Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Turn on the Christmas lights...

A homegrown melancholy festive moment for your delectation...

MP3: Last Night's TV - Christmas Lights

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Best Albums of 2008

1. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid

2008 hasn't been a classic year for albums, but a handful of records stood out, none moreso than this brilliant set from Elbow. They've never convinced me over the course of an album before, despite a handful of tracks from each previous release making an impact. This time though, the heartfelt and powerful songwriting of tracks like One Day Like This, Bones Of You and the astounding Mirrorball have made this an essential listen.
MP3: Mirrorball
2. The Week That Was - The Week That Was

Last year's Field Music album was a great pop record, but it didn't give any clue as to the change in direction Peter Brewis would take next. While his brother David put out skewed experimental pop as School of Language, Peter made an 80s-tinged detective novel of an album, full of odd time signatures and cryptic lyrics but retaining his signature melodic nous. A true masterpiece.
MP3: Learn To Learn

3. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes / Sun Giant EP

White Winter Hymnal is one of those songs where the first listen is like being transcended to a higher plane. Many subsequent listens haven't diminished even a bit of its brilliance, and it was fantastic to find the album and accompanying EP were full of similar moments. Stunning melodies and even better harmonies, seeing them do it live at the Brudenell in Leeds confirmed that this is truly a band who are going places.
MP3: White Winter Hymnal

4. Justin Currie - What Is Love For

A 2007 release but one I didn't get til this year, this is a truly jaw-dropping record, the kind that gives fresh life to the singer/songwriter tag. I have Del Amitri's Best Of and knew Currie was a good pop writer, but this collection shows a writer of hard-hitting, mature compositions, shown best on the title track and the heartbreaking Still In Love.
MP3: Still In Love

5. Josh Pyke - Chimney's Afire

A second full-length from Josh Pyke in the space of two years, and once again crammed with instantly memorable pop songs. Maybe not as great overall as Memories And Dust, but the formula is certainly working at full strength on tracks like The Summer, You Don't Scare Me and Eat Me Alive, where he's really perfected his own style.
MP3: The Summer

6. Tim Finn - The Conversation

Yet another cracker from Tim, but this time stripped-down chamber-pop, following on from the polished pop production of 2006's Imaginary Kingdom. The songwriting and voice are to the fore on these guitars/piano/violin arrangements, with a fine set of folky tunes to match. Proving once again that he never makes the same record twice, this style suits his current songwriting perfectly.
MP3: Straw To Gold

7. Robert Forster - The Evangelist

His first new material since the final (and best?) Go Betweens album Oceans Apart, The Evangelist finds Forster still firing on all cylinders, the little vignettes he's famed for making a welcome return. Add to that songs like the gorgeous Demon Days, which built upon ideas from the late Grant McLennan, and this is a stately if understated set.
MP3: Demon Days

8. Republic Tigers - Keep Color

I'd bracket the Republic Tigers in with bands like Guster, who on the surface are just a bunch of blokes making effortlessly melodic pop/rock, but once the songs get under your skin, they're hard to shake. Random Youtube surfing suggests they might not be much cop live, but on this wonderful album they're a fantastic proposition, particularly on tracks like Weatherbeaten and the brilliant Buildings & Mountains.
MP3: Buildings & Mountains

9. Captain Wilberforce - Everyone Loves A Villain

Leeds' primary (and only?) power-pop merchant released his second album this year, a fantastic set of songs that sound like what you might get were you to stick Squeeze, the Beatles and Jellyfish in a blender. Timeless pop melodies and a way with words mark him out as one to keep an eye on.
MP3: Confetti Champagne & Roses

10. Coldplay - Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends

Given that the last two Coldplay albums topped my Best Of polls in '02 and '05, I had high hopes for this one. So it was something of a letdown to find they've mostly abandoned their classic songcraft in favour of trying to be experimental. Saying that, Violet Hill and Viva La Vida are cracking tunes, so it wasn't a total waste.
MP3: Violet Hill

And the rest...

Aside from Captain Wilberforce, there was a fair bit of other good stuff coming out of Leeds this year. The Rosie Taylor Project's debut album This City Draws Maps is a mellow pop album centred around the brilliant single Black And White Films. Benjamin Wetherill made a top-notch folk record, Laura, in Hungary, making good on the promise of previous singles and EPs. Duels' second album, The Barbarians Move In, was an all-encompassing brooding monster of an album, taking the pop stylings of their debut and making something altogether darker and more sinister. A great collection, and in Regeneration they had one of the year's finer singles too. Originally from the Leeds area but now based in the States, Your Vegas's debut A Town And Two Cities was full of bombastic stadium rock but with tunes to match. The Research also returned this year, and despite no longer having EMI to bankroll them, The Old Terminal sounded in many ways more accomplished production and arrangement-wise. Song-wise it maybe wasn't as satisfying as 2006's Breaking Up though. The Lodger also returned with a second album of effortlessly brilliant indie-pop, which is well worth seeking out.

Further afield, Jaymay's elegant folk-pop on Autumn Fallin' perfectly captured the feeling of Autumn in New York, her wordy and literate lyricism suggesting a Woody Allen fan. Great tunes too, the gorgeous Blue Skies being the pick of the bunch. Jenny Lewis's Acid Tongue also had some fine tunes, Black Sand and the title track being particularly good, but the album felt a bit weak toward the end.

Eric Matthews released the excellent The Imagination Stage this year, probably the best work he's put out since 1995's It's Heavy In Here, with the usual compliment of intricate instrumentation and breathy vocals very much in place. The Magnetic Fields' Distortion was a great set of songs too, assuming you could get past the production quirk. Would've been a more sustainable listen without the distortion, but that would defeat the objective.

Stinker of the year? That'll be Ben Folds with Way To Normal. I'm a huge fan and was very much looking forward to this, and I can't recall being more let down by an artist. Okay, so Cologne is wonderful, and You don't Know Me an okay single, but the rest of it is substandard at best. I eventually got round to picking up Ben Folds Five's Unauthorised Biography of Reinhold Messner this year, which kind of illustrated just how far his songwriting has sunk. The brilliant Rockin' The Suburbs increasingly seems like a solo fluke.

Live event of the year: Nothing could possibly come close to Crowded House and Don McGlashan at Sherwood Pines Forest back in June. Having free tickets and backstage passes were a bonus, of course, and getting to have a good chat with Don was the icing on the cake. Don's back in the UK in January for a one-off London gig, which I can't recommend highly enough, and both he and Crowded House have new albums scheduled for 2009, which will be essential purchases.