I feel almost wrong in numbering this list — the perfect moment to listen to each of these albums would temporarily put any of them at the top, so take the order with a grain of salt (number one is still number one though!)
(counting down for suspense!)
10. hercules and love affair – hercules and love affair
LCD Soundsystem’s gay cousin. Is Antony Hegarty in on the joke or do people actually think his silly vibrato is somehow beautiful? Nonetheless, he’s certainly appropriate here, but more importantly, he’s not the star — that honour goes to Tim Goldsworthy’s production. You can dance to it, but, like LCD, you can also not dance to it, if you want. I didn’t listen to this as much as some of the others on my list, but it deserves recognition for its originality and erudite-party attitude (as opposed to, say, Justice, which is more of a “fuck-it-I’m-gettin-so-drunk” party attitude). Favourite tracks: Blind, Hercules Theme, Easy
9. windy and carl – songs for the broken-hearted
This year’s top ten includes a lot of ambient music. Maybe it reflects the mood I’ve been in this season, or maybe I can connect with good ambient records more naturally than with other genres. When I was younger, I listened to dishwashers running and furnaces igniting. Now I listen to records like Songs For the Broken-Hearted — a collection of warm drones that evokes both inarticulate sadness and calm introspection. Windy and Carl are husband and wife, apparently estranged during the initial recording of this album. The completed effort is the result of their reconciliation, but the pain of separation and loneliness is evident in these tracks. Songs for The Broken Hearted is an exploration of unspeakable emotions, a way of communicating that which we all understand but can’t put into words. Although on some tracks they do try to put it into words, and the results are a bit silly, if not sincere. Favourite Tracks: La Douleur, Btwn You + Me
8. christopher bissonnette — in between words
I sometimes play ambient albums as I fall asleep, with the hope that the music will somehow seep into my subconscious and shape the atmosphere of my dreams. It never actually works, though In Between Words comes close. Strings and who-knows-what-else are stretched to the point of unrecognition with strange recordings of bells, crickets and other unidentifiable sounds. It’s cold, but a kind of lush cold that makes you feel warmer than it should. At several points during my nightly listens I’d suddenly realize that those strange sounds which I took for the shifting, shapeless landscape of my semi-consciousness were actually coming from the speakers, and for a few moments the divide between music and listener disappeared. Favourite tracks: Providence, Orffyreus Wheel
7. autechre – quaristice
A twenty-course meal of pristine, skin-tingling electronic noise. Autechre sound like they’re having fun (or as much fun as a band that makes cold, mechanical music can have). Some of the ideas are not developed as fully as they could be, but every idea is interesting nonetheless. Each track is constructed around noises so carefully textured/recorded/synthesized/whoknows that the real joy comes from simply appreciating Quaristice’s bizarre tones. If I ever make a conceptual avante-garde art-video-game (right) I want Autechre to compose the soundtrack. Favourite tracks: Simm, The Plc, bnc Castl (good names,as always)
6. vampire weekend – vampire weekend
Back in June I had this album pegged for a one-night stand, but I wisely chose not to listen to it as often as my early addiction encouraged, and the result is a surprising longevity. It’s less appropriate now that the days are so short and dark, but in the summer there was no better soundtrack to siesta. Vampire Weekend’s charm (awful band name aside) lies in their self-consciousness; they know what they are (that’d be upper-middle-class college kids who happen to own a few african pop albums), and they don’t care because their songs are still clever and catchy and fun and so what if the drums are sometimes out of time? There’s been some whining that Vampire Weekend misappropriates their influences. Nonsense! Music is only about how it makes you feel, and this music makes me feel like skipping class. Favourite tracks: Mansard Roof, Oxford Comma, One (Blake’s Got A New Face)
5. ellen allien — sool
Cold, minimalist, alien (German) electronic music that relies as much on silence as it does on sound to create its mysterious environment. Allien has a knack for blending interesting noises at the perfect moment in her beats, which click and stutter and shuffle to form an icy but oddly enveloping atmosphere (just like Bissonette!). If not for a few dull tracks (exacerbated on the CD by poor placement — the revised vinyl tracklisting flows better), Sool could be brilliant. Favourite tracks: Elphine, Caress
4. eluder – the most beautiful blue
Eluder is the latest from Infraction Records, an excellent limited-release ambient label. Like Bissonnette, Eluder integrates field recordings with hazy drones, and manages to simultaneously sound warm and cold (ambient theme of the year? Maybe it’s just the feeling of warmth in the midst of cold weather, like being under a blanket while the fire roars in the fireplace and the world freezes outside). So why is he in fifth while poor Christopher sits at eight? Probably because Eluder arrived at my mailbox about the same time as the snow. Also because the second track starts off with a furnace igniting. It’s music for wintery dreams. Favourite tracks: Dusk Invites the Dark (for its wonderful furnace intro), but everything here is good
3. walter becker — circus money
Walter Becker is a tragic figure — doomed to be forever in the shadow of Steely Dan co-founder Donald Fagen, in spite of a stronger lyrical prowess and a willingness to try bizarre (and –gasp– imperfect?) arrangements. Since 11 Tracks of Whack, released in ’94, Walter Becker has been the preferred half of what is perhaps my favourite musical outfit ever, and Circus Money was my most anticipated record of the year. It’s not as whack as Whack, and sure, it sometimes veers close to adult contemporary, and not every track is perfect, but it’s still sly and cynical and fun and harmonically surprising. The great dichotomy of Steely Dan has always been complex, impeccable arrangements as a backdrop for stories about drugs, women, and the desperate exploits of pathetic characters. Becker delivers all of that (with none of the silly science-fiction and sometimes-embarrasing transparency of Fagen’s lyrics), and this time it’s set to reggae grooves, because… well why not? Circus Money is soulful and hilarious and satisfying, and though none of you will listen to it even after I’ve said all this, it remains one of my top albums of the year (and probably of the next few as well). Here’s hoping it doesn’t take Walter another fourteen for the followup. Favourite tracks: Selfish Gene, Downtown Canon, Do You Remember The Name
2. the bug — london zoo
Dubstep! apparently. Every track begins threateningly, a thick african accent growls into the mic over a suspiciously restrained intro that builds up for a few seconds before the world’s LOUDEST, ANGRIEST BASS comes in and STOMPS ALL OVER IT. Maybe this is par for the course in the genre; then I am definitely a fan. The Bug is a producer, and here he employs a handful of what I assume are highly regarded vocalists of the dubstep community to rap over his authoritative beats. The rhythmic interplay between his tracks and the vocals is almost agonizingly satisfying — no matter how much you try you can’t possibly dance to this as hard as you want to, especially at that brilliant moment where the bass reenters. And on top of that, London Zoo works almost as well with headphones, thanks to its eerie and intricate production. Favourite tracks: Skeng, Poison Dart, Jah War
1. fleet foxes — fleet foxes/sun giant ep
Staggeringly beautiful (or as lead singer Robin Pecknold would say, staggereeeenly beautiful). Fleet Foxes know the smell of a pine forest, the sound of a river flowing from the mountains on a crisp winter afternoon — the kind of atmosphere reserved for those of us living in northern climates — and they distill it into two wonderful collections of music. The core of the band is Pecknold’s powerful and distinctive voice, which usually serves as a base for the Foxes’ stunning, multi-layered harmonies (though Pecknold is still awe-inspiring on his own). And while these harmonies are certainly a highlight, Fleet Foxes’ instrumentation exudes warmth and character in a delicate balance with the vocals. Structurally unconventional, these songs often change tempo, stop and start, and rarely use the verse-chorus template. At first I found this style off-putting, but further listens revealed a careful utilization of tension and release, which surely counts among the band’s greatest strengths (and contributes to the devastating climaxes of tracks like Blue Ridge Mountains and Mykonos). These albums are nostalgic but never sentimental — Fleet Foxes might not immediately captivate the listener, but for those of us who identify with their wistful aesthetic and allow it to sink in, they are absolutely essential. Easily the best albums of the year. Favourite tracks: Blue Ridge Mountains, Mykonos, Tiger Mountain Peasant Song
flight of the conchords – flight of the conchords
You’d expect any less from New Zealand’s former 4th Most Popular Folk/Parody Duo? Most of the tracks are funny, a good number of them are musically solid, and a few just don’t work out of the context of the show. Favourite tracks: Ladies of the World, Hiphopopotamus vs Rhymenocerous (ft. the Rhymenocerous and Hiphopopotamus)
azeda booth – in flesh tones
Creepy, dreamy ambient pop that sounds a lot like its watercolour cover. The singer is not a woman. Favourite track: In Red
dept of eagles – in ear park
Basically the best thing to tide over Grizzly Bear fans until the release of their new album next year. Department of Eagles sounds a lot like the band from which most of its members hail, but with more structure and less ambient meandering. So it’s not quite as good as Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House, but I imagine if I’d had In Ear Park earlier in the year it’d probably have ended up in the top ten (so long, Windy and Carl!).
boris – smile
According to some longtime Boris fans this album is something of a retread, but as the second Boris album I’ve ever heard, it still rocks unapologetically, with more trademakr feedback drones. The Japanese version sounds more like a joke remix album, and the American (Southern Lord) CD version has an inferior tracklisting. Best bet is the Southern Lord vinyl release, which retains the Japanese trackorder (mostly) but doesn’t drown the instruments in mud.
no age – nouns
Love the thick ambient guitar work — sounds like I’m inside a Jackson Pollock or something. Hate the vocalist — he’s so off-key I can’t even tell what notes he’s attempting to sing (or maybe he’s just singing weird notes, who knows). This’ll probably grow on me, but so far I haven’t really felt the urge to put it on.
vijay iyer – tragicomic
I don’t know much about the direction jazz has taken since the 80s, but Iyer seems to me a welcome relief from the standard refuse-to-adapt attitude. Tragicomic is experimental and atmospheric (and recommended). Favourite Track: Comin’ Up
spartak — tales from the colony room
Free jazz/experimental/ambient with a hell of a drummer and a guy who understands how to create interesting and affecting sounds. They’re making the rounds in Australia, and will hopefully break out in the underground scene eventually. I haven’t given this a lot of listening yet, but I feel as though I should mention it, at least to support these guys, ’cause they’re cool. (and nice).
And there you have it. All told, 2008 wasn’t as good as 2007, but it still yielded some great albums that’ll definitely be added to my permanent rotation.