Music of 2014

Music of 2014, then. Let’s squeeze this in before more exciting stuff next week.

I won’t lie, it’s been a struggle to think of last year’s music. Books and television of 2014, on the other hand: easy. There were plenty of books, films and TV shows that stand out. But music? I think I could write with more confidence and enthusiasm about last year’s video games, which makes me feel sad as I look upon shelves of CDs.

There was Pink Floyd’s The Endless River, obviously, and Kate Bush performing in London for the first time in three decades had many of us gleefully rediscovering her entire back catalogue and playing it for months on end (not that it counts here), as well as that addictive ‘Take Me to Church’ song by Hozier with its intriguing lyrics and video.

But, well, that’s about it for 2014, right? I’ve even been wondering if 2014 was possibly the worst year for music – ever. Not so, claim Rolling Stone, whose expertise I frequently salute. They thought 2014 “another phenomenal year for music, illuminating darkness when it often seemed that the only light was from buildings burning in Ferguson, Missouri.”

Wow. That bright and cheery?

I’m a self-confessed misery-guts. For example, I passed on Coldplay now that I’ve decided that they’re too big for their boots, I only heard U2’s Songs of Innocence when I eventually discovered it had appeared on my iPad (weeks later, that’s how sharp I am) and the only new album I bought on its release was Gary Clark Jr Live.

Just as it’s reported that there are now more shops than ever in the UK selling music, where you walk in through an actual door and pick up plastic cases in your hands and look at the artwork and sometimes even hear music playing, like in ye olden days, which amazes me (although in November it was reported that vinyl sales had hit an 18-hear high, which amazed me more). It’s true that many of those real, physical music shops are actually supermarkets (boo!) and “generalist retailers selling limited ranges of music and video aimed at the impulse market,” but I suppose it’s still encouraging. At least if you don’t dwell too long on the idea of a CD being nonchalantly tossed into a metal cage on wheels that you push around a brightly-lit warehouse and into which you’ve already placed tomatoes, pasta and cat litter. How sad that art has been reduced to this: something else you added to a list so you wouldn’t forget it.

Not that it matters, perhaps, because nowadays you can so easily stream an entire album online, listen to it freely as many times as you wish, and download it with ease. Or not, if you come to realise that you could live without owning a copy and move onto something else instead. I chose to do without the Manic Street Preachers’ Krautrock-influenced Futurology, although it provided another of my favourite lyrics (from ‘The View from Stow Hill’, yet another Manics song that’s so much better as a stripped-down acoustic number):

“The misguided tweets, the sad Facebooking
Cheapness surrounds me but I’m not looking.”

Even Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems, with its horrible cover (what is it with all these half-arsed album covers that look like they were fashioned in a matter of minutes, like all the art homework you did on the school bus the morning it was due in?), hasn’t particularly grabbed me, although CD/DVD combo Live in Dublin is a treat.

Streaming now accounts for 12.6 per cent of all music consumed in the UK. An incredible 14.8 billion songs were streamed in 2014, almost twice as many as were streamed the year before.

So, who else released an album in 2014? I can feign little interest in Thom Yorke or Damon Albarn, having never cared much for their bands, Radiohead and Blur. Likewise Bruce Springsteen, who I always thought incredibly over-rated. (Besides, it’s still too close to Christmas; I heard that God-awful ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’ of his so many times, I’m not ready to forgive all that shouting just yet.)

Never a big fan of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, I did, however, very much enjoy the sour and surly Hypnotic Eye. Perhaps that was helped by hearing ‘Forgotten Man’ on the radio so often.

In continuing the grumpy theme, expectations of Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways and Beck’s Morning Phase are fairly low, but I will get around to listening to them eventually. The War on Drugs, who put out Lost in the Dream, seem to be on TV all the bloody time lately. So much so that I’ve become sick of the sight of them, more than the actual sound of them. A bit like Elbow, I have to confess.

Meh, as the kids say.

But in researching this and in trawling through numerous ‘50 best albums of 2014’ features, as compiled by respected publications from both sides of the Atlantic, and in listening to a right load of forgettable rubbish in the process, I discovered some that probably wouldn’t have been on sale, never mind playing in many of the new ‘music shops’ we’re meant to cheer – and I found I rather liked. I don’t know if I’ll like them a year from now, or if I’ll ever feel as comforted by them or as relieved to be reminded of them, as I did with The Red Shoes or The Dreaming, but it’s a start.

My first find: Sean Lennon, with partner Charlotte Kemp Muhl, as The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. Their Midnight Sun has some lovely psychedelic moments. Here’s ‘Xanadu’ (and one of the best interviews I’ve ever seen. Children really should interview bands more often.)

I enjoyed Tweedy’s Sukierae (here’s ‘High As Hello’); really enjoyed Small Town Heroes by Alynda Lee Segarra/Hurray for the Riff Raff (what a lovely, old-fashioned album cover, too; Leonard Cohen, please take note), and even Mac DeMarco’s mumbly, jangling Salad Days provides a pleasant soundtrack for a quiet evening in, when you don’t want to be worrying yourself analysing the lyrics.

Stone me, but I find that the older I get, the less I need music accompanying me from the moment I wake to the moment I fall into bed. I really like the sound of silence and of birds singing and mundane, modern life. (Is there even time to listen to an album in its entirety with a glass of wine and friends with similar tastes, without the interruption of kids and chores and telephone calls about payment protection insurance? Who gets to stay up late discussing music any more? Come on, make us feel old and jealous, why don’t you.)

Where was I again?

Jack White’s second solo album Lazaretto has its moments (but he’s allowed them only when my head’s not feeling delicate, as he’s rather loud). When it is, and it so often is, Jackson Browne’s sensitive musing on Standing in the Breach, particularly its graceful title track, works well. As does the painfully beautiful Angel Olsen (try ‘Windows’ from Burn Your Fire For No Witness as a taster).

Also easy-on-the-ear are Swedish sisters First Aid Kit.

I’m thankful to bands that sound like they were recording in the late-Sixties, such as Temples, whose debut album Sun Structures – with its Who’s Next cover and Beatles sound – isn’t original but is a most welcome break from whiney, wimpy babble and pointless electronic din. More psychedelic revivalists, please.

The Black Keys’ Turn Blue has some catchy tunes on it, and is still growing on me, but much more slowly than their previous albums.

Alas, instead of the Sixties, I mostly hear the damned Eighties (when you can avoid Ed Sheeran, that is), although this is absolutely acceptable in the case of Ryan Adams’ eponymous album.

I still don’t think these made 2014 a “phenomenal” year for music, and, Pink Floyd aside, they probably only illuminate darkness about as effectively as energy-saving bulbs do for the first few minutes, until they’ve had time to warm up (not knocking them, just saying), but I’m glad things aren’t quite as bad as I first thought. What do you think?

Let’s also take a moment to remember Pete Seeger, Joe Cocker, Phil Everly and Francis “Franny” Beecher (lead guitarist for Bill Haley & His Comets), who were among the musicians who died in 2014. What fine music and memories they’ve let us.

Have a good weekend, everyone.