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Up The Narrow Stairs: The Best of 2014

It’s time to journey up the narrow stairs for one last time this year and decide which of this year’s albums, launched expectantly into the sea of musical dreams, are still floating my boat.

I’ve tried to give everything I’ve been listening to over the past 12 months another ‘spin’ (that’s a laugh; most of them are playing through my computer) and come up with a Top 7. Yeah, I know, 7. It’s how we roll up here. One for each day of the week if that makes you happy. And there’s an extra bonus mention of an 80s reissue, which deserves celebrating.

They’re not in any particular order, so here goes.

 

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Aphex Twin: Syro
It has been a long time. Quite how many years it’s been since the last Aphex Twin album doesn’t really matter. So many other acts have come and gone since the ‘Drukqs’ album that you might think there was nothing new to be heard from our favourite son of Warp records, but how wrong that assumption was. ‘Syro’ managed to be new and old-school all rolled into one. Here’s a thing. Try listening to any of the tracks and ask yourself ‘what makes this unmistakably by him and no-one else?’ I promise it will intrigue you, and shed maybe a little light on why the influence he had (and perhaps still has) on dance/ambient/techno music and beyond is unequalled. He’s the daddy of dance, the baron of beats and the ambassador of ambient… (that’s enough stupid titles:ed).

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St Vincent: St Vincent
How weird that one of my favourite albums and films of 2014 have the same title. That’s not happened since, well, it hasn’t ever happened has it? I get all gooey listening to the track ‘Prince Johnny’, but that’s just my little problem. The rest of the album is just as mood enhancing, and if you’ve come across her before it will be no revelation. It’s just like her best stuff, but better. You can quote me on that. I fully expect to see that used as a quote on her next press release. It’s that perfectly crafted turn of phrase that sets this blog apart from the rest.

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FKA Twigs: LP1
A genuinely startling debut from the winner of this year’s ‘Limp Bizkit Award for Daftest Name’. All the talk this year of Kate Bush put me in mind of how she might sound if Warp Records got hold of her. Like FKA Twigs, that’s how. Description will not do LP1 justice; you just need to hear this. You might not like it too much at first, but let it get inside your head and it will live there for a good long time.

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Sun Kil Moon: Benji

If melancholy is your thing, look no further. Red House Painters morphed into Sun Kil Moon a few years ago, and both were vehicles for the music of Mark Kozelek from Calafornia. This is as near to a solo album as he’s yet produced, and with its themes of death and dwelling on the ugliness of life, it could be a depressing affair, but this sort of openness in song writing and music is somehow liberating. Perhaps not an album to listen to when you’re at home alone with the best part of a bottle of wine inside you, but light and shade is what music brings to our lives. It’s not all Pharrell Williams singing ‘Happy’, you know.

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A Winged Victory for the Sullen: Atomos
Deep, Moody, Sad, Brooding and Anxious. These are just a few of the rejected names for the Seven Dwarfs, but are also my attempt at telling you what you might feel when you listen to this totally absorbing album. If anyone tries to tell you that the ‘new’ Pink Floyd album is atmospheric, play them this and sit back in smug-heaven. There are shades of Philip Glass, Gavin Byers and the darker works of Brian Eno here. This will appeal to anyone interested in the ambient side of classically influenced modern music. If you intend to listen to this on anything other than a big fuck-off system, don’t bother coming to the party. This has layers of sound you need to be immersed in, or just don’t bother.

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Sceaming Maldidi: Everything Unsaid
I could well be accused of leaving nothing unsaid about this lot. We played them several times on our radio show, I wrote several glowing reviews of their live shows over the past few years, and played them to anyone who would listen, but sadly here will be no more from Sheffield’s greatest and now most missed group. This is their swansong release and shows us, as Jim Bowen never tired of saying, ‘what we could have won’. It’s not news, but it shows that however good the music is, making a living from it has never been harder.

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Jim Noir: Finnish
It’s not his best, but anything from Gentleman Jim is always an event. Ever since I saw him in the Leadmill in 2006 I’ve been obsessed with trying to follow the often frustratingly low-key career of Jim Noir. After several years of not issuing any new material, he’s returned from with his most focused and complete set of tunes so far: a proper album, no less. He continues to indulge his gift for writing tunes that could have come from the pen of Brian Wilson, Lennon & McCartney or Ray Davies, with hooks and riffs you could easily be convinced you’d heard before. If you like this, be sure to search for his earlier work.

 

That’s if for new stuff, but I need to mention the re-issue of the year of Skylarking from 1986 by XTC. At the time, Virgin Records were convinced that for XTC to have a hit in the US, they needed an American producer. They chose my hero, Todd Rundgren, and to say they didn’t hit it off was an understatement. The band were eight years into their career and had effectively retired from live performing and become a studio band. Their records were becoming dense, overproduced and of diminishing interest even to their faithful fan-base. Todd sequenced, reshaped and rewrote the album and gave a much needed outsider’s perspective. Andy Partridge is a song writing genius, but he needed reining in. Todd knew that to make a good XTC album, he needed to have limited input from Partridge, and to this end he tried to exclude him from the studio. ‘Like having two Hitlers in the same bunker’ was said by one or other of them at the time. Andy initially disowned what Todd had done, but has since mellowed and accepted that this is up there with their very best. And it is.




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