Unlike the film business that has now left hugely fallow patches during the year in favor of timely Oscar release consideration, the music business is now so diverse and alive with new approaches that great records emerge daily, finding audiences across the internet through hugely viral discovery methods: Twitter, imeem, Facebook, Myspace, Last.fm, Blip.fm and Pitchfork. Now fifteen years into my labor of “Bestest” love, I am able to spot not coincidental trends in my own musical preferences having much to do with my own state of mind and yes, the inevitable effect of growing older. This year my favorite records tended to be folksy, 70′s influenced , but the below list also includes what seemed like echoes of all the other genres I have loved throughout the years.
1. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes / Sun Giant EP (SubPop)
These days I know almost instantly when I am hearing what will become my favorite record of the year. I have been intermittently grinding the five songs on the Foxes’ debut EP ‘Sun Giant’ (especially the epic ‘Mykonos’ and ‘English House’) and the 11 songs on the self-titled masterpiece ‘Fleet Foxes’ for the eight months since I accidently stumbled on the band at one of their earliest NYC shows. The Foxes play a deliciously derivative fusion of 70′s Americana rock; imagine a bit of CSN&Y or America, mixed with Brian Wilson’s exquisite SoCal choral moments as well as a dash of Appalachian gospel. Seattle’s Fleet Foxes are the much anticipated next branch to fall after My Morning Jacket, Wilco and Devendra Banhart. Flannel shirts and beards are back, but with a kind of modern authenticity, led by the exquisite vocals of Robin Pecknold.
But what sets the band apart is more their range. On a handful of tunes the band is able to create multiple songs within a single structure by pivoting off of dead-stop transitions from acoustic harmony to electric rock anthem. It will be hard to unseat a record like this one for a long time. It will sit comfortably atop that evergreen go-to shelf which includes Buckley’s “Grace”, Midlake’s “Van Occupather,” Galaxie 500′s “On Fire” and another twenty or so records that will never fall from their high perch. This is a classic.
2. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)
No one loves quiet folk more than I do, but for some odd reason on my first two distracted passes, “For Emma” felt almost too precious. On top of that, at the time I was pretty far gone into the hymn-like orchestrations of the Fleet Foxes. But standing with about a thousand swaying souls at the Outside Lands Music Festival on an oddly typical gray, but pleasant summer afternoon in San Francisco, Bon Iver began to make perfect and beautiful sense.
This is largely acoustic strumming, but with layer upon layer of vocal harmony building towards these almost Pentecostal hand clapping sing-alongs. On songs like “The Wolves” it starts slow and easy enough before exploding into a beautiful percussive cacophony of restrained emotion. To call a record like this folk would be to pay them an immense creative disservice. Sure there are guitars, hushed drums, but this is so much bigger and original. On “Blindsided” or “Re: Stacks” nothing is wasted, not a line or a strum. The nine songs here are as genuine and authentic as can be. Emma must have been quite special.
3. Girl Talk – Feed the Animals (Illegal Art)
What is this- A hip-hop record, dance music, a “mash-up?” It took until my third, and at the time, last, listen to begin to understand how incredible a record this really was. Not since The Avalanches’ masterful 900 sample debut “Since I Left You” in the late 90′s has there been such a compelling, creative exploration of the history of modern music. On “Feed the Animals” closet genius Gregg Gillis weaves together hundreds of desert island classics, as well as guilty pleasures, into 14 neatly compressed loosely hip-hop seeming masterpieces.
From The Band and Fleetwood Mac, Sinead O’Connor and the Cranberries, Nirvana and Procol Harem, Big Country and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Police and Springsteen, The Beach Boys and the Kinks, Frampton to the Jackson 5, the record flows seamlessly between samples reconciling nostalgic childhood bookmarks and longer- lasting favorites. Sure we have been living in a world of samples for 25 years now, but they are rarely, if ever used so creatively. With this record I managed to tick off every conceivable genre I might have naively neglected for this year’s list.
4. Blitzen Trapper – Furr (SubPop)
Although I was always more a Nick Drake or Donovan fan than Dylan; Dylan is certainly a broader muse to all musicians and critics. Blitzen Trapper was, until this masterpiece, always a band prone to experimental freakouts amidst infinite potential. On “Furr” the band applies healthy amounts of restraint from abstraction and they mine history for that balance between nostalgia and relevant modernism. Yes there is Easy Rider folk (“Furr”) complete with harmonica solos and acoustic strumming, Neil Young balladry (“Not Your Lover Anymore”), and old school Tom Petty arena rock (“Gold For Bread”), but there is also something so refreshing and comfortable about the way they mine the past.
Oddly the first time I saw the band live, on a rainy night at the Bowery Ballroom early in 2008, the opening band was a then little known band called the Fleet Foxes. Ultimately I think I was so mesmerized by the originality and intimacy of the Foxes, that I wasn’t able to fully grasp how talented Blitzen Trapper really was. If consistency and cohesion is what defines how you feel about a record, this will prove frustrating, but if diversity is what you are after, nothing spans a broader canvas than “Furr.”
5. TV on the Radio – Dear Science (DGC/Interscope)
Finally a TVOTR record I can love. After years of sincere but unemotional “appreciation” for the abstract-indie “dance” music of Brooklyn’s crown princes, the band opens everything up a bit for pop fanatics like me. That is not to say that anything here is straight forward in the literal sense, but the grooves here are warmer, the melodies less corrupted by the bands desire to muck it up with distortion or free jazz abstraction. There is still that intensity and desire to rise above the background, the choruses here are infectious, the throbbing beats compulsive, and the hooks unavoidable.
Tunes like “Crying” are toe tapping-funk bliss, derived from the early records of Prince, while “Halfway Home” is more of that space evolved distinctly by the band over the past decade. I am certainly not alone in singing the high praises of “Dear Science,” and the band hardly needs another small time blogger pimping their obvious genius, but I would be remiss in not holding them way up as one of 2008 highlights.
6. Femi Kuti – Day By Day (Downtown) / Seun Kuti & Fela’s Egypt 80 (Disorient)
Who says the progeny of true music legends can’t ever seem to measure up? Two of the many sons of Afrobeat originator and pioneer Fela Kuti have released albums that not only can stand on their own two feet, but even stand a chance of enduring the inevitable test of time.
Femi is now a bunch of records into his successful own and on “Day to Day” he continues his migration away from the direct continuation of his father’s brand of big orchestra percussion and brass thumping Africanized funk. This record is quite a bit more focused both vocally and instrumentally, more like reggae or 70′s era American funk. The songs are shorter, but the beats tend to follow the classic infrastructure of Afrobeat. For fans his earlier albums or those of his father this is a nice subtle evolution, for new fans this is a really accessible introduction to the genre.
The debut by younger brother Seun on the other hand, is cut impeccably from the legacy left by his father. This is old school Afrobeat. It’s built on long deep grooves played by many of the original orchestra members from his father’s band. The songs are fiercely political (“Na Oil” and “African Problems”) and sung with all the passion of a leader who transcends merely the pulpit of music. There is much to love about this record, but it isn’t so much anything new as the rightful passing of a torch and tradition from father to son – perfectly executed.
7. Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight (Fat Cat)
I am a huge sucker for that occasional ‘big’ sounding rock band not yet big enough for me to immediately discount, yet melodic enough to enjoy as some sort of profoundly guilty pleasure without the guilt. Unfortunately armed with a silly name, sure to polarize audiences, Frightened Rabbit is a Scottish band who seems like a long lost soul mates to Ireland’s Frames, Scotland’s Snow Patrol or even the recently pop-afflicted Okkervil River.
To be clear, this is a large, emotive, and crescendo building rock record, but I don’t care. If not for the recurrent use of the F word, the song “Keep Yourself Warm” would blow up through the blogosphere right into the dreaded world of commercial radio. Perhaps this is why they jinxed the song in such a way. Of all the finds you are not likely to stumble upon, enjoy this diamond in the rough!
8. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive (Vagrant)
Unlike the earliest Hold Steady fanatics, I wasn’t hooked by the raw more blue collar punk of first few records, but by the prominently Springsteen- like authentic quality of their last two records that struck a chord. “Stay Positive” is a keyboard and piano-based rock record chocked-filled with hummable, swaggering bar-band bravado, but done with just enough almost cheeky guitar solos to establish that the band has a sense of humor as well as a deep appreciation for big rock songs.
There are three kinds of songs on this record though: 1) not-too-sappy, yet beautiful ballads like “Navy Sheets” 2) rock romps filled willing dueling guitars and keys “Sequestored in Memphis” and 3) and more brooding rock short stories that start slow and build to a massive fist pumping crescendos “Constructive Summer.” I guess that’s what makes this record so good. The Hold Steady really do one thing, but in three different ways and it all sounds great.
9. Rodriguez – Cold Fact (Light In The Attic)
“Cold Fact” is easily the most undeservedly unearthed re-released album this year. This is one of two folk/psychedelic masterpieces released by Mexican, Detroit native, Sixto Rodriguez. There is quite a bit of colorful legend here like the fluky audiences that gravitated to this record in South Africa and then later in Australia, and thento his rediscovery this year. Have no doubt the Donovanesque folk tune “Sugar Man” about drug dealers, and the psychedelic guitar groove “Hate Street Dialogue,” also about drug dealers, sound a bit dated until you realize just how well it has aged. For those that argue that the dawn of the digital has created too much to chose from, “Cold Fact” represents how well the long tail works as a way for overlooked art to resurface and find an audience. This is truly an unfairly forgotten classic.
10. The Last Shadow Puppets – The Age of the Understatement (Domino)
Spinoffs so early in the career of over-hyped indie rockers rarely bear fruit. Granted this is an Arctic Monkeys side project, to me that doesn’t even provide that much credibility. But from the first few notes, I was bought in. This record is at times dominated by that dusty swagger of Ennio Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack music, at others it is a brooding Bryan Ferry inflicted drama. Much of this brought out by the always prevalent classical strings and horns backdrop that sets the tone to many of the songs.
There is still the issue of that very familiar vocal signature, which is both a tad nasal, but also an oddly compelling conveyor of forward motion. In the end, from the black and white cover art to the almost gothic or Renaissance inflected vibe from the “Age of Understatement,” there is a wonderful sense of time in place captured here that is quite unique. Although the album goes by in a breezy 35 minutes, songs like ‘My Mistakes Were Made for You” and “Standing Next to Me” will be the ones I return to when the dust eventually settles.
11. M83 – Saturday=Youth (Mute)
Apprehension, nostalgia and finally joy. That pretty much sums up my feelings about “Saturdays=Youth.” This is a lovely, occasionally saccharine, French synth-pop masterpiece by M83 wonderkind Anthony Gonzalez. Harkening back to that long lost 4AD sound defined by Cocteau Twins, Lush and Pale Saints, M83 is a breezy, upbeat 80′s influenced melody. Listening to this album in the splendid isolation of noise canceling headphones on a cross country flight immediately brought to mind the feeling I got from the early John Hughes high school epics.
Songs like “Graveyard Girl” just seem to float freely on that thin blue ephemeral line that is the moment. There is nothing serious going on here, except that the idea that capturing and bottling happiness is so hard to actually do. This record is “youth” personified, both fleeting and emotional, but without the cynicism that comes with growing old.
12. Hercules and Love Affair – Hercules and Love Affair (Mute)
My flirtation with electronica has been slowly waning for the past few years. Although I’ll always lapse back into the Kruder & Dorfmeister sessions, the Hotel Costes records, and Gilles Peterson, I have largely lost that loving feeling. Then along comes this disco record, probably best played at clubs that open their doors hours after I am soundly asleep. Featuring the fragile yet exquisite vocals of Antony Hegarty (of the gorgeous goth folkies Antony and the Johnsons). All of a sudden, like a time traveler from the mid-70′s or club kid from the early 90′s, I am tapping my feet and bobbing my head like somebody who actually likes to dance.
Without my soft spot for Hegarty, I would have blown through this album once without much thought, but here I am, liking it more each time. No bones about it, this is modern disco, and although not all of it is perfect most of it very very good. Tracks like “Time Will” and “Blind” bop with a gothic sheen, while “Hercules Theme” is straight-up platform shoe Saturday Night Fever. This album will polarize fans of smart music, but I’m happy to count this as an extremely guilty pleasure.
13. Crystal Stilts – Alight of Night (Slumberland)
In the late 90′s when Interpol and The Strokes decided to dust off the old Joy Division or Jesus and Mary Chain vinyl in an attempt to reinvent or at least pay homage to the forgotten masters, they did so with enough distance not to be accused of plagiary. Crystal Stilts don’t seem to worry too much about direct inspiration, and instead embrace their forefathers overtly. “Alight of Night” is a murky, jangly debut filled with boppy hooks and a shady swagger. The consistently tinny drums (think Beat Happening) and brooding vocals (a less intense Ian Curtis) create all the atmosphere you need to dawn the eyeliner and sway like zombies at a prom.
On “Crystal Stilts” you can hear most directly the familiar discordant swirl of the past, while “Prismatic Room” is that sunnier shade of gray that tends to grow on you like a pleasant kind of West Coast moss. Of all the albums that turned me on this year, this one is probably the least likely to appeal to the masses, but like M83, most likely to hit a chord for those who still miss the 80′s and some of the sounds that defined the era.
14. Sun Kil Moon – April (Caldo Verde)
There are some voices so distinctive, and so seductive that even though the basic pace and construct manages to stay the same album after album, the music always sounds new. Mark Kozalek (aka Sun Kil Moon, and former Red House Painter impresario) is one of those artists. His voice is deep and oddly flat, his songs are dark but somehow always emotive and epic seeming, and his lyrics smart, honest and poetic. He has been in films (“Almost Famous,”"Shopgirl”), covered everyone from John Denver to AC/DC to Modest Mouse, and has created a legacy of creating some of the finest records of the past fifteen years.
“April,” his first original effort in five years, is an absolute jewel. The ten songs begin with the elegiac “Lost Verse” a ten minute pristinely patient jam highlighting Kozalek’s trademarked guitar strumming, and soulful croons. His songs are stories, mostly topical observations made by people the singer knows, might know or might have observed. Like most of his House Painters or eponymous recordings, Kozalek’s music is slow and plodding, beautiful and glimmering but only if consumed in the right state of mind. But so many of these songs just seem to slowly rise up into something bigger, longer and louder than you would have anticipated. “April” is a stripped down affair, but one that sparkles. Cameo’s from Will Oldham and Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard add perfect little ornaments to the preciousness of another quiet classic.
15. The Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead (Sub Pop)
Barely a month into 2009 and we already have a contender for the best record of the year. This is a soaring emotive affair filled with songs as ambitious as those of “War” era U2, and complete with an often oddly familiar sounding guitar riffs and vocals that almost allude to those of a much younger Bono. But having never seen the band live, it is hard to imagine how a two piece band can create songs at this scale. Unlike the other guitar and drum dominated duos like the White Stripes or Black Keys, The Helio Sequence creates complex song structures that remind you more of the shoegazing serenity of My Bloody Valentine, than they do of more stripped down and direct rock outfits. Like the great studio bands of the 70′s (Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan), there is a purity and a clarity that seems refreshing in an age of electronica.
The ten songs on “Keep Your Eyes Ahead” begin with big rock anthems and end in the form of a quiet folky acoustic numbers akin to what you can hear sprinkled throughout the later career Replacements albums. The band is equally capable on both ends of the spectrum, capturing both the intimacy and emotion but making sure each carefully crafted song leaves enough room for easy joy. Like labelmates Band of Horses, this is a record for people who love melody and harmony, and appreciate bands who study the history of rock and continue to add to the legacy.
These records are pretty damn good as well ….
16. Stephen Malkmus – Real Emotional Trash (Matador)
17. Mia Doi Todd – Gea (City Zen Records )
18. Dr. Dog – Fate (Park The Van)
19. Wye Oak – If Children (Merge)
20. Deerhunter – Microcastle (Kranky)