Child Death – Balam Acab
By Naomi Southwell
The ominously titled Child Death is Balam Acab’s latest release since his debut LP Wander/Wonder. The artist is known for his ethereal watery sounds immersed in psychedelic witchy beats. In anticipation of the new release Alex Koone (Balam Acab) revealed a photo montage of samples he had used on the new record, significantly less than on Wander Wonder. He also tweeted that Child Death would include live vocals and Konne’s own guitar playing. Koone tantalisingly declared that Child Death is the “favourite music I’ve ever made.”
This enthusiastic build up, after 4 years of waiting, led to a significant hype surrounding the record. This was slightly dampened by the release of the album cover art. It is awful, it reminds me of the worst types of faux tribal tattoo designs. But perhaps this is the best example of the old maxim, don’t judge a LP by its cover.
The album, whilst failing to reach the surreal witchiness of Wander Wonder it does have beautiful moments, felt mostly on the tracks ‘Glory Sickness’ and ‘Spend Lives’. Both emulate the multilayered rich vocals in Wander/Wonder. It feels as if, with the infrequent sampling and live performances, Koone has emerged from the surreal soundscapes of Wander/Wonder and into reality. A slightly halted and sparse reality but one that echoes its former eerie ghostly self.
Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes
By James Chater
With the release of their debut album Boys & Girls back in 2012, Alabama Shakes made an impressive mark with their distinctive sound of soul-infused rock. Despite the popularity of tracks like ‘Hold On’, the album overall betrayed qualities of a group still searching for their unique generic and stylistic angle. In their 2015 album Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes not only remedied this issue but set new precedents in their ability to seamlessly blend stylistic contrast into a coherent whole.
The opening of the title track is ingenious. The ethereal and wandering vibraphone chords evokes a kind of synesthetic stupor that actualizes in an instant the album’s title. The band’s sensitivity to instrumental colour pervades the album and is deployed intelligently to great effect. Later in the title track this is exhibited perfectly when what begins as isolated dissonant string chords slowly begin to enter actual harmonic sphere of the track without ever fully resolving.
However, the album’s greatest asset lies in its ability to set up broad stylistic opposition whilst always maintaining an unmistakably Alabama Shakes quality. The driving rhythm of the brilliant ‘Don’t Wanna Fight’ gives way to the intensely personal moments of the soul-drenched ‘This Feeling’ and ‘Miss You’, which in turn is set in relief to the upbeat ‘The Greatest’. The stunning and versatile vocal performance of Brittany Howard is fundamental to this achievement. For this reason and many others, Sound & Color represents one of the most refreshing Grammy nominations for Best Album in a number of years.
We Slept At Last – Marika Hackman
By Owen Sinclair
Released way back in February of 2015, Marika Hackman’s debut album, We Slept at Last, is definitely worth a listen if you haven’t already. While her music could loosely be described as folk rock, or electro folk, such labels fail to capture the record in the light it deserves. It’s far more delicate and brooding than such a blunt description might suggest. Hackman, 23 from London (not to be confused with her brother, who produces dance music under the name “Hackman”), taught herself to play the guitar as a child. She has been composing music since 14 and has released 4 EPs prior to her debut, which she worked on with producer Charlie Andrew.
Serene and ethereal, the album varies from beautifully simple constructions to more upbeat tracks such as ‘Animal Fear’, then and back again. Her delicate vocals – at times trailing off to barely more than a whisper – sit clearly and softly amongst her music, neither muddled nor overbearing. It is clear that she needs nothing more than a guitar to enchant the listener, surrounding herself with only a small collection of them when playing live, devoid of bandmates and other instruments.
Despite this, many of her tracks make use of electronic sounds, often adding a surreal depth. ‘Undone, Undress’ features Hackman’s voice floating lightly above ominous electronic undertones, before being joined by drums and strings. However, Hackman doesn’t shy away from her darker side; the video for ‘Animal Fear’ features her transforming into what appears to be a werewolf, before taking out her two fellow band members, splattered with fake blood.
The entire album has something of a melancholic air to it, yet remains enjoyable to listen to.
Hackman has also made We Slept at Last available to stream in its entirety on her Soundcloud account so anyone can listen to it.
In Colour – Jamie xx
By Matt Fuller
With a UK platinum album and a mercury prize to his name as part of The XX, Jamie Smith (a.k.a Jamie xx) is far from a breakthrough artist. Even so, 2015 has seen him to rise to new heights with a string of festival appearances and his August LP In Colour.
Jamie xx continues to lurk in the leftfield, not quite experimental but at the edge of the mainstream. In Colour has seen both critical and commercial success aided by performances at Glastonbury, Reading, Bestival and other festivals, helping it soundtrack many summers. Tracks like ‘Loud Places’ would not be out of place on a new xx project whereas the single ‘I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)’ lends itself to most clubs. Many of the samples keep up his characteristic knack for finding music in the unlikeliest of places, like the opening to ‘Girl’ with the ambitious sampled line “you’re the most beautiful girl in Hackney y’know”.
Despite this In Colour is no mish-mash. It’s atmospheric to the extreme and even on the most minimalistic of tracks such as ‘Obvs’ there’s a clear sense of melancholy. A note of nostalgia for the early nineties scene on which In Colour draws heavily on (albeit with renewed vigour) adds to the consistent ambivalence of the album. At once ecstatic and thoughtful it’s like a moment you hope will never end, but know eventually will.
Badlands – Halsey
By Beth Kirkbride
Propelled into the media spotlight after her romantic involvement with Matt Healy, of The 1975 fame, in 2015 Halsey made her own mark with the powerful and beautiful record that is Badlands. The record is one of the standout albums from the year because of the distinct sense of purpose that emanates from Ashley Frangipane’s creation. Frangipane is a force to be reckoned with; her middle finger is held aloft in a salute to the patriarchy, as she sings “Don’t belong to no city / Don’t belong to no man” in ‘Hurricane’. Her distinctive vocal style is haunting and sincere, and therefore there’s no surprise that the album was propelled to number nine in the UK charts and number two in the US following its release on 28th August last year.
Lyrically, it’s a very personal record. However, it’s this level of emotional fragility which creates a very unique bond between Halsey and her listeners. The musical components foster a sensation of being physically close to the singer – in ‘Drive’ the click of a cassette player and the whir of seatbelts makes you feel like Frangipane is sitting beside you as you journey together. You can feel the singer’s emotion emanating from your earbuds, reverberating out of your record player or your car stereo. In a world where fewer and fewer artists write their own songs, its refreshing to see a record which is so real, so personal. Therefore, Badlands is undoubtedly one of the defining records of 2015.
Art Angels – Grimes
By Zachary Leather
When Grimes insisted in a 2012 interview that she made pop, nobody quite believed her. Grimes’ last album, Visions (2012), was a pleasurable, but slow and dreamy, album that you wouldn’t expect to hear on a dancefloor. Early LPs Halfaxa (2010) and Geidi Primes (2010) are weird, borderline atonal, records full of interesting ideas, but bereft of pop tunes. After this year’s Art Angels, however, nobody should be surprised by Grimes’ self-assigned ‘pop’label.
Grimes came out with the best pop album this year: 13 brilliant tracks of infectious choruses and club beats. With songs like “Kill v Maim”, “Realiti”, “Artangel”, “Butterfly”, “California”, “World Princess Part II”, “Venus Fly” and “Flesh Without Blood” (really, there are more bangers than not on this album), Grimes shows that she can use the pop formula to stunning effect. Opening track “laughing and not being normal”, a textured orchestral meander, serves as Grimes’ reminder that she doesn’t need to become a homogeneous popstar copy in order to make fun and accessible dance songs.
The rest of the album is a powerful statement that there is musical integrity to be found in making catchy dance tunes. Listening back over her previous albums, it’s stunning to see how little she’s changed; here you can find the same otherworldly vocal style, the same dreamy synthesisers and the same original writing. In fact, the only tangible difference is the beats per minute, but it makes all the difference. Maybe Grimes was the queen of pop all along?