Five Albums of 2008

2008 has been a year of rediscovering pop music.  It’s been about dancing around the kitchen to Dizzee Rascal’s Dance Wiv Me and The Ting Tings Great DJ (both perfectly respectable pieces of radio-friendly pop).  But beyond those well-crafted but disposable gems, some new music has grabbed me by the scruff of the neck.  Here are five albums from 2008 that I really, really like.

The Sea and Cake – Car Alarm I fell in love with this album on my first listen, and it’s become the soundtrack to my time in Birmingham.  I wrote my early impressions on the blog a couple of months ago, and it’s still a joy to hear such intricate musicianship in a “rock” context.  Car Alarm is best heard on an iPod walking down Bristol Road on a bright frosty morning – it’ll help you forget you’re going to a 9am Finance lecture.

Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend Another band of precocious middle-class white dudes making unusual music.   With improbably-titled songs like Oxford Comma and Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, this material really should fall flat on its pretentious postmodern face. Instead, you find yourself singing along to lyrics like “I see a mansard roof through the trees” and sighing wistfully for that mysterious  chick  with the Benetton sweater in your Philosophy tutorial.  Hopefully Vampire Weekend never make another album, because this disc approaches an unlikely perfection.

Nicholas Ludford – Missa Benedicta & Antiennes Votives (Choir of New College, Oxford/Edward Higginbottom) Luminous and meticulous music from 500 years ago. Tudor composer Nicholas Ludford was almost forgotten until recent scholarly work revived his reputation, including some of the last sacred music to be composed before the English Reformation. This disc won the 2008 Gramaphone Award for Early Music.

Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes This is a late entry into the Top Five.   Their début album sounds like Pet Sounds peformed in Appalachia by a troupe of medieaval troubadours for a 1930s Smithsonian folkways archive projet. But actually they’re from Seattle and signed to Sub-Pop. You have to hear this band. Are Fleet Foxes the new Flaming Lips?

Kenny Wheeler – Other People Kenny Wheeler was born in the same year as Clint Eastwood (1930), and like Eastwood he is enjoying a hugely creative and powerful “late period”.  Every Kenny Wheeler album seems to visit the same idiosyncratic Wheelerian Universe, but each time he takes a different bunch of musical collaborators.  This time it’s the Hugo Wolf Quartett, offering textures that recall Ravel and Schumann, delivered at moments with urgency and passion.  If I’m half as inspired at the age of 78 as Kenny Wheeler is , I’ll consider myself very lucky, punk.

Scraps of the Myth


The River Cherwell at Mesopotamia

After living in Oxford for two and a half years, it becomes easier to take the city for granted. You become oblivious to the tourist hordes sweeping up Cornmarket. Ancient college walls become a peripheral, sandstone-coloured blur in the rush through town to Boots to buy shaving gel and new razors, weaving your bike between the queue of buses on the High. The Oxford of legends and ghosts, the Oxford of et in Arcadia ego and the youth of Empire seems buried beneath the bustle of the day-to-day.

But just occasionally, Oxford hints at deeper traditions that grind on at tectonic pace. Like the rare, furtive swish of geisha’s kimono hurrying down a back alley in Kyoto, small scraps of mythological Oxford reveal themselves, for a briefest of moments. Blink and you’ll miss them.


Radcliffe Square

A harried don cycles up Catte Street in the early evening, sweating in full sub fusc and robes that billow behind, perhaps late for his pre-prandial sherry at All Souls;

It’s 9.05pm and you happen to be passing up St Aldate’s as Tom Tower intones its bell 101 times, as it has done every day since the time of Henry VIII;

An island among the tourists, a small group of pilgrims pray in a circle around the paved cross set into the Broad where the Protestant martyrs were burned at the stake by the Catholic Queen Mary in 1555 and 1556. (Thirty years later, half a mile away outside Magdalen College, under a protestant Queen, Richard Yaxley and George Nichols were hanged for being Catholic priests);

New College

While queuing for sushi at Edamame, a chattering crocodile of miniature undergrads in black duffle coats and mortar boards rustles up Holywell Street, led by a porter in bowler hat – it’s the New College choristers heading back to school after evensong;

After a few ales on the Cowley Road, you glide agreeably back towards town, pausing on Magdalen Bridge at midnight where you wonder if a young Oscar Wilde or T.E. Lawrence ever watched the moon pass behind a cloud above the slack, muddy Cherwell.

St Thomas door

The priest’s door at St Thomas the Martyr

In most ways, modern Oxford is like any other provincial city in the south of England – suburbs, factories, narrow streets choked with traffic and the usual clustering of chain stores. But in small scraps of time – at midnight, or when the light is just right, or on the sidelines of your daily routine, you sense that a more ancient rhythm still plays onwards.

Vale Collegium Novum

Eustache Du Caurroy – Sanctus

Eustache Du Caurroy – Benedicamus Domino

From the Missa Pro Defunctis by Eustache Du Caurroy
Performed by the Choir of New College, Oxford
From Eustache du Caurroy: Requiem Mass & Motets [emusic] [amazon]

Listen to this music. The writing below does no justice to what you hear. Listen to the music. Ignore the rather pretentious words that follow, words that grasp towards a sincere expression of wonder, surprise and gratitude, but fall far short. Instead, listen.


If you lived in New York, you might write more about jazz or hip-hop. In Dakar you might’ve written about mbalax. As it’s turned out, living in Oxford has offered the gift of (re)discovering choral music. In particular, the New College Choir has featured numerous times previously on this blog.

Last Sunday night was the end Trinity Term and the last sung evensong at New College before I leave Oxford, (yes, I’m leaving – perhaps a subject for a separate post sometime). I don’t depart for another couple of months, but I already know that of all the magic of this strange city, I will miss most of all the evenings spent in New College’s mediaeval chapel.

Photo by Lawrence OP

When they sing at their best, this choir makes the planet stop turning. Their music sounds like falling backwards forever through a stained glass universe, Lux æterna.

When Eustache du Caurroy wrote the Missa pro defunctis for the funeral of Henry IV of France in 1610, the Choir of New College had already been singing in Oxford for more than 200 years.

It’s been a mysterious and wonderful privilege to participate, if ever so peripherally, in a continuing tradition of music and worship that stretches back so far into our past. Thank you, Dr Higginbottom and the boys and clerks of the choir. May others continue to find inspiration in your work and singing. Floreat Collegium Novum.


ANZAC Memories

Dave Dobbyn – Lament for the Numb
From Overnight Success: Columbia/Sony [Buy]

Chunuk Bair
NZ soldiers on Chunuk Bair, August 1915

The choice of music for this post is one of my favourite songs by a New Zealand songwriter. Yesterday was ANZAC Day. It’s one of the few occasions that kiwis assert our national identity, so I went to the University’s memorial service, which this year just happened to be in the familiar surroundings of New College Chapel.

As expected the choir did the event proud, singing Stanford‘s evening canticles in Bb and John Ireland‘s anthem Greater Love Hath No Man. The organ postlude was variations on Hyfrydol, a tune which is currently chasing me around the world…

The Vice Chancellor John Hood (a New Zealander, haha we’re taking over) read the lesson, and the President of the Oxford Turkish Society read an extract from Kemal Ataturk‘s speech at Gallipoli in 1932, which concludes:

“…you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well.”

USS Westpoint
USS West Point, the troop ship that took my grandfather to New Caledonia

Today, we are lucky that war is a remote, abstract concept for most of us in the West- something done by professional soldiers in countries far from our comfortable lives.

It’s hard for us younger people to imagine what life was like for those who lived through the World Wars. Here in Oxford, I’m always aware that this is the town where my English grandparents spent WW2, working for the British Ministry of Food after evacuation from London.

Recently I was sent a transcript of my New Zealand grandmother’s memories of WW2. My grandfather was called up for army service in August 1942, and he learned the news on the day of my mum’s first birthday party. This was my grandmother’s recollection, written in 1960 :

“…the phone rang at Rosemary’s first birthday party in August 1942. It was your father ringing to tell me that he had been called up and was going into the army. He was to report for duty in a week’s time! I felt as though the end of the world had come – my world anyway. All the presents for our little guests were forgotten – a basket full of balloons and sweets and toys. I suppose he just had to tell someone but what an end to a little girl’s first birthday party! You’ve heard about people ‘folding their tents and fading into the night’ – that’s how my friends seemed to go. Our hearts weren’t in the celebration any longer and anyway, the party was nearly over.”

Bourail, New Caledonia, where my grandfather served in WW2 with the 3rd New Zealand Division

Easter Morning

I Know that My Redeemer Liveth – G.F Handel
Performed by Henry Jenkinson (solo); the Choir of New College, Oxford; Academy of Ancient Music ; Edward Higginbottom
From Messiah (1751 Version) : [Buy]

We finally make it to Easter Sunday and it SNOWS in Oxford for the first time this winter. We’ve been pretty lucky with the weather this year – colder, but dry, so sudden snow at the start of spring seems to be, well, particularly English.

Resurrection – Alabaster Relief, anonymous Nottingham artist, 15th Century

I Know that My Redeemer Liveth turned up while iTunes was on random play yesterday. (I love iTunes random play). Handel‘s tune is beautifully sung by Henry Jenkinson, and seemed a particularly good piece of randomness for Easter.

bo-o-o-o-o-orn! (Happy Christmas 2007)

For Unto Us A Child is Born (from Messiah) G.F. Handel
Messiah (1751 Version): Choir of New College Oxford/Edward Higginbottom/Academy of Ancient Music [Buy]

It’s Christmas Eve my dogzz, and it seems a good time to wish everyone who reads etnobofin a safe and happy Christmas, and all the best for a successful 2008, whatever it might bring!

It means a lot to have people who persevere with this blog, despite its modest content and occasional technical issues. (Thanks to Rushan especially for his advice and help!)

It’s an old-skool music choice for Christmas, (not kung-fu), with an Oxford connection in this outing by the Choir of New CollegeGeorge Frederic Handel‘s setting of the words from Isaiah (Ch.9 v.6) which many believe fortell the birth of Christ.

Dig the voice control required to sing the long and intricate semiquaver line on “bo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-rn”. Handel’s arrangement ensures that every section of the choir has to sing it sometime during the piece. Now that’s technique!

Nativity, Harris Manchester College Oxford
Nativity – Chapel of Harris Manchester College, Oxford. Photo by Lawrence OP

O Magnum Mysterium

O magnum mysterium (Morten Lauridsen)
Twentieth Century Masters Vol. 3: Choir of New College Oxford/Edward Higginbottom [Buy]

Personent hodie (from Piae Cantiones, 15th Century)
Let Voices Resound: Oxford Camerata/Jeremy Summerly [Buy] [emusic]

New College
Cloisters, New College

OK, choral music geek time.

Sunday was the last day of Michaelmas Term at the university, and somehow I wangled myself a ticket to the service of lessons and carols for Christmas at New College. Tickets to the New College service are often hard to obtain if you’re not a member of the college, so I was pretty chuffed.

The music, was of course, magnificent – right from the organ opening up with the spiky Les Bergers by Messiaen. Malcolm Hayes’ Mirabile misterium was sung by the choir from the antechapel – an absolutely stunning arrangement (a new commission?) with solo themes weaving in and out of the ensemble – unseen voices rising ethereal to the wooden angels carved in the ceiling.

There were motets and carols by Rachmaninov, JCF Bach and Holst‘s arrangement of Personent Hodie. A few of the usual suspects cropped up in appealing guises (In dulci jubilo enunciated in impeccable German and David Wilcock’s arrangement of Sussex carol). They even let the congregation sing a few…

One of the highlights was O magnum mysterium, by American composer Morten Lauridsen, serene and expansive like a Rothko canvas. It was recorded just a couple of years ago by the choir on a disc of 20th Century American composers.

Ah, what a gift music is. I probably go on too much about the New College Choir in this blog. But in their best moments this choir do (to my ears at least) represent something close to perfection in musical achievement, and to share a Christmas service with them is an experience I will never, ever forget.

O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderunt Dominum natum, jacentem in praesipio!

O great mystery, and wondrous sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in their manger!