Best Music of 2008

December 28, 2008

You guys know how I totally loathe all those Top 10 lists that come out at the end of every year, somehow trying to quantify and define the quality of art that has been released to the public during the most recent arbitrarily chosen allotment of time that we call a calendar year.

That’s why I do a Top 5.

Plus, it’s a lot less work. In truth, I don’t think that much greatness is released each year in any medium. Take tonight’s topic, Music. Pitchfork always likes to do it’s Top 50 albums of each year but, I’m sorry, there just aren’t 50 decent ablums released each year. You’re lucky sometimes if there are three, unless you’re living through some of the great ages of music. For me, those would be the early eighties post-punk era (from Joy Division to 4AD) and the late eighties, early nineties shoegaze era (from MBV to Slowdive). The turn of the millennium post-rock scene would have made it too, perhaps, if Godspeed You! Black Emperor hadn’t dropped the ball with Yanqui U.X.O.

In any case, that’s why I’ll be presenting only 5 albums for you for 2008 here. Luckily enough, as it happens, they’re all absolutely exceptional and utterly deserving of this year’s highest accolades.

5. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
Mute Records

I was delighted when I heard rumblings that the new Nick Cave album would be more in the vein of Grinderman than his previous effort with the Bad Seeds, Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. I wasn’t disappointed. More raw, more raunchy to some degree, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is not filled with absolute classics but it has it’s share of keepers and those keepers are a brilliant cross-section of what has made Cave one of the most relevant musicians/performers/artists/writers of my generation. The title song fulfills the promise of the more gritty sound approach and We Call Upon The Author to Explain is the sublimely lyrical Cave at his best. I could listen the irresistable More News From Nowhere all day long in just the same way I could Straight To You. In any case, any concept album with the theme of transporting the Biblical character of Lazarus to modern New York City and transforming him into a Houdini-like escape artist is worth unearthing to take a look.

4. De La Mancha – Atlas
Crying Bob Records

I’ve never liked the term nu-gaze. The truth is there are now a lot of bands inspired by the works of the seminal artists of the british shoegaze movement, which faded away about 15 years ago now, who produce rather watery echoings of those amazing sounds. So it’s not necessarily impressive to hear someone brandishing those influences. What is impressive is someone who can take that sound and build on it with strong songwriting, instrumentation and atmosphere that does justice to the original source. Atlas does just that, with surprising deftness and resonance. Songs like Release All Light take that spiralling, epic guitar sound to the grand heights that we remember so well from those bygone days and do it with style. Meanwhile, a song like So Let’s Blow Up Our Heads And Leave evokes some of the emotional post-rock moments of Explosions in the Sky. From the epic to the artfully soundscaped, it is a thoroughly excellent work for those who have not forgotten how music can be made to soar.

3. Grouper – Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill
Type Records

This one quietly stunned me when I first heard it, in a subtle and profound way. The gorgeous, barely there melody of the opening track Disengage drew me in like a ghostly apparition wandering through some strange dreamscape, at once beautiful and fascinating. Liz Harris’ voice is wispy and alluring, one moment seeming to echo from some dark and delicate miniature enviroment, the next from a windblown, mountainous landscape. I’ve heard the sound called midnight shoegaze and seen references to 4AD, which are appropriate. However, it is not the Cocteaus or This Mortal Coil that I hear here but the earliest offerings from His Name is Alive, specifically Home is In Your Head. With that sort of intricate, beautiful mystery embedded within it, the album takes hold of you, draws you into it’s unique perspective and never lets go. A journey worth taking, for certain.

2. The Rosebuds – Life Like
Merge Records

I’ll admit it right off the top. I’m completely in love with Ivan and Kelly from The Rosebuds. Not just because of their consistently brilliant songwriting, smart, evolving sound and the lyrical romance of what they do. Not even because they’re both so damned good looking, either. No, it’s something to do with the obvious love in the couple (they’re married) which seems to permeate everything they do. At the same time, they understand the dark side, too, and bring that to their music, but always with the ever-present, underlying sense that love can make a difference, no matter how dark things get. The Rosebuds are, quite simply, the most romantic band alive right now and, possibly, the most real. So it’s no surprise that anything they do will end up amongst any favorites list I do. Life Like is no exception. Musically, it’s a diverse album, moving on from the dancy elements of Night of the Furies without getting completely organic in the process. Though there are acoustic elements, it’s the sophisticated pop sounds of the album that work best. It begins with the infectious, beat heavy title track that seems to be about a renegade wolf-man of some sort and wanders down various paths from the pensive Border Guards to the catchy synth beat of Another Way In, which would have been an utter smash on alternative radio in the mid-eighties. The two songs that close out the album, the lushly orchestrated, beautific Black Hole and a re-release of In The Backyard (already a long-time favorite of mine), may be the best songs on the album. Meaning, that when you’re done listening to this one, you feel so damn good you’re ready to listen to it again immediately. This album reminds me once again why, when I go to bed each night, I stop and pray that these kids are going to be making music with each other forever.

1. British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?
Rough Trade

If I go a bit over the top describing this album, please note that it is entirley deserving. This is a gigantic album, epic in scope and execution, powerful and anthemic while easily livingup to the “rock” moniker that resides in it’s title. There are dashes of The Skids circa Absolute Game, but with far more genuine hipness. The driving rhythms of The Chameleons are in there. Then there’s that spiralling guitar sound that made GYBE’s Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven such an epochal work, thanks to the production contributions of Mr. Efrim Manuck himself. Mix it all together with the unique, historical slant BSP have always brought to their work, including the consistent design elements, and you have yourself someting of a musical monolith. Inspiring, reaching ever heavenwards and pretty fucking hard to ignore. Now and forever, if I feel the need to “rock out”, this will be the first album I reach for. And it will not disappoint me.

Ken Trivia: What do the last two albums have in common, for me at least? Well, as it happens, I saw both British Sea Power and The Rosebuds together on the same ticket at The Paradise in Boston last May in what was the most profoundly entertaining double bill in recent memory. I must admit, despite BSP’s head standing, shoulder climbing, chaotic antics to end the show and the power of their live sound, the ‘buds managed to outshine them with a bit more energy, audience conectivity (hell, I was having a vodka and cran right next to Ivan at the bar while Jeffrey Lewis was onstage) and the absolute, pure romance of what they do. All in all a truly unforgettable evening.

‘Nuff said for now.


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