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The Best Music of 2008

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2008 was a pretty good year for new music.

The Best albums released in 2008 (Album –  Artist):

  1. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark –  Drive-By Truckers
  2. The Evening Descends –  Evangelicals
  3. The Chemistry of Common Life –  F**ked Up
  4. At Mount Zoomer –  Wolf Parade
  5. HLLLYH –  The Mae Shi
  6. Hold On Now, Youngster… –  Los Campesinos!
  7. Liver! Lung! FR! –  Frightened Rabbit
  8. Ice Cream Spiritual –  Ponytail
  9. Jim –  Jamie Lidell
  10. Heretic Pride –  The Mountain Goats

“You! Me! Dancing!” by Los Campesinos!, from their debut album, Hold On Now, Youngster… (also found on the 2007 EP Sticking Fingers Into Sockets)

The rest of the best (in no particular order):

  • 808s & Heartbreak –  Kanye West
  • Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
  • Third –  Portishead
  • We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed –  Los Campesinos!
  • Vivian Girls –  Vivian Girls
  • In The Future –  Black Mountain
  • Distortion – The Magnetic Fields
  • Ferndorf –  Hauschka
  • Life…The Best Game in Town –  Harvey Milk
  • Cities of Glass –  AIDS Wolf
  • Microcastle –  Deerhunter
  • The Odd Couple –  Gnarls Barkley
  • Skeleton –  Abe Vigoda
  • The Midnight Organ Fight –  Frightened Rabbit
  • The Twilight Sad Killed My Parents and Hit the Road –  The Twilight Sad
  • Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea – Silver Jews
  • Methods: (EP) –  Imperial China
  • Sing Along (EP)  –  Caverns
  • Kittens! (EP)  –  Caverns
  • Music Needs You –  Ryan Blotnick
  • Red, Yellow & Blue –  Born Ruffians
  • A Certain Feeling –  Bodies of Water
  • Nouns –  No Age
  • Smile –  Boris
  • Pop-Up –  Yelle
  • Made In The Dark –  Hot Chip
  • Lost and Found –  The Dexateens
  • Long Gone And Nearly There –  Julie Ocean
  • Litany of Echoes –  James Blackshaw
  • Arm’s Way –  Islands
  • Magnificent Fiend –  Howlin’ Rain
  • High Places –  High Places
  • Flight Of The Conchords –  Flight Of The Conchords
  • Christmas On Mars (Soundtrack)  –  The Flaming Lips
  • Street Horrrsing –  F**k Buttons
  • Visiter –  The Dodos
  • Nothing Is Precious Enough for Us –  Death Vessel
  • Drippers and  Bonus Drippers –  Black Moth Super Rainbow
  • Rip It Off –  Times New Viking

Best Re-issue of 2008:

  1. Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul –  Otis Redding

– R.H.

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The Best Albums of 2008 :

1. Is it the Sea – Bonnie Prince Billy : Our favorite melancountry superstar delivers a live album that reminds one of his greatness while examining it in a whole new light.

2. Stay Positive – The Hold Steady : Working class is not a label that readily describes Craig Finn and co but their tales of townies and misguided teenagers are just as funny, touching and perfect in their own scrappy way as ever. The world’s best bar music as interpreted by indie elitists.

3. Glasvegas – Glasvegas : Melodic catharsis in spades delivered by four Glasgowians. This young band is not infallible as a whispered poem over Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata suffers in comparison to the original but they got spirit, energy and stories of absent fathers, wounded teens and overall angst that really should not work as well as they do.

4. We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed – Los Campesinos : Cheeky and clever but much more than that. Nihilists on the outside but pop craftsmen at heart, their ruminations on youth’s assured end in dejected failure are all good fun until you stop and realize they’re telling you the party’s going to be over and there’s nothing you can do.

5. Microcastle – Deerhunter : There’s something ethereal about this band and especially this album. Playing with avant garde ideas without sacrificing listenability, these ambassadors of indie keep winning.

6. You and Me – The Walkmen : The Bob Dylan comparisons become ever more pronounced especially with frontman Hamilton Leithauser affecting nasally intonations. Still, their chief appeal is heartfelt, esoteric storytelling, aged and cackling.

7. Skeletal Lamping – Of Montreal : The hype machine finally broke down and Kevin Barnes began to tumble critically while selling out shows. The music, however, is just as inventive and grand as it ever was. Though lacking the darkness of Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, Barnes’ latest is rife with the new ideas he keeps discovering and surely will stand more prominently in the cannon once the sobering influence of time takes hold.

8. Modern Guilt – Beck : The dream team of Beck and The Gray Album mastermind Dangermouse creates surprisingly ignored quality tunes. Beck is still haunted by his demons from Sea Change but he still finds time to offer Dangermouse jubilant, sampled pop ditties to wash down the depression.

9. Saturnalia – The Gutter Twins : An album that abounds with apocalypse throughout as two musical legends push each other to the limits of their sensibilities, one high the other low.

10.That Lucky Old Sun – Brian Wilson : A musical legend who seems to be experimenting with the harmonies and arrangements that have fascinated him throughout his career not for the audience’s benefit but his own. The results are as reliably stunning as ever.

Honorable Mention: 808s and Hearbreak – Kanye West, Untitled – Nas, A Larum – Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit, The ’59 Sound – The Gaslight Anthem

– Vman

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Review: ‘Ferndorf’ by Hauschka

Ferndorf, the title of Hauschka’s new album, translates to “distant village.” That might just be where you end up after listening to the pleasantly soft, ambient album.

Or, you might just stay right in your place; only accompanied by the careful tunes of Hauschka. Ferndorf is very good as ambient music after all, not a sweeping epic to transport you but rather a guide to your self.

Best known as a pianist who likes to play with electronic instruments, composer Volker Bertelmann (recording as Hauschka) adds a string duo into the mix for most of the songs on Ferndorf. And it works.

Ferndorf is the German composer’s fourth full-length as Hauschka and the strings truly are a big deal. It is hard not to get hypnotized by the piano but the string accompaniment becomes not just accompaniment but a major player, transfixing ears right alongside the piano.

Bertelmann has become known for his use of the prepared piano, an instrument which he dedicated an entire album to (2005’s appropriately titled The Prepared Piano). His use of this instrument emphasizes his categorization as an experimental, avant-garde artist. A prepared piano is simply a piano but with assorted objects stuck inside and affixed to the piano’s strings; the modifications to the classic instrument create another world of sounds.

Ferndorf is also notable for its album-as-one-piece mentality. The record works on a whole, as no songs dare stray from the vocals-less, experimental chamber pop aesthetic Bertelmann marks as Ferndorf’s.

The album also flows beautifully. Only a few songs on the record do not transition seamlessly with one another (and this only due to a break in music, not poor juxtaposition).

While a plus with this album, some might consider the seamlessness a drawback. Because of Ferndorf’s fluidity there are no stand-out tracks. All the songs are quality ones but none of them will be making the year-end best songs list. That’s because this is an album.

It’s not a collection you can categorize in the “buy one song from iTunes, discard the rest” trash bin. Ferndorf is a piece meant to be consumed as a whole.

Not that you cannot enjoy the songs individually, for you certainly can. You just won’t be walking away with a brilliant pop hook stuck in your head.

All the songs on the 12-track disc are given German titles, save for the opening and closing songs.

“Blue Bicycle” starts the album off with a classy piano refrain that swells into evolution as the strings come into introduce Ferndorf as one you will not mind playing again and again (perhaps in the background, but nonetheless).

“Weeks of Rain” closes the set on a mildly somber note. The reflective piano of the song would not be classified as twee by anyone with their emotions in order. The song simply ends somewhat abruptly without any finishing grandiose flourishes. You might not even notice the album is over.

But when you do notice, you press repeat.

– R.H.

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Review: ‘The Ruiner’ by Made Out Of Babies

Surprising. Unexpected.

I did not know what to expect from this album. Album cover? Made Out Of Babies? Metal that’s “not metal”?

Well, turns out, it’s pretty darn good. Or at least, so far, it’s more accessible than expected. Good!

The first track, “Cooker,” definitely starts the album off on a good note. Or rather, some good pushed-to-its-limits guitar. “Cooker” is the most original track, musically, on the album. If Made Out Of Babies can be defined by “Cooker,” they’ve done well.

Going through the album, vocalist Julie Christmas both worries and captivates us. She does quite a good job at her screams and the other noises required for being the best metal singer you can be. Christmas takes a sinister drive at the wheel of her vocals. Christmas works expertly with the music of Made Out Of Babies (what a name, right?). Vocals at the front, or the stuff mixed in the background, it all works out well.

The fault shouldn’t entirely rest on Christmas, but possibly because of the female vocals, The Ruiner begins to sound somewhat bland; derivative in the same way as other female-fronted “metal” projects. Least names be mentioned, let’s just say that’s not good. But Christmas is fine, just the haunted memories the music + her voice bring out are bad. In all likelihood, we need more confident female vocalists like Christmas doing right on hard rocking music.

As previously discussed, the music of Made Out Of Babies is most out-there/experimental on “Cooker.” Elsewhere, the band crafts well-made metal, trying to escape the restrictiveness such a label can have on a band. Traditional metal chugs are coupled with the crystal-clear guitar work sometimes found in the modern metal landscape (see: “The Major”). The drums are often the most distinctive part of The Ruiner. Drummer Matthew Egan pounds when needed and drops the sticks on a remote drum when it sounds good. Complaints are hard to make.

The Ruiner reaches a nice plateau of easily-accessible metal with enough uniqueness and originality to justify its existence. It’s not pop-metal, nor [anything close to] art-metal, but…there certainly are a few good pop songs on the record.

– R.H.

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Bonnaroo 2008

…was awesome.

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Live: Tapes’n’Tapes, White Denim – 4/23/08 at the 9:30 Club

Openers White Denim were energetic, fun, and interesting.

Tapes’n’Tapes were dull’n’dumb.

Not really too dumb, but it was definitely one of the more boring shows I have ever been to. They are not very good live performers. No encore. Not captivating. Very, very limited audience interaction (from the band) (basically none at all). The bass was good, but man, was it loud (blame it on the 9:30 Club, whose sound system always manages to mess up at least one aspect of the live sound. Tonight there were multiple maladies…). The vocals and guitar were very hard to hear. Many, if not all, of the songs sounded the same. Not many people looked too into it. It was alright. Really not that great.

But you need shows like this to bring you back down. Not every show is going to be amazing.

White Denim were really terrific, though. A lot of fun. (Barely anyone was there to see them, however.)

Tapes’n’Tapes…not so much.

– R.H.

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Live: Dead Meadow, Ancient Sky – 4/16/08 at Black Cat Backstage

Dead Meadow at the Black Cat, backstage. With Ancient Sky.

The Red Room is a nice place. That’s where we wait before former local (D.C.) band Dead Meadow put on their show at the tiny backstage venue of the Black Cat.

The backstage is very intimate and small and comfortable and the sound system is pretty great. We get right up next to the stage.

Brooklyn (by way of Richmond, VA and surrounding towns) rockers Ancient Sky set up and play. The band plays some type of stoner-ish psychedelic rock. The have a guitarist/singer; a bassist; a drummer; and a man on horns, keys, noise, and other assorted sound-making devices (all musically based). They are a good band and I was excited to see them.

They played with a controlled gusto. The bassist was a bit too into just his instrument but the singer/guitarist worked well, as did the other players. As performers they reminded me of a subdued (in fierce, rockin’ energy) Howlin’ Rain. The singer’s passionate yelps also recalled My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, as weird as that sounds. Ancient Sky sounds nothing like either of those two bands. But the vocal performance is definitely reminiscent of that of live Howlin’ Rain (a great live band).

Ancient Sky played their experimental rock and it was terrific. A superb performance from an up-and-coming (they just finished recording their debut album in D.C.) band with solid songs. Ancient Sky is indeed a band to watch.

Dead Meadow came on. Guitarist/singer, drummer, bassist. They were awesome. A very slow melt of the face. They completely blew me away. They played a great show.

Admittedly, the three-piece has a strong catalogue, but it’s littered with songs that sound the same. That showed during the show, when I thought one song was being played but then they actually played that song later in the night. This happened several times. Oh, well.

Guitarist Jason Simon’s vocals are obscured and hard-to-hear on their records. Same goes for their live shows. But did the lyrics really matter when the music was this great?

Bassist Steve Kille did some jumping and played well. Drummer Stephen McCarty showcased his strong playing. Jason’s solos and the band’s jams that extended the songs well past the pop-music minute mark made for an awesome spectacle. Just pure rock ‘n’ roll in a great, small venue.

The crowd interacted well with the band and there were some really dedicated fans in the audience. Before Dead Meadow began their encore, they brought one of the audience members on stage. He had some kind of connection with the band (his uncle or something…). In the words of a 21st Century Camus: It was funny. It was cool.

Steve told the onstage fan to introduce the band as “Black Mountain.” That got some laughs. (Has anyone listened to “Angels,” from Black Mountain’s latest, In The Future? Sounds similar to Dead Meadow’s “At Her Open Door,” from Feathers) After the show, Steve explained that the band was friends with Black Mountain and that they were “really nice guys” (the L.A. transplants and the Canadians have toured together).

The encore continued the pleasurable face-melting. Mind, this was not face-melting in the “I’m gonna rock your socks off” vein or pure rock fury vein, but the “Oh my gosh, this is pretty dang awesome. Mind-blowing even. What good music” vein.

Dead Meadow rocked. Plain and simple.

A great show.

– R.H.

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Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

That was beautiful.

That was the resonating thought I had while the credits began to roll after Julian Schnabel’s French film, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly;” based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir, Le Scaphandre et le papillon.

That was beautiful, as a beautiful metaphor and images are shown behind the French credits.

That was beautiful, as Joe Strummer’s (& The Mescaleros’) great, uplifting anthem of “Ramshackle Day Parade” plays. “Loving life…that is paradise.” So true, my man. So true. (R.I.P.)

And those beautiful French people…

The best foreign language film I have seen all year, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” excels at showing the human, and the inhuman (which is, after all, human).

About the paralysis and resulting hospital stay of Elle magazine editor Bauby, the film is just…splendid. To describe the story would be insufficient. The way “Diving Bell” is filmed is magnificent. To save you the surprise, I will not reveal the techniques screenwriter Ronald Harwood and Schnabel incorporate in the film to make it all the more real and mesmerizing (possibly head-ache inducing, but you’ll get it over it).

Some notes about the production of the film… Direction? Check. Script? Double-check. Acting? Oh, yes. The acting really is great. Visuals and scenery? Oh my goodness, yes. Usage of music? Triple-times-one-hundred check. The use of music in “Diving Bell” is quite amazing. The shattering guitars of the Edge set one convertible scene’s fast tone as U2 plays along. Tom Waits croons his type of croon during a revealing Father’s Day-on-the-beach scene. The last song of the credits also goes to Waits. As well: This film has opened my eyes to the major talents of the former leader of the legendary Clash. Joe Strummer: we really, really hardly knew ye. Let’s change that somehow. Listen to the man’s last records with his band the Mescaleros. So far, they have not disappointed. And I don’t expect them to. (Thank you Mr. Schanbel (or whoever picked out the music). But thanks for the terrific film as well.)

Astounding and beautiful film-making? An assured check.

This wonderful film is about living life and being human. Go see it.

– R.H.

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