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Alright, it's official - we're in the midst of an economic recession. But while that may've curtailed sales of luxury items, such as DVDs, video games and CDs, for many this year, it certainly hasn't adversely affected the great amount of new music created throughout the last 12 months. In fact, as history as proven time and again, hardships and pain often create some of the most powerful and lasting art. So it's no wonder there was such a boon of fantastic music this year. (And with no immediate answers in sight as to how to get our flailing economy back on track anytime soon, 2009 should be one helluva year - at least musically speaking).
In an effort to help maximize the small amount of coin you're able to drop on music these days, here's a list of what I consider to be the soundest music investments of 2008.
10) Dead Confederate - Wrecking Ball
(Razor & Tie)
Athens, GA has long been known as a breeding ground for rock music - spawning influential acts such as REM, The B-52's, Widespread Panic, Matthew Sweet and, more recently, alt-country band Drive-By Truckers. The legacy of "The Liverpool of The South" now continues with the emergence of newcomers Dead Confederate and their raucous full-length debut Wrecking Ball.
On it the Athens quintet deliver a snarling, dynamic, tight-but-loose collection of punch-drunk rock numbers. From the ramshackled opener "Heavy Petting" to the slow burn rock of "The Rat" and "All The Angels" to the pounding rhythm of "Start Me Laughing" it's clear that psychedelia plays a heavy roll in their music. With swirling, dementia-inducing psych-guitars and a pummeling backline Dead Confederate somehow manage to bridge the gap between early '70s Pink Floyd and early '90s post-punk, while also draping it all under a thin layer of Spanish moss - lending just a hint of Southern Gothic tragedy and rural roots reality.
Even when pulling in the reigns for the more melodically-driven ballad such as "The News Underneath" the song eventually morphs into an explosive, apocalyptic ending, while the closing title track is a sparse and harrowing slice of Americana that soon turns into a tripped-out indie-rock dirge.
With such as exhilarating exercise in melding primal hard rock, hallucinogenic sonics, the sneering passion of punk and a snoot-full of roots rock, Dead Confederate have proven to be one of this year's most eagerly anticipated new acts. (Oh, and disregard the 3 1/2 star rating I gave this record earlier this year. This is a fat four, brother.)
9) Bon Iver -For Emma, Forever Ago
Being a Wisconsin-based music magazine we don't want to leave out one of our own, now do we? Of course, it really wouldn't matter if Northwestern Wisconsin musician Bon Iver (aka Justin Vernon) were from Poughkeepsie or Eau Claire (where he currently lives) because we'd love it just as much.
Sparse, honest and hauntingly beautiful indie-folk that slowly drips from the speakers like golden sap from a Sugar Maple. Grab a jar 'cause you won't want to miss a drop of this sweet stuff.
8) David Byrne / Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
It's been exactly thirty years since musician, producer and music theorist Brian Eno first worked with David Byrne & Talking Heads (this was for the Heads' sophomore effort, More Songs About Buildings and Food). Since then Eno has gone onto work with some of the biggest names in rock (such as U2, Coldplay, James, Devo, Paul Simon and, perhaps most importantly, David Bowie on his groundbreaking late '70s Eno-produced trilogy - Low, Heroes and Lodger). While he continued to steer the Talking Heads in more of a post-punk, World music direction - incorporating funky African polyrhythms with both electronica and eccentric new-wave pop - he would also go onto to collaborate with Byrne (sans the Heads) in 1981 for the dark, yet brilliant album My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, which continued in a similar vein as the Eno-produced Talking Heads albums, only instead of incorporating standard vocals the duo utilized actual samples of Arabic singers, disc jockeys and even an exorcist for often chilling results.
Fast forward twenty-seven years and the two musical brainiacs have gotten together once again to create their latest collaborative full-length effort, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. While it lacks much of the heavy World music influences and left-of-center experimentation of their past work, it's nonetheless a fulfilling collection of mature electro-pop that holds up extremely well.
7) No Age - Nouns
(Sub Pop Records)
Who'da thunk that a combustible, convoluted, clusterfuck of experimental noise-rock could be so exhilarating. No Age delivers a challenging new sound that incorporates a low-fi production that somehow remarkably shimmers through the mire. It's also packed with skuzzed-up guitars, spacious ambient soundscapes, post-punk angst and fidgety pop melodies held at gunpoint.
It drones. It howls, pounds and screeches. Man, this stuff is alive... and you will be too if you have any sense of adventure and like things just a bit 'outside.'
6) Rodney Parker & 50 Peso Reward - The Lonesome Dirge
In an act of full-disclosure I worked publicity for the Denton, TX-based band Rodney Parker & 50 Peso Reward in 2008, but I'd be remiss as a music journalist in not also disclosing, in all honestly, that this is without a doubt one of the best examples of alt-country I've heard in ages, not to mention one of my personal favorite releases from last year.
Parker not only has one of the most gifted set of pipes in his genre, but his compositions also manage to stand tall with the likes of Steve Earle and, one of my alt-country faves, Son Volt. Toss in two remarkable covers (Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" and Kinky Friedman's "Wild Man From Borneo"), a tuneful, soul-searching acoustic ballad ("11 Hours") and a sinewy rock band capable of bringing the rafters down (for proof, just listen to them blow the hinges off the gate on the unbridled opener "Firefight") and I seriously doubt you'll find another band that mixes the sawdust and sour-mash of Texas country with the passion and dynamics of good old-fashioned rock-and-roll.
5) Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Cardinology
(Lost Highway Records)
Other than a few creative missteps (and a few too many onstage acts of drunken buffoonery), the prolific singer/songwriter Ryan Adams has continued to build upon a vast canon of modern classic-rock, folk and Americana music - one that began with his influential alt-country band Whiskeytown 15 years ago.
On his eleventh solo effort Cardinolgy (his fifth with his backing band The Cardinals) Adams has produced, quite possibly, his strongest, most accessible album to date (and if memory serves me, this isn't the first time I've said this in the past about his latest release). It's filled with a fistful... better make that two fistfuls of remarkable compositions (case in point - the first two singles "Fix It" and the foot-stomping rocker "Magick") and the no-nonsense, rough-hewn arrangements courtesy of The Cardinals makes the first listen feel like that well-worn sweater that you'll be damned to give to Goodwill. I suspect once you try this record on for size, you'll be hanging onto it just as long.
4) Alejandro Escovedo - Real Animal
(Back Porch Records)
"We're coming on strong like an accident," Alejandro Escovedo growls at one point on his eight solo effort, Real Animal, but while this stunning collection of songs does, in fact, come on strong - quite possible the strongest of his three decade career in music - it's definitely no accident.
Instead the 57 year-old Austin-based musician pulls in many elements of his storied past; recounting not only his punk rock roots with his late '70s band The Nuns ("Nuns Song") and later in the '80s with Rank and File ("Chip n' Tony"), but also his decadent stay at NYC's infamous Chelsea Hotel when he was a neighbor to The Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen (who he recalls was found "dead on the bathroom floor" on the sinewy punk number "Chelsea Hotel '78"). But just as Escovedo's own solo career has blossomed and matured since the volatile days of his youth, he's also worked in rich roots-based ballads ("Sensitive Boys" and the hauntingly beautiful "Slow Down"), bluesy gospel-infused Americana ("People (We're Only Gonna Live So Long)") as well as crafting one of his most enduring rock numbers ("Always A Friend," a song that even Bruce Springsteen realized the power of as he performed it onstage with Escovedo in Houston in April).
It was only three years ago that Alejandro almost lost his life to a near-fatal bout of Hepatitis C, which he documented on his harrowing 2006 album, The Boxing Mirror. And while he may have exorcised both mental and physical demons from his illness and full recovery on that effort, he's still reminded of it on the number "Golden Bear," where he sings, "There's a creature in my body. There's a creature in my blood. Don't know how long he's been there or why he's after us." Alejandro has been through a lot in his life and much of it is expertly documented on this fulfilling album. "The past is gone, but it still lives inside of me," he confesses just before the close of the album. But on the same song he also states that "This is where my life begins," which is exactly what it sounds like an artist at his creative peak with everything ahead of him.
3) Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
After Nick Cave's brief foray into his Grinderman project last year with fellow Bad Seeds Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey and Jim Sclavunos (a volatile, explosive collective that resurrected some of the scathing punk from Cave's first band The Birthday Party) it seemed doubtful that his next project with his longtime backing band The Bad Seeds would rock with the same intensity and power. Of course never one to be easily pinned down, Cave & co. proved otherwise with the recent release of their Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! full-length - a hard-hitting album that takes the near-mythical history of this band (one that melds a punk rock ethos with both Old Testament retribution and American folk tales & music) to new heights.
A quarter-of-a-century after forming, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds not only sound more vital and virile then ever, but in many ways it seems as if they're just hitting their creative stride. Not bad for a bunch of old punks.
2) TV On The Radio - Dear Science
On TV On The Radio's third proper release, Dear Science, the Brooklyn-based experimental rock collective continues to challenge and stretch the boundaries of where rock music can, and should go.
In the past the interracial quintet have mutated together a wealth of different music styles from over the last fifty years - from free-jazz, post-punk, electronica, indie rock, hip-hop and even street-corner doo-wop. But instead of just throwing these many variables into the mix to see what sticks, TVOTR instead have labored over the equations, the theories and the variables with the focused thought of a mathematical probabilist to come up with this rewarding solution of a record.
Bringing math, art, music and, yes, even science together for this release, TVOTR also add in, perhaps, their most powerful element into the mix - a decidedly human touch. Afro-funk permeates through tracks such as the soul-drenched "Crying," with its percolating electro-beats and chicken-pecking guitar line, as well as the jazzy hip-hop of "Red Dress" and "Golden Age," which sounds like it could have slipped in comfortably on Beck's sexed-up, funkified 1999 Midnight Vultures album. On the beautiful number "Love Dog," Tunde Adebimpe's soothing soulful voice marries perfectly with the song's gentle, yet forward-thinking brand of pop. Even the challenging closing track "Lover's Day" - with its dissonant jazz horns and propulsive, yet swaggering percussive beat - incorporates a strong human spirit as if a group of astronomers laid aside their telescopes in favor of joyously celebrating in the second-line of a New Orleans street parade. And to keep fans of their previous material sated, they've also included the angular math-punk-pop of "Dancing Choose."
While art rock has never been for the masses, TV On The Radio's brilliant melding of artistic expression with so many elements of music through the modern ages is about as close as we're going to get.
1) Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
(Sub Pop Records)
On Fleet Foxes' self-titled full-length debut the Seattle based indie-rock quintet has crafted, without a doubt, the most refreshing and enriching album of the year. The group describes their music as "baroque harmonic pop jams," and this is about as close as you'll get to a perfect summation of this gorgeous and majestic effort.
Not only are the heavenly vocals and communal harmonies nothing short of angelic - lending a grand spaciousness to the natural arrangements, but the earthy instrumentation - that mixes traditional roots-music instruments with standard modern rock electronics - give these expertly crafted pop and folk compositions the same sense of magic created decades before by acts such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and, at least in the songwriting department, The Beach Boys.
Turn down the lights, light a candle (or whatever else you might fancy burning) and let this collection of hushed bliss and melodic folk sonnets straight from the forest carry you away to a better, more peaceful place.
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