The Music Fix Albums of 2014
Next year, we’re considering eeny-meeny-miny-moe.
It will surely be easier, and - you never know – it may well give us a more, um, accurate outcome. Ah! And therein lies the rub. For all of the soul-searching, sleepless nights and dreams of cash-filled suitcase 'encouragement' required to distil hundreds of albums into a mere handful, sometimes we wonder whether we'd be better off tossing a coin.
We hope and suspect every other outlet indulging in this ultimate list-based endeavour frets similarly. Yes, but is it us? It's a question we ask ourselves every year. Even now, deep into Fergie time, we're wringing our hands: what did we miss? How the hell have we managed to leave out Honeyblood and their irresistible gumball power pop? Dare we be the only outfit with the effrontery to pass over the universally acclaimed Run the Jewels? That's two off the top of our collective head. We could go on. A quick review of what we did cover suggests 2014 was a good 'un, a heady twelve months in which emerging acts set out their stalls fearlessly and the old guard took note and resolved to keep up. (Bit rose-tinted? Of course, there was plentiful crapolla - we ignored it. Or, depending on our mood, gave it the kicking it deserved.)
But is it us? Yeah. We think so. These records: we played 'em until we were sick of them. Then we played 'em some more until we loved 'em again. It's the only way. And 2015? Who knows? Already, we're in thrall to much of what its first few weeks has to offer and we look forward to seeing you back here again next year. Same time, same place.
As ever, an open offer. If you'd like to be part of that, help shape what ultimately The Music Fix says, does, is… get in touch.
Burn Your Fire For No Witness travels like a Willy Vlautin novel. Olsen's shimmering guitar and heartbreak vocals tell stories of searching: for hope in the darkest of moments, for escape from loneliness, for the strength to let go of the people that have caused hurt. This is a world where happy endings can only be reached through difficult journeys of self-discovery, as Olsen tells of coming to terms with love that was once whole, but now lies broken: "All your life you've been looking, whatever it is, you don't find it in me." Admitting defeat, but learning to carry on: "Some days all you need is one good thought, strong in your mind."
She delivers her narrative with crushing honesty. Tales of wandering alone in the dark, looking for a place to exist, to sleep sound, to be safe and to be loved. The importance of protecting the good that exists in every soul and of making a connection to humanity, is something that runs through the veins of this record. "If only all our memories were one," she sings. Heartbreak gives way to hope. The hope that one day we will all find a place to be, and we will all be loved by someone who can be trusted with our heart. Angel Olsen preserves the hope that one day, we will all find a place to call home. (Claire Brentnall)
Capable US punk-influenced guitar pop; the same but with advancing song craft; newly inquisitive 'what does this button do?' striving. There's your Blood Red Shoes chronological album guide, three albums in. And what of Blood Red Shoes, their resolutely eponymous fourth? A sharp distillation of their work to date? Well, actually… 2014 brought few surprises for Shoes fans, not least another dozen songs impeccably crafted. A return to the Reading/Leeds main stage shored up their hefty live rep and their new songs confirmed their position near the head of the Brit indie pack. Sure, chancer guitar outfits continue to pass them on the inside rails, but Laura-Mary Carter and Steven Ansell are surely built for the long haul. It's to their continuing credit that their following is so loyal because Blood Red Shoes remain one of our most criminally under-valued bands. They’re starting to earn that name. (Gary Kaill)
You can take the boy out of the city… Despite working with production mastermind Rick Rubin at his iconic Malibu studio, wonder-kid Jake Bugg doesn't escape the gritty Nottingham streets. His home town crops up in 'Slumville Sunrise' and 'Messed Up Kids', while 'Me and You' and the tour de force that is 'Simple Pleasures' paint a picture of a young man trying to come to term with the before and after. With a slicker production than its predecessor, Shangri La loses none of the street wise innocence that has made Bugg such a runaway success, and boy, does he still know his way around a tune. (Olivia Schaff)
Erika M Anderson's follow up to Past Life Martyred Saints repositioned her hopscotch aesthetic: in place of the reckless adventuring of that compelling debut, a switch to new extremes. Lead track 'Satellites' buzzed with a zeitgeist-y electro clatter; '3 Jane' remodelled classic 70's Laurel Canyon balladry; '100 Years' toyed with the madrigal form. Crucially, The Future's Void went looking for the bigger picture, Anderson daring to stretch the focal point of her lyrical intrigues. This leap from close-up to a convincing widescreen pitched her as a more relatable figure than we might have originally imagined. Whether she has the answers or not is moot: she's young and she's exploring, so give her time. But the questions she's asking feel like the right ones. (GK)
Drummers who became frontmen; or went solo, even. You’re thinking Dave Grohl, right? Or Phil Collins? (Probably not Ringo Starr...) Add another name to that list: Simone Felice, and his beautiful second album Strangers. Ensconcing himself in a log cabin in the Catskills, Felice has captured that sense of solitude on ‘Bye Bye Palenville’ and mixed it with the rousing likes of ‘Molly-O!’ The former Felice Brother has certainly lived a little, this personal, intimate record a record of both the highs (the birth of his first child) and the lows (life-saving surgery needed for a serious heart defect.) (Max Mazonowicz)
It's official: Swedish sister act First Aid Kit are bona fide stars, on both sides of the pond and pretty much everywhere else in between, a relentless touring schedule seeing them strike a chord across the globe. And it's not hard to see why. Third album Stay Gold sticks with the country-tinged folk of their previous releases, a showcase for Klara and Johanna's note perfect harmonies. These songs play out like a glorious road trip: lonely, wintery New York nights; broken hearts in a dusty mid-Western town; contemplating the starry California sky. A journey, then: hitch a ride. (OS)
Dizzying, pulsating, with simultaneous power and fragility, LP1 from FKA Twigs is an intricate work of art. A hugely talented song-writer (and musician, producer, director, performer - you name it), FKA Twigs has delicately woven every layer to form an abstract and yet detailed work, with vocals moving effortlessly from operatic cry, to choral harmony, to intimate whisper. In 2014, few could get near her. (CB)
Don't get us wrong, we've always been fans of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, but we wouldn't have quite believed you if you said she'd deliver one of our favourite albums of the year. Got A Girl, the collaboration between Winstead and Dan 'The Automator' Nakamura, and showcasing a heavy French pop influence, could have irked rather than delighted.
Instead, one of the year's most delicious treats sees Winstead showcasing impressive range throughout, backed by Nakamura's sharp, ranging production. That we've not had the chance to yet hear it live is a disappointment. If it's just because the duo are hard at work on a follow-up, we'll find it in our hearts to forgive them. If, however, it's because Got A Girl were only ever meant to be a fleeting one-off, then we might have to take another look at that album title. (Ian Sandwell)
No surprise that they eventually found their way back to each other; a genuine shock that they re-emerged with their best work in over twenty years. Not since 1993's Miaow, the Beautiful South debut of Jacqui Abbott, had the pair sounded anywhere near this vital. With the dissolution of their former band in 2007 (Abbott having left after 2000's Painting it Red), Paul Heaton had been active in various guises but had long since troubled the charts.
What Have We Become missed the number one spot by a hair's breadth. Two major tours cemented their return, Heaton and Abbott finding the likes of 'DIY' and 'When It Was Ours' greeted as warmly as the (plentiful) old stuff. And as much as Heaton's anti-pop star (still keeps his coat on on stage; invites unions to join him on tour) remains an entertainingly contrary figure, it's the likeability of his right hand woman that makes for an irresistibly sweet-sour mix: how good it was to hear that voice again. (GK)
Are Horse Party about to put Bury St Edmonds on the musical map? Their eight track debut might only clock in at 30 minutes but its impact lasts a whole lot longer. For the most part an arresting blend of blues and rock, with Ellie Langley's powerful vocals taking the sharp edge of the guitar-led backing, it has a swagger that sets them apart from conveyor belt indie. It's a consistent, filler-free work, and accomplished some way beyond typical debut expectations. (Colin Polonowski)
‘The Body Electric’: that one song is the centrepiece, the heart and the calling card of Small Town Heroes, and a succinct rebuff to decades' worth of negative portrayals of women in American roots music. It’s the crowning glory on an album of intense emotions. Whether bringing the mundane (traffic jams on ‘Crash On The Highway’) or the controversial (‘St Roch Blues’ is inspired by a series of horrific murders) to life, band lead Alynda Lee Segarra has an everywoman touch that cuts through to the heart of the music. An overnight success six years in the making: small town heroes indeed. (MM)
Britain's biggest band? You can make a case. Ending the year with a series of big shows - including five nights in London - after headlining Glastonbury, Kasabian were back to prove the naysayers wrong (yet again) with a satisfyingly complete collection that sat trippier elements alongside the likes of 'stevie' and 'bumblebee', hard-edged electro-rock anthems that will continue to fill arenas for a few more years to come. You suspect they probably didn't know what all the accompanying lower-case sloganeering was about either, but it brought a sense of the absurd to what can feel like a terrifically po-faced music scene. Time's up? Not by a long shot. (Douglas Baptie)
Elly Jackson did plenty of talking in the five years between La Roux and Trouble In Paradise, much of it about the aborted attempts to make a follow-up to her wildly successful debut. Big name collaborations; a more natural, 'real' sound; promises of a cheekier, sexier La Roux: the rumour mill was rife but still, no new material. What a surprise then that, despite all the talk, the end result is an amped up version of that debut, Jackson now flying solo after Ben Langmaid’s departure. Note the dance throb of 'Silent Partner', the atypically 80s pop shapes of 'Kiss and Not Tell' and 'Tropical Chancer'. Trouble in Paradise is more mature, more confident, and ultimately wins out through its excess. (MM)
It's difficult to articulate just what sets this sibling folk-pop duo apart but their simple, arrangements and angelic harmonies contribute hugely to the appeal of their second album. The haunting title track winds open like an old-fashioned music box; 'Rabbit' and the gloriously weird 'Peppermint Candy' demonstrate deftly crafted left-field pop. Whatever the magic (and we're not completely dismissing the possibility of witchcraft), it works a treat. (OS)
"If the band doesn’t sell records, and I know we’ve done everything right, played everywhere etc, and still it’s not moving forward, then I’ll have to question whether we’re just a band who doesn’t connect." That's LostAlone main man Steven Battelle talking to us last year. So, it's official: LostAlone are a band who don't connect. WTF? By the time you read this, they'll be preparing for their final shows. Battelle has been discrete about the exact nature of their split, so let's park conjecture. But they went out on an inarguable high, the breathless ambition of Shapes of Screams a riveting, 'riffological' distillation of all that bubbles away in the dark backwaters of Planet Battelle. He'll no doubt have his first three solo albums mapped out out already, so it's not all doom and gloom. But, world, your cloth-eared ignorance never ceases to amaze. Messrs Battelle, Williamson and Gibson, we salute you. (GK)
The title of this Swede's third album couldn't be more wrong. After a messy debut (even she doesn't like it any more) and a much more accomplished second album, I Never Learn showcases a singer/songwriter honing her craft, increasingly adept at creating dark, moody, broken-hearted songs; mini film noirs. Revel in their beautiful sadness of the haunted title track, or the beautiful 'Never Gonna Love Again'. So tortured, and yet so sublime. (OS)
People of the UK, you've made a serious error of judgement. One appearance on Jools Holland aside, Lucius' sublime debut album Wildewoman was allowed to come and go with nary a whisper, and it's not from lack of trying by the Brooklyn outfit. Since its release in March, Lucius have toured it extensively and even released a deluxe edition to allow you to rectify your mistake. But help is at hand. The band were picked as support for the European leg of Jack White's recent tour, including a date at London's cavernous O2. Surely no-one there could have failed to be wooed by their honeyed harmonies and diverse musical stylings. So if you find yourself stuck for a gift for the music lover in your life this coming festive period, slip Wildewoman in their stocking and right your wrongs. (IS)
Not since Pink Floyd has a band so publicly wrestled with ghosts. With a series of The Holy Bible shows imminent, Manic Street Preachers sometimes seem caught between the past and what's yet to come, and with Futurology (the study of the future - how cold, how distant, how Manics), they're looking ahead while publicly drawing from touchstones past (Bowie, Simple Minds). Those expecting a radical overhaul of the trad Manics sound may have been disappointed with a work that, in the end, played out much like their other albums; instead, this was more a case of them doing what they do best, concisely and with an air of finality that offers the possibility of closure and new beginnings. (DB)
Eight albums in and Mogwai’s sound has seen many a shift in tone, emphasis and volume. But in terms of sheer consistency and brilliance? Unchanged. The black humour is there from the title onwards, while the music draws upon John Carpenter soundtracks and a creeping sense of dread that began with their Les Revenants soundtracks and climaxes here with the pulsing 'Deesh'. Don't let its January release cloud the fact that this was one of 2014's most emotionally pummeling listens. (GB)
It certainly took its time to find a home on the TMF stereo but Peroxide was worth the wait, and it wasn't just us who thought so. But despite Nesbitt's blonde ambition, it lucked out in terms of sales. Released the same week as the post-BRITS sales bump, the album was a midweek number one before eventually charting at just outside the top ten. Singles made a similarly minimal impact on the charts, but you're bound to have heard the infectious hooks of 'Selfies' and 'Stay Out' at some point this year. Nesbitt's 2014 ends with a near sell-out Christmas Acoustic Tour, with new material debuted to widespread acclaim from her dedicated following (clocking in at over 160k on Twitter, alone), suggesting her story has only just begun. (IS)
When Nick Mulvey supported London Grammar at the Hammersmith Apollo earlier this year, oblivious hipster nattering drowned out the delicate guitar work and sumptuous melodies of debut album First Mind. Shame. What that crowd missed was the tear-inducing beauty of ‘Fever To The Form’, the brooding ‘Cucurucu’ and the Olive-sampling joy of ‘Nitrous’, all set to Mulvey’s exquisite playing. On reflection, it's an album perhaps not best suited to large crowds. This is music best heard intimately, quietly: it needs time to take it in. (MM)
Clowns are scary, right? So trust Pere Ubu, 35 years into their maverick career, to take the unnerving and unflinching template from last year's Lady of Shanghai, give it a shake, add some deeply unsettling rumblings and come up with this sonic nightmare. Building upon the live score they performed for cult shocker Carnival of Souls, David Thomas revisits his band's primal influences, with the robotic pulse of Suicide and German electronics underpinning his feral cries and Darryl Boon's striking clarinet. It's a sometime difficult listen, best approached with the lights on. (GB)
It's the strangest type of enigma: she genuinely couldn’t give a fuck. Both onstage and in interview, Lana del Rey transmits an uncommonly cool persona, almost oblivious to either audience. And yet… Whether it irritates or fascinates is entirely dependent on the individual, but Ultraviolence makes a compelling case for the latter. Out go the trim beats and street sass of Born to Die, replaced by a newly languid cadence. Who'd have thought that the resolutely trad-leaning Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach could have shepherded these sensual subversions? Maybe lead single 'West Coast' did for its chances in the UK, where sales struggled to match those of her debut? Reverb-soaked and boasting a startling tempo change, even a reworked radio edit that reinstated those dropped beats wasn't enough to give the album a leg up. Shame. But stick around, because Ultraviolence feels like the start of something. And no-one else right now doesn’t give a fuck quite like Lana. (GK)
Hardwired within the circuitry of this complex, challenging, deeply affecting record, is a shot of heart and soul so often found missing in the overcrowded electro scene. You’d need a spreadsheet to keep track of 2014's emerging boy-girl bedsit duos but a functioning pair of ears should suffice to decide who led the pack. The Manchester duo wield classical training and a history of production savvy. Contour Lines might look, at first glance, inscrutable, cool; but it comes to you. It will, if you let it, seek you out and connect at depth. Hunt this one down, and then check out their gigs, where little more than two people stood behind a battery of equipment becomes a beguiling shadowplay and a heightened live experience. (GK)
Sheer pleasure - it’s that simple. From almost nowhere, the Austin veterans Spoon delivered an album that partied harder than much of their previous output and gained them new-found critical and commercial success. With They Want My Soul, Spoon distilled their very essence and then some. The thumping swagger of ‘Rent I Pay’ before gives way to the luscious ‘Inside Out’. The pleading ‘Do You’ gives way to the brooding ‘Knock Knock Knock’. There is little waste and they offer their souls. (MM)
Collaborations and super groups are so often little more than exercises in ego-flexing, generally as overhyped as they are underwhelming. In their separate entities, Sunn O))) & Ulver have always been a little different and together they have crafted an album that few others could. Brooding, menacing and meditative, Terrestrials is a hypnotic and diverse drone exploration. Whilst neither act takes a definitive lead over the three parts, both bring their own strange voodoo to planet earth. (Dominic Hemy)
Few artists made an impact in their respective fields like that of Sturgill Simpson. As the man himself told us: “Last year, none of this was going on; a lot of the outlets in the States that are wanting to talk now, they just completely ignored the first album.” That first album was High Top Mountain, an instant country classic, but it was this excellent follow-up that finally started to turn heads. ‘Long White Line’, ‘Life Of Sin’, ‘Turtles All The Way Down’ – all are, at their core, country songs: exceptional, driven, passionate and honest. Simpson is a traditionalist but one with vision alongside his respect for heritage - the title is a spin on Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Don’t let that dull the achievement, though. Metamodern Sounds In Country Music is the essential country music album of 2014. (MM)
Press ads designed around a raft of 4 and 5 star reviews from every outlet of note gave notice of a critical shift afforded to Taylor Swift by her switch from pop-rock to, well, pop-pop. Out: earnest balladry, mainstream rockers and that last hint of her country heritage. In: sharp beats, processed vocals, hooks the size of planets. Anchored by smart wordplay and melody overload, 1989 confirmed Swift had the 'tude to match her songwriting nous. To see her at play like this offers some faint hope that the very concept of The Pop Star, a possibility diluted by the Cowell-led illusion that every over-indulged egomaniac with a pub singer's set of pipes is somehow deserving of more than their 15 minutes, is alive and well. (GK)
Let's face it, an album of 60s-pillaging, psychedelic pop is hardly an original statement. At its worst, it falls victim to dreary nostalgia. And at its best, it sounds like Temples. Their shimmering debut displays the trippy spaciness of Donovan ('Shelter Song'), the feather boa glam of Marc Bolan ('Keep In The Dark') and all of the dazzling kaleidoscope fun of the most exciting and innovative of musical revolutions. Only time will tell if they will be able to pull off the same feat again, but for now let's dream on. (OS)
Rising from opening slots at Madame Jojo's to headlining The Scala on the back of their debut Annabel Dream Reader, The Wytches strive to be different amidst ever-increasing uniformity. The mix of funereal doom riffs and surf rock vibe is not an obvious (or particularly comfortable) marriage, but in some twisted psychedelic alternate reality this young trio from Brighton soundtrack the creepy comic books of yore. Oh boy, does it mess with the brain - but we like it! (DH)