Part 2: Katzenjammer to Xiu Xiu

Artist: Ponytail
Album: Ice Cream Spiritual
Label: We Are Free
US Release Date: 2008-06-17

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Ponytail sounds like a broken Nintendo game. Their spastic dueling guitars conjure the maximum overdrive of Marnie Stern or their Baltimore brethren Ecstatic Sunshine. But Ponytail’s riffs bounce around aimlessly, without a bass line weighing them down. Adding to the band’s improvisational sound is lead singer Molly Siegel’s yelps, howls and catcalls; she barely utters a lyric throughout the entire disc. Siegel claims to get inspiration from Stevie Nicks, but her work here has scarcely any human contemporary. The album climaxes with the sugar rush anthem “I Sing the Body Electric”, seven-plus minutes of piercing guitars and ecstatic shouting. The song is a definite standout from the excellent set of the year’s eclectic indie groups (Crystal Antlers, Abe Vigoda, Aa). Ponytail’s unusual approach caused many to scratch their heads, but their bombast alone make the band one of the most energetic and interesting act of this decade. Joe Tacopino

Ponytail: Ice Cream Spiritual

Artist: Jay Reatard
Album: Matador Singles ’08
Label: Matador
US Release Date: 2008-10-07
UK Release Date: 2008-10-06

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Jay Reatard’s long been a snotty punk, screaming instead of singing and thrashing instead of strumming in bands and as a solo artist ever since he was a teenager. But in the past few years his songwriting has blossomed as he’s incorporated acoustic guitars, keyboards and mellower tones into his music, and Matador Singles ‘08 — a compilation of singles he put out for his new label last year — is the culmination of the 29-year-old’s transformation from a rusty switchblade to a scuffed Swiss Army Knife. Songs like “See/Saw” and “Always Wanting More” are the power pop of a young lifer, punchy and wry and imbued with the weary confidence that comes from writing pop songs since the age of 15. The album’s last three songs, sweet yet acidic lo-fi acoustic sketches, find Reatard lamenting via bare-bones pop — his synthesis. Jordan Sargent

Jay Reatard – See/SawJay Reatard: Matador Singles ’08

Artist: Raphael Saadiq
Album: The Way I See It
Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2008-09-16
UK Release Date: 2008-09-15

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Remember all those great old Motown songs from the past, those wonderful Stevie Wonder songs, marvelous Marvin Gaye melodies, and tempting Temptation tunes that made you harmonize to the radio? If you’re not old enough, don’t worry. Raphael Saadiq has brought that music back into the present. His tribute to the Motor City magic strikes the right balance of reverence and fun as he recalls why people enjoyed the Sound of Young America even during the country’s most turbulent decade. This isn’t a nostalgia trip or collection of standards. Saadiq pens new material that understands the erotic yearnings of the past masters and delivers them signed and sealed with his own stamp. Steve Horowitz

Raphael Saadiq: The Way I See It

Artist: Samamidon
Album: All Is Well
Label: Bedroom Community
US Release Date: 2008-02-05
UK Release Date: 2008-02-01

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I actually didn’t want to do a Slipped Discs blurb for this album, because I feel like a broken record. I’ve been trying to convince people of how great Samamidon in general and this album in specific is since October 2007 and I know how annoying it is when people just won’t shut up about their pet favourites. But if you like folk music or orchestral arrangements or Jose Gonzalez or love songs or murder ballads or clapping songs or Iceland or sad music that makes you feel happy or, you know, songs, then please, for my sanity if nothing else, check out All Is Well. Or at least “Saro”, still one of the finest songs performed in the last decade and a perfect example of Sam’s talents. Ian Mathers

Samamidon – SaroSamamidon: All Is Well

Artist: The Shackeltons
Album: The Shackeltons
Label: Loveless
US Release Date: 2008-01-29
UK Release Date: Unavailable

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A garage band from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, the Shackeltons haven’t done any of those things that get year attention, but they released one of the year’s best albums simply by pounding away with a youthful fervency that reminds you why rock ‘n’ roll matters. They push their emotionalism and vulnerability as far as they should, making honesty a virtue once again. There are no hidden tricks, no sleight-of-hand. The band means what they say and they’ve got their soft hearts into the red. The artistry lies in their ability to make near-sentimentality not only work, but also feel like an achievement. Simple, honest, pummeling. I didn’t know that could work anymore. Justin Cober-Lake

The Shackeltons: The Shackeltons

Artist: She & Him
Album: Volume One
Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2008-03-18
UK Release Date: Available as import

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She & Him is the musical collaboration between actress Zooey Deschanel and indie guitar virtuoso M. Ward. The majority of Volume One consists of songs penned by Deschanel and they offer an assorted mix of styles that range from the classic country of “Got Me” to the girl group sounds of “I Was Made for You” to the torchy “Take It Back”. What brings these distinct forms together is Deschanel’s voice and Ward’s nimble fingerpicking and fine work on the slide guitar. Ward contributes limited vocals, but his singing on their cover of The Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better” has Deschanel letting out a giggle, exemplifying the loose feel of the recording process and in turn, the finished product. She and Him have debuted with an album of consistently well-crafted and engaging songs, delivered with plentiful harmonies, handclaps, and oohs and aahs offering the listener immediate sonic gratification. Jessica Suarez

She & Him — Black Hole (MTV Canada)She & Him: Volume One

Artist: Sic Alps
Album: U.S. EZ
Label: Siltbreeze
US Release Date: 2008-07-24
UK Release Date: 2008-07-15

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The last few years have seen a sort of half-assed resurgence of lo-fi rock. Bands such as Times New Viking left the mildly obscure Siltbreeze to join the Matador ranks as others tried to reclaim the sound of early ’90s four-trackers. With US EZ, Sic Alps brought us into the world of dusty old 45s with their tight-knit vocal harmonies and hazy recordings. The band abandoned the sludge-filled squall of their previous work and gave us a lo-fi record more awash in the psychedelic sounds of ’60s San Francisco. Songs such as “Jelly Roll Gumdrop” and “Sing Song Waitress” could’ve been AM radio nuggets. Above all, the band gave youngsters a history lesson when it comes to lo-fi recording: this stuff was going on decades before Lou Barlow imploded. Joe Tacopino

Sic Alps – Massive PlaceSic Alps: U.S. EZ

Artist: Silver Jews
Album: Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
Label: Drag City
US Release Date: 2008-06-17
UK Release Date: 2208-06-16

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Whatever the reason, be it personal stability or the band truly gelling after touring together, the Silver Jews‘ sixth LP is, musically and lyrically, their most cohesive. The Silver Jews has always expressed poet/songwriter David Berman’s distinct vision of the world. Here all of the sadness, absurdity, and creativity of that vision are articulated particularly well, through fables, puzzles and short stories. The songs are funny, a quality too often missing from music these days, and fanciful. Yet the humor and imagination, even the emphasis on dreams, manage to never contradict a sense that life can be wearying, personified by the image of a suffering jukebox filled with the pain of humankind. Still it’s a hopeful album, even triumphantly so, and it ends on a tender note: with two wayward souls meeting, wondering if happiness can finally be theirs. Dave Heaton

Silver Jews: Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea

Artist: Sparks
Album: Exotic Creatures of the Deep
Label: Lil’ Beethoven
US Release Date: 2008-05-19

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Few great bands could exist for nearly 40 years and gain as little popular recognition as Sparks, the arty pop band centered around brothers Ron (keyboards) and Russell (vocals) Mael. Perhaps their outsider status is due to Russell’s near-operatic high tenor, or the strangeness of the duo’s song subjects, which have ranged from sneezing (“Achoo”) to erections (“Angst in My Pants”) to telephone operators (“You’re Call’s Very Important to Us, Please Hold”). On their latest, Exotic Creatures of the Deep, Sparks continue a 21st century career revival with another engrossing batch of tunes in which Ron combines the synthpop of Pet Shop Boys, the Minimalist composition of Philip Glass, and the art rock of Roxy Music. Russell, meanwhile, croons Freddie Mercury-like about simian chauffeurs, male pregnancy, Morrissey, and the power of Photoshop to erase all records of a former lover. In 2008, Sparks commemorated their long career by performing all 21 of their albums in chronological order, boldly asserting their indomitable rule over their own weird and wondrous world. Michael Keefe

Sparks – This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us (Live TV May 2008)Sparks: Exotic Creatures of the Deep

Artist: Spiritualized
Album: Songs in A&E
Label: Fontana International
Label: Spaceman
US Release Date: 2008-05-27
UK Release Date: 2008-05-26

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Shoegazing fuzz became sublime soul gazing with Spiritualized’s Songs in A&E. Frontman Jason Pierce mined his near-death experiences after battling illness to create one of 2008’s most transcendent albums. Blues-drenched ballads and psychedelic gospel hymns tell a story of resurrected melancholy as Peirce explores relationship fall out, fear, doubt and regret while on his way to visiting a higher ground. The Spaceman brings back soulfully sweet spirituals from another planet. Brassy horns, subtle strings and cymbal taps float over purring organs and guitar as Pierce retains his touch for sweet talking angels with somber folk songs, cautionary tales and simple songwriting. Death and heartache might be themes of Songs in A&E, but life has the last breath. With respirators as rhythmic instruments guiding the way, Pierce keeps his promise through the album’s final lullaby ballad “Good Night Good Night”. Chris Catania

Spiritualized: Songs in A&E