Top 5 Albums of 2014 So Far

Compared to other years, I’ve not spent that much time with new bands, or maybe those bands have not hit me in any way. That said, that cynicism applies to a couple of old hands as well. The new Beck record and the new Neil Finn album are the worse in their careers. Maybe it’s a slow year.

So this list is full of old guys. Guy Garvey of Elbow, at age 40, is the youngest songwriter on this list. This happens, last year there was almost none of them.

Here’s the five faves of the year so far.

5. Elbow – The Take Off And Landing Of Everything

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Ever since this band found it’s footing with The Seldom Seen Kid, Elbow have been getting better and better. They are that odd band that gets radio play and are mainstream (in the UK anyway) yet continue to do lots of weird long songs and sound like no one else.

This batch of songs are as epic as their recent work, with the smell of New York, where Guy Garvey now lives. He knows how to paint a picture with words, and the band still knows how to make an interesting racket. It’s life affirming stuff, in a big hearted poetic way.

I really love ‘Honey Sun‘, with it’s insistent beat and the gospel-ly harmonies. It’s a hymn for NYC. ‘New York Morning‘ is also particular touching, with the line getting a lot of attention about how the city’s folks are nice to Yoko. It’s a beautiful line on so many levels. The film clip is also amazing. Surely an odd choice for a single.

4. Old 97’s – Most Messed Up

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The reason this record is only at 4 is because for whatever reason I’ve not spent enough time with it. For a blistering rock ‘n’ roll band, this is one of the Old 97’s most blistering rock ‘n’ roll records, and getting huge acclaim in the US. Amazingly, it’s studio album number 10 for these guys.

It is an ode to rock ‘n’ roll and all it’s peripherals – dancing, girls, drinking and more. Can it be summed up any better that the single is called ‘Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On‘? Without the major label budgets and the need for radio hits, the sound continues the last few albums of being raw and rare. A pop song like ‘The Ex Of All You See‘ could easily have ended up an anonymous pop song. Here, someone left the feedbacking guitars on and it sounds great.

The opening track ‘Longer Than You’ve Been Alive‘ is the most self referential the band has ever been (except maybe ‘The One‘ from Blame It On Gravity). You can feel a number of these songs becoming staples in this band’s decades long career and that’s quite an achievement.

3. Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey – Going Back Home

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Oh Wilko Johnson. Diagnosed with cancer and given only a few months to live, he should have been dead last October. With no treatment and a lot of unfinished business, his last year has been one of the most interesting stories in all music. One of the most inventive guitarists of all time, he teamed up with his old friend Roger Daltrey to record some songs. He didn’t even think he would live to see the album released. It debuted at number 3 in the UK charts.

Without the shadow of the Who, Daltrey cuts loose. Under the watchful eye and the state of the art Who studio, Johnson’s work has never sounded better. Cutting through 11 R&B, rock and old Dr Feelgood classics, this is just a whole lot of fun. The guitar work is flawless. It’s typical of Johnson’s positive outlook that this album is so warm and inviting. He’s not sad to be dying. He’s going to shake his hips until the end.

Highlights abound. Most of these songs are new to me, many coming from Johnson’s long and scattered solo career. So something like ‘Ice On the Motorway‘ is a new delight. But their version of Dylan‘s ‘Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window‘ and the Dr Feelgood classic ‘All Through The City‘ out spark bands half (or even a third) their age.

Fuck, there’s even music videos.

2. The New Mendicants – Into the Lime

Into The Lime Front Cover

The second of three unlikely team-up records. Is it a thing? Joe Pernice of the Scud Mountain Boys was one of the great Americana songwriters in the 90s. Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub led the Scottish wing of Brit-Pop. Both men in their late 40s found themselves in Canada. So, why the hell not, they made a low key record together.

And my word is it low key. Some of the tracks are so spare there is but one acoustic guitar and a bongo. But both men wrote great melodies, and those really shine. Without full bands to back them up, there is something alarmingly honest and intimate. It’s a quiet, minor work in the careers of both men, but I’ve not been able to stop listening to it. Odd that the less there is, the more there is for me to dig into. There are some rockers – ‘Shouting Match‘ and ‘Lifelike Hair‘ – which are more short garageband sloggers than well crafted rock epics.

Pernice actually pips Blake with a slightly stronger set of songs. His voice is more suited to the empty space. The best track for my money is ‘High On the Skyline‘ – the best example of the two men working together, but opener ‘Sarasota‘ is not far behind.

1. Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott – What Have We Become?

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A more unlikely return to the pop charts than Wilko Johnson. Our third duo team up record. But Paul Heaton of The Beautiful South reunited with his old singing partner Jacqui Abbott and made an album full of piss and vinegar. No stranger to pushing buttons and speaking his mind, his matched it with the sweetness of Abbott’s voice. And he’s brought a rocking band and his best melodies in decades.

Music (and art) helps us make sense of the wider world. When the world seems to be falling apart, Heaton’s album helps us make sense of it. Every single track here has four or five lines that I can no longer live without. It starts with ‘Moulding Of A Fool‘, and how we pump out more and more stupid people, and it ends with ‘When I Get Back To Blighty‘ with it’s coda of ‘Phil Collins must die’ over and over.

There’s a lot to say here. Like the how the American Baseball Cap is maybe as dangerous as a Burqa. Or the big answer to the question ‘What Have We Become‘ being opinionless, sad and overweight. It’s a world full of hollow politicians, cheating husbands, fame whores, pathetic tortured artists and more. This is workingman’s music at its best, and a welcome comeback. That Heaton is now interviews on BBC One and playing Glastonbury, playing sold out shows etc…is so weird. But maybe people are listening. I hope so.

On top of all that, the songs are a lot of fun. Here’s my favourite, ‘Moulding Of A Fool’ and the single ‘DIY’ – both infectious fun with a lot of bite.

100 for 2000 – #13. Old 97’s – Satellite Rides

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2001 – #3. Old 97’s – Satellite Rides
(Elektra)

I was buying far more music than I could listen to at this time. I think when my diet was cigarettes and coffee, and my other expenses were cigarettes, it all went to CDs really. I had picked up a couple of Old 97’s albums as they were a well respected alt-country band. But I wasn’t ready for Satellite Rides, and it’s power pop charms.

Talking about new records is one thing, but it’s a narrow view. I was also deeply into Bob Dylan, Robert Wyatt, Leonard Cohen and other tune-lite serious stuff. I was into a lot of indie sad stuff. I was into a lot of old time dark country stuff.

Hearing this record, even at the time, it felt like a I was discovering music for the first time. First hearing the Beatles, the Monkees or the Kinks. Teenaged love songs that unwrapped my confused teenage heart. This record made me feel young, at a time when I was trying to be too old for my age.

The Old 97’s were, by all accounts, one of the best alt-country bands around, especially in a live setting. They made one of the best, flawless country rock records with Too Far Too Care. But signs of change creeped in with their 1999 album, Fight Songs. A pop influence widened their sound. Hints of Ray Davies’ structured songwriting and Belle And Sebastian’s whimsy were added to the arsenal.

By the time of Satellite Rides, there’s barely a handful of songs that sound the freight train country punk that was the Old 97’s trademark. Instead it’s full of meaty, riff heavy power pop gems. The album opens with three such songs – King Of All the World, Rollerskate Skinny and Buick City Complex. All three rock, all three have big fun choruses, all three are about how girls are lovely. It’s really all about girls.

The love song obsession culminates with Question – possibly their most famous song. Used in many TV shows, it’s got a lyrical simplicity and a busker’s guitar quality making it universal. It is, in an album full of songs for the girls, this one really is for the girls.

So many great songs follow on. Weightless is one of singer Rhett Miller’s most touching vocal performances. Designs On You, the second single from the album, is just as rocking, and sexually active, as any of the songs here. Am I Too Late, Can’t Get A Line…I’m just making lists really. It’s all great.

The album was critically divided, mainly because old fans still wanted the country stuff – which they still did well. Rhett started a solo career, where he could let his pop stuff take flight, while still playing with the Old 97’s. Even better music was to come….