* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *
It’s been difficult deciding what i feel are the best albums of 2008. Partly, because i’ve listened to so many (of the 667 albums i’ve listened to this year, 141 of them were released in 2008), but also because i’m conscious of a number of albums that i haven’t yet listened to, and which could well appear in this list. Anyhow, all lists of this kind are provisional, so as things stand today, here are the 5:4 Best Albums of 2008:
40 | Squarepusher – Just A Souvenir
On the one hand, this album isn’t as successful as Squarepusher’s last and best album, Hello Everything. On the other hand, Tom Jenkinson is just so talented that even failed experiments like this are better than most. Quite what led him to resurrect 70s electronics and seek to incorporate it into his style is anyone’s guess, but he’s hardly alone in doing so. At times it’s downright annoying, and overall there’s a diminished sense of unity across the album; yet tracks like “Tensor in Green” and “Quadrature” are brilliant demonstrations of the kind of synthesis of which Jenkinson is capable.
39 | Nurse With Wound – Huffin’ Rag Blues
NWW have turned down the absurdism somewhat on this release, allowing the jazz inflections to come through unfettered. Nonetheless, there’s still sufficient surreal juxtaposition of material for this to be a superbly eclectic electroacoustic outing. “The Funktion of the Hairy Egg” is especially effective, and the outstanding track on this disc, which also features irr. app. (ext.)’s Matt Waldron and is mixed by Andrew Liles.
38 | Gregor Samsa – Rest
Another great album from this band, who are able to sound simultaneously languorous and ecstatic. At times it’s a little too shoegaze for its own good, but most of the album is particularly effective, and sometimes strikingly delicate. The vocals, in particular, are often ethereal to the point of becoming inaudible, providing a wonderful mysterious surface beneath which the textures can drift and intermingle.
37 | Byetone – Death Of A Typographer
Despite being fairly typical Raster-Noton material, this album displays real variety, encompassing lovely ambient episodes along with the familiar glitchy electronica. There’s a markedly industrial tone to the beats, but they’re delivered with such panache that they never feel oppressive. It also lacks the coldness that seems to accompany, say, Alva Noto’s recent material (although, having said that, i really liked this year’s Unitxt, despite it not appearing in this list); this is surprisingly light and warm dance music.
36 | AGF – Words Are Missing
A rapid, insistent album, with Antye Greie’s voice (along with pretty much all other sounds) fragmented into a myriad shards. The constructions she makes from these pieces are consistently engaging, while not perhaps representing the best of her work; at times, the music are off-puttingly minimalistic. Nonetheless, the deep beats that permeate the tracks give them a potent physicality that is infectious; and, as in “Dread In Strangers Eyes”, influences of musique concrète and collage-like techniques give the album a fascinating variety.
35 | Ladytron – Velocifero
There are distinct traces of Curve in Ladytron’s latest release, which is most definitely no bad thing. This is particularly the case with “Runaway”, recently released as a single and easily the best track on the album. First and foremost, though, Ladytron have brought out their best album to date, filled with dirty, somewhat languid rock-tronica.
34 | Deerhoof – Offend Maggie
i wrote about this album back in October, and my initial disappointment about this album has, to some extent, given way to (i hope) a deeper appreciation. It still doesn’t quite capture the unbridled fire and passion of Friend Opportunity, but there’s a maturity present here that perhaps i wasn’t expecting. A flawed masterpiece it may be, but any group or album that can come up with a track as astonishing as “Jagged Fruit” is nothing less than brilliant.
33 | Stephan Mathieu – Radioland
A curious assemblage of thoughtful meditations, this is ambient from a more heavyweight perspective. At least, that’s the way it comes across, like vast heavy nimbus clouds, their complex inner structures ever shifting. The result is powerfully hypnotic, and often very beautiful, particularly “Auf der Gasse”.
32 | Implex Grace – Through Luminescent Passages II
i wrote a fair bit about this release back in November, so i won’t repeat that here. Since then Michael Goodman has made it clear to me that what i perceived as a lack of direction is something quite intentional on his part, and while i’m prepared to accept that, the brevity of the tracks, i feel, still militates against the kind of ‘meditative’ state he desires. All the same, it’s still an interesting counterpart to volume 1, focusing more on the noise end of the ambient continuum. It’s still available free of charge, here, in FLAC and mp3 formats, direct from Goodman’s netlabel, Distance Recordings.
31 | Ran Slavin – Nocturnal Rainbow Rising
Ran Slavin’s latest release is another free download, from the excellent Crónica netlabel. It’s a disc that demonstrates real skill at shaping sound, as well as formidable restraint, the tracks given space to develop at their own pace, never seeming forced along. Its use of bass frequencies to punctuate the material is very striking; “Pure Honey in Lack One” is perhaps the best example.
30 | Specta Ciera – Mystic Valley Parkway
Yet another free album, released through Distance Recordings, and available here. This is music reassuringly difficult to categorise, bringing together diverse sound sources into a melange within which they briefly become obvious before being re-absorbed. At times (“I Lost The Dream Archive”) it becomes really breathtaking, dazzling the ear with its restless activity.
29 | Pantaleimon – Heart Of The Sun
While i’m not particularly a fan of Pantaleimon’s work, this remix album is nothing less than superb. The effect of the songs’ folk origins refashioned electronically is intoxicating, reminiscent of Fovea Hex’s Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent trilogy. Perhaps it’s not surprising; Fovea Hex is responsible for one of the best remixes here, alongside other such esteemed figures as Colin Potter and Andrews WK and Liles. A really delicious album.
28 | Andrew Liles and Daniel Menche – The Progeny Of Flies
Andrew Liles’ collaborations never quite live up to the level of his solo achievements; something often seems somehow ‘diluted’. If one didn’t know better, this album could convincingly be a solo venture, however, bearing resemblances to Liles’ superlative New York Doll, among others. The music brings together drones and noise, melding them into a whole that, while not always aurally engaging, is masterly in its technique.
27 | Beyond Sensory Experience – No Lights In Our Eyes
The dark, brooding artwork sets the scene well for this album, that sounds rather like Biosphere crossed with Lustmord. This is ambient with a distinctly dark, even gothic, atmosphere, where anonymous voices briefly emerge through the grey haze to reveal snatches of speech. It’s almost an exercise in chiaroscuro, striking an interesting balance between noise and pitched material.
26 | Of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping
This is probably the most unexpected listen of the year. A series of boistrous, kaleidoscopic tracks, many of which end without warning and seemingly morph into new songs before they’ve finished. Such quixotic structures, combined with the kind of retro affection and infectious enthusiasm of Scissor Sisters, make this a brilliant, wildly inventive album.
25 | AGF – Dance Floor Drachen
The latest release from German sound artist Antye Greie is available here as a free download from her website. Clearly, however, the whole nature of digital downloading is something she wants the listener actively to engage with, as the combined track titles spell out, “If You Consider Than [sic] Reconsider Ripping This Track For Free You Might Slowly Turn Impotent (because) This Is Reduced Beauty From A Nazi Stalinist Successor”. Stern words, which if they prey sufficiently on one’s conscience can be alleviate by purchasing a hand-made copy of the album for €50—something i intend to do in the new year. Quite apart from all this, it’s highly engaging stuff, eclectic sounds blended into rough-edged electronica.
24 | Goldfrapp – Seventh Tree
A convincing return to form after the redundancy of Supernature (which could have been titled “Black Cherry II”). Lightly fragranced and with, at times, a distinctive carnival atmosphere, these tracks see the electronics pushed into the background, to be replaced with fresh sounding folk-like songs. It even captures something of the spirit of their debut, Felt Mountain, and in a song like “Happiness”, Alison Goldfrapp’s voice has never sounded more at home.
23 | Implex Grace – Through Luminescent Passages I
More accessible and consistent than its noise-focused successor, this album is a real ambient treat. Michael Goodman’s music has a healthy tendency to envelop the listener, and here that feeling is a safe one, often tinged with elation, as in “In Space and Time We Travel”. The music ebbs and flows organically, intense and passionate, and often disarmingly simple. Available free in FLAC and mp3 formats, here.
22 | Evan Marc and Steve Hillage – Dreamtime Submersible
Perhaps i wasn’t ready, but the first time i heard this album, it just didn’t engage me. But a second time, and on subsequent listenings, it’s a surprisingly enthralling release, unashamedly ambient in intention, underpinned by delicately insistent beats. i remain unconvinced about Hillage’s contribution, but nonetheless it’s a sublime disc, with a lovely evolutionary quality, the tracks ever changing and shifting, always moving forward.
21 | Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I-IV
The album that effectively changed the relationship between a band and its audience forever. It’s also an album that probably took many NIN fans by surprise, being as it is a variety of instrumental soundscapes, experimental but often strikingly effective (and in turn audibly influencing its follow up, The Slip). Definite proof—if such proof were needed—of just how inspired Trent Reznor really is, and equally how redundant it is to seek to pigeon-hole his work. Early in the new year, i’ll be posting the multi-track files of all the tracks, given away free in the deluxe editions of the album.
20 | Operator Please – Yes Yes Vindictive
i wrote a lot about this group a few months back, and this album hasn’t lost any of its initial impact. They’re joyously riotous, bringing hints of rock ‘n’ roll back into pop, without it seeming to have aged a day. It’ll be tough for them to follow up this album (particularly since the loss of keyboardist Sarah Gardiner), as it’s so good; “Get What You Want” is one of the very best songs of the year.
19 | Johnny Hollow – Dirty Hands
Quite why Johnny Hollow haven’t become more widely known is a mystery to me. Their self-titled first album showed them already to have a distinctive, original voice, laden with a gothic-Victorian theatricality, which is given even more assured expression here. Rock, electronics and mild classical leanings seem to blend effortlessly in their songs, and despite not always using familiar structures (a good thing), their best songs—”This Hollow World”, “Superhero” and “Boogey Man” in particular—have an anthemic quality that pulls the listener along.
18 | Operations – Collected Anomalies
As far as i know, this disc isn’t properly available yet; Chris Anderson (who is Operations) sent me a copy earlier in the year, and according to his MySpace page, the album will “probably be a primarily digital release with limited physical copies available”. It’s a superb summary of the kind of music Anderson creates, fashioned, it would seem, from a wide variety of sources that are then deftly placed within highly stylised forms. They’re all highly evocative pieces, surprisingly rich in detail and often packing surprises. A couple of new Operations releases are due for release in the new year.
17 | Parenthetical Girls – Entanglements
i’ve never heard anything like it; falsetto vocal histrionics mixed with lavish, experimental rococo instrumentations, resulting in really excellent chamber pop. It steers clear of sounding camp, and after a couple of listens, even stops sounding mannered; there’s a bullish intention here redolent of, say, Neil Hannon, that commands respect. And like Hannon’s Divine Comedy project, the ostensible familiarity of these songs belies their rather more subversive undertones. It’s a brilliant achievement.
16 | Hammock – Maybe They Will Sing For Us Tomorrow
The title suggests music of an M83 ilk, and the opening moments of this album do suggest a similar kind of wistfulness, but the quality of these tracks is consistently higher than that. This is unashamedly accessible music, and arguably empathetic music; in that sense, it feels like a functional album, one capable of consolation. While in lesser hands that could become a kind of “emo ambient”, this album is nothing of the kind; each track is shot through with light and air, dreamy, soporific, and—especially in the title track—intensely lovely.
15 | Portishead – Third
Waiting ten years for an album is always going to build up the wrong (indeed the worst) kind of expectations. Thankfully, Third bears little resemblance to their self-titled second album, proving that the wait was worthwhile (if only more bands would release something only when they have something worth saying). It’s a quietly innovative disc, exploring new kinds of lo-fi, and introducing more diverse acoustic elements than many bands would either contemplate or, still less, pull off (apart from Radiohead, who feel as though they may have had an éminence grise relationship to this disc). It doesn’t say great things about Beth Gibbons’ voice (she’s clearly quite limited in expression), but in music like this, it couldn’t possibly be better; this really is Portishead at their very best.
14 | Matmos – Supreme Balloon
In the hands of electronic specialists Matmos, music seems to have come full circle; the notes for this album explain that “All sounds were generated with synthesizers and computers. No microphones were used on this album”, which reminded me of the proud boast appearing on some early Queen albums, “No synthesizers!”. For all its digital modernity, however, there’s a decidedly analogue, even makeshift, flavour to many of the tracks, bringing to mind the fabulous experiments of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach albums. Miniatures occupy much of the disc, with the exception of the very long title track, which clocks in at over 24 minutes and has something of the tone of Autobahn to it. Clearly this album is something of an hommage to the origins of electronic music, and is gloriously enjoyable throughout.
13 | Mosaique – Filare
This is another free download album from Crónica (available here), intended to “produce sustained music which at the same time would contain movement and harmonic richness”. Filare is, indeed, rich, and its ambient textures are ever in flux, ever at the boundary between commanding interest and being (to use Eno’s term) “ignorable”. It is highly organic throughout, giving the impression of a composer who has set (carefully ordered) things in motion that then run their course, rather than controlling the sound at each passing moment.
12 | Autechre – Quaristice.Quadrange.ep.ae
It seemed, at times, as though Autechre’s Quaristice project was never going to end. First came the album, which was swiftly overshadowed by the release of the limited edition 2-disc version, encased in brushed steel (a lovely aesthetic object), the latter disc of which, subtitled Versions, took up ideas from the album and scrutinised them in more lengthy explorations. Finally, came this series of digital EPs, offering yet more alternatives of Quaristice‘s tracks; these, i feel, capture the best of their respective essences, and are among the most compelling—and, dare i say it, prophetic—dance-influenced music yet created.
11 | Fennesz – Black Sea
Fennesz’ work has never really captured my interest until this fine album, released just last month. It’s an album with impressive scope, making each track sound much longer than its actual duration (only three exceed 8 minutes). The sound sources are, for the most part, made nicely anonymous, but when the anecdotal moments occur (such as the whiff of seagulls at the start) they’re subtle enough to flavour all that has gone before and that follows. The guitar sits atop all this, and forms a nice counterpoint to the lush soup beneath.
10 | Bersarin Quartett – Bersarin Quartett
i’m disappointed not to have found time to write a post about Bersarin Quartett, whose debut album is stunningly unique. It incorporates lush instrumental and orchestral textures into a series of ambient pieces, at times minimalistic (but never dull), and often strikingly beautiful. Occasionally, these tableaux give way to soft beats, but only for a time, and never detracting from the dark ambience that pervades throughout; the final track, “Mehr als alles andere” perhaps captures this best.
9 | Celer/Mathieu Ruhlmann – Mesoscaphe
This remarkable album takes the prize for having the longest track titles i’ve yet encountered; track 1 is “The Pulling Pools Of Piccard’s Scientific Motions / First Night In Complete Darkness / Instrument Settings Below The Transparent Ocean / Our Entrance Into The Stream / Settling Inside The Natural Pathway / Carving An Impermanent Pathway Into The Moonlit Surface / The Melodies Of Our Heartbeats Slowing”, which is slightly too long for poor old iTunes to cope with. Comprising three long tracks that each sound longer than their 15-20-minute durations suggest, it’s an unusual electroacoustic journey, filled with sounds that evoke and emote, yet never quite giving themselves away.
8 | Christopher McFall – The City of Almost
It’s difficult to describe McFall’s work, which is no bad thing of course. Clearly, his work originates in a large body of field recordings, that are then juxtaposed and woven into highly allusive and alluring tapestries. They’re also multi-faceted, each of the four lengthy tracks divided into episodes, sometimes of very different character. Overall, there’s an irresistibility about them, and the sense that something of importance is being communicated, although exactly what that might be is hard to say. And yet, amidst such nebulousness, McFall always conveys conviction, which is no mean feat—it’s a great album that yields yet more on each listening.
7 | Lawrence English – Kiri No Oto
Releases on the famous Touch label have a tendency to sound rather generic, lacking a potent individual identity, but this is anything but true of Lawrence English’s latest album. There are moments where interest wanes just a little, but from the powerfully arresting opening, it opens out into a wide, intricate noisescape that keeps one hooked until the end. English’s patience with his material is impressive; “Commentary”, for example, eschews ebb and flow, never departing from its relatively soft dynamic range, but is nonetheless filled with swirling variation.
6 | Colin Andrew Sheffield – Signatures (Special Edition)
Issued on the centenary of Olivier Messiaen’s birth (10 December), this is a fascinating series of sound studies. His name suggests a slightly geeky Englishman, but Sheffield is in fact American, and his work has been in circulation for some years, created using nothing more than “a turntable, a nearly 20-year-old sampler, and a portable 64-track digital workstation”—the resulting music betrays little of these simple means, though. There’s an elliptical quality to many of the tracks, particularly the epic “Breath of Life”, where organ textures wax and wane above an omnipresent drone. The Special Edition of 60 copies—all enclosed within sumptuous packaging, plus a bonus 3″ CDr—is sold out (i’m delighted to possess a copy), but the standard edition is still available here.
5 | Pēteris Vasks – Cantus ad pacem
Contemporary composers don’t seem particularly interested in the organ, which i think is a shame, considering its potential; no doubt its religious affiliations put many off. No such worries for Pēteris Vasks, the sole composer featured on this disc of five of his organ works. i admire these pieces primarily for the way they walk the line between density and accessibility, reminiscent at times of Tournemire’s legacy. While they avoid the histrionics and experimentation of some contemporary organ scores, they still possess a firmly original integrity that is often thrilling. Furthermore, these pieces are substantial, all lasting well over 10 minutes, and showing Vasks to be a composer able to unravel and explore his ideas gradually, with great skill. One can only hope this exciting disc inspires younger composers to consider writing for what is still, surely, the “King of Instruments”.
4 | Steve Peters – Filtered Light (Chamber Music 4)
Steve Peters’ work never ceases to be enthralling. In this work he returns to Lucier’s room and sets about extracting a collection of frequencies from it; these are then combined and intertwined into an hour-long creation. The result constantly changes, exploring a continuum from microscopic sounds like the lowercase work of John Hudak at one end, to sounding like a choir of ascetic ondes Martenots at the other. Utterly hypnotic, and a true ambient masterpiece.
3 | Nadja – Thaumoradiance
Alongside Merzbow, Nadja are the masters of working with noise; no-one else even comes to close to the multi-layered, slow-paced edifices they construct. The two tracks here both originate in softness, as though tasting the air, before assuming their true identity, vast and granite-like. The latter (a version of last year’s Thaumogenesis) allows for a soft, introspective episode two thirds of the way through, only then to collapse into that most preposterous of things in music of such slowness – a rallentando. But quite apart from the astonishing technical mastery evident here (and the range of sounds at the heart of this music is incredible), the overwhelming emotional power it conveys is utterly moving. It’s impossible to confront Nadja and remain unmoved, and for that and other reasons, their music demands repeated listenings. This album is a phenomenal achievement.
2 | Bass Communion – Molotov and Haze
Bass Communion are responsible for one of my favourite albums (Ghosts on Magnetic Tape), and while this release doesn’t equal it, it does introduce a fascinating abrasive element into the mix. The title says it all; the four tracks here are split equally between harsh, metallic studies and quiet, hazy meditations. While the former are very strident, their drones gently pummelling the ears, there’s no sense of needing to recoil from them; they have a resplendence that is, literally, attractive. The softer pieces explore pianissimo landscapes, perhaps less striking than their counterparts, but more elegant and sublime. Such extremes sit remarkably well together, and make this album an engrossing experience.
1 | Salvatore Sciarrino – Storie di Altre Storie
One of the most (if not the most) interesting composers working today, this disc is a spectacular demonstration both of the incredible range of his invention and also of the skill and sensitivity with which Sciarrino handles other composers’ material. While every piece included here is breathtaking, it’s the 30-minute title work (for accordion and orchestra) that is especially noteworthy, where music by Machaut, Scarlatti and Mozart are turned into an utterly original new creation, simultaneously inviting and unsettling.
And there we have it, a wonderful year of music come to an end. Here’s to 2009—and a very HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all!