Thursday, 18 December 2014

2014 Albums of the Year: Top 30

You know what time it is, folks. Blood, sweat and industry has brought us to this moment. Do enjoy the light reading.

Artist: Jessica Lea Mayfield
Album: Make My Head Sing
Label: ATO

What a transformation it's been for Jessica Lea Mayfield. Quite surprisingly, she’s gone from alt-country sweetheart to grunge queen within the blink of an eye. From supporting the likes of Ryan Adams, to tipping her hat off to ‘90s alt-rock icons, Make My Head Sing is quite the boundary breaker.
From the first notes of ‘Oblivious’ it’s evident that Mayfield has turned the ship into new waters. Her dialect plays a definitive role during ...Sing. She lets her vowels hang elegantly, creating an interesting juxtaposition, as they get plucked from the air by crunching low-tuned guitar drones. Total rock chick moments, really.
‘Standing In the Sun’ is a track dominated by those very innocent, sweet vocals. The perfect pop song, all told. ‘Party Drugs’ is a dirge that contains close-to-the-bone lyrics, interwoven with forlorn guitar riffs. Album closer, ‘Seein* Starz’, is the perfect ending. Its ethereal vibe culminates a well-spent 36 minutes. It’s liking watching your favourite television program. Make My Head Sing doesn’t outstay its welcome at all.
Make My Head Sing is an artist’s album. Mayfield won’t get the plaudits she deserves, with many probably assuming that it’s too close to marrow of nostalgia. Yes, it’s derivative but it’s not pretending to be anything else. If it’s a tip of the hat to grunge and alternative music, then who cares? It’s done fucking well and in this case, that’s all that matters.

Favourite Tracks: Oblivious, Party Drugs, Anything You Want, Seein* Starz.

Artist: New Bums
Album: Voices in a Rented Room
Label: Drag City

Donovan Quinn (Skygreen Leopards), and Ben Chasny (Six Organs of Admittance/Comets on Fire) have joined forces as the New Bums. A duo that has rendered a bunch of campfire ditties with Voices in a Rented Room.
Admittedly,  I don’t know much about the Skygreen Leopards other than they’re mates with the guys from Woods. As for Chasny, he’s always been an artist who’s intrigued; particularly with his Six Organs of Admittance project. He’s always had the knack of penning an unqualified heart wrenching tune. He’s created a plethora throughout Voices....

You could say this is a Six Organs album without the “what  the fuck?” moments. ‘Black Bough’ kicks off the album in splendid fashion. ‘Pigeon Town’ is a little more playful, while ‘Your Girlfriend Might Be A Cop’ is like a piss take to all the pretentious coffee house strummers.  ‘It’s the Way’ heads the list on Voices in a Rented Room. It’s Chasny at his best. ‘Cool Daughter’ isn’t too far behind either, which closes this collection of songs in fine fashion.

You can almost feel the texture of dust and smell the leather from the guitar cases when you listen to Voices in a Rented Room. It’s a bare bones two-finger salute to all the Greenwich pretence and wannabe acoustic heroes that's clogged up a nation; actually, it’s clogged up the bloody world! I have to say I love it!
Favourite Tracks: Black Bough, Pigeon Town, It's the Way, Cool Daughter.

Artist: Fennesz
Album: Becs
Label: Editions Mego

Christian Fennesz has always been a welcomed co-traveller. He’s always created a gentle, democratic dissonance, tailor-made for journeys.

His latest offering, Becs, is something else. Spatially beautiful and sonically enchanting. ‘Static Kings’ begins in a very un-Fennesz fashion, with clashes of cathartic sound throwing you off guard. Then comes those melodic guitars, amid the atmospheric sequences we’ve all come to associate with his music. 'Liminality' is one of the most cinematic experiences you'll endure as far as Fennesz is concerned. It starts with a lo-fi guitar incursion, only to be interrupted by jarring drums followed by an idyllic post-rock gateway.
Musically, Becs is just about Christian Fennesz's most accessible work. Is it his finest? It’s up there, that’s for sure. To reach this point however, the textural substance appears quite complex. Layers of glitch, bass, and melody coalesce to form Becs’ accessibility. Look no further than the title track. The end point is triumphant.

Favourite Tracks: Liminality, Becs, Sav.

Artist: Julie Byrne
Album: Rooms With Walls and Windows
Label: Ordinal Records

For me, one of the most captivating moments in music this year was when I held Julie Byrne’s Rooms With Walls and Windows to my ear for the first time. That first minute of the opening 'Wisdom Teeth Song.' Her low hushes, the raw production where you can hear her finger picking guitar skills; gorgeous.

Byrne is a traveller. She skips from city to city. Originating from Buffalo, and then moving to Chicago, now currently residing in Seattle. You can feel the nomadic pastoral charm throughout RWWAW. Her grace of floating between tracks is her strength. In no way am I saying that Byrne’s debut affair is insipid. It’s just a great album to potter around your house to. I imagine it to be a good foil to watch the sunset to, or even sit by your fire; very therapeutic.  
After several listens, you could’ve imagined Grouper’s Liz Harris making something like this. Without prescience, it appears she did her best with this year’s Ruins. It’s hard to pinpoint a standout track through this journey. ‘Butter Lamb’ and ‘Marmalade’ will no doubt garner an appeal from most, however, for mine, ‘Keep on Raging’ steals the show. The guitar arrangements are luscious. Byrne’s gliding vocal ever-present and at its most ruminating. It’s the moment that caps off RWWAW as one of the finest debut LPs released in 2014.

Favourite Tracks: Wisdom Teeth Song, Butter Lamb, Vertical Ray, Keep on Raging.

Artist: The Rural Albert Advantage
Album: Mended With Gold
Label: Saddle Creek/ Paper Bag

Toronto's The Rural Alberta Advantage has always got on with things in no-nonsense fashion. A band with a loyal fan-base and very little fanfare from the critics. They return with their third album, Mended With Gold. Like its predecessor, Departing, it's quite evident that this band can do no wrong.

Lyrically, frontman, Nils Edenloff, is at his most darkest. The album is centred around love, both gained and lost. The opening track, 'Our Love', kicks it off with Edenloff lamenting "Love will bring you down." It doesn't get any more buoyant, either (track titles such as 'On the Rocks' and 'To Be Scared', add further weight to the source). It's an interesting juxtaposition considering TRAA's sound and that's what makes Mended With Gold so intriguing.
We've always associated TRAA with rollicking drums and perceptive guitar strums, all hinting towards an infectious, anthemic folk-pop hybrid. They've refined this aspect of their craft, too, which is quite the feat considering how great Departing truly was. 'Not Love or Death' could well be the best song they've written. You can feel what's at stake when Edenloff sings "Nothing's gonna tear you away from me, not love or death." Amy Cole's keyboards shape the song into something special, as Edenloff's vocal soars into the chorus. 

Given, TRAA aren't everyone's cup of tea. Edenloff's nasal-like vocal could be off-putting, but for me, the music is too attractive to feel anything other than a profound affection for this band. Mended With Gold could be TRAA's most accessible outing yet. Where does it rank within their catalogue? Should you ask me that question three times within a week, you could end up with three different answers. That tells the story right there.
Favourite Tracks: Our Love, To be Scared, The Build, Not Love or Death.
Artist: Total Control
Album: Typical System
Label: Iron Lung 

While Henge Beat may have grabbed the attention of most, Total Control's follow-up in Typical System is on another level. It grabs you by throat and demands your attention. A bit like that fucker in the pisser after one too many beers. Much like the demeanour the members of Total Control portray as individuals, this album's intangible. Its message holds a subtle sensibility.

'Flesh War' is a futuristic journey, seemingly going hand in hand with a Philip K. Dick novel. 'Two Less Jacks' is a raw assault, with sawing guitars and drum snare explosions which represent post-punk freshly produced from an inner suburb garage. 'Hunter' may just be the album's clincher. Playing to their strengths of '80s homage, you could imagine holding an ear this song in a club at 4am in the morning. A true come down moment, culminating with pulsating beats and hypnotic synth.

While most are getting over animated about Australia's new phenomena of young psychedelic artists (sorry, not me), it's important to keep a chair at the table for Total Control. Make it the head of the table, too, because, quite simply, this is the best album from our shores in 2014.

Favourite Tracks: Bloody Glass, Flesh War, Two Less Jacks, Hunter.

Artist: Nothing

Album: Guilty of Everything
Label: Relapse

In terms of playlists, Philadelphia’s Nothing has been the go-to artist to get me out of a rut. Everyone has one of those bands or albums that negate your indecisions. Guilt of Everything has been that album for me this year.
It comes from a brooding space. Frontman, Dominic Palermo’s two-year stint in the cement seems to be the catalyst for Guilty of Everything sounding the way it does. (side note: Palermo was formerly a member of hard-core band, Horror Show).
Some will say it’s derivative and they’re not far wrong. Head nods to the likes of Ride, Chapterhouse and Slowdive can be quite distinctly heard. However, with tracks like ‘Bent Nail’ - one of the best released this year from any artist, for mine - , ‘Endlessly’, and ‘Beat Around the Bush’, all being as good as they are, it’s hard to present this band as a tribute act, despite the hipster overtures to do just that.
It bridges a nice gap between belligerence and splendour. Guilty of Everything demonstrates that beauty can be found from aggression. Palermo appears to have figured this out with Nothing. Let's hope it continues.
Favourite Tracks: Hymn to the Pillory, Bent Nail, Endlessly, Beat Around the Bush.

Artist: Steve Gunn

Album: Way Out Weather
Label: Paradise of Bachelors

Steve Gunn’s 2013 breakthrough, Time Out , was the perfect foil album for William Tyler’s Impossible Truth. It was (and still is) a great Sunday morning record. It’s a sleepy drifter full of alt-country ditties. Side A of Time Out was something you could spend a lot of time with on repeat, resulting in side B being untouched for the best part of three consecutive Sundays.
Gunn’s esoteric meanderings on Way Out Weather don’t suffer from its predecessor’s slight disposition. There’s no favouritism or politics on either side of this one. It’s Gunn’s magnum opus. Simply put, it’s majestic. The opening title track is all class, with Gunn’s signature country vibe ringing in from the very first note. 'Milly's Garden' is the most melodic thing Gunn has put to record, with lengthy guitar noodlings and syncopated drum beats forming one of the many centrepieces of ....Weather. 'Fiction' is Gunn in the form of his life. The most straight-forward of the pieces on WoW, but done to perfection. This is the song that will no doubt make people stand up.
‘Atmosphere’ sees Gunn branching out in what is his greatest achievement, thus far. Its ethereal blur is something to behold, shrouded in ambience and Gunn’s finger-smith virtuoso. His quiet, modest vocal almost remedial. It pretty much sets him apart from the notion of being "just another alt-country song-smith."
Way Out Weather is breezy. It’s one of those albums where you don’t wish for it to end, despite the fact that ‘Tommy’s Gongo’ is so fucking epic. Where the likes of Ryan Adams and Wilco used to dominate the alt-country status quo, there’s a new kid in town. Steve Gunn has joined the fold with the flawless Way Out Weather.
Favourite Tracks: Way Out Weather, Milly's Garden, Fiction, Atmosphere, Tommy's Congo.

Artist: The Phantom Band
Album: Strange Friend
Label: Chemikal Underground
Despite the fact their back catalogue of work fails to excite me, The Phantom Band appear to have defied the odds by occupying my list. A continuous trend for me in 2014, it seems. Strange Friend is their first album in four years and what a comeback it is.
They've built a following by delivering acoustic meanderings with a Krautrock satire, however with Strange Friend, they've rendered a pop sensibility that could almost be Scotland's answer to the Broken Social Scene.
'The Wind that Cried the World' starts with pop infused keyboard and nagging bass line that sets the tone for what's to come. 'Clapshot' is high-octane sheets of blissful noise that prior to Strange Friend, you just couldn't see this band creating.
It's an album without a weak link. It's anthemic ('Strange Friends'), meandering ('No Shoes Blues') and uplifting ('Women of Ghent'). That's what The Phantom Band is; a collage band. A seamless ideology of sound. A patchwork quilt, if you will. Strange Friends attests to that.
Favourite Tracks: The Wind that Cried the World, Clapshot, Strange Friends, No Shoes Blues.

Artist: Willis Earl Beal
Album: Experiments in Time
Label: Self-Released
Since last year’s mesmerising Nobody Knows, Willis Earl Beal has been through the wringer. His well documented split with XL recordings being the major talking point, not to mention various issues which transpired whilst on tour. His follow-up album, Experiments in Time has a philosophical feel to it. Its lo-fi soul hybrid is a space where Beal flourishes.
His love for Vincent Gallo is evident throughout (look no further than ‘Monotony’); fans of When will find a place for Experiments in Time in their heart.
‘Same Auld Tears’ is a gloomy traipse, dominated by a sombre keyboard as Beal sings “I shed the same auld tears ‘til my eyes don’t cry no more.” ‘Who Knows’ renders more lyrical interplay on the back of disconsolate instrumentation with Beal professing that “apocalyptic scenes are serene, all things are created we can’t know what they mean.”
The thing that strikes me about Beal is his zeal to swim against the tide of the status quo. Surmising, he’s just a guy out there creating something, trying to make sense of it all. The album's title, Experiments in Time, pretty much indicates that. He doesn’t need anyone alongside him it seems. His ethos hints towards punk and autonomy. Qualities that seem largely amiss in the modern landscape.
Favourite Tracks: Questions, Same Auld Tears, Monotony, Who Knows, Slow Bus.

Artist: The Bug
Album: Angels & Devils
Label: Ninja Tune

Kevin Martin is back, this time under his moniker of The Bug. His break through success under this moniker came in the way of 2008’s London Zoo; an urgent representation where dubstep clashed with the core of raga and dance hall. The proof was really in the title for all to bear witness.

Angels & Devils adds further weight to Martin’s genius. Again, the record’s title says it all where the first half of the record sees Martin take this journey into a more down-tempo requiem, not too dissimilar to his brilliant King Midas Sound project.
Liz Harris' appearance on ‘Void’ is alarming and grabs you instantly. ‘Ascension’ is arguably side A’s highest point.

Side B is more likened to London Zoo’s hostile and boisterous approach, but for me is more refined than its predecessor. ‘Fat Mac’ is an assault ‘n’ a half. Floden’s distinct heavy Jamaican dialect surges over Justin Broadrick’s rifle-like guitar feedback. It’s the darkest moment on Angels and Devils.

Many will feel this falls short of the acclaimed London Zoo. I’m not many, though. This has it all. It’s a bourgeoning representation of beauty and brutality. It’s pure London. The good and the bad. It’s real. And Martin doesn’t sugar-coat it. He never has.
Favourite Tracks: Void, Ascension, The One, Fat Mac, Dirty.
Artist: Pallbearer
Album: Foundations of Burden
Label: Profound Lore Records

I was never sure on Arkansas quartet, Pallbearer. The lazy maxim of "just a Black Sabbath tribute" sprung to mind when Sorrow and Extinction was released. How wrong and how stupid I was. Foundations of Burden is Pallbearer's second album and although I had similar reservations upon several early listens, amid the nine to five commuters on the train home from work, my mind was changed in a big way.

Simply put, this is a piece of work. It's an alliance of doom, sludge and traditional metal, executed with aplomb. For starters, Iron Maiden couldn't conjure a better title than 'Watcher in the Dark'.
This is six tracks of anguish. Blood sweat and tears. One song bleeds into another. Despite the exterior members of Pallbearer may portray, you can sense that they form under a fragile undercurrent. None more so than frontman, Brett Campbell.

'The Ghost I Used to Be' is perhaps one of the most forlorn pieces of music I've heard for some time. It wouldn't sound out of place as a backdrop to one's eulogy. Campbell sings about burdening regret, kindling to ignite. Which then bleeds into the album's most despondent moment in 'Ashes'.
We were spoilt for choice last year with Deafheaven's masterpiece (and over a year since the release of Sunbather, it's safe to say it is just that). Music is the gift that keeps on giving. For those who like their sounds slightly more aggressive, Pallbearer's Foundations of Burden may just be its closest rival. Time will be an accurate measure of that.

Favourite Tracks: Foundations, Watcher in the Dark, The Ghost I Used to Be, Ashes.

Artist: Dope Body
Album: Lifer
Label: Drag City
Baltimore's Dope Body came alive with their sophomore delivery in 2012's Natural History. It was a top 30 hit in my end of year list and it's great to be able to welcome them back with Lifer. Arguably their best effort yet.
Pissed Jeans aficionados' will flock to this like moths to a flame. Lifer is an ode to noise rock. Whilst the sludge is somewhat missing in their repertoire, their ability to bastardise the blues is not.  
'Repo Man' is pure noise rock made from a garage that probably homes a batch of home brew. It's dirty, perilous and just plain fucking good! Like Squirrel Bait with added vigour. David Jacober is a menace behind the drum kit as he bludgeons his snare. Front man, Andrew Luamann, carries the flag for The Jesus Lizard, while Zachery Ute's abrasive guitar chords compliment this primordial outing. 'Hired Gun' continues Lifer's high-octane start. In fact, it never really lets up. 'Day by Day' grabs you by the throat and yanks and jerks like a pit-bull on speed. 'I'd Say to You' and 'Even in the End' are arguably the album's highlights as the penultimate and final tracks, respectively.
In a year where guitar bands have slightly skewed off into the post-punk realm, Dope Body has stood their ground and played it straight down the line. Lifer is an album that leaves you gasping for air. Natural History was more eclectic. You heard a band trying to figure out their relevance amongst it all. Lifer holds more of a steadfast ideology. It takes no prisoners. This is Dope Body's strength and by Christ, they've played to it in menacing fashion.
Favourite Tracks: Repo Man, Hired Gun, Day by Day, I'd Say to You, Even in the End.

Artist: New Madrid
Album: Sunswimmer
Label: New West Records
There's always one album during the year which poses as criminally underrated. New Madrid's Sunswimmer is that album. Discarded by many, New Jersey's New Madrid is a band of sonic bliss. From the opening notes you just know that you've hit the jackpot. Think Akron/Family sprinkled with tones the mighty Constantine's once heaped upon us.
Sunswimmer is the perfect foil album for the War on Drugs' Lost in the Dream. It makes more sense listening to this on vinyl. The short sharp bursts of side A setting you up for the final two pieces which comprises of side B.
The heart-wrenching 'Homesick' is centred on a forlorn jam that presents sombre tones; agonisingly beautiful. Just when you think it can’t be topped, New Madrid blow it out of the water with 'And She Smiles'. The framework of grumbling bass, intertwining with minimal guitar scapes which shape 'And She Smiles' into the ultimate closing track.
Sunswimmer is a dizzy infusion of dark tone-scapes that hint towards a collision of alt-country and kraut rock. How this gem has been overlooked is one of the year’s great mysteries. Suffice to say, Sunswimmer is purely mesmerising and the sort of album a band hopes to make perhaps on the third or fourth attempt. Not the first.
Favourite Tracks: All Around the Locust (Out On the Pavement), Manners, Homesick, And She Smiles.

Artist: Andy Stott

Album: Faith in Strangers
Label: Modern Love
It's been a prolific year for Andy Stott. Regarding the Manchester native, most will see his follow-up to Luxury Problems as the most important of his releases, perhaps casting aside his Millie & Andrea project (more on that later). Whether you agree with that or not, Faith in Strangers is unwavering in many aspects, not least its minimalism.

Alison Skidmore is a vital component throughout Faith in Strangers. Her cameos throughout 2012's Luxury Problems proved to be the highlights of the release. As a staple throughout this journey, it enhances Stott's allure. He's found the perfect balance on all fronts this time around. 'Violence' sees Skidmore's entrance, as its sombre mash-ups bode like a remedy for your internal organs.

'How it Was' holds all the ingredients of a tech-house glitch laden dance floor romp. Throbbing bass and melody slice through the layers of glitch. The glacial soundscapes of the title track add another string to Stott's bow. Easily the most accessible moment on the album thanks to Skidmore's caricature of a out 'n' out frontwoman.

Many used to turn to Will Bevan in the search of electronic dirges and down-tempo hymns. Although perfecting a vastly different form of electronic aesthetic, Stott provides a nice variation, so much so that he must now be seen as one of the pioneers of electronic music. It's a large umbrella but with Faith in Strangers, Stott holds that umbrella.

Favourite Tracks: Violence, On Oath, Science and Industry, How it Was, Faith in Strangers.

Artist: Wild Beasts
Album: Present Tense
Label: Domino

I'll admit it. I came to a realisation that Wild Beats just weren't my saucer of rat poison. I always admired their attempts of grandiosity. I just felt marrow-cold with their execution. However, reading a few interviews with these guys made me become mildly interested in their forthcoming album, Present Tense. Lucky I'm a guy that will give most things a try, and even a second chance. Now I can happily admit it; Wild Beast are slowly becoming my saucer of rat poison.
Present Tense is a body of work. It has a Depeche Mode vibe in areas. It also tips the hat off to the wonderful London underground scene, circa 1990. I hear the influence of Disco Inferno and Bark Psychosis, albeit indirectly. It's art rock. 'Wanderlust' begins with Hayden Thorpe professing that we're "decadent beyond our means, we've a zeal." 'Mecca' is one of the finest tracks this year. Perfect melodies in front of a piercing backdrop of instrumentation.

Side B has a few meandering moments, however 'New Life' sparks the album right back into action. Its haunting minimalism is wrought with fragile grace. Closing track, 'Palace', finishes just how the album starts. It's as frenetic as Wild Beasts will get but that's okay. Hectic, this band is not.
The peaks are far too high to omit Present Tense from greatness. Without question, it's Wild Beasts' finest effort yet. It also places them amongst the most innovative acts throughout their native Britain.

Favourite Tracks: Wanderlust, Mecca, Daughters, New Life, Palace.

Artist: Mogwai

Album: Rave Tapes
Label: Rock Action/Sub Pop

Undoubtedly, the Les Revants OST has rubbed off on Mogwai with their latest offering, Rave Tapes. I feel there’s more of an emotional quality with Mogwai in 2014. Having seen the band many times in the live arena, their ATP appearance at Camber Sands late last year felt like a new dawn.

Intertwining between their astounding back catalogue, the new songs which - at the time - would later consist of Rave Tapes seemed to breathe a new life into their back-catalogue. It was as if the visceral quality of their previous work was substituted for elegance. This, despite songs like ‘Mogwai Fears Satan’ never sounding bigger and better. Maybe it was the moment, but Raves Tapes has certainly instilled a certain beautification; a term always associated with Mogwai’s music, but not necessarily apparent from the get-go. 

‘Heard About You Last Night’ is a cinematic sprawl so great that it would easily assume a position amongst the band’s finest works. ‘Remurded’ completes the sea change with Martin Bulloch’s drums never sounding so rollicking. ‘Blues Hour’ appears to be the sister track to ‘Cody’; nothing more really needs to be said. ‘No Medicine for Regret’ is probably the track on Rave Tapes which most would associate as stock-standard Mogwai. ‘The Lord is Out of Control’ sees multi-instrumentalist, Barry Burns, assuming the role of vocalist. Quite fitting considering Rave Tapes is Burns’ watershed moment during his tenure with the band. 

Rave Tapes might have raised a few eyebrows for those yearning for the aggressive paths Mogwai have taken during the years. Granted, however the turn that Scotland’s pride has taken is extremely enlightening and from my perspective, a welcoming one. They’ve always been ahead of the game in the genre of post-rock and Rave Tapes further demonstrates this notion.

Favourite Tracks: Heard About You Last Night, Remurdered, Blues Hour, No Medicine For Regret, The Lord is Out of Control.

Artist: Iceage

Album: Ploughing Through the Fields of Love
Label: Matador

After their sensational sophomore effort, You're Nothing, many wouldn't have made a fuss if Iceage delivered more of the same. Most of us expected them to.

After seeing them live prior to the release of their much anticipated third album, I came away cold to the marrow. Iceage's performance was underwhelming, with a set of new songs that felt like they were trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It wasn't until Ploughing Into the Fields of Love graced my ears on record, before their indifferent performance made sense. This band is uncompromising. Playing songs that most are unfamiliar with is their shtick. A "fuck you" gesture.

Ploughing.... is Iceage's Up on the Sun. The piano, although sparse, is welcoming. Album highlight, 'How Many', benefits from this. The honky tonk drum beats. The spaghetti western horns. They've conceived an arty aesthetic within their ferocious post-punk pastiche. Nods to early Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and even to Rowland S. Howard's solo outings. The results are flawless.
'Simone' is likened to their material off their first two albums but even still, you can feel a maturity, ending with a more refined version of a band. With Ploughing... been such a departure, you just wonder whether Iceage have been pulling our chain for the last 3 years.

12 months ago I couldn't even conjure the thought of Iceage penning a song like 'Against the Moon'. The fact that it's one of my favourite tracks off Ploughing... is probably the biggest compliment I can give them.
Favourite Tracks: How Many, Stay, Simone, Against the Moon, Plough Though the Fields of Love.

Artist: Ought

Album: Today More Than Any Other Day
Label: Constellation

Montreal quartet, Ought, are something akin to a rainbow coalition. Their music weaves its way in and out of some very interesting moments. Throbbing bass lines that render a dub pastiche (look no further than the title track). Thumping drum beats that foil around a very tight rhythm section. Spiky guitars and a vocalist in Tim Beeler who comes across as quite the song writer and dare I say it, charismatic.
I find that all good post-punk bands are elusive. They dangerously creep up on you and hit you where it counts. Ought do this with aplomb with their debut album, Today More Than Any Other Day. Comparisons to the Modern Lovers and various other Proto-punk touchstones will be bandied around, but - all told - Ought present a new dawn. A vibrancy in a scene that’s seemingly convoluted with pretenders and mediocrity.

Look no further than the album's final two tracks. ‘Clarity’ is one of the tracks of 2014. Beeler screams "And when you feel like no one holds you, like they used, and you've earned it." One of the brief sound bites in a song that poses many questions. ‘Gemni' finish the album off in rollicking fashion, with Beeler's democratic mutterings typifying what the band stands for.
Today More Than Any Other Day is an album full of panache. An album full of industry and more importantly, soul. A lot of lo-fi post-punk bands lack the final ingredient and those who can’t click with the likes of Parquet Courts should find a more compelling result in Ought. All mouth, no trousers, this is not.  Ought are the thinking man’s proposition. Beeler's words of "Everything is going to be okay, together, today." It's a breath of optimism in year where I was thought optimism was lost.

Favourite Tracks: Today More Than Any Other Day, Habit, Forgiveness, Clarity!, Gemini.

Artist: ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead

Album: IX
Label: Superball Music

...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead's IX is a collection of songs which takes time. As the Austin quartet is my all time favourite band, I have enough of that [time].

Unlike their brilliant Lost Songs, the instantaneous hit we all associated with the Deads' isn't present during IX. It's an album that spells maturity. In fact, it's their most mature album yet.
IX once again bring us the piano. Without the grandiosity that one may have accused them of in the past (think So Divided), the vicious assault of those melting power chords are still well within arm's reach. They're with us from the opening sequences of 'The Doomsday Book' and the mesmerising  'Jaded Apostles'. It's during 'The Ghost Within' where you feel The Deads' have found it. It's vintage ...Trail of Dead. The melodic piano. The foot stomping grooves. The vocal interplay between stalwarts, Conrad Keely and Jason Reece. It's an upgrade of The Century of Self's 'Bells of Creation'.

Then there's 'Bus Lines'. Keely's defining moment. Oozing with maturity amid the guitar jaunts and slender acoustics, it's the highlight of the album, followed by the frenetic 'Lost in the Grand Scheme of Things'. Perhaps Reece's closest rival to Source Tags and Codes' 'Days of Being Wild'.
IX's slow burner tendencies may make things difficult in terms of where to place this in the ...Trail Of Dead pantheon. They've substituted aggression for grandeur in parts and although they have attempted this in the past, this time they've nailed it. A clear manifestation of a band refining their art. 

Favourite Tracks: The Doomsday Book, Jaded Apostles, The Ghost Within, Bus Lines, Lost in the Grand Scheme of Things.

Artist: Watter

Album: This World
Label: Temporary Residence

Watter is Zakk Riles (Grails), Britt Walford (Slint), and Tyler Trotter. They've given us an album that's seemingly flown under the radar. Surmising, the six pieces of music which comprise of Watter's debut LP, The World, are simply beautiful.

'Rustic Fog' opens the album with more of a Grails pastiche than anything else. No bad thing, let me tell you. You can still hear Riles doing his best to bastardise Ravi Shankar. 'Lord I Want More' slips in to the realm of acoustic sorcery; the first of three acoustic pieces that interweave through this grand journey.
'Small Business' is the epicentre of This World. Psychedelic grooves dominate this post-rock behemoth as the musical virtuosity of both Walford and Riles collide with sonic splendour. The title track is the perfect closer. One of the best of 2014, in fact. A track dominated once again by acoustic interplay, it's a track that you could play at both your wedding and funeral. It's the most beautiful thing that either artist has accomplished. It may fit the repertoire of Grails' earlier work (Burden of Hope), however in Walford's case, you'd perhaps expect this to be something his Slint counterpart, David Pajo, would conjure instead.

Rachel Grimes (Rachel's), Tony Levin (King Crimson), and Todd Cook (The For Carnation) lend a hand throughout this blissful excursion. It's Walford's first dabble with new music since he offered his expertise to the Breeders during the Pod recordings. What a return it is. As for Riles; if Watter is to be his primary music project these days, then I anticipate This World's follow-up with religious fervour. 
Favourite Tracks: Rustic Fog, Lord I Want More, Small Business, This World.

Artist: Earth

Album: Primitive and Deadly
Label: Southern Lord

The collaboration between Mark Lanegan and Earth is one of those anomalies which fails to spring to mind until they’re both mentioned in the same breath. After that, you think to yourself “yes, why didn’t I think of that?” Both were seemingly born to trawl the desert. You can almost feel the tumbleweed brush past your leg when listening to Primitive and Deadly. It’s a return to form, and although slightly out of the realm of vintage Earth, given the vocal presence of both Lanegan and Rabia Shaheen Qazi, it’s a welcomed variation at this point.

Five songs that are best listened to by sitting back, cracking a beer and letting it all play out. ‘Torn by the Fox of the Crescent Moon’ is bog standard Earth, but with added vigour. Dylan Carlson’s guitar growl, missing throughout their last two opuses, is back with a vengeance. ‘There is a Serpent Coming’ is our first taste of Lanegan’s arrival. As you experience with each listen, you get to the nuts and bolts of why this collaboration makes so much sense. Lanegan’s whiskey soaked drawls coupled with Carlson’s desert drone guitar chords.

‘From Zodiacal Light’ introduces Rabia Shaheen Qazi, whose witch screeches bring the highest point of the record thus far, as she belches “there’s a darkness…” and “dreams pass by your window.” Carlson’s guitar drones ring and fuck with your internal organs. 'Hell Has its Heroes’ sounds like something the late Ron Asheton could’ve penned at 3am in the morning back in 1969. It’s a psychedelic groove tailor made for the late night/early morning come down. ‘Rooks Across the Gates’ is arguably Earth’s finest moment since the band’s inception. It’s certainly one of Lanegan’s, too. Its brooding eminence enhances this collaboration as one of the finest in 2014.

Very seldom do I mention a full tracklist during a rant, but in this case it would be rude not to. One track bleeds into another, just like a good electronic album. The production of Primitive and Deadly is what enhances its genius. Its menacing entirety is something to behold.

Favourite Tracks: See above.

Artist: Woven Hand

Album: Refractory Obdurate
Label: Deathwish

Prior to this release, I always found Woven Hand a tough proposition; too many ideas together at once, perhaps? Refractory Obdurate, however, is different gravy. This could well be the gateway to put their body of work under a closer microscope.

It seems David Eugene Edwards' involvement with Crime And The City Solution has rubbed off to great effect, as the rockier moments throughout RO play a nice backdrop in paving the way for his religious rhetoric; a definitive focal point throughout.

In essence, this is something you could almost call anthemic folk-rock. ‘Masonic Youth’ is like Ian Astbury fronting the mighty Grails. In fact the whole album renders this sonic aroma. ‘The Refractory’ is perhaps the album’s highlight. All the elements of this album condensed into four minutes of a rocking  folk-stomp. Penultimate track, ‘Hiss’, is balls to the wall rock 'n' roll with white noise spraying chaos through the speakers; how this number would shred live.

Edwards has spent years traipsing around the backwaters of Europe's live scene. America's, too. His work ethic holds great magnitude; a working class hero in today's landscape, in fact. Refractory Obdurate is Woven Hand's greatest feat and is no doubt one of the year’s greatest hidden treasures.

Favourite Tracks: Corsicana Clip, Masonic Youth, The Refractory, Hiss.

Artist: Marissa Nadler

Album: July
Label: Sacred Bones

It's been some year for female word-smiths. Marissa Nadler is at the summit of it with her stunning opus, July. This is music produced on the back of years of hard work. Focus, determination and a sheer belief. That's Marissa Nadler. Independent artists take note. Marissa Nadler should be your inspiration for moving forward with your art.

The brooding undercurrent sweeps you up and takes you into Nadler's world of darkness. Her gothic aesthetic is spellbinding much like her guitar prowess. It's a whisper in the dark. You can almost see yourself meandering on the fog laden river banks feeling the beautiful sounds of album highlights, ‘Drive’, 'Dead City Emily' and ‘Was it a Dream’; it almost drags you over edge.
It's worth noting that producer, Randall Dunn, should be attributed to the aural tapestry July presents. His expertise behind the soundboards helps pave the way for July's success. That's not to discard Nadler's capabilities. Her artistic abilities can no way be denied.

She has been criminally overlooked throughout her career, releasing a spate of independent albums - many of which are great within their own right (Little Hells, and The Sister are my personal favourites). July has something that transcends, though. In the past she’s always been capable of writing a flawless song, but with July, her consistency to do just that is a tribute to a polished craft. It’s wholesomely stunning. It's a great moment for Nadler and a great moment for those who hold an ear to July.
Favourite Tracks: Drive, Firecrackers, Dead City Emily, Was it a Dream, I've Got Your Name.
Millie & Andrea
Album: Drop the Vowels
Label: Modern Love

Miles Whittaker and Manchester native, Andy Stott, knock heads and deliver what I consider to be the electronic album of 2014, with Drop the Vowels. In no, way, shape or form is there a weak link amongst this eight track opus. It's a tour de-force which demonstrates a purity of tech-house. The beats are harsh and provide a foil which is enveloped in darkness. Yes, this is a ominous record. No question.
‘Temper Tantrum’ pulsates with quick beats then transforms into this slow wave of ambience. ‘Spectral Source’ is an elusive skinny dance floor romp. The title track is purely menacing. Dark, but heavy dark. Just when you thought it couldn't get any more brooding, 'Back Down' hedges all bets. Shredding bass and beats that make your heart explode from your ribcage.
'Quay' leaves us to pick up the pieces from the preceding rumbling of brooding brilliance. A dominating and reflective piece, 'Quay' is a synth-laden apocalyptic hymn, which concludes Drop the Vowels just perfectly.
Reiterating, for an electronic record, Drop the Vowels is heavy. It's also unyielding. If Drop the Vowels gets you in its ire, it will penetrate almost to the point of no return. Most will probably jot this down as one of the most underrated electronic albums of the year. Not in these climes. Whittaker and Stott have nailed it.
Favourite Tracks: Temper Tantrum, Spectral Source, Drop the Vowels, Back Down, Quay.

Ryan Adams
Album: Ryan Adams
Label: PAX AM 

Ryan Adams has always been one of my favourite artists. We all have a handful of favourites whom we forgive for a bum album or two. A subjective stance, but yes, I forgive you for Cardiology, Ryan.
Ryan Adams is not a return to form. I believe Ashes on Fire holds that honour in the Adams patchwork. Ryan Adams is much more than some sort of bridge album towards a higher point. It is that higher point. It’s his best album since Cold Roses, without a shadow of a doubt.
‘Gimme Something Good’ is about as good as its title suggests and is the perfect way to begin the album. ‘Trouble’ is Adams on top form, with tones that are very reminiscent of the Love is Hell era. ‘My Wrecking Ball’ comes off as a little cheesy at first, but it’s the one song on Ryan Adams that reveals itself more and more as each listen passes. ‘Feels like Fire’ has a beautiful chorus and equally chic piano and synth, while and ‘I Just Might’ pulls you in the opposite direction with electric fervour and Adams growling “Don’t wanna lose control, I just might.”

The production of Ryan Adams is perfect. It’s crisp without a hint of sounding over produced. You can feel how comfortable he is amongst his surroundings at PAX AM studios. So close to home, these minor details can sometimes prove more of a hindrance than help. This, coupled with an apparent common ground and organic partnership between Adams and his new band, has culminated in this album being as good as it is. 

Favourite Tracks: Gimme Something Good, Trouble, My Wrecking Ball, Feels Like Fire, I Just Might.

Sleaford Mods
Album: Divide and Exit
Label: Harbinger Sound

Think oi! punk. Think Mark E. Smith. Think about mod sub-culture. Think about locality. Think about anti-culture. Think about brashness, witticisms, lyrical venom. These notions comprise of the Sleaford Mods. No one’s safe. And nor should they be. You can feel the North of Great Britain resonate throughout the quips of Jason Williamson; the brain’s trust behind what is – in my opinion - the most innovative music (or anti-music) to come out of Britain in years. Like listening to Burial whilst traipsing the streets of London and feeling the music grapple you, Divide and Exit is the same soundtrack, only for the North. It resonates with a vivid knowledge.

Last year’s Austerity Dogs had all the makings of something far greater. Divide and Exit is just that. “The smell of piss is so strong it smells like decent bacon,” (‘Tied Up in Nottz’) and “England, Weetabix, fucking shredded wheat Kellogg's cunts” (from the same track). These are two of the many gems in which Williamson renders with his Nottingham via Grantham, Lincolnshire drawl. Spoken word disorder with minimal beats from Andrew Fearn. It’s a deconstruction of hip hop and oi! punk jammed into a realm that breathes locality and dare I say it, civic pride. Civic fucking pride! And I thought it was lost to the evils of mass culture! And just on locality, listen carefully to ‘Liveable Shit’. Some may say that ‘Tied up in Nottz’ is the seminal moment of Divide and Exit. ‘Liveable Shit’ is certainly its closest rival.

It might not be everyone’s things, but it should be! The message is poignant. Perhaps the sharpest out of anything released this year. With Divide and Exit, Jason Williamson has put his hand up as the new social commentator for Northern Britain. These polemic rants are unmatched. Yes, this is real. Very real. Thank you, Sleaford Mods.

Favourite Tracks: Tied Up in Nottz, The Corgi, Liveable Shit, Tiswas, Smithy.

Cloud Nothings
Album: Here and Nowhere Else

Label: Carpark Records

Cloud Nothings emerged in 2012 to increased fervour with Attack on Memory. The fact Steve Albini assumed the role behind the recording glass may have had a lot to do with their meteoric rise, but still, there was something there to suggest that Cloud Nothings were here to stay for a while. It is confirmed with their follow-up, Here and Nowhere Else. The jaw dropping ode to anything resembling a guitar.

The rollicking fist pumping opener in ‘Now Here In’ has frontman, Dylan Baldi, singing “I can’t feel your pain and I feel alright by this.” He’s the kind of frontman who seems to require validation by going through an extensive amount of emotional pain.

Amongst the masses, ‘Quieter Today’ might not gain the plaudits as a stand out track on this album but for me it’s does. The chorus is obliterating chords-to-the-sky malevolence that has an instant presence. Most songs on Here and Nowhere Else have that instant presence. 

‘Psychic Trauma’ is almost a homage to Husker Du’s New Day Rising. ‘Giving into Seeing’ is a nod to the likes of Squirrel Bait and Bitch Magnet. In terms of epic, ‘Pattern Walks’ is the closest thing to Attack on Memory’s ‘Wasted Days'. In fact, for mine, it’s better! ‘I’m Not Part of Me’ once again sees Baldi throwing out interesting lyrical juxtapositions, revelling in a post-hardcore realm.

Here and Nowhere Else stacks up well. Although most won't agree, for me it betters Attack on Memory and by some distance. It's a smash and grab record that attests to ear-splitting balls to the wall rock music circa 2014. Its spirit is fierce. Dylan Baldi could well be a modern day Bob Mould. Their intensity bares an uncanny resemblance. Only time will tell.
Favourite Tracks: Now Here In, Quieter Today, Giving into Seeing, Pattern Walks, I'm Not Part of Me.

Afghan Whigs
Album: Do to the Beast
Label: Sub Pop

Greg Duli is the King of the slow burner. Whether it be with the Afghan Whigs, the Twilight Singers, or the Gutter Twins, his music has always taken its time to reach that maximum level. Do to the Beast, the Afghan Whigs’ comeback album is no different. It meanders, it ducks, it weaves, then after about the sixth listen, it grapples you. That’s vintage Duli. Those soul boy howls he has made a living from; well, they remain evident. Those ethereal guitars. Again, ever-present. The addition of David Rosser has enhanced the band’s ability to riff it up and deliver cutting edge melody.

Do to the Beast is a celebration of sorts. It holds all the components as to why longstanding Afghan Whigs aficionados grew to adore the band in the first place. The brooding start that is ‘Parked Outside. Duli’s urgent vocal and low-end chord structures. The acoustic sprawl of lead single, ‘Algiers’, again, a slow burner that tends to make sense after about half a dozen listens. Then there’s ‘Lost in the Woods’. The pinnacle track, and just when you think it couldn’t get any better, ‘The Lottery’ just crushes you, with one of the best melodies and choruses made this year. ‘Can Rova’ matches it in equal measure for quality, albeit with a more wraithlike framework.
Afghan Whigs have always been driven by lust. A love band, they’re certainly not. There’s too many of those moments to touch upon. Some may see Do to the Beast as passé. In fact I’m sure many will, given people’s listening habits, circa 2014. The Afghan Whigs have always been a collective that require your undivided attention. If you give this album enough time, the results are undeniably fantastic.

Favourite Tracks: Parked Outside, Algiers, Lost in the Woods, The Lottery, Cana Rova, Royal Cream.

The War On Drugs

Album: Lost in the Dream
Label: Secretly Canadian

What a year it’s been for The War On Drugs. Despite the general consensus that rock music has stagnated over the past 10 years, there’s always someone willing to carry the can so to speak. Adam Granduciel’s project seems to be that something. Granduciel himself. That someone.

Slave Ambient drew my plaudits in receiving this very honour two years ago. Lost in the Dream deservedly receives that same honour. Where Slave Ambient appeared to carve out a niche of listeners, Lost in the Dream is the venue filling break out opus. 10 tracks of rock ‘n’ roll dream-scapes. ‘Under the Pressure’ begins the journey with an alluring piano line that sets the tone for what’s to come. First single, ‘Red Eyes’, is more of an upbeat moment, with Granduciel displaying his riff-o-rama amongst the atmospheric synth which tumbles through the album like a thick fog.
‘Suffering’ is a slower number which introduces saxophone for the first time. Its beauty is only outdone by the incredible ‘Eyes to the Wind’; Granduciel’s greatest accomplishment. Musically, lyrically (“there’s just a stranger, living in me”). If he ever comes write a better song, then rock ‘n’ roll as we know it will be in an able position.

Does the traction The War On Drugs have gained through mass culture reduce the greatness of Lost in the Dream? Does it hell! Sure, they’re no longer the niche collective most of us were drawn to during the era of Wagonwheel Blues. They’re fast becoming a behemoth. That's evolution. Lost in the Dream talks to its listeners. People from various cuts of woodwork seem to understand it at some level. They gain comfort from Granduciel's message. There’s a transparency. That's why Lost in the Dream stands out from the rest.
Favourite Tracks: Under the Pressure, Red Eyes, Eyes to the Wind, Burning, In Reverse.

Top 30 Recap:
30. Jessica Lea Mayfield - Make My Head Sing
29. New Bums - Voices In a Rented Room
28. Fennesz – Becs
27. Julie Byrne - Rooms with Walls and Windows
26. The Rural Alberta Advantage - Mended With Gold
25. Total Control - Typical System
24. Nothing - Guilty of Everything
23. Steve Gunn – Way Out Weather
22. The Phantom Band - Strange Friend
21. Willis Earl Beal - Experiments in Time
20. The Bug - Angels & Devils
19. Pallbearer - Foundations of Burden
18. Dope Body - Lifer
17. New Madrid – Sunswimmer
16. Andy Stott - Faith in Strangers
15. Wild Beasts - Present Tense
14. Mogwai - Rave Tapes
13. Iceage - Ploughing Into the Field of Love
12. Ought – Today More Than Any Other Day
11. ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – IX
10. Watter - This World
9. Earth - Primitive and Deadly
8. Woven Hand - Refractory Obdurate
7. Marissa Nadler - July
6. Millie & Andrea - Drop the Vowels
5. Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams
4. Sleaford Mods – Divide and Exit
3. Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else
2. Afghan Whigs – Do to the Beast
1. The War On Drugs - Lost In The Dream


By Simon K.