In the last two weeks, we’ve had further evidence of the sea change that continues in popular music. First, it was announced that overall music sales in 2008 hit a new record with 1.5 billion units sold, thanks to digital sales. Then, in the past week alone, we’ve seen Sony poised to announce a 1.1 billion loss, Apple go DRM-free with price increases, and the announced closing of the highest-volume music store in the U.S.—the Virgin Megastore in Times Square.
My music collection, much like the music industry, continues to digitize. I acquired 63 albums and singles released in 2008, an admittedly much higher volume than I anticipated. No doubt, it helped that I purchased quite a handful in 256 kbps DRM-free MP3 from Amazon.com, which makes purchasing music much too easy for this dissertation-writing procrastinator. My listening has completely gone digital too, thanks to Logitech and aTunes, with each track being tracked by the panoptic bits and bytes of Last.fm. That said though, it’s not as if 2008 didn’t look too good to be true from the outset—new albums were planned from James, R.E.M., Counting Crows, The Bats, Paul Weller, The Verve, The Features, Alejandro Escovedo, dEUS, and The Hold Steady meaning many of my all-time and most recent favorites were on tap. Despite the familiar and dependable favorites, I have to recognize it was the newcomers to me who at times stole the show, including The Felice Brothers, Fleet Foxes, Liam Finn, The Grand Archives, Lightspeed Champion, Martyn Joseph, and Glasvegas.
I also must admit, as perhaps my posting frequency has indicated, it was not music but politics that often took me to other places this past year and provided the real change. As the election season faded though, I was left with plenty of good tunes on many albums. So, let’s narrow that field down to my top ten.
10. The Features, Some Kind of Salvation
Released earlier than at least I anticipated through Amazon, this album slowly became a favorite of 2008. While I continue to believe the songs fell slightly short of the band’s earlier effort, Exhibit A, the sound came through better than it ever has for the band on a studio recording. The missed opportunities I had while living in Athens, GA to see them at the 40 Watt continue to haunt me as I make my way each time through spinning this album. While Exhibit A did tend to sound too polished and produced at times, this disc leaves no doubt about the band’s energy and songwriting credentials.
9. Glasvegas, Glasvegas
A surprising album amid the recent British indie pop/dance landscape and I think one of the best British debuts of the 2000s. The backlash against them has already started because of the early, somewhat ridiculous hype in the British press. It might be rightfully deserved in some respects, since this album only hints at what this band could become. The sound is as big as the band’s prospects. Despite the obvious references to Oasis (one song asks “What’s the story morning glory?”) and the atmospheric pop of Coldplay, Glasvegas is more of a return to the anthems of U2’s bygone era. Also in the vein of U2, the band aims somewhat naively for something more profound than much of popular music’s typical concerns, whether it’s the missing father of “Daddy’s Gone” or the social worker of “Geraldine.”
8. Grand Archives, Grand Archives
Pop beauty. I saw these guys at the Hi-Dive in Denver and was left very impressed at the band’s stage presence and musicianship—they sounded bloody brilliant. The album makes it clear they have an unmistakable gift for writing perfectly crafted pop songs, clocking in at just a bit over 3 minutes. The whistling at the beginning of “Miniature Birds,” should bring a smile to even the most hardened soul, along with the near-perfect harmonizing. I’ve probably listened to this album as consistently as any in 2008 because it’s chock full of solid songs, even if one doesn’t too proudly stand above the rest. I can’t wait to hear more.
7. The Bats, The Guilty Office
One of my favorite bands of all-time, if only my second favorite from the halcyon days of 1980’s New Zealand-based Flying Nun Records. With trademark male/female vocalizing and jangly strumming, The Guilty Office doesn’t break any new ground for The Bats—and there’s nothing wrong with still sounding like The Bats. Every year would be a bit sweeter if one could hear just one new song with the mesmeric vocals of Robert Scott and Kaye Woodward. Woodward also released an album as the primary vocalist with her side project Minisnap. It’s a rather enjoyable album, but something just seems to be missing without the wispy vocals of Scott by her side. The Guilty Office picks up right where 2005’s At the National Grid left off, which was the band’s first album since 1995. I hope the wait is once again a mere three years. “Castle Lights” and “The Orchard” rank alongside the band’s finest material.
6. Alejandro Escovedo, Real Animal
It’s about more than boots with Alejandro Escovedo. “Sister Lost Soul” is unquestionably my top song of 2008 and features some of my favorite lyrics to ever be penned. I cried on my very first listen and it still gets me just about every time. In fact, Real Animal might have been even higher in my 2008 tally if I had listened more to the rest of the album, which was still quite a bit. “Sister Lost Soul” is just that good and just that powerful. While Escovedo originally wrote the song about Jeffrey Lee Pierce of 1980’s punk band The Gun Club, who passed away in 1996 of a brain hemorrhage at 37, the song quickly morphed into a more expansive song about losing loved ones: “Every last heart is hardened/And every last tears’ been cried/Out on the street the water is frozen/And I feel like the only one alive/Sister lost soul, brother lost soul/I need you.” With Escovedo’s past health issues well-chronicled in the musical community, I can only believe that it took his own motality to conjure up the beautiful imagery of “Sister Lost Soul.” The rest of the album is nearly as brilliant and is probably Escovedo’s best solo album to date.
Part B tomorrow.