Wednesday, 7 January 2009

2008: A Year in Music [Part 4: Top 5 albums of the year]

Happy new year! It's 2009 already, and I'm still talking about 2008. Talk about living in the past. Anyway, time for my my top 5 albums of 2008.

5. Oasis - Dig out your soul

The fact that this album did make the cut of my top 5 list is a pretty good indication that 2008 wasn't a great year for me for newly released music (or it at least indicates that I didn't buy a lot of new music).

Here are very short reviews of all of the previous Oasis albums:

Definitely maybe - One of the best debut albums of all time! This is a masterpiece and all-time classic.
Morning glory - This album made them huge. It plays like a greatest hits compilation; the songs are that good! Another masterpiece.
The masterplan - An amazing B-sides compilation. Nay-sayers, listen to this before dissing Oasis!
Be here now - Coke-fuelled, over-long and self-indulgent. But there are some amazing songs here as well.
Standing on the shoulder of giants - A career low-point. There are a few good songs on here, but a lot of filler as well.
Heathen chemistry - A pretty solid album overall. This album showed that they still had something to say.
Don't believe the truth - A step up from HC where they took some risks. A great comeback!

So where does Dig out your soul fit in their discography?

Let's start with the good. There are some great songs on this album! The opening two tracks Bag it up and The turning really rock, and they have great singalong choruses which I would imagine would absolutely go off live. In particular, the "shake your rag doll" line from the latter stands out as as a very memorable Oasis moment. I already mentioned The shock of the lightning in my top 10 songs of the year post; it's a classic Oasis number that sits comfortably amongst their finest moments.

I'm outta time is a pretty and melodic ballad written by Liam, although it's a little cliched even by Oasis' standards. All in all, it's probably Liam's finest songwriting moment together with Songbird from Heathen chemistry. It includes a sample from John Lennon's last interview which is used quite poignantly in the song, also working as a cheeky smirk to those who call them Beatles rip-offs (as if the endless stream of ripped-off lyrics wasn't enough). Falling down also works in a weird kind of way, sounding quite different from anything they have released before.

Now for the bad. Waiting for the rapture (which contains the first Noel lead vocal on the album) rips off the opening riff from the Doors' Five to one, but doesn't seem to really go anywhere. The lyrics are tiring, the melody is boring; it's just not memorable. Similar comments apply to (Get off your) high horse lady, the 2nd song on the album with Noel on lead vocals. With a few exceptions (Acquiesce), Noel's voice has always worked a lot better on ballads (Talk tonight, Half the world away) than on rockers. He just doesn't have the rock-star voice that Liam has.

The last four tracks of the album (two written by Liam, the other two written by the other band members) are where the album really sinks into mediocrity. Almost all Oasis albums have some degree of filler material, but by leaving the four least memorable tracks until the end, it makes the bad material stand out more and leaves the album way too top-heavy. If only the closing track was as good as Let there be love was, it could have redeemed the 2nd half of this album.

And I haven't even discussed the production values yet. Many critics have gone out and said that this is the best Oasis sounding album to date. The overly compressed production of this record does not deserve such praise. Granted, most Oasis albums have had pretty bad production values. Maybe this is the first time I have noticed the production, and it has affected my enjoyment of the album. I know what they mean now when they say that ignorance is bliss.

4. Augie March - Watch me disappear

I made the analogy not long after buying this album that Watch my disappear is to Augie March what 16 lovers lane was to The Go-Betweens. This is a bit of a loose analogy; 16 lovers lane is a masterpiece of an album which I would probably include in my top 20 albums ever made, while Watch me disappear is a long way away from that. It isn't even close to being my favourite Augie March album.

What I do mean when saying this is that they have toned down some of their more experimental tendencies (present on their earlier albums Sunset studies and Strange bird), refining their sound into a more polished, accessible and concise album which may or may not give them some more commercial success. At a mere 44 minutes in length, it's also the shortest album of their career (their previous three albums being 76 minutes, 62 minutes and 66 minutes in length).

All of this reeks of a pretty major sellout, but this is not quite true. While some songs (Pennywhistle) come close to twee indie-pop, two very important things make this album stand out from their contemporaries -- the dark and literary lyrics (always one of their strong points), and Glenn Richards' always amazing vocals. In this age of overly loud and compressed records, the spacious production in this album is also a welcome sigh of relief.

And what about the songs? The opening title track is quite unlike anything they have ever released; a dark, atmospheric number that for some reason (which I can't quite put my finger on) reminds me a bit of Eskimo Joe. Becoming Bryn and City of rescue sound a bit like Nick Cave and The Pogues' more raucous moments, while The Glenorchy bunyip is a toe-tapping rocker in the spirit of This train will be taking no passengers from Strange bird, albeit not as successful.

Farmer's son begins with a guitar line that may be one of their most accessible and melodic song openings they have ever had, and for me provides a great analogy of what Glenn and the gang have achieved on this album -- making literate, intelligent indie pop accessible to a larger number of people.

Overall, this album works better for me than their last one Moo, you bloody choir. Moo found them at a crossroads, staring commercial success (One crowded hour) in the eyes while still trying to keep their experimental tendencies intact. In light of this, it came across as a slightly unfocused and transitional album.

Watch me disappear shows what happens when they take the other road; as a self-contained capsule of accessible songwriting and musicianship, it succeeds in achieving everything it set out to do. These guys have worked hard at success and deserve all the accolades that come their way. While I fear they may eventually sell out and lose their more complex and experimental tendencies of their earlier work, I have confidence that they have enough artistic integrity that they won't let this happen.

3. Elbow - The seldom seen kid

It's amazing how your perceptions of a band can change over the course of a few albums. Many years ago, I picked up Elbow's debut album Asleep at the back after reading some over-hyped reviews in Q magazine. This was back in my less cynical days when I used to buy into a lot of critical hype. While that album has some standout tracks on it, it never really impressed me a lot overall. I liked their follow-up Cast of thousands better, as it was a bit less claustrophobic sounding and the tunes were better.

Earlier in 2008, I picked up their 3rd album Leaders of the free world and it was an even more subtle progression. I'd read a lot of reviews of The seldom seen kid, their 4th album, many praising it as one of the albums of the year. And I can honestly say that this is one album that has truly lived up to my (very high) expectations.

This is the album where Elbow started firing on all cylinders. They have always been a band with the potential to be brilliant, but each of their previous albums was a little bit scattershot. For every stunning moment (Red, Fugitive motel, Picky bugger), there were other moments which lacked a little in songcraft (Little beast, Fallen angel, Crawling with idiot).

This is the most consistent Elbow album to date. Unlike previous efforts, every song on this album seems to have a purpose. Starlings is a stunning and quirky opener, The bones of you is simultaneously complex and entertaining and Grounds for divorce may be one of their catchiest songs to date (and it really gets under your skin after a few listens). Then there's Audience with the pope (apparently their "James Bond" song) and The fix, a brilliant duet about a caper with Richard Hawley. Even One day like this, which seems to be their attempt at an epic lighter-waving stadium ballad, works better than it should. The album's stunning closer Friend of ours is a gorgeously understated tribute to their dearly departed friend Bryan Glancy.

While Coldplay were busy adding Brian Eno touches to their latest album in an attempt to get street cred, Elbow went back to first principles and showed what happens when amazing songwriting, performance and production collide.

2. Al Green - Lay it down

Lay it down, lay it down, lay it down
Put your head on the floor

So begins the opening title track from Al Green's remarkable new album. The Reverend is 62 years old now, and he's still showing the plethora of contemporary "R&B and soul" pretenders how it's done. For a man who has released so many classic songs over the years, he doesn't really have to prove anything anymore. What he has proven on this album, without a shadow of a doubt, is that he is still the master of the genre.

Allow me to make myself perfectly clear here. This hot little CD, this one right here, is how to write, record and produce a contemporary R&B album. There's hardly a wasted note over the 11 tracks and 45-minute running time. He brings in a few younger singers, including Anthony Hamilton, Corinne Bailey Rae and John Legend, to duet with him on some of the songs. Their presence isn't really necessary (Al Green's vocals are still amazing) but they add a bit of variety to the mix and help him appeal to a younger audience. I'm hoping that fans of the current "pseudo R&B" that clogs our airwaves listen to this album, so they can see how a master does it.

There are too many highlights to mention, but I'll name a few. The opening title track is gorgeously seductive and sets the scene perfectly; No one like you has an amazing groove which is highly contagious; Too much possesses one of the most fragile vocals on the album; Standing in the rain is an upbeat Otis Redding-esque number which closes the album on a high note.

Al Green has a huge smile on the front cover, and quite understandably. He has released one of the albums of the year.

1. Brian Wilson - That lucky old sun

I think Pet sounds proved without a shadow of a doubt that Brian Wilson was never able to match the beauty of an album with an equally beautiful record cover. That lucky old sun, Brian Wilson's 8th solo album, continues this oddball tradition. Unless it's a subliminal message to get us to eat more citrus?

That lucky old sun seemed to come out of nowhere for me. With the exception of SMiLE, I'd never considered looking into Brian Wilson's solo discography as I had always thought of it as a pale imitation of his golden years with the Beach Boys. This may well be the case, but this album is as good if not better than many of the albums that Brian Wilson recorded with his former band.

The album opens with a beautiful rendition of the title track, a 1949 popular song made famous by artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. The title song is reprised (lyrically and instrumentally) at several key points on the album, giving a conceptual unity to the record.

Also interspersed throughout the album, breaking up the longer compositions, are some poems written by Van Dyke Parks (but recited by Brian) which almost sound like beatnik poetry. Many critics have dismissed these poems as pointless self-indulgence, but I find that they work really work in breaking up the album and also tying together the various lyrical themes.

And what about the lyrics? I mentioned some of the songs on my top 10 songs post, but the overruling feel of the album lyrically is one of nostalgia (Southern california), romance (Forever she'll be my surfer girl, Good kind of love) and acceptance (Midnight's another day). While this sounds like your standard lyrical fare, Brian manages to intertwine the themes together in such a way that makes each moment sound like a vital piece in a musical mosaic.

Musically, it's incredibly rich and diverse as well. Sure, there's some kitschy moments (Good kind of love) but they have such hummable melodies that you can't help but feel a rush of adrenaline when listening to them. The ballads are exquisite, with the trademark Beach Boys harmonies you have come to expect from the songwriting genius of Brian Wilson.

Many have dismissed Brian Wilson's voice, saying that it is past its prime. I'm not one to argue with this; his voice is definitely nowhere near as great as it was in the late 60s and early 70s. But the man is 66, so it's a bit unfair to judge his voice in this way. Many older singers would give one of their kidneys (if they hadn't already destroyed them) to sound as good as Brian Wilson does on this album.

This is going to be a controversial comment, but this album works better for me than SMiLE did. SMiLE had the weight of 37 years of expectations resting on its shoulders, and many studio outtakes from the era where Brian Wilson was in fine voice and had the the world at his feet. As successful as the official SMiLE album was, it could never quite match the expectations that were thrust upon it.

That lucky old sun, on the other hand, seemed to come out of nowhere. Nobody was expecting Brian Wilson to release such an amazing album after all these years. If this is the last we ever hear from him, it will prove to be a very fitting epitaph and a spectacular bookend to a remarkable career.

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