Here’s the top 8 of ’08 for ya because I cannot settle on ten!!
Fleet Foxes – self titled
Some of you will chuckle at this choice and shake your heads but I loved this CD the minute I heard it. While a lot of people love this band, it seems an equal amount want to ridicule them for pretty much taking My Morning Jacket’s sound and doing it better than My Morning Jacket has ever done it. Pastoral, ethereal, soaked in reverb and yet still rocking, Fleet Foxes have distilled the best elements of The Jacket’s sound and added their own little nuances (elements of early ’70’s Beach Boys and a little Zombies here and some British folk there) and come up with something gorgeous. Let’s face it: anyone who heard this album loved the hell out of it. Maybe it was before they knew it wasn’t My Morning Jacket, but still. And something has to be said for being at the right place with the right sound at the right time. My Morning Jacket has been a critic’s darling band for years now. It seems funny that the same year they put out an album which deviates from their trademark sound, the Fleet Foxes have a monster album using a lot of the elements from which The Jacket were trying to distance themselves. This is an album that is either loved or hated by the listener. In my opinion, you’re much smarter if you love it. I’m just sayin’.
Al Green – Lay It Down
It sounds all retro and shit, but when I find out Al Green has a new release coming up I wait for it the same way I waited for new releases when I was a kid. When I would hear through the grapevine (usually from some disc jockey on the radio) a favorite band of mine was going to be releasing a new album, I would think about it for weeks, thinking about when I would finally have the album in my hands because I was going to to buy it the first day it came out and listen to it over and over, memorize the songs and lord it over my friends because I was going to have the album before they did. It is the same with this new album. Aided and abetted by producers ?uestlove from The Roots and James Poyser, Green has managed to turn out his most satisfying album since Call Me back in the early ’70’s. I mean, this shit is dope! Great soul like this flys under the radar because Green is no longer in his twenties and common sense tells us that Green will not get a hit at this point in his career, but this stuff sounds straight out of Memphis circa 1972 and feels so damn good it’s almost unbelievable. Green has made a killer comeback since signing with Blue Note about five years ago and each of the three albums he’s done since then is an improvement over the one before it. I don’t know how he’s going to top this one. Phrases like “he’s still at the top of his game” are tossed out about a lot of older artists who can’t make albums half this good. Props to Green for figuring out how to be the best who he is in a long time and special whazzzzup props for ?uestlove for figuring out a way to out Willie Mitchell Willie Mitchell and bring out some of Green’s best work ever.
Raphael Saadiq – The Way I See It
I always loved Saadiq’s ’90’s R&B band Tony!Toni!Tone! in a guilty pleasure sort of way. Their songs were not classics or masterpieces but they were very well done and oftentimes as good an example of the classic songwriting/producing model as you could get at the time in pop music. Their songs were catchy, danceable and disposable yet, if you listened closely, you could feel the layers of history and soul underneath which gave them an added dimension lacking from most of the Top-40 fluff at the time. Fast forward roughly a decade from the band’s last gasp and you find a matured Saadiq at the top of his game as a singer, songwriter and producer after years of wearing various hats for his own career and his assisting of others’. While artists like John Legend get all the hype, Saadiq has snuck in and given us what could be the neo-soul album of the past five years. And I say neo-soul, but it’s actually oldschool as Saadiq has found a way to approximate the Motown sound to a T. The Foundations couldn’t get the Motown sound as close as Saadiq has got it. Build Me Up Buttercup, indeed. There are a few missteps here, featuring second rate rappers and singers who Saadiq shouldn’t have let carry his microphone let alone work on his album, but those spots are few and far between and the pure modern Motownishness of this album makes all the little flaws disappear in a cloud of Marvin-isms and Smokey-stuff. Great soul and a release that proves Saadiq has arrived.
Brian Wilson – That Lucky Old Sun
I am simply awed by this album. Created by a man who had been reduced to a mere shell of himself by the end of the ’60’s, a decade in which he wrote more pure masterpieces of melody than anyone else (sorry, Lennon/McCartney, but it’s true), at long last began to fight the demons within him in the mid ’80’s. Despite the hope engendered by the completion of a few tentative solo albums over the next fifteen years that saw Wilson begin to test himself again, the albums themselves were mostly leftover tracks and drab squibs of songs Wilson and his helpers tried their best to tart up in hopes of scoring a left-field hit to give Wilson a confidence boost. Though reviews were often encouraging, Wilson’s albums felt like the half-hearted efforts they were. Finding himself treading water, Wilson managed to get a great band behind him (members of LA’s pop mafia The Wondermints – search out their albums for some excellent orchestral pop) and did the unthinkable: planned a tour. Wilson, who hadn’t been able to tour since around 1965 or so, decided to hit the road near 35 years later. After several tentative shows, Wilson began to catch a small wave, as it were. Though he often still looks tentative and even sometimes lost behind his keyboards, Wilson’s performances have grown stronger and stronger. The live albums from these shows are wondrous. Then, with the help of his band, Wilson screwed up the courage to attack his unfinished masterpiece Smile, finally releasing it in all its’ magnificence a few years ago. If I were writing this story, I would have written Wilson as taking a few bows and going off in the sunset, a man complete after beating the odds and finishing his greatest work. What does Wilson do next? Besides taking Smile on the road of course (no small accomplishment in itself) Wilson decides to write a totally new work, forgoing his reliance on stockpiled tracks to pad his “new” albums. In other words, this new album by Brian Wilson is his first completely cohesive, album-length work since he abandoned Smile back in the late ’60’s. Let that swirl around in your brain awhile. This, for all intents and purposes, mentally damaged man-child has managed to once again create a breath-taking work of art. Now, my giddiness at seeing Wilson once again stretch himself and try to regain his genius may cloud my judgment, but damned if Wilson doesn’t actually sound confident as hell singing these songs and reading the spoken word passages on this CD, in a way he hasn’t sounded in 40 years or so. Listen, you’ll hear it – you can’t mistake it. It’s almost as disconcerting as when he was an incoherent mess. The usual weaknesses in his songwriting are there too: juvenile lyrics, cloying melodies, etc. but damn it if this album doesn’t have something special that is astounding. Sure, he Brian Wilson and he carries his life with him for better or worse, but you have to hear it as if someone new did it and if someone new came along with something this interesting they’d be the darling of the music world. Everything Wilson does has to be measured against Pet Sounds and Smile. Well, this doesn’t equal those two masterpieces – but if it were released in the ’60’s people would speak about it in the same breath. Now, Wilson has three masterpieces. Who’d have thunk it?
Starling Electric – Clouded Staircase
All I can say about this album is: WOW! Rarely has a debut hit me this squarely in the soul as this one does. I should have figured it was good because my copy came with a sticker proclaiming that Jon Auer from The Posies, Big Star et. al. felt it was one of the best albums he ever heard. Normally I take such sticker-ravings with a grain of salt as they are usually as reliable as those blurbs in movie newspaper advertisements, but I am very pleased to say his adulation is spot-on. Delightfully well-orchestrated chamber pop of a scope and quality of which I haven’t heard in years, if I’ve ever heard chamber pop this good. I can imagine this record coming out in the late ’60’s but the sound is not retro in the least. Well, maybe it’s retro in the fact the songwriting is based in the style of the classic Brill Building pop song which was at its’ peak in the ’60’s but this four-man ensemble is definitely not a nostalgia act. This is a band with the talent to fully use (and use well) a palette which includes just about every tone and color a musical composition can contain, making each song a thrilling listen and making their next album much-anticipated, as well it should be. This could be the one album released this year that will still be considered a classic thrity years from now.
Dungen – 4
This band, the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Gustav Ejstes, just continues to amaze me. Exposed to folk and ’60’s rock while a child in Sweden, Ejstes embraced hip-hop when he got older and started learning how to sample sounds for his music. But, while hunting for unique records to sample, he re-discovered the folk and obscure psychedelic rock he heard when he was younger. Thus, Dungen’s music originates from this pure circle of past and present and one could say Dungen is the spiritual link between 60’s psychedelia and hip-hop music. Take that, Peanut Butter Wolf. While the band’s first recordings show then as a fiery prog band, the ensemble has evolved over their four albums to embrace a more concise, less jammy sound which leans more and more on keyboards and less on the guitar. Take this album for example: no song here is over five minutes, which for most prog bands, especially Dungen, is saying something. The band has found ways of distilling their musical ideas down to the bare essence and putting them over concisely, confidently, and compellingly. So compellingly, that it doesn’t matter whether you can understand them or not when you listen to their music. It still connects on a very basic, visceral level few other acts manage to attain, not even those with the benefit of singing in a language listeners can understand. Dungen continues to break new ground with every release, making each of their albums eagerly awaited. With the fine performances captured here. I doubt the fervent anticipation of their work is going to subside anytime soon.
The Black Keys – Attack and Release
Featuring songs written for an intended album the Black Keys were going to cut with Ike Turner if only Turner had lived long enough to record them, this new Dangermouse-produced Black Keys album sounds even more funky and powerful than any of their previous albums. It’s almost as if Turner was still presiding over the sessions, albeit as a spectral form only present in the band’s subconcious and, who knows, maybe in the studio as well, adding his own special unearthly stank to the proceedings from another realm. Either way, the Black Keys have reached a new pinnacle in their music. Driven, focused and hell-bent, the Akron, Ohio-based duo of singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney manages to infuse these songs with enough grit and soul for ten albums by any other act happening to have the dubious distinction of having a release nestled somewhere at the top of what sadly represents R&B music these days. Though the band’s focus has shifted gradually from the bare-bones gut bucket of their early albums to a more broader, deeper sonic palette that shows their skills broadening and deepening as well, the groove has always been the thing to this band and that factor remains, though their songs show much more musical depth than before. Avant-garde guitarist Marc Ribot makes a cameo as well, and is simply icing on the cake for this modern day R&B feast. Great stuff.
Department of Eagles – In Ear Park
This great CD is the ultimate college dorm project come to life, and probably the only one that is going to have a life that outlasts the usual celebratory hangover that usually follows graduation. The two main forces behind the group, Daniel Rossen and Fred Nicolaus, originally began to record their music as a fun project for only their friends to hear but the scope and craft of the music demanded a wider audience, which eventually rightly came running. Formerly known as Whitey On The Moon UK, the group reissued their early material after they changed their name and thus this CD is the first full-fledged album ever released by the band and what a carnival of sounds it is! Touchstones for those interested in such things include Van Dyke Parks, The Beach Boys/Brian Wilson and latter-day Beatles but these comparisons don’t do the intricately crafted orchestral pop proper justice. Featuring musical arrangements which can be both grandiose and pastoral at times, this song cycle was written by Rossen in tribute to his late father, and the music has a definite nostalgic feel to it, though the feeling of nostalgia seems to be just another color to Rossen and Co.’s extensive palette and should not deter anyone from listening to this album fearing some sort of genre exercise. This is brillaintly crafted modern music meant to convey a mood and feeling of times when music was lovingly created to convey pure emotion, not simply meant as background music for a party like much of today’s music. This band is going to be huge.