10. FLYING LOTUS
Los Angeles wasn’t just one of 2008’s best albums, it was arguably its most important. Steve Ellison, the latest step in the Coltrane family’s musical dynasty, said in 2007 that he felt, “like I represent a movement. A lovely thing is about to happen, and my generation is at the forefront of it.” The brand of off-kilter hip-hop that Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, produces, was – more so than techy dubstep, and more so than UK house – the bass music trend of choice in 2008, and in Los Angeles, he produced its best full-length so far.
Although part of what makes FlyLo exciting is that he’s one figure in a musical movement much bigger than him or any of his individual peers, Los Angeles could have been made by nobody else – those stuttering melodies, piped through virtual wear ‘n’ tear, like old relics recently uncovered, are instantly recognisable as his work. That movement – gloriously disparate, taking in Rustie’s LuckyMe camp, Kode9’s Hyperdub family, Californian producers like Gaslamp Killer and Edit, Dabrye, Harmonic 313 and everyone in between – had found its poster boy.
Earlier this year, Deerhunter’s polemical preacher of a frontperson, Bradford Cox, described Microcastle as a, “very conservative album”. Well sure, by Deerhunter’s standards, but that’s not to say they’ve gone all ‘hot shot’ on us… yet. You see, with Microcastle, Bradford’s shown the world that he can do pop at the drop of the hat.
That peculiar aura of petulance – so vital to Deerhunter’s sensibility – still suffuses the album, but washes the white noise out with a glistening melodic sensibility far removed from the Kranky Records endorsed drones of yore. Silver Jews producer Nicolas Vernhes might have something to with softening (not taming) this notoriously spiky band but with the move to a bigger label and this suit of sun kissed songs, who’s to say Cox hasn’t got an eye on realms bigger than Pitchfork’s blogosphere? Like their Southern Gothic forefathers, R.E.M, it could happen. Imagine Deerhunter on prime time radio, or on you and your Dad’s iPod? Wonders never cease. And in the spindly sweet hands of Bradford Cox they’re never likely to either.
08. THOMAS BRINKMANN
WHEN HORSES DIE…
Thomas Brinkmann, a German producer and conceptualist who’s operated at the vanguard of experimental techno since 1997, was tired with the smoothness of modern-day minimal, claiming that the sound has been drained of all its punk and soul, its “hurt”. But who could’ve expected this dissatisfaction to be chipped and chiseled into such a rich and clear statement as When Horses Die? Brinkmann, who’s now in his early fifties, abandoned the clicks-n-cuts approach of his most celebrated work and set about making an introspective singer/songwriter album, channeling the spirit of post-punk, goth and industrial music into brooding, mainly beatless electronics and uneasy acoustic textures.
Tellingly, Tuxedomoon singer and puppeteer Winston Tong contributes lyrics to opening track ‘Words’, but Brinkmann’s baritone croak is the star of show – like a drunker, crankier Nick Cave, he summons the moral torpor of Weimar cabaret, the sex-death complex of Death In Venice. Mark this: the year’s most important and thought-provoking techno album wasn’t a techno album at all.
A good year needs its big, brash and largely uncomplicated anthems, and Brooklyn’s MGMT provided an album’s worth of the buggers. Dave Fridmann’s production gives Oracular Spectacular uncommon sparkle and energy, but really it’s all in the tunes – ‘Time to Pretend’ (a celebration, and a parody, of rock ‘n roll excess), the virulently catchy ‘Kids’, and even ‘Electric Feel’ – which sounded great despite basically being a Scissor Sisters track.
Forget the “psychedelic” tag that’s been bandied about – Oracular Spectacular is about as psychedelic as a burnt banana skin. MGMT’s brilliance lies in their ability to come across as knowing, disaffected and, at the same time, naïve, romantic and hopeful. This was the album that bonded hooligans and hipsters alike in 2008, because it nailed the universal paradox of youth: the feeling that you’ve seen it all before, and the feeling that all is yet to come.
06. JAY REATARD
MATADOR SINGLES ‘08
With friends like Jay Reatard, who needs enemies? Most people have seen footage of the 28-year-old punching fans or storming off stage, the Memphis-born singer pulls out of shows at the last minute, his last album, Blood Visions, was a concept record about killing a girl he knew, and God knows he wasn’t having it when we tried to interview him.
Which, weirdly, makes ‘No Time’ – the last of the 7″ singles compiled here – even more affecting. Because, without resorting too much to Winehouse-ism, Jay seems a bit out of control, and resentful, and frustrated, and when he sings, “it seems I never have the time/to make my mind feel fine”, it’s moving, you know? Tucked away in the tail-end of a record featuring his cover of Deerhunter’s splatterhouse examination of dead idols, ‘Fluorescent Grey’, or ‘Screaming Hand’, the tale of a child’s relationship with his father destroyed by alcohol, and the rest of his three-min courses in wicked, straight-up punk rock, it kills any doubts about Matador Singles being one of the albums of the year, and it totally fucking hits you. Like, right there.
05. LATE OF THE PIER
FANTASY BLACK CHANNEL
In which Late of the Pier pick up the remnants of tired indie bands, clichéd ‘80s electro, overblown prog-rock and the woefully hyped ‘nu-rave’ genre and do something spectacular with them. Fantasy Black Channel transcends its influences to create a noisy, exuberant whole that pulses with the frantic energy of a band brimming with ideas.
Erol Alkan’s production is also a major factor, tweaking the songs to messy perfection without ever feeling heavy handed or sanitised. ‘Space and the Woods” guitars and synths bustle around unashamedly eccentric lyrics before bursting out in a triumphantly 80s pop chorus. ‘Focker’ is a schizophrenic medley of songs changing tack at will: one moment it’s synth-pop, the next it summons the spirit of ‘70s glam, then crashes into a dazed freakout before breaking itself down into pure electro. But Fantasy Black Channel is a breathless listen that has more to recommend it than just the sum of its parts – Late of the Pier simply sound like no one else.
Portishead are smart, politically sussed, Mark Ronson-baiters from Bristol: what’s not to like about them? Still, somewhere along the way ear-fatigue set in and the thought of yet another album of smog-smeared torch songs sent me scurrying under the bed-covers. I needn’t have worried: Third is bloody good. Forget trip-hop, this is UK noir: post-industrial micro-dramas set in the outsourced limbo-land formerly known as Britain. Portishead songs seem to inhabit some emotional aftermath, a musical wasteland haunted by phantom strings and juddering, dysfunctional beats. Try playing ‘We Carry On’ at your next dinner-party, yuppie scum.
But Third also suggests some new, unexpected form of urban folk: ‘Machine Gun’ is Sandy Denny sings grime, while ‘The Rip’ is, well, almost too beautiful to bear. The least successful tracks – ‘Threads’, ‘Silence’ – are the ones that still sound a bit like the old Portishead. But they’re still inching forward, still finding new ways to sing in amongst the rubble. Dream on, England, you wonderful broken little country. Dream on.
WHERE WERE U IN 92?
“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain,” goes the Roy Batty/ Blade Runner sample on Zomby’s ‘Tears In The Rain’, and it’s entirely apt for this exercise in undead uncanniness: Blade Runner was frequently sampled in the rave and hardcore that is ruff and readily reconstructed on Where Were U.
The 00s generation have much in common with replicants – immersed in a culture given over to retrospection, it is as if they have had other people’s memories implanted into their minds. In the end, though, the album contradicts Batty’s plaint – in the digital age, nothing is lost; everything comes back. Where Were U invites comparison with Burial and V/VM’s The Death Of Rave, but where they disembody hardcore, transforming it into translucent, spectral traces, Zomby is both more full-on physical and smiley-face humorous, the air horns coming from a party that’s still going on rather than mournful whale song echoes of now deserted dancefloors. It’s not ghostly so much as chopped together, in the Frankenstein-like spirit of original rave.
02. NO AGE
The LA scene based around Jim Smith’s Smell venue has produced some of the best rock music of recent years. Nouns, No Age’s first album proper (last year’s Weirdo Rippers was a round-up of past singles) was the highest profile record to come from that community, and by far its best.
Like Gang Gang Dance, TV on the Radio and Deerhunter, 2008 saw No Age clean up their sound, but despite being their poppiest record to date, Nouns is still messy as fuck. Most tracks begin and end in fuzz, and stylistically it’s all over the place, ranging from the Weezer-esque naivety of ‘Here Should Be My Home’ to the Jesus Lizard mud-trip of ‘Miner’ like it’s the most natural thing in the world. But where as Randy Randall and Dean Spunt’s wicked ear for pop melody spent most of Weirdo Rippers fighting for air in a sonic swamp, Nouns allows it to skim the surface of the murk. Rather than missing the obliqueness of their earlier work, we’re better off for seeing both sides of No Age.
01. GANG GANG DANCE
In a year when Brooklyn ruled the world, the New York borough’s scene godfathers Gang Gang Dance finally came good on their early promise, fusing the primal energy of the tribal experimentalism for which they’re best known with a newfound pop ambition and wilful embrace of electronic dance music. The resulting album, released via Warp, was a startling surprise, arriving at a time when it seemed that past musical innovators were running short on steam as well as ideas.
Saint Dymphna provided both in spades, fizzing with energy, awash with innovation, throwing up curveballs while cohesively recasting genuinely diverse and far-ranging musical influences into something that sounded like Gang Gang Dance, and no one else. In an age when your average music fan, yours truly included, has the attention span of a newt, Saint Dymphna feels even more remarkable – an 11-track album that commands your attention from start to finish, from the ear-pricking bass and synth washes of ‘Bebey’ to the drifting, bucolic ‘Dust’, via the euphoric post-punk pop of ‘House Jam’ and the Slits-meets-Wiley, post-grime masterstroke ‘Princes’, featuring none other than Tinchy Stryder. Oh, and the sleeve art wasn’t bad either.