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Ali's 2014: Albums

It's been a truly excellent year, in terms of both the sheer number of records I've enjoyed and the quality of those sitting at the top of the pile. I've never had such a hard time whittling my favourites down to a top 10, but here's how it's come out:
10Withered Hand
New Gods

Never the most prolific of artists, Dan Willson's intrinsic strain of perfectionism saw the second Withered Hand LP take a full five years to make. Luckily, it's also a key reason behind the resulting record's success - together with the natural melodic gift exercised even more so than on cult predecessor Good News. Whereas that record was of a decidedly downcast, self-deprecating disposition, New Gods is cut from a markedly different cloth, instead sourcing inspiration from Scotland's colourful indie pop tradition. There are moments of quiet introspection, particularly in the album's second half, but the most memorable cuts without doubt are those infused with an unlikely splash of sunshine and suitable guest appearances. Opener 'Horseshoe,' for instance, douses Willson's songcraft in a swathe of Teenage Fanclub-isms; 'Black Tambourine' marks a joyful joining of forces with Pam Berry of, err... Black Tamborine, while the breezy jangle of 'King of Hollywood' was pertinently described by a friend of mine as "Withered Hand goes on holiday." The shift hasn't appeased all, but the end product is a fabulous follow-up from one of Britain's more understated writing talents.
9First Aid Kit
Stay Gold

Having gone from strength to strength since their formation in 2007, the fact Klara and Johanna Söderberg's third LP was the strongest to date came as no great surprise. That, though, should do nothing to undermine Stay Gold's qualities - or moreover how they're retained amid a polished and increasingly mainstream exterior. This radio-friendly sheen is epitomised by the likes of 'My Silver Lining' and 'Master Pretender,' which see the sister's harmonies meld in flawless unison; but it's the soaring later crescendos of 'Cedar Lane' and 'The Bell' where their voices - and songwriting - shine the brightest. Having already plugged the album relentlessly, 2015 is shaping up to be another busy year in the live arena, but after a well- earned rest, who's to say they can't go one better once again come its follow-up?
8A Winged Victory For the Sullen

Having garnered cult status with their serene self-titled debut, Dustin O'Halloran and Adam Wiltzie had a tall order on their hands if they were to improve second time around. The duo's response, then, was to not even try; forsaking the traditional album format for a follow-up instead created to soundtrack Atomos, a dance by acclaimed choreographer Wayne McGregor. Presented as 12 fluid, cinematic movements, the pair's music could scarcely have been better suited to this fresh purpose, its effortless air veiling the beauty and elegance of their drone and piano-based pallet. More dynamic than its predecessor, it drifts blissfully between segments, seamlessly fusing soaring emotional peaks and more extended ambient passages in a manner befitting one of modern ambient's leading exponents.
7Todd Terje
It's Album Time

The year's finest party album, and one which more than any other proved the soundtrack to my summer. Initially censured for the presence of existing singles, It's Album Time's station as a modern disco masterclass quickly brushed over such pettily picked holes - so much so that it still has fans euphoric even the deepest depths of winter. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, it's numbers come infused with both purpose and tempo, whether it's the bright, cheesy fun of 'Strandbar,' the wicked pulsing beat of 'Dolorean Dynamite' or the irresistible synth stomp of 'Inspector Norse.' Then there's 'Johnny and Mary,' the Bryan Ferry-featuring curveball planted squarely at the center of the album's tracklist. A complete and utter change of pace, it stands out like a hobo on a dancefloor and has all the hallmarks of a lead balloon, yet somehow it works; emitting a rhythmic lure that's wildly removed yet equally effective. There is, however, no doubt where Terje's true strength lies, and while some may deem disco a dirty word, a life with It's Album Time is a life less ordinary.
6St. Vincent
St. Vincent

Perhaps the most frequent explanation behind self-titled records is that they signify a definitive statement; a culmination of all that's good about an artist and the benchmark against which future efforts will be held. Whether this was Annie Clarke's intention with St. Vincent isn't entirely clear, but in being at once her most focused, accomplished and accessible to date, there's no doubt it's amounted to something of a breakthrough. What's more, this has all come about without a hint of compromise, with even modal, three-and-a-half minute pop songs like 'Rattlesnake,' 'Digital Witness' and 'I Prefer Your Love' infused with the off-kilter angles and vibrant sonic innovation synonymous with Clarke's solo ventures. The result is a record that's bold enough to branch out, yet weird enough to maintain intrigue - a combination which has proved impossible to ignore for new and familiar followers alike.
5The War on Drugs
Lost in the Dream

With the conclusion of three wasted years at university, the first half of 2014 was an immensely stressful time; my mind bouncing back and forth between the sheer weight of work confronting it and the sheer pointlessness of it all. It was during this phase that Lost in the Dream became something of a salvation - a record I'd put on, lie down and soak up, allowing its sonic waves to wash over me and cleanse my brain of its swirling swathes of negativity. It's a routine which worked time and time again, and is testament to the vision and ability of Adam Granduciel, whose own bout of depression spawned this minor masterpiece in therapeutic escapism. The acclaim for The War on Drugs' third effort has, predictably enough, given way to an originality-themed backlash, with the ever-eloquent Mark Kozelek in particular dismissing it as "beer commercial lead-guitar shit." In truth, though, this classic approach is barely an issue when applied in such a fresh and distinctive manner, and while they might not have made my favourite record of the year, there's no question Granduciel and The War on Drugs have been among 2014's big winners.
4The Twilight Sad
Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave

Having spent much of the year revisiting debut Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, the stage seemed set for Scotland's finest modern misery mongers to return to the glorious sound of their early years following dabblings in post-punk and electronica on 2012's No One Can Ever Know. In a sense, that's exactly what they did. Far more guitar-centric than its predecessor, Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave finds axeman Andy MacFarlane rediscovering his stash of pedals and penchant for warped, layered din - most notably on searing center- point 'In Nowheres.' That, however, is only part of the story, as the record also utilises virtually every other trick acquired in their decade-long innings, together with new ones on what's their most confident, accomplished and quite possibly best set to date. The songwriting, in particular, has progressed significantly, yet their greatest strength lies in vocalist James Graham, and his soaring, transcendent Scots brogue. From the gathering momentum of 'I Can Give You All That You Don't Want' to the naked isolation of 'Sometimes I Wished I Could Fall Asleep,' the frontman performs with the conviction of a man possessed, lending the songs an electric emotional intensity, and what's more aligning them with the group's stunning live shows. Tremendous stuff.
3Sun Kil Moon

Mark Kozelek has made himself incredibly difficult to like in 2014; a mighty shame, as no record this year has been as endearing nor emotionally stirring as Benji. Deadpan and perennially downbeat, the 47-year-old's chief concern on his greatest set to date is death - the death of his uncle, his second cousin Carissa, serial killer Richard Ramirez, even his parents (even though they're yet to pass) via freak accidents, fires, natural causes and practically everything in between. It's bleak, harrowing and at times hard to listen to, but the punch of both his lyrics and delivery is irrefutable. While it's clearly the overriding theme, mortality isn't the only issue which plays on Kozelek's mind. 'Dogs,' for instance, represents a filthy and uncomfortably detailed forray into his sexual beginnings, while the heart-stopping 'I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same' includes a poignant, apparently sincere apology to a victim of his childhood bullying. How regrettable, then, that he reverted to old habits as the year wore on.
2The Smith Street Band
Throw Me in the River

While its sentiments aren't quite as desolate or melancholy as those on Benji, the emotional arc perpetrated by Wil Wagner and The Smith Street Band on their third full-length sees that they edge into my runners-up slot. All but abandoning their folky beginnings, Throw Me In the River is a big, brash punk rock record, but also one with immense heart, documenting as it does its writer's relationship struggles and resulting toils with depression. The results are explosive and more often than not life-affirming, from the gut-wrenching wallow of 'The Arrogance of a Drunk Pedestrian' to the the sheer jubilation of 'I Love Life,' which completes a remarkable turnaround from the brink of self-destruction to glorious, celebratory redemption. A truly remarkable record, Throw Me In the River is a work which deserves to age well, and to propel the Australians alongside contemporaries like The Menzingers at the forefront of today's punk scene.
To Be Kind

In normal circumstances, any of the records in this list's top five would be serious album of the year contenders. But they aren't. In fact, none of them even come close. That's because, from the moment it was unveiled back in May, nothing was ever likely to top To Be Kind. To do so would require a record of such unearthly proportion and monolithic power as to practically defy comprehension, as Michael Gira and co's latest packs that and much, much more into its stunning two-hour runtime. If you're after Exhibit A, look no further than 'Bring The Sun/Toussaint L'Overture,' a gargantuan 34-minute suite which marks the LP's obvious centerpiece. Certainly, no other piece of music has ever left me feeling butterflies in my stomach, but that's precisely the effect wreaked by the epic build encompassing its entire first half, so staggering is its scale and aural impact. It's no exaggeration to hail it among the densest passages ever committed to tape, but despite representing an obvious high point, the same strain of intensity comes entwined in every one of the record's tracks, from the rhythmic punch of 'A Little God in My Hands' to the eerie flow of 'She Loves Us' to the manic rush of 'Oxygen.' A quite astonishing body of work, and my album of the year by a considerable distance.
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