What an incredible year for music 2014 was – the only struggle for my annual personal list of albums of the year was which to leave out, and any of the top five could have topped my chart in any other year. So here are my highlights of 2014 in music. I hope you enjoy them.
15. Plank – Hivemind
A beautifully diverse take on instrumental guitar/synth music from Manchester-based Plank – awful band name, great album. It moves from dreamy synth explorations to much more propulsive bass-led rhythmic stompers and even moments of Kraftwerk-gone-house, and yet they know when to rein things and strip them back to their most basic elements too. Not the most original album you’ll ever hear, but executed to perfection and bringing its own character to instrumental post-rock/kraut, which is no mean feat.
14. Hauschka – Abandoned City
Every time I listen to this album, I go back to the original record label/artist description to remind myself that apparently every sound on the record is made by a prepared piano. Different treatments, modifications and processing create everything from hi-hats and drums through to crazy synth sounds and bass pads, and it all comes from a simple piano. That would be extraordinary enough, but there are some belting good tunes on here too, verging on what you might describe as acoustic techno.
13. Benge – Loop Series Two (Layers)
This one’s FREE, so go and download it now. Benge (Ben Edwards – also of Wrangler) created the fantastic Twenty Systems album, exploring the tones and features of classic synths from the late sixties to the late eighties, and he spends much of his time dabbling with beautiful old analogue kit to squeeze the most wonderful sounds possible from them. This album is entirely built from the sounds of the Sequential Prophet VS synth. It’s warm, inviting ambient electronica along the lines of The Dead Texan or Brian McBride and rewards deep headphone listening.
12. Earthling Society – England Have My Bones
Worth the entry fee off the back of the utterly stunning psychedelic guitar freakout version of Alice Coltrane’s ‘Journey Into Satchidananda’, which nails all the great things about the Earthling Society sound in one fifteen-minute epic. Hypnotic. Also, smart packaging and lovely coloured vinyl adds up to a winner.
11. Ben Frost – Aurora
Extraordinary, focused noise from Ben Frost, who’s making music like no one else – a step up from the slightly-aggressive ambience of ‘By The Throat’ to a heavy, drum-led form of sonic brutality that kind of sounds like Gang Gang Dance remixing Merzbow. I find I have to be in a very specific mood to listen to this record, but when I’m in that mood, nothing else touches it this year.
10. The Advisory Circle – From Out Here
Classic Ghost Box done to perfection. You know the score – 70s library music and children’s TV themes as performed by acid casualties. By turns playful and sinister – and usually at the same time. This one has a little more of the Dario Argento-style Italian horror soundtracks about it, which is entirely welcome in my book.
9. Inventions – Inventions
Inventions are Eluvium – whose music I adore – and a member of Explosions in the Sky, whose music I pretty much can’t stand. So this one could have gone either way. As it is, it’s a really great record – for my money, not as strong as an Eluvium album ‘proper’, but some fantastic melodic moments and effective builds. And the classic Explosions reverb-laden mournful guitar lines really work much better for me when bolstered by Matthew Cooper’s unfailing talent with a warm drone sound and ear for a sample.
8. Death Blues – Ensemble
Jon Mueller’s Death Blues outfit seems to have taken over from his work with Collections of Colonies of Bees of late, and while I’m constantly hoping for new COCOB music, this will do nicely in the meantime. A concept band formed around the idea of putting in music the inevitability of death doesn’t sound like the most uplifting thing in the world, but this is surprisingly rousing, exhilarating stuff. Built around the simple undercarriage of Mueller’s drums plus bass and guitar, it’s the massed ranks of strings, keyboards and woodwind that lift this to another level, sounding for all the world like Dirty Three performing a danse macabre.
7. Laura Moody – Acrobats
I’d been waiting for Laura Moody’s debut album ever since catching her extraordinary live show at Truck Festival a few years back, so I put my money where my mouth was and backed her Kickstarter for the record. Worth every penny – it blends the strength of her songwriting ability and voice with the idiosyncrasies that make her so special: the odd vocalisations, snatched whispers of foreign languages and unique, inventive playing style. A unique album.
6. Ian William Craig – A Turn of Breath
This was sold to me as ‘Bon Iver meets William Basinski’, which got my attention right from the off. That’s not quite on the mark, but gives you an idea of the direction of one of the most inventive drone/ambient records of the year – distant, reverby vocals disappearing behind organic waves of unidentifiable sound. A closer parallel would be the sound of Jonsi from Sigur Ros being slowly drowned in a bath – but in a VERY good way.
5. A Winged Victory for the Sullen – Atomos
AWVFTS push all of my available buttons, it’s as simple as that. Soaring string melodies lifted to an entirely different level by classic Stars of the Lid-style processed washes. It’s a beautiful experience from the first minute to the last, a moving and inspiring tour de force.
4. The Antlers – Familiars
The Antlers can do no wrong – they’ve been on an almost unbelievable creative high ever since Hospice (i.e. practically for their entire time together as a band), producing some of the most powerful, emotional music I’ve heard in recent years. Familiars is a little more measured and less instantly visceral, with so much space and grace to the songs, but the same stunning, affecting lyrics. Wonderful.
3. Watter – This World
It takes something special for an instrumental guitar-based record to chart this highly, given my extremely high exposure to such music, but this really is something special. Every minute is perfectly crafted, and the pace and build of the tracks is magnificent, holding and releasing tension like absolute masters of their craft. And when ‘the riff’ kicks in midway through ‘Small Business’, wow…
2. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
In any other year, this would have been number one by a mile. I thought I’d lost the ability to be really – I mean really – hit by a song’s lyrics, but this album proved me wrong. Within the first six minutes of opening track ‘Carissa’, listening on headphones on my way to work one morning, I had tears running down my face. And the rest of the album goes on from there, an incredibly brave, open and honest form of songwriting like I’ve not heard in years, with a beautiful defiance, hope and acceptance lying behind what are ostensibly doom-laden tracks of death and disaster.
1. Einstuerzende Neubauten – Lament
But this wasn’t any other year – I was fortunate enough to see one of the performances of ‘Lament’ in November (which was conceived primarily as a live performance – almost a piece of musical theatre) and it was one of the greatest shows I’ve seen. And the album does justice to that. I won’t go into detail you can read elsewhere, but this is a collection of songs to mark the 100th anniversary of World War I, and it’s immaculate from start to finish, by turns moving, inspiring, thoughtful and in places imbued with an unexpected, dry sense of humour. From a 15-minute percussive piece in which every bar represents a day in the war to a musical dramatisation of telegrams sent between Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas, it succeeds at every level, unearthing untold stories from the war, offering a fresh insight on a tale so often told last year, and producing some wonderful music that stands in its own right too. Nothing short of an amazing artistic achievement.