The year 2008 was all about life after death. I do not mean that in a West Coast-infused Karmic good time type of way by any means; sometimes death is preferable. For the last eight years, our optimism and faith as a society has been slowly bled from us, replaced with a hardened cynicism that is neither healthy nor fair. Technology has side-tracked us from experiencing life. Blackberries, text messages, the Internet, iPods and Smart Phones provide a distraction as the economy, our infrastructure and our morals collapse around us. These are dark times, folks. Radiohead has been singing about them for years. But as the Bush administration breathes its final gluttonous breaths, we have pinned our hopes of rebirth on Barack Obama. Will he be the candidate to guide our nation from the mire of depravity to a bright, new future? Doubtful. But, if anything, his election to president does give us a hope. Without hope, what else is there?
The first of my three favorite CDs concerns the near loss of life, a last minute reprieve. Though Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce claims all of Songs in A+E was written before he almost perished from double pneumonia, it is impossible to listen to this album without the resonance of second life scattered throughout. Spiritualized, referring to both Pierce’s space rock jams and the airy gospel that hangs over his music, has returned from a five year absence with this masterpiece. From the gentle minimalism of “Sweet Talk” to the rocking “Soul on Fire,” Songs in A+E is an exercise in tight songwriting infused with the energy of the reborn. On “Sitting on Fire,” one of the bleaker tracks within, Pierce sings to the virtues and pitfalls of all-consuming love. “Baby, I’m sitting on fire/ But the flames put a hole in my heart/ When we’re together we stand so tall/ But a part of me falls to the floor,” he cries in his paper-thin voice. It is impossible not to feel both the love and agony within.
But, Pierce’s finest and most haunting moment comes early on with “Death Take Your Fiddle,” a minor-key dirge set to automatic breathing of an iron lung. Pierce looks death straight in the eye and shakes his little fist with “Morphine, codeine, whisky, they won’t alter/ The way I feel/ Now death is not around.” The ghostly backing vocals hover in the ethers with the respirator, but Pierce has survived, beaten death. It is the inverse to “O Death,” which begs for another year. By the time Songs in A+E turns down the light with “Goodnight Goodnight,” death has left for other quarry and we have been treated to the finest Spiritualized album yet.
No one, besides Jesus, is more famous for dying and resurrection than Lazarus and no musician loves to use the Bible as lyrical fodder more than Nick Cave. On his latest, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, Cave continues to improve, even though he is well into his 50s. He holds onto those same wicked, ominous and mystifying elements that are hallmarks of his writing but now fuses the garage rock furor of last year’s Grinderman with the more melodious drama of recent Bad Seeds albums to make a record about sex, God and the underbelly of human nature. But, man, does it groove!
But it’s not all about Cave: The Bad Seeds is a band that perfectly complements Cave’s vehemence and poise. With 11 great tracks such as the lounge sleaze of “Moonland” and the vomiting of word on “We Call Upon the Author,” it is difficult to choose a favorite, but “Jesus of the Moon” is one of Cave’s best songs. Ever. On this mid-tempo beauty, Cave juggles temptation and loyalty in a perfect equilibrium of fragile balladry and chugging drive. It’s stunning.
There is not a bad track on Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! and Cave uses rock, blues and folk tropes in addressing love, God and America to create what could be one of his most perfect albums yet.
On what is, hands down, the best album of the year, Portishead returns to life after an 11 year absence with Third, the first post-post-millennial album that looks at our fractured world and draws back in terror. Best known as a progenitor of trip-hop, the loops and samples that paired with Beth Gibbons’s shattered voice and made the band so special are gone. There is no warmth here, just shards of a life destroyed by the draining of the world’s compassion. True, this is the same band that produced the gorgeous melancholia of Dummy, but today the trio is more concerned about how someone can buy a pizza and walk blithely by a man freezing to death. Something about our inhumanity doesn’t compute and Third is an album that demands (and deserves) attention from a band many of us thought had blinkered out long ago.
Portishead proffers, “Is it better to be reborn into this, rather than stay dead?” Good question. “We Carry On” and “Machine Gun” are trembling masterpieces of dread that sound unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. Third is a glorious mess that improves on each listen. Even when we are granted reprieve on the ukulele-led “Deep Water,” it’s only 90 seconds of sweetness before the harsh beats of “Machine Gun” mow us down. But within this dark shell beats a human heart and it’s that glimmer that makes the album’s coldness so compelling. Nothing else sounds so now, so vital.
Fleet Foxes– S/T [Sub Pop]
A record with unanimous praise is a rare thing, but for the life of me, I can’t find anyone who doesn’t love Seattle band Fleet Foxes’ debut. The soaring harmonies, the dream-like imagery (one of my favorites: “In the quivering forest/ Where the shivering dog rests) and sheer rustic joy of Fleet Foxes all just seem right to me. If there’s a weakness, it might be their devotion to a signature sound; that combination of angelic voices and soaring melodies turns each song into a piece of the whole, not a collection of disparate tracks. But if that’s their weakness, they’re welcome to it. I could listen to Robin Pecknold’s voice all day, and y’know, I just might.
David Byrne & Brian Eno- Everything That Happens Will Happen Today [Todomundo Ltd./Opal Ltd.]
I admit, when I first heard that something, anything, involving David Byrne and Brian Eno together was being released this year, I laughed aloud in joy; fortunately for all of us, it’s the best thing that either of them have done in ages. Described by Byrne as “electronic gospel”, there’s a levity present in Everything that Happens Will Happen Today that’s rarely been present in either’s work; for anyone that’s thought of the former as a quirky dabbler or the latter as an overly-mythologized egghead, here’s the rebuttal. From the bubbly, confused enthusiasm of “Home” to fey majesty of “The Lighthouse,” Byrne sounds ageless and wondering as he ever has, while Eno’s leftover tracks (the genesis of the collaboration) outstrip the prime work of almost anyone else. Never let it be said that all icons rest on their laurels.
Love is All- A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at Night [Whats Your Rupture?]
Love is All’s sophomore album hits so many key elements of the romantic break-up process, it could be a musical timeline of dissolution. Despite that, it never succumbs to melancholia or self-pity; instead, it veers between anger, confusion and moments of heartbreaking delicacy. The frantic energy of “A New Beginning” opens the album with a roar and a saxophone squeal, but A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at Night never sticks to a simple formula- there’s moments of poignant crudeness in nearly every song, like the one night stand of “Last Choice” or the sad sneer of “Movie Romance.” “A More Uncertain Future”, the most beautiful song on a beautiful album sums it up: “We don’t need each other anymore.” This is the kind of album everyone needs sometimes.
King Khan- Supreme Genius of King Khan [Vice Records]
A compilation of mostly previously released songs by a Canadian-by-way-of-Berlin garage rocker with retro taste seems an implausible best-of-the-year choice. It’s strange to me, then, that this was the only album I never doubted would be on this list. Fuck it, though, this is great rock ‘n; roll. This hasn’t been a good decade for rock music, which makes this album particularly refreshing. That might sound like an apology, though, and I didn’t pick this album to apologize for it. This is just great Rock ‘n;’ Roll. God Damned Rock ‘n’ Roll. The lyrics are crude and hilarious, and the music mixes and matches all kinds of sounds of the ’60s. What impresses me most is that he does this without seeming derivative. It’s a kind of post-post-modernism. For a long time we’ve had artists self-consciously mining the past; King Khan makes it seem unselfconscious. The album sounds less like an exercise in nostalgia than like a continuation of the tradition captured on Nuggets and other ’60s artifacts. Listening to it, you can imagine that the bloated ’70s and overproduced ’80s never happened, that garage punk led straight to punk punk and on to this.
Girl Talk- Feed the Animals [Illegal Art]
Night Ripper was great, but essentially novelty. It was great because it hadn’t been done before and because holy crap! is that the Pixies playing behind 50 Cent? It was good enough to persuade me to spend a few bucks to download the new one, though I didn’t expect all that much and waited a while after it was released before I got around to doing it. I was shocked to find that it’s great. Not great in that novelty way, but just great. It still lets you play name that sample all you want, but it also creates great music. Gillis has gone from that nutty kid who dances around his laptop to a true creator – the way he matches melodic lines between music and voice on samples rooted in unrelated styles is simply amazing. I don’t know, in the end, if this is really one of the best albums of the year, but it’s probably the most important. It shows a new kind of music – a degree of organic unity crafted from a bunch of samples that hasn’t been reached since 3 Feet High and Rising, but extended beyond that by being nothing but collage. The way the tracks rise and fall seamlessly suggests a symphony as much as a pop song, though of course one you can dance to.
The Fall – Imperial Wax Solvent [Ume Imports]
Has any group ever been this good after 30 years and 27 albums? Even though it quotes periodically from earlier Fall albums, this continues the streak of never sounding quite like any earlier Fall album while always sounding unmistakably like The Fall. I guess it goes back to the line about Mark E. Smith singing and your grandma playing bongos. Smith has fired more musicians more times than even the other Smith with the bigger hair, but his distinctive voice (not everyone’s cup of tea, I admit – when I say that The Fall have never made a bad album, most of my friends say they’ve never made a good one) and his underappreciated songwriting give the band a soul that survives the revolving door of musicians and styles. I can’t say much about The Fall that hasn’t been said already, but a 50 year old man who can keep surprising after all these years, who knows so much about poetry and rock ‘n’ roll but doesn’t get stale, deserves to be up here with these crazy kids.
Charles A. Hohman
1. Vampire Weekend– S/T [XL Recordings]
Their privilege cannot be held against them any more than it can be ignored; if financial comfort is antithetical to great pop music, then we may as well cut Joe Strummer and Mick Jagger from the canon. Furthermore, Vampire Weekend are far more blatant (even apologetic) about their wealth than previous Afropop fetishists—David Byrne, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel chief among them. What they create is a hip-shakingly sophisticated commentary on the ignorance of privilege, set primarily in that pantheon of ignorant privilege: the college campus. From the guys who agree it’s fucked up to lie about coal and wiretap conversations only to drop the issue when “Get Low” comes on, to the girl who dances the Kwassa Kwassa in her Louis Vuitton, to the globetrotter who goes under the knife for a new face, Vampire Weekend’s global initiative wanders the corridors of complacency, seeking to unshelter the sheltered. Like Kanye West (see below), VW is thoroughly guilty of the very sins they attack and criticize; as privileged appropriators of the sounds and styles of the underprivileged, they too have imperialist blood on their herky-jerky hands. But also like Kanye, their perspective is empathetic rather than dismissive: “Walcott” (only somewhat humorously) concedes that, to the kids who know nothing else, even Hyannisport can seem like a ghetto (and New Jersey a refuge).
2. Kanye West- 808s & Heartbreak [Roca-A-Fella Records]
Though he routinely likens himself to Michael and Stevie and Elvis, Kanye West’s truest kindred spirit may be another misunderstood provocateur: Sly Stone. Both followed up mega-successful assimilationist crowd-pleasers with foreboding, solipsistic mindfucks: dark, disillusioned albums that unmask the naivete of prior works. Largely devoid of rapping or even profanity, drawing more from Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode than Dr. Dre and Jay-Z, 808s & Heartbreak is the kind of ballsy, left-field risk A-list artists too seldom take. Inspired by the loss of his mother and the dissolution of his engagement, 808s finds Kanye, once a staunch critic of patriarchal abuses (“All Falls Down,” “Gold Digger,” “Drunk and Hot Girls”), admitting that, in the face of loss, he’s like all the rest: bitter, possessive, oppressive. From the chilling rape fantasy “Say You Will” to the uncomfortably accusatory “RoboCop,” this is a riveting portrait of a wounded male ego consuming a man who knows he should know better; who, in the absence of the women he loves, finds his grandiose lifestyle and his ample genius to be minimal consolation. Most harrowing is “Pinocchio Story,” a six-minute ramble repudiating his messianic stasis, and admitting he may not in fact have all the answers. The track has no beat whatsoever: apropos to close an album where Kanye feels so bad inside himself, he don’t wanna move.
3. Fleet Foxes– S/T [Sub Pop]
The hippie comparison is not only lazy, but inaccurate, for this record is more Folkways than Woodstock. Warmly romantic in spots, frigidly haunting in others, Fleet Foxes craft an entrancing love letter to the same Pacific Northwest Kurt Cobain was so eager to flee. Soaking their Americana in sublime melodies, transcendent harmonies and placid riffs, merging the sounds of century-old field recordings with the conventions of modern indie pop, Fleet Foxes paint their lovely vision of what this country could be, against subtle invocations of what it truly is and always was. Not for nothing are their two most obvious antecedents—The Band and Neil Young—both Canadians who also grappled extensively with the demise of the American Adam. For in a land where man has marked every mile, perhaps music (and art in general) is the only way to capture uncharted territory, and tunes like “White Winter Hymnal” and “Ragged Wood” soar like migrating birds, off to some breathtaking paradise that may no longer exist on this earthly plane.
[Illustration: Sarah Goodreau]