The black-and-white photo on the cover of Are We There told the listener that this would be a safe, dependable follow-up to 2012’s Tramp, the record that had brought Sharon Van Etten to international attention (see #88 on the list). In many ways, this was true: the piano-based, confessional nature of the songs, occasionally furnished with strings or sparse electric guitar. But having expressed torment on Tramp, now she was quietly triumphant on the likes of ‘Afraid Of Nothing’ or ‘I Love You But I’m Lost’, taking the time to look outwards, critiquing domestic abuse (‘Your Love Is Killing Me’). Her drama was compelling, but never ostentatious or self-centred. Like Cat Power, with whom she shares more than a passing musical resemblance, Van Etten had total command of her artistic vision and guided her songs with the precision of a Cave or a Cohen. The broad appeal of Are We There is what edges it ahead of its predecessor. (EB) (LISTEN)
Having caught Eagulls’ ferocious live show on at least half a dozen occasions in 2014, I’ve had the occasion to try to analyse what makes them special. The basic premise of their sound may be instantly recognisable – young men with guitars telling you why they’re pissed off with the world – but there’s absolutely no artifice within it. Carried primarily by urgent howl of George Mitchell’s vocals but also the freight train of their rhythm section, Eagulls are able to express their dissatisfaction much more effectively than virtually all other recent British bands who have sought to exploit the bleak, northern post-punk sound. That tough, uncompromising aesthetic goes right down to the graphic Clockwork Orange-style slideshows that accompany their performances, and it’s the same kind of indefinable sense of ennui that helped make Joy Division’s recordings so seminal. Eagulls’ dead-end dystopia sent a chill through the soul as bracing as the winter winds of their native Leeds. (EB) (LISTEN)
After the huge critical acclaim of 2010’s Hidden, the record that brought These New Puritans to the attention of switched-on indie fans nationwide, their leader Jack Barnett wasn’t prepared to rest on his laurels for the group’s third album. For Field Of Reeds, he ventured even further out of the post-rock rough and into the steamy experimental undergrowth, making its already challenging predecessor sound like Stock Aitken Waterman by comparison. Where Hidden utilised musique concrete, field recordings and often sounded like the work of a band on ‘attack’ mode, Field Of Reeds relied more upon silence, the gaps between the notes, to emphasise the unsettling tensions in their sprawling arrangements. The haunting synth refrain on ‘Organ Eternal’ are the disintegrated jazz of ‘V (Island Song)’ are highlights, but only scratch the surface of what is one of the most rewarding and unexpected left turns in modern British music. (EB) (LISTEN)
With his intensely intimate electronic arrangements, James Blake has been one of the defining artists of the decade. Following a series of well received EPs, the 2011 debut by “the crown prince of the quiet revolution” (Clash magazine) was one of the most critically anticipated records in recent memory. However, it didn’t entirely unite people in praise, with many criticising a complete lack of accessibility. Even covers of modern pop records like Feist’s ‘Limit To Your Love’ were subsumed into a post-dubstep twilight where silence and space was valued highly. Blake’s nakedly human vocals were the star of the show, the music sounding reverent and cautious not intrude upon his privacy. Even this proudly arty publication hated it at first, but given a great deal of time its unique qualities eventually clicked. Its slightly more commercial successor Overgrown surprisingly won the 2013 Mercury Music Prize, but for us it’s the gossamer-thin atmospherics of the debut that is the more rewarding listen and thus earns Blake a place in our list. (EB) (LISTEN)
Having won the Polaris Music Prize for 2007’s math-rock beauty Andorra, Dan Snaith (the man behind the monikers Daphni, Manitoba and Caribou) applied his knack for challenging yet easily understandable arrangements to house music. Swim was the rather wonderful result, exploring deep house and minimalist techno while garnishing the mixture with unusual instruments and his keening, plaintive vocals. Snaith has said that he made these songs while composing pieces of music to make up his DJ sets, which had been increasing hugely in number by 2010, and that the work ethic applied in pursuit of these led to over 700 unused songs for the album (!). Its opening track, ‘Odessa’, also helped the album gain wider exposure, being used in a number of adverts and the soundtrack to FIFA11. Snaith followed Swim with the very much more pop-orientated Our Love in 2014, but for our money, this just pips it as his finest work to date. (EB) (LISTEN)
Having made one of the most spectacular debuts of the noughties, Vampire Weekend offered up the new decade’s first great album just eleven days into 2010. Inverting the normal rules of second albums, Contra was successful precisely because it didn’t tinker too much with the established formula, recognising that there was still demand for their sound. The sense of sonic discovery and passionate, articulate and intelligent interpretation of their diverse influences was still intact. ‘White Sky’ and ‘California English’ were the strongest statements of their chamber pop-Afrobeat aesthetic yet, while they retained their ability to let rip and indulge themselves on the likes of ‘Cousins’ and ‘Horchata’. Above all, Contra was fun. Just like their debut, Vampire Weekend laid all their cards on the table and turned on the charm. (EB) (LISTEN)
The emergence of Disclosure as a commercial success, in a dance music scene populated by the bland horrors of EDM, has been one of the most heartening things to happen to mainstream music in years. Brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence recontextualised the splintered sounds of the myriad micro-genres within British dance music and reconciled them into pop songs. Settle may not have been technically revolutionary, but it served as a vital re-statement of the basic principles of dance music, something that needs to happen every now and again. Packed with radio-ready hits (‘You & Me’, ‘White Noise’, ‘Latch’, which helped make a star of Sam Smith) that rubbed shoulders with harder dancefloor fillers (‘When A Fire Starts To Burn’, ‘Grab Her!’, ‘Boiling’), making it one of the most consistently entertaining British dance albums in recent memory. (EB) (LISTEN)
Elbow might have been tempted to simply bask in the reflected glory of their 2008 Mercury win for The Seldom Seen Kid, but instead they chose to make an album as subtly progressive as their last. Garvey’s masterful lyrics, telescoping in from widescreen cinematics to hushed intimacy in the same line, were again the standout feature. Songs about not seeing your mates enough, about broken relationships and childhood memories are his trade in stock, but the way he can make these subjects seem so poignant and personal is what sets Garvey above so many of his atmospheric rock counterparts, confirming him as a kind of Celine Dion figure for middle-aged British men. Build A Rocket Boys! is full of bleary-eyed, closing time anthems, torch songs and slow-burning beauty, and while it may have been a victory lap for The Seldom Seen Kid, it was one they had fully earned and nobody could begrudge. (EB) (LISTEN)
Anthony Gonzalez, the man behind French outfit M83, had dwelled in the hipster hinterlands of electronica for the best part of a decade, crafting several impressive albums in the noughties without ever garnering serious media attention. At long last, he broke through with his most exhaustive artistic statement yet. Powered by the success of ‘Midnight City’, the glorious, flashy ’80s reverie that became the soundtrack to countless adverts and the gaudy ‘Made In Chelsea’, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was a smorgasbord of contrasting styles. 22 cosmic compositions of ambient electronica, funky bass, sparkling synth, smoky sax and psychedelic imagery made it a charming and thoroughly immersive experience, that could be listened to in one go or as parts of playlists. (EB) (LISTEN)
In comparison to the waif-like, spectral presence she had on her debut album Alas, I Cannot Swim, Laura Marling’s second album was much more physical. In her words, it dealt with the “responsibility of womanhood” and the roles of men and women in society. Musically, it retained the fundamental Englishness of outlook on pastoral, cold tracks like ‘Made By Maid’ and ‘Blackberry Stone’, but Marling broadened her palette by weaving themes of ‘70s folk and a sprinkling of Americana in songs like ‘Rambling Man’. Featuring backing vocals from a certain Marcus Mumford (Marling’s then-boyfriend), I Speak Because I Can was an empathetic and triumphant experience throughout, with its author’s voice growing in the kind of confidence and assertiveness that has defined her music ever since. (EB) (LISTEN)
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