I will dispense with the usual bullshit “Let’s take a look back…” year-end review. USA Today will have that shit in spades for the next four to six weeks. Nothing is ever truly over. There is no true end. Nor is there a true beginning.
Dramatic music swells in the background
In these past twelve months I have seen horror and I have seen wonder. I have seen triumphs
and I have seen the agony of defeat
and no doubt we shall see more. The utter collapse of our financial institutions and increasing aggression and war. I have seen the naked face of evil…
photo montage now strikes up of Sarah Palin and Ashley Todd shooting at wolves from a helicopter, Dick Cheney strangling a rosy-cheeked orphan with a telephone cord, John McCain eating a big greasy cheeseburger while his wife does a line of coke off of a small mirror, George W. Bush with a jet pack…
and I have seen images of hope…
Barack Obama and Joe Biden riding on a soaring magical eagle over a beautiful stretch of California coastline as the music comes to a soaring peak…
But enough of all that. Let’s get to the music, shall we?
My Top Ten of 2008.
10. Sunn O))) – DÃ¸mkirke 2-LP (Southern Lord)
Say what you will about the mighty Sunn O))) — at their fundamental core, deep beneath the waves of feedback and within their black robes, O’Malley, Anderson and company are a live band. Part performance, part transcendental experience. This limited edition double-vinyl set documents a performance by the band at a Gothic cathedral in Bergen, Norway. If that wasn’t perfect already, the band composed an actual piece of music specifically for the performance. Church organs, horns, strange electronics, vocals both sublime and guttural, soar within the old cathedral like aÂ medieval plague. Haunting, intense, (beautifully packaged) and definitely my favorite Sunn O))) release thus far.
9. Bob Mould – District Line (Anti-)
Like a Beatles fan who has yet to develop an appreciation for an album like Walls and Bridges or Living in the Material World, I haven’t been much of a fan of Bob Mould’s post-Husker Du career. Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain sounded like R.E.M. to a young punk rock kid who identified more with the speedy crunch of Zen Arcade than Bob’s burgeoning solo career. Jump ahead to 20 years after Husker Du dropped Warehouse – Songs and Stories, and it’s almost like we’re back at square one. (Almost: I’m walking around with a baby carrier instead of a skateboard these days.) My musical maturity must have finally caught up with Bob, because this concise collection sounds fucking great to me. I missed out of the hype of previous efforts like The Last Dog and Pony Show and 2005’s Body Song, but this is a fantastic anchor point from which to start working backwards.
8. Earth – The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull (Southern Lord)
The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull is a subtle masterpiece of the drone/doom genre that Dylan Carlson and company pioneered almost two decades ago. Continuing in the ghost town ambience they cultivated on 2005’s Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method – twanging guitars, pedal steels, churchy sounding organs, eerie saloon piano – sonic tumbleweeds that create a slow and psychedelic spaghetti western between your ears.
7. Sound Tribe Sector 9 – Peaceblaster (1320 Records)
While Peaceblaster failed to move me as much as the band’s previous release (the patchwork collection Artifact) did, it did live up to the massive hype that preceded it. It will also inspire you to move your ass – on the dance floor or to work for change. Sound Tribe Sector Nine have evolved from “livetronica act” and into a collective consciousness/group mind. While the clusters of hardcores will clucth their crystals and bitch about every new fan that Sound Tribe attracts, they will have come to accept and appreciate this new batch of songs in the band’s live sets. “Peaceblaster” is a tightly crafted collection that is heavier on the electronics, but manages to sound as crispy and organic as a Santa Cruz morning.
6. Lotus – Hammerstrike (Sci Fidelity)
While STS9 pushes the heady electronics into new territory, Lotus brings in an entirely new palette of sounds and colors for their third studio album. A band like Lotus has the unenviable task of taking that ecstatic energy from their sweaty live performances and trying to replicate it in a sterile studio. But Lotus pulls it off on their best studio release yet.Â Hammerstrike is all at once engaging and most of all, uplifting. There’s everything here – big guitars, heady organic electronics, funky new wave – and it sounds surprisingly warm and fresh. Like your favorite hoodie just out of the dryer.
5. Mudcrutch (Reprise)
Tom Petty reunites with his old pre-Heartbreakers band and creates a 14-song album packed with new and old material. While it sounds like Tom Petty jamming with an especially tight bar band, songs like “Orphan of the Storm,” the epic “Crystal River,” and the band’s solid take on “Shady Grove” are among the some of the best tunes he’s done in recent memory. “Crystal River” is a nine-minute guitar workout that sounds as breezy and summery as an early Allman Brothers tune. The rest of the songs all hover around a more accessible 3:30 – 4:00.
4. Jesu – Why Are We Not Perfect? EP (Hydra Head)
2008 was a busy year for Jesu. A split EP with Battle of Mice, another with the Japanese band, Envy. As well as a handful of compilation appearances. Why Are We Not Perfect? is an EP that compiles some material that originally appeared on a long out-of-print vinyl-only release with the band Eluvium. Got all that? Good. Because you’ll be tested. Already the subject of the next Test of the Doomerang (coming in time for Valentine’s Day!), Jesu are Justin Broadrick’s new band. Justin once fronted a band called Godflesh. Anyway, Jesu are slow (sometimes) and heavy (sometimes) and manage to somehow make the heaviest riffs resonate with absolute beauty. That’s right, I said beauty. Their music unfolds slowly like a flower or a sunrise or like a friendly dolphin coming out of an immense black sea to say hello. Why Are We Not Perfect? is Jesu at their most accessible and uplifting. Outstretching, yearning and stretching out in release.
3. Black Mountain – In the Future (Jagjaguwar)
Hype almost killed Black Mountain for me. Hype had already killed media darlings The Black Keys for me (like Scorcese’s Gangs of New York, I’ll just have to go back to it someday, like if I have the flu and am on the couch for a week or something), but Black Mountain kept its cool. You can go read my review of this disc here or you can just listen for yourself. A heady brew of cosmic riffage and ethereal trip. Like a stretch of Haight Street that strays into Mordor, this is an album that just gets more and more satisfying each time I listen to it. From the sprawling progitude of the 16-minute “Bright Lights” to the sonic clash of “Wucan,” I can’t wait until the next one.
2. Medeski, Martin, and Wood – Radiolarians I (Indirecto)
I had always dismissed this band as just another “thing” that I would “get to eventually.” I figured I would hear a song somewhere, stumble across some live filler at the end of an old Ratdog tape, catch the last 20 minutes at a festival while I waited to see someone else. Whatever. What I did not count on was that this group of guys (who I once dismissed as “THAT HIPPIE BAND WITH THE NAME OF A LAW FIRM”) making one of the most thrilling and captivating albums that I’ve heard in a long while. The first time I heard Radiolarians Volume I, I had to keep going back to the beginning. There must have been something wrong with the disc. There must have been something wrong with how it was pressed. Something. It should not sound like this. But when I stopped making excuses, I realized that this was the real thing – a cascade of white noise before the actual music kicked in. A radiolarian is a mineral-based protozoa which leaves behind an intricately detailed symmetrical skeleton. This music is a thing so intricate and vexing, it feels downright alien at times. It feels wrong, if not just lame, to call this band ‘Jazz’ or ‘Jazz fusion.’ The swirling blend of mind-bending time signature changes, crystalline solos, and geometric rhythms, is anything but classifiable. This band’s music belongs in a lead-lined box at Area 51 or somewhere on the Periodic Table of Elements. Two more volumes of Radiolarians are in the works and dammit, I am ready.
1. Sun Kil Moon – April (Calo Verde)
About 10 years ago, I ran into Mark Kozelek at the Great American Music Hall. The final Red House Painters album (Old Ramon) was still in legal limbo, and he’d yet to release his critically-lauded Rock and Roll Singer. As I approached him, he realized that I must be yet another fan coming up to ask him for the umpteenth time, “Hey Mark, what’s going on with that new Red House album?” He scrunched his face up and gave me such a look of derision that I immediately turned tail and got back into the beer line. The next time I saw him was again at the Music Hall, but this time Mark was on stage. He led his band through ragged, noncommittal versions of Red House Painters classics, and chided requests from the audience. “Do you like that? Is that sad enough for you?” He asked us after playing his set list of AC/DC and John Denver covers. In 2002, Mark resurfaced with a new band – Sun Kil Moon. April is their third album (following Tiny Cities, their 2005 album of, ahem, Modest Mouse covers) and is the strongest so far. Call it a lexicon of all things Kozelek – acoustic prose poems, crunchy electric guitar drone, and even a touch of that old Grace Cathedral shimmer. Mark’s playful experimentation with covers in the past, no matter how successful, have brought him to this point – a beautiful album of deft songcraft and brilliant execution that is all his own.
From the Archives (in no particular order)
David Bowie – Live in Santa Monica ’72 (Columbia)
This legendary show finally sees an official release! Recorded for a live radio broadcast October 20th, 1972 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, this concert is one of the most-bootlegged shows ever. Bootleg collectors may remember the “Special Edition” bootlegs that appeared in the ’90s (including a version released in a wooden box with a t-shirt and other bonuses), but now it is complete, sounds great, and while it may lack the “charm” of some of the bootleg releases (which are no doubt still readily available), the packaging looks great too. This is a visceral snapshot of Bowie at his most electric, raw, and bloodthirsty. The Spiders From Mars have just conquered the world, and they deliver the final deathblow to Santa Monica. Way more fiery and rocking that the Ziggy Stardust soundtrack or the more restrained David Live, this is the best document to date of the power and passion of live Bowie.
Grateful Dead – Winterland 1973: The Complete Recordings (Rhino)
When the recordings of the Grateful Dead’s November 9th – 11th, 1973 run at Winterland vanished from the Live Music Archive, I knew something must be up. After a very long wait, Rhino has delivered the goods with a NINE-DISC box set. This is the perfect example of Rhino taking music that has been free to traders for over 30 years and making it worth the sizable price tag. The tapes have been scrubbed clean, and this sounds as good as it probably did when it first floated up to the Winterland rafters. 1973 was a watershed year for the Grateful Dead: They had lost the whiskified blues of Ron “Pig Pen” McKernan, but they gained an austere jazz-sensibility in their playing. Their concerts were epic in size and scope (There are over 75 tracks here, folks) and oh, what jamming. The double-decker sonic sandwich of “Playing in the Band” into “Uncle John’s Band” into “Morning Dew” and back into “Uncle John’s” before finishing off the original “Playing”Â (whew!) from the night of the 10th and the EPIC “Dark Star” into the “Mind Left Body Jam” into “Eyes of the World” from the 11th are among the highlights that have earned these shows their place in Deadhead lore. But there are other, less daunting, gems sprinkled throughout (an exquisite take on the rarely played “To Lay Me Down”). With the hefty price tag and no less than three renditions of Bob Weir’s “Weather Report Suite,” this is aimed at serious heads only.
David Gilmour – Live in GdaÅ„sk (Columbia)
Released in a variety of formats (iTunes, vinyl box sets, dvd, etc.), Live in GdaÅ„sk captures David Gilmour and his band performing at the GdaÅ„sk shipyard in 2006 to help celebrate the anniversary of Polish Solidarity. The band is accompanied by the Polish Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra, which sounds laughably bombastic, but the arrangements are tasteful and give weight to the material, specially the songs from 2006’s On an Island. But the real treat here is the Pink Floyd material, which sounds nothing short of fantastic. The album opens with a mini-suite of Dark Side of the Moon material, and early Floyd gems like “Echoes” and “Fat Old Sun” are featured towards the end of the set. But it’s the encore of “Wish You Were Here” that resonates most. Sadly, a week after Live in GdaÅ„sk was released, Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright died. His contributions on the album are a melancholy reminder of his passing, but also a great reminder of his contributions to a legendary band.
My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges
You can check other people’s end-of-year lists for all you would care to read about this album. It’s all true, anyway. This is great stuff. Another fantastic platter from Kentucky’s favorite sons.
Gary Jules – Bird
Minimalistic, eclectic, breezy, and warm. A solid release from this (all-too-often overlooked) talented singer songwriter.
Ray LaMontagne – Gossip in the Grain
A soulful and stirring album. Ray brings it all to the table – soul, gospel, blues, confessional-folk. More dusky brilliance.
Benga – Diary of an Afro Warrior
Some readers might be surprised that along with my stash of live Dead and their ilk, I also have a fair collection of Dub Reggae, Grimy Garage and Dubstep Mix Tapes. One hot summer afternoon in San Francisco’s Mission district, I heard a deep bassline coming from an apartment window. I didn’t pay much attention at first, but then, the bass somehow got lower and it didn’t just ‘drop’ – it wobbled and shook as it dropped. It was like the bass was alive. I’d never heard anything like it. One foot in deep Dub reggae and the other in some kind of mind-altering trance. After some searching online, I finally came across some mixes and was able to put a name to that sound – “dubstep.” Benga’s Diary of an Afro Warrior is a defining album of the genre – minimalistic beats and the deep serpentine and transitive basslines.
Honorable Mention –
Blood Ceremony – Blood Ceremony
Cosmic riff-centric doomy/prog. I can’t believe this is from the 21st century. A Canadian coven of musicians with a female vocalist who not only sings but plays the Farfisa organ AND a mean flute. Yes, a flute. Like Jefferson Jethro Sabbath. Yes, it rocks. And the lyrics – “Smoke black drugs from Satan’s bong…I see witches in the sky, flying toward the Quaalude eye…” Like, whoa, man!
And the 2008 Conet Award Goes To –
Four CD-length recordings of real arcade “ambiance” from 1981, 1983, 1986, and 1992. These are sound collages and not actual “field recordings,” but they do provide an interesting listen. Dense layers of noise open up to reveal the sounds of various classic arcade games, noises, beeps and the clink of tokens. It’s oddly engaging and endearing. A fun nostalgic trip.
Well, folks, that’s all for now. Stay hydrated, take your vitamins, and I’ll meet you back here in a couple weeks. Happy New Year!