Sunday, December 14, 2008

Top albums of the year

Best of lists are inherently idiosyncratic and mine are especially so. These albums are not the best of the year because I have only listened to a small percentage of the albums that have come out this year. This list represents the albums that stayed in my player the longest over the course of the year - the ones that I like a lot and that kept getting played. So here they are, in no particular order, my top 8 of 2008.

1. The Fireman - Electric Arguments
I am a big fan of Paul McCartney, as even a cursory glance of this blog will show, and it’s nice when he makes a good album. I am of the opinion that he’s done that a lot lately and Electric Arguments is another fine example. It is creative, melodic and interesting. I wrote more in my recent blog post here.

2. In the Name of Love - Africa Celebrates U2
I found out about this album by reading a review in Paste Magazine so I got it and I love it. I can be a sucker for African music and mixing that sound with the music of one of my favorite bands, U2, is a no-brainer for me. This album is by a variety of artists, none of whom I had ever heard of before. Some tracks, of course, are stronger than others but even the tracks I thought were not great at first have grown on me. This is a fun album that shows that U2’s music translates into other genres very well. (This is far superior to the similarly titled album that CCM artists did a few years ago.)

3. The Allens
This album is probably my favorite Noisetrade find of the year (along with Katie Herzig’s album which almost made the list - get that one here.) This husband-wife duo from Texas sings and plays in a way that speaks to me. I like their sound and I like their songs. And the album is free. Go get it.

4. Elvis Costello – Momofuku
I’ve been an Elvis fan for quite a while and he released a good one this year just before I saw him in concert for the first time. The songs are well written and the album was banged out in a hurry so it sounds fresh and exciting. That's why it is named after the inventor of instant noodles. Here is my review.

5. Big Blue Ball
Peter Gabriel assembled a group of people from all over the world to record in his studio over a period of something like 15 years. The tracks cover a wide range of styles and Gabriel himself only appears occasionally but the album is varied and interesting and has some really cool tracks.

6. Ingrid Michaelson - Girls and Boys
This album is actually a 2007 album but I didn’t even know who Ingrid was until this past summer so I'm cheating and putting her on this year's list because her CD spent a lot of time in my player this year. Her songs are wonderful in their simplicity and her guitar and piano compliment her fragile voice perfectly. Her recent album, Be OK, is more of a collection of b-sides and live tracks than a real album and Girls and Boys is superior.

7. Jon Foreman – Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer
Jon Foreman, the driving force behind Switchfoot, shows that there is a lot more to him than just a rock guy with this set of 4 EPs that deliver acoustic settings of songs that don’t fit the Switchfoot mode. Foreman continues to write about his faith in a way that doesn’t settle for easy answers or trite sloganeering. For acoustic albums there is great variety in both the songwriting and the arrangements with Foreman bringing in brass, strings and even his sister-in-law Sarah Masen on vocals on one song. The compilation, Limbs and Branches, gives 10 of the songs from the 24 song, 4 EP collection and adds two new songs to it as well. An earlier review that I wrote is here.

8. Phil Keaggy – Phantasmagorical
This past year Keaggy toured to support the 30th Anniversary of his landmark album the Master and the Musician. He recorded Phantasmagorical with some of those songs ringing in his ears and continues his string of strong albums. The playing is, of course, fabulous but the writing continues to be very good and Phil’s talent as an arranger continues to grow. This album stands up to some of his best. See my earlier review here.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

25 days of free Christmas songs

Amazon is giving a song away for free every day in December - click here.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Electric Arguments – Paul McCartney as the Fireman

Electric Arguments is the new album by the Fireman - Paul McCartney and Youth (the bassist for Killing Joke – whoever that is.) I did not buy the first two Fireman albums. They were strange ambient music – at least the part I can hear on samples from itunes – and, while I can appreciate ambient music I’m not sure I want to invest in it. But this new one is different. This has Paul singing. He and Youth went into the studio with no song in mind and no plan and, by the end of the day had a recording. He did this 13 times over the year. The result is an album that is part McCartney being his tuneful self, part McCartney being his experimental self and part Youth being his, well, youthful self.

So, what do I think? Well, on the one hand, I’m not sure yet. It is a bit of a strange album. On the other hand in the week since I’ve picked it up I find myself playing it over and over again. I haven't done this with any other album since Memory Almost Full, McCartney’s last album. I find myself entranced by the moodiness of the songs, by the interesting arrangements and by the sheer variety. There are also some really cool moments on the album.

Many reviewers are saying that this is the best McCartney album in decades – some say since Ram. Now I don’t remember people going all crazy over Ram or saying that that was one of McCartney’s best albums but, OK, Ram was a cool album and I can see why they say that Electric Arguments reminds them of it. But it also sometimes reminds me of Magical Mystery Tour and of McCartney II and also of Press to Play – did anyone else buy that one??? But to say that it’s McCartney’s best in decades is to minimize the cool stuff that McCartney has done lately. He’s done a lot of really outstanding albums lately – Flaming Pie, Chaos and Creation and Memory Almost Full have all gotten strong reviews and they’ve all been called the best in years from McCartney. (Reviewers seem to have short memories.) But because Electric Arguments is a collaboration with a producer it has a different flavor than his other albums, much like Chaos and Creation did.

So Electric Arguments is not “McCartney’s best”, nor is it a “return to form” or any of those things that some reviewers are saying. But it is a very good experimental album from an artist who, to a greater or lesser extent, does this a lot more often than he gets credit for. And I just can't seem to take it out of my CD player.