Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Year In Music, 2008. Part II.

Alright, here are my top records. Disclaimer: while a voracious listener, I'm not a music writer, and bear in mind that this is meant as gushing, not criticism, plus it was a bit of a rush-job. I'm a busy man *. To put it another way, if competent music writing is a well-behaved, impeccably groomed showdog, this is a gamboling, drooly-jowled, three-legged mutt going in for the crotch-sniff. I'm not a chin-stroker, but a forehead-slapper. I started linking to the MySpace pages on Wednesday night, kicked off the writing itself around 9 PM tonight (after much procrastination: it's the 17th of January, for god's sake, which is why not everyone has synopses), and am publishing a few hours later; yeah, I'm officially losing interest in the blog already.

* I'm actually not that busy, in the grand scheme of things.

Now that I've set the bar suitably low, here we go.

Oh, if you're so inclined, as alluded to above, the names in the top records list are all clickable and will open the artist's respective MySpace page, which include sound-clips and songs. Technology is my homeboy.

25) Mogwai - The Hawk Is Howling

I freely admit that their being included in the top 25 has the faintest whiff of lifetime-achievement to it, but they also have to contend with the tyranny of high expectations; even an effort that's considered mediocre by Mogwai's standards could easily be considered a lesser band's career highlight. The mere presence of 'The Sun Smells Too Loud' guarantees a spot on this list, plus the group re-released their seminal Young Team debut this year, which is one of he finest records of the nineties - bonus points for that.

24) Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 - Many Things

Fela's youngest follows in his late father's formidable footsteps and releases a straight-up Afrobeat record thankfully unadorned with hip-hop cameos, contemporary electronics, or other obtrusively 'modern' measures meant to generate some sort of artificial crossover that have popped up within the genre over the past decade. Even better, he brings back the Egypt 80 band, who backed Fela on my favourite record of his, 1989's underrated Beasts Of No Nation.

23) Atlas Sound - Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel

Deerhunter hogs most of the press (and they're great as well), but Bradford Cox's other project also micro-employs a myriad of indie-influences. The difference is that, while Deerhunter zigs into (admittedly offbeat) song structures, Atlas Sound zags expansively and ambiently.

22) Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

This sagacious warhorse, and author of the most depressing novel I've ever read, has spent the past thirty years plumbing the dank cellar of the human condition and personally conquering the potentially tragic (heroin addiction, mullet flirtation). What's emerged is a songwriter more willing to trade in levity and, dare I say it, fun.

21) Young Jeezy - The Recession

20) Cursed - III (The Architects Of Troubled Sleep)

19) Nomo - Ghost Rock

18) You May Die In The Desert & Gifts From Enola - Harmonic Motion Vol. 1

17) Times New Viking - Rip It Off

Low-fi haters need not apply, but for the sane amongst us, TNV tear off sixteen bratty, fuzzed-out songs in a half-hour. This album sounds like it cost about ten bucks to make, but impeccable pop-hooks are clearly audible beneath the persistent hiss. Glorious.

16) The Bug - London Zoo

Kevin Martin goes dubstep, and the results are stunning. Tracks that would rock a club, political ruminations, and general kvetching. This is a gem.

15) Parts & Labor - Receivers

It's not up to the lofty standard of last year's gloriously spastic Mapmaker, which has all the earmarks of a career-definer, but the NYC lads show that reining in their loose ends hardly crush out adventurism. The best warped guitar pop of '08.

14) Li Jianhong - San Sheng Shi

One of the year's most pleasant discoveries, Jianhong is a Chinese avant-garde noise artist who makes records using only his guitar. On paper, this is comparable to someone like Orthrelm alum Mick Barr, but there are significant differences in their respective sounds. While Barr is more of a pure shredder, Jianhong layers and sprawls his compositions in a drawn-out manner, birthing simultaneously intense and contemplative soundscapes. This effort, a 51-minute monster released as a single song, ripped my face off.

13) TOBACCO - Fucked Up Friends

12) Russian Circles - Station

11) T.I. - Paper Trail

10) Nico Muhly - Mothertongue

No record this year was more outright compelling: it's variously brilliant, pretentious, adventurous, annoying, precocious, and bold, but the bottom line is that I haven't been able to stop coming back. In a quick capsule, Muhly is a twentysomething compositional wunderkid who was born and raised in New York City, and has worked with Philip Glass and Bjork in the past. This album is divided into three compositions, each encompassing several movements. Upon hearing the first, 'Mothertongue,' I nearly threw a shoe at my stereo: it opens with a mezzo-soprano, which I naturally have an aversion to, singing out random addresses over strings, before being joined by other voices and having the strings fade out to be replaced by the sound of a shower and spare piano. It grates, and I still need to be in the mood for it.

Where this album weakened my knees, though, is on the third piece, The Only Tune. A reworking of an old English murder ballad, it alternately features organ, walls of feedback, and multi-tracked vocals, and brazenly shapeshifts while still maintaining the plot. While not a 'song,' per se, this composition is easily the best fifteen minutes of music released in 2008.

09) Fleet Foxes - s/t

Reams of ink have already been spilled on this record, so I'm not really sure if I can add anything fresh to what's already been said. Impeccable harmonies.

08) M83 - Saturdays = Youth

07) Fennesz - Black Sea

06) Genghis Tron - Board Up The House

05) The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride

It's a kick to have John Darnielle creating lyrical character sketches again after a series of inward-looking albums over the past several years. When he's on his game, few are better: the fabulous closer, 'Michael Myers Resplendent' (written from the perspective of the titular Halloween killer), was described by Darnielle on the band's website as 'about a negative epiphany arrived at through the glory of progressive trance.' Which is a weird coincidence, by the way, considering that the first time I heard the song, the immediate thought that popped into my head was 'wow, talk about your negative epiphanies arrived at through the glory of progressive trance!' Also, 'San Bernadino' is glorious, and I'd advocate it as a gateway drug to anyone unfamiliar with Darnielle's storytelling.

04) Aidan Baker & Tim Hecker - Fantasma Parastasie

Two of my favourite experimental artists, and both Canadian, come together to release this effort. Why is it that both wallow in relative obscurity in this country, yet Metric has a healthy career? Whatevs. This skews more towards Hecker-esque drone, but Baker brings some Nadja-esque guitar to the proceedings.

03) Gang Gang Dance - Saint Dymphna

This is a polarizing unit; some are turned off by the yelping, ululations, and generally spacy disposition of singer/percussionist Lizzie Bougatsos (I bought merch from her once at a concert, and after I chose a CD she woozily exclaimed 'woooah, you guys really know the discography,' which has become a bit of a running gag with friends), plus the live show has been known to reduce hipsters to moronic, new-agey convulsions that can't even generously be filed under 'dancing.' I love them, though, and this newest effort even manages to trump 2004's excellent breakthrough God's Money. Aside from bringing back the endearing polyrhythms, freak-folk traces, and electronics that made it's predecessor such an unclassifiable marvel, GGD includes elements of dubstep and hip-hop this time around. Rather than coming off as mere dilettantes, they manage to fold it into their sound seamlessly and naturally; like Radiohead, GGD can seemingly incorporate anything and yet still managed to unmistakenly sound like themselves, which is an enormous compliment and underrated asset. 'Dust' is one of the best closing tracks I've heard in years, a shimmering conclusion that brings the album in for a smooth landing.

02) Fuck Buttons - Street Horrrsing

I knew nothing about this duo other than they were opening for Caribou at an upcoming local show, so didn't know what to expect upon cueing up debut Street Horrrsing for a first spin, really. I figured that it would be somewhere in the same ballpark as Dan Snaith's warm, intricately concieved kaleidoscopic pop. This speculation seemed to be confirmed for the first minute or so of leadoff track 'Sweet Love for Planet Earth,' which opens with what sounds like a burbling music-box. However, once a forboding buzz creeps in around the 1:05 mark, we're not in Kansas anymore. Granted, there's a non-linearity to the music of both Caribou and Fuck Buttons, but that's about where the similarities end: from it's defanged introduction, 'SLFPE' morphs into a ten-minute-long maelstrom of concussed propulsion, drone and frenzied, unitelligible screaming (for good measure, an added landslide of fuzz is piled on around six minutes in). What makes it more gloriously unsettling is the constant presence of the music box lingering at the bottom of the mix throughout, like the cries of a child trapped in a well. This track dissolves into the terrifying primivitism of 'Ribs Out,' which is essentially four minutes of rhythmic pounding augmented by disembodied banshee wails.

I adore formless noise records, but also have a weakness for pop, so a great selling point for me here is that the barbed mien of droning noise obscures occasional melodic flourishes, believe it or not; this isn't Wolf Eyes or anything. The finest example is 'Bright Tomorrow,' a hazy kicker which employs a hearty 4/4 thud behind looping organ.

01) Why? - Alopecia

Whither 'indie?'

Whatever happened to the original indie spirit: y'know, the fuck-shit-up-and-take-names one that didn't lead to gigs in St Andrews-Wesley church on Burrard? The records that didn't sway into a buoyed-off, Sufjanesque safety zone; the albums that brazenly challenged, elevated, and offended? Here it is, kids; this LP fits the bill, though Steve Albini would hardly be folding his arms and chuckling over rank discordance; this is (sort of) a pop effort through-and-through. In short, Yoni Wolf and company elevate themselves to a similar stratosphere not through naked aggression, but rather pop nous, unorthodox instrumentation, and junkshop patois. Why? had me from the Sanddollars EP, but this is a cut above, and it actually took me a few months to fully appreciate it's greatness: ragged, babbling, yet somehow entirely cogent. It helps that Wolf is a lyricist without peer nowadays, and here are a few examples:

I'm not a ladies man, I'm a landmine. (The Facebook status update of every fellow Why? fan at least once this year)

At your house / The smell of our still living human bodies and oven gas. (This is my personal favourite; it's Elvis Costello-esque in terms of wringing imagery out of a single line)

You're the only proper noun I need. (Fuck gloopy love songs, 'Simeon's Dilemma' is the best crush-track since the Dead Milkmen's 'Punk Rock Girl.' Uh, it is a stalker waxing on his beloved, but divorce that from the equation and it's gold! Okay, I admit that may be hard.)

By the way, honourable mentions go to Girl Talk, Benga, King Creosote, Black Milk, Deadbird, Lawrence English, Autechre, Santogold, Adem, David Byrne & Brian Eno, Leona Lewis, Destroyer, Lindstrom, No Age, Woodhands, Wolf Parade, Flying Lotus, Sun Kil Moon, and Headhunter, all of which narrowly missed the cut.

Nice work, champ.

Here are some of my favourite reissues, anthologies, and compilations of the year:

*Various Artists - Emergency Room

*Various Artists - Nigeria Disco Funk Special: The Sound of the Underground Lagos Dancefloor 1974-79

*Various Artists - BIPPP: French Synth Wave 1979-85

*Various Artists - Mary Ann Hobbs Presents: Evangeline

*Various Artists - Disco Not Disco: Post Punk, Electro & Leftfield Disco Classics 1974-1986

*Carl Craig - Sessions

*Mogwai - Young Team (remaster)

*REM - Murmur (remaster)

*Michael Jackson - Thriller (remaster)

*The Jesus & Mary Chain - The Power of Negative Thinking

*Pavement - Brighten The Corners: Nicene Creeders Edition (remaster)

*Big Dipper - Supercluster

*Gas - Nah Und Fern (remaster)

I was going to include the year's 'Worst Albums' list in this overview, but will make that a stand-alone post sometime in the near future. I'm not cranky enough to do it now. To close, here's a list of the best shows I attended this year. These are in no particular order, and I may be forgetting some.

*Daniel Johnston, Richard's on Richards

*The Doers, Little Mountain Studios

*Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, Richard's on Richards

*M83, Richard's on Richards (twice!)

*Laura Veirs, St. James Hall

*R.E.M. / Modest Mouse / The National, Deer Lake Park

*Silver Jews / Monotonix, Richard's On Richards

*GZA, Richard's On Richards

*Mission Of Burma, The Plaza Club

*Mogwai / Fuck Buttons, Commodore

*Holy Fuck / A Place To Bury Strangers, Richards

*Alejandro Escovedo, Pat's Pub (first time) and The Biltmore (second time)

*Buck 65 / Cadence Weapon / Skratch Bastid, Commodore

*Neko Case / Destroyer / Andrew Bird / Deerhoof / The Evaporators, Malkin Bowl

*Neil Diamond, GM Place

*Why?, Media Club (first time) and Richard's on Richards (second time)

*Bob Mould, Richard's on Richards

*Acid Mothers Temple, Pat's Pub

*Gang Gang Dance / Marnie Stern, The Biltmore

*Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, GM Place

Here's to a great 2009!

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