Best of 2015: Part 2 - Folk/Cabaret/Avant pop/Orchestral

Welcome to Part 2 of my Best of 2015 review.

If you're a regular listener to the show, you'll know that folk music in all its forms is a staple of the playlists. And that's where we pick up here with another 22 great tunes. And as usual, it's fascinating to watch and hear what other strands make their way in - lounge, orchestral, whatever.

Once again enjoy, and see you all on the other side in 2016.


1. Alela Diane & Ryan Francesconi – Shapeless (from the album Cold moon, Believe Recordings)
A glorious winter entry to start, a collaboration between two fascinating artists in their own right.

Like many in this list, it takes folk music and stretches it out until it’s transparent. In this case, classical, choral and tribal music are just a few of the ancestors visible behind Francesconi’s riveting fingerpicked guitar and Diane’s wonderfully pure and clear-eyed vocals.

One of several highlights from an album that’s a complete triumph.

Alela Diane & Ryan Francesconi - Shapeless from Alela Diane on Vimeo.

2. William D Drake – Distant buzzing (Onomatopoeia)
This irresistible stomp from the former Cardiacs keys man from his great Revere Reach album was essential middle of the year music in 2015.

Somehow sounding medieval and modern at the same time, an unbeatable tune and crucially a honking low register horn all made this a miniature masterpiece.

3. Daniel Knox – By the venture (from the album Daniel Knox, Carrot Top Records)
A name I came to for the first time in 2015, who on his third album occupied a musical territory somewhere between The Magnetic Fields and folk music, a quixotic cabaret style with one foot each in tragedy and comedy.

The chamber pop arrangement here is an absolute delight, all around a clip clop piano, but it’s Knox’s crooning voice that clinches the matter.

There’s an old fashioned courtly tone to it, so while the suspicion is that the song’s sentiment isn’t exactly complimentary, the effect still manages to be strangely uplifting.

Track 13 in this playlist

Mar 10 2015 w/ Virginia Wing,Princess,Monochrome Set,Damon & Naomi,Dawn of Midi,Daniel Knox++ by The Underground Of Happiness on Mixcloud

4. Kathryn Joseph – the want (from the album bones you have thrown me and blood i have spilled, Hits The Fan)
There are few enough devastating things in popular music. So when something comes along that genuinely stops you in your tracks, it has that much more emotional power.

This is one of those things. A lone piano and voice, the former wheezing and creaking up close, the latter standing at the edge of reason, on the edge of desperation, at the edge of beauty and sadness.

When you find out later that the song relates to the loss of a child – “and though I may love you, I cannot wait for you” – which in turn spurred Kathryn Joseph to record her debut album (having been a record label refugee years before), which then went on to win Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) in 2015, your devastation may well be complete.

It's a thing of absolute heartstopping beauty.

5. Tandem Felix – Nothing I do will ever be good enough (from the Comma EP, Trout Records)
Another spring, another Irish release that might have swum under your radar this year.

This is a particularly handsome cut from the impressive Dublin band’s second EP.

In a Sparklehorse, drifting Americana vein, the arrangement details are sublime - the wandering synth break, the wonderfully restrained steel guitar, the shakers for uplift in the chorus.

Also of note, in a genre where it can often be treated as an afterthought, is the drumming, urgent and edgy and adding another dimension to the song.

6. Patrick Freeman – Butterfly
A recent entry this one, so a quote from December -

Of the numerous delights on the debut album by Patrick Freeman, Cherry blossom fall, this one jumped out from the crowd.

‘Butterfly’ catches a current of some of Brian Wilson’s South Seas experiments courtesy of a sublime steel guitar turn from David Murphy (John Blek & The Rats, The Lost Brothers).

In another context, this would be the upper echelons of country music. Here, with a cavernous reverb and flanked by a pitter patter drum machine and glorious vibe synths, it approaches the realms of vintage exotica, your Eden Ahbez for example, dipping and diving into some intriguing psychedelic side roads.

The song is perfectly reined in, letting the production do the work. The album was recorded with Brendan Fennessy of O Emperor at their Big Skin studio and it constitutes another mighty fine addition to that studio’s growing and impressive discography.

Beguiling is a word.

7. Low – What part of me (Sub Pop)
The crowning glory (although it’s a very hard choice) of their fantastic latest album Ones and sixes, which could well be their best ever.

This to die for duet is a fuzz guitar dream of four circling chords and two symmetrical vocal lines, a mutual song of praise and Mimi drifting above it with a moment of sighing “aw-aw” perfection – what part of me don’t you know, what part of me don’t you own.

As Alan Sparhawk has said elsewhere re the secret to songwriting, take your favourite four chords, play them slow, play them again and again.

In 2015 Low came up with another masterpiece.

8. Chloe March – Old tree, mon couer (from the Under the day EP, Hidden Shoal)
Another late in the year entry and something about this dreamy beauty would make you think of the kind of swirly feeling that comes at the end of the year (often assisted by hot port I find).

It’s a song inspired by the oldest tree in Kew Gardens. The combination of harpsichord-alike arpeggios, a thick ambient fog and March’s marvellous drifting vocal creates a suitably ageless effect.

A stunning evocation of the vastness of the universe and the microscopic human heartbeat running through it.

9. Smile Down Upon Us – Magical breath (from the album Smile Down Upon Us, wiaiwya)
A Japanese/UK collaboration (between Keiron Phelan and moomLoo) which rescues quirky from oblivion by means of an endearing playfulness and wide-eyed sense of adventure.

A shuffling beat of tablas and shakers with looped ukulele plucks and flute form the backdrop for a meditation on breathing, with still room for an electronic flight of fancy mid-section complete with muted woo hoos. It skips along effortlessly and you skip with it.

Utterly charming and quite beautiful.

10. Giant Sand – Pen to paper (from the album Heartbreak Pass, New West Records)
A gorgeous late night meditation from Howe Gelb and friends...

...on writing, contact, communication, perhaps travel and ageing even, with sublime filtered piano, shuffling drums and a smoky nostalgic vocal.

It's wonderful.

11. Flo Morrissey – Show me (from the album Tomorrow will be beautful, Glassnote)
There’s a great sighing quality to this tune.

It puts me in mind of early Alela Diane or Paula Frazer of Tarnation, the voice, there’s something of the desert about it, open skies, and a warbling feel to the upper register.

It’s an instrument with the power to occupy your heart.

Track 1 in this playlist

12. Kathryn Williams – Cuckoo (from the album Hypoxia, One Little Indian) A haunting little number from an album based on the life of Sylvia Plath, which specifically takes the perspective of Sylvia’s mother. (Was that the idea behind the Dr Hook classic as well?)

A deceptively pleasing melody reveals its true gothic nature by means of churning mellotron, too close backing vocals and an acid lyric – “wipe the dribble from your chin...I’ve got a cuckoo in my nest”.

The collaboration with Ed Harcourt on the desk is brilliantly sharp.

Another example of a piece of music gaining added weight from its backstory or conceptual infrastructure.

13. Deradoorian – A beautiful woman (from the album The Expanding Flower Planet, Anticon)
Cosmic is an overused term but no doubt it can be applied here, pop music making room for euphoric vocal innovations with the grace of Eastern and African musics and the adventurousness of the avant garde.

From one of the key voices of the best Dirty Projectors output, also Avey Tare, Flying Lotus, Vampire Weekend and more.

While the killer singing may hit you first here listen out too for the wonderfully lithe backbeat with groovy rolling bassline. It’s the perfect surging counterpoint to the stratospheric glide of the voices.

The birdsong back of the throat effect that adorns every chorus intro is one standout. There’s just no chaining it down.

It is a fantastic fucking racket all round.

*And get full value for every inch of those syncopations with this live film as Angel and her sister Arlene lay down a series of interlocking drumbeats and handclaps before singing live with little more than a Hofner bass for company. It’s positively thrilling stuff. (And if you’re into things that look cool well it scores highly on that scale too.)

14. Colleen – Captain of none (from the album Captain of none, Thrill Jockey)
Frenchwoman Cecile Schott’s 2nd album in quick succession takes her compelling medieval folk and vocal loop investigations and straps a dub chassis underneath.

This pulsing backbeat on the title track gives an extra power to her philosophical meditations, in effect making her music seem like a snapshot of the peculiar rattle and hum of the living universe.

Beautiful and drifting.

15. Kodiak Deathbeds – Never change (from the album Kodiak Deathbeds, Affairs of the heart)
The opening song and enduring standout from an elegaic collection of late night love songs (kinda) by the duo made up of Amber Webber (Black Mountain, Lightning Dust) and Derek Fudesco (Pretty Girls Make Graves, The Cave Singers).

Barely strummed guitars and Webber’s soft world weary vocals make a great match here, taking stock of life with a bittersweet but quietly determined eye.

These wonderful writerly lines haunted my early autumn in 2015 – “this is lasting too long for me, being around to see your fading words, stare out windows when it’s pouring rain, we’ve got our histories to blame but they’ll never change”.

16. JR Green – Nigerian princess (from the Bring the witch doctor EP, Hits The Fan)
Thumpingly good guitar and accordion tune from a pair of Scottish teenage brothers, Jacob and Rory Green.

Things I love about it.

-The chorus has woo-hoos (built into the end of the line “howling at the moooooooon”).
-The genius alternating bass drum in the verses (it might take you ten plays to notice the switch).
-There’s an octave vocal harmony (never a bad idea in a song).
-The rhyming of wankers with answers. All round the lyrical chops are great - ANC activity, traditional funeral dress, FGM, nihilists and all the rest.

17. Ralegh Long – Gulls hovering (from the album Hoverance, Gare du Nord Records)
A twitter discovery for me this year, one of those finds that justifies the tawdry existence of social media.

This is an absolutely sublime swooning tune with a touch of Nick Drake in the soft vocal, and some gorgeous baroque touches in the fluttering flutes, singing strings and sighing steel guitar.

And coming in at a very unDrakelike 1.50.

18. Elephant Micah – No underground (from the album Where in our woods, Western Vinyl)
Getting this majestic piece of music in the post last January was a pretty good omen for the year in many ways.

Folklorist-by-day Joseph O’Connell weaves an album around realist tales of local southern Indiana wildlife.

It might sound unlikely on paper but the results are compelling.

Particularly on this gem. Stately picked Spanish guitar sets the tone, as the lyrics brilliantly evoke a living breathing tumult of colour -

sequined shoes, golden robes, all of them embroidered with roses.

Long time admirer Will Oldham joins on backing vocals later to produce a quiet crescendo of emotion.

Timeless and very moving.

19. Joanna Newsom – Sapokanikan (Drag City)
A return of classic Newsom in 2015.

This beauty is a restlessly upbeat piano tune – some folk, some jazz, all Newsom – which seems to chart a history of Greenwich Village (or the area where that village now stands). This from -

“Sapokanikan was the name of one of several Lenape villages that archaeologists have identified as existing on Manhattan Island prior to the coming of Europeans. It was located in the southwest portion of the island, on the shores of a trout stream the Indians called Minetta. Stretching things just a bit, one might say the members of this seasonal community were the first residents of Greenwich Village.”

Apart from Newsom’s soaring and thrilling vocals – sounding more Kate Bush quixotic here than at any time – there’s a wonderful trombone and recorder section arranged by her regular sideman Ryan Francesconi, thick earthy drumming and some great twinkling celeste by the woman herself.

Having started with an upbeat modern and metropolitan flavour the song ends with a decidedly medieval and pastoral comedown.

History lessons, unclassifiable hummable pop music, intriguingly out of reach musical arrangements = Genius.

20. August Wells – Here in the wild (FIFA)
Great chamber pop from the ex Rollerskate Skinny singer Ken Griffin and friends.

This tune is kinda louche, a bit sad and very lovely and in a certain light it’s almost like a flip to Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’. A slower, looking back rather than forward version. A paean to ageing not youth version. An older and none the wiser version maybe.

Gorgeous, nourishing pop music.

21. Paperface – Amsterdam (from the Paperface EP, Daydream Records)
Wonderfully wry orchestral pop, a kitchen sink drama in sweeping cinemascope but rooted in the vernacular. In this case a lads’ trip to Amsterdam provides the plot.

And delighted to be free
Ordered two more large whiskeys
Thanked our hostess very much
And descended on the Dutch

And more than a touch of The Beach Boys in the glorious swooping backing vocals.

It’s got a real touch of class, this.

22. Jessica Pratt – Jacquelyn in the Background (Drag City)
And to end, something strange and wonderful from the enchanting, sometimes disorientating world of Ms Jessica Pratt of Los Angeles (she also featured in the Best of 2014 round up).

Her entire second album, On your own love again, is an absolute dream of a record and any of its nine magnificent songs could happily slot in here.

There’s a hint of a meandering jazz loving Joni Mitchell in parts about this tune. Pastoral folk too here and there. Poetry. And psychedelia of the most beautiful unassuming kind, administered by the gentle reassuring hand of a friend – that line where the tape slows down is freaky and fantastic and hilarious like the best inner adventures.

A great place to end this instalment of 2015ness.


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