Tuesday 9 December 2014

The Gizzle Review's Top Albums Of 2014

Well this was a tough decision.

2014 may have been low on superstar standout albums (unlike the influx of major artist comebacks last year), but there were a tonne of very very good albums almost impossible to rank.  Some artists made welcome returns, others launched their careers with impressive debuts that lived up to considerable hype.  And above all, Scandinavia produced some of the best music all year.

As for great singles, 2014 was crammed full of them: from ubiquitous pop hits, to countless faceless dance acts and, of course, a certain snow queen.  There’s a handy Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post.

What’s really amusing is the gender disparity between critical and commercial success.  The bestselling albums of the year are predominantly from boring male acts: namely Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Paolo Nutini and Coldplay.

The best pop though?  That was down to the females…

10. Beyoncé  – Beyoncé

Beyoncé  Beyoncé

Why it made the top 10:
Ok, it technically came out in 2013, but it was too late in the year to be included in last year’s lists.  Besides, the Platinum edition arrived just a couple of weeks ago.  And you’ve been listening to Drunk In Love more this year than last, right?

Not only did this album coin the verb “to Beyoncé an album”, it revealed a darker, sexier side to the Queen of Pop, not to mention her meme-inducing feminist manifesto in ***Flawless.  The last few tracks may descend into soppy family slush and the concept of a ‘visual album’ is flawed, but the first half of the album is near perfection.  Pretty Hurts is also the best thing Sia’s done all year.

“…she’s consolidated each aspect of her personality into one single name.  Here she is the sex-bomb, the independent woman, the doting mother and the loving wife.  Thematically it might tread on familiar ground, but…‘Beyoncé’ is her opus, her ultimate album, her true statement of intent.”

Best Track: Haunted

9. I Break Horses – Chiaroscuro

I Break Horses Chiaroscuro

Why it made the top 10:
It certainly leans towards the darker side of its namesake with its brooding production, but ‘Chiaroscuro’ is equally full of propulsive dance beats that inject real urgency.  Few albums this year have been as evocative, transporting the listener to some electronic vision of heaven and hell – menacing basslines, celestial melodies and alien effects colliding in a musical kaleidoscope of light and dark.

“…there may be plenty of moody electronic music around, but I Break Horses are very good at what they do”

Best Track: Weigh True Words

8. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1 (OST)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1 (OST)

Why it made the top 10:
It may seem strange for a film soundtrack to be one of the best albums of the year, but this is less a soundtrack and more a companion piece to the film.  You’d be hard-pressed to actually hear these tracks whilst watching.

Yet with New Zealand cool kid Lorde at the helm, it all starts to make sense.  This is essentially a collection of some of the most exciting artists in current pop: from the fizzing electro-pop of CHVRCHES, to a surprisingly celestial offering from Charli XCX, Ariana Grande getting all sexy with Major Lazer, spectral production and soulful vocals from Tinashe, and of course Lorde herself.  There’s even a track from Grace Jones.  The music may only passingly reference the film, but no other album sums up the state of play in 2014 quite like this.

“…these aren't just throwaway singles; the mostly downbeat and gloomy sounds are equally suited to the film and today's charts.  It's a soundtrack as relevant as the film itself.”

Best Track: Kingdom (feat. Simon Le Bon) – Charli XCX

7. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time

Todd Terje It’s Album Time

Why it made the top 10:
Album time indeed.  If 2013 saw a surge of disco tracks in the wake of Daft Punk, then Norwegian DJ/Producer Todd Terje took things a step further with his debut album.  Fusing funky basslines with space-age effects, Latin rhythms and more than a sprinkling of humour, this is a dance album with a tonne of personality.  If tracks like Strandbar and Delorean Dynamite offer up the sort of sci-fi disco you might find in a bar in the forthcoming Star Wars films, then Preben Goes to Acapulco is the TV cop theme tune of the future and Svensk Sås provides a real fusion of Scandinavian and Brazilian flavours.  Inspector Norse ends it all with a big squelchy smile.

“If ‘Random Access Memories’ had been made with a little less chit chat from Giorgio Moroder and a few more Moog synthesisers it might’ve sounded like this.”

Best Track: Delorean Dynamite

6. Jessie Ware – Tough Love

Jessie Ware Tough Love

Why it made the top 10:
It’s testament to Ware’s debut ‘Devotion’ that her retro-futuristic, R&B-tinged soul sound still sounds fresh on this follow-up.  There’s been some refinement though, predominantly pushing her vocal to the fore and gearing her sound towards a more mainstream audience.  It results in pop hits like Ed Sheeran duet Say You Love Me alongside more experimental work with top producers like Benzel (Tough Love, Champagne Kisses), Julio Bashmore (Keep On Lying) and Dev Hynes (Want Your Feeling).  Paired with Ware’s songwriting, it makes this album irresistible.

“On [SBTRKT’s] album, Ware was just an unknown featured vocalist but since then she’s flourished into a fully-fledged artist whose debut album ‘Devotion’ was stunning.  Now, with ‘Tough Love’, she’s grown into the popstar she was always meant to be.”

Best Track: Tough Love

5. Jungle – Jungle

Jungle Jungle

Why it made the top 10:
Half a year later and Jungle’s sound is still impossible to define.  Amongst all the psychedelic, funky, hip-hop and soul influences though lies a dance album that’s hugely infectious.  Following nominations in both the BBC’s Sound of 2014 poll and the Mercury Prize, Jungle have smashed into the mainstream with lead single Busy Earnin’, but from the sweltering intensity of The Heat, to the laidback guitars of Crumbler and the surreal bubbling Lemonade Lake, Jungle provided the sound of the summer.

“…their music is so much more than the sum of its parts.  Each track is a rich tapestry of warm layered textures that combine to create something unique, something effortlessly cool.”

Best Track: Busy Earnin’

4. Tove Lo – Queen of the Clouds

Tove Lo Queen of the Clouds

Why it made the top 10:
Scandinavia has yet again released some of the best music of 2014 and Sweden’s Tove Lo is the undisputed breakout star.  With its songs of searing honesty, her EP ‘Truth Serum’ alone is worthy of note.  Then she followed it up with the full debut (frustratingly still to be released in the UK).  Pairing her raw lyrics with fizzing pop production, the album details the rise and fall of a relationship: from the early days of passionate sex (Talking Body), to the highs of love (Not on Drugs), to the eventual breakdown (Habits (Stay High)).  As with the best Swedish music, Lo juxtaposes melancholia with euphoria in glorious union to create an intelligently written and hugely satisfying pop album. 

“Like a passionate love affair, this debut is fairly short, full of life, and oh so very sweet.”

Best Track: Habits (Stay High)

3. La Roux – Trouble In Paradise

La Roux Trouble In Paradise

Why it made the top 10:
Five years in the making and Elly Jackson’s follow up to ‘La Roux’ was more than worth the wait.  The pure electro of that debut has been eschewed for a warmer sound that remains as clean and precise as you’d expect, whilst the sophisticated lyrics are sung to playful melodies.  Cruel Sexuality depicts conflicted desire and Sexotheque offers a different slant on cheating, whilst Uptight Downtown opens the album with a confident, funky strut and the 80s stomp of Silent Partner sees Jackson updating her original sound.  The real masterpiece, though, is Let Me Down Gently, on which Jackson encapsulates the pain of a break-up with the year’s best use of silence.  It may be only nine tracks long, but this is a tight, concise album that’s damn close to pop perfection.

“…with less bleeps and bloops and more warmth and human emotion, this is a consistently brilliant and honest pop package that pairs truthfulness with undeniable hooks.”

Best Track: Let Me Down Gently

2. FKA Twigs – LP1

FKA Twigs LP1

Why it made the top 10:
Don’t be fooled by the generic title; this year FKA Twigs has proven herself to be the most idiosyncratic artist of 2014.  Nobody else has stretched R&B to such experimental limits.  Nobody else has paired music and visuals in such an exciting union.  Nobody else has made dancing with some cloth so damn sexy.

In essence, FKA Twigs is a true artist.  ‘LP1’ is an album that stirs all sorts of emotions: it’s sensual, frightening and sometimes disturbing, whilst her fragile vocals haunt as much as they delight.  To match it all, in her videos she evolves from a china doll, to an alien beauty and an Egyptian goddess, with sometimes shocking intent.  How she didn't win the Mercury Prize is beyond me - she is a human in her own otherworldly, intoxicating soundscape.

“This is the product of an artist with a singular vision, who stands far away from, and above, the crowd.  I could listen for hours.”

Best Track: Two Weeks

1.       Taylor Swift – 1989

Taylor Swift 1989

Why it made the top 10:
The blank space at the top was made for Swift this year.  When the ubiquitous Shake It Off was first heard in the summer it seemed that she’d gone full on Disney popstar, but with the eventual release of ‘1989’ it was clear she’d lived up to the promise of an 80s inspired pop album.  Pairing her candid lyrics with modern pop production was a stroke of genius; throw in some top songwriting talent for mainstream appeal and a lick of Scandi polish, and it results in an album without a single bad track.  From the nod to her romantic reputation in Blank Space, to the urgently cinematic Out of the Woods and the softly layered romance of This Love, Swift has encapsulated all the best elements of contemporary pop.

2014 was the year Swift went from popstar to phenomenon.  And she didn’t need Spotify’s help to do it.

“…‘1989’ is an evolution, not a revolution.  It’s also the pinnacle of 00s pop, taking all the clichés of 80s music that have influenced current trends and smacking a big Swift stamp across it all to rise above the competition.  It’s clear, then, that she’s the biggest popstar of 2014.  And with good reason.”

Best Track:  Out of the Woods

Honourable mentions:

Lykke Li – I Never Learn
“From start to finish Li is living and breathing this break-up through music and we're with her every step of the way.

Tinashe – Aquarius
“Tinashe's sound might be indebted to some key influences but with an album this polished, she's taken the best bits of Aaliyah (sadly no longer with us), Ciara (seemingly dead career) and Rihanna (lost?) and made them her own.  It's clear that 'Aquarius' really is the dawning of a new star.

Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
“At its peak, ‘Ultraviolence’ doesn’t quite hit the sublime high of Video Games, but it captures an artist forever on the edge of a breakdown.  It makes for a strangely beautiful listen that’s disturbing, provocative and sumptuous in all the right ways.”
MØ – No Mythologies To Follow
“…there’s an edgy rebelliousness to her sound and a disregard for convention, varying styles and genres bubbling away in a rich melting pot of creativity.

Unicorn Kid – Brain Wash
Gizzle said:
Erm…somehow this wasn’t reviewed.  However, it’s a super catchy pop-dance chiptune album that nobody bothered to listen to, so now Unicorn Kid is no more.  Quote that.

As for the tracks of the year, here's a handy playlist that covers all your needs: