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Wednesday, December 31, 2014 

The best music of 2014 part 2 / 15 best albums.

Honourable mentions, no order:

Fucked Up - Glass Boys
Iceage - Plowing Into the Field of Love
Andy Stott - Faith in Strangers
Young Fathers - Dead
Lee Gamble - Koch
Death from Above 1979 - The Physical World
La Roux - Trouble in Paradise
Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots
Millie and Andrea - Drop the Vowels
Eagulls - Eagulls
Real Estate - Atlas
Actress - Ghettoville

15. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra - Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything

Is releasing an album at the beginning of the year a disadvantage when it comes to it getting the recognition it deserves come the end of it?  It's worth pondering when you consider Run the Jewels 2, which tops a whole host of end of year lists came out very recently, although saying that one of the other albums challenging Run the Jewels was released at the back end of February.  Fuck Off... was released a month earlier, and seems to have been neglected despite it easily being Mt Zion's finest work since 2005's Horses in the Sky.  Efrim Menuck's singing is his best yet, in that he's in tune, the "orchestra" sound tighter than ever, and any album that opens with a child saying "We live on an island named Montreal, and we make a lot of noise because we love each other" instantly wins me over.

14. Hookworms - The Hum

Naming your second album after the background noise some claim to be tormented by might strike a few people as sort of asking for it, and Hookworms are undoubtedly a band you could find yourself laughing at.  Everything about them is conducted in a haze, whether it be much of their music, how they are known only by initials, and the fact their lyrics are all but indecipherable.  Thankfully this doesn't matter when the combination of psychedelia, shoegaze and post-punk melds together this well, and while they might not thank me for it, there's more than an occasional hint of Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd about proceedings, which as albums to take inspiration from go isn't a bad choice.

13. This Will Destroy You - Another Language

I am it must be admitted, a sucker for instrumental rock and frankly instrumental music in general.  "Better without the vocals" was a sentence always crossing my lips when discussing music a good few years ago, and so it continues.  Another Language is as post-rock as it comes, at least without involving strings, and the band's name, as with stablemates Explosions in the Sky tells you much of what they're about.  It's not always clever, it often is quiet quiet loud, but as with the best post-rock bands the by the numbers stuff doesn't matter when the beauty and texture of the music is as compelling as it is here.

12. Slackk - Palm Tree Fire

While grime went off in a multitude of directions over the year, Palm Tree Fire was the purest concentration of what the genre does best: cutely sampled melodies, sparse beats and enough space to let it all breathe.  Previously instrumental grime has never made proper use of the album format: for three separate and brilliant records to come out the same 12 months is hopefully just a sign of things to come.

11. Wild Beasts - Present Tense

Wild Beasts have always stood apart from the crowd, Hayden Thorpe's falsetto scaring off anyone who might have mistaken them for a landfill indie group.  Present Tense sees them just as chippy as ever: opener Wanderlust asking "in your mother tongue, what's the verb to suck?", a barb directed at some of their more America-embracing contemporaries, while Nature Boy takes aim firmly at one of those encouraged by the internet fetishes, the willing cuckold.  Wild Beasts' approach to sex is still as ambiguous, mature as before, album closer Palace touchingly honest in its detailing of a relationship while temptation abounds.  "You remind me of the person I wanted to be / Before I forgot" Thorpe sings, a line that expresses both the regrets of the past while being content with the present.  Few groups can pull off such sensitivity both in music and lyrics without becoming twee or dull, and it remains their abiding trademark.

10. Flying Lotus - You're Dead!

I'll freely admit Flying Lotus previously was someone I just didn't get it, so it's perhaps typical that once Steven Ellison went in for an almost concept album on passing away it suddenly began to make sense.  Not that you need to approach You're Dead! as anything other than a virtuoso 40 minutes of alternating beats, free jazz motifs and occasionally inspired guest appearances, including Herbie Hancock and Captain Murphy.  For an album concerned with death it's endlessly playful, and the short nature of the tracks, some little more than vignettes, reminds more of Zomby than the jazz contemporaries Ellison gets lumped in with almost as often as IDM/hip hop producers.

9. Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else

Cloud Nothings' first three albums managed to pass me by entirely, so Here and Nowhere Else came as pleasant a surprise as a distortion heavy balls out garage rock record can.  Those looking for subtlety or nuance can go elsewhere, as Dylan Baldi's ensemble do the exact opposite.  Despite the pained, growled vocals and accompanying bleak lyrics, it's the riffs and the drums that draw you in, and clocking in at just slightly longer than half an hour Cloud Nothings do what they have to and go.

8. Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animal

One thing we've lacked in recent years is a properly spiky, angular indie band, such have been the diminishing returns from the surfeit we had in the mid 2000s.  Parquet Courts don't quite fit the bill, as they only fully let rip on occasion, as on Ducking and Dodging.  Truth is that's clearly not the sort of band they want to be: while their workrate which has already seen the release of a follow-up can't be doubted, they're just as at home on the elongated slowjam of Instant Disassembly with its knowing references as they are going all out as on the title track.  If the members don't get bored first, you get the impression even better is yet to come.

7. SD Laika - That's Harikiri

Describing That's Harikiri as grime is stretching the genre's template to absolute breaking point.  Certainly SD Laika's likely only album draws upon grime's percussion and melody as a base, but beyond that it reminds at times of the sonic experimentation of These New Puritans' Hidden, at others of the sound a crashing computer makes as it tries desperately to continue playing music.  If that isn't enticing, then the brutalism of some of the tracks contrast with the synths of others to harmonious effect.  Just when you think a tune has turned fully industrial, SD Laika introduces lush pads that bring you back in, only to then go back to distortion.  One of the year's most challenging listens, it rewards in equal measure.

6. Lewis - L'Amour

Difficult to know how to properly classify this one.  Technically it's a reissue, but seeing as it was barely heard until this year and frankly it's this special the rules are there to be bent.  You probably know the story by now: record collector finds a copy of L'Amour at a flea market (how "lost" the album really was is open to question, as songs from it have been on YouTube since 2010), the label Lights in the Attic reissues it and fails to track the artist down despite their best efforts.  Since discovered have been a further "lost" record and songs recorded as recently as last decade, as has been Lewis himself.  Is it any good then?  Well yes: you could almost describe it as a minimalist counterbalance to FKA Twigs' debut, just thirty years previous.  The same themes are present, as are the often barely perceptible vocals.  Whatever Lewis's intentions at the time, for it still to be as affecting now is testament to how everything and everyone deserves a second chance.

5. FKA Twigs - LP1

At times it proves impossible to resist the hype.  LP1 is the year's most successful crossover critical success, and for good reason: it's produced to within an inch of its life, the instrumentation could be Rustie's, only slightly toned down for a wider audience, and Tahliah Barnett's vocals are hushed, confessional and gorgeous.  Two Weeks has the requisite swearing and video, Numbers asks of a lover whether she's just another notch on the bedpost, and the pace mostly keeps up right to the end.  If I sound cynical it's because while I can't fault the record on a practical level, I wonder about its longevity: what sounds of the moment now soon dates.  Then again, something so in debt to Aaliyah and other 90s R&B might stand the test of time just as much as those songs have.

4. Ben Frost - A U R O R A

Aurora is one of those extremely rare albums that manages to combine moments of sheer terror, such is the noise that suddenly erupts on Diphenyl Oxalate and elsewhere, with the tenderest, most touching soundscapes the next.  The most obvious comparison is Fuck Buttons, but whereas their music tends to build and build and build, Frost's structures are far more idiosyncratic, playful, often lulling you into a false sense of security for when the next blast of power electronics hits.  A perfect complement to last year's Virgins by Tim Hecker.

3. Manic Street Preachers - Futurology

When the Manics return to using the Holy Bible typeface with its backwards Rs, it's their way of telling everyone they mean business.  Futurology is quite possibly even better than 2009's Journal for Plague Lovers, when the band felt the need to go back and use the lyrics Richey Edwards left before he disappeared.  Walk Me to the Bridge also seems to have been deliberately written by Nicky Wire to both concern Edwards' likely end while also being about something else entirely.  It proves once again you should never believe any artist when they say what their work's about, the lines "I re-imagine the steps you took / still blinded by your intellect" having very little in the way of alternative interpretation than Wire putting himself in Edwards' shoes.  For a song dealing with such a difficult subject for the band, it's another example of Wire never wanting closure while still saying goodbye.  That it encapsulates the band at their strongest, and comes between the punch of the title track and Let's Go to War gets the album off to a breakneck start, and it doesn't trail off as so many other records do.  Unusually for the latter day Manics, the material that didn't make the album is just as strong if not better than some of the album tracks, with both Sound of Detachment and Caldey from the Walk Me to the Bridge EP deserving of the same playlist rotation.

2. Mr. Mitch - Parallel Memories

Released by Planet Mu, an indication of an artist having been recognised for doing something different within a genre's confines, Parallel Memories is grime for the night bus as opposed to the club.  Burial comparisons are often erroneous or not justified, but while it lies just beneath the surface of some of Parallel Memories tracks, it comes to the fore properly on Denial, the vocal samples just too evocative of Will Bevan's work.  Fact Mag identified the sense of desolation Wandering Glaciers suggests, yet desolation is nearly always synonymous with contemplation and the revealing of previously unidentified beauty, something Parallel Memories has throughout.

1. St. Vincent - St. Vincent

Hands up.  St Vincent's last album Strange Mercy ranked far too low on my 2011 list (which was perhaps a smidgen too dubstep heavy), barely making it in at 15.  The question is whether Annie Clark's err, self-titled fourth album is better than Strange Mercy, and despite my declaring it the best album of this year I'm not certain it is.  St. Vincent is exceptional, that's for certain: almost every review noted the opening couplet of Birth in Reverse, because it's so effortless in its capturing of the numbness of modern life.  "Oh just an ordinary day / Take out the garbage, masturbate".  It's a theme that runs throughout, with Digital Witness's all too vivid summing up of a world lived through others through a screen the sadder for its acuity.  Just as wonderful are Prince Johnny and I Prefer Your Love, the latter with Clark declaring she'd rather have the devotion of a partner to that of Jesus in heartbreakingly lush fashion.  Pared back somewhat is the experimentation in sound of Strange Mercy, but that only allows Clark's song-writing to come to the fore all the more powerfully.  Whichever is ultimately determined the stronger, Annie Clark has produced two of the finest albums of this decade.

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