Music 2008: Indie Rock Rediscovers The Joys Of Tape Hiss
In a good way, indie rock got smaller in 2008.
D.C. rediscovered its love for vinyl (the story of the year is the resurgence of the mom-and-pop record store). A neighborhood—Mount Pleasant—stood up against anti-live-music NIMBYs. Even a local band or two seemed to surprise all of us (Deleted Scenes).
There's a new underground, a real underground, working overtime in a group house in the District, and Iowa City, and every place in between. This new underground doesn't have much of an Internet presence (no standard wiki page, packages sold via checks-in-the-mail). This underground has started releasing hand-made tapes (again). Its fuzzy folky CD-Rs were this year's mix tapes.
Some of the year's best music couldn't be labeled. Some of the year's best music couldn't be found on Pitchfork. I wish I could have digested all of it. I wish I could have given a deeper listen to Wet Hair, Children's Hospital, Kria Brekkan, Ducktails, Mark McGuire, and so on. But here's my favorite indie releases of the year so far:
1. Ruby Suns: Sea Lion (Sub Pop)
In a year where everyone copied a bit from the New Zealand sound all over again—kiwi pop was almost as big as afropop as a selling point this year—the Ruby Suns are one of the few who didn’t fall for either the tribute to Paul Simon (Vampire Weekend) or plunder the Flying Nun catalog. Leader Ryan McPhun, a Californian who has made New Zealand his home for years, combines Afropop congas, ‘80s dance beats, and even a tribute to the Mojave Desert (now, well, a tribute to Mojave, some new Microsoft thing). It’s what Neutral Milk Hotel would sound like now. I wrote about the band's live show at the Black Cat a while ago and filmed a bit of its performance.
Listen to "Tane Mahuta"
2. The Woods: Some Shame [Tour-Only Cassette]
Here is a band that scores zero mentions on Metacritic, has gotten no reviews on Pitchfork. They release cassettes, CD-Rs and limited runs of vinyl. They put so much stuff out, they seem like an empire. They are a band for message boards and word-of-mouth. None of this means anything except that these Brooklyn DIY tapeheads aspire to real-not-virtual audiences, not hegemony or to be heard on a Gossip Girls episode. The Woods produce music that actually feels personal, and maybe even truly free sounding. Listening to Some Shame is like what it felt like to discover Weed Forestin’: woozy psych, bursts of noise, secret knowledge. It's a feel-good weirdness you decode only when you can’t sleep. (For me, that’s a lot of the time.)
Listen to "Military Madness"
3. Yoro Sidibe: Yoro Sidibe (Yaala Yaala)
A Towson professor, Jack Carneal, finds himself mesmerized by the plunky, preachy sounds of ancient Malian hunters music. So he seeks out the master. What he brings back is trance music, story songs for the dance floor whether centuries ago or right now. You’ll want to crank this up. I wrote about the record for the Post.
Listen to "Track 3"
4. Crystal Stilts: Alright of Night (Slumberland)
The debate of the year for nerds—at least myself and a few friends—seemed to come down to how you felt about your Brooklyn-based C86 tributes: Crystal Stilts vs. Vivian Girls. Both revived indie pop, both had a lot of hype, and both released some super-rare vinyl that had to be reissued before the year was out.
I pick the Crystal Stilts.
The band’s songs just a bit more vulnerable—they can go down bittersweet, nailing the early-morning-VU-comedown or detail the 2 a.m. walk home as girl-group tribute. Buried under reverb, Brad Hargett’s deep wallow is just twee enough. “The City in the Sea” may be the most beautiful indie -pop song I heard in 2008. Any band that could revive the beloved, one-time local Slumberland label has to be doing something right. This was the record that became part of my morning routine. Coffee. Grits. And the Crystal Stilts.
Listen to "Prismatic Room"
5. Arthur Russell: Love Is Overtaking Me (Audika)
Over smokes, a colleague dismissed this latest edition to the Arthur Russell cult by saying this isn’t what he wants out of Russell. He wants quirky dance beats, some avant cello, and some really smart, warped disco. But damn—who knew Russell could do country tunes as simple-memorable as lullabies? Russell does Drag City before Drag City. His songs are just as intimate and bracing (“Eli”), beautifully rambling (“I Couldn’t Say it to Your Face”) and free of Nashville’s sheen. You may want to join the cult.
Listen to "I Couldn't Say It To Your Face"
6. Flying Lotus: Los Angeles (Warp)
One of the coolest things about the Stones Throw label is that it has never stopped memorializing producer J Dilla. Since his death in February 2006, Stones Throw has supported mixes, concerts, T-shirts, and reissues in his honor. Hip-hop is a forward moving beast, but it has never stopped paying its respects to the fallen. There may still be Dilla beats yet to make it to wax. But eventually, those beats are gonna run out. Someone’s going to have to take the Dilla sound to the next realm. I vote for Flying Lotus, the Winnetka, California producer. His Los Angeles is the kind of spaced-out place Dilla would have loved.
Listen to "Breathe. Something/Stellar STar"
7. Woods Family Creeps: Woods Family Creeps (Time-Lag)
Weird folk finally gets weird. Songs included here do not directly reference old hippie styles (OK, maybe a little). The tunes shudder with seemingly found sounds, and find their grip by the strum of a guitar, a sustained piano chord, or Jeremy Earl’s loneliest falsetto. Sometimes you can almost dance to it (“Twisted Tongue”), sometimes you will be frozen by its bizarro blues (“Howling on Howling”). It sounds like they’ve found Tom Waits’ old toy chest. And pillaged it (“Sleep Sleep Sleep”). These are the same misfits that constitute Woods and Meneguar. They’re busy.
Listen to "Twisted Tongue"
8. Wavves: Wavves (Woodsist)
Wavves is Nathan Williams. He is from San Diego. Comparisons to No Age aside (both share an affinity for fuzz pedals and loud drums and reside in the same state), Wavves takes his cues from less abstract sources like Beat Happening and the Ramones, and really likes dropping the word “goth” in his song titles. Sure, he can play with noise, but then he’ll drop the sweetest, fuzziest pop nugget you’ll hear all year (“The Boys Will Love Us”).
Listen to "California Goth"
9. She & Him: Volume One (Merge)
Zooey Deschanel can sing. She can write real good, too. She also knows how to make talented friends (M. Ward) and find a respected label (Merge) to do her songs justice. While indie boys continued to toy with fuzz pedals and grow beards and practice CSNY harmonies (yuck), this actress went ahead and made the best tribute to ‘70s AM radio you never realized you really wanted to hear.
Listen to "This Is Not A Test"
10. Blank Dogs: The Fields CS (Woodsist)
I’m kind of a wuss when it comes to the growing basement doom scene. A lot of the Sacred Bones roster is too brittle, too gloomy, too damn scary for repeat listens (still, Sacred Bones could be the label of the year). The demented whimsy of Pink Noise? The hellraisin' industrial clang of the Factums? It’s some of the coldest music coming up from the underground. Blank Dogs certainly comes from that place, but his songs don’t sound like androids covering Bauhaus.
Blank Dogs sounds like a kid enthralled with Joy Division and the sound of old Nintendo games. I have not heard all of the recordings of Blank Dogs. Not even close. But what I do know is that this mysterious Brooklynite–who obscures his face for photos, doesn’t play out much at all, produced a compilation of his works, and gives his stuff away for free on his blog—won’t be a mystery for long. With music like this, he’ll eventually have to come up from the basement.
Listen to "Now Signals"
11) Department of Eagles: In Ear Park (4AD)
Not quite a side project, this Grizzly Bear outpost goes lush with the finger picking, orch-pop, and glam tributes. The songs are just invented enough to not tire out—they thump, sway, and swagger. The most complete, fully realized album I heard all year. In this case, professionalism is no diss.
Listen to "No One Does It Like You"
12) Dodos: Visitor (French Kiss)
Animal Collective may have not produced an album this year for review. But was their a band mentioned more on other people’s album reviews? The band may have evolved away from their campfire psych, but that hasn’t stopped the rest of indie rock from playing catch up. Although Dodos got the AC-tag, it didn’t need the help.
Listen to "Walking"