My Top 10 Albums of 2008 (and the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll)
I probably wouldn’t have gotten around to a Top 10 List for 2008 were it not for wanting my votes to count in the annual Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll. I’m not sure that the poll carries the same weight as it used to in our increasingly fractured musical universe, where albums are increasingly distributed digitally, without artwork, and where singles are something of a nebulous concept. But it’s still fun to contribute, hoping that I do my own small part in nudging a few artists and their music either onto or up the list.
The Voice poll for 2008 came out this week, with the news that TV On The Radio’s Dear Science bludgeoned all competition with approximate 70% more points than its nearest rivals, Vampire Weekend’s eponymous debut and Portishead’s aptly-named Third. Erykah Badu and Fleet Foxes rounded out the top 5, after which…. Well, why you don’t check the full list for yourself; it’s much fresher and more youth-oriented than in many years.
As it turns out, only one of my own choices is in that top 5 list (Vampire Weekend at #2), which is understandable: given that I spent much of 2008 listening to and writing about music from 1927-77, I had to let a lot of releases pass me by. Still, I’m glad to see I wasn’t alone in my love of new albums by old-timers Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (#9), R.E.M. (#25) and David Byrne and Brian Eno (#29), though at the same time, I find it somewhat disconcerting that I’m the only person to have found the albums by Nick Halstead, Quiet Village, Snow & Voices, and the Ghostly Swim compilation all equally poll-worthy. Are my tastes in new music that far outside the mainstream of music critics? (Note: I switched out Quiet Village for Sigur Ros in this online list, having fully acquainted myself with the latter group’s lovely new record in the interim.)
Though I can get as pissed off at collective trendsetting as the next person, I view the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll (which still includes a singles chart as well as many comments and essays) as an accurate barometer on national tastes (1500 hundred writers are invited to contribute, with several hundred doing so) and I enjoy studying it all the more now that you can access each pollster’s individual choices with just a click of the cursor. (And, even better, with another simple click, see who else voted for the same records.)
The Voice poll is considered more informed than many others not just for the number of contributors, but for the fact that writers are allowed to allocate points to each of them ten albums: a minimum of five and a maximum of 30, as long as the totals add up to 100. Sometimes, I’ve labored over that issue; this time around, I just spread the love equally. And so, in alphabetical order, here are my own Top 10 Albums of 2008:
DAVID BYRNE & BRIAN ENO – EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS WILL HAPPEN TODAY (Opal)
It’s far from the “electronic gospel” they believe it to be, and it’s an equally long way from their one and only prior collaboration, 1981’s My Life In The Bush of Ghosts, but Everything That Happens Will Happen Todayis every bit as beautiful as you’d hope for from this meeting of Renaissance Men. With Eno’s (surprisingly?) uptempo initial instrumentations effortlessly propelling the songs forward, Byrne finds his most delicate and frequently falsetto voice to deliver some especially poignant lyrics that, despite this album’s lengthy germination, serve to capture the hesitantly optimistic mood of America prior to the turn of the election. Of special note is the decision to stream the album online, and to drop the highly danceable “Strange Overtones” onto blogs everywhere. Yes, the pair can afford to self-finance their artistic indulgences, but the effort paid off as word rapidly spread of the album’s excellence.
Highlight: I find “The River” especially inspired, Byrne’s voice at its most casually affecting, and the line about how “A change is gonna come, like Sam Cooke sang in ’63,” perfectly timed.
NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – DIG!!! LAZARUS DIG!!! (Mute)
No midlife crisis for Nick Cave, who bounces back to the Bad Seeds from his/their Grinderman sojourn to make arguably his fiercest, most rambunctious and instantly exhilarating of albums in a career hardly short of such. On Dig!!!, the eight-piece Bad Seeds exude a contagious energy, regardless of tempo, that demonstrates the merits of live recording, and which is apparent from the religious analogy of the title track through the recurrent choruses of “More News from Nowhere” and “Lie Down Here (and Be My Girl).” Would that every young group fresh out of the gate could play with such spirit.
Highlight: “We Call Upon The Author,” for its repetitive chord patterns, rhythmic shifts, and highly literal lyrics – a defiant cry, delivered in a beat-poetry rant, for some of history’s finest to justify themselves. “Bukowski was a jerk! Berryman was best! He wrote like wet papier mache, went the Heming-way weirdly on wings and with maximum pain…”
NEIL HALSTEAD – OH! MIGHTY ENGINE (Brushfire)
First heard in full as featured album on WDST’s Acoustic Breakfast show, up here in the Catskills; next heard in full at my friend Chris Coco’s house in London. Perhaps the only album of the year that could find favor in such seemingly opposite environments, the second solo effort from the former Slowdive and Mojave 3 front man is a delightfully delicate and poignant set of poetic observations. Driven by Halstead’s restrained voice, his gentle guitar playing and easy way with subtle melodies, the songs are accented by pedal steel, piano and other instruments, almost none of which offer a hint of his late 80s hard-rocking psychedelic past. (That comes, instead, from lyrics like those on “Elevenses” – “Don’t offer me a line, I only want a cup of tea.”) Proof – not that I needed any – that there were always solid songwriters behind all those heavy shoegazing riffs.
Highlight: “Sometimes the Wheels.” Double-tracked vocals and what sounds like a backward electric guitar over a circular acoustic riff that rails on door-to-door bible bashers. “Knock on the door it’s early morning, man in a suit says he wants to talk to me, about the big JC, who the fuck is he?” Nobody said acoustic singers had to maintain niceties.
Artist web site
JAMES – HEY MA (Mercury)
Rarely does a reformed band release an album to match the creativity of its erstwhile heyday and Hey Ma, James’ first studio record since 2001, is probably not quite up there with the very best of their previous nine albums. But then James has always set the bar alarmingly high, and Hey Macertainly comes close to jumping it, an exceptionally strong offering from the same seven-piece that recorded 1990’s Gold Mother and 92’s Seven. Indeed, if there’s a weakness to Hey Ma, its in its faithful familiarity to that peak period, distributing its weight equally between upbeat anthems (the title track and “Whiteboy”), ballads (the beautiful finale “I Wanna Go Home”) and the kind of mid-tempo brooding beasts that casual listeners often dismiss but fans soon come to love (in this case, “Of Monsters & Heroes & Men” and “Bubbles”). Similarly, Tim Booth covers the usual subject matter: the demons of war (“Hey Ma,” clearly about the response to 9/11), a yearning for love (“Upside), and an unending quest for spiritual meaning (just about everything else). There’s no James without Booth, which is why the others broke up when he left the band in 2001, but equally, the front man is at his strongest when he lines up with these musical partners. Be it Jim Glennie’s deceptively simple bass, the soaring guitar work of Larry Gott and Saul Davies, or Andy Diagram’s greatly missed trumpet, there’s an unequivocal communion when these musicians come together.
Highlight: The subject matter of second single “Waterfall” pushes all the right buttons: fear of old age, sense of destiny, the redeeming value of nature. A mid-tempo pop song with its a riff shared by trumpet and guitar, it’s so good it manages not one but two distinct middle eights.
R.E.M. – ACCELERATE (Warner Brothers)
Following the disappointment of the occasionally uplifting mid-tempo album Reveal and the absolute disaster of the equally mid-tempo but tragically plodding Around The Sun, the three remaining members of R.E.M. wisely retreated, huddled together, and vowed to give themselves a much-needed collective kick up the arse. The result: an 11-song, 35-minute album that rivals (though does not surpass) both 1984’s Reckoning and 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant for sheer unadulterated energy and urgency. Accelerate is not a case of old men trying to recapture their youth; rather, it’s that of three middle-aged men rediscovering their mojo. Lyrically, it’s relatively familiar territory: statements of political discontent (the aggressive “Man-Sized Wreath,” the painfully restrained post-Katrina homage “Houston”), and affirmative individual action (“Living Well Is The Best Revenge,” “I’m Gonna DJ.”) Musically, there are the easy anthems (“Supernatural Superserious”), the pop songs (“Hollow Man”) and the deliberately dischordant extended riffs (“Sing for The Submarine” stretches to five minutes; fortunately, several others come in under three.). In other words, R.E.M. may not have re-invented themselves as they managed so frequently during their heyday, but they more than restored their fans’ faith.
Highlight: For all its cohesive strength, no one song demands entry into the Essential R.E.M. collection. That said, the four numbers that between them booken the album are as rapturously energetic as anything R.E.M. have managed in decades. And had any other band this past year closed out an album with the feedback spew of “Horse to Water” and “I’m Gonna DJ,” – especially that chorus line, “music will provide the light you cannot resist,” – it would have been hailed as a masterpiece.
Artist web site
iJamming! album review
iJamming! concert review number 1 and 2
SIGUR RÓS – MEÐ SUÐ Í EYRUM VIÐ SPILUM ENDALAUST (Bad Taste)
The Icelandic group’s “coming out” album, 1999’s Ágætis Byrjun, remains one of my desert island discs, but subsequent efforts () and Takk fell emphatically short in improving on the act’s distinct formula. So I was delighted to hear that Med Sud… (translated as With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly) represented a new dawn, a rejuvenation, an apparent desire to make “fun,” “fast” music. All things are relative: while Med Sud… is at times a little livelier, and certainly a less dense than some of its predecessors, singer Jon Thor Birgisson remains as angelically inscrutable as ever, and not just because he sings in Icelandic: his is a voice that makes me think of Latin choral music as it should be, an instrument rather than a conveyor of words. Indeed, there’s something eminently hymnal to this album, especially the organ accompaniment to “Festival” and the delicacy of the finale “All Alright.” And while there are moments of comparative exuberance, I still find Sigur Ros’ music to be contemplative and consolatory, and all the better for it.
Highlight: Unquestionably, the nine-minute “Ára Bátur,” from its votive first five minutes with just reverbed piano and Birgisson’s falsetto, through to its massive choir and strings build-up and its emphatically classical finale. Stunning.
SNOW & VOICES: WHAT THE BODY WAS MADE FOR (Ruby Elastic)
Second album from LA-based former solo singer Lauri Kranz, along with musical partner Jebin Bruni, producer/”architect” Darrell Thorp, and a team of musicians that includes Joey Waronker on percussion, improves substantially on their already impressive 2005 debut. Kranz’s keenly-enunciated voice can sound as frail as a feather in the wind, but the instrumentation – much of it in the form of electronic sound sculptures – toughens things up enough to lift Snow & Voices into territory partially occupied by Portishead. And while the lyrical content is frequently dark and dubious (“Hearts Were Made To Be Broken,” “Rainstorm”), the quality of the melodies and their arrangements ensures that the overall effect is one of solace and comfort. The cover of the Doors “Touch Me” is sublime.
Highlight: The finale “All I Want,” featuring only vocals and a distorted piano, and consumed lyrically by self-doubt and obsession, is a masterpiece, as fine a ballad as I heard last year. What makes it even more profound is that after several listens I still can’t tell if it’s a song about requited or unrequited love.
THE TING TINGS – WE STARTED NOTHING (Columbia)
The Ting Tings are, at heart, a pop band – a pop duo, to be precise – and given that their debut album came with a hefty amount of major label-backed, iPod-commercial-induced hype, there are reasons to suspect that it will not prove a long-term classic. But pop music serves, in part, to celebrate the moment – which means that We Started Nothing deserves its place amongst the year’s best. And, unlike that other major electro-pop duo debut of the year, MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular, the Ting Tings’ debut is emphatically strong on songs from start to finish: the deliriously danceable single “Great DJ” and the repetitive title track finale bookend at least half a dozen other equally good numbers, including the feisty girly-feminism of “That’s Not My Name” and “Shut Up and Let Me Go,” each of which can already claim a certain anthemic status in some circles. Katie White’s voice is not the strongest in the world, and Jules De Martino’s rhythms and grooves owe more to influence than inspiration, but, just did the live show I saw at Brooklyn’s Southpaw in the summer, We Started Nothing puts a massive smile on my face.
Highlight: “Shut Up and Let Me Go,” the (intended?) homage to Blondie’s “Rapture.” Everything about it seems alarmingly simple, from funk guitar riff through standard 2/4 drums to the Chic-like bass line, but the sum of those parts has a deceptive complexity, and an indisputable infectiousness.
VAMPIRE WEEKEND – VAMPIRE WEEKEND (XL)
Forget all the buzz about Vampire Weekend, ignore the blogosphere and its inevitable backlash, listen to the album a full year after its release, and see if you don’t hear it, too, as one of the freshest records of 2008. After all, Vampire Weekend came up with a style all their own – indie rock meets African jive. Then there’s the subject matter, all those booking songs about architecture (“Mansard Roof”), college infatuations (“Campus”) and life on the upper crust’s east coast holiday resort (both “Cape Cod Kwanzaa Kwanzaa” and “Walcott”). Plus, the band dynamics seem so well-formed already, from Ezra Koenig’s youthfully endearing vocals to the infectious rhythm section of Chris Baio and Christopher Tomson, and Rostam Batmanglij’s multiple contributions. Hype may be an offense, but innovation and intelligence should always be celebrated.
Highlight: “Oxford Comma,” for its pure pop instincts, its gratuitous swearing (not smart, we know, but highly effective) and subject matter. As an author who received a manuscript back from an editor with several hundred inserts of the “oxford comma” (that which is inserted, according to style, between first, second, and third words of a run-on), I have every reason to sing along.
VARIOUS ARTISTS – GHOSTLY SWIM (Ghostly International)
I like my Top 10 lists to have variety, in terms of music, acts and circumstance, and Ghostly Swim was of the most enjoyable releases of 2008, not least because it was made available, online, for free, as a partnership between the Ghostly International label and the Adult Swim network of Cartoon Network. Cynics might suggest it’s merely a label sampler, but if so, then what a label, and what a sampler. The listener is taken from the warm and fuzzy glitch-tronic music of Michna’s “Triple Chrome Dipped” through The Chap’s “Carlos Walter Wendy Stanley” (presumably a tribute to the Switched On Bach synth pioneer who had a sex change in 1972), to Daestro’s giddy electro-jig “Light Powered,” past Matthew Dear’s weird and wonderful “R+S” (a tribute to the Belgian techno label?) and then into harder territory: the retro acid of The Reflecting Skin’s “Traffickers” and the industrial chants of Kill Memory Crash’s “Hit and Run” before calming back down for the scraping strings on Milosh’s “Then It Happened” and the vocoder funk of Osborne’s “Wait A Minute.” Kudos for arranging the tracks like a great DJ set. Electronic music – as wide a genre as rock – is still alive and kicking that bass drum. And thanks to collaborations like this, it’s thriving too.
Highlight: From first listen, School of Seven Bells caught me with the delightfully double-tracked female vocals and New Order-like guitar lines of their synth-pop epic “Chains.” The act, formed by former Secret Machines guitarist Benjamin Curtis with twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, has subsequently built a buzz, though nothing I’ve heard has yet rivaled the majesty of “Chains.”