BEST OF 2014: 6. The Antlers – Familiars

The elegantly mellifluous but masterfully reserved manner in which this record opens sets the tone for its entire duration. It exists within its own time frame, atmosphere and climate. It will toy with you relentlessly and move you to the verge of tears in seconds. When the promo landed, I was genuinely excited at the prospect of a follow up to 2011’s wondrous ‘Burst Apart’. It went on instantly, and it went on loud. And I was gone. ‘Familiars’ is an album which proceeds very much at its own pace, with songs slowly meshing rather than bursting into life. It is a far cry from the angular aches of the Brooklyn band’s breakthrough release, 2009’s ‘Hospice’, although I don’t consider that to be a bad thing.

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The nuanced murmur of the horns, almost vocal in their presence, is what truly asserts this album’s staggering beauty. The arrangements are an exercise in restraint, a perfect foil for the slinky soul sweep of what had come before, from which this record feels a natural evolution. The notion of a second voice is explored fully in the lyrics, with frontman Peter Silberman opting to write of a world in which we can appear to ourselves, offering the advice that our self-awareness filters. That the band were poring over a selection of seminal jazz and soul records in the early stages of recording this album is perhaps reflected in the loose, hypnotic shuffle of tracks like ‘Hotel’ and ‘Intruders’ and the warmly enveloping ‘Parade’. The latter is arguably the pinnacle of ‘Familiars’, an emphatic, soaring vocal from Silberman sitting atop a shimmering Muscle Shoals swagger. It is one of those rare songs that can cause me to stop my first listen to an album and play  it over – and, on this occasion, over and over – again because of its striking impact.

After a largely very positive critical response to its predecessor, ‘Familiars’ was gently diminished by many as being ‘more of the same’ and seemed to come off unfavourably in comparison. I find this genuinely confusing as, in those early weeks of listening prior to reading anyone else’s thoughts, I truly found this to be a logical refinement and progression of the hypnotically emotive sound upon which they had previously alighted. Make no mistake, ‘Burst Apart’ is a magical album, but I would emphatically argue that this one surpasses it. Little moments like the subdued piano on the opener ‘Palace’ or the aching, stuttering horns on ‘Refuge’ highlight the sparkling charms of this release. The languid sonic landscape which pervades these nine songs has the same escapist clout of great literature or deserted hillsides. This is the sort of album to make you weepy in the hazy blur of the wee small hours and emboldened in the face of trying times.

BEST OF 2014: 7. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams is an artist I have always really liked but perhaps not fully loved. As I turn and look at just how many of his records I have, that seems a slightly strange statement to make, but what I’m driving at is quite simple: I often reach for some of his music, but there hasn’t been one album above all others to which I’ve consistently turned. ‘Gold’ has been prominent, ‘Love Is Hell’ got plentiful airings once I’d got hold of the glorious vinyl reissue earlier this year and I was rather partial to much of ‘Ashes & Fire’ from 2011, but look back over my previous end of year lists and he’s not there. Almost all of his albums have something special on them, ensuring that he occupies substantial shelf space round my way, but ‘Ryan Adams’ is the first of his that I have become a little bit obsessed with. Indeed, for over a month after it was released, little else got played on my drives to and from work. It rather suited the tail end of summer and, as a result, these songs are ingrained in my memories of 2014.

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Right from the Bryan Adams-aping artwork onwards, this is an album aiming for the ‘classic rock’ sound. These are songs with gear-change choruses, neat guitar riffs and only three tracks make it past the four minute mark. ‘Gimme Something Good’ is a mid-paced stormer with an endearing swagger and elongated vowels aplenty, while ‘Am I Safe’ sounds a bit like an American Travis. I feel compelled to point out that I don’t intend that as a criticism. ‘My Wrecking Ball’ is on more familiar territory, built around quiet acoustic guitar and a reverb-drenched vocal. It is predictably beautiful and exactly the sort of thing I think of whenever I listen to the lines from Laura Marling‘s ‘New Romantic’: “He put Ryan Adams on. I think he thinks it makes me weak, it only ever makes me strong.”

The album ends on ‘Let Go’, a spry, airy tune with some remarkably involving imagery in its lyrics: “Down the rope ’cause we fell in, let down the rope. Hanging round the wishing well, it’s a slippery slope/ And I let go.” It’s one of the record’s true stand out moments, but there are a number. ‘Ryan Adams’ is a simple but effective album, wearing its Bruce and Tom Petty influences without any shame. As much as I know there is a more sombre, warm majesty to his previous outing, possibly even more artistic merit in as much as it steers further from pastiche than this latest effort is willing to, I am a sucker for some catchy tunes. I discussed the album with a number of long term fans on Twitter around its release and we all seemed to share past experiences of not really getting plenty of his albums on the first few listens. I was urging several of them to stick with what they had initially found to be a rather disappointing record and, sure enough, they soon found it had clicked. It’s not perfect, it’s not especially original, but ‘Ryan Adams’ is a thoroughly enjoyable and utterly consistent listen.

BEST OF 2014: 8. Sophie Ellis-Bextor -Wanderlust

After four albums of enjoyably poised if not especially permanent pop, this quite remarkable record came out of nowhere. In the summer of 2013, I became aware of a demo version of ‘Young Blood’ that had been posted as free download on Sophie Ellis-Bextor‘s site and was immediately hooked. This subtle, shimmering ballad gave her voice room to move and, accompanied by little more than brushed drums and some stirringly emotive piano, it set the scene for a record that was going to highlight a talent in the ascendancy. I got hold of a promo by the end of October last year and listened to very little else for the best part of a month. To that end, it felt odd not to be including it in last year’s list. However, its appeal has endured and there is much to enjoy here. Sometimes, you just need the right spark, the perfect collaborator, to unleash something rather special. ‘Wanderlust’ is co-written, produced and arranged by the never less than splendid Ed Harcourt; his grizzled indie-pop chops are all over these songs. This alchemical partnership has delivered an album that deserves a huge audience and couldn’t be further from awkward pop transitions of the past – ‘Some Kind Of Bliss’, I’m looking right at you.

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Bedecked with a bewitchingly gothic hue, these eleven pieces are grand and ambitious. Ellis-Bextor has never been in finer voice, soaring across the glistening ‘Birth Of An Empire’ and a measure in restraint on the aforementioned ‘Young Blood’. There are some sparkling bursts of vintage pop to be found in the sweeping ‘Runaway Daydreamer’ and the waltzing ‘Love Is A Camera’. However, it is when a little of her co-writer’s Waitsian ways pop up on the tumultuous ‘Cry To The Beat Of The Band’ that this album’s pedigree is fully asserted, thundering drums setting the pace as the drama swirls all around. It is a fabulously baroque tune, in possession of a killer chorus and a hauntingly spaced out middle eight. It’s a song that I could have told you would be on my end of year compilation for 2014 on January 1st. And so it has proved. The album closes with ‘When The Storm Has Blown Over’, a track which summons memories of the wonderful, and sadly only, A Girl Called Eddy album that Richard Hawley produced ten years ago. It serves as a fittingly calm conclusion after the wild ambition of the ten songs preceding it and leaves you with time to consider just how much you’d like to hear the whole record over again.

I have to confess to being a little puzzled by this record’s absence from most end of year lists, although having come out in January probably hasn’t helped. That said, even when it first appeared it felt a little bit like reviewers had decided what they were going to say before they’d actually lived with the album. Pop a different name on the front, a name that hadn’t been associated with Strictly Come Dancing just prior to release, and I can’t help thinking it would have been hailed as one of the finer singer/songwriter albums of recent times. Of course, add in especially thoughtful and insightful analysis from people like the senior rock critic at the Daily Telegraph – “It’s not just that she looks absolutely extraordinary (she is tall and thin, with elfin, doll-like features that have helped facilitate a modelling sideline). She appears lovely, charming, smart and fun.” – and it’s not hard to see why fewer people than should have took it seriously. Such asinine writing belittles what is a sincerely beautiful record and, arguably, a career highlight for both artists involved. Don’t let ‘Wanderlust’ pass you by.