Best albums of 2014: 20 to 11

AOTY 2014: 20-11 college NehruvianDoom, Ibibo, Daley, Foxes  (1448x815)Day four of my 2014 round-up includes standout R&B albums, an African highlife-psych collision, a rock music fight back and an indescribable Mercury Prize-winner.

20. Foxes – Glorious
19. Daley – Days & Nights
18. Banks – Goddess
17. NehruvianDoom – NehruvianDoom
16. Jack White – Lazaretto
15. Young Fathers – Dead
14. Tinashe – Aquarius
13. Beck – Morning Phase
12. Fatima – Yellow Memories
11. Ibibio Sound Machine – Ibibio Sound Machine

Foxes - Glorious, 50020. Foxes – Glorious
She has a Grammy to her name and even appeared on a recent episode of Doctor Who, but very few people – particularly the mainstream chart audience – seem aware of Louisa Allen, aka Foxes. Fewer still, it would seem, have picked up her debut album, Glorious, one of the smartest pop releases of 2014.

Surprising introspective and haunting, this is a “therapy” session flecked with soliloquies, some clear (‘Youth’), others baring slightly more poetic ambiguity (‘White Coats’). The suppleness and control she welds vocally stands out when listening to the sparse, piano-led ‘Night Glo’. But Foxes sounds equally as strong on out-and-out anthem songs, such as ‘Let Go for Tonight’, a perfectly formed piece of pop music.

She could well prove a match for even Hannah Reid’s (London Grammar) soprano skills. And with that in mind, though predominantly positive, one or two of the arrangements could do with being entirely synth-free, if only to give Foxes’s voice the stage it deserves.

With album sales slipping faster, it’s troubling to think that talented young singers, such as Foxes, making exciting alternatives to the Taylor Swifts and Beyoncés, are going to be even fewer and further between.
Listen to: Youth \ Night Glo \ Echo

Daley - Days & Nights, 50019. Daley – Days & Nights
Gareth Daley is the dark horse of male R&B. A prime example of why looks will never cease to deceive, the red-haired Mancunian got his break when he co-wrote and performed a song with Gorillaz in 2010. His debut album, Days & Nights, has gone more or less overlooked by purists as well as the charts, but deserved attention nevertheless.

The songs show off not only Daley’s deft talent for touching lyrics, but why he is one of the UK’s most gifted singers today. His velvety timbre hangs somewhere between Miguel and a classical countertenor. For a measure of his talents, ‘Look Up’, co-written and produced by Pharrell Williams, features a delicate groove that could easily be upset by vocals less slender than Daley’s.

Though, topically, the ingredients are mostly familiar, the subtly tuned instrumentals and Daley’s butter-soft vocals lift Days & Nights to another level. He delivers a Bill Withers-esque hook on ‘Good News’, tackles gospel better than his pop contemporaries covering Joan Armatrading’s ‘Love and Affection’, and could render you speechless with the heartbreaking ‘She Fades’ (“She tells you the true and she lies to herself / I tried to brighten her day but she fades… What more can I do?”).

Daley’s music is as luminous as it is delicate. And with talents to match Justin Timberlake and Miguel, he’s a name that shouldn’t be ignored any longer.
Listen to: Good News \ Pass It On \ She Fades

Banks - Goddess, 50018. Banks – Goddess
Jillian Banks’s sound isn’t alternative R&B – not solely, anyway. The label that FKA Twigs has already distanced herself from threats to tar experimental artists, and their new blends, with the same brush. While elements of alt R&B feature heavily on the Orange County singer’s debut album Goddess, there are also hints of Lorde, MIA, AlunaGeorge and Erykah Badu.

Goddess is an absorbing tour of Banks’s struggle to find acceptance – with herself and as much as others. What could have amounted to a loose selection of naive-glazing songs work far better in the album context as the amalgam of styles holds your attention throughout.

Her lithe, articulate voice cuts through the throbbing drones and fidgety beds, by producers including Sohn, Lil Silvia and TEED, that make up the hypnotising soundscapes. There’s gentle nudges of neo-soul (‘Stick’), arresting vocal-piano pieces (‘You Should Know Where I’m Coming From’) and trip hop backed by creaking, electronic yawns (‘This is What It Feels Like’). She sounds sweet even when she swears (‘Goddess’).

Goddess is awash with distinctive sounds, where loneliness and desire clash with beautiful result.
Listen to: F*ck Em Only We Know \ Brain \ Beggin for Thread

NehruvianDoom - NehruvianDoom, 50017. NehruvianDoom – NehruvianDoom
Whatever else they’re labelled as, Doom albums are always out of the ordinary. From collabs’ with the likes of Jnerio Jeral or Madlib, to his solo work or even his instrumental series, Doom is a master of surprise. But not even he can escape the weight of misplaced expectation.

NehruvianDoom sees the masked MC teaming up with Markus Scott, better known as Bishop Nehru. The 18-year-old Rockland County rapper broke onto the scene last year on the back of two mixtapes and his eloquent rap style. This is not a ‘Doom album’, it’s an album of first steps for Nehru.

Doom handles the beats, while Nehru lays down the majority of the bars. As is common among up-and-coming rappers, Nehru’s focus is on his newfound acclaim and how he’s coping with it (‘So Alone’, ‘Great Things’). He has wit, but there’s a sagginess to some of his verses that’s all the more pronounced when he follows one of Doom’s head-rolling, high-speed tales.

Thankfully, the stand out cuts on this record offer a better glimpse of Nehru. ‘Mean the Most’ is a smooth-as-butter serenade, showing off the soulful side to this young “prodigy”. And ‘Caskets’ sees Doom (“late in the cut, like a puma on the prowl”) and Nehru at their most lively. Meanwhile, Doom’s creative use of jazz loops and rare grooves is shoulder to shoulder with any of his previous concoctions – ‘Caskets’ has the best outro skit of the year, bar none.

NehruvianDoom has been described as being “like a Batman movie with very little Batman”. That’s one way of looking at, and accurate if you come to this album expecting track after track of Doom verses. But it’s important not to forget Doom the producer, who is on fine form here. And while Nehru is no Earl Sweatshirt, his soulfulness and optimism is a fresh addition to hip hop.
Listen to: Mean the Most \ Om \ Darkness

Jack White - Lazaretto, 50016. Jack White – Lazaretto
Rock music’s troubles became painfully apparent in 2013 when Kanye West proclaimed, in year chock-full of equally humble interviews, that he was the “world’s number one rock star”. This year, Jack White led the fight back, and Lazaretto was his ammunition.

Lazaretto’s songs were partly inspired by poems White wrote as a teenager and rediscovered years later. He clips from these to construct a cast of strange characters, whose stories are told in his typical, all-consuming zeal.

The title track riffs on the bragging culture in hip hop lyrics and sees White embodying an exhibitionist with suitably lit bravado. “But I dig bitches like the best of them,” he shouts over the top of the distorted guitar yelps and drums cracks that make up its beat. It has plenty attitude and, yet, retains White’s country rock edge as violins round off its outro.

Those same violins can be found throughout Lazaretto, which give it a much greater vaudeville, country vibe than Blunderbuss. You feel it in the piano-led ditty, ‘Just One Drink’ and ‘Alone in My Home’, where lively rhythms juxtapose, humorously with White’s wry lyrics (“Just one drink, it gets me closer… I love you / Honey, why don’t you love me?”).

Of course, what will really get your motor going is the White Stripes-style bombast of songs such as ‘High Ball Stepper’ and ‘That Black Bat Licorice’. And that’s here in spades, too. White has crafted yet more rock-belters with a wit and technical poise that few can match. Lazaretto roars with confidence.
Listen to: Three Women \ Alone in My Home \ High Ball Stepper

Young Fathers - Dead, 50015. Young Fathers – Dead
This year’s Mercury Prize couldn’t have gone to a more deserving group than Young Fathers. Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham Hastings have served up a collection of songs that defy labels. It’s not hip hop. It’s not electronica. It’s not outernational. I’m still dumbfounded over how to describe it, but I can say that Dead is an album that oozes unfettered character.

It’s bold and abrasive in its lyricism and instrumentation, each song as captivating as the last, which repeatedly leaves you in awe. Sparse, gargling stems (‘Mmmh Mmmh’), pseudo-Arabic/African overtones (‘Paying’) and something that sounds like a wheezing organ but isn’t (‘Just Another Bullet’). It shouldn’t work, but it does.

Just listen to ‘Low’. Its opening chirp pricks up your ears like a meerkat. The Fathers mm and ah over the steady chant of its rhythm. Halfway through, drums sudden kick in and their rap comes at you with renewed verve. It’s about as atypical a pop song as you could get, and yet bares the instant likeability that makes pop so moreish. And it’s this moreish DNA at the centre of Dead that makes it so sublime.

Positivity blooms in usual places (“I heard you got guns / Well I got fun. You lose”) on a record that could birth dozens of new nouns and adjectives. But whatever word you use to describe their music, Young Fathers’ debut is a profoundly enchanting listen.
Listen to: No Way \ Get Up \ Mmmh Mmmh

Tinashe - Aqaurius, 50014. Tinashe – Aquarius
To quote Miss ‘That’s So Raven’ Symoné: “Oh, snap!” That’s the response you may well have again, and again, and again as you listen to Tinashe Kachingwe’s magnificent debut album, Aquarius. As deep as it is broad, there are so many standout tracks here that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Aquarius has a sophistication, a singular vision that belies that of one so young. The 21-year-old singer and dancer brings colour and life to an album of considerable length, reviving the heights of 90s R&B as she does so. Although not as conceptually groundbreaking as, say, Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid, Tinashe conjures up a world you’ll want to inhabit.

Her voice, sugar-sweet and supple, evokes Aaliyah and Faith Evans, while adventurous productions from DJ Dahi, Blood Diamonds, Detail, Stargate and Tinashe herself provide plenty of reasons to keep returning. ‘Bet’ and ‘Cold Sweat’ are just two of several masterclasses here, boasting subtle beats and affecting vocals akin to Frank Ocean.

Aquarius is a shining collection of R&B scorchers. The futuristic romance (“As I look into your eyes, it’s like I’m staring at another galaxy”) of these songs feels equally right in a club atmosphere as it does through headphones. The flood of fresh R&B we’ve received from the likes of Kelela, FKA Twigs and Jhené Aiko is made sweeter still with Tinashe’s spirited contribution.
Listen to: Aquarius \ Bet (feat. Devonte Hynes) \ Thug Cry

Beck - Morning Phase, 50013. Beck – Morning Phase
Beck’s Sea Change from 2002 was a raw and tearful response to relationship catastrophe. Spiritual successor, Morning Phase, is the sound of the healing heart.

There’s a delectable simplicity that runs right through Morning Phase. Tranquil piano melodies, gentle drum patterns and succinct acoustic guitar rhythms mesh together to create songs of intense sensitivity. ‘Morning’ is a fitting example, using simple chords and a beat with the glacial cool of Zero 7 to relax you at the same pace as slow, regular breathes.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Beck said a spinal injury meant he painfully whispered his way through most of the tracks on his last studio album, Modern Guilt. By contrast, he said, since recovering, the recording sessions for this record meant he was able to let rip. And he has done, with splendid results.

Morning Phase runs the full gamut of slow-ebbed, folk and includes orchestral movements to boot. An album of unfathomable beauty from a songwriter who shares David Bowie and John Lennon’s thirst for upsetting trends with music people didn’t even know they needed.
Listen to: Say Goodbye \ Blue Moon \ Blackbird Chain

Fatima - Yellow Memories, 50012. Fatima – Yellow Memories
London singer Fatima Bramme Sey has been orbiting the circuit of underground soul and dance music for more than half a decade. She’s brought a glowing warmth to beats by Eric Lau, Floating Points and DVA. Bathed in a distinctive atmosphere, her debut record is a beautiful arrival for one of Britain’s most underrated vocalists.

Yellow Memories is a nocturnal album for the small, reflective hours. It’s also an unusual affair from its selection of jazz-flavoured compositions to the bold thoughts it asks. It’s the jazz elements – brief jets of brass (‘Do Better’), the taught, low vibrations of a double bass (‘Technology’) – that give the record a vintage elegance. Each of the producers, led by Eglo Records boss Floating Points, marry the familiar sound of these traditional instruments with shrewdly-formed, electronic stems, much like Flying Lotus’ Until the Quiet Comes.

Do-dah bass, xylophone jingles and hand claps offer lullaby tenderness to the Flako-produced ‘Family’. ‘La Neta’, meanwhile, morphs ambitiously from slow, electronic blues to Zed Bias-like samba beat. And, with the possible except of two raw, a cappella interludes, ‘Talk’ is the quietest number eliciting the chill of an after-eight dinner at a secluded restaurant.

Fatima’s voice is sublime enough to entice you back for repeated listens. But her strong conceptual focus helps. We can all relate to the “struggle to stay connected”, not to mention family and identity, topics which are so often bulldozed by the facade of pop stardom. Like Andreya Triana and Bonobo before them, the paring of Fatima, Floating Points and her accompanying producers has resulted in a record of exceptional verve.
Listen to: Family \ La Neta \ Talk

Ibibio Sound Machine - Ibibio Sound Machine, 50011. Ibibio Sound Machine – Ibibio Sound Machine
Fronted by the smiley, insurmountably energetic songstress Eno Williams, Ibibio Sound Machine is a bountiful fusion of West African highlife, disco and psyche. Positivity flows through the record’s 10 tracks like the great Niger River. It’s an insta-cure for those sullen days and a catalyst for loosening up limbs that are more accustom to the shop-floor than the dance floor.

A colourful buffet is on offer, from bass-led funk tracks that swaps the usual climatic drop for melodic bridges (‘The Talking Fish’), psychedelic drum and horn anthems (‘Let’s Dance) and hypnotic travel grooves (‘Got to Move, Got to Get Out!’). The folk tales that make up the song lyrics are all beautifully expressed by Williams in her south-east Nigerian Ibibio tongue.

Exotic, soulful and endlessly uplifting, Ibibio Sound Machine is dance music to shatter the off-putting label of ‘world music’ and combine cultures.
Listen to: Let’s Dance \ The Tortoise \ Got to Move, Got to Get Out!

Leave your comments, rants and questions below or direct them to @dk33per.

See my entire albums of 2014 series.

Image: (clockwise from top left) NehurivanDoom, Eno Williams of Ibibio Sound Machine, Daley, Foxes. Photos belong to respective parties

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