New Music Through Old Ears: 2015 Year in Review

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As 2015 draws to a close, entertainment editor John Turnbull takes a look back at the year that was...

BY ANY measure, 2015 has been a big year for music. Adele returned from hiatus and released the fastest selling album in history. Taylor Swift continued her quest for world domination. Zayn Malik left One Direction.

Justin Bieber released his most successful album to date and continued to be a dick — although he did apologise for it. Kanye West had a child, which somehow still makes him a "creative genius". These are my top albums:

Top albums

3. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

Sydney born singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett is one of those odd indie musicians who build their craft in relative obscurity before breaking into the mainstream with a quirky, unique voice. After playing with various bands including Rapid Transit and Immigrant Union, Barnett released her first EP I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris in 2012.

Sometimes I Sit is filled with offbeat yet engaging tracks, from the catchy Pedestrian At Best to the wry Depreston and a uniquely Australian song called Debbie Downer. Likely to walk away with a bunch of ARIA awards at next year's ceremony, Courtney Barnett is definitely an artist to watch.

2. Florence & The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

When I reviewed this album back in July, I gave it 10/10 and called it the album of the year (so far). While I’m not saying that I was wrong, I’d probably take the rating down a notch, which doesn’t speak badly for the album, more for my youthful enthusiasm. This third studio album from Florence & The Machine was recorded after singer Florence Welch returned from a year-long hiatus from music, and the rest has clearly done her good.

Filled with soaring vocals and emotive arrangements, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful places Welch alongside great vocalists like Aretha Franklin and Amy Winehouse in the pantheon of voices to be remembered through the ages.

1. Nothing But Thieves – Nothing But Thieves

Few styles of music are catchier than Britpop done right. Think about the first time you heard Blur’s Song 2, Pulp’s Common People, or even Oasis’ Wonderwall before it was played to death. With influences from Ray Charles through to Led Zeppelin and Jeff Buckley, Nothing But Thieves take the Britpop model and make it their own, resulting in a spectacular debut album.

From the catchy hook of first single Itch to the haunting melody of Graveyard Whistling, Nothing But Thieves is an album that rewards repeat listens, revealing remarkable depth for a band aged in their early twenties.

Over the past 12 months I’ve spoken to touring artists from the USA, Canada and the United Kingdom, along with some of the best rising talent on the Australian music scene. These are my top Interviews:

Top interviews

3. J.J. Grey

The blues journeyman was a perfect Southern gentleman as we chatted amiably about songwriting, his favourite surfing spots around Australia and the value of a $10 guitar:

My parents bought me a guitar for Christmas when I was a kid and I was real excited. I had been asking for one of a long time and they finally bought it for me and I was so excited I ran over to my neighbour’s place to show it to them. After a while, we went inside and I leaned the guitar on the back of their parents' car – I mean this was Christmas Day so nobody was going anywhere – and of course their mother backed over it a few minutes later.

When I went home and told my dad he said he wasn’t buying me another one, so it took years after that before I could save up enough money to afford to buy a guitar for myself. I remember I paid $10 for that guitar and it was beautiful  it had these mean pickups that just sounded great. I’ve only recently retired that guitar from my live shows. (J.J. Grey , 'The IA Interview 2015.')

 2. Greta Stanley

Born and raised in Far North Queensland, Greta Stanley is upbeat and bubbly but wise beyond her years. We spoke shortly after the release of her debut EP Bedroom City, and I asked whether she had considered taking the reality TV approach to stardom:

Look, I thought about it when I was younger. Growing up, I’ve started to learn a little more about the music industry and the reality TV industry, and from a lot of stories I hear, there is a lot of corruption about. I think a lot of those shows craft you the way they want or they think is going to be successful, rather than what you’re good at or who you want to be. The other side of the coin is that from reading interviews with people like Lisa Mitchell and Matt Corby, I understand that they had a lot of trouble breaking out from the reality TV box. At the same time, it depends. If you want to get yourself out there maybe it is a good place to start but I’m happy with the direction I chose. I like where I am at the moment. (Greta Stanley, 'The IA Interview', 2015.)

1. The Sea Birds

In my first ever tag-team interview, I spoke to Mike and James from Melbourne band The Sea Birds. We discussed the state of the Australian music scene, the best duets of all time and the impact of internet music piracy;

... probably two per cent of the musicians out there are rock stars with millions of dollars. The other 98 per cent are people like us who struggle  put a lot of time and effort into it. Music isn’t a cheap industry to get into. People are quite happy to pay four bucks for a cup of coffee that takes them five minutes to drink and then it’s gone forever. Yet they won’t spend one dollar to download a song or five dollars to buy a CD at a gig, I think we need to bring more awareness to that. (James W du Plessis.)

I don’t want to get all high and mighty about it, but there’s a lack of awareness about the costs involved in being in a band. I was telling some people at work about the gig on Saturday night, after they asked me how much money I made; that after I paid the mixer, pay musicians and pay the venue costs, I rarely break even. I’m not crying poor, because I love doing it, but the notion that you’re doing well because you get a few gigs is totally misleading. (Mike Amarant, The Sea Birds IA Interview, 2015.)

If you own a digital music player and aren’t listening to podcasts, then you’re missing out. These are my top podcasts:

Top Podcasts

3. Caustic Soda –

Not for the faint of heart, Caustic Soda tackles a single "caustic" topic each week, from Cannibalism to Hurricanes and Megafauna. Hosted by Canadians Toren Atkinson, Joe Fulgham and Kevin Leeson, your enjoyment of this series will depend on your ability to put up with frequent puns, bad jokes and mispronunciations of the word, "debris".

On the upside, the show usually features well-educated guests with expertise on the topic at hand, and provides a nice balance of historical context, current status and pop culture representations of the subject. Highlights of 2015 include Human Sacrifice, the two part special on Weird Wars, and the continuation of the ‘Evil Dudes in History’ series featuring Josef Mengeler.

2. The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe -

This weekly podcast covers the latest in science, technology and critical thinking news, and is hosted by neurosurgeon Steven Novella and his team of "skeptical rogues". Early in the year this perennial resident of "best podcast" lists slipped slightly in quality with the departure of Rebecca Watson, despite the presence of talented guests including George Hrab and Australia’s own Richard Wiseman. Fortunately, science communicator Cara Santa Maria has recently joined the rogues, adding a nice layer of diversity and preventing the show from devolving into in-jokes and Star Wars references. Most of the time.

1. Hardcore History with Dan Carlin -

Exhaustively researched and presented in a captivating ‘theatre of the mind’ style, Hardcore History takes historical events that you thought you knew about and adds amazing layers of depth and insight. Hosted by former newspaper journalist and radio host Dan Carlin, this series covers topics from the World Wars to the rise of Genghis Khan via multi-part podcasts that often run into the multiple hours.

The downside of this comprehensive approach is that new episodes are only released every couple of months, as opposed to weekly like many other podcasts, but the level of depth makes them worth the wait. For listeners who quickly burn through the available episodes on iTunes (like I did), older episodes are available to purchase from Dan’s website, including the amusing and informative ‘History Under the Influence’ which covers incidents in history when world leaders were very likely off their faces on recreational substances…

Did you enjoy what you just read? Well, John Turnbull's books are now available on Amazon and Kindle. For about the price of a cup of coffee you can take a journey deep into the disturbed psyche behind columns including Screen Themes, Think For Yourself, New Music Through Old Ears and JT on NXT. There’s supernatural thriller, Damnation’s Flame; action/romance, Reaper; black comedy, City Boy; and travel guidebook, Bar Trek: Europe. Check 'em out! You can also follow John on Twitter @blackmagicjohn.

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