2014 was an eventful year – deaths, births, car accidents, and more – and this blog has suffered, because frankly it hasn’t seemed that important to be writing when I could have been riding a bike or looking after a cat (or a baby). But a few people, including my wife, have asked me if I’d be doing an albums-of-the-year post, so I thought I’d oblige. This is it.
Every year I seem to wring my hands about what these lists mean and whether to bother with one, and every year I seem to change the format. Who am I to change the not-habit of a lifetime? Folliwng this year’s hand-wringing, it strikes me that the fairest way to write about the music of 2014 is to detail, even if only barely, every single record released in 2014 that we bought. So that’s what this is.
They’re presented in vague order of preference, just so you know. I may cluster some together thematically if I don’t have masses to say about them individually.
Owen Pallett – In Conflict
If I have to ordain a singular ‘favourite’ then this is it; it seems a little weird to pick an album wherein the singer exclaims “I’ll never have any children” as my favourite from the year when Emma and I had a baby together, but nonetheless I liked this one better than any others, despite, or possibly in part because of, that particular lyric. Perhaps it was a case of weird contradictory emotions. A strange sense of denial of the reality approaching us as I sang along with that phrase, and just about every other on the album too. Somehow, despite our different circumstances, I identified with, and also twisted to my own emotional and aesthetic ends, Owen’s music.
And Owen is simply fantastically good at music; the tunes and arrangements here are his most splendid, rewarding, and direct yet – the melodies forthright and nagging at the same time, the instrumentation always surprising and clever and exciting too. I’m still noticing new things in it, and will probably continue to do so for some time. I wish I was clever enough and musical enough (I don’t play a note on any instrument, nor ever have) to ‘get’ all the things that Owen’s doing; but you don’t need to ‘get’ them intellectually to enjoy them aesthetically / phenomenologically, and feel them emotionally.
Polar Bear – In Each and Every One
I reviewed this for The Quietus, and, bar Embrace and Owen Pallett, this was the record I probably played most in 2014. I wish more non jazz fans would give them a chance. I gather they have another, apparently very different, record, due in March, which I’m looking forward to immensely.
Wild Beasts – Present Tense
This was imbued with a significant amount of poignancy simply because one of Tom’s songs is about having a daughter and another is about a pet dying, both of which happened to us this year. Beyond that, Present Tense was business as usual for Wild Beasts, which is to say that it’s marvellous, and continued on the evolution / maturation path they’ve been going down. Guitars wane in favour of synths, the drummer continues to play like a beautiful drum machine, the two voices are still amazing, and there’s a musical and emotional sophistication that most other artists simply don’t get near. At first I thought this was just another really good Wild Beasts record, but over the year it revealed itself as actually being another really good Wild Beasts record, if you get what I mean. They’re fabulous.
Neneh Cherry – Blank Project
I played this at record club too, and stand by what I said back then; I may have played it less as the year wore on, but I suspect that was probably just down to the increasing amount of records from the year that I’d procured. This was, and remains, intensely musical and enjoyable, a jazz-inflected, live-feeling synth-pop record, spontaneous and fun.
Caribou – Our Love
Another good Caribou record, this one very much post-Daphni, and with the jazz even more shorn than on Swim. It took me a little longer to really ‘get’ than some of his others, but “Silver” was an absolute highlight across the year from the moment I first heard it. I’d write more, but I’ve already written so much about Snaith’s music over the years that it feels redundant to do so; I can’t imagine a situation wherein he’d release a record I didn’t like. This was yet another record in 2014 which seemed to partially be about parenthood, at least on some tracks. Maybe a lot of records I’ve enjoyed over recent years have, and I’ve only just started to notice it this year. Or maybe I’m just projecting; records mean what they think you mean.
Sharon Van Etten – Are We Here?
Possibly my favourite album of ‘songs’ this year, which isn’t to say that the music/arrangements aren’t good – they are, albeit not spectacular – but that this is all about the melodies and the words. Words aren’t something I normally pay particular specific attention to, but impressions eventually emerge if you listen to something often enough, and Are We Here? leaves a troubled impression, hinting at violence and severe emotional turmoil (just take in the brutal repetition of “Your Love Is Killing Me”). We found ourselves playing this an awful lot almost subconsciously, reaching for it by default, which is generally the sign of a grower and a laster. Van Etten’s previous records hadn’t really chimed with either of us massively, but this did, and strongly.
Embrace – Embrace
I wish they’d released this record a decade or more ago, when I had time and when they might have got some attention for it. The thing I listened to most this year, if only, at first, to clarify in my own mind that it existed. Their best album by some distance, it did all the things I think I wanted them to do when I was 18. Except now I am 35, and it’s too late; I use music differently to when I was 18 or 21 or even 25, and want different things.
St Vincent – St Vincent
A fabulously-constructed record, boundlessly interesting, technically brilliant (as far as a non-musician like me can tell, anyway), but one with which I’ve not really emotionally connected. I agree with everything Rob wrote here, but I still feel reservations.
Warpaint – Warpaint
Surprised and a little sad to see this fall away from end-of-year lists, as I thought it was great. Seeing them live revealed that these aren’t just wispy jams; they’re tightly-composed, albeit ethereal, songs. We listened to this a lot in the first third of the year, soaking in the beatific, laconic grooves.
Nisennenmondai – N
Jon played this to us at record club, and I was delighted, because I’d seen Nisennenmondai live at ATP in 2011 and they were fabulous. I procured a copy directly, and listened to it lots; it sat in that spot occupied by the likes of The Necks, and perhaps by the Dawn Of Midi record from last year – metronomic and transcendent.
Perfume Genius – Too Bright
Delighted to hear Hadreas broaden his sonic palette, and spectacularly so; I’d enjoyed his previous albums well enough, but I adored this. It was very weird hearing a song as virulent and spiteful (with good reason, I must add) as “Queen” used as occasional incidental music on TV idents for C4 / E4. In some ways this works as a more youthful, angry counterpart to the Owen Pallett record. The hesitant delicacy of his previous albums was torn asunder by the tumult of this. And it sounds phenomenal.
Swans – To Be Kind
I find it interesting how Swans have become, over the last four years or so, part of the critical establishment, their albums effortlessly garnering glowing reviews and gracing end-of-year lists. Is this a sign that Gira has mellowed and become more accessible, or that critical tastes have broadened in the post-internet era, or that critical circles have become more niche and echo-chamber-y? Or all of the above, and some other stu8ff, too?
To Be Kind – as well as having babies on the cover, adding to the overall theme of 2014 – felt groovier, swampier, bluesier, and less monolithic to me than The Seer, despite being another enormous, semi-impenetrable slab of a record. I didn’t play it a great deal – because when do you find time to fully engage with a 2-hour exercise in misanthropic voodoo heaviosity? – but when I did, oh boy. John Congleton’s production probably helped the grooviness and pseudo-accessibility.
D’Angelo – Black Messiah
An obviously recent acquitrement, it felt surreal to walk into a record shop and buy a CD copy of this only hours (albeit 72 or so) after it was announced. The record itself feels, on early impression, like a worthy and logical follow-up to Voodoo, in much the same way as m b v felt like it could have come 22 months, rather than 22 years, after Loveless. More concise, definitely, but no less enthrallingly groovy, if groovy doesn’t feel like a diminishing word to use for something like this.
Spoon – They Want My Soul
Just another Spoon record, which is fine, because Spoon are great, but this time that felt like it wasn’t enough, somehow. Maybe I didn’t give it enough time, but that’s never been a problem with Spoon before.
Edit. Maybe it’s the Dave Fridmann production; I’ve not liked his work since I went on my anti-compression crusade a decade ago (OTT distortion does my head in like OTT reverb), and Jim Eno’s production has always been one of the things I’ve liked best about Spoon (after, y’know, the songs and the arrangements). While Fridmann doesn’t produce the whole album, his tracks are frontloaded, which establishes the feel. That said, “Inside Out” is an absolute keeper.
Aphex Twin – Syro
Immaculately constructed – this thing sounds absolutely astonishing in terms of sound design, mixing, and clarity – but was it actually great? “Minipops” delighted me on first hearing, and the whole thing is enjoyable, but nothing shocks like his most outrageous previous best (“Windowlicker”), or casts a spell like “Avril 14”, or just transcends astonishingly like “Flim”.
The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
Imagine what kind of person you’d have to be to think that this was the best album of 2014. Frightening, isn’t it? Now imagine what kind of person you’d have to be to think that U2 made the best album of 2014. This is nowhere near as bad now, is it? It’s a good record, and we enjoyed it quite a lot, but it is just Dire Straits with elongated pseudo-kraut outros. (Those outros are my favourite bits, btw.)
GoGo Penguin – v2.0; Neil Cowley Trio – Touch and Flee
Putting these two together as they’re both piano-bass-drums trios and ostensibly ‘jazz’; except that GoGo Penguin aren’t really jazz at all, they’re much more informed by electronica and stuff like Satie than they are Thelonious Monk or Dave Brubeck or Oscar Peterson. Which lead to some people comparing GoGo unfavourably with Cowley, who is lighter, jazzier, and more melodic, perhaps. But their intentions, as far as I can ascertain, are different, and so are their outcomes, even if they’re so close, to the outsider, as to be practically the same. Which is to say that I enjoyed them both, a lot, for what they are, not what the other is.
Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty; Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
Two token ventures towards hip hop, both alternative, both acclaimed; Shabazz Palaces woozing into almost ambient territory, while Run The Jewels hammered something far more physical. I’ve not listened to either enough to soak in the words (except that there’s a level of misogyny I’m not entirely comfortable with, even if it’s countered, on RTJ), but I probably enjoyed the physicality of RTJ more.
Objekt – Flatland
This was the last album I bought in 2014, a few days before Christmas, and as such I’ve not listened to it enough to really for an opinion of it. I’ve enjoyed the few spins it’s had, though, but not been struck by it sounding as alien or futuristic in its sound palette as some had suggested (ie. that where the Aphex Twin album sounded like an old Aphex Twin record, this sounded like something new).
School of Language – Old Fears
A lovely record that deserved far more attention, including from me; essentially a Field Music album (and sounding very much like Plumb at points) but with all the songs coming from just one Brewis brother (David) and musically inspired by Prince. Short and sweet, melodic, and beautifully produced.
Edit. Listening to this again and it really is beautifully done on every level; the tunes, arrangements, and mixing are all wonderful, warm, and full of depth. If I have any misgivings they might be about the lyrics; Old Fears is about all the misgivings, paranoias, and insecurities that get established at school and haunt you through adulthood, which could feel a bit #firstworldproblems coming from a white man in a developed country, but they’re handled with such grace and humility that Brewis gets away with it.
Scott Walker and Sunn o))) – Soused
Scott Walker and Sunn o))) are such a natural and obvious fit that I’m kind of baffled that this hadn’t already happened – we essentially envisioned it at Devon Record Club years ago when we played them back-to-back at a Halloween-themed evening. The reality is so predictable as to almost be redundant; I listened to this twice, thought “yeah, that does exactly as I expected”, and didn’t really return.
Liars – Mess
One fabulous tune – “Mess On A Mission” – and a lot of pretty good other stuff, but this wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped; and the pre-release marketing, especially their Instagram feed, got my hopes up. It continued aesthetically from WIXIW, which might have been a bad sign from the off; no two of their records have ever followed each other quite so obviously before. I played a chunk to our friend Debbie over the summer, and she was immediately propelled back to a world of early 80s Mute Records.
Hookworms – The Hum
A recent release, almost coinciding with the birth of our daughter, so frankly it’s not had enough attention.
East India Youth – Total Strife Forever
I prefer his songy-songs to his tracky-tracks, which can be a bit Fisher Price (‘my first techno’). “Heaven, How Long” is remarkable, one of my favourite songs of the year, and seeing him perform it live was a highlight, especially when I realised all the chaotic krauty synth wibbling during the extended climax was actually bass guitar. I’ll be very interested to see what he does next.
Karen O – Crush Songs; Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
These are both records that Em bought, and I’ve not paid massive attention to, to be honest. I’ve found diminishing returns from Jenny Lewis since Rabbit Fur Coat, which I thought was fabulous; Em informs me that the songs on this are probably her strongest since then.
Tune-Yards – Nicki Nack; The Notwist – Close To The Glass; The Antlers – Familiars
Really liked previous records by all of these, but didn’t bond with any of these current releases for whatever reason. There’s nothing wrong with any of them – The Notwist’s in particular I remember really enjoying for a week or two when it was first released (particularly the glorious pop of “Kong” and the MBV-aping “7 Hour Drive”) – they just didn’t really click. I’m pondering buying less records in 2015, in order to give them each more time.
Vermont – Vermont
Was desperate for something minimal and electronic, and saw mention of this somewhere, so I picked it up. Can’t remember a thing about it.
Get The Blessing – Lope and Antilope
More jazz, this time rockier and with brass. This Bristol-based band have released several albums now, and I’ve enjoyed all of them that I’ve heard; they’ll never change the world, but that’s fine. Sometimes you just want music to be music.
Planningtorock – All Love’s Legal
This is another record that just didn’t really click much, for whatever reason.
Goat – Commune
I’m not sure that Goat are doing anything that Voice Of The Seven Thunders didn’t do a few years ago, except wear masks and lie about who they are. It’s enjoyable, but they’re nowhere near as weird and earth shattering as hype for the first album lead me to hope they’d be. It’s just psyche grooves.
Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything
I just don’t feel like I need another Elbow record. The tension’s gone, perhaps.