Listening to music whilst travelling is quite a different experience to listening to music at home. The albums and artists I have listened to this year resonate and conjure up the sights and smells of unique places.
Kendrick Lamar will always make me think of long bus journeys around tropical islands in the Philippines and Father John Misty will forever remind me of my voluntary incarceration on a remote dairy farm in Western Australia. I was able to listen to Courtney Barnett’s album whilst dragging my heels lazily around the streets of the city she grew up in and references so much.
As well as this travelling has a huge influence on the artists you listen to. My taste has honed in on the Australian music scene, discovering artists like Koi Child, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and others who would maybe have gone unnoticed by me if I hadn’t been living over here for the past year.
Music is a huge part of my travelling experience and it gives me an excuse to write reviews and roundups of the music and artists I love.
I always get to the end of the year and find myself astonished by the sheer quantity of incredible music released throughout it. This year was relentless. I was originally going to compile a list of my top 5 albums but I just couldn’t keep it down. Rather than round the list up to ten I’ve settled with a rather untidy top 6. It also feels like a very modern piece of click-bait journalism, perhaps Buzzfeed will admire my madcap choice of numbering and offer me a job compiling odd numbered lists of the year’s best cat memes.
Anyway I digress, without further ado and in no particular order here are my top 6 albums of 2015:
Kendrick Lamar ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’
Without a doubt Kendrick is at the forefront of hip hop today. After tackling the corruption of young black men within American ghettos in his previous release ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’, Kendrick broadened his scope on this latest record. ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ highlights the racial divide and materialistic exploitative nature of American society but offers a tangible solution through self-empowerment.
Kendrick turns his own personal conflicts and disillusion with the music industry into a tale of defiance. The record is an unforgiving celebration of black culture, a combination of spoken word, jazz, funk, soul and hip hop. The album stands defiantly in the face of an industry that tries to contain him, it is complex, unpredictable and challenging. A record which demands that any conscious hip hop artists step up their game or fall wildly behind King Kunta.
Little Simz ‘A Curious Tale of Persons + Trials’
Whilst on the subject of Kings, Little Simz released her first full length album mid-way through the year and restated herself as one the strongest voices in UK hip hop.
“They told her women cannot call themselves Kings/ They told her fame isn’t made for everyone/ Trials and Persons will be explained/ Women can be Kings.”
In a similar vein to Kendrick Lamar, Little Simz lays bare her inner conflicts and defiance against a compromising industry and produces a record that is intensely personal and honest. UK hip hop can become a bit complacent, lacking the progressive nature that the genre demands. It’s difficult for an artist to maintain a higher level of artistry and consciousness and break into the mainstream in the way Kendrick has, but Little Simz seems to be our best hope yet.
Kendrick has already declared his admiration of the North London rapper and one can’t help but think that a collaboration between these two could be a very powerful thing indeed.
Kurt Vile ‘b’lieve i’m goin down’
Kurt Vile is one of the most unassuming characters in music today. He comes across shy and estranged, he seems completely unaware, lost within the confines of his own mind. But then he sits down on the piano stool, or throws the guitar around his neck and becomes one of the most observant, witty and intelligent artists around today.
His newest record is an existential masterpiece, a record which is both profound and hilariously dry. The mundane becomes the sublime, delivered in a rambling stream of consciousness that invites us into the deepest crevices of the man’s mind. Non-events are delivered with a dry wit and incredibly authentic observation which turn them into moments of profound discovery.
The album is rooted in rock but skips between elements of folk and country with lyricism bringing about the kind of wry smile only a private joke with a close friend could invoke.
‘Wild Imagination’ is the stand out track. Addressed to a lover or friend the song follows a stream of consciousness which continually disconnects and highlights the absurdity of our modern and increasingly digital existence.
“I’m looking at you/ but it’s only a picture so I take that back/ but it ain’t really a picture/ just an image on a screen.”
All of this is conveyed with a slack-jaw Philadelphian accent and unpredictable delivery which makes it almost impossible to sing along to, leaving you lost and tapping your feet uncontrollably as the piano jitters around.
The album leaves these observations to ruminate, it doesn’t attempt to answer any great questions. It just reminds us to take notice of the small incongruities of our day to day and celebrate the absurdity of our lives.
Father John Misty ‘I Love You Honeybear’
With Father John Misty, Josh Tillman has created something overwhelmingly refreshing. A man of great intellect and of religious fervour. He is a clergyman of sorts, standing upon his pulpit preaching the evils of mindless consumerism and disconnection which permeate into deepest realms of humanity and love. That is where this record excels.
The album is a collection of brutally honest ballads which intertwine the complexities of love: the romanticism and the jealousy, the heightened passion and bitter disappointment. Father John Misty does all of this in a style that most resembles Elton John, crooning over the top of delicate piano melodies. The songs never quite following a predictable structure, rising until they burst in a crescendo of passion and falling silently away.
The penultimate track on the record ‘Holy Shit’ summarises the album perfectly. The song was written by Tillman on the day of his wedding and deals with the sheer weight of making such a life changing commitment and how it fits with his own system of beliefs.
“What’s your paradise gotta do with Adam and Eve?/ Maybe love is just an economy based of resource scarcity/ What I fail to see is what that’s gotta do with you and me.”
Even at this pivotal point in the story, Tillman is wracked with doubt and conflict, love is never simple, it’s a compromise, but we always take the plunge nonetheless.
Tame Impala ‘Currents’
Up until now, Kevin Parker of Tame Impala has kept the project deeply rooted within the territories of rock, psychedelia and low-fi.
His last release, ‘Lonerism’ was a masterful coming together of these styles, throwing up rock anthems such as ‘Elephant’ alongside the surreal ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’. Since then, Parker has exploded and become something of a global phenomenon. Heralded not only as a great musician but also as an incredible producer, producing albums for fellow Perth musicians Pond and Melody’s Echo Chamber and collaborating with the likes of Mark Ronson. It is undoubtedly this latest collaboration which has had the biggest effect on Parker’s musical direction.
This latest album is Tame Impala at its absolute peak. It is deeply personal and isolated in its concept however it’s unrecognisably gaudy and brave in its sound. Parker produces an album which is utterly unblemished, a real product of perfectionism.
The album incorporates elements unseen in previous offerings. The disco driven bassline on ‘The Less I Know the Better’ is reminiscent of Nile Rodgers at his best and equally as easy to dance to. ‘Eventually’ combines hypnotic synthesiser melodies with a heavy driven guitar riff which Parker sings over in a hazy falsetto, producing a song which will leave you feeling like you’ve been catapulted into the cosmos and fallen back to earth.
This album really defined the year for me as I listened to it during my travels in Australia, it accompanied me on endless car journeys and accumulated in a live performance in Parker’s hometown of Perth.
Courtney Barnett ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit’
The title of Melbourne based musician Courtney Barnett’s debut album really says it all. The record is dry and witty. It’s contemplative but also entirely aware of the futility of thinking too much. Above all else it is album which showcases Barnett’s innate talent for storytelling. Each song tells a story, some personal and others observations of characters in her hometown of Melbourne.
On ‘Depreston’ a real-estate visit to an outer suburb bungalow delves into the story of the houses previous owners, by way of the objects leftover in the house. ‘Elevator Operator’ is a comical tale of misunderstanding, a bored office worker makes his way to the top floor of a skyscraper, not to take his own life but to viscerally live his dream of being an elevator operator. This element of comedy and observational storytelling in Barnett’s lyricism is just part of the deal. Combine the punk poetics with elements of grunge, shoegaze and folk and you have the complete package.
Her songs although deeply rooted in the locality of Melbourne tell stories that permeate into any ordinary, modern existence and are delivered in a punch-drunk way which will leave you picking yourself up from the gritty floor and begging for more.