2008 / Music / Top 10

Soundbytes: Top 10 Albums Of 2008

Black Keys, Fleet Foxes Release Year’s Best Discs

Read The Reviews: Fleet Foxes | The Black Keys | Black Mountain | Bon Iver | Vampire Weekend | Santogold | MGMT | Dr. Dog | Deerhunter | Girl Talk

The year 2008 was an incredibly diverse year for great music although that sense of distinctiveness didn’t carry over when examining many music critics’ best albums of the year lists.

In his painfully hilarious book “Stuff White People Like,” author Christian Lander wasn’t just seeking to write a collection of inside jokes about the young NPR crowd’s cultural dos and don’ts. Instead, he was executing, sentence by sentence, a carefully orchestrated hit. It’s a brainy takedown of generational group-think that documents what’s cool in music, art, politics and consumerism, and he pegged his target accurately. It lays out how underground-loving birds of a feather really do flock together.

Lander’s point was to expose how a generation that likes to think it swore off mom and dad’s corporate world and mass media ended up having its outsider tastes coalesce into their own petty, silly microcosm. By name-dropping hipster accolades like not owning a TV, practicing yoga or championing Arcade Fire, the book playfully wallows in the whole lifestyle’s laughable contradictions.

Scan through any music critics’ list of top albums of 2008 and you’ll see the same kind of herd mentality at work. We see the same names — many we haven’t heard about all year — usually included for the same reasons: praising obscure bands is cool . The question these lists should pose to readers is why, if these characters are the best of the best, we have not heard a peep about many of them until now.

Truer still, the compiling of these best-of lists is dangerously un-definitive and, in far too many cases, seems designed to suit the media outlet’s primary demographic. Indie-rock Web sites and blogs compete to skew their list to include the most obscure acts while ignoring those taboo mainstream products and un-hip musical styles. Some publications who are still too invested in propping up the ’60s rock mythology sought to get an old guy in their list — and blot out the garbage shoveled out by the Paul McCartneys and Elton Johns of this generation — by shoehorning as a new album Bob Dylan’s “Tell Tales Signs,” which is a greatest hits of outtakes released as the latest installment of the bard’s “Bootleg Series.” This isn’t an album. It’s an exciting box set of songs recorded over more than a decade.

The same could be said about the most talked about disc of 2008: “Chinese Democracy.” Guns N’ Roses’ 15-year-in-the-making record, which bandleader Axl Rose finally released in November, should have made this year noteworthy in music history. But of course, the long-mocked disc’s ho-hum reception and the accompanying recriminations soon took center stage, even prompting Rose to take to various Guns message boards to defend himself by insulting his own superfans. How the mighty have fallen.

This wasn’t the only big musical disappointment of 2008. Gothamites TV on the Radio, arguably rock music’s most hyped and exciting act for the past couple of years, were uncharacteristically inconsistent on “Dear Science,” the quintet’s disco-funk followup to their 2006 opus “Return To Cookie Mountain.” While the group is still an awe-inspiring live combo and managed a couple of songs that should rank among the year’s most noteworthy singles, too much of the new Afrobeat and synth pop-influenced tracks — co-frontman Kyp Malone’s material exempted — didn’t enthrall listeners the way their previous heady sonic and lyrical soundscapes could.

There was good news too. Indie-rock’s own J.D. Salinger — Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum — temporarily re-emerged in the fall at a handful of concert stops with his old pals in the Elephant Six collective. His reappearance after more than a decade of musical silence came just as one of his onetime acolytes, Of Montreal, released what might be their star-making effort, a polymorphic sexual epic that transported David Bowie and Queens’ glam-rock to Prince’s funky vision of the future.

In total, instead of relying on old heroes, enterprising listeners had to seek out mostly unknowns to hear this year’s most arresting music. All of these newly discovered artists seemed to sidestep pop norms and instead were peddling stubbornly divergent styles — from danceable electro-clash to symphonic pop to hip-hop mashups to thoroughly retro-ish folk-rock.

As for my own list, you might see some familiar names you’ve read or heard about during the year. These are the ones that have stayed with me through the year’s highs and lows and for this fact alone, I’m sharing. That sounds like something a cool person would say, right?

Here’s this year’s list, in no particular order.

Fleet Foxes “Fleet Foxes”

If you were searching for a perfect album in 2008, the Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut is the closest thing to fitting the bill.

Photo: Sub Pop Records

Photo: Sub Pop Records

Hearing each of the Seattle-area quintet’s folk-rock hymns and their astonishing choral vocal harmonies — which pay homage to ’60s rock icons like the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the Band — should leave all listeners asking: Who are these guys?

Who the Fleet Foxes are is a bunch of exiles in their own era, when the pop charts have yielded all ground to the machine age and turned to increasingly sophisticated digital manipulation to design every auditory masterpiece. These guys, however, want to turn the clocks back and resurrect whatever spirit of white soul still lingers in popular memory. Led by frontman Robin Pecknold, the band members have committed themselves to be acoustic-music aficionados, but also artists uncannily capable of blessing their creations with the same sense of authenticity and sincerity as their influences’ songs. After all, the classic-rock pack was recreating Americana music themselves from far older styles.

While the Fleet Foxes’ music makes obvious its musical touchstones and this might initially mask the songs’ quality and power, delving deeper reveals first-class songcraft, deft instrumentation and clever arrangements. The choir-like harmonies and leisurely acoustic guitar strum of “Blue Ridge Mountains” gently guides you on a country stroll that becomes spookier and more intriguing with a mandolin’s Morse code pattern of notes until it blossoms into a revival meeting jamboree. The anthemic “Your Protector” is the kind of country-rock symphony that Neil Young might have envisioned when he hooked up with producer Jack Nitzsche during his occasional rootsy periods. But, the group’s instant masterwork is “White Winter Hymnal,” which culls all the band’s strengths into the musical equivalent of a roundhouse kick. Pecknold’s beautiful lyrics are lovingly laid on a dynamic vocal melody that can’t be resisted. The singers twist and fuse the Beach Boys’ harmonizing with Band’s staggered, stacked vocalizations to create a song that strives and captures a sense of timelessness.

As word of mouth about the album spread during the year, this set high benchmarks for the band to live up to in concert. Even more amazing than their debut was how the group exceeded expectations in front of an audience. When I saw them in July in an outdoor patio in Madison, Wis., I didn’t quite know what to expect. What I heard was likely one of the most stirring vocal performances I’ve ever heard and probably the best mixed show I’d ever been to. I spotted the group when they arrived at the location not because I knew what they looked like, but their appearance certainly fit the bill of a group who worships the best of the hippie era. As the musicians leisurely marched toward the soundboard and subsequently gathered near where I was standing, this bearded, gangly mob looked like the kind of Civil War vets or Wild West desperados that fans imagined the members of the Eagles or Band were.

The Fleet Foxes’ disc might be the best exemplar of great music in 2008, but to paraphrase rock writer Greil Marcus, the same would likely have been true in 1968 or 1888.

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The Black Keys “Attack And Release”

Blues, as a musical form, is almost allergic to adaptation. While there are varieties — Chicago blues, country blues, Texas blues etc. — the genre’s structure is so elemental and its ethos so human that the music can’t mutate into something else, just as a circle will never fit in a square peg.

This presents a particular problem for blues and blues-rock artists who want to have a recording career. The problem: How do you maintain any kind of longevity without essentially reproducing the same album over and over? Others have failed in their attempts — ahem … Robert Cray — but this wasn’t something to deter a group as headstrong as the Black Keys. If anyone thought the Akron, Ohio-based duo would be content to just wallow out their years as a nuvo-blues-rock act, their fourth record, “Attack And Release,” should silence any expectations that these guys dreamt of a simple life sitting on a porch in the Delta and dissecting Robert Johnson songs. “Attack And Release” is an ambitious attempt to bring the blues back to the pop charts while at the same time, broaden the Keys’ two-tone palette. They want more for and from themselves.

To achieve this, the Keys turned to uber-producer Danger Mouse. As it turned out, what Danger Mouse couldn’t do for his own hip-hop soul project, Gnarls Barkley, he was able to achieve with the Keys. He ushered the Keys into embracing the pop-song format and adapted their strengths to make the most of the odd pairing.

“Strange Times” has the kind of infectious, boom-smash drumbeat that Meg White wishes she could bash out. Singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach answers back with one of his most crunchy, fuzzy guitar riffs. This could be a metal song if Auerbach had a Valhalla shriek instead of a country yelp. “Remember When (Side B)” is even better than “Strange Times.” A guitarist’s frenzied thrill ride (with Danger Mouse as the guest bassist), the song is a direct assault that stylistically suggests blues orthodoxy but rocks too furiously for Muddy Waters’ sensibilities. The trio thrashes so hard you might expect only splinters will remain of their instruments when the track’s two minutes are up.

Despite the occasional flexing of its bluesy muscles, if longtime fans suspect that the Keys’ union with Danger Mouse means the Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney want to be pop stars this is a misconception. The slow-burning obsession of “Lies” growls with the angst of the best blues howlers and yet would never have a place on the radio. “I’ve got a stone where my heart should be,” Auerbach moans, while guitar feedback roars and flutters. “I Got Mine” is a bruising battle of sharp blues sticks and deaden drum fills between Carney and Auerbach. Both are duking it out, circling each other around the ring. It’s the closest the Black Keys have come to reproduce Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks.”

Instead of trying to capture a place in Ryan Seacrest’s orbit, the Keys allowed Danger Mouse into their shop and allowed him to tweak their working methods in order to branch out. “Attack And Release” isn’t only their best produced album. It also stands as the best case for why the Keys honor the blues. They have to keep the music new and true.

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Black Mountain “In The Future”

Heavy metal, like mainstream country music, is too often a caricature of itself.

Instead of being artists, many metal musicians are too wrapped up in being fans and allow the core elements they love to get blown out of proportion. And so, riffs are ever more concussive and vocals are shrill screams or the deepest Cookie Monster bellowing. The music, in the end, not only suffers from dulling sameness, but is a steroid monster that reinforces prejudices about the music’s less appealing characteristics.

Despite its album’s title, Canadian group Black Mountain doesn’t pretend to know what metal’s future is. This five-piece wholeheartedly believes in its past. Their latest, “In The Future,” teleports listeners back to the epoch of headphone masterpieces during the ’70s. The band’s sound revisits a time when metal, folk, psychedelia, blues and progressive rock were not yet as distinctive as they would later become. As much as listeners can hear Black Sabbath, there are obvious nods to Fairport Convention, Yes, King Crimson and Led Zeppelin in the songs. This reverence for the past as well as stylistic diversity makes the combo stand out from today’s metalheads while simultaneously reminding everyone headbanging tunes don’t have to meet code.

For the money, few current metal hits sweep down and whack the eardrums with the ceaseless intensity of “Stormy High.” However, Black Mountain more often than not holds back on revealing the headshot riffs until the time is right. They fill most of their time on “Tyrants” and “Queens Will Play” developing unexpected keyboard and vocal melodies and instrumental excursions so compelling that Metallica and Lamb of Gods fans alike might be surprised they kinda like the jamming while members of the Grateful Dead scene will note these metal burnouts can really play.

The height of Black Mountain’s ascetic approach to metal mayhem is the 16-minute symphony, “Bright Lights,” which has the complicated structure and melodrama of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Wispy keyboards play gunfighter theme motifs before ceding ground to the thudding army of drums and rampaging waves of guitar assaults. Singer Amber Webber and band frontman/guitarist Stephen McBean holler wearily before yelping it up when the tempo picks up and this maelstrom churns with energy. “Evil Ways” is quite the opposite from “Bright Lights.” The track, which sounds like what would have happened had Steely Dan sat in with King Crimson, immediately undulates with tribal drumming, belching keyboard squiggles and guitar roughhousing. Listeners’ patience is rewarded yet again.

Skeptics might say that Black Mountain, by so closing aligning itself with the music metal’s old guard, is the caricature. They’re not listening to the music closely enough. This group gives metal a future.

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Bon Iver “For Emma, Forever Ago”

Pain, perhaps bested only by love or envy, is an emotion most typically concealed from view.

True frailty, heartfelt loss or hopeless desolation are feelings too raw, too uncomfortable for a world that usually functions on bland pleasantries. In most interactions between people, anything beyond the cursory is typically perceived as a self-indulgent wrench tossed to disrupt society’s steady supply of social lubricants. “Nobody likes a downer,” they often say, and so deceptions remain our primary currency. But, this is why naked emotions expressed in music can be so striking and fascinating to hear. In these moments, the façade is tossed aside and we can hear the darkest feelings unfiltered and clear of judgment.

In “For Emma, Forever Ago,” one-man-band Justin Vernon exposes his secrets with little more than an acoustic guitar and some atmospheric overdubs to dress up his sorrow. The Wisconsinite, who performs under the Bon Iver moniker, has made a record of long-simmering rage and regret, distilled down to quiet meditations on love and heartache that pulls no punches despite its sometimes oblique verses. This is a clear fan of Elliott Smith’s early records.

Legend says the album was recorded in an isolated cabin in the northwestern part of the Badger state, but most songs sound like Vernon was crooning from the bottom of a stone well. The acoustic guitar melodies are thin and bristle when he strums the strings. His voice usually hovers at the top of his register and is blurred by the multi-tracked backup vocals. Each track is consumed by a thick winter fog, as if each ugly sentiment is only partially emerging from memory.

The stark, vibrant guitar lines that Vernon hammers out of his beaten down axe on “Skinny Love” and “For Emma” give the immediacy that non-depressives must have to make it through work this bleak. Their outward melodicism shouldn’t be allowed to obscure slow-moving gems like “Creature Fear” and “Blindsided,” which reveal more passion through their delicate arrangements and Vernon’s mastery of lyrical inference (the imagery of crows is a common motif).

“Some day my pain will mark you,” Vernon hisses in his falsetto on “The Wolves (Act I and II),” and he does so. Such is the controlled fury of his emotions that his pain goes beyond his target and taints us all. “For Emma, Forever Ago” isn’t easy listening, but what kind of a glimpse into someone’s inner life would be.

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Vampire Weekend “Vampire Weekend”

Pity poor Wes Anderson. While the idiosyncratic director has allowed his hyper-detailed imagination to run wild to flesh out all the cerebral comedies he’s masterminded in the past decade, he’s been hamstrung in the cult-rock tunes that he runs under his best sequences. Right about now, he’s run out of David Bowie and Kinks songs, lest he sink to using Ray Davies solo tunes.

Luckily for Anderson, New York’s equally brainy Vampire Weekend have crafted 11 new songs that perfectly coincide with his outsider tastes. The tracks on the band’s debut have the charms of the best underground power-pop, but the zany, Third World eclecticism and over-the-top artiness that should excite the nerds and intimidate most frat boys. The music swerves between propulsive garage rock to reggae melodies fused with harpsichord and string sweeps to the South African soul music that graced Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” but all share an instant catchiness.

To be sure, these Columbia University grads treat each song with the dedication of an anthropological survey, tasteful infusing a little of the local flavor to give their baser Kinks workups a kick or to muddy the waters a little. Although these suburbanites have about as much authenticity as Simon had when he poached Soweto’s finest (or Clapton did with the Chicago blues gods), you can’t argue with results. The group’s self-titled debut is the best introductory course to this exotic music for all those currently wowed by Timbaland’s supposed openness.

A track like “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)” pulls all the cultural touchstones together and hybridizes it into a coherent whole. New Wave-ish computerized blips waver and merge with throbbing African rhythms and Wailers-like falsetto harmonies. A Moby Grape-style guitar breakdown concludes each chorus and resets up the groove. The band’s gorgeous bashing and thrashing on “Walcott” and “I Stand Corrected” are less ethnic than its neighboring tracks, instead relying on stately accompaniment of cello, viola and violin to create that precious otherworldliness. If the Velvet Underground would have just given in and hammered out a drumbeat like this one or twice an album, they would have been the stars they deserved to be.

Stardom is something the young fellows in Vampire Weekend should ready themselves for. The indie-music blogs have already latched onto the group, but the remarkableness of “Vampire Weekend” suggests that once these school kids have grown into their own skin, far greater and more personal works are ahead.

And if it doesn’t, the band members can rest in the knowledge that the spry harpsichord runs they studiously swiped from Anderson’s “The Royal Tennenbaums” to use on “M79” caught the master’s attention. He may return the favor by using it his next flick.

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Santogold “Santogold”

For all that electro-rock maven Santogold’s debut album achieves, her CD might just as well have been titled “The Misidentification Of Santogold.”

Her self-titled disc is the kind of hook-filled and progressive product that this Philadelphia native and former major label suit (real name: Santi White) spent years searching to uncover. And yet for all that she lays down on vinyl, the singer is continually and incorrectly compared to rapper M.I.A. While the pair might share a vaguely similar fashion sense and both know their way around a drum machine, little binds them together aesthetically. They have dispirit vocal styles (M.I.A. is a rapper, Santogold is a singer) and gravitate toward different genres, Santogold to computerized rock and pop and M.I.A. to hip-hop’s cutting edge.

Instead of M.I.A., Santogold’s vocals bear a remarkable resemblance to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O. and listeners can hear that they probably share similar record collections. The album’s leadoff track, “L.E.S. Artistes,” sounds exactly like what would happen if the Yeah Yeah Yeahs allowed producer Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio to fully orchestrate their songs with digitized cooing and fluttering.

Despite the hint of a patois in her vocals, other tracks are surprisingly peppy, ’80s pop-rock. The Cars-like “Lights Out” is proto-single consisting of streamlined New Wave guitar riffing and synthesizer whining. “You’ll Find A Way” is a beaming Go-Go’s redux with Santogold singing both Belinda Carlisle and Janet Wieldin’s vocal parts. One could easily imagine this song slipping onto “The Breakfast Club” soundtrack. Another refugee from the Reagan years, “Say Aha,” is even more aggressive with a bass rhythm that dominates and drives the song forward with pure brute force. Digitally skewered guitars and keyboards croak into this relentlessness, as do some chirping reggae horns.

The hallmarks of the rest of the record are less obvious to pin down although musicologists might label the tunes as futuristic versions of dub and electro-clash. On tracks like “Starstruck,” “Shove It” and “Unstoppable,” Santogold imagines herself a Missy Elliott-style priestess of a digitized street party in Kingston. Ducking between synthetic licks, samples and the robotic beats, she concentrates on remaining tightly in the pocket of the melody, singing precisely on the beat as if her echo-laden voice were attached to each thud. These song’s ambition and precise execution highlights her boldness as well as her talent.

Santogold is bold again when she sings a non-preaching feminist anthem on “I’m A Lady.” To yet another ’80s-theme song, she asserts her rights to make up her own decisions and to narrowly define herself. And even those who continue to define her or mislabel her, Santogold’s latest defies their misunderstanding. Great music cuts through.

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MGMT “Oracular Spectacular”

When the definitive history of the Flaming Lips is written, credit for the Oklahoma psychedelic-pop pioneers’ astonishing success during the last decade will likely be laid at multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd’s feet. But perhaps a more definitive reason for the group’s critical and commercial breakthrough after almost 20 years of obscurity was the recognition by the band members that they had to embrace baser influences. All the undulating sound effects and cartoonish drug imagery wasn’t going to matter if their songs didn’t have good pop hooks to give wind to their sails.

One album into their career, Brooklyn, N.Y.’s MGMT has made a similar realization when it comes to their own brand of acid-deranged pop. The group, which consists of college chums Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, recorded a magnificent testament to their madcap vision with “Oracular Spectacular” and borrowed the Lips producer Dave Fridmann to help pull it off.

Fridmann’s work is made considerably easier by the fact these guys know how to create perfect singles. The disco bassline of “Electric Feel” establishes a tenor of joyous dance-party funk that the duo layers with falsetto hooks, which should catch Justin Timberlake’s attention. One song later, the two shift strategy, embracing mainstream New Wave pop on “Kids.” This time, they harness a dense thicket of synthesizers and keyboards to create a thoroughly modern groove.

MGMT is also full of surprises. The tangle of acoustic guitars and VanWyngarden’s brash vocal delivery on “Weekend Wars” suggest early on that we’d hear hip-hop strummer Everlast make a guest appearance. Instead, the song unfolds into something akin to a John Lennon studio tryout from the “Sgt. Pepper” days. As additional progressive-rock keyboards and haze production chiming in, it’s apparent this is a triumphant march rather than a stoner’s chill-out music. The midtempo “The Youth,” on the other hand, has one of the best sing-along choruses of this or any other year. “The youth are starting to change on you,” Goldwasser and VanWyngarden sing like reincarnated Bee Gees. This ditty could have served as a rally cry for Barack Obama if he had wanted them to know there was something special in the occasional cigarette that he smokes.

It might be easy to pass MGMT off as ex-students having fun, horsing around with all the mind-warping gadgetry they can lay their hands on to distort and invert their songs. This underestimates the level of sophistication the duo demonstrates. These are top-notch songwriters who just happen to be infatuated with a style introduced by ’60s and ’70s drug culture and kept thriving by the raves of the ’90s.

Of course, MGMT would likely credit the Flaming Lips too for keeping this subgenre alive. You can expect Lips frontman Wayne Coyne and Drozd might feel a little fatherly pride that their young charges have taken the ball and are running with it. “Oracular Spectacular” is proof that we’re safe with these pilots guiding our next trip.

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Dr. Dog “Fate”

“Uncovering The Old” might be a song on Dr. Dog’s latest and best disc, but it’s also the guiding philosophy for this Philadelphia quintet who is heavily invested in recreating the folk, pop and country-rock canon of the late ’60s and ’70s.

Like the Fleet Foxes, Dr. Dog is consumed with developing songs that harkens back to the classics, although their material pulsates with more electric instrumentation and more relaxed aura than their fellow travelers. The songs on “Fate” aren’t as distinctive, but have a slyness and rich texture than a bunch of bar band escapees trying to rehash “Deja Vu.”

One of Dr. Dog’s key assets that propel them above the garden-variety imitators is the depth of their bench when it comes to vocalists. As the tracks come and go, the group members are able to pass the front position around to suit the song or mood as well as support one another. The alternating narrator makes not only for a more complicated interaction, but offers incentive to maintain listeners’ interest for 40 or so minutes.

And this leads to Dr. Dog’s second strength: their ensemble sound. A song like the Beach Boys pop of “The Breeze” is evidence of the collaborative spirit and almost even distribution of talent that appears to exist with the combo. The stiff bass playing and understated drumming gives unexpected dynamism to the melody while guitars and piano and keyboards play supportive roles instead of showboat. These guys function as a unit and this gives the sometimes idiosyncratic tunes a solid foundation and the best possible foot in the door.

While the group works its way around the highlights of ’60 music, it’s more of an organic mashup than aping their idols. On “The Rabbit, The Bat And The Reindeer,” singer Scott McMicken sounds like he’s demoing a Daniel Johnston gem thanks to distorted, quivering vocals, a rickety arrangement and a little melodic, piano bashing. McMicken uses his unusual vocal styling to perfect effect once again for the album’s emotional centerpiece, the ballad “From.” He leads the group through an impressive vocal exercise that channels the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” period and mixes it with a spare, country-funk song arrangement swiped from the Band. McMicken’s vocals shake as it maneuvers around the notes and in the process exudes vulnerability as his cohorts deploy sublime delayed vocal harmonies, like the call-and-response style that Billy Joel used on the theme from the Tom Hanks show “Bosom Buddies.” All this lines up to assist when McMicken lowers the song’s most biting verse about getting rejected by God and the result is just devastating.

Although Dr. Dog might draw much of its inspiration from rock’s Baby Boomers, they demonstrate a younger person’s selflessness and willingness to cooperate. And like their overlapping approach to harmonies, the group only uses the template of others to guide them. It’s ultimately the swinging melodies and distinctive voices that make “Fate” a successful revival.

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Deerhunter “Microcastle”

Atlanta’s space-rock act Deerhunter could be easily compared to what would happen if you locked the members of Radiohead in a studio for a week with only psychedelic-rock albums to listen to. This inviting premise, which the quintet has been laboring under for seven years, finally bore fruit with the group’s new LP, “Microcastle.”

The outfit, lead by singer Bradford Cox, has the core melodicism and occasional flashes of guitar brutality that is a hallmark of Radiohead’s output, but the tracks is overlaid with the daydream visions and lysergic auditory hallucinations that the acid-rock space cadets pile on. It’s a fusion that seeks to bring out the best of both parties.

“Microcastle” represents maturation in the group’s progress and a fulfillment of speculated promise. Little studio experiments are no longer larks. These are songs you can groove to. “Nothing Ever Happened” features some scintillating guitar shredding and acid-rock studio trickery that you want to extend beyond its nearly 6-minute length. “Operation” exquisitely combines a disco rhythm, choppy guitar strumming and art-rock adornments to create a remarkable version of progressive rock. It’s a freakout with a dancebeat. By contrast, “Never Stops” is a straightforward rock ditty that suggests the influence of the Pixies and others of the ’80s college-rock scene.

The album’s black sheep, “Saved By Old Times,” is one of Deerhunter’s finest. The cut unexpectedly grows out of a blues lick that becomes progressively weirder and more like They Might Be Giants’ “Don’t Start” as the song dashes to the end. As the melodic train chugs along, Cox’s lyrical imagination is given to surrealistic fantasy. “We were captured by Victorian vampires,” he coolly whispers, but doesn’t get much deeper into the plot beyond that. As he leisurely sings, everything begins to take on momentum. The bridge features two rambling monologues a la Captain Beefheart, which add a distinctive flavor of surrealism. Guitars keep trading attractive lines of notes while over effects hum and roar.

At the album’s core is a quartet of quieter, meditative songs that showcase Cox’s abilities as an emotional crooner. Tracks like “Microcastle,” “Calvary Scars,” “Green Jacket” and “Activa” each feature Cox warbling off acoustic guitar or piano or some quiet feedback while an assortment of wind chimes and other metallic junk quietly clink and pop in the background. The slower pace does begin to drag although Cox rescues each track with his beguiling singing. Each time you’re ready to give up, he sings a new line with such despondency that you want to know what will happen next.

“Microcastle” is a likely indicator of what’s next for Deerhunter. Besides greater exposure beyond the indie scene, this record suggests there’s greater heights still left for Cox and company to scale. “Microcastle” proves they have the acumen and talent to complete the journey.

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Girl Talk “Feed The Animals”

No record in 2008 divided the music world’s opinion and served as an unreassuring harbinger of pop music’s destiny as “Feed The Animals.”

The disc, a jarringly eclectic hodgepodge of 14 tracks, is the fourth full-length release by Pittsburgh mashup artist Gregg Gillis, who records under the name of Girl Talk. Although the mashup idea of fusing samples of other people’s music to make a new composition can be traced back to hip-hop’s birth in the ’70s, the concept solidified at the turn of the century as the growth of Web’s distribution capabilities coincided with audio recording and editing software becoming more publicly accessible. Danger Mouse’s “The Grey Album,” which combined elements of Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” and the Beatles’ “The White Album,” was the bellwether of this trend and so rattled copyright owners that it has never been officially released.

Unlike Danger Mouse, Gillis has taken the Bomb Squad approach to mashups. Instead of tight, clean arrangements and recurring use of samples, the Girl Talk tracks are a true, dizzying pastiche and hop and blur between song forms and licks like someone racing through all the channels with a remote control. Gillis was also surprisingly egalitarian in his tastes, patching together everyone from Rod Stewart to Melle Mel to Roy Orbison to T.I. to Twisted Sister to create his jams.

Of course, the use of such famous hooks and beats culled sometimes crudely together invites the suspicion that we’re just listening to someone’s iTunes playlist on fast forward. Old-timers might accuse Gillis of piggybacking on past hits while conventional hip-hop producers might argue his selections are too varied and his compositions are too muddled to represent anything beyond a music head with lots of spare time and a decent copy of Cool Edit.

This would be a misconception but only partially so. First, who wouldn’t be amazed to hear how on “Give Me A Beat” he perfectly connects the playout of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” with Timbaland and Fatman Scoop tag teaming on “Drop” before jerking in another direction. Gillis does this again on “Set It Off” when he carves up Jay-Z rapping so it laces into Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” or on “No Pause” when he has Public Enemy’s Chuck D. render judgment with Heart’s futuro-menace on “Magic Man.” He’s able to do this countless other times throughout “Feed The Animals,” sparking wonderment as you hear the oddly disparate samples buzz by as if they were born together. These moments show the genius of the idea as well as the hints of what could be was Gillis a stronger musical personality.

However, these cuts aren’t designed for the club despite their big beats and obvious hooks. And as coherent statements, there’s far too much ADD in production to feel that these really are “songs.” Instead, we’re hearing what could be the construed as the first nail driven into the coffin of the three-minute pop song. What’s to come is unclear. The hope of what “Feed The Animals” offers to the next generation as roadmap easily outshine any composer’s defects.

The fact that Gillis exactly replicated Radiohead’s distribution plan when it released its last disc “In Rainbows” online first with a variable payment system was one final homage to a trendsetter. Girl Talk is dedicated to this uncertain future and has thrown down the gauntlet as Gillis strives to set the trends himself.

For More Info:

This year’s honorable mentions, in no particular order, include:

  • Of Montreal “Skeletal Lamping”
  • Elbow “The Seldom Seen Kid”
  • Lil’ Wayne “Tha Carter III”
  • Blitzen Trapper “Furr”
  • Hercules and Love Affair “Hercules And Love Affair”
  • Flight of the Conchords “Flight Of The Concords”
  • Robyn “Robyn”
  • Conor Oberst “Conor Oberst”
  • Hot Chip “Made In The Dark”
  • Portishead “Third”
  • Okkervil River “The Stand Ins”
  • Beach House “Beach House”
  • Sera Cahoone “Only As The Day Is Long”
  • Q-Tip “The Renaissance”
  • TV on the Radio “Dear Science”
  • Eagles of Death Metal “Heart On”
  • She & Him “Volume 1”
  • Kanye West “808s And Heartbreak”
  • Cool Kids “The Bake Sale”
  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds “Dig, Lazarus, Dig”
  • M83 “Saturdays Youth”
  • Black Kids “Partie Traumatic”

Previous Stories:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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