More (and More) Music to Hear Before the End of the Year

December 2, 2008

in Musical Musings

Are you an end-of-the-year top-list maker? For instance, have you written down your list of the top 10 best records of 2008 yet, in rank order? Or are you contemplating your top 25 favorite songs, by genre? Or your list of the year’s 5 biggest musical disappointments? I am not a list-maker, by nature, and am happy to leave the quantifying to those who are more qualified than I (like these fine folks). I enjoy reading and considering these compilations, which usually start to mushroom on the Internet and elsewhere about this time each year. (Although, in truth, such an act seems somewhat forced and pointless to me, it conjures up scenes from the movie “High Fidelity,” which I love, including this hilarious commentary on the whole concept.)

No, I am far less categorical, and far more hedonistic, for such pursuits, being content to enjoy each passing pleasure in its moment. Nor am I a contrarian; on the contrary, I tend to like just about everything I come across, for one reason or another, and see no need to pick favorites or take sides. I may need to qualify or defend my choices, from time to time, that’s true. In general, though, I simply know what I like and am comfortable keeping track of it all, in some fashion, without the need to rank or otherwise categorize.

That said, however, I need to reconsider what I recently wrote about the most notable releases in 2008. It’s either that or reorganize the basement storage area. (List-making may seem like too much work, but I can see the attraction now, especially on a day like today — gray skies, on-and-off hard rain, 38 degrees, etc.)

Originally, my top 10 list (11, really, and ranked in no particular order) was compiled arbitrarily from the recordings that I had stockpiled over the course of the past 10 months. But in making those choices I knew that I was going to leave out a lot of great music. (I have purchased or otherwise downloaded [legitimately] more than 375 songs this year.) So, now that the year is almost over, I want to go back and revise the list by adding in recordings that I either forgot about or overlooked, or that simply weren’t available until now.

And, as before, I won’t do more than mention the better-known acts who have released outstanding music this year – such as The Pretenders, Kings of Leon, TV On the Radio, Gnarls Barkley, Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst, and Okkervil River, to name a few. Much has already been said. All I can add is, go buy their records, or even a few cuts; they are amazing, and you won’t regret it. Instead, I want to focus on the more obscure, less popular (though no less listenable) recordings that may not have reached your ear canals via the usual broadcast channels.

So, here is a continuation of my 10 most essential recordings from 2008, divided into three qualifying groups (in reverse alphabetical order, because why not). I hope this is the end of it, but you never know. Enjoy!

Must-have recordings. These are artists whose songs I heard and decided I needed to have more right away.

The Walkmen. I can’t get enough of these five guys from New York, and have been listening to and enjoying their tight, peripatetic music since the 2004 release, Bows + Arrows (which featured the single, “The Rat”). On their latest record, You & Me, their sound has grown at once rangier and sparer: it’s a simple mix of snare drums, subtle bass lines, swelling keyboards, and growling, reverb-laden vintage guitar, along with Hamilton Leithauser’s soaring, gravelly vocals, that nonetheless covers a lot territory and many moods. I particularly like “Postcards from Tiny Islands,” “In the New Year,” and “Red Moon.”

Say Hi. Several one-man-bands have surfaced over the last few years (for instance, Throw Me the Statue, which I wrote about earlier). But none has a quirkier appeal than Eric Elbogen, better known as Say Hi to Your Mom. Although the band’s moniker was trimmed down to just the greeting with this year’s release, The Wishes and The Glitch, the creativity remains unbounded. Part Gary Numan, part Interpol, part Jonathan Richman, Elbogen turns out consistently clever, catchy pop songs, like “Northwestern Girls” and “Zero to Love,” to which everyone (and their moms) should be listening.

Nada Surf. Another band that I’ve been enamored of for awhile is Nada Surf. But it seems that hardly anyone has heard of them, even though they have been crafting likable, mid-tempo pop music for more than a decade. It’s a mystery to me (and, I suspect, the band) why they don’t get greater airplay. Perhaps, their fifth and newest LP, Lucky, with such radio-ready songs as “See These Bones,” “Weightless,” and “Whose Authority,” featuring shimmering power-chords and lush harmonies, will prove to be the kind of break they deserve.  

Jessica Lea Mayfield. I hadn’t heard of Jessica Lea Mayfield until this year, but in some ways it felt like I had always known her music. Only 19 years old, she has a sound that feels familiar, timeless, and mature well beyond her years. The songs on her debut, With Blasphemy, So Heartfelt, including the devil-may-care ballad “Kiss Me Again” and the mournful “I’m Not Lonely Anymore,” are haunted by the restless spirits of country-blues greats Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, among others. But Mayfield tempers these old-timey influences with a youthful, creative flair (and the help of Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys), resulting in a recording that is heartfelt indeed.  

KaiserCartel. If you’ve read any of my previous posts on music, you’d know I’m a sucker for gal-guy duets. And this pair, another new-to-me act this year, has become one of my favorites. At times harmonizing at the mic, and at other moments singing solo, the duo of Courtney Kaiser and Benjamin Cartel nonetheless blend their talents to create songs that sound breezy, seem easy, and are highly infectious. Standouts from their debut, March Forth, include “Oh No” (a cover of the late Tracy Thielen‘s song), ”Okay,” and “Seasons Song.”

Damien Jurado. Lumped in with the other 100-plus musical acts on my 2008 playlist, singer-songwriter Damien Jurado’s name never seemed to leap out at me. However, every time one of the songs from his seventh full-length, Caught in the Trees, cued up, like the searing “Go First” or the more upbeat “Gillian Was a Horse,” I stopped what I was doing to see who was playing. Jurado’s keen sense of melody, coupled with his solid storytelling and the tight collaborative effort of his bandmates, will make you want to pick this low-hanging fruit.

Grand Archives. The first half of this Seattle-based band’s name says it all — their music is truly “grand.” And their self-titled debut is full of majestic vocal harmonies, swirling guitars, lulling strings, crashing cymbals, bouncing piano lines, chiming bells, whistling (by both men and trains), and a host of other instruments and instrumentation that lend songs like “Torn Blue Foam Couch,” “Louis Riel,” and “Miniature Birds” a luxurious quality that’s hard to categorize, let alone forget.

The Black Angels. Continuing in the spirit they conjured up with their 2005 self-titled debut EP, The Black Angels have honed their rock-and-roll drone and given it a fine edge. If you like pounding, rhythmic drumming, psychedelic, fuzzy guitars, and lots of hypnotic, reverb-encrusted vocals reminiscent of The Doors and The Velvet Underground (and I do!), then be sure to look for “Doves” and “You on the Run” from Directions to See a Ghost.

Recordings worth a second listen. I got a song (or two) from these bands and plan to pursue more. 

+ / – {Plus/Minus}. Indie darlings +/- released their fifth record, Xs on Your Eyes (I guess they have a thing for math symbols), and the plucky, chugging “Snowblind” immediately caught my attention.

Shake Some Action! If you like (and miss) straight-ahead British Invasion-era rock bands like The Kinks or The Yardbirds, then don’t walk away from Sunny Days Ahead, which includes the Rickenbacker-ringing rockers “Walking Away” and “Get It Together.”

Pete and the Pirates. Hearing the bright and bouncy cut “Ill Love” from this UK band’s debut, Little Death, lead me to find “Come on Feet.” And I don’t plan to stop pillaging.

Flobots. I first saw these rap-rockers from Denver perform their poignant brag, “Handlebars,” on late-night TV and immediately went to iTunes to buy it and “Rise” — that’s good marketing.

The Ettes. On their second LP, Look at Life Again Soon, this three-piece slings simple, sneering three-chord punk rock as energetic as (and better than) anything Joan Jett cranked out. Plug in with ”Crown of Age” and “Marathon.”

Dear and the Headlights. The band’s nonsensical name alone stopped me in my tracks. And then hearing their upbeat, plaintive songs “Talk About” and “I’m Not Crying…,” from Drunk Like Bible Times, drove me on to find out more.

Annuals. This North Carolina-based indie-pop band released Such Fun, its second full-length, in October. Although I haven’t listened to all the cuts, I think I prefer the songs from the Wet Zoo EP, such as “Sore,” which came out in May.

Recordings I’ve simply relished. So far I have heard only one song from these bands, but I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend it.

We Barbarians. “Yesmen and Bumsuckers” (what a title!) from the In the Doldrums EP.

The Ting Tings. “Great DJ” from the Great DJ EP.

Sons & Daughters. “Gilt Complex” from the LP Gilt Complex.

The Physics of Meaning. “Aeroplanes and Hurricanes” from Snake Charmer and Destiny at the Stroke of Midnight.

Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s. “As Tall as Cliffs” from Animal.

Land of Talk. “Some Are Lakes” from the LP Some Are Lakes.

The Heavy. “Coleen” from the Coleen EP.

The Gaslight Anthem. “The ’59 Sound” from the LP The ’59 Sound.

Friendly Fires. “Jump in the Pool” from the self-titled debut.

Crooked Fingers. “Your Control” (duet with Neko Case) from the LP Forfeit/Fortune.

Bound Stems. “Happens to Us All Otherwise” from the LP The Family Afloat.

There you have it. Exhaustive? Yes. Definitive? Hardly. But I hope you find something you like. And, as always, feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you think of my choices.

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