Thursday, January 15, 2009

also rans part two

Okay, so I've already done one quick round-up of the first bunch of records which fell just outside of my top ten of 2008, so here's a quick follow up concerning the second set.

The year started with the release of an album which pretty much everyone seemed to be excited about: British Sea Power's Do Your Like Rock Music. It seemed to have everything going for it; great lyrics, an interesting concept, and a big, full sound which recalled The Arcade Fire. It also contained a set of songs that everyone could imagine sounding great at the summer festivals. I'm not sure that in the end BSP fully lived up to these high expectations, but it was a pleasure watching them get some deserved attention (and an appearance on Countryfile!). DYLRM was a good – if not great - album, and it contained three superb songs: 'Canvey Island', 'No Need To Cry' and 'Open The Door', heartbreakingly lovely all.

It's maybe not surprising that the songs I've highlighted above were rather quiet compared to the album's more bombastic tracks, for that follows a trend I can’t escape in 2008. Another band that impressed me, Desolation Wilderness, made a lovely, sun-kissed record, White Light Strobing, which was drenched in echo and sounded like a cross between a quiet My Bloody Valentine and Galaxie 500. It was the perfect definition of a grower, a slow, precise album that got better and better as the winter drew in. Sometimes records don't need to blow you away to win a place in your heart; I've no doubt that the Deerhunter record was better (and it was really lovely) but I preferred this.

I liked the Shearwater record too. They made an very natural, elegant contribution with their ornithologically-minded Rook, a mature, piano-led album made notable by Jonathan Meiburg's clean, pure, almost operatic tenor voice. It was a very pastoral, wistful and beautiful art-rock record – like Radiohead covering Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden. And Brighton MA made another record that might have escaped me if I hadn't for some reason come back for subsequent listens after initially being unimpressed. Their Amateur Lovers does nothing more than run with the spirit of Bob Dylan, Wilco and REM, but it does so in a quietly transfixing way, making for a sturdy, world-weary yet enigmatic album.

This year seems to be the year that the indie fraternity really fell for folk, surrendering to a series of young, serious and often gorgeous singer-songwriters, many of whom seemed capable of playing broadly traditional music, imbued with delicacy and vulnerability, without sounding old-fashioned. Contributions from Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes have been much lauded (and deservedly so) but they didn’t top my listening; I was rather more taken with records by Brian Borcherdt, who is otherwise best known for being a member of Holy Fuck, and whose Coyotes was a very tender, quiet and beautiful album, The Dodos, whose Visiter combined wistful Americana with unpredictable melodies reminiscent of the wonderful XTC, and Noah And The Whale, who made a tasteful, enthusiastic anti-folk album, Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down; the only flaw of which was a propensity towards a transatlantic accent on the part of Charlie Fink, and a bit of youthful precocity that made them sound overly serious. Iceland's Hjaltalin and Sin Fang Bous both turned in sweet, tuneful indie-folk LPs that are well worth a listen, too.

Best of all the non-top ten folk stuff, was an album by an artist I discovered by accident: Talons. Released on the small Bark and Hiss label, Songs for Babes is made up of 12 lo-fi, bedroom-recorded paeans to girls, and is beautifully packaged into a delightfully presented record complete with sleeve notes which provide delicate graphical representations of each track's arrangements. It's a deeply personal record – although my favourite moment occurs halfway through 'Juice', when the song pauses for a brief, celebratory run through the chorus of Steely Dan's 'Deacon Blues'. Songs for Babes is the record that fell just outside my top ten, and comes highly recommended. You can pick up a copy here.

Finally, a mention for two more stunning, stately grown-up records. 2008 was the year I finally admitted that Elbow are a great band, and their Mercury Prize win was richly deserved. The Seldom Seen Kid is a terrific record, full of sadness and joy, memorable melodies and beautiful lyrics. And I've been wrong all these years. So there you go. On the other hand, I've been right all along about the Go-Betweens, so it was no surprise to find Robert Forster turning in another immaculate album, although it somehow felt more important than usual that he did so this year, following the early, tragic death of Grant McLennan. The Evangelist is in some ways a sorrowful record as a consequence, but Forster remains a peerless songwriter – dry, ironic, detached, and yet also deeply moving.

Right, This series of posts has dragged on far too long. Tomorrow I’ll post my top ten of the year, and we can move on.

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