Even the casual visitor to the Monolith Cocktail will have picked up on the fact that we shy away from fatuous rating systems and ‘best of lists’. We’d much rather offer a more eclectic spread of worthy ‘choice’ picks, with no album dominating or holding any particular numbered position – unlike most of our contemporaries lists; stuck with the ridiculous task, for example, of explaining why one album doesn’t deserve the number 32 spot and has been placed at number 33 instead.
Lined up in alphabetical order our favourite releases from the year are of course among what we believe the most important and interesting, but ‘best’? Granted, to make this list you have to make some sort of impact, but we’d never suggest these entries were categorically the best albums of 2015, even if that might be true. Instead our list is an indicator of our amorphous tastes, rounding up a year in the life of the Monolith Cocktail, and we hope, introducing you to titles and artists/bands that may have dropped below the radar. So expect to see electric switched-on Malian desert blues alongside crystalline synth pop or, celebratory jazz and folk reissues alongside cerebral pop. Please note: Rapture & Verse‘s main man Matt Oliver will be posting a dedicated yearly rap revue special.
Part Two features David Lawrie, Alan Lee, Pale Honey, Panda Bear, Terakaft, Samba Touré, The Untied Knot, U.S. Girls, Senegal 70, Le Volume Courbe, Vukovar and Xaos. You can have a perusal of part one here…
David Lawrie ‘Dorothea’s Boat’ (Ishikawa Records)
Featured countless times on the monolith Cocktail, his career watched with interest, the magical worlds of lyrical diaspora beasts and topographic oceans that undulate like minor chamber pop opuses from the mind of York (now resident of California) troubadour/film composer David Lawrie are passionately candid and heartfelt. Sumptuously crafted, creating a magical metaphysical vista, Lawrie composes one of the year’s most colourful – if brooding at times – ambitious pop soundtracks, Dorothea’s Boat. Not only does his highly ambitious John Donne like romanticisms float but they sail triumphantly into port on a wave of adulation; both churning with leviathan grandeur and diaphanous melodic harmony to combine in a loose concept album to love .
‘Intricately put together like the pieces of a fine Swiss watch, Lawrie’s clockwork mechanical, overlapping layers and nuanced artfully prosed rich songs tend to inhabit their own space outside the confines of easy demarcation; neither wholly contemporary nor reliant on referencing the past, this all-encapsulating cosmic and earthly suffused songbook uses both atavistic instrumentation and electronic devices to build an imaginative world, populated by literature molded peninsulas and a cast of wondrous wild animals.’
Read the full review here…
Alan Lee ‘An Australian Jazz Anthology’ (Jazzman Records)
Not just the first but, currently, only anthology of the overlooked Australian master vibraphonist and bandleader Alan Lee, is definitive collection of not just the great man’s work but also an essential spotlight on the developments of jazz outside North American and Europe. Collecting a cornucopia of jazz styled suites, sonnets, dances and passages from the trio of albums that were produced in the years 1973 and 1974, the erudite and much respected Jazzman Label chose an intriguing and exciting range of tracks. From his The Alan Lee Jazz Quartet duo of albums recorded for Jazznote there is hard bop, funk and lounge style takes on Freddie Hubbard’s standard ‘Sunflower’, Milt Jackson’s ‘Enchanted Lady’ and WAR’s ‘This World Is A Ghetto’. Proving he could move effortlessly between genres including the avant-garde, his distinguished Gallery Concerts album for Cumquat Records furnishes the collection with his phenomenal Miles Davis meets Sun Ra melange unique take on Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Dance Of The Adolescents’. With everyone jumping on the jazz bandwagon in 2015, as they tried in 2014, forget the likes of the Brianfeeder label who keep releasing pale imitations of Futurist and Afro jazz from the late 60s and early 70s (Alice Coltrane, Bird, Cherry, Ayler, the Pharaoh and many others did it better and first) return to the missed classics instead. Both smooth and louche in places but hip and essentially fucking great, Alan Lee is a good starting point.
‘As Lee himself put its, “What I want is the fire! Whether it’s John Coltrane’s Blues Minor from Africa Brass or Backwater Blues by Leadbelly, I want the emotion, the gut-wrenching pain, the cry from within!” No one can claim he hasn’t achieved that, his welcome anthology an emotional force of nature, absorbing all the best parts and musicianship of jazz music’s greats. Not just a revelation but also an essential addition to the library.’
Read the full review here…
Pale Honey ‘Pale Honey’ (Bolero Records)
Exuding a icy cool brooding exterior with a taut, almost deadpan, delivery the Gothenburg duo of guitarist Tuva Lodmark and drummer foil Nelly Daltry produce lofty, airy Scandinavian pop and indie-punk. Surly and languorous with sudden bursts of spiky energy, the Pale Honey‘s angulated riffs are stripped bare but suave and subtle. There is some great tunes and singles on this their debut album, all of them baring the most subtle of changes, melodies and choruses, and all organically building to reach minor crescendos. We let our resident novelist and adroit critic Ayfer Simms loose on the Honeys, and she came back with a literary dotted appraisal…
‘Gothenburg: They enter the stage with a flippant presence; with the album Pale Honey, there is nonchalance, an immense amount of it, explosions, gentle melodies and a super funky cool allure: Between electro music and anachronistic indie sound of the 50s, 60s and 80s we are thrown in a slow motion atmosphere with layers of speed and bursting energetic guitars, pulsating sticks on bolted barrels and subtle psychedelic keyboard effects: Joined all by a suave cool, sweet and strong voice, a little girl? Fierce, a ballad, not so easy, not so fast.’
Read the full review here…
Panda Bear ‘Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper’ (Domino Records)
Animal Collective‘s most active cub Noah Lennox kicked off the year with his most kaleidoscopic technicolor dreamboat pop album yet. Closer to the chaotic melodic bombardment and zap-y phaser attacks of the Collective’s Centipede Hz, Lennox’s wild gesticulated, warped dog/creature howl sequences and psych anthems threaten to overwhelm or fall apart. Yet somehow it all seems to gel, with loops and vapourous modulations beautifully all synching together when they meet in a free-roaming surf bequeathed songbook. Less languorous and floating in a haze, the songs are tighter, more focussed.
Still travelling those muggy celestial and watery contours, his meeting with the Grim Reaper is anything but foreboding. More meditative, searching and magical than eulogy, the Panda Bear‘s lifecycle is a long way from death. And with the announcement of a new Animal Collective LP, Painting With, in the new year, it seems Lennox has a lot more to offer.
Terakaft ‘Alone’ (Outhere Records)
Whilst the Syrian conflict – for good reason – continues to dominate the news feeds internationally, the countless infractions and acts of brutality in North and West Africa struggle to make the headlines. Whether vaporised by western technology or bullying the local populations across the region, ISL, ISIS or whatever the abbreviation is these days, the victims in this bloody battle to establish a tyrannical caliphate are for the most part Muslim. With a zealous taste for punishment and a puritanical mindset that would put Cromwell’s prudish stoicism to shame, they’ve all but condemned any practice, activity and spark of creativity that falls outside their myopic perimeters. And if, like many tribes that make up the fabric of Mali your customs and atavistic roots heavily feature song and music than you’re for the CHOP! After years of civil war between the government and the Bedouin Tuareg people an uneasy but stable truce has returned some kind of normality back to the country. A “rebellion” that was dominated both by hardliner Tuareg groups such as Ansar Dine and insurgents from outside the country, the recent embittered conflict threatened to escalate as fanatical Islamist elements dominated. Invited or not, they saw an opportunity to conquer and spread their Sharia dictate, much to their ill-at-ease comrades in the more moderate National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. Far too complicated and nuanced than the space given here, the eventual outcome was a three-way battle between all parties as the Tuareg fell out with each other. With the capital of Bamako at risk – though the fountain of Mali knowledge and much-venerated ancient seat of learning, Timbuktu was captured by the Tuareg groups and made the state capital of the Azawad region, before being recaptured by government forces – the Malian government were forced to work with their former colonial rulers France to take back control.
It’s hardly a surprise to find countless poignant allusions to these events throughout the Malian music scene, from the Tuareg desert bluesman to the capital’s hallowed-out canoe-shaped ngoni players. Despite this or perhaps because of it, Mali’s adroit musicians have provided some of the most richly rewarding, inventive and evocative music of the past few years. The triumvirate desert caravan of Tamikrest, Tinariwen and Terakaft emerge once again to record the most entrancing spiritual Saharan desert blues strut of an album (their fifth). Alone channels the isolation, remoteness and strife of the Tuaregs into the group’s most amped-up and switched-on electric blues and Gnawa trance sound yet. Every track is a whirlish, and sometimes psychedelic transcendental, classic, honed by British producer Justin Adams (Robert Plant, Tinariwen and Juldeh Camera); most of the tracks heading for the dance floor. No room for maudlin eulogies and despair, despite the themes and subjects, on this stunning candour through the Northern Mali heartlands, as the “Saharan cowboy, with Wah Wah Watson sideboards and full Rock and Roll attitude” Sanou and old-hand rhythm specialist Diara partnership keep it sauntering like a mirage. If there’s one abiding message above all others, it’s one of unity in the face of a far worse enemy.
‘Alone is a soulful, deeply spirited but mesmerisingly solid rock and roll album, the group on another level entirely locked into a groove of kinship. This isn’t just a recommended purchase; it’s an essential one.’
Read the full review here…
Samba Touré ‘Gandadiko’ (Glitterbeat)
Another startling piece of work to come out of the fragile Mali, guitar maestro Samba Touré nimbly picks his way through the troubles in the most and subtle of poetic desert Songhai-blues’ styles. His last masterful performance, the Albala album from 2013, was captivatingly sad; lamenting with both anger and stirring protestation the ongoing struggles that were tearing Mali apart, including the taking of his very own village of Diré by the rebels (who once invaded implemented Sharia law) and the ramifications of the 2012 coup in his adopted home of Bamako. 2015’s follow up, Gandadiko, addresses the fall out as well as the most recent problems of a barren landscape made even worse by recent droughts, leading to massive inflation of prices – healthier cattle from just two years back reached $600, now enervated and boney they’re lucky to reach a tenth of that. Of course, this album was released back at the beginning of the year, and so the recent shock attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in the capital will unsettle the precarious peace and will inevitably be reflected over the coming months by Mali’s artists and bands.
Despite all this, Touré’s record producer Phillippe Sanmiguel states in the press release, “this is a more hopeful record”, with “a variety of rhythms and moods, both more danceable and up-tempo”. Touré in his optimistic renew has taken to venturing further afield for ideas and melodies, listening to an eclectic mix of psychedelia, Bo Diddley (not so surprising), swamp boogie and (this one is a surprise) Serge Gainsbourg. All these influences and styles come together in one of the best blues albums of the year, both lamenting and joyfully celebrating the generous musical spirit and perseverance of the Malian people.
‘As is customary, Touré’s subtle, nuanced style of playing needs total immersion to be absorbed and enjoyed. This is the blues after all, served by a more traditional backing of indigenous variants of West African instrumentation that never quite breaks into a swagger or funk. Still, it does have more movement and rhythm than its predecessor and is perhaps a little more jaunty and self-assured.’
Read the full review here…
The Untied Knot ‘Description Of A Flame’
Thankfully reaching the fund-raising target for their latest stunning suite, Description Of A Flame, Kosmiche lovers of wondrous and effortlessly improvised peregrinations Nigel Bryant and Matt Donovan, have produced their most rewarding album yet. Collated in a congruous fashion from hours of experimentation and free-flow jamming during 2014, this warm, live-feel collection is an investigative journey into knowledge. From astral surfing the outer reaches of the universe to absorbing evocative Mosquito Coastlines; from exploring the mysteries of the nebula to looking through the microscope at the fabric of nature, the duo’s Untied Knot soundtrack describes environments, cells and the structures with imaginative skill. Subtle hints of Popol Vuh, Sky Records, Zappi/Péron’s Faust and Roedelius merge brilliantly with Bryant and Donovan’s own brand of tubular oscillations, suffused fuzz and lingering peaceful ambience. ‘Sonic imperfections’ they might well be but they sound far from being merely experiments and unfinished.
‘From the very first redolent Faust noodling’s of the opening ponderous ‘Aluminium Dream’ to the astral rainforest peace of the magnificent Kosmiche finale ‘Everything Lasts Forever’, an omnipresent leviathan of exploration hangs over the collection. A presence in the form of investigation places subjects and title descriptions under a musical microscope, no matter how extemporised and freely put together, the duo have crafted a thing of suffused beauty; the very DNA of their inspirations dissected and stretched out to reveal a hidden soundtrack.’
Read the full review here…
U.S. Girls ‘Half Free’ (4AD)
Far excelling her previous Ronnie Spector, The Shirelles and avant-garde shrilled and murky resonating basement tape albums, Meg Remy has turned to the label of cerebral pop 4AD for her most ambitious and best songbook collection yet, Half Free. Backed by both her usual collaborative production line of partner and foil Slim Twig and Toronto beat provider Onakabazien, and by an extended cast of Canadian musicians/singers including Amanda Grist (who provides the only support, as Meg’s backing vocalist, on tour) and Carl Didur, Remy has been freed up to concentrate on her vocals performance, songwriting and lyrics. Whatever the formula, it has worked. Meg both on record and live (a performance we were lucky enough to catch a couple months back) has never sounded so confident and striking.
Meg Remy does what she does best, but on a much grander scale; honing the darkness and plight of what was always celebrated as the innocent, teenage growing pains of adolescence with more gravitas, Meg’s robust themes swim amorphously through the dry-ice, crystal waves of the late 70s and 80s to produce a post modern pop triumph. Meg’s everywoman U.S. Girls alter ego channels and speaks for a cast of various tragic and yearning female personalities and vamps; all of them suffering from isolation, discomfort and the burden of their sexuality. Progressing from the basement tapes and reverberated Spector sonic loops of the past to her latest incarnation as the pining pop artist, Meg Remy’s production values are, as we suggested, highly ambitious: her previous work a precursor series of experimental outings. Without a doubt Half Free is her most mature, meticulous and glorious incarnation yet.
‘Her most dazzling, hypnotically eclectic album yet, both thematically and musically, Half Free is essentially a highly sophisticated and gracefully slick pop triumph: On a parallel, alternative timeline this could have been (stay with me on this one) a Camille Paglia championed Madonna era masterpiece from the mid 80s; her veracious sensual heartache and woozy dream like escapism is certainly evoked at various times throughout the album. Madonna aside, Meg takes on the mantle of various female personalities and vamps, but often desexualizes and reduces their carnal allure to a sense of isolation and discomfort. Her cast of troubled personas this time around owes a debt to the characters of John Cassavetes and Michael Ondaatje, and to the broken down protagonist of a lost 70s plaintive disco classic.’
Read the full review here…
Various ‘Senegal 70: Sonic Gems & Previously Unreleased Recordings From The 70’s’ (Analog Africa)
A return to where it all began for Analog Africa’s Samy Ben Redjeb. Back in the mid 90s he hung up his flippers as a diving instructor and took a leap of faith. Hired as a DJ in a Senegal hotel, fulfilling his passion for West African music of the 60s and 70s, Samy progressed from playing rare and previously lain dormant records from Africa’s past to running his own label. Samy has done more than most in celebrating and providing an alternative history; from his genre-defining, explosive Africa Screams compilations to the eye-opening, r”n’b wailing horn Legends of Benin collection, his imprint has been integral to the renaissance of that continents musical legacy. Here, alongside Admantios Kafetzis of the contemporary Senegalese label Teranga Beat, the pair explore the melting pot of Latin and African influences that went into Senegal’s local music scene; collating a collection from some of the country’s most obscure recordings. With track’s from the capital’s legendary Amare Touré, Thione Seck, Fangóól and Le Tropical Jazz this latest survey is full of surprises, filled with some of the year’s most sauntering, swinging and feverish balmy shufflers, presented in the most beautifully colourful package with the usual in depth notes/interviews and photographs: a work of art that equals the music it hosts.
‘As you’d expect from the Analog Africa label there’s an abundance of wealth musically and visually to feast on. The driving force is of course that sauntering Afro Cuban rhythm and hints of Merengue, Mbalax and Pachanga, yet the opening ‘Mariama’ from the Parisian founded Fangóól moves to a quasi-reggae gait. Elsewhere it’s either the strains of raw R&B horns and staccato organ, humbled folklore, or shuffling funky backbeats that find themselves merged with the South American tropics. It’s another great survey that will do much to lift Senegal’s music history from obscurity.’
Read the full review here…
Le Volume Courbe ‘I Wish Dee Dee Ramone Was Here With Me’ (Pickpocket)
The Gallic chanteuse singer/songwriter Charlotte Marionneau befittingly rasps and coyly swoons laconic truths in a ‘laissez-aller’ fashion. Acting as a foil to her languid tones, the polygenesis Le Volume Courbe (the volume curve) ensemble ply the thoroughly French elegiac sighs with an ancestral-rich backing.
Recording in the most sporadic way, Marionneau’s last breathy sighs, the four track EP ‘Theodaurus Rex’, was released back in 2011. I originally reviewed, all those years ago, that marvellous work of lyrical and musical enchantment for God Is in The TV and much to my disappointment heard nothing for years: until now. Making her home in London in 1995, the girl from the small French town of Pays de la Lorie, began various musical dalliances with a litany of the UK’s shoegaze and alternative underground music scene, including Simon Raymonde, Kevin Shields, Colm o’ Ciosoig and Mazzy Star‘s Hope Sandoval and David Roback. It is the relationship with My Bloody Valentine’s Shields that has proved the most enduring.
I Wish Dee Dee Ramone Was Here With Me, released only at the end of last month to the most quiet of fanfares on the pairs own Pickpocket Records label, opens with the breathless ‘Born To Lie’, a most resigned of affairs, both chic and emotionally candid. Keeping her melancholic composure in check, our heroine declares, in philosophical shrugs, “Everybody lies/out of fear/Better get used to it” over, what sounds like, an imagined Len Deighton spy thriller set in Greece, strained soundtrack. Acid-casualty, psych patron, and miscreant leader of the acid-garage rockers, the 13th Floor Elevavtors, Roky Erickson wrote some very honest and emotive sonnets whilst recovering from his LSD abuse. The enchanting paean ‘I Love The Living You’ is a typically endearing, if fey, soporific tribute to the maverick author that plaintively takes it on a Bob Dylan trip. An apt title indeed: ‘Lazy’ goes for a kookier edge. Marionneau in a playful mood coos serendipitously to a pulsing seething keyboard track; dipping Bix Medard style into flickers of twinkly xylophone, and Casio retro Tropicana pre-set shtick. Nico‘s ‘Le Petit Chevalier’ is a concomitant addition. Not unsurprisingly, this gloomy, despairing, short lament evokes an air of medieval Dordogne mystery and Seventh Seal stirring atmospherics. Harmonia, violins and looming bass wine and mourn to a Les Miserables rewrite of the Nordic Huldra’s original tract. Occasionally Marionneau let’s fly with the most beautiful sounding, fully backed, paeans like ‘Rusty’, which dares to soar above the aloofly cool French indifference.
Marionneau is an indolent muse to her imagined surroundings, her pining perfect for a Romane Bohringer film. A female Gainsbourg crossed with Lush, Nico and Cate Le Bon, producing the most enchanted and equally subversive of coyly melodramatic albums. No wonder her charms and aloof voice caught the ear of Shields.
Vukovar ‘Emperor’ (Small Bear Records)
Baring the name of a city that was the centre of an heinous episode in the Croatian War of Independence, when 300 poor souls (mostly Muslim) were carterd off for execution at the hands of the Serb paramilitaries and the Yugoslav Peoples Army in 1991, Vukovar wear their name like an eerie reminder of the barbarity that took part only decades ago in, a so-called progressive, Europe. The band’s confrontational posturings are however mostly veiled in an enraptured form of post-punk, shoegaze and dreamy alternative brooding rock romanticism. And despite the industrial discordance and dirty phone caller menace vocals on some of the tracks the group’s extended cast of Postcode’s Mikie Daugherty, Jonny Peacock and Marie Reynolds, and Circus worlD’s Mark Sayle, soften the rare grit and spit with the most hauntingly hypnotising melodic accompaniments. The band have never sounded better; discord has a beauty after all.
‘With a maelstrom of clanging, fuzz and Inspiral Carpets jamming with a motor city turned-on Julian Cope vibe, the group yells, shakes and rattles on their more noisy outings, ‘Lose My Breath’ and ‘Concrete’. Not always their best material it must be said, they add some tension to the more relaxed melodic and – dare I say – pop songs, which sound far more convincing: ‘Koen Cohen K’ and ‘The New World Order’ are just brilliant; imagine what Joy Division might have sounded like if Ian Curtis had lived on and found solace in the lush veils of shoegaze, or if he fronted Chapterhouse. Fiddling romantically whilst Olympus burns, the Vukovar’s stand against the illuminati forces of evil couldn’t have sounded any more beautifully bleak, yet somehow liltingly inspiring.’
Read the full review here…
Xaos ‘Xaos’ (Independent Records)
Setting the tonality, quite literally, Xaos set out on an evocative journey from atavistic tragedies to the present day on their hauntingly Apollonian atmospheric soundtrack. Timeless rituals linger alongside the marching trance state yearning of the group’s somber but beautiful ambient suites. Capturing and reflecting the present troubles of the country, both financially and politically, Xaos recall virtuous episodes and flavours, from the Odyssey via Byzantium, of the Greece’s psychogeography; as they bring the mood to esoteric life. Merging Cage and Eno-esque ambience they produce a foreboding but moving opus.
‘Mirroring the Odyssey’s timeline, Xaos have spent a decade completing this their debut oeuvre. The brainchild of microtonal electronic composer, keyboard player and painter Ahetas and his performer, producer and writer foil Dubulah, the Xaos duo have both worked on and with a number of trance and world music acts, including Dub Colossus and Transglobal Underground. Here they absorb an extended cast of adroit vocalists and multi-instrumentalists into their mystical sound, adding the kind of plucked melodies and intonations you’d expect to hear on Orpheus’ journey into the underworld. Quite beautiful and subtly quivering, the ghosts of the past linger over this ‘post world music’ suite that attempts to bridge the esoteric and evocative traditions with a more contemporary attitude. The hardware has moved on, with computers and keyboards brought in to both reconstruct lost sounds and to put it all together, yet this album remains a sagacious study in the ancient, even if it does go a long way towards extinguishing the Greek farcical clichés that have constantly besmirched it.’
Read the full review here…
Part One’s list is here…