Friday, December 26, 2008

Top 15 Albums of 2008: The Final 5

Part 1? Here, Part 2? Here, Part 3? Onward.

5. TV On The Radio - Dear Science
Ever since their debut, Desperate Youth & Bloodthirsty Babes, TV On The Radio have been a band ripe with potential, but in search of their own sound. While second album Return To Cookie Moutain saw them settling with some indie dance rock and excellent production, in retrospect it's clear now it was merely an evolutionary step to Dear Science. It is the perfect meeting point between daring artistic intent and sleek fruitful production. Instead of obscuring with a glossy sheen however, Dave Sitek's mixing lends the band a groove and grit their previous releases sometimes lacked.

Halfway Home confidently strikes first, with it's chugging bass line, dubby tribal drums and simple 'ba ba bum' sing-a-long it sets the template for the album - rhythmic, sleekly cool and deceptively melodic. Crying rests somewhere between a Prince-style funk workout and a ballad on social commentary, Dancing Choose offers a loose rap with an indictment on the media while Family Tree is a positively gorgeous number and on and on it goes.

It is an eventful album that will satisfy both the head and the heart with sterling compositions given colourful arrangements that reward with each further listen. Like a funkier, sexier Radiohead they use every musical resource to achieve a heady mix of musical ambition and enjoyment.

More than anything it showcases TVOTR as a unit, not just a ragtag collection of producers and players, but a unified band with an idiosyncratic vision and style. It's clear in the joy of creation evident in the songs, as DLZ crunches towards its spitfire ending or Love Dog's restrained heartache and the listener is never left behind or swamped by the wave of ideas that overflows in each track. Tunde Adebimpe's lyrics may alternatively cradle or confront the listener, but they're always couched in the most catching of melodies.

Do yourself a favour and acquaint yourself with TVOTR now, because if they continue making albums of this calibre, you'll be hard-pressed to convince people you knew them 'before they were huge.'

4. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
Much like Arctic Monkeys before them, Vampire Weekend achieved infamy via the blogosphere and in so doing garnered some hype that meant for a hesitation on my behalf to check them out, and once again I was happily proven wrong. Released early in the year, its sheer glut of enjoyable tunes meant that it weathered the vast amount of releases to remain one of the most wonderfully rounded records of 2008.

Although there were accusations of posturing scenesterism concerning their Afro-pop sound and those upper-class lyrics, their style as well as substance proved to win out. Q really did nail it when they hailed it the "indie Graceland."

They already have all the trappings of your new favourite band - a simple, winning approach to visual design, impossibly cool band names (Ezra Koenig or Rostam Batmanglij are almost too good to be true) but most importantly it was music stuffed with tender hooks, succint structures, sumptuous arrangements and a joy and sophistication in harmony.

The songs really do speak for the quality and interest of the record: Oxford Comma was a cooing attack on proper grammar, Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa featured a dastardly catchy riff and rhythm, M79 was chamber pop perfection. Peppered throughout were Koenig's witty (if distancing) lyrics like closing lines of One (Blake's Got A New Face): "Oh your college grief/has left you/dowdy in sweatshirts/absolute horror." But for every highly educated cultural reference (Peter Gabriel, Jackson Crowder, New York Landmarks aplenty) there is a simple hook such as A-Punk's 'Ey ey ey' punctuation or I Stand Corrected's humble chorus that you can't help but participate with.

In fact, it could be the near-perfect debut that will remain the band's curse, spending their career attempting to replicate, let alone better it; but for the time being it's one of the year's brightest, funnest albums. Just put on Mansard Roof, and as that organ bounce melts into the driving syncopated rhythm, try to disagree.

3. Bloc Party - Intimacy
2007 was a busy year for Bloc Party and given the flurry of activity, it would be more than fair enough if they decided to rest on their laurels. Clearly they had no such intention.

Intimacy had a lightening digital release back in August, not dissimilar to Radiohead's In Rainbows, with a physical release in October. Its quick release meant it had little time to be judged before it could be experienced, perhaps a cheap ploy if the music was bad, but in fact it was the opposite.

Although it's genetic makeup is similar to their previous two albums, particularly due to the re-appearance of Silent Alarm's Paul Epworth and A Weekend In The City's Jacknife Lee sharing production duties, Intimacy is a different beast indeed. It is more a concept album concerning Kele Okereke's recent break-up, finding time to stretch the themes of loss and heartache to a couple of deaths (Biko, Signs) and multiple references to Greek Mythology (Ares, Trojan Horse, the River Styx). While Mercury, the lead single, polarised fans with its bizarre concoction of brazen horns and heavily treated vocals - in context it makes that much more sense. Paired along with the apocalyptic dance rock of Ares (which borrows heavily from Chemical Brothers Setting Sun) it represents Bloc Party's most ambitious songs, while setting the scene for the chaotic world in which Kele is attempting to hold desperately on to his relationship. What follows is a stirring, passionate set of songs that detail love's foibles and Bloc Party's musical adventure.

For a band whose principles include pushing the boundaries of what indie/dance rock can and should be, this is still an album that contains some of their most daring excursions. Zephyrus combines a looped vocal track along with heavy drum and bass backing with a full choir. Better Than Heaven attempts to bolster the paranoid gloom of dub-step to their rocking Silent Alarm constructions while Signs tinkles and sparkles thanks to its keyboard and glockenspiel.

While the band falter occasionally on Okereke's clunky lyrics or attempts to appease those looking for Banquet part 2, they never linger too long for it to seem detrimental or damaging. While Bloc Party's contemporaries are content to ape passing styles or bigger bands, they refuse to be belittled by such cliches. Forging ahead may draw the most attention, and the biggest criticisms, but even if you hate Bloc Party - you have to respect them.

2. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
With its Bruegel artwork Fleet Foxes' debut appeared like a timeless record even before the aptly opening track, Sun It Rises, echoed out four-part harmonies like it was some kind of rural documentation of American folk. Not long after, the rusty acoustic guitars and pitter-patter drums echo images of dust being blown from the windowpane... or an old vinyl record.

It mines a deep vein of 70's Americana from the Crosby, Stills & Nash harmonies right down to the beardy ragged looks. And yet 70's folk has been a constant in recent years (owing a lot to My Morning Jacket) so what sets Fleet Foxes apart from the Band of Horses and Department of Eagles of the world?

For a start, it's hard to escape the fact that this debut feels like a 'long lost record.' With warm tones and nostalgic hermeutics in retains a comfortably familiar feel which is oddly refreshing amongst the current crop of noisy electronics, stripped back blues rock and dance garage influenced youth. Their sound is casually confident despite being powerfully provocative.

It's hard to define the album's highlights as it's track order runs so smoothly and seamlessly into each other. You know you're listening to a great album when each time you listen you have a new favourite track. Is it He Doesn't Know Why's cloud-breaking yearning? Blue Ridge Mountains dark folk or Quiet Houses teeming acoustics? In short, they're all brilliant but contribute to a listen that is without edge or interruption.

Fleet Foxes reminds one of a time when a love affair for a band could begin the moment you pressed play. Simply putting on the record - no preconceived notions, no hype, no advertising build-up. just the music. Of cours it's the kind of fresh naiveity that debuts will always have over established acts, but Fleet Foxes make it sound easy.

1. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
It's a small surprise to myself that the album of the year should be not a band, but a singer-songwriter artist. Not that there are real prejudices in judging good music, but I've always felt that it was the conflation and contribution of multiple artists within a 'gang' that could produce the best music, not the visions of an individual. Bon Iver proves the mighty exception to my theory.

It all begins with a great back-story. With the dissolution of his band and his relationship with a long-term girlfriend, Justin Vernon headed off to his father's log cabin in Wisconsin, hunting venison for food, it gave him time to "hibernate and reflect." What emerged was a wintry masterpiece and a watershed album in introspective soul-baring.

Bon Iver follows in the tradition of Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith in its sombre mode and brilliant vocals, but Vernon's style pushes the genre in interesting new directions. His songs of longing and heart-ache bolstered by unique guitar tunings, a clatter of background effects and Vernon's expressive vocals.

It's easy to sympathise with Vernon's plight, even if you struggle to hear his words which it turns out are obscure poetic imagery in themselves, because you can still feel them. His distinct voice contains a visceral edge, and easily one of the most gorgeous sounds this year was his shy cooing on the likes of Re: Stacks and the multi-tracked The Wolves (Act I and II). You can hear the full range of emotions in his haunting voice as well as in the accompanying guitar and clatter of effects that hover just in the background.

For all its serious intentions and heavy themes however, it's still easy to just get lost in the beautiful and mysterious music. Even as its melodies and riffs mine their way into your subconscious, hummed or sung in your private moments, they're always at the edge of full understanding making them all the more evocative. Skinny Love and Creature Fear are every bit as catchy as they are heart-wrenching.

Like others I've trumpeted in this list, it is an album that holds fast to the values and importance of the album format. Sequencing, cohesion and an arc that while not strictly confined to a narrative stream, relies much on the same principles: a beginning a middle and end. It's a mere 9 tracks of 38 minutes length, but it does so much more with its scope and range than these modest limitations would suggest. Like the best albums, For Emma takes us on a journey, with a beguiling and emphatic Justin Vernon as host.

It's easy to gush in the presence of such raw talent, but to put it simply Bon Iver is the best album of 2008 because it has all the qualities of an instant classic. An album that need not prove itself in order to achieve timeless status.

So there you have it, i hope you all had a great 2008 (musically and otherwise) including a great Christmas. Speaking of which, here's a link to my Xmas Mixtape of last year.

But wait... that's not it. The celebrations aren't quite over for 2008, I've still got a few more surprises up my sleeve. Watch this space.

That list in full...
Please feel free to comment below

1 comment:

  1. I'm going Robert Christgau on your ass. But seriously, i made this list before i saw your top 5.

    My top 10:

    1. TV On The Radio - Dear Science,
    This album is number one by a long way. Rarely does an album strike so instantly, yet I keep finding more complexity, and new parts i want to listen to. The album for 2008, not only because of their unique mix of funk, rock, rap and elctro, but because they were able to put into words the feeling of joy of saying goodbye to Dubya Bush.
    2. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
    The intensity and subtlety of this album make it much more timeless than a whole lot of other similar music that just doesn't measure up to this album.
    3. Bloc Party - Intimacy
    Silent Alarm was packed with singles, but Intimacy goes much better together as an album - ironically considering the dual producer efforts. Their live performances, outspokeness and general do whatver attitude with this album made it much more enjoyable.
    4. Air France - No Way Down
    Only an EP. But as far as a 22 minutes to take you straight to summer goes, it's hard to top this.
    5. The Dodos - Visiter
    I will be interested to see how these 2 guys create such a wall of sound between them. A good medium between raw folk, with stripped back guitars and vocals, but the percussion takes it towards Animal Collective - but not too much as to make it unappealing.
    6. Fleet Foxes
    7. M83 - Saturday = Youth
    8. Girl Talk - Feed the animals
    9. Vampire Weekend
    10. Beck - Modern guilt