Friday, November 28, 2008

The Vox Acerbus Best Music of 2008

I don't post often, but when I do, I come bearing gifts. After much listening, soul searching, and sleepless nights, the Vox Acerbus Best Music of 2008 is finally finished.

First, a quick rehash of the rules for the new readers.

All of the music below is in my collection. I don't Google it and crank out some half-ass amalgamation of somebody else's favorites. You get inside *my* head - that alone is worth the price of admission.

Lyrics are key, except of course in the case of an instrumental track that made the cut for 2008 - a Vox Acerbus first. (OK, not technically an instrumental, but the voice is offering melodic support rather than words, per se.) The music can be great, but if the lyrics are stupid, I can't in good conscience pass it along to you. Each song below has a lyric that for some unexplained reason caught my ear and made it worthy of consideration.

I don't release the list until I'm certain of it. And this year, it took over a month to get it right. I lost track of how many times I changed it, and I would wager that a over 1/3 of the list was not included in the original version.

And finally, after I make the picks, I write a few liner notes to tell you *why* the song was included. Part of that is because I think it's as important as the music, but most if it is because I am a huge dork and I live under the illusion that you care what I think.

Also, new for 2008 - the order of the songs. Since 2003, I have presented the list in chronological order from earliest release to latest. This year, I let iTunes do it. I shuffled the playlist, and this is the result. Done.

And so, without further interruption, I present the Vox Acerbus Best of 2008.

1. "Sanvean" by Sarah Brightman, from Symphony

The first "instrumental" ever included on a Vox Acerbus best of collection, Brightman's version of Lisa Gerrard's (formerly of Dead Can Dance) "Sanvean (I Am Your Shadow)" replaces Gerard's lower vocal registers with soaring purity. It feels like a long descent.

2. "And Then We Fell" by Brian Vander Ark, from Brian Vander Ark

"and all the while gravity is pulling us straight into Hell"

"And Then We Fell" was tested in front of audiences as the show opener starting in early 2007, and you can hear the progression from some of the bootleg versions that are out there. Brian Vander Ark is one of the most prolific songwriters of our time. His songs go beyond the formulaic offerings of today's pop music; they tell a story. He's a modern day troubadour, the kind who went the way of the typewriter and the door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, who continues to earn the praise and admiration of his fans one song at a time.

3. "Los Angeles" by Peter Bradley Adams, from Leavetaking

"And you held us in your city lights when our eyes had lost the stars"

Adams is 1/2 of the former folk-pop duo eastmountainsouth, who disbanded after just one terrific self-titled album in 2003. This is his second solo effort, and while Leavetaking is a stellar album, it's the absolutely stunning song here that will stop you cold. For lack of a more colorful description, this song is gorgeous.

4. "Coney Island" by Good Old War, from Only Way to Be Alone

"Reminisce why I still hate it here"

I think Good Old War is what Nickel Creek would have sounded like if they recorded in the 1960's. This is a rare Vox Acerbus pick - a song with a driving tempo - but it is still sad and forlorn. Who says melancholy can't be conveyed with a tasty groove?

5. "The One I Love" by Greg Laswell, from Three Flights From Alto Nido

"I'll bring your words along with me, maybe one day they will mean something"

A time honored tale of the grass always being greener on the other side. Sometimes people act in a manner where there is no logical explanation for doing so, and we've all done it. Laswell brings a unique piano presence to a guitar dominated genre.

6. "Sarah" by Ray LaMontagne, from Gossip in the Grain

"Eyes closed tight, throwing punch after punch at the world"

LaMontagne's third album is less restrained and more adventurous than his previous work, which really says something, because he remains as distant and stoic as ever. People knock him for being so tormented and brooding, but what they don't realize that's where the brilliance comes from. Let the man be miserable, because it works. He already cut the set list short this past October in Detroit (I know because I have it) - you want him to stop touring and making records altogether? Shut up already.

7. "Coming In Too Low" by Steve Reynolds, from The Carnival Papers

"who is the person I have become?"

Reynolds is a Canadian artist who brings a modern touch to the normal "trials and tribulations of life" stuff of folk music. This song starts in a low drone and is driven by the low toms instead of the snare drum before building into a heavily layered and epic ending.

8. "A Thread Cut With A Carving Knife" by Stars, from Sad Robots EP

"close your eyes until tomorrow, it could bring joy it could bring sorrow, but it will come sure as light"

The Canadian duo returns with a song about "the next day", a lesson that no matter what course of action we choose (like the 3 sample verses here: continuing a loveless relationship, comtemplating suicide, and drinking to forget), the sun will come up tomorrow. The tone ranges between hope and hopelessness and is layered like an onion with synth waves and distortion.

9. "Crack The Shutter" by Snow Patrol, from A Hundred Million Suns

"It's been minutes, it's been days, it's been all I will remember"

This is really nothing more than a simple love song. A lot of people are calling it this album's version of "Chasing Cars", but that's an oversimplification. This song more than stands on its own merits. Slick pop production, yes, but worthy all the same.

10. "Maybe Be Alright" by William Fitzsimmons, from The Sparrow and the Crow

"I was just a stupid kid"

The beard alone gets this guy in. His songs are full of pain and regret, which we love here at Vox Acerbus. Truth is, anyone of the songs on this album could have made this collection, so it should be no surprise that two of them did.

11. "The World is Outside" by Hem
". . . all the ways to feel the world forgot you . . ."

No cover art for this one. This was released via Hem's website last spring, and is likely just a skeleton demo of a song that might appear on the next record sometime in 2009. That's how unbelievably talented this band is.

12. "Alicia Ross" by Kathleen Edwards, from Asking for Flowers

"Was your darkest day as dark as this one?"

I am a huge fan of Edwards, ever since I heard "Sweet Little Duck" from the Failer album back in 2003. I love the story offered between the opening lyric ("I am a girl with a forgettable face) and the closing line ("Now I'm a girl who's face they'll never forget"), but the subject material is the saddest imaginable. It's a paradox that a song about a young girl's murder could sound so beautiful.

13. "Beautiful Lie" by Yoav, from Charmed & Strange

"Fade away like frozen photographs"

It's unbelievable that every sound in this song was made by a single acoustic guitar. Sure, it's overdubbed and looped, but it's still pretty damn impressive. We need to embrace world music artists like him.

14. "Washington Square" by Counting Crows, from Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings

"And time is a number that rests on a wall"

Admittedly, before this record, I was not a big Counting Crows fan, but there is something so sparse and desolate within this pretty song, I had to include it. As you know, paradoxes rule at Vox Acerbus.

15. "Ships" by Tyler Ramsey, from A Long Dream About Swimming Across the Sea

"Cause by now I've seen too many of us seamlessly upon the sea,
whose sails are clinging desperately to ships that once were worthy."

This entire album is amazing, but the lyric above is the reason I picked this song from the rest - those words are powerful stuff.

16. "Your New Twin-Sized Bed" by Death Cab for Cutie, from Narrow Stairs

"It's like you're in some kind of hurry to say goodbye"

This was a difficult choice, because this album had so many standouts, but in the end, the contant synth drone that starts in the second verse and continues throughout the rest of the song was the deciding factor because it adds such a sonic stability and depth to an otherwise light track.

17. "Lullaby" by Priscilla Ahn, from A Good Day

"This old library has thirty books and one dictionary"

This is a song about a desire to leave a small town behind for bigger and better things. My favorite feature of this song is the raw texture of the string arrangement. Ahn also sang with William Fitzsimmons on a couple of tracks on his The Sparrow & The Crow album, from which 2 songs made this year's list.

18. "If You Would Come Back Home" by William Fitzsimmons, from The Sparrow & The Crow

"Call the surgeon . . . mend the pieces"

Another song of heartache and despair. I feel bad for the guy that he had to go through whatever it was that brought so much pain, but the songs are so stunning and brilliant, I'm glad he did. Sorry, William - that sucks, man.

19. "Gossip in the Grain" by Ray LaMontagne, from Gossip in the Grain

"The beggar that holds is tongue . . . dines on none but air alone"

This song has a ethereal element much like his songs "Be Here Now" and "Empty" from the Till the Sun Turns Black album of 2006. His sorrowful voice and the haunting intro of flute and glockenspiel make for a powerful combination.

I'm out-