With the hugely anticipated return of experimental indie rockers Alt-J came the stand out start-to-finish album of the year. This Is All Yours plays seamlessly for just under an hour and is as bizarre and captivating as their Mercury Prize winning 2012 debut. Joe, Thom, Gus and new boy Cameron Knight, who replaced bassist Gwil who departed the band at the start of the year, seemed to take the widespread adoration and critical acclaim of their debut as validation to once again push their luck on what they could actually get away with.
As with An Awesome Wave, their second LP once again offered their trademark blend of peculiar, coded (if somewhat thinly veiled: “turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet”) lyrics and unconventional instrumentation in a neat little package. Again like An Awesome Wave, there’s an “Intro” to carefully welcome you in. It doesn’t give much away apart from the fact they’re still big fans of choral harmonies, synths and moments of huge percussion. Intro gives way to the gentle “Arrival in Nara,” the first in a series of three songs about the Japanese city with “Nara” heralded by chiming bells immediately following. Sublime hook-laden “Every Other Freckle” and fellow single “Left Hand Free” bring a more tuneful, guitar-laden bite to proceedings before dipping into an impromptu recorder solo proving those lessons in primary school weren’t a waste after all. I suppose it harks back to their debut which was littered with interludes, sewing the album together. The next big hitter is “Hunger Of The Pine,” released in June for fans to get a first taste of the decidedly more formed incarnation of a band who weren’t exactly au fait with big production from their university accommodation in Leeds. It’s dark, it’s shadowy, it’s grandiose, providing a hugely stimulating experience with it’s many layers and textures including that Miley Cyrus “I’m a female rebel” sample and droning brass horns.
The next handful of tracks, although there isn’t enough room to discuss them here, individually bring their own characters to the album whilst simultaneously complimenting it as a whole, something the band do very well. Sequel to An Awesome Wave‘s “Bloodflood” comes the predictably named “Bloodflood Pt.II” a gorgeous, lo-fi reworking of the original which bursts into life with string flurries aplenty before returning to Nara with “Leaving Nara” to close what is an undoubtedly sublime album in its own right but especially when you consider the sheer weight of the expectation the band were under after their first record had been such an unexpected success.
words: Andrew Sharp
BANKS – Goddess
Banks’s debut was definitely one of the most anticipated albums of 2014. Harvest Records drip-fed fans the album as the release got closer and closer, only hyping the album up more with every release. The album opener, “Alibi”, was produced by Vienna-based English producer, SOHN, who also produced “Waiting Game,” another track off Goddess. After a few songs, you’ll soon catch onto the recurring use of temperature to describe a situation: warm inferring to situations of a good person or love, cold in reference to bad, death, or unrequited love. “Alibi” starts off with “something so warm turned out to be something I should’ve known would be the death of me,” inferring that something she thought would be as blissful as love, turned out to be the complete opposite and ultimately killed her.
The title track, “Goddess”, is definitely an empowering one; BANKS is pointing out the effect a man have on a woman and her confidence. In every interview she’s done, BANKS has referred to every woman as a goddess in her own way, and urged women to be self-confident and plainly not take shit from anybody. The most unexpected tracks are “You Should Know Where I’m Coming From,” “Someone New,” and “Under the Table,” unique ballads with little-to-no electronic production. The tracks clearly showcase her vocal and songwriting abilities.
Piano-based “You Should Know Where I’m Coming From” is the strongest of the ballads. BANKS is very cynical in this track, trying to push her lover away, but also reminding him it’s exactly he signed up for. She feels vulnerable and points out her every flaw, almost forewarning her lover not to fall in love with her. Her vocals on this track are incredibly strong, and slightly unexpected because of her usual deeper singing voice.
words: Laura Ersoy
Bear’s Den – Islands
My first choice doesn’t require any thinking whatsoever. The debut album from London trio, Bear’s Den (Andrew Davie, Kev Jones and Joey Haynes), was without a doubt my most highly anticipated album of 2014. These gentlemen won over my heart a long time ago after I saw them supporting Of Monsters & Men back in July 2012 — so I’ve been blessed enough to be able to track their progress for over two years and finally see their hard work come to fruition. They fit slap bang in the ever-popular “folk” scene, a genre undisputedly brought to the forefront of the industry by anthem makers Mumford & Sons with whom the band have also toured with. Other notable support slots have included the haunting Daughter and a trip down under to play dates with Australian singer-songwriter Matt Corby.
They used this time to sharp up and refine their new sound after all three had previously been in the band Cherbourg. The resultant LP was finally released in October after a couple of critically acclaimed EPs had left their ever-expanding fanbase with a small taste of a much bigger picture. The songs on the EPs were delicate stories of family, commitment, love and heartbreak from a band that clearly do not approach song writing lightly. Islands is therefore a seemingly personal affair but also cleverly vague enough for listeners to pin their own meanings to practically every song. Take opener “Agape” for example: “I’m so scared of losing you and I don’t know what I would do without you” is just generic romanticism but placed neatly by Davies’ stirring voice between pounding drums, the odd cymbal crash, strummed guitar and a charming banjo line then it takes on so much more life.
The rest of the record follows suit. Cautious, slow build from the introduction into a rich chorus spiraling into a rousing, possibly brass heavy section before fading back out to leave us suitably lulled. Fan favorite “Above the Clouds of Pompeii” (formerly “Pompeii” but I’m guessing pop juggernauts, Bastille, prompted a rebrand) used to be rough round the edges and although the album version has been bathed, scrubbed, shaved, combed and smartened up to within an inch of its life it still seems as majestic as ever. “Isaac” and “Magdalene” are nigh on indistinguishable, both as spiritual and forlorn as each other while “When You Break” marks the darkest point of the record.
In short and without spoiling the rest of the tracks, Islands really is a bittersweet, impassioned and honest work of beauty from start to finish. It’s a journey waiting to be taken for anyone who’s willing to take time to discover it.
words: Andrew Sharp
Ben Howard – I Forget Where We Were
Ben Howard has nearly made everyone’s “Top” anything list this year with the release of his sophomore album, I Forget Where We Were. The album, though a bit different to his debut Every Kingdom, definitely did not disappoint. In line with Howard’s previous releases, the songs are minimalistic in nature, his slightly raspy, but airy voice accompanied by subdued backing vocals, plucked strings and understated percussion. The most noticeable difference, though, is that Howard has switched over to electric instrumentals.
The lead single, “End of the Affair” embodies loneliness, truly marking the “end of the affair.” It begins slowly, with the plucking of an acoustic guitar, until the introduction of the electric guitar. The song, filled with nearly eight minutes of broken-hearted lyrics, grows more powerful with each repetition of the chorus. It isn’t until around the five minute mark that the song changes its tone from a slow, somber song into a stronger, driven anthem. The remaining nine songs followed suit and were equally as strong and buzz worthy.
One track that has received a large amount of attention is “Conrad.” As the penultimate track of the album, it offers a sense of light at the end of a tunnel. Intricate sunny guitar breaks through the earnest atmosphere of the majority of the album, although still as soft as the tracks that preceded it. It provides a hushed backdrop for the warmth of Howard’s pure vocals, feeling reminiscent of songs from Every Kingdom.
words: Courtney Farrell
Catfish and The Bottlemen – The Balcony
Catfish and the Bottlemen are label mates with Bear’s Den but their punchy, adrenaline fueled debut was a world away from Communion’s usual bag of affable folk. The Llandudno rockers announced their sudden arrival with an incredible amount of boisterous energy and self-assurance yet appeared to awkwardly be a decade too late to the party as they brought a distinctly dated sound to this year’s proceedings. However, for me it’s the stubbornness and naivety that makes the record work.
The first minute of “Homesick” is misleadingly tentative and intricate, two words that don’t really have a place when talking about Van McCann and Co. It doesn’t take long to reveal itself though and when it does it has snappy stadium rock all over it. Carry on through “Kathleen,” “Cocoon” and so on and you find that the entire first half is littered with snappy, attention grabbing singles with sweeping, singalong choruses, heavy riffs and even heavier drums. Lyrically they’re anything but subtle (“I struggle to sleep at night, but it’s fine she never lets me” in “Fallout”) and frankly quite crude (“I’ve no time for your friends who can fucking do one” in “Business”). But if you’re looking to be slapped in the face rather than poetically stimulated then this is the record for you. Although I find myself wanting to dislike the bluntness, especially in the apparent semi-acoustic love ballad “Hourglass” which turns out just to be as crass as the rest, I instead find the grown up language paired with juvenile sentiment oddly charming. As for the end, “Tyrants” has a very apt and overwhelming crescendo. On the face of it it’s an album for a foul-mouthed, sexually frustrated sixteen-year-old who really wants a leather jacket but keeps spending his savings on cigarettes instead because he thinks smoking is cool.
Yet this is a band who put on an incredible live show and, despite all the swagger and bravado, are deeply down to earth and appreciative of their fans. They make the music they grew up listening to in the hope that others will like it and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, there’s a lot right with it. The Balcony could so easily make a worst album of the year list but for me, I’m putting them on this list instead.
words: Andrew Sharp
Hozier – Hozier
24-year-old from Ireland, Hozier, has made an impressive debut into the music industry with his self-titled album. You’ll no doubt have heard “Take Me To Church,” named Spotify’s Most Viral Song of 2014, as well as recently Grammy nominated for Song of the Year. “Take Me To Church” is a well written and wonderfully produced commentary and criticism of Ireland’s connection with the Catholic church, comparing it to a toxic relationship. Hozier continued to use this song as an outlet for social commentary with the music video, which tackled current events by condemning the persecution of the LGBT community in Russia. The song has received so much attention partially because of its timing amidst the shift towards legalization of same sex marriage in the United States.
Other tracks, though not as viral or politically-driven as “Take Me To Church,” are equally chart worthy. One standout track, with echoing humming, haunting vocals, and strong chords left ringing out, is “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene.” The backing choir really shines in this song, adding layers of strength and soul. Another favorite is “In The Woods Somewhere,” a track in the later portion of the album. While the album has a wide array of themes, “In The Woods Somewhere” stands out due to its sense of impending doom. The only disappointing factor of the track is that is lacks a definitive ending, leaving a sense of unease with the listener just as the lighter guitar of the next song, “Run,” begins.
Hozier’s debut album made our list of Top 10 albums because it was very refreshing to see something so stylistically different in the charts. It’s important to recognize that music is still a powerful outlet for storytelling and commentary, and Hozier used it to his utmost advantage.
words: Courtney Farrell & Laura Ersoy
Jungle – Jungle
Whether they got you dancing to their catchy, funky beats or entertained you with their viral videos, Jungle definitely made an impression with their self-titled album in 2014. Initially hiding behind a talented child break-dancer and a slick roller-skating duo in their videos for “Platoon” and “The Heat”, Jungle finally presented themselves with only two letters, J and T. Their mysterious presence only generated more buzz for the Londoners, whose names have since been revealed to be Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland. Their electro-funk tunes and rhythmically choreographed videos have gained them well-deserved attention.
To credit Jungle’s talent is to examine the multiple music genres they take from. Their use of soul, R&B and funk provide a throwback to the passionate and wildly enthusiastic 70s, while their use of electronic music make them feel refreshingly new. Their album, comprising of twelve tracks, is a mixed marriage of these psychedelic sounds and create tunes that one has a hard time not dancing to. The album’s opener, “The Heat,” is compromised of wailing police sirens, falsetto funk and bass riffs. Another impressive track is “Lucky I Got What I Want,’ which maintains the soul of the album’s other songs but has a slower and smoother vibe. The use of repetitive lyrics and strong percussion give the track a less energetic, but still enthralling sound that adds a dimension to the album. Another one of Jungle’s most popular songs is “Busy Earnin,” a throbbing tune with a disco influence and perfect harmonies that will trick you into thinking that it’s only one splendid voice singing those lines.
Although J and T spearheaded Jungle’s album, their live shows are performed in a different manner. In order to replicate the energetic and psychedelic atmosphere during their gigs, Jungle becomes a seven-piece collective compromised of diverse and talented musicians. This transformative process creates a raw, soulful and engaging experience for those lucky enough to see the band live. It’s only one of the reasons the album works so well; the expansion of two to seven members highlights the album’s multiple musical facets that the tracks work just as well recorded or performed live.
Alt-J aren’t the only Mercury Prize nominees on this list… Although Nick Mulvey’s slipped significantly more under the radar, coming as percussionist of Portico Quartet, in which he played the rather unfamiliar hang, a UFO-shaped steel pan made from what can only been described as two battered dented woks. Now pursuing a solo career, the English musician has a less than English sound that is notoriously difficult to label.
His debut full length album was the result of three years work following his decision to go solo but the Cambridge-born singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist’s journey started aged 19 when he went to study music in Havana, Cuba under the watchful eye of his Congolese and Cuban guitar tutors. Their teaching was formal and intense but the nights were spent jamming and socializing with students from all around the world. Returning to the UK, he earned a degree in music from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London taking a particular interest in West African culture. This plethora of influences are not so much woven into the record as much they are generously adorning every single beat. It is unashamedly a collection of his experiences. Not a minute goes by without his impassioned education coming to fruition. But it’s not the songs that have been taught: it’s the knowledge of these influencing cultures he has gained, the respect for his heroes he studied, the technical ability to play the songs but certainly not how to compose or manufacture them.
The album’s title, First Mind, confirms this approach with Mulvey revealing he feels the music he plays instinctively more than anything else. The title track is a subtle start, a calming ambiance that is pretty consistent throughout as Mulvey’s fluttering fingers and hushed humming voice guides you onto “Fever To The Form” and “April.” “Juramidam” has a bit more pace about it before the undeniable centerpiece that is “Cucurucu.” From there he slips back into the sleepy “Ailsa Craig” named after a remote island off the coast of Scotland. Pair this with “Meet Me There” or “I Don’t Want To Go Home” and you start to gauge Mulvey as a bit of a retreatist, a daydreamer longing to escape to a simple place with simple people.
It’s a sentiment difficult to deny is somewhat appealing, especially when soundtracked by such a laid back playing style and effortless vocals. The whole album showcases Mulvey’s incredible ability on a multitude of instruments yet still remains modest and delightfully understated.
words: Andrew Sharp
Royal Blood – Royal Blood
It’s literally drum and bass. No, not the repetitive drone with the ocassional wob and a bit of wibble but, very simply, two men, one bass guitar, one drum kit and a penchant for rip-roaring rock. At the start of the year, drummer Ben Thatcher and bassist Mike Kerr were met by a chorus of “who?!” as they appeared on the BBC Sound of 2014, seen merely to be making up the numbers, but they’ve ended the year as firm favorites among rock fans. This after the genre was reportedly on its last legs.
It’s no surprise why the likes of Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders and Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe showed their support for the band. Within seconds of opener “Out of the Black” you know what they’re about. It’s no nonsense, no frills and full steam ahead. Carry on through “Come On Over,” “Figure It Out” and “You Can Be So Cruel” and you uncover huge riff after huge riff, cymbal crash after cymbal crash, roared chorus after roared chorus. It’s all rather filthy until “Blood Hands” which is when, even though it’s still on the heavy side, we see a slightly more level-headed side to the Brighton duo.
Clearly they’re not just about the gargantuan noise (normal service is resumed soon after with the band’s second single and all round epic steamroller “Little Monster”) as it may seem at a glance and “Loose Change” is another well-crafted number that doesn’t seek to punch you right in the gut for a supercharged three minutes. Don’t get me wrong, that is what Royal Blood do best and they’re pretty modest about how they do it: “it’s just Ben hitting his drums as hard as possible and me playing the bass” but it’s the little glimmers of quiet, the building of tension that mean the album has struck the perfect balance. They write music oozing in confidence in a year that has seen some impressive debut albums overshadow some of the more established names.
words: Andrew Sharp
SOHN – Tremors
After SOHN’s tremendous contribution to music in 2014, it’s no surprise he made our list. For those of you who haven’t heard of SOHN, he was the producer-mastermind behind Banks’s “Alibi” and “Waiting Game”, Kwabs’s “Wrong or Right” and Laura Doggett’s “Phoenix.”
Tremors opens up with “Tempest”, a track that starts with a loop of distorted words that later unfolds into his beautiful falsetto voice. A stand out track from the album is his lead single, “Artifice,” the song that garnered SOHN more exposure than the rest. The track, while it features an upbeat productions, is contrasted by would-be depressive lyrics. The first verse opening up with “Is it over? Did it end while I was gone? ‘Cause my shoulders couldn’t hold that weight for long and it all just feels the same.”
However, while “Artifice” was one of the heavy hitters off the album, a friend of mine sent me “Bloodflows” when it was first released and I instantly fell in love with his production style. The track starts off with minimal instrumentals with Taylor’s beautiful vocals. I first really noticed SOHN’s writing abilities with this track, and to this day, I’m mystified with his talent. “Contract killer pros / Calmly walks away, as blood flows / Open, the wound grows / Melts away, the water froze.”
If you’re a fan of SOHN’s or his album, you should definitely try to see his live performance; his performance is absolutely phenomenal.