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Sunday, January 4, 2009

My Top 18 Albums of 2008

I realize I'm a few days late with the end-of-the-year list, but whatever. I'm on vacation. Anyway, here's a list of my eighteen favorite albums of 2008. Why eighteen you ask? Because that's how many I felt like desired it. Also, they're not necessarily the best of the year, just may favorites (although there's obviously a good bit of overlap). So, here they are:

Andy's Top 18 Albums of 2008

1. Neon Neon – Stainless Style

One of this year’s surprise offerings, Neon Neon is a collaborative side project by Gruff Rhys (of Super Furry Animals fame) and Boom Bip. To explain it simply, the release is a concept album about the life of John De Lorean, head of De Lorean Motor Company (yes, the car company that made that Back to the Future car). The offerings switch between a remarkably authentic remake of ‘80s pop and dirty grind hip-hop, making the journey through the high and lows of John’s life unexpected and often pretty funny. Still, the tunes are fun and really unlike anything else out there this year.

2. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive

One of my all-time favorites returned after 2006’s masterpiece Boys and Girls in America. Not much has changed this time around—it’s still songs about drinking, drug use and bizarrely appropriate religious explorations—except that this time the events in Ybor City all seem a bit darker. The characters (or character types at least) that were introduced to us in the previous albums have no grown a bit, and life and time have started to take their toll. (It reminds me a bit of some Drive By Trucker efforts in a way.) Still, the message is ultimately about staying positive (whether authentically or in a more “ignorance is bliss” type way). “Constructive Summer” is a shimmering anthem to open, and the play closes on the epic “Slapped Actress.”

3. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

Hands-down one of the year’s best album (the best according to Pitchfork). This songs like Appalachia sobered up, given an electric guitar and taken to a dark club in Williamsburg. It sounds too collective and traditional to be from now but too layered and polished to be of old. It’s a strange dichotomy that oozes from this album in a beautiful, seamless wave. Fleet Foxes expands on some of what My Morning Jacket, Band of Horses, Okkervil River and others have done but in an oddly authentic way. Really stunning stuff.

4. Of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping

This album didn’t get a lot of love from the critics, but I found it remarkable. True, it wasn’t as deep and indiscernible as some of Barnes and Co.’s previous efforts, but that’s what made it somewhat more accessible. On the other hand, the album jumps between styles so much—mostly intra-song in fact—that it’s hard to settle into anything. The amazing thing about this is that each song contains an average about 3.4 different hooks that could exist entirely on their own but are instead woven into the pastiches of a) the song and b) the entire album. In fact, the whole thing comes off as almost an operatic piece, which mirrors the spectacle of their live shows. What also surprised me at points was how very poppy some songs are. And I don’t mean poppy in the sense of “indie pop” but in genuine a sense of genuine pop pop.

5. Mogwai - The Hawk Is Howling

Scottish instrumental/shoegazer/post-rock gods deliver their last record that both roars with heavy of massive, fuzzy guitar riffs and drops to glimmering diminutive passages. Either way, the action is pushed along by churning bass lines. As songs build they gain mass and momentum until they fly end-over-end over the cliff's edge and explode into a free fall. Nothing flashy just the band's own brand of vocal-less hard rock (that once or twice seems to even border on Ratatat, although moreso in spirit). This was my favorite album to write to all year. Ethereal but driving, nebulous but very simple.

5. Santogold – Santogold

Santi White’s been writing and producing others’ work for a while, but her debut this was one of the freshest—and catchiest—pieces of pop music in recent memory. I haven’t heard more mind-sticking tracked crammed into a 40-minute disc ever. “L.E.S. Artistes,” “Creator,” “Shove It,” “Say Aha” and the surprisingly refreshing surf-pop “Lights Out.” People compare her to M.I.A. because she’s a stylish, ethnic female that writes memorable pop, but the two are drastically different. And frankly, this album has my vote over last year’s Kala. (Plus, Santogold isn’t a terrorist.)

6. MGMT – Oracular Spectacular

MGMT is just a straight party. And “Time to Pretend,” the album’s biggest hit, is the anthem. No one that hears this album doesn’t love it instantly. A great band, based a little in Athens but mostly in Brooklyn, they remind me a bit of Vampire Weekend in the hype, but this release certainly delivered a joyous, energetic explosion of dance, electric, rock and pop. (Side note: One read one of the most pretentious indie critics remarks from Pitchfork about this band. A comment on their January performance on Letterman was that is was “so 2007.” It sounds sarcastic. I really don’t think it was.)

7. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

This album was already a retardedly huge hit before it ever hit the intertubular wires. I’ve never seen an album be so long in coming yet also get so much hype, about a whole year’s-worth. (This is, if you forget this year’s release of Guns ‘n Rose’s (a.k.a. Axl Rose’s) long-awaited Chinese Democracy. And it’s probably better that we do forget it.) These smart kids from New England seem the antithesis of everything that indie is about yet they managed to absolutely enrapture the cynics. Listening sounds like driving down to your dad’s marina on Cape Cod in your beige C-Class with the windows rolled down, something that most of us can’t relate to and would reject out of principle. But listening to this album allows us to put on our Sperrys and just enjoy the moment. We needn’t discuss anything more weighty that seeing an ex-hook-up walking across campus or the proper use of punctuation. It feels sort of nice.

8. Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs

I don’t care what you think about Death Cab or emo/indie-on-steroids frontman Ben Gibbard, they write some great songs. “Grapevine Fires” wafts like melancholy smoke on the warm Californian wind. “Your New Twin Sized Bed” continues the depression with a heart-wrenching tale of giving up on life. The album has one or two missteps, but overall it’s really a great piece (and a huge improvement over their last outing). There’s still nobody out there that creates such a clean, optimistically-sounding pit of well-articulated misery like DCFC.

9. Sigur Rós - Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust

Despite the the riots in Iceland, Sigur Rós offered another album of pure bliss. The opening track “Gobbledigook” shines with a spritely, almost tribal energy unheard of in any of their previous work. (And the video, by photographer Ryan McGinley was a fittingly joyous piece of cinematography.) The other songs fall a little closer to the Sigur Rós tree, but they without muddled, sustained feel of previous works. The songs trade in their ethereal epic-ness for a more intimate openness. Granted, I have no idea what ole Jónsi is singing about (except in “All Alright,” their first song in English that closes the album), but the songs somehow see more grounded in a tangible reality this time around. (Bonus: The album art has streakers on the front. Awesome!)

10. M83 – Saturdays=Youth

I’m not sure why it took me so long to discover Anthony González and his outfit, but I’m sure glad I did this year. His fifth album is another sweeping wall of synth and reverb that envelops the listener. Sometimes it’s a claustrophobia-inducing assault (“Couleurs”) and at other times is a melody wasteland a la Air (the following track “Up!”). I’ve heard a lot of reviews that compare it close to ‘80s new wave synth and John Hughes films, but I think what González aimed for was not a remake but rather his own creation youthful innocence. And he captures it, in some odd electronicky sort of way.

11. Weezer – [The first half of] Weezer (The Red Album)

[Note: This is partially why I said my "favorite" albums and not the "best" albums of 2008.] I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a total sucker for anything Weezer (i.e. take this all with a grain of salt) so I was obviously very excited about the release of yet another self-titled album (this time, “The Red Album”). While the new material still doesn’t—and will never—reach the level of their early work, parts of this album are great. Parts. In fact, I can tell you which parts. The first five songs. After that, the album descends into a deep pit of mediocrity only exacerbated by the fact that the non-Rivers members of the band each get to sign their own tune. But the first five are great. OK, fully disclosure: It’s really mostly the second track “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived” that makes everything worthwhile. It’s like a nerds version of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Weezer have really become a farce into and of themselves, but this track is an epic celebration of it, which comes of as just pure awesome.

12. Grand Ole Party – Humanimals

OK, technically this album came out first in early 2007 and was released on iTunes in August of the same year, but it was finally picked up and released physically in February of 2008 so I’m putting it on here because they deserve to have people listen to them. This trio from San Diego has the raw swagger that somehow only a female-fronted troupe can exude. The band sounds very similar to Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but Kristin Gundred’s vocals border more closely on those of Beth Gibbons from Portishead—powerfully feminine, raspingly sexy and soulfully vaudevillian. I don’t know what she looks like, but I think I love her. Oh yeah, and she also plays drums.

13. Portugal. The Man – Censored Colors

I’ve been impressed by each release by this band hailing from (of all places) Wasilla, Alaska. Their first album was a jangled cacophony of opposing forces, the second a great piece of tambourined rock and now their third is a smooth flight over the isolation of the Alaskan landscape. They’ve traded their crunchy electrics for thinner acoustics but with wider arrangements. The results is really more multilayered soundscapes cut into pieces of cloth and sewn together. It’s not as jarring as Waiter: “You Vultures!” or accessible as Church Mouth, but it explores a whole new palette of colors for the band.

14. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

A really haunting beautiful album recorded by one man by himself in a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin. It follows nicely in the vein of many of the other indie-folk acts that have emerged recently. One some senses it reminds me of some sensibilities of José González if he were, well, locked in a cabin in the woods somewhere in America. Mellow, meditative and enveloping.

15. Minus the Bear – Acoustics

Again, this is mostly personal preference. It’s really just an EP of acoustic tracks from older material (with one new song), but it offers a new take on MTB’s music. For a band so reliant of hyper-kinetic, mathematical guitar work it’s interesting to hear their songs deconstructed to a looser vibe that allows them to breath organically. Not for everyone, but I enjoyed it.

16. Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight

A very surprising album from this Scottish band. It’s tough to pin down exactly their style which can range from a sort of Decembrists folksiness to a Dismemberment Plan weirdness to a chugging (old school) Snow Patrol pop. The most arresting thing about the band is perhaps the clarity of singer Scott Hutchinson’s vocals. They soar above the tight ensemble that makes the lyrics even more disarming. Every time I listen to it I’m surprised at how not-ground-breaking it sounds while still seeming wholly unique.

17. Fucked Up – The Chemistry of Common Life

Hardcore punk strikes back with this rager. It’s like getting a grenade thrown into your living room. In fact, for some reason I listen to this album and imagine these guys actually playing in my living room and just absolutely trashing the place. It’s something like what Black Flag would sound like in 2008 is they were writing songs about the Apocalypse. The thing that’s most surprising about these guys though is their fearlessness to throw in a lot of slower, melodic elements that one isn’t accustomed to finding on a hardcore record. At times it almost sounds like two bands having a fight on one album. (It definitely has a Rancid quality to it, albeit way more aggressive.)


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