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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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Lord knows, I’ve tried

November 24, 2008

Jason Martin’s Starflyer 59 project has been the little band that could for 15 years now.  From early days as “the American My Bloody Valentine” through to recent low-key pop albums, they’ve attracted a pretty solid fan base and can generally be assured of positive write-ups with each new album.

For me, they peaked with 2003’s Old – which is unfortunate because their subsequent albums have been a little bit paint-by-numbers.  In particular, 2006’s My Island was lacklustre, if lifted by a couple of brilliant tunes.  Their latest, Dial M, has the distinctive 2000s Starflyer sound.  It’s all mid-tempos, simple drumbeats, laconic vocals and new-wave inspired guitars.   His lyrics are lightly self-mocking (“the kids want a faster beat” he sings).  It’s not a complete return to the Golden Age, but it’s got definite charm.

Sure, Jason Martin could record his after-dinner digestion sounds and I’d probably listen to it, but this one gives me hopes for a Starflyer resurgence.

Starflyer 59 – “M23”

Starflyer 59 – “Altercation”

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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.

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Still fond

October 31, 2008

One of my favourite bands of jerky indie popsters are Auckland’s Cut Off Your Hands.  To my ears, they’ve got more memorable songs and more charisma than a lot of similar bands.  I read a review of their debut album You and I that asked “Do we really need another Kaiser Chiefs?”  Probably not, but Cut Off Your Hands are a lot more than a rip-off of better-known artists.

Oddly, the album doesn’t include the track of the same name, the energetic little number that won over quite a few listeners back in 2006.  That disappointment is only minor, because some of the great songs off last year’s Blue on Blue EP are included, as well as some excellent new tracks.

The band have clearly discovered the 1960s in the meantime, because the new tracks bear the marks of a lot of time spent listening to Pet Sounds.  It works well – these songs are lot sweeter and more endearing than most punky pop of the moment.  There are also a couple of downbeat songs that look at spritual disillusionment.  It’s a creative and catchy disc and I’m putting in an early nomination for Album of the Southern Hemisphere Summer.

Cut Off Your Hands – “Turn Cold”

Cut Off Your Hands – “Heartbreak”

Cut Off Your Hands – “Oh Girl”

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Arena

October 28, 2008

Montreal’s The Stills were in the right place at the right time.  When they dropped Logic Will Break Your Heart in 2003, they sat on top of a wave of anthemic 80s influenced moody rock.  One year after Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights and one year before The Killers’ Hot Fuzz, they were pretty much the mid point between the darker tendencies of the former and the populism of the latter.

That’s mostly faded and fashions have moved on.  So have The Stills, more or less.  They’re still in love with shimmery verses and big crashing choruses.  They remain the quintessential indie arena band – not yet popular enough for the venues their music demands.

This year’s album Oceans Will Rise is full of hooks and drama.  It doesn’t have a stand-out to match their epic “Lola Stars And Stripes”, but if you loved that song there’s plenty in the same vein – like the sweetly angsty “Being Here”.  They also push their sound in a few new directions – even if those directions are still influenced by British bands of the 1980s.  Opener “Don’t Talk Down” is a great piece of Police-ish reggae pop.

The Stills – “Being Here”

The Stills – “Don’t Talk Down”

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Sharing a Gibson

October 21, 2008

When I first saw a live show by Lambchop, self-described as “Nashville’s most fucked-up country band”, they won me over in an instant.  Kurt Wagner’s testicular growl filled the room and his band’s slow-burn take on country pop was nothing less than incandescent.

After watching them hypnotise a room, Lambchop’s recorded output sounded a little bit flat.  They haven’t been helped by a couple of albums that were a bit same-ish, especially 2006’s Damaged.  They’re pretty songs, but they didn’t reach out of the stereo and force you to pay attention.

The best thing about their new album, OH (ohio), is that it’s the closest thing to their live show I’ve heard in years.  The production is warm and immediate.  The instrumentations are subtly complex, but not so subtle that you miss them on first or second listen.  Wagner is his wry, grouchy best.  It’s like they’re putting on a little show in your living room.

The stand-out track for me is “A Hold Of You”, which shimmers like the best moments of The Clientele and is so full of aching emotion you want to play it again and again until your heart calms down.   The whole album is impressive – perfect for late nights in big cities.  They’ve made a believer out of me once more.

Lambchop – “A Hold Of You”

Lambchop – “Sharing A Gibson With Martin Luther King Jr.”

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The Master of Miserable

October 16, 2008

There have always been two Damien Jurados.  One is the freewheeling troubador, with raucous country pop songs like “Honey Baby” or “Letters and Drawings” off Rehearsals For Departure.  The other is the poet of cheated husbands with short-fuse tempers – or just about anyone whose life is plumbing the depths.

His last album, And Now That I’m In Your Shadow, was all the second and his darkest work in years.  It was beautiful and wise and pristine, but it had the potential to send you into a major depression for months.  Fortunately for my therapy bills, his 2008 album Caught In The Trees is a more upbeat work.  That’s a relative term for Damien Jurado, but his cynicism is at least matched with some lively tempos this time around.  “Gillian Was A Horse” is a pretty good example – stomping along while detailing some pretty shady characters.  Second track “Trials” is a lot slower, but it’s easily the prettiest song he’s recorded in half a decade.

It’s a pretty good place to start if you’re just discovering him – and an even better opportunity to come back if he’s lost you a bit in recent years.

Damien Jurado – “Gillian Was A Horse”

Damien Jurado – “Trials”