We should never dwell on unpleasant thoughts or memories, but I have to admit that I shall not be sad to see the back of 2014. Everyone deals with their own difficulties and demons in their own way and alongside the importance of special people I have to admit that music is often the transformative medium through which I am able to escape and find solace. The specific music that manages to perform this miracle shifts with the moods and the times of course, but there is something magical in the manner in which circumstance and chance can appear to momentarily place things in just the perfect place and time. There was something of this alchemical quality in Withered Hand’s ‘New Gods’ album, and whilst the reasons for choosing it as my favourite record of 2014 are entirely, deeply personal, I will suggest that although it crossed my path at exactly the right moment, it would never have burrowed so deeply into my heart had it not also been so spectacularly, timelessly brilliant.
I have stated before that I don’t really believe in coincidence and there is surely none in the fact that two of my very favourite records of the year were released via the Furtuna Pop and Slumberland axis. I may however be tempted to accept a degree of coincidence in that fact that both Allo Darlin’ and Withered Hand originally left me cold. In hindsight this is unfathomable, but I am sure there were good reasons. Perhaps in Withered Hands’ case it was an aversion to a rootsy Scottishness, and whilst I would still admit to a mistrust of such earthy faux-authenticity, in reality there was little if any of that in the grooves of ‘New Gods’. Instead there was, I think, a glorious outsider appreciation of a mythic Americana at work that was at once wholly personal and instantly universal (in hindsight this appears to be a recurring theme in many of my favourite records of the year).
It seemed to me that in ’New Gods’ we glimpsed the ghosts of Gene Clark and Gram Parsons sharing a bourbon in an LA Airport lounge whilst daydreaming of peat fires and Sauchiehall Street. Or perhaps it was an echo of James Hackett sidling up to Van Dyke Parks and suggesting they make a record about airplane rides, fading photographs and missing heartbeats. Perhaps it was none of that.
Perhaps instead it was just the sound of ‘Between True Love And Ruin’ on the car stereo in summer afternoons and feeling simultaneously like the world could both crack wide open at any moment and that nothing could possibly dent it. Perhaps it was the euphoric pleasure of listening to the skirling swish of ‘King of Hollywood’ and wanting to swing passing strangers over your shoulder in some kind of wild dervish dance. Perhaps it was the joyful delight of hearing a song called ‘Black Tambourine’ that had the insanely good taste to have Pam Berry on backing vocals (and of course of that record being released on Slumberland!). Perhaps it was the autumnal shiver of the album’s title track whispering in the mist of an October morning. Perhaps it was the utter perfection of every moment of ‘Fall Apart’: from the lines about dancing by the light of every dead star to the layered harmonies in the chorus and those entreaties to ‘come on, come on’ it was perfect a Pop jewel as one could imagine.
In the end though, ‘New Gods’ has ended up as my most treasured record of 2014 simply because it, more than any other, spoke to me about my life and my feelings in a way that no other quite managed, both lyrically and musically. And although I understand that years are simply constructs that allow us to delineate the passing of time, I’m looking forward to 2015 simply because it will not be 2014. I’m rather hoping too that there will be more Withered Hand records to help us all through.
It seems inexplicable now that in 2010 I was singularly unimpressed with the debut album by Allo Darlin’, although my 2010 advent entry appears to capture both that initial ambivalence and the subsequent conversion in fairly convincing fashion. 2012’s ‘Europe’ set managed to convince me just that little bit more, with it’s rather more polished and filled out sound helping move the group out of some kind of hellish twee indie ghetto I had imagined them inhabiting previously. Jumping forward another two years and this year’s ‘We Come From The Same Place’ saw Allo Darlin’ finally flourish into the kind of group I could willingly place on the top shelf of contemporary Pop groups.
This is not to say that Elizabeth Morris has not written some exquisite songs in the past. She most certainly has. And it’s not to say that the sound of cagey uncertainty and vulnerability is not appealing (it most certainly can be). It’s just to say that only on ‘We Come From The Same Place’ did it really sound as though Allo Darlin’ were a group in full control, blending strength and fragility in a marvellously artful manner.
Put simply, there were simply more gloriously memorable melodies and more memorably glorious lines in ‘We Come From The Same Place’ than in any previous Allo Darlin’ set. There was the brittle melancholy of ‘Angela’ with it’s spectral guitar line conjuring memories of Deebank and Blueboy set alongside those heartbreaking and warming words about how "the hardest thing we ever have to learn / Is when those we love don’t love us in return”. There was the rampaging love/hate duel of ‘Half Heart Necklace’ and that killer opening line of “the lights of this town spell H-E-L-L” and surely we’ve all been there and felt that? And was that whole half-heart necklace thing a reference to 'Twin Peaks' or was that just me projecting? Then what about that marvellous line about lips being sweet from the Juicy Fruit in the peerless ‘Crickets In The Rain’, outdone only by the one about reading Joan Didion in the dark. Honestly, ‘Crickets In The Rain’ was just such a wonderful Pop moment and hey, did you want to shed a wee tear like me when Elizabeth sang that line about how loving someone was like how "everything you had ever lost had come back” (inspired in itself by a line in a poem by Nayyirah Waheed)? Or what about coffee cups leavening rings on your A-Z in ‘History Lessons’, or those crystalline guitar strings of fairly lights in the title track and that line about just trying to make it through another Tuesday? And I know we’ve all been there.
Finally, how about ‘Kings And Queens’ with it’s transformative punch and it’s exquisite grasp of how it feels to be young and full of fire and passion? “They can call us what they want” sang Elizabeth before adding “but we know that we are the kings and queens of love” in so doing capturing the essence of awkward, proud and damaged outsiders everywhere. All of which means that ultimately ‘We Come From The Same Place’ was all about exactly what it’s title suggested: a warming fire about which to huddle; a beacon for those once young and foolish, now grown up but still muddling through, making it up as we go.
Was there a more handsome record this year than the eponymous debut set by The Luxembourg Signal? With its icicle blue translucent vinyl and its classy, classic Saville-esque sleeve this was a record that reminded me of the magic of the physical artefact. The fact that the vinyl sold out within a breath of its release tells you that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. It helped of course that the music on the grooves sounded every bit as handsome.
We’d been tipped to the probability of a magical album early in the year by the brilliance of lead single ‘Distant Drive’. Some say it was the finest single of the year and they may well be right in that, for with its sparkling guitar lines and motorik rhythm it was one of those records that sounds exactly as its title suggests it ought. Now having spent the majority of life being unable to drive I suspect I have never truly understood the meaning of ‘driving music’. Yet having been behind the wheel for only eight months I would instantly aver that The Luxembourg Signal make a sound that is more custom built for driving (or for travelling in general) than anything much else I can think of. Certainly on an Autumnal afternoon driving the lanes of Haldon forest it was perfection itself.
That notion of travelling was also captured perfectly in the video for the gorgeous ‘We Go On’, with its clips of train, plane, car and bus trips including the truly magical Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway and the wind turbines from the San Gorgiono pass on the way from LA to Palm Springs. With strong personal memories of both places so firmly rooted in my heart it was perhaps inevitable that I would fall in love with both the song and the film. Perhaps too it was inevitable that the feeling of distance and movement permeated the record so deeply, given that the recording of the album was essentially a transatlantic juggling act. And fitting too that the idea of sun kissed desert space meeting dense urban conurbation melded so neatly.
Nowhere was the darkness of the combination better illustrated than on album opener ‘Dying Star’. With it’s Spirea X groove and ‘For Keeps’ space rock guitars, it sounded spectacular, like an enormous collision of matter and anti-matter, which is to say exactly as it ought. One could imagine it as an extended, trippy remix spanning an entire side in a Loop-like or ‘Higher Than The Orb’-like trance. It really was that fine. And yet, and yet, to have done so on this record would be to have missed the point and to that we must give The Luxembourg Signal credit for taking care to reign in the impulse to stretch too far. For it was that precise contrast between the darkness and the light (it is followed on the album by ‘Distant Drive’); the collision between apparently contrasting yet subtly similar moods that made the album such a treasure.
It is surely a reflection on my age and the accelerated speeding of time when I say it feels like only yesterday that I was excited not only to be writing sleeve notes for reissues of the three albums that The Orchids recorded for Sarah records, but also at the news that the group had reformed and were set to play, write and record again. To realise that in reality a decade has passed is frankly terrifying.
In that decade however I am delighted to say that The Orchids have released another three albums, the most recent of which was this years’ typically gorgeous ‘Beatitude #9’ for the Spanish Acuarela imprint. Infused with their trademark supple groove, on ‘Beatitude #9’ The Orchids again showed a remarkable ability to make deceptively soft, bittersweet records brimful of emotion and life. Listened to outside of the inescapable context of Sarah Records, one could certainly suggest that The Orchids always had the necessary skills to escape the Indie ghetto. Certainly ‘Beatitude #9’ sounded in places much more likely to appeal to fans of smooth, seductive, soulful dance music than to devotees of brittle, watered-down twee self-pity. But then in reality there were plenty of artists on the original Sarah roster who didn't fit that sterotype, and if the ‘From Hello To Goodbye’ exhibition (including the premiere of the ‘My Secret World’ film) in Bristol helped place some of the mediated myths within context then The Orchids’ live performance was a certainly a splendid highlight of a wonderful event.
‘Beatitude #9’ was peppered with gorgeous moments, including a lovely nod to the Lazy Perfection of their past with Pauline Hynds joining on the excellent ‘Good Words (Are Never Enough)’. Elsewhere the album was equally splendid, and from the shimmering, blissful ’Something’s Going On' though the neat sunburst pop shuffle of ‘The Coolest Thing’ to the mournful, Strands-like beauty of the album closing ‘We Made A Mess’, ‘Beatitude #9’ barely skipped a beat. Like a good single Malt whisky, ‘Beatitude #9’ proved to be an album to take your time over, an album to give oneself over to and to luxuriate in.
One of the most pointless exercises is to draw up lists of ‘all time favourite’ anythings. Such things necessarily drift with the tides of our lives, and this is what makes them so elusive. If pressed however I would admit that The Wolfhounds would be on such a list of musical artists more often that not. The singles and albums they recorded, from the piercing ‘Cut The Cake’ in 1986 to the glowering ‘Attitude’ of 1990 were universally magnificent and criminally ignored and underrated.
Their return in 2005 was a great delight, and their set at the 2006 ‘Still Doing It For Fun’ nights at the ICA remains burnt on my retinas as a spectacular explosion of breathtaking poise and noise. There have been singular releases in the intervening years since then of course, and it was these that formed the backbone of their first album in 24 years. ‘Middle Aged Freaks’ bristled with the spiky intelligence of The Wolfhounds' previous incarnation and sounded in no way like a group settling happily into their armchairs. Instead there was a sense of a group who had matured, yes, but who remained infuriated by the society in which they found themselves. As unsettled and uncomfortable in Cameron’s UK as they had been in Thatcher’s, The Wolfhounds were determined not to be quiet about it. Like Seaford Mods (in fact I think it was The Wolfhounds’ Dave Callahan* who first tipped me to Seaford Mods back in April 2013) or Flies On You, The Wolfhounds had the air of a literate irritant in the side of mainstream culture - not that mainstream culture noticed, or cared.
Me, I cared a great deal. From the simultaneously euphoric and splenetic ‘Cheer Up’ (itself a feature in last year’s advent series) through the sky scraping ‘Anthem’ and the gloriously sparse ’The Slide’ to the hypnotic, motorik ’The Ten Commandments of Public Life’, ‘Middle Aged Freaks’ sounded both like the return of a prodigal son and the re-establishment of an alternative order into the universe. Stunning.
Was there ever a more perfect summer Pop record than The Hit Parade’s ‘Cornish Pop Songs’? Not in 2014 there wasn’t. Those that know know that Julian Henry has been crafting jewels of Pop perfection since time immemorial (or at least since the mid 1980s which is essentially the same thing) and ‘Cornish Pop Songs’ was the latest in a stream of perfectly poised records. If it had been an album of songs written about anywhere in the world then I’m certain I would have loved it, but I will be honest and admit that it was in no small part the context of the songs that meant that, frankly ‘Cornish Pop Songs' was a record that could hardly have failed to wrap me around its little finger and squeeze my heart until it ached.
There is something magical about the end of the world (or at least the end of England) that really does grab a hold of your soul. Something in the juxtapositions of the bleak, wild moors and seascapes and the cosy closeness of copses and the huddled-togetherness of the coastal villages. Something in the mystical histories and the contrariness. Something in the mizzle cloaked cliffs and the sun bleached sands. Magical, either way.
So did you need to have at least a minimal knowledge of the geographical context to adore ‘Cornish Pop Songs’? Of course not. For whilst little bits of local colour helped move things along (Mr Stevenson would be the Newlyn fish merchant for example, whilst the garage in Drift would be on the A30 out of Penzance - blink and you’ll miss it), these were fragments of personal geographic reference that rooted the songs in context, thereby allowing them to flower as blooms of universal familiarity. Julian Henry’s songs were a glorious collision between melancholic memorabilia and blissful euphoria. ‘Cornish Pop Songs’ then was both a paean to a specific, magical landscape and a celebration of the simple, essential ingredients of great Pop. Like sonic representations of Peter Benson novels, these songs were OF Cornwall but ABOUT love, loss and distance (both physical and through time). It was as close to perfect a Pop record as I heard in a long time.
There are moments in one’s life when one feels acutely aware of one’s age, or at the very least of the ageing process. These moments are often wrapped up around conversations with younger generations where the lack of shared cultural reference points becomes acutely apparent. The same goes for when one is younger of course - when one feels that gaping void between where you are and where your elders seem to be, cloaked in mythic memorabilia, feigning appreciation when all one really feels is the dread of reaching that place oneself. There was something of this in Strand Of Oaks’ ‘Heal’, or at least there was for me as a listener.
Album opener ‘Goshen’ 97’ was a remarkable song, full of the ecstatic delight of being young and having the spotlight of music’s possibilities shone into one’s eyes; blinded by the white light of magic. For me of course the reference points were all wrong - too much long hair, beards, Smashing Pumpkins and Noisy Rock, but goodness the sound was sensational, not least thanks to J Mascis’ guitar providing such a glorious Pop cacophony in the same way as it once did on Buffalo Tom’s ‘Impossible’. And here’s the point I guess: the spirit transcended the references, closed the gaps of individual context and created a glow of supreme ecstasy. The rub being that it was precisely the specificity of references (singing Pumpkins in the mirror, dad’s old tape machine, smoking menthols) that allowed that transcendence to occur. Without those things songs run the risk of being bland generalities without conviction. It’s a tough juggling act, but ‘Goshen ’97’ certainly accomplished it with aplomb.
Elsewhere on ‘Heal’ there was a similar sense of conviction and an artfully composed illusion of authenticity (this is a mighty compliment, I should add, for I do not believe in the myth of ‘authenticity’ in mass mediated art forms). The emotionally draining ‘JM’ was another potent hymn to the power of music; this time a tense struggle between the memory of youthful surrender to the seductive dark sides of raging teen rebellion and the growing adult awareness of where that might ultimately lead. It’s that aforementioned gaping void that ‘JM’ inhabits, throwing out lines of hope and despair in equal measure. That void was there on ‘Shut In’ too: a song that reminded me of the elegiac qualities of Big Country at their finest (there were strong echoes of their ‘Restless Natives’ soundtrack) and indeed that 1980s feel was prevalent in a lot of ‘Heal’, where synths came on like Simple Minds in their ‘Sons and Fascination’ pomp, whilst on occasion you could almost hear the ghost of 'The Joshua Tree’ haunting the corridors of a run-down Mid Western town, kicking through the mud with Springsteen.
There are those who will tell you that those kinds of 1980’s references were best exemplified by the War On Drugs set from this year, and whilst there is something in that, for me ‘Heal’ played the finer hand. Compared to ‘Lost In The Dream’, ‘Heal’ sounded equally assured yet appealingly less sure of itself. It sounded more scuffed around the edges and with a soul more scoured and gouged. I loved it.
New Zealand has certainly been something of a roll in recent times, with numerous placings in my various end of year lists of pleasure. French For Rabbits first cropped up on my radar with their utterly beguiling ‘Claimed By The Sea’ EP and if 2013 was marked by an apparent stony silence, it would appear that the year was in fact spent preparing for the ‘Spirits’ album that dropped in the second half of 2014. To say it was eagerly awaited would be an understatement, for ‘Claimed By The Sea’ was such a charming artefact that threaded its sweet roots deep into my soul.
‘Spirits’ did not disappoint, with ten pieces of whispered hymns sounding like dark corners of forests and coastal pathways shrouded in mist. From the middle distance spectral forms ebb and flow with a glimmer of seductive promise. It’s a promise that feels so real yet hovers always just out of reach.
If you are ever at the lost gardens of Heligan in Cornwall there is a crystal grotto where a gloomy, delicious dampness pervades the air even on a sparking summer afternoon. French for Rabbits sound for all the world like that grotto, and that is no bad thing. If you wanted more tangible references though, well, I will show my age now and suggest that French For Rabbits conjure thoughts of the likes of Kendra Smith or Hope Sandoval. These are parallels that I know have already been drawn, and that does not diminish them. Certainly one could have imagined ’Spirits’ sneaking out on 4AD in the late 1980s and not looking or sounding out of place. It recalled at times too the splendid sound of Virginia Astley, Heidi Berry, or of that lovely single Sara Davis recorded for the September label. Or if you need your references more up to date(ish) you might hear a splash of Beach House and a sliver of their New Zealand contemporaries Tiny Ruins. All of which is pretty fine company to be in, whichever way you cut it.
You will know Robert Scott from The Bats and The Clean: two of the finest groups from New Zealand or anywhere from the past thirty years or any time. If your collection does not contain records by those two groups then it is not a collection and you are not a lover of great music and really you should be reading another blog and another list of end of year albums. Alternatively of course you are at the start of your journey and in that case I envy you the pleasures of discovering such a wealth of wonderful sounds and songs. It makes me giddy just thinking of it. This year’s ‘The Green House’ would be a perfect place to begin.
Not that ‘The Green House’ was typically Bats or Clean. Indeed only the excellent ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Month of Sundays’ came close to a ‘full band sound’, but the album was certainly none the worse for that. In place of that sound was a more singer-songwriter, lonesome troubadour folkie vibe (minus the hippie dippie schtick you might associate with that, depending on your proclivities). In other words ‘The Green Door’ felt at times like an updated nod to Scott’s 2004 set ‘Songs Of Otago’s Past’, and there was nothing wrong with that. What there was also nothing wrong with was the fact that Tiny Ruins’* Hollie Fullbrook joined Scott on almost half of the album. In those moments there was a feeling that this was as good a combination as Gram and Emmylou or Gene and Carla, and you don’t get any better than that after all.
You may recall that in 2013 the Unpopular advent felt at times like an extended paean to the New Sound of Young New Zealand**. If that is the case then Robert Scott answered this year with a statement that spoke clearly of the previous generations’ ability to more than match them step for step.
*Tiny Ruins’ ‘Brightly Painted One’ album was one of those records that came oh so close to making this advent series but lost out at the last minute. It’s still more than worthy of your attention.
** You may think that the New Sound of New Zealand is rather conspicuous by its absence in this advent series, and you would be right. Largely this is down to my self-imposed rule of only allowing complete albums released in 2014 to make the short list. Sadly this excluded many of the acts who had impressed me in 2013. Had I bowed to my internal pressures and allowed compilation albums however, then the wondrous ‘Temporary’ from the very brilliant Fishrider label would most assuredly have been riding high in my list. If you have not yet picked up your copy (including the ace accompanying ‘zine) then you truly have missed out and have a treat in store.
There has been much written about some perceived surge in vinyl as a preferred medium for listening in 2014. Ben Clancy did a neat job of debunking that particular myth, yet it did feel that there was something of a resurgence in the short-form album this year; a fact I consider may perhaps be as a result of groups writing and recording albums with a thought of vinyl from the outset. Perhaps too it was just one of those vagaries of fashion, yet in their ‘At Best Cuckold’ set Avi Buffalo certainly seemed to be another one of many who understood the appeal of the concise (in this case thirty six minutes) album with a symmetrical (five and five) split over two sides. Are such things important? Of course not. Which is exactly why they are important.
Now I thought that I discovered Avi Buffalo for the first time this year, courtesy of the former ‘Track And Field’ label mogul posting the truly mouth-wateringly delicious ‘Memories Of You’ on his Facebook page. It led me to picking up a vinyl copy of ‘At Best Cuckold’ in a record store in Totnes that very afternoon (it was the same day a man in a morning suit walked past me wearing a pumpkin over his head… which is Normal For Totnes, it has to be said). It was only later when I explored their past that I realised I that I was in fact already in possession of their eponymous 2010 album, downloaded in a frenzy of eMusic credit-splurging at the tail end of that year*. That it didn’t make much of an impression then probably says more about the pace of life than it does about the worth of the record, although listening back to it again this year there was certainly something lacking, particularly in the reflected brilliance of ‘At Best Cuckold’.
‘At Best Cuckold’ didn’t really lack anything. It had killer Pop instincts hooked up to a darkened, dirty mind. The afore-mentioned ‘Memories of You’ was Supertramp snogging The Sea Urchins whilst the gorgeous ‘Overwhelmed With Pride’ was Simon and Garfunkel smooching with The Shins (and yes, yes, Sub Pop label mates The Shins are certainly the group to whom Avi Buffalo seem closely related, at least vocally). ’Two Cherished Understandings’ was Neil Young necking with Wilco, and ‘Oxygen Mask’ started off like Terry Jacks singing about Anton Chigurh and ended with him dropping a tab of LSD and joining Charlie's Family on an extended psychedelic instrumental wig out (well, at the very least that were hints of Bobby Beausoleil’s ‘Lucifer Rising’ in there). Every last minute was marvellous.
*there are several difficulties with end of year lists and recommendations. For the compiler the primary challenge is the frankly unpleasant task of whittling one’s choices down to a manageable number (if you think choosing 24 albums from one year should be an easy task then clearly you do not buy/listen to enough music). For the consumer meanwhile there is the challenge of finding the time to listen to all those recommendations. All the things we missed and are desperate to catch up with… there just are not enough hours in the day, days in the month, months in the year etc etc. That said, the twenty four albums in this, the most Unpopular advent in the world, are clearly all worth you making that time available.