Eighteen months or so ago a music blog not too far from this parish began digging through each year from 1980 onwards. Some attempt to tweeze out a list of horribly important albums (the particulars of which live here). Only, for reasons unfathomable and unexplained (I got drunk. I fell into a ditch. I accidentally listened to a Kasabian track, then lost the will to live), the ’08, ’09 and 2010 pieces never saw the light of day. Call this recompense.
Except, certain years are bountiful when it comes to what the record plants are pressing, others less so. For sure, Billy Childish released a shopping cart of rather marvellous LPs in this year. But then again, Billy Childish always releases a shopping cart of rather marvellous LPs. Or the same marvellous LP a shopping cart of times over. The point being that 2008 was perhaps a somewhat tepid vintage. Not a great deal to grow all hot and bothered about. Either that, or this was the year that I finally grew too jaded to understand new music as anything other than derivative, and thus spent the twelve months in the potting shed with an Einstürzende Neubauten LP and a large bottle of gin.
The runners and riders:
Third by Portishead; deliciously dark and abrasive. From opening track ‘Silence’ onwards, it’s all oblique angles and menacing posture, as if Gibbons, Barrow and Utley had spent their decade-long hiatus hiding in a bunker, communing with spiders. There’s still that retro soundtrack quality to their sound, a pleasing John Barry on ketamine effect (‘Hunter’, ‘Nylon Smile’), whilst tracks such as ‘Plastic’ and ‘The Rip’ start off all delicate before plunging into chasms of distorted electronica. But where this record particularly works, as evident on lead single ‘Machine Gun’, is how the sonic endeavours are sculpted. Backlit. A threatening presence in which the dispassionate fragility of Beth Gibbons’ vocal hang like chastisement. Or a haunted seduction – one of those two.
Indeed, LPs such as Third, and Dear Science by TV On The Radio make a mockery of any 2008 was pish stance. The latter is in many respects a pop record. It’s catchy. Acquainted with notions of funk – there’s all sorts of interesting things going on with the bass lines, and the saxophone, and the trademark harmonies, often simultaneously (‘Golden Age’ is a beautiful track). But this being a TV On The Radio album it’s also characterised by invention, by not always taking the easiest route. And as with Third it contains, in ‘Halfway Home’, a killer lead single. Locomotive and infectious, as I scribbled in my notebook during the long and arduous research process behind this.
The year’s most important Scottish album – the Picts owning a disproportionate amount of talent – is probably a toss up between Mogwai’s The Hawk Is Howling, and (appropriately enough) Secret Soundz Volume 1 by former Fence stalwart The Pictish Trail; I’ll stick ‘Words Fail Me Now’ below my words, because it’s lovely. And the year’s most important album beloved by hipsters – have I ever mentioned how much I detest Metronomy? Their Nights Out album parading into record stores wearing yellow trousers in 2008 – is possibly Hot Chip’s Made In The Dark. My biggest issue with the whole Hot Chip oeuvre is that they’re never as inventive as they initially appear. That, unlike TV On The Radio, they do take the easy route – or at least play to the gallery. So it is that a track as urgent and quirky as ‘Don’t Dance’ is surrounded by rather pedestrian voguish electronica that’s yearning for a darker, meaner edge. Because, it’s a well-worn fact that records conspiring to mug you in a dark alley are far superior to records that want to talk about yurts. Street Horrrsing, the début Fuck Buttons album, for instance – produced by Mogwai’s John Cummings. Small world.
Next: a confession. The older I get the less I can resist Amanda Palmer. Yes, I know it’s Weimar Republic cabaret, and Weimar Republic cabaret is evil. What can I say – I’m deeply flawed. Still, Who Killed Amanda Palmer, despite being criticised for the deployment of well-worn tropes borrowed from the Dresden Dolls back-cat, is still a regular visitor to the LGM turntable. The degree of self-exposure Palmer flouts in her words would be nauseating were it not for her flair as a lyricist, whilst the drama spray-painted across this album’s contours, although full-on, never feels gratuitous or out of context. Abuse in the comments section, please.
Songs In A&E, the first Spiritualized record in five years, and… well… it’s all perfectly pleasant (if a little insubstantial), but that’s not what I’m wanting from a Spiritualized disc. The Spaceman had been seriously ill in the years leading up to release, and even beyond the pun in the title there’s an air of hospital ward introspection in the mix, as if the vinyl contracted anaemia. Accordingly, this ain’t my album of the year – although the trio who supported Spiritualized on their 2008 UK tour are responsible for the record I have down as being indispensable. Replica Sun Machine is the second – and last – LP by The Shortwave Set (things have been awfully quiet since then. They’ve either split up and forgot to spread the word, or were eaten by grizzlies in remote South East London). Were you to offer this but a fleeting glance, you’d be forgiven for labelling as common or garden indie disco fodder. Yet befitting of its Danger Mouse production, it’s a far more nuanced affair than initial impressions suggest (there’s also contributions from John Cale and Van Dyke Parks, should you be uncertain of the provenance). Sunny yet melancholic, sixties-influenced yet solidly modern, the songs can be incredibly light and airy (‘Glitches ‘n’ Bugs’, or the Lennon-esqe ‘House Of Lies’), yet are underpinned by so many subtle samples woven into the fabric as to provide novel views at every listen. It’s an album that balances lithely on its girl/boy vocals; it does catchy (‘Now ‘Til ’69’), does ambition and dreaminess (‘Harmonia’; ‘Replica’), oozes with restrained exoticness (or maybe exotic restraint), and wears its influences in all sorts of unexpected patterns. If it’s true that the calling card of a significant album is never outstaying its welcome, no matter how often played, then Replica Sun Machine ticks each and every box.
TV On The Radio / Halfway Home
The Pictish Trail / Words Fail Me Now
The Shortwave Set / Replica