Friday, December 26, 2008

What Was Great in 2008

Besides, you know, the obvious.

Instead of a very extensive year-end list like I did last year, I decided to simply give a list of 10 records which came out this year that I am very, very happy I purchased. I'm not going to pretend this is a "best of" list as I'm sure there are more than a few worthy records I missed in the past 12 months. As more year-end lists trickle in, I'll hopefully get myself caught up.

Still, none of the below albums are crying out to be usurped. It took some trimming to get it down to ten. In no particular order other than the order they occurred to me:

1 Thomas Function Celebration (Alive)
Here's what I wrote on this blog after seeing Thomas Function back in April:
On Tuesday night I had the pleasure of seeing Thomas Function perform at the Annex here in New York in front of a crowd of maybe three dozen or so. Lately I've been verbalizing to anyone who will listen that I think bands should only do 20 minute sets. This probably started shortly after seeing Jay Reatard, who blasted through a set of about a dozen song in about that time. I get bored easily I suppose and usually about halfway though many bands' sets I become restless and wonder if I couldn't be spending my time better elsewhere. But damn me if Thomas Function didn't keep my attention for the duration. So much so, that without hesitation I plunked down $20 for their LP and both 45s they had for sale (All on colored vinyl! Take that, digital age!) despite the fact that I have about $25 in my bank account until my next payday. Hell, if that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is. I've seen the band compared to Television and the Modern Lovers but that's really only telling half the story. They're nowhere near as punctilious as the the former or as coy as the latter. Thomas Function play their off-kilter pop songs with an unabashed enthusiasm that's won that them a following with the usually suspicious of anything cleaner than scuzz garage crowd. I know it's only April but the band's debut album Celebration is going to be hard to beat for record of the year.
I can't say for certain whether or not Thomas Function retained the title for '08 but when it came time to list the best of the year, Celebration was the first record that came to mind

2 Prisonshake Dirty Moons (Scat)
The world waited 15 years for Prisonshake's followup to The Roaring Third and, unlike Chinese Democracy, it wasn't a huge disappointment. Dirty Moons is not the tight, leave-no-fat-untrimmed affair that The Roaring Third was. It's loose, expansive and filled with ideas, befitting a band whose released a box set(!) as their debut album. There's pummeling straight-up rock tunes, tender ballads, mini-rock operas, a 5-song suite, tossed-off minute-long jokes, tunes that stretch past the five, six and ten minute marks, and what feels like everything in between. And yet, it all holds together quite well. For all their ambition, Prisonshake still comes off like the band who could take the stage at your local bar and rock the shit out of the place as effortlessly as if they were tying their shoes. Robert Griffin remains one of the best guitarists to ever come out of the American independent underground, gorgeously lyrical at one moment and bringing the noise the next. I don't know if Dirty Moons is going to win Prisonshake any new fans, but the world is much richer for its presence. It's good to have you back, boys.

3 Thee Oh Sees The Master's Bedroom is Worth Spending a Night In (Castle-Face Records / Tomlab Records)
John Dwyer's most famous project, the Coachwhips, never really did it for me either way. His new (side?) project, Thee Oh Sees, is another matter entirely. Primitive? Sure. Retrogressive? Hardly. The issue I have with a lot of neo-garage (or neo-whatever) acts is that they're all too often content to simply recreate the sounds of a bygone era, offering little in the way of innovation or even individuality. Drenched in reverb, Thee Oh Sees recall primal rock without ever sounding revivalist or particularly derivative. You can hear bits of everyone from Billy Childish to the Scientists to the Red Crayola in their sound but, like a master chef, they use these ingredients to create something entirely their own. Plus, there's as much emphasis on songwriting as there is on sonics. Making a cool noise is fun and all but unless one is using it to shape good songs the appeal is limited. Dwyer and company never loose sight of that and the result is one of the best records of the year.

4 Meth Teeth Bus Rides EP (Sweet Rot)
My favorite 7 inch of the year. Here's what I wrote about it back in April:
If you told me these guys began life as a Beyond the Implode tribute band I might be forced to believe you. Meth Teeth revel in the static like many of today post-Messthetics bands but there's a creepy, almost Barrettesque psych vibe going on here. Brings to mind early SPK covering Skip Spence or perhaps the Strapping Fieldhands doing likewise with the Mudhutters. Very impressive. Apparently only 500 copies pressed so don't sleep on it.
Full-length is supposedly in the works for '09. I'm looking forward to it tremendously.

5 Vivian Girls s/t (Mauled By Tigers/In the Red)
Yes, there's been a wave of hype about this Brooklyn-three piece and, of course, the inevitable backlash. (In fairness, being interviewed by John Norris will harm anyone's cred.) Who knows what the future holds for Vivian Girls? Are music biz-type assholes tripping over themselves to snatch the band up and turn them into the Pussycat Dolls for the Pitchfork set? Will the band ditch their inspired amateurism for professional sheen? Will they collapse under the pressure of the position in which they suddenly find themselves? Do they even have another good record in them under any circumstances? Did it stop being fun a long time ago? All valid questions but when the needle hits the wax on this baby, none of it matters. For the 21 minutes that Vivian Girls is playing, their magnificent DIY-pop renders all flavor of the month concerns irrelevant.

6 Oxford Collapse BITS (Sub Pop)
Nearly every review I read for Oxford Collapse's 2009 album, BITS, seemed totally off the mark, whether trying to lump them in with some kind of lo-fi reaction against orchestral indie rock (a valid point but not the best place to make it) or displaying general cluelessness. Perhaps the reason the crits find the OxC difficult to review is that they can't be easily pigeonholed. They're a band that follows their muse, not trends. When they first began performing earlier in the decade, it seemed that every band in New York was co-opting the angular sounds of British post-punk. Gang of Four and Joy Division soundalikes were more common in the city than service interruptions on the N/R line. The Oxford Collapse, however, were mining the less celebrated but no less fertile territory of US post-punk, taking cues from innovative but virtually unremembered acts like the Embarrassment, Pylon, and the Urinals. While this meant that the band was overlooked in the post-Strokes major-label signing frenzy, fast forward a few years and most of the post-punk revival pack is gone and/or forgotten while the Oxford Collapse have released their fourth and most consistent album yet. They may well be doomed to languish in the same semi-obscurity as their heroes but anyone with a taste for adventurous indie rock would do themselves a service by picking up BITS. The OxC's other 2008 releases The Hann-Byrd EP on Comedy Minus One and "Spike of Bensonhurst" 7" on Flameshovel are also highly recommended.

7 Hank IV Refuge in Genre (Siltbreeze)
I liked the Hank IV's 2006 debut, Third Person Shooter, well enough that it made my list of best albums for that year. On their second platter, they've really upped the ante, stripping away any traces of hobby band silliness for a potent dose of stomping, howling punk rock. Singer Bob McDonald has got to be one of the best frontmen in rock music today. His voice sounds like equal parts Brian Johnson and John Brannon and on stage his antics shame men half his age. This is definitely a band you should experience live. Just pick up Refuge in Genre first as you'll most certainly want to be able to sing along. You just try and resist yelling "She's got!/Dirty poncho!/Drop dead gorgeous!" whilst pumping your fist in the air.

8 Eddy Current Suppression Ring Primary Colours (Goner)
Sometimes it's hard to explain exactly why a band stands above the pack. Eddy Current Suppression Ring plays garage punk, plain and simple and lean and mean. There's no angle. No bells and whistles. Nothing to make blogger/critic/hype machine-types to perk up their ears and say "Oh, isn't that interesting!" So what makes ECSR better than the rest? It's that's indefinable quality called... I don't know... talent? For example, how did ECSR know that dropping out all instruments besides guitar in the middle of "Which Way to Go" before bringing them all crashing back in would up the intensity tenfold? Or how did they know to have singer Brendan Suppression croon over the jangly "Wrapped Up" instead of his usual Mark E. Smith-style declarative recitation? Or that the slow burn of "Memory Lane" followed by the crash-and-bash "Sunday's Coming" would be the perfect way to kick off the album? Beats me, but I suppose that's why they're a fantastic rock band and I'm sitting in front a keyboard struggling to tell you that you'd be a fool to pass on this album. The best Aussie rock band since the Saints? Okay, that's a bit of an overstatement but it got your attention, didn't it?

9 Nothing People Anonymous (S-S)
The name Nothing People conjures images of a Manson family-esque cult of hippies. Instead of preaching the good vibrations of peace and love, they've adopted a philosophy of nihilism, as if they spent a bad acid trip staring into the void and never fully came back. I know nothing of the Nothing People's living habits but their music is nearly an aural equivalent of the above: a twisting and snarling psychedelic maelstrom intent on producing tension. And as befitting a cult, this record comes in innocuous yet oblique packaging and in a very small pressing of 600 copies, LP only. If you can't find one at your local record shoppe, write the fine folks at S-S Records and see if they can sign you up for reprogramming.

10 The Lines Memory Span (Acute reissue)
I pride myself in knowing a thing or two about the British DIY scene of late 70s/early 80s. I was bugging dealers at WFMU Record Fair looking for Homosexuals records when you were still trying figure out how Thom Yorke gets his hair like that. So how did I totally miss the Lines? The short answer is that they were obscure in even for a genre that was in and of itself obscure. That's why I'm thank the creator everyday for people like Dan Selzer and his fantastic Acute label. Memory Span compiles all the Lines' singles and EPs along with a pair of unreleased demos to paint a portrait of a remarkable band. Their first single, the stunning "White Night" sounds at least 10 years ahead of it's time, like something a Creation-label shoegaze-y outfit would be proud to call their own. The remainder of the collection is equally impressive. Even at their most jagged, the Lines are melodically rich and inventive. Try to imagine Robyn Hitchock backed by Grotesque (After the Gramme)-era Fall for an approximation. About a month ago, Acute also released Flood Bank, which collects both of the Lines full-lengths. I have yet to pick it up. Now you know what to get me for Xmas. (Ed. Note: I was planning on posting this list before December 25th.)

A podcast containing songs from the above (as well as more than a few honorable mentions) is coming soon.

In the meantime do check out the '08 lists of the below from folks whose opinion on musical matters I respect probably a lot more than yours:

Nate Knaebel
Doug Mosurock plus Still Single Best of Podcast
WFMU's Terre T
WFMU's Evan "Funk" Davies
WPRB's Jon Solomon
Matador Records Staff and Artists
More to come.


Anonymous said...

Thee Ohsees were my favorite band in 08 and I curse my laziness in missing their nyc shows (p.s. bands that play on Sunday nights have no respect). When they come around next time I won't make the same mistake. Or I'll just move to San Francisco.

Paul between you me and the word verification field there's more than one reason to be jealous of Dan Selzer. Le sigh.

Zac Walton said...

Good list, really like the way you describe E.C.S.R. I've seen them so many times and never get sick of them. If you want to find some good live recordings of theirs drop me a line and i'll find the links for you.