06 January 2009

eternalized, objectified : the best of 2008

Better a tad late than never, that's my middle name, so here goes a recap. I think 2008 was a year of big decisions for me. Nothing earth-changing, really, but they could eventually be for me. I bit off more than I could chew, that's for sure, especially in the second half of the year, which explains my absence from this blog. But I haven't been completely out of touch with music; in fact, I think I bought more music in 2008 than the year before, which explains why I'm able to come up with a longer list of the best songs of the year (44) than the two lists prior. I could have rounded the list to 50, but some of the other songs just don't fit in the two mixes I've made below. Truth be told, they weren't easy to make. It was clear early on that I could split my list between electric and acoustic, fast and slow, bands and singer-songwriters, but actually grouping the songs that I liked in a way that made them gel together (an OCD behavior typical of mix-tape fanatics) meant that I had to violate some of the contrasts I just described. This is why you'll find a Portishead song in the same mix as Bon Iver, and why I included Kings of Leon's Sex on Fire instead of Manhattan, my favorite from their album.

Like I keep saying, this blog is about songs, but I won't hesitate naming the 10 albums I listened a lot to last year, which necessarily makes them my Best Albums of 2008. In no particular order:
  • Dear Science: TV On The Radio
  • Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend
  • Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
  • God is an Astronaut: God is an Astronaut
  • April: Sun Kil Moon
  • For Emma, Forever Ago: Bon Iver
  • Sleight of Heart: Malcolm Middleton
  • Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes
  • Limbo, Panto: Wild Beasts
  • Car Alarm: The Sea and Cake
Anyway, enjoy these songs:

Best of 2008 Mix 1
click here or on the image above to stream the entire list in one go, or click on the titles below to listen to the songs individually
  1. (The Forgotten People) : Thievery Corporation
  2. Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa : Vampire Weekend
  3. Head Honcho : DeVotchKa
  4. Youthless : Beck
  5. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! : Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
  6. The Fix : Elbow
  7. DLZ : TV on the Radio
  8. Shores Of Orion : God Is An Astronaut
  9. Rooks : Shearwater
  10. These Hands : Deerhunter
  11. The Devil's Crayon : Wild Beasts
  12. Say Back Something : Tapes 'n Tapes
  13. Sleeper Hold : No Age
  14. Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #1 : Los Campesinos!
  15. Electric Feel : MGMT
  16. Better Than This : Keane
  17. Graveyard Girl : M83
  18. Holy Cow! : Margot & The Nuclear So And So's
  19. To Be Where There's Life : Oasis
  20. Sex On Fire : Kings Of Leon
  21. One For The Cutters : The Hold Steady
  22. Daddy's Gone : Glasvegas
Some highlights:

Mix 1 of music to groove to was made with some compromises, but overall I'm very happy with it. The musical output from 2008 was weird in a good way for me in that the songs that stood out the most are very diverse. Thievery Corporation, the Washington, D.C.-based DJ duo that puts a club spin on so-called world music, released their best album since Abductions and Reconstructions from a decade ago, and I thought The Forgotten People, their own composition, made for a rousing opener.

Dig, Lazarus, Digg!!! by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is easily my most played song of 2008. What an amazing record, with an addictive hook and an interesting twist on the old narrative of the artist's struggle between purity and popularity. At least that's how I see it.

How Elbow had gone by under the radar all these years is a mystery to me. These guys have been making tremendous records since 2001. They finally won the Mercury Prize last year, but I think they're just getting started. Elbow is very versatile; their debut album, Asleep in the Back, is track-for-track half a world away from last year's The Seldom Seen Kid, but both are equally good, although the latter is obviously the more self-assured. The Fix is full of mischief.

Album buyers will find TV On The Radio's Dear Science great value for money; they'll get 11 well-crafted songs that cross genres. DLZ, whatever that means, is the most brooding song of the album, a scathing critique, the way I read it, of George W. Bush and his wars.

God is an Astronaut was a big surprise. Scottish post-rockers Mogwai released an excellent album last year in The Hawk is Howling, yet here I am posting a song by a group that obviously takes after them. God is an Astronaut's self-titled album is a revelation, every song is stirring, and Shores of Orion uncorks a pent-up indignation.

Wild Beasts was an awesome find. This new English band has its own sound. They cook up highly original guitar melodies, but their songs aren't for everyone. What could put people off is the vocals. They make liberal use of falsettos alternating with pure grit, and the combination can be grating. The best example is She Purred While I Grrd – listen to it when your tolerance hormone level is high. The Devil's Crayon is tamer, but no less ear-catching.

I don't know how many new bands released their debut and sophomore albums on the same year, but Los Campesinos did it, and they did it well. What makes this Welsh seven-piece amazing is they don't only deliver fun party songs for the artsy, but their lyrics can also be cleverly graphic and hilarious without making the songs ridiculous. Documented #1, from the second album, is such an example; the first line never fails to make me sniggle.

Did any band release a more fun record in 2008 than MGMT? These guys have had a great run, and let's hope they don't crash and burn. Oracular Spectacular is just what the album name suggests: an exciting piece of work that hints at even greater things.

Sometimes it's hard to take a band seriously because of their choice of name, but Margot and the Nuclear So & So's is a good argument for, well, not taking a band for its name. Holy Cow is seriously professional in sound and arrangement – perhaps more so than the band would have liked, since this comes from Not Animal, the version of the album their label wanted to release. (The band's preferred version, Animal, was also released, and it's equally good.)

I had stopped taking notice of Oasis since What's the Story Morning Glory?, but Dig Out Your Soul restored my faith, perhaps because the album is mature, perhaps because the Gallaghers are more mature. They've been easing their grip on the group's creative output, and To Be Where There's Life is guitarist Gem Archer's work. It could well have been George Harrison's composition sung by Lennon. It has the makings of a classic in spite of the novelty – a £12.50 toy sitar, if Noel's claim is to be believed.

Only By The Night by Kings of Leon probably gets the award for the most polarizing album of 2008. The band has grabbed the public's attention since their debut, but with each record they've veered further away from their southern roots. Some hated them for it, most loved them even more. I'm with the latter. Take the past out of the picture and you'll agree that they're making great records. Who could resist Sex on Fire?

Best of 2008 Mix 2
click here or on the image above to stream the entire list, or click on the titles below to listen to the songs individually
  1. White Winter Hymnal : Fleet Foxes
  2. Writer's Minor Holiday : Calexico
  3. Total Belief : Malcolm Middleton
  4. Twist Of The Knife : Andy Yorke
  5. I Still Care For You : Ray LaMontagne
  6. Skinny Love : Bon Iver
  7. Always : Peter Bradley Adams
  8. Moorestown : Sun Kil Moon
  9. Face Down In The Right Town : Earlimart
  10. New Schools : The Sea and Cake
  11. Speak : Dark Captain Light Captain
  12. Listen : Amos Lee
  13. Hard White Wall : Joan As Police Woman
  14. Little Black Sandals : Sia
  15. Hearts Club Band : Martha Wainwright
  16. A&E : Goldfrapp
  17. The Rip : Portishead
  18. Gódan Daginn : Sigur Rós
  19. Cape Canaveral : Conor Oberst
  20. Swallows Of San Juan : Alejandro Escovedo
  21. Cath... : Death Cab for Cutie
  22. Weightless : Nada Surf
This Mix 2 of rock for wimps has some of my favorite songs of the year. White Winter Hymnal by Fleet Foxes was a shoo-in, although this isn't my favorite from the album (that would be Ragged Wood). These guys are really good and oozing with minty freshness, even though they're very 70s Americana. I thought I'd get sick of them easily, but I'm still listening to the album. They'll probably have to find a newer sound for their future albums, though, perhaps with the help of a new producer who could funk them out a little bit. It's not that their original sound is bad, it's just that even Mentos comes in different flavors.

Calexico is back. Their Garden Ruin album from 2006 didn't really pluck my strings, but Carried to Dust has quite a number of gems, including this here's Writer's Minor Holiday, plus House of Valparaiso, Two Silver Trees and Red Blooms.

I grew fond of Malcolm Middleton very easily. This former Arab Strap lays incredibly simple but engaging acoustic arrangements in his latest solo album, Sleight of Heart. The self-deprecating Total Belief is typical of his ironic humor. "I woke late today with a puzzle in mind, I found myself hoping for the destruction of mankind, Nothing bad you know and not out of spite."

You wouldn't know Andy Yorke was Thom's younger brother just by listening to him. In Simple, his debut album as a solo artist, he got the sensitive singer-songerwriter virtuosity down pat. Twist of the Knife easily holds a candle to artists of the same ilk, like Ray LaMontagne, who subdues his normally powerful caffeine-and-nicotine vocals into whispers in I Still Care for You, or Bon Iver, aka Justin Vernon, who found himself being the alternative press's darling thanks to For Emma, Forever Ago. While Skinny Love is again an easy pick for last year's favorites, many other tracks from For Emma are more elegant, though a bit less radio-friendly. Re: Stacks is a painting in gentle brushstrokes of moving on from a failed relationship. "This is not the sound of a new man or a crispy realization, It's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away. Your love will be safe with me." The heart aches. I'll count Peter Bradley Adams in this group. His album Leavetaking is overly sentimental, but the songs – nay, serenades – are expressions in soft sighs of an honest wanting. Sun Kil Moon didn't really impress me with April, but Mark Kozelek is enshrined in this blog (see picture above) and he can do no wrong – even with The Finally, his latest album of covers, which incudes Send in the Clowns. (Really.)

Earlimart was an accidental find. I can't remember which artist I was browsing on iTunes that showed them as related, but I clicked and liked what I heard. This male-female duo makes amiable music that refuses to fade into the background, with their little elements of earcandy such as bird chirps and vocal harmonies. The Sea and Cake and Dark Captain Light Captain use the same technique, but the former slides a bit into jazz-pop and the latter alt-folk. Amos Lee straddles these genres with relative deftness. And just to wrap this up: Martha Wainwright continues to beguile, Sigur Ros finally became accessble to me, Alejandro Escovedo has a sweet soft side you want to explore, and Nada Surf are still underrated!