Best albums of 2014

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Mexico’s Paseo de la Reforma.

 

Ahoy there! We have another one of them fancy lists for your reading pleasure. Since everyone and their mothers (and farmers’ mothers) have a “best of” list by now, we asked our readers and collaborators for their choices. Some heard the call and voraciously, viciously and vividly described what they enjoyed (or not – more on that later) in this year of our Lord (Gilmour, Cthulhu, Galois, take yer pick) 2014. Staff members who contributed to this were asked to attach a photo that summed up the year for them. So vvelcome and vicariously live through this list:

 

 

Music to My Ears 2014 – Keith How

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When I was fortunate enough to catch the Marc Chagall exhibition at the Liverpool Tate, I found myself transported into Chagall’s almost psychedelic world where anything seemed able to happen.

Completely engulfed is these masterworks was a complete surprise. Luminous colours, giant heads, out of focus landscapes, upside down figures floating in moonlit skies…I mean weird but truly fantastic. Oliver Wilde’s Red Tide Opal in the Loose End Womb had the same effect. Earlier this year, I said in my review how good this record is and nothing has changed my view. Enter Wilde’s World and you enter a warm, truly psychedelic universe of strange goings on all wrapped up in a universe of dreams and space. Truly hypnotic and magical.

If we are speaking in magical terms then Moderato cantabile by Anja Lechner and Francois Courturier really takes you there. If push ever came to shove, on that desert island I would be surrounded with albums released by Manfred Eicher’s E.C.M. label. When Anja Lechner plays the violoncello, something inside me dissolves. Here, with pianist Francois Courturier, the spiritual instrumental compositions of Frederico Mompou, G.I. Gurrdjeff and Komitas Vardapet are reinterpreted with breathtaking and sensitive style. Seamlessly flowing between the melancholic and the playful, the music contained on this album seems to have the ability to unlock the soul. The title translated is “moderately and melodiously” and is truly beautiful. Moderato cantabile is released on E.C.M.’s New Series.

Meanwhile, on the label’s contemporary and avant garde (i.e.: is it jazz? is it classical?) side Lumen Drones comes hurtling in from left field. From the moment the first few bars of ‘Dark Sea’ emerged from the speakers I knew I was going to love this album. A collaboration between three Norwegian players, Nils Okland (fiddles), Per Steinar Lie (guitars), and Orjan Haaland (drums), this self titled recording is simply awesome. I hate doing this but if you took a slice of the instrumental sections of Low and mixed in a little Silver Mt. Zion you might just be somewhere near this tour-de-force of Norwegian Noir. Born out of free improvisations, these tracks echo the Scandanavian hinterland, textured and atmospheric. Truly magnificent engineering (as with any E.C.M. recording). Lumen Drones has the sense of total improvisation which is music to these old ears.

At the other end of the spectrum, Os Noctambulos emerged from their Parisian lair with a classic slab of vintage surf psychedelia. Corsica Garden is straight to the point. Head honcho Nick Wheeldon howls into the night. Lots of reverb on the guitars, punchy economic bass and drums and the hammond organ gets those feet a tapping. Nick wears his influences on his sleeve and why shouldn’t he? Tapping into a Dick Dale / Seeds / Nuggets groove, what’s not to like here?

Seth Woods ( The Whiskey Priest) found some old recordings (made in his bedroom I believe). He decided to release them as Been In This War Too Long. Written during his time as a music pastor in a small church, these gentle fragile spirituals refute the claim that the devil has all the good music. No wonder his band The Sad Accordions were so good! These recordings take you to church and back! Then to put the icing on the Christmas Cake he gives us Mean Spirit, in many ways a departure from previous outings as The Whiskey Priest. Mean Spirit is a fine piece of work. I can only suggest you read the review at Sloucher.org as I can’t really add any more to Sam’s insightful words.

The Travelling Band rode into town with The Big Defreeze in August capturing the spirit of summer with an album of sweet harmonies, beefy guitars, infectious lyrics and some tremendous anthems. Straight out of Manchester, The Big Defreeze is simply a gorgeous slab of Americana to gladden the heart.

Finally: a special mention to Jim Ghedi, Forest Swords, Dylan Howe and Matthew Halsall whose albums have also enriched my life this year.

Sloucher: Albums of the year – a list by Ashley Scrace

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NOTE: I have picked the 10 albums which affected me, not necessarily positively. They are in no particular order.

The War On Drugs – Lost in the Dream

Perhaps the best way to describe this album is Dire Straits, Dylan, Fleetwood Mac and Don Henley all in one. Building the perfect beast, as Henley may say.

I know this album will be mentioned in this article by my peers, but there’s a good reason: it is just great. Despite changes in my listening tastes, I don’t think there’s been a more consistently engaging, affecting pop-rock album this year, last year, or perhaps in the last decade.

‘Under The Pressure’ uses subtle chord changes to up climax again and again. ‘Eyes To The Wind’ has a Dylan scent, rambling through lines about the sadness of loneliness. ‘In Reverse’ is heart-breaking, regretful and moving. Even the dud songs of ‘Disappearing’ and ‘Suffering’ are forgivable.

Just buy this album and listen to it until every layer hypnotises you in a way not felt before, particularly for something so accessible.

 Sun Kil Moon – Benji

The other contender for album of the year, Benji is somehow a powerhouse without actually doing much. Ultimately, it’s a man talking over repeated guitar riffs. It is such a shame this album – and, rather unfairly, Lost in the Dream – became overshadowed by Mark Kozelek ordering TWOD to “suck my cock”.

Benji is beautifully brutal. Words don’t rhyme. Choruses never come. Verses amble. But the stripped honesty in Kozelek‘s relatable poetry make this a stunner. A little self-indulgent at times, but brilliant overall. Kozelek writes killer songs, just as his newest working Possum indicates. Although obscure, the only difference between Benji and Living in a Dream is the musical genre. In terms of excellence, it is impossible to choose.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Hypnotic Eye

I’m not sure I can name another artist of Petty’s generation quite as consistent. Yes, he flounders a bit, but not here: Hypnotic Eye is one of his best.

New music, old tools – Petty’s wisdom and creativity has somehow summoned the 70s’ Heartbreakers groove and created a solid driving rock piece. ‘American Dream Plan B’, ‘All You Can Carry’ and ‘Power Drunk’ are notable songs. Best of all, every song on the album is simple and immensely fun to play on the guitar. Certainly pulled me through a lot of open mic sessions this year.

Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways

Is it a TV soundtrack? A concept album? Or is it just rubbish?

Either way, it’s a misstep. The album still affected me though, positively on tracks like ‘Outside’ and ‘The Feast and the Famine’, negatively on the rest. Sonic Highways is polished chaos. There are too many ideas and directions here for coherence.

While Dave Grohl may be a good leader, his lyrical prowess never formulates and the repetitive Foo Fighters riffs are laid bare. It’s a shame as I truly believe the Foo Fighters are a great band.

Also, the Sonic Highways TV series is great. But the album-soundtrack-experiment edition? It’s a reminder that even the best have bad days.

(Still off to see them live in June 2015 though.)

Kent – Tigerdrottningen

(The Tiger Queen, for those who don’t speak Swedish.)

Kent, arrogantly self-proclaimed as Sweden’s biggest rock band, are sort of like a Swedish Coldplay. Bloody cold Coldplay, I suppose.

Songs are simple, pop-based affairs typically addressing peace, love, loss and cold coffee (no joke – see here). Despite not being the best album from Kent, let alone 2014, it was perhaps the most affecting on my life over the year. As I stood listening to lead singer Joakim Berg strain to reach the notes so important to his adoring crowd at a gig in Lund, I realised that life in southern Sweden (where I now live) is not that bad. ‘La Belle Epoque’ is one to note –an overproduced yet decent Swedish commentary on how we are all different but all the same.

John Hiatt – Terms of My Surrender

When friends suggest I review something, they either want me to: Plug something they like alone, or promote something shit by one of their friends. Then I heard John Hiatt’s voice. After one track, I listened to another. Then another album.Then most of his history.

This album has soul – not the genre necessarily, but true depth of character. I defy anyone who listens to the song ‘Wind Don’t Have To Hurry’ to restrain themselves from imagining their life as Matthew ‘Rust’ McConnaghy in True Detective.

Amidst tales of time slipping away and being thrown out but your partner, there’s humour and wit too. ’Old People’ is perhaps the funniest song of the year, relentlessly self-mocking Hiatt’s generation.

Kasabian – 48:13

The biggest disappointment of my year came with this album. You have to be a little special to actually enjoy Kasabian and, in the wrong time, I dislike them. Sadly, as so often the case is with high expectations, I was bitterly left in the cold. There’s not one redeeming song on this album. The irritating ‘Bumblebee’ contains some of the worst lyrics I have ever heard (“I fought off robots, and a man in a suit / Wear off the soles of your monkey boots”) and the stupidly numerical titling reeks of self-absorbed praise. Nothing about the album thrills me, from the dreadful ’Eez-eh’ to the groovy yet repetitive ‘Treat’. But yes, the album still affected me – anger is an emotion too.

Spoon – They Want My Soul

Perhaps the worst named band in the selection produces perhaps the best titled album. While the forcibly gruff vocals and Oasis-sounding guitars may irritate, the punch of the riffs and colour in the lyrical imagery ensure Spoon have one of the stronger indie albums this year. The second half of the album is notably worse than the first, but with a short running time it’s not long before the tunes come back around.

Jackson Browne – Standing in the Breach

Another affecting album for all the wrong reasons. I could probably forgive Browne of anything (Daryl Hannah allegations notwithstanding) and have done so here. Still, another stoic reminder that some things age. The album is witty, easy on the ear and poetic in places. However, dull tunes and over simplicity meansStanding in the Breach is a tepid addition to Browne‘s catalogue. Also, the album possesses the most jarring, misleading album artwork I’ve ever seen.

Beck – Morning Phase

More late-night drinks, evening dinners and smooching sessions have been affected by this album than is perhaps comfortable to admit. With careful orchestration, touching lyrics and swirling melodies, Morning Phase has an unrivaled laid-back beauty. ‘Morning’ is dreamlike and soothing. ’Unforgiven’ is darkly obscure and ’Waking Light’ is an ambient gem. The album overall has an aura of strangeness, but also one of dedicated craftsmanship. Just a shame that live, from what I have heard, the atmosphere is not replicated.

 

I could have not seen the light – a list by Sam Valdés López

paramoeContrary to my usual chatty self, I’ll keep this list succinct under one rule: keep it to one paragraph. I do some because I already broke my own rule that I’d keep it to ten and only ten albums. Selah. Links provided to reviews when applicable. 2014 has been a weird year as a reviewer and I don’t know what 2015 will bring but I’m looking forward to it. In no particular order, my faves are:

The Life and Times – Lost bees. What can I say that I didn’t say in my review? It’s a gorgeous trip through the fields of Space Rock. Looser than No one loves you like I do (which is another classic), Lost Bees finds The Life and Times exploring cycles. Brutal instrumentations, that sorrowful voice and The Drummer from Olympus ™ make this a top notch release. Start with ‘Ice Cream Eyes’ for a taste of the band, go for ‘Passion Pit’ for their poppiest moment or set your orbit to the Pulsar that is ‘Palatine’.

Withershins – Mt. Fuji in Blue. You’ve probably sussed out that I’m partial to Space Rock and the vast soundscapes that are integral to the genre are captured in shades of blue in this granite solid album by Withershins. You’ll also get straight rockers and abstract noise experimentation for your listening pleasure. Title track is you starting point.

National Skyline – Love letters for the disenchanted. Mr. Jeff Garber has worn the faces of many genres over the years. National Skyline’s newest album becomes a minty fresh gin cocktail that hits the spot. Nuanced and subtle, it’s a joyride of intelligent pop that has one of the best tracks of 2014, ‘The Wrong Kind’.

Emma Swift – Emma Swift Americana and alt country are the missing parents of Sadcore, the genre that gave us Red House Painters, Volebeats, Idaho and many more. Emma Swift saw this while arming herself with an intimate knowledge of what made Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, amongst others, steal our open road loving hearts. Not a single moment emotion is left unturned in this brilliant mini-album.

The Whiskey Priest – Mean Spirit  Seth Woods only knows how to write and sing from one place: from the heart. And it’s a combination of hearty lyrics and soulful music that make this long awaited, at least by 4 members of this website, album, a trip through dark moorlands and open skies.

Pompeii – Loom A big wait and quite a few obstacles could not deter this fantastic post rock album from Austin to deliver a de facto showstopper with Loom. Mystical, introspective and honest, an explosion of mournful post rock for your ears.

Eric & Magill – In this light The duet that keeps giving us the finest concoctions of dream pop and electronic ambients, In this light finds them no longer waddling but fully swimming, nay, motoring into Tír na nÓg. Expect them to soundtrack a long embrace with a loved one or that first kiss with that proverbial “other half.”

Jenny Lewis – The Voyager. Hey man, I’m only talking about one of the best writer’s of her generation. You lot know I love Ryan Adams and Mark Kozelek but Ms. Lewis is right there, cementing a holy trinity of singer/songwriters that have created some of the best music out there, not just this year. A live rendition of ‘Slippery Slope’ during Corona Capital festival broke my heart, dragged it through the mud, stomped it, mended it and gave it back. It still beats.

Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams I never finished my review of his newest album because I had the silly idea of “nah, wait ’til he finishes releasing EPs and 7″ gems, then write it.” Darn it, Mr. Adams, you keep hitting them out of the ballpark! Fears of him staying away from the limelight should be sandblasted off your mind right now, because while he is not delivering the goods romantically or in fierce, distorted bursts, he can take an old classic and give it another spin. See also: any cover he has done (‘Nutshell’ and ‘Wonderwall’ for me).

Monuments – Brigadune As lead singer Gabe Berezin said, the songs from Brigadune were a sort of musical catharsis and there are years in your life when that’s the only medicine you’ll ever need to pop and take 3 times a day. Expansive, mixing electronics, acoustics and rock, the many personal thoughts seem too raw and relatable but still very palatable.

Dad Rocks!Year of the flesh Hang on a second! Didn’t I say that this was my album of the year before? Huh, that’ll teach you to trust a Mexican and our polygamous ways! The Baroque Pop of Dad Rocks! is akin to that snake from The Jungle Book that soothes you slowly into a mesmerised state. The woes and wonders of modern life and family are categorically displayed in Dad Rocks! fantastically hooky album.

+/- – Jumping Tracks Alternating deftly between post, math and electronic rock, Jumping Tracks finds +/- performing intimate notes that fly into your emotions and deliver a contagious virus that spreads. You will end up tapping your foot to this ambient-heavy tracks that are pop enough to be catchy but still will deliver many layers of music to keep you warm.

Beach Day – Native Echoes Their “dark” album. You heard it first in my strangely pessimistic positive review of Native Echoes where the old school lovelies of Beach Day take their garage into darker lyrics while still keeping their peppy rhythms. It’s not surf, it’s not retro and it’s not kitsch, it’s Beach Day and when the past starts to look too shiny do remember that there are darker shimmers in there that might blemish the picture. Beach Day know it and emphasize it brilliantly.

Counting Crows – Somewhere under wonderland  Y’all shouldn’t be surprised that I have included this gang of Van Morrison loving, Big Star worshipping, Gram Parsons adoring ruffians in a top list. This is for two reasons: fanboy and a genuinely heartfelt album that broke the Counting Crows formula. I had a review that turned into a meditation of what this band has meant to me for the past 20 years. This meditation turned into a full zine, available in 2015. In the meantime, I can say this album is the proggiest form of pop I’ve heard this year.

The Twilight Sad – Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave. Anything I could say about this I’ve already said it, but if you want the executive summary, it follows: Scottish tales of urban horror, tales of humanity and the ideas displayed in a vast catalogue summed up in one cool record.

Sun Kil Moon – Benji First of all: to everyone ranting and raving about this being the best Sun Kil Moon album, please go and listen to Ghosts of the Great Highway. Then Tiny Cities. Then everything else. How’s that egg on the face tasting like? Yes, you all are too late to the party but at least you made it. Now go listen to Red House Painters. You see it? How you been ignoring Mark Kozelek’s fine poetry (and curmudgeon ways) for all these years. Catch up, people.

Sorry, I’m just feeling vivid and happy about Benjis reception. It’ I think the one moment I knew I’d love this album was with:

“The nature of attraction cycles on and on and on
And nobody’s right, and nobody’s wrong
Our early life shapes the types to whom we are drawn
It’s a complicated place, this planet we’re on

‘Dogs’. I heard it live at SXSW in a Presbyterian church with Mr. Actual Wolf on drums. Even managed to say “great show” to Mr. Kozelek. He said thanks and I know it’s pathetic but that was the greatest night of my life.

Renegade Brass Band – RBB: Rhymes, Beats and Brass Now listen here, y’all, the once derided institution of colliery brass bands is getting a spot of a resurgence. They might be a little late to the party as this commune of talented artists has been doing it OG for a while. Jazz of all varieties (acid, latin, new) mix with hip hop and electronic elements to give us a fine taste of the great stuff being made in Sheffield. Nah mean, Nah’m sayin’ duck? Get yesen started with ‘The Shakedown‘, tha knows.

Molly McGuire – III. Don’t call it a comeback, call it the consolidation of the hypothesis that Molly McGuire never age nor does their music. I can think of several current bands like Grass is Green, Ovlov and Two Inch Astronaut that can follow some of the myriad ideas these fellas have, but this is the original Balrog, coming out of its slumber armed with a lot of atmospheres and brutal riffs.

Various Artists – Farewell Transmission : The music of Jason MolinaJason Molina. It might not be a popular name but the ones who knew of his art held him in the highest of regards. This double album, a true labour of love and maybe the best musical eulogy I’ve heard, allows many an artist to pay tribute to this unheard genius. Everyone made the songs their own, but you can still feel the presence of Molina’s  heartfelt art.

readers’ choice

Last but not least, our lovely readers did suggest some more stuff. Here it goes and thank you all!

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