Top 10 Albums of 2014 (So Far)
We’re now half-way through the year, so I thought now was as good a time as any to review the top 10 albums that have graced our ears since January.
I can’t take any credit for this idea, as I was actually prompted to do so by my friend and fellow blogger, Mike Watkins, who’s doing a top 50 over on his blog: you can check out his list here.
But here we go: here are my ten albums which have stood out in a year which, in my opinion, has been a largely disappointing one for music so far. Feel free to post any comments below if you strongly agree or disagree with my choices; I’d love to hear which albums you guys think have been the best!
10. Zaba – Glass Animals
Zaba definitely takes the prize for the most interesting, experimental and hard-to-define album on this list. It’s described as indie-rock and/or sometimes trip-hop but in reality it falls somewhere in between the two. The instrumentation ranges from tribal African to Asian influences; combine that with some often pretty esoteric lyrics, some hushed vocals and some chilled beats and the overall effect is a laid-back album that you can stick on and relax to, but is interesting enough that it won’t send you to sleep.
Of all the albums on my list this is probably the one which I would recommend as my ‘summer album’: if you’re looking for an album to rinse while the weather is lush, you’re chilling outside in the sun, with a BBQ and a few beers, pick this one.
That being said, this almost does Glass Animals an injustice; I don’t mean to say that this is just a good but throw-away summer soundtrack. Zaba is an album which tests the boundaries more than most debutants would dare, and succeeds.
You’ll like this if you like: Django Django, Alt-J, Jagwar Ma
9. Range of Light – S. Carey
While many know Bon Iver as the love-child of Justin Vernon alone, the band’s wonderful, distinctive sound would not exist without the talents of Sean Carey. Carey is a fantastic vocalist and percussionist for Bon Iver, but as a solo artist he has demonstrated his full array of musical abilities.
Range of Light is the second solo album released by Sean Carey, who performs under the moniker S.Carey; retaining the melancholic elegance of the first album while exploring new avenues to ensure the world knows that S.Carey is more than just ‘that other guy from Bon Iver’.
This is an extremely mellow album, which means you might not fall in love with it instantly if you’re looking for something more upbeat; but give it a chance, listen to this album while staring up at the stars, listen to this album when you’re wide awake at 3am and you’ll understand it’s real grace, and why it makes my top 10.
Carey’s voice is delicate, the songs beautifully crafted, and the sound big but refined; to give the album an extremely intimate feel.
Regrettably, the only thing stopping this album from being album of the year, is the absence of Justin Vernon.
You’ll like this if you like: Bon Iver, Volcano Choir, Benjamin Francis Leftwich
8. Atlas – Real Estate
With a distinctly 90s alternative rock vibe, Atlas is the third album by New Jersey indie-rock band, Real Estate.
I have to admit to my discredit, to not really knowing much about Real Estate before the release and surrounding hype of Atlas, but I was an instant fan from my first listen.
Offering a blend between psychedelic and indie rock, Real Estate have a really interesting sound that you won’t a lot of other artists producing right now. It’s that real nostalgic, 1990s sound, which was so cheerful, bright and distinctive, and which for some reason, almost completely died out as soon as the clock struck midnight on the 31st December 1999. The sound that was emblematic of the time, and of bands like Suede and Manic Street Preachers.
It’s impossible not to listen to this album with a little smile on your face, I defy anyone to try! Stick on Talking Backwards and as soon as the jangle-rock guitar begins you’ll feel happier. April’s Song is a musical interlude, four songs in, which breaks up the album with irrepressible joy, and Horizon is a song that’s so cheery you’ll probably have an epiphany and decide to turn your life around.
This album will fill you with optimism and brighten up your day, and if it doesn’t, then maybe nothing will, so what’ve you got to lose?
You’ll like this if you like: Suede, Temples, Yuck
7. Whispers – Passenger
At risk of being accused of being a hipster, there is something I must confess: I was very, very, reluctant to include this album in this list, purely because of the huge success of the single Let Her Go last year.
But before you start lighting your torches, painting your banners, and screaming “DIRTY HIPSTER” into your monitor until you’re frothing at the mouth, please allow me justify this reluctance.
The playtime of Let Her Go was overwhelming. You simply could not escape it; which, as someone who had been a fan of Passenger for many, many, years prior to it’s release, irritated me to no end. The track, and the whole album, are by no means Passenger’s best, and yet the majority of people thought this was an amazing, debut album by a new artist.
So here was my reluctance; I firmly believe that some artists produce their best work when they are underrated; just on that cusp of success but not quite tumbling over it (see Ed Sheeran), and I feared that the success Passenger enjoyed last year would prove detrimental to the quality of his music.
Which brings me to the reason I ultimately have included this album in this list: because I was wrong. Because Whispers is classic Passenger, doing what he does best.
There is nothing particularly special about Passenger‘s music: the guitar is simple and unspectacular, the backing instruments (violin, cello, mandolin etc.) are all typical of the genre; but what sets Passenger apart is his wonderful ability to tell a story. His lyrics can be funny, moving, poetic, and often deeply profound; and more often than not he manages to flit between all of these elements in a single song. His capacity to evoke your emotions, move you, then make you laugh with the next line are second to none.
This album is nothing new from Passenger, but that’s not a bad thing in his case; in fact it was a welcome relief that, despite finally achieving mainstream success, it’s just business as usual from the Brighton based folk-pop singer.
You’ll like this if you like: Joshua Radin, Ben Howard, The Lumineers
6. So Long, See You Tomorrow – Bombay Bicycle Club
The first time I listened to this album I got bored. I got less than halfway through and I stopped listening. Mercifully, months later, I decided to give it another chance.
I’ll start with the reason I got bored, and then we can move on to the reason it’s earned a place in my top 10.
I think a combination of factors are to blame for my initial response to this album; partly that I was obviously not in the right mood for it, and partly that the opening songs are probably the weakest songs on the album. It’s never wise, for obvious reasons, to start an album with your weakest songs. Most albums have weak songs, but they’re thrown onto the end of the album so that, by the time you reach them, you’ve adjusted to the sound, you like the sound, and you want to hear more of it; whether the songs are as good as earlier on in the album or not.
But when I went back to the album I realised that as it progresses, the songs acquire a lot more depth and quality. Maybe Bombay are trying to ease listeners in to the new, more produced, electronic, upbeat sound with the earlier tracks which are a bit tamer and more familiar, but in my opinion this was a mistake. Be bold and just throw us straight in at the deep end.
When the album does get to the proverbial deep end, it’s worth the little paddle through the shallows.
Luna, one of the albums strongest songs, is almost a dance-anthem, but with a distinctive Bombay Bicycle Club feel. It combines the perky, cheery sound that they do best with an electronic edge. It’s followed by the mellow Eyes Off You, which serves as a gentle comedown from the build that occurs in the previous few songs and culminates in Luna.
The album closes with the title track, So Long, See You Tomorrow, a gentle, slow-paced finale which brings the album to an end nicely and captures the sleepy feeling of saying goodnight. Confused? Listen and you’ll see what I mean.
You’ll like this if you like: Beirut, Two Door Cinema Club, Vampire Weekend
5. Caustic Love – Paolo Nutini
Who doesn’t love Paolo Nutini? Whoever these people are, I haven’t met them and I don’t want to.
When the chipper-yet-bluesy Scot released his debut album These Streets back in 2006, many were surprised that the husky, soulful tones belonged to a wee boy of just 19-years-old. However, while These Streets was an outstanding album, the maturity of his voice was betrayed by the fairly immature content of the songs: singing about a lost teenage love, and a fixation with an older woman? Pretty typical of an angst-ridden adolescent.
The follow up, Sunny Side Up, was better in terms of lyrical content, but failed to conjure the same charm that made These Streets so successful: but with Caustic Love, Paolo has produced his finest work yet.
Caustic Love possesses the greater maturity which was hinted at in Sunny Side Up but without trying to stick to the sound that made These Streets popular. Instead Paolo favours a much funkier, R&B (in the traditional sense) style that fits perfectly with the growth he has experienced since his debut nearly 10 years ago.
The opening track, Scream (Funk My Life Up), is, as the title suggests, very funky. It sets the tone for the rest of the album, easing you in cheerfully before turning up the blues with the second track, Let Me Down Easy, which features a sample of a song by the same name by soul-singer Bettye LaVette. Better Man is a Dylan-inspired folk ballad which breaks up the album nicely and offers a pleasant change of pace, slowing the album down for the final songs which are much more laid back.
This is an album which is refined and personal, reflective of an artist producing a record that they want to produce, rather than one trying to impress his teenage sweetheart, or music critics. It’s a sign that Paolo really has grown up, and hey, he’s still only 27!
You’ll like this if you like: George Ezra, Paloma Faith, Ray LaMontagne
4. Other Rivers – Matthew and the Atlas
When Matthew and the Atlas emerged onto the music scene in 2010, with the release of their debut E.P. To The North, they were a charming, mellow, earthy sounding folk band. They released a follow-up E.P. later the same year, Kingdom of Your Own, which was a similar affair. Then they went quiet.
Now, after four years of writing, touring, and making fans wonder if they were ever going to return, they have: with their debut album, Other Rivers; and it is an entirely different animal.
I suppose in name at least, you would describe Other Rivers as a folk album, but I would use this term very loosely. I struggle to find a genre that this album actually nestles in to. Which I imagine was the point.
The lyrics remain folk-esque, and the banjo and acoustic guitar are still prominent, but the addition of a deep, resonating bass synth and electric guitar make the sound a whole lot bigger, a whole lot more powerful, and a whole lot more modern than that on the band’s previous releases.
I’m not sure whether this radical change is a result of a desire to be more than just another folk band or just a change of musical direction during the band’s lengthy absence, but the effect has been profound.
I was a fan of Matthew and the Atlas before the release of this album, but I went to see them live a little while ago and the new songs they performed (the songs which make up this album) almost knocked me off my feet. The solid wall of sound produced by that bass synth and the electric guitar alone is phenomenal; and while you won’t be able to recreate this effect at home without some exceptionally good speakers, this is nonetheless a joyously good album.
You’ll like this if you like: Mumford & Sons, Bear’s Den, Emily and the Woods
3. Turn Blue – The Black Keys
The Black Keys return to the scene three years after the release of the hugely successful, hugely acclaimed, El Camino, with an adventurous move away from the sound for which they were so widely praised.
Many pre-El Camino fans voiced their disappointment at the tighter, more produced, more commercial sound of the album; compared with the raw, bluesy sound that characterised the band’s earlier records, such as Brothers and Attack & Release; but those fans will not be disappointed with Turn Blue.
Don’t ask me how, because after several listens I am yet to figure out how exactly they’ve done it, but with Turn Blue, The Black Keys have managed to create an album that is simultaneously a salute to their older, blues style (perhaps unsurprising given the album title), but also a progression to something new; with the album having a distinctly psychedelic feel. You only need to stare at the album artwork for a few minutes to get some idea of how trippy this record is going to be in places.
With any great band, the secret to longevity is doing enough to keep your old fans happy, but also attract new fans, and I think The Black Keys have done exactly that with this record. The songs feel familiar, you feel like you are listening to a Black Keys album, but there is also something new about the sound, which will attract people who may not have enjoyed their older material.
As I’ll mention again below, the best music comes from heartache, especially when it comes to the blues; and the collapse of the marriages of both Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney has had an obvious influence on their music. A sense of regret, loss and loneliness hangs over several of the tracks, such as Weight of Love and Bullet in the Brain, giving the album a sense of maturity and introspection that is absent on the duo’s earlier albums.
You’ll like this if you like: Jack White, Arctic Monkeys, Pre-El Camino Black Keys, El Camino Black Keys
2. Lost in the Dream – The War on Drugs
After the release and widespread critical acclaim of Slave Ambient in 2011, Adam Granduciel claimed he found it difficult adjusting to normal life: admitting to feeling depressed and paranoid to the point that it started to have an effect on his physical health. But as any music fan worth their salt will tell you, truly great music comes from heartache and sadness, and so it was that Granduciel used these feelings as the inspiration for the songs on Lost in the Dream.
The songs are fuelled by the kind of dark thoughts you get when you’re wide-awake, your mind-racing, late at night. This is an album which will resonate with anyone who has ever felt isolated, anxious or experienced real self-doubt.
The album has an overwhelmingly 1980s rock feel to it: the opening track, Under the Pressure, is an entirely unsubtle ode to Springsteen; to the extent that it could have been written by the man himself, and the influences of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and Rod Stewart can be felt strongly throughout.
That should not be taken as a bad thing, and it’s not to say that the album is not a unique work in it’s own right, because it most definitely is.
Rather than simply ripping-off the artists mentioned above, Lost in the Dream infuses the soul of the 80s with a more modern feel. The War on Drugs have taken the passionate and expressive songwriting that made artists like Springsteen and Dylan so great, given the technical side a little updating, and brought it to a modern generation.
The albums title track, Lost in the Dream, is a haunting ballad which reflects the loneliness Granduciel experienced, while Burning offers a more optimistic feeling of a guy doing his best to keep himself together. The album is perfectly paced, and perfectly captures the emotional journey which will be all to familiar to many listeners.
You’ll like this if you like: Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty
1. Post Tropical – James Vincent McMorrow
My stand out album of the year by far. This album was the first I knew had to be on my list, and takes the number one spot with little competition. A world away from his debut album Early in the Morning; the transformation from tender folk to the bolder, braver, bigger sound of Post Tropical is one of the most radical changes of style between a first and second album I’ve ever encountered.
While I loved Early in the Morning, with Post Tropical, McMorrow takes it to a whole new level.
McMorrow’s distinctive, soulful voice is virtually all that remains from the first album; with synths and brass instruments replacing acoustic guitar and banjo, making the whole sound much fuller, less stripped back.
Soaring, achingly beautiful vocals, combined with powerful lyrics, make you really feel the meaning within the songs. “I remember my first love” James pines in Cavalier, the album’s opener, and it immediately conjures the feeling of that teenage love that you never really experience again. Red Dust is perhaps my most played song of the year, and McMorrow feels painfully exposed at the beginning of the song, before revealing the full power of his voice at the songs conclusion. It really is something special.
Early in the Morning was McMorrow announcing that he could do the emotive, bearded folk musician thing as well as anybody; Post Tropical is McMorrow announcing that he wants to do something utterly unique: utterly himself. And it’s wonderful.