We look back at some of the biggest releases of the year so far
Time Out Bahrain staff
Looking for some new music to get you through the sweaty season? Time Out’s top music writers round up the biggest and best releases of 2014 so far – overhaul your iPod today
Pharrell GIRL Pharrell Williams isn’t in his forties. No mister, he’s in his phwoar-ties. Few men reach their fifth decade oozing such boyish appeal to the opposite sex. Fewer still hit a career peak at that age. After defining the 2000s as a star player of production team The Neptunes, he raised the bar with his spot on Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’. His freakishly youthful manchild face is now squarely in the spotlight.
The most obvious sign of maturity here is the broad theme of celebrating women. Songs like ‘Brand New’ recall the sweet earnestness of Stevie Wonder at his most effusive. At his best Williams pens arrangements that grab your imagination and bore into your cerebellum. Grooves are both melancholic and head-nodding on ‘It Girl’, basslines come alive on ‘I Know Who You Are’. And that’s before you factor in ‘Happy’. One of the biggest and best pop anthems of the year. Oliver Keens
Coldplay Ghost Stories Sad though any divorce is, it’s reasonable for music fans to hope that heartbreak might inspire greatness. Dylan, Lennon, Gaye and Fleetwood Mac, to name just a few, all turned splits into hits. Yet, on an awkward, unremarkable missed opportunity of a record, Chris Martin has soundtracked his ‘conscious uncoupling’ wife Gwyneth Paltrow the way he would a car advert.
Weighing in at a scant 40 minutes, the tone of Ghost Stories is electronic and plodding, not guitary and surging. Given the scale of his celebrity and the column inches devoted to the death of his marriage, it’s impossible to hear lines like ‘All I know, is that I love you so’ and not wonder if he’s specifically talking about the star of Iron Man 3 or not. The only person who’ll be haunted by Ghost Stories is Martin himself – for failing to let heartbreak inspire him to, well, just say something at last. Oliver Keens
Michael Jackson Xscape More prolific now than anytime since his ’80s heyday, a second ‘new’ Michael Jackson album arrives from beyond the grave. Epic Records boss LA Reid trawled through the leftover song-scraps Jackson thought unfit for public ears and employed super-producer Timbaland to pepper the raw vocal tracks with fresh productions. The results vary – lead single ‘Love Never Felt so Good’ is instantly catchy Off the Wall-style soul; in ‘Blue Gangsta’ Jackson vocals are lost in a meticulous assault of urban beats. While the arrangements shine, we can’t help wondering if more regard could (should?) have been paid to the artist’s original intentions. Surely, if the recordings were good enough in the first place, then they wouldn’t need tampering with so. As it is, Reid’s drastic ‘contemporisation’ project feels an unnecessary beast at best, and pure sacrilege at worst. Rob Garratt
Owen Pallett In Conflict Guitars are out. Violins are the new instrument of choice for those wanting to up their coolness. Take Owen Pallett’s arty, achingly personal, violin-led ballads. A niche musical area perhaps, but in Pallett’s creative hands, one that has led to him touring with Arcade Fire, being nominated for an Oscar and working with Brian Eno. Fourth release In Conflict is a sublime demonstration of why the Canadian multi-instrumentalist is held in such high regard. Striking a fine balance between avant-garde and accessible, it’s an intense listen, but full of universally appealing, sparkling melodies. A beautiful and powerful album, light as a feather in its delivery of complicated musical and lyrical ideas, but packing a punch that’s sharp enough to floor most other records released this year. Tristan Parker
Beck Morning Phase Morning Phase is the most anticipated leftfield album of 2014, following a six-year gap in which Beck has done everything (including overcoming spinal injury and confounding the download generation with a book of sheet music) except release an album. A 12-song cycle set in the tender, uncertain hours of dawn, it bathes in the ’70s West Coast vibe of Beck’s youth, with dew-spangled guitars and psychedelic melodies slowly turning their crumpled faces to the sun. Swaddled in self-production, Morning Phase is an absorbing and moving mood album. Bella Todd
Kylie Minogue Kiss Me Once This is basically a typical Kylie Minogue album – albeit a very good one. Sure, the disco-ish ‘I Was Gonna Cancel’ boasts production from chart-dominating trendsetter Pharrell Williams, and there’s a dreadful dubstep-flecked dirge called ‘Sexercize’, but generally, pure sparkly pop is the order of the day. Though it lacks a single as indelible as ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’, the singer’s twelfth studio album has plenty of catchy, likeable pop bangers. The title track has a gorgeous chorus you’ll hum for days, while ‘Feels So Good’ is a sublime electro slow-burner. Nick Levine
The Horrors Luminous If there’s one thing The Horrors have always been good at, it’s surprising people. Luminous is one of the biggest, tightest, most engrossing records we’ve heard from a British band in years. The band’s songwriting confidence, which ebbed and flowed on 2011’s Skying, reaches new heights on this fourth effort. Practically every track on Luminous is some sort of highlight. The dancefloor-ready ‘In and Out of Sight’ flickers and shimmers enthrallingly, ‘Jealous Sun’ packs a monstrous, sickly shoegazing riff, and ‘Change Your Mind’ uses a skeletal verse to prove that The Horrors don’t have to be big to be clever. Our only worry is how they’re going to top it next time around. Then again, if there’s one thing they’ve always been good at… James Manning
Lily Allen Sheezus Three and a half years ago, Lily Allen announced she was ‘retiring’ from pop, and precisely no one believed her. Sure enough, the queen of chart-friendly snark is back with a third album that wittily sends up Kanye West. Allen’s resurrection doesn’t capture the zeitgeist as effortlessly as her sunny, ska-tinged debut, 2006’s Alright, Still, or the melancholy electro-pop of 2009’s It’s Not Me, It’s You. Instead producer Greg Kurstin offers a slick, melodic update of her last album’s radio-friendly electronic sound over which Allen riffs on everything from celebrity culture (‘Insincerely Yours’), to the media’s preoccupation with her upbringing (‘Silver Spoon’), to the joys of married life (‘As Long as I Got You’). Crucially, her trademark wry rhymes can still raise a smile. Sheezus isn’t a total triumph, but it’s great to have her back all the same. Nick Levine
Bruce Springsteen High Hopes Springsteen spent his heyday revising, rewriting and keeping much of his best material in the vaults because it didn’t fit whatever conceptual narrative he was telling –1978’s high-watermark Darkness on the Edge of Town alone generated 30-plus shelved tunes. Which makes The Boss’ decision to release this oddball, ragtag bag of recent outtakes (from 2002 to today), covers and re-recorded live favourites ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ and ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ feel all the more beguilling. The muse behind these reimaginings is Tom Morello, whose temporary E Street Band slot inspired his prescence on two-thirds of this collection. Revolutionary in Rage Against the Machine, here the guitarist’s trademark tricks verge from dazzling to parody – often in a single song – but rarely sit comfortably alongside traditional Bossisms. It’s an intriguing pairing to be sure, but a proper joint-penned collaboration feels necessary to justify a full LP. As it is, we’re left a set of schizophrenic Springsteen offcuts peppered with cool/garish guitar weirdness. Not that we’re complaining – it’s still Bruce, after all. Rob Garratt
Black Lips Underneath the Rainbow On its own terms, the Black Lips’ seventh album succeeds utterly – for the simple reason that the Atlanta quartet have no real interest in doing anything other than making the same album they’ve already made six times. Not as easy as it sounds, The Lips manage to keep pumping out tuneful garage punk of solid quality without the faintest sign of exhaustion.
If you were told this was the debut album from some long lost Detroit band from the ’60s, you would freak out. Knowing it’s just the latest from the Black Lips is undeniably less exciting. But they’re the kings of what they do, grumpily basking in their own eternal summer. Andrzej Lukowski
Pixies Indie Cindy Here’s the bad news: this is the worst album that the Pixies have ever released. That said, it’s not nearly as bad as it could have been. Compiling the bits and pieces of new material that the Pixies have released over the last year, Indie Cindy is the reunited alt rock titans’ first LP in 23 years – a year longer, even, than it took My Bloody Valentine to follow up Loveless. But where last year’s MBV was up there with its creators’ best work, Indie Cindy only sometimes comes close to rivalling the gut-punch excitement of Pixies’ shrieking, shredding, euphoric run between 1986 and 1993. In fact, the whole thing sounds a lot like frontman Black Francis’s (aka Frank Black’s) solo albums. That’s no surprise considering his long-term foil, bassist Kim Deal, left the band last year – apparently because she didn’t see the point in writing any new Pixies material. She might have been on to something. James Manning
Tinariwen Emmaar Swapping their native Mali for the US West Coast to avoid persecution, it makes sense that Tinarwien’s sixth was created in the spiritual home of American psychedelia. This is transformative music, an electric trip through the Grammy-winning nomads’ sand-blasted world of long-form Tamashek jams. Though guest appearances by fiddle player Fats Caplin and Red Hot Chilli Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer break the spell a little, Emmaar is never less than hypnotic and entrancing. Tinariwen have crafted a beautiful paean to the desert, an audio homage to dry heat – even if the desert this time was 7,000 miles away from home. By Eddy Frankel