The 2015 Track of the Year

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Florence + the Machine, “Third Eye”

Hey, look up
Don’t make a shadow of yourself
Always shutting out the light
Caught in your own creation
Look up, look up
It tore you open
And oh, how much?

You don’t have to be a ghost
Here amongst the living
You are flesh and blood
And you deserve to be loved
And you deserve what you are given
And oh, how much?

Cause your pain is a tribute
The only thing you let hold you
Wear it now like a mantle
Always there to remind you

Cause there’s a hole where your heart lies
And I see can it with my third eye

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The 2015 Album of the Year

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Iron Maiden, The Book of Souls (Iron Maiden LLP)

The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized just how powerful nostalgia is, and how appealing it is, too. I can’t say for every 45 year-old, but at this age my musical interests have reverted greatly to the eras I’ve been fondest of in my life. Embracing the music of old heroes once again, enjoying new reissues of classic albums, freaking out over reunion tours. For me it’s all a process of looking back to music from happy or formative times in my life, or when it comes to 1980s heavy metal, the music that served as escape and sanctuary from a hellish time at school.

Iron Maiden don’t owe me or any of their millions of fans a thing. They’ve done enough. Their 1980s output remains one of the most important bodies of work in metal history, and the fact that the band has rebounded so gracefully after their disastrous 1990s is just gravy. They don’t need to put out another classic album, as their legacy is already set. And besides, I thoroughly enjoy their post-2000 output. The new records make me happy enough, and if the odd one is good enough to crack my year-end top ten list, then that’s wonderful.

When the band’s 16th album was announced, once again I lobbied hard to get the feature assignment for Decibel magazine. I had a wonderful time interviewing the guys in 2010, and so enjoyed the whole experience that I wanted to do it again, simple as that. Who wouldn’t want to interview at length their favourite band of all time? I got the assignment, which was to be another cover story, but the circumstances this year were peculiar this time around, a little more haphazard. The band members were scattered across the globe, taking time out of their well-earned holidays, so the interviews were to by by phone only. Perfectly fine, but the problem for me was getting to hear the darn album. The record label in the States was only hosting listening sessions in Los Angeles, and they refused to fly me out to hear the thing. My editor stood by me and told them the story would not happen if I couldn’t hear the album, and for good reason. How could I as a writer properly profile this record without even hearing it? After much discussion it was agreed that I would be given my own private stream of the new Maiden album, which to be honest was even better than flying out to LA to hear it in a studio. I got a Haulix link in my email, opened it on my phone, which was connected to my big stereo via bluetooth adapter, and I blasted the thing, probably the only person in the world outside the band and label’s inner circle to be hearing the thing at home.

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Five years ago I had to conduct interviews about The Final Frontier album based to two draining listens of it the night before, on little sleep after flying in to Dallas, so I understand the pressure those who attended the LA listening session were under to a) get a grasp of a 90-minute double album and b) think of intelligent questions to ask the band. But having an unlimited private stream I had a very unusual luxury: an entire month to absorb The Book of Souls, to live with it, to get to know its finer points. By the time I got to talk to Bruce Dickinson, Nicko McBrain, and producer Kevin Shirley, I knew the album inside-out.

Going back to that first listen of The Book of Souls, though, I was worried that I’d never be able to get a handle on the thing. It was so sprawling, so ambitious. Plus with all the excitement of hearing a new Maiden album before everyone else in the world, the album’s 11 songs went by in a blur. I remember my first reaction being, okay, it’s pretty good, but man am I tired.

Days passed, weeks passed, and I soon figured, why bother streaming the entire thing if I have unlimited advance listens? So I approached The Book of Souls as a proper double album experience, and the impact of the record changed dramatically. I listened to the album in two halves, living with the first half for a while, living with the second other times. And that’s when it clicked. The more I listened to both halves, the more I liked it, and by August, I loved it. And I still do.

The Book of Souls is a latter-day Maiden classic, the most ambitious album in their vast discography. At 50 minutes, disc one is the best-paced, most ferocious and towering Maiden album since Powerslave. It veers from a theatrical epic (“If Eternity Should Fail”), to a barnstorming single (“Speed of Light”), Steve Harris’s best epic song in 20 years (“The Red and the Black”), and a stupendous title track that evokes the power and energy of Maiden 30 years ago.

The second half, meanwhile, boasts some very rewarding deep cuts (“Death or Glory”, “Tears of a Clown”) that gracefully set the stage for the 18-minute masterpiece “Empire of the Clouds”. I knew going in that it would be the make-or-break moment on the entire album; it was the song that the band was so confident in they decided to make The Book of Souls a double album. What felt like a peculiar departure upon first listen slowly, slowly won me over, first on a musical level, and then, even more effectively, on a storytelling level. Dickinson’s dramatic tale of a real-life airship disaster is heavy metal theatre at its finest, featuring a indomitable performance by the mighty singer, which is punctuated by McBrain’s expressive drumming and some surprisingly atmospheric, textured guitar work by Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, and Janick Gers. That was the clincher right there, and I honestly couldn’t believe it myself when I realized that I was listening to my 2015 album of the year. I was huge into a lot of highly creative pieces of music by younger artists outside metal, but these old geezers came through.

As a music fan there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a band you’ve listened to for more than 30 years put out an astonishing record. Rush did just that a few years ago with Clockwork Angels, and I still stand by my choice of it being my 2012 album of the year. I can’t believe the same thing happened three years later. But that’s one of the great things about Iron Maiden: they remain uncompromising after all these decades, and they have rewarded their listeners with an album for the ages.

I said “ages”, not “aged”.

Up the Irons, forever, and ever, and ever.

(Spotify)

The Best Tracks of 2015, #2

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2. Girl Band, “Paul”

The band who put out the best rock album of 2015 came through with the best rock track of 2015. A combination of the Fall’s Can worship and, well, Can, with a little classic noise rock tossed in for good measure, it’s hypnotic, explosive, abrasive, and completely frightening, featuring a bassline for the ages. I have no idea what the lyrics mean, and that makes the whole thing even freakier. And then there’s the video, which is one of the best music vids I have seen in many a year. Play at maximum volume. (Spotify)

The Best Albums of 2015, #2

band012. Grimes, Art Angels (Crystal Math)

As much as I enjoyed Grimes’ 2012 album Visions, there was the lingering feeling that it all could have been a fluke. I was only cautiously optimistic about Claire Boucher’s future, and a big reason was that whenever I saw or read an interview with her, she was incapable of articulately explaining her music at all. Plus there was the time when she thought rafting down the Mississippi river with live chickens and 20 pounds of potatoes was a good idea. The music she made was brilliant, but it also felt that she wasn’t altogether there. Just how bright is this young woman? Scrapping a completed album last year didn’t help, either, hinting that she might have been succumbing to the pressure of recording a follow-up to a breakthrough album. The more I contemplated it, though, the more I started to wonder if Boucher is more of a savant when it comes to music. Her songwriting and production is very idiosyncratic, and you can easily tell that it’s less carefully thought-out than merely instinctive. Grimes has music to make, and this is what pours out. It may be weird, it may lack consistency, but a song like “Oblivion” will win you over in a heartbeat. It’s Art Angels, that long-awaited follow-up, however, that has me seriously wondering if we have a genius in our midst after all. It’s not just a step forward for Boucher; it’s astonishing leap in every way. Although it sounds like she has embraced pop music on Art Angels, and that’s been a very common refrain among some critics, the reality (realiti?) is that her songwriting skills have advanced so much, her melodies and production are so innately appealing that it’s lapped pop music. You can bet this record will be the benchmark for pop, both indie and mainstream, for the next few years. There has never been a pop album like this one. You hear elements of so many musical influences that it can be dizzying trying to sort them all out, but it’s astounding how everything, the whole eclectic shebang, has been harnessed, and it’s here where that genius comes into play. Claire Boucher puts on the air of being flighty, of being a fashionista, a renaissance woman, an icon for attention span-deficient millennials, but in the music you hear such authoritative command of her art. How she came up with all these sonic ideas, all these glorious hooks, and mashed them together so seamlessly and simply is beyond me, and all I can do is listen in awe, again and again. There’s the juxtaposition of ebullience and sadness on “California”, with its sumptuous vocal harmonies. The playful “Flesh Without Blood”. The acoustic guitar-driven shuffle of “Belly of the Beat”. The vibrant Happy Mondays feel of “Artangels”. The futuristic art pop of “Realiti” and “Venus Fly”, the latter featuring Janelle Monáe, who’s a perfect match for Grimes. And the phenomenal “Kill V. Maim”, a weird dance rock banger that’s one of the boldest tracks of the year. This isn’t just a follow-up, it’s a stunning, uncompromising, innovative statement by a major, major talent. Art Angels will go down as one of the defining albums of the 2010s. (Spotify) (YouTube)

The Best Tracks of 2015, #3

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3. CHVRCHES, “Leave a Trace”

The first single off the Scottish trio’s follow-up to 2013’s massive The Bones of What You Believe shows the band sounding stronger and more confident both as musicians and songwriters. Sleeker than the band’s synthpop of old, the lavish “Leave a Trace” is a perfect, sparkling showcase for singer Lauren Mayberry, who not only sound so much more assertive on record than she ever did before (a couple years of hard touring will do that) but hardened, both vocally and lyrically: “You think I’ll apologize for things I left behind / But you got it wrong / And I’m as sane as I ever was.” That’s a kiss-off line that Taylor Swift wishes she could write. (Spotify) (YouTube)

The Best Albums of 2015: #3

band013. Holly Herndon, Platform (4AD)

Somehow an album sounding “dated” has become a bad thing. Many music enthusiasts, including yours truly, get sucked into the notion that great new music has to have a timeless quality, a sound that transcends whatever year it comes from. And I won’t lie, that kind of music is still tremendously exciting, those rare occasions where an album will forever sound strange, alien, inimitable. Ege Bamyasi, Killing Joke, Dimension Hätross, Loveless, The Drift, are just a few examples. What I was reminded of in 2015, however, is that it’s also okay for an album to evoke that exact moment in history, to capture a snapshot of what popular culture was like. Something not necessarily ahead of its time, but of its time. That idea is a central theme on Holly Herndon’s peculiar MacBook experiment Platform, as the artist strove to piece together an album that, to her anyway, would accurately capture the essence of 2015. Taking a piece or two from Larie Anderson, Yoko Ono, Kate Bush, and Four Tet, Herndon created not so much an album but instead a piece of “sound art’, which indeed feels more like a gallery installation. As far as “glitch” goes, this is one of the glitchiest records I have ever heard, but to Herndon’s great credit, her skill at creating sonic collages on computer is countered perfectly by her compositional skill. A doctorate student in music composition at Stanford, you can hear the command she displays throughout the entire record. The glitches, the cutting and pasting, the pitch-shifting, and strange samples and spoken word pieces all serve the song itself. So as peculiar as tracks like “Interference”, “Chorus”, “Unequal”, and “New ways to Love” sound at first, their subtle melodies slowly creep into your head. The more you hear it, the easier it is to digest. And when you take it in on headphones, which I did on a daily basis for months, it creates the craziest, most beautiful little movie in your mind. Then there are the two stylistic extremes that sporadically duel throughout the album. “Morning Sun” is an homage to country music, its harmonies, vocal overdubs, and gentle blips, bathed in warmth and light, easily the closest thing to a straightforward track on the record. On the other end there’s “Lonely at the Top”, a bizarre exploration of the ASMR fetish (yeah, it was new to me, too) in which intimate whispers, sound effects, and taps supposedly trigger pleasure centres in listeners. Critic Suhail Malik says art will create in the individual a sense of either “escape” or “exit”. You will either “escape” the world and retreat into yourself, or use the art as an exit strategy to drive yourself towards new ideas of your own. “Exit Strategy”, the standout track from this astounding album, combines Herndon’s innovative laptop collages with a sneaky vocal performance that morphs into an utterly gorgeous chorus, during which she muses about the concept of an exit strategy. “What could we be, with will and belief? Why stay apart, when we can leave together?” Just unresolved questions. Is this futuristic, or is it merely a product of its time? Is it too pretentious for its own good, or does it have substance and merit? It’s up to listeners to decide for themselves. Such is art. (Spotify) (YouTube)

The Best Tracks of 2015, #4

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4. Royal Thunder, “Time Machine”

The lead track off Royal Thunder’s stupendous Crooked Doors album knocked me flat over when I first heard it in January. And that was completely on a visceral, instinctive level. I paid no attention to the lyrics, just the music, and the breadth, immediacy, and confidence of the song had me spellbound. Some bands ar ebetter off focusing more on hard rock than metal sounds, and by stripping away the sludge Royal Thunder created something more vibrant, more emotional. And when you finally do see those autobiographical lyrics by Mel Parsonz, you’re left reeling. Or at least I was: “I finally found a way to feel / No more will I pretend / You won’t haunt me in my life / I’m going to confess / I finally found a peace within / As the colors fades away / I break free from your arms / And burn you in this bed.” (Spotify) (YouTube)

The Best Albums of 2015, #4

band014. Gwenno, Y Dydd Olaf (Heavenly)

Like any other new music enthusiast, the desire to find something new and unique fuels my entire obsession. I love to stumble across an album that so strangely combines just he right elements that appeal to me, as well as others that I might never thought I’d listen to. So when a former member of a girl band puts together a kraut-pop sci-fi concept album sung entirely in Welsh, then yeah, you’ve got all bases pretty much covered there. Ten years ago Gwenno Saunders was cheerily singing “Pull Shapes” and “Dirty Mind” with indie pop darlings the Pipettes, a band I adored. And still do to this day, I blast “Pull Shapes” with regularity. Today Gwenno is a rising Welsh auteur who has put together one of the most original, creative albums of the year, one I stumbled upon thanks to a Quietus review and so blindsided me with its effortless charm. A concept album inspired by Owain Owain’s science fiction novel of the same name, Y Dydd Olaf combines airy European synthpop (think Stereolab) with the trance-inducing krautrock of Can and Neu!, making for a wonderfully cosmic, or kosmische rather, experience that extracts great beauty out of gentle, minimalist arrangements. For those who don’t understand Welsh, Saunders’ singing sounds even more otherworldly, only adding to the record’s mystical quality. Still, though, when singing in an obscure language you still require melodies that do the bulk of the communicating, and the gentle hooks on each and every one of these ten tracks are extraordinary, both in their simplicity and their effectiveness. These are sly little ear worms that wriggle into your head, mystical melodies that so invade your subconsciousness that you dream them. When I dream a melody it signals a complete obsession with it. It doesn’t happen often, but it did with this album, and once I made the connection that the hook I head came from it, I needed it in my life even more. It’s weird how that happens, but it does, and it’s a testament to just how magical Y Dydd Olaf is. So clever is Gwenno’s work on this record that it’s easy to understand why it’s warranted to call her the best Welsh musical export since Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. (Spotify) (YouTube)

The Best Tracks of 2015, #5

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5. fka twigs, “Glass & Patron”

Coming right on the heels of last year’s LP1, which was my 2014 Album of the Year, fka twigs wasted no time watching away all doubts as to whether she could follow it up successfully. At only 18 minutes, the M3LL155X EP shows extraordinary growth already, and is highlighted by the stunning “Glass and Patron”. For an artist who puts her sexuality right up front, this is arguably her steamiest song to date, which fantasizes about doing MDMA and tequila with her lover. As incredible as the song is, seeing it performed live was jaw-dropping, highlighted by a vogueing performance that stopped me dead in my tracks. I continue to be in awe of this woman. (Spotify) (YouTube)

The Best Albums of 2015, #5

band015. Girl Band, Holding Hands With Jamie (Rough Trade)

I can be an old fogey sometimes, especially when it comes to indie rock. There’s nothing in music that makes me sadder than a contemporary indie rock band that has no idea how to rock. 25 years ago indie rock was exciting, daring, creative, and at times obnoxiously loud. Today, all the hotly-tipped bands have about as much ferocity as the Association. I remember reading about Canadian band Ought and their apparent “hardcore” sound, but all I hear is something, fey, pretentious, and lifeless. Part of it is the fault of the current generation of kids who look to more watered-bands for influences, which in turn dilutes that rock sound more and more. But it’s also the fault of the so-called indie “tastemakers”, who care so little about rock music that they can’t be bothered to name more than a handful of indie rock albums on their year-end lists. Sorry, the preciousness of Kurt Vile won’t fly. Nah, it’s all about horrible, horrible acoustic bands from Brooklyn, which is ground zero for annoying millennial hipsters. Indie rock desperately needed a shot in the arm, and as soon as I heard the debut album by Irish foursome Girl Band, I knew immediately I was hearing something special. The touchstones are unmistakable to anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of experimental rock music. The repetition and steady, metronomic pace Can. The dry wit and complete disregard of rock convention by The Fall. The cathartic and euphoric atonality of Big Black. But as with any great rock band, it’s not about who you sound like but how you sound like it, and the crazed lo-fi-cacophony you hear on this roaring, breathless 38-minute record, for all its reference points, is singular. The way the album veers between savage energy blasts and more deliberately paced displays of power is extraordinary. Opener “Umbongo” throws the gauntlet down immediately, the band’s most difficult, discordant song and a brash challenge to the listener: if you want to endure this, be ready for an assault. Girl Band are always in control, even at their most raucous, but Holding Hands With Jamie excels when the focus is more on tension than release. “Pears for Lunch” carries on with a crisp motorik beat as gales of guitar noise build, recede, and build again to an incredible crescendo as Dara Kiely hollers about watching Top Gear with his trousers down. “Fucking Butter” is an inspired art-rock piece that stretches close to eight minutes, mechanical screeches and beats underscoring Kiely’s surreal, Pavement-esque wordplay (“Nutella, no tell her, Nutella”) punctuated by bursts of visceral power that rival modern noise kings KEN Mode. The manic epic “Paul” is a masterstroke. All the aforementioned influences coalesce perfectly: snark, noise, and a wickedly rigid groove propel the track to the point where you want the thing to go four, five times longer than its seven-minute length. At the 2:42 mark, this incendiary quartet strikes a spark, flint and steel yielding a liberating explosion that wakes the current state of indie guitar noise from its stupor, reminding one and all just how exciting it can be. It’d be silly to declare Girl Band “the future of indie rock”, but personally I really, really hope so. (Spotify) (YouTube)

This piece incorporates portions of my original album review for Spin magazine.