Most years are pretty good for music if you know where to look, and 2008 was no exception. It’s a shame that you have to search so hard, of course – once upon a time all you needed to keep track of what was good in the world of music was a radio. These days it requires a little effort, though, and while I lost count a long time ago, I probably sampled a few hundred CDs in the last 365. Thank the gods for the Internet and a growing network of friends who make sure to let me know whenever they hear something worthy, huh?
This is part one of three. The Platinum LP Awards will be along soon, and that will be followed by the CD of the Year post. So here we go with last year’s Gold Awards for Very Good CDs. These are in alphabetical order, more or less. Band Web sites link to the band name, and if the CD is available via eMusic, that links to the CD title. If you want to purchase from eMusic, click on the link in the right column for a really good deal (as in lots of free downloads).
The 2008 Gold LPs
Big Head Todd & the Monsters – All the Love You Need
The hardest CDs to evaluate for me are the ones from bands that don’t have a lot of off days. Bands like BHT&tM, for instance – all they do is write good songs, play the hell out of them, put on great live shows, and in general set such a consistently high standard that all the excellence begins to run together. There aren’t nearly enough bands in the world like this to suit me, frankly.
All the Love You Need is more of the same, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s thoughtful, meticulously crafted, and executed with such professionalism that it’s easy, over time, to lose sight of just how much better they are than most other bands out there.
Dave Barnes – Me and You and the World
I discovered this one completely by accident one day, as I was surfing around eMusic looking for something new. Barnes has apparently been a pure blues guy in the past, but here he tips in the direction of more commercial-sounding fare, including my favorite track, “Brothers and Sisters,” a Lewis Taylor-esque Pop-R&B excursion that would have been right at home on any good FM station during the ‘70s.
The Chevelles – Barbarella Girl God
“Garage Pop” is the term being used to describe this incredibly fun band of Aussies, and that’s probably as good as any. The formula is simple: start with uncomplicated, hook-laden guitar-pop songs that recall everything from Cheap Trick to The Plimsouls to The Raspberries, then whang ‘em out like … well, like Cheap Trick, The Plimsouls and The Raspberries. The Chevelles don’t set out to do anything terribly groundbreaking, but if you’re looking to put the top down and drive around town with your friends enjoying a crystal-clear summer night, you can’t beat it.
Back in the ‘80s there was a remarkable run of roots-inflected bar-boogie bands that found interesting ways of extracting the essential character of their respective regional heritages and packing it into something that was extremely cool: Los Lobos and The BoDeans were the two that enjoyed the greatest success, but you also had Lone Justice, Jason & the Scorchers, The Right Profile and The Blasters, as well as a couple of bands with “Del” in their names: The Del Lords and The Del Fuegos.
So when I tripped across a new San Francisco band called The Del Bombers I couldn’t help recalling that fantastic moment from a couple decades back. Turns out, this new crowd fits right in – twangy, slightly countryish (a little Ryan Adams meets a heavy dose of Social Distortion, maybe) rock that’s about as unpretentious as it gets. If you like your rock & roll smart, engaging and honest, you’ll want to give them a listen.
Doco – The Fossil Record
Let me be up front here. I don’t much care for Doco’s style of music, which is a measure of blues, another measure of hip-hop, and way too much Sublime for my taste. But I’ve known Trevor and Josh Booth since … well, since they were born, pretty much, so I felt obliged to give them a listen. And here’s the truth. I may not be much enamored of their stylistic choices in places, but these boys can flat-out play.
Josh is better than a lot of the people we think of as great bassists and I haven’t heard more than a handful of guitarists in my life who are as good at the same age as Trevor. The band is at its best, I think, when they’re locked into the blues, and that seems to happen more live than on TFR. But this isn’t all about me. I have a feeling that a lot of folks reading this are going to love Doco. And my taste shouldn’t stand in the way of that, huh?
The Dreaming – Etched in Blood
Do you remember Stabbing Westward? If not, they were one of the most successful industrial rock bands of the ‘90s and early ‘00s. They called it quits after 2001’s s/t disc failed (I’m speculating here) to get the kind of commercial traction they’d hoped for. While that CD was still pretty noisy, they had taken a clear tack in the hard pop direction being mined more successfully by Fuel.
SW front man Christopher Hall is back with his new band, The Dreaming, and I think we can put it like this: if you liked the last Stabbing Westward record, there’s a good chance you’re going to like Etched in Blood. Extremely crunchy and hard, it’s also quite melodic – if you can make the phrase “bonecrushing beauty” work in your head, then this disc is for you.
The Foxboro Hot Tubs – Stop Drop & Roll
Let’s say you’ve just produced an instantly epic CD, a work that’s one of the two greatest punk records in history. A landmark political commentary that expressed the rage that millions of citizens felt but that most other bands were too afraid to take on.
Whatcha gonna do next? Well, if you’re smart, you’re going to do something a little different, because no way in hell you’re going to equal, let alone exceed, American Idiot.
Green Day was, in fact, smart, so they decided to take a breather. Enter their alter-egos, The Foxboro Hot Tubs, and their decidedly non-political landmark, Stop Drop & Roll. In a nutshell, the boys decided to get back to what they once were – a fun-loving, melodic California pop band. Tremendous fun for the masses…
The Gaslight Anthem – The ’59 Sound
In a way, this was the Marah CD I was hoping for in 2008. The Springsteen influence is unmistakable, but there’s a vitality that we haven’t heard from The Boss since the ‘80s. Bruce was always at his best when he echoed the melancholy of the no-place-to-go mid-Atlantic working class, and the same minor-chord ethos haunts The ‘59 Sound from one end to the other. TGA is still fairly early in their career – it will be interesting to see how their sound evolves as they grow.
Hooverphonic – The President of the LSD Golf Club
Trippy, downbeat, etherial, atmospheric – pretty much what you expect a Hooverphonic disc to be. Some listeners might find TPotLSDGC to be a little more accessible than some past efforts, though. It’s not as though the band is terribly alienating, of course, but in my experience music this cool – and that’s cool as in chilly, not cool as in hip – is hard for some people to hook into. Perhaps this is because it’s possible to be very pretty without being engaging for some. In any case, if this isn’t the band’s best effort ever, it’s close.
The Lost Patrol – Midnight Matinée
Imagine Duane Eddy teaming up with Hope Sandoval, Jon Crosby and The Church to do a soundtrack for a new David Lynch Western Gothic epic starring Johnny Depp and a wrung-out Elisabeth Shue, with powerful supporting turns from Zooey Deschanel and Javier Bardem, you’re probably more or less on the right track. Or this, from the blurb at CD Baby: “A sweeping, cinematic, wide-screen journey that combines ethereal soundscapes with surf-tinged guitar. Perfect for those late night rides across the desert with the top down…Uniquely original retro-futurism.” Marketing language, sure, but it sounds about right.
Genre? Good luck. Its aching beauty, bespeaking a loneliness bigger than the Wyoming sky at dusk, argues for a spot on the fringes of Goth. The reverberating twang of Steve Masucci’s guitars reminds me not of Country, but of traditional Western. While it’s not industrial by any stretch, it’s right at home on a playlist with bands like Fiction 8 and The Birthday Massacre. Fans of DreamPop and Shoegazer will have no problem slotting it alongside Lush, Catherine Wheel, Blonde Redhead or The Raveonettes. And I think somebody needs to put “Blue Lullabies” in the soundtrack of a surfing flick.
TLP was on my list last year, too, and if they keep this up they’ll be on it again in the future.
Marti Jones & Don Dixon – Lucky Stars: New Lullabies For Old Souls
I was a little taken aback by this one. I bring some expectations to the table where Don and Marti are concerned, so the folky moments were as anticipated. But there are places on the disc where the word “lullabies” is intended pretty literally and others where it’s almost like listening to Loreena McKennitt – these were less anticipated. Still, what a wonderful surprise. Marti is a gorgeous singer and songwriter, and this effort flows logically, I guess, from some experimentations Don was working on a couple of years back. All in all, a beautiful collaboration from two of our more talented and underappreciated artists.
I always loved Elastica, so when I run across a band that apparently shares the sentiment it’s great news. Enter The Long Blondes, whose catchy brand of neo-UK New Wave may also remind you of The Fall, Wire, Kaiser Chiefs and Franz Ferdinand – all good things. Unfortunately, while my discovery of TLB was very good news, in October we got some very bad news. From guitarist Dorian Cox on the band’s Web site:
“We have decided to call it a day.
The main reason for this is that I suffered from a stroke in June and unfortunately I do not know when / if I will be well enough to play guitar again.”
It’s bad enough when a band you like breaks up. But a stroke, at such a young age? Awful. So here’s to one of 2008’s best, and best wishes for a speedy recovery and return to the best of list.
Three releases in two years. One thing’s for sure, Trent Reznor isn’t slowing down. Maybe he’s really found freedom in the brave new world of music downloading. Whatever the case, it’s good news.
If you read the pro critics on this one you’ll notice a lot of words like “focus,” “tight” and “lean,” and in truth, there isn’t a lot of fat on the bones here. As is always the case when Reznor is at his best, there’s a powerful sense of control about The Slip – whether he’s in laser drill mode or unwinding into the ambient, there’s never, ever a second where he isn’t doing precisely what he intends.
REM – Accelerate
In an interview preceding the release of Accelerate, Michael Stipe said he wants to do a truly epic American rock album, and that he doesn’t feel like REM has yet accomplished that. Which is ridiculous – they’ve done it at least three times (Murmur, Reckoning and Automatic for the People) and maybe more (Fables of the Reconstruction, Life’s Rich Pageant). But it’s been awhile since Automatic, and while REM has had some very good moments, they haven’t sustained greatness over the span of an entire CD since 1992.
And they don’t quite pull it off here, either, although they do manage their best effort since Automatic. The problem, I think, lies with their insistence on stripping down and rocking. Nothing wrong with this formula, in and of itself, except that all of REM’s greatest moments emerged from the moody, atmospheric, even muddy brand of Southern Gothic that established them early on. Sure, AftP was more polished sonically, but it was, in its way, as haunted as Reckoning.
Take away the haunt and you’ve neutered the band of what makes them truly great. By this standard, then, I believe Accelerate is as good a disc as they’re capable of crafting from their current mode of thinking. If they ever do produce another five-star masterpiece, I promise you it will sound more like Life’s Rich Pageant than Accelerate.
School of Seven Bells – Alpinisms
SVIIB is the new project from Ben Curtis, formerly of The Secret Machines, and you’ll hear a certain kinship right away. While the overall effect owes rather obviously to the legacy of My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins, Alpinisms is also decidedly more global, with a variety of Eastern influences finding their way into the mix (the lead track, “Iamundernodisguise,” provides a meditative glimpse of things to come). If you come away reminded a bit of mid-period Delerium) think Semantic Spaces, just before they caught on with a broader audience) you won’t be alone.
Alpinisms is a little more challenging than most of what’s on this year’s list, but it rewards the effort handsomely.
There’s been a run of Hollywood types making records lately. A couple years ago we had a surprisingly good release from Juliette Lewis (Juliette & the Licks, Four on the Floor), for instance, and this year we had Scarlett Johansson’s thoroughly non-essential CD of Tom Waits covers. So when I heard that Zooey Deschanel (who was in Elf and who played the cool older sister in Almost Famous) had done a disc with alt-country artist M. Ward I had no idea what to expect. But I like Deschanel the actress, so what the heck.
Turns out the record is pretty damned good. The songs themselves run a stylistic gamut, including some very worthy Patsy Cline-ish C&W to neo-Supremes style ‘60s girl group throwbacks. (The Patsy-covers-The-Beatles take on “I Should Have Known Better” is pleasant enough, but I can’t say it made the CD any stronger, either.) The real revelation here is Deschanel’s voice – we knew from Elf that she could sing a little, but we didn’t fully understand just how talented she is until now.
Fans who were hoping for more of the same neo-post-punk from The Stills probably came away from Oceans Will Rise a little disappointed. No, they haven’t abandoned their roots altogether – there’s plenty of continuity to be found in the technical execution of the new release (chord progressions, vocal phrasing, etc.) – but they appear to have made a deliberate decision to step out of the long and oppressive shadow of Joy Division so as to better establish their own identities. The result takes a little listening to get used to, simply because it refuses to play into an existing template. Once you get your ears and expectations adjusted, though, you may well come to appreciate the new diversity of a band that seems determined to keep growing.
The Well Wishers – Jigsaw Days
This was one of the year’s more eagerly awaited CDs among the power pop underground set, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Here’s what I wrote when it was released: “This new release from Jeff Shelton (ex-Spinning Jennies) is among the top Power Pop discs of the year to date, and in addition to recalling artists like The Posies, Teenage Fanclub, Sloan, Supergrass and XTC, also has moments where it leans a bit heavier into the ‘Power’ than the ‘Pop.’ If you’re not familiar with contemporary underground pop, think Matthew Sweet meets Bob Mould (and if you don’t know them, just go to the darned site and click to sample). Like most bands working this genre, Shelton isn’t really looking to do anything new. But he’s doing a very good job cranking out earnest, tuneful guitar pop.”
It was true then and it’s true now.
And now, a few words about the year’s Honorable Mentions
Black Mountain – In the Future
These guys can’t make up their minds whether they’re Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple. I guess if you have to develop a serious retro-identity crisis, that’s not a bad one to have, though. The disc is noteworthy for its willingness to put the hammer down and rock, and it’s taking its cues from some worthy artists. For now it comes off as a tad derivative, but I’ll be interested to see where they go next as they seek their own voice.
Built by Snow – MEGA
For some reason I keep seeing that this is 2009 release, but I have the whole thing right now, so I’m not sure what the story is. Regardless, the Austin-based techno-geek rockers have an impeccable pop sensibility that echoes some of the niftiest UK New Wavers of the late ‘70s. And The Cars. Interesting enough to bear close scrutiny, and the sort of disc that you definitely want to spin at your next house party. You might have to spin it two or three times, though – the whole thing clocks in at a spare 21 minutes.
Goldfrapp – The Seventh Tree
Goldfrapp fans may have been taken aback by this one – I know I was. The band’s modus operandi has traditionally revolved around pulsating, electronic songs so ice cold they made your nipples stand on end. But here the crew has crawled off the sybian and commenced to hugging trees. The Seventh Tree is warm, sunny, lush, organic – in short, it’s the antithesis of everything they’ve ever been in the past.
At a purely critical level I can’t say that it’s a bad record. It isn’t – it’s full of well-crafted, well-performed songs. But I also can’t tell you that it connected with me, either. Which is odd – flesh should resonate in ways that a refrigerator can’t. My sense is that Alison and Co. had it right on Black Cherry and Supernature, and here’s hoping that their next outing will see the return of the ice cold sexuality that made us lust for them in the first place.
Marah – Angels of Destruction!
I’ve been a big Marah fan for the past few records, but the truth is that I’ve liked the last two the least of all. Critics are applauding them for their growth and for the fact that they’re really becoming their own band (as opposed to a band that hews too closely to their Springsteenish roots), and there’s no doubt that they’re a band in command of their sound. But I keep feeling like the more original they get, the less compelling their songs are.
This isn’t a diss, exactly, but for my money their newer efforts lack whatever it was that hooked me in the first place.
The Best CDs of 2008
Categories: Music/Popular Culture
After the first listen of The Dreaming, I’m liking it less than previous SW CDs. The guitar and drum work is great. I’m just having problems with the lyrics, I guess. They aren’t as strong as past efforts.
That’s why it’s gold, not platinum. I’ll be interested to see where Hall goes from here. It seems like he really wants to make a living, but wants to do it without compromising his musical principles. At times this leads to great work that’s both genuine and marketable, but it can also bog you down in a no-man’s land where you’re accomplishing neither.