Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: a year in music

​Let's start with some good news: there's a new Bowie album on the way. Let's improve on that with more good news: as it's not out until next week, I don't have to worry about it - as far as this review is concerned - for a whole 12 months.

For that I must thank the Jones family, once of Brixton, South London, who saw to it that the boy David was born on January 8, 1947, thus affording the latterday Dame the hook of his 66th birthday for the brilliant subterfuge of releasing Where Are We Now? without warning. Without anywhere near the same secrecy, his next - NEXT! - album, Blackstar, which will appear next Friday on the occasion of his 69th year mostly on this planet. And of what I've heard so far, I'm fairly confident that it will be a shoe-in for WWDBD?'s 2016 hall of fame. But that is, clearly, for another year.

And, so, 2015 - a year in which music, unwittingly, became a focal point for all the wrong reasons. It would, perhaps, be somewhat disproportionate to place the events of November 13 as the fulcrum of the last 12 months in music. After all, this has been a year, like many and in my case, most, in which gigs have been part of my normal routine.

In Paris, my adopted home for the past five years, it's part of everyone's social routine, which is what makes the attack on the Eagles Of Death Metal gig as well as the environs of Le Bataclan an act that continues to cast a pall over 2015's joie de vivre. Because as corny as it might sound to invoke "rock and roll forever" defiance, it had never been more correct.

But let's not overdwell. To do so only panders to the medieval deviants who made such defiance necessary to begin with. Instead, let's celebrate a year in which new music has come thick and fast. So thick and so fast that to do justice to a list of the year' best releases really should be more exhaustive than the 15 you see below. And while this list is more a representation of the new albums I've probably listened to more than any other, it inevitably lacks those which deserve an honorable mention - such as Keith Richards' Crosseyed Heart and Gary Clark Jr's long-awaited The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim.

But, a line must be drawn somewhere, and so, in Miss World order, here are What Would David Bowie Do?'s 2015 platters-that-matter.

I hope some, at least, have made your musical year as much as they have done mine.

15. Laura Marling - Short Movie: The minute someone is compared with John Martyn, I have a tendency to reel in my expectations. Because no one was and, I strongly suspect, will ever be anything like him. Laura Marling has, though, come pretty close, especially from a technical perspective. For this, her fifth album, she made the leap many folkies have done, by migrating from acoustic to electric. In so doing, she didn't look back, resulting in a superbly accomplished album, which ruminates on myriad themes with a varying topography of rock-pop styles.

14. The Church - Further Deeper: With a recent history of trouble and strife (band discord, drug abuse - usual rock'n'roll perils, TBH) the 80s Oz rockers returned with an album that both reflected their travails as well as reminded the world of what a brilliantly charismatic band they still are. Singer and principal songwriter Steve Kilbey's melifluous baritone may have lost some its rigidity, the result of well publicised demons, but it has taken on a Syd Barrett quality that fits perfectly with the band's trademark layers of chorused guitars. A comfortingly familiar album which manages to be far from predictable.

13. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit: Remaining in the southern hemisphere, we have 2015's debutant of the year. Strumming a Telecaster with the thumb of her left hand, the Sydney-born, Melbourne-based 28-year-old caught the eye and the ear with the stripped-down honesty of the EPs with which she made her recorded debut. With this first album, proper, Barnett drew together her gift for bedsit storytelling and festival-friendly grunge-lite, drawing valid comparisons to Lou Reed in the process.

12. Paul Weller - Saturns Pattern: It would be far too easy to compare Paul Weller and Bruce Springsteen through their shared blue collar backgrounds, but there is a stronger [solid] bond between them in terms of work ethic. Both seem incapable of slowing down. Weller, in particular, appears as restlessly creative as ever, finding yet another new direction to go down, with many more previously untapped influences from his youth to work into an album every bit as consistent as any in his impressive near-40 year recording career.

11. Blur - The Magic Whip: Partly written on tour and recorded on the fly in Hong Kong, Damon Albarn, OBE - another intensely restless creative force - together with Messrs Coxon, James and Roundtree delivered as their first collective effort in 13 years an album of subtle reflection on modern life, which still appears to be rubbish, and apparently dominated by technology. For those of us impartial to English melancholy, Blur gave us in The Magic Whip the sort of cold, autumnal evening of music we can't get enough of.

10. Tame Impala - Currents: While on a brief late-Spring trip to Devon I heard 6 Music's Radcliffe and Maconie play 'Cause I'm A Man and, much like Daft Punk's Get Lucky, I became hooked on a feel-good summer radio hit which made me impatient for the album it would appear on to be released. I wasn't disappointed. Kevin Parker's studio project had hitherto been more of a prog rock band in my view, and yet here was a gloriously bright piece of 80s pop, serving as a reminder that not all influences from that decade are necessarily bad, and in the right hands can actually be good. In Parker's hands, they're exceptional.

9. Foals - What Went Down: If, like me, you took up the guitar as a teenager, one of the first immensely gratifying experiences is playing your maiden power chord. So when your clumsy acoustic guitar gives way to your debut electric-and-amp combo, the power chord becomes the ultimate expression of teenage angst. Rock and roll is reborn. You become Paul Kossoff or Pete Townshend or Angus Young. Foals are hardly teenagers, and theirs is certainly not the music of a previous generation, but the thudding, rifftastic electricity of What Went Down took me back to the first time I heard the likes of Free and The Who. If I had a car, this would be the album I would have willingly spent 2015 driving to, with the volume up as high as it would go.

8. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Chasing Yesterday: Face facts, British pop stars, there are few amongst you who can hold a candle to Gallagher for being downright funny. Most pop stars are dour, self-regarding and so driven by angst that humour is unnecessary baggage. Not that Gallagher is merely the class clown: his second album with the High Flying Birds continued to hold him aloft as a supreme songwriter, naturally gifted in melodic ease and retaining just enough reverence for heritage to avoid being the tribute act so many detractors still moronically maintain he is.

7. Alabama Shakes - Sound And Colour: You all know that thing about second albums and difficulty, right? Well nobody informed the cavernously-voiced Brittany Howard and her bandmates, who followed up their truly remarkable debut Boys & Girls with an overwhelmingly good package of understated R&B. Live, they are a force of nature, and the combined material from their first and sophomore releases fuelled one of the gigs of, not only the year, but the decade when I saw them at July's Lucca Summer Festival in Tuscany, on a double-bill with Paolo Nutini.

6. Guy Garvey - Courting The Squall: Ask anyone - people who know him, people who've met him, and then everyone else - and no one has a bad thing to say about Guy Garvey. Not that we should have to find fault all the time, of course. But in any written or recorded interaction with the younger-than-he-looks Elbow frontman, two words crop up consistently: "loveable" and "bear". This does paint him as a hybrid of Phil Collins and Yogi, but if you reluctantly put Garvey's patent likeability to one side for a second, and consider the work he has put in with Elbow over, incredibly, the last 20 years, even the most cold-hearted cynic would have to concede, that theirs is a brand of intelligent pop that transcends festivals, bedsits and middle class dinner parties with delight and lack of offence in equal measure. On Courting The Squall, Garvey gathered up song ideas that had been gathering dust, brought in a few of his Salford muso mates and, with the application of a jazz sensibility, went experimental. And did so with wonderous effect.

5. Richard Hawley - Hollow Meadows: After the extravagant splurge of mesmerising psych-rock that was 2012's Standing On The Sky's Edge, Sheffield's bequiffed bard returned with something of a throwback to his earlier, loving recreation of '50s ballroom balladry. The result is a truly luscious collection of guitar-driven twang with a conscience, immediately accessible, but which draws you inexorably into Hawley's romantic take on the modern world, its ills and thrills included, and it does so more with honey than the vinegar of its predecessor.

4. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell: Going right back to when I first started buying the NME as a callow youth, I have both embraced what the music press has encouraged me to like and rejected it out of hand. Because that's how it should work. Music may be less of a subjective art as, say, comedy, but it can abruptly split opinion. Yes, I own early Coldplay albums, and I've even paid money to see Adele in concert, but nothing the former produces now interest me, and as for the latter, even my love of the gloomy won't stretch to joining the billions now in posession of 25. All of this is to say that Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell is an album the music press implored us to buy and, instead of repulsing it, on the stubborn grounds that I make my own taste, I took a punt. And I couldn't have been enamoured mor by the beauty Stevens created from apparent pain, charm from sadness, respect from raw honesty. An absolutely brilliant piece of work.

3. ​Steven Wilson - Hand Cannot Erase: It maddens me that with the consistent quality of songwriting and collective musicianship that the prolific, workaholic Wilson brings to his albums that he isn't a bigger star. Sure, it must be good to be regularly fêted by the prog world and his peers therein, but when the standard is as high as it was on this, his fourth solo album, it is bordering on the criminal that his reward wasn't more than the high chart placings and glowing reviews Hand Cannot Erase. And, as Wilson knows himself, he gets points from me just for the Dead Can Dance reference. A brilliant album combining a dark, somewhat macabre concept with 80s-influenced rock-pop sensibilities. His best yet.

2. Wilco - Star Wars: Just when you thought mainstream rock couldn't turn out something different and interesting, Wilco sneak out an album that makes you realise why you got into music to begin with. Here is the contrarianism that made me appreciate The Beatles'  white album, Bowie and prog rock as a teenager: convention and quirkiness combined in constant experimentation, pushing boundaries without busting them wide open. In a year in which the new Star Wars film seems to have been arriving forever, Wilco released its namesake by surprise online, stunningly underpinning its joyously capricious nature.


1. New Order - Music Complete: Rarely does a band return to whatever it was that made them great to begin with. That's life. Groups with the sort of history, longevity and endurance as New Order, not to mention the musical core that has sustained that reputation, will always end up, to varying degrees of severity, parodying the thing that heralded their arrival. Don't get me wrong - in many respects it's what we want, what we willingly hand over our hard-earned for. The Rolling Stones, I'll wager, are still the greatest rock and roll band in the world, and their latterday output - while obviously not to the same par as their heyday - is still as good, if not better, than most rivals. What made New Order's Music Complete so good, apart from a title that said it all, was how they had not forgotten, or tried to forget, their early essence, that careful balance of rock and dance that made them cool to frug to as cool to listen taking notes to. Here was some knowing reinvention. Actually, the word I'd use is "rejuvinated", reflecting the zest for the craft that they applied in an album that, with familiarity as only a foundation, set about reconnecting the audience with a band that is probably genuiney alone - and therefore unique - in doing what it does.

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