Music Picks of 2014
It feels like 2014 was a fast year for music. Lots of new releases, from new and established artists. These are just my recommendations from the past year.
This isn’t an objective list, nor do I profess to have good taste. I’ve listened to a lot of albums this year, and these are the releases that I reccomend the most out of those. No special ranking, though I do have an album and EP that I recommend above the others – a sort of ‘best of’.
Pretty much all of these albums are on Spotify (click the album art for the link), but if there is anything you can’t find or isn’t available in your country, drop me a line.
Flying Lotus You’re Dead!
It’s 2014, and not only is a jazz fusion album being released, it’s being released by a popular contemporary electronic musician, and I think this release really captures the essence of 2014 for me – speed. At 19 tracks long, but clocking in at just shy of 40 minutes, You’re Dead! proceeds at a quick pace through FlyLo’s exploration of death. Perhaps my favourite thing about this release is its sheer coheisveness – one track flows into the next seamlessly, which is a feat considering just how electic the tracks are. With features from jazz legend Herbie Hancock to hip-hop wünderkind Kendrick Lamar, You’re Dead! is one of the most engaging (and hardest to classify) albums released in 2014.
Recommended tracks: Never Catch Me, Coronus, the Terminator.
Elbow The Take Off And Landing Of Everything
The boys from Bury are back with an album that is somewhat of a departure from their previous release, Build A Rocket Boys. Gone is the indie-by-numbers feel where at times it was trying a little too hard to be quaint, and returns the chamber-pop-esque atmosphere from their earlier Cast of Thousands. Garvey’s voice is still as soulful as it ever was, and coupled with the slow, almost rippling melodies, the album is perfect for those dreary Sunday afternoons.
Recommended tracks: Charge, My Sad Captains, Honey Sun.
Alexandre Desplat The Grand Budapest Hotel
Yes, it’s a film score, but it stands extremely well on its own. It’s a mesh of European musical styles, from Vivaldi (Concerto for Lute and Plucked Strings) to Russian folk songs, crafted in a way that breaks down the traditional barriers between high and low musical culture. Starting with a light and cheery introduction, with plucked strings giving rise to the feeling of ambling through crisp alpine snow, the sound takes an ominous turn. The light strings are replaced with military precussion and haunting church organs, soon joined by the London Voices – an all male choir. Much like film it was written for, this isn’t for everyone, but absolutely worth a listen.
Recommended tracks: Schloss Lutz Overture, J.G. Jopling, Private Inquiry Agent.
Gemma Hayes Bones + Longing
Bones + Longing opens up with ‘Laughter’ – a reimagining of a track from Hayes’ 2011 release Let It Break. Covering yourself is a huge gamble – recycling can be indicative that the creative flame has died out. This is not the case for Hayes, as gone are the dreary pop melodies of the old, and in with shoegaze guitar and fleeting synths. It’s an introspective album, almost selfish, with songs written for first born and loves lost, but that makes it accessible – the themes covered affect us all. A pleasant departure from the overly-sweet ballads that have taken hold in pop in recent times.
Recommended tracks: Laughter, Dreamt Your Were Fine, To Be Your Honey
Paws Youth Culture Forever
Punk isn’t dead for the Glaswegian three-piece, who channel it through layers of distoration and melody to arrive at their signature sound – part homage to 90s indie, part groundbreaking noise pop. This release is unashamedly one of my favourites from 2014, with downbeat lyrics juxtaposed with upbeat instrumentation, with a sheen of crackling noise over the tracks. From the anthemic ‘Tongues’ to the almost sludge ‘War Cry’, Youth Culture Forever is not a perfect record, but it comes damn close to achieving everything it set out to do.
Recommended tracks: Tongues, Alone, War Cry.
DELS Petals Have Fallen
This album features some of the best newcomers to UK music, with Kwes producing ‘RGB’, Tirzah on the closing track ‘Petals Have Fallen’ and Elan Tamara on ‘You Live In My Head’. Designer/MC Kieren Gallear a.k.a. DELS speaks his piece with his signature lazy-but-straightforward flow over minimalist beats, often introspective, touching on themes like loss and lonliness. Even on tracks like ‘Pack of Wolves’ and ‘Lost for Words’, with pounding precussion and deep bass, DELS’ lyricism shines through like a light in the dark.
Recommended tracks: House of Commons, Burning Beaches, RGB, Bird Milk.
Indie pop is a bit of a stale genre, but I find Snowmine to be a breath of fresh air. They’ve matured from their last release Laminate Pet Animal, trading out the hooks for darker, longer passages, but still keeping in with the psychedelic bent they’ve taken on pop. It’s a maturation, but does come at a cost of some of the experimentation many listeners enjoyed (including myself). However, there is always something going on in the background – be it intricate drum work or unexpected bass riffs. Best paired with with a rainy day in the office.
Recommended tracks: Rome, Columbus, Silver Sieve.
Rival Sons Great Western Valkyrie
Blues rock has had a bit of revival through Jack White and The Black Keys, now Rival Sons are leading the charge with their explosive follow up to 2012’s Head Down. Opening with the incredible ‘Electric Man’, fuzzy guitars and swagger is the name of the game and the L.A. quartet are winning by a convincing margin. Front man Jay Buchanan’s howls are nothing short of iconic, and complete what is truly an incredible record.
Recommended tracks: Electric Man, Secret, Belle Starr.
Sharon Van Etten Are We There
Last year I said that John Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts was one of the most naked and honest albums I’d ever listened to. This release from Sharon Van Etten redefines what naked and honest means to me, musically. Are We There is about the fuck-ups, the sacrifices, and what is gambled when we choose to chase what we really want. This is an album of catharsis, and raw emotions, and Van Etten’s vocal work shines amongst well crafted and devestating melodies. A break-up album to end all break-up albums, and that’s only half the story.
Recommended tracks: Your Love Is Killing Me, Every Time the Sun Comes Up
Swans To Be Kind
To Be Kind is an abrasive, chaotic and furious album penned by Michael Gira and company. The tracks are diverse in length, from the relatively clipped ‘Some Things We Do’ to the half-hour epic ‘Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture’. Swans have moved, if only slightly, from the droning that is pervasive in their earlier records to more free form experimentation, but the repetition that churns through each track is still alive and well. An incredible sonic experience, the nagging doubt remains that maybe, just maybe, Gira has gone utterly insane.
Recommended tracks: A Little God In My Hands, To Be Kind
Glass Animals ZABA
Dave Bayley and company have transformed the lurid colours and illustrations contained within the albums namesake The Zabajaba Jungle by William Steig into a record that is filled with weird and wonderful sounds, from hip-hop beats to fuzzy noises that may or may not be Bayley’s pets chewing the microphone.
Almost every track is an earworm, from the almost sticky ‘Gooey’ to the slick guitar-diven ‘Cocoa Hooves’, and it is evident that Paul Epworth has lent his magic touch to the record, squeezing the very last from tweeters and woofers that have the pleasure of pouring out this record.
I can only hope that Glass Animals build on top of this incredible debut and produce some more captivating music.
Childish Gambino Kauai
Kauai is raw, rough and entertaining, with an usual feature from Jaden Smith providing soliloquies as ‘The Boy’ from Glover’s play/concept album ‘Because The Internet’. Loosening up from the cloud-rap persona generated from 2011’s Camp, Gambino even takes on singing duties for the EP. From the cliché laden ‘Pop Thieves (Make It Feel Good)’ to ‘The Palisades’, Kauai is fundamentally fun – not something that can be said about all of Gambino’s work.
Ben Khan 1992 EP
No one really knows much about the enigmatic Ben Khan, and that’s the way he likes it. Letting the music do the talking, rather than baring his soul for the world to gawk at. A fusion of electro-pop and R&B, 1992 EP does one thing, but that one thing extremely well. Kicking off with a gentle introduction of soulful vocals coupled with soft pad-synths, Khan gradually introduces more distortion and guitars as we progress through the record. Spin it in the stereo on a late night drive.
It’s right there on the cover: “4 TRAX 17’10 AV 145 BPM 100% Limitless Emotion”. The 4 tracks sound like a blend of jungle/DnB and 90s trance tracks, with driving snares and airy vocals. On the whole, both elements are toned down to be more intimate and accessible to bedroom, rather than warehouse, listening. Notably, this isn’t a nostalgia trip – Doss only uses these throwbacks for inspiration and to riff on rather than completely emulate.
Kwabs Wrong or Right
Kwabs has had a pretty great year; featured on Jools Holland, on the BBC’s Sound of 2015 longlist, and that’s just for starters. Hook-driven R&B with pop-sensibilities is what Kwabs is about, and Wrong or Right really highlights his ability to craft solid melodies to carry his soulful voice. Highlight of the EP is ‘Spirit Fade’ – co-written with Dave Okumu (a name you might recognise – he co-wrote Jessie Ware’s ‘Devotion’). He’s probably going to be pretty massive in 2015, and I can’t wait for his debut LP.
Your Old Droog Your Old Droog
Once upon a time, it was rumoured that Droog was Nas. (Un)fortunately this is not the case, but the comparisons continue – slick debut, agile lyricism and social commentary.
Droog has a sharp-but-calm delivery, and has deftly picked beats that drive forward but don’t overpower him, and his excellent wordplay flows out of him effortlessly, with gems like ‘I’m amped and stacked like Marshall’ and ‘Bringing ‘em more records than Nardwuar’.
Admittedly, there is nothing here that is original – his sound is a throwback (but in true Droog fasion, he recognises this in ‘The 70s’) – and there is at least one other rapper who can do part of what Droog does just as well, but no one has quite captured it as well as the man they thought was Nas.