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« Hiss Golden Messenger, 6 February 2015 | Main | 2014: gigs of the year »

2014: records of the year

And so to the albums...

I've certainly bought enough music this year and a lot of it has been of real quality. But I guess the striking thing, looking at my ten favourites, is that there are few new names: most of those featured - good as they are - have also had records in earlier annual lists.

And it has also been a great year for archive releases - the 6 CD Basement Tapes Complete is a superbly packaged document of record while, for everyday use, the 3 LP/2 CD Basement Tapes Raw has the really key stuff looking and sounding great. Add into the mix 3 CDs and a DVD of CSNY 1974 and you start to be pushed for time to listen to much else. And that's before getting to the 6 CD set of The Velvet Underground's gorgeous third album, which has had stunning reviews but I haven't yet brought myself to shell out for: can even I justify having a mono mix of the main record, alongside two alternative stereo ones? A mono 'Murder Mystery' is simply perverse...

But, enough of that. Without further ado, the ten new releases of 2013 that I rate most highly:

10. Steve Gunn - Way Out Weather

The first of two appearances in this year's list from a superb guitarist, who also has a lovely knack of combining his talents with a range of different collaborators. Here he is on his own release, playing and singing with confidence, verve and sometimes unnerving technique.

What's more, my daughter's band Ray Gun opened for him when he played in Ramsgate last month - a huge shame I couldn't be there with them...

9. Ryley Walker - All Kinds Of You 

Sometimes sounding unnervingly like a young Bert Jansch, Chicagoan Ryley Walker has a real confidence and character of his own that make this a compelling listen. Beautiful arrangements (again with some Pentangle echoes) of strong songs. As I said when I first heard it 

That all may sound artificial and knowingly retro, but the end product strikes me as organic and convincingly in the here and now.

I'm still feeling the same, eight months on.

8. Thurston Moore - The Best Day

Despite my best efforts, I've never really come to love Sonic Youth. Appreciate and respect, yes; but no more than that. Thurston Moore's solo albums, though, are a different thing - and The Best Day is up there with the best of them. The palette is more varied, with chugging electric grooves and noisier elements in amongst the acoustic melodicism which first drew me to records like Demolished Thoughts.

And, as I said when it came out, the cover art is beautiful - a series of old photos of Moore's parents. Worth buying on vinyl for the cover alone: you can always think later about whether you own a turntable.

7. Steve Gunn & Mike Cooper - Cantos de Lisboa

It's that man again... Gunn in a one-off collaboration with Mike Cooper, whose music I hadn't really known before. He's a Brit who started off playing blues in the sixties before expanding into a range of rockier and avant garde styles. One of the pleasures of 2014 has been a voyage of discovery through his back catalogue, aided by some well-crafted vinyl reissues from the estimable Paradise of Bachelors label.

Anyway, Cantos de Lisboa is a treat - but one that needs some mastication, and is all the better for that. You're initially sucked in by the sheer beauty of lambent opener 'Saudade Do Santos-o-Vehlo' but then encounter some crunchier improvisations. Two splendid guitarists with open ears and a clear enjoyment of each other's company.

6. Various Artists - Look Again To The Wind

An odd project on the face of it: a cover version of an early sixties album from Johnny Cash, Bitter Tears, dedicated to the varied injustices that have been visited on American Indians. I don't know the original album and wouldn't claim to like every song here equally, but the highlights of this re-creation are quite extraordinary. Producer Joe Henry has assembled a stellar cast of new country royalty: Steve Earle, Emmylou, Kris Kristofferson, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are all present and all acquit themselves well. It's the last two who are transcendent. A protest ballad stretching to more than nine minutes could get a teensy bit tedious, one might think, but 'As Long As The Grass Shall Grow' leaves you wanting more. Their voices and instruments twine around each other so perfectly they're like a single entity, and Rawlings' final guitar solo is worth the price of admission on its own. I haven't seen much written about this album, but more should be... do search it out.

5. Robert Plant - Lullaby & The Ceaseless Roar

It's great how Plant remains driven to make new and different music, searching out fresh combinations of very talented collaborators. At a time when he could be sitting back and savouring the royalty cheques from the Led Zeppelin reissue programme, he's moved further on from the fine Americana of his last couple of albums to an edgier, energetic and thoroughly engaging set shot through with African instrumentation and electronics. You're bound to sit up and take notice - and the more you pay attention, the more you appreciate the care and skill that has gone into the arrangements. It's both classy and wildly entertaining: don't miss it.

4. The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams

I raved about this one here on its release in April. My then favourite song of the year, 'Almost Everything', now has some serious Wussy-shaped competition (see below) but still sounds great, as does the rest of the record. And the band went on to turn in my favourite live show of the year at The Great Escape in May. They're on tremendous form and this is a very good record.

3. Braden Gates - Ferris Wheel

This star
fiddler/ singer/ songwriter/ guitarist from Alberta was my find of 2013 - nabbing the top slot in my gigs of the year and the same number 3 slot in the albums that he's occupying now. Ferris Wheel is a distinct advance on his first release, with more variety and confidence in the writing, performance and arrangements. I wrote about it at length here. There's obviously a lot more to come from this highly talented young man: you should get aboard now and follow what should be a fascinating career. 

2. Hiss Golden Messenger - Lateness Of Dancers

Possibly the best HGM release so far - despite there being some pretty stiff competition. This sounds more like a band record, rather than mainman MC Taylor plus friends: cohesive, varied and sometimes downright funky. But be reassured that this not come at the expense of HGM's trademark emotional heft. 'Chapter & Verse (Ione's Song)' is a particular tear-jerker, even after multiple listens. As so often, it's not entirely clear what's going on in narrative terms, but the vocal combination of sympathy and reassurance and pain set against a simple piano's willed optimism comes across like proceedings at a frontier smalltown funeral. Beautiful - and the other nine songs are pretty damn good too.

1. Wussy - Attica!

Well, regular readers will not be surprised by the number one slot. My favourite band in the world right now and I've already provided a detailed rave review of what is also probably their most consistently strong album so far. A rare combination of crunch and delicacy, with a melodic sense reminiscent of REM at their best. 'Halloween', 'Beautiful' and 'Teenage Wasteland' are all strong contenders for the best song I've heard this year. The band seem to be on a real roll and it would be good if they could now reach the wider audience they so obviously deserve.

The near misses, jostling at the gate of my top ten, include Beck's Morning Phase and Two Wings' A Wake. Bruce Springsteen's High Hopes and Del Barber's Prairieography both included some strong individual songs but didn't really hold together as albums for me. Neil Young's A Letter Home strikes me as a really impressive work of art, like a time capsule launched to and/or from somewhere beyond the grave, but I haven't been listening to it with any regularity as a collection of songs. I haven't been listening to Neil's Storytone much either, but that's more because the songs don't seem very inspired - whether in their stripped-down or kitchen-sink-arrangement versions. Maybe it will grow on me...

And let's see what 2015 brings. A very Happy Christmas to anyone who has read this far!

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