A few months into this year I couldn’t shake the feeling that 2008 just wasn’t going to be the great year for new music that 2007 was. And so here I am, about a week away from 2009, and I still feel the same way. It wasn’t a total wash mind you, as there was definitely some quality to be enjoyed. So here’s my take on the 2008 music year – good, bad, and ugly.
The Best of the Best (Albums)
Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
Yeah, this seems like an obvious choice, but it’s also a damn good one. I’m always up for listening to good vocal harmonies, and this band has them in spades. The music is gorgeous to boot, and is a highly engaging blend of folk titans like CSNY, America, and early ’70s Fleetwood Mac. The vocal round of “White Winter Hymnal” is worth the price of admission by itself. And as a bonus, I’ve seen enough live clips of material from this album to witness that its beauty is not just the result of studio trickery.
Metallica – Death Magnetic (Warner Bros.)
You can accuse me of falling for the hype if you want, but this is an excellent album. While it’s not enough to make me throw away my copy of Master of Puppets, it’s certainly strong enough to make me forget the group’s creatively dry Load era. There’s a touch of filler present, but tracks like “All Nightmare Long” and “My Apocalypse” stack up against the best material Metallica has ever produced. And most importantly of all, the group is once again relevant to the world of metal.
The only bummer regarding Death Magnetic is the craptastic mixing/mastering job, which like far too many modern albums is compressed to the point of being physically uncomfortable to listen to. Fortunately there is relief in the form of an alternate mix produced for the Guitar Hero video game, which was widely distributed over torrent sites. I’m not advocating that sort of downloading of course, but let’s just say it’s far superior to the officially released version.
School of Language – Sea From Shore (Thrill Jockey)
Whether or not Field Music ever reconvenes under that name is sort of irrelevant since Peter and David Brewis, the creative energy behind Field Music, seem to be carrying the torch of top-notch English pop/rock as if nothing had changed. Witness David’s first release as School of Language, a slightly more understated but still masterfully executed piece of pop bliss.
The Week That Was – The Week That Was (Memphis Industries)
Speaking of the brothers Brewis, August was Peter’s turn to knock one out of the park and he did with the self-titled debut from The Week That Was. It’s a denser and darker journey than Sea From Shore, but no less rewarding. Taking musical cues from early ’80s Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, Brewis has delivered one of the most satisfying and sadly overlooked releases of the year.
Russian Circles – Station (Suicide Squeeze)
You’d think that an album of metal instrumentals, averaging seven minutes in length, would not be particularly interesting or rewarding. You would be wrong. There is a craftsmanhip evident on Station that belies the fact that it’s only the band’s second album. It sounds like thoroughly modern metal, but it feels vintage.
Randy Newman – Harps and Angels (Nonesuch)
2008 was the year I finally hopped on the Randy Newman bandwagon, and Harps and Angels played a large part in that change. No longer is he just the guy from those Family Guy bits or the man I blame for a bunch of schlocky Pixar music. Well, he still is a little. But I’ve connected with his top-notch lyricism and easy-going, modernized New Orleans-style blues piano, which are in full flower on this record. Newman thrives when he has nice, big targets for his cynicism, and he has plenty of material to work with here (from the Supreme Court to the Bush administration to their hypocritical pop music critics). But the tender moments are just as effective, and songs like “Losing You” and “Feels LIke Home” will undoubtedly stand the test of time.
Dengue Fever – Venus on Earth (M80)
I predicted back in April that this would make my year-end list, and I called it (funny how that works). This off-kilter blend of Cambodian lounge pop and psychedelia is one of the oddest albums to win my heart. It was also good enough to get the attention of Peter Gabriel, who decided to distribute it on his Real World imprint. It would be easy to focus your attention on the spellbinding vocals of Cambodia’s own Chhom Nimol, but the catchy musical arrangements are the real star of this effort. Venus on Earth swings, it grooves, and it captivates.
Danilo Pérez – Across the Crystal Sea (Verve)
I was turned on to this release by the JazzPortraits blog (not updated nearly enough for my liking), and it’s a winner. Pérez ‘s piano is backed this time by a string section led by the renowned arranger and conductor Claus Ogerman, known to many jazz fans for his work with Bill Evans, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Diana Krall among others. It’s a subtle and gossamer work that never slides into the dreaded “easy listening” realm. Guest vocalist Cassandra Wilson shines on a pair of tracks, “Lazy Afternoon” and “(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings”.
Goldfrapp – Seventh Tree (Mute)
Seventh Tree is one of those albums that I suspect will only get better with age. Everything is slightly muted here, from Alison Goldfrapp’s vocals to the arrangements themselves. But in trading sex appeal and danceability for nuance and delicacy, Goldfrapp has produced their most rewarding album since Felt Mountain.
Build – Build (New Amsterdam)
Recalling at times both the structured and subdued approach of Philip Glass and the sheer musical joy of Penguin Cafe Orchestra, the self-titled debut from Brooklyn’s Build can best be described as classical music for people who hate classical music. It’s exuberant and poppy but never gimmicky, and I highly recommend it.
Jim Noir – Jim Noir (Barsuk)
The eponymous followup to Noir’s 2006 debut, Tower of Love, finds him mining the same sound as the first time – namely the ’60s salad days of ’60s British pop, Mod, and psychedelia. The formula worked for Noir (real name Alan Roberts) the first go-around and it certainly works now. The melodies are not awe-inspiring but the DIY charm still holds; don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming parts of “Don’t You Worry” and “Happy Day Today.”
Next: The best of the rest…