2008: Nathan Hogan
There’s usually one key record that floats to the top of my pile – a hands-down favorite to hang a top-ten list on. That never happened for me in 2008. Instead I’ve got an unwieldy list of things I like quite well – more than I can squeeze into this feature. I guess I’m content to accept that trade and cull as necessary. I’ve decided to give ties to the underdog – Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, From Emma, Forever Ago, and Third were highlights, but more than enough has been written about them already. Finally, I offer the standard caveat that this isn’t a “best of” list, but rather 10 (well, 12) records that made a lasting impression. They’re listed alphabetically.
Sam Amidon - All Is Well (Bedroom Community)
I’ve struggled with this record. I didn’t want to like it. There’s something precious about the presentation, something uncomfortably scrubbed about this way of approaching American folk treasures like “Sugar Baby” and “O Death.” What does it mean to use these lyrics and melodies to express feelings that might otherwise be fired off by text message? What does it mean that these interpretations are bland and moving at the same time? Does the latter quality belong inherently to the songs, the former quality to Amidon’s reading of them? On that last point I feel comfortable saying no – there’s something more complicated going on. This is an unquestionably pretty record, often to its benefit and sometimes to its detriment.
James Blackshaw - Litany of Echoes (Tompkins Square)
The Cloud of Unknowing was an easy choice for my list last year, but Blackshaw’s follow-up manages to surpass it. Where Cloud was a shimmering demonstration of Takoma-style 12-string virtuosity, Litany of Echoes goes deeper, holding repetitive piano patterns, clouds of bowed drone, and buoyant finger-picked guitar passages in careful balance. Framed by minimalist compositions titled “Gate of Ivory” and “Gate of Horn,” Litany really does feel like a realm one enters and exits.
Boduf Songs - How Shadows Chase the Balance (Kranky)
Grouper - Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill (Type)
I’ve been having trouble sleeping, and these two records have been put to heavy use at both ends of my wakeful nights. How Shadows Chase the Balance is the inky, up-too-late record: Mat Sweet manages to take a big step forward without dramatically altering his approach. Stripped to the marrow, his songs are rigorous in their employment of instrumentation and lyrical imagery. It became necessary for somebody to fill the void left by bands like the For Carnation, and Sweet’s more than up to the task. Dragging a Dead Deer, on the other hand, is better suited to those early A.M. hours that bleed slowly into sunlight. Rippling dream-pop that intersects in ephemeral ways with bands like Windy and Carl and His Name is Alive, Liz Harris’s latest record feels like some kind of breakthrough.
Robert Forster - The Evangelist (Yep Roc)
A weary but unwavering pop record – an elegant cycle of songs made powerful by its palpable aura of absence. Similar in spirit, if not in style, to that great Bottomless Pit record released last year, The Evangelist was written and recorded soon after Forster’s Go-Betweens partner Grant McLennan died of a sudden heart attack. For listeners primed by decades of the band’s perfect Aussie pop, it’s easy to imagine McLennan’s vocals shading these songs – many of them played just a beat slower than expected. The cover art pretty perfectly captures the mood: Forster’s portrait snapped in a moment in which he doesn’t quite look prepared for it, the decorative details filled in carefully after.
Koen Holtkamp - Field Rituals (Type)
Tape - Luminarium (Häpna)
Two sides of the same ambient coin, I felt remiss leaving one or the other of these off my list, so I’m lumping both together. Holtkamp (Mountains) delivers the busier of the two records – a brimming full-length whose iridescent electronic throbs merge with scraps of organic matter: children’s laughter, watery percussive noise, street hum. Where Field Rituals roams, Luminarium – from the Swedish trio Tape – hangs in fragile suspension. Guitar and electronic sounds emerge out of the silence before returning quickly to it. There’s a quiet, late-evening aura to Luminarium that makes a fine compliment to Holtkamp’s bright, sun-dappled album.
Lambchop - OH (ohio) (Merge)
Released during the frantic pre-election period, and victim to some kind of scheduling delay, for whatever reason OH (ohio) didn’t muster the greeting its oil-painted cover seemed meant to elicit. It’s a pity, because this is one of the best of the Nashville band’s many records. My review is in the archives, and I have little to add except that OH has held up really well since October. I’m still surprised this is Wagner and company’s first time working with Roger Moutenot, but whether for that reason or some other, songs like “Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King Jr.” are especially satisfying.
Mount Eerie with Julie Doiron & Fred Squire - Lost Wisdom (P.W. Elverum & Sun)
I was surprised to find this living up to its hype, being so often underwhelmed by the Microphones/Mount Eerie/Phil Elverum (not to mention confused by all the permutations – was there ever a Glow Pt. 1?). I’ve always really liked Julie Doiron, though, and it helped to have her voice to latch onto. She and Elverum are two kinds of brittle, and on Lost Wisdom they add up to a fractured, uneasy whole: the woman who once performed as Broken Girl and the man who can’t make up his mind about how to spell his last name. What a perfect little record, though – so timid, even, about overstaying its welcome. But it hasn’t for me, these 25 minutes getting play again and again.
One Hundred Dollars - Forest of Tears (Blue Fog)
One of the biggest surprises of my year – a debut it may be easy to overlook if you don’t notice the Blue Fog tag. Something special is happening in Toronto these days, and this band is part of it. Simone Schmidt, Ian Russell, and Co. don’t tear up any blueprints – they simply bring strong writing and raw singing to a set of country numbers expressive of frustration, ache, and loss. Proving their worth with 11 originals and a great Ian Tyson cover, this band is one to keep an eye on as they embark on a year-long 7” release project.
Arthur Russell - Love is Overtaking Me (Audika)
It’s been five years since I walked down to the record store to find out what all the fuss was about with Arthur Russell, but Love Is Overtaking Me proved an even bigger revelation than that first encounter with The World of… – or subsequent listenings to the Audika outpouring. There’s already so much breadth to Russell’s disco-cello-echo recordings that this latest demonstration of his range is really astonishing. “Close My Eyes” stands toe-to-toe with your pick of Nashville crooners, while “Love is Overtaking Me” could be dropped into Tusk without anyone knowing the difference. What an embarrassment of riches…and to think that there’s more.
Sun Kil Moon - April (Caldo Verde)
New Mark Kozelek records don’t come as often as I’d like – at least, those that aren’t odds-and-sods or goofy covers collections. It’s been five years since the last real full-length (Ghosts of the Great Highway), but April may be moody and slow-burning enough to hold me over for the next five. The gothic flourishes (“Heron Blue”) and Will Oldham’s vocals (between this and Flower of Evil he had a good year playing backup) offer something new, but April’s mostly comprised of new iterations of the familiar – nostalgic grappling over quietly ironed-out Crazy Horse licks.
Thanks for reading and have a lovely 2009.
By Nathan Hogan