It feels like this year I should have an enormous preamble to my Top 50 list, and I will; just not quite yet.
This year was probably the year when people’s listening habits became more fragmented than ever – which left the music industry struggling to smother any individual with marketing. More of these kinds of thoughts later, but I say that because it leads me to this (then I will get on with the matter in hand):
Everyone seems to be saying that this year was genuinely pretty dull for music, and there were no Big Events like Arctic Monkeys. Whenever anyone says anything remotely close to that sentiment to me I always reply “you don’t listen to enough music” – which is almost always true. I had loads of seismic revelations about music, brought on by newly discovered artists breaking into my field of vision. Those people who say there was no equivalent Arctic Monkeys this year, who then glide past MGMT have simply not been paying attention. Word of mouth hasn’t moved so virulently as it did when carrying the name Bon Iver around the country this year. I am totally claiming that, I told you so on that one. How can someone who is making peoples number ones, yet was unheard of 4 months earlier not be counted as a Big Thing.
Either way, more on those thoughts later. You know I don’t care about Big Things, or Little Things, and if you don’t I will explain why in the coming weeks. But for now, I start my Top 50 albums of 2008. For bands and artists that have released more than one thing this year, instead of splitting them up and placing them individually I put them together with a kind of aggregate placing, or just placed them wherever the hell I felt like.
This was an awesome year – making this list was nigh on impossible.
50. Mogwai – The Hawk Is Howling
(PIAS/Wall Of Sound)
For a couple of albums there, Mogwai weren’t really making Albums as involving or with as visionary a narrative as Young Team or CODY, so when ’The Hawk…’ came out I wasn’t expecting much. Well, Album Mogwai are back and sounding as much like Mogwai as they always do…except here on The Sun Smells Too Loud, which has a totally euphoric hook, is the closest they have ever come to a pop song and the most different they have sounded….ever?
49. Rose Kemp - Unholy Majesty
(One Little Indian)
A couple of years ago I came across Rose on MySpace and loved her delicate folk songs and the group of acoustic artists she was associated with around Bristol. I turn my back for a year then come back to discover she’s been dabbling with metal riffs, noise textures and is fast becoming the new Diamanda Galas or Jarboe. Woah.
48. Natural Snow Buildings – Laurie Bird / Slayer Of The King Of Hell
(Students Of Decay) / (Digitalis)
The beautifully named Natural Snow Buildings are the French duo of Mehdi Ameziane and Solange Gularte . They have jammed out too many albums, in too limited quantities, to have kept up with - 10 this year – so they could have better ones than these, but these are the ones I’ve held on to and continue to get the most out of. Huge, heady landscapes of heavily effected guitars, ringing feedback, layered chanting, percussion and the occasional distant sightings of drums on the horizon – the beats in Song For Laurie Bird come after twenty minutes and take another ten to develop into a suffocating climax.
47. Pocahaunted – Chains / Island Diamonds
(Teardrops) / (Not Not Fun)
The Eagle Rock, CA based duo of Amanda and Bethany brought in the drum and production talents of Bob Bruno (of Goliath Bird Eater) to both these records and took their hypnotic, smoky psychedelia two different ways – 'Chains' lifted their sound up to the poppiest end of their rainbow while the heavier 'Island Diamonds' sunk it down to a murky, clanking dub.
46. Barn Owl - From Our Mouths A Perpetual Light
(Not Not Fun)
Another two-piece, Barn Owl are Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras. In ‘From Our Mouths…’ they presented a shamanic ritual; all shuffling percussion, barefooted dust storms and majestic headshaking, carried along on the winds of organ drone and electric currents of guitar. It also comes on white vinyl, which looks way cool.
45. Hotel Wrecking City Traders – Black Yolk
The Melbourne based duo of brothers Toby (guitars) and Ben (drums) Matthews smashed out this album of mostly improvised heavy, noisy post-rock/metal album that drew inspiration, but never limited them to, the sounds of the likes of Karma to Burn, Om, Torche, Capricorns, Mogwai, Goliath Bird Eater, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. The long songs gave the listener time to breathe, but it was in the shorter ones that really held focus and I have yet to find a more rocking track this year than The Lakeshore Strangler - five minutes of joyously intimidating riffs; of surging rhythm patterns set on top of a sawing distorted backdrop with drums that switch between psychedelic dexterity and cantering locked-groove.
44. Wild Beasts – Limbo, Panto
This year’s Voice belonged to Hayden Thorpe of Wild Beasts. If you heard it, you had an opinion on it. In the same way that the rich soul of I Am A Bird Now surprised people by coming from the body of Antony Hegarty, the epic falsetto sweeping, tearing and plunging across 'Limbo, Panto' equally shocked by coming from a skinny white indie kid from Kendal. It helped that the album’s guitar and piano based arrangements supported the grandeur of it, while lyrically it was all juxtaposed with football fan angst, peace offerings of cheesy chips and joyriding.
43. Brael & Tokyo Bloodworm – Living Language
An album of such quietly brushed electronic-folk, that it was barely there in volume, bit in presence it consumed the room. Acoustic guitars were submerged into a humming exhalation of a record with a centerpiece, Golden Mean Triangle that sighed as mournfully as a Godspeed interlude.
42. Sparkling Wide Pressure – Touching Pasture
(Students of Decay)
Named after a Jupiter Moon special move from Sailor Moon, one man Tennesse’en band Sparkling Wide Pressure is Frank Baugh’s musical foil to his paintings. This album is immediate. From the very first track; Tearing Rippling – built from a woozy, thick, bassy drone-riff, haunting tone pealing off from it, soft beat patting underneath - the record progresses through a heaving, throbbing, buzzing wilderness of whited out scenery, with enough detail hidden amongst it to keep coming back to.
41. Der Blutharsch - The Philosopher's Stone
Elvis style sideburns and shades adorn Albin Julius as he greases up his industrial outfit Der Blutharsch with a newfound sense of Rock and Roll. Mixing it with a heavy loping style of kraut-rock, a free-wheeling sense of sixties psychedelica and a core of rhythmic neo-folk, 'The Philosopher’s Stone' comes off like Grails forced into leathers and jack boots – against their will.....
40. Of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping
Skeletal Lamping, the ‘never going to be as good as 'Hissing Fauna…’,follow up to my Number 1 album from last year in which Kevin Barnes revealed his transgender, bisexual black alter-ego, is a bloody-minded, deliberately awkward listen – and not just because it’s mostly about him doing it. Each funk-soul-pop-noise-hybrid is jarred against the next, each a rapid fire rush of too many ideas to keep up with, each one a potential technicolour fucking headache or a life changing mini pop-opera. Sexual deviance has never been so…well yes actually, it has always been this entertaining, but this is something else.
39. Wavves – Wavves
(Fuck It Tapes)
Sing-a-long choruses, insanely catchy harmonies and invigoratingly short songs all totally overdriven to oblivion, pushed right up into the red and in your face, interspersed with feedback and pedal carnage. Wavves is Nathan Williams from San Diego, California and his creation is a motherfucking surf-rock noise punk record that is as obnoxious as it is instantly gratifying. Quite how Fuck It have reflected two of this years niche trends I have no idea - More surf-rock and overdriven beauty to come.
38. Varghkoghargasmal – Drowned In Lakes
Varghkoghargasmal is Avenger; A one man ambient/acoustic Black Metal band from Germany who describes his sound as ‘Wooden Metal’ and that is as apt a description as any, despite how ridiculous it sounds. Wonky didn’t just hit dubstep this year, it hit BM too – This album is a compelling drunken dance with beats that barely stay in time, surf-rock riffs that dip in and out of time, keyboards pumping along to their own merry minor-key march, with it all haunted by a weird, reverbed otherworldly atmosphere and structure.
37. The Donkeys – Living On The Other Side
I think Dolphin Center is about swimming with dolphins, I dunno, but the rest of the songs are definitely about girls and getting high. This band could not get more sundazed and stoned if they sat out in the Californian sun for days getting stoned more. Sorry. But they couldn’t. You can hear the lead heavy arms of the bassist straining to get that last note, heat slackening the strings; lazy elliptical organ riffs pulse through the centre of the songs, the singer’s dry hazy voice drifting across the calmest of sea breezes. You can almost see the heat shimmer rising from the pavement.
36. MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
Until DLZ came along, Kids was probably my favourite song of the year….just like everyone else then. No surf-rock here though so, moving on…
35. Crystal Antlers – Crystal Antlers
(Touch & Go)
First time I heard this Long Beach, CA sextet I did actually think it was just formless noise with all the different members pulling in different directions and falling over each other in their efforts to get there. Maybe I needed that first listen like a warning shot across the bows, so I could retreat a bit, figure out what the hell it was that I was facing then shift my feet and change posture accordingly. After it squeals into action and Jonny Bell’s first delayed/reverbed vocal screech dies down, the totally organic single minded entity reveals itself and explodes into an infinitely repeating fractal pattern of cosmic psych, surf-rock (yes, again, I told you it was everywhere), sludgy punk, and roaring blues until the final 7 minutes of Parting Song for the Torn Sky which pins the chaos down with the lowest slung bassline groove and the most euphoric key change of the year. All of that in a record that is under 25 minutes long.
34. Woven Hand - Ten Stones
David Eugene Edwards's Woven Hand band release an even more muscled and deep wrinkled, dust-blown record than 2006’s Mosaic. A steely gravitas imbues these songs, a grimness that recalls Tomahawk’s ‘Anonymous’, an album that is only a couple of metal heavy sidesteps away from this with it’s Native American influences. It feels like a constant presence shadows this record, some dread spirit watching over the Wild West, a doomy boiling tension building as thunderclouds on the horizon, breaking out into stomping beats war dance style in Kicking Bird – either to fend off the evil, or bring it upon an enemy. Either way, it’s a pretty scary prospect.
33. Religious Knives – It's After Dark / The Door
(Troubleman Unlimited) / (Ecstatic Peace)
A double whammy of albums that disappointed the feral purists, but excited those who felt that the clouds of the storm parting heralded a freshness and a future. The three headed noise generator found some limbs and cast off their distorted shroud to reveal sleek lines of nocturnal rhythms with a progression of increasingly kraut-rock and post-punk albums reflecting New York at night, the hulking silhouettes of the skyline, the white noise and clamour of the city floor, the claustrophobia of its subterranea, the hearbeats that propel it, encapsulating it all in heady cyclical drone and sweaty momentum.
32. Kowloon Walled City – Turk Street
The tone of this record is absolutely perfect; A rocking, heaving, juggernaut of thick warm fuzzy fuck-off Metal with softly rounded edges – an all consuming velvet buzz, fat, solid drums and vocals that remind me of Jens Kidman’s from Meshuggah - at times the music does too, but this Californian four-piece’ are much less complex, much more direct and all the better for it.
31. Deerhunter – Microcastle
Bradford Cox’s meticulous attention to detail resulted in this fascinating album of mini epics. The signing to Kranky is a clue to where the sound is at on this album – a heavier emphasis on the soundscaping that backs the pop – but pop it still is nonetheless, moving ever closer to a harmonic fusion of Echo and the Bunnymen and Brian Eno.
30. The Last Shadow Puppets – The Age Of The Understatement
The main draw of this album – recorded in two weeks, no less! – is undoubtedly it’s unashamedly brash Scott Walker arrangements (courtesy of Arcade Fire’s Owen Pallett), complete with all the lyrical subversion of grandeur that goes with it, accents intact. The other draw, may be the portrayal of glamour within the album, not just on the cover. Along with the musical style of the late 60’s, it is all about smoky femme fatale figures; some with the potential to deliver and reward - ’Kiss me properly and pull me apart’ – but that is the first track, acting as a lure to draw you closer. Thereafter she is unobtainable. Dangerous hot sex appeal smoulders inside the high-street sirens that stalk the songs, like in Only The Truth where weak male minds are snipered by ‘The girl with many different strategies’. Noir then, but elevated by galloping Spaghetti Western rhythms, uplifting orchestral flourishes and camp twists and turns of phrase, resulting in a musical eloquence perhaps unexpected, and entirely absorbing.
29. Leviathan - Massive Conspiracy Against All Life
With his last ever album as Leviathan, Wrest has left an indelible mark and an insurmountable legacy for one man black metal bands to assail. That anyone playing in a band can sound this spontaneous is an impressive feat, let alone against themselves and machines. All the Leviathan elements are here in force; the suffocating atmosphere, the grim dirgy ambience, massive riffs twisting and cutting from highly kinetic thrash to grinding funeral march at just the right moment to leave you a little breathless in awe, hypnotic rhythms ratcheting up the tension with a poise, elegance and intensity pervading it all like no one else can. A flawless execution in every way.
28. To The Boy Elis - Love Is Like The Cost Of Living
A free download from a San-Fransisco based post-rock/ambient oriented net-label, this was the starkest contrasting release on their schedule this year, and one of the most contrasting albums released by anyone. To The Boy… is Henry Derek from Atlanta, Georgia. He plays the rawest form of blues imaginable, singing them in a gnarled sneering croak of a voice that twists its vowels and drags its consonants viciously across the gravelly instrumentation. Mixing the more traditionally destitute delta-blues sound of battered strings and footstomp beats with a more modern, yet primitive preternatural howl of tape loop noise and ambience, this album comes across like a lost in the woods slasher film, and a blood chillingly tense one at that.
27. Foals – Antidotes
Shame after all that cool 7” artwork that the album cover looked so shit. It’s kind of a shame that all those singles weren’t on this album too, but then it wouldn’t have sounded so much like an album. Sounds were one of they key tabloid hooks for this too; the big question was who did a better production job on the Foals album - Foals or Dave Sitek? There’s only one way to find out – FIGHT!! Or leak those tapes please. It was a bold move to ditch the original mix, but this version sounds great; For a dance band, Foals created a very cohesive record that, as well as sounding dead fucking cool (debatable for sure, but I say Cool), lived up to repeated listens by incorporating not just polyrhythmic guitar lines and locked down grooves for the disco, but detailed textures and narratives to the tracks. The Afro-Beat rhythms that everyone thought were going to take over 2008 were pretty much dealt with single handedly – no one could do them better than Foals, and it would have been embarrassing to try (stand up and get out Vampire Weekend). They could work a crescendo like no one else and flip it on the head of a pin, plus the lyrics to Cassius do say “Laurence is an accident”, right? Don’t disappoint me.
26. M83 – Saturdays=Youth
They arrived around a similar time, aren’t exactly the same, but for some reason I had M83 and MGMT stuck together as two composite parts of a whole. That both take their main influences from the 80’s probably had a lot to do with it, and both wore them on their sleeves pretty proudly. Both had massive dancefloor filling trance tracks at the centres too. But where MGMT were the singles band,, M83 was the album band and the one that delivered a richer environment; a whole John Hughes/Joel Schumacher stage, set for an overwrought teenage drama to unfold; right the way from the dramatic piano lead opener You Appearing, the (doomed?) twilight couple Kim & Jessie; the distraught gothic girl lamenting “I'm fifteen years old and I feel it's already too late to live” in Graveyard Girl, through that huge heart-stopping, pulse-quickening neon-shoegaze rush of Couleurs down to the ghostly Twin Peaks like haunted coda of Midnight Souls Still Remain.
25. TV on the Radio – Dear Science
I’m pretty certain that DLZ is my favourite song of the year (although last.fm tells me Late Of The Pier’s Heartbeat pips it at 19 to 14, but it doesn’t know everything). It’s definitely the Wolf Like Me of ‘Dear Science’ – the silence before ”Never you mind / Death Professor"” is the most devastatingly weighted and well poised in any song you could mention – it’s the song that delivers the greatest musical release after all the pent up funk, twitching post punk and motorik running on nervous energy, with the clipped rapped vocal lines an especially arresting departure. ‘Dear Science’ captures a Brooklyn, and by extension America and possibly the world, in a fitful state of paranoia and alientation – its surface may be slick and clinically presented, but underneath factions rage in turbulent aggression with each other. It is a lyrically angry album, balanced by potentially chart-friendly instrumentation with so many ideas jostling for space that it is almost uncomfortable – but most definitely bearable, and more so.
24. Pete & The Pirates – Little Death
A beautifully rich voice and elegantly penned songs about life on the mean streets of teenage indie-kid-hood characterized the second album from Reading’s Pete & The Pirates. There were some ballads (Moving, Humming), but mostly this was a set of rocking grubby disco numbers. Even when they were melancholy (The vocal harmonies on Dry Wings are almost heartbreaking), this album surprised with it’s instant, persistent charms; the spiky aggression punching in both frustration and elation – Lost In The Woods and Bright Lights tearing it up with euphoric rushes of soulful fury, the comedic moments like “Get out of bed, it’s the wrong one” from Knots and the bit in Bears after singer Thomas Sanders says “Oh mummy bear and daddy bear as angry as can be” where the guitar solo goes apeshit. As true an Indie album and as rewarding a listen as you could ask for.
23. Grouper – Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill
Liz Harris’s shimmering solo outfit hits a murky peak with her third album, veiling half singing/chanting under spectral guitar tones. The title may be land-based, and somewhat grim, but the noisier gristle of previous albums has been cast off in favour of a more watery sound, a lot of this echoing the movement and sounds of the sea; a constantly rolling wash reverberating across its 12 immersive tracks. Yet it is still a brittle creature, delicate and fragile, each layer of sound hanging across the next with intricate details hidden deep between them. Yielding much now, and hopefully more after further listening, this isn’t an album that gives up its secrets easily and may never be likely to.
22. The Mausoleums - Blackened Fawns Cleanse The Earth With Fire
(Chinese Workers Labor Union)
The second album from Chicago based one man Black Metal band The Mausoleums plays mostly with overdrive, feedback and volume - and this was almost certainly the loudest thing I heard all year, pretty much the only thing I need to turn down before pressing play. Underneath those three key elements, submerged beneath the ferocious blackened buzz and boiling distortion is a record that understands Pop. It is coming at it from a whole load of angles; swirling shoegaze guitar lines, cantering super rhythmic, super fast beats, rattling Link Wray riffs, thick and fast BM drone, shrieking vocals that layer on more distortion. This is where the surf-rock turns nasty. It’s a risky formula; waaaay too noisy for radio, too rocking for pure black metal, too black for pure rocking, too dreamy in places to be scary and too intimidating overall to really ever be Pop but that’s what makes it all the more engaging. Absolutely not background music, this is right up there in your face, demanding attention.
21. Portishead – Third
If they had changed their name and released ‘Third’, except for Beth Gibbon’s distinctive voice giving it away, no one would have known it was Portishead. Maybe that’s why they didn’t want to call it anything other than ‘Third’. They are still as subterranean, dense and claustrophobic sounding as ever, but with a renewed faith in music delivered by bands such as Om and Sunn O))) the resulting album is more brooding and bleak than ever before. Opener Silence sets the eerily gothic tone, its funeral aura carried on the rippling kraut-rock pulse, setting the sound of the rest of the record; the grim tearing noise in Hunter adds to the crushing darkness, while the very real threat of night terrors abound in We Carry On. It is a chilling album and one which will probably exorcise those coffee-table demons that haunt the previous two.
20. Iron Pirate – Iron Pirate
“Welcome to your doom!” So begins the home recorded, hand-made, self-released journey of the Iron Pirate as he takes his first steps into his 8-bit, digital thrash metal odyssey. It isn’t just the concept of this that is compelling, but that the songs themselves are such gargantuan entities in their own right. If this was an album played out with full thrash/death metal instruments it would be hailed as one of the greatest collections of Metal anthems committed to tape. Despite its lack of vocals, there is a fully realised imagery conveyed through the music and the battle lore invoked through the song titles is tangible – Cathedral Of Doom, In The Realm of The White Spider, and this, probably the best thrash title ever: Abominable Iron Steamship Of Death. The artwork is exceptional, each track illustrated by iconic 80’s cartoon imagery and embellished by the hands of the Pirate himself. As with any high octane metal record, there are so many moments when one riff yields to another, synthesized or not the section in Iron Steamship where the steely pumping section grits its teeth before baring down, all sword-slashing gun-blazing synth-guitar soloing. Pretty much the Crystal Castles of metal, and yeah, 1 better than Portishead……..and in a mystery I have just discovered, he seems to have disappeared off the face of the internet. The links up there used to have him, but no more.
19. Woodpigeon - Treasury Library Canada
(Awesome Calgary Awesome)
Originally named Woodpigeon Divided By Antelope Equals Squirrel (or W/A=S in equation form), this Canadian chamber-folk troupe revolves around the songwriting and lyrical direction (and verbose song-titling) of Mark Hamilton. There is a lightness and daydreamy quality to the music, a heartwarming prettiness and joyful twinkle that belie the darker subject matter of the lyrics. Sometimes the songs are stripped back to the bone and the dry, black humour lounges so comfortably across them, sometimes it only takes a brief flicker of embellishment to makes it, like the opening Knock Knock where a tremolo hammered guitar line peals away from the body of the chorus, but on others, serious issues arise; the dour tales of bedridden depression in Battle of Sun Vs. Curtains Sun Wins and We Sleep Until Noon that are backed by the full quietly rocking folk orchestra, ornamented with brass, organs, and percussion played by the ever changing collective line-up. A work of contrasting, beguiling, disturbing beauty.
18. Los Campesinos! - Hold On Now Youngster
It took me a long time to get in to Los Campesinos!, and now I have I am not sure what put me off. I think it sounded so horrendously twee at first, the clique mentality of all the references to ATP and the accompanying journalistic gush were all equally nauseating. But then in a somewhat more lucid moment of calm and reflection, when those aggravating factors had diminished, this album just totally floored me with its whip smart sense of humour, genuine youthful zeal, enthusiasm and excitement. Each Arcade Fire style epic rush of song was like a sweet hit of reminiscence and nostalgia for an attitude that has deserted me, but they are laced with a cynicism and knowing self-effacing demeanour that I can totally appreciate. It’s still twee as fuck mind, but that was never the bad thing in itself.
17. Pyha - The Haunted House
Black metal thrives on rumours and incredible stories just as much as the music itself, and things don’t get much more incredible than those surrounding Pyha. I will hand this over to the horses mouth, Aquarius Records and tUMULt label head Andee to explain the story:::
“Recorded over the course of a year or two and released when he was 14 years old, it took almost two years to track Pyha down, and then almost four more to sort out the eventual release of this grim depressive black masterpiece. Here's how it started: Longtime aQ pal Steven Schultz (he of Puny Humans and Stalin Claus Superstar infamy) was studying in Korea and bought a bunch of records. None of them really impressed him that much, except for one mysterious disc, by a 'group' called Pyha, which in Korean means 'ruins'. He later discovered that Pyha was the work of one man, err, kid actually, a 14 year old eighth grade black metaller! Needless to say, WOW. Anyway, on returning, Steven passed the CD on to Andee who was BLOWN AWAY. Completely floored, so much so that he knew he had to release it. More people HAD to hear this. So the hunt was on. How to track down a 14 year old kid in Korea? Pre-internet it would have been impossible. But another aQ pal, Jason, was actually living part time in Korea, weirdly enough he's a minor television star there, and offered to try and track down Pyha. Which miraculously he did, and we then discovered that there were in fact 4 albums, all recorded when Pyha was between the ages of 14 and 17! All of which are amazing, and all of which should eventually be released on tUMULt. But this is THE ONE.”
I took that from the Aquarius website - www.aquariusrecords.org. There is more detail on it and the story gets more incredible when you learn that this album is full of anti-military messages, yet Pyha himself, now some 20-odd years old, has been conscripted into the Korean army. But enough story – what does this sound like? It is a fiercely blown out, filthy black pall of a record that exerts a considerable emotional pull, either through a beautiful chord progression and weighted ambience, or through sonic terror intimidation. The beats come from distorted drum machines, the guitars move from lightly plucked acoustic passages to ferocious walls of buzzing noise, while the vocals vary similarly, from crooning whisper to choked rasp, to guttural bellow. It is a combination of the original frosty pulse of Burzum, the modern cavernous atmospheres of Leviathan, the wild feral scree of WOLD, and the fuzz-washes of Wrath of the Weak. All the while listening to this, remember: 14. Years. Old.
16. Krallice – Krallice
Clean, clinical, precise, meticulous production values. Rare features amongst traditional characteristics of black metal, yet all those things and more make this one of the most progressive and important releases of any genre this year, not just across the metal spectrum. Behold...the Arctopus’ Colin Marston and Orthrelm’s Mick Barr (along with Astomatous’ Nick McMaster – and Lev Weinstein on bass and drums) brought their avant-garde, hyper-shred-technical abilities to bear on an album that focused them, dispensed with a lot of the showy, superfluous fretboard abuse and streamlined it into six sleek and elegant tracks of repetitious, hypnotic black trance. A thick, clear drum sound complemented the shiny tones of the guitars, with a bass sound that punched low and hard with a real physical presence – the final 15 minute long Forgiveness in Rot, bringing the album to a climax with a huge set of essentially only three riffs that slide into one another creating an unbearably steely tension that never quite breaks, each new loop of the cycle ratcheting it up another nerve fraying level. Thoroughly absorbing and rewarding, Krallice set a milestone for black metal, marking 2008 as the year that something genuinely shifted.
15. Prussia – Dear Emily, Best Wishes, Molly
I heard of this Detroit based indie soul outfit through Ongaku Baka. An utterly un-self-conscious smash and grab soundclash of happy musics that, in 30 minutes of the most tastefully (but not cynically) measured fashion, takes in elements of Scratch Perry dub, Tamla shimmy, strutting Calypso, Mexican mushroom psyche, sun-dazed surf-rock…..the Sesame Street theme...Great Lakes really does sound like that, but even that isn’t off-putting in the context of the song – it’s a little ray of innocence in an album greatly concerned with the woes of the planet. I haven’t heard of them anywhere else, probably because this was limited to 300 copies of hand-screened and numbered artwork, but if is, and it l surely deserves and will be, awarded a re-release, I expect to see their name around big time next year.
14. WOLD – Stratification
Another wintery fusion of black metal, industrial strength noise and the cold fury of Mother nature at her most aggrieved, WOLD bring album number three to bear on to a world that is barely recovered from the almost unbearably bleak ‘Screech Owl’. Well, even bleaker is the landscape formed by ‘Stratification’, and even less forgiving are the minds of Obey and Fortress Crookedjaw. The album is built on a lot of trance inducing repetition; Sleigh Ride features an almost rhythmic wobbling bassline underneath a fizzing blizzard of white distortion, the numerical duo of Nine Paths and Nine Creeks are an almost dry and wet mirror image of each other, both featuring a similarly scratchy guitar riff with the former focusing a crackle, splintered top layer, and the latter a rushing undercurrent of psychotic babble. Brief, relative, mercy comes in the form of The Frozen Field, where all the layers of guitars drop away leaving the crackling buzz of a drum beat smashing an irregular rhythm, punctuated occasionally by the violently feral, blown-out screech of the vocals. WOLD dwell in a harsh place, absolutely, but if you can take the pain there is a lot to get out of the experience and it will stay with you too. Life’s most harrowing episodes always do.
13. Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight
With lyrics like “Midnight organ fight / Yours drips into mine / it’s alright”, the second album from Frightened Rabbit is as visceral, sexual, and very possibly anti-sexy, as anything penned by Aidan Moffat and looks set to stand the band in as cultishly admired a position as Arab Strap themselves. Detailing the events and aftermath of a relationship breakup, ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’ is very much like getting in the middle of a fight you should never have been stood near in the first place; Listen to Scott Hutchinson nonchalantly threatening “I might not want you back but I want to kill him” in Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms, and in Keep Yourself Warm spitting a sour “You won’t find love in a hole / it takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm." By the end, the details get pretty gory and I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise of the ending for you. Lyrically, this is not an album to take lightly, but the music almost works counter to this, making them all the more durable; mostly short songs of throaty folk-rock that hit their peaks quickly and move on in the most refreshing fashion. One of this year’s most potently accessible releases.
12. Women – Women
Canada seems to be producing no end of incredible bands at the moment. I am not sure if that has always been the case and I’ve only just started noticing, but Women are another band of essential Canucks to add to the list, and like Prussia, expect to see everyone going nuts for this band in the New Year when this album gets an official US and UK release. This album is built of so much that it is hard to nail it to any overarching genre; rhythms cast from post-punk angular rock, noisy backgrounds and interludes, brief rafts of ambience, gritty driving proto-skronk - It’s this blatant disregard for any one listener’s taste and flagrant disrespect for any potential marketing that makes it so great. The overall effect of ‘Women’ is like every Velvet Underground album condensed down into ten tracks of jaw-dropping rock. Truly, this year has been one of casting indie bands into fiery pits of noise, galvanizing them with a gnarlier exterior and leaving them scattered across the blogosphere for unsuspecting net-fiends to find and claim as their own. I claim this one: Women. Have them. You will love them.
11. Fuck Buttons – Street Horrsing
More noise covered skeletal frames for you, but this one – the two-piece of Benjamin John Power and Andrew Hung from Reading – start from a basic chassis of throbbing electronics, pulsing drum machines and Pandora’s effects boxes, build them up with layers and loops of distortion and inaudibly mangled lyrics then stretch them out to six individually twisted narratives of around ten minutes a piece. The result is the most hypnotic psychedelic drone rock record of the year.
10. Times New Viking – Rip It Off
Ohio, Columbus based three piece TNV write acoustic based beautiful doo-wop harmony pop, reminiscent of Pavement, Guided By Voices, and even a bit of Yo La Tengo at their most succinct – then fuck it over with as much overdrive and distortion as any speakers could handle. Dubbed ‘Shitgaze’ this terribly named genre only really belongs to this band – but to it I add Wavves, The Mausoleums, and even Crystal Antlers in the round up of all the bands I have loved this year that would all be hailed as Pop geniuses if it weren’t for their concerted efforts to undermine any remote Pop potential by destroying all traces of it from their songs. For anyone that ever said demos sound crap, I can always refer them to Times New Viking – a band resolutely proud to put out cheap and deliberately ‘bad’ sounding records, then be highly praised for it. Released right at the start of the year, this album has had a lot of time to sit with me and reveal its songwriting skills and charms and there are a lot of them. The harmonic glow of Drop-Out, the over-excitable exploding mess of Faces On Fire, then after all the noise, they go and give you a sneak peek of what you could have won at the end of Times New Viking vs Yo La Tengo, where they cut back on their safety blanket and sit there, naked and acoustic as nature intended. The very best of this year of violently noisy pop.
09. Urfaust - Drei Rituale Jenseits des Kosmos
(Debemur Morti Productions)
Dutch ambient avant-garde black metal two piece Urfaust released this 20-minute 3-untitled-track mini-album in the summer and not once has another record been released that comes close to conveying the same sense of restless unease or disturbing imagery. This is a disorienting listen, immediately plunging the listener into a grinding squall, sawing layers of guitar tones shifting uneasily across each other, harrowing unearthly vocals and ghostly effects rising and falling through the mix. This record oozes atmosphere and mystery, not least because the origin of the sounds is almost impossible to distinguish – any physical playing of guitar riffs is blended into the heaving mass of noise, a smoothly churning noisescape more than actual riffing; the drums, a heavily distorted mechanic pulse add a woozy spaced-out ambience, a slow and hypnotically rhythmic element almost like they are gently steering the flow of the torrents of guitar and vocals. In an all too brief running time, Urfaust manage to conjure a deep labyrinthian environment and build upon all their previous releases with their finest work to date.
08. Action Beat – 1977 – 2007: 30 Years Of Hurt Then Us Cunts Exploded
I’m not sure if this was released in 2007 or 2008. It was recorded and finished around the end of 2007, but what date stamp it has I don’t know. All I know is that I got it this year and was blown away. I went to see them and was blown apart some more. I describe them as 3 Sonic Youth’s playing at the same time. Maximum Bletchley sounds like that plus Holy Fuck - White hot sheet noise multi-drummer dance music. With each track containing varying numbers and combinations of guitars, bass and drums, occasionally augmented with saxophones and violins; you haven’t heard polyrhythms until you’ve heard Action Beat in full flow and you haven’t seen ANYTHING until you’ve seen this band live. Recently signed to Southern with an album due and about to hit the road for another year long stint of touring, Action Beat are going to eat 2009 alive.
07. U.S. Christmas – Eat The Low Dogs
Coming from North Carolina, from a town in the Appalachians, US Christmas have a lot of space to star gaze, a lot of space to gaze into and a lot of space to make their band sound massive. Against that backdrop they play out like Crippled Black Phoenix, Neurosis and Hawkwind, the cosmic reference encapsulated in another band covering similar terrain – Comets On Fire. This is a kind of stoner rock, with none of the monged out drugginess. It is clear headed shades of light and dark, better able to cope with the paranoia creeping through the cracks and it’s played out on an enormous scale, shadowed by the mountains under which it was created. The album deals in a blues-rock based cosmic sludge, a coalescence of galactic effluence, space dust and solar gas. Against the hulking riffs and slowly lumbering notes progressing across the skyline, the constant whirr, fluttering, phasing and twittering of theremin builds the songs into a full on modern age psychedelic assault, neon tails of burning dust lighting the night with phosphorescent vapour. When the beat drops in on second track The Scalphunters, little pinpoints of light accelerate into streaks screaming past your periphery like hyperspeed just kicked in. Space rock in extremis. "WE ARE ONE AND ONE WITH GOD" – Euphoric disco beamed in from extremely fucking far away; an alien revenant fronting a musical combination of Spiritualised and Stooges; a majestic harshness. “PRAY TO THE SKY!” – drone soldiers in relentless skyward vigil. This is one of those long sought life-affirming albums you never even knew you’d been waiting for.
06. Horna - Sanojesi Äärelle
(Debemur Morti Productions)
Finland’s Horna are now 15 years into their career, with main-man Shatraug being the only surviving member. Chopping and changing line-ups seems to matter far less to metal bands than it does to many others – the departure of Graham Coxon from Blur, say, was the death knell for them. Any metal band in that position would have simply got another axe-man in and ploughed onwards. Another metal trait is the ability for bands to release superior work in the later stages of their careers. This is undoubtedly true of Horna, who on their seventh full album (and thirty sixth release in total, including 7”’s, splits, EP’s and a couple of live albums) have struck upon such a rich seam of instinctive, exploratory, black metal trance that it’s mesmerizing moebius strip of sensual assault holds focus across the full 85 minute double album. The production is impeccable – the keyboards wrap around the edges of the guitar tones like the banks of a river channeling the rushing, boiling torrents of riffs; the drums acting as both brittle and brutal punctuation when the tempo suits. For all its sophisticated song structures and considered, nuanced production this record is still defiantly primitive in sound and scope; as concerned with Satanism and the occult as ever. All the more reason to hail it as pure, unadulterated, dangerous, life affirming rock and roll - as it should be.
05. Rudi Arapahoe - Echoes From One To Another
Since this album was released in May, I have managed to discover absolutely nothing else about the sole composer responsible for it; but then, that enigmatic lack of detail has added a deeper layer of mystery to the music and moved what was already faintly tangible, otherworldly and unreachable that little bit further out there. Musically this is a mix of synthetic tones, samples and found sounds, musique concrete, a few stirring moments of haunting singing and occasional very minimal drum machine beats. The constant swell of soothing dreamscape suspends a story based around Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy. ‘Echoes From One To Another’ starts with a death, possibly of the artist/narrator who then leads the listener, or perhaps it is the listener who should assume the role of the deceased. From that opening, the album moves through the afterlife, at which point, album highlight Conversation Piece starts throbbing it’s distant drum machine pulse, operatic vocals drift across the speakers, the eerie siren song bringing on the final theme of the album, a purgatorial debate over sin and specifically, lust. A beautiful, thought provoking and involving voyage quite unlike anything else this year.
04. Caïna – Temporary Antennae
'Temporary Antennae' is Sussex based Andrew Curtis-Brignell’s third, finest and final album as Caïna (a 10”, 7” and 3”CDr will finish things up in the coming months). 2007’s ‘Mourner’ was one of the most groundbreaking metal releases of that year, but with 'Temporary Antennae' he has bettered both his previous record and the efforts of almost every metal artist in the last 12 months. Steeped in an essence of Englishness the profoundly involving nature of the album grew from it’s focus on elements, flora and fauna, the Gentian Osman watercolour stag beetle cover art and insert, through song titles like Willows and Whippoorwills or ...and Ivy Wound Round Him, and of course, the range of sounds it incorporates - 80’ s darkwave, post-punk and shoegazing drone. As an example of the fearless genre warping inventiveness, Ten Went Up River features churning roars of distortion that gently descend into brooding ambient passages, build through a shuffling acoustic section then gracefully morph into chiming effervescence. The centre-piece Larval Door is a shimmering Cure-esque instrumental, while the title track takes a long, meandering ramble through some dark, shadowy post-folk before exploding into a euphoric disco-trance finale. 'Temporary Antennae' is a remarkable album, from a powerful artist, one which has Caïna move black metal further into a stage where it could and should be taken as a far more meaningful genre deserving of wider acclaim. It is possibly a shame then that his new project The Red Cathedral (with members of Wraiths and Krieg), is to be a spite fuelled noise bastard black metal outfit; having promised so much for metal’s future, it seems he is already taking it away and replacing it with something far more primitive. But then, maybe underground is how he wants it kept.
.......So, my number three album of 2008 or the first of my joint-three number ones? I’ve kept swapping these three around so much, in this list, on my stereo, on the I-Plod, at work, at NFR – they are all so utterly different that comparing them against each other along any quantifiable measures is futile. So, you can consider these all number one, or in this almost arbitrary order, whichever suits. Here goes:.........
03. Brown Jenkins – Angel Eyes
Whenever I have read anyone this year saying that they haven’t discovered any bands to get obsessed with Brown Jenkins is the name that always smashes straight into my frontal lobe. In fact, it was already there before the question was raised; this year everything has revolved around the shadowy figure of this Texan one-man black metal band. No metal album could touch Umesh Amtey’s vision in it’ vastness, originality or execution. The music comes from an incredibly dark, primal place, minimal in vision but maximal in scale and space. Bleakly down-tuned, minor key arpeggiated notes cascade across the foreground, layered over distorted blurs of seething masses of shifting riffs. Songs are almost dragged along on inexorable paths of driving monolithic doom, sharply detoured by dynamic shifts in tempo hurling them in a new direction, maintaining momentum and intensity. The drums are machine generated but the whole record carries a spontaneity that belies them, yet at the same time, the drunken, stumbling style that characterises Angel Eyes could almost come from Umesh constantly chasing the beat with his riffs were the overall effect not so conspicuously deliberate. Occasionally the pace quickens from polyrhythmic sludge to buzzing hypnotic trance-like states of proto-thrash, splinters of guitar tones shearing off the massive body of music. The vocals are invigoratingly brief. Themes of the occult and Lovecraftian cosmic horror and mysticism are dealt with in sparsely distributed lyrics, each song may have only five or six lines of deeply bellowed mammoth roars through it’s length. Like Caïna, this is Brown Jenkin’s prelude to the end. In November Umesh called Brown Jenkins to an end, with the project to be concluded at the end of 2009 with an already recorded album titled 'Death Obsession.' Despite that, it’s still not too late for this man to change you.
02. Late Of The Pier – Fantasy Black Channel
This is an album whose genius snuck up on me entirely. From their demos of 2006 and singles of 2007 there were occasional flashes of inspired songwriting, but that full Zarcorp demo was all over the place and only the Erol Alkan produced Bathroom Gurgle really did them justice. 'Fantasy Black Channel' totally overhauls everything that went before and like some wondrous feat of metamorphosis converts all that caterpillar potential into a fully actualised entity with an almost butterfly effect in the songwriting – one snare hit here triggering a voodoo hip-hop stomp there and a glitch breakdown further down the line. Singer Samuel Dust (Their stage names are great too) said something that helped tune me in to 'Fantasy Black Channel'. He said they don’t like all of the parts of the album but everything in it was necessary to finish each song. Those are the words of someone creating art. We also had Friendly Fires release an album along similar lines, to show what happens when this kind of dance-oriented mashup doesn’t work. This album unassailably does. This smashes a hole straight through the dead-end of new rave, taking all the excitement that it was built from and bolting on some seriously high-powered multi-genre upgrades. In the one song that encapsulates the band in as much as is possible, the vampiric protagonist of Space And The Woods makes no apologies for its behaviour “Not after what I’ve done” before standing it’s ground with “I’m shit hot so say what you think about me”, then divulging another personal secret about their musical aesthetic “chopping chopping me down so I fit in your laptop.” Either that, or it’s seriously how they disposed of the body. All that, plus they live and practice in a house together – I don’t know how long since they started in 2001, but that’s a good long time, and a good situation to get to know each other. All those things – names, ethics, house - make me want to reference Beefheart’s 'Trout Mask Replica'. Yeah, I did just compare LOTP to The Don.
01. Paavoharju – Laulu Laakson Kukista
It would be too easy to say this that album is too hard to describe, but that’s nigh on the truth. Making reference to other artists is futile – there are too many flitting around, interwoven into this complex tapestry to name, but this is everything that makes this, very probably, the greatest album of the year. Paavoharju are a Finnish free-folk collective of ascetic Christians who, in a year of really, really weird free-folk from Finland (Udon, Islaja, Kemialliset Ystävät, Lau Nauk, Shogun Kunitoki, Kiila to name a few), have created an album that pushes everything just about as far out as it can get. The 6 main members, centered around two brothers, Lauri and Olli Ainala, along with 13 additional musicians follow up 2006’s ‘Yha Hamaraa’ debut with ‘Laakson Kukista’ (“A Song about Flowers of the Valley”). It is an album that defies expectations even moreso than Late Of The Pier. This small orchestra of musicians weave an enchanted dreamworld of a record with a Brothers Grimm fairytale darkness lurking in the forest shadows; the effect is an almost pastel coloured Ingmar Bergman or Guy Maddin film - in turns ethereal, playful, innocent and creepy, sinister, menacing. This band and record utterly trumps the frail and tentatively genrefied folktronica of bands like Tuung and Four Tet - This is a seamless and natural marriage of the mechanic and organic, acoustic and electronic, a spiritual channeling of the modern and historic; formed from guitars, pianos, all manner of string, wind and brass instruments, curious pieces percussion, with the weirdness set by interludes of animal and baby noises, songs interspersed with field recordings, choruses dissolving into musique concrète. If all that sounds like a twee campfire concert, then take songs like Uskallan and Kevatrumpu, that suddenly shift into grand swells of bombastic, operatic pop with thumping drum machines, glitchy techno and churning guitars. As definite as it is abstract, this is a hauntingly evocative album that fuses a human soul with Reason and lets nature take its course.