George East’s Top 50 Albums of 2014: #20-#11

by George_East on January 21, 2015

After an enforced work-induced break we now reach the business end of my top 50 albums of 2014 with the penultimate post, the albums just outside the all important top 10. To see what you’ve missed so far follow the links for #50-#41, #40-#31 and #30-#21.

Before we get back to it though, firstly my top 5 cover versions of 2014?

  1. St VincentLithium   The woman of the moment, Annie Clark, covered Kurt Cobain’s ode to anti-depressants to mark the occasion of Nirvana’s induction into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, accompanied by Dave Grohl and Krist Novosolic (who Bobby West reckons is now an accountant – but that’s another story). It was everything a great cover should be, a distinct reinvention of the original, which she made her own without losing anything that made the song great in the first place.
  1. Charlotte Gainsbourg with Beck Hey Joe For the sound track of Lars Von Trier’s 5 and half hour sex epic, Nymphomaniac, its star, Gainsbourg, recorded this hushed vocalled, disturbing version of the Hendrix classic.
  1. LowI’m On Fire    Cult veteran indie LoFi-ers Low produced this beautiful version of Springsteen’s classic single from Born In The USA.   For a song so familiar he came off sounding like a Low track. Great stuff.
  1. Todd Terje (with Bryan Ferry) – Johnny & Mary  Norwegian nu-disco producer, Todd Terje, only missed out on my Top 50 album cut (once again I suspect more a reflection on my taste in musical styles rather than any criticism of his superb It’s Album Time). The stand out track on that album though was this cover of a 1970s Robert Palmer song which was transformed into an instant disco ballad classic.
  1. The Flaming Lips and Miley CyrusA Day In The Life The very idea of it means it has to be in the top 5. Genuinely great stuff too with Miley raising the song from out of traditional cover territory.

Now back to the reason why we are here:

20: Samantha Crain – Kid FaceSamantha Crain Kid Face

The very first new album I bought in 2014, already over a year ago now, has stayed with me ever since. In fact it has never been filed away (a one way trip for many many CDs) and has instead been in a pile of discs I have played regularly throughout the year.

Crain is a singer songwriter who hails from Oklahoma and is part Choctaw. Like Caitlin Rose, she sits at the indie end of country, though with a couple of songs (in particular Somewhere All The Time) she does the full on (production aside) almost Taylor Swift pop thing.  With a compelling crystal clear voice full of nuance and a lovely guitar accompaniment, Crain takes us through her life in an album that is blessed with a good deal of cautions optimism – ‘open up the door, leave your weapons on the floor, it will all be fine she reassuringly sings on Ax, on the wonderful Sand Paintings her hippy-ish message to her lover is ‘I won’t be hard on myself, if you’ll be kind to you’.

This is apparently her third album (which reminds me that I need to get the other two).   Another one for Jackie South.

19. St Vincent – St Vincent

Along with The War on Drugs album, the critics’ album of the year was Annie Clark’s eponymous fourth as St Vincent.   And what a great album it is. It was mySaint Vincent album pop album of the year. If St Vincent can really be described as pop.

This is an album mixing millennial dance beeps, krautrock synthesisers, 1960s soul melodies and a pop sensibility that would shame Lady Gaga. It is busy but somehow all hangs together perfectly.

Yet this is a pop sensibility that on Birth In Reverse (a potential number 1 single surely back in the days of the old singles chart) has Clark opening the song with: ‘What an ordinary day, take out the garbage, masturbate’.   Extraordinary stuff, disguising everyday mundanity perhaps.   Then we are confronted and confounded by in Prince Johnny with: ‘remember the time we went and snorted, that piece of the Berlin Wall you extorted’ (surely the rhyming couplet of the year) over a sexed up slowed down soul vibe.   Just extraordinary.

18. Steve Malkmus & The Jicks – Wig Out At Jagbags 

Former Pavement front man, Malkmus, once again delivered with Wig Out At Jagbags, underlining again the fact that it one of the most important AmericanSteve Malkmus wig out at jagbags musicians to emerge over the last quarter of a century.

For Pavement fans there may not be much here to surprise. The superb The Janitor Revealed would not have sounded out of place on Slanted and Enchanted.   This is not though a criticism. There is still no one else doing this kind of stuff. The fractured slightly jazzy musical style, the influence of 1980s-era Fall, yet underpinned with classic American art rock and an ear for a pop tune.

Malkmus knows exactly what he was doing and who is listening: ‘Can you remember the thrill and the rush? You’re not out of touch. Come tonight and you’ll see. No one has changed and no one ever will’ he sings on side two opener, Rumble at the Rainbo.   And that is kind of reassuring to me as someone who saw Pavement on their first album tour.

17. King Creosote – From Scotland With Love

In the year of the Scottish referendum, King Creosote (Kenny Anderson) provided the score for a documentary, From Scotland With Love, commissioned to King Creosoteaccompany Glasgow’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games.

Like his astonishing 2011 collaboration with Jon Hopkins, Diamond Mine, this album was infused with nostalgia. However, this time it is explicit – the film being a tour of Scottish early and mid-20th century life of ordinary scots.   There are songs of the dangerous life of trawlermen (Cargill) and of the cocklepickers on the beaches (Bluebell, Cockleshell 1,2,3), of day trips to the seaside (Largs) and of Glasgow trade unionism (Pauper’s Dough).

It is an album reflecting the frequently hard and frugal life of working class Scots. Yet it also reflects the joy, collectivity and shared experience of that culture. It tries to capture a lived experience rather than looking back wistfully.

The folk album of the year.

16. Ariel Pink – Pom Pom

Ok, Ariel Pink excelled himself as coming across like a total arse this year, with his comments about gay marriage pissing him off, declaring that it is not ‘illegalAriel Pink Pom Pom to be a racist’ and saying that ‘everyone’s a victim except small white guys’. Yet there was the sense that this was all part of an act. The LA freak scene bad boy whipping up a storm for the sake of publicity.

And you need to look beyond all of that because Pom Pom was probably the most out and out inventive album of the year, simply overbrimming with ideas. It is hard to know where even to start with the influences: Zappa, and Beefheart expirementalism on the one hand. Yet on the other there is the 1970s krautrock/Buggles mashup of White Freckles (complete with Space Invaders’ samples), the psychedelic pop of Dayzed Inn Daydreams and the late 1990s the British indie pop of Hey Little Girl, with a liberal sprinkling of Bowie of various periods over the whole thing.

This is an album that you’ll get something completely new from on the 20th or more listen. There is so much going on, it is hard to keep up.   Ariel Pink should be huge off the back of this – yet last time he played the UK he played the Scala in Kings Cross.   Never mind, at least Coldplay released a new album to huge sales, eh?

15. Dean Wareham – Dean Wareham

Former Galaxie 500 man Dean Wareham released this album of his unique lo fi dream popback in March this year. To me, it is one of the most surprisingdean wareham omissions from the main critics’ end of year lists, as it as utterly gorgeous as anything recorded by his old band back in the day.

Wareham’s voice appears (as ever) unable to do anything other than melancholy, though the regret and sense of loss that comes through on this album has an enigmatic quality and humour that makes you want to know more. The music channels Wareham’s love of 1960s pop and widescreen film soundtracks.

If you loved Galaxie 500 back in the day you’ll love this. If you don’t know who they were or have forgotten them, after buying this you’ll be itching to check them out.


14. Doug Paisley – Strong Feelings

The Canadian country singer songwriter, Doug Paisley, has been firmly on my radar since his wonderful second album, Constant Companion came out in 2010.Doug Paisley Strong Feelings  Strong Feelings is every bit as good.

His superb rich baritone country voice is reminiscent of Kris Kristofferson and the music is pretty squarely in the Nashville tradition – nothing fancy, no genre mix ups, just good old fashioned country and western singer songwriting firmly in the line of Hank Williams and the outlaw country singers of the 1970s (though perhaps without the latter’s edge). As it should be.

Yet although this is a singer song writer’s album the backing band here is superb very much helped along by the wonderful playing of The Band’s legendary Garth Hudson on keyboards and fellow Canadian Mary Margaret O’Hara providing backing vocals.

13. Gruff Rhys – American Interior

This is an amazing album based on an amazing story (also the subject of a film and a book by Super Furry Animals lead man, Gruff Rhys).   In the late 18thGruff Rhys American Interior Century a Welsh explorer called John Evans set off from his home across the Atlantic and into the then unmapped vast American interior in search of a mythical tribe of Welsh speaking native Americans.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in his 7 year odyssey he never found the tribe but he did map 1800 miles of the Missouri river, a map that would later be used by the Lewis and Clark expedition. He was also captured by the Spanish and died in his late 20s in New Orleans.

Rhys retraced Evans’ journey by way of a tour in 2012 and made this album based on Evans and his own experience.   The album is funny, original and full of superb tunes (100 Unread Messages is a stomping rock n roll classic, The Last Conquistador a 1970s soft rock piano ballad, in a good way).   American Interior gives the impression of a man full of admiration for Evans but in no way awed by him or the project.   

12. Withered Hand – New Gods

The second entry from the artists who made up the now defunct Fife-based Fence Collective (after King Creosote) is this truly superb album by Marc Riley Withered Hand New Godsfavourite, Withered Hand (Dan Wilson).  It is a collection of perfectly crafted anthemic folk pop songs. Can you even have anthemic folk?

I wear your love like a souvenir, but you are settling for me here’, did you paint a lustre on the sun’ he sings on the starry-eyed love struck opener, Horseshoe.   This is an optimistic album. Wilson sees hope, even where the songs reflect aging (Black Tambourine – ‘facing down the fear, thinking what’s the big idea) or fear of dying (Life of Doubt) or the fading of lust (Love Over Desire). He even manages to get in a tribute to King Creosote on the lovely King of Hollywood.

If it hadn’t been for the serious misfire of the Mumford-esque closer, Not Alone, this would have been comfortably in my top 10.


11. Bonnie Prince Billy – Singer’s Grave – A Sea of TonguesBonnie Prince Billy Tiger Album

The incredibly prolific Will Oldham released his best album, for my money, since 2009’s Beware with the Singer’s Grave – A Sea of Tongues, or the Tiger Album (after the rather distinctive cover art) as I’ve come to know it, as that title is just too odd to remember (like Bill Callahan’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle – one of my favourites albums of the last 5 years, but one whose title I can never remember).

The Tiger Album is a superb collection of country songs with heavy use of pedal steel guitar and mandolin and great use of Oldham’s distinctive fragile voice.   It comes then as a bit of a surprise on first play when some of the songs seem a little familiar. In fact many of them are revised versions from his 2012 album Wolfroy Goes To Town (Oldham has done this before with 2004’s Bonnie Prince Billy Sings Greatest Palace Songs which reworked some of the tracks he had recorded as Palace Music a decade before). The fact that they seem so much better on this album is a testament to the wonderful playing of the band and Oldham’s great ear for arrangement.   The songs are more traditional sounding even if the arrangements are bigger on this album – somehow their essence has been brought to the surface.

There is great vocal backing from gospel singers the McCrary Sisters giving the album something of a spiritual feel. And in the simply stunning Quail and Dumplings the album probably contains my track of the year.

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