Ben Ward

2008 in Music

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Another new year, another late review of the year’s music. 2008 has felt like a bit of a bad year for me to track. Not because the experiences or quality of music has been bad, just because like much else, I’ve been especially distracted by bigger changes.

On paper, it’s been pretty good. I attended South by Southwest Music for the first time, spent most of the year living in East London with a music junkie Last.FM-ite and spending great times socialising with David Emery of Beggars Group, so music exposure may have been greater and more eclectic than any previous year. I come out of it not entirely convinced, and my mostly unordered pick of the records I enjoyed the most almost seem predictable written down. Regardless, onward.


A brilliant, full album is still my favourite way to consume music. Despite listing more to Last.FM and Hype Machine this year than last, despite iTunes adding a really good ‘Genius’ playlist generator feature and despite dropping portable capacity down to 8GB by trading my iPod for an iPhone, I still adore the experience and coherence of a good album.

Antidotes by Foals is my favourite record of the year. It’s just great. I appreciate some early adopters were a little put off by the absence of Mathletics, and the unexpected introduction of a brass section, but the songcraft just clicks everywhere for me. The tunes are great, the riffs get you moving, the switches in pace and style midway through songs is just perfect. Two Steps, Twice is my standout favourite track. It builds up, slowly, pacing perfect and eventually explodes in a synthed up crescendo of energy and tune. It’s just the best thing I’ve heard all year. That said, the preceding Heavy Water, whilst initially a bit of a weaker song, pulls of a great dance explosion at the end as well. It’s a song that just transforms in ways you don’t expect. Whilst Battles brought math-rock out of the shadows earlier, Oxford’s Foals have made something that’s probably more accessible, but no less classy.

Elsewhere, Fleet Foxes maintained the Americana revival apace, with gorgeous earthy, folky songs. Lightspeed Champion‘s ‘Falling Off The Lavender Bridge’ record (with ’’>Emmy the Great backing) is full of wonderful folk-pop songs, Cut Copy‘s ‘In Ghost Colours’ makes wonderful late night music with its combination of lively dance, atmospheric keyboards and sprinkling of “Oh, it’s a bit like New Order, isn’t it?”; underlining why playing full length records won’t go away. Plus Gruff Rhys and Boom Bip formed Neon Neon, rushed back in time to salvage the electronic bits of the 80’s and won it all with ‘Stainless Style’.

Elbow‘s evolution continues to astound. I love this band dearly, every record they’ve ever released has touched me in some way and every one has glorious moments that I’ll go back and play forever. I don’t know if any one song on ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ is better than anything they’ve done previous, but the record as a whole is somehow a more coherent, more complete offering than what came before. It’s inevitably more mature; less of a departure in sound from ‘Leaders of the Free World’ than it could have been, but over a handful of listens, from start to finish it draws you in. Richard Hawley provides vocals on ‘The Fix’, and dominates the song. It’s a wonderful stand out moment, though you wonder if it displaces Guy Garvey’s own distinctive vocal too much. Until it rolls into Some Riot’, a piece of music of beauty and delicacy and suddenly Garvey’s voice is in its element and you… just… float. Perhaps ‘Some Riot’ is the one song that’s better than anything else they’ve done.

I still regret not saying ‘Hello’ to Guy at London Euston railway station a few years ago, though I still don’t know what I’d say to him now. After my drunken blathering to Moby at SXSW, maybe it’s best I stay away from respectable musicians.

Finally, my dabbling in the physical world of vinyl is growing. I bought a gorgeous Pro-Ject Debut III (in red). A beautifully squared off slap of wood, with minimal controls and, as best I can tell, great sound. I don’t care how near the snob/hipster line I stray, the warm, full sound is awesome and appreciable even on my aged student hi-fi separates. On that, I must mention something completely out of time; The Beta Band. Their first, self titled album which for some reason I own only on vinyl. It’s just great. It’s exactly where pop music rightfully ends up in the late 1990s; assuming the same progression and daring evolution of the preceding forty years. They were unique, The Beta Band, and they are missed.


Maybe it’s because I pour all my energy into album reviews, but when I get down to individual songs I feel more inclined toward spewing out a quickfire list than anything more substantial. I can’t find much fault with that, so, the songs that made me happy in 2008:

The Hill, The View, and the Lights’ by Cajun Dance Party, ‘Two Steps, Twice’ by Foals, ‘Midnight Surprise’ and ‘Dry Lips’ by Lightspeed Champion, ‘Battle Royale’ by Does It Offend You, Yeah?, ‘Your Protector’ by Fleet Foxes, ‘Ghosts’ by Ladytron, ‘Belfast’ by Neon Neon, ‘Lights Out For Darker Skies’ by British Sea Power, ‘Kriss Kross’ by Guillemots from their otherwise disappointing ‘Red’ album, ‘Salute Your Solution’ from Raconteurs ‘Consolers of the Lonely’, ‘Hot Cakes’ by El Ten Eleven — and his cover of ‘Paranoid Android’ is stellar too.

Special mentions go to ‘Talking Backwards’ by Fanfarlo, a band I desperately need to acquire more music of. ‘Talking Backwards’ is one of my favourite pop songs of the whole year. And whilst most of the songs here are linked to Last.FM in some way, you should absolutely follow this one and play the whole song. It’s sublime.

And then, there’s Florence and the Machine.

No album, unsigned until rather recently. I am somewhat obsessed with Florence Welch. But I’m shameless about it. Her two 7" singles this year — ‘Kiss with a Fist’ and ‘Dog Days Are Over’ have just been sublime. Pop music with great tunes, great refrain, darkly humorous lyrics. I could ask nothing more than to have it performed live in my living room. Unless that’s getting creepy, in which case I’ll reluctantly step away. Her performance at SXSW was awesome and had me following her powerful, bluesy voice ever since. Er, more gushing about her follows below. Again with the emphasis on listening to these. Or show up at a party in my apartment and I’ll inevitably play them to you ad nauseam.

For everything else this year, I’ll lazily be referring you to my Last.FM loved tracks and Hype Machine obsessions lists.


Live music was quite special this year. I attended South by Southwest in March, staying on past the usual interactive geek-up and through a gruelling second week of intense music. It was an awesome exercise in discovering bands I’d only heard the name of at that point — Lightspeed Champion, MGMT, Los Campesinos! and so forth. The only accidental discovery was Florence and the Machine, who was stunningly good and did quite curious things to my heart rate with her voice alone.

Later came The Great Escape in Brighton, which bills itself as a British version of SXSW, but by offering rather fewer shows per night, they don’t handle the quantity of attendees so well. There’s hope if they can scale up venues faster than they scale attendees. Saw some good shows, although Lightspeed Champion almost undid all the good from SXSW in one dreadful performance.

The Ting Tings were actually a lot of fun live at SXSW (and again at The Great Escape), but the album kinda slumped off my radar after a few weeks. In still can’t quite believe that after recording the weak, wheezing falsetto on title track ‘We Started Nothing’ someone was actually paid to say ‘Yeah, that’s great!’. I think my subsequent disenchantment was what David intended to refer to as inevitable… although all I heard was him hurling expletives at me for listening to Ting Tings in the first place. I’m sure I’ve got his sentiment nailed down now, though.

I did a good number of shows at Somerset House again. It’s a frankly very expensive way to see less shows than a music festival, but the venue is magnificent illuminated and it was right near the Yahoo! office.

It would be remiss not to mention the biggest event of my live music year. I managed to clock up seeing Radiohead three times; two nights in London’s Victoria Park (all of five minutes walk from my then home), and once more in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. I missed out on the surprise show at Rough Trade on Brick Lane; oh well. The second night in London stands out as my favourite, but with a repertoire as good as theirs is difficult to fault on any night. The variation night to night keeps it fresh and the experience as the sun sets is just stellar. I’m still to experience anything as mind blowing as tens of thousands of people singing the coda to Karma Police. For a minute there we lost ourselves.

As mentioned earlier, I’ve spent most of the year since South by Southwest absolutely fixated by Florence Welch to a degree bordering on social unacceptability. Even without my mild obsession, Florence and the Machine‘s records are catchy, her voice is magnificent, her lyrics darkly comic and together with songs of pure pop brilliance, she offers something beyond any of the more famous London soloists. Like Steve Lamaq, I really can’t figure out what to expect nor what I want from 2009 in terms of broader trends and scenes, but an album from Florence is on the cards, so that’s one thing at least.

I’m looking forward to see what San Francisco offers up in 2009.

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