Top Ten Albums of 2014: 10 – 8

Top Ten Albums of 2014: 10 – 8

Angel Olsen Portrait Session

Angel Olsen: heaven and hellfire (photo:


Angel Olsen

Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar)

Burn Your Fire For No WitnessBefore galumphing to last summer’s Green Man festival, I knew very little about Angel Olsen, the Missouri-bred folk-punk heroine sustained on a diet of throaty troubadours, lo-fi country, and even a splashing of Mariah Carey. The afternoon set that I stumbled across was an odd one to behold with innocent eyes, with Olsen resolutely unflappable even in the face of adoring fans and blinding sunshine. She remained stock-still in a set devoid of fuss or showboating, yet a devilishly sly smile fed into the tunes quite discernibly, and very occasionally, one would flicker across Olsen’s poker face.

It’s this sort of tone that is mainlined on her second LP, Burn Your Fire For No Witness. Olsen’s means of address to her patrons oscillates unnervingly between a thousand-yard stare and a devilishly sly grin, using the wreckage of an unceremonious uncoupling as kindling for the album’s titular blaze. And Burn Your Fire… certainly sparks, thanks to the billowy darkness of Olsen’s proclamations and John Congleton’s dense, calloused production. The crunchy, dusty instrumentation binds together to create a rawness which refuses to tip into raucousness, as lead single ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’ makes perfectly clear. The result fits the ears snugly, sounding off-the-cuff in the moment, but carefully co-ordinated upon deeper study; the product of a clever, calculated mind ensuring maximum impact with the bluntest tools to hand.

Musically, Burn Your Fire… is scrappy, and for the most part, so are Olsen’s words when seen on the page. But the final product is far greater than the sum of its parts: an album to wrap yourself in, allowing Olsen’s tremulous voice to ripple through you. With Burn Your Fire…, the singer gets to have it both ways: it can play loose and nimble just as easily as it can morbid and disturbing. There’s the creepy, spidery slow-burn of ‘White Fire’ on the one hand, and the almost-anthem ‘Lights Out’ on the other, during which her voice rises to its clearest to deliver basic, yet resonant wisdom.

One of the album’s greatest moments arrives in the form of ‘Hi-Five’’s cracked genius. Amid this reeling, fuzz-flecked saloon march, Olsen comes across as more effective at understanding personal troubles than a thousand empathetic singer-songwriters. The moment in which she croons “are you lonely, too?” with the music receding behind her, it’s as if the construct of the album briefly falls away too, and she removes herself from the confines of recorded context to communicate directly with you, the listener. And how does she respond to your sense of disconnection? “Hi-five! So am I.” Somehow, these five gleefully bleak words feel as compassionate as any mantra of tearjerking balladry. It’s because, just as Olsen acknowledges the importance of solitude in her music, she doesn’t forget to forge solidarity between fellow damaged souls.

Some days all you need is one good thought strong in your mind.

Mac DeMarco

Mac DeMarco. Bless the wonderful tyke. (photo:


Mac DeMarco

Salad Days (Captured Tracks)

Salad Days2014 was the year in which I fell in love with Vernor Winfield McBriare Smith IV – or, as he is more widely known, Mac DeMarco. Lured in by his effortlessly effervescent melodies, it wasn’t long before I was hooked on videos of his shenanigans, from his playful Rapid-Fire interviews to Sky Ferreira-baiting at Pitchfork Fest ’13. Mac’s persona is so refreshingly blasé, quick-witted and goddamn fun that his presence can become kind of addictive.

On top of this, he was able to walk away from 2014 having gleaned widespread praise for his third LP; the sunny wooze-pop of Salad Days. The album itself may be the mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to Mac’s wide-ranging appeal, but that being said, it’s still a bloomingly good record. Much of the press surrounding its release had it dubbed as a downbeat, delicate heartache of an album, as a consequence of the exhausting touring schedule for 2012’s 2, which allegedly left Mac completely burned-out. Or, in his own words: “The mood for Salad Days is, ‘Fuck man! I was just on tour for a year and a half and I’m tired!’”

Indeed, there is a heightened air of yearning and ruefulness perceptible in Mac’s music this time around, but beneath all those overbearing, sad-eyed labels, Salad Days is still a buoyantly vital listen, overflowing with the feelgood froth that 2 delivered in spades. All through the album, guitars warble drunkenly, delightful earworms rise to the surface, and Mac’s vocals chirp with a scruffy (and pleasingly versatile) charisma. ‘Let Her Go’ is troubadour pop at its sunniest, ‘Passing Out Pieces’ is a majestically spaced-out stomp, and I can’t hear the opening notes of ‘Blue Boy’ without breaking into a daft grin. The likes of ‘Chamber of Reflection’ and ‘Let My Baby Stay’ express a strikingly weary tenderness, but whatever the demons Mac channels, the end products never fail to raise the spirits.

I wouldn’t call Salad Days a classic record, but it is among the catchiest and most distinctive listens that I’ve enjoyed all year, and it has assured Mac’s status as one of the most infectious entertainers in the business. I found this out first-hand at the Kentish Town Forum in November, where I witnessed one of the most frenzied, hilarious, and memorable gigs I’ve ever been to, attended by a near-hysterical crowd whose adulation for Mac was redoubtable. People really are fucking nuts about Mac DeMarco, and between his goofball antics and fresh-as-a-daisy music, it’s easy to understand why.

Sometimes rough, but generally speaking, I’m fine.

1 Merrill Garbus

tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus: possibly allergic to confetti. (photo:



Nikki Nack (4AD)

Nikki NacktUnE-yArDs’ third is a dizzying jumble of an album, with each of its thirteen songs erratically different in terms of tone and topic. It runs the gamut from neo-colonialism protests to a dystopic interlude about cannibalism, and ends with Merrill Garbus shrieking out against sexual harassment. Yet somehow, in spite of its breadth and heady shifts in mood, Nikki Nack works most effectively when taken in a single sitting. Even if it isn’t the smoothest album in terms of pace or cohesion, it’s only by taking a more leisurely tour of Garbus’ mind that one is able to completely satisfy the curiosity her music provokes. As she repeatedly wails on the closing ‘Manchild’, she’s got something to say – quite a lot, in fact, and a mere five-minute snippet can’t bring her wild imagination to bear fully.

tUnE-yArDs’ sonic landscape is one for getting lost in, rather than for visiting briefly. There are a couple of exceptions, but by and large, these songs only reach their full potential when heard amid this sprawling web of sound. Although its plodding rhythm may not be that enticing on a casual listen, the seesawing ‘Look Around’ is a stunning balm following the frenetic ‘Real Thing’, bringing the heat down to a simmer before rising to a cascading crescendo of multiple Garbuses intoning that creepy “never knew” refrain. As a result of this wildly creative approach, Nikki Nack is less lean than its predecessor whokill, but Garbus’ development as a composer is clear in the heightened level of detail this time around. Whereas several flavours felt a little lost in the mixture previously, on Nikki Nack every ingredient positively sings.

Additionally, Garbus’ voice has strengthened in the intervening years, with an increased confidence opening up more avenues for her to express herself more openly. ‘Find a New Way’ blisters through her insecurities as a vocalist, and smack in the centre of the album comes ‘Hey Life’, where she handles existential dilemmas with all the exuberance of a kid let loose in a funhouse. And then there’s ‘Wait for a Minute’, the album’s most sedate moment, in which she hones in on a crippling case of writer’s block that also alludes to the numbing waters of depression. Hidden beneath the Technicolor textures and tribal wails, these sombre themes rest like booby-traps, hitting all the harder for their bright, unassuming camouflage.

Nikki Nack is a wonderful release from this one-of-a-kind artist, and I was surprised to see it barely recognised on many end-of-year lists. Maybe the general feeling is that, while it remains a fun listen, it doesn’t quite top the bar set by whokill. For me, though, the adventurous spirit of Nikki Nack hasn’t lost is shine since its release back in May, and Garbus deserves recognition for tirelessly producing vibrant and flavoursome music which is as relevant as it is catchy.

Oh my God, I use my lungs!


Posted on January 6, 2015, in End-of-Year Lists, The Music World and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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