Sunday, 14 December 2014

My Favourite Albums of 2014: Part 1

2014 has been full of musical memories for me. From Bruce Springsteen in an Australian winery to Jason Isbell at Gorilla getting the loudest most appreciative reception I've ever heard at a club sized gig. From breaking the 900 mark on my 1001 albums challenge to volunteering at the Hooked On Music results event.
I adore music and I'm always on the lookout for something new to discover, so I always love "End of Year List" season. Especially now that my favourite music magazine The Fly has closed down, I really appreciate excellent end of year round ups like those from Piccadilly Records and American Songwriter that help me catch up on anything interesting that's previously escaped my attention.

Of course, as usual, I thought I'd stick my oar in and mention the music I enjoyed over the past twelve months. These are the albums that I don't necessarily feel are the best ten records of the year, just the ones I've gained the most personal enjoyment out of. As always, I'll split this in two, I'll talk about my favourite five in my next entry. Before I kick things off, here are some albums that didn't quite make the cut but I couldn't go without mentioning.

Honourable Mentions

  • Hiss Golden Messenger - Lateness Of Dancers: Wonderfully atmospheric folk from North Carolina's MC Taylor and Scott Hirsch. A record of marvellous warmth and immersion, it comes out of the gates with its best song, "Lucia", a beautifully arranged song with echoes of Dylan's "Tangled Up In Blue" in its chorus.
  • The Juan McLean - In A Dream: Funky, punky dance from the DFA veteran, now featuring LCD Soundsystem alumnus Nancy Whang in a permanent role. New Order meets Italo-disco. 
  • Royal Blood - Royal Blood: The fastest selling rock debut in years, Royal Blood have fired an important shot in rock's attempt to reclaim Top 40 radio after the era of "landfill indie". The two piece from Brighton are raucous and riff heavy, filled with the spirit of Zeppelin and louder than what you think two people would be capable of. "Come On Over" and "Little Monster" are two of the stand out singles of the year.
  • Sturgill Simpson - Metamodern Sounds In Country Music: Only of the most imaginative voices in country I've heard in a long time. Simpson's voice sounds like Willie Nelson and Glen Campbell somehow had a secret love child, singing about attempting to come out of his drug fuelled haze with something wonderful like "Turtles All The Way Down" and "Long White Line".
So Bruce had a busy year. High Hopes was really a place for previously homeless songs to go, so it didn't quite have the coherence of some of his other albums (and no, Rolling Stone, it certainly wasn't the second best album released all year!) but this will always remind me of Australia. Plus there were still some real gems here.
The Celtic feel to "This Is Your Sword" reminiscent of previous album Wrecking Ball, the knock-about cheer of "Frankie Fell In Love" (who can resist a song that talks of "Einstein and Shakespeare, sittin' having a beer"?) and the sparse, touching version of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" are all excellent.  But head and shoulders above everything is the beautiful "Hunter Of Invisible Game", a brilliant post-apocalyptic ballad that really capture that feeling of chasing something intangible, hoping things turn your way.

The follow up EP American Beauty will also hold a dear place in my heart as my first ever purchase at a Record Store Day, the quietly seething "Hey Blue Eyes" being the highlight.

OK then, on with the countdown!

10. Interpol - El Pintor

The past few years have been frustrating for an Interpol fan. 2010's eponymous album chased its own tail far too much and drove uber-cool bassist Carlos D away in boredom. Such behaviour only encouraged bollocks opinions like "Murgh they haven't done anything good since Turn On The Bright Lights" from people who seem to forget that some of their best singles came from Antics.

In fact, El Pintor (notice the anagram) puts this listener immediately in mind of Antics with its pace and how most songs are arranged to sound like singles.

It's hard to imagine a better statement of intent for your comeback than lead single and album opener "All The Rage Back Home", sounding livelier than anything from their previous album. Equally propulsive is the sparky "Anywhere", while even relatively gentler songs like "My Desire" culminate in some great guitar work. Singer Paul Banks took over bass duties when Carlos left, and he does a great job of keeping the flow of the song going without overshadowing the focal guitar play, such as on the aforementioned "My Desire" and the terrific "Everything Is Wrong". Another song that makes the future of the band seem very promising is "Tidal Wave", a song that rumbles along before washing over you like its namesake.

After years of little or poor direction, it seems like Interpol have got their shit back together, which is a good thing for all of us.

Download: "All The Rage Back Home", "Everything Is Wrong", "Tidal Wave"

9. Lydia Loveless - Somewhere Else

It's a shame Lydia Loveless has seemed to escape most people's attention on their end of year lists. I know there are lots of strong female acts in country these days but Lydia does more than enough to warrant attention, with her use of louder arrangements on her songs infusing a punk edge to her sound kind of like how Frank Turner has somehow managed to apply punk principles to folk.

Her fiery voice is reminiscent of a young Lucinda Williams or Natalie Maines, and further enhances the (already strong) character of her songs. She knows when to sing with a sense of being wronged (the title track) and coming to terms with past mistakes such as on  "Chris Issak", which contains the bluntly confessional line "When I was seventeen I'd follow you around with my head jammed way up your ass".

The more carnal her subject matter, the more she seems to excel. "To Love Somebody" ("Oh honey, let me melt in your mouth tonight"), "Wine Lips" ("Go tell your momma that my French has finally improved") all talk of desire to varying degree of subtlety, only for the excellent singalong "Head" to dispose of subtlety or pretence entirely. Whatever the subject there's a rawness to her delivery and wording that is truly refreshing, and this is reflected most in the heartbreaking "Everything's Gone" ("Well, I swore I’d never be this bitter again; But some years have passed... I thought I'd be OK without a home if I just had grace") and the title track ("I waved the flag for the home team too long; Then again, things ain’t looking too good on the other side").
A standout voice in country music today.

Download: "Wine Lips", "Head", "Somewhere Else"

8. Elbow - The Take Off And Landing Of Everything

Elbow have long been favourites of mine. Since breakthrough album The Seldom Seen Kid the band have worked hard to tread the fine line required not to just ape "One Day Like This", and with perhaps the exception of "New York Morning" they succeed in droves here.

Taking inspiration stylistically from first album Asleep In The Back, there's a more experimental feel to proceedings here. Looking backwards to move forwards doesn't always yield worthy results, but this approach has certainly worked here. In the nostalgic "My Sad Captains" the band have unearthed another moment that makes you cherish those amongst you, while the skittish "Charge" opens up a whole new direction for the band. The scratchy, minimal guitars work in tandem with Guy Garvey's bitter lyrics ("And Glory be, these fuckers are ignoring me") bemoaning his advancing years ("I'm from another century") and living in fear of what he could become ("I am the die hard with an empty dance card propping up a young bar").

Indeed there is a lot of soul searching on this record, most likely prompted by Guy coming out of a long term relationship. The lyrics are littered with talk of past love: "While three chambers of my heart beat true and strong with love for another; The fourth is yours forever" ("This Blue World"), "She and I won't find another me and her" ("Honey Sun"). It is the title track that makes the most of this heartache though. The horns at the start feel like a call to take flight, and the vocal harmonies as the song reaches its climax are an utter delight, as the lyrics in between seem to indicate there's an acceptance from both parties that it's time to move on ("Patiently listen as dull reminiscences fall from my jaw in a jumble again", "Leaving your lips as we took to the sky").
More, please.

Download: "Charge", "My Sad Captains", "The Take Off And Landing Of Everything"

7. Bob Mould - Beauty & Ruin

This is the crown jewel of what's been a great year for mega-indie label Merge (which also released ace albums by Hiss Golden Messenger and Ex-Hex amongst others) as former Sugar and Husker Du singer Bob Mould delivers a blistering pop rocker.

A man with Mould's legacy might be tempted to feel burdened or beholden by his previous work, but certainly neither of these appear to be the case here. The opening slow burning dirge of "Low Season" morphs into the belting "Little Glass Pill" in a terrific opening sequence. It may or may not be a Matrix analogy, but either way its conclusion should prepare you to take a trip down the rabbit hole Alice, and expect it to be at full throttle too.

The break neck "Kid With The Crooked Face" and "Hey, Mr. Grey" sees him fly through what he made famous with Husker Du without any inhibition, while taking a look at his most famous work with Sugar and deciding "You know what? I can top that" has lead to arguably the year's best single in "I Don't Know You Anymore". It's exactly what he does best - thoroughly irresistible, tremendously catchy and a total sugar rush with a bittersweet reflective edge to it. That reflective outlook also informs other standout moments on the album such as the masterful "The War" and the inspired "Fire In The City" (complete with "Everlong" style elongated riffs at the final bridge).
An utter delight.

Download: "I Don't Know You Any More", "The War", "Fire In The City"

6. Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams

Usually it really bugs me when an artist releases an eponymous album midway through their careers, but in this case it feels pretty apt, as if Ryan has opened up and gone through a rejuvenation. Much like Jenny Lewis has done on The Voyager (which he produced, and is another treat), Adams seems to have taken stock and taken a concise attitude in how to move forward with their sound.

It was certainly enough to catch my attention and bring me to this album. I've never really felt like I've been on Ryan's wavelength but hearing "Gimme Something Good" on the radio this summer had my ears burning. I didn't believe it was him at first, it was so loose and immediately gratifying, with the highly sonorous riffs coming out of his guitar feeling like a beacon of light  cutting through the fog of his other material.

Much of the formula of "Gimme Something Good" is carried over to the album itself. The big guitar sound which comes from drawing something more considered and emotive out of devices considered out of fashion by some is littered everywhere (and is also well illustrated in his version of Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is"). They ring out like alarms on "Stay With Me", pulse with absolute menace on "I Just Might" and jangle resignedly on "Tired Of Giving Up". Although having said that, acoustic track "My Wrecking Ball" is also one of the album's biggest delights.
The lyrics are pared down to bare essentials, "Am I Safe" ("Every day my heart beats like a stone; Carries me away into the undertow") and "Trouble" ("Seven years bad luck is better than none") are perhaps the best at utilising immediacy to betray their subject's paranoia.

I think in terms of music this could be my "gateway drug" in appreciating Adams' work. An honest and rewarding listen.

Download: "Trouble", "My Wrecking Ball", "Feels Like Fire"

Keep your eyes peeled for part two soon!