The 2014 Best Of. The relentless march of. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, etc. Sleaford Mods at #10 in The Guardian’s year-ending; presumably the same Sleaford Mods who, when I announced that I preferred them when they were called Goldie Lookin’ Chain, spent the rest of weekend tweeting me all kinds of colourful abuse. As per usual, The Quietus invented at least 50 of their Top 100 for their own twisted amusement. And best of all, Rolling Stone had U2 as their album of the year. Which I think means that Rolling Stone has won, that we can all give up; we’ll peruse the Situations Vacant, start keeping bees, take up topiary, because any appreciation of recorded sound is now officially well beyond our faculties.
I’ll keep the introduction brief; we’re not present to watch me rattle on. Suffice to say that 2014 came on slow… and then conflagrated in a fashion not seen since the last time the year’s release schedules were loaded with so much shiny. Convention decrees that we restrict the annual LGM breakdown to the usual ten LPs – otherwise I’ll spend ridiculous amounts of time at the laptop instead of engaging with the real world – but with the knowledge that 2014’s list could have easily been four or five times this number, you’ll be catching my drift.
So; a selection that took some whittling down; even now I’m far from certain I’ve got it right. Albums that just missed out include Close to the Glass by The Notwist; heavy rotation at the beginning of their year, and possibly their most engaging subjugation of disembodied bleeps within a jangly indie-pop context. Mogwai’s Rave Tapes is, as always, a compelling listen, beguiled by nuance and loose Krautrock posture, whilst The Hum by Hookworms increases its payload with every listen… I just harbour the suspicion they have a far sharper album hiding somewhere up their back stairs. One that, when they trip over it, may very well blow everything released to date out of the water.
Favourite debut LPs of the year include Dead by Young Fathers, which grabbed the attention it deserved. The eponymous Honeyblood album, which unfortunately didn’t. And then there’s Annabel Dream Reader, hopefully the first of many garage-rock contusions from The Wytches. As a proposition this is all over the place; not that rough and ready doesn’t come with the territory, of course, but there’s a celebratory aversion to anything even remotely cohesive throughout these thirteen tracks. Badly produced, youthfully naïve, and wonderful with it.
Robyn Hitchcock (The Man Upstairs) and Laetitia Sadier (Something Shines) head the list of long-standing LGM favourites to have produced some of their finest material in a long, long while. And a new LP from The Vaselines – huzzah! I can’t, with any sincerity, insert V for Vaselines into the top ten. It sounds exactly as you’d image a Vaselines album would sound like whilst simultaneously acting as an adjunct to the magnificence the band produced the first time around. Yet I adore this band – always will – and however pale or formulaic cynicism could label this, I find it endearing in the extreme.
Hurrying up / also recommended. The debut Alvvays album. Sway, by Whirr. Strange Friend by The Phantom Band. And the most interesting album of the year: Soused, the joint endeavour from Scott Walker and Sunn O))). Although instead of “interesting”, perhaps “mad” or just plain “optimistic” are better adjectives…
Much has been written about Sun Kil Moon’s Benji (winner of this year’s Twitter LP vote). That it’s an obvious omission from my own top ten is complicated subject matter, the American Gothic / Southern Gothic strands underpinning such a construct, they stalk only in a certain light. I think. Maybe. A record and an understanding to return to.
Finally: Music and Words, the collaboration between by Malcolm Middleton (oft of this parish) and artist David Shrigley, which I wrote about here. Yes; go buy that.
Right; to business. LGM’s Favourite Albums of 2014, #10 to #2 below. The item holding the top spot to be unveiled in a day or so EDIT – #1 here
#10 Tom Vek / Luck
To include Luck in this year’s decalogue, or not? Long into the night raged such music geek rumination, the concern being the mono-textual contours of Vek’s multi-instrumentalist indie funk. Which is not designed as an insult; more an acknowledgement that his third long player isn’t a disc that should be considered revolutionary (beyond going round and round on the turntable, obviously). Subversive quite maybe, but not rules rewritten. The lyrics don’t bear serious analysis, the tempo feels locked into pre-defined configurations, and in a certain light it becomes difficult to reconcile the relevance, now that we’re no longer beholden to the darlings and vogues of 2005.
So, why has this record been such the frequent interloper at 33 and third rpm? It’s an attraction residing in the measured, piloted urgency, phrases and motifs repeated, typewriter punctuation. It’s in the wry annunciation, pop particulars refined through slick (but never cloying) detail. Opening track ‘How Am I Meant To Know’ is strung across a strained, discombobulated mantra that functions as a strident (and possibly beguiling) entrance point. ‘Sherman (Animals In The Jungle)’ has all the upbeat particulars that define a great Tom Vek single. And the triptych of ‘Pushing Your Luck’, ‘Ton Of Bricks’ and ‘Trying To Do Better’ arrives bang-bang-bang; salvoes in which the guitar/synth interplay carries a resplendent quality (the outro to ‘Trying To Do Better’ could play out for ten minutes or so without ever overstaying its welcome).
We even get a ballad – ‘The Girl You Wouldn’t Leave For Any Other Girl’ – that coils around its soft focus appendages in an almost art-house fashion. Indeed; Luck may not be the most ambitious record on this list, but it has a sharp vitality to its shape. A spark, and a zip; elements recorded sound always crave.
#9 Liars / Mess
The band’s finest album to date…
… a litmus test for such a statement being that Liars were always a concept I should have been able to buy into. The idiosyncratic deployment of wit. That loose, art-punk pinch vaguely reminiscent of Devo, or The Residents. Back at the beginning of the previous decade I recall getting my paws on a copy of debut album They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top; the track titles alone suggested that this was the band for me. ‘Nothing Is Ever Lost Or Can Be Lost My Science Friend’. ‘The Garden Was Crowded And Outside’. ‘Grown Men Don’t Fall In The River Just Like That’ (I lived next to the Thames at the time… there may have been one or two occasions when I arrived home waterlogged).
And yet, whatever the reasons, the material itself didn’t bite. Not until now, with a route through obstinate electronica patiently plotted. Mess is a bold statement; there’s something concrete to its casing. Seams of danger transposed across louche NYC textures.
You can hear it on tracks such as ‘Vox Turned DED’; the momentum has a snide vigour to its personage, through which growling synth hooks frame the vocal, simultaneously supplanting and undermining. Vague retro baubles rub up against sequenced chic (‘Mess On A Mission’), whilst ‘Pro Anti Anti’ has an important fight-at-the-dancehall vibe about it.
Mess works because it demonstrates an increase in scale, and a recalibration of cause and effect, the additional permutations afforded by swapping guitar/bass/vox combinations for digitised hardware rounding up the sound; ‘Can’t Hear Well’ for example has an abstract quality the band would never heave dared to apply an album or two ago.
And with the musicality redefined, so Angus Andrew’s withered, contorted vocals hit with a new-found alacrity; such shards of statement – “Cast out culture, compound impatience, without regard trash the book the films are based on” (‘Mess On A Mission’ again); “We found a place to die. Its sound by name it calls me. Break up the shapes you like. No pause, no trace, just take it” (‘Boyzone’) – they cultivate a crushed glass feel. A lyrical intent that of Liars of yore, maybe, but the particulars of delivery (and all that implied subversion) – they sit cuter, more rounded, and therefore stand as more enticing.
Mess is a big record. Reinvention to an extent – the roads have been leading this way for quite some time – but rarely does such a reposition function as replenishment. A success.
#8 Luke Haines / New York In The 70’s
The latest instalment in Haines’ most stubborn attempt to subjugate the concept album to his own twisted ends. Or so I wrote this time last year, when I nudged his Rock ‘n’ Roll Animals LP towards #5 in my breakdown of 2013’s favourite long players. From #5 last year to #8 this; he must be losing his touch. Going off the boil. I mean, following on from such wilfully esoteric subject matter as camp ’70’s wrestlers, obsolete bequiffed rock stars reincarnated as questing beasts, and The North Sea Scrolls – the collaboration with Cathal Coughlan and Andrew Mueller that at times sounds like dystopian Imperialist cabaret – a theme such as New York In The 70’s feels positively sedate…
The key of course being that nothing Haines does is anywhere near as esoteric as first appearances suggest. The continuing appropriation of celebrity and nostalgia as narrative structure… and a back-handed celebration of sorts; parallels drawn between the overcast mores of English suburbia verses CBGB and all that Bowery shtick. Grubby love letters to Alan Vega, William Burroughs, Jim Carroll and one other whose name temporarily escapes me (“Lou Reed invented everything, so there’s not much you can say about Lou Reed other than ‘Lou Reed, Lou Reed’” says our protagonist about the ‘Lou Reed, Lou Reed’ track – “the suicide blonde with the iron cross”. He’s probably right, you know).
That the pay-off to all this slanted fan-boy stuff is archetypical Luke Haines underlines all that I’ve been saying – for years – about the importance of his song-writing. An album of knowing winks, sleazy asides, surrealist touches (‘Cerne Abbas Man’ – after The Fall’s ‘Bournemouth Runner’, only the second song to reference my home town – tells of Johnny Thunders’ unimpressed reaction upon encountering the chalk-hill figure’s prominent phallus) – but it’s a mistake to consider such a disc as cultural tourism or passive reminiscence in comedy trousers; despite titles such as the cobalt, synth-lead opener ‘Alan Vega Says’ or the slip and slide of ‘New York City Breakdown’, this could have been called London In The 10’s, and it wouldn’t feel out of place.
#7 Lorelle Meets The Obsolete / Chambers
(Capcha Records / Sonic Cathedral)
As Lorelle Meets The Obsolete, Mexican duo Lorena Quintanilla and Alberto Gonzalez have been piquing interest with their warm take upon shoegaze-laced psychedelia for a couple of albums. You know, all those condescending reviews seemingly aghast that girls and boys beyond London, New York or the American West Coast have learned to pick up guitars and started to make a glorious racket. “Much has been made of the number of psych rock ensembles seemingly springing up out of every backwater on the planet,” to directly quote a Drowned In Sound article. Oh dear…
Still, apparent redundancy of music journalism aside, Quintanilla and Gonzalez high-tailed it to Chicago back in 2012 to record Chambers. This carries a 2013 copyright (at least on the back of my copy), but I have been assured by those nice folk at Sonic Cathedral that this very much a 2014 release, which is good enough for me. And good enough for you, too – the duo’s first two albums (2011’s On Welfare; last year’s Corruptible Faces) carry a progressive, reverb-pinged stickiness amidst the swirls; excellent listens that nonetheless feel very slightly inhibited, as if cravings for something wider fell unsated.
So call it temporary relocation. The impetus behind collaboration. A musical flowering. Whatever. For Chambers is a glorious blast of emancipated, off-kilter anti-balance. Garage rock subsumed into a sensuous (and therefore sexy) psychedelia, wrapping itself around drone and Krautrock and all those other delicious trappings that very much float the LGM flotilla.
Recorded by Cooper Crain, guitarist with US drone-rockers Cave, and mixed by our old friend Sonic Boom, this is an album full of delicate yet dirty detail, the strength of the songcraft transcending notions of template or reflex. The vocals are shared, sitting almost impassive in the mix (more than one review I’ve read has referenced The Kills… although there’s as much Slowdive meets 13th Floor Elevators to this as the Mosshart/Hince axis), and whilst there’s a hundred other 2014 albums with this degree of boy/girl interplay or that amount of psych-rock tenacity, none I’d suggest appropriate such stoned yet summery elements as effectively as Chambers.
‘I Can’t Feel The Outside’; a jangled burr, languid yet verdant. ‘Music For Dozens’; all lazy momentum and conniving enticement. ‘Grieving’ has a Mazzy Star depth to it; ‘What’s Holding You?’ wears its space-rock stylings with erudition.
And so on and so forth; the point being that Chambers runs amidst its influences with a multi-faceted glee smeared across its chops. Constantly shifting, constantly engaging, one of those discs repeatedly returned to.
#6 TV On The Radio / Seeds
“We‘ve been through a lot of stuff in the past few years… the record is 1000% without a doubt the best thing we‘ve ever done.” It’s a statement that’s easy to buy into, regardless of whether Seeds genuinely is TV On The Radio’s finest album (and don’t forget it’s up against the impeccable Dear Science in that particular category).
And upon hitting the play button (or however we derive our musical fix these days), the immediacies roll: that not only have the band opened up their sound without losing one iota of their jazz-grazed experimentalist leanings, managing to align such soulful touches with a framework of wider accessibility, but – and perhaps more importantly – Seeds sounds like a celebration. A validation of sorts; a polished, positive “fuck you.” Tunde Adebimpe is on record as admitting TVotR could have split after losing bassist Gerard Smith to cancer (not to mention record company issues that saw this LP released on EMI’s Harvest imprint), and yet any adversity behind its origins is turned inside-out. Evident on pretty much every track present.
Opener ‘Quartz’ is a case in point; drumstick dropped upon piano strings, looped alongside hand-claps and falsetto hey-yahs. As a canvas for Adebimpe’s gloriously rich and fluid baritone (“How much do I love you? How hard must we try? To set into motion, a love divine?”) it’s a set up of impressive reward. An example of how TV On The Radio understand conflicting notions – jaggered electronica, catchy pop hooks, and an underlying sense of adventure behind traditional 4/4 beats – then foster the flexibility to bend them into different, engaging shapes.
Lead single ‘Happy Idiot’ is one of those rare up-tempo laments in which the complexity – both lyrical and musical – is channelled directly through allure. ‘Could You’ sounds like the urgency of a Bob Mould chorus transplanted into Brooklyn rain. And ‘Test Pilot’ – all understated, drifting beauty, hanging in there like a reflection.
Yes; Seeds is a clean record. Possibly even slick on occasion. And yet there’s a great deal to get your teeth into. Texture. Musical marrow, if you like, married to the lyrics of love and loss that rebound. Their best album? Possibly not, but it is a damn fine listen. The type of record that stays with you, long into the New York sunset.
#5 King Creosote / From Scotland With Love
A career spent remodelling the back catalogue. The great folk tradition; of inspiration shared, open-source, belonging to landscape and the grizzled faces of those who worked the soil or sailed to sea. This is Kenny Anderson territory; the songs are his, mostly, but they’re also communal by inclination, as if designed to be passed from neighbour to neighbour in snug bars before blazing hearths – no wonder he was invited to add sonic dimension to Virginia Smith’s feature-length collage of archive footage. A nation living, loving, dying; the Creosote vibe slots in neatly.
Because film and music were brought together in an organic, synergistic fashion (as opposed to one laid atop the other), there’s bound to be a codependency of sorts, but this doesn’t preclude the album from functioning on its own merits. The material present has leap and grace, and whilst the conventions of soundtrack perhaps lead us away from his more experimental leanings – it’s very much designed for a wider audience – the King Creosote voice and the King Creosote songcraft can’t help but carry a humbling allure.
Thus: an album full of old and new, with the old (such as the melancholic textures of opener ‘Something To Believe In’, and ‘Pauper’s Dough’, the airy celebration of Scottish roots, which recycles the chorus of ‘Harper’s Dough’ from his excellent 2003 LP Kenny And Beth’s Musakal Boat Rides) reinterpreted, freshly cast.
This itself is one of the joys of Anderson’s oeuvre; I must have seen him live more than twenty times, and each occasion witnessed setlist staples reinvigorated with changes in tempo, instrumentation, lyrics, arrangement, songs blending into across one another as if hearing anew. Yet it’s a huge mistake to understand artist as somehow rooted in his own past; as From Scotland With Love again demonstrates, his ear for tune and warmth stand prominent through the motorik uplift of ‘For One Night Only’, the hopscotch breeze of ‘Bluebell, Cockleshell, 123’, the empathetic trails of the semi-autobiographical ‘Leaf Piece’.
Were I forced to point at a weakness with this record, it’s that it’s never fully able to escape its own sentimentality; such subject matter can do that to a disc. Yet despite this, the endearing qualities are so immediate as to not only shine, but (more importantly) to underscore its egalitarian nature, ensuring the record works way beyond purely Caledonian contexts. This year’s most beautiful album, I’m guessing.
#4 Vessel / Punish, Honey
And with the night so comes the darkness. You can spot the second LP from Bristol producer Seb Gainsborough labelled in all sorts of weird and unrepresentative fashions. “Industrial”. “Freudian”. “Experimentronica” (whatever the hell that means); it’s as if reviewers become stymied when faced with discordance. A bat up the collective nightdress; for what we have tried yet failed to understand, we will leave upon the rocks to wither.
Well, yes… it can’t be denied that Punish, Honey is a challenging listen; its title, its artwork, the contused percussion comprising opening track ‘Febrile’ – all allude to a disfigured musical landscape. Of jutting limbs and inky bruises. Yet this record is far from exacting a simple sonic assault; by the time that second track ‘Red Sex’ slips into (then back out of) focus, you can almost measure the brutalist allure unravelling; opposing winds playing out across the smooth surface of a remote tarn.
So; cerebral electronica, perhaps with a Fuck Buttons slant as starting point (if we must go all music journalist and invite lame comparisons)… but also something primal, as if by blending drum loops and powered-up noodles with live sequencing, clues become unlocked. ‘Red Sex’ is full of sly magnificence in how the synth lead splays itself against context, and its this warped bunker mentality – one in which an outside world ambience bleeds through the concrete – that lifts such musical indefatigability way beyond complacent white noise.
Feint echoes of that early Einstürzende Neubauten, “everything’s an instrument if you hammer it in the right fashion” vibe (‘Drowned In Water And Light’) percolate around distended electronic structures (‘Euoi’; ‘Punish, Honey’) and woodpecker inclinations (‘Kin To Coal’), so that the overall, unnerving effect has a benedictional aspect, the ecclesiastical reach of which constantly shifts.
In other words, a record you need a safe word for. Whack… ouch… yum.
#3 Tarwater / Adrift
When it comes to discs lived with, experienced, space is such an under-appreciated commodity. Dimensions in which tracks have room to grow, subjugating the minimalist contours, expanding alongside listener perception.
It’s a facet Ronald Lippok and Bernd Jestram well understand; they’ve certainly been making records for long enough (if my maths is on the ball, Adrift is Tarwater’s eleventh LP, to add to the other ten Lippok has released as part of the recently deceased To Rococo Rot).
So; less is more. An album that isn’t revelatory until the exact moment needle is dropped, and the listener is ushered into the equation. A soundtrack of silhouettes, misty and indistinct, the electronica skeletal, a landscape of leafless trees. Lippok’s deadpan, never-cared vocals, lyrics cribbed from garbled poems, they linger against the brushed, Japanese percussion (opener ‘The Tape’), feel dispossessed and twice removed (‘The Glove’), are missing entirely from the LP’s four instrumental tracks, yet are never actively missed, so intelligently unobtrusive sits the enunciation.
An album full of minimalist shards and spikes, the punctuation of subtlety. Electronic pulses are strewn not to fill the gaps but to provide them, and whilst each track works as a distinct presence (such as on ‘Homology Myself’, the vaguely Arabic come-down narrated by Ann Cotten, or ‘Coconut Signal’, in which gently-plucked live bass underpins the transgressive organ chords), they follow the same alignment, a continuation that rewards understanding this disc in its entirety. Repeatedly.
Adrift is a never-there record – which is exactly why it works. A view out of the window that concludes with ‘Rice And Fish’; such the simple song. Strings struck, percussion illusive, each guitar or keyboard statement specifically delicate, like dialogue. The tramcar ghost of a vocal, almost apologetic, a face focused upon the floor until the backing provides the lift – and it’s only at the run-out groove that you realise you’re holding nothing in your hands, but also everything.
#2 Moodoïd / Le Monde Möö
From time to time, usually when you least expect it, arrives a record that challenges those narrow notions of what pop should represent. I’ve written before of how the “P” word is considered a sullied concept in certain circles; it’s a Swiss cheese argument, of course, but by functioning within such inhibited boundaries, pop doesn’t always help itself when the time comes for shaking off dispersions. It’s an issue of stylistic intent; of cross-hatched influence, and the invigoration that comes with fishing beyond the usual pool of pop music trope.
And then there’s Pablo Padovani, and the debut LP under his Moodoïd moniker. The first draft of this article featured an awkward, lazy and stereotypical paragraph about how French pop operates on different levels to its Anglo-Saxon counterpart. Posture through which Gallic sensibilities fuel magpie pollination. Senegalese and Algerian rhythms. A jazz fusion far beyond the naff connotations fostered this side of the Channel. A humour worn off the shoulder.
And to make such a paragraph even more of a pseud’s covenant, I then mentioned Michel Polnareff and (obviously) Serge Gainsbourg. X-Ray Pop and Air’s vastly under-rated 10,000 Hz Legend album. Not that Le Monde Möö (ignore the dumb title) is specifically similar to any of the aforementioned, but there’s provenance, all right (Padovani’s worked with the always delightful Melody’s Echo Chamber. His father, renowned jazz musician Jean-Marc, not only provided some of the sonic textures here-in, but – you suspect – very much gifted his offspring with firm understanding of the nuance behind sound).
The result is an album of dressing-up box persuasion, hats and capes tried on then discarded. Which in itself implies something messy; a popinjay ambition, too clever for its own good. So let’s be clear, here; Le Monde Möö is about as far from messy as you can travel. Instead: pop, liberated from all its petty little detailing. A celebration – quite, quite beautiful – in which every single idea implicitly works, no matter how off the wall such concepts appear on paper.
In fact, so wide-reaching and impressive does this record feel that actually laying-out the describing words doesn’t arrive easy. Dream-pop jazz-funk. Untethered tenderness, quite possibly via Mali as much as Montmarte. Metropolitan chic aligned to exotic, cursive rhythms, all wrapped up in ethereal glamour and French pop noodles straight from 1978. Nope; none of that does this any justice.
Lead single ‘La Lune’ may help us a little. Tabla percussion, lithe bass, wispy harmonies of considerable beauty. And then the pay-off, the strident synth crescendos arriving almost unannounced, Padovani lulling us into a false sense of security… but even that isn’t enough; there’s still two minutes left in which the sax solo audibly unwinds, mood cultivated and transfixed, only for the whole cycle to begin again.
‘Machine Metal’ combines slanted chord progression with a 1980’s Parisian cop show feel. ‘Yes And You’ somehow contrives to sound like something Pink Floyd may have written when most stoned, only to come back at us with a haunted, quirky beauty that never gives up being playful. ‘Bongo Bongo Club’ carries a delightful kasbah urgency underpinned by free-form jazz vignettes; ‘Les Garçons Veulent De La Magie’ is all sparkly melancholia… I could go on, but even then feel that such words are somehow doing this record a disservice; track #5 – ‘Les Oiseaux’ – is so broad reaching as to sound like four or five uncomplimentary records all glued together. Time signatures clash, influences trip over themselves, and yet it still sounds ruddy marvellous.
So yeah; label me somewhat defeated by all this. Sometimes it’s better to pack away the adjectives, to sit and stare and fall enraptured. Le Monde Möö is difficult, startling, captivating, intoxicating, occasionally brash, and always brilliant. Oh, it’s also pop. C’est merveilleux.