The countdown of the Best Albums of 2008 continues…
20. The Hold Steady: Stay Positive
Craig Finn is on a roll. While I don’t think this necessarily The Hold Steady‘s their best album, each of them invoke so many moods that I’m constantly going back and forth between them. Of course, half the fun is digging through the circular references to past albums, the toss-away pop-culture references (“Saint Joe Strummer”, the “cutters”, etc.) and the endless ways he seems to be able to write interesting stories that start out with the protagonist going out to get hammered and (hopefully) hook up, which usually leads to some reflective perspective from the end point. Stay “positive” indeed!
“Sequestered In Memphis” is ten times as good as it’s title, end epitomizes the Hold Steady formula that knocks me out – driving guitar rock, tasteful (and tasty) organ/piano accents, stuttering rhythms, verbose but invigorating lyrics spewed from a guy who sounds like the Counting Crows’ Adam Durwitz channeling Dylan. On the title track, he’s eerily reminiscent of another verbose poet-turned-rocker, Jim Carroll. But perhaps Finn nails the best description of the band in the opening lines of the first song: “me and my friends are like the drums on “Lust For Life”…
19. Derby: Posters Fade
An impressively broad album, Posters Fade sounds like collaboration between Big Star and Wilco. The melodies are strong and varied, the arrangements diverse, and Derby avoids the common tricks and traps most bands feel safe with. There are layers of vocals and instruments building sonic tapestries which tease a million classic pop bands (Spoonful, Byrds, Kinks, ELO, etc.) before they unfold and lead to the juicy melody at the core. The production is dynamic yet varied enough throughout the album to never hint at anything repetitive and basic enough with which to pigeonhole them. Every track surprises.
And in their more simple, stripped down attempts, it’s as if a Simon and Garfunkel tribute was being hosted by members of The Shins and Snow Patrol. Consider “Episode”, whose gentle acoustic rhythm, sweet vocal and lilting pedal steel guitar frame the ironic subject matter (“I’ll wait here on my own/ I’ll go alone/sure beats hanging out with you instead”). I hear a million influences, every song is different, yet somehow through all of this, they craft an identity that’s irresistible – how do they do that? I don’t know and I don’t care – this is brilliant stuff and it only gets better with repeated spins.
18. Ray Davies: Working Man’s Cafe
No, it’s not the great lost Kinks album many of us hope for, and yes, it’s pretty low-key overall, no Dave Davies wanking to be found. But when you stop and think about the best material Ray has done over the past twenty years, hasn’t the vast majority of it been more in this vein anyway? You can’t expect the man to do cartwheels and stage splits forty-plus years later (especially after he gets shot in the leg…but I digress.) Consider this a phone call from an old friend who used to tell you wonderful stories about other people, and now decided to tell you some about him.
Davies’ acerbic wit and sharp social observations are still keen, and his swipes at modern English life are not that far removed from his classic early material, except that the youthful dreamers and optimists have been replaced by the wiser, older pragmatists. He’s still the little guy facing off against the government or big (now global) corporations. The album doesn’t rock as much as it does chug along, but I don’t mind – Ray Davies is a person I always want to listen to intently. I don’t know if any of the songs will stay in my head forever – you have no idea how many Kinks Klassics are burned into my skull – but I suspect “Peace In Our Time” might be the appropriate best bet.
17. Graham Day and the Gaolers: Triple Distilled
What if Cream decided to pursue the path of a pop band rather than the blues? Not that anyone would ever confuse Jack Bruce or Graham Day with light and fluffy melodies, but many classic rock and roll singles did have blues chops at their core. But much like the edits of “Sunshine Of Your Love” and “White Room” – not to mention the first several Who and Yardbirds singles that are also a clear influence – Day is able to fuse the mania into an infectious and memorable three minutes per shot.
This is not a subtle record – “Glad I’m Not Young” comes careening out of the speakers fueled by jangling guitar chords, foot stomping 4/4/ beat and drums from The Church Of Keith Moon, and it never lets up. You’ll barely have a chance to catch your breath blasting through thirteen amped-up tracks that sound like lost singles made by classic British rock bands; retro-cool yet fresh and exciting at the same time (well, until that sitar showed up…) Day was a founding member of The Prisoners, spent time with Billy Childish in Thee Mighty Ceasars and more recently wowed us as part of the Solar Flares. This is his second album under this moniker, and he’s clearly still at the top of the game. If Mike Myers ever makes another Austin Powers movie, he’d be smart to use this as the soundtrack.
16. The Venus Infers: The Truth About The Venus Infers
Wow…I had heard a couple of their earlier releases and nothing prepared me for this. Hate to say it, but the departure of vocalist Trisha Smith was a blessing in disguise. Freed to take the lead, Davis Fetter bellows out minor chord anthems with the energy of a young Bono. The music, however, is deeper, operatic, bombastic and majestic, and with Fetter throwing in the kitchen sink vocally (delicate falsetto to arena-sized Springsteen at the drop of a hat) it is an album of non-stop passion and energy.
Of course, if the songs sucked that would negate the whole enchilada. Basically six songs long with an intro and outro, Truth is mesmerizing from the first note on the baited hook until you’re gently wriggled loose and dropped back into the water. As you listen to the middle songs you can almost imagine them deciding to drop-kick Coldplay, The Killers and Radiohead in order by beating them at their own game. “Waterfalls” is one of the prettiest songs I’ve heard all year and Thom Yorke will retire if he hears it.
Check back daily this week for more of the countdown. The list will be updated on the MUSIC tab.