2008: Otis Hart
The Top 20 Albums I Heard in 2008
20. Emeralds - Solar Bridge (Hanson)
There were a handful of very good drone records this year, including Dusted favs Stephan Mathieu’s Radioland and Kevin Drumm’s Imperial Distortion. Emeralds’ Solar Bridge hit the softest, which was a bit of a surprise coming from a Cleveland “noise” band on Hanson Records. When you brace yourself for a haymaker and get a hug instead, it sticks in your mind. Perhaps that’s why I keep revisiting the Bridge.
19. Lee Jones - Electronic Frank (Aus Music)
Lee Jones, one half of the house duo My My, excels in producing crisp, multi-dimensional house with a heightened sense of hue and humor. His songs bounce along in a playful fashion, with vocal snippets, strings and percussion instruments flying around the mix without ever hitting each other. Electronic Frank works as a full-length album thanks to Jones’ bountiful palette of sound sources and the judicious manner in which he deploys them. He doesn’t give in to simple hooks or allow for one element to shine over another. It’s a democratic approach, and perhaps that’s why there aren’t any all-out bangers here, though the finale “MDMAzing” comes close. What Jones lacks in bombast he makes up for in balance.
18. Monade - Monstre Cosmic (Too Pure)
Laetitia Sadier’s Stereolab side-project quietly one-upped the mothership this year. With that unmistakable voice leading the way, Monade putters through what would be some of the best Stereolab songs of this decade. When she recorded Monstre Cosmic, Sadier had a river in mind, and even went as far as including the grinding of pebbles underfoot as a transition between songs, so it’s no surprise that these songs flow effortlessly from one to the next. Most Stereolab songs do. But unlike much of her band’s recent material, Monstre Cosmic feels warm to the touch. Sunkissed.
17. One Hundred Dollars - Forest of Tears (Blue Fog)
If there’s one scene deserving of more national (uh, make that American) attention, it’s Toronto’s rock scene. There are a number of exciting bands channeling folk and country in new, sometimes psychedelic ways: Nordic Nomadic, Wyrd Visions, Castlemusic and the band of the hour, One Hundred Dollars. Simone Schmidt, just 24, has a voice like one of those “vintage” designer t-shirts – you know it’s not nearly as old as it looks, but damn if it doesn’t feel like the real thing. Forest of Tears‘ songs are similarly worn yet modern. Pedal steel and acoustic guitar cobble together tales of sexual frustration (“Careless Love”), lesbian love (“Hell’s a Place”) and domestic abuse (“No Great Leap,” which sends shivers up my spine every time Schmidt mumbles, “It’s quick and clean, and trains can’t swerve”). The depth and detail of songwriting suggests that One Hundred Dollars have the talent to grow as old as they sound.
16. Lambchop - OH (ohio) (Merge)
The Nashville collective recorded their best album since 2000’s Nixon. Unfortunately, times have changed. The indie kids that once heralded Kurt Wagner’s slow-cooked songwriting are now in their mid-30s and aren’t likely to contribute any blog hype. Their replacements have too much music at their disposal to get down and stay down with an album devoid of immediate hooks. (Where’s “Up With People” when you really need it?) But the fans who went out of their way to listen – really listen – were rewarded. Luckily for Lambchop, those types of folk usually buy records.
15. James Yorkston - When the Haar Rolls In (Domino)
I have a penchant for subtle Scottish singer/songwriters, but James Yorkston’s appeal eluded me until this year, when the haar rolled in and took me back with it. Backed by a troupe of radiant stringed instruments, Yorkston’s sung-spoken words often spill forth, ignoring the verses’ best intentions before he reins them in with a well-placed lilt, as if the end of each recollection is a relief. The lovelorn, late-night lyrics are rarely left to fend for themselves, thanks to stunning orchestration from the Athletes and singalongs by English folk legends Norma and Mike Waterson.
14. The Bug - London Zoo (Ninja Tune)
The right album at the right time. After eight years of President Bush, a large majority of the world was angry in 2008. Along came the Bug, a.k.a. Kevin Martin, who gave music fans from London to Kingston to New York a chance to vicariously vent. These sentiments have popped up in reggae ever since the man first tried to illegalize it, but the Bug’s production – which ranges from dancehall to dubstep to ragga to soul – adds the claustrophobic touch necessary to incite madness. London Zoo is the apocalypse to Third‘s nuclear winter.
13. Portishead - Third (Mercury/Island)
Geoff Barrows and Adrian Utley render Beth Gibbons’ voice tolerable by manifesting the underlying dread we all seem to feel right now, even after the Obama victory. Third is the sound of reality setting in. Bundle up.
12. Human Bell - Human Bell (Thrill Jockey)
Arboretum frontman Dave Heumann and Lungfish bass player Nathan Bell teamed up for the best guitar album of 2008. The Baltimore duo play cyclical guitar passages off each other, spinning hypnotic webs of motifs that gain power with every repetition. Somehow, each song retains a distinctive voice, with “Splendor and Concealment” taking top honors. You get the impression that these two could have kept jamming forever and never run out of ideas. We can only hope this wasn’t a one-time collaboration. (Although, next time guys, feel free to pick a different name.)
11. Philip Jeck - Sand (Touch)
Mr. Jeck takes home the Robert Wyatt prize for oldest musician on a year-end list. The 56-year-old turntable player (emphasis mine) weaves a dense fog of samples and loops on his 10th album. No surprise there. But for one reason or another, Sand tugs at the heartstrings a little more than past excursions. It could just be the Emily Dickinson poem quoted in the liner notes. That’s the thing about Jeck’s nebulous compositions – they mold to our imagination.
10. Carl Craig & Moritz von Oswald - Recomposed Vol. 3 (Deutsch Grammophon)
Two techno masters get together and turn Ravel’s Boléro (among other pieces) into an exercise in 21st century minimalism. You might want to dance to some of it (particularly “Movement 4”), but that doesn’t seem like the producers’ intent. It feels like an honest attempt to bridge the 80 years since the premiere of arguably the 20th century’s most recognizable orchestral piece. Seeing the figureheads of a genre still fighting for mainstream acceptance side by side one of the greatest composers of all time, and on a classical music label no less, feels momentous. Perhaps artificially so – lord knows techno isn’t seeking out validation – but momentous nonetheless.
9. Toumani Diabaté - The Mandé Variations (Nonesuch)
When it came time to relax in 2008, this was the jam. Every time I listen to The Mandé Variations , I think to myself, Toumani Diabaté just might be the most technically skilled musician in the world. His kora, or African harp, provided the perfect background for my meditations. And on the rare occasion that I focused on his every note, it was even better. Let’s hope the democratization of music via laptops and the internet doesn’t prevent true maestros like Diabaté in the future.
8. Dusk + Blackdown - Margins Music (Keysound Recordings)
It looks like 2008 will be viewed as the year that dubstep grew up. And who better to shepherd in this new era of enlightenment than the man who helped proselytize the genre in the first place. Seriously, Martin Clark represents the music critic’s wet dream – a writer who can make music better than his subjects. Benga, 2562 and Scuba all made great full-lengths, but Clark (Blackdown) and Dan Frampton (Dusk) made them seem evolutionary instead revolutionary, incorporating dubstep, grime and South Asian musics to ingenious effect. Whereas the aforementioned artists pieced together albums from singles and loops, Margins Music feels visionary.
7. Lindstrøm - Where You Go I Go Too (Smalltown Supersound)
Three Italo disco songs. 55 minutes. Where You Go I Go Too didn’t break much ground, but it sure covered a lot of it. Hans-Peter Lindstrøm received some slack from aficionados for the perceived ambitiousness of this project. Personally, I think Lindstrom would be the first to tell you that programming a synthesizer to ramble on for a half-hour is not a superhuman task. The important point is, there wasn’t a more dramatic rollercoaster ride in 2008. Rollercoasters are still fun, right?
6. Malcolm Middleton - Sleight of Heart (Full Time Hobby)
My favorite surprise of 2008. The musical half of Arab Strap released his fourth album in March to almost zero stateside attention, and I certainly didn’t expect to hear anything worth writing about in December. And at first, I didn’t. But at 35 minutes, the record never wears itself out, and the repeated listens drew me into these simple songs’ quirks and flourishes. Like the violin and piano melody on the opening “Week Off,” and its self-deprecating zinger, “I’ll write a good song, just give me more time / It’s easy hating yourself, it’s hard making it rhyme.” The namesake for “Blue Plastic Bags” are the kind you use to recycle bottles: “The whole world is going mad for plastic bags / Six bottles of Stella, Jacob’s Creek and twenty fags / You know there is no shame because we’re all doing the same / Staying in is the new going out.” The collective shrug is his finest set of songs yet.
5. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah, Part One: 4th World War (Motown/Universal)
Funkadelic, Eddie Kendricks, Sly and the Family Stone, Miles Davis, Sun Ra: it’s all here. Who could have guessed that a major label would release the weirdest great record of 2008? The transitions (don’t call them skits) are as good or better than the songs, which in the proper context could be mainstream hits. As is, they’re merely chapters in a riveting story that’s hard to turn off once it gets rolling. I can only imagine how much money Universal lost on this psychedelic shizz.
4. Thomas Brinkmann - When Horses Die… (Max Ernst)
Talent has been described as a well – deep, but small in proximity. Those of us lucky enough to be really good at something usually aren’t very good at something else. If you’re a world-class techno producer, there’s little reason to believe you’d succeed as a singer. Thomas Brinkmann is one of few exceptions to the rule (also, see No. 2). Brinkmann made primarily minimal techno from 1997 through 2005. That year, he experimented with a few lyrics on his Lucky Hands album. But that prepared no one for When Horses Die…. Joseph Brodsky? Tuxedomoon? Russian Futurists? Brinkmann channels them all in mumbled, broken English to startling effect. The beds for his ramblings range from dub to solo piano to drone, and no matter how low he slows the tempo, his sense of timing is impeccable. Arresting from start to finish.
3. Eddy Current Suppression Ring - Primary Colours (Aarght!/Goner)
Australia’s finest export of 2008 (all apologies to our own Jon Dale) and the best rock record I’ve heard since Jay Reatard’s Blood Visions. Might even be better than that. Since Reigning Sound’s Too Much Guitar, then. ECSR channel the poppier elements of Wire, the Stooges and krautrock without leaving the garage. Really, it’s impossible to dislike Primary Colours. Jesus, why didn’t I rank this higher?
2. Arthur Russell - Love is Overtaking Me (Audika)
If Arthur Russell had written showtunes, I’d probably like them, too. I seriously think that this revelation of an album propels Russell into a very select group of 20th century artists. The man played classical cello, avant-garde pop, group improvisation, flamboyant disco, and now we find out that he could write original, affecting country and power-pop songs with the best of them? Who else could do all this and do it so well? Go ahead and listen to “Being It,” “Wild Combination,” “Is It All Over My Face?” and “Close My Eyes” back to back. Simply put, we’ll never see another musician like him again.
1. Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair (DFA/Mute)
I’m not the only one obsessed with Arthur Russell. Hercules and Love Affair’s homage to and update on the first days of disco and house was exactly what I needed in 2008 – equal parts ecstasy and anguish. It’s hard to enjoy one without the other, and Andy Butler makes sure to fit both into every song. While I don’t find it as consistent across the board as Primary Colours, it sneaks to the top of my list thanks to the murderers’ row of “Hercules’ Theme,” “You Belong,” “Athene,” “Blind,” and “Iris.” Five consecutive classics like that gets you bonus points.
Top 50 Songs I Heard From 2008
50. Harlem - “Beautiful and Very Smart”
By Otis Hart