Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hablo Ennui's Top 20 Albums of 2008


1. Portishead – Third: As the year has gone on, this album still sounds as bracing as the first time I listened to it. The classic spy movie meets trip hop sound of the first two Portishead albums is intact. What makes this even better are the challenging dissonant parts that sometimes mesh with the basic foundation, but often clash in the most interesting ways, with Beth Gibbons, all the while, wrapping herself up in anguish and pain.

2. Pas/Cal – I Was Raised By Matthew, Mark, Luke & Laura: This sprawling Detroit band purveys complex pastoral pop in the vein of the classic Kinks by way of more modern folks like Lilys. These songs wind along a convoluted path without ever falling apart, making them inviting journeys not just opaque art rock. I’m still peeling back the layers on these songs.

3. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago: Justin Vernon didn’t set out to his father’s remote Wisconsin cabin to become a critic’s darling. It just worked out this way. This effort fits in with contemporaries like Midlake and Fleet Foxes, but stands out due to the emotional intimacy that captured on every track of this relaxed yet intense folk-pop.

4. Sparks – Exotic Creatures Of The Deep: The catchiest thing the Brothers Mael have unleashed since 1982’s Angst In My Pants, this manages to sustain the baroque orch-pop themes of the predecessor Lil’ Beethoven and Hello Young Lovers albums, in a more user friendly fashion. Moreover, Ron Mael’s lyrics are sharper than they’ve been in quite a while.

5. Jay Reatard – Matador Singles ’08: This is high energy rock that is speedy, hooky and perpetually teenage. I’ve heard comparisons to the glammy side of early punk (whether it be Radio Stars or Dickies) and the perky side of the Flying Nun brigade, and that provides only a taste of what’s going on here.

6. Steve Wynn – Crossing Dragon Bridge: While Wynn can rock with the best of them, as a recent Chicago show proved in spades, this collection of primarily acoustic songs, many augmented by swooping orchestral parts, shows the depth and breadth of his songwriting. Some of these numbers highlight the Dylan/Reed side of his muse, but this isn’t imitation, as he comes up with music that is, at times, pretty challenging.

7. Silvery – Thunderer And Excelsior: This is frenetic Brit pop from a band that name checks, among others, Sparks and Cardiacs, and you can hear that in song after song. The melodies swoop and careen like a rollercoaster coming off the rails, and the more I suss out the lyrics, the further enamored I become.

8. Alejandro Escovedo – Real Animal: Escovedo again shows the benefits of working with a strong producer. Last time around it was John Cale; this time, it’s Tony Visconti. Escovedo’s songs are a mix of storytelling and wise advice. His roots music is augmented by smart arrangements. He might very well be making his best music now.

9. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive: It’s inspiring to see these guys getting 15,000 indie rock fans to wave their fists like every punter at an arena rock show in the past 30 years or so. Of course, the music demands it, as this band has honed its approach to Ginsu knife sharpness. Meanwhile, Craig Finn is simply one of the most compelling lyricists in rock music.

10. Lindsey Buckingham – Gift Of Screws: I didn’t think he could improve on the blissfully intimate Under The Skin. Some of that gossamer pop magic remains, but the bulk of this album sounds like a teaser from a great lost Fleetwood Mac album, the one where they let their personal disputes go and just had a lot of fun.

11. Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple: Unlike the Beck/Danger Mouse collaboration, where the respective strengths of the two talents were somewhat duplicative, the Mouse and Cee-Lo bring out the best in each other. Cee-Lo’s soul chops and Danger Mouse’s creative backing tracks are a perfect blend, retro fitted in short sharp shots and awash in lyrical paranoia. It doesn’t feel like formula yet, so I hope the lack of a megahit doesn’t prevent a third Gnarls album.

12. Liam Finn – I’ll Be Lightning: Finn doesn’t shrink from the legacy of father Neil and Uncle Tim (of Crowded House/Split Enz fame). Indeed, based on this album, one would think that penning killer melodies and hooks was hereditary. Liam takes this pop legacy into contemporary times, having clearly absorbed the texture and prickliness of a lot of the best recent indie pop-rock. And if Liam really takes after his elders, he will only get better.

13. British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?: The anthemic power of the band’s first album is melded to the mature songwriting of the second album. Everything comes together on this third effort, with British Sea Power becoming the rare post-punk revivalist to have staying power. Stirring stuff.

14. Santogold – Santogold: A lot of folks are trying to imbue this debut with more depth that it actually has, in some weird attempt to legitimize the album. It doesn’t need any elevating. This isn’t a powerful statement. It’s a made for summer pop album, with a singer with tons of personality trying on a bunch of different styles and having fun with all of them. In a better world, this would be the new She’s So Unusual (Cyndi Lauper’s debut, remember?)

15. David Byrne & Brian Eno – Everything That Happens Will Happen Today: This isn’t so much the sequel to My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, as it is the follow up to Brian Eno’s collaboration with John Cale, Wrong Way Up. Okay, it’s more rhythm oriented than the Cale team up, but otherwise, this is two arty guys making really smart pop music. And David Byrne’s warmth and empathy becomes more inviting as I get older.

16. Hawksley Workman – Between The Beautifuls: While I wish Workman would go back to making more glammy, new wavey music (and he did a bit of that on his other 2008 release, Los Manlicious), I have no complaints about this lovely collection of piano pop. Although Workman will probably never be a direct lyricist, the words and metaphors resonate emotionally in a way his prior music never has. This is due in large part to his classic songwriting and warm vocals, with just enough quirks to keep this from being too slick.


17. For Against – Shade Side, Sunny Side: More like Prickly Side, Pissed Off Side. Instead of shimmering guitar swirls, the guitars and vocals cut through the sonic space with lacerating power. A lot of these songs are about love gone wrong, manipulation, and so forth. The total commitment of the band gives the tunes considerable power. Dream pop that focuses on nightmares.

18. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah, Pt. One: 4th World War: Definitely an album that must be heard all the way through. Badu has always tried to be more than just a throwback, and here, with the help of some able producers, she mixes her neo-soul classicism with a ton of modern beats. Throw in some trenchant social commentary, and you have an album that brings together everything that has been good about hip-hop and R & B in the past 40 years or so.

19. The Dirtbombs – We Have You Surrounded: I came way late to the Dirtbombs party. Yes, the ‘bombs are garage rockers. But garage rock is just a jumping off point for all sort of aggressive music, from neo-glam to new wave homage to techno-disco beats. This is all held together by the aesthetic vision and terminal cool of frontman Mick Collins.

20. Katjonband – Katjonband: This has most of the hallmarks of any recent Jon Langford record: forays into rock, country and folk and lots of pointed political commentary with a dose of good cheer. What elevates this is the collaborator, Katrin Bornfeld of the Dutch avant-garde band The Ex. Bornfeld is a masterful drummer. Her beats swing and she’s pretty darned creative. The songs are rooted in basic structures and the interplay between Langford and Bornfeld, both vocally and instrumentally, make this a total success.

1 comment:

Bill Holmes said...

Go Dirtbombs! And I didn't know H-W had one album out, let alone two. Good list, Mike - will set the controls to give many of those a listen