Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Year of Great Songs: Dave’s “not-exactly” Top Ten List for 2008

The past year in music saw releases from a wide variety of artists in all genres. From newcomers like MGMT and Vampire Weekend to veterans such as Alejandro Escovedo and Beck, there were plenty of new songs bouncing about between my ears. 2008 was indeed a year of great songs.
However, 2008 presents me with one slight problem. My annual Top Ten list is for albums, not just songs. I like to recognize artists for compiling an entire record (is that word still relevant?) of songs that works as a whole from start to finish. Listening to an album is all about appreciating the artistry of a musician or group of musicians, experiencing the ebb and flow of emotions that they have captured for your senses and enjoyment. Repeated listens become like a visit with an old friend.
For me, this was a rare occurrence in 2008. I found myself all too regularly hitting the “skip” button to avoid certain songs, or even more commonly I’d listen to my favorite two or three tracks and skip the rest of the album. Great songs, but a great album? Not so much…
This year’s list has been adjusted accordingly. I’ve divided it between “great albums” and albums with “great songs”. And as if that wasn’t enough, I’ve thrown in an extra category “just because”. Enjoy!

Great Albums – the Top 2:

The Seldom Seen Kid by Elbow
The boys from Manchester have most certainly hit their stride. Guy Garvey’s smoky vocals are once again at the forefront of the band’s self described “prog without the solos” style. Hands down my album of the year. The critics apparently agree as The Seldom Seen Kid is this year’s recipient of the Mercury Prize – the annual award for the best in British music.

The Golden Hour by Firewater
Returning from an extended trek through Thailand, India, Pakistan, Turkey and Indonesia (which he chronicled on his blog Postcards from the Other Side of the World), lead singer and mastermind behind Firewater Tod A has used recorded music from his travels as the backbone of the very world wary “Golden Hour”. The combination of a Joe Strummer-like lyrical style with such influences as Klezmer and Indian wedding music results in perhaps the most satisfying “socially conscious” record since the early Clash.

Great Albums – the rest:

Microcastle by Deerhunter
Deerhunter have abandoned their uneven experimental noise from the early 2000’s for a fuller, more accessible sound on Microcastle. The release has been criticized by their hardcore fans for being too pop oriented. I say lighten up hipster snobs and enjoy this blissfully melodic breakout release!

Jean Lee & the Yellow Dog by Ed Kuepper & the Kowalski Collective
The grandfather of Australian rock has been silent for a few years. But finally, there's this ambitious loose concept album, based on the only hanging of a woman in Australian history, in 1951 of prostitute/alleged murdered Jean Lee. Long, varied, constantly and effectively surprising and involving, it's just plain fabulous.

Rook by Shearwater
Wow! How much emotionally charged songwriting can you fit into a 38 minute record? The answer lies in Shearwater’s expansive “Rook”.

Real Animal by Alejandro Escovedo
Ok, perhaps not a perfect album, but Real Animal stands as testament to one of music’s most underrated performers. From his early days with punk pioneers Rank and File (when he lived alongside Sid and Nancy in NYC) through to a recent battle with Hep-C, Alejandro has written an extensive catalogue of music straddling a wide variety of genres. This album pays homage to his past, and looks forward to a brighter future as the world seems to have finally caught on.

Great Albums – honorable mentions:

Mission Control by The Whigs
Guitar based indie-rock, for those who like it served straight up.

Attack and Release by The Black Keys
Nothing new here from the Keys, just another satisfying blues romp. What’s wrong with that?

Albums with Great Songs:

Consolers of the Lonely by The Raconteurs
To be honest, this should be in the great album category because it really is pretty strong throughout. Jack White has taken over the band, and Consolers is full of his characteristic riffs and screeches. It also casts a nod to some of Jack’s influences (most notably Led Zep) and boasts some musical diversions not seen on the band’s first effort. However, there are a couple of songs that I can only describe as absolute stinkers, and am never able to get through. Thus, the skip button comes into play every time. Sorry Jack.

The Very Sexuals
Delicious Bowie-like harmonies abound on this rookie release from Holland’s Very Sexuals. It’s too bad they only keep it up for the first three songs. Still, the album can be downloaded for free from their MySpace page, and for those three songs it’s well worth the effort.

Oracular Spectacular by MGMT
In 2008 these new darlings of the indie circuit have gone from playing half empty bars to sold-out arenas, all on the strength of Oracular Spectacular. It’s well worth the hype, containing perhaps the single of the year (a toss-up between “Time To Pretend” and “Kids” – you decide which is better).

Vampire Weekend
They’ve spent the year battling it out with MGMT for the most hyped band of 2008. I still love “(Who Gives a Fuck About an) Oxford Comma” (how brilliant is that?), but found the rest of the album lost my interest after only a couple of listens.

Feel Good Ghosts by Cloud Cult
In a year without a release from the Flaming Lips, at least we have Cut Copy. (What’s that? There was a Flaming Lips release? Who knew?) Like The Lips, Cut Copy is all over the map, with sometimes theatrical extravaganzas, other times simple ditties. Hear both on “When Water Comes to Life” from Feel Good Ghosts. I’m listening to it now, and have stopped typing so I can lead the orchestra.

Exotic Creatures of the Deep by Sparks
Included here solely on account of the Queen-like harmonies and laugh-out-loud funny lyrics of “Lighten up Morrisey” and “Photoshop (Me Out of Your Life)”.

Modern Guilt by Beck
Not up to his usual standards, yet Modern Guilt still produced two of the best songs from 2008 – “Gamma Ray” and “Profanity Prayers”.

Album Title of the Year:
When Life Gives You Lemons You Paint That Shit Gold by Atmosphere