This year I’ve done things slightly differently in that I’ve not paid as much attention to how many times I’ve listened to something, but instead concentrated on how much I enjoyed it. Some records just can’t be listened to that often; they require complete attention and the kind of time commitment that I just don’t have most days, and I fear I may have left out a few such records in previous years.
I’ve gone for a top 20 this year, which are in no particular order, and also added my favourite live album (which is a live rendition of something that should have been in last year’s top 10 for the reasons mentioned above), and then added a load of other records I’ve enjoyed but can’t think of much to say about.
Everything here that is available on Spotify is in a playlist. Putting this playlist off shuffle may lead to some very odd juxtapositions though, and a lot of these records work best when listened to in the intended order.
James Vincent McMorrow – Post Tropical
I stumbled upon this in January, when I was looking for something new to listen to during my January commute to work. I had no expectations at all, and has not heard of the artist previously (although I’ve since checked out his debut album as well). James Vincent McMorrow has the sort of voice that would work very well with all sorts of different styles of music, and on first listen this reminded me a lot of How to Dress Well (not a bad thing), but what really sets this apart is the songs, which are sparse, achingly beautiful, and which flow together as a body of work. There is a sadness to this music, but also an uplifting feeling of hope and ambition, and I look forward to seeing what this artist comes up with next (which, if interviews are to be believed, will sound nothing like anything he’s done before).
I’m very surprised that this doesn’t feature in more end-of-year lists, which I suspect is down to the fact it was released right at the start of January. It’s certainly worth a listen, although if you’re anything like me then it will probably be a grower.
Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Sun Kil Moon is the current recording project of Mark Kozelek, formerly of Red House Painters. I’ve got a broad familiarity with all of Mark’s work, and two of his collaborative records were on my list last year. Red House Painters were probably my favourite band in my early 20s (which probably says a lot about my early 20s), and I find myself going back to their early records when I want to hear something that is both sad and hopeful. Benji is both of these things, but it’s also darkly humorous, and a step forward from anything else he’s released in the last 20 years.
The subject matter largely deals with death, and how it affects other people. A lot of the songs deal with true stories, and someone dies in (or before) almost every one of them. In the hands of many other singers this concept could easily degenerate into something that is very difficult to listen to. In this case it’s very much the opposite, and the combination of Mark’s vocals and guitars and the occasional bit of drumming from Steve Shelley gives the slightly morbid tales a lighter than expected backdrop that makes the whole thing a pleasure to listen to. And just when you think you’ve got a handle on this record, along comes the last song “Ben’s My Friend” which may be the best thing he’s committed to tape since the first two Red House Painters records.
This probably isn’t a record for everyone though. It’s emotionally raw, very sparse in places, and if you need more in your life than a voice and a guitar then it might leave you a little unfulfilled. But it might also give you new perspective on life, love, family, and getting to the age where the people you care about get old and die. I think it’s a record I needed this year, and is probably this year’s equivalent of Trouble Will Find Me – something I can listen to and wholeheartedly say “I can relate to that”.
Benji was released fairly early on in the year, but I’ve listened to it pretty constantly since then, and I suspect this will be one of those records I keep coming back to.
The Twilight Sad – No-One Wants To Be Here & No-One Wants To Leave
I can’t say too many good things about this band or this record. Every record they have made has been a flawless classic, and this one is no different. If anything, it sounds a little bit like the best bits of all their other records, as if they have taken the different sounds and textures they have used previously and then written new songs around them.
Personally, I always find that The Twilight Sad make more sense in the winter. They are the perfect sound track for walking to the train station on frosted mornings, and I have many fond memories of walking through the snow listening to one or other of their previous records. We have had no snow this year, but I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this was released just as the weather started to get colder.
I’m not sure why they are not bigger. Maybe it’s the fact that James Graham sings in a strong Scottish accent, but then he speaks in a strong Scottish accent so why shouldn’t he sing in the same way? Maybe it’s that they use texture and feedback to enhance the melody of each song, and that to some people that’s just noise. Beautiful noise though, and there isn’t a word or a note of this record that I would change.
The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
None of their records have really engaged me before, but I think that Lost in the Dream is probably one of two records (the other being Future Island’s Singles) that should have been huge this year. I have no idea how many copies it sold, but I think this is a great example of what melodic and thoughtful rock music should sound like. The only negative for me is that I don’t feel I can relate particularly to the songs; they are great songs, but they don’t speak to me enough about my life in the way that (for example) Trouble Will Find Me did last year.
I think a lot of people reading this will enjoy Lost in the Dream though, and I very much look forward to what The War on Drugs come up with next.
Future Islands – Singles
The other record that should have been huge this year (and which possibly was). This is more keyboard/synth lead, and when I first heard it I thought it was a singles compilation, because every song was so strong. In fact it’s a new record that happens to be called Singles, and it is easily the best thing this band have ever done. It’s melodic, but also loud and energetic. It makes me want to stand up, move around, and perhaps even dance.
I also note they are on 4AD records. I’ve just finished reading Martin Ashton’s Facing the Other Way, which is an account of the first 20 years or so of 4AD, and it strikes me that quite a few artists on this list are either currently or formerly associated with the label. In this digital age I rarely consider record labels now, although it was something I was very conscious of when I was younger. This is the sort of record I would buy based on the fact they were on 4AD and that I liked the cover. In this case I would not have been disappointed in the slightest, as it’s a great record that I suspect I will still be listening to this time next year.
School of Language – Old Fears
School of Language is the side project of David Brewis from Field Music. I’m familiar with Field Music’s work, but wouldn’t say they were one of my favourite bands. I stumbled on this record quite by accident because I liked the look of the cover, and was surprised to find something so intimate, personal, and sounding very much like a solo record from someone trying to escape the confines of a band. It’s largely keyboard led, and has strong pop sensibilities without being in any way commercial or trite. It also contains some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard this year.
Initially I wondered how records like this got made, and I don’t see Field Music as being big earners, and it sounds like it was recorded in a decent quality studio. From reading an interview with Paul Smith of Maximo Park last week I learned that Field Music actually have their own studio, which makes a lot of sense, and also goes some way to explaining how the next record in my list came about.
Paul Smith & Peter Brewis – Frozen by Sight
Talking of Paul Smith, I suppose it’s worth writing about why the latest Maximo Park record isn’t in my top 20 when everything they have ever made has made the relevant yearly lists. It’s not that Too Much Information is a bad record, it’s just that it doesn’t add anything new, and I think this is a much more interesting and enjoyable listen.
The conception and making of this record has been well documented at http://thequietus.com/articles/16924-paul-smith-peter-brewis-interview. Paul Smith is the lead singer of Maximo Park, who I would imagine are well known to most people. Peter Brewis is from Field Music, and is the brother of David Brewis (see above). Together they have made a record that sounds a little bit like Field Music, and nothing at all like Maximo Park (unless you count Paul’s vocals, which are unmistakable). Frozen By Sight is certainly greater than the sum of its parts, and occupies a similar territory as Old Fears, although the addition of some of Paul Smith’s most interesting lyrics gives it additional definition and distinction. Each song is named after a place, and from a personal perspective it acted as a nice soundtrack to Donald Harrington’s Let Us Build A City, which I was reading at the same time, and which has chapters named after (and about) lost cities in the USA.
Frozen by Sight was released fairly late in the year, but it was one of the first records I wrote down when I was compiling this list. I’d certainly urge people to give it a few listens, because it really does start to pay dividends if you give it a bit of time.
Owen Pallett – In Conflict
One of the few records I actually bought on CD this year, which was more for the gatefold vinyl-type sleeve than for the music, although the music was very good too. I’ve followed Owen Pallett’s career from afar for a few years without really engaging too much with any of his music. This record really hit the spot for me though, and is lyrically clever, musically proficient, and a step up from anything else he’s ever done.
Mirel Wagner – When the Cellar Children See The Light of Day
An artist I’d not heard of this time last year, and a record that I found myself listening to repeatedly early in the morning, when louder or more complex music just didn’t work. The songs are purely vocal/guitar, and they don’t tread any new musical ground, whilst at the same time being a highly proficient example of the musical style they do represent. Mirel Wagner’s voice is pitch perfect, and this record could have been made in any year since the 50s, but there is something about it that sounds crisp, clear, and very much belonging to the modern age. It’s also got one of the best album titles of the year, which is initially what drew me to it.
FKA Twigs – LP1
Another artist I’d not heard of this time last year, and one that I initially stumbled on through seeing the record cover and thinking it looked interesting. I don’t normally listen to much R’n’B/dance style music, but this record takes the best bits of the genre, and reminds me a bit of Massive Attack in places (which is always a good thing). I also like how she uses some very unusual sounds and textures, and yet manages to sculpt them into something that compliments the vocals and lyrics perfectly.
The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
My love of this group is well known, and to me they are the only band currently operating who deserve the tag “supergroup”. Brill Bruisers is very much a record of the summer, and is full of melodic energy, great pop songs, and some of the best lyrics that the various members of the band have ever written. I particularly like Dan Bejar’s contributions, and am hopeful that this time next year I’m writing about a new Destroyer record.
I recommend The New Pornographers to people a lot, because to my ears they make what I regard as pop music. I suspect that they might be a little weird for some tastes though, and that my definition of pop music is a few decades out of date.
Aphex Twin – Syro
Was anyone expecting this? I certainly wasn’t. I thought that Richard James has stopped making music years ago, so I was somewhat surprised when I saw that there was a new Aphex Twin record available. It’s probably not to everyone’s taste, but if you like electronic/synth music then it’s well worth a listen, and as with everything he’s done I think it’s the very best the genre has to offer.
Scott Walker and Sunn 0))) – Soused
Something else that I really didn’t expect. Scott Walker usually takes years to make records, but he is getting quite prolific recently, with this collaboration with Sunn 0))) being his 4th release in a decade (unheard of since the 60s). This collaboration is probably the most accessible record Scott has made in that decade (and is certainly the most accessible record Sunn 0))) have ever made). There are songs and tunes, as well as a whole lot of spine tingling vocals, obtuse lyrics, and interesting background atmospherics.
This record will not be for everyone, but it certainly makes me look at Sunn 0))) in a new light, and will hopefully gain Scott Walker a few new fans as well.
Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes
I’ve been a fan of Thom’s work (both in Radiohead and as a solo artist) since 1994, and this record nicely summarises where he’s at today. It’s electronic/synth based, but also surprisingly tuneful, and I like the way the tracks flow into one to give a definite feeling of this being a collection of songs that belong together. I also like the way it was released, as a bit torrent download, and with minimal publicity. I suspect that if I didn’t follow Thom on Twitter then I might not have found out about this record, which would have been great shame.
It’s not available on Spotify, but can be purchased from http://tomorrowsmodernboxes.com/
Mogwai – Rave Tapes
I’ve written elsewhere about how I’ve started doing certain types of work whilst listening to music, after being a staunch fan of working in silence as much as possible for many years. I still find working to lyrical music quite hard, and as a result I’ve tried hard to find music that allows me to block out the noise of the outside world whilst at the same time allowing me to concentrate on what I’m doing.
As part of this shift, I’ve listened a lot to a Spotify playlist I created called Post Rock Classics. The title is somewhat ironic, but it largely consists of music with no words, interspaced with a few things that are largely instrumental but have occasional vocals that don’t detract from the overall mood of the music. Mogwai very much epitomise this sound to me, and are probably one of the bands I’ve listened to most in 2014 as a result.
Raves Tapes does not sound like a rave tape. It sounds a bit like their last record (Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will), but also has slightly more electronic elements. It is also probably the most consistent record they have made for a good while. If you like Mogwai then you’ll like Rave Tapes, and if you’ve not heard them before then it’s not a bad place to start. What more can I say?
Manic Street Preachers – Futurology
I wrote about Rewind the Film last year, and this record was recorded around the same time. Whilst the last record was largely acoustic, this taps into their more experimental edge, and contains some of the best music they have released since The Holy Bible (which is 20 years old this year – how did that happen?). The predominant sound reminds me a bit of Berlin-era Bowie, but it is also very much a Manic Street Preachers record, and in the year that my favourite record of theirs turns 20, it is a reminder that they still have something worth saying (and that by extension people of my age in the UK still have something worth saying).
This is another record I ended up buying physically because of the packaging, and the copy I have comes in the format of a hardback book with two CDs (one of the album, one of demos and bonus tracks). In the same way that vinyl is becoming collectable again, I think that there is still a place for lavishly packaged CDs in the digital age. I’m just glad that I don’t have to buy everything I listen to physically because I think I would run out of both space and money very quickly.
Zion 80 – Adramelech : Book of Angels v.22
This is the 22nd volume of interpretations of songs from John Zorn’s Book of Angels. The basic idea behind the project was to compose short pieces of music that could be interpreted by other artists in a variety of styles, although there is a strong jazz/classical/experimental leaning as you would expect with Zorn. I’ve collected these records for a few years (along with some of Zorn’s other work), and I find them a pleasant counterpoint to the more conventional music I listen to regularly.
Zion 80 are a new name to me, and they don’t include any of the usual John Zorn collaborators. They play modern experimental jazz with a guitar edge, and do a decent job of infusing these tunes with energy and enthusiasm. As with a lot of artists who have participated in this series, I imagine I will go and check out their other work at some point, and at time of writing this is probably my favourite in the series that doesn’t involve artists I’m already familiar with (Secret Chiefs 3 and Marc Ribot spring to mind).
It’s been a good year for John Zorn records in general. As well as three strong releases in the Book of Angels series, there have also been the usual array of other records, including the truly beautiful Testament of Solomon and the last installation of the “Moonchild Trio” series, featuring Mike Patton (of Faith No More/Mr. Bungle/Fantomas/Tomahawk etc.) on vocals.
Led Bib – The People in Your Neighbourhood
And talking of jazz, something else I’ve listened to a lot this year. I’ve been a fan of this band since Sensible Shoes was nominated for the Mercury prize, and this record really didn’t disappoint. It’s probably what I would play to someone if they asked me to snapshot modern jazz music in 2014, and there isn’t a bad track on it.
Gazelle Twin – Unflesh
I stumbled on this quite late in the year, and thought it sounded like it was worth a listen. I don’t really know how to describe it other than to say it’s electronic music with female vocals, and that it is beautiful and disturbing in equal parts. I’ve found myself playing this a lot over the last month or so, and I think it’s the best example of a style of music I’ve found myself drawn to more and more this year.
These New Puritans – Expanded
I don’t normally include live records on my end of year list, but I think this one is worthy of it for two reasons. Firstly, that I really should have included Field of Reeds on my end of year top 10 in 2013, and secondly because I’ve played this to death since I got it and think it’s probably the best thing they have done.
Expanded was recorded at London’s Barbican Centre, with a full orchestra. The setting and accompaniment really fill out the already rather excellent music, and the fact that they play everything from Field of Reeds in order makes it a fitting companion to the studio album.
I think there might be a DVD version out there somewhere, which I would be very interested in seeing at some point. I am also wondering what they might do next, seeing as every studio record they have released has been in a totally different style to the one before it. They may very well be the 21st century equivalent of Talk Talk, which is an honour I do not bestow lightly.
Before I write about my last record, I just wanted to list a few other things that I’ve enjoyed a lot this year but that I don’t particularly have anything else to say about:
Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
Perfume Genius – Too Bright
The New Mendicants – Into the Lime
Marissa Nadler – July
St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Timber Timbre – Hot Dreams
EMA – The Future’s Void
Gazpacho – Demon
Swans – To be Kind
How to Dress Well – “What is this Heart?”
Morrissey – World Peace is None of Your Business
Martha – Courting Strong
Adult Jazz – Gist is
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – IX
Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems
Dean Blunt – Black Metal
East India Youth – Total Strife Forever
Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for no Witness
Ought – Today More Than Any Other Day
alt-J (∆) – This is All Yours
Metronomy – Love Letters (which I managed to miss out by forgetting it was released this year)
Which brings me on to my final choice…
Pixies – Indie Cindy
For Christmas last year I received a copy of the new Throwing Muses record. It came with a book of lyrics and other writings, and would certainly have made my list last year if I’d heard it before December 25th. I was in no way expecting such a good record, and I’d not given them too much thought since the last 80s, when they were one of two American bands recently signed to 4AD records and touring the UK on the same bill. Pixies were the other band on that bill.
Anyone who has known me for a while will know how much I like the early Pixies albums. Surfer Rosa and Doolittle are two of my favourite records ever, and I still have fond memories of doodling the lyrics to Monkey Gone to Heaven on my A Level Biology exam paper when I’d run out of questions I could answer. I’ve followed Charles Thompson’s career since (as Black Francis and Frank Black), but had not expected him to record anything else that came close to those early records.
I’m still not sure he ever will, but I think that Indie Cindy is the closest he’s come for a good while. Musically it is not dissimilar to the last two Pixies records, but the sound quality is great, and the loud/quiet dynamics work so much better. Each song is strong, and it sounds like everyone concerned really enjoyed making the record. I certainly enjoyed listening to it, and I can’t believe that in 2014 I’m talking about Pixies, Throwing Muses, Swans, Morrissey, Apex Twin, Scott Walker and some band fronted by Mark Kozelek being at the forefront of making interesting and engaging music. It almost makes me feel young again.