It is the time of year when children and grown-ups alike are struck with the urge to take an accounting of numerical time. Thusly....
I’m just going to do some rough categories this year of some of the music I listen to most (see also the Best of 2007 here).
I had an odd year in music, filled with a lot of older Asian music – Thai pop; Indonesian gamelan-inflected psychedelic and prog (long live the great Guruh Gypsy’s 1974 masterpiece!); a revisiting of the legendary Cambodian Rocks and new discoveries in wartime garage psych from Cambodia and Vietnam and even Laos; some new Dylanesque folk coming out of China; Nepalese punk; old Chinese show tunes; and Korean and Japanese blues. Reiko Kudo, of the Japanese group Maher Shalal Hash Baz, produced some nice goodies on her own.
The great discovery of the year for me is nearly 40 years old: the Icelandic psych/prog group Óðmenn and their album of the same name from 1970. Awesome.
Latin. There was abundant Latin music on the plate exploring new ways of taking up traditional musical forms. There was the wave of old and new cumbia that washed over the more experimental outskirts of Latin music (check out Chicha Libre’s Sonido Amazonico, and Chancha Vía Circuito’s Rodante). But it came from all over Latin America: the Mexican punk band, Ratas del Vaticano (Mocosos Patéticos); the Venezuelan folk pop of Domingo en Llamas (Fledermaus); the new tango of Natalia Mallo and the Gato Negro Quinteto (Tango EP); the tejano cumbia of Grupo Fantasma (Sonidos Gold); Bronx River Parkway’s latin funk (San Sebastian 152); Banda de Turistas from Argentina (Mágico Corazón Radiofónico); and once again the Argentinean mashup artist Villa Diamante. Un Día by Juana Molina makes the main list – she’s likely to be on the list every year she makes a record. Oh, and the tune "Fala Tanto" by Open Foraina and Jack Quiñónez (from their 7") is one hot dance number - throw this one on and watch what everyone in the room does.
Brazilian. I adore Brazilian music as far back in time as recordings go, but it does seem collectively to go through creative phases. Although I don’t think we’re currently in a waxing phase, there were bits and pieces this year worth exploring further: Marcelo Camelo (Sou); Eddie’s Carnaval No Inferno is one of the best from the country; Márcio Local’s samba soul (Samba Sem Nenhum Problema); Rogério Skylab’s Brazilian rock (Skylab 8); DJ Tudo’s hip hop/house (Garrafada); the indie rockers, Júlia Says (self-titled EP); and the off-center psych-funk instrumentalists, Burro Morto (Varadouro).
French. Although there will be disagreement from the club crowd and from Filles Sourires, France had a slow year overall. The standouts, however, made the main list. Cherbourgienne Françoiz Breut can do no wrong and A l’Aveuglette once again proves it. The equally lovely Marianne Dissard, expatriatedly of Tucson, also produced fine work in L’Entredeux. Barbara Carlotti’s L’Ideal also did it for me. And one of the best-of-the-best is Mathieu Boogaerts’ I Love You.
Classics. Some of the older crowd came up with terrific, fresh work. The Pretenders (listen to the knockdown “Almost Perfect”), for example, as well as The Legendary Pink Dots, the great Al Green, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, and Alejandro Escovedo. And I’m really glad to see the tragic French powerhouse Noir Désir back with a new single and apparently an album to come in 2009.
Pop. Pop was a mixed bag this year and, for me, most of the indie stuff runs together into a murky slosh of musical conformism, however much the music earnestly tries to say otherwise. But… Deerhoof made another fine album with Offend Maggie and they make it onto the list, up near the top in fact. I also agree with the cool kids that Shearwater’s Rook is indeed a great record. Lykke Li made the catchiest pop album of the year in Youth Novels. I even like the much-ballyhooed Santogold and her self-titled record. A number of lesser-known bands show great promise for the coming years: Rocket Surgery; Tame Impala from Australia; Zoo Animal (try the stripped-down “My Lord"); Scotland's Eagleowl; Snake Flower II; the psych folk of Finland's Lau Nau; Spain's Cuchillo; and Colourmusic. On the electronic side of pop, Portugal’s Gala Drop and the Egyptian-Italian breaks of Mutamassik demand serious headphone time.
Miscellaneous. And then for oddities, try Thiaz Itch's stuff (get it free here). Or Ergo Phizmiz's neo-Dadaist Handmade in the Monasteries of Nepal /Eloise My Dolly. And, of course, the masterpiece: the digital 7" via WFMU, People Like Us & Ergo Phizmiz' Music to Run Fast By, which sounds exactly like the title (more freebies here). That'll take care of you.
Alas, I’m babbling. Time to commit to the best. These are in no particular order since I have no idea how to rank them numerically, and I also can't say that many of the above albums shouldn't also be on this list. Nonetheless, here’s my stab at...
The Best of 2008
This unassuming fellow made one of the best records of the year:
* This is Joose Keskitalo from Finland. The album, which I highly recommend, is Joose Keskitalo ja Kolmas Maailmanpalo, a simple work of gorgeous little folk pop melodies. They're in Suomi. I hope he’s not singing about axe murderers or cheez whiz. Good luck finding the record outside of Finland.
* James Hunter, The Hard Way. The song that has stayed with me much of the year is the Englishman ’s lovely “Carina." I’ve hummed this beautiful piece of northern soul since July and have never once wanted it out of my head. Cheers, James.
* Mathieu Boogaerts, I Love You. Mentioned above, this is a fine work of French pop with a modestly experimental side. Really enjoyable, constantly interesting, and non-coying, despite his goofy imagery.
* Françoiz Breut, A l’Aveuglette. I think it is now clear that Françoiz is the true musical heiress of the beauty and brilliance of Françoise Hardy and Brigitte Fontaine. Françoiz will be touring in the US in 2009 with Marianne Dissard opening. The best of France right there.
* Juana Molina, Un Día. Perhaps an acquired taste, but to acquire it is to adore it. The labels applied to her music don't do it justice. Pop unfolding wintry psychedelic trances.
* Larkin Grimm, Parplar. Anarchist folk, somehow crossing into "a Tolkienian spaghetti western." Maybe. One of the most interesting voices of 2008.
* Pierre Bastien, Visions of Doing. Can we call these jazz compositions? The French composer and his electronic robots create a musical world detached from the known universe. Brilliant and strange. For more, see here.
* Dungen, 4. The Swedish garage-psych rockers create a more melodic album than their previous records. I think it works just fine. It was always going to be difficult to top Ta Det Lugnt, but I've really enjoyed 4.
* Daniel Melingo, Maldito Tango. I'm not big on tango, but when I heard Melingo's skewed Tom Waits-ian take on the tradition, I was ready for long, malbec-fueled dinners with the artist and whoever makes up his inner circle. This is life-grabbing music that adores life-grabbing music.
* Deerhoof, Offend Maggie. One of these days, we might just call Deerhoof one of the great rock bands of our times. Oh, maybe not. But who else would it be?
* Shearwater, Rook. The Austin-based folkish rock indie dabblers something or another (spun off from the band Okkervil River) - toss in an ornithologist - are justifiably praised for this perhaps unintentionally symphonic record.
* Toumani Diabaté, The Mandé Variations. The aging Malian kora player makes another beautiful record, a history of African music and hommage to his peers built into each song. This is Grammy-nominated, which might normally imply that this is insipid "world music." It's not. A nice review from Audiversity here.
* Don Cavalli, Cryland. The Parisian gardener makes a stunning little record of swamp blues filtered through tilted Parisian pop. Oh, happiness.
* Flying Lotus, Los Angeles. This is what post-hip hop looks like. And it turns out to be a fascinatingly complex piece of experimental electronica.
Support and enjoy. Happy New Year.