Sunday, January 11, 2015

Albums of 2014

Okay, time for the annual EGG awards, aka “the Eggs” … or more simply, a list of your blogger’s favourite (read: most listened to) albums of 2014 …

10. Todd Terje – It's Album Time

It might well have been album time, but it was also about time. Norwegian producer Todd Terje has been relatively prolific as a remixer for other artists over the past few years, but this time it was finally all about him and he came up with a cracker. It's Album Time was an absorbing mix of tracks that had been out for a while in one form or another ('Strandbar', 'Inspector Norse') and newer previously unreleased material. It was also an almost perfect hybrid of state-of-the-art technology and old school dance vibes, with disco rhythms grinding hard up against softcore techno beats – all set to Terje's trademark electronic pulse. Bryan Ferry made a cameo appearance and gave us one of the album's surprise gems with his take on Robert Palmer's 'Johnny And Mary'. The album may have been a long time coming, but it was well worth the wait.
9. Al Dobson Jr – Sounds from the Village Volume 1

To be honest I probably wouldn't have known too much about this one if an old friend (connected with the artist and label) hadn't sent me a Bandcamp download code. Although some of the shorter sketches barely qualify as tunes, when consumed as a whole, the album was never anything less than a warm and seriously infectious listening experience. My original review can be found here.

8. Jack White – Lazeretto

Another year, another Jack White album, and while he appears to have overstayed his welcome in some quarters, I remain a fan. In fact I've got a theory about why I love Jack so much: for years I cursed that genre loosely defined as "classic rock" – it was just music for those who relied only on FM radio for their daily music fix and it wasn’t for me. In any form. Ever. Then along came Jack White – unconventional (White Stripes), raw (Dead Weather), challenging (Raconteurs), and farking loud (everything). A basket to place all those classic rock eggs I'd been denying myself (but had subconsciously, secretly even, started to appreciate). And so now that I'm at an age where the guilt has been removed from the notion of "guilty pleasures", I can just fully indulge in the music of Jack White without fear. Because White is nothing if not old school classic rock, and Lazeretto is merely the latest quite brilliant manifestation of that. Even though I know it's all been done before, there's no overkill here, and this shit still sounds relatively fresh to me.

7. Ha the Unclear – Bacterium, Look At Your Motor Go

Dunedin and/or sometime Auckland-based band Ha the Unclear is one of the few bands I missed at the Galatos showcase gig back in September … more fool me. And although I only picked up a copy of this album in early December, it's been given a good old fashioned thrashing across the past month – so much so I just had to include it as one of the most instantly loved albums of my year. To call the album “quirky” and quintessential Kiwi pop feels like an injustice to a work that’s so much more than that, yet for me those (admittedly lazy) descriptions somehow best nail the most immediate appeal of Bacterium, Look At Your Motor Go. I think vocalist Michael Cathro’s strong local accent only enhances that sense of Nu Zild-ness, because for the most part the album’s lyrical themes are universal, if somewhat odd and peculiar, and not at all exclusive to this part of the world – from religious ritual (‘Apostate’) to old age and regret (‘85’). But it’s when the perspective is expanded to include that of a coffee table reflecting upon its relationship with its owner (on ‘Secret Lives of Furniture’) that the narrative truly astounds … all set against a series of triumphant jangly/harmony pop tunes.
6. The Nomad – 7

7 was one of those albums that just kept getting better and better each time I heard it. Which was often. I got the chance to interview and profile Daimon Schwalger (aka The Nomad) for NZ Musician mag and I think what separates him from the vast majority of electronic producers is that he bears none of the stereotypical dance music snobbery you often tend to encounter with many DJ/producers. He is, in fact, a music lover first and foremost. It's something that shines through on all of his work, never more so than on 7, an album rich with the sort of cross-genre pollination we've come to expect from him. Co-conspirators on 7 included Jamaican up-and-comer Dexta Malawi, Melbourne-based grime merchant MC Lotek, talented newcomer (vocalist) Christina Roberts, Israel Starr, and past collaborators like Caroline Agostini, King Kapisi, and Oakley Grenell. Plus others. A line-up that pretty much speaks for itself. The album release party at Wellington's Boat Cafe in September – part of a NZ-wide tour – turned out to be one of the best nights out I had all year.

5. Tackhead – For The Love of Money

Some will just as likely write this one off as little more than just another covers album from a band struggling for any degree of 2014 relevance. I pity those people, for they know not what they miss. My original review is here.

4. Radikal Guru – Subconscious

Radikal Guru is a longtime everythingsgonegreen favourite and Subconscious was a more than worthy (late 2013) bass heavy follow-up to The Rootsteppa album, which topped this list in 2011. My review is here.

3. Sun Kil Moon – Benji  

It's a simple enough formula: man, guitar, stripped back folk rock, and a lyric sheet full of compelling lyrics. Mix deathly themes with no little amount of personal tragedy, and you get the wholly unique yet nonetheless unsettling Benji. Original review here.

2. The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream

I'm sure I must have played Lost In The Dream more times than any other album during 2014. It probably helped that its smooth lines and nostalgia-friendly grooves were so workplace compliant ... my original review is here.

1. Robert Plant (& The Sensational Space Shifters) – Lullaby and The Ceaseless Roar

Harking back to that classic rock thing again, it turns out my favourite album of the year was made by a 66-year-old man whose music I could barely bring myself to listen to 30 years ago. But as much as I avoided Led Zep (where possible) during my teenage years, I've also grown to love the solo career of its key protagonist. Across the past decade particularly – from 2005's Mighty Rearranger to 2010's Band of Joy, and all collaborations in between – the music of Robert Plant has been nothing less than a revelation. And as much as that has given me a different and far more positive perspective on the band that made his name, Plant's latest work bears little resemblance to that of Zep. In fact, given the eclectic nature of Lullaby, it's practically impossible to burden it with any label – there's fiery Celtic rock, soft acoustic tones, some bluegrass, and a smattering of unrepentant edgy Americana. The critical element to all of it though is Plant's unmistakable vocal, which just keeps getting better with age. Another great body of work to add to an already incomparable legacy.
Honourable mentions: Celt Islam's Generation Bass, Brian Eno and Karl Hyde's High Life, First Aid Kit's Stay Gold, Jakob's Sines, and Vorn's More Songs About Girls and the Apocalypse.

Best reissue of 2014: it is impossible to go past the deluxe version of Nightclubbing, the 1981 Grace Jones classic. Aside from the original full length album you get five additional mixes of 'Pull Up To The Bumper' – including a particularly early version produced under the working title of 'Peanut Butter', which was credited to the Compass Point Allstars as a nod to the incredible studio line-up who worked alongside Jones at the legendary Bahamas-based studio. There are also alternative mixes for key album tracks like 'Use Me' and 'Demolition Man', but the other truly interesting artefact here is the cover of Gary Numan’s 'Me, I Disconnect From You'.
Best compilation of 2014: given the attention to detail I paid when diligently reviewing all four volumes of Hyperdub’s 10 series, I can’t really go past that little lot when it comes to ‘various artists’-type releases. With 101 tracks over the course of nearly seven hours it was as comprehensive as these types of retrospectives can be. A great collection from a seminal bass music label.

2014 was a year I finally got to listen to more Kiwi music. Something I’ve wanted to do for many a year, without really following through. Although The Nomad album shaded the Ha the Unclear release for my New Zealand album of the year, I could just as easily have selected a handful of local releases for the blog's ten albums of the year. That includes work from Jakob, Vorn, and Darren Watson.

Other thoughts: despite criticism elsewhere and a general shrug regarding the Pink Floyd finale, I thought the bulk of The Endless River represented a fairly decent album of previously shelved material. I also thought regular blog favourites like The Raveonettes and The Pains of Being Pure At Heart made good albums in 2014, even though neither scaled the heights of previous work. Thom Yorke’s latest solo effort also had its moments.

Flops of the year: U2’s spam effort, whatever the hell it was called. The Sinead O’Connor album was very ordinary and something of a generic plod-rock release with few redeeming features (and I say that as a Sinead fan). And naturally enough the Smashing Pumpkins (aka Billy Corgan) threw up another very disappointing effort, one that landed itself in the recycling bin after just one listen.

So there it is, the obligatory annual list posted for another year … here’s Grace doing Gary Numan:

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