Here are five of the best records I heard here in the first month of 2014.
Warpaint - Warpaint
It has been four years since this band of young women from LA released their full length debut, and as was the case on that album, they remain tricky to pin down or assign to one specific genre or sound tag. What I love about this record and what Warpaint do so well in general, is their natural ability to embrace overall music themes and core melodies that are shaded in dreariness and dark drifting, while dressing the songs up in subtle quirky little percussions and key strokes that don't shift anything into upbeat, but coupled with the dreamy vocals, allow the songs enough room to breathe. "Love Is To Die" was released later in 2013 as a single in advance of the full record and really is the strongest or perhaps most "single" ready track here. I would like to have heard them flex on this vibe a bit more throughout, but still a very mature and ambitious record for a young band.
Cymbals - The Age of Fracture
This is another band releasing their second full length album here in 2014, and this one has been a real pleasant surprise to my ears. Cymbals are from London, and if the opening track "Winter '98" was any indication, one would think this album was going to be a dark synth offering, which would have been fine, but no. It shifts on "Natural World" and "You Are" into bouncier synth pop, but with some of the timings one might associate with Brit guitar pop bands like Everything Everything, Dutch Uncles or Field Music.
As much as I love active new bands that borrow from 80's originated synth pop, there is no denying that space is feeling a bit cluttered right now, with a large slice of pleasant but largely disposable and overly formulaic bands. I love this record because it slots in nicely alongside the stricter synth pop masters like Hot Chip, but also the more guitar based bands I mentioned earlier. The best bands like Cymbals are able strike a perfect balance between organic groove and hook instrumentation supplemented with fun electronics and keys. The song "Erosion" (below) catches them at their most Cure / New Order esque, while still being on the fresh side of things. There also are not many synth pop bands who can stretch to over six minutes on a few tracks without jeopardizing the natural flow of the overall record. I really hope these guys attract some attention in larger outlets this year. This record is super sneaky and cool.
I Break Horses - Chiaroscuro
With every passing year of new music, more and more is made of the fact that Sweden seems to have a disproportionate lock on pop music gold producing DNA. What gets less attention though, is actually what a diverse landscape of sound comes from Sweden, including even some of those arsehole bands with seven string guitars and WWF face makeup. What connects the best bands from said country, irrespective of genre or style, is an uncanny knack for song craft. The Swedish ratio of bands that suck to bands that exist seems unrealistically low. Enter I Break Horses. Yes, my third entry on this list by a band who have dropped their second full length album in January 2014. This record is much less guitar driven than the debut, but also far more engaging and textured.
Much like with the XX, there are beats and hooks that disarm you as a listener into feeling you can relax and head bop for a spell, but there is an overarching frostiness that hangs above the record that precludes it from elevating into anything resembling a dance or pop record, even with those sensibilities seemingly there for the taking. This is a weighty, dynamic, and nifty record that draws more from The Knife than Robyn, but rounds out elements from just about all the interesting sounds coming out of this country right now. We are just under thirty days into '14, but this record is an easy year end top 10 album contender, and "Faith" is as amazing a song as anyone is likely to release this year.
Patterns - Walking Lines
I swear that I do not purposely go trawling for new bands from Manchester every year. Okay, maybe a bit. The funny part with Patterns, is not only do they not sound particularly like a Manchester act, but much of this record feels quite American sounding, at least on the surface reminding me of The Shins or Local Natives. The band seems to be facing occasional Cocteau Twins references, which are not unfair, but this album dances around quite a bit, without ever being disruptively manic. Songs like "Blood" have anthemic Coldplay type potential, but they never quite go there and certainly never in a way that panders to the sing-a-long clutch in favour of song fundamentals. The playing here is super tight and competent, but again, not at the expense of listenability. I would comfortably put Patterns in the category of young bands who are punching outside their weight class right of the gate on a debut album. This type of confidence in a young band can take them in a number of directions. Here is hoping they achieve some version of positive attention this year, but for what they already are and what they are capable of, rather than what the wrong label could do with them if they got their mitts on them. If you Rhianna appearing on a Patterns record, I would suggest something has gone terribly wrong (or terribly right depending on your perspective).
Dum Dum Girls - Too True
Previous releases from Dum Dum Girls were largely lo-fi, on the tinnier side of guitar production and overall esthetic. Too True does not switch gears into a full on stadium album, but the reverb and fuller post punk type sound looks fantastic on Dee Dee and her team for this one. The lead single, "Rimbaud Eyes" feels like a Siouxise and The Bunnymen track, but it is unmistakably Dee Dee. There is a clear confidence bump on this record with darker vocals and more expansive songscapes. Like so many records, where the writer has gone through some level of adversity prior to or during the recording, the lyrics carry a level of personal depth that augment these songs in the richest way. This is a compact album with ten flawlessly executed, famously crafted songs. My favourite record so far this year, Too True is a top tier piece of music that sounds like an already accomplished artist hitting stride and completely firing on all cylinders, and reinforces the notion that some of the best music right now is being made by strong, interesting, and bright feminine women who do not need to resort to matters of spectacle like wrecking balls or chair dances.
The New Mendicants - Into The Lime
Drowners - Drowners
Mogwai - Rave Tapes