Sat (or rather, standing) in the pub last Saturday with Ross, the inevitable "what's your top ten of the year..." conversation occurred. Last year, this was a real struggle where music was concerned. So many of my favourite artists released jaw-dropping discs in 2007 that ranking them almost became moot. 2008 wasn't nearly as good a year for new music releases as 2007 was, however. So, counting down...
10 - R.E.M.: Accelerate
Rather than being a favourite album of 2008, this is on the list simply because the other four or five 2008 releases I can think of did absolutely nothing for me, whereas this has a couple of really corking songs on it. Lead single "Living Well's The Best Revenge" and the ambivalent "Hollow Man" are the picks for me amongst what is (without a doubt) R.E.M.'s strongest effort since 1997's New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Sadly, that's not saying much.
9 - Nine Inch Nails: The Slip
I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Nine Inch Nails. And this was free!!! Nevertheless, a very good record. I didn't really enjoy With Teeth, and Year Zero seemed too bogged down in it's own concept. This album just punches above the last. "1,000,000", "Discipline" and the expansive "Corona Radiata" are my favourites here.
8 - The Mars Volta: The Bedlam In Goliath
How could you not get into an album about being haunted by something you called forth from a ouija board?! This album is simply the noisiest thing on Earth that isn't a Michael Bay film. There isn't an awful lot of let-up on this, with "Metatron" and "Wax Simulacra" being my choice listens. They still haven't topped Frances The Mute in my affections, but they're close.
7 - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!
Any Nick Cave album is probably going to make my top ten in any given year, because I'm that much of a fan boy. That said, I didn't really enjoy this one nearly as much as I hoped I would. The lingering garage-rock of side-project Grinderman doesn't seem to have worked it's way out of Cave's system, and as such this album is a bit lo-fi. Not entirely a bad thing, as there are some top tunes here. "Albert Goes West" and "Jesus Of The Moon" are grand pieces of work, but nothing else really elevates it above my personal favourites of his (No More Shall We Part and Let Love In, in case you cared!).
6 - Metallica: Death Magnetic
Well, they did it. With an even sillier title than the last one! Let's not talk about St. Anger (or "Stangah" as it's known down the pub). That's been done. This year's record really did surprise me quite spectacularly. There's a couple of dodgy rock-band-in-therapy moments, but it's good to see Hetfield back behind the pen and writing riffs that could peel the face off you if you're not careful. Lars has thankfully gone back to a proper drumkit, and also back to what he does best - follow Hetfield's riffs, and do very little else. I fully expect the next album to be even better.
5 - Death Cab For Cutie: Narrow Stairs
I only really discovered the work of this band in the past year, and having been engrossed in Plans and Transatlanticism for a few months I picked this up fairly recently. A slow grower, this album is a little more harsh-sounding and to-the-point than the other two I currently own. It won't "possess my heart", as Gibbard rather creepily sings in the second track, but there are golden moments here. Closing track "The Ice Is Getting Thinner" certainly struck a chord. If you haven't heard of this band, and you like songs, they're about to become your favourite thing ever.
4 - Steven Wilson: Insurgentes
Although it could be argued that the first few Porcupine Tree albums were Steven Wilson solo albums, this is the first record bearing the chap's name to appear as such. This would win my "packaging of the year", if I could be bothered to think of other things with nice presentation, but that aside it's a great piece of work. This is an album that lulls you into a false sense of security, thinking; 'this reminds me of Porcupine Tree', or 'ah, Blackfield sound like this', Wilson chucks a Nine Inch Nails riff your way and it hits you like a boomerang in the face. This was a limited edition release, but I seem to recall it being for more public consumption early next year in (probably) less lavish packaging. "Venemo Para Las Hadas", "Get All You Deserve" and the title track win this album.
3 - Sigur Ros: Meo Suo I Eyrum Vio Spilum Endalaust
Yet another long-player of luscious beauty. I love this band (even missed a gig of my own to see them live). Every track on this album is slightly over-the-top in it's own way, with the opening "Gobbledigook" being particularly full of beans. The first half of this is fairly pop-tinged, at least as far as this band goes, but they're soon back to their old tricks with sonic landscapes to gape at. Just wonderful.
2 - Opeth: Watershed
The only band utilising the "cookie monster" vocals that I've ever been able to stand listening to have outdone themselves yet again. As far as I'm concerned, they haven't put a foot wrong since 1999's Still Life, although if I'm honest their last effort (Ghost Reveries) was a little too drawn out for my tastes (repeating riffs that many times downgrades them from Brilliant to Just Good). That thought never crossed my mind while listening to this year's output, though it did take me a little while to adapt my ears to the slight direction shift. Whereas the last record seemed a logical progression from the two that preceded it (the heavy Deliverance and the light Damnation), they seem to have taken a B-road here into something that sounds fresher and less doom-laden. "The Lotus Eater" is the stand-out track here - it's absolutely mental. The only track I could have done without (at least initially) was "Burden", which quite frankly is a little more Scorpions than I ever imagined Opeth being. And even that's growing on me. Fuck.
1 - Marillion: Happiness Is The Road
Surprised? Probably not, if you know me at all. This band are responsible for at least two of my favourite albums ever (the heart-wrenching Brave and 2004's simply flawless Marbles), so they're on the automatic purchase list. It can be said that each album a band does is a reaction to the preceding one, for better or worse. Their last album, Somewhere Else, didn't really do it for me - the more stripped-down sound didn't work for the material to my ears. The lush, warm production I loved so much on Marbles is back with a vengeance on this album. "This Train Is My Life", the title track, "The Man From The Planet Marzipan" and "Real Tears For Sale" are the best picks, but the rest of it is just as fantastic. Love it.