02 March 2009

Albums of the Year 2008, Part Five: The Runners-Up

HA! I’ll bet you thought this torturously-overlong series was finally over, didn’t you?? :)

Like any bad pageant, there are some rules, people. And one of those rules is that you have to drag out your absolute top picks by announcing a bunch of “Miss Congeniality” type awards, not to mention reviewing the winners so far. Who am I to break this grand tradition, especially when narrowing the field to just 10 “best” albums (plus five “best” Canadian albums) actually turned out to be a much harder task than I thought it would be at the outset?

When I first thought about doing this series, I did not recollect 2008 as any kind of great year for music; too much of it is entirely stuck in other decades, for a start (which is not to say you can’t do good work mining the past) or simply expanding on stuff that came out in 2007, and there’s a lot of turmoil in the industry right now. Newspapers may be the more obviously dying medium, but making an actual living solely as a recording artist is a heck of a lot harder in the 21st century than it used to be (unless you’re a rap artist). Some of my favourite artists didn’t put out full albums this year, or anything at all in some cases. A spew of reissues/remasters that came out in 2008 just reminds me how weak a lot of bands are these days by comparison to the late 70s/early 80s heyday of punk and New Wave, and of course you still have to sort through huge amounts of complete crap to find even bands that don’t suck. As one gets older, one is less inclined to do this sort of work.

All that said, iTunes and the interwebs have actually made the job easier, and I try hard to keep my ear tuned for promising new bands, in part to avoid turning into an old 80s fogey (and I could, believe me!). So just think of this as the equivalent to the non-televised portion of the Grammys, and let’s get on with the near-misses!

I’ve already handed out some of the pseud-awards to bands that actually made the top lists -- there’s the “best reinvention” of Panic at the Disco, the “Where Have You Been Hiding?” nod to Mates of State, and the “Re-Make/Re-Model” honours to John Foxx. But I really want to mention a few albums I think readers here should check out, but which for one reason or another didn’t quite make the Top 15.

The Kooks get the “Glam-a-Rama” award for their solid rock-n-roll album Konk. If you’ve despaired of good ol’ sex/drugs/r-n-r that’s still comfortable with eyeliner and feather boas, here’s your cure. The entire album is great, with just the right touch of camp (I mean, the name of the frickin’ band is The Kooks, how much more camp do they need?). If you require just a little bit more testosterone, I might also suggest SupergrassDiamond Hoo Hah, another enjoyable rock trip back to the 70s that doesn’t make you feel old, but rather young. Just for good measure, you might also pick up The Killers’ anglo-philic 2008 entry, Day & Age, which while all over the map stylistically is so soaked in the pre-punk “rok” mentality you might at moments think that ELO is back on the scene.

My “Still Doin’ It For Me” award was a particularly tough category, as there were several strong entries by bands or artists I’ve been following for years and you might think I’d be tired of by now. Nominees include The Wedding Present, now surprisingly decamped from Leeds and moved to Los Angeles, on the album El Rey. The songs are slower but no less thoughtful or dramatic, and Gedge really seems to like it there (probably due to the abundance of betrayal, his favourite theme).

Along similarly discordant lines, The Fall managed to put together yet another crew behind the “most difficult man to work with in show business” Mark E. Smith to come up with the remarkably good Imperial Wax Solvent. Who knows what the hell Smith’s on about, but this is actually a strong entry in the shockingly-long Fall catalogue. Aimee Mann has been doing her particular brand of smart-pop, East-Coast-Sheryl-Crow thing for so long it’s almost its own genre, but damn if @#%&*! Smilers (that is the actual correct album name, not a bleeping of an expletive) doesn’t effortlessly continue her breezy rock stylings for yet another chapter.

But no, the winner of the “Still Doin’ It For Me” award goes to the reconstituted The B-52s for Funplex, a return to form that doesn’t miss a beat (and even starts to expand their repertoire just a teensy tiny bit). Normally, a B-52s song stands out like a purple cow in a cornfield, but when I first heard “Juliet of the Spirits” in some record store, I actually thought it was a new Voice of the Beehive song (high praise indeed!). Turns out Funplex has songs that are (finally) worthy successors to their first two albums, and it’s a cryin’ shame that this album was so ignored by the partyin’ public who, after eight years of Bush, need this record and it’s cheerful good humour – I mean, who else would put the pitch-shifting exciter on Fred and have it all work out?!

Tribute or all-covers albums generally suck, but that never seems to stop people from doing them, and over time there have been a few that have worked out. Actress Scarlett Johansson surprised both Hollywood and LA when she came out with a (hopelessly overproduced) album of Tom Waits covers called Anywhere I Lay My Head. The critics hated it, but it’s not at all bad really, mostly because the source material is pretty strong and the overproduction (and Johansson’s competent-but-not-great vocals) kind of shine a new, very Twin Peaks-y light on the whole thing. If you liked Julee Cruise, and picked up that Beach House album on my say-so, this is the third leg of that dream-pop stool.

But the winner of the “I’ll Pay Tribute, You Pay Royalties” award this year has to go to Mick Hucknell for his insanely great collection of Bobby “Blue” Bland songs, Tribute to Bobby. This one also wins the hotly-contested “Will Get You Laid No Question” award, infused as it is not only with smooth (now white) soul and R&B-sliding-into-disco goodness, but garnished with a liberal topping of “porn horns” and boom-chicka-wow-wow guitar. If I had marketed this baby, every copy would have come with a red lightbulb and a condom, you dig?

To be fair, Mick’s voice is aging poorly -- he’s already lost much his higher range -- but Hucknell still has no peer in the category of “Best White Wimp Who Sings Soul Like a Brotha” so the deterioration will take time to really get noticed, and he’s simply a genius with re-infusing R&B songs with soulful, jazzy, disco-house grooves. The man made me like a Hall & Oates riff. A Hall & Oates riff!! If you can do that, you’re a miracle worker, and if he keeps picking up stellar material like this, people will keep flocking to it until he’s the leader of Simply Gray.

On to one of the big categories: 2008’s “Best Debut Record.” There were quite a few, some of them mentioned already in previous parts of this series. Other good bands that didn’t quite make it to the Top 15 include The Republic Tigers, whom I learned of with a free iTunes download of “Buildings and Mountains” and who’s first full album Keep Color bodes well for this Kansas-based band and their blend of folk-psychedelica and indie pop. On the other end of the spectrum, we have two nerdy, hilarious, neurotic New Zealanders with a drum machine, guitars and an ear for familiar musical phrases in Flight of the Conchords’ eponymous first album. Whether it’s a Hall & Oates parody, a Pet Shop Boys satire, the best damn song about David Bowie ever or even their farcical attempts at rap, these guys are like the Monkees but way brainier. It’s helpful to watch the HBO series before listening, though.

Fleet Foxes almost (and I mean thisclose) won this award for their breathtakingly lush and hippie-ish debut, which sounds like Crosby, Stills & Nash decided to collaborate with the Moody Blues and get the whole thing produced by Brian Wilson. All the big names of harmonic rock float through this record; at various times I was reminded of the Beach Boys, Seals & Crofts, early Eagles, early Genesis, Simon & Garfunkel, Yes, Kansas and so on. An iTunes review mentioned “like sun shining through a stained glass window” and that’s a pretty good attempt at capturing their sound. When these guys get around to making a Christmas record, it will sell like hotcakes and redefine the genre. Seriously.

But the winner for “Debut-Taunt” of the year goes to Vampire Weekend. Yeah, I know, this album’s on every hipster’s top 10, but you know what? It’s pretty fresh. Take Paul Simon’s Graceland, mix in the Dead Milkmen’s irreverent amateur charm, and add a dash of David Byrne. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

On to the “Energizer Bunny” award, presented to the artist or band that have best refreshed their batteries and are ready to get back into the ring once again. Nominees included the slap-happy Irish jigging of Flogging Molly, who still sound like they just discovered political rock after seven albums, all of which are as good as this one, Float. Simply put, this is the Pogues with serious dental work, Irish drinking punks you can understand, and an album you have to get on top of a table with some whiskey to truly appreciate.

Also on deck are Morcheeba, who may have just single-handedly invented a future hot trend in music -- what I coin “eco-trip” -- with Dive Deep, their sixth album. Built on their 90s and early 2000s foundation of trip-hop and downtempo (aka “mellow”) funk, Dive Deep gives us a theme to put on all that lazy grooviness, all about the sea and how beautiful and precious it is. This gives their music a cohesion they’ve been missing since their original vocalist Skye Edwards left the band in 2003 (though her replacement, Daisy Martens, was a fantastic mix of Grace Slick and Shirley Bassey that lifted Morcheeba’s 2005 album The Antidote up out of the rut they were in with the likes of Air, Goldfrapp, Portishead et al). If you’re in the mood for something chilled yet interesting, this band is still a good smooth move.

I even have to include Coldplay -- a band I mostly loathe -- in this list. After shamelessly ripping off Kraftwerk for their hit “Talk” from X+Y (and getting away with it), they appear to have crossed a legal line with “Vida La Vida,” the title track of their 2008 album. Guitarist Joe Satriani has sued them for plagiarism, charging the song is a light rewrite of his song “If I Could Fly.” After listening to both, I’d say he has a real strong case. However, I have to be honest and admit that as a whole, Vida La Vida is terrific -- great melodies, great playing, and Chris Martin’s hella-obnoxious falsetto kept wisely in check thanks to the outstanding production job of Brian Eno (this is his best behind-the-board work in years, quite frankly). If you ever wondered what James would sound like if they were still around, here ya go.

But the winner in this category is .... drum roll ... Elvis Costello, for Momofuku. Like Eno’s production, this is by far the best thing he’s done in quite a while, and it’s nice to see he hasn’t given New Wave Rock up for good. While I enjoy, purchase and support all his side-trips and collaborative efforts, every once in a while he needs to put out a stomping rock record, and this is one of them. Recorded in a hurry, the songs composed in a flurry after sessions for another artist inspired him, Momofuku can’t top things like Get Happy!! and Armed Forces, but it’s not embarrassed to be seen with them, and vice-versa. Certainly Steve Naive hasn’t sounded so happy in many a year, and the joyfulness of this album is quite infectious. I listened to the whole thing with a big stupid grin on my face, even on the quieter bits. EC is turning, slowly but surely, into our own Van Morrison. It’s hard to know if Elvis’ best days are still ahead, but he’s finally comfortable enough in the smoking jacket of “living legend” to quit playing around and get back to work.

Our penultimate no-prize for the evening is our coveted “Sound of Tomorrow” award, given to a band we think will be an influence in the years ahead for what they’re doing today. For example, have a listen to the way The Shins “mix it up,” coming off like that kid in school who was perfectly okay most of the time, but would occasionally get real weird on ya. Most of their 2008 entry Wincing the Night Away passes for standard-issue college rock, but then the lyrics start to creep in and unsettle things, puncuated by odd interludes, short bits of music that go nowhere and effective shifts in mood and tempo. They really try, I would say, to push the boundaries of indie pop a little bit.

The Long Blondes, on the other hand, are trying to force us to relive the early days of New Wave again with Couples, and that’s just fine with me. They do a fine job of recapturing that New York-late 70s Blondie sound, and its a sound that doesn’t get old. This band, along with the winner of this category to be named shortly, would do great things to mainstream radio and future generations if they made it big.

But the winner of this category, I’m delighted to say, is a Canadian band, so my hope for the future of college rock includes the many fine, cheery, jangly indie-pop bands of the Great White North who pine like the Norwegian Blue for some love from south of the border. The winner is Tokyo Police Club, whose album Elephant Shell gives us back the pointy, art-rock roughage that’s been missing from our diet for far too long. Their influences (Wire, Pere Ubu, Gang of Four, the Fall) may be obvious, but their un-slick, anti-commercial yet diabolically catchy calculations signal a return to theatre and urgency so missing from most of the bands around today.

Next up: at last, the very top of the heap -- two non-Canadian and one Canadian album to go, plus a special award for best digital-only release of the year! Stay tuned!

No comments: