[It Was A Very Good Year]: The Best Albums of 2014

2014 was an incredibly strong year for music, both from young hopefuls and from established acts. As always, compiling a list of only ten albums was like trying to choose between which limb you’d rather lose. However, the fact that it is a such struggle to whittle the year’s output down to ten albums is always a good sign that there’s plenty of new music to get excited about, and long may it continue that way. So, let’s kick this year off right…

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10. Jack White – Lazaretto
And in the blue corner, the genre-bending third man, weighing in at #10 this year is Jack White, whose Lazaretto came out swinging this summer. No other artist these days is so evidently firing on all cylinders, buzzing off their own momentum, but makes it look so infuriatingly effortless.

2014 Banner 99. Gemma Ray – Milk For Your Motors
Full of high drama, junkyard romance and dreamy noir, Milk For Your Motors has been successfully fulfilling my Nick Cave fix this year. Spangled guitars twinkle over shuffling percussion and carny organs, while Ray’s honeyed vocals drift effortlessly through this shadowy landscape. Simply gothic-tinged pop goodness.

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8. The Rails – Fair Warning
The debut offering from a married folk-rock duo with a fine pedigree. Their tales have an inherent universality and a healthy respect for folk tradition, but also display their confidence and capability to carve out a plot for themselves that feels totally contemporary. Fair Warning rambles, gambles, rocks and rolls.

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7. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
I’ve always been a bit on/off with Van Etten, but this is her first record where she seems completely comfortable in her own skin, delivering yearning, accomplished rock songs that reflect a boldness which was shaky before. Replete with panoramic self-expression without resorting to navel-gazing, Are We There is acerbic, cathartic and triumphant.

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6. Interpol – El Pintor
The release of anything by NY’s best dressed is cause for celebration, but what I didn’t expect was an album that brimmed with the dark, beguiling magic that characterised their debut. Bassist Carlos D may be errant, but the remaining trio have created a surging album of nocturnal alt. rock that is quintessential Interpol.

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5. Smoke Fairies – Smoke Fairies
Beautiful, dreamy pop music of many depths that fuses elements of gentle folk, moody rock and soaring electro-pop with some of the most mesmerising vocal harmonies I’ve heard in a while. The Chichester duo have been doing this for years, but somehow they always slipped through my grip until last year. Still, better late than never, especially with such masterfully built melodies as Eclipse Them All and Your Own Silent Movie, an uplifting anthem for those who live their lives soundtracked by music. What can I say? I relate.

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4. Lee Fields & The Expressions – Emma Jean
I saw Fields, now 63, with The Expressions support Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings (who also released a stonking, hip-shaking record last year) in the autumn and for sheer energy and showmanship he blew every other act I saw in 2014 out of the water. That roaring energy is palpable on Emma Jean, which manages to take different facets of James Brown funk, Memphis soul and old-school R&B, and pull it off with inspiration and flair. Love, loss, life and struggle; it’s all here in spades and it never sounded so good.

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3. The Roots – …and then you shoot your cousin
For my money, The Roots are one of the most intelligent and significant forces in music today, and the only band that can allude to both Nas and Dylan Thomas in the space of two lines (Never). Making uncompromising use of samples and jazzy countermelodies, …atysyc is a concretely dense album full of discomfort that satirises and problematises the ubiquity of violence in society and the media. It’s exactly what hip-hop should be: a giant melting pot where disparate elements combine to reflect something of our nature. If you haven’t read Questlove’s article series How Hip-Hop Failed Black America, I really encourage you to do so.

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2. Mirel Wagner – When The Cellar Children See The Light Of Day
The second LP from the Finnish songwriter (and her first for Sub-Pop) is an elemental, earthy affair, which echoes John Steinbeck for the stark vividness of imagery and the dustbowl ghosts that seem to linger around these ballads. Her lyrics are heavy on blood lines and the tracks we make on the earth which holds our bones, while the plaintive brushing of acoustic strings seem to breathe the dust of ages. But, what resonates most is Wagner’s voice: Commanding, almost ancient in its unflinching directness, and laden with undeniable truths that bury themselves deep. Utter ragged glory and a masterpiece of songwriting.

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1. Warpaint – Warpaint
Sounding like Laurel Canyon via The Twilight Zone, Warpaint’s crepuscular sophomore effort is darker and more seductive than its predecessor (something I didn’t think possible) and was my go-to soundtrack last year. Absorbing minimalist electronics and the vast deserts of Joshua Tree into their idiosyncratic, jam-oriented formula, Warpaint have created a brooding, delicious treat that taps into something thrumming in the subconscious. No other album last year exerted the same enigmatic pull on me despite being on constant rotation. If anything, it becomes more mysterious the more I think I know it and for that reason, it takes my album of the year.

So long, 2014, and thanks for all the great music.

What were your favourite music moments of 2014? Let me know in the comments below.

– Originally appeared on Hercules Moment.

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[Artist Spotlight]: Mutual Benefit

Mutual-Benefit“On a train through the Midwest, I was trying to get reborn”

While Mutual Benefit, the chosen stage moniker of Jordan Lee, may not be a particularly rock n’ roll name, his recent full-length debut Love’s Crushing Diamond is far more appropriately named. Glimmering and beguiling with an apparent simplicity that belies its complexity, Lee’s music is a reverie inducing blend of Americana with percussive and melodic influences from world music. Think Abigail Washburn with a proclivity for prolonged daydreaming. After self-releasing a number of EP’s and mini-albums with varying lineups on his Kasette Klub label (all available digitally over at his Bandcamp), Lee signed with fledgling record co. Other Music to release the Love’s Crushing Diamond LP and has resulted in a steadily growing universal wave of following and recognition since it landed.

Lee’s musical pursuits have lead him from his Columbus, Ohio hometown through to Austin, Boston and New York, and this wanderlust comes through in the meandering character of his music, especially on ‘”Let’s Play” / Statue Of A Man’.  It does not come at you head on so much as it sprawls out in all directions, gradually unfolding into an indelibly complete soundscape of disparate elements weaved together. While Mutual Benefit is ostensibly a musical unit with Lee as the only constant and a revolving door personnel policy that allows for limitless collaboration (and LCD’s long personnel list suggests a lot of collaboration), the balanced and singular sound that is carved from these sounds, melodies and cacophonies shows that Lee has a steady auteuring hand. But really, at its core this is grand, dreamy pop indebted to the joyful potential of making music. Mutual Benefit may not immediately grab your attention, but if you give the music your attention you will slip into it and never wish to resurface.

Love’s Crushing Diamond is available now through Other Music/Fat Possum.

[Artist Spotlight]: FKA Twigs

twigs_papi“How’s that feel? You feel right”

Tahlia Barnett, the artist Formerly Known As Twigs, hails from a middle-of-nowhere area of Gloucestershire, but her sound is informed by her experiences of London’s urban sprawls as much as the quiet stillness of country life. Her mesmerising EP2, released through Young Turks during September last year, narrowly missed out on being my EP of 2013, with Sampha’s Dual overtaking it at the last post. If she looks vaguely familiar, chances are you will have seen her as a backup dancer in Jessie J’s videos or in the BBC skit ‘Beyoncé Wants Groceries’. Far from these roles on the sidelines though, Barnett’s solo work unmistakably positions her centre stage, with her siren call puncturing the fog of slouching beats on EP2 opening track ‘How’s That’. It is clear she has a keen ear for melody and composition as jerking click tracks keep things unpredictable while ebbing and flowing synths and nymph-like backing chorals imbue ‘How’s That’, and much of EP2, with the sense of spiralling depth which permeated Tricky’s Maxinquaye. Indeed in terms of musical DNA, FKA Twigs’s closest progenitor would probably be the musical shapeshifter Martina Topley Bird, whose vocals featured prominently on that album. Also, her attitude as a dancer seems to seep its way into the visual aspect of her music, as she has a penchant for mind boggling videos. See for yourself below…

EP2 is available through Young Turks now.

[From The Cutting Room Floor]: Jeff Buckley, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Pearl Jam.

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Often, seeking out new music can feel like a treasure hunt (or sweeping a minefield, depending on how you look at it). And while the internet has made this search far easier it is still the case that sometimes X marks the spot exactly, and sometimes it just doesn’t. But, every now and then you will come across those completely unexpected diamonds-in-the-rough that appear in the form of B-sides, outtakes or bootlegged live cuts. Those happy moments where you stumble across something that stops you in your tracks and think ‘Why is this only a B-side?’. Of course B-Sides once used to serve the purpose of being where artists could experiment on a format which would not effect popularity (as A-side singles do) or stick out like a sore thumb in an album’s track list. But, these happy accidents still have the power to add immense value and enrich your life. This feature is about digging out those deeper cuts that deserve more attention than mere relegation.

‘All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun’ – Jeff Buckley

Presided over by his mother, Mary Guibert, Jeff Buckley’s legacy has been kept in safe hands since his death nearly twenty years ago, and the steady stream of bonus material that has surfaced since then has only served to cement his status as an effulgent talent. From the rough, but sophisticated eclecticism of incomplete sophomore album Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, to golden throwaway moments on the expanded edition of Grace and stunning recordings of his café days on Live at Siné, all of these recordings prove that Buckley exuded the kind of creative gold dust that plenty of musicians would trade their own mother for. Here is a deep, deep cut that points to a possible collaboration with Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins that may possibly have gone down in history. Buckley is a perfect foil for Fraser’s quavering siren call, duelling perfectly with his own shimmering and elastic croon. The music strikes a nice middle-ground between Buckley’s innovative musicality and the dream-pop sojourns of Cocteau Twins, providing a mutual space for these captivating vocalists to meet.

‘Come Into My Sleep’ – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds 

To be found on the mammoth, if literally titled, three disc B-Sides & Rarities collection, ‘Come Into My Sleep’ originally appeared as the B-side to ‘(Are You) The One I’ve Been Waiting For?’. I can certainly see why this track wouldn’t fit on the introspective tone of The Boatman’s Call, but it certainly offers a seductive remedy to its caustic A-side. It is a metaphysical serenade of sorts, with Cave petitioning his lover to sail through seas of stars into his dreams. A simple xylophone melody invokes intrigue while Cave’s vocals glide over them amongst dreamy strings. Stunning.

‘Drifting’ – Pearl Jam

This song was allegedly written on the back of a plane ticket after Eddie Vedder spent a night over at Neil Young’s house, and the vagabond spirit which has permeated both musicians’ work is certainly at the fore here. Unlike some of the sprawling, anthemic songs Pearl Jam have made, ‘Drifting’ centres on Vedder’s searching, soulful vocals and laid back acoustic strumming as he extols the virtues of untangling yourself from the complicating excesses of a materialistic lifestyle and hits with the force of a simple truth. It’s a lovely, carefree ditty which offers a precursor to his later soundtrack for Sean Penn’s film Into The Wild.

What are your favourite B-sides and rarities? Let me know in the comments below.

[Mixtape]: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – Songs To Keep You Warm


“Then the snow started falling, we were stuck out in your car”

Time for another mixtape methinks. Autumn is officially in full swing where I am: the trees are nearly stripped bare, your breath hangs in the air and you have to go out fifteen minutes earlier in the mornings to turn the heater on in the car and scrape the windows. Following on from my post about confessional albums last week, I thought it would be nice to post this mix of songs designed to keep you warm inside as winter creeps in. Wrap up warm, plug in and enjoy.

Tracklist:
1.
 ‘Observatory Crest’ – Captain Beefheart – Bluejeans and Moonbeams
2. ‘Autumn Sweater’ – Yo La Tengo – I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One
3. ‘Sugar Mountain’ – Neil Young – Decade
4. ‘Don’t Want To Know’ – John Martyn – Solid Air
5. ‘Blood Bank’ – Bon Iver – Blood Bank EP
6. ‘Headlights Look Like Diamonds’ – Arcade Fire – Arcade Fire EP
7. ‘Obstacle 2’ – Interpol – Turn On The Bright Lights
8. ‘So Here We Are’ – Bloc Party – Silent Alarm
9. ‘Norway’ – Beach House – Teen Dream
10. ‘Með Blóðnasir’ – Sigur Rós – Takk
11. ‘Once Around The Block’ – Kings Of Convenience – Toxic Girl [Single]
12. ‘Wildfires’ – Josh Ritter – The Historical Conquests Of Josh Ritter [Bonus Tracks]
13. ‘Harvest Moon [Live]’ – Pearl Jam – Live Portland, OR, 20/07/06
14. ‘Cherry Blossoms’ – The Horrible Crowes – Elsie
15. ‘The Trapeze Swinger’ – Iron & Wine – Around The Well

Cover Credit: Winter Story by Nayein

Got any winter mixes of your own? Link them in the comments, I’d love to hear them.