If there was any lingering doubt that Portland is enjoying a musical golden age, surely it has been silenced this year. Though I have loved many more, here are some of my favorite local albums from 2008:
When Au took my breath away with their self-titled debut album in 2007, I was comforted that I was in the hands of what I suspected was a truly great band. When the group returned this year with a supporting ensemble of 20 regulars from Portland's improvisational music community and stole my heart with their transcendent follow-up, Verbs, I was honored to know it would be in the care of what I am now certain is a truly great band. A controlled, clattering cloud of keyboards, percussion, woodwinds, guitars, and voices at once more ecstatic and more structured than Au's debut, Verbs is an affirmation.
2. White Hinterland—Luniculaire
It takes guts to cover classics, and audacity to tackle a foreign musical tradition. It takes tremendous talent and sensitivity to do both simultaneously and successfully, and—as the five-song, French-language EP Luniculaire demonstrates—White Hinterland pianist/singer Casey Dienel has all these things. In reinterpreting epoch-defining songs popularized by '60s French pop giants like Serge Gainsbourg, Dienel and her superb band not only do justice to them but give them new life. That the two original White Hinterland compositions are on par with the time-tested French masterpieces speaks volumes.
3. Point Juncture, WA—Heart to Elk
For many bands, three years between albums means they've lost their way. For indie rock torchbearers Point Juncture, WA, three years just means taking your time to write and record the best 13 songs you can, which, in this case, are jaw-droppingly good. The band—who employ familiar rock instrumentation, augmented by vibraphone and trumpet, and catchy-as-plague vocal melodies to make detailed pop music indebted to Yo La Tengo and Stereolab—are fairly traditional in their methods. But, as Heart to Elk bears out, traditional methods can yield outstanding, original results in the right hands. Here's to taking your time.
4. Eliot Rose—The Calculated Dream
Some records are deeply personal in that they are unflinchingly confessional. Eliot Rose's The Calculated Dream—a charmingly awkward, neo-doo-wop, electro-pop oddity constructed largely from kalimba, synthesizers, and Rose's bittersweet baritone musings on travel, space, and time—is deeply personal in that I cannot conceive of there being more than one mind in the world capable of creating anything like it. Contrasting the infinite, heartbreaking indifference of the cosmos with the rich pageantry of individual life, The Calculated Dream was this year's leftfield, under-heard delight.
5. Dragging an Ox through Water—The Tropics of Phenomenon
On his first full-length-ish effort, ox-dragger Brian Mumford unexpectedly varnished the bruised-is-beautiful acoustic guitar work and hobo tenor trill at the center of his formidable live show with a thick coat of uncanny, pre-fab synth sounds and homemade, sputtering analog electronics. At times baffling, consistently visionary, this 12-inch is the definitive work of an as-yet-named genre wherein harsh noise and tender balladry are proven to be far more closely related than previously thought.
6. Grouper—Dragging a Dead Deer up a Hill
Not since Sonic Youth's Evol has an album been both so lovely and so disturbing: hypnotically strummed guitars, watery delay, tape hiss, field recordings, and gently harmonized soprano vocals. The wife of Renaissance madrigal composer Gesualdo was famously murdered by her husband in 1590 when he caught her with a lover: This is the music I imagine her ghost making—hopeful, haunted, with all the time in the world.