovali)
14. Julia Kent – Asperities (The Leaf Label)
15. Indian Handcrafts – Creeps (Sargeant House)
16. Yuri Gagarin – At the Centre of All Infinity (Kommun2 Records)
17. Joanna Newsom – Divers (Drag City)
18. Minami Deutsch – Minami Deutsch (Captcha Records)
19. Bell Witch – Four Phantoms (Vulture Print)
20. Helios – Yume (Unseen Music)