2014 has been a bit of an odd year for me in terms of music. The big stories of the year, Prince playing some intimate shows; Kate Bush playing some not so intimate shows; the Foo Fighters, making an album that sounded identical to everything they've ever done thus far, despite travelling all over the US in order to do so, none of those stories really interested me , and for the most part, the same could be said for album releases. Some of the year's biggest releases washed over me in a wave of hyperbole, leaving me scratching my head and wondering if the popularity of Royal Blood is an elaborate joke I somehow missed. That said however, it would be a pretty awful year if there wasn't a single album I thought warranted mention, and below is a list of ten I think made 2014.
1. Eagulls – Eagulls
There's something about the raw, untapped energy and aggression that courses throughout the Leeds-based five-piece's debut that makes it easily the album of the year. Unchecked and unapologetic, it's a record which instantly asserted Eagulls as a band who do not fuck about. From the industrial weight of 'Hollow Visions' (a track for which the video is an outright test of human endurance - we warned you), to the relative melody of 'Possessed' or 'Opaque', Eagulls is a record which will chew you up and spit you out the other side bruised and bloodied, yet ultimately cleansed. Post-punk catharsis at its most uncompromising.
2. Conversations- Woman's Hour
Only narrowly missing out on my top spot, Conversations is an understated synth-pop masterpiece. Contrary to the genre, there's a subtle melancholy that hangs over the album entirely; even the more upbeat tracks, such as 'The Day That Needs Defending', shimmer with an inherent darkness, making the accompanying narratives all the more beguiling. The balance between pop sensibility and raw, yet understated emotion makes for a perfectly delivered debut that far belies the band's relatively young years and has kept me coming back several times a week since its release, each time finding more to love about it.
3. Islands – Bear's Den
Islands was probably one of my most anticipated releases of 2014, and it didn't disappoint. Anyone who saw the video for 'Elysium' earlier in the year know 'The Den' as they're affectionately known to fans, aren't afraid of packing some serious emotional punch with their music, and the aforementioned is just one example. Islands offers up track after track of anthemic and somewhat paradoxically uplifting folk, whilst a much more fragile side is suggested with tracks such as 'Bad Blood' and 'Isaac'. They might have rounded the rustic edges which endeared many to them in the first place, but in doing so the band have built on their previous EPs instead of leaving them behind, and have polished their sound just enough to provide themselves with a commercial appeal that certainly won't hamper their reputation.
4. Clasp & Shake – Acre Tarn (EP)
For me, Clasp & Shake came out of nowhere; a preview track in my inbox that made me fall in love with probably one of the most interesting bands coming up in the UK at the moment. With a sonic tapestry comprised of field recordings and natural reverb paired against exquisite synths. A stunning thematic narrative thread conceptually links the record's four, otherwise individual, tracks. Though it might be perceived as pretentious, Acre Tarn strive to be more than just a band, and up to now, are succeeding. Linking together poetry, art and music in to one deftly woven strand, the pair's ethereal experimentalism isn't to be overlooked.
5. Hivemind – Plank
Potentially the middle offering from a conceptual trilogy, Hivemind is an entirely instrumental album, the experience of which is made all the better through vinyl. The first half, four tracks of motorik prog, very much carry their own identities, whilst the flip side works as one continuous, ever-evolving track, much like the insects which inspire it, working together to create something truly impressive. It might not be the most accessible record on this list, but for those who like their jams long and technically intricate, they could do far worse than checking out Manchester's Plank, and more specifically, their second LP.
6. My Fear And Me – BIRD
Having recently split up due to “unavoidable circumstances” Merseyside's BIRD never really reached their full potential. Dark, brooding post-folk with an unnerving gothic twist to the lyrics, 2015 would have seen the band undoubtedly follow in the footsteps of London Grammar, had they stuck around long enough. Though the band might be no more, they left us with one of the most intriguing debuts of the year, fusing together tribal and traditonal Celtic influences with a post-punk claustrophobia and themes surrounding the cyclical nature of death. Heavy stuff, but completely rewarding.
7. Waking Lines – Patterns
An album released all the way back in January, Waking Lines was always going to make this list from the first moment I heard it, though it has slipped in place as the year's gone on. Stunningly pretty, and full of chilly, shifting textures, Manchester's Patterns create wistful dreampop with elements of icy shoegaze. Whilst the vocals are often lost within the crisp synth and percussion, it serves only to add yet another textural layer to an already rich composition. Impressive stuff, despite the fact they seem to have disappeared of recent months ...
8. Iceberg Nerves – Lowlakes
Originally from Alice Springs, Lowlakes relocated prior to the recording of Iceberg Nerves and the expansive rurality of their new home is reflected wonderfully in the finished product. Arguably revolving around the record's eponymous centrepiece 'Iceberg Nerves', Lowlakes have created an album which is constantly evolving, shifting in tempo and morphing in to something which completely defies expectations. I actually gave this album one of my highest scores of the year when I reviewed it back in September, and the only reason it hasn't made it higher up the list is because it's a record which needs undivided attention, to listen to Lowlakes as background noise would not only lessen the experience of a listener, but also do huge disservice to the band.
9. Wild Fleet – Gymnast
Another duo from Manchester now, Gymnast, unlike Acre Tarn however, approach their sound from a more traditional background, forgoing field recordings and caves in favour of sleek, understated trip-hop that still manages to pack an emotional punch despite the laid back nature of the material it contains. With a track premièred each week in the lead up to the record's release, the whole album was online in its entirety before it dropped, allowing fans a chance to check out their debut before buying it. An atypical strategy this may have been, but it worked for the pair, whose popularity has grown steadily since, solidifying them as one of Manchester's acts to keep an eye on in future.
10. Ultima II Massage – Tobacco
Ultima II Massage is probably the most unusual record I've reviewed this year, but in it's blatant disregard for convention, it makes it one of the best too. Tobacco's insistence to “break it in all the right places” once the record was mixed has made easily one of the most off-kilter and sleaze-covered electronic records of the year. With a glossy production having been sand-blasted away, the fractured nature of the album is what makes it flow and paradoxically feel as cohesive as it does. Tracks such as 'Lipstick Destroyer' come across as true sugary electro-pop, whilst further songs offer up a far more sordid, distorted take on the genre, making for a truly warped, utterly mental and ultimately excellent third album from Pennsylvania weirdest producer.