This is fourth year I’ve compiled a year-end list, and I’ve been unpleasantly surprised that retrospectively, I’ve got most of my favourite albums of the year wrong every time. Perhaps it’s a curse that as soon as dub my favourite LPs, they get retired to the archives, and I don’t listen to them again. There’s definitely the fact that I of course haven’t been able to soak in all the music of the year until a few years later, for example I just had a first listen to the Freddie Gibbs & Madlib Piñata, which has blown me away. I’ve also not yet listened to the new D’Angelo album either. There was also a case of maturity: that often I was putting in albums because I felt I should rather than because I wanted to, best example would be the Bon Iver album in 2011. Or conversely for the sake of trying to put in the obscurest albums, regardless of whether they were enjoyable or not.
So this year round I’ve applied a bit more structure to my selection. I’ve rationed myself to 10 albums to help filter out the ones that had a significant impact on me rather than one’s I sort of enjoyed. I’ve also put extra emphasis on the innovators: the ones who have brought a new unique style to the table. Anyway, hope you enjoy reading it as much as I compiled it.
10) Run the Jewels 2: Run the Jewels 2
I was a late bloomer to these guys. I knew of El-P and Killer Mike, and I even listened to the first RTJ albums, and liked the humour and energy. In fact I probably clocked more minutes of Killer Mike’s interviews than his music. But the universal acclaim the album was getting gave me no choice. However, that’s the thing- it’s so easy to enjoy. The beats are abrasive in a nice way, the energy is contagious, the lyrics crisp and clever, and there’s a just a beautiful level of maturity and self-consciousness that only two mid-lifers can maintain.
9) Land Observations: The Grand Tour
Kudos to the most forgettable band name ever. Even several months after going back to his Soundcloud, I’d often be googling ‘Land Control’ or ‘Observation Geography’, which almost made the prize almost sweeter when I finally cracked the code could sink into The Grand Tour. The uniqueness of Land Observation’s sound has blown me away. The sheer simplicity and constantly treading guitar inspired a new kind of solid emotion in me, devoid of worry or even euphoria, that I’m still trying to pin down. Thanks especially to Hal Rhoades and Nick Carling for showing me this guy.
8) Mac Demarco: Salad Days
After St Vincent, Mac Demarco has been the great forger of his own legend this year. His sophomore album Salad Days is just as autobiographical as it is mythologizing. The lyrics focus on directly on Demarco’s personal life such as his girlfriend’s struggle to get a Visa in ‘Let My Baby Stay’ to his musical reputation being at stake in ‘Passing out Pieces’. In contrast the music is a hazy counterpoint- harking back to Shuggie Otis and enveloping Mac’s legend in mystique. While toned down compared to his excellent debut, Salad Days shows a more patient Mac Demarco who spends more time on themes and concepts rather than making bangers.
7) The War on Drugs: Lost in Dream
This would win my vote for epic of the year. Frontman Adam Granduciel has taken no shortcuts here, which shows in each song lasting around five minutes. Indeed most choruses land around halfway through as well. And if you think Salad Days is hazy- this would be the equivalent to Salad Decades. I’m not even sure where I am in the second half of the album; where the last traces of hits like ‘Red Eyes’ and ‘An Ocean In Between The Waves’ seem to have happened ages ago- and are instead replaced with a Marc Knopfler on a triple-dose of Valium. If David Foster Wallace said that real art leaves you heavier than when you came to it, then The War on Drugs have got it spot on. I’m left at the end of it rubbing my eyes and slowly coming back from a deep sleep.
6) Swans: To Be Kind
To Be Kind must be one of the first albums where Michael Gira may have released something as close to a single as he ever will. And he’s done it twice! This probably requires qualification: both ‘Oxygen’ and ‘A Little God in My Hands’ are over seven minutes long. But they’re catchy! And even seem to have choruses! And like the rest of the album they show Gira’s relentless construction of sonic monoliths that tower over a horrific skyline. Maybe I’m imagining it, but To Be Kind does seem to appeal a tiny iota more to a broader audience. But heaven forbid it means Swans are making any compromises. There’s bone-chilling cackles on ‘Just a Little Boy,’ scathing slave driver calls in the 34 minute ‘Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture,’ and a bassline in ‘Oxygen’ that seems to chisel into your soul. It’s just that all this musical cruelty has been more accessible than anything Swans have ever done before.
5) Real Estate: Atlas
I said in my intro that I had put extra emphasis on the innovators of 2014 for my list. Real Estate have done the opposite, and just carried on what they were doing before- their pleasant suburban surf-rock jingles- except this time better. What more, they don’t even have the strength of an obvious single like ‘It’s Real’ or ‘Beach Comber’ as before. Instead, as if it were possible, they’ve relaxed a bit, without getting too dozy as I found seemed to plague them on the later tracks of their earlier albums. Similar to Mac Demarco, Real Estate have got comfortable in their sound enough that they no longer need struggle to prove its merit. Instead they seem to be having the most fun here- with the nice hunky dory ‘How I Might Live’, the catchy riff nabbed from Slowdive in ‘Primitive’, and the suburban nostalgia pervading throughout all their music in ‘Talking Backwards’. Atlas maps out a pretty flawless 40-minute journey from beginning to end.
4) Vashti Bunyan: Heartleap
Vashti Bunyan said this would be her last album she will make, and what better a send off. Bunyan has the unique ability to make a sonic space that you can get instantly cosy in. The songs don’t so much stand out as blend together into a beautiful medley of guitar, harp and piano- stamped with Bunyan’s fragile voice. Except this cosiness is counterpointed by a proximity to ‘The End’. Even the first song of the album seems like Bunyan’s swansong, where you are left waiting for the last note to be played and the silence to follow thereafter. Though this does not compare as well to Bunyan’s other two albums in potential, there is something unfathomably human about Heartleap that will help maintain its legacy. It is the blend of a farewell and inevitability that makes this the most telling albums about death, and how one can hopefully come to grips with it.
3) Sun Kil Moon: Benji
In contrast to Heartleap Mark Kozolek uses death as a source of inspiration for his song-stories. Here we are given an entirely new style of songwriting, or at least a new chapter in the confessional genre. Kozolek’s urge to describe causes his lines to collapse into the next, while still maintaining their own natural rhythm. His brutal honesty, such as the family friend in ‘Jim Wise’ who mercy-killed his wife, is mingled with casual humour, such as turning his meal ‘blue crab cakes’ into an impromptu chorus in ‘Ben’s My Friend’. He discusses his childhood, his sexual awakening, his professional life in a bildungsroman as rich as a Tolstoy, and really goes to show how much one can fit into an LP. This year Sun Kil Moon has tremendously raised the bar for anyone else trying to challenge the role of the singer-songwriter- and I’m anxious to see how anyone would attempt to top it.
2) Iceage: Plowing into the Fields of Love
This third album is not Iceage reinventing themselves, since that would assume that they had already settled on something before. These punk pioneers have kept to the fundamentals of punk by doing whatever they want to do. The key is to keep on moving and Plowing into the Fields of Love is the best testimonial of their mentality yet. We have country-punk in ‘Lord’s Favourite’ we have crooning in ‘Against the Moon’, we have Echo and the Bunnymen string and percussion accompaniments in ‘Forever’. The only consistency is Iceage’s style to keep it as loose as possible, that makes you wonder how they can even finish a song. And with this looseness you get an uncompromising energy that made them by far the best live show I’ve seen this year as well as a monumental album showcasing this Danish band’s staggering potential.
1) Lewis: L’Amour
Yes I’m aware this is a reissue. But considering L’Amour probably only sold around a hundred records when it was first released in the 80’s merits it to have a proper welcome. And hasn’t it just? Not only was the mystery of that handsome romantic recluse given him an international following but it also enabled three of his ‘lost’ albums to be released this year. They even managed to find the guy in Canada, who apparently is still recording and, almost typically, would like no royalties from the reissues. Fortunately, Lewis lives up to all the hype. The first time I listened to his first and most impactful album L’Amour, I immediately had to play it again. He sucks you into a beautiful unthreatening dream world like Heartleap and Lost in Dream– but more than ever it feels so personal, that I’ve often felt hesitant to share it.
Lewis has injected a tenderness beyond cheesy, as expected with song titles like ‘I Thought the World of You’ and ‘Let’s Fall in Love Tonight’, and almost twists your arm to start loving the hotel lobby kind of music that you felt you were born to despise. And behind all these pillow-talk croons, there is a synth flowing behind, almost independent of the musical proceedings guiding us through Lewis’ gallery of love letters. Above all, there is nothing hollow about the music. Lewis does not mock what we have come to observe as the most saccharine kind of 80’s synth pop, but instead embraces it at a bridge directly to his soul, and I think we will need to wait a few more decades to feel such a pure achievement.