Friday, February 06, 2009

SWSL Top 10 Albums Of 2008

Truth be told, the SWSL Album Of 2008 is probably a 2007 release. For the first third of the year I couldn't stop playing The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse, and even after that I kept on going back to it - with hindsight it, and not Neon Bible, should have claimed the #1 spot in last year's shakedown.

But, when I wasn't catching up on 2007 albums I'd either underappreciated (Bat For Lashes' Fur And Gold, Bright Eyes' Cassadaga, Animal Collective's Strawberry Jam) or missed altogether (Malcolm Middleton's A Brighter Beat, The National's Boxer, Sigur Ros' Hvarf/Heim and especially Holy Fuck's self-titled LP), I did manage to take in some 2008 releases - though of course the list of albums I didn't hear but would very much have liked to is, as ever, shamefully long...

THE BREEDERS - Mountain Battles
BRITISH SEA POWER - Do You Like Rock Music?
CALEXICO - Carried To Dust
CAT POWER - Jukebox
CRYSTAL CASTLES - Crystal Castles
CSS - Donkey
ELBOW - The Seldom Seen Kid
DAVID HOLMES - The Holy Pictures
LADYTRON - Velocifero
NEON NEON - Stainless Style
PETER BJORN & JOHN - Seaside Rock
STEREOLAB - Chemical Chords
WHITE DENIM - Workout Holiday

No doubt some of these will belatedly find their way into my collection this year. But let's not dwell on those albums that, for whatever reason, passed me by - let's instead press on with those that assail or charm my ears...

Unfathomably Overrated:

MGMT - Oracular Spectacular
Kicks off with the SWSL Single Of 2008 but it's all downhill from there, and the slope's alarmingly steep. Who, other than NME, truly believes the future of music is this sick and wrong cocktail of Scissor Sisters and Fleetwood Mac?

Exceedingly Underwhelming:

GLASVEGAS - Glasvegas
Pant-wettingly exciting on paper, but pompous, clunky and hollow in execution. Enough with the dry ice already, and take those fucking shades off! We really shouldn't be listening to Mr McGee so intently, should we?

A SILVER MT ZION - 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons
From the sublime Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upward to this? I knew there was a reason I liked their instrumental parent band Godspeed! You Black Emperor, and that reason is Efrim's vocals.

Let this serve as a warning to other bands: never, ever let Bernard effing Butler anywhere near production duties. For the most part, This Gift was an epitaph to a once-promising band.

Decent Enough But Evoking A Measure Of Disappointment:

BON IVER - For Emma, Forever Ago
There's always one Critically Lauded Masterpiece that fails to leave much in the way of an indelible mark on my consciousness, and this was 2008's. Scratchy, soulful Americana hasn't ever really been my bag, but I'll probably be raving about it this time next year.

DEAD MEADOW - Old Growth
The sound of a band trying to gain a sharper focus but only succeeding in inhibiting themselves. "Old growth" turned out to mean new stagnation.

GUTTER TWINS - Saturnalia
The dream team of Dulli and Lanegan, together on the same record, but sadly it proved to be rather less than the sum of its legendary parts.

'Blue Plastic Bags' was an anthem for Everyman 2008 and 'Total Belief' a darkly witty insight into the former Arab Strap man's insecurities, but otherwise it felt rather like an overlong EP cobbled together too soon after A Brighter Beat.

SIGUR ROS - Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust
Some bands you enjoy witnessing change over time, others you just want to stay exactly the same. Call me an indie snob if you like, but I don't want Sigur Ros to be the TV exec's soundtrack of choice or to keep me waiting until five songs into an album for a taste of them at their most grandiose.

Given that it was inspired by Jason Pierce's extremely close brush with death in 2005, Songs In A&E might have been expected to sound vimful and vital rather than like a jaded sweeping-up of off-cuts from previous albums. The fact that I was addicted to Pure Phase didn't do it any favours, either.

VAMPIRE WEEKEND - Vampire Weekend
As much as Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut featured several seemingly innocuous but persistent earworms and as much as I'm firmly of the belief there should be more songs about the finer points of punctuation, someone has to ask: when did Paul Simon become a touchstone of cool and cred?

Close But No Cigar:

APSE - Spirit
Weighty, portentous, atmospheric post-rock released on the ATP label. Unlikely to bother any charts, but that's just fine and dandy.

If Black Mountain were to be believed, the future will be all Sabbath riffs and 'War Of The Worlds' keyboards. Were it not for the scarcity of Amber Webber's vocals and the odd lapse into the sort of overblown prog fug beloved of cape wearers, this would have definitely have secured a place in the Top 10.

After the rough edges of debut Cuts Across The Land, the quintet's second album had spit and polish, gloss and grit in equal measure. OK, so Neptune's seductive, serrated guitar pop didn't catapult them into the major league, but Liela Moss certainly won them - and herself - some more admirers.

FOALS - Antidotes
Dragging math rock nerdery onto the dancefloor without exhuming the stinking freshly-buried corpse of new rave was quite an achievement. Oxford's latest celebrated musiclal progeny are in a field (or should that be a paddock?) of their own.

THE FUTUREHEADS - This Is Not The World
Back to basics for the Mackems, intent on putting the disappointments of 2006's News And Tributes and subsequently being dropped by 679 firmly behind them. They may not have rediscovered the eccentricities that made their early singles so exciting, but This Is Not The World had punchy to-the-point new wave punk pop in spades.

MOGWAI - The Hawk Is Howling
Wot no Top 10 placing for the mighty 'Gwai? No, largely because The Hawk Is Howling ploughed an increasingly familiar furrow, neither veering off in the electronic direction they occasionally threaten nor fully embracing the brute force of Mr Beast's best tracks. But 'Batcat' and song titles like 'I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead' and 'I Love You, I'm Going To Blow Up Your School' still brooked very little argument.

And so, the countdown begins...

SWSL Top 10 Albums Of 2008:

10. TV ON THE RADIO - Dear Science
It took me the best part of two years to begin to appreciate fully the merits of Return To Cookie Mountain, so perhaps you'd better come back to me in 2011 for some considered reflections. Dear Science saw art rock take a back seat, with David Bowie, David Byrne, funk, futuristic pop and any number of other influences taking it in turns to grab the steering wheel. Amazingly it didn't crash.
Key track: 'Golden Age'

9. BLOOD RED SHOES - Box Of Secrets
By the time Blood Red Shoes' debut finally saw the light of day, after a seemingly interminable delay, it was no secret for those who'd seen them on one of their exhaustive tours that it'd be very good indeed. If, like Antidotes, Box Of Secrets perhaps didn't quite do justice to its creators' in-the-flesh intensity, its aggressive art-grunge still packed a considerable punch.
Key track: 'It's Getting Boring By The Sea'

8. LOS CAMPESINOS! - We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed
So lax is the average band's work ethic these days that the news of Los Campesinos! releasing a new studio album barely six months after their debut had hit the shelves was enough to set the quality control alarm bells ringing. I needn't have worried, though - We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed was urgent, angry and apocalyptic, and the opening four songs were arguably better than anything on its predecessor (with one obvious exception..)
Key track: 'Ways To Make It Through The Wall'

7. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
2007 saw Saint Nick indulging his grubbier, muckier, murkier side in Grinderman - but, reunited with The Bad Seeds in 2008, he dragged them down into the gutter too. Not for Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! the floweriness and beauty of The Lyre Of Orpheus. In most contexts the prospect of a priapic fifty-something lounge lizard with a handlebar moustache stalking your imagination with lascivious intent would be frightening, but when he's quoting The Stooges that's just fine.
Key track: 'Today's Lesson'

6. FUCK BUTTONS - Street Horrrsing
Fuck Buttons may have had the patronage of Mogwai, whose Jon Cummins produced Street Horrrsing, but the poster boys of noise made quite enough of a racket to garner attention themselves. Marmite music to be sure, but what set them apart from their peers was that they occasionally took time out from staring into the abyss to look to the heavens.
Key track: 'Bright Tomorrow'

5. LOS CAMPESINOS! - Hold On Now, Youngster
2008 was the year ex-students Los Campesinos! really graduated, and with flying colours. The title might have urged restraint, but the one thing Hold On Now, Youngster wasn't was guarded or inhibited. Chaotic, heartening, confused, naive, effervescent maybe. 'This Is How You Spell...' showed they'd learned to write a mean chorus, and 'You! Me! Dancing!', the song that launched a thousand indie nights (and gave its name to an Oxford promoter), still sounded fresh and new.
Key track: Do I really have to spell it out?!

4. DEERHUNTER - Microcastle
Fuck Vampire Weekend, MGMT et al - Deerhunter's Microcastle was the best thing to come out of New York last year. If it hadn't have been for the dogged persistence of a friend (to whom I'm now seriously indebted), it would have slipped under my radar. If you're a fan of blissful psychedelic shoegaze (or, when it comes to 'Nothing Ever Happened', a fan of Yo La Tengo and Krautrock), don't let it slip under yours.
Key track: 'Nothing Ever Happened'

3. FLEET FOXES - Fleet Foxes
Fleet Foxes' debut sounded like it had come from a recently unearthed time capsule - but at what point in history were folk, medieval pastoral and sublime Beach Boys harmonies all in fashion. It took me a long time to take the bait, but as soon as I did I was hooked. Proof positive that sometimes universal acclaim really is justified.
Key track: 'He Doesn't Know Why'

2. NO AGE - Nouns
Such a simple idea - breakneck two-chord punk strained through My Bloody Valentine's Loveless - but brilliantly conceived and executed. Any album that can make a thirty-something with a 9-to-5 want to leap around in a moshpit with the abandon of a drunk-for-the-first-time 15-year-old is to be cherished.
Key track: 'Sleeper Hold'

1. STEPHEN MALKMUS & THE JICKS - Real Emotional Trash
It seems funny to talk about the most celebrated slacker in US indie truly letting his hair down, but that's what Stephen Malkmus did on his fourth post-Pavement offering. Real Emotional Trash had little of the irony, knowing cleverness or wilful perversity of his previous releases, instead taking its cue from Face The Truth's 'No More Shoes' as an unashamed and pitch-perfect glorification of classic 70s rock. Throw his finest pop song 'Gardenia' in unexpectedly amongst the jams and you've got a record that, for my money, stands up to anything his former outfit produced.
Key track: 'Real Emotional Trash'

Lest we forget - the SWSL Top 10 Albums Of 2007:

10. INTERPOL - Our Love To Admire
9. THE RAVEONETTES - Lust Lust Lust
8. FIELD MUSIC - Tones Of Town
7. DINOSAUR JR - Beyond
6. RADIOHEAD - In Rainbows
5. LOW - Drums And Guns
3. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM - Sound Of Silver
2. THE BESNARD LAKES - The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse
1. THE ARCADE FIRE - Neon Bible


Jonathan said...

Interesting stuff - and you've shamed me into finally doing my top ten. Not much overlap this year, actually - just Malkmus. Your top four are all great though.

Have noted you praising Blood Red Shoes and Los Campesinos all year but have had no luck with the records - just can't get into them. Funny how some records, you can tell they're good, but they just don't quite work for you.

James MacLaren said...

Here is my Best of List.

I have been quite fascinated by how different people's lists have been. We are all on different planets this year!

I agree with you on some choices, and, predictably, disagree on others. On your list of albums to check out, I wouldn't hurry with either the Cat Power (a major disappointment to me) or the Neon Neon (which I thought 'aaaallllright').

I would, however, urge you to get your damned socks on when it comes to Portishead. Utterly marvellous! The Elbow LP is pretty good too.

Meanwhile, I keep meaning to pop something into the memories pile. A combination of busyness and forgetfulness keeps tripping me up.


Ben said...

Jonathan: Funny how it works like that sometimes, isn't it? In my case, for Blood Red Shoes and Los Campesinos read Bon Iver.

James: I suspect I'd find Jukebox disappointing too, as I absolutely love The Greatest. As for Neon Neon, though, I enjoyed them at Glastonbury and have also liked the snippets I've heard here and there, so I'm still keen to hear it. And no worries about Memories Can't Wait - just drop me something when you've got the time and inclination!

gareth said...

No cigar for Apse? They deserve a Cuban. I know the production on the drums etc isnt exactly polished, but listen to Earth Covers Us (you were in the toilet when it was on at mine the other week). I feel like ive done all I can to convince you though. Roll on new album in spring. Then you'll see.... You'll see..

Good top 10 though. I am however a little bored of what LOS CAMPESINOS! have to say...

I have to also say Portishead Third. I mean that album is HECKISH good.