Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Countdown concludes...

I back-burnered this puppy to get rolling on the '09 releases but now it's February and I'm kicking myself for taking so long to get back to it...

So this is it. After running through my longlist of near misses, we're down to the hits. My Top 20 was already broadcast on the New Year's Eve special and published on UMFM's website, but without any notation or write-up on that site. So to wrap up '08 and get cracking on a new calendar year let's start at 20 and work our way down...

20: The D'Urbervilles - We Are The Hunters [Out Of This Spark] I had the good fortune of not only seeing this talented quartet play a blistering set at The Cavern this year, I also had them come into the station and record an interview and a live session with me. While the results don't match the brilliance of We Are The Hunters, my experience recording these guys proved they sound great regardless of who's behind the boards. This is a flat out great rock record and I look forward to several more from this young band.

19: The Gorgon - Corpse Whale [Transistor 66] I wrote about this trio of strong ladies back when I was still following an alphabetical approach but I'd have picked them even if they weren't my "G" girls. Corpse Whale never wore out its welcome and its energy never waned. At the time I linked to their tribute to the Royal Albert, for a change-up, here's "Tommy." This is the first - but definitely not the last - of the albums I've previously blogged about here on Ear To The Sound.

18: Eliot Lipp - Outside [Mush] I've mentioned writing for Stylus several times on this blog, but I also write for Uptown, the weekly Winnipeg magazine, a fact I've only alluded to once. It was through my role reviewing electronic releases for Uptown that I first heard this record. It was one of the most positive reviews I've written for that publication and deservedly so - The Outside is a great album. Here's what I said in awarding it an "A":

Tacoma native and Brooklyn-based artist Lipp finds a comfortable home on Mush, where his skewed take on hip-hop – incorporating heavy synths and dark, ominous tones into the boom-bap – is not so outré on a roster that includes cLOUDDEAD.
The album begins with a flurry of sounds on the title-track. The beat skitters around a chugging bass-line before the melody worms its way into the mix just past the half-minute mark, with Lipp layering the synths to great effect. Listeners are immediately awash in the album and never fully dry out. Over a dozen tracks Lipp crafts compelling synthscapes, each varied and deep enough to reward repeat listens.
For an album called The Outside, what the material evokes most vividly is a very particular 'outside.' It's one where the listener is being furtively pursued in a nightscape of steaming manholes and burnt out streetlights and ultimately eludes their pursuer; a scary and strangely invigorating experience.

17: Beach House - Devotion [Carpark Records] Fuck do I love THE WIRE. And Camden Yards. With Beach House, B'more now has more than a fantastic drama and an amazing ballpark to make it a vacation destination - they've also got some dreamy, gauzy pop music that is like honey in my ears. I actually listened to this album while driving to Baltimore on my roadtrip this summer and now I'm devoted to Devotion.

16: The Sea & Cake - Car Alarm [Thrill Jockey] If rock were baseball, The Sea & Cake would be well past Ty Cobb on the all-time list because they're batting a thousand (1.000) with their albums. And they've improved their OBP by releasing two albums in two years after much larger gaps - Everybody made my 2007 Top 20 and Car Alarm guaranteed itself a place in my 08 list from the first time I heard it. This is one band that has never done me wrong.

15: Jazzanova - Of All The Things [Verve] My first reaction to hear this record was "what the hell? THIS is the new Jazzanova record?" It took a few listens for my expectations to wear off and embrace the fact that my favourite German nü-jazz collective decided to make a soul record. It was "Let Me Show Ya" featuring an amazing vocal by Paul Randolph and an irrepressible spirit that made me a convert to the Nü-Jazzanova, and the album also features fantastic vocal contributions from the likes of Ben Westbeech, Jose James and Dwele.

14: Throw Me The Statue - Moonbeams [Secretly Canadian] Another entry in the "I Reviewed This For Stylus And Fell In Love With It" sweepstakes. Here's what I wrote:

A friend recently compared Seattle band Throw Me The Statue to They Might Be Giants and the more I listen to Moonbeams, the more I agree. It might not be apparent at first, but both groups take indirect or obscure paths to crafting pop gems. These songs lack the immediacy of bubble-gum pop, though this proves to their credit as their charms are more lasting. Consider "Lolita" and "Your Girlfriend's Car." The former has a breakneck glockenspiel intro, percussive guitar lines and Scott Reitherman's lead vocals swoop up and down recklessly and end with a thud; the latter apes ragtime piano for its intro and the vocals are awkwardly syncopated and things don't really come together until the one-minute-mark.
It's the way in which things do come together that makes the results awe-inspiring. The way Reitherman sings "they're not / our only ones" on "Your Girlfriend's Car" gives me goosebumps every time, and the densely layered instrumentation throughout Moonbeamsis subtle but pivotal to its effect on the listener. The simple, wistful tales that Reitherman relates in his gentle singing voice are greatly ennobled by the skill of the band in crafting suitable and surprising accompaniment. I can't recommend this record enough.

13: Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend [XL Recordings] Yes I know. All the hipsters are over this shit and Nick and Norah have no doubt deleted "Oxford Comma" from their playlist but I will readily admit that this was one of the catchiest, most infectious albums of the year and I caught the bug. So sue me. If you don't want your music to be fun, or will abandon something just because it has become popular then I can't help you. We live in different worlds and mine is the one where "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" still gets me dancing.

12: Chad VanGaalen - Soft Airplane [Flemish Eye/Sub Pop] While I have enjoyed CVG's prior albums, this is the first one I've straight-up loved. It's like the distillation of all he's done before and the results are endlessly listenable. From the beautiful, heartbreaking opener "Willow Tree" to the glitchy "TMNT Mask" and finally to the fuzzy "Frozen Energon" VanGaalen covers the waterfront and somehow - miraculously - holds all these loose threads together.

11: High Places - High Places [Thrill Jockey] Robert Barber and Mary Pearson make music that is too gorgeous for words. Seriously. Every time I listen to this record and their collection 03.07 - 09.07 I do it with mouth agape. I have a hard time setting down the thoughts that swirl around in my head while listening to High Places.

10: Katie Stelmanis - Join Us [Blocks Recording Co.] This album crossed my desk in January 2008 and instantly caught my attention with its peculiar sound and Stelmanis' interesting songcraft. I had the good fortune of interviewing her for the Killbeat podcast I produce and host (you can hear the interview here) and discovered that Stelmanis created these songs after messing around on the computer and teaching herself how to make music. Kinda makes me wish I was creating music on my computer rather than using it for solitaire and Facebook status updates.

09: Steve Reid Ensemble - Daxaar [Domino] Yet another in the Stylus review series. New issue with Julia Ryckman (from The Gorgon)'s sweet Fundrive art is on stands in Winnipeg NOW. Here's what I wrote for a previous issue:

God bless Domino and Four Tet for the resurgence of Steve Reid's career. The legendary drummer – he's worked with a litany of amazing artists ranging from Sun Ra to James Brown – has put out four fantastic releases on Domino in the last two years, three of which were credited to Reid and Kieran Hebden (that'd be Four Tet) and now Daxaar credited to the Steve Reid Ensemble (which includes Hebden on 'electronics').
Where the two Exchange Sessions and Tongues focused on improvisation and an organic back-and-forth between Reid and Hebden, Daxaar exhibits a more structured form and finds Reid setting both the tone and the pace for his ensemble.
While Reid's compositions are structured, they don't prevent the material on the album from sounding loose and free. Consider the title track where Roger Ongolo's trumpet line dances about like a kite anchored (just barely) to the rhythm section. The trumpet line is soon replaced by Boris Netsvetaev's keyboard which takes inspiration from Ongolo's trumpet in its own dance.
Reid draws on the rich and varied history of artists he's worked with in each of the compositions on Daxaar – free jazz, Afro-beat, funk, and more are all incorporated deftly and subtly to create something vibrant and new. The album is steeped in the past while providing a glimpse of the future.

08: Gang Gang Dance - Saint Dymphna [Social Registry] Yeah, we can be jealous all we want but Brooklyn rules. A short subway ride to Coney Island, a sweet brewery, stoop sales in front of beautiful brownstones, and a pretty kick-ass music scene that includes Gang Gang Dance. The Exclaim Reader's Poll ranked Saint Dymphna at #1 on the Destination Out list (and yes, that's my song of praise for Bill Dixon at #4) and I'm not surprised this record caught on. Every time I played it in the store or on my radio show, it produced a favourable response.

07: Raphael Saadiq - The Way I See It [Columbia] Here's what I had to say about this album when I reviewed it for Stylus in the December 08/January 09 issue:

The cover art is definitely a clue to the material on The Way I See It. A photo of Saadiq in a well-tailored suit and thin tie echoes Sam Cooke, as does the shot of Saadiq behind a piano in the studio. Numerous artists are doing throwback 'soul' records of late, sometimes aping the sounds and sometimes updating them – but none of them bear the sincerity that The Way I See It displays.
From his days in Tony Toni Tone to the short-lived Lucy Pearl project, Saadiq has always incorporated old soul sounds, but with this record they are no longer just elements, but elemental.
The string arrangements, the brisk two-minute a song pace, well-placed but limited duets, Stevie Wonder's harmonica and universal themes disguised as mere love songs – all of this had me thinking I was listening to unearthed Motown or Capitol masters.
I could go on and on about the quality and authenticity of the production (though my editor would object), but suffice it to say the album sounds spectacular.
"Keep Marchin'" to take just one example, features crisply recorded drums that set the cadence for the march and Saadiq's vocals fuzz out in the upper reaches – clearly these were recorded live and not tweaked in the post-production.
Included as a bonus track, "Oh Girl," which features Jay-Z sticks out from the rest of the material but it still carries the albums' joyful spirit and finds Saadiq giving a timely nod to modern audiences – the rest of timeless.

06: Black Mountain - In The Future [Scratch/Jagjaguwar] This was one of the oldest releases of 08 on my list but In The Future's place on the year end list never wavered. I probably knew deep down when I made it my second-ever-entry on this blog that it would make the cut from longlist to short.

05: Tigerrr Beat - Don't Bother Me While I'm Doing Magic [Independent] The highest Winnipeg entry on my list is from a band that is on a hiatus of sorts as the members are busy with school and work. They didn't tour at all in support of DBMWIDM because of the break but they still managed to show up on several campus/community Top 30 charts across the country because the record is so good it speaks for itself. Noisy, raw and in-your-face, this is rock music that never deigns to indulge in pop.

04: Brightblack Morning Light - Motion To Rejoin [Matador] Working part-time at Music Trader has several benefits beyond the discount on records and CDs. Chief among them is working with other music nuts who sometimes introduce me to a great album I haven't already heard. I owe Crabskull a big thumbs-up for playing this record on more than one shift together. His passion for production tuned him in to this rich, warm and fuzzy record and he then turned me on to it. The keyboards on Motion To Rejoin alone are worth the sticker price but there's so much more to soak up. Get some good headphones because - to paraphrase Superdrag - this is a head-trip in every key.

03: Azeda Booth - In Flesh Tones [Absolutely Kosher] According to a site-tracker from Google Analytics that I installed on this blog, one of the most read entries of 2008 was my write-up of Azeda Booth's In Flesh Tones. Since that July post I've had the opportunity to see the band live and interview them, and I've already marked my calendar for their April 4th show at the Lo Pub (provided my baby isn't born a week early).

02: Nomo - Ghost Rock [Ubiquity] This is the second-last of the picks that I have already written about on Ear To The Sound, which means that if you've been following along all along, you've also read about my favourite album of the year. I won't reiterate what I wrote about Nomo in August 08, just encourage you to re-read my original post and listen to the interview with Elliott Bergman. So without further ado...

01: Russian Circles - Station [Suicide Squeeze] My friend Jared said "I figured" when I showed him my Number One before we recorded our year-end special. Some years there is an out and out favourite that is so far ahead of the pack there's never any question what my #1 album will be. This was not actually one of those years. Last year, Basia Bulat's Oh, My Darling was unstoppable and Sing Along With The Acid House Kings was 2005's juggernaut but I actually agonized for a while over whether Station truly outranked Ghost Rock. Apparently Jared knew how much this album slayed me after reading this entry and drew his own conclusion.

Speaking of conclusions, that does it for me and 2008. Here's hoping 2009 proves to be as fruitful a year in new music.

Thanks for reading, now start listening...

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