Favorite Music CDs for 2008

It’s been difficult to settle down and post for the last month or so for a variety of reasons: work pressures, holidays, and sheer laziness.

But now I’m back at it. One way to end the old year and to start the new, I figure, is to discuss some music I liked from 2008.

I still buy CDs, although this year I broke down and bought an inexpensive mp3 player with those spidery earphones that I plug into my ears. (I still refuse to walk around with it in mindless obliviousness on the street, although I understand the temptation. It builds an entire internal environment, where annoying people and their dramas, traffic noise and other irritations recede.)

I’m old enough to have bought record albums when they were on vinyl, before even cassette (or 8-track). The album or the CD still embodies unavoidably the concept of the musicians (or maybe the producer) in the choice and arrangement of the songs presented.

There’s a context that’s missing from just hitting the high spots contained in individual mp3 files, although if the CD is a dud, I find myself rethinking this idea.

But here’s the 10 albums I enjoyed most the past year, although several were purchased in only the last month or so.

1. Parallel Play by Sloan

Song, Musicianship — 4 / 5
Voice — 3.5 / 5
Lyrics — 3 / 5
Interesting Listen — 4.5 / 5

I probably listened to this prime example of contemporary power pop (as this kind of rock seems to be called these days) more than any other this year.

Sloan is an interesting band. Begun in Halifax on the east coast of Canada in 1991, they’ve refrained from the typical move to LA and trying to make the “big time” in the States, although they seem fully capable of it.

You can hear a multitude of influences and styles in their latest, which follows the 30-track extravaganza of 2007’s You’ll Never Hear the End of It , which had considerable truth as a title.

There’s a punk tune, a country-tinged track or two, and straight ahead rockin’ on quite a few cuts. You can hear a little Dylan, a little Band, and a lot of Beatles influence. But they don’t sound derivative: they’ve found their own path, while taking the best of the past.

One song I’ve grown to like, Cheap Champagne , has these lines:

She kept her feet on the ground
Her hair was a cloud that the sun illuminated

Cheap champagne all around
The jukebox predicted her song

… That when I look into her eyes
Y’know it never meant that much to me – oooh

I think it’s the imagery about the hair that grabs me…

2. Skin Deep by Buddy Guy

Song, musicianship – 4 / 5
Voice – 4 / 5 (he’s got the right voice for the blues)
Lyrics – 2.5 / 5
Interesting Listen — 4 / 5

Buddy Guy has been around for a long, long time and has finally come into his own as a more widely known blues legend in his own right, in the tradition of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.

He began putting together Grammy winners in the 1990s (although thankfully not as middle of the road as most Grammy winners).

He’s 72 now, and still going strong. This new album, Skin Deep, ranges from country blues to rocking blues to plain old blues blues, with a variety of collaborators including Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks and Eric Clapton. He even works with now 9-year-old blues phenomenon Quinn Sullivan .

Although I’m not a huge blues fan, Guy’s is the voice of authenticity.

In Skin Deep , he sings:

A man in Louisiana
He never called me by my name
He said “boy do this and boy do that”
But I never once complained
I knew he had a good heart
But he just didn’t understand
That I needed to be treated
Just like any other man

3. Hold On Now Youngster… by Los Campesinos!

Song, Musicianship 3.5 / 5
Voice 3.0 / 5
Lyrics 3 / 5
Interesting Listen 4 / 5

This is a CD with an off-kilter air about it, in the midst of being extremely catchy and wry. The first song’s title let’s you in on it: Death to Los Campesinos! and there’s others like Drop It Doe Eyes and …And We Exhale and Roll Our Eyes in Unison .

The musicians are a bunch of university kids from Wales who started playing together in 2006. They’ve signed with a Canadian label (Arts and Crafts — which has a lot of great indie bands) and have already toured Europe and North America.

These are people having a lot of fun with their music. The meaning isn’t always decipherable but that adds to the overall air of sheer, cheerful abandon.

The lyrics when you can figure them out (mostly by reading the included little booklet) are often greatly nuts. But this one seems to be about synesthesia.

Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats:

Kiss him in the face with no lips and no tongue
But with your little, middle, index and ring finger singing
‘I see songs in shapes and colours
Not nuclear physics or pottery ovens,
Fluid lines that soar like towers
Patterns reformed just like child actors.’

4. Konk by The Kooks

Song, Musicianship 3 / 5
Voice 3.5 / 5
Lyrics 2.5 / 5
Interesting Listen 3.5 / 5

This four man band started recording in 2006 after meeting at a theatre school in Britain. This album, their second, went to No. 1 in the UK very quickly.

There’s something a little old-fashioned, in a good way, about their sound. I remember listening to it in a record store. The first cut, well, okay, but do I want to buy this? The second, Always Where I Need to Be , is definitely a bit retro and bounced me high enough to buy the CD.

Maybe they sound like the Kinks sometimes, and a little sometimes like the less artsy Beatles. But there are tinges of reggae and country in the mix as well. I like the straightahead rock and the unsophisticated lyrics (as in the rocker Do You Wanna (Make Love to Me)).

Or as in Gap:

So put a spanner in the works of your mind
It’s easier to work
But I don’t mind
You’re better in defeat

5. Don’t Do Anything by Sam Phillips

Song, Musicianship 3.5 / 5
Voice 4 / 5
Lyrics 3.5 / 5
Interesting Listen 3.5 / 5

Sam Phillips is a wonderful unsung, shall we say, singer/songwriter who has been around for years putting out great albums. If you’re unfamiliar with her (the Sam is apparently short for Leslie Ann), then you’ve missed out on an oddly appealing, captivating voice and take on the world.

She began as a backup singer in the 1980s for Christian acts. She was promoted at one time as the “Christian Cyndi Lauper” before she went more mainstream.

Her striking album from 1994, Bikinis and Martinis, was what introduced me to her music. Produced, like most of her albums, by T-Bone Burnett, a well-known songwriter and musician himself, the two got married. They recently divorced before this 2008 album.

I keep coming back to her voice; there’s ruin and pathos and striving in it… almost hoarse in its tone but not quite.

From Signal:

You passed me the map under the table
I gave you who I am in secret
Looking for a signal
Underneath my feet
Up above my head too close to see
Waiting for a sign
Between heart and skin
Through the shoulders
Where the wings might have been

6. Electric Arguments by The Fireman

Song, Musicianship 4 / 5
Voice 3.5 / 5
Lyrics 3 / 5
Interesting Listen 4 / 5

Somehow, Paul McCartney has managed to often make his voice near unrecognizable on this CD, for indeed he is The Fireman. It’s ragged like Helter Skelter, once you do realize it’s him, on the first cut Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight, and somehow he goes on to sing throughout the CD without being cutesy or too trite.

The would-be anonymity seems to allow him to experiment again without too much baggage from past musical identities. There’s rock here and semi-ballads, and electronica mixed in with the harmonica too.

This album is a collaboration with producer Youth (who names their little boy that?) and is actually McCartney’s third album as The Fireman. I haven’t heard the others, but this is being hailed as some of his best work.

I like the anthemic Sing The Changes alot — it reminds me of U2 a little.

Master of the pop song as he is, I notice he doesn’t overwrite… there’s simplicity and melody and passion still in this 66-year old man.

From Dance ‘Til We’re High:

Winter’s coming
It’ll soon will be here
If we knew what it meant
We would take care …

We can do it
Gonna do it tonight
Sing till we fly together
Dance till we’re high together
Dance till we’re high together

7. Live From Texas by ZZ Top

Song, Musicianship 3.5 / 5
Voice 2.5 / 5
Lyrics 2 / 5
Interesting Listen 3 / 5

Also out as a DVD of this live show by the 40-year-old band from Texas ZZ Top (pronounced in Canada as Zed Zed Top, of course), this CD serves as a “best of” compilation.

I remember being subjected to their videos on MTV while sitting around in bars in the ’80s: videos full of motorcycles, fast jalopies, long-legged girls, smoke machines and that whole tired production.

At the same time, I realize now that I got a kick out of their music. Listening to this celebration of their boogie blues and rock, it’s still good.

Who can forget Pearl Necklace, Gimme All Your Lovin’, Sharp Dressed Man and Tush ?

The story on their name is apparently that they wanted at first to name themselves ZZ King in admiration of their hero, BB King, but thought it too similar and settled on ‘Top’ instead as a more tangential tribute.

Great lyricists they’re not, but they get their ‘message’ across (from Tube Snake Boogie):

I got a girl she lives cross town,
She’s the one that really gets down.

When she boogie,
She do the tube snake boogie.
Well now boogie little baby,
Boogie woogie all night long.

8. Cardinology by Ryan Adams and the Cardinals

Here is a band and a front man with which I’m not that familiar, but I enjoyed this CD in the vein of the Jayhawks or Wilco, but rocking harder.

And unfortunately, I’ve run out of time for this post due to some travel plans so I have to cut it short…

Nos. 9 and 10 on my list for 2008 were Gimme Fiction by Spoon and Déjà Vu LIVE by CSNY.

I liked the first Spoon album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, a lot and enjoyed this one as well. More intelligent than the previous title might indicate.

And this live CSNY album recorded in 2006 but issued in 2008, features the old warhorses Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young protesting another war and administration a generation removed from their heyday.

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2 Comments on “Favorite Music CDs for 2008”

  1. bloglily Says:

    Thank you for these! I have been really wanting to listen to new things, but I never really trust the recommendations I find. So here I am, on a quiet Friday night, and I click over to visit and find exactly what I’ve been looking for. Thank you so much for doing this! Best, Lily

  2. fencer Says:

    Hey Lily,

    Nice to hear from you… I’ve been bad about blogging, and getting around to all the folks whose work I admire…

    Hope you find something to enjoy in those!

    Regards


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