2008 was such an fun year to catalog. It was the year where musical events rumoured to occur for so long they had become jokes finally came to pass, like the return of My Bloody Valentine and Portishead, and the release of Chinese Democracy. It was the year Radiohead made their victory lap after being all but crowned the best band in the world. Despite Jack Johnson turding on every event possible, it was a banner year in the golden age of American music festivals, a far cry from the fiery riots of Woodstock ’99. It was a year of political change and almost every musician on Earth voiced their opinion.
There were two prevalent, important trends in music of 2008. First, the continued mass saturation of fuzzy, purposely distorted production carrying on traditions from the likes of The Jesus And Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. It is a rebellion against the perfect pitched, flawlessly clean production of the “artists” that dominate the Billboard charts and FM radio and has become a calling card for music of this decade. Second, where 2007 was the year Animal Collective established themselves as one of the decade’s greatest, 2008 was the year where they clearly became one of the decade’s most influential. For better or worse, no band’s impact on 2008 was felt stronger than the Collective. The worst trend of 2008 is the auto-tune vocoder vocal fad in hip-hop/R&B music, continuing the genre’s march towards insignificance and self-parody that modern country music has been on for some time. The year’s best, such as Lil Wayne, Nas, and Q-Tip, only serve as exceptions to the rule rather than innovators who can move things in a different direction.
Looking at the sales numbers, doom and gloom continues to haunt the music industry as music sales persist in falling. Increases in digital downloads, especially in single songs, have not made up the gap in decreasing physical album sales. Vinyl sales actually more than doubled from last year, and over two thirds of those sales came from independent record stores. Trends like that and the increasing success of Emusic continue to show a dichotomy between major labels struggling and independent music having reasons to be optimistic. These economic conditions may be bad for businesses and the bottom line, but the causal implications bode well for people like me who champion music as art before entertainment.
At the very beginning of 2008 I was overwhelmingly optimistic about the state of music, and while I haven’t exactly changed my tune now completely, I’m a bit more cautious in my assessment of where things are going. The exponentially growing amount of musical artists and music journalists is resulting in vastly growing amounts of data to make sense of. Now, rather than diluting the influence of the few into the many, power and influence is slowly amalgamating back into the hands of the few again. Bands that don’t get blessed by good reviews from the biggest websites like Pitchfork and Stereogum, or do well in mp3 aggregators such as the hype machine and elbows (and the two are in inextricable linked), have a hard time getting their head above the water. That’s not to say that it is impossible, or that people don’t still possess way more power and access over their musical choices than they have in the past, I’ve just started to notice trends that don’t line up with the revolution I espouse.
Pitchfork (P4k) is by far the most powerful and respected authority on music today, so understand that my following criticisms of that website comes with the implicit understanding that they have earned that power and respect, and that these criticisms come from a desire to see the website continue to be worthy of that as it ascends to MTV sized influence, not just because i like ragging on them. But, P4k is big time money now (estimated to be making over 5 million a year) and there are reasons to believe many of their journalistic decisions of late come with their profitability in mind. For instance, their 50 Best Album list of 2008 lines up very suspiciously with their 2008 reader’s poll of best albums of 2008, especially at the top. Of the 43 P4k individual staff lists, only one had Fleet Foxes as their album of the year (versus 3 for Microcastle). They certainly aren’t choosing the absolute most mainstream acts of all possibilities, but their top 10 especially seems to reflect the album’s appeal to their target audience more than anything. Their best album list, then, reflects the albums’ popularity with hipsters more than any qualitative assessment based on something other than marketability. And Stereogum isn’t exactly offering a divergent perspective. They both seem to pick what they think will be popular with their audience, they check the mp3 aggregators to see how accurate they were, and then adjust their ratings accordingly.
Now many people may be perfectly fine with how this system works, but for myself, I’m not too keen on a system that rewards artists primarily on their ability to draw as big an audience as possible. It creates conditions where artists make decisions based on how popular it will be, and that doesn’t exactly result in the best art. It’s not that Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes, and TV On The Radio aren’t good bands, but I’m not sure on what basis they are qualitatively the best other then how popular they are. I guess the problem lies in the inability to have an explainable objective measurement of art other than its popularity.
So then, if there is any theme to my list this year, it is that I think it is more P4k than P4k. Many of my best albums were ones that P4k gave better initial scores than their own list toppers, and then didn’t even get an honorable mention, and coincidentally (or maybe not) weren’t all that popular. You’ll find my list littered with albums that didn’t receive a ton of accolades elsewhere, but my intention wasn’t to highlight underrated albums, it just worked out that way. On a technical note, this list is actually my top 50 best albums over 35 minutes, so don’t leave a comment complaining about how I forgot about No Age. This list and my Top 20 albums under 35 minutes are sort of a two part piece. A special thanks to my staff writers for their contributions, and as always, thanks to you Ohmpark readers for allowing me to indulge myself like this.
50. Pyramids : Pyramids
At the last minute I realized one of my more obscure picks was actually slated for an official release early in 2009, so i had to scramble to add one last album to this list. There were a ton of really good ones to choose from that had just missed the list, but i wasn’t completely satisfied with any, so I decided to revisit Pyramids‘ self-titled release. This has to be one the most unapproachable, inaccessible albums I have ever heard and while I liked it a lot when I first discovered it in the summer, I’ve yet to truly unravel it. My return to this album didn’t exactly result in an epiphany or anything, but this thing is just so confounding and experimental, that its vast ambitions alone are enough to award it my final spot. I cheated my own rules with this one as this is slightly under 35 minutes, but it deserves the spot. This is post-rock that truly lives up to the definition of the term.
49. Santogold : Santogold
I know it’s not cool when music appears in the commercials of major corporations. However, you’ll have to set that aside for Santogold just like you did for Cloud Cult, Ween, and Modest Mouse. The fact remains that Santi White’s eponymous debut is a solid record top to bottom. I initially reviewed its weakness as being more of a collection of singles and lacking a cohesive statement in the direction of concept albums. This still holds true, but there’s just too many solid “singles” on the album to deny it from being on the top list of the year. Her talent shines in the fusion of various styles and influences. It was my favorite dancehall-pop-electro-rap album to drunkenly request this past year. -Josh West
48. Flying Lotus : Los Angeles
Typically I get bored with glitchy, atmospheric electronic chillers like this, but something about Steven Ellison’s Los Angeles holds my attention throughout. There is just so much going on at every moment, but all of it sounds so distant and indirect. It is loose and stumbling without ever falling apart. It is meticulously purposeful without sounding as such. You can totally lose focus with the music without losing interest, and that is a difficult aesthetic to master.
47. M83 : Saturdays=Youth
Saturdays = Youth is a jaunt through the ’80s through the lens of M83‘s Anthony Gonzalez, and takes a decade of music I’m not exactly crazy about and makes it overwhelmingly pleasurable for me. It took me a long time to learn to enjoy this album, not so much because I’m not usually a fan of the sonance this particular album employs, but because 2005′s Before The Dawn Heals Us is so ridiculously good that I’ve put my expectations for this artist up way too high. But my personal preferences aside, if you take this album for what it is, Saturdays = Youth is staggeringly successful at what it aims to be.
46. Shearwater : Rook
With the Shearwater almost completely detached from the overrated Okkervil River, the band has become more than just a Jeff Buckley lovefest. Rook is by far their most dynamic and most consistent recording so far. Jonathan Melburg’s sublime vocals are heightened by an inspiring production effort which makes him a strong contender for best all-round studio work of this year. My only complaint is that his nearly unmatched technical prowess could benefit from some less bland songwriting, but despite this slight shortcoming, Rook is more than worthwhile.
45. Mount Eerie : Dawn
Arguably the most important work released by Mount Eerie, Dawn is a Microphones album in disguise. This “lost album” based on a journal from Phil Elverum’s Wadlenesque adventures in Norway. In fact, one of the best things about that you purchase the album along with a hard-bond copy of Phil’s journal. That is great thing about purchasing something from his website. No matter what you buy, you are always going to get an artifact, not just some plastic disc that cost less to make than it did to ship. These songs offer insight into Elverum’s metamorphosis from The Microphones to Mount Eerie and expand on some of the lingering themes on The Glow Part 2. While these songs may have been written by “The Microphones” they are preformed “Mount Eerie” style as it is just Phil and his guitar. However, you can hear duets of several of these songs on this year’s Lost Wisdom. -Anne Reade
44. My Morning Jacket : Evil Urges
Variety is the spice of life and when I hear Evil Urges it’s like Emeril just yelled “BAM!” right in my ear. On My Morning Jacket‘s fifth album they pull out all the stops and throw off the stale Alt-Country label that was pretty much gone anyway since the release of Z. Soul, Rock, Reggae, and Country are a few of the styles you can hear is this wonderful melting pot of an album. Some may dismiss the themes of love and religion as played out but the ideas presented are global and accessible and that is not a bad thing. With all the critical gushing over bands like Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses it’s hard to believe more people don’t enjoy My Morning Jacket. The unbridled optimism of the lyrics reveal Jim James’ “naked heart.” “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream” is is a beautiful two part epic that captures the feeling of anticipated love at the beginning of a relationship. Regarding matters of the heart, the first time I heard Evil Urges I knew I would soon love it or hate it and I’m so glad I fall into the former category.
P.S. Any doubters should see this band live. -Clint Miller
43. TV On The Radio : Dear Science
Many times over the year I’ve made the point that this album is overrated, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like it, I just think there are about 40 or so better albums that came out in 2008. I was a huge fan of Return To Cookie Mountain and most everything I loved about that album (namely the pacing and the homerun hit songs) is absent from Dear Science, as the band has aimed for much safer territory than ever before. But the talent of these musicians has seemed to overcome the lacking approach enough for me to give it the credit due and still jam it a ton.
42. Zach Hill : Astrological Straits
Astrological Straits is the first solo album from Sacramento-based artist Zach Hill. He has built a reputation as a frenetic drummer, propelling his band Hella through tightly wound squalls of noise and jagged melodies with great force. On this album he indulges in an unrestrained torrent of challenging yet tuneful rock. With Hella moving toward more conventional songs on their most recent release, Astrological Straits is an outlet for Hill to blurt out all of his maddeningly abstract ideas and hammer them into shape. It isn’t an extended drum solo, though. Hill transforms his kit into a lead instrument and exercises virtuosic control. He drapes his concussive playing with shards of filthy, distorted guitars, infectiously sing-songy vocals, and guest appearances from peers life Les Claypool. Although some may find the noisy madness and jarring bursts offputting, Hill fills Astrological Straits with an irresistible playfulness, and his talents as a drummer (and a frontman) will leave listeners awestruck.Oh yeah, and one more thing, if you can’t quite get enough Zach Hill make sure you check out Marnie Stern‘s albums to hear some more of his incredible brand of percussion. -David McLendon
41. The Dodos : Visiter
When Visiter (intentionally misspelled) was released in March, I gave it about 10 listens, thought it was pretty good and moved on. In thinking about the best albums of the year, I returned to it and it was a pleasant surprise all over again. On the surface, The Dodos are another indie-psych-folk-rock band. However, Meric Long’s background at Ewe drumming really bring the percussion to the forefront on many tracks. Also, Logan Kroeber’s metal experience subtly surfaces on songs like “Jodi” and “The Season.” In all, this album deserves its place among the top albums of the year because it is different enough from everything else to exhibit a true creativity and style while the skills and craftsmanship behind the tracks is nearly flawless. -Josh West
40. Islands : Arm’s Way
With Islands now completely under Nicholas Thornburn’s control, they turned away from the Calypso heaviness of Return To The Sea and headed in a more purely indie rock, albeit less accessible direction. I find myself much more fascinated by their approach on this album than any of Nick T’s previous efforts, but less impressed with the results. Being an advocate for artful music, I can’t help but find Arm’s Way endearing, even if it feels like it is trying a bit too hard for its own good. But in the moments where this release truly shines, it is hard to find anything else that compares.
39. Plants & Animals : Parc Avenue
My favourite thing about Montreal’s Plants & Animals is that they have taken conservative leaning methods employed by jambands and folk musicians and enhanced them with songwriting that rivals the most hip of modern artists. This first full-length takes everything special from their tremendous debut EP of last year, including a couple of redone songs, and gives us all we could possibly want from these guys. Plants & Animals symphonic rock approach may have been done before, but I’m not sure if it has ever been done so well until now.
38. Beach House : Devotion
The Beach House duo return with their brand of angelic, atmospheric pop music, except this time they have upped things on the production end a bit. This is the sort of record that you have to be in the right frame of mind to listen to, but that is precisely because it is all about the mood. It is hard for me to describe exactly why this band and this album are so amazing, the music just seems to be interfused with so many sensual connotations.
37. Takka Takka : Migration
At first listen, Migration may sound like just another indie rock record, but a deeper analysis reveals extremely nuanced and textured song-writing. The way they nail this ambient pop music approach reminds me of Phil Collins at his best, but in a way that never feels backwards looking. They also subtly utilize some world music influences, but these tend to be more of a backdrop then something explicitly showcased. This album’s reception has suffered from my biggest gripe with how many review albums these days: critics measuring records with their own preferences, prescriptions, and expectations for the artist. If you take this piece of work for what it is and not for what you want it to be, you’ll find one of 2008′s most enjoyable.
36. Dead Confederate : Wrecking Ball
You wouldn’t think that in 2008 someone could make grunge sound so refreshing, but Dead Confederate have put together an album that kills it whether you are a child of the ’90s or any other decade. I had jumped on the DC bandwagon as soon as I heard their self-titled EP and saw some live shows, but I am still blown away by the impressiveness of their first full-length. Whether it is hit singles like “The Rat” or long, epic pieces like the last three tracks on Wrecking Ball, every song they put together here is a grand slam. These Georgia boys are undeniably the quintessential Rock ‘n’ Roll band of this year.
35. Omar Rodriguez Lopez : Old Money
Omar Rodriguez‘s solo records are tough to situate because of their close sonic ties to The Mars Volta, the variety of current and former members, and their experimental nature. Old Money is rumored to be what Omar planned as a follow up to the psychedelic excessiveness of The Mars Volta‘s Amputechture. While it definitely uses similar studio tricks, like re-amping tracks through an array of delay and effects pedals, it also has some funk oriented on it that could easily fly on a TMV record, like “Family War Funding (Love Those Rosthchilds)” and “The Power of Myth”. Omar is building for himself a very deep musical character by being as precise as possible with TMV and releasing a body of solo work outside that to further experiment with. -Eric Guenther
34. Portishead : Third
If you quit your job today, went on a 10 year hike through Tibet, and came back to sit down at your desk, how do you think you would do? What if millions of people had reviewed your past job performance over and over and those same people were waiting when you came back? The true brilliance behind Portishead‘s Third was their ability to be gone for so long only to return and retain who they were without completely regurgitating a copy of the past. It’s not Portishead unrecognizable or even reinvented. It’s a resurgent, progressive, well-thought-out, experimental Portishead. You know who they were and you definitely need to know who they are now. Arguably, with respect to time, the most anticipated album of the year doesn’t disappoint. -Josh West
33. Evangelista : Hello, Voyager
Carla Bozulich is one of the most compelling vocalists going today both for the fact that her voice is so powerfully emotional and because she takes such an avant-garde approach to her craft. Now using her previous album title as her moniker, this album smacks of evangelical fervor for the darkest aspects of the human experience and is absolutely unrestrained in its approach. Think Janis Joplin except about a thousand times more talented, experimental and evil. Also, don’t let terms like “experimental” and “avant-garde” turn you off from checking this album out, because the music itself is surprisingly accessible for an artist so out there.
32. Silver Jews : Lookout Mountain,
Lyrically Silver Jews‘s albums are some of the most amazing music to emerge in recent memory and Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is no exception. Paired with his haunting baritone, David Berman is an absolutely outstanding front man even though he may not be a gifted live performer. His wife also makes some notable vocal contributions on this album especially on “Party Barge.” Picking out favorite lyrics on this album is like picking a favorite child so I refuse to do it. It’s not that the music isn’t top-notch on this album, it’s just a bit chill and more Country than “Alt” this time around. I’d be lying though if I said I didn’t miss Stephen Malkmus‘ influence. Overall this is solid album that wouldn’t feel alone in a stack of old country singer-songwriter LPs. -Clint Miller
31. Pegasuses-XL : The Antiphon
I’m not usually the person that falls in love with a “fun” record, but that’s usually because most records that fall into that category tend to be lacking in many other areas. But Pegasuses-XL‘s newest, The Antiphon, is one of those rare records that can goof around and still remain overwhelmingly intriguing throughout. The seemingly haphazard combination of styles like hip-hop, math-rock, and punk with pretty keyboard driven melodies results in an over-the-topness that has seemed to put off many critics, but they are missing the point entirely. The Antiphon is all about being the ultimate in audio spectacles, but even without that context, this album is one of the most successful experimentations of 2008.
30. Genghis Tron : Board Up The House
Board Up The House sees Genghis Tron take a huge jump in production and artistic direction from their last release. They take on a more industrial-toned metal approach, as well as a more organic sound than Dead Mountain Mouth, presumably due to producer Kurt Ballou (of hardcore legends Converge). The songs are more melodic and epic than arbitrarily mathematical. One of the high points of the record is the NIN-esque doom jam “Relief”, which breaks new ground for the band vocally and instrumentally. Although this band has always been interesting in concept, here they have set the pace and taken a giant leap for their sound. -Eric Guenther
29. Summerbirds In The Cellar : Druids
Orlando’s Summerbirds In The Cellar have such a hauntingly beautiful sound. It is dark, it is melodic, and it is totally a sound of its own. I first discovered this band at Corndogorama this year with one of the most impressive 20 minute sets I’ve ever seen complete with sweet showgazey blasting. Their two records certainly contain elements of their live assault, but also display a mature and skillful studio sound that reveals the total talent of this band. Their latest, Druids, is debatable as to whether it is a 2007 release, a 2008 release, or whether a label will be smart enough to put them out in 2009, but what is not debatable is that this record deserves accolades and honors as a serious standout.
28. Sian Alice Group : 59.59
59.59, named after the length of the album, is every bit as meticulously crafted as the name would suggest. These extremely skilled British musicians create beautiful pop music. At times it is slightly jazzy, at times it is reminiscent of Mogwai, and then Sian Ahern, for whom the band is named, out of nowhere adds vocals at various points of the record but never feels like the focus of this piece. This is very much a soundtracky, mood album, but almost never does an album of that nature have as much going on as this one. There just isn’t another album quite like it.
27. 31 Knots : Worried Well
31 Knots have upped the ante on Worried Well and taken their art-indie-post-punk-prog to grandiose levels that feels like an epic musical. Lyrically, it is a vivid pessimistic and fatalist view of the world and society. For those with little patience for such a pompous undertaking, the ingenuity and adeptness 31 Knots employ in creating an album like this my be overlooked. In a post-modern world it isn’t hip to write music about societal problems anymore, but where this record lacks in trendiness, it makes up for in outstanding execution. Also, I think it perfectly captures the weary contempt of a nation that has been heading in the wrong direction for 8 years.
26. Hot Chip : Made In The Dark
Hot Chip‘s 2006 release The Warning featured some incredible standout songs, but as a whole album I didn’t think it stood up very well. With Made In The Dark, they finally made the jump and created a piece of work that never loses steam. It has club bangers, fun experimentation, and even some pleasing ballads. There are very few artists that combine the organic musicianship of conventional bands with the electronic dance party prowess like Hot Chip, and this album exemplifies that duality.
25. Lil Wayne : Tha Carter III
I’ve heard this album called a lot of things from lazy to genius, but I have yet to hear a convincing argument against it being one of the best hip hop albums of the year. As with most good albums, the cover has a story to tell. Its imagery seems to borrow and reference from many of the classic hip hop albums of the past (Jay, Biggie, Nas). Of course, the parallels don’t stop there. With the lyrics, the beats, and the song sequencing this album sets out to do one thing: become classic. So does it meet its mission? Well, yes and no. There is no doubt that this album contains some great songs with some of the best lines I have ever heard. However, there are also some lows that will keep it just slightly below the all time greats. -Anne Reade
24. Anathallo : Canopy Glow
Canopy Glow combines careful orchestration and arrangements with pop sensibilities brilliantly. The music is grand and epic while simultaneously feeling light and diminutive. There is a large crowd that seems almost philosophically opposed to pop-classical hybrids (unless ofcourse they achieve mainstream appeal like Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens, then they want to lead the bandwagon), so if you are of that ilk, this record may not be for you. But there are hardly many albums this year that feature such breathtaking virtuosity on songwriting this wonderful.
23. Russian Spy Camera : Mutiny In The
Kitchen With Knives
This has to be the least-hyped album of the year, self-released for free digitally on their website and then completely unsupported by a lack of live shows, but it is easily the best thing to come out of Athens, Georgia in 2008, and one of the best albums of the year worldwide. As the band name would denote, there is a stealthy, sly character to their sound that I can’t even recall a parallel to compare it to. That’s not to say it doesn’t rock out hard, because it is filled with energetic and lively moments. Every song on this record has its own unique character and compelling moments, but the piece as a whole is as fluidic as it is dynamic. if you haven’t given this a try yet, there is no excuse because they are giving it away.
22. MGMT : Oracular Spectacular
This record stands out not for its even balance of pop hooks and psychedelia, but more importantly for using its rich classic rock influences to create a record that is almost outside the time line of history. It is one of the best examples of a ‘timeless’ record I have ever heard, not because of its popularity or success, but because it almost sounds like it could have come out of any decade. It compounds doses of Ziggy Stardust Bowie, classic funk, 80s synth pop, 70s prog-rock producing a high quality album that has wide mainstream appeal. -Eric Guenther
21. Shugo Tokumaru : Exit
Shugo‘s newest release sees the extremely talent musician continue a career of triumph. Relating to music with lyrics in a different language is always an interesting endeavor, having to rely almost entirely on the music itself to assess. But even without being able to understand exactly what he is trying to convey in is his words, the music itself communicates emotions so easily. Exit utilizes over 50 instruments, most of which are performed by Tokumaru, and the entire thing is put together in his bedroom on a Mac and a few microphones, proving the limitless possibilities available to musicians in this technologically advanced age.
20. Brendan Canning : Something For All
Broken Social Scene‘s recent solo record period may have put off fans that were in it for the gimmickiness of a band that was more a collective, but getting to see each of the individual members display their own vision is wholly more interesting to me. I think the group this band parallels more than any other to me is the Wu-Tang Clan. Many people will only be interested in their proper releases, and the various solo efforts may not always reach the bar their classic albums set, or people may have preferences for certain members. But, I think if you approach this album or Kevin Drew‘s record from last year without any context, it is hard to deny that these aren’t amazing. They are the Liquid Swords and Supreme Clientele of indie rock.
19. Atlas Sound : Let The Blind Lead Those
Who Can See But Cannot Feel
Bradford Cox’s prolificness seems to be unmatched by any contemporary artist because not only does he produce a cornucopia of material, but almost all of it holds up to his best work. His first full length under his solo moniker unveiled a restrained, mature pop record that paved the way for the direction Deerhunter took on Microcastle, although this record is a lot less rock and much more low key. The sonic mood of Let The Blind accentuates the album’s conceptual undertaking beautifully. After Deerhunter‘s rise to glory in 2007 seemed to be bolstered by Cox’s on stage antics that I always interpreted as a way to distance himself from his audience, this album is where i think he really opened up and let the listener inside for the first time and remains his most personal piece of work to date.
18. Au : Verbs
With Verbs, Luke Wyland, the architect behind Portland-based AU has managed to wrangle a rather wondrous and vast sonic landscape of a sophmore album into a cohesive musical shape and form. The sound of this album reminds me of Bjork and Sigur Ros in the way multiple vocals and vocal harmonies are wrapped around eclectic beats. I hear gospel and a vaudeville element at work here especially on “RR vs D” which in its second half sounds like we are in a parade with a marching band or at an old-fashioned circus. The variety is much of the beauty in their brand of pop. Their songs are both exciting and soothing, in rather equal measure. -David McLendon
17. Royal Bangs : We Breed Champions
We Breed Champions is one of the greatest hidden gems of 2008. It is one of those records that you could play for pretty much anyone no matter their taste and they would enjoy it, but underneath their pop appeal is a band that could also be a critic’s darling had any of them spent their time listening to records that big media outlets ignored. Every single person who is lucky enough to stumble across it has become an evangelist for it, including myself and Black Keys‘ drummer Patrick Carney, who released it on his label upon randomly listening to the album, originally self-released in 2006 by these Tennesseans. The fact that this album hasn’t been landing on many other people’s best album list speaks to an increasing difficulty for quality music to cut through the exponentially increasing blog noise without a Vampire Weekend-esque hype machine behind it.
16. Kaki King : Dreaming Of Revenge
This album hasn’t been on too many people’s radars, but it has been an integral part of my 2008 soundtrack. Kaki King started out primarily doing instrumental guitar music until Tortoise‘s John McEntire produced her previous effort and helped move her into a post-rock/indie-rock hybrid direction adding vocals. Dreaming Of Revenge sees Katherine Elizabeth King continue down that road developing her talent as a songwriter to match her genius at guitar. This thing is just gorgeous from start to finish and I still haven’t gotten sick of it after playing it non-stop since it came out in March.
15. Deerhoof : Offend Maggie
Offend Maggie isn’t exactly blazing new territory for the whimsical nu-progsters, but rather looks to refine a particular strand of the band, and does so almost flawlessly. There seems to be a significant barrier to entry to enjoying this band, and this record is no exception. In fact, I think this is one of their least accessible albums because their earlier, overtly weirder stuff came with an implicit understanding that it was going to be really strange to engage, but the relatively poppier direction they’ve moved in gives an initial impression that maybe you didn’t step into a whole new dimension of music afterall. But you did, and once you become versed in their foreign frame of mind, you’ll find this album to be one of the best bands of recent times at their most refined.
14. The Mars Volta : The Bedlam In Goliath
The Mars Volta really shocked me with this record. After John Theodore’s exit, I was skeptical that they were going to be able to accomplish the kind of funk-meets-Bonham that was all over their first three records ever again. His replacement drummer Thomas Pridgen proved to mark not only a younger and more agile percussion section, but also a change in direction for the band. Probably the heaviest record in their catalog, the drumming is brutal and unyeilding. They have found such a unique and explosive player that The Mars Volta sound shifted in order to play to their strengths as a band, and this record is largely a demonstration of that shift. This record has some of the nastiest and funkiest grooves, some of Omar’s best writing and riffing, and Cedric’s most comfortable and solid performance to date. Pridgen gives the best drum performance of the year. They are a progressive rock band: change is not bad. -Eric Guenther
13. Wolf Parade : At Mount Zoomer
It took me a long time to learn to love this album, but after realizing that it took me a while to warm up to Spencer Krug’s other projects as well, I decided to come back to this one and really spend some time with it over the last month. I’m so glad I did, because this thing is excellent. I’m tempted to talk about how much of a step up it is from Queen Mary, but I’m guessing my disinterest in that record could probably be overcome by going back and listening to it more as well. Of all the bands with “wolf” in the name, these guys are the real deal, so don’t overlook this release like I did initially.
12. Department Of Eagles : In Ear Park
After the occasional release over the past six years, Daniel Rossen (Grizzly Bear) and NYU roommate Fred Nicolaus pulled their shit together as Department of Eagles and supplied us with In Ear Park – a baroque pop experiment that sounds like Randy Newman became the lead singer of Bowerbirds with a sad, half-crazy old man writing lyrics. A deeper examination will reveal that Daniel’s father passed in 2007 and it had a heavy influence on the songwriting. Although the songs are complex and ambitious, the record is a really easy listen. I’m always surprised when it’s over and I think, “Wow! That went by fast.” Additionally, the album is totally solid from start to finish and it has earned its spot among the top albums of the year. -Josh West
11. Indian Jewelry : Free Gold!
I’m always a fan of bands that take an experimental approach, I love bands that take chances. And while I certainly give extra credit to bands that choose to pursue their vision over appealing to as many listeners as possible, this path often doesn’t lead to superb results. The entire point of experimentation is to discover something new, to be the lucky artist to stumble across something very special. Houston’s Indian Jewelry have traveled down this road and their avant-garde explorations have resulted in one of the most engaging and compelling albums of the year. Free Gold! has its fair share of dissident moments that will turn many away, but it is art of the ears at its best.
10. White Denim : Exposion
Austin’s White Denim seem to be one of those bands that sound like a million different other bands while retaining their own unique character at the same time. They are built on a garage-punky blues foundation but their songs are constructed with immense musicianship and precision that most artists in that general sphere could only dream of. Their greatest strength is being able to create an album that can get so psychedelic and sound so raw at the same time. At times it is progginess without the pretension, at others it is simplicity refined. This is one of the most justifiably hyped albums from the indier-than-thou circles, so see what all the buzz is about.
9. Mogwai : The Hawk Is Howling
The Hawk is Howling is simply Mogwai at their best, but it seems this record has been almost completely overlooked by critics of the Interwebs. Instrumental bands that do not stray far from what they do best like these guys or Explosions In The Sky after several releases are relegated to being “just more of the same” in the eyes of the non-post-rock believers. Mr. Beast garnered much more attention due to adding so many vocals to their arsenal than their newest, even though as a whole I think Hawk is a vastly better release. When it comes down to music like this, you can’t over-analyze the elements that make up the whole, because in the end it is not about how it was constructed, but how it makes you feel, and Mogwai‘s newest is the pinnacle of their abstract brilliance.
8. Of Montreal : Skeletal Lamping
I remember reading an interview a short time after Hissing Fauna came out where Kevin Barnes talked about the next album being 100 short songs together on one album, and while the finished album only has 15 tracks, each track is extremely schizophrenic. I’ve never heard him talk about the album in this way since then, and obviously many critics didn’t get that memo complaining that it was too varied for them to enjoy, which I think is a really dumb argument against an album anyways. I honestly think the overt homosexual lyrics about the escapades of Georgie Fruit were too much for a mostly male music journalist conglomerate to handle. Of course the fact that this is such a completely different sort of album then Hissing Fauna didn’t help but instill disdain in the “I want to get what I expect” crowd, but those people are way to boring to appreciate such a dynamic band as Of Montreal anyways. if you don’t bring your own hang ups and preconceived notions to this record, it is hard not to love it.
7. Destroyer : Trouble In Dreams
I first jumped on the Destroyer bandwagon with 2006′s Rubies when that was all the hype,and maybe my limited time delving into this artist has kept it fresh for me, but I very much disagree with the popularly held conception that his newest effort is just more of the same. I believe that this is a a symptom of an ever increasing number of music bloggers trying to make sense of a rapidly growing amount of yearly albums, and not being able to dedicate enough time to releases that a casual listen or two cannot do proper justice. While all of Dan Bejar’s vocal stylings are so unique and distinguishable that their similarity may lead some to make the same assumption on the rest of this piece of work, I think musically Trouble In Dreams is vastly different from Rubies and much of his previous work. Bejar’s dazzling songwriting is complimented here by some of the best guitar lines and instrumentation to grace a Destroyer album resulting in one of his best efforts to date and an album I’ve jammed harder than almost anything else over the course of the year.
6. Marnie Stern : This Is It and I Am It and
You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and
She Is It and It Is It and That Is That
Weew! Even copy and pasting that title is exhausting but it fairly sums up this album’s erratic and emphatic composition. This self taught New Yorker may be a bit late to the game (she’s 32) but all those years developing her own style really paid off. Zach Hill‘s drumming meshes perfectly with Ms. Stern‘s over the top guitar style. I prefer this album to his 2008 record “Astrological Straits” as it reigns in the craziness just enough. “The Crippled Jazzer” is a great example of this. The song feels purposely held back like it was written at a much faster tempo. In “Steely” when she sings “I’m like a raging animation” it gives you just enough time to smile before your head slams into the rest of the awesome riffage. As much as the guitar tapping and solos shine the words can’t be forgotten. The positivity and delivery of the lyrics is often reminiscent of old school hip hop. If you haven’t heard Marnie Stern‘s first record then I highly recommend you get that as this doesn’t change her formula too much. -Clint Miller
5. My Brightest Diamond : A Thousand
What would happen if you gave Bjork an attitude upgrade, handed her a guitar, and asked her to make a non-sequitur rock opera? My Brightest Diamond‘s latest A Thousand Shark’s Teeth. I know this may sound odd, but Long Islands don’t sound like they would taste good either. Everyone from my hippie friends to my not-so-hippie girlfriend can’t deny the talent and creativity put forth by Shara and co. The songwriting varies from whimsical childhood anecdotes to the relationship gone wrong, but it’s always entertaining. Shara’s powerful vocals are supported by a string quartet and the occasional xylophone adds just the right amount of quirkiness. The true brilliance of this album lies in the flawless mixture of styles where every track is heavily textured and you wonder how it all came together. A definite standout of this year. -Josh West
4. Bon Iver : For Emma, Forever Ago
Every year there seems to be a new small-scaled minimalist masterpiece that just takes my breath away. That is the feeling I get while listening to Bon Iver‘s For Emma, Forever Ago. As the story goes, a couple of years ago, Justin Vernon broke up his band DeYarmond Edison, split up with his girlfriend and secluded himself in his father’s cabin in some remote Wisconsin wilderness. He unleashed his feelings amongst the desolation that surrounded him to create this heartbreaking lo-fi opus. He sets you in a trance as the sparse arrangements steer towards his emotional freedom. One of the most impressive things on this debut is how he is able to veer from the typicalities of the “break-up” album by creating a world that is seemingly free of depression. The brass section on “For Emma” is inspired, letting in some much needed light and optimism, while the closing “Re:Stacks” is the sound of a man who’s come through hell before proudly blinking against the light when he emerges from the other side. As the last verse puts it: “this is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization, it’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away, your love will be safe with me”.It’s too bad he had to endure such heartbreak to create this stunning debut, but thank God he did. -David McLendon
3. The Ruby Suns : Sea Lion
Of the innumerable students of the school of Animal Collective to release an album this year, The Ruby Sun‘s Sea Lion stands far above them all. Most every other release influenced by the Collective sounds to varying degrees like watered down imitations. That’s not to say that the influence isn’t felt here, but Ryan McPhun’s work strikes me as more a contemporary than a descendant. The Ruby Suns‘ McPhun was raised in sunny California and then moved to New Zealand, and his music very much reflects his geography (Beach Boys psychedelia meets world music), so much of the similarities are more about sharing common starting points. The biggest similarity between these two outfits is how successful their explorations with these sounds end up. A major difference, though, is the quality of their concerts. The dwindling supporting cast around McPhun (when I saw them it had already dropped down to a three piece, and now they are touring as a two-piece) has made it nearly impossible for them to reproduce his in studio brilliance in a live setting, and unfortunately these days a lacking live show will keep way too many people away from your records. But this drastically underrated album holds up to the standards of any band of today, including Panda Bear and the gang.
2. Evangelicals : The Evening Descends
Much like Of Montreal‘s Hissing Fauna last year, this album was released in January and was my album of the year until an autumn release narrowly unseated it. Even these last days I had been going back and forth on whether this would get the number one or two spot. I have played this album incessantly all year and i have never got sick of it. Their indie rockish, psychedelic take on “Marvin Gaye meets the Rocky Horror Picture Show” is as fascinating as it is immaculately constructed. The songwriting is weirdly wonderful and the quirky production is about as impressive as anything I have ever heard. Never has an album utilized sound effects so perfectly. I was obsessed with every single song on this album at different times in 2008, and there really isn’t a single moment on this record that isn’t compelling. And while every single song stands on its own, the conceptual nature of the piece as a whole is completely a “take you on a journey” adventure.
1. Deerhunter : Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.
Ok, I know what you’re thinking, we’re being homers by choosing an Atlanta band for our album of the year. Honestly, I had been very conflicted to give this my number one spot for that very reason, but I just can’t deny that this is 2008′s greatest. I’ve tried as hard as i can to be objective and overlook any biases I have, but the truth is that we are just lucky to live in the same city as such a talented band.
Never has a strange, experimental band gone in such a pop direction and pulled it off so triumphantly. Microcastle isn’t the most broadly appealing record of the year, but there is nothing else that comes close to being as artful and mainstream at the same time. As the underground indie rock world gets more and more popular every year, Deerhunter have managed to capture that trend without sacrificing a bit of their vision or “cred” and simultaneously developed and progressed as a band.
To be clear, I consider Microcastle and the companion bonus disc, Weird Era Cont., as one epic piece. I’m not sure I wouldn’t have given The Evening Descends the edge had Microcastle come out by itself. That is not meant to be a knock on Microcastle at all, it is just that the two records together make for this decade’s superior double album. It is The Wall or the Mellon Collie And Infinite Sadness of a generation, except with even less filler than those two. They are the ying and the yang a band that has emerged as one of the greatest in recent years. Pretty much every single critic that underrated Cryptograms became a believer with Microcastle, and for all of us who loved Deerhunter at their most eccentric, they gave us Weird Era Cont. too. There is something for everyone between these two records, and all of it is amazing.
2007 was the year that put Deerhunter on the map, and 2008 was the year that Deerhunter redrew the map.
- Posted by Davy Minor on January 8, 2009 at 10:41 am