Emma-Lee Moss mere moments before watching Star Wars in Hong Kong
For the second year in a row, I’m rating the lesser known albums of the year so that you don’t have to, giving up approximately 10 hours of my life to provide reviews of the 2015 records you don’t particularly care about. These albums are not Carly Rae or Adele, they’re not Kendrick, Beach House, Miguel, or any of the other records that made a splash in our hearts this year (did I mention Carly Rae?). For whatever reason, these artists didn’t hit the charts in 2015, or feature heavily on important blogs and in newspapers. But, you know, they bothered to show up, so I’m going to melt my brain listening to them.
Having done this twice now, it appears to me that the quality of albums in 2015—even the ones that were ignored—was generally better than in 2014. I’m basing this on the huge headache I had last year at the end of this process, compared to the upbeat mood I’m in right now, and the fact that while I was combing through the list of every album released this year, I noticed that most of it was pretty good. So record fans rejoice! Although the world is just about falling to pieces right now, there’s quite a lot of new music that’s worth listening to as it happens. Imagine Nero had iPhone headphones - that could be us.
So dive in to this generally positive list, and maybe discover a treat you didn’t know about. I’ve certainly listened to Enya more than I needed to for the sake of journalism. And don’t worry, although this article contains a reference to Star Wars, it does not contain spoilers. Please find a helpful playlist of all the best tracks from this rundown at the bottom of this piece.
I imagine this self-released Wilco album did well enough just off the back of their fans, but I wanted to include it so I could start my review with the line "Obviously I knew of one Star Wars being released this year, but two?" This is a great sounding record, filled with masterful musicianship and attention to detail. It might be a weird thing to notice but the gaps between songs are really well curated. Also the song titles are a gas. I think track 3, "Random Name Generator," is supposed to be a reference to this. My favorite title is "Pickled Ginger," because I love sushi.
There’s something very warm and familiar about Wilco’s music, and this album is filled with soaring guitar distortion, and beeps and whines that call to mind musical saws, like the Flaming Lips minus drugs. At the end of these thirty-three minutes, I felt as uplifted as I imagine I will feel tonight after I’ve watched The Force Awakens. No spoilers.
Best Song: "Random Name Generator"
Anyone wondering what one-time teen superstar Joss Stone has been up to in recent years might check the track listing of her new album, specifically the name of track 11, "Sensemilla," and the name of her own record label, Stone’d, and put together a mental picture of Stone, lying in a mansion somewhere (LA? Dorset?) with a heavily modified vapestick and a tray of waffles. Tis the festive season, so let’s add a butler to the scene. Let’s say he’s the one who heats the waffles. However true this picture might be, Stone’s been making music this whole time, including a stint in SuperHeavy, a supergroup consisting of Mick Jagger, Dave Stewart, and Damien Marley. It was Marley, apparently, who suggested she make a reggae-influenced album, and it’s Marley who has produced this, a proficient piece of work, which in good moments brings to mind an easy-listening version of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and in others feels like listening to reggae with your head under water. Shout out to "Sensimilla," with a middle eight that doubles as instructions on hydroponics, and ends with "Make a cup of tea and drink it." Keep doing you, Joss Stone, it’s working.
Best Song: "Sensimilla"
Papa Roach brings out the military granddad in me. Every other lyric on this album put thoughts in my head like, "If you feel cold inside wear a sweater" or “You don’t have any problems that a five minute plank won’t fix." I mean, I don’t relate to anything about this band, so I was never going to give their album a good review but seriously guys? "My weakness is that I care too much"? It is a guarantee that anyone who believes their biggest flaw is being nice is a horrendous douchebag that only thinks about themselves. Also, there is a very popular song by Ian Brown (of The Stone Roses, duh) called "F.E.A.R.", which runs through a lot of possible sentences for that acrostic. Even if Papa Roach have never heard of Ian Brown, or his band The Stone Roses, which is very possible as they’re not famous in the US, did they never once Google F.E.A.R. and see that the premise of their entire album has already been done some 15 years ago? For the sake of balance, I should say that some of the songs on this record are actually big pop songs with only a light sprinkling of nu-metal accompaniment, and that I would probably be into them if they were sung by Rihanna.
Best Song: "Love me Til It Hurts"
This album literally starts with a list of domestic complaints: "The toilet’s fucking broken again?" sings John Lydon, "I repaired that, I told ya—get the plumber in again…" As I listened to it, and struggled to figure out if this was somehow a metaphor for society, the next two songs progressed, and I began to think of an episode of Sex and the City I watched last night, where Samantha dates a 72-year-old millionaire who uses the phrase "cats" to refer to his pals un-ironically. Listening to track three, which mocks American culture using now-dead pinups like Betty Page and Louise Brooks, I started see this album as Lydon’s own version of saying "cats" while trying to seduce a woman. Fortunately, after that, things became less perplexing. It’s nice to hear that PiL’s post-punk surrealism is still musically consistent, and Lydon remains an intriguing vocalist. I think the truth is he's aged, and his ideas are a little off-base, like the chief lyric in the closing song: “What the world needs now is another ‘fuck off.’” Really? I'm pretty sure that's not a terribly constructive contribution. The best songs on this album are existential and not political, like "Big Blue Sky," a pleasantly Bowie-esque ballad which alludes to big conundrums. Ultimately, like Lydon’s own life, this record brings up more questions than answers, like: Why don’t you get a new toilet?
Best Song: "Big Blue Sky"
So it turns out I love Bryan Adams, and this is the moment I found out. It makes sense, I was at an impressionably young age when his Robin Hood song spent 85,000 weeks in the charts, and some weird subliminal devotion must have snuck into my brain, at that specific moment while it was still being formed. Or maybe Bryan Adams is just good. I mean I think this album is really good. The chords are glorious, the choruses are tight and simple. The song structure is, in general, top, top notch and all of the lyrics tell a story. The cover is extremely bad though. It doesn’t matter. I love Bryan Adams.
Best Song: "We Did it All"
I remember Alesha Dixon as the member of 90s UK girl group Mis-Teeq whose rap style sounds like a Japanese Pachinko machine, but Americans will know her best from her table dancing in the N.E.R.D. video for "She Wants to Move." In recent years, she’s done that side step from fading pop entity to reality TV personality (hosting shows like Strictly Come Dancing and Britain's Got Talent), so I was expecting this album to be mostly songs about what a survivor she is. I was not correct. Roughly the first half of this album consists of EDM bangers with a UK Garage edge, and had me wondering why the record hadn’t been a sleeper hit, even without the support of a label. The second half, which is mainly inspirational ballads about how much people need love, might be the reason.
Best Song: "Tallest Girl"
By the time I put on Metric, I’d already listened to a fair amount of albums, but I am a strong person so I was doing OK—thanks for checking in. Around five songs through this particular opus, my baby nephew came back in and started looking depressed. I don’t blame him—I like Metric but this album is unusually dreary for having so many fast paced songs. My nephew got whisked away for nap time, and I paused the album to get some treats from the kitchen. With my blood sugar at a nice peaky zone, I was able to finish it without any drama. I can honestly say I have no feelings about it.
Best Song: "The Governess"
I think Conchita Wurst—the Austrian pop star and bearded, be-gowned drag queen who won the Eurovision song contest in 2014, is a good public figure. Obviously, she needed an album to further her brand, and obviously, since it came out this year, I had to listen to it. Since it came from a Eurovision contestant, I was expecting bad things. Tacky things. Actually, it was a reasonably bearable disco-pop record with hints of musical theater. A lot of the lyrics were honest, and gave glimpses into Conchita’s personal life, which is precisely what a public figure should do on an album. This record went to number 1 in Austria, so, you know, someone is listening.
Best Song: "Rise Like a Phoenix"
A few years ago, The Corrs’ Jim Corr had the best conspiracy theorist website on the internet. Now, his site is just a press shots and the dates for future Corrs’ shows, which I guess means the Corrs are back on the musical grind, and possibly there was an intervention. By-the-by if you're not familiar with The Corrs, that's OK, let me help. The Corrs are a family band, made up of three disquietingly attractive sisters (which includes identical twins who played the drums and the fiddle) and one brother who most readily resembled a lost member of Zooropa-era U2. The band briefly came to the attention of the UK pop charts in the 90s with inofffensive pop songs like "Breathless." History lesson over.
Most of the songs at the beginning of this new album are MOR alt-rock, the kind usually playing as a character in a movie finds themselves, or runs out of an office building, having just quit their job. Or maybe the character is holding several shopping bags, looks up into the sky, breathes in, and just smiles. Towards the end of the record, things start getting deep. There’s a folk song about crossing the Irish Sea and arriving in Ellis Island, and then a serious Celtic hoedown on Gerry’s Reel which I imagine shows off the band’s genuine ability to play instruments. I’ll never forgive the Corrs for their cover of "Dreams" (in the video for which, the hottest Corr parps out a few notes on a recorder. See! They're all gifted musicians!), but I did get a lump in my throat during "Ellis Island."
Best Song: "Ellis Island"
Enya - Dark Sky Island
I was thrilled to see that Enya released a record this year, and I saved it for the end because I knew it would help me wind down. Did you know that Enya is one of the best selling musicians of all time? She deserves it. Her musical style is a design classic, and it’s relaxing to listen to even when all the songs blend into one. There’s something in her voice as well which seems to turn English words into Latin. I have no idea what any of these songs are about. The ocean I imagine. I’m on my second listen in a row. Peace on Earth.
Best song: I really don’t know
Emma-Lee Moss is heading back from Hong Kong to NYC now and makes music as Emmy the Great. Follow her on Twitter.