Sunday, December 14, 2008

Best of 2008

For me 2008 was a year of great, great music. I discovered many new bands that I really enjoyed. What follows is a roundup of my favorite albums. I’ll have my list of the top shows and local music next week. If there’s any trend for the year, it’s great music recorded in cabins, as The Low Anthem, Delta Spirit, and Bon Iver all made their albums in this setting. That said, here’s my list in alphabetical order as, in the end, all of this music really moved me and it’s impossible to pick a favorite.

Also, I hope you like my new custom-made banner from Iron Design.

Top Albums

Beck: Modern Guilt
Wow! Take Beck and mix in Danger Mouse and Cat Power and you get Modern Guilt. While I love the whole record, “Walls” was one my 2008 musical obsessions. Thankfully, repeat and headphones exists. The beats, melody, and lyrics work so well together. This song is dark and speaks to the lassitude that so many of us in our country felt in the past year leading up to the election. I can’t help but to feel how this song, and really the whole album, is a reflection of our lives after 8 years of W—and damage that has been done to us and the rest of the world, not just physically and financially, but more important spiritually.

Bjorkestra: Enjoy!
You have to give Travis Sullivan credit. It takes not only vision, but also no small amount of courage to take the music of a much beloved and genre-bending performer and arrange it for a new musical setting. And a new setting, indeed, it is. Sullivan has taken Bjork’s music and re-arranged it for an 18-piece jazz band—The Bjorkestra. It’s amazing and exciting to hear the songs reinterpreted this way.

Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago
Recorded in a hunting cabin in Wisconsin, Bon Iver's album captures beauty, pain, and isolation in its songs and sounds. For Emma, Forever Ago is full of haunting music that stays with you as you close your eyes to go to sleep at night.

Cat Power: Jukebox
Cat Power (Chan Marshall) returned with her second disc of cover tunes, Jukebox. She recorded the album with the Dirty Delta Blues Band. This is another great album by Cat Power. There are some gutsy choices here, such as “Don’t Explain,” which was made famous by Billy Holiday and Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.” To attempt and successfully re-interpret songs by some of the great vocal stylists goes to show what an immense talent Chan Marshall is.

The Clash: Live at Shea Stadium
This live recording of The Clash’s epic gig at Shea Stadium, opening for The Who on October 12, 1982, is chill inspiring stuff—and that’s what matters most about this album. It’s a testament to the fact music can save your life. For me, The Clash was one of the first bands that proved this to me. However, Live At Shea Stadium shouldn’t be viewed as an epilogue to The Clash’s greatness. It should be viewed as further proof of their continued power and influence.

Delta Spirit: Ode To Sunshine
Delta Spirit fit into that amorphous rock, folk, Americana milieu. That isn’t to say they’re derivative, because they aren’t. From the first notes of Ode To Sunshine, the band’s debut on Rounder Records, it shows us its—well—spirit of music. Recorded live in a cabin, the San Diego-based band has produced one of the most immediate and best sounding albums of the year. No studio trickery, just great musicians playing excellent songs.

Frightened Rabbit: The Midnight Organ Fight
Like many others who look to the Internet to find new music, I found Selkirk, Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit on YouTube. They write quirky/clever lyrics—but in a very intelligent way. The band also covers some of the big themes of life—such as religion—in addition to love. “Heads Roll Off” is a really lovely tune about faith and the belief that death isn’t the end. With two albums complete, the buzz is now building around them in the US and they’re poised to reach the much wider audience they deserve to.

The Low Anthem: Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
This record kicks off with what I think is the most beautiful song of 2008, “Charlie Darwin.” This indie-Americana trio played all of the various 27 instruments (including pump organ, zither, and a Tibetan singing bowl) used to make the album. And in doing so created a masterpiece that speaks to our search for meaning in a chaotic world.

Ra Ra Riot: The Rhumb Line
Syracuse’s own Ra Ra Riot released The Rhumb Line, their full-length debut, this fall. This fierce band uses both a cello and a violin as centerpieces of its sound. But the band is no chamber-pop outfit. They rock. The use of the strings works great with its sound. It integrates the cello and violin into the overall fabric and texture of their music. This album is beautiful. Poetic. And together the lyrics and the music produce what I keep describing to myself as joyous melancholy. Yeah, I don’t totally know what joyous melancholy means. All I know is this is how I can describe the way the music makes me feel—and I like it. Or perhaps this sound and the feeling it creates are connected to the rhumb line—a path of constant bearing.

The Watson Twins: Fire Songs
The Twins first full-length album, Fire Songs, is a beautiful collection of originals and one cover. Sonically The Watson Twins exist in the alt-county/folk/indie sphere. While this is well-traveled terrain, Chandra and Leigh definitely have their own sound and approach that lets them stand out in the crowd. Certainly the excellent songwriting featured on the record does not hurt. The tunes explore a world mixed with struggle and hope, sadness and joy. The Twin’s version of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” is so very lovely and does what the best covers do: pay homage to the original, but still take the song in a new and compelling direction. The sister’s version transforms the song from the joy of the present to the melancholy of memory. In the end, The Watson Twins are wonderful singers who write powerful tunes—and that’s what makes Fire Songs so great.

Favorite Songs 2008
Top Songs Playlist

Favorite Shows
Neko Case at the State Theatre
Getting the opportunity to see her in a great venue like the State Theatre was a huge treat. The State is so intimate for a 1600 seat theater and even in the balcony the stage seems very close. But what made this show even more special, was the fact she was out for a very short tour to road-test new songs for her album that will, hopefully, be released in early 2009.

Billy Bragg at the State Theatre
It was Billy playing his guitar—mostly electric, but some acoustic as well—on a simple black stage. And I want to say that his influence as a songwriter in general is never questioned, but his amazing guitar playing is not often singled out. He really has his own sound on the instrument and I can totally say that he didn’t need a backup band to rock the theater. This show had the crowd sing-along of the year with “A New England.”

Cassandra Wilson at the State Theatre
As a performer, she and her amazing band didn’t disappoint. They were a tight, serious, and playful band adding guitar, piano, bass, drums, and percussion to her vocals. What this means is all of these elements, built on Ms. Wilson’s incredible voice, created an evening of transformative music. When I closed my eyes and listened it was as though I was floating. I’m not sure how else to describe it. This was one of those concerts I’ll never forget by an artist that I’ve wanted to see live for over a decade.

Emily Arin at the Montour Falls Harvest Festival
It was with great pleasure that I first heard recent transplant Emily Arin playing a lovely set at the Montour Falls Harvest Festival of all places. I was sitting on hay bails with my wife kids listening —pretty blown away. Her performance is definitely a nice highlight from 2008. She’s a great talent to be watched. And I hereby start the campaign to get her booked at the 2009 Grassroots Festival.


Post a Comment