Well, I finally decided to get this thing out. I guess I’m about 20 blog-years behind in getting a top 10 for the previous year done, but better late than never, right? Here we go…
Deerhunter – Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.
I’ll admit it, I was probably the last person on earth onto the Deerhunter bandwagon, but 2008 for Bradford Cox and pals made them basically unavoidable. Throw in two parts Sonic Youth, one part Velvet Underground, one part early Radiohead, and you have what Deerhunter was doing this year on their two releases, Microcastle and Weird Era Cont. Perhaps it’s a little unfair either way to judge these two albums together, but they combine for one hell of a one-two punch. When Bradford Cox, frontman for Deerhunter, found out that Microcastle had been leaked onto the web by deviants, he went against conventional wisdom for a cranky artist–by sending the band back into the studio to release a completely new album: Microcastle. Deerhunter don’t break any new artistic ground, but what they manage to create is beautiful pop masterpieces wrapped in avant-garde madness.
No Age – Nouns
I’m pretty sure that 2008 was the warning signal of the lo-fi punk scene’s impending return. And if Los Angeles bands No Age and Abe Vigoda are the spearhead, the indie music community should be excited about the days ahead. This album was a complete enigma to me when it first came out, much the same as Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was unlistenable for the first few spins; but like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, this album became warmer and warmer, and the noise much clearer. No Age consists of two guys (guitarist/vocalist Randy Randall and drummer/vocalist Dean Spunt), but the album is enwrapped with a whole, full sound. If you’re not used to albums with lots of fuzz and plenty of “noise”, then this album will be a direct punch in the face, but stick with it–underneath the fuzz and noise you’ll find great guitar hooks and surprising pop sensibilities. “Eraser” is an easy listen with its acoustic guitar-driven rhythm, and “Teen Creeps” is just a smashing, fun, punk-riffed explosion. However, the track “Things I Did When I Was Dead” is what quickly made me appreciate this album. After a screeching, drone vocals intro, a beautiful piano-led ambient melody rises from beneath to shine light on what these guys are trying to accomplish: contrast.
Hot Chip – Made In the Dark
In 2007, LCD Soundsystem took electro-pop songwriting to the next level with their release Sound of Silver. It was near perfection, and topped many folks year-end lists (including me!). What LCD Soundsystem did so well in crafting songs that you could not only shake your ass to, but also give perspective on the weight of relationships (and being proud to be North American), Hot Chip carries forth with a sunnier album that’s just plain fun. Made In the Dark manages to make proud statements toward the band’s influences (electro, soul, hip/hop), and what they accomplish is a clever brand of each genre taken from the perspective of 5 nerdy white guys from London. The best aesthetic to this album has to be it’s balance; Hot Chip’s ability to deftly weave between genres is best seen in the hip/hop-tinged “We’re Looking For A Lot Of Love” and all-out banger “Shake A Fist”. No album this year could have as charming a song as the soulful title track “Made In The Dark”–a perfect moment that truly pulls the album together. And here’s a question to ask yourselves: does the final track “In The Privacy Of Your Love” sound like it could easily fit into the catalogue of Sinead O’Connor? Is it just me?
Bonus: By far the Album Cover of the Year…
Say what you want about the current state of mainstream hip/hop or the rap industry in general, but you won’t find a harder working rapper out there than Lil’ Wayne. In fact, it’s the ability to put out so much work (on the internet, through official releases, guest appearances, etc.) that allows me to truly appreciate artists like Lil’ Wayne and fellow workaholic Kanye West. I’m not going to go on about how Lil’ Wayne is breaking incredible new ground for hip/hop (he isn’t), and I won’t admit to being an expert of the nuances of his influences, but how can you deny an album with so many purely enjoyable singles? “Got Money”, “A Milli”, and “Lollipop” all received their massive amount of playing time on your friendly local top-40 station, but the industry could do much worse. Tha Carter III is full of plenty of the same sex, drugs, and money tributes as any of your other rap releases, but it’s when Weezy gets sentimental about the circumstances of his life that his lyrical ability truly shines.
M83 – Saturdays=Youth
It’s no surprise where where M83 (aka French musician Anthony Gonzalez) gets inspiration for their 2008 album Saturdays=Youth. Just about every popular John Hughes movie character shows up on the the album cover, and just about every song on the album swells with themes from Hughes’ ’80s catalogue. M83 excels at ambient emotional experiences, and Saturdays=Youth in particular takes its best stab at paying homage to the Cocteau Twins through that vein. The album as a whole feels as though Gonzalez is soundtracking a movie about teen angst and lust scene by scene. Instant classic “Kim and Jessie” seems like an underwater memory, while “Graveyard Girl” is a shimmering, pop masterpiece that is as emo-themed as a song could be. “Skin Of The Night” sounds as if Gonzalez stole Phil Collins’ drumkit and then layered it with incredible interweaving guy-girl harmonies. I feel like this album deserves to be taken as a whole, played at 4 AM driving across a cold, open desert, remembering the best emotional aspects of growing up. I should go back in time and sell that idea to John Hughes…
The Walkmen – You & Me
You & Me may start with a droning, ominous drum riff, but the album feels as familiar as any album this year–something to put on late at night to share a cup of coffee with close friends. The National’s brilliant album Boxer had a similar current running through it. And for as many albums this year that were superbly difficult to manage, You & Me seems to come straight at you. It has a warm, nostalgic tone that mixes organ hum, chromatic guitars, and dark, brooding drums, but lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s vocal reaches are what the album truly great. He wants to take you to the rafters, and then set you back down gently, it seems. Though the album sounds like it was recorded in a cave, the Walkmen have decorated the cave like a ’60s club and they are the punked-up lounge act. A stretch?
Titus Andronicus – The Airing of Grievances
Let me start by saying this: every bone in my body wanted me to put this higher in the Top 10, but I first listened to the album with a month left to go in 2008, so I thought it might cause some bias in the rankings. But whatever, I love the hell out of this album. I really cannot find a weak moment in the entire 45 minutes of this effort, and with as many listens as this thing has found in my headphones, that’s saying something. Titus Andronicus have found a way to not only exude the passion and fury of the greatest lo-fi punk albums, but also call to mind some of my most treasured of influences, Dylan and Springsteen. Did I mention how much I love this album?
The Airing of Grievances can swell with the greatest of Arcade Fire’s emotional triumphs, and in the next seconds, rip off a sneering, angst-driven kiss-off to society. True, lead singer Patrick Stickles sounds pretty close to Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, if Conor Oberst were to get loaded on whiskey and start taking on Black Flag covers. The best tone I can possibly describe for this album is that Titus Andronicus have lured the listener out to the back alley to take part in the most joyous, drunken, raucous fist-fight you could imagine, all the while feeding you satisfying confessionals with literary, biblical, and classical art allusions. “Joset of Nazareth’s Blues” starts out sounding like it could fit in with anything from Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, and “Titus Andronicus” leaps into an intro that could be lifted straight from Sprinsteen’s E Street Band; that is, however, until they run straight into a mean populist punk extravaganza.
This is the new Americana. There are times that Titus Andronicus rips like the Pogues and builds an anthem from folksy blues, giving us a glimpse of what our generation has taken from the American punk era, the stomping blues of the Great Depression years, and the noisy intimacy of Sonic Youth.
God sent me a vision of the future in a dream on a Saturday night/ and I see no reason to celebrate/ for when I saw it I wept like a child. It came to me like a knife in the chest/ You and me and everyone, forever, to ache and ache and ache/ So Father, if it’s possible, let this cup pass me by, but if it can’t without my drinking it, then thy will be done.
– “Upon Viewing Brueghel’s ‘Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus'”
Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
So much has already been said about Vampire Weekend that it’s almost pointless to even go into detail about them as a band. They often find themselves the center of scorn or praise for all that is right and wrong with the independent music industry. Chiefly, that’s due to the smash success that was their debut self-titled LP, and their marketability to the mainstream audiences of MTV and the like. But since when has an album’s fun, catchy aura ever detracted from its relevance to the current music trends? Rant over.
Vampire Weekend finds itself in the midst of a massive resurgence in the popularity of afro-pop, alongside 2008 releases from The Very Best (another great album) and a lengthy compilation of ’70s material out of Nigeria (Nigeria Special). However, Vampire Weekend firmly holds down the rock-and-roll, punk end of the spectrum, while lyrically giving the listener an invite into the world of Ivy League adventures. They all seem like an unlikely pairing, but it works, in the freshest way possible. Vampire Weekend may not come out with another album that is recorded as loosely and carefree as their debut, but this was a fantastic snapshot into their preppy world.
Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
No other band in 2008 was able to cast such a wide shadow as Fleet Foxes. Their self-titled debut album was the toast of the town, as well as their uncanny ability to take their lush, harmonized sound into a live setting. In reality, its not even that what Fleet Foxes does is incredibly ground-breaking. Thick, swirling harmonies have been the trademark of bands such as Grizzly Bear and many other Beach Boys-wannabes; echoing folk-inspired recordings have pushed My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses into yearly best-of lists. It’s just that Fleet Foxes does it so damn well–and beautifully. I don’t think it was any coincidence that Pieter Bruegel’s 1559 work Netherlandish Proverbs graces the cover of Fleet Foxes, considering that the album is chock full of songs that sound as if they were pulled from a peasant’s countryside songbook. Wow, I never though I would say that about an album.
If you love Fleet Foxes, you’ll also need to grab their Sun Giant EP, also released in 2008.
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
It’s pretty difficult for me to put into words what this album meant for me this past year. But I’ll try, because in essence, I guess this is what music is supposed to do for you–to give perspective, to give hope, to give life. For Emma, Forever Ago spoke words over a time in my life when I didn’t have the words myself. By now, Bon Iver’s (aka Justin Vernon) story is one of music legend. After a break with his former band, a relationship, and a bout with sickness, Vernon moved back home to Wisconsin to spend three months living a simple, solitary existence in his father’s remote cabin in the woods. He had no intentions of recording, or even writing, but ruminating on the recent events in his life, the makings of an album began to take shape. Building a patchwork studio, he crafted the minimalist masterpiece that is For Emma, Forever Ago.
To the last moments of this record, Vernon aches. No doubt about it, this is an album with more gut-wrenching soul than any R&B album out there. Vernon’s falsetto might put some off, but he sings with such open heart honesty that every emotion that’s squeezed into the tiniest nook is felt deeply, with conviction. “The Wolves (Act I and II)” interweaves questions like “What might have been lost?” with a pleading “don’t bother me…”. Title track “For Emma, Forever Ago” leans into a horn section with a snow-covered proverb: “So apropos, saw death on a sunny slope/ For every life, forgo the parable/ Seek the light, my knees are cold”.
Sit with this album. Grab a cup of coffee and rest on your front porch with it. Those of us who have looked into the face of loneliness and known times of deep despair (which is one of the most basic of human instincts), have also known times of pure joy. Let this album take you back to the simplest moments of appreciation, but remember and honor the moments of sadness that may have accompanied them–every dark night ends with a bright day. Bon Iver ends the album with one of the most joyous, hopeful verses I’ve heard in a long time.
“This is not the sound of a new man, or a crispy realization/ It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away/ Your love will be safe with me…”
The Best of 2008