Halfway through 2014, we have already learned much. We now know winter sometimes forgets to arrive. Massive planes can disappear without a trace. Nobody cares much about what happens in Nigeria. Tony Abbott really is as nasty as we suspected. And Khaleesi is rocketing up the top baby names list.
Of course, there have been some happy discoveries along the way. Here are 10 very good things —the best albums of 2014, to date.
Real Estate – Atlas (Domino)
There’s been a relaxed quality to the work of this New Jersey group, which might (not unkindly) be described as urban folk. Atlas sees them squaring up to harsh realities, then shrugging their shoulders. As the going gets tough, the tough relax harder. Echoes of Pavement remain, but the beautiful, lackadaisical tracks here more strongly evoke the shoe-gazing bands of the early 1990s.
Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time (EMI)
The NSFW sleeve drew clumsy comparisons to Miley on her Wrecking Ball, but there’s far greater artistry and self-awareness here. Even better, there’s some great electro-pop that doesn’t confuse slickness for superficiality.
Beck – Morning Phase (EMI)
Lush and luminous, this belated sequel to 2002’s Sea Change may retread old ground, but it’s exactly where we wanted Beck to go. Stunning.
Temples – Sun Structures (Heavenly)
Those old enough to remember Kula Shaker were in no rush to see the revival of 1960’s-flavoured, psychedelic rock. But England’s Temples do it so well and so stylishly that all memory of daft Hindu-styled chants is swept away.
Mac DeMarco – Salad Days (Spunk)
Charming, slacker rock in the vein of Jonathan Richman, the 11 tracks here endear themselves without ever breaking a sweat. DeMarco might sometimes drift towards melancholy, but his music always retains a wonky romance.
Hamilton Leithauser – Black Hours (Warner)
The first solo record from The Walkmen’s front man sees him swap his rocker duds for a crooner’s dinner jacket. The smooth, swinging backdrop works surprisingly well with Leithauser’s throaty yowl. This is territory Robbie Williams also tried to re-conquer this year with his kiddy-friendly take on jazz, but Black Hours feels like music for grown ups.
Pharrell Williams – G I R L (Sony)
If there’s an air of complacency to the latest album from the all-conquering pop god, it’s well-deserved. Williams’impact on the world of chart pop over the last decade is undeniable. G I R L does feel a bit pieced together, borrowing the ubiquitous Happy from the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack, but this is pop that does exactly what pop should do —elevate you from the humdrum and then stick in your head like bubblegum on your shoe.
St Vincent – St Vincent (Remote Control)
Cheeky, strange and completely brilliant, this might just be Annie Clark’s best album yet. It’s certainly her most accessible, dragging her quirky tendencies ever closer to pop.
Tune-Yards – Nikki Nack (4AD)
Merrill Garbus (AKA tUnE-yArDs) is many things: musician, puppeteer, activist and great fan of the shift-key. Her music is similarly garbled, frequently embodying so many different elements and genres that listening can be a bewildering experience. Nikki Nack is more coherent than her previous records, but is rarely anything less than a glorious mess.
Sharon Van Etten – Are We There (Inertia)
The fourth LP from the Brooklyn native is awash with heartfelt songs of elegiac beauty. There are echoes of Cat Power at her most graceful, but the mix of darkness and wry self-awareness feels as unique as it is winning. At once lush and rough-edged, stark and majestic, this is folk rock at its finest.