Best albums of 2008: #1 James “Hey ma”

For those of you who have been following this blog (and its predecessor) for a good amount of time, this pick for the number one spot on this best albums of 2008 list might not come as a huge surprise. You’ll know already that I’m a pretty big James fan and that I continue to follow this band and buy their albums, despite the face that their popularity in North America is pretty much limited to just the one song. However, back in 2008, this pick was a huge surprise, most of all to me.

I had loved James throughout the 1990s and was a little bit crushed when I heard Tim Booth was leaving the band in 2001 to pursue other efforts. They reformed the group six years later when Booth returned to the fold and saw success with their comeback shows. It all went so well that they decided to reconvene for a new album, news I took in with a good deal of reservation. These days, a lot of the bands I loved in my youth are coming back out with brand new albums, many of them quite successfully, but in 2008, the bands that I had previously witnessed trying to recapture the magic of their heyday had not gone as particularly well. As it turned out, though, “Hey ma” was a revelation. It was an album that didn’t try to ride on the band’s back catalogue’s coattails, instead, forging forwards, finding its own feet, and can stand tall with any of their previous work.

This was no more obvious than when my wife and I trekked down to Montreal in September of 2008 to go see the group in a small club. James is a band that my wife loves as well as I and we have both agreed that this show stands as one of our favourites ever. It was a show that both of us sang along to every song in the set and the fact that the setlist included a good deal of “Hey ma” just proved that we loved this album just as much as their previous material.

For those that don’t know the band, James plays big sounding tunes with lot of atmosphere and soul, all anchored by Tim Booth’s expressive vocals and poetic lyrics. Any of the three picks below could stand as a good starting point and if you like these, I recommend voyaging back to check out some of their previous albums as well.


“I wanna go home”: “Kissing is forbidden. Biting leaves marks. Sex is overrated. I need to dance.” The final track of the album is the epitome of slow build into oblivion and ecstasy. It begins with a rumble of bass and the tease of cello, synthesized, of course, and Tim Booth in agony. Then comes the threat of a beat, a tribal one at that, and a whole lot of incidental noise filling in the negative space. These become louder, like shrieking ghosts gaining confidence as the David Baynton-Power asserts himself firmly at the kit. Finally, it is a cacophony of joy and Booth can go home. And dance.

“Waterfall”: Opens with a crushing, thumping beat but not long after, the drums are joined by jangling guitars and Andy Diagram’s horns. At the verses, things let up and Tim Booth goes on about being crushed by the weight of material things. “Watching too much TV I’m an actor in a puppet show. There’s so much stuff in my life no room for me to grow. One day I’m going to break from my life due south down to Mexico. I’m going to burn down my house it’s the only way to let it go.” Then, at the chorus, the rest of James’s players join in, letting loose a waterfall of sound (so to speak), that big sound again. Those of you from Canada might find the track familiar and this is because it was used as the background for a commercial here. But for the life of me, I can’t think of what it was for, nor could I find it with a quick google search. Maybe one of you can help me out here…

“Hey ma”: You might have noticed that the cover of the album is a bit provocative and the band was firm in keeping it as it was (though the gun was removed from the image for the US release). The title track is just as heavy handed, an obvious poke at the quick and just as heavy handed reaction to the 9/11 attacks. “Now the towers have fallen, so much dust in the air. It affected your vision. Couldn’t see yourself clear. From the fall came such choices, even worse than the fall.” And yet, it is also a great pop song, perhaps just as danceable and ear worming as “Laid” was a decade and a half earlier. Listen to it a few times and see if you don’t find yourself singing along to the chorus lines, “Hey ma. the boys in body bags, coming home in pieces.” And that’s the beauty of James: thought-provoking lyrics set to pop hooks wrapped up in a million layers of big sounding music.


In case you missed them, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Fleet Foxes  “Fleet Foxes”
9. The Submarines “Honeysuckle weeks”
8. Schools of Seven Bells “Alpinisms”
7. Glasvegas “Glasvegas”
6. Spiritualized “Songs in A & E”
5. Elbow “The seldom seen kid”
4. Death Cab For Cutie “Narrow stairs”
3. Vampire Weekend “Vampire Weekend”
2. The High Dials “Moon country”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best albums of 2008: #2 The High Dials “Moon country”

So here’s a band and album that might have many of you ducking out for Google and Wikipedia.

The High Dials are a Montreal-based psych rock band whose driving force is Trevor Anderson. Originally called The Datsons, they got their start in and about 2001 and had to change their name a few times because they learned it was taken by other, more established groups. They landed on The High Dials around 2003 and released their debut album, “A new devotion”, that same year. In 2005, they released “The war of the wakening phantoms”, a psych rock masterpiece that received rave reviews from all corners and really should have made them stars. However, justice was not served and in 2008 they were self-releasing their third album, “Moon country”.

I was really looking forward to this album after become completely infatuated with their previous release and I wasn’t disappointed at all. It is 14 tracks of throwback psych mixed with folk, drone, country, power pop but all with an eye to the future. It was released on CD and in digital formats like MP3 but still marketed itself as two sides, a nod to a vinyl past and future resurgence that had not yet fully taken hold. Like their other albums, the songs are great on their own but taken as a whole, listened to as they were meant to be, they feel an invincible force and you can’t believe that you are one of the few people in the world that have experienced them.

The High Dials are still a going concern despite always operating on the periphery. They’ve released two more albums since “Moon country” and a new EP just last year that I still haven’t gotten around to but intend to do so very soon. In this environment where there is so much music at our fingertips and so little time for new discoveries, I still say this group and especially this album is worth your precious moments. Have a look at my three picks for you below and let me know what you think.


“Clare”: “The future’s no place for me. Watch it sink like a boat in the sea. Tie my past to the mast. It can all go down.” It’s a lazy beat and even lazier vocals. Sounding like floating on the moon or on a cloud of ether, Trevor Anderson’s breathy voice here is fed through echo chambers of reverb. There’s lots of layers for such a simple sounding concept of a song but there you have it. Harps to close things out. Of course.

“Killer of dragons”: Electronic beats set against the strum of an acoustic guitar hint at a blurring of time and space. Eerie synths are added and the acoustic gives way to pedal-mutated electric guitars but the beat remains the same. Meanwhile, Trevor sings a tale reminiscent of Don Quixote. “Bring your bow and arrow and fortified wine. Take a taxi to the caves tonight.” Yeah, “Killer of dragons” inhabits a modern world rife with magic and the fantastical… or is it just the fortified wine? No matter. It’s a great tune to close your eyes to, adjust your noise cancelling ear phones and ride out the waves of dizziness.

“Book of the dead”: This final track, which follows the previous one discussed on the album, track five on ‘side one’, is the one that reminded me the most of the work on their previous album, “War of the wakening phantoms”. It is crazy upbeat and danceable, snakes and ladders guitars, frenetic beats, and plenty of haziness and dreams. It meshes Manchester craze with shoegaze introspection and a handful of psychedelic pink pills, making for a beautiful party in your head. “Secrets I need. Secrets you can read from my book of the dead.” Not sold yet? Listen to it again! You’re obviously not doing it right.


Check back next Thursday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Fleet Foxes  “Fleet Foxes”
9. The Submarines “Honeysuckle weeks”
8. Schools of Seven Bells “Alpinisms”
7. Glasvegas “Glasvegas”
6. Spiritualized “Songs in A & E”
5. Elbow “The seldom seen kid”
4. Death Cab For Cutie “Narrow stairs”
3. Vampire Weekend “Vampire Weekend”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Live music galleries: Virgin Festival Toronto [2008]

(I got the idea for this series while sifting through the ‘piles’ of digital photos on my laptop. It occurred to me to share some of these great pics from some of my favourite concert sets from time to time. Like my ‘Vinyl love’ series, these posts will be more photos than words* but that doesn’t mean I won’t welcome your thoughts and comments. And of course, until I get around to the next one, I invite you to peruse my ever-growing list of concerts of page.)

Early crowds at V Fest day two

Artists: The Weakerthans, Stereophonics, Paul Weller, and Oasis
When: September 7th, 2008 (day two)
Where: Main Stage, Virgin Festival, Toronto Island, Toronto
Context: In the introductory post to my Best albums of 2008 list that I am in the midst of counting down, I made mention of the fact that Toronto’s Virgin Fest of that year was the first time I ever attended a multi-day music festival. It was the third year being held on Toronto’s Island over a two-day weekend in early September, the same weekend as Montreal’s Osheaga so as to share bands amongst them. (Incidentally, the following year, where it was moved off the island to a location north of Toronto and Osheaga moved its festivities to the first weekend in August, was Virgin Fest’s final year in Canada.)

I attended both days with my friend Mark and his friend Denise and Victoria joined us for the second day. The photos here are all from the second day because Victoria had the foresight to document the fun for future reference. I didn’t think of it myself and so you’re missing shots of Airborne Toxic Event, Spiritualized, The Fratellis, Bloc Party, and multiple trips to the Baccardi bar for mojitos on day one. The lineup on the main stage for day two was good enough for us to plant roots there for the entire day and we caught The Weakerthans and Stereophonics from a comfy place on a picnic blanket. We had to pull it up around the time the crowd moved in for Paul Weller, at whom Victoria was surprised was so old.

Oasis was the headlining act that night, which was the sole reason I was able to convince Victoria to join us, and there were rumours going around that Paul Weller was going to come back onstage to perform a song or two with them. However, it was not to be because some idiot 40-something climbed up onstage during Oasis’s set and pushed Noel Gallagher from behind on to the stacks of monitors. I can’t say I saw it because Victoria and I were on our way back from a prime but very squashed spot near the front of the stage to a spot further back with more breathing room when the music abruptly stopped. There was confusion as to what actually happened amongst the people we asked around us and I only got the full picture the next day on YouTube.

The band eventually returned to the stage to finish what was likely a shortened set with Noel Gallagher being a trooper (with what he later learned was a few busted ribs) performing a couple songs solo and acoustic. It was a slight taint on what was an otherwise fantastic weekend and only whet my appetite for more outdoor music festivals.

Point of reference song: The shock of the lightning” by Oasis

Walking bushes at V Fest
A very tall lady at V Fest
The Weakerthans at V Fest
The Stereophonics at V Fest
More Stereophonics at V Fest
Crowds at dusk at V Fest
Paul Weller and his band at V Fest
Paul Weller at V Fest
Noel Gallagher of Oasis at V Fest
Liam Gallagher of Oasis striking a pose
Oasis at V Fest

*I will allow that many of these posts are getting wordier the more of them I post and this particular post is practically a novel…