These are emotional times. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to what will be the final Musical Advent Calendar. It seemed a harmless idea - using the days of the December to countdown your favourite 24 albums of the year - but we had no idea. Since that half-baked plan was hatched at a Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson gig in Leeds some time back in 2009, this here Advent Calendar became something of an obsession for many of us, a project which became so over-engrossing it influenced the way we listened to records every day of the year. Somehow as we dive into the seventh edition, we've not grown to hate the monster it became, but that is partly the reason we're calling it a day now. The great Neil Young has taught us many things, and high on the list of life lessons is this: It is better to burn out than to fade away. So let's end this while we still love it.
Off we go then. We have 164 albums to get through between now and Christmas Eve, and it seems somehow that is not enough. How else to explain Skillers and Steve choosing to spend most of their reviews talking about records they haven't selected? We'd better not waste any more time...
Ryan Adams - 1989 (Pax-Am)
Where have the last 12 months gone? Can it really be a year since I last missed all of Ian's deadlines? Suppose it can. And it really wouldn't be a Ragged Glories advent without this man. Hopefully it's eligible. There were endless think-pieces written about Adams' covering of Taylor Swift's (most excellent) album, and while many of them had him down as some eternal mansplainer, giving legitimacy to Swift's 'girly' album by making it more 'boyish' – their sentiment not mine – they at best gave it more thought than Adams had and missed the point. To me, it sounds like an exercise that started as a mess-around in the studio, and escalated from there. That playfulness comes across on a few of the tracks, the ones that work the best, although there are also a couple that pale in comparison to the originals. Taken at face value, it's very enjoyable to listen to, nothing more, nothing less.
Wilco - Star Wars (dBPM)
I love Wilco as much as the next guy, assuming the next guy is Jeff Tweedy. Love 'em. Flat out love 'em. So it was pretty nice to see them drop an unexpected album FOR FREE earlier this summer. But to be honest the force wasn't with them this time. It's not Jar Jar Binks by any means - check out the woozy little track below - but it's more Phantom Menace than New Hope. If anything this sums up my overall conclusion on 2015 - a year where lots of artists I like or love didn't quite hit their previous marks.
Waxahatchee - Ivy Trip (Wichita)
This Waxahatchee album sounds like wonderfully an old 90s demo some punk garage rock girl band would come up with. Scuzzy guitars, an off-kilter pop sensibility, weird, dirty and gloriously melodic all-in-one.
Paul Smith & The Intimations - Contradictions (Billingham Records)
Frank Turner - Positive Songs for Negative People (Xtra Mile/Polydor)
What always made Frank Turner such an engaging listen was his ability to make the small-scale elements and details of life sound like a call to arms. This approach reached its zenith with the brilliant England Keep My Bones, but was followed by Tape Deck Heart, which was far more widescreen and the less effective for it. This latest offering still aims for arena rock, but has dialled back some of the sheen and is all the better for it. It will be intriguing to see where Turner goes next.
Dilly Dally - Sore (Partisan)
This isn’t the cool list. There’s no room for Joanna Newsom, Julia Holter, Bjork, Courtney Barnett, Natalie Prass, Metz, Torres, Drinks, Blank Realm, La Luz, Girl Band, Deerhunter, Grubs, The School, Robert Forster, Heather Woods Broderick, Gwenno, Haiku Salut or Susanne Sundfor. They all made mind-blowingly brilliant records this year: what was I thinking? Could I have been thinking at all straight when I came up with this list very late, happily buzzing on an October night. No doubt there’s an utter Eliza Doolittle of an album within my actual selections. Dilly Dally made the cut. I could easily have made them my number one, but they shape up as a perfect number 24: their inclusion a tell-tale sign my taste has developed barely a smidge since we began this splendid annual charade. Thanks Ian, for all your efforts. These have been seven fine years of agreeing to disagree.
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lovell (Asthmatic Kitty)
There's plenty to like here. The lyrics are moving yet sharp, the melodies are affecting, and I particularly love the way some of the the songs segue into ambient interludes. And yet...I have problems with it, the largest one being Sufjan's voice, which has a syrupy quality to it that to me is a stumbling block. It's the kind of voice I'd associate with a fey Youtuber singing a heartfelt version of a Taylor Swift song on a ukelele. And try as I might, I can't get past this image. Taste is a funny thing - there's stuff I love (jungle, free jazz, modern classical) which others tell me is borderline unlistenable. Now if Sufjan's next album is a free jazz, jungle take on the ukelele, maybe I'll get interested...
Sun Kil Moon - Universal Themes (Rough Trade)
He's a spiteful, cantankerous bastard, is Mark Kozelek, but then we already knew that. What puzzles me is that this often vicious beast can make such deeply personal records, and make them well...so beautiful. Perhaps this endless contradiction is what makes them such a compelling listen.
Joey Bada$$ - B4.DA.$$ (Cinematic Music Group)
C Duncan – Architect (Fatcat Records)
Let’s begin by looking backwards and all the albums that nearly got here. I considered very closely but couldn’t find room for the following: Richard Hawley (his best is elsewhere), Kendrick Lamar (admire it, not alpha male enough to truly embrace it), Laura Marling (a victim of her own prolific-ness and in need of a new direction, perhaps), Ryley Walker (too much of a Buckley/Morrison pastiche), Leon Bridges (too much of a Sam Cooke pastiche) and Ezra Furman (all a bit too Dexy’s for me, despite how much I loved 2013’s Day of the Dog). All of which almost makes me think I must subliminally hate solo artists, so I best put one here. C Duncan is perhaps the first occasion that the Mercury Prize has actually done its job and turned me on to a record I would have otherwise overlooked. The beautifully-layered vocal harmonies, crisp acoustic guitars and electronic wizardry variously recall Sufjan Stevens, Kings of Convenience and Adem, while still conjuring a mood and soundscape all of its own.