2014 was a great year for my terrible tastes in music, so it’s fitting that this is my first official roundup of the best albums of the year. Of course, this is Split Screen, and so it’s not a list of the objectively best albums of the year: these are my unashamed favourites, the most interesting, the ones I think you should listen to. So sit back, relax, and enter the pop-free zone…
10: Rodrigo y Gabriela – 9 Dead Alive
What happens when a Mexican guitar duo with heavy metal influences record an acoustic flamenco album? You get Rodrigo y Gabriela’s stunning 9 Dead Alive, the soundtrack to many a magazine crunch this year. This album rocks harder than most, and Rodrigo y Gabriela don’t even need an amplifier to do it.
Makes you want to: blast across the desert in an open-top Cadillac
9: Behemoth – The Satanist
I’ve never been a massive Behemoth fan: they’re pretty much the opposite of ‘easy listening’, and I found albums like Demigod inaccessible. But The Satanist is different: a work of both brutal intensity and exceptional clarity, with every riff full of ominous purpose. Some songs are even… dare I say it… groovy? If you’re yet to experience the dark side of metal, it may not convert you to satanism, but at least it’ll be an eye-opener.
Makes you want to: attend black mass
8: Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
As you will have guessed by this metal-tastic list of favourite albums, I don’t listen to a lot of hip hop, but Run the Jewels 2 is such a hard-hitting and downright exciting piece of music that it’s impossible to ignore. El-P’s production has a unique crunchiness, a kind of electronic dynamism, and when combined with Killer Mike’s indefatigable rapping energy, the result is intoxicating.
Makes you want to: run them jewels fast, run them run them jewels fast
7: Animals as Leaders – The Joy of Motion
Animals as Leaders are the brainchild of guitar prodigy Tosin Abasi, a man for whom six strings on a guitar are simply not enough. The Joy of Motion is perhaps the most appropriately-titled album on this list, packed with as many beautiful melodic runs as it is with technically demanding, futuristic djenty sections – often both in the same song. A friend recently quipped that “prog” in a band’s name just means “wanky and goes on for too long”, but each track is well-taut and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Powerful and delightful.
Makes you want to: swim through a lava lamp
6: Chromeo – White Women
Easily the funkiest album of 2014, Chromeo’s White Women is impossible not to groove to. My brother is standing behind me while I write this roundup, he’s got a Soundgarden t-shirt on, and even he is bouncing away. The music is great, but Chromeo’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics are the icing on the cake, mocking every sleazy pop star of the past twenty years. I’d call this a guilty pleasure, but honestly, it’s just sheer pleasure. It’s also a Voight-Kampff test: if you don’t dance to this, you’re a replicant.
Makes you want to: dance like no one’s watching, find out everyone’s watching, and keep dancing anyway
5: Skyharbor – Guiding Lights
Skyharbor’s first album Blinding White Noise: Illusion and Chaos was perhaps the most stereotypically-titled prog rock album title ever coined, but it showed promise despite the lack of refinement. Guiding Lights delivers on the promise: it’s got the wonderful harmonious complexity that you expect from a prog metal album, with the caveat of the extended breakdowns and wankery you may well be dreading, but Skyharbor manage to keep a lid on it. A beautiful album from a band that grow more exciting with every new release.
Makes you want to: sprout wings and fly through space
4: Machine Head – Bloodstone and Diamonds
Everything about Machine Head should be cringeworthy – their official merchandise says “Machine Fucking Head”, for crying out loud – but they release consistently excellent albums with a songwriting intelligence that defies their foul-mouthed memorabilia. Bloodstone and Diamonds will appeal more to fans of The Blackening than Unto the Locust (for the record, I prefer the latter, but I’m probably in the minority) but it’s got something for everyone: ‘Night of Long Knives’ is a modern, exhilarating thrash track, ‘Ghosts Will Haunt My Bones’ is Machine Head at their most accessible and subtle, and ‘Eyes of the Dead’ is an apocalyptic belter that will be the stuff of legendary workouts for years to come. Bloodstone and Diamonds gets better every time I listen to it; another outstanding album from an underrated band.
Makes you want to: find someone in the gym who is bench pressing and bench press them, weights and all
3: Fallujah – The Flesh Prevails
Every so often, a band comes out of nowhere that blows your mind. This year, I discovered two, and one of them is Californian technical death metal band Fallujah. The Flesh Prevails is an auditory assault: forty minutes of the most frantic, intricate music you’ll hear all year, or perhaps any year. And it is amazing. You may listen to the song embedded below and think “fucking hell, no thanks”, and I don’t blame you if you do: but for those with the mental fortitude, who want something cathartic and pulverising but yet full of melody and beauty, this is an incredible sophomore effort from one of the most exciting new metal acts around.
Makes you want to: ride a motorbike through a flaming building
2: Mastodon – Once More ‘Round the Sun
After a small dip in quality with The Hunter, Mastodon return with Once More ‘Round the Sun and prove they are indeed the best metal band of the last decade. I’ve had this album playing constantly since June: ‘Tread Lightly’ is a hell of an opener and ‘The Motherload’, questionable video aside, is my favourite track of the year. The opening half is so good that it took me a few months to properly get into the back half, but songs like ‘Ember City’ are as good as anything Mastodon have ever recorded. While it never quite reaches the dizzying heights of Crack the Skye or Leviathan, Once More ‘Round the Sun is proof that Mastodon can mature and endure as a group without compromising the sludgy riffs and senses-shattering drum fills that we’ve come to love.
Seriously, have you listened to this thing? It’s amazing, and if you don’t like it, I don’t think we can be friends any more.
Makes you want to: climb Mount Everest and punch a hole through the summit
1: Ne Obliviscaris – Citadel
I have a challenge for you. I want you to step out of your comfort zone, to put aside your preconceptions of what music you know and like. Great music isn’t always about comfort and familiarity: it is about the thrill of discovering something that moves you in a way you’ve never been moved before. I love metal because I find it particularly emotionally resonant: once you’ve got into it, other rock feels a little plain by comparison.
Earlier this year, my brother bought a copy of Portal of I by Ne Obliviscaris, and it was the most exciting album I’d heard in a long time. Interwoven with the blast beats and shredding riffs were lines of violin, moments of wonder. I posted a link to the song ‘Forget Not’ on Twitter and people were contacting me to say “Wow, I think I actually like metal!” And then I found out Ne Obliviscaris were following up Portal of I with Citadel and got very excited indeed.
The challenge is this: find the best pair of headphones you can – proper over-the-ear ones with a good bass response, not Apple Earpods – and listen to the first three minutes of this. You’ll wonder what the fuck is going on, but if you listen for the full three minutes, it just might surprise you. If you don’t like it by that point, you have my permission to stop. (Around 8.45 into ‘Triptych Lux’, Citadel becomes my favourite album of the year. So if you want to give me a second chance, skip to that bit. Those violins! That guitar solo!)
For me, Citadel is a breakthrough album that perfectly melds the brutality of extreme metal with the melody and intricacy of prog rock and the sheer passion of folk music. It’s unlike anything you’ve heard before, it’s intoxicating, life-affirming. It gives so much in its short duration (the breakdowns in ‘Painters of the Tempest’ and ‘Devour Me, Colossus’ feel like spaces for your mind to breathe) yet it leaves you wanting more.
Citadel comprises three songs, lasts forty-eight minutes, and is my favourite album of 2014. I hope you like it too.
Makes you want to: ponder the infinite mysteries of reality
Anathema – Distant Satellites, Aphex Twin – Syro, Mors Principium Est – Dawn of the 5th Era, Rise Against – The Black Market, Arch Enemy – War Eternal, Insomnium – Shadows of the Dying Sun, In Flames – Siren Charms, The Contortionist – Language, Alpha Male Tea Party – Droids, At the Gates – At War With Reality (actually the disappointment of the year, but I’m including it here so people don’t think I forgot about it).
My friend Lewis Clark runs the UK Scumscene blog, a great resource for British alternative music. We are both massive fans of HIM, but I don’t agree with everything he writes, and that’s exactly why I read the blog. Open your mind!