Some of these albums floored me with their perfection (Patty Griffin), stunned me with their power (Fuck The Fitzroy Doom Scene) or left me babbling at the brilliance (Kamasi Washington), others continued to foist the words future legend on me (Laura Marling), got me close to tears (Sufjan Stevens), made me think about my own choices (Bjork and Jason Isbell) or sucked me into a weird, dark place (Badbadnotgood & Ghostface Killah).
My 20 best albums of the year got me/kept me excited about music. And that’s all that counts really.
If you want to see what I wrote about these albums (or what another reviewer wrote about the two I didn’t review but wished I had) hit the hyperlink. If you want to hear more I suggest buying – yes buying, not just streaming – some or all of these.
Like any contemporary bit of pop culture the final chapter of the series has too much to fit into one feature so start with part 1 and then come back for part 2. Enjoy.
Patty Griffin – Servant of Love
This masterpiece manages to incorporate Arabic tones and Mexican sounds, English folk and a deep well of country, all of which Patty Griffin adds to the familiar strong dose of the blues and soul.
Laura Marling – Short Movie
While it’s true that almost inevitably you will be compared with Joni Mitchell if you are a woman writing lyrically direct, emotionally complex folkish-pop music (oddly, the jazz side of Mitchell rarely is logged on the media comparison meter), Marling deserves it more than most. That’s not just for the quality of her songs, voice or guitar playing (with this album more on electric than ever before), but the fierceness of her observations – of herself as much as others – delivered in language that strikes a blow every single time.
Trembling Bells – The Sovereign Self
Like forebears Pentangle, Trembling Bells know you can take folk music just about anywhere. Here they take it deep into psychedelic rock. It’s mind blowing. Great.
Fuck the Fitzroy Doom Scene – Facing the Ruin
You could call this stoner rock, though the imposing Fuck the Fitzroy Doom Scene would probably be better known as bloody big menhirs rock. Riffs tumble down steep inclines here – galloping freely like that at the end of Better Off Dead, stomping on slow movers in Come with Us – and then run into solid walls of heaviosity.
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Stevens’ record is suffused with sorrow. Not gloom but bone-deep sadness, albeit delivered in tones almost clinical. Hitherto, he has often worked in religious or quasi-historical contexts, his best-known albums being two devoted to songs about an American state, recognisable figures and issues interwoven with what you might call domestic detail. This album however, is rich with religious symbolism but barely spreads itself out from the layers of meaning in the fractured life of his mother, Carrie, her relationship with Steven’s stepfather, Lowell, and in turn Stevens’ relationship with each of them.
Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
On his new, almost as compelling album there’s no need to have been the child of woman whose expectations never made it past a young pregnancy (“all the years you took from her just by being born”) to feel the dream-meets-truth of the character in Children of Children. And no requirement that you’ve been, or known, a girl who searched for Jesus and read The Bell Jar to know what comes behind the question “are you living the life you chose or are you living the life that chose you?”.
The Unthanks – Mount the Air
The Unthanks have taken in jazz in a significant, if still subtle, way on Mount the Air, trumpet airs in Foundling and the title track most particularly. It is a flavour around but not over Rachel and Becky Unthank’s vocals, their similar but still quite different voices still native and particular. And likewise, around but not over the core folk, whether it is Niopha Keegan’s quite Irish violin emerging out of the opening of Last Lullaby or the harmonies over the drone in the disquieting Magpie.
Kamasi Washington – The Epic
Vast oceans of spirituality and jazz entwined but never underpowered, driven by intense rhythms and topped by often gripping solos.
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
Bennett sings like you imagine she’d talk if you sat next to her on the tram. Or, in the case of Boxing Day Blues, how she’d talk when she was so weary and forlorn that she’d lay her head on your shoulders and confess all to a stranger. She sings of matters so small they would barely register as quotidian (crumbs from soy and linseed bread smeared with Vegemite?) but brings both a fierce eye for the personal (“Oliver Paul, 20 years old/thick head of hair, worries he’s going bald”), a way of surreptitiously building small things on top of small things til they turn into big topics without you noticing, and a flair for the casually poetic.
Hermitude – Dark Night Sweet Light
There’s squiggly electronic sounds next to spare hip hop; open sky soundscapes alongside grooves you could lose your mother, dog and shopping in; hand-on-heart R&B that wouldn’t be out of place buffing a Jay-Z album track shoulder to shoulder with a kind of Euro reggae electronica (much much better than that sounds). And then warm electro soul between bouts of snappy percussion and deep, resonating bass parts, as to remind you that there’s plenty of ways to skin this cat.