The middle ten of this year's Top 30, in alphabetical order.
Hanggai – Introducing Hanggai (Introducing).
My favourite part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC is (of course) the music section, tracing the evolution of various types of instruments. It’s fascinating to me that every culture has its own version of the guitar or lute, its own variety of wind instruments, and its own variation on a linear keyboard. Likewise, listening to a band like Hanggai—comprised of Mongolian singers and string players living in Beijing—it’s intriguing to hear what sound like Irish melodies or Native North American motifs, along with African blues (the latter a connection made a decade ago in the film Genghis Blues). Some indie rock reviewers even claimed to hear the Velvet Underground in the droning violin and precisely plodding percussion; a track like “Wuji” chugs along like a great metal song--complete with guttural vocals—only played on the two-stringed ehru instead of electric guitar. The production is perfect, falling into neither “world music” trap of being either too “authentically” raw nor too Westernized slick. Whatever makes your world go round, Hanggai is like everything and nothing you’ve ever heard before.
Veda Hille – This Riot Life (Ape House).
This veteran Vancouver singer/songwriter sings about how “this spring is the one other seasons aim to be,” and being blessed with “ridiculous abundance.” She may well be singing about her “Lucklucky” eleventh album, which is rich with simple hymnal melodies, raging piano prog-rock and chamber-music arrangements, with dashes of klezmer and Japanese cabaret. And though this makes the disc sounds deadly serious, Hille is full of levity and irreverence towards her spiritual subjects, like those “sacred hearts that bleed all over everywhere” and the “kid of God [who] stays up all night long.” No wonder The Weakerthans slid her some of their Echo songwriting prize money. For fans of: Rheostatics, Kate Bush, Sufjan Stevens, John Zorn's Masada. (originally appeared in Eye Weekly’s year-end wrap-up here.)
Hilotrons – Happymatic (Kelp).
Normally, the musicians of the Hilotrons’ age and experience that I find the most interesting have usually graduated beyond rock music by their mid-30s. And yet here, Ottawa’s finest live band write and perform peppy pop with the energy of a band half their age, but with the smarts and the chops that can only come from seasoned veterans. It’s hard to pick an MVP in this band: drummer Philip Shaw Bova is a strong contender, for driving the beat of “Emergency Street” alone; the push and pull between bassist Damian Sawka and rhythm guitarist Paul Hogan; the squelchy synth blasts coming from keyboardists Mikes Shultz and Dubue; and Dubue’s strangulated pitch-perfect vocals, which embody the inner geek who finally gets to dance and show up the rest of the office at the Christmas party. Are Hot Hot Heat still around? If so, why? Especially when the Hilotrons render them and the vast majority of their ilk entirely irrelevant.
iNSiDEaMiND – Scatterpopia (Public Transit Recordings).
The album by these Toronto turntablists opens with what sounds like a black box recorder, though where exactly their flight path leads is never clear—but this is clearly about the journey not the destination. Scatterpopia is not about dance floor climaxes or macho posturing; instead, iNSiDEaMiND peer into the dark corners of their vinyl collections to create captivating sound art. Abstract turntablism and what was once called “illbient” music seems almost antiquated ten years after its heyday—anyone listened to DJ Spooky lately?—yet iNSiDEaMiND manage to mine new textures and breathe new life into the genre, over successfully stuttering beats that keep the listener on edge while never veering right off the rhythmic cliff ala Autechre. They get help from bass-heavy beatmaster Ghislain Poirier on “Twilight Harvest,” though “Yopo’s Secret Recipe” shows they can bring the bounce on their own when they want to. The occasional vocalist is a pleasant distraction, but this is instrumental music that’s rich with its own narratives.
Kardinal Offishall – Not 4 Sale (Konlive/Universal).
The veteran Toronto producer/MC was hotter than ever in 2008—not just because he was on the Tonight Show and scored a Top 10 hit in America (the Akon duet "Dangerous," just in case you weren't near a radio all summer), but because that track was little more than a gateway drug to the more sublime pleasures and thrills heard on Not For Sale. Kardinal had a solid album's worth of blazing tracks to back it up, with hard rhymes about ghetto resilience, satirical skits that skewer gangsta ignorance, and bountiful bass-heavy beats that draw from ragga, reggae, '80 pop, mainstream R&B and the darker edges of hip-hop.
La India Canela – Merengue Tipico From the Dominican Republic (Smithsonian Folkways).
This Dominican woman plays a fast and furious accordion at neck-jerking tempos, matched note-for-note by her bassist and saxophonist, who are just as melodic and nimble, especially when tumbling triplets interrupt the relentless two-step rhythms. Together, they shred their way through originals and merengue classics with endless adrenaline. No wonder this music is traditionally the soundtrack for cockfighting. (This ran as part of Exclaim's year-end coverage here)
Leila – Blood Looms and Blooms (Warp).
Disappearing for much of the last decade gave Leila the chance to sit back and contextualize trends in electronic music since her first album. As a result, Blood Looms and Blooms draws from early Portishead and Tricky, borrows some of the beats she crafted for Bjork, delves into more distorted territory, moves into druggy dreamscapes ala Boards of Canada, dabbles in sound art and chamber music, reaches back to Tangerine Dream, and relaxes with some Brazilian/Baltimore bounce for good measure.
Magnetic Fields – Distortion (Nonesuch/Warner).
Since hitting the jackpot with 69 Love Songs ten years ago, Stephin Merritt has for the most part spread his best songs over various projects and albums, some more gimmicky—sorry, conceptual—than others. Sometimes he strikes gold, as he did on the underrated Gothic Archies tie-in with the Lemony Snicket series. But the songs on Distortion are united only in their aesthetic, which involves waves of icy, reverbed and tinny guitars framing consistently excellent examples of Merritt’s arch lyrics and superior melodies. 69 Love Songs singer Shirley Simms returns as guest vocalist, and Merritt is as droll as ever; their duet “Please Stop Dancing (In My Head)” underscored the fact that these songs were near-impossible to forget.
Jun Miyake – Stolen From Strangers (Do Right!).
Cultural dislocation sounds positively intoxicating in the hands of Japanese flugelhorn player Jun Miyake, who bounces between Bulgaria, Brazil, New York City, Tokyo, and his adopted hometown of Paris. Bleary-eyed bossa nova for “Le Voyageur Solitaire” predominates, with detours into fractured French chanson and Japanese crooning. I knew nothing about Miyake before the Toronto label Do Right! licensed this album for North America; now I want to dive into his entire discography during a month of Sundays.
Nomo – Ghost Rock (Ubiquity)
Ghost Rock opens with what sounds like a Morse code signal from outer space, before launching a beat that sounds like Tony Allen turned inside out and upside down. The next track kicks in with some Konono-inspired distorted kalimba, and from there on in Nomo take Afrobeat to psychedelic locales that are often promised by anxious Western scribes but rarely materialize in the still-worthy flood of ’70s compilations that continued to emerge throughout 2008. Producer Warren Defever (His Name is Alive) deserves a lot of credit for how amazing this album sounds, though the band has no problem carving out an identity of their own in the increasingly crowded Afrobeat revival.