Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Musical Advent Calendar - Overall Top 10

Merry Christmas everybody!

Welcome to the final door of the 2014 Musical Advent Calendar...the overall top 10. Using our patented, mutli-layered and highly sophisticated rating system (one point for a No. 24 nomination, 24 for a No. 1 and everything else in between), we've calculated what the panel rated as the best 10 albums of the year. You can see just how many points each one got below.

Some facts and figures: This year we nominated, all told, 165 different albums, eight shy of last year's tally and 11 short of the overall record. Such convergence surely means that Guy is coming of age. But really...It seemed as though, after spending the first three weeks going off in all directions, everyone got back together in the final five days, with a number of albums coming up again and again - and duly being rewarded with top 10 slots below. 

Our winner garnered 126 points, which would have left it in second place to Laura Marling's 136 last year, but it's another impressive tally in the overall history of the Advent Calendar, so I think we can agree it's a worthy winner - even if it's one nobody guessed before the event. Popular pick The War On Drugs had to settle for second place. 

Towards the other end, it's worth noting that Caribou's Our Love got only two nominations and yet missed out on the place in the top 10 by a single point. 

Splitting the vote left them off the pace for the top 10, but special mention too for Neil Young and Ryan Adams, who each had two different records nominated in the same year - something Neil also achieved in 2012. Clearly the old git still knows how to turn out decent records...

Enough rambling...

1. Beck  - Morning Phase (EMI) - 126 points

What they said...

Andrew: Sea Change mined a similar seam of heartache and this is every bit as shimmering yet world weary as that 2002 release. It’s a glorious listen, tinged with heartbreak yet hopeful.

Rory: Sonically, Beck can do virtually anything, a musical polymath with experimental leanings verging on the ADD spectrum. He's basically a walking Ipod shuffle of styles and sounds. Yet this album is resolutely coherent, a series of statements made in one voice and demands to be heard start-to-finish.

Pranam: ...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.

Ian: Sea Change was always my favourite Beck album. At least until February, when a record billed as the sequel, Morning Phase, came along 12 years later and surpassed it.

Matt: Morning Phase is a reflective piece, all gently strummed slow acoustic guitars and wistful soundscapes. And being Beck, great songs start to finish. 

Dom: ...the strength of Morning Phase is in songs that are so sublime and so beautifully played and arranged that further, immersive repeat listens feel at least as necessary as rifling through your collection for its decade-old companion album. Everything here unfolds in a contemplative golden haze of sunlight and sunset. A simple gorgeous record.

2. The War On Drugs - Lost In The Dream (Secretly Canadian) - 105 points

Rory: They meander better than any band I know at the moment, Adam Granduciel's acid-fuzz grooves forming and reforming like a blissed out kaleidoscope. It's mostly a triumph of sound over songwriting but a triumph all the same.

Dom: 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: This is not just the album of the year, it may prove to be among the albums of this decade, maybe of any decade.

Andy: It sounds like Springsteen if he got into yacht rock, Billy Joel if he was slightly less middle-of-the-road and a thousand other comparisons that almost nail what's so brilliant about The War On Drugs' latest album. I can't think of an album I've listened to more this year, and I love it. 

Ian: Lost In The Dream is their best work yet, echoing Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen and other greats of American blue collar rock. Its hooks are subtle but sink deep. FM radio rock has rarely sounded so good. 

Steve: At times, I’m not even sure if this isn’t the same track rewritten 10 times at varying lengths. Still... What a song.

3. Sharon Van Etten - Are We There (Jagjaguwar) - 104 points 

Gwilym: The really special stuff is the song that stops you in your tracks, that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end and then leaves you to ponder a moment in splendid isolation. Sharon Van Etten’s fourth album Are We There has two of those moments in the opening three tracks, and it doesn’t stop there.

Ian: Van Etten has taken a huge step forward from 2012's Tramp, delivering in full on her promise of combining powerful songwriting and inventive stylings. Brilliant stuff.

Matt: Sharon van Etten is the darkest singer songwriter around, mostly eschewing the acoustic for electric guitar (and on this album, increasingly electronic textures). And Are We There is a typical SvE outing, full of bitterness, regret and super clever harmonies

Skillers: There was little to catch the seasoned Van Etten listener off guard on album number four from the New York resident: familiar themes of heartbreak, oppression, regret and desire streaked through pared-back musical arrangements. Yet there was plenty to exalt, from an increasingly remarkable artist.

Andy: To my mind, there are few records released this year that start quite as strongly as Sharon Van Etten's. For emotional intensity, the 1-2-3 of 'Afraid Of Nothing', 'Taking Chances' and 'Your Love Is Killing Me' are unparalleled.

4. Elbow - The Take Off And Landing Of Everything (Fiction) - 88 points

Steve: If you can name me a more heartwarming, honest, witty, emotional, uplifting or reassuring album released in 2014, I’d love to hear it.

Dom: The coda to 'Fly Boy Blue/Lunette' might be the finest thing they’ve ever committed to record. It’s preposterously good. When 'My Sad Captains' references “the corner boys” from “Lippy Kids” - the previous album’s high point - Garvey uses the old Springsteen trick of reflecting mistily on romantic ideals that agonisingly and inevitably fall short. Much like a lot of his work on Elbow’s sixth record, he absolutely nails it.

Rory: Guy Garvey is a wonderfully humanist writer - big on the small things and light of touch with the heavy stuff - and you could build a house on the foundations of those flat vowels of his.

Matt: Not their best ever but the glorious dark edge remains with the pop leanings.

Andrew: Getting older will be just fine, don’t you worry about that. A few beers followed and I ended the day in a more celebratory mood than I had started it in. Guy and co, I thank you for ending my 20s on the right note.

Ian: They get better and better with age, so it makes perfect sense that on an album where Guy Garvey tells us all that it's okay to be feeling a little older, they've hit the sweet spot once again.

5. Jack White - Lazaretto (Third Man Records) - 74 points

Andrew: God bless Jack White. God bless dear old brilliantly bonkers Jack White. We need to find ways to cryogenically freeze or clone this man, the world needs him.

Rory: I'm sure of two things: 1) when Jack White's yelling and hollering and riffing his way through his 2014 blues-rock reboot tongue is lodged semi-permanently in cheek. 2) regardless of that, nobody believes in this stuff more than him. It's a bit of paradox but once you've reconciled with it the whole Jack White pictures falls rather neatly into focus.

Andy: Maybe divorce has put a spring back in ol' Jack's step? Or maybe he's just feeling more comfortable not being in a band? Whatever, it really, really works. 

Dom: The blistering, paint-stripping, brain rattling guitar that Jack White splatters across the first half of Lazaretto is the sort of music that can make the heart pound and the pulse race.

Ian: The result is certainly a less coherent entity than its predecessor Blunderbuss, but it has too many good songs to be ignored for long.

6. St Vincent - St Vincent (Loma Vista) - 71 points

Rory: She understands the pop game as well as anyone since Madonna, she relishes the presentation as much as David Bowie, she's the funkiest guitarist in the business and she's filthier than Rihanna. Sold, sold, sold and sold.

Dom: Building on the excellent foundations laid by 2011’s Strange Mercy, Annie Clark might well have delivered her masterpiece. From the infectious synth riff that introduces “Rattlesnake”, everything about St Vincent bulges with brash confidence and brilliance.

Andy: To use some horrible terminology, I'm more fascinated by her music rather than able to feel it. It seems otherworldly, I have no idea how she'd start writing a song like 'Birth In Reverse' or 'I Prefer Your Love', and none of it really speaks to me. But that's not to say I haven't listened to St Vincent all year and been dazzled by it, finding something new to admire each time.

Gwilym: This is without doubt Clark’s most accessible work, but it retains its share of jagged edges, from the burbling electronica at the start of ‘Rattlesnake’, the scattergun guitar of ‘Birth in Reverse’ or the off-kilter intro to ‘Digital Witness’. A brilliant piece of work.

Ian: What is there that Annie Clark can't do? That the fourth album under the St Vincent name becomes the eponymous one seems fitting given that it is the best realisation yet of her sprawling vision. The music is razor-sharp, full of killer hooks, while the lyrics take the edge off as Clark gives you a wink and a nod while deconstructing the digital age.

Matt: More kooky female led pop tunes, with these lot being massively danceable rather than Lykke Li dreamy. 'Digital Witness' has the most insistent brass riff since 'Crazy in Love' too.

7. The Black Keys - Turn Blue (Nonesuch) - 56 points

Gwilym: After the rampaging blues/soul of El Camino, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney went for something more spacious and hazy. There is nothing here to rival the immediacy of ‘Lonely Boy’ or ‘Gold on the Ceiling’, but a bit of patience and Turn Blue reveals itself to be up there with their best work.

Ian: After writing their pensions with the stadium-filling El Camino, the Black Keys have followed it up with a far better record which was always destined to be less successful. 

Dom: Yeah, so we all hate Black Keys now, right? Bloody arena rock sell-outs - it was better when they travelled from toilet to toilet in a battered van. Booooooooo! No, of course not, that would be idiotic.

Andy: I especially love the opener 'Weight Of Love', with its face-melting guitar soloing, the slow burn of 'Bullet In The Brain' and 'Waiting On Words', and '10 Lovers', which even on first listen sounds like you've known it forever. I love the swirling sleeve, too.

8. Spoon - They Want My Soul (Loma Vista) - 55 points

Dom: They had me within the first minute of opener “Rent I Pay” - They Want My Soul’s chugging, stomping opening track - as the grinding guitars panned from left to right and back again. There are countless more little bits of magic like this to delight the musical nerd within and yet the album as a whole hangs together nicely, never quite becoming overly smart-arsed.

Gwilym: The Austin five-piece have been churning out consistently excellent albums for the better part of 20 years. They should be huge, but widespread acclaim as so far failed to come their way. Hopefully They Want My Soul, another brilliant, consistent record, might finally right that wrong.

Steve: I'd previously always pegged them as one of those overly literary bands, beloved of former Word readers, that prize arch lyrics over genuine emotion, to be filed alongside Elvis Costello, Felt or Magnetic Fields. On the dancefloor of that bizarre wedding in the woods, I realised how much I had underestimated them. Back in the UK, I tracked down the Spoon back catalogue and snapped up this, a distillation of everything that is great about their past four or so albums.

Ian: Spoon have always made technically brilliant albums - pure rock 'n' roll which is so clinical you can easily dissect it into its component parts, and yet never short on real soul and passion. But never has that vision been so well executed as on their eighth studio album.

Andy: They're not the most highly acclaimed band 2000-2010 on Metacritic for nothing, if you care for ratings on review aggregation websites. Despite that quality, there's a step up on this eighth album, full of ready made radio-friendly classics, if radio still played music like this. Melodically brilliant, musically exciting and lyrically biting, I think it's got everything you could want.

9. Real Estate - Atlas (Domino) - 49 points

Dom: The year's most jangly album? Gloriously so. These guitar lines weave an irresistible, shimmering pattern throughout. The sound of a hazy, lazy, cocktail-soaked beach party far from home, accompanied by lyrical reminders that you've lost your wallet, phone and keys and probably should have headed home back ago.

Matt: They might well be a walking talking Portland cliche, with the jangly indie guitars a very familiar tone. But Real Estate have an incredible knack for a tune that the distant reverby vocals don’t completely smudge into oblivion. An alternative treat.

Steve: The haunting harmonies and minor chord progressions often recall early REM or my old cassettes of forgotten Creation Records bands (18 Wheeler, Velvet Crush, BMX Bandits), but there is something pure and honest and true about the way in which they have been refashioned here. 

Andy: the band sounding more confident and comfortable than ever, their songs bolder than before. And while the nostalgia is mildly heartbreaking – Courtney longs for the suburban safety of his youth but knows he can never get back there – it at least feels real, and not the rosy version of the endless summer we’re sold so often. It's a great record.  

10. Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar) - 47 points

Andrew: Angel Olsen, once of Bonny Prince Billy’s backing band, struck out on her own with Half Way Home in 2012, a roots based pondering on the ways of the heart. That was good, this is stunning. Olsen’s voice is absolutely captivating, it leaves you hanging on her every word.

Ian: It's raw and emotional, with not a lick of polish in sight and more than a little debt to PJ Harvey along the way.

Steve: Like the rest of the album, 'High 5' is life-affirming and nostalgic, slacker-ish yet purposeful. At times you can hear touches of Cat Power, Mazzy Star, Leonard Cohen and Juliana Hatfield in her quavering Missouri voice, but in the main she has truly begun to find a very powerful voice all of her own.

Andy: The album veers from barely there acoustic songs to much bigger full arrangements, but Olsen sounds just as comfortable and just as brilliant with all of it.

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