Musical Moments Worth Remembering From 2014

In a deliberately contrary move, Radstock Music have elected to present their end-of-year musical highlights a little differently.  The Best of 2014 list you are about to read is a touch more democratic than the usual ‘Top 10′ lists you’ll find around the web at this time of year.

As far as I’m concerned, 2014 has been a great year for music.  Below is a list of musical moments that I consider are worth remembering from the past year.  Thanks in advance for reading.

Sleaford Mods Capture The Essence Of 2014

If there’s one band I will remember from 2014, it is Sleaford Mods.   They’re a fresh and important voice and it’s exciting to see them achieve recognition.  They’re also a rare example of an established band ‘breaking’ into the mainstream after years honing their craft.  It’s satisfying to see a band who have been around since 2007 finally rewarded for their persistence.  ‘Divide and Exit‘ is Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn’s latest release and is a furious and essential mix of spoken word, punk and shout-rap.  Social commentary rarely gets this close to the bone.  Their show in Berlin this year was without a doubt one of the most memorable performances I’ve seen this year.

Tied Up In Nottz‘ is the lead single from that album.

Alvvays Breathe Life Into Indie-Rock

There’s always room for another great indie rock album and Canadian band Alvvays certainly satisfy with this, their self-titled debut.  Originally not meant for general release, ‘Alvvays‘ captures the band’s exciting and dense sound.  Singer Molly Rankin has all the qualities of a classic indie rock singer and guitarist Alec O’Hanley brings the noise.  It’ll be interesting to hear what the band do next.

Archie, Marry Me‘ is a wonderful song.

Spoon Offer 2014s Best Rock Album

August seemed a satisfactory time for 2014’s best rock album to emerge.  Yes, ‘They Want My Soul‘ by Texan rock band Spoon is without a doubt the coolest and most inventive slab of rock that surfaced this year.  It is both appropriate and quite extraordinary that a band of their vintage (they formed 21 years ago) are still able to come up with the goods.  They’re a dream studio band – one that has dragged the ethos of lo-fi studio recording into the plush surroundings of an expensive recording studio.  ‘They Want My Soul’ is packed with the band’s brand of idiosyncratic production methods and unexpected twists.  To put it another way, Spoon are everything a modern rock band should be.

Like the hugely successful ‘Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga‘, the band’s 2007 album, the boundaries of studio inventiveness have yet again been pushed by these 5 accomplished musicians.  In Britt Daniel, the band have a unique singer whose raspy delivery commands each of these 10 songs.  Dave Fridmann, who let’s not forget produced Weezer‘s impeccable classic ‘Pinkerton‘ was on hand to lend an extra ear to proceedings too.  Spoon’s classic approach to songwriting has always been one of the band’s main selling points for me.  The band are behind a whole host of perfectly written songs including ‘I Summon You‘ and ‘The Underdog‘.  ‘They Want My Soul’ returns to this style of songwriting after the experimental (and underrated) ‘Transference‘.  Do yourself a favour and give it a listen!

Do You‘, with its accompanying fun video, can be added to that list.

Annie Clark Is 2014’s Best Guitar Player

St Vincent is the stage name of Annie Clark, an intriguing New York-based musician who has gained worldwide recognition from her work with David Byrne of Talking Heads.  She obviously learnt a lot under Byrne’s tutorship and her first post-Byrne album (entitled ‘St Vincent‘ stands noticeably head and shoulders above her previous work.  It’s an engaging listen featuring a mixture of computer beats and angular guitars.

Clark’s also a fantastic guitar player, as you’ll be tell from the video above!

Weezer Release A Half-Decent Album…

…and that’s worth remembering!

Weezer are a band that aren’t exactly fashionable to like anymore.  Most people fondly remember ‘The Blue Album‘ and ‘Pinkerton‘ but cannot recall anything the band have done past 2001’s ‘Hash Pipe’ from ‘The Green Album‘.  Casual fans were shed a long time ago and most people express surprise upon hearing that another Weezer album is being released.

2014 saw the release of ‘Everything Will Be Alright In The End‘, an attempt to lure back the old fanbase.  Its release was accompanied with proclamations that the band had returned to the sound of the ‘old days’ and had somehow managed to re-tap into the well of creativity that produced some of the best pop-rock songs of the 90s and (to a lesser extent) the 00s.

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Weezer: Rivers Cuomo is second-left. Photo via Rolling Stone

The excited murmurings of the internet over news that new material from Weezer sounded like old Weezer was somewhat false advertising on the part of the band and their record label.  ‘Everything…’ references more the band’s ‘Green Album’ phase, both in songwriting terms and sound.

The record frustrates and entertains in almost equal measure.  On the songs where the band, or more specifically band leader Rivers Cuomo, forget they aren’t self consciously telling their fans they are ‘back’, they remind us why they’re still worth listening to in 2014.  Songs such as ‘The British Are Coming‘ (a song about the American Revolutionary War) demonstrate that the band are still capable of writing excellent and inventive pop songs.  ‘Da Vinci‘, despite being a copy of their 2008 song ‘Pork and Beans’ (which is in itself a copy of 1996’s El Scorcho’), contains one of the band’s best chorus’ ever (see above).  ‘Cleopatra‘ succeeds in that it has the air of a ‘fresh’ Weezer song and features an inventive hook.  So far, so good.  3 great songs is a higher hit rate than can be said for the 2 albums that preceded ‘Everything…’, ‘Raditude‘ and ‘Hurley‘.

‘Everything…’ is also refreshingly filled with diverse songwriting collaborations.  The results are good too – ‘I’ve Had It Up To Here‘ (written with The Darkness’ Justin Hawkins), ‘Foolish Father‘ (written with Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus) and ‘Go Away‘, which features a duet with Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino, are fun and worth hearing.

The album also has an annoyingly self conscious side that starts to grate after the first couple of listens.  Rivers Cuomo’s preoccupation with convincing his listeners that this album is a return to the band’s ‘rock’ side results in the album’s least engaging moments.  Lead single ‘Back To The Shack‘ does not deserve to have made the album and even the biggest Cuomo fan won’t be interested in the song’s message.  The band are also guilty of overcooking ideas which weren’t worthy of cooking to begin with.  Sluggish opening song ‘Ain’t Got Nobody‘ does nothing to excite and ‘Lonely Girl‘ is exactly how you’d imagine a b-side from ‘The Green Album’ to sound like.  ‘Everything Will Be Alright In The End’ ends with a ‘suite’ of prog-rock inspired guitar workouts which seem out of place on the album.  These moments stop the album from ever being considered anything more than ‘good’.  This is sad, partly because no one will believe the band next time they appear claiming their music is a ‘return to form’.  It’s a chance they’ve blown to truly win back the hearts and minds of old Weezer fans.

As noted earlier, Weezer are in the lucky position to sound at least half relevant in 2014 but sadly do little to make the most of it.  They should play to their strengths – the band have a unique sound and chemistry and Rivers Cuomo (it must be noted that he has never sounded better than on ‘Everything…’) has one of rock music’s most unique voices.  The band still elicit strong emotions in people who will forever cherish the band’s early albums.

That’s certainly enough about Weezer for one year.  ‘Da Vinci‘ is my favourite song of 2014 – listen above.

Swans Astound With ‘To Be Kind’

Despite a long history, New York noise band Swans still had much to prove when they reformed in 2010.  I don’t find their old albums in any way listenable and despite the quality of post-reformation records ‘My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky‘ and ‘The Seer‘, I was still waiting for Swans to really grab me.  ‘To Be Kind‘ does just that.  It’s a writhing beast of an album which takes modern noise music to its extremes whilst still being accessible to those unacquainted with the genre.  Read more of my thoughts on the album here.  I was lucky enough to catch the band in Berlin in October – easily the loudest and most enjoyable 2 hours and 30 minutes I’ve spent this year.

Oxygen‘ is one of the album’s best songs.

Young Fathers Unexpectedly Win The Mercury Music Prize

Generally, award ceremonies and their plastic winners are irrelevant to the world of music so it was pleasing to see Young Fathers win the UK’s Mercury Music Prize with their album ‘Dead‘.  Perhaps the organisers decision to recognise the talent of this Scottish electro-rap band was a cynical move to win back some credibility?  Who knows.  This album is worth hearing.  I saw Young Fathers perform their first post-Mercury show in Berlin and I was struck with how inventive and energetic their live performance was.

I Heard‘ (performed acoustically in Germany) is taken from ‘Dead’.

Stephen Malkmus Makes A Great Album

Released at the beginning of 2014, ‘Wig Out At Jagbags‘, is one of Stephen Malkmus‘ best post-Pavement albums.  Why?  Simply because the songs are great, the band sound like they’re having fun and the guitar jams are fresh.  To my ears, Malkmus’ music is the perfect mix of 90s slacker ennui and 70s classic rock.  I’ve listened to this album a lot since its release and it’s stood the test of time more than many others I’ve heard this year.  I reviewed Malkmus and The Jick’s excellent January show in Berlin here.

Houston Hades‘ is the best song from the album.

Avi Buffalo Finally Returned With ‘At Best Cuckold’

It’s taken four years for Avi Zahner-Isenberg to create a follow up to the classic album he released in 2010 with his band Avi Buffalo.  Zahner-Isenberg’s immense guitar talent and knack for arranging the perfect song was immediately clear on their blissful and spaced out debut album.  To say that there was a sense of anticipation surrounding the release of follow-up ‘At Best Cuckold‘ is to use a tired phrase and is probably not true.  Still, it’s very nice for the band to return to the world of music.  ‘At Best…’ is a mature and considered record that sounds pleasingly like Neil Young in parts.  Zahner-Isenberg’s high-pitched singing voice of previous years has been replaced by a solemn and introspective style.  I very much enjoy listening to this album.

Overwhelmed With Pride‘ is my favourite song from ‘At Best Cuckold’.

The Welsh Music Foundation Closes

Away from the music briefly.  There are many examples of how government spending cuts are chipping away at the social fabric of Great Britain.  After losing its funding from the Welsh government, the Welsh Music Foundation has been forced to cease operating.  The foundation provided the country’s musicians with support, advice and resources.  It’s sad that a step in the wrong direction for the burgeoning Welsh music scene.

Ikey Owens Passes Away

Ikey Owens, who passed away in Mexico in October, was an extremely talented and distinctive keyboard player that by all accounts was a key figure in the Long Beach music scene in Los Angeles.  To the wider music world, Ikey was best known as a key member of prog-punk band The Mars Volta and most recently Jack White‘s band.  His musical talent and skill can be heard throughout the video above.  It’s worth remembering his amazing contribution to music.  RIP Ikey Owens.

Yr Ods Tour East Germany and Poland

Yr Ods + Colorama

One of Radstock Music‘s proudest moments of 2014 was helping successfully organise shows for Welsh bands Yr Ods and Colorama.   In mid-September the bands performed in BerlinLeipzig and also in the Polish city of Poznan.  It was good to get experience at concert promoting and a pleasure to be involved in bringing Welsh music to a new audience (thanks to all who came along!) on the other side of Europe.  I liked both bands prior to being asked to assist them in finding shows (thanks to Elen for connecting us!) which made the experience even better.

Below is a tune from Yr Ods:

The Pixies Finally Released An Album

…and it was worth the wait!   The band brought together 3 EPs as a full length called ‘Indie Cindy‘ for Record Store Day.  I wasn’t expecting an album which consisted of songs I was already familiar with to offer anything new, but the track order of ‘Indie Cindy’ does well to breath extra life into this excellent collection of tunes.  I’m pleased to say that The Pixies are (finally) alive and well and I’m anticipating a great future for the band.  I wrote a piece one of The Pixies’ EPs here.

Indie Cindy‘ is the album’s title track.

Afghan Whigs Make A Great Reunion Album

Perhaps it was down to the fact that Ohio-born Greg Dulli chose an almost completely new set of musicians to work with on the first Afghan Whigs album since 1999’s erm, ‘1999‘.  Aside from original bass player John Curley, the Afghan Whigs of 2014 features a fresh and young group of musicians that seem very much in tune with Dulli’s post-Whigs work.  The album they have crafted together is more of a bombastic Dulli solo album than a proper return to the sound of the Alghan Whigs, but it doesn’t disappoint at all.  Greg Dulli’s forward thinking approach to songwriting and production soon make you forget about the band behind the music.

Algiers‘ is a fantastic song from the album.

Future Islands Make An Unforgettable TV Appearance

No-one could have predicted the kind of success that was sprung upon Future Islands in 2014.  Their appearance on The Letterman Show was a career defining moment for a band that has worked extremely hard over the last few years.  It’s an unforgettable performance that I watched at least four times in a row when I first came across it.  If there’s one music video you should see this year, it’s this one.

Gemma Ray Continues To Be Brilliant

Gemma Ray continues to be one my favourite Berlin-based songwriters.  Her consistently unusual and brilliant artistic evolution continued in 2014 with the release of her album ‘Milk For Your Motors‘.  My review can be read here.

Shake Baby Shake‘ is the first single from the album.

Steve Albini Misguidedly Adresses The Music World and Taylor Swift Takes On Spotify

I have to be honest, I don’t have much optimism for the future of music.  I’m concerned it involves only hobby bands, rich-kid post-university pre-law school projects and tribute acts.  2 prominent people in the music industry provoked much debate in 2014:
Recording engineer Steve Albini, known for his work recording bands such as Nirvana and PJ Harvey, addressed November’s Face The Music festival in Melbourne with a ‘keynote’ speech on the current state of the music industry.  He declared the music industry to be in rude health and made a number of good points on the benefits of being a music fan in the age of the internet.  Read the full transcript of his address here.  He began by saying that he hoped what he would discuss would provoke discussion, so here’s my response:
I thought Albini’s attitude towards being in a musician in 2014 was hopelessly naive and much of his opinions were grounded in what he saw as ‘benefits’ of the internet.  I admire Albini’s optimism and I appreciate that from his perspective, having a world of music at your finger tips must be an incredible feeling.  In his opinion (and I  share this), music fans in 2014 are in their element – Italian pop, Brazillian rock, weird electronic sounds from Iceland etc etc is at our finger tips and a whole planet of music lies just a few clicks away.  Fantastic.  This experience, however, is normal to me.  I’ve grown up in such a world and I’ve never truly known what it is like not to have unlimited access to the world of music.  Albini dismissed the idea that there is any money to be made in selling music and suggested that the opportunities for lucrative touring were in abundance.  Essentially, what Albini claims to be the best aspect of the internet is in direct contrast to how he believes bands should make their living today.  The act of touring is both an inefficient and unprofitable way of operating a band and for most people who hold down day jobs it is a luxury that they are unable to afford.  There’s a hell more to be said on this subject – read more of the discussion here.
Taylor Swift also got a lot of people talking when she decided to remove her albums from music streaming service Spotify.  I saw it as a positive step that reignites the debate about whether Spotify pay artists enough.  Services that include not only Spotify but also Youtube, Google Play Music and Pandora promise a way of plugging the gap in revenue caused by people losing interest in purchasing CDs.  So far they have yet to make money for themselves or musicians.  Let’s see if anything changes in 2015.

Steve Albini still makes amazing music.  His blues-punk-noise band Shellac released ‘Dude, Incredible‘ this year and it was…incredible.

All The Surveyors‘ is my favourite song.

Lana Del Rey Makes An Unusual Album

…let’s end on a positive note!  Before 2014, I never thought I’d enjoy listening to the music of plastic Los Angeles star Lana Del Rey.  Her second album ‘Ultraviolence‘ is an extremely well written murky-pop gem and is well worth checking out.  The album features on-the-fly production from The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach who gave Del Rey’s sound a transformative overhaul.

West Coast’ features a chorus which is slower than the verse.  That’s one way to ingratiate yourself with your record label.  Nice work Lana!

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That’s all from me.  Here’s a brief list of other musical things I can’t stop myself from mentioning:

  • The Fall are still my favourite band.
  • I saw some great Irish music – Lisa O’Neil and Ain’t Saint John make exciting modern folk music.
  • I enjoyed Perfume Genius’ new album ‘Too Bright‘ but got bored of his live performance in Berlin.
  • The Thermals are still the coolest and best punk band ever!
  • Christopher Owens is a favourite songwriter of mine but I’m not really sure of the country music style on his last album.
  • I don’t understand FKA Twigs.  I don’t want to either.
  • I was sad not to attend one of the Mclusky shows in Wales this Autumn.  I really admire their decision to reform for a good cause and I wish I was able to share the excitement of hearing the band live with everyone else who attended.
  • I’m excited about what ex-Racehorses singer Meilyr Jones does in 2015.
  • Deltron 3030, who feature Dan the Automator, Kid Koala and Del The Funky Homosapien, came to Berlin with an orchestra and it was lots of fun.
  • The Beach Boys‘ ‘Love You‘ is a classic album for anyone struggling to understand what the big deal about ‘Pet Sounds‘ is.
  • Morrissey is still one of music’s coolest characters – anyone who has a problem with him needs to address this pronto.

Thanks again for reading – see you in 2015.

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