[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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[Album Review]: Lee Fields – Emma Jean

LF_Emma-Jean_Cover-smaller “No man is an island, but you cast me off”

“This is a man’s world,” James Brown once posited, before clarifying “But, it wouldn’t be nothin’, nothin’, without a woman or a girl”. On his third album for Truth and Soul Records with The Expressions, it seems these words hang heavy over Lee Fields, a man once nicknamed “Little JB” for his vocal and physical resemblance to The Godfather of Soul. After toiling away in minor obscurity for the best part of fifty years, Fields builds on the acclaim of recent years and perhaps reveals something about himself on a record named Emma Jean for his mother, where hard times and breaking hearts abound.

Partly recorded and mixed in Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys’s Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville, Emma Jean sees Fields moving at a slower, but more confident pace than previous. Rather than the kicking and screaming Fields found on Faithful Man (which featured in The Grapevine’s Best Albums of 2012), Emma Jean finds Fields settling comfortably into his role as an elder statesman of old-school R&B and reconnecting with his Southern roots on the smooth Tulsa soul of the late J.J. Cale’s ‘Magnolia’. While paying respect to the original, The Expressions trade wheezing harmonica for shimmering pedal steel and Fields’s resonant vocals lift this devotional to giddy heights. Similarly, the Dan Auerbach penned ‘Paralyze’ oozes with bluesy drama, while the reeling groove and gospel backing vocals of ‘In The Woods’ recalls the finest hours of Memphis’s Hi Records. Elsewhere though, Fields still excels in delivering hard-hitting funk, especially in the unadulterated foot-stompin’and hollerin’ of ‘Talk To Somebody’.

Throughout Emma Jean, Fields illustrates faltering relationships and the differing reactions of his male protagonists, ranging from bitterness and chest-beating to reconciliatory promises and torch carrying for lost love, which reach their peak in the closing pair ‘Stone Angel’ and ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. Left abandoned and burned by the femme fatale of ‘Stone Angel’, Fields’s outward machismo is undermined by private promises of better times which ultimately fall away to the heartfelt petition of ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. Brought to his knees, Fields wails like a man with nothing left to lose as slinky guitar and building horn blasts conjure up the spirit of Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring It On Home’, drawing Emma Jean to a triumphant close.

While the influences he channels into his work are plain to see, Lee Fields always keeps his best foot striding forward to somewhere innovative and new. And, at the age of 63, he may have delivered the finest album of his career. So far…

Emma Jean will be released through Truth and Soul Records on Monday 2nd June.