Being the universally acclaimed music critic that I am, last week I took it upon myself to list my ten favourite tracks of 2014. This week, I’ll be looking at my top five albums, another list that’s been incredibly difficult to compile. 2014 has proved that excellent music is thriving today just as much as it was in the 60s, 70s, or any other decade since pop music was invented. Anyone who says otherwise is either a delusional nostalgic or has not bothered to look beyond the top 40. Picking a top five is always tricky because some albums age better than others. Here is my list from last year, and though I still enjoy all of the albums I mentioned, I would only stand by two of my picks were I asked to redo my list a year on. Let’s hope this list ages a little better.
5. First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
Sweden’s Söderberg sisters were on top form in 2014 with the release of their third album, Stay Gold. The inclusion of a thirteen-piece orchestra has given the band’s sound more depth and texture while maintaining their folksy, country sound. Thematically, the songs are bound by common lyrics of escape and fulfilment. From the divine My Silver Lining to Waitress Song, a track about leaving one’s past life to become a waitress in a small town, the album centres on the theme of running away. While this may sound like a juvenile preoccupation, the album is lyrically very mature. Taking inspiration from the country musicians that have influenced their sound, the band has crafted an album that is rich in layers, but also full of catchy pop tunes, as seen on tracks such as The Bell.
4. Morrissey – World Peace Is None Of Your Business
The scandals surrounding the release of Morrissey’s 10th studio effort almost threatened to overshadow the music on an album that was hailed by fans and critics alike as a return to form. But the fallout between Moz and his record label, Harvest, which led to the album being dropped just three weeks after its release, could not distract from the fact that World Peace… was an excellent album. Morrissey is at his cutting best, attacking everything from politicians and bullfighters to gender norms. The sound of this album is notably different to his previous LPs, featuring instruments such as horns and Spanish guitars – a likely nod to his huge South American fan base. Though there are examples of Morrissey’s tiresome wordplay (“Mad in Madrid/Ill in Seville” he sings on The Bullfighter Dies) this is by no means an album of stagnation. On the contrary, this is Morrisey at the top of his game, singing with passion about love, despair and politics accompanied by lively, exciting pop tunes.
Canadian pop band Alvvays released a remarkable début this year with their gorgeous self-titled LP. A dreamy record of low-fi guitars coupled with lead-singer Molly Rankin’s distinctive vocals, Alvvays is an album that evokes memories of college dorms, young love and juvenile misadventures. Clocking in at just under 33 minutes, this album may be short, but it leaves the listener completely satisfied. From the quirky indie-pop of Archie, Marry Me to the tender Party Police, this is an album that marks the beginning of a bright future for an enormously talented band.
Long before its release, it was no secret that Ultraviolence would be a controversial album, and it did not disappoint. Even darker and more cinematic than her previous works, Ultraviolence could be mistaken for the soundtrack to a noir film, so consistent are its gloomy themes of death and corruption. Sonically, the tracks sit perfectly together. The songs are based mostly on blues-infused dream-pop melodies over which Lana’s voice shines through, rising like steam after rainfall on a hot Hollywood day. What strikes the listener is the unapologetic nature of Lana’s lyrics. Fucked My Way Up to the Top was written about an unnamed female singer while the title track deals with domestic violence. Del Rey has not toned down her style, if anything, she has played up to it, seamlessly taking on the role of battered American princess in a cruel, corporate world. Though often chilling and sometimes uncomfortable, there is no denying that Ultraviolence is nevertheless an album of outstanding beauty.
Not only the best album of the year by a country mile, but also the most ambitious. Everybody Down is rapper Kate Tempest’s début album that will eventually accompany the novel she intends to release in 2016, with each track corresponding to a chapter. In this sense, Everybody Down is more audiobook than album. It features three main characters, young adults living in London, and details their (often illegal) exploits. What is remarkable, is that upon first listen, unless you really pay attention to the lyrics, the album’s incredible depth can completely pass you by. I used to play this album as I worked, and the muted beats and minimalist compositions paired with Tempest’s seemingly effortless rapping washed over me without ever really sinking in. It wasn’t until I heard the album on my headphones that the lyrical mastery actually hit me and I understood the story. It is no exaggeration to say that Tempest is a master of her craft, and it is her highly original lyrics that make Everybody Down such a success. In Hammer, she describes a man with “teeth like a ladder that was missing a wrung” with a “complexion the colour of chewed up bar snacks.” There are no tired rap clichés to be found here, just highly creative, beautifully written tracks from a woman who understands the struggles of her characters, and can therefore write about them so sincerely.
Listen to: Every track is a masterpiece, but let’s start at the beginning of the story and go with Marshall Law.
Compiling this list has pained me. 2014 has given us so many excellent singles that deciding on a top 10 has seemed nigh on impossible. I’ve been thinking about it for weeks, but finally, after much deliberation, I am ready to submit this list as my final version. Much like that episode of Friends in which Ross laminates his list of famous women he’s allowed to sleep with outside of his relationship, perhaps I’ll come to regret some of these choices later, but for now, I’m pretty happy. So without further ado, let’s count down 2014’s best singles!
10. Every Other Freckle – Alt-J
The song with the already infamous line about licking out a crisp packet, Every Other Freckle was one of the sexiest, filthiest songs of the year. A toe-curling, sweat-inducing ode to desire that’s more of a lust song than a love song, this is the sound of the human spirit at its rawest; naked, starving and crying out for affection.
9. My Silver Lining – First Aid Kit
Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara are in a pensive mood on the lead single from their third album Stay Gold. My Silver Lining, a beautiful swell of strings blended with hues of the band’s distinctive country and western style, centres on themes of regret and remorse and, like many songs on the album, that all too relatable feeling of wanting to break free. Though the song is about finding oneself crippled by doubts and anxiety, trapped in a place from which there seems no way of escape, it focuses on the flicker of hope to be found in even the darkest of situations – the whisper of happiness.
8. Archie, Marry Me – Alvvays
The Canadian band’s tribute to matrimony, filtered through the low-fi haze that dominates their masterful eponymous début album is a refreshing, sun-drenched delight from start to finish. A romantic heroine pleads the marriage-averse Archie to tie the knot, claiming not to give a damn about the “floral arrangements and bread makers”, wanting only to spend the rest of her days with the man she adores. A burst of quirky indie pop, Archie, Marry Me is an anthem that bleeds the blissful, youthful romanticism that colours every early morning and every late night of lovesick college kids the world over.
7. On The Regular – Shamir
Even upon first listen, On The Regular instantly sounds like one of those tracks that will define a generation. From the cowbell intro to the infectious, relentless beat, everything about the track sounds so current, so zeitgeist-y, and yet so effortless at the same time. Probably the coolest single to be released since Azealia Banks’ 212 (there are definite shades of Banks’ hit to be found here), On The Regular is a confident, defiant statement from the Las Vegas native.
6. Prince Johnny – St Vincent
A mystical, ethereal yarn from the mystical, ethereal St Vincent, Prince Johnny is like a page out of a fairytale. Possibly an ode to an ex-lover, the track swirls and shimmers like billows of smoke through which only the sounds of synths, guitar, and Annie Clark’s bittersweet tale of the mysterious Prince Johnny shine through.
5. Kiss Me A Lot – Morrissey
Back to doing what he does best, Morrissey returned in 2014 with an album full of top pop songs. The best of the bunch, Kiss Me A Lot, is an instantly catchy tune, its Mariachi inspired trumpets and Spanish guitars a refreshing change from his usual musical arrangement. The track sees Morrissey playing the role he plays best, that of a would-be lover, gazing at the object of his affections with a heart full of love and lust, probably never to be reciprocated. There’s no laboured word-play here, no overdone metaphors or flowery witticisms, just simple, honest lyrics and a stomping, triumphant piece of music to accompany them.
4. Only Love Can Hurt Like This – Paloma Faith
In a year in which Adele graced us with no new music, we had to look for our heartbroken anthems elsewhere. Stepping up to the plate this year was Paloma Faith. Although Only Love Can Hurt Like This might not quite reach the tear-inducing heights of Adele’s Someone Like You, it certainly isn’t far off. Faith’s voice is as big as her broken heart in this whopper of a break-up song. Though the single version is good, see this live performance for a truly jaw-dropping rendition, the sheen of the original replaced with a rawness that could melt even the iciest of hearts.
3. Circles – Kate Tempest
The most radio-friendly track from Tempest’s outstanding album, Everybody Down, Circles demonstrates the poet-cum-rapper’s masterful lyric-writing abilities while also proving that her music will not just be confined to concept albums and underground clubs. Circles is not just a great rap song, it’s also a great pop song, taking the best of both worlds to create something truly special. Probably the only song that makes any sense without the context of its parent album, it showcases the album’s key components: gritty, minimalistic musical stylings mixed with intelligent, quick-witted and even quicker-spoken lyrics.
2. Class Historian – Broncho
I have no idea what a class historian is and I don’t really have any idea what this song is all about. What I do know, however, is that when I first heard this song on the radio, I grabbed for a pen and paper to make a note of it. It has the angsty, guitary up-tempo sound that makes it feel like it’s coming from some college kid’s dorm in the 1980s. It’s baffling and wonderful. The chorus is something which must be heard to be truly comprehended (not that it could ever really be comprehended at all), but be warned – once heard, it won’t leave your head for days.
1. Easy Money – Johnny Marr
The lead single from Johnny Marr’s second solo album pulls no punches. What makes it so striking is perhaps the fact that it is so unashamedly pop. The entire song is wrapped around one of the catchiest, poppiest choruses of the year, so much so that the weight of the song’s subject matter is completely lost on the casual listener. Of course, this was Marr’s intention all along. Wrapping up the serious themes of our obsession with wealth, the daily rat-race and the capitalist society in which we live in such a catchy, up-beat tune is surely Marr having a bit of a laugh, but the juxtaposition of the light and the heavy works surprisingly well. Marr’s signature jangly guitars play throughout, the relentless, repeated chorus of “That’s money, money, that’s money, money” sounding like it will go on forever and ever – and at the end of the day, and at the end of the year, that doesn’t seem like it would be such a bad thing at all.