Sunday, January 4, 2009

Top 20 Albums of 2008: Part II

Let's continue the count down, shall we? Here's the next five entries in my "Top 20 Albums of 2008 list:"

PLEASE NOTE: All tracks are for preview purposes only. Support the artists you love by buying their work!
15. Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra - Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey)
Bill Dixon is an enigmatic figure in the history of free jazz. He's generally allotted the status of "legend," but for someone who lent such a helping hand to the development of avant-garde jazz, there's a considerable lack of recordings documenting his contributions, especially compared to his contemporaries. This recording, however, isn't one that slips past unnoticed. Dixon, now 82, joined up with the relatively young Exploding Star Orchestra collective for a lengthy showcase that exhibits two of Dixon's compositions (the "Entrances" tracks) and an extended performance dedicated to Dixon himself that was written by band leader Rob Mazurek. The music contained within is consistently exciting and inventive, one of the best examples of large-scale structured improv I've ever encountered. The band does it all: orchestrated themes, mindless free jazz freak-outs, shifting textural explorations, crescendi, decrescendi, shouts and whispers. And heading it all is Dixon, who squeezes all manner of belches and squeals out of his trumpet, even occasionally using electronic effects to alter his tone. In all it's an impressive showing, not only for the aging Dixon, but for the entire ensemble. It's to their credit that such a large group never dissolves into the muddied mess that mars many big band free jazz endeavors. The only misstep is the strange Hawkwind-esque spoken word bit at the beginning of "Constellations for Innerlight Projections," but given the strength of the music surrounding it, it's a minor and totally forgivable gaffe.

Track listing: 1. Entrances/One (18:10) 2. Constellations for Innerlight Projections (for Bill Dixon) (24:13) 3. Entrances/Two (18:11)

Personnel: Bill Dixon trumpet, composer; Rob Mazurek cornet, composer; Nicole Mitchell flute; Matt Bauder bass clarinet, tenor sax; Jeb Bishop trombone; Josh Berman cornet; Jeff Parker guitar; Jim Baker piano; Jason Adesewicz vibraphone, tubular bells; Matthew Lux bass guitar; Jason Ajemian double-bass; Mike Reed drums, timpani; John Herndon drums; Damon Locks voice (2)

Download the track "Entrances/One"

14. Brightblack Morning Light - Motion to Rejoin (Matador)
Reverb is a wonderful thing. (Well, most of the time. Don't ask me my opinion on Grouper). What makes reverb even better? When you slather it all over slow, groovy Fender Rhodes lines. And then bolster those lines with bottomless bass, chiming percussion, soulful harmonies and chill lyrics. Brightblack Morning Light specialize in all of this. They don't mind stretching out, and they'll ride a groove until it unravels, then find a new groove to jam on. Motion to Rejoin sounds almost exactly like the band's 2006 self-titled debut, but as far as I see it, they didn't really do much wrong the first time around. While the genre term "stoner rock" is generally associated with riff-heavy hard rock, it probably is better suited to Brightblack's sound. It's got groove, it's got soul, and it's got all the time in the world to let everyone know. Yeeeeeah, man.

Track listing: 1. Introduction (00:43) 2. Hologram Buffalo (5:18) 3. Gathered Years (8:01) 4. Oppressions Each (3:27) 4. Another Reclaimation (7:06) 5. A Rainbow Aims (9:46) 6. Summer Hoof (5:28) 7. Past A Weatherbeaten Fencepost (6:49) 8. When Beads Spell Power Leaf (2:44)

Personnel: Naybob Shineywater vocals, electric guitar, Clavinet, vibraphone; Rachael Hughes vocals, piano, Fender Rhodes, vibraphone; Matthew Davis clarinet, saxophone, trombone; Meara O'Reilly, Ann McCrary, Regina McCrary vocals; Windy Dankoff flute, bass flute; Matt Henry Cunitz celesta, pump organ, Mellotron; Jessica Ruffins bass guitar; Otto Hauser drums, percussion

Download the track "Gathered Years"

13. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Is It the Sea? (Domino)
I didn't fall in love with Will Oldham's music the first time I heard it, but over the years he's slowly taken a place as one of my favorite musicians. He's a tremendous songwriter whose songs always seem to take off despite Oldham's vocal limitations, and their simple musical structures allow Oldham to reinvent them frequently and successfully in live settings. Is It the Sea? is a wonderful collection of Oldham's work, with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy captured at a live performance backed by the Irish folk band Harem Scarem and omnipresent out-drummer Alex Neilson. The arrangements transform Oldham's tunes into dreamy, droney Irish folk dirges, with warm violins, female vocal harmonies, and delicate acoustic guitars. The instrumentation does wonders for some Oldham classics, shining new light on tracks like "Cursed Sleep" and "My Home is the Sea." The group also doesn't pass up the opportunity to tackle some traditional Irish folk tunes, and the reading of "Molly Bawn" may very well be the highlight of the album.

Track listing: 1. Minor Place (4:41) 2. Love Comes to Me (4:19) 3. Bed is for Sleeping (3:52) 4. Arise Therefore (3:25) 5. Wolf Among Wolves (4:45) 6. Ain't You Wealthy? Ain't You Wise? (4:47) 7. Cursed Sleep (7:52) 8. Molly Bawn (7:33) 9. Birch Ballad (4:46) 10. New Partner (4:39) 11. Is It the Sea? (6:31) 12. My Home is the Sea (7:32) 13. Master and Everyone (3:31)

Personnel: Will Oldham vocals, guitar; Inge Thompson piano accordion; Sarah McFadyen fiddle; Nuala Kennedy flute, woodwinds; Eilidh Shaw fiddle, vocals; Ross Martin guitar; Alex Neilson drums, percussion

Download the track "Cursed Sleep"
12. Ocean - Pantheon of the Lesser (Important)
When I first heard Ocean's Here Where Nothing Grows at my university's radio station in 2005, I was blown away. It seemed that the band had tapped in to the very essence of the genre of doom metal, and in stripping it back to its barest essentials had managed to rejuvenate the staling genre and make a name for themselves in the process. The fact that amazed and excited me the most, however, was the fact that Ocean was from my home state of Maine. Nothing much ever originates in Maine, and it's the last place one would expect to find one of the most crushing, uncompromising, molasses-slow doom metal band the heavy music world ever know. Three long years later, the band finally delivered their sophomore effort, and while not quite as good as Here Where Nothing Grows, Pantheon of the Lesser is a tremendous statement from the purveyors of all things doom. There's something mesmerizing about the band's sound, and despite largely leaving my heavy metal years behind, Ocean is a group I'll always be willing to give the time of day. \m/

Track listing: 1. The Beacon (35:50) 2. Of the Lesser (23:04)

Personnel: Candy vocals, guitar; John Lennon guitar; Reuben J Little bass; Eric Brackett drums; Yosh vocals (2)

Download the track "Of the Lesser"

11. Howlin Rain - Magnificent Fiend (American)
I first gained an appreciation for Ethan Miller with Comets on Fire's 2006 album Avatar. Its tremendous swirling windstorm of psychedelic rock caught hold of me on the very first listen, leaving me exhilarated and breathless. As much as I love Comets on Fire, when I found out Miller was also channeling his energy into a project that wasn't intent on leaving the amps turned up into the red, I was intrigued. Howlin Rain became the bluesier, more progressive outlet for Miller's endless psychedelic obsession. The first Howlin Rain album was a little messy and still had loud Comets-style guitar, but with Magnificent Fiend, Miller and Co. seem to have ironed out most of the bumps. The increased presense of Hammond organ and Wurlitzer piano lends a heady, retro vibe to the proceedings, and Miller's scratchy vocals are brought closer to the surface, finally freed from the bath of reverb they're usually subjected to. In all, it's a fitting tribute to the fringe rock sound of the 70s, and given that Howlin Rain was picked up by bigtime label American Recordings, it seems it's a sound the people want to hear.

Track listing: 1. Requiem (00:55) 2. Dancers at the End of Time (5:56) 3. Calling Lightning, Pt. 2 (5:11) 4. Lord Have Mercy (6:36) 5. Nomads (5:06) 6. El Rey (7:09) 7. Goodbye Ruby (7:52) 8. Riverboat (6:04)

Personnel: Ethan Miller vocals, lead guitar; Ian Gradek bass; Mike Jackson rhythm guitar; Joel Robinow keyboards, horns, vocals; Garett Goddard drums

Download the track "El Rey"

Up next: Part III


Nik Edgerton said...

I am impressed with your selections. I came upon your blog by coincidence and, think I'll watch it. It's just not that often that someone takes me to new discoveries through the music I enjoy. I was surprised not to find Sigur Ros' new album, or Mogwai's. These guys are bringing it in the spirit of the greats. Thanks for the leads. I actually haven't heard of two or three of these and look forward to checking them out. Especially your number 1 pick. Sounds amazing.

Dan said...

Thanks for the comment! I'm never too certain that anyone stumbles upon my blog besides a few friends, so I'm pleased that my Top 20 list might help someone find some new music they enjoy. After all, that's one of the best reasons to make a list in the first place. As for Sigur Ros, I didn't actually hear their most recent album, and Mogwai clocked in at #16, which was at the tail end of the post before this one, in case you missed it. Thanks again, and happy listening!