Thanks to the continued explosion of musically-oriented Web sites and blogs, you’ll probably be even more inundated than usual this year with "best of 2008" lists come January 2009 far too late for your tuneful shopping needs. So we’re cranking one out early, organized by affinity groups some slightly imaginary, some more concrete in an attempt to cut through the loud hype and scattered bombast while amping up your gift-giving options. At the end is a suggested list of delectable upcoming live shows, if you’re more ticket-oriented.
FOR THE RETRO-FUTURIST DISCO HEAD
Electronic music is a good example of how griping about the state of a scene can sometimes release unexpected creativity. Syclops, nominally a Finnish fusion trio, is the latest we’ve heard from Maurice Fulton since his quasi-breakthrough electro-spazz project Mu. I’ve Got My Eye on You is the longest in a line of pretty epic wins for the label DFA and for electronic music generally: radiating out from "Where’s Jason’s K," the 10 tracks that make up the album tear ass from pharma’d-out Detroit techno to dreamy, lush deep space jazz.
Also: Shed‘s Shedding the Past (Ostgut Tonträger) if your giftee’s the type who longs for the halcyon days of high minimal glitch; Nôze, Songs on the Rocks (Get Physical) if his or her affection for tech house precision is matched only by a love of closing-time sing-alongs and Waitsian growls.
FOR LONG-LIMBED INDIE SCRAPPERS
It would be hard to write enough about "Black Rice," the best song on Canadian indie quartet Women‘s self-titled debut on Jagjaguwar. Starting from an absurdly unambitious guitar line, the song blossoms into something wildly and fiercely beautiful. It could be the impossible falsetto of the chorus, or the way the rhythm section comes unglued from the vocals and guitar, but the song condenses what makes the rest of the album noisy, lo-fi interludes and all so engaging. Everything seems held together provisionally on a song like the heartrending "Shaking Hand," but the chorus snaps into place with rubber-banded eagerness.
Also: Abe Vigoda‘s Skeleton (PPM) for its irrepressible youthful longing and controlled thrash; Benoît Pioulard‘s Temper (Kranky) for twining the threads of noise and surprisingly pretty, almost adult-contemporary songwriting into a neither/nor album that’s perfect for gray days.
Although more structured than anything they’ve done before, Saint Dymphna (Social Registry), the newest long player from New York’s mystical vibe crew Gang Gang Dance, still arrives packed with the otherworldliness that characterized its excellent predecessor, God’s Money (Social Registry, 2005). Three years in the making, the album itself is nothing if not well paced: the transitions between songs and the gradual build of rhythmic energy make it less kin to trad rock albums than to DJ mixes. When the swells crest, as on "First Communion" and "House Jam," electronic gurgles and processed sounds that might otherwise sound like trying too hard are transformed into pure pith: they’re as inviting and faceted as a just-split pomegranate.
Also: Paavoharju‘s Laulu Laakson Kukista (Fonal), since these Finnish folksters cover the dance floor with silt on "Kevätrumpu," bust some desperate torch techno on "Uskallan," and spend a number of other tracks sounding stuck between pagan classical radio and deteriorating field recordings; Rings is a trio of new primitives formerly known as First Nation on Black Habit (Paw Tracks), the outfit sounds like it’s gotten into the Slits’ basements and started making music dictated from beyond.
POST-HIP-HOP BASS SEMANTICS
A DJ mix that stands alone as an album is a rare thing, but leave it to Jace Clayton, a.k.a. DJ/rupture, to make one, as he has with Uproot (Agriculture). Deeply, er, rooted in the bass plate tectonics of dubstep and cut with the finest in eclectic samples, ranging from experimentalist Ekkehard Ehlers to lazer bass don Ghislain Poirier, Uproot rolls deep with dubbed-out ambience, but DJ/rupture is just as happy to turn things upside down, as when he plunks down Ehlers’ gorgeous string loop, "Plays John Cassavetes, Pt. 2," around the mix’s halfway point. And if bangers of the future don’t sound like "Gave You All My Love (Matt Shadetek’s I Gave You All My Dub Remix)," which subs out dub’s organic space for Fisher-Price primary-color contrasts that split the brain evenly in two, I’m not sure it’s a future worth living in.
Also: for the more historically minded, Ragga Twins have released Step Out! (Soul Jazz), a retrospective that collects the work of a duo widely considered to be the inventors of that dubstep ancestor, jungle; Tank Thong Mixtape (Weaponshouse) by Megasoid happens to be free, so spend some money on a nice CD-R, decorate it with glitter, and watch exasperation turn to glee when your loved one blows out his or her speakers with this beast.
One of the year’s most life-affirming releases comes from a band called Fucked Up; its Chemistry of Common Life (Matador) is grounded in hardcore, and has hardness to spare, but makes its biggest impact when it lets a flute solo emerge from the tempest. With his basso profundo growl, singer Pink Eyes can sound like he’s gargling hot dogs, and harnessed to a song like "Black Albino Bones," with its cooing melody the closest thing to pop the seven-year-old band has attempted it makes for an unexpectedly moving juxtaposition. But the group’s real skill comes from mining the void left after the tribal affiliations of high school fall away; "Twice Born"<0x2009>‘s refrain, "Hands up if you think you’re the only one," could be the year’s Miranda Julyesque rallying cry.
Also: if you’re wondering what Mick Barr’s been up to post-Ocrilim, the short answer, witnessed on Krallice‘s Krallice (Profound Lore) is black metal; Peasant (Level Plane), an all-encompassing slab of darkness by Baton Rougebased Thou, is closer to trad sludge than to the transcendent drone of Sunn 0))), but no less impressively bleak.
The holiday season is not always a great time for shows (other than several Nutcracker incarnations), but for folks who want to gift live music this year there are plenty of sonic distractions. On the heels of Everybody (Thrill Jockey), its latest bout of sophisticated jazz rock, the eternally springlike Sea and Cake will make an appearance at Great American Music Hall just in time to counteract your seasonal affective disorder (Dec. 2, 8 p.m., $20). Sebastien Tellier rolls with the Daft Punk posse, so it’s no surprise that his music marries spot-on genre mimicry and a native sense of melody; check out the video for "Divine," in which the Beach BoysmeetLio jam turns into a global karaoke marathon of Tellier doppelgängers (Mezzanine, Dec. 4, 9 p.m., $15). There’s no rest for local workhorses Tussle and Jonas Reinhardt they’ll be bringing their peculiar hot-cold takes on krauty electronics to the Hemlock Tavern (Dec. 6, 9:30 p.m., $7). And even if her music is not your cup of tea, Aimee Mann’s 3rd Annual Christmas Show should be a nice shot of seasonality in a city that tends to avoid big displays of Christmas spirit; consider it a good sign that Patton Oswalt, the stand-up comedian most deserving of your attention, will take part (Bimbo’s, Dec. 7, 8 p.m., $40). His looks call to mind a peripheral character from The Catcher in the Rye, and his preternaturally gentle music is specially designed not to hurt babies’ ears, but the earnest beauty of Jonathan Richman‘s songs might pierce your heart (Great American Music Hall, Dec. 7, 8 p.m., $15). Bearing a post-hardcore pedigree like whoa, San Francisco’s own Crime in Choir moves gracefully beyond its members’ backgrounds At the Drive-In, the Fucking Champs into (surprise!) instrumental prog territory (Hemlock Tavern, Dec. 13, 9:30 p.m., $6). *
Click here for more Holiday Guide 2008.