So here we are. The tree is up and I’m rocking my most garish festive jumper (it’s plain and grey), so it must be time to reflect on another top year for music. With alternative acts proudly topping the charts and festivals in every field, park or flowerbed going, 2014 really did yield some killer records and I’ve managed to painfully narrow it down to my favourite ten.
1. The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
As ‘Under the Pressure’ rattles in like a broken radiator, The War on Drugs’ fantastic Lost In The Dream invites you on an expansive journey. Freewheeling through 10 sprawling tracks, Lost In The Dream is more of a soundscape than it is a record.
There are elements of shoegaze; there are glimpses of Springsteen. There’s hard-hitting rock, there’s soft serenades and all throughout there’s enough reverb to shake the Shard.
Plus, not only is this the best record of 2014, it even has the best title, because listening to the hour-long journey is almost tangibly dreamlike.
Every note is drawn out, without overstaying its welcome and Adam Granduciel emotes in such a way that he was able to effortlessly soundtrack every high and low of 2014.
If, for whatever reason, The War On Drugs are not already a part of your life, then this is it. It’s time to turn it up, start the engine and get Lost In The Dream.
Stand out songs: ‘Under The Pressure’, ‘Eyes To The Wind’, ‘An Ocean Between The Waves’
2. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
Perfectly timed to be released in April, Mac DeMarco’s Salad Days formed the perfect hazy summer soundtrack. The record epitomises slacker rock but in an incredibly accomplished way, as Mac DeMarco pulls on so many influences with the most understated approach. Couch-surfing oddball? Yes. But these songs aren’t hashed out; they’re crafted with great wit and purpose and Salad Days is moving in parts, soothing in others and pretty hip from the word go.
Don’t think about it, just kick back and enjoy the jangling blues-ridden gems on the album.
Stand out songs: ‘Salad Days’, ‘Passing Out Pieces’, ‘Brother’
3. Merchandise – After The End
In August, DIY Punk Scene icons Merchandise returned with After The End. The album is Merchandise’s poppiest, most accessible record to date. But it comes from the Florida outfit with a distinct vision rather than the hope of cashing in.
With a blend of swirling riffs and romantic baritone vocals, the package is increasingly sophisticated and refined. Without losing any of the character shown in their first two releases, it’s about as lavish as a record can be.
Stand out songs: ‘Enemy’, ‘Little Killers’, ‘Green Lady’
4. Bombay Bicycle Club – So Long, See You Tomorrow
Having shown nerve in the past to follow debut I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose with the acoustic Flaws, I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise to hear a different turn in So Long, See You Tomorrow. There were glimpses on 2011’s A Different Kind Of Fix, but Bombay Bicycle Club’s conversion to samples and loops comes with conviction in 2014.
Incredibly, this transition is made without conceding the core of Bombay Bicycle Club’s sound. Jack Steadman sounds as plaintive as ever, even if the 4-chord indie riffs are subbed for building synths and heavy drops. The art of repetition is deployed magnificently as the record circles you, hitting and thumping with a powerful rhythm, leaving indie dancefloors across the land rightfully absorbed.
Stand out tracks: ‘Home By Now’, ‘Luna’, ‘Feel’
5. Beck – Morning Phase
February 2014 saw Beck’s best release in years, and it was a welcome return to form. Morning Phase is unassumingly beautiful. Cinematic in its composition, the experimental anti-folk star strips back to write 13 caringly melancholic tunes. Hope shines through as gorgeous string arrangements and Beck’s voice combine to provide some of the year’s easiest listening.
Stand out songs: ‘Morning’, ‘Blue Moon’, and ‘Waking Light’
6. Jamie T. – Carry On The Grudge
Jamie T. triumphantly returned in 2014. After five years away, Carry On The Grudge is unlike his previous releases. His colours are nailed to the mast with the superb opener ‘Limits Lie’. The record is dark and stormy, with Jamie T. sounding less like the rapscallion poet of his youth and more of a seasoned troubadour. There are sparks of his familiar raw aggression, such as the ska-tinged ‘Rabbit Hole’, but with age it’s delivered with more poise and sensitivity. It’s nostalgic, lyrically weighing over missed opportunities and lost loves. Seven years on and Jamie T. is still the voice of the people, but his outlook is wiser and notably gloomier.
Stand out songs: ‘Limits Lie’, ‘Rabbit Hole’, ‘Mary Lee’
7. Future Islands – Singles
Unless you spent 2014 in a coma under the sea being tended to by monks, you would have no doubt caught Future Islands on The Letterman Show. I think it’s fair to say that never has a TV appearance done so much for a band. As Samuel T. Herring, accountant-esque in appearance, became possessed by meandering dance moves and flashes of a suppressed demon voice, Future Islands finally reached the level they deserved. It was phenomenal.
The track in question, ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’, is hands down the best song of the year. It is groovy synth pop, delivered with the gusto of a heavy metal scorcher, combining to lift the roof off. And though this is by far the highlight of the record, Singles as a whole is a vivid collection of new-wave pop tracks. There’s an intention behind its simplicity. The lyrics aren’t going to make you re-evaluate your life, but its beats will get you moving. And with any luck, you’ll move like Samuel T. Herring.
Stand out songs: ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’, ‘A Dream Of You And Me’, ‘Spirit’
8. Owl John – Owl John
In August, Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison embarked upon a solo release as Owl John. The result is a wonderfully interesting record which further stresses the range of Hutchison’s talents. With a poised blend of grainy riffs and morose ballads Owl John is an album to absorb.
It escapes the pitfalls of many solo-projects and while it would appeal to fans of the Scottish band, it’s a different beast altogether. Packed with the striking gloominess and the acerbic lyrics of a sincere intellect such as Hutchison’s, it is certainly not a vanity project. Instead the record’s intricacies and stormy mood is captivating from start to finish.
Stand out songs: ‘Cold Creeps’, ‘A Good Reason To Grow Old’, ‘Los Angeles Be Kind’
9. James Vincent McMorrow – Post Tropical
It’s fairly common to discuss essential ‘summer albums’, but the same cannot be so easily said for ‘winter albums’. This is what makes Post Tropical outstanding. It is a record which is layered with pristine piano notes and James Vincent McMorrow’s immaculate voice. It’s startlingly crisp, not as in refrained, but listening to it is like huddling up to a hot coffee in sub-zero temperatures.
The result is almost magical, as the Irish singer-songwriter evolves beyond his acoustic debut Early In The Morning, to pen 10 piano-led tracks. His voice is quite frankly astonishing, as it echoes softly to repeat his mantras, rising to tremendous falsettos. Don’t expect to be able to sing along in the car.
Stand out songs: ‘Cavalier’, ‘Glacier’, ‘Red Dust’
10. Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
If 2012’s Light Up Gold was Parquet Courts' ‘Stoned And Starving’ then this year's Sunbathing Animal paints the Brooklyn four-piece accomplished and well fed. A steadier pace fills much of the 13 track record, and it's left sounding more like the stoner soundtrack that its predecessor was lauded to be. While Light Up Gold was packed with abrupt hard-hitting gems, Sunbathing Animal mixes these with a sturdier tone, offering the listener more of a mesmerised sway than a raucous head-bang.
There are undoubtedly large elements of the disorderly groove that Parquet Courts’ fans spent much of 2012 and 2013 enjoying, and refreshingly the band’s punk attitude which challenges fans to listen on their own terms, is stronger than ever.
Stand out songs: ‘Black And White’, ‘Ducking And Dodging’, ‘Sunbathing Animal’
So there we have it, bring on 2015. We’re listening.