Archive for December, 2008

Best new music 2008

For several Christmases running, I’ve offered a compilation of my favorite songs of the year as a gift to friends and family. The lengthy post below accompanies Ryan’s Holiday Mix 2008, and offers brief notes on each of the tracks I’ve selected this year (plus links to previous blog posts where applicable). For those of you who will be in the Twin Cities, Chicago, Denver, Decatur, or Chatham this year: you’ll get your copies soon, either in person or in the mail.

For anyone else who might be reading this: the list of songs below is thoroughly idiosyncratic, and I make no claim for it being some kind of definitive critical best-of for 2008. That said, I really enjoyed all these tunes, and maybe you will, too.

The only definitive critical pronouncement that I will make: record of the year goes to the Fleet Foxes, hands down, not the slightest doubt about it.

Ryan’s Holiday Mix 2008, Disc 1

1. Ponytail, “Beg Waves”
A jolt of twee-punk energy from a band that’s both sweeter and more unhinged than obvious influence Deerhoof. Their debut record Ice Cream Spiritual has a wonderful title and abounds with joyous caterwauling. It’s an absolute blast to listen to, especially in small doses—like a sugared-up toddler, Ponytail will wear you out fast.

2. The B-52’s, “Deviant Ingredient”
Two bands of a certain vintage from Athens, Georgia released what were alleged to be comeback albums this year, and despite my deep and abiding love for R.E.M., I have to give credit to the B-52’s for putting out the much better record in 2008. Funplex offers no surprises or stylistic leaps forward—they’re just here to party, and that’s more than fine by me. My Holiday Mix 2008 selection, “Deviant Ingredient,” is hilarious, tuneful, danceable, and thoroughly off the wall. Fred Schneider has some particularly choice lines, such the deeply profound, “It’s the yin and yang shang-a-lang / It’s the slow boogaloo, it’s what they do.” Amen.

3. Wolf Parade, “The Grey Estates”
A fine pop song about good old fashioned suburban ennui. Wolf Parade’s 2008 release At Mount Zoomer (the cover of which Pitchfork correctly identified as among the year’s worst) is disappointingly inconsistent for a band with such great talent and potential, but I’ve had the “Grey Estates” stuck in my head for most of the year. For a detailed analysis of “The Grey Estates” and a review of At Mount Zoomer, see my earlier blog post.

4. Erik Friedlander, “Big Shoes”
Cellist Friedlander first caught my attention with Block Ice and Propane, a warm and dazzling solo concept record about the American family road trip. I’m also a fan of some of his more avant-garde work—see my earlier post on his collaboration with Teho Teardo for more on this. My Holiday Mix selection “Big Shoes” operates in a relatively straight-ahead trio jazz mode, albeit in the unusual configuration of cello-bass-drums. Friedlander pulls most of the melodic weight, and the result is low-key swing that isn’t boring: stuff you can put on at a dinner party or on Sunday morning, but which also rewards close listening.

5. Fleet Foxes, “White Winter Hymnal”
“White Winter Hymnal” is a showstopper, an attention-getting shot across the bow from Fleet Foxes’ superb self-titled debut. The band wraps a simple, timeless melody in gorgeous vocal harmonies, and then hits you with a blast of dreamy, surf-meets-Tortoise guitar. Beautiful and engrossing music from one of the better records of the past decade. (For previous posts on the Fleet Foxes, see here and here.)

6. Al Green, “Lay It Down”
Veteran hip-hop act the Roots helmed the production on Al Green’s new record, and they did a bang-up job: the sound is studiously old-school, and Reverend Green sounds at home. What’s more, Green is still a top-notch songwriter decades into his career: there are a handful of tracks on Lay It Down that compare favorably to Green’s classic work from the seventies. For more about Lay It Down, see my earlier post.

7. Stereolab, “Daisy Click Clack”
Those familiar with Stereolab’s oeuvre will find few surprises on Chemical Chords: this time out it’s the same arty francophile bounce as it ever was. But they’re so good at what they do that I don’t care if they haven’t had a fresh idea in a decade.

8. Matana Roberts, “Thrills”
New York-based alto saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Roberts cut this record in Chicago, with the help of some great local players: most notably the legendary Fred Anderson, who duets with Roberts on several tracks. Anderson doesn’t play on “Thrills,” but I think it’s a cleverly adventurous composition, and it features terrific playing from both Roberts and Chicago’s Jeff Parker (best known for his work in Tortoise, and if you ask me, one of the best guitarists around).

9. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!”
A seething, sneering, raucous, rapier-witted and lyrical poetic declamation from the veteran Cave, accompanied by a rejuvenated, loose, and energetic incarnation of the Bad Seeds. Decades into his career, Nick Cave shows the kids how it’s done. (For more, see my earlier post on Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!).

10. Erykah Badu, “The Cell”
Perhaps the most underappreciated album of 2008 is Badu’s New Amerykah Part I, the first installment in a planned trilogy of sonically and thematically adventurous concept records. The album is coherent and insular in a way that defies easy excerpting, but “The Cell” will give you a fair taste.

11. Antony and the Johnsons, “Shake that Devil”
2008’s Another World EP is a teaser for next year’s Antony and the Johnsons full-length, and most of the EP has a complacent, B-side feel about it. But then there’s “Shake that Devil,” a bold, wild, unpredictable and utterly unexpected tune, quite unlike anything else on the EP, and miles away from Antony’s typical maudlin piano ballad mode. Truth is, Antony could could weep the phone book over a few miserable piano chords till kingdom come for all I care; he’s one of the most compelling singers around. But “Shake That Devil” hints that the new record may have some surprises in store, and I’m looking forward to it.

12. Bon Iver, “For Emma”
Surely just about the last thing the world needs is another navel-gazing indie rocker mumbling over an acoustic guitar, but the indelible melodies coming through the warble of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago bowled over my resistance. Emotionally honest and improbably haunting stuff.

13. The Walkmen, “In the New Year”
A big bravura tune in the midst of a slow-burning record full of passionate adult love songs. On first listen, Walkmen records are a little impenetrable, but stick with them, and rewards are substantial. One of the richest and most deeply moving records of 2008.

13. Lackthereof, “The Columbia”
The guy-in-a-bedroom-with-a-fourtrack vibe of Lackthereof’s My Haunted sometimes wears a bit thin, but “The Columbia” is an excellent tune, and one very well-suited to its lo-fi setting.

14. The Hold Steady, “Sequestered in Memphis”
I had mixed feelings about this year’s Hold Steady record—I’m beginning to wonder if songwriter Craig Finn has by this point spun everything he can out of his distinctive rockers, junkies, and Jesus milieu. (For an extended take on this topic, see my earlier post about the in some ways troubling content of Finn’s lyrics.) But Finn can certainly still write a hell of a good pop hook, and his band is more muscular and fun than ever—they’re probably only group in indie rock that dares to pull out Cheap Trick or E-Street Band moves (nonetheless simultaneously, and with Black Flag thrown in for good measure).

15. The Magnetic Fields, “The Nun’s Litany”
This band hit a dead end after the popularity of 69 Love Songs; when I saw them touring for the mediocre i, they seemed have trouble finding any meaningful connection to their chamber-folk arrangements at all. 2008’s Distortion is refreshing: Merritt isn’t breaking any new ground with his songwriting here, but this time out the melodies are better than solid, and the loud, hyper-distorted arrangements are a breath of fresh air (while at the same time recalling the lo-fi vibe of the early Magnetic Fields records). “The Nun’s Litany” made me laugh aloud: it’s both playful and razor-sharp.

16. Andrew Bird, “How You Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm”
A flat-out beautiful recording of a cover tune from the always-excellent Bird. I’m very much looking forward to his new album next year.

17. William Parker Quartet, “Malachi’s Mode”
Solid stuff from Parker’s quartet in a relatively straight-ahead post-bob mode. But my favorite Parker recordings from 2008 aren’t represented here, due to great their length: I’m actually partial to Double Sunrise Over Neptune, with its title reminiscent of Sun Ra, its big band, big palette and crosscultural borrowings.

18. Fleet Foxes, “Oliver James”
One of the first things you notice about the Fleet Foxes are their distinctive and immensely appealing vocal harmonies—but the spare and beautiful “Oliver James” leaves no doubt that they have plenty of other tricks up their collective sleeve. Again: Fleet Foxes is the best record of 2008.

Ryan’s Holiday Mix 2008, Disc 2

1. Wye Oak, “I Don’t Feel Young”
On this record, Wye Oak cribs more or less everything from Yo La Tengo, but they do such a good job that I didn’t mind too much. A couple of albums down the road they may find a voice and sound of their own, but for now “I Don’t Feel Young,” however derivative, does offer considerable noisy melancholy pleasures.

2. High Places, “Jump In (For Gilkey Elementary School) ”
Most pop electronic acts tend to lean heavily on dance styles or 80s new wave, but the High Places take a fresh approach: as the song’s subtitle would suggest, there’s something childlike about their sound, and this particular track also has a warm, nostalgic feel. Definitely one of the most promising new acts of 2008.

3. Titus Andronicus, “My Time Outside the Womb”
Raw, rambunctious, and fun punk rock from new band Titus Andronicus. Their debut record (which I praised effusively here) is a blast, but after catching the latter half of their starry-eyed and ragged set at Pitchfork, I’m not sure if they’re going to be able to channel their considerable energy into a sustainable, grown-up sound in the future. But: maybe they’ll surprise me, and at the very least, we can enjoy them while they’re still punk kids who just go out there and unselfconsciously rock.

4. Deerhunter, “Nothing Ever Happened”
With the success of their much-anticipated second album, Microcastle, Deerhunter is beginning to take on the mantle of a critical favorite. I’m not convinced that they’re going to change the face of rock and roll, but this record does do an excellent job of distilling obvious influences into compelling, driving, slightly off-kilter rock, and I suspect we’ll probably continue to have solid (or better) albums from Deerhunter in the future. And check out that guitar solo on “Nothing Ever Happened”—inventive, lengthy, and all around terrific in my book.

5. Nomo, “My Dear”
With Ghost Rock, Nomo grows up: they’re no longer merely aping Afropop pioneers like Fela Kuti, and instead broaden their palette to draw on a wider range of sounds and styles. The infectious horn hook on “My Dear” would have done Fela proud, and here it’s locked into place by a relentless bass groove and some fine hand-drumming funk. The soloists just blow the hell out of it, and it all sounds great.

6. Juana Molina, “Un Dia”
This time out, Argentinian singer Molina cuts, slices, and samples her voice in order to treat it much like an instrument, and the resulting arrangements are inventive and fascinating. The most obvious point of reference here is Bjork, but the Molina has her own distinct sound and approach, and plenty of ideas of her own. An unabashed experiment that’s also warm, inviting, and fun to listen to, and one of the best records of the year.

7. Fleet Foxes, “He Doesn’t Know Why”
Here’s another great tune from Fleet Foxes, and one that displays their ambition and reach in ways that might not be obvious in “White Winter Hymnal” or “Oliver James.” These guys are the real thing.

8. Mountain Goats, “Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident.”
After a string of flat-out great records capped by Tallahassee and The Sunset Tree, John Darnielle’s last couple of Mountain Goats albums have been slightly disappointing. The songwriting’s still top-notch, and there’s still some novelty to hearing him find his way around the studio after years of ultra lo-fi recordings, but Heretic Pride lacks some of the passion, energy, and coherence of the best Mountain Goats records. That said, I still swooned over the gorgeous chorus in “Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident,” and Darnielle can still out-write almost any indie rock songwriter around.

9. Jamie Lidell, “Another Day”
I raved about this one in some detail here at Good Readings earlier this year: an improbably great soul tune from English oddball Lidell.

10. Lambchop, “Slipped, Dissolved, and Loosed”
Another gorgeous, brainy, quietly moving song from Lambchop, one of the best and most underappreciated bands around. I suppose I understand why their literate, allusive country-lounge-soul fails to catch the attention of trendsetting hipsters: Lambchop’s sound is unabashedly adult, genuinely subtle, and in no way trendy. Instead, the music is beautiful, heartfelt, and wry, and anchored in the stellar songwriting of bandleader Kurt Wagner. 2008’s OH (Ohio) doesn’t have quite the emotional impact of 2006’s Damaged, which is perhaps Lambchop’s finest album, nor is it as flashy as their minor (and now largely forgotten) critical and commercial breakthrough Nixon (2000). But I sincerely love this band, and it broke my heart a little when I saw them give a fantastic show to a mostly-empty theater in Chicago a couple of years back, even if I do understand why they might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

11. Marnie Stern, “Ruler”
Stern is a ferocious talent, and here she shreds the hell out of a structurally inventive tune. See my previous post on Stern for more (as well as an extended discussion of the relationship between age and the creative process).

12. Aluminum Group, “Headphones”
More appealing indie-electro-lounge pop from Chicago’s Navin brothers. Much like Stereolab, they’re a thoroughly predictable and reliable act: pick up almost any album in their catalog, and the experience is much the same. Still, their tunes and arrangements remain a pleasure.

13. Vampire Weekend, “The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance”
Vampire Weekend were 2008’s biggest indie buzz band by far, and perhaps because they hold up a tuneful mirror to the privileged young aesthetes who make up a core component of indie rock’s hipster fanbase. The critics made a big deal about their borrowings from African pop music, but I can’t say I found that aspect of their sound particularly interesting or surprising—after years of African music boosterism from critic Joe Tangari in the pages of Pitchfork, it was only a matter of time before an indie rock band took the message to heart. (And Vampire Weekend has its predecessors even here: Extra Golden, for example, which actually has both American and African members, and offers a more compelling, if less tuneful, synthesis of African and indie rock sounds; or the aforementioned Nomo.) And of course Vampire Weekend’s points of reference are more generally Western borrowers of African sounds than African music directly: it’s all Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, a fact of which the band is acutely aware (see their much-discussed song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”). The band’s self-consciousness is laudable to a degree, but it’s also a problem: pointing out the irony of your own privileged position doesn’t mean that you’re actually moving beyond it. Further, their set at Pitchfork was uninspiring: rote, bland, suggesting that there’s really not much to this band except their tunes. Oh, but those tunes! I have about a million reasons to reject Vampire Weekend, but the songwriting is so good that I had to let it all go. If these guys can drop some of the irony and hip self-reflection and get down to business, they probably have some very good records ahead of them. More likely they’ll put out a thoroughly boring second record and everyone will forget about them completely. All the same, “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” is a great tune.

14. David Byrne and Brian Eno, “One Fine Day”
An unexpected, slightly loopy, thoroughly enjoyable collaboration between Byrne and Eno. Somewhat surprisingly, this time out they’re into pop tunes, and quite a few of them are better than decent. Eno is without doubt one of the most extraordinary producers of his generation, and his ambient work is absolutely definitive of the genre—but his own rock-oriented material more often than not leaves me cold. Daid Byrne remains an excellent musical partner for Eno, as he’s no less arty or intellectual in his approach, but also has an ability to sing with deeply appealing honesty and directness. Byrne’s post-Talking Heads output has definitely been hit and miss, but he remains a brilliant guy and one of my artistic heroes. He also writes a fascinating blog.

15. Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, “Out of Reaches”
King of indie irony Malkmus has a secret weapon in his arsenal: he can write involving, affecting, even sincere songs when he sets his mind to it. Far too few of Pavement’s legion imitators have understood that Malkmus’s archness and playfulness has always only thinly concealed an emotionally earnest core. Just because Malkmus’s sentiments aren’t straightforward doesn’t mean that he doesn’t believe in anything he’s singing about; his ironies are multifaceted and complicated, but they can rarely be reduced to a mere joke. The current incarnation of Malkmus’s post-Pavement outfit the Jicks is crackerjack, and has benefited tremendously from the addition of Sleater-Kinney’s incomparable Janet Weiss on the drums. The long guitar solos, adventurous song structures, and Weiss’s hyper-proficient playing on Real Emotional Trash add up to a thoroughly enjoyable record, the best by far from Malkmus since the storied days of Pavement. Sometimes Malkmus’s verbal play gets the best of him, but “Out of Reaches” stays focused and hits home.

16. The Breeders, “It’s The Love”
Some critics complained that this sounded a bit too much like an outtake from the early 90s alt-rock heyday, of which the Breeders were certainly one of the leading lights. It’s a fair criticism, but if you can get past its familiarity, it’s a very pleasurable tune. Most of Mountain Battles goes for quieter, subtler pleasures—it was largely dismissed by critics, but I suspect many of them just might not have been paying very much attention. Mountain Battles is well worth a serious listen.

17. American Music Club, “The Decibels and the Little Pills.”
See my previous post about The Golden Age for more on this one. Way back in the mid-nineties, some critics were hailing Mark Eitzel as one of the best songwriters of his generation; now nobody pays his work (either as a solo artist or with American Music Club) the slightest bit of attention. Eitzel has always been relentlessly gloomy and brainy; I sometimes doubt that I would like his songs nearly as much as I do if I hadn’t first stumbled across them when I was a brooding teenager. Still, Eitzel remains a very fine lyricist and tunesmith, so much so that I can still put up with his sad sack ways.

18. Department of Eagles, “No One Does It Like You”
Drawing heavily on the musical (and sartorial) styles of the eighties has been all the rage in recent years, but Department of Eagles have set the retro clock back a couple of decades on In Ear Park: the sound is mostly derived from David Bowie and the Beatles, with little hints of Led Zeppelin’s mystic-folk mode here and there, too. It’s a record with moderate ambitions, but the tunes are excellent, and despite the heavy debt owed to very familiar bands of ages past, In Ear Park manages to transform its influences into a distinct and compelling sound. “No One Does It Like You” also has the virtue of being insanely catchy; it’s one of the more straightforward tunes on a record that has far more twists, turns, subtleties, and depths than you’re likely to detect on a casual first listen.

19. Breathe Owl Breathe, “Tobaggan”
A beautiful song from a small, odd, and lovely EP from a band that seems to have received absolutely no attention at all. According to their MySpace page, they’re from Michigan; that’s just about all I know about them.


Anne Enright growing backwards

Anne Enrights Yesterdays Weather

Anne Enright's "Yesterday's Weather"

Yesterday’s Weather collects nearly twenty years of short stories (including many that have not previously been available for American audiences) by Booker-winner Anne Enright into a single volume. In a brief introduction to the book, Enright notes that she’s chosen to present the stories in reverse chronological order—a wise move, as it turns out, because her more recent stories are vastly superior to the work she was publishing in the late eighties and early nineties. Old and new alike, her stories offer emotionally intense character studies wrapped in dense, funny, sensuous, and tightly-coiled prose. But while many of the earlier stories read as little more than tedious exercises in structure or heavy-handed extensions of dubious metaphors (a woman through handbags in “(She Owns) Every Thing,” a bingo player who sees the world through numbers in “Luck Be a Lady,” etc.), Enright’s newer work adds an invaluable new element: real, substantial insight into the way real people actually think and feel, coupled with an ability to bring those thoughts and emotions to life on the page. In “Honey,” a woman on a business trip debates having an affair with a coworker, but finds herself instead stunned and opened up to the world by an encounter with bees in a garden. Her restless, uncertain desire feels true to life, and when she turns him down, it’s because she realizes that her desire has nothing to do with him at all: “It was like she could fuck anything: the Killarney lakes and the sky that ran over them, the posh hotels with wafflecloth robes, and the pink scent of a rose that showed grey in the darkness, and the whole lovely month of May.” In “Here’s To Love,” an older woman struggles to understand why she loves her husband, and ultimately decides that the question doesn’t matter nearly as much to her as it might to the old boyfriend who she meets in Paris. The opening paragraph of “The Cruise,” made me laugh out loud, but when I re-read it (immediately after reaching the story’s end), it took on an entirely different meaning: a good joke transformed into a moving meditation on death, and on what we can hope to get out of life before we die.

In an introduction to the volume, Enright herself identifies what has made the difference between her old stories and her new ones:

It is odd, but only to me, to read of the bitterness that exists between female friends, when my own girlfriends are so generous and important to me. These stories are not written by the person who has lived my life and made the best of it, they are written by people I might have been but decided against….I discovered, when I started to look at them again, that I had forgotten the content of some of these pieces. What I remembered, with great clarity, was their shape….What I seem to be saying—a little to my own surprise—is that a person may change, but the writer endures.

Enright’s earlier stories feel like formal exercises, because that’s essentially what they were: the work of a talented younger writer who was better than competent, but who simply didn’t yet have the kind of lived experience that she can now draw on in order to infuse her stories with real wisdom and insight.

Heads rolling at the big publishing houses

For the past couple of days, heads have been rolling at several of the major publishing houses, and startling changes in their organizations appear to be underway. This morning, the Boston Globe reported cuts, consolidations, and/or layoffs at Random House, Simon & Schuster, and the religious publisher Thomas Nelson. Galley Cat and numerous others have meanwhile been offering updates on cuts, reorganizations, and (astonishingly) a reported cessation of review of new manuscripts at Houghton Mifflin. Publishers Weekly is reporting that Penguin is freezing raises for some of its employees; who knows what else is coming next. On the book blogs, many have begun referring to yesterday as “Black Wednesday”—but to all indications, the carnage isn’t over yet.

I feel bad for the people who are losing their jobs, and also to see some of those great old imprints suffering yet another round of blows. But at the same time, it’s hardly a surprise to see the big corporate-owned houses struggling, given the dismal state of the economy and their bound-to-fail efforts to treat books like any other mass commodity. I’ve blogged about this before, and I’d like to point again to Boris Kachka’s fine and prescient article in New York magazine, in which he takes the big houses (and their corporate owners) to task for failing to understand either how the book business has worked in the past or what kind of business models might be successful in the future.

Meanwhile, Hold Uncensored suggests one small first step that some publishers could take on the road to shaping themselves up: leave New York.

The story behind Bolaño’s 2666

In a long and fascinating article in The Nation, Marcela Valdes provides a great deal of valuable and fascinating information on how Roberto Bolaño was able to present such a vivid and detailed account of the murders in Ciudad Juarez in 2666. According to Valdes, Bolaño corresponded extensively with a journalist who played a significant role in breaking the story behind the murders—and Bolaño rewarded him for his assistance by making him a character in the novel (though the journalist himself was less than thrilled to receive the tribute). Valdes also offers a well-informed and nuanced review of 2666 in the context of the real events in Ciudad Juarez, as well as many details about Bolaño’s process in working on the novel over a period of several years.

Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

December 2008
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