BEST OF 2008
(strictly for fun and heated argument)
by Peter Jesperson
For me, 2008 was another terrific year for music, both recorded and live. I was helplessly obsessed with the first seven records here:
1. The Fireman – Electric Arguments
The 3rd collaboration under the ‘Fireman’ alias, in actuality Paul McCartney and Youth (former bassist of influential Brit punk-electronica-metal band, Killing Joke and a noted mixer/producer). But, whereas the 1st two were side-projects made up of ambient dance instrumentals, this one’s pretty much a full-on Paul McCartney album – vocal pop-rock songs with the Fireman’s previous soundscape style present only in the final four numbers. Paul sings and plays all instruments, Youth and Paul produce.
There wasn’t much advance hoopla. In fact, in September when a friend from NY told me he’d been invited to a listening party for a new McCartney record the night before, my first thought was, “How could there be a new McCartney record without me having heard about it??!!” When he explained it was a ‘Fireman’ album, I vaguely recalled having heard some scuttlebutt. When my friend informed me that they had given out advance promos and that he had snuck an extra copy for me, I was pleased but, frankly a little skeptical. Even though I’m a McCartney devotee, the other Fireman albums weren’t big favorites of mine. Still, worth me covering the cost of a Fed Ex, especially since this friend – who wasn’t normally a Paul fan - said he thought it was especially good.
Lo and behold, on the very first play, it was crystal clear that Electric Arguments is an exceptional work. Paul McCartney finally snuck up on himself and unselfconsciously made the finest record of his solo career.
Electric Arguments wins the top honors in both the McCartney canon and my personal hit parade in 2008 for a number of reasons. Among them, his peerless vocal ability - which is in absolute top form here; the dizzying instrumental virtuosity; consistency in quality and remarkable variety of the material throughout; and for the sheer feel, the exuberance of the thing! One of the reasons he did so well in terms of feel is certainly due to the spontaneity – the duo recorded each of the 13 songs, start to finish, in a day, spread out over the period of roughly a year. You should know going into it that this methodology means the material wasn’t carefully composed (there are no Maybe I’m Amazeds or Tug Of Wars or Calico Skies or You Tell Mes) but the trade-off is worth it. I wouldn’t want all his albums to use this template but here, it’s a total gas … a stupefyingly free and exciting swirl of inspired creativity and imagination. Another pal of mine out east who fell for the album as hard as I did made a comment that really stuck with me - he said, “Can you imagine how hard it is for Paul McCartney to do something this fresh?”
And what is an additional astonishing feat is that the album is completely cringe-free from start to finish – an unprecedented achievement for McCartney solo. Even on his finest work of the last 38 years – whether it’s Ram or Band On The Run or Flaming Pie or Memory Almost Full, there’s always been at least a moment or two where you wince, or say to yourself, “Geez, WHAT was he thinking?!” Electric Arguments has nary a-one of those moments.
Kicking off with the screaming rocker, “Nothing Too Much Just Out Of Sight” (like some bastard child of “Helter Skelter”), they lay down the law right outta the gate, there’s a real commitment to these performances. “Two Magpies” follows in the ”Blackbird”/“Jenny Wren” delicate acoustic finger-picking style. “Sing The Changes” sets a jubilant tone that pops up again and again as the album goes on. For me, the 3 song section - “Sun Is Shining,” “Dance ‘Til We’re High” and “Lifelong Passion” – is the best part but the entire record is truly extraordinary from start-to-finish, breathtaking, inspiring stuff. In my opinion, Electric Arguments is Paul McCartney’s single best work, post-Beatles.
2. Robert Forster – The Evangelist
It’s funny how circuitous the discovery of music can be. In May, Murry Hammond, friend and bassist of the awesome Old 97’s, calls and asks if he can stop by my (New West Records) office with an associate of his, Allison McGourty, from the fabulous UK label, LO-MAX Records (http://www.lomaxrecords.com). Allison is a mad fan of the 97’s and offers her assistance in Europe. Our discussion leads to what our respective labels are working on. She mentions a new Kevin Ayers album which excites me as I’m a longtime fan of his. I give Allison some New West music and she promises to reciprocate and send the Ayers album and says she’ll include another new release, by Robert Forster, former co-frontman of Australian band, The Go-Betweens … a band I’ve always liked peripherally but had just never heard much of. A couple of weeks later, a package arrives. I immediately put the Ayers album on and like what I hear very much. A day or two passes, I keep eyeing the Forster album. It has a kind of odd but cool cover. I put it on. It has a certain air, a thing about it that hits me right away. Interesting to look back now, I remember clearly it was song #8, “Don’t Touch Anything,” when I hear Forster sing, “Now that I know how to control myself/Now that I’ve learnt how to contain myself …” that I go completely over the top, the delivery is so dry, so funny and so poignant at the same time. I proceeded to play the album obsessively for months. During which time, naturally, I start to pick up more of his work … what a catalog he has! It’s completely overwhelming. In my 40-plus years of being a music nut, I have never had an experience like this - discovering an artist 30 years into their career with a collective catalog of 20-some albums - 10 by The Go-Betweens, 5 by Forster solo, plus singles, assorted compilations, a DVD, a Go-Betweens BIOGRAPHY fer goshsakes! Not to mention the work of his late musical partner in The G-B’s, Grant McLennan (who sadly and unexpectedly passed away in May of 2006), who has 4 solo albums … plus 3 under the name Jack Frost (McLennan’s collaboration with Steve Kilbey from the Church); I reiterate, how could I have missed all this??!! Tracking down and getting into all this material over the last 7 months has been indescribably cool (and pricey!). It’s like, instant new favorite artist of all-time. But I digress, back to The Evangelist - the writing just SLAYS me! 3 of the songs were brilliantly completed by Forster from song-sketches he posthumously found in McLennan’s notebook. And Forster addresses McLennan and his absence in other songs as well – the feeling of loss, yet being reconciled to it, an integral part of the whole. There are not enough superlatives to accurately convey just how astonishing this album is – please seek it out and see for yourself!
3. Angus & Julia Stone – A Book Like This
A brother-sister folk-rock outfit hailing from Sydney, Australia. I came across this, their debut album, in March. Found it enchanting and addictive. Couldn’t stop playing it, played it multiple times daily for months. Quickly found myself buying everything I could find by them - digital EPs, vinyl 12 & 7-inchers, the incredibly classy, limited edition, hard cover, 2-disc deluxe package including the album and a DVD of their videos. Even found myself hunting down promo-only CD singles on E-Bay. Angus and Julia come from a musical family. There’s a great story about how their father played in a band that did a lot of covers and, when they first heard the Beatles’ White Album, they were surprised to find that those songs weren’t written by their Dad! They say they “don’t listen to heaps of other music” but they remind me of things like Fairport Convention and Nick Drake. Angus has some Joni Mitchell in him, song-wise … and resembles Jorma Kaukonen, guitar-wise (circa ’69 Jefferson Airplane); and this might just be me but Julia’s sometimes exaggerated, playful, cockney accent conjures Hunky Dory-era David Bowie. The music is smart and so unusual. Overall, there’s a whimsical, childlike feel to it and they’re both excellent musicians and vocalists. Though I’ve never been especially good at predicting what will sell, for reasons I can’t exactly put my finger on (apart from them simply being great artists), I think these guys are going to be HUGE! A Book Like This was released originally in Australia in September of ’07, UK/Europe Feb ’08. Due out in the states March ’09.
4. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
Essentially the work of one man – Justin Vernon of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Arguably the most written about record of the year, I don’t know what I can add. I didn’t respond to it the first two times I heard it. But when I did connect, I had a full-blown epiphany. It’s so ungodly beautiful, I almost can’t believe my ears. A sort of folk-soul music. Justin has said, among many other things, he’s a big fan of Mahalia Jackson (not a reference we often hear in rock) and that may explain why there are elements of the spiritual song tradition in these tracks. And with most of the vocals done in falsetto, one can’t help but be reminded of another great spiritual vocalist – Curtis Mayfield.
5. Rachael Yamagata – Elephants …Teeth Sinking Into Heart
One of the most uncompromising, bull-headed, self indulgent artistic statements I’ve ever heard – and I mean that as a sincere compliment. Rachel had a vision for these songs, stuck to her guns through thick and thin and finally got them released her way. An unabashedly personal record that completely floored me on first listen and continues to do so with each subsequent play. Fantastically well written songs, deeply committed performances. A 2-CD set - an album and a 5-song E.P., the quieter material on disc one, rockers on disc two. Not the cheeriest album but one that you ought to hear.
6. The Walkman – You & Me
Brainy, majestic, ultra-cool and carefully thought out art-rock with a touch of Bob Dylan in the vocal delivery. No one else sounds like The Walkmen. I see these guys as some kind of artist-scientists: five totally focused writer-musicians who take their music very seriously while clearly having fun doing it.
7. Beachfield – Brighton Bothways
Technically released in 2007 (on a small German label), this album by latter day drummer for The Go-Betweens, Glenn Thompson (playing all instruments), is something I only discovered in September and was one of my most played things in 2008. Descendent of all the great pop-rock that came before, particularly the ultra-catchy school of Paul McCartney.
8. Mudcrutch – self-titled
This record is just plain GREAT, no-nonsense American rock ‘n’ country. And I gotta ask – does Mike Campbell EVER NOT play killer guitar? I mean ever?
9. Supergrass – Diamond Hoo Ha
6th album, carrying on in their Grand Tradition of Top-Shelf-Pop-Rock!
10. TV On The Radio – Dear Science
When one does these year end lists, one inevitably ends up relistening, sometimes really hearing something in a way it hadn’t been heard before. This is one of those records. I may not have played it a ton but every time I did, I loved it. Even more so now in reassessment. And play is still increasing in ‘09, the song “Family Tree” is a big favorite. The blend of rock, jazz and urban is seamless. This is very original stuff.
11. American Music Club – The Golden Age
Further proof this band is back at the top of its game, this is right up there with records made in their heyday. They’ve been a favorite of mine since I first saw them live in Berkeley in the fall of ’83, before they even had a record out. “Decibels And Little Pills” is about as good a song as AMC has ever done.
12. Dawn Kinnard – The Courtesy Fall
From State College, PA, temporarily transplanted to Nashville and now spends most of her time in London. One of the most original female artists I’ve come across in the last few years, her unique voice and words captivated me on first listen. A writerly, catchy sort of rock.
13. Gary Louris – Vagabonds
One of my favorite singers on the planet.
14. Elliott BROOD – Mountain Meadows
Highly original rock ‘n’ roll with a catchy, rootsy slant. Played on amplified acoustic guitars, ukeleles, banjo and harmonica (like some hopped up version of The Band), topped off with an excellent lead singer by the name of Mark Sasso. Full of exuberance, when they get excited band members seem to just spontaneously holler out loud! An expansive sound considering there are only 3 people in the group. Though this Toronto trio, adeptly produced here by my dear old friend John Critchley (frontman of the killer rock band 13 Engines, circa 1985-1997), is already great, I think their future is even brighter.
P.S. Visually, the album package is gorgeous and now that I’ve seen them live, I’m here to testify – they are very snappy dressers.
15. Glen Campbell – Meet Glen Campbell
This served as a reminder of what an incredible artist Glen Campbell is. Song selection and production courtesy of gifted producer Julian Raymond. Worth the price of admission for the cover of Paul Westerberg’s “Sadly Beautiful” alone.
16. Vic Chesnutt, Elf Power and the Amorphous Sturms – Dark Developments
A refreshing relocation of the Chesnutt thang, a wonderfully ramshackle group setting for his smart and funny songs.
17. Kevin Ayers – The Unfairground
A one-of-a-kind, deep, baritone voice, a beautiful collection of songs, his literate, wry sense of humor is fully intact. I’ve been a fan of Kevin since his work as bassist/vocalist with The Soft Machine in the late 60s and this, his first album in 15 years, is very exciting, like hearing from an old friend.
18. Centro-matic/South San Gabriel – Dual Hawks
19. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Dig!! Lazarus Dig!!!
20. Everest – Ghost Notes
21. Death Cab For Cutie – Narrow Stairs
22. Rachel Unthank & The Winterset – The Bairns
Gorgeous UK folk outfit. Great album, especially their spot-on cover of Robert Wyatt’s “Sea Song.”
23. Liz Durrett – Outside Our Gates
Her best record yet. Thoughtful, poetic songs embellished with horns in places but still as solitary a sound as there is.
24. Haley Bonar – Big Star
Folky, pop-rock stuff from Minneapolis/St. Paul, I’m madly in love with her voice. Another artist with vast potential. “Arms Of Harm” in particular was one of my favorite songs of the year.
25. Mavis Staples – Live: Hope At The Hideout
26. Lucinda Williams – Little Honey
27. R.E.M. – Accelerate
28. Freddie Stevenson – All My Strange Companions
29. El May – Sound The Key Note (E.P.)
30. Starling Electric – Clouded Staircase
31. Murry Hammond – I Don’t Know Where I’m Going But I’m On My Way
32. James Hunter – The Hard Way
33. The Cut Off – Packaged Up For Beginners
Robert Wyatt & Bertrand Burgalat – “This Summer Night” (12”)
Modern disco, impeccably sung by the divine Mr. Wyatt
These first three are incredibly strong and were among my most played things of the year:
Neil Young – Sugar Mountain – Live At Canterbury House 1968
The Move – Anthology 1966-1972
Charlie Pickett – Bar Band Americanus – The Best Of Charlie Pickett
Golden Smog - The Best Of Golden Smog – The Rykodisc Years
Little Richard – The Very Best Of
Thank You Friends - The Ardent Records Story
Ian Hunter - Behind The Shades – Recorded Live at London’s Astoria in 2004
Nick Lowe – Jesus Of Cool expanded edition
(L.A. unlesss otherwise noted)
Rhett Miller – Troubadour 1.8/Largo 4.11
Rickie Lee Jones – Echoplex 1.11
The Walkmen – Orange County Performing Arts Center - Costa Mesa, CA 2.29/Troubadour 8.21
Dan Kelly – Spaceland 3.10
Paul Kelly (w/Dan Kelly) SXSW ’08, 3 sets, Largo 3/18
Steve Earle – Hotel Café 3.24
Ray Davies – Wiltern 3.29
Old 97’s – The Tonight Show & The Highlands 4.24/Crash Mansion 6.19
C.W. Stoneking – Hotel Café 5.7
Benji Hughes – The 9:30 Club – Washington D.C. 6.6/Ram’s Head – Baltimore 6.7/The Greek Theater 6.18
Rilo Kiley – The 9:30 Club 6.6
Supergrass – The Avalon 7.12
Ponderosa – The Georgia Theater – Athens, GA 8.14
Dead Confederate – The Caledonia – Athens, GA 8.14
Randall Bramblett – The Melting Point – Athens, GA 8.15
Bon Iver/A.A. Bondy – Troubadour 8.25 & 26
Centro-matic – Spaceland 9.1
Bob Dylan – Santa Monica Civic 9.2
Robert Forster – Great American Music Hall – San Francisco 9.10
Tara Holloway – Hotel Café 9.17
Fleet Foxes – The El Rey 9.23
Simon Lynge – Hotel Café 9.24
Tegan And Sara – The Henry Fonda Theater 10.16
Haley Bonar – Tangier 10.21
Corb Lund – The Mint 10.29
Angus & Julia Stone – Hotel Café 11.18
The Abdomen – Hotel Café 11.29
Joe Pug – Hotel Café 11.24
James Walsh (of Starsailor) – Hotel Café 12.8
Eliiott BROOD – The Knitting Factory 12.9
IN A CLASS ALL BY THEMSELVES
Mark Olson & Gary Louris – Ready For The Flood
I don’t usually write about records I’m directly involved with for these ‘Best Ofs’ but, as this one was made for another label and it only came to New West later (and pretty much finished), I’m making an exception here. I had been privy to snippets of the recordings early on and it was clear something exceptional was happening so I was positively giddy when the project came our way! The story of Mark and Gary’s split-up in 1995 and eventual reconnecting is well documented. The result, this album, is as good as anything they have ever done. They’ve created an album that displays their separate years of experience as well as revisiting many of their original strengths. Instead of the highly produced sound of The ‘Hawks, it’s more spontaneous and raw, capturing the two of them singing live, nose-to-nose. An organic masterpiece. Songwriting doesn’t get better than this and their two voices together again is a revelatory experience.
Eisley – performance with The Northwest Symphony and The Total Experience Gospel Choir – Seattle 11.7
When I heard Eisley had been personally invited by composer/conductor Mateo Messina to perform with a symphony orchestra and a choir, I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. The program was entitled An American Symphony, specially written for this annual benefit to raise money for The Seattle Children’s Hospital and held at the elegant Benaroya Hall. Though Eisley only performed 3 full songs and participated in a few others, it was well worth the trip. To hear and see them in this setting was an amazing experience. So over the top, at times I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?
Jennifer (my wife) and I have been massive fans of legendary Australian writer/performer Paul Kelly for many years (http://www.paulkelly.com.au/). In 2004, visionary Australian music business vet, Bruce Milne from the Melbourne label Infidelity, sent me the debut album by Paul’s nephew, Dan Kelly and his band The Alpha Males, entitled ‘Sing The Tabloid Blues’ – BINGO! Dan’s brilliant too!! (http://www.myspace.com/dankellysongs) We proceeded to rant and rave about Dan’s music to all who would listen. In trying to assist him getting his music heard, we get to know Dan via e-mail, telephone calls and when he visited the states. Fast-forward to March of ’08. Dan & Paul were coming to play at The SXSW Music Festival in Austin, TX along with some other, assorted club shows around the U.S. (including Largo in L.A.). I catch 3 of their sets in TX and am blown away by how well they play together. Dan is nothing short of astonishing as a harmony singer and lead guitarist on all our beloved PK material. When they arrive in L.A. the day before the Largo show, Dan calls and suggests we have dinner. I figure these guys have seen a lot of hotel rooms and restaurants, maybe a home-cooked meal is in order. Dan checks with Paul and his manager, Bill Cullen and they’d all be delighted to accept our invitation. Now obviously, Jennifer and I are grown adults but we felt like 5 year-olds at Christmastime … it was a surreal experience, we were so excited to have a true hero of ours coming to our house. Naturally, Paul is the perfect gentleman, puts us at ease immediately and we all had a splendid evening of listening to music, food, drink and conversation. One of the great experiences of my life (our lives).
Robert Forster & band – The Great American Music Hall – San Francisco 9.10
After falling head-over-heels-in-love with Robert Forster’s album, The Evangelist in May, I discover he is coming to the states in September, only hitting 4 cities, NONE of which is L.A. So, a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do - I made plans to catch the San Francisco show on September 10th, at one of my favorite venues The Great American Music Hall. Playing with him were 2 latter day members of The Go-Betweens - Adele Pickvance on bass/backing vocals and Glenn Thompson who, though he had been the drummer of The G-Bs, was playing guitar and singing backups. One Matthew Harrison very ably handled the drum seat. As Forster said when he came on stage alone to start the show, “It’s going to be a long program,” and that it was - 2.5 hours, 26 songs. It was a remarkable performance. Adele is a fabulous bass player and an even better singer. I had also recently been turned onto Glenn’s solo material (under the band name Beachfield) so it wasn’t surprising that his guitar playing and singing were also excellent. Forster himself was a hugely impressive, arty figure. It was the first show of the trip and there was a certain tentativeness to the first set – the solo portion of 10 songs was a wee bit stiff but wonderful nonetheless, including opener “Something For Myself” (from the G-B’s 2003 Bright Yellow Bright Orange album) and an unexpectedly early-in-the-set appearance of Evangelist album closer “From Ghost Town.” He brought the band on one at a time beginning with Adele who joined him for “Clouds” (from G-B’s 1988 album 16 Lover’s Lane) and “Born To A Family” (from G-B’s 2005 album Oceans Apart). And on it went. One fucking fabulous song after another. To be able to see Forster live for the first time in the very thick of my obsession, I just can’t help but marvel at the syncronicity of it all! There was an umistakeable camaraderie onstage. Being the first time the group had played in the states since Grant McLennan’s death in 2006, it must have been quite emotional performing the G-Bs’ songs, in particular for Glenn who did some of the guitar breaks Grant used to do. As the show progressed, the band got tighter and Forster loosened up, smiling frequently, adding hand gestures and body moves that were dramatic and humorous. His delivery veers from animated to droll, his voice at times conjuring his heroes – Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, Lou Reed (I hear some Neil Young in there too). Set highlights? Where to begin?! From the Forster albums - “If It Rains,” “Demon Days,” “The Evangelist,” “121,” “Heart Out To Tender”; From The G-Bs’ - “Dive For Your Memory,” “Spring Rain,” “Darlinghurst Nights,” “Love Is A Sign,” “Head Full Of Steam” and the totally rockin’ set closer, “Here Comes The City.” Two encores later, Robert said, “This is our last song, one that Grant and I both loved …” and they closed with San Francisco band The Beau Brummels’ “Don’t Talk To Strangers.” A few of us who hung out after the show were lucky to meet and talk to the band who were as cordial as can be. Robert, Adele and Glenn signed my copy of The Evangelist and I left, happily dazed, with all of my expectations exceded (http://www.robertforster.net/). Eternal gratitude to my old pal Frank Riley and Dawn Holliday for the front and center seat!