Friday, 5 December 2008

A Not Quite So Large List Of Music I Liked And Hated This Year

I won’t pretend to offer the musical breadth of experience of Admiral Neck (seriously, who has the time to discover, let alone listen to, that amount of music? Someone with too much time on his hands, I tell you), but I won’t let that stop me weighing in with my thoughts on 2008. A red-letter year in many ways, not least in that paramount among its lessons are that you can turn any old rubbish into a hit with a stoopid but memorable chorus and a gimmicky video. Speaking of which:

Song whose transcendent awfulness mesmerised me for months on end of the year
“Rock Star” – Nickelback

I had previously thought “How You Remind Me” was unsurpassable in its horridness. Well done, Nickelback! The curious thing about “Rock Star” is that it took two goes to make it a hit; on its initial release in 2006, it scored some modest success in the US and Canada, but it took the 2007 re-release with the celebrity-packed video to make it a global smasheroo. It was the second biggest selling track of 2008 in the UK. It was the second biggest selling track of 2008 in the UK. This might seem to prove that you can sell anything with slebs these days, as Britain’s supermarkets are currently jostling to prove, but I think it’s something else about the video: it shows real people alongside – i.e. OMG equal to!!! – celebrities. You can be a rock star, just like Chad Kroeger! Oh.

I was amused to read the other day that sofa retailer DFS has had its commercial that used “Rock Star” banned from TV, ostensibly because it indicated that – no! – its sofas were bigger than they actually are. Exaggeration? In advertising? What is the world coming to? Anyway, I think we know the real reason. Not for the first time, Popjustice’s Peter Robinson managed to sum up my feelings perfectly.

Song I wanted to PUNCH in its STUPID FACE of the year
“I Kissed A Girl” – Katy Perry

What’s more tiresome than would-be titillating pseudo-lesbianism from a straight girl? Recording an irritating, strident, disingenuous (“I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it”, indeed) and bloody ubiquitous pop song about it. Perry appears to have a lot of things going for her, not least a gung-ho gameness and that unusual throaty contralto, so why resort to this fraudulent, adolescent, attention-seeking posturing? As if that weren’t bad enough, the song sounds horribly artificial and barely deviates off a solitary note – it was apparently created with nothing but ProTools and a lascivious smirk. Speaking of which:

Album that needed only one and a half listens to convince me that it is the biggest piece-of-shit folly of this or any other year
Chinese Democracy – Guns N’ Roses

Fucking hell.

Two-thirds-of-a-good-albums of the year

Do You Like Rock Music? – British Sea Power
Santogold – Santogold
Sunday At Devil Dirt – Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan
Me And Armini – Emiliana Torrini

All have six to eight good tracks – even some great tracks, particularly BSP and Santogold – then, “Will this do?”. I had a rant all lined up about how downloads are killing the traditional album format, but I came to my senses: of course albums have always been patchy and padded, and two-thirds of a good album is still a good album. I enjoyed all those mentioned above very much. Actually, maybe downloads will help usher in a period in which the weak album track is weeded out. Maybe it will see the end of the very concept of “album track”. It hasn’t happened yet, though.

Disappointing album of the year
Poor Man’s Heaven – Seth Lakeman

As I’ve posted previously, this is by no means a terrible record, but his previous two albums were so amazing that it’s inevitably a letdown. Lakeman’s decision to cut back on the fiddle in favour of jangly-jangly guitar ballads is perplexing, because Poor Man’s Heaven is at its best when it’s at its rowdiest, and towards the end it’s just boring. Considering how receptive the critics and public were prepared to be, it goes down as a missed opportunity.

Album I (perhaps shamefully) did not buy because of its reviews of the year
Only By The Night – Kings Of Leon

Not because critics said it wasn’t that good, but because they said it showed KOL were aiming for a mainstream, arena-rock audience. Because Of The Times, with its off-kilter desolation and soul-shuddering grooves, was my favourite album of 2007 and one of the year’s biggest surprises, so to hear the band had gone “straight” discouraged me. That, and the juvenile lyrics to “Sex On Fire”. Ah, I’ll probably get it eventually.

Overrated album of the year
Songs In A&E – Spiritualized

Proof positive, as if any were needed, that the press loves a good narrative above all. Jason Pierce produced Songs In A&E after he ::checks Wikipedia:: contracted advanced periorbital cellulitis with bilateral pneumonia with rapid deterioration, requiring intensive care and c-pap for type 1 respiratory failure. The dude nearly died, genuinely, and that’s a great story. The album sounds, well, like someone who nearly died recently. It’s moving in places, with a couple of great moments (“Sweet Talk”, “Soul On Fire”), but it is emphatically not in the same league as Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space or the underappreciated Let It Come Down, and at times just sounds like a honking mess.

Runner-up: Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
Why yes, I would like some warmed-over mid-80s Paul Simon riffs with my hipster New York indie rock, thanks! I’ll stick with Graceland, thanks. And their cavalier attitude to punctuation upsets me.

Underrated album of the year
Superabundance – The Young Knives

Although it has nothing as immediate as the terrific singles “She’s Attracted To” and “Here Comes The Rumour Mill” from Voices Of Animals And Men, Superabundance is thoughtful and resonant, with tunes that wriggle inside your brain and set up a shop selling catchiness. “Turn Tail” is a glorious paean to disillusionment and resignation that might be the best thing they’ve written.

Runner-up: Consolers Of The Lonely – The Raconteurs
I’m convinced most people’s problem with this band is that they’re billed a “supergroup” when they’re nothing of the sort. But Jack White’s side project (with apologies to co-songwriter Brendan Benson) put out another great album this year, full of exhilarating blues riffs, hilarious melodrama and classic pop hooks.

Video of the year
“The Boy Does Nothing” – Alesha Dixon

Just because.

As a friend of Shades Of Caruso commented recently, “Oh, Harvey.” Bet her ex feels pretty fricking dumb right about now – as does Polydor, the record label that dropped her in 2006 and subsequently tried to re-sign her following her post-Strictly Come Dancing renaissance. (What do you know, she turned them down.) I’d like to take this opportunity to draw your attention to an earlier fantastic single, “Knockdown”, which inexplicably failed to make the UK Top 40.

Overexposed video of the year
Every single Rihanna video. I cannot tell the difference but they are ALL on EVERY MUSIC CHANNEL on my TV ALL THE TIME. Rihanna deservedly had a huge hit in 2007 with the very brilliant “Umbrella”, but now she seems less a popstar and more a charmless marionette who wears unflattering outfits while pretentious directors think up ways to make her MOR&B seem edgy.

Singles of the year
1. “Fascination” – Alphabeat
2. “I Will Possess Your Heart” – Death Cab For Cutie
3. “The Hurlers” – Seth Lakeman
4. “No Lucifer” – British Sea Power
5. “Kids” – MGMT
6. “L.E.S Artistes” – Santogold
7. “Waving Flags” – British Sea Power
8. “American Boy” – Estelle
9. “Dance Wiv Me” – Dizzee Rascal/Calvin Harris
10. “Black And Gold” – Sam Sparro

As Admiral Neck mentioned, this is not generally considered a vintage year for music, but what 2008 had in abundance was – to use the Smash Hits! vernacular for a moment (should that be “ver ’nacular”?) – amazingly brilliant pop singles.

None was better than Alphabeat’s debut release, about which everything was completely perfect, from its singers’ perky fresh-scrubbed faces to that wonderful “woah-oh, woah-oh-oh”. Estelle and Dizzee Rascal’s UK number ones ran it close, though – I admire Kanye West’s solo work more than I really like it, and I thought his collaboration with Estelle was the pick of his 2008 work. Other shiny pop gems included the aforementioned “The Boy Does Nothing”, Duffy’s “Mercy” (until you hear it for the 9,000th time), Timbaland’s “The Way I Are” and the irresistible “That’s Not My Name” by the Ting Tings. I wish that wasn’t their name, because I feel stupid just typing it. Even some of the year’s lesser pop hits had undeniable choruses: “Can’t Speak French” and “The Promise” by Girls Aloud,’s “Heartbreaker” and, yes, Britney’s “Womanizer” (try getting it out of your head – I guarantee you can’t). Even Pink’s grating “So What” had a fab chorus hidden amid its pissy squawking. Choruses are back back back!

While MGMT’s “Time To Pretend” was everywhere, I prefer “Kids”, with its plaintive, almost mournful “Control yourself/Take only what you neeeeeeeeed from it” refrain. Similarly, although Santogold’s “Say Aha” and “Creator” are overfamiliar from adverts, the haunting and ballsy “L.E.S Artistes” still sounds thrilling. And I love its crazy equine video. She’s like a deadpan, less condescending Gwen Stefani.

(Incidentally, I’ve picked “Black And Gold” despite having no association with the religious sentiments expressed therein by Mr Sparro. I choose to read it as a simple love song. However, if it really is a paean to God, then perhaps we’ll have to revise the truism that the Devil has the best tunes because this song is bloody fantastic.)

Triumphant comeback of the year

Mountain Battles – The Breeders

While the cognoscenti were focusing on the usual East Coast hipsters and high-profile R&B producers, a 47-year-old woman from Ohio was quietly making the coolest music of the year. Congratulations, that last sentence – you are the most wanky music-mag phrase I have ever written! The Breeders have always sounded out of their time: “Cannonball” might be synonymous with early-1990s alterna-rock, but it hardly epitomises it. By turns witty, penetrating, silly and heartbreaking, with its ultra-spare percussion and permanent throbbing fuzz, Mountain Battles sounds like nothing else in 2008. There are no official videos, but here’s some footage of Kim Deal and co setting up for a party while “Bang On” plays over the top.

Album I listened to most in 2008, although it was released in 2007
Cease To Begin – Band Of Horses

A very nearly perfect record, and certainly perfect for the time when I acquired it, just weeks after relocating from the city (well, suburbs) to a small town surrounded by countryside. Cease To Begin’s bucolic dreaminess and sense of isolation amid familiarity enveloped and comforted me, and I listened so much that my favourite track changed half a dozen times. Currently it’s the almost oppressively beautiful “Marry Song”.

Unquestionably my favourite album of the year
Narrow Stairs – Death Cab For Cutie

The title is surely ironic. Narrow Stairs is an expansive, easygoing album that never requires effort – it’s not difficult; it’s happy to be enjoyed. Aided by Ben Gibbard’s most lucid, evocative storytelling to date, this deceptively simple record draws you in and wraps itself around you. Dusty, warm and welcoming, it’s the best album of 2008, and it might be Death Cab’s best yet.

To end, here’s a hilariously literal fan video for one of my favourite tracks, “Grapevine Fires”.


Douglas friend of the admiral said...

Hello, I notice there is no mention of "Partie Traumatic" by The Black Kids. If you haven't heard it then I think it would be worth a listen.
An interesting post, some stuff I've not heard and may will check out.

Anonymous said...

Yessssss, you are soooooo right about the Breeders. Congratulations. The album isn't making quite as many year-end lists as it ought to, but at least their shows were well-attended. Kim Deal is unreal.