Bullz-Eye’s Favorite Albums of 2008: Staff Writer Michael Fortes’ picks

This year has seen some extraordinary new music come our way. I’ve heard the opposite opinion from elsewhere, but for me, being on the West Coast has a lot to do with my enthusiasm. In fact, seven of the albums in my top ten are by West Coast artists, some more well-known than others. Not only that, three of the albums in my top ten aren’t albums at all. The “EP” is an anachronistic term that originally referred to a 7” vinyl record with more music crammed on each side (usually at the expense of volume and general sound quality) than what a normal single would hold. It’s an abbreviation for “Extended Play.” And yet, today’s EP is really just a half-length CD. They tend to be overlooked, either because they’re too short to warrant much attention or they contain songs not deemed strong enough for a full album, or both. But, like Bob Dylan said, “things have changed.” Our lives are busier, our attention spans are shorter, and our disposable income is shrinking by the hour. What better time for the EP to make a mini-resurgence than now?

Top 10 Albums of 2008

1. The Parson Red Heads: Owl & Timber (EP)
There’s a timelessness to the sound and the vibe of the Parson Red Heads that’s beyond explanation. You can single out the familial harmonies, the guitar interplay that recalls the Byrds and the Dead, the irresistibly solid pop songs, or their flowery evocation of a bygone era. But when it comes down to it, this band’s music simply feels good. No other band has released music this irresistible and uplifting in years, and only a select lucky few up and down the West Coast have had the luxury of being able to see and hear them live. With a little luck, this may change, and we’ll be able to look back at Owl & Timber as one of the elements that made it happen.

2. Brian Wilson: That Lucky Old Sun
Following up the 37-years-late Smile with another similarly built song cycle seemed like little more than a fantasy in 2004. But here we are in 2008, and Brian Wilson pulled it off. Mike Love would be proud to hear that there’s only one “downer” on the album (the beautiful, Pet Sounds-worthy “Midnight’s Another Day”), while all the rest are upbeat, aural murals depicting the sunny side of Southern California. It’s Brian doing what he does best, and outside of Smile, it’s easily his best, most enjoyable solo work.

3. Bob Dylan: Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Technically, Tell Tale Signs is an archival release, but the recent vintage of the material (1989 through 2006), the abundance of never-before-heard songs, and the fact that most of it was recorded during the same period in which Guns n’ Roses’ 14-years-late Chinese Democracy gestated, qualifies it as new. And even if it didn’t qualify, it would still be listed here, since it does as good a job (if not better) as any of his last three records of proving that, even in his old age, Dylan has lost none of his power to inspire, confound, delight and move his audience.

4. The Gutter Twins: Saturnalia
Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli have collaborated in the past on a few tracks from Greg’s Twilight Singers albums, and while those duets were pretty good, they were never major stand-outs. Not until the two covered Massive Attack’s “Live with Me” on last year’s A Stitch in Time EP, anyway. As good as that cover was, this full album of originals by Greg and Mark is even better. Dulli stretches himself here, eschewing his usual rockin’ R&B swagger and falling under Lanegan’s dark, spiritual influence.

5. Chris Robley & The Fear of Heights: Movie Theatre Haiku
That straight-laced dude from Portland with the Harry Nilsson fixation strikes again, this time crediting his road band and turning in an even more confident record than last year’s The Drunken Dance of Modern Man in Love. If the 1966 Beatles were a young band today, they’d likely be playing songs like Robley’s “User-Friendly Guide to Change.”

6. Joseph Arthur: Vagabond Skies (EP)
Of the four EPs and full-length album Joseph Arthur released this year, Vagabond Skies rises to the top not only for bearing some of his most captivating and ethereal songs, but also for containing the year’s most memorable guitar solo, in the EP’s centerpiece “She Paints Me Gold.” Plus, the cover art is damn cool.

7. The Happy Hollows: Imaginary (EP)
They’re funny, they’re smart, they’re tight as a conservative’s behind, and they’re the most exciting live indie rock band in L.A. right now. Imaginary is just a short burst of five songs, but what a burst it is – from the simple exclamatory chant of “Colors” to the almost prog-like tour-de-force of “Lieutenant” with singer/guitarist Sarah Negahdari’s Eddie Van Halen-esque guitar tapping, Imaginary tantalizes and teases, just like you want it to.

8. Guns n’ Roses: Chinese Democracy
Yes, it’s bloated and overproduced. No, it’s not the old, sleazy Guns n’ Roses of the late ‘80s. Yes, it should have been out ten years ago, and would have sounded even more contemporary in 1998 than in 2008. But Axl Rose is still the king of tortured, overwrought power ballads and menacing rock n’ roll screams, and on these counts, Chinese Democracy more than delivers – it beats you over the head with its twisted logic.

9. Metallica: Death Magnetic
Metallica sounds like Metallica again! It may be clichéd to say this is their best album since …And Justice for All, but it’s true, and it bears repeating: Death Magnetic is Metallica’s best album since Justice.

10. My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges
Evil Urges goes to great lengths to prove that My Morning Jacket is no typical southern jam band. Not that they ever needed to go so far as to throw some Prince-like falsetto singing and funky R&B into the mix, but as it turns out, it sounds pretty cool.

Honorable Mentions

The Fireman: Electric Arguments
Rachel Taylor Brown: Half Hours with the Lower Creatures
Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend
Portishead: Third
Neil Diamond: Home Before Dark
Juliana Hatfield: How to Walk Away
Randy Newman: Harps and Angels
Deerhoof: Offend Maggie
Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan: Sunday at Devil Dirt

  

Bullz-Eye’s Favorite Albums of 2008: Associate Editor Will Harris’ picks

The fact of the matter is this: by the time you read this, I will have reviewed a sum total of only nine albums which were released in 2008. It’s a little sad, really. Once upon a time, the only thing I wrote about was music, and now it’s been relegated to a distant second place. Not that I don’t love how much my gig as a TV critic has taken off in recent years, but do I miss the days when I would listen to music all the live long day? You bet. (Ed. note: So do I.) But although I no longer have the time to sit down, absorb an album, and write a lengthy treatise about it, that’s not to say that I’m not still paying attention to my favorite artists and what they’re doing these days…and once in a blue moon, I even dare to fall in love with a new artist. You will definitely, however, see a trend toward the folks to whose music has been making me happy quite a few years now. It’s true: I’m old, I’m set in my ways, and if it doesn’t sound familiar, then, frankly, I just can’t be bothered. Good thing, then, that several of my all-time favorite artists came through for me in 2008.

Top 10 Albums of 2008

1. Elvis Costello and the Imposters: Momofuku
After several not-bad albums, Elvis finally comes through and produces his first full-fledged classic in quite some time. Whether it’s because he’s been energized by the Imposters (two former Attractions and an ex-Cracker member) or enthused about having a vocal supergroup providing backing vocals (Jenny Lewis, Johnathan Rice, Dave Scher, and Jonathan Wilson), the end result is the most enjoyable EC effort in ages, and it only gets better with each listen.

2. The Fireman: Electric Arguments
There’s a very good chance that I’ll be called out for giving this record too much credit too soon, given that, as I type this sentence, my review hasn’t even gone live on the site yet, but I’m going out on a limb and listing it in my #2 spot nonetheless. It’s always easy for me to slot a Paul McCartney release in my top 10, but, really, this is a fascinating album that finds Sir Paul in a loose and freewheeling form that we haven’t heard from him in decades. I’ve spun it a dozen times in less than a month, and I foresee many more in the future.

3. Brent Cash: How Will I Know if I’m Awake
There are several surprising things about Brent Cash and his debut album. For one thing, despite how it sounds, it was not recorded in the 1960s during the height of the sunshine pop era. For another, although it was released on a label best known for putting albums by the Pearlfishers, Cash is not from Scotland but, rather, from Athens, GA. But, really, what’s most important about How Will I Know if I’m Awake is that it’s a beautifully breezy concoction of pop tunes that blends the best bits of Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Webb, and any other classic ‘60s tunesmith you care to mention.

4. Coldplay: Viva la Vida
Fuck you guys, I like Coldplay. Maybe I wouldn’t if I actually listened to the radio and had heard the title track of this record played to death, but I didn’t. As far as I’m concerned, Chris Martin writes some damned fine pop tunes, and as long as Coldplay keeps recording them, I’ll probably keep buying them.

5. Panic at the Disco: Pretty. Odd.
I know I’m not the only one on the Bullz-Eye staff to have been blindsided by just how good this record was. Who would thought a bunch of guys who were big enough tools to stick an exclamation point in the middle of their band’s name had it in them to put together a modern-day approximation of Queen? (Okay, so it’s not a precise translation, but, hey, it’s better than the album that the real Queen put out this year.) “Nine in the Afternoon” was the single to beat this year, and the rest of the album comes surprisingly close to living up to that song’s potential.

6. The Cure: 4:13 Dream
No, it’s not the best Cure album you’ve ever heard, but it borrows a lot of bits from a lot of really good Cure albums. As a result, the feeling of familiarity makes for a very comfortable listen.

7. R.E.M.: Accelerate
No, it’s not the best R.E.M. album you’ve ever heard. But it’s the best R.E.M. album in a hell of a long time.

8. Lindsey Buckingham: Gift of Screws
For whatever reason, I just never cottoned to Lindsey’s last record, Under the Skin, but I’m sure the biggest issue was that I was really looking for another Out of the Cradle. While Gift of Screws might not hit those lofty heights, it certainly came a heck of a lot closer.

9. Jack McManus: Either Side of Midnight
Throw me a comparison to Ben Folds, Billy Joel, and Elton John, and you’ll have my attention every time. As soon as I heard Jack McManus’s single, “Bang on the Piano,” I was hooked, and the rest of the record – including the title cut and “You Think I Don’t Care” – is just as much piano-pumping fun.

10. Asia: Phoenix / Journey: Revelation
Our man Jeff Giles said it best when he first put on “Never Walk Away,” the opening song from Journey’s first album to feature the band’s new lead singer, Arnel Pineda: “I think I can feel my hair trying to feather itself as I listen to this.” Similarly, my own follicles were trying to form a mullet upon my spinning “Never Again,” the first track on the first Asia album to feature all four original members in almost 25 years. Even if neither album was necessarily 100% genius, there was so much good-natured enthusiasm packed into both records to make them some of the most enjoyable listening this year.

Top 5 Albums I picked up via eMusic

Say what you will about how eMusic isn’t the deal it used to be, but I never have any problem finding enough great new music to use on my credits each month. It might not be quite as user-friendly as iTunes, but it’s getting closer all the time.

1. ABC: Traffic
I’m probably more fond of this record than anything else that I downloaded from the site because I listened to it incessantly in the weeks leading up to my attending the Regeneration tour, but it’s still a very solid outing from Martin Fry and company.

2. The Last Shadow Puppets: The Age of Understatement
I didn’t know anything about Martin Kane from the Rascals (UK), but that’s okay, because all I really needed to know about this band is that it also featured Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys. This’ll hold me over nicely ‘til the next Monkeys record.

3. The Snoopy Lads: A Ruby in Blue
Not that Marc Almond isn’t still recording (because he is, thank you very much), but if he wasn’t, then the Snoopy Lads would be your next best bet for slinky synth-pop goodness. Shame about the name, though.

4. Ladyhawke Ladyhawke
eMusic sold me on this one by the pull quote on the download page for the album: “Nervy New Zealander offers a dozen-plus rewrites of ‘Bette Davis Eyes.’ And, yes, that’s a good thing.” It sure is. There’s early-‘80s girl-pop goodness galore here.

5. Sparks: Exotic Creatures of the Deep
Okay, I admit it: I got into Sparks because Morrissey likes them. But then when I realized that they also wrote a song that Siouxise and the Banshees had covered (“This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us”), I figured it was the icing on the cake. I don’t know where this album stands in the overall pantheon of Sparks albums. I just know it has a track entitled “I Can’t Believe You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song,” and that’s good enough for me.

Top 10 songs not on any of the above albums

1. “Goodbye Mr. A,” The Hoosiers
2. “Wow,” Kylie Minogue
3. “What’s Victoria’s Secret?,” Rick Springfield
4. “Pretty Amazing Grace,” Neil Diamond
5. “Spiralling,” Keane
6. “I Keep Faith,” Billy Bragg
7. “Oranges and Apples,” Trash Can Sinatras
8. “Stamp Your Feet,” Donna Summer
9. “Fascination,” Alphabeat
10. “Sensual Seduction,” Snoop Dogg

Biggest Reunion Album Disappointment

Bauhaus: Going Away White
True, they hadn’t recorded together as a band since 1983’s Burning from the Inside, but given that they’d successfully managed to reunite and tour throughout most of 2005 and 2006, hopes were high that they were older, wiser, and able to put together one last classic album. They were not.

Most unexpected success from an ex-Beatle

The Pete Best Band: Haymans Green
When I started hearing reports about what a pleasure Haymans Green was, I had to check it out, and I was not disappointed. You will not be surprised to hear that it’s pointedly Beatle-esque in its sound, and, okay, maybe my expectations were low, but I really enjoyed it. Who would’ve thought that the drummer who got kicked out of the Beatles would produce a better album this year than the one who replaced him?

  

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