2008: Jennifer Kelly
Over the last couple of weeks, the best-of lists started to dribble in, many of them headed by a lament about how disappointing 2008 was. Where were the big records? Why were there no discernible trends? Why did everything sound so weak and watery? This was, after all, the year when people really, really liked Fleet Foxes. It was a year for TV on the Radio to make a decent, but not thrilling, fusion of hip hop, rock, funk and soul, and claimed rapturous praise for it. It was the year that Rolling Stone gave the dreadful Chinese Democracy four stars. Surely the bottom dropped out of music in 2008, just as it dropped from our 401(k) balances.
And yet, going back through my favorites, 2008 had its moments. Alejandro Escovedo, who returned from near-death with 2006’s The Boxing Mirror, reclaimed his punk past with the masterful Real Animal. The Dirtbombs rampaged through Sparks covers and graphic novel tributes in their best album since Ultraglide, the apocalyptically wonderful We Have You Surrounded. Thalia Zedek gathered her strongest band in years for Liars and Prayers. David Eugene Edwards’s Woven Hand and Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli’s Gutter Twins found an unlikely juncture between heavy, guitar-centric rock and spirituality in their new albums Ten Stones and Saturnalia. Man Man took its manic, percussive energy to the big leagues (well, bigger, to Anti-), but remained eccentric and inimitably themselves with Rabbit Habits. Phil Elverum’s collaboration with Julie Doiron was like a distilled essence, utterly simple and completely captivating. And Jay Reatard, whose Blood Visions was the overlooked future classic of 2006, returned with not one but two collections of singles – the In the Red disc a consolidation of his past, the Matador singles a look into his future.
This year’s reissues were strong as well. Merge’s three-disc Big Dipper recap stood at my No. 1 spot for half the year, and in the end, ceded only to Escovedo. The Roy Harper reissues of Stormcock, Flat Baroque and Berserk and (to a lesser extent) Jugula were wonderful reminders of an eccentric, long overlooked take on 1960s folk, now reclaimed by newer artists like Joanna Newsom. Ian Matthews’ solo material, If You Could See Thru My Eyes and Tigers Will Survive re-appeared in 2008 as well, its translucent pop songs interspersed with smoldery Richard Farina covers and Richard Thompson’s unmistakable guitar. Karen Dalton’s lost work continued to emerge from storage, Green Rocky Road providing a glimpse of her earliest, most natural recordings. The Friggs’ Today is Tomorrow’s Yesterday was a flat-out riot, a surf-guitar’d, rough-edged garage rock with a feminine edge. And even late in the year, the reissues kept coming…a new version of Linda Perhacs Parallelograms and the Blue Orchids collection A Darker Bloom might have made my list of favorites if I’d had more time to think about them.
All in all, it wasn’t a bad year, though it seems to be a different year than most people experienced. I was blown away only twice – once by the Big Dipper Anthology, a second time by the Escovedo. Yet, below that, there were dozens of records worth listening to again and again. A couple of them went almost entirely under the radar. Experimental Aircraft, out of Austin, has been making music for 10 years. I even saw them once at SXSW, opening for Erik Gaffney, and it didn’t seem like anything special. Nothing prepared me for how much I enjoyed Third Transmission, with its delicate washes, its bludgeoning masses of altered guitar, its serene, otherworldly textures of voice. Human Bell was less of a surprise, since one of the principals, Dave Heumann had, with Arbouretum, figured on my 2007 list. Still, Human Bell was wholly different from Arbouretum, a spooky mesh of acoustic and electric guitars, wordless, ethereal and deeply moving. “Ephaphatha (Be Opened)” has turned up now on three separate car CDs, and it stops everything even now whenever I hear it. Further down the list, the Brooklyn band Lights intoxicated with its eerie all-female harmonies and pedal-altered guitars, while King Khan created all kinds of trouble with his body-shaking, soul-tinged collection of singles. Maybe people heard these records and just didn’t like them…but it seems like they just didn’t hear them.
And then there’s the question of age. Liking Alejandro Escovedo is, by some lights, one of the top 10 signs of getting older, behind leaving your keys in the refrigerator and ahead of calling your kid by the dog’s name. Fair enough. You might not be able to appreciate Escovedo’s long strange trip from punk rock to serenity without a bit of travelling yourself. He is good because he’s lived through a lot, not in spite of it. That’s true of most of the artists on the list that match or surpass my age: not just Escovedo, but the whole Big Dipper crew, Mick Collins of the Dirtbombs, Thalia Zedek, Mark Lanegan, Robert Pollard, Howe Gelb, Alan Sparhawk and Steve Wynn. What you give up in raw energy, you may gain in depth, texture, reflection, the elusive quality known as soul.
Or at least that’s the goal, both in making albums in – and past – middle age, and in writing about them. Here’s to another year for all of us, even if we do forget where we parked the car once in a while.
Jennifer Kelly’s Top 25 Albums of 2008:
1. Alejandro Escovedo - Real Animal (Bloodshot)
2. The Dirtbombs - We Have You Surrounded (In the Red)
3. Woven Hand - Ten Stones (Sounds Familyre)
4. Thalia Zedek Band - Liars and Prayers (Thrill Jockey)
5. The Gutter Twins - Saturnalia (Sub Pop)
6. Man Man - Rabbit Habits (Anti-)
7. Experimental Aircraft - Third Transmission (Graveface)
8. Human Bell - Human Bell (Thrill Jockey)
9. Mount Eerie with Julie Doiron & Fred Squire - Lost Wisdom (P.W. Elverum & Sun)
10. Jay Reatard - Matador Singles ‘08 (Matador)
11. Lights - Lights (Language of Stone)
12. Boston Spaceships - Brown Submarine (Guided By Voices, Inc.)
13. Calexico - Carried to Dust (Quarterstick)
14. Kelley Stoltz - Circular Sounds (Sub Pop)
15. King Khan and the Shrines - The Supreme Genius Of… (Vice)
16. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)
17. Stars Like Fleas - The Ken Burns Effect (Home Tapes)
18. Mahjongg - Kontpab (K)
19. Retribution Gospel Choir - Retribution Gospel Choir (Caldo Verde)
20. Mogwai - The Hawk Is Howling (Matador)
21. Giant Sand - Provisions (Yep Roc)
22. The Accidentals - There Were Wolves (Thrill Jockey)
23. The War on Drugs - Wagonwheel Blues (Secretly Canadian)
24. Fabulous Diamonds - Fabulous Diamonds (Nervous Jerk/Siltbreeze)
25. Steve Wynn - Crossing Dragon Bridge (Rock Ridge Music)
Top Five Reissues of 2008
1. Big Dipper - Supercluster: the Big Dipper Anthology (Merge)
2. Roy Harper - Stormcock (Science Friction)
3. Ian Matthews - If You Could See Thru My Eyes (Water)
4. Karen Dalton - Green Rocky Road (Delmore)
5. The Friggs - Today Is Tomorrow’s Yesterday (DIY)
By Jennifer Kelly