Mount the Air: Music of 2015

Seven albums made the cut for my top CDs of 2015. All very different, all with energy, imagination and audacity that is both satisfying and stimulating. Very much looking forward to 2016 with new discs due from Animal Collective and Swans, among others.

There was a great deal going on this year musically. Most of which passed me by. But what stood out was a resurgent Proms with some clever programming, some great new pieces and some especially lush late night concerts. It was wonderful to hear so much Boulez but as ever there was still far too much compromise – trying to be populist with programmes aimed at those who don’t normally listen to classical music. There is nothing wrong with music, or any art being elitist, not all tastes are the same and nor should they be. So next year, please may we have more of the contemporary commissions and less of the ‘Sherlock meets Swing, meets dub’ programming? Better education about the breadth and depth of ‘classical’ music and less cheap gimmicks.

Which brings me to Glastonbury 2015. Perhaps Kanye West was an experiment too far – but at least the festival keeps moving on and widening out its appeal. There were some guiltily entertaining sets – Charlie XCX, Clean Bandit, some generous crowd pleasing – Rudimental, Django Django, FFS, some disappointments – Kanye West, Vintage Trouble, some blissed out wonders – Steel Pulse, Spiritualized, some great to see classics – Patti Smith, Death from Above 1979, the Fall, Mavis Staples and some cracking surprises – GOAT, Kate Tempest, Jon Hopkins. There was much to like and too much to take in.

Back in Bristol the art installation Sanctum that took over the ruins of the Temple Church for 24 days of 24 hours of music was something special. American artist Theaster Gates created a new sacred space out of a hodge-podge of reclaimed timber and windows that became the venue for a constant stream of music for twenty four days. You could walk in at any time of day or night and something would be going on – and you wouldn’t know until you turned up what it would be. I dropped by a few times – acapella songs about the Houses of Parliament, experimental noise, sweet and cutesy gingham folksiness, a touch of hard(ish) rock, oh, and a saxophone (sadly). It was a great showcase for the city’s talent and a gently immersive experience.

Here are my albums of the year beginning with my top pick:

1. The Miraculous
Anna Von Hausswolff
City Slang, 2015
Recorded using a 9,000 pipe organ this is music of immense power and intensity. If the Proms want to programme the best contemporary music which crosses genres then they would be better off giving space to artists such as Anna Von Hausswollf and Michael Gira of Swans than Radio 1Xtra DJs. Yes, I like this because it has the sheer volume, spaciousness, seriousness and uncomfortableness of Swans. But it also has a femininity, a natural beauty, an interior integrity and at times a vulnerable intimacy that is transcendent, spiritual in ways that, through the tones of the organ pipes, could be almost orthodoxly Christian. But the earthiness, the unflinching exploration of darkness, the teetering near the brink of a proggy doom, also draws out of the soil something of the old gods. This is numinous music with a liturgical structure that cannot be listened to as entertainment, rather it is a statement of intent that requires total commitment.

2. Bach Violin Concertos
Alina Ibragimova with Arcangelo conducted by Jonathan Cohen
Hyperion, 2015
Alina Ibragimova’s late night Prom concerts this year were absolutely spellbinding, music at its clearest and best. Over two nights she played the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Violin. Her minimal use of vibrato brought out the utterly transcendent purity of Bach at his very best. The Albert Hall audience was wrapped up in the spiralling prayers of notes that floated upwards clear-winged, precise, poised and purposeful. On the strength of these two performances, which I have listened to a number of times I bought her 2009 recording of the Sonatas and Partitas and this new release of Bach violin concertos. It is presumed that the majority of Bach’s violin concertos have been lost. Only two are left extant, the other three on this disc are reconstructed from keyboard concertos. But that doesn’t matter. What we have here is more confident, poised and extremely thoughtful playing, not just from Ibragimova but also from the sixteen members of Arcangelo conducted by Jonathan Cohen. This is a beautiful disc – it feels warm but clear, playful but dynamic, wise and energetic, meditative and hopeful.

3. Ivy Tripp
Waxahatchee
Wichita Recordings, 2015
This was an unexpected hit with me. I bought it on the back of a couple of intriguing reviews and liked it straightaway. At the time I was listening to quite a number of new records and this one, along with The Miraculous, stood out. Beginning with a low rumble that swirls about in a feedback growl out of which flowers songs of about beginnings with no definable ends. Katie Crutchfield has a Gen X+ sensibility, an aimlessness and unfocussed anger about the sterility of prevailing systems. Her songs are seemingly lambent with a sweetness that belies a harder core. She mixes sugary vocals and amorphously open lines with a harsher Sleater Kinneyesque punch, a punky spikiness ameliorated by jaunty keyboards. It is a good mix, a Coupland soundtrack with its own life, liveliness and lazy dreaming.

4. Mount the Air
The Unthanks
Rabble Rouser, 2015
I went to see The Unthanks for the tour of this album and it was a truly lovely experience, despite the lack of intimacy in the concrete guts of the Colston Hall. Yes, there was clog dancing, there was family banter between relatives and sometimes the sense that the audience were onlookers at a jamming session between a group of really good, really talented and really driven friends. But at no point was it twee. There is always an edge to the music of The Unthanks. Often this comes from the hard Northern lives from which they draw inspiration or a conscience that pushes for a social equality that seems as unreachable now as in those eighteenth or nineteenth or twentieth century folk songs which provide the starting point for their music. Title track ‘Mount the Air’ might rely too much on the over-blown blowsiness of wind instruments for my liking (give me strings or keyboards any day) but it has a rolling elegiac quality that pulled me unstoppably into the rest of the album. Despite the brass and wind I didn’t want to resist that pull. There is a fragile sadness to The Unthanks music which emerges despite the robustness of their voices and the trenchant musicality of the entire band. This is the sound of a group who are comfortable with who they are, with the breadth and variety of their individual talents and who are keen and capable to move beyond the constraints of any given geographical or musical borders.

5. Art Angels
Grimes
4AD, 2015
Grimes 2012 Visions is on constant rotation on my ipod. It has a fractured, distorted beauty which I just love. So, Art Angels was my most anticipated album of 2015 and it is good, very good. Really it should be up there in the number 3 spot but there is something more immediately appealing about the Waxahatchee disc – more coherent and less tricksy – which pushes it up above Grimes. Maybe I just don’t trust – Claire Boucher – Grimes’s transition to Jay Z’s management and I feel a taint by association because his music is not for me. That is really unfair on my part as this is a marvellously inventive album and it is Grimes herself who has done most of the work, looping her voice and the music over and over into all sorts of angular and frantic shapes. There is a lushness to the rhythms that reminds me of Witching Hour era Ladytron, and that can be no bad thing, but overall there is a sense that this is an album with one eyebrow cocked towards commercial viability and that is something I am most certainly distrusting over. But that’s my problem. Maybe there are hints of MIA here as well, certainly there is a vigour, imagination and crafty cleverness that intrigue, attract and sometimes disturb. Good stuff, I’ll be listening to it a great deal more but while it will get more plays more than her previous albums, Geidi Primes and Halfaxa, I think it’ll still score lower than Visions.

6. No Cities to Love
Sleater Kinney
Sub Pop, 2015

It took a while to get into this and I don’t know why. Perhaps I had been listening to too much earthy, natural music and electronic experimentation from the likes of Julianna Barwick and Grouper. I had been in a mellow listening mood and this slice of instantly accessible post punk classic Sub Pop was just too obvious. But is a cracking album – short, sharp and totally on form. Each song is a shock of noise, hard fast and proves that having a ten year break from music doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll come back singing a soft core greatest hits package. Indeed, No Cities to Love feels as if Sleater Kinney have learnt a great deal about their craft in those ten years and have the wit and talent to distil their wisdom into a collection of almost perfect slices of tight noise.

7. Lucid Dreaming
Say Lou Lou
Cosmos, 2015
There is big bubbling disco-ey breathiness about this disc, another nod to Ladytron and maybe to Lykke Li (Wounded Rhymes) and that’s probably why I like it so much. Twins Elektra and Miranda Kilbey don’t have the social integrity or gustiness of the Unthank sisters, nor the rock strutting chutzpah of Deap Vally, but they do have a gently insistent way with a beat, a louchely undulating swirling sound that is quietly ecstatic and rather nifty at being both comely and tidily caustic.

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