Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire For No Witness
I haven’t heard Olsen’s debut album, Half Way Home, but if it’s half as good as Burn Your Fire For No Witness it must be pretty fantastic. Olsen has one of those very sixties voices that quaver with vulnerability, and there’s more than a little of the 1960s and 1970s in the songs on Burn Your Fire For No Witness, but there’s nothing derivative about their intensity and intelligence, the deft way she marries elements from the music of the 1940s to garage rock and even glam, or even the wit of her lyrics, which gesture, with delicious irony, toward the self-aware gloom of Leonard Cohen. The net effect is pretty damn special.
Spoon, They Want My Soul
They Want My Soul is classic Spoon: lean and muscular, spaciously produced and totally addictive. If you like Spoon you’ve probably already got it, if you don’t, do yourself a favour and grab a copy. I love all of it but the electric harp (at least I think it’s an electric harp) on ‘Inside Out’ gives me chills every time I hear it.
St Paul & the Broken Bones, Half the City
As the KEXP mini-concert below suggests, St Paul and the Broken Bones are probably one of those bands you really need to see live for the full experience, but all the same, their debut, Half the City is pretty bloody electrifying. Produced by Ben Tanner, of the Alabama Shakes (and just by the way, what is the story with the Shakes’ apparently-recorded-but-still-not-released follow-up album?), it shows off the band’s ferocious brass section and lead singer Paul Janeway’s blistering vocals to brilliant effect. It’s so good.
St Vincent, St Vincent
There’s a reason Annie Clark’s fourth album as St Vincent is at the top of most lists of the best music of 2014, and that’s because it’s seriously good. Smart, rhythmic, intellectual pop that’s both steely and tender, it’s filled with songs like ‘Digital Witness’ and the beautiful final track, ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’ that snake your way into your brain and then sinuously unravel themselves. And she’s dead cool, which never hurts.
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
I already owe The War on Drugs a favour for propelling Kurt Vile into the solo career that produced one of my favourite albums of 2013, Wakin’ on a Sunny Daze, but now I love them twice over for creating the shimmering, propulsive Lost in the Dream, an album that manages the unusual trick of being both highly textured and soaringly emotional. It’s a fantastic record.
Lucinda Williams, Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
At 61 Lucinda Williams seems to just gets better and better with each album, and Where the Spirit Meets the Bone continues the trend. Featuring 19 tracks over two discs, and almost twice as long as her last album, 2011’s achingly beautiful Blessed, it’s yet another testament to Williams’ capacity to write wonderfully tender songs about damage and loss and love, and although I occasionally get a little frustrated with her strangled phrasing, it’s a wonderful showcase for her distinctive voice and the talents of her band. There are any number of highlights, but if you have a listen make sure you stick around for the final track, an almost ten minute cover of J.J. Cale’s ‘Magnolia’. You might also want to check out The Believer’s 2012 interview with Williams, in which she speaks candidly about her process and career.
Damon Albarn’s post-Blur career has been interestingly schizophrenic, bouncing from projects like Gorillaz and the under-appreciated The Good, The Bad & The Queen to less commercial projects like his opera about Elizabethan alchemist Dr John Dee, but with Everyday Robots he seems to have decided to make a conventional solo album. Except, of course, being Albarn, it’s not particularly conventional: instead it’s a series of introspective songs about alienation and technology. It’s deliberately downbeat, but surprisingly absorbing and heartfelt, and it’s enlivened by a couple of fabulous tracks, most notably the delightful ‘Mr Tembo’.
With its layered vocals and interwoven rhythms and textures Alt-J’s follow-up to their Mercury Award-winning An Awesome Wave, This Is All Yours, shifts between delicately sinister tracks like ‘Hunger of the Pine’ and ‘Warm Foothills’, and the stomping electro-blues of ‘Left Hand Free’, but that variety is part of what makes this beautiful, various and complex album so rewarding. It’s great stuff.
Jeff Tweedy’s decision to record an album with his son, Spencer, could easily have been an act of ageing rock star indulgence, and while it suffers a bit from their decision to spread the results over two discs, there are enough gems on Sukeriae to justify Tweedy’s faith in the project. It’s not quite Wilco (who have also just released a very interesting looking box-set of nerd-bait rarities, Alpha Mike Foxtrot) but it’s still pretty terrific. And the film clip for ‘Low Key’ will have a horrible familiarity for an awful lot of writers and musicians.
Also a few I only came across very recently, but which I already adore. The first two are artists I discovered on Amanda Rose’s always incredibly interesting list of her favourites of 2014 over on Flop-Eared Mule (if you haven’t been, go immediately, it’s a veritable treasure trove of fabulous stuff). First up is Light in the Attic’s reissue of a 1969 album of gospel recordings of Dylan songs. The group behind it, the Brothers & Sisters, were put together by Lou Adler (the guy behind Sam Cooke (he co-wrote ‘What a Wonderful World’, The Mamas and the Papas and Carole King (inasmuch as anybody other than King was behind her success), and featured singers such as Gloria Jones and Merry Clayton (who turns up in 20 Feet From Stardom).
The second is French folk singer Alma Forrer, whose self-titled EP contains four stunning songs that showcase her liquidly beautiful voice.
I can also recommend Reigning Sound’s Shattered, a gem of an album which may wear its influences on its sleeve, but is direct and warm and filled with brilliant songs.
And finally a brilliant little punk pop record from UK act Martha. I’m a sucker for this particularly British brand of guitar pop, and Courting Strong is one of the best versions of it I’ve heard in ages.
And although it’s pushing it, a couple of things that date from 2013 and 2010 respectively, but which I only discovered this year.
The first is Memphis-based singer-songwriter Valerie June’s fantastic Pushin’ Against A Stone, an album that June has described as “organic moonshine roots music”, but which sounds both rooted in tradition and completely contemporary in its eclecticism and political instincts.
And the second is Zoe Muth and the Lost High Roller’s Starlight Hotel and her follow-up, World of Strangers. I didn’t know Muth before I heard Starlight Hotel and her follow-up, World of Strangers, but I was a paid-up fan by the time the first song had played.