2008: The music
REVIEW OF THE YEAR:The Ticket's music writers on the rock'n'pop, trad, jazz and classical sounds that rocked their worlds this year
There were, as usual, the mix of the good, very good, superb and sublime. Try as I might I just can't get Lisa Hannigan's SeaSew out of my head. It remains, several months after its release, a standard bearer for all to follow. Other fine Irish releases included Chequerboard's Penny Black, Saville's Nostalgia, David Holmes's The Holy Pictures and Halfset's Another way of Being There.
Impressive debuts from Adele (19) and Duffy (Rockferry), coupled with excellent new albums from Joan as Policewoman (To Survive), Aimee Mann (#% Smilers) and Sigur Rós (With a Buzz in the Ears We Play Endlessly) made 2008 something of a belter of a year for inventive, singular music. Best pop song? If I Were a Boy from Beyoncé.
Sorry to say I missed Leonard Cohen, but I was there at Oxegen and Electric Picnic (each with great gigs) as well as Radiohead (at Malahide Castle - good show, great T-shirts).
Without wishing to come across as a sad sack with a dubious obsessive compulsive disorder, my favourite gig of the year was Lisa Hannigan at Dundalk's Spirit Store. You often see music inhabit the performer, but it's rare that you see the opposite. Guess it was one of those gigs you had to be there to experience, but if music can be a life-changing experience then - for me at least - this was as close as it gets.
For reasons best kept under lock and key (guarded, it has been decreed on the strict orders of the elders, by a phalanx of oiled eunuchs wearing little more than tutus), I was an Electric Picnic virgin until earlier this year. What people have been saying about it for years is true: it really is an eye-opening event that, apparently effortlessly, intermingles well-chosen music acts with literature/theatre/visual art/debate and an all-round sense of, well, good vibes. Oh, and Ryan Adams presented me with an autographed hand-drawn work of art. I'm looking at it as I write, and it's bloody good!
Call it wilful, baleful begrudgery if you must, but I find it difficult to understand why the likes of Paddy Casey and Damien Dempsey are so beloved of the public at large, particularly when their most recent respective albums (Addicted to Company and The Rocky Road) are so inherently bland. One more thing: Super Extra Bonus Party nabbing the Choice Music Prize back in February. A total joke.
My album of the year was Nouns from Los Angeles duo No Age. Standard-bearers for LA's new brash scene based around the Smell venue, No Age showed that making a racket and putting blood in the music never goes out of fashion.
In album terms, 2008 belonged to the Yanks, proof that an Obama-like surge is not just limited to politics. Releases from Vampire Weekend, TV On The Radio, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, The Gaslight Anthem, Hercules Love Affair, Kanye West and Lil Wayne and Santogold provided hours of listening pleasure.
Elsewhere, Lykee Li's Youth Novels was an exceptional pop hurrah, while Lisa Hannigan, R.S.A.G., David Holmes, Katie Kim and The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock kept the home fires burning.
It was the year of the three wise men. Bruce, Lenny and crazy ol' Tom came, charged high ticket prices and delivered just what their audiences wanted. Springsteen's three-night stand at Dublin's RDS, in particular, was a delight.
Away from the elder statesmen, I enjoyed Fleet Foxes at Whelan's (June), Lisa Hannigan's charming show at Dundalk's Spirit Store (July), the Electric Picnic's mix of music and art (September), Dan Deacon on the loose (June), Roisin Murphy's pop extravaganza (December) and South By Southwest's musical jamboree in Austin, Texas (March).
The sight of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova accepting the Oscar for Best Song in February brought a smile to many faces and showed that you can't keep a good man down.
The over-the-top fuming in the wake of the Ticket's Top 40 Irish Albums poll was also enjoyable. We're still dealing with outraged Enya fans.
Other highlights included watching the world at large catching up with the joys of The Wire, the arrival of a proper largescale venue for Dublin in the shape of 02 and, personally, finally getting to visit New Orleans.
It was a year when "unforeseen circumstances" became a music industry buzzword as low ticket sales and unexplained cancellations occured with growing regularity. The Prince debacle at Croke Park was the cherry on the cake.
The Grim Reaper came and took away with him such musical talents as Esbjörn Svensson, Issac Hayes, Levi Stubbs, Bo Diddley, Norman Whitfield, Marc Moulin and Ronnie Drew.
I don't know much about the five-note pentatonic scale, but I know what I like. The eminently slappable Damon Albarn used only this scale (it's the one used in Chinese folk music) to compose the songs for Monkey: Journey to the West. It was the album of the year.
For what's it worth, someone told me once that if I were to be a song, I would be an Elbow song. Since 2001's Asleep in the Back, I've been the president of the band's fan club. Thrilled silly they won this year's Mercury for Seldom Seen Kid.
Mick Flannery is not a rock'n'roll name, but the young Corkman's debut album, White Lies, was astonishingly good. All the widescreen emotional scope of a Blue Nile album.
"Phil Spector from a Glasgow council estate", Glasvegas's debut was simply glorious - and their Christmas album is even better.
"The sound of God moving his furniture," read one of the reviews of the splendidly titled Sigur Rós album, With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly. I'd hazard a guess that this was the sort of music JRR Tolkien heard in his head when he was writing.
MGMT are another fine reason why you should never underestimate the potency of cheap pop music. Oracular Spectacular had a pristine shine to it.
It's a rare thing to be the youngest person at a concert these days, but this (almost) happened at Leonard Cohen's Kilmainham gigs this summer. If I had been bothered to leave the bar, I'm sure the performance was quite good too.
I've discovered a new drug: you take lashings of scrumpy, stand in a field at Glastonbury and listen to Neil Diamond singing I'm a Believer. And Jay-Z on the Pyramid Stage was a blast and a half.
A month or so ago I accidentally fell into a gig by a 24-year-old plumber from Leicester called Jersey Budd. Let me be the first to say/hope he will be HUGE next year.
The credit crunch: Over the last few years the music industry has shoved all its chips onto the live concert bet, and there are too many noses in the trough. Venue owners are now weeping over diminished returns . Do what all other business are doing: reduce prices.
Tina Turner sells out four 02 concerts at an average of €120 a pop in a matter of seconds. This in itself is not a low - Turner is a fantastic performer. But it is a pointer as to why so many bands are getting it so woefully wrong. Music is not a PR product, it's the coruscating thrill of a Bolan or a Bowie. It wasn't their PR companies who wrote those songs. Drop all the gimmicks and stunts. Go to Hamburg and play five shows a night eight days a week - if they'll have you. When you're the finished product get back to us.
Teenage soul divas Duffy and Adele came up with impressive debuts, the former deftly overcoming initial hype, and the latter getting old bluesman Robert Plant out of his seat at the Mercury Music Prize ceremony. Amy? No, No, No. Duffy? Yeah, yeah, yeah!
Young buck Alex Turner gave us an Arctic Monkeys for grown-ups with his band, The Last Shadow Puppets. Nick Cave played the hellfire-raising foreman while the Bad Seeds mined the brimstone on Dig Lazarus Dig! And, in the year Obama was elected, the US firmly wrested the indie rock trophy back from Canada thanks to superb debuts by Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend, MGMT and White Denim. Saville and Pugwash put some psychedelic colour into our grey, drizzly world, and Elbow became the everywhere-seen kids with their Mercury Prize-winning fourth album.
So call me a doddery old dadrocker, but it was the veteran vanguard who got this writer's mojo working in 2008. Whether it was Steve Winwood digging up nuggets from Blind Faith, Traffic and Spencer Davis Group, or ol' Lenny Cohen soothing the credit-crunched brows on a cool summer's evening in Dublin, this year belonged to rock's elder statesmen. Anyone who tells you that rock is a young person's game obviously didn't see Iggy Pop going mental at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, or Tom Waits whipping up hellfire at the Phoenix Park. Neil Young rocked the free world at Malahide Castle, and Lou Reed walked on the wild side with a performance of his classic album, Berlin. And Bruce Springsteen proved it all night - for three nights running at the RDS.
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova did us proud by winning an Oscar for the song Falling Slowly from the soundtrack of Once. Not bad for a scruffy ex-busker. Britpop came back into vogue this year: Oasis released their most acclaimed album in yonks, while The Verve reformed and played Oxegen 10 years after their triumphant Slane gig. And Paul Weller just keeps getting better - you'll have to pry his Modfather crown from his cold, dead hands. Add in the news that Blur are set to reform, and we'll soon be partying like it's 1995.
Not all the oldies proved to be goodies: Eric Clapton bombed out at Malahide Castle, a technical breakdown during Layla putting a lifeless show out of its misery. As for Chinese Democracy, don't make me laugh. Old boyband Westlife celebrated 10 years of utter, unremitting blandness, and even older boyband Boyzone reformed, no doubt inspired by the big moola brought in by the reunited Take That. Rick Wright's death put the kibosh on any future hopes of a Pink Floyd reunion to follow their legendary 2005 Live 8 appearance.
TRAD:It's been a busy year for traditional musicians, with a few wonderful curve balls appearing out of the blue.
Newly minted collaborations have been particularly fruitful: Ciarán Ó Maonaigh and Aidan O'Donnell cast their ears over their local Donegal repertoire with a sparkling debut, Fídíl. Their pinprick precision playing offered a timely tribute to the late Frank Cassidy, a giant among fiddle players.
Frank Cassidy's legacy was honoured with the release of Cairdeas na bhFidléirí's Níl Gar Ann!, a compendium of rare recordings that celebrated Cassidy's delicate genius as both a player and a conduit for the music of the northwest.
Martin Hayes reasserted his position at the leading edge of the tradition with the almost skeletal collection, Welcome Here Again. The album delights in the paring back of a tune to its bare bones, only to reignite it again in the watchful company of guitarist Dennis Cahill.
Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and Julie Fowlis joined forces with Éamon Doorley and Ross Martin for a lively ramble across the fault lines beneath Irish and Scottish music on Dual. Leitrim fiddler Ben Lennon cast his line outwards along with concertina player Tony O'Connell on their duet album, Rossinver Braes.
A celebration of the colour of local musical accents epitomised 2008, and Matt Molloy and John Carty's Pathway to the Well cast a lovely spotlight on the finesse of the north-Connaught style with panache and emotional honesty.
Along the way there were gemstones from Mary McPartlan (Petticoat Loose), Gerry O'Beirne (The Bog Bodies and Other Stories: Music for Guitar), Sam Proctor (Natural Progression) and a wild card from newly formed South American conglomerate Lunfardia (Picada Pa'Cinco). The latter was a timely reminder that it's always worthwhile exploring your own tradition.
All in all, a hectic year yielding a healthy crop, despite the predictions of the demise of the recording industry.
JAZZ:If you want to taste how varied jazz is, try big bands and large ensembles. The adventurous end was served by Vince Mendoza, Blauklang (ACT); Evan Parker, Boustrophedon (ECM), Mike and Kate Westbrook with the Le Sinfonietta de Picardie, London Bridge Is Broken Down (BGO); and a Graham Collier double, Hoarded Dreams (Cuneiform).
Bridging that and the "traditional" big band were Carla Bley, Appearing Nightly (WATT), and the Bergen Big Band with The Core, Meditations on Coltrane (Grappa). The tradition included the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra's double, Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard (Planet Arts); and the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra, Plays the SJO (Dragon).
Piano trios were just as varied: John Taylor, Whirlpool (CamJazz); Marcin Wasilewski, January (ECM); a Brad Mehldau double, Live (Nonesuch); Bobo Stenson, Cantando (ECM); Bill Carrothers, Home Row (Pirouet); and bassist Chuck Berghofer, with Jan Lundgren on piano, Thanks for the Memory (Fresh Sound).
In his favourite quartet format, tenor Bobby Wellins was terrific on Snapshot (Trio), and altoist Martin Speake in great form on Generations (Pumpkin). Another quartet, including Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach, featured on a treble, Live at the Village Vanguard (Mosaic), with much previously unissued excellent music from 1978.
Two special talents also issued superb albums in 2008. Kenny Wheeler's Other People (CamJazz) with John Taylor and the Hugo Wolf Quartet, was remarkable not only for the playing, but also for Wheeler's writing for strings. And Myriam Alter made a welcome reappearance as a composer/ arranger on Where Is There (Enja), with a quintet including John Ruocco and Joey Baron.
Finally, there were exceptional albums by singers Norma Winstone, memorable on Distances (ECM); Christine Tobin with possibly her best yet, Secret Life of a Girl (Babel); Patricia Barber with The Cole Porter Mix (Blue Note); and Karin Krog duetting beautifully with guitarist Jacob Young on Where Flamingos Fly (Grappa).
CLASSICAL:The first discs from the four-year-old Orchestra Mozart under Claudio Abbado concentrated, naturally enough, on Mozart. Their two-disc selection of five late symphonies (Archiv Produktion 477 7598 ) is light-footed and soft-toned, with the kind of clarity you would find in a room with muted light where everything is clear but nothing stands out.
The baroque revival continues to unearth little-known names. Standouts this year included Christophe Rousset's accounts of delightfully erratic harpsichord pieces by 18th-century French composer Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer (Ambroisie AM 151); Elena Cecchi Fedi's deft accounts of challenging cantatas by Porpora (Hyperion CDA 67621); Antichi Strumenti's characterful performances of orchestral suites by onetime Bach rival Christoph Graupner (Stradivarius STR 33797); and the post-baroque fantasy of Frantisek Ignác Antonín Tuma relayed with both shock value and charm by Rinaldo Alessandrini's Concerto Italiano (Naïve OP 30436).
Boston Baroque's second disc of Handel's Concerti Grossi, Op 6, under Martin Pearlman (Telarc CD-80688) has the kind of feel-good factor that should leave any Handel lover grinning from ear to ear.
Robert Barto continued his first-rate survey of the first-rate lute music of Silvius Leopold Weiss (Vol 9 is on Naxos 8.570051). The Palladians ensemble gave a fresh workout to Tartini's famous Devil's Trill Sonata (Linn CKD 292); and Marc Minkowski's Les Musiciens du Louvre gave a memorably fresh, period instruments' lick of paint to suites from Bizet's L'Arlésienne and Carmen (Naïve V5130).
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic had a particularly good year on EMI Classics (Mussorgsky and Borodin on 517 5822; Mahler's Ninth on 501 2282; Stravinsky symphonies on 207 6300; Berlioz on 2162240). And EMI continued to issue attractively priced large box sets, including complete recordings of three great Russian and Ukrainian musicians (pianist Sviatoslav Richter on 217 5112, violinist David Oistrakh on 214 7122, and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich on 217 5972). And even Herbert von Karajan got the treatment in two gigantic sets, one orchestral (5120382), one operatic (5120382).
Deutsche Grammophon scored in celebrating the Messiaen centenary with the most complete offering (32 CDs on 480 1333), and there were two valuable contributions from Irish organists: David Adams in a selection of Irish music (available from www.cmc.ie), and Malcolm Proud in a selection from the third part of Bach's Clavierübung (Maya Recordings MCD 0803).