Friday, July 25, 2008

Mister Trend's Best-of-2008 (Thus Far)

As in 2006 and 2007, it’s time for my annual mid-year music review. I’m a little later than I wanted to be, but these are my picks for 2008 (up through June 30). While I originally thought this year had been so-so on releases, it turns out there have been some great ones, and this may be one of the better (yet less heralded) music years in recent memory. New albums by Beck and CSS, as well as new material by Stereolab, could make this year even better (though they could be stale, too), and I haven’t had a chance to listen to some albums that already came out (particularly Spiritualized). Still, it’s been a great year for music, and here are my top 10 thus far.

1. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes – The most beautiful album since Joanna Newsom’s Ys. Fleet Foxes manage to mix Beach-Boys-style harmonies, folk songs, and indie rock, yet there isn’t one second on their debut that sounds like anybody else. They magically and seamlessly bring together so many influences to make their own sound, and the purity and beauty of both the instruments and voices is remarkable. It’s going to be hard for another album to top this one at the year-end review for me.

2. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band, 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons – When Silver Mt. Zion formed out of the remnants of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the increasing addition of lyrics and shifts in dynamics of the music gave SMZ a great new dynamic, and their albums have consistently been great even while expanding. Still, the sheer force and power of this album, often delivered like a manifesto, is unrivaled in the GYBE/SMZ canon. And by the 16th and final track (the first 12 are just 70 seconds of a drone, with the album really starting on track 13) track, just when you can’t believe the album could be more powerful or violently beautiful, vocalist/guitarist Efrim and the rest of the band do something that they’d never done before: they sound hopeful. The music and lyrics across the four 13+ minute tracks are overwhelming and moving, and the sheer beauty in that hope and insistence make this hands down their best album, by far.

3. Portishead, Third - Vowing to not use any instrument that you used on your previous albums is simultaneously simple and brilliant. By doing this, Portishead somehow completely revamped their sound without losing any of their sound. Certainly, Beth Gibbons' haunting voice and lyrics are part of the equation in the continuity, but as important is the fact that Utley and Barrow have lost none of their feel for creepy, haunting, ambient sounds, even while they have successfully left "the trip-hop" sound behind.

4. Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles – It’s a hell of a year for self-titled debuts. The Crystal Castles’ debut is just outstanding, wonderful, catchy (yet with more going on than a superficial listen indicates). Some songs (“Alice Practice,” “Xxzxcuzx Me,” “Love and Caring”) are clearly blatantly influenced by Nintendo-style games, sounding like your old 8-bit Nintendo has been developed an anguished and angry voice. Yet most of the album has calm, quiet, yet disturbing pieces like “Untrust Us” and “Magic Spells,” but songs like “Alice Practice” and “Xxzxcuzx Me” sound like your old 8-bit Nintendo games being possessed by angry, tortured, female demons; lyrics rarely intelligble, but that’s not the purpose – this is a new form of mood music that simultaneously takes one back to the old video game worlds and sets up its own moody, sometimes tranquil/sometimes terrifying worlds. Crystal Castles may not last long, but at this point, it doesn’t matter; their debut is just a great album, all around.

5. The Kills, Midnight Boom – As great as the bluesy, filthy Keep On Your Mean Side and No Wow were, the Kills, like the Black Keys, were due for some changes in sound. They didn’t disappoint. They still have plenty of their fire and dirty, bluesy influences (see “U.R.A. Fever,” “Cheap and Cheerful,” and “Sour Cherry”). Still, singer M’s voice is gaining increasing range and beauty, particularly on the ballad “Black Balloon,” or album-closer “Goodnight Bad Morning,” together with the hookiness of “Last Day of Magic” or “What New York Used to Be” is top-notch.

6. The Black Keys, Attack & Release – As good as Magic Potion was, it was also clear that Akron’s best band needed a bit of a change. Bringing on Danger Mouse to produce was a surprisingly excellent shift, as were the inclusions of Marc Ribot and Tom Waits sideman (and drummer Patrick Carney's uncle) Ralph Carney. The album shows a variety and a branching out that previous (excellent) Keys albums didn’t have, and Auerbach’s playing and singing is getting increasingly nuanced and impressive. And it's hard to see there being a better rock'n'roll song than "Strange Times" this year.

7. Nicole Atkins, Neptune City - She has a great, haunting voice, the most original since Neko Case (though not like Case's voice). Her songs do a great job borrowing from doo-wop and Roy-Orbison arrangements while sounding fresh. There's plenty of variety in styles from song to song, yet Atkins is never out of her league. It's yet another remarkable (and remarkably beautiful) debut album in a year already full of them.

8. Rhys Chatham, Guitar Trio Is My Life! - Certainly, what are literally 3 hours of one chord may sound terrible, but that's the beauty of Guitar Trio. Chatham went on the road last year to record his famous Guitar Trio, an avant-garde guitar piece based on one chord that builds in volume and violence, taking on different dimensions from performance to performance. This 3-disc set does a great job of documenting just how varying the piece can be from place to place and depending on the performers (only Chatham is the constant through each performance). The set here gathers performances from Brooklyn, Chicago, Buffalo, Toronto, Cleveland, Montreal, Mineeapolis, and Milwaukee. Across those cities, the length, dimension, and sound of the piece shifts radically as each city has a different ensemble of guitars and drums playing. This is not for the faint-of-heart, but it is probably the most fascinating and challenging disc of the year.

9. Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer – This is the one album I still feel I need to listen to more, but it’s already an impressive work that builds greatly upon the occasionally-brilliant debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary. Wolf Parade are sounding more assured and more willing to forge their own sound (I’m not complaining, but Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock clearly had his fingers on the dials on the debut), leading to some of the best indie rock in a genre that’s fast growing stale and too inclusive to do any good.

10. Free Kitten, Inherit - Back in 1994, when I'd buy anything and everything tied to Sonic Youth, I picked up their second album. Despite loving the experimental side of Sonic Youth, it was too much, even for me; it wasn't that it was too noisy or challenging. It's just that it seemed like a giant inside joke between Kim Gordon and Pussy Galore's Julie Cafritz, as though they just decided to get in the studio, dick around a little, and put the results on an album for sale. Suffice to say, I was stunned at how good Inherit is, with Gordon and Cafritz singing over excellent noise-ambient pieces. That Inherit actually has anything remotely resembling any kind of song structure was shocking enough; that it's really really good is too much to ask for, but there it is.

Best Reissue: Dennis Wilson, Pacific Ocean Blue – One of those albums I’d heard people rave about, but always figured it was part of the Wilson-brothers hype (and don’t get me wrong – Brian’s done some great stuff, and Carl’s voice was unrivalled, but they didn’t crap gold or fart world peace or anything). However, the hype on Pacific Ocean Blues is more than justified. Dennis’s rough, vulnerable, scratchy voice conveys a level of longing, loss, sadness, and hope Brian and Carl never could match. The second disc isn’t even overkill, as the material that is available that would have been Bambu, Wilson’s follow-up album (had he not died), is far better than most odds’n’sods offerings. The Wilson cult will always revolve around Brian, but if there’s one project involving any Wilson (including Beach Boys material) that everybody should have, it’s Pacific Ocean Blue.

Best Box Set: Gas, Nah Und Fern – The four albums Wolfgang Voigt released under the moniker Gas were some of the best ambient techno albums ever. Unfortunately, they were also some of the hardest to find, and used copies were always well above $200. Fortunately, Kompakt has collected the four albums (Gas, Zauberberg, Königsforst, and Pop) into this set. Gas’s stuff is some of the most beautiful music out there, moving beyond many forms of ambient techno to include elements of classical music, jazz, glam rock, and even traditional ethnic music like polka. The results are some of the most expansive, hypnotic, and beautiful ambient pieces ever made, and this box set is a great way to finally get all the material Voigt recorded as Gas.