Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Favourites of 2008: My Top 10

Just squeaking in before the end of the year in either country (UK or USA), here are my favourite albums of this uneven year:

10 - Opeth
- Watershed
Another powerful release with glorious shades from acoustic to all out metal thunder. Porcelain Heart showcases the differences exceedingly well in one song but as always it's important to listen to all the songs together to get the real contrasts taking place. An adventurous, exciting album from a band who could create no less.

9 - Murder by Death - Red of Tooth & Claw
Didn't expect this but it has actually been a while since the release of In Bocca al Lupo, at least the Stateside release, so it makes sense and is good this one isn't delayed into the UK CD bins. This one sees the singing going deeper still and really plumbing the influences of Johnny Cash songs, whilst the underlying instrumentation again benefits from Sarah Balliet's rumbling cello to add to the depth. The mix of western, folk, and alt rock all combines extremely well, leading to some rattling cuts like Coming Home, with more restrained and sometimes sinister numbers such as Ash setting them off in a similar style to the outstanding Who Will Survive & What Will Be Left of Them album. All in all, a great album where MBD may be finding their true identity now that all the facets of their previous works have been neatly rolled up into this outing.

8 - Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
I intended to purchase this for much of 2008, but only got around to it when they were further pushed by the Mercury Award in September. Fair play to them, because it's a stunning album that deserves to be up their pissing on the likes of Coldplay and Snow Patrol, whatever their own particular charms might be. Grounds For Divorce, Mirrorball, One Day Like This, Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver....the whole album triumphs on both the individuality of the songs and the gently beautiful way they all come together for a charming listen. I've found it suits a variety of moods and will have me delving fully into a back catalogue that I only know by a few choice songs. Thankfully, it looks like many others are doing the same and that these guys will get the widespread respect they have long deserved.

7 - Santogold - s/t
I didn't really enjoy the first songs I heard from Santi White but I've no idea why now, as this album has been appearing regularly on my playlists since I picked it up in May. It's concisely excellent, with an array of styles on display from the alt-pop zeal of L.E.S. Artistes to the jagged funk of Unstoppable, which lends it a certain personality and charm rarely replicated in other releases of the year. Despite the soundtracking of evert advert from cars to hair goo, I didn't hear enough to put me off and I'm glad my first listens weren't the last.

6 - The Hold Steady
- Stay Positive
"Let this be my annual reminder, that we can all be something better" and "Yeah dreams can cost some money, but money costs some dreams" are two of the more memorable lyrics that help place this one so high on my list. Aside from the fact that I love seeing the band live regardless, they do also pen some quality nostalgia-laden rock songs, whilst still managing to look to the future from time to time. This is a more mature take on life from the guys yet retains their verve and love for the good time songs. It's a case of doing what it say on the tin, because this record really does help you keep upbeat about life when your perhaps not having the best day, which is always valuable to have loaded up on your iPod.

5 - Torche - Meanderthal
Two metal albums in the top 5.....I'm so happy! Furthermore, two expansive, 'out there' metal bands with very different approaches to their application of Big Riff. Torche take the hookladen approach - more so than ever - on this very accessible outing, with colossal songs like Grenades and Across the Shields proving that metal needn't be all bluster and no upbeat melodies. Metal for those that don't like really metal? Quite possibly.

4 - This Will Destroy You - s/t
This one came in early in January, providing a similarly thrilling post-rock start to the year as Aereogramme offered in 2007. Though this couldn't quite win the same place in my aural affections as My Heart Has a Wish That You Would Not Go, it does tick many of the same boxes. Fragile passages of intricate guitars, stirring climaxes and dynamic breaks all combine to form a gorgeous album that doesn't need words to communicate its subtle points. I've reviewed elsewhere and all the comments still hold true, this being a huge hughlight of the year.

3 - School of Language -
Sea From Shore
A testament to the joys of indie CD store shopping, I picked this up in Probe Records (Slater Street, Liverpool....cheggidout) because it had an effusive hand written label extolling the virtues of its alt-pop. I thoroughly agree and have had a few sessions where I simply had to spin it again to get my fix of the huge hooks and naggingly catchy rhythms within. This Is No Fun is a good place to start and is quite the opposite of the feeling you come away with after spending some time with the album. Easily the happiest random discovery of the year and all the better for it.

2 - 5ive
- Hesperus
The second of the adventurous metal releases I adored this year, 5ive created a masterpiece of swirling guitar walls and dynamic rhythmic peaks and troughs. It's another one that needs to be taken as a whole to really appreciate what's going on (and I haven't even begun to get into the concepts behind the album yet....although the artwork is tres pretty), though News I is as good a place to start as any. Although standard metal is struggling to win my affections a lot of the time, the experimental side is alive and well with some fantastic releases both now and slated for 09 release.

1 - TV on the Radio -
Dear, Science

I was waiting for this from the start of the year, after playing Return to Cookie Mountain ad infinitum over the last couple of years. I wasn't immediately won over on the new, more positive approach upon hearing Dancing Choose first but now both that song, Golden Age, and the numerous other upbeat, funky beauties on this album have more than taken me in. It's not just happy times either. Shout Me Out and Crying add a more restrained, soulful side to the album and Family Tree is a heart-wrenching slice of melancholy. A glorious return and all the better for being so different to its downbeat forebear, there was simply no other choice for my #1 this year.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Favourites of 2008: 20 - 11

Continuing from where we left off, here are those that were clearly excellent releases this year but couldn't quite push their way into my top 10............

20 - Late of the Pier - Fantasy Black Channel
This is one bizarre, yet thoroughly satisfying, listen. It starts off by coming on like the Clangers national anthem, before moving into driving electronica numbers laden with synth effects. The album continues this way throughout, referencing any number of influences from The Klaxons and Mars Volta through Depeche Mode and New Order. Highlights include the fluctuating jungle stomp of The Bears Are Coming and the vigorous attack of Focker but in truth the whole headfucking effort needs to be heard in order to fully appreciate it. Mad prof genius.

19 - Forward, Russia - Life Processes
Going all standard for this release, FR decided that actual song names - rather than Give Me a Wall's arbitrary numbers - would be fine this time. How contemporary. The style is still jagged and raw, but with slightly more emphasis on melody, allowing for beauties like Spanish Triangles. The off kilter rocking numbers are still present too and the combination makes for an improved and highly coherent listen.

18 - Black Mountain - In the Future
About this time last year I was obsessively looking at the Jan '08 release schedule to see what might be worth picking up, when I downloaded Tyrants from this bad boy. It gave me the impression that I'd be buying a Sabbath-worshipping effort by a bunch of stoner long hairs. One member does fulfil that criterion, but the album from whence that track came is more varied than anything I could have imagined. Although it suffers a little for this, being too eclectically adventurous in places, they do create some exciting and dynamic tunes within it. Never knowing quite where they're going to go is also one of the positives as you move from track to track.

17 - Meshuggah - obZen
Not something you can simply put on as background music, sure, but Meshuggah deliver a technically brilliant and sonically challenging master class with obZen. It's a pleasure to have something so heavy, brutal and yet arse clenchingly tight to compare with Opeth's more organic but equally gifted Watershed in the same year. Although this doesn't come out on top, it's a more than worthy competitor.

16 - Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus Dig!!!
I got into the double album Abbatoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus thanks to a friendly recommendation earlier this year, then had to follow up with this one. The title track is a typically brilliant storytelling effort, with Cave's trademark voice giving it the required biblical undertones. The album as a whole maybe doesn't compete with earlier releases but retains the high standard expected from a man with so much great material already out there.

15 - Okkervil River - The Stand Ins
Whilst not quite as immediately engaging as last year's The Stage Names, this one is nonetheless chock full of uptempo acoustic gems. They make it seem so effortless, pulling out deceptively simple tunes that lodge in your mind and release themselves via a slight hum later on, long after you've turned off the iPod. The Stage Names had more variety and as such was a more complete album, but this is still a worthy companion.

14 - The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound
I avoided these folks for months due to their status of Kerrang! cover band and a strange link I had between them and an entirely separate emo band with Anthem in their name. More fool me! This is a terrific slice of nostalgiac, gritty rock music that revels in worshipping another time, specifically that of Bruce Springsteen's hey day. The huge choruses are undeniable and catchy as the sniffles in this freezing season we currently pass through. Check out Old White Lincoln and the title track for a couple of prime examples. Then buy the album on the back of them, because the whole kit and kaboodle fits together to make the big tunes sound even better.

13 - Portishead - Third
As a Bristol kid growing up - and actually living in the naff little town from whence their name derives - a new Portishead release had me all a flutter after all these years. My trip-hop crown will always go to Massive Attack, though Portishead came some significant yards with this engrossing return to the scene. They conjure up the expected low-end, symphonic grooves that made previous albums so good, then add a little bit of extra attitude to really push home their return. It sounds more urgent, more certain than I remember them, nowhere more so than the aptly titled We Carry On, which almost dares you to challenge them for trying their hand again. Then there's the almighty Machine Gun, which is sure to be one of the first songs on playlists worldwide for this year.

12 - vessels - White Fields & Open Devices
After downloading the Yuki EP last year I was wondering when vessels would gather enough material for a full release. Thankfully, the answer was 2008. This is a stunning amalgamation of both the foremost post-rocking Texans (Explosions in the Sky, This Will Destroy You), epic soundscape bands like Sigur Ros, and the queer electronic noodlings of Battles. All these great reference points are insufficient, however, in describing quite how involving and dynamic a listen this album is. Best pick up a copy and experience it for yourself, I'd say.

11 - 36 Crazyfists -
The Tide & Its Takers
There's not much to say about 36CF that hasn't been covered by previous album reviews. Yes, they have a contemporary metal sound with a touch of core thrown in here and there for good measure. Yes, the tremolo-affected vocals of Brock Lindow are a love them or loathe them affair. No, this doesn't sound entirely different from the last two efforts. But all of this is what I love about the band. I partially write them off after hearing a new song or two, thinking "it sounds like a lesser version of the last one", then see them live - for this is their natural environment and one in which they demolish all before them - and buy the album the next day. They wrote unbelievably affecting and positively uplifting songs, to my mind, and they always make me react. I have so many good memories and important lyrics linked to these guys that I almost feel bad for not jumping them higher on the list. At the end of the day it is still a good but similar album, though, and I'll add Absent Are the Saints and We Gave It Hell to my list of 'must-mosh' songs when I next see them live.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Favourites of 2008: Random Numbers

Right so, I've re-listened to about as many albums from this year as I'm realistically going to fit in before the end, so I feel happy kicking off the list countdown efforts.

Carol is one of Pitchfork's less eloquent reviewers

It turns out there are 32 discs I can't be leaving off this time around, some distance short of the round 50 that I managed last year. There were still more 2007 releases that I came across early this year, so that list could have been expanded still further. This year I've found to be much more patchy. Without doubt, there have been some cracking releases, it's just that they've either all come in a glut (at least for me personally) or have been very disparate styles. That has plus points but the resounding feeling at this point is that '08 was very unbalanced and not entirely satisfying musically. I put this down to two factors:

1) Personally, I've probably not spent as much time trawling around blogs and review sites to see what's being released. At least a third of the year has been spent in transit to the USA and preparing a move to New York City, which has been great fun but has only recently got me back scouring the release schedules again. I also like to buy the discs that I'm really digging from downloaded mp3's, but cash has been reserved for only the best of the best in the second half of the year.

2) Stylistically, I'm just not feeling some of those genres clogging up the interwebz this year. The lo-fi, quiet folky bands and pop-disco sensations have at best delivered a couple of tunes that have tapped my toes, at worst left me entirely befuddled as to their peculiar charms. All of which is perfectly fine, simply allowing more time for the discs that have staked a claim to be digested fully.

Metal, in its purest form, remains conspicuous by its absence this year. I still love the genre and bands that pulled me into this beautiful musical universe but the deathcore and emo-metal that parades around trying to convince that it can stand up to the old guard simply sounds tedious and trite. Metallica released a return to form, apparently, which I'm glad for in industry terms but on a personal level this is a band that have never fully engaged my ears. I also missed the Cavalera Conspiracy record and passed over a few others in favour of more post-rock efforts, so perhaps some of the fault is mine. One way or another, though, the meat and potatoes of the genre isn't producing new bands that are demanding my attention.

Anyhow, that's all talk around the main point of this post, so to get back on track here goes 32 - 21 of my preferred listening this year.

32 -
The Gutter Twins - Saturnalia
Greg Dulli/Mark Lanegan collaborations are always likely to find a place, though this is lower than I would have first expected. It's a sombre, introspective affair for the most part, with only a few tracks like 'Idle Hands' providing a much needed change of pace. Good but perhaps too solemn for its own good?

31 -
Sigur Rós - Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
A mild surprise, in that this time out everyone's favourite BBC documentary soundtrackers reign in the epic and keep a good 3/4 of the tracks around the 5 minute mark. The album doesn't suffer for it and it actually makes for a happily direct listen, though I would certainly run back to Takk for the real blockbusters. That said, Hopelandic is rarely short of beautiful and this no exception.

30 - Frank Turner - Love, Ire & Song
Despite the expected absolute scorchers (Reasons Not to Be An Idiot, Photosynthesis, the title track...), Frank still suffers from the occassional filler that also hit debut Sleep Is For The Week. His high points are nothing short of anthemic on both plastic and the stage, however, and he still stands out as one of the UK's finest singer-songwriters of my generation...I relate to his griping!

29 - Shearwater - Rook
Beyond being an Okkervil River side project, this album has plenty of its own character and depth. The quiet, contemplative vocal style and carefully arranged instrumentation adds up to a delicate, reflective listen that gives more every time you sit down with it.

28 - Counting Crows - Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings
It's been a while since Hard Candy, so a new Crows album was a nice e-prise to find nestling in my inbox earlier this year. Whilst a double album about the weekend could have been overblown and unwarranted, whatever the concept is thankfully doesn't interfere with the enjoyment of the album. Whilst they'll probably never come close to August & Everything After again in their career, this is a welcome return to form and live circuit in my humble opinion.

27 - Jr. Juggernaut - Ghost Poison
One of a few happy accidents this year, in this case a last minute download on e-music in panic of a month's credit not rolling over. This is Americana-tinged rock with some wonderfully simple yet catchy songs (Lit By The Winter, Coming In Backwards). Closer inspection of the lyrics reveals some intentionally contradictory content against the feel of the songs (Believe in Something), which only adds to the repeat listens guaranteed by the quality on show here.

26 - Scars on Broadway
- s/t
Some hold that when Daron sings in System of a Down, things get shite. Happily I'm not one of these strange people and thus I take Scars on Broadway for what it is, a gloriously eccentric alternative to the day job with enough differences and quirks to justify its existence. Listen to Stoner-Hate or They Say and the point is proven.

25 - The Duke Spirit - Neptune
A strong follow up to the rollicking debut Cuts Across the Land, this one is full of water-borne metaphors to cover anything from du jour trends to the inexplicably abandoned relationships. The vocals hark back to Detroit's rock heyday but the overall sound is much more contemporary, making for an out of time but fascinating listen. Getting stronger by the album.

24 - Bob Mould - District Line
That distinctive, time-wearied voice of Mr Mould is immediately engaging on this solo outing, evoking fond memories of his influential pre-noughties bands and keeping one happy throughout the short duration of the album. Snappy, punchy songs with hooks that could be used to drag out Simon Cowell's smarmy grey matter. This is the honest, pure sound of music that needs to be retained.

23 - Earth - The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull
A slow, rumbling, behemoth of an album. This sounds like an expedition into the deepest rainforest, being both organic, adventurous but with a sense of deep foreboding underlying the whole effort. One to be taken in the right frame of mind but a great duality of uplifting and worrying tones, when the mood suits.

22 - Russian Circles
- Station
From the post-metal beginnings of Enter, the band have taken a sharp left turn and veered over the carriageway onto Post Rock Drive. None the worse for it, the songs here breathe gloriously, build gently, and of course rock furiously on the few occassions they're let off the leash. Whether or not they stay on this course will be interesting to hear, although the fact that they stand up proudly in a genre close to saturation point is all the more to their credit.

21 - The Raconteurs -
Consolers of the Lonely
A surprise addition to the release schedules in March, only a week notice was given for this follow up effort to 2006's excellent Broken Boy Soldiers. A bit more grandiose and ambitious, this one can at times stray a little too far from the simple, loveable pop-rock that made that record so fun. Even so, Salute Your Solution caters for that crowd quickly and effectively, where as some of the grander numbers like Rich Kid Blues and The Switch & The Spur do add an interesting style-twist but retain the all important hooks. After getting used to the change in approach, this one recovers to be a thoroughly enjoyable affair.

I'll get the artwork and links up here shortly for these, then onward to the big hitters in my year. I know, the anticipation is only marginally below that of US election night......patience is a virtue. Whether this is as important historically, of course, only future generations will decide. Close call.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Narrow Misses

Having started late on the lists this year, the last week and a bit has seen my listening heavily revolve around: 1) summarising what the bloody hell was released in 2008 and 2) figuring out whether the albums that sounded great at the start of the year hold up further down the line. Having done that, I'm chuffed to have now finished it all up and can get to the satisfying bit of posting everything up soon, closing off the year, looking forward to what's upcoming in 2009, then realising I've forgotten/missed/changed my mind on approximately 4,000 albums from '08. Such is the nature of the self-indulgent year end best of.

It being Boxing Day (regardless of the blatant refusal to acknowledge it with a public holiday in the US.....for shame), I still have too much Christmas cheer in me - in cookie form, not beer unfortunately - to spend ages counting down the albums, so I'll simply prologue it now with the laughingly overblown tag of 'Honourable Mentions'. Albums that were high up in the listening tracks at some time but for whatever reason didn't quite scale the heady peaks of my entirely uninfluential top 30. To wit:

The King Blues - Save the World, Get the Girl
A fun, very British listen. Given more time it might rank higher but not all tunes are as superb as the title track.

The Bronx - III
Crazy. This should probably be in my top 10 but it was only released last month and I haven't found it on iTunes or any record stores....unfathomable really but there you go.

Textures - Silhouettes
Along with Meshuggah, these guys released a supremely schizophrenic, engaging metal outing here. Just marginally shy of nudging out a few others.

Rise Against - Appeal to Reason
Standard fare Rise Against really, but they do it so well. 'Hero of War' is stirring and the usual fast-paced, politically charged content is it was in '06,'04, and '02 before that.

Weezer - Red Album
I've heard all these tracks in a disjointed way, a stream here and a download there. As always, they've included some untouchable pop-rock songs that everyone has heard by now. Probably more my fault for not putting it all together and listening to the album as a whole.

Portico Quartet - Knee Deep in the North Sea
Officially a 2007 release but I downloaded it in September '08, on the basis of it being in the Mercury '08 nominations and them playing Jools Holland in '08. So there. Smooth as a silk kitten jazz that is perfect for the wee hours.

Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III
Sold a million plus in the first week......just not to me. 'A Milli' got me hooked recently and I like the unhinged, alternative arrogance of the rhymes used. Hip hop/rap's poorly represented on my list this year, which may not have been quite so much the case if I'd picked up on this one a bit earlier.

British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music?
One of the first albums I picked up this year and, whilst it still has some of the endearing qualities of 'Open Season', I found myself rarely coming back for repeat listens. My first surprise of the year, as I was expecting some significant evolution here. Oh well.

Lightspeed Champion - Falling Off Lavendar Bridge
Pleasant enough with some enjoyable, simple indie pop songs. Not that remarkable, though.

- s/t
See post from a few days ago. This is US radio rock fare but doesn't lose anything for being so.

Hot Chip - Made in the Dark
Great singles, doesn't make for a full album to come back to for me though.

Grails - Take Refuge in Clean Living
Not bad but suffers from being in the shadow of last year's outstanding 'Burning Off Impurities'.

Cadence Weapon - After Party Babies
See Grails but substitute album title for 'Breaking Kayfabe'.

Blood Red Shoes
- Box of Secrets
Some great singles but another band I should have tried harder with, both on disc and live. My bad, lass and lad.

- Black Ice
Haven't listened to all of it, so can't justify it being higher. Fair play on the amazing comeback though......the world needs simple, boozy rawk n roll like this!

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Orwellian Nightmare

Despite having heard that phrase throughout my days, it's not something that I really understood well conceptually until a few years ago. I'm pretty sure music somehow started the education process in this area, as with so many others, yet the exact path of research escapes me. To date I've not read 1984 but, given my painfully slow progress through Moby Dick after Mastodon's conceptual use for 'Leviathan' (currently on page 341....they haven't even seen the White Whale yet), I'll get around to it during the next decade.

The reason for all this preamble, aside from the joy I experience in taking too many words to reach the point of anything and everything, is to introduce Innerpartysystem, a band whose name derives from the elitist class in Orwell's famed, totalitarian vision of the future. Having ploughed through the s/t album a few times, I can gain a vague feeling of this influencing the music, such as the conflict described on 'Everyone is the Same' and the eerie, claustrophobic electronics that close out the album on 'Soundscape'. Chiefly though I think they just happened upon a damn cool monicker and ran with it.

The band hail from Pennsylvania and also came to my attention as they're touring pretty extensively in the US, then UK, early next year. This includes a stop at Cleveland's Grog Shop, a venue of which I have fond memories and to which I must return before our lives carry us on to le Grande Pomme de Terre. They reputedly have a pretty solid live show, backed up by manic strobing lights, which I can see complimenting their driving, electronic rock audi o pretty well. Stylistically they have a Filter/Stabbing Westward-hued sound, given a good polish in the same way that Linkin Park used to achieve (in)famousness. Whilst the latter might not have the more discerning alt-rocker rushing for the links below, I can confirm it does actually pan out effectively. In fact, I've listened to so much lo-fi, "real" indie on LastFM radio recently that I was more than ready for something as slick as these guys. Maybe you feel the same?

Monday, 22 December 2008

Do You Remember the Tiiiiime?

Wow, so that time girl really does fly don't she? A lack of summer buying/gigging left me with not so much to write about, followed by an extended period without t'internet leaving me unable to knock anything out if and when I was able to pick up something interesting. So here we are, close to the year end, with of course the inevitable lists bringing myself (and who knows how many other e-ramblers) back to the blogs. The new year promises much but as we're not entirely done with this one yet, much remains to be said and I'm glad I'm back on here pre-2009 to catch up on some missed babbling.

That said, my lists are still being calculated by a complex set of statistical algorithms (read: 3 columns and an arbitrary rating scale in Excel), so this is simply a return to the noble art of spotlighting an artist. Namely, Little Boots.

I first caught this Blackpool lass performing on Jools Holland a couple of months ago now, so it's taken me a little while to follow up the initial pique in my interest. She bashed out a firey little uptempo number called 'Meddle', with the eye-catching combination of piano and stylophone. I was dubious at first but it was so passionately played and catchy that you couldn't help being drawn in. Having downloaded said tune and streamed a couple of others, I can heartily recommend her efforts to all and sundry, especially with the Lancashire connection making her more and less a local artist (sort of......kind of....a bit). The sound is of the du-jour electro-pop variety but with some neat twists and turns that give a nod towards the slightly unhinged element of The Dresden Dolls too. All of which works excellently on the few songs around at the moment.

There's no album out as yet but the (now rare) vinyl Arecibo EP can be purchased on your favourite random indie site, such as this one or, if the Crunch is really hitting home, a nifty mix tape can be obtained gratis by signing up to her mailing list here. Consider it an early Christmas present.......certainly far better than some of the jumpers you're to receive shortly from the Aunt you can barely recall meeting.

Happy Holidays!

Little Boots Myspace