The best underground, indie and just-plain-weird albums of the year
by Adam Perry
So I’m on holiday break from Naropa University and just ducked into a Chinese restaurant after walking through a rare hailstorm along San Francisco Bay between the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge. The notion that I don’t subscribe to the infamous mantra “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” hit me near the end of my wet, chilly walk, listening to the Fleet Foxes’ brilliant eponymous debut, which tops the inevitable year-end list you’ll see below. Some people I know in Boulder would definitely find it sensical to dance after seeing something like Coit Tower or the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, and I find it especially sensical after a musically powerful year like 2008 to use pen, paper and then computer to share my musings on some of the most moving, unique and unforgettable records of the past 12 months. I only hope my nose stops running before my thoughts do.10) Death Vessel, Nothing is Precious Enough For Us (Sub Pop)
The first of three stellar Sub Pop bands on my 2008 list, the stealthily named, adorable-but-strange Death Vessel is captained by Joel Thibodeau, a sweet, girlish-sounding singer/songwriter based out of Providence, R.I. Nothing Is Precious Enough For Us is the charming sophomore long-play from the group, and it’s a touching alt-folk/pop album (with a hint of electronica) that grows more impressive and enjoyable with each listen. Soulful in the saccharine sense on the surface, this “new weird America” collection of Thibodeau-penned originals includes some of the most bewildering lyrics of 2008: “block my eye off the vine / relief from a moth-eaten mood / tap my spine / that grapevine’s been creeping all over my hue.”9) Spiritualized, Songs in A & E (Castle)
Once again, J. Spaceman has “got a fire in his soul,” “a hurricane inside his veins,” and wants to “drink himself into a coma.” Then again, he wants to “stay forever.” It might be a confusing mixture of sadness and elevating emotion, but Spaceman (aka Jason Pierce) returned in 2008 with a gospel-tinged LP that lived up to the epic reputation Spiritualized began with in 1992’s sprawling Lazer Guided Melodies. The English space-rock band employed a 12-member choir for Songs in A & E, peppering what can only be called depressant-addled love songs about hurt, obsession, war and drugs with eloquent horns, strings and brilliantly textured vocals. Spiritualized’s concerts have long been known as spiritual experiences, but A & E reaffirmed the fact that the symphonic pill-rock group’s grand, ambitious studio recordings are not mere souvenirs.8) Dr. Dog, Fate (Park the Van)
Philadelphia still has soul. “Why you think we need ‘Amazing Grace’ just to tell it like it is?” Dr. Dog asked on their breakthrough LP Fate, which comes off as a kind of marriage between the tongue-in-cheek silky pop of Steely Dan and the dusty Americana of The Band, although the Philly group is often wrongly compared to ’90s indie-rockers like Pavement and Guided by Voices. Dueling front-men/songwriters Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken playfully compete for attention on Fate — much like local rockers Nathaniel Cook and Robert Stiefel of Ego Vs. Id — and prove (along with the thumping old-school drums and lo-fi guitar and keys) that Dr. Dog has long deserved the mass media attention they’ve finally received in 2008. 7) Deer Tick, War Elephant (Feow!)
The 22-year-old Providence, R.I. indie-crooner John McCauley III made a lot of noise in the past year with War Elephant, an album he self-financed, co-produced, and even played most of the instruments on back in 2007 under the name Deer Tick. It’s a dark, cynical album in the spirit of Hank Williams and Tonight’s The Night-era Neil Young (i.e., Neil Young tequila). “There’s gotta be some old recipe,” McCauley sings on “Art Isn’t Real,” “‘cause I gotta get drunk / I gotta forget about some things.” But you can’t help smiling (and feeling the urge to crack open a Pabst Blue Ribbon) listening to the jagged basement country-rock of War Elephant.
6) Mogwai, The Hawk is Howling (Matador)
It’s been called “post-rock,” but the point is that Scotland’s Mogwai really does put most other instrumental indie bands to shame, wandering through alternately explosive and psychedelically swerving mysterious rock excursions. “The Sun Smells Too Loud” highlights The Hawk is Howling, a sprawling collection of diverse, sci-fi soundtrack-worthy tunes that fortunately fall short of what guitarist Dominic Aitchison and drummer Martin Bulloch call “serious guitar music.” You’ll find no dick-swinging solos here; just an impressive juxtaposition of churning heavy-rock and starry-eyed atmospheric haze.
5) Bob Dylan, Telltale Signs (incl. the “lost” disc 3) (Columbia)
It’s hard to argue that Bob Dylan’s best studio work since about 1975 hasn’t all been with producer-extraordinaire Daniel Lanois, who pleasingly clashed with Dylan on 1989’s hit-or-miss Oh Mercy and then struck pure gold on 1997’s Time Out of Mind, which won the subsequent Grammy for best album. The outtakes, demos, alternate versions, etc. from those records, plus Love & Theft, appear on Telltale Signs along with some interesting live tracks. There’s a hint of reggae in a brilliant alternate version of “Mississippi”; a hint of nearly every song on Time Out of Mind on “Dreamin’ Of You”; and a hint of greatness on songs like “Red River Shore,” which would have been out of place but not out of it’s league on Dylan’s last three releases. 4) The Black Angels, Directions to See a Ghost (Light in the Attic)
The Black Angels’ 2005 long-play Passover updated the tribal acid-stomp of ’60s freak-out specialists like the 13th Floor Elevators and the Velvet Underground for the ’00s, melding the Austin group’s evil blues and sly, deep (real) country influence with cutting lyrics about war, heartbreak, the afterlife and the unknown. This year’s Directions to See a Ghost improved upon that quasi-backwoods Stooges-meets-Warlocks blueprint with a collection of more varied, tastefully progressive psych-rock tracks like “Doves” and “You in Color” that further cemented the Black Angels’ cult stardom. The powerful band’s subsequent euphoric concerts in Denver (June) and Boulder (October) bordered on the spiritual… for those of us who like the dark stuff. 3) The Helio Sequence, Keep Your Eyes Ahead (Sub Pop)
Portland’s Helio Sequence is an ecstatic force in concert, drummer Benjamin Weikel and a singer/guitarist Brandon Summers seeming to meet each other musically and telepathically while loads of samples and sequences beep, buzz and explode around them. With Keep Your Eyes Ahead, the duo’s fourth album, The Helio Sequence matured from experimental twin-headed electro-indie juggernaut to serious songsmiths who happen to be surrounded by stimulating beeps and buzzes. From the exhilarating bounce of the title track to the two Dylan-esque acoustic tracks, Keep Your Eyes Ahead confirmed The Helio Sequence as one of the finest rock bands to bless the West.2) Jolie Holland, The Living and the Dead (Anti)
Even though the honey-voiced Jolie Holland was coughing between songs (and sometimes between lines) and far too under the weather to do an encore when she played the Boulder Theater in October, it was as if a scarlet songstress from the roaring ’20s had stepped out of a time machine to show us the meaning of “grace.” Holland has entranced music lovers worldwide with her old-school alt-folk solo albums for the better part of this decade, but the hipster-leaning country-soul of The Living and the Dead, featuring the inventive guitar-work of Marc Ribot and M. Ward, is miles ahead of everything else Holland has done since leaving Canada’s Be Good Tanyas for San Francisco, in terms of cohesion, fullness and edge. With its poignant, heart-filled and shadowy ballads and easy-rockers touching upon Jack Kerouac, drug-addicted friends, Hurricane Katrina and Lower East Side flophouses, The Living and the Dead is Holland’s masterpiece… so far. 1) The Fleet Foxes, The Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
The good thing about the current, sad state of popular music — where radio is owned by corporations and major labels are run like corporations — is that over a period of a few months in 2008, we got to see visionary 22-year-old Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold bring overflowing audiences at relatively tiny venues like the Hi-Dive and the Oriental Theatre to authentic states of rapture by commandeering his band’s epochal emerald goodness. In the ’60s or ’70s, Pecknold & Co. — with their tender, timeless, woodsy folk psalms — might have seen big-time success on the level of CSNY. Quite simply, the Fleet Foxes’ beautiful eponymous debut — full of original and honest folk-rock, Laurel Canyon-esque suites and stirring lyrics and harmonies that wouldn’t be out of place in the 1960s or 1760s — is a modern mutiny in its simultaneous instillations of belonging and alienation based in sincere artistic nobility. Don’t be surprised if you see this album topping “Best of the Decade” lists in a few years.