31 Dec 2014

The List 2014

At the end of each year I make a list of the twenty albums I enjoyed the most. To be eligible, a record has to be of album length (at least ~30 mins), and contain entirely (or almost entirely) new material; live albums, cover records, and compilations are ineligible.

  1. Deru — 1979

I was introduced to Deru via his contributions to the Outliers: Volume 1 - Iceland project, in which his minimalist electronic soundscapes provided the perfect accompaniment to long, languorous shots of Iceland’s stark landscapes. Over the duration of an album the tone varies a little more, but retains a chill and a slight distance. I kept returning to this record to be present with it, simply because I like the colours it paints with and the patience with which it unfolds.

  1. Kiasmos — Kiasmos

Billed as Ólafur Arnalds’s electronica side-project, Kiasmos sounds pretty much as that description would lead you to believe. Built around the basis of Arnalds’s sweeping strings and intricate, sensitive piano patterns, the augmentation provided here by synths and drum machines simply serves to lend another texture to the sound. Sometimes there’s a switch to a pace Arnalds rarely achieves in his solo work, but the majority of this record poses no surprises. Regardless, I found myself enjoying this again and again.

  1. Thom Yorke — Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes

Released by some unusual method — as is now the usual — and instantly familiar-feeling to anyone who listened to Radiohead’s The King of Limbs (2011) or Atoms for Peace’s AMOK (2013), Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is nevertheless another fine set of glitchy, angsty, intricate clockworks wound up and let loose by a master craftsman and endlessly curious tinkerer. Particularly if you enjoyed the album versions of tracks from Yorke’s The Eraser (2006), before they morphed and grew slightly when Atoms for Peace came on board to play them live, you’ll feel right at home with this understated collection of modest but accomplished work.

  1. East India Youth — Total Strife Forever

A complete mystery to me upon first listen, William Doyle’s set of glittering, swimming electronica eventually coalesced into something I felt I could get my hands around. Conversely, I learned the best way to do that was simply to allow it to wash over me. The titular quartet could have been released as a standalone work, but surrounding those tracks with more tonally-varied pieces really serves to bring them into relief as the spine of the album but not its flesh. I’m not a huge fan of Doyle’s falsetto vocal (which creeps in a few times here and there and is underwhelming rather than wholly off-putting), but his ear for the melodic throughline to a complex miasma of sound is impressive throughout.

  1. Liars — Mess

No two Liars albums are the same, and in the shape of Mess they’ve released perhaps their best since the career high of Drum’s Not Dead (2006). Opener ‘Mask Maker’ seems like a deliberate attempt to forewarn the listener that they’re in for a rough ride, but if one can learn to lean into the swings and take the bumps there’s so much here to be infected by. The album’s best track ‘Mess on a Mission’ is perhaps the band’s best to date, not to mention the best theme tune for a non-existent, Warren Ellis-scripted, True Detective-on- amphetamines, HBO show I can imagine. Liars are talented at conjuring the sound of nightmares, and are not afraid of unleashing music that is at first seemingly incomprehensible. Learn to love it however, and you’ll find a lot to love.

  1. Tycho — Awake

I caught up with this album so, so late in the year and have a feeling that given time to blossom in my mind it may float further up this list. Quickly my favourite release on label-of-the-year contender Ghostly International, Awake is a stunning collection of sur-ambient tracks that swell and sweep along lines that quickly seem familiar and yet continue to grow in the mind with each listen. I can foresee this being a record I return to for quite a while to come; I’m already kicking myself a little for not picking it up upon release.

  1. Sisyphus — Sisyphus

I’m not even sure how I came across this record — perhaps via the Son Lux connection — but even on first listen I was fascinated by its variety and by how singular so many of its elements felt. Opening track ‘Calm it Down’ is doubtlessly one of my tracks of 2014, and Serengeti’s laid-back, self-assured flow was one of the discoveries of the year for me. The album as a whole is restlessly inventive - constantly trying on new styles, sometimes two or three within the space of a single track: soul, hip-hop, R&B, electronica - they’re all in the mix here, and the combination was consistently alluring to me. My favourite moment at the time of writing is on ‘Booty Call’: the delivery of the line “Im’a kiss you like a bubble in the brooks.” I don’t even need to know what that actually means.

  1. Aphex Twin — Syro

The last time Richard James put out an Aphex Twin album my interest in electronic music was very slight, but even then I knew the name and something of the reputation. Syro appeared amongst much fanfare in September, and hasn’t moved far down my ‘recently played’ list since. I used the term ‘restlessly inventive’ above to describe Sisyphus’s melange of styles, but it applies here too; I don’t think any two bars of Syro are identical; things are always shifting, different elements of a track taking momentary prominence and then being subverted or switched out for some other stem. Four months hasn’t scratched the surface of unlocking Syro in my mind, but there’s something special about a record that still feels ultimately unknowable after so much play.

  1. Manic Street Preachers — Futurology

At this point in their career it’s a wonder that the Manics are still able to surprise. But, whilst the vast majority of its component parts are drawn from elsewhere in their storied history, Futurology still manages to arrange the building-blocks into some wonderful new shapes. Billed as a poppier counterpart to last year’s Rewind the Film the album finds the band going straight ahead on some tracks (’Sex, Power, Love and Money’, ‘Between the Clock and the Bed’) but still finding plenty of room for introspection (‘Walk me to the Bridge’) and edgier-sounding fare. ‘The Next Jet to Leave Moscow’ could only have been written by a band old enough to harbour regrets; their willingness to spill them and work them through like this is admirable, and to our benefit. When the sums are totalled up this is the fourth in a run of great, and very different-feeling, albums from The Manics since 2009.

  1. Caribou — Our Love

After a while spent in its company Our Love resolves into a beautiful collection of bright, spacious electronica. I found myself returning to it as a default album for lightening an afternoon, or to run to in the evenings. Perfectly paced, meticulously crafted rhythms are brought to life by an inventive instrumental palate that kept me guessing until it crept into my head completely. Album highlight ‘Second Chance’ takes a gamble on the kind of vocal that commonly renders tracks skippable for me, but for some indiscernible reason here makes it the song I returned to most often. That’s just one of a thousand impeccable decisions made by Dan Snaith in his production of a record that took up root on the brighter end of my electronica spectrum and stayed firmly planted through the darker months.

  1. The Acid — Liminal

‘Liminal’ is one of my favourite words, and one I perhaps over-used in poetry seminars. It’s also a word I apply mentally to certain albums and pieces of music. Deftones’ White Pony (2000) feels that way to me, as does OK Computer (1997) for some reason. The Acid (of whom the only member I was previously familiar with is Adam Freeland) have chosen a good title for their debut LP however: the music on Liminal emerges and grows organically, fades, shifts, and evokes powerfully its own sense of place.

‘Creeper’ is propulsive and straining at itself to break free. ‘Basic Instinct’ is understated and makes good use of the vocal effect the record’s production relies on throughout to mask a relatively slight range. I found that with this record, perhaps because it is so successful in evoking a particular mood, I had to be in the right mood to play it - but when that mood hit there was little better than spending time inside the world it builds.

  1. Nothing — Guilty Of Everything

The closest stylistic analogue for what Nothing are doing on their debut is shoegaze, but various elements of their sound push at and perhaps tear the edges of that envelope. Whilst tracks like ‘Endlessly’ are firmly within the tradition of My Bloody Valentine et al, ‘Get Well’ is too rhythmic and danceable, and ‘Somersault’ is closer to something from Hope of the States’ The Lost Riots (2004).

Regardless, the production of the record understands well what the band’s ambition is: to flood the listener’s head with glorious, monochrome noise so that they feel subsumed by and imbued with it.

  1. Taylor McFerrin — Early Riser

For some reason I didn’t listen to much jazz this year (Otis Brown III’s The Thought of You perhaps the best jazz qua jazz LP I spent any significant time with), and even this is borderline. McFerrin’s modus operandi is to interweave soulful, understated electronica through elements of jazz (‘4am’, ‘Already There’), R&B (‘The Antidote’), and back into soul itself (opener, and entrant on the track-of-the-year shortlist, ‘Postpartum’). Something about the resulting mix (perhaps the way it moves seamlessly from one sound to another) really worked for me. On weekend mornings and walks into work it was a pleasure to be accompanied by this album which, in all its forms, suffuses light and good feeling.

  1. Run The Jewels — Run The Jewels 2

Hip-hop didn’t come through for me this year either. The new Common album didn’t get close to the hype, the long-awaited Wu Tang Clan LP had its moments but was never going to be a classic, and the same goes for The Roots’ …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. Kanye took a year off, Jay-Z took a year off, who knows if Yasiin Bey / Mos Def is working on anything?

Anyway, all of which set the stage for something new and Run The Jewels took full advantage. El-P is a decent rapper and a flat-out great beat-maker. With this record following up 2013’s R.A.P. Music Killer Mike is making a play for Kanye’s crown, with a knack for twisted, quotable, clever lyrics and an incredible, relaxed flow that drives the record.

The album is obviously conceived as a whole - it wouldn’t surprise me to find that El-P considered the sequencing as carefully as any individual beat. ‘Jeapordy’ comes with no warning, things build on ‘Oh My Darling Don’t Cry’ and when the beat drops on ‘Blockbuster Night Part 1’ I just about lose it each time. But then it goes up another level on ‘Close Your Eyes’, which also happens to feature Zach de la Rocha’s best verse since he stepped out for Saul Williams in 2004.

  1. The New Pornographers — Brill Bruisers

I was a big fan of Twin Cinema (2005) but haven’t exactly flipped for the two New Pornographers records between then and now. Brill Bruisers, however, is an unqualified triumph. The opening track is bombastic and sing-along whilst also proving a great showcase for the band’s huge sound. I love the way ‘Champions of Red Wine’ shimmers and builds, and ‘War on the East Coast’ pulls a bait and switch by flipping from dirge to glam in the blink of an eye.

Carl Newman refers to Brill Bruisers as “a celebration record” and certainly it sticks to the brighter, more upbeat end of the band’s spectrum. The production is outstanding, and having several male and female vocalists allows for a dialogue and a lyrical dynamic that works here as it does for Arcade Fire. Take for example album best ‘Born With A Sound’, which could easily find a home on The Suburbs: when Amber Webber sings “I want you all of the time” by herself a shiver runs through me without fail.

  1. Submerse — Slow Waves

With the majority of what I listen to these days falling somewhere on the electronica spectrum, Submerse managed to pinpoint precisely where my head is with this stuff at the moment. Lushly-produced, infinitely warm soundscapes, and wonderfully balanced instrumentation helped make this probably my most-played album of 2014.

Other plaudits headed Slow Waves’s way include best album cover of the year and best opening track in the form of the stunning ’Let’s Never Come Back Here Again’. Other highlights include the alluring wash of ‘Snorlax’ and ‘VHS.chords’, which weaves circa–8-bit videogame sound effects subtly through its ebb and flow. I’ve been struggling to pinpoint precisely what it is that Rob Orme (aka Submerse) does so well, and I think the key to this sound is the perfect balance of organic-seeming electronica: there’s nothing cold here, it all feels very much as though each of its musical capillaries is pulsing with warmth.

  1. Spoon — They Want My Soul

The narrative around the release of this record was all too concerned with the longevity of the band’s career. As someone with — for better or worse — limited prior connection with Spoon, I was able to look at the album objectively and found it to be nothing less or more complicated than a great rock record.

It’s a cleverly sequenced album: ‘Rent I Pay’ is a statement of intent to open with, ‘Inside Out’ is more ruminative, slightly poppier, and ‘Rainy Taxi’ serves to display a cutting edge. Most of these 10 tracks move between moods throughout their runtime, as though the band have too many great ideas for one album. Nothing feels forced or poorly-executed however - it’s clear without knowing the back catalogue that this is a group of musicians very assured in what they’re making.

The warm, just-fuzzy-enough production is outstanding, and is tweaked masterfully to fit around each song just perfectly. I’ll be playing the title track and the bombastic, anthem to bravery ’Let Me Be Mine’ for a long while to come - as well as most of the rest of the album I should think.

  1. SBTRKT — Wonder Where We’ll Land

Previous to this year my only knowledge of SBTRKT was via a couple of (pretty great) Radiohead remixes (of ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ & ‘Lotus Flower’). The path to changing that was an odd one: I picked up the single ’NEW DORP. NEW YORK’ via Ezra Koenig’s Twitter, and liked but didn’t love it. That was enough to get me to tune into the album via Rdio, and soon after I had purchased it and was playing a couple of tracks more-or-less daily. There’s a great variety of styles on display over the generous 15 track running order, but I started to get even more out of the record when it clicked for me that it had been built for consumption as a whole.

‘The Light’ sounds like it belongs on a sexier version of Hail To The Thief; ’Temporary View’ — tinged with R&B — is plaintive and uplifting; ‘Higher’ features Raury delivering probably my favourite hip-hop vocal performance of the year.

For whatever reason even the outlets I’m usually fairly in sync with on music were relatively down on this record (Pitchfork: 55%; Resident Advisor: 5/10). That’s a puzzle to me as I continue to find new reasons to love a huge, warm album in which it’s a pleasure to get lost for a while.

  1. St. Vincent — St. Vincent

I really liked Annie Clark’s 2009 album Actor, but this record quickly inspired a whole new level of devotion. That was the case right from the release of ‘Digital Witness’ on the sixth day of the year - a track I’m still playing regularly 12 months later and have not grown the slightest bit tired of.

‘Birth in Reverse’ is all angular guitar and too-deep grooves, ‘Bring Me Your Loves’ makes something astounding out of the under-practiced sub-genre of lament-as-anthem. But it’s ‘Digital Witness’ that still rings the clearest for me as the album’s centrepiece: in tone and subject matter a kissing-cousin to much of Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, and just as stirring to each the heart, head, and hips.

  1. Death From Above 1979 — The Physical World

I still remember the day in 2006 when I read the post on DFA1979’s website in which Jesse Keller used those fateful words: “We decided to stop doing the band…”. That was two years after having released the singularly powerful You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine and thereby shifting my whole conception of how much noise two people could make, as well as altering the topography of the post-punk landscape.

It’s been a long decade since that incredible debut, and the mere existence of this second record is something like a miracle; that it lives up to the standard of the first record is a second-order miracle; and that it also finds ways to evolve the band’s unmistakable sound without sacrificing its authenticity or its power is a kind of compound triptych miracle.

(As an aside, a neat accompaniment to the album was also released this year in the form of Eva Michon’s insightful, up-close-and-personal doc Life After Death From Above 1979, which chronicles the tour cycle of the first record, the falling apart, and the reconstitution of the band.)

‘Right On, Frankenstein!’ & ‘The Physical World’ are my favourite tracks here, but the whole thing is pretty outstanding from start to finish. Brutal, danceable, chantable, and full of great hooks - I couldn’t be happier to have DFA1979 back in the world.

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