Obligatory List: Best Records of 2008December 21, 2008 at 4:48 pm | Posted in Best of, Lists, Music | 6 Comments
In Latin, they used to say, De gustibus non est disputandum. Roughly translated it means, I’m right and you’re wrong. No really, it translates to There’s no accounting for taste. Since this blog is a one person show, this list was created in a vacuum. The only debates that happened putting this list together went on inside my head, and since my tastes lean toward pop, this list reflects just that. As far as how this year compares with previous years, there wasn’t one record that jumped out at me a screamed best record of the year, I was shuffling things around up until right about now. The number of albums that were in consideration for my top 25 was more than I can remember in past years. Maybe that is because I heard more music this year, but I think it was more to do with the amount of quality records that came out. So here it is, another one of those year end lists, as valid, I guess, as any other one out there.
Click on the label links to buy any of these excellent albums. Most of the links are direct to the label where available. Or, you can always trek down to your local record shop, provided you still have one within trekking distance.
I have been a Lucksmiths fan for many years, even accused of being a super-fan, so it’s with some trepidation I endorse one of my favorite bands with record of the year. Well not much trepidation, since First Frost is overflowing with wonderful songs that sees this Australian band pushing their sound to near perfection. They seem to have mastered the minimalist guitar, bass and drums, adding small nuances to it like a little Wedding Present jangle, some good old fashioned feedback as well as more traditional strings and horns. First Frost also sees the Lucksmiths transcending their indiepop roots by incorporating native influences like Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls and the Triffids, widening their pop pallet. On paper it’s nothing drastically new, but the Lucksmiths have become such masters at painting their songs with just the right touches of sound, that they’ve gone and created a pop masterpiece. Chief songwriter Marty Donald continues to evolve and perfect his vignettes of everyday life with an uncanny ability to place common occurrences into a beautiful pop narratives that engage and beguile the listener.
2. The Wave Pictures – Instant Coffee Baby (Moshi Moshi)
Earlier this year I wrote how the Wave Pictures reminded me of the Lucksmiths all full of piss and vinegar, so it’s not much of a surprise that this is my number two record then is it? There were complaints that this Wave Pictures albums was too slick compared to the band’s previous self-released cd-r’s. Yes it’s more produced but the songs are better and more fleshed out. Really though, the production isn’t that slick. I don’t think that any amount of production is going to hide the angst in Dave Tattersall’s vocals. This batch of songs from the Wave pictures is the best they’ve put together in their long, virtually anonymous 10 year career. Even with it’s better, more expensive sound, Instant Coffee Baby is still raw, catchy and immediate…a full on hootenanny.
3. Crystal Stilts – Alight of Night (Slumberland)
Are they the new Velvets? Do they worship at the altar of Bo Diddly? Are they Felt aficionados? Do they possess all those early Flying Nun records? It’s probably all of the above as well as more too. The Crystal Stilts dark, brooding sparse pop was a perfect mix. It’s amazing to think that they have been around for five years, rarely playing out and putting out only a few sporadic singles. Essentially keeping it all a secret, up until this year. The chrysalis has emerged finally!
4. Pete and the Pirates – Little Death (Stolen)
I suppose I could go on about how Pete and the Pirates excel at short sharp angular rock as so many UK bands before them, and how this record just comes at you with great song after great song, or how the vocals are this cool combination of melody and harmony, or how the guitar parts seem to wrap themselves together as tight as a rope, or how this really should get released in the US? Nah, I’ll just tell you that this album along with the Mystery Jets, Wave Pictures and the Foals has restored my faith in the UK as a music exporter. Who needs a Blur reunion when you already have Pete and the Pirates?!
5. Scary Monster – Makeout Party at Werewolf Club (Modern Soul)
It’s hard to talk about Scary Monster without mentioning how much they sound like Small Factory. Neal Ramirez sounds like he could be Alex Kemp’s little brother, and drummer Carly Marcoux who sings too could be the little sister of Phoebe Summersquash. Scary Monster’s self released album is like finding a lost gem, harking back to that golden age of the early 90’s American indie scene. It’s heartfelt, heartbreaking and enthralling. Sadly this is the first and last Scary Monster album since Ramirez has moved from the band’s home base of Philadelphia out to Los Angeles. Too bad, I thought I had finally found a band to help me with my Small Factory Fix.
6. Robert Forster – The Evangelist (Yep Roc)
This record started out as the next Go-Betweens album, but became Robert Forster’s first solo album since 1996’s Warm Nights. It was almost not a record at all, after his partner in the Go-Betweens Grant McLennan died of a heart attack. Forster he slowly gathered the pieces of this record, and it all came together into Forester’s best solo work since his first two records Danger in the Past and Calling from a Country Phone. He took three songs that McLennan had written as well as seven of his own. On he final Go-Betweens album Oceans Apart, I thought Forster was firing on all cylinders writing some of the best songs of his career and this record continues his hot streak.
7. Kelley Stoltz – Circular Sounds (Sub Pop)
Kelley Stoltz is a national treasure that is not treasured. Sure he gets a song used in a Volvo commercial here and a Marriot commercial there, but is it only marketing hipsters for big multinationals that recognize his pop genius. If anyone has taken Brian Wilson’s mantra of writing tiny teenage symphonies to god, surely it is Stoltz. With such great attention to sound detail that is part psychedelic, part 60’s California, these songs are like little time capsules. Even more astounding is the fact that Stoltz recorded and played almost everything on the record. Circular Sounds sounds could be his best record yet.
Guitars swirl like winter winds whipping at your face and Elin Grimstad’s icy-cold voice sends shivers down your spine. You might easily guess that Je Suis Animal are from a northern town, Oslo, Norway to be exact. Self-Taught Magic from a Book is their first album, but it sounds so knowing and confident, merging influences like Nico, Jefferson Airplane, Stereolab, Broadcast and Young Marble Giants and makeing an icy cool sound that jangles, drones, and hypnotizes.
9. Rosebuds – Life Like (Merge)
The Rosebuds are back, after the sidestep of their last album Night of the Furies, with a record that is more akin to their first two. Some who like the more synth/dancy Furies may be disappointed, but not me. Their surf-y, southern gothic feel is back and for me, it’s what made the Rosebuds special in the first place. What also makes this record special is that they seem to have perfectly incorporated the Kelly Crisp’s keyboards with Ivan Howard’s guitar so that they perfectly color the music instead of taking it over giving the record has a Talk Talk feel.
10. Silver Jews – Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (Drag City)
I must admit I was not a huge Silver Jews fan until seeing them live this year, I have my friend Mike to thank for that. The best thing about live music is how it can totally change your perception of a band, and make you a true fan. The Silver Jews rarely tour, so it’s not like I’d had many chances prior to this year to be converted. If you talk to true Jews fans they’ll tell you Lookout Mountain isn’t their best album, but I would argue that and I would have a lot of ammunition to back it up with songs like songs What Is Not But Could Be If, Strange Victory, Suffering Jukebox, SanFrancisco BC, and Party Barge to name nearly half the songs on the album. David Berman probably writes great lyrics in his sleep, and lyrically Lookout Mountain is no letdown, and his band is more than up to the standards he sets. It’s wall to wall quality and as good a Silver Jews album as there has ever been.
11. Deerhunter – Microcastle/Weird Era Continued (Kranky)
This record reminds me of my favorite Lilys album, Ecsame the Photon Band. The Lilys moved on from their dreampop classic to 60’s mod after Ecsame, whereas Deerhunter seem to be perfecting their dreampop visions. Microcastle is Deerhunter at their most pop and gentle yet. The songs drift in and out, with some being nothing more than dream-like interludes, while others blast from the stereo with full formed pop hooks and waves of melodic but warped and distorted guitar. A beautiful record and Deerhunter’s best yet.
12. Mystery Jets – Twenty One (sixsevenine)
This album was something of a surprise considering the prog rock mess their debut was. Apparently the band went through a rethink, or just decided to write pop songs instead of difficult ones. You’ve gotta admire a band that can apparently just turn it on, and the Mystery Jets did just that giving us an album that is packed quite tightly with hooks. With a bit of help from producer du jour Erol Alkan the band deliver in spades with the Laura Marling duet Young Love and the General Public inspired Two Doors Down. Twenty One is like an 80’s record that you somehow never heard. Let’s hope that they don’t rethink things again, because they’re certainly on the right track here.
13. Juana Molina – Un Dia (Domino)
Of Juana Molina’s five albums, this is easily my favorite. I’ve always liked one or two songs on each of her previous records, but this is the first one that carries me through all the way to the end. Maybe it’s because it’s only eight songs in length, or maybe it’s because she has incorporated a more groove oriented feel to a lot of the songs. Rhythm takes more of a front seat on Un Dia with the percussion sounding much more organic than on previous records. The sounds she’s creating in her songs are not too far away from what Deerhunter is doing, only Molina’s tools of choice are her voice, acoustic guitar and found sounds so she often gets lumped into the World Music Category. Call it whatever you want, it’s a truly unique sound and a damn good record.
14. Muslims – Muslims (1928)
This might be considered an ep, but 10 songs on the CD that accompanied the bullet riddled vinyl counts as an album in my book. Lately the Muslims have been getting more press for changing their name to the Soft Pack than how much they rock. And they do rock, with a raw abandon that may sound derivative to some but when it’s this infectious and good who cares. The Muslims know their way around a garage, but they also know their way around a good surf guitar lick too and the combination is a beauty. This record has the sound of a demo, employing little polish, but that’s the point, it’s raw, ravaged, rock n’ roll. Get the record now and you can say you knew them when they called themselves the Muslims.
15. Ponies In the Surf – See You Happy (Darla)
This summer I did a series of posts where I recreated Spinart’s One Last Kiss compilation with bands from today, Ponies in the Surf were my choice for Suddenly Tammy. Not because they sound like Suddenly Tammy, but because they sound like nobody else around, yet what they do could be considered indie pop. This brother-sister duo who are from Boston by way of Columbia have created a low key album full of sunny bossa-nova-ish songs that incorporate elements of Henri Mancini, Sarah Records and the Monochrome Set.
16. Sloan – Parallel Play (Yep Roc)
Last year’s Never Hear the End of It, though a return to form, was a little overwhelming with its 30 songs. Parallel Play keeps the quality but is a much more manageable 13 songs. Each member contributes his fair share with drummer Andrew Scott stealing a bit of the thunder on this album with the adrenaline filled emergency 911 and the Dylanesque Down in the Basement. Scott isn’t the only guy pulling his weight though, Jay Ferguson’s Cheap Champaign is a stunner, Chris Murphy provides the hit single with Not a Kid Anymore, and Patrick Pentland’s Burn for It should be pumping out of every teenager’s car around the country. It’s a team effort and, even though, like the title indicates, the band pretty much contribute their fully fleshed out songs with little input from each other. Quite a feat considering the cohesiveness of this album and their amazing live show.
Back in February I was told by my friend Bill that I would be making a mistake if I didn’t go see the Foals free gig they were doing here in Seattle as a teaser for their upcoming record for Sub Pop. That night I became a Foals fan. A few months later the Foals cemented their status as one of my favorite bands with a mad-manic performance at the Sub Pop 20th anniversary fest at Marymoore. The sound is centered around the intricate and precise syncopation of guitars, bass and drums all played at a furious pace. You could list a myriad of post punk influences that their Antidotes recalls, but they warp them into to something all their own. I can’t wait to see what the next album brings.
Who knew that Bats guitarist Kaye Woodward was holding back so many great songs, and why did it take so many years for her to decide to record them? Minisnap pretty much is the Bats minus Robert Scott, and Bounce Around is as good as any Bats album and features Woodward’s sweet knowing voice that you only get teased with on Bats albums. Woodward is in charge of things on this jangly, energetic album, but you can tell that she and Robert Scott think a lot alike when it comes to writing and recording songs. A nice surprise. I now will be expecting great things from both the Bats and Minisnap in the future.
Bay area band the Nodzzz not only released one killer single (see my singles of the year), but they also managed an album that is pretty darn good itself. I guess you can call it an album, it’s a 12″ record with ten songs on it, but it only clocks in at around 15 minutes and plays at 45 RPM. The songs are short, ramshackle, jangly odes to karaoke, getting high, living in the city and wishing they were older. Like a lot of bands this year, the garage and the Clean seem to be a points of reference, but where so many others bury their songs beneath layers of noise, Nodzzz put it right out in front of your very eyes. It jangles, it shambles and it’s over before you know it, leaving you wanting more, just like all great albums do.
20. Wire – Object 47 (Pink Flag)
I was so surprised to read so many reviews proclaiming that this album was not up to Wire’s lofty standards set forward by their previous work. I think that the reason may be that everyone thinks that the only good records that Wire ever made were their first three. Well, those people have obviously never heard the Ideal Copy or a Bell is a Cup. Wire mark II were a different beast than mark I relying almost exclusively on synthesizers, but still keeping the urgency. Object 47 is rooted in the second incarnation of Wire more than the first incarnation. It’s more straightforward pop yet it still has a, um wire-y edge, albeit from 60 year old men, making it all the more amazing.
21. Ida Maria – Fortress Around Your Heart (RCA)
The internet is like a two headed snake, you download some demos from Ida Maria that you fall in love with. The songs are in a raw form but her energy and wild abandon make them into shiny golden beauties. A few months later you get the album with the same songs except they have been ‘produced’ and now they don’t seem as good, the edges have been rounded. Now if I never would have heard the demos in the first place I would love this album much more than I do. This may not sounding like a ringing endorsement, but these songs are fundamentally great, oh I envy you virgin listener, here is one killer record with so many amazing songs on it you’ll think it’s a greatest hits.
22. Vivian Girls – Vivian Girls (In the Red)
Unfortunately the Vivian Girls non-musical life seems to get more attention with them spouting off vapid, inane stuff on a regular basis, but since there are no interviews on this record only song after song of noisy, catchy, moody bliss. This record brought C-86 aficionados out of the closet and got a lot of people quite excited and for good reason, no record has sounded like this in nearly 15 years. Shop Assistants, Shangri-La’s, Primitives, Flatmates, Talula Gosh, Black Tambourine, Lush, Darling Buds, Heartthrobs, Tiger Trap, pick your point of reference, it doesn’t really matter, the Vivia Girls made a record that may be derivative, but it has a pop intuitiveness that you just don’t pick up from listening to the right records.
23. Thee Oh Sees – The Master’s Bedroom Is Worth Spending A Night In (Tomlab)
Is it just me, or are there a ton of noise-rock and garage-rock bands around at the moment. A lot of them show promise, but John Dwyer’s Thee Oh Sees are delivering now. The Master’s Bedroom is steeped in a garage rock and rockabilly heritage, with the guitars pushing the needles into the red. Thee Oh Sees make a racket that would surely make your mother run for the priests if she caught you listening to this. Th e album pushes the treble to the hilt, but it can’t mask the tenuous dynamics of Dwyer dueting with Brigid Dawson, sounding like banshees with reverb. Dwyer and Dawson trade lines with abandon, fighting to make themselves heard over the cacophonous guitars. Pure, unadulterated rock and roll.
24. Moscow Olympics – Cut the World (Lavender)
This is another one of those records where I’m not sure if it’s an album or an ep, but who cares when it’s got seven songs that put you into some lost dreampop world from which you never want to return. It’s downright otherworldly, with guitars sounding off like morning bells and then cascading down like snowflakes. Being from the Philippines, I doubt they see many snow flakes but they certainly know how to make music that is the perfect soundtrack to walking across snowy fields, a wonderfull album (ep?). Whatever it is, it ends way too soon.
25. Lightspeed Champion – Falling Off the Lavendar Bridge (Domino)
There was absolutely no indication from the unimpressive Test Icicles that Dev Hynes’ solo persona Lightspeed Champion would be anything of interest. Well how wrong I was (and many others for that matter). The English Hynes recorded this record with Saddle Creek house producer Mike Mogis in Nebraska. The record has such a warm comforting sound employing elements of country, chamber pop, folk, and just plain old pop and Hynes soothing slightly emo voice accompanied by Emmy the Great. I think you could classify this record as a sleeper, but it’s well worth checking out, don’t let the Dev holding a rabbit on the cover scare you.