Wednesday, December 31, 2008 

Best music of 2008 part 2 / 16 best albums of 2008.

16. The Young Knives - Superabundance

Having been Mercury nominated for their debut, the Young Knives were always likely to face a "difficult" second album; having failed to breach the mainstream, they went with the good old concept of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", and while Superabundance is not as stripped back as Voices of Animals and Men was, the quality especially of the singles was as good as not better. The real highlight though was "Counters", quite possibly the most upbeat and happy song about committing suicide that has ever been written, complete with dog barks.

The Young Knives - Counters

15. Benga - Diary of an Afro Warrior

With dubstep making its major breakthrough as a genre with Burial's nomination for the Mercury prize showcasing the "downtempo" crowd, Benga catered for the rave crew with an album which along with the works of Skream is some of the best that it has to offer. "Night" was the crossover smash, but "26 Basslines" is the one that has delivered for those with a more acquired taste.

Benga - 26 Basslines

14. These New Puritans - Beat Pyramid

Although 2008 has been far from a seminal year for music, These New Puritans along with a few other bands on this list were doing their best to buck the trend. Clocking in at just half an hour, Beat Pyramid is a whirlwind which if you blink you might miss it, but alongside the experimentalism which permeates it is the utter brilliance of "Elvis", the superb "Swords of Truth", and lyrics about Michael Barrymore masturbating in the suburbs of Milton Keynes.

These New Puritans - Elvis

13. Johnny Foreigner - Waited Up Til It Was Light

2008 saw a revival in indie-pop breeziness which Johnny Foreigner were at the forefront of. Featuring male and female call and response type vocals, their songs may have not been about much in particular but sometimes they don't have to be, such is the catchiness and brilliance of the hooks on offer. "DJs Get Doubts" served as one of the few downtempo by comparison numbers, while single "Salt, Pepper and Spinderalla" and "Eyes Wide Terrified" with its great big riff after the breakdown showed the further potential they undoubtedly have.

Johnny Foreigner - DJs Get Doubts

12. Late of the Pier - Fantasy Black Channel

Another of the dance music influenced indie bands to have emerged this year, along with Friendly Fires, Late of the Pier made the wise decision to get in Erol Alkan to produce. While he scored a miss with his work with the Long Blondes, who sadly broke up after their guitarist and song-writer suffered a stroke, his knob-twiddling with LotP was perfectly judged. "Space and the Woods" and "Focker" were obvious stand-outs, but it was the older "Bathroom Gurgle" which still packed them in with its stand-out brilliance. Where they'll go from here is anyone's guess, but Fantasy Black Channel is still one of the year's finest albums.

Late of the Pier - Focker

11. British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music?

When it's as exuberant and extrovert as parts of British Sea Power's ouerve is, while always providing introspection such as "Canvey Island", it's almost impossible not to. While their debut is still probably their best work, the decision to work with Efrim Menuck of GY!BE and A Silver Mt Zion fame at his studio in Canada, as well as with GY!BE's producer undoubtedly coloured it, and not just with Efrim's dog's barks being audible on "No Lucifer", which he also provided an alternative mix for. There is no getting away from the absolute stand-out, the single "Waving Flags", which I rather overlooked for yesterday's best song of the year. How many other bands would write a paean to the drinking prowess of the Eastern Europeans moving here to work and turn it into a hit?

British Sea Power - No Lucifer (Efrim Menuck Mix) (No Lucifer B-Side)

10. Fuck Buttons - Street Horrrsing

It wasn't the greatest year for post-rock, an genre that does seem to have finally run out of steam, with A Silver Mt Zion's average at best 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons, Errors' debut and Mogwai's The Hawk is Howling the best other efforts, but Street Horrrsing, if indeed it can be classified as post-rock beat them all. Combining the best of post-rock with pure noise, hardcore screaming buried under static and synthesisers and the sheer beauty and clearness which gradually builds into the deafening crescendos which seem familiar on even the first listen, Fuck Buttons more than punched above their weight.

Fuck Buttons - Sweet Love for Planet Earth

9. Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles

As indeed did Crystal Castles. Their brand of music simply shouldn't work: glitches, bleeps, beats and 8-bit core combined with Alice Glass's shrieks and screams, all designed to only appeal to the nerds that have long occupied their rather insular scene. Instead the glorious technicolour of the music when all combined together produced a crossover hit that no one expected, lest of all Crystal Castles themselves. Again, it's difficult to see how they'll progress, but that's for another day.

Crystal Castles - Xxzxcuzx Me

8. Los Campesinos! - We Are Beautiful We Are Doomed / Hold on Now, Youngster!

In a year in which Guns 'N' Roses finally released Chinese Democracy, the fruit of 14 years of labour, Los Campesinos! made not just one but two albums, both so perfectly judged, infectious and filled with chanty vocals combined with perfect musical accompaniment that you just wanted to applaud them for the effort alone, without even considering the music itself. When there are such witty and sarcastic scenester songs as "My Year in Lists" and "You! Me! Dancing" though, they more than deserved it.

Los Campesinos! - You'll Need Those Fingers for Crossing

7. Bloc Party - Intimacy

Last year's effort by Bloc Party nestled the number one slot, quite possibly ranking far too high for what was a great follow-up album but one which still lacked something. Perhaps influenced by the fans of Silent Alarm's unhappiness at the production of Jacknife Lee on AWITC, Okereke and co split their third album between Lee and the debut's Paul Epworth, creating a balance that worked for the most part. "Mercury" as a stand-alone seemed nonsensical and like "Flux" unnecessary, but when compiled with the rest of the album it took on a new lease of life. Built around lyrics inspired by Kele's break up with his partner, there is still the odd clunking line like "Trojan Horse's" opening "you used to take your watch off before we made love, you didn't want to share our time with anyone", but for the most part the music made up for it. Opener "Ares" "Setting Sun" like drums heralded what was to come, and "TH"'s riff was beyond sick. Combined with the downtempo, poignant brilliance of "Biko", the combination of dubstep and choir on "Zephyrus" and the building "Ion Square", Intimacy was a far better follow-up than many expected.

Bloc Party - Idea for a Story (Mercury B-Side)

6. Mystery Jets - Twenty One

Along with Late of the Pier, Mystery Jets employed Erol Alkan in a bold and inspired move, reinventing their indie-prog sound and fusing it with 80s indie pop. At times it seems absolutely effortless, and the song of the year "Two Doors Down" is the centre-piece. Along with "Flakes" and "MJ" Mystery Jets were the most improved band of the year, as well as the least expected.

Mystery Jets - Man in the Corner (Demo) (Two Doors Down B-Side)

5. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid

What else is there to say about Elbow and the Seldom Seen Kid which hasn't already been written? Constant articles relate how winning the Mercury prize couldn't have happened to either a nicer guy in Guy Garvey or a more deserving band, having had to record the album themselves after they were dropped by V2. While I would have preferred Burial to have won, the Seldom Seen Kid is still undeniably a triumph which they should have been rewarded for long ago. "One Day Like This" is an anthem from a band that doesn't try to write them, and with it Elbow helped to soundtrack the summer, or what there was of it.

Elbow - The Fix

4. Foals - Antidotes

Supposedly involved in a spat with other bands over how "middle class" they are, Foals were with the exception of the number one in this list the breakthrough of the year. Combining the aesthetic and time signatures of math-rock with straight up indie, fantastically hummable guitar lines and riffs with the almost at times deadpan vocal delivery of Yannis, the hype was more than deserved.

Foals - Unthink This (Olympic Airways B-Side)

3. Portishead - Three

How many other groups could be away for so long and still turn in such an utter sonic masterpiece as Three? Beth Gibbons' vocals are just as anguished and chilling as before, while the music itself was at times so jarring yet compelling that you had to wonder if you speakers were malfunctioning. If they weren't, they might well have been after "Machine Gun", as punishing a track has been released in a long time. Here's to hoping they don't leave it so long again before releasing a follow-up.

Portishead - We Carry On

2. TV on the Radio - Dear Science

There is something deeply unfair in how TV on the Radio, despite delivering three utterly superb albums have still not achieved cross-over success. Certainly, the critics themselves and indie snobs have been wetting themselves over them now since they first emerged, yet it hasn't translated into sales. If any album deserves to, it's Dear Science, which takes the rough edges from both previous efforts and turns them into second finest record of the year. DLZ was the stand-out, which hooks you in from the very first listen.

TV on the Radio - DLZ

1. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

In the beauty stakes, not a single record this year came even close to topping the majesty of Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut. The harmonies, orchestration and arrangements are not just meticulously organised, but even when on album closer "Oliver James" Robin Pecknold is left singing acappela it feels as if there is more warmth and depth than a lone single voice should offer. A record which combined so many influences was still so simple and refreshing that it could be used in any mood, or any time of day. Perhaps 2008's only true masterpiece.

Fleet Foxes - Oliver James

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008 

Best music of 2008 part 1.

Best Song
Mystery Jets - Two Doors Down

In what was a poor year for singles generally, Two Doors Down by Mystery Jets just about edged out One Day Like Today by Elbow, either Geraldine or Daddy's Gone by Glasvegas or any of the singles released by Foals for the best 2008 had to offer. Having started out as an indie group with a inclination towards progression, for their second album they ditched both one of their dads and their original sound, and brought in Erol Alkan and plenty of 80s influence. The results were astounding, with not just Two Doors Down but also Half in Love with Elizabeth and Young Love featuring Laura Marling just a sample of one of the most well-judged follow-ups of the year. Surely overlooked for the Mercury prize, Mystery Jets deserve far more attention than they have received.

Best Remix
Adele - Hometown Glory (High Contrast Remix)

Having just branded Adele one of the worst artists of the year, it's nice to show just what can be done with even her brand of affection. Taking the acoustic emptiness of the original and turning it into one of the undoubted drum and bass tracks of the year, High Contrast sped up the vocals, kept the piano for the breakdown and dispensed with much of the rest. There's even an instrumental version lest Adele's warbling start to get on your tits.

Best Cover
Lightspeed Champion - Back to Black

AKA Dev Hynes, Lightspeed Champion emerged from the ashes of Test Icicles and went from one extreme to an apparent other. While his album was mainly disappointing after the strength of his demos and first couple of singles, it was his cover of the much covered Back to Black which took it back to the basics and was all the better for it. Other contenders were Mystery Jets' version of Somewhere in My Heart by Aztec Camera and Guillemots' Live Lounge version of Sam Sparro's Black and Gold.

Best Reissue
Mogwai - Young Team

Just over 10 years on from the release of the 'gwai's debut, a properly mastered version was finally issued, making Like Herod even more punishing than ever. Along with the excellent Hawk is Howling, 2008 was easily their best year since the release of Happy Songs for Happy People.

Tomorrow, or sometime - Best Albums of 2008.

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Most disappointing and worst music of 2008.

New Order - 80s Album Reissues

When CD sales are dropping off a cliff, you would expect that one of the corners of the market that record companies would be going out of their way to cater for would be the obsessive fan, the type that buys remasters and expanded reissues. When Rhino announced that New Order's five 1980s albums were to be given just that treatment, as Joy Division had been last year, those self-same fans presumed that all the stops would be pulled out, and the tracklists suggested that they had. The horrible revelation only occurred once those suckers actually purchased them: far from going back to the original masters, a good number of the tracks on the bonus discs had been sourced from vinyl, and not pristine mint vinyl, but vinyl which had decidedly seen better days. Although for the most part the albums themselves had been properly re-authored, the bonus discs were littered with errors, with some online posts suggesting that in total the set had over 300. Faced with those they had aimed to please raging at the lack of effort, Rhino has said that the reissues will be, err, reissued in 2009. How the replacements will be sent out has however still yet to be explained, and considering that your humble narrator bought some of them from Zavvi, some will doubtless have to buy them all over again. It does almost make you understand why some record companies deserve to go under.

The Courteeners - St. Jude

When the Guardian had the audacity to only award the Courteeners' debut album one star, with the reviewer Maddy Costa suggesting that singer Liam Fray's lyrics were misogynistic and that he came across as "sneering, arrogant and aggressive", Fray became the first badly reviewed personality to take to the paper's response column to right the wrong. While Costa got the wrong end of the stick over "If it Wasn't for Me", which is clearly about a male friend who only hangs around Fray to get the "average girl with bad teeth", she wasn't far wrong in her other analysis. Fray doesn't just come across as sneering, arrogant and aggressive, he also seems to be self-obsessed and, like all the best artists, to hate his own fans. The songs which aren't about him, his band and his mates are about the other damaged individuals surrounding him who he also seems to loathe. Hence "Kimberley", in which he hopes "Cocaine Kim" is treated nicely for the two remaining days she has to live.

Fray isn't to blame, incidentally, he's just hopefully one of the last sufferers of "Libertines" disease, which infects those who think they can write lyrics while playing rudimentary music which otherwise would get them absolutely nowhere. Good can come from "Libertines" disease: see the Arctic Monkeys' last album, having got self-obsession, clubbing and pubbing out of their systems with their first, as well as the misogyny of "Still Take You Home". Fray however can't even begin to hold a candle to the Monkeys' worst lyric, and neither Pete Doherty or Carl Barat at their worst had the arrogance to tell a fan out of their head to get their "hand off of my trouser leg" as Fray does on Cavorting, a whole song dedicated to him sneering at the drug-addled that had to get themselves in such a state in order to enjoy his band's show. Probably as a result of the band's outraged fan base, all two of them voted repeatedly and succeeded in winning the Grauniad's inaugural "First Album" award, even when 50% of the votes were with the paper's critics. Nothing quite like consistency, is there?

The Ting Tings - That's Not My Name

Like some of the other artists featured here, the Ting Tings are not completely irredeemable. Their song "Great DJ" for instance was pleasant enough, and succeeded in not being too grating. Apart from their dreadful moniker and their biggest hit, "That's Not My Name", what really stands them out, or rather doesn't, is just how average they are. Their album title owns up to this, called "We Started Nothing", and they sure didn't. When a band is so average, it does however make you wonder how they got "big" in the first place, and the Ting Tings were helped along by the BBC, who inexplicably at Glastonbury last year featured them as "one to watch". Probably far more influential is the fact that singer Katie White is, as Alexis Petridis described her, "so pretty that you feel like giving her a round of applause just for existing", which always helps.

However much you might want to not hate them, That's Not My Name was a song both so ubiquitous, so jarring and so completely dreadful that it's impossible not to. Shouted rather than sung, with a vacuity which would make most of our politicians blush, it informs us that Ms White doesn't like being called "bird", "darling" or "Stacey", and that they are "not her name". The one consolation is that whenever someone recognises her she probably finds herself being subjected to a even worse rendition, or at least you hope so. The other silver lining is however indirectly I was introduced to the idea of getting your rat out via them, when one of my friends who had free tickets to see them was pleased to note that a drunk guy at the end of every song ordered White to do just that.

Katy Perry - I Kissed A Girl

The music industry is a cynical business, but the cynicism and marketing behind Perry is even by their standards approaching breath-taking. Plucked from obscurity, having previously recorded a Christian gospel album, I Kissed a Girl was a song so terrible on so many separate levels that it seems incredibly fitting for 2008 as a whole. It wouldn't be so bad if Perry, or at least those who write her songs weren't so intensely hypocritical, yet one of the other songs on her album is "Ur So Gay", which denounces a boyfriend for being effeminate. Whether this is the same boyfriend which she then hopes on "I Kissed A Girl" wouldn't mind her indulging in some bottom-level lipstick lesbianism is unclear, but it seems to sum up the entire conflicted nature of much of the mainstream towards homosexuality. After all, let's face it: a song by a young man about wondering what it's like to kiss one of his peers, especially when it "felt so good, it felt so right" with him liking it seems to have been unlikely to have topped the charts in a similar fashion. Perry hardly improved matters when she said of "Ur So Gay":

"It’s not a negative connotation. It’s not, 'you're so gay,' like, 'you're so lame,' but the fact of the matter is that this boy should’ve been gay. I totally understand how it could be misconstrued or whatever...I wasn’t stereotyping anyone in particular, I was talking about ex-boyfriends."

In other words, phony lipstick lesbianism makes money, as does insulting former boyfriends by calling them gay. No contradictions there whatsoever then.

Adele / Duffy

2008 has not been an exactly stellar year for music, with a few notable exceptions. In fact, it's hard not to suggest that the musical apocalypse seems to be fast approaching. The only music that seems to sell physically is either Take That, Abba or by artists endorsed by reality television, and with it the album as we previously knew it seems to heading for demise, as do the shops that stocked them. The one bright spot for the "old" music industry is that it's hit on something that is making them some easy money: give the public what they already like in ever decreasing quality. Last year we had Kate Nash, the low-rent Lily Allen, if there could be such a thing. The biggest artist of last year though was undoubtedly Amy Winehouse, before she went completely off the rails. Hence the search was on for the new stars that sound like her but are less likely to inject crack cocaine into their eyeballs. Quickly found were Adele and Duffy, producing much the same sounding material as La Winehouse but without the key factor that made some of Winehouse's songs so successful: soul.

Rather than Back to Black and Love is a Losing Game, both veritable masterpieces of the genre by comparison, Adele and Duffy have served up Chasing Pavements and Warwick Avenue, the video for which featured Duffy in tears throughout, although not apparently at the triteness of either the song's contents or her own performance. Again, the machinations of the industry itself were obviously at play: Adele was on Later with Jools Holland before she had released a thing, supposedly because of her undeniable brilliance rather than because of bungs changing hands. It wouldn't matter if no one bought the damn things, but Duffy has unsurprisingly became the biggest seller of the year. Take the unpredictability out of Winehouse and you have nothing except music for your bourgeois dinner party, which is the niche which both Adele and Duffy have filled.

Alexandra Burke - Hallelujah

Complaining about the X Factor or Simon Cowell is utterly pointless, such is the stranglehold that both seem to have not just on the nation's psyche but on music apparently itself. The problem is that after however many series' of first Pop Stars, Pop Idol, The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, the number of artists waiting to be discovered has almost certainly been fully mined. Last year's BGT "discovered" Paul Potts, who had despite his evident talent not got far in making himself a career as a tenor. With even him gone, this year's decided on George Sampson, a teenager who could breakdance. Badly. Likewise, this year's X Factor had a paucity of real star talent that wasn't related to someone who had already been successful or who you didn't want to strangle on sight. After the ritual humiliation of those stupid enough to imagine they can sing in tune, it was narrowed down to an Irish kid with a ridiculous name, a boy band ripping off Boyz II Men and Alexandra Burke, who just happens to be the daughter of a former member of Soul II Soul. Hardly a complete unknown then. Predictably, having won and stretched her mouth to proportions the average human can only dream of, Cowell's shit machine took to massacring Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, which his record company happens to own the rights to. Burke's version isn't just the worst cover of this year, it might well be the worst cover version of all time. Not content with changing the lyrics, destroying all the tautness, tension and heartfeltness of the original, there just has to be a choir brought in at the end to finish the job. Every cliche box was ticked, every amount of warmth rung from it, all ready to be delivered to the nation to devour as only the truly brain-dead could, selling 900,000 copies within two weeks of its release. You couldn't even escape and stick up two fingers by purchasing Jeff Buckley's cover, the rights to which were also owned by Sony BMG, as the clever dicks on Facebook thought they were doing. The message is obvious: resistance is futile.

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