Thursday, January 15, 2009

That's A Record! My Favorite Albums of 2008

(Yes, I actually began this on December 19th. Then travel, moving, exhaustion and work got in the way. My apologies, but better late than never as the old adage goes)

It's Friday, December 19th and I've been in the final year of my 20s for a few weeks now. I still don't feel old, I don't care what anyone says. Moving is coming along, and we're on the cusp of getting a truck to move our big stuff to the new place. But that's not what I'm hear to talk about. I'm hear to shout into the vacuum that is the internet my opinions that, let's face it, don't really matter to anyone other than me. But hey, I'm going to do it anyway.

Now, the countdown begins. Much like my list in 2007, football was at the center of my thinking. I thought about actually numbering them and trying to pick the best album, or taking a note from a really great book I read this year - Brilliant Oranje: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner - and putting the numbers in a random order like a team sheet for a football team, but I settled for saying these are my faves as they are and listing them alphabetically. The quality of music coming out in 2008 across the board was so consistently good that I see no other way to do this. If you read this, I hope you don't think it sucks. Here's the first 10.

Air France - No Way Down

Standing strong enough on its own as a 6-song EP, No Way Down has more beauty wall-to-wall than most albums that have come out this decade. Air France has released a second straight suite of brilliant dance music that can both provoke thought and shuffle feet. It almost makes me afraid what'll happen if a full album actually comes out from this artist. In an odd way, the cuts on this album seem to build on the sonic textures that the Chemical Brothers created with "Star Guitar" and augment them with a euphorically tropical sheen and whimsy. The opener, "Maundy Thursday" fades in with imagery of someone frenetically typing as baroque synths seem to wisk the listener away like a daydream. With "Windmill Wedding" waking said listener as it fades with distant church bells and a low, hissing scratch, they'll have no problem hitting play another time to dream again.

Atlas Sound - Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel

I'm a big fan of music that can absolutely haunt others. While, like most, I don't want to be scared whilst listening to music, I like music that can really etch itself in the walls of one's brain. Bradford Cox over Deerhunter's brilliant 2007 effort Cryptograms and this, his solo debut, has shown that ability in spades. Who ever thought that a child telling an innocently precious and cute ghost story could loom so darkly over an album? The opening cut, the aptly titled "A Ghost Story" comes of as something so simple, but maintains a monolithic presence throughout this warmly isolated and almost cerebral collection of songs that come off like the subject of R.E.M.'s "Life and How to Live It" putting his heart and soul to tape. Cox's vocals are nestled in ethereal synths and guitars in a mix that simultaneously huddles in a distant corner while reaching for the stars.

The Bug - London Zoo

This album would be perfect to listen to on vinyl (though it's probably long enough to spread over 2 LP's). While the production is completely controlled chaos and the songs are thunderously in your face over the first half. The second is more muted, sludgy, dubby and even trippy at parts. In a manner that's crazy off the chain, "Angry" kicks things off in a fury of reggaeton and modern dancehall as Tippa Irie sounds off on what pisses him off. No, he's not going to talk about stormy weather or the state of traffic on the highway, he rails against the ignorance of the American government to Katrina, the rape of Africa and terrorism amoung other things. "Fuckaz," just after the midway point in the album, features Spaceape sounding off against the inherent hipocricies in society today. On top of those, there's a wealth of replay value within this album for a long time to come.

Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours

Be it dance, rock, electro or something else, there's not really a match for a truly perfect pop record (as in a single, not an album). Often in music, albums full of great songs that stand on their own don't always match up to what the sum of their parts should be (it's a funny contradiction, but there's some truth there). In Ghost Colours is an album full of perfect pop songs from "Feel the Love," "Out There On the Ice," and "Lights and Music," all the way through its final cut, "Eternity One Night Only." As my friend Rob said, "They make the same leap from Bright Like Neon Love that New Order did from Brotherhood to Technique." Cut Copy, however, is doing it earlier in their career. While it wasn't them that made dance music cool again, I'd place money on them keeping things interesting for years to come.

David Byrne and Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

There's something about reconnecting with old friends even for a short time that's gratifying. Nearly 30 years ago, Brian Eno and David Byrne had the universe at their feet. After working on a string of brillian Talking Heads albums and Byrne's solo debut, they did an album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, together that was as far ahead of its time as it was brilliant. So, at the sound of rumblings of another Byrne/Eno effort, expectations easily went high. Not only were those expectations met, but exceeded as well and with only little glimpses at their past. This was clearly an album of songs rather than ideas that their work in the 80s tended to be. Lo and behold, David Byrne can still write and sing and Brian Eno is still a studio wizard. Byrne is clearly in sage mode on "Life is Long," "Home" and "Everything That Happens" imparting wisdom through pseudo gospel-toned lyrics. Let's just hope it's not another 30 years before they come together again.

Deerhunter - Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.

With Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel, it appeared that Bradford Cox himself was on a streak. With both the size and quality of this simultaneous release (Weird Era Cont. was released as a bonus disc for Microcastle), it's abundantly clear that the individuals in Deerhunter are just as ambitiously creative as he is. With this effort being the most accessible Deerhunter-related album to date, one can't help but notice the coinciding arrival of guitarist Whitney Petty with a double suite of songs that bring together the worlds of experimentation and pop song craft that the band has displayed to a possibly frustrating yet fascinating result thus far. Here everything coalesces into an ornate, widescreen, yet intimate and rewarding experience. Cox and company draw from a massive well of innocent 60s psyche-pop, krautrock, shoegaze and jangle to create trippy, beautiful soundscapes with a C-86 sort of intimacy. One can get lost in this album for days, weeks, maybe even months at a time and not get bored. Well, at least I did.

El Guincho - Alegranza

This is an album that helped warm my bones during the winter months in which it was released. There are so many sunny, inviting melodies here that it was almost impossible to be cold when this album was on. "Palmitos Park," "Antillas," and "Fata Morgana," with there seamless blend synth grooves, latin and calypso tempos and a stomping beat that's never out of place - although, "Fata Morgana" is the somber track of the 3 - form one of the most memorable opening trios of the year. "Kalise" propels things along in a joyous, canival-sque manner without ever feeling tacked on. Then there simply sublime, head-bobbing beats like "Cuando Maavilla Fui" and "Costa Paraiso" that may not quite get the feet moving as much as those previously mentioned, but they're still stellar. As almost a sonic grand finale, "Prez Lagarto" brings the thunder back to the party before "Polca Mazurca" closes things of in a "Happy Trails" sort of way. While the fact that it's all in Spanish may be considered a deterrant, if you're not worried about not understanding the words, the music is more than a sufficient reward for giving this album a shot.

Erykah Badu - New Amerykah, Part One

Erykah Badu was one of the hardest artist for me to actually give a fair shout to. I'm not going to go into why, but it was a pretty stupid reason that maybe only a few people may know or even remember. What finally did it was Worldwide Underground, with its modern, seemingly improvisational take on the 70s soul legends of Al Green, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. While there are sign posts in that album to those artists, she never once sounds derivative. With New Amerykah, she takes notes from the expansive masterpieces of Isaac Hayes, Parliament and Funkadelic. It's been a long time since a stone groove, Afro-toting funk masterpiece has been on the cards. Some have tried and come close (Outkast came close, really close), but Badu made astute choices in both style and sound, and has almost made it impossible to wait for Part Two.

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

Who'd have thunk that appalachian mountain folk filtered through indie rock sensibilites and sprinkled with Phil Spector-esque production and reverb-laden vocals would work let alone be provide one of the most inviting and haunting listening experiences that came from 2008. What's more is how full of hope everything sounds. Much like Grizzly Bear's Yellow House in 2006, this album feels like it came from another time, but Robin Pecknold comes across as stronger, more confident and with more belief in his music. The most eerily alluring thing about Fleet Foxes is their choices in album art. As with their EP, Sun Giant, they have the most oddly fitting choice of painting for the cover of this effort. While Sun Giant's cover looks like something out of Brigadoon and Lawrence of Arabia, Fleet Foxes has a religious painting which portrays either the 10 commandments or the 7 deadly sins (Thank you Mike A.). While there is a deep spirituality eminating from the music, it's in feel alone. All the hype that's surrounded this band this year may be overbearing, but you can't say that the music doesn't deserve it.

Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life

Punk and all of its factions hold on so steadfastly to traditions that they've almost reached the religious fanatic level hypocrisy. There were those at the time that reviled the ability of The Clash to look to a more expansive sonic palette, or said that The Jam weren't punk. We also shouldn't forget that everyone and their mother in the punk community criticized The Minutemen as well as Husker Du for incorporating 'outside-the-box thinking' and catchiness to their respective oeuvres. Heaven forbid those who formed a band without knowing how to play develop a sense of forward thinking, right? With The Chemistry of Common Life, the paths of pop and hardcore cross just as they did for Bob Mould and company 2 decades ago. However, Damian Abraham brings piss and vinegar by the bushel to the mix with a delivery like the cookie monster amped up on anger and red bull. Every song here from the epic "Son of the Father" to the closing title track like a siren from The Odyssey; the melodies bring you in while they pummel your eardrums with volume, speed and intensity.

The next 10 are coming soon...