Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Year In Music, 2008. Part I.

Welcome to my review of what I believe to be a pretty strong year for music. This didn't always seem as though it would be the case; the first few months were mostly creatively arid, but 2008 salvaged itself with a great latter-half of the calendar year. Personally speaking, I'm finding it to be an outright thrilling time to be a music geek; my tastes continue to grow more eclectic, and the broad expansion of read-write culture that digital technology has enabled allows us to explore and engage with artists or fellow fans in a manner unimaginable even five years ago.

I've decided to break my year-end synopsis into two posts, mostly for the sake of length and readibility. Part I is centered around my list of the top songs of the year; also included is some assorted music-related stuff that doesn't really fit anywhere else (disappointments, trends, rants, pleasant surprises, etc). Part II, which is to be posted over the next few days, features my top 25 records of the year, plus the top compiliations, reissues, live shows, and the always-entertaining worst records of the year. Come on, who doesn't love a good hatchet job?

Anyway, I want to get the negative stuff out of the way first, so am starting with a roll-call of 2008 records that didn't live up to expectations; in shorthand, the biggest disappointments. Before starting, I just want to stress that these aren't necessarily bad records, but merely tepid efforts from artists who are capable of doing better.

Man Man - Rabbit Habits: The weirdness on their first seemed enlightened and inspired; the strained grasps at oddity on this sophomore release are calculated and uninteresting.

Jonathan Richman - Because Her Beauty Is Raw And Wild: It has it's endearingly whimsical moments, but there's an undercurrent of tiresome preachiness, which seems anathema to the Richman ethos.

Crooked Fingers - Forfeit-Fortune: Not bad, but more ingredients are added than Eric Bachmann's previous post-Archers outings, which gives the album a bit of a too-many-cooks feel. On the whole, it doesn't measure up.

Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers: no, this isn't creepy at all.

Islands - Arm's Way: I loved their first record, and really wanted to like this. It was spun about 10-12 times before I ultimately gave up; there isn't a single track that sticks to the ribs. Still, what with the great debut and a quality Unicorns catalogue, they deserve a mulligan.

Opeth - Watershed: This wasn't enjoyable at all; the slower moments sounded like something from the 604 Records stable. Remember what I said at the commencement of this category that these weren't necessarily terrible records? Go ahead and waive that caveat for this one.

The Breeders - Mountain Battles: I've never been a huge Breeders enthusiast, to be honest, but this may be their most boring yet. I'm a major Pixies fan who firmly contends that Kim Deal rules, but this project should be put out to pasture; they haven't really done anything memorable since 'Cannonball.'

Beach House - Devotion: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. This is exactly the type of rounded-edged 'indie' that sneers at the adventurism of predecessors from a less-charitable distributive age.

Del The Funky Homosapien - Eleventh Hour: The fact that he's probably my all-time favourite MC while never releasing a solo record that I'd grade over a middling C-plus (Deltron 3030 is an A-plus album, but that was done with Automator, so it doesn't count) bespeaks the quality of his extracurricular projects and live presence. I was excited to hear that he'd signed to Def Jux, and this is a servicable effort, but, as per usual, it's mostly frustratingly spotty.

From here, we delve deeper into the thicket of crumminess.

Worst Song Of The Year: My Morning Jacket's 'Highly Suspicious.' I can say without hyperbole that this is one of the most offputting songs of the decade, and I'll never look at the group in the same way again. Here's the scoop: MMJ, a collective of bearlike, hairy Southern rustics who have built a career upon releasing albums of smart, experimental Americana (2001's At Dawn, in particular, is actually a really great record) decided to cook up a Purple Rain-era Prince pastiche. Amazingly, it's even worse than it sounds on paper; the dichotomy between lead singer Jim James' burly, blue-collar appearance and the nuts-in-a-vice falsetto he employs here is truly jarring. The nadir comes partway through when the aforementioned singer begins giggling coquettishly. I'm sorry, but I really can't do it justice. Summary: I'd rather be beaten with a table leg than hear this ever again.

Phew, I'm glad that stuff is out of the way. Now, in the parlance of Dave Dameshek's Jerk List, it's time to bring a little sugar to the proceedings. First off, here are a list of the year's pleasant surprises.

Paul Weller - 22 Dreams: 'In The City' aside, I've always found The Jam to be little more than plodding dadrock, plus Paul Weller's solo career has been a snooze-inducing streak of piss. I'm not sure how exactly it even ended up in my Winamp, given his track record, but this is a legitimately interesting, ambitious album.

Wolf Parade - At Mount Zoomer: I didn't mind their first record, but was obviously drinking different Kool-Aid than the majority of the slavering music press, who rushed to not only crown Apologies To The Crown Mary 2005's album of the year , but essentially elevated it to the pantheon of indie rock classics. I couldn't disagree more - one only needs to listen to the Swan Lake record to hear that Spencer Krug doesn't yet measure up to a Carey Mercer or Dan Bejar in terms of songwriting heft - but this sophomore effort was much more satisfying.

Conor Oberst - s/t: I'm allergic to the fundamentals of emo, but have always loved Oberst's Bright Eyes; despite the media attention they've received, I think their catalog will be viewed as surprisingly strong in ten or twenty years. That said, Cassadega was the first Bright Eyes record that didn't really do anything for me at all, thus I figured the Nebraskan pretty-boy had reached his artistic ceiling and was settling in for a career denouement of diminishing returns. Boy, he sure showed me - this record's a delight.

Chad VanGaalen - Soft Airplane: Confession: I've often found CVG's records trying and overcooked, plus his live show bored the ever-loving bejesus out of me (especially when the excellent two-fer of The Doers and Fond Of Tigers opened said gig and served to set the bar ridiculously high). This is a step in the right direction, though; it's more judiciously edited and coherent than his previous work while still maintaining an experimental bent.

Crystal Castles - s/t: In a textbook example of judging a book by it's cover, I ignored this record for ages because the duo came off as buffoonish hipsters in the press. After finally giving it a chance, I felt shame; don't get me wrong, I still think they're buffoonish hipsters, but they've made an icy, intriguingly varied hum-dinger of an electro record.

This next list are also pleasant surprises, but fall under the 'old warhorse' category.

Stephen Malkmus - Face The Truth: Obviously it doesn't measure up to Pavement, but he's at least made a solo record comparible to the stellar Pig Lib.

Local H - 12 Angry Months: I've always enjoyed the caustic Scott Lucas; back when I was in high-school, he made bullying jocks pogo to a song insulting their entire culture simply due to the inclusion of a naughty word. Always too clever and subversive to make it big, yet with enough polish on their records to alienate the indie crowd, Local H has always been the above-average tweener of post-Nirvana rock (think Ben Gordon, basketball fans), and this concept record spanning 12 months following the end of a relationship is alternately splenetic, heartbreaking, and hilarious.

REM - Accelerate: A nice, taut rock record from one of my early favourite bands. The last couple of REM releases have been pretty ghastly (though I'd take a bullet for Up, which most unfairly lump in with the remainder of the subpar post-Berry output), but the punchy songs here make for a nice live experience.

Portishead - Third: I always came down on the Massive Attack side of the fence during the great trip-hop debate of the late nineties, but the music of this bunch has aged much better. Moreover, this comeback effort following a lengthy hiatus is a classy augmentation of their sound.

Here are a few loose-end categories.

Biggest journalistic starfucker: For the fourteenth straight year, take a bow, Rob Sheffield. He used to be solely confined to the already wretched Rolling Stone, but seems to have taken his sycophantic junk down the freelance path: his Blender cover piece on Katy Perry was a fawning disgrace. I'd almost admire his plucky attempts to render such obviously two-dimensional figures in IMAX, if only they ever actually succeeded.

Tangent: when the NHL's Lady Byng trophy was instituted back in the late 1920s for gentlemanly play, it was won by New York Rangers forward Frank Boucher seven of the first eight years. As a sort of tribute, the NHL decided to just give the trophy to Boucher following the seventh win, and the Byngs donated a new award to the league. That's essentially the point we're at with Rob Sheffield and the starfucker award: just keep the thing.

I'll bet you didn't expect to see Frank Boucher and Man Man come up in the same post. That makes two of us.

Most overrated claim that's gained a depressing amount of traction: Death of the full-length album in the age of the iPod. Records haven't changed for the worse, and fantastic ones continue to be churned out by the dozens each year. To the leading proponants of this theory, no offense, but your attention span probably just sucks. I realize that some listeners are just more singles-oriented by nature, which is fine, but the debate is being being portrayed as a zero-sum-game. The entire theory points directly to consumerist, gadget-driven overstimulation, which is what I find really annoying.

Most frustrating record: L'il Wayne's Tha Carter III. Rather than having the chance to listen through the entire record in one sitting, I first heard this in three chunks upon purchase. At that point, I figured it was headed straight for the year's best list, but that prospect dimmed with each ensuing spin. There are a lot of incredible tracks on this disc ('Lollipop' excepted, which is retarded), and Weezy's rhymes are as wonderfully out-to-lunch as I expected, but Jim DeRogatis hit it on the head when he noted that there's a bit of a mixtape quality to this record. I love tearing it up for parts, but find it difficult to make through in a single sitting.

Best Record of 2007 (in hindsight): With apologies to last year's winner, Parts & Labor's Mapmaker, it has to be Kanye's Graduation. Even the hookiest tracks, which by design can be prone to losing their flavour like a piece of gum, are finding new ways to endear themselves to me, and there's hardly any fat. The only thing keeping it from being considered one of my top-five hip-hop albums of all time is the unfortunate presence of Mos Def on the lunkheaded 'Drunk And Hot Girls.' The unwavering critical appreciation of Mos Def has always really bothered me, and, going by his cameos on other records, I've come to the conclusion that he pretty much ruins everything. Here's a game you can play at home: wrecking historically venerated feel-good events through insertion of Mos Def guest spots. I'll get things kicked off.

[SCENE 1: Charlie Brown arriving to find his famously puny Christmas tree decorated beautifully by the neighbourhood kids]

Lucy: Charlie Brown is a blockhead, but he did get a nice tree.

*group starts humming 'Hark, The Herald Angels Sing'*

Charlie Brown: What's going on here?

*pause while he incredulously inspects tree*


Mos Def: She spot me like paparazzi / shot me a glance / in that catwoman stance with the fat booty pants, hot damn!

*Christmas tree bursts into flames*

[SCENE 2: The moon landing]

Neil Armstrong: One small step for giant leap for mankind.

Mos Def: Up top is you getting up with it? / Dirty dirty is you getting cronk with it?

*entire galaxy is sucked into a black hole*

See, it's hardly brain surgery. Create your own.

Mos Def enjoying his new hobby, zeppelin pilotry.

Best Record Store: Vancouver's own Red Cat Records. Unpretentious staff, great vinyl selection, and close to my house; what's not to like? I still can't believe it took me so long to discover this place. Audiopile and Zulu are strong runners-up.

Anyway, without further ado, here's my list of 2008's top songs. I've left the tracks unranked, with the exception of awarding a gold, silver, and bronze for the three best. Admittedly, the medal-based reward system may not be entirely kosher at the moment, as it makes myself and probably any other Vancouverite reading this think of white-elephant venue construction, general cost overruns, and insufferably smarmy, reptilian VANOC CEO John Furlong. Sorry, there's no hyperlinking to sound clips, but I'm sure these can be tracked down relatively easily over the interweb. Via purely legal channels, of course. Wink.

Silver Jews - Strange Victory, Strange Defeat: The reviews for this album were tepid, but David Berman's return can be filed under 'triumphant' for this cryptically astute nugget alone. The chorus is bigger than one usually finds on Joos tracks, but, as per usual, the lyrics steal the show.

Robert Pollard - Gratification To Concrete: The one where everyone's favourite beer-swilling, hyper-prolific former elementary school teacher comes up with his best track since 'I'll Replace You With Machines' five years ago.

Robert Pollard wrote thirty-two songs in the time it took to read this caption.

Ill Bill - My Uncle: The Non Phixion alumnus wrings a chilling anti-drug screed from familial experiences with heroin addiction. Commencing with a creepy sample of Bill's smack-ravaged uncle, what could have been a preachy no-mark instead resonates with a charged, Dead Prez-esque willingness to flout hip-hop convention.

Nas - Sly Fox: Many critics wrote this song off for it's hunting-sheep-with-a-bazooka targeting of Fox News, but the fact that cable's number-one coven for bloviating fucktards is an easy target shouldn't detract from the brutal elegance of the lyrics. The reply to a feud instigated by race-baiting alpha figure Bill O'Reilly, Nasir Jones knocks Papa Bear six ways from Inside Edition with this tour-de-force.

Bill O'Reilly came a disappointing third in the sack-race at the Fox News summer picnic, but later redeemed himself with a first-place harrumph-off finish.

Sun Kil Moon - Tonight The Sky: The SKM album narrowly missed my top 25, and it's highlight is this sprawling road-tripper, replete with irresistable chorus. Mark Kozelek's own 'Cowgirl In The Sand.'

Slow Down Tallahassee - Never Be Lonely Again: I'm quite possibly biased, as both my twin brother and arch-nemesis were both once members of this Sheffieldian unit, plus the primary songwriter bought me numerous beers and complimented hockey when I was visiting England (he was pretty hammered at the time, I think), but that doesn't change the fact that this summery track has glorious hooks aplenty.

Terrence Dixon - Unit: Dixon is one of my favourite discoveries of the year, even though he's been kicking around for ages (I'm late to the party); he released three EPs this year, and this gem from Point Of View best shows off his Detroit-leaning techno.

Parts & Labor - Nowhere's Nigh: The Brooklyn-based Record Of The Year emeriti tone down the kitchen-sink element and emerge with an anthemic-yet-warped nugget.

The Bug - Fuckaz (featuring Spaceape): In this grumpy slice from an already dyspeptic album, an ornery Spaceape tees off on greed, materialism, self-absorption, and your old man (okay, that last one's made up), amongst other things.

White Lung - Therapy: Some local content, this track is probably the finest sautering of seminal forbears (elements of Sonic Youth's 'Trilogy', Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, etc) and contemporary jagged noise energies that graced my stereo in '08.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Out Of Reaches: The song starts off in a fairly average manner, but works it's way into an endearingly widdle-y Malkmusian guitar solo around the three-minute mark. By the way, when the term 'widdle-y' works it's way into a music review, it's fairly obvious that we're not exactly dealing with Robert Christgau or Peter Guralnick here.

Stephen Malkmus is off to the deli for his usual pastrami on wry. Har har! Slide whistle.

Cloud Cult - Love You All: Far and away the best track from an otherwise unremarkable album, this song starts with isolated, vocodered singing before gradually building into a gloriously lush climax. The brand of twee indie rock Cloud Cult trades in has mostly bored me shitless over the past few years, but this is a cut above. Beautiful.

Bvdub - It Could Have Been So Beautiful: Cinematic ambient dub really doesn't get much better than this exercise in lush, sweeping bob-and-weave. It was hard picking one song from his I Never Cried A Tear EP, as every track was stunningly accomplished.

TOBACCO (feat Aesop Rock) - Dirt: Combine Black Moth Super Rainbow's woozy, seasick psych-pop with Aesop's flow (crazily enough, he seems to be getting even better with age) and you have the best of both worlds.

Dr Dooom - R.I.P. Dr Octagon: Kool Keith, hip-hop's last word on batshit craziness, resurrects one of his underrated personas to re-murder Dr Octagon. By the way, Octagon is also a Keith creation. The villainous Dooom (Keith) had already previously knocked off Octagon (Keith) back in the 1990s, but after Octagon (Keith) rose from the grave earlier this decade, Dooom (Keith) arrived back on the scene to 'beat him (Keith) to death with rocks'. Follow? In other news, Kool Keith is a fucking lunatic. Great line about 'the critics giving him (Octagon) mouth-to-mouth' while in his death throes the first time around.

Kool Keith with an Elvis wig glued to his skull. No wisecrack required.

Skelm - 9 Ball: With the possible exclusion of the aforementioned Spaceape-helmed Bug track, this is probably my favourite dubstep cut of the year. Nearly ten minutes of crepuscular shiftiness, and it's even better on headphones.

T.I. - No Matter What: This is one of the biggest pop songs I heard this year; meat-and-potatoes thumping beats, a five-alarm synth-line, and a chorus built for arenas (ironically enough, T.I. couldn't actually go to said arenas due to his being under house-arrest, but that's neither here nor there). The obvious pick is the ubiquitous 'Live Your Life,' which is also great, but Rihanna's taking part in the 'ayyyayyyayyys' is hugely unbecoming. She sounds like a dude; it reminds me of Daphne Zuniga singing 'Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen' while imprisioned in Spaceballs.

T.I.'s hat nearly pulled off the great escape, but eventually ended up back in the cooler.

Alejandro Escovedo - Swallows Of San Juan: One of my favourite songwriters of the past twenty years released a sort of concept record this year ruminating on his fascinating career, from his time hanging out with Sid Vicious in NYC to the present-day. Some of the songs are too beholden to a rockist template for me, but it makes for a really fun listen on the whole; the best song, though, 'Swallows Of San Juan' is more classic-nineties Escovedo, which I feel is his best phase.

And, without further ado, here are my favourite three songs of the year.


M83 - We Own The Sky: The track closest in spirit to the captivating rococo of 2005 predecessor Until The Dawn Heals Us (somewhat-interesting fact: Jared's '05 Record of the Year), this French unit's exercise in candy-coated ethereality is absolutely spectacular.

Anthony Gonzalez of M83: 'My kids need wine.'


Adem - To Cure A Weakling Chile (Boy Girl Song): Taken from a record of covers released by the less-famous half of Fridge, this staggeringly ambitious spinning of an Aphex Twin track into breathy, pastoral folk (!) is nothing short of a marvel. Just absolutely stunning, and I encourage anyone to track this one down - it's appeal should be fairly universal, unlike the often-difficult source material.

Adem: for my next trick, I'll convert Windowlicker into spoken-word.


Subtle - Day Dangerous: The full-length was a bit of a disappointment, but Anticon's favourite supergroup (I don't tag the mighty cLOUDDEAD with the same designation, as they're representing a sort of ex post facto supergroupism) comes up with the left-field pop song of the year. The soundtrack to my summer, it still pops into my head each time I drive near Jericho Beach.

Subtle. Didn't the guy in the back make Super Size Me?

Anyway, the top full-length albums (as well as top compiliations / reissues and the year's worst records) are on deck. Unlike this wisecrack-laden mess, I'll try to maintain some semblence of reverence in that piece. Well, except for the 'worst records' part. If you made it this far, please feel free to post some of your favourite songs from 2008 in the 'Comment' section below. Cheers!

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