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2014 Round-up

The 2014 Round-Up: 10 Albums Of The Year (10)

Owen Pallett – In Conflict

Owen Pallett - In Conflict

 

So, the final album in my top 10 and one that I was eagerly anticipating, after loving his previous effort, Heartland. This really lived up to my hopes. It fizzes with invention, variety and great tunes. Owen Pallett‘s songs wear their complexity comfortably, with subtle layers of melody and accompaniment, and unusual time signatures sounding as natural as you like. It’s an absolutely enthralling listen, with the energy and assuredness of an artist at the top of his game.

The 2014 Round-Up: 10 Albums Of The Year (9)

Aphex Twin – Syro

Aphex Twin - Syro

 

Just as last year’s Boards of Canada album suddenly arrived after a few years’ hiatus, so Richard D James finally emerged from reclusivity and released music under his most famous alias for the first time since 2001’s Drukqs. He spent the 90s blazing a trail through electronic music in ways beautiful, ground-breaking and confrontational. Syro is the sound of an artist comfortable in his own skin, not trying to shock or confuse, just writing music that sounds like no-one else. What was surprised me was how easy to listen to it all was – not in an ‘aural wallpaper’ way, just that he’d brought the needle back from the red and cut out the barrages of noise that he sometimes mischievously dropped into his tracks. The success of these tracks lies in their spectacular intricacy. I would bet that there are barely two repeated bars across the whole hour of music. It is absolutely masterful, almost like a musical fractal – the more closely you listen the more detail you hear. ‘Melodies’, as such, don’t last for long, they warp and mutate, getting lost in the ever-changing beats, which confirm Richard D James as a consummate master of rhythm. ‘Play that funky music, white boy’ indeed.

The 2014 Round-Up: 10 Albums Of The Year (8)

Todd Terje – It’s Album Time

Todd Terje - It's Album Time

Lest you think the albums on this list are rather maudlin or introspective, here’s a bright bundle of joy to light it all up. I was very excited about the release of this, Todd Terje‘s debut album, although a little teensy bit disappointed to discover that it would not be wholly brand new – he was including stand-alone single Strandbar along with most of 2012’s It’s The Arps EP. Of course, those gems shine brightly enough that time has not dulled their lustre. What was really surprising was the sheer variety on show here – from slow electro-ballad (Robert Palmer cover, Johnny & Mary, with Bryan Ferry), through 60s caper music* (Svensk Sås and Alfonso Muskendunder), cocktail lounge funk (Preben Goes To Acapulco) to streamlined head-to-the-stratosphere disco (Delorean Dynamite, a track so good I find it hard not to leap around the room). The man’s a genius.

 

*I’m not sure what this style would be officially described as – this is my best attempt!

The 2014 Round-Up: 10 Albums Of The Year (7)

DJ Sprinkles – Midtown 120 Blues

DJ Sprinkles - Midtown 120

OK, this was originally released in 2009 but it got reissued this year so I’m going to shoehorn it in. This would be filed under ‘deep house’ but club-oriented it is not. It is brimming with subtlety and depth, perfect headphone music – it even comes with a ‘warning’ on the CD: “There are no plans for a vinyl edition because the bass spatialization effects that give many of these recordings their sonic character are incompatible with vinyl mastering techniques.” I don’t know what that means, exactly, but it gives a flavour of the exquisite detail that has gone into the production. Rhythms pitter-patter, never thud, and sampled voices – preachers, religious and otherwise – echo through the mix like disembodied ghosts. The artist, Terre Thaemlitz, adds a few of his/her own spoken diatribes on the nature of house music and how Madonna destroyed the Vogue movement: “This is a Madonna free zone! And as long as I’m DJ-ing you will not be allowed to Vogue to the decontextualized, reified, corporatlized, liberalized, neutralized, asexualized, re-genderized, pop reflection of this dancefloor’s reality…

The 2014 Round-Up: 10 Albums Of The Year (6)

Kiasmos – s/t

Kiasmos

I first heard a track by Kiasmos while driving through some of Iceland’s spectacular wilderness this summer, and when I found out who was behind it my interest was firmly captured. Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds has become relatively well-known and acclaimed for his ‘neo-classical’ work – even winning a Bafta for composing the end credits and score for the ITV series Broadchurch in 2013. Here he brings his string swells and delicate piano figures into a house/techno-oriented collaboration with Janus Rasmussen of the Faroe Isles. It’s such a perfect marriage of styles. I know nothing of Rasmussen’s material but I can only assume he brings the dancier end of the spectrum to the brew (if you’ll excuse that mixed metaphor). These 8 tracks (each named with a verb – Lit, Held, Looped, Swayed, Thrown, Dragged, Bent, Burnt) are perfectly formed, almost hermetically sealed explorations into individual melodic ideas, with the union of neo-classical and electronic sounding as natural as a glacier. It doesn’t fall into the trap of being twee twinkly plinky-plonky, either – there’s a depth and heft to much of this that could accompany the finest staring-at-landscapes session. An album that really lived up to its promise.

The 2014 Round-Up: 10 Albums Of The Year (5)

The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream

TWOD - LITD

I really didn’t expect to like this one. References in reviews to Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and, above all, Bob Dylan did not set my heart alight. Not to denigrate those artists, but they aren’t my thing. Dylan especially. I’m sure he’s a great lyricist but he’s a dreadful singer and I don’t pay any attention to lyrics. I’d guess that I have no clue what at least 99% of the songs in my collection are about, beyond a stab in the dark based on the song title. So music whose main selling point is its lyrics doesn’t tend to float my boat. However, frequent references to Krautrock, synths, “drone” and “epic”, along with the rave reviews, piqued my interest…

Turns out that they were all right. It has everything described above and as a whole it sounds somehow simultaneously new and old. This is what Classic Rock sound like in 2014. The songs exist on a huge scale but care has been taken over every detail. Within each there are tiny moments – chord changes, guitar flourishes and the like – which are spine-tingling in their timing and execution. The texture (alluded to above) is wonderful, as is the tune-smithery and guitar playing. Yes, he sometimes sneers his lines with tuning ever-so-off (the Dylan comparison) but not enough to matter when everything else is so magnificent.

The 2014 Round-Up: 10 Albums Of The Year (4)

Warpaint – s/t

Warpaint - s:t

These girls from California make music that doesn’t sound at all Californian. It’s dark and claustrophobic, and there isn’t a sunny major chord in sight. Instruments and voices weave sensuously around each other like wisps of smoke, but they’re always underpinned by a tight sense of rhythm and structure. The singers seem to work almost intuitively with each other and aren’t afraid of dissonant clashes, tones apart. It’s brooding and beautiful.

 

The 2014 Round-Up: 10 Albums Of The Year (3)

Mark McGuire – Along The Way

Mark McGuire - Along The Way

Hats off to Mark McGuire for two things. Firstly for vastly expanding his palette beyond his signature guitar loops into synthesized technicolour, and secondly for submitting this unashamedly heart-on-sleeve new-age concept album to the mercy of critics and listeners around the world. It’s not perfect – the new age mysticism is a little saccharine and he hasn’t transferred the subtlety of his guitar playing to his use of a drum machine – but in ambition and scope it had few equals. As a stepping stone in his development as an artist, it feels key.

The 2014 Round-Up: 10 Albums Of The Year (2)

Caribou – Our Love

Caribou - Our Love

Late entry! I’ve been following this guy on and off since back in 2001 (when he went by Manitoba, before a petty law-suit forced him to change moniker). He’s adapted his style a fair bit along the way, to fair critical acclaim but I’d often found it a little too ramshackle and muddy in tone. This album brings him back almost full circle to his early purely electronic work, except that his experiences along the way have added the vocabulary of house music to his repertoire. I think it’s by far his best album yet, with a focus and clarity that he hasn’t displayed before. There’s something restrained about these tracks – as if the foot is hovering over the dance floor but not quite stepping onto it – but they’re not half-hearted, either, and it’s easy to see how several of them could work very well in a club atmosphere. The best of both worlds, then; danceable and listenable!

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