Sunday, December 21, 2008

Ten Best Albums of the Year

2008 has been an amazing year for me and I owe it all to music. I went from being outside observer to blogger in an attempt to become a contributing member of the music community. On May 9th I began Feed Your Head.

Three years ago this would have seemed an idiotic pipe dream. I'm not a musician, nor a writer, never even knew a musician and had no interest in rock music for over 20 years. So I entered the scene with virgin ears that had no recent source of reference. Kind of like when I first got into rock and roll in the 1960's. All these new bands' youthful influences are unknown to me, so everything sounds fresh to me. (With few deplorable exceptions) I don't stick around for music I know I don't like. But all this new music has already stretched my musical tastes in directions I could never have anticipated, so that I don't even know what I don't like anymore.

It's also connected me with many, many people I would never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. You all know who you are. In spike to the age and cultural differences and because of our shared passion for the arts, there is a common bond that's hard to describe, but it's just there. It just feels like a huge gift.

In that spirit, I offer my list of the Ten Best Albums of the Year. (Actually 13, but I wasn't willing to eliminate anything.)

Number One is kind of easy for me. It was the album I played way more than any of the competition.

1. Amnion - Amen Namo (Groove House Records) released: Feb. 26, 2008

This album contains the freshest, most innovative music I heard all year. It grabbed me and wouldn't let go as I played it over and over when I purchased it on March 19th, the day after seeing their extraordinary live show at that month's edition of "Let's Independent!". (Ask anyone who was there!)

Aaron Embry is the mastermind behind their unique style, incorporating influences as diverse as folk music, classic rock, psychedelia, jazz and a healthy dose of funk to create a sound that defies easy categorization. His flexible voice and remarkable piano skills are at the heart of the band's sound. Nikki Embry, Aaron's wife, provides perfect vocal contrast and support to Aaron's acrobatic voice, also becoming the central visual element in their live shows with her sinuous interpretive dancing. Together with their revolving supporting cast of musicians, they make their stage appearances count as performance art. They can sound like everything from The Mama's and The Papa's to Stevie Wonder...all at the same time. And I love hearing a band that can really sing and takes full advantage of it.

Amen Namo captures their sound in sterling recorded versions of their first batch of songs. From the first faint calls of singing whales, to the distant voices and the eerie haunted piano you get pulled right into the swaying beat that a sudden drum brings to the hypnotic spell. Followed by "Aton", "Here Goes Nothing" and "All The Way", each introducing a completely new musical direction, it's hopeless to resist. The first seven songs alone would constitute a perfect run of grade A songs. Few albums can match that!

I've been lucky to have seen them a few times since that first show, and they always mix things up a bit and never play the same song the same way twice. Some of the shows have been better than others, but they never leave me feeling less than elated. One particular treat was the night I got to hear Aaron Embry perform these songs solo at Tangier on Sept. 24. It was then I realized the songwriting is the key to their greatness. Aaron seems able to move into any style comfortably and bring his own unique sensibility with him. What a remarkable artist!

The remainder of this list may or may not represent the ultimate position these albums belong in (I like to keep these things fluid). Actually, I like to think of each one as a runner up to the top position.

2. Earlimart - Hymn and Her (Majordomo Records) released: July 1, 2008

After the major release of Mentor Tormentor in 2007, one could have expected Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray to rest on their laurels for a while. They labored over the post-production of that release for a long time, tweaking it to perfection. Needless to say, it was one of the best releases of 2007.

Instead, they decided to head back into the studio and produce an album on the fly, so to speak. No belaboring over every detail, and the result is one of the most spontaneous, yet fully mature CD's of Earlimart's career.

I love this album and it's been a great resource to help me introduce new fans to one of my very favorite bands. In spite of the cheerful surface of some of the songs, the undercurrent of sadness and melancholy that permeates all their work is what draws me in time after time and gives the music it's weight.

Aaron's worldview seems so comprehensive, yet he can cut to the core emotion of a situation with ease. I can never forget that moving dirge he wrote in which he described, in a calm, cool voice, smashing up his apartment out of despair and frustration. And his sensibility is nicely complimented by Ariana's lovely and truthful songs about self-sufficiency and solitude.

This album has some of my favorite songs of the year, including "Song For", "Face Down In the Right Town", "Before It Gets Better" and "For the Birds". "Cigarettes and Kerosene", "Teeth" and "Time For Yourself" constitute on the the best three-song runs on any CD, ever.

3. Fleet Foxes - Sun Giant EP and Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop) released: EP Mar. 19, 2008, CD June 3, 2008

The little band that could. Out of nowhere they dazzled a small gathering at SXSW and came into my radar after the L.A. Weekly wrote about the show in their SXSW coverage. I listened to their myspace selections and couldn't believe my ears. I ran out and picked up their EP Sun Giant and it zoomed right to the top of my listening list.

That ancient medieval sound coupled with a modern folk/rock sensibility reminded me of some of my favorite fusions of rock and classical music. Like whenever Jefferson Airplane went baroque. I ate up that stuff in my youth.

Followed by the full length Fleet Foxes CD in early June, they filled out their repertory and expanded their range to include some of the most glorious vocals heard in many a year. As soon as I saw they'd scheduled two nights in Los Angeles, June 28th at the Echo and June 29th at Spaceland, I picked up a ticket for both nights, predicting they'd get popular so fast it would be the last chance to see them in an intimate setting. That proved to be an understatement. It's hard to get over having Robin Pecknold singing five feet in front of your face.

It seems Fleet Foxes was taking longer than anticipated to produce, so, in order to have something to sell at shows (and demand must have been huge) they quickly turned out Sun Giant and released it first. It was a tantalizing preview of what was to come. Every element sounded just right to me. The singing, the playing, the writing, the whole idea of a choral-heavy rock band appealed to me. Let's just say they fulfilled their early promise, and then some. It also contains "Mykonos", which is the extraordinary song that always ends their live shows.

With the release of Fleet Foxes in June they'd committed just about their entire catalog of music to disc. And there's no filler. Each song is a precious gem. Here were the songs that would help catapult them into the national spotlight; "White Winter Hymnal", "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song", "Blue Ridge Mountains" and all the others with their trademark medieval/gregorian/folk/rock amalgam.

I can hardly add any more to the chorus of press these guys are getting, except to say, having met most of them, they deserve it. And try to catch them live because the CD's only hint at their power as live performers.

4. Blitzen Trapper - Furr (Sub Pop) released: Nov. 28, 2008

This band and this album have completely blown me away. I have already played it to death and it is still the first thing I want to hear each morning.

I first heard of them a few weeks ago because they were on a bill with The Parson Red Heads at The Echo. I bought a ticket for the show before picking up the CD, based on their myspace songs, so when I got the CD that day, it was a revelation. Great classic rock which delves into folk, alt-country, scream rock , psychedelic rock and indie rock with equal aplomb.

I was shocked when I listened to all their earlier work and heard a band I thought sounded like they were struggling to find their way. Well, obviously, they found their way! This CD is so filled with great music, I hardly know where to begin.

Furr is so self assured, so musically enticing and lyrically intelligent, I want to know each song inside out. I know they're compatriots of the Northwestern bands like Fleet Foxes or The Parson Red Heads, but they remind me more of Okkervil River or some of the Southwestern bands I like.

They've honed their sound into a tight indie pop machine, anchored by fine lyric writing, similar to Fleet Foxes literary and fantastical qualities. But Eric Earley's lyrics also remind me of Will Sheff (Okkervil River) or Rob Danson of Death To Anders in that he writes simply about turbulent emotions wrapped in evocative settings, and the songs may be autobiographical or just the fictions of a fertile imagination. You decide.

The first four songs, alone, should be enough to convince anybody of the quality of this record. Kicking off with the rocking "Sleepy Time in the Western World" which gets to you with it's insistent beat and strong harmony vocals. "Gold For Bread" is a great road song that travels off into a beautiful reverie of hypnotic sound. Then "Furr" tells the tale of a werewolf in the mood for some self reflection and "God and Suicide" is just one of the best rock and roll songs I've ever heard.

Other highlights are "Stolen Shoes and a Rifle which is alt-country indie rock of a level Calexico would be proud of. "Echo/Always On/EZ con" is a three part piece beginning with a hauntingly beautiful melody, gorgeously orchestrated with a far-off, timeless sound which segues into a jazz riff out of nowhere. The album ends with a simple, medieval sounding "Lady On the Water", which sounds 500 years old and freshly minted at the same time.

In concert at The Echo on November 30 I got to hear them perform most of the CD live and it was a remarkable concert. Their pals The Parson Red Heads opened for them and both bands played sterling sets.

5. The Henry Clay People - For Cheap or For Free (Autumn Tree Records) released: Oct. 3, 2008

Here's a local band poised to break out. With a live show who's exuberance can hardly be contained and a CD that shows off the fine craftsmanship of their songwriting, it seems like a sure thing.

For some reason I hadn't run into this band before late this year, and when I did, I understood what everyone was talking about. With their rambunctious stage shows, I wondered if they would turn out to be just another heavy drinking, hard partying bar band more likely to throw up on stage than play any coherent music.

Just the opposite, they seem really serious about their music, as this album attests. It's a disciplined, comprehensive set of classic sounding rock and roll songs. They have everything going for them; unpretentious, straightforward lyrics that explore honest feelings and reactions to the times we live in, set to some really solid melodies.

A perfect example is the song "This Ain't a Scene", a cynical, clear-eyed view of life as "...just a generation caught in between", with it's great lumbering beat. "Living In Debt" is a terrific piano-driven rock song for the open road. Some of the most expert fast rock and roll I've heard all year, well played on a wider variety of instruments than is usually associated with this genre. They even manage to be moving on "Bulls Through".

Andy Siara and his songwriter brother, Joey, head a band of talented musicians, and on the night of October 3rd at Spaceland they released For Cheap or For Free in front of a crowd of friends and fellow bands and gave us an exultant performance that is the stuff of legend.

6. Seasons - 14-song compilation (self release) released: Oct. 24, 2008

O.K., maybe this is just a home-produced combination of a couple of EP's. Maybe it's a little thrown together feeling, and the artwork hand drawn on each sleeve, but it's still one of the CD's I've played more than any other this year. Maybe it's just those qualities that best capture the carnivalesque nature of their live shows.

It's a collection of songs from home recordings and live shows that really shows off the range of this still evolving band. "Song That You Know" is one I know from their live shows as a highlight and it starts the album off running. With Nic's impassioned vocals, the flowing piano, superb guitar work, tambourines and even ending with bells and xylophone, it's one of my favorite songs. "India" really shows off Nic's balladry with a relaxed easy tune you just sink into.

The band is said to have seven members, but most times I've seen them they can swell to up to 14. However many appear on the recordings I don't know, but the sound is big and dynamic and matches what I've seen them do.

The songs in this collection reach out in all sorts of stylistic directions, but the common thread is the talent on display. I think the songwriting is particularly strong and the vocals some of the best of the year. And they're totally unique, there isn't anyone out there who sounds like them, and that's a gift!

I'd write more but I've covered this band a lot the last few months and don't need to keep saying: "This band is great!"

7. Everest - Ghost Notes (Vapor Records) released: May 6, 2008

I remember how this band just popped up out of nowhere, fully formed and ready to conquer the world. It was a revelation to witness and we early fans had to wait a bit for this album to come out. But the wait was well worth it.

Russell Pollard stepped out from behind the drums of The Watson Twins, strapped on a guitar and assumed lead vocal duties, fronting a band containing some of Silverlake's finest players. From the very first show I saw them play, at Spaceland on April 23, 2007, they had a professional excellence that almost immediately got them noticed. They also had the confidence and talent of a band that had been together for years.

They quickly moved from playing Silverlake Lounge and The Echo to opening for Neil Young and Wilco on national and international tours. None of this would have happened were not the songwriting of such high quality and that's where Ghost Notes comes in.

All we fans had for a while was the 7" record, and good as it was, it was never enough. Particularly because each time I saw them live, they sang "Rebels in the Roses" and "I See It In Your Eyes" and they weren't on the 7". I followed them around so much that I got to know them and found out what nice people they are.

Neil Young's label, Vapor Records signed them an almost immediately put out Ghost Notes in May. It's a big, warm comfort of a record. Solid songs played expertly and beautifully produced made an album that would slide most easily among the records I listened to back in the early '70's. It goes right next to the Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Andrew Gold, James Taylor records of that era and seems as timeless as they have proven to be.

I won't go through all the songs, but have to make special mention of "I See It In Your Eyes" because it's one of the four or five best single songs I heard this year and "Standing By" is a real heart breaker.

Another benefit of liking this band is that they're still Silverlake guys who will play a small show at Spaceland or somewhere anytime, so keep an eye on their schedule.

8. Darker My Love - 2 (Dangerbird Records) released: Aug. 7, 2008

I know this band because of Amnion. They were scheduled to play a show at the Troubadour in August and Darker My Love was the headliner. I got a ticket in order to see Amnion again and listened to some myspace selections for Darker My Love and liked what I heard, but it didn't prepare me for what I heard live.

Standing back by the bar, it was about their third song when I realized I really liked what I was hearing. I was suddenly struck by how beautiful the vocals were and I tried to move closer, but the place was packed. They sounded like two bands had collided in mid air, one a heavy metal outfit and the other, a band singing in a heavenly sound that reminded me of The Beach Boys or The Association. It was a magical collision, and it seemed suspended in space!

It's hard not to become overwhelmed by their sound, it's so rich and dense, it envelopes you in it's solid comfort. Beginning with the first song, "Northern Soul". that's almost an assault of beauty, into the hard driving motor city sound of "Blue Day". "Two Ways Out" reveals a softer side, highlighted by very-Beach Boys harmonies.

"Add One To the Other One" perfectly apes a kind of '60's Carnaby Street sound. Very Blow Up! The album ends on a socko finish with "Talking Words", an intense barrage of sound, followed by the gorgeous, introspective "Immediate Undertaking".

I've been lucky to see this band three times late this year, and had the opportunity to meet some of them and wish them well. It feels like such a privilege to get to do that.

9. The Broken West - Now or Heaven (Merge Records) released: Sep. 9, 2008

I've seen this band a number of times since first hearing of them a couple of years ago and never seen anything less that a solid, professional show. I bought their first CD last year and enjoyed it very much. But when I got Now or Heaven I was immediately struck by the positive musical growth I heard in these new songs. I'm surprised more people haven't taken notice of this album, because I have no hesitation including it on this list.

Like so many of the other albums here, this starts off with an incredible run of great songs, one after another. "Gwen, Now and Then", "Auctioneer", "Ambuscade", another of this year's very best songs, I just found the album addictive.

Ross Flournoy has an easy and accessible vocal style that is comfortable in any setting and he is ably suppported by Brian Whelan on harmony vocals and who steps forward to sing lead on another of the album's highlights, "Got It Bad.

This album tackles weightier subjects and themes than it's predecessor and represents a nice step forward for the band. Seeing the band perform this music live last November 7th at Spaceland was the clincher and showed me how sturdy these new songs are.

The Broken West is so good about getting out on the road and touring, both as headliners or opening for national acts, they can't help but get noticed. They seem to be on an upward trajectory and this album should shoot them forward as well.

10. Thailand - The Remote Controller Absorbs the Place (self release) released: June 25, 2008

I first learned about this band way back in '07 when I had relatives in town who were curious why I had suddenly turned into a music fanatic. I took them to El Cid on February 9 to see a show with Thailand (who already had a buzz behind them) and Radars To the Sky. We got there too late for the Thailand set, but my cousins were impressed with Radars To the Sky, who have since told me that was only their second show.

Not until June 22nd this year did I catch up with them again and they had changed to a three-piece band with a drum machine. It was their EP release party for The Remote Controller Absorbs the Place and I was so impressed with their live show I immediately picked it up and introduced myself to Marc Linquist and Stacey Roark.

Everything seemed normal after that, except I couldn't stop playing that EP over and over and I was desperate to see them live again. This is the model of what a band's first EP should be. Five top notch songs that show variety, intelligence, musical creativity and a probing social responsibility. I've also managed to see then once a month for the remainder of the year.

Starting with "Favorite Sun" with it's insistent beat and rainy wash of guitars and synths, it pulls you in with Marc's conversational vocal style and enticing melody. Stacey's synths and vocals add atmosphere that help create the sound only Thailand produces.

Marc Linquist writes lyrics of a philosophical nature where the meaning is buried deep within and "Down In the Trenches" and "The Chronic Sigh" are so deep I can't quite decipher them. That's why I listen to them so often, to try to understand.

"Heartland Failure" was the song that most drew me to them. Written last year, during the dark days of the Bush administration, when hope seemed useless, this song explores the way war can tear countries and individuals apart. The song is both sad and honest.

"Control Control" finishes the EP on a high note in a thoughtful song about our place in an increasingly mechanized society. To me, it was refreshing to see a new band tackling social issues with intelligence and maturity. And above all, to make it so entertaining.

11. Gangi - A (self release) released: Apr. 29, 2008

This is the second most original CD I heard this year. After Amnion opened my brain to their wild potpouri of influences, Gangi took it a step further, into the realm of electronics. I like having my brain stretched and a lot of music did that his year, but Gangi asked me to accept, what appear to be, wildly disperate elements carefully piled up onto each other, topped off by the slightly strangled sounding vocals of Matt Gangi. Lyle Nesse providing the foundation with his hyperactive drumming and recorded samples.

It was a live show that first introduce me to this band and I found their music immediately intoxicating. I ran up to Matt Gangi, babbled like a fool and bought the CD, A. I wondered if they could ever capture on a recording what I heard live. Well they do!

I've written about this band a bit, but to repeat, I love the way they carefully construct the layers of sound, piling them on top of each other until this incredible musical structure seems to float in front of you. I've also seen them win over a crowd time and again and have the audience rush the stage at the end to try to get a CD.

The variety of styles they master on this short CD are daunting. From the lilting melody of "Commonplace Feathers" that starts things off, you know this is not normal music, it's such a wild assortment of sounds. I particularly love the obscure and plaintive quality of "Ground" with it's dialog samples and circular tune, beautifully sung and sounding like it was created in a junkyard in India.

"Subject Positions" and "Animals" are other stand outs, but there isn't a weak track in the nine that are included here. Their influences seem to come from everywhere, including rock and roll, jazz, classical, International pop, Indian ragas, you name it.

Transplants from the fertile New York City music scene, they are a most welcome addition to the ever exploding Silverlake scene.

12. Calexico - Carried To Dust (Quarterstick Records) released: Sep. 9, 2008

Described as reflections of a cross-country trip through the American Southwest, Carried To Dust is filled with songs that are sun-drenched mood pieces steeped in the atmospheric arrangemants Joey Burns and John Convertino are known for.

Of all the albums I've heard by this band, this is the best, most accomplished and consistent work they've released. It's an instant tension reliever, with it's breezy sound and flowing nature.
As usual, they pull in an impressive collections of guest artists including Sam Beam of Iron and Wine, Doug McCombs of Tortoise, Pieta Brown and Amparo Sanchez.

The songs encompass a variety of styles from Mariachi-influence to alt-country to ballads to political, all highlighted by Joey Burns' wonderful voice. I've been lucky to see this band twice and both times I was convinced I was hearing one of the best voices I've ever heard. Live, his voice seems stronger and more forceful.

My favorite songs from the album are filled with their typical hope and melancholy, like "That Song About William" ,"Two Silver Trees" or "Man Made Lake" and the stunningly gorgeous "Red Blooms", but all the songs are good and show off a band that just keeps getting better.

13. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid (Polydor) released: Apr. 26, 2008

This is probably the biggest band on this list, and still, most people I talk to have never heard of them. Elbow is the English band that Earlimart brought into my life. In March 2006 I was just discovering Earlimart in concert and a couple of weeks after my first of their shows, I noticed they were playing at the Avalon, opening for a band with the odd name, Elbow.

When I listened to examples of their music I was amazed. Indeed, it is unabashedly romantic music, but with an honesty of emotion that keeps it from ever being maudlin. It's a sweeping sound of emotions, without fraudulent sentimentality.

I purchased Leaders of the Free World, which came with a DVD of music videos of each song. Seeing the band perform in the video shoots and concert footage made me like them even more. It is also a remarkable CD that I became obsessed with, adding to that wonderful confluence of events. You hear a band, fall in love with their music and within a week or two (while you still have a major band-crush) you get to see them in concert.

On April 6, 2006, in what was only my 15th concert since starting down this musical road I'm on, I stepped back into the Avalon and became a lifelong fan of Elbow. It was a night I will never forget and they did it to me again on May 9th this year at the Avalon, touring in support of The Seldom Seen Kid.

Guy Garvey and his band have been together over 10 years, but have only been releasing music in the new century. Their first album, Asleep In the Back is an experimental album of various styles, never coalescing into anything whole. But with Leaders of the Free World and now The Seldom Seen Kid they have honed their sound into a coherent sound machine.

Guy's lead vocals are perfection, soulful, heartfelt singing that reaches right into your heart. Highlights of this beautifully orchestrated album (maybe the best produced album of the year) are "The Bones of You", "Mirrorball", "Grounds For Divorce", "The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver" and, of course, one of the very best songs of the year, "One Day Like This".

Honorable Mention:

Death To Anders - Fictitious Business (self release) released: Jan. 15, 2008
The Flying Tourbillon Orchestra - Escapements EP (self release) released: July 3, 2008
The Gutter Twins - Saturnalia (Sub Pop) released: Feb. 5, 2008
The Ruby Suns - Sea Lion (Sub Pop) released: Apr. 5, 2008
Imaad Wasif and the Two Part Beast - Strange Hexes (self release) released: Jan. 1, 2008
Xu Xu Fang - The Mourning Son EP (self release) released: Jun. 4, 2008

Apologies for glaring omissions, but I haven't heard everything yet.
It's why I'll publish a list of the best non-2008 albums Ive enjoyed this year, next week.


1 comment:

WES said...

I'm pleased to see Darker My Love and Seasons on this list.
There are also some SoCal LA area bands with discs out that I strongly recommend:
RAGSY - Broken Bridge ****
(4 stars-Brilliant!)
HEAVY WATER EXPERIMENTS- Heavy Water Experiments ****
MY IMAGINARY FRIENDS - This Is My Knife ****
THE SUNDOWNERS - Songs from the Big Green Bubble ***
THE UNION LINE - The Union Line ***

also THE MONTHLIES. have a 3 song EP out that shows just how cool their finished album's gonna be.

All these bands can be found on myspace