“Here’s a joke. How do you make God laugh? Make a plan.” – Eric Stoltz, Kicking and Screaming.
Hello and welcome. Plans have changed a bit. Pull up a chair, I’ll tell you all about it.
Initially, I had hoped to wow you with my final two new reviews of 2008 in this space. And they were going to be doozies, too – I was all set to share my thoughts on a pair of new live boxed sets, just in time for the holidays. First up was Marillion’s six-CD Early Stages collection, documenting five shows from the first few years of the band’s career. This thing’s a treasure trove – it contains a couple of shows that took place before the band’s first album came out, and an early version of what would become side one of 1985’s Misplaced Childhood.
After that, I was going to discuss Live at the Roxy, the eight-CD set from Phish, containing three complete shows from 1994. This one I was really excited about – the early ‘90s were the Vermont foursome’s compositional and improvisational peak, in my opinion, and this set concentrates pretty heavily on that year’s Rift, still my favorite Phish album. Over time, the band let their Grateful Dead influence come to the fore a bit much – their post-reunion shows are mainly boring affairs – but in ’94, they were still mixing the Jerry Garcia with a healthy amount of Zappa. This was a guaranteed hit with me.
But then two things intervened. Anyone who knows me can guess the first one – I just ran out of time. Looking back, I’m not sure how I expected to listen to and absorb 14 CDs of music while working my final few days before vacation, but that was the plan. And it failed miserably. I’m through four of the six Marillion discs, but only three of the Phish ones, and while I can guess that these bands didn’t suddenly start sucking during the latter shows, I haven’t heard them. So no reviews from me yet.
The second was surprising to me, though. As I’m sure you know by now, the Top 10 List column hits next week, and while the list itself has been set in stone for a while, it wasn’t until this week that I started putting my honorable mentions list together. I knew it had been a damn good year for music, but I wasn’t quite prepared for just how good it was, in the final analysis. Ordinarily, I’d have about 12 or 15 honorable mentions to hand out.
This year, I have 30.
So I figured they deserved their own column. Think of this as a teaser for next week – by process of elimination, sharp-eyed long-term readers can probably figure out just which 10 albums made the list. Tune in next week to see how you did.
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2008 was a pretty great year, as you’ll see. But like all years, it had its share of surprising disappointments. In fact, there were enough this time that I’ve given them their own section. In a year marked by artists old and new reaching deep and delivering stunning efforts, these seven simply fell down on the job.
Start with Beck, whose Modern Guilt was obviously rushed together to complete the artist’s contract with Geffen Records. At a scant 30 minutes, it hardly even qualifies as an album, and despite production by the great Danger Mouse, the grooves are limp and the songs threadbare. It’s not terrible, you understand, but after the one-two punch of Sea Change and Guero, to get two mediocre efforts in a row (this and last year’s The Information) is just unfortunate. Beck can do better than this.
Kevin Barnes took his Of Montreal project as far away from its giddy pop leanings as he’s ever gone with the mostly embarrassing Skeletal Lamping. Even Prince, this album’s most obvious influence, was never this self-indulgent. And speaking of self-indulgent, there’s the Fiery Furnaces, whose long-awaited live album, Remember, was just an unlistenable mess. Rather than document a full live show, the Furnaces cut and spliced several together – often in mid-song, repeatedly – and ended up with a landfill-sized disaster.
It’s somewhat hard for me to call Weezer’s sixth album a disappointment, since they’ve been going downhill steadily for years. But this one, affectionately called the Red Album, is the absolute nadir of their career, at least for now. Simplistic, frat-house-level songs with lyrics that sound like they were written for a junior high class project, three songs written and sung by people who are not Rivers Cuomo, and a cover picture that truly exemplifies the puerile shit you will find within. Alas, it also contains the most insanely brilliant Weezer song of all time, “The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived,” so I guess this album doesn’t totally suck. But it comes awfully close.
Also coming awfully close is Mike Doughty, whose second full-lengther, Golden Delicious, isn’t fit to shine the shoes of his first, Haughty Melodic. Most of it sounds half-finished, limp and listless, and considering how long it takes you to get to the good stuff (“Wednesday,” “Navigating By the Stars at Night”), I wouldn’t blame you for giving up.
I suppose I’m not exactly disappointed in The Cosmos Rocks, by Queen and Paul Rodgers, because I fully expected it to be crap. And it is – unmitigated, absolute crap. But I remain disappointed in Brian May and Roger Taylor for resurrecting the Queen name and pissing all over Freddie Mercury’s grave with this thing. The fact that it’s terrible is almost beside the point. The Cosmos Rocks should never have happened.
But it’s still not my disappointment of the year. That honor goes to Ben Folds, who, with Way to Normal, released the first album of his career that’s just plain… bad. The record’s best songs (“You Don’t Know Me,” “Effington,” “Cologne”) can’t even hold a candle to the b-sides from Songs for Silverman, and its worst, like “Free Coffee” and “Bitch Went Nuts,” make me want to claw my eyes out. I understand it’s supposed to be fun, but it doesn’t have to be brain-dead too, and there’s just no excusing the stupidity of most of these songs. Particularly from an artist like Folds, who just deep-sixed his perfect record. It’s a real shame.
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Okay, enough with the bad, let’s get to the good.
There are three categories of honorable mention this year – the Also-rans, the Awesomes, and the Number Elevens. I’ll explain each as we go, but before we get to that, I want to talk about three bits of wonderful that don’t qualify for the Top 10 List. Longtime readers know the rules – only new studio albums, made up mostly of original songs, need apply. No live albums, no best-ofs.
And no covers albums, which leaves out the Seventy Sevens. Mike Roe and his band returned this year with a powerhouse collection of old gospel and blues tunes called Holy Ghost Building, and it’s terrific, but it’s almost all covers, so it doesn’t count. But that shouldn’t stop you from checking it out. Go here to pick it up.
I also have a rule that only full-length records are eligible for the list, which excludes Cassettes Won’t Listen’s EP Small-Time Machine. But with these seven songs, Jason Drake makes his name – these are melodic and memorable bits of electronic wizardry, and I’m already excited for a full record from this guy.
And finally, there’s the Alarm, and I’m still back and forth on this one. The new Alarm album, Counter Attack, is actually eight CDs – six studio EPs, one live EP, and a full-length album. The dilemma is this: seven of these eight CDs came out in 2007, but the two-and-a-half-hour collection is clearly meant to stand together as a unit. It even comes with a handy case to put all the discs in. Counter Attack is one solid piece of music, but it’s not a 2008 release, and it’s not a 2007 release either. It’s in this weird little limbo area.
Still, it’s pretty great stuff – the modern Alarm rocks a lot harder than its ‘80s counterpart, and takes much more from the Clash. The majority of these 55 tracks are excellent, and they’re packaged like old-time punk seven-inches, in DIY-looking sleeves. The CDs themselves are black and grooved like vinyl, which is too awesome for words. Mike Peters continues to deliver the goods, nearly 30 years after the Alarm first hit the scene. I highly recommend this – if you don’t want to shell out for the whole thing, the single-disc compilation Guerilla Tactics is solid through and through. Go here.
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The Also-Rans. There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with any of these records, they’re just not at the top of the heap. But every one of them is worth owning.
We begin with Matthew Sweet, who returned from limbo with Sunshine Lies. His new record label, Shout Factory, called it a “psychedelic masterpiece,” and I can’t argue with that – here are classic melodic Sweet songs, recorded as oddly as he’s ever recorded anything. I would have bought this just for the title track and “Back of My Mind,” but it’s all good. Phantom Planet rocked back onto store shelves as well with Raise the Dead, the album on which they finally harnessed both their syrupy pop and abrasive rawk sides. “Dropped” was one of the coolest songs of the year.
Ray LaMontagne, that folksy wonder from Maine, released his third album, Gossip in the Grain. When he’s not giving Van Morrison a run for his money on “You Are the Best Thing,” he’s spinning gossamer beauty on “Winter Birds,” and his voice is one in a million. The original Little Folksinger, Ani Difranco, continued her string of modest yet superb records with Red Letter Year, a short jazz-folk-pop encounter that’s pure Ani.
Here’s a few oddball entries. Kanye West threw a fascinating curve ball with the chilly 808s and Heartbreak, all brittle drum machines and Auto-Tuned vocals. It’s something of a new model blues album, full of pain and regret, with some knockout songs. Metallica went in a new direction too, by actually making a good album with Death Magnetic. It’s their best since the ‘80s, and breathes renewed fire. And Kip Winger delivered a diverse collection of complex, mature pop music with From the Moon to the Sun. If you’re still not trying out Winger’s music because you remember him writhing about in leather pants in the late ‘80s, you’re doing him (and yourself) a disservice. His solo work is excellent.
Conor Oberst, the sole member of Bright Eyes, put out a ramshackle little record under his own name, and it was a hoot. Oberst finally let his hair down, zipping through barnburners like “I Don’t Want to Die (In the Hospital)” with abandon. Elbow won the Mercury Prize for their fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid, and rarely has that prize gone to a more deserving disc. Elbow plays slowly-unfolding, perfect British pop, and they’ve never done it better than they do here.
Richard Julian, a songwriter I discovered while working at Face Magazine, rebounded nicely from the somewhat bland Slow New York with a witty, sarcastic winner of an album called Sunday Morning in Saturday’s Shoes. His melodies are back on form, but more than that, Julian’s lyrics are top-notch here, whether lamenting American influence around the world in “Syndicated” or ripping his own heart out on “A Thousand Days.”
And finally, there is Chinese Democracy. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Axl Rose’s 15-years-in-the-making epic deserves an honorable mention. It’s massive, over-worked and a smidge under-written, but it’s grand rock and roll, the kind nobody makes anymore. I have no idea what kind of album Rose envisioned when he started this process, but the finished Chinese Democracy is more of a Queen album than the Queen album this year, and a marvel of ambitious record-making. We’ll probably never hear another new album like it.
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The Awesomes. These are mostly albums that have shown up on various drafts of the Top 10 List throughout the year. You can’t go wrong with any of them.
We begin with the year’s first great record, Distortion, by the Magnetic Fields. I’ve been a Stephin Merritt fan for a long time, but with this album, he may have outdone himself. Here are 13 perfect little pop nuggets, recorded like the Jesus and Mary Chain just nipped out of the studio for a moment without resetting their dials. Listen through the noise and you’ll hear brilliant, witty gems like “Too Drunk to Dream” and “The Nun’s Litany” alongside genuine heartbreakers like “I’ll Dream Alone.”
The Black Crowes returned from exile with Warpaint, but it ain’t the balls-out rock record you’re expecting. It’s mostly slow burners and bluesy excursions, but the brothers Robinson sound as good as they ever have. Portishead also returned from an astoundingly long absence, and their third one, cleverly titled Third, is a baffling, off-kilter thing that demands repeated listens. And, thankfully, rewards them.
R.E.M. recaptured their old fire with Accelerate, their finest album in years. It’s loud, it’s sharp, and it goes by like a bullet train. Even the spate of slow songs in the middle doesn’t drag the record down, and closer “I’m Gonna DJ” may be the most fun this band has ever had in two minutes. Nada Surf defied expectations as well – if all you expect of them is “Popular.” With Lucky, they continued a streak of very good jangly pop records.
The best music is often completely unexpected, as is the case with Pretty. Odd., the beautifully Beatlesque second album from Panic at the Disco. You may laugh, but don’t judge this until you’ve heard it – these boys turned out some fantastic songs here, and sweetened them with all the accoutrements of classic pop. Also completely unexpected, for me anyway, was Shearwater’s Rook, a hushed and glorious suite of songs I picked up on a recommendation. And I’m glad I did – “On the Death of the Waters” is one of the most chilling songs I’ve heard in a while, and the rest of this lovely record follows suit.
Counting Crows put out their best album ever with Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, in many ways two EPs in one. The loud half is the most raucous material Adam Duritz and his band have ever written, and the quiet half is stripped-down, bare and beautiful. Duritz sings his little heart out on piano number “On a Tuesday in Amsterdam Long Ago,” possibly the most heart-wrenching song in his catalog – worth the price by itself.
The Levellers got angry again, and came up with their strongest work in years, Letters From the Underground. These 11 songs burn past you like a pissed-off comet, striking its target with unerring accuracy, and yes, the fiddle is back at center stage, keeping pace with the furious guitars. And Tod Ashley returned from his sojourn in the Middle East with an amazing new Firewater album called The Golden Hour. Ashley assembled this travelogue from performances recorded with native musicians in four countries over two years, and the result is a fiery melting pot of awesome.
Which brings us to Randy Newman, and his splendid Harps and Angels. Last time Newman put out an album, I was 26 and living in Portland, Maine. I’ve changed dramatically in the past eight years, but Newman’s exactly the same – cranky, sarcastic and brilliant. This new album is just as good as anything he’s done, and gems like “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” and the title track rank among Newman’s best. If you thought he only wrote Disney soundtrack songs, think again, and buy Harps and Angels.
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And finally, The Number Elevens. These are albums that caused me physical pain to exclude from the Top 10 List. Even now, I’m back and forth on a few of them, and any of these could slip onto the list without any effort at all.
Sigur Ros are a band demystified after their revealing documentary Heima, and they sound like it on Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endelaust, the most organically gorgeous album this Icelandic outfit has made. The otherworldly sound of their prior discs is here, but scrubbed clean – acoustic pianos and guitars reign here, and Jonsi Birgisson’s high, quivering voice is often unadorned. The last few songs are minimal, sparkling clouds, culminating in “All Alright,” the first Sigur Ros song in English. The whole thing is as welcoming and warm as a summer day.
Robert Smith, God bless him, has led The Cure through some rough patches in the past decade and a half, but with 4:13 Dream, all is forgiven. Here is the band I loved in high school – the dark pop songs, the chiming guitars, and Smith’s still-remarkable voice. Cure fans lost in the wilderness, it’s safe to come back home. And even better, this is the pop record – the so-called “dark” album is still to come in 2009. If it’s half as good as 4:13 Dream, I will be ecstatic.
Dr. Tony Shore, of ObviousPop, got me into Bryan Scary and the Shredding Tears, and I of course resisted for a while because of the name. But Flight of the Knife is a stunner, chock full of dazzling musical inventiveness, with new head-spinning melodies every few seconds. It’s a pop record for sure, but labyrinthine pop songs like “Venus Ambassador” and “Imitation of the Sky” are rare beasts indeed. This was Tony Shore’s big score with me this year – he always has at least one. So thanks, Doc.
Matt Hales, also known as Aqualung, wrote the prettiest song I heard all year. It’s called “Arrivals,” and it’s the final track on his fourth album, Words and Music. In contrast to last year’s studio wonder Memory Man, this album is practically naked – virtually every sound is organic and acoustic. Much of this disc is so beautiful it hurts, and even though it’s a mix of new and old tunes (and one Paul Simon cover), it further cements Hales as one of the best of the current crop of British songwriters. You have to hear “Arrivals” – it will melt your heart. The rest is pretty terrific too.
And finally, an album that hung on to the Top 10 List longer than any other – Joe Jackson’s Rain. This was the year Jackson showed his acolyte Ben Folds just how it’s done. Rain is entirely piano, bass, drums and vocals, and it showcases 10 of the finest songs of Jackson’s late career. For a while, it seemed like Jackson had lost his way, abandoning his gift for the perfect pop song, but with this delightful record – equal parts social criticism and soulful crooning – he cemented his comeback. Songwriters like Joe Jackson are rare indeed, and it’s so good to have him back.
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I can’t believe how many words that took. Next week, more words! Come back here in seven days for the 2008 Top 10 List.
See you in line Tuesday morning.