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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Lou's Top 20 of 2008, Part 1

Here's the first in a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2008. Feel free to submit your own list to purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting it.

16.) Sun Kil Moon - April (Caldo Verde)

Former Red House Painters mastermind Mark Kozelek's first album of originals since 2003 continues at times in his well-established vein of majestic, haunting, hypnotic albeit stripped-down soundscapes with an unsettling air despite their outward calm. But right from the pretty acoustic lead-in to the opening "Lost Verses," there is something new at play here, as well. Several songs play out like a slideshow of snapshots with an old lover that you are allowing yourself to smile at again, and the dual comfort that comes from looking back and yet knowing you are moving forward at the same time. But at times, the sadness still comes to the fore. "I have all these memories and I don't know what for/I have them and I can't help it," he sings on the virtually perfect "Like the River," on which he is joined by a well-suited Will Oldham harmony.

17.) Jesse Malin - On Your Sleeve (One Little Indian)

The concept of a top-notch songwriter like Jesse Malin releasing an all-covers record is a bit odd on the surface, but a diverse and enjoyable selection of covers has always peppered his live sets, and his distinctive and expressive vocals simply envelop a good song no matter the composer. He transforms some tracks (The Bad Brains' "Leaving Babylon" into an almost loungey shuffle, the Stones' "Sway"--an especially ballsy choice--into dark synth-pop, Elton John's "Harmony" into a complex blend of trip-hop and orchestrated pop) and plays others relatively straight (Paul Simon's "Me and Julio," Lou Reed's "Walk On the Wild Side," Neil Young's "Lookin' For A Love") The best moments are when he takes a great song that he obviously truly loves and just caresses it in his own fashion, cases in point Jim Croce's "Operator" and Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'." The domestic release unfortunately swaps out a few of the best tracks from the earlier U.K. release (The Ramones' "Rock and Roll Radio," Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World," Tom Waits' "I Hope I Don't Fall In Love") for weaker replacements, so pick up the import if you get the chance.

(Malin also released an excellent limited-edition live set, Mercury Retrograde, on Adeline Records this year.)

18.) Swing Set - How To Make a Living Selling Yourself Short (self-released)

The first solo record from Alex Brenner, frontman of wonderful Pittsburgh-native country-rockers Sodajerk, currently on hiatus in Georgia after moving South a year or so ago. The material here is still pretty country, with stronger hints of indie singer-songwriter ("emo," if you must) influences. In whichever direction Brenner turns, you get remarkably well-constructed and affecting tunes and heartbreak all around.

19.) The Coal Porters - Turn the Water On, Boy! (Prima-UK)

The Coal Porters is the band founded by Sid Griffin--leader of the great '80s L.A. country-rock revival act The Long Ryders and noted music journalist--upon his relocation to England around the turn of '90s, and made three strong albums in a vein similar to Griffin's previous work during that decade before virtually disbanding. Suddenly, the group reemerged in 2004 as a full-fledged bluegrass band with Griffin on mandolin and a brand new supporting cast of British pickers. While the band's first release in this incarnation, 2004's How This Dark Earth Will Shine, missed the mark a bit, its second album is a triumph of fiercely traditional music through a fresh lens. It is a bit disarming to hear bluegrass in a British accent when guitarist Neil Herd and fiddler Hana Loftus step to the mic, but every track here is well-executed and thoroughly enjoyable.

20.) The Quarter After - Changes Near (The Committee To Keep Music Evil)

Los Angeles has always produced bands who wear on their sleeve a debt to the city's hyper-influential '60s folk-psych-rock boom, from the Paisley Underground in the 1980's to acts like Beachwood Sparks and The Tyde in this decade. The Quarter After are one of the latest and best adherents to that tradition, following up their excellent eponymous 2005 debut with this equally engaging follow-up. Honestly, the band is one of the most derivative of their ilk, which sounds bad on paper, but they pull it off convincingly. Their clear intention is to sound like The Byrds, and they do. And there's not a damn thing in the world wrong with that. Vocalist Dominic Campanella even sounds like Gene Clark, which if practiced has been practiced well. "Counting the Score," the most country-ish number yet in the band's canon, sounds like it could have come right off of Gene's '67 solo debut. On "Turning Away," Campanella reveals that he has practiced a bit at sounding like Roger McGuinn, too, which also comes out as nothing but enjoyable. I would prefer to think of this band more as kindred spirits to these legends than imitators, but if the worst you can say about The Quarter After is that they sound too much like the greatest American rock band of all time, I'd say they're doing pretty well.


Anonymous id said...

i actually thought that the nights lp and the finally lp from kozelek were better than sun kil moons april. that said, moorestown still kills me after infinite listens.

6:25 PM  

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