Monday, 19 January 2009

2008: A Year in Music [Part 5: Musical discoveries]

The previous posts in my 2008 wrap-up suggest that I didn't buy a lot of music last year. Quite the contrary, I bought 113 albums in 2008. That's an average of 2 albums purchased per week! With only 8 albums from 2008, there's still 105 other albums I purchased during the year. The cream of those 105 albums is going to rise to the top, forming the basis of this post: my musical discoveries of the year. This is the post which I enjoy writing the most; if I can introduce at least one reader to one of these excellent albums, I'll consider it mission accomplished.

The albums here are listed in order of purchase.

The Divine Comedy - Promenade

I actually bought this album at the tail end of 2007, but I decided to cheat and include it in this list anyway. Casanova was in my list of 2007 musical discoveries, but Promenade was the Divine Comedy album I really wanted to buy for a long time. Unfortunately, it has been out of print for a long time, meaning that I had to resort to buying it off eBay second-hand. Thankfully, I found it for a very reasonable price.

There are many adjectives I would use to describe this music. The best phrase to describe it that I could come up with is lush, literate and romantic chamber-pop. If this description sounds in any way attractive to you, you will thoroughly enjoy this album.

Lyrically, the album could be described as a concept album, telling the story of a day in the life of two young lovers. Each song is a self-contained vignette covering a particular point in their day, but there is also a story arc over the course of the record.

There are highlights scattered throughout, but I particular enjoy The booklovers (basically a list of the lovers' favourite authors, which sounds boring but isn't), The summerhouse (a nostalgic ode to youth), the quirky A drinking song (where the lovers get drunk) and the optimistic and feel-good closer Tonight we fly.

This is one of those albums where there isn't a note out of place throughout its 45-minute running time. A stunning album.

MP3: The Divine Comedy - The summerhouse [Link removed]

Ed Harcourt - The beautiful lie

I bought Ed Harcourt's 2001 debut album Here be monsters shortly after it was released, and it quickly became one of my favourite albums of that year. I haven't purchased his subsequent albums From every sphere and Strangers because they are corrupted with that blasted Copy Control technology, which EMI thought was a great idea in the mid-noughties but have thankfully discontinued now. Luckily, his excellent 2006 album The beautiful lie is free of that feeble attempt at copy protection.

Ed Harcourt is a brilliant singer-songwriter from England who deserves a lot more acclaim than he is getting. His lyrics are slightly quirky (the result of a subtle Tom Waits influence), his voice is full of character and emotion, and his musical composition and piano playing are out of this world.

While I loved Here be monsters, Ed has shown a lot of progression in the five years since that album was released. The album generally alternates between upbeat jazzy rockers (Visit from the dead dog, Shadowboxing, Revolution in the heart) and late night laments (You only call me when you're drunk, The last cigarette, Good friends are hard to find). Rain on the pretty ones is stupendous, one of the most beautiful songs I have heard in the last five years. And Braille is a beautiful, haunting, duet with his wife Gita Harcourt.

If you are a fan of Jeff Buckley and lament most of the singer-songwriter fare released this decade, give Ed Harcourt a listen. You won't be disappointed.

MP3: Ed Harcourt - Rain on the pretty ones [Link removed]

New Order - Technique

Everyone knows New Order for their hits (Blue monday, Bizarre love triangle, True faith), but not many know that they also have some pretty good studio albums as well. Prior to purchasing Technique, I had Substance (their best-of from 1987), Power, corruption & lies (their 2nd album from 1983) and Low-life (their 3rd album from 1985). I enjoyed Substance, but those other two albums seemed a bit patchy to me (although there were definitely some great moments on each).

Technique is a different beast entirely. Partially recorded on the island of Ibiza, it incorporates a lot of acid-house influences that were prevalent in the late 80s. The change of scenery had a very positive effect on the band, refreshing their sound while still not losing what made them so good to start with.

Opener Fine time is a bit of a red herring, emphasizing dance and beats a little too much over catchy pop. But from All the way until closer Dream attack, this album is a non-stop party. It's melodic, hooky, and you can dance to it. And most importantly, it makes you happy while you listen to it. A very impressive album.

MP3: New Order - Round & round [Link removed]

Various Artists - "Death Proof" soundtrack

To be honest, I wasn't particularly impressed with Quentin Tarantino's latest film Death proof. It was okay, but his movies seem to be getting a little cliched and lacking the spark that made Reservoir dogs and Pulp fiction so amazing and some of my favourite films of all time.

Despite my thoughts on the movie, the soundtrack is another gold Tarantino compilation of unearthed gems. I don't know how he does it, but Quentin is always able to uncover these hidden classics from the 60s and 70s and compile them in such a way to make an endlessly listenable and brilliant soundtrack.

What I love about this soundtrack (and pretty much all Tarantino soundtracks) is how he eschews the obvious and well-known songs that would work well in a car chase movie, simultaneously enthralling the listener and introducing them to music they would otherwise probably never hear.

The soundtrack consists of some great soul numbers (Staggolee, The love you make, Down in Mexico), moody instrumentals (The last race, Paranoia prima, Sally and Jack), glam (Jeepster), early 60s power-pop (Hold tight) and even a bit of quirky bubblegum (Chick habit). And no Tarantino soundtrack would be complete without the trademark movie dialogue scattered throughout at appropriate moments (although I'll admit the dialogue is much less memorable this time around).

Even if you haven't seen Death proof, I wouldn't hesitate recommending this soundtrack to anyone. This was one of my most listened albums of the year.

MP3: The Coasters - Down in Mexico [Link removed]

Paul & Linda McCartney - Ram

I had read about this album a lot over the years, and eventually purchased it in 2008. Released in 1971 (a great year for music), it is considered to be one of his best solo albums. To be honest, I was a bit sceptical about the album before I purchased it. I already had his best-of compilation All the best!, and while there are undoubtedly some amazing tracks on there, I was suspicious that he couldn't maintain brilliance over the course of a whole album. I'm glad that I can now say that I was completely wrong.

Ram is up there with All things must pass and Imagine as a brilliant and fully realised Beatles solo album. While All things must pass showed that George had so much more to say (if only John and Paul had let him), and Imagine was an intensely personal masterpiece by John, Ram was a quirky and immaculately recorded window into Paul's creative mind in the early 70s.

It doesn't have many hits on it (Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey excluded), the lyrics certainly didn't have the depth of Lennon's (apparent in the Beatles' music as well), but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in heart. This is an endlessly listenable album, where each song has a purpose, and it's just old fashioned fun music.

The highlights? The semi-title track Ram on is a stunning, minimalistic number that sounds like it would fit nicely on the White album. The aforementioned Uncle Albert is a quirky number that can't help but make you happy. Monkberry moon delight is a crazy singalong that sounds like it would have been a big influence on Tom Waits. And the best is saved till last -- Back seat of my car is a multi-faceted masterpiece that is as good as anything the Beatles ever released.

MP3: Paul & Linda McCartney - Back seat of my car [Link removed]

James Brown - 20 all time greatest hits!

The first James Brown album I bought was Live at the Apollo, which is considered to be his masterpiece, and one of the great live albums of all time. I'm generally not a big fan of live albums, but there are always exceptions. Even though I have listened to Apollo many times over the years, it has never really hit me as being as brilliant as everyone says it is.

For such a soul legend as James Brown, I thought the most logical next step was to pick up a compilation that represented his most well-known songs. There are a lot of James Brown compilations out there, and I didn't want to just pick up any compilation. So I did a bit of research, and this one was mentioned many times as the pick of the bunch. Unfortunately for me, it seemed to be out of print and unavailable in Australia. In May 2008 I was on a business trip in Vancouver, and managed to find this CD in a downtown second-hand CD store.

For a man who has had so many classic singles scattered across different discs, a great compilation like this was easily the best way to appreciate his genius. This is a funk and soul odyssey, kicking off in brilliant fashion with I got you (I feel good), upping the ante with Sex machine, making a few rest stops (It's a man's man's man's world) and uncovering some lesser-known gems (Get on the good foot) along the way.

Put this on, crank it up, and bathe in the genius of the Godfather of soul.

MP3: James Brown - It's a man's man's man's world [Link removed]

Mansun - Attack of the grey lantern

I was a big fan of the Britpop genre in the early to mid 90s, but there were a few bands who I had missed along the way. The Britpop train definitely left the station in about 1997-1998; while I can still appreciate albums from that era with a sense of nostalgia, it's always scary coming to the party late because without the memories of enjoying that music at the time it can be a futile attempt to appreciate music which might very well be of its time.

I recently read many reviews praising this album (Mansun's debut) which was released in 1997, one of the greatest years for music. I managed to find it for $5 on eBay, picking it up with very little risk if it turned out to be a bit on the shite side. Luckily for me, there are no disappointments here. This album actually holds up remarkably well, and I think it's because Mansun don't emphasize their British-ness as much as some of the other Britpop bands of the era (e.g. Menswear).

This album has a bit of a glam-rock feel to it in places, reminding me a little bit of a more grounded version of Suede's amazing album Dog man star. The sound is simultaneously epic (The chad who loved me, Dark Mavis), upbeat and dancy (Taxloss, Stripper vicar), anthemic (Wide open space) and at times quite reflective (Disgusting). Even the hidden track is great; a clever piece on how obsessive fans read too much into lyrics.

MP3: Mansun - Wide open space [Link removed]

Various arists - Tropicália: A Brazilian revolution in sound

Tropicália is an art movement that arose in the late 60s in Brazil. There was a more sinister political side to the movement (which you can read about here), but musically this was a highly creative era which influenced many musicians in subsequent generations.

I first became aware of this great compilation when I saw a very high score next to it on MetaCritic. It was enough for me to do a bit of investigation, and I snagged it up on eBay in 2008.

This is the first CD of its kind that I have in my collection, and it goes to show how much great music one can miss out on when they limit themselves to more conventional genres. This music is simultaneously exciting, passionate, political, complex and multi-layered. It doesn't matter that I don't understand a word on the whole album (with the exception of the superb Take it easy, my brother Charles, the only English song); the music speaks for itself, saying more with its musical passion in 5 seconds of music than a lot of modern English-language music can do over the course of an album.

The compilation is made up of several songs by key artists from the movement -- Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, Tom Ze and Jorge Ben. The packaging is wonderful, including a wonderfully thick booklet describing the movement and what it meant in the context of the time.

Be open minded and give this great CD a listen.

MP3: Gilberto Gil e Os Mutantes - Domingo no parque [Link removed]

Martha Wainwright - Martha Wainwright

With a few notable exceptions such as Kate Bush, I generally prefer male vocalists of female vocalists. I'm not sure why, but it's just a personal preference that hasn't changed a lot over the years. Every now and then, a female vocalist comes along that I fall in love with. Martha Wainwright is one such example.

Martha's voice is a stunning, bluesy instrument which conveys a tremendous amount of emotion. Combining this with her dark and sometimes tortured (Bloody mother fucking asshole) lyrics makes for a compelling listen. This is an intensely personal album, with each song sounding like a diary entry from a woman who has many skeletons in her closet.

Martha has music in her blood -- her father is legendary folk/blues musician Loudon Wainwright III (and apparently the bloody mother fucking asshole who she dedicated that lovely song to), her mother is Canadian folk musician Kate McGarrigle, and her brother is baroque indie popster Rufus Wainwright. While I have never really gotten into Rufus' music (sorry Adam), Martha's work is a different story entirely.

To think that this is only her debut album -- this woman has lots of potential. She's already released her 2nd album, and it's definitely one I will be picking up in the future.

MP3: Martha Wainwright - Bloody mother fucking asshole [Link removed]

The Boo Radleys - Giant steps

No, this isn't a re-recording of John Coltrane's infamous landmark 1960 jazz album.

The Boo Radleys were someone who I always categorised as "just another Britpop" band, and they did become that way in the late-90s. But when I did a bit more digging, I saw this album constantly come up in lists of "lost classic" albums. And lost classic is exactly what this album is.

This is an epic record, alternating between melodic gems (I hang suspended, Wish I was skinny, Best lose the fear, The white noise revisited), distorted shoegaze numbers (Upon 9th and Fairchild, Leave and sand, I've lost the reason) and even dubby reggae-influenced numbers (Lazarus).

All of the sounds are woven into an epic whole, and the end result is an album which is simultaneously accessible and challenging. Some songs jump out at you on the first listen, and others creep up to you on the 10th listen, and you wonder how you ever missed them in the first place. Overall, this album achieves the perfect balance of pop sensibilities and musical depth, and highly deserves its status as an underrated classic of the early 90s.

MP3: The Boo Radleys - Upon 9th and Fairchild [Link removed]

Ocean Colour Scene - Moseley shoals

I'd like to give a shout-out to Stefan, who recommended this great album to me, which prompted me to purchase it. I already mentioned in my review of the Mansun album that there were a few Britpop classics from the mid-90s which I had somehow overlooked in my appreciation of the genre back in the end. Well, Moseley shoals is another example of such an album.

This album is only Britpop by definition, as it's not really poppy at all. Opting instead for a mod-blues sound, this music is more influenced by Paul Weller, Traffic, Faces and The Who than anything by The Beatles. Singer Simon Fowler has a great voice which suits the music really well, and the rest of the band are a very tight unit as well. Because their style of music isn't really Britpop at all, it has aged really well despite the fact that it was released 13 years ago now.

There are many highlights -- opener The riverboat song is propelled by a fantastic riff, The day we caught the train and The circle complete the opening trifecta in a stunning fashion, and One for the road would make a great roadtrip song.

This album was big in the UK, but it deserves a much bigger audience.

MP3: Ocean Colour Scene - The riverboat song [Link removed]

Ben Harper - Lifeline

Thanks to my friend Brett, a lifelong Ben Harper fan, for recommended this great album to me. I own all Ben Harper studio albums except There will be a light and Both sides of the gun, both of which I never purchased because they are cursed with that infernal Copy Control technology. This one is thankfully free of that.

In my loudness war post, I mentioned how Lifeline was a great example of a contemporary album which had been beautifully produced. You only need to listen to the opening track on this album to hear how refreshing the production on this album is compared to a lot of other so-called music released nowadays.

Musically, this is Ben Harper's inevitable soul/R&B album. He had always dabbled in this genre before on his previous albums, but this is the first time he had dedicated (almost) an entire album to that style. Ben is in fine voice throughout this album, and the Innocent Criminals continue to be one of the best backing bands of recent times.

Brett mentioned to me that the first time he heard Fool for a lonesome train, he was convinced that was a cover of an old soul classic, and was surprised to find that it was a Ben Harper original. I have to agree with him; this is a brilliant song, and likely to become a soul/R&B standard in many years to come.

While the last two songs don't seem to really fit in with the vibe of this album (another point I was made aware of by Brett), I don't think they detract from the album as a whole. Instead, I think of them more as a fantastic encore to the songs which preceded them. The final title track Lifeline has one of his final vocal performances to date, and the album is richer due to its inclusion.

MP3: Ben Harper - Fool for a lonesome train [Link removed]

Carole King - Tapestry

For many years, I had delayed picking up this landmark singer-songwriter album because I had the silly impression that I wouldn't like it (mainly due to radio overplay, and the general dated feel of some of the songs).

Silly, silly Jiggy! This is a masterful album by one of the greatest singer-songwriters of our generation. Many of the songs on this album were already classics before this album was released, being recorded by other artists such as Arethra Franklin and The Shirelles. But the versions on this album are great for two reasons -- Carole King has a remarkable soulful voice, and we get to hear the song by the person who [co-]wrote them, emphasizing the personal nature of the lyrics.

As good as the well known songs on this album are (and there are lots of them -- I feel the earth move, It's too late, You've got a friend, Will you love me tomorrow? and You'll make me feel like a natural woman), it's the quality of the lesser-known tracks which really surprised me. In particular, Beautiful is a wonderful number which puts me in a great mood, Smackwater Jack is a fun story song and the title track is a beautifully evocative stunner.

And every time I hear Where you lead, I can't help but picture Lorelei and Rory Gilmore eating in Luke's Diner.

MP3: Carole King - Beautiful [Link removed]

Sam & Dave - The very best of Sam & Dave

My first exposure to legendary soul duo Sam & Dave was through Elvis Costello's cover of I can't stand up for falling down, on his classic 1980 album Get happy!! While Elvis' version was an upbeat toe-tapping number, the original version (included on this compilation) is a slow-paced ballad. It's always interesting when you hear a cover of a song before the original, and in this case it was particularly surprising.

Most people would know Sam & Dave's classics Hold on, I'm a comin', Soul man and Soothe me, all of which are included on here. This is 60s R&B at its finest. While they didn't write their own songs (most were written by the legendary Isaac Hayes together with David Porter), they were true interpretors and excellent performers whose voices complemented each other perfectly.

This is a great compilation, without an ounce of filler, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone who wants to expand their soul/R&B collection.

MP3: Sam & Dave - Soothe me (Live) [Link removed]

Stevie Wonder - Hotter than July

Stevie Wonder's 5-album run of genius, by most critics' accounts, starts at Music of my mind (1972) and ends at his magnum opus Songs in the key of life (1976). I have the 5 albums from that era and can highly recommend them as some of the finest music ever released. I had always heard that Hotter than July (from 1980) was another brilliant album that fell just outside the classic period, but had never purchased it.

I'm not sure why I waited so long, because this album (to me anyway) deserves to be included amongst the best albums he has released. Three classic singles (Master blaster, Lately and Happy birthday) provide the album with its foundation of familiarity, but they are just the tip of the iceberg of musical enjoyment that is to be had on this album. Each song is funky, catchy, musical, vocally fascinating, and everything else that you come to expect of Stevie's work.

Less well-known highlights include the beautiful Rocket love, too-catchy-for-its-own-good I ain't gonna stand for it (try getting this song out of your head) and the funky little Cash in your face. But it's all good, and in a way I'm glad I only bought this album now because it's exciting discovering another amazing Stevie album that I didn't even know existed. My only gripe is the title of the album, which doesn't work so well in the southern hemisphere.

MP3: Stevie Wonder - I ain't gonna stand for it [Link removed]

Midnight Oil - 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

This is a classic case of an album which I had heard a few times in its entirety (many years ago), knew it was a classic which I should have in my collection, but had for some reason never purchased it. I already owned two Oils albums -- the excellent compilation 20,000 Watt R.S.L. and classic Diesel and dust. 20,000 Watt R.S.L. contains a lot of tracks from this era, and could have quite easily cannibalised 10...1 (making it less attractive to purchase), but for some strange reason two hits from this album (Short memory and Read about it) weren't included on that compilation. The only way I could get those great songs would be by purchasing this album.

I'm glad I did, because this is an album in the true sense of the world. It has an excellent flow to it, a conceptual unity to the lyrics, and not a dud song in the bunch. Opener Outside world has a fantastic mood and atmosphere, and for some reason I hadn't picked it as a standout all those years ago. But it is, and as an opener it fulfils its mission of "reeling the listener in" perfectly.

Follow-up track Only the strong has one of Peter Garrett's finest "angry" vocal performances. This song is pure energy, with the last few minutes of the song being a fantastic come-down. The aforementioned hits Short memory and Read about it follow, being as fascinating musically as they are lyrically. It's depressing that the political lyrics still mean as much now as they did in the early 80s. Scream in blue ends side A (as it was in vinyl) in a fascinating fashion -- the opening half being a feedback-laden instrumental, and the second half being a beautiful piano-based ballad.

Side B kicks off with two more hits which were on the best-of compilation -- U.S. forces and Power and the passion, the latter of which includes an excellent drum solo from Rob Hirst which is up there with Moby dick on Led Zeppelin II. We get a bit political with the last three tracks, with Marilinga being a particularly powerful song about the plight of the Aboriginal communities who were affected by the nuclear testing in the 50s.

This is an immensely powerful album lyrically, but what I find most fascinating about listening to it now is how experimental the music is. I had always considered Midnight Oil to be a fairly commercial band who had something interesting to say, but I can say after coming to this album late that they were also an incredibly tight band during this era, who weren't afraid to do things which were quite anti-commercial. They could have quite easily opened the album with Power and the passion (or one of the other hits), but choosing to open with the oddity Outside world showed how left-field and dedicated to their art they were.

This is a fantastic album which deserves its place amongst the greatest Australian albums of all time.

MP3: Midnight Oil - Outside world [Link removed]

Various artists - 101 80s hits

I have already discussed this compilation at great length in this post, so there's no need to repeat myself. Needless to say that it gave me much musical enjoyment in 2008, and it was also very educational, introducing me to lots of songs from the 80s that I should have known better than I did.

MP3: A Flock of Seagulls - I ran [Link removed]

Jens Lekman - When I said I wanted to be your dog

Jens Lekman is a twenty-something Swedish singer-songwriter who writes and performs quirky, funny, honest and unabashedly romantic folk songs mainly about girls and his (often failed) romantic conquests. Most of the songs on this 2004 album (his debut) sound like diary entries from a lovesick teenager.

Musically, the strongs are stripped-back and quite simple in their structure, sometimes embellished with strings and horns to increase their emotional impact. But it's the lyrics where Jens shines, elevating him to a higher place than "just another indie singer-songwriter". Get a load of the opening lyrics to album highlight You are the light:

Yeah I got busted
So I used my one phone call
To dedicate
A song to you on the radio

I don't know what it is, but the thought of a twenty-something man getting caught by the fuzz and using his phone call to dedicate a song to his crush cracks me up every time I hear it. I'm not normally a lyric man, but the lyrics in Jens Lekman's music hit me in ways that a lot of other music doesn't.

I won't hesitate to say that his music is up there with early Belle & Sebastian, and I look forward to picking up his more recent album Night falls over Kortedala.

MP3: Jens Lekman - You are the light (by which I travel...) [Link removed]

Elton John - Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy

I had a couple of Elton John albums before this one, but this is the first one that I have truly loved (and it's still growing on me after about 5 listens). The first one I bought was Goodbye yellow brick road, which is widely considered to be his classic album, but to me feels a bit overlong and bloated. Then I bought Tumbleweed connection, one of his earlier and more country albums. While that albums has some excellent songs on it, something that I can't quite put my finger on puts me off that album -- I think it may be the slightly-cheesy female backing vocals on some of the tracks.

Even from the first listen, I could tell that Captain Fantastic was a different sort of album. Firstly, at 46 minutes it's very concise and doesn't leave a lot of room for filler. Secondly, it has a conceptual unity both musically and lyrically (yes, it's a concept album). Thirdly, it has some of the finest songwriting of Elton's and Bernie Taupin's career. And to top it off, the vocals and performances on this album are some of the best I have ever heard. Did I mention the production? That's great too.

Lyrically, the concept of the album is about the struggle that Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin went through in the mid-late 60s before Elton hit the bigtime. The album covers a lot of ground lyrically, but the album flows remarkably well; it's one of those works of art where not a note feels out of place.

I also have a confession to make. While I knew of the classic song Someone saved my life tonight, for some reason I had never heard it (or at least remembered it) before I picked up this album. I'm not sure how I missed this classic piece of songwriting and performance, because it's one of the best songs I have heard in a long time. Based upon a true story of Elton trying to kill himself (and Bernie saving him), the song builds and builds musically, reaching many crescendos during its 7-minute running time, but never for one second does the listener lose interest.

It is an amazing composition that sits comfortably amongst the finest songs released in the last 50 years. On a lesser album, the other songs would have been so overshadowed by the brilliance of this one number that they would have quickly become forgotten. It's a testament to the power of this album that this doesn't occur.

MP3: Elton John - Someone saved my life tonight [Link removed]

Update: Song links removed.

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