Friday, December 26, 2008

My Top 40 Albums of 2008: Numbers 8 Through 1

And so we've reached the end of this year's journey through my top albums. Before we get into the top eight, I'll try to sum up which albums released in the last few months of 2008. September brought offerings from Jenny Lewis, Mercury Rev, People in Planes, Butch Walker, No and the Maybes, Glasvegas, Santogold, Jon Ryman, Metallica, Chairlift, Kings of Leon, and a sophomore record from former Suede frontman, Brett Anderson. There were also a few that have already made this countdown, including TV on the Radio, Ladyhawke, and Okkervil River.

October's albums was jam-packed with records from Empire of the Sun, Department of Eagles, The Sea and Cake, Eugene McGuinness, Of Montreal, Kaiser Chiefs, Keane, Euros Childs, Bloc Party (the physical version), Los Campesinos!, and AC/DC with their long-awaited return. There were also a couple of disappointments from The Cure and Cold War Kids. Snow Patrol demonstrated that they couldn't compete with Chasing Cars while Oasis produced another unneccessary album. And there were several antlered mammals afoot with releases from Deerhoof, Deerhunter, and The Dears. Again, there were several released in October that you've already seen in this series, namely, from Simon Bookish, Maps of Norway, Polarkreis 18, and Twig.

November saw records from We Are Standard, Glass Candy, Razorlight, Threatmantics, Max Tundra, Thieves Like Us, Kanye West, and The Killers. Of course November was also the momentous occasion of Guns 'n Roses' Chinese Democracy. I apologize, but as the year wound down, I didn't note any albums released in December except for an inexplicably successful comeback from Britney Spears.

To recap, the countdown thus far is:

40. The Penguin League - Antarctica Takes All!
39. This Gift - Sons & Daughters
38. Apocalypso - The Presets
37. Sea From Shore - School of Language
36. The Colour of Snow - Polarkreis 18
35. L'anthologie des 3 perchoirs - Duchess Says
34. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today - David Byrne and Brian Eno
33. For Emma Forever - Bon Iver
32. Seventh Tree - Goldfrapp
31. Die Off Songbird - Maps of Norway
30. Hercules & Love Affair - Hercules & Love Affair
29. The Devil, You + Me - The Notwist
28. The Jade Motel - Zeigeist
27. The Stand-Ins - Okkervil River
26. Evolutionary Sunset Call - stanleylucasrevolution
25. Oracular Spectacular - MGMT
24. Life After Ridge - Twig
23. V - Van She
22. Cut the World - Moscow Olympics
21. O My Heart - Mother Mother
20. Hold On Now Youngster - Los Campesinos!
19. Dear Science - TV on the Radio
18. Saturdays = Youth - M83
17. Aurora - The Deer Tracks
16. We Just Are - The Japanese Popstars
15. Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
14. Do You Like Rock Music? - British Sea Power
13. Limbo, Panto - Wild Beasts
12. Surreal Auteur - Allegories
11. Everything/Everything - Simon Bookish
10. Ladyhawke - Ladyhawke
9. Velocifero - Ladytron

Drumroll please...

8. Lust Lust Lust - The Raveonettes

The Danish duo are on fire this year with both this brilliant album released at the start of the year and then four outstanding EPs spread throughout the rest of 2008. Kicking off with the distorted, brain-shredding wall of sound and dirge-like guitars in Aly, Walk With Me, Lust Lust Lust is a triumph from beginning to end, and after so many successful releases, it is even more of a victory. The reverb effects applied to their dissonant, clanging guitars produce some haunting, slightly Western film-tinged soundscapes; songs like Aly, Walk With Me, Lust, and Expelled From Love give you the feeling of trekking through a wind-sculpted desert of volcanic ash during a peach-hued sunset. These darker songs share space with peppier, sweeter songs like Dead Sound, Blush, You Want the Candy and Blitzed. This record achieves a perfect balance between JAMC/Sonic Youth fuzzy noise and chirpy melody. Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo have every right to sound aloof and cooler-than-thou - they are the kids with black lollipops in their mouths at the prom.

Aly, Walk With Me - The Raveonettes

Dead Sound - The Raveonettes

7. A Certain Feeling - Bodies of Water

This Californian band was so impressive live when I saw them early this year in Toronto that I bought their debut album, Ears Will Pop & Eyes Will Blink, on the spot. Then they released their sophomore album this summer and I continued to be enthralled with their rich harmonies and inventive song structures. The epic album opener Gold, Tan, Peach, and Grey still plays my vertebrae like a xylophone, and the choral gusto of Under the Pines that strips the breath from my lungs. Throughout the album, there's a fragility juxtaposed to a straining intensity and a keening mourning abutting an unbridled celebration. Styles are hard to pin down in this record as they swirl and eddy around your knees, threatening to drag you under and stir you into the sand. It's a baptism worth experiencing.

Gold, Tan, Peach, and Grey - Bodies of Water

Water Here - Bodies of Water

6. The Midnight Organ Flight - Frightened Rabbit

This sophomore effort from Scottish band Frightened Rabbit is a continuation of their brand of painful, almost self-flagellating, honesty over shambolic folk and taut, whip-snap percussion. Singer, Scott Hutchison, sings in a ragged, broken wail that can sometimes remind me of Conor Oberst and sometimes of Gary Lightbody back when he was in Polar Bear not Snow Patrol. They may have grown more accessible, but they are no less stingingly accusatory or violently truthful. Like the modern leper in the album opener, the band sounds like it's going down kicking and screaming against a senseless world full of heartbreak and internal conflict. But like a slight brightening at the edge of the horizon during a thunderstorm, The Midnight Organ Flight tempers the gloom and harsh proclamations of the human condition with a sliver of salvation in the gloaming.

The Modern Leper - Frightened Rabbit

Keep Yourself Warm - Frightened Rabbit

5. In Ghost Colours - Cut Copy

And so the last of the Modular artists on this countdown makes their appearance. When I first heard So Haunted, the first song released prior to the album, I wasn't convinced that Cut Copy was heading in a direction I could follow them into. I had been so immersed in their first album, Bright Like Neon Love, and its cooler, airy genre of electro, that it took awhile for me to adjust to the higher energy, brighter style. Now I've come to the conclusion that In Ghost Colours is actually an unexpected, but massive leap forward in the Cut Copy sound. I would even go so far as to elevate them to the same innate feel for melodic dance music as that of New Order in the 80s. There's a shimmer and twinkle to the album that ranges from the twee sprays of baby's breath of Feel the Love, Unforgettable Season, and Midnight Runner to the pumping, technicolour electro-disco of Out There On the Ice, Lights & Music, Hearts on Fire, Far Away, and Nobody Lost, Nobody Found. At least two thirds of the album have been or should have been hit singles, and I never tire of listening to it. It's like listening to a rainbow so dazzling that you hope you never find the pot of gold.

Feel the Love - Cut Copy

Far Away - Cut Copy

4. Intimacy - Bloc Party

While all their Brit Invasion of 2004 contemporaries have either produced disappointing second and third albums or faded away all together, Bloc Party has forged onwards with a respectable second album, and this year, a genius third. Their Gang of Fouresque minimalist post-punk has exploded into a razor-sharp hybrid of stark, crisp guitars and electronic acrobatics with interludes of vulnerable candor. The album begins with the brain-searing volley of Ares, Mercury, and Halo as the band wields their guitars like machine guns before dipping into the delicate melancholy of Biko, Signs and Zepherus. The bonus tracks, Letter to My Son and Your Visits Are Getting Shorter, included on the physical copy of the album that released well after the digital copy are equally gorgeous; in the latter track, the overlapping samples of Kele Okereke's voice emulate a scattered and conflicted stream of consciousness perfectly. And of course, Okereke's lyrics over the whole album are as beautifully poetic and insightful as always, creating deft allegories and intelligent commentary on human behaviour and relationships; the words are sung with such urgent passion that you can feel the desperate searching of another's eyes, the aching need of the mouths depicted in the album's cover art, and the turmoil over recoiling from closeness with another.

Mercury - Bloc Party

Biko - Bloc Party

3. Skeletal Lamping - Of Montreal

It would have been difficult to top Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer?, but Kevin Barnes manages at the very least to equal it in boundless imagination and myriad stylistic turns. If anything, Skeletal Lamping is labyrinthine in its construction as it blazes through glam, funk, psychedelia, twee rock, and electro, often all in one track. This unpredictable mixture was deliberate as Barnes created the most experimental and ambitious album of his career and attempted to flit through musical and lyrical ideas which seem to last about thirty seconds each. The genius comes in the composition because despite the seemingly capricious insanity, the album hangs together as a coherent, intricate whole without disintegrating into self-indulgent proggy wanking. You also get the feeling that Barnes isn't taking himself so seriously and is there to entertain, a flair that extends to his famously flamboyant live shows and his alter ego, the black she-male, Georgie Fruit. Barnes has the ability to innovate and the panache of the legends he channels on this record, including David Bowie and Prince, but he takes these attributes and stretches them into the farthest reaches of his psyche and libido, daring to tread beyond his heroes.

Nonpareil of Favor - Of Montreal

Beware Our Nubile Miscreants - Of Montreal

2. American Demo - The Indelicates

This highly literate, arch English duo have gotten nowhere near the amount of attention they should have from music fans and critics. This debut album made me believe in brilliantly witty lyrics again, and what's more, the music lives up to the words with its melodic sensibilities and propensity for gushingly expansive anthems. I like artists who make me think about things from a different angle, and The Indelicates do that more than the majority of new bands I've come across in the past few years. Their lyrics are definitely on par with anything Morrissey or Luke Haines created, and they make American Demo a piece of zeitgeist literature, a document of a mass media fatigue and disgust at a bloated, meaningless popular culture. They lambaste everything within reach, including feminism, sacred cow idols like Jeff Buckley, the rotting music industry, and youth itself. Perhaps the most surprising and startling track is Unity Mitford, an extraordinary song from the point of view of Mitford and her sympathetic love for Hitler - the concept and the lines "the indescribable beauty/Of a million hands raised to salute you/Like poppies lean when winds caress them/Cut flowers pressed to solemn duty" are enough to forgive the Gallagheresque guitar solo. Unity Mitford is a far cry from the trendy use of communism and fascism mocked in the song Sixteen while stand-out track New Art For the People, which acts as the theme for the album, is a bittersweet epic of a pathetic couple with all the romance of tragedy drained from them. These anthems make you believe in ideas like you did when you were young - they're like an adrenaline shot in the heart. I get chills every time I listen to the song Heroin and its rushing merge into We Are the Kids, the culmination of a generation frustrated by promises of inspiration in art, but which rather ironically provides the inspiration it violently mourns.

Unity Mitford - The Indelicates

We Hate the Kids - The Indelicates

1. Vanilla Swingers - Vanilla Swingers

Many months ago I stated that this album was my frontrunner for album of the year, and lo and behold, Vanilla Swingers managed to fight off all the other bands snapping at their heels. This self-titled debut is a concept album about two people who fall in love in the present, run away to the past (specifically, the 1980s), lose each other on their return to the present and then meet again in the future. It's a fluid work of art that takes John Gray's philosophical book Straw Dogs, which denies the progress myth of the human race, and weaves it into a narrative that defies progress by its convoluted, non-linear use of time. The London duo, comprised of Miles Jackson and Anne Gilpin, spin their tale over a backdrop of bittersweet, hushed melodies, which showcase the interplay between their diaphanous vocals and the intelligent beauty of their lyrics. This album makes me think about the innate human capacity to tell stories and to create myths in order to understand the world and humans themselves. Without our stories we are nothing. And these myths include one of the most perpetuated ones alongside progress: romantic love.

Vanilla Swingers deconstructs and plays with this myth as history erodes it from all sides and dimensions. At the same time, this album makes me understand why we cling to the myth of romantic love: romantic love provides us with an escape from reality, but in its bittersweet tragedies, it also gives us just as much pleasure from pain and heartbreak. Songs like I'll Stay Next to You and Back to the Present are romantic precisely because they present the transience of love and speak to our fetishization of the fleeting. The music complements the theme elegantly as it flows like quicksilver in an hourglass and period details of the 80s creep in with bubbles of electro and washes of Pet Shop Boys synths. In the world of this album, there is no golden past, there is no improved future, and there is no true escape from the present. But human salvation and self-preservation comes in the form of storytelling. In the track Goodbye Lennon, which is set to the sound of a heartbeat and a ticking clock, a graceful fusion of different measures of time, the following lyrics appear: "I didn't find myself back there/But I lost myself in you/And it felt so.../It doesn't have to end this way/Cos you can always start again/It's just a possible world." And that is how Vanilla Swingers transcends the rest of the albums this year; Vanilla Swingers have shown how humans can make an ellipsis pregnant with meaning and how our survival is bound up in the creation of possible worlds.

I'll Stay Next To You - Vanilla Swingers

The Hive - Vanilla Swingers

The honourable mention for this final installment is Brett Anderson's Wilderness, a rather welcome surprise after what he has produced post-Suede. While I didn't find too much exciting about his debut solo album and his not-so-impressive reunion with Bernard Butler as The Tears, Wilderness is an acoustic guitar-led, intimate album that made me believe that there is some talent left in Anderson after all. There is an almost dark medieval tone to the record as Anderson sheds his former self-assured preening for an unguarded glimpse of his exquisite fraility.

Funeral Mantra - Brett Anderson

And so ends the countdown and a crazy year of New Kids on the Block reunions (an event that I was convinced was a practical joke for months) and of RIAA reassessments; of Chinese Democracy and of threats to Blogger MP3 blog democracy; of Russell Brand's fall from grace and of Noel Gallagher's tumble into the monitors at the Toronto Virgin Festival. Thank you for coming along for the ride down my rather bumpy lane of musical memories. This weekend brings the final part of my weekly mix round-up, and as an extra special gift for the end of 2008, there will be a New Year's Eve mix waiting for you on Tuesday.


dona said...

honestly, i think this is one of the best compiled lists i've ever ever ever read. ever.

thanks so much for sharing. you are a magnificent writer by the way! i wish i could articulate half as well as you! keep on keep on!

Rol said...

Well, I definitely need to track down that Vanilla Swingers album now (I've liked all the tracks I've heard). So glad to see I'm not the only Indelicates fan in the blogosphere. And I need to give more time to that Raveonettes album too.

Great countdown - roll on '09!

JC said...

I'll second what dona said.

Thanks for everything.

Noel Dávila said...

I'm digging Vanilla Swingers. Thanx a lot. Greetings from Puerto Rico.

Phil said...

So glad that I am not the only person who thinks that "Intimacy" was amazing, and a lot better than AWITC! Will have to give Vanilla Swingers another chance.

Very well written.

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