1. Mogwai ‘The Hawk Is Howling’
Thirteen years into their career and Scotland’s finest come up with their best album to date. They don’t try anything new but if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Here they stick to what they do best: loud, dynamic slabs of portentous post-rock sitting side by side with achingly beautiful instumental moodpieces. Like Neil Young, they are equally adept at making your ears bleed and gently caressing your heart within the space of one album.
2. Sun Kil Moon ‘April’
There is something very, very wrong in the world when the end of the year comes around and Mark Kozelek’s magnificent opus ‘April’ is nowhere to be seen in any of the December best-of polls. Only Nick Kelly in the Irish Independent seems to be as taken with it as I am, giving it his number one position. It is a masterful and beguiling collection of achingly beautiful songs with Kozelek in the form of his life. Bon Iver got all the plaudits for a similar album of lovelorn torchsongs set to gentle acoustic guitar. ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ is an excellent album that deserved the attention it received but ‘April’ is, to be honest, in a different league entirely. Kozelek deserves better.
3. Fuck Buttons ‘Street Horrrsing’
The number three spot was originally reserved for M83’s quite brilliant ‘Saturdays=Youth’ until I saw Fuck Buttons supporting Mogwai earlier this year in London. If Mogwai do loud by guitar then the Buttons do it by way of fucked up electronics. ‘Street Horrrsing’ veers from strange tribal rhythms to long swathes of pain-inducing drone-rock to God knows what else. It’s exhilarating and highly original but mostly terrifying.
The three best live music experiences of 2008 were provided by My Bloody Valentine (above), Kraftwerk at Kilmainham Hospital, and the Electric Picnic. I have already written extensively about all three in previous postings so please check out the September archive for my musings on Kraftwerk and the Electric Picnic and the July archive for what were two incredible gigs by My Bloody Valentine in London, a band that made an emphatic and phenomenally LOUD live return after a sixteen year absence that totally justified their legendary status. All in all, 2008 was a fantastic year for quality gigs and if this was a top ten rather than a top three there would also be mentions for This Will Destroy You (Whelans), American Music Club (Whelans), God Is An Astronaut (Button Factory), M83 (Andrew’s Lane Theatre), Mogwai (Hammersmith Odeon, London), Efterklang and Tortoise at the excellent Analog Festival in Dublin’s Docklands, Ann Scott (Anseo, Dublin), Daniel Johnston and Friends (Whelans), Sun Kil Moon (The Academy), Katie Kim (The Stables, Mullingar), Jape (The Stables), Bon Iver (Tripod), Kathleen Edwards (Whelans), Holy Fuck (The Academy) and so on. Two gigs I regret missing: Neil Young at Malahide Castle (he’ll be back) but mostly Leonard Cohen at Kilmainham Hospital, which now seems to have gone down in folklore as one of the best gigs ever staged in this country. Oh well.
While watching The Orphanage I presumed the director was an old veteran of Spanish cinema that I had never heard of before. A quick check on IMDB.com after viewing the film revealed that the director, Juan Antonio Bayona, is only 33 and The Orphanage is his first film . That’s just plain wrong as this film is, in a word, a masterpiece that, apart from one horrific car-accident scene, never resorts to cheap scares for effect. Beautifully designed and lit, brilliantly acted, exceptionally moving and genuinely haunting, it’s a tale about a woman confronting , quite literally, the ghosts of her past after her son disappears. Is she going mad or are the ghosts real? Bayona keeps you guessing until the very end. It’s a film that feels like a dream, a dark dream about mother/son separation anxiety that will break your heart.
If The Orphanage is fictional, then the gritty, violent and unsparingly grim Gomorra is a very real modern-day nightmare. It is shot in a quasi-documentary style as it follows a disparate group of characters involved in some way with organized crime and the mafia in Naples. There are so many good things to say about Gomorra but it is its uncompromising portrayal of the wretched lives of its characters and the complete refusal to glamorize them that is so striking. It’s a brave and unusual film that’s a million miles from the romance of Rome and the sun-drenched vistas of Tuscany. This is the flipside of Italy, its dark heart.
3. Man On Wire
Man On Wire is the perfect antidote to Gomorra. If Gomorrah leads you on a path to despair at man’s inhumanity to man, then Man On Wire is about one man’s quest to show us how thrilling and joyous life can be if you decide to take a different, non-conformist route to those around you. The route taken by Frenchman Phillippe Petit, the engaging ‘man on wire’ of the title, is high-wire walking. Dangerously high, in fact, culminating in his successful attempt to cross between the two towers of the World Trade Centre in 1974. It’s a simple tale but brilliantly told by director James Marsh. He seamlessly interweaves real and reconstructed footage of the preparation for the daring crossing, interlinked with interviews of all those involved. The fact that these two towers are now gone gives the film a melancholic edge yet it’s one of the most life-affirming films you are ever likely to see.