If 2014 was “something of a down year for music”, then 2015 was even worse. I listened to as much music as ever… but most of it was from years past. My second most played album of the year was CHVRCHES’ The Bones of What You Believe, from 2013, while other albums from 2013, 2006, 2012 and 1983 rounded out my overall top 10. In recent years, I could easily come with at least 15-18 candidates for this list; this year I struggled – mightily – to come up with 10. I even briefly considered making this a “Top 8” or “Top 6” instead of the traditional 10!
Below are my Top 10 albums of the year. After that you’ll find selected stats from my Last.fm page.
My Top Albums of 2015
10) New Order – Music Complete – I didn’t love this album, but you know what? It didn’t totally suck, which is more than I can say for New Order’s last two (or three) albums. I think the band struck a pretty good balance on this album: sounding like the old New Order I loved so much, but not sounding like a retread of all those old songs from the 80s. They didn’t do anything wild and crazy or unconventional on this album… but that’s OK. It’s good enough as it is.
9) Priest – Priest – Priest is a synthpoppy band from Orlando made up of singer Madeline Priest and producer David Kazyk. Priest herself shows promise, and could be one of the up-and-comers on the synthpop scene. However, while this album shows flashes of brilliance, it also shows signs of being overproduced and worryingly mainstream. It’s one of those discs that starts off great, and you want to hear more. But by track 5 you’re like “OK, I’ve heard this. Time for something else”. Still, it’s worth a listen… and it’s worth keeping your eye on Madeline in the future.
8) (tie) Sarah Cracknell – Red Kite and Pete Wiggs – How We Used to Live – It’s a Saint Etienne two-fer! Just the other day I realized I’ve been listening to Saint Etienne for almost 18 years… which made me feel really old. Sure, there are a lot of bands I’ve listened to longer – I’ve been a Duran Duran fan for 33 years, for example. But I only discovered Saint Etienne after I graduated from college… which somehow seems so much longer ago than liking Duran Duran since elementary school. So yeah, the band took a hiatus this year, allowing lead singer Sarah Cracknell to release her third solo album – Red Kite – and fellow bandmate Pete Wiggs to release How We Used to Live, the soundtrack to Paul Kelly’s 2013 film of the same name, which celebrates life in London from 1950 to 1980. Like most of Cracknell’s solo efforts, the album starts out well, and kind of ends with a whimper. Plus, there’s something that’s just so… girly about her solo stuff. I don’t know how else to describe it, but that’s how I feel. I love Sarah and her music, but bandmates Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley give the band’s music an “edge” (or maybe an “oomph”) Sarah’s music lacks on its own. As for Wiggs’ soundtrack, it’s interesting stuff. It’s not something you’d throw on for the hell of it – I can’t picture myself doing household chores to it – but it’s great “thinking music”. Tune in, space out.
7) Marsheaux – A Broken Frame – If you’ve spent any time at all following my music tastes, you’ll know that this Greek synthpop duo are one of my faves from the past couple years. Even though I didn’t listen to them nearly as much this year as I have in the recent past, they still hold a very comfortable lead in my “most scrobbled band ever” stats on Last.fm. If the title of their newest album sounds familiar, it should: the girls decided to cover Depeche Mode’s 1982 classic… like, the whole thing. And it’s good. Quite good, actually. The girls pay a beautiful homage to one of their most influential artists, yet make it their own at the same time. The only reason it doesn’t rank higher this year is because it’s a cover. As nice as this album is, I want original content from these ladies, and maybe we’ll get that in 2016.
6) Beach House – Depression Cherry – I like Beach House as much as the next guy, and I think this is a solid effort. But lemme toss this out at ya: my girl just bought a new (used) car that came with a free trial of SiriusXM. I really like the SiriusXMU station, but one day I noticed that I really couldn’t tell one Beach House song from another. I’m only partially joking. So listen to this album; it’s good stuff, but it all runs together after a while.
5) Pale Blue – The Past We Leave Behind – Pale Blue is mainly Mike Simonetti, a man who started his own record label in 1993. While the label initially focused on hardcore punk stuff, it later expanded to include many other genres. He became interested in synthpop, and formed a label called Italians Do It Better with Johnny Jewel, producer for Chromatics and Glass Candy. Pale Blue is Simonetti, with help from vocalists Elizabeth Wight and Jana Hunter. The Past We Leave Behind kind of tells you everything you need to know about the album: it’s bittersweet, airy, lonely, and downright elegiac at times. It’s not life changing, but then, one gets the notion that’s it’s not supposed to be. I’m not entirely sure it works as a full album, though. I get the feeling that, had Simonetti pared it down to six tracks and called it an EP, it’d be in the running for record of the year. But this disc never wears out its welcome… it just hangs around a bit too long for comfort. I do, however, look forward to a follow-up. Should the stars align just right, these folks could be magic.
4) Best Coast – California Nights – Bethany Cosentino finally got her hit! Best Coast have been rocking their special blend of jangle pop and surf rock since 2009, and while they were instantly popular with the in-crowd, they seemed to just miss hitting the mainstream. Until now. As soon as this album came out, the band started appearing everywhere, especially the late night talk show circuit. And why not? The album is full of fun fuzz rock, running the gambit from “stuff you can work out to” to “slow and wistful”. The problem with this band, however, is what Pitchfork called “diminishing returns”. Bethany and Bobb appear to be very nice people, but one wonders how many more albums they can crank out in their current configuration. You ever listen to Bob Dylan or Pink Floyd and wonder what the message behind the lyrics is, as if they were speaking almost totally in allegories? Yeah, that’s not a problem with Best Coast. Cosentino is as straightforward a lyricist as it gets, and she often makes Katy Perry’s lyrics seem like Keats in comparison. And when I wonder if their music alone can carry them, I’m inclined to say no. Still, California Nights just might be the high water mark of their careers.
3) Gliss – Pale Reflections – It’s hard to pin down this Danish-American band. Their early albums were a lot of damn noise. But then they went and made Langstrom Dans in 2013, an album I really, really loved. It wasn’t quite as heavy, repetitive and “stuck in the mud” as most shoegaze stuff. It was almost like some kind soul took the best parts of shoegaze, knocked the cruft off the rest and made it much more accessible. Pale Reflections seems to be a compromise between the band’s early sound and that of Langstrom Dans. It’s not nearly as… “dreamy” as Dans, but it’s not the “in your face” sound from their earlier discs, either. At times, you’d almost think you were listening to their fellow countrymen, The Raveonettes… and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
2) CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye – Confession time: I didn’t like CHVRCHES the first few times I heard them. The rest of the synthpop subreddit went nuts over them, but I just didn’t get it. Until one day, when I did get it. And CHVRCHES have been my most listened-to band since. I’ve played the hell out of The Bones of What You Believe, and spent much of the summer hyperventilating over their next album. And then it came and… it was pretty good. The tracks I love on this disc, I really love. But the ones I don’t like so much.. I really don’t like. So while I can’t seem to tire of “Leave a Trace” or “Clearest Blue”, I hit always hit the skip button on “High Enough to Carry You Over”, which is something I didn’t do with any of the tracks on Bones. According to Last.fm, I played tracks off Every Open Eye 114 times since September, but that’s mostly just 3 or 4 songs. I don’t think CHVRCHES are in some kind of sophomore slump… I guess I just expected too much. Hype can do that.
1) Purity Ring – Another Eternity – Holy shit… where have you guys been all my life? Purity Ring are Canadians Megan James and Corin Roddick, and their music is… sublime. Beautiful. Transcendent. It’s every damn thing you could want in electronic music. I’ve traditionally been one of those people who has to listen to an album 2-3 times before I like it, but Another Eternity sucked me in from the very first instant, and never let go. Much like the premiere of Mad Men, I felt inexplicably drawn into this universe, only in this case it’s a world of shimmering synthesizers and drum machines. It was only after the first 2-3 listens that I realized that the band are on 4AD Records, and that explained it all. If Purity Ring aren’t “Cocteau Twins you can dance to”, they are certainly the spiritual successors of the name, and they are worthy of such praise. And unlike Every Open Eye, every damn track on Another Eternity is good. I certainly have my favorites, but I won’t skip over any tracks on this disc, and often just listen all the way through… one of the only discs released this year I do that with. As a bonus, their live show is amazing: James makes all the costumes herself, and both she and Roddick play custom-built synths, including one that looks a bit like a minimalist Christmas tree that lights up when struck with a drumstick. Even if it wasn’t the only concert I’ve been to this year, it would certainly be the best.
Raw Data from Last.fm
All playcounts are in parenthesis
Most Played Artists
1) CHVRCHES (352)
2) Purity Ring (286)
3) Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark (148)
4) Marsheaux (119)
5) Postiljonen (106)
6) 10,000 Maniacs (105)
7) The Sounds (102)
8) Gliss (87)
9) The Raveonettes (78)
10) Saint Etienne (73)
Most Played Albums Overall
1) Purity Ring – Another Eternity (2015) (230)
2) CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe (2013) (131)
3) CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye (2015) (114)
4) Postiljonen – Skyer (2013) (98)
5) Pale Blue – The Past We Leave Behind (2015) (65)
6) The Sounds – Dying to Say This to You (2006) (64)
7) Best Coast – California Nights (2015) (62)
8) Purity Ring – Shrines (2012) (55)
9) Sarah Cracknell – Red Kite (2015) (47)
10) Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark – Dazzle Ships (1983) (46)
Most Played 2015 Albums
1) Purity Ring – Another Eternity (230)
2) CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye (114)
3) Pale Blue – The Past We Leave Behind (65)
4) Best Coast – California Nights (62)
5) Sarah Cracknell – Red Kite (47)
6) Gliss – Pale Reflections (43)
7) Pete Wiggs – Saint Etienne Presents: How We Used to Live (37)
8) Soko – My Dreams Dictate My Reality (28)
9) Say Lou Lou – Lucid Dreaming (22)
10) Marsheaux – A Broken Frame (21)
Most Played Tracks
1) Purity Ring — “Begin Again” (75)
2) Postiljonen — “We Raise Our Hearts” (63)
3) CHVRCHES — “Leave a Trace” (49)
4) The Sounds — “Painted By Numbers” (46)
5) CHVRCHES — “Get Away” (42)
6) Owl Eyes — “Nightswim” (41)
7) CHVRCHES — “Recover” (37)
8) Purity Ring — “Bodyache” (36)
9) The Sounds — “Living in America” (33)
10) CHVRCHES — “Clearest Blue” (32)