I made this list a couple of weeks ago and have been taking my time to relax and reflect on each of these favorite releases from 2008. It was too difficult to put these top-10 in any definite order. I figured a brief reaction to each of these gems was even better, so here you go…
Ten ’08 favorites:
A Faulty Chromosome “As an ex-anorexic’s six sicks exit.” [s/r]
A couple of weeks ago I exchanged emails with our Music Director, Nick, where I told him that I wasn’t quite sure what Lo-Fi music was. He directed me to the wikipedia page for “Lo Fi,” which defined it the same way I probably would have if someone put a gun to my head and made me give a definition. Apples in Stereo, old Beck, Pavement. Just bands that have a signature, low fidelity sound recording. For me, though, that Lo-fi is really restricted to that specific time period. I would say over 50% of the bands I listen to know could be considered “lo-fi” under Wikipedia’s definition, but they are definitely not early-90s lo-fi. Fuzzed out, low fidelity tunes were huge this year.. and a band like A Faulty Chromosome is a perfect example of this new, more broadly defined lo-fi that I know and love (a lot more than Apples in Stereo, at least). Searching for comments of critics across the web, there is no agreement on how to classify this band: pop-rock, shoegaze, electronic, post-punk, 8-bit, but maybe most of all: “warm and fuzzy.” And it is, all the way through. This Austin, TX band has a lot of fun toys, and they are not afraid to play with them. In doing so, they craft one of the softest pieces of electro lo-fi pop I have heard in a long time. Experimenting with echoed vocals that on songs like “Bad Thing” recall the loud, peaking babbles throughout AC’s “Feels,” over alarming blasts of bass on songs like “Them Pleasures of the Flesh” that recall Joy Division or New Order, this album, way out of left field, completely blew my mind. The 8-bit movement in itself recalls early lo-fi, and this album’s reconciliation of those two periods makes for a thoroughly charming listen, especially with some really good headphones.
Brightblack Morning Light “Motion to Rejoin” [Matador]
Lined up against their self-titled LP on Matador, “Motion to Rejoin” may not be anything new for the folk-gospel duo from New Mexico. But that does not make it any less special of an accomplishment. The soft hymns are lullabies that lull the listener into a dreamlike state. The sound of their music is like experiencing sleep while awake, a sort of sensation that many rightfully attribute to a drug-induced hallucination. And while this music may feel like a hazy drug trip, each note and chorus is so elegantly paced and well articulated in a way that truly lacks comparison. Like any good soul album, the vocals articulate a feeling beyond words, and the listeners are asked to empathize, or at least hear it out. BML’s music starts with the dull drone of a featureless desert landscape, layering on sweet guitar lines for shadows and emotional keyboard melodies for movements of the fauna. The vocals convey cryptic messages from the outerspace beyond. “Motion to Rejoin” may not be a major progression from their last album, but why would anyone want that?
Ellen Allien “Sool” [Bpitch Control]
German electronic songstress Ellen Fraatz’s latest album is a narrative that opens with chimes and a spoken word: “Alexanderplatz.” We begin a journey through the streets of her native Berlin via the experimental uber-minimal compositions of Fraatz and producer AGF. Each song is made up of field recordings that build on each other, complimented by AGF’s seamless effects. What results is something as simultaneously minimal and dense as a Fennesz album. With the exception of a couple of tracks, none of these compositions could really qualify as dance music. This is electronic music better enjoyed in a pair of headphones or in the comfort of one’s living room. What is it about “Sool” that is distinguishable from other “IDM”, though? While many have tired of Berlin minimalism, “Sool” represents a movement toward what comes next: effects-driven minimal beats devoid of any human presence. The sounds that machines make or do not make as they migrate across a flat metallic landscape. As the synthetic rhythms build on each other in contrast, we realize how densely non-minimalist her post-minimalist project is. “MM” is my favorite example of this, as well as one of the better electronic compositions of ‘08. The track begins mid-thought with the repetitious sound of a marble contrasting with a danceable bass track, and then only seconds in, echoing sounds after echoing sounds are layered on top of each other, cascading, evolving and causing the listener to completely lose track of the marble until the very end, when the track regresses back to its starting point. It is so remarkably thoughtful, and certainly brings something new to the minimalist genre; although I do not know exactly what that may be, “Sool” seems so very fresh. It is not what I would have expected for Allien, one of the most popular techno artist/performers in the world, because it does not (and did not) initially please most techno enthusiasts. There are no techno or pop hooks; it is instead an experiment that totally compels and, I think, largely succeeds.
Flying Lotus “Los Angeles” [Warp]
I have returned to this album at least once a week for the second half of the year and I still continually ask myself “How did someone even conceive of this?!” With “Los Angeles,” Flying Lotus proved himself as one of the premier beat-smiths, if not of all musicians, around. His debut “1983” (on L.A. indie label Plug Research) was a masterpiece, and I questioned his capacity to repeat the feat on a much larger label, under a lot more pressure to produce. While I understand why all of his press notes his ties to his aunt Alice Coltrane, he is so much more than an heir-apparent. Steven Ellison can flat out make music, regardless of his connections. The weight of each individual track takes a long time to set in. At first I really admired the album as a collective whole, a jazzy, psychedelic beat tour with a little more L.A. and a little less Rio than his debut effort. With each listen, however, I have had the opportunity to pick it apart and become enamored particularly with Laura Darlington’s (wife of L.A.’s very own Daedelus, and ½ of the Long Lost on Alpha Pup) breathtaking guest spot, the spine-tingling “Camel” (of which Nosaj Thing did an excellent remix featured on “L.A. EP 2×3” just released on Warp), and of course the ever-so-sexy “Parisian Gold Fish” (google “Dance Floor Dale” if you need any further confirmation of this). Ellison’s music is incredibly versatile and varied, equally as weededed-out as it is dance floor ready. The fact that three follow-up EPs are being released on Warp featuring remixes and new interpretations of tracks on “Los Angeles” only strengthens that point.
Lindstrom “Where You Go I Go Too” [Smalltown Supersound]
This is the ultimate night drive album. It is really made for the vinyl medium, although I have yet to snag a copy of it. Three tracks… [side A] Track 1: 29 minutes; [flip to side B] Track 2: 10 minutes; Track 3: 16 minutes. It is a modern day manifestation of Moroder or Vangelis—maybe with a little more hype. It is too spacey for the dancefloor. Maybe, like a lot of Moroder’s tracks it is best fit for a soundtrack, whether set to a movie or a humid beach rendezvous. Discussions of the correct context aside, this synthy, flowing masterpiece is so much more classic italo-disco than Glass Candy or Sally Shapiro. Granted, it is hard to compare such acts with “Where You Go I Go Too” simply because they depend so much on the vocal instrument. Nonetheless, it was refreshing to hear a new disco album (not to knock DFA and Andy Butler, who really struck gold this year and are all-deserving of it) that is not as heavily reliant on pop hooks. These three tracks are clearly independent of each other, and are refreshingly aimless in their meanderings through synth land. Score a big one for Norwegian label Smalltown Supersound and Hans-Peter Lindstrom.
Mt. Wilson Repeater “Mt. Wilson Repeater” [Eastern Fiction]
Despite the fact that they hail from my hometown of Los Angeles, I had never really paid much attention to the Radar Bros. I was very ho-hum on their last release on Merge when it came out, and so I did not expect much from Jim Putnam’s solo project “Mt. Wilson Repeater” when it came to the station. But feelings of nostalgia overwhelmed me on first listen of this glorious pop record—and its not just because I live in the foothills below the antennas on Mt. Wilson. It’s sort of like the new Department of Eagles album—but a lot less British sounding (maybe that’s why this record wasn’t on a heavy hitter indie label, nor should it be). Some have called it “Americana” music, but what is Americana in 2008? If it is to be found in Putnam’s music, it is a serene optimism he seems to derive from the joy of songwriting (wafts of country guitar, handclaps, whistles and the rarer mellowed-out vocal) and recording (the impeccable mixing conveys a space-aged psychedelia). And maybe the landscape that surrounds him as well.. Songs like “The Conversation” invoke the movement of a helicopter ride over the California coast, with sounds like the sequences of sandy beaches and rocky cliffs that are beautiful in their repetition. This may, in the end, be all too glittery and jovial for 2008 Americana. It deserves a better title than that—but that is one that I cannot yet conjure up. This is a brilliant pop record all the way through—I could pick it up on any song and become totally enamored with and lost within it.
Osborne “Osborne” [Spectral]
This album was a breath of fresh air for dance music in 2008, after a year of ridiculously overpopular French electro outfits cranking out record after record and blog mix after blog mix. This is an homage to classic Detroit house music: old school dance straight up. Todd Osborn (that spelling is correct—his real name does not have an “e” at the end) apparently wrote these songs on his own software, and you can really tell how personal his music is. Fifteen hearty tracks with catchy piano and booming synth lines really do a number on your ears. However, you cannot help but be thrilled by these classic-sounding melodies each time they crescendo. It is house music that does not take itself too seriously, as demonstrated by Ed DMX’s repeated calls “to break it down” (the only vocals on the album). At moments the album is just plain hilarious, but in the end it is one of the more rich and rewarding dance albums of the year. Coming out a month after the Crystal Castles’ “s/t” marathon banger of an LP, this album helped me relax and remember that there was dance music before Daft Punk.
Paavoharju “Laulu laakson kukista” [Fonal]
This album is creepy, enchanting, schizophrenic but mostly beautiful—like much of what we’ve heard from Finland’s unstoppable Fonal recs. Every second of this album is different than the other. There are synthy moments that make you want to dance, there are ballad-y songs that make you want to sing along. This album is a collection of field recordings that really does not know what it wants to be, so music critics slap the “free folk” label on it. And that is maybe what is great about all this freaky stuff coming out of Finland: no one knows exactly what to do with it. Even though at times “Laulu laakson kukista” is so out there, it is so incredibly catchy—like a good pop album. But its not pop—its Paavoharju. This collective has been around awhile making strange fusions of sounds, and this album is one of their most honed in the group’s signature lack of focus.
U.S. Girls “Introducing..The U.S. Girls” [Siltbreeze]
Chicago’s Meghan Remy presents a project of blue-collar, industrial rage. [Is this the Americana of ’08?] To speak candidly, this DIY album, which at first comes off as bleak and bare and perhaps, for some people, forgettable, really affected me. There is so much feeling in Remy’s distorted vocals and their passionate interplay with the instruments and effects she deploys. “National Anthem” (if that’s not American enough for you…) kicks off the album transposing her sweet, echoing voice over the anxious picking of an electric guitar. “Outta State” features post-breakup screams over a ferocious tribal drum beat. And then there are the two covers, the two standout tracks on the album that subject Springsteen and the Kinks to her trademark minimalist project. She deconstructs these pop songs with reverb and echo and a lo-fi tape-cassette aesthetic that is really irresistible. The feeling of this densely packed 23-minute album is desperate, suicidal, alienated. I was thoroughly intrigued by her supersonic wails and stripped down aesthetic, used by Remy to engage the listener in the mystery of her psychology. This is why I returned to it over and over again, wondering what could have inspired someone to create something so enraged, juxtaposing the harsh noise of machines with the harsh noise of her own, washed-out voice and creating something entirely new, if not scary, to the DiY scene.
Zomes “Zomes” [Holy Mountain]
Each of Asa Osborne’s sixteen loop-based compositions on this debut solo project is pure poetry. Lacking a narrative cohesion in any way, these peculiar krautrock songs make for one of the headiest listening experiences of the year. Each track on its own inspires a different series of images that are deeply personal to the listener. “Crowning Orbs” recalls visible heat waves radiating off cars in the sun-baked rush hour traffic of Hollywood surface streets, the soft heartbeat and somber organ loops of “Black Magic Band” reminds me of the fear I once felt in a turbulent descent through an evening snowstorm over New Mexico, the sweet sitar sound of “Cosmovital Force” nostalgically invokes the memory of the neighborhood I grew up in: running through the sprinklers with my dog Casper and staying cool with cherry red popsicles. These specific recollections were obviously not what the Lungfish guitarist intended in creating this album; however, this album is a glimpse into the mind of a true musical poet. Each of these brief melodies has textures that will surely satisfy any fan of guitar, drone and post-rock. Moreso, each song hypnotizes the listener for usually no longer a minute, concentrating on a specific motif before quickly moving onto another one, completely disconnected from the one that came before. Despite the disjointedness, it is a remarkably relaxing listen that does not really get old.
Here are ten more that deserve to be mentioned but did not quite make the above list..
(in no particular order)
The Menahan Street Band “Make the Road by Walking” [Dunham]
Windsurf “Windsurf” [Pacifica]
Erykah Badu “New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)” [Motown]
Mahjongg “Kontpab” [K]
Atlas Sound “Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel” [Kranky]
Thee Oh Sees “The Master’s Bedroom is Worth Spending a Night in” [Tomlab]
Alps “III” [Type]
Starfucker “Starfucker” [Badman]
Indian Jewelry “Free Gold” [We Are Free]
Syclops “I’ve Got My Eye on You” [DFA]
The Five Most Memorable Shows I saw in 2008 (in no particular order):
Black Hollies @ Cake Shop CMJ Earnest Jenning Showcase (N.Y.); 888 Boadrums @ La Brea Tarpits (L.A.); Tussle/Bronze/Death Sentence: Panda! @ Cellspace (S.F.); The Tough Alliance @ Beauty Bar SXSW (Austin); Fleet Foxes @ The Echo (L.A.)
Top 5 EPs (in no particular order):
Rainbow Arabia “The Basta” [Manimal Vinyl]
Crystal Stilts “Crystal Stilts” [Woodsist]
Antony & The Johnsons “Another World” [Secretly Canadian]
Ricardo Villalobos “Vasco” [Perlon]
Wavves “Wavves” [Woodsist]
Eight Compilations (in no particular order):
“Living Bridge” [Rare Book Room]
“Give me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted Baghdad 1925-1929” [Honest Jon’s]
“Perfect as Cats: A Tribute to the Cure” [Manimal Vinyl]
“BiPPP” [Born Bad/Everloving]
“Cosmic Baeleric Beats Vol. 1” [Eskimo]
“Don’t Stop: Recording Tap” [Numero]
“Victrola Favorites” [Dust to Digital]
“Bersa Discos, Vol 1.” [Bersa Discos]