The publication of my favourite albums of 2014 on the evening of 1 January, 2015, may seem pedantic: as though, after the flurry of lists which appeared from early to mid-December, I have waited until the first day of the new year to determine decisively what belongs to and deserves acclaim from the year just past. In truth, I’ve been away for the best part of two weeks, and failed to make this list publishable any sooner. I have divided my albums of the year into three: an unequivocal ‘album of the year’; four runners-up; and ten other favourites, in no order.
Album of the Year
Jolie Holland – Wine Dark Sea
After the tightly drawn compositions of 2011’s Pint of Blood, Wine Dark Sea is no less composed, but its pieces rumble, scuzzy and searing, in wave upon wave with Holland’s voice cohering at the centre. Songs shift seamlessly between the genres of blues, jazz, folk, and soul. There’s lots of feedback on numerous guitars; reverberating piano; cello which lifts a couple of songs at apposite moments, notably in concert with Holland’s violin on ‘First Sign of Spring’ as it steps and strides onward; thick bass; and percussion which swells in time: all coming together into richly atmospheric, slowly forming, modulating, moving shapes of noise.
Holland sounds like she’s having fun, wrapping her voice round words; but more, she sounds supremely confident, which is a confidence hard won and thoroughly deserved by an artist performing at her peak. Nobody else could deliver a song like ‘I Thought It Was the Moon’, reminiscent of ‘Catalpa Waltz’ from her debut, as Jolie patiently navigates the words as she navigates a space at once carefully recalled and celestially suggestive. She is generous too: just as her interpretation of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Rex’s Blues’ marked the culmination of Pint of Blood, so here her take on Joe Tex’s ‘The Love You Save’ is one of the album’s centrepieces. Clarinet comes to the fore on ‘All My Love’, a distorted R&B number; echoing, clip-clopping percussion underlies ‘Out on the Wine Dark Sea’; and if the album has any single highlight, it comes on ‘Saint Dymphna’, as Jolie pauses and delivers: ‘What do you mean by that? / Do you mean to break my heart? / Do you mean to break my heart in two.’
Olga Bell – Krai
The word ‘krai’ – whose etymological connection with the name ‘Ukraine’ is, incidentally, a matter of heated nationalistic dispute – once referred to the frontier regions of the Russian Empire. While Russia’s nine krais are today administered in much the same way as its oblasts, Olga Bell’s second LP calls equally upon a neglected historical past and an unexplored cultural present. Scoring her compositions for cello, harp, electric guitar, bass, pitched drums, and mallet percussion, and pitch-shifting her vocals so that her pieces surge and uncoil in a profusion of voices, Bell draws from the syncopated rhythms of Asian and Russian folk song, and foregrounds these in relation to the course of twentieth century avant-garde and electronic music. From the sustained liturgical wail which introduces ‘Krasnodar Krai’, Krai is a process of exposition through creation.
Grouper – Ruins
Barring the final song ‘Made of Air’ – which was recorded in 2004, and rumbles to life before submerging itself as a coda to the album, following on from the thunder and rainfall which close ‘Holding’ – the set of songs which comprise Ruins were recorded on a portable 4-track during a residency in Portugal in 2011. Liz Harris has depicted a several-mile hike to the beach, undertaken daily during her stay in Aljezur; and has described the resulting songs as ‘A nod to that daily walk. Failed structures. Living in the remains of love.’ Frogs whir, on the margins of the remote tribal beat of the opening piece, ‘Made of Metal’; and again in the midst of the gently looping piano on ‘Lighthouse’. Harris’s voice, tender and plaintive, occasionally pulls away from her piano playing, as on ‘Call Across Rooms’, before reconciling and merging wordlessly with the music.
How To Dress Well – What Is This Heart?
Three albums into his career, Tom Krell has moved on from intense moments of introspection, of interior pain and self affirmation, to a multifaceted exploration of the ways we live and love together. Coupling for Krell is profoundly complicated, made up of all the passion and love with which we encompass one another, but which neither satiates our desires nor is susceptible to any firm control. His palette is more extensive than ever, with throbbing industrial and lush orchestral sounds offset by sparse guitars, bells, and electronics, passages of pure R&B, and complex movements through the structures of popular songs.
Rich Gang – Rich Gang: Tha Tour Pt. 1
Released at opposite ends of 2013, 1017 Thug and I Promise I Will Never Stop Going In established Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan as the most distinctive and engaging of emergent rappers. After collaborating on the hit single ‘Lifestyle’ in June, at the end of September the duo released this mixtape: its twenty songs fully realised and coming in at over 80 minutes. Rich Homie Quan’s languid way with words distinguishes his voice from that of his closest peers, but given the way he stays in the pocket of the beat, it would have been easy for Quan to provide a constant base for Young Thug’s vivid vocal variations. Instead – supported by production from the likes of London on da Track and Dun Deal – the two artists take on a diversity of roles, and frequently shine when complementing rather than contrasting with one another, as on the standout ‘Tell Em (Lies)’. Young Thug’s turn on ‘Givenchy’ may be the vocal of the year: drawing out his lines, interjecting and rapping in staccato, through sexual designations and declarations of devotion he crackles to a climax in a performance of delicate ferocity.
Ambrose Akinmusire – The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint
Aphex Twin – Syro
Ariel Pink – pom pom
Jennifer Castle – Pink City
Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Tink – Winter’s Diary 2
The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream