Year 2013 saw David Bowie and Daft Punk creating a buzz with their new albums, making the world sit up and listen. In 2014, things all seem a bit more low key – well, maybe apart from Pink Floyd’s The Endless River. It’s been more a case of having to go and seek out for yourself what’s around. There’s a real feeling of satisfaction in this, in discovering a new artist or body of work which hasn’t been endlessly pushed in your face by the media – lovely though David Bowie’s 2013 release was, it was hard to escape.
Since we moved over to downloads, it feels as if new releases have been swirling around untethered and without narrative, so it’s a pleasure to observe vinyl reclaiming its rightful place again (sales reached 1m in 2014). The pleasures of vinyl are multi-sensory. Tactile, visual, olfactory… I’ve always loved the smell of new plastic dust covers, and it’s a reminder of my teenage days and the pride I took in my record collection (they were eventually nearly all stolen at uni, but that’s another story). Ditto the satisfying thunk of albums dropping on top of each other as you riffle through them at your local record store – if you’re lucky enough to have one still in existence on your high street. My last purchase, last week, was a 2011 Tom Waits album and the pleasure of slipping the album out of its cover with – hey what’s this? a booklet! provides the same heart-leaping moment as finding the free toy in your cereal box. Let’s not get too carried away though. This is still a niche market, and it’s an expensive hobby to maintain. Although £20 for an album sounds about right, taking into account production costs, most people I’ve polled (30 and 50 year olds) reserve new vinyl purchases as something special.
In no particular order, these are five releases of 2014 I’ve been enjoying.
Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems
This is not new territory for Leonard Cohen, but these songs are beautifully rendered, suffused with a pervasive sadness, his poetic sensibility and breadth of subject matter as strong as ever. Cohen’s is a world weary, occasionally wry, look at the world from the position of a man looking back over life, unable to rewrite the past but mentally trying out different situations, as if to reconcile the past. Death, age, war, religion, the transience of life – these familiar themes are picked over with Cohen’s inimitable style. His humour remains intact: the album’s opener is Slow, referring to lovemaking and perhaps age, and the final number You Got me Singing offers an optimistic view of life despite the ever-increasing problems of the world – ‘You got me singing that Halleluja hymn’. The arrangements are spare, simple and effective.
War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
The first time I heard this release, it went straight onto repeat.. and repeat, stopping at some point for fear of overplay. Lost in the Dream has found itself on many a Top Album list, and no wonder. It’s a beautiful, lyrical body of work that lifts you up, takes you on a journey and drops you down gently at the end. The songs were written after a breakup and the anguish pervades every song. Adam Granduciel’s voice possesses an almost Dylanesque quality, notably on Under the Pressure, with his dreamy intonation. An Ocean In Between the Waves has a Fleetwood Mac quality with its steady, insistent beat which anchor waves of fluid instrumentation.
The Bedroom Hour – Hinterland
This debut album by the west London band The Bedroom Hour is a well-balanced collection of songs which I come back to time after time, Sea without Water is a dreamy, wistful ballad with a strong hook and pleasingly retro sounding rippling guitar from Rob Payne. It’s the perfect vehicle for Stuart Drummond’s emotion-drenched vocals. The following number, Nocturnal is another powerful song which builds beautifully, telling of love lost,‘sleep through the day, just to get away from the thought of you with someone…’
Heart will Haunt paces itself with a slow build, a master of restraint that takes two steps forward and one step back. Its percussive start leads into Stuart’s vocals with the guitars weaving in, Andy Copper’s bassline holding it together. There’s a lift with the euphoric, dancey I See Suns. What gives The Bedroom Hour the edge are strong songwriting skills and the emotion-laden vocals of Stuart Drummond which have a power and strength of conviction.
Firestations – Never Closer
This sneaks in near the end of my Top Five as I only discovered this band in November, and the debut album, described by the band as ‘dream pop’ was released in December. The album opener, French Caves, has already made it onto Radio 6 Music. This group of accomplished young musicians (who got together from other bands) have developed a multi-layered sound, with some strong material, expertly mixed. There’s something quite deceptive and playful about Firestations – their songs are initially catchy pop, on repeat their dense layers bring new elements to the surface, dragging up from the deep a complexity of rhythm. Alma’s final section reminds me of a Beatles’ track, maybe Blue Jay Way.
Chinese Man – The Groove Sessions Vol 3
It starts with a quote from Charlton Heston’s Planet of the Apes leading into Mariachi-inspired trip-hop, yes, it’s French collective Chinese Man with another globally inspired release. This time there are African, Indian and Latin samples. My fondness for Chinese Man The Groove Sessions Vol 1 meant this release, more rap focused, took longer to make its mark. Chinese Man are back in the UK for a two gigs in May, Brighton and The Forum, London.
What are your favourites for 2014?
Happy New Year everybody and here’s to a music-filled 2015!