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Endless Window 2014 Review: Albums of 2014

Posted on Thursday, 5 February 2015 | No Comments

And just keep repeating to yourself: THIS IS NOT A LIST.

Late? Late? Pah, I won't hear a word of it. Sure, for a whole host of reasons, this final entry of 2014 is now arriving firmly in 2015. Whether you consider that a problem or not is very much a matter of expectation though: if you are the sort of person who always has to say the first word of anything, then you can count the delay as a disappointment. If you want something that might have a certain amount of consideration to it though...well, welcome back. Sit back, there's some tea and biscuits for you just over there.

Quantifying a whole year of releases, especially as the implosion of the music industry continues along the inverse explosion of the amount of people creating and releasing music out there, is always something of a fool's errand. It's been made even more difficult in a year where, while there has been an absolute ocean of fine art to get stuck into, there's been no obviously epochal release such as a Have One on Me, a My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a Field of Reeds. In response, one early draft of this ran to include some seventy-five albums, and thousands of thousands of words, a desperate attempt to fit it all in rather than provide any kind of narrative or authorial selection. Thankfully, while reading it over, I managed to exert some form of editorial control and deleted most of the list without any further regret. Instead, what you have below is a slimmed-down list of twenty selections that, in their different ways, mattered the most to me over the last twelve months.

As such, there are inevitable omissions, great releases that just missed the frame. There's not enough hip-hop on the list but there is a glut of white men: in a superb year for metal, a swathe of seminal releases got missed out. I write this not to make excuses for the twenty albums that did make it, albums I can absolutely stand by, but because you cannot hope to improve - be it as a listener, a critic or as a person - without acknowledging your mistakes and trying to improve. There are plenty of innovators that ended up out of favour here: Ben Frost, Gazelle Twin, Shabazz Palaces, Pharmakon, Grumbling Fur - no room at the inn for any of these, alas. Hell, even Leonard Cohen couldn't reserve himself a seat. But if you are reading this, did you really need to be told again that, yeah, that new Aphex Twin album was pretty good? What you have before is not an attempt to bring together the whole of 2014 in music, but to provide one way into it, one particular spotlight. I stand by these records: make of them what you will.

Before we move on though, there is one release that fell outside the list but which I feel impelled to mention here. A release by an established cult band that has, for a host of reasons, fallen through the cracks and received minimal coverage this year, despite it being a potential career highlight of the band in question. This is an album that wields our past as a torch on our present, that asks us for our honour and our sadness but also for our resolve, a determination to break the same old violent cycles. I refer, of course, to the Lament of Einstürzende Neubauten.

Consisting of material written for a specially commissioned live event to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, the band chose to describe Lament not as a new studio album per se but as an adaptation of the live performance, preserved in aspic without the visual cues and Dadaist dramatics that have long been part of Neubauten's work. Regardless, the work succeeds entirely in of itself. Having already discussed this album on here, I would direct those looking for a commentary on Lament to that previous post. What I will underline here though is this: Lament is an album that, on an inherent levels, falls outside of fashion or trends. It is timely of course, in that it exists because of a a dreadful anniversary. But it exists on its own, quite separate from anything else going on in music in the last year - it sits here, it its own kind of quarantine, because to force it into an arbitrary number on a list seemed like the most appalling kind of joke, a kind of insult no matter where you put it. This is, more than any other album, perhaps the one truly essential album of the year, the one that speaks to how we got here, how we continue to let our lives and our cultures be torn apart and destroyed on aristocratic whims and how easily we allow ourselves to be led into the most terrible acts. Blixa Bargeld and company know there is no real glory to be had in war, nothing that can replace the terrible sorrow of what has been lost. 2014 proved to be a year of great instability and fracture across Europe, expressed in fear, suspicion and far-right populism, and 2015 thus far looks little different. History remains to try and impart some lessons, to try and prevent us making the same stupid decisions again and again, and this is why Lament matters so much, why the critical shunning of this album might be the most damning indictment of the state of music criticism and of the listenership imaginable. The intelligence, the anger, the sadness of Lament are essential after the year that has just gone.
But you want arbitrary numbers, so arbitrary numbers you will get. This may look like another list, but read between the pictures and read carefully. There are always narratives at work everywhere we look, conscious or otherwise. 2014 was a story of bitter power struggles, of unresolved divisions manifesting themselves once more, of the struggle to remain oneself in a digital world of permanent trouble. Why should the music be any different?

20)  Lykke Li – I Never Learn 

In a year of monocultural convergence, Lykke Li stood as a fascinating, necessary island just outside the centre of pop. At times, I Never Learn sounded like a grotesque inversion of the most appealing tricks of its predecessor Wounded Rhymes, the sprightly choruses and extroversion both turned inward, weapons against itself. Much of the criticism of I Never Learn fell on the grounds of it being too one-paced: a criticism that even the most cursory listen will reveal as a nonsense, and besides, are we really at the point where we can't sit still for half an hour? No: I Never Learn was Li's most complete effort to date, matching glossy, gothic beauty to an unsettling undertow, a break-up album that trades not in nice-guy platitudes but in more honest, unpalatable truths - coldness, confusion, chaos.

19) Pallbearer - Foundations of Burden

All doom bands can trace their family line back to Black Sabbath, naturally, but when was the last time you heard one of them not just try to imitate them but actually best them? (Before we go further: the final list, unfortunately, doesn't reflect what has been a very strong year for extreme metal of all stripes. Take it as granted that releases from Behemoth, Godflesh, Nux Vomica, Thantifaxath, Woods of Desolation and Yob are all sitting just below the top twenty.) Foundations of Burden is an ambitious record all right, one that remains true to the underground - this is still an album packed with ten-minute plus, down-tuned epics packed with time signature changes after all - but also plays for a much greater scope. As grand a riff showcase this is, it's Brett Campbell's powerful, high-reaching vocals and the soul-searching, madrigal-ready lyrics he co-writes with bassist Joseph Rowland that give Foundation of Burden the great beating heart that makes it such a compelling listen.

18) Current 93 - I Am The Last of All the Field that Fell

David Tibet's long-running troupe have never shied away from the prospect of ridicule, but then a lyrical focus on apocalyptic mysticism, Gnosticism and other theological esoterica, delivered in a curious sing-song voice, will do that for a band. Even within the context of their previous works however, I Am The Last of All the Field that Fell seems to have been gravely misunderstood. The lurching acid rock and wispy folk of recent years remains, but only as a background touch: instead, jazz pianist Reinier Van Houdt leads the way in this incarnation of Current 93, driving the music into woozy burlesque (I Remember The Berlin Boys) and frazzled, fiery post-bop (Spring Sand Dreamt Larks), and unsurprisingly plenty of jazz-phobic rock listeners could not get their heads around it, even as the album remains distinctly un-jazz. Instead, this is a work of great terror, fragile beauty and even sly humour that bends the kind of truly post-rock, modern-classical sounds of Field of Reeds (that great triumph of recent years whose architect Jack Barnett makes a cameo on organ and backing vocals) to the outsider visions of Tibet and succeeds admirably.

17)   Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra – Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything

The frustration around Thee Silver Mt Zion - beyond their iTunes-defying, ever-permeable moniker, beyond the wish of some that Efrim Menuck would just focus on the Godspeed day-job - has always been the gap between the moments of brilliance their releases have contained, and the moments of tedium or disinterest that cocoon them. Finally however, we have the album the group have so often hinted at being capable of. As I pointed out in my earlier review, the great success here is that where their screeds of struggle often ended up pushing the listener away, here they are very clearly part of the 'us' that stands against 'them': the result being a vibrant protest album that shames the petty navel-gazing and dull, innately conservative art of pretty much any other DIY or underground indie/rock band you could care to mention by mere virtue of existing. Thee Silver Mt Zion, it's a pleasure to be meeting you at last.

16)   Cooly G – Wait ‘Til Night

Cooly G first emerged as a major producer just as dubstep was well and truly petering out. Her early EPs and singles boasted intense dub and hard-hitting house influences that were dialled down for something softer, more intimate on her full-length debut Playin Me. On Wait 'til Night, Cooly G returned to a harder-hitting sound, but this time looked to American R'n'B productions as an influence. The sound she has found here is distinctly her own: these tracks boast skeletal arrangements and a polished, metallic surface, but the intimacy is, if anything, turned up. An album based on nocturnal possibility, Wait 'til Night is an album fuelled by lust, but one that recognises that dwells in the place between dream-like fantasy and the more difficult reality. Aside from all this, the small yet giant-killing production confirms Cooly G as the finest pop star the country as yet refuses to recognise: perhaps, if we could turn away from that three-headed beige hydra that dominated radio play in the last yet, the SSS of Sheeran, Smith and Swift, we might just find we want something more glorious, more brilliant, more adventurous in its place. Something a lot like Wait 'til Night, in fact.

15)   Manic Street Preachers – Futurology

Manic Street Preachers announce new album Futurology, stream first single 'Walk Me to the Bridge'

2014 for the Manic Street Preachers may well go down as the year that they finally faced up to their past and had their reckoning with that most titanic of millstones, The Holy Bible. Whilst there's sure to be a certain bit of filthy lucre paving the way, their gigs playing their 1994 masterwork in full, much of which has been rarely if ever performed live previously, stand out from the typical nostalgia circuit by sheer virtue of the violent, haunted, magnificent nature of the work being celebrated. But before they turned back, they spent much of the year looking forward as they promoted Futurology, the eclectic twin album to last year's Rewind The Film that gave their discography a whole new dimension. Synths had been tested and new wave flirted with previously, but the sound of Futurology - pristine and bright, a shimmering modernist artefact polished to perfection - as well as its lyrical fixations on European history and abstract art showcased a band still finding new variations on themselves. They made it safe for themselves to look back at their past selves by making something that, in its own way, remained true to the ideals and the goals they had once set themselves, something that gave them a whole new lease of life in the process.

14)   The Bug – Angels & Devils 

An album that did not make complete sense to this listener when it came out in August, but one that the cold nights have brought into focus. The emotion and sonic divide may not be as extreme as the title suggests - Devils & More Devils could have been a more truthful label - but the first side undeniably expands the scope of Kevin Martin's work as The Bug, bringing in guests like Liz Harris of Grouper and Copeland to bring out a more subtle, introspective angle before the second side brings out Flowdan and Warrior Queen to return to the aggressive bass stomp of London Zoo. If this collection doesn't fit together as neatly as that previous landmark (the Death Grips feature, whilst far from a disaster, remains something of a missed opportunity), it's one that still delivers the same thrills whilst also moving The Bug forwards, picking through the rubble of London Zoo before blowing it all up again for the sheer hell of it.

13)   East India Youth – Total Strife Forever

Arriving in the gloom of January was this statement of intent. The whole 'soul in the machine' idea has been so thoroughly over-used and abused by critics as to land firmly in the realm of the cliche, but what makes Total Strife Forever lingers so long in the memory is its total commitment not just to both sides of the coin, but to proving them to have always been one and the same anyway. There is a deep, thoughtful solitude within the ambient longeurs of Midnight Koto and Song for a Granular Piano, but instead of just hiding in plain sight like many a bedroom pop producer, William Doyle makes the bolder choice to stride out and meet the world head on. Instead we get the grandiose symphony of Glitter Recession, the martial house beats of Hinterland, the glorious release of Dripping Down and Looking For Someone - the curtains cast out, the door opened, the city embraced in all its colourful squalor and beauty. This is an album that stands against submergement, that fights against English repression and a sense of quiet suffering, one that flicks its way through decades of evolution in electronic music and folds its favourite moments up into surprising new structures.

12)   Sleaford Mods – Divide and Exit

Not the best album of 2014, but quite possibly the album of 2014. Who else was stepping up to the mantle and actually facing down the brutality of austerity, the horror of right-wing governance, the overwhelming stench of modern life and our complicity to it other than Andrew Fearn and Jason Williamson? As on previous releases, Divide and Exit thrives on a more-punk-than-punk utility backing, Fearn's incessant bass grooves and cheap drum beats digging their way into the skull to allow maximum space for Williamson's furious, hilarious and plain brilliant rants. This, far more than any pseudo-Mod nonsense, is true to the spirit of Mod: it's a short, sharp, modernist shock to the system that demands a reaction, and then action. The Britain they depict is one gone to the (austerity) dogs, stinking of shit, riddled with vice, cloaked all over in the detritus of wasted lives, crushed dreams and wilful ignorance - the Britain where the rest of us have to live. Cometh the hour, cometh the grimy glory of the Sleaford Mods.

11)   Gallon Drunk – The Soul of the Hour

If not to the same extent as entry seventeen, this proved to be another case of an old dog suddenly, remarkably learning a few new tricks. Gallon Drunk have never done a bad album, never put in any less than maximum blood and sweat into what they do, but they had never soared like this before. The Soul of the Hour is a swampy, nocturnal ride from a band that refuse to fade out quietly but instead demand the right to new expression, to fresh energy. They battle against entropy not by resorting to safe call-backs, but by showing you, passionately, undeniably just how much further they can go. James Johnston's stint with Faust finally rears its head in its main band, with the songs expanding in all senses to encompass new sounds and ideas whilst keeping true to their raw garage rock beginnings. In March, I proclaimed the record "an example of how elemental rock can be made fresh", and I'm glad to report that this very much remains the case.

10)   FKA twigs – LP1

FKA twigs is no longer hiding in plain sight as she was previously, but just what happened here? What grand experiment or catastrophe? In a world of identikit producers and anodyne vocalists, the auterial vision that Tahliah Barnett has brought to the pop world is distinctly of the present moment, yet feels like a significant rupture. LP1 can be read in several ways, all of them valid - a Trojan horse to sneak underground production and aesthetics into the mainstream, a break-up album for the age of social media, an intense, private character study immersed in submission and self-discovery - and yet it remains tantalisingly out of reach. That discomforting combination of digital sheen and bloodied humanity found on the front cover might be the entrance, but the further you dig inside LP1, the clearer it becomes that there are no easy answers to be found. A remarkable debut album that sets the stage for much more to come.

9)    Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2

The success of Run The Jewels might be surprising (to its two instigators most of all, you suspect), but it cannot be said to be anything other than justly deserved. The first album was the sound of two masters in their own fields - the paranoid beat-maker and hipster favourite El-P teaming up with the authoritative, Outkast-affiliated Killer Mike - teaming up and making a minor masterpiece of shit-talking, buddy-comedy battle rap. With their newly raised profiles, Run The Jewels 2 doubles down on the gleeful belligerence, but also carves out a space for these two intelligent voices to expand on their political outlook and add a seriousness to the collaboration (when they're not making cat meme records anyway). El-P's production skills remain some of the best in the business, and he puts in plenty of great lines throughout, but it's Mike who really steals the spotlight, be it on his built-for-immortality album introduction on Jeopardy or his powerful, evocative verses on Early and Crown. The seriousness of some of Run The Jewels 2 was a necessary reaction to some of the horrific events of 2014 - events to which Killer Mike would provide some of the most astute, furious commentary - but it also made the knowingly ludicrous, comic book boasting of the album's more party-ready moments feel like a much-needed public service.

8)    Jenny Hval and Susanna – Meshes of Voice

Of course, one of the great joys of a life spent thinking and writing about music is when you find something coming entirely out of left-field, something that takes you back in surprise. Although Meshes of Voice originally took place as a collaborative performance in 2009 for Ladyfest Oslo, it retains an uncanny power five years removed from its original performance. Bringing together these two distinct voices – Hval, a dabbler in electronics and art-rock who takes a sharp, forensic approach to issues of sexuality and identity, and Wallumrød, known for glistening classical-infused pop and jazz performances – may not appear the most obvious of musical pairings, but in practice it is ingenious. Meshes of Voice is an ambitious song-cycle that takes in jazz swing, classical refinement, harsh washes of electronic noise, subdued folk and much more and yet works superbly as one immersive piece. This is one of those wonderful, rare collaborations that exists happily outside of the frame work of rather artist responsible: for those willing to take the plunge, Meshes of Voice is an immersive triumph.

7)     Wild Beasts – Present Tense

That Wild Beasts would find their way into this list is less surprising - your writer was, truth be told, an early adopter - but this is not quite the same band we have met before. If Smother was the dejected, mournful flip-side to the frenzied lust of their first two albums, Present Tense finds the band trying to negotiate a whole new realm of electronic pop without losing that distinct identity: as northerners finding themselves drawn to the vampire squid of modern-day London, Wild Beasts found themselves addressing the modern day for the first time, albeit obliquely. So as much as Present Tense succeeds in re-drawing the band as an imaginative sophisti-pop outfit (in Mecca and Palace, it's a record with two love songs for the ages), it's an album that implicitly address the struggles of the great us against the ever-shifting them, an album born out of confrontations with gentrification, with the divide between the rich and the poor and the struggle to survive as an artist in a city more interested in capital and in housing complexes for multi-millionaires than in the people living within it. As with the collaboration of Hval and Wallumrød, one suspects that the boys of Wild Beasts might be far closer to the Sleaford Mods than either party really knows.

6)     Scott Walker & Sunn O))) – Soused

In its way, the least predictable album of the year might also have been the most predictable. The unstoppable force of Sunn O))), the immoveable object of Scott Walker - who would win, other than the listener? As visceral a force as the guitar army of Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley is, even this is subsumed beneath the might of late Scott. Bish Bosch saw Scott tinker with certain ideas of metal as part of that record's bawdy modernist collage, but for Soused he pushes the sheer physical presence of Sunn O))) to the forefront as a replacement for his usual masses of strings and orchestras. As close to a 'band' record as Scott has ever done, the songwriting remains distinctly, unquestionably his, but the presence of Sunn O))) opens up and clarifies his late style in a new way. Between the brute force of Bull, the mounting tension of Herod 2014 and the macabre finale of Lullaby (By-by-by), they push through the barriers of the material and charge straight at the listener: not since his songs on Nite Flights has Scott presented anything this direct. Soused might be his metal record, but it also finds him providing a way in for those baffled by that trio of stark obelisks Tilt, The Drift and Bish Bosch

5)     St Vincent – St Vincent

Occasionally, as they rise their heads from the sand, gulp down the bare minimum of fresh air required to sustain life and then plunge themselves back into that comforting black, you can hear the traditionalist wail: but who will be the next Bowie, the next superstar? Never mind that people weren't sat around waiting for a Bowie to turn up before he arrived on the scene, never mind that there's plenty of other talent around that, as it happens, just happens not to fit that exact mould - the complaint goes on and on, croaky and horse from years of consuming dirt.
The point being: who needs the next Bowie, when we have the first St Vincent? Annie Clark's work has always felt distinct from prevailing trends and scenes, but her self-titled release felt like a grand coming out party, the final triumph of the alien avatar St Vincent over her human author. Her dedication to this new persona bleeds into the music, both more produced and more violent than anything she has made to date. The character would not be so exciting though were it not matched with the finest songwriting of Clark's career to date: anything out of Birth In Reverse, Huey Newton, Digital Witness, I Prefer Your Love or Severed Crossed Fingers could count as a career peak - to have them all on the same collection seems almost indecent.

Considered alongside a touring show that, for its abstract theatricality, must count as one of the year's finest, St Vincent is the act of an artist reaching a new peak that even their most ardent supporters might not have foreseen. With this album, Clark moved rock music away from nostalgia and stridently into the modern day, holding a mirror up to the way the march of technology is rapidly re-writing how we function socially and psychologically. On this one however, she wasn't alone.

4)     EMA – The Future’s Void

If St Vincent aimed to reconcile rock music with the present day, the latest by Erika M. Anderson, The Future's Void, is a work unimaginable in any other context. The actual record itself is only part of the work: equally as important are internet-released tracks surrounding the release like the enraged punk of False Flag, her self-described 9/11 song, or her autobiographical online zine Back To The Void, which peels back the circumstances around the making of The Future's Void and adds a whole new depth to the finished album. If the old-fashioned concept of the album has indeed been eroded, EMA is happy to make the most of the new opportunities now made available.

One of the things most striking about The Future's Void is how precisely it treads the line between utopian and dystopian possibility. Her debut Past Life Martyred Saints dealt in the kind of personal confessional that, in lyrical tone at least, could be understood perfectly well in a pre-internet age. In The Future's Void, that same anguish and doubt returns, but the locus is entirely digital - both pain and its antidote arrive through broadband, through wi-fi. 3Jane could have been an ordinary (albeit beautiful) piano ballad, but the focus on the dissociation and psychic damage caused through always being connected and always surveying and being surveyed in turn makes for something much less easy to parcel up or file away. Even as she dips into industrial beasts and takes the digital age head on in Neuromancer, she retains a sympathy along with the sneering, an understanding of how easy it is to fall into the trap of virtual narcissism.

Perhaps this is why critics and listeners seem to have had more trouble accepting The Future's Void than her debut. In almost every sense, this album is a quantifiable improvement on a superb first release, and yet the praise has been less forthcoming. The songwriting is even stronger, the production more detailed but retaining a vital home-spun grit, the lyrics embracing a modern world most songwriters would prefer to pretend isn't happening. Perhaps it's her refusal to take a side -  Anderson is happy to make the most of modern technology in her art and to understand its potential, but is also more than aware of its detrimental affect on us in real life - or that, if anything, this record seems even more violently real than its predecessor. Was there any other lyric in 2014 as ingeniously barbed as So Blonde's declaration "He's gonna act like he's a feminist / But leave it up to you to prove", or any other vocal as intimidatingly personal as the ultra-close-miced 100 Years?
The Future's Void feels like a search for meaning in a world where that quest is already doomed, a record bursting with technological possibility and human frailty.My initial enthusiasm for this record remains undimmed: this is a vital work that too many people just took for granted.

3)     D’Angelo and the Vanguard – Black Messiah

In the short time frame between this album suddenly emerging, this blog publishing an early review, and 2014 slamming shut for 2015's arrival, there perhaps isn't too much else to add to the picture with Black Messiah. There are a few more notes to add however: firstly, this is certainly not the only list in which D'Angelo proved to be the most welcome of gatecrashers, as the venerable critical barometer Pazz and Jop displayed. It's also true that, as much as the album was indeed rush-released as D'Angelo's behest in the wake of Ferguson and Eric Garner, it is not like these tragedies have gone away - as a powerful performance of The Charade on Saturday Night Live only underlined.

More remarkable though is that, with the benefit of some more time to breathe, the hysteria that greeted its release looks only right. Excitement over the return of a long-lost icon is one thing, but the endlessly replayable Black Messiah is the real deal. The numerous false starts and bouts of ignominy will, rightly, fade into the background, but this astonishing record will remain. Every new listen - and have there been plenty of those - seems to bring out a new richness, a new depth. The great triumph of Black Messiah is this: calling it the sequel of Voodoo is irrelevant. This is its own majestic creation, one whose brilliance needs no predecessor or frame of reference to be understood. It's a record that demands you take great gulps of, that you breathe in and keep inside you like a lungful of fresh air.

2)     Swans – To Be Kind

So now, despite my best efforts, I actually have to find something to write about this. I have, in different ways, written about it previously on here - on its release, on the occasions of Swans playing in Newcastle, in a previous round-up. The problem is this: there is something about the modern incarnation of Swans, and about this album in particular, that I have found to be somewhat critic proof. There is no great juicy back story behind the album, unless you consider 'great band does it again' enough of a novelty. There is no new sound or trend being followed, no concession to mainstream tastes, no great concept or idea running through it other than the six members of Swans and occasional collaborators working their hardest to make as good an album as they can. Go find the clickbait in that.

Instead, To Be Kind is that rare beast: it is a work of art that assumes that the audience is as smart and capable as the artist responsible, and as such holds nothing back nor holds hands. It is left to the listener to navigate their way through all two hours of To Be Kind, but this is because as punishing and severe as some of this music is, there is an underlying faith to the music Michael Gira produces. To Be Kind might be the most brilliant depiction of this faith to date: there is faith in revolution, faith in nature, faith that our human fragility and mortality can offer its own transcendent experiences, and above all faith in human connectivity. It's a long way from the hateful, almost anti-human tone of mid-eighties Swans, but To Be Kind is a testament to a lifetime spent evolving.

And still, words seem somehow insufficient. Certainly, there is no viable sub-genre or category to slot whatever it is the post-reactivation Swans are doing into. Any notion of post-punk or industrial or no-wave is long since gone: country and psychedelia certainly make their presence known, yet both of those seem like total misnomers. Some of this music features the most physical grooves imaginable, but what madman's notion of dance music would this be? The only label that does not fall away immediately upon application is that most hilariously wide-ranging and un-cool tag - rock music. Not rock music in the form of any number of recycled, worthless careerists whose slurry finds itself funnelled towards stardom: not rock music in the form of the kind of tediously derivative, closed minded, thoughtless nonsense that underground circles cling to for fear of having to confront the real world. If Swans are in fact a rock band, they might be the only ones left to whom that pays a compliment. This is music of great thought and imagination, as well as undeniable visceral impact. Other bands try to rock but Swans just do it, standing proud as the only game left in town.

The Seer felt like an encapsulation of everything Swans had been up to that point, a destination reached after a long and winding journey. To Be Kind is the departure towards the next destination, wherever that might be.

1)     Richard Dawson – Nothing Important

For most of the year, To Be Kind was the undoubted leader of this list. A record of that scope, that ambition, for this writer, will often be a shoo-in for a list like this. Sometimes however, you find a work that creeps up on you, that seems to find its way into every aspect of your life, seeping through the pores of the skin and deep into the nervous system and into the mind, into the heart. You find yourself almost knocked sideways as you go about your daily business because a lyric of a fragment of song worms its way to the forefront of your thoughts and refuses to let go: the beauty of an except of the whole leaving you breathless, stunned, desperate to know more.
The 'you' here is, of course, a stand-in for myself. Not to dismiss the possibility that you, dear reader, have not had exactly the same experience at the hands of this record, but how could I ever know that? The issue with writing, for me at least, is that the audience is a vague concept. I can imagine certain friends or acquaintances who might be reading, but beyond that who or what this piece will reach I do not know. I am not someone employed by major publications who can comfortably assume a certain demographic or reach: I am at the mercy of trends and demands for whatever is deemed wanted online at any particular moment. (Unfortunately, I seem to have developed an unwelcome habit of finding myself on the unpopular side of most of these trends.)  So I don't know what your relationship with this record is, whether you have one with it or not. The essential narcissism in this enterprise, in assuming that people will actually be interested in the words gathered here, therefore becomes more evident than ever.
Narcissism is not something that you would ever associate with Richard Dawson: as a person and as an artist, he has an honest, avuncular presence, presenting his work not with grandeur or false modesty but with a directness and a real intelligence far too self-aware and humorous to lapse into pretention. His work, like many a songwriter, deals in the 'I' trade, but the I of Dawson is something of a misnomer. Dawson reveals plenty about his life, his ideals, his hopes and fears in his work, undoubtedly, but the ultra-specificity he works with is ultimately more of a portal than a portrait. He understands that, in this age especially, faux-universality and worn-out platitudes will not do. Instead, he strings the details together to paint as vivid and realistic an image of a real life, in all its comedy and drama and rich singularity so that we, as listeners, can come to understand something about ourselves and our condition. We do not need to possess, as Dawson does, a knowledge of Newcastle United fan favourites from the nineties, of the public transport of the north-east or of Buddhist monasteries in Halifax. He trusts in the audience to enjoy the microscopic strangeness he offers up, and then to extract what they want and need from it to make it work for them.

As I have discussed in some of my previous writing on Dawson's work, I have a particularly personal relationship with his work. I stumbled upon him opening an under-sold show in a long-since shuttered bar years back as a student, and have seem him perform around Newcastle far more times than I can accurately tally up. As such, he has by default ended up a background music for numerous highs and lows, for the ebbing and flowing of life. Nothing Important stands out as a milestone in several ways - his first album for a significant label, his first to be greeted with real press and media support, the album that has ended up 'breaking' Dawson to the extent where solo-out headline concerts and UK tours are now possible. For that alone, a just reward for years of toiling away in the quiet, this record would be its own minor miracle. But this record serves as such a remarkable extension and development of the style he has been moving in since The Magic Bridge, his own form of modernist, urban folk music, that a truly sublime note is reached.
For me, to listen to Nothing Important is to have not just Dawson's but also my own lifetime of accumulated experiences, regrets, memories and beliefs brought into sharp focus, a curious madeleine that resurrects the past to re-shape it. There are some remarkably intimate and personal memories that Dawson shares here, some of them as comedic picaresque, some as plain-spoken tragedy. A record that is, in many ways, so unapologetically difficult - two sixteen-minute songs, bracketed by two guitar instrumentals that crush together the fluid folk of Bert Jansch and the free-jazz imaginings of Derek Bailey - is also one of exceptional generosity to the listener that cares to challenge themselves and open up to it.
Listening to Nothing Important, I see: a small ocean of alcohol shared with friends, discussing and debating Dawson's music between a million obscure in-jokes and filthy laughs, a couple of failed relationships, some painfully embarrassing attempts at flirtation, another relationship that filled me with hope and showed me that, yes, I don't have to be alone, even after it ended, yet another artist I played on the stereo during a visit back home and had to defend against the expected parental charge of 'but that's just noise!', years spent scribbling away, trying to carve out some kind of niche or home in a new city of arrival. I see a succession of degrees and jobs float past, childhood memories suddenly rush back - the ones our family chooses to acknowledge, the ones we all unspeakingly know to repress -   I see people come in and out, personalities adopted and discarded (and yet, somehow, have I ever really changed at all?), changing plans and priorities, the struggle to make it all worthwhile. I see a wealth of joy and delight, I see the tar-like violence and inky self-loathing barely kept under wraps, sometimes exploding to the surface but then hidden again beneath a tarpaulin of bad word-play and cheesy puns. I see my friends marrying, years measured in train tickets. I see the pride of my parents at graduation, a rare smile coaxed from my grandfather: I see the body that he used to live in, stiff and staring upwards, transfixed and open-mouthed, as the men take it away (and you call that peace?). I see a whole list of revelations that faded away from view, hard truths learned and sometimes forgotten, chances I was too myopic to acknowledge until safely seen through that silt-grey ocean of time, and the times I dared and reached up towards something. I see the mirror that Dawson holds up, the two-way mirror that reveals himself and the listener at once.
If you want a more typical review of the album from me, then click here for the previous. I can justify this choice on any number of musical grounds, on the exceptional quality of the lyrics, on the grand ambition of a record that packs in so much, with such density, and yet retains a koan-like quality. All of these choices are inherently personal, but sometimes the cloak of objectivity has to be removed for any possible truth to be reached. It might not be your favourite record of 2014, but Nothing Important by Richard Dawson was unquestionably the most powerful, the most affecting, the most significant of them all to me. Richard Dawson takes on the great cosmic joke - that we can only experience life as ourselves, that in this badly-written story the hero always has to die at the end - and, somehow, draws a kind of victory from it. Our memories might fail us, our mistakes might find themselves repeated, and yet hope persists. I can't think of anything more important than that.

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