How to neatly bracket a year into one condensed list? It seems destined for failure, inaccuracy and insignificance. Downright trite - if not useless to say - but listening habits aren’t so conveniently partitioned. I found myself listening to the tail end releases of last year well into the first half of this one, as I’m sure will be the case once 2015 swings by. That’s not even the most significant pitfall of attempting to definitively realise the ‘best’ of everything you heard over the course of a year; to force it all into one resolute rundown. Despite what the most trusted and hailed critic might say, these are subjective attachments. Formulizing them into a list inevitably conveys a sense of objective authority, whether that’s the desired intent or not.
Saying that, there’s probably just as much tedious commentary deriding the chaotic scramble to compile the years best, as there are lists themselves. Either way, I’m going to look stupid, as are many others. With that in mind, I’ve decided to undertake a belligerent attitude to the custom. No each to their own and no ‘oh well, not my cup of tea’; pure unflinching ire, opinion as stubborn bastardry. Firstly let’s lay the boot in, if only to quell the tedium for a little while. It’s only right.
The Mojo/Uncut axis and their selections were about as far from the determined editorial I-don’t-give-a-shit-this-is-brilliant line of critiquing as you can get. Or at least it felt that way. Both of them gave significant due to The War On Drugs which feels tantamount to giving a standing ovation to a bench. Just for being a bench. A bench which is beige. A bench which is beige which emits a beige wall of sound…beigely. Inconceivably enough, that bench has heard a few Bruce Springsteen records. I suppose I don’t even need to look who made Q Magazine’s top spot. Wait I just did. Fuck me sideways, sedatives are redundant…
Whilst I’m shitkicking around the duller regions, Caribou featured heavily in all of these, as I’m sure they will in other publications before the years out. As far as manchild crywank sob-house goes it was an opus. Littered with a few pitch bends, it clutched at and begged anyone for acknowledgement, the warped wails of a child too infuriatingly annoying to pay any mind to. Unfortunately it was cradled by some, so ‘I Can’t Do Bibbout Boo’ was, for a time, repeated every three seconds on every radio station in the UK; the mantra of the fatally mawkish.
Two easy targets you might say but tired happenings existed elsewhere, even when more enlivening - albeit apparently contentious - music was being made. From a different spectrum entirely; PC Music, the absurd, perplexing, hyper-commercial label brought chemically enhanced simpering and superficial confection to a whole new level of unrestrained frivolity. The music seemed to make irritation an art form. There were plenty of those classing it as some knowingly naff conceptually faux slant on pop, an elaborate and artful fiction which flew in the face of stiff detractors who just didn’t get the fun. I didn’t have much of a problem with the music, more the comment that surrounded it. Critics desperately trying to convince you that they’d been archly dancing around to ‘Barbie Girl’ and Happy Hardcore for years because they’re so admirable in not taking themselves too seriously. On the other side of the fence it was all brutish puritanism, ‘this isn’t music’ etc etc. More than a whiff of idiotic partisanship. Whilst on first listening it did have the power to shock and divide, there seemed to be a critical assumption that you couldn’t enjoy well produced, forward thinking pop music without it being wrapped up in corporate savvy satire and insincere postmodern posturing. If feeling uneasy with that approach makes me a stickler and a bore, so be it, but as perversely sugary and atypically playful as it is, it seems only a matter of time before nausea ensues, like the aftereffects of an imprudent pick’n’mix binge. Still, if it carries on I’m not going to spit blood over it.
For all of PC Music’s controversial artificiality, there were worst offences. At least it ruffled a few feathers. What’s galling about the pattern of some of the other lauded albums in 2014 was a clinging to some contrived, illusory sense of authenticity within turgidly middle ground music. Real Estate, for one, are guilty of some of the worst lethargy; wallflower navel-gazing jangle so inconspicuous that even you if turned it up to an unbearable level, it still wouldn’t hit with any colour. For God Sake man, the worlds a mess, you’d think you’d greet such circumstances with more than an apathetic murmur.
But then, when people did, as in the case of Kasabian, perhaps impotency is more favourable. I couldn’t move for people telling me – once I’d castigated the band – that I’d got them all wrong, that they possessed something special that I was overlooking in my unbridled cynicism and disdain. Whatever it is people hear in them, it still eludes me. But then, these are confusing times, after all, ‘everyone’s on bugle, we’re being watched by Google’. Maybe I’m on bugle right now, maybe Google have infiltrated me and I’m working for them, conspiring in the objective of turning people against anyone who opposes their might – namely Kasabian. Or maybe Kasabian make moronic fodder destined to soundtrack every single Sky Sports ident for the rest of eternity. Conspiracy or not, it’s a desperate situation.
Now this might cast me in misanthropic light, and the majority of content reflecting on the past year often remains nobly distant from engaging in these kind of balking slanders but in being a bit of a hissy shit, the hope is that there’s more of an aspirational expectation, to demand more, even from the more conventional, commercial spheres. Sometimes you also need to step outside of the vacuum of all the things you appreciate and indiscriminately hurl shit at anyone and everyone who warrants a kick up the arse for being so limp, so lacklustre, so asinine, as in these cases.
Not that this year represented some awful culmination of low-points. Just as there was music which disgusted me, there was equal cause for positivity and plaudits. Despite all of the previous pugnacity, there were records I actually enjoyed in 2014. Ones which accompanied me constantly, through all the imaginable regularities of certain places, events, times, routines and moods. Music which gradually revealed lustre, hidden depths and established an irrevocable, intimate connection likely to last for a long time. Others have been recent discoveries which have nonetheless made a similarly strong impact. As previously identified, these kinds of affairs are prone to inaccuracy so this is more of a snapshot of appreciation, taken as things currently lie at the time of writing.
(A disclaimer; the sanctity of an LP versus the brevity of an EP isn’t considered significant here)
HTRK – Psychic 9 -5 Club
There wasn’t any other record this year that felt as immersive as this one. It conjured up an architecture of its own, vast and low-lit. The vocals approached confessional candour, upfront and fragile as they were, but they were still open ended enough not to be overly rooted in contentions too concrete. Buttressed by the staunch forge of dub and lightened by vaporous ambient melancholia, it had all the amplitude of club music, but with the profundity of post-club fallout driving the mood. Full of ‘sunken thunder’ and ‘opiated love’, it was their best yet. Read the full review here.
Grouper – Ruins
Having been hooked on Liz Harris’ Grouper project since hearing AIA: Alien Observer, there were doubts in my mind as to whether she could still channel the heartrending hush and transcendent quietude of her previous work. How much soul-baring sadness and loneliness could a person conjure? Although Ruins is rumoured to be her last record under the Grouper alias, it proved she still had the ability to stir up whisper-thin but powerfully affecting vigils. The fact that this time, it was done in one take with little else but voice, piano and whatever background noise arose at the time of recording (rain, a single microwave bleep, tape clicks, atmospheric buzz) only makes the record even more of an achievement.
Sandra Electronics – Want Need EP/Sessions LP
The DIY recordings of Karl O’Connor pre-Regis were comprehensively compiled and released by Minimal Wave this year, and although the actual number of tracks is relatively scant, there’s compensation in the level of insight they give, revealing the rudiments of O’Connor’s early explorations. Many of them were also revisited by O’Connor and Juan Mendez at various junctures so the re-versioning has made for an interesting and diverse set of interpretations, rather than a superfluous assortment of cast-offs. The more addictive moments lay in twisted echoes and stuttering, regimental drum machine cha-cha; the early sound of a prodigious talent indulging in a few Suicide-esque gestures. O’Connor’s vocals aren’t exactly virtuosic but for what they lack in harmony, they more than make up for in gobby insolence. Surprisingly enough the material – perhaps the ‘Protection Now’ Demo most notably, which I immoderately caned since its release – makes for something just as intensely danceable as O’Connor’s later work. Although markedly different in sound than his techno ventures they possess the same thread of unforgiving yet darkly enjoyable subversion.
Dean Blunt – Black Metal
For all the contrariness attributed to the Dean Blunt persona, there’s been an increasing sense of direct expression within his perceived elusiveness. Black Metal was apparently defined as a critique of cultural appropriation, aimed at black artists diminishing their own voices by imitating white forms and styles. The riposte came in the form of something which seemed to reshape exactly the brand of quaint, jangling indie pop his current label (Rough Trade) were releasing in the 80s (namely, The Pastels - who are sampled on ‘100’ - along with others of the same ilk) Crucially Blunt doesn’t kowtow to such sources, undercutting them and reinterpreting them by putting an unadorned voice and bullshit-less lyricism over the top. But unlike PC Music there are chinks in the armour, so to speak. Moments when the layered protection of an assumed mode is seemingly cast off in favour of genuine reflection. Conversely, at other moments he seems to disable the heartfelt pedestal; a bit of ambiguous laughter in the dark, a natural, real quality of inconsistence despite its inherent distancing effect.
Ultimately so many lay claim to an idea of indefinable identity, their music an essence which can’t be compartmentalized, but few can really toy with and debunk artistic intent and generic distinctions to the extent that Blunt does and do so effectively. Despite that tendency Black Metal was as plainly beautiful at times as it was brutal, crude and erratic.
Klara Lewis – ett
Ignorance in terms of background was probably a blessing in the case of Klara Lewis. Had I found out she was the daughter of Graham Lewis (Wire) before hearing e t t – her debut LP for the esteemed experimental label, Editions Mego – I would have probably framed any judgement within delimiting preconceptions. Luckily I could appreciate it on its own merits. Still, such is the quality of the record, I’m certain any peripheral concerns like that wouldn’t have mattered at that initial stage of engagement. It captivates from the off, with sprawling arrangements which have that quality of combining disarray and order. After introducing the emanations of a frantic supply of field recordings, which encircle each other and build to varying levels of intensity, there’s often a pivotal moment when the many layers of sounds (and by my reckoning it sounds like a hell of a lot) interlock and a character is revealed, like the gradual accumulation of a figure and their features after someone steps out of a mist
The execution is measured and subtle and although some of the fascinating sounds which feature are processed to the nth degree, they retain an element of organic lucidity. To isolate a few minute parts; there’s buried bullet ricochets, prayer calls, attenuated conservatoire piano, birdsong and a whole legion of other imaginative incorporations. A testament to the extraordinary places you can go with the use of everyday sounds and imaginative sampling.
Broken English Club – Jealous God 4
The new project of Oliver Ho (Raudive, Eyes In The Heat) packed undeniably effective whip-crack contortions into just over twenty minutes on this outing for Jealous God, the imprint of Juan Medez, Karl O’Connor and James Ruskin. Its profile felt bent out of shape, retaining a stoic abrasiveness at the same time it forced movement. In the first few minutes nothing fits, tuneless twangs eek out into dead space, then vocals engineered like indistinct megaphone reverberations work alongside heavy dub lumbering. Not extraordinary listening by any stretch of the imagination but its nonetheless ominously rousing, and for what it preludes and coheres with, it makes for a necessary introduction. Similarly natured kink and warp follows, but both ‘Birth Control’ and ‘Casual Sex’ gather a new lease of tightly wound bluster. The sheer bloody-minded, strict thrust of both tracks made them unequalled standouts this year. The sound was one where the transgressive grit of industrial and post-punk was rubbed into the frequently sheeny make-up of techno, transforming an often too-structured affair into a dissolute one*. The vocals were just as confrontational, splicing together mundane pragmatic queries with seriously provocative, unflinchingly direct interrogations on ‘Casual Sex’.
Overall it was an exception to the staid pump of most of the techno I heard and subsequently disregarded this year. It’s for that reason I found myself constantly confronting and appreciating its irresistible instability.
(*Suitably enough, I was undone by the BEC live performance at Fabric – or perhaps the sum of the night itself - waking up at a bus stop at 6 in the morning, gripping fast food remnants with an inexplicable stain of mud stretching down my shirt)
Excepter – Familiar
The collective led by John Fell Ryan released their first full length in four years in the aftermath of a tragic loss this year. Clare Amory, one of the fundamental cornerstones of the bands distinctively freewheeling, entrancing excursions, passed away in 2011. Nathan Corbin, her partner and collaborator, left the band, which seemed to spell the end of the project (Corbin actually ended up producing another exceptional record this year in the form of 'Psychic 9-5 Club'). But against the odds of what must have been a painful period to endure, the collective – now comprised of leading founder, John Fell Ryan, his partner, Lala Harrison, Jon Nicolson, and Erica Kenia – moved into what might be classed a more accessible direction, at least compared with previous work.
Spacey, shimmering synths were brought to the fore, but they harshly blazed and treaded into intoxicating overspill (‘Destroyer’) as much as they bewitchingly sparkled (‘Holy Girl’) The former was Corbin’s single contribution to the record. Penned with Amory – their final collaboration – it was aimed as a cathartic, sonic annihilation of her cancer. Listening to it you can’t help but feel that at least some part of the sentiment of their intent was fulfilled, as deafening alarms, anxiety-attack synth lines and punishing drubs careen around each other. Elsewhere there were indications of hope (‘Palace to Palace’) within the dark clamour, and the finale delivered something sacred in the form of a hypnotic, ritualistic cover of Son House, and a warmly sparse, touching interpretation of Tim Buckey’s ‘Song To The Siren’ (which by my reckoning measured up to This Mortal Coil’s rendition) The record was dedicated to Amory, and I can’t think of anything more fitting; a record which retained all the unhinged vigour of the music they made with her, whilst determinedly and intrepidly progressing with newfound qualities; another long-held principle of the project. Even the most devastating of circumstances failed to derail the collective’s abidingly strange and brilliant character.
Acteurs – I W I
There wasn’t any other track which represented as much of a black-hole plunge into plate-shifting quakes as ‘Pride of Classes’, the opening salvo on Acteurs second EP for the Public Information label. Enigmatic and portentous vocals about bullfighters delivered in a delirious and horny sonority only made the hairs stand on end more. The bar remained high with ‘River Card’, essentially two minutes of those words repeated and a rough drone stomp like a series of low-end uppercuts, whilst ‘Ewe’, delivered bitter single syllable enunciations, the kind you can imagine being voiced with the coldest, deadest, most low-browed, Kubrickian of stares. Between these more immediately captivating highlights, the duo – made up of Jeremy Lamos and Brian Case, the former of White/Light and the latter of Disappears – traded in rigorous monochrome which preferred to teeter on the edge of full-blown delivery, remaining fixed in a highly-strung ferment of broken electronics. On I W I, as with their debut, these were aided powerfully by bouts of venomous hiss and gravel-textured noise which scraped and etched their way into the fissures of dense, hypnotic synth that arose.
Despite it’s slow-burn ruthlessness it held plenty of enveloping drama and atmosphere. Some of the most scolding and transfixing sounds I heard all year.
And that’s that, my own insignificant two cents.
As a final sidenote, anyone who feels outraged with my first few denouncements, just remember, this is an opinion, however immature and dismissive it might be.
Here’s to less of the dross and more of the extreme next year.