Goodnight 2015: our favourite things of last year
- 04/01/2016 -
Most of us are awake now (and some are even back at work / school / college) so we can take a brief glance over our shoulders at the albums, films, live shows and key moments of 2015 before we spring headlong into what will no doubt be an excellent brand new year.
Below you'll find a list of our favourites with just a few words about some of them, written by me (Brad). These were compiled via email request and putting all the suggestions into a massive, alphabetical list. These are simply our recommendations based on how we felt and feel about them within the context of last year. That's all. No "best of 2015" or "top five/ten/fifty" records. We'd rather just let you peruse our choices, which you can then either laugh at, disagree with, or check out.
We're happy for you – and actively welcome you – to suggest your favourites of last year too and we may well compile them here for all to see. Loverly. Just get us on Facebook or Twitter. Here we go!
Antarctigo Vespucci – Leavin' La Vida Loca
Björk – Vulnicura
A vulnerable, distraught and emotionally free Björk lays her grief out for all to hear on Vulnicura, her love letter to a love lost. Taut as a violin string, the album is gripping and difficult without ever feeling like the weight of darkness is folding you up. It's somehow uplifting while recognising that pain courses throughout it.
B-Sydes – Constant Fictions
christian fitness – love letters in the age of steam
The "solo" project by Falco of future of the left, the second christian fitness album is slightly more immediate (and brief) than its weirdo counterpart, but the inventiveness and sharpness of hooks have not been abandoned (mainly because that would be silly). The expected low-tone, scathing, ragged guitars with piercing melody lines and shoveled vocals are all here, with some odd surprises and compact, punchy songs. Something about lyrics, too; just listen.
Chris T-T & Gill Sandell – Walk Away
Faith No More – Sol Invictus
Frank Turner – Positive Songs For Negative People
No surprise really, but we all loved this. There's not much to say beyond the following: for a year that was full of heartbreak and difficult times for everyone, even if personal lives were going wonderfully – for me and important friends / family, there was a lot of happiness and things to celebrate in 2015 – PSFNP could bring belief in the healing power of confidence, wanting more and better, and dealing with the past via a healthy outlook on the present.
J Fernandez – Many Levels of Laughter
Jad Fair & Norman Blake – Yes
JD Meatyard – Taking the Asylum
Lightning Bolt – Fantasy Empire
Lou Barlow – Brace the Wave
Northcote – Hope Is Made of Steel
Matt Goud's latest collection of songs came out of nowhere to salvage any lost heart with a sack of positive sentiment and warmth. They key to Northcote's success seems to be the same driving, raised fist drama that serves Chuck Ragan so well. You won't find a much more appropriate opener to combat 2015's harder times than 'This Is Our Time'. Listen and feel great.
Original Broadway Cast recording – Hamilton: An American Musical
The extraordinary writing of Lin-Manuel Miranda (who crafted the incredible, genre-breaking/making In the Heights) makes a largely hip-hop (by way of jazz, R & B and other contemporary styles) musical about Alexander Hamilton – founding father and chief staff aide to George Washington, among other incredible achievements – not just believable and historically astute, but exhilarating and truly original while evolving the artform. Also, listening to this soundtrack, and falling in love with it, will make you social media royal Val's best friend.
Patent Pending – Riot Hearts Rebellion
PJ Bond – Where Were You?
While there's nothing fragile about PJ Bond, his songs are laced with humour, pathos and subtle musical touches which these bare, raw songs would sound like they may shatter without. This isn't the case, as his beautiful solo performance at our July party proved, but the storytelling and musicianship would survive any pressure of expectation, despite coming from such a tender place.
Skinny Lister – Down On Deptford Broadway
2015 was the year Skinny Lister became my girlfriend's favourite XMR band and I know exactly why. Taking a traditional sound — ranging from drunken sea-shanty construction to elegant folk ballads – Skinny adrenalise these songs with raucous gang vocals and an irresistible blend of fun and respect for the source inspirations. If you've not had the chance to dance, sing and laugh in the company of this band, it's something you'd do well to amend in 2016 and this is your songsheet for the show. Tickets and dates for SL's January support slots for Frank Turner in Europe are here. Living in the USA? Then why not check out dates and tickets for SL's American headline shows (with Will Varley and Beans On Toast!) in March and April here.
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love
2015 was the year I finally got to see Sleater-Kinney live. FINALLY. No Cities To Love turned out not just to be an excuse to reform but a searing, energetic reminder of how essential this band is. Their sound hasn't dated at all, and they've instead reached inside and strewn their embers across an abrasive, strident, definitive latticework of tones and melodies. It's like fire – angry and bursting with adoration – and listening is both cleansing and consuming.
Surfer Blood – 1000 Palms
This Good Robot – The Light Is Taking Me To Pieces
Viet Cong – Viet Cong
We'll get this out of the way quickly: their name is stupid. They know it now and are changing it. Good. Forgetting this, their self-titled album was an early highlight of the year, directly echoing the sort of difficult 80s post-punk noise that bands like PiL and The Pop Group mastered. Pounding rhythms, wasp feedback, warped sonic meat and hugely infectious mantras, it's everything I personally love about music that sets out to explore rock sound, pulling at the outer reaches without getting lost in time-bending black holes. Having said that, the ideal soundtrack to an inescapable gravitational pull is probably this.
Will Varley – Postcards From Ursa Minor
Another of 2015's big signees, Will Varley's first album for XMR is a majestic sweep of acoustic guitar and wordsmithery. The depth held within dives so far below the seemingly bare surface that you could be digging for gems this time next year and still come out sweating, breathless and utterly vindicated. We expect Will to do big things in 2016, and February will be an almost spiritual experience, if you're willing to give him a chance to reach you from whatever planet he happens to be sitting on at the time. Dates and tickets for his February UK headline shows and March/April American support slots on Skinny Lister's USA tour can be found at his website (right hand sidebar) and on our gigs calendar.
We may adore music but we have a great many interests, and a few of us adore film. We run the gamut from arthouse to popcorn blockbusters, though it seems this year we saw far more of the eye-blitzing IMAX cinema fodder than foreign language depress-o-thons. Please be aware there are some spoilers below, so don't read below this list if you want to keep things sacred.
The list is — The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, Force Majeure, It Follows, Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, Me, Early & the Dying Girl, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Peanuts Movie, Selma, Star Wars — Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Terminator: Genisys (yes, I know).
The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Joss Whedon's bowing out of the director and writing chair for The Avengers films makes me worried for the 2018/2019 two-part sequel because I can't think how anyone else will be able to match his talent for sewing humour into so much intensity and darkness. People complained about the lengthy battle scenes but Hulk vs Iron Man-in-Hulkbuster-armour was so compelling, furious and amusing, I'd never have expected to see something like that a mere five years ago. The setup of the story was expectedly spectacular, the filling out of Hawkeye and Black Widow's characters was very welcome, the introduction of new Avengers was exciting, and though Ultron ultimately fell short, the first half of the film was his entirely. Beat that, Russo brothers.
Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
A triumph of cinematography, eloquent scripting and powerhouse performances from Keaton, Norton and Stone almost overshadow Alejandro G. Iñárritu's impressive direction for this tale of redemption and failure. A difficult film that plays with convention (the almost-entirely percussion only soundtrack splits through the fourth wall when the camera pans to see a drummer playing along, for example) as much as with the heartstrings, the film is seamlessly joined into one long and panned shot. Not a popcorn movie, but an attempt at transcendent cinema that almost gets there.
When an avalanche threatens to bury his family, a father abandons all principle for the briefest moment of self-interest and instead the ghost of the avalanche haunts them and threatens the sanctity of the marriage. An often brutal, sometimes hilarious, ultimately exhausting look at communication, betrayal and transformation, Force Majeure won't be easily matched once witnessed.
Though I abhor the anti-sex message this horror film seems (at least on the surface) to explicitly convey, I haven't been able to shake its undeniable synth soundtrack by Disasterpiece, nor its off-kilter, foreboding pace and visuals. It toys with convention, like Birdman and a lot of my favourite films tend to do, and while its shlocky moments reduce the payoff considerably, the relentlessness is entirely memorable. A promising second full-length by director David Robert Mitchell, this film proves that initial reactions cannot ever replace an insidious nature over a longer time.
While not anyone's choice for best movie of the year, it's largely more fun than the mostly-awful The Lost World, and at least doing something different to the original trilogy. Chris Pratt is very Chris Pratt, the genetically-engineered dinosaurs out-dinosaur previous dinosaurs, and it's a mammoth action movie, which sometimes is all you really want.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Quite a lot of people's choice for best movie of the year, the trailer gave mere hints that this wasn't to be your ordinary action blockbuster. Even watching on a tiny plane screen (as I did), the unbelievable ferocity of colour, barrage of sound and startling array of imagination in what is merely a two hour vehicular return journey with appalling amounts of violence across a desert comes across incredibly well. A visual feast it may be, it somehow manages to capture humanity at its worst and best too. It's kind of baffling that such a movie can exist, but I can say wholeheartedly that this is at least one solid example of why cinema exists. Watch it.
Me, Earl & the Dying Girl
A beautiful film, simply. Please don't dismiss it as "cancer girl" fodder; it's a moving tale of friendships at the hardest points in any young person's life. With plenty of humour, delicate yet hugely touching moments, and a directorial hug, there's a lot more here to grab you than the core tale. It's a film that revels in its details, in its ability to tell mini-stories, and to catch you off guard. Tears are to be expected, but you'll likely feel the whole breadth of emotion by the end.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
I haven't seen this but it's understandable that another M:I sequel would appear in such a list because they're generally hair-raising romps through subterfuge and explosions. Tom Cruise is as himself as possible, gadgets and action smear across the screen in rapid succession and you come out feeling like you can take on the world. That's a movie experience to have whenever possible.
The Peanuts Movie
Val, who is awesome and deserves all the good luck in the world, won a trip to see a premiere of this in LA. How? By proving her love of Peanuts by being a life-long fan and testimonial to that effect, and with her Snoopy tattoo. Awesome. Anyone with a passing interest in Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Woodstock, Lucy, Linus, Pigpen, Marcie and the gang will fall happily into a well-shaped comic book world with humour, heart and healthy amounts of nostalgia.
The criminally under-represented Oscar-nominated biopic of Martin Luther King Jr.'s efforts to get voting equality for all, starting with the Alabama town Selma, almost benefits from the awful overlooking that happened earlier in the year, because its impact upon watching is so much bigger as a result. Watch it and you'll see some of the finest acting in a film in 2015, devotion to telling the story in as respectful a way as possible and an underlying fury that could spark an entire cinema. Essential viewing.
Star Wars — Episode VII: The Force Awakens
I mean, it's the new Star Wars and you'll either see it or not. It won't do anything new for you and in fact won't do much more than improve your belief in the franchise that waned post-Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. For that though, it's great fun, it's fan-service to an almost obscene level, and it's guaranteed to put a smile on almost any face. We can be po-faced and critical, and we probably already are (and indeed, I happen to think the original Star Wars trilogy is pretty poor despite its cultural cache), but there's no denying you were happy while watching it and that means it was worth the wait.
A massively controversial pick by me here, but I don't care: I really enjoyed this. It's clearly bad, but the first half more than redeems the action-reliant second, with superb subversion of the original movies. Is it a reboot or a remake? It's sort of neither and you'll be more concerned with all the time-travel plot holes while watching, but it's enjoyable and I liked that they tried to do something new for fans. I'll happily not see it again, but there's no way I'll forget the idea that the future is not set, which is the theme the franchise has stuck with forever (except Salvation, which is the Phantom Menace/Attack of the Clones of the Terminator franchise).
Gigs of the year generally don't need much explanation as they are an explosion of feeling, energy and a passionate outpouring that you can dance and signalong to. So these were the shows that stick out as prime examples of that unique and unbeatable combination of things.
Chris Farren @ Mercury Lounge, NY
Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls @ O2 Academy, Sheffield
Frank Turner, Skinny Lister and Will Varley @ Alexandra Palace, London, UK (you could have Periscoped with us live too! Next time, follow us on Periscope and head here)
Frank Turner & the Sleeping Souls @ The Garage, London
Half Man Half Biscuit @ The Forum, London
HEALTH @ The Dome (Tufnell Park), London
The Hotelier @ The Borderline, London
Laura Jane Grace and Atom Willard of Against Me! @ City Winery, NY
Limitless: Benefit for Parkinson's @ Battersea Barge
The Melvins @ Electric Ballroom, London
Patent Pending, This Good Robot, The Cavalry Is Us @ Revolution, Amityville, NY
Torche @ Camden Underworld, London
2000 Trees @ Upcote Farm, Cheltenham, UK (read about Val's alarming commitment to live music at 2000 Trees 2015 here).
Weird Al @ The Paramount, Huntington, NY
XMR Summer In The City (Skinny Lister, PJ Bond, Will Varley) @ The Monarch, London, UK (read our celebration of this excellent party here)
This might need some explaining. Basically, these are the things that happened to us in 2015 – personally, professionally or out in the wider world — that we adored, will always remember or just helped make 2015 a year that was more up than down. Share yours with us and we'll add them in below. In no particular order:
Ben Marwood returns
Brad: Seeing Ben back in action for the first time in a whole year, knowing his health has been a serious issue that threatened any musical happening from this talented and beloved songwriter would be THE highlight of 2015 for everyone who was there, or even those who weren't (like me) because we really didn't know for most of the year if it would ever happen again. Except we did because this man is awesome. You can buy Ben's first two albums in preparation for his long-awaited third (hopefully this year!) at our shop.
Positive Songs For Negative People listening party
Val: hearing Positive Songs For Negative People at a listening party event at the Gibson Lounge in May. Surrounded by press and industry types, I shared a couch with Cahir (O'Doherty - guitar tech / second guitarist with the Sleeping Souls), Charlie Caplowe (XMR), Mischa Pearlman (music journalist and critic), and Roe Gallo (XMR) with Ben Morse (filmmaker, photographer) sitting on the floor by my feet. We sat in silence and listened to the new album and I tried not to be 'that guy' who cried during the event as I listened to the lyrics and the music and thought: 'this album is going to help so many people get through hard times'.
XMR Summer in the City
Val: My silly idea of an XMR summer party actually happening with amazing bands and friends. And it sold out! And there was a tube strike! And it was beyond packed anyway! And dancing the night away with Beans DJing! It was so perfect! (XMR: And you can read about it here.)
Val: Successfully organizing two Skiffle tours! One for Beans On Toast around the whole of the USA and one for To Kill A King in Germany! (XMR: You can read about TKAK's Skiffle here).
Skinny Lister vs Periscope
Val: Periscoping Skinny Lister in San Diego and Lorna pulls me on stage to have a little dance with her during "Seventeen Summers" - so surreal! (XMR: For future Periscopes, go here).
FTHC Tour Flag
Val: Cramming in approximately six hours to make a tour flag after the ups lost our new one for Frank's fall tour - and getting it done on time! Bonus: seeing that same flag three months later on stage at Ally Pally (Alexandra Palace, non-London folk!), many feelings were had. (XMR: read about a fan history of the tour flag here.)
Evan: West Ham beating Arsenal, Liverpool and Man City away and Chelsea being shit.
Evan: Harmony No Harmony finally coming out on vinyl. (XMR: You can see it/buy it here and also read about Evan's reworking of the sleeve art here).
Evan: Getting a kitten.
Evan: Quitting my "career" in IT.
Supporting Frank Turner/signing with XMR
Will Varley: Playing The Royal Albert Hall with Frank Turner shortly after signing with Xtra Mile. That was a pretty momentous gig! (XMR: And you can get tickets for Will playing his first UK headline tour in February right here at our gigs calendar. Europeans can see him supporting Frank Turner, along with Skinny Lister, from 10 January here. And people in the US can see Will and Skinny Lister tour together in March and April, with dates and tickets here.)
Assorted other stuff
Games (by Brad)
Her Story (PC)
Life Is Strange (PC)
Ori and the Blind Forest (PC)
Splatoon (Wii U)
Super Mario Maker (Wii U)
Theatre (by Brad)
Clarion @ Arcola
Future Conditional @ Young Vic
Hamlet @ Barbican
Hangmen @ Royal Court Theatre
In the Heights @ Kings X Theatre
Lungs @ Roundabout / National Theatre
Made In Dagenham @ Adelphi Theatre
Measure For Measure @ The Globe
Mr Foote's Other Leg @ Haymarket Theatre Royal
Oresteia @ Trafalgar Studios
Made In Dagenham @ Adelphi Theatre
Books (by Val)
The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson
Hawkeye by Matt Fraction
The Road Beneath My Feet by Frank Turner
Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley
New TV (by Val)
Fear the Walking Dead
Enjoy that? Think we're wrong? You might be right. Get at us on Facebook or Twitter or just reply to the post you found this on. We'll try and add your suggestions, responses and thoughts on this page if they're entertaining, interesting, and respectful! Happy new year everybody! See you on the road.