Sunday, January 4, 2009

Top 20 Albums of 2008: Part I

Somewhere along the line I picked up a bug that seems to infect many people that both listen to a lot of music and spend a decent amount of time online. The affliction: compiling end of the year lists. Some would argue that it isn't the most constructive activity, but at it's best, sharing end of the year lists is a way to find kindred musical spirits, possibly discover some great music that you missed during the year, and is a great excuse for a blog entry! There is one disappointing tendency that seems to be an issue year after year, though. Towards the end of the year, when folks are starting to think about the albums that they enjoyed the most, panic sets in. One becomes intensely aware of all of the albums that they didn't hear from the year in question, and many people frantically rush to listen to as many new albums as they can before the year is through, convinced that they'll encounter many worthwhile additions to their list. I'll admit to being guilty of this the first few years I made lists. I'd like to think I'm better about it now. But I digress. Of the roughly 120 albums I heard that were released in 2008, here are my Top 20 Albums. Today we'll check out the first five.

PLEASE NOTE: All tracks are for preview purposes only. Support the artists you love by buying their work!

20. Guapo - Elixirs (Neurot)
This was the final (and best) installment of a triad that is rounded out by 2004's Five Suns and 2005's Black Oni. The music contained within is a consistently eerie, highly orchestrated avant-prog that really does lay claim to its own unique slice of the musical spectrum. The band makes use of a dizzying array of instrumentation (including Fender Rhodes, harmonium, modular synths, autoharps, etc), and many of the lengthy tracks are arranged in suites that share loose thematic elements. The intricate arrangements are impressive given the band consists of only two members: main-man Daniel O'Sullivan (who plays just about everything) and drummer David J. Smith. Notable guest musicians include folk-looper-extraordinaire Alexander Tucker and the ever chilling Jarboe. At times the album sounds like it could have been the soundtrack to an especially creepy Tim Burton movie, although not as lame as that scenario implies (if that makes sense!). My only complaint is the inclusion of two substantial tracks that were previously released as the Twisted Stems EP in 2006.

Track listing: 1. Jeweled Turtle (13:09) 2. Arthur, Elsie And Frances (10:53) 3. Twisted Stems: The Heliotrope (7:32) 4. Twisted Stems: The Selenotrope (7:45) 5. The Planks (3:11) 6. King Lindorm (15:40)

Personnel: Daniel O'Sullivan Fender Rhodes, piano, bass, guitars, harmonium, modular synthesisers, autoharp, voice, electronics; David J. Smith drumkit, percussion; Sarah Hubrich violin, viola (1); Alexander Tucker voice (3); Jarboe voice (4)

Download the track "Jeweled Turtle"

19. William Parker - Double Sunrise Over Neptune (AUM Fidelity)
William Parker is one of the busiest and most respectable bassists in the global free jazz scene. While his dizzying discography contains dates that haven't always appealed to me, Parker's specific contribution to whatever I've heard him on has always been impressive. However, on his best offering this year, he doesn't play bass at all. Instead he serves as composer and conductor (and occasionally contributes on double reeds and a Malian instrument called a Doson'ngoni). Utilizing a large ensemble populated with all sort of reeds, horns, and strings, the music captured on Double Sunrise Over Neptune is the tastiest of ethnic grooves, immense, rhythm heavy psychedelic jazz that churns the musics of several cultures into an intoxicating stew. Though initially jarring, the wordless vocals of Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay are a strong contribution, weaving throughout the dense music in a heady, ethereal way. At one point, I encountered an enthusiastic review of the album that claimed "This is what Charles Mingus would sound like if he were still making music!" Those are big shoes to fill, but at the going rate, Parker might very well prove to be a worthy heir.

Track listing: 1. Morning Mantra (15:08) 2. Lights of Lake George (27:18) 3. O'Neal's Bridge (00:37) 4. Neptune's Mirror (22:39)

Personnel: Lewis Barnes trumpet; Rob Brown alto sax; Bill Cole double reeds; Sabir Mateen tenor sax, clarinet; Dave Sewelson baritone sax; Jason Kao Hwang violin; Mazz Swift violin; Jessica Pavone viola; Shiau-Shu Yu cello; Joe Morris guitar, banjo; Brahim Frigbane oud; Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay voice; Shayna Dulberger bass; Gerald Cleaver drums; Hamid Drake drums; William Parker double reeds, doson'ngoni, conductor

Download the track "Morning Mantra"

18. Dead Meadow - Old Growth (Matador)
I've had a special place in my heart for Dead Meadow ever since I saw them twice in one weekend, having been completely blown away at both shows (I still maintain they're one of the best live rock acts currently in operation). 2005's Feathers was the high watermark for the band, and I was a little disappointed upon first listening that Old Growth failed to reach those same heights. I took a break from the album, and after returning to it a few months later, found it to be enjoyable and a worthy entry in their discography. It's an album by a band that's comfortable with their sound, and while it doesn't stretch itself artistically, it is a collection of pretty good, recognizeably-Dead Meadow songs. Largely gone are the pedal-effects excesses of Feathers, replaced by laid-back, mellow grooves akin to some of the stuff from Shivering King and Others. Jason Simon is singing better than ever, his trademark nasally croon riding higher in the mix, no longer buried in a mess of hazy reverb. Still, the collection feels a little long at times, and probably could have had a few of the weaker tracks pared off without having sacrificed too much.

Track listing: 1. Ain't Got Nothing to Go Wrong (6:57) 2. Between Me and the Ground (3:16) 3. What Needs Must Be (4:18) 4. Down Here (2:41) 5. 'Til Kingdom Come (4:05) 6. I'm Gone (4:15) 7. Seven Seers (4:19) 8. The Great Deceiver (3:06) 9. The Queen of All Returns (5:32) 10. Keep On Walking (2:50) 11. Hard People/Hard Times (4:34) 12. Either Way (4:49)

Personnel: Jason Simon guitar, vocals; Steve Kille bass, sitar; Stephen McCarty drums

Download the track "Ain't Got Nothing to Go Wrong"

17. Dans les Arbres - Dans les Arbres (ECM)
This subtle album caught me by surprise, and is one that demands close listening. It uses many of the tenets of electronic ambient music as its modus operandi, but the effects are achieved using all acoustic instrumentation, including clarinet, harmonica, acoustic guitar, banjo, piano, and various percussive instruments. There's an interesting internal logic to the album, and though the precise, repetitive nature of the tracks would suggest they were composed beforehand, they become all the more intriguing when one learns that they are all free improvisations. The emphasis here is clearly on a hypnotic exploration of texture, and careful listening uncovers some interesting tonal activity and rhythmic exchanges between the instruments. I've listened to Dans les Arbres several times, but feel as though I still don't have a full appreciation (or comprehension) of its depth. Great for headphones and introspection.

Track listing: 1. La Somnolence (4:55) 2. L'Indifference (8:28) 3. Le Flegme (6:17) 4. L'Engourdissement (5:27) 5. Le Detachement (6:15) 6. La Froideur (8:15) 7. L'Assoupissement (4:28) 8. La Retuenue (5:21)

Personnel: Xavier Charles clarinet, harmonica; Ivar Grydeland acoustic guitar, banjo, scruti box; Christian Wallumrød piano; Ingar Zach percussion, bass drum

Download the track "La Retuenue"

16. Mogwai -The Hawk is Howling (Matador)
Ever since Mr. Beast came out in 2006, people have been bitching about Mogwai. It seems a lot of fans saw Mr. Beast as the fall of the once mighty kings of post-rock (don't ask me why; maybe because the songs were shorter?), and have been less forgiving with the band's output since that point. So, as to be expected, some people really loved The Hawk is Howling, and others found it to be the latest reason to dismiss the band. Excepting the wretched "The Sun Smells Too Loud," I am among those who find The Hawk is Howling to be a worthy addition to Mogwai's legacy. No, it's no Come On Die Young. Yes, it has all the quiet intimate moments and loud crescendos and oblique guitar one expects from a "post-rock" release. But there's something important I think a lot of people are forgetting. While all of those things may seem a bit trite and overdone nowadays, Mogwai was one of the first bands to implement such techniques. And they still do them well. You can't hate one of the founders of post-rock for sounding like post-rock. People seem to expect some glorious transformation of Mogwai, as though it is their duty to usher in a new era of rock music now that the one they originally helped along has become deluged with clones. I say enjoy them for what they are. They may not be reinventing themselves, but they are continuing to remind us of why we so loved them in the first place.

Track listing: 1. I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead (6:45) 2. Batcat (5:25) 3. Danphe and the Brain (5:18) 4. Local Authority (4:15) 5. The Sun Smells Too Loud (6:58) 6. Kings Meadow (4:42) 7. I Love You, I'm Going to Blow Up Your School (7:33) 8. Scotland's Shame (8:00) 9. Thank You Space Expert (7:53) 10. The Precipice (6:42)

Personnel: Dominic Aitchison bass; Stuart Braithwaite guitar; Martin Bulloch drums; Barry Burns guitar, keyboards; John Cummings guitar

Download the track "I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead"

Stay tuned for Part II!

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