Saturday, December 20, 2008

Top 15 Albums of 2008: Part 2

If you missed Part 1 you can catch up here. Otherwise let's soldier on...

THE TOP 15 ALBUMS OF 2008: Part 2
10. Girl Talk - Feed The Animals
Essentially a mash-up mixtape, Girl Talk's fourth album plays out like a history lesson of 20th century popular music transformed into a hectic game of 'spot the sample.' The idea is simple, take some rap, hip-hop or R&B rhymes and stir with FM classics. On paper it sounds amateurish and tacky but the resultant sound - as Sinead O'Connor, Fleetwood Mac slip on by with the likes of Lil' Wayne and T.I. - is nothing short of electric (and eclectic).

Feed The Animals brings up the old argument that there's nothing new left in art, that all the territories have been explored, conquered and exploited. That there's nothing new to say, only to recycle old tropes as new ones, but we've never heard the songs and riffs here quite like this before. There's plenty of defense in recycling music when Girl Talk, or Greg Gillis to his mum, draws such indelible juxtapositions as these.

It takes more than a laptop and a vast record collection to make
Jay-Z and Radiohead sound like age-old bedfellows or pairing Ray J with Rod Stewart like they were meant for each other. It boils the art of the mash-up down to an exact science of minute sampling and creative combination. It offers up new constellations to old stars and always with the purpose of getting the party started... and keeping it going. If it happens to dazzle and thrill along the way - it's merely a bonus.

9. Sigur R
ós - Með suð í Eyrum við Spilum Endalaust
Acoustic Guitars? A barrelling tempo? 3 minute radio-friendly length? Were the rumours true, had Sigur Rós indeed gone 'Pop'? Well, they had only in as much as the Icelandic harbingers of celestial sounds could.

After last year's Heima DVD/CD double-punch propped them into a position in which they could do little wrong, they surprised with a chirpy album that saw them exiting the fringes of the music industry for perhaps the last time. With a buzz in our ears we play endlessly (the English translation of the album title) finds Sigur R
ós pushing for more accessible and energetic compositions without sacrificing the grandeur and complexity they are known for.

Although some tracks begin to skirt formula, a difficult thing to dodge five albums in, you couldn't accuse them of redressing old interiors.
Með suð instead introduces new approaches to the band's sonic architecture, whether it be a song in English (All Alright), a hippieish wig-out (Gobbledigook) or an epic live recording with complete symphonic orchestra and choir (Ara Batur). The old moors are still there however, in the guise of Festival, Illgressi and Fljótavík, but the bouncy brass and happy beats of Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur and Góðan Daginn are the new focus of the band's arsenal, pushed towards the front of the tracklisting.

All in all it's a decidedly more human album, you can imagine four people actually sitting down and performing these songs, as opposed to some kind of alien transmission which is what they'd risk sounding like previously. Ultimately however the album is the best of both worlds, ethereal yet corporeal, enigmatic while being tangible, and always scintillating listening.

8. Lightspeed Champion - Falling Off The Lavender Bridge
That kooky fellow in the red cardigan, clutching a rabbit, with tousled hair and buddy holly specs is Dev Hynes, the man behind Lightspeed Champion. His is an interesting story, he was originally a member of noisy troublemakers The Test Icicles who were the kind of indie band feted by NME before their fifteen minutes fame ran out when the associated fad of nu-rave did. By Hynes' own admission, they were a forgettable by-product of a popular scene.

Which makes Hynes' re-invention as a tender singer-songwriter all the more remarkable. Mining alt-country, with the help of some
Bright Eyes band members as well as backing vocals from Emmy The Great, Falling Off The Lavender Bridge is a crystallised and thoroughly idiosyncratic world-view which takes both acerbic observation and poignant self-doubt in its stride. Keeping it from sliding into emo-like martyrdom is Hynes' unique humour and delightful cosmopolitan sound. Everyone I Know Is Listening To Crunk fixates a baffled protagonist with a music hall style backing of clarinets and sweetly-strummed acoustic guitar while All To Shit features a baroque string arrangement as Hynes coos "this is all going/all to shit."

It's an album full of delights, not least the pitch-perfect pop of
Tell Me What It's Worth, Dry Lips and the weezer crunch of I Could Have Done This Myself, apparently an autobiographical song concerning Hynes' lost virginity. Capping it all off is the epic Midnight Suprrise, it's 10 minutes never lacking for a moment in touching feeling and sweet melody.

Lightspeed Champion may well just be but one avenue for Dev Hynes to vent his curiosities about a popular culture no longer concerned with the traditional morals and values he still opines. The irony being he is both the product and mediator of such a culture: a prolific blogger, a self-confessed 'nerd,' equally fascinated and disgusted by consumer-driven fashions. All this combines into what is perhaps the poster-boy for the modern equivalent of the tortured-artist, whose dense layers make for brilliant music that is at once accessible, lasting and deeply complex. In short everything Test Icicles weren't.

7. The Mars Volta - The Bedlam In Goliath
Although it was very nearly a heavy-weight contender for my 2007 list, it's release early this February meant it was one of the first albums of the year that I knew would make the list, returning to its chaotic concept of a vengeful spirit conjured by a ouija board gone haywire time and again.
This is the group's fourth studio album and it's amazing they find the time considering their robust touring schedule, alongside with the release of lead guitarist's
Omar Rodriguez Lopez' five (!) solo recordings this year.

Whatever it is that's keeping
The Mars Volta so prolific and consistently out-there great (boundless creativity? determination? psychedelic drugs?) it hasn't failed them yet as a source of tireless inspiration. As already mentioned in my original review (which you can read here), this is perhaps TMV's heaviest album yet - if that's even conceivable.

The banshee wail of opening track
Aberinkula wastes no time in battering the listener with a witches brew of metal, latin grooves, psychedelic rock, progressive jazz and all and anything in-between, a noisy revelry that does not let its grip loose for a second. Wax Simulacra shows off the abilities of titanic new drummer Thomas Pridgen in its short two minutes, Goliath pummels with a series of muscular riffs, while Ouroboros chugs along on the back on a tide of skittering guitar and distorted bass. While the funky groove of Ilyena and Tourniquet Man, "our only ballad" according to vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala, offer some respite.

It's an endless showcase of complex musicianship, radical structures and truly bizarre arrangements that show that The Mars Volta are not only in a league of their own, they're playing an entirely different game. They're defiantly old-school attitude means they're a love-it-or-hate-it affair, but if you're in the former you'll be bountifully rewarded.

6. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
The fourth studio album from Manchester based Elbow just so happens to be saddled with the year's best opening and closing tracks, it's best duet, and probably even some of the year's best lyrics - all in the one album. In fact saddled isn't so much the right word as crafted.

Elbow are a concise unit, and although there are alarm bells between albums concerning the band's unity and activity, they always manage to pull out a winner, in other words, The Seldom Seen Kid is only the latest in a succession of brilliant records, one that has rewarded their long-due recognition with taking out the coveted Mercury Music Prize.

But enough about the plaudits, what is that is so great about this album? well for starters, it is just that: an album. At at time when the focus is shifting away from the format to individual singles, or shorter collections of tracks like EPs and digital releases, here is a band whose dedication to the album format proves it's still a pot art-form. Beautifully sequenced and cohesively structured, the title and theme of the album concern the passing of local bar-fly melancholic Bryan Glancy. The emotional resonance of which can be felt on the bluesy stomp of Grounds For Divorce, the echoing isolation of The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver and Some Riot, and particularly on the poignant send-off Friend Of Ours.

In-between is a collection of finely-produced and performed songs, Starlings highlights Guy Garvey's deft bar-stool poetry "
I sat you down and told you how/the truest love that's ever found/Is for oneself/You pulled apart my theory/With a weary and disinterested sigh."
The Fix is the aforementioned duet with Richard Hawley: a narrative about a fixed horse-race that feels like a 1960's jaunt. The running order of Audience With The Pope and Weather To Fly is a flighty dalliance, where One Day Like This contains strident strings that swell into a sunny anthem. The emotional range is matched only by the musical range.

If past patterns remain true, it will be a while before
Elbow's next release, but if their quality has not been tarnished with the passing of time and its fickle trends, then The Seldom Seen Kid - like those albums before it - will merely be another great release from a great band, whether it's this or any other year.

Read my original review here

(EDIT: I couldn't think of an appropriate place to put this, but FasterLouder
have published my review of Kanye's 808s & Heartbreaks, which you can read here. Be warned: may contain slagging off.)

Only 5 to go! Can you feel the excitement? Here's the list so far:
Please feel free to comment below.

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