Best Albums of 2014 (Part 1)

* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

And so to the main course: the countdown of my forty best albums of the year; part 2 will follow tomorrow.

40 | Bora Yoon – Sunken Cathedral

Korean-American composer & singer Bora Yoon’s latest album is a fascinating intermingling of traditional and experimental elements that Yoon describes as “a sonic journey through the chambers of [the] subconscious”. Her songs are personal yet aspire to and evoke heights of mystical ecstasy; my review summed up Sunken Cathedral as “heady, even intoxicating stuff, with absolutely no sense of novelty to any of it … a tour de force of the most imaginative kind of avant-garde lyricism” [Innova]

39 | Anna Þorvaldsdóttir – Aerial

Þorvaldsdóttir’s approach to composition is heavily informed by an interest in textures, heard to excellent effect on the six works on this album. A recurring feature—and a beguiling one—is her predilection for rendering sounds vague, bereft of an obvious point of origin—no mean feat in instrumental music. Yet for all its unfamiliarities, her music is in the best possible sense accessible, employing structures and juxtapositions of material that are often disarmingly simple, making their point with utmost clarity. [Amazon]

38 | Weeping Willows – The Time Has Come

Anyone with a fondness for the easy listening of the 50s and 60s will find much to love about Weeping Willows’ latest album. The Swedish group’s adoration of its tropes makes the inevitable elements of pastiche forgiveable, but transcending the air of homage is singer Magnus Carlson’s voice, which here comes close to lyrical and vocal perfection. The arrangements are sumptuous and sensitive, but they wholeheartedly serve Carlson’s singing, conveying alternate waves of elation and sorrow. [Amazon]

37 | Gwenno – Y Dydd Olaf

Time away from the flogged-dead-horse The Pipettes clearly does Gwenno Saunders a world of good. Hinted at in a collection of singles that began emerging last year, Y Dydd Olaf boldly enters a soundworld informed by crowd-friendly pop yet drenched in an unmistakable ambiance that harks to a more monochromatic past (without resorting to ghastly ersatz retroisms). These twin forces, inviting and distancing respectively, establish an equilibrium of sorts but Gwenno’s vocals—sung in her native Welsh—gently undermine this, making her songs sound at once familiar yet wonderfully strange. [Peski]

36 | Jenny Hval & Susanna – Meshes of Voice

Not quite the explosion of vocal ingenuity one might have expected, yet Meshes of Voice nonetheless charts a pretty fearless path through new realms of song-writing. What constitutes the foreground in these songs is an aspect ever in flux, with vocal lines often submerged in multiple layers of material, the half-glimpsed words only one—and by no means the most important—part of their communicative language. Elsewhere, folk tendencies arise strongly, rooting the music in an authenticity of utterance that prevents it from losing itself in mere expressionism. [Norman Records]

35 | Deerhoof – La Isla Bonita

One of the beauties of Deerhoof’s music is that it manages to have its tongue permanently in its cheek while maintaining a capacity to invent and challenge conventions. Perhaps that’s just another way of simply saying that Deerhoof find music-making endless, immense fun – something that radiates throughout La Isla Bonita, from the playful cowbell repetitiveness of ‘Paradise Girls’, the stop-start metric shuffling of ‘Tiny Bubbles’ (a song seemingly going at three speeds at once) and the leftfield construction of seemingly straight-faced album closer ‘Oh Bummer’. As ever, wonderful stuff. [Boomkat]

34 | Black Swan – Tone Poetry

Black Swan’s unique take on hauntology has featured in many of my Best of the Year lists, and their latest offering is no exception. Tone Poetry is less caked in detritus, with the result that its surface is not merely strikingly visible, but often brilliantly bright. This surface becomes the focal point for a series of searing lyrical episodes, some (‘Prophecy’) packed with muscular strength, others (‘Rapture’) barely emerging from the dazzling light noise that fills them. Hauntological artefacts remain, though, occasionally coming forward to cast a sepia wistfulness on everything. [Bandcamp]

33 | Paul Dolden – Who Has the Biggest Sound?

Dolden’s particular compositional angle has much to do with layers—lots of them, stacked on top of each other way beyond the point when the structure should come toppling down. But this outrageously reckless approach is one of the key things that makes his music so strong and so appealing, coupled with a mischievous sense of fun, which has arguably never been more obvious than here. As i noted in my review: “the combination of voices and orchestra is used to initiate some almighty pile-ups, along the way peppered with weird carillon/jazz mash-ups with more superimposed saxes than you could shake a stick at, florid episodes running at Nancarrow-like breakneck speed, rock-out reveries a la Buckethead, Zappa-esque synth ensemble passages and a surreal take on country music”. How could anyone resist that? [Starkland | iTunes]

32 | Gazelle Twin – Unflesh

While Unflesh didn’t (because it couldn’t) live up to the hype and expectations that preceded it, what Elizabeth Bernholz has created here came as a genuine surprise. Gone are the roaming, elevated forms of melodic lyricism that characterised The Entire City and last year’s Mammal EP, replaced by an aloof, clinical sense of detachment. Beats and patterns predominate, the lyrical content obsessed with what it means to be human—with the combined result sounding like an alien’s perspective on the subject. Fascinating and unsettling in equal measure. [Amazon | Bandcamp]

31 | Poemss – Poemss

Trying to second-guess what Aaron Funk is going to do next is a mug’s game. All the same, few could have even imagined Poemss, a collaboration with fellow Canadian Joanne Pollock, eschewing Funk’s trademark breathless break beats in favour of laid back tempi, dreamy atmospherics and delicate melodies, executed with the kind of self-effacing, authentically unpolished vocal delivery one rarely hears from established artists. The electronica is as intricate and imaginative as ever, though, accompanying and encasing their voices in a veritable celebration of the joys of analogue synths. [Planet Mu]

30 | Kristin Øhrn Dyrud – Coherence (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

The first of several soundtracks in this list, Coherence is a film that seems to have passed most people by. One of the more intelligent, thoughtful sci-fi films to have come out in the last few years, Dyrud’s score bravely opts for allusion and ambiguity, creating music from a small collection of sound objects that play out, nervously, in darkness (precisely mirroring the film’s characters), creating a shifting environment where absolutely nothing is certain. [Juno Download]

29 | Markus Reuter – Todmorden 513

Well, why wouldn’t an experimental, orchestral work be named after a small Yorkshire town? The latter part of the title references the number of triadic harmonies passed through in Markus Reuter’s fascinating, algorithmically-determined soundscape. Considering the indeterminate aspects of the work, it would be easy to try and draw parallels with, for example, Feldman, but that would oversimplify Todmorden 513, a piece that provides reassurance—motifs recur; chords resemble each another; movement is slow and steady—while at the same time confounding at every step. Beautiful and baffling, it’s an enthralling experience, one that yields more (or, put another way, seems to sound entirely different) on each new listening. [Iapetus]

28 | Howard Shore – Maps to the Stars (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Forget all that tired mucking around with Hobbits and rings, it’s in soundtracks for movies like this that Howard Shore proves his worth. David Cronenberg’s contemporary Greek tragedy is here matched with an imaginatively oblique score melding Indian drum patterns and bright accumulations of post-rock/ambient music. For the most part, Shore avoids the film’s histrionics and melodrama, providing a neutral, impersonal backdrop; and on the occasions when he taps into them (as in ‘Asylum Corridor’), things become very dark indeed. [Amazon]

27 | Aphex Twin – Syro

On the one hand, Richard D. James’ new album doesn’t revisit the radical diversity of his last, Drukqs. Yet on the other hand, it marks a dazzlingly mature return to his roots and raison d’être : beats. Syro has throwbacks aplenty—particularly to various acid house tropes—but its style is made demonstrably new through being placed into unusual structural frameworks and to less-than-obvious directional ends. Put simply, this is Aphex Twin putting familiar landmarks into an entirely new landscape, in the process proving that the combination of tunes, basslines and beats can never be exhausted. [Bleep]

26 | Sea Oleena – Shallow

Her previous work showed promise, but with Shallow, Charlotte Loseth’s Sea Oleena project has propelled her to the forefront of contemporary dream pop. Practically channelling the spirit of Cocteau Twins, these seven songs are incredibly buoyant, yet they don’t waft aimlessly and their tone isn’t uniformly one of bliss. The emotion on display here is tear-stained, both melancholic and joyful, capturing something utterly real from life’s confluence of exquisite pleasure and pain. [Amazon]

25 | Motion Sickness of Time Travel – Alpha Piscium

US musician Rachel Evans doesn’t keep much music to herself, judging by, among other things, the massive outpouring of a dozen hour-long Ballades she’s released during 2014. But she rarely attains the kind of focus found in this relatively short (42 minute) album, where her synthesised noodlings coalesce into something at once concrete and consciously evolving. ‘pleochroism’ sounds like a reimagining of Vangelis for the 21st century, while ‘no warning’ launches panning buzzing drones directly onto our eardrums. The closing title track is just delicious, an ecstatic shimmering overlaid with soft drifting vocals. [Bandcamp]

24 | Duologue – Never Get Lost

Building on the promise of their Memex EP (see yesterday’s Best of the Year list), Duologue have here boldly taken their songs into very new territory. Scratchy rhythms and beats persist like an itch that won’t go away, mitigated for the most part by a gentle (even genteel) overall manner, fronted by Tim Digby-Bell’s vocal light touch. But given the right context, his voice reaches an immense emotional apex, nowhere more so than in ‘Parts of Blame’, a song that blazes so bright at its epicentre that all detail is for a while lost. [The Gene Pool]

23 | Richard Causton – Millennium Scenes

NMC’s focus on mainstream contemporary classical music occasionally throws up something incendiary, of which this disc of Richard Causton’s music is the most exhilarating to date. Causton’s mild-mannered musical attitude belies the savagery to which his compositional language regularly resorts. In this respect, the title work is unforgettable—in my review i noted how the “brute force unleashed in [its] twin movements are as breathtaking as they are intimidating”—yet the disc also demonstrates Causton’s innate gift for capturing the uncanny and otherworldly. [NMC]

22 | The Noisettes – Elegant Electronic Entrées

A curious project this, comprising a huge amount of digital albums—released under an assortment of noms de plume—all of which are inspired by various aspects of mid-20th century electronics. Quite who is behind it all is something of a mystery, but what is clear is that there’s some impressive imagination at work (not always by any means, but then a vast output invariably produces mixed results). What makes this album so splendid is the subtle. finely-judged way the grainy, evocative soundworlds evolve and build so gradually and organically, drawing on an exhilarating palette of timbres redolent of the Radiophonic Workshop. [Bandcamp]

21 | Mica Levi – Under the Skin (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

If few people saw this amazing film coming, fewer still anticipated its remarkable score. Mica Levi’s music doesn’t merely accompany the film, it penetrates and permeates it, embodying the blank vitality of its alien antagonist. Neither sound nor structure are forced but instead play out in their own time frame, switching between the aural equivalents of vacant stares and creeping insect-like tremors and twitches. Music that embraces a very new notion of beauty. [Amazon]

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