My dream job for a big part of college was to be Greil Marcus.
Think of it — getting paid quite well to sit around and gas about music all day. Even better, every new release that every two-bit label on every planet puts out arrives promptly on your doorstep. I guarantee, there's not a mailing list in America that guy isn't on.
You may have noticed that I'm not Greil Marcus, and at this point, I never will be. Thus any picture of the year in music 2008 can only be as complete as my personal vantage point — the stuff that crossed my path, grabbed me, and stuck to my bones.
Thus, this list of my seven favorite records of 2008, in order of release. There was lots more I heard, although not everything –t he traditional "best of" lists I've been seeing are illustrating that I've got a LOT of catching up to do — but this is what I heard that made a big deep-ass impression on me.
Accelerate, R.E.M. (April 1)
There's a small cabal of leftie-leaning musicians who took advantage of the past few years of Republican hell to write their own "up yours, Bush" records (see: Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young). R.E.M. perhaps best captures the sustained rage and incredulidity of the past eight years with a short, tight, focused record heavy on the distorted guitars and uptempo rockers.
It's sort of a hybrid between the sound of Monster and the tone of an early record like Murmur, granted the sharper clarity of Stipe's more recent writing. I think it suffered a bit in the collective mind of R.E.M. fans because the band has become this lumbering popular beast over the years; each album is more than just a collection of songs, it's an event. It's just refreshing to hear them sluff off the labored feel of their last record, Around the Sun, and get back to the business of just cranking out good songs. The rockers achieve varying degrees of ass-shakingness and mind-blowingness, but the standout track may be a mid-tempo dirge, "Houston," that in two minutes presents an unforgettable character sketch of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Speaking of cranking out good songs, Elvis Costello does just that on his latest studio effort, which comes just a few months after he announced he was giving up on recording forever. Thankfully, he later revised his position after an energizing studio session with Jenny Lewis.
Momofuku utilizes Lewis and members of her Acid Tongue band as well as the expected Imposters lineup of keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist/backing vocalist Davey Faragher, and drummer Pete Thomas, who gets to pound skins on one track with his daughter Tennessee of indie band The Like. There's a looseness here that hasn't been present on a Costello record in well over a decade; at the same time, these are each focused gems of pop songs, delivered with righteous bile. "American Gangster Time" is Elvis' own personal "up yours, Bush" tune.
Exit Strategy of the Soul, Ron Sexsmith (July 8)
If I had to pick an "album of the year," this one might be it — at least, if number of plays were the sole factor involved, this record got more spins than any other on my list. It's a little hard for me to explain why — Ron Sexsmith is an artist I've always known was great, but I've never had a chance to connect substantially with his music, and in fact, I had a friend who practically forced me at gunpoint to listen to his first record years ago, and I couldn't get behind it.
Exit Strategy finds Sexsmith exploring matters of spirituality and relationships; the record opens and closes with gentle, transcendant instrumentals driven by Sexsmith's piano. He makes a big deal in the press notes about how his piano playing is hardly ready for prime-time, but it's exactly that hesitant, soulful feeling that drives all the songs on this record. These songs are tender but fierce, sure of purpose but uncertain as to the ultimate truths that guide this world we live in.
Like so many great albums, it's a search for meaning set to music, and it's an aural journey I've enjoyed taking time and again in 2008 (and already a few times in 2009 too).
Pure pop for now people, as Nick Lowe used to say. Emphasis on the "now people" part — this album sketches the landscape of young drunken nights circa the early aughts, via the fits and starts of eighties' pop-goth new wave. The songwriting is nasty and clever, with lines like "You're on your honeymoon/and you're sending me notes, You hope to see me soon/you've got 'see' wrapped in quotes" that stick in your brain and inspire fits of dark giggles. The sweet twist in the final moments of "Love Me Already" elevates what could have been a disposable song of love betrayed into a deceptively smart lyrical tale.
There seemed to be some post-release backlash against Black Kids on the part of the hipster community; I read a snide comment someplace (maybe Bust magazine?) about how the band didn't pay off on the hype that attended its debut EP release, Wizard of Ahhs. Those hipsters are nuts. This may not be timeless music built to last beyond a single tipsy evening, but on most tipsy evenings, it doesn't need to be exactly right — it just needs to be exactly RIGHT NOW. That's Partie Traumatic.
Acid Tongue, Jenny Lewis (September 23)
Lewis' first album, Rabbit Fur Coat, was nothing less than a revelation — for those familiar with her work with indie darlings Rilo Kiley, this was a more naked, soulful iteration of the singer. Incredible songwriting combined with spacious arrangements to create a folk-rock-soul hybrid that delivered passion, bile, and beauty in equal measure.
Acid Tongue strikes me as a more confident, accomplished work than Rabbit Fur Coat, and I'm not exactly sure why. I think it has a bigger sound, for sure, with more of a country rock feel than a folk vibe; even the ballads are more elaborately arranged, with piano and strings carrying several of the more beautiful tracks.
If Rabbit Fur Coat was Lewis exploring her own creative identity and ability to develop her own work, then Acid Tongue finds Lewis in full command of her abilities as a singer, instrumentalist, and producer. Tracks like "See Fernando," "Carpetbaggers" and the mini-epic "The Next Messiah" (clocking in at 8 minutes plus) are not the work of an artist finding her way; they're the work of an artist who has found her way, and knows exactly where she is going. It's not a stretch to call Jenny Lewis one of the finest songwriters of her generation (whatever THAT means; she just writes really, really good), and if she's putting together work this accomplished on only her second solo effort, she has an amazing and beautiful career ahead of her.
This is maybe the first Ben Folds album I'm appreciating more as a collection of songs than as a full proper album; it's not really coalescing for me yet, although the tracks share a sonic mood that fits the tone of the lyrics quite well — sharp, brittle, and broken.
In my original review, I pointed out the disconnect between what Ben told us via his PR materials ("This isn't a bitter divorce record! No, really") and the content of the album itself (the lead single, after all, is titled "You Don't Know Me," with lines like "…we could be together for so long and never know, never care, what goes on in the other one's head…").
I'm still working my way through that disconnect, trying to come to terms with what I know of the man versus what I get from the music, and deciding whether or not the two ever will reconcile — or if they even SHOULD reconcile, for that matter. That doesn't change that these are typically great Ben Folds songs, delivered with a casual intensity that's totally disarming; he pounds the piano so hard, and so good, that it's easy to get knocked over by the quick touching emotional shifts in his lyrics.
Tell It To The Volcano, Miniature Tigers (September 16)
A late '08 digital release seeing physical release in early '09, we're back to the pure pop again, but with more of a Talking Heads by way of Ben Kweller vibe. Miniature Tigers is the brainchild of frontman Charlie Brand, who according to the band's bio just started writing these offbeat catchy pop gems one day in his bedroom. If he's got this much talent in tossed-off ditties, imagine what he'd accomplish if he applied himself.
Tell It To The Volcano brings to mind blood and love. It's the same impression I got from The Flaming Lips' great, great album The Soft Bulletin – a confluence of the physical and the emotional, where the force of falling for someone is equated literally with the impact of being shot through the heart — "the softest bullet ever shot," as Wayne Coyne sings.
On "The Wolf," Brand sings of being "on your trail, I can smell your blood/I've had enough of unrequited love," and you feel him in the hunt, but more than that, you feel the mingling of the physical and the emotional into a single driving passion. It's moments like that and many, many others on these seven records that made 2008 a great year for music.