Best albums of 2014: 40 to 31

Clockwise from top left) Temples, Azealia Banks, Pharrell Williams, SZAIn day two of my 2014 round-up, we have albums about nothing but fun times, getting faded and discombobulated, and ripping the heads off childhood toys. Go with it.

40. Pharrell Williams – G I R L
39. Dan Croll – Sweet Disarray
38. Thumpers – Galore
37. Alt-J – This is All Yours
36. FKA Twigs – LP1
35. Gil Scott-Heron – Nothing New
34. SZA – Z EP
33. Temples – Sun Structures
32. Azealia Banks – Broke with Expensive Taste
31. Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo

Pharrell Williams -Girl, 50040. Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Whatever your opinion of the man, it cannot be denied that Pharrell Williams has a masterful ear for production. And it has seen him contribute to more than his share of global radio hits. That being said, there are contemporary soul albums with twice as much originality, conviction and groove than G I R L. Fact magazine said it best: “G I R L is 45 minutes of warmed-over retro-pop pastiche, cribbing from Michael Jackson and Chic, from disco and yacht rock”.

Yet, that doesn’t stop it being a feel-good album to raise the roof when you have friends or family over. From the trembling, samba beat of ‘Brand New’ to the robotic sophistication of the string and bass combo on ‘Gust of Wind’, it’s easy to lose yourself to the rhythm of the album’s flow.

By the end of it, you’re as unlikely as the rest of us to know what Pharrell has actually attempted to say about this relationship to women, beyond the fact that he likes to call them “bae” and whisper suggestive nothings – presumably while hunting his prey in a bathrobe. Musically, G I R L is a record of few surprises from one of pop’s most admired producers. It’s unashamedly crowd-pleasing. So, naturally, you’ll be needing it for that dinner party/wedding/bar mitzvah/Christmas bash/baby shower (delete as appropriate). Or what will the guests say?
Listen to: Happy \ Brand New \ Marilyn Monroe

Dan Croll - Sweet Disarray, 50039. Dan Croll – Sweet Disarray
It may have been massively overplayed across radio and TV, but Dan Croll’s ‘From Nowhere’, originally released in 2012, is deserving of its acclaim. Its simple arrangement of protracted percussion loops and crescendo-charged choruses is quick to hook even the most passive of ears. Tracks on his debut album exhibit Zero 7’s ambience, Peter, Bjorn & John-style rock refrains, plenty of up-tempo, pop hooks and an ever-so-slightly strange folk edge in places. While Croll’s lyrics may be hit-and-miss, if you appreciate the kind of bubbly electronica that seeks to make you feel positively disembodied, Sweet Disarray is one to sample.
Listen to: In / Out \ Home \ Maway

Thumpers - Galore, 50038. Thumpers – Galore
Galore, the debut record from Thumpers, an enigmatic alt pop duo from London, is charged with the energy of The Go! Team meets Friendly Fires. ‘Marvel’ is a stirring opus flushed with pliable horn blasts and a bed of twinkling piano notes. It sets the tone brilliantly for what’s to come: vigorous, electronic alt pop for adventuring.

There are hints of Jungle and Everything Everything on the radio-friendly ‘Unkinder (A Tough Love)’ and Cashier No.9 on the delectable ‘Running Rope’. But its ‘Now We Are Sixteen’, with its low throb, supremely subtle drum section and cleansing choral passages that best embodies the band’s rarefied flair for arresting delicacy. A sensational album of serious flourish.
Listen to: Come on Strong \ Now We Are Sixteen (feat. Summer Camp) \ Running Rope

Alt-J - This is All Yours, 50037. Alt-J – This is All Yours
The winners of the 2012 Mercury Prize have come good once again. Beauty and surreal tenderness flower in the botanical garden that is Alt-J’s second album. Despite the departure of “anonymous” Gwil Sainsbury, the Leeds trio has honed their sound to a finer degree. In ‘Left Hand Free’ and ‘Every Other Freckle’ you have fine examples of what early tastemakers filed under math rock. Angular guitar melodies spliced with organ accompaniment and lyrics that could make the cast of The Mighty Boosh raise an eyebrow inquisitively (“Turn you inside-out and lick you like a crisp packet”). It’s absorbing stuff. Along with its Sigur Rós-style, slow numbers, this a follow-up strong enough to convert non-believers.
Listen to: Every Other Freckle \ Choice Kingdom \ The Gospel of John Hurt

FKA Twigs - LP1, 50036. FKA Twigs – LP1
Intrigue tinged with doses of unease. That’s FKA Twigs’s debut all over. It’s also a fitting description for the woman behind the alias, Tahliah Barnett. This former backup dancer and body art enthusiast has been widely dubbed as the next, hottest purveyor of alternative R&B – a label she disputes.

While I’m not as smitten by Twigs’s high-pitched, vocal gymnastics as others, there is no doubt that LP1 is a thing of rare substance.Twigs produced, or co-produced, the majority of tracks on the album. Trap beats with chasm-like pauses and austere, twiddling tones conspire to unscrew your head from your body while listening. This is a buffet for lovers of discombobulating music. Meanwhile, hints of Theo Parris, Flying Lotus and fellow label mate Sampha show she’s not here to rehash the Weeknd.

There’s certainly plenty of artistry to Twigs’s music. LP1 is an extremely focused album, but outside of its mood and inventive backing tracks, the messages conjured aren’t especially radical. Still, this is an album to cue up (on headphones, if possible), if only to see what all the fuss is about.
Listen to: Closer \ Video Girl \ Pendulum

Gil Scott-Heron - Nothing New, 50035. Gil Scott-Heron – Nothing New
Nothing New is a compilation of stripped-down versions of Gil Scott-Heron’s old songs, recorded during the 2008 sessions for his final studio album, I’m New Here. As posthumous releases go, this is as good as they come. There’s no attempt to fabricate direction or concept; it’s just a piano, Gil and some of the most influential songs from his back catalogue.

The album was originally released by XL Recordings as part of Record Store Day 2014. But here’s hoping it gets an official digital or CD release, so more people get to enjoy these magnificent acoustic takes of Gil Scott classics. A fitting tribute to the legend, who imparted so many life-facts in his songs with an unmatched mastery of poetic directness.
Listen to: Alien (Hold onto Your Dreams) \ Blur Collar \ The Other Side

SZA - Z EP, 50034. SZA – Z EP
Though she doesn’t yet have the press attention to match her contemporaries (The Weeknd, FKA Twigs) in the oversubscribed alt R&B scene, Solana ‘SZA’ Rowe is already breaking through with loaded lyrics and a mysterious grace that captivates.

The 24-year-old’s glacial timbre skirts just above whisper level on many of the retro-dressed instrumentals that populate her accomplished Z EP. And like the sepia tone warmth that reverberates from taught guitar strings on ‘Sweet November’, SZA’s words (“remember me for who I was, not who I am”) are fixated with nostalgia and bittersweet visions of youth. The productions vary between warped R&B (‘Ur’) and Jessie Ware-style pop (‘Julia’). On trap jam ‘Child’s Play’, SZA talks of deliberately defacing her Barbie dolls. There’s a deadly streak to her for sure, but any aversion is quickly eclipsed by her inexplicable girl-next-door appeal.
Listen to: Julia \ HiiiJack \ Sweet November

Temples - Sun Structures, 50033. Temples – Sun Structures
In less than 12 months, Temples have jumped to the forefront of the 60s psych revival, which includes bands such as Toy and Tama Impala. And with good reason, because Sun Structures is hallucinogen realised – without the drugs.

Formed by Kettering guitarist James Bagshaw and bassist Thomas Walmsley, the band’s dress sense – medallions, vintage threads and mop-top hair – matches that of the artists they imitate so well: The Byrds, Pink Floyd and, of course, the Beatles.

Bagshaw’s echoing, Lennon-esque harmonies on ‘Keep in the Dark’ are persuasive enough to trigger a double take. The ensuing tracks are a pilgrimage to a hippy mecca of distorted guitars, unfathomable whisperings and long, mesmeric outros of The Horrors variety. They borrow copiously from the past and critics suspect they aren’t ones for mind-expanding substance abuse. Still, such things don’t stop Bagshaw and Walmsley’s talent for hazy psych from taking you on a trip.
Listen to: Mesmerise \ Colours to Life \ The Guesser

Azealia Banks - Broke with Expensive Taste, 50032. Azealia Banks – Broke with Expensive Taste
Twitter spats and her now-famously short fuse threatened to overshadow the long overdue debut album from provocateur Azealia Banks. Profanity aside, adventurous production and Banks’s whiplash-quick rap style are the high points on an album of pert, liqueur-tinged hood rap.

Early on, ‘Gimme a Chance’ throws a curve ball at you with Spanish bars from Banks over a Latin rhythm. Banks’s style is self-assured, ego-filled, yet you can’t help being amused by her unruly attitude (‘212’). Scratchy, Skrillex-sounding beats underscore ‘Heavy Metal and Reflective’, ‘Ice Princess’ and ‘BBD’ – all examples that Banks can play the hood game just as we as the Eves and ASAP Rockys. Homegirls’ anthem ‘BBD’ will almost certainly become a pre-drinks rallying call for some. Yet the overblown rhythms and stale grandstanding here won’t endear her to you if you’ve already tuned out Nicki Minaj.

Banks is at her best when she’s shifting between sultry seductress and ego-charged Rapunxel, over twitchy pop beats. You get that with ‘Soda’ and ‘Chasing Time’, two glorious ounces of pop rap in the vein of Salt-n-Pepa. What you won’t expect is ‘Nude Beach a Go-Go’, a belly flop of a track, produced by Ariel Pink, that comes across as more of a bad joke with its McFly-meets-Britney Spears beat, than a zany example of hipsterism. The strange dichotomy between hood rapper and pop princess at the heart of Azealia Banks has resulted in a spotty debut. It won’t silence her haters nor vindicate her devoted followers. But, if you have the patience, a mostly entertaining hour of hustle and innuendo awaits.
Listen to: Gimme a Chance \ 212 (feat. Lazy Jay) \ Soda

Isaiah Rashad - Cilvia Demo, 50031. Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo
Top Dawg continues to boast an enviable roster of up-and-coming hip hop agitators. First with Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q, and now Isaiah Rashad. This 23-year-old Tennessee MC’s full-length debut EP feels like being a captive audience aboard an 18th century slave ship en route to Ellis Island.

It’s the intentional air of vaudeville in the beats – blues rhythms and fermented rare grooves dutifully blended together – coupled with Rashad’s tormented delivery. Aggression – frequently aimed at his absent father, but also the atrocities of the Colonial era – features prominently.

Yet, Rashad maintains a disarming sense of self-assurance throughout. At times, more OutKast to Lamar’s NWA. His examination of black persecution, the woozy ‘Ronnie Drake’, with its melodic hook performed by fellow label member SZA, is the standout moment on this gripping EP. From his vices (‘Menthol’) to his philosophical riffs (‘Heavenly Father’), Cilvia Demo is overflowing with animated attitude.
Listen to: RIP Killer Mike \ Heavenly Father \ Soliloquy

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

See my entire albums of 2014 series.

Image: (clockwise from top left) Temples, Azealia Banks, Pharrell Williams, SZA. Photos belong to respective parties

Discuss...