Thursday, December 18, 2008

Top 20 Albums Of 2008 (Part I)

Let's talk about album reviews for a minute- what exactly is a review? I've come to find that it's less about the actual music than it is a confessional of sorts about the writer themselves. It's an inkblot, a human Rorschach test- I think what you're getting when you read an album review is a look into the psyche of the author; what you like about an album are the things you'll likely relate to and the things you hate are more or less the things you find icky about yourself.

So, the things that make me slightly uncomfortable are the sort of thing I've been attracted to lately- gravitating towards the "weird" side of music in hopes of uncovering some truths about myself as a person. Ever meet me? Yeah, I'm a fucking weirdo. If there's a general "theme" of this year in my world of music, it's that I got into some strange.

There's a whole slew of bands I've really been getting into lately, Dirty Projectors are one, Liars are another, and there's about ten bands of the twenty on the following list(s). The bands that kind of make you squirm a bit, bands that test your conventional wisdom around things like rhythm, texture, atmosphere, lyrical symbolism, etc. Maybe music has the ability to make you question yourself and doubt the world around you, challenging you to wonder: "Huh, can they do that? Can I do that?"

Music should operate outside of "normal" anyway. I'm pretty sure that's the whole point of rock and roll.

The Musicologist's Top 20 Albums of 2008 (Part I; albums #20 - #11)

20. Blacklisted - Heavier Than Heaven Lonelier Than God (April 1st; Deathwish Inc. Records)

Music as violence? The heaviest album I've heard all year, actually- the heaviest I've heard since Pantera's Vulgar Display Of Power. This band makes Mastodon look like little pussies, and makes Metallica look like complete homos. This record makes me want to go out and break shit, start fires, pillage, plunder and cause general disorder. Then I remember that I'm a pre-school teacher (and a complete pussy) and I'd never even so much as hit another human being. But I can throw this album on and let it punch me in the jugular; 11 songs clocking in at nineteen-and-a-half minutes. The lyrical content is both honest and emotional, wearing your heart on your sleeve doesn't always mean acoustic balladry- hardcore music is definitely alive and well. Plus, these guys are from Philly (which I've been reading has overtaken NYC as America's HC capital these days...) Key Tracks: Memory Layne, Stations, Always

19. Man Man - Rabbit Habits (April 8th; Anti Records)

Yes, I am unfairly biased towards bands from Philly. Having written for a local music mag some years ago whilst that was still my hometown I was given the opportunity to discover a lot of really good bands. Man Man is one of these bands- a gypsy-cabaret-indie rock act unlike no other band in music today. At times this album is obtuse and creepy; at others heartfelt and sincere. Hilarious poetic couplets like: "You think you’re so slick
/ I seen her lipstick across your dillznick" (from The Ballad Of Butter Beans) and scathing send-ups on religion: "There ain’t no god here as far as I can see / your god of hope and light never did nothing straight by me" (from Poor Jackie). There's some real fine instrumentation over the wild, jazzy drumming and eastern European-inflected waltzes. Think Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart meet Tom Waits in a psychedelic brothel in a post-war Bulgaria. Key Tracks: Top Drawer, Mister Jung Stuffed, Doo Right

18. Atlas Sound - Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (February 19th; Kranky Records)

Atlas Sound has the whole psych-shoegaze-dream-chamber pop thing down- a seamless collection of stark songs heavy on the bass with arpeggiated guitar lines, all over top of subtle and distorted washes of multi-tracked guitars with organs floating about somewhere in the mix. Lead singer Bradford Cox's vocals get a delay treatment, as they appear within the register at different intervals; it's as if Lee Perry's Black Ark dub sessions were being called upon in a seance. Notes on the stellar production vaules: heavy on the reverb, transparent, layered, atmospheric- making it both creepy and solemn but so beautiful.
Here's the full review from last February. Key Tracks: Cold As Ice, Quarantined, River Card, Recent Bedroom

17. Mount Eerie with Julie Doiron and Fred Squire - Lost Wisdom (October 7th; P.W. Elverum & Sun Records)

Phil Elverum
has evolved from a lo-fi genius (as The Microphones) into his current musical vision, Mount Eerie (a slightly better-fi version of his ideas). Nothing's really changed- gone is the fuzzy quality of his former "band", here he's bought better microphones (no pun intended) to record this album, but it still has that bedroom-folky feel to it. I can imagine all three musicians literally sitting around the mic
pouring their respective souls into this recording, you can hear his knee knock into the back of his acoustic guitar; anyone who's ever passed a guitar around a room will know that sound- you can also hear them taking their seats before numbers; it's really that homey. Key Tracks: Voice In Headphones, With My Hands Out, Who?

16. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend (January 29th; XL Recordings)

This album went gold- mainstream America sat up and took notice thanks to the unstoppable MTV-hype machine. I was calling it the first great album of the year but I think my love and support waned over the course of '08; that, and a ton of greater stuff's come out since. Here's what I said back in February: There are an infinite number of bands that sound like other bands yet still have enough originality to distance themselves from their heroes; that's the mark of a good band. Reinterpreting the past without straight-up ripping it off, Vampire Weekend's self-titled full-length debut sounds as if it's been culled from a myriad of influences. Extracting their musical direction from
Peter Gabriel's early solo catalog, King Sunny Ade's Nigerian juju polyrhythms, Paul Simon's Graceland, not to mention English post-punk (I hear some of The Police and The Cure in here as well as the decidedly un-English post-punk Talking Heads), this foursome from New York City couldn't have made a finer album, it's actually the first great record of 2008. Click here for the full review. Key Tracks: Oxford Comma, Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, I Stand Corrected, The Kids Don't Stand A Chance

15. Hot Chip - Made In The Dark (February 5th; Astralwerks Records)

Expanding their style further in both directions that they've been known for (dance-punk and lover's rock balladeering); interchanging the two as they please. Stylistically, Hot Chip are masters of getting the most layers of sound out of the least amount of instrumentation by recording live, rather than multi-tracking and over-dubbing the shit out of their music; they go on the fly and work it out later on the mix board. I'd love to see more bands producing their own records, who better knows your sound than you? Hot Chip's core of Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard have been able to mature their sound without cheesing it up, as many artists tend to do as they rise. But critical acclaim doesn't always mean "cool", as part of the Chip's allure is their geeky love for ancient Moog synths, laptop-based looping software and old-school video game sounds. Playing Taylor's tender croon against Goddard's droll delivery marks Hot Chip's mastery of soulful electronica, and they can pretty much stand alone at the top of that genre. Full review can be found
here. Key Tracks: Wrestlers, Shake A Fist, Ready For The Floor, One Pure Thought

14. Xiu Xiu - Women As Lovers (January 29th; Kill Rock Stars Records)

Oakland (via San Jose) gets some love here with the experimental/art-rock band Xiu Xiu's strange and
lovely album Women As Lovers- it's one of those albums I was referring to in the intro paragraph; an album that made me embrace my un-comfortable side and let go of some baggage I've been carrying around with me for just about ever. I listened to this album a lot right after its release, it got me through some fucked-up shit I was going through. Then I realized- guess what? We all go through some fucked-up shit, and there's people out there making music with that same fucked-up baggage dragging them down. And we all can have a listen and decide what good it's doing for us, carrying that junk around. Or we can choose to let it go. This album represents a catharsis; it's a bit more accessible (lyrically it's less obtuse, more human) than their prior releases. Key Tracks: F.T.W., Under Pressure (ft. Michael Gira), I Do What I Want When I Want, You Are Pregnant You Are Dead

13. High Places - 03/07 - 09/07 (July 22nd; Thrill Jockey Records)

Mary Pearson
's soothing voice and Rob Barber's pared-down production techniques garner High Places' earlier stuff (this is basically a compilation album of songs recorded between March of 2007 and Sept. '07, as the title suggests) pretty high marks from this avid listener; I favored this album in the first few hours of the day, usually biking to/taking the train to work. It's an awakening of sorts, the record has a definite sunrise-y feel to it as it gently prods me into the day, coming on gradually like a cup of tea rather than a jolt received from coffee. It's that nice; if you don't enjoy it upon your first listen try it again- the album gets better as it goes on, it's more-or-less "bottom loaded", or if you're a vinyl collector, side 2 is where it's really at. Key Tracks: Jump In (For Gilkey Elementary School), Shared Islands, Freaked Flight, Canary

12. Fucked Up - The Chemistry Of Common Life (October 7th; Matador Records)

Is Matador the biggest independent label in the world? They should be, but I think it's SubPop. Maybe it's Merge? Does it matter, Matador signed Fucked Up to a deal and put out this album- it's an experimental hardcore album. What does that mean, exactly? Well, it's hard, fast, loud and heavy. And it has synths, flutes, bongos and pianos on it. Confused? I was- until I heard their debut full-length Hidden World. So not only are they the best experimental hardcore band in the world, they're the only one. The Chemistry Of Common Life is a lesson in restrained violence- just when you think it's going for the coup de grace, they pull back and hit you with a Skynyd-esque classic rock solo or a synth breakdown. They're called Fucked Up for a reason, they fuck you right up. I hope this band gets insanely huge so radio stations and TV outlets take notice and have to say their name on air, that'd be awesome. Sebastien Grainger of now-defunct Death From Above 1979 and Vivian Girls provide guest vocal work on a few songs. Key Tracks: Son The Father, No Epiphany, Twice Born, Looking For God

11. The Dodos - Visiter (March 18th; Frenchkiss Records)

I got to this album late- when I found out they were from the Bay Area (San Francisco), I became more intrigued and gave it a listen. It's become the other "early-morning" album in my repetoire over the last two months, and I was kicking myself because it had been out about six months by then. Stubborn me. It's got everything a guitar playing geek like me loves about the instrument: alternate tunings, challenging picking patterns, it's like an acoustic nerd's wet dream. The accompanying instrumentation gives it a sparse, barely-there feel and the percussion seems sometimes as if it's being made with whatever's lying around the studio. Singer Meric Long's voice sounds vaguely like Zach Condon of Beirut, while Logan Kroeber's amazing polyrhythmic drumming gives this album such a dynamic feel- I swear after this many listens it still sounds different every time. Key Tracks: Park Song, Red And Purple, Walking, Eyelids

There's tonight's installment- hopefully I can get the Top 10 out to you this same time tomorrow, but I need a break from writing. You can probably guess what they are already. It'd be interesting to see if you could, but I won't hold my breath...


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