Music

The Best of Britain 2008

Chris Baynes
Portishead

British music in 2008 was for once every bit the match of its American equivalent, and tantalisingly suggested there's much more to come.

The concept of any given year being a 'good one' for music is a little strange. So many albums are turned over in 12 months that if you felt 2008, 2007 or any other annum to offer up particularly slim creative pickings you probably just weren't looking in the right places. That said, it's hard not to feel a rush of optimism at what the past year of British music has left in its wake. If 2007 saw In Rainbows reaffirming and justifying Radiohead's status as the nation's most creative and respected ensemble, 2008 has invited into the fold a number of contenders for that title in 2018. Put more succinctly: we've had some bloody good debut albums this year.

What makes this more of triumph, if anything, is that the fresh faces that have caught the eyes and ears of the press have had to battle it out with the big boys for attention. This autumn promised to be dominated by a raft of major releases from the likes of Oasis, Snow Patrol, Keane and the Kaiser Chiefs; the types of artists whose very bowel movements are intimately tracked by the nation's ever-obliging tabloid newspapers. But come December, after Dig Out Your Soul has been met with the critical equivalent of a shoulder-shrug, it's the impulsive release of Los Campesinos!'s sophomore we're talking about; it's Fuck Buttons's wildly inventive sonic templates that have blown us away; and it's underground London producer Kevin Martin's dubstep project the Bug that's nabbing all the end-of-year accolades. Hell, who knew that Coldplay had released an album this year?

That's not to say that the UK's more established acts have lain dormant. Undoubtedly one of the year's success stories was Elbow's triumph at the Mercury Music Awards for their exquisitely crafted fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid. The Mancunian quintet collected the prize with characteristic charm ("We've been waiting 20 years for our own press conference"), and nary a soul would have begrudged them it. It was also the year of the comeback, though the Verve might have cast envious glances at the rapturous reception Portishead's sublime Third received in comparison to their own somewhat tepid Forth.

The charts, meanwhile, have arguably regained a modicum of respect. While obviously it would be folly to place too much stock in anything that allows Kid Rock a semblance of prestige, with the dark days of teeny-pop and boy-band domination not entirely erased from the memory it is a relative relief to see the likes of Duffy, the Ting Tings and Estelle climbed to the top. Dizzee Rascal's ridiculously infectious "Dance Wiv Me", meanwhile, was as good a summer anthem as you could hope for.

Nevertheless, 2008 was the year of the underdog. It was a year that rewarded invention and experimentation, whether it was Elbow stepping out of their comfort zone or Portishead stepping out of their entire persona; Los Camp! beating the sophomore slump before the challenge was even set; or Foals having the gumption to ditch the mix of their debut by one of the most respected contemporary producers around. British music in 2008 was for once every bit the match of its American equivalent, and tantalisingly suggested there's much more to come.

Not bad for a year that began with the hideous precedent of Scouting for Girls ascending to the top of the album charts.

Artist: Portishead Album: Third Label: Island Label: Mercury Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/p/portishead-third.jpg US Release Date: 2008-04-29 UK Release Date: 2008-04-28

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Perhaps someone ought to have told Axl Rose this is how to pull off a comeback. Granted, the comparison doesn't quite hold -- Chinese Democracy was over a decade in the making, while Portishead merely took a conscious hiatus -- but it does underline what an achievement Third turned out to be. After ten years, I doubt anyone really knew what to expect from Portishead's return -- a revival to trip-hop would have sat pretty with no one, least of all the band themselves -- but what we got was assuredly their best work to date, and their most experimental to boot. Showcasing a band reinvented in all but name, the trio's disgust at the coffee-table fate of their earlier work is palpable on Third; it is a jarring, disparate, tense collection reconcilable with Dummy only by the sepulchral figurehead of Beth Gibbons. "Machine Gun" is brutal, "The Rip" tortured, "We Carry On" chilling; Third won't exactly brighten your demeanour, but its intoxicating -- if desolate -- chemistry is mesmerizing.

Portishead: Third

Artist: Foals Album: Antidotes Label: Sub Pop Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/f/foals-antidotes.jpg US Release Date: 2008-04-08 UK Release Date: 2008-03-24

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The danger with Foals was always going to be expectation. The hyperbole had been aflutter for so long before Antidotes dropped that half of those who had built them up were now waiting for them to come crashing down. Indeed, it's a sign of the anticipation for the quintet's debut that they were able to toss Dave Sitek's apparently airy mix binwards and do it themselves with no loss of face, nor label funding. All of which makes it all the more impressive that Antidotes stands up triumphantly to the severe critical scrutiny that lay in wait. Complicating terms like 'math-rock' and 'afrobeat' were bandied around but at its heart the album the album thrives on its melodic stock and the sheer infectiousness of the hooks that blindsight you at every opportunity. Hyperactive polyrhythmic guitar lines and Jack Bevan's brisk drum work are all executed with mathematical precision, but with such vibrancy that they transmit simply as fun, rather than clinical. The end result is something akin to what Interpol would make if they liked a good dance and actually appeared to enjoy making music.

Foals - Olympic AirwaysFoals: Antidotes

Artist: Youthmovies Album: Good Nature Label: Drowned in Sound Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/y/youthmovies.jpg US Release Date: Available as import UK Release Date: 2008-03-17

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If anyone had the right to be rankled by Foals's success, it was Youthmovies frontman Andrew Mears. A founding member of the former outfit, the singer/guitarist upped sticks in 2006 to focus of the latter, his principal project. His former bandmates, of course, duly went on to be the 'it band' of 2008, but for many Youthmovies embody precisely what Foals lack; namely, a heart. Their debut, Good Nature was wise beyond its years and was shot through with an emotive quality of which Antidotes was arguably bereft. At times angular and intricate, at others sumptuously melodic, the album is hardly in want of its own pop hooks. The difference here, however, was that they were concealed within gloriously grand seven-minute post-prog masterpieces like "If You'd Seen a Battlefield" or the brassy "Soandso & Soandso", which can't quite decide whether it wants to be restlessly agitated or utterly gorgeous. An album of the year contender in its own right, Good Nature is a spectacular debut, and it's hard to imagine that the reason Youthmovies have had so few column inches granted them compared to countrymen Los Campesinos! and Mears's former cohorts is down to anything more than the fact they don't write three minute pop songs.

Youthmovies - The Naughtiest Girl Is a MonitorYouthmovies: Good Nature

Artist: Fuck Buttons Album: Street Horrrsing Label: ATP Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/f/fuckbuttons-streethorrrsing.jpg US Release Date: 2008-03-18 UK Release Date: 2008-03-17

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On the face of it, Fuck Buttons are noisy, repetitive and conceitedly difficult. Of course, that's because Fuck Buttons are noisy, repetitive and conceitedly difficult. But they are also complex, hypnotic, beautiful and mesmerising. Street Horrrsing is a sprawling, ambitious record, wherein every shimmering stroke or grumble of bass could be incidental, almost natural, if it were not cued to perfect precision to maximum effect. "Sweet Love for Planet Earth" is a minimalist masterpiece, the drawn-out, slow-motion collision between starry-eyed, twinkling ambience and driving, droning pulsations of noise, while "Ribs Out"'s rounds of live tribal drums and vocal squalls could have been borne of a completely different band if it were not for the difficulty in conceiving another two young men capable of such brilliant cacophony.

Fuck Buttons - Bright TomorrowFuck Buttons: Street Horrrsing

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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It's scarcely a coincidence that London Zoo was released in Britain three years to the day after the July 7 terrorist attacks. Kevin Martin's third release under the Bug pseudonym is dense, foreboding and almost apocalyptic in feel. The claustrophobic soundscapes never resort to mere backing tracks for the likes of guest vocalists on show here, and are synchronised instead to intricate perfection. Take, for instance, the impossibility low bass and pummeling beat of "Murder We", seemingly custom-fitted to Ricky Ranking's anti-war diatribe. Or "Poison Dart", and the way Warrior Queen seems to orchestrate Martin's slouchy bass. It's an exhausting -- at times punishing -- journey, but the sheer ferocious energy of Martin's arrangements and the urgency of his collaborators bleeds through in abundance.

The Bug - Poison DartThe Bug: London Zoo

Artist: Errors Album: It's Not Something But It Is Like Whatever Label: Rock Action Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/e/errors-itsnotsomethingbutitislikewhatever.jpg US Release Date: Available as import UK Release Date: 2008-06-02

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Title aside, what's impressive about this Glaswegain outfit's debut is just how infectious it makes instrumental, post-rock-influenced electronica. The double-team swear-box fillers of Holy Fuck and Fuck Buttons might have hogged the plaudits, but Errors are at once more substantial that the former and more accessible than the latter. Great swathes of knife-edged synth and interweaving melodies are here by the hatful, but what makes It's Not Something truly memorable are the beats and basslines that underpin them. This synthesis often creeps up on you: the likes of "Dance Music" and "National Prism" kick off innocuously and then, a minute or so in, you realise all your limbs are bobbing in mutual appreciation. With Mogwai's ingenuity these days arguably in negative correlation to their age, tour- and label-mates Errors might just been the natural successors to their throne.

Errors - Salut! FranceErrors: It's Not Something But It Is Like Whatever

Artist: Los Campesinos! Album: Hold on Now, Youngster… Label: Arts & Crafts Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/l/loscampesinos-holdonnowyoungster8230.jpg US Release Date: 2008-04-01 UK Release Date: 2008-02-25

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2008 will inevitably be remembered as the year Los Campesinos! capriciously crammed two albums into eight months, but before they snuck out the second of those in October it was destined to be the year the Welsh septet breathed fourteen lungfuls of fresh air into the British scene. Indeed, amid the hubbub over We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, it's easy to forget just how startlingly good its still-warm predecessor is. In a way, this draw is down to its freshness. Youngster embodies to perfection every facet of teenage cynicism, despair, sexuality -- even indie-kid music snobbery -- and it does so with honesty and humour, rather than condescension or superficiality, precisely because Los Camp! are barely shot of that stage of their life. That's not to say the band's appeal is grounded exclusively in their youth -- Youngster's abundance of hooks and instrumental interplay is precociously honed -- but the specificity and accuracy of the life-stage their debut replicates instills it with a charm that's impossible to fabricate.

Los Campesinos! - You! Me! Dancing!Los Campesinos!: Hold on Now, Youngster…

Artist: Wild Beasts Album: Limbo, Panto Label: Domino Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/w/wildbeasts-limbopanto.jpg US Release Date: 2008-11-04 UK Release Date: 2008-06-16

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Inevitably, critics (present company not entirely excepted) have tended to focus on Hayden Thorpe's vocal theatricals as the dominant quality of Wild Beasts music. But while the Leeds-based quartet were to an extent reliant on that histrionic, irrepressible falsetto, the dependence is mutual; without such a richly plumped bed of melody laid underneath him, Thorpe would be little more than a showboating peacock. As it is Limbo, Panto's synthesis is perfectly attuned, rendering Thorpe simply the most conspicuous component of a stately menagerie that lists also interweaving jangles of guitars, pulses of bass and instrumental flourishes aplenty, all acting out some lurid provincial pantomime. At once both elegant and febrile, Limbo, Panto re-enacts the machismo elements of contemporary Britain (libido-driven lager louts, city centre brawls and football terraces) as if it were an Elizabethan drama, and remarkably comes out not just coherent but infectious.

Wild Beasts - Brave Bulging ClairvoyantsWild Beasts: Limbo, Panto

Artist: Elbow Album: The Seldom Seen Kid Label: Fiction Label: Geffen Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/e/elbow-theseldomseenkid.jpg US Release Date: 2008-04-22 UK Release Date: 2008-03-17

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Even as they transcended any commercial valuation they'd ever held, Elbow's fourth and most assured album was an affirmation of why their critical stock has always been so much higher. The Seldom Seen Kid had everything they'd ever done right before in spades: Guy Garvey's careworn, affable croon; subtle, slow-built crescendos; perfectly judged instrumentation; dry, honest melancholy; a certain restrained, masculine gorgeousness. Elbow's appeal in microcosm was embodied by "The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver", which cuts straight to the chase of its aching, gaping-wide guitar and crisp drum rolls, leaving the subsequent upsurge to come exclusively from the mouth of Garvey himself. This subtlety, this fineness detail, is why The Seldom Seen Kid is in all the year-end lists and Coldplay's Viva la Vida is not. That it happened to have, in "Grounds for Divorce" and "One Day Like This", two unprecedented hit singles is merely a bonus.

Elbow: The Seldom Seen Kid

Artist: Frightened Rabbit Album: The Midnight Organ Fight Label: FatCat Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/f/frightenedrabbit-themidnightorganfight.jpg US Release Date: 2008-04-15 UK Release Date: 2008-04-14

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In theory, there's a fine line between melancholy and moaning. In reality, it's a gulf; one straddled by something a simple as sincerity alongside something as enviable as charismatic lyricism. Luckily, Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison is bereft of neither, hence why the Scottish quartet's sophomore is captivating throughout its achingly desperate miserablism. Whether lamenting meaningless sex ("It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm") or his own worthlessness ("You must be a masochist to love a modern leper on his last leg"), Hutchison's despondency rarely lets up even as his band broach sunnier melodies. Organ Fight trades more in urgency than wallowing, however, and the likes of the anthemic "Modern Leper" and the bristling "Fast Blood" showcase a bona fide development, the former in particular exhibiting a grandstanding poise befitting of the Scots' newfound polish.

Frightened Rabbit: The Midnight Organ Fight
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