Wednesday, 31 December 2008

2008: A Year in Music [Part 3: Cutting room floor]

These are the albums that didn't make my top 5 albums of the year, which I will put in my next post. I didn't buy a lot of CDs from 2008 this year, so this will be a pretty short post.

R.E.M. - Accelerate

This was hailed by critics as a return to their rockier sound after a trilogy of more subdued affairs since the departure of drummer Bill Berry after New adventures in hi-fi. And for most of the time, it works pretty well as a solid and melodic rock album. It's great to see R.E.M. back in melodic form on nuggets like Man-sized wreath, Supernatural superserious and Until the day is done. And it's also good to see R.E.M. much more tight and focused on this album - at only 35 minutes, it's the shortest album of their 25-year career.

I have two gripes with this album. Firstly, despite its brief running time, it still contains a few songs which aren't particularly memorable to me. Opener Living well is the best revenge, despite providing a great statement of intent for the album, lacks a good melody. The title track doesn't excite me a lot either. And there's a few songs near the end (Horse to water and I'm gonna DJ) which don't particularly reward repeated listening for me.

My second gripe is more serious - this album is an unfortunate victim of the loudness war. It brickwalls on the first track and is turned up to 11 for pretty much the entire running time, except on a few ballads. I blame the influence of Jacknife Lee, who has worked on similarly loud albums by artists such as Bloc Party, Snow Patrol and U2.

I own all of R.E.M.'s albums, and if I find myself in the mood for listening to them I can't possibly see myself choosing Accelerate over Murmur or Automatic for the people, amongst other brilliant efforts. Call something a return to form as much as you like, but if you don't get an urge to listen to it, what's the point?

Elvis Costello - Momofuku

This album was recorded in a couple of weeks, and it sounds like it -- it's Elvis' rawest album since Blood & chocolate from 1986. On many of the songs, the rawness works really well -- the opening two tracks No hiding place and American gangster time are a great way to open the record, both classic Costello rockers. There's a few nice ballads to add a bit of variety -- the jazzy Harry worth, sentimental My three sons and melodic Flutter & wow.

It's a good album, but it lacks a little in cohesiveness, feeling more like a collection of songs than an album. The album was named after Momofuku Ando (the inventor of cup noodles) and, in a sense, the name is appropriate -- it's all a bit of a hodge-podge of genres and styles mixed up in a way similar to how meat and vegetables are thrown together in a stir-fry. A solid Costello effort, but for a latter-day album I'd choose The delivery man over this.

You Am I - Dilettantes

After the garage-rock rawness of Convicts, this was hailed as their return to the melodic form of their golden era (c. Hourly, daily). Sometimes I wonder whether critics really listen to the whole album when they do reviews. The album starts off really good -- the opening title track is a beautiful, melodic ballad that hints at their previous classics like Heavy heart. Disappearing has an interesting groove to it which makes it very listenable, and Beau geste (discussed in my last post) is a melodic little nugget and one of the best You Am I songs in years.

Unfortunately, I struggle to remember anything memorable about the rest of the album. The songs don't seem to have a direction, many of them lacking decent melodies; because of this they fail to maintain my interest. All of the songs tend to blend into one for me, and while I sometimes notice some decent songs amongst the mix while listening to it, I immediately forget about them after the album has finished playing. There's also (I know I'm getting boring here) a pretty severe lack of dynamic range on all of these songs, making the album aurally unpleasant to listen to at times.

I think we can safely say that the chance of You Am I ever releasing an album on par with any of their earlier classics is pretty close to nil. It's sad to see such a great band fall from such great heights. Luckily, we'll always have Hourly, daily and Hi-fi way to listen to, to remind us of how great they once were.

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