background image
The Monitors’ 52 Best Albums of 2015

Features

End of year lists are like EastEnders Christmas specials. Of course you roll your eyes about the unbelievable narratives (surely people don’t think the new Grimes album is that good), the decidedly un-festive misery overload (oh great, another Libertines comeback) and preponderance of unconvincing mockney characters (hello Slaves) over people you might actually meet in the East End (wot no grime?) – yet there’s an undeniable cheap pleasure to be derived from both institutions. Even if most of that pleasure comes from picking at the many obvious flaws on offer.

At The Monitors, we cherish the opportunity provided by end-of-year retrospective fever to give some overdue praise to artists and albums we never got a chance to cover during the year itself. It also encourages us to look back at what we have covered; doing so has led this year’s list to feel less like last-minute critical admin before we pack the year away, and more like an actual celebration.

This celebration is of independent music culture. For it was only a couple of months ago that Blur bassist and friend of the Camerons, Alex James, declared that the spirit of independent music was dead – or had at least found a new host in the form of the food industry. The scene that celebrates itself had apparently mutated into the scene that pisses on the rest after pulling up the ladder. Our very own Luke O’Dwyer succinctly summed up James’ idiocy in a recent review of London noiseniks USA Nails (more about them later):

“The connotations of this statement, that independent music is essentially dead, are so narrow-minded and far off the mark in 2015 that they can’t even see the mark through an intergalactic telescope, such is the fucking great distance between them. All you have to do is look back over the last twelve months of reviews on this site to see that far from being extinct, independent music is positively thriving and in lush verdant fettle. With a statement like that James has proven that his finger is not so much on the pulse but entrenched in the grain and numb from the cold.”

Looking over our ‘best albums of 2015’ list, it’s reassuring to realise just how true that is. A quick scan reveals that 48 of the 52 albums collated here were released on independent labels (some self-released), and the few major label releases featured were at least in partnership with independents. When you also consider how Columbia Records messed up the release of one of them, putting out Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside early without the artist’s knowledge, it seems more evident than ever that major labels are best avoided by serious artists. Earl himself seems less than happy with the major label experience anyway…

So join us in celebration of (mostly) independent music, with our favourite 52 albums of the year. As usual we’ve put them in alphabetical order rather than use some arbitrary ranking system, although let the record show that Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld’s Never Were The Way She Was received the most nominations. Oh, and why 52? Well I could try and convince you it’s one of my lucky numbers (which is actually true), that it’s because there are 52 weeks in a year, or that 52 and 2015 just look good together – but the reality is it was just too difficult to cut the list down to an even 50.

So here we are: 48 great independent albums, 4 great major label ones, and zero featuring Alex James…

Kier Wiater Carnihan

***
 

Arca – Mutant (Mute)
 

 

“Arca’s live show is one of the most intense forty minutes I’ve ever spent in front of a stage, and his recordings don’t do much to tone down the claustrophobia. While the cut-up vocal samples and squelchy drums sound improvisational, the choral keys and monotone bass tones package the whole thing in a well rounded emotional shell.” Nicholas Burman

 

***
 

Bad Guys – Bad Guynaecology (Riot Season)
 

 

“Despite its silliness, its songs about stolen toy cars, people having it off in your garden, and men who wrestle snakes, underneath all of that, this album will absolutely kick your fucking teeth in.” Luke O’Dwyer (read full review here)

 

***
 

Björk – Vulnicura (One Little Indian)
 

 

“The stark loneliness of Medulla‘s vocal stylings layered over the overwrought emotional strings of Homogenic and the tiny but elegant percussion of Vespertine. Basically, it sounds like a greatest hits filled with tracks you’ve never heard before.” Alex Allsworth

 

***
 

Blanck Mass – Dumb Flesh (Sacred Bones)
 

 

“Every track is delicious: rich in texture, intelligent in rhythm, measured in its application of build-up and release. The sound of the melodies falls somewhere in between Scooter and dial-up internet, but I’m okay with that.” Emma Hall (read full review here)

 

***
 

Braids – Deep in the Iris (Arbutus)
 

 

“The emotional intensity of Braids’ melodies, ever underpinned by electronic and percussive muscle, hit a high point on Deep In The Iris. The album has laments to yell along to at the darkest points of PMT, moments to lose it on the dancefloor to (as I did at their Scala gig in November), and moments to sit and nerd out at the sheer mastery of the production.” EH

***
 

Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss (Sargent House)
 

 

“A statue carved out of ice, steel and the eyes of some vulpine deity, surrounded by mountains of crushing noise. Perfect gothic vocals tempering ecstatic feedback and walls of intricately simple, pulsing bass.” AA

***
 

Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld – Never Were The Way She Was (Constellation)
 

 

“As an emotive work of art it’s unlikely to be bettered this year. The reflective title track is particularly moving, spilling wounded melancholy through simple phrases and showing that the neither musician has to rely on instrumental virtuosity to enrapture their listeners.” Kier Wiater Carnihan (read live review here)

***
 

Colleen – Captain of None (Thrill Jockey)
 

 

“Having made her name as an instrumental artist, it’s surprising just how accomplished her singing is, possessed of both clipped clarity and a diaphanous quality that makes it subtly bewitching.” KWC (read live review here)

***
 

Dawn Richard – Blackheart (Our Dawn Entertainment)
 

 

“Drake and The Weeknd may be dominating the R&B market, possibly forever the way things are going, but it was Dawn Richard’s second album that bent the genre into genuinely original territory in 2015. Even Grimes’ glossy effort seems to be lacking a bit of ambition against the likes of ‘Calypso’ and ‘Swim Free’.” NB

***
 

Disappears – Irreal (Kranky)
 

 

“Eight atmospheric tracks that aren’t so much heard as crept through like some sort of skulking spook.” KWC (read full review here)

***
 

DJ Richard – Grind (Dial)
 

 

“Delicate, addictive synths capable of pulling in a casual listener alongside drums from the New York outsider house underground, with the smallest details making you come back again and again.” Jamie Miller (read full review here)

***
 

Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside (Tan Cressida / Columbia)
 

 

“Leaving the immaturity of the Odd Future behind turned out to be a clever move – Sweatshirt’s somewhat rush-released I Don´t Like Shit… may be dark and uninviting, but it’s also engrossing and showcases an introspective, regretful side of the macho character which hip hop – and music in general – regularly sees unfit to explore.” NB

***
 

The Eccentronic Research Council – Johnny Rocket, Narcissist & Music Machine … I’m Your Biggest Fan (PIAS)
 

 

“Not so much an album as a fully fledged Yorkshire noir, narrated by the marvellous Maxine Peake and featuring a fictionalised band comprised of moonlighting Fat Whites; few releases can match this for scope and imagination.” KWC (read a review of the accompanying EP here)

***
 

Empress Of – Me (Terrible / XL)
 

 

“The most concise, cohesive and immersive narrative-pop record I’ve heard since Lorde’s debut. If Empress Of isn’t stealing the show at every festival next year, I give up trying to work you people out.” NB (read full review here)

***
 

Ephemerals – Chasin Ghosts (Jalapeno)
 

 

“While the Sam Cooke-a-like sounds of Leon Bridges may have been ubiquitous in 2015, the year’s best soul revival album actually sprung from a lesser known source, the Soho septet Ephemerals.” KWC (read Spotlight feature here)

***
 

Future – DS2 (A1/Freebandz/Epic)
 

 

“There’s life in autotune yet. Especially in rap bangers with insane lyrics.” JM

***
 

Ghold – Of Ruin (Ritual Productions)
 

 

“If, like me, you’re some sort of sick drunken troll who likes diving head-first into the noisiest, most brutal pools of bile you can find, then I have no doubt you will take this album, clutch it to your warm bosom and cherish it like an ugly child.” LO (read full review here)

***
 

Ghost Culture – Ghost Culture (Phantasy)
 

 

“Not only fully delivers on Ghost Culture’s early promise, but suggests there is plenty left in the tank.” KWC (read full review here)

***
 

Girl Band – Holding Hands With Jamie (Rough Trade)
 

 

“Four unsuspecting Dubliners have joined an ever-growing list of artists looking to push some boundaries, not sit comfortably within pre-existing ones.” NB (read full review here)

***
 

Gold Celeste – The Glow (Riot Factory)
 

 

The Glow is blessed with a pure, glittering sheen, akin to waking up on a snow-blanketed Christmas morning (after spending Christmas Eve drinking the urinary champagne of reindeer fed generously on Fly Agaric mushrooms)” KWC (read full review here)

***
 

Hey Colossus – Radio Static High(Rocket)
 

 

“Coming only a few months after the immense In Black and Gold, Radio Static High feels like the culmination of years of hard graft during which Hey Colossus have explored a diverse but generally very heavy sonic furrow. Put simply, it’s the sound of a band hitting their stride. You’d better get in step with them or get trodden on.” LO (read full review here)

***
 

Holly Herndon – Platform (4AD)
 

 

“Herndon has an undeniable talent for drawing on disparate sounds, pushing them for minutes on end, and at the point where you’re like ‘Holly love, I’ve lost you’, she flicks some kind of switch, makes an inversion, and it all makes fantastic sense.” EH (read full review here)

***
 

Jerusalem In My Heart – If He Dies, If If If If If If (Constellation)
 

 

“The ease with which Jerusalem In My Heart fuses Arabic musicality with the harder edges of post-rock, techno and ambient soundscapes is stunning. It sounds at once like the horror of the sandstorms currently engulfing his country of birth, and the night-time cosmopolitan streets he’s surrounded by now.” NB (read full review here)

***
 

JME – Integrity> (Boy Better Know)
 

 

“The continuing resurgence of grime has been one of the stories of 2015, but the quickfire, shoot ‘n’ shot nature of the genre doesn’t always translate into standout albums (at least not now the major labels are laying off a bit). While JME’s older brother Skepta stole most of the headlines this year, it was the younger sibling’s third LP that provided an extended example of what makes grime great – Integrity> is fast-paced, sharp-tongued and, above all, loads of fun.” KWC

***
 

Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness(Domino)
 

 

“For some reason I could never really get on board with Julia Holter’s previous albums. With this one I’ve not only forced my way on board but am leaping around on the upper deck making a salivating fool of myself. Sublime, velvety brilliance.” KWC

***
 

Junglepussy – Pregnant With Success (self-released)
 

 

“At the start she promises, “in 2016 you gonna be needing me like nicotine / On your knees where you’re supposed to be.” For someone who references religion in a serious way, something tells me this is as much about reaching some higher artistic plane as it is a double entendre. While her independent ethos might not get Pregnant With Success into many end-of-year lists, it’s a record that should give its creator and her fans something to be proud about. Something to love, in fact.” NB (read full review here)

***
 

Kamasi Washington – The Epic (Brainfeeder)
 

 

“For fuck’s sake put down what you’re doing, lie down, shut your eyes and listen to this – I promise you haven’t got anything better to do with the next three hours.” AA

***
 

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly (Top Dawg / Aftermath)
 

 

“Kendrick Lamar’s third album commits to an intricate dialogue in which he plumbs the troubled depths of both his personal inner conflict and a legacy of colonial race issues that bleed through to modern life. It can be challenging and maybe even overreaches a couple of times, but to dedicate an entire album to this level of depth is a bold move, and only Kendrick Lamar Duckworth (that’s right) could have ever pulled it off… on every listen it morphs and surfaces new meaning.” Amris Kaur (read full review here)

***
 

Kill The Vultures – Carnelian (Totally Gross National Product)
 

 

“With Kendrick Lamar enlisting half of LA’s jazz scene to assist on To Pimp A Butterfly and Ghostface Killah getting BadBadNotGood to bolster Sour Soul, it’s been a good year for jazz/rap crossover. Minneapolis duo Kill The Vultures assembled a bewildering array of musicians to construct their adventurously jazzy second album Carnelian, and it shows – this is probably the most musically exciting hip-hop album of 2015.” KWC

***
 

Lakker – Tundra (R&S)
 

 

“There’s no stand-out tune, no ‘banger’, but here is an academically minded electronica record with enough heart to make it as much a mood-building experience as a demonstration of purely technical abilities.” NB (read full review here)

***
 

La Luz – Weirdo Shrine
 

 

“Seattle-based surf rock? It shouldn’t work, but it does. A fine coating of drizzle gives Weirdo Shrine an aura of gloom unusual for the genre, and makes for a refreshing atmospheric change.” KWC (read a live review here

***
 

Low – Ones and Sixes (Sub Pop)
 

 

“Low have established that despite retaining their trademark sound, they’re constantly progressing sonically while retaining their evocative and vivid lyrics. I might be a bit hasty saying this but it’s already probably my favourite Low record, and I can’t wait to see where they go next.” Amadeep Chana (read full review here)

***
 

Mbongwana Star – From Kinshasa (World Circuit)
 

 

“The central duo of Mbongwana Star, Yakala ‘Coco’ Ngambali and Nsituvuidi ‘Theo’ Nzonza, split from Konono No. 1 in 2013, but their new group Mbongwana Star shows they’re not looking backwards. With Tony Allen producer Liam Farrell completing the trio, From Kinshasa is an electric piece of work in every sense, stomping a new path in Congolese music with a questing, bass-heavy approach.” KWC

***
 

Nat Birchall – Invocations (Jazzman)
 

 

“Who would’ve expected the best spritual jazz album in years to arrive out of Manchester? Nat Birchall’s Invocations not only attempts to raise the spirit of his hero John Coltrane, but it damn well near does so. A stunningly beautiful album performed by a band who sound like they’re not just reading from the same page, but doing so with their eyes shut. Special praise due for pianist Adam Fairhall’s spurring, stirring contributions.” KWC

***
 

Of Montreal – Aureate Gloom (Polyvinyl)
 

 

Aureate Gloom sees Kevin Barnes return to his psychedelic, kaleidoscopic best; the songs flip-flop about the shop like an electric eel on a wet dancefloor listening to Television. The lyrics are as impenetrable and bizarre as ever, though this time shards of painful truths poke through the glam gloss. Barnes’ recent personal traumas filter through the Bowie-esque rainbows, delivering stark moments of sadness which keep the spiralling madness anchored to a bitter, sinking reality.” LO

***
 

Ought – Sun Coming Down (Constellation)
 

 

“While the title of Sun Coming Down makes a sunset sound like some sort of terrible accident – in this jagged, tempestuous atmosphere at least – you sense the sun is only just beginning to rise on Ought’s career. With any luck, another ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’ awaits.” KWC (read full review here)

***
 

Owiny Sigoma Band – Nyanza (Brownswood)
 

 

“The third instalment of this ongoing Anglo-Kenyan collaboration is the one that seems least bothered by its multinational origins, and more interested in where it’s taking them. As a result it’s the best Owiny Sigoma Band release to date, a mercurial rampage through a myriad of musical possibilities that somehow always lands in the right place.” KWC

***
 

Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper (Domino)
 

 

“Apparently when Panda Bear meets the grim reaper what we get is an album that sounds anything but grim. Full of comforting textures and harmonies, it’s as much of a spiritual experience as his past albums but the concept makes the songs seem more meaningful, as they envelop the listener with hymnal glimmers of hope.” Ellie Brennan (read full review here)

***
 

Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe & Ariel Kalma – We Know Each Other Somehow (RVNG Intl.)
 

 

“Beautiful, droney and mind-altering.” JM

***
 

Róisín Murphy – Hairless Toys (PIAS)
 

 

“Before Benjamin Clementine’s admittedly affecting speech and closing performance, Róisín Murphy provided the only moment at this year’s Mercury Prize worth waking up for. Her performance of ‘House Of Glass’ was as impeccably unhinged as all of the music videos that have tumbled out of this album, and suggested, as the luxuriantly silky music does, that Murphy is currently having the time of her artistic life. Oh yeah and Hairless Toys should’ve won the award too, obvs. KWC

***
 

Roots Manuva – Bleeds (Big Dada)
 

 

“In shifting the lyrical focus onto the wounds of modern society as well as maintaining his trademark dark confessional, Manuva has written his best and most honest album in a decade. Welcome back Rodney, we missed you.” David Jupp (read full review here)

***
 

Shamir – Ratchet (XL)
 

 

“‘On the Regular’ is like the ultimate, purest distillation of sass. The rest of the album still needs a look though, from the broodier sass of ‘Vegas’ (“where sin is alright, at least at night”) through to ‘Darker’, where ominous distorted screams rumble underneath a vocal that feels like it could’ve been from a Shakespeare’s Sister ’90s electro ballad. Fucking adorable. Eat it right up. Five times a day.” AA (read full review here)

***
 

Stara Rzeka – Zamknęły Się Oczy Ziemi (Instant Classic)
 

 

“Apparently this will be the last album from Polish artist Stara Rzeka before he turns to other projects, although to be honest where could he possibly go from here anyway? Difficult to categorise, you could possibly get away with calling this post-folk; although even the loose borders of that vague description don’t have a hope of containing a record of such astonishing breadth and depth.” KWC

***
 

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic kitty)
 

 

“Stevens’ goes personal with a record dedicated to his late mother Carrie and step-father Lowell (who actually runs his Asmatic Kitty label). It’s an album stripped bare, a heartbreaking memorial harking back to the days of Seven Swans, and while it’s not exactly an easy listen, it’s a rewarding one. The songs are simple, the melodies are memorable and the lyrics are utterly bleak as Carrie suffers from schizophrenia, depression and alcoholism, leaving the family when Sufjan is just a year old. This is not a bitter exercise however; the lyrics on opener ‘Death With Dignity’ put that to bed immediately when he sings, “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you.” AC

***
 

Thee Oh Sees – Mutilator Defeated At Last (Castle Face)
 

 

“Thee Oh Sees are one of those bands who just seem to get better and better despite never seeming to change their approach much. Nonetheless, Mutilator Defeated At Last may be their most distinguished album to date. From the moment the drums on opener ‘Web’ suddenly switch from stomping to sprinting you know it’s going to be a winner, while six-minute centrepiece ‘Sticky Hulks’ is another mercurial beauty, gusting from wispy organ breezes to guitar-driven gales at a moment’s notice. Bring on album number… twelve? Fifteen? Whatever it is, bring it on and bring it hard.” KWC

***
 

This Is The Kit – Bashed Out (Brassland)
 

 

Bashed Out is a little piece of folk gold: a series of tales told through mellow guitar, banjo, felt-clad drumsticks and the hypnotic vocals of Kate Stables. She strikes a balance between delicate poignancy, nursery-rhyme humour and log-fire warmth, resulting in a record which has an understated energy and confidence. The line in ‘Magic Spell’ which goes “pick yourself up off your rusty-dusty” is still bamboozling me though: anyone who knows what one of these is, please make yourself known.” EH (read a live review here)

***
 

USA Nails – No Pleasure (Smalltown America)
 

 

“Honestly, there are enough toxic bangers on here to desecrate an entire batch of artisan, delicately cultivated cheeses, and their posh crackers, from 100 meters.” LO (read full review here)

***
 

U.S. Girls – Half Free (4AD)
 

 

“The last track, ‘Women’s Work’, manages to Moroder its way right into my heart. Mostly all I’ve ever wanted is a synth that sounds like a violin and a big, long, messy wail over a tight and bombastic electro drumbeat. Hot as hell. Miserable, angry and weird. Seven minutes. Buy it for this one. Bargain.” AA

***
 

Vessels – Dilate (Leaf)
 

 

“I love how Vessels are unafraid to squeeze the absolute maximum out their ideas: if it’s going to take eight minutes to get to the perfect point, that’s how long we’ll wait. Sometimes Dilate’s direction is achingly chilled – ‘Echo In’ is the musical equivalent of plunging yourself into the shimmering pool of an Ibiza penthouse – and sometimes it goes for the all-out-win with the likes of euphoric techno breakthrough ‘On Your Own Ten Toes’.” EH

***
 

Wand – 1000 Days (Drag City)
 

 

“We could’ve probably filled this list with 2015 releases by Wand, Hey Colossus and Jerusalem In My Heart alone, but luckily quantity doesn’t always want for quality – especially not with these guys. March’s Golem album was great, but the ridiculous amount of tunes squirting out the sides of 1000 Days takes Wand to another level. Cory Hanson appears to have nicked not just Marc Bolan’s vocal chords, but his knack for a killer hook too.” KWC

***
 

Wolf Eyes – I Am a Problem: Mind in Pieces (Third Man)
 

 

“Wolf Eyes aren’t exactly the sort of band you’d expect to turn up on Jack White’s record label (especially after they blew his amp many years ago), but while their first release on Third Man is one of the noise veterans’ more accessible works, that doesn’t necessarily make it accessible. Nonetheless, a transcendental sense of contentment does pervade this murky but mesmerising album, even if it’s the sort of contentment exhibited by a feral cat pawing the viscera of its latest prey.” KWC

***
 

Young Fathers – White Men Are Black Men Too(Big Dada)
 

 

“You’re on the cusp of becoming the cult alternative act of your era, so what do you do? Announce an album with a controversial title which provokes response, but keep the content as solid as on your debut. White Men Are Black Men Too develops on the themes and styles found on 2014’s full-length debut DEAD, but with a confidence and artistic integrity rarely heard.” NB

Previous in Features

HAG explain their 'Fear Of Man'

HAG explain their 'Fear Of Man'
London's finest purveyors of 'Eagle Metal' tell us about riffs, the stupidity of man, and the forthcoming collaboration between HAG and Phil Collins...
Read More

Spotlight

MPEGs XI: Tommy Cash, Danny Brown, Mary Ocher and more…

From the titillating sleaziness of Tommy Cash to the monochrome oddities of Mary Ocher, set your square eyes on eleven of last month’s finest music videos…

Read More