Monday, January 5, 2015

Discopop Directory: Top 10 Albums of 2014

2014 wasn't a great year for albums, truth be told. Or maybe I bought the wrong ones. Anyway, here are the 10 best CDs that found their way onto my iTunes library, sorted by the number of times they were played (with my trademarked Excel formula to weight the albums by release date).

10) The Black Keys - Turn Blue
Neither as sleazy nor as catchy as 2011's El Camino, Turn Blue saw The Black Keys take a long, dark road-trip of the soul after Dan Auerbach's very messy, very public divorce. Along the way, they delved into psychedelia, 60s beat music, 70s disco funk and - on the pleasingly daft closing track - solid gold drivetime pop hooks.

The Black Keys - Gotta Get Away

9) Banks - Goddess

Oh, but this album is so gloriously, deliciously IN PAIN. Banks uses music like primal scream therapy, howling her distress over an array of sawbuzz synths.

As an album, Goddess is as dark and foreboding as a graveyard, but her melodies beguile and her honesty disarms: When she disses a boyfriend by reminding him she's "the girl who made you soup," it's so awkwardly specific it can only be drawn from real life.

Then, just when you think she's getting too miserable, she pulls out a filthy sexballad like Warm Water. This is what a femme fatale with a broken heart sounds like.

Banks - Drowning

8) Jack White - Lazaretto
It sounds like every other Jack White album, but it sounds better than every other Jack White album.

Jack White - Would You Fight For My Love

7) The Pierces - Creation
After achieving commercial success with the glossy soft rock of 2011's You & I, The Pierces smudged their mascara, consulted a shaman and revisited the backwood gothicism of their earlier records. The result is an album that retains You & I's soaring choruses while sending shivers down your spine.

Allison and Catherine's sisterly harmonies are worthy of Agnetha and Frida - but can you imagine Abba ever singing a lyric as sinister as: "Held down by the devil's hand / Dressed up like a gentleman"?

Luminous, grown-up pop.

The Pierces - The Devil Is A Lonely Night

6) Tove Lo - Queen of the Clouds
Not out in the UK until this month because Tove's UK label hate us, but available on import since September. SEPTEMBER.

It's worth the wait, though. Tove Lo plays pop like her life hangs in the balance. "I've always wanted my music to have that desperation," she told me last April, "where you just want to strip your clothes off and run down the highway".

I haven't quite gone that far, but it's been close. Timebomb, Not on Drugs and Moments ("on my good days I am charming as fuck") have hooks so thunderously bombastic I have literally started air drumming on the bus. There is no higher praise.

Tove Lo - Moments

5) Katy B - Little Red
Dance music doesn't produce solo artists of longevity or substance, but Katy's astute combination of underground sonics and pop structures made the "difficult second album" seem effortless. Best of all, she knew it. The opening track painted her as Queen B, easing a newcomer into the rituals of the night: "Keep your jacket on my friend, don't sit down / There's so many things to do round here, let me show you around".

But while her debut was so in thrall to clubland it should have come with a complimentary strobe light, Little Red offered a few glimpses of what happened off the dancefloor: Katy nervously waiting for a date to arrive on All My Lovin'; or succumbing to guilt on the magnificent Crying For No Reason.

The result is a rare thing: A club record that sounds just as good at home.

Katy B - 5AM

4) Ed Sheeran - X
Ed Sheeran spends most of x singing about getting his leg over but, incredibly, you never recoil in horror or throw up in your mouth. Not even once.

Maybe it's his sincerity, maybe his humility, maybe it's just that these are bloody great pop songs. Gossipy, confessional and instantly memorable, the upbeat ones bounce and the weepy ones are suitably blubsome.

Occasionally he turns out a lyrical clunker ("put your faith in my stomach" is the year's least romantic come-on) but even those makes him more relatable. No wonder x became the biggest album of the year.

Ed Sheeran - Don't

3) Taylor Swift - 1989
Right, let me get a few things off my chest here.

First of all, Bad Blood is the most horribly misjudged song of the year. A diss track, supposedly about Katy Perry, it's pathetically petulant and paints a particularly unflattering portrait of its author. It has been excised from my library, otherwise this album would be languishing at number 10.

Secondly, why all the shouting? Almost every chorus is emphasised by T-Swift screaming the hook: "We never go OUT OF STYLE"; "Are we in the clear yet, IN THE CLEAR YET? GOOD." All you had to do was STAY (STAY) STAY (STAY)". It's almost as if she's worried the songs won't stand on their own merits.

But, of course, they stand 50 feet tall. The lyrics are funny and knowing, the production is enthusiastically bright, the hooks are harder to dislodge than a tapeworm.

1989 sounds nothing like the year it was named after, but Taylor Swift defined pop music in 2014.

Taylor Swift - Out of the Woods

2) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part One - Various Artists
Asked to contribute to the last Hunger Games soundtrack, Lorde handed in a diverting cover of Tears For Fears' Everybody Wants To Rule The World. For Mockingjay, Part 1, she was given complete creative control of the whole album.

The result is surprisingly cohesive, the nailbiting intensity of the film mirrored perfectly in the grungy, brooding music. Meltdown - by Lorde and Pusha-T and Haim and Q-Tip (!) - is a gothic call to arms; Chvrches' Dead Air chillingly depicts a disappeared population; Tove Lo's Scream My Name reflects the heroine's steely torment: "I'm dirt, I'm ice... I can take bullets to the heart".

The quality and the tension rarely dip - although Jennifer Lawrence's spellbinding The Hanging Tree should really have been on the track list.

Chvrches - Dead Air

1) Jessie Ware - Tough Love
Jessie Ware's second album is pinch yourself dreamy. A slow-burner, but one that goes from tugging at your heartstrings to snapping them in two.

Listen to the restraint with which Ware sings, "Say you love me to my face / I need it more than your embrace", then imagine how it would have sounded if pop music's other Jessie had wrapped her acrobatic tonsils around it. Horrible, that's how.

In fact, Ware's instincts are flawless throughout. She references Sade, Prince and The xx, and is never afraid to make unexpected choices. She favours subtle, unfolding grooves over obvious pop arrangements. And every song is structured around the ebb and flow of those flawless vocals. Or, to use her own words, "I thought it would be great to show people what it's like when I attempt to sing like a dolphin."

It's not the most exciting or original, album on this list. But it's by far and away the best.

Jessie Ware - Say You Love Me

And that's another year wrapped up, except for the honourable mentions: Paolo Nutini - Caustic Love; St Vincent - St Vincent; Royal Blood - Royal Blood; George Ezra - Wanted On Voyage; Prince - selected tracks from Art Official Age and PlectrumElectrum; Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence; Lykke Li - I Never Learn. I heard U2 had an album out, as well, but for some reason I couldn't find a copy in the shops...

See also: Top 10 Singles of 2014

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