TOP 25 ALBUMS OF 2008

Well, here you have it, my 25 favorite albums of 2008. Making these lists is always difficult, as less separates #25 from #1 than one might think, as all the albums I’ve chosen for this list were special in their own right. There is also the problem of time wearing on and my opinions of albums changing, some improving, and some not standing the test of time. For example, I realized over the course of this year how vastly I underrated The National’s Boxer on last year’s list. (Luckily, this will all be sorted out about a year from now, when I post my most massive post ever, the Top 200 Albums of the Decade. So stay tuned for that…) Anyway, having said that, it’s always important to take any of these lists with a grain of salt. These are the albums that stood out the most for me in the great year of music that was 2008:

HONORABLE MENTION:

Department of Eagles/ In Ear Park: Calling this a watered-down version of Grizzly Bear’s fantastic Yellow House doesn’t quite do this album justice, but there are certainly moments where the side project takes cues from the style of that work. In Ear Park depends on songwriting and vocal harmonies to a large extent, and succeeds to that effect. The opening title track starts slowly and builds into an explosion of harmony, while the well-arranged circus music on the gorgeous “Teenagers” is a sure highlight. Eerie guitar picking serves as the steady percussion on album highlight “Around The Bay”, and the simple melody on “Nobody Does It Like You” is an instant winner. The second half of the album at times seems a bit too chill and begins to wear out a bit, but repeated listens showcase impressive continuity. The album isn’t as exciting as Grizzly Bear’s predecessor, but fans of pure songwriting and style will surely enjoy it all the way through.

Subtle/ Exiting Arm: Adam Drucker, aka Doseone, has created and entire imaginary world around the adventures of a man named Hour Hero Yes. Yes is captured by forces of evil and forced to write “perfect pop songs” from his dungeon. The trick is, that Yes is intelligent enough to outsmart his captors, and deliver hidden messages in his songs that then are able to communicate some element of truth to humankind. The entire premise is far more deep than you can probably imagine (Doseone has thousands of pages of notes, poems, etc. explaining the entire storyline), and at times it seems that the music is more of a vessel for the story than vice versa. Still, the album is incredibly dense and textured from a musical standpoint, even if the storyline will fly over the heads of most. Songs like “The Crow” and “Hollow Hollowed” paint a perfect picture of the scene behind dark, foreboding beauty, while other more hip-hop oriented tracks such as “Unlikely Rock Shock” keep Exiting Arm moving right along. And the opening title track sets the tone perfectly, creating a feeling that Hour Hero Yes has popped out of the rabbit hole, and we are along for the ride. This is the definition of a concept album.

David Byrne and Brian Eno/ Everything That Happens Will Happen Today: Collaborating for the first time in over two decades, two of music’s most innovative minds combined to create an album full of adorable melodies, if not drastically new sounds. “Strange Overtones” was one of the year’s catchiest tunes, but the album succeeds most upon its beautiful acoustic tunes. Opener “Home” soars, with Byrne’s vocals in full-force behind a powerful melody, and “My Big Nurse” is impossibly beautiful despite a much simpler structure. There are some upbeat moments besides the aforementioned standout, especially the complex, steadily evolving “I Feel My Stuff”, but for the most part the album blends into a rather accessible gospel-themed effort that makes up for what it lacks in invention with some great tunes, plain and simple.

Gang Gang Dance/ Saint Dymphna: I’d say the style of Gang Gang Dance approaches a combination of The Knife and Bjork in a giant disarray, but Saint Dymphna demonstrates unusual density and depth for such a style. The accessible “House Jam” and the equally club-ready “Princes” are clear highlights here, although other tracks better demonstrate the electronic terror that resonates throughout the rest of the album. Musical ideas converge and explode on darker, evolvingm, perfectly chaotic tracks like “First Communion” and “Desert Storm”, with singer Liz Bougatsos adding aching vocals in the distance. “Vacuum” provides a moment of melodic shoegazer influence, with soaring guitar lines behind a softly progressing dubstep beat early on, and for all of the experimentation here, album closer “Dust” lets us down easy with a subtle, distant beauty. The middle interlude tracks hold the album back a bit from becoming all it could be, although I admit I can’t recall an album in recent memory that I have placed songs on so many different categories on my Itunes playlists (Upbeat, Dark, Loungey, Atmospheric, Sleepy). This is truly a unique combination of influences.

The Notwist/ The Devil, You & Me: Expectations were high after 2003’s groundbreaking Neon Golden, and we’ll forgive The Notwist for not quite living up to the hype this time around, but they still delivered an electropop album chalk full of catchiness not without its fair share of heartbreak. The regretful “Good Lies” opens with electric guitar and slow percussion that takes a while to build, but eventually delivers. The overall tone of this album is more dark guitar music than it is electropop which isn’t altogether bad, such as the sorrowful “Gloomy Planets” and the honest title track, but overall holds the album back from living up to its predecessor from a pace standpoint. Still, there are innovative elements here, as eerie keyboards, dark basslines and random percussion add a surprising element to “On Planet Off”, which some critics think is a terrible song, while I find it one of the most interesting pieces here. The album ends strong with “Boneless”, an upbeat piano track somewhat reminiscent of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” intro over and over again, except more compact, if a bit less complex. “Hands on Us” is on the eerie side as well but is easily the most heartbreaking song here, as minor xylophone notes enter new territory for the band. Nothing about this album is fun, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good.

#25: The Hold Steady/ Stay Positive: The boys from Minneapolis are still arguably the best pure American rock band making music today, and their fourth full length kept them in the discussion, even if it was a small step backward musically from their last album, the amazing Boys and Girls In America. Nevertheless, lead singer Craig Finn keeps the energy alive with rocky opener “Constructive Summer”, boasting the usual tales of drinking and debauchery, oh what fun! Hilarious sexual lyrics stand out above the pure American rock riff on “Navy Sheets”, and simple optimism makes the title track immediately amiable. More bittersweet tones are present on the accessible “Yeah Sapphire” and “Magazines”, while attempts to innovate on slower tracks “Both Crosses”, “Lord I’m Discouraged” and “One For The Cutters” fall short of the potential we saw on the last album. Nevertheless, the pieces that make this band what it is are still firmly in tact. Final track “Slapped Actress” has all the classic elements of a rock album closer, as it builds behind electric guitar riffs and bluesy piano into a crescendo of background humming and some of Finn’s best lyrical work to date, “We’re the projectors/ we’re hosting the screening”, “We are the actors/ the cameras are rolling”, and “We’re the directors/ our hands are both steady”. We make our own movies.

#24: Vivian Girls/ Vivian Girls: Brooklyn trio Vivian Girls hit the scene hard this year with their self-titled debut, which in its short thirty minutes, delivers poppy punk with subtle atmospheric/ shoegazer influence. Single “Tell The World” is just short of a masterpiece, as the girls stomp their way through an energetic love song with help from a killer baseline. Elsewhere, “Where Do You Go Now” combines a guitar riff reminscent of early Joy Division and vocals that would fit in perfectly on a Ladytron album without the electronica. Other highlights include the intentionally dischordant “Wild Eyes”, the high energy “Going Insane” and the steady “Damaged.” The songs aren’t trying to be anything more than short and simple tunes about the daily dealings of three single women in their early twenties, and the album is a breath of fresh air overall.

#23: Brazilian Girls/ New York City: International band Brazilian Girls outdid themselves with their third and best effort. Lead singer Sabrina Sciubba sings in five different languages, all above worldy electronica with elements of reggae, samba, downtempo/trip-hop and techno. Diversity abounds here, from to hard club beats of “Losing Myself” to the eerie lounge sounds of “Strangeboy” and “I Want Out.” Additionally, there are moments of pure beauty here on tracks like show-stopping opener “St. Petersburg”, which switches between upbeat samba verses “After the curtain/before the blow” and a slower chorus “Do you like my accent?/ When I call you up?”, as well as simpler fingerpicking on “L’Interprete”. There’s still room for all-out fun here as well with key track “Good Time”, showcasing upbeat dance pop. Suffice to say that the live show I saw at Lollapalooza, which featured Sciubba in a short white dress, white umbrella entering to “Strangeboy”, isn’t something I’ll soon forget.

#22: Lil Wayne/ Tha Carter III: Aside from Kanye West, it’s been awhile since a true mainstream rap album really achived much acclaim; you have to practically go back Outkast’s The Love Below/ Speakerboxx offering. On the highly anticipated Tha Carter III, Lil Wayne delivers some of the catchiest beats in recent memory behind entertaining, often humorous lyrical work delivered in a thick, N’Awlans accent that wouldn’t immediately strike as accessible. The singles from the album were immediate winners in the clubs, from the thick, heavy beats on “Got Money” to the syncopated repititions on “A Milli” and distorted vocals and dance beats on “Lollipop.” There was depth and complexity as well, on impressive softer tracks like “Shoot Me Down” and “Comfortable,” not to mention standout “Mr. Carter.” Adding soul elements on “Let the Beat Build” and complete and utter disarray on the intriguing “La La”, Lil Wayne proved that a rap album doesn’t have to have continuity or conciseness to make an impact.

#21: DJ Rupture/ Uproot: It took me a few listens to really get into it, but after awhile it became evident that Jace Clayton’s experimental investigation of global music patterns is as mesmerizing as it is fascinating. Opening with a windpipe that sounds almost Southeast Asian on “Reef” before evolving into the slow dancehall track “Elders: Clouds”, DJ Rupture blends dubstep, trip hop beats and ragga throughout this impressively balanced work. From the haunted darkness of tracks like “Homeboys” and “Uranium: Moving Ninja” to the beautiful violin notes on “John Plays Cassavettes” and “Save From the Flames All That Yet Remains”, Uproot manages to scale a wide breadth of musical cultures. Towards the end, standout “Mirage” contrasts an eerie, ancient Middle Eastern keyboard line with African-style drum beats and chants. There’s a decisive spaciousness and softness to the album overall, and it plays less as a collection of tracks than it does as a well-orchestrated investigation of today’s global music scene. At 23 tracks, there’s plenty to like here, and we’re let down easy with closer “Second Hand Science”, the closest to pure trip-hop that DJ Rupture delivers here.

#20: Lindstrom/ Where I Go You Go Too: The first track on this album is the title track, and it lasts just two seconds short of twenty-nine minutes. The entire album is three songs, but they add up to more than the sum of their parts. The key to Lindstrom’s music is the way it builds and shifts into surprising directions. He has surely fine-toned his expertise in creating loungey electronic music, but the depth of this album lies in the innovation. Honestly, how else could a half hour song approach listenability? The beats shift along with the emotions of the music, but both always become more interesting, never losing pace. Closing track “The Long Way Home” is the highlight for me, opening with atmospheric, repetitive electronica made for the midnight hour before diving into major keys with 80s pop influence backed by a rolling trip-hop bassline.  Surprisingly, this was one of my favorite albums to work out to this year, which is a testament to its focus.

#19: Okkervil River/ The Stand Ins: Coming off of last year’s incredible The Stage Names, the boys from Okkervil River got back to work in similar fashion, and delivered another album full of well-written rock ballads. Something about these guys makes them immediately listenable, and opening track “Lost Coastlines” reminds us of this, with the band’s trademark upbeat tempo combined with such a strong sentiment of sorrow, as lead singer Will Sheff switches between several octaves before delving into an appealing finish of lalas. What follows is the twangy, foot stomping acoustic ride of “Singer Songwriter”, which is another of the band’s great examples of pure songwriting, with classic singalong lines such as “You’ve got taste/ Ya you’ve got a taste/ what a waste that’s all that you have” and “Your world/ it’s gonna change nothing.” Two songs in, this album is right on pace with the last. Songs like “Starry Stairs” and “Blue Tulip” slow the tempo down a bit, the former adding horns to the enjoyable, if slightly repetitive melody, and the latter plods along with subtle beauty and heartbreak. The rocky “Pop Lie” is a highlight here, but my favorite parts of the album come towards the end, with the soft melody and impressive vocal work of the emotionally taxing “On Tour With Zykos” and the steadily evolving “Calling and Not Calling My Ex.” This is really solid throughout. With The Stand Ins, Okkervil River joins the ranks of one of those bands that is close to incapable of making a song not worth listening to.

#18: Flying Lotus/ Los Angeles: At some point in the later part of this year, I was going through trip-hop withdrawal, and this album really filled the bill. Essentially instrumental throughout, this is true lounge bar music: dark, bass-heavy and downtempo for the most part. This has all the elements of a classic trip hop album: dark basslines, erratic percussion samplings, and demonic, rolling synth. “Beginners Falafel” gives us our first taste of this style three songs deep, while “Camel” follows and takes it to another level with bizarre background percussion that features a sound similar to a coin being rattled around in a can. Samba beats add complexities to the groovy “Melt!”, and “Comet Course” is the perfect background dinner party song, adding acid jazz elements that me remind me a bit of Stereolab’s early work. So too does the almost out of place danciness of standout track “Parisian Goldfish”, and repetition on trippy tracks like “Golden Diva” and the outstanding, foreboding grind of “Riot” keep the flow in check. The amazing shift to darkness is complete on the last part of the album with the jazzier “Roberta Flack” and the epidomy of midnight and ideal pass-out tracks, “Testament” and “Auntie’s Lock”. These songs stand perfectly well on their own, but flowing together, are certainly something special, and I love an album that pays attention to flow, especially when it is mostly electronic.

#17: Titus Adronicus/ Heiring of Greivances: For whatever reason, this was the album that I craved most over the course of the year after my first listen. Whether it was the creative hard rock melodies or the unique shrieking and angst-ridden vocals of Patrick Stickles, I essentially couldn’t get this album out of my head for an entire year, and still can’t. And as a sidenote, I can’t think of a more appropriately titled album released in 2008. Opener “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ” sets the tone nicely, but the real treat follows in “My Time Outside The Womb”, where Stickles howls the brilliantly cynical lyrics “You’re gonna spend the rest of your life trying hard to forget/ That you met the world naked and screaming and that’s how you’ll leave it” and “It put the fear of God in me/ When I heard my daddy say/ One mistake is all that it takes”, all behind the album’s catchiest guitar line. Bluesy harmonica distinguishes the emotionally exhausting “Joset of Nazareth’s Blues”, while the feedback heavy and more serious”Arms Against Atrophy” builds into one of the most solid pieces of work here. Self titled “Titus Adronicus” features an anthemic, nothing to lose attitude throughout, as Stickles wails about the horrors of “No more cigarettes/ No more having sex/ No more drinking ’til you fall on the floor”, all the while proclaiming with furious repetition, “Your Life is Over!” It may seem like a tough pill to swallow, but these guys aren’t completely cynics, as there is real insecurity present on “No Future Part 1” and hope contradictory to the title on “No Future Part 2”. It might have been better for the album to end there, as “Albert Camus” overdoes it a bit, but overall this is tight and catchy yet filled with anger that we sympathize with easily even if we don’t know why, and is one of the year’s biggest surprises.

#16: Atlas Sound/ Let the Blind Lead Those Who Cannot See: Bradford Cox may be the most innovative mind in music today. Never mind the fact that his band, Deerhunter, produced last year’s best debut album and followed it up with a none-to-shabby sophomore effort this year. In between, Cox had time to squeze in a solo-project under the name he’s used for years, filled with looping keyboard melodies and understated vocals presumably made in his bedroom. The album remains most impressive for its flow and experimental nature that showcases Cox’s love for DJ mix tapes, 80s rock and shoegazer. It’s a complex look into the inner soul of a man that’s had a tougher life than most of us, suffering from Marfan’s Syndrome, a rare disease that affects his cardiovascular and skeletal systems, and resulting in an emaciated, gaunt appearance that understandably wasn’t easy to deal with as a young adult. The syncopated electronica on “Quarantined” provides some insight to his struggles, but the real highlights early come on the atmospheric tracks “Recent Bedroom” and “River Card.” Cox’s penchant for dancier mash-up DJ tracks is evident on the fantastic “Scraping Past” and “Ready Set Glow”, while beautiful interlude tracks like “Small Horror” provide perfect transitions. The devastating sadness of “Bite Marks” carries softly over understated electronic sounds to create one of the best tracks here, but the whole album is really just a giant preparation for  penultimate standout “Atvian”, which with its ambient, haunting guitar notes and steady, welcome percussion create one of the best songs of this year. I’ve heard complaints that this album is “boring”, but to make such a comment is missing the purpose of the work. Nothing about this is supposed to be upbeat, or something you would play at a party, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t exceptional from a musical and inventive standpoint.

#15: Stereolab/ Chemical Chords: At this point, a band as accomplished as Stereolab doesn’t need to step too far out of the box to create great music, but on Chemical Chords, the band added a jazzy element throughout, which creates a certain aged beauty to this record above their patented electropop sounds. We’ll ignore the fact that he band (and their lyrics) are a strong advocate for socialism and concentrate on the music. The opening poppy chimes and beats on opener “Neon Beonbag” are familiar, but there is a new musical element underneath it, and it’s called brass instrumentation. Horns are present here on almost every track, and it really adds maturity to this already innovative and consistent group, and does so without losing any of the poppy electronica that made Stereolab such a fresh sounding band in the 1990s. This is never more true than on the title track, which even adds string instruments, as does the beautifully steady beats of “The Ecstatic Static.” The band’s classic electropop sounds are seen on centerpieces “Valley Hi!” and the chimey highlight “Silver Sands,” but not without more horns. The new jazzy direction of the album is most evident on songs like “Self Portrait With Electric Brain” and “Fractal Dream of a Thing” , while the melodic, electronic sounds of  “Nous Vous Demandons Pardons” and “Daisy Click Clack” should fill the void for long-time fans not digging the horns. As one of music’s biggest innovators of the past twenty years, Sterolab has proven that they are not done yet.

#14: The Dodos/ Visiter: This post-rocky debut was one of the year’s biggest surprises, mixing well-orchestrated melodies with haphazard acoustic guitar and excellent drumming. Make no mistake, the key to Visiter is its percussion. Not that takes anything away from lead singer Meric Long’s unique and impressive acoustic stumming style. On “Paint The Rust”, Long’s impressive guitar work leads into a building, foot-stomping epic with changing tempos and storming percussion; when I saw them play this live, it resulted in Long playing guitar in a possessed quasi-seizure on the floor of the stage. Awesome. Huge highlights come early with the melodic but raucous “Red and Purple” as well as live favorite “Fools”, a crooning track reminiscent of Animal Collective. The key track here is “Jodi”,which opens with Zepplin-eqsque fingerpicking before explosive drumming and light-speed guitar work. At times, Long’s desperate vocals strain to catch up with the music, and this actually adds to its brilliance before the sudden, melodic chorus “Jodi my dear/ I’m sorry but I must disappear/ I leave you with a song and a tear/ And then I fall away…” There is real diversity here as well, with tracks like “Winter” and “Undeclared” adding sweet, simple acoustic love songs. There’s a lot to like here from this two man band, who apparently doesn’t give the possessive tense of the English language as much attention as they give their music. I went ahead an corrected “The Dodo’s” mistake. Maybe it’s a reverse psychology joke, but it doesn’t matter, it’s all about the music!

#13: Beach House/ Devotion: Devotion lacks the immediate single-power of songs like “Tokyo Witch” and “Master of None” from their self-titled debut, but on the whole, this album is an improvement; there wasn’t a better-flowing, lest I say, prettier piece of music put out this year. Opening track “Wedding Bell” sets the tone nicely, with electronic organs and soft female vocals leading us into what is indisputable work of art from Beach House. From a complexity standpoint, “You Came To Me” reaches new levels for the band, as a simple, bittersweet melody carries along enough to hold our attention before it morphs into an impossibly beautfiul coda of lalas. However, looking at the album track by track misses the point somewhat, but if there is a standout, it is certainly the lifted melancholy of the eerie “Gila.” In 2008, this was certainly the album that ran through my head without conscious realization of what I was hearing. Devotion sticks with you as an album as the summation of its parts, which are steady and consistent throughout. Themes of love and loss run rampant throughout, and other notable tracks include “Heart of Chambers”, as well as the perfectly bittersweet “Astronaut.” Beach House is going to be around a while, and you might want to take notice, as they continue to provide that perfect background music that you don’t really remember until the next day, or while you’re having sweet dreams.

#12: No Age/ Nouns: After their hard, feedback laden debut Weirdo Rippers that so many found immediately enticing, this was surely one of the most anticipated releases of 2008, and not too many were disappointed. Opening track “Miner” kept with the style of the previous album, with short, blasting feedback dominating a simple guitar melody. But there was certain evolution on Nouns immediately evident in the next track, the structured, almost sunny “Eraser”. Post-grunge influence is noticeable on the brilliant “Teen Creeps”, which separates a single, catchy guitar riff from a barrage of feedback and all-out intensity; this is a perfect example of the move that the band as taken from their experimental debut to more focused songwriting. I love the lifted piano notes and softer percussion on “Things I Did When I Was Dead”, and heavy drumming carries the solid, rocky following track “Cappo.” Standout track “Here Should Be My Home” is close to perfect, building from a steady drum line and trendy guitar riff into an explosion of confident, pounding grunge rock that will get the attention of anyone with a pulse. Personally, I enjoy “Ripped Knees” even more, mostly because I can’t believe how far this band has come in only a year– this is the type of song that you turn up as loud as your stereo will tolerate before you commence throwing beer bottles all over the place. And I mean that as a compliment, of course.

#11: Fucked Up/ The Chemistry of Common Life: The sophomore effort from these hardcore punk-rockers is decidedly layered, intense, and definitely not for the faint of heart. Soft flute notes lead into the powerful opener “Son The Father”, which from the opening shriek of lead singer Damian Abraham (Aka Pink Eyes, Father Damian) piles on the energy behind the anthemic chorus “It’s hard enough being born in the first place/ Who would ever want to be born again?” We get a better sense for Abraham’s vocal style on the next track, “Magic Word”, and it’s best described as a snarling dog being strangled after eating a pile full of broken glass. Key track “Days of Last” uses a classic American hard rock guitar riff above sprawling feedback and achieves one of the album’s best moments, while standout “Black Albino Bones” showcases some true melodic ability through the simple truth of the chorus “We all need an escape” carrying above foot-stomping percussion and manic raving by our boy Pink Eyes. Vivian Girls add haunting harmonies on “No Epiphany”, which provides more classic guitar riffs and is probably the most accessible track here. The band used over 70 tracks of instruments making the album, which can certainly be described as a massive undertaking. The result is this year’s most energetic record, pure hardcore to be sure, but with just enough accessibility not to scare away the entire planet.

#10: Deerhunter/ Microcastle

146627microcastleweirderacont

On my first listen, I described Microcastle as “Deerhunter Lite.” Gone are the dark shoegazer hooks, atmospheric riffs and feedback-laden vocals. This time around, with a new member, Deerhunter aims for beauty and directness, and succeeds admirably in that venture, even if you may have preferred their previous style. The biggest credit to Microcastle is that is intensely focused, and upon repeated listens, the consistent beauty here becomes evident. The pace of the album is a change from their last effort, as the shorter instrumentally-focused tracks find a home in the middle of the album, effectively separating it into two halves, unlike the more frequent interspacing of the instrumental tracks on Cryptograms. Of these, “Calvary Scars” is a sure highlight, while the soft piano on “Green Jacket” is impressive as well. Preceding this break is the exceptionally focused and pretty “Agoraphobia”, which delves into dark lyrical ground involving being buried alive but manages to sound surprisingly bright. After that is standout “Never Stops”, which combines a steady drum beat with some of Cox’s best vocal work to date into a driving crescendo. The title track takes a while to build, but is eventually worth the wait, while “Little Kids” fits in nicely from a flow standpoint even if it doesn’t immediately grab your attention. The latter half of the album shows a bit more depth, with the rocky “Nothing Ever Happened”, complete with some amazing guitar riffs through the coda, leading the way into the twangy opening guitar of “Saved By Old Times”, which evolves into a devastating chorus just before it begins to feel repetitive. “Neither of Us, Uncertainly” has enough punch to have been a great closer, but has a certain optimism that works better as the penultimate track and probably comes closer to sounding like the Deerhunter of old than anything else here. Instead, “Twilight At Carbon Lake” provides a surprisingly soft and subtle conclusion to an album that doesn’t sound anything like what I expected it to after listening to Cryptograms and Atlas Sound until I was blue in the face, but certainly proves that Deerhunter is bursting with creativity, energy and focus.

#9: Sigur Ros/ Med Sud i Eyrum Vid Spilum Endaluast

52627sigurros

When the cherry, almost twangy fingerpicking of opening track and lead single “Gobbledigook” emerged early this summer, it was evident that our dear friends Sigur Ros were heading in a different direction. This isn’t a bad thing for most bands, but when you’re already essentially perfect, changing the formula too much has potential to work against actual innovation. Still, this is Sigur Ros, who could sing the alphabet over a bongo drum and it would still sound amazing. Here, the band is able to carry such overly jubilant tracks such as “Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur” and “Vid Spilum Endaluast”, both of which strive and fail to reach the glory of past major key tracks such as “Hoppipolla”, but still come off with a driving, more accessible sound than any of their previous work. Songs like centerpiece “Festival” feature familiar crescendo structures, but take their sweet time getting there, while “Ara Batur” may be the first truly overdone song the band has produced. However, the real treats on this album come towards the end. Subtle beauty is evident in repetitive piano tracks like “Med Sud i Eyrum” and the heavenly “Fljotavik”, while the haunting minor chords on “Illgressi” rank among the band’s most powerful work even in their simplicity. The album concludes with the band’s first attempt at English lyrics on “All Alright”, although you’d never be able to tell the difference except for the title. This closer lets us off as softly as ever, but is rewarding upon further listens. Vid Spilum is probably a bit of step backwards relative to the near-perfection of their last three albums, but still certainly has its moments.

#8: Vampire Weekend/ Vampire Weekend

43573vampireweekend

There seems to be a current pop-culture fascination with vampires this year, and these Ivy Leaguers seemed to have a jump-start on the phenomena, releasing their self-titled debut as the year began. Arguably, the Afro-inspired pop-rock of Vampire Weekend is better suited for a bright sunny day in the middle of summer than it is for mid-January, but the album had no trouble getting the year off to a powerful start, and carried well beyond the summer. The opening keyboard notes of “Mansard Roof” set the tone for the band’s bright bongo-drumming style, while standout tracks follow with quickness. “Oxford Comma” is an immediate winner, with simple keyboard lines joining a dancy snare drum beat and an almost tropical guitar solo as lead singer Ezra Koenig adds catchy vocals shifting octaves at the end of each verse line. The whole album is upbeat, but the best pure rock moment here comes on the short, poppy A-Punk, as steady guitar pushes forth into simple choruses of “Oh, oh oh!” The band’s eccentric, preppy attitude renders songs like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)” moderately annoying after the initial catchiness of the overall sound wears off, but Vampire Weekend demonstrates more impressive depth on the orchestral “M79”, which uses violins and organs, and on the well-constructed closing ballad “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance.” The essence of the band’s style and sound is captured perfectly on “Campus”, where Koenig struts around his Ivy League grounds pondering the simple lovesick quandry , “How I am I supposed to pretend/ I’m never gonna see you again” as catchy, culiminating guitar lines and explosive percussion carry the chorus. Despite wide criticism for being too bright, too simple, and too preppy, Vampire Weekend certainly succeeds in its immediateness, as its ability to withstand listen after listen with such accessible song structures remains its highest accolade.

#7: Hercules and Love Affair/ Hercules and Love Affair

46328herculesandloveaffair

Arguably both the best debut record and the best dance record of 2008 all in one glorious package, Hercules and Love Affair features the work of the young Andrew Butler, who uses strong disco elements along with powerful vocal work from Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons), among others. Originality is king here, as the music doesn’t stick squarely to disco, but simply uses it as a backdrop for exciting turns and twists of style. Hegarty’s easily recognizable voice is the first thing we notice on opening track “Time Will”, which begins the album steadily and shows off an intruiging combination of dance music and darkness thanks to Hegarty’s unique voice. His vocals are even more enthralling on later tracks “Blind” and “Raise Me Up”, which are about the best examples of pure disco influence here. But what follows is the amazing and aptly titled highlight “Hercules’ Theme”, which opens with a catchy disco beat and electric organ and evolves into several complex musical elements including horns, strings, and perhaps the best baseline I heard all year, topped off by carefree vocals. It isn’t all fun and games here, however. Songs moving at a reduced tempo like the dark, melodic “Easy” show the real breadth of this record, while the downtempo, jazzy progression of “Iris” adds more horn elements along with Kim Ann Foxman’s soft, lifted vocals to produce another standout. In between, “You Belong” and “Athene” add energy and are ready for the dance floor on the first listen. If the album has any flaw, it comes on the last track “True False/Fake Real”, which seems to break the continuity after the rousing “Raise Me Up”, taking its time developing and perhaps pushing the envelope with its ideas. Notwithstanding that misstep, this was one of the most original pieces of music I listened to all year, and one can only hope that this fresh take on 70’s disco mixed up with genuinely solid musicianship will be the first of many.

#6: The Walkmen/ You & Me

142903youandme

After the somewhat disappointing A Hundred Miles Off misfired for the most part a few years back, I was of the opinion that The Walkmen had left their best days behind them. I couldn’t have been more wrong, as You & Me showcases a depth of truth, ingenuity and heartbreak that is a rarity in music today. I was reminded of the constant sorrow of The Wrens’ fantastic release Meadowlands earlier this decade; this group of musicians have apparently been through a lot since we last heard from them, and this is conveyed with perfection through more focused song-writing and of course through the howling vocal style of lead singer Hamilton Leithauser. Opening track “Donde esta la Playa” starts the album off slowly, but holds our attention long enough that even after a somewhat out of place interlude, we stand ready for an onslaught of fantastic music. The ominous “On the Water” meanders along pleasantly enough before evolving into a crashing crescendo, while the optimistic, rocky “In The New Year” probably most resembles the band’s early work, as a fantastic organ riff serves as a backdrop under Leithauser’s howls. Percussion-dominated tracks courtesy of drummer Matt Barrick dominate the middle of the album, including slowly building showstopper “Seven Years of Holidays”, which uses disjointed drum beats and a familiar stop/start rhythm structure, and the pounding percussion of “Postcards From Tiny Islands.” We certainly can’t forget highlight “Four Provinces”, as clap-style beats combine with a triumphant organ melody and strained, bittersweet vocals. Nor can we overlook the perfectly executed use of horns on ballad “Red Moon”, which features the fantastic lyric “You shine/ Like the steel/ On my knife.” By the time we arrive at the heartbreaking, tear-jerking “I Lost You”, which could be the best song the band has ever recorded, the goosebumps are hard to keep down, and the subdued, elegant closer “If Only It Were True” does it justice as a follow-up. All in all, at what would normally be considered an overlong 13 tracks, there isn’t a single weak track on You & Me, and it’s safe to say that the Walkmen are back in top form.

#5: Spiritualized/ Songs in A & E

51107songsinaande

Three years ago, Jason Pierce was on his deathbed. Battling double pneumonia, he had already been pronounced legally dead twice, and hope for his survival was dim. Three years later, he made the year’s greatest comeback with Spiritualized, the band he’s been recording and performing with for the last decade. On Songs in A & E, the band’s softest and most personal album to date, the sounds of death and loss are all around us, and make for a goosebump-inducing experience. This is the album I’ve always hoped Spiritualized would make, and it’s easily their best since 1998’s groundbreaking Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating Through Space. Short instrumental tracks titled as “harmonies” help the flow, and after the first one we hear the lifted gospel sounds of “Sweet Talk” and the almost heavenly, jubilant sound of Pierce’s recognizable voice. The foreboding “Death Take Your Fiddle” seems to nearly capture the sound of the incubator in Pierce’s hospital room, demonstrating his battle between life and death. There are only two real rocky tracks here, the rather accessible “I Gotta Fire” and the lowlight “Yeah”, but the rest of the album shines with soft, understated beauty. Standout track “Sitting on Fire” is as soft and sad as anything Spiritualized has ever written, gliding along slowly a simple acoustic guitar line, coming to a complete halt on more than a couple of occassions, and then starting up again behind lyrics packed full of regret, “When we’re together we stand so tall/ But the old flame still burns when we part.” The band uses strings throughout the album to add impact to the songs, but nowhere does the power equal the violins that enter through the last minute of this song. “Don’t Hold Me Close”, “The Waves Crash In” and closer “Good Night Good Night” all slow things down to a crawl with perfect orchestration as well, but the champion of this style is the atmospheric “Borrowed Your Gun”, which with its sweet melody and terrifying, cynical lyrics reminds me of the good ole’ Radiohead “No Surprises” trick. Still, the band recognized that an album full of slow, sad songs (no matter how pretty) wouldn’t withstand an entire listen, so there are elements of diversity here as well. The energetic, feedback heavy “You Lie You Cheat” comes closer to resembling the past work of the band, and even the orchestral single, arguably sappy “Soul on Fire” fits right in here and is pleasantly hopeful. And as epics go (this is Spiritualized, so there’s no way they’re gonna let you out of this one without at least one 7-minute track), they don’t get much better than “Baby, I’m Just a Fool”, which starts slowly with a bittersweet, jangly guitar line before violins pace the tune into an explosion of sound through the conclusion, which features chaotic horns and suddenly sped up percussion. This album showcases a wiser, more mature band, and is everything that Spiritualized could and should be.

#4: Fleet Foxes/ Fleet Foxes

Print

Easily the prettiest album of the year, the rustic, rural guitar sounds of the Fleet Foxes combined with some of the best-arranged harmonies in recent memory was music to my years. I’ll always have fond memories of listening to this album as I drove through Napa and Sonoma Counties in July as the sun made its descent–what a perfect musical backdrop! The uniquely western sounds of the opening track “Sun It Rises” paint the perfect picture of the song’s title, and is a great opening choice. The harmonic standout “White Winter Hymnal” carries on slowly but substantially, featuring the storytale lyric “I was following the pack all swallowed in their coats/ with scarves of red tied around their throats/ to keep their little heads from falling in the snow/ and I turn around and there you go.” The music speeds up a bit on songs like “Ragged Wood” and “Quiet Houses”, but the style is consistent throughout, as every song here is incredibly dependent on vocal harmonies. Even on the jammy highlight “Your Protector”, the congruence of the many vocals adds the finishing touch. Amazingly hummable melodies on the soft “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” and “Heard Them Stirring” as well as the visually vivid “Blue Ridge Mountains” add subtle beauty. Album centerpiece “He Doesn’t Know Why” fits the serious but folky tone perfectly, and a capella closer “Oliver James” lets us down easy. It is actually difficult to describe these songs and do them full justice, because I just can’t say enough about this album. If you aren’t already listening to it, it’s not too late! Warning: Sounds best played in a car while driving through a hilly, western terrain.

#3: TV on the Radio/ Dear Science

145780dearscience

In 2006, I bestowed the album of the year honor on TV on the Radio’s Return To Cookie Mountain. While Dear Science, the band’s third full length, arguably falls short of that effort by the narrowest of margins, the music is sharper and catchier, which may make it a bit more accessible than their last two albums. This one starts with a bang as “Halfway Home” enters with immediately attention-grabbing guitar feedback behind lead singer Tunde Adebimpe’s “ba ba ba” vocal intro. As the song evolves into an in-your-face combination of throbbing percussion and soaring electric guitars, it is quite clear that we are in for quite an experience. This is probably the strongest opening track they’ve recorded to date. “Cryin” shifts gears a bit, with one of the brightest melodies we’ve ever heard from these guys, but also showcases what is surely the album’s catchiest guitar riff. One of the many new stylistic approaches TV on the Radio has developed is using hand-claps as percussion samples, and nowhere does this innovation pay off more than on the rousing “Dancing Choose”, which begins with fuzzy guitar and Adebimpe almost rapping his lyrics before a segment of horns pipes in to pull it all together. The band continues to use upbeat horn arrangements on tracks like “Golden Age”, in which Adibempe strives for utopia.

It may sound like this is a somewhat bright album compared to their previous offerings, but make no mistake, there are deep themes of self-doubt, fear and unmitigated rage here as well. Nowhere is this more present than on the fiercely anti-war “Red Dress”, although a better example is standout, “DLZ”, the best song the band has produced since Return To Cookie Mountain‘s “Wolf Like Me”. From the opening lyric “Congratulations on the mess you made of things/ I’m trying to reconstruct the air and all that brings”, it’s evident that this will be a condemnation of all authority figures worldwide, which seems to fit in with a widespread sentiment as 2008 heads into its end. Adibempe’s vocal intensity reaches new heights on this track, which is so tough and angry in its own right that we nearly miss the brilliance of the groovy percussion beats and melody as he sturnly warns the “Death Professor!” while saving room for some hope for a “Dawn of a luz of forever.” (Luz, the Portuguese word for sun, or more aptly, a new dawn). Even the slower tracks here are nearly perfect, such as the soft piano keys and violin strings on the flawless “Family Tree” or the easily overlooked “Stork & Owl.” In the end, however, it is the complexities at the end of the album on songs like “Love Dog”, which bears a slight resemblance to past favorite “Dirtywhirl” but is much more complex musically, adding electronic keyboards and even more horns as it slowly builds, that prove the album’s greatest strengths. Better yet is “Shout Me Out”,  which defines the concept of a tune that builds, using a looped synthesizer and steady guitar line before exploding into heavier electric guitar and heavy percussion.  And what better way to end such a massive accomplishment than a simple song about sex? “Lover’s Day” sticks out here in an almost silly fashion initially, but culminates marvelously with triumphant flutes and background humming. You’ll be seeing the incredibly exciting Dear Science at the top of a lot of other lists this month besides mine, and this is a testament not only to its broad appeal but also to the sudden mainstream realization that pound for pound, TV on the Radio has been one of this decade’s most important artists.

#2: Cut Copy/ In Ghost Colours

48260cutcopy

If Hercules and Love Affair created the best pure dance record of the year, than In Ghost Colours was certainly the best dance rock offering, taking my world by storm this spring. Drawing comparisons to LCD Soundsystem and The Rapture, something about Cut Copy’s sophomore effort was much more musically oriented than any of its “punk-funk” peers. Immediately enticing from the first beat of the melodic, synthesized “Feel The Love”, this is truly a special electronic album that brings the energy, and brings it with force. The next song, “Out There on the Ice”, showcases the impressive melodic and lyrical attributes of this record, as lead singer Dan Whitford pleads “That’s what it takes/ But don’t let it tear us apart/ Even if it breaks your heart.” Meanwhile, “Lights and Music” is immediately dance-floor ready, with hard synth beats, background harmonies and electronica that set an early tune for the band’s penchant for a minor verse- major chorus release stucture. There’s even an electric guitar line hovering in the background towards the end. If you aren’t hooked by this point, you might not have a pulse.

There is so much to like about this dense, textured album with so many upbeat dance grooves and strong, poppy choruses, and the eventual complexity that it achieves rests upon the tunes that serve as interludes or breaks from the dance floor, such as the 80s synth on the bittersweet standout “Unforgettable Season”, the keyboard hooks on “Strangers In The Wind” or the subtle beauty of key transition track “Midnight Runner.” The real treats come toward the end though, as the atmospheric, distorted shoegazer guitar on “So Haunted” combines with intense, dark vocals but eventually makes a complete shift into a showstopping, lifted synth chorus melody. After that sublime tune, In Ghost Colours puts on the finishing touches with the outstanding “Hearts on Fire”, which adds yet more synthesized keyboards, beats and vocals, creating the band’s signature hit. Lest we forget about the massive dance tune “Far Away”, which showcases as much 80s influence as anything here, complete with background “Ooh, ooh ooh!” vocals and more fantastic synth beats. Truth be told, the beats keep coming all the way through penultimate track “Nobody Lost, Nobody Found”, which sounds a bit like The Rapture’s last album but again, with much more complex melodies. The band is absolutely possessive live, and was able to captivate its Pitchfork audience despite a late arrival and four-song set. From a poppy, dance rock perspective, this upbeat album surpringly approaches masterpiece status, and was a staple for me in 2008.

#1: Portishead/ Third

48757third2 The most highly anticipated release in recent memory couldn’t have been more worth the wait, as Bristol trip-hop pioneers Portishead delivered one of the darkest, most devastating albums of all time. In the ten years since we’ve last heard from them, it doesn’t seem like life has been very pleasant, and to be sure, this is no longer trip-hop. Instead, the band delivers an intensely emotional and uniquely sad album that benefits from its use of new techniques, including a lot of synthesized drumming and organ sampling, turn table spinning and even some carefully placed electric guitar. Portishead also builds into many of its slower songs, creating a crescendo effect that adds intensity to Beth Gibbons’ haunting vocals, which haven’t lost a single step over the last decade and change, and sound even more tortured this time around behind lyrics depicting helplessness, loss of love, and fear of death. On the whole, Third is crushing, and is not recommended for times of severe emotional instability, which of course is to say that it is an amazing accomplishment. Only on the somewhat out-of-place (but still exceptionally pretty) yukelele track “Deep Water” do we detect even the slightest hint of optimism.

The album starts on a solid note, as the up-tempo “Silence” sounds completely different than anything the band has ever done. The song begins with a rolling drumline and before long some almost frightening, discordant string arrangements join along. The tempo almost reminds me of Hooverphonic’s better work, but the musical sounds are so much more foreboding and serve as a great preface for the incredibly dark, personal subject matter that the album contains. Suddenly, the music stops and Gibbons’ voice enters, pleading hopelessly “Did you know what I lost?/ Did you know what I wanted?/ Empty in our hearts/ Crying out in silence” before the full tempo picks up again and carries us to the end of the song, which stops abruptly, but not without gaining our full attention. The mesmerizing “Hunter” slows down the tempo a great deal, and is so much more serious of a song than anything that they have ever done, darkly hypnotic with its slow slow acoustic guitar and soft percussion- and it might even be the weakest track here, if there is one.  Third benefits most from its experimentation on songs like “Plastic”, which starts and stops a lot behind synthesized organs and underlying percussion reminiscent of “Mysterons”, as well as Gibbons pushing her vocals to their own limits. But the general air of hopelessness makes itself known early on with “Nylon Smile”, which rolls along under a steady ringing-bell synthesizer as Gibbons admits, “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you/ And I don’t know what I’ll do without you.”

The real standout track among such amazing music is centerpiece “We Carry On”, another uptempo number which hits like us a brick to the face with its steady, pounding krautrock percussion and a catchy synthesized riff. The combination of musical elements here, which even includes a heavy electric guitar riff towards the end, couldn’t have been more perfectly executed. The band steps outside of the box yet again on the perfectly titled “Machine Gun”, which shoots short, syncopated blasts of sound beneath Gibbons’ flawless vocal work. Penultimate track “Magic Doors” succeeds in not taking itself too seriously and carries the album along into its conclusion with its switch from an uncertain, dark melodic structure to a bittersweet chorus. The song doesn’t stand out as some of these do, but serves as the album’s final connecting link. The dark, painful “Threads” sends the album off on a perfect note as Gibbons confesses, “I’m old/ Tired of my mind/ I’m old and/ Thinking of why/ I’m always so unsure.” This may be the album’s most powerful emotional track and its most familiar sounding, as it rolls softly above synthesized guitars that join intense percussion for the chorus. Gibbons essentially loses her mind during the coda, wailing unintelligibly as the vocals fade out and we are left with one last haunting horn riff that repeats, and repeats, and repeats into the darkness. Wow.

Despite all of this brilliance I have described, perhaps my favorite thing about Third is how well some of the songs build into a crescendo. The best example of this comes early on standout “The Rip”, which starts simply with Gibbons’ vocal “White horses/ They will take me away/ And the tenderness I feel/ Will set the darkness underneath” above seemingly simple acoustic guitar picking. Gibbons’ final note is held (probably by a computer, but we’ll forgive her here) as the same guitar line evolves into synthesized organ and percussion joins along, carrying the track into its subdued coda, brilliant in its seeming simplicity. “Small” takes a bit longer to build, but uses the same technique, as Gibbons sings softly over a very melancholy guitars and horns before snare drum beats and perhaps the scariest organ sounds on the whole album combine perfectly. With Third, Portishead has in my opinion established themselves as one of the most accomplished and important bands in the history of music. The album surpassed all of my expectations. As usual, there isn’t a single weak track here, but this may also be the best flowing album that they’ve ever created. It’s certainly more of a concept album than anything they’ve recorded previously, and while the songs aren’t as easy to listen to as “Numb” and “Glory Box”, they certainly prove that Portishead hasn’t just been sitting around for the past eleven years forgetting about how to make music that means something.

Explore posts in the same categories: Tunes