[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.

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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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[It Was A Very Good Year]: The Best Of 2013

Well, 2013 is officially over, which means its time to cast an eye back over the year’s finest moments. There were so many albums I loved last year that they would easily fill up a top twenty, and even then there would be pushing and shoving. However, there can only be ten (for arbitrary reasons) and so with that in mind I have chosen the albums which impressed me most and continue to impress me long after luring me back for repeated listens. So, without further ado…

The Best Albums

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10. Kwes – ilp
On his hypnotising debut Kwes blends pop, ambient and electronic influences into a gluey fog of emotion that clings to you, giving it the deeply immersive quality of Portishead’s Dummy. While the understated melodies and blurred beats don’t immediately grab attention, it is the quiet confidence and kaleidoscopic nature of the music which is ilp’s strength. It will be interesting to see where he goes next.

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9. Julia Holter – Loud City Song
Not usually my thing, but there was something very compelling and mesmerising about Loud City Song which called me back for repeated listens and made me dig deeper each time. Each layer of Julia Holter’s avant-garde pop intrigues with moments of tension and release, forming dense collages of sound. Meanwhile, her flexible voice adopts different guises and moves eerily between seeming faint in the distance or uncomfortably close, as if you were listening to a radio which could tune into different rooms of a city.

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8. Charles Bradley – Victim of Love
After the overwhelming success of No Time For Dreaming, Charles Bradley’s debut at sixty-two, Victim of Love sees Bradley spreading his wings and finding his own (loud) voice. Aided by the capable Menahan Street Band, Bradley moves effortlessly between Temptations style psych-funk on ‘Confusion’ and ‘Love Bug Blues’, and slow-burning soul ballads on ‘Give Love A Chance’ and earnest album closer ‘Through The Storm’. It is an album brimming with gratitude and he gives as good as he gets (better, I’d argue).

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7. Jim James – Regions Of Sound And Light Of God
Jim James’s first out-and-out solo LP came up trumps, inspired by Lynd Ward’s Good Man and exploring themes of living life in an age cluttered by technology. Away from My Morning Jacket’s expanded alt. country, James blends genres to great effect from new-age rock ’n’ roll to electro-gospel. As ever though, at the centre of this extended sonic horizon is his cavernous voice, which sounds more than ever like a man sending messages into outer space.

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6. Eels – Wonderful, Glorious
No other album I heard this year was quite so aptly labeled, or half as fun. Wonderful, Glorious is the sound of E revelling in finally being in a band that can keep up with him, dishing up outrageous, scuzzy rock and gentle, mellow pop in the process. A golden slice of life affirming rock and roll!

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5. Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks
An album of dark nights and new mornings, The Beast In Its Tracks is the result of Josh Ritter retreating into songwriting to exorcise his demons from divorce, alcohol and insomnia. While much of the album sees Ritter happy in the arms of a new lover, songs like ‘Evil Eye’ and ‘Nightmares’ bounce along on cheerful melodies which disguise harrowing lyrics documenting his night terrors. Between bitterness and newfound happiness, Ritter evokes a long road to recovery experienced by many and perfectly captures the turning point onJoy To You Baby’. Ritter’s Blood On The Tracks? Possibly…

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4. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
Twenty-three years and ten albums in, Pearl Jam could be forgiven for showing signs of age. But, on Lightning Bolt they prove themselves to be as lean and hungry as ever, equally comfortable delivering full-throttle punk (‘Mind Your Manners’, ‘Lightning Bolt’) and gentle ballads (‘Yellow Moon’, ‘Sleeping By Myself’). The only signs of age are a mature perspective on love and mortality, with ‘Sirens’ seeing Eddie Vedder “overwhelmed by the grace with which we live our lives with death over our shoulders”. Lightning Bolt shows Pearl Jam ageing gracefully; still angry and still at the top of their game.

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3. Poliça – Shulamith
Hot on the heels of their critically acclaimed debut, Poliça build on its momentum with their difficult second album. The basic elements of echoing vocals, glacial synthesisers and effervescent percussion are still present, but Shulamith is more confrontational than its predecessor (much like its namesake, Shulamith Firestone). The music is less introverted; the synths are brutalising and the pulsing beats are feverish. Meanwhile, Channy Leanaegh’s vocals and lyrics, concerned with conflicts of identity in relationships, are direct and forthright. Rather than courting mainstream success, you get the sense that Shulamith is the sound of Poliça staying true to their beliefs.

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2. Anna Calvi – One Breath
Grander in scale, but more vulnerable than it’s predecessor. Anna Calvi still has a flair for the dramatic, but she seems to let down her guard more on One Breath, not letting the façade get in the way of expressing mortal frailty on the title track or brutal honesty on ‘Love Of My Life’. Calvi’s symphonic ambitions still remain intact on ‘The Bridge’ and ‘Sing To Me’ though, and that astounding voice continues to grip the imagination, even when it is but a barely audible whisper.

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1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
With the departure of guitarist Mick Harvey in 2009, Nick Cave’s right-hand man for nearly thirty years, the sound of the next Bad Seeds record seemed uncertain. As a result, the Bad Seeds embrace disarmingly minimal and intimate soundscapes on Push The Sky Away, focusing on textural instrumentation and contemplative lyrics delivered with conviction by Cave. The album looks both backwards and forwards on the band’s legacy, with the cataclysmic ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ seeming an answer to their ‘Abattoir Blues’ prophesied nine years earlier, while the spiritual communion of ‘We No Who U R’ and personal mantra ‘Push The Sky Away’ gesture to the artistic boundaries which they continue to push and transcend.

The Best EP

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Sampha – Dual
A genre defying EP; part electronic and hip-hop, part soul and singer-songwriter. While Morden based musician/producer, Sampha Sisay, has been lending his skills to high-profile artists such as Jessie Ware, SBTRKT and Drake, here on his second solo EP he shows that he kept the best ideas for himself. The songs themselves, based around Sampha’s soulful vocals and commanding piano melodies, are accomplished and would make enjoyable listening by itself. However, the extra layers he constructs on these solid basics indicate a measured artistry and that Sampha has a clear direction in mind. Brief interludes such as ‘Demons’ and ‘Hesitant Oath’ brim with creative enthusiasm and give the EP a cohesiveness which is missing from many full-length releases, while the intricate composition of clipped samples that weave in and out of the ‘live’ instrumentation keeps Dual unpredictable and imbues it with a compelling sense of depth. And yet for all its intricacy Dual still manages to sound pared down to its lean essentials, with no flab or unnecessaries attached. Evocative and simply captivating.

The Best Single

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David Bowie – ‘Where Are We Now?’
Released silently on Bowie’s birthday in January, ‘Where Are We Now?’ announced the Dame’s return to recording as the leading single to The Next Day. In many ways indicative of the album’s musical introspectiveness, evoking and pastiching the diverse phases of Bowie’s career, ‘Where Are We Now?’ is the quintessential post-Bowie Bowie song. While only four minutes long, the song’s sweeping scale and slow-burning energy feels like a lifetime condensed into a single moment, as Bowie casts a forlorn backward glance at his Berlin days. Over twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall things have changed yet remain the same, as old names and places spark memories and are filled with hurrying people crossing their fingers as they traverse busy intersections “just in case”. In the midst of the commotion which leads us nowhere, a childlike Bowie finds some solace and resolve to carry on in a few fundamentals: “As long as there’s sun, as long as there’s rain, as long as there’s fire, as long as there’s me, as long as there’s you”.

The Biggest Surprise

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Apart from Beyoncé dropping a killer pop album unannounced, Miley Cyrus’s twerktastic antics sparking mass debate on female autonomy in the music business and the early release of Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, probably the single piece of news that caused widespread shock and disarray across the music world was the sudden death of Lou Reed on 27th October. Lou died of liver disease at the age of 71, having undergone a liver transplant earlier in the year, and I guess the reason his death came as such a shock was that his body had been through so much abuse that people expected him to be one of the few things to survive a nuclear armageddon, along with the cockroaches and Keith Richards. Black humour aside, the effect Lou’s songs had on music and peoples’ lives is immeasurable and his sudden death took many off-guard as they realised there would never be another like him. So rest in peace, Lou, this satellite has gone way up to Mars.

What were your best music moments of 2013? Let me know in the comments below.

— Elements of The Best Albums appear in extracted form over at Hercules Moments.