Graham’s soundtrack to 2014

‘Your only hope / Is tomorrow we start anew / What burns inside still burns out of you’

Disc One
1 The Hotelier – An Introduction To The Album
2 Owen Pallett – The Riverbed
3 Mega Emotion – Brains
4 Hookworms – The Impasse
5 Moderat – Rusty Nails
6 Caribou – Can’t Do Without You
7 Haley Bonar – Kill The Fun
8 Philip Selway – Coming Up For Air
9 The Notwist – Kong
10 East India Youth – Dripping Down
11 Wussy – Teenage Wasteland
12 Small Black – Reconstruction
13 Carly Paradis – All For None
14 Douglas Dare – Nile
15 I Break Horses – Weigh True Words
16 The War On Drugs – Burning
17 Madensuyu – Crucem
18 Kemper Norton – Working
19 Jenny Hval & Susanna – I Have Walked This Body

Disc Two
1 Swans – Screen Shot
2 Liars – Mask Maker
3 White – Living Fiction
4 Future Islands – Seasons (Waiting On You)
5 Real Estate – Talking Backwards
6 Woods – New Light
7 The Secret Sea – Afterlife
8 Say Yes Dog – Love You Back
9 Sylvan Esso – Coffee
10 Wussy – Halloween
11 Tiny Ruins – She’ll Be Coming ‘Round
12 Alt-J – Warm Foothills
13 Laura Mvula with Metropole Orkest – She
14 The Middle East – Blood
15 King Creosote – For One Night Only
16 Grinderman – Palaces Of Montezuma
17 Brian Eno & Karl Hyde – Lilac
18 A Winged Victory For The Sullen – Atomos VII (excerpt)

And so, my 18th attempt to sum up 12 months in two hours 40 minutes of music. It’s mad to think that I have now been doing this for half of my life. When you’ve done it for this long, watching the trends become more interesting. Compare and contrast my first ever soundtrack (chronologically at least) in 1997 with this. That year’s list was dominated by British artists, only broken up with two tracks from Icelander Bjork – leading off with the none-more-representative Verve’s ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, there was not an American artist to be seen, though that would be something that would change rapidly through the next few years. And now we have arrived here in 2014, much like Richard Ashcroft, with a United Nations of Sound – except mine sounds way better, obviously. Represented above, along with the usual dose of British and American artists, are folks from Canada, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Norway, Israel, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Australia. The sheer range and variety of great music out there means that only one band – Wussy – gets a pair of songs. By comparison, most years there are at least four or five, and back in ’97 there were 10. Did I buy less music then? Probably. Did I have access to less music? Most certainly.

In the earliest days of me doing this, I was puritanical in my approach – I must have bought the record for it to be included. Hence a dash to HMV to buy an import copy of a Phish album between Christmas and New Year in order to get ‘Heavy Things’ for my soundtrack to 2000. Being a hard-up student at the time, that was never likely to be a sustainable approach for me. Here’s how I got to hear most of this year’s music: via Spotify of course, taking on board good reviews from Pitchfork and Drowned In Sound as usual, alongside more recent music website discoveries, The Quietus and The Line Of Best Fit. Obviously I kept an eye out for new albums by artists I’d previously loved or liked. Then on top of that, listening through hour after hour of 6 Music Recommends, a four-times-weekly show featuring regular 6 Music DJs Tom Ravenscroft, Lauren Laverne, Mary Ann Hobbs and Steve Lamacq presenting almost exclusively new music. Ravenscroft’s regular show used to be my main listening, but as good as he is, it’s been refreshing to get a more rounded view of new music from the other three as well.

Maybe it’s this new balance of music listening that means that the 2014 soundtrack has a very different feel to last year’s. There is a lot of guitar-based rock here – the most there’s been for probably a decade. The contrast couldn’t be any more stark from 2013 where you could say there wasn’t a single conventional guitar song on the whole thing.

That change in direction is best demonstrated by the opening track, which brings a first soundtrack appearance for a much-maligned genre – emo. The Hotelier feel like a band out of time – they sound like a band that might appear on a festival line-up alongside Thursday and Sparta a decade ago – but ‘An Introduction To The Album’ is terrific – a lament to a suicidal friend, it builds in intensity and serves as the perfect opening track here, not least in the way it sets up my song of the year, ‘The Riverbed’ by Owen Pallett.

I’ve always had the feeling that Pallett’s music in the past can feel a little slight. That is most emphatically not the case here – the effect is akin to his regular collaborators Arcade Fire covering Led Zeppelin. Music theory nerds could do a lot worse than read Pallett’s deconstruction of pop songs – you can see that same analytical detail applied here, with every note calculated for maximum effect, with an astonishing climax where the drum roll ends to kick back into the song’s incessant rhythm as what feels like a dozen orchestras all peak at once.

I knew what my first three songs were going to be for some time; the third is a supreme cut of indie-pop by Norwich trio Mega Emotion, ‘Brains’ being their first single. Definitely a band to watch. I had 6 Music Recommends to thank for introducing me to them.

After the paranoid squawking of Hookworms’ ‘The Impasse’, we get our first ‘wildcard’ choice of the year – that is, a song from any year. I really got into Moderat last year with their album II – after that I went back to listen to their debut and discovered ‘Rusty Nails’. The two other wildcards are also from the turn of the decade, from defunct Australian bands – The Middle East, and Nick Cave’s side project Grinderman. Dan Snaith’s joyous comeback single as Caribou, ‘Can’t Do Without You’, leads into the country-meets-New-Order of Haley Bonar, whose songs kept coming up on the radio (at least the radio I was listening to) and led to me discovering the treat of her latest album Last War.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the best Radiohead-related release of the year would be by their drummer, Philip Selway, whose ‘Coming Up For Air’ sounded like a fittier, happier version of his parent band’s ‘Climbing Up The Walls’. Compare and contrast with Thom Yorke, who spent his time driving debate about monetising music (again) while forgetting to write any decent tunes. Re-emergence of the year goes to The Notwist, who produced an album after a six-year hiatus that sounded like it could have been recorded by six different bands, the best cut of which was the effervescent ‘Kong’. That’s followed by ‘Dripping Down’, the best pop cut from East India Youth’s schizophrenic effort Total Strife Forever.

Side two of the first disc – yes, I think like that – begins with the first of the Wussy songs. ‘Teenage Wasteland’, it might not surprise you to hear, is about The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’, and the connection the singer makes with the song when she heard it for the first time. It’s a feeling that any music lover can relate to whether ‘Baba O’Riley’ is a favourite or not, and it’s beautifully expressed here along with an obvious tribute to the Who song in its guitar line, and the way it kicks back just a little harder into its main refrain off the back of each chorus. In many other years it would be my favourite song of the year – a tribute to Owen Pallett that that’s not the case in 2014. ‘Teenage Wasteland’ is followed here by the incessently building ‘Reconstruction’, a diamond tucked away on a five-song EP by Brooklyn band Small Black.

Things take a chillier turn for the rest of disc one. Carly Paradis and Douglas Dare’s tracks I discovered around a similar time at the end of August – both great tracks for walking the streets at night, I find, along with I Break Horses’ icy ‘Weigh True Words’. The War On Drugs break the chill up a little with the ultimate driving song, ‘Burning’, which sounds like a cooler take on Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’ – but then the darkness returns with the incessant pummel of Belgian band Medensuyu – the greatest drumming you’ll hear anywhere this year.

When Medensuyu’s throb dies down, you’re left with an intriguing, and entirely drum-free, 10 minutes to end the first disc. The penultimate track is from Kemper Norton’s staggering To Mahina EP, a series of tracks based on one of Australia’s worst ever natural disasters, Cyclone Mahina in 1899, where 400 people died. ‘Working’, with its hushed vocals and swirling ambience, sets a scene of impending doom, but that doom never quite arrives here – however, doom is everywhere to be seen of the following track, a collaboaration between Norwegian vocalists Jenny Hval and Susanna. It starts with more of the same ominous ambience, but here, a cyclone seems to actually arrive, with every inch of studio recording tape filled with noise.

If you’re looking for a respite, maybe don’t start disc two straight away. Swans, led by 60-year-old Michael Gira, specialise in staggeringly intense experimental rock, and while ‘Screen Shot’ may lure you in with a gentle bassline and passable (and no doubt unintended) Lou Reed impression, the sense of unease grows around the tribal rhythms and piano mantra, before six minutes in, a deafening squall kicks in, and above the noise, a possessed Gira is chanting ‘Here! Now!’ repeatedly. It’s pretty terrfifying, though respite comes from Liars, who in their latest shape-shifting guise are dosing out electro grooves while a vocodered voice declares ‘Smell my socks! Eat my face off!’. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be funny, but it is. I suspect that Liars could not give a shit either way, but in any case it sounds glorious for all its lack of a real tune.

But if you’ve made it through all that alive, you’re rewarded with a series of immediate pop songs, the first of which is a bit of a first for me – including a friend’s band on a soundtrack. Work colleague Leo Condie leads White – one of the least Google-friendly band names since Various (or perhaps The Music). Their one and only song released so far is ‘Living Fiction’, a sleek piece of glam/new wave. It’s followed, by accident rather than by design, by a band they supported in Glasgow, Future Islands – though they’re known for a more notable live performance on the David Letterman Show of their flagship single ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’ which launched them to a whole new audience.

Real Estate are a band I struggle with, to be honest – their laid-back beach rock is something that can bore me over a whole album – but is glorious in four-minute chunks, and ‘Talking Backwards’ is a great lead single, and it leads into the folk rock of Woods, from whose album I could picked any one of a number of songs, but I opted for ‘New Light’ given its optimism in a compilation which would otherwise have not a great deal of it.

I attended my fourth Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona this year, and my experience there was markedly different from previous years – though the headliners (Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel etc) were typically excellent, most pleasure was derived from watching bands I’d never heard on the smaller stages, such as Tel Aviv’s The Secret Sea – their song ‘Afterlife’ only just made it on to this compilation but has grown on me even in the last two weeks to becoming one of my favourites – and Luxembourg’s Say Yes Dog, whose debut EP reminds me of early Friendly Fires before they got a decent studio budget (where is that next Friendly Fires album, by the way?).

After Sylvan Esso’s single ‘Coffee’ – another 6 Music staple – we get our second Wussy song ‘Halloween’, an evocative reminder of past years spent in America at a really glorious time to be there, and then we get a run of gentle acoustic tracks, the central plank of which is Alt-J’s ‘Warm Foothills’, a fine understated piece of what they were calling folktronica a few years ago. It’s surrounded by Tiny Ruins’ ‘She’ll Be Coming ‘Round’ and an orchestral re-arrangement of early Laura Mvula single ‘She’.

Entering the home straight, we have the two defunct Australian bands I mentioned earlier, separated by King Creosote’s ‘For One Night Only’, from his big-hearted From Scotland With Love album, released as part of a documentary to mark Scotland’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games. Grinderman’s appearance here is also Glasgow 2014-related – at the Games’ closing, ‘Palaces Of Montezuma’ was the incongruous backing to a montage of Glasgow citizens embracing the Games. It was the first time I’d ever heard it, and it left me kicking myself I’d never embraced Grinderman while they actually existed.

And the soundtrack to 2014 – that hasn’t let a lot of light in until near the end – concludes by fully opening the curtains with one of Brian Eno’s joyous collaborations with Underworld’s Karl Hyde. ‘Lilac’ is one of those odd tracks where over its nine minutes, it doesn’t appear like a lot happens, but the changes to the track are so gradual that its only when the vocals return for the ecstatic last few seconds you realise the journey you’ve been on. And when that’s abruptly cut short, there’s a couple of minutes left for contemplation – the sparse ambient drone of A Winged Victory For The Sullen.

But despite the buoyont end, 2014 must be my darkest, moodiest soundtrack in a decade or so. I hope there’s still some stuff in there that you like and can relate to. It’s been fun putting it all together, as always.

2014

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