George East’s Top 50 Albums of 2014: #40-#31

by George_East on January 7, 2015

Before getting back to my list of best albums from 2014 (see #50-#41 here), there are a couple of other categories that I want to mention, as many of the best records that were released last year (as with every year) were in fact re-issues or compilation albums that would otherwise be excluded from the list.

Taking those categories in turn. One thing about the vinyl revival of the last few years is that it has encouraged some truly outstanding re-issues and special editions of albums.   My top 3 re-issues of 2014 were:

  1. The BeatlesMono Masters: The vinyl box set of all of the Beatles’ albums from Please Please Me to The White Album in their mono versions was a revelation (it had been released before on CD in 2009 but this was the first time as a vinyl set). The mono mixes of these albums were separately recorded and mixed and for the earlier albums at least were the superior version as they would be the far more widely distributed (as stereo equipment was expensive and confined to a small number of hifi connoisseurs). There is no Abbey Road or Let It Be because by this time there was no separate mono mix. The box set also comes with an additional Mono Masters album of singles, b sides and EP tracks.
  1. Uncle Tupelo – No Depression: The re-release of Wilco forebears and alt-country mavens, Uncle Tupelo’s seminal 1990 debut album, No Depression, was a welcome reminder of just how important a band they were. At a time when country music had disappeared up its overly commercial Countrypolitan Grand Ole Opry arse, here was a Chicago based band reviving the form with a love, care and raw honesty that it deserved – identifying its connections with punk as a folk form and producing something extraordinary. Uncle Tupelo were not alone of course but it is for good reason that this album became a by-word for the whole scene. As important in its own way as The ByrdsSweet Heart of the Rodeo.
  1. Led Zeppelin I-III: Jimmy Page’s remastered versions of the first 3 Led Zeppelin albums on vinyl sounded like rock n roll should: loud, impassioned and timeless. Not sure there is much else left to be said about these monuments of rock.

 

As for compilations :

 

1. Edwyn Collins & Others – The Possibilities Are Endless: The extraordinary story of Edwyn Collins’ stroke which left him virtually speechless and unable to play guitar, and his slow rehabilitation back to singer songwriter and recording artist was wonderfully explored in the documentary taking its name from one of the few things that Collins could say in the aftermath of the stroke, The Possibilities Are Endless. The soundtrack album was a great mix of impressionistic foggy film score tracks (reflecting Edwyn’s gradual recovery of his memory and cognitive function), old Orange Juice numbers and songs from Collins’ excellent two post-stroke albums.

2. Too Slow To Disco – Just to show that anything can be rehabilitated with enough distance from its release date, this compilation of soft rock, yacht rock and white ballady disco was one of the surprises of the year. The 19 tracks overwhelmingly from the mid to late 1970s are the kind of songs that individually you might steer a wider berth around. Yet somehow on this compilation next to each other they provided the perfect soundtrack for long lazy summer days or cocktail nights

3. Haiti Direct: Big Band, Mini Jazz and Twoubadou Sounds 1960-1978 – No more exuberant record was released all year than this double CD compilation. The selection of songs from that benighted country has been compiled with loving care by a real aficionado of the styles of Haiti that prevailed in the long dark days of the Duvalier dictatorship.   The African roots are as prevalent as the latino styles. Fascinating and superb.

 

So where were we…

40. Neil Young – A Letter Home

The ever prolific shakey is 70 later this year, but still managed to release 2 new albums in 2014 (bringing his career total to 35).Neil Young A Letter Home

In what was perhaps 2014 least likely music story, Neil filed for divorce from his wife of 35 years and started dating actress Daryl Hannah (15 years his junior), who he met through his new found environmental activism (or should that be re-found given that the astonishing After The Gold Rush is an environmental anthem before its time).   The result of all of this was Storytone, an album of almost childlike naivety in its lyrics and huge sweeping orchestral backing, all a little over the top for my ears (though the acoustic version of the songs included on an additional disc with the CD was considerably better).

It was though with his first album of the year, A Letter Home where the real interest lay for Young fans. This was the polar opposite of Storytone – an album of cover versions of songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Bert Jansch, Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen – recorded direct to vinyl in a voice-o-graph vinyl recording booth from 1947, at Jack White’s Third Man recording studio in Nashville. The overall effect was to make the songs sound like they had been around forever and that the recordings had been discovered by an anthropologist in backwoods Appalachia.

39. War on Drugs – Lost In The Dream

A little controversial maybe for The War on Drugs album to be so low given its near universal accolades (and Bobby West ‘better than the Beatles’ enthusiasticWar on Drugs Lost In The Dream support) but that should not get away from the fact that I do think it is an impressive work, so much in fact to buy it twice – once on CD and then more recently on vinyl (and I am looking forward to seeing them live in February at Brixton Academy).

This is epic stadium rock for long car journeys on endless roads across the empty expanses of the American West. Adam Granduciel sketches out his emotional exhaustion and depression following a relationship breakdown through a spaced-out soundscape that is painted on huge canvasses.   It is compelling stuff.  Yet yet yet…

The problem (if there is one) I guess is that the album’s primary sound is one of overblown mid-80s stadium rock. Mark Kozalek in the rock bitchfest of the year described it as being like Dancing In The Dark era Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger or Dire Straits. When I saw Sun Kil Moon live in December Kozalek said he had two words to describe War on Drugs: ‘Soul Asylum’. He is not wrong. To my ears the sound it most resembles is Don Henley’s Boys of Summer. And I am old enough to remember when that was not a good thing.

38. The Felice Brothers – Favorite Waitress

After the disappointment of The Felice Brothers’ last album, 2011’s Celebration, Florida, their first album recorded in a proper studio saw them on their best Felice Brothers Favourite Waitressform since the last album recorded with Simone Felice, 2008’s eponymous The Felice Brothers.   The album sees the band back to what they do best after the electronic noodlings on Celebration – fusing various folk and roots sounds to provide the best approximation of The Band that we have.

This all comes together best in a rousing singalong Cherry Licorice which sounds on the record like the live stomper it is (this album’s Frankie’s Gun) – a great reminder that the Felice Brothers are first and foremost a live band bouncing off each other like they have been playing together for decades.  The song has my second favourite rhyme of the year, ‘all I want to eat is cherry licorice, I don’t care if it sounds ridic’lous’.

37. First Aid Kit – Stay Gold

The second album in a row in this list recorded at Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis’ Omaha studio. The Swedish Soderberg sisters returned with much the same on theirFirst Aid Kit Stay Gold
third album. Stunning close harmonies, hair-swinging indie rock outs and countrified pop gems. Stay Gold featured a bigger sound than on their 2012 out and out masterpiece, The Lion’s Roar, using a 12 piece band on some songs.

If Stay Gold did not have the immediacy or the out and out beauty of The Lion’s Roar, it had in opener, My Silver Lining one of the tracks of the year, complete with wonderful fiddle and country picked guitar. It is a song that can almost sit with Emmylou.

 

 

36. Amen Dunes – Love

I didn’t know anything about Amen Dunes before I happened upon this their third album following reading a good review earlier this year. I say ‘their’ whenAmen Dunes love really I should say ‘his’, as Amen Dunes is the recording alias of one Damon McMahon.

McMahon has a unique voice, a bit high register Ian Astbury-like if truth be told and with definite female rock vocalist touches.   Yet the sound of the album is not in that space at all. More a combination of Wilco at their most experimental (think Sky Blue Sky), krautrock, Velvets-style White Light/White Heat era drone rock, with a bit of bittersweet Bonnie Prince Billy thrown in. Although some of the influences can be broken down, when it is combined it doesn’t sound like anything else around at the moment at all. And that is something to be applauded.

 

35. Beck – Morning Phase

Mojo’s album of 2014 was Beck’s first album since 2008’s Modern Guilt. Deliberately styled as a companion piece to 2002’s wonderfully despairing (and I thinkBeck Morning Phase career best) Sea Change, Morning Phase eschewed that album’s bleakness but matched its simplicity and emotional sincerity. If Sea Change had seen Beck grow up from the smart arse genre bending pop ironist (the Quentin Tarantino of popular music), then Morning Phase gives us the mature reflective artist Beck.

Much of the album has a Californian sun dappled feel – with nods to Crosby Stills and Nash and The Byrds. Though on Heart Is A Drum the harmonies are so beautifully layered that are more reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel than anything from the West Coast.   The production is smooth and assured (perhaps too much so?) throughout the album, suggesting a pitch to a more mainstream radio audience, but beneath it all is quality of song writing that not many out there are capable of matching

 

34. Metronomy – Love Letters

From the sound of one sun-dappled artist to another. Metronomy’s fourth album Love Letters though was infused with all of the irony of Beck’s early work.Metronomy love letters   Occupying the same space as the band’s 2011 break out album, English Riviera, Love Letters has (as the title suggests) has a poignant longing to it: ‘and back out there on the Riviera it gets so cold at night’ sings Joseph Mount on opener The Upsetter. On the title track Mount in ever more despairing voice in the chorus says he is ‘going to keep on writing’.   Will he ever get a response?

Despite the 1960s psychedelic cover, the sound (like that of English Riviera) of Love Letters is early 1980s English syth-pop. Heaven 17, Vince Clarke era Depeche Mode and OMD abound, though with a slightly more dancey influence of Daft Punk and the dreaminess of Air also apparent.

In the old days of the proper singles chart with Top of the Pops and all that, there would have been a couple of top 10 singles off of this album such is its knowing pop sensibility, and an equal number of memorable TOTP performances I think.

33. Jack White – Lazeretto

When I first got this album home on the day of release I took it out of its sleeve, placed it on the turntable and put the needle on the groove of the first side, theJack White Lazerreto sound that came out of the speakers was a scruffed muffle which just repeated. After 30 seconds or so I checked the turntable and it looked like the needle was stuck. Was this a faulty piece of vinyl (always a possibility with this most easily damaged formats)? The answer after a bit of experimentation was no, the first side of the album plays backwards from the centre out.

Being impressed with a gimmick like this, of course, is like saying the special effects were good in a film. It is to miss the wood for the trees.   The test is the music whether it plays forwards or backwards. And that is a test that Lazeretto passes with flying colours, even if not quite in the same league as White’s solo debut, Blunderbuss . With the continued astonishing output of Third Man records (who have three entries in my Top 50), with both new artists and old, and his own output White is in my view the most vital artist currently recording.

The opener Three Women sounds a bit early 1970s film soundtrack-like as it opens – reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to Superfly or even Lalo Schifrin. This hints at one of the things that Lazeretto has over Blunderbuss and that is the variety of influences and styles.   Blunderbuss was firmly in the White Stripes’ stripped black blues tradition (with a bigger band). Lazeretto, on the other hand has the bluegrass of Temporary Ground, country of Entitlement, Ennio Moriccone flourishes of the opening of Would You Fight For My Love?, as well as the blues rock that we have come to associate with Jack White.

 

32. Tweedy – Sukierae

Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy set out to make an album with his 18 year old son and drummer, Spencer. During the recording Tweedy’s wife, the Suki Rae of the title wasTweedy Sukirae diagnosed with lymphoma.

The emotional impact of that diagnosis made the album an intensely personal, emotionally piercing and reflective set of songs, exploring love, family and and the real potential for devastating loss. ‘No one could protect you from the blood in your own veins’ sings Tweedy in Hazel.

Some songs feel like we are entering into a private conversation between the couple (‘I want to watch you growing old and dumb, I want to see what you and I become’ he sings on Where My Love), though Tweedy keeps most of the album abstract and tangential to his wife’s illness, even if it is the unavoidable subject matter at its heart. The fact that Spencer is on drums on all of this makes it all the more poignant.

Tweedy’s 70 odd minutes take a commitment of time and emotional involvement to get its full impact. I have a sneaking suspicion that its placing in my Top 50 does not do it justice and that if I re-write this list in 12 months time, it would be much higher because it is an album that will almost certainly last and grow richer with replaying.

31. Goat – Commune

From one of the most personal albums on my list to one of the most bizarre. You remember back in the day when Channel 4 was Channel 4, and if you are of my Goat Communegeneration you’d tune in to some late night foreign film or another in the hope of a bit of gratuitous nudity (on which they usually delivered in spades) and you happened upon some bizarre 1970s European horror film. Well Goat’s debut sounds like the soundtrack to one of those films.

Slightly folky underneath hypnotically repetitive electronica and psychedelic guitars (you can just see the satanic sexed up ritual getting ever more frantic as the beat gets faster.   The fact that the track names include Talk To God, The Light Within, Goatchild and Gathering of Ancient Tribes does nothing to dispel these associations.

Goat are Swedish and play up to the associations that their music invokes, claiming to originate from a town from the very north of Sweden seeped in Pagan ritual, and the band play in masks.   And just look at that album cover – what the shit is going on with that.

It is the kind of music that ought to be ridiculous but the album kind of gets under your skin even on a first listen. And I’ve played it a lot more than that.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

John Stone January 7, 2015 at 11:34 pm

I think Uncle Tupelo only played about half a dozen UK gigs, but I was lucky enough to see them at Newcastle Riverside. What a great band, I loved the very acoustic low key March 16-20 album. They did a mean cover of Creedence ‘Effigy’ too.

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