Tatooine Sunset: An Assembly of Last Year’s (2008) Fantastic Things by Mark Bibbins
This started out as a modest little personal top-ten list of songs. I don’t know what it is now, maybe more personal or less, definitely not ten. 2008 was strange for albums—yes, all years are, and wasn’t everything else—a few were solid from beginning to end (The Breeders’ Mountain Battles, Soundpool’sDichotomies and Dreamland and Atlas Sound’s Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel). But more often only four or five songs from any given album would really sink their teeth into me, probably as much a reflection of my increasingly scattered listening habits as anything else.
A quick note on nostalgia, something usually best kept to one’s self, but screw it: the early/mid 90’s really were an amazing time for music. In 1991 I escaped to NYC from Albany, where I had a crazy bartending gig where I got to play whatever music I wanted—a privilege, really—until the bar fell apart, a wreckage of coke, tax shenanigans and people dropping dead. Across the pond seemed where the truth was all coming from, where dance music and rock collided in a swirl of ecstasy (literal and figurative). Within five years, my Bloody Valentine’s Loveless came out, as did Massive Attack’s Blue Lines and Mezzanine, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, Cocteau Twins’ glorious swan song Milk and Kisses(no better soundtrack for lying on a Mexican beach under the stars, should you ever need one), Stereolab’s Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements, Underworld’s Second Toughest in the Infants, and Tricky’s Maxinquaye. These were like the twin suns setting over Tatooine—wondrous, (im)possible, haunting, new.
What do I adore? Synthesizers, samples, distortion, delay, layers, loops; spacerock, shoegaze, dreampop, drone and dance (though no one seems to agree on what this last one is, so let’s agree not to). Whom do I miss? Jeff Buckley, Slowdive, Cocteau Twins (Liz, solo album—please?). Who came back? My Bloody Valentine, The Verve, Portishead (all with a vengeance).
At the risk of sounding like Captain Caveat, I’ll say that while lists are useful, ranking is not for me, so what follows really is in no particular order. Nothing can replace hearing a band (or dj or whatever) live, and the audio quality on Youtube, even when it’s not recorded on someone’s phone, is no substitute for turning up the real thing (CD, vinyl, MP3—whatever you need, however you get it, but let’s try to support the artists) on decent headphones or speakers. I know people know this, but I have to remind myself. Make it loud. And if you don’t have a resolution yet: go see more bands.
2009: We finally have a real president and he has colossal messes to address. The whole world, yes, but one without art, forget it. Critics are already setting themselves on fire over Animal Collective’s new one, and it is indeed stunning (the album, not the immolations). On the other hand, bands like Underworld are streaming brilliant works-in-progress on their website and offering 30- minute download-only suites of songs that subvert the notion of making and disseminating conventional albums, let alone the strictures of the RIAA and other dying behemoths. I don’t have an impulse to offer more than the occasional touchstone or coincidence concerning the songs collected here, beyond “this amazed me and you might like it too.” Maybe everyone is becoming as bored by opinions as I am. Onward.
Portishead: “We Carry On,” “The Rip,” “Silence”
Impossible to pick just one top track from Third, easy to say they gave the best concert I saw last year. Never having seen them live, I couldn’t imagine how they would come off at a huge outdoor festival, but their set at Coachella was an absolute monster. They ended with “We Carry On,” and Beth Gibbons, not exactly known for working a crowd, disappeared as the rest of the band kept playing—turns out she was down in front, shaking hands with the audience. Class.
“We Carry On”
Ellen Allien: “Caress”
Allien is a killer DJ/producer/designer/etc., and while many of the minimalist pleasures of Sool require more patience and attention than I’ve had lately (my fault, not hers), this track reminds me of the few fugitive days I spent alone in Berlin several summers ago and might make a person believe in ghosts—really sleek, sexy, mechanized ghosts.
Leila Arab and Martina Topley Bird: “Deflect”
Maybe the sultriest song of the year—that bass synth alone should qualify it. I saw Leila when she played with Bjork on the Post tour in 1995 (Aphex Twin also on the bill—impossible? yes, we were), completely blown away when they did this to “Enjoy”:
And it’s safe to say that when Martina stopped working with Tricky, Tricky stopped working for me (but he still puts on an intense live show, so go).
School of Seven Bells: “Sempiternal-Amaranth”
It became a much more elegant beast on Alpinisms, but I love this raw version too:
Stereolab: “Valley Hi!”
My favorite song from Chemical Chords, which seems to me their poppiest album yet. As short as it is sweet, I have to listen to ”Valley Hi!” two or three times in a row—this from the same band who made the 17 ½-minute “Rafractions in the Plastic Pulse.”
“Neon Beanbag,” “Three Women” and “Nous Vous Demandons Pardon” are wonderful too , as is “Explosante Fixe,” from the tour single. This was the first time I’ve seen them with a backing vocalist since they lost Mary Hansen in 2002, and it was a wonderful if bittersweet surprise. The brand-new “Two Fingers Symphony” (as yet unreleased, not even sure if that’s the official title) was a highlight of their set.
Atlas Sound: “Rivercard”
Who’s more prolific than Bradford Cox? Two amazing albums (one of them a double) and too many other demos, virtual 7-inches, etc. released online to keep track of. How many boys have you drowned?
“Agoraphobia” (very unofficial)
Beach House: “Used to Be”
A sublime single, which doesn’t appear on their much-lauded Devotion album (favorite tracks: “Astronaut,” “Gila”).
I heard that around the same time as Little Boots’ sweet cover of Hot Chip’s “Ready for the Floor” and thought they made splendid companions—Tenori-on vs. acoustic guitar and plastic bucket. A false fight and anyway you try making a plastic bucket and see how lo-fi you feel.
Bonde do Role: “Solta o Frango” (Bitchee Bitchee Ya Ya mix)
I first heard this mix while driving through the desert at night, and basically had to hear it every day all summer. You can make your own mashup (can we have seen the end of this dreary practice?) that sounds a little like the remix by playing the original version at the same time as 808 State’s “Pacific State” and running it through a blender, but you’re probably better off getting it on iTunes.
Goldfrapp: “Little Bird” (Animal Collective mix)
I’ve loved Alison’s voice since hearing her on some of Orbital’s tracks in the 90s (check out “Are We Here?”), and of course Tricky’s “Pumpkin.” As Goldfrapp (with genius co-conspirator Will Gregory) they’ve gotten pretty big, whether you know it or not (seems like every TV show I see has one of their songs on the soundtrack). But Felt Mountain, their first album, is still my favorite.
A killer live version of “Little Bird”:
And I’m not sure if they played this before their Coachella set, but there were definitely some unwieldy wicker panels being hoisted for the backdrop, and it fits with the pagan/pastoral kick they’ve been on. Who knows what’s next.
These three b-sides (or two b-sides and one leaked mystery track) are even better than half the ones that made it onto the new album (the excellent, sprawling Forth—for all the two- and three-minute songs I was into last year, it was gratifying to get some sprawl). I love that Richard Ashcroft can make lyrics like “Breaking my heart/ Stealing my soul” sound, well, heartbreaking and soulful on “All Night Long.” Apparently music lets you do that. “Chic Dub” is lush and lonely and much better than its title. And I’m all for the resemblance between “Blue Pacific Ocean” and the Cocteau Twins’ “Cherry Coloured Funk.” Beautiful. Welcome back, lads. Please stay.
“All Night Long”
And more always playing in my head:
The Breeders: “Night of Joy,” “Overglazed”
Gnarls Barkley: “A Little Better”
Dubfire: “I Feel Speed” (Love and Rockets sample/remake)
Fuck Buttons: “Bright Tomorrow”
TV on the Radio: “Halfway Home”
Hot Chip: “Ready for the Floor,” “One Pure Thought”
Hercules and Love Affair: “Blind” (Frankie Knuckles mix)
Cut Copy: “Out There on the Ice”
Appendix: 2008 Live Shows I Lived For
Portishead at Coachella, Indio, CA (other highlights: Love and Rockets, Hot Chip, The Verve, Goldfrapp)
My Bloody Valentine at Roseland, NYC (same songs both nights, and no “Honey Power,” but still devastating)
MIA at McCarren Park Pool, Brooklyn
Stereolab at Irving Plaza, NYC
Radiohead at All Points West,Liberty State Park, NJ
Roisín Murphy at Mansion, NYC: She never comes to the States—funny what we won’t catch on to, compared to the crap we will—but she puts on a hell of a show. Costume changes, excellent backing band, extended and remixed versions of songs, and you better believe the jacket of the year:
One that should have been a stormer but kind of sucked: TV on the Radio at Brooklyn Masonic Temple. These guys are amazing and the setlist was great, but the sound was atrocious. Despite the scads of shows I go to (sometimes as many as four a week), I’m not all that fussy when it comes to venue acoustics and whatnot, so for me to notice, it had to be pretty wretched. Plus one of the sax players was wearing sunglasses. But I went on the first of three nights, maybe things improved.
Sorry to kvetch. Let’s end with a big little party:
El Guincho “Palmitos Park”
Look Who Came Dressed as the Sun
What’s worse, energy or ambition?
We used to say sincerity, now we can’t—
the wind not so easy to utter either
when it’s filling up your mouth.
Figure out something edible, a seed
at the source but nothing occurs.
If you write “ironic detachment”
in your orange notebook again
I’m going to throw it into a fire
even if I have to make a fire.
When one gets a handle on blame—
it’s beneficial for the critic to have
a few extra fingers—it allows one
to fabricate more useful than usual
perversions. A guy exited the train,
holding a pale green thing which might
have been a takeout salad or even
a lizard, filling the cradle of meat
his fingers made. I tried to see
but he was gone—that’s how a lot
of stories unfurl when someone smarter
than you doesn’t like you either.
It’s basically always me in here
but I’m less crucial than the light
that shoots through every window
I walk by and floods me almost with joy.
Mark Bibbins is the author of two books of poems, The Dance of No Hard Feelings (Copper Canyon Press, 2009) and the Lambda Award-winning Sky Lounge. He lives in New York City and teaches at The New School and Columbia University. Photo by Lila Schaffler.