Thursday, December 18, 2008

Albums Of The Year 2008: Quibbles, Omissions and Honourable Mentions

If, back in, say, 1999, someone had told me that I would at some point compile a best albums of the year list that ran to 100 records and still didn’t include the most recent efforts from REM and Spiritualized, I’d have been incredulous. Yet here is the 2008 list, and neither of those discs are present – the latter because it’s simply too tired and insipid, the former because it just isn’t the ‘return to form’ everyone has made it out to be (although I enjoy it enough). Regular readers will be less surprised that I’ve omitted Glasvegas and Paul Weller, two albums that have come close to topping some of the mainstream lists but for which I have little time myself.

I now do a top 100 because a top 50 or even a top 75 is not enough to convey the range of music I appreciate in any particular year. Obviously, the sheer volume of this undertaking makes the order outside the top 30 or so fairly arbitrary.

There are numerous other omissions more worthy of a mention, because they are records that I admire in part or that are really excellent and just narrowly missed out on inclusion: Brian Eno and David Byrne, M83, The Bad Plus, Patricia Barber, Neil Cowley Trio, Old Crow Medicine Show, Mystery Jets, Kings of Leon, Thomas Tantrum, Walter Becker, B-52s, Jeremy Warmsley, Noah and the Whale, Misha Alperin, Sparks, Marcin Wasilewski Trio, Destroyer, Alexis Taylor, No Age, AC/DC.

I don’t dislike the Eno and Byrne, but its first couple of tracks are too cheesy, and the production throughout is more characteristic of Eno’s recent tendency towards wooziness. There are a handful of excellent tracks that would have made for a much more satisfying EP. Noah and the Whale I ultimately find more satisfying live than on record, where the focus is less on Charlie Fink’s downbeat, cynical lyrics and more on their endearing ramshackle clatter. The Bad Plus made their least interesting record to date by collaborating with a singer and focusing on songs. Their amendments on this occasion are mostly mere quirks and sometimes they simply play it too straight (their rendition of The Flaming Lips’ ‘Feeling Yourself Disintegrate’ really is nothing more than the original on acoustic instruments). What a shame they’ve abandoned their intriguing original compositions.

Alexis Taylor’s debut solo album has some wonderful moments, but is a little too skeletal and half-finished. I can’t really get on with the M83 album (even though Drowned in Sound made it a surprising and original choice for album of the year) – it’s a step too far into 80s nostalgia for me and not as interesting as their previous works. The AC/DC and Kings of Leon albums I omit largely because neither band really needs any more attention, however small a fish I might be in the blogging pond. The former has some dubious lapses into soft rock territory (whist the rest is glorious in its utter predictability), whilst the latter is a powerful stadium rock beast slightly let down by its slow pacing.

Destroyer, No Age and Old Crow Medicine Show clearly have strong cases for inclusion but I just haven’t had time to digest them properly, so I apologise for that. That being said, I’ve not really been compelled to return to No Age’s noisy blast. Some of the best packaging and design of the year though.

EST’s ‘Leucocyte’ is a record I’m still grappling with – I’m not as immediately taken with it as some people seem to be. Whilst Esbjorn Svensson’s tragic death this year makes me want to include it in the top ten for purely emotional reasons, I suspect that had he lived to write more and more music, it might have come to be seen as a transitional record. Hearing the group experiment with interaction and composing through improvising largely reminds me that their strengths were more in their sound and themes. I know the Marcin Wasilewski and Misha Alperin records are both on ECM, but having not listened to them much, I suspect they veer that little bit too far into the serene and peaceful for my tastes. Neither are bad records, just not quite exciting or imposing enough to be included here.

Chris T-T’s ‘Capital’ is another omission that I feel deserves special mention. Like John Kell, my feelings toward it are somewhat complicated and, as a whole, I find it rather aggressive and charmless. Yet a number of its songs are insightful and cutting – ‘A Box to Hide In’ stands out particularly. Of Montreal’s ‘Skeletal Lamping’ is a record I wanted to like but just could not get on with at all. There’s just too many ideas, too much silliness and an overall sense of uncertainty as to whether it’s meant to be taken seriously or not. Some people think it’s art but I suspect it’s more likely pretention.

I also must nod to a handful of records that sound interesting but which I haven’t managed to hear yet. A line always has to be drawn somewhere – so El Guincho, The Present, Abe Vigoda, The Night Marchers, Lindsey Buckingham, Brightblack Morning Light and Peter Broderick will at least have to wait until I manage a ‘ones that got away’ feature early in 2009.

Before we begin, here’s a handy reminder of previous In League with Paton albums of the year:

2007: Dirty Projectors – Rise Above (Rough Trade)
2006: Bruce Springsteen – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia)
2005: Acoustic Ladyland – Last Chance Disco (Babel)
2004: Wilco – A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch)

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