Graham’s soundtrack to 2008

Disc 1

1 British Sea Power – All In It
2 Sigur Ros – Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur
3 Tilly And The Wall – Chandelier Lake
4 Animal Collective – Water Curses
5 MGMT – Time To Pretend
6 Dan Deacon – Wham City
7 The Mountain Goats – San Bernardino
8 Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit – The Wrote & The Writ
9 Bon Iver – Flume
10 Portishead – The Rip
11 David Holmes – I Heard Wonders
12 Coldplay – Glass Of Water
13 Lambchop – Slipped Dissolved And Loosed
14 Elbow – Some Riot
15 James Yorkston – B’s Jig
16 Beyond The Wizards Sleeve – Midas Reversed
17 Fuck Buttons – Sweet Love For Planet Earth

Disc 2

1 Dan Deacon – The Crystal Cat
2 Friendly Fires – Jump In The Pool
3 The Fall – I’ve Been Duped
4 Fleet Foxes – White Winter Hymnal
5 Beyond The Wizards Sleeve – Don’t Cry Girl
6 Fuck Buttons – Bright Tomorrow
7 Coldplay – Viva La Vida
8 Broadcast 2000 – Get Up And Go
9 Animal Collective – Fireworks
10 British Sea Power – Atom
11 James – 72
12 Portishead – Machine Gun
13 The Lord Dog Bird – The Gift Of Song In The Lion’s Den
14 Bon Iver – Re: Stacks
15 Okkervil River – Lost Coastlines
16 Mercury Rev – Dream Of A Young Girl As A Flower
17 TV On The Radio – Lover’s Day

‘I’ll be the first to admit this is a bright but haunted age’

Two thousand and eight was a pretty unimportant year. I didn’t go work abroad, I didn’t have any enormous life-changing events, I didn’t move flat, not a lot really. I did change jobs – returning to my old company after six months away, but aside from two trips to Texas in the summer and winter, there wasn’t a lot going on. There wasn’t even an England team to cheer on in a major football tournament (I strategically took that first American trip during Euro 2008 because I didn’t want to be all bitter about it).

So this blog is going to be very short on anecdotes of places where I was when I heard this-and-that tune, but given that you lot turned up for the music rather than the personal diary, I guess you’ll be grateful for that. And here’s the good news – it’s a belter, and the first disc has as euphoric a 25-minute suite to kick us off as I’ve ever put together. I hope you’ll be grinning away by its end.

It starts with ‘All In It’, the brief intro to British Sea Power’s Do You Like Rock Music LP (probably better known for its snarky ‘U.2’-rated review in Pitchfork. Here it serves as an anthemic intro to set of tracks that just blend into each other so well – ‘Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur’, the happiest track that Sigur Ros ever recorded, follows in the same beat and key, and once its joyful crescendo is over, it’s the same key for Tilly & The Wall’s ‘Chandalier Lake’ too, only this time set to their own unique tap-dancing percussion. From there, its underwater coda segues perfectly into the batshit crazy ‘Water Curses’ by Animal Collective, and then onwards into the enormous MGMT hit ‘Time To Pretend’. I’m glad that MGMT have ploughed a leftfield furrow after their first album Oracular Spectacular, but I do wish they’d dangle a few accessible carrots to us like ‘Time To Pretend’ and some of their other early singles. The six-song suite comes to an end with an explosion of block-rocking beeps – the 11-minute tour de force ‘Wham City’ by Dan Deacon. Necessarily edited to eight minutes here, it doesn’t lose any of its punch – most of its brilliance lies in its second half anyway, where clattering beats, epileptic melodies and playground chants all meet in a head-on collision. And it’s the first track that I’ve discovered that’s directly come out of listening to someone else’s end-of-year mix – my friend Dan included ‘Wham City’ on his own 2007 mix, and I loved it so much that I’ve stuck it on here as a wildcard for 2008.

We couldn’t possibly sustain all that merriment, so things calm down a little from track seven. ‘San Bernardino’ is yet another demonstration of John Darnielle’s enduring talent for painting a picture with words – this song about an unmarried couple giving birth to new son in a cheap motel in the titular Californian city. The following song, Johnny Flynn’s ‘The Wrote & The Writ’, jars a little with me now, maybe because I associate it less with the folk that got me to that point (James Yorkston) than the ‘folk’ I was into for a while after. I’m going to have to figure out an answer to that Mumford & Sons-size elephant in the room when I get to 2009. I still love Bon Iver though, and particularly the curious backstory that gave birth to Justin Vernon’s debut, For Emma Forever Ago. But if anyone can out-downcast Vernon, it’s the returning Portishead. Their comeback album, Third, was by a million miles the album of the year (in what had to be said wasn’t a fantastic year for albums), and its second single, the overwhelmingly sombre The Rip, deserves to be considered not only the song of 2008 but one of the very best of the whole decade. I’d probably put it in fourth place behind There Goes The Fear, Neighborhood #1 and Califone’s cover of The Orchids.

Starting disc one’s second half, upping the mood once more, is David Holmes’ ‘I Heard Wonders’, the first time I’d ever heard him do vocals on top of his own production work. I didn’t even recognise it as his own work as I was in Rough Trade buying something completely different. It was a very nice surprise to hear this used in a most incongruous context last year – as the backing to a montage during the London 2012 Opening Ceremony about the torch relay. Given my own involvement in said ceremony I’ll hold back on my full thoughts on Danny Boyle’s use of music for when I get to my 2012 soundtrack soon, but ‘I Heard Wonders’ was just one of many moments that deserved a little punch of the fist and an ‘I told you about this!’ from me. In comparison, Coldplay were one of the biggest bands in the world and needed no introduction from me – I still pretty shamelessly love them despite the ridicule it earns me. ‘Glass Of Water’, from their year-closing EP, isn’t going to make you re-assess Chris Martin’s ability with a lyric – you can guess exactly how much water is in that glass right now – but I find much to savour in everything else.

Sadly it seems that Lambchop’s ability to put together a killer front-to-back album in the tradition of How I Quit Smoking, What Another Man Spills and Nixon had deserted them long ago, but each of their subsequent albums could be depended upon for one or two special moments. Their 2008 album OH (Ohio) gave us ‘Slipped Dissolved And Loosed’. Likewise I’m from the ‘preferred their early stuff’ school when it comes to Elbow – so I was pretty stunned to see their patchy fourth album The Seldom Seen Kid win the Mercury Music Prize, though I don’t begrudge them the wave of success that they’ve ridden off the back of it. I passed on the ubiquitous ‘One Day Like This’, going for the album’s preceding mournful dirge, ‘Some Riot’. I think it falls a little flat out of context here, sadly, so moving on, we’ve got perennial favourite of mine James Yorkston with ‘B’s Jig’. Though a fixture of my soundtracks through the 2000s, this is his most recent entry to date despite remaining prolific – my tastes finally moved on.

Two tracks remain – another one of Beyond The Wizards Sleeve’s psychedelic remix jobs (though I can’t identify ‘Midas Reversed’s source material), and the first track I ever heard by the band that would become my current favourites, Fuck Buttons. ‘Sweet Love For Planet Earth’ is Fuck Buttons in microcosm – a slow builder, every melody repeating just long enough to evoke a trance-like state but not so long that you get bored. And then before you realise, nine minutes have passed just as you thought they were getting started. It’s safe to say, like David Holmes before, that they looked unlikely candidates at the time to provide a soundtrack for a global event watched by a billion people. And not least because of that name.

There is absolutely no fucking around at the start of disc two. The first thing you hear is an onslaught of synthesisers buzzing around like swarm of bees. Then all the beats kick in and you’re launched head-first into a manic surf rock song with no guitars in sight. Welcome back to the world of Dan Deacon. The video for ‘The Crystal Cat’ – epilepsy-inducing visuals, crowds jumping like maniacs and the most un-rock-star-like appearance of Deacon himself – sums up pretty neatly what his gigs are like, but it was only on seeing this song used on the big screen, as a trailer at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse cinema, that it became a favourite. It hasn’t aged a day since.

Without a pause for breath, St Albans’ very own Friendly Fires follow with ‘Jump In The Pool’. I saw one of their first ever live performances at Maida Vale a couple of years previously, when they only had a couple of songs. As good as those songs were, they didn’t seem well set for success, let alone turn into the Balearic-influenced dance-pop group they became. ‘Jump In The Pool’ is probably their greatest song to date, juxtaposing the manic verses with the blissed-out chorus as all sort of mayhem is going on in the background. As the ‘There Goes The Fear’-style Brazilian percussion coda cuts out suddenly, we’re thrust into a parallel universe – a Mark E Smith-less Fall. ‘I’ve Been Duped’ is one of those rare occasions when the arch-autocrat steps back and gives his band a chance to shine in his absence – and his girlfriend Eleni Poulou’s Greek accent and the rest of the band’s magnificently out-of-tune harmonies make for an entertaining three-minute diversion, before Seattle’s one-time critical darlings Fleet Foxes do their pastoral-Beach Boys thing all over ‘White Winter Hymnal’ and Richard Norris of Beyond The Wizards Sleeve does another masterful big-beat psychedelic remix job on ‘Don’t Cry Girl’.

What follows on from here, if I might say so myself, is one of my great sequencing moments. ‘Bright Tomorrow’ is Fuck Buttons’ mission statement in seven-and-a-half minutes. From the mournfully melodic intro, the synth as rhythm track – wonkily moving out of time as the track progresses, and then the sudden, unannounced white noise which consumes the song whole. And after over a minute where the only sound is that migraining-inducing drone, what do we cut away to? Why, only the familiar string quartet riffs of Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’, which I think is the biggest selling single on any of the 16 soundtracks I’ve done. Having defended Coldplay more than enough on previous blogs, I’ll just also point out the fact that the maximum two Coldplay songs I included on this soundtrack have meant that a song as great as ‘Strawberry Swing’ had to miss out altogether. ‘Viva La Vida’s plaintive mood compliments Broadcast 3000’s ‘Get Up And Go’ well (a song used to good effect in an E.On advert that year) and the centrepiece of Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam album from 2007, ‘Fireworks’ (included as a wildcard here as I discovered Animal Collective a year too late for this the first time round).

Disc two’s second half starts with British Sea Power’s two-parted ‘Atom’; the first minute or so virtually a mood piece, before the atom is split and the song turns into a full-blown rocker and ending in chaos, drifting into perhaps one of the more surprisingly successful comebacks of recent years. As much as I enjoyed the band James the first time round, I did not have high expectations at all, but not only did the Hey Ma album deliver joyous singalongs worthy of their ’90s heyday, they also trod new ground on the grinding, fundamentalist-baiting ’72’ (though we could have probably done without the years-too-late Iraq war commentary of that album’s title track).

The most successful comeback of 2008 though, by a million miles, was that of Portishead – though never officially splitting up, their hiatus lasted so long that the prospect of a new album seemed like wishful thinking. Not only did they deliver the almighty Third, they also led off with the unclassifiable ‘Machine Gun’ as first single – one of that very rare group of songs that sound, well, scary. It has a complete lack of kinship to not only Portishead’s back catalogue but to popular music in general, and as a result feels like the work of a band held captive in a padded cell for a decade and then asked to record a single about the horrors they experienced the moment they were released.

Two songs that were more certainly influenced by periods of isolation follow on from ‘Machine Gun’ – The Lord Dog Bird (aka Wilderness guitarist Colin McCann) making a decent impression of U2’s The Edge recording on a four-track, then the love-as-poker metaphor ‘Re: Stacks’, the closing track from Justin Vernon’s debut album as Bon Iver, famously recorded in a remote cabin in Wisconsin.

The year 2008 didn’t shower with me with natural songs to bring the compilation to an end with, particularly compared to some years. But the three songs that close proceedings here do a pretty decent job. The first is Okkervil River’s ‘Lost Coastlines’, coming over like Springsteen having a crack at a Northern Soul cover, and then on to Mercury Rev’s far-out ‘Dream Of A Young Girl As A Flower’ – its parent album a remarkable change of direction by the band after a couple of duds.

I usually finish, more by accident than design, on a quiet, low-key final song to end a soundtrack. Not so here; we end disc two as we started disc one, in a state of euphoria. TV On The Radio were a band which many critics described as the dread of the Bush years set to music. If that’s truly the case, then their album Dear Science’s closing track, Lover’s Day, is the sound of the party the day that Bush lost power. Appropriately, I played it the morning after Barack Obama got elected.

The 2008 soundtrack’s final song was reflective of a hope for a bright new start, but the following year’s music would become the backdrop to a very messy end. More on the 2009 soundtrack soon.

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