So, it rolls to a close, this year of highs and lows. How one feels about 2008 speaks a lot to whether they're a glass half-empty person, or a glass half-full. There's a great new American president, but he's got about as much money to play with as a manager at Best Buy. Here in Canada, the lowest voter turnout ever re-elected us our moonfaced weirdo of a prime minister, but at the present moment his career hangs in the balance. I'm not going to cast my proverbial Tarot cards for 2009 just yet, and for now I'm going to take the glass half-full route and look back at what I liked the best about aught eight- at least in the untouchable realms of popular culture.
I'm hard pressed to post a full list of ten this year. There's stuff I had on last year's list that went huge (M.I.A., Lil Wayne), but that's not to say I'm ahead of the curve; I spent a lot of listening time this year with '07 music (Wilco's Sky Blue Sky, the I'm Not There soundtrack), and, after the installation of a turntable, much ancient material from the vinyl glory days. So at the moment I'm forging a superdisc of illegal downloads- maybe at the end of next year I can get back to you on Fleet Foxes, TV on the Radio, Blitzen Trapper, Beck, Land of Talk, Metallica, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Guns N' Roses, Jenny Lewis, Kings of Leon, Deerhunter, The Black Keys, Lucinda Williams, Conor Oberst, and Kanye West. But for now I have no choice but to detail the five recordings that, for whatever reason, got spun again and again this year:
5. Tall Firs, Too Old To Die Young
This Brooklyn trio released a quiet, introspective disc a couple of years ago that largely resembled this year's #2, but with the addition of aspiring free jazz/former At The Drive-In drummer Ryan Sawyer, took things to a new level. This was released on Sonic Youth leader Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label, and, considering the lead singer's uncanny vocal resemblance to Moore, kind of sounds like the record Sonic Youth would have made had they grown up in the sticks. This is perfect for a night in with an afghan and a hot tea, but also makes for foggy day driving music, first date music, last date music...
4. R.E.M., Accelerate
I took a big crap all over this release from my First Beloved Band back in April, but after having the good fortune of seeing them tour behind this, began to get what it was all about, and to realize that no other band of their vintage maintains the integrity that they do. The apocalyptic sentiment behind this seems (thankfully) a bit dated already, but it's doom and gloom that have driven the best of their late-career recordings. Plus, they produced the year's neatest video from this.
3. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend
I'm sure choosing this will continue longstanding debates well into the new year (I'm looking at you, girlfriend), but after some resistance myself, I just couldn't stop listening to it. Hype didn't do Vampire Weekend any favors, but you have to admit, if you'd seen this band debut at your university party (as they did at Columbia; the cover image is taken from that very night), you would have filled your pants and declared the second coming of pop music. "Who gives a fuck about an oxford comma", who gives a fuck if Moms like this; it brings a little Wes Anderson Movie into your day whenever it's on.
2. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago
It took me a while to (no pun intended) warm to this as well, even after seeing him do a stunning opening set for Black Mountain in my town earlier this year, but once it took hold it wouldn't let go. This is on piles of top ten lists this year, and it was nice to see something so genuine rise to prominence like it did. And I have a feeling Justin Vernon will do some really interesting things in the future.
Also a great driving record- if you have a ways to go through a bleak winter landscape in the next little while, take this along.
1. Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Lie Down in the Light
Something that wasn't on a pile of top tens this year (depending on what you read) was about the 50,000th astonishing release from Will Oldham. With all due respect to the two low-key & melancholy groups on this list, it takes another kind of talent to write something that's genuinely celebratory and happy. After getting bleaker and bleaker, dire and more dire (Jesus, The Letting Go? Almost got me into cutting.), Will took a left turn and composed an ode to happiness and satisfaction that avoids all sentiment and points to the things in life that earn that state of mind. For anyone who hasn't found their way to B'P'B yet, this is a perfect gateway into the strange career of one of the world's great songwriters.
Let me quote a journal from 2005: "Watched a bit of Lost. It's no X-Files."
Now let me state my 2008 opinion: "What in the hell was I thinking?"
The X-Files took hold of a little flare-up in the public consciousness and ran with it until it chugged along the side of the old Information Superhighway and ran out of gas. Lost found its audience the same way, whether they realized it or not: we were lost- spiritually, mentally, figuratively- we still are, and though the public sentiment is a bit more optimistic, this show, unlike X, is changing, morphing, avoiding a one-note cultural definition. It has, as many genre programs have, turned in on itself and is relying more and more on its own storyline- but what a storyline, and what storytelling.
I watch television to have something about society and humanity reflected back at me. There have been deeper commentaries on this (The Wire) and more up-to-date ones (South Park), but none are more compelling than this crazy, freestyle network television show.
Nuff said. Did you happen to catch this?
But a couple of comments on the some possibly more divisive releases of the year:
- Despite the foul taste left by the aforementioned X-Files TV show, I actually stand by this year's I Want To Believe feature. Not that it was exceedingly great, but why does everything with a franchise name behind it have to, as Roger Ebert said in his review of this, feature a villain "as big as a building"? Chris Carter committed an almost punk-rock act by making a film that resembled the 70's TV and film that inspired his show in the first place, and no matter what you think, he didn't fuck up as badly as Spielberg and Lucas.
- Remind me to walk out of the next movie that Jennifer Jason Leigh turns up in as a bohemian character who lays around stoned on sofas- it's a surefire signifier that one is in store for a lengthy treatise on just how miserable we can make ourselves in the Western World if we try hard enough. Charlie Kaufman's I-Can't-Even-Bother-To-Spell-It, New York features a lead character so self-indulgent that he actually picks through his own excrement onscreen, before he worries himself to death over the course of two hours. The only benefit I got from attending this movie was in realizing how grateful I was to be able to see through horseshit like this. Sorry if you liked it; looking forward to the debate.
Oh, the books. Oh, the books! I haven't had the proper time to read anything beyond cooking instructions all year. So here's my intended reading list come January, when my New Year's Resolution to find that time kicks in:
The English Major, by Jim Harrison. The Other, by David Guterson. A Mercy, by Toni Morrison. I Should Be Extremely Happy To Be In Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark, by Brain Hall. Who's Your City? How the Creative Economy is Making Where You Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life, by Richard Florida. The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama. Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis, by Rowan Jacobsen.
To name a few. See there was a reason I posted this before Christmas, hint.
Just kidding- Happy Holidays all, here's to 2009.