Four Remarkable Albums from 2008

Menahan Street Band, Make the Road by Walking

Some musicians make Art with a capital A—redefining what music can be. Others practice a craft—tweaking a time-tested tradition, or resurrecting a genre presumed dead. The Menahan Street Band are a group of superb craftsmen. Their sound lies squarely in the tradition of Booker T. & the MG’s—short, horn-heavy R&B instrumentals with nuanced arrangements and the rare solo. One can easily imagine an Aretha or a Gladys belting over the top of these jams. In fact, many of the musicians in the band are also members of the Dap-Kings, who have become today’s hottest house band for rent, much as Booker T. Jones’ ensemble was in the 1960s. The Dap-Kings backed Amy Winehouse for her album Back to Black, and have been a dependable complement to Sharon Jones during her full discography. On this album, the Menahan Street Band keep the vibe easygoing, but otherwise wring a sparkling array of moods from their tight, talented group. Let the craft of grooving roll on.

Love Is All, A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at Night

Josephine Olausson really knows how to use her voice. The lead vocalist of this Swedish punk-pop band uses a “singing” style that’s sure to be anathema to music purists. She sing-speaks her words in a perfect blend of the bratty and cute. Notice how she stretches the line “I’m nearly feeling sick” in “Movie Romance,” each time a little more strained, and bobs like waves during “I’m bored to death aboard this ship” in “Sea Sick”. The lyrics center on anxiety and isolation, often freely chosen, as in album closer “19 Floors,” when Olausson plainly states “I just don’t like to interact.” The rest of the band revolve around her with an impossibly spiky, catchy blend of punk, new wave, and the occasional free-jazz saxophone freakout. This album is like a perfect cocktail, which requires the correct balance of bitter and sweet—plenty of bite to challenge your comfort level, and a drop of pleasure to wipe the grimace away.

Barry Adamson, Back to the Cat

Hailing from Manchester, England, this former member of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds delivers another dark, brassy, urban affair. Film noir is the key touchstone—Adamson is often said to create soundtracks for imaginary films. The result combines soul-jazz, funk, and electronic textures, often packaged as pop songs. Lyrically, we find stories of the disturbed and obsessed. Opener “The Beaten Side of Town” chronicles a place where junkies, hobos, and down-lows are welcome. “Shadow of Death Hotel” is a horn-heavy instrumental that would fit well on the soundtrack to Shaft. A suggestive double-entendre takes center stage in “Spend a Little Time”. What really stands out about this album is its polish and detail. Adamson is a great vocalist. His versatile, sultry baritone moves deftly between hush and bellow. And the production is excellent—the instruments are clean but not sterile, conveying perfect atmosphere. Adamson has been quietly working in this style for over a decade, and Back to the Cat proves he hasn’t lost his forté one bit.

Crystal Castles, self-titled

“Game Boy punk” may sound like just another gimmick in today’s music scene, where vapid dance-rock fusions seem to arise and flame out daily. It is true that this phrase accurately describes the approach of Toronto duo Crystal Castles. But they do so much more, stopping at nothing short of expansive electro-pop confections. Take the first two tracks off their debut album. “Untrust Us” is crystalline—a smooth, wordless, robotic vocal sample is interwoven with a bouncy synthesizer, sure to be stuck in your head for weeks. The second brings on the “punk,” with smashed 8-bit game system sounds accompanying Alice Glass’ appropriately bedraggled howls. During the remaining fifteen tracks, Crystal Castles exhibits an astounding ability to cut to the essence of why music lingers in our minds, and what keeps us coming back for more. It’s the pure emotion, the pure energy, the pure pleasure inherent in the creative arrangement of sound. This album is a reminder of just how many doors electronic music has opened to music fans hungry for new horizons.