From hip-hop heroics to First World War remembrance, our critics reveal their favourite releases of 2014
It was hard to pick out a defining theme amid the album releases of 2014. Recent years may have left the feeling that classic artists were hurrying to reform and release new records, or that female artists were in the ascendancy. This year, if anything, we could simply take away the fact that the death of the record has so far been greatly exaggerated. Nobody buys music any more, it’s widely accepted, yet there was a lot of it about in 2014, and much of it was great.
One early highlight, for Scottish observers and fans of good music in general, was witnessing Rave Tapes by Mogwai – the Glasgow-formed rock group’s eighth record – unexpectedly hitting the UK top ten in January. Part of the surprise was that it didn’t offer a significant departure from their usual sound, but it felt like the increased visibility had been well-earned after all these years.
It wouldn’t be the only Scottish success story of the year, with Glasgow’s Chemikal Underground label typically coming up with a couple of gems, namely in psychedelic/electronic adventurers The Phantom Band’s Strange Friend and RM Hubbert’s Ampersand Extras, a collection of offcuts and unreleased tracks from the prodigiously talented acoustic guitarist’s previous trio of records. Also returning were Kilsyth’s Twilight Sad, with the gloomy but potentially career-defining Nobody Wants To Be Here And Nobody Wants to Leave, which painted them as a new version of Editors or Interpol with a wintery Scottish heart.
On the other side of the country in Fife, meanwhile, indie-folk troubadour James Yorkston released The Cellardyke Recording & Wassailing Society, featuring regular collaborators KT Tunstall and the Pictish Trail, while King Creosote (himself from Cellardyke) produced the beautiful and diverse soundtrack to the filmic tribute to the nation, From Scotland With Love, and released it as an album.
One of the biggest stories of the year in Scottish music was the emergence of the long-submerged strain of quality hip-hop being made in Edinburgh and Glasgow. A genre with a broad range of exponents, many of whom were engaged and vocal during the independence referendum campaign, its stars included Stanley Odd, who released A Thing Brand New (their song Son I Voted Yes became a campaign anthem for the Yes side), and Loki, whose G.I.M.P. (Government Issue Music Protest) imagined a dystopian future Scotland.
In the wider musical world another Scots group also made a big impression, with leftfield Edinburgh hip-hop trio Young Fathers deservedly taking home the Mercury Prize for their album Dead. In truth, though, it wasn’t a vintage year from a shortlist of lesser-known candidates, with the visceral state-of-the-nation rap poetry of Kate Tempest’s Everybody Down and the thrilling but unadventurous self-titled debut album by rockers Royal Blood standing out. DIY Nottingham politico-punks Sleaford Mods’ Divide And Exit or Manic Street Preachers’ return to form with the European-influenced Futurology would certainly have deserved a place on the shortlist, and while it may be unfashionable to suggest it these days, Morrissey’s World Peace Is None Of Your Business was a strong moment in his career.
From across the Atlantic, finally, came many of the records which combined quality with an obvious lack of earnest desire to be the next big thing, among them TV On the Radio’s return from tragedy, Seeds; Baltimore’s Future Islands and their strong collection Singles, albeit somewhat overshadowed by the mighty lead track Seasons (Waiting On You); the socially conscious rap of Run the Jewels with Run The Jewels 2; and the lyrically dazzling confessional of The War On Drugs’ epic Lost In The Dream. David Pollock
Unusually, the 2014 jazz releases which stand out in my memory are live recordings – albeit by longstanding favourite musicians. American tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton was the first jazz star I followed religiously, and even now, 21 years after I first reviewed him, he still astounds, astonishes, thrills and delights me – especially in live performance.
His CD Dean Street Nights features a sensational session recorded during his festive residency of 2012 at Soho’s legendary Pizza Express jazz club, with his regular British trio. It’s a terrific recording, with Hamilton in magnificent form, blowing up a storm on riotous up-tempo tunes and restating his position as the best balladeer in the business on the slow numbers.
The other new live recording which provided a five-star listening experience and has stayed with me all year is Evan Christopher’s Django À La Créole Live! This band has been a Scottish jazz festival favourite for a few years now and, given the wild reactions it inspires in audiences, it’s little wonder it has released a CD of numbers recorded during its 2012 UK tour. As ever, clarinettist Christopher thrills with his dynamic, dramatic soloing and the exciting interplay with the superb lead guitarist David Blenkhorn.
And the outstanding new live CDs weren’t restricted to recent recordings: a previously unreleased recording of a 1972 quartet concert headed by two legends, Oscar Peterson (piano) and Ben Webster (tenor sax) was released on the Art of Groove label, under the title During This Time. Not only does it include the concert in CD form, but the two-disc pack also contains a 64-minute DVD of the film footage of the concert so fans can enjoy a wonderful opportunity to watch two giants of jazz in all their 1970s splendour. The camera gets so close that it’s possible to study Webster’s embarrassed facial expressions as his solos are applauded, and to count the beads of sweat on Peterson’s brow. Alison Kerr
From Ireland to Iceland and back to Scotland, the chilly North Atlantic was awash with musical expression this year.
Beoga are a group who have proved themselves in the midst of Ireland’s fervent and continual reinvention of its ancient traditions. The core line-up consists of two button accordionists, a female singer/fiddler, a piano player and a percussionist, but the expanded “big band” also includes eloquent bassist Trevor Hutchinson and six articulate Irish guest instrumentalists, to tease and taunt tradition. Beoga Live At 10: The 10th Anniversary Concert was one of the folk releases of the year – a shimmering live recording of more than 20 tracks, plus the concert on video, and more than 80 minutes of extras, including video tour diaries.
Hafdis Huld is the singer who fronted the Icelandic world-touring band/collective Gus Gus, and is now settled with her partner and child at home outside Reykjavik, where she co-wrote and recorded Home, a beguiling collection of modern songs, all with simple, straightforward lyricism, and set within lovely acoustic guitar, piano and ukulele harmonies. Her gentle, folksy melodies are directly appealing and full of heart, even as they’re soaked in contemporary cool and quiet irony.
Joined by five of Scotland’s finest players and a 15-strong string and brass ensemble, in February fiddler Duncan Chisholm Gave the first performance of his Strathglass Suite in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, and the recording Duncan Chisholm: Live At Celtic Connections has just won Album of the Year at the Scottish Traditional Music Awards. Over six years his trilogy of solo albums Farrar, Canaich and Affric delved into the landscape and history of the ancient Chisholm Clan lands. The inherent sadness is always tangible, especially in Chisholm’s masterful and profound slow airs, which are steeped in his self-confessed cinematic sense of history and tradition. Norman Chalmers
Among the high-quality releases reviewed this year, many, coincidentally or not, marked anniversaries.
Songs Of Love And War on the Champs Hill label was clearly linked to the centenary of the Great War. Georges Brassens’ ironically comic The War of ’14-’18, delightfully translated by Michael Flanders, made for emotional listening.
Two centuries before, Johann Sebastian Bach was raiding music manuscripts brought back by a returning Grand Tourer for a happy series of Orchestral Suites And Concertos, released this year by Challenge Classics. A century later, and Mary Wollstonecraft was also on tour, in Switzerland with Shelley, Byron and John Polidori. Out of this, Mary created Frankenstein while Polidori produced Lord Ruthven, a Byronesque vampire who, in the romping Der Vampyr (released on Capriccio), gets 24 hours to marry three girls and then kill them all. Think The Amazing Race with blood.
The real-life carnage of the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, which finally ended in January 1944, witnessed pianist Vladimir Sofronitsky playing Beethoven and Scriabin wearing gloves with cut-off tips in an unheated hall to an audience dressed in furs – a recording was released this year on Melodiya. Meanwhile, Dmitri Shostakovich, in exile and denied a return to the besieged city, was orchestrating Six Romances On Verses By English Poets And Annie Laurie (Ondine), and in Germany, Richard Strauss was composing Metamorphosen (Marsyas), a sombre and powerful work amid the devastation he was witnessing.
Romanian violinist Johanna Martzy’s career was delayed by the Second World War and then cut short by cancer: 50 years ago this year she recorded Brahms’ Violin Concerto In D Major with Günter Wand (re-released on Hänssler). Her daunting technique still makes powerful listening, as does András Schiff (above), who celebrated his 60th birthday with Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations (ECM) intimately performed on an 1820 fortepiano in the Beethoven House in Bonn. Alexander Bryce
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