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Top 10 albums of 2014

In Uncategorized on December 27, 2014 at 2:30 PM

The Black Keys – Turn Blue

After scratching just under the surface of chart success for about a decade, The Black Keys finally hit the big time around 2011 with El Camino, a foot-stomping, drumming-on-the-wheel, open top American road trip album if there ever was one. However, while their professional lives were soaring, their personal lives were coming off the rails – singer Dan Auerbach going through a messy divorce and drummer Pat Carney having new-found huge success overwhelm him to the extent he sought treatment from a hypnotist. Turn Blue channels this into a more “moody” album; finding a great, woozily psychadelic middle-ground between the vaguely glam rock stomp of El Camino and the atmospheric if often unremarkable bluesy rock of their earlier six albums. Nowhere else have they really produced a song like Weight of Love, an almost-seven-minute epic which moves from a long instrumental intro into a slow bluesy number and culminates in a wig-out of screaming guitars which Led Zeppelin would be proud of.

Bombay Bicycle Club – So Long, See You Tomorrow

Bombay Bicycle Club returned in February, two and half years after A Different Kind of Fix, with a handful of new ideas to make this album their most successful (number 1) and probably their best. Frontman Jack Steadman wrote it having travelled to Europe, Turkey, India and Tokyo and, while it would be an exaggeration to call it ‘world music’, it does have definite nods to these expanded horizons, and mixes them with electronic and funk touches. (Their name, which came from a now-defunct chain of restaurants, actually arguably belied a fairly typical English guitar band sound in their early days – although to be fair they hadn’t even passed their GCSEs when they started out). Most notable is the Indian influence. Steadman stayed with an Indian studio owner for a month, the most obvious fruit of those labours being Feel, in which the band sample a 50s Bollywood film and make it their own. It’s confident and happy without being cheesy or sentimental – the sound of a bound coming of age.

The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

The War on Drugs finally got some – very deserved – acclaim this year with this album, two albums and over ten years after their first beginnings. ‘Lost in the Dream’ is an apposite name for the hazy, vaguely psychedelic Americana within. ‘The War on Drugs’, however, is not such an apt name, as it’s what you’d imagine Springsteen would sound like if he’d done some weed, chilled out a bit and stopped stressing about taking on The Man as just a Regular Joe from New Jersey. And brilliantly so.

Ben Howard – I Forget Where We Were

The fear – or mine at least – with Ben Howard’s second album was that, following impressive popularity for his fine first album Every Kingdom, he would move a bit more towards James Blunt territory with a mediocre stadium-filler. In fact, he’s moved the other way. I Forget Where We Were sees Howard explore far richer, more expansive terrain – only one of the ten songs comes in at under four minutes and three pass the six-minute mark – making a strong claim for him to be spoken of in the same breath as songwriters like Jeff Buckley and John Martyn.

Goat – Commune

I can understand why this African-electronic-rock-jazz-infused psychadelica has not reached a bigger audience, but that does not mean Goat’s relatively anonymity is merited – because they make such a thrilling, inventive mess of noise, with a refreshingly flagrant disregard for anyone’s neat little musical boxes (Yeasayer are probably their closest musical bedfellows). They hail from a small town in northern Sweden called Korpilombolo, which they claim has a long tradition of voodoo practice which have affected the music of the town and, in turn, their own. As Paul Lester writes in The Guardian, it’s probably rubbish, but the fact they even claim it is telling. The lead singer’s vocals may grate on some but – like fellow Swede from the not-dissimilar Knife, Karin Dreijer Anderssen – they have undeniable passion and give Goat’s music character. Anyway, they’re secondary really to the crazy musicianship.

FKA Twigs – LP1

Continuing the recent genre of ‘Noir & B’, which has included Weeknd, Kelela and Banks, FKA Twigs, this year brought us probably the weirdest, example of the sparse, ethereal marriage of R&B and electronica – adding some healthy dollops of Kate Bush and Bjork in the mix too. With her high-pitched, vaguely choral/classical voice – influenced from her time at a Catholic school – singing of things such as seducing another woman’s man (Two Weeks) and female masturbation (Kicks), it’s certainly the most NSFW. In the video for Two Weeks, which Guardian critic Kitty Empire described as “ecstatically filthy”, Tahliah Barnett sits on a chair, writhing around dressed and spray-painted as a golden Egyptian goddess as she pours milk from the end of her fingers on a submerged version of herself below, and sings: “My thighs are apart for when you’re ready to breathe in.” (“If it’s a raw subject, I write lots of things and then pull out all the fluff words.”) Admittedly, some songs, with eery, dissonant, disconnected sounds, are arguably mood over music, but there’s so much vision and ambition. Robert Pattinson, her boyfriend, is a lucky guy.

SBTRKT – Wonder Where We Land

Aaron Jerome – under his masked alter-ego of course – returned with his sophomore effort this year. Some of it works better than others, some of it is of the instrumental stuff is unremarkable and for my money his debut album is (marginally) better, but what’s impressive about it is its range and confidence (there’s 15 songs and 21 songs on the album and bonus album respectively, albeit a few small interludes). It covers similar soulful electronica with Sampha as the first (Temporary View), piano torch music (If It Happens), electro-funk (Gon Stay) and whatever the fuck New Dorp. New York, with Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, is. It’s awfully pretentious to say music is a ‘journey’, but this album really is.

Royal Blood – Royal Blood

….On the other hand, Royal Blood are not a complicated band – two blokes, songs recorded in one take (mostly), ten songs over in just over 32 minutes…number one album. Thank you very much. But that’s testament to just how monstrous the hooks and riffs are, and perhaps a gap in the market for a band offering straight-up rawk, among indie bands with various pretensions and affectations. Bassist/singer Mike Kerr and drummer Ben Thatcher create a very loud and skuzzy sound you would expect to see in a darkened bar in a film as a fight between rival biker gangs breaks out. To the uninitiated, that will probably give a pretty good idea if you’ll like this album. I read one comment on their nomination for the Mercury Music Prize being like having a Mars bar as a dish on Masterchef. It’s a fair comment, but I still love it.

Jamie T – Carry on the Grudge

Jamie Treays compiled a whopping 180 songs since the release of Kings and Queens in 2009 to choose from for this album – and it shows, because this is an album of real class. It shows Jamie maturing with age, moments of light and dark, and touches of soul (Love Is Only a Heatbeat Away), funk (Trouble) and punk (Rabbit Hole, Peter) among his distinctive indie/ska.

Lykke Li – I Never Learn

It’s a surprise our love of all things Scandi has not translated to Lykke Li, her three albums having only reached numbers 112, 37 and 33 in the chart (compared to 3, 2 and 2 in her native Sweden). And it’s a shame too, as she makes some fine, alternative, emotional and grand pop music. But pop music with proper strings, piano, drums and guitar – it is to most current pop as a Michelin Star restaurant is to McDonalds.

Why aren’t more people going Green with anger?

In Uncategorized on November 28, 2014 at 3:57 PM

The Scottish independence debate prompted numerous claims from the left of the Scots actually having a chance to decide their own future. This isn’t a new complaint – many groups, Occupy and the People’s Assembly among others, have been posing it, especially since the economic collapse.

I think there is a large aspect of contradiction in all this championing of ‘democracy’ when, like it or not, the Conservatives did get more votes than any other party in the last election, and by a non-negligible amount (7%). Yet I feel there is some merit to the arguments, partly because I read the Guardian and half-swallow its politics, but mostly because polling shows that people in the UK, when separated from party-political allegiances at least, actually mostly favour public ownership of the NHS, energy companies, Royal Mail and railway companies – only the former of which is actually, to generalise, under public ownership (‘state’ ownership, which tends to have more negative connotations, if you prefer). And because polls during this government have shown widespread rejection of austerity, sometimes by margins of about two to one, along with support for reducing inequality even if it cuts overall wealth(However, one should be wary of reading too much into these economic surveys, as recent polling shows that, despite significant cuts, 65% did not think the quality of council provision was falling, and of course there’s age-old political adage of people wanting lower taxes and more public spending…)

But I’m not here to preach either way. Merely to suggest – given there is such a mood where the newly political Russell Brand is not universally laughed off as some kind of ridiculous Private Eye satire come true – that people stop complaining about a lack of ‘political voice’ when they have a perfectly good outlet for it – the Green Party. Because despite passionate grassroots campaigning and support for the – popular – policies described above, they gained a measly 1% of the vote in the last election and that has only risen to around 2-5% (and even that may be benefiting from the ‘Shy Tory’ factor).

This is not meant as a sarcastic suggestion. I suggest it because, while I wouldn’t vote for the Green Party, I do respect them and think they are decent people and because their lack of support is so inimical to voters’ stated complaints and preferences. Anyone who complains about the self-serving mendacity or beige professionalism of current politicians would be well-served to remember that Caroline Lucas – the Green Party’s first and only MP, in Brighton got arrested for standing up to fracking on environmental grounds, by causing a roadblock and stubbornly resisting moving. If people want more more nationalisation and less austerity, why has the major political shift during this government, from former Tory and Labour voters, been to a party headed up by a former commodities trader which believes in “free trade, lower taxes, personal freedom and responsibility” and that “the state in Britain has become too large, too expensive and too dominant over civil society”? It’s the political equivalent of turkeys voting for Christmas…or at least it would seem that way. (A big caveat is that it’s a little selective to choose those measures of polling. Recent public attitude aligned far less well with the (typical) left on welfare, immigration and the EU, but still I think support for the Green Party is surprisingly low).

The most obvious reason for the lack of Green support is the – understandable – idea that they will just be a wasted vote for left-leaning voters, letting the Tories in by depriving Labour of a vote. But a lot of people are becoming with Labour now so this idea should hold less water. A big factor in must be an image problem for the Greens; tarnished by the idea it’s a single-issue party full of ‘self-righteous humanities graduates’. The latter is arguable, but the former isn’t, whatever you think of the policies themselves (the party name is probably a double-edged sword in this respect).

It also doesn’t get a great rap in the press. Unsurprisingly The Sun, Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph aren’t too enamoured to them or their motives, but more left-leaning papers such as the Guardian, surprisingly, and the Daily Mirror don’t give them much attention. Owen Jones and Polly Toynbee, among others, comment a lot that Labour is not strong enough in its left-wing convictions, which is arguable, but to me it begs the question: ‘why not consider going Green?’ In his most recent article, leftier-than-thou Seumas Milne describes an “insurgent campaign” (for a Yes vote but “present among Labour voters across Britain”), “fuelled by a rejection of austerity, privatisation, illegal wars and the grip of the Westminster elite”. But when he considers who will represent such people in England, he doesn’t even mention the Green Party, instead discussing Ukip and the Tories (critically).

That’s even for left-wing people who go in for the idea of conventional game of politics. Russell Brand has a lot to answer for here, since (somehow) a fair number of people actually think there’s something in his idea of not voting as a positive and viable means to change, so surely he’s shooting his cause in the foot by telling people not to vote. And therefore probably hurting the Green Party, which his views are closely aligned to.

I think represents Brand represents a growing trend in individualistic politics; selfie politics, if you will, whereby people are happy to be promote their politics but not so much to put them to use in the difficulty world complete with sometimes grubby compromises that is party politics, where their views would actually be of some use in our democratic system. Herein lies, I think, a couple of paradoxes of the left. There are big strains of individualism and libertarianism within left-wing movements sitting alongside ideas of co-operation and ‘solidarity’. The ideas aren’t necessarily irreconcilable, but they present issues. Is it ‘co-operation’ for rich people to be made to pay half or more of their income to the state, or ‘coercion’? How tolerant should we be of what could equally be called intolerance or ‘freely expressed opinion’? Is religion liberating or oppressive? And so on and so forth. Also, there has been an interesting coalition of much of the left and the libertarian right on state control over data in the wake of the Snowden revelations.

Part of the problem is that the idea of protest and progress against the establishment is pretty fundamental to the left, so what to do when the left becomes the establishment? Looking across the Channel, in just over two years as President, leader of the Socialist Party Francois Hollande has seen its approval rating drop as low 13%, amid a stagnating economy and unemployment doubling in 2013 to just over 11%.

A look at the Green Party’s record in power in Brighton since 2011 may also be instructive for this. Their running of the city has seen a vote of no confidence, ‘rebel’ Greens trying to oust council leader Jason Kitcat, rubbish going uncollected during a six-week dispute with refuse workers (in which Mr Kitcat was trying to push through changes while his deputy was protesting them with binmen, supported by MP Caroline Lucas) and widespread opposition to a proposed 4.75% council tax rise. To be sure, these will be not dissimilar to some problems in councils up and down the UK. But what makes it different is that the gritty realities of governance are much further removed from the Greens than the other three parties – and there are some measures they have introduced which, like them or not, only they could have introduced. For example, the (abandoned) plan to implement ‘meat-free Mondays’ at the council and removing Mr and Mrs from official council forms.

Also telling is the internet, which is riven with passionate debates about what you can and can’t say about certain minorities (‘intersectionality’ basically); throwaway lines about Brazilian transexuals or how men tend to be more campaigning in their atheism; if men can and should be feminists; what privilege people have and if/how much that disqualifies them from certain debates…and so on and so on. To be blunt, identity politics, with groups making various claims to their position on the victimhood hierarchy. It’s all certainly too much for ‘militant feminist’ Julie Bindel. This is harsh, because there is inequality and unfairness in the world that merits discussion, but in truth the idea of too many exponents of this kind of politics in serious power scares me.

I’ve somewhat argued against the thing I was suggesting. But still, if you think the UK is in the grip of a suffocating ‘neo-liberal consensus’, why not put your morals where your mouth is and vote Green, warts and all…