Our critics' look back at 2008
Royal Hospital Kilmainham
It's not just the best gig of 2008, but the best concert I've ever seen. There was something truly magical about witnessing the 73-year-old icon perform his career-spanning songs to a rapt audience in these lovely environs of Dublin 8. The man's humility and grace was apparent from the off and his spoken-worded version of A Thousand Kisses Deep will live long in the memory. Glorious.
The Magnetic Fields
Vicar Street, Dublin
For a devoted misanthrope, The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt has a curious knack for sending shivers down your spine. Not that you would have guessed this from TMF's intentionally obtuse new album, Distortion -- a collection of sweet, snarky ditties buried beneath a torrent of feedback. Stopping off at Vicar Street in early summer, however, Merritt and his unmerry troupe left the FX pedals at home, revealing the inner beauty beneath Distortion's fuzzbox exterior. Better yet, they did a sublime greatest hits set. There aren't enough curmudgeonly geniuses in pop at moment -- Merritt is a reminder of what we're missing.
My Bloody Valentine
Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow
It truly was the year of the comeback, as My Bloody Valentine shocked the world by hitting the road. Never a prolific live act back in the day, My Bloody Valentine launched a world tour in London's Roundhouse that stopped off at Electric Picnic. No other show on earth combined sweet melody with sonic ferocity so effectively and beautifully. The first of two shows in Glasgow's famous Barrowland Ballroom was so exquisitely intense I could feel it my gut. Sweet dreams are made of this.
For Emma, Forever Ago
For my appraisal of this marvellous debut and the other best albums of the year, see page 14.
In an era when pop music feels spirit-sappingly safe, let us give praise for an album that dares to be balls-out bonkers. Skipping between alt-rock, funk and psychedelia, Skeletal Lamping is the craziest thing to slither out of our speakers in years. Consider the stand-out song Plastis Wafers, wherein Of Montreal leader Kevin Barnes (actually from Austin, Texas) references Prince, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Ziggy Stardust and the Pet Shop Boys.
The manic genre-hopping can overwhelm and Barnes's psycho-sexual lyrics sound like poorly translated Japanese porn, but that's precisely the point: Skeletal Lamping is a blur of guitar-induced hallucinations -- an antidote to all the 'cutting edge' bilge we get now.
Also on a comeback tip, Portishead released their first studio album in 11 years. Third didn't rely on rehashing former glories, but invented brand new ones, fusing folk, electronica, white noise and Beth Gibbons's astonishing voice in a riveting new career chapter.
Sadly, touring was kept to a bare minimum because of Beth's stage fright (bless!). If only all bands were this good after a lengthy hiatus. Guns n' Roses should've left Chinese Democracy in the can, where it belongs.
BEST IRISH ALBUM
Another Way of Being There
The second album from the Dublin-based electronica and post-rock outfit stood above all others in what was one of the best years this decade for domestic music. For anybody seeking a respite from The Script's slick Maroon 5 routine or Snow Patrol's carefully calibrated stadium bombast, look no further than Halfset's beautiful soundscape that's by turns melancholic and euphoric.
The first time you listened to Penny Black, it felt a bit like falling backwards into a flotation tank and accidently locking the door behind you. Sure, there was something suspiciously new-agey about its ambient wash of beats and acoustic guitar, but Chequerboard -- aka Sligo-resident Dubliner John Lambert -- knew his way around a killer groove too, underpinning his blissed-out soundscapes with strident, occasionally urgent, breakdowns. It's clear that Lambert has been listening to German electronica: in particular, 'nu-gazers' such as Ulrich Schnauss. But because Penny Black was written in the depths of Connacht rather than Berlin, there's a pastoral sensibility here that is uniquely Irish.
It's heartening that this is a hotly contested category after Roísín Murphy cakewalked it last year. After a series of frustrating delays, the third album by Richie Egan's Jape project was well worth the wait, and then some. Crammed with pop genius, Ritual boasts modern Irish alt-pop anthems in I Was A Man, Phil Lynott, Graveyard and Streetwise. At last, an Irish singer-songwriter to be proud of.
TV on the Radio
There have been some fantastic tracks this year. MGMT provided two in Kids and Time To Pretend, Santogold's LES Artistes was also pretty special, as was Duffy's Mercy. But this opening track from TV on the Radio's superb Dear Science is the song I return to most. Another of theirs, Family Tree, is pretty special too.
You Don't Know Me
Ben Folds (featuring Regina Spektor)
Heartache has never sounded so beautiful. Ben Folds says he tapped Regina Spector to sing backing vocals on the lead single from his new album because she had a voice that sounded "delicate but not girly". It was an inspired piece of sideways logic. Drawing on his recent divorce, the song chronicles a disintegrating relationship in gritty detail yet with a tune you couldn't help humming in the shower. The only disappointment? At time of writing, Folds hasn't found time to include an Irish date on 2009 schedule.
Hercules & Love Affair featuring Antony Hegarty
This propulsive disco monster was by far the most fun to play out. Every spin would ignite the dance floor without fail and anyone who didn't know it always asked what it was. Here's hoping that January's Antony & the Johnsons album will be as good.
BEST IRISH SONG
Maybe This Is Not Love
Jape was a contender in this category for the lovely Phil Lynott and Autamata for Watching The World Go By. But this slice of dreamy power pop has had an odd hold on me ever since his second album The Tiny Pieces Left Behind was released. A beautiful song.
I Heard Wonders
David Holmes's comeback single ought to have carried a public service warning: do not adjust your stereo, the song you are hearing really was written and performed by the last of the superstar DJs. Stepping away from his Mark Ronson-tinged soundtrack work and clattering electronica, the Belfast techno maven mourned the death of his parents on four and half minutes of gorgeous nu-gaze. The results could have been mawkish, but, bathed in Holmes's breathy, half-spoken vocals, I Heard Wonders was the best sort of dirge: it made you grieve for people you never even knew.
Only Richie Egan could imagine a lunar eclipse as Phil Lynott still winking at girls in the front row. This vibe for Phil is a delightfully affecting ode from one uuuCrumlin bass player to another. If Facebook campaigners have their way, it'll be the Christmas number one.
Vampire Weekend ran her close, but the lady known to her mom as Santi White just about wins out, thanks to an excellent eponymous debut that was both commercial and daring. She's MIA with tunes.
These New Puritans
Foals sported the year's best floppy fringes and MGMT dropped the most deliciously blatant drug references, but of all 2008's goggle-eyed, weirdly clad newcomers, none were as agreeably odd-ball as Brighton's These New Puritans. Swathed head to toe in black and apparently incapable of smiling, the foursome larded their records with madcap references -- Rasputin, HP Lovecraft, arcane numerology -- then lashed whacking great indie guitars on top. Astonishingly, their debut album, Beat Pyramid, failed to catch on. Maybe they should have spent more time on their hair and less on their songs.
to close to call...
Thankfully, an avalanche of eclectic talent ensured that 2008 wasn't just a nostalgic love in. It's far too difficult to call, as Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Little Joy, Lykke Li, Glasvegas, F*** Buttons and Hercules & Love Affair all released belters.
Choice music prize 2008
This prize was such a good idea when it was first announced, but its credibility is waning. First, Divine Comedy won when there were patently better albums nominated, but the decision this year to give the award to Super Extra Bonus Party was frankly, stupid. It was the worst of the albums to be nominated.
The vogue for dull bearded folkies
Indie rock -- what's with the bearded, faux sincerity? Not since the fag-end of Sixties have so many artists mistook backwoods shagginess for searing earnestness. First came Bon Iver, a wintry falsetto in search of a tune. Then, more horrifying still, there was Fleet Foxes, a band that has mesmerised audiences across the world with their recycled harmonies and sub-Crosby, Stills and Nash air of bucolic worthiness. This was freak folk with the freakiness sucked out. All you were left with was dreary earnestness and oodles of lyrics about watching the sun come up.
The seemingly endless proliferation of 'landfill indie' and how it's tarnished once great bands such as Kings of Leon, whose Oxegen performance was as dull as dishwater. TV on the Radio weren't worthy of a fraction of the hype. Chinese Democracy by Guns n' Roses was so bad it was undeniably hilarious, but never good.
After releasing the drab Around The Sun and the over-rated Reveal before that, one of the best American bands of the past 20 years looked, unfortunately, like a spent force. But new album Accelerate was a fantastic return to form.
On paper, Crystal Castles sounded like characters from Nathan Barley: insufferably edgy Canadians plying bleep-happy electronica that owed as much to Pac Man as to rave or house. Read their press clippings and the prognosis grows even more dire: the duo of Ethan Kath and Alice Glass came off as sniffy and elitist, appearing to disdain their fans as trend hoppers and given to explaining about how they always preferred noise rock to electronica anyway. So what a shock it was to discover their actual music was... well, fantastic. On their self-titled debut album, the duo fused Nintendo beats to haunting techno fugues, drawing on the past while always sounding as if they had one foot in the future. Ed Power
Loads of great Irish releases after a lacklustre 2007. Pony Club, Messiah J & the Expert, David Holmes, The Story of Hair, Halfset, Barry McCormack, Giveamanakick, The Jimmy Cake, R.S.A.G. and Lisa Hannigan can all take a bow. As our web correspondent, Nialler, notes, it was probably the best year for Irish music in the past 10 years. So who will crack it internationally? In the current climate, it's an easier call to go to the bookies and stick a pin in the next race.
BEST FESTIVAL MOMENT
It may not have had the best line-up this year and Grace Jones proved to be a massive let-down, but Electric Picnic was still head and shoulders above the rest. The excellent performance from Sigur Ros made the Friday very special and when they played the opening notes of Hoppipolla it was hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck time.
So stuffed was Electric Picnic's Cosby tent, we were almost tempted to skip Santi White's Irish debut but she was worth the crush. Performing her self-titled debut album more or less in its entirety, she came on like the spiritual off-spring of MIA and Kanye West: her music was a multi-cultural mind meld but with beats you simply had to gyrate to. Those robo-cop backing dancers were pretty neat too. We're gagging to see her headline here.
Grinderman and My Bloody Valentine
Grinderman and My Bloody Valentine performing back-to-back at Electric Picnic was the festive knock out punch of this, or any other, year. Strangely, Nick Cave is the reason I missed MBV in 1992, lending a sense of poetic justice to this spellbinding evening in Stradbally.
GREATEST GUILTY PLEASURE
That's Not My Name
The Ting Tings
Are the rumours true that people are known to break out in an angry rash when this song comes on the radio? I well believe it. The Ting Tings are a very ordinary buzz band with a hopeless debut album. Still, there's something about this punky tune that gets me all the time. Keane's The Lovers Are Losing is also pretty great, although that's not something I publicise very often.
Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)
Someone recently described Beyonce Knowles as the 21st century's Michael Jackson. If so, Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) is surely her Billie Jean, a stone-cold dance-floor classic that manages to feel both profound and throwaway. What a pity, then, the rest of her Sasha Fierce album is so overwhelmingly maudlin. Beyonce always makes more sense when she's burning up the disco than when she's letting her inner Maria Carey off the leash.
Much as I am loath to mention -- let alone admit -- liking anything that's the product of a TV talent show, the power-pop acumen of Girls Aloud is beyond question. If it's good enough for Arctic Monkeys to cover, then it's good enough of me. Resistance is futile.