Sunday, December 21, 2008

Best Music of 2008

I’ve been thinking for the last month or so about how I was going to do my best of 2008 list. I have read other lists with fascination, both professional (Paste, Pitchfork, Emusic) and personal (Dad, Blake). Mine is certainly personal, so it’s really a measure of what I liked, which is a mix between raw awesomeness quotient and my personal taste. Explanations to follow, and the ordering here is approximate. I also included one song which I consider the best.

1. Frightened Rabbit - Midnight Organ Fight
Morgan suggested I listen to this album this summer, and he was so right. It rocks. Like Blake, I’m a big sucker for a Scottish accent. Besides appealing to anglophiles, this has a lot going for it. The music has a kinetic quality to it – it has a lot of energy but still is controlled. Lyrically it is surprising and interesting without being overly clever. And excellent breakup music. It’s emotional, it employs interesting metaphors, and all this delivered with a Scottish accent. I couldn’t get enough of it. I still can’t. Best Song: The Modern Leper.

2. The Submarines – Honeysuckle Weeks
I know this is a great album because the song “You, Me, and the Bourgoisie” is on all those iphone ads and I still don’t hate it. It sounds like fun and summer. The arrangements are full of things I like, like strings and twinkly sounds and vocal harmony. The lyrics have good sound play to them so it’s fun to sing along. Best Song: Swimming Pool.

3. Sandra McCracken – Red Balloon
I’ve been a fan of Sandra’s for a long time, and I was concerned when I learned she was pregnant that I’d see less from her as a musician. So far, the opposite has been the case. This year she released not only the lovely Red Balloon, but also a really fantastic EP with her husband, Derek Webb. Red Balloon is a great example of why I love Sandra—strong songwriting and strong singing, interesting, primarily acoustic arrangements. Best Song: Storehouse.

4. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
This band has a really distinctive sound, primarily because of the falsetto lead in a number of the songs. Jangly rhythm guitar makes a big difference too. It’s restrained, moody and quietly intense. Best Song: Lump Sum.

5. Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue
I got a hold of this album recently, but it has really grown on me with each listen. I’ve been a fan of Jenny Lewis for a while, this album is great. It’s gritty and exciting. Lewis has a wide range of vocal styles, as this demonstrates. “Carpetbagger” the duet with Elvis Costello, is really fun. I love Costello duets of course. The other songs are singable and fun as well. Best Song: Bad Man’s World.

6. The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride
The sound of the Mountain Goats may be an acquired taste, the singer has a distinctive voice and the instrumentation sounds a bit prickly. However, once you get used to the sound, it is emotional, quirky, arresting. Many of the songs are written about fictional characters. I’m still trying to figure out what it means that there’s bits of a psalm in “Sept 15, 1983.” Best Song: San Berardino.

7. Sigur Ros – með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
This is a great album for reading and writing. Especially since most of it is in Icelandic or Hopelandic, so I can’t understand it. Like other Sigur Ros albums, it is epic and ethereal. It comes in swells. No best song here, because I can’t differentiate the tracks really and I like it that way.

8. The Weepies – Hideaway
I loved the first weepies album. Alert readers will note the prevalence of male-female duet bands on this list, and it’s no coincidence. I like that stuff. Hideaway has a gentleness to it that some of these others do not have. It’s quiet and comfortable, kind of like the a snow day. Best Song: Antarctica.

9. Mates of State – Re-Arrange Us
Another husband-wife team, the Mates of State kind of remind me of these other ones that I love, which is just fine. Theirs is a bit slicker than Submarines, Weepies or Derek and Sandra, and maybe a bit swingier. Best Song: The Re-arranger.

10. Elvis Costello – Momufuku
This album has much in common with perhaps my alltime favorite Costello album, All This Useless Beauty. For instance, it has a nice mix of the Costello ballad and the Costello rocker. This album feels particularly high energy because it was recorded with very little rehearsal, which must be what gives it so much immediacy. I like the part in “Flutter and Wow,” for example, when he shouts “to the bridge!” In fact, Best Song: Flutter and Wow.

Regrettable Omissions:
Stars – Sad Robots
Sandra McCracken and Derek Webb – Ampersand
Greg Laswell - Three Flights from Alto Nido
Anathallo - Canopy Glow
She & Him – Volume One
The Firemen – Electric Arguments
Common Shiner – EPs Never Have Titles

New to me in ‘08
Ingrid Michaelson – Girls and Boys
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova – The Swell Season

I was late to the party on these albums, but if you haven’t heard them, they are really fantastic. They might show up later as a desert island pick, in fact.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Review: EPs Never Have Titles

Earlier this week, I downloaded Common Shiner’s new EP EPs Never Have Titles for free from Let me tell you, you should download it too. And if you live in Chicago, you should go see them live, because they are truly dynamic performers.

For this review I tried to listen to the EP without thinking about my significant affection for the band’s members (they are friends of mine) and I still think it’s a strong album. Like in their earlier recordings, this one features clever, relatable lyrics with the occasional element of surprise.

Musically, the band gets tighter and more precise every time I hear them. Instrumentally and vocally, these four songs demonstrate their strength as musicians. The production sounds crisp and really benefits the rhythmic feel in many of the songs.

All in all, it’s fun, smart pop. And I would say that even if I didn't already love them.