Best of 2014 - Part 3: Psych/Krautrock/Punk/Blues/Glam/Tropical

Another hodge podge of generally loud fast music often featuring loud guitars and sometimes even loud keyboards.

There are also some hushed varieties (to make up for the lack of volume those have a spooky air) and at least a few with no guitars at all.

That's the beauty of pop music and 2014 was another vintage year.

1. Ezra Furman – My zero (Bar None)

Let’s start with an album not technically released last year (towards the end of 2013), but it sank home with me in the early weeks of last January. The day of the dog is a bracing blast of beat rock n roll from an age before The Beatles, never mind the internet...committed, passionate and filled with buzzing guitar hooks and, inspiringly, saxophones. This song was my anthem from it.

It’s a class tune all over. Shades of The Modern Lovers and even Violent Femmes here and there but Furman's voice in particular is all his own - brilliantly strained, reaching. There's not enough of that in pop music.

The whole album has a compelling air about it, cutting across anti-folk and punk pop.

A blues stench, a howl, an irreverence, a sidelong glance at the modern world, a kick up the arse.

Ezra Furman // MY ZERO (Official Video) from Ezra Furman on Vimeo.



2. Girl Band – Lawman (Any Other City)

Another blues stench from this (fed through a kind of art punk lens), an Irish band with a tremendous grip on the dynamics of the punk and the funk and who ended the year signing with Rough Trade.

I’d still prefer the vocals to be even a small bit less like James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem but you can’t have everything.



3. Sleaford Mods – Jobseeker (KRAAK)

Whether or not Sleaford Mods are any good is sort of beside the point. They are vital and furious and an emblem of 2014.

The images in this song are closer to a hyper real update of Trainspotting than anything else I can think of – a can of Strongbow, an NHS leaflet on depression, a dole interview, spending the day at home wanking. If the Mods move into filmmaking, I’m in. In all, nothing but essential.

*I have it on good authority that Mr Williamson is a thorough gent.



4. Trans Am – I’ll never (Thrill Jockey)

The outstanding single from their excellent tenth album Volume X that came out in the summer.

It’s interesting that the video features several close-ups of singer Nathan Means which are held for just a bit longer than comfortable (he stares into the camera, purses his lips, takes a drink of water, purses his lips, takes another drink). It’s the perfect corollary to the audio which forces you to focus on each of the song’s minimal elements closer than you might wish.

The flaccid poof of the bass drum. The flat collapsing snare. The vocoded vocals, two machined voices in tandem octaves. The faux-epic dislocated synth lines. The doomy bass rumble.

Slowly, uncomfortably thrilling.

*There’s also the alternate version, a straightforward homage to The Jesus & Mary Chain, an exultant fuzzball of energy with a great krautrock aftertaste. It’s not often you get to compare two versions of the same song by the same band at the same time. And it’s even rarer to find that each version is just as intriguing as the other.

Trans Am - I'll Never from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.



5. The Altered Hours – Dig early (Art For Blind)

Another landmark single from the Cork band whose debut album we anticipate this year.

The rawness of the vocal is no surprise, it’s almost their trademark at this stage, a clarion call to wake the fuck up.

What really sticks with me from this song though is the groove. The thousand yard drone suggestive of something shamanic and trancelike with the relentlessness of a long straight German motorway.



6. Eat Lights Become Lights – Shapes and patterns (Rocket Girl)

For some reason I didn’t connect as strongly with this album Into forever as with the previous ELBL (2013’s absolutely wonderful Modular living) but there is always something outstanding to take from Neil Rudd’s releases. ‘Shapes and patterns’ was perfect heavy rotation material for late spring 2014.

This fantastic clatter starts out at the kosmische end of the krautrock spectrum, pitter patter arpeggios looking out to space.

But all motorik hell breaks loose around halfway, battering drumbeats ushering in frantic string parts and an almighty crescendo of drones.

Tremendous fucking stuff.



7. Ellis Island Sound – Intro Airborne Travelling (Village Green)

Brilliant motorik groove from Pete Astor and David Sheppard with vocals from regular Radiohead collaborator John Matthias.

What’s surprising with this is the lovely breezy – some might even say dreamy – quality of the tune. Where so much krautrock-infused music is heavy and serious-minded (and all the better for that most of the time), there’s a wonderful lightness to this.

Call it antodote. Call it a change is as good as a break. Call it variety is the spice of life.

Just sometimes music can point up the strength of something by playing on its opposite.



8. Jacques Caramac & The Sweet Generation – The highs and lows of Jacques Caramac & The Sweet Generation (Rocket Girl)

This was an album I dug heavily in the early months of 2014. You’ll find the first single, the memorable ‘Snowballs’, in last year’s Best of list. The album tickled both my prog and throwaway funny bones.

From April’s review –

http://www.theundergroundofhappiness.blogspot.ie/2014/04/jacques-caramac-sweet-generation-highs.html

They’re French (and Scottish and Bolivian apparently), they’re a bit trashy, a bit glam, they sing in English, they’ve got class tunes.

‘Snowballs’ we’ve spoken of here before, a headrush of scratchy/jangly guitars and Drumming 101 with one of the most deeply pleasurable pop choruses of recent years.

‘It takes all sorts’ is cut from a similar cloth, a short, sharp punch to the head channelling VU and The Modern Lovers. There’s a tongue-in-cheek swagger to it which also recalls the spirit of Marc Bolan, although in this case more for the purposes of social comment than sexual celebration, you feel. The press release mentions “on the edge of clever and stupid” and a provocative dadaist gene runs through the album. A hilarious title like ‘Liberté, Fraternité, Galaxy’ says it all, as do remarks about pop tarts and kream puffs.

Somehow, amongst the instant hooks and nods and winks they also manage to be quite a bit progressive. ‘El Dorado’ posits Spain’s conquistadores among a kosmische drone to unexpectedly brilliant effect. ‘Kream Puff’ takes a more sombre approach to relationships, a lovely louche rhythm built around a great interlocked bass/guitar sliding pattern.

Most of all ‘Walk in the park’, which brings a more serious demeanour to an eight-minute meditation on life (“surely life has got to be a walk in the park, not running a marathon”), amid a welter of pinging guitars and fizzing keys, rising and falling thrillingly, before settling into an irrepressible krautrock groove midway through.

I love this album. The band can obviously play - very well in fact - but the overriding impression is of dedication to a vision, a groove, a view of life even, not a wankfest. The songs are memorable, funny, groovy, pastiche and hommage thrown together with hummable melodies and forward-thinking arrangements. Pop music for the 21st century and it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.







9. Laurie Shaw – Handbag (Self-released)

This was also recorded some time before 2014 but only came on my radar last year (thank you Albert in Plugd Records). Either way this guy is a rare talent and prolific doesn’t come close.

‘Handbag’ is a whipsmart Parquet Courts-referencing slice of scuzzy garage rock, like Bowie putting back on his glam rags to soundtrack modern day NYC.

Get more background in this interview I did with Laurie during the summer.

http://www.theundergroundofhappiness.blogspot.ie/2014/07/laurie-shaw-interview.html



10. The War on Drugs – Red eyes (Secretly Canadian)

Lost in the dream was one of last year’s loved albums I was agnostic about. But I could not dislodge this tune from my head. An irresistible hip shaking slice of vintage AM rock given an unwavering backbeat.

Do they have autobahns in Philadelphia?



11. Wussy – Teenage wasteland (Damnably)

Another prime example of an American band in vital touch with their blue collar roots who released their 5th album Attica last year.

This song consists of a response to The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ which of course features the refrain “teenage wasteland”. The Wussy vintage takes that shimmering guitar part of the Who song as a kind of starting point and proceeds to "answer" from the perspective of a middle American who grew up with The Who.

That would be Lisa Walker in this case, one of the band's joint vocalists and songwriters along with Chuck Cleaver. What she makes out of this dynamic is a moving paean to the power of rock n roll to cross oceans and affect lives. It's wonderfully heartfelt, personal, delivered in one chord more or less. You might even say epic, but with a small e if you follow me, compared to the very much capital E of The Who.

"yeah we heard you Pete, real loud and clear on the last one
and we were pulling for you a 1000 times a day
it don't take much to sound like a sleeping prophet
when your misery sounds so much like ours
so far away, so far away"

That reads great doesn't it? There's a real gritty poetic quality to it - "sleeping prophet". And here's Walker's comment on The Who and what they meant to herself and her generation growing up.

That band changed many lives of farm and rust belt kids here in America who closely identified with such a bombastic blue collar band. Very different from Stones and Beatles type bands. Regular guys. A band for the unpopular kids. Kind of a precursor to the ethos that underground bands in the US began to embrace in the 80s.

A band for the unpopular kids. Don’t you just love that.

And it also sounds great, inspired and inspiring great, hairs on the back of the neck great, particularly when Walker belts out those final words “so far away, so far away”.



*This is a live performance of the song for Cincinnatti magazine. It's also really good with a slightly rawer feel. And great to see them perform those dual vocals in the flesh.



12. Astronauts – Vampires (Lo Recordings)

If you check back through the Best of entries for the last few years you’ll find a band called Dark Captain cropping up more than once. That was a band led by Dan Carney, Astronauts is his new band and if you liked them you’ll love this.

http://www.theundergroundofhappiness.blogspot.ie/2014/09/astronauts-hollow-ponds-lo-recordings.html

An album which beautifully carries on the thread of spooked folk and krautrock beats from his (Carney’s) former band.

Opener ‘Skydive’ immediately sets out the beguliing combination of hushed vocals, sombre drums and plucked acoustic guitars, later joined by some mournful, long-bowed cello. It’s low-key but positively haunting.

‘Everything’s a system, everything’s a sign’ next adds some droning clarinet to create a great reedy undertow.

‘Vampires’ then changes the tone brilliantly with buzzing electric guitar power chords and percussive scrapes against a jerky breakbeat. The nervous energy of the arrangement perfectly captures the vague disquiet of the lyric.

‘Spanish archer’ employs a mid-range tug of E-bow against a chorus of “ba-ba-bas” which just can’t be denied.

And the album keeps these high standards. Wherever you turn, thrumming bass and brushed drums create great sound pictures of mournfulness transformed through defiance (or is it simply perseverance? Maybe they’re the same thing...), while restless guitar arpeggios and stoic woodwind blow past the clouds to find silver linings.

These are uniformly gorgeous, hushed psych pop songs capable of lifting the spirits from the doldrums. And that’s psych with a small “p”, the unshowy, creep-up-on-you but nonetheless burnished kind.

What a beautiful piece of work this album is.



Astronauts - Skydive (Official Music Video) from Lo Recordings on Vimeo.





13. Brother Earth – Out like a lion (Hidden Shoal)

Brilliantly coiled and deceptively low key psych folk beast by Todd Tobias and Steve Five from their album Positive Haywires.

I particularly love the way this song feels like it’s about to fall apart around the midpoint. It holds its shit together but the suspense created by that freakout hangs in the air long after its last moments.



14. Cool Ghouls – And it grows (Empty Cellar Records)

This is a band I came across for the first time late in the year and the kind of exciting discovery that keeps me doing this. First impressions aren’t always lasting I find but this album (A swirling fire burning through the rye) has done a great job of lighting a rocket under Christmas for me this year.

http://www.theundergroundofhappiness.blogspot.ie/2014/12/cool-ghouls-swirling-fire-burning.html

There’s a great freshness about this brand of psych pop from San Francisco band Cool Ghouls.

Unlike many of today’s psych purveyors, they come at it from more of a roots than a shoegaze or krautrock perspective. Think Creedence Clearwater Revival, for example, a phalanx of clean, jangly but strident guitars with buzzing riffs aplenty.

That’s not to say there aren’t some lovely fuzzy interludes - album opener and single ‘And it grows’ unleashes a great one just 2 minutes in, before reverting to thrilling core values.

But for the most part the swingingly insistent tunes are carried by sharp sounds and banks of glorious Byrdsian harmonies with the fuzz pedal reserved for extra emphasis.



15. Angel Olsen – Hi five (Jagjaguwar)

Olsen’s 2nd album (Burn your fire for no witness, the album title of the year for me) is sure to be up there in plenty of Best of 2014 lists, although I haven’t yet heard her string it all together for a full long player.

However, this live performance on Letterman brought something new and ferocious to light. The full band arrangements that seem (to me anyway) a little muddled in places on the record make perfect sense here, blazing a trail for her unforgettable near-yodel, a most remarkable instrument.

As a whole it comes across as ancient and completely modern all in one. A pretty good trick to pull off.



16. Wildbirds & Peacedrums – The offbeat (Leaf)

Brilliant thrilling expression and embodiment of the pain and pleasure inherent in the blues from the Swedish husband and wife duo.

Sex. Rhythm. Can’t stop. Must move. Lust. The beat. Put your hands on me. The need. The fury. Desire.

When I first heard it in August I could only think of Nina Simone jamming with LCD Soundsystem.

It still sounds that good. A master work.



17. St Vincent – Digital witness (Republic)

An album I found myself admiring more than loving and I do love St Vincent. But honestly the greatness of Annie Clark is based on a decade’s body of work and she can do no wrong in my book ever since she covered The Beatles’ ‘Dig a pony’ during her solo support of The National at The Olympia in Dublin in 2008. The woman can make a guitar talk. Don’t believe me? Watch this.



Her s/t record took a thread from the previous Love this giant collaboration with David Byrne, shooting her mutant funk into new territory with great brass syncopations. And in fact she toned her guitar playing down a notch if anything.

Her live performances too showed that more than just musical heritage had rubbed off from Mr Byrne. Her onstage persona comes on like one part Janelle Monae, one part ‘Girlfriend is better’-era Talking Heads and one part Blade Runner replicant.

Plus of course ‘Digital witness’ was just the most searching satire of our social media world. For which alone 10 out of 10.



*And this.



18. Sabina – Toujours (Naim Edge)

A fantastically bonkers excursion into the outer edges of Tropicalia from the former Brazilian Girls singer and now Paris resident.

In particular, clattering bossa nova percussion and an inspired Hammond organ lead line providing a memorable hook around an irresistible chorus – “we must make the best of it, we might as well be happy.” It's like mad lounge music with a shot of Monty Python.

or

A naked woman riding a donkey followed by a rooster with a star on her head playing the ukulele.

Find more on the album here -

http://www.theundergroundofhappiness.blogspot.ie/2014/03/sabina-toujours-naim-edge.html



19. Benjamin Schoos feat. Laetitia Sadier – La derniere danse (Freaksville)
20. Benjamin Schoos feat. April March – J’ai essayé de t’aimer (Freaksville)


I couldn’t separate these two duets, my 2014 spring and autumn bookends, but I figured life doesn’t have to be either or.

You can’t say which is more gorgeous. Both are a goodbye. Just that one swings while the other swoons. Hope or regret. Yin. Yang. Francophile transcendance in pop music form.

Schoos has been making treasures like this for some years now. Get into it.





21. A Lazarus Soul – Mercury hit a high (Intent to Supply Records)

A refugee from the Jangle Pop section of the Round up perhaps. But it had to be included.

I’ve been a fan of Dubliner Brian Brannigan’s ALS for a couple of albums now, generally producing a heartfelt brand of quietly furious but soulful rock. He also appears to steadfastly reside outside of current musical fashion and trend which can only be a good thing.

Last year’s Last of the analogue age had a particular nostalgic hue to it which is a tone that works so well with jangly guitars (see ‘Goin back’ by The Byrds). This tune has a glorious mid-REM feel, as Joe Chester’s sunburst guitar wraps around Brannigan’s lines.

“Every day in your arms was an honour
Mercury hit a high that summer
Everyday there’s a ray to pierce her armour
& she prays that the waves of your life are calmer
Your little charmer.”

It’s not that complicated, it’s just superb songwriting.



22. Merchandise – Enemy (4AD)

A band from Tampa in Florida. Not a place you associate with essential alternative rock music. A killer tune you need to hear. My thoughts last August.

An unforgettable guitar riff locked down with a four to the floor drumbeat. Not a distorted riff, it's clean, a descending pattern and it kind of unwinds itself, insidiously, vaguely threatening, like a snake raising itself off the floor.

Then there's the vocal of Carson Cox. What a wonderful instrument that is. You imagine him pulling off a white soul or lounge act quite easily. Plus he has a side of the mouth delivery that's intriguing. So chorus lyrics as innocuous as "all your thoughtless words" take on an extra weight or gravity.

That chorus also has a great arrangement touch, a layered octave vocal which lifts the whole proceedings another notch.

There's an atmosphere of coiled tension about the whole thing, even with the major key and smooth singing, which in itself is a great achievement. Apparently there's hardcore punk in the band's backstory so it seems maybe their aims haven't changed, just their methods.

They sound like they could be a genuinely great band, a band that could inhabit some strand of the mainstream while smuggling in higher concepts and darker intent.

For now, this is thrilling stuff, one of the songs of the year.

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