The top 10 albums of 2014


Why am I writing a best-of list for a year that ended six months ago? Because I am very, very lazy.

10. Alt-J – This is All Yours

While it was fair to expect a little more of 2012’s winners, still one of my favourite bands around, This is All Yours still delivered some fantastic moments and continued a great tradition of experimentation. ‘Nara’, ‘Left Hand Free’, ‘Every Other Freckle’, ‘Hunger of the Pine’ and ‘The Gospel of John Hurt’ in particular stand out. But they needed sharper cutting down, opening with a four minute intro song, only to go into another intro was a big mistake, in fact, most of the other songs on this record could and should have lost a couple of minutes. Alt-J still retain their magic though, and with an improved live sound, are shaping themselves well for the future.

9. Perfume Genius – Too Bright

Too Bright is an earnest, honest, and uncompromising album, that sounds like nothing else around. Lead single ‘Queen’ is good enough on its own to merit its place on this list but it’s the continual innovation and pure songwriting talent that makes this album work so well.

8. Honeyblood – Honeyblood

A debut album that just sounds like it enjoys the making of music, Honeyblood draws from riot grrrl and modern indie equally, and never makes too much of what it a simple, great sound.

7. Superfood – Don’t Say That

Aside from being lovely, lovely people, Superfood are a band that pick up on the Britpop revival happening at the moment and take it somewhere great. The hits are thick and fast, and the choruses always strong. Another purely enjoyable album.

6. The Twilight Sad – Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave

As the title of band and album give away this is a very depressing record. Which is great, because it’s an style the band do magnificently. It oozes darkness and cold, which feels very appropriately Scottish, and the combination of accent and Interpol-inspired guitars works wonders. The Twilight Sad perfected their sound onNWTBHANWTL (damn) to make a beatiful wintry album.

5. Warpaint – Warpaint

Warpaint shifted up into the a more electronic mood for their third album, and it paid dividends. Drummer Stella Mozgawa (one of the very best around) and bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg take the lead with the new style. Few bands are better at creating ethereal moods, and songs like ‘Biggy’, ‘Drive’ and ‘Love is to Die’ are some of the band’s best songs to date.

4. Interpol – El Pintor

Arguably jostling for place with Sparklehorse and Pearl Jam as my favourite band ever it was inevitable that I would enjoy El Pintor. Interpol cut their losses and went back to doing what they do best with fast, heavy, post-punk pop songs. While some doubters see the loss of Carlos D as the end of the band, this record seemed to echo Antics in its straightfoward delivery of great song after great song.

3. Wild Beasts – Present Tense

One of the campest, cleverest, and artiest bands hovering around the British indie scene, Wild Beasts deserved far more recognition for this magical album. Delivering sharp lyrics over delicate but punchy art-pop they can be full of venom (“In your mother tongue / what’s the verb to suck“), love (“I’m a pilgrim, you’re the shrine to / all the lovers that loved before us”), and often lust (“The things she said she’d never do / a little fun for me, and none for you. / I’m the thing you fenced in / I’m ten men”). What they nailed with Present Tense was the sonic balance of drums, bass, synths and gentle guitars while the two contrasting voices play off each other better than ever.

2. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

Very nearly taking the top spot, this widely acclaimed album has had enough said about it elsewhere to render any small words I have here pointless. Needless to say, it still gets played in the car on any kind of drive, and it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like it.

1. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2

Winning out on this list potentially from its pure social relevance this was the ultimate record of the moment. Last year’s Run The Jewels made it to number 5 on last year’s list, and this album improved in every way on that record. El-P’s beats are better, but it’s Killer Mike whose rapping really reaches a new level. Every song on the record is an absolute banger – even the features are perfect. Zach de la Rocha hasn’t sounded this good since ‘Bombtrack’, Boots perfects the rap chorus on ‘Early’, while Gangsta Boo, well, manages to out do El and Mike in every way on ‘Love Again’. 2014 was the year the race crisis in America came to a fore, and Run the Jewels not only understood this, but were driven by it, their black and white unity serving as an unexpected beacon of race-conscious collaborative hope at a miserable time, and that’s not even mentioning Killer Mike’s consistently incredible public speaking and media appearances. All this, and their album is still completely free to download.

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The Top 10 Albums of 2013

So 2013 is over, and I get the chance to throw my hat of choices into the ring for the best records released this year. It has been a strange year, the two records that won the most acclaim elsewhere, ‘Yeezus’ and ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ were, in my opinion, not all that impressive. Unlike my 2012 list which had 3 (Alt-J’s ‘An Awesome Wave’, Tom Williams and the Boat’s ‘Teenage Blood, and Flying Lotus’ ‘Until The Quiet Comes’), there are no truly staggering 10/10 records. Instead we have a series of very good albums from 10-5, and then effectively 5 fantastic records that could all have taken number one. Each of these top 5 albums did something exciting, and are all ones that I have kept going back to all year. In the end, the winner had to go to the record that I had simply played the most times, a record that despite these repeat listens, never grew old. But before that, the rest of the list…

10. Lapalux – Nostalchic

Lapalux - NostalchicKicking this list off is a record that probably swept under the radar for most people. A British member of the Brainfeeder experimental electronica collective, Lapalux merges a chillout, R&B vibe with the creepy sample morphing of last year’s man of the year, Flying Lotus. As an album it flowed perfectly, like a relaxed train journey moving through various textures, particular highlight being the delicate tremoring of ‘Without You’ a track that just commands total attention, drowning the listener in its minimalist atmosphere.

9. Suede – Bloodsports

Suede-Bloodsports2013 saw yet more comebacks from established bands, continuing the trend on from 2012 (My Bloody Valentine’s ‘mbv’ narrowly missed this list). What was really surprising was that one of these reuniting bands managed to actually be better than they were before. Suede hit 2013 with ‘Bloodsports’, an album that roared them back into the national consciousness. It’s a staggeringly good record, a tight 10 songs, every one a potential single. When I went to see them play at Southampton Guildhall they decided to run through this album from start to finish. It was incredible. Suede seemed to believe in this album and these songs with the energy of a band releasing their debut. It was a fitting testament to the quality of this record, and a kick in the face for any cynics crying ‘money’ at their reunion. It has everything that made them so good to begin with, and even more for the new fans. Enjoy.

8. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe

Chvrches - The bones of what you believeIn at number 8 is one of two bands that I predicted as contenders for making the album of 2013 at the start of the year. Chvrches are a heavy synth-pop act, fusing M83’s sugary sound with some of the best vocals this year from frontwoman Lauren Mayberry. Disguised amongst some of pops best melodies are some pretty cutting lyrics, ‘We Sink’ proclaims ‘I’ll be a thorn in your side / till you die’. The genius of Chvrches is wrapping this sharpness in some staggeringly strong anthems, ‘Lies’ and ‘The Mother We Share’ were already known bangers but pretty much every song on this record delivers. It’s a tightly packed record, and definitely the most instantly accessible and enjoyable record on this list.

7. Jon Hopkins – Immunity

Jon Hopkins - ImmunityAmongst the releases considered for the Mercury Music Award sat this record from little known producer and Brian Eno-collaborator Jon Hopkins. Those not in electronic music circles can be forgiven for not knowing much about this release, but a number of musicians tellingly placed it in their own end of year lists. This album is a staggering merger of acoustic and electronic, in that field recordings mash with chopped and screwed techno, in a surprisingly pleasing combination. It never bursts into stadium beats, despite always grabbing your interest, and it never drifts into complete ambience, even the piano on the closing title track seems distant from Eno’s ‘Music for Airports’. This album for me has been a go to study record. The energy within it helps focus the brain, but the pure pleasing sound has kept me relaxed and calm. Fans of texture and sound should absolutely get this.

6. Savages – Silence Yourself

Savages Silence YourselfAnd now for the other band I had considered at the start of this year. Interestingly I was also completely wrong. I thought that Savages ran the risk of making a rushed and weak debut compared to Peace or Palma Violets (neither of whom made the list). Instead, Savages delivered one of the tightest, most ferocious debut albums in British music. I’ve written in a few places why I love this record, and most of it boils down to this: Savages demand your attention. A lot can be written and should be written about their feminism, their politics etc. But for me the most significant thing about this album is its sheer strength at grabbing your attention. The title says it all, Silence Yourself and listen to Savages.

5. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels

Run The Jewels

So now we’ve broken through the first 5 records, the good but not stunning ones, and arrived at the top 5. This set were all fairly even so take the number with a pinch of salt, suffice to say that every record in this top 5 was one I went back to again and again as the year went on, and few were more entertaining than number 5. Run The Jewels is the combination of Southern Rap stalwart Killer Mike and underground king El-P. For some reason, despite having decent success in their significant separate careers, the combination of the two of them elevates both of them to modern legends. Forget ‘Watch the Throne’, ‘Run the Jewels’ is the real sound of collaborative fire. While both rappers do political and socially conscious rap incredibly well, this LP is far more a commemorating of an unstoppable friendship and collaborative energy. Every single track on this features some of the best raps this year, El-P’s beats are phenomenal, and his raps here and on last year’s ‘Cancer 4 Cure’ have made him replace Andre 3000 as my own personal favourite MC. People who have heard this album need no persuading how staggering this album is, and those who haven’t should only need to know that it is completely free to download, so go and do it now, and witness the birth of rap’s greatest duo since OutKast. They also happen to make the best music videos ever. Merry Fucking Christmas:

4. Everything Everything – Arc

Everything Everything - ArcThere’s a part of me that’s heartbroken not to be able to call this my favourite of the year. Everything Everything are the band on this list that can most be considered ‘relevant’. With ‘Arc’ they took the ferocious creativity of their debut album ‘Man Alive’ and managed to highlight the touching, the heartbreaking, in short, the personal, that lay within their explosive experimentalism. I wrote more in depth at the start of the year in a review, but Arc was a record that I felt had a lot to say, and said it in a way that was incredibly novel. So many songs on this remain favourites of mine, opener ‘Cough Cough’, the sassy ‘Torso of the Week’, the chilling ‘The Peaks’, the epic ‘Radiant’, and the stunning ‘Undrowned’. Many other blogs might have overlooked this record because of how early it came out but it is their loss. Everything Everything are the highest placing British act on this list, and this album sets them up for a career on the cutting edge of what good music should be, a band it is impossible not to like.

3. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away(Attention pedants: despite living here, Nick Cave is not British) From the cutting edge to one of music’s elder statesmen. Nick Cave is 56 but my god has he ever sounded better. ‘Push The Sky Away’ saw the Bad Seeds take a different approach, replacing Grinderman’s raw rock assault with minimalism and a focus on textures. The result is a phenomenal record, Cave’s lyrics finding their match in the delicate touch of his band. I could go on and on about how this record is Nick Cave’s best since whatever you think his last good one was, but that would do a disservice to everyone. Instead I’ll just say that this record is better than all but 2 albums released this year, let alone Cave’s own back catalogue, and it would reach a similar position if it only had one track on it: ‘Higgs Boson Blues’. God damn is this song amazing, the kind of song that would totally absorb and come to define a lesser band. Listen to all 9 minutes of this behemoth and you will understand why Cave has such respect from all corners of the music world.

2. Arcade Fire – Reflektor

arcade-fire-reflektorArcade Fire approached 2013 as Indie’s Most Important Band. Their last album, ‘The Suburbs’ sits alongside records like Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’, Interpol’s ‘Turn On The Bright Lights’ and Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ in my top 10 albums of all time. So it’s understandable that a lot of people’s hopes rested on this, their fourth record. Well this album delivered, in a way that disappointed many of those so desperate for their success. ‘Reflektor’ gave us an Arcade Fire aggressively attacking their own legacy in more ways than one. Gone were the delicate folk touches of ‘Neighbourhood #1’, the epic organ of ‘Intervention’, in their place the fiery techno of James Murphy and the furious funk of the Haitian nation. The lyrics no longer charted the rise and fall of ‘the kids’, instead a scathing attack on society and self-interest, all merged around a retelling of the classical epic of Orpheus and Eurydice. I had the fortune of seeing them play the Roundhouse as they toured the songs off this record (thanks Pete!) and live these songs came alive in a way that seemed to trump the past three albums. The epic stomp of Normal Person, like much of this album indebted heavily to Talking Heads, tore up their legacy and legend. Arcade Fire were reborn in 2013, as something almost scary, a band rejecting so much of what made people love them. It’s hard not to end this with a pun on their track ‘Afterlife’ but the pretentious part of me can’t help but think that this is Arcade Fire’s attempt at immortality. This is their attempt to break the shackles of what had defined them, genres, attitudes, the lot. Was it a good album? Hell yes. Was it perfect? No, not at all, some tracks seemed too long, the running time is excessive, I don’t even think every song on it is great. But does it feel like you’re listening to something so much more than just entertainment or an accompaniment to the real world out there? Abso-fucking-lutely. This album matters.

1. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

The-National-Trouble-Will-Find-MeThat this album comes in at number one will surprise few people who came within hearing distance of my speakers this year. Just like last year, I had to go on pure number of listens, and my god have I played this album to death, and then through death into a zombie state. The National are a band that surely by now you either love or haven’t heard. Like many people I don’t even consider this their best record, the previous three (High Violet, Boxer, Alligator) all captured a certain mood and turned it into a masterpiece. With this album however, the band seemed unwilling to affix themselves to one thing, it flies all over the place, from the driving pulse of ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’, the roar of ‘Sea of Love’ to the bar-room ballad ‘Pink Rabbits’. For some absurd reason, though, the result is a captivating and yes, heartbreaking album. Matt Berninger’s epic baritone toys with us moving high and low but continues to be one of the most gripping voices in music. This is helped of course, that he is one of the most talented lyricists around. It’s pointless to sit here and rewrite the myriad phrases that cross this album, as by now nearly every single one is a favourite. This album is like having The National as your personal pub jukebox, banging out hit after hit to your hearts desire, pretty much every song has been my favourite at some point, at first the spine-tingling ballads: ‘Slipped’, ‘I Need My Girl’, ‘Pink Rabbits’, then it was the drivers ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’, ‘Graceless’, ‘Demons’, etc. etc. The reason this album gets number one above the other equally fantastic albums, is simply the way it has completely dominated my music listening this year. I’ve pondered every lyric ranted to friends about the guitar tones, stared into space with this as my soundtrack. And after all this I don’t know whether it’s the album or the band as whole that I like more. All I can say for sure is that you should listen to this album, and then maybe you’ll agree. Have a good 2014.

Honourable mentions to The Flaming Lips – The Terror, Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady, My Bloody Valentine – mbv, Public Service Broadcasting – Inform, Educate, Entertain and Atoms for Peace – Amok.

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Overanalysis – Arcade Fire’s ‘The Suburbs’ – Part 1/4: Now I’m Ready To Start

Welcome to a new segment of this shambolic blog that I’m tentatively calling ‘Overanalysis’. The basic premise is that I take a record or an artist and examine their music as far as my brain will let me, trying to draw crazy threads across lyrics, melodies and atmosphere in the hope of finding some extra layer of meaning kind of like in ‘A Beautiful Mind’ but hopefully with a bit less schizophrenia. Obviously it’s only worth doing with truly great albums, and, having just heard their new song ‘Reflektor’, I remembered how Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs was such a vital record. So to satiate my need for their music I decided to start the first Overanalysis here.

Warning: this will be long and this will seem like Bullshit to most of you. Nevertheless, enjoy.

“In the suburbs I / I learned to drive / And you told me we’d never survive / Grab your mother’s keys we’re leaving.”

Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Part 1 – Now I’m Ready To Start

In order to properly look at what’s going on inside The Suburbs, it’s important to look at where Arcade Fire were when they came to make it. Their debut album, Funeral, had become a cult classic and its successor Neon Bible was almost as well received; the band were becoming increasingly popular. They were favourably compared to R.E.M. as a band about to cross over from indie/alternative into mainstream festival headliner fame. This is significant for two reasons, the first being that for those first two albums they were able to be an underground band, songs like ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ and ‘(Antichrist Television Blues)’ are nearly a counter-cultural message for the cool kids: “we can live our misbehaviour”. Approaching album #3 Arcade Fire were now part of the mainstream, no longer simply taking shots from the sidelines. The second significance is that they risked losing the ‘edge’ that made them so precious to these cool kids: they were no longer an indie secret only known by a select few music fans. Both these aspects form a crucial part in the fabric of The Suburbs.

I was not a fan of Arcade Fire until well after The Suburbs came out. Being both lazy and an idiot, I had barely listened to their songs and the few times I did they did nothing for me. By the time I heard it, ‘Wake Up’ had already spawned a million other howled ‘woah’ choruses from dungaree-wearing morons making epic folk rock to sully its magic. ‘Intervention’ seemed too caught up in itself to reach me. But when a good friend finally persuaded me to give ‘Ready To Start’ a listen, I was forced into action. As the kind of person who can be won or lost by lyrics I was struck by hearing a band who could verbalise the contradictions they faced as musicians. “If the businessmen drink my blood / Like the kids in art school said they would / Then I guess I’ll just begin again / You say, ‘can we still be friends?'” Art School, where the great rebellious bands like The Clash and Gang of Four formed and played, fights the businessmen of the music industry of which Arcade Fire were now a part. This is a band literally asking their fans not to abandon them because of their success.

At this point a few people could call out the band as being whiny bastards. How horrible for Arcade Fire, having loads of success with their music, god, it must be awful. And you know what, they’re right… Almost. The next verse looks like it’s a ‘Rebellion (Lies)’-esque swipe at the mainstream from the side again: All the kids have always known / That the emperor wears no clothes / But they bow down to him anyway / ‘Cause it’s better than being alone.” Haha, isn’t that a hilarious takedown of all these people who listen to crap music, aren’t they all idiots… hang on… what do they mean, ‘better than being alone’? Who is really being sent up here? Is it kids who listen to pop music, or is it the alternative ones, the aforementioned ‘cool kids’ who live for the hype cycle of next band to ‘save music’ only to realise that each one is ‘just a band’… exactly the same conflict crops up again with ‘Rococo’ only two songs later: “they build it up just to burn it back down”. If ‘Ready To Start’ seemed like a daring jab at the fans who got them where they are, then ‘Rococo’ is a one-hit K.O. It’s shamefully clear who ‘the modern kids’ are, who ‘seem wild, but they are so tame’ and ‘will eat right out of your hand, using great big words that they don’t understand.’ If that isn’t the perfect description of the Pitchfork (who gave Funeral a 9.7/10) generation of indie-literate music fans then get off my website.

All of this comes together in ‘Month of May’ a song that directly addresses the idea of ‘making a record’. Ideas about writer’s block (‘Just when I knew what I wanted to say / A violent wind blew the wires away’) and fear (‘sounds like their screaming… the city was hit from above’) mingle with a commentary on, yet again, ‘the kids’. These kids are ‘standing with their arms folded tight’. This is a dual attack on cynicism, both of teenage angst and growing up (more on that later) and also one on people afraid to risk not looking cool. Arcade Fire don’t hate the fans they had that praised them even if the lyrics seem to mock them, they only mock the attitude that says that being first is better, that being popular is bad, that avoiding the mainstream makes you better than those that don’t. The culmination of this comes with the lines: “Some things are pure / some things are right / but the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight… Well I know it’s heavy, I know it ain’t light / but how you gonna lift it with your ARMS! FOLDED! TIGHT!” Just because some things aren’t pure (yes, the Black Eyed Peas suck), doesn’t mean cynicsim is the only response, it’s okay to believe in things, to not be afraid of letting the self go and emotionally connecting with something.

If that idea sounds familiar, you may have read the [gasp] Pitchfork review of Funeral in 2004, which declared: “So long as we’re unable or unwilling to fully recognize the healing aspect of embracing honest emotion in popular music, we will always approach the sincerity of an album like Funeral from a clinical distance…” This is Arcade Fire’s great accomplishment, and it’s what sets the stage for making The Suburbs a modern day Quadrophenia. They reject cynicism and the coolness of hiding from real, honest emotion. They know that they are making a record that their older fans might think of as leaving them behind, so they ask them to put down their facades and elitist outlooks and join them, not for Arcade Fire’s sake, but everyone’s sake.

I once read a far more articulate article than this one that examined how far post-modernism had infected modern culture. Nowadays pop artists like Katy Perry can be obvious and cheap, toy with overtly sexual and sexist marketing while seemingly being in on the joke that it’s crass and blatant. They can hide behind a sheen of ironic detachment to avoid facing serious questions, they know it’s bad but in this post-modernist world bad is allowed and you don’t want to be the guy that takes everything so seriously. But the article explores what happens when this starts to change:

The best way I can describe what I think comes next, in light of postmodernism, is the death of cool. The detachment and aloofness that defined cool are no longer palatable to younger generations. “Whatever,” followed by some glib deconstruction of motives, intent, and meaning, is no longer an acceptable response to an idea or question. Deconstruction is no longer an excuse for inaction or withdrawal.

Now the preferred response seems to be “I know you can’t trust it, I know you can’t be sure, but still…

With The Suburbs, Arcade Fire are reaching out to everyone. Yes, cynicism and detachment protect you from all the crap, but they protect you from truly investing yourself in something. This unhappiness of ‘I would rather be alone / than pretend I feel alright’, the fear that ‘the businessmen [will] drink my blood’ can only be stopped by abandoning cynicism. Better to be be wrong, than live in fear of being ‘uncool’, better to open your mind to big emotions, better to open the door and step out into the light. Now I’m ready to start.

Part 2: Suburban War (Innocence/Experience) [coming soon]

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