7 Of The Best: Albums Of 2014 So Far

The Clash team’s standout LPs…

A quick headcount in the office: one, two, three… seven. Well, that’s handy. Now, everyone write about just one favourite album of 2014 so far. Bingo. These are the personal favourites of the in-house Clash team. They’re all thoroughly decent.

(Click artist names for related articles.)

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Chet Faker – ‘Built On Glass’
(Future Classic, released April 14th)

Chosen by Joe Zadeh

By nature, loungey jazz pop doesn’t often make you sit up and go, “Holy f*ck, this is bloody good loungey jazz pop.” But, honestly, this album will hit you like John Coltrane’s ‘Crescent’ being hummed a cappella by 200 Aaliyahs at a Brooklyn block party in the ’90s.

Alone, in a small converted cooling room in North Melbourne’s meat market, Chet Faker (real name Nicholas Murphy) dipped his toes quite regularly in the warm waters of insanity while making this record, scrapping two album’s worth of tracks en route, and paddling slowly towards the blinding light of what he perceived as artistic satisfaction. Which makes you feel all the more grateful that he made it. He named the album ‘Built On Glass’ and it’s a titular harbinger for what is encased within: total transparency.

With a soulful voice carved into shape by three years of shows, whisky and answering questions about his beard, Murphy paints his lyrics like an impasto, filling the tracks with naked flame heartache, mountain-top admissions of love and twisting tales of betrayal, all derived from the changes that a career in music has enforced on his life. It’s irresistible charm shagging unbearable anxiety under the moonlight glow of one overarching motif: that with unique luxuries come unique problems.

As an electronic producer with a Cthulhu-sized appreciation for soul, R&B and jazz, his sound is rich and motley. On tracks like ‘Talk Is Cheap’, the jazz is abundant, and it opens with a melancholic saxophone melody, before an opiated hip-hop beat drops into place. At the other end of the scale, ‘Blush’ has a touch of garage before flipping into a hypnotic prang out, and ‘1998’ is essentially a Chicago house revenge track.

Consequently, and the reason it’s my album of 2014 so far, I’m still finding crevices of quivering melodic satisfaction tucked away in this record’s expanses.

‘Talk Is Cheap’

Listen on Deezer

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Sharon Van Etten – ‘Are We There’
(Jagjaguwar, released May 26th)
Chosen by Robin Murray

Given the intensely personal, often quite fraught subject matter, it’s almost impossible to know where to start with ‘Are We There’. Sharon Van Etten’s voice, of course, is powerful yet limber, bringing to life those lyrics – and what lyrics they are – with near effortless grace.

But perhaps it’s only right to take the album as a whole, as a distinct document obeying no rules but its own. Opening with the lush lustre of ‘Afraid Of Nothing’ this damaged beauty soon meets the raw, emotional intensity of ‘Taking Chances’. In Van Etten’s world, behind each smile is a cracked visage, with each damaging personal crisis being superseded by a wonderful sense of grace.

Album centre-point ‘Your Love Is Killing Me’ is a lengthy, meditative search for meaning amidst a damaged, abusive relationship. The lyrics are terrifying – “break my legs so I don’t run to you” – not only in their physically punishing nature but also in the belief that Van Etten will, even after all this, go straight back to her lover.

A relatively straightforward indie-rock song in its structure, the use of such forms only serves to underline Van Etten’s lyrical message. ‘Tarifa’ opens with little more than gently strummed guitar chords, allowing her voice to take free rein, hurling itself from pillar to pillar in the process. ‘Nothing Will Change’ is simple and direct – the shortest song on the album, it’s akin to a jazz ballad in its softly retained feeling.

Closing statement ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up’ is a soft, elegiac ending, suggesting that – after all this pain – some kind of solace must come. It’s here, in this lingering mixture of beauty and pain that Van Etten seems to reside: the two bleeding into one another, and naked truth the result.

‘Taking Chances’

Listen on Deezer

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Wen – ‘Signals’
(Keysound, released March 31st)
Chosen by Felicity Martin

From its inception, grime has been protest music. Channelling the high-rise tension of tower blocks back in the early ’00s, the tone of the genre was one of aggression – but also liberation. Fast-forward to the present day and we’re wallowing in the aftermath of the riots, with cuts confronting the urban youth more troublingly than ever.

There’s no doubt that, as a genre, grime is still a vibrant entity – look at the furore surrounding Lord of the Mics VI, the melodic explorations of the Boxed gang, and inspiring MCs such as Novelist coming through.

Yet the debut LP from Owen Darby AKA summons the ghosts of arguably a more dynamic past, when MC culture was more immediate. “Man on lockdown… fam’,” cry disembodied voices on ‘Intro (Family)’. “Pull-up…” On ‘Nightcrawler (Devils Mix)’, Owen takes a scalpel to Wiley and Ghetts’ on-air beef.

With an illuminated traffic sign as its cover, ‘Signals’ is strictly a record of the streets: a love letter to road. Pirate radio snippets are cut and pasted onto grime that’s not quite its usual format – shifted into a slower, 130 BPM template. This is a stilted impression of a darker, more “austere" London.

Despite its crowds and bright lights, the city can be a cold and brutal place. It breeds detachment – familiar faces are few, and to convey this, Owen’s tool is fragmentation. The stark minimalism of ‘Signal’’s soca percussion nods to UK Funky, dubstep and grime in one addictive flow. Like the producer’s B-side refix of Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Strings Hoe’, dread-ridden strings appear in abundance, plucked out of a violin and held in space.

“It’s UK, it’s real,” urges the album’s introduction. By calling on grime’s ghosts to punctuate the tracks of his record, Wen worships not just the past, present and future of grime but UK ‘bass music’ (as unfortunately nebulous a term as that is). “Big up my family,” the opening track thunders. The scene is there – albeit not in its exact same form as it was in 2004. But, like the inevitability of signage on our roads, it’s unlikely to fade any time soon.

‘Vampin’’

Listen on Deezer

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Ought – ‘More Than Any Other Day’
(Constellation, released May 5th)
Chosen by Mike Diver

From nothing: a blinding light. That moment when someone reveals the morning sun from behind blackout blinds, streaming into and burning through your retinas; a bulb sparks the darkness into retreat and the effect is briefly, brilliantly dizzying, ever sense electrified but peripherals lost to dazed distortion. That’s turning ‘More Than Any Other Day’ on for the first time. Absolute focus, complete attention.

This Montreal-based foursome meant nothing to me a second before pressing play on their debut album, a stirring set released through Canadian indie institution Constellation. A second into opener ‘Pleasant Heart’, I was already hooked. Just a guitar – a not-quite-right-sounding guitar, all broken glass and razor wire and metal on metal. And then beats, pounding a march, and a yelp – a triumphant, here-we-are emptying of lungs. And then the lyrics came worm-like, wriggling, beneath everything, only to leap to the fore as passion overcomes them.

It gets better, and better. ‘Today More Than Any Other Day’ celebrates every man in the street, every corner store, every breath and step and minority and conversation. “Everything is going to be okay,” we’re told – and bloody hell, do these men ever hope it. Don’t wallow, callow youth, this world is yours to shape. Get out and get at it. ‘The Weather Song’ is the album’s most immediately yes track, a number that finds its way to extremities and dances them silly. And on it goes.

“A change, I want it!” ‘Gemini’ is a teeth-gritted closer, a final demand. It screams itself to breaking point. And all I want to do is pick up its pieces and go around again, eyes now open to a dazzling band that, eight songs earlier, was just a name on a download I might never have clicked.

‘Today More Than Any Other Day’

Listen on Deezer

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The Phantom Band – ‘Strange Friend’
(Chemikal Underground, released June 2nd)
Chosen by Simon Harper

This entry could quite easily have been so different had the entirety of ‘Xscape’, the ‘new’ Michael Jackson album, lived up to the promise of nostalgic disco-pop opener ‘Love Never Felt So Good’. But the regrettable decision to include a song titled ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are’ turned this posthumous at-first-fun album into a Frankenstein’s monster whose bolts quickly unscrew.

Fortunately then, the wild laboratory creation of Glasgow sextet The Phantom Band takes the lead as my most gratifying beast of 2014 thus far. This third album takes its lead from the wealth of ambitions that made 2010’s ‘The Wants’ such a dizzyingly impressive and intriguing record.

‘Strange Friend’ wades tenaciously through a mercurial swamp of sounds and styles, which at times trips you up and sucks you in to its brilliant lure. Call it Kraut-folk, prog-funk, or maybe psycheCeltic (sorry!); whatever the pigeonhole, its unpredictable twists, turns and textures make for a listen that’s constantly fresh with repeated listens.

Rick Anthony’s baritone burr anchors the capricious creature, introduced wonderfully in his strident delivery over motorik opener ‘The Wind That Cried The World’. From there, we’re propelled through ‘Clapshot’ and the angularly anthemic ‘Doom Patrol’ before the rustic ‘Atacama’ tempers the pace. Things get cosmic on ‘(Invisible) Friends’ amid swirling synths, and plaintively pretty on ‘No Shoes Blues’, while the vivid funk of ‘Women Of Ghent’ tempts us willingly into eccentric closer ‘Galápagos’, as a brisk percussive workout leads eerily into an apocalyptic concluding drone.

Spontaneous and enigmatic, with reckless rhythms and driving dynamics,  ‘Strange Friend’ has proven a timely accompaniment to impulsive summer days, and will hopefully endure henceforth.

‘The Wind That Cried The World’

Listen on Deezer

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tUnE-yArDs – ‘Nikki Nack’
(4AD, released May 5th)
Chosen by Matthew Bennett

Merrill Garbus makes music that feels exactly like the typography of tUnE-yArDs. It’s all bold angles and invading sound levels, a warm tumble of noise. If we didn’t know she was a former puppeteer from New England we’d be convinced she is a musical queen from Africa’s Serengeti.

We also aren’t sure how Garbus has tamed her mischievous panoply of drums, but we’re thrilled she did. I saw her incredibly promising set at South By Southwest in 2011, though her paroxysm of ad hoc looped drums, joyous ukulele and bold choral sorties were spasmodically a mess.

So ‘Nikki Nack’ does exactly what we needed it to do. Along with bassist and co-producer Nate Brenner she’s refined the expansive pop visions of her low-fi debut ‘BiRd-BrAiNs’ and more sturdy 4AD follow-up ‘w h o k i l l’ to further compress her skill and style.

After the modest opening of ‘Find A New Way’ we are greeted by her first great new record ‘Water Fountain’ – a garrulous denotation of sunshine flavours further intensified by her lyrics awash with themes of sex and drought.

‘Time Of Dark’ starts with loose, plunging passages of percussion before she transforms into typically bold soaring chorus. Once again she reinforces her commitment to a most singular vocal delivery.

Likewise ‘Hey Life’ hears her insistent rhymes deliver machine gun pace before she hooks us with an album peak – “I don't wanna run out / So I'm runnin' runnin' / Hey hey hey hey life / Why do you keep me around?” – sung with unforgettable style.

‘Sink-O’ keeps us off balance and tottering on our heels with its equally magnetic delivery. But then there’s the bizarre incidence of the interlude. The album’s halfway point hears ‘Why Do We Dine On The Tots?’ trundle in from stage left, a theatrical skit of an old man wondering why they must eat their children. This is must what it must feel like to be delusional.  As abruptly as it arrives it departs and we are channelled into a second half of equally ambitious proportions.

‘Stop That Man’ references New Order’s drum machines and themes of citizen arrests and gender. ‘Left Behind’ is a boisterous charge at gentrification while ‘Wait For A Minute’ applies her typically frantic pace to the topic of procrastinating as Garbus gazes into the mirror to idle away her J. Alfred Prufrock moment of existential angst. 

‘Nikki Nack’ is a journey structured by pace and space. It is irrepressible, life affirming, polyrhythmic, harmony drenched and powered by her visceral chanting. It is an African-inspired charge straight at our heads. And what it lacks in subtlety it more than compensates for in rhythmic dexterity and loquacious audacity.

'Water Fountain'

Listen on Deezer

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BadBadNotGood – ‘III’
(Innovative Leisure, released May 5th)
Chosen by Anna Wilson

The admirably contrary contemporary Canadian jazz trio made quite the industry splash covering leftfield hip-hop and electronic artists over the course of their last two albums. Collaborations with Odd Future and Frank Ocean were daring and bold, and subsequent releases veered from startling reinterpretations of songs by Kanye West and Nas to the soundscapes of My Bloody Valentine.  

On this third release, all songs are self-written and wittily original. They continue to embrace their ambitious spirit, but arguably some of their previous rawness and anarchic aesthetics have been eschewed in favour of tighter composition and impressive musicianship. But what seamless musicianship it is. They’ve moved beyond improvisation to create something unique: a suite of songs simultaneously meandering and loose yet tense and tightly coiled. There may be less jamming, but these songs are in super-sharp focus.  

Recorded entirely with analogue equipment, ‘III’ has that honey soaked halcyon, classic jazz sound but with the pin sharp production of Frank Dukes (50 Cent, Danny Brown). Incorporating for the first time additional bass, percussion, strings and seriously lush saxophone interludes, it veers from ice-cold synth pop to dirge and Zappa-like humorous ingenuity, all in the blink of an eye.

Not every song works – some are a little conservative, even utilitarian. But overall there’s a fierce amount of talent and creativeness here that is missing on most instrumental albums these days. It’s just as indebted to progressive fusion, post rock and Krautrock in its time signatures and unusual melodies and phrasing as it is to contemporary jazz. Intelligent, and impressively inventive.

‘Can’t Leave The Night’

Listen on Deezer

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Related: More 7 Of The Best features, including more ‘Of 2014 So Far’ pieces

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