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From Ummagma To Ringo Deathstarr: Matt Sloan’s Top 20 Albums Of 2015

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2015 had such a phenomenal musical output, it’s literally taken me weeks to go over my favorite releases to string this piece together.

The pipeline of music released this year was never-ending, with indie bands even choosing all kinds of platforms that didn’t even exist last year.

The times, they are a’changing.

Here I present my 30 favorite albums from 2015 – some of them are debuts, some of them involve more experienced players on the scene, while some are just one-off releases by a group of artists coming together for the sake of great music.

Here’s to the end of a brilliant year for music and the launch of a new one.

May 2016 bring more fabulous sonic offerings!

1. Ummagma – Frequency

We’ve heard a lot about this band over the past few years, most recently for their stunning Frequency EP – released on both sides of the Atlantic, via Raphalite Records in the UK and Moon Sounds Records in the U.S., both labels known for their shoegaze, dreampop and postpunk output. If good company weren’t enough, the music speaks for itself, literally walking an awe-inspiring tightrope for the first five tracks until ‘Lama’ gets beautifully blown up through remixes provided by the care of the grandfather of dreampop himself – Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins – along with Malcolm Holmes from synthpop superstars Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Although both men come from different sub-genres, they meld their trademark sounds with Ummagma’s (Guthrie on guitar and Holmes on synth and electronic drums, respectively), beautifully sculpting this already-great original track. All tracks considered, these are stardust scatterings in sonic form – pure and utter bliss.


2. Lilies on Mars – AGO

Lovingly falling in the camp between motoric pop and pure synth heaven, the latest offering from London-based Sardinian duo Lilies on Mars takes the listener on an ecstatic journey through a whirlwind of sublime electronic experimentation. Seemingly created with a love for both modern electro and the world of analogue synths, this album is full of positivity and drive. Highly reminiscent of Ladytron, with moments of Stereolab, at least three of the tracks–including ‘From The Earth To Above’–will clearly appeal to fans of Grimes, especially those who are disappointed with her overly poppy new album and crave for the early innocent dancey fun found in songs like ‘Oblivion.’ London is indeed lucky to have this talented duo in its arms.


3. Shana Falana – Set Your Lightning Fire Free

This is Shana Falana’s first full-length album. Released on Team Love Records, there are 10 lush tracks to enjoy here – ‘bliss out’ would be an appropriate catch phrase, as obvious upon listening to tracks like ‘Heavenstay.’ ‘Go’ is both dark and contagious, showcasing Shana Falana’s powerful guitar and Mike Amari’s dynamic percussion. ‘Shine Thru’ is reminiscent of The Cure and ‘Second Skin’ is sonically loud and proud. As with the first two entries in this ‘Best of 2015’ list, this one is also highly uplifting.


4. Rodney Cromwell – Age of Anxiety

Cromwell’s debut Age of Anxiety, has won endorsements from members of OMD, Visage, and Stereolab, among others. Rodney Cromwell (real name Adam Cresswell) was previously in two other notable bands – Saloon and Arthur & Martha – before deciding to branch out on his own as primarily a solo act. With occasional support from Alice Hubley (also of Arthur & Martha, and also Cosines), he pulls off the job without a hitch and, as depressing as the words may be upon analysis, they seem totally not so when listening to this very upbeat music. Recommended for vintage synth fans and really anyone open to different forms of electronica and pop music.


5. REVOLUTION – The Shoegaze Revival

REVOLUTION – The Shoegaze Revival is a compilation that paints a canvas smeared with bright glistening stars, each representing different parts of the world, as well as the many different faces of shoegaze existing today–from walls of sound a la MBV and Swervedriver to soft dreamish melodies reminiscent of Slowdive and South Pacific, and nugaze and crossover variants galore here, featuring elements of progrock, dreampop, electronica, mathrock and even folk-pop–as well as many different parts of the world. In all there are 30 bands from 16 countries on 5 continents, gaining solid endorsements from Creation Records founder Joe Foster, not to mention many of the forefathers of the shoegaze movement themselves. This album is being offered as a free download via two labels on opposite sides of the planet: Raphalite Records (UK) and Gerpfast Kolektif (Indonesia).

6. Stella Diana – Alhena

I first clued into the awesomeness of Italian shoegazers Stella Diana with the release of the REVOLUTION shoegaze compilation–but this year they came out with their new Alhena EP, which is just too good to not mention here. Like Vaadat Charigim from Israel, this Naples-based band chooses to sing in their native language (a beautiful one at that). Their sound is so powerful that it really wouldn’t matter if they decided to sing in gibberish. It’s impressive nonetheless, even if I can’t understand a word (seems the standard for most shoegaze I listen to anyways, due to the vocals being heavily buried under guitars). The definite stand-out track here is ‘Shohet’, which combines a rich melody and perfectly calming vocals with a not-overwhelming wall of sound and a very cool brass section. Also features the coolest cover of Kula Shaker I’ve ever heard as a bonus track (in English, of course).


7. Gwenno – Y Dydd Olaf

It is unavoidable to take notice of Gwenno as soon as you encounter her. She is brilliant – I still have no idea whether this is a band led by her or just her solo, but Gwenno (singular or plural) has me captivated. This is apparently the first Welsh language record since the 1990s, finding a rather cozy yet modest place among the best psychedelic and dreampop records. Her signature synthpop sound comes through in tracks like ‘Patriarchaeth’ and ‘Amser’, while sonically she falls somewhere between Ladytron and Broadcast. Lovely, even though I don’t understand a word. How I do wish I could see her live. This stuff just sounds glorious.


8. Pinkshinyultrablast – Everything Else Matters

These Russian gazers currently seem to be one of the most blogged  about bands from the new wave of shoegaze – perhaps exactly because of their heavy borrowings from both math rock (hints of Foals’ ‘Antidotes’ here) and quirky electro pop (a la Stereolab)… the result is potent and right on the money – dish it out for a digital download or vinyl, as London’s Club AC30 are giving these Saint Petersburg natives the royal treatment. Plus it has some very cool signature cover artwork.


9. Pure Phase Ensemble 4 feat. Mark Gardener – Live at SpaceFest!

This has got to be the most interesting live recordings released over the past year and for a number of reasons. First, the music is just amazing – every track here leaves me thinking how I wish this were a permanent band. Second, (I just gave away my next point) – it’s not a permanent band. Pure Phase Ensemble only comes together once a year with new members each time (with the exception of several ‘directors’) to play a one-off concert. THIS is that concert. Third, and no less important than the first two points – THIS is the first recording of Mark Gardener that features that signature shoegaze sound his band Ride became so famous for. THIS is that album that Ride fans have been craving for the past twenty years. If only more people knew about it. Fourth, every musician here is obviously a master in his craft, as demonstrated by ‘Notatki’. What a trippy enlivening whirlwind!!! Unbelievable that they created and perfected all these songs in just one week.


 10. Ringo Deathstarr – Pure Mood

A mainstay of the shoegaze scene for a significantly longer period than an estimated 90% of all shoegaze bands in existence today, Ringo Deathstarr are now enjoying the peak of their buzz factor with this new album, which is a significant departure from their previous releases. While the band seemed to be more content with sounding like copycats of My Bloody Valentine in their earlier music, ‘Pure Mood’ presents a welcome surprise as the band colorfully boasts the fact that they have finally come into their own.


11. Maff – Maff

This is definitely a welcome discovery for anyone who thought the only productive and intoxicating thing coming out of Chile is wine exports. Hailing from Santiago, this collective apparently wrote this album while hanging out on beaches, eventually polishing their sound in the studio. While ‘Planet of Sound’ sits a bit odd amidst the other album offerings, overall I’d have to say that I love this EP / LP (where does one draw the line?) about 110%, so there is definitely some leeway here. Particularly in love with the tracks ‘Linger Around’, ‘Walking On Fire’ and ‘Million Dollar Picnic’, but do check them all out.


12. Flyying Colours – ROYGBIV

This is quite an impressive release on the part of this Australian band. Having signed to both Shelflife (USA) and Club AC30 (UK), you could say that Flyying Colours was the first shoegaze breakout band from Down Under to conquer the northern hemisphere. Touring here and there, particularly in the UK, has helped quite a bit to grease the wheels, so to speak, but so has this fantastic album. I can’t help but point out the super high similarity in the song ‘Falling Down’, riff-wise to Ride’s first two albums, but then again, I’m not knocking them for this. It might not be highly original, but it works so very beautifully. Other tracks, like ‘Not Today’ depart from this pattern, bringing it closer to what you imagine would go over particularly well with the college radio crowd.


13. Bloodhounds On My Trail – Escape II

The second release for our Aussie component here, this Melbourne four-piece has released a stunning EP with four original breathtaking melancholic-in-that-shoegaze-way tracks and one remix by dreampoppers Ummagma. Yes, Bloodhounds On My Trail also released Escape II via two overseas labels – in the USA via Moon Sounds Records (a cool Texas based label that’s home to such shoegaze / dreampop staples as Dead Leaf Echo, Ceremony, The Foreign Resort and Static Daydream), as well as UK label Raphalite Records. No absolute fave track here though because they are all perfect.


14. Presents for Sally – Colours & Changes

After three years in production, UK-based band Presents For Sally presented Colours & Changes this year. It’s an album that’s comprised of 11 tracks that take the listener on a journey with pleasantly juxtaposed concepts and sounds, all under the same shoegaze umbrella. They band show how sensitive they can be on ‘Wishawaytoday’, which is particularly melodious. A mainstay of the shoegaze scene these days, as well as Saint Marie Records’ roster, it’s no wonder how they became an obvious favourite of UK magazine Drowned in Sound.


15. Tamaryn – Cranekiss

Tamaryn never fails to impress and this release is no exception. Here we also see Tamaryn herself (the only artist in the band carrying over from previous releases) taking a new and bold step with her music, moving away from the shoegaze channelings of ‘Tender New Signs’ and ‘The Waves’ to create lush delicious dreampop. Quite a lot of new experimentation here too, as well as ace production. Cranekiss was released through the Mexican Summer label.


16. Gliss – Pale Reflections

This is the fifth LP from American-German outfit Gliss, released through their own label Kraftwööd. This release represents a rich potpourri of dreampop with a sound that is well loved by fans of Beach House and The Raveonettes. Comprised of Victoria Cecilia and Martin Klingman, Pale Reflections is one of their best release to date. Every track here is a winner.


17. Echo Lake – Era

I was impressed with Echo Lake’s latest offering Era, which sounds closer to their Young Silence EP from 2010 than it did to their 2012 EP Wild Peace. Here, the band once again bring reverb-doused bliss to dreampop while moving a bit away from shoegaze. At least I can say this is preferable in my opinion. The single ‘Waves’ is good, while the 8-minute track ‘Dröm’ indicates that the band has matured in their sounds over the past few years. Overall, a very enjoyable release.


18. A Sunny Day in Glasgow – Planning Weed Like It’s Acid; Life Is Loss

Philadelphia outfit A Sunny Day in Glasgow release a “double EP” in follow-up to last year’s full-length Sea When Absent. Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, there are nine tracks here, which were written, recorded and mixed faster than they had ever done so for past releases. The fact that the band now is a full six people, all of whom is making their own unique contribution to compositions (as opposed to focusing on original member Ben Daniels) ultimately means that the music has become less premeditated and more dynamic. You never quite know in advance where the band will be taking you, but you can expect with every new track on this LP that it will be somewhere rather nice.


19. No Joy – More Faithful

This is the third full-length from Montreal’s No Joy and, although the material here still bears the hallmarks of the shoegaze genre they became famous for, complete with fuzzed-out guitars and repetitive chant-esque choruses, they are also onto something new here not previously seen in their past releases. It seems they are exploring more, not surprising given the remote island conditions they recorded this album under (in the Caribbean). A back and forth here of bright and delicate, as well as dark and scuzzy – perhaps that juxtaposition helps to keep this fresh enough to say “I need to listen again” and “OK, what else you got up your sleeve gals?”. Not as great as their previous 2 releases, but still pretty good.


20. Death and Vanilla – To Where The Wild Things Are

This is the first full sonic offering from Swedes Death and Vanilla, who have already earned themselves a reputation as a cult band. They deliver a magnificent heady mix of psychedelic pop involving some degree of electronic experimentation. This LP opens with ‘Necessary Distortions’, which gradually climbs in what turns out to be a gloomy emerging krautrock jam that brings the third Portishead album to mind. Another fave track here is ‘California Owls’, which has that trippy Beach Boys’ innocent retro sound buried under a fine layer of modern bubbly electronica.

HONORABLE MENTIONS (in no specific order):

The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Mini Album Thingy Wingy

Swervedriver – I Wasn’t Born To Lose You

FOREVR – Demonstration

New Order – Music Complete

Chvrches – Every Open Eye

Static Daydream – Static Daydream

Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?

The Soft Moon – Deeper

Spectres – Dying

Trementina – Almost Reach The Sun

Maria False – When

The Black Ryder – The Door Behind The Door