Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bruce's Best of 2008: Top Ten Records (and then some)

'sblood! I've actually cobbled my list together before the clock strikes 12 this year. Some minor business to take care of before we get to the main event:

-Notable EPs of '08: Ashbury Heights' "Morningstar In A Black Car" and Rudimentary Peni's "No More Pain."

-Two records I missed upon their release in '07 but which absolutely dominated my playlists in '08: the far-out-and-gone heroin buzz of A Place To Bury Strangers' self-titled disc, and the heavenly sugar rush of Asobi Seksu's dreamy "Citrus".

-Apologies to Sparks, Poni Hoax, Billy Bragg and Motörhead, who released material which I wanted to get to this year but for reasons of time, money, or sheer unavailability was unable to.

√2. Guns N' Roses, "Chinese Democracy"
There's no way to speak about this album and attempt to compare it to any other that was released this year, and it sure as hell can't be ordered into something as flippantly hierarchical as a Top Ten list. In lieu of any attempt at a proper summation, I'll just say that my expectations (which had fallen into the uncanny valley as the probability of the album's release increased) weren't dashed to pieces, and that I found lots to love here. For the record, my love for Gn'R isn't just limited to "Appetite", as seems to be the case with everyone who decided to hold "Chinese Democracy" to that standard - it includes the baroque and extravagant Rose-penned opuses found on "Illusion II" ("Breakdown", "Estranged", "Locomotive"), and if you can't hear the connection between those moments and "CD", then you just can't hear the album for the myth.

10. The Cure, "4:13 Dream"
As I predicted earlier, the casual delivery of this one was its saving grace rather than Achilles heel. Instead of having to wait for the mood to strike to listen to it in its entirety, I found myself cherry-picking from "4:13 Dream" whenever a phrase from a song drifted through my head, something I do with very few Cure albums ("Kiss Me" and "Wild Mood Swings" being the exceptions). Also, a great showcase for the now fantastically tattooed Porl Thompson after his return to the fold.

9. Rome, "Masse Mensch Material"
Luxembourg's Jerome Reuter is on a roll. He's issued three LPs in as many years on Cold Meat Industry which have single-handedly made me sit up and pay attention to neo-folk again, rather than simply dismissing the entire genre as hollow posturing at best, and masturbatory nationalism at worst. While Reuter doesn't break from the genre's military fixation, he filters all manner of pan-European jingoism through the prism of universal suffering (cue token version of "Wir Moorsoldaten"), and inevitably finds all rhetoric wanting in the face of the pain of the individual. What remains? Art. And strangely enough, this manifests in "Masse Mensch Material" in the form of some songs which, with some different window dressing, could pass for torch songs, or at least decidedly poppier fare than neo-folk typically permits. The man's got a keen ear for songcraft, and makes the most of his near-lounge singer croon (I still hear similarities with Gavin Friday) as he guides us through another dark tour of life and love during wartime. Cynical, austere, gorgeous: this is neo-folk to believe in.

8. Heartbreak, "Lies"
An italo-disco revival was one of those things you just joked about in 2008 in the wake of electro-house, not to mention recent flirtations with acid-house by innumerable bands as of late. You never expected it to happen, let alone for a new italo album to sound this fresh and relevant. To be fair, one band doesn't constitute a full revival, but if the respect Heartbreak's record and earnest live show have garnered is any indication, "Lies" might not be the only Moroder-worshipping LP available to lovers of falsetto-laden candy-floss in 2009 - but it'll still probably be the best. Angst-ridden numbers like "Regret" and "Don't Lose My Time" lend some intriguing pathos to a genre that would usually mistake the term for a club in Torremolinos without sacrificing an ounce of dancefloor potential, but it's mission statement cut "We're Back" which raises Heartbreak well above the standard of a retro-novelty act, and sets the bar high for electro in the new year. Who wants a new beat renaissance this time around?

7. Weep, "Never Ever"
Doc Hammer uses his new wave fixation as catharsis and gives us this, 2008's best break-up album. Goth as fuck without ever being over-bearing or pretentious, Weep deftly plots out points held by Mephisto Walz and The Sound, and much territory between. World-weary yet lushly pleasing, this record is the sound of watching a sunset after a long day at the factory. It looks as though Doc's got NY shows and touring plans in the works, so hopefully this marks the beginning of an at least part-time return to music by one of the most canny purveyors of the dark stuff.

6. The Raveonettes, "Lust Lust Lust"
I'll admit this one didn't grab me on the first couple of spins. "Meh, they've gone back to the 'Chain Gang of Love' well, which is better than another overly pictureque album in the style of 'Pretty In Black', but where are the tunes?" Oh, they're there, all right. "You Want The Candy" kicks open the door of your high school gym and subjects you to the most aggressive make-out in prom history, and "Aly, Walk With Me" is compelling evidence that the Raves should've earned the nod for the last James Bond theme instead of Jack Black. What seemed at first like an overreach into unfamiliar territory is actually just the porting over of their golden ear for melody and harmony to smoother textures. The song may change but the "yeah, yeah, yeah" remains the same.

5. The Presets, "Apocalypso"
Feisty Australians avoid sophomore slump and come out pitching pure club heat. While the dark, stabby attacks of "Kicking And Screaming" and "Talk Like That" give the impression of a uniformly stark and merciless album upon initial listens, more soulful undertones begin to emerge later, and not just on show-stopper "This Boy's In Love" (still my choice for club jam of the year). As you snuggle up on the couch with the last couple of tracks, you could be forgiven for thinking that it's "Chill Out" era KLF that's whispering sweet nothings in your ear. Their live show's grown by leaps and bounds, too. While they were certainly no slouches when they toured for "Beams", they were an unassailable fortress of light, noise and love this year.

4. Disfear, "Live The Storm"
Hardcore is one of the few genres I'll own up to flat-out disliking. The aggression is never tempered with fun, innovation, or, heaven forfend, virtuosity. Given that, it seems like nothing short of a miracle that Disfear understand that straddling the metal/punk boundary doesn't just involve yelling louder or playing faster, but actually paying attention to what makes metal great (memo to NYHC kids: put down the Minor Threat bootlegs for a minute and buy "No Remorse"). Sure, they've got an unfair ringer in former At The Gates vocalist Tomas Lindberg, but he can't take credit for the most balls-out guitar work I heard all year. Each song is a perfect maelstrom of blistering speed made up of equal parts riffage and noodling. One could even be forgiven for thinking that the ghost of Cliff Burton was in the room during the recording of epic finale "Phantom". In closing, this record is so hard it made me want to headbutt myself. Eventually deeming that impossible, I had to be content with shouting myself hoarse along with it and shotgunning tallboys.

3. Memmaker, "How To Enlist In A Robot Uprising"
Rarely have I found myself listening to what should by all rights be a wholly club album at home and on the bus with such regularity. These slabs of perfectly executed harsh electro served up by two Montrealers were no-brainers when it came to the dancefloor, but as anyone familiar with Yann Faussurier's primary project Iszoloscope knows, there's precious little that's simple about the man's work. Wave after wave of static crashes around foundations of beats, on tracks like "Insomnia", never rendering anything illegible but instead offering our inner IDM-head plenty of space to roam and chin-scratch while our feet stomped til our feet were raw. Im rhythmus bleiben.

2. Cut Copy, "In Ghost Colours"
2004's "Bright Like Neon Love" was a pleasantly breezy trip through some of your favourite synth-pop motifs of yore. Skimming from one refrain to the next without looking back, it wasn't so much an album of songs ("Going Nowhere" being the notable exception) as it was a sequence of moods and themes. "In Ghost Colours" took a gamble by collating those sources, layering them atop one another like so many colour gels, firing a light through them and hoping to hell that what appeared on the wall held together compositionally. Cut Copy didn't just come together with their second LP, though - they took off into the stratosphere and shone their colours into just about every available corner: clubs, your mom's workout playlist, cel phone ads, frosh keggers. In spite of that massive exposure, "In Ghost Colours" held strong, becoming one of 2008's most durable and rewarding listens.

For starters, who knew Dan Whitford could write such great songs? "Unforgettable Season" could be a B-side from "The Head On The Door" (that's high praise from me, in case you were unsure). The breakthrough that comes when "So Haunted" shifts from its pensive verse to its teenage breakaway chorus is emblematic of the keaning need for release and freedom that marks much of "In Ghost Colours". It's a record about desire, in many ways, but never resorts to tacky come-ons or serenading. Not to saddle it with unfair comparisons, but "In Ghost Colours" does for looks across a dancefloor what "Born To Run" did for the aimless meanderings of Jersey youth: it raises the stakes by adopting the aesthetics of myth. Wherever you were when you were listening to "Lights And Music" or "Hearts On Fire" (possibly even stronger here than it was upon its '07 single release, bolstered by the company of its fellows), you felt the same want, the same need to reach out into the aether of possibility that those dancing to the same songs at clubs around the world were working towards. In that sense, it functions as a network of sorts, much in the same way as "Silent Shout" before it. The lyrics are still vague and slight, but no harm, no foul.

So, here we are: twenty years after it was recorded, the spirit of New Order's failed acid house gambit "Technique" returned in the guise of a bunch of Australian graphic designers to redeem itself and define dance music for 2008. A fine time, indeed.

1. M83, "Saturdays = Youth"
It proved easy to play the 80's match-up game with the tracklist of "Saturdays": "Skin Of The Night" = Cocteau Twins, "Up!" = Kate Bush, etc. I've also read no small amount of complaints about Anthony Gonzalez's moves away from his established ambient-in-a-cathedral sound (although have those people listened to the second half of the record?). But anyone with any love for the sources Gonzalez pays tribute to here will have already heard traces of them in his previous records. This isn't another limp attempt at an 80's revival, people: it's an artist coming full circle to what motivated them to begin to compose in the first place. It's also the most stunning record I had the privilege of hearing this year.

Starting the album with some impressionist piano and high, shimmering vocals, "You, Appearing" fakes you out into thinking you've got another pleasant record of soundtrack pieces to look forward to - "like Air but with more purpose" was always my shorthand description for "Dead Cities" and "Before The Dawn". Instead, you're treated to a clutch of immaculate pop tunes which use Gonzalez's flair for production as an accent, rather than the focal point. And what tunes they are. If you take the album title at its word, they're paeans to youthful indolence, drama, folly and romance. They stretch out to the horizon's vanishing point, as infinite as a weekend reprieve from coldly suffocating high school seems on a Saturday morning. They're also quite varied, ranging from the gossamer waltz of "Skin Of The Night" to "Graveyard Girl", an immolation of every horribly true teen angst cliche at the altar of the JaMC. If the ability to shift between so many styles with such grace and calm is Gonzalez's ace in the hole on this outing, then perhaps the true unspoken patron saint of the 80s guiding this record is actually This Mortal Coil.

Colours shift as twilight approaches on the second half of "Saturdays", and as pop structures give way to the slow burn of Gonzalez's trademark orchestral manoeuvres in the dark like "Highway of Endless Dreams" and "Too Late". Intriguingly, hearing some more conventional M83 compositions after his pop forays lends more credence to his dramatic builds and crescendos. Rather than hearing the score to an unmade film, you're now onstructing your own cinematic narrative based on what's come previously, casting Kim, Jessie and the Graveyard Girl forward into all tomorrow's Saturdays. As the endless drone of "Midnight Souls Still Remain" rings on, the length and depth of Gonzalez's accomplishment begins to sink in. You come out the other end of this record a bit different: cheeks rosy with gusts of wind, heart still quavering from the rise and fall of the tides it was subject to. If nostalgia requires distance and rose-coloured glasses, then "Saturdays = Youth" isn't a nostalgic record at all: there's no distance from the experience here, and for a few astonishing, Blakean moments, everything appears as it truly is.

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