Pop Rocks: Year in Review 2008
Published Nov 23, 20081. Fleet Foxes Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold was once a tenth-grade dropout with an insatiable curiosity about music. Like any imaginative listener, he had fantastic visions of the geographic locales that spawned his favourite artists. "Growing up, I had a lot of crazy ideas about the UK because of Led Zeppelin and Lord of the Rings," he laughs, on the phone in the middle of a European tour. "I probably thought when I went there I'd see thatched huts and all these fairy tales before my eyes." He chuckles, adding, "Those ideas have certainly dissipated."
Anyone who fell in love with the gorgeous folk pop of Fleet Foxes' 2008 debut found that it made much more sense knowing that the band is situated in the natural splendour of the Pacific Northwest. Pecknold wrote much of the album in his grandfather's mountain cabin, three hours east of Seattle. "I think anyone who grew up in Seattle and had good parents probably spent a lot of time near the ocean or in the woods," he says, and the environmental effect is obvious. Canyons of reverbs are applied to the stunning four-part harmonies that weave through every melody here; the music has the majesty of mountains, while every flourish of orchestral percussion sounds like the collapse of an ocean wave. This isn't merely a case of critical clichés; Pecknold is a writer who explicitly references mountains, "quivering forests," hills, and meadowlarks, as well as Seattle landmarks.
The other obvious West coast influence on Fleet Foxes is the Beach Boys; again, a cliché, but one that Pecknold doesn't have trouble owning up to. "Although I won't deny that they were a huge influence, the comparison is a bit reductionist," he allows. "You don't hear any 'Help Me Rhonda' stuff on the album or anything. I also like a lot of the shape singing in sacred harp music from the Appalachians."
Yet while playing a show in Big Sur, California, which is a town of 1,400 people, it was perhaps inevitable that the club owner there happened to know Beach Boy Al Jardine personally. This led to a post-gig visit to the legend by this star-struck group of men in their early 20s. Pecknold recalls, "He was very nice and showed us around his house, which has all sorts of Beach Boys paraphernalia lying around - and just mundane things too, like road cases or whatever. I was completely wide-eyed the whole time."
Fleet Foxes have been on the road so much of 2008 that there hasn't been time for much new material. Pecknold is already aware of the pitfalls that await the second album by a much-beloved band from humble beginnings. "A lot of bands, on their second album, want to reproduce the big sound that they get live, with huge drums that sound like they're recorded in an airplane hangar or something," he says. "It definitely feels amazing to get swept up in that on stage, but it's important that the records be something different. I think for the next one we're still going to record at home and write songs the same way we did before."
2. Deerhunter Microcastle (Kranky)
Despite ridiculously high expectations, Deerhunter lived up to them and then some with Microcastle. No longer hiding behind the reverb-drenched haze of last year's Cryptograms, the art-rockin' Georgians embraced both nostalgia and originality on album three, delivering a barebones mix of forward-thinking kraut, crashing punk, '50 pop and just the right amount of ambience. Packaged up, it solidified Deerhunter not only as one of indie rock's most adventurous bands but also as one of its best pop acts. And if one disc wasn't enough, Deerhunter did it all over again on Microcastle's "hidden album," Weird Era Cont.
3. TV on the Radio Dear Science (Interscope)
While not quite the masterpiece that 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain was, Dear Science is more confidently written and arranged. Honing the formula has yielded a much clearer vision of the band's sound; melancholic beauty still permeates, but Dear Science is notable for bringing the party to its impending sense of doom. Adebimpe and Malone's soulful harmonized croons have never sounded better in conjunction with Sitek's newfound love of slithery muted guitar riffs and the delightful wallop of horn blasts. Another illustrious signpost from one of the most important groups currently making music.
Scott A. Gray
4. No Age Nouns (Sub Pop)
Last year's compilation, Weirdo Rippers, suggested that No Age were capable of something great, and Nouns is the resounding follow-through. Adding the cohesion and attention to detail of a proper album, Nouns adds a whole lot of depth to the band's slacker post-grunge. In 30 minutes, the band deliver fragments of shoegaze, punk, and garage rock buried in layers of distortion and cymbals. It's a huge sound from two people with diverse tastes, and helped them reinvent indie rock for 2008.
5. Chad VanGaalen Soft Airplane (Flemish Eye)
His innate knack for mind-bendingly catchy melody shields morbid thematic threads that run throughout this brilliant third album. Death as transformation, spiritual rebirth, violent confrontation and eternal mystery pop up repeatedly, while Chad offers deep thoughts one minute and absurd wordplay the next. While his Neil Young-ish roots continue to deepen, beat-oriented tracks like "TMNT Mask" showcase a psychedelic heart, like the Flaming Lips weaned on hip-hop. Soft Airplane is the product of unfettered imagination; we can only marvel at what dreams emerge when VanGaalen lays his head on his surrealistic pillow.
6. Plants and Animals Parc Avenue (Secret City)
Plants and Animals' Parc Avenue belongs to every season. The haunting questions of "Bye Bye Bye" provide the soundtrack to a bleak midwinter. The idyllic and pastoral "Faerie Dance" marks springtime and new beginnings. The transcendent tribal throwdown of "Mercy" play in my head during summer drinking sessions and the year is quietly winding down with the gentle dignity of "A L'Oree Des Bois." Better yet, it raises full-body goosebumps with each and every listen.
7. Portishead Third (Mercury/Island)
Just as music journalists finish their 11-year pilgrimage to the top of mount
8. Constantines Kensington Heights (Arts & Crafts)
Classic rock doesn't usually elicit thoughts of present-day musical grandeur, but the Constantines' first release with indie great Arts & Crafts does just that - classically bold rock in the most startlingly subtle way. Kensington Heights doesn't try to recycle what's already been done, but reinvents it by picking out its best elements and mating them with their contemporary counterparts. Unforgettable chugging rock riffs meet with wailing rasping vocals to create the epic Constantines sound that we've all come to know and, without a doubt, love.
9. Vampire Weekend Vampire Weekend (XL)
While many justifiably revere these Columbia University grads, just as many abhor them for a perceived Paul Simon-pillaging, college-y whiteness. But with a record as understatedly complex as it is accessible, these NYC residents fully embraced their inner prep. That it's an album laden with an unending supply of supremely sing-able melodies is only a small part of its charm. Rather, it's the pulsing Afro-centric rhythms, Rostam Batmanglij's subtle but crucial keyboard and string arrangements, and Ezra Koenig's razor-sharp campus witticisms that are the key forces behind this sublime pop record.
10. Department of Eagles In Ear Park (4AD)
The poetry of rock is most usually the open-ended haiku, suggestive and elusive, or the classic rounded sonnet. With In Ear Park, Daniel Rossen and Fred Nicolaus have crafted an album of villanelles; emotionally direct but tricky and structurally slinky. With songs that have the chutzpah and theatre of Weil and the slam-bang decadence of a jazzier Bad Seeds, the duo is like a couple of deadbeats snuck into a society affair.
11. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! (Anti)
Fresh from the success of his Grinderman detour, Cave reunites with the Bad Seeds, where Nick is in his finest go-for-the-jugular vocal form, and is typically imaginative in his lyrics. These range from the very funny ("I feel like a vacuum cleaner, a complete sucker!" to the poetic ("a cabal of angels with finger cymbals chanted his name in code"). Those lines both come from a highlight track, "We Call Upon The Author To Explain," but there are no duds here. And is there a better supporting band in rock than the Bad Seeds?
12. Bon Iver For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)
Justin Vernon's regret and lament is our gain. Rare is the album where the artist allows us to peer around corners into their motivations and even rarer is the album where they swing the door wide open. Every song oozes isolation and catharsis and not once does it sound indulgent or embarrassing. We press our ear to the speaker, feeding on the energy of this sonic exorcism, wondering if we'd ever have the courage and talent to do the same.
13. Black Mountain In the Future (Scratch)
With In the Future, Black Mountain fulfilled more than a few rock'n'roll fantasies. Not only did Vancouver's retro rock specialists make their second album harder, better, denser, louder, they reminded us just how good the album format can be. Through ten monstrous tracks, In the Future plays as a true album experience, where no song is wasted and each plays an essential part. In this case, that package comes boasting drugged-up riffage, spaced-out keys, soulful ballads and a whole lot of bad boogie ballin'.
14. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks Real Emotional Trash (Matador)
Just when you thought you'd outgrown Pavement, SM & the Jicks released Real Emotional Trash, a record that's less tomfoolery and more music. Malkmus's trademark attitude is second to the twisting, unusually sophisticated psych-rock, held together by drummer Janet Weiss's unwavering rhythmic sense. Less the snarky front-man that '90s audiences venerated him as and more the smart tunesmith, Malkmus more than proved himself relevant with this one.
15. The Hold Steady Stay Positive (Vagrant)
It's taken a breakneck four records in five years, but Minneapolis's proudest sons are all growed up, sort of. Establishing themselves as the definitive soundtrack to your long-lost teen years since forming in 2004, Stay Positive is the band's first attempt to narrate your early 30s with the same clever eye. Matching Craig Finn's tales of graceless aging in the party-heavy atmosphere forged by the band's past albums with a more varied sonic aesthetic, Stay Positive takes as many cues from Zeppelin as Cheap Trick. Plus, it's got a harpsichord.
16. Vivian Girls Vivian Girls (In the Red)
Clocking in at less than 22 minutes, the Vivian Girls' disc wastes no time getting to the tuneful point. Quickstep tempos, layered vocal harmonies and jangly chords give the album an irresistibly restless sentiment. Their delivery echoes the likes of K Records charmers Tiger Trap and the much-overlooked brilliance of New Zealand's Look Blue Go Purple. With mile-wide resonance, "Where Do You Run To?" serves as one of 2008's catchiest songs, acting as the centrepiece to one of the year's most rewarding pop albums.
17. Frightened Rabbit Midnight Organ Fight (Fat Cat)
Despite being overshadowed by the wave of hype that engulfed Glasvegas, it was Frightened Rabbit that produced the finest Scottish album of the year. Midnight Organ Fight is a bleak record, with its tales of desperation and emptiness, yet the honesty and even humour they are delivered with make for a truly compelling listen. Musically, they aren't quite as dark as label-mates the Twilight Sad, favouring a more poppy approach, but there's still an awkwardness to the songs that translates into a wonderfully gloomy record that is both a revelation and strangely comforting.
18. Women Women (Flemish Eye)
Despite their name, Women is a sausage party amongst childhood friends (brothers Pat and Matt Flegel, plus Chris Reimer and Mike Wallace) who've moved from adolescent pranks to high school bands to this epic of lo-fi, shoegaze and experimental pop. Recorded in various Calgary locations by fellow experimenter Chad VanGaalen, Women is the noisy id to VanGaalen's pop superego. Its sloppy, haphazard vibe seems unfocussed but there's serious craft hidden just beneath the rough-hewn surfaces.
19 M83 Saturdays = Youth (Mute)
It might not sound like Simple Minds or the Psychedelic Furs, but M83's tribute to John Hughes' vision of the '80s evoked every ounce of the teenage experience as well as "Don't You (Forget About Me)" or "Pretty in Pink" did two decades earlier. Driven by swelling synthesizers, ethereal melodies and more dramatic turns than Molly Ringwald's fraught heroines, core member Anthony Gonzalez pushed the endless possibilities into the realm of splendour, messing with genre even further (pop? electronic?) to create the best M83 album to date.
20. Santogold Santogold (Downtown)
Santogold may sound too self-assured to be a debut artist, but she's new to your iPod, not to the game. Santi's years as major-label A&R, hired-gun songwriter and punk front-woman were just prep for an avant-pop album with no stylistic bounds. Absorbing the polyglot styles of her NYC home base, she spit them back like an all-originals mash-up album where Jamaican rhythms and Baltimore beats bounce next to buzzsaw electro synths, new wave guitars and vocals veering between indie rock, R&B and hip-hop.