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So Far: Best Albums of 2008

11th August

Now that we’re nearing the final third of the year [insert “how time flies” cliche here], the minds of all music dorks worth their weight in vinyl will gradually turn to the usual “best of” lists. We thought we’d put together a preliminary list of possibilities that may or may not make the final cut in December, but that’s the point: we, too, have already forgotten the names of those albums that came out in February and earned the fleeting rapture of our “this is the greatest album since OK Computer!” accolades, only to be tucked into the CD shelf and disregarded in favor of more recent thrills. So we’ve revisited that shelf of too-easily forgotten glories to take a second glance at CDs which, given the pace of things these days, will already be SO “last season” come Thanksgiving. But even if that sorry fate awaits these albums, at least they will have gotten their due here, in our not-so-middle-of-the-year list of 2008’s “Best Albums” contenders–in no particular order, by the way–what’s the difference between the fifth best and the 6th best album of the year? That’s right–nothing. So what’s the point? Check it out:

The Gossip: Live in Liverpool
000000727744.jpgNot since albums like Get Yer Ya-Yas Out or Lou Reed’s Rock ‘N Roll Animal have live albums been as much of an event as The Gossip’s Live in Liverpool. For starters–the title. Come on, what rock band today DOESN’T want to put out alive album called “Live in fucking Liverpool?” OK, maybe that would have been an even better title, but try this one out: Rick Rubin thought so much of this band’s power as a live unit that he declared their show the best he’d seen “in five years.” Coming from the mouth of Rick Rubin, that’s basically akin to comparing this band to Jesus. And rightfully so: now that even The White Stripes have gone all “art rock-y” on us with the truly icky Icky Thump, and The Black Keys suffered more than a modest share of polish at the otherwise skilled hands of Danger Mouse, The Gossip proudly (and loudly) pick up the slack behind the Mama Cass of Punk (Beth Ditto) with her rockin’ posse in tow. Just the first slap or two of Hannah Blilie’s drums on downright anthems like “Standing in the Way of Control” or the magnificently powerful “Your Mangled Heart” are enough to infect you with an unshakable love of l0-fi fury. There’s a reason why Rick Rubin decided on a live album as The Gossip’s first upon signing with Sony subsidiary label, Music with a Twist: they may be the best live band on the planet right now.

The Heavy: Great Vengeance and Furious Fire
0000131552_175.jpgThe world hasn’t heard music with this much groove since RHCP lured George Clinton into a studio to lay down some tracks with them on their underappreciated Freaky Styley album 23 years ago–you know, back before the Peppers became “arteests.” As the funktastic “That Kind of Man” explodes with a relentlessly massive sound that brings to mind some dude straight out of the late 1970s with a mile-high afro and an early boombox half his size clutched to one ear as he struts right by you up the block, it becomes clear that The Heavy aren’t taking shit from anybody. That’s probably why they include “big bad wolves just doing what they do” among their band members on MySpace. There really isn’t a more accurate description of their sound than that. These boys (and one girl–clutching an axe with a murderous stare on their myspace page, no less) are here for the long haul. The Heavy’s sound is Tom Waits backed by The Stooges, Muddy Waters back from the Dead to make an album with Danger Mouse (because Danger Mouse SO needs another project on his hands.) These guys are bringing taste back in a big damned hurry, and judging from the friends they keep on MySpace, it’s hard to conceive of a more fitting band to do it–The Sonics, Howlin’ Wolf, Slim Harpo, Tom Waits, and even Waits’s great label Anti. These people know a good groove when they hear one, and they’re threatening to bring plenty more of their own for good measure. Check ‘em out.

MGMT: Oracular Spectacular
51peen1ptyl_aa240_.jpgLike, DUH. If, halfway through the first rack of Oracular, it already feels like you’ve taken one too many sips of hallucinogenic mushroom tea while stepping inside another episode of VH1’s “Where Are They Now,” especially the part where the featured “artists” do lots of drugs, get fat and completely forgotten by the world, and then try to not be forgotten anymore by making really terrible music in their middle age for a “comeback” tour attended by thirteen-and-a-half people worldwide, that’s as it should be: You’re listening to MGMT, a duo of self-described “mystic paganists” devoted to “opening the third eye of the world.” The album’s first track, “Time to Pretend,” which was featured in the that movie 21 about some MIT kids who took Vegas to the cleaners by learning to count cards, takes aim at every one of those VH1 cliches with the sharp arrow of the band’s notorious sarcasm. Drenched in addictive hooks that marry Prince and The Flaming Lips in a union of space-funk and soul that somehow captures exactly the sound the band describes on their MySpace page– “surf jungle country”–Oracular delivers a sound that’s as fresh in 2008 as Beck’s was in 1994, leaping onto the scene with the same “we don’t care” abandon that “Loser” brought to the biz back then. And people are “getting into it”–lots of them. It’s no accident that the album vaguely echoes The Flaming Lips. Oracular IS produced, after all, by David Fridmann, the captain at the console for many a Flaming Lips album. Roll Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots with some speed-laced nicotine and you’ve got the addictive mindfuck that is Oracular Spectacular.

Bridges and Powerlines: Ghost Types
bridgesnl0.jpgThough the brand of power-pop these guys peddle reveals a compelling brew of influences, the results are no less their own. Tunes like “Uncalibrated” or “Middle Child” are so bright you feel like you’ve just stared directly into the sun after sleeping in a hole in the ground for a week in winter (no wonder they used to call themselves “Sunspots”.) The music explodes in your ear with the relentless burst of a synthesizer that laces the song’s manic drums and guitar with an enthusiasm as focused as it is unhinged. No band has sounded this damned happy to be making music since The Thrills put out their debut “we are California” LP, So Much For the City. Equal parts Acrade Fire’s “Keep the Car Running” and Wilco’s “I’m Always in Love” with a tinge of Wolf Parade, most of the material on Bridges and Powerlines’ new album, Ghost Types, betrays the “love of the three-minute pop song” they say brought them together. With harmonies as soaring as the hooks and a psychedelic disposition that so perfectly suits the vaguely snotty abandon of taut rockers like “Half A Cent,” the band rarely lingers long in the unmapped musical terrain they explore. They prefer instead to wet their feet in the pond of your mind and run, leaving you to wonder whether what you just heard was of this world or the glittering residue of some wild and half-remembered dream. In the end, though, it really doesn’t matter–just as long as there’s more where that came from.

Sleepercar: West Texas
sleepercar-west_texas.jpgWhat an extraordinary exhibition of influence these songs offer: the echo of a latter day Lloyd Cole album drives a spike through the broken heart of “Heavy Weights,” the vaguely new wave “Sound the Alarm”–perhaps the album’s finest track–almost prepares you for Hall & Oates to take the mike and belt one out about a woman who only comes out at night as Mark Knopfler straps on a guitar and awaits his part. And if none of the material here really approximates Jim Ward’s vision of a rootsy American rock album as closely as he may have desired–Ward still sounds very much like the lead vocalist of Sparta throughout West Texas, the debut album from this dainty little side project–it’s in his aspiration for a sound so alien to the music he’s known for that brings him–and his listeners–to some unexpected creative landscape where willows drip with a melting and late-season snow as an iron and sweeping sky rushes the day to dusk. You lift the collar of your coat to combat a dank chill in the air–one of the last of the season–and you grin and walk right through it as the year closes in on so many warmer days. Only “Wednesday Nights” and “Fences Down” really hit the alt-country mark Ward seems to set his sights on here, songs that could quite easily pass themselves off as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot outtakes. But, again, it’s in the album’s misfires that something genuinely fascinating occurs. Don’t miss this record; it’s as close to a guaranteed pleasure as we may have heard all year.

Raconteurs: Consolers of the Lonely
raconteurs_consolers_of_the_lonely_cover.jpg“Needless to say, I was more than skeptical of the newest Raconteurs project. I accept and love that Jack White is a man of many escapades, including plastic camera and speaker manufacture, collaboration with the Gods (Loretta Lynn and Bob Dylan), cell phone protestation, and home movies of snoring band mates (sorry Meg). With the exception of the premier Raconteurs album, he hits all these ventures out of the park. Therefore, I gave him an open, yet highly analytical second chance. Consolers of the Lonely, HOT DAMN! I’m sorry my lord for ever doubting your ability. I grabble at your feet in repentance! The Kinks got busy with Icky Thump and conceived Consolers of the Lonely, plain and simple. This album delivers Jack White’s signature raw energy viciously burned with blistering horns and riffs to rival Zeppelin. The band let the album speak for itself, doing zero promotion and allowing the content to leak on iTunes and the like. Bravo boys. White and company have created radio-soluble tunes capable of pushing facileness overboard. So long Linkin Park and Flobots! This album is a must for summer and pairs perfectly with open-windowed driving.” — Sara Mrozinski

The Boxing Lesson: Wild Streaks and Windy Days
imagephp5.jpg As if any further proof was needed, Wild Streaks and Windy Days confirms once again that to label a band is to kill a band. It is too easy to dismiss The Boxing Lesson as a post-punk new wave act and move blithely on to your next victim. But as Whoopsy Magazine puts it, “there’s a lot more going on here . . . catchy backing vocals, surreal lyrics, and a modern pop sensibility stand out the most.” But The Boxing Lesson aren’t just another upstart “indie” band pushing the praise of rags called “Whoopsy.” The Onion calls them “a hard-charging trio,” and The Austin Chronicle praises them for “opening a Pandora’s box of psychedelia.” The Boxing Lesson take us somewhere genuinely new with Wild Streaks and Windy Days; and if they have to fumble through a jewel chest of prior eras to get there, they never look back so long as to undermine a vision of their own. Oh, and check out our recent interview with the band!

Josh Rouse: Country Mouse, City House
joshrouse.jpg If much of Rouse’s music is no heavier than a breeze at the beach in spring–particularly on the supine Subtitlio he recorded after splitting with his wife and defecting to Spain (as good a reason as any to be “supine”)–it is no less substantive because of it. And anyway, just when you think you’ve got this cool cat cornered, an album like 2005’s Nashville thunders with a vaguely unsettled dirge like “Why Won’t You Tell me What,” a spare and thumping chant that delivers the kind of bluesy acrimony you’d expect of a middle-aged loungesinger at some watering hole up the block, positioning his 14th cigarette in an ashtray on the lid of a beaten piano that’s knifed with the names of a thousand long-gone couples. Amid the apparent serenity of Rouse’s more recent material–breezy tunes like “Quiet Town” or the flawless “Hollywood Bass Player” from 2007’s Country Mouse album–it’s this defiant strand of discontent that completes the complex character his songs reveal, a ballsy volatility that so many songwriters might be wise to consider.

Young Knives: Superabundance
3305744m.jpgWhen Franz Ferdinand followed up their brilliant, eponymous debut with that frenzied and self-conscious clunker of a second album, You Could Have it So Much Better (how right they were), it seemed that we had another one-trick pony on our hands, that what glories they had brought us in 2004 were not the kind of thing that comes around every year–or every ten, for that matter. As much as I hate to describe one band by discussing another–comparisons do a lot more to confine bands than they do to illuminate them–Young Knives, a geek-rock outfit out of England that look and sound every bit as “Young” as their band name suggests, are both picking up the torch that Franz left behind and taking it to the places we expected them to go. If Ray Davies is correct in his theory that a band’s third album is really the one that shows you whether or not the kids are for real, then Superabundance, the third Young Knives album (if we’re counting their 2002 EP–and why not?), documents the arrival of a potentially great band. Geek or no geek, though, give the “Terra Firma” video a little look if you doubt for a second the comparisons to Franz. The song is an incorrigible fit of post-punk revival sweetness that drives relentlessly through an adrenaline-overdrive of manic guitars laced over a backbone of disco that puts a lot into perspective: Why, for instance, a previous label of theirs was called “Shifty Disco,” or why an acoustic take on “Turn Tail,” one of several singles the album has spawned, was recorded directly to vinyl all in one take at London’s Westbourne Studios–something that hasn’t been done commercially since people like The Partridge Family could actually make a living in music. In other words, it’s been a long, long time.

Everlast: Love, War, and the Ghost of Whitey Ford
coverletters.jpgOK, so maybe this album hasn’t been released yet. But dammit, it should have been! And anyway, it’s gonna be good! At least we can now hear Everlast’s mash-up cover of Johnny Cash’s legendary “Folsom Prison Blues,” which is slated to appear on this long-delayed new album. The album’s currently on deck for a September 24 release–which means absolutely nothing, of course, because the album has been on deck for a release for months to no avail, pissing Everlast off to no end and infecting his fans with a brutal case of rumor-mill blues. And that’s no fun at all–just ask AC/DC fans. While the “Letters Home From The Garden of Stone” single is strong, making waves on iTunes for months now, Everlast’s cover of “Folsom Prison” is little short of brilliant. Check it out here.

The Boxing Lesson: Wild Streaks and Windy Days

5th June

Boxing Lesson Live

I once found myself the pained victim of a “Punk Rock Charity Event” at an established venue in lovely Tampa, FL. Washing down a basket of blazing hot hush puppies with many gulps of Guinness, my friend, a very wise man and professor of good taste, warned me of the agonies that awaited as a 7-piece band crowded the stage with Wurlizters, triangles, musical saws, synths, dobros, guitars, bicycle bells, bass, drums, and, yes–an Electro-Theremin (No, I am not shitting you.) “I am of the opinion that a four-piece band is one piece too many,” he said, a less-is-more aesthetic philosophy proven true by bands like The Gossip, The Black Keys, The White Stripes, and, as you’ll see below, a band called The Boxing Lesson. He was right, of course: the band sounded like the musical equivalent of gastroenteritis.

I promptly began scrolling the venue for the nearest emergency exit to no avail, gripping a beer with one hand and holding my head together with the other in full anticipation that it would split in three any minute. I somehow made it through the evening, but not without fleeing home to a stack of early Stones albums in the hope that they would make the world comprehensible to me once again. So imagine my euphoria upon discovering a band that relishes the deceptively boundless possibilities inherent in the three-piece concept. An up-and-coming threesome out of Austin, Texas, The Boxing Lesson betray a rather thinly veiled affinity for Pink Floyd on their new LP, Wild Streaks and Windy Days; but they roughen the edges of that influence with an open-armed embrace of Spacemen 3, The Cure, Radiohead and Broken Social Scene.


The Boxing Lesson: Dance With Meow, Wild Streaks and Windy Days (2008)

Little is left to the imagination when an album opens with a title like “Dark Side of the Moog“–just in case you questioned the veracity of comparisons to Pink Floyd–a smoking-hot and brooding intro to the brand of neo-psychedelic space rock they so proudly peddle (what the fuck is a “moog,” you’re asking–OK. Here.) “Lead Boxer, Paul Waclawsky, flexes his songwriting muscles and his space echoes like never before on this ageless recording inspired by the Austin indie music scene and radio transmissions from outer space,” they explain (in keeping with the theme, the static of those “transmissions” is heard in the fade of “Dark Side”–these guys are on top of things.) “Paul’s voice shows maturity and his epic sonic guitar textures are psychedelic and lush, like Cassiopeia A, the birthplace of the stars,” they continue. Even between the lines of the band’s own copy, you can hear vague echoes of Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” Consider their influences established.

And they’re not kidding–the trippy title track, which evokes vivid memories of waiting in line for another ride on Disney’s Space Mountain–really does give you the feeling that you’ve just been strapped to a rocket and sent through the sky to probe some intergalactic snowstorm. Gushing with synths that leave you wondering if this is the lost Part 10 of Floyd’s epic “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” the song undulates through some zero-gravity dream in a shining silver space suit while sending transmissions to rumored lifeforms on the 57th moon of Saturn. Paul Waclawsky–self-described “songwriter and astronaut”–lends his feathery vocals to cloak the tune in a distinctly airy robe of sound, a gorgeous contrast to the feedback-laden pop mastery of other tracks like the chiseled “Brighter“–the easiest pick for a summer road trip mix that we’ve heard all year.


The Boxing Lesson: “Brighter,” Live in Austin, TX (Feb. 2008)

As if any further proof was needed, Wild Streaks and Windy Days confirms once again that to label a band is to kill a band. It is too easy to dismiss The Boxing Lesson as a post-punk new wave act and move blithely on to your next victim. But as Whoopsy Magazine puts it, “there’s a lot more going on here . . . catchy backing vocals, surreal lyrics, and a modern pop sensibility stand out the most.” But The Boxing Lesson aren’t just another upstart “indie” band pushing the praise of rags called “Whoopsy.” The Onion calls them “a hard-charging trio,” and The Austin Chronicle praises them for “opening a Pandora’s box of psychedelia.” The Boxing Lesson take us somewhere genuinely new with Wild Streaks and Windy Days; and if they have to fumble through a jewel chest of prior eras to get there, they never look back so long as to undermine a vision of their own.

The Gossip and the Great Fat Majority

24th April

Gossip

“I like the word “fat” . . . what’s funny is that they treat it like a minority, but it’s actually the majority and I wonder why we haven’t gotten it together, because we are the majority . . . really most of us are fat asses, you know.”

– Beth Ditto, The Gossip

If the jury was still out on whether Arkansas is the armpit of America–it is, after all, the birthplace of Wal-Mart–Beth Ditto has donned the black robes, adjourned court in a characteristically thunderous manner, and settled it once and for all: “Fuck, no. No. Never,” she says as Matt Gonzalez of Pop Matters asks if she’d ever consider moving back to Searcy, her small hometown in Arkansas where lesbians are subject to the fiery wrath of the Lord and “punk” is the new communism, “There’s no way, no way. No, no, no.” OK, OK, we get it: Arkansas sucks. When you’re talking to Beth Ditto, a Southern Baptist lesbian punker with a penchant for feminism and fried squirrel, you kind of expect her to tell you how she feels about things. And she does. This is a woman who holds nothing back in life–not on stage, not over the phone, not anywhere. And that’s why she fronts one of the greatest bands to surface from the festering pond of indie rock in years.

That Ditto’s band The Gossip garners far greater notice in the UK than in the US is proof enough of their greatness–take The Eels, for example, a monumentally significant group summarily ignored in the States but whose every album’s considered for record-of-the-year honors in NME editorial meetings–and so it’s no shocker that their first record for Columbia, on subsidiary label “Music with a Twist” which seeks LGBT talent, is a live album cut at a club in Liverpool before a writhing crowd of 500 people whose stunned shrieks accompany every wail, lick and thump the band delivers. Whether those shrieks are gasps of horror or expressions of joy is anyone’s guess–the two emotions tend to be interchangeable at most Gossip shows, especially when Ditto starts taking her clothes off–but Ditto, a proudly rotund modern incarnation of the Mama Cass she adoringly listened to as a kid, performs to inspire both, and if you don’t like it, you can shove it.

“I don’t really care. I could give a shit,” she tells the A.V. Club, “I think if I were someone who takes themselves completely seriously as an artist I would, but I don’t take myself that seriously, I don’t think Gossip takes itself that seriously.” Look, the woman’s made a life-long crusade of bringing “heavy” back (she reportedly weighs in at 210), tells grand tales of smoking weed from a Coke can with friends down home who shoot squirrels out back for frying when they get the munchies, and frequently removes her clothes live to expose a hulking pair of pale legs that quiver with cellulite as she romps through the rest of the set in a bra and panties. It may also be important to note at this point that she neither wears deodorant nor shaves her armpits, because “punks usually smell.” “Serious” may not exactly be the woman’s M.O., but try telling that to a single person who’s sat through five minutes of The Gossip’s uproarious live act–these kids mean it.

Gossip guitarist Nathan Hodeshell (A.K.A. Brace Paine) rips such a nasty flame through Live in Liverpool that the album sounds like a devastated Jack White blasting an amp apart by himself in the middle of an abandoned and burning garage. Ditto, flailing and twisting in place as a quilt of sweat cements her self-made clothes to her body, belts out a tune like it’s the last piece of music the world will hear before an imminent nuclear holocaust. And drummer Hannah Blilie fuses every groove with a snarling backbone of disco that directs LCD Soundsystem to the back of the “cool” line at once. Yes, this is most certainly the band that Rick Rubin went to see one night to declare that it was “the best show I’ve seen in five years.”

It’s also a band you’ll be hearing about a hell of a lot more–this article, after all, results from the fascinated but profound trauma I experienced as Ditto and her rockin’ posse took the stage for an MTV performance the other night. If I recall correctly, my various responses ranged from a bewildered “WTF” to desperate and groveling 7-year-old-girl cries for my mother; but this, I learned after a bit of research, is a perfectly normal and scientifically documented symptom of initial exposure to The Gossip. It takes a minute to reconstitute your mind in such a way that the spectacle they put on becomes comprehensible–and when that happens, there’s no turning back. In short, I’m hooked.

Beth

Ditto’s crusade to put the human back in pop music is as admirable as it is sincere. Rarely will you meet someone as comfortable in her own skin as Beth Ditto–the woman did pose nude for for On Our Backs, for Christ’s sake, a lesbian erotica magazine run exclusively by women. At 210 lbs., that’s pretty much my definition of “comfortable.” It’s a courage she brings to every second of her stage performance, a kind of “fuck you this is what real people look like” schtick that wins her an understandably vast amount of respect. “I don’t want to look like Britney Spears, I just don’t want to. She’s Hideous,” Ditto explains, “I just like food too much, and I don’t want to change. I spent so much of my childhood trying to change, and I just got sick of it.”

And before we all weep into our double-pump Venti no-sugar soy vanilla lattes about the discriminatory semantics of the word “fat,” we may want to listen for a minute to Ditto herself: “I like the word ‘fat’,” she tells Pop Matters, “people bitch about fat people who are quote unquote overweight, which is a term that I hate, because it sets a standard for people to be.” In an industry dominated by plastic pop wannabes on steady diets of locust, bean sprouts and tape worm, Ditto’s daring assertion that real people make music too is a warmly welcome concept.

Amid all of Ditto’s well-publicized eccentricities, though–publicity whose flames she seems to fan at every opportunity–it’s easy to lose sight of how powerful and genuine a band this is. Joining a not-too-crowded list of great three-piece rock groups (Nirvana, The Police, Cream), The Gossip are a trio that pack more attitude than a rock stage has seen since Dylan turned to his band and ordered them to “play fucking loud” after some forgotten imbecile in the crowd called him “Judaaasss!” for going electric in ’65. While earlier projects such as their Arkansas Heat EP or 2003’s relentless Movement convey that ferocity as effectively as a studio allows (was it Cyndi Lauper who said that recording in a studio is kind of like faking an orgasm?), nothing captures it more clearly than 2008’s Live in Liverpool.

Ditto herself is the first to admit that their studio output sounds a little canned at times, particularly on the comparatively tame Standing in the Way of Control, an album whose title track, a cry of rage against anti-gay discrimination, nonetheless became their best-known tune to date. “If I weren’t in this band, I would never listen to it,” Ditto concedes in laughter, “but I would go see it. It’s a band you would go see that you don’t necessarily listen to.” As usual, Ditto may be overstating the truth, but as the scorching torrent of meaty riffs and grooves she dresses in her full-bodied wail throughout Live in Liverpool proves, that doesn’t mean she’s wrong.