Thao with The Get Down Stay Down
We Brave Bee Stings & All
Kill Rock Stars
Released: January 2008
What we said then: “As you might expect from someone who cites the Lilith Fair scene as an early influence, at their heart Thao Nguyen’s brief two- to three-minute songs are pure folk-pop but the addition of her backing band, The Get Down Stay Down, has filled them out nicely. Quirky melodies mix with jangly guitars, handclaps and snappy percussion conjures a sound not unlike a more folksy Vampire Weekend. Nguyen writes of her experiences with skillful poise and gutsy poetry. Make no mistake though, this is dark and powerful magic, not the stuff of fairytales.” ••• Loria Near [full review]
What we say now: When we said that Thao might prove to be an acquired taste, it wasn’t without hope that a lot of people would eventually acquire it. Having toured the album relentlessly and enthusiastically all year, We Brave Bee Stings & All has made a proper rock star of Nguyen, and we couldn’t be more pleased. An exciting reinvention of this Lilith Fair-influenced songwriter – we can’t wait to see what’s next.
Download: ‘Bag Of Hammers’, ‘Swimming Pools’
More Modern Short Stories From Hello Saferide
Released: September 2008
What we said then: “At a time where anticipation conflicts with desperation and worry, Hello Saferide has produced a record that, while retaining a sense of realism, dares to question: without hope, what is there? Each song spins a wonderful yarn, trying to cram in as many words into each line, a great deal of thought and passion bursting with every breath. Indeed, there are so many highlights to More Modern Short Stories…, there are barely enough words to describe it. Regardless, Hello Saferide speaks a language so human that one cannot help but feel she is singing for us all.” •••• Anna Claxton [full review]
What we say now: Annika Norlin returned from her award-winning Swedish language excursion Säkert! with a more mature set than her wide-ranging, strange and often funny 2006 debut Introducing Hello Saferide. Continuing where her debut UK single ‘I Was Definitely Made For These Times!’ left off last year, Hello Saferide’s nostalgic worldview brings her creative lyrical flights alive across 12 songs that variously ponder life’s imperfections, sometimes with remorse, sometimes simply shrugging them off with casual self-deprecation. Pop for grown-ups.
Download: ’2008′, ‘Lund’
Released: April 2008
What we said then: “As challenging as it is hilarious, Music Hole practically summarises and expands upon all the best parts of her earlier work without getting too bogged down in concepts. Et voilà! She’s nailed it without compromising any of her abilities, and perhaps now she’ll become the star she deserves. If she doesn’t, then perhaps it’s best she stays where she is. After all, she sounds like she’s having the time of her life there.” ••••½ Léigh Bartlam [full review]
What we say now: Despite its potentially disastrous over-reliance on novelty, Music Hole remains an impressive undertaking all these months later. As largely a cappella albums go, it’s certainly a lot more fun than Björk’s Medúlla but has a similar propensity to irritate if you’re not in the right frame of mind. ‘Cats & Dogs’ is still unfathomably nuts, and the sometimes smug lyrics do grate, but Camille’s in fine voice. A new live EP came out on iTunes this week, dontcha know.
Download: ‘Gospel With No Lord’, ‘Money Note’
Wall Of Sound
Released: November 2008
What we said then: “At only nine tracks long, Hurricane has no room for filler or the sloppy, half-baked Grace-isms that mauled her late ’80s output. To maintain quality control, Brian Eno and reunions with Sly & Robbie and Tricky were drafted in, but Hurricane’s most surprising aspect is the intensely personal lyrics and ideas Jones brought to the table. The dreaded spectre of comeback hype has undone many an artist but Jones meets 19 years worth of anticipation with absolute style, balls and an unflinching determination to only look back when taking leaps forward (are you taking notes, Axl Rose?)” •••• Léigh Bartlam [full review]
What we say now: If we’re talking buzz alone, Hurricane was without question the comeback of the year. While ‘Corporate Cannibal’ was a fairly logical extension of Jones’s very particular hyper-reality, it’s the songs that find her finally accepting her humanity and lineage that really stick. Not as strange or as solid as it might have been, not to mention being a mere nine songs, Hurricane nevertheless earned its place among this year’s most essential listening.
Download: ‘William’s Blood’, ‘I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears)’
Red Letter Year
Released: September 2008
What we said then: ”If this album was a tarot card, it would be The Empress, the goddess of fertility – a warm, fecund woman, plump with good health and a euphoric, satisfied calm. There is a sublime easiness to the record. The righteous fire is still there, but it has evolved. Red Letter Year is an open-house celebration, with a long list of contributing musicians guesting on almost every track. You can almost see DiFranco there, among the crowd of laughing friends, musicians resplendent with trumpets, sax and trombones, strumming happily with baby nearby and a broad smile on her face.” •••½ Charlotte Richardson Andrews [full review]
What we say now: A perennial favourite in our year-end best-ofs, Ani DiFranco still has plenty to say and Red Letter Year proved to be a successful amalgamation of many of the best musical bits of most of her recent releases, from 1999′s To The Teeth to 2006′s Reprieve, topped off with a newfound motherly kindness and optimism. It also did away with some of her less appealing vocal affectations (hint hint Tori Amos), all adding up to something really quite special.
Released: June 2008
What we said then: “Song by song,@#%&*! Smilers is well-crafted, melodic, literate, witty and catchy as hell. But it’s also, overall, rather familiar and, at times, ever so slightly dull. Measured, muted and mid-tempo, the songs tend to lack the emotional peaks and troughs that characterised her earlier work. Mann’s vocals only rarely rouse themselves beyond the twin poles of weary resignation or dry irony. But while no amount of strings or synthesizers can entirely disguise the fact that it’s getting increasingly difficult to tell her albums apart, Mann’s impeccable way with a hook and a lyric remains undiminished, which is more than enough reason to make @#%&*! Smilers worthy of your time, despite its undeniable sense of déjà vu.” •••½ Alex Ramon [full review]
What we say now: With more pith than a very big orange, Aimee Mann’s characteristic lyrical wit is in mighty fine fettle on @#%&*! Smilers. Seven albums into her solo career, it’s fair to say that Mann hasn’t gone all out to avoid repeating herself in the way that, say, PJ Harvey has, but when your established songwriting blueprint is pretty much universally recognised as exemplary, that’s fair enough. @#%&*! Smilers is another solid effort.
Download: ‘Phoenix’, ‘It’s Over’
FREE MP3: Aimee Mann, ‘31 Today‘
Me & Armini
Released: September 2008
What we said then: “Emilíana Torrini is a gem among singer-songwriters with many a loyal fan and a reputation for divine, intelligent pop. Once again pairing up with her long-time producer/collaborator Dan Carey, Me & Armini sees the magic continue. While Torrini’s unforgettable voice soars through the album, sweet, haunting and smooth, the music draws on a myriad of styles, from dub to shoegaze and blues to pop. Me & Armini is a host of sounds and delights; creative, playful and moving. A seamless blend of pop magic, artful folk and eclectic rhythms, it is an album to make your eyes shine and your heart sing, and a treasure to be enjoyed by fan and convert alike.” •••• Charlotte Richardson Andrews [full review]
What we say now: It took a few listens for much of Me & Armini to make any sense. Emilíana Torrini has created a strange little album that pulls the silky madam across so many genre borders, smudged as they are, with nary a concern for cohesion. The almost ambient strains of ‘Gun’ and ‘Dead Duck’ drag the pace down in the album’s second half, but are worthwhile experiments, and while the reggae-lite title track and frantic scatting of ‘Jungle Drum’ took some getting used to, they turned out to be Torrini’s triumphs.
Download: ‘Jungle Drum’, ‘Big Jumps’
Changing Of The Seasons
Released: March 2008
This was a bit of a cheeky inclusion as the official UK release of Changing Of The Seasons isn’t until February 2009, but it has been available to download from Klicktrack for much of the year and has been released in practically every other territory [also, it's hands down my personal favourite album of 2008, period – Alan]. Ane Brun might not be the coolest or most vibrant artist coming out of Scandinavia but we are borderline obsessed with Changing Of The Seasons: its melodies, its phrasing, its poetic, elegant and unapologetically disconsolate lyrics. Who else could write a song with a preposterous title like ‘Round Table Conference’, make it deeply moving AND have you humming it all day? Changing Of The Seasons is the work of an elite singer-songwriter at the height of her powers. The UK release will include bonus covers of ‘True Colors’ (from the TV ad) and ‘Big In Japan’. We recommend you also investigate the self-released collection of demos for the album, Sketches, available here with two non-album exclusives.
Download: ‘Changing Of The Seasons’, ‘The Puzzle’
Not available on iTunes until February
Joan As Police Woman
Released: June 2008
What we said then: ”In her guise as Joan As Police Woman, Joan Wasser has made an equally emotion-rich second album, with the considered title To Survive. If survival was something that eluded her mother, Wasser seems intent on transfiguring her loss into something positive. There is the same smoky theatricality of 2006’s debut Real Life, combined with the kind of knowing maturity that only comes with age. Wasser seems to imbue even the bleakest lament with a fragile optimism. You sense it’s that which gets her through. To Survive signals an artist moving out of the shadows of her former employers into a space of her own, one it’s at times an emotionally uncomfortable pleasure to share.” •••• Martyn Clayton [full review]
What we say now: Given just a single word to sum up the music of Joan Wasser and co., we would plump for ‘elegant’. To Survive might not have the strongest songwriting we’ve seen this year but show us an album that exudes more class and dignity and we’ll eat our keyboards. Cop a feel of this, it’ll make you swoon.
Download: ‘Honor Wishes’, ‘To Be Loved’
Released: September 2008
What we said then: “As a collection of songs, the eagerly awaited Acid Tongue is nothing short of a musical education, stripped down and laid bare by this flame-haired beauty, fusing delicate femininity with a blend of strong masculine influences. Not only do Elvis Costello and Chris Robinson (of The Black Crowes fame) guest on the album – the former sounding completely in his heyday – but there are clear references to other classic male artists throughout, proving that women in rock today are still more than capable of playing with the big boys and the big boys are more than happy to oblige.” •••• Anna Claxton [full review]
What we say now: Easily as divisive among Lewis’s fans as last year’s Rilo Kiley album, Acid Tongue is either a work of enigmatic, sharp-clawed genius or a confused and sprawling mess of styles. We’ve wavered – haven’t you? – but now we’re convinced it leans closer to the former. Not quite enough to shrug off that rabbit fur coat for good. Cool hat though Jenny.
Download: ‘Jack Killed Mom’, ‘Sing A Song For Them’