Yes! It’s that time of the year. The time of “Best lists". Books, films, TV and, of course, music.
I have already seen a few Best Albums lists - they seem to appear earlier every year - and was pleased to see some of my favourites included, disappointed when others didn’t make it.
So I thought I’d compile my own.
I’m not a music expert and I’m not a critic, nor I pretend to be a music writer. I’m just a music fan and a listener and my choices are purely subjective, my notes personal observations.
I picked the twenty albums released this year that I loved and played the most in the past twelve months.
Perhaps you’ll agree on some, disagree on others, argue the inclusion of certain records, lament the omissions of a few titles. In any case, feel free to leave a comment.
Here we go!
20. East India Youth – TOTAL STRIFE FOREVER
In one word: EXPERIMENTAL
Highlights: Dripping Down; Heaven How long; Looking for Someone
East India Youth is the stage name for 23 year old Bournemouth born William Doyle. After a few years playing in indie outfit Doyle and the Fourfathers, he went solo to pursue his own musical interest and released this Mercury Prize nominated debut album, a largely experimental affair interspersed with sparkling moments of electronic pop.
East India Youth - Dripping Down
19. Nick Mulvey – FIRST MIND
In one word: ACOUSTIC
Highlights: Cucurucu; Juramidam; Meet me There
Singer songwriter Nick Mulvey emerged this year with “First Mind”. Generally slow paced an introspective, the album really comes to life thanks to some more upbeat, catchy moments, like the single Cucurucu, and exotic, atmospheric compositions like Juramidam.
Nick Mulvey - Cucurucu
18. Paolo Nutini – CAUSTIC LOVE
In one word: SOULFUL
Highlights: Scream (Funk My Life Up); Let Me Down Easy; One Day; Iron Sky
I never really gave much time to Paolo Nutini and his inoffensive pop, until this year he hit me with “Caustic Love”, a raw soul album that owed more to Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding and best suited his powerful, raspy voice. Not all the tracks on the album are of the same quality, but there are enough highs to put the album in this list. A pleasant surprise.
Paolo Nutini - Let Me Down Easy
17. The Black Keys – TURN BLUE
In one word: BLUESY
Highlights: Weight of Love; Turn Blue; Fever; Gotta Get Away
The latest offering from The Black Keys took me a few listens to fully get into, and while this is not their best work to date, there’s enough here to like. The album is themed around Dan Auerbach’s recent divorce and the general feel is gloomy and a tad misogynistic. There are some 70s vibes going on in the opening track, Weight of Love – Pink Floydian in places – while the leading single, Fever, has a catchy chorus. But my favourite track is the last one, Gotta Get Away, an upbeat rock’n’roll stomp that gets things going just as the album ends. Perhaps a hook to the next release? Danger Mouse co-produces.
The Black Keys - Gotta Get Away
16. Eels – THE CAUTIONARY TALES OF MARK OLIVER EVERETT
In one word: INTIMATE
Highlights: Lockdown Hurricane; Where I’m From; Mistakes of My Youth
Mark Everett has never been especially cheerful, but with this record he really puts his soul on a plate and offers it to the world. However, the melancholy and sadness of “Cautionary Tales” is tempered by maturity, regrets made less bitter by lessons learned, as the album opens with Where I’m At and closes with Where I’m Going. Beautiful strings arrangements enrich the compositions – standout track for me is Lockdown Hurricane – softening the harshness of Everett’s raspy voice. After Where I’m From, a gentle, bouncy ballad, the album takes a bit of a dip, but rises again with Mistakes of My Youth, which really sums up the mood of the record.
Eels - Where I'm From
15. Gruff Rhys – AMERICAN INTERIOR
In one word: RETRO
Highlights: American Interior; Liberty (Is Where We’ll Be); Year of the Dog/Tiger’s Tale
Gruff Rhys - better known as the Super Furry Animals’ frontman – embarks on a journey through America’s landscape retracing the steps of ancestor John Evans, who, in 1792, travelled from Wales to the American wilderness in search of a lost Welsh-speaking tribe of Native-Americans. The result is this delightful musical diary of both the XVIII century adventure, and the soul searching trip in contemporary America, moving from atmospheric pop to retro melodies, country guitars and ethnic beats.
Gruff Rhys - Liberty (Is Where We’ll Be)
14. The Horrors – LUMINOUS
In one word: SPACEY
Highlights: So Now You Know; Falling Star; I See You
The Horrors have come a long way from their garage-punk roots. 2011 Skying saw them branching out into psychedelia and shoe gazing, and Luminous picks up where Skying left off. Although the album doesn’t offer much in terms of innovation, the band is proving strong, consolidating their own style in an evolutionary trajectory. This is well crafted electronic-pop, bathed in dreamy synths, shimmering guitars and a throbbing rhythm section, with retro 80s sound gusto.
The Horrors - So Now You Know
13. Future Islands – SINGLES
In one word: UPLIFTING
Highlights: Season (Waiting On You); Back In The Tall Grass; A Dream of You and Me
2014 saw a resurgence of synth-pop, and, after years playing the circuit, Baltimore based Future Islands finally got their big break with their fourth album, “Singles”. Whether the rise has been aided by their by now notorious intense appearance on Letterman – where they performed Season (Waiting On You) – remains an open question, but “Singles” certainly has its own merits as a very enjoyable record of uplifting, catchy songs, designed, as the title of the album suggests, to have stand-alone appeal.
Future Islands - Back in the Tall Grass
12. Warpaint – WARPAINT
In one word: SUMPTUOUS
Highlights: Keep It Healthy; Love is to Die; Biggy; Son
Warpaint are an all-female band from California and this self titled album is their second. Written as a collaborative piece by all members of the band, it is an elegant, evocative record of broody ambience rock in which to immerse yourself with abandonment, letting the music carry you on its richly emotional waves.
Warpaint - Love is to Die
11. St Vincent – ST VINCENT
In one word: INVENTIVE
Highights: Digital Witness; I Prefer Your Love; Severed Crossed Fingers
St Vicent, a.k.a. Annie Clark, is one of the most interesting artists to have emerged from the Alt-music scene of the last five-six years. Clark described the album – her fourth – as ‘a party record you could play at a funeral’. There is definitely a dark streak running through the songs, observations of contemporary life – Digital Witness – and personal notes that touch on the poignant – I Prefer Your Love, written about her relationship with her mother. It would be easy to draw comparisons with Talking Heads, Thomas Dolby, Devo, Kate Bush, but Clark has her own unique style and voice, and “St Vincent” definitely deserves the many praises that greeted it on its release.
St Vincent - Digital Witness
10. Damon Albarn – EVERYDAY ROBOTS
In one word: INTROSPECTIVE
Highlights: Everyday Robots; Hostiles; Lonely Press Play; Mr Tembo; Heavy Seas of Love
“Everyday Robots” is Damon Albarn’s first post-Blur, post-Gorillaz, post-The Good the Bad & the Queen proper solo album and he went for ‘personal’. Co-produced with Russell Richards and Brian Eno, the album is a collage of meditative songs about Albarn’s life, his journey and his views on the world around him. It’s a slow-paced record of moody pieces and beautiful melodies. The most upbeat moment comes courtesy of African influenced Mr Tembo, one of my favourites tracks for the summer, while Heavy Seas of Love closes the album with a slightly anthemic flavour.
Damon Albarn - Mr Tembo
9. Thurston Moore – THE BEST DAY
In one word: HONEST
Highlights: Forevermore; The Best Day; Detonation; Germs Burn
2011 saw the demise of Sonic Youth following a very public divorce between guitarist Thurston Moore and bass player Kim Gordon. Three years later and with the dust settled, Moore finally speaks about the experience, not with bitterness or desire for revenge, but honesty. “The Best Day” is personal and measured, with a positive outlook towards the future. Aided by a new band of collaborators – James Stewards of Nought, Debbie Googe of My Bloody Valentine and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth – Moore returns to his roots (after acoustic Beck produced “Demolished Thoughts”) with all the melodic, dissonant, experimental flair found in his former seminal band’s work, proving that there’s still creative life at 56.
Thurston Moore - The Best Day
8. Jack White – LAZARETTO
In one word: ROCKING
Highlights: Lazaretto; Temporary Ground; Would You Fight For My Love; Alone In My Home
Jack White continues his rise as rock-icon of our time with his second post-White Stripes solo album, “Lazaretto”. Partly inspired by old notes and poems White wrote as a teenager and partly by his bitter divorce from model Karen Elson, “Lazaretto” travels between rage and heartache, alternating high-octane moments that allow White to let rip and shred on his guitar – Lazaretto, The Black Bat Liquorice - and more mellow, melancholic country flavoured tracks like Temporary Ground and Entitlement. Among the many collaborators on the record, special mention to Lillie Mae Rische, which provides beautiful backing vocals and fiddle work to a few of the tracks.
Jack White - Entitlement (Acoustic Version)
7. Bombay Bicycle Club – SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW
In one word: KALEIDOSCOPIC
Highlights: It’s Alright Now; Feel; So Long, See You Tomorrow
Bombay Bicycle Club are an odd band. It feels as if they don't know exactly where to fit in. When I first encountered them four years ago with "Flaws", they sounded like a gentle acoustic folk band. In 2012, with "A Different Kind of Fix", they became a little too average indie-rock guitar band for my taste. Probably why I kind of dismissed their new album, at first. But I was wrong. They have changed skin yet again and moved into electronic psychedelic territory. “So Long, See You Tomorrow” is a joyful album of shades and colours, shimmering pop (It’s Alright Now, Luna), dance electronica (Carry Me), heartfelt ballads (Home By Now, So Long, See You Tomorrow), and exotic rhythms (Feel).
Bombay Bicycle Club - It's Alright Now
6. Ryan Adams – RYAN ADAMS
In one word: AMERICANA
Highlights: Trouble; Am I Safe; My Wrecking Ball; Let Go
Possibly more than in previous work, Ryan Adams’ latest album draws heavily from American rock tradition, resonating with echoes of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and the Eagles, even his Canadian (almost) name-sake pre-Robin Hood “Reckless” Bryan Adams – check the font used on the album cover, a little too much of a coincidence. Adams’ (Ryan, that is) voice infuses this collection of songs with all the usual pathos and emotional flair. Sounds like a classic on first listen.
Ryan Adams - My Wrecking Ball (Live)
5. Hollie Cook – TWICE
In one word: SUMMERY
Highlights: Ari Up; Postman; Superfast; Twice
Hollie Cook may be the daughter of Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook, but her music shares nothing of her father’s punk roots, opting instead for her mother’s West Indies heritage. Her self titled debut album, released in 2011, was a melodic, pretty record of dub and reggae. Her second offering continues in that vein, but “Twice” is definitely a step forward, showing more mature and sophisticated song writing and arrangements, added depth courtesy of strings perfectly blending with Hollie’s pleasant (if not remarkable) voice. The album was released in May and made for the perfect soundtrack to summer days.
Hollie Cook - Twice
4. Temples – SUN STRUCTURES
In one word: PSYCHEDELIC
Highlights: Shelter Song; Keep In The Dark; Mesmerise; Colours To Life
From the first notes of the opening track, Shelter Song, Temples set their musical agenda: psychedelic pop that harks back to sixties melodies and early seventies Glam-Rock. For this reason, they have been at times criticized for not adding much to the musical pot, sticking with a well tried and tested formula. Perhaps. But it works and “Sun Structures” has been one of the highlights of 2014 for me, catchy, bright and impossibly infectious.
Temples - Shelter Song
3. First Aid Kit – STAY GOLD
In one word: GORGEOUS
Highlights: Silver Lining; Master Pretender; Stay Gold; Heaven Knows; A Long Time Ago
Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit – sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg – may only be 24 and 21 respectively, but “Stay Gold” is their third album in almost as many years.The girls have chewed and digested a great deal of folk and country classics, and with broader instrumentation and rich arrangements, pedal steel guitars, strings and pianos, the album is a step up from the simple folk feel of “The Lion’s Roar”. The songs soar with gorgeous melodies and vocal harmonies. Yet, for all the mentions of New York City and Chicago, road trips, motels and states travel, there is an inescapable Nordic melancholy permeating the music and Johanna and Klara’s voices. One of my favourite records this year.
First Aid Kit - Stay Gold
2. The War on Drugs – LOST IN A DREAM
In one word: EMOTIONAL
Highlights: Under the Pressure, Red Eyes, An Ocean In Between the Waves; Eyes in the Wind, Lost In A Dream
To my shame, I had not heard of The War on Drugs before discovering “Lost in a Dream”, but now that I have found them, they are here to stay. This is an album to savour and absorb on repeat listens, as with every play there’s a new detail, nuance, note to discover and appreciate. It really is a thing of beauty. And though the lyrical content speaks of depression, loneliness and isolation, the music is soaring and uplifting, a juxtaposition that is as real as life itself and gives the album a universal, enduring appeal. Upbeat moments – Under the Pressure, Red Eye – give way to gentle reflective pieces – Eyes to the Wind, Lost in A Dream – and picking a standout song is near impossible.
The War on Drugs - Eyes to the Wind
1. Beck – MORNING PHASE
In one word: SHIMMERING
Highlights: Morning; Heart is a Drum; Blue Moon; Wave; Blackbird Chain; Waking Light
One morning, Beck Hansen woke up, went for a walk on the beach, captured the shimmering light of daybreak, went back to his studio and turned that light into music. Okay, maybe that didn’t happen, but none the less, that is what “Morning Phase” sounds like. Coming six years after Beck’s previous album – “Modern Guilt” – and announced as a companion piece to Beck’s critically acclaimed 2002 “Sea Change”, “Morning Phase” finds Beck in contemplative mood. ‘Woke up this morning/from a long night in the storm’ Beck sings in opening Morning, setting the tone of the record. There’s a recurrent theme of emerging from darkness and finding yourself somewhere unplanned or unforeseen, when ‘life picks you up and puts you over there’, as Beck described it once, when perspective and priorities shift and change. Wave, the orchestral sumptuous centrepiece, perfectly captures this feeling, ‘If I surrender and I don’t fight this wave/I won’t go under/I’ll only be carried away’. The melancholic introspection of the album glows with a sense of hope, culminating in the final track, Waking Light. Nine months after its release, I still haven’t grown tired of this beautiful album and am close to wearing out my CD. Definitely my favourite of the year and a hard one to beat!
Beck - Morning