Culture, Music

Best albums of 2014: 50 to 41

Jessie Ware, Oya Festival 2012, 20120811, by NRKWith album sales on life support, 2014 was the year it became almost impossible to track – in chart terms, at least – the music that has connected with the most people.

Of course, there’s more to music and life than sales, who’s got the biggest entourage or who wins the next X Factor. Which is why I find it especially interesting to learn about artists or albums that I’ve not come across at all. The best albums can help you understand who you are or who you wish to be, take you to places you’ve never been and even comfort you in hard times.

Through sheer will – and madness – I’ve upped my annual round-up of the year’s best albums to 50. Some of them you many have heard about, but, with some luck, they’ll be a fair few you haven’t. In the words that follow I hope you find reason to give at least one album you’ve never heard a try.

50. Clean Bandit – New Eyes
49. Prince – Art Official Age
48. SBTRKT – Wonder Where We Land
47. Paolo Nutini – Caustic Love
46. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time
45. Gorgon City – Sirens
44. Luke Sital-Singh – The Fire Inside
43. Jessie Ware – Tough Love
42. Natasha Watts – Natasha Watts
41. The Black Keys – Turn Blue

Clean Bandit - New Eyes, 50050. Clean Bandit – New Eyes
For all the early promise this Cambridge four-piece showed, Clean Bandit’s debut album is a mixed bag. The starting salvo of rich, well-crafted electronica – with a classical spin, which has become the band’s USP – on ‘Mozart’s House’ and ‘A&E’ soon gives way to joyless, repetitive passages (‘New Eyes’) and overbearing genre mash-ups (‘Cologne’). It doesn’t help that the lyrics on New Eyes are also some of the weakest you’ll hear – ‘Telephone Banking’ being the number one culprit. While it’s not a total success, the band’s promise is encapsulated in the pop excellence of ‘Rather Be’.
Listen to: A&E (feat. Kandaka Moore & Nikki Cislyn) \ Dust Clears \ Up Again (feat. Rae Morris)

Prince - Art Official Age, 50049. Prince – Art Official Age
Only Prince could pop the sound of jacuzzi bubbles on an album without giving it a moment’s thought. The Purple One’s lineage with mood-setters for love making is second only to Barry White, so you can bet those bubble aren’t there for show. And that’s before you reach the unambiguous ‘Breakfast Can Wait’.

Art Official Age is Prince’s 33rd studio album. Rapid-fire verses on ‘U Know’ could have Craig David running for cover, while Prince’s signature falsettos justify his yearning to get “metaphysical”. Guest appearances from the ever-lovely Lianne La Havas and Andy Allo add a touch of feminine sparkle, too.

Fans of Parliament, Salsoul and, of course, the man himself will dig the nonstop funk even if better examples have surfaced this year. While it won’t blow your socks off, with the right company/atmosphere, don’t be too surprised if some kind of debriefing occurs while it’s playing.
Listen to: U Know \ Clouds (feat. Lianne La Havas) \ Time (feat. Andy Allo)

SBTRKT - Wonder Where We Land, 50048. SBTRKT – Wonder Where We Land
The focus that was so evident on SBTRKT’s (Aaron Jerome) first album is missing from his sophomore effort. As a collection, these songs feel unconnected. Some are classic SBTRKT: stirring electronic loops (‘Everybody Knows’) paired with arresting vocals from the likes of Denai Moore (‘The Light’) and long-term collaborator, and heir to the throne of UK soul, Sampha (‘Temporary View’). But others feel like experiments that would be better placed elsewhere: though the beat is faultless, the rap verse on ‘Higher’ comes across as a trite distraction. Ultimately, when the piano keys and voices fade away, you have an album that still bares SBTRKT’s talent for blistering loops, but one that doesn’t match up to his original tour de force.
Listen to: Everybody Knows \ The Light (feat. Denai Moore) \ Lantern

Paolo Nutini - Caustic Love, 50047. Paolo Nutini – Caustic Love
The over-exaggerated Latin-funk of Paolo ‘Be a Model Pupil’ Nutini always seemed worse than cheese and chalk to my ears. So it is with great astonishment that the Italian-Scot’s third album, Caustic Love, has shown me another side to the singer. There are blues-inspired campfire songs with a touch of gospel (‘Better Man’), funk anthems (‘Scream’) and a fair amount of love, unrequited (‘Let Me Down Easy’) and complicated (‘Looking for Something’). To be honest, Paolo does teary soul-bearing far better than he does funk, but it’s hard to deny the man’s well-matured vibe.
Listen to: Better Man \ Fashion (feat. Janelle Monàe) \ Looking for Something

Todd Terje - It's Album Time, 50046. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time
There’s a cross-culture chic about Norwegian DJ Todd Terje. But while he’s dance music royalty for some quarters (Mixmag, 6 Music), his music is still an acquired taste. The influence of lounge music – right down to exaggerated, open-shirted, lothario-ish depiction of Terje on its cover art – is extensive. That’s no criticism, if lounge music’s your thing. Indeed, ‘Strandbar’ is a string of energetic pulsations punctuated, eventually, by snappy piano chords. ‘Delorean Dynamite’ is equally as absorbing: its bass riff flickering in and out, the drone of its futuristic bed and chiptune-sounding synths that bombard you like electronic battering rams. It’s repetitive in places, but there’s also enough inventiveness to make Album Time more than a passable party-starter.
Listen to: Preben Goes to Acapulco \ Strandbar \ Oh Joy

Gorgon City - Sirens, 50045. Gorgon City – Sirens
The revolution of UK dance music we’ve be enjoying in recent years is akin to a burgeoning art movement that’s suddenly found validation. Joining albums from the chart-topping clique that includes Rudimental, Disclosure, Clean Bandit, Bondax, and individuals such as Jess Glynne, Sinead Harnett and MNEK, is Gorgon City’s Sirens. It’s awash with glowing melodies and animated pop vocals.

Tunes ‘Ready for Your Love’, ‘Real’ and ‘6AM’ bound with an energy that extends well beyond the dance floor. The trouble is things are moving so fast even within the aforementioned microcosm of dance music pioneers that the line between ‘banger’ and ‘background music’ is becoming increasingly grey. And Sirens has its grey moments. Thankfully, though, when it drops its bangers they explode with colours that will keep you coming back.
Listen to: Ready for Your Love (feat. MNEK) \ Here for You (feat. Laura Welsh) \ 6AM (feat. Tish Hyman)

Luke Sital-Singh - The Fire Inside, 50044. Luke Sital-Singh – The Fire Inside
Oh, how far Luke Sital-Singh has come from his musical beginnings as a croaky goth. The folk singer from New Malden, South London, has produced a neat collection of tender arias and guitar-led folk pop. Comparisons could be drawn to Ed Sheeran, but there’s a splendid retroism to Sital-Singh’s music. Several of the album’s strongest tracks were taken from his self-produced demos and previous EPs. And like Lucy Rose or Emmy the Great, Sital-Singh has character. From Britpop-era ballads (‘Lilywhite’), to sombre confessions (‘Fail for You’), to unexpectedly groovy folk (‘21st Century Heartbeat’), there really is fire inside his album.
Listen to: 21st Century Heartbeat \ Bottled Up Tight \ Fail for You

Jessie Ware - Tough Love, 50043. Jessie Ware – Tough Love
Jessie Ware has one of the most affecting voices in pop. Her Mercury-nominated debut album, produced by Julio Bashmore, was a marvel of slow-burning, quasi-80s pop. Even with material and ideas we’ve heard so many times before – in this case, the complications of love – her voice can still pin you unawares with spears of emotion.

On Devotion, Ware exhibited deft songwriting, which was allowed to breath thanks to Bashmore’s delicate tuning. By comparison, some lyrics on Tough Love are simplistic almost to a fault (‘Kind of… Sometimes… Maybe’). And although the beats change, the songs retread ground with too much regularity. After the triumph of ‘Wildest Moments’ it’s hard to shake the feeling that Ware deserves better than Coldplay choruses (‘Say You Love Me’). Tough Love is an album of wistfulness, wine and cliché. And yet, Ware still manages to move you.
Listen to: Sweetest Song \ Keep on Lying \ Cruel

Natasha Watts - Natasha Watts, 50042. Natasha Watts – Natasha Watts
Faith is at the heart of the debut album from UK soul singer Natasha Watts. She sings about perseverance, acceptance and realising one’s dreams with deep humanity. Watts’s voice is capable of hitting notes worthy of Beverley Knight and Whitney Houston, as she makes clear in ‘Change’. She channels devotion (‘Good Love’) and conviction (‘Worth’) by the bucketful. In these songs, you hear a talent that has endured the hardships that come from gaining experience the old-fashioned way. A marvellous album from a talented vocalist who will appeal to followers of Rumer and Estelle.
Listen to: Good Love \ Go Slow \ Born a Star

Read my full review of Natasha Watts on Mi-Soul

Black Keys - Turn Blue, 50041. The Black Keys – Turn Blue
An exhaustive two years touring and a separation from his wife were fresh in Dan Auerbach’s mind when the time came to pen songs for the Black Keys’ eighth album. Turn Blue doesn’t quite measure up to predecessor El Camino’s hook-laden perfection, but it’s a massage for the mind nonetheless. Remorse is rife in Auerbach’s lyrics (‘10 Lovers’) on this, mostly, solemn affair. Yet, the Keys’ rolling technicolour clouds of psychedelia (‘Bullet in the Brain’) and tender blues melodies make a reasonably convincing argument that an album of this kind is precisely what the wounded heart needs. Time is a good healer, and although Turn Blue might not stay on rotation long enough to mend your broken heart, it’s a nice addition to their prolific catalogue of ‘blues songs for break-ups’.
Listen to: Bullet in the Brain \ Turn Blue \ Waiting on Words

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

See my entire albums of 2014 series.

Image: Jessie Ware at Øya 2012 (NRK P3/Flickr)