BEST OF 2014: 1. Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots

I don’t imagine regular readers will be enormously surprised to find this album installed at the top of the 2014 list. Damon Albarn and the songs which form ‘Everyday Robots’ have been a consistent and significant soundtrack to my year. The promo CD arrived on the morning that we started the mammoth task of cleaning and completely redecorating the rather downtrodden house we moved into back in February. The Bristol gig at the end of May was a euphoric evening spent about ten foot away from an artist I have adored for over twenty years. The Albert Hall gig in November felt like a grand celebration and a thank you, running both ways, for all that has gone before. The songs seemed to grow across the course of ten months, beautiful in all incarnations and quite definitively the music of this year. I was keen to review the record for Clash, not just to ensure that I got to hear it early – although that was certainly a substantial factor – but also to avoid Albarn potentially getting the hipster shoeing that has become rather common in recent years. Yes, he tries his hand at lots of things and, yes, he seems fairly aware of the fact he’s good at it. I imagine he’d be rather less good at getting it done if he wasn’t and, while I can see how some people get rubbed up the wrong way, I’d at least hope that everybody reading this would be smart enough to at least give it a go. What you will find is a cohesive, understated but melodically rich set of songs which far from being samey are as delicately crafted as any he has previously written.

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My original review attempted to address this thought head on. I’ve tinkered with it and extended bits, but I largely stand by what I said then. The record has lost none of its charms. So, imagine a soft fade, a misty screen and  some harp as we go back to the album’s release in April.

Forgive me for being so upfront but would you mind if we just dispense with the naively retrograde hopes held by some that this will be a grandiose big-budget blockbusting record that revisits the sounds of Britpop? Because, that is one thing it very much isn’t. What it is, however, is a subtle, textured patchwork covering Albarn’s forty-five years to date, with lyrics capturing snapshots of his childhood in Leytonstone through to a song he made up for a baby elephant he met in Tanzania. Oddly pilloried in some quarters for his sense of musical adventure, it’s worth observing that Albarn may be the most consistently impressive songsmith of the last couple of decades and ‘Everyday Robots’ is littered with evidence that his title should be safe.

Having worked with XL owner and renowned producer Richard Russell on 2012’s wondrous Bobby Womack offering ‘The Bravest Man In The Universe’, Albarn opted to put himself in the solo spotlight and leave his friend behind the desk. Russell’s signature stripped back sound is all over ‘Everyday Robots’, but it serves the songs well. Little touches like the piano motif from the title track reappearing at the end of album-closing Brian Eno collaboration ‘Heavy Seas Of Love’ are a delight. Similarly endearing is the way in which several tracks mutate to flow into each other, not least the gradual hastening of the beat at the end of ‘Lonely Press Play’ to cue in ‘Mr Tembo’. Albarn clearly feels the spotlight on him and there is a sincere fragility to some of these songs that he’s rarely shown on record before.

Albarn appears to be railing against the technological oppression of twenty-first century living, whether proclaiming that “it’s hard to be a lover when the tv’s on” on ‘The Selfish Giant’ or exploring the idea that humans will evolve to the point where their hands only have strong scrolling thumbs. Musically, the penchant for subtle melody that he has explored so well through The Good, The Bad & The Queen and some of the less chart-shagging Gorillaz material burns bright. The seven minute sprawl of ‘You And Me’ seems to be lolloping along before dropping down to a steel drum from which it rebuilds, sounding like the fuzzy early hours of a summer’s morning and topped with a fragile falsetto that provides the album’s highpoint.

The phrase slow-burner is tossed around rather carelessly, but ‘Everyday Robots’ is a definite contender. Months on from the first listen, it feels like it’s always been there. It doesn’t burn out so much as creep up and these songs offer yet another new guise for a remarkable talent. Through live performance, they have evolved, grown bolder and more emphatic, but at their core is some of the most personal and direct writing Albarn has ever put forward. Whether it will ever mean as much to you as it does to me, I’ve no idea. We all have certain albums which just click and become like old friends. Its frequent presence in my life continued as the year progressed, discovering a phrase from my review on the promo poster when scrounging one from my local record shop and then finding my own words quoted back at me in the autumn whilst casually scrolling through a BBC guide to the Mercury Prize. That my writing has been reprinted, and about one of my favourite artists to boot, is, of course, rather lovely, but I’m confident I’d be saying all of this even if I’d had to wait until release day to get hold of the album. Truth be told, I’ve known since April that ‘Everyday Robots’ was unlikely to be toppled. Recent listens only cemented its place and, whatever your view of Albarn, be sure to give it time. There’s talk of more Gorillaz, more The Good, The Bad & The Queen and no doubt dozens of other collaborations, but it’s reassuring that when he simply goes by his own name he can still deliver remarkable music.

BEST OF 2014: 2. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There

There are moments when I receive a promo and find myself anxious about pressing play. I have such high hopes for what lies ahead that I almost prefer to bask in the joyous expectation than find out if I’m going to be delighted or downhearted. Such was the case for both of the remaining albums on this list. ‘Are We There’ came through as a download link late one evening at the end of March and, as a result of that nocturnal delivery, had to wait a few hours before it got its first airing. What I eventually heard left me moist-eyed and strangely delighted. This sounds ludicrous, but I felt rather proud that Sharon Van Etten had built on the breakthrough success of ‘Tramp’ and delivered something so assured, so comfortable, so personal. Some have seemed dismayed at the absence of the raggedy guitar sounds of that previous record, but such hang ups are preventing them from absorbing just what it is that Van Etten has crafted.

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Are We There’ is a stirring, captivating and enchanting record, which takes its own sweet time. It’s largely self-produced, with only a little guidance from Stewart Lerman who is credited with playing the ‘fun machine’ during the gloriously languid opener ‘Afraid Of Nothing’. The song is, unsurprisingly, not the knees up that such an instrument might suggest, the term seemingly just a curious renaming of an organ. Writhing strings and stately piano carry it along, while the lyrics urge the dropping of insecurities and excuses so that life can be lived. Such is the theme of an album preoccupied with a nine-year on-off relationship which, in the summer of 2013, was elevated by Van Etten being asked to move in. Having previously figured he didn’t care that deeply about her, she was shocked to find a collection of every letter, demo CD, postcard and little trinket she had ever given him. From that pile comes the photo that adorns the cover of the record and so much of the heart of these magical songs.

The staggering ‘Your Love Is Killing Me’ – sample line: “You love me as you torture me” – roams, aches and soars atop a regimented percussive shuffle and an emphatically hammered piano, managing to be both euphorically beautiful and deeply moving. However, there are nimbly shimmering soulful numbers on offer too, the luxurious ‘Nothing Will Change’ being one of the finest. It is pitched firmly between alt-rock and slow-cooked Muscle Shoals soul. The album’s centrepiece, ‘I Love You But I’m Lost’, is a sparsely magical track, with only Heather Woods Broderick offering a little assistance on backing vocals while Van Etten takes care of everything else. The self-doubt in lines like “drive myself crazy with mistakes” is balanced with the resolute refusal to be drawn into emotional battles: “I love you but I’m not somebody who takes shots.” It would be fair to say that Van Etten is somebody who thinks things over rather a lot. Or, as I’ve been labelled in the past, she’s “somebody who overthinks things.” But what art comes from that mulling, eh?

The album ends with arguably its strongest song. ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up’ has a certain early hours of the morning sparkle and slur to it that is irresistible. The giggling, not entirely uninebriated outtake tacked on the end, where Van Etten struggles to get out the words “sorry, my headphones fell off,” perhaps highlights why the song feels curiously invincible. It, like so much of this album, possesses an intimate warmth that binds you to the music. The varying styles, sounds and even delivery suggest an artist still exploring the skin she lives in. ‘Are We There’ is a strikingly beautiful record to which I kept returning time and again. Whether Van Etten will manage to surpass it remains to be seen, but almost nobody else has managed to this year, at least.

BEST OF 2014: 3. Manic Street Preachers – Futurology

I’m occasionaly  accused of blindly praising albums by the Manics due to my enduring enjoyment of their work. I appreciate that I do tend to be positive about them more often that not, however, arguably, they’ve not released a disappointing record since the rather filmsy ‘Send Away The Tigers’. There are those who’ll tell you that ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ didn’t quite work, but I’ll gladly argue with such individuals until they see sense. Or admit weary defeat, at the very least. Add in the fact that I’m often pitched against an editor who hates them – despite adoring all dadrock and being one of only four people willing to openly admit to having been a Beady Eye fan – and I can end up feeling rather defensive when it comes to this truly remarkable band. I’ve written before about their significance to me, but I have been a borderline obsessive fan for the last eighteen years. I have grown up with them and was genuinely staggered when I read the other day that, were Richey still with us, his recent birthday would have made him 47. From the bluster of 1992’s overlong, over-ambitious glorious failure ‘Generation Terrorists’, through the unstinting glory of ‘The Holy Bible’, past the elegiac beauty of ‘Everything Must Go’ and on through the fear of being left-behind that prompted ‘Lifeblood’, the Manics have never really been dull. They are a quite remarkably brilliant live band and rarely to be found hunched over a rhyming dictionary bashing out lyrics. They are flawed, they are achingly human and they are mine. But, with ‘Futurology’, they may just have stirred something in people who’d long since stopped caring or even never cared at all. And there’s a reason for that.

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With the autumn 2013 release of ‘Rewind The Film’ came the news that a second album was already in the can and that its Krautrock leanings would offer a very different version of the band to that found on its immediate predecessor. The announcement did the the first release no favours, with many twitching expectantly for the bombast and riffing promised elsewhere. It was a shame as the album offered a different, yearningly melancholic take on the band’s sound. That said, final track ‘30-Year War’, with its moments of gnarled vitriol directed at the class divide in politics, was touted as a bridge between the two sets and so, to a point, it proved.

As ‘Futurology’ was gently pushed back and back until its release was confirmed for early July, the anticipation continued to build. Whatever was to come had its work cut out before anybody had even heard a note. The spring tour which, one suspects, was initially booked to launch the second album but, due to delays, became a rather more balanced affair, offered up live performances of ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’ and the title track. I can remember beaming like an idiot in the middle of the CIA one Saturday night as a roaring take on the former demonstrated just how great this new record could be. Thankfully, despite having previously found the marrying of talking the talk and walking the walk a little uncomfortable, the Manics had truly done it. In many ways, ‘Futurology’ is close to being their definitive album. Now, I say this with a due note of caution, because it’s hard to envisage anything surpassing ‘The Holy Bible’, but put its mythology aside and remember that plenty of people find it pretty much inaccessible and you might just then be able to make a case for this being right up there. It has a little of the gristle and throb of that masterpiece, the sensational guitar playing of James Dean Bradfield plastered all over it and a neat array of styles and collaborators. ‘Walk Me To The Bridge’ is endearingly simplistic in its reliance on an enormous riff, but it only takes a few listens to become a monstrous earworm. ‘Between The Clock And The Bed’, however, is hugely different, with its glacially poised Eighties pop wash making for a hypnotic cocktail in combination with guest vocals from Green Gartside. The band themselves made reference to Prefab Sprout in the accompanying press notes and they were on the money.

I adore ‘Sex, Power, Love and Money’, which seemed to split opinion a little. It’s huge, bold and stupid. It has a Big Audio Dynamite thing going on, mixed with what I described at the time as an update of the Pet Shop Boys‘ ‘Paninaro’ for the 21st century post-financial collapse society. I have my reasons – listen to Nicky’s Chris Lowe-esque bridge of ‘Obsession – Possession – Confession – Recession’ and tell me it doesn’t stir some PSB memories. It’s like ‘Generation Terrorists’ era Manics with an extra twenty odd years of technical proficiency thrown in. Turn it up very loud and leap about a bit. You’ll love it. The same formula applies to the aforementioned ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’ which bursts menacingly out of the speakers, possesses a gloriously demonic guest vocal by Nina Hoss and features the best use of a cowbell in modern music in many a year. The band likened it to prime glam Goldfrapp and it’s the sort of song that, were we to still have smash hit, multi-formatted singles, would have been a smash hit multi-formatted single.

Add in the glorious thunder of ‘Let’s Go To War’ and the Motorik rhythms of ‘The Next Jet To Leave Moscow’, plus a stunning performance from the artist responsible for 2013’s Just Played Album of the Year, Georgia Ruth, on ‘Divine Youth’ and you’ve already got a very special record. Two instrumental pieces serve to be much more than mere filler, ‘Dreaming A City (Hugheskova)’ evokes notions of a 21st century bombastic evolution of ‘Low’, while ‘Mayakovsky’ is a gloriously tangled web of claustrophobic rhythms.

In short – which I’ve singularly failed to achieve thus far – ‘Futurology’ is the Manics album that even people who aren’t Manics fans like. Except my editor, of course. More fool him.

BEST OF 2014: 4. St. Vincent – St. Vincent

There’s no substitute for bloody good songs. You can produce your music this way or that, you can perform in a way that captures the imagination and leaves people talking about you for weeks, you can collaborate with established artists and offer up something unexpected as a result, but, ultimately, what really matters is whether the tunes are there across the whole album. As it happens, ‘St. Vincent’ marked the point at which Annie Clark managed all of the above and more. As if beamed in from another planet where pop hasn’t withered into a repetitive world of synth loops, two-note piano figures and asinine chants, these are fundamentally very catchy songs delivered in a viscerally exciting manner. Much has been said about her jagged, combative guitar playing, but it’s just one part of a sound that is actually unique. How often we see that word bandied about with little evidence – or, even more frustratingly, with impossible modifiers like slightly or somewhat – causing it to lose its power. Calling an artist unique should be a plaudit but also something of a warning. Here be dragons. Not suitable for all. Don’t expect this to be easy. 

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Admittedly, compared to ‘Strange Mercy’, ‘St. Vincent’ is easier, but this is a spectacularly strange and yet instantly appealing record. There was much to love about the 2012 collaboration with David Byrne, ‘Love This Giant’, especially the melding of styles on songs like ‘I Am An Ape’ and ‘Lazarus’, aspects of which seem to have informed the sharp, purposeful sound of her fourth solo effort. Whether it’s the manic burst of ‘Birth In Reverse’, the stroppy fuzz of ‘Regret’ or the distorted, minimalist funk of ‘Rattlesnake’, this feels like an artist in absolute control and undeniably at the peak of their powers. I returned to her first two records recently and, while I still adore much of them, the difference between that artist and this one is palpable. The 2014 incarnation delivered eleven songs which ooze the confidence of knowing you’re doing something special.

There are plenty of other highlights worthy of mention. Take the swooning elegance of ‘Prince Johnny’, the split-musical-personality of ‘Huey Newton’ or the strutting power of ‘Digital Witness’ as evidence of how this album was packed with what it feels slightly redundant at the close of 2014 to call ‘singles’, but I’m buggered if I’m using the phrase ‘teaser track’ or other such industry bullshit. The mellow midpoint of ‘I Prefer Your Love’ offers a false but perfectly beguiling sense of calm, which the twitching, hiccuping rhythm of ‘Psychopath’, with all of its attendant vivid lyrical imagery soon dismisses. The musical equivalent of lupus that is ‘Bring Me Your Loves’ turns in on itself from the off, wilfully perverse in its wonky progress. Add in the squelchy mid-paced ‘Every Tear Disappears’ and the remarkably measured conclusion of ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’ and you have a record of remarkable quality. I said something similar about ‘1989′, but this is one of those grand albums that comes across like a greatest hits from first listen. Don’t be put off by the critical consensus. It’s been caused by one thing, and one thing alone. The sheer quality of this music.

BEST OF 2014: 5. Beck – Morning Phase

While this record hardly marked a sea change from what he’d done before, it is an undeniably beautiful collection of songs. When Beck is in his downbeat, reflective mode, he’s hard to beat. As tempting as it is to keep making atrocious jokes referencing the 2002 album on which he covered similar ground – ‘Morning’ sounds exactly like his golden age, in fact it sounds pretty similar to ‘The Golden Age’ and so on – let’s at least try to take this one on its own merits. As much as I love artists to evolve, if something they were doing made me love them in the first place, I’m not going to object to them doing a bit more of it. Beck gently eased himself back into releasing music with three enormously long singles after several years spent wondering if he would perform again following a back injury during a video shoot. With murmurs of another album, at least, being already in the can, ‘Morning Phase’ was talked up as the logical successor to its twelve year old brother. It is, but not without some gorgeous songwriting, playing and production to help it on its way.

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Slurred washes of sound and manipulated bursts of backing vocals are dotted across the record, not least on ‘Heart Is A Drum’, which sets the bar exceptionally, and reassuringly, high early on and has an emphatic, dominant piano line that weaves around the latter stages that will melt your heart. As with so many albums tagged as being ‘downbeat’, this one actually works perfectly in the brightest sunshine. As I write this now, the light is pouring in through the window and I am beaming. Dour simply does not mean depressing. Take ‘Wave’, which has grandiose, ominous strings and a funereal pace. Hansen’s voice seems to be being beamed in from the after-life, stating that “if I surrender and I don’t fight this wave, I won’t go under; I’ll only be carried away.” It’s haunting and claustrophobic, but it makes for a fascinating centrepiece of the album and it’s a track I’ve come back to time and again.

“Yes, yes, but he’s done this before, I hear you cry.” Well, may I politely suggest you shut the hell up? “Oh, Connie and John, don’t write a second series of Fawlty Towers. You did it so well the first time.” Oh, Edward, don’t write another Patrick Melrose novel. I don’t imagine the fourth one will actually turn out to be the best.” “Oh, Damon, don’t bother with another collection of England-centric indie-pop. ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ will suffice.” Yep, if you tedious bastards were in charge we’d blink and miss everything good. If ‘Morning Phase’ was a shite retread done for cash, I could understand the frustration, but with the original musicians rounded up and some excellent songs in tow, could I suggest we all just sit down and listen?

If you need convincing, ‘Blackbird Chain’ remains a firm favourite, with the country twangs that drew me in on ‘Mutations’ in full effect, and a lovely, lolloping melody for the verses that feels like a musical massage. It’s another track on which the piano is magical and the strings ebb and flow to glistening effect. This is a release where the vinyl edition has been done especially well and, as it happens, on the very day we moved all of our stuff into our new house, I arrived to find a Royal Mail ‘We Have Something For You’ card on the doormat, having been left less than ten minutes previous. Leaving my wife and in-laws a little perplexed, I pegged it off round the corner, only to return soon thereafter clutching a cardboard packet in which sat my copy of ‘Morning Phase’. It seemed a fitting way for our new postie to get to know me and, once the turntable was finally reestablished, a beautiful way to christen the house in the fading spring light. I’ve yet to lose interest.

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.

BEST OF 2014: 9. East India Youth – Total Strife Forever

In the despondent gloom that follows the demise of another year’s festivities, the quest for genuinely exciting new music can often be fruitless. January is rarely a month that yields anything remarkable and yet, barely two weeks into 2014, a very special record alighted upon the shelves of the nation’s indies. Fundamentally a very adventurous pop album, ‘Total Strife Forever’ is simply unlike anything else released in recent times because its creator, William Doyle, has no intention of following a formula or ticking easy genre boxes. Standing as a monument to the ecstasy of music, the beguiling mix of instrumental and vocal tracks found within are equally adept at triggering that involuntary, primal twitch that keen record purchasers everywhere recognise. These are songs that reveal more every time you come at them and grow ever grander given love. For the Record Store Day special edition of the Drift Record Shop‘s ‘Deluxe’ paper,  which has independent record shops as its central focus, I caught up with one of the artists who keep such wonderful centres of culture worthy of your custom for the other 364 days of the year. The interview will tell you more about the record than one of my pithy summaries ever will, so I have reproduced below what appeared in print.

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Have you been surprised by the response to the album? I thought it was going to be my ‘have you heard this’ record of 2014, but everyone I tell about it has already heard it!

Yeah, I have been really surprised. I didn’t think a lot of people were going to go for it because of the odd mixture of vocal and instrumental and how long it takes to get into it. I just thought it was going to be a bit more niche. It’s a really strange sensation, all that recognition. I’ve really enjoyed the praise it’s received, but it’s also important that you just don’t take it too seriously if you want to stand a chance of approaching the next album with any degree of balance.

 

The album doesn’t sound like anything else released recently. What were your influences when recording?

I could say that ‘I wanted to make some kind of electronic pop album that wasn’t afraid of repetition or noise, and that had a dynamic similarity to the way orchestral music is constructed’ but really I was just piecing together whatever I found most appealing at the time of recording. There were strands of Bjork, Sufjan Stevens, Brian Eno, Arvo Part, Laurel Halo, David Bowie, Fuck Buttons, Robyn Hitchcock, Neu!, Pet Shop Boys, Perc, Philip Glass etc. that all coalesced into what became the album. I am sure this is how a lot of people work and I’m also sure that this is a way I’ll continue to work in the future.

The creation of the record was a long process from start to finish. Was it a difficult or actually quite enjoyable experience?

I find the whole creative process is about 90% hopelessness and frustration and the remaining 10% is sheer euphoria and achievement. That 10% is so powerful and addictive though that, if you’re as ridiculous as me and many like me, you will dedicate your entire life to the pursuit of it. In hindsight, you forget about the bad parts. Luckily, when I look back on making this album now, I mostly only remember those eureka moments. Other than not being able to turn my monitors up to an adequate volume because of the downstairs neighbours and having to stand against my opposing wall to even hear some sort of bass frequency at such low volume, what I remember of it is mostly beautiful moments of personal achievement.

The vocal pieces and the instrumentals have equal billing and youve spoken about that being important to you. Do they always start clearly demarcated or do vocals get added when you realise certain songs need it?

Every track had a different conception. The real starting point of how I knew the instrumentals were going to be a big part of the album was when I finished the music to what would become ‘Total Strife Forever III’. I listened to the opening synth loop for a few hours and just thought that for the first time in ages I’d nailed exactly what I was trying to get at in terms of mood and atmosphere. But, because I’ve always been more of a songwriter, I just assumed I would end up singing over that music at some point. Indeed, I tried hard to put lyrics over it but nothing I was writing scanned and nothing that I sung was pitching correctly. Almost out of defeat, I just decided to remove the vocals I was working on and tried to listen to the piece without them. I realised that it was much closer to what I wanted to achieve without vocals than with them. After I knew that this was a way I could work, I basically judged whether something should be instrumental or vocal based on if I thought the music was emotionally resonant enough to me without them or not.

How do you see this fitting into the current musical landscape? Is it electronic music or is this pop music that just happens to be electronic?

I don’t think anyone really knows what the current musical landscape is anymore. Or rather, the current musical landscape is now comprised of all music and nothing, really, is out there on the fringes. Certainly my album doesn’t fit into any specific trend but then each track on the album is rarely comparable to the one that came before it. It is mostly pop music and I want to make pop music the way I think it should be; with melody, structure and hooks, but with adventurous or jarring sounds or subject matters. Pop music should be more incongruous and always a constant source of mystery for the listener and I hope that’s what comes across with the album. I still have a lot of work ahead of me achieving this goal though. Maybe I’ll sing a bit more next time.

How do you know when something is ‘finished? Are you a perfectionist?

I’ve never considered myself a perfectionist. I don’t think I’d ever regard anything as ‘finished’ if I were a perfectionist. Even though I try to work hard on the finer details of what I do, there is a certain moment of abandonment and surrender with every piece when you realise that you’ve already got to the core of your idea and that, if you are not modest in your embellishments, you’ll risk ruining something that already stands up on its own two legs. Sometimes you just have to revisit what you’ve been working on everyday and try to hear something that is missing. You don’t even have to work on it, just listen. If you get two weeks down the line and you haven’t spotted that missing thing, then I think that, to you at least, it is over.

 

Record Store Day is all about celebrating indie stores, but how important have physical record shops been to you over the years?

I’ve been buying vinyl for about five or six years now and so record shops have been very important to me over the most creative time of my life. Record shops are fonts of knowledge and mystery that I think have definitely helped shape what I do in my musical work and how I approach making music. I know the intensity of the obsession that the above average record buyer has and I think that helps me put a similar enthusiasm into the work that I do. What I’m doing has to feel good enough to make someone feel like I do when I hear something for the first time and I can’t help but run to the shop immediately to buy it. I’ve got a few options in London. Rough Trade East and West, Sister Ray, Phonica, Kristina.

I [played] Rise Music in Bristol this year for RSD and I really like what they do there. The act of buying vinyl doesn’t feel like an elitist or overly specialist thing there. They have a passionate and knowledgeable staff and there’s no judgement. I think environments like that, as opposed to the old-school record shop nerd who scoffs at your purchase, is the best way to attract people into buying the physical format and having a sustainable and enjoyable relationship with it.

Do physical formats still matter to you? Does how we consume music make a big difference in your opinion?

Although I personally get a lot of enjoyment from buying vinyl and interacting with the scale of it, the sound of it and the look of it, I do know that it’s not for everyone. I actually don’t think there is a correct way to listen to music. MP3s are as important to me as vinyl is, it’s just that everyone has their own mode of consumption and enjoyment. People commodify records as much as they do digital files and as long as people are listening, then so be it.

BEST OF 2014: 10. Taylor Swift – 1989

Aside from briefly registering that ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, from 2012’s ‘Red’, was a rather fine pop song, Taylor Swift hadn’t shown up on my radar prior to 2014. Several journalists I rather respect were fizzing with excitement both about her live shows and her imminent, pure-pop return. Having previously done the country-rock-pop thing, Swift had been evolving her sound and, so it was said, had completed the transition with an album of meticulously crafted smashes. All of which I took with a pinch of salt. I adore decent pop but learnt the lesson as long ago as the age of seven that it is not a genre especially well served by the album format. Whether I’m thinking about my copies of ‘Hangin’ Tough’, ‘Take That & Party’ or even the first Girls Aloud offering, they all conformed to the theory that albums by chart-shagging hit monsters tended to be all about the singles that lured you in in the first place, along with another eight tracks of largely mediocre filler. Girls Aloud only really managed to buck the trend once, with ‘Tangled Up’, even if Nicola Roberts went on to release a largely perfect solo offering. Rhianna albums are simply houses for excellent singles, while even late period Take That, though not late enough to include the bizarre tribute trio who dance as if slightly alight, was hardly consistent. Indeed, when a truly splendid, fully up to scratch, non-stop singalong, actually rather impressive pop record comes out, we should all stop and celebrate.

10 TS1989

That, I suspect, is why so many serious journalists are raving about ‘1989′, while several opt to casually sneer just like the tone-deaf wazzocks who don’t allow the wonder of songs like ‘Biology’ into their lives. This is a joyous, tremendously well produced and really rather well written record. Of course, we all know that ‘Shake It Off’ is one of the year’s defining songs, with good reason, but ‘Style’, ‘Blank Space’, ‘Wildest Dreams’, Out Of The Woods’, ‘Welcome To New York’ and ‘Clean’ are all pretty close behind. The choruses soar, Swift’s vocal performances demonstrate her ability to truly occupy a song and the lyrics will get stuck in your head with minimal effort. For anyone still scarred by the debacle of the Kaiser Chiefs‘ scansion nightmare in ‘Ruby’, listening to the fabulously measured delivery of the chorus of ‘Style’ or the middle eight of ‘Wildest Dreams’ will provide permanent balm.

The main reason I love this record is its relentless sense of fun. Swift is a pure pop star. She’s smart, determined and more interested in having a bunch of decent songs than ridiculous dance routines to disguise the absence of melody, or the absence of clothes to disguise ridiculous dancing. She reminds me of being a music fan in the early Nineties when it felt like pop stars were invincible, larger-than-life characters, rather than products of the Cowell machine or one false step away from psychiatric care. I don’t care how well the campaign has been manipulated or if I’ve swallowed it up, hook, line and sinker. This is a bloody brilliant record that makes me smile. Properly smile. And dance a bit. And, if that wasn’t enough, one of its best tracks isn’t even on the standard edition. ‘New Romantics’ is yet another straight up smash, with lyrics like “heartbreak is our national anthem” and a chorus that Barlow, Jesus and ‘Do you think he’s just snorted something?’ would give their left arms for. If you’re sitting there saying ‘I can’t believe this is higher than x album on this list’ then I sincerely hope you’ve given this sufficient time before making such a judgement. If not, more fool you.