Sunday, 21 December 2014

2014: Another year in music

This has been my favourite year for music in a long time, if not ever. Good and very good albums have been released regularly throughout the year, and I've done my best to listen to as many of them as I could. In the last few years, I've sought out music that perhaps didn't fall naturally in my own taste bracket, due, to an extent, to a dearth of natural favourites, but there's been no need to do that this year, as it's really been a fine year for the indie-rock stalwarts, and there's no denying the fact that my natural inclination is towards the indie-rock stalwarts.

Many of the artists I grew up with have released albums this year - it's felt just as much like 1994 or 2004 as 2014 sometimes. Why, there's even been an anniversary album by the Wu-Tang Clan with a splendid opening track called 'Ruckus in B Minor' (Wu-Tang count as indie rock stalwarts, don't they?). It's like 'Bring da Ruckus' but with a dose of cheese and an absence of menace.

Anyway, everywhere I've looked I've seen an old favourite coming out of the woodwork. One such old favourite delivered my Album of the Year. That's Gruff Rhys' 'American Interior'. It's probably sentiment that makes me place it right at the top of the pile. In truth, for me there were three utterly outstanding albums this year, and a few others not far behind. The other two near-faultless works, for me, are 'St.Vincent' by St.Vincent and 'Benji' by Sun Kil Moon.

Both have figured close to the top of critics' lists too, with the three most acclaimed albums probably being 'St Vincent', 'Run the Jewels 2' by Run the Jewels and, above all, 'Lost in the Dream' by The War on Drugs.

The latter's pre-eminence (indeed, all the critics' lists collated place 'Lost in the Dream' at the very top) puzzles me a little.   During a slightly ugly mini-spat between Mark Kozelek (who is Sun Kil Moon) and the largely blameless War on Drugs, he described their sound as "beer commercial guitar" and I see the point. Not that I mind beer commercial guitar, in fact this is a genre, this widescreen Americana, which I'm very well acquainted with. That's why I'm so puzzled. Very often, when an album is widely acclaimed and I just don't really get it, I can accept it's because it's not my natural oeuvre - something like Frank Ocean's 'Channel Orange' or  anything by, say, Aphex Twin. But 'Lost in the Dream' is right up my street, I just don't think it's that good. It's quite good. I've never disliked it. I've listened to it quite a lot, and it lives up to its name in that, without fail, I lose the thread and start daydreaming. There are a couple of good ones at the beginning, a good one in the middle, a good one at the end. There's a lot of epic noise, a lot of portents of meaning, but no phrases or tunes that particularly stand out. It really bothers me that an album that sounds a bit like Springsteen, The Waterboys, Dylan, The National, all acts I love, has been swooned over by even the hippest publications and I just don't get what they're going on about. It's an album that screams  "23rd Best Album of the Year", not critical domination.

Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon) took a little off the shine off his year by being a bit of a nasty bully to The War on Drugs but his album 'Benji' is a masterpiece by comparison. It's just songs, relatively bare songs, autobiographical songs about family and friends and awkwardness and tragedy and death and massacres and memories and middle age and it's utterly compelling from start to finish.

St Vincent's self-titled album is likewise great all the way through. It's so clever and arresting, there are some proper weird ballads, great guitar solos, great lyrics which jump out and make you laugh, there's not much not to like about it. Indeed, the only negative I have about it is I wish it was a couple of songs longer, and that's hardly a negative.

And what of 'American Interior'? Regular readers will know I don't put anyone above Gruff Rhys - not Bob Dylan, not The Beatles, not Shed Seven, not Bad Boys Inc, nobody. So I'm biased. 'American Interior' was fairly acclaimed and has shown up a little in end-of-year lists, but not all that much. So be it, but I do think it's worth re-emphasizing exactly what he's achieved with this release.
- an album, book, film, app, educational concert tour
- opening up a fascinating and unknown footnote to history, becoming an expert in the subject of the album, the Welsh explorer John Evans
- successfully drawing links between Evans' quest and his own, making something timely and timeless about Welsh and American identity
- making a rarely cohesive concept album, where the songs hold together in their own right, nothing feels forced, which stands up as collection of songs even if you don't know what he's going on about
-performing and engaging audiences for 2 hours with nothing but his guitar, a slide show, and pure comic timing
- the old Gruff Rhys trick of using humour and lightness to create something profound
- more things ....

Anyway, for me 'American Interior' in toto is undoubtedly the "thing" of the year. Whether the album on its own is the best is almost a moot point, the album is successfully a part of something bigger. And, anyway, I think it is my favourite album, that's what's important.

So those are my favourite three. What else? A lot. I've clearly relaxed my music tastes because I've actually found myself enjoying a Damien Rice album, not to mention a song sung by the guy from Maroon 5. Unforgivable. I initially thought this was Elbow's first dud album but as the year's progressed, I think it's become my favourite of theirs. Sharon Van Etten's 'Are We There' is making a late run, certainly in terms of emotional heft.  I'm very surprised by how much I enjoyed the La Roux album 'Trouble in Paradise'. I had no interest in La Roux, but its really enjoyable all the way through. FKA Twigs' LP1 was likewise pretty compelling and something that broke beyond its supposed genre. I wouldn't say it was all enjoyable, but it's pretty great. Critics are currently going crazy for the new D'Angelo album and saying it's a late contender for Album of the Year. Well, we'll see. i've only listened to it once and I never really got all the fuss with D'Angelo. In my further noble attempts to like music which tries in vain to suggest that I have eclectic taste which goes beyond sludgy guitar music, i've rather enjoyed the soulful, squinky, dance music you can't dance to of Caribou's 'I Can't Do Without You' album.

There were so many releases by people I like, people who've soundtracked my life for 20 years, from Leonard Cohen (the best of the over 75s)  to Damon Albarn, Tim Wheeler, Ryan Adams, Jenny Lewis, Hamilton Leithaiser, Jeff Tweedy, James Yorkston and King Creosote, the Manics, Bright Eyes, Ed Harcourt, First Aid Kit and Belle and Sebastian. I mean, who has any time for exploring new and interesting things ...

... and what of the mainstream. I haven't looked all that closely, unlike in previous years, but it seems fine. The big success stories, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Paolo Nutini, they've kind of mastered "inoffensive" in that they genuinely don't offend,  as opposed to being "offensively inoffensive". They're pretty good, so their success doesn't make anyone angry. The songs are good. If they weren't successful, people like me would like them ...

Hopefully next year I can really let go of the idea of providing some kind of objective assessment on music and just like what I like and not pretend I have a clue beyond that. Who am I kidding?

Anyway, if you take anything from this, if you're someone who's interest in music has gradually waned as you don't have the time and as more important things come up,  trust me, there's still loads to love, more than ever. I'm going to give a long list of songs and of albums, and, honestly, I'm not making up the numbers, I've derived pleasure from every single thing I'm listing here, and more.


1. American Interior - Gruff Rhys
2. Benji - Sun Kil Moon
3. St Vincent - St Vincent
4. Are We There - Sharon Van Etten
5. The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society - James Yorkston
6. LP1 - FKA Twigs
7. Carry on the Grudge - Jamie T
8. The Take Off and Landing of Everything - Elbow
9. Problems  - Leonard Cohen
10.My Favourite Faded Fantasy - Damien Rice
11.Trouble in Paradise  - La Roux
12.From Scotland with Love - King Creosote
13.Futurology - Manic Street Preachers
14.I Never Learn - Lykke Li
15.Everyday Robots - Damon Albarn
16.Lateness of Dancers - Hiss Golden Messenger
17.I Can't Do Without You - Caribou
18.Stay Gold - First Aid Kit
19.Salad Days - Mac DeMarco
20.The Voyager - Jenny Lewis
21.Rips - Ex Hex
22.Run the Jewels 2 - Run the Jewels
23.Lost in the Dream - The War on Drugs
24.Lazaretto - Jack White
25.Sukierae - Tweedy
26.DEAD - Young Fathers
27.Small Town Heroes - Hurray for the Riff Raff
28.At Best Cuckold - Avi Buffalo
29.Lost Domain - Tim Wheeler
30.Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams
31.First Mind - Nick Mulvey
32.Black Hours - Hamilton Leithauser
33.Everybody Down - Kate Tempest
34.Post Tropical - James Vincent McMorrow
35. Black Messiah - D'Angelo


I'm going for the title track from 'American Interior' as my Song of the Year. It's a conventional rock groove, the kind that might have given the Super Furry Animals their biggest hit if they'd released it back when indie bands still had hit singles. Other songs may have taken me on more involving journeys, but it's 'American Interior' that's undoubtedly been the soundtrack to my year above all.

Favourite 50

American Interior - Gruff Rhys
I Knew Your Mother - Loudon Wainwright III
Nobody's Empire - Belle and Sebastian
Severed Crossed Fingers - St Vincent
Broken Wave - James Yorkston
Forty Days of Rain - Roddy Frame
Just One of the Guys - Jenny Lewis
Two Weeks - FKA Twigs
Pauper's Dough - King Creosote
Gold - James Vincent McMorrow
Overwhelmed with Pride - Avi Buffalo
Love Me Like I'm Not Made of Stone - Lykke Li
Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes - Sun Kil Moon
Your Love is Killing Me - Sharon Van Etten
Zombie - Jamie T
Seasons (Waiting on You) - Future Islands
Carissa - Sun Kil Moon
Archie Marry Me - Alvvays
Walk into the Wilderness - Gruff Rhys
Almost Like the Blues - Leonard Cohen
Short Movie - Laura Marling
The Way That I Live - Ed Harcourt
I Can't Do Without You - Caribou
Nothing Will Change - Sharon Van Etten
Ben's My Friend - Sun Kil Moon
Saturday's Song - Hiss Golden Messenger
Uptown Funk - Mark Ronson
Uptight Downtown - La Roux
Young Blood - Sophie Ellis-Bextor
The Smallest Splinter - Hamilton Leithauser
My Sad Captains - Elbow
Get Up - Young Fathers
11 O'Clock Friday Night - Hamilton Leithauser
Everytime the Sun Comes Up - Sharon Van Etten
Cedar Lane - First Aid Kit
Trusty and True - Damien Rice
Holding On For Life - Broken Bells
Prince Jonny - St. Vincent
Lost Stars - Adam Levine
If I Had Wings - Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford
Liberty (is where we'll be) - Gruff Rhys
Let's Go To War - Manic Street Preachers
You Got Me Singing - Leonard Cohen
Sweet Malaise - Ed Harcourt and Ren Harvieu
The Moon Song - Karen O
Feels Like Fire - Ryan Adams
The Very Very Best - James Yorkston
Guy Fawkes' Signature - James Yorkston
Boys - Sky Ferreira
Ruckus in B Minor - Wu-Tang Clan
And 50 more ... (not in order)

Adding the Blue - Chrissie Hynde
Burning - The War on Drugs
Cargill - King Creosote
Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck) - Run The Jewels
Coming Home - Kaiser Chiefs
Cucurucu - Nick Mulvey
Diamond Lights Pt 1 - Tweedy
Do It Again - Royskopp and Robyn
Fancy - Iggy Azalea
Fly Boy Blue/Lunette - Elbow
Ghost - Ella Henderson
Goodbye Weekend - Mac DeMarco
Hideaway - Kiesza
I Don't Want to See You Anymore - Brendan Benson
Iron Sky - Paolo Nutini
Largs (Long) - King Creosote
Late Bloomer - Jenny Lewis
Love is Just a Heartbeat Away - Jamie T
Low Key - Tweedy
Mahogany Dread - Hiss Golden Messenger
Mecca - Wild Beasts
Medicine - Tim Wheeler
My Silver Lining - First Aid Kit
My Wrecking Ball - Ryan Adams
New Moon - Tweedy
Passing Out Pieces - Mac DeMarco
Photographs (You Are Taking Now) - Damon Albarn
Pressure - My Brightest Diamond
Put Your Number in My Phone - Ariel Pink
Radio On -Ex Hex
Refugees - Embrace
Say Goodbye - Beck
September Fields - Frazey Ford
Set Fire to the Stars - Gruff Rhys
Sing - Ed Sheeran
So Now What - The Shins
Super Rat - Honeyblood
Swimming Pool - Emmy the Great
Teenage Exorcists - Mogwai
Temporary Ground - Jack White
The Blues You Sang - James Yorkston
The Body Electric -  Hurray for the Riff Raff
The History of a Cheating Heart - Damon Albarn
The Last Conquistador - Gruff Rhys
The Man - Aloe Blacc
The Next Jet to Leave Moscow - Manic Street Preachers
The Prophet - Jamie T
The Voyager - Jenny Lewis
Would You Fight For My Love? - Jack White
You Are Your Mother's Child - Bright Eyes