Best rock and pop of 2015: Five top artists and one turkey from Mbongwana Star's From Kinshasa to Charli XCX on Sucker

Hhighlights of the year, plus one that didn't live up to the hype

Andy Gill
Tuesday 15 December 2015 18:30 GMT
Kinshasa band Mbongwana Star
Kinshasa band Mbongwana Star (Mbongwana Star)

Olivia Chaney: The Longest River (Nonesuch)

Olivia Chaney's debut album was the most absorbing folk album of the year, its material ranging from Henry Purcell and Violeta Parra to Chaney's own songs: romantic ballads carved in throwaway puns and revealing glimpses, sung with purity and maturity, set to guitar and piano arrangements intriguingly tinted with strings, harmonium and glass harmonica.

John Grant: Grey Tickles, Black Pressure (Bella Union)

With this album, John Grant devised a perfect amalgam of the lush orchestral pop of Queen of Denmark and the flinty electropop of Pale Green Ghosts, using his warm croon to smuggle through shockingly abrasive attitudes, mostly concerning the anxieties, angers and yearnings of his mid-life crisis. But however black his melancholy and corrosive his loathing, his songs are transformed by his uniquely brusque, sardonic sense of humour and the sheer imaginative heft of his musicality. And, of course, the warm caress of that gorgeous voice.

Mbongwana Star: From Kinshasa (World Circuit)

The latest export of Kinshasa's Congotronics scene, Mbongwana Star's debut offered infectious, polyrhythmic space-rock with layered vocal chants and cyclical grooves. Fizzy synth lines, squalling guitars and pulsing backbeats combined with weird sounds akin to kalimba thumb piano, calliope organ and industrial siren, in a spirit of third-world, junkheap invention that recalled a cross between Sun Ra and King Sunny Adé. A triumph of imagination over expenditure.

Ryley Walker: Primrose Green (Dead Oceans)

The precocious Chicago guitarist's second album was a quantum leap beyond his debut, into the turbid waters sailed by earlier folk-jazz maestros such as John Martyn, Tim Buckley and Van Morrison. Walker's guitar work was as virtuosic as ever, while his singing, inspired by a backing band of improvising jazz accompanists, brought his strange, mercurial songs to vivid life.

Young Fathers: White Men Are Black Men Too (Big Dada)

Young Fathers' follow-up to the Mercury-winning Dead looked east, rather than west, for inspiration: musically, it had less to do with traditional American hip-hop than with a European indie sensibility grounded in Krautrock, electropop and avant-rock. The grooves resembled Can's motorik and Cabaret Voltaire's electro-punk, while within the joyful cacophony the trio's lyrics celebrated what might be called collective individuality – a belief that the future is made together, not separately.

Turkey of the Year

Charli XCX: Sucker (Asylum)

There's a ghastly air of unjustified arrogance about Charli XCX on Sucker, with the LA-based, expat, technopop diva exulting in her success in the world's shallowest cultural pool, while condensing clichéd yoof-rebellion down to its most vapid essence in a way that recalls the one-note teenage petulance of Shampoo (minus the irony), and generally acting like a small child given too much money, attention and E-numbers.

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