Friday, December 12, 2008

my sound decisions - top 10 albums of 2008

So these last few weeks, while watching football games on Fox - like, say, when the Steelers come back in the forth quarter to kick the Dallas Cryboys’ ass 20-13 - I see promos for “American Idol.” And I have to admit I just don’t get how so many people can pay so much attention to manufactured, corporate music when all they need to do is dig a little and they’ll get a seemingly endless pool of music that squashes anything you hear on “American Idol” like a grape.

Whatever, I’ll get past it.

2008 was a ridiculously great year for music. And just because an album didn’t make the list doesn’t necessarily mean I don't think it's worthy of a nod. [Unless we’re talking about 92% of you hear on the radio.] The ten that follow are a bottleneck of the best as I see it.

This list is largely comprised of albums that I never would have expected and blah, blah, blah… intro over. Let’s break it down, shall we?

10. The Last Shadow Puppets – “The Age Of Understatement”

If you prefer songs that are produced similar to those featured in the opening credits of a 1960’s James Bond film then, hell, this is your album. The Last Shadow Puppets have put together a collection of sweeping melodies that mix the aforementioned 007 sound with a touch of a late-80s-early-90’s sensibility. [I pick up a little bit of The Church’s “Reptile” in parts of the production.] Despite the influences, these tracks are oddly fresh – like those of a deer after a freshly fallen snow shortly before it becomes venison – hence the number ten position. The title track in particular seems to scream for silhouettes of women floating across lava lamp-inspired fields of color. And bubbles. A few tracks have Bacharachian chord progressions and most have lush string arrangements. Evidently when you combine each of these, you get a great album.

Standout track: “Meeting Place”

9. Deerhunter – “Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.”

When it came to Deerhunter, I was behind the curve. Before this album, I was entirely unfamiliar with them. I feel sick about it, and I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.

This album isn’t for everyone. But for anyone who’s curious, there are moments that offer shades of My Bloody Valentine [e.g. “Vox Celeste”]. And it isn’t afraid to be a little ugly – something that most bands don’t embrace these days. Not everyone can be as brave as Fugazi and Sonic Youth.

I’m not sure what their logic was, but rather than releasing a double-album, they decided to release two albums in one package. So for the purposes of this list, it’s a double-album. That’s how I listen to it, anyway. Regardless [or as the kids say “irregardless—” Whoa! Hang on a second. Did you know that, according to Microsoft Word™ – at least the version I have – “irregardless” isn’t misspelled?? Holy crap. That’s… that’s… ((((((((((sigh)))))))))) that’s depressing…]

Okay. Gotta center myself... That just completely threw me off my game.

Standout track: “Operation.”
[Which I think is about a Milton Bradley game. Maybe I’m wrong.]

8. She & Him – “Volume One”

When I heard that Zoey Deschanel was singing on an album with M. Ward, I got scared. Eddie Murphy, John Travolta, David Soul – history is lousy with actors who sing lousy. [I know, Allison – “lousily.”] Said history now includes Scarlett Johansson’s ill-advised release of Tom Waits covers. I mean… I mean… who the hell thought that was a good idea? Does she not have a manager advising her?

On a related note: the manager of my building, Chris, is Tom Waits’ cousin which, apart from being inherently cool, is also quite educational. For instance, I found out that Tom Waits was actually once a kid. Anyway, I asked Chris if he’d heard her train wreck of an album and he just shook his head and with an oddly similar rasp said, “God, I hope her people paid him well.” Chris says what we all feel.

So. Back to She & Him. Surprisingly, Ms Deschanel has a beautiful voice and M. Ward’s simple melodies complement that voice. There’s no overreaching. She doesn’t try to be something she’s not. And the resulting songs are clean and smart.

Standout track: “Change Is Hard”

7. Sigur Rós – “Med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust” *

What do you say about a band you can’t understand? Language barrier aside, almost everything this band has ever done has been at the very least intriguing; usually it hovers somewhere near brilliance; and, I mean, talk about beautiful.

Go ahead.

Talk about it. I’ll wait…

To my ear, 2005’s “Taak” was a work of staggering beauty. So while I was excited to learn this was coming out, I wondered how they’d follow up such a tremendous album. “Med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust” answers the bell with songs that range from upbeat and playful to delicate and moving. Maybe such diversity is why the more I listen to it the more I get out of it. Unlike the number of times you view the cover. Which seems to get creepier and creepier. ["Hey Dagbjart. I was thinking - remember that time in high school...?"]

Standout track: “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur”

* My spell check hates Sigur Rós. Irregardless…

6. Fleet Foxes – “Fleet Foxes”

New band. Beard rock. Awesome. When I listen, I hear a little My Morning Jacket and I often feel the urge to live on a mountain. I don’t have an explanation for this. Perhaps I’ll run it past my therapist, but the flipside to such an urge is that these unconventional songs - some of which change up several times, a la The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away" - grab you and don't let go.

Lyrically speaking, I’ll admit that there is a certain… I don’t’ know… “oddness,” I suppose. But the melodies are so well conceived that it doesn’t matter. Having said that, the line that always seems to hit me is, “Tell me anything you want, any old lie will do.” Which brings me back to my therapist…

Standout track: “White Winter Hymnal”

5. The Hold Steady – “Stay Positive”

This is a rawk album. Kind of in the same vein as Wilco. It’s solid from the opening guitar licks of “Constructive Summer” to the final note of the three-part closer, “Ask Her For Adderall / Cheyenne Sunrise / Two Handed Handshake.”

The Hold Steady is a perfect band to drink beer to, and “Stay Positive” is loaded with music that’s likely perfect for road trips and frat parties – the former being a plus, the latter not so much, but I think you know what I mean. This album’s sound is so mainstream that I’m surprised a cynical alt-music zine like “Pitchfork” would rate it so highly. Nevertheless, it's one that most everyone can dig.

Standout track: “Sequestered In Memphis”

4. Bon Iver – “For Emma, Forever Ago”

Also new. Bon Iver [meaning good winter] used to be a guy named Justin Vernon, who has worked with the likes of Broken Social Scene and The Shins. Now it’s a band with a guy named Justin Vernon and a couple other guys. This album was produced when it was just Justin Vernon.

Some songs are haunting, some are sweet, and some ache. In fact, as I write this, I’m watching the band perform “Skinny Love” on David Letterman. Lots of euphonious aching. The one common thread throughout “For Emma” is its vulnerability. At times it sounds as though Vernon is exposing his last nerve. Fortunately, in his case, that’s a good thing for us. Call me a freakshow but I think honesty has always been an important ingredient to music with integrity.

Don’t ignore this one. You might miss something you’d regret.

Standout track: “Skinny Love”

3. R.E.M. – “Accelerate”

In the summer of 1986, my friends and I were on the verge of going to college. [Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… “old.”] We were getting liquored-up at a party thrown by our good friend Laura Goldstein. [Thank you again, Laura. Sorry for not helping with the clean-up.] This was a frequent occurrence, and the party I’m remembering lasted three days. Sounds like an exaggeration. It is not. Just ask.

On the evening of the second night, our friend Jim Ferguson joined us and pulled a tape out of his shirt pocket. He said, “Looky what I’ve got. It’s the new R.E.M. album, ‘Life’s Rich Pageant.’” I still remember how instantly addictive it was.

Fast-forward to this past April. I found that I had a similar response to “Accelerate.” In fact, I was talking music with Jim, whose musical taste I have trusted since the eighth grade, and I asked him, “Is it just me, or is ‘Accelerate’ a great album?” His response was, “I know, right??” Given that Jim’s has introduced me to more important bands than a jewelry store owner does to engaged couples each spring [Bah-DUM-Bum!!! ...God, I apologize. I'm ashamed of myself.] my opinion was validated – an opinion that goes a little something like this:

Holy shit. This album is shockingly good. I’ll say that again: “shockingly good.” Sometime during the past two years or so, R.E.M. remembered that they were a kick ass rock band. They plugged in and pressed record and it worked beautifully.

I can say it over and over yet still underrate it – this album is shockingly good.

Standout track: “Living Well’s the Best Revenge”

2. TV On The Radio – “Dear Science,”

Two years ago, Brooklyn’s TVOTR released “Return To Cookie Mountain.” Given the title, I thought it was the soundtrack to a 1970’s Disney movie starring Jodie Foster and Ed Asner. Turns out I was wrong. Instead, it was an album that made me repeat the words, “What the hell was that??” It had so many subtle layers that I couldn’t process it at first, which, for me, was part of its charm. [It was #1 on the 2006 list.] And like Sigur Rós’ “Taak,” I had difficulty believing anything that could top "Cookie Mountain."

“Dear Science,” does not.


That doesn’t mean that it’s not an amazing album, which it is. I mean, hell, it’s #2. And unlike “Cookie Mountain,” this album is far more accessible. It's a great point of entry for anyone who isn’t familiar with their work. Had this album a poppier production value I believe several of these tracks would get strong radio play. “Dancing Choose,” with its “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It [And I Feel Fine]” cadence, could easily make the play list at a few senior proms. I grant you that this isn’t much of an endorsement but my point being, if awkward teenage boys in rented tuxes and equally awkward teenage girls in overpriced, remarketed bridesmaids dresses [both parties looking to shed said apparel as soon as possible] can enjoy it, most anyone can.

Standout track: “Stork & Owl”

1. Portishead – “Third”

In a word: unfuckingbelievable.

Like most fans, I thought I had heard Portishead’s last. But eleven years after their last album, they’ve released a masterpiece.

More than once I’ve heard fans say they were let down that “Third” doesn’t sound like classic Portishead but when a band releases two albums, is there a classic sound? Particularly when you consider that “Dummy” and “Portishead” each had unique characteristics. Besides, had The Beatles released two albums and waited until 1974 to release their third, would it have made sense for it to sound like “All My Lovin’?” I suspect “A Hard Day’s Night” wouldn’t have been embraced by recovering hippies. What, with the fact that “With The Beatles” was released before there even were hippies.

So Portishead has evolved. And when the folksy “Deep Water” and the unforgiving “Machine Gun” appear on the same album – let alone back-to-back – it appears as though that evolution is one that benefits both longtime and freshly minted fans alike.

The cornerstone of the Portishead dynamic is, of course, Beth Gibbons’ voice, which has never sounded better. And when you take in what Geoff Barrow and Adrien Utley have crafted, you know there was [gasp!] actual thought put into it, meaning this album will never get significant airplay, if any. This album is the antithesis of the pollution that is “American Idol.” This album is an instant classic. This album is a must.

Standout track: “The Rip”
[This just kills me.]


Elvis Costello – “Momofuku”

Just ‘cause he’s now in his 50’s doesn’t make him irrelevant. He's still one of the best lyricists around. And with songs like "Turpentine" and "American Gangster Time," I don't see that changing any time soon.

Devotchka – “A Mad And Faithful Calling”

Eastern European rock, I guess, is a good description. Whatever. It, too, is great.

Kanye West – “808s & Heartbreak”

Surprised? Don’t be. I think this one is already underrated. Recommended by Mr. Ferguson, who was right again.

Andrew Bird - “Soldier On” e.p.

Yeah, it’s an e.p. but it’s Andrew Bird. And Andrew Bird is Andrew Bird. Unlike Bob Dylan, who, as I mentioned a couple years ago, is Bob Dylan.

Bloc Party – “Intimacy”

Turns out their sophomore release was just a stumble. Not bad, but not great. This one puts them back on track.

Jon Brion – “Synecdoche, NY”

I’ve attended hundreds of shows in several countries and Jon Brion is the single greatest performer I’ve ever seen. This is your run-of-the-mill brilliant Jon Brion soundtrack.


The Clash - “Live at Shea Stadium”

Don’t think. Just buy it. Now. Make it happen. Go. You know you have that one-click thing goin’ on with your iTunes. Do it. It's a watershed moment in the history of rock. Do it. You know you want to.

R.E.M. - “Murmur” Deluxe Edition

Still one of my favorite albums of all time. And the concert on disc two is well worth the additional greenbacks.

Belle & Sebastian - “Live at The BBC”

A nice complement to their studio stuffs. It’s not Shea Stadium, but Belle & Sebastian at Shea Stadium would be stupid. As it is, this is excellent.

Oh— And I’m listening to the new Abe Vigoda (“Skeleton”) and it’s pretty great. As is Pattern Is Movement's "All Together."

So that’s that. If you have the albums on this list, I hope you agree. If you don’t, maybe you’ll give ‘em a shot. Sure beats watching Paula Abdul slur, “Yer goin’ tuh’Hollywood.” A slur that, given my location, is not a comfort.


Arlan Hess said...

I'm trusting you on these and downloading several. (Of course, The Clash and REM I already have.) These folks owe you commission.

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