Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Albums of the Year 2008

It is December, and in December it is traditional to do lists. I like this because I am male and slightly OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Obsessive about Compact Discs). Here is mine, for my 10 favourite albums of the last year. Any one of these thoroughly deserves a more detailed album review, and will probably get one sooner or later (probably later) in my ongoing ‘great albums’ feature. They were chosen because I believe they are truly great works of music that stand on their own as one self-contained entity, and are as such deserving of a place on anyone’s CD rack. I know this because I am a blogger, and am therefore infinitely more qualified to write about music than some 'music journalist' with their 'journalism degree' and 'grade 9 music theory'. Oh yeah. My opinions count for a lot. There were some albums this year that contained some great music, but I can’t justify to myself putting on the list, mainly because they are let down by a few clunky tracks. Still definitely worth checking out though, are the efforts from Conor Oberst, Does It Offend You, Yeah?, Hot Chip, and MGMT. All contain musical genius and musical mundanity in equal measure. Then there were the ones that don’t make the cut solely because I don’t own them yet (and therefore can’t judge them as a whole body of work), but from the songs that I’ve heard, Foals, Santogold, Kanye West, Sigur Ros and Mogwai may deserve just as much praise, so go and buy them with my blessing. Anything else though, and I will judge you harshly, because that is just the kind of music snob that I am. Yes, I’m right and you’re wrong. And yes, there will be a test at the end. Thank you.

10. Pink Floyd – Oh, By The Way

Yes, yes, I know. I’m cheating. It’s a boxset, it came out at the end of last year, and I don’t even own it, despite what I just said. You name me 10 albums from the last 12 months that you thought were genuinely brilliant, then. Anyway, that’s why it’s at number 10 on the list, despite containing not just some of the best music you’ll hear this year, but very probably the best music you’ll hear, like, ever. In your lifetime. Even if they invent mp3s in the future that orally pleasure you while you listen. Let’s just accept that I’m putting this in the list as a tribute to synth pioneer and genius Rick Wright, who passed away earlier this year. If there was any justice in the world, it should have been a national day of mourning. However, it does feel a bit cheap for me to put this ridiculously extensive collection in at number one, despite Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here knocking every other album on this list clear out of the water. And anyway, “ridiculously extensive” means that for every Dark Side eargasm, you have to sit through a Division Bell, the auditory equivalent of finally getting that girl you’ve pined for for ten years, only to find out that she’s now into coprophilia and trainspotting. So number 10 it is. Sorry, David. Sorry, Roger.

9. Death Cab For Cutie – Narrow Stairs

This one gave me a bit of a headache in its selection, because I only got round to buying it last week. Is a week really long enough to make a value judgement on whether an album is a work of art or not? Well, in the short time that I have had to listen to it, Narrow Stairs has won me over with its tried and tested deathcab formula of ever-so-fragile guitar, textured brass and string arrangements, and guess-how-emo-it’s-going-to-go lyrics. On this latest album, the vocals run the whole gamut from heartfelt to tortured, by way of pleading, introspective and melancholy. But for all the shortcomings of their admittedly narrow lyrical palette, deathcab really know how to push the sonic envelope. If David Byrne had been an emo in 1978, this would have been the sort of stuff he’d have been up to; subtly polyrhythmic, shifting, fragmented, but with a keen underlying sense of groove. Perhaps the oblique cover art is even a deliberate nod to the seminal Fear of Music. It still remains to be seen if they’re capable of making their own take on that kind album, or even their Remain in Light, but in 2008, deathcab took a couple of steps in the right direction.

8. British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?

I’ve always been a massive fan of BSP; their so-uncool-it’s-cool image (Bird watching! Hiking! Real ale!), their kaleidoscopic lyrics about anything and everything (Dostoevsky! Canvey Island! The Larsen B ice shelf!), and of course their insane live shows, which usually draw to a close with equal parts piggybacks and feedback breaking out all over the stage in a sheer orgy of noise and spectacle. But I’ve always felt that they were yet to pull out their big statement, the album that defined them as a band. Not so anymore – 2008 saw BSP mature into a swirling, orchestral monster of an outfit, complete with horns, air raid sirens, and blissfully swollen production from the minds behind Arcade Fire and Godspeed You Black Emperor!. ‘Do you like rock music?’, the title asks, either inquisitive or reproachful, ambiguously daring. It’s certainly a call to arms both for rock music that rocks, and against the banality that in recent years has tried to pass itself off as ‘rock’. Do I like rock music? If this is what the term represents, then unequivocally yes.

7. Bloc Party – Intimacy

There was very little fanfare when the third Bloc Party album was quietly stuck up on the band’s website for download a few months ago, perhaps unfairly considering the fact that for all the commercial success of its predecessors, this incarnation is a far more satisfying whole than the band’s earlier, more patchy efforts. Bloc Party have honed their sound into a smart, charged whirlwind of sirens, beats and cut up vocals, sacrificing neither the pop hooks of Silent Alarm or the experimentation of A Weekend In The City’s more exciting tracks. And when it’s not a fluorescent explosion happening right now, the intimacy of the title comes to the fore with fragile flourishes, all the while building in tension until the next eruption of tangled and chaotic noise. It’s a giddy headrush of an album that constantly throws you off balance and cements Bloc Party’s credentials as by far the most intriguing by-product of this decade’s indie explosion.

6. HEALTH – Health//Disco

It should be fairly obvious from a casual glance through my favourite albums that there are two things that really get my blood pumping when it comes to music. With this compilation of remixes, HEALTH combine the squall of furiously huge noise rock guitar textures with furiously distorted squelches of towering synth, leaving you with little option but to give in completely to total immersion in the sound, flailing your arms and thrashing your head. Furiously. It’s rare for a remix album to be this painstakingly put together. The disparate sounds of different outfits providing their own take can often sound clumsy, interrupting the flow. But here the dark disco efforts of Acid Girls, Crystal Castles, Thrust Lab et al are united by the torrent of pure brooding noise into a pulsating cascade of amphetamine charged dance rock. There is no album quite like it for sheer adrenaline inducing, propulsive, driving energy, and for that it deserves to be played in full at every nightclub from now until the end of time.

5. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles

In my ideal, fantasy life, I’d live in a basement studio with Crystal Castles’ frontwoman Alice Glass. We’d spend all day playing with vintage synthesiser effects and gameboy noises, both wearing too much eyeliner and adopting a superior attitude to the world in general. We would only come out by night to feed, screaming random strings of unintelligible gibberish at passers-by. But, being that she’s a successful French-Canadian goth-pop star and I’m a skint, unemployed blogger, my fantasy life will probably have to take a back seat for a while. Instead, I’ll have to make do with Crystal Castles debut album, a sleek, shadowy beast comprised of, you guessed it, vintage synthesiser effects, gameboy noises and screams of unintelligible gibberish. The treated vocals coat interwoven lines of gothic techno beats and eightbit keyboard in a glitter bomb of mystique as they intersect and collide like a fight between two giant robots in a disused Atari factory. It’s not quite a long-term relationship with your very own fantasy swaggering electro mistress, but it’s a good second best.

4. Fuck Buttons – Street Horrrsing

Let’s start with my mother’s capsule review: “That’s just noise. I know that’s what parents always say, but it’s literally just noise.” Which it is, inarguably. Noise is good. You’re going to have to accept it if you’re going to get anything out of listening to this audacious scream-of-consciousness, which veers from blistering feedback to tribal drumming to delicate windchimes to sub-bass hiccups and back to blistering feedback without missing a beat. It’s never going to make any best seller lists, that’s for sure. But this six-track, hour-long exploration of drones and tones pounds away at the senses, creeping into your consciousness until you start to wonder why all music doesn’t sound like this. Sex on Fire? It’s all very well and good, but couldn’t they have shrouded it in humming pulses of distortion-addled bass, added a faux-trance hook and delivered the vocals through a child’s toy microphone and an overdrive pedal? Noise. It’s the future. Deal with it.

3. TV On The Radio – Dear Science

Rock music isn’t supposed to have this much soul. It seems unfair that in the twin vocals of Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe, TV On The Radio possess two of the greatest vocal talents in contemporary alternative music. Each breathless word is infused with the kind of wrenching emotion that your average anodyne indie vocalist just can’t muster. It helps that the music matches that intensity at every step, from the richly produced handclap beats to the warm tone of the full throated guitars. Add to that the glorious brass, courtesy of the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and the whole thing becomes a thick stew of swirling cacophony, constantly driving forward with the claustrophobic fury of a thunderstorm. Then everything drops back to reveal the vocals alone once more, still just as intense with nothing to support them but their own barely controlled emotion. And that’s the core to the greatness of this album; even as the music treads through a kaleidoscope of funk, electronica, rock, pop and jazz, TV On The Radio never veer far from the soul.

2. Radiohead – In Rainbows

It may have been available on the internet for the last few months of 2007, but it was kind of a sign that 2008 would be a great year for music when In Rainbows got its physical release on New Year’s Day. ‘Top this’, it seemed to be saying, and given that I consider any new album from the ‘head to be marginally more important than say, the ordaining of a new pope, the idea didn’t even seem conceivable. At least it would be fun to watch the other bands try. Alright, it’s not Kid A or OK Computer. But it’s a close bronze medal in the back catalogue of a band so consistent in their brilliance that it’s not an overstatement in my mind to say that they must possess some sort of God-like powers. Radiohead have returned from the left-field armed with the knowledge of how to make pop songs so perfect and detailed that you can listen to them a hundred times and still hear something new and glorious every time. 2008, hold your hands up; the messiahs have returned.

1. Portishead – Third

Anyone who knows me will know that it takes something special for any given album to get the nod over Radiohead, but boy, is this album something special. Within five minutes of starting to listen to it for the first time, I’d already broken into spontaneous applause and by the time it had drawn to a stately close an hour later I was completely overwhelmed and ready to crown them the best ‘head of 2008. Axl Rose, take note; this album took eleven years to make, and it shows. Every single track is a polished nugget of solid gold, traversing post rock, trip-hop, kraut-rock, electronica, jazz with aplomb, each song delivered with a nonchalant ease, yet in every case written and rewritten to perfection. Beth Gibbons’ haunting, fragile voice, easily one of the vocal performances of the year, soaring over a jigsaw puzzle of sounds ranging from lo-fi, scratchy acoustic guitar to ten megaton machinegun drums, never once sounding out of place. Without a single misstep the music constantly shifts gears from brain-throbbing intensity to ambient perfection, from intimate and swaying to warlike bombast. Eleven tracks, eleven years. And every one a masterpiece.

1 comment:

Spiral-In-Spiral said...

Great list, even though I obviously could have guessed what was coming, was still interesting, and have to check out some of the stuff that I maybe haven't paid enough attention to yet (I love that health crystal castles remix, so might have to nick that album from you).

And I'm so glad that you answered the question "do you like rock music" with a "yes, I do". I was expecting it, and I got it.