Everywhere’s doing their end of year lists. This is important, because how else will we know what the best album of 2014 was?
I used to do this myself, but I stopped when I realised a few things:
1. Nobody was reading my lists.
2. My lists were essentially identical to everyone else’s, just with the albums in a slightly different order.
3. My lists took weeks to compile and write, but they didn’t make the slightest bit of difference to anyone – apart from that time my girlfriend said that I should have rated Oceansize higher.
Though I no longer compile lists of my own, I still find it useful when others do. I’m finding it increasingly exhausting to seek out new music. Brand new, that is. Whilst it’s always an absolute pleasure to delve into the past, when it comes to new music, I no longer have the energy to listen to as much as I can, in the vague hope of finding something that works for me.
The likes of Spotify have certainly made things cheaper, but by no means have they made things any easier. Being able to stream every album that’s ever released, instantly, at the touch of a button, only serves to highlight just how much new music is released every single week of every single year.
End of year lists make me aware of things that I would otherwise have missed. When they’re compiled by sites like The Quietus and Tiny Mix Tapes, they invariably contain the sort of strange noises that I wouldn’t have heard even if it were still possible to stay up til 5AM every single night, tirelessly trawling the blogs. They champion the unchampioned, and their end of year lists have pointed me towards some truly incredible sounds:
But it’s not just the obscure stuff. Merchandise’s After The End has featured prominently in several year end lists. I simply would not have given it a go otherwise. This afternoon I did, and it was wonderful. I mean, really wonderful, as in, “full of wonder”; as in, it’s a genuine wonder that it’s still possible to make fresh sounds from such basic instruments.
It’s for this reason I thought I’d compile a very short list of my own. These aren’t the best albums of 2014. Rather, they’re albums I’ve really enjoyed in 2014, but which I’ve not seen featured in many other year end lists. Maybe you’ve heard them, maybe you haven’t. In any case, perhaps you’ll discover something new.
Oh. If you have heard these albums, don’t scream at me for having the audacity to suggest that you haven’t. Instead, let’s be friends.
Engineers – Always Returning
Engineers have very quietly operated as one of the most consistently rewarding bands of the past decade. Their 2005 debut got a lot of well-deserved attention, but alas, they were more or less doomed to a quasi-obscure existence once NME labelled them as “nu-gaze”. Nothing shoots what could have been a beautiful career in the foot quite like a desperate NME attempt to kickstart a new scene.
Every album since then has been critically adored, yet widely ignored. This is a terrible shame, as their gorgeous blend of hushed vocals, rich guitar textures and analogue electronics would wash very well with the thousands who have made The Horrors the sort of band that’s able to headline the odd festival.
Always Returning is lush. If staying in and staring for hours at the glowing, undulating shapes within a lava lamp sounds like your idea of a good evening, then you’d do well to add Always Returning to your stack of “visionary dreamquest chill aural massage” albums.
Pye Corner Audio – Black Mill Tapes Volumes 3 and 4
Though technically both volumes of this had already been released digitally, this year they were compiled and given a physical release for the very first time. In any case, there’s no point in quibbling over something as trivial as a release date when discussing music that’s so unstuck from time and space.
Woozy, crackly, creaky, creepy. It’s like being haunted by John Carpenter. A host of images present themselves: Arcane sigils on flickering CRTs. Unmarked VHS cassettes received in the post. Oddly human shapes spotted in the shadowy corners of the deserted car park through which you’ve taken an ill-advised short cut home. Moss. An abandoned mill – The Black Mill – which hangs over the town perennially obscured by mist, but is acknowledged by no one.
You decide to watch the video tape, and for some reason you’re not surprised to find that it contains shaky night vision footage of you sleeping in your bed – for you vaguely remember having filmed it yourself.
Julian Cope – 131
Julian Cope released One Three One this year. His debut novel, the above video shows him discussing it at the Glastonbury Festival. I was in the audience for this appearance, and it happened to be one of the highlights of my weekend.
One Three One tells a very strange story. It’s a pan-dimensional road trip that takes in time travel, fascism, football hooliganism, prehistoric drug lords, and a villain called Barry; who’s more or less driven by his fanatical hatred of Half Man Half Biscuit.
One of the defining themes of the novel is that the late 80s/early 90s club scene is re-imagined as a hedonistic scene of boundless sonic explorations, all driven by a deep reverence for the work of Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream. Never one to do things by half, Julian Cope took it upon himself to record a double album’s worth of music for most every fictional band alluded to in his novel.
Tolkien may have invented a consistent language for Middle Earth, but not even he was crazy enough to record a 12 minute battle hymn for his protagonist using the name Dayglo Maradona. They’re all here: Nurse With Mound, Judge Barry Hertzog, Spion Kop, Vesuvio, Spackhouse Tottu and, of course, the legendary pub poet himself, Mick Goodby.
The Mick Goodby song is perhaps the best of the lot. It’s a lo-fi loop of the unmistakable Light My Fire intro, interspersed with the occasional grunt of “kick”. Once heard it’s never forgotten, and it’s a big hit in the book. This means that the old cliche, that this song could have been number one in an alternative universe, actually rings true here.
The bad news is that, if you want to hear this album, a bit of work is required. You have to visit each of these fictional bands’ Bandcamp pages in turn, downloading their songs as they go, and deciding for yourself what works best in terms of track order. Most of them are available as free downloads, but some allow you to name your price. Given the amount of work that’s gone into this bizarre bit of world building, perhaps a small donation is the least you can do.
The Tiger Lillies – Lulu: A Murder Ballad / A Dream Turns Sour
The Tiger Lillies released two albums this year. This alone is remarkable enough, but what’s even more astonishing is that each album is a worthy contender for being labelled a career best.
Of the two albums, Lulu came first, and I was lucky enough to see the accompanying show. I even got to meet them afterwards! Based on the same source material that birthed Lou Reed’s unfairly maligned Metallica collaboration, Lulu tells a very dark story of sexual exploitation that ends with a grisly murder, care of Jack The Ripper. Bizarrely, it can lay a claim for being one of the most accessible albums ever put together by this polarising band.
Released around six months later, A Dream Turns Sour is somehow even better. As Tiger Lillies albums go, this one’s distinctive in that it’s the first not to feature the filthy yet inspired lyrics of Martyn Jacques. Instead, the band interpret a number of poems from The First World War. Knowing how grim their music can be, such an experiment had the potential to result in the most depressing album ever made. But over the years, Martyn Jacques’s voice has matured from the castrato falsetto into a weathered growl, to the point that he now sings in exactly the kind of voice that probably wouldn’t sound at all out of place in the trenches.
This makes for a highly poignant and affecting series of readings, all of which happen to be set to some of the most infectious songs they’ve ever written. The end result is an album teeming with sadness yet seething with rage, a statement that surely stands as one of the most powerful responses to the centenary of the First World War’s outbreak.
Tuluum Shimmering – The Sky Tree
Being one of those drone artists that records on CDRs and tapes, for all I know The Sky Tree might be just one of hundreds of releases by Tuluum Shimmering in 2014. Consisting of two 60 minute compositions called Side A and Side B, this is airy music of fathomless depth. Immerse yourself in these misty crystal caverns and you just might find yourself floating a few feet above your body, man.
Each track slowly evolves from hushed, barely-there beginnings into twinkling rhythmic epics, containing the sort of melodies that might greet newly transcended souls as they drift across the astral planes. The Sky Tree takes a while to grow, but once it achieves its full majesty, blissful times can be had exploring its multiple branches of rich foliage.
The Soundcarriers – Endtropicalia
Tropicalia drenched in reverb and played through the dusty reels of The Radiophonic Workshop. If you need to invoke the sun now that we’re wallowing in the frozen gloom of deepest winter, let Endtropicalia provide your instant escape to warmer states of mind. Dreamy yet vibrant, here we have further evidence that the words “Ghost Box” on an album cover are as close as it’s possible to get to a concrete guarantee of quality.
But it wouldn’t be a Ghost Box album if it didn’t take a turn to the strange. Whilst Endtropicalia doesn’t have the disquieting arcane allusions that can be found on albums by Belbury Poly and The Advisory Circle, it does feature This is Normal; a 12 minute brain poke featuring a maths lesson from, of all people, Elijah Wood. There’s always been something strange about that boy.