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Steve Holtje: December 21, 2008

Best New Rock Albums of 2008, part 1

I will spend at least four weeks looking back at the best releases of the year.

  1. Getatchew Mekurya & The Ex – Moa Anbessa (Terp)

    Like a lot of music lovers, my knowledge of Ethiopian music comes from the Ethiopiques series; thanks to volume 14, I became a fan of tenor saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya (sometimes spelled Mekuria). Negus of Ethiopian Sax (1972 plus a late ‘50s bonus track) is one of the top-three must-own Ethiopiques CDs. I was bowled over by his great individuality and his big sound. So as much as I love The Ex, the idea of a bunch of left-wing punks (well, that’s how they started out, though certainly they’ve evolved in unpredictable and unusual ways since then) acting as Mekurya’s band had seemed an odd fit, and fraught with potential for disappointment and disaster. But then here came their new album together (I should’ve checked out their slightly older DVD), and it is a magnificent melding of cultures. Negus of Ethiopian Sax remains the superior document, but Moa Anbessa is a great introduction to Mekurya for rock fans. The Ex doesn’t cut their intensity a bit – heck, they need it all to keep up with Mekurya, still going strong in his seventies. This is a powerful, rocking record that will thrill even listeners who’ve never bought a “world music” album in their lives.

  2. Patti Smith/Kevin Shields – The Coral Sea (Pask)

    To quote from my review for “This meeting of punk icon Smith and My Bloody Valentine mastermind Shields is an epic celebration of Smith’s friend Robert Mapplethorpe, the controversial photographer who was her roommate in her early years in New York. After he died of AIDS in 1989, she eulogized him with a long poem cycle, The Coral Sea, by turns ecstatic and heart-rending…. Mostly she reads, occasionally she sings; sometimes she sounds like she’s about to cry. Shields accompanies her with sustained electric guitar tones, sounding at times like an organ. Some people might think that two CDs of an emotionally draining poetry reading lacking melodies or beats couldn’t rock, but believe me, even though you won’t dance to this, its utterly transfixing catharsis will rock your soul.”

  3. M83 – Saturdays=Youth (Mute)

    M83’s move towards more vocals increases considerably and successfully thanks to new vocalist/keyboardist Morgan Kibby, not only because her breathy vocals are sexily intoxicating, but also for the variety she brings. Leader Anthony Gonzalez’s love of vintage keyboards remains, but he has not just moved more towards pop, he’s also honed his songwriting skills and acquired a better sense of structure (all of which makes me classify this outside of electronica, for which I’ll have a separate list). Yeah, the chiming guitars (returning drummer/guitarist/bassist/keyboardist Loic Maurin) and chord progression of “Graveyard Girl” keep threatening to turn into “Money Changes Everything,” but that fits well with the ‘80s love displayed throughout. Gonzalez shows he’s still got the ability to craft lush, dreamily drifting instrumental soundscapes on the closing “Midnight Souls Still Remain.”

  4. Shearwater – Rook (Matador)

    This is the second album on which Jonathan Meiburg (Okkervil River) has written all the songs, and his talent continues to grow and deepen. There’s a chamber-music sense of intimacy to the intricate arrangements (including brass, glockenspiel, strings, and clarinet), but also a few avant-garde moments, notably the instrumental “South Col.” Most of all, there’s Meiburg’s distinctive singing, including his evocative falsetto. As I wrote elsewhere, it’s an “emotionally rich, profoundly beautiful, mostly contemplative but occasionally rousing record.”

  5. Bell Hollow – Foxgloves (five03)

    To quote from my review for Interborough Rock Tribune: “There is a dark, brooding strain of British ‘80s rock running from the Cure and the Smiths through Chameleons to Kitchens of Distinction that…doesn’t get as much critical respect as post-punk or shoegaze…. Much of [Bell Hollow’s] allure is due to the fantastic guitar sounds Greg Fasolino gets: chiming, shimmering, billowing chords and serrating solos (check out the closing “Lowlights”) that fill the soundscape over throbbing bass (Christopher Bollman) and the steady pulses of new drummer Todd Karasik (ex-My Favorite). Equally attractive are the high, keening vocals of Nick Niles; he inevitably gets compared to Morrissey, and while there’s certainly grounds for that, Niles’s style is without affectation. The match between the contour of the melodies and the timbre of his delivery of them is perfect….”

  6. Jennifer O’Connor – Here with Me (Matador)

    One of the best singer-songwriters around gets even better, making her band an integral part of her music. There’s harrowing stuff here, but also hopeful songs made all the more uplifting by their stark realism. She’s equally good at evoking small details and painting the big picture, at intimate moments and rousing anthems, and there’s a lot of musical variety here, from the solo acoustic “Valley Road ‘86” to the slow but eventually explosive buildup of “Landmine” to the rockers. Brilliant.

  7. Dub Colossus in A Town Called Addis (RealWorld/Ryko)

    Nick Page AKA Count Dubulah (co-founder of Transglobal Underground and later Temple of Sound) brings an eclectic perspective to Ethiopian music on this album featuring an array of Ethiopian stars (Sintayehu Zenebe, Teremage Woretow, Tsedenia Gebremarkos Woldesila, Feleke Hailu Woldemariam, Getachew Werkley, and more) mixed with such veteran musical explorers as Skip MacDonald (Sugarhill house band, Tackhead, Little Axe). As the guests change, the style shifts from track to track, sometimes with electronics, sometimes with horns, sometimes with ululating vocals, occasionally with swirling organ or jagged guitar. “Neh Yelginete (My First Love)” even has a samba vibe (plus gently wailing tenor sax) and an amazing Woldesilassie vocal on a beautiful melody. But the entrancing sounds of Ethiopia and a dub reggae production esthetic tie it all together in an utterly original package that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

  8. TV on the Radio – Dear Science (Interscope)

    After breaking through to a national audience with the gritty, distorted, fuzzy sounds of Return to Cookie Mountain, TVotR defies expectations with a stripped-down, electro’d-up album. That’s not to say they’ve gotten slick; there’s still plenty of grit, but it’s buzzing, throbbing, funky grit this time out. Yes, funky – check out “Crying” and especially “Golden Age.” Other highlights include the pretty, keyboard-hooked haunters “Family Tree” and “Love Dog,” the Afro-pop-tinged “Red Dress,” and the propulsive “Dancing Choose.” The band retains its love of off-kilter hooks and knack for anthemic songs that avoid any sense of self-indulgence, if anything honed even more sharply.

  9. Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation’s Dark (New West)

    With 2006’s half-hearted stab at attracting VH1 viewers now long past, the Truckers return to gritty portrayals of the New South’s sordid sides, with plenty of slide guitar and pedal steel (and Spooner Oldham adding keyboards to three-quarters of the tracks). It’s an effective country-rock/Southern rock hybrid that coheres wonderfully despite its surprising amount of variety. Titles such as “Daddy Needs a Drink,” “You and Your Crystal Meth,” and “A Ghost to Most” give an idea of the dirty soap operas that play out across this epic album, but the dark wit runs deep through all 19 songs. It’s too bad Jason Isbell’s gone solo, but with his ex-wife Shonna Tucker taking a bigger role, they still have three distinctive lead vocalists, and new guitarist John Neff proves his mettle whether rocking hard or adding shimmering pedal steel to mournful ballads. There are many memorable character portrayals, but none leaves a bigger impression than the Iraqi war vet obsessing about “That Man I Shot,” with Patterson Hood’s ragged voice the perfect vehicle for his expression.

  10. Castanets – City of Refuge (Asthmatic Kitty)

    A bit of a departure for Ray Raposa, this starts out in Loren Connors territory with an echoey, acidic solo guitar piece and on most subsequent tracks continues to feature droning yet coruscating guitar high in the mix, with Raposa’s vocals raspingly primal on the most sonically aggressive tracks, conversationally drawling on more ingratiating tracks, angelic on the gospel cover “I’ll Fly Away,” and – on that track’s exact opposite, “Shadow Valley” – eerily detached on the proclamation “long as I’ve lived I’ve wanted to die/long as I’ve loved you I’ve been saying goodbye/It’s okay to die.” Recorded in three weeks of desert isolation, then slightly ornamented later with overdubs, most notably Jana Hunter’s harmony vocals adding a slight suggestion of warmth, this is absolutely stark and utterly refreshing in its bold focus on timbre (downright avant-garde at times), totally disconcerting in its lyric about-faces and desolateness, an album that will take a while to absorb, possibly years, but seems certain to stand up to many repeat listens.