Beatbots: Staff Audio Picks 2008!
by Beatbots Staff
Beatbots: Staff Audio Picks 2008!
If you’ve followed our collaborative Staff Audio Picks lists in years past, then you know that we here at Beatbots operate a little differently than most. For one thing, we’re not afraid to wait ‘til the new year to weigh in on the old, and we’re also not about to pretend that some sort of scientific method, prescribed rubric, or democratic process was employed in our decision-making. Hardly—the Staff Audio Picks are just that: a list of albums that our individual staff members consider to be the highlight of their personal year in music. So read on, and share in the magic that was 2008.

The Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead
January 2008, Sub Pop

Personally, 2008 was not the year of “the album” as a complete and impressive entity. This was mostly because of the lack of quality releases, but also because of heightened twenty-first century attention-deficit-due-to-technology disorder. There was an overall inundation of records with two to four “songs of the week”, but there were not many albums that I could stand listening to from start to finish. There was nothing groundbreaking about the 2008 release by The Helio Sequence. It did not have the exceptional sound that Flying Lotus or Bon Iver brought to the eardrums. The Helio Sequence sound like a handful of various folk pop bands (The Shins, Rogue Wave, Doves), and yet their infectiously sweet melodies kept me listening all year long. Keep Your Eyes Ahead is certainly more mature than their previous work, and the production is clean and precise. I heard the opening track “Lately” on Seattle’s KEXP radio station last January and immediately picked up the album (meaning bitTorrent) and put it on a podcast that I recorded with a friend. The song talks about finally hitting that point after a break-up when you are not nostalgic about the relationship or jealous of that person’s current status. “Back to This” is a mellow electronic track that one could listen to on their back, dreamily looking up at the ceiling. The best song, “Hallelujah”, is stacked with layers of addictive sweetness. I’ll leave it at that. “We don’t want answers anyway.” –Revaz Ardesher

Erykah Badu – New Amerykah, Pt. 1: The 4th World War
February 2008, Universal

When New Amerykah, Pt. 1: The 4th World War opens, you might think you popped in a Blaxploitation soundtrack by mistake. The vibe on “Amerykhan Promise”, the album's opening track, is distinctly 70’s, from the narrator with a booming, exaggerated bass voice to the strident funk horn arrangement; there’s even a chorus of female vocals that seem ready to exclaim “Shaft!” at any moment. But this nod to the past quickly gives way to “The Healer”, one of Erykah Badu's most ultra-modern—and best—pieces to date, thanks in part to famed DJ/producer Madlib. The transition between songs is jarring and not at all seamless, but it's typical of the album. There's no easing the listener from the laid-back groove of “Soldier” to the psychedelic funk onslaught of “The Cell”. And the only thing separating the IDM static-and-sparkle of album highlight “Twinkle” from the neo-soul thump of “Master Teacher” is a mildly disturbing recitation of Peter Finch's infamous rant from the 70’s film Network. It’s an irate speech about failing banks, violent crime, and impotent government that was written three decades ago and rings frustratingly true today. Some things never change... and after repeated listens, it’s clear that Badu's jagged integration of retro and modern black-folks’ music is meant to communicate that very idea. Brilliantly, New Amerykah is protest music that’s anachronistic to the point of timelessness—the technology has changed, but the message remains the same. –Koye Berry

Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid
March 2008, Fiction; April 2008, Geffen

By now, almost anyone can easily I.D. "Grounds for Divorce" three beats into the song. Just because an album's on heavy rotation, though, doesn't necessarily mean it's a throwaway. In fact, The Seldom Seen Kid is an example of well-deserved hype. Laudably layered and versatile, like most Elbow offerings it has a gothic undertone that's sleek, not creepy or self-indulgent. Track 8 from Kid "The Fix" comes as close to this prior-work aesthetic as any other song. But Kid attempts to invite a more experimental sound that's as grim lyrically and vocally (owing in part to Guy Garvey's best Peter Gabriel) but more dynamic in its scoring and arrangement. Compare the folksy "Stumble" from their single Asleep in the Back/Coming Second (2002) or even the popular "Forget Myself" from their more recent Leaders of the Free World (2005) with Kid, and this dynamism becomes more transparent. The effect of leaving the overt acoustic guitar and singsong-y-ness at home has elevated the already great band to heights of irreproachable genius. Sure, it's easy to love a Manchester band, especially if you're of a certain demographic. But they've made themselves irresistible to the masses by upping the ante with each new release. They unabashedly make music that can be played in the background at a party but insidiously captures the attention of maligners and cynics with a soft touch. If there has to be an item of criticism (there always does), it's that each album has a "hit" in old industry terms. Kid is no exception. This makes live shows annoying because you can almost feel the audience heaving sweaty sighs of relief when they play said hit, distracting from the rest of the performance and making you feel a little cheap. To be unable to get over this mild irritation is to miss out on something larger and more important: this is one of the best albums of 2008. –Molly O’Donnell

Ponytail – Ice Cream Spiritual
June 2008, We Are Free

When you listen to Ice Cream Spiritual, the second album by Ponytail, it is hard not to smile. The band’s infectious, wide-eyed, furious tunes refuse to allow you to fall back on the hard-edged cynicism that you have nurtured for so long, your shield against the disappointments of this chaotic modern mess of a world. From “Beg Waves” to “Die Allman Bruder,” the listener is offered a tempered positivity that is refreshing if not downright the theme song to the current American sea change. The band’s signature sound has continued to evolve, becoming blurrier and more frenzied along the way yet somehow still managing to be as clear as a bell when it needs to be. Dustin Wong’s guitar lines lead us along, the counterpoint to the chugga-chugga wap-wap of Ken Seeno and Jeremy Hyman’s rhythm work. The points converge and diverge, the waves cascade and crash as the listener skims along the wide and wonderful sea. Molly Haskell’s non-verbal singing vocabulary continues to evolve, reaching new emotive peaks and valleys without a discernable lyric sheet to reference. Some may accuse the band of being too precious or naïve, still wet behind the ears. I think they are onto something great, and I look forward to where it leads them next. To me, Ice Cream Spiritual is one of the best albums of 2008, and I will debate any person who feels otherwise in regards to the matter. –Kim Tabara

Off With Their Heads – From the Bottom
July 2008, No Idea

How can a record so full of misery, depression, self-loathing, and bitterness be so freakin' fun? It's a little bit mind-blowing. While the music pumps you up with energetic, melodic-yet-raw poppy punk along the lines of a catchier and brattier Dillinger Four, the lyrics tell tales of frontman Ryan Young's fuck ups and generally beg the question, "Why do I even bother?" I fear for the summertime when the car windows are rolled down and I'm singing along to lines like "I don't think I'll ever make it out alive, might as well just kill myself tonight, I don't want to, but I don't see any other way" or "take my advice and leave now while you have a chance..." (that's a particularly awkward one to sing along to with your girlfriend). The chorus to "Until the Day..." is particularly sour, yet so sweet that you can't help but belt it out at the top of your lungs: "Cuz I'll never let it go, and I'll just let it grow, until the day I die I fucking swear I'm gonna make your life as miserable as mine". There's so much self-deprecation on this album that towards the end of it you just wanna put this guy out of his misery yourself, but then the final track, "I Hope You Know", kicks in and you realize that he does have a heart, blackened as it may be. There's a twinge of regret to the song that catches you off guard. Maybe this guy's not so bad after all. He is capable of saying "sorry". How totally unexpected. There is simply no other record that I listened to this year as much as this one. As sick as it may be, it's sometimes nice to get a peek into someone else's life and see that there are people worse off than you are. So cheer up there little guy, the sun will shine again. Off With Their Heads: making misery fun again. –Mike Riley

High Places – High Places
September 2008, Thrill Jockey

A band that has been getting significant recognition this past year is a duo from Brooklyn, New York, called High Places. High Places is compromised of vocalist and instrumentalist Mary Pearson and multi-instrumentalist Robert Barber. Although mostly considered to be an experimental band, they’ve specifically created a genre that soars all on its own. Taking influences from Pearson’s visual artistic background and Barber’s experience with varied instruments, the two fuse ambient syncopation with very soft-etched effects of synthesizers, a tangle of polyrhythm, and Pearson’s blithe and ethereal vocals, which are oftentimes hypnotic and preserve the playful nature evident in their music. Rattles, bells, shakers, a recorder, and xylophones are just a few of the cornucopia of instruments that adorns many of their songs. Their second full length album, appropriately self-titled High Places, returns with the formula of polyrhythm and layers of varied and syncopated instrumentation, but it texturally develops ways to encounter them with more energy than High Places’ previous singles collection, 03/07 - 09/07. Songs like “The Tree with the Lights in It” and “Visions the First...” are clear evidence of how they have developed instrumentally as musicians. Pearson’s vocals also tend to create a whole new presence within the music, her voice progressing with more movement than the songs we saw in 03/07-09/07, as evidenced in “A Field Guide” and “Namer”. Indeed, there is a visual element to how the music is constructed. When seeing High Places live, expect a highly sensible response to how they approach live music-making and how it bridges the gap between performance art and live music. –Anna Louise!

Hard Girls / The Albert Square – Gainful Clumps
December 2008, Silver Sprocket

It’s a bit difficult to keep tabs on the various members of San José’s Phat ’n’ Phunky collective—they’re a fairly elusive bunch, particularly for us here on the East Coast. Relatively limited touring aside, it also doesn’t help that better-known PNP principles like Shinobu and Pteradon went to ground this past year, their constituent members taking time to travel (こんにちは!) and settle into the ol' nine-to-five. Yup, the members of the PNP are smack-dab in the middle of a collective quarter-life crisis: a time when young folk begin to grow up, move out, get real jobs, pay back their student loans, and act like “responsible” adults. Might as well trade in your Chucks and jeans for khakis and wingtips, right? Wrong! That’s what The Man wants you do, fool! Luckily, the PNP are here to save you from the dulling day-to-day routine of your coffee-addled office droning. Like musical ninjas, the PNP strike from the shadows when you least expect it, slicing the exposed jugular of your twenty-something ennui with a razor-sharp riff before blasting your grown-cold heart clean out of your chest with a pulsing drumbeat and a rousing chorus. Just so, the newly-minted power-trio of Hard Girls—featuring Shinobu’s existential frontman Mike Huguenor and Pteradon’s rambunctious rhythm-masters Morgan Herrell and Max Feshbach—recently joined forces with fellow San Jo rockers The Albert Square to cut a split CD full of explosive, intelligent, and life-affirming tunes inspired by personal experiences, literature, and a whole mess of good vibrations. Whether played strong and steady like “Lion’s Roar” or fast and loose like “The Orbitoclast”, this tag-team effort is a glorious thing to behold, and just what the doctor ordered to save you from your soul-crushing work week. In a word: nice. –Tom Körp
Posted by: Beatbots Staff

Features (February 17th, 2009)

Tags: beatbots, staff audio picks, 2008, helio sequence, erykah badu, elbow, ponytail, off with their heads, high places, hard girls, albert square