This year has seen such an embarrassment of riches, I've found it exasperating trying to keep up. Case in point: I think I'd only just started to digest disc two of the three that comprise Joanna Newsom's monumental Have One On Me when she released the impossibly dense Divers in October. Then, when I learned that January 2016 will see new releases by Shearwater, The Besnard Lakes and David Bowie, I laughed out loud. How does anyone absorb all this wonderful music with just one pair of ears?!
The following 10 albums felt the most deep and satisfying, and knocked me about in various beautiful ways:
10. Never Enough Hope – The Gravity of Our Commitment (Milk Factory Productions)
I have Roommate's Kent Lambert to thank for introducing me to this monster: four massive pieces totalling 80 minutes of some of the most intelligent, dense and wonderfully played instrumental jazz-rock. Notable for including the instrumental talents of luminaries such as Colin Stetson on saxophone, Dina Maccabee (Julia Holter's touring band) on violin and Nick Broste (Roommate producer) on trombone, but amounting to way more than the sum of its parts, it's dizzying to imagine how composer Toby Summerfield pulled all this together. Imagine Frank Zappa's epic '70s Wazoo ensemble updated for the 21st century, or Jaga Jazzist minus the synthesizers. Pretty mindblowing.
9. Destroyer – Poison Season (Merge)
Until now I've never fully understood the appeal of Dan Bejar's droll songcraft. He's always come across as an aging hipster with one too many ironic accessories, tongue firmly in cheek, and one foot out the door. Maybe I've just never got the joke? However, on Poison Season he's invested his MOR pastiche with a degree of intimacy that feels more engaging. His lyrics are oblique, but his delivery is more direct, and the music is unashamedly gorgeous. I still don't trust Bejar, but for as long as Poison Season is playing, I'm bewitched by his bullshit.
8. Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld – Never Were The Way She Was (Constellation)
Saxophone and violin – and that's it. Admittedly, Colin Stetson is the kind of player who's able to make a single instrument sound like a weird, underwater dub orchestra, but it's the mesmerising interplay between his saxophone and Sarah Neufeld's violin that's most notable here. Like the tree on its cover, Never Were The Way She Was is dark, gnarled and far-reaching, persistently refusing to be relegated to background music.
7. Jaala – Hard Hold (Wondercore Island)
Short, sharp and sinuous, the debut album by Melbourne-based art-rock quartet Jaala shields its tender, bruised heart amid dazzling guitar-bass-drums interplay worthy of prime Magic Band, while at the centre of it all, Cosima Jaala's voice ricochets from a wounded coo to an ear-splitting scream. (Plenty of open-ended major-seventh chord voicings to satisfy my inner music geek, too.) I was gutted to have missed December's album launch, so one of my new year's resolutions will be to catch Jaala live in 2016. Looks like they'd be unbelievable.
6. Jim O'Rourke – Simple Songs (Drag City)
It's been a six-year wait since The Visitor, so a new Jim O'Rourke solo album is a cause for celebration. Thankfully, Simple Songs is an achingly beautiful salvo from a master craftsman. Here he's unashamed of pulling classic '70s rock and MOR moves. With
typical O'Rourkian verve, these songs are far from simple. Knowingly
absurd at times, but never resorting to cheap shots. He's too damn good
for that. He may have his back to us, but the man is wearing his heart on his (cardigan) sleeve.
5. Björk – Vulnicura (One Little India)
Ouch. It's sad to think that Björk suffered a painful separation from partner Matthew Barney in order to create her greatest album since Vespertine. Album as open-heart surgery? Perhaps. But what's most heartening about Vulnicura is alluded to right there in the title: the cure for her vulnerability, the salve to her volcano of emotions, is to express her pain through the process of musical creation itself. And what music, updating the awesome strings-and-beats template of Homogenic with the help of Arca and The Haxan Cloak.
4. MG – MG (Mute)
While most critically acclaimed electronic music this year seems to have been preoccupied with warping the boundaries of what's possible/listenable (Oneohtrix Point Never, Arca, etc.), leave it to an old master like Martin Gore to create one of the mightiest electronic albums I've ever heard. A gloriously deep, thick and crunchy record that combines the best of minimal electro, kosmische and science-fiction soundtracks, MG is an unbelievably satisfying experience, a lesson on the wonderful music you can create on vintage synths if you know what you're doing. The sketch of a knob on the front cover feels like an imperative: turn it up.
3. Fred Thomas – All Are Saved (Polyvinyl)
Listening to this album feels like rooting around under the sofa
cushions for the remote control, only to find a photo of your beloved
departed dog, an unopened bottle of beer, a dusty cassette compilation
made by an old friend, a dog-eared journal, and a pack of gum. It's
surprising, ridiculous, hilarious, infuriating, brilliant, silly,
beautiful, profound, knowingly throwaway and deadly serious. And the baffling thing is that the deeper I dig into what I
love about All Are Saved, the more elusive its appeal becomes. All I can do is put
it on again, writhe around in its warm recesses and itch-scratching
edges, and let Thomas's inspired outpourings work their dark magic.
2. Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, girl (Sacred Bones)
It may be confrontational and unsettling in both its lyrics and musical settings, particularly on opener 'Kingsize', but there's no denying that Apocalypse, girl is a humane and beautiful record, dazzling in its artistry and deeply moving on many levels. While it's not an album I can listen to often, each time uncovers new wonders in both Hval's vocal delivery and the eerie musical settings she's painstakingly crafted with Lasse Marhaug. A work of art.
1. Roommate – Make Like (Strange Weather)
Having been unhealthily obsessed with this album for the last few months, I think I'm finally ready to take a break from it. There's no denying the hold it's had over me – more so than any other album released this year. I've already detailed all the reasons I love it, plus I've interviewed Kent Lambert about its creation, so all that's left to say is this: if you haven't heard this album, I strongly recommend you spend some time with it (and its predecessors Guilty Rainbow and We Were Enchanted). It's not flashy, it's not trendy, but like a good friend, the time you spend in its company will be handsomely rewarded.
And here are 10 more I also love:
Oren Ambarchi & Jim O'Rourke – Behold (Editions Mego)
The Balustrade Ensemble – Renewed Brilliance (Serein)
Ian William Craig – Cradle For The Wanting (Recital)
Steve Hauschildt – Where All Is Fled (kranky)
Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness (Domino)
Julia Kent – Asperities (Leaf)
Matchess – Somnaphoria (Trouble in Mind)
Lee Noble – Un Look (Patient Sounds)
Joanna Newsom – Divers (Drag City)
The Singleman Affair – The End of the Affair (Strange Weather)