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The Official Rambling Fox Top 10 of 2014

21/12/2014

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So here we are . The top ten albums of 2014, carefully listened for countless amounts of times and then placed in order of what made the most impression. As always, personal bias is heavily at play here and I’m not even trying to make a stab at any sort of objective measures. That would be stupid.

2014 was a good year. It wasn’t a great year, but out of the nearly endless list of albums released during the year only a couple were actual disappointments – the rest varied somewhere between brilliant and rather good, with most leaning closer to the latter. Ranking the albums this year wasn’t really a difficult task: this year’s peaks showed their nature pretty clearly early on and separated pretty obviously from the mountains of enjoyable, but not as enjoyable albums that came out alongside them. Overall it’s not a year that’s going to be remembered strongly in the grand scheme of things, but it did produce a fair amount of surprising comebacks and excellent appearances from a good number of sources I wouldn’t have expected to be listening to before.

But here we go. The ten.

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10: THE 2 BEARS – THE NIGHT IS YOUNG

t2b_tniy_cover2014 has been rife with side projects and solo releases not just in general, but especially from various Hot Chip members, from the serviceably alright New Build album to the somewhat disappointing Alexis Taylor solo album.  There was also the second release from Joe Goddard and Raf Rundell under their The 2 Bears guise, last heard from a couple of years ago with the highly hit and miss debut Be Strong. The thing is, I really wanted to like Be Strong – the duo’s throwback dance productions and feel-good vibe are a fantastic starting point, but the album itself was a mess. It was incoherent, inconsistent and relying way too obviously on a couple of stand out singles to carry the rest of the tracklist onwards. And in all fairness, I could level all those criticisms at The Night Is Young too, if it weren’t for how it manages to make its stylistic incoherency its selling point, its inconsistency far subtler and how it doesn’t actually neglect what happens outside those singles, even if its radio cuts are its most obviously strongest points.

The 2 Bears are coming off more and more as a way for Goddard and Rundell to explore all the other venues and styles they couldn’t get away with in their day jobs. Thus, The Night Is Young marries together sassy gay club anthems, throwbacks to the 70s and 90s discos, hip and cool modern electronics, reggae, African influences, hip-hop and pastoral ambience – it throws things on the wall and piles them together loosely with the sole purpose of making the listener smile, feel good and dance the night away. The singles and chosen spotlight cuts – “Not This Time”, “Angel”, “Get Out”, “Money Man” (which actually pulls off the reggae twang really well) – are the obvious peak points (unwisely chucked right in the beginning) but where the debut faltered in the album cuts, The Night Is Young manages to save some of the big-hitters in the depths of the tracklist too. The camp sass of “See You” is a floor-filler, “Modern Family” is an all-too-brief of genuine beauty and human emotion in the centre of all the dance cuts, and the title track captures the premise of its name excellently. It’s definitely a mixed bag of an album, but out of all of this 2014’s offerings this is the positive, feel-good release of the year.

“Angel (Touch Me)”

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9. RÖYKSOPP – THE INEVITABLE END

rs_tie_coverThe Inevitable End is meant to be Röyksopp‘s “last album” – not their last release, but their last one in the long-player album format (although based on past cases of artists saying this… give it a couple of years). Nonetheless, despite the promise of continuation there’s a sense of celebratory finality to the album, the duo giving themselves a well-deserved victory lap and acting like this really is the ultimate bowing out. Cold and dark as it may often sound, The Inevitable End often has the feel of one last roof-blowing party before the lights dim out. Most importantly, it sounds like a statement.

I’ve often felt with Röyksopp that they’ve not gotten the respect they’ve deserved in the great music scene: their pivotal role in the early 00s downtempo fad started acting like a shadow always stalling them when they moved to other territories and despite the subsequent hit singles and cool collaborations,  their fame was always very temporary and greeted with an “oh, they exist too”. And partly it’s for the duo themselves to “blame”, because despite the frequently high quality of their output they never particularly demanded your attention to listen to it, that (in)famous Nordic modesty filtering through their music. The Inevitable End changes all that. All the finality that follows it and the desire to create an epic farewell blow away that modesty and for once, here is a Röyksopp album that sounds ambitious and demands you pay attention to it. If you do, you’re rewarded with an impressive run of seductively dark, incredibly cool and guaranteedly floor-stomping songs, of which nearly all give the aura like they believe they’re the beginning and end of everything that deserves to be heard for the duration they’re on. Röyksopp have always made good albums – here is the first one that acknowledges that and is bold about it. Here’s a way to make a grande finale.

“The Inevitable End (T.I.E. Version)”

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8. KENT – TIGERDROTTNINGEN

kent_td_coverKent have found a steady cycle to repeat at their mature age, and so have I. They release a yet another album of a stylish blend of melancholy rock and electronic dance music, seemingly having given up on experimenting with their sound after finding a slot they’re comfortable to stay in; I get hyped about the album, feel slightly disappointed about it when it’s out because it’s more of the same, and then some months later “re-discover” it, understand what’s special and different about it compared to their past output and once again realise that this band can still crank out a really bloody marvellous tune or several.

So that’s the case with Tigerdrottningen too. It’s a mixture of their melancholy rock roots and the synthesizer grooves they fell in love with almost a decade ago, much in the same vein as we’ve become used to from them by now. Deeper listens reveal that it emphasises the whole “melancholy dance” aspect a bit more than the past records, acts as a flipside to the incredibly upbeat (in Kent standards) last album and, as a particular sound characteristic, features a group of backing vocalist ladies to counter Jocke Berg’s gravelly slurs. Half the tracklist is also safely in the “killer tunes” category, while the other half is a steadily solid backing for them. In short, Tigerdrottningen offers relatively little new for a band who have reinvented themselves so many times throughout their now-lengthy career that I’ve lost count, but once you get past that you hear that this isn’t a case of getting stuck in a routine rut, but a band enjoying the route they’ve chosen and comfortably going on a creative spree with it once more. Which really isn’t a bad thing when they’re still a group of really solid songwriters and the path they’ve chosen suits them excellently.

There’s little new to say about Tigerdrottningen that hasn’t been said about Kent before, probably moreso than with any other Kent album before, but they’re one of the most reliably great bands still going on and another release by them hitting a yearly top 10 is not only to be expected at this point, but it happens deservedly.

“Mirage”

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7. DELAY TREES – READYMADE

dt_rm_coverThe last time we heard from Delay Trees, it was with their somewhat disappointing second album Doze. Their self-titled debut had been a gorgeous balance of beautiful ambient atmosphere and brilliant pop hooks; Doze did away with the latter, emphasised the former and unfortunately made an album of wallpaper ambient rock. Readymade swings the dial in the opposite direction – it’s their most direct and instant album yet, taking its cues from late-90s/early-00s Finn-indie and glimmering with chiming guitar melodies, rocking out with actual rock riffs and pushing onwards with a rhythm section who have suddenly emerged from hiding after two albums and decided that they want some of the spotlight too.

Readymade is a joy to listen to. It’s bursting with life and inspiration, shining like a fuzzed-up ray of indie sunshine. While easily their most instant album yet, it doesn’t lose any of its spark with repeat listens. Both of the Delay Trees albums prior have had their big hit single moments sans the actual hit status (“About Brothers” on the debut, “HML” on the sophomore), and the goal for Readymade seems to have been to create an album centered around songs like those. They’ve actually pulled it off as well and it’s genuinely exciting. The atmospheric elements of their sound are still there but this time they’ve been saved for particular moments of importance for maximum impact (the most notable example being the lengthy dreamer of a closer “Atlantic”). The album’s only real crime that at eight tracks (plus a largely superfluous intro) it’s annoyingly short and makes you yearn for more, but at the same time in its current length it’s like a surgical strike hit that doesn’t overstay its welcome, which admittedly suits its immediate nature.

After hearing Doze I thought that the key to Delay Trees’ strengths was the delicate balance of the moods and the melodies, but Readymade has convinced me that it doesn’t have to be so. Do whatever you want guys, after something this great I’m excited to hear whatever you come up with next.

“Perfect Heartache” (live)

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6. COLDPLAY – GHOST STORIES

cp_gs_coverColdplay have a formula: create a game changer of an album, then follow it up with something more middling in nature, after which return to point one. 2011’s technicolour pomp Mylo Xyloto didn’t really know what it wanted to be and eventually just sounded disappointing no matter which of its many angles you preferred. Ghost Stories couldn’t be further away from it: instead of a kaleidoscopic explosion of rave-ready neon colours, it’s all very melancholy blue and bleached gray, with the overwhelming positivity having been replaced with melancholy heartache and subtlety. The electronic elements are still there, but this time they’re all minimalistic beats and ambient buzz rather than pop extravaganza. If there’s ever been a reason why Coldplay are something more than the cavalcade of factory-made radio filler they inspired, its their ability and interest to change: Ghost Stories is another example of them once again out to reinvent themselves and finding that their new guise fits them excellently.

Ghost Stories emphasises subtlety but is still remarkably lush: it’s arguably the most gorgeously produced album of the year, with its little electronic flickers and ambient waves offering so much to sink into and so much to pay attention to. The band’s songwriting is as hook-driven as it ever has been, and mixing it with the decidedly not-overt sound world results in sublime, genuinely enchanting songs that offer both something to lose yourself into as well as find yourself bobbing along to. Even the one moment where everything explodes, the chart-seducing dance banger “A Sky Full of Stars” that felt awkward on its own is placed perfectly in the flow and offers the cathartic release most of the album has been subtly brewing, all the introspection being pushed aside for one moment of bliss. But it’s the quieter moments that make Ghost Stories such a magical listen, be it the more poptastic tones of “Magic” (the hit of the year, as far as I’m concerned), the hypnotically buzzing “Midnight” or the lushly twinkling “Ink” – Ghost Stories is full of moments that capture the listener deep within them.

“Magic”

interpolcrop5. INTERPOL – EL PINTOR

interpol_ep_coverSo, Carlos is completely gone now. His ghost was still hanging around on the last Interpol album as he had recorded his bass parts for it before parting ways with the band, which makes El Pintor the first Interpol release without his swirling, impeccably wonderful bass lines. With Interpol’s main star having always been its rhythm section – Carlos’ characteristic bass intermingling with Sam Fogarino’s fierce drumming – the question of how much the band’s sound would be affected was very much in the air. The answer is finally here: Interpol are now punchier. Paul Banks switched his six strings to four and his style is more direct and, quite frankly, forceful. The bass now has the same intensity as the drums, pushing through powerfully with clear strength, rather than finesse. In their core Interpol have remained the same – the jagged riffs, ice-cool melancholy and post-punk groove are still the foundations of their sound – but the new approach brings its own new vibe.

El Pintor is a great showcase for the band’s new-found strength. It’s Interpol’s rock album – not that they haven’t rocked before, but this time they’re all about it. Even the more atmospheric moments have a backbeat to them, what little space in the tracklist has been spared for them. Interpol are still cool as heck but they have a new no-nonsense approach: here’s a hook, here’s another, let’s play it loud. Where Interpol’s past releases have been decidedly reserved, El Pintor is one that grabs the bull by the horns and leaves little space for anything beyond the raw musical energy eminating from the new power trio in the helm.

El Pintor is powerful and thoroughly inspired, maybe even revitalised as parts of it capture the frantic energy that characterised their early albums. It chucks a whole new batch of essential cuts into Interpol’s discography and makes a great example case for how a band can survive without their seemingly most important member. El Pintor isn’t about re-creating past glories with a part missing, like so many other bands would do in this situation: it’s forging a path through new means and reinvents the sound without doing away with what makes Interpol themselves.

“All the Rage Back Home”

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4. ELBOW – THE TAKE OFF AND LANDING OF EVERYTHING

elbow_ttoaloe_coverAfter their last album, Elbow had achieved everything they deserved after years of being unrecognised, and this had left them in a dead end. The mass adoration the band were claiming and the good vibes running through their lives felt slightly ill-fitting for a band of formerly melancholy underdogs and while there’s no denying that 2011’s Build a Rocket Boys is a good album, its somber happiness didn’t exactly light any fires or inspire grand acclaim. For their sixth album it was time to shake things up a bit, and the band opted to write more material alone or in small groups rather than as one big unit, encouraging individual input and thinking outside the box in order to invigorate their writing pen. And then Garvey’s long-time relationship fell apart.

I’m not particularly happy on the “misery creates art” cliché simply because I don’t exactly wish for misery on musicians I love, but there’s some truth to it and Garvey’s broken heart was the final piece of the puzzle that eventually became The Take Off and Landing of Everything. The new approach to crafting music works: it’s hard to call it an adventurous album but it’s one that feels re-inspired and fearless to go where it wants to, barking away all the worries that Elbow were going to hit a predictable rut after finding mass fame. There’s variety and excitement to Take Off that was lacking in the last album, with each of the ten songs sounding worlds away from the other – the space rock jam of the title track, the world-weary elegy of “This Blue World”, semi-electronic “Honey Sun” and the stadium-ready “New York Morning” all share the same space comfortably. What binds them together are Garvey’s musings on life, love and the finite nature of both. Take Off isn’t a break-up album, but one that looks at life from a mature, experienced angle and realises that sometimes things simply just have to pass and that you need to accept it without judging the other party. There’s beauty and vulnerability in its words and intimacy in its sound, a certain kind of humane warmth that gives the music the soul it needs, and Guy Garvey is once again the perfect voice for it. Take Off is a beautiful album, and the bittersweet and elegiac atmosphere has a lot to do with it (Craig Potter’s ever-amazing production work helps).

But it wouldn’t be the fourth best album of 2014 if it weren’t for the songs, and it’s here where Take Off really triumphs. “Fly Boy Blue/Lunette”, “Real Life (Angel)” and “My Sad Captains” could each be a song of the year contender for entirely different reasons with the one combining feature being how hard they hit in one’s heart. If you were to argue against them and insist on placing “This Blue World” or “Charge” there in their place, I wouldn’t have many counter-arguments. “New York Morning”, as much of a too-obvious single as it is, also shows how to pull off the token crowdpleaser single in a way that doesn’t feel like retreading the past too much or going through where it takes the least effort. The ten songs that make The Take Off and Landing of Everything is a breathtaking and evocative bunch, emotionally hard-hitting yet comforting. They’re a gorgeous lot and they help make the album one that I wouldn’t be surprised to find to be one of Elbow’s most timeless one day.

Fly Boy Blue/Lunette”

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3. LODGER – LOW BLUE FLAME

Low+Blue+Flame+lodgerlowblueflameIn the mid-2000s Lodger were the next big hope in Finland. No one had heard of them when the cute Flash video for their debut single “Doorsteps” won the professionally judged music video awards and soon they were on their way to great things: TV channels played the music video as slot filler in-between shows, the debut received good reviews and plans were made to take the band outside Finland. But the band seemed to want to keep their profile low (I can’t even find promo pictures, new or old, to act as a header) and each subsequent album released less and less media attention: after the third one, the band seemed to vanish completely and became nothing but a curio flash-in-the-pan. In the early 2014, after years of silence, Lodger released their fourth album Low Blue Flame out of the blue as a free download on their website, with little buzz around it. It wasn’t until several months later when I stumbled onto a review of it that I became aware it existed and on a whim, gave it a try because a free download is a free download. And now I’m left thinking that if things were different, this really could and should be a big-profile release.

The years have mellowed down Lodger to a point, with Low Blue Flame moving away from the rowdy guitars and emphasising their quieter side, making them sound something akin to a Nordic reimagining of American Music Club. It’s an outfit that suits their everyday melancholia and tongue-in-cheek dark humour, with the somber tones removing some of the comedy from the frequent OTT-darkness of the lyrics and underlining the hard-hitting reality of them. The mellow tones do not mean that the rock element is entirely gone (electric guitars are a firm part of the album’s sound), but that it’s now done in a case-by-case basis and when the riffs hit, it’s done to a greater effect. In short, there’s a lot of lovely finesse and delicate touch to Lodger’s new side, and it’s a touch that serves the songs wonderfully.

The songs themselves are punchy and quick to the point: if there’s anything negative to say about Low Blue Flame, it’s that its half-hour running time is criminally short. The songs come in, push out a handful of best-of-year melodies and then disappear again, giving space for the next short song. “Lord Is My Feeder” could be a jangle-pop anthem; instead, it’s a minute-long cocktease. And yet, it’s hard to be tough on these songs because despite their short length, they develop and close properly and never feel abruptly cut. It’s even harded to be critical when they are so good. Lodger are masterful songcrafters and the tracklist soon becomes a checklist of moments I most remember from 2014: the moment when “All in This World” kicks in after the lengthy organ intro, the heavenly harmonies and piercing guitars at the end of “Song of Job”, the ingeniusly brilliant melody on the chorus of “Son Father Holy Ghost”, the romp-n-stomp beat of “Devil’s Mind” and the understated guitar solo that lifts it into brilliance, the pathetic hope and beaten down happiness that appears in the chorus for “Let’s Get Married”… for a 30-minute trip, the sheer amount of excellence that’s within Low Blue Flame’s covers is mindboggling. It might be a low-key, freebie release from a band that even those who knew of them had forgotten about, but it makes a strong battle against all the well-known, big-budget, big-buzz releases of the year. Low Blue Flame is one of the most captivating albums of 2014 and one that urges you to replay it as soon as it has finished just to get more of it.

“Son Father Holy Ghost”

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2. OWEN PALLETT – IN CONFLICT

op_ic_coverI can’t remember which site I’ve stolen the following train of thought from, but In Conflict represents the first time we’ve truly witnessed Owen Pallett bringing himself into his music. The first two albums were hiding underneath the Final Fantasy moniker and his first album under his own name – Heartland – played with the concept of a personal album, being a concept album about a fictional character and his creator, Pallett, who he’s at odds with. In Conflict is the first time Pallett is writing personal lyrics and signing his own name under them, revealing a little bit more from the previously elusive and somewhat hidden persona behind the music. More importantly, the music has gone through a similar confidence boost. Pallett’s risen in profile from the occasional Arcade Fire co-conspirator to a now independently recognised artist and his music has moved away from violin & loop pedal compositions to fleshed-out, orchestral and richly produced sound worlds. No matter how you look at it, In Conflict represents a culmination of everything Pallett has ever been about, the current peak evolution of his music and his boldest release yet.

Confidence is the keyword to use when describing In Conflict, for it shines through its every second. Pallett’s past releases have been a little low-key, shall we say – very indie records for indie folks kind of things, content to remain in their quirky little corners. In Conflict bears the sound of someone who’s tired of corners and wants to see the whole room. It’s grander and more bombastic, more majestic in its scope. Where Pallett’s past works where characterised by a bedroom musician vibe, the songs on In Conflict are gigantic in comparison. The likes of “The Riverbed” and “Infernal Fantasy” are humongous statements and tower over everything else Pallett has done before, “Chorale” is the most impressive piece of orchestral sound he has composed and while “Song for Five & Six” has clear predecessors in Pallett’s past songs (it’s honestly not too far away from eg “This Is the Dream”), it didn’t seem possible until this album that he’d be able to shape a song this aggressively impactful (not to mention danceable). It’s a pop album viewed through a prog lens performed by a visionary who’s finally taken a step forward to actually match his vision with the tools truly needed to bring it to life..

“Song for Five & Six”

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1. MANIC STREET PREACHERS – FUTUROLOGY

rf_msp_miniLast year’s Rewind the Film came with a great promise of a bright future. Manic Street Preachers had been coasting a little ever since 2007, trapped by their own past and trying really hard to be something they weren’t anymore and deliberately trying to recapture past glories, forgetting that those were glories because they came naturally and sounded genuine rather than being borne out of carefully planned and executed plans. It had become a genuinely plausible possibility that the once adventurous and unpredictable band had fallen into your typical old man rock group rut. But when the band announced that they had had enough of trying to go for mass communication and then backed it with Rewind the Film, their most exciting, interesting and heartfelt release in several years, it seemed like they had realised what was going on and were now trying to fight back. The promise of a more aggressive, electronic counterpoint to Rewind the Film’s somber acoustics was enticing enough, but the truth is much better than just enticing: Futurology cashes in on the previous album’s promise and makes it reality.

The amusing thing with Futurology is that while it sounds like a victory lap and a celebrated resurrection, it achieves it by embracing the very thing that Manics have always been sheepish about: electronics. Synthesizers, drum machines et al have been long-time companions for Manics but they’ve been largely relegated to b-side songs and other rare tracks only a few would ever hear, and whenever they’ve embraced them more openly – such as in 2004’s magnificent Lifeblood – they’ve soon backtracked about it, shied away from enjoying them and berating about how they had a momentary lapse of reason. It’s like a hidden pleasure that they love endulging in but feel bad about thanks to their legacy as purveyors of “real” rock music. The bizarre thing is that they use electronic influences incredibly well, and Futurology is yet another proof of it. As a part of the whole shtick about stopping to worry about what others think, Futurology embraces their electronic side once more, without fear or worry. Once again, it suits them magnificently – they know how to wield the additional elements effectively and how to balance them with their existing skills, with the production playfully blurring the lines between the two. Wielding them so openly and happily also brings another side to the music, as they play with them with such wild abandon and sense of liberation that the music actually sounds… fun.

And that’s the foremost feeling emanating from Futurology in the end. The fun. Sure, it’s got moments of great, anthemic rock that take their influence from the band’s legacy but look forward with them rather than copying the past. Parts of it are fueled by the sort of spiky aggression that they told us to expect. And yes, there’s a lot of evocative, emotional moments where the band’s talent for introspection shines and Nicky Wire reminds us of how he has a really good foothold on being called a great lyricist – there’s wistful beauty and honest intimacy cropping up here and there on the album and it’s those moments that have the power to really floor you. But all of these come second to the sheer sense of fun fueled by imagination and creativity. Something as recklessly tongue-in-cheek as the glam disco bombast of “Sex, Power, Love and Money” was downright unimaginable for the past handful of years when the band was at their most po-faced. Things like the sci-fi secret agent thriller theme tune instrumental “Dreaming a City” and the groovetastic electro singalong march “Let’s Go to War” are the most uninhibited the band have sounded for a while. “Europa Geht Durch Mich” is one of the most audacious and positively ridiculous songs the band have pulled off. The sheer act of not closing the album with the melancholy “The View from Stow Hill” which would have made the perfect closer, but doing another lap right after it with the ramshackle punk semi-instrumental “Mayakovsky” may have been a debatable thing to do, but the one certain thing is that it too signals a change in mood not only in wanting to leave the album on a high note, but doing it in such an invasive, trickstery way. The red line running through Futurology is the Manics breaking their inhibitions, letting go of any external pressures and returning to the creative madness and fearlessness that led them through so much of their career before being pushed back.

And you know what? To close this off on a personal angle, for a long-time fan (and occasionally a downright fanboy) this is ludicruously exciting. Hearing Futurology is like falling in love with the Manics all over again, re-realising what made them such a force that took me over so strongly back in the day when they first came to my life, reminding me of all the great that they were about. I dislike, perhaps even downright hate the term “return to form”, but this is one of those rare moments where even I’m semi-forced to use it. Because that’s what Futurology is – a return to excellence from a band who for a long period of time forgot what they made them so great while ironically trying to reach for it deliberately. Futurology is not only brilliant, endlessly replayable, a breath of fresh air and downright exciting to hear, but it signals a bright new future for a fantastic band. That is why it’s the album of the year 2014.

“Walk Me to the Bridge”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 21/12/2014 21:51

    For me “In Conflict” is probably #1… if I’d do such a ranking list, that is. But anyway, the 2 Bears would be on it that as well. Not too sure about Elbow though. I mean, I really liked it and everything – but I haven’t heard it in a while and I don’t remember all that much from it from the top of my head.

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