Four Shades of Blue: Adrift On the Sea of Hull

(Probably NSFW )


I don’t recall exactly when I first became aware of Spencer Tunick’s art but I did ponder taking part in the Salford Lowry piece in 2010 but was too late, disorganised, hesitant.  When I heard about his new Hull project I was quicker and signed up online a few months ago.

And that was it.  Two weeks ago an email arrived with details.  We would be assembling in Hull by 3am.  And we would be wearing blue body paint.  Oh. OK.

I hadn’t told anyone at work, or actually anyone at all, until Friday.  Then a colleague on the phone asked what my weekend plans were.

“Taking part in an art installation by Spencer Tunick”

“Not heard of him but sounds cool.”

Then a few minutes later, Google time later, up pops the email: “Really????”

“Yep!”

For a moment, driving home from work, I pondered not going. Hull is a long trek across country, but I might never get this chance again.  More than that, nothing gets me down more than feeling I’ve wasted free time by abandoning plans through lethargy.  So I had a nap, gathered suitable old clothes, loaded up some driving tunes and set off about 1030.

Now I don’t know what a typical Hull Friday night looks like these days, but walking from the car towards Queens Gardens I quickly got an idea that some of those around might be going my way.  Casual clothes, gym bags, at 230?

The streets near the Gardens were closed off to non-participants much to the confused consternation of one chap on his way home. “I need to go that way, I just came down there” I was waved through so I don’t know if he understood the detour.

At the Gardens we were pointed to various registration tables, where we handed in model release forms in exchange for a clear plastic bag with a number. I was B4 so I joined the huge queue to assemble at  B4.  There we got the important things: a tub of paint and a packet of wipes.

Just before dawn, in the cold light…

And then… We milled around, waited and tried to keep warm. Somebody had been at the police briefing so told us the planned schedule.  Apparently 6000 had signed up but typically up to half don’t show up.   People chatted. Alan from Newcastle asked if we were naturists too.  In fact he seemed to assume we were regardless of our denials.  Teacher Mandy from nearby said she’d never done anything like this before, nor had I, but the Geordie naturist continued talking about his favourite spas and beaches as though we knew them.

It was nearly 4 by the time Spencer Tunick himself took to the microphone to greet and instruct us.  At first he seemed awkward, nervous, starting sentences and not finishing.  He apologised several times for not liking speaking by PA but perhaps he’d have been wiser handing some of this to an assistant.  There was an Irish woman with a clear voice who helped corral us and would have speeded this part up.  But eventually we were told to head back to our areas ready to get the word to start.  Despite repeated instructions otherwise a few had already started to paint up and undress.  Others headed for the line of portaloos. Already the banter had started. The toilet line to my right moved much faster than mine as the 5 minute call went out.  But I made it back to Mandy and the Geordie naturist in time.

“OK can you start undressing and applying paint please.”  It was almost 430 a.m.

I’d already noticed how some people had come prepared to undress and presumably dress quickly.  Around me people took different approaches.  Some stripped almost in two movements. Shirt over the head, pants down, done.  Others kept underwear on while painting the rest.  Nearby four young women faced inwards, and one counted to three and they braved the air together.

We’d been told to cover everywhere, hair, ears, eyelids, even those hidden places like the soles of our feet.  At first it was easy. Odd but easy smearing gloopy blue paint on arms, face, torso.  Glancing not at others’ naked bits but at how they applied colour.  People helped each other, strangers unfazed by it all.  I bent to do my calves, and Mandy reached across to smear over a missed spot on my neck.  She asked me to check her back, tooI pointed out a white patch on her bum, so she began to try to cover it.

“Oh what the hell, you do it” she said.  Setting a tone of comfort and acceptance that was to grow as we continued.  Strangers stood chatting, laughing and helping.  I know I wasn’t alone in having had a quick glance at the bodies becoming exposed around me, but that was it. Just a glance and then get on with it.  It was clear at once that we’re all different and all the same.  I saw big bearded hipsters, pensioners and young people, at least two wheelchair participants, the out of shape (me) and the athletic, (Mandy was to run a 10k on Sunday morning) and one woman well into third trimester by appearances. I wondered how a woman with spectacular ginger hair would turn it blue, and watched others covering tattoos.  The park was becoming a sea of blues, four shades of blue from a pale, white blue to virtually green.  To the east between the buildings, a pink sunrise glowed briefly in contrast.  It was a mild morning, it didn’t feel cold as we prepared ourselves.

Soon it was time to move, two processions down the sides of the Gardens to the Rose Garden.  Without my glasses, in the twilight, the palest blue looked beautifully spectral from a distance.  Closer they took on a statuesque quality.  Even as we assembled the beauty of this project was becoming clear.  And the humour was coming through.

The Rose Garden is laid out as a spoked circle, a ship’s wheel in Spencer’s vision.  I found myself on a spoke at due South from the camera view. The photographer was on a balcony some 6 or 7 floors up, directing models and crew.  One of the crew, his assistant Steve, got a lot of his instructions and sometimes ire, but became our folk hero. Every mention was greeted with a terrace chant of “Steeeeeeeeeeve!!!”

Spencer wanted people evenly spread out, prompting a glorious Carry On moment as he announced in apparent innocence: “If you see a hole, fill it!” And 3200 people responded “Wahey!” Incredibly, impressively, with 3200 naked bodies in close proximity, that was as sexual as it got.  Comic humour.  Like the urge to leave a dark blue handprint on a nearby pale blue bottom, and later on a parked red van. Neither urge was followed through however.

The Geordie naturist reappeared to tell us that naturists would probably have at least shorts on at this temperature.  Around 14°C at start, by the way.  It was OK we’d been told we’d only be naked for a short time.  But as Spencer directed people around each shot took a while.  A clothed person was in the frame, he complained. “Streaker!” Cried the naked people.

Then we moved on, across the road “Wait for the green man to flash!”, past a construction site “a hard helmet area”, and down the street.  It was curious how different road surfaces were such different temperatures, even individual paving slabs were suddenly warm.

I think it was around this point, as I walked with school dinner lady Sharon and a Londoner whose name I didn’t get, that I really felt the rising camaraderie. Broken pavements, rough patches of road, were pointed out. Jokes shared.  The open top press bus was mildly jeered and taunted.  Steve (“Steeeeve!!!”) was cheered, we all deliberately feigned not understanding an American assistant telling us to not use the “sidewalk” and there were choruses of Eiffel 65’s Blue to keep us going.
Down the street we were halted and we waited. Spencer had to change his film, disproving the theory he was using an iPhone4.  Meanwhile we discussed doing this again, how about outside Betty’s in genteel Harrogate?  Then he was ready. And we lay down as directed on the hard street.  Then the same pose facing the other direction. Oddly it felt colder that way.  Those trembling sensations though, were raging giggles at the jokes, not shivering at the cold.

Up til now the shades of blue had intermingled though with little cross contamination that I saw.  Now we lined up in our separate colours.  And we waited.  Somebody started the Hokey Cokey, a Mexican Wave was called for but those at the front didn’t get it going so it came from the back.

More paint came around for those who needed “touching up” and again strangers turned friends helped without coyness.  It all felt so incredibly natural, normal, comfortable.  Nobody seemed to judge, all just bonded.

My hairy chest was thickly matted and sticky, elsewhere parts were tightening as the paint dried.  Somebody mentioned sticky thighs.  Nobody went there.

Further through town, to the Guildhall, where it was colder. The wind had got up, but nobody was saying where it had got up.  We all knew.  Our short time naked passed two hours.

Spencer rose above us on a gantry to check and take his shots, always calling on Steve (“Steeeeeve!!!!”) to move people. A drone flew over too, but was that official?  This photo involved us bent over at the waist, the one shot you really had to be careful where you looked.  I can still touch my toes though!

There was one last set-up but only room for 800, so some headed off to warmth, clothes and the long clean up. The group I’d been around dissipated but I’d come this far so why not.

This meant the longest walk so far, down cobbled streets at times, in looser formation.  By now residents were waking, and one or two got a surprise when they leaned out their windows.  Gradually people gave up and headed against the tide but still there were a few too many for the swing bridge and we missed out.  Ah well, that led to a different memorable moment or two.

Sharon and I walked back to the Gardens in a pair, more exposed but no more uncomfortable by now, than as a crowd.  The City was waking, so we saw traffic, and a few amused and bemused delivery drivers and workers. They looked, we waved and grinned.  Actually I think I’m still grinning.

We had spent over three hours naked on the streets of Hull now. Just a “short time”? Now to clean up.  But first some personal photos. Selfies and shared photos of new friends.

I’d decided to just clean my hands for the drive, so as not to mess my car up.  That took 20 minutes scrubbing with wipes anyway. Meanwhile all around people talked about how good it felt. The vocabulary was consistent: Liberating, Comfortable, Normal, Equal, Beautiful, Awesome, Fantastic. The mood was blissful and shared ecstasy.  People spoke of the paint being a mask, but maybe implied that adding paint removed our daily masks.

Folk from the bridge shot appeared, having been provided white paper suits for the walk back.  The walk others did naked.  Oddly blue heads and arms poking out of clothes looked far weirder than bare bodies.  Near us a blue woman pulled on a bold peach bra that emphasised her large bust in its contrast far more than her being topless had.

Even the walk back to the car alone, sometimes a reflective or downbeat moment after events, was joyous. Other blue faces waved in kinship, non-blues smiled or looked puzzled.  One goth woman in bold blue lipstick made eye contact, unsure perhaps if she’d been upstaged or found a fellow traveller.  An elderly couple were parking near my car.  She wanted to know if the blue was everywhere. It was, and I showed a little belly.  Her husband said he’d seen us on the news, and told me the significance of the shades.  It seems Tunick had identified the four shades as dominant and prevalent in commissioners The Ferens Gallery collection of Hull related sea paintings.  His aim to highlight Hull’s relationship to the sea was thus tied to its artistic history too.  From the ground, in the middle at times, on the fringes at others, there was a curious feeling of how would this look? But also as we packed down the street, a sense of some kind of transformation.  The old stone buildings and the flow of blues made sense together where they may not have done with clothes or unpainted bodies.

It was a long drive home, punctuated by several stops.  I know I raised eyebrows at services, but some recognised where I’d been, or were intrigued when I explained.  That seems to be the main reaction.  Well done, I bet it was amazing, I wish I’d the courage.  And how long did it take to get clean? About an hour in shower and bath, but it was totally worth it.  One of the most incredible experiences of my life so far.  I’m still grinning!  Can’t wait to see the finished prints and the exhibition next Spring as part of Hull City of Culture 2017.

Oh and if you were there too, thank you so much for sharing.  And Mr Tunick, thank you for the opportunity, the inspiration and the beauty.

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Women Up To No Good – Pat Murphy (Untreed Reads, 2013)

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Photo credit currently not known

Pat Murphy’s first short story collection Points of Departure was one of just two collections to win the Philip K Dick Award. This second collection appears not to have even been reviewed anywhere. 
Women Up To No Good contains 16 stories including several reprinted from Points of Departure in six subsections.  They range from urban fantasy through psychological sf, fantastic western, and retold legend to Austen-pastiche.  Most, perhaps all, are distinctively Murphy above all.

Opener ‘A Flock of Lawn Flamingos’ sets a tone of mischief and moral.  In a quiet California suburb a new arrivals, the mysterious Joan Egypt sets cultural ripples in play that challenge and break the dominance of one white male.  It isn’t SFF as such but has the sensibility of genre as its effects spread.  By the end we are left feeling empowered, knowledge and small actions have restored a harmony to the street.  It’s a story where we believe in what can happen next.
That’s a feeling made explicit in the next story, ‘One Odd Shoe’ is a moral tale of male privilege being turned about.  It references Coyote, acknowledging but querying his external role in our lives.
Coyote is a force for entropy. But Coyote is also a force for good (though whose good is always open to question).
As with many of these stories there’s a layer of telling involved, the narrator is a woman, the agent of the story is a woman. Who is up to no good? Clearly the latter, except that, perhaps the former in her telling is the subversive?
‘On the Dark Side of the Station Where the Train Never Stops’ talks of her heroine the fireborn fey bag-lady Lucy as a different person yet with knowledge that suggests something shared.  In the middle of a charming love story are conversations about seeing ‘past one kind of truth to another kind’ and the need of the world to have teeth and pain. It might be my favourite here.

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Kari Sperring in her Strange Horizons review of Sisters of the Revolution laments an aspect of community in much feminist SF.
Western feminism, like much of Western culture, has tended to prioritise individualism over community, and again, most of the stories in this collection reflect that. We have women fleeing, women resisting, women fighting back, but all too often they are alone, marked by their special status.”
Pat Murphy, (represented in that anthology by ‘Love & Sex Amongst the Invertebrates’) is an exception.  Repeatedly in this collection Murphy finds ways to stress the strengths of community. Joan Egypt may be an individual with her lawn flamingos, but it is the community that responds, and the baton is handed down.  Lucy the firecatcher goes on her star run, but the community shares her story.  In ‘A Cartographic Analysis of the Dream State’ a four woman team undertakes a Martian Trans-Polar Expedition.  A community of seven old women in the woods looks after a princess in ‘A True Story’ Her stepmother has hidden her away from the paedophile King. 
That reimagined Snow White ends with Queen and Princess reunited and the narrator saying “Sometimes, I tell them of Snow White, the true story rather than the storytellers’ lies. I think the true story should be known.” 
But the next story, ‘Dragon’s Gate’ “is unruly and difficult. It refuses to conform to any of the traditional forms.” This is often Murphy’s way, knowingly, and openly telling her readers she is subverting their expectations, she then subverts the new, revised version too.  ‘Dragon’s Gate’ is one of several stories reminding us that we are told how the world is by authorities and begin to believe it, but if we remember then the truth is revealed. The lost colours sought by ‘Iris versus the Black Knight’ are easily seen as the forgotten women of SF, of Science, of History that were there though we are told they weren’t. 

The truth is that Pat Murphy’s Women Up to No Good are in fact up to a lot of good, restoring balance, and supporting each other for the betterment of the world.  Murphy’s women are retelling the world their way. They do this in self aware stories of wit, and humour, and charm, but with shadows too.  You will hope Joan Egypt moves next door, you will wonder which star is Lucy, smile knowingly at that shoe by the road. and you will start to question the stories we are always told. Joan Egypt, who I keep returning to as touchstone here, and Pat Murphy are akin in setting ripples on ponds. Hopefully you will also seek out more of Pat Murphy’s brilliant SFF.

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Gypsy

Throughout his 40 year career Carter Scholz has always had what he calls a ‘characteristic, class-traitor response’ to genre.”
In his short novel Gypsy he approaches one of SFs enduring conceits with unprecedented rigour.
The early years of genre SF tended towards a near manifest destiny of human conquest of space.  Even in a universe with Velantians or Ferengi it is Earthmen who lead; when systems fail human ingenuity triumphs.  Gradually with the New Wave came stories which recognised the changes humans might have to make to survive and traverse space. Think Delany, McCaffery, Spinrad, etc. Questions of identity may have been raised but generally some humanity remained and mankind continued to the stars. 

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The 2016 Reading Challenge

Ok, I don’t read or blog enough or at least haven’t recently. So the plan for this year is both attainable targets and some focus and structure.
So in 2016 I aim to read 6 books in each of the following categories:
Classics (pre-1940)
Poetry
Translations
Writers of Colour
Biography/Criticism
Recommended by a Friend
Published this year.
An award winner

So 8 categories, potentially 48 books, but there will be overlaps, that should work.

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The Books of 2015 (Fiction)

About this time last year I posted on Facebook that I hoped to see new books from about 10 of my favourite authors. Four made it, and one at least is due this year.
Meanwhile which books were my favourites in 2015? Honourable mention first of all to The Loney which slipped out in a smaller press edition in 2014 but which I only discovered recently.  Aside from being deliciously creepy, the Catholic retreat personal politics are acutely, but never nastily, observed.  On the TBR pile are a couple of highly praised 2015 novels I expect to enjoy when I reach them, Aurora of course, as a longstanding Kim Stanley Robinson fan, and Marlon James A Brief History of Seven Killings.  I’m also very much enjoying Melissa Harrison’s At Hawthorn Time for, amongst other qualities, a rich depth of place and meaning of place. But for the Top Ten, I had to exclude the unfinished, despite its claims. 

10 Malcolm Pryce – The Case of The ‘Hail Mary’ Celeste.
A departure from Pryce’s wonderful Aberystwyth Noir series of gentle absurdity, but still recognisable as his unique style.  This time our hero is a ‘Gosling’ one of the semi-legendary railway detectives of the 1930s imprinted on steam trains at birth and brought up as orphans. Pryce uses this surreal start to tell a charming, melodramatic hard boiled thriller with a touch of idiosyncratic secret history and a delicate romance.

9 Lisa Goldstein – Weighing Shadows
A time travel novel, ostensibly Goldstein’s first SF novel proper. The genre of her The Dream Years is ambiguous, but the majority of her subsequent work makes Goldstein consistently one of the finest fantasy writers of the past 30 years. 
Weighing Shadows therefore was one of those hoped for titles a year ago, and almost a disappointment at first.  Only when patterns coalesced through the seemingly naive plot did this Fantasy of History take on meaning beyond its surface.  One to ponder I think.

8 Attica Locke – Pleasantville
Sequel, that stands alone, set some years later, to Locke’s impressive debut Black Water Rising.  Another crime novel where the crime isn’t the point, it’s a stage for a deep, historical political depiction.  Locke has a way of putting her readers into a milieu to show it in historical context without labouring hindsight.

7 Kit Reed – Where
Reed has, in a way, been doing the same thing for 57 years so far. The white rooms she uses as settings are incongruously realistic though. The simple premise of Where, a town vanishing, its people finding themselves mysteriously transported elsewhere, is brought to life by a detailed sense of place previously, and by the domestic details and relationships Reed is still using to imaginatively explore our sense of self and of place.  One of the best novels by one of SFs best.
6 Silvia Moreno Garcia – Signal To Noise
It’s no secret that I like my Urban Fantasy to be properly urban, ie for the city to play a part rather than be wallpaper.  Signal To Noise, set in Mexico City now and the 1980s, does that magnificently.  Three misfit teens bond over music and the magic of music until, of course, something goes wrong. Garcia’s musical references avoid cliches, are diverse, real and feel right. A rare book that had me reading with YouTube open. Oh and in Meche a sympathetic, sometimes unlikable heroine to live alongside.
5 Ian Sales – All That Outer Space Allows
The fourth Apollo Quartet novella turned out to be a novel, and better for it. Sales typical NASA details combined with rich knowledge of 60s women SF writers make for an interesting alternative history. Then Sales breaks the fourth wall to discuss his aims and devices within the novel. I think at one point he even breaks through that to explain that approach as well. 

4 Sunny Singh – Hotel Arcadia
As reviewed here a powerful, moving thriller set entirely (apart from flashbacks) in a luxury hotel occupied by terrorists.  There’s so much to enjoy in Singh’s third novel, both in her wonderful characters, the well-paced unfolding of traumatic events, and in the parallels she creates so skilfully. 

3 Elizabeth Hand – Wylding Hall
Too often the use of music and musicians in SFF feels self-indulgent, with a tendency to Mary Sue. Not so with Hand, especially in this haunting ghost mystery.  The story is of a folk rock band retreating to a remote country house to write and record, told as oral history by the various protagonists.  Suitably obscure references to the hunting of the wren, a mysterious barrow, and hints about the death of the band’s previous singer all combine in classic gothic style.
2 Carter Scholz – Gypsy
The return of contemporary SF’s great modernist with a starship hard SF short novel unlike any other I’ve read or heard of.  A bold assertion, but Scholz has regularly questioned genre’s treasured shibboleths.  At first Gypsy echoes Scholz’ good friend Kim Stanley Robinson’s Icehenge, no spoilers but this is a bleaker tale on the surface. So finely is it written though that its sheer inevitability is the only option, and utterly rational.

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Sarah Hall photo by me

1 Sarah Hall – The Wolf Border
Ok I’ll say this here. Reviews of this novel of rewilding wolves into a private Lake District estate have all talked about the wolves (and the sex, but I’ll come to that.)  What they missed, and I raised with Hall at Hay, is the other word: Border.  Set alongside a successful vote for Scottish independence, I’ll argue that makes this alternative history.  Absolutely every scene and every relationship in The Wolf Border occurs across a threshold (doorways, fences, seasons, town/country,) or emphasises such by viewing across or transition (class, culture, gender, pregnancy/motherhood etc).  Sex, too, in this intimate but not openly eroticised novel, is an interface, a transition, a border crossing. Hall is one of our finest writers, The Wolf Border both fits perfectly with her previous novels and surpasses them. From first reading through second and third readings Hall’s clarity illuminates fascinating depths.

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The Top Albums of 2015 part 2 the Top 10

Part one Albums 20-11 appeared a couple of days ago. Now the Top ten.

A couple more near misses though. Tamikrest put out an excellent live album for Record Store Day but in the absence of new material it didn’t quite fit the Top 20.  From the same part of the world many lists have included Africa Express presents In C Mali but the digital version was out in 2014 and was high up last year’s ranking for me.
So…

10 Drenge – Undertow
Muscular new wave now with added bass on another second album to make this list.  At times sounding like heavier Joy Division with dark pop melodies I even think I heard a momentary echo (sic) of Martha & The Muffins.

9 Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
I’m not a hip hop fan in the sense of following it closely, but every so often something catches my ear. Lamar’s lyrics are diverse but consistent in passion & intelligence. Add a rich organic tapestry of jazz & funk classicism and you get a great album.

8 Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space
It isn’t much remarked on but there’s a jazz tinge and some classical structure to PSB’s electronic arrangements. It’s the deft use of transmission recordings from 60s & 70s space missions that bring the emotion & drama though. Most years there’s an album that sounds like very little or nothing else around. PSB are that band this year.

7 Jane Weaver – The Silver Globe
In a year of great female auteurs (see also Björk, Joanna Newsom, Grimes and others) there was a point where Weaver might have been even higher ranked.

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Jane Weaver at Cloudspotting (photo by me)

6 Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls
Ignore the backstory about Bruce’s cancer, for 10 tracks this is the best Maiden album in an years. There were great songs on previous albums but less coherence. I said 10 tracks, because it gets better on track 11 is the 18 minute epic piano led Empire of The Clouds about the R101 that is among the finest things Maiden have done (yet!)

5 Bathymetry
As reviewed previously Bathymetry’s debut is sweetly deceptive, chiming guitars and intricate basslines, harmonies concealing dark lyrics and a fine-tuned indie pop sensibility.

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Ariel Bathymetry at The Joiner’s Arms, Lazonby (photo by me)

4 Lianne LaHavas – Blood
Ok whodathunk it?  Me, the arch obscurist putting a genuine pop hit artist in the Top 5? Discovered Lahavas by chance at Hay, was impressed, bought the album when it hit #2 in the charts. Catchy, soul folk tunes, a glorious warm voice a standard template but a well above standard usage. Saw her again in Manchester’s Albert Hall and was even more blown away.

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Lianne Lahavas at The Albert Hall, Manchester (photo by me)

3 Kamasi Washington – The Epic
A triple album. The man responsible for much of the gorgeous arrangements on Kendrick Lamar’s album above also put out his own magnificent, up to date yet classic post-Coltrane jazz album.  It soars.

2 Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba – Ba Power
Rock album of the year made by four guys playing proto-banjos that look like homemade cricket bats with strings.  Kouyate and his family have taken the Ngoni to multiple new levels though, and just like Chicago blues begat rock’n’roll they’ve taken desert blues to new places too.  And Kouyate’s wife Amy Sacko stands comparison with any and all the great singers already noted.

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Amy Sacko & Bassekou Kouyate at Electrowerz, London (photo by me)

And at number 1 Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness
If there’s a theme running through this list it’s a nuanced multi genre eclecticism about most of the artists here.  Julia Holter’s been compared to Kate Bush but I also hear In A Silent Way era Miles. Keyboards harmonizing with a powerful voice, instrumental passages taking off in directions you don’t expect but make perfect sense.  Complex but totally accessible tunes like nobody else achieves.

Turns out 2015 was a pretty good year.  Some great voices and amazing musicianship and for me a blend of classic and modern that goes somewhere.

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The Top Albums of 2015 part 2 the Top 10

Part one Albums 20-11 appeared a couple of days ago. Now the Top ten.

A couple more near misses though. Tamikrest put out an excellent live album for Record Store Day but in the absence of new material it didn’t quite fit the Top 20.  From the same part of the world many lists have included Africa Express presents In C Mali but the digital version was out in 2014 and was high up last year’s ranking for me.

10 Drenge – Undertow
Muscular new wave now with added bass on another second album to make this list.  At times sounding like heavier Joy Division with dark pop melodies I even think I heard a momentary echo (sic) of Martha & The Muffins.

9 Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
I’m not a hip hop fan in the sense of following it closely, but every so often something catches my ear. Lamar’s lyrics are diverse but consistent in passion & intelligence. Add a rich organic tapestry of jazz & funk classicism and you get a great album.

8 Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space
It isn’t much remarked on but there’s a jazz tinge and some classical structure to PSB’s electronic arrangements. It’s the deft use of transmission recordings from 60s & 70s space missions that bring the emotion & drama though. Most years there’s an album that sounds like very little or nothing else around. PSB are that band this year.

7 Jane Weaver – The Silver Globe
In a year of great female auteurs (see also Björk, Joanna Newsom, Grimes and others) there was a point where Weaver might have been even higher ranked. 

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Jane Weaver at Cloudspotting (photo by me)

6 Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls
Ignore the backstory about Bruce’s cancer, for 10 tracks this is the best Maiden album in an years. There were great songs on previous albums but less coherence. I said 10 tracks, because it gets better on track 11 is the 18 minute epic piano led Empire of The Clouds about the R101 that is among the finest things Maiden have done (yet!)

5 Bathymetry
As reviewed previously Bathymetry’s debut is sweetly deceptive, chiming guitars and intricate basslines, harmonies concealing dark lyrics and a fine-tuned indie pop sensibility.

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Ariel Bathymetry at The Joiner’s Arms, Lazonby (photo by me)

4 Lianne LaHavas – Blood
Ok whodathunk it?  Me, the arch obscurist putting a genuine pop hit artist in the Top 5? Discovered Lahavas by chance at Hay, was impressed, bought the album when it hit #2 in the charts. Catchy, soul folk tunes, a glorious warm voice a standard template but a well above standard usage. Saw her again in Manchester’s Albert Hall and was even more blown away.

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Lianne Lahavas at The Albert Hall, Manchester (photo by me)

3 Kamasi Washington – The Epic
A triple album. The man responsible for much of the gorgeous arrangements on Kendrick Lamar’s album above also put out his own magnificent, up to date yet classic post-Coltrane jazz album.  It soars.

2 Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba – Ba Power
Rock album of the year made by four guys playing proto-banjos that look like homemade cricket bats with strings.  Kouyate and his family have taken the Ngoni to multiple new levels though, and just like Chicago blues begat rock’n’roll they’ve taken desert blues to new places too.  And Kouyate’s wife Amy Sacko stands comparison with any and all the great singers already noted. 

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Amy Sacko & Bassekou Kouyate at Electrowerz, London (photo by me)

And at number 1 Julia Holter
If there’s a theme running through this list it’s a nuanced multi genre eclecticism about most of the artists here.  Julia Holter’s been compared to Kate Bush but I also here In A Silent Way era Miles. Keyboards harmonizing with a powerful voice, instrumental passages taking off in directions you don’t expect but make perfect sense.  Complex but totally accessible tunes like nobody else achieves.

Turns out 2015 was a pretty good year.  Some great voices and amazing musicianship and for me a blend of classic and modern that goes somewhere. 

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