When music makes sense of life – our writers' favourite musical moments of 2015

From Wales to Cambodia, from impromptu choirs to high-end hi-fi, our writers recall the moments music really hit home this year

Blasting years of memories off music made stale by familiarity

For years, I hadn’t given much thought to My Bloody Valentine’s To Here Knows When, because I gave it rather too much thought when it was first released. In fact, I heard it before that: in my late teens, My Bloody Valentine were my favourite band; I knew John Peel was going to play their forthcoming Tremelo EP one night and stayed in specifically to listen. That evening, I’m faintly terrified to note, is a matter of weeks away from being 25 years ago, and for the first part of that quarter of a century, I listened to To Here Knows When so often that it became dulled by ubiquity. I played it over and over, heard it live umpteen times, listened to it in a variety of circumstances and indeed altered states. I suppose, on one level, I was trying to get to the bottom of it, to work out what was going on in the song, how and why Kevin Shields had made it sound the way it does: on another level, I just really, really liked it. I never really came up with any answers to the questions I had about the track, but I did succeed in making myself … not sick of it, but immune to it: after a while, whenever I heard it, I zoned out, in the same way you do when an overplayed hit comes on the radio for the umpteenth time.

I only dug it out because I was writing a feature about high-end audiophiles, the kind of men – they’re always men – who think nothing of spending £40,000 on a pair of speakers, or rewiring their house so that their hi-fi isn’t contaminated by “dirty electricity”. It was a journey into a strange and deeply arcane world, but the people I found in it were funny and charming and self-deprecating: they knew what they were doing was a bit nuts, that their hobby was out of control.

One of them asked me if I wanted to bring something to listen to on his system, which was worth six figures and crammed into the front room of a nondescript terraced house. For one thing, I thought that it would be funny to play something on it that, on release, frequently got returned to the shop because the production was so weird and people thought there was something wrong with the actual vinyl. For another, the music that audiophiles like tends to sound very precise, because precise music shows off their systems – Steely Dan; impeccably played jazz-fusion; Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, an album they apparently love because of its dynamic range. To Here Knows When is the furthest thing away from that I can think of – the vaguest-sounding piece of music I know.

If I was expecting the audiophile to be taken aback when it came roaring out of his speakers, I was mistaken. He just sat there listening. I, on the other hand, really was taken aback. It sounded astonishing, weirdly tangible, like the music was happening in a space just in front of me, like it was in 3D. You could walk around it, you could reach out and touch it. I was genuinely overwhelmed, but not, I realised, by nostalgia. In fact, it was the opposite of nostalgia. To Here Knows When sounded incredibly alive and fresh, as if years of accumulated memories, associations and familiarity had been blasted off it.

I’ve spent years claiming that music never sounds better than it does played on a minicab’s crappy radio when you’re drunk at 3am, but trust me, when you hear music played through equipment worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, you really know about it. Just for a moment, all the bizarre behavior that audiophiles indulged in – and in the preceding weeks, I’d come across people who believed that if you rubbed a mysterious secret-formula cream that cost £250 into the magnetic strips of your credit cards, it improved the sound quality of your amplifier – seemed weirdly reasonable. I could envisage a future when I spent a lot of money in the pursuit of making my record collection sound as good as this. Then the track ended, the spell was broken – I could envisage a future where I spent a lot of money in the pursuit of making my record collection sound as good as this and my wife divorced me – and I went home. I’d had a glimpse into a world of madness. It sounded pretty good in there. Alexis Petridis

Waking up to the potential of your teenager

Just as everyone who has been a teenager knows how gruseome it can be, so everyone who is parent to a teenager knows there are times when you want the ground to swallow you whole, and times when you want to ground to swallow them whole. How you simultaneously want to yell at them to grow up and tell them that it’s all OK, that they’ll always be your perfect little one. And our year of parenting had plenty of all of that. At the point where my wife and I were both at our most exhausted and ground down by the experience we found ourselves at Latitude, being studiously ignored by the teenager in question.

On the Sunday lunchtime, my wife made plain to me that we weren’t going to be watching A Winged Victory for the Sullen, because she wanted to see her adored Gareth Malone and his choir of festivalgoers. I was daydreaming in the sun in front of the main stage, not really paying much attention, when Malone announced that a 15-year-old called Louisa – who had auditioned two days before – was going to sing lead on a performance of Avicii’s Wake Me Up, the song he recorded for Children in Need.

Louisa began to sing, in a slightly frail but clear and true voice, and somehow this sentimental and trite song overwhelmed me. I thought of the amazing things that 15-year-olds can do and be: this girl was on stage in front of thousands of people, looking – in her facepaint, vest and cut-offs – like she had just wandered on stage from one of the food stalls, and the words to the song suddenly all made perfect sense. “So wake me up when it’s all over / When I’m wiser and I’m older / All this time I was finding myself / And I didn’t know I was lost,” she sang, and I thought of my own daughter and how much she can achieve, how brilliant she can be, and how trying our summer had been. And suddenly I was lying in the grass weeping uncontrollably, tears flooding down my face, my shoulders heaving, hoping no one would notice.

Later on, we saw Louisa meeting her family at the pop-up restaurant at the festival, obviously for a celebratory lunch. She bounded over to them, hugging them long and hard, them beaming at her with unfeigned delight and admiration. Teenagers can be so brilliant; it can be hard to remember that sometimes, but it’s true. Michael Hann

Eight years old, and ready to rock

E was almost nine and wanted to go to her first gig. We missed Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey wasn’t touring, so we opted for Green Man, the multi-buy option. Even factoring in the likelihood that her younger sister would spend half the weekend at the bubble stall, E was bound to catch somebody. Technically the first band she saw was Hot Chip, but they came on at 11 and within a few songs we basically had to cattle-prod her into staying awake. I don’t think it counts as your official first gig if you’re half-asleep and you only know one song. The person she was really looking forward to was Courtney Barnett on Sunday evening. We arrived just in time and stood outside the tent, E climbing on to a recycling bin so that she could see the stage. “If I can see her that means she can see me!” she whooped. I conceded that was possible.

I spent half the show watching Barnett, and the other half watching E’s reactions. When she got really animated she threw her arms out and flashed two peace signs, like that famous photo of Nixon, although that probably wasn’t the idea. She was particularly excited about Avant Gardener (“because I have asthma too”) and Nobody Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party. She could hardly believe that the songs she’d played so many times at home were being performed right there, in a field in Wales, by Courtney Barnett herself. When you’ve been to hundreds of gigs you forget how miraculous that can seem – the feeling that you are in exactly the right place at exactly the right moment. Watching E exposed to the lights, the noise and the crowd for the first time, the whole idea of seeing live music felt fresh and intense, an outrageous privilege. Inspiring, too. As we left, E said, “Do you think I’ll be able to play guitar like that one day?” You spend the first few years of parenthood bending down, adapting to the strange world of small children, and eventually there’s a moment when you realise that you’re hanging out as friends, enjoying the same thing, and the newness of it is overwhelming. Yes, I said. One day. Dorian Lynskey

Memes aren’t just for phones, they’re for clubs

The internet ruined music. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told. At 27, I’m slightly too young to know what the industry would have been like in any professional capacity during the 80s and 90s, flush with cash from people willing to spend £14 on one CD. But I’m definitely old enough to know that as online piracy dismantles one creative sector after the next, it’s pretty easy to lament the state of music in the digital age.

So thank goodness for memes (a sentence I never thought I’d type). Sometimes, a perfectly edited Vine video not only provides some quick-fire comic relief but leaps from the screen into an “IRL” interaction. I know that that sounds ridiculous – “kids these days, so desperate and lonely that they use internet jokes to connect with one another” – but I couldn’t deny how much joy the inventive Why You Always Lying meme gave me when I heard its song blared out of club speakers rather than fed into my headphones.

I was at one of the fifth-birthday parties thrown for Red Bull Studios, trying not to let confetti fly into my mouth and waiting for the rapper Little Simz to play what turned out to be a laughably short 15-minute set. For the first time, I heard it offline: university student Nicholas Fraser’s silly parody of Next’s 1997 single Too Close. Fraser turned a song about bumping and grinding into a knowing smirk, a sassy response to send to someone who you knew was spouting nonsense. Hearing its “mmmohmygod” refrain pumped out in a club, and singing along with that roomful of strangers, I just laughed. And I can’t say most nights out I attend in London revolve around people giggling and imitating an internet-famous comedian’s facial expressions.

Yes, the internet seems to atomise us – not to mention shelter anonymous cowards as they troll and abuse complete strangers. But it’s also a place that’s democratising comedy and music, affording people like Fraser the chance to “go viral” for being imaginative and hilarious. The internet ruined music? Why you always lying? Tshepo Mokoena

Life began again, on a midsummer Sunday in Cornwall

There was a Sunday in midsummer when life seemed to begin again for me. It was a day of blazing heat and hangover, its heaviness weighted by the prospect of a long drive home. Yet down there in the depths of it, I felt a flicker of something fierce and bright and wonderful that I had not felt for a long time.

The last few years have been marked for me by a profound sense of loss – of love and hope and self-belief, of any faith in the sweetness of life. My reaction was to harden myself, to believe that I could make myself impermeable; I would be a cold and clear, unmoving thing, I thought. I would be tough and brave and impassable. I tried very hard not to feel anything at all.

But that weekend I was at the Port Eliot festival in Cornwall, and somehow it had found its way beneath my ribs – all that river mud and gin, all those walled gardens and wide oaks. I had danced until my toes blistered, laughed so hard my sides ached. I had felt the prickle of grass against my bare legs, the early morning air about my face. I had seen, one night, a moon rise round and ripe above the river and felt a kind of unexpected fullness, as if I had eaten it whole.

Then that Sunday afternoon I sat in the cool shade of a marquee and listened to the cellist Oliver Coates play the song Love. This is a track from Mica Levi’s score for the Jonathan Glazer film Under the Skin, an adaptation of Michael Faber’s novel about an extraterrestrial being sent to earth, where she takes on human form and gradually begins to experience human emotions.

I had interviewed Levi earlier in the year and we had talked, then, about how she had struggled with the score at first and of how Glazer had told her to remember it was about a character who is experiencing things for the first time. “The only way I could relate to it after all these discussions was when she’s really rebellious,” Levi said, “when she compromises her species for these human feelings she starts to have.”

I had loved this track on record, but to hear it live that day was a startling thing. Coates is an astonishing musician, a quiet marriage of precision and magic; the song itself is wordless, but somehow louder for it, looped and layered and filled with the urgency of a first moment and a last moment, a sourness and a wonder.

I sat on the front row and listened as the cello seemed to press against my skin, and then to rise up inside my veins as a rush of emotion, a sudden rebellion of my senses, until I did not know quite what to do with all this sound and taste and sight and scent, this visceral, overwhelming feeling of being un-numbed. I could only sit quite still and hold my breath and wish that it would play forever.

The weeks have passed, the days and months, but still it has not faded; I listen to it now and I hear it always: the sound of what it means to live again, what it means to fall in love with the world once more. Laura Barton

Twelve festivals. Overpriced cider. Exhaustion. Bliss

Pogoing to Jon Hopkins’s laser-blazing set at Primavera. Swooning over Father John Misty’s bow-legged lothario act in Green Man’s mountain clearing. Squeezing between angry people with annoyingly large rucksacks so we could glimpse Kanye West’s posh lightbox at Glastonbury. Stifling giggles when Sufjan Stevens headlined End of the Road because the entire festival was so hushed you could have heard someone switch their torch on. Yelling “I can’t do without you” at each other as Caribou closed Field Day.

Saying that my best musical moments of the year have been at festivals with friends is rather like announcing that chips taste better with mushy peas (shut up, they do), or that the world turns, or that Dapper Laughs is a bit of a knob. Everyone has fun in a field with their mates. It’s what the summer musical ecosystem is built on, not much of a revelation. Except that for me, it sort of was.

Seasons in the sun … Festival goers at Primavera this summer.
Seasons in the sun … festivalgoers at Primavera this summer. Photograph: Miguel Pereira / Alamy/Alamy

It’s not that I’ve never had friends (hey guys) or never enjoyed a festival before (Reading 2001 4eva), it’s more that as I hurtle breathlessly into my 30s, tailed by the fear that I’ll never settle down, many of the chums from my teens and 20s have become husbands and wives, have moved far away. They’ve become the people lost to Facebook, whom you forget to message when it’s their birthday. The ones who ask you what you’ve been up to and all you can reply is, “you know, the same”.

I really thought I’d be single and adrift in London forever, but I found a gaggle who still love music more than a decent meal. They share my logic that driving across the country to see a great band or DJ beats a night in with bottle of cheap wine and swiping through dating apps. We’ve road-tripped at ridiculous times because we couldn’t bear to miss a performance that could be life-affirmingly great. We share packs of fags, waterproofs, secrets. I would gladly give my last wet wipe to them.

And it’s true that, 12 festivals later, I probably have been out of it on overpriced cider for most of 2015 and am suffering from exhaustion. But I’ve had those friends with me to gather me up, bundle me into the back of a car, and take me home. Kate Hutchinson

Catching up with the Mekons

I was too young to hear the Mekons when they spluttered into life in the Leeds DIY scene amid the punk fires of 1977. Some time later, I was walking through the city centre on my way home from school when I spotted someone putting up their posters and asked if I could have one. Thus, for the next two years, I had a poster on my wall featuring a band I’d never heard. I’d stare at it now and then: a huge thing bearing a monkey’s face and the title of their debut album, The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen (a mangled quote from The Merchant of Venice, based on the infinite monkey theorem, which suggests a monkey given a typewriter will eventually come up with the complete works of Shakespeare). Eventually I borrowed their first two singles, Never Been in a Riot and Where Were You? I wasn’t as taken by the album, but Lonely and Wet – a minor-chord rage of a song about the aftermath of being dumped – hit my teenage self between the eyes.

I’d forgotten about it until late this year, when it cropped up during a screening of the film Mekons Leeds. The performance on the film captured the folkier, jokier, older Mekons performing in 2007, not the punk upstarts, but as he poured out lines such as “I’m just not happy any more,” singer Tom Greenhalgh’s face transformed from cheeriness to anguish. I felt it, too, and for a few, bizarrely intense minutes, was similarly possessed by my younger self, bound up in teenage isolation and confused rage over my father’s death, as well as youthful romantic abandonment, walking home alone in the rain with this song’s fury as a comfort blanket. Hearing it again brought the realisation that every emotion we have ever felt remains deep within us, somewhere, and can even be reaccessed through music. I’d loved to have told my younger self, “Don’t worry, kid. You won’t always feel like this. But many years from now, Lonely and Wet will still be a fantastic song.” Dave Simpson

Devouring Orange Juice in Cambodia

I was sitting on a wobbly stool at a tiny bamboo-roofed bar, on a remote white-sand beach off the south coast of Cambodia, when it hit me. I had been on a canoe trip earlier – moderately terrifying – and, feeling triumphant, when I was also quite drunk and about to eat a massive pizza, life reached its apex. I wouldn’t call it a spiritual epiphany, exactly, but there was definitely something heavenly about hearing my favourite song within such an unlikely context. The deliciously arch, ecstatically squelchy, undeniably British-sounding Rip It Up by Orange Juice; a song that sparked three minutes and thirty-nine seconds of unadulterated joy.

Aged 11, I created a name for that fleeting feeling of euphoria. I called it, for reasons only the 11-year-old Harriet understands, “JEDD”. As I reluctantly evolved into a grownup, JEDD visited less and less. That is not a result of a sad life. I am fortunate enough to be part of the minute percentage of the global population who has love, money, a TV that you can pause and the option of a gluten-free pizza base. But adulthood breeds inevitable anxieties, and the enigmatic JEDD arrives only when I am 100% at ease. These days the purity of the moment is always compromised by the cumulative wisdom of age.

However, having moved on from a gaudy coastal strip throbbing with the sounds of Alice DJ, my partner and I fortunately relocated to a small, peaceful beach; inhabited by a kind cocktail-maker named Will, who had an extensive, wonderfully eclectic iTunes collection. Surrounded by strangers, a mix of the odd and sweet, the prospect of pizza and the sound of the most exquisite indiepop song ever written wiggling out of the tinny laptop speakers, JEDD arrived with such force I nearly toppled off my stool.

Rip It Up is a song that sounds like good times and kind people; it has been a friend to me in crap bars, it reminds me of my childhood, my dad. Now it offers memories of a blissful retreat in which two worlds collided; the grey clouds of art-school Glasgow floating over a strange and exotic island. For three minutes and thirty-nine seconds life was perfect, reunited with my old friend JEDD. Until I realised there was gluten in the pizza base, anyway. Harriet Gibsone

A cure-all for the soul – the piano

Earlier this year I travelled to Paris to interview Brian Christinzio, AKA BC Camplight. He recounted a life story littered with self-destructive disasters – drug addictions, flakiness, and most recently UK visa trouble – but pointed out, in an email afterwards, that at least he had always had someone to rely on.

“Not to sound corny, but the piano never let me down.” he wrote. “It’s always there. My 800lb girlfriend. She never changes or throws me for a loop.”

I could certainly relate. The previous summer I’d bought a piano, and this year I discovered that there were few things in life it couldn’t solve. Stressful days would evaporate, melancholy found a place to be productive, boredom was made extinct. Most importantly, devoting myself to the these black and white keys for the first time in over a decade gave me a new perspective on the music I loved most: months spent stretching my handspan to reach the top notes on Aphex Twin’s Avril 14th (a song I fear I may have introduced to, and then promptly ruined for, my wife) or master the orchestral fantasia that is Joni Mitchell’s Down to You.

I marvelled at how some artists could still find fresh melodies out of the most simple, well-trodden chord patterns (that 50s progression – C, Am, F, G – is still bringing the hits home), then marvelled further at the sheer sophistication of others. It’s hardly startling knowledge that Brian Wilson was light years ahead of his peers as a composer, but it’s only when you, quite literally, see it written down that it really hits home. Beatles songs seem no more than nursery rhymes compared with, say, the Beach Boys’ That’s Not Me, with its semitone keychange in the second chorus, so subtle you barely notice it (and there’s nothing more noticeable in pop than a key change).

On a plane from Los Angeles, I watched the Wilson biopic Love & Mercy and found my heart racing during the studio scenes, as exhilarating as any action thriller. It’s virtually impossible to make being in a studio seem exciting on film – you only need to watch Straight Outta Compton for evidence of that – but here it was electric. Director Bill Pohlad used real musicians instead of actors, and counterintuitively allowed the scenes to unfold at length: instead of just focusing on the “exciting” bits, he included the tuning up, the retakes and the mistakes that went into producing such a masterpiece.

In one scene Wilson sits at his piano at home, like I’ve done most nights this year, and shakily picks out the most beautiful chord progression in pop: the one for God Only Knows. It’s a progression unlike any other I’ve come across, the bass notes performing an elegant dance step while seemingly discordant or unusual combinations of notes – a Cº (diminished seventh) chord crops up on the line “The world could show nothing to me” – are repurposed within Wilson’s inventive musical contexts to sound utterly sublime. Being able to head home from the airport and pick out those same chords for myself felt like such a joy, such a privilege – as magical as any musical moment this year. Tim Jonze

Falling in and out of love with Sting

Sting … Listening and liking.
Sting … listening and liking. Photograph: Mogens Flindt/AP

There he was. Creeping looking like he might have been sleeping rough for a fortnight. Sting. Bloody Sting, jumping around at the Macy’s Day Parade at the end of last year in an attempt to save his musical The Last Ship, which had been tanking on Broadway. In a parade that is for all intents and purposes one long saccharine advert for NBC, there was Sting, miming his way through a number about shipbuilding while looking like a character from a Tom Waits song.

I’d always dismissed Sting as someone who got his top off too often and whose most famous song soundtracked a drinking game that had ruined many a night out before they had even started. But I began to look at him in a new light. I listened to Sting and the Police albums for the first time, and liked them. Then, while at the equally saccharine elongated pat on the back that was Global Citizen fest, he appeared again. On the side stage with Common. Playing bass live, and being good. Again. Bloody hell, I thought. I like Sting and I don’t care. Bollocks to being cool while you can sing walking on the moon in some kind of Geordie patois.

But the bubble was burst during a trip to Philadelphia. I’d gone down for the day with a friend who was visiting from the UK. He’d bagged a “bargain” piece of art from a thrift store and we went to see how much it would cost to get it to the UK. The amount was ridiculous, and while the clerk was calculating the cheapest possible option, which was still astronomical, So Lonely played in the background. About two minutes into the song as Sting wailed So Lonely about 30 times in a row and everyone stood around in shock at how much money my friend was going to have to pay, the clerk turned to his colleague and said: “Is this the only thing this guy sings?” With that, the spell was broken and I realised perhaps Sting wasn’t all I’d built him up to be. Lanre Bakare


Alexis Petridis, Lanre Bakare, Michael Hann, Laura Barton, Tim Jonze, Harriet Gibsone, Tshepo Mokoena, Kate Hutchinson, Dorian Lynskey and Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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