- East India Youth – Total Strife Forever
Pop, psychedelia, prog and electronica all meet here, on an album which sounds more interesting the more I play it – there’s just so much going on. I was intrigued to see William Doyle perform his material live and wasn’t disappointed when he proved to be one of the highlights of Body and Soul Festival in Ireland last summer.
Highlight: Dripping Down
- Alvvays – Alvvays
Having eschewed music radio for talk a few years back, I was delighted to spend 2014 falling back in love with BBC 6 Music. Few of the acts on this list will be strangers to those playlists, but I wasn’t turned onto any by the station, in the same manner I was with Alvvays. Their tracks Archie, Marry Me and Next of Kin seemed never to be far from the airwaves. This is pure, infectious pop from Canada, in which I hear fragments of the New Pornographers, Camera Obscura and the Concretes.
Highlight: Archie, Marry Me
- Tweedy – Sukierae
It wasn’t until I’d seen Jeff Tweedy and his son Spencer play the songs from their debut album live that I properly warmed to the record. Over 20 tracks, it works through the most complimentary adjectives used to describe Wilco’s oeuvre, without ever excelling into the superlatives that define their finest.
Highlight: Fake Fur Coat
- Nick Mulvey – First Mind
This was a year loaded with impressive singer-songwriter albums. Mulvey’s is perhaps the most “coffee shop” of those I loved, but packs a number of surprising twists and diversions. The bouncy, single Cucurucu has rarely been far from my stereo through 2014, one of many strong points on a really beautiful album.
Highlight: Fever To The Form
- Owl John – Owl John
Scott Hutchison, aka Owl John, claims that this record, fun as it was to make, is more about cleansing his palate and exercising a few underworked songwriting muscles before the next Frightened Rabbit album proper. If that’s the case, we’d best start getting very excited about that record already, because the warm-up is a beauty. Recorded between Mull and Los Angeles, there are clear themes of loneliness here: Hutchison is a fish out of water.
Most will already know, though, that it’s under such conditions that he produces some of his best work. The scintillating Ten Tons of Silence, the reverberating Sounds About Roses and the excellent single Hate Music are some of his most enjoyable compositions yet. There’s a welcome sense of adventure; Owl John shows that Hutchison is continuing to expand his creative arc, which is getting broader and more daring with each successive record.
[From my review in the Skinny]
Highlight: Red Hand
- The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace There Is
I was 16 when Blink 182 released Enema of the State, and I hated it. By right, I should’ve been prime fodder for that wave of… pop punk, EMO, call it what you like, but it completely passed me by. Which is why I was so astounded by how much I enjoyed this record from the Hotelier, which has been lumped into the aforementioned category by taxonomy enthusiasts. Personally, I hear a lot of Meadowlands-era the Wrens and the Dismemberment Plan circa-Emergency & I in this, an intelligent album full of well-crafted songs.
- James Vincent McMorrow – Post Tropical
The leap Waterford’s McMorrow made between his debut album Early in the Morning and this, his follow-up, reminds me of Justin Vernon’s debut one-two under the Bon Iver guise. The debut was promising, perhaps more commercially-friendly, but nowhere near as interesting as number two. On Post Tropical, McMorrow is more adventurous and experimental. And yet, there is no escaping the voice that lies at the centre of the album: rasping, soulful and glorious.
- Woman’s Hour – Conversations
Austere, clean and polished, the long-mooted debut album from Woman’s Hour was worth the wait. The minimalism and simplicity is striking: there are few bells and whistles here, with the band cruising along on the quality of their melodies and the pristineness of Fiona Jane Burgess’ vocals. The record is beautifully self-contained and stylised and one of the most impressive debuts of 2014.
Highlight: In Stillness We Remain
- Marianne Faithfull – Give My Love to London
The list of names that appear alongside Faithfull on album number 20 is dazzling (Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Brian Eno, Anna Calvi, etc). Despite this, it’s indisputable who the star of the show is. Her voice has acquired a level of husky mystique – gravelly and enigmatic, perfectly tailored for the gothic songcraft on display on this wonderful LP. She sounds at times weary and resigned, others threatening and vengeful, but carries a wonderful sense of theatre throughout.
Highlight: Late Victorian Holocaust
- Toumani & Sidiki Diabaté – Toumani & Sidiki
Only one song gets any introduction, as Toumani encourages us to close our eyes and listen to “Lampedusa”, a song written and recorded in the wake of the tragedy off the coast of the Italian island of the same name. 360 Africans, many of whom had been raped and tortured by traffickers, died as their boat sank as they made their way to Europe for what they thought would be a better life. “People in Africa think only good things happen in Europe”, says Toumani.
Two notes chime throughout “Lampedusa”, forming the core of the melody. Life and death. Joy and pain. Hope and despair. Over the course of five minutes, Toumani and Sidiki capture essence of tragedy, the maddening futility of death, the infuriating disposability of life, better than a thousand editorials. It’s impossible not to shed a tear through closed eyes, and as the last note chimes out, it hangs in the air for what feels like a lifetime. Tonight was special; a performance never to be forgotten – a performance to make you tear up everything you thought you knew about what live music should be.
[From my live review for the Line of Best Fit]
- Adrian Crowley – Some Blue Morning
The world through the eyes of Adrian Crowley is a wonderful, textural place. His deep, sonorous voice seems at first almost portentous, but carries a quiet and patient sense of wonder, one that meditates on everything it describes. From the leaves on a railway track, to the tusks of a hog and the guile of a magpie, Some Blue Morning repaints the everyday hues of nature in marvellous splendour.
The record’s heart is The Wild Boar, a spoken word masterpiece; a short story, really, told over a soundtrack of minimalist post rock, that will stop you dead in your tracks. There are more ornate and orchestral moments here – lush and earthy strings, like the seasons they evoke, return naturally throughout. But at its very core, this is a simple album; one which toasts the small things on this planet in lovely style. It’s a fine record from a talented songwriter.
[From my review in The Skinny]
Highlight: The Wild Boar
- Caribou – Our Love
I’ve always been fascinated by the work of Dan Snaith, be it as Caribou, Manitoba or Daphni. Swim was one of my favourite records of 2010, but I knew that given past form, he wouldn’t be resting on his laurels with the follow up (particularly given that there were four years between records). Having dallied with psych-pop, house and techno, this was Snaith turning his hand to more R&B and dub influences, with great success. Also one of the live acts of the year, having caught a magnificent set in Ireland in July.
Highlight: Can’t Do Without You (if only for the memories of Summer!)
- WIFE – What’s Between
This one seems to have sneaked in under many people’s radars. James Kelly’s debut as WIFE has been one of my surprise highlights of 2014. He was previously frontman of blackest of metal bands Altar of Plagues – an experimental and extraordinarily doomy outfit from Cork. When I met him in France recently, he explained that WIFE was the product of moving into a small flat in London and having neighbours who weren’t too enamoured with him thrashing out tunes, full-blast on his guitar. What’s resulted is a wonderful and heady blend of dubstep, soul and grime. For me it recalls James Blake and some of the less industrial work of Trent Reznor (who Kelly himself told me is a huge influence). Full interview to come in the new year.
Highlight: Heart is a Far Light
- Damien Jurado – Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun
“Do not disturb me, let me be,” Damien Jurado sings in quiet resignation over a gently-plucked guitar on penultimate track Silver Joy. It’s these pit-stops of brilliant clarity scattered through the existential fugue which have defined his past three albums – records of transient beauty. With each Richard Swift-produced release, Jurado climbs further into the rabbit hole, becoming bolder with his musical choices, more attached to his themes and detached from his past.
Album opener Magic Number, with its smoky, jazz-club drum brushes and the playful bass and spaghetti-western gongs on Silver Donna continue the jammier motifs of Maraqopa, while the effortless, simple-to-the-core melodies on Silver Timothy and Metallic Loud remind us what a wonderful songwriter Jurado’s always been. These past three records have found him chasing himself around his own head, musically and thematically. And on Brothers and Sisters… the textured production, layers of echo and oases of ethereal beauty frame Jurado the dreamer, the paranoiac and the stray in glorious Technicolor.
[From my review in the Skinny]
Highlight: Metallic Cloud
- The Gloaming – The Gloaming
Having spent a childhood indoctrinated and an adolescence eschewing it, Irish folk and traditional music has begun to play a much more welcome and active role in my musical taste. But even at that, this fantastic record from the Gloaming – a super group including Martin Hayes, Doveman and Iarla Ó Líonard – came like a bolt from the blue. I remember listening to it on loop in a hotel room in Moscow in February. I’d had too much to drink and was supposed to be up at the crack of dawn, but couldn’t leave it be. It made me sentimental, emotional and homesick – surely the three adjectives most widely attributed to more traditional strands of Irish folk. But there is a huge sense of adventure on this record that separates it from most of its peers of from much of what went before it. This was a real breath of fresh air.
Highlight: Sailor’s Bonnet