The best albums of 2014 : Quarter 1

You may have noticed that the number of new Foam Hands posts per week has dropped drastically in recent months – a not entirely unexpected by-product of being a parent to a newly mobile 10 month-old – and as a consequence a lot of really great new records have gone unmentioned here. To make up for that, here is a run-down of my 30 favourite albums of the year so far, or what is known in the industry as “2014 Quarter 1”. Please note only records officially released between January 1 and March 31 2014 are included, so similarly awesome forthcoming releases from the likes of Chad VanGaalen, Cloud Nothings, Ben Frost, EMA, Mac DeMarco, The Body, Clipping, Timber Timbre, Protomartyr, Todd Terje, Pure X, Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks and more have been omitted, despite being “out there” already in an (ahem!) unofficial capacity. Also worth noting: the below are listed in alphabetical order rather than numerically ranked, but at this point my number one would be Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, with the top five rounded out by St. Vincent, Isaiah Rashad, Perfect Pussy and The War On Drugs in roughly that order.
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Artificial Brain Labyrinth Constellation

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Ava Luna Electric Balloon
Beck Morning Phase
Black Portland (Young Thug & Bloody Jay) Black Portland

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Kevin Drew Darlings
Future Islands Singles
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Gardens & Villa Dunes
Kevin Gates By Any Means
The Hold Steady Teeth Dreams

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Indian From All Purity
Let’s Wrestle Let’s Wrestle
Liars Mess
Millie & Andrea Drop The Vowels
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Angel Olsen Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Owls Two

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Perfect Pussy Say Yes To Love
Isaiah Rashad Cilvia Demo

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Real Estate Atlas
Rick Ross Mastermind
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Schoolboy Q Oxymoron
Shit Robot We Got A Love
St. Vincent St. Vincent
Sun Araw Belomancie

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Sun Kil Moon Benji

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Untold Black Light Spiral
Vampire Vampire
The War On Drugs Lost In The Dream

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White Suns Totem

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Withered Hand New Gods
YG My Krazy Life
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Shit Robot: We Got A Love

Marcus Lambkin, the Stuttgart-based Irish DJ and producer behind the Shit Robot moniker, has been a fixture on the DFA Records roster since 2005, and although he may not be as familiar a face as founder James Murphy his status within the organisation shouldn’t be under-played: DFA was born out of an equal love of avant-garde post-punk rock and hedonistic electronic club music, and whilst other acts – most notably The Rapture and Murphy’s own LCD Soundsystem – have ensured the former has always been well represented, Lambkin has kept the 4/4 pulse going strong through the years with a steady stream of 12″s that play like a condensed history of house and techno. As the title of his 2010 debut long-player From The Cradle To The Rave implied, Lambkin is a dance music lifer and his impressive subject knowledge and obvious fan-boy enthusiasm serve him well on just-released sophomore collection We Got A Love: packed end to end with surefire smiley-faced floor-fillers, it’s a record that makes 2014’s biggest club-friendly “event” album – Tensnake’s Glow – seem like quiet time at an old folks’ home in comparison. As ever, Lambkin knows how to pick his collaborators, and all but two tracks feature guest vocalists who complement the beats perfectly, whether it’s ex-Rapture frontman Luke Jenner going full-on Bee Gee on the Saturday night fever dream “Feels Real“, Chicago house legend Lidell Townsell instructing us to jack our bodies on “Do It (Right)” or Holly Backler playing Aussie rules Europop with her diva turn on “Feels Like”; even comedian Reggie Watts proves an inspired choice, belting out a surprisingly assured and soulful lead on the spectacularly funky title track. Label-mates Museum Of Love help out on the shimmering, trippy “Dingbat”, but it’s “Do That Dance” (below) that is the real highlight here, LCD/ The Juan Maclean’s Nancy Whang showing once again why she’d make the coolest front-woman since Debbie Harry (DFA, Gomma, whoever: let’s make this happen!) with a typically deadpan vocal over springy keys, a bells-and-whistles tropical groove and monstrous snaking bassline. All in all, the best long-player that DFA have put out in a while and reassuring proof – despite the near-extinction of the label’s old guard – that as long as Shit Robot is around the beat goes on.

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Perfect Pussy: Say Yes To Love

Just as you should never judge a book by its cover, nor should you judge a band by its name, and here come Syracuse noise-punks Perfect Pussy with their much-anticipated debut album Say Yes To Love to demonstrate exactly why not. If their Google-unfriendly moniker helped generate considerable amounts of publicity for last year’s I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling demo cassette, the five-piece also risked alienating a substantial section of their potential audience who might have assumed without even listening that they were either a bunch of juvenile sexist jocks or shock-rockers trying too hard to be controversial. Even knowing the story behind it – a middle finger to small-minded haters following a once-and-for-all executive decision by front-woman Meredith Graves to embrace and celebrate her own body, so-called “flaws” and all – there’s no escaping the fact that Perfect Pussy is a bad name, but luckily it isn’t the group’s only attention-grabbing feature: there are other reasons why Graves and company became 2013’s biggest buzz band, chief among them the singer herself. A tightly-wound ticking time bomb, the 26 year old is a magnetic presence, delivering her vocals in a forceful but melodic sing-speak-shout style pitched somewhere between Riot Grrrl and Rollins, and whilst layers of distortion and scuzzy, in-the-red production render most of the lyrics pretty much unintelligible Graves is nonetheless about as easy to ignore as a cop with a megaphone and an armed response unit behind him commanding you to get on your knees or be shot. Making a similarly fearsome racket, the rest of the band provide Graves with a brick wall of sound on which to bloody her knuckles, guitars and synth wailing like air raid sirens, sheets of fuzzy brown noise billowing violently as the rhythm section drives them all headlong through a wind tunnel of precision-tooled stop-start math-rock dynamics. It’s musique concrete by way of Fugazi and At The Drive-In, hardcore with a hint of Hawkwind, a mixture of blunt, blown-out brutality and heart-swelling major-chord melody, and it’s absolutely breathtaking. One small complaint: consisting of just eight songs, the album is over and done in 23 minutes (including three minutes of palette-cleansing ambient hum at the end of the penultimate “Advance Upon The Real”), and I’m pretty sure nobody would have minded too much if they’d included the four tracks from last year’s tape to push the running time past the half-hour mark. Then again, such all-out intensity does lend itself to brevity, and whilst Say Yes To Love burns quickly, it also burns incredibly bright. Even if it’s delivered too fast and too loud to discern the exact wording, the gist of the message is clear: this is inspired, inspiring music borne from grabbing the moment, from pulling positives out of negative situations, from reaching the conclusion that we should take every opportunity to make ourselves and those we love happy. The old guard can rest easy: there are new keepers of the punk rock flame, and they have pockets stuffed with firebombs.

Say Yes To Love is out March 18 via Captured Tracks; listen to “Interference Fits” and “Driver” below, and stream the album in full at NPR.
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Withered Hand: New Gods

Like the Vaselines, Teenage Fanclub, BMX Bandits and more before him, Edinburgh’s Dan Willson draws musical inspiration from climes far sunnier than the misty lochs and mountainous Highlands of his native Scotland: the jangly folk-pop songs on New Gods, his second album under the Withered Hand alias, are so indebted to classic west coast American rock – all chiming Byrds guitars and high Beach Boys harmonies – that one suspects Willson carries photos of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hollywood sign in his wallet the way most people carry pictures of their kids. Lyrically, however, it’s a distinctly British record, dealing with love, death, infidelity, life on the road and other familiar themes with the kind of self-deprecating, downbeat humour that seems to bloom exclusively on this rain-soaked little island. Much has been made of the fact that Willson arrived at music later in life than most (he was 30 when he started writing what would become his debut LP Good News), and his world-weary but ultimately good-natured troubadour persona – a blend of clever, comical and caustic pitched somewhere between Elvis Costello and Jarvis Cocker – certainly benefits from a few extra years of bitter experience. There’s a sense of “everything in moderation” about Willson’s writing, whether he’s describing being on a foreign tour as a kind of working holiday rather than three months of debauchery/ hell (delete as applicable) or taking a long, hard look in the mirror and deciding that, yes, he may be a bit of a shit but there are plenty worse than him, and as such for every dry jibe about “falling asleep watching a buzz band” there’s a heart-felt moment of genuinely soul-stirring poetry (“I counted lucky stars above a field in Switzerland/ New gods for this unholy man“) to balance the scales. A bittersweet and delightfully moreish treat, New Gods is out now in the UK via Fortuna POP! and March 25 via Slumberland in the US; listen to “Black Tambourine” and “Horseshoe” below.
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The Men: Tomorrow’s Hits

The ass-backwards musical evolution of Brooklyn’s hardest-working band The Men kinda makes one think of the famous monkey-to-man March Of Progress illustration played out in reverse: although their earliest output tended to sound like it had just crawled out of the primordial ooze, it was nonetheless edgy, experimental and thoroughly contemporary, but somewhat contrarily each new release has found them pushing their sound further back into the past. If 2012’s Open Your Heart was a sleeker, rockier version of the spaced-out, Sonic Youth-inspired post-punk found on the previous year′s Leave Home – itself a refinement of the scabrous racket found on debut LP Immaculada – then last year’s New Moon went even further back to basics, taking in a lungful of clean Catskills mountain air and birthing a batch of songs that were often more suited to a barn dance than a basement club. Tomorrow’s Hits (their fifth album in as many years) is not so much a move back to the future as a sort of sideways step; here the group are still stuck in the first half of the 1970s, but rather than the Neil Young and Gram Parsons homages they were peddling twelve months ago they now favour a raucous take on classic American hard rock (Skynyrd, Grand Funk Railroad etc.) and the down-and-dirty blues boogie of the Stones circa Exile On Main Street. It’s yet another change of pace, but one that at least makes more sense than the previous detour into country rock: whilst one would struggle to describe any of these songs as truly “punk”, the loose, chaotic nature of these rollicking blow-outs gels more naturally with the band’s original “noise for noise’s sake” ethos with horns, harmonica and honky-tonk piano seemingly used for the sole purpose of making a louder racket rather than any kind of over-arching musical statement. Pickings are slim for long-time fans who miss the hardcore influence of original bassist/ vocalist Chris Hansell – only the pummelling, all-out squall of the excellent “Pearly Gates” (below) bristles with that kind of brutal, amps-at-11 ferocity – but there’s no shortage of adrenalized, electrifying rock & roll on offer, from the brassy Big Star-isms of “Another Night” to “Different Days“‘ swirling sugar-rush, and even when they revisit New Moon‘s countrified sound (on “Dark Waltz” and “Sleepless”) the group add a satisfying layer of Crazy Horse crunch. To say that Tomorrow’s Hits is neither their best album nor their worst seems like faint praise, but lets just put that in context: The Men are one of the best bands out there right now, and whatever direction they choose they have yet to put a foot wrong.
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Tomorrow’s Hits is out now via Sacred Bones.
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Ava Luna: Electric Balloon

Ava Luna

Brooklyn five-piece Ava Luna may describe their music as “nervous soul”, but in comparison to 2012’s frustratingly chaotic Ice Level, their sophomore album Electric Balloon (out March 4 through Western Vinyl) sounds supremely confident. If that record felt like at times like a sketch-book, full of interesting doodles and exciting ideas waiting to be developed, then this is the finished picture, a vibrant piece of New York pop-art (pop) celebrating the ‘70s glory days of the city’s eclectic downtown music scene by mashing up its component parts – CBGBs punk, mutant disco, free jazz, funk rock etc. – and giving it a slinky, soulful spit-shine. With three vocalists – bandleader Carlos Hernandez, Becca Kauffman and Felicia Douglass, whose father Jimmy has produced artists as diverse as Gang Of Four and Justin Timberlake, and also assisted with the recording of this album – sharing the spotlight, cynics might be tempted to prematurely write Ava Luna off as Dirty Projectors copyists, but whilst some similarities are undeniable (“PRPL” sounds like a fairly blatant attempt at a “Stillness Is The Move”-style R&B diva ballad) the band owe no more to Dave Longstreth’s project than they do to Talking Heads or James Chance & the Contortions, groups that would make your body move involuntarily towards the dancefloor even as your brain tried to work out what the fuck it was hearing. So we get elastic grooves and jagged guitars (“Daydream”), strutting funk and no-wave yelps (“Sears Roebuck M&Ms”, “Electric Balloon”), slow-burning doo-wop prog-rock (“Crown”) and electro-fried Afrobeat (“Judy”), all wrapped around a core of weirdo brainiac pop that (excuse the cliche) amounts to more than just the sum of its parts; more importantly, we get a band who have learned how to self-edit and work a mess of half-formed ideas into a coherent full-length statement. That’s progress, and progress calls for celebration, so straighten your skinny tie, clear the floor and shake your thing to “Daydream”, below.
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