People like making end-of-year lists of their favourite music. Here’s mine, characteristically a month late. It’s not a list of my favourite releases of 2014 but my favourites of the albums I listened to in 2014, excluding Gotye, who would otherwise be rather dominant. He can have his own post shortly. (Admittedly he is on two of these albums anyway, and another is by one of his closest friends, and another is released in Australia on his record label…but, well, I’ve been using him as a starting point for exploration.)
I’m not certain of the order of preference. Here is today’s order.
1. Zammuto, Anchor (2014)
I had a slow start with this one but it repays repeated listening. Musically it is exceptionally interesting and varied, for instance in its use of unusual time-signatures (triple time, 5/4, polyrhythms) and odd ways of making sound (e.g. rhythm tracks created by scratching vinyl records; a NASA recording from one of the Voyagers passing Jupiter). My pleasure in the record was enhanced by reading the series of blogposts Nick Zammuto wrote explaining technical aspects like this, as well as giving the lyrics and discussing the inspiration of each track: read, for example, his account of “Io”, the song that uses that NASA recording. But it’s not just a feast for geeks: these are beautiful songs that approach serious themes – marriage, death, consumerism – in subtle and affecting ways.
2. John Butler Trio, Sunrise over Sea (2004)
This is quite a long album. I found it useful when I was training for the mini-marathon. But it’s good right the way through, from the irresistible rootsy twang of the opening track to the closing notes. Environmental themes, funky acoustic guitar and bass. I should get round to buying the album John Butler released in 2014, which is rather more rocky, but while JB writes good tunes it’s the sound and the style that really get me with this particular record.
3. The Basics, Stand Out/Fit In (2007)
If I were making a list of my favourite songs in 2014, The Basics would be all over it, including plenty of material from their 2009 release Keep Your Friends Close and their various EPs, but this is definitely my favourite of their albums. It has a terrific energy and enthusiasm about it that binds together an eclectic bunch of songs. It’s like three incredibly talented five-year-olds going mad with a dressing-up box, but with the odd moment of genuine grown-up sexiness (“Better”). I love it.
4. Tim Shiel, Duet (2013)
This is a game soundtrack, but I’ve never played the game: I just like the music, a series of variations on a theme that succeeds in being strongly unified without being samey. It’s instrumental electronica, unfussy and clean. I find it brings a kind of clarity with it and have formed a bad habit of listening to it when I feel slightly frazzled or ill, as it makes me feel better – a bad habit because I may end up associating it with feeling frazzled or ill. Not so far, though.
5. Tash Parker, Waking Up (2010)
I’ve reviewed this album before. Can I just say: I still really, really like it. The songs are delicate, unassertive, but wrapped in gorgeous arrangements, like wren’s eggs laid in exquisite nests. (Aren’t I poetic.) It’s an incredibly pretty album without being frilly or saccharine. The emotional arc is interesting too – I didn’t talk about this before because I took a thematic approach and discussed the tracks out of order – it starts with songs about beginning a relationship, moves on to settling down, visits her parents’ divorce, and concludes with a song for her sister: “My heart is made of rose-coloured glass / Some may say, it will break / But if my heart belongs to her / Then it’s safe.” Hmm. But oh, the textures.
6. Austra, Feel It Break (2011)
Part of the current wave of synthpop, Austra is largely the work of a Greek-Canadian woman named Katie Stelmanis. She combines a fairly restricted palette of sounds with effective song-writing and her piercing, memorable voice.
7. Missy Higgins, The Ol’ Razzle-Dazzle (2012)
Not all of Missy’s oeuvre appeals to me, partly because I’m not that big a fan of piano accompaniments, but I like this album very much: she worked with a Nashville producer and it has something of a New Country flavour, giving a pleasing twang to the arrangements of these strong, intelligent songs. The lead single from the album, “Unashamed Desire”, is a particular favourite. That’s a relationship song, obviously, but the major theme of the album is her reawakening as a musician after a period away from performance.
8. HAIM, Days are Gone (2013)
Glossy, tuneful Americana. HAIM draw many comparisons to Fleetwood Mac: they’re definitely Tango in the Night rather than anything earlier, but without the drug problems, relationship fallouts (the band consists of three sisters) or Stevie Nicks’s voice going ropey. According to Tim Shiel, this album is perfectly sequenced. Listen to this album to find out what perfect sequencing sounds like.
9. Foals, Holy Fire (2013)
It was the uplifting rhythms and melodic sense that caught me in Holy Fire, plus its boldness – it starts grandly with a “Prelude” and goes from there. It’s guitar-led rock over rhythm lines that often sound almost disco, mid- or fast-paced with lots of rapid guitar ostinato and some great funky solos. Plus I think I can hear a banjo in the fifth track. Yay.
10. Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011)
I’m a very verbal person, and even though I usually can’t assimilate (or sometimes even hear) the lyrics of songs on the first few listens, my favourite albums are normally ones where I’m drawn in by the words as well as the music. This doesn’t work for Bon Iver because the words are just strange. Apparently Justin Vernon, the singer-songwriter whose project this is, starts with nonsense sounds and then finds words that approximate to them. But I can enjoy their unfocused flow in conjunction with these lovely textures and melodies. The way the third track, Holocene, builds from its gentle but unresolved repeated guitar figure is particularly beautiful. Just the odd phrase crystallises the sense of loss, yearning and possibility in the track: “But at once I knew I was not magnificent… but I can see for miles, miles, miles.”
11. Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso (2014)
Sylvan Esso are an interesting illustration of what clever people can do with a minimal set-up: one impressive singer and one producer, using loops, simple keyboard lines and beats to build from not much into quirky, effective songs. I especially like “Hey Mami”, which starts with repeatedly looping the voice so the singer is singing several lines in harmony with herself, and then brings in an unexpectedly heavy bass line underneath.
12. London Grammar, While You Wait (2013)
More electronica, though with guitar too, and a wonderful vocalist (Hannah Reid) with a full, ever-so-faintly husky voice. She gets compared to Florence Welch but her tone is softer with less of an edge and she sings more in the throat. I like the reverb and distances in the recording and the sweet and moody vibes.
And here are some oldies that I also got into:
Peter Gabriel, So (1986)
1986 was a great year, wasn’t it? Other things that came out that year include the first Crowded House album, The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths, Graceland, and a remix album of Boney M’s Christmas songs. (Actually I’m not sure I want to mention that last one as Ken might want to get it.) No wonder it has taken me a while to catch up with everything, especially as, in 1986, I turned nine, and wasn’t very interested in pop music.
Depeche Mode, Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993)
For ages I associated Depeche Mode only with Personal Jesus, which was a stalwart of York Goth nights at the end of the 1990s. However, it turns out, now I’ve explored further, that I do like them a lot. What was I listening to in 1993? Mostly Annie Lennox, REM, The Manic Street Preachers and Last of the Independents by The Pretenders, I think. Those were all definitely worth my time.