Wednesday, 16 December 2015

My Favourite Albums of 2015 (Part I): Old is New Again

It has been another year overflowing with the kind of musical swill many of us have now sadly become accustomed to. As I write this, an unstoppable scourge of generic, over-produced trash is poisoning our airwaves. Worse still, there’s very little indication that any of the ghouls responsible will be fading into obscurity anytime soon. In fact, the horror show that is corporate mainstream music culture is now being embraced not only by the unadventurous pop-music loving masses, but also growing numbers of confused writers within the ‘alternative’ music press who have, for whatever reason, decided to give in to it all and start bowing at the altar of these ‘artists’.

But anyway, I’m getting slightly off course here. Believe it or not, it is not actually my intention to spend the length of this post bitching about the sorry state of the music industry. On the contrary, my aim is a far more positive one - to shine some much-needed light on the bands and artists who have made it possible for me to say without even the slightest amount of sarcasm that 2015 has also been a great year for music. Yes, that’s right –there is actually, at present, a metric fuck-tonne of awesome music out there – almost too much for an unmotivated sod like me to write about at any great length here.

Still, I feel it’s only fair that I dedicate at least a little bit of time to these artists and say a few words about the albums they unleashed onto those who cared to listen. And due to the number of releases I really, really dug, I feel it may be best to separate them into three very specific categories:
1) those successfully returning to the spotlight after insanely long hiatus’s

2) those I had no idea even existed 12 months ago

3) those on unstoppable winning streaks

For this particular post (the first of a planned three), I will focus on the older artists returning with new albums after far too long in the wilderness. What is particularly special about this group is the fact that the bands/musicians created records that demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that it is actually possible to successfully return after an extended break, remain relevant and grow old gracefully. Who woulda thunk it?

Anyhoo, without further ado, here they are, in no particular order…


Desaparecidos - Payola


Okay, so Conor Oberst and co. can hardly be considered old, per se. But screw it, they’ve definitely been off the radar long enough to justify their inclusion within this particular section of the list.

Payola (the group’s second LP) had the wonderful distinction of being the record released this year that took me most by surpris,. It’s not because I didn’t expect greatness from Mr. Oberst - hell, over the course of his career he has rarely, if ever, put his name to anything that was’t worthwhile. Still, releasing an album with an old punk band that, to put things in perspective, haven’t had a record out since NSYNC were infecting the charts – didn’t exactly fill me with excitement… for whatever reason.

My slight curiosity about the whole deal, however, quickly became something much more the second I hit play that first magical time. Payola immediately announced itself as Conor’s strongest work in over a decade - a fun, timely, catchy, angry, exciting, filler-free masterpiece that, six months on, still hasn’t lost any of the charm I knew it had upon that first listen.

I have no idea what Desaparecidos are planning beyond this release.... I can only hope there are future plans, and that the space between this album and the next one is nowhere near as drawn out.


Faith No More – Sol Invictus


As surprising as the Desaparecidos release was, it was nowhere near as miraculous as the fact that, in 2015, we were given the gift of a new Faith No More record.

For close to twenty years fans like me didn’t for a second consider the idea of a new record from this legendary group even a remote possibility.  Even after a string of highly successful reunion shows in which the band seemed as though they were happy and invested, it still seemed like a far off dream. Yet, somehow, we finally got our follow up to 1997’s Album of the Year. And holy shit, was it good.

Sol Invictus achieved the impossible by not only retaining the bands ultra-unique personality, but also by bringing this personality into the present while somehow avoiding that overly nostalgic, bordering-on-stale feeling that has plagued so many bands before them.

So how did they do it? What the hell's their secret? Was it the luxury of having no record company interference? Maturity? Experience? Whatever the case may be, I hope this winning creative streak continues for these middle-aged rapscallions. After all, the world is undeniably a far better place with FNM around. 


Blur – The Magic Whip


Another band that dared to take the plunge and add another record to their so far bullet proof discography was Blur who, thankfully, were both smart and talented enough to only make a follow u that was worthy of their name.

The albums quality should’ve come as zero surprise to those who have followed Albarn’s career though out his years outside of Blur – the dude is prolific as hell and rarely releases anything that isn’t at the very least interesting.  

What was especially great about The Magic Whip was that it presented a band that was in no way interested in repeating themselves. Instead, they revealed another side of themselves to us,  one that was only interested in evolving and bettering themselves in the process. Somehow, they did it without losing that indefinable quality that made them one of the 90’s most-loved bands.


Dr Dre - Compton


Despite having an album on the boil for close to two decades, Dre’s eventual return still came as a total shock– mostly because we’d all given up on hearing anything new from him ever again.  And while the album we were all promised (Detox) never materialised, we perhaps got something better.

Compton - released just as F. Gary Grey’s Straight Outta Compton was hitting multiplexes - immediately silenced the doubters and rewarded patient fans. It was, from first song to last, a beast of a record that made it feel as though no time has passed at all since the now legendary 2001.

Like every other release on this list, Compton wasn’t the sad story of some strapped-for-cash old-timer trying to relive former glories, but rather a thrilling return to form that served as a crystal clear reminder (if one was even needed) the Dre is still in a league of his own.
It’s rare for a record to sound good enough to warrant a sixteen year gap, but Compton was just that - absolute proof that occasionally, good things come to those who wait…and wait…and wait...


 Refused - Freedom

Refused returned in 2015 to a somewhat mixed response. Such divisiveness wasn’t exactly a surprise - after all, if your last album was The Shape of Punk to Come, you'd probably have a difficult time pleasing absolutely everyone as well. Hell, even I wasn’t exactly an instant convert. The first single did next to nothing for me (at least upon first listen), and the bleak early reviews kept me well away for the first couple of weeks following its official release. I needn’t have worried. Freedom is the sound of a revitalised band that is still angry about… well, a lot of things. For my money, there isn’t a weak spot across its entire runtime.

Refused did the smart thing with Freedom by completely avoiding any attempts to rebottle their old sound. Instead, they made the record they wanted to make (even bringing a revered pop producer on board for a couple of tracks).

Again, not everyone agreed with my opinion on this surprisingly modern-sounding punk rock record, but at the end of the day, who cares - this post is all about me, after all.  And for me, Freedom is a total success.


Sleater Kinney - No Cities to Love



Last but not least, we come to Sleater Kinney.

What could I possibly add to the zillion glowing reviews and articles that have already been committed to print regarding the glorious return of this powerful trio? Not much, really. Cities to Love was as great as we all hoped it would be, while the live shows have, by all accounts, been going off (I’ll find out for myself in March). Best of all, Carrie Brownstein - kickass front woman, exceptional writer, comedic actor - has been everywhere in 2015. She can seemingly do it all.

Even though the album was released almost 12 months ago now, it has been making appearances on year end lists all over the place, which should be as good an indication as any of this records impressive quality.

To be continued …

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