Hidden gems of 2015: great records you may have missed

From the thrill of Brittany Howard’s alter ego to joy on the Wirral, modern rockabilly and Nico Muhly’s homage to Philip Glass, our critics pick some of this year’s under-the-radar releases that didn’t get the acclaim they deserved

Thunderbitch: Thunderbitch


thunderbitch cover

Sometimes there is just too much music coursing through you for one band to contain. In the company of some friends, Alabama Shakes mainwoman Brittany Howard released an album of sweat-streaked rock’n’roll earlier this year that tamped down the Shakes’ country-soul, dialled back the funk and cranked up the attitude. Garage punk by way of the Grease soundtrack and the Rolling Stones, Thunderbitch is pure pleasure. Leather Jacket is an ode, part tongue-in-cheek, part-heartfelt, about a garment that “changes everything”. I Just Wanna Rock’n’Roll and My Baby Is My Guitar are entirely self-explanatory. Kitty Empire

Natural Information Society & Bitchin Bajas: Autoimaginary

(Drag City)

autoimaginary cover

Immersive and propulsive by turns, this collaboration between fellow travellers from Chicago – Joshua Abrams (leading light of the Natural Information Society) and Cooper Crain (trading as Bitchin Bajas) – finds the former’s improv jazz meshing with the latter’s clattery, ambient drones. The opening passages find loops and live instruments trading vibrations, like an aural time-lapse film of dawn breaking. High noon arrives on Sign Spinners, driven by an insistent cymbal and a surfeit of kinetic energy, and the final, title track, which finds a groove and explores its every crevice. KE

Abra: Rose


abra rose cover

This debut album from Abra, the sole female member of hotly-tipped Atlanta hip-hop collective Awful Records, has a spare, uncluttered quality that can sound a bit thin on first listen but which grows stronger and more insistent with repeated plays. By stripping it back, Abra, who has a penchant for early-80s R&B, creates space for the emotional impact of her voice, which can be quietly devastating. Her music is stealthily infectious too: once heard, tracks such as Fruit and Pride are difficult to dislodge from the ear. Killian Fox

Debut hip-hop artist Abra: ‘quietly devastating’.
Debut hip-hop artist Abra: ‘quietly devastating’. Photograph: PR

Hooton Tennis Club: Highest Point in Cliff Town


hooton tennis club cover

Taking their cues from the power pop of Teenage Fanclub and the skewed brilliance of Pavement, Wirral-based four-piece Hooton Tennis Club are unlikely to win any prizes for originality. But such is the infectious joyousness of their debut, released in August, that it doesn’t matter a jot. Produced by Bill Ryder-Jones, Highest Point in Cliff Town overflows with verbose song titles (a lifeline to journalists paid by the word), memorable sunny melodies and elliptical lyrics that evoke long, carefree days. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine more life-affirming songs about spending all summer “waiting for something to happen… but nothing ever did” than those collected here. Phil Mongredien

Jazmine Sullivan: Reality Show


reality show cover jazmine

The title of Jazmine Sullivan’s third album is as direct as the music contained within. Over 12 tracks of emotionally raw R&B – delivered in her keening, frayed vocal – Sullivan confronts her own complex reality, painting herself as both perpetrator and victim while tackling self-esteem issues (the lovely Masterpiece), heartbreak (Forever Don’t Last) and, on the disco-tinged highlight Stanley, useless relationships (“This isn’t how you treat a lady,” she coos). Careening between self-reflective, bolshy and bruised, Reality Show is unflinching drama at its best. Michael Cragg

Slime: Company

(Weird World)

Slime Company
Slime Company Photograph: Weird World Record Co

Whittled down from a collection of almost 400 tracks, Will Archer’s debut album still carries echoes of the many creative avenues he wandered down to make it. Strange, opiated funk nestles alongside minimalist electronica, brooding instrumentals, sparse hip-hop and plenty more. In lesser hands this could have been a fidgety grab-bag of different styles, but Archer is much too sensitive a producer for that. This is a record of shifting textures and subtle contrasts channelled into something warm and harmonious. Ally Carnwath

JD McPherson: Let The Good Times Roll


jd mcpherson good times roll cover

McPherson’s debut, Signs & Signifiers, had the Oklahoma singer tagged as a mere rock’n’roll revivalist, but this second album shows his talents run deeper, distilling the greasy melodrama of 1950s R&B and rockabilly for the modern age. Growling guitars, clinking, one-note pianos and baying sax sections are all present on a set of literate, at times poetic songs delivered with rare vocal grace. McPherson conjures Little Richard’s wildness on It Shook Me Up, croons doo-wop on Bridgebuilder and soars with blue-eyed soul on Precious. Phenomenal. Neil Spencer

‘Rare vocal grace’: Oklahoma singer-songwriter JD McPherson, pictured at Koko, London in June.
‘Rare vocal grace’: Oklahoma singer-songwriter JD McPherson, pictured at Koko, London in June. Photograph: Jo Hale/Redferns via Getty Images

Michael Gibbs: In My View


michael gibbs in my view cover

Considered one of the greatest masters of the jazz orchestra alive today, Michael Gibbs has written settings for an enormous range of jazz stars, but albums under his own name appear quite rarely. He has a close relationship with Hamburg’s NDR Bigband, and together they created these nine gorgeous pieces. The rhythms are constantly surprising, the soloists inspired, and the sheer depth and variety of sound apparently endless. Among the original compositions are some fascinating reimaginings of pieces by Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk and others. Dave Gelly

Eighth Blackbird: Filament


Eighth Blackbird
Eighth Blackbird Photograph: PR

An invisible “filament” connects the experimental, Chicago-based sextet Eighth Blackbird with their composer friends Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, Philip Glass and Ryan Lott, known by his stage name Son Lux. Dessner’s Murder Ballades reflect the violent, pulsating energy of their title. Muhly’s Doublespeak is a retro blast of fast-slow minimalism in homage to Philip Glass. Glass’s Two Pages takes a single line to zany extremes, and Lux’s short To Love and This Is My Line pull all together with electronic remixes from the rest of the album. Neatly done, with wit. Fiona Maddocks

Smetana: Dalibor
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bělohlávek


smetana dalibor cover

Smetana’s unjustly neglected 1868 opera Dalibor received a rapturous reception when Jirí Belohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave it a rare outing at the Barbican earlier this year. In this terrific recording the same excellent Czech cast sweep us along in a rapturously tuneful tale of love, power, revenge and nationalist fervour. Dana Burašová as Milada, Richard Samek as Dalibor and Jan Stava as Benes convince us that Smetana’s ever-popular Bartered Bride should be left in the lurch. Stephen Pritchard

Playlist of the Observer’s hidden gems 2015


Kitty Empire, Killian Fox, Phil Mongredien, Michael Cragg, Ally Carnwath, Neil Spencer, Dave Gelly, Fiona Maddocks, Stephen Pritchard

The GuardianTramp

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