Top Records of 2008

By way of introduction, I present my most carefully considered and powerfully received records of 2008. In years past I have lamented the lack of a unifying artistic theme or musical style linking the exponentially multiplying number of artists the onset of distributed information and cheap personal computer recording has brought to the marketplace of ideas. In years past I have scolded (to very little, er, no effect) the masses, creative or otherwise, for settling into repetitions of pop forms of eras gone by, for shirking the creative and political responsibilities of the day by engaging in playful and harmless anachronistic feats of costume rock.

There is very little unifying my picks this year other than my taste, but the range of amazing recordings that emerged this year differs from years past. In the ever-accelerating slurry of mediocrity abetted by the availability of affordable recording equipment and distribution channels, those just-as-few as ever Shakespeares pushing along the whole project of civilization behind the confused, echolaliac hordes seem to have gotten a lot easier to hear.

The British Expeditionary Force – Chapter 1: A Long Way from Home

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“It’s the devil that told you it’s better the life you know than all that dreaming for one that you don’t”

This is easily my favorite new record this year. It actually came out in 2007, but it got the rider in the last car on the Cyclone treatment. Released on December 3, 2007 it just got whipped around the tail end of the year’s review cycle. Riding in the critical caboose like that, internal organ damage was much more likely than the possibility of basking in rock ‘n roll good times and critical success. I didn’t hear it until September, when I gave these guys a shot based on the arbitrary markers of its cover art and the genre it had been lumped into. I didn’t expect to give it a listen of more than 10 seconds, but it has been my most oft-repeated go-to since September. Check out the extensive collection of videos and preview tracks up on their myspace page. I have no further information about this band and I kind of like it that way, but if I had to give them a one-sentence summation, it would probably be something like:

Having nothing to do with the army that fought on behalf of the United Kingdom in WWI and WWII, and neither carrying any formal associations with the other famous BEF, Human Leaguers’ Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh’s early ’80s electronic music outfit British Electronic Foundation that later became Heaven 17, Erased Tapes Records’ The British Expeditionary force are softly tearing the world a fantastic new asshole through which to waft the otherdimensional winds bands like Múm and Schneider TM sailed in on in the early part of this decade.

I love this fantastic, ghostly, sparse, pretty, heartfelt paean to risk and reward, and I love even more that it’s only an EP taster of what’s to come in 2009.

Gaslight Anthem – The ’59 Sound

With The ‘59 Sound, New Brunswick, New Jersey’s Gaslight Anthem emerges as a band telling stories like throwing elbows, writing hard nostalgia in the margins and back pages of the fakebooks we love. These are songs that tell the stories of what happened to the stir-crazy young lovers formerly riding in the those burned out Chevrolets hulking on the shoulder of Thunder Road.

This is the second full-length and third release from Gaslight since 2007. Earlier this year mnemonically encyclopedically endowed, in terms of his within-reach knowledge of the best bits of pop rock from the past 30 years, Brian Fallon did an acoustic set for NPR’s KEXP in New York, which you can listen to here in its entirety. My single complaint about this record from these hard-working skilled workers in rock anthem homage is that, Jesus, it gets sad in places. Brian, that’s not a trampoline, those are my heartstrings you’re jumping on. “Young boys/Young girls/Ain’t supposed to die on a Saturday night”, indeed.

Max Tundra – Parallax Error Beheads You

Max Tundra released his first full album of original micro-pop material in 6 years this past October. If Max Tundra were, instead of a musician, an author the likes of a Joyce, Pynchon, or Borges, and he were reviewing his own record here in my stead, the preceding sentence would have been incalculably more extensively encoded with information, and would probably have also contained the whole neat package of the problem of the universe and its resolution before, during, and after its first three words.

The unexploded psychologies of the world’s peoples are therefore gladdened that he uses his powers of baroque detail to churn out femto-second-scaled pop ditties (that are, by the by, sonic labyrinths in which the minotaur of pop has ensconced and lost itself, like maps of the whole pop universe laid 3,000 pages thick in onion-skin over the whole real (conceptual) space of the pop genre’s entire ouevre).

He also released this album as a limited addition along with his Max Tundra brand kosher chicken soup.

Fucking cosmic.

Pop Levi – Never Never Love

Precise, poppy, powerfully complex and pleasing listened to loud — we never had any reason to doubt that Prince and T. Rex could use their powers of musical omnipotence to transgress time, geography, and all reason to combine and form what quantum physicists and music journalists alike call a cosmic rock super-enigma, but did we ever expect them to do it?

The Black Dog – Radio Scarecrow

As I mentioned in April of this year…

This is a work of beautiful, very deep production. Sharing this passion for the haunting of 3-dimensional aural spaces with Plaid, The Black Dog delivers a very synthetic set of melodies minimally framed by a post-rave aesthetic that still sounds pleasingly and eerily natural. All the various wind-up monsters of sequenced repetition or LFO modulated pulses roaming the scales of this songlist in their terrific chrome and black matte definition, even at the full distance of hearing’s horizon, seem to do so obfuscated in a shadowy and endless nighted wood. It is seeing with the ear magic and clockwork in a land of tin wendigos.

P-Heavy – Triplex

Put this in the long-awaited column. Like a gasp of air after interminable blackout minutes (or years) with your windpipe in the path of a river of Okinawan Shochu, Matsumoto, Japan’s P-Heavy surfaced this year to administer some life-giving mouth to mouth to meters-in-the-red rock. They make that sweet wind blow just long enough to pat you on the back and say, “There, is that better? OK, back into the whiskey bath.”

Torche – Meanderthal

Ex-Floor, exceeding all expectations and exfoliating faces at volcanic temps, Torche can’t be played loudly enough. Ever.

This is what I said about them in August:

I cue up a Torche song. I press play. All vestiges of my face are removed by the force, and I begin hopping around the room with a glowing, grinning skull atop my shoulders screaming neon streamers of lipless joy. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Motherfucking Torche is melting my fucking face right the fuck off! I’m in outer friggin’ space, right now, man!”

I do this on the subway on the way to work as often as I do it in my bedroom at home, and in either place it is clear that I am not in outer space.

So powerful is the elemental shred of this band Miami bred that I am willing to publicly come off as a guy who believes himself to be in outer space when he might, in fact, be standing in front of the United Nations or standing on a table in the middle of an Olive Garden when this declaration is made.

Their cover art is sort of dumb, though.

Deerhunter – Microcastle


Like a sleeper waking from passive blindness after hundreds of years, like the choice you made knowing better that comes back after a lifetime spent erasing and denying to claim the remaining purse of currency left in your personality, I woke up to this album this past summer like a child, like a white-haired fool shaking in front of a kind of god, a jungle god, a rainy clime’s god that will go on anyway, a deity who will remain despite your piety, despite your poetry, despite your tithe or your heresy. I knew ignorance in myself and then I knew G-d when I heard this record played live and realized suddenly that, finally, something other than me was happening.

Otto Von Schirach – Oozing Bass Spasms

I unwittingly first heard Otto Von Schirach under the Megadebt pseudonym in 2004, and for the record, Otto, you had me at “Suck my cock, Mr. President.”

For fans of big, real wet titties and dirty, overdriven pulse wave bass. It’s everything that’s hard about hip hop and industrial music without being afraid of itself. It’s the unlikely heir of Coil’s studied, violent misanthropy without forgetting about that bacchanalian thing. Think the body in extremis. Think one of those potato powered radios or clocks you can build from kits ordered from scientific supply companies, but instead of a potato skewered on an electrode, think Natalie Portman skewered on a Sybian in the brainwashing scene of A Clockwork Orange. There, I said it.

Against Me! – New Wave

“New Wave” is the Gainesville, FL band’s Sire Records debut and their first record for a major, and it’s both the most polished and poppy set of sing-along anthems they’ve produced. Up and down, it’s absolutely their best record to date. 10 years out now from when the outfit was just singer/songwriter Tom Gabel busking in laundromats, the expanded outfit’s record “New Wave” is a record of positivity laced with tragedy, a message, according to Gabel, telling us to “be energized and take things over. Be the bands you want to hear. It meant ‘wave’ in a literal sense, coming and washing away mediocrity… Why let someone else have the loudest voice?”

It’s self-evidently great, so I have only one question regarding this record: Is that a scary big cat on the cover, or a close up of a little house kitty?

Booka Shade – The Sun & Neon Light

Booka Shade is something of an enigma. They have a kind of fake European take on American street English name that, on second thought, doesn’t mean anything at all, does it?

Booka. Shade. Nope, not a shred of meaning.

If one was to do a bit of reading about them, one would learn they have a long and respectable history as a duo in the Frankfurt Electrohouse scene with three full albums under their techno mustaches.

OK.

One would most certainly be required to take that piece of information under careful scrutiny before filing it away as incontestable fact. Someone is positing that there exists a perhaps mythical Frankfurt electrohouse scene? Airport house, maybe. Train station house, sure. What the hell else is there in Frankfurt? The convention center? Yes, this I’ll grant you. Civic centers, however, do not typically warrant a necessary delineation between distinct and rival techno scenes. They necessitate Scorpion and ZZ Top concerts.

All that silly curriculum vitae debunking claptrap out of the way, then, we can safely compare this storied duo famous for their remixes and original club bangers to someone else’s style of music.

The thing is, these guys are amazing at making mostly instrumental dance/IDM music that sounds like a fully realized, completely awesome, absolutely never disappointing version of post-millenial Depeche Mode. I really love Depeche Mode, and when could you ever get through one of their albums without kind of wincing and making a little excuse under your breath for Martin Gore & the boys’ maudlin Christian exuberance? Never, that’s when.

I love Depeche Mode, I love their perfect understudies.

Shy Child – Noise Won’t Stop


This record moved me. It didn’t move me using any of the wiles of poignancy. It just picked me up and threw me across the room a few times. “All in good fun, innit?” this record seemed to say to me repeatedly.

No part of these songs is atmospheric. They layer their synthesizer lines brightly and densely over war drums. I wrote a long, confused metaphor a few issues back in Heso about how exciting I thought this record was, a metaphor that involved erotic weather patterns on the isle of Lesbos, but I think I will just say that this record stands out by being really different in its staccato bursts of rhythm from the nu-folk and boojie ivy league naptime garbage that people are shitting themselves for these days (I’m talking about vapid garbage like Fleet Foxes and Vampire Weekend, maybe even Bon Iver?- full disclosure).

The natives have been neutralized, but the urbanites are restless.

The Hold Steady – Stay Positive

“Everybody’s comin’ onto navy sheets.”

Craig Finn and his band of merry big thinkers came back from the relative disappointment of “Boys & Girls in America” with a single proposal, a challenge, if you will: I will rock you longer. I will rock you infinity.

The band gave out temporary transfer tattoos of their genius “Stay Positive” logo with their album, and I actually saw a guy with this thing on his arm riding his bike through my neighborhood this summer. A temporary tattoo is somewhat contradictory to the idea of infinity, and an affront to the human permanence of a real tattoo, isn’t it? This is a true story so far as I know. For all I know, the tattoo was the real thing.

The Hold Steady are elder statesmen of folk memory in the land of the lotus eaters, and their rambling philosophical meandering and bar brawl bravura, their insistence on insisting their pantheon of poets, punks, and pariahs on the silly and puking will make them the next real thing after Shane McGowan and the Pogues take their pleasure dying to the chagrin of their adoring public.