Fleet Foxes – S/T [Sub Pop]
“Red squirrel in the evening/ Red squirrel in the morning/ I’m coming to take you home,” sing the members of Seattle’s Fleet Foxes at the start of their watershed self-titled LP, where homecoming and the comfort of family are the major themes. Singer and main songwriter Robin Pecknold’s 11 songs might be rooted in ’70s folk rock but they soar on canyon-sized harmonies and melodies that can only be called 21st century madrigals, used here to elevate vague childhood memories (the impossibly good “White Winter Hymnal”), meditations on mortality (“He Doesn’t Know Why”), and the bonds of blood (“Blue Ridge Mountains”) to a timeless and almost spiritual level. This is music with a healing power. Pecknold’s pure-of-heart tenor is at once wise and naive, reassuring and cautious. He has an idea of what might lie in those dark, foggy pines and stresses to the listener that he or she should not go it alone.
“Sun it Rises” evokes this breathtaking Pacific Northwest wilderness that the band calls home, something that speaks to why this album is so striking, its amazing medieval harmonies aside. Seventeen years ago, angrier musicians came from here, playing edgier, abrasive music, having been suffocated by rainy logging towns that offered nothing and left with poisonous resentment at the inattention of their parents. For the Fleet Foxes, this home is something to be cherished with loved ones. The painfully beautiful final song, “Oliver James,” tells the tale of a couple discovering a sleeping child, afloat in a churning river. They take him home, lie him on a table handcrafted by Grandfather, and tend to the child while “full of anxious love.” Fleet Foxes sing of a world where the hope of a kinder life devoid of cynicism looms on the horizon, buoyed by our ties to home and to the bonds of those who love us most. “Oliver James/ Washed in the rain/ No longer.”
King Khan- The Supreme Genius of King Khan [Vice Records]
While technically a compilation, this is really the first time that the work of Canadian-Indian Khan (I’m speculating; his press kits are inscrutably goofy) and his shit-hot European electric soul band has been widely available in the states. When spinning this Vice-released record, it’s hard to believe that these tracks weren’t included on the first Nuggets set, not to mention recorded in the ’00s. On “Torture” and “Land of the Freak,” the freakout guitar tones that Khan and his crew conjure channel the best fuzz and wah of the “First Psychedelic Era.” But why listen to a band that could be perceived as just another retro act? Nuggets never approached the consistency displayed by Khan. Each tune is a wild romp through the American songbook of the ’60s and ’70s. Imagine Khan as a deviant cousin of Beck’s ladykiller on his “Debra.” Instead of pursuing JC Penny’s clerk Jenny (and her sister) with Beck’s lack of self-consciousness, Khan pursues low-class ladies with a proposition that promises them nothing; “You don’t have to pay your bills anymore, now/ You just have to eat my welfare bread.” The Shrines back him up with falsetto “sha la la’s,” a sarcastic sweetness that’s the flipside to the bitching, moaning “Took My Lady To Dinner,” where Khan is shocked by his lady ordering 50 pounds of ribs, before reassuring us that, “She’s fat/ She’s ugly/ I really really love her!” Every bit as hilarious is the record’s best song, “I Wanna Be a Girl.” Over an acid-drenched wah line, Khan ponders “the way the way they bitch and the way they curse/ The way they smell and the things in their purse/ really wonder how Venus would feel/ If she were raised to be such a heel.” While mainstream media continue to offer up the starlight mint-toned twee of the White Stripes as raw, atom-splitting garage rock, the kids in America can now find out about how King Khan’s the real deal.
Portishead – Third [Mercury]
The glimmering, expectant future we were promised by the arrival of the millennium was hollow and false. Some knew this already but the whole charade fell to shambles, exacerbated by the September 11th attacks. As America struggled to understand an unknown, unseen enemy, her own government went medieval on its perceived villains in the shadows of third world countries. A bloody, costly war spiraled out of control and revealed itself, sooner or later, to be more of a venture capitalist game than even a dubious ideological crusade. As the rich and shadowy got richer and sneakier, the rest of us felt the psychic angst of being a thinking, feeling American during these troubled times. When faced with budding economic troubles, our elected leader told us to “spend money.” The cult of empty celebrity reigned in the collective consciousness as our culture, specifically, our musical taste caught up with our attitude toward food; fast, filling, and devoid of nutritional content. Artists, those successful both commercially and critically, leaned toward twee sexlessness (Feist,) or celebratory quirk (Girl Talk, Gnarls Barkley). No one brought the darkness. Enter the three dour Brits of Portishead, 11 years after their second, self-titled album.
Gone are the spacious trip-hop beats culled from old jazz records by Geoff Barrow. Gone, also, are the theatrical vocal poses struck by perennially fragile-voiced Beth Gibbons. On Third, Portishead delivered a suffocating, oppressive collection that finally gave musical expression to our deepest millennial neuroses. On “Silence,” drum beats and Adrian Utley’s understated guitar gallop toward the listener, backing them into a corner before abruptly ceasing. “Hunter” seethes with groaning, processed guitar that drops off, revealing a unsettling wash of electronics. “We Carry On” recalls the Silver Apples’ minimalist electronic mantras, cast in a helpless light. First single “Machine Gun” brings back the kind of electronic drum effect last taken seriously on an old Nine Inch Nails album, putting it front and center; the listener is in its sights and cannot escape.
Third is a genuinely frightening record. Not frightening in a juvenile Slipknot/Saw sense or even in a Freudian Jim Morrison sense. Listening to this cold, electronic record makes one feel that the walls are closing in. The only empathic element is Gibbons, who sounds more on-the-verge than ever, her voice subdued and not treated with as much reverb as on previous records. She’s the only thing recognizable as human amongst this chilly atmosphere and with each passing track, it gets harder and harder to see her through the fog. It’s a mammoth record that begs repeated listening, even as it disorients the listener, leaving a sense of wooziness, which is not terribly different from the secret malaise so many of us have had on our backs for the last eight years.
Murder By Death – Red of Tooth and Claw [Vagrant Records]
When I get tired of music, this is the band I turn to. They’re burly, they’re dynamic, they’re funny and they’re exciting. Red of Tooth and Claw is brighter and there is more guitar than ever before, but what is most notable is how perfectly the band members continue to play off each other. They rise and fall in perfect unison with the sordid, seedy tales singer Adam Turla growls like an omniscient narrator of the damned. Whether they’re running from harpies or a fire they’ve started, the characters in Murder By Death’s songs are more like timeless noir archetypes than traditional barstool boozehounds. Red of Tooth and Claw switches flawlessly between the band’s two faces: furious guilt and dark humor. “Rumbrave” broods while the ridiculously titled “Spring Break 1899” humorously questions the motives of a generous female with “The kindness of a stranger?/ Or the trick of the trade?/ God knows I’m not the first mistake that she’s made.” Murder By Death has turned sin into art like no one else and on the off-chance I ever commit a crime worthy of fleeing, Red of Tooth and Claw will be the album I blast all the way to Mexico.
Sigur Rós – Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust [XL Recordings]
It was Sigur Rós’ first album Von that literally translated to “Hope” but it took 11 years for the band’s sound to match that message. Most known for their patiently unfurling soundscapes, Sigur Rós’ release Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust is a strong departure into faster tempos and an unexpected pop sensibility. From the childish first track “Gobbledigook” to the following upbeat march of “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur,” Sigur Rós immediately presents a sound they have never come close to attempting before. The gorgeous soundscapes are still there, of course; Sigur Rós outdoing themselves yet again with the crescendo of voices, strings, and horns at the end of “Ára bátur” sounding like a Howard Shore masterpiece. Stronger than ever live this year, Sigur Rós toured as a four piece, leaving their string and horn ensembles at home for the first time in seven years. With the band continuing to challenge themselves and proving they have not lost their ear for making incredible music, we can only hope they make good on the album title’s promise, which translates to, “With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly.”
Tokyo Police Club – Elephant Shell [Saddle Creek]
With more hand claps and gang vocals than should be written into two-and-a-half minute songs, Tokyo Police Club sound like the best high school band ever. The Canadian upstarts, formed in 2005, are already signed to indie royalty Saddle Creek Records and on tour with fellow underdogs Weezer. And really, when put into summation, Tokyo Police Club do not seem like a notable band: straightforward, verse-chorus-verse-chorus, indie pop that is often compared to The Strokes. But the bare-bones description doesn’t begin to account for how earnest and unassuming the band’s first full-length Elephant Shell comes off. The opening line, “This is skin/ You can wrap all of your arms and legs in” is an appropriate introduction to how basic the music they make is. There are no gimmicks other than there are no gimmicks. It’s like hearing indie rock for the first time again. Only one song off Elephant Shell crests the three-minute mark, forcing Tokyo Police Club to make every second of every song count. Tokyo Police Club could easily be written off as silly, simple, frivolous music, but at least when showing their music to a friend you’ll never have to say, “Hold on, this song takes a little while to really get started.”
3. Times New Viking – Rip it off [Matador Records]
Barely making it on the 2008 charts with its January 22 release, the trio would have really pissed me off if I would have had to pick a different Top 3 spot. Similar to a lot of garage rockers, they have been steadily making better and better albums. Succeeding Dig Yourself, Rip It Off is a full onset of filth. It’s a complete tracklist of extremely cloudy lyrics, bashing drums, tattered plaid, and completely hidden pop hooks. No question this album did damage to my ear drums, and I’ll do it all again with their next album.
2. Drakkar Sauna – War and Tornadoes [Marriage Records]
War and Tornadoes is personal for me. A band that hails from Lawrence, Kansas and sound like they’re from who the hell knows. My favorite day of the year a couple of years running was the 4th of July in the middle of nowhere with Drakkar Sauna playing a show for a small group of old hippies, construction workers, art students and little kids under the age of seven who were in charge of shooting fireworks. They are a completely unique sound that accompanied a completely unique memory. Drakkar Sauna, the two man group, has an earthy and old time feel to them, complete with drugs and cynicism. War and Tornadoes is a full band addition covering religious songs and other gems of the Louvin Brothers. If anybody was going to do that, it would have to be them.
1. Broken Strings – Broken Strings [True Panther Sounds]
2008 song of the year. Who the fuck cares about the album when you’ve got a song like this! Now I don’t really mean that, being as the album was incredible, but “Straight to Crooked Flats” managed to stay under the needle for a very long time. It’s an album full of distraught surf-rock, manic depressive lyrics, and sweet, sweet melodies. Released by True Panther Sounds, an impressive but small label, Broken Strings could be classic. It could.
3. Erykah Badu- New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War [Motown]
It may be number three on this list, but it is–by far, the coolest album of 2008! Erykah Badu might be one the boldest mainstream artists (besides Nas) this year. I can’t imagine how Universal Motown Records reacted when they were told that Badu’s newest effort would include passages spoken in a dead, ancient Egyptian language, an almost-complete lack of conventional pop and R&B music writing, an unrelenting supply of black pride, and a single that contains a direct criticisms of the public’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina and the events of 9/11. Someone probably shit their pants. The album does stay true to its roots in neo-soul with mellow grooves, jazz sensibilities, and ass-shaking drumbeats; but Badu–a notorious eccentric, used this album to bend the genre to her will with great success. The album sounds a lot like a 58-minute jam session–with the exception of “Honey”, the only pop single on the entire disc. Beats change, themes switch, sketches play out: all without space in-between to breathe as the action charges on.
2. Various Artists- Juno- Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [Rhino Records]
The soundtrack from 2007’s little-movie-that-could… and-did is incredibly charming, yet heavily potent. Regardless of its through-the-roof sales, the record has been easily handed off as a “Kimya Dawson album” and not much of a collection. The truth of the matter is that only eight songs belong to Dawson and her bands, The Moldy Peaches and Antsy Pants. But that isn’t to say the less we hear of her, the better the album will be. Her super-simple chord structure and uber-cutesy lyricism lent themselves so well to the stripped-down appearance of the film and the uncomplicated tone of the album as a whole. Scottish indie-poppers Belle & Sebastian make two appearances on the album with “Expectations” and the lovers’ journey, “Piazza, New York Catcher.” The sound achieved here is a scientific mixture of twee-pop, folk and punk that tugs at the heartstrings until they almost rip.
1. Vampire Weekend – S/T [XL Recordings]
I turned on mainstream radio for the first time in six years this January, and the very first thing I heard reminded me of when Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo appeared on Sesame Street singing “Put Down the Duckie.” The strange thing about it all was… I wanted more. I had to find out who these guys were being that my electricity cut out just as the DJ was going to announce the playlist. I made a long, arduous journey to my day job at the time, the Union Square Virgin Megastore and did my research. That same day, I brought home the self-titled LP by Vampire Weekend and my year was made. Within the first several seconds, the style is perfectly laid out displaying violins, rolling drums and a synthesizer. Violins on a pop-punk album? The influences run rampant through the course of the album ranging from classical music to African pop to college rock, with everything meshing perfectly in an incredibly creative and catchy way. The catchiest of songs on the album might be the just-over-two-minute-single, “A-Punk”; a playful tune that features a summery beat complete with a flute-and-bass-heavy chorus. Simplicity within the genre seems to be the key to Vampire Weekend’s success. Instruments don’t clash or overpower and after the third song, being a violin or a harpsichord seem like regular pieces in the band’s repertoire. It’s a mix that comes together so delightfully, it’s close to perfect.
[Illustration: Sarah Goodreau]