2015 has been something of a classic year for indie/alternative music with a number of high-profile releases from established artists along with the usual slew of debuts from lesser-known acts and a huge number of albums from acts working entirely below the radar.
Picking a top 15 albums from that list is not an easy task. However, with an eye on the mainstream right down to self-released albums, here are our picks.
Spotify play counts are unrelated to the reason they’ve been chosen, but an interesting reference.
Advance Base – Nephew in the Wild
Released in September, Owen Ashworth’s second album as Advance Base is a new sound for the electro slacker formerly known as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone.
If slacker storytelling via Eels and some Bruce Springsteen down-home storytelling is your thing, Nephew in the Wild comes highly recommended.
Plays on Spotify: Not Available on Spotify
Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp
Taken from Katie Crutchfield’s third album as Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp is “just a term I made up for directionless-ness, specifically of the 20-something, 30-something, 40-something of today, lacking regard for the complacent life path of our parents and grandparents.”
“I have thought of it like this,” she helpfully added, “[2013 album] Cerulean Salt is a solid and Ivy Tripp is a gas.”
While Courtney Barnett (see below) is the poppier, clever, observational side of classic 90s-referencing indie rock, Waxahatchee is somewhat more introspective and self-analytical.
Forever to be favorably compared to PJ Harvey, a better comparison for “Air” might be Scoutt Niblett on 2001’s Sweetheart Fever.
Plays on Spotify: 4 million
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love
Way back in January, feminist post punk act Sleater-Kinney came in from the cold with their eighth studio album No Cities To Love.
It’s always a concern when a group of relatively legendary status reforms. Can they recreate the glory days of old?
“Happily, the former riot grrrl legends are on top form on what is probably one of their best albums to date. Occasionally heavier than fans might be used to, the album is nonetheless close to flawless and tight as a coiled spring.”
Plays on Spotify: 9 million
Max Richter – Sleep
One of the more unusual releases of 2015, composer Max Richter‘s sleep is an eight-hour recording made with neuroscientist David Eagleman that is an “invitation to dream.” Literally.
For those with less time on their hands or anyone who can’t sleep with music playing at the best of times, there’s also a one-hour version From Sleep, a hypnotic, sombre outtake showing off Richter at his best.
If you’ve not come across Richter before, chances are you’ll have heard his music on various soundtracks, notably The Leftovers.
Put simply, this slice of the whole is a stunning recording for fans of modern classical music.
Plays on Spotify: 2 million
Girl Band – Holding Hands With Paul
After much music press hype over the past two years, Irish indie act Girl Band dropped debut album Holding Hands With Paul in September
Over-hyped bands often disappear without trace which is a shame because there is so much hype these days as blogs compete to make traditional gatekeepers of indie music obsolete.
In the case of Girl Band, the hype didn’t lead to huge critical success possibly because of a lack of live dates, apparently due to illness.
A great shame as Girl Band are genuinely original and actually exciting.
“With few but apparently mind blowing live dates and the frankly magnificent ‘why they hide the bodies under my garage,’ the stakes and expectations for the album were high and – sigh of relief – it’s a doozie.”
Plays on Spotify: 200,000
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
On his latest album Carrie & Lowell, folk hero Sufjan Stevens returned to his Seven Swans roots for probably his best collection to date, a huge statement given the likes of Michigan and Illinois.
The Carrie and Lowell of the title are Sufjan’s mother and stepfather. His mother, who died in 2012, was a bipolar drug addict who on many occasions abandoned her son.
Lowell, who was briefly married to Carrie, runs Steven’s record label.
This is clearly not easy listening but a haunting story of “my mother, she betrayed…my father who loved and bathed us.”
Plays on Spotify: 60 million
Peter Broderick – Colors of the Night
Peter Broderick probably makes a living from touring with other bands but his heart is really in his eclectic and hugely abundant solo work.
Prior to Colours of the Night, Broderick had released around 15 solo and collaborative albums that crossed a number of genres – folk, contemporary classical, electronica and even installation soundtracks.
“Always to be relied on to do something completely different, the album would appear to be the closest that Broderick has come to pop in a prolific career that has included modern classical piano solos, electronica, folk, installation soundtracks and most everything in between.”
Plays on Spotify: 300,000
Tame Impala – Currents
On third album Currents, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker – who essentially records as a solo act – offers up one of the best break up albums since The First Days of Spring by now defunct Noah & the Whale back in 2009.
While that album recorded the misery of Charlie Fink’s public break up with Laura Marling, on Currents Parker examines the misery from the one who left rather than the one left behind.
“I know I always said that I could never hurt you/ This is the very, very last time I’m ever going to.”
All men are bastards.
Plays on Spotify: 80 million
Fucked Up – Year of the Hare
Sometimes the name of a band is a bit of a giveaway – pinkshinyultablast (see below) does exactly as it says on the tin. Toronto-based Fucked Up on the other hand has been lumped into the hardcore genre which is a bit of a shame because the band is often more akin to the likes of the Pixies with an extra edge.
The two track EP Year of the Hare continues the band’s ongoing Zodiac series. The title track is a 21 minute genre-bending experimental epic.
“Often criticized for not being hardcore enough, the EP proves that the analysis is misplaced because there’s a depth to it missing from much of the genuinely hardcore.”
Plays on Spotify: 25,000
pinkshinyultrablast – Everything Else Matters
It’s not all bad news from Russia this year as fans of shoegaze were gifted with the debut album from St Petersburg’s pinkshinyultrablast.
Charged with reviving the genre the quartet had a hard job because it never really went away. However, it did eat itself so the band had a job living up to the hype and giving a much-maligned genre the heave it needed back to respectability.
Job done? Absolutely, with an album that rides on the back of classic 90s shoegaze with a touch of contemporary electronica.
“A love at first listen affair for fans of 90s noise pop, Pinkshinyultrablast are happy to court comparisons with the likes of the Cocteau Twins, especially given the washed-out fuzziness of the Liz Fraser-esque vocals.”
Plays on Spotify: 800,000
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you /Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you.”
Australia’s Courtney Barnett released her debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit earlier this year to a lot of acclaim but some disappointment.
Given her sardonic delivery of exceptionally clever and insightful lyrics, there are a couple of tracks on the album that are filler but as a whole it’s a mind-bendingly assured debut boosted by a year-long series of outstanding live performances.
“Classic written all over this one. Ignore at your peril.”
Plays on Spotify: 22 million
Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
That Father John Misty appeared in Aziz Ansari’s not-too-bad Netflix original series Master of None perhaps says a lot about Josh Tillman’s slacker hipster appeal.
The former Fleet Fox described I Love You, Honeybear as “a concept record about a guy called Josh Tillman.”
So yes, it’s all very self-aware and clever but it’s also an excellent, playful, sometimes corny album about love and life and getting the hell over yourself.
From The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt:
“Oh, I just love the kind of woman who can walk over a man
“I mean like a god damn marching band
“She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes
“And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream
“I wonder if she even knows what that word means
“Well, it’s literally not that.”
Plays on Spotify: 40 million
SOAK – Before We Forget How To Dream
Northern Ireland teenager SOAK – aka Bridie Monds-Watson – was another critical darling this year, turning overheated hype into a Mercury Prize nomination and respectable commercial success.
Many of the songs on Before We Forget How To Dream were written when Watson was just 13 years old so at times they may come across as over-earnest and angsty.
Delivered with a feisty vocal, get past the complaints and you have a collection that is remarkably accomplished for one so young. SOAK should be destined for great things. Not be be missed live if you get the chance.
“What comes through is not ‘filler’ but a talent spewing to be heard with nary a spare moment and a sense that SOAK knows exactly how she wanted this record to sound and won out to present her music in the purest form.”
Plays on Spotify: 20 million
Bjork – Vulnicura
Her most accessible album in many years, Bjork issued Vulnicura back in January two months ahead of schedule because of a leak.
Doing the unthinkable, Vulnicura is essentially a breakup album. The unusual rawness of the collection was last month given a boost by an acoustic strings version of the album, stripping the songs back to reveal Bjork’s creds as a songwriter of note, a fact that is often buried under the weight of experiment and ideas.
The album, she hoped, would be “a crutch to others and prove how biological [breaking up] is: the wound and the healing of the wound. Psychologically and physically. It has a stubborn clock attached to it.”
Plays on Spotify: 3 million
John Grant – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
Through his two previous solo albums Pale Green Ghosts and Queen of Denmark, John Grant took an acerbic look at life in general but especially what a swine his ex was. Yes, another breakup album or two.
Now happily coupled up and living in Iceland, there was palpable concern that Grey Tickles, Black Pressure would fail to provide an exceptional lyricist with suitably caustic material.
Not to worry – the album title itself comes from an Icelandic term for a midlife crisis and a Turkish term for nightmares and starts with the rather fantastic lyric “I did not think I was the one being addressed in hemorrhoid commercials on the TV set.”
While still deliciously confessional, Grant is a touch more outward looking, noting “there are children who have cancer, so all bets are off because I can’t compete with that.”
Still meditating on arsehole men, his HIV status (“I can’t believe I missed New York in the ‘70s, I could have gotten a head start in the world of disease…”) and depression, there’s possibly nothing as immediately heartbreaking here as say “Glacier” on Pale Green Ghosts but Grant has that rare knack of making jarringly sad pop music never equaled since ABBA.
However, he is not settling happily into middle age, comparing his love interest to things that are really not quite so good:
“The genitive case in German, it’s true,
Is something that I am quite partial to.
Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Prokofiev,
Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Vysotsky and Lev”
“Known for his savage, introspective lyrics (‘Why don’t you take it out on somebody else, why don’t you bore the shit out of somebody else, why don’t you tell somebody else that they’re helpless, a weakling, coward and pathetic troll’), Grant is everything you might expect from a musician finally finding his feet – and voice – in his 40s.
“Grey Tickles, Black Pressure mixes Grant’s beautiful baritone voice with his trademark genre-hopping sound and deep, deep sense of himself. And it would appear that he’s correct in his observation that he gets better looking as he ages.”
Plays on Spotify: 1.5 million