[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.

 

[Artist Spotlight]: Charles Bradley

Charles Bradley“I thank you for helping me carry on … through the storm”

My last few posts have been quite singer-songwriter/folk oriented, so I thought I would take things up a notch with some new soul, and what better man to crank up the mood than the ‘Screaming Eagle of Soul’, Mr. Charles Bradley?

Along with Lee Fields and Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley forms part of a rearguard of soul music: artists much neglected for most of their career but who are finally getting the attention they deserve with their old-school R&B sound. Bradley’s career in particular is a real underdog story, chronicled in the recent documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America, which unfortunately has yet to see British release. Similar to the documentary Searching For Sugarman that centred on Sixto Rodriguez, with whom Bradley recorded a split 45 last year, Charles Bradley: Soul of America talks about a diamond which was not fully unearthed until way down the line. From leaving his Florida home at the age of 14 Bradley has struggled, living hand to mouth and often in harsh conditions. However, his undiminished ambition to make it as a singer, which persisted through years in mismatched appointments including an extended stint as a James Brown impersonator under the name Black Velvet, finally came to fruition when he teamed up with the Menahan Street Band and Daptone Records co-founder Gabriel Roth to deliver his debut record at the age of 62. Indeed, the title of that album, No Time For Dreaming, could be the injunction Bradley aimed at himself for finally telling his story. If that’s the case then Victim of Love could certainly be Bradley’s response and gesture of gratitude to the overwhelmingly positive public and critical acclaim that No Time For Dreaming has received. 

‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ is a moody and funky track, which showcases Bradley’s hard-hitting delivery and his irrepressible wails. As Bradley struts his stuff, co-writer and guitarist Thomas Brenneck chucks out a percussive guitar rhythm and displays a screaming, fuzzed up solo towards the song’s close. Meanwhile, horn blares from Dave Guy and Leon Michels punctuate Bradley’s preaching vocals and Homer Steinweiss’s outstandingly funky drum part makes sure the song hits you square in the guts. It is one of the standout tracks from the album for me and I strongly recommend you to go out and buy it. I promise you, you won’t be disappointed and you will be supporting an artist whose time may have finally come.

Victim of Love is available now through Daptone Records.

[It Was A Very Good Year]: 2012

Well, this list may seem somewhat late, but I wanted to expand on last year’s ‘Best Of’ to incorporate more than just ‘Best Albums’ and make sure it was right. So without further ado, here are my best moments from 2012…

Best Albums

SONY MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT CANADA INC. - Leonard Cohen

10.Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas

Leonard Cohen has always been old before his time and Old Ideas sees him wearing his age comfortably, like his well-cut suits. Though his output is resigned to a per-decade basis these days, these autumnal meditations on mortality show that Cohen’s bright star remains undiminished.

9. Hubbert

9. RM Hubbert – Thirteen Lost and Found

Reasons Why I Like Independent Record Stores #8: Hearing an album in-store that you fall in love with and buy immediately. Such was the case with RM Hubbert’s stunning collection of collaborations with friends and contemporaries.

8. Godspeed

8.Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

What is there that can really be said about Godspeed, which hasn’t already been said? Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is Godspeed doing what they do best and is yet another jewel in their post-rock crown.

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7. Lee Fields and The Expressions- Faithful Man

Criminally underrated for over four decades and still howling like a man half his age, Lee Fields is finally getting the recognition he deserves. With the departure of Solomon Burke (R.I.P.) in 2010, Fields may be the last of the great soul singers and Faithful Man proves just that.

6. White

6. Jack White – Blunderbuss

Jack White has always had a sense of the American Gothic around his music and just one look at Blunderbuss’s cover, which seems like a modern version of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, will give you a pretty good approximation of the album’s sound. Like a rag and bone man, White picks up scraps of whatever musical detritus is lying around and tinkers it into something which is new and recognisably his. Here, elements of traditional country and bluegrass are forged with White’s blues-punk sensibilities to create an album of astounding quality and musical ingenuity. Blunderbuss oscillates between riffy vitriol and melodic nursery rhyme, and my God does it sound good.

5. Chromatics

5. Chromatics – Kill For Love

There always has to be one album I stumble across while compiling these lists which shoots straight into it. This year it’s Chromatics’ Kill For Love, whose bewitching blend of 80’s electro-pop and Italo-disco snatched it a place in the top five. As with all Chromatics related projects (Desire, Glass Candy, Symmetry), there is a heavy focus on the cinematic and visual quality their music possesses. Here on Kill For Love, Chromatics deliver a collection of beguiling nocturnes presented in glorious Technicolor.

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4. Bill Fay – Life Is People

Full of sublimely soulful music, this album signals the return of a major songwriting talent. From the majestic opener ‘There Is A Valley’ to the contemplative closer ‘The Coast No Man Can Tell’, it is clear that Bill Fay has endured a lot in his absence from the music scene. But Fay delivers his experiences and tribulations without bitterness, just hard-won compassion. Gospel singers and triumphant instrumentation buoy up the record, while Fay delivers his perceptive lyrics in a bruised, yet magnanimous, voice. Tragic and sweet, this is an album about overcoming hardship and looking back on it from the other side with your love for humanity still intact.

3. Ocean

3. Frank Ocean – Channel ORANGE

What I suppose you could loosely term a concept album, Channel ORANGE is a sprawling collection of musical vignettes which moves between genres effortlessly, from hip-hop and jazz to funk and psychedelia  Themes of sex, love and other drugs are masterfully interweaved throughout the album, where quieter and more self-aware moments such as ‘Pilot Jones’ and ‘Forrest Gump’ sit comfortably amongst more audacious tracks such as ‘Bad Religion’ and club opus ‘Pyramids’. For me though, it’s the throwaway interludes such as ‘Start’, ‘White’ and ‘Not Just Money’ which really tie the album together and evoke an atmosphere of late-night misgivings. ‘Thinkin Bout You’ might also be one of the most simple and beautiful love songs I’ve ever heard. Channel ORANGE is quite simply an album that feels utterly original

2. Poliça

2. Poliça – Give You The Ghost

What a monster of an album. Poliça tread a fine line between warm intimacy and cool claustrophobia. Glacial synths and Channy Leaneagh’s echoing vocals provide a clinical frostiness, while resonant bass and cascading percussion give their sound an organic virility. These blend together into undulating waves that break against you in a way that is both sedating and stimulating at the same time. It’s a heady, intoxicating mix, which draws you in and envelops you on the first listen.

1. Augustines

1. We Are Augustines – Rise Ye Sunken Ships

This is a band that a friend from home turned me onto and for that I owe her a huge debt. Finally seeing release in the UK earlier this year, Rise Ye Sunken Ships was born out of the disintegration of Pela and the untimely deaths of frontman Billy McCarthy’s brother and mother. With McCarthy’s wounded heart stitched firmly to the record’s sleeve, We Are Augustines channel this emotional intensity into twelve beautifully crafted songs. Surging and uplifting, not since Eels’s Electro-Shock Blues has heartbreak and personal loss sounded so jubilant or indomitable.

Best EP

EP. Frabbits

Frightened Rabbit – State Hospital

State Hospital is a claustrophobic and chilly collection that seemed perfectly appropriate when it landed late last year, just as the Scottish winter started to kick in. There are very few moments of optimistic solace available on these brutally abrasive tracks (even ‘State Hospital’s anthemic refrain ‘All is not lost’ seems borne out of desperation), but there’s no denying the emotional truth delivered in their maudlin messages. State Hospital points to a style that is rougher than previous album The Winter of Mixed Drinks, but is no less complex for the un-sanded edges. And Aidan Moffat’s bitter drawl is always welcome as far as I’m concerned

N.B. I may not have appreciated State Hospital so much if I hadn’t also had Josh Ritter’s Bringing In the Darlings to thaw me out after. Equally wintry themed, but whereas State Hospital is the biting winds that make your eyes water, Bringing in the Darlings is the fire that warms you on those cold nights. Ultimately State Hospital is more varied, but Josh Ritter’s effort is definitely worth checking out as well.

Best Reissue

EP. MBV

My Bloody Valentine – EP’s 1988-1991

This was very nearly Massive Attack’s reissue of the twenty year old Blue Lines, which still sounds as fresh and intriguing as ever. However, for sheer repackaging and bang-for-your-buck I’ve chosen My Bloody Valentine’s EP’s 1988-1991, which collects the now-rare  You Made Me Realise, Glider and Tremolo EP’s with a few extras thrown in for good measure. Twenty years on, My Bloody Valentine still sound as kaleidoscopic and baffling as ever. And while their recent surprise follow up to Loveless (also reissued alongside this compilation), m b v, is worth the hype, this collection proves that the band had already made their mark and perfected their game before Loveless.

Biggest Surprise

Snoop Lion

Twenty years into his career, Snoop Dogg changes his name to Snoop Lion. You seriously couldn’t make this stuff up. Can’t fault him for not having a sense of humour though:

Let me know what your favourite moments from 2012 were =)

 Most of ‘Best Albums’ taken from my Hercules Moments article, with the exception of Frank Ocean (i.e. I changed my mind writing this up, sue me).