I could try and write a lengthy summary of the year in music that was 2015 here, but let’s just get straight down to it, shall we?
What follows is the list of the 25 albums that Skin Back Alley considers the best of the year. These are the albums that have moved us, stayed with us, grown on us, blown our heads off at first listen or revealed their beautiful secrets over a longer period of time. All of them are damn fine.
The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that some of these releases were described and marketed as EPs during the previous 12 months. That said, we’ve worked using the definition of an album as containing four or more tracks and/or lasting more than 25 minutes. Each and every release in our run-down meets those criteria, so there ya’ go, no trolling now.
Feast your eyes. More importantly, feast your ears. Then be sure to let us know which you agree with, which you would fling out of the nearest window, and which no doubt awesome albums we’ve missed during the year.
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1. Agent Fresco – Destrier
Iceland’s Agent Fresco are a band working hard at the sustained peak of their artistic powers. Debut album A Long Time Listening marked the group out as ones to watch; a cohesive unit creating a unique and uncompromising kind of rock music, and one that has built an intensely devoted fan base that reaches beyond the boundaries of their homeland, despite the commercial challenges of physically travelling beyond those same borders.
They really are a band that defy categorisation, the ‘progressive’ tag just one of many that Agent Fresco get lumbered with, and yet one that somehow does not truly manage to encompass all the elements of pop, rock, post-rock, metal, electronic, jazz and classical that they successfully incorporate into their inspired and inspiring music.
Essentially the sound of a man navigating his emotional response to being the victim of an act of physical violence, Agent Fresco’s second studio album drew upon frontman Arnór Dan Arnarson’s street assault for inspiration, an event that left him bloodied, battered and with a broken eye socket. As the man himself told Skin Back Alley in interview earlier this year when discussing the album’s title (the name of a medieval warhorse): “Well, very simply put, this album acts as my Destrier. It was created to confront destructive emotions such as anger and angst. I just really wanted to explore that battle within and the Destrier just felt like a perfect, beautiful and powerful metaphor for this process and album.”
And so it proved to be. For all its emotional exploration of anger, angst and anxiety, Destrier was also an album of great hope and positivity, musical director Tóti’s instrumental work coming from a place of pure inspiration and creation, and holding in tension and balance the more destructive forces at work in the words of Arnór Dan.
Incorporating brooding piano lamentation and sinister synths, crushingly heavy guitar breakdowns, syncopated riffing and unsettling, off-kilter time signatures, the beauty of Agent Fresco’s Destrier was in its ability to fuse such seemingly disparate styles into such an organic, dynamic and engaging whole. A masterclass in the possibilities that remain within the world of rock music today, Agent Fresco and Destrier were in a class all of their own in 2015.
2. Iron Maiden – The Book Of Souls
When news broke in the summer that Iron Maiden would release their new album in the autumn, the world of metal lost its collective mind. A new LP from the world’s biggest metal band was reason enough for excitement, but The Book Of Souls was no ordinary collection of songs even by Maiden’s ridiculously high standards. Not only was it the band’s first new material in five years, but it would also be their first studio double-album and contain the longest song the band had ever committed to tape in the Bruce Dickinson-penned “Empire Of The Clouds.”
When it finally landed, the music did not disappoint. From the more traditional Iron Maiden signature gallops of “Speed Of Light” and “Death Or Glory”, through to the twitchy progressive rhythms of “Tears Of A Clown” and on to the highly impressive aforementioned “Empire…”, The Book Of Souls quickly cemented itself as a bona-fide double classic and the best thing that the band had recorded since ’88’s canonical heavy metal landmark, Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son.
Add to this the extraordinary back-story of frontman Dickinson fighting and winning a battle with cancer of the tongue during the first half of the year, and the album seemed like even more of a triumph. Next year we’ll all get to hear how huge it sounds live as Iron Maiden circumnavigate the globe on The Book Of Souls World Tour in their equally huge customised 747 jet, Ed Force One, piloted by Dickinson himself. “Up The Irons!” indeed.
3. Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful
Over in the corner of symphonic metal, bigger really did mean better in 2015. Endless Forms Most Beautiful was Nigthwish’s first album with new vocalist Floor Jansen and the permanent addition of multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley. It was also the band’s most ambitious work of their career, inspired by evolutionary biology and culminating in a 24 minute suite titled “The Greatest Show on Earth” that featured spoken-word passages from Richard Dawkins and the full might of the London Symphony Orchestra. The grandeur of the music was entirely on point with the themes of the mysteries of universal science, nature and a timely reminder that Earth’s and our own very existence is one enormous cosmic crap shoot. Far from despairing though, Nightwish mastermind Tuomas Holopainen found beauty and majesty in the ideas contained within and delivered them in electrifying fashion.
4. Bring Me The Horizon – That’s The Spirit
Upon its release much was made of the softening of Bring Me The Horizon’s metallic edges on That’s The Spirit. It’s true to say that the electronic, melodic and, yes, pop elements of the band’s sound were front and centre of this brilliantly realised album, but there was no sense of Oli Sykes and co. trying to follow outside trends or piss on their metal roots. In it’s thematic and sonic coherence, it felt more like an organic culmination of this ridiculously hard-working group’s efforts to cement their sound and grow in to their own skins. Emotional, cathartic, both excoriating and yet beautiful, That’s The Spirit sounded very much like the definitive mainstream rock album of 2015.
5. Steven Wilson – Hand.Cannot.Erase
When Steven Wilson revealed that he was putting his band, Porcupine Tree, to one side for the foreseeable future, some corners of the rock, metal and prog scenes cried out in dismay. They need not have worried as Wilson’s solo career in the years since has produced an embarrassment of riches, including this year’s sublime album, Hand.Cannot.Erase. Inspired by the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent, who lay dead in her apartment for nearly three years before anyone realised, the album explores themes of alienation, detachment, loss and the anonymity of modernity against a rich musical soundscape that draws on rock, electronica and orchestral arrangements to deliver a heartbreaking work of staggering beauty. A prolific producer and musician, Wilson has already confirmed that his next album, 4 1/2, will be out in January.
6. Zero She Flies – The River
Releasing “Small Mercy” (their debut single as a band) in May, Zero She Flies were back just a few short weeks later in the summer with The River, a stunning collection of electronica-tinged, ambient-inflected folk rock featuring a set of songs all themed around water. Anchored by the crystalline tones of singer Maria Milewska, the music drew on a wonderful array of instruments including keyboards, flute, 6 and 12 string guitars, cor anglais, oboe, recorders and double bass to deliver a highly evocative set that was as hypnotising as it was transporting. Building on the core quartet of Milewska, Jamie Field, Wendy Marks and Shane Webb, guest spots from Jonathan Edwards, John Pearce, Hannah Simons and Robert Kelly rounded out proceedings and left our appetites whetted and wanting more.
7. Melechesh – Enki
From the moment that lead single “Lost Tribes” appeared early in 2015, it was clear that Assyrian extreme metallers Melechesh were about to serve up something extraordinary in their new album, Enki. When it did arrive, the band’s sixth full length collection evoked the very qualities of the LP’s namesake, the Sumerian god of craft, creation, water, wisdom and mischief, who mythology tells us also saved humanity from the Deluge sent to kill us by Enki’s half-brother Enlil. A raging river of Middle-Eastern themed black-metal, the songs rode high on an all-conquering wave of dynamic groove that laid waste to all before it. The likes of “Tempest Temper Enlil Enraged” and “Enki – Divine Nature Awoken” delivered epic and atmospheric blasts of sagacity, roaring out of the desert like a vicious and vengeful deity. The album set the bar high for the rest of the year.
8. Periphery – Juggernaut: Alpha & Omega
Intricate, jazzy and dense, Periphery delivered the one-two suckerpunches of their mighty double album, Juggernaut back in January. Split into two distinct sections, Alpha and Omega, the 80+ minutes of music saw Misha Mansoor and co. break out of their restrictive djent mold and move more squarely into contemporary progressive metal territory. By Periphery’s previous standards, Juggernaut concentrated a little more on story, mood and atmospherics, rather than technical complexity for its own sake. That said, it took many-a-listen before the themes and patterns became clear, particularly given that Periphery themselves seemed reluctant to discuss the specifics. Nevertheless, for those who wanted meat on the bones of their metal, Periphery were more than happy to deliver their most fully-rounded work to-date and let the fans explore in the weeks that followed.
9. Tairrie B – Vintage Curses
Before her 20 year, highly-acclaimed career as a screaming metal potentate in her band My Ruin, Tairrie B. Murphy blazed a trail in the world of West Cost rap and hip hop, recording skillful slabs of seditious word-play for N.W.A. lynchpin Eazy E’s Ruthless Records imprint, Comptown Records. In 2015 Tairrie returned to the old school with a proverbial bang, dropping a new solo rap album, Vintage Curses, in August. Big beats (including live instrumentation from husband and co-producer Mick Murphy), inspired samples, fiery poetry and a wholly undiminished flow delivered a collection of songs of otherworldly energy that was spellbinding in its intensity. Wordslinger, truth-bringer, multi-faceted and mercurial maven, on Vintage Curses Tairrie B almost single-handedly brought the heart back to hip hop, paying respect to those who came before, and laying the groundwork for those who will surely follow.
10. Lindi Ortega – Faded Gloryville
A Canadian of Irish-Mexican descent, Lindi Ortega has been releasing the finest goth-rock-country music from the fringes of the country scene since her Last Gang Records debut, Little Red Boots, in 2011. With new record Faded Gloryville, it felt as though 2015 might finally be the year in which the singer and songwriter crossed over into the mainstream consciousness. The album contained some of Ortega’s finest work, garnering a hugely positive response from both fans and critics alike, and Ortega’s self-aware vignettes such as “I Ain’t the Girl” and “Run-Down Neighborhood” painted engrossing pictures of characters existing on the margins, accepting themselves and their own skins with grit, determination and wry humour. Stripping the genre of its sentimental hoke, Faded Gloryville nevertheless gave us an authentic country record that it was a delight to rally behind.
11. Diemonds – Never Wanna Die
Diemonds have always played a straight-up, no frills, balls-out brand of hard rock and have never apologised for doing so. And nor should they. Bringing some contemporary touches to their classic sound, the band bolted together huge riffs, driving beats and a snarling rock n’ roll attitude on this, their third studio album and first for new home Entertainment One. From the first salvo – the cathartic emotional blast of “Over It” – onward, Never Wanna Die delivered everything the band are known and loved for, just sounding a little bigger and better than before. As frontwoman Priya Panda belts out during the album’s closing track: “Here’s to the misfits / We are the ones that keep it alive / Let’s raise our voices / I’m sent here to save your life.” Quite.
12. Baroness – Purple
It seems that 2015 really has been a year for triumph over adversity. By the band’s own admission, Baroness’ devastating bus crash in 2012 loomed large over Purple. In its wake, some band members quit altogether, whilst others soldiered on, months of recovery and chronic pain seeping in to the process of healing and the music itself. It’s a wonder to behold, then, that Purple represents nothing short of the most rich and absorbing work that the band have ever recorded. Sounding more expansive and melodic than before, Baroness have essentially distilled down the sonic progression they made on sprawling double album Yellow & Green into its essential, still sludge-tinged core. The ebb and flow of tracks like “Morningstar”, “Chlorine & Wine” and “Shock Me” helped to build a remarkable album that, despite its traumatic gestation, moved forward with an overriding sense of positivity and release.
13. James Taylor – Before This World
“I’m not smart enough for this life I’ve been livin’, a little bit slow for the pace of the dream,” lamented James Taylor in lead single “Montana”, taken from his new album, Before This World. Taylor’s bewitching, keenly observed poetry musing upon life, love and the expanse of the universe suggested otherwise. Nevertheless, nothing about the album suggested that the singer and songwriter was being disingenuous, rather he seemed simply to be reflecting on the beauty of the world around him and wondering at the fact that he is still around to make music in the way only James Taylor can (“Somehow I haven’t died”, he observed in the up-tempo “Today Today Today.”) A little nostalgia could certainly be forgiven then on this first collection of new songs in 13 years, as Taylor proved that it was definitely worth the wait.
14. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
In 2015 Aussie alt-rock troubadour Courtney Barnett solidified her reputation for brilliant, insightful, witty and literary observation, raising the most mundane aspects of human life to the level of Shakespearean tragi-comedy. Like her previous collection, The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit set the darkly comic poetry against a spiky backdrop of squally and memorable guitar-driven rock n’ roll. Her songs typically lampooning numerous targets and operating on a number of levels, mini-masterpieces such as “Pedestrian At Best” were self-lacerating, whilst at the same time poking fun at Barnett’s external critics. “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” she sang. On this evidence, Courtney, not bloody likely.
15. Well Hung Heart – Well Hung Heart
LA alt-rock never sounded in such rude health during 2015 as on Well Hung Heart’s self-titled release. The California-based band’s single and accompanying video “Throw It All Away” seemed to embody what Well Hung Heart were all about. Spiky, punchy, memorable and bouncing along on an up-tempo beat, the track brought together the best elements of rock and pop, infused it with a touch of grunge and then mixed in a guitar breakdown the likes of which Rage Against The Machine would have been proud of. They then topped it all off with the incendiary vocals of frontwoman Greta Valenti and blew our collective, sun-drenched minds. Valenti may have capped the year with a Star Wars inspired nerdcore side project, The Rebel Scumbags, but it was here in Well Hung Heart that she and her bandmates forged our ongoing fandom.
16. TesseracT – Polaris
TesseacT’s third studio album saw the band teasing out ambience and atmosphere and paring back some of the more thunderous elements of their sonic pallette. The result was perhaps the most satisfying body of songs the band have recorded. TesseracT lynchpin and guitarist Acle Kahney pointed to the greater involvement of friend and live sound engineer Aidan O’Brien as being a key influence on TesseracT’s sonic evolution, but the return of vocalist Daniel Tompkins also played a part. Whatever the driving forces behind TesseracT’s forward march, Polaris turned out to be an album of coherence, power and great beauty, as evidenced on the likes of tracks “Tourniquet”, “Hexes” and album closer “Seven Names.”
17. Iwrestledabearonce – Hail Mary
Rife with thundering blast beats, intricate guitar work and the heart-stopping roar of vocalist Courtney LaPlante, Hail Mary did to the Nth degree what Iwrestledabearonce do best, namely confound expectations and defy genres with a gnarly mix of death metal, hardcore, electro and jazz tropes, all bound up with a healthy dose of black humour. Jarring changes in pace, lead guitar lines that sounded like a thousand nails scraping down a blackboard and lounge-like passages of melodic music that were so blissed-out they made you want to sleep kept the synapses firing throughout every listen to this hybrid mongrel of a record that was as thrilling and jaw-dropping as it was discombobulating. A unique and genuine highlight of the year.
18. Stoneghost – New Age Of Old Ways
Grab yourself a fucking huge melting pot. Add two parts groove metal to one part metallic grunge. Throw in a pinch of sludge and a soupçons of sunset strip guitar riffery. Mix well then leave to boil in the raging fires of Hades. Result? The towering debut album from London’s fast-rising metal stars Stoneghost. A collection of songs that sounded very different to what most of their contemporaries were doing stood Stoneghost in good stead when New Age Of Old Ways dropped in April. “Faceless Ghost”, “Devil’s Motion” and “Raynardine” were all prime examples of why this band have a very bright future ahead of them. With a lot of hard work and a little luck it’s not too hard to imagine Stoneghost developing in to one of the UK’s heavy music finest.
19. Sylosis – Dormant Heart
That Sylosis’ Dormant Heart stuck long in the heart and mind in spite of it’s January release date speaks volumes about the quality of the music the band recorded for their fifth full length. Slowing things down just a little when compared to previous releases, the album managed to find an electrifying sweet spot somewhere in the middle of the metalcore, melodic death and thrash metal that Sylosis have explored through their output to date. Technically thrilling but always accessible, the likes of “Where The Wolves Come To Die”, “Victims And Pawns”, “Leech” and “Harm” delivered a career-high collection that moved the band beyond their metallic hardcore beginnings and in to a hugely promising, more progressive place.
20. Kowloon Walled City – Grievances
A post-metal howl exploring the disassociation brought upon humanity by industrialised monotony, Kowloon Walled City’s Grievances could be, in many ways, the raging, mechanical little brother of Steven Wilson’s next-gen-technology minded Hand.Cannot.Erase. Brash, noisy and yet littered with hints of melody, Grievances is somehow full of wiry, blustery wrath, and yet manages to maintain an economic, melancholy minimalism. “No love, no memory, just admit it,” intones mainman Scott Evans on the album’s high point, “The Grift”, and yet Grievances inspires the former and lingers in the latter. “Our band is a living breathing thing. It’s not a franchise. So yeah, let’s get going and see where we end up,” said Evans in recent interview. We can’t wait to see where that is.
21. While She Sleeps – Brainwashed
It wasn’t all that long ago that it looked very much like the game might have been up for Sheffield metalcore outfit While She Sleeps. Following a debut album that was lapped up by fans and critics alike in This Is The Six, throat problems, cancelled gigs and vocalist Loz Taylor ultimately going in to hospital for vital throat surgery meant the band were laid dangerously low right at the moment that they should have been riding high. Fortunately for all concerned, Taylor made a full recovery and While She Sleeps returned, rough, ready and firing on all cylinders with new album, Brainwashed. From THAT riff in the title track on down, the album was a triumphant return that put any lingering doubts and fears to rest.
22. Ghost – Meliora
Maintaining the air of mystery and intrigue surrounding the band (Who are these ‘nameless ghouls’? Have they really been through three lead-singers, or is it all just a carefully crafted ruse?), Ghost returned in 2015 with the unsettling majesty of their third studio album, Meliora. An intoxicating mix of dark melancholy, ethereal spirit and stately metal, the LP was a masterful collection that cemented the band’s reputation for delivering brilliant music as well as upholding their striking image. Ghost will hopefully be bringing tracks such as “Cirice”, “From The Pinnacle To The Pit” and “He Is” to dramatic life when they return to the UK in March of 2016 for a very special one-off show at London’s Palladium Theatre.
23. Parkway Drive – Ire
“Now snap your neck to this!” implored Parkway Drive frontman Winston McCall towards the end of Ire album track “Bottom Feeder.” Fans of contemporary metal needed no further reason to do just that on the back of the best album of Parkway Drive’s career. The Antipodean outfit’s fifth full-length moved the band beyond their metalcore roots and placed them firmly in the modern heavy metal firmament, delivering bludgeoning riffs, scintillating guitar lines, thrilling rhythmic shifts and more mosh power than most could handle. On the cusp of destroying their southern hemisphere leash, global domination surely awaits.
24. Mark Edgar Stuart – Trinity My Dear
Circling a sweet spot occupied by the likes of American greats such as John Prine, Randy Newman and Vic Chesnutt, Mark Edgar Stuart’s second solo album, Trinity My Dear, was a delightful showcase for the man’s skilled song-writing and musicianship. Exploring life, love and disappointment in exquisitely observed detail, spritely shuffles and heart-rending melodies the album was both sad and deeply, darkly humorous. A personal and intimate collection (“A lot of it deals with some stuff me and my wife were going through at the time,” said Stuart), like the best writing, it also had a timeless, universal quality that made it completely accessible.
25. Neanderthal – Rock Formation
Screw the rock mainstream, we’ll keep the extraordinary talents of guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Mick Murphy for ourselves, thank you very much. The mainstay of My Ruin, The Birds Of Satan and this year’s who’s-who of punk, rock and metal, Teenage Time Killers, Murphy somehow found the time to write, record and release this mind-melting new collection of instrumentals under his Neanderthal moniker. Free of rules, regulations or large record labels, Rock Formation showed Murphy in full, joyful flight, delivering the kind of jaw-dropping, ideas-led guitar music that you simply don’t come across very often in rock music today. In interview with Skin Back Alley earlier this year, Murphy himself summed it up thus: “[The EP] …has an adventurous spirit like the music I made in my youth. It’s the most musically dynamic and it has the best sound quality of any Neanderthal album so far. It’s a strong batch of unique songs and I’m really stoked about it.” We couldn’t agree more.
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Of course honourable mentions need to go to those albums that sit just outside of our top 25 for the year, but that provided us with many hours of unbridled musical joy nevertheless.
They include: Von Hertzen Brothers with New Day Rising; Holly Herndon and her extraordinary electronic soundscape Platform; Mieke with her self-titled debut EP; Michael Monroe’s glam-punk highlight Blackout States; Jason Isbell and his new solo album Something More Than Free; Joni Fuller and her corking new EP Letters from the West Coast; Josefin Öhrn + The Liberation’s psych-tinged album Horse Dance; Gazpacho and their potentially world-ending album Molok; Riverside’s sublime collection of new songs Love, Fear and the Time Machine; The Decoy and their gravity defying EP Parasites; The one and only supergroup that really mattered this year, Teenage Time Killers and their debut album Greatest Hits Vol.1; UK stalwarts Thunder and their classic return to form Wonder Days; AWOLNATION and their industrial-tinged alt-rock sophomore LP Run; Aussie metalcore outfit Feed Her To The Sharks and their banger of an album Fortitude; Laura Marling and her new album Short Movie; Yorkshire’s very own Fear Lies and their debut album Elements, along with their fellow Yorkshiremen Of Allies and their EP Fragments; Derby hard rockers Eva Plays Dead delighted with their EP Sounds Of The Written Word; B. Dolan’s brilliant Kill The Wolf LP stuck on the stereo for quite some time, as did Suze DeMarchi’s new solo album Home; Brandon Flowers’ The Desired Effect was an engaging follow-up to previous solo album Flamingo; there was much to recommend Butcher Babies’ new album Take It Like A Man; Gary Clarke Jr’s The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim was something to behold; Halestorm came back very strongly with career best Into The Wild Life; Finally, singer and songwriter Julia Holter had us all beguiled with her new release Have You In My Wilderness. If you pushed us to choose our favourite re-release of the year, it would certainly be The Replacements’ The Complete Studio Albums: 1981-1990, so there.