A sense of deja-vu has engulfed me as I sit down to write this blog. At this point, writing an end-of-year wrap up list has turned into something little more than a tradition to me. Lists and quantification have become a part of everyday life, supposedly making it easier to make our way through a world where noise is the new information.
All that said, 2015 has been a great year in retrospect and possibly filled with the widest dynamic range of experiences over arguably short periods of time. 2015 was also a year when I traveled and embraced my life on the internet even more.
Like I’m sure I would blurt out as if on a clockwork every year, 2015 has been a great year for music. Especially, with almost none of my favourite bands putting out a record, it left me to explore many new musicians, producers and composers both new and old alike.
I had heard of Nils Frahm from my post-rock friends before but hadn’t paid too much attention to his music until last summer. Tip-toeing along the borders of ambient electronica and experimental classical music, Germany based Nils Frahm proves both as an outstanding composer and a drawing performer, showing extraordinary versatility despite little variety in the instruments he plays. In his dynamic playing you will hear conversations, cathartic flourishes, theoretical mischief and meandering melodies that give a strong sense of flavor to contemporary classical music.
I am still trying to figure out what Messiaen’s secret is in making such sinister, yet resolute melodies that make him one of the most influential classical composers to come from France, a huge influence on a number of my idols including Jonny Greenwood and Steve Reich. I have uncovered a lot of theoretical material (which I hope to fully make sense of someday) explaining his scale transpositions and unconventional harmonies that give a unique quality to his sound, bringing forth very peculiar textures and moods backing catchy tunes.
This English band from the 90s is a late discovery for me, and falls right in my search for acoustic groove bands with jazz sensibilities. Stereolab draws heavily from the German post-war kraut-rock bands like Can, Kraftwerk and Neu!, incorporating their motorik drum beats and laying jazzy chord progressions over them. Then again, it keeps up with the 90s alt. rock movement with its space-echo effects over staggered harmonies from Lætitia Sadie and Mary Hansen.
Now, off to some music from this last year.
Best Music Video
Routine – Steven Wilson
No other short film beautifully sums up the events of this year as this tragic tale of a suburban American household. Steven Wilson is known for his dramatic flourishes in epic-length songs and Routine only augments the winding arpeggiations by leaving it to stir our unnoticed emotional investment in routine, certainty and the peace it brings. You may read the rest of this post teary-eyed. It’s okay.
10. Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett
Perhaps one of the most nonchalant, observational albums I’ve come across thus far, Sometimes I Sit.. feels like a jagged piece that flew off the grunge movement, morphing into something very laid back, yet passionate. Over what easily counts as kickass guitar playing in songs like Pedestrians at Best or Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party, sometimes Barnett merely speaks her casual anecdotal lyrics, slipping into a melody midway, as if suddenly aware of the music she has been playing.
9. Thank Your Lucky Stars – Beach House
Beach House released Depression Cherry this year, which didn’t quite get my interest at first, but they quickly followed it up with a softer acoustic album Thank Your Lucky Stars, one that was apparently recorded in the same sessions, but stripped off nearly all its cathedral-like reverb as it heads into darker regions . While it is undeniably a Beach House record through and through, both lyrically and musically, Thank Your… is moody, introspective and nuanced – which makes it shine despite lurking dangerously close to the duo’s previous release in time. Must listen: She’s So Lovely, Rough Song, All Your Yeahs.
8. The Epic – Kamasi Washington
Having been acquainted to his presence mostly in hip-hop records, it was a surprise to see Washington put out three-disc, aptly named album of epic proportions. Without slacking over the comfort of modern production, this Cali-based saxophonist has delivered a gently-paced yet energetic jazz album that excels with transitions like Miss Understanding with its prog-like hooks followed by angsty and sensual Leroy and Lanisha. It has been great company during crowded rush-hour commutes.
7. Hands. Cannot. Erase. – Steven Wilson
Progressive rock has only recently piqued my interest and it was a no-brainer for me to go after this album. Hands. Cannot. Erase. sheds most of its jazz bulk that tend to feature on Steven Wilson’s work but handles cinematic themes about urban alienation and anonymity as it treads a bit into the electronica territory in the title track and Ancestral or Porcupine Tree style funk in tracks like Home Invasion. Then again, watch out for its prog-rock grandeur in tracks like 3 Years Older and Routine.
6. Art Angels – Grimes
Grimes is nothing short of an inspiration for me in the sphere of post-internet independent music of today. Composed, produced and promoted by Grimes, and while being less coherent than her previous works (allegedly a compilation of her discarded music over the last two years) Art Angels’ real strength lies in how it buries most of its disconcerting lyrics in greatly upbeat, danceable and at times anthemic music. Case in point – Kill V.Maim, California.
The *Top Five* or albums that I would highly recommend.
5. Have You In My Wilderness – Julia Holter
Julia Holter presents this intimate, sweet and sunny album full of almost impressionist observations and charming lyrics sung over minimalist instrumentation – something that has been a staple for me during late-night rides in deserted trains over the last few weeks. Often, her music is clear and directional as seen in Silhouette and Everytime Boots, and at times it slips back, in How Long? for instance, into the reverie like opening credits of a film, or the haze between dream and wake.
4. No Now – Clarence Clarity
Drawing from RnB music of the last decade, this UK based producer has put together a solid debut album that’s dense, glitchy and often reminiscent of the full-headed sounds of Animal Collective and early Flying Lotus music. While it is among the least accessible albums to come out this year, it does pack a good balance of low-down danceable tracks like the lead single Those Who Can’t Cheat or Meadow Hopping, Traffic Stopping Death Splash as well as the rather trippy and sample heavy Let’s Shoot Up.
3. Fading Frontier – Deerhunter
This follow-up to Monomania is perfect, with the band getting back to their ambient, post-shoegaze sound from their Halcyon Digest –era (arguably what they are best at) in tracks like All The Same and Ad Astra while they also push further into the rhythm territory with syncopating guitars and punk-ish lyrics in songs like Snakeskin.
2. Vulnicura – Bjork
Seldom does an art form remind you of its ability to be as intimate as this new Bjork album. Vulnicura, a collaboration with Arca and The Haxan Cloak sees her going back to the orchestra-driven style (which includes the Organista, an instrument designed by Leonardo Da Vinci) with crisp electronic production from the Vespertine-era, which is among my favourite of her albums. Widely accepted as a “break-up album” from Bjork at this stage of both her career and life, Vulnicura revolves around the themes of post-relationship introspection and reconciliation with oneself, a theme presented so well that it stirs emotions despite being somewhat an irrelevant aspect of my own life thus far.
Lyrically, Bjork does not shy from talking about coping up with the sudden bout of isolation and emotional void having come out of a troubled relationship in songs like Family and History of Touches, or the sporadic bursts of numbness and moments of clarity in tracks such as the warm and spiraling Stonemilker or the pizzicato waltz Atom Dance. My personal favourite is History of Touches, creating outstanding imagery with its pseudo-chorus “The history of touches/Every single archive/Compressed into a second”.
Vulnicura is a beautiful album and shows Bjork investing only more into her creative process as she turns possibly ineffable life-experiences into works of art.
1. To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
I had been anticipating this release ever since I had come across his performance in the Flying Lotus lead single Never Catch Me. Following a procedural structure that introduces every song in the album with an additional line in its central narrative, To Pimp A Butterfly highly indulges in themes similar to that of his previous work, but in a more abstract sense as it addresses peer-pressure, the struggle to identify what system works best, and choosing the stereotypes to live up to – things I have personally faced over last many years despite belonging and identifying with completely different culture and views.
Musically, To Pimp A Butterfly is drenched in hard-hitting samples arranged in compression heavy grooves such as Alright (with slick production from Pharrell Williams), The Blacker the Berry and Momma. But often, it breaks into jazzy interludes like For Sale or ambient (possibly spin-off) tales such as Complexion (A Zulu Love) and How Much a Dollar Cost, which I also suspect contains samples from a Radiohead song.
Having spent most of last summer listening to instrumental hip-hop from the likes of J Dilla, MNDSGN and Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar’s third album seems like a seamless progression into the hip-hop universe for me, one that is a hard-hitting concept album with a strong sense of focus. The best in 2015.
I hope to write more often this year, but I can never promise. I might just greet you one year and several blog drafts later, in another end-of-year post.