Well, I suppose it’s time for a list, huh?
Lemme preface by saying that 2008 was kind of a crappy year for music. For me it was full of disappointments (musically, I should say); favorites of mine like Marah and Louis XIV put out laughably dreadful records, and folks like The Hold Steady, Paul Weller and Jeff Hanson put out discs that seemed rather uninspired or unexciting. There were a bunch of discs that had a handful of good songs, but failed to deliver even enough kicks to put the album on this list. New Radiant Storm King, Elvis Costello, The Maybes, Airborne Toxic Event…I’m talkin’ boutchoo.
I can’t help but think as I look over my list for this year that only perhaps a handful of the discs on it would crack the top 20 from previous years. Perhaps they would, and I’m just a grumpy old man, which lies as a distinct possibility.
Before proceeding, I once again offer the caveat that these are my favorite discs of the year, the ones that I personally think are the best. You may disagree, and you probably should. I will also this year mention that since my days as a college radio DJ and record store flunky, I’ve always maintained that I am not a music fan. I am a rock and soul fan, and music is a much broader category that includes genres (like folk, opera, and most classical stuff) that just doesn’t interest me much. This year had at least two big releases that seem to be on every critic’s year-end list: Bon Iver’s “For Emma Forever Ago” and Fleet Foxes’ debut disc. Both are very nice records and do what they set out to do very well. I think they’re both folk albums, and both honestly lie so far outside my personal taste that rather than try to shoehorn them into a list here, and rather than try to figure out where they belong, I’ve left them off. Those are lovely records, but for me they have as much to do with rock as Rachmaninoff. You kids get off my lawn, too.
Now that I’ve pissed everyone off right from the get-go, here’s 20 through 16. Mea culpa.
I’ll kick this list off with a piece of music I had no idea how to categorize. I hate to set the precedent of putting a non-longplaying record into this list, but by the same token, the Weather Machines EP is probably the most coherent start-to-finish rock and roll record to come out this year.
We’ve had some great, historical EP’s in the past: The Grifters “Eureka” EP stands as perhaps the single greatest indie rock testament ever released, a perfect encapsulation of the best of what 1990’s lofi could do. U2’s “Under A Blood Red Sky” was a stirring live document of a band on the cusp of massive superstardom. So here’s the thing: I’d put “Bones & Brains” in that same exclusive company. It shows The Weather Machines (who seem to be now just Jason Ward and whomever he enlists as musical help) to be an artist with the potential to be an all-timer.
I always wonder how a band with a stunning debut (and the Weather Machines’ Sounds Of Pseudoscience was fantastic) will follow that up. The first record is always the easiest, you see–you get all sorts of time to plan it out, play songs live and see which ones work the best in front of audiences, critics, and friends. The songs on a debut album are usually the 10-20% best songs a band has written in the time getting the first record out…and then suddenly they’ve got another record to do, and there’s no time and all sorts of pressure. Jason Ward responded to those factors with “Bones & Brains” by firing off five songs that pull some sort of crazy magic trick. They show an artistic growth and maturity beyond anything I thought the Weather Machines capable of. To put it another way, this EP is clearly as much Jason Ward as the debut album, but it also sounds like that band covering someone else. I think I’m babbling, so I’ll try to make some sense: the first three tracks on “Bones & Brains” are the best 1-2-3-4 punch on any record that came out this year, and things don’t go far astray with the closer, either. If Jason Ward is able to deliver a full album of songs like this, we’re looking at one of the most important rock and roll finds to come down the pike in recent memory.
You can hear these songs as well at the Weather Machines Myspace page:
http://myspace.com/theweathermachines (The new songs there are the first three on the EP: “Parts Of Speech”, “202”, and “New Soft Archetype”. That last song is just un-freaking-believably good–when that guitar lick comes in after the second chorus (1:47 or so), it might be my favorite rock and roll moment of the year. The song just defies you to NOT dance around the room to it.)
19. Black Bunny S/T
What was it I was saying before about records that have only a few good songs on them? That sort of applies to the debut album from Brooklyn’s Black Bunny, but doesn’t exactly fit. See, it isn’t that there are bad songs on this album, just that there aren’t any that live up to the stunning opener, a song called “Hero” that somehow manages to sound like “Creep”-era Radiohead covering Calexico or Ennio Morricone. Black Bunny features singer/songwriter Brandon Wilde, who had a stab at the brass ring years ago with a fairly un-noteworthy band called Thisway; he’s scaled things back and clearly developed as an artist.
For one thing, he’s abandoned the strict tenets of his power-pop origins. In addition to the Morricone-flourishes on “Hero”, he’s able to record the best Wilco song Wilco never wrote on “This Is Nowhere”, and he gives “Survival” and “My Time” a gravitas that wasn’t present at any other point in his work. It makes the whole album worthwhile, even if “Hello” is a little bit obvious (try getting that “Getting Better All The Time” hook out of your head, though!) and “Digital Bystander” doesn’t work as well as it might. You’ll keep going back for “Hero” though. That song is one of the best tunes of 2008, a song that just builds and builds and builds to a climax that delivers one of the best goosepimple/hair-on-end moments of the year…and then goes back again on the coda to do it again. Keep an eye on Brandon Wilde and Black Bunny.
18. Glasvegas, S/T
I’m breaking one of my own rules this year to fill up the top 20 with 20 good records and putting some import-only discs into the mix. Fear not, fellow Yanks–one criteria of mine for this was that the imports in question had to at least be easily available for digital purchase and download. Such is the case with Scotland’s Glasvegas, who have a US label (Sony/Columbia/BMG) who seem determined to botch the domestic release next year of a record that has exploded on the British charts.
What Glasvegas does seems so stupidly obvious that you wonder why they’re the ones with the massive buzz: they draw on inspirations from rock’s classic period–Presley, Spector, Buddy Holly–and then bring the whole thing up to date with a wall of loud guitars that aren’t just fuzzy (like Jesus & Mary Chain) but also jaggedy and challenging. The result is a completely winning debut, a self-assured and timeless bit of rock music that’s built around the same old basic building blocks, but then blasted into a new universe by deft songwriting and challenging arrangements. If the wonderful “Geraldine” sounds like something a number of bands could’ve managed, “Go Square Go” has an all-over-the-place careen to it that shouldn’t work but does, and that’s all Glasvegas.
17. Magnolia Summer, Lines From The Frame
So let’s say you’re a fan of the Jayhawks, who managed two or three of the best rustic rock albums of the last dozen years or so until they finally petered out after edging to close to the blandest sins of Crosby, Stills & Nash or the Eagles. If you’re a fan, perhaps it was exciting that this year former Jayhawks Gary Louris and Mark Olsen put out a record together. That disc is pretty good. What I’m here to tell you is that Lines From The Frame by Magnolia Summer is better, and will scratch that Hollywood Town Hall itch better than the originals will.
MagSummer is the vehicle for Undertow Records label manager Chris Grabau; material I’ve heard from him in the past has sounded good, but really didn’t stick with me. Grabau has a wonderful tenor voice like a cool Missouri wind blowing through one of those endless fields along highway 70, and that’s always been an asset for him. On this new record though, he does a very smart thing: he enlists some new blood into the band and brings them front and center. As a result, Kevin Buckley’s strings take over a few songs in breathtaking fashion (“Diminished Returns”, and the glorious final two minutes of “By Your Side”). Kelly Kneiser of Glossary adds some backing vocals (she turns “Birds On A Wire” into a de-facto duet by matching up perfectly with Grabau’s heartfelt vocals over Dave Anderson’s mournful pedal steel). There’s also the indelible stamp of Finn’s Motel frontman Joe Thebeau (who plays guitar in Magnolia Summer and got co-producer credit on this record), who gently urges Grabau to the best hooks he’s ever written. Lines From The Frame is easily the best country-tinged rock album of 2008.
16. Hysterics S/T
The hook here is obvious–Hysterics are/were a bunch of guys barely out of high school who’d been playing as a band together since before they could drive. Oliver Ignatius and Charlie Klarsfeld played guitar, wrote, and sang these songs which actually got them a ton of buzz back in 2005 or so….
…and then what? The band got this disc done in 2007 to distribute at shows, but didn’t get it out to the public until 2008, and by that time it seems as if the moment has passed. The band did a little bit of touring and then went on what seems like an indefinite hiatus, with Klarsfeld spending most of his time with the wondeful blue-eyed soul stirrings of The Americans (keep an eye on them!), while Ignatius seems to be working on new songs in relative privacy.
So what do we have here? We’ve still got a wonderful pop album that shows off some amazing talent and chops, no matter the ages of those involved. “Radical Chic” is still one of the best songs you’ll hear this year, and “Mostly Untitled”, “You Tell Yourself It’s Easy”, and “What Swallows A Waterfall” are almost as good. I can’t think that we’ve heard the last of the talented lads from Hysterics, even if it’ll be in other incarnations in the future. Still, grab this worthy document of where they started before they eventually arrive.
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