Monday, December 29, 2008

My Favorite Albums of 2008

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Lykke Li, Youth Novel
Paavoharju, Laulu Laakson Kukista
Dan Friel, Ghost Town
Autechre, Quaristice
Excepter, Dept Dept.
Max Tundra, Parallax Error Beheads You
Ellen Allien, Sool
Benga, Diary of An Afro Warrior
Flying Lotus, Los Angeles
Hot Chip, Made in the Dark
Alex Moulton, Exodus
Osborne, Osborne
Syclops, I've Got My Eye on You
Eat Skull, Sick to Death
Food For Animals, Belly


Rangers, Street Smell: Rangers is a solo project from We Shot J.R.'s own Howard Bob Johnson-- of course, this might make us just the slightest bit biased, but to be honest, I've enjoyed his music about as much as I've enjoyed anything else that has come out this year, and I wanted to include it on this list so that our readers could get a little introduction to HBJ's work. Rangers is what you might call a sound collage project, mixing bits and pieces of heavily processed and treated live recordings of guitar, keyboards, bass and percussion with samples of a wide variety of media (commercials, movie samples, jingles, etc.) and found sounds, culminating in long continuous pieces that are truly unique and captivating, but never boringly academic or overly abstract. Street Smell is a bit different than a lot of the "collage" stuff that you might encounter elsewhere because it is highly rhythmic, focusing on beats (many of them danceable) while displaying a level of intelligence and musical sophistication that belies its tongue in cheek humor and anarchistic structure. The best part about all of this is that if you don't believe me, you can download Street Smell in its entirety right here and make up your own mind. Fans of Ariel Pink, Ducktails, Wavves, James Ferraro (Skaters, Lamborghini Crystal) and The Residents should do themselves a favor and check this out. Who knows... maybe we can even convince HBJ to play this live some day.


15. Justus Kohncke, Safe and Sound: Another exciting release from perhaps the most accessible and fun artist on the Kompakt roster.  Don't freak out though, dudes-- this is NOT minimal techno.  Instead, you'll find nods to early 90's techno and disco balanced with a strong IDM influence that makes this a perfect home record.  


14. Vivian Girls, s/t: I know I know.... "Hey guys, I like Vivian Girls too, check it out!" Well, I do. So there. The reverb, the 60's girl group vocals, the fact that they played at Exploding House earlier this year. I love it all, and sometimes a record is on everyone's year end list for a reason.



13. Sic Alps, U.S. EZ: If there were any justice in the world, people would stop yapping about Jay Reatard, Black Lips and Anton Newcombe for two seconds and take a listen to Sic Alps, because this is probably the record that many of those acts wished they had made this year. Proto-punk, 60's garage, country and psychedelic pop are the ingredients, but the end product is a lo-fi masterpiece that reveals itself slowly and sets Sic Alps apart from many of the backward looking groups they are often compared to. The noisy interludes found within hint at a group that enjoys experimentation, but beneath the noise are songs so solid that they would make "real music" fans cry if they were actually cool enough to know how to find this shit. You could use the word "retro" to describe this music for sure, but there is absolutely nothing cute or tired about it.


12. Wavves, s/t: This one rose to my year end list in the last couple weeks of December, and it might even be unfair to include it since it technically comes out next year, but fuck it. It was so good I just had to add it. If you haven't heard Wavves, aka San Diego's Nathan Williams, go do it now. People have been associating this project with late 80's/early 90's skater culture, and it makes sense in spirit, if not in actual sound, because there wasn't a whole lot that sounded exactly like this back then-- this is noisy, fractured surf punk/pop thrown in the middle of so much noise that you might not be sure exactly what you're hearing upon first listen. Be patient, however, because there's a good chance you'll find this to be one of the most exciting releases of 2009.

11. No Age, Nouns: Along with Times New Viking, No Age has made my list two years in a row, thanks to a debut full length (Weirdo Rippers was actually a singles and EP tracks collection) that took the group's promise to the next level. This record has been the subject of intense debate at WSJR HQ, with some calling it gimmicky and boring, and others (pretty much just me) defending it as a solid punk record with perfect nods to shoegaze and slight hint of drone. Gimmicky? Maybe a bit, here and there. But boring? No way.

10. Black Pus IV, All Aboard the Magic Bus: It's a bit shocking that this album didn't really receive a lot of love from critics and bloggers this year, because there didn't seem to be much else out there that rocked quite like it.  Brian Chippendale's solo project will please Lightning Bolt fans, and if you aren't one, this probably won't convert you, which is fine considering that the guy really isn't trying to.  But its chaotic freak outs and masterful percussion are something to be heard for sure, and this is one of those little gem records that you might be tempted to pass up but shouldn't.  

9. Atlas Sound, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel: The Deerhunter album was pretty good and stuff, but this is really the Bradford Cox release of the year.  


8. Laborghini Crystal, Roach Motel: This thing kicks off with a sample of Beavis and Butthead laughing and singing Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" just before they both scream "Frog Baseball" like a couple of idiots. And then the sample loops all over again. A couple times, actually. Any other 90's dork will recognize that the frog baseball quote comes from the very first Beavis and Butthead episode, and the fact that James Ferraro, the man behind Lamborghini Crystal, chose to quote from that particular episode makes me think he's probably a funny guy... and an asshole. Fortunately, he's also a talented one, and ever since I first wrote about Lamborghini Crystal on this blog roughly a year ago, I've continued to dip back into his catalogue again and again. This year's Roach Motel might not be the very best thing Ferraro's ever done, but it's a fantastic example of what makes his work so interesting-- namely, an impatience for song structure and a highly brief attention span that allows him to explore everything from metal riffs to funk to AM pop to found sounds to dance to soul to noise, all within long, seamless recordings that will often make you laugh while they freak you out. This is a great introduction to one of the more important new artists of 2008.


7. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago: It seems that every year I find at least one wimpy indie folk album that I like enough to include in my Year End List, and this year the honors go to Bon Iver, an initially one-off solo project of songwriter Justin Vernon that turned into one of Indie Rock's most unlikely success stories in 2008. As far as structure and sound are concerned, this is a pretty standard indie folk pop album, but like many things in life, the difference is in the details-- the entire record contains an undercurrent of introspective sadness that is both arresting and beautiful, and the soulfulness found in Vernon's melodies and vocal performances is truly unique, reminding one of large, empty spaces while never drifting too far into isolation to destroy his emotional connection with the listener. There is absolutely nothing revolutionary going on here, but perhaps that is part of the appeal too. This is a comfort record that you can fall in love with and play pretty much any time in any place, and the nearly universal praise it has received from the blogosphere and "culture" media is almost enough to make you think that hipsters might not be completely tasteless ALL the time. Well... maybe I shouldn't go that far.


6. Times New Viking, Rip It Off: In 2007 and 2008, Siltbreeze bands such as Times New Viking, U.S. Girls and Psychedelic Horseshit felt to me like the first important "movement" to have emerged in American underground music in several years, and Times New Viking was probably the most initially exciting and accessible band of the bunch (I guess TNV is technically a Matador band now, but you get my point). Rip It Off was often described using references to 90's indie bands such as Pavement and Guided By Voices, and although there are some general similarities there for sure, TNV is probably more radical in their recording techniques than either band yet more traditional in their songwriting. Essentially, these are high octane, sugar coated power pop songs run through a lo-fi blender of extreme treble and disorienting distortion. The result is a catchy trash punk record with a child-like enthusiasm for high speed delivery and sing-a-longs. The formula is simple, and the presentation is a big part of it, but few other records this year seemed to scream "Relevant Now" (also a song title on the album) quite like this one, and none did it with quite the same sense of reckless fun.


5. Sun Araw, Beach Head: There's a song on Beach Head called "Horse Steppin'" that has literally made me wonder aloud (to myself, mind you) whether Sun Araw is the current generation's answer to Spacemen 3. I'm not sure if this project has quite the revolutionary appeal of the aforementioned groups' droning, minimal atmospherics, but on many levels, that might just be the result of circumstances involving time and place rather than the music itself, because much of this material is truly transcendent.  Minimal psychedelic music is rarely this fresh and exciting, and although Sun Araw is a rather strange listen the first few times around, patterns begin to emerge amongst the static, drone and fuzz, revealing a spiritual quality that is never cheesy or condescending, and a musical structure that pulls from so many different regions of the world that it feels like its own planet all together.  If groups like Beach House and Animal Collective wanted to truly venture beyond the relatively safe, this is probably what they would sound like.  


4. Lindstrom, Where You Go I Go Too: Lindstrom's 2005 debut single "I Feel Space" ushered in a new genre (space disco) and a highly lucrative career for its maker, but until this year, Lindstrom had mostly existed in the realm of DJ sets and remixes. Where You Go I Go Too, his full length debut, provides solid evidence that the man will be able to transcend the notoriously fickle dance music flavor of the month status and turn his sound into something important. Most of the material found here might not be "dance music" in the most literal sense of the word (considering how atmospheric and slow it can sometimes be), but its disco grooves are flawless, and clever influences ranging from Cerrone to Tangerine Dream make it a dynamic and captivating listen. This kind of "tasteful" dance music is often dismissed as boring, but listeners who allow themselves to get lost in Lindstrom's web for a few minutes will find it is anything but.


3. M83, Saturdays=Youth: Before this record was released, I often wondered whether M83 was super overrated or simply just "not my thing." Fortunately, Saturdays=Youth has made this a total non-issue, as producer Anthony Gonzalez has turned out an impeccably tasteful 80s synth/dream pop record that nods to everything from Slowdive to Echo and the Bunnymen to Brian Eno, making it a fleeting, dreamlike affair that works as a genre study while completely transcending all such labels. There is a pensive, sad and introspective undertone throughout that provides a powerful emotional counter-punch to the often soaring synth textures and melodies that make it so sugary and bittersweet, and it is precisely this kind of push-pull that makes the whole thing so moving. Single "Kim & Jessie" is truly the highlight here, providing a pretty clear picture of what the 80's would have been like if they had been a whole lot better, which is a pretty good way to describe this record in general. So I'll just leave it at that.

2. The Bug, London Zoo: Dubstep has turned a lot of people's attention back to reggae, bass music and dance hall over the past couple of years, and although London Zoo isn't a dubstep record per se, the genre's influence is all over the place within it, making it something of an anomaly in certain circles that tend to congregate around places like Boomkat. My first thought upon hearing it (other than the fact that it was really fucking fierce) was to question whether this was a dubstep record branching way out or some kind of strange, dub heavy grime record that happened to be really catchy. As I learned more about Bug producer Kevin Martin, however, I started to realize that this record was something a bit more than either-- Martin has been making bass heavy, hip hop influenced masterpieces for over ten years now, and London Zoo sounds like the culmination of all his efforts. Drenched in dense, rough around the edges sludge, this is a dub heavy record that focuses on stellar vocal performances from the likes of Flowdan, Spaceape and Warrior Queen, resulting in one of the most frightening yet accessible English bass records I've heard in a very long time. With dance floor/pop appeal to match the likes of Burial and the kind of hard edged, abstract bass produced by the likes of Skull Disco, London Zoo has a little something for anyone who's even remotely interested in the aforementioned genres.   If you typically find dubstep to be a bore, or if you're just looking for a document of the darker side of London, this is record is essential, and it will probably be considered as such for many years to come.

1. Hercules and Love Affair, Hercules and Love Affair: The 00s have been a great decade for dance music, and the past couple of years have been especially good for disco and old school House, as both genres have recently been brought back from the dead (yet again) and held on pedastals (yet again) as the current incarnations of retro cool (it's the newest in old stuff!). Fourtunately for anyone with a soul, however, Hercules and Love Affair is not one of those fashion slave hipster dance groups universally loved by "creative" teenagers in London. Instead, Andy Butler, the group's producer, has crafted a truly stellar Chicago house and disco debut that somehow manages to place substance on an even footing with style (which is rare in both genres these days), resulting in track after track of stunning beats, catchy hooks and the kind of strange, sexually ambiguous flair that one would expect from a group that features Antony Hegarty incarnated as a house/disco diva. Helping matters is the fact that Butler recorded the entire album with equipment from the eras he was inspired by-- he's been quoted as saying that 100% of this material could have been recorded in the exact same manner twenty years ago (when the same equipment was available), and the quality of every single sound found within is a testament to this. From the dark, Chicago inspired synth house of "You Belong" to the gloriously over-the-top strings on "Hercules Theme," this is about as close to perfect as a full length dance album could ever get, and to me, Hercules and Love Affair captured the feel of 2008 better than anything else released this year-- the record truly looks backward in order to move forward, and it does so with a kind of innovative subtlety that is sorely lacking in, well, pretty much fucking everything these days.  

18 Comments:

Anonymous sun bear said...

actually, wavves' s/t has already came out on both woodsist and fuckittapes. his album "wavvves" (three v's) comes out next year in march on de stijl.

9:53 PM  
Anonymous numnuts said...

:(

10:13 PM  
Anonymous stonedranger said...

Who give a fuck about a release date, yo?

:-)

10:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sun araw is shit hot

11:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

that rangers stuff is pretty damn good

11:24 PM  
Anonymous sun bear said...

i was just lettin' ya know sr. :)

11:48 PM  
Anonymous stonedranger said...

sall good

12:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

that bug album came out of nowhere, even for wsjr. its just plain not any good. its like jazz fusion: maybe in 20 years it will be revolutionary, but right now it just fucking sucks.

4:06 AM  
Anonymous drex said...

your moms jazz fusion

came out of nowhere?.....i think not....the bug has been dropping tracks since you were shittin' yellow homey....get bent

9:46 AM  
Anonymous lol at drex said...

b

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice reviews sr

10:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

gay

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow this is quite nice... that is exactly what i thought when i first heard Sun Araw! i need to get that album...

11:34 AM  
Anonymous CJ said...

right on about the atlas sound record. forgot it on my list.

1:33 PM  
Anonymous Max said...

Say WHAATT.

3:01 PM  
Anonymous tommyboy said...

amazing list. excellent reviews. thanks

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmmm...

10:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

way to go spagett!

11:19 AM  

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