It’s that time of the year once again, where lazy and thankful journalists up and down the country tell you what they’ve enjoyed over the last year. Not wishing to miss this creative open goal, here is my definitive list of the best 10 albums of a year which has provided a rich seam of output. So without further waffle, indulge yourself, give a few of them a listen (I have even been so good as to provide links to recommended tracks, you lucky people) and who knows, you might discover your new favourite band…
by Harry Harland
10. Pink Floyd – The Endless River
OK, so beyond the hype and excitement of a first new Pink Floyd release in 20 years, this was a fairly limited offering. Indeed, 1994’s Division Bell-aside, the Roger Waters-less Floyd output had always been patchy at best, so little in truth was expected of a newly-recorded selection of B-sides from the early 90’s.
However when it worked, as it did fleetingly on Things Left Unsaid, Allons-y and closing piece Louder Than Words (the only track on the album with Dave Gilmour’s unmistakable vocals), it was unmistakably Pink Floyd. Given that fact alone, the swathes of mediocrity that ran through much of the rest of the album were forgiven.
9. Future Islands – Singles
As unlikely pop stars go, Future Islands must be up there. Hailing from the relative backwater of Baltimore and boasting a frontman in Sam Herring with the looks of Kevin Spacey and a unique dancing style that somehow combines Christopher Walken with ‘drunken uncle at a wedding’, not many would have put money on them finally breaking through with their 4th album. However, break through is precisely what they did, and on the basis of Singles, all success was richly deserved.
A joyous mix of 80’s electropop and euphoric choruses, much of Future Islands’ winning formula is built on Herring’s phenomenal vocal dexterity, combining gentle moments with a soulful roar that Bobby Womack would be proud of. There’s little clever or new about what Future Islands do, but when you have choruses like that of Seasons (Waiting on You) in your locker, it seems churlish to experiment.
8. Spoon – They Want My Soul
Texan indie band Spoon have, over the course of an 8-album career, proven themselves to be one of the most consistent bands out there. They returned from a 4 year hiatus in the autumn with They Want My Soul, another tight, tuneful collection.
Spoon always have the ability to sound fresh and fun, even if their “evolution rather than revolution” approach can lead to accusations of creatively treading water from their detractors. Still, with songs like New York Kiss on board, They Want My Soul comes highly recommended to the uninitiated while providing a safe pair of hands for existing fans of the band.
7. Royal Blood – Royal Blood
Part Muse, part White Stripes, all noise, Brighton’s Royal Blood burst onto the scene early last year with their wonderfully raw debut EP, Out Of The Black. A resulting support slot with Arctic Monkeys and a barnstorming Glastonbury performance preceded the release of their eponymous first album in August.
Happily, many of the EP’s tracks were retained for the longer offering, and Royal Blood crunching mix of distorted bass, drums, soaring vocals and very little else smashed into the charts at number 1 in August. An intriguing clash of basic noises and high production values recalled The Vines’ debut as tracks like Figure It Out and Little Monster provided classic rock backdrops to summer road trips. The album was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize, where it narrowly lost to Young Fathers (on whom there is more below…), but succeeded in dragging heavy rock back into the mainstream.
6. EMA – The Future’s Void
Long-time readers of Trivial Pursuits (with exceptional memories) will remember the glowing review that I gave to Erika M. Anderson’s debut album back in 2011. That release was a gruellingly visceral listen, which left you beaten and bloodied, yet richer for the experience. Fortunately (especially for EMA’s commerciality), follow up The Future’s Void was a much more accessible affair. Gone were the lyrics about self-harm and scratchy 8 minute epics, and in their places was a collection of interesting, quirky yet undeniably poppy songs.
That’s not to say that Anderson has gone soft, her trademark howl still adorns songs as lovely as So Blonde, while the tribal drumming- fired Neuromancer is about as progressive as anything in this list. All-in-all, where Past Life Martyred Saints came across as cathartic and at times overly-personal, The Future’s Void is the sound of an extremely gifted singer finding her voice.
5. Jamie-T – Carry On The Grudge
Jamie-T, remember him? He of Sheila and Calm Down Dearest fame? You’d be forgiven for not having thought about him for half a decade, as he hadn’t released so much as a single track since 2009’s Kings & Queens. However, following a mentoring from none other than Damon Albarn, Wimbledon’s finest returned with a new album and it was really, really good.
Parting completely with the Mike Skinnerish rapping that was almost his trademark previously, Jamie Treays compiled an album of tender beauty, interspersed with the occasional barnstorming anthem. Standout track Zombie is a fine example of this, yet it is the softer likes of Limits Lie and Don’t You Find that suggest Treays has truly progressed as an artist. A welcome and unexpected comeback.
4. Alt-J – This Is All Yours
Alt-J’s Mercury-winning debut An Awesome Wave was always going to be an extremely hard act to follow. Not only was it extremely good, but it was so packed with invention and ideas that there can’t have been much left in the creative tank for a follow-up. All this, combined with the departure of multi-instrumentalist Gwil Sainsbury, was setting the band up for an extreme dose of ‘second album syndrome’, yet Alt-J prevailed, progressed and added another accomplished album to their impressively growing repertoire.
This Is All Yours is a slower-burning affair than its predecessor, shorter on quirks but longer on consistency. Despite Intro suggesting more of the same, the album really started with the two Nara tracks, gentle melodies with sharp chord progressions and some of the band’s now trademark harmonies. Hunger of The Pine, the lead single, is a sensational, climactic track and seems to enhance the opinions of those who profess Alt-J to be the ‘new Radiohead’. Only Left Hand Free, a poppy 3-minute track that the band allegedly only included to appease their record label’s desire for a “radio-friendly single” to appeal to the US market, seems out of place on what is another impressive journey.
The best bands leave you wondering what their next move will be and, in releasing another impressively creative album, Alt-J might just be one of them.
3. Young Fathers – Dead
I must confess, at the instant loss of music kudos, that I hadn’t heard of Edinburgh’s Young Fathers until their Mercury nomination introduced me to their unique combination of electronica, rap and vocal harmonies. Once listened to a few times though, it became clear that the judges’ decision to award the gong to them (which has been myopically derided by the more mainstream end of the music press as “too quirky”) was the correct one.
I wrote fairly at length about this album earlier in the year (the article can be found here), so will leave further investigation to your intrigue. However since then they delivered a live performance in XOYO that drew 5 star reviews from the notoriously hard-to-please Evening Standard, Guardian and Telegraph music sections. They play Camden’s KOKO in May and I would strongly recommend begging, borrowing or stealing to make sure you are there.
2. The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
Lost In The Dream came from nowhere early in 2014 to first become the word-of-mouth soundtrack to countless people’s summers and subsequently dominate many critics’ end of year lists.
Starting as strongly as any recent albums with the phenomenal Red Eyes and Under The Pressure, The War On Drugs’ 3rd studio album catapulted them from the underground and into the tour-heavy world of the mainstream (I believe the band are due to play their third separate London date in 12 months early next year).
Combining the best of traditional Americana, Lost In The Dream succeeds in wowing you with Springsteen-esque anthems while (in the style of the Boss himself) not needing to over-complicate. If I was playing a straighter bat at this list with regard to universal appeal, I wouldn’t have thought twice about awarding this album top spot, but I’m not, so TWOD will have to settle for second best.
1. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
It speaks volumes that when I first started compiling ideas for this list, Run The Jewels’ second album hadn’t actually even come out. Indeed, I wasn’t even aware that it was coming out at all.
Run The Jewels, a formalisation of the Killer Mike/EL-P hip-hop partnership that excelled on the former’s R.A.P. Music album last year (EL-P produced it) had actually released their eponymous debut at the start of 2014, but it was the inventively-titled RTJ2 that has won them plaudits from more esteemed pages than these.
Hip hop is a strange world, in which much of the scene appears to focus more on style than substance. Thus when a truly great release (such as Kanye’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, Maad City) comes along, you almost get caught off guard by it. So it has come to pass with RTJ2.
Arriving at the back end of the year, RTJ2 thundered into the public domain like a sonic wrecking ball, with the only audible noise other than the thumping bass of their tracks being the scribbling of journalists hastily having to re-write their end of year lists. From a personal point of view, as much as I have tried to temper my love of this album with caveats such as it being my new toy or flavour of the month, I simply can’t put myself off naming it as the best release of the last 12 months.
From the perfectly sparse sax of opening track Jeopardy to the dealer-guilt narrative of Crown, RTJ2 simply grabs you by the lapels and demands your attention. Great songs just roll effortlessly into great songs, with Killer Mike’s frankly unrivalled lyrical dexterity more than supported by that of his bandmate. And then there is the production. Oh, the production…
There is so much invention in EL-P’s backing tracks (be-it the clackety-clack drumbeat of Blockbuster Night Pt 1, the bouncy stoner bass of the profane Love Again or the fantastic sensory assault that is Oh My Darling Don’t Cry), that the album manages to sound both polished and yet somehow raw, which is no mean feat.
It certainly isn’t for everyone, the brutality of the bass, not to mention the lyrics, might offend some (never more that on Love Again, itself a clever satire of the sort of macho song you think it is when you hear the first two verses). However if you like your rap music, I couldn’t recommend this more. The lyrical flow of the pair is sensational, and the tunes just make you want to keep on turning them up. This album could well result in an ASBO. It’s a risk worth taking.