09 January 2009

Albums of the Year 2008, Part 1

Yes, another multi-part series with videos!

I didn’t want to fall too far behind in getting a “Best of 2008” list out, but I haven't kept up quite as fully with releases this past year as I did in my “radio days.” Luckily, I still listen to indie and college stations both locally and on the web, and so over the course of the next two (possibly three) installments I’ll pass on some albums that really spoke to me, acts that grabbed my attention, and a few old friends who are still making good.

As for trends, my friends the 70s are officially back -- we’re re-working that Glam-Rock mine with acts like Of Montreal and Panic at the Disco and the “pre-disco funk” of TV on the Radio, and we’re already alarmingly heavy on the rejiggered Disco in Top 40 land, so I’m guessing 2009 will (I pray) be the year of the next “punk.”

That’s not to say that there wasn’t some good music coming out of these camps, far from it -- but I would have to say that those of us who lived through the 70s are feeling a lot of deja vu coming out of the radio, particularly if you listened to what would have been the “college radio” acts of that era – yer Queens, yer Roxy Musics, yer Bowie and T. Rex stuff.

My main disappointment is that I’m still not hearing much that belongs fully and completely to today, you know? Songs and bands that could only have existed now, the way the Buggles or the Human League could have only possibly been creatures of the early 80s. There’s too much relying on what’s gone before and not enough blazing new trails, in my view -- though perhaps that’s every middle-aged rocker’s regret.

But let’s not dwell on pessimism, and instead let’s dig out the good stuff, shall we?

Sam Phillips
Don’t Do Anything
Nonesuch Records

I think I’ve been following Sam’s career since at least The Indescribable Wow in 1989, and what else can I say -- she’s still got it. File her in the “Woman with a distinct voice, I’ll listen to her sing pretty much anything” file alongside Anna Domino and Kate Bush . This is her first full album since her divorce from longtime producer/collaboration T-Bone Burnett, but even though the sound is sparser (and makes too much use of distorted electric guitar, a gimmick I’m seeing way to much of lately), her voice and songwriting are as strong as ever.

There are no “official” videos from the album (she’s following Aimee Mann ’s low-budget but successful model, I guess), but here's a live performance from NPR’s All Songs Considered:

The Decemberists
Always the Bridesmaid: A Single Series
Capitol Records

I’ve written about the Decemberists before so I won’t belabour the point: they’re great (IMHO), and this year they released three “singles” which together constitute six new songs (and the promise of a full album in 2009). They delight me mostly by remaining who they are and yet constantly stretching (in small increments) what exactly that means.

The first song of the first single, “Valerie Plame,” isn’t much like anything they’ve done before -- breaking as it does into our reality instead of the quasi-Amphigorey-Lemony-Snicket netherworld of literate gloom they usually inhabit -- yet it’s instantly recognisable. The video below is a (very) live solo appearance when the song was not yet quite fully-baked -- and all the more charming for it:

Let’s end this installment with a sidebar of Canadian music, since that’s my new home, and I want to help get the word about the thriving music scene in the Great White North. What do you suppose you would get if you crossed U2 with James? I’ll tell you -- you’d get The Stills . I haven’t heard the entire album, but they are coming to town soon, so perhaps I’ll get the chance to check ’em out:

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