Best of 2014 - Part 2: Soul/Pop/Jangle/Electro/Sunshine

And so Part 2 of this end of year series. There seems to have been less up tempo electronic music on my radar this year, hence a few crop up in this mostly-guitar set. (There are some ambient and other electronic cuts to come in the final part of the round-up.)

Let's not get hung up on that. Enjoy.

1. Future Islands – Seasons (Waiting on you) (4AD)

With all due respect to Hozier (who owed a lot in turn to the work of Feel Good Lost, plus maybe ‘Take me to church’ was more of a 2013 thing in any case?) and Kim Kardashian’s buttocks, here was the true thing that broke the internet this year. It showed the power to light up the world of sheer chutzpah – a short, barrel-chested man who can sing his heart out all night and dances like he doesn’t give a fuck who’s watching. On paper those are not the most promising ingredients, perhaps, but Sam Herring turns them into gold, when combined with the thrumming, soaring melodies of Will Cashion and Gerrit Welmers.

Funnily enough, the Letterman performance overshadowed a little what I think was their best album yet (Singles). And what a joy it was to see those songs, plus all the other great ones they’ve produced over several years, played live in Dublin last month.

Pure soul, at the end of the day.

2. Sean Nicholas Savage – Heartless (Arbutus)

A Montreal singer I came across through the good people at Plugd, who hosted him in Triskel Arts Centre last autumn. He sings a most beguiling brand of bedroom soul, a concoction of home-made beats, gentle guitar picks and second hand synths, with the coup de grace of a yearning high register vocal.

This year’s album Bermuda Waterfall has a series of memorable underground pop tunes. ‘Heartless’ is the song I couldn’t get past, it really is the most beautiful and poignant thing.

I suppose because it has such potentially cheesy elements – drum pads rescued from the 1980s, backing vocals bordering on the edge of autotune – and yet it comes out as so heartfelt and just plain emotional.

Among the range of backing vocals is a gorgeous soft falsetto on the chorus refrain, a couple of layers of which rise and swamp the even softer, lower lead voice. The latter is uncertain, tentative, reflective even.

And behind, just a recurring acoustic pattern, a pitter-patter bassline, a go-ahead drum machine.

Reading that back makes it sound pretty unpromising, I realise. But it is the most heartbreaking paean to beauty, like the Mona Lisa but painted on the wall of some back alley.

Towards the end, this line seems to stick out and fuse with the musical backing to sum up the song -

“I blame your beauty
For my obsessive jungle pride”

I notice Sean Nicholas Savage has cited The Bee Gees as an influence, which would make sense – white soul laced with a certain fragility. It also reminded me of Donnie & Joe Emerson in its intimacy.

To repeat, it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing in this dirty world.

3. Eyedress – Teen spirits (Abeano)

A spooky, insinuating piece of electro from the Phillipino producer Idris Vicuna.

Great, unguarded vocals and a wonderful combination of buzzing, rumbling and uplifting synth lines.

4. Tune-Yards – Water fountain (4AD)

Another one of those undeniable tunes from Merrill Garbus and friends, this time bringing her trademark slippery funk clapping song to bear brilliantly on Californian eco-politics.

Again, it’s worth checking the tv performance of the tune, it adds plenty to the overall enjoyment. First of all, there’s the intensity of the rendition (and not just from the frontwoman herself, she’s assembled a crack, hardworking crew around her). And the blazing costumes and facepaint find the perfect sweet spot between having the craic and confrontational campaigning.

5. Vertical Scratchers – Turn me out (Merge)

From an album (Daughter of everything) I might not have caught on to if it wasn’t from the ever excellent Merge label – lead Scratcher John Schmersal used to be in Brainiac and is also part of Caribou’s touring outfit. Almost all the songs are under 2 minutes in length, they rarely follow verse-chorus structure and they are graciously indebted to The Kinks. Intriguing concept, no?

This tune is the perfect example, an inventive vocal falsetto bursting straight out of the traps. Even so, if you’re not grabbed from the off, hang around until 1.13 (a mere 30s before the end) for the sighing, cooing counter vocal of the “middle 8”.

It does the heart good to see a little corner of the world still devoted to this kind of searching, off-kilter pop music.

6. Twerps – Conditional report (Merge)

Another Merge release, another class slice of out there guitar pop, and once more under 2 minutes.

Twerps are a Melbourne 4-piece from the noted Chapter Music stable. Something about this tune takes me back to early Go Betweens, sunny days with wiry guitar lines and lyrics that intrigue while they spin melodies like yarns of wool.

And I can’t say better than that.

7. The Elwins – Sittin pretty (Affairs of the Heart)

A knock-out slice of sunshine pop, surfing along on jangly electric guitar, self-deprecating faux brass and strings, heart-fluttering mellotrons and a winningly bruised male vocal.

It grabs some kind of forgotten zeitgeist laid down by underappreciated bands like The Zombies, a little, or Harpers Bizarre, who could wrap your heart in knots while giving your brain a workout too. There’s also a touch of the strident power-pop melodies of Jason Falkner, but the tune, although endearingly restless, never strays down the tricksy cul-de-sac that baroque pop can sometimes find, retaining its open-hearted sheen.

An absolute joy.

*And just to increase the joy, here’s another dose, this time in semi-stripped down form involving actual flutes, actual strings and a snowy stroll from house to garden shed.

THE ELWINS - Sittin' Pretty from Southern Souls on Vimeo.

8. Theatre Royal – Doubt (Vacilando 68)

A real old-fashioned treasure in the mould of Martin Stephenson or The Woodentops.

There’s a certain rockabilly swing to the tune, the guitars jingle and jangle in bittersweet style and the singing is open-throated - according to the old instruction “sing out” – with an ingeniously simple backing vocal consisting of the song title refrain.

Guitar pop is just the best thing.

9. Cormac O Caoimh – The moon loses its memory (Self-released)

Another interesting 80s echo here, more in the Prefab Sprout direction this time, the title track from the Cork singer’s 3rd solo album.

There’s a giddy quality to the tune, a wonderful offset against the poetic, poignant lyric. I love the stop-start too. And of course the major seventh chords.

Deceptively simple, like all great pop music.

10. Death in the Sickroom – Tonight (Reekus Records)

The debut single from this Dublin 4-piece last June was an absolute belter.

The appearance of a 12-string electric alone makes it something of an event but apart from that there’s plenty more to love in here.

The tune itself is a blistering jangle pop gem, channelling equal parts Johnny Marr and Paisley Underground.

There’s also a belligerence and bite to it that’s quite delicious. Check these lines –

You’re a lost cause, you’re mindless and fickle
Ignore your sister, she’s twisted and bitter
Leave her alone with the babysitter.

It’s most winsome and very clever but not at the expense of memorable hooks. It’s all enough to make you pine for the days when bands like Microdisney and Aztec Camera ruled the airwaves. It would certainly tend to restore your faith in guitar pop.

11. Ariel Pink – Put your number in my phone (4AD)

The new album got a mixed reception but this is another all-time great jangle pop tune from the pink-haired one (or actually green according to this video), equal parts gloriously poignant and vaguely unsettling.

In among the irresistible chiming guitars, the massed banks of synths over a heartfelt “baby” and the superb touch of a girl’s gently pleading message on his voicemail, I find myself returning again and again to the genius staccato of the chorus bassline. It seems to tap out a morse code of hope and love from Ariel to the world.

12. Caribou – Can’t do without you (Merge/City Slang)

The opening salvo from one of the albums of the year, hands down.

This tune in particular took a thread from Dan Snaith’s previous (also great) Daphni moniker. So you find bouncing house backbeats, a soothing bath of synths and soulful vocal samples. It's beautiful and organic and warm and manages to build a whole world, an entire narrative, an emotional arc, into 4 minutes.

The atmosphere comes out something like downbeat euphoria, which is also an intriguing state of affairs to find yourself in on the dancefloor.

13. Tennis - Mean streets (Communion)

Their spring EP this year was a glorious combination of pitch-perfect arrangements and aching, swoonsome vocals, with just enough bite to keep you on the edge of your seat, from husband and wife duo Patrick Riley and Alaina Miller.

You need go no further than lead track ‘Mean steets’, unrolling on an exquisitely languid groove in keeping with the subject matter ("summerin in the Catskills baby, singing just for the thrill"). If the electric piano and beautifully slurred vocal delivery aren’t enough for you, check the drop-dead bridge – a gorgeous fog of organ stabs and the most appealingly sunny, chiming guitar line in years.

It all makes for blue-eyed soul of the highest order, brimming with pent-up emotion. Coming a close second is ‘Dimming light’, making like a slowed-down, drowsy Supremes off-cut, with a distinctly ambiguous heart beating amongst the jangly guitars and ringing piano.

To die for.

14. Elephant – Elusive Youth (Memphis Industries)

A companion to Tennis for me, another romantic duo (or are they?) and another drowsy, gorgeous blue-eyed wall of sound.

This one has more of a delirious tone to it, driven along by that fantastic chorus organ part.

15. SlowPlaceLikeHome – She comes in colour stereo

Warm and fuzzy synth textures with buckets of heart and soul from Keith Mannion of Donegal.

There’s a class tune at the core, with more than a hint of kosmische to it, although considerably more uptempo than that might lead you to believe.

But what I like most about it is the wonderful building arrangement, a great combination of pulses and washes and squelches.

Track 6 in this playlist

May 6 2014 w/ Roll the Dice,Matmos,SPLH, Angel Olsen,Eyedress,Shonen Knife,Eat Lights Become Lights+ by The Underground Of Happiness on Mixcloud

16. The Drink – Haunted place (Melodic)

A London-based band with an Irish singer, Dearbhla Minogue, whose debut album has just been released to some acclaim.

I was a big Throwing Muses fan in my 20s and there’s something about this tune that would remind you of Kristin Hersh’s group - off-kilter rhythms, buzzing guitars, a freewheeling vocal melody and a lyrical sense of ordinary details viewed through a fresh lens.

It’s furious in places, tender in others and is tremendous, slightly bonkers stuff.

17. Justin Timberlake, Oscar Isaac & Friends – Please Mr Kennedy (from the soundtrack of Inside Llewyn Davis)

There’s some debate as to whether this qualifies as an original piece of music (hence no Oscar nomination), as writer T Bone Burnett used a few well known parodies as template, Tom Lehrer and the like.

No such issues for this list, which is always open to self-referential pop culture gems.

Things you might miss on first listen – the genius bass vocal “Outer Space”, and just that sublime mouth trumpet lip flapping...


18. The Clientele – Suburban light (Merge)

One of a number of notable Merge reissues this year to mark their 25th year. Where it failed to find much of an audience in 2000, this album should find a much more receptive public these days. It’s warm and fuzzy, blissful dream pop with a strain of sadcore running through it. It’s interesting to read singer Alasdair MacLean’s comments about the band’s aims back then.

“We were just waiting to get in a proper studio and have strings, brass, choirs — Phil Spector-crossed-with-Martin Hannett production,” MacLean remembers. “At the time, every engineer wanted to make every band sound like Radiohead, which just broke everyone’s heart. We couldn’t get a warm sound anywhere we went in those days.”

They certainly achieved that warmth. You’ll recognise The Byrds in the guitar treatments, but also the downbeat moods of a band like Galaxie 500 and the late-night psych reveries of The Velvet Underground.

‘Rain’ has that Byrdsian sunburst guitar shimmer, but with MacLean’s hushed vocal it takes on a more muted, autumnal hue, perfectly in keeping with the longing of the subject matter. ‘We could walk together’ takes a soaring bassline to the chiming guitars, managing to make downbeat sound pretty thrilling.

‘Reflections after Jane’ is like the lost companion to The Velvet Underground’s ‘Sunday morning’, a sparse, glittering, blissed-out love poem, as close to jazz as pop music. ‘An hour before the light’ takes this sound on a notch – a pitter-patter backbeat over another glorious guitar arpeggio gorgeously conveys the rush of being “lead astray by love”.

There are many more low-key gems in here ('Bicycles' is another stunner), most containing guitars that ring out like church bells and a hushed vocal which will burrow far into your inner ear. All round, it's utterly gorgeous pop music you could drift away on.

19. East River Pipe - The gasoline age (Merge)

A true modern classic of underground American pop music. Stone cold.

Read more about the album on this link, a Q&A I did with FM Cornog earlier this month. He’s a legend.

20. Anthony Reynolds – Underwater wildlife (Rocket Girl)

A quick flick around ex-Jack singer Reynolds’ website reveals seminal influences in the shape of Japan, David Bowie and Scott Walker, among others. Those aren’t bad reference points for getting a handle on this compilation of recent EPs, film and tv soundtrack work, which consists generally of sublime orchestral, or orchestrated, pop with great depth and texture. More recently, fans of The Dears, for example, will find plenty to love here too.

So ‘The laws of the game’, for example, would remind you a bit of labelmate Jon DeRosa, a deep-hearted mediation on love wrapped around with mourning cello and keening steel guitar.

While the epic ‘Loneliness is the engine of the world’, my own personal favourite, is more like a noirish novel crammed into 3 minutes with a sweeping prog pop soundtrack.

21. The Chills – The BBC Sessions (Fire Records)

One of the most heartwarming stories in music this year was the return of Martin Phillips and friends to performing live and at least the promise of releasing new music in 2015. This release was a collection of the band’s three Peel Sessions in the 1980s, when they were one of a clutch of treasured bands to be invited back several times by the legendary BBC presenter.

The crowning glory of this set for me is ‘Part past, part fiction’, from their 1988 session. It cropped up a couple of years later in studio form on the brilliant album Submarine Bells but there’s something wonderfully warm and resolute about this version.


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