Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Last Words On 2008

People seemed to enjoy my subjective, personal summary of the year last time around, so I’ve decided to do it again. I hope my memory is good enough to list everything – but I can’t promise it’s going to be in any logical order!

Please note that any loudmouth opinions expressed below are mine and mine alone. They do not reflect the views of my employer or any other individuals I work with.


Coming much closer to discovering what love is about: shared experience, a strong physical connection, empathy and understanding – and that a good friendship can enhance these qualities rather than complicate them. This has helped make 2008 an overwhelmingly positive year – Priya has been loving, thoughtful, encouraging, supportive, intelligent and caring throughout.

A few wonderful days in Paris with Priya.

Being in a strong enough financial position to ride the credit crunch.

Continuing honesty. Finding some newer friendships are every bit as strong as longstanding ones.

Having the courage to apply and audition for music college. Even if completely unsuccessful, this process has given me renewed focus and stopped me feeling that I’m running out of time.

More friends celebrating marriages, engagements or starting families and the chance to observe and share in their happiness.

Leonard Cohen’s long awaited return to live performance – a performer of compassion, generosity and insight gained through experience, accompanied by music arranged with meticulous care, played tastefully. If Bob Dylan treats his songs as malleable objects to be violently remodelled every time, Cohen treats his back catalogue with extraordinary reverence. This doesn’t mean that the songs are tedious facsimiles of their first recordings (far from it), but rather that they must always be performed with the same level of feeling, commitment, clarity and energy. The concerts of the year and worth every penny of the expensive ticket prices.

Finally getting to see Keith Jarrett perform live, even if he is past the peak of his powers now.

The outstanding collaboration between the Homemade Orchestra and children’s poet Michael Rosen – a healthy dose of fun in a musical world that too often leaves humour behind. That it came with highly sophisticated composing and playing was a big bonus, and a great introduction to jazz for the young members of the audience.

Some dependably superb gigs at The Vortex, where quality programming is a given – Oriole, David Torn, Gwilym Simcock’s birthday show, Polar Bear, some extraordinary improvisation from pianist Tom Rogerson.

Tom Rogerson’s outrageously inventive rock band Three Trapped Tigers – with a Gordon Raphael-produced EP now in the bag, surely my prediction for 2008 will hold true for 2009??

Battles, Dirty Projectors and F*ck Buttons at The Astoria – a triple whammy of the highest order but sadly the last gig I’ll see at the legendary venue (how disappointing that the Astoria’s long history will come to an end with Manumission).

Wildbirds and Peacedrums at the Luminaire – an astonishing gig proving the band surpass their already brilliant studio recordings in live performance.

The Dodos at Hoxton Bar and Kitchen – clattering, rampant fun.

Terry Reid at The Borderline – a songwriting legend who deserves a far warmer welcome and bigger audiences when he next plays in this country.

Bjork at the Hammersmith Apollo, a typically energised, sensual and exotic performance.

Einsturzende Neubaten at The Forum – a gig that I expected to be challenging and unforgiving, but which was actually innovative and entertaining.

The Planet Mu 200 night in Elephant and Castle – proving I still have some stamina left in me for the odd rave.

The opportunity to DJ with the JRM project at Bardens Boudoir, getting away with some bizarre musical juxtapositions and remembering how DJing is the best route to a free drink.

The virtues of legal downloading – more music available at more affordable prices.

Finally catching the Orpheus ballet with the wonderful Colin Towns big band score. An invigorating treat!

The CVA Summer Jazz Workshop in Amsterdam – a quite extraordinary and emotional week of music. In some ways, it was highly frustrating, but it provided a much needed dose of motivation and reignited my ambitions. Worth the fee alone for the wisdom and philosophy of Cecil Bridgewater: ‘everyone is a drummer’, apparently. Amen to that! A good few days of holiday beforehand – with Tom Millar’s insightful and encouraging company.

The North Sea Jazz Festival – perhaps the only festival serving oysters, Indian cuisine and gourmet burgers. It’s extravagant, expensive, and set in what would appear to be a giant airport terminal, but the music was varied and frequently sublime. This time Wayne Shorter’s latest leap into the unknown really worked for me. Also sublime were performances from Abdullah Ibrahim, Kenny Wheeler, Pat Metheny with Christian McBride and Antonio Sanchez and Charles Lloyd.

On returning from Amsterdam, organising some private drum lessons again – realising that my lack of understanding of the correct technique has been holding me back, breaking things down to the fundamentals and the beginning of a long process of improvement and progress.

Tim Whitehead’s residential jazz course in the wonderful old Mill in Yarmouth – for Tim’s inspiring philosophy (once again a reminder that life can be so much more than we often settle for),some fun jam sessions in the pubs, the rare chance to play with Liam Noble, meeting some more superb young musicians in Ida Hollis and Leo Selleck.

The Alexander Technique

Performing gigs with the constantly improving Adrian Roye Band – Adrian’s voice and songwriting becoming more confident with every step – now almost commanding. The recording of a quite outstanding EP, which should help take it to the next level.

Working patiently on some new musical projects which ought to come to fruition in 2009 – Arklove,The Night Climbers, JRM.

A more regular supply of well-paid function gigs and teaching opportunities.

WAC Performing Arts and Media College still going strong at the point of its 30th Anniversary.

More recording projects with Ricky Mian, Cai Marle-Garcia and Ozzie Rodgers; the far-too-gradual progress on my own set of songs. Some progress is still progress!

Massive Attack’s Meltdown and the London Jazz Festival – two remarkably well-programmed events. Highlights of the former included a triumphant double bill featuring Elbow and Fleet Foxes, plus the remarkable resurrection of Grace Jones. Highlights of the latter included Courtney Pine defying the laws of physics and passionately supporting UK Jazz and the free Jazz on 3 launch gig with some fiery spontaneous interaction between Ken Vandermark, Barry Guy and Mark Sanders, as precocious a free improvising trio as I’ve yet seen.

Bruce Springsteen at the Emirates – the first and last time I’m likely to set foot in that particular stadium! Later in the year, Springsteen once again proved his unerring ability to capture the American mood with ‘Working On A Dream’.

Kurt Wagner’s solo show at The Borderline and the Lambchop show at the Union Chapel – proof that Wagner is one of the most idiosyncratic and original of singer-songwriters.

Deerhunter at The Dome in Tufnell Park.

Shiva Feshareki’s ‘Critical Distortions’ collaboration with Natalie Clein – a further sign of Shiva’s originality and courage as a composer and yet another step into the intriguing world of contemporary music for me.

The extraordinary, dense, hypnotic guitar playing of James Blackshaw.

The emergence of some genuinely interesting and novel British guitar bands – Late of The Pier, Wild Beasts, School of Language/The Week That Was – challenging the orthodoxy of what has now become known as ‘landfill indie’.

The return of the B-52’s and Was (Not Was), the more acceptable face of 80s nostalgia!

Elbow’s Mercury Music Prize victory – it wasn’t even their best album and certainly not the album of the year, yet still this result seemed like one of the Mercury Judges best decisions in the prize’s history.

The continuing mining of the life and work of Arthur Russell – more beautiful recordings collated on ‘Love Is Overtaking Me’ and Matt Wolf’s exquisite documentary film ‘Wild Combination’. The film managed to cover so much more than simply the music – capturing the conflicts and dichotomies which exist in many human beings – the urge for risk pulling against safety and security, the excitement of the city versus the comfort and calm of the country, the desire for perfection damaging the hunger for success.

Terence Davies’ return to the cinema with the extraordinary ‘Of Time and The City’ – a reminder that subjectivity in documentaries, often seen as a heinous crime, is actually a valid means towards artistry.

More impressive new cinema – XXY, Hunger, Waltz with Bashir (its switch to ‘real’ news footage at the end was an essential and devastating juxtaposition crucial to the film’s success, not an artistic compromise as some have argued), WALL-E, The Dark Knight (at last a blockbuster with real intelligence), The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, The Man From London, The Edge of Heaven – the year began with Ang Lee’s masterful Lust, Caution, No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. I’ve not been to the cinema that much in 2008 – but this list does make it look like a quite exceptional year for film.

King’s Place: OK, it looks like a hotel lobby when you first enter, but it is so great to have a dedicated, sensibly programmed arts venue in North London.

Finding the time to read some heavy tomes. My literary year began with Norman Mailer’s ‘The Executioner’s Song’, continued with Dumas’ ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ and is ending with David Foster Wallace’s bizarre and visionary ‘Infinite Jest’.

J.M.G. Le Clezio’s surprise Nobel Prize win.

Toni Morrison’s great reading and discussion at the Queen Elizabeth Hall during the US Presidential Election campaign. Her willingness to give unpredictable answers to predictable questions made her seem warm and open-minded.

Some outstanding books about music and history – especially Alex Ross’ ‘The Rest is Noise’ and Michael Gray’s ‘Hand Me My Walking Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell’.

David Thomson’s ‘Have You Seen? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films’. On the surface, it’s simply another list book – but it’s a gargantuan one written by a man who is as passionately in love with language as he is with the cinema. It’s opinionated and audacious but always brilliantly argued. One of the best books ever published about the cinema.

The Antiques Roadshow – thank goodness for its continuing popularity – a TV institution where you can find out so much more about the real lives of real people that on any of the so-called ‘reality’ format shows.

Acquiring The Wire on DVD and finally starting to catch up – intricate and masterful TV drama, possibly my favourite TV series since Northern Exposure. It’s hard to be original with the Police drama format – but just when you think something has been repeated ad nauseum, David Simon and Ed Burns up the game substantially.

I’ve not caught much in the way of other TV, but sporadically moments of the following caught my attention: Outnumbered, Flight of the Conchords, Peep Show, House, the BBC’s drama Criminal Justice, with Ben Whishaw proving he is our most promising young actor. For a more informed and comprehensive overview of the year’s TV, head to John Kell’s blog, always a useful pointer as to how to spend your viewing time!

The appearance of some great hard-to-see films on DVD – The Saragossa Manuscript, Tropical Malady etc.

Some bloggers proving that the journalists with innate suspicions of amateur online writing simply aren’t reading the best blogs – John Kell, the return of False Dichotomies, Really Rather, Mapsadaisical, Sweeping The Nation, Audiversity, Free Jazz, Raven Sings The Blues, Spy Blog highlighting New Labour’s restrictions on civil liberties, many others too numerous to mention…

The US elections ending in a result with symbolic significance and considerable expectation. Joe Bageant’s irreverent, quasi-Marxist analysis of US politics for once proving pessimistic!

Vincent Cable, again – the voice of reason and the man who should have been running our economy for the past ten years.

Lewis Hamilton’s World Championship victory and the whole championship in general – mostly very exciting but I must confess to feeling real sympathy for Felipe Massa, who may well now have missed his golden chance.

British sporting success at the Olympics.

BBC 4 – Sometimes you can turn on and find, say, some unexpected footage of Count Basie’s Orchestra or a very fascinating documentary. Radio 3, in spite of the changes, for similarly provocative and challenging schedules.

Performing Magnetic Fields songs with Jeremy Warmsley and the Little Words at Cargo – a rather lovely conclusion to my live music year. Great to play on the same bill as the Broken Family Band too.


The overwhelming positivity of this past year has been dented significantly by death – particularly the tragic and premature deaths of friends, friends of friends and family members of friends. It’s been a reminder of how vulnerable everything is.

Frustrating impasses to any kind of career progression.

Expensive automobile problems although the gear linkage failure a mere mile after coming off the car ferry at Lymington was, in retrospect, quite funny.

Attempting to play chess for the first time in many years in Amsterdam and discovering, with crushing inevitability, that I still find the game incomprehensible.

The continuing failure of western powers to act decisively in areas where their interests are not at stake – still, little has been done for Zimbabwe.

Boris Johnson’s election as London Mayor – the only surprise seems to be that he hasn’t done anything truly disastrous yet. The banning of alcohol consumption on public transport was merely a token gesture that failed to recognise broader problems.

Unnecessary media chaos – Brand/Ross, Sargeant etc.
The Christian Churches’ obsession with sexuality – which is, for most people, essentially a private matter. A religion based on love, grace and forgiveness seems to be forgetting its core purpose.

The Max Mosley affair – almost ties in with the above. A matter of public interest only in the sense that some voyeuristic members of the public appeared to be interested.

The fact that prejudicial and discriminatory views still exist in 21st Century Britain.

Apparently we live in a service economy, but I’ve found it increasingly difficult to get anything even approaching acceptable service, be it from poorly trained, ill-informed call centre staff, hopelessly unaware waiters and waitresses in restaurants or from the presumptuous and snooty door staff at Ronnie Scott’s club. The corollary of increased confidence is being unafraid of embarrassment – I’ve had my fair share of Larry David moments this year.

The ubiquity on magazine covers of Oasis – why is anyone still interested?

The return of The Verve for similar reasons to the above. Was this really 2008 or did I step into a time machine? Ashcroft was also responsible for the biggest lyrical howler of the year: ‘And did those feet in modern times?/Walk on soles that were made in China’. Urrrrgh.

The ludicrous and offensive furore over Jay Z’s Glastonbury appearance – more minds need to open….

Spiritualized in lacklustre form, both on record and in live performance.

Stevie Wonder at the O2 – too slick, too cheesy.

The continuing prevalence of corporate sponsorship in live music, particularly as O2 now have a near monopoly on venue sponsorship, offering advance presales to their own customers.

The reluctance from the UK Government to do anything about ticket touts. This combined with the point made above made it increasingly difficult to obtain tickets for major event concerts. Leonard Cohen’s shows were supposedly sold out, but there were many good seats at the Albert Hall left empty. The number of my friends who ended up cheated by cowboy ticket agencies this year was striking – how are you to know who is legit and who isn’t?

‘Serious’ concert venues varying their policies depending on the artist performing. If it’s a seated venue, then people should stay seated. Clearly it’s not acceptable to leave to buy beer and return during a concert by Keith Jarrett or the London Sinfonietta – but apparently all concerts in the Meltdown Festival (also at the Southbank) rendered this infuriating habit acceptable, even during Terry Callier. If you want to get drunk and converse go to a pub – the artists performing deserve more time and respect.

Keith Jarrett’s pompous onstage hissyfits.

The Heathrow Terminal 5 shambles.

Spurs’ shambolic start to the season – although I suppose the Redknapp Revolution should be one of my ‘pros’. I’ll reserve judgement until we’re safe…

More generally, Premiership football has seemed mired in the absurd expectation that any team can and should win all the time, and the constant switching of managers has proved a tedious circus detracting from the game itself.

The non-sporting circus surrounding the Olympics.

This extraordinary comment made in November by Olympics Minister (!!) Tessa Jowell: "Had we known what we know now, would we have bid for the Olympics? Almost certainly not.” Another example of the government’s extraordinary lack of awareness of the consequences of their economic policies.

A recognition of the significance of 1968 in its anniversary year, but a lack of any kind of comparable contemporary protest, despite the faltering western economies.

Sarah Palin – although perhaps in light of the election result she should be in the ‘Pros’ section for her comedy value. The idea of her as the controlling figure in a US administration was frankly terrifying.

The Russia-Georgia conflict and its macho posturing.

The big anticlimax of the Large Hadron Collider.

The UK government continuing to press ahead with ID cards, despite the need to make savings and the considerable evidence that the policy, far from making us more secure, is actually a disaster waiting to happen. The very suggestion of the super-database tracking every single move and transaction we make is so uproariously offensive and anti-democratic that it seems extraordinary that it has even been considered – where are the concerted objections from free citizens and our free press?

Why can we afford the above, in addition to the bail-out of various mismanaged financial institutions, but not universal education, healthcare and transport?

Gordon Brown’s uncanny ability to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes – even if he were the best man to get us out of the recession, this should not blind people to his primary role in getting us into it. In fact, he demonstrated a substantial talent for performing rescue acts on his own problems – see also the 10p tax madness. He talks about long-term decision making endlessly but has been unable to see beyond short term goals. Far from being intellectual or shrewd, he actually lacks judgement or common sense. Oh, but apparently by bailing out various banks he has ‘saved the world’, so we can all sleep easy in our beds. Mind you, the prospect of a Cameron government is hardly more appetising.

The financial crisis and the subsequent move to what Brian Eno aptly called the ‘socialism of cowardice’ – consisting of ‘privatising the profits and nationalising the risks’. How ironic that Labour now feels it is appropriate to initiate a great public works spending spree, having rejected this approach to public policy when it would have been more appropriate. More broadly, the ‘crisis’ should offer a great opportunity to rethink and reshape global capitalism – instead, it seems we will carry on much as before with minor adjustments, at considerable cost to the public purse.

The lack of original, creative thinking in energy policy: instead of worrying about the pros and cons of nuclear energy versus renewables, how about initiatives promoting energy conservation and self-sufficiency? Loft insulation, home solar panels etc – these are not ludicrous hippy ideas at all.

Terrorism and the unimaginative response to its threat. The horrific events in Mumbai.

The near-collapse of Zimbabwe and the failure of Western powers to do much to aid the situation.

The effect of the financial crisis on the arts, specifically the collapse of Tartan films and Pinnacle Music, two major distribution networks.

A deterioration in programming in London’s independent cinemas. There’s been little to attract me to the Phoenix in East Finchley, usually one of my favourite haunts, and the BFI Southbank has focussed disproportionately on heavyweight directors whose films are readily available on DVD anyway.

Despite some key works becoming available – why is the UK so slow to make the catalogues of major world directors available on DVD? Why, when you can obtain the films of Edward Yang, Theo Angelopoulos, Tsai Ming-Liang etc easily in the US, are so few of them available as Region 2 discs in the UK? I was expecting more of the films of these directors to appear in 2008.

The Evening Standard’s partisan and misleading handling of the London Mayoral Election campaign – journalism without accountability or responsibility.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith proving she obtains her knowledge on London from the tabloid press with her rather ill-judged comments about Hackney.

The extraordinary resurrection of Peter Mandelson.

The Damian Green affair and a strange confusion over what might constitute illegality in the world of Parliamentary privilege. Whatever you conclude, the use of the counter-terrorism unit was inappropriate and disproportionate and I fear how all this legislation may be used in the future, particularly as it was also used to freeze assets in Icelandic banks.

Natural disasters in China and Burma, continuing human-engineered catastrophe in the Congo.

I should credit Kat Kennedy for this judgement, but it’s worth underlining that she’s absolutely right. 2008 has seen the release of some of the worst singles of all time – that unbearable Kid Rock Werewolves of London/Sweet Home Alabama hybrid and the Cascada mauling of Because the Night being just two examples.

Strictly Come Dancing vs. The X Factor?? – Neither, thank you very much. Simon Cowell and Alexandra Burke imbuing ‘Hallelujah’ with so much bombast that any sense of human feeling is bulldozed. Call me a snob – but hearing this brilliant song bellowed by a drunken fat man outside the Jolly Anglers in Wood Green is a nightmare made real.

Heroes and Survivors – overrated, overhyped TV tedium.

Philip Roth’s ‘Indignation’ – a slight, rather dull and indulgent book – perhaps the least essential work in an otherwise compelling canon.

Bernie Eccleston’s proposed medals system for F1 – I’m sceptical of its benefits!

Columbia’s baffling price for the deluxe edition of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tell Tale Signs’. Have I ranted about this enough?

The campaign to save Titian’s Diana and Actaeon did much to raise awareness of the importance of arts issues, but why does it take so much to keep such valuable treasures available to the general public?

Gone but not forgotten, including a saddening swathe of deaths towards the end of the year: Jerry Wexler, Miriam Makeba, Isaac Hayes, Bo Diddley, Esbjorn Svensson, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Studs Terkel, David Foster Wallace, Odetta, Levi Stubbs, Paul Newman, Heath Ledger, legendary drummer Earl Palmer, Danny Federici, Anthony Minghella, Humphrey Lyttelton, Harold Pinter, Freddie Hubbard

Monday, December 29, 2008

More 2008 in Summary: Tracks and Singles

Before anyone moans, this is not intended as a comprehensive tracks of the year list - more to highlight some tracks from albums I didn't include, as well as some great stand along EPs and singles....

Fleet Foxes – Sun Giant EP
‘Sun Giant’ was our first introduction to this outstanding band, their gorgeous vocal harmonies and skilled arrangements. ‘Mykonos’ is one of my favourite songs of the year, superior to anything on the album.

Three Trapped Tigers – EP
Hailed by me (and others as well now I’m pleased to report) as the best new band in Britain, I had tipped Three Trapped Tigers for big things in 2008. Progress has been a bit slower than I’d anticipated – but we did get this extraordinary, meticulously composed EP. It’s austere in its artistry and construction, but also compelling and vibrant in its impact. Surely 2009 is their year.

Bjork – Nattura
One of her weirdest songs to date, and that’s saying something – there’s something very discomforting and uneasy about this. It is, of course, also brilliant and among the most daring records of the year.

Estelle – American Boy
What a superb pop song this is – one where the melody travels well away from the beaten track. Attention might have focused on Kanye’s guest appearance, but the major personality here is Estelle herself.

Alexis Taylor – I Thought This Was Ours
His debut solo album seems deliberately ramshackle, but there’s a sense for me that this only serves to obfuscate just how superb a songwriter he can be. This is as beautiful a song as he’s composed – at once affecting and elusive.

Micachu – Lone Ranger
Micachu – Golden Phone
One of the discoveries of 2008 – a composer-in-training and also a superb songwriter full of unusual and novel ideas, demolishing boundaries and preconceptions. Now attached to Matthew Herbert’s Accidental label, there should be a debut album in 2009.

Animal Collective – Water Curses EP
Pretty much picks up where ‘Strawberry Jam’ left off, but is much more than a set of off-cuts or rejections. It’s sophisticated, dense, stimulating music in its own right. The new album promises to be the first delight of 2009.

Jeremy Warmsley – How We Became III
Download only release – lo-fi electronic indie production with a great vocal arrangement, built from samples and snippets of other tracks. A tapestry of great imagination.

Drive By Truckers – The Purgatory Line
I couldn’t get in to ‘Brighter Than Creation’s Dark’, not least because it was simply far too long. This track stands out though – a tortured tale of unrequited love, delivered in a very haunting manner by new member Shonna Tucker. This strong female presence does something to undercut the boorish masculinity that often seems to put me off this band.

Snoop Dogg – Sensual Seduction
‘I’m gonna take my time…’ OK – so the thought of Snoop taking his time is perhaps not terribly pleasant – but this masterpiece of parodic R&B remains one of the highlights of the year, perhaps matched only by….

Flight of the Conchords – It’s Business Time
The flipside of the above and utterly hilarious.

Mystery Jets feat. Laura Marling – Young Love
It describes the excitement of young, careless love with sensitivity and knowing insight and is, in its own strange way, a statement of maturity.

David Byrne and Brian Eno – Poor Boy
If the first half of Byrne and Eno’s album is slick and overly polite, it hits superior heights towards its conclusion, particularly with this unexpected slice of rhythmic urgency.

REM – Supernatural Superserious
I might well be the only person who thinks this rather obvious, good intentioned single is the best thing on ‘Accelerate’ – but Michael Stipe does this sort of lyric so well, and it’s really the only song on the record that really speaks to me personally.

Coldplay – Viva La Vida
I genuinely like this song. No, really – I genuinely think the main reason that so many people are suing Chris Martin for plagiarism over it is that they want to lay claim to its universal, highly touching melody. It’s by far the best thing the band have produced to date.

Sam Sparro – Black and Gold
Some of the album was Prince-lite, but this slinky single remains one of the pop highlights of the year. Sparro is not afraid of ridicule, and could therefore yet become a major pop personality.

Noah and The Whale – Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down
Noah and The Whale – Mary
They made some mis-steps with the album in the end – some of the rattle and clatter that made them so idiosyncratic had been muted, and a couple of the tracks were overly twee. Perhaps the end result on the whole was actually a bit too dour – but these songs still suggests there’s plenty of potential in this band.

Bruce Springsteen – The New Jersey Devil
Bruce as Tom Waits-meets-Muddy Waters for Halloween? Truly terrifying.

David Byrne and Brian Eno – The Lighthouse
This was Byrne and Eno at their most atmospheric and alluring. It has a mystery that the weaker tracks on the album sorely lack.

Mystery Jets – Two Doors Down
Another stupendous pop song, with moments of unironic 80s worship.

A Grave With No Name/Natural Numbers – Split Single
Home-produced distorted reveries from London and Bedford, Indiana. Apparently this will appear in physical form on a cassette (!!) next year, but it’s currently freely downloadable from the Meal Deal records blog (http://www.mealdealrecords.blogspot.com).
A Grave With No Name combine an obvious love of The Microphones, Dinosaur Jr., The Lemonheads and My Bloody Valentine. It’s therefore slightly inward-looking, making a virtue of Alex’s vulnerable, shaky vocals. But it’s also got a strong beating heart and a pop sensibility beneath the swathes of noise. I particularly like the starkness and honesty of ‘Underpass’.
I find the two Natural Numbers selections less approachable, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They sound intentionally ugly, but there’s a real prettiness and beauty underlying it all if you’re prepared to persevere. Unbelievably, Natural Numbers is a 13 year old boy.

Zenith – EP

Something promising here - a duo project from vocalist Sam Hudson and musician/producer John Tierney mixing bucolic folk, warm keyboards and synths and quirky electronics. It’s a bit gentler and smoother than that implies though, and may therefore have mainstream appeal. I must admit I can’t really appreciate the more conventional, rockier ‘Fallen’, where the duo sound less comfortable but the warmth and presence of the rest of the EP is richly satisfying.

Sparks – Lighten Up, Morrissey
This seems almost so obvious that I’m surprised it’s the first time Sparks have done it. It’s the story of a guy suffering because the object of his affections can’t rid herself of her love for Morrissey. Characteristically wry and knowing writing, predictably pompous music - dependably brilliant result.

M83 – Couleurs
This dense, hypnotic creation provided the bridge between the new, nostalgia-tinted M83 and their earlier shoegazer-inspired reveries.

Sons and Daughters – Darling
I can’t say I’ve really thought that much of Sons and Daughters before – in fact, I found their dark, brooding set in support of Nick Cave at Alexandra Palace a few years ago rather contrived. This is rather fantastic though, with one of the best choruses of the year and a new twist on that Motown stomp so beloved of modern rock groups.

MJ Hibbett and The Validators – Do The Indie Kid
Triumphant, good, old-fashioned proper indie with observational wit – splendid fun.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Round-Up Continues: The Best Reissues and Compilations of 2008

Take Me To The River: A Southern Soul Story (Kent)
Genuinely one of the best soul compilations I’ve encountered – and it’s increasingly hard to stand out in such a saturated market. It covers necessary standards, predictable spine-tinglers and some rarities from off the beaten track. As a complete whole, it presents a compelling case for the audacity and radicalism of this wonderful music and its expressive storytellers.

Arthur Russell – Love Is Overtaking Me (Audika)
There may well be yet more to come from the Russell vaults, but it’s hard to resent Tom Lee for continuing the trawl, especially when the results are this illuminating and moving. Even recognising his chameleonic qualities, few could have realised that Russell had such a propensity for simple, direct songwriting infused with the American folk tradition. The outstanding tracks towards the end of the disc point to where he was headed and resemble some of the material on ‘Calling Out Of Context’. Russell was an extraordinary talent always honest and true to his calling.

Dennis Wilson – Pacific Ocean Blue (SonyBMG)
Finally we get a proper CD release for this, the only solo album from the Beach Boys drummer. It has long been a cult classic but has been denied a widespread audience due to its rarity. It’s a rich, lush, intricately arranged work that captures the melancholy undertow of the Californian lifestyle. It comes packaged with the sessions that would have made for a follow-up ‘Bambu’, had they ever been completed.

Dory Previn – The Art of Dory Previn (Zonophone)
I hadn’t heard Previn until this year and I must admit my interest had been piqued by the lovely Camera Obscura song that takes her name. It turns out I’d been missing out on one of the great eccentrics – a singer and lyricist of brilliant, occasionally somewhat disturbing, originality.

Various Artists – African Scream Contest: Raw and Psychedelic Sounds From 70s Benin and Togo (Analog Africa)
Various Artists – Living is Hard: West African Music in Britain 1927-1929 (Honest Jon’s)
Various Artists – Nigeria Special: Modern High Life, Afro-Sounds and Nigerian Blues 1970-1976 (Soundway)
Various Artists – Nigeria Rock Special: Psychdedelic Afro-Rock and Fuzz Funk in 1970s Nigeria (Soundway)

Interest in a whole range of African music and its associated counterparts continues to flourish and here are some particularly fascinating collections. It’s great encountering this music and its unrelenting energy for the first time. Particularly intriguing is the West African music from 1920s Britain – Honest Jon’s have uncovered a whole world of music and culture that could so easily have been lost. All these compilations share an interest in spotlighting the symbiotic relationship between African music and Western popular music.

Various Artists – Rock On (Ace)
Various Artists – The Jerry Ragovoy Story (Ace)

Two compilations from the Ace staple that prove reliably edifying. There’s lots of attention meted out to the likes of Jerry Wexler, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Phil Spector, Norman Whitfield et al – but Jerry Ragovoy has perhaps never been given due credit for his huge productions and their stirring arrangements. There’s some spectacular music on this set, not least Loraine Ellison’s extraordinary plea ‘Stay With Me’. The ‘Rock On’ compilation has a broad brief – simply highlighting some of the music beloved by the legendary London record shop of the same name. It veers gleefully all over the place.

Bob Dylan – Tell Tale Signs (Columbia)
This predictably topped many reissues lists this year, but Columbia’s ludicrously overpriced deluxe edition justifiably angered many consumers. It’s a bit of a mixed bag all told, veering from tracks so quintessential you have to wonder why they were left off their parent albums to relatively straightforward live versions. As a whole, it does much to underline the notion that Dylan sees songs as perpetually incomplete, malleable objects that he can bend according to his will at any particular time.

Robert Wyatt – Cuckooland, Shleep, Rock Bottom, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, Old Rottenhat, Dondestan (Domino)
Even though the Wyatt catalogue was already readily available, and Domino have provided little in the way of extras, it’s good to have them packaged and presented cohesively. It’s also worth noting that Wyatt’s career has been consistently individual, inventive and fascinating, and that these albums rarely appear in best albums of all time lists, when perhaps they should.

Chris McGregor – Up To Earth/Our Prayer/Very Urgent (Fledgling)
It’s great that so many unsung legends of the jazz world are starting to get proper attention – from Ian Carr and Neil Ardley to the wonderful groups of Chris McGregor. These recordings aren’t quite as pivotal as the Brotherhood albums that resurfaced last year, but they give a strong sense of McGregor the free spirit, scorched and sometimes furious.

Nick Lowe – Jesus of Cool (Proper)
Or ‘Pure Pop For Now People’ as it was once called in some quarters, presumably to avoid offending the Christians. It’s a superb pop album of course, although quite some distance from the gentle country soul that is Lowe’s main trading point now. Much of it is jerky, wiry, angular pop music and Lowe’s deserves more credit for his considerable achievements as a songwriter.

Warren Zevon – Warren Zevon Expanded Edition (Rhino)
At last, a reissue package that does justice to Warren Zevon’s talents. This wasn’t his debut album, although it’s often considered as such. It is, however, arguably his best – certainly his most consistent collection of songs, and one where his individual stamp is marked most clearly. At times, it’s hugely over the top, but Zevon’s charm and sardonic humour means he can pull off the grandiosity.

Gas – Nah Und Fern (Kompakt)

Among the most vital and exciting catalogues in ambient and techno music, released in its entirety across four CDs. You’d need impressive mental stamina to absorb this in one sitting, but it’s wonderful in smaller doses.

Roy Orbison – The Soul Of Rock and Roll (SonyBMG)
Nina Simone – To Be Free (SonyBMG)

Two much-needed box sets chronicling the careers of major legends across their various record label changes. Simone’s is understandably the most consistent, and ‘To Be Free’ presents her as a defiant, righteous artist. Even when it sounded like she was compromising (by releasing more poppy, soulful material), it came so thoroughly washed in emotion that it could be the work of no other. Orbison’s classic singles for Monument, small kitchen sink dramas of heartbreak and despair, remain some of the greatest works in the history of pop music. His voice still sounds staggering, especially when it came from such a shy and retiring man. The quality is not maintained – although the box set does give credence to the notion that the comeback album ‘Mystery Girl’ was worthy of his talents.

ECM Reissues – Dave Holland (Extensions), Kenny Wheeler (Gnu High), Pat Metheny (American Dream) (ECM)
Some classics from the ECM vaults repackaged at bargain price (which is essential given how overpriced ECM CDs usually are). ‘Gnu High’ – which also features Keith Jarrett and Dave Holland, remains one of my favourite albums of all time.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Albums Of The Year 2008 Part 2: 50-1

Here's the concluding part of this year's list. Comments, as always, are actively encouraged, even if it's only to quibble with what I've left out. Positive further recommendations are always appreciated too.

50. Boris – Smile (Southern Lord)
The extent to which ‘Smile’ differs from Boris’ previous output has perhaps been overstated. Yes, the opening salvos are more melodic, perhaps even pretty by the group’s usual sludgy standards, but the rest could hardly be described as accessible. With guest appearances from Ghost’s Michio Kurihara (with whom the group recorded an entire collaborative album last year) and Stephen O’ Malley from Sunn O ))), much of the record is blisteringly intense. Whilst vocals now feature on every track, there’s also a heightened interest in sound and its power to distort, disturb and confuse. It’s a shame that the international edition omits a key track from the Japanese version – try and seek out an import if you can.

49. Scorch Trio – Brolt! (Rune Grammofon)
Raoul Bjorkenheim’s frenzied guitar shredding helps make this just about the most frenetic, unhinged recording in my 2008 list. In some ways it seems defiantly unmusical – dealing more in outbursts than in clear phrases. But this is a systematic form of communication in itself, and the music is thrilling in its abrasive urgency and cathartic effect. Bjorkenheim features again higher in this list.

48. Outhouse – Outhouse (Babel)
Outhouse, the flagship band of London’s wonderful Loop Collective of musicians, looked for a while like the brightest hope for British jazz. Yet a wave of publicity and good will seemed to dissipate slightly when this album finally surfaced. Perhaps it’s just that the album took too long to emerge, and that some of the compositions had already surfaced on the band’s initial EP. Still, it seems like they’ve failed to capitalise – and this is a shame, because ‘Outhouse’ is a tremendous debut, full of fiery, gutsy playing, particularly from Dave Smith, who’s drumming is inventive and playful. Robin Fincker continues to draw a weird and wonderful array of sounds from his saxophones.

47. Max Tundra – Parallax Error Beheads You (Domino)
This wonderful set of quirky, frequently hilarious pop music is massively entertaining. It combines archness and irony with vigour and ambition. This is some of the most intricate programmed music you’re likely to hear and it must have required meticulous and patient effort in its production. The melodies are often every bit as imaginative as the stuttering rhythms and the rough edges are brilliantly contrasted by Tundra’s saccharine voice.

46.Grace Jones – Hurricane (Wall of Sound)
It’s always great to have pop artists as flamboyant and charismatic as Jones, but few could have expected her comeback album to be quite this good. Mostly, it eschews crass attempts at modernisation in favour of concentrating on what she did best in her halcyon days – that sinister, slinky, reggae-infused groove. Occasionally it veers into darker, Massive Attack-inspired territory (particularly on the terrifying ‘Corporate Cannibal’) but it manages to retain its distinctive personality and sense of humour in the process. The personal and autobiographical nature of some songs mark it out from Jones’ back catalogue – an attempt to break away from the idea of Jones as a mechanical, perennially detached and disguised figure.

45. Matana Roberts – The Chicago Project (Central Control)
More Chicago jazz shenanigans, this time on a gritty and intense workout imbued with a spiritual quality throughout. It’s an iconoclastic record whereby structure is toyed with imaginatively (improvisations are often linked by hints and snippets of themes or melodies) but it’s also appropriately reverent towards the music’s legacy. The group sounds liberated by Roberts’ overwhelming presence as a leader. The music is busy and agitated, but also utterly thrilling.

44. Pat Metheny Trio – Day Trip (Nonesuch)
Metheny’s trio with the swinging bassist Christian McBride and fluid drummer Antonio Sanchez is a group of heavyweight musicians but they manage to make the compositions here sound light and airy. This is one of Metheny’s more immediate and approachable efforts – not as sophisticated as his collaborations with Lyle Mays, but predicated on an uncommon musical empathy and a highly developed melodic sensibility.

43. Joan As Policewoman – To Survive (PIAS)
This graceful, elegant collection of modified torch songs (the emotion is present but the theatricality has been muted) shares something with Feist’s ‘The Reminder’ in its insight into human relationships and naked vulnerability. Joan Wasser’s writing is deceptively simple – these songs are beautiful, subtle and have real depth, as well as a magnetic pull that draws us right to the core of what it means to be human.

42. Matmos – Supreme Balloon (Matador)
A baffling omission from even the more adventurous end of year lists, this is perhaps the most compositionally adventurous of Matmos albums. In veering away from particular conceits (there’s no sampling of surgical procedures or sexual congress here), they have produced something free of marketing gimmicks, but which retains their core musical virtues. ‘Supreme Balloon’ is their most mysterious creation yet – crafted from a range of sonically arresting vintage instruments. It’s a thoroughly absorbing listen, one in which ideas are developed to their logical conclusions.

41. Goldmund – The Malady of Elegance (Touch)
A collection of sombre, dignified skeletal piano pieces, this is one of those records that attests to the potential for simple statements to be the most profound. The music moves as slowly as one of Bela Tarr’s infamous tracking shots – and with a similar grace and poise. The overall effect is both mesmerising and moving.

40. Marilyn Mazur and Jan Garbarek – Elixir (ECM)
I’m sometimes a little agnostic about Garbarek, but this record is a sly and magical concoction. Marilyn Mazur plays a whole wealth of percussion, including the now infamous Hang drum. At the very least, therefore, this record is notable for exposing the gimmicky limitations of the Mercury nominated Portico Quartet. Of course, it’s much more than that though – a record that makes duo playing sound rich and full, with some wonderfully expressive performances. The tracks are often brief and sketchy – but combined they make for a compelling and soothing whole.

39. Leila – Blood, Looms and Blooms (Warp)
If a couple of tracks had been excised from this, it would have been every bit as brilliant an album as ‘Like Weather’ or ‘Courtesy of Choice’. As it stands, it’s yet another statement of Leila’s peerless ability to combine unusual, homemade music with original vocal contributions. Just when you thought that there could be no more interesting Beatles covers – she produces a radical and striking interpretation of ‘Norwegian Wood’ for good measure. Immersing yourself in this music is like entering a fairytale world of magic and foreboding. Why her live set supporting Bjork was so confrontational and ultimately boring when her recorded music is so rich and fascinating makes for a somewhat baffling conundrum.

38. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Lie Down In The Light/Is It The Sea? (Domino)
OK, so I’ve cheated twice in this year’s list by banding two albums by the same artist together. Whilst he can be contrary and frustrating, Will Oldham still manages to be remarkably prolific. Whilst a new Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy would once have been expected to reach the upper echelons of the MOJO or Uncut polls, ‘Lie Down In The Light’ was completely ignored this year. It’s actually one of his best albums, delivered with a newfound sophistication and stateliness. The live album is more raucous and attacking, and features yet more unexpected reworkings of Oldham classics thanks to the irreverent backing provided by Scottish group Harem Scarem.

37. Polar Bear – Polar Bear (Tinted Angel)

The lukewarm reception to this album from some of UK jazz’s most reputable commentators suggests that Seb Rochford’s group are now being taken for granted. I think there’s a strong argument that this record, despite being overlong and unimaginatively titled, is the band’s finest album to date. The electronics of Leafcutter John now play a much more significant role – in conversation and sometimes in argument with the glorious saxophone duelling of Mark Lockheart and Pete Wareham. Rochford’s own playing remains groovy and defiantly subtle – he has made a name for himself as a drummer without acrobatics or showy virtuosity – just meaningful playing that informs and supports his radical, fascinating compositions. That a number of these pieces seem informed by personal experience adds to the record’s considerable charm.

36. Dave Holland Sextet – Pass It On (Dare2/Universal Classics)
I must admit to having been slightly surprised to find this coming out on top in the Jazzwise albums of the year poll. This was partially as a result of their usual preference for hip young gunslingers, but also because it initially seemed like another excellent set from a composer and performer who has never made a bad album. It mostly revisits previously recorded material, dating back as far as 1985, but it is now presented by a new group, with only Robin Eubanks remaining from the previous quintet. The major differences come with the addition of pianist Mulgrew Miller and drummer Eric Harland, who plays with an astonishing level of flexibility and dynamism. This imbues the group with a fresh impetus and a new sound, whilst sustaining Holland’s familiar compositional characteristics.

35. TV On The Radio – Dear Science (4AD)
It took me a while to ‘get’ this album whilst everyone seemed to be salivating over it. Initially it seemed like another rather calculated attempt to move into Prince-emulating territory, although further listens reveal that the unique qualities of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone’s songwriting and sound are still present. It’s unfortunate that much of the attention falls on to Dave Sitek (especially when his production work for other artists doesn’t always represent the midas touch many associate with him) – it’s really Adebimpe and Malone’s voices that make this music so refreshing and mysterious.

34. Kasai All Stars – In the 7th Moon, the Chief Turned Into a Swimming Fish and Ate The Head of His Enemy By Magic (Congotronics/Crammed Discs)
For those enchanted by Konono No. 1 and their astounding thumb piano music comes a further project from the Congotronics staple – a collective of 25 musicians. All are from the Kasai region but apparently come from a variety of ethnic groups. The result is a cultural mix that makes this exciting and striking music. The group inevitable create a fuller, denser sound than Konono, and much of the interest comes from their head-spinning rhythms.

33. Django Bates – Spring is Here, Shall We Dance? (Lost Marble)
Django Bates continues to polarise opinion in the jazz world – there are those who find him intolerably whimsical and those who admire his rhythmic and harmonic sophistication more uncritically. I have little problem with his quirky humour, and his insistence that adventurous music can be sophisticated, challenging and entertaining all at the same time. Bates remains a first class arranger whose music is full of quirks, tricks and unexpected transitions. With all the larking about, Bates also has some serious points to make here – about both personal freedom and civic responsibility.

32. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part 1: 4th World War (Universal)
Sadly, not much in the way of R&B or hip hop has really come under my radar this year. Whilst I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in either area, this is still quite an unusual situation. This latest album from Erykah Badu strikes me as exceptional – a record that has pushed her to a high level of creativity. It’s a defiant, politically charged statement, full of themes it might be easy to neglect in light of the election of Barack Obama. The music is also nuanced, soulful and expressive – Badu managing to avoid the mechanistic pitfalls of some contemporary soul.

31. Susanna – Flower of Evil (Rune Grammofon)
This latest collection from the dependably prolific Susanna slipped out almost unnoticed but might in fact be her best collection to date. These minimal, icily elegant cover versions will not sustain her for an entire career, but while she’s still refining her processes and delivery, every album improves on the last. The version of ‘Without You’ with Will Oldham completely transforms the song, as do the majestic interpretations of Abba’s ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ and, more unexpectedly, Thin Lizzy’s ‘Jailbreak’. This is beautiful stuff.

30. Box – Studio 1 (Rune Grammofon)
Like the Scorch Trio album (and also featuring that group’s blistering guitarist Raoul Bjorkenheim), the Box project proved almost exhausting in its savage intensity. A supergroup brought together by filmmaker Philip Mullarkey as a film and music project, the band features the superb talents of John Zorn, Stalle Storloken (of Supersilent) and radical drummer Morten Agren. What elevates this above some of the other genre-crossing free music experiments is its occasional grasp of more pensive and reflective forms.

29. The Dodos – Visiter (Wichita)
I don’t like to advertise here, but Amazon appear to be selling this excellent record for the bargain price of £3.98 right now. I would advise readers to take advantage – as this ramshackle, clattering, spirited album is one of the most enjoyable of the year. Sounding like a less lysergic, less processed Animal Collective – The Dodos’ percussion driven music is vibrant and joyful, but also frequently aggressive and infused with the blues. The untamed momentum and yelping vocals could potentially be irritating were it not for the high quality of the songs, which are consistently arresting and infectious.

28. Hercules and Love Affair – Hercules and Love Affair (DFA/EMI)
It would take a very churlish and humourless person to resist this hugely satisfying chunk of nu-disco. It’s worth mentioning that it’s not all cheesy mirrorballs and octave bass lines though – there’s some much more unusual and subtle writing coming into play in the album’s more elusive second half. Similarly, the opening track is a quite extraordinary concoction of multi-tracked Antonys. His voice, although increasingly ubiquitous, still sounds haunting, albeit with less gravitas and more urgency in this rather different context.

27. Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple (Warner Bros)
As an album act, Gnarls Barkley seem to have been somewhat overlooked. ‘The Odd Couple’ didn’t exactly contain another phenomenal smash such as ‘Crazy’, but as a piece of warped, deeply unusual pop music it excelled. In ‘Who’s Gonna Save My Soul?’, a response to the death of James Brown, Cee-Lo Green crafted a modern soul classic and a song that ought to stand the test of time. Throughout, Danger Mouse’s backing tracks demonstrate a wider range of influences – including 60s psych pop, punk, folk music and punk. It’s surely one of the best albums to have come out of the mainstream in some time.

26. Flying Lotus – Los Angeles (Warp)
FlyLo would probably define himself as a hip hop artist, even though this largely instrumental music is considerably more fractured and surreal than such terminology might imply to the casual listener. There’s something ominous, foreboding, sometimes even terrifying about this music, cloaked as it is in fog and murk. It’s like entering a version of the city where the glamour has been surgically removed and only the sinister undertow remains.

25. Nico Muhly – Mothertongue (Brassland)
Nico Muhly is another Philip Glass protégé threatening to become much more interesting than his mentor (seriously – who would actually listen to Glass over Muhly or Arthur Russell?). He has made a substantial career for himself already as an arranger for the likes of Bjork, and his collaborations with Toumani Diabate and Antony and the Johnsons must have made for highlights of the Barbican’s recent concert series, although I couldn’t attend either. This work shows off his range, invoking as it does Riley, Stockhausen, early music and the folk tradition. The title track seems to string together disconnected vocal sounds to make a whole new language of its own. The guesting Sam Amidon contributes a more conventional, but no less affecting narrative. It’s a striking record, where patterns and systems help tell intriguing stories.

24. Department of Eagles – In Ear Park (4AD)
This is more than an interesting stop-gap while we wait for the next album from Daniel Rossen’s main project Grizzly Bear. It’s a fascinating, beautiful album in its own right. It has frequently been banded together with the likes of Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver as another contemporary exploration of an American folk tradition – but there’s something more theatrical and whimsical going on here, perhaps informed by psychedelia or the playful experiments of Syd Barrett. This is music full of charm and warmth with a strong helping of sugar.

23. Philip Jeck – Sand (Touch)
I only came to this album late in the year. Having had my interest in turntables piqued by Shiva Feshareki’s wondrous collaboration with Natalie Clein, I set out in search of original music using record decks as an instrument. Jeck’s work is a world away from Shiva’s rhythmic outbursts though – it’s a moody, unsettling world of scratchy, fuzzy ambience that demonstrates how versatile turntable music can be. What is particularly impressive about ‘Sand’ is the sheer emotional force of this music, even when it lacks the discernible traits of pitch, harmony and rhythm. The album as a whole has a cumulative impact that is close to overwhelming.

22. Blink – Blink (Loop)
This is one of those excellent trio albums where a group emerges that is much more than the sum of its already impressive parts. Particularly crucial to this triumphant summit is classically trained percussionist and jazz drummer Paul Clarvis, whose expressive, individual and informative playing does much more than simply gluing the group together. He pushes them into more liberated, exploratory territory. As a result, pianist Alcyona’s compositions are more interesting than those on her own album from a couple of years ago, and saxophonist Robin Fincker plays with a particularly musical intensity. Each player brings a different element to the collective and the result is a satisfying meeting of minds rather than a jarring mismatch. Blink seem to find that intriguing intersection between formal composition and free improvisation far more comfortable than many others operating in similar territory.

21. Deerhunter – Microcastle/Weird Era Cont (4AD/Kranky)
This one is less a case of cheating as Bradford Cox gave fans a little treat in the form of a bonus disc when the physical version of ‘Microcastle’ finally surfaced. The unexpected joy is that ‘Weird Era Cont’ is every bit as singular and exciting as its parent album, with plenty of weird and wonderful noises floating in and out of an eerie and disorientating mix. ‘Microcastle’ is notable for its incorporation of 50s and 60s pop influences, something which Cox has spoken about clearly, but which some critics have mistakenly chosen to downplay. Cox has not aped these forms, but rather subsumed them into his warped, outsider aesthetic. Deerhunter unsurprisingly have a loyal following, but ‘Microcastle’ gives them a strong weapon with which to break out of the indie ghetto, should the conditions be right for them to do so.

20. Elvis Costello and The Imposters – Momofuku (Lost Highway)
Why does Weller merit a space in many of the mainstream top tens, but Costello, making yet another excellent album, can barely even summon a mention? Perhaps on this occasion, it’s a result of his own mischievous engineering. Having promised in an interview with Word magazine to abandon making albums, ‘Momofuku’ appeared quite suddenly and unexpectedly as a digital release. Clearly recorded very quickly, it had a loose, spirited and rough n’ ready feel – but the songs bear the quality hallmarks of their creator, from the uncharacteristically earnest to the more predictably visceral. Costello’s voice is at its most versatile too, both raucous and emotive.

19. Vijay Iyer – Tragicomic (Sunnyside)
It’s no surprise that Vijay Iyer, whose composing and piano playing are equal parts visionary and academic, has a degree in Mathematics. He has a preference for rhythmic complexity (rock critics who think that Foals are the height of rhythmic invention need to hear this music), incorporating polyrhythms and metric modulations, but manages to soften these harsh edges with an equally strong sense of melody and harmony. As a result, this is music that sounds troubled, but which comes with an abiding faith that change is achievable. Iyer himself says, with a pomposity usually the preserve of a Steve Coleman or Keith Jarrett-esque auteur: “A tragicomic outlook can ease our pains of metamorphosis and help us dream the next phase into being.” It’s somewhat clumsily expressed, but the gist of his argument is sound – it’s important to provide levity in even the toughest of times.

18. Erik Friedlander – Broken Arm Trio (Skipstone)
At Trinity College of Music’s Open Day this year, I overheard a conversation and found myself compelled to interject. One young potential undergraduate made the bold and somewhat ill-informed claim that there were ‘no jazz Cellists’. I first pointed out that we had an impressive jazz Cellist right here in London in the form of Ben Davis of Basquiat Strings and Oriole. I then also pointed out that there were other Cellists elsewhere passionately dedicated to expanding the language of an already uniquely versatile instrument – Fred Lonberg-Holm and Erik Friedlander particularly. It’s always a joy to come across a musician for the first time and then discover they’ve produced a wealth of material already. This was the case for me when I first encountered Friedlander’s music last year. This trio date with bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Mike Sarin is sometimes bouncy and jubilant, sometimes sober and deeply tasteful. It consistently maintains a commitment to exploring the range of acoustic timbre and in exploring the possibilities of playful rhythmic interplay. It’s a total joy to listen to, and one of the finest unsung jazz releases of the year.

17. Curios – Closer (Impure)
Pianist Tom Cawley seems like a liberated artist now. He’s absconded from Acoustic Ladyland to focus on his own trio, winners of the Best Band Award at the BBC Jazz Awards. Their second album is both playful and contemplative, beautifully controlled and a wonderful showcase of collective empathy and interaction. Cawley has a delightful touch, and an impressive range of sound. Drummer Josh Blackmore is a prodigious talent, managing to combine fearsome dexterity with a clear musical mind. Even at their most serene, the group are completely engaging.

16. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend (XL)

Vampire Weekend could easily turn out to be another Strokes (knock out three albums that are basically the same and then end up with nowhere to go). But what they have in abundance that some other US indie prospects lack is a sense of fun. The focus on Ivy League campus politics won’t sustain an entire career – but this album’s geeky lyrics are enjoyable enough when taken in isolation. Musically, it’s simple, direct and immediate, making thorough and effective use of its ‘world music’ influences. Bafflingly, everyone keeps barking on about it being influenced by Paul Simon – surely Talking Heads is the more obvious and appropriate reference point for this kind of African-tinged angular post-punk? Vampire Weekend stand out from the crowd simply through having written a set of really excellent songs.

15. Vandermark 5 – Beat Reader (Atavistic)
Here’s that other superb Jazz Cellist, Fred Lonberg-Holm, adding depth and texture to the weird and wonderful music of saxophonist Ken Vandermark. Vandermark dedicates each tune to another artist, not necessarily musicians, and there’s a strong sense of a broader intellectual process at work here that goes beyond the act of the spontaneous statement of ideas. The group is relentless and unforgiving, but also one where sounds and effects are carefully juxtaposed. The result is a music that can be wild but which also comes with its own rigorous internal logic.

14. Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band – Season of Changes (Verve)
Brian Blade is a majestic drummer whose broad range of experience leads him to produce unpretentious music that communicates directly. As part of the radical group that has regenerated Wayne Shorter’s artistry, he has been partially responsible for some of the most important music of the past two decades. Some have bemoaned the fact that ‘Season Of Changes’ is uncharacteristically concise for a jazz release, but its brevity does not mean that it is slight. In fact, this seems like a lesson in how to produce detailed, composed music, with space for lyrical improvisation that is also accessible and immediate. Blade’s experience playing drums for songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris seems to have directed him towards an appreciation of simple forms – some of these pieces are little more than developed melodies, but they work because of their spare beauty. Elsehwhere, the frontline players merge together with impressive accuracy, and the fluency of the playing is exciting. In its movement from righteous grooving to reflective tranquillity, ‘Season of Changes’ packs a wide range of feeling into its tight timescale.

13. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (Bella Union)
Were someone to do a poll of polls for 2008, this would most likely emerge as the overall critics’ favourite. I have no problem with this – for all the historic comparisons to Crosby, Stills and Nash or the contemporary references to My Morning Jacket, Fleet Foxes seem like one of the revelations of the year for their ability to forge their own sonic space. Neither of those bands ever explored the possibilities of baroque and medieval influences to quite the extent that FF incorporate them here. The critical emphasis is always going to be on those wonderful harmonies, which imbue the music with a strong sense of the spiritual and transcendent but it’s the music that actually interests me more. The arrangements are so much more ambitious than most rock bands of this nature can muster.

12. Bill Frisell – History, Mystery (Nonesuch)
Frisell is a dependable artist with a singular style that always sounds unique regardless of the varying contexts in which he locates himself. History Mystery is a sprawling double set resulting from two separate commissions, one for music to soundtrack a Public Radio series, the other for a collaborative work with a comic book illustrator. If anything, it’s a broad summary of his career preoccupations, incorporating original composition, Malian desert blues and interpretations from the American songbook. Much of it was recorded live, which judging by this and the equally impressive ‘East/West’ set, may well be the best environment for capturing Frisell’s qualities now. The larger octet provides a rich and full sound, but somehow sustains the kind of spaciness necessary for Frisell’s slow, ruminative and unshowy phrases to shine. Frisell is a key figure in contemporary American music – perhaps this is best attested by the peerless reading of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ contained here – a hopeful prophecy now fulfilled by the election of Barack Obama.

11. Benoit Pioulard – Temper (Kranky)
Benoit Pioulard’s ‘Precis’ was a fascinating but slightly sketchy debut. ‘Temper’ expands on the premise, making something that is both more accessible and more substantial than its promising predecessor. There’s still some kind of bucolic, naturalistic charm about this record, but its processed digital sounds make it feel slippery and unusual too. Any lyrics are almost completely inaudible, so an emotional connection comes not from themes or language but rather from the sound and construction of these clever modern folk pieces. Pioulard is a particularly promising example of the musician-producer auteur.

10. Fieldwork – Door (Pi)
Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman and Tyshawn Sorey all on the same session?! This really is a contemporary jazz supertrio and every bit as dangerous and exciting as its line-up would suggest. This has a more elastic, free spirit at its core than the independent work of either Lehman or Iyer, although Tyshawn Sorey’s formidably accurate drumming ensures some sense of stricture is retained. Both fiery and respectful, there’s an energy and restlessness in the playing that brings out the most individual traits of all three players.

09. Beatundercontrol – Cosmic Repackage (Malicious Damage)‘Fusion’ is still a dirty word for many music lovers – but I can’t think of a more accurate way to describe the extraordinary sound Ulf Ivarsson has created here. Splicing together elements from jazz, dub, krautrock, even metal, he made one of the most fascinating works of the year. It’s an immersing listen, free from any conception of boundaries and full of intriguing compositional devices. The arrangements are intelligent but not overly complicated and the overall effect is striking and heavy. Sometimes the music is oppressive and dark, sometimes it is deceptively light. Perhaps its rather ugly title puts people off – this is a wonderful album that deserves more attention.

08. Bobo Stenson Trio – Cantando (ECM)
This is a record of almost unimaginable control and subtlety, one that relies on implication rather than statement and where the connection between the three players is unshakeable. Every jazz musician recognises the need for spontaneity in this music, but few can identify the distinction between instinct and intuition. Informed by experience, the best musicians can restrain themselves from splurging out everything in their heads. Drummer Jon Falt seems like a prime example here - adding conversational strokes to the music and supporting where necessary. That he integrates so warmly and intelligently with Stenson and his lyrical bassist Anders Jormin is testament to his skill and natural talent. The selections here rework pieces by Ornette Coleman and Alban Berg, which shows the wide range of Stenson’s musical understanding. Perhaps the highlight is the extended free improvisation ‘Pages’, which proves these peaceful musicians are also liberated and original.

07. The Bug – London Zoo (Ninja Tune)
This has been rather misleadingly clumped with the dubstep genre, when Kevin Martin’s real sonic concerns are a good deal more varied and complex. This confrontational, uncommonly angry blitz of digital dancehall achieves what Bloc Party failed to realise on ‘A Weekend In The City’ – an intelligent, excoriating portrait of a contemporary London riddled with violence and fear. It’s certainly terrifying – but the sheer determination to rage on is powerful. In spite of essentially consisting of individual tracks that exhibit the talents of a variety of guest performers, the whole album coheres remarkably well.

06. Portishead – Third (Universal)
Fears that Portishead would end their long hiatus with a record that merely restated their core values proved unfounded – there was nothing remotely dated or unambitious about ‘Third’. This is as claustrophobic and gripping a record as I’ve heard this year – it grasps the listener in a vice and remains unrelenting and unmerciful until its conclusion. Only the bucolic ‘Deep Water’ really changes the mood, and it has a cleansing effect, but still Beth Gibbons sounds fearful and intimidated, held down by the limitations of modern living. It’s a discomforting, disorientating and confessional work full of regret, but one that seems honest rather than forced.

05. James Blackshaw – Litany of Echoes (Tompkins Square)
It’s certainly strange and surprising to hear James Blackshaw open his latest magnum opus on piano rather than guitar. Perhaps his spare, lingering chords offer some kind of counterpoint to the rest of this album, which must be his most richly orchestrated and most technically accomplished work to date. The extraordinary sound of his twelve string guitar is difficult to describe – it’s like being faced with impassable terrain or a cascading waterfall. Yet navigating through his imposing landscapes is a great joy and a decidedly relaxing and positive experience.

04. Fennesz – Black Sea (Touch)‘Black Sea’ slipped out in mid-December and I haven’t really yet had time to compose my thoughts on it. I am clear in my mind, however, that it’s on a par with Christian Fennesz’s best work and is more than a worthy companion to ‘Endless Summer’ and ‘Venice’. It’s a more audacious record than last year’s collaboration with Ryuchi Sakamoto and one that makes more transparent use of Fennesz’s guitar amidst the hiss and hum of his laptop noise.

It’s clearer from ‘Black Sea’ that Fennesz is a dexterous and intelligent musician – there are points here where the swirling guitar becomes the dominant feature, rather than simply being subsumed into the attendant fog. Fennesz manages to achieve this without losing his music’s inherent sense of weirdness and fog though – his tracks seem to unfold gradually in a voyage of discovery, beginning quietly in confusion and ending boldly in clarity. There’s a sense of danger and malevolence at every turn, but a romanticism generally wins out.

03. Toumani Diabate – The Mande Variations (World Circuit)
Perhaps one of the major joys in exploring music from around the globe is the opportunity to hear unusual instruments unique to particular locations or cultures. Toumani Diabate is the virtuosic master of the kora, a Malian 32-stringed harp carved from a calabash that produces a wonderfully peaceful, soothing sound. ‘The Mande Variations’ presents Diabate unadorned and alone, without overdubs, and its riches are plentiful and varied. Many of these pieces are hymns to Diabate’s major influences, but they are played with a character, panache and feeling unique to Diabate himself. Although studio recorded, this is probably the closest work in recent years to the emotional abandon of Keith Jarrett’s best improvised concerts, and Diabate brings a similar sense of joy and awe to his kora playing.

02. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (4AD)
It’s easy to get cynical about albums like this, which build slowly through word of mouth and internet buzz and then get grasped eagerly by the music press and become ubiquitous. Justin Vernon may well have been flabbergasted that this intimate, personal record travelled so well in 2008. The backstory that surrounds it – which involved Vernon going to a rural cabin to record and hunting his own food – may well be completely fabricated for all I know but it certainly added a useful layer of mystique for marketing the music.

Really, though, it’s all inessential. It doesn’t matter whether or not the Emma of the album’s title is a real figure in Vernon’s life or not. What does matter is the extraordinary sound of this record – the warmth of the acoustic guitar and the ethereal quality of its layered choir of multi-tracked Vernon’s. Then there’s his voice itself, which is wonderfully versatile – moving from biting aggression on the choruses of ‘Skinny Love’ to haunting tenderness on the sublime closer ‘Re: Stacks’.

Few singer-songwriters manage to draw such richness from fundamentals. There isn’t much involved here except for guitar, voices and occasional percussion. The album is both elemental and elusive, direct but also ambiguous enough (not least in its unusual, poetic lyrics) to leave itself open to a variety of interpretations. It’s the album I’ve listened to the most in 2008.

01. Wildbirds and Peacedrums – Heartcore/The Snake (Leaf/Caprice)

My second case of flagrantly breaking established rules completes the 2008 chart. Sweden’s Wildbirds and Peacedrums were the revelation of the year for me both in their recordings and in live performance. I initially discovered them through the Raven Sings The Blues blog and I’ve yet to read anything substantial about them in the UK music press. Is this because they’ve won a Jazz prize in Sweden and have therefore been classified as a marginal concern? Or is it because the press here usually don’t bother investigating Scandinavian or European music in any great depth? Either way, the non-appearance of these records in any review of the year lists is absolutely criminal. Music this original and superbly executed should not be ignored.

‘Heartcore’ is really a 2007 album, but only received UK distribution through the Leaf label this year. It’s such beguiling and direct music, mostly stripped back to just drums and Mariam Wallentin’s peerless voice – and it’s amazing how much pure, genuine and unvarnished emotion the duo draw from that basic set-up. When they do add new elements, they are there for their textural effect and their emotional impact. ‘I Can’t Tell In His Eyes’ is as lush and touching a ballad as I’ve heard this year, made all the more impressive by its considered melding of electronic and acoustic sounds. Elsewhere, they can be brutal and forceful and – in spite of the absence of a harmonic instrument and unusually for a Scandinavian group, very much in touch with the blues.

‘The Snake’ develops the sound, and is closer to the overwhelming brilliance of their live performances. It’s also a darker, more opaque record, echoing some of the spirit and style of Portishead’s ‘Third’. It requires some effort from the listener in order o appreciate fully Patience is rewarded though, as the interaction of drums and vocals proves even more fruitful and creative here. It has yet to be officially released in the UK, but can be heard in full on some online outlets. Let’s hope Leaf pick it up for a proper 2008 release.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Albums Of The Year 2008 Part 1: 100 - 51

100. Magnetic Fields – Distortion (Nonesuch)
I’ve veered between finding this album disappointing and something of a guilty pleasure. By the year’s end, I’m firmly settled on the latter. Setting out his stall by claiming that the album had no ambition other than to sound ‘more like the Jesus and Mary Chain than the Jesus and Mary Chain’, Stephin Merritt made the noisiest, least original of the Magnetic Fields albums to date. Yet it’s not as if he hasn’t made an album based on a sonic rather than a conceptual conceit before. I remain a big fan of ‘The Charm of The Highway Strip’, Merritt’s country ‘on the road’ album where synthesisers replaced guitars. ‘Distortion’ works for two reasons – firstly, that Merritt does highly creative things with all the blurry noise – distorting all manner of instruments so that they sound unusual and weird. Then, there’s the incredible songs (even after exhausting the pop song form on ’69 Love Songs’ he’s still writing them). With his barbed wit still intact, Merritt can sum up lovesickness, giddiness, joy and pain in the space of a couple of minutes. Whether you take him seriously or not depends on how many layers of irony you wish to accept.

99. She and Him – Volume One (Merge)
When actresses turn to pop music, they don’t usually come up with something as joyful and unassuming as this lightweight but loveable album. With arrangements and production duties handled by the masterful M Ward, however, it’s arguable that Zooey Deschanel was in the safest hands possible. He is someone who can effortlessly breathe new life into material that is often in essence somewhat retrogressive and conservative. Although not exactly the strongest singer in the world, Deschanel’s understated and unaffected vocals made these songs seem genuine and honest.

98. Tom Richards Orchestra – Smoke and Mirrors (Candid)
Tom Richards is a Royal Academy of Music graduate and a seriously accomplished musician, but until now has mostly paid his dues as a sideman for Jamie Cullum and, ahem, Staines indie-rockers Hard Fi. Not exactly a distinguished CV and one that gives little indication of the inventiveness and playfulness of his big band composing and arranging. ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ is an excellent record – full of movement, energy and urbane humour, superbly performed with a fresh, modern take on the big band sound.

97. Ellen Allien – SOOL (Bpitch Control)
It seems unlikely that modern techno pioneer Ellen Allien will make an album as inviting as ‘Berlinette’ again. Since then, her music has become increasingly harsh and atavistic, rarely more so than on this brutal selection of relentless machine music. It has its own artistry in its refusal to compromise or to soften its impact. If ‘Berlinette’ combined hedonism with romance, this is the musical equivalent of loveless sex with multiple partners.

96. Lykke Li – Youth Novels (Warner)
Good pure pop is a satisfying rarity and in 2008, Swedish sensation Lykke Li fulfilled the duty performed so well in previous years by Robyn and Annie. There is, however, something more unconventional about her music than such a statement implies. Perhaps it’s in her vulnerable, flimsy vocals. Perhaps it’s in the percussive quality of her music. When all is pieced together, it’s a beguiling confection. If her voice sounds childlike, then it’s perfect for the combination of naivety and insight that these songs demand.

95. Jamie Lidell – Jim (Warp)
Anyone hoping that Jamie Lidell might take a U-turn and move back to more glitchy, uncomfortable electronica after ‘Multiply’ will have had their hopes dashed in no uncertain terms. In fact, ‘Jim’ almost completely excises any trace of Lidell’s electronica roots in favour of an almost too perfect facsimile of classic soul, disco and funk. It’s testament to Lidell’s talent that this isn’t completely embarrassing. His voice is gritty and stirring, and he has penned a set of songs with personality and brio, some of which balance things out with disarming tenderness. He seems to have become a male Amy Winehouse – with all of the talent and none of the waywardness or tabloid attention.

94. Fuck Buttons – Street Horsssing (ATP)
Perhaps it’s OK to have a name that ensures minimal radio play when you make this sort of music – long swathes of dense, combative noise-fog, through which the prettiest of melodies gradually emerge. ‘Street Horsssing’ is actually a serious work, in spite of the band’s moniker and their recourse to toy instruments. It’s a seamless, enveloping sound that pits claustrophobia against pure joy.

93. High Places – High Places (Thrill Jockey)
High Places are one of those bands that seem to make an effortless, beguiling combination of aimless contemplation and melodic formality. Initially, perhaps due to Mary Pearson’s hushed vocals, these tracks seem primarily mood pieces – but the integration of the voice and the animated, inventive percussion that underpins them makes them into something much more substantial and mesmerising.

92. Emmylou Harris – All I Intended To Be (Nonesuch)
It’s harsh to judge ‘All I Intended To Be’ against the quality of its three outstanding predecessors, but it’s definitely a more straightforward and less adventurous record than we’ve been used to from Emmylou in recent years. However, as a summary of her qualities as both writer and interpreter, it’s a suitably haunting and moving document. Her selection of songs remains shrewd, and her own songs continue to exhibit her extraordinary wisdom and compassion. Yes, it’s full of intimations of loss and mortality – but these are not exactly unexpected themes for a mature artist to cover. It’s nicely played, if sometimes a little too safe in its production values.

91. Matthew Herbert Big Band – There’s Me and There’s You (Accidental)
If he were working at the absolute peak of his powers, I’d expect any new Matthew Herbert album to comfortably walk into my top ten. ‘There’s Me and There’s You’, in spite of its theme of political protest, is actually his softest and most comfortable work to date, but perhaps there’s something subversive in stating your righteous anger with music that is more relaxing than it is violent. There are still some magical, ingenious touches though, and the arrangements are vibrant and compelling. Introducing some new vocalists to this project has also stopped it from being a straight retread of ‘Goodbye Swingtime’ – this time, it seems as if Herbert is taking as much influence from the world of musical theatre as from big band jazz. Perhaps this is what has made many people dislike the record – but I think it adds a fresh element to Herbert’s repertoire, even if it sometimes borders on pastiche.

90. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive (Rough Trade)‘Stay Positive’ is a very good rock record - full of brash, clamorous playing and literate, verbose lyrics. Speaking subjectively, it’s probably a bit too boorish and masculine for me to appreciate fully – there’s still the sense that The Hold Steady are a bar band made good, and they lack the shameless humour of AC/DC. If the earnestness is sometimes a little difficult to stomach, just enjoy the visceral thrill of their performance, and those wonderful flourishes of E Street Band piano. Best of all is when they get spiritual and reflective – ‘Lord I’m Discouraged’ is an amazing, genuinely touching song.

89. Arve Henriksen – Cartography (ECM)
Arve Henriksen’s move from Rune Grammofon to ECM unnerved people, not least because that label’s familiar Kim Horthoy artwork would have to be replaced by the conformist ECM packaging. Musically, however, there was little to be unnerved by, as ‘Cartography’ more than matches the rest of Henriksen’s catalogue for mystery and intrigue. The title seems wonderfully apposite – as Henriksen’s writing and playing sounds very much like a process for mapping uncharted territories. There are still no obvious reference points for Henriksen’s sound, which is among the most unique in contemporary jazz.

88. Bill Dixon With Exploding Star Orchestra – s/t (Thrill Jockey)
Chicago remains one of the best cities for forward thinking jazz. If last year’s Exploding Star Orchestra album contained moments of wild abandon, this collaboration with Bill Dixon is more exploratory and less constrained. Consisting of long pieces with plenty of strident, domineering improvisation, it’s an attempt at transcendence that demonstrates that this is a project with real ambition and imagination, much in the spirit of Sun Ra or Alice Coltrane.

87. Finn Peters – Butterflies (Accidental)
Matthew Herbert’s Accidental label really came into its own in 2008 with the signing of the very promising Micachu and this release from acclaimed jazz flautist and saxophonist Finn Peters. With the dexterous and intelligent Tom Skinner on drums and Nick Ramm on keyboards, his group comprise some of the best players in an invigorated London scene. If his debut ‘Su-Ling’ (released on the Babel label) showcased his swinging, rhythmic side, ‘Butterflies’ was a more pastoral and ruminative set, full of delicacy and calm. It’s frequently sedate, but also remarkably joyful.

86. James Hunter – The Hard Way (Rounder)
It’s unlikely that you’ll hear a better set of classic rhythm and blues than this. Hunter and his band are superb – consistently taut and thoroughly immersed in their chosen idiom. Luckily, Hunter is also a dab hand with an infectious melody and this is his most memorable set of songs so far, recorded with real empathy at Toe Rag.

85. Alexander Tucker – Portal (ATP)
Alexander Tucker’s collaboration with Stephen O’Malley at the Maximum Black Festival was a bit too much for me – essentially a relentless drone with little even in the way of textural variation, never mind rhythm, melody or harmony. His solo work is a good deal more ingratiating, and ‘Portal’ continues his fascinating revitalising of a folk tradition with influences drawn from psychedelia, electronica and jazz. His soft, delicate voice helps keep things grounded.

84. Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue (Rough Trade)
The more Jenny Lewis gets away from preconceived ideas of what she should be doing, the more enjoyable I find her music. ‘Acid Tongue’ is quite some way from the winsome indie of the early Rilo Kiley albums. It’s also some distance from the Appalachian gospel of ‘Rabbit Fur Coat’, her collaboration with the Watson Twins that I feel has been slightly overpraised. This time she has delved into the LA Canyon and come back with an album that is in equal parts lush and rollicking. Perhaps it is at its best when at its loosest and least dutiful, a thrilling paen to the simple acts of writing and recording good songs.

83. kd lang – Watershed (Nonesuch)
It is, of course, not very cool to include an artist like kd lang in a list like this, but ‘Watershed’ merits its inclusion through sheer quality alone. It’s a languid, sublime and lush work, self-produced and recorded in a home studio, a process that has clearly liberated lang to write the most emotional and expressive songs of her career. Her voice remains an instrument of real beauty, powerful but without the kind of banal admonition that comes from singers too keen to demonstrate their range and force. She sounds like a woman who has lived and loved and this is very clearly the most striking album of her career.

82. Lambchop – OH (Ohio) (City Slang)
This is one of those albums that has been dubbed a ‘return to form’, although it’s certainly arguable that its darker predecessor was in some ways more interesting. It is a return of sorts though – a return to the warmer, sparser sound of Lambchop’s earliest records. It’s a shame that Kurt Wagner now opts to bury his idiosyncratic voice deep in the mix, overshadowed by music that is frequently more comforting than adventurous. It’s his lyrics, bizarre, individual and memorable – that really deserve to be heard. Similarly, his unusual phrasing and emphatic enunciation really helps these songs come alive when performed live. It’s an excellent set, but one that perhaps hints more at what Wagner could do to escape the constrictions of his group.

81. Nik Bartsch’s Ronin – Holon (ECM)
Nik Bartsch’s circular, minimalist, Reichian take on jazz emphasises rhythm as the predominant factor. It also makes the music more hypnotic than cerebral. It becomes very easy to immerse oneself totally in this radical, individual music. This is Bartsch’s most confident statement of what he calls ‘zen funk’ – a music that can involve adventurous abstraction, but more frequently relies on an almost mechanistic, precisely engineered groove. It is indeed an enlightening experience to listen to it.

80. Ry Cooder – I, Flathead (Nonesuch)
Completing a trilogy of conceptual album charting American social history, this might be the slightest and most lightweight of the three, at least thematically. It concerns the story of a bar-room rocker who also enjoys car racing. An album in thrall to the joy of speed, women and noise does not exactly break new ground. Yet the story has a tragic arc, and the presentation is particularly delightful (the album came packaged with a story book for good measure). I also prefer it to ‘My Name Is Buddy’ which had much to say about left wing movements in America but diluted it with too much whimsy by making its characters anthropomorphic animals. Musically, this is one of Cooder’s most fundamental and enjoyable records.

79. Wild Beasts – Limbo, Panto (Domino)
Hayden Thorpe’s extravagant falsetto is hardly going to be for everyone’s tastes, and neither is this vivacious, grandiose and excessive music. Yet this very fact alone makes Wild Beasts stand head and shoulders over the rest of the British guitar music scene (justifiably dismissed in many quarters as ‘landfill indie’). Here is a band with not just a sense of the theatrical, but that also comes with guts and passion.

78. Thank You – The Terrible Two (Thrill Jockey)‘The Terrible Two’ was one of 2008’s more unusual offerings – primal, guttural and full of ritualistic energy. It’s a cluttered, majestic mess of a record, imprecise but equal parts angry and celebratory. Its unrestrained urgency is admirable. Lots of ensembles talk somewhat pretentiously about abandoning thought and planning from their creative process. Thank You seem to be one of the few to have actually realised this intuitive alchemy with positive results.

77. Earth – The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull (Southern Lord)
I can’t really beat Pitchfork for describing Dylan Carlson’s latest template for Earth as the ‘Ennio Morricone of metal’. This description probably saddens followers of Earth’s earlier, doom-laden sludge, but rather delights me. This is one of the most deliberately slow record I’ve ever heard, evoking both barren, deserted landscapes and a concurrent sense of loneliness. It’s aided considerably by a surprising guest appearance from the brilliant guitarist Bill Frisell.

76. Benga – Diary of an Afro Warrior (Tempa)
Here is another excellent album helping to elevate the dubstep genre to maturity and distinction. If Burial’s ‘Untrue’ presented the more emotional, affecting side of this music – Bega’s ‘Diary..’ opts for something more precise and mechanical. It’s an intriguing combination of cold logic and harsh experience that initially sounds skeletal but reveals surprising intricacies on repeated plays.

75. Late of the Pier – Fantasy Black Channel (Parlophone)
I’ve not exactly been singing the praises of British music recently, but this, along with the Wild Beasts album and the Field Music projects, suggests there might yet be some form of resurgence brewing. It’s refreshing that Parlophone took the risk of boosting a band with this many outlandish ideas, making music that is very difficult to categorise. Of course, from a marketing point of view, it helps to have Errol Alkan handling production duties, and this strikes me as his most successful effort to date. ‘Fantasy Black Channel’ heads in whatever direction its creators feel like travelling – from jerky electro-funk to driving post-punk. Melody is perhaps not their strongpoint, but there’s something idiosyncratic and infectious in the way the vocals interact with the constantly shifting music. This is a group completely unafraid of ridicule.

74. Roots Manuva – Slime and Reason (Big Dada)
Whilst there are some fantastic pop moments on Rodney Smith’s latest (not least the hilarious ‘Buff Nuff’, which is either a parody of the male dancehall artist’s roving eye or a wholesale embrace of it), his strength and individuality still lies in his unshakeable honesty. Whereas most rappers opt for braggadocio and egotism, Smith admits to his very human failings. On ‘The Show Must Go On’, he discusses alcoholism and his fear of his kids seeing him in the state to which he has succumbed. That the album ends with a track called ‘The Struggle’ perhaps sums up Smith’s anxieties and dread. Musically, ‘Slime and Reason’ is another triumph – consistently stimulating and vibrant.

73. Beck – Modern Guilt (XL)
I must admit I’d basically lost touch with Beck. I liked ‘Midnight Vultures’ a lot on its initial release, but I now find its garish funk parodies quite difficult to stomach. ‘Sea Change’ seemed like an earnest failure to me, whilst ‘Guero’ and ‘The Information’ simply passed me by. How refreshing then to find that ‘Modern Guilt’ is such a superb record, brilliantly aided by sympathetic production from Danger Mouse. It’s Beck’s most concise statement for some time, and it benefits from its brevity. At one point, we might have described this as ‘all killer, no filler’ – sonically inventive and more melodically aware than Beck has been in recent years.

72. Gang Gang Dance – Saint Dymphna (Warp)‘Saint Dymphna’ isn’t quite the full-on triumph that ‘God’s Money’ was – but it’s certainly an audacious and enjoyable record. Still heavily reliant on that almost tribal rhythmic impetus, but now experimenting more with forms more closely associated with the club scene (there’s even a surprise cameo from London Grime MC Tinchy Snyder), ‘Saint Dymphna’ is a peculiar and disorienting collage with scant respect for convention.

71. The Week That Was – The Week That Was (Memphis Industries)
The demise of Field Music has proved to be something of a blessing in disguise, as the band re-emerged with two distinct projects. Peter Brewis’ take seemed inspired by a lot of the music of the 1980s, particularly those Steve Lillywhite-produced efforts from Peter Gabriel. Ostensibly a concept album about the modern media, it’s perhaps more inviting for its sonic conceits – each track bounding in on thumping, insistent drums and enlivened by some elaborate arrangements incorporating strings and percussion. It never entirely abandons the quirky, offbeat charm that made Field Music so appealing though.

70. Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Tim Story – Inlandish (Gronland)
This collaboration between the electronic pioneer Roedelius (famed for his work with Cluster and Harmonia) and the American composer Tim Story is one of the year’s most subtle gems. Certainly, it echoes Brian Eno’s ambient experiments but it’s also an elegant and awe-inspiring construction in its own right. It’s a very pure, deeply haunting record and one that, perhaps due to its early release date, seems to have been forgotten even by those publications with an interest in contemporary composition.

69. Calexico – Carried To Dust (City Slang)‘Carried to Dust’ has been portrayed in the media as a much-needed retrenchment after the failed rock experiment of ‘Garden Ruin’. I didn’t see too many critics offering a virulent critique of ‘Garden Ruin’ on its initial release and the argument is somewhat misleading in implying that the rock dynamics of that album have been totally abandoned. Whilst the Mariachi horns are certainly back, there’s certainly some residual elements of that album’s more conventional attack. The song narratives here, as always with Calexico, are lucid and compelling.

68. Steve Reich – Daniel Variations (Nonesuch)
Although premiered at the Barbican in 2007, 2008 saw the first CD release of this latest major work from Steve Reich, by his own admission his most political work to date. This is Reich’s response to the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, and the text juxtaposes Pearl’s writings with passages from the Old Testament. The usual Reichian tricks are present – this time the overlapping, polyrhythmic backdrop is provided by four pianos. Musically, it perhaps doesn’t offer much that is new (and it’s not as astonishing as ‘Different Trains’ or ‘New York Counterpoint) – but it is notable for its emotional clarity, when much of Reich’s music can seem more mechanical and less human.

67. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Dig! Lazarus! Dig! (Mute)
Whilst others seem to see this as a major Nick Cave work, I’m not quite so convinced that it’s not one of his more minor efforts. It’s certainly better than ‘No More Shall We Part’ or ‘Nocturama’, but it’s not as good as the ‘Abbatoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus’ double set and certainly doesn’t hit the heights of ‘The Boatman’s Call’ or ‘Tender Prey’. That being said, a Nick Cave album with flaws is still a brilliant, wild, unsettling beast, and ‘Dig!...’ ticks all those boxes with added vigour and humour. James Johnston’s organ and Warren Ellis’ violin continue to reshape the Bad Seeds sound.

66. Neon – Here To There (Basho)
The Neon project is audacious for its spirit of inter-generational collaboration, and for its unusual line-up. This trio of piano, saxophone and marimba/vibes is striking for its cascading, rich sound. The group manage to achieve and sustain momentum without the presence of a drummer, and the sound is powerful and full. Most importantly, it frequently sounds like an informed conversation between the three players where each is contributing an individual perspective to a wider whole. With players such as Simcock and Hart, there could easily be a temptation towards peerless but pointless virtuosity – but it’s the feeling of this music that shines through.

65. The Notwist – The Devil, You + Me (City Slang)
This long-awaited album from The Notwist seems to have been unfairly overlooked in light of not quite replicating the quality of its visionary predecessor ‘Neon Golden’. Perhaps people had expected the group to have been slaving away in the studio for every minute of the past four years, crafting some kind of modern day masterpiece. ‘The Devil, You + Me’ is undoubtedly more modest than that but, for these ears at least, part of its appeal is in its surprising level of understatement. Many of its core ideas emerge through implication and suggestion. As we’ve come to expect from the band, it merges elements of left-field rock music with electronics with surprising ease.

64. Neon Neon – Stainless Style (Lex)
Like The Magnetic Fields’ ’69 Love Songs’ this album, a concept album based on the tragic arc of the life and times of John DeLorean (echoing the music of the time), succeeds as more than parody due to the sheer brilliance of its tunes. Gruff Rhys is at his most melodically inventive here, and whilst his voice is in danger of over-familiarity, the new contexts provided by Boom Bip refresh his artistry. There’s a real sense of fun in the album’s more hedonistic moments, but the palpably melancholic undertow adds humanity to what could have been an academic, overly stylised exercise.

63. Hot Chip – Made In The Dark (DFA/EMI)
If ‘The Warning’ was a tight, considered statement of intent, Hot Chip opted to throw everything at the wall with their third album. Not all of it sticks – ‘Bendable Poseable’ lands on the wrong side of the thin line between infectious and irritating. There is, however, plenty of evidence of Alexis Taylor’s winning way with a melody and his honesty as a writer (something not always remarked upon given the emphasis on his more ironic qualities). Whilst Joe Goddard’s electronic wizardry and arranging skill are again at the forefront, there’s also a sense of Hot Chip cementing as a band, perhaps best demonstrated by the astonishing ‘One Pure Thought’. Whilst some people find the ballads whimsical or twee, I find them intriguing – melodically direct but emotionally ambiguous.

62. Was (Not Was) – Boo! (Rykodisc)
Few records in 2008 have made me smile quite as much as this belated comeback from the funk pop masters. In some ways, it takes me back to my childhood, when I couldn’t resist ludicrous songs like ‘Walk The Dinosaur’ and ‘Out Come The Freaks’ (even if I didn’t understand the full implications of the latter). That wry, zany humour permeates much of ‘Boo!’, every bit as out of step with the times as we would expect from Don and David Was. Some familiar figures return here too – including the legendary Sweet Pea Atkinson, who sounds as brilliant as ever on the wild and wonderful ‘Semi Interesting Week’. Bob Dylan belatedly gets round to offering payback for Don Was’ production work on ‘Under The Red Sky’ by offering ‘Mr. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’, a funky gem totally unlike anything in his own catalogue. Yet perhaps the weirdest moment is provided at the album’s conclusion – which features very gravelly vocals from one Kris Kristofferson.

61. Atlas Sound – Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (4AD/Kranky)
Bradford Cox may have invested more promotional energy in his group Deerhunter, but it’s arguably this solo project where he is at his most artistically honest. Whilst he’s posted 70 + Atlas Sound tracks to his blog over the past few years, this is his debut album proper under the name. It’s a record that is characerised by blurred boundaries and confusion – Cox frequently sounds lost, sometimes blissfully so, in the cascading sound with which he surrounds himself. Sometimes he’s simply defeated by his own vulnerability. ‘Let The Blind…’ is perhaps the record for Deerhunter followers who feel the band tightened up their act a little too much with ‘Microcastle’ (I’m not one of those people) but it is in itself a carefully structured work that ought to be digested whole.

60. Subtle – Exiting Arm (Lex)
Pitchfork hilariously claimed that this featured ‘the most opaque lyrics in Subtle’s catalogue’, which given that vocalist Doseone deals mainly in stream of consciousness surrealism is a bit like saying the latest Pope is the most Catholic in history. It’s a shame that not many commentators in the UK have noticed Subtle’s extravagant sound melee – an exotic fusion of hip hop, jazz, rock, dance music and funk. The contrasts between different vocal treatments perhaps remind me most of Yello. It’s a seemingly disparate, nonsensical stream of ideas, but listening to it is tremendous fun. Their Myspace blog claims they are going on hiatus, presumably to focus on the members’ myriad other projects. Yet it’s when they come together that they seem to achieve the most.

59. Sian Alice Group – 59.59 (Social Registry)
Emerging from the same label that brought Gang Gang Dance to our attention, Sian Alice Group are a much less unpredictable but no less interesting proposition. Dealing in the kind of unshakeable repetition and minimalism that requires careful handling, they somehow manage to craft music that is both steadfast and engaging. Their association with Spiritualized and John Coxon invites obvious comparison, but their music focuses more on the cascading than the abrasive. They will stick on one note for as long as is necessary, drawing out as much impulse and emotion from it as possible. Sian Ahern’s vocals are mysterious and erotic, sometimes echoing PJ Harvey and her most expressive.

58. Max Richter – 24 Postcards In Full Colour (Fat Cat)
Max Richter has described this latest release as a collection of ringtones, arguing: "Thinking about how we listen to music today, I wonder why it is that ringtones have so far been treated as unfit for creative music. Who says ringtones have to be bad? It's like saying LPs or CDs are bad—it's just a medium”. Given that it’s unrealistic to expect all mobile phones to be permanently switched to silent, I’d be a happy man if more people downloaded these little nuggets of composition. It can probably only be a good thing if Richter is striving to make interesting music more accessible in every sense. The music here is therefore understandably fragmented (and those uninterested in new technology can view the pieces as postcards as the title suggests – small, pithy snapshots of human feeling) but no less moving than Richter’s previous work, and arguably therefore no less substantial.

57. Marnie Stern – This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That (Kill Rock Stars)
If there was a prize for silliest album title of 2008, this would certainly win it hands down. Again collaborating with Zach Hill (perhaps the most technically proficient drummer in alternative rock), Marnie Stern has essentially rewritten and remade her debut album here. For once, this is no bad thing, as there seems to be plenty of mileage in the visceral thrill of this music. It’s certainly intricate and complex, but it’s every bit as immediate, furious and righteous as the rawest punk rock.

56. Skyphone – Avellaneda (Rune Grammofon)
So many groups now operate in this kind of electro-acoustic space that it’s hard to really push the boundaries now. Danish groups seem particularly drawn to this sound – Efterklang made one of my favourite albums of last year but added a hint of gospel joy to the template. ‘Avellaneda’ may be the most restrained, dignified and calm album in my list this year – it’s so warm, soothing and soft. Much of it feels weightless and liberated by its renunciation of volume and personality.

55. School of Language – Sea From Shore (Memphis Industries)
David Brewis was the first of the Field Music brothers to release his own project and this angular, detailed, impressively constructed take on rock music has the edge of the two for me, much as I admire The Week That Was. It shares with a group like XTC a preoccupation for writing memorable melodies and twisting them into unpredictable, unfamiliar shapes. Bookended by the four part ‘Rockist’ suite, it’s also a highly conceptual, brilliantly sequenced work. I suspect it’s been overlooked due to a release date early in the year, which is always a great injustice.

54. Diskjokke – Staying In (Smalltown Supersound)
For some reason, I almost omitted this thinking it had come out in 2007 – but no, it’s very much a 2008 release. It’s frequently been grouped with other 2008 records such as Hercules and Love Affair or Kelley Polar as a nu-disco work, but there’s something more ethereal and enchanting about it than that. It certainly isn’t one of those dance records that’s all about hedonism and physical energy and little else. There’s real detail and craft to the arrangements.

53. Sun Kil Moon – April (Caldo Verde)
There’s a little less of the Neil Young fury on Mark Kozelek’s second full length using the Sun Kil Moon moniker, but the feelings of desolation and loneliness certainly remain. His songs are steadfastly melancholy and paced deliberately slowly. They take as long to unfold as Kozelek feels necessary. His voice remains an instrument of quiet beauty – unwaveringly soft and haunted, about as far from the X Factor school of singing as it’s possible to get and much more convincing at conveying genuine emotion. All this requires a very high degree of patience and concentration from the listener, but Kozelek’s sublime music offers manifest rewards.

52. Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins (Jagjaguwar)
A companion piece to last year’s ‘The Stage Names’, ‘The Stand Ins’ continues Will Sheff’s transition from morose country-tinged indie to an arguably more conventional hybrid of rock, folk and Motown soul. Some of the brutality of earlier Okkervil albums has now been jettisoned (it’s hard to hear something like ‘Westfall’ or ‘Black’ fitting in here) but Sheff’s storytelling brand of songwriting continues to develop and improve apace. The lyrics here are wonderful, and he’s learning to do more with his voice than simply blast out the choruses. A handful of the songs are deeply moving. Many have suggested that the Shearwater (the group lead by departed Okkervil member Jonathan Meiburg) album is even better, so I really should investigate that!

51. Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid (Fiction)
If we’re absolutely honest, this is neither Elbow’s best album nor the best album of the year, but I still couldn’t help jumping for joy when it was announced as the Mercury winner. There can be few more deserving bands and few more endearing frontmen than Guy Garvey. It’s Garvey’s touching humanism that wins out here yet again, his lyrics capturing small moments with keen observation and emotional clarity. At their best, Elbow remain interested in the full possibilities of sound and rhythm, as their decision to produce this record by themselves clearly attests. The group’s occasional lapse into anthemic stadium territory still jars somewhat though.