Thursday, October 01, 2015

SWSL Albums Of 2014

Ten months too late this time around. Hmm...

Personally speaking, 2014 was always going to struggle to match 2013 for quality, and so it proved. Not that there weren't some tremendous releases, mind - some by familiar faces and some by new favourites - even though two of the best things I heard all year were Panda Bear's Person Pitch (2007) and The Slits' Cut (1979).

Anyway, without further ado...

Exceedingly Underwhelming:

ICEAGE - Plowing Into The Field Of Love
Bands shouldn't be castigated for having a smidgen of ambition and wanting to diversify - but this?! From the sort of sub-AC/DC title a schoolboy would snigger at, to the unconvincing country rock/post-punk hybrid, to Elias Bender R√łnnenfelt attempting to croon rather than bark, Plowing Into The Field Of Love was a complete dog's dinner of an album. 'Morals' on its superb predecessor You're Nothing had suggested the Icelandic punks were more than capable of slowing down without losing any of their intensity, so how it went so horribly wrong remains a mystery.
Taster: 'The Lord's Favourite'

MOGWAI - Rave Tapes
After the significant return to form that was 2010's Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, this was a major disappointment, evidence that even unconventionality can come to feel conventional. Where once they led, now they followed, sounding like Errors (on 'Remurdered'), rather than vice versa. Either there seemed to be nowhere new left to go, or they were simply uninterested in going there.
Taster: 'Simon Ferocious'

LYKKE LI - I Never Learn
Perhaps the fault was mine, for having high expectations after 2011's Wounded Rhymes, but this was a real let-down - partly because, musically speaking, it regularly abandoned the Bat For Lashes-style oddities and instead embraced the tropes of bombastic, vacuous chart pop ('Never Gonna Love Again' is particularly guilty) and partly because Lykke Li's incessant self-flagellation started to make her seem less like a fascinatingly conflicted pop star and more like a self-pitying bore.
Taster: 'Gunshot'

THE DRUMS - Encyclopedia
An album that proved considerably less interesting than its backstory (lost band members, a label switch, Jonathan Pierce's attempts to tackle openly the subject of his homosexuality and his Christian parents' consequent rejection of him). Lead single and first track 'Magic Mountain' hinted at a possibly fruitful reinvention, but there was far too much filler not to test the patience - the horrific 'US National Park' a case in point.
Taster: 'Magic Mountain'

BECK - Morning Phase
Once upon a time (I'm thinking of Odelay), Beck was a restless innovator, a pioneer, a musical magpie borrowing and stealing from all and sundry to splendid effect in the pursuit of his own idiosyncratic visions. Surely now that he's a Scientologist, then, his albums should be getting more and more batshit-crazy, rather than plodding along while boring everyone to tears and/or sleep?
Taster: 'Morning'

Decent Enough But Evoking A Measure Of Disappointment:

I BREAK HORSES - Chiaroscuro
Shoegazing electronica with hazy female vocals - I wonder why Simon Raymonde might have been moved to sign the Swedes to Bella Union, the label he founded with fellow Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie... Chiaroscuro, while a pleasant enough follow-up to 2011's Hearts, failed to live up to its name in that there wasn't a great deal of contrast and nothing really stood out.
Taster: 'Disclosure'

THE ANTLERS - Familiars
If, like me, you were thrilled by the emotional intensity of Hospice, then there's a fair chance that you found Familiars one-paced and lacking in stand-out musical and lyrical peaks. While by no means a bad album, it nevertheless established a mood (contemplative) and a corresponding style (mature, sedate, jazz-influenced indie rock) and stuck with it rigidly throughout, losing my attention several times along the way.
Taster: 'Palace'

FIRST AID KIT - Stay Gold
Any folk/country album released in 2014 was automatically going to have its work cut out to impress me, given that last year saw superlative records from both Angel Olsen and Marissa Nadler (of whom more later), and Stay Gold, a fairly transparent bid on the part of the Soderberg sisters to become Nashville royalty, wasn't really up to the job. Less of the lustre and more of the darkness, please.
Taster: 'Cedar Lane'

WARPAINT - Warpaint
They may be called Warpaint, but there was precious little fighting spirit evident on this second LP - less a call to arms and more a call to have a lie down. What some no doubt found hypnotic I found largely non-descript, and it was only the stoned post-punk/disco of 'Disco/Very' that leapt out and grabbed me by the ear. More in that vein next time around, please.
Taster: 'Disco/Very'

PROTOMARTYR - Under Color Of Official Right
This was a rarity: a Piccadilly recommendation that didn't meet expectations. Under Color Of Official Right, the Detroit outfit's second album, failed to live up to either the record store's glowing write-up or the high standards of the exceptionally good 'Come & See'. Most disappointing was the way its bite seemed continually muzzled - alongside releases from the likes of The Icarus Line and Parquet Courts (see below), it came across as too tame.
Taster: 'Come & See'

SWANS - To Be Kind
Only a fool would complain about a Swans album being uncompromising and a difficult listen - so at the risk of sounding foolish I'll commit to saying that the grinding, incantatory To Be Kind felt like a bit of a chore, with the notable exception of the explosive and epic 'Bring The Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture' (ironically, the album's longest track, at 34 minutes). While few bands could claim to have earned the right to release two successive double albums, and while the material packed a characteristically terrifying punch live, is it permissible to request that their next album has slightly more focus?
Taster: 'Bring The Sun'

A Bit Of Alright:

STEPHEN MALKMUS & THE JICKS - Wig Out At Jagbags
Despite failing to deliver the freeform jamminess in the vein of 2008's Real Emotional Trash (#1 in that year's list) that the title promised, despite what seemed like a sarcastic commentary pissing on the memory of the Pavement reunion ('Rumble At The Rainbo'), despite ill-advised dips into 70s soft rock ('Chartjunk'), despite some lyrics that are daft and lazy even for an icon of slacker rock (see particularly 'Scattergories'), Wig Out At Jagbags still had enough charm and hooks to reel me in.
Taster: 'Lariat'

HOWLING BELLS - Heartstrings
That the Aussie emigres have now released four albums for four different labels hints at a somewhat chequered history. After a pair of duds, Heartstrings was a welcome and unexpected return to form, coming close to but not quite recapturing the spirit and hazy charm of their stellar self-titled debut.
Taster: 'Your Love'

EAGULLS - Eagulls
From songs called 'Jackson Bollocks' via provocative open letters slagging off bands and promoters to this accomplished self-titled debut and an appearance on Letterman, the Leeds quintet have come a long way. They probably wouldn't thank me for saying it, but beneath all the post-punk stylings and sonic dry ice, there's a pop heart beating, and some serious hooks.
Taster: 'Possessed'

THE AUGUST LIST - O Hinterland
I can't quite put my finger on exactly why O Hinterland isn't quite up to the standard of The August List's live shows - but it's no doubt largely because they're so damn good in the flesh. It's still tremendous for a local independent release, a feast of bluesy gothic Americana that recalls The Handsome Family, Jenny Lewis and even The White Stripes.
Taster: 'High Town Crow'

THE RAVEONETTES - Pe'ahi
When Sune Rose Wagner declared he wanted to make an album inspired by West Coast surf culture, the results were exactly as I'd expected. Pe'ahi doesn't dazzle brightly like sunshine gleaming off the sea's surface but instead explores the murky depths, and, like an undertow, will suck you in with its whirl of beats and Jesus & Mary Chain fuzz.
Taster: 'When Night Is Almost Done'

THE ICARUS LINE - Avowed Slaves
Clearly determined to strike while the iron's hot, LA sick puppies The Icarus Line followed up last year's tremendous Slave Vows with a mini-album featuring five additional tracks from those sessions. It proved marginally less savage, vicious and unsettling - no doubt still far too much so for some ears (and some speakers), though.
Taster: 'Junkadelic'

Contenders:

ULTIMATE PAINTING - Ultimate Painting
First impressions of this collaboration between Jack Cooper of Mazes and James Hoare of Veronica Falls weren't great - supporting Parquet Courts, they started out hesitant and shambolic. In fairness, though, it was only their fourth ever show, and the delightful jangly Velvets harmonies and hooks on their eponymous debut - subtle but no less effective for it - meant that all could be forgiven.
Taster: 'Central Park Blues'

HOOKWORMS - The Hum
Like 2013's Pearl Mystic, this was always going to find plenty of favour around these parts, fusing as it does psych and punk to very good effect - but once again I couldn't quite rave about it in the way that others were happy to. First, there was a feeling that, for supposedly freeform music, it was all a bit restrained and concise, never really allowed to cut loose - the polar opposite of Swans' To Be Kind, in other words. Second, I couldn't help listening to it without a sense of injustice at the way that Hookworms were praised to the skies while bands operating in a similar area - the aforementioned Icarus Line, Wooden Shjips, even Six By Seven - have often been criminally ignored.
Taster: 'Radio Tokyo'

Close But No Cigar:

ST VINCENT - St Vincent
If Annie Clark aka St Vincent didn't exist, you imagine that Pitchfork writers would have Weird Science dreams of artificially creating her. She's equally comfortable fronting Nirvana and covering Big Black as she is with writing wittily about Arcade Fire's Reflektor and toying with pop tropes. Her self-titled fourth album showcased her ability to do the latter to impressive effect. However, no matter how hard I tried, how much I wanted to love it, I just couldn't seem to get past serious admiration.
Taster: 'Birth In Reverse'

And now, the Top Ten:

10. EMA - The Future's Void
St Vincent may have had a song called 'Digital Witness', but Erika M. Anderson aka EMA went further, dedicating a whole album to reflections on the alienating effects of the technology with which we surround ourselves. If the future is indeed void, then at least it's inspired this dark, dystopian collection that's visionary both musically and lyrically.
Taster: 'Solace'

9. PARQUET COURTS - Sunbathing Animal
Parquet Courts' decision to release a follow-up just a year after their breakthrough album could have been seen in two ways: either they were keen to make hay while the sun shone or they were eager to distance themselves from the Pavement meets punk of Light Up Gold. One listen to Sunbathing Animal was enough to confirm it was definitely the latter - but even when steadfastly refusing to play corporate rock ball, the quartet couldn't help but produce some memorable songs.
Taster: 'Ducking And Dodging'

8. PERFUME GENIUS - Too Bright
Too Bright was a startlingly original record - lyrically, intensely personal and painfully confessional and self-lacerating at the same time as being bold and (melo)dramatic; musically, experimental and textured - and in 'Queen' boasted arguably the best individual track of the year. With a breakthrough album now tucked under his belt, one wonders where Mike Hadreas might go next.
Taster: 'Queen'

7. SHELLAC - Dude Incredible
Nine tracks of pinpoint rhythmic brutality. Seriously, what else were you expecting? Dude Incredible (no comma) elicited the response "Dude, incredible" (comma), as well as speculation as to what surveyors had done to upset Steve Albini so much. Here's hoping they don't keep us waiting another seven years for the next album.
Taster: 'Dude Incredible'

6. TY SEGALL - Manipulator
For the last few years, no Silent Words Speak Loudest end-of-year album list has been complete without an entry from Mr Segall. Manipulator saw the world's hardest-working slacker easing off the accelerator on occasion and experimenting with psychedelic reverie - but nevertheless contained sufficient characteristic garage rock barnstormers to confirm that he still has plenty of fire in his belly. When the first song of an album, also the title track, borrows the rhythm of 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' to great effect, you know you're onto a winner. 
Taster: 'Manipulator'

5. MARISSA NADLER - July
On July, her sixth album, Marissa Nadler's stunning voice was once again inevitably the star of the show, relating with a gorgeous world-weariness tales of people whose lives are adrift . But there was also greater richness and sophistication in the composition and instrumentation than on her previous five records. An immersive album in which to lose yourself - no search party required.
Taster: 'Firecrackers'

4. EX HEX - Rips
At the time, Wild Flag's demise after just one album was much lamented - but given that it not only cleared the way for Sleater-Kinney's reunion but also spurred Mary Timony into forming Ex Hex, it should have been the cause for celebration. Rips revealed Timony, someone who grew up with DC punk and riot grrrl, as an unexpected but unashamed fan of Cheap Trick and The Runaways. There was no guilt about this pleasure, though - it was an absolute blast.
Taster: 'Waterfall'

3. CLOUD NOTHINGS - Here And Nowhere Else
Pretty much the first thing I clapped ears on in 2014, Here And Nowhere Else was never far from the stereo. Sometimes I want sophistication and sensitivity, but sometimes only full-throttle high-octane punk rock, fuelled by youthful angst and a love of the American underground of the 1980s, will do. File alongside Japandroids as a band that make this late-thirtysomething beam from ear to ear and want to act approximately half his age.
Taster: 'Pattern Walks'

2. ANGEL OLSEN - Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Angel Olsen has collaborated with Bonnie "Prince" Billy, LeRoy Bach of Wilco and Tim Kinsella of Cap'n Jazz in the past, but her debut album with a full band announced her status as an exceptionally talented artist in her own right. Burn Your Fire For No Witness was that rarest of things - a record that's jack of all trades (indie rock, Americana, swoonsome torch songs) and unquestionably master of them, too. Chalk it up as yet another triumph for Jagjaguwar.
Taster: 'Windows'

1. THURSTON MOORE - The Best Day
Just as it was no surprise that Chelsea Light Moving's first (and only) album topped last year's list, you could have guessed that The Best Day would occupy the same position for 2014. It was by some distance Moore's best solo album to date - though in fairness the contributions of his accomplices Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), Debbie Googe (My Bloody Valentine) and James Sedwards (Nought and others) shouldn't be understated. It was also his most Sonic Youthy, and for this hopeless fanboy, distraught at the alt-rock godfathers' implosion, that was a real joy. And, finally, it was evidence that even in his late 50s he remains as creative and committed to the pleasures of noisiness as ever.
Taster: 'Speak To The Wild'

A reminder of the Top Ten for 2013:

10. THE ICARUS LINE - Slave Vows
9. CHVRCHES - The Bones Of What You Believe
8. YO LA TENGO - Fade
7. FUCK BUTTONS - Slow Focus
6. THE BESNARD LAKES - Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO
5. SIX BY SEVEN - Love And Peace And Sympathy
4. LANTERNS ON THE LAKE - Until The Colours Run
3. ICEAGE - You're Nothing
2. THE DRONES - I See Seaweed
1. CHELSEA LIGHT MOVING - Chelsea Light Moving

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