Best albums of 2014: top 10

(Clockwise from top left) Damon Albarn, Kelis, St Vincent, Little DragonHere it is. The final countdown. We’ve had club bangers, blazing rap debuts, plenty of pop and atmospheric opuses. But the best is yet to come from albums that challenge the social order, boggle your mind and take you to new plains.

10. Jungle – Jungle
9. MØ – No Mythologies to Follow
8. Essa – The Misadventures of a Middle Man
7. Little Dragon – Nabuma Rubberband
6. Broken Bells – After the Disco
5. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – Give the People What They Want
4. Neneh Cherry – Blank Project
3. Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots
2. Kelis – Food
1. St Vincent – St Vincent

Jungle - Jungle, 50010. Jungle – Jungle
There was an air of mystery surrounding Jungle when they first appeared that defied today’s all-knowing, no-surprises-left-to-the-imagination world of the internet. It didn’t last long, of course, and the band eventually revealed themselves as Tom McFarland and Josh Lloyd-Watson, two ordinary-looking best friends from Shepherds Bush. Their music on the other hand is anything but ordinary.

Jungle’s music is a blend of retro-gaze and soft electronica that’s been embraced by chart DJs, alternative radio and music aficionados. Even the ad men want a piece of the action. That’s a testament to its quality, which is supple in execution, with plenty of the subtle electronic touches. Their music evokes Curtis Mayfield and The O’Jays one minute, Jneiro Jarel and Quantic the next.

‘Platoon’, the track that was picked by BBC DJs Liz Kershaw and Hew Stephens when it was released by Chess Club Records last summer, epitomises Jungle’s sound well with its elastic groove and ice-cool vocals. There’s an extraterrestrial magic about Jungle which seeps into your limbs, making you seat-dance at work to ‘Time’ and shimmy to ‘Busy Earnin’’ at the bus stop. And there’s ambience too for those hot summer afternoons where anything besides lying down seems like too much hard work. Not bad for a couple of “ordinary-looking best friends”.
Listen to: Platoon \ Time \ Lemonade Lake

MO - No Mythologies to Follow, 5009. MØ – No Mythologies to Follow
Today, any act by any powerful female pop star is, apparently, ‘feminist’ (or ‘anti-feminist’). If feminism is about equality, then Karen Marie Ørsted’s presence in mainstream music means a whole lot. With her tightly bunched ponytail, self-assured dress sense and, best of all, her gutsy music, she’s defying the common tropes of women in pop.

Her debut album, No Mythologies to Follow, is the sneak-attack record of the year for me. It’s rebellious, lovably cheeky, effervescent, gloriously youthful stuff, that sounds like AlunaGeorge, Grimes, Little Dragon and Lana Del Rey (but with real emotional fire – not pop culture pastiche).

Ørsted’s, stage name MØ, comes from a punk background, and her DIY attitude is littered all over the album. In ‘Maiden’, spacey, electronica spars with a guitar pattern that’s constantly scaling up and down. It has a beautifully psychedelic effect. As does the extremely danceable ‘Don’t Wanna Dance’, which aurally deposits you in the middle of a technicolour light show.

But there’s meaning to be found among these songs and their moreish melodies, too. Ørsted says the record is about “being young and searching” and you feel that in her honesty. On ‘Waste of Time’, she laments efforts spent loving an ex-boyfriend. And in the very next song, ‘Dust is Gone’, she poetically ponders what it’s all for (“Have you kissed the lips of the one you like so hard you couldn’t stay alive?”). Combining unusual, psychedelic electronica with acrobatic vocal delivery and tactful lyrics, MØ has made familiar pop motifs exciting again.
Listen to: Maiden \ Dust is Gone \ Walk This Way

Essa - Misadventures of a Middle Man, 5008. Essa – The Misadventures of a Middle Man
Reflecting on the revolutionary affect of Motown, broadcaster Paul Gambaccini said: “People don’t make records about social change [anymore]”. So in a year that has seen racial tensions flare dangerously Stateside, Essa’s album is a major relief. Simply put, he tackles issues of identity, race and class head-on in a manner that even hip hop’s most ardent detractors can appreciate.

Essa (formerly Yungun), real name Nick Eziefula, puts his mixed raced heritage and the unique perspective that that has meant for him front and centre in ‘The Middle Man’. As he puts it: “When you stand in the middle there’s a hell of a view / And all I wanna do is share it will you”. Together, these songs are a collection of critical observations and life lessons. The productions, courtesy of Eric Lau, Tall Black Guy, Flako and others, are crisp and daring, but its Essa’s delivery, easy-going and smooth, that make it so listenable.

There are songs about people’s misplaced expectations (‘Easy’), about how much harder you have to work because of your skin colour or gender (‘Harder’), about yearning to rescue a woman from the clutches of her aggressive boyfriend (‘Invisible Man’), about how you speak instantly exposes your class to others (‘Well Spoken’) and so much more. Nothing short of vital listening for fans of Ghostpoet, this “chameleon citizen” has set a new standard for conscious hip hop. In an unjust world like ours, we could do with more Essas right now.
Listen to: The World Belongs to You \ Easy \ Man Enough

Little Dragon - Nabuma Rubberband, 5007. Little Dragon – Nabuma Rubberband
For a band that slowly built a huge following from its electronic-tinged neo-soul and dance, Nabuma Rubberband represents, in many ways, Little Dragon’s biggest departure in years.

The product of a four-piece activity seeking new inspirations, influences range from Afrobeat and samba to slow jams, such as Janet Jackson’s ‘Any Time, Any Place’. And top of the ambient, slow jams bill is ‘Cat Rider’, a dreamy kaleidoscope of transient colour. The chilled, 80s synths of ‘Pretty Girls’ and the weightless bliss of ‘Pink Cloud’ fit nicely into the album’s psychedelic spectrum.

In fact, this album’s best moments are administered so smoothly by the melding of ambient soundscapes and Yukimi Nagano’s honeysuckle timbre that you may wonder where the time has gone. It’s that easy to lose yourself to. Nagano’s vocal capabilities alone continue to be worth the price of admission as she glides effortlessly between stressed highs and tender lows.

The quivering, brooding clatter of ‘Klapp Klapp’ and ‘Killing Me’ reflect the eerier side to this record, thick with hypnotic samba, while ‘Underbart’ offers the familiar electronic-pop perfection that Little Dragon fans have come to adore. An absolute beast of a record that sees the band carving out their own space between 80s synth pop and modern psychedelia from the likes of Grimes and Tame Impala.
Listen to: Paris \ Cat Rider \ Pink Cloud

Broken Bells - After the Disco, 5006. Broken Bells – After the Disco
With their 2010 self-titled album, Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) and James Mercer captured the sound of the near-future American outback. Through Danger Mouse’s trademark use of obscure instrumentals and the rousing call of Mercer’s acoustic guitar, the duo conjured up pictures of a barren and isolating land, but one buoyed by an intoxicating sense of optimism and self-reliance.

After the Disco is certainly more defined than the duo’s debut album and the overriding emotion is melancholy. That’s clear in ‘Leave It Alone’, ‘Control’ and the sombre, yet eerily beautiful, ‘Angel and the Fool’. If this was a film, it would be a collision between the dystopian futures of The Road and Steven Spielberg’s AI.

Disco this is not. Sure, there’s the synth-heavy opener ‘Perfect World’, the disco-ish title track and the threadbare beat of ‘Medicine’, which feels like the glorious sequel to ‘Vaporize’. But they stimulate you to go for a walk rather than bust a move. This is a record for the heart and for the head. Indeed, with its subdued instrumental hooks and Mercer’s tales of remorse and longing, After the Disco is the kind of album that can very quickly become your best friend in hard times. If you’re a fan of Danger Mouse’s previous masterpieces – Rome, Gnarls Barkley, et al – you should definitely take the plunge, if you haven’t already.
Listen to: Holding on for Life \ Medicine \ The Remains of Rock & Roll

Sharon Jones - Give the People What They Want, 5005. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – Give the People What They Want
If you live for soul music, you need to hear the artists on Daptone Records. Period. And if you don’t, you still need Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ fifth LP in your life.

Jones commands each song like a high queen, and the band are her ever-obedient court, ratifying and punctuating her words with enthusiasm. This Georgia-born chanteuse channels the uncompromising energy of soul sisters who were not only blessed with big voices, but a natural ability to imbue subtle emotion in shortest of phrases (Marlena Shaw, Aretha Franklin). Her range is astounding, whether it’s up-tempo numbers (‘People Don’t Get What They Deserve’) or twilight-mood music (‘Slow Down, Love’).

Instrumentally, the tunes may sound simple, yet sass and old-school class course through the veins of this record, like some forgotten lovechild of a fleeting Stax-Motown unity. Funk spits from every bass riff, every horn blast. Tambourines shakes, hand claps and xylophone jingles finish off these exuberant melodies. While backing vocalists, the Dapettes, bestow every harmony and catchy chorus with the angelic poise that’s made The Supremes and Martha Reeves & the Vandellas household names.

This is an album with tunes as big as its performers’ hearts. Tunes that will have you doing cartwheels in your kitchen. Tunes that just put a smile on your face. If you think you’ve heard all there is to hear from soul music, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings will prove you wrong.
Listen to: People Don’t Get What They Deserve \ Long Time, Wrong Time \ Retreat!

Neneh Cherry - Blank Project, 5004. Neneh Cherry – Blank Project
This isn’t a comeback – Neneh Cherry never went away. After all, she’s recorded with the likes of Gorillaz and Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, released two albums with trip hop band CirKus, and reworked music by Doom and Martina Topley Bird with the help of jazz trio, The Thing. Even so, few could have anticipated the tight-focused masterpiece that is Blank Project, the first solo record from the ‘Buffalo Stance’ empress in 18 years.

Sonically, this is worlds apart from her late 1980s alt-rap. It’s an affair steeped in electronic arrangements, tribal percussion and ferocious guitars. Neneh’s lithe, stirring timbre crests above the brooding cacophony that is the backdrop for her reflections on the modern world. Produced by Four Tet, Cherry and Walthamstow duo RocketNumberNine recorded the album in just 10 days.

“So I’m pulling at the purse strings / Spending money like it’s going out of fashion / Keep on dancing, but I can’t find my right moves / Still, I’m weightless,” Neneh croons on ‘Weightless’, a blur of distorted, punk riffs, pulsating keys and subtle breaks. Rivers of sparse percussion pervade ‘Across the Water’ and ‘422’, allowing Neneh to whisper her thoughts – older, wiser, but no less poetic – into your ears. While ‘Out of the Black’ sees Cherry joined by Swedish pop pioneer, Robyn, in a foreboding cruise through urban side streets and underpasses. Crammed with bold, moody instrumentation and impassioned lyricism, Cherry’s Blank Project is a phenomenal achievement.
Listen to: Spit Three Times \ Blank Project \ Weightless

Read my full review of Blank Project on Mi-Soul

Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots, 5003. Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots
Rarely one to talk about himself at the best of times, Everyday Robots is Damon Albarn’s most personal record to date. Many of the songs draw on the Blur and Gorillaz frontman’s childhood experiences growing up in Leytonstone and Colchester.

‘You & Me’ is seven minutes of haunting catharsis in two parts as he ponders drug use in his Blur days. But it’s ‘Hollow Ponds’, named after the great pools that lie at the edge of Epping Forest, that sees Albarn painting vivid pictures of motorways and shopping centres altering his hometown forever.

There’s more to this record than Albarn’s personal ode to north-east London, however. Technology and our attachment to it is the album’s overarching theme. “Everyday robots just touch phones,” he sings on the album’s title track, a wry comment on how we’re all glued to our smartphones today. And there are nods to the temporal culture Instagram is breeding (‘Photographs (You Are Taking Now)’) and TV disrupting communication in relationships (‘The Selfish Giant’).

Albarn’s trademark melancholy is in full effect on Everyday Robots. There’s a lot of wistfulness, but there’s tenderness too, and producer Richard Russell has given us the best of both: cheery interludes (‘Parakeets’), life’s all-too-fast pace and loneliness expressed in beautiful contrast (‘Lonely Press Play’), and the bittersweet ‘History of a Cheating Heart’, which begs to lull you off to sleep, so gentle is its blend of acoustic strings. Everyday Robots is a melodic, solitary wander through the mind of one of Britain’s greatest musicians today.
Listen to: Hostiles \ Mr Tembo \ Hollow Ponds

Kelis - Food, 5002. Kelis – Food
Nobody could have expected Kelis to strike back like this after her split with ex-husband Nas. A ‘Caught Out There’ or ‘Bossy’ Part 2 were the obvious choices. Instead we got a soul album so rich it makes an ice-cream sundae look healthy.

Food is brimming with so many impressive ideas and arrangements it’s a wonder it hasn’t achieved more success. A scintillating combination of jazzy brass, sinewy bass and warm percussion are the bed for an album that feels utterly organic. It was produced by David Sitek (TV on the Radio), and the fun that Kelis says she and her live band had during the recording sessions comes across in spades.

Take ‘Floyd’, a languid jelly of lingering bass lines, steadfast drum claps and bluesy brass that has all the appeal of the first minute of Diana Ross’s ‘Love Hangover’. Or ‘Hooch’, all taught bass lines and sizzling percussion, that sprays the swagger of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Superfly’ your way. Then there’s ‘Rumble’ an Aretha Franklin-esque soul ballad charged with a burning hunger (“You’ve got so many issues, but I guess something’s up with me too”) – I’ve been totally addicted to it all year.

Swagger, laughter and heartbreak are delivered with titanic grace in Kelis’s matriarchal tones. In Food, she has served up a scrumptious album that recaptures the class of 60s soul music with unmatched sincerity.
Listen to: Jerk Ribs \ Hooch \ Floyd

Read my full review of Food on Mi-Soul

St Vincent - St Vincent, 5001. St Vincent – St Vincent
There’s eccentricity and then there’s eccentricity. And the most memorable music anecdotes I’ve heard this year also happen to define the wonderfully weird individuality of Annie Clark, aka St Vincent.

Anecdotes like the close encounter she had when visiting a friend in Texas. Out wandering in the Texan desert on one especially perfect day, with not a soul in sight and overcome by nature’s serenity, she decided to strip butt-naked. She carried on walking. Just her, the baking sun and, suddenly, the threatening shake of a rattlesnake’s tail behind her. What could she do accept run? Which she did. A whole mile or so back to her friend’s ranch. Stark naked. And so ‘Rattlesnake’, an intoxicating funk-rock mishmash, was born.

An unforgettable anecdote from the making of an equally unforgettable album. Even without all her on-stage theatrics, this 32-year-old artisan rocker has elevated her sound with a flair that’s unlike anything else in recent times. While pop musicians and other avant-garde alternative acts are making iterative steps, St Vincent has taken a bounding leap.

Songs such as ‘Regret’ and the beguiling ‘Prince Johnny’ will have you transfixed in astonishment. The latter, about a bored playboy’s lutherio advances on women (and men too) and the extravagant mischief he satisfies himself with (“Remember the time we went and snorted / A piece of the Berlin Wall that you’d extorted”), will have you coming back over and over to lose yourself to its dreamy, quixotic soundscape.

St Vincent @ Dour Festival, Germany, 13/07/2012, by Kmeron (1448x815)Then there’s ‘Huey Newton’, a cosmos of mild, weightless electronica, over which Vincent pours out seemingly disparate comments, only for you to be jerked sideways by an interlude of future cathedral sounds. Even before you have time to absorb that, however, the song diverts once again as a wave of electric guitar noise, taught drum beats and choral chants hits you like a judgement from above.

It’s this attention to detail and unbridled creativity that gives St Vincent a quality akin to the Beatles at the time of Revolver or Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And I do not say that lightly. The imagery in Vincent’s digital hymns also bares resemblance to the Beatles’ knack for concisely pondering life’s curiosities, as attested by ‘Digital Witness’, a burst of futurish jazz-funk with lyrics (“people turn the TV on, it looks just like a window”) that amuse and linger on the mind.

There’s as much Jack White (‘Regret’) and Little Dragon (‘I Prefer Your Love’) here as there is Mark E Smith (‘Bring Me Your Loves’) and Chuck Berry. Amid the din of her art-house poly-rock, Vincent’s observations, as humorous as they are unsettling, connect with a potency usually reserved for poets and painters.

The arrangements are wild and the production wonderfully unusual. Every song offers something new, something unexpected. But it never feels like Vincent is showing off. Four albums in, St Vincent is a product of refinement from an artist who never ceases to apply herself. She’s abstract. She’s impressionistic. But she’s also a genius, and 2014 will be remembered as the year she gave birth to a masterpiece. How fitting that her album cover should see her enthroned as queen of her eccentric empire. Long live St Vincent.
Listen to: Digital Witness \ Huey Newton \ Regret

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my thoughts on these albums and the artists behind them.

What have your albums of 2014 been? What did you think of my choices? And what have I missed out that’s an absolute must-hear record?

Let me hear your thoughts in the comments section below or via @dk33per.

See my entire albums of 2014 series.

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

Image: College (clockwise from top left) Damon Albarn, Kelis, St Vincent, Little Dragon. Photos belong to respective parties; St Vincent by Richard Saker/PR (college), Kmeron (body)