2008 In Music: Reviews and Reccs

What music blog is complete without a yearly wrap-up on the releases of the year that stood out, for positive or negative reasons?

Admittedly, I have not been as in touch with the releases of the year and must preface this entry with stating that there are going to be glaring omissions from this list. Life has kept me from music this year, be it keeping me from concerts I wished to see, keeping me from the time to listen to albums I want to hear, or making it difficult to listen to certain artists without feeling uncomfortable. However, I do have several albums upon which to rave or rant, so here’s what you get.

This was a year where my stalwart music artists took the backseat for others, where single songs possessed my devoted attention, while albums were generally shunned. It was a year of nostalgia, as I turned to older favourites for comfort in trying times. But beyond that, I found this year’s music lacklustre and not to my liking, perhaps due to the concentration of artists in genres I’m not fond of. For several months, I was “off music”, something that has never happened before to me. It was disorienting, to say the least.

The concerts I saw this year were fewer than I would have liked, but none of them disappointed. All of them delivered beyond my hopes and expectations. It was a year of seeing new artists and old favourites. If I were to rank a top five of shows I saw this year, it would go a little something like this:

5. Rilo Kiley at The Phoenix: Solid set, great energy, tight openers including Thao Nugyen

4. Paramore with Jack’s Mannequin at The Kool Haus: Amazing energy, three solid openers, and Jack’s Mannequin renewed my love for Andrew McMahon

3. Melissa Etheridge at Massey Hall: Three hours of non-stop, high energy music with powerful and moving banter between songs. A first time for me with Melissa and hopefully not the last.

2. Matthew Good at Massey Hall: This man never disappoints me with his intense delivery on every song, his caustic wit and his genius songwriting. So grateful this became a live album.

1. Amanda Palmer at The Mod Club: It had every element going for it – incredible setlist, stellar performance, fabulous openers, and incredible theatrics and stage presence. Easily one of the best performances I’ve seen Amanda give (and I have 8 other points of reference).

And now, without further ado, here we go with my personal ‘awards’ for 2008:

Album That Sends Me Into Fits Of 80’s Nostalgia: Saturdays=Youth by M83. This album is utterly fantastic, with tracks like Couleurs, Highway of Endless Dreams and Skin of the Night leading the charge into a soundscape that evoked Erasure meets Conjure One meets Arcade Fire’s intelligent layering and music craft. I easily find myself lost within the tracks of this album in a way that lands on par with Explosions In The Sky and Max Richter.

The Album That Lived Up To The Hype: Donkey by CSS. I’m not much of a trend follower, and even the critical darling pieces often leave me cold (see: You Say Party, We Say Die!; most of Radiohead’s post-OK Computer output; Coldplay’s discography). CSS however live up to the excitement, and Donkey is just so much fun to dance around to, one can’t resist it. There’s not a single bad track, although some are stronger than others. I’m fond of Believe Achieve, Jager Yoga and Let’s Reggae All Night, myself.

Reviving The Now Crowded Male Singer-Songwriter Folkie Genre: Charmed and Strange by Yoav. I first had a taste of Yoav’s music as he opened for Tori Amos’ American Doll Posse tour in 2007. At first, I took one look at a lone guy and a guitar and immediately wondered how Tori kept finding Howie Day part nauseum. Yoav, however, is far more clever as a lyricist, and his musical palette is more acoustic Red Paintings than Jason Mraz. Adore, Adore, There Is Nobody, and the soulful One By One set Yoav miles ahead of a crowded field.

Bringing The LOLZ To Musicals: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Joss Whedon remains my master after he cleverly proves that you can give a product away for free and then sell it… and make a profit! Neil Patrick Harris singing about freeze rays? An Evil League of Evil run by Bad Horse? Each song is so silly and fun, I can’t help myself. Once More With Feeling was one of Joss’ finest Buffy hours. Perhaps he should write an actual musical, complete with ridiculous stage sets? I can dream!

The Slightly Guilty Musical Theatre Junkie’s Pleasure: I Stand by Idina Menzel. Are some of the lyrics cliched? Sure. Are some of them dripping with the saccharine Celine Dion is famous for? Hell yes. Does Idina kick ass and take names vocally, making the album enjoyable all the same? You bet your (tattooed) ass. Check out Brave, I Stand, I Feel Everything.

Solid But Sorta Overrated: Third by Portishead. This is where gasps of indignant objection begin. I am not, let me stress not implying Third isn’t a solid album of quality music, good news for a band that took such an extended hiatus. But on repeated listenings over time, I can’t say the album stands out enough as a whole to make me want to listen to it over and over. Some tracks are absolutely stunning (We Carry On; Silence; Nylon Smile), while the others are solid but not worth the prostrating critics gave it. I coin this Radiohead syndrome.

Letdown of the Year: Acid Tongue by Jenny Lewis. When Rilo Kiley’s Under The Blacklight came out, my personal theory for the album not being to par with their previous outings was that Jenny and Blake were both ‘holding back’ for their solo projects. Unfortunately, that may have not been the case with Jenny. It’s not a bad album, per se; tracks like Jack Killed Mom and Pretty Bird resonate with me. It’s just not memorable; each song blends into the next, lacking the wordplay jabs and sonic shifts throughout Rabbit Fur Coat.

Best Album That’s Not Really An Album: No, Virginia by The Dresden Dolls. Consisting of outtakes and old live favourites finally recorded for official release, No,Virginia feels rather all over the place at times. But when viewed as a b-sides/rarities collection, this is acceptable, and the quality of the material is enough to enjoy it. Dear Jenny, Mouse and the Model, The Gardener, Lonesome Organist Rapes Page Turner… All the typical fun and punk cabaret you’d expect from the Dresden Dolls.

Best Return To & Reinvention of Roots: The Slip by Nine Inch Nails. Is Trent in angsty form? Oh yes. Do I detect a strong flavour of the 80’s tinged Depeche Mode-ness of Pretty Hate Machine? Yes, yes I do. Does this album deliver both rocking and despairing tracks with a lyrical flavour that feel more self-aware and self-mocking than self-loathing? Damn right it does. I love this album rather passionately, and offer you 1,000,000, Discipline, Demon Seed and Letting You as the places to start your love affair.

Favourite Local Album: Meeting The Future At Full Speed by Karen Kosowski. I’ve already covered this album in extensive detail in this blog, but it deserves its mention here. Karen remains one of my favourites among the Toronto-area indie artists I’ve come to know and love, and this album only builds on her previous stellar album, Out Here At Sea. Earnest and hopeful, its electro-pop vibe will leave you humming your way through the day, even at its darkest.

And now, *drum roll* the big awards…

Best Album of the Year (live): Live At Massey Hall by Matthew Good. After such an extensive catalogue, it was long overdue that the raw emotional intensity of Matthew Good be captured for prosperity on CD, and this disc is special in that, other than edits to correct lost audio the night of, it is an uncorrected live album. Having been at the show it was recorded at, it takes me back to one of the best concerts I saw this year. The set strongly slants towards Hospital Music material, which to me is one of his very best albums. In light of the loss of my grandfather to cancer, 99% Of Us Is Failure hits particularly hard and is one of the highlights of the 2 disc set. Many songs are much richer live (She’s In It For The Money is painful to listen to because of the raw pain in Matt’s delivery; A Single Explosion closes on a haunting powerful note), which makes this album a must have for fans and a fantastic introduction to his genius.

Best Album Of The Year (studio): Who Killed Amanda Palmer by Amanda Palmer. I’ve been with Amanda since a friend encouraged me to download Girl Anachronism in 2002, and I am with her for the long haul. I dearly love her work within the dynamic of The Dresden Dolls, love the playful cabaret feel of the drums and piano coupled with incisive and something darkly amusing lyrics. This album bring those elements of lyrical finesse and dark humour, but it also brings a more personal, deeper look into the human condition with songs like Strength Through Music and Have To Drive. Coupled with Ben Folds’ guiding advice (the usage of a very raw demo vocal for Leeds United was a brilliant move that only adds to the song) and the gorgeous strings created for the album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer is the album Amanda was born to write, and the one album that you must try, no matter what preconceptions you may have of The Dresden Dolls or Amanda herself. Get started with Astronaut, Leeds United, Guitar Hero, Another Year and Have To Drive.

And now, a few older discs worth mentioning…

Rediscovery of the Year: Act I: Goodbye Friends of the Heavenly Bodies by Neverending White Lights. An album from 2005, it’s always been one I have endorsed to fellow music lovers. The ethereal moody feel of Daniel Victor’s compositions, complimented by haunting and heartbreaking lyrics performed by a who’s who of the Canadian alt rock scene, this album crept up on me and demanded centre stage in 2008. The lyrics weave a set of stories about loss and love that interconnect subtly, adding a delicious cohesion. Sample The Grace, I Hope Your Heart Runs Empty or From What I Once Was.

Better Late To The Party Than Never:  Kala by M.I.A. I’m not generally a girl who goes for hip hop, rap or R&B; it’s just not my scene. The odd song will catch my ear, but nothing that has me buying a CD, not since Salt N Pepa’s Very Necessary. But with Kala, M.I.A. has created something so utterly fun and sassy, one can’t help but be drawn in. Paper Planes caught me, hook, line and gunshot sample, and that has led to an affair with $20, Come Around and XR2. Where was I in ’92? Wishing for music this ridiculously enjoyable!

Better Late To The Party Than Never, Part Two: The Awakening by Melissa Etheridge. Passed a copy of this by a friend prior to my live experience with Melissa, it’s fast become an album dear to my heart and almost a metaphor for my entire year. While some may find the spiritual elements a little off-putting (there is some God mentions, but most of it is general spiritual belief), it’s an incredible testament to the journey Melissa went through emotionally as she battled breast cancer. There are scathing political references as well, fitting in light of this election year, and songs of regret and heartbreak. But the end feeling is one of being able to rise above everything, if we believe that all can be possible, and that there is something larger than us. A solid, well-written album that doesn’t have a single dud to it.

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