Music

The Best Electronic(a) Albums of 2008

David Abravanel, Timothy Gabriele, Alan Ranta, and Dan Raper
Cut Copy

Ghosts, bugs, animals, tambourines, other channels, and Hercules: they're all part of the best electronic(a) music of the year.

Artist: Cut Copy

Album: In Ghost Colours

Label: Modular

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/c/cutcopy-inghostcolours.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-04-08

UK Release Date: 2008-05-05

Australia release date: 2008-04-08

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List number: 1

True to its desired status as progeny of New Order, Cut Copy's lyrics are not its strong suit. Yet listening to the refined electro jewels of dancefloor bliss on its sophomore album, In Ghost Colours, you'd be hard pressed to hold that against them. Refracting off the ever-strobing disco ball on the album's 15 tracks are the teensiest shards of EDM-proper's history -- new wave, freestyle, acid house, Swervedriver/ Chapterhouse style shoegazer, neo disco, 'ardkore, and on back to electroclash and synthpop again. Written and recorded using all of producer/DFA co-founder Tim Goldsworthy's vintage equipment (though it's definitely a product of the digital age), the album is a glut of quality music, almost too much for one album. Its shorter pieces like "Visions" or "We Fight for Diamonds" function like introductions to the album's numerous club bangers, but even these constrained edifices stand alone as miniature amulets and forces of cosmic good for the world. For an album daubed with ghost colours and with a track called "So Haunted", it's vibrantly alive in a way that 2008's culture of entropy desperately needed.

-- Timothy Gabriele


Artist: The Bug

Album: London Zoo

Label: Ninja Tune

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/bugthe-londonzoo.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-08-12

UK Release Date: 2008-07-07

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List number: 2

Though it ended with a tinge of hope, 2008 was mostly a year of dread. Big dubby natty dread. Lest we ever forget or get nostalgic for the horrific blaze-of-glory ending to the Bush saga, we have the Bug's appropriately panicked and paranoid summer jam London Zoo: a frenetic MC album by Kevin Martin, who has been frequently seen partnering with Justin Broadrick in God, Techno Animal, Ice, the Sidewinder, and a few others. Martin's vocal collaborators (Warrior Queen, Ricky Ranking, Spaceape) are perfectly suited to his vision, delivering acidic tongued machine-gun dancehall verse that rides in tandem with the flux of gigantic distorted beats. Its breadth is pretty astounding too. If Roger Robinson's soulful croon on "You and Me" is an extended meditative shiver, "Jah War" with Roll Deep's Flowdan is recorded in military time, assuming a pose not unlike what you might expect of Dubstep's hypothetical Public Enemy. The whirr of broken sirens and tripped-out alarms sound off all over the album, as if the conceptual whole of London Zoo was trying to warn us of some kind of impending socioeconomic disaster that would plunge the first world into the same dregs to which it had willfully bound the third world for some time. The album's Ballardian apocalypticism is shouldered throughout by a massive wall of subwoofer, the kind that makes cars shake and institutions collapse. To call it an earth-shattering release all on its own might be a bit hyperbolic. But sometimes there are albums that connect so perfectly with their times, they seem like a historical inevitability. This is one of those.

-- Timothy Gabriele

The Bug: London Zoo

Artist: Tipper

Album: Wobble Factor

Label: Tippermusic

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Wobble-Factor/dp/B001AUNGJG

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/t/tipper-wobblefactor.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-05-10

UK Release Date: Available as import

Internet release date: 2008-05-10

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List number: 3

Dave Tipper's got a bad back (one that forced him to cancel his North American tour this year) and it's easy to understand why when you hear Wobble Factor, his eighth breakbeat long-player, give or take. The man's mastery of chunky, elastic lower frequencies is unparalleled. One can't help but jive a wiggle down the backbone so hard as to slip several vertebrate. That's not the sum of his skill, though. He's a stereo dynamo (and occasional 5.1 ninja) whose technical control of every minute, twittering bleep can give the impression of living, breathing surround sound created fresh every time you hear it. Granted, sound design was never Tipper's greatest strength and many of the noises on Wobble originally appeared in pieces throughout just about every album he's released thus far, but they are never presented remotely the same way twice. In an era where Ableton Live loopers are mistakenly given widespread cred, Tipper's superlative nanosecond tweaking is the one-eyed man in a blind kingdom. In 2008, he reigned supreme.

-- Filmore Mescalito Holmes

Tipper: Wobble Factor

Artist: Hercules and Love Affair

Album: Hercules and Love Affair

Label: Mute

Label: DFA

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/h/herculesandloveaffair-herculesandloveaffair.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-24

UK Release Date: 2008-03-10

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List number: 4

The cognoscenti may have been onto Hercules and Love Affair by late 2007, but for the rest of us, this DFA debut came as a shockingly coherent blast of unexpected "euphoric disco". That it's as much about the songs themselves, the way they build and twist away in odd directions, as on the '70s/'80s, horns-and-glam vamp of "Blind", e.g., makes this special. Andy Butler has his own theme song, and it's way cooler and way messier than your theme song. The project couldn't possibly be so successful without Butler's years-accumulated experience around New York's amorphous dance music scene; and Hercules and Love Affair is as much Tim Goldsworthy (who gives the album its crisp, ultra-clean beats) and Antony Hegarty (who lends his incomparable voice to five of the ten taut tracks) as Butler himself. Like last year's Italians Do It Better comp and Sally Shapiro albums, Hercules and Love Affair prove that dance music needn't be muscular to be compelling -- but yes, it's still corporeal. Still Frankie Knuckles-savvy, still House-bound in the most straightforward sense. Escort, Baby Oliver, Holy Ghost! -- if more people care now about this music than back in February, it's because Hercules and Love Affair made it again OK to lose yourself in messy horns and unhinged glamour. In the end, it's Arthur Russell's gentle ghost that most completely hangs over Hercules and Love Affair -- a benevolent referent, who'd likely agree that this debut's something truly exciting, and very nearly perfect.

-- Dan Raper


Artist: Leila

Album: Blood, Looms and Blooms

Label: Warp

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/l/leila-bloodloomsandblooms.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-07-08

UK Release Date: 2008-07-07

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List number: 5

There was nearly a decade of silence between Leila Arab's last release and Blood, Looms and Blooms, and the record sounds like a chronicle of such an elongated period of reflection and reinvention. Leila possesses the same eccentric spark that made her a crafty addition to Björk's live act in the mid-'90s, only this time the moods are more melancholy and contemplative. Like Alice in Wonderland, Blood documents a whimsical being overcome by fantastical darkness. The cover art alone, featuring a miniscule Leila on a bike, hiding within a larger scene of trees, glass sculptures, and an eerily placid-looking crescent Moon, is a clue of what's in store.

Blood is the kind of album that reveals its secrets best in a hushed, personal setting. Try curling up in bed with a copy and see if the jazzy chime-spiced trip-hop doesn't work as good as the most imaginative novel, inspiring conceptions of a world that is simultaneously infinitely expansive and yet warmly intimate. Brief respites from the darkness, such as the sing-song child voices on "Little Acorns", are the protagonist's allies on a hero's journey in which Leila addresses loss (including that of both of her parents), but also finds strength and comfort in the collaborative musical process. Featuring guest appearances from Martina Topley-Bird, former head Special Terry Hall, Leila's sister Roya (kindred in lovely dark spirit to Portishead's Beth Gibbons), among others, Blood is a triumphant tapestry of the intersection of the real and magical properties of life.

-- David Abravanel


Artist: Girl Talk

Album: Feed the Animals

Label: Illegal Art

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/g/girl_talk_feed_the_animals.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-09-23

UK Release Date: Available as import

Internet release date: 2008-06-19

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List number: 6

Haven't seen the site visit stats over at the Hood Internet, but my bet is that interest is on the decline. See, there's mashups –- a perennially failing genre –- and then there's Girl Talk. Though his work no longer has the shock of something mostly unfamiliar, former Pittsburgh biomedical engineer Gregg Gillis continues crafting strangely lasting constructions out of pop's flimsy recognition. Overall Feed the Animals, which was released in July in a pay-what-you-want scheme similar to Radiohead's In Rainbows, plays lighter and more straightforward than Night Ripper. It's more visceral, less intellectual; more perfectly calibrated for house party soundtrack, and ultimately, more coherent. But Girl Talk's now signature super-smashed-together style throws up again moments of such exquisite pleasure you wonder how everything fits just so. The Yael Naim song from the iPod commercial with Bubba Sparxxx, or the excruciating pause as "Drink n My 2 Step" approaches in "Still Here". It may be cliché at this point, but even more than on the album that won him widespread acclaim, Girl Talk makes a persuasive argument for reconsidering familiar pop music in a new context. That context's now firmly Girl Talk's own (the guy's shows get covered on the homepage of the New York Times). In a world ever more bombarded by blog-circulated remixes and one-off A vs. B gimmicks, the only thing left is to sit and wait for a time when this frenetic, joyous cacophony comes to seem ascetic –- as packed as it is, a still album-length journey full of unabashed and gleeful association.

-- Dan Raper


Artist: The Advisory Circle

Album: Other Channels

Label: Ghost Box

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Other-Channels/dp/B001614ADU/ref=sr_f3_1?ie=UTF8&s=dmusic&qid=1228326170&sr=103-1

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/a/advisorycircle-otherchannels.jpg

US Release Date: Available as import

UK Release Date: 2008-03-10

Internet release date: 2008-03-10

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List number: 7

To date, the UK's Ghost Box label has yet to find an American distributor, making its catalogue as arcane in the U.S. as the fetish items of British culture -- institutional media, library music, vintage television –-- that the Advisory Circle's Other Channels finds eerie precedent in. Like most of the output of Ghost Box, Other Channels is comprised of an attic's worth of record needle syringes for the vinyl junkie. It's the label's most menacing compendium today, a nightmare vision of half-remembered banal television dreams as videodrome to the fragmented future. Rather than co-opt or replicate its inspirations, the album reverently surfeits the future-past prototype for brave new constructions, be they dark moogy incantations à la Bruck Haack or the late Mort Garson's Lucifer project, incidental BBC Radiophonic SFX, erotica/thriller string sections, terrified screams, a Dadaist one minute telplay, a PSA about children falling through the ice, or numerous sinister atonal electronic pulses. The overwhelming sense of general malaise on the album reads like culture's subterfuge, the realization of 40 years of post-McLuhan media's inscription onto your subconscious. As the album pans through, it repeatedly explodes into psychedelic annihilation before returning to run the test card tones.

-- Timothy Gabriele

The Advisory Circle: Other Channels

Artist: Lawgiverz

Album: Data Treat EP

Label: Addictech

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/l/lawgiverz-datatreatep.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-03-13

UK Release Date: 2008-03-13

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List number: 8

Nearly a decade after R-Kidz and Noize started releasing singles, still little is known about the mysterious masked nu-skool breaks duo Lawgiverz. Interviews are a rarity and, in all that time, Data Treat was their first EP, let alone album. This much is certain: their glowing mask jewels beam their music directly from their cerebral cortex into the auditory centre of the brains of listeners lucky enough to see them live and this EP was well worth the wait for those who aren't. Almost like Steve Reich in their unpredictable alignment of rhythm, Lawgiverz proved themselves to be the cutting edge of intelligent breaks with four bouncy, liquid exploding elf machine originals intricate and expansive enough to take you to a Terence McKenna plane of existence without the use of powerful hallucinogens, yet bass oriented enough to keep feet moving in relative time.

What's more, their remix of Matinee Club's "Sometimes" reconstitutes genuine '80s synth pop into dark, mutant, throwback house with a stuttering beat, one that often breaks four hits into three bars in 4/4 time. Believe me, that is no easy feat to achieve so flawlessly. If they ever manage to get an album together, it'll probably invert the phase of the vibration of matter and suck the universe into limbo...actually, I guess it's for the best they max out at EPs. It's an immeasurably heavy yet manageable dose.

-- Filmore Mescalito Holmes


Artist: Kenny Larkin

Album: Keys, Strings, Tambourines

Label: Planet-E

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/k/kennylarkin-keysstringstambourines.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-09-23

UK Release Date: 2008-09-15

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List number: 9

It's about time for another Detroit Techno resurgence. Ghostly Intl. has some good artists, but for a fix of the pure stuff, it's great to see Carl Craig's Planet-E label back in business. And what better way to resurface than with some new fire from Kenny Larkin, Craig's second-wave Detroit contemporary. Larkin remains one of techno's more compelling personalities, and I use the word purposefully -- contrasted with the iconic facelessness of contemporaries like Underground Resistance, Larkin lets his personality and sense of humor in on the music act. He's a passionate techno alien, and a goofy, spiritual guy, all of which comes through on Keys, Strings, Tambourines.

Lead single "You Are...(Light)" is Kenny Larkin 101, adrenaline-pumping synth-stabs, adorned by his own engaging monologue, delivered halfway between exhaustion and exuberance. That the words come from the quick-buck promises of unfortunate literary phenomenon The Secret is something else entirely, but Larkin is being sincere nonetheless. Keys demonstrates mastery of the secrets of funky stiffness in 4/4 electronic production, while deftly interweaving elements of jazz, chillout, and dub with the techno formula. A triumphantly sweaty return.

-- David Abravanel


Artist: The Orb

Album: The Dream

Label: Six Degrees

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/o/orbthe-thedream.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-10

UK Release Date: 2008-02-25

Japan release date: 2007-09-19

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List number: 10

The secret to the Orb's success is that it can be so seriously goofy -- meticulously crafted pieces of echo-laden ambient dub, featuring silly samples that range from Reading Rainbow to children's books. 2005's Okie Dokie It’s the Orb on Kompakt, and its accompanying series of EP releases on the venerable German label, was an interesting change of pace, retaining the dub influence and heavy reverb, but tightening the ship to restricted beats and more directed and repetitive themes. No doubt, Orb member (and Kompakt solo artist) Thomas Fehlmann had a heavy hand in the scale-back on Okie Dokie.

The Dream, then, is an album from the Orb’s central ever-pulsating Ultraworld brain, Alex Paterson, joined by old friend and collaborator Martin "Youth" Glover, formerly of Killing Joke. With zero credits to Fehlmann, The Dream returns to the jolly acid-eater excursions of old, even going so far as to reuse the vocalizing from the classic "Blue Room", on "The Truth Is..." The Dream inevitably alienated fans of the progressive minimalism of Okie Dokie, the truth being that both are excellent records, and let’s not forget that Fehlmann is equally capable of bouncy sample-driven fun (see: "Outlands"). The Dreamis a wildly colorful collection of unbelievably fun ambient dub techno; in essence, a lovely, rubbery Orb record.

-- David Abravanel


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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