Monochrome

January 2, 2009

The Best Albums Of 2008

Filed under: Commentary — Anthony @ 1:41 am

The end-of-year deluge of lists is upon us once again, and I’m not immune to the phenomenon.

Every year, Inpress Magazine asks its writers to fill out an end-of-year poll, headed by the top ten albums of the year and given an added degree of difficulty by the addition of all sorts of other categories. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Everyone loves lists, after all. Reading them, that is – but actually coming up with your own is a somewhat daunting task that has been known to strike fear into the hearts of even the most opinionated.

I’m actually not all that fond of this concept of rating the year’s best albums from 1 to 10, truth be told (and this, from the guy that was declaring a “Single Of The Year” back in his single-reviewing days!) In fact, the very presumption that someone has heard everything that came out during the year and is therefore qualified to make an informed judgement on what was “best” is ludicrous, really. Not to mention the simple truth that any writer’s personal musical taste will affect the outcome; how could it possibly not? Music requires an emotional connection to be appreciated, after all. But I digress.

The other thing that bothers me about simple lists is that they don’t say anything other than “here’s what I liked this year”. When I read them, I want to know why. I want to know what it was about this batch of ten records that inspired you to remember them and rate them highly at the end of the year. Back in 1999 while Music Editor at Inpress, I shamelessly imposed the idea on that year’s poll (which annoyed some writers and terrified others) but that was the only year it was done – page space, as always, is at a premium. But here, where there are no word limits except those enforced by the reader’s patience, I get to indulge myself a little.

So here is my list. The albums that were the most important to me in 2008. I didn’t hear everything that came out (and I know there are records I didn’t get to hear that I would have been floored by if I had), I didn’t recall everything that I had heard when compiling the list (every year has its “oops” moments after the poll’s been submitted) and more than any other year, it perhaps gives an indication of the sort of music that really does it for me. Your tastes are different, that’s a given. But do try to hear these ten (plus three!) albums if you can. They are very, very good. Whether you’d consider them the best the year has to offer, well, that depends on how the bit of your brain that responds to art is wired.

Oh, and while the version of this list in this week’s Inpress is numbered 1 to 10 (I ended up using the play count of each of them in iTunes to help rank them!), I’m not numbering it here, but instead listing the albums in alphabetical order by artist. More than any other year, having to rank my choices from “best” to “tenth best” bothered me. Because they’re all “best”.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on why you think I’m wrong :) You can leave your comments (and lists, if you like) at the bottom of this article.

Click on each album’s title to launch iTunes (if you have it installed) and be taken to that record’s page on the Australian iTunes Music Store where you can double-click each song for a 30-second sample (or even buy the thing, if you’re not a must-own-the-proper-CD person like I am!)

 

The Audreys - When The Flood Comes THE AUDREYS
When The Flood Comes

According to Audreys singer and co-songwriter Taasha Coates, the second album for the Adelaide-based band was a scary proposition. With sudden acclaim for their debut and a pointy trophy to prove that even cynical ARIA voters liked it, that’s not surprising – after all, so many bands and artists have found that after the attention-getting debut, it’s all downhill from there. But there’s something very special about what this band does, and this album showed that the Difficult Second Album cliché (and I promise not to use that phrase again for the whole of 2009!) doesn’t have to mean disappointment. There’s a languid warmth that permeates Flood throughout, and (perhaps ironically) a confident ease in the songwriting that’s often breathtaking. Shane O’Mara’s production outdoes his excellent work on the first album, too. And if you’ve pigeonholed them as a “roots” or “country” band, The Audreys have surprises in store for you here -particularly on penultimate track Songbird, which encapsulates the fear and doubt that underpinned the making of the record both lyrically and in its dark, brittle sound. Like I said – breathtaking. And the (usually) cynical ARIA voters rightly agreed.

 

 

Coldplay - Viva La Vida COLDPLAY
Viva la Vida, or Death and All His Friends

Radiohead knock-offs? Bollocks. It’s mysteriously uncool to say a Coldplay album is good, it seems, and yet quite a lot of people seemed to like this one a lot. When I first heard it, though, I wasn’t convinced. It sounded like a big bag of ideas thrown together in a bag and randomly stuck together with Beatlesque moments. Fortunately, I came back a few more times, encouraged by the gorgeous sound of the thing (Brian Eno’s stamp is everywhere here, and it suits the band perfectly) and somewhere along the way, found myself wanting to come back. I still look at this album more as an audio movie than a batch of sing-along tunes, but that’s a Good Thing. Previous Coldplay records have had an immediacy to them, with the widescreen production distracting from the fact that there’s not a huge amount of depth there. This time, patience is rewarded. Listen in headphones, trust me.

 

 

 

The Hampdens - The Last Party THE HAMPDENS
The Last Party

I love this album. Absolutely love it. And I suspect that I’m one of the only people in the country that does. Released back in May, it was mis-marketed and misunderstood, and sat on record store shelves virtually unnoticed. And that’s an absolute shame. Because this debut album for the former Perth band (now based in Melbourne) who’d put out a series of increasingly excellent EPs over the previous five years is easily one of the best pop albums I’ve heard all decade. Seriously. Its songs take time to properly work their magic with you (once again, all the best albums need some courtship time) but when they do they’re like little magnets pulling you back in time and time again. The band’s lush-pop ambitions finally come to proper fruition here thanks to producer Victor Van Vugt, who keeps things warm and simple and then covers almost every song with lush string arrangements that are cinematic, yet tastefully restrained and perfectly attuned to the songs, just like he did with The Paradise Motel ten years ago. Singer Susannah Legge’s evocative vocals, meanwhile, make the whole thing sound like the summer you think you remember having once. Which makes sense when you hear it. And you really, really should.

 

 

Sophie Koh - All Shook Up SOPHIE KOH
All Shook Up

My vote for Most Misleading Album Title Of The Year. Those expecting Elvis-inspired back-to-basics rock may have been startled by what lay within – an accomplished collection of accessible but unconventional songs from a singer-songwriter who now seems properly at home with the possibilities of studio recording. Her 2005 debut merely hinted at what Sophie was capable of; here, with producer Greg “J” Walker working some real aural magic throughout, she shows just how far her songwriting has come in a few short years, effortlessly leaping between styles and moods and never sounding less than supremely assured. Atmosphere and intrigue is everywhere, but pop hooks abound as well – it’s a remarkable balancing act. This one deserved a lot more attention than it ultimately ended up getting; with songs here like the darkly menacing Somebody Come To End This and the astonishing Threnody amongst the treasures here, those who discover this record will wonder why they didn’t find it sooner.

 

 

Lenka - Lenka LENKA
Lenka

I remember my reaction to this album the first time I listened to it, on my iPod during a Sunday evening tram journey. This is, I had decided by the end, the happiest album I’ve ever heard. And not in a good way. Yet something drew me back for another listen later that night, and a few days later I was back again. And suddenly, I got it – though I’m still not entirely sure I can tell you what “it” is. What sounds on first listen like an over-cute collection of jaunty, simple pop songs turns out to be a subversive ball of clever-pop genius. While I still think the track sequence misrepresents what’s going on in Lenka Kripac’s musical mind, this is a record worth embracing for its intelligent approach to a genre that’s been reduced lately to a svengali-driven mathematical formula. Particularly successful on this multi-producer album are the tracks produced by Mike Elizondo, an unlikely choice who seems to get exactly where Lenka’ s coming from; Trouble Is A Friend is a compact ball of joyous, irresistible brilliance.

 

 

M83 - Saturdays = Youth M83
Saturdays = Youth

There’s something about this album that’s fascinating, well above and beyond its skilled distillation of the smarter pop of the ‘80s into something that sounds totally contemporary. While there’s no shortage of bands trying to mine the shimmer of that decade’s unique approach to pop music, one-man French “band” M83 seems, on this album, to get the balance right (Depeche Mode reference!) without taking it too far and heading into cheese territory. The production and instrumentation pulls this firmly into the 21st century, in fact, and during the journey it’s picked up influences from the more interesting bits of the ‘90s as well.

 

 

 

Laura Marling - Alas, I Cannot Swim LAURA MARLING
Alas, I Cannot Swim

The initial impression this record gives is somewhat misleading – opening track Ghosts starts off sounding all ‘60s-throwback folk, complete with chorus harmonies that come across all Peter Paul & Mary, 18 year-old Marling doing the acoustic storyteller thing that we’ve heard a hundred times before. So at the two minute mark, when she drops the song into a warm, extroverted bridge on the way to the song’s euphoric conclusion, she gets your undivided attention instantly. At that moment, Marling’s 38-minute album debut is off and running, and never looks back. With emotion in her voice that belies her age – a voice that’s equal parts Harriet Wheeler fairy-dust and world-weary regret – and a keen sense of musical economy, Laura Marling is one of the finds of 2008.

 

 

 

My Brightest Diamond - A Thousand Sharks Teeth MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND
A Thousand Shark’s Teeth

Anyone who’s heard me endlessly bang on about how unspeakably brilliant My Brightest Diamond’s 2006 debut Bring Me The Workhorse was will already know that I’m rather fond of Shara Worden’s musical world. Album number two started life as a string quartet-backed companion piece to Workhorse but grew into a proper album in its own right, one which takes an even more adventurous approach than the first record. Muted drums and loops, strings, harps, horns, the kitchen sink, it’s all in here somewhere – and it’s all perfectly placed inside a batch of songs that run the gamut from widescreen epic (first single Inside A Boy) to unnerving theatrical drama (Black And Costaud), late-night serenade (the gorgeous From The Top Of The World) and absolute despair (To Pluto’s Moon). It amazes and challenges throughout; and nobody else – nobody – makes records that sound like this. While the first record took a full year to get an Australian release, this one came out promptly; if you don’t go get yourself a copy you’re missing a unique experience.

 

 

Krista Polvere - Here Be Dragons KRISTA POLVERE
Here Be Dragons

Originally from Adelaide, now based in Melbourne and serendipitously connected to Ryan Adams and members of Mercury Rev on a trip to New York, Krista Polvere’s debut ventures way beyond the folk and country influences that inspired it. Producer Malcolm Burn is an atmosphere specialist from way back (he worked wonders on Archie Roach’s Looking For Butter Boy and helmed Lisa Germano’s best albums) and he drenches this gentle album of slow-burners in an iridescent warm glow that’s impossible to resist immersing yourself in. At times sounding like Mazzy Star doing songs for a David Lynch movie, this is the late-night album of choice for 2008; just try listening to Breakable or The Sinking Sea without finding yourself transported. This is one of the most fully-realised folk-minded albums in years, and one of the most original.

 

 

 

Princess One Point Five - Vous Je Vous PRINCESS ONE POINT FIVE
Vous Je Vous

Last of the ten alphabetically but by no means least, this third album from the boundlessly inventive Sarah-Jane Wentzki and partner Richard Andrew is a marvellously unpretentious and thoroughly alluring not-quite-lo-fi pop album which cheerfully traverses genres throughout its 13 tracks as though it’s a diary of ideas and inspirations, impossibly brought together into a coherent album with a craftsperson’s skill. Within the first few tracks you’ve already visited four different gigs by the same band – Man In A Suitcase’s album-opening instrumental excitement, the totally “up” happy-pop of I’m Onto Something Good, the unhurried slow groove of Easier To Give In Than Walk Away and a trip into Walker Brothers territory (without the overblown strings or, err, Scott Walker) on There’s Got To Be More Than This. And never once does it sound confused; the song titles get shorter as the record progresses but the boundless flow of ideas and hooks just keeps on coming, even taking in an edgy rock blast on Aren’t You Clever that’s exhilarating. If it had come from Manchester rather than Melbourne it’d probably be in everyone’s end-of-year list by now.

 

 

Honourable Mentions

Sarah Slean - The Baroness Albums that came thiiiiis close to landing in the final ten included Canadian clever person Sarah Slean’s The Baroness, which eschewed the deliciously out-there attitude of her two previous albums in favour of organic, nostalgic balladry and the occasional moment of up-ness. As a result, it seemed like a huge disappointment the first few times through – but Slean’s songwriting is subversive and skilful, and this one got under the skin and stayed there, playing with the bit of your head that plays back records when you’re not expecting it. A major-label artist in Canada, Slean’s records are ignored and unreleased everywhere else, so it’s pleasing to note that this one can be bought in Australia via iTunes.

The Presets made the Depeche Mode album that Depeche Mode would have surely traded their souls to have made back in 1985, and managed to please almost everybody. A very good album, Apocalypso was slightly let down by a handful of tracks towards the end that paled in comparison to the electro-pop genius at the front of the album; My People is simultaneously one of the best dance songs and one of the best pop songs ever to come out of this country. So there.

And Kate Miller-Heidke set about polarising people yet again with Curiouser, probably the year’s most defiantly quirky pop album and loaded with memorable strange-pop that was produced to crunchy perfection by husband Keir Nuttall and Flight of the Conchords music man Mickey Petralia.

And finally, the albums of 2008 that weren’t. Nicole Atkins’ magnificent, Orbison-channelling, deliciously overproduced-in-a-good-way Neptune City may have finally made it to stores outside the US this year, but it’s most decidedly a 2007 album. Buy it anyway. It would have effortlessly made the top 10 if I was breaking the rules. And UK one-woman army Bat For Lashes’ Fur And Gold came out everywhere in 2007, somehow completely escaping my attention until a chance encounter with one of the video clips from it on Rage mid-year. It’s got nothing to do with 2008 at all, but I couldn’t let this one pass unmentioned – there’s extreme cleverness at work here.

And somehow, I managed to be the only person writing about music on the planet to not hear Nick Cave’s Dig Lazarus Dig. That will be rectified soon, and unless about four thousand music writers and reviewers are all on Nick’s payroll, I have a funny feeling I’m going to be kicking myself once I push play. But as I said all the way up there at the top, nobody can hear everything. That’s what makes these end-of-year lists so fascinating, polarising and, often, eye-opening.

©2009 Anthony Horan

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