Well this wasn’t easy, for a number of reasons. At the end of a year in which I’d listened to plenty of new music I was half expecting to struggle to whittle down an enormous longlist to a more manageable number, but somewhere along the line I realised that a lot of my time in 2014 was spent listening to EPs, singles, and new music from artists who hadn’t got as far as releasing their debut album. Because of this, having started with around 100 albums, I felt I couldn’t justify listing more than a quarter of them in an end of year list.
Of those that remained there were a few outstanding releases, and a large number of very good albums: the ones I’ve chosen to include just happened to grab my attention a little more than those I’ve left out, but there’s a wealth of material I could cover in another list: “25 albums I inexplicably failed to pay sufficient attention to, or which simply didn’t cross my path in 2014”.
So, enjoy this first instalment of the countdown - I hope you find something to give a first or second listen to.
25. Alvvays - Alvvays
Sometimes with indie-pop it might seem like you don’t get much for your money. Case in point: the self-titled debut from Canadian indie-pop masters Alvvays. It clocks in at 9 tracks and a running time of just over half an hour. And if you count your musical wealth by the weight of complex instrumentation and baffling and rapid key changes you might consider yourself somewhat out of pocket from it. If, on the other hand, you’re a fan of irresistible hooks, perfectly spaced and accreted, and rolling waves of vocals, you’ll see Alvvays in a far more positive light.
24. Cherry Ghost - Herd Runners
While listening to this under-the-radar gem, the third album from Simon Alred’s Cherry Ghost, think about the critical acclaim heaped (quite rightly) upon, say, Richard Hawley, and ask yourself why the same hasn’t been true of Herd Runners (or, largely, its predecessors Beneath This Burning Shoreline and Thirst For Romance). If you come up with an answer, do let me know, because I haven’t the foggiest. Suspiciously “classic” sounding for the alt crowd, too oblique for everyone else perhaps? Whatever - lyrical soft centers crash into hard edges, while beautiful melodies and sumptuous arrangements and production fill the air. Take some time to love and cherish Herd Runners.
23. East India Youth - Total Strife Forever
Try to skim your way through William Doyle’s debut album as East India Youth and you’ll trip over a confusing arrangement of digital paving slabs that don’t, in fact, appear to lead anywhere. This is not an album that makes much sense piecemeal. Sandwiched between the combined vocal richness of Dripping Down and Heaven, How Long, Hinterland is a textured interlude. Drop yourself in out of context, however, and you might struggle to get your bearings. Total Strife Forever plays with you in this way from start to finish, demonstrating the vast scope and emotional scale that can be wrung from smart, considered electronic production.
22. Andrew Montgomery - Ruled By Dreams
There was always the feeling that Geneva left with the scent of unfulfilled promise hanging in the air. If Andrew Montgomery’s solo career continues as richly as it did on his debut album it’s a promise that may yet be repaid. There are a couple of moments that take you back to his Britpop days, but wisely Ruled By Dreams mostly concentrates on providing the right musical flourishes (and it doesn’t hurt that Richard Oakes is on board) to bring out the best of Montgomery’s sometimes breathtaking vocals.
21. Ballet School - The Dew Lasts An Hour
“We write pop songs. I never thought pop music was a lower form of art. We actively try to play with the model of mainstream pop against what indie is supposed to be and find our own new form” So said Ballet School’s lead singer Rosie Blair in interview. Listen to The Dew Lasts An Hour and you’ll hear the pop shine through. You’ll also hear a lush reproduction of old-school synth-pop that feels in no way dated, old or cliched. You’ll even get a bit of Cocteau Twins thrown in for your money, and who could not warm to that?
20. Manic Street Preachers - Futurology
If you’d called me up this time last year and told me I’d be putting the Manics in my end of year list I’d have laughed, and laughed some more. Not that I’ve ever really disliked them, but there’s only so many times a man can be told “oh, but Motorcycle Emptiness….” without building an irrational defensive wall against a subject. Then there was that time I saw them doing bad things to a perfectly innocent The The song. And the feeling that they’d got a bit stale in twilight years of Britpop. Still, I saw enthusiastic reports of Futurology, and as soon as I had eventually brought myself round to the idea of giving it a go I saw how accurate they were. Maybe I’m just growing comfortably old with them now, but this is not the dull and worthy Manics I was expecting: Futurology bursts with life and creativity, and in The Next Jet To Leave Moscow includes one of the highlights of 2014.
19. Seasurfer - Dive In
Their label (the excellent Saint Marie records) describe the Seasurfer sound as “dreampunk”. It’s a heady mix of shoegazing, dream-pop and ethereal sounds; at times you can feel like losing yourself in the vast swirling deep of their debut album Dive In. You could try to fight it, but better just to let all the textures flow around you.
18. Space Daze - Follow My Light Back Home
Sound the hipster klaxxon, sound it long, and sound it as hard and proud as your coarse and calloused non-hipster hands can take the pain, because this summer I bought Follow My Light Back Home on cassette. That’s right: magnetic tape. Take that, FLAC fans!
Seapony’s Danny Rowland set out to write a song every day for a month, and didn’t quite manage it. But he did, recording as Space Daze, come up with Follow My Light Back Home, 12 summer strolls along the gentle country lane of mellow indie-pop. Think Real Estate with an over-enthusiastic metronome and the sun slightly higher in the sky.
17. Astronauts - Hollow Ponds
Another album with a slightly unusual gestation: Dan Carney, having broken a leg, was holed up, recovering, and started writing songs that dealt with his temporary physical and mental separation - the feeling of wanting to explore the neighboring areas, the sad knowledge that he was unable to. The result was an album (plus an EP) of songs under the name Astronauts that circle over the ground, always looking down, but never able to land.
16. Owl John - Owl John
Sometimes the line between band and solo albums can seem confusingly blurry to those of us who’ve never been through the recording process. When (and it’s often the case) it’s the work of the band’s lead singer, the similarities are there for all to hear. Perhaps still on a high after releasing what he saw as Frightened Rabbit’s finest album (Pedestrian Verse), Scott Hutchison took himself off to Mull and recorded a solo album under the name Owl John. The good news for Frightened Rabbit fans is that it’s very nearly the equal of that band’s output, and even if it’s hard to pinpoint at times, there’s definitely something un-rabbity going on. Here’s hoping Hutchison can keep both flags flying.
15. Mac DeMarco - Salad Days
What is that guitar sound? Some sort of slide steel drum as far as I can tell. It’s as mesmerising as it is mysterious, and drives the lazy feel of DeMarco’s second full length album, released by Captured Tracks back in April. Be careful letting the easy-going vibe suck you in: you might think you’re kicking back the sand somewhere in the summer sun, lyrics like those on the title track might inform you otherwise:
Oh mama, actin’ like my life’s already over
Oh dear, act your age and try another year
14. Metronomy - Love Letters
It’s amazing how much anger and hate you can generate in others just by recording an album like Love Letters. It is the spirit of the age, though, to not just leave something for others to enjoy, but to take pleasure in pointing out how far above it you are. So it is that Joe Mount must be decried as up himself and no doubt one of those terrible hipsters you hear so much about, because he wanted an entirely analog recording process. Me, I just like the vibe, the wavering vocals, the occasional plinkiness, and how, with Reservoir, Metronomy conjured a whole world from a cheap keyboard or two.
13. Perfume Genius - Too Bright
Through much of Too Bright there’s nothing beyond a voice and a piano, and so stretched are the spaces that you only get one of these at a time. And then you’re given only a tantalising silence. Queen and Grid, on the other hand, offer bold bursts of noise. And then there’s the extraordinary Fool, all fingersnaps, uncomfortable imagery, and an incredible falsetto crescendo. Too Bright packs in a wealth of feeling into its surprisingly brief running time.
12. Real Estate - Atlas
The excitement and anticipation of watching Real Estate perform their new album in full for NPR’s First Listen Live before its release seems a long time ago now Songs like Talking Backwards and Crime still elicit burst of joy ten months on. The guitars jangle merrily, duetting with the vocals; Atlas is a falling leaf, dancing, fluttering just out of reach.
11. Fear of Men - Loom
There’s a depth to Loom that you might not guess at from the album’s brief song-titles or Jessica Weiss’ entrancing vocals. Linger awhile, however, and the watery preconceptions, the hints at the sinister, reveal the darkness on the edge of Loom that Brighton’s Fear of Men use to demonstrate that indie-pop doesn’t have to mean bouncy and carefree.
10. Cheatahs - Cheatahs
Let’s not call it a shoegazing revival: bands have been quietly going about their reverb-laden business long before this year. 2014 saw ‘gaze and noise-pop goodness from the likes of Whirr and Seasurfer among others, but London’s Cheatahs came up with arguably the most satisfyingly rounded dose of the good stuff.
9. First Aid Kit - Stay Gold
First Aid Kit’s Söderberg sisters create harmonies the pureness of which are seldom heard. Seldom in conjunction with melodies so captivating and songs so beguiling as theirs, anyway. Despite their youth, Stay Gold is somehow their fourth album, with surely plenty more of their brand of beautiful melancholic folk yet to come.
8. Fanfarlo - Let’s Go Extinct
So, did you catch Fanfarlo’s third album when it came out way back in February? Probably not. Don’t feel too bad - it seems to have passed most people by if the end of year lists are to be believed. In a loose sense, Let’s Go Extinct is a concept album, its songs bound by common strands of DNA: genesis, life, evolution, death. Its existence seems as incidental to the musical landscape of 2014 as our own existence does in the vast time and space of the universe. Unlike lfe itself, though, it’s far from being “brutish, nasty and short”, instead comprising ten beautiful (yes, there’s that word again) tracks of delicate beauty that make me hope that the lyrics to the final track - the album’s title track - aren’t prophetic.
Let’s get misplaced, all obsolete. I wanna go… the world will go on without us
7. Elbow - The Take Off And Landing Of Everything
Guy Garvey and co are not quite so youthful as First Aid Kit, with several band members hitting the magical 40 years milestone in 2014. After the minor blip that was Build a Rocket Boys they returned this year with an album of remarkable slowness, but one with a glint in its crow’s-feet eye and a cracked smile on its time-worn face. The Take Off And Landing Of Everything takes almost as long to get going is it does to say, which probably passes for irony these days. Stay with it, though, and you’re rewarded with an hour of lazy comfort in the company of a band by now thoroughly versed in the fine art of comfort music.
6. Bob Mould - Beauty & Ruin
In many ways the anti-Elbow album, Beauty & Ruin packs 14 tracks into the length of a lazy Elbow intro, barely pausing for breath or reflection. After falling in love with Sugar and working my way back through the Husker Du catalogue, I’d found it harder to embrace Bob Mould’s ensuing solo albums. Each time there would be a track here or there that became highly addictive, but until Beauty & Ruin I hadn’t had that feeling of wanting nothing but to hit the play button and rip through it all again. And again and again. After the relatively stately opener Low Season, Mould gets down to raucous business: Little Glass Pill bleeds into I Don’t Know You Anymore feeds into Kid With Crooked Face, and so it goes on all the way through to album closer Fix It with barely a pause for breath.