Favourite Pop Tracks:
Caribou – ‘Can’t Do Without You’
‘Can’t Do Without You’ perfectly introduces the stellar Our Love, Dan Snaith’s sixth album under the Caribou brand. A fun club track, it perfectly synthesises the styles exhibited on previous Caribou LP Swim and the dancefloor-oriented tracks which characterise Snaith’s other musical moniker, Daphni. Club music infused with real emotion.
Modest Mouse – ‘Lampshades on Fire’
A ‘Dashboard’ retread from the Good News for People Who Love Bad News sessions. As samey and, dare I say, lazy as this comeback single feels, its catchiness is undeniable. I’ve missed Modest Mouse so damn much during their ridiculous eight-year hiatus, and welcome their forthcoming release. My body is ready.
Kele – ‘Doubt’
Though I’ve no doubt (pun unintended) that Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke approaches his dance music with conviction, I’m still yet to find it all that engaging. Trick lead single ‘Doubt’, however, is slinky and moves with purpose.
John Frusciante – ‘Fanfare’
I’ve written before about my limited patience for Frusciante’s avant garde stuff, but ‘Fanfare’ – and half of Enclosure, the LP it’s drawn from – I can get behind. Frusciante’s newfound penchant for experimentation clashes head-on with his pop sensibilities, with catchy and unexpected results.
Sticky Fingers – ‘Gold SNAFU’
‘Gold SNAFU’ is the perfect summertime track: it’s laid-back and sports a catchy, whistled refrain. Kudos to Dylan Frost, too, for penning memorable lines like ‘sexy as a slippery water slide’. Sticky Fingers expand their sound while honouring their roots. An Australian band whose evolution I’m enjoying.
The Autumn Defense – ‘I Can See Your Face’
The Fleetwood Mac-esque ‘I Can See Your Face’ is my standout track from The Autumn Defense’s fifth album, Fifth. Pat Sansone and John Stirratt’s warm vocals gel with summery production, making this romantic folk throwback shine.
Chet Faker – ‘Gold’
Chet Faker’s had a monstrous year, with sold-out shows and copious radio play. (His year even culminated in the netting of the Best Male Artist and Best Indie Release ARIAs, which he so graciously accepted.) It’s great to see a local boy make good, though I’m not quite sold on his début LP Built on Glass. (I found it a little tedious. See: the aptly titled ‘Lesson in Patience’, which opens with two minutes of wailing and goes precisely nowhere).
Still, dude can write solid pop tracks. ‘1998’ and ‘Cigarettes & Loneliness’ are contenders, but ‘Gold’ is the definitive bright spot. I’m curious to see what he does next. No diggity.
Michael Jackson – ‘Slave to the Rhythm’
Hesitated putting this on here thanks to the dubious motivations behind this release, but ‘Slave to the Rhythm’, originally written in 1990, is a catchy reaffirmation of Jackson’s pop-writing talents. (Like he needed one.)
Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars – ‘Uptown Funk’
Though it may not reach the same magnitude of cultural hit (due in part to the forever shifting tides of popular music), ‘Uptown Funk’ is, for my money, the most infectious, hook-laden pop song since ‘Hey Ya’. This song is an unparalleled party: all killer, no filler. Even the bridge is an absolute jam.
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My Favourite Albums of 2014:
Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams marks Adams’ first release since the stripped-back, hiatus-shattering Ashes & Fire (one of my favourite records of 2011), and largely continues in the same artistic vein. It features a fuller sound than Adams’ last release, but straddles the same adult/contemporary line – not a bad thing. This self-titled release exudes confidence and cohesiveness. It also features some of Adams’ most mature songwriting efforts to date. It’s hard to believe this is the same hyperactive brat who wrote Love is Hell and Rock n Roll.
Foster the People – Supermodel
In 2011, Foster the People burst onto the scene with Torches, a potent pop début with a cache of surprise hits. The album netted the band a legion of global fans and, with the pressure high, it took them three years to follow it up.
Supermodel arrived to a warm but comparatively modest reception. Its singles failed to make the same splash as Torches mega-hit ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ and the album largely fell through the cracks.
Admittedly, it took me awhile to warm to Supermodel. It’s a reflexive, considered album, and is less immediate than its predecessor. Here, the band broadens its scope, trying on different stylistic hats. It’s a slower, more experimental affair – and consequently a richer experience. Punters will be greatly rewarded if they invest the time.
Tweedy – Sukierae
It probably comes as no surprise that a self-professed Wilco fanatic like me rates this, a Jeff Tweedy solo album (of sorts – it’s a father–son collaboration, and yes, eighteen-year-old Spencer Tweedy shines), among his favourite albums of the year. But, interestingly, I wasn’t sold on Sukierae at first. I found it plodding. Maybe even a little dull.
An adjustment was in order. I realised it was wrong of me to assume Tweedy the solo artist and Wilco, the band he fronts, were synonymous. Sukierae has its own identity. There’s jamming, noodling, chill-out vibes and some slow, spacious arrangements. Challenging and contemplative, Sukierae benefits from repeat listens, and most closely resembles a stylistic fusion of Being There and Tweedy side project Loose Fur. Highlights include ‘Slow Love’, ‘High as Hello’ and ‘Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood’.
The Antlers – Familiars
Antlers have foregone some of the anxiety that characterised their past releases. Familiars follows in the footsteps of 2013’s Undersea EP. It’s lush, orchestral, a thing of unequivocal beauty. Lead single ‘Palace’ is crystalline, and contains Peter Silberman’s most delicate vocal performance to date; ‘Hotel’ resurrects some of their former darkness, with one heck of a declarative chorus: ‘In a hotel / It won’t matter how my name’s spelt. / ’Cause when you pass through / You only keep what you can’t sell.’
Dan Sultan – Blackbird
Blackbird was an important album for Dan Sultan: it’s his first in four years, and the first since separating with former collaborator, Scott Wilson. How does it fare? Well, admittedly Blackbird isn’t a patch on 2009’s Get Out While You Can, which doubtlessly had Wilson’s seasoned touch all over it, but it’s a fine début-of-sorts, with some solid rockers, moving balladry, and the kind of impassioned vocal deliveries we’ve come to expect from Sultan. A worthy recipient of the Best Rock ARIA 2014.
The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
An unexpected gem. I found moderate enjoyment in The War on Drugs’ 2011 release Slave Ambient, but this is a marked improvement. Layered and textured, Lost in the Dream was my go-to chill-out album of 2014. Shoegaze meets arena pop.
Paolo Nutini – Caustic Love
I’ve a real soft spot for this guy (even if his sophomore release, Sunny Side Up, made me barf rainbows), but have never considered him much more than a guilty pleasure.
On Caustic Love, however, Paolo Nutini steps up in a big way. This is bold, sophisticated, a certified statement of intent. It features dark grooves, mature themes, spoken-word samples (!) and a myriad of unexpected genre hops (rap! gospel!) and deviations. Abandoning pop/rock, Nutini channels Nina Simone, proving himself a surprisingly convincing soul singer. His voice is a rare gift, and he uses it to ground his songwriting, to imbue it with emotion. Check out ‘Iron Sky’, a call to arms which urges the listener to stand up to our oppressors. After this game-changer, I predict huge things in Mr Nutini’s future.
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My Top Three Albums of the Year:
Lily Allen – Sheezus
At long last pop queen Lily Allen returns with a long-awaited follow-up to 2009’s It’s Not Me, It’s You. Allen endured countless personal tragedies in the intervening years, and one could be forgiven for expecting her return to be marked by bitterness. Sheezus, however, is buoyant fun. Allen’s lyrics poke fun at recent popular culture happenings and expose a considerable romantic streak. She retains her sharp tongue, quirk and self-awareness (she’s often self-effacing). Her hook-laden social commentaries remain on point (see: the better-than-it-sounds ‘Hard Out Here’, which tackles gender inequality) and will stick in your head for days.
The bulk of Allen’s songwriting, however, remains deeply personal. On Kanye-riffing opener, ‘Sheezus’, she expresses anxiety about her long overdue comeback:
‘Been here before
Not gonna lie, though
I’m kind of scared.
Lace up my gloves
I’m going in.
Don’t let my kids watch me when I get in the ring.
I’ll take the hits
Roll with the punches.
I’ll get back up
It’s not as if I’ve never done this.
But then again
The game is changing
Can’t just come back
Jump on the mike
And do the same thing.’
In a pop world full of bravado, Allen cuts a surprisingly relatable figure. Watch her take our degenerative internet culture to task on ‘URL Badman’ and ‘Life for Me’. Few of Allen’s contemporaries do what she does so well (nope, not even Pink). She’s a breath of fresh air in the pop world, and Sheezus, which flirts with electronics and exudes consistently strong songwriting, is a bold, confident, hugely listenable return.
Weezer – Everything Will Be All Right in the End
‘Sorry guys, I didn’t realise that I needed you so much.
I thought I’d get a new audience I forgot that disco sucks.’
So goes Rivers Cuomo’s declaration on Weezer’s self-referential, lead single-cum-apology ‘Back to the Shack’ (or, as I call it, ‘In the Garage 2014’). The sentiment is all over Everything Will Be All Right in the End, Weezer’s refreshingly uncalculated, back-to-basics rock record. Apparently, fan alienation (i.e. their vocal and resounding disappointment) has gotten to Cuomo, leaving him to renounce the fruitless, overproduced pap that has made up the last decade of Weezer releases. Cuomo realises that Lil Wayne cameos and insincere MTV choruses aren’t what drew fans in the first place, and that Weezer are pre-eminently a rock band, self-effacing goofballs with soul.
This is revelatory: how many musicians acknowledge when a change in musical direction leaves fans feeling short-changed? Further still, how many openly apologise for their missteps? This album, a guitar-driven pastiche of early Weezer styles, is overflowing with impassioned performances – and heart. In short: Weezer finally give a damn again. My standouts: ‘Cleopatra’ and ‘The British Are Coming’. The closing trio of songs (the Futurescope Trilogy) also rocks harder than anything they’ve done in years.
JJ – V
Swedish duo JJ’s V was a surprise discovery for me. I went in with no preconceptions and was transported to some lush, wintry otherworld. I’m struggling to articulate why this album moves me so, and I know why: it’s because my response isn’t intellectual. I’ll try a different approach (beware forthcoming stream of consciousness wank).
I guess, based on my limited knowledge of JJ, that I expected pretty, Sigur Rós-ish folk with an emphasis on atmosphere. And I suppose V could be squeezed into that reductive description, but doing so ignores the incredible nuances all over this LP. The songs here buck convention, unfolding organically; seldom do they resort to bland verse-chorus-verse-chorus structures. Consequently, the experience is like getting lost in some terrifying tundra. Songs build in slow, methodical arpeggios. The melodies often lead the listener in one direction, only to pull back, subverting expectations. But, somehow, the effect isn’t discordant; or – I scratch my head – maybe it is, but it’s pleasingly so.
V is dripping with idiosyncratic surprises, unexpected strokes, like the garbled spoken-word opening of ‘Hold Me’. It’s melancholic, but not depressive; grandiose, but not overblown. There is aching sincerity. I perceive desperation, vulnerability – even as singer Elin Kastlander shows defiance, erects bravado, as if she’s trying to hide behind snark and drug references. You get the sense, listening to this record, that her life is unravelling, spiralling into chaos. Her lovelorn sentiments are complemented, entwined, with frigid atmosphere. But it’s never too much; the songs are masterfully spatial.
Whenever I allow myself to properly listen to this album, to immerse myself in it, I feel desolate, adrift. But it’s not a Bright Eyes/Elliot Smith-style wallowing; it’s a pleasant feeling, a sense that life is bigger than we understand. Fortunately, there is contrast to this darkness, hopeful moments that pierce through intermittently. They aren’t as conventional as an uplifting chorus or coda; they are sprinkled throughout: little fragments, mini crescendos: a perfect enunciation, a swell of synth, a beat drop, a perfect harmony, masterful auto-tune, clarity in the mire. These moments come so seldom, are employed so sparingly, that they genuinely mean something.
My girlfriend finds this a depressive album – and on casual listen I can see how it might seem that way. There is overwhelming sadness on this record. But then these transcendental moments, which I’m struggling to describe, peak through, rewarding you, making you hopeful, grateful; you appreciate that pain exists, that it contrasts the happier times; and you are grateful that Elin, whose pain you’ve vicariously endured, found the courage to share. Her simple (sometimes childlike), abstract (yet oddly lucid) lyrics have a unique rhythm.
Look, I’ve described my experience with this record. Yours may differ. Still, it’s complex, bittersweet experiences like this that compel me to investigate new artists, that make me a music fan. Highlights include ‘All White Everything’, ‘Dean & Me’, ‘Fagelsangen’ and power-pop closer ‘All Ways, Always’.
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The Preatures – Blue Planet Eyes
Childish Gambino – STN MTN / Kauai
First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
Spoon – They Want My Soul
Alt-J – This Is All Yours
FKA Twigs – LP1
Wild Beasts – Present Tense
Blonde Redhead – Barragán
SBTRKT – Transitions
The Juan MacLean – In a Dream
Kele – Trick
Alvvays – Alvvays
Death From Above 1979 – The Physical World
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London Grammar – If You Wait
Hyped to within an inch of its life, If You Wait sounds like a synthesis of Evanescence and Florence + The Machine, which isn’t something I ever particularly wanted to hear.
Julian Casablancas + The Voidz – Tyranny
Abrasive noise. Casablancas’ trademark laconic vocal style is too often buried under retro effects and glitchy syncopation. Many of these songs are obnoxiously irritating. It smells suspiciously like a move from MGMT’s patented audience-haemorrhaging playbook.
Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain
I enjoyed this album, so if it’s a disappointment it’s a niggling one. It’s a more sedate listen than Oberst’s last two Mystic Valley Band collaborations. First Aid Kit sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg lend background vocals to pleasing effect. Highlights include opener ‘Time Forgot’, ‘Hundreds of Ways’ and ‘Kick’. This is a maturer effort than we’re used to from the singer/songwriter, and feels closer to adult/contemporary than the alt. country I’d been led to expect. Pleasing, if not especially memorable.
TV on the Radio – Seeds
The popification of TV on the Radio continues. This isn’t a terrible album (or even a bad one, really; it’s the best album Foo Fighters never released), it’s just that it suffers when assessed within the context of their past work. TV on the Radio once possessed scruffy charm and a penchant for innovation. Dear Science brought polish without sacrificing edge, but on Seeds they stray further from what made them interesting in the first place. Nevertheless, ‘Right Now’ is my standout.
Coldplay – Ghost Stories
It was wise for Coldplay to opt for a more stripped-back sound after 2011’s bloated Mylo Xyloto. Ghost Stories has some missteps, but isn’t a bad album. It has a few charming moments (deceptively simple ‘Magic’, Bon Iver-aping ‘Midnight’ and brilliant closer ‘O’ make it almost worth the price of admission) and the minimalist approach brought to mind the band’s earlier pre-arena material.
The problem is that, save for a few gems, Ghost Stories presents some of Coldplay’s most anaemic songwriting to date. The songs lack hooks, verve or interesting progressions. The other problem is Chris Martin’s lyrics, which have devolved, becoming startlingly bad. Perhaps they always were and I’ve just noticed? (Looking back, ‘Every Teardrop is a Waterfall’ and ‘Swallowed by the Sea’ are dubious.) Maybe Coldplay’s usually masterful pop assault left me too dazzled to care?
Ghost Stories is sparse, introspective, so lyrical clunkers like ‘You’re a sky full of stars / I want to die in your arms’ (won’t even comment on the mixed metaphor) stand out, as Martin might lazily put it, like sore thumbs.
After his much-publicised separation with Gwyneth Paltrow, one hoped Martin would dig a little deeper to offer something personal, genuine, an artefact of his supposedly immense heartache. Instead we get insipid clichés and nauseating paeans to Paltrow (‘Ink’, ‘True Love’, ‘Always in My Head’). Then there’s the limp, grovelling ‘Another’s Arms’ – for me, the band’s second worst song to date.
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Honourable Mentions from Yesteryear:
HAIM – Days Are Gone
A massive début with a string of monster singles. Beautiful harmonies, stellar production and hooks upon hooks [upon hooks]. Check out: ‘Forever’, ‘Falling’, ‘The Wire’ and ‘If I Could Change Your Mind’.
Lightspeed Champion – Hi! Nice to Meet You!
One of my most-played albums of the year. 2010’s Hi! Nice to Meet You! by Lightspeed Champion (one of Devonté Hynes’ many musical guises) is less polished than his Blood Orange work, but no less thrilling. Tracing Hynes’ past work is proving difficult, but I’m unearthing many wonderful [musical and lyrical] surprises along the way.
Genre-wise, I’d describe this as baroque pop imbued with punk-rock energy. It’s a treat from start to finish, though I particularly rate ‘Dead Head Blues’, ‘The Big Guns of High Smith’, ‘Marlene’ and ‘Faculty of Fears’.
Editors – The Weight of Your Love
Editors lost momentum with their bold 2009 release, In This Light and On This Evening. Bored with the status quo, they abandoned the guitars and experimented with synthesisers. Though a commendable effort, the album lacked energy. It was darker (bordering on harrowing), emphatic (bordering on melodramatic), and repetitious, with many of the songs outstaying their welcome.
Clearly, Editors learnt from the mistake, devoting their four-year break to crafting stronger material and loosening up. Singer Tom Smith acknowledges the overt heaviness of Editors’ third LP on opener ‘The Weight’.
‘I promised myself I wouldn’t sing about death.
I know I’m getting boring.’
The guitars are back on The Weight of Your Love, but the experimentation remains. On ‘What is this Thing Called Love’, Smith abandons his trademark baritone for a surprisingly beautiful higher register. The ballad exemplifies what works about the album: it’s deeply personal, but has lightness, a deft touch, which their third LP lacked. Check out: ‘Formaldehyde’ and ‘A Ton of Love’.
Arctic Monkeys – AM
I’ve no idea how this album eluded me: it made a huge splash and was heralded as career-defining by more than a few music presses. AM takes some of Arctic Monkeys’ strongest songwriting to date and infuses in with R&B-style production. There are genre hops, stunning backing vocals and some of Alex Turner’s most personal lyrics yet. The entire album soars, with nary a dud song in the mix, but my favourite is closer ‘I Wanna Be Yours’, which repurposes John Cooper Clarke’s poem of the same name into a haunting ballad.
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
I’ve been a casual fan of Vampire Weekend since their 2007 début came crashing in on a rogue wave of hype. I found Ezra Koenig’s literary lyrics and penchant for blending disparate musical styles interesting. 2010’s Contra was polished and anthemic, but wasn’t quite enough to convert me to bonafide fan. 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, however, came seemingly from nowhere, revolutionising their signature sound.
This immensely impressive album has a grand scope, big hooks, and a wealth of ideas and surprises. It’s what AM is for Arctic Monkeys, what Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was for Wilco, and what OK Computer was for Radiohead. As far as I’m concerned, Vampire Weekend are no longer some twee, indie flavour of the month; Modern Vampires, the apparent conclusion of a trilogy, is a bold statement, and, I think, a mere hint of what this band is capable of. Check out the gorgeous ‘Hannah Hunt’, the killer ‘Step’ and, well, all of it!