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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Lou's Top 20 of 2008, Part 4

Here's the last 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.

1.) Bonnie Prince Billy - Lie Down In the Light (Drag City)

Will Oldham follows 2006's astonishing The Letting Go, an album steeped in quiet drama and somber emotion, with one that presents him as a heart-on-his-sleeve folkie alternating passionately ebullient and desperately painful love songs. Musically, it trades meticulous chamber-folk for simplistic rootsiness. But despite the gulf between the styles of the two records, they represent the two best of a frequently brilliant 15-year career. When these back-to-back triumphs are added to Oldham's iconic Palace releases of the mid-'90s and the occasional classic in between, it is hard to deny that he stands among the true legends. And Light reveals a legend at his peak. While unflinchingly strong throughout, a cascade of some of the most affecting songs in Oldham's oeuvre comes toward the end of the record. "Missing One" is an achingly beautiful lost love ballad that counters tearjerking potential with a steely resolve to move forward. "Where Is the Puzzle?" maybe more than any other track hearkens a bit to earlier times, but still features a shockingly open and confident--even downright uplifting--Oldham barely recognizable as the shadowy figure of years past. The title track brings another majestic example of heart-in-hand sensitivity while the near-acapella "Willow Trees Bend" makes palpable the powers of nature Will sings about. There are few albums better than this, period. And perhaps no musician ever who has found the artistic apex where Oldham stands today so far into an already exceptional career.

2.) David Vandervelde - Waiting For the Sunrise (Secretly Canadian)

Boy does David Vandervelde sound like George Harrison. It's easy to imagine "I Will Be Fine" and later "Need For Now" as tracks from a White Album-era George solo masterwork. But Vandervelde also throws in the beautiful Jayhawks-like rootsiness of "Old Turns," the Crazy Horse drone of "Hit the Road" and "Lyin' In Bed," and the pop weirdness of "Cryin' Like the Rain," which almost eerily resembles his Sec Can labelmate Bobb Trimble. All together, it makes for a record akin to the greatest heartfelt pop-rock of any era.

3.) Doug Keith - Here's To Outliving Me (The Cougar Label)

A fantastic solo debut from this New York singer-songwriter who conjures the spirit of Dylan, Young, and Waits--the former, for example, at the height of his sneering Hawks-backed era on "Salty Woman." "Take the Hammer Down, Dear" shares the earthiness of Richard Buckner's finest work. The songs are almost uniformly beautiful and heartrending, with backing tracks whose crisp acoustics, tinkling pianos, piercing organ, and percussive heartbeat channel the finest work of the icons Keith convincingly recalls.

4.) Dr. Dog - Fate (Park the Van)

On its fourth full-length, Dr. Dog returns to the heights it reached on Easy Beat, the best album of 2005. A fuller, more polished sound doesn't detract at all from the energy, enthusiasm, and really pure devotion to pop greatness. Not that plenty of off-kilter twists and turns don't still remain that cement this band as one of the most innovative--as well as accomplished--on the scene. Hints of r&b, dub, and country sneak through, but really it's simply all about the hooks. There's barely a moment here that isn't exceedingly engaging and clever, but also totally authentic. I've always said that the Dog reminds me of what it might sound like if Neil Young jammed with the Beatles, and what else can you really say other than that...

5.) Langhorne Slim (Kemado)

When I happened to wander across this New York singer-songwriter and his sidemen at this summer's Bristol Rhythm & Roots Festival making more (and happier) noise with an acoustic, stand-up bass, and modest drum kit than I had ever before witnessed, I noted the youthful fervor of a Pete Townshend or Billie Joe Armstrong. Like these towering figures, Slim not only writes immediately engaging songs and rocks the shit out of them, he (intentionally or not) gives voice to a generation seen as wandering and lost. And there's no reason "Rebel Side of Heaven" shouldn't be the next "My Generation," I say. On this, his second lp, we get a taste of what Roky Erickson may have become without the electroshock--a literate songwriter not afraid to let it loose. The backing is largely acoustic and rootsy but stretches beyond "Americana" without splitting its seams. The uptempo numbers rock without becoming cringeworthy "psychobilly" and the softer numbers manage to maintain a palpable energy. "Tipping Point" comes off as a sprightly update of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," surveying today's unsettling societal landscape as Dylan did the civil rights and Cold War era. The closing "Hummingbird" is a heartwrenching lament worthy of Kristofferson. This guy does it all. I'd hate to curse him and say that he is going to be something special, so I'll just say that with this record, he is already is.


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