The guys over at By Fuselage have quite rightly pointed out that end of year lists can be exercises in the arbitrary – after all, most years we’ll listen to a lot of old music, or new music that’s not quite that new, or indeed not like a great deal that the year produces. One of my favourite albums of 2008 was Bob Dylan’s Desire (1975), but more of that in another post I suspect.
Yet the urge to make some record of what you liked in a given year is pathologically strong – and it seems to me that one way to get around the snap critical judgements such lists force you into is, well, not to make them, and limit your obsessive taxonomy to the quality of mere entertainment. So here’s a list of ten songs I listened to, or just sang aloud in innapropriate public spaces, a lot – for whatever reason, and regardless of their how well time may treat them. Most of the songs below may well not be the best song on their given album (Writer’s Minor Holiday), or be on an album which shouldn’t be on anyone’s top 10 list (For Our Elegant Caste). But captured by each of these in their year of release I was, for better or worse. (Which will be yours to decide!)
Okkervil River – Lost Coastlines. From ‘The Stand Ins‘.
Lyrically, ‘The Stand Ins’ might be the album of the year. But musically it was at times a bit predictable – perhaps it is so here, too, but Lost Coastlines really got into my bones, everything from the rhythmic acoustic guitar to the melody line and the voice changes. It’s a great song with a good deal of meat to it which still manages to engineer itself a lot of space – not easy to pull off, and well worth a gold star.
Calexico – Writer’s Minor Holiday. From ‘Carried To Dust‘.
One of the records of the year, Calexico’s ‘Carried to Dust’ didn’t grab me on first listen, but by the time we saw them at the Forum in October I was sold. If not as eclectic and whirling as ‘Feast of Wire’, it may nevertheless be true that the songs themselves are stronger. This is a great example – the usual Calexico strengths are here allied with a variety of rather nice hooks, to create an off-kilter guessing game of a pop song. You shimmy to this, without quite knowing why.
Frightened Rabbit – My Backwards Walk. From ‘The Midnight Organ Fight‘.
Scottish folkies Frightened Rabbit might just have produced my actual album of 2008 – there are quite a few contenders for that title, but I might’ve played ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’ more regularly than any of them. Rich, arch and cooly catchy, each of the songs is a perfect little package of wise melancholy – perfectly put together and with not a single verse wasted. “I’m working on erasing you – but I just don’t have the proper tools,” is such a lovely term of expression, and one so delicately delivered, that I demand you all buy this record immediately.
Fleet Foxes – Blue Ridge Mountains. From ‘Fleet Foxes‘.
Once the warbling’s done away with = tune. Deceptively simple, thoroughly haunting. That is all.
Kathleen Edwards – Asking for Flowers. From ‘Asking for Flowers‘.
2008 wasn’t the most exciting year for country, and this third album from Kathleen Edwards wasn’t her best effort. But its title track was one of my favourite songs all year – it’s one of the most traditional tunes on my list, but Edwards always offers a contemporary spin on timeworn country conceits. S’catchy, too, innit?
The Bowerbirds – Hooves. From ‘Hymns For A Dark Horse‘.
The opening line is worth putting this in the list alone. But it’s a little ramshackle epic to boot, all fragile vocals and loose time-keeping. The strings are a bit of a sell-out, but try finding a smarter song this short released this year.
Mumford and Sons – White Blank Page. From ‘Lend Me Your Eyes‘.
Marcus Mumford plays drums for Laura Marling (of whom more anon). We caught them supporting A Hawk and A Hacksaw at the Glee club, whom they very almost upstaged – no mean feat. Live this song was a thing of beauty, and it’s not bad here, either. For my own music, this was a competitor the most inspiring set I saw all year.
Bon Iver – Skinny Love. From ‘For Emma, Forever Ago‘.
Indie purists would have it that this was actually (self-)released in 2007, and though they’d be right they’d also be self-righteous fucks. ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ received wider release on the thank-God-for-it Jagjaguwar label (also Okkervil River’s stable) and then finally 4AD over here, and Skinny Love is the song from it which hooks into the heart and doesn’t let go. Recorded in an isolated shack in northwestern Wisconsin, this fragile record is like a pinned butterfly: poignant, beautiful and untouchable.
Laura Marling – Ghosts. From ‘Alas I Cannot Swim‘.
Laura Marling could have done without the hype – she and her songs are too unprepossessing to shoulder them well – but it’s her own fault for crafting so fabulously old-fashioned a record which somehow manages also to be contemporary. This is mostly a trick achieved by teenagerly angst allied with tried and tested song structures and the sensitive but rich production of Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink. It worked a treat, although Ghosts remains the only song from the album I can remember without a relisten. Make of that what you will.
Of Montreal – For Our Elegant Caste. From ‘Skeletal Lamping‘.
Skeletal Lamping was a sloppy mess, the least cohesive record I heard all year. To be honest, this is the album in microcosm – great hook, no song – and it isn’t anywhere close to any of the cuts from last year’s magnificent ‘Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?’, but it was the most effective ear worm of the year. When you find yourself in major train stations falsettoing the words ‘we can do it softcore if you want, but you should know I take it both ways’, it’s clear a pop song has done its job. Kevin Barnes, you are bonkers. Please to be writing more good songs soon, kthx.