Archive for the ‘Best of 2008’ Category

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Best of 2008: Top 20 Albums (10-1)

December 15, 2008

Throw Me The Statue

#10 Throw Me The Statue – Moonbeams

Seattle’s Throw Me The Statue are an unassuming band.  They’re not prone to grandiose statements or big sweeping arrangements.  No, they’re the latest in a long line of North American DIY diehards.  Moonbeams is a delightful smashing-together of indie rock past and present, from spiky pop songs (“This Is How We Kiss”, “Groundswell”) to ambling tweecore (“Young Sensualists”, “Your Best Friends Car”) to woozy late night torch songs (“Moonbeams”).  For such a low key album, it’s pleasingly overloaded with joys for the listener.

Throw Me The Statue – “Groundswell”

Adem

#9 Adem – Takes

Acoustic covers albums very rarely set the world on fire.  Luckily, Adem Ilhan brings to the equation a grab-bag of inspired song choices and a gift for reinterpretation.  Mining the nineties and early-oughties, Adem never goes for the obvious choice, even when covering well-known artists like Björk (“Unravel”) or The Smashing Pumpkins (“Starla”).  Even with a limited pallette of sounds – mostly voice, acoustic guitar, xylophone – it’s never same-ish or bland.  Instead, we’re treated to an array of heartfelt, adventurous folk tunes.  It’s a cliché to say that a covers artist makes a tune his own, but in Adem’s case it’s never been more true.

Adem – “To Cure A Weakling Child + Boy/Girl Song”

Frightened Rabbit

#8 Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight

Black comedy and indie rock have never felt so well suited as in Frightened Rabbit’s opus The Midnight Organ Fight.  Listening to this album for the first time, the lyrics catch you off guard – you’re never quite sure whether to believe your ears.  Did he really say that?  Scott Hutchison’s wordplay is hilarious, frequently obscene and often uncomfortably personal.  The music is uniformly excellent as well: melding indie rock anthems with spiralling folk rhythms and melodies.  Frightened Rabbit will have you shaking your head, tapping your feet and thanking your lucky stars for their existence.

Frightened Rabbit – “Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms”

Raveonettes

#7 The Raveonettes – Lust Lust Lust

The Raveonettes have fine-tuned their modus operandi nicely over the course of four albums – Phil Spector-helmed girl groups meet Jesus and Mary Chain distortion, seeped in illicit sex and substances.  It’s amazing that there is still so much potential in the formula.  Their filthy, pretty, euphoric sound is a heady concoction.  It’s blatantly addictive, because The Raveonettes always keep you coming back for more.  This is not an album for overthinking – it’s an album for giving you a blissful head rush and it does it like no other.

The Raveonettes – “Sad Transmission”

Horse Feathers

#6 Horse Feathers – House With No Name

Minimalist folk music has a new standard bearer in Horse Feathers.  They make pristine and wondrous songs using mostly voice and stringed instruments, pulling beauty out of simplicity.  House With No Name is down-home and rustic in the most satisying way.  The gentle vocal harmonies and lightly plucked instrumentations sound like a family making music together, the way it has been done for centuries.  In its evocation of lost eras and fleeting emotions, this album is peerless.

Horse Feathers – “Rude To Rile”

Opeth

#5 Opeth – Watershed

Despite substantial lineup changes since 2006’s Ghost Reveries, Opeth sound like much the same band they have for years: that is to say, terrifying, virtuosic and majestic.  As one of extreme metal’s most forward-looking bands, they are also one of the most accessible.  Watershed is easily their least “metallic” album since the acoustic Damnation.  Most of the time it plays like a supremely heavy take on progressive rock: bringing death metal’s portentous blasts of sound to the pomp and genre-melding of classic Floyd, Yes or Genesis.  Few bands can pull off this kind of thing with a straight face.  Opeth do it like it’s the only thing that matters.

Opeth – “Hex Omega”

Cut Off Your Hands

#4 Cut Off Your Hands – You and I

Winning fans galore with an explosive live show and two hit-heavy EPs, Cut Off Your Hands have been edging steadily toward the big time.  Now these energetic Kiwis have dropped their debut album and it’s an instant classic.  Infusing their jerky new wave pop songs with Pet Sounds-like drama and romance, You and I is an anthemic and ornate album.  Bernard Butler’s production layers the band’s locked-tight interplay, giving it a sonic depth only hinted at on early discs.  Fortunately some of their best early work is here – “Oh Girl”, “Expectations” and “Still Fond” – but curiously not the song that shares the album’s name.  They’re definitely a “singles” band at this point, but when you’ve got enough perfect singles to fill a long player, no one is going to complain.

Cut Off Your Hands – “Let’s Get Out Of Here”

Sigur Ros

#3 Sigur Ros – Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust

The clue that Sigur Rós’ new album was going to be a little bit different was there in the opening track, “Gobbledigook”: all tribal drummings and naked (in the video, literally) abandon.  Where were the sweeping soundtracks to icy landscapes?  Turns out the album had plenty of those, but the band has expanded its sound.  It’s more percussive, more upbeat and more immediate.  There are short, catchy-as-hell songs here, interspersed with Sigur Rós’ trademark slow-burn epics.  When you’ve singlehandedly created a genre and a language, you don’t need to do much to stay ahead of the competition.  Sigur Rós are racing themselves and they’re taking their quest for supremacy very seriously indeed.

Sigur Rós – “Gobbledigook”

Pivot

#2 Pivot – O Soundtrack My Heart

With a stripped-back lineup and a new contract with Warp Records, Sydney’s Pivot are ready for the (almost) Big Time.  This, their sophomore disc, is a lot closer in sound and spirit to their bludgeoning live shows than 2005’s delicate Make Me Love You.  With vintage synths galore, Richard Pike’s scratchy guitar work and Laurence Pike’s thunderous drumming, these are instrumental pieces to be reckoned with.  Whether the rest of the world will embrace them remains to be seen, but they deserve your attention.  Many instrumental bands are slowly slipping into polite waiting room music.  Pivot are showing the rest how to remain vital and explode minds year after year.

Pivot – “O Soundtrack My Heart”

Tamas Wells

#1 Tamas Wells – Two Weeks In April

Recorded at his home in Yangon, Myanmar, ex-pat Aussie Tamas Wells’ new album is his most stripped back yet.  In fact, with his usual bandmates back in Melbourne, Wells plays and sings almost everything.  As a result, it’s a much more folky affair than the twee masterwork of 2006’s A Plea En Vendredi.  Wells is still singing whimsical little songs, but these have a more meditative, hypnotic feel than before.  Like Sam Beam or Sufjan Stevens, Wells often sounds like he’s singing for himself alone.  This album is a peek into his life and it’s an enriching experience.  You walk away from the Wells’ house with a feeling of deep serenity.

Tamas Wells – “I Want You To Know It’s Now Or Never”

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Best of 2008: Top 20 Albums (20-11)

December 14, 2008

British Sea Power

#20 British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?

Even with unappealling cover art and a clumsy album title, British Sea Power have won over more than a few critics with this effort.  Coming on like the ultimate fusion of stadium rock and indie jangle, they effortlessly move between grandiose statements and intimate moments.  The production is shiny but never distracting and the songs have a way of slipping past you the first time but winning you over on repeat listens with that special slow-release formulation.  If you can answer yes to their question, you can find more than enough to love in this album.

British Sea Power – “No Need To Cry”

Gregor Samsa

#19 Gregor Samsa – Rest

Sounding even more hushed and subdued than on their last, extremely quiet album, Gregor Samsa have moved beyond the Low and Rachel’s comparisons to develop an idiosyncratic sound.  Rest is a contemplative album, full of spacious silences and envigorating atmospherics.  It’s also more than a little bit creepy and you’d be advised not to listen to it while driving dark roads at night.  Gregor Samsa have made a tricky album to grasp fully, but it always tantalises you with the promise of new revelations.

Gregor Samsa – “Jeroen Van Aken”

Al Green

#18 Al Green – Lay It Down

The old master still has what it takes to deliver a killer album.  After more than three decades as one of soul’s greatest, Al Green has made an album that sounds like the work of a much younger man.  With help from Roots drummer ?uestlove and a host of other youngsters, Green belts out a disc full of spirited, funky R&B.  It manages to sound both current (the production is industry gold standard) and classic (you could almost be listening to Green’s debut).  He might sound happy and relaxed nowdays, where previously he was tense and horny, but there’s still no one who can beat Al Green at his own game.

Al Green – “You’ve Got The Love I Need”

Lambchop

#17 Lambchop – OH (ohio)

Kurt Wagner, grouchy frontman par excellence, does his own thing whatever happens.  With his revolving lineup of country and western compadres, he makes album after album of disgruntled rural soul.  OH (ohio) is a slightly more contented and positive album than previous discs, but it’s still full of the trademark Lambchop sounds: gruff baritone singing, shimmering acoustics and sophisticated instrumentation.  You may not have any idea where Wagner is going with this album – conceptually it’s all over the place – but it’s a great little ride if you want to follow him.

Lambchop – “National Talk Like A Pirate Day”

Portishead

#16 Portishead – Third

The weight of expectations after 11 years is always high.  The only way to really get around it is to pretend the expectations don’t exist.  Portishead’s Third sounds as if they simply aren’t aware that any time has past.  It’s both a logical extension of 1997’s Portishead and a perfect fit with today’s tense and uncertain climate.  Third is a difficult listen, full of Beth Gibbons’ plaintive singing and grim arrangements, but it’s frequently beautiful and endlessly inventive.

Portishead – “Hunter”

Damien Jurado

#15 Damien Jurado – Caught In The Trees

Seattle’s gloomiest troubador never seems to run out of sad stories to sing.  On Caught In The Trees, he manages to find another line-up of degenerates and desperadoes to populate his chilly gothic folk.  It’s an approach that isn’t getting old just yet.  Jurado’s newfound consistency of backing musicians also helps.  This is his loosest and most playful album in years – the product of a band at ease with each other.  Juradoland is a sad place to spend time, but anyone with a love of storytelling and inventive folk music will find it worthwhile.

Damien Jurado – “Last Rights”

M83

#14 M83 – Saturdays = Youth

After turning out a Vangelis-meets-My-Bloody-Valentine extravaganza in 2005, Anthony Gonzalez took time to rework his sonic pallette, with amazing results.  Mixing up the best of 80s synth-pop with his own sweeping atmospheres, Gonzalez is a talented fusionist and an unashamed romantic.  In interviews, he reveals an unselfconscious love of all kinds of music.  There’s no hipster irony in his appropriation of old sounds.  He knows that so much material dismissed as “cheesy” has a real heart and he’s determined to make us realise that too.

M83 – “Too Late”

Mystery Jets

#13 Mystery Jets – Twenty One

Bursting out of an energetic young London scene, Mystery Jets are among the best of the new wave revivalists.  As well as an enviably tight band dynamic, they’ve got some of the best tunes and choruses going.  They’re another band that doesn’t mind drawing on uncool influences, taking cues equally from the popular and the leftfield sounds of the last few decades.  Twenty One is an ode to youthful experimentation and mistakes, capturing a slightly bruised optimism in every tune.  Being young has its downside, but Mystery Jets know that it’s also the best time of your life.

Mystery Jets – “Veiled In Grey”

Titus Andronicus

#12 Titus Andronicus – The Airing Of Grievances

They’re bratty and precious.  They flaunt their highbrow influences shamelessly.  But don’t let that put you off them.  New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus are the perfect antidote to musical indifference.  Their punky swagger, screamed vocals and glass-shattering guitar work is bracing and inspiring.  With the take-no-prisoners approach of The Thermals and the wordy brilliance of Bright Eyes, they’re a talent to watch.  There aren’t many young bands that sound quite so much like their life depends on the songs they’re singing.

Titus Andronicus – “Fear And Loathing In Mahwah, NJ”

Deerhunter

#11 Deerhunter – Microcastles

For the product of a deeply strange and experimental band, Microcastles is a remarkably accessible and tuneful album.  Deerhunter’s sound is still swirling, noisy and effects-laden but it’s also welded onto a framework of solid tunes and insidious melodies.  Bradford Cox’s vocals are eerie and ethereal, slipping in and out of the complex, almost psychedelic arrangements.  It’s a work of punchy, glorious, shimmering shoegazer brilliance from a band that’s still finding its sweet spot.

Deerhunter – “Nothing Ever Happened”

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Best of 2008: Top 10 Singles

December 13, 2008

While the pop charts continued to lap up the likes of back-from-the-brink Britney and the usual retreads, a couple of left-of-centre artists have won the hearts of hipsters everywhere. These are new classics, songs that take the elements of great tunes past and reconfigure them into something original and special.  I hope you enjoy them.

Guillemots

#10 Guillemots – Falling Out Of Reach

Guillemots may have pissed off a heap of their fans this year with a glitzy, studio-driven album in place of their previous orchestral fantasias, but their embrace of mainstream pop conventions paid off in “Falling Out Of Reach”. It’s a beautiful, sensitive piece almost guaranteed to soften hard hearts. It’s also one of the least synthesized songs on the album and just as subtle and fluid as anything they’ve ever done.

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Portishead

#9 Portishead – The Rip

Even if they became associated with a certain polite, dinner-party style of music, Portishead were always a pretty grim band. The decade since their self-titled album – itself a more morose trip than 1994’s Dummy – has only made them more so.  But what songs they’ve got! “The Rip” is futuristic folk music, an utterly idiosyncratic blend of melancholy electronics and bucolic guitar plucking. Beth Gibbons will never be mistaken for another vocalist and here she shows why her band will always be imitated but will always one step ahead.

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The Hold Steady

#8 The Hold Steady – Sequestered In Memphis

As ageing hipsters’ bar band of choice, The Hold Steady could have painted themselves into a corner.  Four albums of literate, boozy rock ‘n’ roll would have lesser bands scraping the bottom of their metaphorical barrel.  Not so The Hold Steady.  “Sequestered In Memphis” is one of the best “story” songs ever released.  As a retelling of shady dealings in the South, the whole song just sounds… illegal.  Chances are, if your next business trip ends with you on the run from the law, this song will be playing on your stolen car’s stereo.

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Throw Me The Statue

#7 Throw Me The Statue – Lolita

Still little known after dropping a delightful, shambolic debut album this year, Throw Me The Statue are a band to watch.  Of all the brilliant indie pop they have released, “Lolita” is a definite highlight.  Whether it’s about the Nabokov novel or not, it’s a rapid-fire, skittering and energetic song in the spirit of the classic 90s lo-fi a la Guided By Voices or Pavement.  The song title may hint at unhealthy desires, but Throw Me The Statue’s musical chops have never been better.

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Jamie Lidell

#6 Jamie Lidell – Another Day

The high point of Jamie Lidell’s new album comes the moment you press play.  “Another Day” is a stellar opening track, full of Lidell’s soulful swagger.  It’s a laidback, funky ode to love and communication.  If he sounds less urgent and hyperactive than before it’s because he seems to be more comfortable in his own skin.  Jamie is happy and wants to share his good vibes with us – and who are we to resist?

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Mystery Jets

#5 Mystery Jets – Two Doors Down

Mystery Jets have produced more timely music than “Two Doors Down” – the rest of their album positively screams “2008!” – but even if this one cops all your older cousin’s 80s moves, it’s a mind-blowingly good song.  Rather than an inane throwback for the 20 year reunion crowd, “Two Doors Down” is using the sounds of the past to generate that feeling of youth and possibility.  We often forget that chiming synths and saxophone solos were once the cutting edge.  Mystery Jets make them sound fresh again.

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M83

#4 M83 – Kim & Jessie

Even if he hadn’t told us, it would be obvious that M83’s Anthony Gonzalez wanted to recreate the feel of a classic John Hughes movie with his latest album.  Nothing is more 80s teen flick soundtrack-worthy than “Kim & Jessie”, an ode to misfits everywhere.  But it’s not just Simple Minds or Tears for Fears redux.  M83’s fusion of retro-pop, shoegaze ambience and pulsating electronics is something else entirely.  Gonzalez nails the same “feel” without mimicry and it’s even more potent than any of the songs it calls to mind.

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Alphabeat

#3 Alphabeat – Fascination

Taking a leaf from decades of chart-busting Scandopop, Alphabeat are a young band with a mission to make “pop” cool again.  They’re glossier than anything short of Ace of Base, but they’ve got a DIY aesthetic that the sheen can’t hide.  Under it all, Alphabeat are kids mucking around with instruments and accidentally hitting upon the magical formula for pop.  Their calling card will always be “Fascination”, a song full of innocence and passion in every handclap.

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Sigur Ros

#2 Sigur Rós – Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur

“This sounds like Coldplay,” was my initial reaction to this anthemic, baroque pop song – but that’s selling it ridiculously short.  In a year in which Coldplay lunged for avant garde cred, Sigur Rós showed them how to be artistic trailblazers AND be heart-on-sleeve romantics.  It’s as euphoric and transcendent as any of the Icelandic band’s post-rock back catalogue, while being the most immediate and hummable song they’ve ever penned.  It’s a potent gateway drug that could lure many an impressionable music fan into a new world of experimental music.

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Kristoffer Ragnstam

#1 Kristoffer Ragnstam – Swing That Tambourine

This young Swedish troubadour has a knack for off-kilter arrangements that disarm you, making you powerless to resist his hooks.  “Swing That Tambourine” is the perfection of his technique: subdued verses, a tension-building pre-chorus and then…BAM!  He hits you with a chorus so rollicking and triumphant, you’ll want to reach for the nearest tambourine and swing it like nobody’s business.  It’s the soundtrack to a new Summer of Love, a danceclub anthem and 2008’s best single by miles.

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Counting down the numbers

November 9, 2008

It’s that time of year apparently, and I’m caught completely off balance.  Yes, it’s LIST-MAKING TIME.  Oh, indie rocks nerds – you do this earlier each year, it seems.

Popmatters are calling for top 10s and top 5s.  I did this last year and I only got asked to write up one album – Iron & Wine’s The Shepherd’s Dog, which came in at #57.

Who knows what will happen this year.  I’ve got a feeling that my picks won’t be anyone else’s favourites.  A lot of the big critical noise albums of this year have done very little for me, and a lot of artists I love have done disappointing albums in 2008.

Stay tuned. because it will all turn up here on this blog in time.