2008 was a big year for me, in many ways. My wife and I celebrated our third anniversary, work became even busier than ever (at both my day job and as a freelancer), and — right at the top of the list — my first child was born. So, suffice to say, 2008 was probably the worst year for me, as far as exploring, reading about, listening to, and writing about music goes.
I say all of that so as to, once again, stress that this isn’t a list of the best music of the year by any sort of objective standard. Rather, these are simply my favorite songs of the year, the songs that never really got old, but continued to excite, challenge, and inspire me.
1. Portishead — “The Rip”
I don’t ever really order my year-end mixes, other than to try and put songs together in a way that creates the best flow. However, if you were to force me to name my favorite song of 2008, I’d probably say “The Rip” nine times out of ten.
Much has been written about Portishead’s triumphant return and their (aptly titled) third album, which they released ten years after their previous album. In those ten years, countless imitators and pretenders to the trip-hop throne have emerged, all of them taking bits and pieces of what made Portishead’s first two albums so groundbreaking and essentially watering down the sound. So it only made sense for the genre’s originators to take it and strip it down to its bare essentials, and in the process, flip the pretenders the bird and show the kiddies how it’s done.
Third is a brutal album, harsh and unforgiving, and yet, as “The Rip” shows, full of naked and spellbinding emotion. Beth Gibbons’ voice is as haunting and tragic as ever as she sings about the illusions and ravages of addiction while backed by a delicate, almost folksy guitar. At about the halfway mark, the drums come fading in, followed by an arpeggiated synthesizer that manages to wrap itself around your brain like the catchiest pop hook — or rather, its death rattle. It’s the perfect synthesis of the human and the machine, the natural and artificial, and my favorite musical moment of the year.
2. Sun Kil Moon — “Lost Verses”
Sun Kil Moon’s April didn’t do as much for me as I hoped it would. I think that Ghosts Of The Great Highway is a far stronger and more interesting record, and that on April, Mark Kozelek’s tendency to meander and wander got the best of him. Still, noone meanders and wanders as well as he does, and on songs like “Lost Verses”, the journey is evocative and stirring.
Here, Kozelek leaves his lover’s embrace and makes a late night, rain-filled, and beautifully detailed journey through evil, death, rebirth, and ultimately, a spirit’s memories of a former life. It’s as sad-sack as anything Kozelek has done, but it’s full of bittersweet warmth and emotion, culminating in Kozelek’s ghost watching over friends and family:
I haunt the streets of San Francisco
Watch over loved ones and old friends
I see them through their living room windows
Shaken by fear and worries
I want them to know how I love them so
Foghorns would sound in waking
Is it my voice you hear?
Footsteps are moving across the floor
And you know I’m here
3. Northern Portrait — “I Give You Two Seconds To Entertain Me”
Northern Portrait’s Napolean Sweetheart EP was this year’s Mary Onettes album for me. By that, I mean here’s a band so obviously indebted to their influences — in Northern Portrait’s case, it’s The Smiths (if you doubt me, just look at the EP’s cover art) — that they perfectly typify everything that made their influences great, and thereby transcend them.
Or, in other words, they write one hell of a great pop song.
“I Give You Two Seconds To Entertain Me” positively soars, buoyed by jangly guitars, propulsive drums, syrupy sweet synths, and Stefan Larsen’s effortless croon as he sings about unrequited love, models, cosmetic surgery, and the longing for genuine human connection amidst superficiality. On paper, it’s rather maudlin material — again, like The Smiths — but over the speakers, it’s simply gorgeous.
4. Au Revoir Borealis — “The World Is Too Much With Us”
Portishead’s return might have received all of the press, and understandably so, but they weren’t the only band to emerge after a long absence with a splendid album. After eight years, Au Revoir Borealis returned with Dark Enough for Stars, a beautiful full-length that blended the shoegazer aesthetic of Just For A Day-era Slowdive with the glacial beauty of Low’s earliest material.
I went back and forth on which song to include from this album, as there were several worthy contenders. I ultimately went with “The World Is Too Much With Us” because of the amazing sonic detail contained within its four and a half minutes. When listened to on headphones, an entire world unfolds before you. The shimmering guitars, the drums’ distant rumbling, and the wearily beautiful vocals of Stephenie McWalters and Anna-Lynne Williams all combine to create a darkly mysterious and twilit space, one perfect for contemplating the winter night sky.
5. Cut Copy — “Out There On The Ice”
The first time I heard Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colours, I knew it was something special. Like Northern Portrait, and a few others on this list, Cut Copy effectively transcend their influences — in their case, early 80s synth-pop and new wave — by embodying them fully. And it never really got tired for me.
“Out There On The Ice” is a tour-de-force, the second track on the album and the centerpiece of what was one of the best musical sequences I heard all year. I can’t help but start moving — bobbing my head, tapping my toes, twitching my torso, shaking my booty — whenever this song comes on.
I imagine a sweaty, packed club full of beautiful people streaked by the strobes and pummelled by the speakers. Cut Copy is leading them all in a synth-fuelled bacchanalia from the stage. And when the bridge breaks it off shortly after the three-minute mark, I imagine the place exploding in a nova of light, sound, and human energy, and it’s a beautiful vision.
6. M83 — “Kim & Jessie”
I could never quite fathom the amount of acclaim that was heaped on M83’s music. They had a couple of solid tracks — e.g., “Unrecorded”, “Farewell/Goodbye” — but in the end, their music always left me cold. And then I heard a few tracks off of Saturdays=Youth, and once again, shameless appeals to 80’s nostalgia reeled me in. It also helped that the album represents Anthony Gonzalez’ most consistent songwriting yet, with the album containing one gem after another.
This was another case where I found it difficult to pick a track — there were at least three or four options on the album — but ultimately, “Kim & Jessie” won out. The cold electronics that figured so prominently on previous albums are gone for the most part, replaced by warm vocals, shoegazer-ish guitar textures that sound like they’re carved out of solid gold, and the greatest Tears For Fears guitar solo ever. Sure, it sounds like a soundtrack for all of the movies that John Hughes never made, but since when is that a bad thing?
7. The Radio Dept. — “Freddie and the Trojan Horse”
The Radio Dept. was originally scheduled to release their new full-length, Clinging To A Scheme, earlier this year. The full-length never dropped, but they did release “Freddie and the Trojan Horse”, the first single from the album. It’s everything we’ve come to expect from the fellows in the Dept., a catchy, melodic single full of ethereal shoegazery sounds, Johan Duncanson’s wispy vocals, and 80’s-influenced synths.
However, while most of the band’s songs are of the more pensive variety and deal with all things related to unrequited love, mopey crushes, and other melancholy topics, “Freddie and the Trojan Horse” stirs things up a little with some political outrage. The song, underneath all of its melodies and nostalgic effects, is actually a criticism of Sweden’s right-wing government, and specifically, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. Who says political statements and pristine pop can’t, or shouldn’t, mix? I won’t, not when the results are as solid as this.
8. Park Avenue Music — “Tufts”
I read an interview with Hood around the time that Cold House was released, in which it was joked that glitch was becoming the new synthesizer orchestral hit, as far as overplayed sonic clichés go. Well, that was over seven years ago, and the ensuing years have borne out the truth of that. I love the warm crackle of a good glitch, but the sound has become way too played out — implemented, it seems, whenever a band wants to sound “experimental”, or give their electronic sounds a little warmth and humanness. But frankly, I find it rather boring these days.
“Tufts” — which is taken from By Hearts+Horses — is a track slathered in glitch and other sonic detritus. But Park Avenue Music gives the sonic cliché some new life by wedding it to sparse, melancholy piano and horn arrangements, and Jeannette Faith’s digitized femme fatale vocals (which sound like Beth Gibbons recorded through a kaleidoscope).
9. Lansing-Dreiden — “I Disappear”
When I found out that the über-cryptic art collective Lansing-Dreiden had released a free EP on their website, I was both excited and hesitant. Excited because I’ve always been fascinated by the delightfully retro and shamelessly post-modern electro-pop-metal that the band conjures up so easily, and hesitant because of the artsy-fartsy manifesto B.S. that accompanies their music. But this time, I decided to shelve the latter in order to better enjoy the former, and I’m glad I did.
“I Disappear” is unashamedly cheesy in every faux-funk way, from the ultra-Caucasian bassline and wah guitar to the twinkling synths. It sounds like Information Society doing a “New Jack Swing” remix of Kajagoogoo — cheesy and superficial as hell, but that’s precisely why I like it as much as I do.
10. Pallers — “Humdrum”
I’m sure that, by now, noone is surprised by my love for Sweden’s Labrador Records, or that I’ve included two of their releases in this list. But can you blame me when they consistently release music as good as this track (or, for that matter, the aforementioned “Freddie and the Trojan Horse”)?
According to the press materials, “Humdrum” is dance music for the lazy, the blazers and for the slightly depressed. Which is true, if you mean all that to say that it’s a slice of gorgeous, effortless electronica. The first thing you notice are the silky-smooth synth arpeggios, which are certainly reminiscent of trance-y dance music, albeit of a much more otherworldly variety. Then the wistful vocals come drifting in, along with a post-punk guitar line that grows more nostalgic and evocative as the song progresses.
It all comes together in the finest Swedish style: slick without being emotionless, stylish without being substanceless, and done with nary an ounce of effort to be found anywhere.
11. Starflyer 59 — “Concentrate”
There’s no use denying it: if there’s a new Starflyer 59 album, I’m going to own it. And as I wrote earlier, that sort of obligation does often set you up for inevitable disappointment, but that’s not really the case with Starflyer 59 and their latest album, Dial M. There’s a workmanlike quality to Jason Martin’s music; it’s not wildly experimental or innovative to be sure, but nevertheless, it’s solid and dependable, like a sturdy oak desk. And therein lies its beauty.
“Concentrate” is the album’s highlight, a punchy number that downplays Martin’s always solid guitar work for icy analog synths. The surf-inflected guitars just float around the song’s periphery, giving it a retro, 80’s sound that evokes ghosts of the past — like so many of the other artists on this list, it seems — without really sounding like any of them.
“Concentrate” highlights so much of what’s great about Starflyer 59’s music: it’s as catchy as anything Martin’s written (as evidenced by my reaction every time I hear it) and it displays an obvious, yet not gratuitous love for the icons of his musical past. And it shows that, even after nearly fifteen years, Jason Martin is still putting out music that gets me as excited now as when I first heard Silver.
12. This Is Ivy League — “London Bridges”
This Is Ivy League’s name may conjure up elitist connotations, but only if you consider catchy pop melodies, chiming guitars, and sterling vocal harmonies to be “elitist”.
This Is Ivy League is the duo of Ryland Blackinton and Alex Suarez (both of Cobra Starship) and they dive headfirst into the sort of breezy, wistful folk-pop typified by other duos such as Chad & Jeremy or Peter & Gordon.
I’ll admit to feeling a little odd putting this on a mix that is posted in the dead of winter. It’s really better suited for those fine spring days when the leaves are turning green but there’s still just enough of a chill in the air to make you don your cardigan before taking that bike ride ’round the lake. But perhaps it’s good to have something on here to make you look forward to those days.
13. Fleet Foxes — “Blue Ridge Mountains”
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Fleet Foxes and their down-home country-fied indie-pop do sound like My Morning Jacket, and Robin Pecknold’s golden, crooning voice does sound awfully similar to Jim James’. But so what? The songs are all that matter, and Fleet Foxes has good songs in abundance.
I first listened to their self-titled full-length while traveling across Colorado and Nebraska, an experience indelibly etched in my mind. Since then, “Blue Ridge Mountains” has always been the album’s highlight for me, a beautiful track of acoustic guitar and mandolin backing Pecknold’s evocative lyrics. The second half of the song always gets me, as the full band comes in: the mandolin plucks a vaguely oriental melody and the drums cascade away while Pecknold sings of natural beauties and familiar comforts.
14. July Skies — “Skies For Nash”
July Skies’ brand of atmospheric, nostalgia-laden music — which is equal parts Slowdive, Durutti Column, and Flying Saucer Attack — has been a longtime favorite here at Opus, ever since 2002’s Dreaming of Spires. So I was very excited when the long-delayed The Weather Clock finally came out this year.
The album is more of the same from Antony Harding: gentle, pastoral swells of guitar and piano and fey, wistful vocals pining after “endless childhood summers”, “time spent amongst long summer grasses”, “kissing under motorway bridges”, and “grey English rain filled skies” (according to their MySpace page). It’s the type of music that, if you don’t fully buy into Harding’s melancholy, will make you roll your eyes and possibly even chuck it in the bin. If you do, however, it can be quite affecting and engaging.
The Weather Clock sometimes seems a little slight compared to previous albums, but it does culminate in one of July Skies’ finest moments. The nearly seven-minute “Skies For Nash” winds the album down with an array of gorgeous, hazy guitar drones that, as I wrote in my review, wraps the listener in a warm and sorrowful embrace, soundtracks the decaying of… ruins, and could potentially bring about autumn’s orange skies all by itself.