Sure, 2008 was a slow year in music, but it was an essential year nonetheless. It’s imperative to get away from the big names sometimes, whether their relative inactivity forces you to or not.
2007 basically ended with a new Radiohead album, and there just weren’t a lot of heavy-hitters putting out albums in ’09. For me, it was an opportunity to pay closer attention to the Milwaukee scene, which turned out to be way more exciting than I ever gave it credit for before. It was a year to dig deeper. And suddenly, you realize that a new mainstream is slowly emerging in the music world. What does it mean that TV on the Radio actually beat out a Bob Dylan bootleg volume on Rolling Stone’s top ten albums list? Obviously not that Jann Wenner has suddenly realized how obsolete his opinions are (John Mellencamp snagged the number five slot). The underground can’t imagine that the overground could possibly “get” TVotR, but somehow, it is happening. Increasingly influential media outlets like Spin, The Onion and Pitchfork have thrown their weight behind experimental indie rock, and the populace is responding. The rest of the buzz for 2008 was all Fleet Foxes and Deerhunter and Portishead and…um…oh, yeah, Vampire Weekend (token hip hop hype went to Lil Wayne this year—better luck next time, Kanye). I couldn’t believe the demand for the new Animal Collective album that just came out, particularly when the media keeps telling me that nobody buys music anymore, especially not physical copies of it! With the hyperavailability of everything, what is underground any more? It’s the local scene, where you can only get the records at the shows, where it’s still five or ten bucks for a night’s worth of music, where the support of your friends helps keep it alive instead of just the press and the money. You can’t download a pint of beer and a room full of people who want to just listen to the music. So I guess the live show is the new album, but in defiance of the slow death of the record store, we who buy an album, hold it in our hands, browse the package as we listen to it, all at once, are still out here. And we’re going to keep trying to suck more people into our cult. To wit:
THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2008
1. OLD WOUNDS (Young Widows)
Less extravagant yet more complete than 2006’s Settle Down City, Old Wounds plots a trajectory towards legendary for this band. The influences are there in plain view; the riffs are becoming more Helmet, less Jesus Lizard, but you can listen to the first minute of “Old Skin” and imagine Jimmy Page playing this riff and looking out at the crowd with his lips pursed, knowing that his guitar is taking people to other places. Drummer Geoff Paton adds mightily to the Zeppelin spectre, coming on like a bulldozer for most of the album. But not “The Guitar”, which plods with the desolate determination of the Melvins’ “Lizzy” but without the drums, through a Dick Dale cavern of reverb, and with Dale’s love of the myriad textures possible from a six-string and a good amp: “Got addicted at an early age”, indeed. The lushness of the production swathes two-minute dirges in epicness, so that by the time the five-minute closer “Swamped And Agitated” comes along, it courses and swells like a mini-opera. There’s not even a measure of filler on the whole album, yet no song feels rushed or unfinished. It’s a half-hour statement of definition that resonates intensity even in its quietest moments.
2. PARTY INTELLECTUALS (Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog)
I may always remember 2008 as the year when bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith asserted themselves as the greatest rhythm section in music. They can do anything, but get them truly in their element, insert superior guitar player, light fuse and get away. I’m not going to claim to keep up on everything Marc or anyone else in the Tzadik entourage releases, but Ribot keeps showing up on the fringes of my obsessions, so I took a chance and bought his 2008 solo guitar album Exercises In Futility. It lived up to its name. But when I saw that he was moonlighting with a couple of Secret Chiefs in the form of the Ceramic Dog, I had to roll the dice. (Yahtzee!) Ribot, like most of John Zorn’s high-profile cronies, can’t be contained by any ten genres, and he has created a masterpiece of unique sensibilities with Party Intellectuals. I’m giving Ribot the title of Album Namer of the Year, because this disc is like going through every phase of the impossibly perfect party with the music as the ultimate cocktail. First off: who’s gonna leave a party that cracks open with the Doors classic “Break On Through”? We then settle into some smart, intoxicated groovin’ with the title track and “Todo el Mundo es Kitsch”, featuring a slinky chorus of “la’s” that Kanye (or Steely Dan, for that matter) would kill for. Then comes the moody nostalgia of “When We Were Young And We Were Freaks”, and you’re probably thinking you’d be partied out after this, but there’s an afterparty where your brain groggily returns to lucidity with the infectious funk lullabye of “Malena”, and then you sit around and talk about chicks (the detached wit of “Girlfriend”). Beyond this, you’re going to wonder what somebody slipped into your drink but it’s going to be a mesmerizing thrill ride, trust me.
3. THE CHEMISTRY OF COMMON LIFE (Fucked Up)
Flute bleeding into not-quite-pitch-perfect feedback to start the album? Come on, that is GENIUS! The song that follows is just beautifully chaotic, thanks to the absolute best production job of the year and a song that stabs you at all the right pressure points. Hey, Fucked Up! TRUE punk rockers wouldn’t put an ambient syth-jam (“Golden Seal”) in the middle of a record! Response: “Pious devotion shackles them to their faith like a slave”(“Days Of Last”)!!!! These guys are as serious about their religious imagery as they are about their music, although toward the end of “Crooked Head”, I SWEAR they’re trying to demolish the riff of Journey’s “Faithfully”(maybe that should be the goal of punk rock). The song is almost joyful, undeniably triumphant in its defiance. And “Twice Born” is the ultimate condemnation/gripe/apology, easily one of the most perfect songs of the year. This is a rock-solid album whose subtleties sink in even as its ability to shock wears off on repeated listens. The attitude and energy is Minor Threat meets Black Flag. The inspiration is yet another confirmation of Refused’s The Shape Of Punk To Come. In between those lines, there is just so much more to riff through. Welcome to Fucked Up, further stretching the hardcore umbrella or tearing it open or maybe getting out from under it for good.
4. MICROCASTLE (Deerhunter)
The album opens with what feels like a cinematic theme that could have been just tossed off but it really prepares you for something exciting. What follows is some eerie Bowie-meets-Pavement pop, a pretty fitting inspiration for the album as a whole. Oh, and of course, “Never Stops” and “Little Kids” waste no time in reminding us of the permeating My Bloody Valentine influence. Then, after the title track manages to be both warm and desolate, the album descends into a bit of a pallor, lulling yet unnerving, until the (mock-?)triumphant “Nothing Ever Happened”. Suddenly, Bradford Cox sounds like Jeremy Enigk and the band is playing soft punk that’s sure to get much less soft for the live show. What the song lacks in succinctness it makes up for with propulsion in the end. This band has no intrinsic fear of taking things farther than a music consumer unit will have the attention span for. It lets things taper into each other, lets themes build and dissolve of their own accord. It’s a muse without a middleman, which most bands can’t pull off, but Bradford Cox is no ordinary band.
Looking at this release as one piece robs Mircrocastle of its flow, but Weird Era Cont. (a separate album co-released as a bonus disc) at least deserves mention. It is a more scattered, droning album; sometimes jarring (“Operation”), sometimes hypnotic (“Slow Swords”), sometimes unnecessary (most of the title track), but mostly compelling, truly a companion piece. Save it for after you’ve absorbed Microcastle, lest you sabotage the perfection of “Twilight At Carbon Lake”, the album’s closer, a rockabilly lullabye that morphs into a throbbing distortion jam (don’t get me wrong: this is a band). I love it when a band can encapsulate its eclectic essence in one song; “Twilight” does it as well as any I’ve heard, capping an album that extends a powerful malaise over 45 minutes but manages to make you love it for its vulnerability as well as its power.
5. THE BEES MADE HONEY IN THE LION’S SKULL (Earth)
You can envision an entire life-and-death cycle in the span of this glacial album, filled with beauty and stark solitude that reach beyond any words someone might have wanted to paste on. It’s a minimalist instrumental album that feels mostly friendly if a bit ominous, not the heaviest album of the year, but the hugest. It’s got nothing to prove. It reaches you with patient strength. Put it in your headphones, close your eyes, meditate: you’re in a vast desert, the sun shines but it’s not overly hot, and you have plenty of water and nothing more pressing to do than stroll along and admire the scenery. The metaphor of the title isn’t even necessary; you can feel beauty being drawn from darkness, calm sustainability, faith and fearlessness, all painted into the landscape, blending into the horizon of this grand work of art.
6. HERALD THE DICKENS (The Celebrated Workingman)
It may have been a slow year for indie superstars and arena rock icons, but The Celebrated Workingman has filled in both gaps on this debut album—in terms of ambition, at least. It takes rock star audacity to belt it out the way Mark Waldoch does on this collection of sterling pop songs, but it takes a dollop of humility to be this endearing at the same time. He sings every line like he’s just channeled the thought, impossibly immediate but achingly believable. He also writes unshakeable melodies; the one-line chorus alone of “Island” is almost a song in itself. Musically, there are shades of Pearl Jam in the curlicue guitar licks, inklings of R.E.M. in the insidious hooks, the melodrama of Catherine Wheel, all impassioned to U2 elevation. The cherry on top is just knowing how to end an album: first, the frantic prog-pop of “Hate & Apologies” (“I wish I could trade in this hate for another apology”), secret weapon Chris Vos’s drumming earning the spotlight. Then, “Opening Night” swells until it bursts, on the final beat, then trails off as a final sigh to temper the triumph: ”The moment you die this will flash in your eyes/If I sing just right…” Yeah, the theatrical lyrics are appropriate. This is barely-contained raw emotion by the best band in Milwaukee.
7. DOOMSDAYER’S HOLIDAY (Grails)
Somehow, when I first listened to this album, it bored me. I really thought I was paying pretty close attention, but clearly, I must have been distracted. Then again, Grails albums almost never make me gaga on first listen. Something about their particular brand of post rock just isn’t flagrant at the onset. The layers of these songs seep into your bloodstream unawares, overtaking you like a creeping virus, so that on your third or fourth listen you are taken aback by how you could have not noticed how awesome this was before. But you’re always noticing different passages, making it seem like a different album every time you hear it. If it were more predictable, it might have a better chance at recognition, but it keeps you guessing so you get blown away by the best parts over and over, and you keep to the edge of your seat even as you try to remember what happens next. If you ever find that you’ve memorized every beat and strum and echo of this wordless story, you might end up not feeling satisfied any more when you listen, but that’s a question you’re likely to spend years happily pursuing the answer to.
8. XAPHAN: BOOK OF ANGELS, VOL. 9 (John Zorn/Secret Chiefs 3)
This had to happen eventually; it’s just that as a Trey Spruance fan, you have to be willing to put up with a lot of empty promises. There hasn’t been an album of original SC3 material since 2004’s Book Of Horizons, so this one would be a wicked tease if it weren’t for the fact that John Zorn is the only genius weird enough to fill in for Trey as a songwriter. These two men first collaborated on the first Mr. Bungle album back in 1991, and fans have been waiting ever since for a full-album reunion. The result is the aural equivalent of Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Jews all living together in harmony: it only seems like chaos. Its only drawback is that at times, it sounds as labored over as it actually is. Compositionally, it’s flawless, but it lacks the essence of improvisation that is so prominent in the best work of both artists. It’s just an amazing and unique collection of music, played with such skill and crafted so meticulously, far beyond what most musicians can or even want to contemplate. Zorn’s Book Of Angels series has been one of the most consistent and fascinating series of his impossibly prolific career, and this is a near-perfect realization of its spirit.
9. DRAWN TO DUSK (Camphor)
Another of the excellent debuts of 2008, Drawn To Dusk sounds impossibly sophisticated for a first effort. The stunning atmospherics must spring from lead man Max Avery Lichtenstein’s background in film scoring, as well as his hypnotic, Gordon-Lightfoot-meets-Mark-Sandman vocals. The whole sweeping, folky expanse would be a real comfort trip if it weren’t for the unnerving lyrics. The first proper song, “Deconstructed”, is positively ebullient aside from the “everything’s coming apart at the seams” chorus. The lovely “Bones” would make a soothing lullaby if it weren’t about how everything is piles of bones. And the rollicking country romp “Confidences Shattered”…well, the title speaks for itself. This is Americana for an age of unease, pastoral and provocative, lush and a little bit disturbing, but with enough aching melodies to get stuck in your head pretty quickly. Its only flaw is that it’s a bit overproduced; it sounds almost Disney at times, but the songs always cut through the candy coating.
10. DIRTY VERSIONS (We Versus The Shark)
Filling the gap left since At The Drive-In particulated into The Mars Volta, etc., Dirty Versions recaptures the progressive art-punk mantle and thrashes wildly about in it. If opening track “Hello Blood” doesn’t get yours pumping, the terrorists have already won. The attitude is less militaristic, more frivolous than ATD-I, but captures the disjointed momentum and the caffeine-fueled frenzy. All the ingredients of 21st century indie rock are thrown into a blender and deep fried, sort of like the Fiery Furnaces’ faster songs, only heavier and incessantly noisy. There are great melodic moments where guitar licks twist around and grope each other, slick little keyboard runs that rise above, and a few shoutable parts that could be deemed choruses, but the trick is how it’s all generally smashed together, that it still comes out purposeful when “fast and random” is usually good enough for this type of spazz band. A crisper production might have helped WVTS exude a little more muscle and style, but if they were going for the overdriven-PA live sound, they nailed it.
FEEL GOOD GHOSTS (TEA-PARTYING THROUGH TORNADOS) (Cloud Cult)
Based on lyrics alone, this might’ve been album of the year. Even after you’ve learned them all, they still reveal more meaning with each listen. You will look at things differently if you’re paying attention. You will assess your own attitude even as you get wrapped up in the infectious atmospheres and rhythms. There are a few moments so precious and syrupy that you might want to cringe, though. I recommend putting the best songs on mixtapes for people rather than burning the whole disc for them.
FLEET FOXES (Fleet Foxes)
On first listen, singer Robin Pecknold sounded like a poor man’s Jim James to me; now I feel it’s the other way around. Maybe it’s the lush choral harmonies, the reverb, the insistent melodies, but the more I listened to Fleet Foxes, the more boring Evil Urges sounded to me. This doesn’t change the fact that Yeasayer did much the same thing on 2007’s All Hour Cymbals and didn’t get nearly the accolades, but Fleet Foxes have made an assured and affecting debut all the same.
DARK SHADES OF BLUE (Xavier Rudd)
I’ve been digging Xavier for quite a while now, but I was starting to worry that he was becoming the Australian Jack Johnson, initially interesting but increasingly self-parodizing. Dark Shades Of Blue allays those fears. It’s not that a happy artist must turn to the dark side to be respectable, but this album reveals many sides of the normally happy-go-lucky Rudd while never abandoning the positivity that holds his canon together. It’s a refreshing sonic experiment for him, much needed, and it pays off.
MOST SHOCKING LETDOWN: Third (Portishead)
I’ve already written about this, tried further to become absorbed by this album, failed again. All I can figure is that people like this album on a purely intellectual level, or maybe I’ve lost touch with whatever is in a person who can be moved by an utter absence of emotion, or maybe Beth Gibbons is working on a whole different level of self-awareness than I’m even capable of detecting, but I still feel a tangible connection to the first two albums, and nothing about Third reaches out to me in that way. I’m impressed with it stylistically, but I just can’t get it to mean anything to me.
BEST SONGS NOT MENTIONED ABOVE
“9 X 9” (John Zorn)
“75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction)” (The Roots)
“A Perfect Place” (Mike Patton)
“Aly, Walk With Me” (The Raveonettes)
“Black Holes Resonate (In B-Flat), Baby” (IfIHadAHifi)
“California Dreamer” (Wolf Parade)
“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” (Vampire Weekend)
“Club Thing” (Yoav)
“Corpse Paint” (Ladyhawk)
“Dark Shades Of Blue” (Xavier Rudd)
“Demon Apple” (Tapes N’ Tapes)
“DLZ” (TV on the Radio)
“Electric Feel” (MGMT)
“Festival” (Sigur Rós)
“Furr” (Blitzen Trapper)
“Gunfight” (The Mighty Underdogs)
“Highly Suspicious” (My Morning Jacket)
”Hot Night Hounds” (Annuals)
“I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You” (The Black Kids)
“Midwest Blues” (Quinn Scharber And The …)
“Mister Jung Stuffed” (Man Man)
“Monsters” (The Scarring Party)
“Orange” (Elusive Parallelograms)
“Porcelain Heart” (Opeth)
“The Atom” (Ani DiFranco)
“The Hymn Of The Angel People” (An Albatross)
“The News Underneath” (Dead Confederate)
“Too Drunk To Dream” (Magnetic Fields)
“When Water Comes To Life” (Cloud Cult)
”Willie Junior” (This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb)
THE YEAR IN BANDS WHO IMITATE PRINCE AND HAVE CRAPPY DRUMMERS
Dear Science by TVotR is pretty much the New York answer to Louisville’s Evil Urges by My Morning Jacket—geeky funk and soul spliced with rock and the kitchen sink—except Jim James at least sounds less fake more often than Tunde Adebimpe. I’m not denying that James sounds a lot like Towelie in the otherwise-cool “Highly Suspicious”, but the falsetto title track actually comes off as sincere. It’s too bad the album had to get so boring halfway through; ”Sec Walkin” through “Aluminum Park” is a frickin’ snoozefest, and the album only recovers in the end via the show-stopper “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt. 2”. But people who think either of these albums was groundbreaking haven’t really heard much music over the past couple of years. MMJ borrows regularly from the Neil-Young-via-Wilco playbook (see: “Remnants”, “Aluminum Park”), but I do get a kick out of how they ganked Badfinger’s “No Matter What” riff for “Two Halves”. And as for TVotR, did we really need another intro of nasally “ba-ba-ba”s in the world? TVotR’s biggest liability isn’t the occasionally-convincing vocals, though; it’s that unfunky drumming. Listen closely to “Dancing Choose” or “Golden Age” or “Shout Me Out”. Jaleel Bunton sounds like a bad prog rocker trying to do techno. Even the relative sincerity of “Family Tree” would have been better without any of that anticlimactic percussion. And then there’s the impressive vocal acrobatics of “Red Dress.” And then somehow it all comes together for the brilliant “DMZ,” like that was what they’ve been going for the whole time. A career apex, then it’s all downhill. “Make Love All Night Long”’s suffocating organ makes you want to do anything but. Following this up with sterile sweet French nothings and flutes does not help. Is there such a thing as ironic pretension? Is that the dubious quality that Prince perfected? I guess in general, it feels pretty much like regular pretension.
THE YEAR IN GRUNGE ICONS
My love/hate relationship with Pearl Jam swung decidedly into the crapper this year, as Eddie Vedder took pity on his fratboy fan contingent during these tough economic times and charged 70 bucks a ticket to see him play his guitar and sing. Truly, his Neil Young complex knows no bounds. Writing a song for the Cubs did nothing to endear him, either. I know this mainly stems from my not having seen PJ since their opening double-header with Tom Petty in ’06; they always pull me back in when they play. But what’s up with this east-coast-only tour? On an election year? How am I supposed to know who to vote for if Eddie doesn’t tell me from the stage at Alpine Valley? Elsewhere, Weiland (he will never have a first name in my book) put out another solo album, and if you listen to Happy In Galoshes back to back with his debut, 12 Bar Blues, you won’t have much trouble figuring out which one was made while he was on drugs. I hate this cliché, but the new sober Weiland doesn’t really write any interesting songs, apparently. I thought maybe I could blame the rest of Velvet Revolver for that band sucking, but I guess it truly was a group effort. Meanwhile, Dave Grohl has become a Gene Simmons for the 21st century, and his band has become Nickelback. I guess that’s why he gets to play with Sir Paul McCartney and Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones: he’s now officially less relevant than any of the old geezers he aspires to be like. And to think, three or four years ago, I didn’t think he was capable of making a bad album. Then again, in those days, he probably didn’t feel like he had to do Wal-Mart exclusives in order to provide for his family. And Billy Corgan keeps chugging along, pretending not to notice that nobody likes his new music, while his fans pretend not to notice the Iha and D’arcy lookalikes that make up his band, whatever it’s called. And let’s not forget Chris Cornell! On second thought, please, let’s forget him, so he can just go away and stop making terrible music. Geez, I almost forgot: Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli put their collective grunge-god opulence together in the form of an overproduced, quickly forgettable vanity project as the Gutter Twins. A Jagger and Richards for 90’s rock, they are clearly not. Cripes, even the Melvins put out a retread album this year. I guess maybe the grunge is dead. Don’t get me started on “Alice In Chains”…
In 1990, that would have been THE unstoppable rock machine; too mainstream to be metal, too vital to die. Somehow, eighteen years later, this is true again. The first song on AC/DC’s Black Ice is called “Rock ‘N Roll Train”, and producer Brendan O’Brien has reduced it to its Back In Black essence. Brian Johnson sounds positively pre-Razor’s Edge, late-80’s vocal reverb notwithstanding, and the Angus/Malcolm tag team inhabits the one-band fraternity it created with more bloozy grit than a thousand Buck Cherrys. The rest of the album never quite recaptures that perfect balance, but it still burns with a we’re-not-done-yet stubbornness that ostensibly made it the band’s first number one hit ever in the U.S. I’m not going to fibrillate any Wal-Mart conspiracy theories here, but how the hell is that possible? The only excuse I can come up with is that AC/DC exists outside space and time, and its very existence challenges the meaning of “relevance”.
But can the same be said for GN’R (or, if you prefer, AX’L)? Chinese Democracy is suddenly more than just a punchline. It’s a curiosity that actually sounds like 17 years’ worth of ideas crammed into one album. There is so much guitar on this album, you couldn’t possibly hear it all on one listen. Throughout the album, three men (Buckethead, Bumblefoot and Robin Finck) keep trying to outdo each other and, um, succeeding. Axl has unwittingly gotten around the old cliché about having your whole life to make your first album and a couple years for each one afterward. This one could almost pass as a debut if it weren’t for that unmistakable voice, which is creepily limber for a 46-year-old former wastoid. Plus you’ve got The Bucket, a presence on all but two tracks, bringing Axl along for the ride on “Sheckler’s Revenge”, turning the end of “There Was A Time” into another “Nottingham Lace”, noodling around behind the verses, molding the riffage of today’s GN’R. It feels weird even saying “today’s GN’R.” I can’t help feeling warm and fuzzy for both weirdos for getting along just often enough to churn this sucker out, because even as scattered and overly ambitious as Democracy is, it works. If you were still a fan after Use Your Illusion II, you owe it to yourself to check this out. Even if you think it ain’t GN’R without Slash, just pretend it’s got some other name, and crank it.
And then there’s Metallica’s Death Magnetic. This is a band that’s been struggling to figure out what ever made it relevant ever since it lost its identity with the Load experiments. Enter career-defibrillator Rick Rubin. If anybody can steer the juggernaut back from the train wreck that was 2003’s St. Anger, he can. Can we give Metallica props for partially returning to its 80’s heyday roots? Sure. Give 1986’s Master Of Puppets a listen today, and it still rages timelessly. Can we forgive James Hetfield for writing another song called “Unforgiven” [III]? I suppose. DM does go beyond perpetuating an old, still-viable style at times, but it’s the strength of Metallica actually being Metallica that carries this album. Even though “The Day That Never Comes” (which could’ve been titled “Unforgiven IV” for its first four minutes) just awkwardly tacks on a metal ending, failing to be the “Stairway” they were obviously going for. Even though Lars totally muffs a couple drum breaks in “Broken Beat & Scarred” and “Cyanide”. Even with the weak Load throwback of “Cyanide”, which is almost saved in the last two minutes but not quite. Outweighing the clunkers, there’s the middle section of “End Of The Line”, a Hammett/Hetfield monstrosity. There’s the guitar solos in “Judas Kiss”, showing a greater sense of melody and dynamic than virtually anything from the 80’s canon. There’s the full-on masterpiece “All Nightmare Long”; James hasn’t sounded this beastly (this himself) in years, and musically, it’s the perfect bridge between 80’s thrash and the post-Buckethead modern age. Overall, the album achieves the warts-n-all effect St. Anger was shooting for, without the painfully obvious effort or the worst-production-ever by Bob Rock (Rubin achieves his trademark pretend-I’m-not-here atmosphere). It’s not a perfect album, but it’s the first time in ten years that I’ve even considered Metallica capable of writing another masterpiece, and that in itself is honestly a thrill for me.
But my favorite thing about this album? Listen to the final track, “My Apocalypse”. I swear to God, that is the metallicized riff from Weird Al’s “Dare To Be Stupid”. Such a great idea, if only they’d realized it. Long live Yankovic!