Thursday, January 1, 2009

Top 10 Discopop albums of 2008

Happy New Year! Here's what happened on my stereo in the old one...

1) Goldfrapp - Seventh Tree

Goldfrapp's detour into folksy acoustic ballads may have lost them a few fans, but Seventh Tree is a near-perfect album - from the muted opening bars of Clowns to the hazy coda of Monster Love. One of my musical highlights of the year was simply lying back and listening to this album in the middle of a field in Devon - it's truly the perfect soundtrack to a lazy rural day. As long, that is, as you ignore the (excellent) lyrics about brainwashing cults, suicide attempts and boob jobs.

2) Ladyhawke - Ladyhawke

Maybe its down to the fact that she has Aspergers Syndrome, but New Zealander Pip Brown recreated the very best bits of 1980s synth-rock with unnerving precision on her debut album. On Oh My she sounds like Stevie Nicks, on Another Runaway she is Pat Benatar, on Better Than Sunday she channels Debbie Harry... it really is that good. Only one of the four singles (My Delirium) was a hit, struggling into the top 40 at the end of 2008, but this atmospheric, ballsy pop record deserved more recognition.

3) Lykke Li - Youth Novels

Like fellow Swedish starlet Robyn in 2007, Li Lykke Timotej Zachrisson rewrote the rules on what a pop album could sound like. Rather than slapping you about the face with a broken toilet seat going "this is catchy, goddamnit", Youth Novels worked its way into your heart with a series of subtle, genteel ditties. Produced by Björn Yttling (of Peter, Bjorn & John) it is almost entirely acoustic, even down to the inventive, skittering drum lines composed from hand claps, wooden blocks and mallets. Lead single Little Bit was the most affecting love song of the year, while the driving I'm Good, I'm Gone paired sinister, percussive verses with a sweet release of a chorus. Don't believe me? Listen to this acoustic perfomance of the song:

4) Elbow - Seldom Seen Kid

Here are some adjectives that have been used to describe Elbow's fourth album: stunning, lush, bittersweet, exquisite, epic, majestic, uplifting, poetic, impeccable, tender, wondrous, unbearably lovely. Get the picture? The Seldom Seen Kid is a modern masterpiece. It opens with Starlings - two minutes of hushed harmonies and muted marimbas that suddenly explodes into a cacophony of trumpets. It's designed to make you sit up and pay attention to the following suite of lovingly-crafted ballads. Guy Garvey is unapologetically romantic throughout - "I was looking for someone to complete me. Not anymore, dear, everything has changed. You make the moon a mirrorball" is just one lyrical flourish in an album full of poetry. Simply perfect.

5) Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

Who'd have thought a beardy five-piece vocal harmony group from Seattle would produce one of the best albums of the year? Not me. But Fleet Foxes produced an instant classic with their debut CD - full of haunting choral lullabies, which took as their inspiration starlings, swallows, mountains, snow falls and river banks. The music owed a clear debt to the 1960s folk-rock of Simon and Garfunkel, or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - but its presence in the hustle, bustle and bombast of 2008 provided a reassuring oasis of serenity.

6) Duffy - Rockferry

Possessor of the wildest vibrato since Snow White, Duffy owned 2008 - selling more than 4m records around the world by the simple act of combining Amy Winehouse with the girl next door. Her album is rather unfairly derided as boring in some quarters, but Rockferry is stuffed full of heart-rending ballads, seductive pop hooks and stirring choruses. As the Welsh 24-year-old's confidence grew throughout the year, she transformed from a sweater-wearing wallflower into a slinky seductress pouring herself into Jessica Rabbit strapless dresses. Maybe she's not just a cuddly Winehouse after all...

7) Camille - Music Hole

Painstakingly constructed from samples and loops of her own voice, Camille's album is probably the most audaciously ambitious record on this list. With the exception of a lone piano, every sound is produced by a human using one of their many "music holes", according to the blurb. It could have been a tedious intellectual experiment, but France's Camille Dalmais possesses a great big vat of soul - which lifts her songs above mere gimmickry. Highlights include the playful Gospel With No Lord, the (literally) barking Cats & Dogs, and the Mariah Carey-baiting single, Money Note. Mental in the good way.

8) Ting Tings - We Started Nothing

The Ting Tings broke America when Shut Up And Let Me Go was chosen to soundtrack an iPod advert - but there couldn't be a worse device to listen to their album on. Those massive drums and growling bass lines need a hefty pair of nerdtastic hi-fi speakers before they really come to life. The shouty party songs - We Walk, Great DJ, That's Not My Name - are the best, but Katie's sweetly melodic turns on Traffic Light and Be The One show that the band's got more than one trick up it's sleeve.

9) Girls Aloud - Out Of Control

Out Of Control, or A Drop In Quality Control? Girls Aloud's fifth album seemed a bit rushed - with precious little of Xenomania's usual sonic invention and off-the-wall song structures. But there were still five or six stand-outs: The Pet Shop Boys-penned The Loving Kind is a four-minute slab of moody synth genius, while Miss You Bow Wow is the sort of deranged throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks pop gem that the band probably think they've outgrown. Not their finest hour, but still head and shoulders above anything else a mainstream pop act produced in 2008. Five heads and ten shoulders, to be precise.

10) Emiliana Torrini - Me and Armini / Kings Of Leon - Only By The Night / MGMT - Oracular Spectacular / Santogold - Santogold

Bloody hell, I can't decide between these ones... Emiliana Torrini wins points for combining acoustic rock (like Sara Bareilles) and being utterly bonkers (like Bjork). MGMT did the student disco party anthems, with three absolutely stonking singles and a shockingly poor live act. Kings Of Leon were the only band who really rocked in 2008, while Santogold took MIA's trademark soundclash and made it listenable. And I haven't even mentioned Laura Marling, or Kanye West, or Vampire Weekend, or Q-Tip - it really was a vintage year, wasn't it?

Postscript: Not albums of the year
1) Madonna - Hard Candy
Madge opened a sweet shop but it only sold aniseed balls - hard and indigestible with a horrible aftertaste.

2) Various Artists - Mamma Mia! OST
Abba karaoke. Literally my worst nightmare.

3) Britney Spears - Circus
Is this really the best music money can buy? Cripes.

4) Portishead - Third
When the end of the world comes, this will be the soundtrack.

5) Jonas Brothers - A Little Bit Longer
Actually, I take that last comment back. This will be the soundtrack to armageddon.

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