Tuesday, December 16, 2008

2008 End-of-Year Celebrations: Top 15 Albums of 2008 Pt 1

...and so finally here it is. If there was but one article (or 3 posts, who's counting) I wanted my readership to devour - this is it.
My serious attempt at music journalism via an egotastic parading of 2008's best albums, as judged by yours truly. Compiled from hours spent carefully choosing how to express my adorations and opinions, hours spent fussing over the nominees and reshuffling the rank; but most importantly, hours spent listening to music. Which should hopefully be the final action all my garbled words provoke.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
THE TOP 15 ALBUMS OF 2008 (PT 1)

15. - Snowman -
The Horse, The Rat & The Swan
I discovered this one quite late in the year, in fact only a few weeks ago, despite it being released back in May - but its mood and sound took me instantly. This is only
Snowman's third studio work, and their second album proper, but it's clear already that they have an excellent grasp of the capabilities of the studio in enhancing their brooding compositions and dark textures.

The album experiences two distinct phases with the first half playing out like the apocalypse via tribal chanting (
Our Mother (She Remembers)), mechanic electro indie (We Are The Plague) and even mutated surf rock'n'roll (Daniel Was A Timebomb).

Guitarist come Vocal banshee Andy Citwarman barks and shouts like a frothing madman while Olga Hermanniusson and Joseph McKee offer chiming harmonies and cooing baritone in respite. It's a technique that's all over the album but is never grating or repetitve. The powerful pacing continues until the gentler second half, coming handily after
A Rebirth, with longer more hypnotic moments cascading into waves of sound or cathartic noise once again. Ending the whole affair is the cavernous Diamond Wounds, shimmering with textures of feedback, horns and even some Gamelan for good measure.

This record is proof of an Australian band (now relocating to London) willing to push the borders on what rock music can be, their music far outstrips simple generic elements like choruses, chord changes and in some cases lyrics. Overall,
The Horse, The Rat & The Swan is a heavy, brooding work of whom the exploration of its darkest corners rewards listeners and reveals a band at ease with the edges of creativity - where noise and function meet in a splendid armageddon.

14. R.E.M. - Accelerate
Despite a string of serviceable albums in the last ten years, there has been a popular theory that R.E.M. have been in a downward spiral ever since the departure of original drummer Bill Berry, bolstered by a number of soul-searching interviews since the release of their last album, 2004's Around The Sun. The three-piece elder spokesmen of American indie lamented their lack of internal communication, focus and cohesion. In that context, Accelerate has been saddled with one of those catch-all terms that often befall bands who span a career longer than a decade; which is to say that it is a 'return to form' album.

Fussy pigeon-holing aside the album is indeed appropriately titled, with the band cranking up the volume, speeding up the tempo and commiting to some songs with, excuse the pun, some drive. This isn't to say that it is a record without the subtlety that we're used to from these forward thinking artists. Michael Stipe's lyrical imagery returns to familiar blue-eyed dreamer mode on the likes of
Hollow Man and Until The Day Is Done, but it never slackens for too long. Key to all this vim and vigour is Peter Buck's incessant riffage and Bill Rieflin's drumming that power the crunch of each track as it the album steams through its 36 minute length.

Accelerate is not R.E.M.'s best album, but it is a potent reminder of one of music's most treasured acts, if at the very least it prompts the listener to explore their vast and rewarding back catalogue, then it can be considered a win. But on it's own terms, it still proves - to quote my earlier review - "that for a group nearly three decades into their career, there’s still plenty of fuel left in the tank".

Read my original review here

13. Death Cab For Cutie - Narrow Stairs
With the combination of Plans and heavy rotation on the likes of The OC, Death Cab For Cutie found themselves squarely in the drift of the mainstream. A place they had not necessarily clamboured to be and yet not one in which they seemed wholly uncomfortable either. No matter, it was clear Narrow Stairs was a message to the dedicated that they would not comporomise for their new-found fame, a message sent via the heralding single I Will Possess Your Heart.

At nearly 9 minutes length, its hypnotic groove combined with Gibbard's direct, almost threating, lyric demonstrated a previously unheard DCFC. While in retrospect it seems that they gave up their best track before the album was released,
Narrow Stairs is still an engaging record.

Opening Bixby Canyon Bridge demonstrates familiar territory before breaking apart in a noisy swell of power chords, No Sunlight and Long Division are the group's usual brand of effortlessly sunny pop and catchy poetry. Elsewhere Pity and Fear tackles middle eastern percussion and electronica while Grapevine Fires is a sobering tale of a state-wide bush fire. It's varied stuff and although occasionally the four-piece stretch themselves, it's an important album in their career arc, carving out a place in the popular music canvas that stays true to their original spirit and sound.

12. Augie March - Watch Me Disappear
Following after their most direct and successful effort thus far, 2006’s Moo, You Bloody Choir, comes album number four which finds Augie March shouldering their popular acceptance and defying expectations precisely by not rebelling against them. Delivering a taut eleven track set, compared to the average fifteen track forebears, of similarly polished songs.

Their creeping towards mainstream acceptance was a major coup considering the band's most obvious characteristic: Glenn Richards’ old-world poetry. Which had sometimes been a barrier to enjoying their rich musical joys for most and while ‘retro’ is too fashionable a term to describe it, there is something decidedly nostalgic and 'old-world' in his literary technique, and here it remains undiminished. Who else but Augie March could transform “Out of the mouth of a black dog/out of the terrors of 3 am/out of the dark and whispering fen/I was blind then I could see/now I’m blind again” into a upbeat sing-a-long as they do on lead single Pennywhistle?

Other highlights include the cool ambiance of Dogsday, a raucous bash called The Glenorchy Bunyip (how very Australian) and a spiritual successor to Bottle Baby, recorded by Richards in an apartment in Hobart, The Slant. The only misstep can be pinned on City Of Rescue’s failed attempt to wed jagged chord changes and a knees-up rhythm with reverberating textures and a garbled chorus, and even then it’s an interesting experiment none the less.

The album carries an undercurrent of sorrow, apathy and even murder balladry but winningly cloaked in beautifully crafted songs with crisp production and rich arrangements, all propelled by Richards' rustic poetry. While occasionally the lyrics can still obscure the listener, it speaks more to the ability of a dense map of words, along with the lush music, to dazzle and mystify. It's not about simply probing what is being conveyed but about the beauty of the object. Like the album title might suggest, disappearing behing the majesty of the sounds. The irony of course, is that Watch Me Disappear will only make Augie March more apparent in the ranks of the great Australian bands.

11. Coldplay - Viva La Vida -or- Death And All His Friends
Judging by my original review (which you can read here) I may have been a little quick to offset
Coldplay's latest as a minor disappointment, but trust, since then its appeal has grown on me greatly. The fact that their songs were inescapable, as Coldplay are wont to do, only aided in their burrowing their away into my heart.

I stand by the fact that it contains some bizarre, if not entirely fatal, choices but it demonstrates how they are more comfortable to toy with their sound without sacrificing what makes them so devastatingly popular. While other groups crave the balance of stadium-filling sonics with heart-aching empathy that they achieve so effortlessly (
Snow Patrol i'm looking at you...), Coldplay have always treated it like a crutch that compromises their ability to considered cool, cutting-edge or even powerfully artistic. Cue ΓΌber-producer Brian Eno whose previous CV reads like the evolution of contemporary popular music... which is cool, cutting-edge and powerfully artistic.

Violet Hill was an interesting lead single, all chugging power chords albeit with a slightly psychedelic touch. 42 is Coldplay's attempt at prog and succeeds where Lovers In Japan will no doubt soundtrack either a new apple product or a teenage romance sometime in the near future. Yes is the biggest u-turn in the band's sound with sizzling strings, while Viva La Vida takes the same quartet for a baroque journey. Elsewhere, Lost! is all clattering percussion and familiarly optimistic Chris Martin-isms "Just because i'm losing/doesn't mean i'm lost/doesn't mean i'll stop/doesn't mean i will cross."

Viva La Vida is not quite the masterpiece the band want it to be, it's too weighted in self-consciousness. The eccentric double album title, the secret tracks tucked in between cuts, even the 'ragged revolution' artwork of the liner notes: all seem a little precocious for a band whose every move will no doubt draw attention. It's a vast step in the right direction, particularly after the worrying glut of X&Y, and while it's always easy to dismiss Coldplay as 'that big soppy band' as long as they produce works of equal quality as Viva La Vida they will hold up under closer scrutiny. Greatness then, is still just around the corner.

Well i hope you're enjoying it thus far, Albums 10-6 will be up soon. In the meantime this is what the list looks like so far...

Let the guessing commence! Comment below.

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