Sunday, December 28, 2008

Top 20 Tracks of 2008

Never have I thought it would go beyond a year when I started this blog, and it is already in its third year running now. Making into the fourth year soon, it is the time for me to list down my annual top 20 tracks again. Looking at the list of this year and of previous years, we indeed have evolved in our music taste. I would say 2008 is the year for electro-pop, it feels like 80s all over again, even though I have never experienced the prime of the sometime overly-glamorized era where people try their best to get the big hair and shoulder pads to the back of their memories but was consistently reminded by the 80s influenced synth pop tuned churned out by those Aussie boys who do it best, be it Modular’s Cut Copy and Van She, or any band Nick Littlemore is involved in. Neon Neon might not come from down under, but this band with a name shouting ‘80s’ at your face is equally awesome. Like any other year, there must be some overly-hyped bands that might be embraced by the music fans and critics but despised by the indie elitists, MGMT and Vampire Weekends are the ‘IT’ bands but I am with the former group who think they are actually pretty good. The British male-led guitar bands might not doing so well this year around, but everything Alex Turner touches turns gold, The Last Shadow Puppets is no exception, we also have The Futureheads who made an impressive come-back, the newcomers Foals who make math rock accessibly pop, White Lies who reminisces the dark wave and Glasvegas's doo-wop style brogue rock. Beards and floppy hair are the latest trend with Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver making harmonized folk charming again. Laura Marling might not look or age the part, but her take on modern folk is remarkable. Amongst the Yankees, the Brits and the Aussies, there are also the Frenchmen who infuse a fresh breath to soundtrack-like electronic music.

Embrace - Pnau (feat. Ladyhawke)
One of the stand out tracks from Pnau's self-titled album, 'Embrace' teams Nick Littlemore and partner Peter Mayes with Pip Brown, otherwise known as New Zealand's own electropop star Ladyhawke. The result is a match made of euphoric, pop-house with a killer soaring chorus. Such guilty pleasure of a love song. Technically this track is featured in a 2007 album, but was released as a single this year.

Ottoman - Vampire Weekend
With afrobeat still at their heart, "Ottoman" features Vampire Weekend's signature trebley guitar riffs, cascading strings, and harpsichord vamps, just like the band's impressive debut. That doesn't mean that is a bad thing of course, it is utterly fun and addictive. I have not watched Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.

Good Time - Brazilian Girls
As playful as its name indicates, this wonderful track is an anthemic sing-along set to endless handclaps, festive horns, and laughter that demands participation. "Some people want nothing and need nothing and are free/We just want to have a good time." Lyrics like that only enhance the joyful vibe, offering no less, but probably more than the title suggests.

Electric Feel - MGMT
It would not be a complete 2008 list without a little MGMT thrown in. Already a household name, it is difficult to pick a favourite from the perfect debut Oracular Spectacular. Summer anthem of the year, the overplayed 'Electric Feels' flashes Bee Gees falsetto to a nolstagia disco funk with playful lyrics like 'I said, ooh girl/shock me like an electric eel'. Oh, and that Justice Remix version is some top-notch electrifying disco shit.

Skinny Love - Bon Iver
Justin Vernon's debut as Bon Iver is going to wind up many year end best-of. 'Skinny Love' is a lonely, quiet and melancholy song that is also beautiful, bleak and intimate. The first thing you notice is the soulful vocal. The dynamics between his enchanting falsetto and massed backing harmonies built around minimalist guitar and almost no percussion. This weightless love song is truly timeless and mesmerizing in its own way.

Death - White Lies
White Lies is the standout in the over-crowded new Brit indie guitar-rock scene. 'Death' is the perfect indie single that recalls the 70s art-pop sound of Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen. This track built menacingly from power bass and synth to a grand and darkwave epic. Let's wait and see if their much anticipated/released in 2009 debut 'To Lose My Life' could top this and live up to the hype.

Daddy's Gone - Glasvegas
The band's self-titled debut may be a tad dissapointment for some, but this track is undeniably brilliant. Originally released in 2007, 'Daddy's Gone is re-released this year as part of the promotion of their album. An unrequited love song to the absentee father in a fascinating mixture of 50s doo-wop and waves of Jesus & Mary Chain-style guitar, alongside the emotional Scottish brogue vocals chanting the moving and sentimental lyrics, this is truly one of its kind.

Feel The Love - Cut Copy
One of many Modular releases in this list. In Ghost Colours is full of dancefloor-dominate electro-pop gems, be it the arena slow burner 'Light & Music' or the pure synth 'Far Away'. After much comtemplating, the honour goes to 'Feel The Love' because the dancefloor classic 'Hearts On Fire' was released back in 2007. The swirling synths and gleaming melodies of this opening track of the fantastic album reminiscent the very best of the 80s. Light and breezy but not cheesy. New-wave revival at its best.

Meeting Place - The Last Shadow Puppets
The latest offering from Alex Turner and Miles Kane’s side project, is not at all like either The Arctic Monkeys or The Rascals. The throwback sound with horns and strings sounds atmospherically like straight from the 60s, with Turner and Kane's vocals effortlessly roll along with class and grace. At first seems so light and joyful, yet the song is about a crumbling, destructive relationship. The musical genious Turner has demonstrated what a versatile songwriter he is.

Changes - Van She
The poppish 'Changes' exploded with vocalist Nicky Routledge's mesmerizing woooh-ooooh’s and the charmingly catchy chorus, who can resist this synth pop number with non-sense lyrics that goes 'razors bring you pain, apple juice won’t stain'? Another top-notch release from Modular, Van She's V probably tie at the top spot for best electro-pop album with fellow labelmates Cut Copy's In Ghost Colours. The Australians seem to do the 80s nostalgia pop like no one else.

Cross Your Fingers - Laura Marling
You don't need a beard to make great folk-pop, it takes in a form of a barely legal girl from Hampshire with an old, old soul and dreamy husky voice. An unordinary young talent, Laura Marling is churning out tunes beyond her tender age. 'Cross Your Fingers' sounds like a straight-up fun pop song where old concrete structures leads to reflections on old age and death. I love the transition from this upbeat track to the haunting 'Crawled Out of the Sea', an amazing interlude.

Twenty-One One Zero - Phoenix
This instrumental number starts out with a squally guitar loop over a light synth treatment, and with the bass and pounding drums start to build themselves piece by piece, shaping a wonderful tone. Eventually all that build-up leads to a huge burst of energy, followed by a last line of epitath. Let's just hope "Twenty-One One Zero", while diverting in its way, is a sign of some killer tunes in the band's next outing.

We Are The People - Empire of The Sun
Take two of Australia’s best musical minds in Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore and you’re going to end up with one hell of an album. 'We Are The People’ marries an amazing chorus with an acoustic guitar and stirringly dynamic vocals that will have you hooked immediately. The power of Steele’s falsetto, coupled with a driving drumbeat, shape a melody that is both danceable and haunting. And who can resists such wonderful sci-fi themed artwork?

The Beginning of the Twist - The Futurheads
'The Beginning of the Twist' is an energetic, polished song, with a fantastic vibe and plenty of energy that stretche from start to end. The rhythmic guitars and uber quick tempo and the signature vocals of lead singer Barry Hyde makes for an excellent amazing up-beat punk number. Definitely raw power!

Olympic Airways - Foals
This track is simply gorgeous, tripping out with lazy and ringing guitar riffs and subtle four to the floor durmmings that climb toward the heavens. It even finds a pretty register to Philippakis' wonderful vocals. Heavy Water" is really something to behold, great stuff.

Dawn Of The Dead - Does It Offend You, Yeah?
With heartfelt vocals, an elastic bassline and more hooks than a fisherman's hat, 'Dawn Of The Dead’ is a cross between electro and an emotive-indie ballad. Synths and guitar chugging are aplenty - a standard combo in today's climate of electronic acts. An decent 80's synth pop homage. Wildly infectious.

If I Know You - The Presets
This typical break-up track proves that the duo of Julian Hamilton and Kimberley Moyes isn't one trick ponies. Julian's vocal range, tone and dynamic control are truly impressive in this more contemplative song in the stunning album. It's like a giant haunting disco ballad full of elegance, goth and darkness. Utterly amazing.

I Told Her on Alderaan - Neon Neon
A fantastic slice of yesteryear electro pop featuring some soaring melodies and soundbite lyrics, 'I Told Her on Alderaan' is a satisfyingly bizarre collaboration between Super Furry Animals's Gruff Rhys and producer Boom Bip. With '80s-centric vibe all over the track, it really feels like back to the future in a Delorean DMC-12.

Blue Ridge Mountain - Fleet Foxes
The facial hair, floppy hats and the vocal harmonies, Fleet Foxes's seld-titled debut is the perfect soundtrack to a trip to Midwest on a steam train along sun-soaked mountains. I was hypnotized when the gorgeous harmonized intro switches into patient guitar lick, then Robin Pecknold starts singing in his soulful voice about a memory shared with his brother. The return of a folk renaissance reminiscing Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young is indeed welcomed.

Too Late - M83
This shoegaze-thick song is a cinematic 80's throwback piece that emits the nostalgic haze of a John Hughes' film. 'Too Late' begins with gentle acoustic piano, and followed with recurrence of a vocal line, then elevates to higher places. This song is beautifully crafted to near-perfect length, with a tuneful ear for dynamics and each instrument’s inherent resonance. Anthony Gonzalez indeed has the knack for making sounds others might think of as outdated into music that feels romantically stylish.

Notable mentions:
Sex on Fire - King of Leon
Tacky but addicitve. The Followill brothers gone arena.

Blind - Hercules and Love Affair
Antony Hegarty lends his beautiful pipes to a melancholic lite-disco number? Simply gorgeous.
Ready For The Floor - Hot Chip
Atari bleeps and synth crunches in an artsy disco anthem. I'd write more but I have to get ready for the dancefloor now.

Sleepy Head
Passion Pit
The next big thing. Full release debut next year. Excitement.

Crimewave (Crystal Castles VS Health) - Crystal Castles
Nintendo-core madness. It's like hearing a robot plead for its life, which sounds superb.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Jens Lekman & Viktor Sjöberg @ Annexe Art Gallery, 09.12.08

The last time Jens Lekman played at Little Havana was nearly two year ago, that little intimate gig was still fresh in my pathetically restricted memories of live acts that this deprived country could offer. The multi-talented Swedish singer-songwriter promised he would be back with a full band during his last bill here, but that promise was only half-realized this time around as he brought along his lanky protégé Viktor Sjöberg to provide catchy remix to his otherwise acoustic guitar-driven sweet pop tunes through the lovely Mac.

The crowd was having small talk and catching up before entering the small room which could house less than 300 at Annexe Art Galley, Pasar Seni. It was an interesting scene seeing how different type of people get together for music, there are the well-dressed yuppies who bragged about the latest gigs they went for overseas all night, the up-for-everything scene kids and the musically-inclined-socially-handicapped indie geeks. Of course, Jerome Kugan, the man behind the gig was also seen running around the place.

Malaysians have lazy legs, they like to sit around. They still could not get their butts off the floor when Jens Lekman started playing The Opposite of Hallelujah. 30 seconds into the song, alright, I am waiting for someone to get up first. 1 minute into the song, my legs are itchy, I want to get up and dance, everyone is still seated. Midway through the song, please get up people! I am already in my half-seated, half stood ‘squat’ position. I guess Jens Lekman could not stand it anymore too, he did this little signal raising his two arms upwards like a wizard doing his little magic trick, ‘Wham’ a streak of light came out off his wand, everyone got up and started moving around. Finally!

Seeing Jens Lekman perform makes me miss attending a gig like this, no barrier, no security, no crazy screaming fan girls, no annoying gung ho audience who comes at the last minute and elbows his/her way up to the front. Regardless of whether you were merely 1 meter away from Jens Lekman or at the last row, everyone was just having fun, humming to the songs that were played in repeat mode in their iPods being played live in their eyes now. I almost forgot how good it feels to attend a gig as carefree as this, the last time was too long ago, Andrew Bird perhaps?

Being the charismatic himself, Jens Lekman was fun to watch. His little banters between songs cracked everyone up. At a point, they were having some troubles with the sound system, Jens Lekman just ignored the havoc going around behind him and played the song acoustically, though I pitied Viktor Sjorberg who looked endearingly helpless standing behind the deck. During the lovely A Postcard to Nina, Jens Lekman was narrating the story behind the song at the intro, the witty him even did some comical expressions to go with the story. He carried on the show with crowd favourites like Black Cab, Julie and songs from the latest album Night Falls Over Kortedala like Friday Night At The Drive-In Bingo and Shirin.

Jens and Viktor came back on stage not long after the audience cheered for encore without that much effort. The duo played Sipping On The Sweet Nectar with a the music video playing at the backdrop. Jens asked everyone to dance along the beats, even himself and Viktor came down from the stage and joined the dancing crowd for a brief moment.

It was a genuine fun gig for Jens Lekman's fans and even for those attendees who have not heard him prior to the show, I am sure they are entirely converted now. Hopefully this second gig Jens played in Malaysia would not be our last.

Here's a cover which Jens played when I first saw him,

Jens Lekman - You Can Call Me Al (Paul Simon Cover)

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