George East’s Top 50 Albums of 2014: #10-#1

by George_East on February 26, 2015

This has been a very long time coming. Last year I posted my top 10 albums of 2013 on 16 January 2014 and I thought that was a bit slack. This year it has taken me until nearly the end of February (at times I thought it might be 2016 before I finished it). It has been such a busy start to the year for me, personally and professionally, and these posts take a long time to put together. So that is my excuse. Apologies if you have been on the edge of your seats (as I am sure you have been).

My favourite discovery of the year was Melbourne singer songwriter Courtney Barnett – but her Sea of Split Peas album was a compilation of two earlier EPs and therefore not eligible for my Top 50.   Her debut album due at the end of March is my most hotly anticipated record of 2015.

For those who want to remind themselves, follow the links to the albums at #50-#41, #40-#31, #30-#21 and #20-#11.

And as a further reminder (not least of my impeccable taste) my previous best albums of the year (dating back to 2008) were:

2008: Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes;

2009: Bill Callahan, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle;

2010: John GrantThe Queen of Denmark;

2011: Gillian WelchThe Harrow and The Harvest;

2012: Bill Fay – Life Is People;

2013: John GrantPale Green Ghosts

Time for the great unveiling:

10. East India Youth – Total Strife Forever

The electronica album of the year came in the shape of this extraordinary debut from William Doyle released way back in the second week of 2014.   This is the kind of electronica to accompany an imaginary film as much as to dance to (thoughEast India Youth Total Strife Forever he played an ear splittingly loud DJ set at Field Day last year). Deeply atmospheric, mysterious and ice cool.

Doyle had previously dabbled in guitar based indie (traces of which can be heard on the vocal tracks like the melancholic synth anthem Dripping Down) but traded it all in for a laptop and a sythesiser. From tracks like the all-enveloping opener, Glitter Recession that builds and builds, Hinterland straight from an avant gard sci fi movie reimagined by New Order and the gorgeous centrepiece Heaven, How Long that was a move that both he and we should be grateful for.   At 23 years old Doyle could retire now and he would have made his mark. Fortunately his second album is due out in April of this year.

9. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness

How can you not love a record which has an opening track entitled, Unfucktheworld. Angel Olsen’s second album showed just how far Bonnie Prince Billy’s former backing singer has come.     The sound of the album is a long way from the Angel Olsen Burn Your Fire For No Witnessfolky/americana sounds of Will Oldham, though on tracks like the excellent Lights Out there is underneath the layered guitars a beautiful country song.

And this is the great thing about Burn Your Fire For No Witness – what sounds like an indie band with a very full sound has at its heart a lonely emotionally conflicted woman baring her soul. ‘I think you like to see me lose my mind, you treat me like a child. I’m angry, blind’ (Stars).   ‘I wish it were the same as it is in my mind’ Olsen sings in Enemy.

 

8. Swans – To Be Kind

My rules for this list are that the album has to have been released in 2014 and I have to have heard it before the year end.   This means that quite often there will be albums that I hear after the year is over but before I finish the list (particularly Swans To Be Kindwhen I am publishing my list so late) that would otherwise get in. For 2014 there is certainly one album in that category (Divide and Exit by Sleaford Mods – more about that another day).   However, the Swans’ latest album was the last album I heard for the first time to be included in my list – getting its first outing on my system between Christmas and New Year, inspired as I was to buy it, by Bobby West asking if I had heard it.

And what an album it is. Michael Gira’s Swans have, of course, been around pretty much forever (their first records came out in the early 1980s) ploughing their own furrow of minimalistic repetitive guitar chords, played at ear splitting volumes live. Indeed had you asked me about the Swans when I was in my first year at university I would have struggled to name a song, but could have told you that they were almost illegally loud.

To Be Kind is one of only a handful of records I own by them, but it takes their concept to its logical extreme. This is a double album of 10 songs centering on the truly extraordinary 34 minute Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture which sounds like some kind of cult ritual.    Gira wears some of his influences on his sleeve with one track Just A Little Boy dedicated to blues legend Howlin’ Wolf.   There are other influences here though – Bauhaus at their least gothy came to mind, though the album has a rich texture to it that I don’t think Pete Murphy’s outfit ever reached.   The war on the boredom of every day life which is Job ends with what sounds like the mantra going through the head of the factory drone turned serial killer by the monotony of his life: ‘Cut off the arms, Cut off the legs, Cut off the head, Get rid of the body’.

Swans may have been around for more than 30 years but if anything they are even more scary now than they ever were before.

7. The Delines – Colfax

Richmond Fontaine’s great Willy Vlautin’s latest project, The Delines’ debut album, Colfax was probably the most evocative of the year. Vlautin’s speciality tales of blue collar lives on their uppers is gorgeously realised here. It’s like listening to aThe Delines Colfas gritty short story collection like in this stunning verse about fleeing a relationship (The Oil Rigs At Night):

If I end up in Atlanta

Broke and in some single room

Or stuck at a register at some dollar store

I won’t be cursed with seeing the golden light

From the oil rigs at night’

The countrified sound of the Delines is familiar to those of us who have championed the criminally underrated Richmond Fontaine over the years. The difference here though is that Vlautin has ceded vocal duties to Amy Boone. Her nuanced and heartfelt voice adds an additional dimension to Vlautin’s songs of hard times and harder luck.

This is the best thing Vlautin has done since Richmond Fontaine’s 2004 masterpiece, Post To Wire. He is one of the great songwriters currently working. This is as good an introduction as any, if you don’t know him.

6. The Haden Triplets – The Haden Triplets

The most purely beautiful album since The Fleet Foxes debut is surely this album of bluegrass standards by The Haden Triplets. The close harmonies from Petra, Tanya and Rachel Haden are to die for on this sublime record wonderfullyHaden Triplets album produced by Ry Cooder (who also plays guitar and mandolin).

The triplets, daughters of legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden (one of 2014’s sad losses to music), note on the sleeve their rich musical heritage: Yiddish folk songs, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, as well as free jazz pioneers like Ornette Coleman.

This is an album that, clean production aside, sounds like it could be a rediscovered recording from the 1920s or 1930s when Alan Lomax was touring the south recording folk songs in the Smoky mountains. The songs reflect the traditions of the Appalachians – devotional songs like Voice From On High as well as songs of love and loss like My Baby’s Gone and Tiny Broken Heart.

Utterly gorgeous. 

 

5. Allo Darlin’ – We Come From The Same Place

 I often say that Belle and Sebastian are the last old school indie band by which I mean the kind of melodic guitar based band with wry and knowing lyrics that I grew up with. I am wrong about that because Allo Darlin’ are very much in that space and We Allo Darlin We Come From The Same PlaceCome From The Same Place is the kind of album that would have provided a template for the emotions of my teenage self.

It is impossible not to love an album that manages to rhyme ‘Spanish bar’ with ‘Jagermeister’ in the opening couplet of the first song (Heartbeat). Elizabeth Morris’s vocals are so expressive and like my current favourite, Courtney Barnett, the Aussie twang in it makes it seem all the more sincere somehow.   The songs seem to come from deep personal experience and have a reality to them, even when the subject matter is as perennial as young love (Kings and Queens) or the initial first flush of lust. This is a happy but tentative album:

When I watched you undress that was my Achilles heel

Then you took my cigarettes

What else will you steal?’ (Bright Eyes)

I’m not sure there is another band who can do this stuff as well as Allo Darlin’ can. And that is as big a compliment as there is.

 

4. Avi Buffalo – At Best Cuckold

At Best Cuckold Avi Buffalo

The second (and it would appear from Avi Zahber-Isenberg’s recent comments, final) album from Avi Buffalo, At Best Cuckold was the late summery delight of 2014.   Avi’s falsetto vocals over dreamy Galaxie 500 guitar pop make this a lovely listen. As with their first self-entitled album this is the sound of Californian teenagers.   Horny, smart, sun blessed.

There is a sense of instant living here, where even something that just happened is confined to the long ago barely recalled past.   So in a song ostensibly about nostalgia, Memories of You (including a bedroom guitar solo of mastubatory proportions) Avi sings: ‘What the fuck am I supposed to do, if these memories don’t hurt me, they’ll hurt you. Four moments wasted’. Moments that is, not years, not even days.

The songs are wonderfully crafted and as with their debut album, in parts filthy as fuck. ‘my cherry pie, please take my load, just got one holy road, and sprayed with applesauce, I couldn’t stop’. Indeed.

Think It’s Gonna Happen Again was one of my tracks of the year. Wonderful anthemic indie guitar pop.

 

3. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There

Now for something the antithesis of teenage.

Sharon Van Etten’s fourth album, Are We There, is her best yet.   This is confessional songwriting at its most revealing, sometimes uncomfortably so. So on closer, Every Time The Sun Comes Up she lays bare the mundanity of relationshipsSharon Van Etten Are We There even in their early days: ‘I wash your dishes, then I shit in your bathroom’.   There is no hiding from these basic facts – it is not all shagging and candle lit dinners Van Etten makes clear. Doomed from the beginning maybe.

Van Etten is also aware of her own reputation for such confession, stating on I Know , ‘I sing about fear and love and what it brings’.   On the despairing Your Love Is Killing Me she touches on domestic violence and the pull back in.

Over guitar and piano and self-produced this album feels more musically confident than some of her earlier records.   This is a singer songwriter at the absolute top of her game which if only she can keep bearing the emotional and physical reality of the life she so unsparingly sings about heralds some truly monumental work to come. In the meantime though Are We There is a record to savour. 

 

 

2. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds In Country Music

Outlaw country. Long dead as a form. Last seen wearing a cowboy hat in the 1970s, surely. But what Nelson, Jennings and Cash did back then, Sturgill Simpson has reinvented. Self-consciously so as the title of the album suggests and with aSturgill Simpson Metamodern Sounds In Country Music liberal dose of hippydom sprinkled over the top. The combination of all this resulting in the most compelling country album of the year and the last few years too.

Kentuckian Simpson is blessed with not only an absolutely top drawer name but with an extraordinarily rich country voice –country singers should sound like this. The music veers from the Nashville bar traditional on songs like Life of Sin and Living The Dream to the mellotron string sounds of The Promise and synths of It Ain’t All Flowers.

Lyrically Simpson deals with big stuff about religion, human consciousness and the meaning of existence (Stephen Hawking gets a thank you on the liner notes) but in the midst of this he can also write a pure country line like: ‘a picture is worth a thousand words, but your words ain’t worth a dime’ (Voices).

This is an artist who knows exactly what he is doing and an album in which he achieves everything he is trying to achieve. Metamodern Sounds In Country Music is then an album deserving of the album of the year award and it would have won if it hadn’t have been for…

 

1. Sun Kil Moon – Benji 

If Bobby West and I do not quite see eye to eye on the merits of The War on Drugs album, there is not a cigarette paper between us on the merits of the finest record of Mark Kozalek’s career and my album of the year for 2014, Benji.Benji sun kil moon

Kozalek is a notoriously difficult character with a reputation for miserabilsm and an almost absurd productivity rate. There are 20 odd albums of material, solo or as Red House Painters or Sun Kil Moon, and a shed load of live albums often released simultaneously. Keeping up with him is all but impossible.   I’ve got a fair few of his records and have followed his career more or less since the Red House Painters’ days. But nothing in that career and I mean nothing prepared the ground for the genius that is Benji.

It is an album of death. The death of family members, the death of friends. The death of the old. The death of the young. But it is a warm album of death. Kozalek wants to tell us about the lives of those now dead in an almost novelistic way.   These are the  kind of songs that turn the small and quotidian into the big and universal. This is Raymond Carver good.

Kozalek takes us through his first sexual experiences in painfully explicit detail (Dogs) but is just as honest about the alienating experience of going to gigs in his 40s or his fear that his drummer might die (Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley) because he’s older than   James Gandolfini. Benji deals with the prosaic and the most essential experiences and thoughts. Maybe because it is the prosaic that is essential to lived experience.

He ropes in Will Oldham for some wonderful low key harmonies on the plaintive I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Life. His Dad is the subject of the equally directly titled and equally wonderful I Love My Dad. For those of us of not dissimilar age, the sense of parental mortality cannot but resonate.

An artist spending more time on each record might only have included one aerosol related death (his second cousin and his uncle, really?), or one fewer anecdote about the records he was playing or films he was watching at any particular moment. Yet it is just this that makes the album so special and so whole – the songs interlink and overlap, echo and reverberate.

Not an album to be heard but an album to be listened to. A masterpiece that gets better on every play.

 

 

Yours?  Assuming you can remember them.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Bobby West February 26, 2015 at 1:24 pm

A great winner – probably my favourite album since the Fleets debut. Really, truly miserable but incredibly human.

I only know one other in your top ten so quite a lot to check out there. In general, I didn’t really hear that much new music so cant justify a top ten but yep loved the War on Drugs and as you know a fan of the Doug Paisley album (your No14).

Slightly surprised that Future Islands didn’t make your list. Really like the first half of it…

Reply

Charlie_East_West February 26, 2015 at 2:02 pm

My top 10:
1. King Creosote
2. Sun Kil Moon
3. Future Islands
4. Doug Paisley
5. Gruff Rhys
6. Roddy Frame
7. Sturgill Simpson
8. Sharon Van Etten
9. The Gloaming
10. War on Drugs

Reply

George_East February 26, 2015 at 2:04 pm

The more I listen to it the more Benji sounds like a great set of inter-linking short stories as much as confession (there are a few too many tall tales on there for it to be strictly autobiographical I think). Truly great stuff. He’s due to release his next album in June – not sure how he is going to come close though.

As for Future Islands – I found it a little bland beyond the single, but haven’t played it that much to be honest. One to revisit. There are a fair few albums that I really regret not having space for = the Bob Mould album for just one. Not sure how that didn’t make it on reflection (there again I’ve had a further two months to listen to it since I put the list together – which really is ‘as of 31 December 2014’).

Reply

Bobby West February 26, 2015 at 3:55 pm

‘Sun in the morning’ was one of my fav tracks of the year. Proper pop…

Reply

George_East February 26, 2015 at 4:02 pm

To be fair you’ve always had more of a taste for it than I have.

Reply

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