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.

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