Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Musical Advent Calendar - Door Number Twenty-Four

Here it is - Door 24 of the Musical Advent Calendar, behind which we choose our actual, genuine No. 1 albums of the year, rather than records by artists with whom we've got an upcoming cover feature to promote or who have offered us an exclusive bonus disc to sell. Away we go!

PS - Don't forget to check back for our overall top 10 tomorrow (while waiting for that turkey to cook). Merry Christmas. 

Andy Welch
The Horrors – Luminous (XL)

It didn't really dawn on my how much I loved Luminous until I saw The Horrors play at The Troxy in October. But there I was, transfixed by the most punishing, thrilling light show I'd seen in years, Rhys Webb, who may or may not have been wearing a cape, energetically dancing around and frontman Faris seemingly lost amid the waves of synths and naggingly melodic basslines, and it hit me that it was one of the most exciting things I'd ever seen. I think their supposed sonic leaps between albums have been overplayed, as has the fact they might sound a little like Simple Minds in places, but Luminous is a sound all of their own, and for that reason, and many others, it's my album of the year.

Rory Dollard

Adult Jazz - Gist Is (Spare Thought)

It was touch and go between this and St Vincent for my top spot, but these kids from Leeds nicked it on surprise factor. While Annie Clark has been blowing minds for the best part of a decade, 10 years ago these kids were probably getting used to life at big school. This is not a rookie calling card, though, it's a fully-fledged panorama. There's a couple of choruses but blink and you miss them, because this is all about the joyful little moments - 90 of them crammed into nine songs. A punchy a discordant guitar solo, a soaring double-tracked vocal, a technical flourish from the production desk or some seriously sexy drum patterns. Sometimes they pull the rug out just as you've settled down for your picnic but they've already laid out a new one before you even have a chance to get mad.

Matt Collins
Alvvays - Alvvays (Transgressive)

Ignore the terrible name (or at least terrible spelling) - Canadian band Alvvays have just put out my album of the year, passing the ridiculously repeated listening test with ease. Mostly upbeat twee indie rock tunes, with the brilliant 'Party Police' sandwiched in the middle and ode to meeting strangers from the internet closer 'Red Planet' providing the contrast. Brilliant.

Dom Farrell
The War on Drugs - Lost In The Dream (Secretly Canadian)

Unless anyone else pulls the same stroke today, I think Lost In The Dream makes me the first Ragged Glories panelist to give my number one spot to the same band twice. Sorry for being such a boring bastard, I’ll try to do better in future, but this really is a very special record. The ingredients that made Slave Ambient such a triumph  - Adam Granduciel’s monstrous and beautiful guitar work, his fragile Dylan-esque vocals and a towering alliance between Americana and Krautrock -  remain but personal strife endured by its creator during a typically lengthy gestation period lend Lost In The Dream far greater emotional depth. Granduciel’s struggles with anxiety attacks and a relationship collapse are documented on the record’s numerous, skyscraping highlights. This is an album for the best of times and worst of times, scraping up the writer and listener when at rock bottom and sonically high-fiving them on the crest of a wave. Music is at its most powerful when it can confront extremes of human emotion. The beauty of Lost In The Dream is that it manages to chime on both ends of the spectrum at the same time.

Andrew Gwilym
The War on Drugs – Lost In The Dream (Secretly Canadian)

So here it is, number one on the list and, if I am totally honest, this has been top of the pile with since its release in March and there has not been one moment where I have doubted it. Slave Ambient had shown Adam Granduciel was capable of great things, but this is a truly exceptional, relentless album that will go down as a stone cold classic. There are elements of early 80’s Dylan, Dire Straits, Tom Petty and Born in the USA-era Springsteen here. It shouldn’t work. Yet the Dylanesque vocal delivery, the Mark Knopfler guitar lines and driving beats suggestive of the likes of Neu! add up to an utterly compelling mix. There are no three-minute singles here but the album absolutely flies by. This is not just the album of the year, it may prove to be among the albums of this decade, maybe of any decade.

John Skilbeck
Kate Tempest - Everybody Down (Big Dada)

Kate Tempest, a 29-year-old poet from south-east London, calls hip hop "the love of my life”, and the influence that "taught me the importance of being genuine and heavenly”. A captivating spoken-word artist, her dynamic rhymes, rhythms and flows (check this from 2013) were bound to translate across from poetry slams. Duly, Everybody Down was as gripping as the award nominations that would soon follow told a wider audience it was. I was gripped from the start of the summer, with Everybody Down soundtracking my fortnight as a London commuter. Sharing tube journeys delving into the world of Becky, Harry and Pete, the central characters in a deeply murky narrative that spans the album, made complete sense. I was in a city of Beckys, Harrys and Petes, their kin bleeding from the troubled underbelly of the capital, making their way against the odds, on the fringes of society, rewriting the rules in order to survive. Tempest might have missed out on that Mercury prize but Everybody Down, with its lyrical drama, its cynicism, its innate wisdom and its gloomy whirr and propulsive beats, knocked down all-comers for me this year.

Pranam Mavahalli
Beck - Morning Phase (EMI)

Rene Descartes said that the mind and body are entirely separate. Well, when it comes to judging records, I think I agree because for me some good albums appeal to the head, while others touch the heart, and truly great one is one that manages to do both. This year, I don’t think I came across much music that really ticked both Cartesian boxes, but Morning Phase is my top choice for being so affecting and heartfelt. There were several moments where I got the shivers when listening to this record, 'Wave' being one of them. A beautifully crafted album, from a musician who continues to inspire.

Ian Parker
Benjamin Booker - Benjamin Booker (Rough Trade)

So on the last day of this year's Musical Advent Calendar, let's take it back to the start. As explained on December 1, this year, more than any other, I struggled to put my 24 picks in any kind of order. Usually there's a stand-out No. 1, a number of candidates for the top 10, a clear mid-table and a bunch of wild-cards for the lower order. This year, I felt as if I had 24 four-star albums and few ways to tell them apart. So how did Benjamin Booker end up on top? It's not the most obvious pick - a rather fuzzy mess with dubious technical merit. So am I making some sort of apology for this pick here? No. Because by God is it exciting. This, more than the 23 records listed before, is the one that made hairs stand up on end. There's an attitude, an edge, but also a vulnerability about Booker. In this way he reminds me of troubled troubadour Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson - interviews such as this (the one Dom referred to on Day 12 and which we've only just relocated the link for [thanks Pranam]) might explain why - and we can only hope he proves a more sustainable proposition. Listen to his debut and you feel like Booker is an incendiary device that could go off at any minute. Go see him live and you might just witness the explosion.

Guy Atkinson
Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else (Wichita)

I used to regularly image what life would be like if Kurt Cobain and J Mascis had defied biology and reared a child together. However, thanks to this utterly perfect scuzz-pop record, I don't need to imagine anymore. It happened and his name is Dylan Baldi.

Steve Pill

Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything (Fiction)

It's a sad truth that heartbreak always produces the greatest lyrics. When Elbow's Guy Garvey elected to make a fresh start with his partner in New York, it proved to be the end of the relationship and also put fathom-deep distance between himself and his other three loves: his band, his home and his drinking buddies. In doing so, he has written the best lyrics of his career, a collection that finds poetry in unlikely subjects: from getting drunk in young hipster bars ('Charge') to paeans to his new home city ('New York Morning'). After the insipid 'Open Arms' from last album Build A Rocket Boys, a dishonest attempt to replicate 'One Day Like This'' stadium-filling triumphalism, he has managed to double-down on the details to find universal emotions. Of course, this isn't a solo album. It is easy to focus on Garvey's everyman charm and underestimate the skill, beauty and restraint of the band behind him. Whereas many musicians slap down obvious thick strokes of colour, they add subtle washes that layer and build. Having each band member write the basic music for each song in isolation for TTOALOE has only further enhanced the individual flavours they contribute and avoided the slide into democratic mediocrity. I've probably revealed my Elbow bias in the past because I do have a habit of telling everyone I DJed for them on two short tours and the launch of Leaders of the Free World, but I genuinely would have placed this album at number 1 regardless. If you can name me a more heartwarming, honest, witty, emotional, uplifting or reassuring album released in 2014, I’d love to hear it.

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