Typically this entry will feature a mini-essay on some music-related phenomena I observed during the preceding year...but you know, I can't think of anything that isn't dead boring and analyzed to death: declining sales blah-blah, downloads yadda-yadda-yadda, market share zzzzzz... Oh well - at least the RIAA appears to have stopped suing its customer base. (Or the media have also grown bored with covering same.)
Anyway, I care about that stuff only to the extent it affects the music - and while some of those business-type trends indeed are dire (I'm still in shock that Atomic Records will be no more), as it happens there were indeed lots of good albums released in 2008. I don't know what else to call them: music is still most often released in packets of songs from 35 to 75 minutes long, whether such packets ever end up occupying a particular piece of plastic or not, so "album" it is (as in "collection of associated items"). I suspect this is so, and will continue to be so, both from marketing perspectives and from musicians' perspective: the popularity of online playlists speaks to the way people enjoy experiencing songs in the context of other songs, and so songwriters are still attentive to the way a sequence of songs establishes a particular context for each of those songs. And of course, the atomization into single digital downloads is exaggerated anyway; bands still write more than one song, listeners still download more than one, and the moment they start listening, they either put them in a sequence or experience them in one.
Anyway: here's the top tier of my favorite albums of 2008. Within each tier, the albums are simply alphabetical by title. I didn't even attempt to rank them any more finely. "DL" most likely refers to (legal) downloads via eMusic, although occasionally I may have acquired the tracks from a publicist or because the band's giving it away at their website.
Alpinisms School of Seven Bells: This one blindsided me: I heard one track and liked it, heard another track and liked it, heard a third...then downloaded the album from eMusic and here it is among my ten favorites of the year. It's sort of like one of those old candy bars that has eight different flavors - although in this case, they're blended rather than separated. (DL)
Answers Ghosty: Clever, intelligent, sophisticated pop, well-played and nicely arranged: why ask more? (CD)
Don't Do Anything Sam Phillips: Phillips continues her stealth campaign to put out weird little records that casual listeners think are folk music...the production and arranging on this are spare, subtle, but often rather odd, but her voice is in the forefront, and there's usually an acoustic guitar, so people will overlook that the title track, for example, sounds rather like a My Bloody Valentine outtake. (CD)
Houses & Homes The Bye Bye Blackbirds: I used to agonize slightly over whether it was fair to put albums largely written by people I know on these lists - I don't have to do that when the albums are as good as this one. Songwriter Bradley Skaught says he was listening to a lot of mid-sixties Everly Brothers while the band was making this record, and that shows in the country/folk roots of the songwriting, the sophistication and airiness of the arrangements and recording, and of course in the vocal harmonies (which, being three- and four-part, are more Byrds than Everlys...but had there been a third singing Everly Brother, they would have sounded like the Byrds anyway). (CD)
Icing the Snow Queen The Black Watch: John Andrew Fredrick may not be exactly a one-man band, but clearly it's his sensibilities, and layers of guitars, that dominate proceedings here. The band has eight to ten excellent albums, but bad record-label deals and negligent publicity means they tend to be far more obscure than they should be. (Fredrick has, I believe, a full-time academic position as well, which prohibits much touring, which might contribute as well.) (DL)
In Ear Park Department of Eagles: Because Daniel Rossen's other band Grizzly Bear received reams of (deserved) publicity, people tend to think of Department of Eagles as a spinoff act...but in fact, DoE predates Grizzly Bear, being formed nearly a decade ago by Rossen and his then-college-roommate Fred Nicolaus. There's a curious combination of delicacy and power, even brutality, in the arrangements; the delicacy is easy to hear, but sometimes the band heaps up guitars and basses and pushes them into the red, and the effect is rather like an enormous tree, struck by lightning and falling directly toward you. (DL)
Lurch Mike Viola: This was released in late 2007 online, but since there was a physical release this year (and since I didn't hear the whole thing until this year), I'm counting it. Pure pop for now people (to be unoriginal): as I wrote the other day, I'm well past the peak of my power-pop fanaticism, but when someone gets that combination of melody, harmonies, and clever songwriting and arranging just right, it still sounds damned good. (DL)
Modern Guilt Beck: I keep underestimating Beck - every time he releases an album, I sort of delay picking it up (although having to hold my nose at his Scientology might have much to do with that), and then when I finally get around to it, the album almost invariably is better than I'd hoped, and tends to just get better on repeat listen. Modern Guilt is an exception only in that I actually bought the thing relatively early in its release - and this is the record where Beck seems to integrate much of the disparate strands of his songwriting rather than isolate them into particular albums. He's grown into a versatile, confident, and still exceedingly clever writer and arranger, and he's also become a fine singer - and he has a knack for hiring the right people to realize his sounds as well. (CD)
Real Emotional Trash Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks: Malkmus is another guy who seems to have settled into what he's doing: his first few post-Pavement releases seemed a bit uncertain, snatching from a stylistic grab-bag and sometimes coming up a bit sketchy in the songwriting department. I think it helps that, even though he's wanted all his "solo" albums to have been co-billed with the Jicks, this is the first album on which they actually sound like a band as opposed to hired hands playing Malkmus songs: even on the rather jammy Pig Lib, the songs sounded as if they'd been entirely written beforehand, and then the band stretched them out. Here the long songs sound as if they've been developed by the band, as part of the writing and recording process (this also means Malkmus and the Jicks are a fantastic live act these days, especially drummer Janet Weiss). It's also interesting to compare this with the most recent Pavement reissue (Brighten the Corners); listening to that Pavement album, the roots of Malkmus's current music are clear. (CD)
Third Portishead: If Portishead had wanted to give this album a real title, Lowered Expectations probably would have been it...at least before it was released. The band hadn't released a studio recording since 1997's Dummy, and as the band epitomized the frozen-in-mid-nineties-amber style known as "trip hop" (a style which had not experienced massive calls for revival), one could be forgiven for imagining that anything new would be either a lame retread or some horrendous attempt to be "contemporary." Nope: the band instead produced the most uncompromising record of its career. Yes, the sound is still cinematic, but from the dark yet romantic aura of its first releases, the sort of film evoked on this album is far darker, more unsettling: a sort of gothic, psychological horror film, whose violence is primarily emotional and almost exclusively offscreen. Beth Gibbons sings like ice on fire - if that fire were carefully banked and focused - and the arrangements are ruthlessly discordant, electronic, harsh...but sometimes also beautiful, a beauty which in such context is as disquieting as menace might normally be. "We Carry On" (the track on my playlist) is practically a Silver Apples tribute in its textures, but if the electronics sound soldered together by Dr. Frankenstein, the microtonal timbres wrench the whole thing out from its roots: there's a synth part whose pitch is halfway between the bass note and a lurching harmony a minor second above, which also plays a role in the song's texture. (CD)
¿Cómo Te Llama? Albert Hammond Jr.: With his second solo album, Hammond seems nearly poised to relegate his main band, the Strokes, to the trivia-question file - this album feels more alive and lived-in than all but the first Strokes album. Hammond also contributes to what seems a mini-power-pop resurgence this year - in addition to the usual virtues of that genre, I really like the playing and recording on this record: there's a crackling presence to many of the tracks (one guitar in particular, I swear you think the guy's amp is in your living room). (CD)
Beat Pyramid These New Puritans: With Wire moving toward one of its more pop-oriented phases (successfully: see below), and the Fall in one its periodic drifts toward sketchiness, here's a band mining such obvious influences (they're even named after a Fall song) but without seeming like someone's tribute act. Partly that's due to sheer youth and enthusiasm (the band members are in their early 20s), but I think it's also just because they do it so well...and incorporate a lot of more contemporary, electronic influences as well. Oh - and they sound great played really loud. That always helps. (CD)
Dear Science TV on the Radio: While many past TVOTR songs sounded as if the band threw every idea (and every vocal track) they could think of into the mix, here the band cuts back - sometimes even becoming (gasp!) pretty in the process ("Family Tree" is an example, on the playlist). Maybe not as powerful or overwhelming as their first few releases, but when a band is still growing after several years filled with critical acclaim (rather than repeating itself or disintegrating), that's a good sign. (CD)
Do It! Clinic: Clinic roars back, with a little less subtlety than 2007's Visitations and a lot more noise, while still retaining the surrealistic crossword puzzle intrigue of their lyrics. (CD)
Joemus Momus: Aside from having a terrible title (Momus collaborates with Glasgow's Joe Howe, of Germlin and Gay Against You), this album finds Momus incorporating Howe's video-game squiggles into a set of songs often surprisingly indebted to Scottish folk...then again, given that one of Momus's in-the-works projects is something called The Book of Scotlands, maybe that's less surprising. I'm sure many will be alienated and ask why he ruins this perfectly good melody with all that noise (while others will lean the opposite way, wondering why he's gumming up such cool noises with sappy little melodies), I find the combination, and the tension it creates, intriguing and refreshing. And although it didn't fit the playlist, the album's closing track is one of the most affecting things Momus has ever done: a dying vaudevillian wheezes out his last breath, wondering what ever's happened to his world. (CD)
Mega Breakfast The Chap: Speaking of Momus, I sometimes think The Chap is what might have resulted had Momus and Wire formed a band largely influenced by Robyn Hitchcock's "Uncorrected Personality Traits" and the four-part vocal harmonies to go with. Sometimes The Chap's music is almost straightforward, streamlined 21st century rock-pop; other times it's sheer avant-gardist noise; but most often it's both at the same time, with those vocal harmonies piled atop cracking beats, guitar riffs, scratching violin, and glitchy electronic belches and hiccups. (CD)
Object 47 Wire: As I noted above, Wire's moving gradually toward the more pop end of its stylistic pendulations, but Object 47 is curious in that, with a couple exceptions, it works better as a whole than as isolated tracks. The lead track, released for download ahead of the album's issue, was "One of Us," and it's a fine number with a classic Colin Newman vocal melody, but it (along with the album's closer "All Fours") is one of the few tracks that works as well outside its context. Consequently, the album places a bit lower for me than it might have...although it may well be another example of a Wire album gradually rising in my estimation over the years. (CD)
The Week That Was The Week That Was; Sea from Shore School of Language: In a somewhat odd move, Field Music (one of the most intriguing acts of the past few years) split in two this year...even though the Brewis brothers still work together and some personnel are in common between each of the brothers' releases. So, instead of one new Field Music album, we get a short album (just barely 30 minutes long in each case) from two new bands. Fortunately, they're both excellent...and the other curious thing is that they're rather similar, stylistically (suggesting that the break-up was not due primarily to the usual "musical differences"). School of Language's album came out first, led by the simultaneously catchy and annoying glossolalic riff of the four-part "Rockist" (vowel-speak a la "O Superman"), and TWTW's self-titled album came along later in the year. School of Language seems more dominated by keyboards, while TWTW adds some light orchestral coloring to the mix. Both continue to sort of pointillist post-punk/prog mix of Field Music, sounding rather like Gentle Giant at times, although scaled down in terms of ambition and complexity. (CD for both)
Summer of the Whore Shannon McArdle: This is probably the most ruthless post-break-up album I've heard - ruthless both toward the singer's ex and toward herself (the "whore" of the title track isn't her ex's new lover, it's herself). Musically, it's first-rate Chicago-school avant-pop: some country, some folk, some post-rock touches, careful arrangements and production, all done with a great degree of skill, craft, and intensity. (DL)
One interesting thing about this section: a number of artists whose albums have frequently made the top reaches of my listings ended up here, in the second half of the top fifty. I'm not sure yet if that means they're subpar releases for those acts, or if they're just suffering from the "oh, another decent album from this band again" syndrome.
Doleful Lions 7, Aimee Mann @#%&*! Smilers, R.E.M. Accelerate, Jenny Lewis Acid Tongue, Stereolab Chemical Chords, Future of the Left Curses, The Magnetic Fields Distortion, Tokyo Police Club Elephant Shell, David Byrne & Brian Eno Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, Sparks Exotic Creatures of the Deep, The Fall Imperial Wax Solvent, The Helio Sequence Keep Your Eyes Ahead, Atlas Sound Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel, The Raveonettes Lust Lust Lust, Deerhunter Microcastle, Elvis Costello & the Imposters Momofuku, No Age Nouns, Deerhoof Offend Maggie, Of Montreal Skeletal Lamping, The Hold Steady Stay Positive, Robert Forster The Evangelist, American Music Club The Golden Age, Destroyer Trouble in Dreams, The Baseball Project Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, Fever Marlene White China, The Walkmen You & Me
(If anyone cares, this link brings you to a chart listing the above as well as all the other 2008 albums I acquired, including those I haven't had a chance to listen to - a couple of which have potential to dislodge some of the above.)
The next entry will contain the playlist of tracks from my top 20 albums of 2008.