Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Top 30 Albums of 2014

This list reflects my personal preferences: I make no attempt to present a balanced choice across genres, or claim to assess their artistic merit. It is simply a collection of those albums which have given me the most pleasure over the past year. You can find my 2013 list here, when Arcade Fire's Reflektor and The National's Trouble Will Find Me were my favourites.

1) Sharon Van Etten Are We There
Are We There is almost in a category of its own: as much therapy as entertainment. The lyrics represent her innermost feelings, but the sentiments are universal, and Sharon is able to express emotions through music that defy description. It reflects the belief that music should above all be moving, yet for all the heartbreak, the effect is cathartic and life affirming. Much though I love the guitars in Tramp, this self produced album seems more reflective and personal.

2) St. Vincent self-titled
My love for this album is undoubtedly influenced by Annie Clark's remarkable live performances, yet even taken in isolation, it is astonishingly stimulating and virtuosic. She combines art rock with funky pop, giving a visceral immediately along side intellectual satisfaction. The melody of Prince Johnny, and the closing Severed Crossed Fingers create a new found immediacy that helps to account for St. Vincent's break through this year. I believe this truly great record will be seen as a turning point.

3) EMA The Future's Void
This is an astonishingly inventive album, dealing with contemporary themes including alienation in a digital world. It can be hard hitting and industrial, yet with moments of beauty such as 3Jane, when electronics balance the fragile humanity of Erika's voice. It would be a deserved album of the year: as Stereogum said, its appeal is 'in hearing someone make music out of a feeling that you’ve registered but maybe not named.'

4) Hiss Golden Messenger Lateness of Dancers
Some might dismiss MC Taylor's fifth album is pleasant but derivative Americana. This would be a mistake: a move to North Carolina has brought a new richness to his sound, but retaining the heartfelt delivery. Lateness is satisfying: it has an innate flow and rightness, whilst exploring profound themes. Here is an artist not afraid to write about religion and redemption, here is a new found lightness.

5) Alt-J This is All Yours
This Is All Yours has divided opinion, gathering critical reviews following the surprising popular success of their d├ębut. Alt-J inevitably lost some credibility with indie connoisseurs, and their stage craft hasn't made the leap needed to command large spaces. Pitchfork described this album as a vacuum: to my ears though, it's original, moving in quirky, unexpected directions. Eccentricity should be celebrated, and by separating themselves from the popular music mainstream in Cambridge, the (now) trio's risks largely pay off. They've even broken free from the weight of responsibility of being described as the next Radiohead, forging their own path.

6) She Keeps Bees Eight Houses
Singer Jessica Larrabee and drummer Andy LaPlant have produced one of the most underrated albums of the year. Her voice is subtle, often restrained, with a powerful emotional undercurrent. Blues rock influences sot alongside folk, and the stripped down feel adds to its intensity. Sharon Van Etten contributes backing vocals. adding to the beauty here.

7) Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence
Ultaviolence is probably the most controversial choice on this list, in part due to this artist's commercial success. She's recovered from a disappointing first album with a gorgeous creation. The sumptuous arrangements capture the atmosphere of a languorous summer day, and hang together as a coherent whole. Luxuriating in the strings and film like scoring at home allows you to erase all memory of her uniquely wooden stagecraft.

8) GOAT Commune
This Swedish collective really need to be seen live, or at least heard as such on their Live Ballroom Ritual album from 2013. Yet, their eccentricity is almost as gloriously evident on this studio album, when influences as eclectic as African blues rock and psychedelic Turkish folk combine into a hedonistic mix. It's not difficult to become completely immersed in a crazy, hypnotic swirl of energy.

9) Warpaint self-titled
My plans to see Warpaint live this year were delayed by cancellation, but this album is easy to get lost in, with its hazy layers of sound. The influence of drummer Stella Mozgawa, now a full time member of the band, is stronger, as you'd expect, but guitars are still important. It's been described as a jam record, and time stands still when listening: the experience all about atmosphere.

10) Zola Jesus Taiga
I have to admit to a little disappointment on initially listening to Nika Roza Danilova's fifth album. She continues to combine pop with industrial sounds and an operatically trained soprano voice, but it's more lavishly produced, with film score orchestration. Ultimately though, I found it a powerful, soaring statement, bringing light to her existing ominous qualities.

11) Trampled By Turtles Wild Animals
The seventh studio album from Duluth's bluegrass masters sounds warmer and more vulnerable than their earlier work. They're celebrated for their live, high tempo virtuosity, but I found this album comforting, if slightly less emotionally draining than Stars and Satellites. A beautiful love song like Lucy shows their versatility, and deserves to win them an even wider audience well beyond specialist banjo addicts.

12) Lykke Li I Never Learn
A song like Gunshot is heartbreaking: 'I am longing for your love'. Yet, for all the sadness, there's a sense of power and strength, coming as much from the grandeur of the music as the lyrics and vocals. The stand-out track, Never Gonna Love Again is dramatic and anthemic, and the more subdued remainder benefits from a lush production.

13) The War on Drugs Lost in the Dream
Another album inspired by the break-up of a relationship, this album's strength only really became evident after experiencing the Philadelphia band live for the first time at Green Man. It's slow burning and shoegaze influenced, but once you absorb the atmosphere, it's possible to find your way through the fog, and appreciate the nuances.

14) FKA Twigs LP1
Tahliah Barnett is perhaps the most outstanding break-through of the year, combining original music with a seductive performance on stage, and visual flair, typified by the album art. LP1's music is post-XX fractured, other-wordly R&B. She displays greater subtlety than her Canadian influence, The Weeknd. It feels intimate, and manages to combine accessibility with experimentalism. Tahliah sings with arresting clarity, even if I hope in time the 26 year old's lyrics will become more nuanced.

15) Imogen Heap Sparks
Sparks is perhaps not one of the more coherent albums of the year, feeling like a disparate collection of 14 songs, but Immie has lost none of her propensity for experimentation. I love the way her pure, ethereal vocals float in space, and an ever stimulating and surprising use of electronic found sounds. Recent motherhood has prevented extensive touring, so it's gathered less attention than warranted by such creativity.

16) Marketa Irglova Muna
With its length, melodies, and instrumentation, Muna recalls classical music. Yet, the true influence is nature: specifically the Icelandic landscape. Muna is warm, soothing, and above all beautiful, the delicate vocals soaring ethereally. Songs like Without a Map have a serious, religious subject matter; it can be sad, but these are sounds to luxuriate in.

17) Augustines self-titled
Augustines is above all a live band, but their second album has a redemptive quality. Such overwhelming positivity was initially a shock after the rawness of Rise, Ye Sunken Ships, but this music helps to ameliorate the pain of an all too often challenging world. Look elsewhere for musical sophistication, but Billy McCarthy supplies much needed hope as he builds an even larger loyal and adoring fan base.

18) Glass Animals Zaba
Zaba gains attention for its offbeat nature, sensually combining pop and R&B. Some may find the effect slightly clinical and calculated, but it's also daringly malevolent. Whether or not it hypnotises you, Paul Epworth's production cannot be faulted, and it will surely move your body, if not always your mind.

19) Strand of Oaks Heal
This classic Springsteen influenced guitar rock may not be ground breaking, but as the title suggests, it is emotionally intelligent. Like Augustines, it betrays a vulnerability, documenting a struggle against adversity. The music may be indebted to the past, but the message is relevant. It's also much fun to listen to, or watch live.

20) SOHN Tremors
Some have found this R&B influenced electronica from Vienna excessively contrived and stylised. Christopher Taylor's falsetto voice gives a cool edge, but Tremors stands out for its clever production and soaring melodies in songs like Veto. The mood is dark and sombre, and there’s a stunning sense of detail in the sound. It may be too cerebral for some, but I love the way he combines vocals and electronics.

21) Frazey Ford Indian Ocean
Recorded in Memphis, this album blends country and soul, with idiomatic organ, horns, and bass rhythms. The Be Good Tanyas' singer has a wonderfully charismatic, emotional voice and a gift for songwriting. The talented guest musicians sound natural and spontaneous: this is delightful.

22) The Rural Alberta Advantage Mended with Gold
Mended with Gold might be seen as a slightly idiosyncratic choice, and some may find Nils' voice overly nasal. Yet, far from being gentle Canadian folk, the RAA have amazing energy. aided by Paul Banwatt's uninhibited drumming. Their third album has a lusher production, and greater subtlety, a quality not always associated with this band.

23) Damien Rice My Favourite Faded Twisted Fantasy
It would be churlish to complain about the brevity of the eight tracks on this album after a wait of as many years, when that delicate, fragile voice is so sensitive. It’s been interpreted as a letter to his former bandmate and girlfriend Lisa Hannigan; about a recluse continuing to give love to someone now absent. The instrumentation is subtle, and even if the overall style not a radical departure from his early work, this is to be cherished for its beauty.

24) Wildbirds and Peacedrums Rhythm
This happy discovery came to me late in the year, but it’s daring, hypnotic and bold minimalism, centred on voices, snare drums, and cymbals. The Swedish couple’s sound is primeval, but Mariam Wallentin’s vocals are influenced by jazz and blues. The experiment undoubtedly pays off: by stripping back the textures so radically, you become entranced, surrendering to the rhythm. It may have been recorded in the studio, but it's easy to imagine you're part of a live experience. 

25) Electric Youth Innerworld
The Toronto Duo provides pure escapism into a lush fantasy world. Their debut album was brought to my attention through the song Real Hero, which appeared on the Drive soundtrack, and its electropop is a celebration of synths. Some may find the Canadian politeness too pervasive, but you can't argue with their gift for hooks.

26) Highasakite Silent Treatment
This uplifting Norwegian pop should appeals to fans of Of Monsters and Men, and won me over at Green Man in August. The stirring, imaginative instrumentation has an epic feel, but for me the appeal of this album is centred on Ingrid Helene Havik's pure voice.The lyrics are initially rather cryptic, but intended to be metaphorical. Occasionally I find the music slightly bombastic, and it's a little uneven, but the effect is joyous.

27) Delta Spirit Into The Wild
The San Diego band, now based in New York, owe something stylistically to U2 and Springsteen, as well as folk Americana. So Delta Spirit's fourth record isn't ground breaking, but has real energy and passion. It may sounds more commercial,but is brimming with emotion. The expansive sound has stadium sized aspirations and a spontaneous feel.

28) The Rosebuds Sand + Silence
 Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp are thoughtful, and in contrast to Delta Spirit, their sixth album sounds polished and tasteful, as expected from Justin Vernon's production. Sand + Silence isn't an album that surprises with ground breaking originality. Yet, it would be a mistake to overlook it, since the maturity and ear for melody is so satisying.

29) Sea Wolf Song Spells vol. 1 Cedarsmoke
Alex Church funded this stripped down folk album through Kickstarter: his acoustic guitar and closely miked vocals dominate. It's an unassuming for a Californian album; with a wistful, often melancholy quality. This autumnal creation also has poignant lyrics.

30) Grouper Ruins
Liz Harris is one of the most daring artists on this list with a decisively lo-fi album: there is nothing but stark piano chords, barely audible lyrics and ambient sounds here. She apparently recorded these haunting songs in a single take, and it can feel tentative, as the overwhelming sadness was almost too difficult to articulate. She's not afraid to use silence, and it's astonishingly intimate, documenting the pain of 'living in the remains of love'.

Honourable mentions
31) First Aid Kit Stay Gold
32) Old Crow Medicine Show Remedy
33) Fanfarlo Let's Go Extinct
34) Caribou Our Love
35) Adult Jazz Gist Is
36) Flight Facilities Down To Earth
37) Arthur Beatrice Working Out
38) Saint Saviour In the Seams
39) Banks Goddess
40) St Paul and the Broken Bones Half The City
41) Thom Yorke Tomorrow's Modern Boxes
42) The Antlers Familiars
43) Neulore Animal Evolve
44) Blonde Redhead Barragan
45) Angel Olson Burn Your Fire for No Witness
46) Hundred Waters The Moon Rang Like A Bell
47) Low Roar 0
48) Phantogram Voices
49) Wild Beasts Present Tense
50) Tom Hickox War, Peace and Diplomacy

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