As more and more music competed with ever greater competition for the ever diminishing attention of listeners, musicians responded by cramming more ideas into their songs.
Many people’s album of the year, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, moved between styles and voices to the extent that its sheer density was at first alienating.
Taking on spoken word poetry, hyper-speed scatological rap and voicing the oppressive poverty experienced by most African Americans, Lamar’s album is a landmark in a year in which the industry finally came to grips with multiplatform releases, ceased viewing streaming services as illicit moonshine stills and brought them into the fold of a multi-billion-dollar industry.
As the quality and availability of recording technology allowed people to express themselves more openly than ever, 2015 revealed the first steps of many artists writing about what they knew — themselves. The result was an onslaught of slick, stream-of-consciousness albums where no second was wasted in analysing identity, motivations and society; the most obvious sign of which was the rise of the gender-fluid performer.
Shamir, due in Australia in February for annual festival highlight Laneway, is one of many artists who identify as neither male nor female. Jana Hunter, of the band Lower Dens pointedly toys with gender, shifting from masculine force to feminine might in the space of a song while rarely leaving the (notably gender-fluid) realms of early 1980s electro pop.
Locally, singer Peter Escott, leader of acclaimed Hobart band the Native Cats and two albums into a solo career, became Chloe. Melbourne music icon Evelyn Morris formed LISTEN!, a feminist organisation charged with raising the profile and agency of women, people identifying as transsexual and/or with a racial minority in the rapidly diversifying Australian music scene.
Artists who would once have been described as freaks and kept very much on the outside of the hetero-normative and overtly masculine Australian rock scene are now at the forefront of many of the nation’s most exciting acts.
Bands such as Melbourne’s Hiatus Kaiyote (nominated for their second Grammy award in 2015) inspired a generation of young musicians to approach funk with a hitherto unknown openness with their Choose Your Weapon album. Expect to see their impact stretch out for years.
Gold Class, an all-male feminist art rock band, covered subjects as diverse as sexual obsession, urban ennui and Queensland’s proposed Abbot Point coal port to dazzling effect on their debut album It’s You.
But despite this burst of new voices, the biggest success stories in 2015 came in the form of established names hitting their strides.
Courtney Barnett’s inspired Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit won her millions of new fans and gave hope to many who had given up on there being anything new in rock. Vance Joy spent much of 2015 opening for the world’s biggest pop act Taylor Swift on her ‘1989’ world tour. The take-it-to-the-floor buzz of Tame Impala’s Currents (quite possibly the first time an ARIA Award for Best Rock album has gone to an album with mere seconds of guitar), and the immaculate filth of Royal Headache’s High showed that you can polish the production without losing the grit that made people love you in the first place.
In particular, Royal Headache’s song Wouldn’t You Know wrenched hearts and sent fists aloft in a way few songs in the Australian rock canon have managed.
Also standing out in the pack of the year’s local releases were raging political manifestos such as The Smith Street Band’s sprawling ode to Tony Abbott, Wipe That Shit-Eating Grin Off Your Punchable Face, a song that raised nearly $9000 for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.
Matching them in fury was the Drones’ Andrew Bolt-baiting Taman Shud. Both songs railed against Australia’s political swing to the right, a swing that eventually brought about a prime minister’s downfall.
While the change in political leadership may not yet have been matched by changes in policy, it’s unlikely that such contagious fury will burst forth in 2016.
What we can expect is empowered songwriters overcoming the multitude of distractions to focus on their art and produce wholly unique work — artists such as Julien Baker, Shamir and Lonelady, a British singer-songwriter who constructs her spiralling dance songs from acoustic instruments and attention to detail matched by few others.
Her album Hinterland was notable for its stoicism, sense of humour and ability to make the listener feel as though they were exploring Manchester’s urban sprawl both geographically and temporally as Mancunian musical influences loom large, an accomplishment that can make a listener on the other side of the world feel right at home.
TOP 10 AUSTRALIAN ALBUMS
2. It’s YouGOLD CLASS
3. The Great WaveSKIPPING GIRL VINEGAR
4. The Age of EntitlementTHE BASICS
5. Down TimeTOTALLY MILD
6. Melbourne, FloridaDICK DIVER
7. Liminal ZonesDAY RAVIES
8. CurrentsTAME IMPALA
9. Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just SitCOURTNEY BARNETT
10. God is Drunk in ChargeTHE OUTLAND BROTHERS
TOP 10 INTERNATIONAL ALBUMS
3. Ratchet SHAMIR
4. Sprained AnkleJULIEN BAKER
5. To Pimp a ButterflyKENDRICK LAMAR
6. My Love is CoolWOLF ALICE
7. Feels LikeBULLY
8. Escape From EvilLOWER DENS
9. At Least For NowBENJAMIN CLEMENTINE
10.Depression CherryBEACH HOUSE
TOP FIVE MISCELLANEOUS ALBUMS
1. Fear God Honour the KinghMAS (reissue)
2. Ork Records: New York, New York VARIOUS (reissue)
3. SicarioJOHANN JOHANNSON (soundtrack)
4. Astral Weeks VAN MORRISON (reissue)
5. Ex MachinaBEN SALISBURY AND GEOFF BARROW (soundtrack)
TOP 20 SONGS
1. Wouldn’t You KnowROYAL HEADACHE
2. Hell You TalmboutJANELLE MONAE / WONDALAND RECORDS
3. i KENDRICK LAMAR
5. Back to YouTWERPS
8. Waste the Alphabet DICK DIVER
10. BoyfriendTHE GOON SAX
12. DowntownMAJICAL CLOUDZ
13. Sunday Candy DONNIE TRUMPET & THE SOCIAL EXPERIMENT
14. RoundaboutTHE BASICS
15. BrosWOLF ALICE
16. The SoundBROUS
17. The AnswerSAVAGES
18.Ship to WreckFLORENCE AND THE MACHINE
19. Wipe That Shit-Eating Grin Off Your Punchable FaceTHE SMITH STREET BAND
20. Someone Sometime MAJOR LEAGUES
Artists to watch in 2016
1. THE GOON SAX
3. MEG MAC