Thursday, January 01, 2015

2014: the year in music

© Simon Poulter 2015

We weren’t long into 2013 when jaws collectively hit the deck with such a cacophonous thud that the paranoid could have been excused for thinking someone had, in Cold War parlance, dropped ‘the big one’. It was, of course, simply David Bowie, unexpectedly announcing his re-emergence as a recording artist with the appearance of, first, a single, and later an album.

2014 has, however, been conspicuously bereft of such musical incredulity, even with Susan Boyle audaciously releasing an album called Hope, and Barry Manilow recording a collection of duets with, exclusively, dead people.

Live, 2014 brought What Would David Bowie Do? into close proximity with Robert Plant twice, even closer to the Manic Street Preachers, and closer still to the point of a restraining order from Johnny Marr. There was an evening of joyous bouncing around with the Kaiser Chiefs, the breathtakingly enchanting Laura Mvula reminding how talent and a voice is sometimes just enough, or talent and a Stratocaster, in the case of the ridiculously talented blues prodigy Quinn Sullivan or the maestro himself, Popa Chubby, a matter of feet away from me in a Mexican restaurant in California.

But when it comes to this year’s pick of albums, I make no apology for a degree of conservatism. Some might call it predictability. Whatevs. This has been a year for the enjoyment of the melancholy, the thoughtful and the introspective, not to mention the clearly West Coast, Laurel Canyon-influenced, for both gentle guitars and those of a more raucous tone.

Before, however, I give you the lineup, there are two albums worthy of notable mention: firstly, Thom Yorke's Tomorrow's Modern Boxes. I'm sure it's good, but if I could only work out how to download it via BitTorrent, I would have given it a proper listen. And just because it is Thom Yorke doesn't ensure favourable comment. Next time, Thom, stop being difficult and release the bloody thing like a normal artist. I hear even the cassette has made a comeback. At least that would be easier than fannying around trying to convert "packets" into something I can listen too...

Secondly, U2's Songs Of Innocence. Just because it is U2 doesn't mean we all have to kiss its self-annointed feet. And as for ambushing my iTunes account - even if that was a lot easier than trying to get it via BitTorrent, how dare they. I'll decide whether I want an album, free or otherwise. As it turns out, Songs Of Innocence was without doubt the year's biggest disappointment. I don't say that out of grumpiness - it really did come across as lazy and knocked out in a lunch hour. U2 can be magnificent when they try, but they simply weren't with this one. Time to go back to disruptive rock rather than just sprinkling some half-developed ideas with trademark sounds.

So, then, what of the records that were fully developed? Ladies and gentlemen, let me present the What Would David Bowie Do? Top 20 Albums of 2014:

20 Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey - Going Back Home
Strictly speaking, this album shouldn't come anywhere near a best-of chart. Listened to via a squinted ear, it's merely a collection of retreads by Johnson and Daltrey, an enjoyable pub rock knees up and that's it. But appreciated with a little more attention and you come to realise how much this album is a celebration of life itself, as Johnson pounds away at his Telecaster in the knowledge that his apparent terminal cancer has been miraculously beaten, and Daltrey - free of the confines of The Who - returns to his roots as Acton Town's chief mod. Best played extremely loud.

19 The Led Zeppelin Reissues
No one, to my knowledge, has ever said that a list of the best albums of a given year has to actually include albums recorded in the year in question. From a purely biased point of view - this is a biog, after all, so get over it - Led Zeppelin's (well, Jimmy Page's) reissues this year of their first five albums has been a musical event of serious note. Whether you view the wallet emptying box sets as  exploitation, or simply cashing in on the middle-aged fan's predilection for nostalgia-induced spending, there was certainly much to savour from Page's lovingly curated box sets, producing alternate takes of songs that in a few cases genuinely questioned their familiarity, along with other extras such as the previously unreleased live recording from October 1969 at L'Olympia in Paris). At risk of sucking up to hype, the reissues of Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin IIILed Zeppelin IV and Houses Of The Holy have been events in their own right.

18 Gary Clark Jr. - Gary Clark Jr. Live
If I can sneak in a cheeky handful of reissues, I can certainly include a live album, and few will suck the breath out of your lungs quite like this double-live from the latest great hope for keeping the blues alive, Gary Clark Jr. Those who pay attention to Eric Clapton's various Crossroads guitar festivals in aid of his Antigua drug rehabilitation centre will have already seen Clark's emergence in 2010 as a Stevie Ray Vaughan for the new millennium, and he's yet to let his build up falter. Some live albums have all the excitement of a bus ride through Leeds on a wet Wednesday afternoon, but this one captures Clark at his rip-roaring best. One also worth playing when the neighbours are out, and at full volume, too.

17 Future Islands - Singles
When a band emerges that has everyone talking about them, I usually run in the opposite direction. This is not due to a contrarian nature as such, or indeed something that would be better worked out via therapy. It's simply that I can't abide hype. Ironic, really, given that I earn a living now in PR. Luckily, in the case of Future Islands and their fourth album Singles, the end-product bore out the industry chatter. Building up their reputation, from garage band in Greenville, North Carolina, Singles is the result of a relentless slog to hone their electro-pop, also being the first album released by their new and major label, 4AD. There is romance and expression here, shades of Depeche Mode even, with a collection of songs that draw you in.

16 Ben Howard - I Forget Where We Were
Record industry dictation of what we should be listening to is nothing new. The Beatles, after all, inspired an entire slew of lookalike and soundalike acts. The cause of the singer-songwriter, however, has ebbed and flowed as if controlled by the tides. Currently, they're in, but thankfully the rush to find the next Jake Bugg-cum-Lonnie Donnegan has been abandoned. In that midst came the sophomore effort from Ben Howard, the Devon-based S-S who 'chose' his record company (Island) based on its heritage with John Martyn and Nick Drake, decent reference points each. There were obvious nods to both those acoustic icons on his 2011 debut Every Kingdom, and they're there again on I Forget Where We Were,  especially Martyn, as Howard explores his craft further. 

15 Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye
Yes, you read that correctly. Hoary old West Coast rockers (though they're actually from Florida, originally), making an album worthy of inclusion in a year's best-of list. Well, they have, and with a record that drew no greater accolade than me selecting "Album Repeat" on my iPhone and not changing that for a week. This is proper, "meat and potatoes" rock, a brilliant blend of guitars doing what guitars are meant to do, coupled with the 63-year-old Petty applying a healthily caustic view of the world on songs like Burnt Out Town and the opener, American Dream Plan B, as well as the brilliant assessment of life's unfortunates, Forgotten Man.
14 Kaiser Chiefs - Education, Education, Education & War
The last time we saw the Kaisers it was those heady days of the 2012 summer, and they were part of that celebration of Britain, the closing ceremony of London Olympics, charging around the Olympic stadium on Vespa scooters to channel The Who. The Kaiser chief Ricky Wilson went a bit showbiz, as a judge on The Voice, the BBC's attempt to cash in on Saturday night TV wannabedom. Thank God, then, that at some point they graced a recording studio with their presence to produce this, their fifth album. After the lacklustre The Future Is Medieval, Education... has the Kaisers back punching at their correct weight, writing infectious, festival-friendly classics like Ruffians On Parade, mildly political essays like The Factory Gates, and the slightly schmaltzy but nonetheless enjoyable Coming Home. On tour they were effervescent. 

13 Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters - Lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar
With those who clearly still misunderstand Plant - including, perhaps, Jimmy Page - banging on about another ker-ching Led Zeppelin tour, Plant has admirably ploughed his own furrow. Admittedly, his live shows were peppered with Zepp songs, but the enthusiastic eclecticism with which Plant and his superb Sensational Space Shifters have been approaching both original and old material demonstrated that, like that other refusenik warhorse Peter Gabriel, there is no statute of limitations on what you can still do as one of rock's elder statesmen. Lullaby... refused to even continue the bluegrass theme of Plant's enormous collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, instead diving into music, themes and tones from Americana, the Middle East and Africa alike, turning the old on its head with something new (Little Maggie) or rocking up a storm with Pocketful of Golden, which nods slightly to the behemoth Plant once fronted.

12 Johnny Marr - Playland
You wouldn't normally place indie's diminutive guitar icon in the same sentence as Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, but for the purpose of this list, I will, seeing as Playland, like Hypnotic Eye, was another album that went on repeat and didn't come off it until it was really, exhaustively, time to move on. A big improvement on last year's The Messenger, Playland feels more thought through, and more cohesive as a result, a punch cocktail of riffs and sterling reminders of where Manchester's Britpop Ground Zero was centred.  Thus, spiky four-minute wonders like Easy Money, Dynamo and Boys Get Straight put lead in the pencil like few others have done on record this year. Brilliant.

11 Deacon Blue - A New House
Despite earning serious kudos for naming themselves after a Steely Dan song, and with their hit singles Dignity, Real Gone Kid and, today appropriate, Queen Of The New Year, being mainstays of  Top 40 radio well into the 90s, the last 20 years have been something of a critical desert for Ricky Ross & Co, even if their last album, 2012's The Hipsters did at least break the UK Top 20 album chart. However, A New House appeared to creep out, which is a shame, as it has been one of the great surprises of 2014. A New House is engulfed in a renewed zest, the result of the band taking time off and then returning via live performance, something that comes through on every single track. Next time, will you let us know? Ta.

10 Caribou - Our Love
Like Future Islands' Singles, this, too, shouldn't be on this list owing to the amount of tastemaker approval it has received. But after a chance encounter in - where else? - a record shop, this sixth album from Dan Snaith's electronica vehicle had me hooked. Combining electronic hooks that refuse to adhere to any recognisable label with the more personal lyrics of a man approaching his 40s (he's 36), Singles is the non-formist's non-conformist album, by turns fascinating, danceable, baffling and always engaging. Play it in the car with your windows down and wait for the looks you'll get. And not give a rat's arse about them.

9 Jack White - Lazaretto
Speaking of inveterate contrarians, rock's own Tim Burton/Johnny Depp combination turned in one of his most mainstream albums ever, which is in principle his break-up album, and named after a quarantine facility for sailors. Make of that what you will. Inside there is no shortage of White's sonic idiosyncrasy, getting noises out of guitars that very few other artists have the time or the patience to develop, but then layering them into plaintive blues, folk, country and other genres that no doubt come from making Nashville his home base.    

8 Bombay Bicycle Club - So Long, See You Tomorrow
It's only just occurred to me, as I've arrived at this album in the 20, how much Ben Howard reminds me of BBC's Jack Steadman, vocally. There, however, the similarity ends, with Crouch End's finest taking their fourth album into a broader sphere, less guitar-focused and more world music-influenced with heavy samples of Bollywood and sub-continent rhythms peppered throughout. Is it dance? Is it pop? Is it rock? Who cares, it is excellent, and evidence of a band maturing before our eyes. They recently entertained a guest appearance from David Gilmour at their Earls Court show a few weeks ago, a visit from rock royalty to place a regal stamp on this still-impossibly young band's stature. 

7 Paolo Nutini - Caustic Love
Speaking of still young, Nutini may have the voice of a world-weary R&B veteran, but the Scot is still technically of an age when he could be called a "young man". But ignore such fogeyish speak: Caustic Love is a superb piece of soul, not exactly the blue-eyed kind as the bloodshot, blue-eyed kind. Those who may have previously avoided Nutini for being an artist who, despite his chronic hedonist reputation, could so easily evolve into the next Bublé, will be pleasantly surprised by the acreage this album covers, both in terms of impact and invention. Even when threatening to go in a lounge direction, Nutini steers onto paths less travelled, avoiding cliché without abandoning convention.

6 Ben Watt - Hendra
Leonard Cohen and Peter Gabriel have clearly got nothing on Watt when it comes to lengthy gaps between albums, with this glorious summer soundtrack coming some 31 years after Watt released North Marine Drive. It brought Watt back to the folk-rock influences of his youth, with John Martyn and Nick Drake (again) prominent in the 70s singer-songwriter vibe, along with woozy reflections on life and the countryside supported by guest guitarist Bernard Butler and even a cameo from David Gilmour's seminal pedal steel guitar. If you can imagine a hot August afternoon, sitting in the garden reading a good book, warm waves of sunshine washing over your face, then this album is the musical equivalent. Enchanting.

5 The Black Keys - Turn Blue
While El Camino, its predecessor, journeyed the Keys along a heavily blues-influenced thoroughfare, Turn Blue launched Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney into a wicked maelstrom of psych-rock, soul, glam rock, funk and even 70s glitterball wigouts. With the help of producer Danger Mouse, Turn Blue evokes everyone from Floyd to Donna Summer in a typical hook-laden Black Keys jam  that doesn't take itself too seriously, but offers serious entertainment for those of us who like their music to be stained in the past.

4 Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams
I'm always suspicious of any band or solo performer who, some way into their careers, names an album after themselves. It does set off the alarm bells that a creative dry patch has been reached. Mercifully, Ryan Adams' Ryan Adams doesn't present any such disappointment, instead delivering an album of fully-formed, cheesecloth-and-denim wearing West Coast soft-rock that probably doesn't deserve that description. Yes, there are some obvious comparisons to be made to Lindsay Buckingham's contributions to Fleetwood Mac, but that is just a passing observation. For its entirety, this is an album of straight-forward constructs, of heartfelt writing and earnest performances (even, bizarrely, featuring Johnny Depp playing guitar on two tracks, not that he exactly stands out). A perfectly-crafted record, and one that spent the better part of a week on near-constant repeat as I drove from Lake Tahoe to Portland, Oregon, and back down into California again. Rare is the album that feels like comfortable shoes and the shiniest party shirt simultaneously. But Adams pulled off that trick with aplomb.

3 Manic Street Preachers - Futurology
To briefly return to U2 for a second, when you've enjoyed critical acclaim and commercial success over the course of a career spanning more than a couple of decades, expectations are high when you release a record. It's not one that I would even pretend to have any appreciation of, and I don't envy those bands trying to make it work. But unlike U2's highwayman album in September, the Manics' twelfth studio album was just breathtaking in its boldness, in its resolution to not sound like anything the Welsh trio (or quartet, if Richie ever does reappear) had released before. Some call that progressive, others just call it hard graft, not giving into the temptation of retreading a load of angry old stompers, but to invest further in their craft. The result is a simply majestic record.

2 Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots
As we get down to the final two albums of this year's line-up, don't expect perky, don't expect upbeat, and don't expect too much ra-ra. As the cover image of Everyday Robots - Albarn's debut solo album - suggest, this is a wonderfully downbeat collection of largely melancholy essays on the absurdities of a world in which we communicate more via our mobile phones than by face-to-face contact. It's the sort of reflection men of our age (Albarn is just four months my junior) can easily fall into. Here, he peels back the layers of his life to revisit the Essex and East London of his youth and his post-adolescent, pre-fame existence. It is in places dour, sepia-tinged and gloriously melancholy. And utterly, utterly compelling. As my review earlier this year stated, Everyday Robots can be considered as either the slit-your-wrists bleating of a polymath coming to terms with age, or an intelligently weighted concept piece which underlines how how gifted Albarn is in creating brilliantly nuanced music. Stunning.

1 Elbow - The Take Off And Landing Of Everything
The achingly cool, self-appointed who like to decide for us what is in and what isn't might still be waiting to pounce on Elbow as the next Coldplay (and no-one wants that, now do they). The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, however, ensured that Salford’s finest held their heads up with this positively sumptuous collection of expression and just the right hint of melancholy. Written largely on the back of Guy Garvey’s relationship split and subsequent flight to the protective bosom of New York City, it coalesced the decade and a half that Elbow have been writing and recording with an album that had nooks and crannies in every big, open-spaced room on it occupied. Even with the break-up context that could have given Garvey his own Blood On The Tracks or Grace And Danger, it doesn’t wallow, resting - thankfully - in a broad church of self expression, self rediscovery and imperious songwriting. Sam Smith may have produced the year’s most talked about debut focusing on unrequited romance, but no-one seams to apply voice, melody and invention quite like Elbow, and this album blended that triumvirate with majestic excellence.

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