There are many effective ways of gauging if a band has had a breakout year. The first is usually record sales and chart placement, followed by critical reception, number of gigs, MySpace plays, and to a lesser extent, number of interviews given. For Melbourne, Australia's Cut Copy, the figures go like this: 4,000 units sold in Canada, 50,000 sold in the U.S. and 35,000 in their home country for their second album, In Ghost Colours; a number one debut on the Australian album charts; a 79 out of 100 score on Metacritic.com based on 17 reviews (one of which was a highly coveted 8.8 from Pitchforkmedia); over 100 concerts performed through to the end of 2008, which included appearances at high profile events such as South By Southwest, Coachella, and Glastonbury; and by the time you're reading this, the six songs on their MySpace player will have exceeded five million plays.
All very impressive, yes, but where Cut Copy have undoubtedly reigned supreme in 2008, aside from in the ears of Exclaim! writers, is in giving interviews. One Google search of "Cut Copy" and "interview" pulls up what seems like endless pages of results for features on the band. So, come mid-November, it must be a trying experience to be sitting in an airport, forcing out one more chat about influences, how In Ghost Colours was conceived and the year in review, but the band's front-man and founder Dan Whitford is not only game, but also aware that he and his band-mates have broken some sort of record for interviews given in one year.
He laughs but seems prepared. "Don't take offence to this but we were just sitting in an airline lounge right now ordering some food, and our tour manager came up and said that I had to do an interview," he explains. "And Ben [Browning], our bass player who just started playing with us this year said, 'Y'know, I think I could actually do this interview and answer all of the questions correctly.' Because we've done so many and he's heard them all, it's almost to the point where we already have the answers to any possible questions you could ask about the record or us - we've answered them at least five or six times already."
There's no denying Cut Copy earned the success they've had this year. To some, answering the same questions over and over as many times as they have is enough. But it's been a seven-year journey to this point, and prior to the release of In Ghost Colours in April, the Australian trio (also including Tim Hoey and Mitchell Scott in the official line-up) were lost in a sea of rock bands armed with synthesizers trying to keep a steady balance of electro with their pop.
Beginning as a solo project for Whitford, a DJ with a graphic design background, Hoey, Scott and briefly Bennett Foddy, joined in to make it a proper band and help finish Cut Copy's debut album. Released by the hip Australian boutique label Modular in 2004, Bright Like Neon Love was a straight-up fusion of dance and rock, awash in an '80s new wave glow with a strong nod to French touch. It put them on the map, earning them an opening slot on a North American tour with Franz Ferdinand and TV On the Radio and eventually an Australian tour opening up for Daft Punk in 2007. But it wasn't until the release of In Ghost Colours that the band noticed a shift that resulted in the album debuting at the top spot of their country's album charts.
"We've noticed, certainly in our country, a new audience for that kind of music, because I think people who were too young to actually go and buy tickets to our shows and go to bars to see us when the first record came out are now out there partying," says Whitford. "It's almost like they've adopted that type of music as their own, so it definitely feels like there's a subtle shift in the music that young people are into. In the last few years that's made things a lot better for us. It's a readymade audience for us this time, whereas with the first record we felt like we were battling to get a crowd or battling to get people to understand the kind of music we're making, and this time it felt like people just got it straight away."
The times are certainly changing for Cut Copy, who along with acts like Justice, Hot Chip and compatriots Midnight Juggernauts use electronic foundations like electro, house and techno and construct their music with the pop format in mind. "It always felt like dance music and guitar-based music were always separate," explains Whitford. "Dance music was always kind of minimal and more of a niche thing, whereas now it feels like the two converge a lot more. Dance music is a lot more poppy, with more 'regular' song structures, than it was ten years ago. Maybe it's a reflection of that, and why our music is more palatable."
Whitford is selling his music short. Whereas there are so many generic artists now using synths with guitars to make dance music along the lines of Cut Copy's first record, In Ghost Colours is that rare find you cherish digging in crates: an album that breaks free from a deep pigeonhole to blur the boundaries we use to assign genres. You can hear traces of everything from expected components like Daft Punk's filter house ("Far Away") and New Romantic synthesizing ("Out There On the Ice" and "Strangers in the Wind") to newfound flecks like the energy of Italo house ("Hearts On Fire"), My Bloody Valentine's swelling guitar noise ("We Fight For Diamonds" and "So Haunted") and triumphant '70s arena rock ("Unforgettable Season"). As Whitford sees it, the band, along with co-producer Tim Goldsworthy (DFA Records), were out to try and shake up their foundation without messing with their soft spot for pop song structures.
"The main idea was to make music that was harder to define," says Whitford. "And I guess that can be a problem sometimes when it comes to defining our own music because it's quite difficult. We tried to make a record that didn't sound like a particular style, we write songs that transition from guitar-based stuff into more studio/club sounds, and there's even some folk-inspired stuff on this record. I guess this time around, with a similar intention as the first record to write pop songs and create something that interested us. I think probably we just got close to the kind of record we wanted to make this time around, and hopefully for the next one, again, as we learn better how to make records and write songs." And I'm guessing, not try and defend that record of theirs in the process.
2. Hercules and Love Affair Hercules and Love Affair (DFA)
The "disco sucks" movement was rooted in ugly homophobia, so how perfect for modern music's greatest gay singer Antony Hegarty (of "?and the Johnsons") to lend his androgynous pipes to a project dedicated to bringing disco back in all its sweaty, shimmery, tear-soaked beauty. Over the arms-raised neo-italo beats of Andy Butler, Hegarty and other guest singers apply a pop structure to the euphoric songs and a longing to every lyric, fretting about flying blind amidst uplifting disco-house horns. By album's end you'll forget the retro signifiers - this is even better than the real thing.
3. Lindstrøm Where You Go I Go Too (Smalltown Supersound)
The scruffy-looking smiling Norwegian on the cover does not exactly scream poster-boy for Italian-cosmic disco. But Hans-Peter Lindstrøm has used his leftfield advantage to resurrect and reinvent the genre itself (with help from collaborator Thomas Prins). Not beholden to form or formula, Lindstrøm's full-length debut delivers just three tracks, yet each one clocks over 10 minutes. Nothing short of a sensory experience, his three cosmic operas pleasure the ear with kaleidoscopic shifts in tempo, astral washes, motorik beats, and melodic climaxes. Though firmly rooted in Italian disco, his album, past singles, and countless remixes prove that Lindstrøm won't be bound by convention.
4. The Bug London Zoo (Ninja Tune)
Perhaps it's a result of his uncanny ability to make extreme music ahead of its time, but Kevin Martin has quietly become one of the most under-recognized forces in bass evolution over the last two decades. Whether he's making metal, drone, or dancehall as part of Experimental Audio Research, Techno Animal, God, or the Bug, Martin is a veritable weather vane of where music is headed. London Zoo is the first occasion he's slowed down enough to let the rest of us catch up and, fittingly, music fans have taken notice. The album is the most accessible and well rounded of his long career, a victory lap now that his pioneering efforts have finally been affirmed.
5. Flying Lotus Los Angeles (Warp)
From its hazy, organic atmosphere to the cornucopia of genres it draws from, it's easy to understand why Los Angeles, the second full-length from Flying Lotus, has been undeniably assaulting the ears of music aficionados around the world. Experimental music producer FlyLo (Steve Ellison) combines jazz, hip-hop, electronic and world music, puts his own smoky spin on the mix, and drops fat synths and warm, slightly off-tempo beats to complete the killer package. The result is a city narrative that runs from the gritty ambient underbelly of the operation, right down to the sublime.
6. Fuck Buttons Street Horrrsing (ATP)
On this spin of the genre wheel the marker came up "electronic," but this album is oh so much more. Hypnotic, tribal beats are but one of the many elements that make this debut so much exhilarating fun. Throw a dash of noise, maybe a little punk and, hell, why not some pop? Each song is a master class in keeping the listener guessing whether the next sound is going to be distorted shrieks, pounding drums or ambient sound. This is music without boundaries, limited only by two insanely warped imaginations willing to press any and all buttons.
7. The Mole As High As the Sky (Wagon Repair)
Like a microcosm of the expedition in a great night of techno under the stars, As High As The Sky pays tribute to the night and beat-based music. The album opens ambiently with static and ocean waves washing onto the shore before stepping into Adam Beyer's remix of the boxing ring imagery on "Still In My Corner." Each track has a soul and transmits that rhythm without ambiguity. While As High As The Sky conveys a range of sonic auras, it is all clearly and distinctly the Mole's work.
8. Girl Talk Feed the Animals (Illegal Art)
In many ways, all previous Girl Talk records have merely been a warm-up to Gregg Gillis' Feed the Animals. No longer are his "songs" cramped, claustrophobic pieces of pop-culture tribute, but living, breathing party starters, where everyone's all-time favourite bits of their all-time favourite songs are exquisitely weaved together, not crudely mashed up. And with some 300 uncleared samples - ranging from top 40 hits to hip-hop bangers to snooty indie jams to golden oldies - there's a lot here to get you sweaty and keep you that way. Simply put, Gillis' Girl Talk has perfected his practice. Brock Thiessen
9. Benga Diary of an Afro Warrior (Tempa)
In another successful year for dubstep, Benga was at the forefront of its continuing development. His second album at only age 21 exhibits greater progression and diversity with the predominantly monophonic "26 Basslines" or "Crunked Up" offset against lush harmonies like "Emotions" or the radio crossover "Night" and driving tribal rhythms contrasting deep grooves. Reaching far beyond the genres core audience with a sound as listenable at home as satisfying tearing apart club speakers, Diary achieved significant respect from peers as a musical work more than just another collection of club anthems.
10. Sebastien Tellier Sexuality (Record Makers)
From the funny and provocative album art, the hypersexual theme, and the American Apparel cross promotion, Sebastien Tellier's Sexuality could have been all gimmick. Fortunately, it's saved by masterful works that teeter between irony and sincerity. Approaching his work with the attention of a classical composer, Tellier doesn't force his songs to shine when they don't have to, instead building textures with layered synths. Resembling the lost soundtrack of a bizarre, likely pornographic sci-fi movie, Sexuality is both fascinating and moving.