Mr. Edwards picks his most treasured records from the year that was.
Please let me know your own choices below.
10. Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways
You’re probably shaking your heads at the thought of this album being as low as this, but the truth of the matter is, Sonic Highways is not as good as people want it to be. I’m one of the few who believe Wasting Light was something of a crowning achievement for the Foos – prepare to be shocked, I even rate it higher than The Colour and the Shape – but Sonic Highways doesn’t quite reach those heights. Coinciding with the release of a HBO TV series where the Foos record different songs in different cities inspired by American musical history, Sonic Highways hits all the right notes you’d expect Dave Grohl to hit. The riffs come thick and fast, the melodies are hooky and the songs are – needless to say – loud, but there’s an element of pedestrianism at play here.
With every passing record, the Foos embrace their classic rock tendencies – “Something from Nothing” almost reminds me of a Wings track (that’s a compliment, by the way) and the inclusion of the Eagles’ Joe Walsh on “Outside” is a clear admission that “Hotel California” is as much of an influence on Dave Grohl and his bandmates as punk rock undoubtedly is. That’s no bad thing, I might add, but the end result is an album which is enjoyable but ultimately quite MOR. Despite this, Sonic Highways more than deserves a place on this list though. After all, how can I ignore all those fantastic riffs?
9. The Orwells – Disgraceland
Can you remember the last time the lead singer of an indie rock & roll band had long, blonde hair? I certainly can’t. The Orwells, however, have their own charismatic, golden-headed whirling dervish in the shape of Mario Cuomo, who likes singing about having not cutting his hair on “The Righteous One” almost as much as he enjoys flinging it around on stage. The refreshing thing about The Orwells is that Mario doesn’t play any instruments – he is a frontman equipped only with a microphone – so the band heavily rely on his flamboyant stage antics to translate their straight-up, no nonsense approach to indie rock in a live setting.
This album, Disgraceland, is a delightfully raucous traipse in a slightly heavier faux-1960s garage rock hinterland semi-occupied by The Vaccines, where hippie dippie platitudes collide with punk’s anti-authoritarian pre-dilection. The songs here are solid, especially for those who have a soft spot for indie which walks a tightrope between melody and dissonance. If that’s your thing, seek it out!
8. Augustines – Augustines
Billy McCarthy, the lead singer and guitarist of Augustines, has a really weird voice. It’s the kind of voice which imbues this record – their second album, in case you didn’t realise – with an almost enigmatic quality which more than complements the power of their music. Augustines’s songs are powerful, stadium-ready tunes, very much in the mould of The Gaslight Anthem – tugging on the heartland rock strings Bruce Springsteen so often loves to pull.
“Nothing to Lose But Your Head” and “Now You Are Free” are sweeping indie rock at its finest, while “Weary Eyes” and “Cruel City” truly highlight that this band are exceptionally gifted at making “big music” sound sincere. It wouldn’t surprise me if the next album by Augustines will propel them into the mainstream in the same way Kings of Leon did with Only by the Night. Clearly, from the sound of the songs on this album, Augustines have big ambitions. Fair play to them.
7. The Black Keys – Turn Blue
Venturing further into psychedelia with their co-producer and creative muse, Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse), this follow-up to El Camino takes a leftfield turn away from straight-up rock & roll in favour of a haunting, soulful mood piece.
The melancholic blues-based grooves on Turn Blue are tighter than a coiled spring, with a haunting and sultry vibe so retro it could almost act as an imaginary soundtrack to a 1970s art house flick.
Despite being fairly slow-burning and ponderous in exploring almost ghostly soundscapes, the songs here are multi-faceted; the production is exquisite, and repeat listens do reveal Turn Blue to be a strong and surprisingly artful dalliance in new terrain for The Black Keys. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of El Camino, but with Danger Mouse as their co-collaborator, this newfound zest for musical experimentation seems to suit The Black Keys down to a T. Let’s hope they keep up this momentum.
6. Catfish & The Bottlemen – The Balcony
If indie rock is the droid you’re looking for in 2014, you can’t go far wrong with Catfish & The Bottlemen’s debut album, The Balcony. As you dance around the room like a robot from 1984, you might even find yourself partying like it’s 2005. I jest, of course – there is a lot about this album which reminds me of the mid-noughties crop of landfill indie, the sort of bands who rode on the coattails of The Libertines, but Catfish have their own zing and certainly know how to bash out a good tune.
If you play FIFA 14, you’ll have heard “Cocoon” to death by now, but “Kathleen” and “Pacifier” are also likely to be favourites in the indie disco for years to come. I lap this sort of stuff up anyway. Given that they got a primetime airing thanks to a performance on BBC Music Awards a few weeks ago, you can probably expect to hear more from Catfish & The Bottlemen over the next few months. Who knows? They could even be bigger than The Kooks. *shudder*
5. Jack White – Lazaretto
It’s back to business as usual for Mr. White, continuing to build on his solo resume with his second album, Lazaretto. If you consider Blunderbuss his slightly sombre, post-divorce Blood on the Tracks-style record, Lazaretto is essentially the sound of a man getting his mojo back. There is nothing on this album that wouldn’t sound out of place on a White Stripes record, so this is a superb testament to White’s ability to bounce back and produce songs which rock harder than a tectonic plate shifting in the Rocky Mountains.
However, this is not some boring attempt to go through the blues-y motions a la Seasick Steve – Lazaretto is also an eccentric, musically diverse record. There are plenty of nods to country music, folk, Tin Pan Alley, while the blues cuts – such as “Three Women” and “Black Bat Liquorice” – straddle the line between trad rock and hip hop in their primal immediacy. If nothing else, Lazaretto solidifies Jack White’s reputation as his generation’s premiere songwriter and experimental bluesman, so for this reason it’s well-worth a spin. It’ll tide us by until The White Stripes reunite, anyway.
4. Pup – Pup
Pup are a messy, scrappy, discordant, flailing little mess of a punk outfit… or are they? The more I listen to their debut album, Pup, the more I am convinced this is all intentional. You’d be mistaken for thinking this is a band who embrace shouting and decibel-raising to make up for their lack of musicianship, but listen closer and you’ll find Pup’s songs are actually studiously composed. For all its heaviness, Pup possesses a collection of songs which are tailormade for melodic punk aficionados to appreciate, without grating on the ear too much.
Each song attempts to vary the tempo, pairing their commitment to punk rock with a quiet-loud dynamic similar to the Pixies, so you may even notice a melody lurking in there somewhere. I certainly did. Aside from highlighting “Reservoir” as a blissfully invigorating wall of noise, there’s not much else I can say about this album other than you’ll just have to stick it on and see what you think. If it’s not your cup of tea, well, what else did you expect from a band signed to SideOneDummy Records, anyway?
3. Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything
I didn’t expect to love this album as much as I have. It’s become a bit predictable to like Elbow, hasnt it? They even got the lead singer Guy Garvey to sing on Band Aid 35 this year – that’s a big indication of how “mainstream” Elbow are now regarded. I was ambiguous at first, but I kept re-listening to The Take Off and Landing of Everything and can’t help but be impressed, mainly by Garvey’s lyrical ingenuity. Not quite content with possessing the most distinctive singing voice of his generation, I’ve grown to realise Guy is one of the best wordsmiths currently working in the UK music industry.
Garvey’s lyrics are often highly poetic and recall Dylan Thomas in their stark, naturalistic beauty, with this album acting as Garvey’s post-break up paean to love, loss and everything in between. “You have the time-worn shimmer of tarantella on a Tuscan plain,” he sings, on the title track. Seriously? With words this evocative, I’d love to see Garvey become a novelist. Perhaps one day he will, but for now, the music he is producing with Elbow is peerless. I doubt you could say that about the other singers on Band Aid 35.
2. Royal Blood – Royal Blood
Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters spoke out about how encouraged he was when he heard that this self-titled hard rock album by Royal Blood got to number 1 in the UK Album Charts. It is, indeed, encouraging, especially given how we are repeatedly told rock music is a dying trend, consigned to the fringes like an unfashionable puppy cocking its leg near a lamppost. Alas, Royal Blood’s album is a fun, albeit slightly derivative amble through the same blues-y terrain The White Stripes rocked out to in the days when Elephant reigned supreme.
Admittedly, Royal Blood have a beefier sound than Jack & Meg, which is remarkable given that there are also only two members – a drummer and a guitarist – and yet “Come On Over” and “Figure it Out” have more raw power than their limited resources belie. Their songs are also polished enough to be radio-friendly, yet heavy enough to get themselves a slot booked at Download Festival.
And with fans including Grohl and Led Zeppelin axeman Jimmy Page, can you really argue with this album being regarded as one of the best rock & roll records this year has produced? I rest my case.
1. Hozier – Hozier
Kicking against the glut of singer-songwriters in 2014, Hozier’s self-titled album is probably the only LP which may well stand the test of time. Lacing his lyrics with religious allegory, the piano ballad “Take Me to Church” is almost comparable to John Lennon in its secular ambitions, juxtaposing lustful yearning with spiritual worship in the same way Jeff Buckley did with his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Judging by the music video, the song could also be an oblique commentary on homophobic prejudice – an interpretation given more weight due to its underlying theological metaphor – though one does not need to be a Stonewall supporter to find some deeper level of meaning in it.
The rest of Hozier’s album straddles the line between Van Morrison-esque R&B, abrasive blues rock and angst-ridden indie folk in the vein of Bon Iver. If this is the kind of thing Hozier is churning out at the age of twenty-four, I doubt this will be the last we hear of him. It’s an astonishingly strong debut, with an accomplished sense of songcraft and almost poetic lyricism making it stronger with each passing listen. By far the best album I’ve heard this year.