Top 50 Albums 2008
By The Staff
50 :: High Places
I love fast music full of unadulterated aggression. I love dark, feverish ambience. This especially when the destruction of the world and the set-backs in my personal life join together to ruin my day, putting a subdued grimace on my face and a groan of hopelessness into the bottom of my throat, training my eyes to the eternal forward, enabling me to block out the world as I walk as fast as I possibly can down the sidewalk. In my mind’s eye, I’m weaving through the wreckage of life.
Inevitably, I grow weary. I take a big, deep breath and put on High Places. These implacable, sugary melodies, Mary Pearson’s dreamy, reverberated vocals, Rob Barber’s interlocking percussive amulets and drum pad—all of it is so remarkably soft and yet so detailed that it can never grow tiresome. In my mind’s eye, the waste has cleared and my future child and I have followed a rainbow-colored cobblestone pathway to the county fair. It’s not any old county fair, mind you, but one in a faraway wonderland populated by pixies and frog princes. Each of them is equipped with a valuable lesson to be learned, about exploring different perspectives, about taking nothing for granted, about harnessing constructive powers to face the challenges in life.
Sometimes, I find myself listening to this record two or three times in a row. Inevitably, I’ll put on something a bit more aggro. The grimace and the groan and the frustrated tunnel vision will return. But I will always have High Places—and my child will have it, too. And if I grow tired of the record, it’s only because I’ll have listened to it too many times to count.
49 :: Laura Barrett
Let me try to reconstruct an elusive moment: Sloan’s Chris Murphy is in the crowd at the Bicycles’ CD release party in Toronto, where the night’s format involves a revolving array of Toronto musicians joining the band on stage. He notices Laura Barrett, who plays with the Bicycles’ drummer in Henri Faberge and the Adorables, on stage with her kalimba. When it’s Murphy’s turn to join the band he contributes vocals and this little bon mot: “I was gonna bring my thumb piano but I didn’t realize everyone was playing them these days…TREN-DY.”
Not as funny in the re-telling, Murphy’s remark is yet prescient: from Joanna Newsom to Regine Butler and Zach Condon, today’s indie set is making careers on the catechretic use of quirky instruments. But praise be to Barrett, who with Victory Garden has put to rest any doubts about the lasting power of what could have been a novelty project. Vastly expanding her sonic palette beyond her maddeningly intricate kalimba arrangements, Barrett scatters marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, piano, strings, and woodwinds of all sorts throughout her tracks, never resting her laurels on a single sonic texture.
Thankfully the inclusion of piano compositions and sweeping arrangements pulls no focus from the ceaseless marvel that is Barrett’s kalimba playing. Furious and blithe, her kalimba casts itself into the past of organic, resonant instruments just as it thrusts into a future of intrusive nanotech and paranoid schizophrenia. It has to be heard to be believed, and it’s perhaps Barrett’s finest achievement to marshal this daunting feat of sonic imagination in support of something yet bigger: an improbably gorgeous record that’s more than the sum of its very strange parts.
48 :: Luomo
The issue with talking about Sasu Ripatti-as-Luomo’s music has always been the disjunct between the ends-unfolding anamorphic way he approaches composition and the way it sounds when you’re actually listening to it. This is pop music, I mean, but pop music theoretically plays on the power of repetition, whereas Ripatti plays on the power of subtle shifts and changes and almost never repeats himself. So I could discuss this as a really fun dance album (it is) in a year where dance music seemed more uncertain than it has in the past as the digital revolution actually finally starts to eat away at the fringes of deep-vinyl culture; or I could talk about it as a continuation and refinement of Ripatti’s Luomo-persona aesthetic (it is) that still skirts around the mountainous genre-defining Vocalcity (2001); or I could talk about it as a refreshing effort in the context of the tenuous relationship house music has always had with the full length LP. But what’s most interesting is the way Convivial was sort of just met…convivially, critics everywhere basically saying, “yep. Another great Luomo album.” I hope nobody mistakes that for us being underwhelmed or complacent—this album is a gorgeous slice of house that’s every bit as essential as Luomo’s classic debut.
47 :: M83
M83’s Saturdays=Youth soars above Before the Dawn Heals Us (2005) if only because it feels like more of a personal statement from the band’s central figure, Anthony Gonzalez, than the previous record, which seemed so caught up in making the loudest, most gluttonous statements possible. Even in quiet moments we were subjected to Kate Morgan’s voice-over narration, as if it was there to guide us, the incompetent listeners, through the undoubtedly misunderstood emotional soundscapes right in front of our noses. It didn’t work—it sounded cheap, even condescending—and mostly it just helped continue to cloud Gonzalez out of his own songs. Though there’s a bit of that voice-over remaining, there isn’t enough to distract from the heart of Saturdays=Youth: lovely harmonies and leads courtesy of Morgan Kibby swirl around Gonzalez at his best, singing more directly than he ever has before while keeping a close eye on the pacing of the record as a whole. Opener “You, Appearing” is a beautiful and relatively restrained piano ballad that, unlike anything we’ve heard from the band yet, achieves newfound power in its simplicity. This accomplished and set aside, the rest of the album runs amok in the best of ways, that being a sweetly celestial but consistently honed mixture of guitars, programmed beats, real drums, airy vocals, and synths, many synths. From the ravenous hooks of “Kim and Jessie” through to the colossal, ambient “Midnight Souls Still Remain,” Saturdays=Youth proves that even the wet-dreamiest of indulgent splatters can still be aimed precisely.
46 :: Deerhoof
(Kill Rock Stars)
2008 saw a lot of Deerhoof-y bands (including Marnie Stern, Ponytail, and the Mae Shi) enjoy varying degrees of success. There’s nothing wrong with those bands but I’m guessing further down the road they’ll be looked back on in the same way that much of the early Kill Rock Stars roster comes across now. In other words, more part of the contemporary pool of ideas regarding the noise/pop dichotomy, politics, and feminism in music, etc., as opposed to distinct, maverick artists.
In contrast, Offend Maggie comes across like a broadcast from a movement still several paradigm shifts away. One where the most idiosyncratic elements—and, yeah, I’m talking about Matsuzaki’s voice—get molded into a relentless rock machine. How Deerhoof have managed to make music that’s so fun and yet so obviously premeditated has always been a mystery, but with this album, rawer and more off-the-floor than all of their more recent output, the paradox reaches its full fruition. Here, irreverence gets propagated with all the studied precision of graduate-level jazz students. Perfectly executed excursions into rockabilly (“Chandelier Searchlight”) and Celtic folk (“Offend Maggie”) don’t even deter from the full-throttle pace.
Perhaps the minute-long exotica/Merzbow intermission with someone making sober and unintelligible announcements through a plastic megaphone, hilariously titled “This is God Speaking,” explains everything. Because if God ever did come down and show Himself it wouldn’t even matter what He was saying; He could be reading His grocery list and you’d still be knocked over by the impact.
45 :: Grand Salvo
In a year without a new release from Ned Collette—and even more disappointingly, Augie March’s nosedive into flaccid, beige waters—Grand Salvo’s Death stands tall as this year’s Great Australian Folk Record. Not that many are recognizing it as such. Like Collette’s Jokes & Trials (2006) and Future Suture (2007), Death was grossly ignored outside of its homeland, which is confounding; in an age when Sufjan Stevens can have such indie cache despite his own gimmickry and preciousness there’s absolutely no reason for a collective cold shoulder to be thrown at a record this uniquely and intuitively composed. Death isn’t just a really pleasant album to listen to—it balances theme with every single instrument and softly sung lyric better than any record I’ve heard since Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006).
Traviss’ review fully explains the concept behind this record, but briefly: interspersed amongst filmic, melodic folk and (at first somewhat jarring) spoken word narrations is the intricately detailed story of four animals—a bird, bear, rabbit, and rat—and hunter Shaelem Relagh. Singer/songwriter/arranger Paddy Mann tackles the evolution of his characters—again, like Fox Confessor—from their own POV, juggling mythology and philosophy to draw explicit lines through each and their unifying, if not defining, relationship to death. He even explores how depressed and lonely it can make a (presumably Australian) bear. My limited experience with bears has been pants-shittingly terrifying, yet to hear Mann tell it this big furry guy’s innards sound like Phil Elverum. Weird.
The music subtly flitters and swells accordingly, somberly fleshing out themes both familiar (winter = death and menacing jabs of sound; spring = renewal, giddy woodwinds) and perplexing (again: a bear bumming out over his dead bird friend? Ponder that grey area the next time you’re being mauled alive and/or watching Grizzly Man). Mann, to draw one last parallel to Neko Case, is foremost an exceptional observer and storyteller, puppeteering these characters without judgement or soapboxery, talented enough as a singer/songwriter and arranger to transform potentially heady conceits—and even a couple fleeting echoes of James Taylor—into an immediate and engrossing folk record, easily one of 2008’s finest.
44 :: Mount Eerie f/ Julie Doiron and Fred Squire
(PW Elverum and Sun)
Phil Elverum has always baffled me. Sometimes the Microphones were the only thing I wanted to listen to, and sometimes they just dawdled and tooled around too much for my taste. The last few years, post-Microphones, have been less than stellar, and the early-‘08 Black Wooden Ceiling Opening EP led me to think that this would be another slow year for Phil. But then out of the ether came Lost Wisdom, an album so brief, unlikely, and beautiful that it still takes me aback every time through. In ten songs over just 23 minutes Elverum has crafted the most simple and affecting folk record of the year, and one of the best of his career. It’s remarkable to hear Elverum, who I often associate with a certain degree of excess, take such inspiration in parsimony. There’s not a spare note or phrase on the record, and it’s all the more emotionally bare and honest for it. There are moments when I’m left wishing he’d keep going (at less than a minute and a half, “You Swan, Go On” kills me every time) but that perfect melody or simple phrase wouldn’t be quite the same the second time around. Julie Doiron and Fred Squire match him every step of the way, but it’s Doiron that truly stands out; she and Elverum manage quietly gorgeous harmonies on every track here, her pacing and phrasing matching his remarkably well. Hopefully he’ll be behind the boards for her next LP, but even if not—and regardless of what direction Elverum heads in next—Lost Wisdom is one of those perfect little pop artifacts that will keep me coming back to Phil every time.
43 :: Shearwater
As if I needed another reason to prefer Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff’s one-off-collab-turned-gothic-folk-brainchild Shearwater to its well-fed mother, Okkervil River, the group went and released the best album of its career. Shearwater demonstrated a beast all its own with the Sheff-less Palo Santo (2006), but it wasn’t until Rook that we saw just how much brawn it had hiding under those monochromatic t-shirts. Here the band displays a tightness only previously hinted at, providing a bleak yet breathtaking backdrop of plaintive strings and piano for Meiburg’s desperate verses, shrouded in avian metaphors and sharp as ever.
Meiburg’s is a world hanging in the balance, tottering on the edge of the windswept precipice from which he wrote these tales of nature’s mirthless brutality. Appropriately, the view from the top is simply majestic (the blaring Morricone trumpet of “Rooks”), but it belies the toilsome climb up these songs’ rocky slopes (Meiburg’s self-exorcism on “The Snow Leopard”) and the inevitable plunge deep into the quarry below (“Home Life”’s smoldering, self-suffocating final third). Like the young boy in “Home Life,” Meiburg grasps onto his own life, quivering and aware of his impotence in the face of nature’s almighty wrath and death’s icy hand. It is perhaps only in the terrestrial ritual of dying that he can achieve the liberation he seeks—to fly freely, wings outstretched and trembling with joy. He sings these final ruminations—“Horse without rider / Lungs without breathing / Day without light / Song without singing / A song”—before being taken away for good.
42 :: Yellow Swans
It’s so damn difficult to keep up with Yellow Swans, a band that has about 75 releases in a mere six and a half years of existence. Though my approach has always been to go check them out live when they come through town, Deterioration arrived just as the band called it quits in the summer of 2008 (a proper final album is due in 2009). A compilation of hard-to-find releases from the Swans’ recent and most impressive stage of their career, Deterioration demonstrates the best part about this band: their ability to careen between moments of unflinching, skull-crushing noise and passages of detailed, ambient calm, all with such grace. Lead track “Broken Eraser/Time Stretch” quite simply throbs as it comes on like a dark, brutal storm just barely glimpsed over the horizon. The storm eventually hits and flattens us—all this in the first eight minutes—and seems endless, but soon the storm does leave town and we’re left to pick up the pieces in the striking peacefulness of its aftermath; then, oh fuck, there’s another storm. It’s this sort of visceral ride between “the fathomable” and “the overwhelming” that is central to Deterioration, perhaps even central to what Yellow Swans want to be remembered as when they take their bow: an attempt to both seduce and then test the very limits of our endurance as listeners before letting up, just for a moment, so we can prepare for the next wave of noise.
41 :: Leila
Blood, Looms and Blooms
If Blood, Looms and Blooms hadn’t made our top 50 list, it undoubtedly would have won CMG’s “Most Omnivorous Electronica Album that Doesn’t Actually Eat Itself” Award. Saint Dymphna_ would be disqualified, naturally, because while Gang Gang Dance show no qualms about dotting each of their outrageous exclamation points with stabs of whining synths and flitting chirps—all birthed by doting electronic parents—theirs is a formula still rooted in the tribal/avant-noise scene of dingy Brooklyn, where self-spawned black holes make everything autophagic, instead of in the more formal structures of traditional electronica. Leila Arab, on the other hand, builds her blooming electronic pastiche around carefully assembled yet gut-churning dance rhythms and woozy, wobbling synths that never veer far enough from their intended course to count as anything but totally danceable electronica. Unless we’re talking about “Little Acorns,” which sounds like a pigmy M.I.A. clearing her throat over wheezing carnival synths, pocket-sized favela horns, and a beat wedged somewhere between dancehall and hip-hop. Shit’s just crazy.
I once declared to a crowd of one that Blood, Looms and Blooms is the most curiously captivating electonica album I’ve heard since Silent Shout (2006), though I now realize the comparison belies the difference between each album’s overarching goals. While Silent Shout immediately stakes out its barren sonic terrain and sticks to it, Blood, Looms and Blooms greedily consumes elements of trip-hop (“Daisies, Cats and Spacemen”) and afterburner indie rock (“Deflect”), among others, never quite satiated by the sumptuous offerings from which it culls. But it’s neither the diversity of Leila’s influences nor the giddiness with which she pieces them together that impress most; it’s Leila’s ability to temper her barnburning party tracks with equally impressive electro-dirges (see, especially: the metallic grind of “Mettle”) that keeps Blooms an effortlessly listenable, intuitive whole. Blink and it’ll swallow you whole, too.