Artwork by Stephen Maurice Graham.
My favourite albums of the year features a sixth album career highlights from a psychedelic mathematician, a fourth album breakthrough for a rubbernecking sweat-drenched band, the return of Aphex Twin, a Wicklow man who seemed to take over the music world, two great Irish rap albums, an album about an imagined trip through China, two very different R&B debut albums, lounge-time electronica from Norway, Annie Clark’s continued ascension through ambition, a collaborative effort from Iceland and the Faroe Islands and a marquee buddy rap album that said more about the state of America than anything else this year and had a brash kick-ass time doing it.
There’s a Spotify playlist available for it all but click down to get some context for each album from 10 to 1. Top 100 songs of the year tomorrow.
30. Little Dragon – Nabuma Rubberband
29. Ratking – So It Goes
28. Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty
27. The Bug – Angels & Devils
26. Lone – Reality Testing
25. DJ Dodger Stadium – Friend Of Mine
24. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead
23. Hundred Waters – The Moon Rang Like A Bell
22. Lethal Dialect x Jackknife J – 1988
21. Hozier – Hozier
20. Warpaint – Warpaint
19. The Gloaming – The Gloaming
18. Fatima Al Qadiri – Asiatisch
17. Sinkane – Mean Love
16. Dorian Concept – Joined Ends
15. James Vincent McMorrow – Post Tropical
14. Fatima – Yellow Memories
13. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time!
12. Alt-J – This Is All Yours
11. St Vincent – St. Vincent
Richard D James’ first album in 13 years.
“We know now that the contents of Syro is just some of the material recorded in the intervening years in one of James’ many studios. The oldest track stretch back six or seven years, using a massive 138 pieces of musical equipment (all listed in spiral on the artwork).
“What appears before it also echoes the heavier side of Druqks but repeated listens reveal new textures, new moods, new avenues explored by James. The trademark eeriness of melody and general cheeky humour is still evident throughout but the greatest part of a new Aphex Twin record is that is truly allows you to get lost in its puzzle, a completely different musical terrain even when there are expected imprints of ambient works, electro, acid, jungle and squiggly funk.
“The 10 minute experience of ‘XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix]’ feels different every time with environmental listening experiences changing the focus and feel (headphones, outdoors, late-night) as all the best electronic music can do. Syro still offers much to explore, many repeat listens in.
“And that is the key to why Aphex Twin is pored over so minutely, because he goes into such detail in his music. James’ intricate compositional skills remains his biggest asset. While his sounds have been copied over the years, his brain is still peerless.”
The American singer dials up the amps and keeps things intimate.
“When you have a voice so striking you could hang a hat on it, it’s probably a good idea to hang your songs on it too. Angel Olsen’s 2012 debut album Half Way Home introduced us to the Missouri singer’s deep country-folk vibrato that sometimes sounded like an entrant in a yodelling competition and musically, was set to throwback acoustic folk. She was an otherworldly attraction.
“The followup, Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar) still relies on Olsen’s distinctive tones to draw you in but the songs hold you closer and Olsen reveals more of herself in the process, while expanding the arrangements to include a rock band at full tilt, devastating acoustic songs and poignant country-folk.
“If Olsen sounded distant and unearthly before, on Burn Your Fire For No Witness, she is emotionally baring, whispering uncomfortably close in your ear or sometimes dancing around you, a real person, hanging her songs and her voice on relatable and knowable experiences.”
A brilliant grimey hip-hop collaborative album via Clare, Zimbabwe and Limerick..
“As they describe it, ‘a Zimbabwean Christian and an Irish pagan sit down with a pot of tea’ with the expressed interest of changing the game.
“What God Knows, the founding member of the Random Acts Of Kindness collective and Ennis-born mynameisjOhn came up with (along with MuRli) is a game-changer in the way it drags Irish hip-hop into a fully-formed album/mixtape format with a confidence and skill that is unfamiliar in this country’s rap output.
“MC God Knows is a fervent presence, an MC with command, as heard on the soulful clip of ‘Standard’, an easy album highlight. MynameisjOhn provides the horn-soul hip-hop backing but doesn’t rest there, the beats bang, the strings stab and God Knows goes double time to the beat slowing to let the soul sample breathe.
“The versatility extends to MynameisjOhn too. ‘Throw The Spear’ reminds me of an MF Doom production – Dangerdoom era, meets Machinedrum. ‘Habbahuk’ is more plaintive, ‘Twentyfourseven’ is psychedelic funk and there are hints of a knowledge of electronic subgenres, even African dance on ‘African Shirts’.
“Aspects of being an African boy growing up in Ireland seeps through the lyrics in details about being black in an Irish school. He’s Joined by MuRli and Guide on ‘Words Of Our Fathers’, a track which, in the short history of Irish-African rap would have never been made twenty years ago, and serves as an aural document of one small thing that multi-cultural Ireland has given us.”
Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds and Faroe Islands’ synth-pop musician Janus Rasmussen’s first album together collides two worlds of sounds to engaging effect.
” Arnalds and Rasmussen explore what happens when contemporary composition that uses stringed instruments, has a classical knowledge and is often written with scores in mind intersects with the sensibilities and practices of synthesizer-driven music structures.
“The pair spent much of the year in Reykjavík working together on this album. The result is a grandiose vocal-less dance album that effectively uses the tactile textures of the former in the arena of the latter.
“Across seven, often long tracks (the average length of about 6 and a half minutes), the opposing worlds of electronic and classical mesh well together and Kiasmos moves in a place that is neither contemporary or classical, house or techno, but that crosses both with a new identity.”
An alluring minimal indie R&B album from the Oxford musicians.
“ZABA, the band’s debut album pushes their atmospheric agenda into a cohesive release. Their M.O. is slinky minimal pop, not a million miles from Alt-J, but more exotic and worldly than their counterparts. But they do share a common parlance in how they translate their traditional band setup into an otherworldly place.
“Executive production by Paul Epworth with Bayley producing ensures that level of aural consistency, meaning ZABA which is likened to ‘a backdrop of man-made wilderness,’ according to the band directly, is awash with ambient and alluring songcraft.”
Dark disco and electronic pop on album #2 from the Long Island band.
“The eight tracks on the self-titled second album are definitely night-time grooves, which occupy the same mood without jumping around from genre to genre, and as an album it works wonderfully, because Mr Twin Sister have an attention to the small details that stands to them when they delve deep into genres like disco and funk.
“Andrea Estella’s lyrics suit the vibe, their disco-noir sound is escapism and she often seeks to escape. ‘In The House Of Yes’ she locks herself in her room, drinks to a stupor and dances on her own own til her head is on the ground. ‘Rude Boy’ finds her rejecting the advances of an opposite (“I have all the drinks i can handle”), content to exist in the space. “Is there a real me? Or am I just a series of nights,” she sings on ‘Blush’. The thrilling ‘Out Of The Dark’ has her questioning identity too – “I am a woman / But inside I’m a man / And I want to be as gay as I can.” The Johnny Jewel-esque ’12 Angels’ has someone singing about being in drag to reinforce the theme.
“Despite the album being united in tone, there’s a sense that Mr Twin Sister aren’t settled. It’s in the artwork which is deliberately unfinished and packaged, it’s in the 37-minute running time and it’s in the new name. The altered band have reset and are heading in their own independent direction and making great music as part of the process.”
2014’s magnetic leftfield R&B star.
“Twigs has showed herself in public through artwork and videos which have hyper-realised versions of herself (large eyes, elongated neck, disfigured faces), that she is interested in examining and distorting her identity, including the very name she’s persisted with – Formerly known as.” On LP1, she shares seemingly true intimate versions of herself.
“There is no worry that the separation of the music from the visuals FKA twigs has become synonymous with has lessened the impact of LP1 or that twigs has nothing to say. A longer sustained running time means rather than snatches of character-forming opinion, we get a confidential look at the artist herself talking sex, self-image, desire, loneliness, intimacy, and state of mind, subjects normally guarded from others more vehemently, particularly for new artists.
“The combination of twigs’ alien otherworldliness, her ambient often anguished electronic R&B style and her intimate and lustful portrait of herself, directly or reflected in others, makes for an iconic release and helps form a person who feels human and real. By the end of the album’s 10 tracks, twigs decides that she knows herself best, after all.”
The Baltimore band’s fourth record of melodramatic synth-pop hit a bigger audience.
“These are songs that have the chest-thumping melodramatic new wave pop at the heart of what they do while refining the songwriting and production by Chris Coady make for an overall better album.
“There’s a straight up heart-on-sleeve anthemic lean to all of the songs. Each of them stand on their own, hence the title, whether it’s the yearning synth-pop of ‘Spirit’, the hook-laden chorus of ‘Sun In The Morning’, the bass-funk of ‘Doves’ , the slow epic atmosphere of ‘A Song For Our Grandfathers’ or the brilliant album closer ‘A Dream Within A Dream’.
“There’s quite enough eccentricity in Herring’s vocal delivery whether he’s whispering, skulking, brooding, wailing, growling, crooning or delivering a monologue like David Bowie in Labyrinth on ‘Fall From Grace’. His range is beautifully dramatic and spirited and the music doubles down on providing an effective poignant foil for that – focusing on chugging bass, propulsive rhythms and colourful synths. It’s a perfect distillation of Future Islands which just happens to leave a more accessible, hook-laden welcoming impression than before. The band are all on the same powerful page rather than just being “that band with the eccentric lead singer.”
And let’s face it – as Letterman proved, and as this album substantiates, Herring, Gerrit Welmers and William Cashion have a lot more highly-strung emotion and joyful connections to make with audiences.”
Affirmative heart-on-sleeve dancefloor psychedelia.
“What a pleasure it is to arrive at the sixth album from an artist to find them at the peak of their music-making abilities. Press play on Our Love and that sentiment is obvious.
“Snaith’s psychedelic imprint and swells of emotion covers everything, through his falsetto and his preference for nostalgic-faced melodies. His lyrics add to the tenderness, chiefly concerned with a slipping, fading love, yet he offers us, and himself, solace in every other way.
“On Our Love, Snaith is now fully immersed in the world of the nightclub but he wears his heart on his turntable. That doesn’t mean that there’s an dumbing down or mindlessness. There is a simplicity to a lot of the tracks that, only comes from putting in the long hours. Snaith’s love of his craft continues to shine. If anything, he’s has just better at making things sound larger with less.”
Best buddies El-P and Killer Mike made the year’s best rap record.
“The sequel to one of the best rap mixtapes in recent times does what many sequels do not. It improves the dynamic between the cast, it delivers smarter, more quotable lines, it takes aim at larger targets and it adds a whole lot of bang.
“Run The Jewels 2 is what happens when a producer-rapper/rapper hit a career high at the same damn time. Because this is El and Mike’s album, they own it. Because even though there are vocal guests: RATM’s Zack De La Rocha, singer/producer Boots and Three 6 Mafia’s Gangsta Boo, they serve the version of a banging lean record, rather than overcrowd it.
“RTJ2 is two buddies, operating at their creative peak. It’s more than another chapter, more than a sequel. It’s a sinewy distillation of more than a friendship, it’s a fruitful creative partnership that sounds like it’s been reinforced by steel foundations such is the wicked bulging energy contained within the album’s 40 minutes.”