New York’s Parquet Courts, one of the hardest-working and most-travelled bands in the world, released two albums in 2014. Content Nausea, under their alternative name Parkay Quarts, slipped a little under the radar late on in the year, but their third album Sunbathing Animal was the real headline grabber. A fine continuation from 2012’s life-affirming Light Up Gold, it sought to finesse rather than revolutionise. The one-note thrash of the title track; the Television-aping ‘Instant Disassembly’; the twitchy, syncopated punk of ‘Ducking & Dodging’ that features a brilliant stream-of-consciousness rant from singer Andrew Savage… there’s so many moments of joyful moments of retro abandon that it’s almost unfair on everyone else. Torch-bearers for good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll fun. (EB) (LISTEN)
With the critical and commercial triumph of 2010’s The Suburbs, Arcade Fire found themselves in the same kind of position as Radiohead in 1997 after OK Computer. They responded with a complete blowout of a record, a double disc smorgasbord akin to ‘The White Album’ incorporating electronica, dance, rococo and Haitian rara rhythms. DFA’s James Murphy co-produced Reflektor, along with regular Markus Dravs, and the result was an audacious, divisive and frequently bewildering record. Many critics argued that it was a risk they didn’t need to take, but that’s precisely why we include it in our list. For all its flaws (and there are a number of them), there aren’t many major artists prepared to lay their reputations on the line like this anymore. (EB) (LISTEN)
Fuelled by the extraordinary single ‘Brains’, Nootropics was the moment that Jana Hunter and her Lower Dens project actually delivered on the occasional promise shown by its debut, adding krautrock and electronic flourishes to their swirling guitar formula. It broadened their appeal and made them stand out from a pretty packed field of similar acts at the start of the decade, channelling late ‘70s pioneers like Eno, Bowie, Byrne and Iggy Pop. Hunter’s stern, androgynous voice lent some gravitas and meaning to the lyrics which concerned science fiction, human nature and space exploration. (EB) (LISTEN)
Having challenged their fanbase with 2009’s oblique Humbug, Sheffield’s finest promised a more direct and vintage style for their fourth album. A first glance at the terrible artwork didn’t promise much, but Suck It And See was a triumph of classic guitar pop that looked to the past and pointed toward the future at the same time. Considering the pressure that they were under, originating from a widely held and unfair assumption that the Arctic Monkeys somehow owed everybody a “return to form” (how dare they experiment?!), they absolutely smashed it, satisfying the demands of those who wanted them to remain their original 2006 selves and those wanting an evolution in sound. Furthermore, it proved to be a stepping stone for an even better fifth album – but more on that later… (EB) (LISTEN)
At the start of his career, The Drums’ singer Jonny Pierce came across as a kind of latter-day Jonathan Richman – a fey and theatrical stage presence, lyrically obsessed with teenage and childhood ennui, seeing beauty and poetry in the mundane. It said a lot about their confidence that left off two of their most popular songs (‘I Felt Stupid’; ‘Submarine’) for their first full album, but they made subtle adjustments to the skeletal template of their debut EP – click-track drums, one string guitar riffs – to include throwback ballads, herky-jerky ‘50s rock rhythms and widescreen synth dramatics. The Drums was an instant hit, packed with appealing and immediate guitar pop tracks like the hopelessly catchy ‘Let’s Go Surfing’. Though they quickly grew out of this basic approach, Pierce and his band showed that joy can often be found in simplicity. (EB) (LISTEN)
QOTSA had begun the new millennium as one of its most exciting and powerful guitar bands, releasing 2000’s Rated R and 2002’s Songs For The Deaf. But following the comparative disappointments of Lullabies To Paralyse and Era Vulgaris, Josh Homme mothballed the band to pursue side-projects and production in 2007. So by the start of 2013, not only did few people expect a reunion, even fewer could have predicted that the new material would be so good. Not only was there a dark, psychedelic strangeness to …Like Clockwork, it was also their leanest and most focussed work in over a decade. Furthermore, unusually for an album so full of guest appearances (Alex Turner, Trent Reznor, Jake Shears, Dave Grohl and even Elton John made contributions), there was never any sense that the Queens were not in total control of their artistic vision. (EB) (LISTEN)
The second of two excellent records released by former member of The War On Drugs Kurt Vile, Wakin On A Pretty Daze saw the singer-songwriter finally break links with Adam Granduciel (2010’s Smoke Ring For My Halo had featured contributions from him). It was a more spacious and graceful record with a greater freedom from verse-chorus-verse structures, bound up in its own little universe and marching to its own beat. One hates using phrases like ‘the voice of a generation’, but there’s something undeniably now about Vile’s outlook despite the classic rock and folk reference points of his music. Two monster tracks that border 10 minutes (‘Wakin On A Pretty Day’; ‘Goldtone’) bookend the album, and it’s a tribute to his abilities that neither ever becomes boring. (EB) (LISTEN)
Having effected the last indie music revolution of the noughties with their debut xx, the London trio were understandably tempted to leave things much the same the second time around. But Coexist was one of the rare instances in pop where “more of the same” would do: The xx were such a brand of music (the simple, stark artwork reflecting the music inside) that to attempt anything radical would satisfied nobody. That said, there were subtle differences in the sound of the record despite the familiar themes of heartache, longing and loneliness. Jamie xx had incorporated some of the tricks he’d learned as a DJ and producer in the intervening three years, including live percussion instruments amid the programmed beats and MIDI triggers, which meant that Coexist is, if anything, even moodier than its predecessor. It amounted to another highly engaging take on the concept of the duet. (EB) (LISTEN)
Five years after its release, listening to Warpaint’s thick, disorientating drone rock debut The Fool is still a disquieting experience. Following more than two years after the well-received EP Exquisite Corpse, the group described it as an “older sister” to their previous work. What was notable was how music writers struggled to pin down and define its sound, many elements of which were familiar to fans of My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins and Spiritualized – the sweeping, bittersweet sadness of the emotions, the build-up and release of tension in the dynamics, the subtle application of ethereal harmonies. But this was testament to Warpaint’s talent, to make something sound so familiar and yet so fresh at the same time. A friend once described listening to The Fool to me as like emerging into blinding sunlight after a day spent in a dark, smoke-filled room – a great metaphor for its all-pervading chemical haze. (EB) (LISTEN)
Anna Calvi’s second Mercury-nominated album in a row made a totally natural progression from her first. Where her debut was quite moody and restrained, One Breath opened up her sound to new, panoramic vistas. Calvi’s captivating narrative voice, capable of deep, intimate warmth one minute and almost primeval power the next, made the material very relatable and personal. The drama contained within pocket operas like ‘Eliza’ and ‘Suddenly’ was gripping to the point where you want to sit on the edge of your seat, but this was balanced out with moments of hushed beauty like ‘Sing To Me’ and the scuzzy garage-rock rumblings of ‘Tristan’ and ‘Love Of My Life’. The unmistakable sound of an artist hitting her second album stride, and indicative of even better things to come. (EB) (LISTEN)
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