George East’s Top 50 Albums of 2014: #30-#21

by George_East on January 10, 2015

So we have now reached the half way mark in the count down of the best 50 album of 2014. The lower reaches can be found here (#50-#41) and here (#31-#40).

However before we get back to the list a few other categories in my musical review of the year.

Biggest music PR disaster of the year: U2’s decision to take a reported $100M from Apple for their new album Songs Of Innocence who then promptly spammed to it every one on the planet with an Itunes account to tie in with the launch of the Iphone 6 backfired spectacularly on both band and computer company.   Apple were forced into rushing out software enabling the unwanted album to be deleted. U2 were left looking even more like corporate shills than they already did as they tried to spin their greed as generosity (something that many of us thought impossible).   They looked so self-evidently ridiculous that I felt my work over the last three decades pointing this out was finally done.

Feud of the year: Mark Kozalek and the War of Drugs. Obviously. Kozalek’s hilariously over the top reaction to a sound bleed to his stage from the War on Drugs on the main stage at a festival in Ottawa.   Kozalek responded to this imposition by writing the hilarious War On Drugs Can Suck My Cock (a great song as it happens), leading to War on Drugs responding with Sun Kil Moon: Fuck You. Kozalek suggested that they release both songs as a double A-sided single, but having had this turned down by War on Drugs went on to record Adam Granofsky Blues.   Hopefully this will continue throughout 2015 and we will get a whole album of material.

Bizarre story of the year: As already mentioned, Neil Young leaving his wife of 35 years and getting together with Daryl Hannah.

Finally, best title for a track of the year (and a solid contender for best track of the year): Fat White Family’s I Am Mark E Smith which has the intriguing chorus of ‘I am Mark E Smith, I’ve got the paperwork to prove it’.  To be fair I’ve never seen them in the same room.

Good news of the year: Pink Floyd confirmed that their poorly received Endless River album will be their last. Thank goodness for that. Endless twaddle more like.

Where were we…oh yes

30. FKA Twigs – LP1

26 year old Tahliah Barnett coming at you straight out of rural Gloucestershire brilliantly mainlined the trip hoppy sounds of Tricky and Massive Attack withFKA Twigs LP1 female insecurity, heart break and sexual self doubt: ‘when I trust you we can do it with the lights on she sings on one of the single from the album, Lights On.   On Numbers the lights may have been on but the doubt of the morning after sets in: ‘was I just a number for you’.

Her breathy vocals with echoey production were reminiscent of that other trip hop superstar, Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, but there was also something of mid-period Siouxsie and Bjork in there.

This was a startling debut from an extraordinary talent (who we can only hope her huge success with this and dating of actor Robert Pattinson doesn’t see her disappear up the arse of celebrity).   The sexual self doubt contained in the lyrics is finally resolved in that time honoured way on the last track of the album (Kicks), a wank: ‘I don’t need you, I love my touch, I know just what to do’

An artist very much to watch.

29. Thurston Moore – The Best Day

From a new artist to an old one. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore released his first band (and intra-band relationship) break-up solo album. The end of his Thurston Moore The Best Daymarriage to Sonic Youth’s bassist, Kim Gordon in 2012 saw Moore re-locate to London and in The Best Day release an album demonstrating a lot more assurance and vitality than much of Sonic Youth’s later output.

That is not to say that it represented a departure in sound – far from it, The Best Day sounded very much like Sonic Youth from their peak late 1980s/early 1990s period. Insistent guitars that build through repetition into a wall of sound with great surprisingly catchy melodies over the top.   The songs anchored by Steve Shelley, Sonic Youth’s drummer providing a clear continuity in sound.

The album has a reflective tone with photographs of Moore’s parents on the cover, though there is no sense of melancholy about it.   If this is what Sonic Middle Age sounds like, then all power to him.

 

28. Elbow – The Take Off And Landing of Everything

With the Take Off and Landing Of Everything Elbow felt that they had finally put behind them the perhaps accidental mega-success and ubiquity of One Day Elbow Takeoff and LandingLike This.   Elbow’s last album, 2011’s Build A Rocket Boys had, perhaps, been their most disappointing precisely because it had appeared that Guy Garvey was seeking to cash in on their new stadium anthem status.

Take Off and Landing of Everything meanwhile finds Elbow returning to what made them such a compelling band in the first place. Guy Garvey’s wonderfully big warm Lancastrian voice envelops the 10 songs on the album.   Elbow haven’t totally eschewed grandiosity here – there are big strings on Charge for example, but some how it all feels more intimate and personal than they have for a good long while. 

27. Aphex Twin – Syro

Released on triple vinyl Syro saw Richard James (aka Aphex Twin) return with his first album since 2001 (a time so long ago in musical terms that the ipod hadSyro Aphex Twin not even been launched).

If Syro didn’t represent any radical departures, it did underline that James is just the best there is at creating electronic sonic worlds.   This is music to take you to a completely different place – it is utterly engrossing in its all-encompassing textures.

Even if dance music and electronica are not your thing, giving the lie to the notion that it is music for the background, music to do other stuff to.   This is music to be listened to, music to study, music to get lost in. No one else can do anything close to what James is capable of doing.

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait for another 13 years before his next album.

26. St Paul & The Broken Bones – Half The City

The soul album of the year came out of Alabama.   Unusually for a southern roots act debut album it was not released on Jack White’s Third Man records.St Paul and the broken bones Instead St Paul & The Broken Bones’ were signed to the label of another White, that of John Paul White (formerly of The Civil Wars) and recorded their album in part at that catherdral to southern soul, Fame studios in Muscle Shoals.

Half The City did not have quite the rootsiness of the debut of their state-mate soulsters, Alabama Shakes (whose Ben Tanner produced the album), but this old school soul that you probably didn’t realise they even made any more (or in reality were even capable of making any more).

Think Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd or even the soulier (rather than funkier) end of James Brown.   These are mighty big names to stand alongside and it may be a little unfair to St Paul (singer Paul Janeway) to suggest that he is worthy of such company. How on earth can you but disappoint then. But he certainly doesn’t embarrass himself in such a comparison and if you hanker after something with real soul and not over produced r&b, then he may just be your man and Half The City just your album.

25. Allah-Las – Worship The Sun

LA’s Allah-Las reference points are 1960s British beat and psychedelic bands, at times even The Monkees, but most of all Arthur Lee’s fellow Angelinos, Love.Allah las   Their second album, Worship The Sun did the melodic jingly jangly psych rock better than the debut of the current great white hope of British guitar music, Temples’ Sun Structures (though Rough Trade would disagree with me, making it their album of the year).

The difference may be that the Allah-Las like the city they come from and as the title of the album suggests make sun drenched guitar music whereas Temples sound like they come from somewhere a good deal more dreary (Northampton, as it happens). The fact that the then unsigned Temples supported Allah-Las on the tour for their first album, seems on the strength of this the correct hierarchy.

Worship the Sun is perfect music for the soundtrack of an indie coming of age movie and certainly would not have felt out of place in Richard Linklater’s remarkable Boyhood.   Not so much the sound of growing up, but the sound to grow up to. How could your teen years be bad if you had this.

24. Keaton Henson – Romantic Works

Back in 2012 I bought Keaton Henson’s first album Dear on the strength of the cover art when I came across it in Rough Trade East.   It ended up being in myKeaton Henson Romantic Works top 10 albums of that year.   That album consisted of fragile Nick Drake style songs of longing, hope and loss. It was truly a small gem from that year and it was sad that it was not far bigger (being largely ignored in the end of year critics’ lists).

Henson’s third album in one sense could not be more different, as it is wholly instrumental. On the other hand it has the same exquisite musical craftsmanship and is clearly influenced by many of the same issues as Dear. It has a reflective melancholy about it which belies Henson’s years (he is still only 26).

Featuring extraordinarily beautiful cello playing from Ren Ford and piano and guitar from Henson (who also composed, arranged and produced the album) it draws you into to its emotional landscape. Listen to it with your eyes closed and with the volume up and you can almost feel the pain physically.

23. Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems

The oldest artists in my best album list this year is the 13th from 80 year old legend, Leonard Cohen. There were nearly two albums by octogenarians in my topLeonard Cohen Popular Problems 50 for 2014 but Willie Nelson’s Band Of Brothers just missed out (largely because the production on it is a little too big).   I’m not sure whether that reflects more on me than on the relative quality of music out there by younger artists.

However one thing is for sure that Cohen is on absolutely top form with Popular Problems. Ok maybe not first two albums’ form, but that is a huge ask.   The first line on the album is ‘I’m slowing down the tune’ and this is an album that proceeds at a stately pace (‘I’ve always liked it slow, slow is in my blood’).   But that said it is an album with a real swing about it. It is almost at times a Leonard Cohen you could dance to (well slow dance to).

The fact that Cohen’s late career prolific recording and touring schedule has been driven by his former manager robbing him blind, has not resulted in any diminishing of the quality of his output at all. Indeed if anything it seems to have spurred him on to show that he can still operate with the very best of them. On Almost Like The Blues he reflects on ‘all my bad reviews’ and maybe he has determined not to get any more – you will note it is only ‘almost’ like the blues. Cohen is too knowing and too clever to make a simple equation.

22. Mogwai – Rave Tapes

I spent ages not getting Mogwai. I know of a fair few people who swear by them, but they never really made much sense to me. Then Rave Tapes came out in Mogwai Rave TapesJanuary and I was determined to give it a proper listen.   I am increasingly coming to the view that instrumental albums need to be listened to with every bit as much care as vocal albums (see Keaton Henson above). The reason I think I haven’t got them before, is that I haven’t listened.

This is not so much (as the cliché goes) a soundtrack for a film that doesn’t exist, as a soundtrack for a film that bloody well ought to exist.   The synthesizer sound on Rave Tapes well pre-dates the first word of the title – it is reminiscent of 1970s and early 1980s electronica.

This is not a wholly instrumental album. There is use of Vocodor on the final track, The Lord Is Out of Control and a hilarious bit on Repelish about how there are satanic messages in Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven if only you listen to it backwards (it would certainly sound better that way, but that is a debate for another day).   Yet it is perhaps the one actual song, Blues Hour – a beautiful slow ballad that underlines the album’s achievement.

Now I need to dust down Mogwai’s back catalogue and listen to it properly.

21. Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots

Rather appositely given yesterday’s Oasis v Blur post by Ray North, Damon Albarn’s first solo album, Everyday Robots provides ample evidence of who wonEveryday Robots Damon Albarn that particular fight. I can’t even imagine a circumstance in which a Noel Gallagher solo (or Flying Birds’) album would get into my top 50 list.

Everyday Robots explores getting older and atomised modern living: ‘we are everyday robots on our phones’ Albarn sings on the title track.  Musically the album’s slightly downbeat vibe is reminiscent of the superb The Good The Band and The Queen album of a few years back (probably my favourite post-Blur Albarn project), as well as the better parts of Blur’s swansong, Think Tank.

And it is really beautiful.   I mean really beautiful. A beauty of which the Gallaghers simply have no conception.

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