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.