My "top ten records of 2014" list
Well, I've waited until the end of the year again, just in case, you know someone released something that blew my mind. Either that or I just don't have a lot of spare time and like at school, I left everything till the last minute.
This is my top ten of 2014. I will preempt this with a quote from my best of last year. "I'm lucky enough to own a record shop and get exposed to SO MUCH great music it's hard to keep up with. This is a list of my ten favorite albums of 2013. Not necessarily the ten greatest, just MY ten favorite. There's a huge difference. I'm sure there's an endless number of great records I didn't get to hear this year, hopefully I will down the track. This list varies in order depending on my mood but for me, number one IS number one. It doesn't change no matter what I'm doing or feeling."
I will add this however. Music today is as good, or better than it's ever been. I'm 47 years old and have been listening to music since the early 70's. I bought my first records in '74/75 and have been buying records (or CD's from the early 90's to late 2000's) ever since. While I tend to be very opinionated about the state of the "music industry" from the point of view of bands and artists actually making a living from it, I must admit that the industry from the point of view of choice, variety and quantity is absolutely thriving. There is so much good music available right now, I certainly can't keep up with it all.
This list, for the first time for me, is vinyl only except for one band which I'm waiting on the vinyl to turn up. I only listen to digital music now when a band sends it to me in digital form (Soundcloud, Bandcamp, download, CD etc) for me to check out or friends recommend it by dropping a CD or stick in. My stereo now only has a turntable. There is enough great music released on vinyl now that I can fill my days with only listening to it and while I may be missing out on some music I would love, I have more than enough to keep me happy in all it's analogue glory. I started with vinyl as a 7 year old and as a 47 year old I have come full circle and I must say, as a music fan, it is glorious.
So, with that in mind ......... here's my favourite 10 albums of 2014.
Sounds Like Sunset : We Could Leave Tonight
This album was written for me. Not literally but it's the album I've been waiting for, both from Sounds Like Sunset and in general most of my life. Mixing all of the great 90's pop (I hesitate to use the word "shoegaze") records with 60's pop and psych, Sounds Like Sunset have written an album so full of hooks and melody it's almost impossible to believe you could squeeze that much into such a short record. And it is almost disappointingly short but only in the way you always want great pop songs to be longer, being somehow frustrated when they finish even though most songs would have already outstayed their welcome. This album takes all of my favorurite bands from modern music and blends them effortlessly into one catchy, noisy, beautiful package with every song sticking like syrup to the edges of my brain. Dave's voice is perfect (and I mean PERFECT) for this type of music and as a songwriter has excelled in passing previous efforts, which is no easy task. I'm a fan of spontaneous music when it's done well and while this album sounds like a labour of love that has been done and re-done (and re-done) to bring it to perfection, it doesn't sound laboured with all the life sucked out of it like some multilayered albums of this kind do. The production is superb with layers and layers heaped on but with everything balanced and relevant. At the end of the day, it's the songs, and this album has songs. Every one is perfect. It's a rare album for me to say "I wouldn't change a thing", but this is one of them.
This album is in that category of someone I admire greatly for his work in heavier bands but can still come out with something so sweet and surprising it makes you realize that everyone, or at least most musicians probably have a softer side but most will never have the confidence to explore it, especially in such a public way. Blackie's earlier solo projects are good, but this one is a step, or several steps above them. It may be that this album has more instrumentation than the simple acoustic and vocals, or it may be that these stripped back pop tunes work better with a little more added to the mix ? While some of these songs get almost too saccharine for general consumption, it's the moments of Syd Barrett that suck me every time. Like solo albums by other "heavy turned light" people I love, Like J and Jason Simon, who's acoustic solo albums are excellent, this shows Blackies scope as an artist is wider than most give him credit for, but then anyone who's followed him through The Hard-Ons, Nunchukka Superfly or his incredibly underacted Crackie album would probably already appreciate this. For those of you that haven't, you should give it a try.
Bob Mould : Beauty and Ruin
Most of you know I've been a long time fan of this man. Throughout his career he has pretty much explored the idea of songwriting and letting his environment dictate what it should "sound" like. As an angry young punk the songs were abrasive and fast. As a slightly older and slightly more content man his songs were less aggressive and more focused on melody. He's spent years with an acoustic and tried his hand at electronic but with Silver Age in 2012 he came full circle back to the edgy three piece where it all started. His years of crafting and honing pop songs has paid off and the focus on hooks and melody is now at the forefront of his skills. This is an album of ridiculously catchy songs written and performed by and three piece who seem to talk to each other through playing music. It's tight, intense songs are amongst the best Bob has ever written and shows that pop/punk/rock is not necessarily a young mans game.
Contact High : You're Smiling Now But We'll All Turn into Demons
The Cardinal Fuzz label out of the UK is pretty much consistently producing some the best records around right now. It's one of the labels I would buy simply because of the label, without knowing anything about the band pressed onto it. Out of the killer releases this year, Contact High is a stand out for me. Great tones and great songs. Sounding like the "new wave" of psych/stoner/rock that is so prevalent now this 2x12 is a step above the crowd.
This style is BIG at the moment and there's plenty of great bands doing it, but like any genre there's also too many not quite hitting the mark and it's a style that can be very uninspiring when things don't gel. These guys get it and do it. I know nothing about them or anything else they've done but I kind of like that. It's a single piece of music that entered my world from nowhere and it's still the diamond in the rough.
Fugazi : First Demos
Well, I certainly didn't think I would have a "new" Fugazi record in a top ten list for 2014. Not because they're not deserving, I just didn't think I'd be getting a new Fugazi album, ever. Listening to this album is like seeing a directors cut of a movie you know intimately and seeing new scenes, that are good, but you're not quite sure they are "supposed" to be there. The more dub feel is nice in places and the fragments of songs that would appear later (or in different songs) is really nice.
For those of you who know me well you know I was disappointed the first time I heard Fugazi 's 3 song 7" 'cause I was SO excited about Ian Mackaye's new band after Minor Threat. I had the Egg Hunt 7" but was expecting, hoping for another Minor Threat, which of course was never going to happen. Ultimately Fugazi has become, for me, one of THE MOST important bands EVER. Their beliefs, music and ethics has become a blueprint for everything I hold dear and strive to achieve.
If you're a completest, of course you're going to buy this record. If you're a Fugazi fan, of course you're going to buy this record. But even if you're neither, you should buy this record because it's the moment in time when 4 guys walked into a studio and changed the earth's axis and orbit just slightly. There's only been a handful of them throughout history. The Beatles did it in '60, John Coltrane did it in '62, The Saints and the Ramones did it in '74 and Fugazi did it in '88. There's others and you can all argue over who did what when, but this record, which sounds like a well recorded (and nicely produced) demo is one more point in human evolution where we proved as people, if you are passionate and dedicated, that you can be your own God.
J Mascis : Tied to a Star
Initially I was a little, disappointed with this record. It's not uncommon for me to do this as I tend to ....... expect things to be certain ways from certain people and sometimes I miss the big picture being tied up in my own expectations. I LOVED J's first solo album from a few years ago. I'm a fan anyway, you all know that, but J's voice and acoustic guitar style lends itself very well to the stripped back style of these albums. The problem was because I loved the first one so much, I wanted this one to be better.
It took me a few listens to come to realize, why do I need "better" when the first one was so good ? I should be happy with ...... as good, and this one is as good. It's very much the same again and while that can sound like a put down, when we're talking songwriting, singing and guitar playing on this level, it's certainly not. This album has a little bit more instrumentation with percussion, piano and guest vocals. J has managed, yet again to show why he should be considered one of the great American songwriters.
Earth : Primitive and Deadly
I'm a huge fan of Dylan. I was very late to the Earth party and having gone back and visited those early (first period) Earth records I'm kind of glad I am. Back when these came out I would have dismissed them as un-listenable and probably not given his new phase work much of a chance.
This album is different for an Earth album in that the guitar tones instantly sound ....... different. It's obviously Dylan, but like a lot of great guitarists I've had the privilege to see play on such a personal level, there's no mistaking his style. Earth have been getting more and more away from those early minimalist drone structures and more into ....... songs and Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light albums were further steps in this direction. This album is even more so and I for one am so appreciative of this new form Dylan is heading towards. I liked Hex and The Bees but this album is so strikingly different with collaborative guitarist Brett Netson, who I'm also a huge fan of adding layers and, unexpectedly for an Earth album, several songs have vocals. The vocals make the songs seem more ...... conventional, but still keeping to the true feel of Earth. Mark Lanegan's voice suits Dylan's soundtracks beautifully adding another dimension to his new style which features more "folk" and almost country feel to his drone/metal/experimental soundscapes. If Dylan keeps heading in this direction I think I'm in for some incredible music ahead, but even if he changes direction again, I'm sure I'll be a fan for life.
Hayvanlar Alemi : Twisted Souvenirs
I knew absolutely NOTHING about this band. A friend gave me this record as a present and I loved the aesthetic of the cover straight away. Everything is written in German and the band is Turkish so it had this mysterious exotic feel to it before I'd even put the record on.
This is true experimental psych that only bands from non western countries can possibly do without sounding formulaic. Like the great series of 7"s being put out through Casual Acid Tea Records or those amazing Cambodian Groove Club and similar releases where music from countries not steeped in traditional western music give us their take on it heavily influenced by the country and sounds of their own cultures.
This release was a breath of fresh air for me, much like last years Psicomagia record that has now well and truly been ingrained into my musical psyche. It's not as ..... crazy as Psicomagia but uses western instruments and (mainly) song structures to give a Turkish take on rock. The electric guitar lead breaks sometimes have a lute or baglama feel to them while the rhythm section is mainly centered around a more "standard" rock format. This isn't classical Ottoman or Turkish music played in the more common 3 or 4 (they play as both live) piece format but more a Turkish instrumental psych/folk band playing western rock. Whatever it's defined as, I love it.
Jakob Skott : Amor Fati
Another label that seems to find it hard to release bad stuff is El Paraiso records from Denmark. Jakob Skott is co-owner of the label and drummer in the GREAT Causa Sui and art director/lighting man for the label and lots of great bands. He also records and releases great solo albums like this gem. This is his second solo effort and personally, I think, is better than the first. It's more focused and meaningful with the melodies and movements flowing throughout the pieces more fluently.
It starts sounding like it's going to be a usual "Krautrock" record and definitely has that feel running through it. This is all analogue synths and drum and bass but what sets it apart from others trying to nail this genre is the quiet parts, the breaks and the moody interludes. It moves from almost unsettling movie soundtrack to repetitive Euro beat sometimes too quickly to feel the change in mood take over, almost leaving you behind and expecting you to catch up. Sure, this is ambient, "Kraut" generative music done well, but what's wrong with that ?
The Shrine : Bless Off
This is dumb rock 'n' roll at it's best. Sure, it's dumb, but you know what ? Sometimes R'n'R needs to be just plain dumb. At least to the casual observer. As much as I loved their first album it never made it into any of my top ten lists because it wore it's influences too plain to see. It was fun. It made me smile. It made me wanna get a Shrine tattoo and grow my hair, and after all, isn't that one of the prime reasons R'n'R exists ?
This album is a huge leap forward in terms of songwriting. It still has the garage punk stoner loosers feel that makes them so lovable but this album actually has great songs and great riffs without sounding grown up or educated, and that's hard to do. The greatest dumb rock band ever made a career of being so clever and talented while everyone wrote them off as cartoon characters no-one took them seriously. It's a double edged sword of course because if no-one takes you seriously why do you want to do it ? Because you can be a crackin' great band and have fun and tour and be a kid and skate and pull bongs for as long as you can pretend to be fuck ups but actually be really talented at what you do and enough people recognize that to support you to do it. This album proves that they could do this if they want to. It's not going to change the world but then global warming is, and it's no fun for anyone.
Cheatahs : ST
This UK indie guitar pop band aren't going to win any awards for pushing the boundaries of invention in the music world but this record is one more "ode to the 90's" swirly guitar rock LP that fits in perfectly with the resurgence of what is loosely being termed Shoegaze but is actually just great pop. Feeling like the heavier end of this 90's movement the guitar tones and progressions are classics you've heard before, but then, I'd already heard Yuck's ST album before it came out and Whirr's Distressor in several (not as good) versions and both of them are great records. This is in the same vein being an unashamed homage to the great British scene of the nineties but I'll still lap it up in the same way I'll listen to a multitude of instrumental psych and appreciate it for what it's doing and where it's coming from. If we didn't listen to new music heavily influenced by styles and genres we love, no matter how recurrent they may appear, we would never listen to anything again. Personally I have no problem with someone replicating something I love from my past if they do it well and offer me something new, no matter how small, to keep my appreciation alive.
Kikagaku Moyo : Forest of Lost Children
Japanese psych is nearly always equal parts historical and cultural. This is more the Japanese version of the Hayvanlar Alemi album in my top ten with "standard" rock instruments (with sitar) and movements being handled in a mixed western and Japanese orientation. The instrumental opener sounds like it could be their take on an old folk song and then the record slips into an almost blues based feel with lots of psych with some great fuzzy guitar tones. The instrumentation is more sparse than the other two vinyl releases they've put out so far but these songs feel ........ better. It's not over the top or "trippy" psych and the vocals bring it away from the multitude of guitar psych bands currently packing cones around the world. This is a great feeling record that takes all the great Japanese late 60's influenced exports and grounds them a little more.
There are, as always a couple of albums released the previous year that I don't get access to until I manage to get copies and sit down with and appreciate properly. Albums like Russian Circles Memorial which is a fine album of more spacey, ambient and less "metal" than previous efforts and I think all the better for it. Pity Sex's Feast of Love that moves them one step further towards that great indie pop goal that I personally hope their moving towards. The excellent HAIKAI NO KU Sick on my Journey is another absolute gem from the leader of Bong is definitely worth checking out if you appreciate British heavy rock with a Japanese psych twist. There's a hundred more but I'll stop there.
War on Drugs : Lost in the Dream
Roku Music : Collider
Cult of Dom Keller : The Second Bardo
Dead Meadow : Warble Womb
Fuzz : Live in SF
Heavy Blanket : Live at Tym guitars
Lowtide : ST
Labels you should support
We Empty Rooms
Casual Acid Tea
...... and any other label tirelessly run by fans for fans without any expectation of financial reward.