Monday, December 8, 2008

The (rest of the) Best of 2008 Pt. 2 - with words

Hardcore for Nerds: The Best of 2008 Mixtape, Part 2

('Jingle Bells & Snow Drifts')

Total: 29.6 mins


7. Cold War Kids - 'Every Valley Is Not A Lake' - 3:34

8. The Gaslight Anthem - 'The Patient Ferris Wheel' - 3:34

9. Chequerboard - 'Toy Winds' - 3:53

10. So Cow - 'Shackleton' - 3:54

11. Foals - 'Olympic Airways' - 4:19

12. Envy - 'Conclusion of Existence' - 5:08

13. Fight Like Apes - 'Snore Bore Whore' - 5:20

Welcome to the doppelganger of Zeitgeist II - part two, the lower half of Hardcore for Nerd's top dozen (plus one) albums of 2008. These are the - at least -'very good' records; yet, although perhaps not reaching the excellence of the top six, they have many of their own moments of the sublime.

I've created a different coloured cassette in part because says-it doesn't have a 'side 2', but also because there's a sort of yin-yang division between the two mixes. Pt. 1 was the (comparatively) hard-rocking, propulsive and at times dissonantly erupting side; Pt. 2 is groovier and more expansive, though, at times, equally sonically dissolute - and on this basis, it has the festive subtitle 'Jingle Bells and Snow Drifts'.

Pt. 1 was almost exclusively guitar rock; Pt. 2 (excepting, mostly, the jazzy rhythms of Cold War Kids or the Springsteen-esque pop of The Gaslight Anthem) shades towards electronic sounds. Given those admittedly not completely sharp contrasts, there is also another important element of the yin-yang separation: the containment within each part of its opposite - the little oppositely-coloured dots in the tradtional ying-yang symbol. So, while on the one hand the first mix had the ambient sounds bleeding into Grails 'Natural Man', on the other this mix features the explosive, dissonant guitar freakout of So Cow's 'Shackleton'.

1. Cold War Kids, 'Every Valley Is Not a Lake' from Loyalty to Loyalty

(Category: Alt-Americana (Jazz-Blues subcategory) Album of the Year - Runners Up, The Black Keys - Attack and Release)

"every sermon is not the gospel, babe,

let me put it another way, every valley is not a lake"

From Robbers and Cowards to Loyalty to Loyalty there is a huge improvement, but also a strong strain of familiarity. Cold War Kids have made a better album with better songs all round, but their sound - piano-laden hooks, trilling guitar, bluesy rhythms and disjointed construction - is still the same. Particularly, if you wanted singer Nathan Willett to dial down his wassailing, you'll be disappointed. For me, it's an essential part of the band: that edge of sonic anarchy and extra touch of expressiveness. In part, he's a guy channelling female blues singers, or channelling Jeff Buckley channelling female blues singers (and no, he's nowhere near as melodious... but it works better this, the dissonnant, way). 'Every Valley Is Not a Lake' isn't the strongest example of that factor, but insofar as it does display the vocal experimentations of Loyalty to Loyalty, it blends well with the expressionist lyrics and jangly blues-pop to make a very fine song.

2. The Gaslight Anthem, 'The Patient Ferris Wheel' from The '59 Sound

(Category: Alt-Americana (Springsteen subcategory) Record of the Year - Runners Up, Bruce Springsteen - 'Dream Baby Dream', The Constantines - Kensington Heights)

Noel Murray, Popless - 30 favorite songs of 2008:

"It took me a spin or two to get used to the pop-punk polish and relentlessly anthemic nature of The '59 Sound, but I kept returning because the songs are so catchy—like Bruce Springsteen's Born In The U.S.A. as recorded by The Bouncing Souls"

I've been following Noel Murray's 'Popless' column over at the AV Club throughout 2008, and at times intrigued, inspired, baffled and amused by his alphabetical trawl through modern popular music. Plus, of course, finding wonderfully apt descriptions of artists I myself know quite well - of which this is one. The song he chose, incidentally, was 'Miles Davis and the Cool' which I used for the Year End November selection. In the end of the column, furthermore, it seems that other albums that Noel Murray was listening to this year included Human Bell and Future of the Left. A man of taste.

'The Patient Ferris Wheel' perhaps shows up the Bouncing Souls, Jerseyite punk-pop influence even more. If the Gaslight Anthem have their limitations, then the only really pertinent one is that The '59 Sound is a surrogate for the successor to 2006's The Gold Record by the Bouncing Souls, or Anchors Aweigh (more refined in its Springsteen-ism) or even (anthemic pop-punk masterpiece) How I Spent My Summer Vacation. For the moment, however, there's

"standing in the Jersey rain

thinking about what an old man said

maybe I should call me an ambulance

I've never felt so strange

standing in the pounding rain..."

3. Chequerboard, 'Toy Winds' from Penny Black

(Category: Electronic Album of the Year - Runners Up, Rarely Seen Above Ground - Organic Sampler, Matmos - Supreme Balloon)

It's been a pleasure to come back to this album again after marking it up for consideration in April. Even better, it seems to be cropping up quite frequently in comment submissions for Nialler9's Irish Albums and Songs Poll 2008. The winner two years ago was Si Schroeder's Coping Mechanisms, which I've discussed on this blog before, and of which there are certain echoes in Penny Black. 'Toy Winds' is the concluding track, which showcases perfectly the two elements of Chequerboard's sound: classical guitar lilts and glitchy electronic beats. Atmospheric music made extraordinarily visual (the creator, John Lambert, is a professional graphic artist as well) with the stunning artwork, and the conflictingly nostalgic sense of wistful Victoriana put to dubstep, in a loose sense, and meticulously crafted electronic sounds in general.

4. So Cow, 'Shackleton' from I'm Siding With My Captors

(Category: Irish Release of the Year Pt. 2 - Runners Up, Bats - Cruel Sea Scientist, Halves - Haunt Me When I'm Drowsy, Heathers - Here, Not There)

It's a bit disappointing, now, to hear So Cow backed with a drum machine - after seeing the current rhythm section in action, live - but it works, or is at least excused, here in I'm Siding With My Captors' mini-epic love song 'Shackleton' and its journey from minimum to max. It has its own "personification, exposition and tragic irony" all within its opening three, or even two, minutes: as the songwriter-within-a-song drafts his masterpiece, only to strip it all back down again, to the beat of a tinny drum machine and what sounds like a miniature organ; and haaving "paid the cellist for his time", all that's left is a heartful plea "one day I'll write the song that you require, and until then lalala [guitar noise]". Repeat, and close. Beautiful.

5. Foals, 'Olympic Airways' from Antidotes

(Category: Indie Album of the Year pt. 2 - Runners Up, Crystal Castles who were on Skins too)

A further stretch of finely crafted indie electronica, Foals 'Olympic Airways' is among at least a handful of other brilliantly constructed songs from Antidotes, the album that immediately separated Foals from being just another angular post-punk band, that happened to be on Skins playing one of their (now) duller tracks, 'Hummer', and showed them to be something altogether more interesting. After all, Radiohead's 'Nude' was used as almost the entire basis for the second season trailer of Skins - which was, televisually, also very interesting - but no-one goes around calling them 'Skinscore'. The breathy tension, the ably created mood of experimentation, and the obvious catchiness, make this track out to be what Q and not U's Power could have been had it taken another, equally valid direction. There's a certain post-rockiness to the sparse guitar lines, and the slightly over-predictable crescendo, but overall they are superficial elements to the underlying stylistic substance - nebulous, but affecting -of the track.

6. Envy, 'Conclusion of Existence' from Envy/Jesu (Split EP)

(Category: Electronic Release of the Year Pt. 2)

Like Noel Murray's brief summation of The Gaslight Anthem above, this rather lengthier discussion of the Envy/Jesu split on sputnikmusic reflects a lot of my own thoughts on this record (I only have it in mp3 form at the moment, because it has only been released in Japan for most of the year, but I have the white vinyl on order). I'm far more of an Envy fan than a Jesu, but I like some of the work from the latter (more so than from Envy's other split partners this year, Thursday) and combination makes even more sense when one considers the direction Envy has been heading ever since A Dead Sinking Story. The most Jesu-like, electronic track, 'Conclusion of Existence' is barely screamo in any sense, but it's still very strongly Envy. Glitchy electronic beats, again, take up half the song before exploding (at 2:44) into unexpected strings and, in general, the sort of chaotic beauty, though now somewhat more restrained and subtler, that made Envy so surprising in the first place.

7. Fight Like Apes, 'Snore Bore Whore' from Fight Like Apes and the Mystery of the Golden Medallion

(Category: Irish Album of the Year Mostly Re-recorded So It Doesn't Count (As Much) But Still Really, Really Good)

And finally, the album I couldn't leave out of the mixtape, and which really is in its on way one of the best of the year - the Fight Like Apes full-length debut, and the album closer 'Snore Bore Whore' (originally, of course, the closer to the 'Do You Karate?'/David Carradine Is a Bounty Hunter Whose Robotic Arm Hates Your Crotch EP). One half hushed melody synth ditty, one half total wall-of-sound shoegaze synth epic; one complete miracle of a song. Do, if you're a convert, watch the ecclesiastical performance from Other Voices (recorded partly in St James' church, Dingle, Co. Kerry; it's also the original composition - as it does, technically, sound better on the album) below:

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