Saturday, January 03, 2009

Top 20 Of 2008: 20 - 16

20. Deerhunter - Microcastle

It is rarely a good thing for albums to flirt with mythology before they are even released, particularly when those albums are described as “taking the band into the next phase” or “raising the bar.” It usually ends in unmet expectations and disappointment.

No so with Microcastle. It leaked half a year before its release and was hailed as a masterpiece, and it largely lives up to those expectations. Bradford Cox is a songwriter in the vein of Stephen Malkmus and Bob Pollard, not content to let his melodies off too easy. They must compete with the texture and complication that he gives them through noisier elements. The meleodies thus have to be incredibly strong in order to shine through the haze.

If there’s a fault I can find with the album, it’s that it’s a bit too divided. The opening and closing sections are fantastically diverse, but the middle of the record is an ambiguous wash of drone and noise. It’s interesting, but it would be a lot more interesting if Cox had crafted those fragments into songs. Despite this, however, Microcastle is a fantastic listen, an album full of great songs that are somehow better as a whole than they are as component parts.

19. Army Navy - Army Navy

From the very first drum roll on Army Navy’s debut album, you sense that these guys live on the sunny side of life. Insanely poppy hooks and near-bubblegum sensibilities abound, and it’s great listening. It’s also a great antidote to the sad bearded dudes who are dominating indie music of late.

There’s not a lot of great lyrical content here. Frontman Justin Kennedy is an alum of Pinwheel, Ben Gibbard’s band before starting Death Cab for Cutie, and it’s clear who had the literary chops. But Army Navy more than make up for it with songs that transcend their sometimes cheesy peppiness and never devolve into a sugary mess. There’s a lot of sophistication in these songs. It’s like if Fountains of Wayne never got famous and dulled the edges of this music.

While the album is not incredibly diverse, they do manage to sound almost pensive on songs like “Slight of Hand” and “In the Lime,” slowing things down without getting boring. It was a frequent soundtrack to my Southern California summer. Guitars don’t get much more jangly than this.

18. Cat Power - Jukebox

Nobody does covers quite like Chan Marshall. She wraps her choices in her shimmery haze, evening out the inconsistencies without dumbing everything down. Every pick seems incredibly logical when you hear it, even when they’re as disparate as Hank Williams and James Brown.

Marshall has become an incredibly confident vocalist, and it’s her voice that’s the real attraction here. Once you get past the novelty of some of the changes she makes to these songs, you’re left with a sense of just how powerful her singing has become. The band is great, but she is always the star here.

It’s hard to pick standout tracks, but it’s actually her own “Metal Heart” that caught my ear the most. It displays a lot of maturity as a songwriter, which is particularly gratifying considering her tantrum-laden past. It also makes me able to say, for the first time, that I’m genuinely looking forward to the next Cat Power record.

17. School of Seven Bells - Alpinisms

Women with ethereal voices always get me, but my fascination usually fades with time. All the pretty voices in the world can’t make up for a lack of good songs. Thankfully, Alpinisms has both in spades.

Given guitarist Benjamin Cutis’s time with The Secret Machines, it’s no surprise that School of Seven Bells manages to find great songs in the midst of atmospherics. While not as metronomic and measured as the songs of his former band, the songs on Alpinisms show every bit as much maturity and willingness to stretch beyond convention. There’s a depth to the lyrics that lifts the songs above the usual New Age trappings that drag the genre down.

Above all, the voices of the Deheza sisters make this album. They duck and weave around each other, mixing in ways that suggest that they have been singing together since they were little girls. That familiarity is what makes this album shine.

16. She & Him - Volume 1

Maybe Volume I is just a delicacy, a fluffy record made by a pretty actress who happens to also have a pretty voice. Maybe it is just a retread of AM radio melodies and girl group sentimentality. Maybe it is the least accomplished work M. Ward has done.

Or maybe it’s a fantastic rediscovery of a genre that is often imitated but rarely done well. Maybe M. Ward’s arrangements indicate a maturity that extends beyond his usual virtuosity and propels him into a new phase as a musician. Maybe his guitar has never sounded as good as it does with Zooey Deschanel’s voice.

Whatever you believe about this record, it’s clear that these guys are having a great time making music together. This is a joyous, energetic album that still makes me smile when I listen to it. And for what it’s worth, their version of “You Really Gotta Hold On Me” might just top the original.


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