In a roundabout approach, I'm going to begin this '08 summary by reexamining my favorite releases earlier than 2008. 2006 was marked by stunningly unique releases like Kayo Dot's 'Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue' and surprising takes on old sounds like Comets on Fire's 'Avatar.' Some of my favorite records of the decade so far were released in '06 so 2007 in my eyes had very hefty expectations. While, I wouldn't say the year completely reached those expectations, I will say that my favorite artists in '07 tried their hardest. Pharoahe Monch's long awaited 'Desire' fully expanded the vocabulary of 21st century hip-hop records with tracks like the conceptual 'Trilogy' sitting next to verbal linguistic exercises like 'What It Is?' Tartar Lamb, a Toby Driver-associated project, released the minimal 'Sixty Metonymies,' which helped further establish the sound that was hinted at on Kayo Dot's 'Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue.' Finally, Time of Orchids released the insanely complex and accessible 'Namesake Caution,' an album that is clearly a milestone in the history of avant-garde rock music. Summarizing 2007's musical output as a unit revealed that current trends point towards bands mixing various genres in completely juxtaposing ways. The dynamic between light and dark or heavy and quiet has revealed itself to be the motif of the '00s and 2007 and my favorite releases of the year fully embraced these dualities. Other records on my list, like Oh No's 'Dr. No Experiment' and 108's 'A New Beat from a Dead Heart' proved interesting during that year, but as time has passed they seem to have lost their luster. My 2007 record collection seems transitional, with bands like Kidcrash still working in the grandiosity and "epicness" that '06 seemed to embrace, but adding slight changes. The sounds were being tweaked with, but a full evolution had yet to come. In 2008 I saw a shift away from this idea. The avant garde was still clearly embraced, but, using the aforementioned Lil' Wanye and Kayo Dot as two drastic but similar reference points, we would see artists striving to be more accessible and embracing the more approachable sides of their sounds.
As I illustrated earlier, the list that follows this summary is simply a reference point to ten records I most enjoyed records this year. I'd say in terms of quality the only record to outshine everything else would be Off Minor's 'Some Blood.' If I was to create an objective list of my favorite bands Off Minor would obviously be at the top and with 'Some Blood' they simply expanded on everything that makes them great. Lyrically Jamie Behar muted the self-deprecation and began to step into more philosophical realms. The band as a whole has amped up their performances to the highest point of technicality creating a dynamic and unparalleled hardcore record. 'Some Blood' ranks itself among my favorite records of all time and in terms of reference points; in my eyes a hardcore record hasn't reached the heights of 'Some Blood' since Gospel's 'The Moon is a Dead World'. Other hardcore related highlights included ex-Funeral Diner related ...Who Calls So Loud, who fully expanded on the post-rock idea of emo that have been worked in with emo in recent years. Louisville's Young Widows crafted the most impressive Jesus Lizard tribute since David Yow himself with their second LP 'Old Wounds.' 'Old Wounds' also helps explain the derivative nature of 2008. While, nothing new is essentially being done on 'Old Wounds,' the conglomeration of post-hardcore with the sound Jesus Lizard and Big Black established resulted in a record that had a really new feeling despite being made up of old ideas. Young Widows' 'Old Wounds' represents an album that is truly a product of the 21st century; it looks back and forward at the same time.
In terms of rap, the praise Detroit has received for years is finally matching the music of the region. Starting off with what is easily the best rap album of the year, Black Milk's 'Tronic' established the sound that the area has come to represent. To speak in rap stereotypes, the East has always represented the more serious side of the music with the West and South embracing the more accessible side of the music. It is telling then that the remaining compass direction of these regional areas, the North, creates lyrically impressive yet heavily beat-based records. In today's mismatching music environment the area has thrived with releases like Elzhi's 'The Preface' or Invincible's 'Shapeshifters'. Notable is that both of these albums were produced by Black Milk as Detroit has seemingly found their resident underground producer with the passing of Dilla. Other impressive rap-related releases came primarily from the hands of Madlib who has continually proved that he is the best producer in the genre. Remixing the classic Madvillainy resulted in one of the most creative and questionable records of the year and his work with Erykah Badu helped propel "New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)" to help revitalize the neo-soul genre.
Regarding the more avant garde elements of metal, 2008 saw lots of groups moving towards more accessible, or at least less metal sounds. Kayo Dot's 'Blue Lambency Downward' saw the band blending their previous sound with more traditional rock elements. The title track sees the Toby Driver-led group playing around with motifs that are clearly influenced by the '70s psych rock sound. Krallice, a black metal act formed between Mick Barr and Colin Marston, saw those two very abstract artists combining their talents to record what is probably their most accessible and melodic work. Mick Barr also released 'Annwn' under his Ocrilim moniker, an album built on the methods of minimalism mixed with the concepts of heavy metal shredding. Doom metal was punctuated by ASVA's 'What You Don't Know is Frontier' representing the full emotional power that can be put into a record of that genre. Out of Nadja's typical flurry of releases the rerecording of 'The Bungled & The Botched' revealed itself to be a impressive evolution of the band's sound with Aidan Baker no longer relying on enormous noisescapes for his catharsis, but rather taking a more varied route. In what was seemingly an overwhelming trend, all of my favorite metal musicians took a step towards the more accessible with their records this year and thankfully proved the metal doesn't always have to be regarded as a stagnant, one-dimensional genre.
Other notable releases include The Drones' 'Havilah.' 'Havilah,' like 'Gala Mill,' is an album concerned with atmosphere and subtle nuances. Lyrically, Gareth Liddiard has basically been unmatched for the last couple of years and tracks like 'The Minotaur' and 'Penumbra' continue to prove this. The band has harnessed some of their loudness and the album is certainly again much more accessible than the band's previous work. I am actually very surprised that the Pitchfork crowd didn't latch on to this record. Like Sun Kil Moon's 'April,' perhaps it is too serious or legitimate for the type of crowd who only rewards music that is for the moment. Flying Lotus, an artist whose debut '1983' I heavily praised in 2006, did catch on with Pitchfork audiences with his Warp Records-associated 'Los Angeles.' Flying Lotus streamlined the hip-hop out of his sound and while losing some of the power of '1983' his sound continues to prove one of the most refreshing in that gray area of electronic influenced hip-hop. Dual-minded Pygmy Lush played up their folk side on this year's 'Mount Hope' a fantastic lo-fi record full of endless anthems. Finally Fennesz's 'Black Sea' played up his traditional mix of noise and electronics to craft an ambient minimal masterpiece.
In conclusion, 2008 has come to be one of my favorite musical years of the decade. Of course with releases from nearly all my favorite artists that doesn't come as a surprise, but what has caught me unexpected is how drastically different many of my favorite band's sounds have become. Off Minor, Kayo Dot, The Drones all of these groups did giant adjustments to their sound and continued to prove why I hold them in such high regard. As in 2006, I find myself curious about 2009 as I have held this year in such high regard. Hopefully, next year will continue to show artists attempting to be more original rather than staying with the difference that made them established in 2008.
A special thanks to Nick Greer, Scott Tennent, gabbagabbahey, and bg5000 for help with the words.
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