December 30, 2008
Photo Illustration by Nick Duncan. Click for hi-res version.
2008 is taking it’s final bow and a what a year it has been. While ’07 was dominated by a slew of indie rock heavy hitters releasing awesome albums (Spoon, Of Montreal, Arcade Fire, Wilco, Radiohead) this is a year where new talent seems to be garnering the most attention. For me at least, this has been a very good thing with 1/5th of my favorite albums this year being debuts and just as many being sophomore releases. This isn’t to say that old favorites didn’t deliver this year as well, as a number of albums on this list are from bands that I’ve listened to and loved for years.
Overall, 2008 has a brought an excellent variety of memorable albums and after rummaging through countless hours of music this year, it’s now time to wrap it up here with my final year-end list. These are my favorite 25 albums of 2008. Make sure to leave a comment if you like what you see or have your own favorite albums to add. Big thanks to Nick for creating the awesome post header with the graffiti/album poster theme. To the readers, thank you for all your support and for listening to what I have to say. I hope you all have a wonderful new year!
25. The Rosebuds – Life Like
This is the fourth Rosebuds album and the band has really made a niche with their smart and stylish pop. This album recalls the high points of all previous albums with wonderful mood pieces like “Border Guards” and “Nice Fox” and lively rave-ups like “Bow to the Middle” and Cape Fear”.
24. Headlights – Some Racing, Some Stopping
Headlights have grown from a three-piece shoegaze pop band to a lushly orchestrated folk collective full of gorgeous textures, memorable boy/girl harmonies, and warm retro goodness. “Cherry Tulips” is one of the best pure pop songs of the year and there’s a lot more on this album where that came from.
23. Evangelicals – The Evening Descends
This album dominated much of my listening time early this year. From the horror B-movie sound effects to the spacey, nightmarish psych-rock the band have crafted a thrilling sophomore album that has been criminally under-recognized.
22. Jamie Lidell – Jim
Jim quite simply puts a smile on my face every time I listen to it. With the snazzy retro production and old soul spirit, this album proves how staggeringly talented this guy is. If Jamie keeps spitting out gems like the rollicking call-and-response “Hurricane” or the exuberant, gospel-like “Another Day”, he’ll be wearing gold-plated diapers in no time.
21. Department of Eagles – In Ear Park
Three months ago I wouldn’t have had the slightest clue who Department of Eagles were, but in a short span of time that I’ve had this album, it’s become one of my most beloved albums of the year. With it’s luscious, organic folk sound that create a beautiful, haunting aesthic and Beach Boys-influenced melodies which provides an accessibility I never quite found with Grizzly Bear, In Ear Park is superbly crafted album in every way.
20. Cloud Cult – Feel Good Ghosts (Tea Partying Through Tornadoes)
While Feel Good Ghosts doesn’t quite reach the same heights as last year’s absolutely brilliant The Meaning of 8, this album still shows that Cloud Cult continue to make gorgeous, uplifting, and passionate music. “When Water Comes To Life” and “Journey of the Featherless” stand among the most beautiful, transcendent songs I’ve heard this year.
19. Mates of State – Re-Arrange Us
Out of all the bands represented on this list, Mates of State might be the one that I’ve listened to the longest, and it’s been amazing seeing how the band has grown from the quirky, lo-fi pop of My Solo Project to carefully designed, beautifuly orchestrated songs like “The Re-Arranger” and “Get Better”. The band still are masters of clever pop arrangements and boy/girl harmonies, but this album is more fully developed and dare I say, mature, than anything else in the band’s catalogue and I have a feeling these songs will stay with me for a long time.
18. British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?
This really seems like a love or hate it kind of album, and I’m placing myself firmly in the love it category. It’s a grand, sprawling, larger-than-life type of album which I guess reminds some people of U2 or Coldplay. But looking past the anthemic, stadium-sized nature of these songs, you can see this album as a labor of love from guys who really, really like rock music and would just like to share their enthusiasm with the world in the only way they know how, with huge, bombastic epics of rock theatricality. The results are breathtaking.
When Hold On Now Youngster… came out I was overjoyed that the band had been able to translate their manic, blazingly enjoyable, noisy dance-punk-twee-pop into a full length album that was just as fun as their demos, singles, and EPs. So it came as absolute surprise and bewilderment that after only 33 weeks the band released a second album that was just as good (and maybe even better) as their debut. These albums are admittedly at times a bit messy and unpolished, but the sheer magnitude of excruciatingly catchy hooks, wild strings-and-glockenspiel instrumentation, and exceptionally witty, youthful lyrics that they fill into their music is outstanding. Coming from a band where the seven members are just past American drinking age, the accomplishments Los Campesinos! have made this year are groundbreaking. I can’t wait to see what they do next.
16. The Rural Alberta Advantage – Hometowns
This Toronto three-piece who shockingly are still unsigned despite finally getting a continuous amount of buzz on the web, have made a truly exceptional debut album. Hometowns is an exhilarating listening experience, filled with depth and sincerity, that gets better on each listen. Drawing largely on influences like Neutral Milk Hotel to M. Ward, the songs are filled with explosive percussion, vocal intensity, and the sparse folk arrangements with geographic/historical lyrical themes that would make Sufjan Stevens proud. Rural Alberta Advantage are easily of the most exciting new bands of 2008 and their fan base is constantly growing as more people listen to, and subsequently fall in love with this incredibly rewarding little-album-that-could.
15. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours
Every year there’s an album that jumps way up my list in the final days of the year, and I’ve been gorging on this album nearly all December even though, with it’s uplifting and celabratory pop jams, this album seems best suited for warm summer nights. Nevertheless, I’ve fallen head over heels for In Ghost Colours. From the pulsating groove of the exquisite opening track, “Feel The Love” to the hazy psych-pop of “Unforgettable Season, the edgy dance-rock of “So Haunted” and the unstoppable electro-disco pop jam with a killer saxophone solo, “Hearts on Fire”, this album wows me again and again.
14. The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride
Early this year The Mountain Goats quietly released one of their best albums, and although the album has all but been forgotten about on year-end lists, it remains a remarkable collection of songs from one of this decades best singer-songwriters. Unlike the concept albums, Darnielle has made in the past, Heretic Pride tells a variety of stories on the album of characters who join cults, give birth in cheap motels, and embrace swamp creatures. The most notable thing about this album is how much of prominent the musical arrangements are, where previously they have taken a back seat to much more prominent lyrics. Darnielle’s lyrics are still highly compelling but it’s the gorgeous instrumentation that really makes these songs flourish.
13. Girl Talk – Feed The Animals
Feed the Animals is quite simply the funnest album of the year. Gregg Gillis has taken the format from Night Ripper of mixing both guilty-pleasure pop, major hip-hop hits, songs from the indie rock canon, and classic rock favorites that you’ll hear at every wedding reception. In the first few minutes alone you have “Gimmie Some Lovin”, “International Player’s Anthem”, “Nothing Compares To U” and “I Was Born (A Unicorn)”. All the samples are blended seamlessly together and made into a fiercely entertaining (not to mention danceable as anyone who’s been to a Girl Talk show can attest) compositions that fully embrace all the joys of pop music.
12. Sun Kil Moon – April
Whether it’s been under the monikers of Red House Painters or Sun Kil Moon, Mark Kozelek has always put gorgeous, bittersweet melodies to plaintive lyrics. This latest album of his contains what I believe to be his finest work. April is filled with intimate, wistful folk songs with sparse instrumentation composed of primarily acoustic and electric guitars. The honesty and tenderness of songs like “Lost Verses” and “Moorestown” is magnificent, the guitar tone is mesmerizing and sets the mood perfectly, while Mark’s gentle, aching vocals makes it genuinely moving.
11. Islands – Arm’s Way
After the success of 2006’s Return to the Sea it would have been easy for the band to make another light, fun indie pop potpourri, but with Arm’s Way, Nick Thornburn pushes the band in a different direction. One that includes sprawling, dramatic movements with sweeping violins. While the complexity and sheer ambition made the songs less immediately accessible and thus turned some people off, I for one have been completely taken by the surrealism, enthusiasm, and precise attention to detail of the album. Given the chance to sink in, “Creeper” “The Arm” and “I Feel Evil (Creeping In)” become magnificently composed opuses that whirl the listener through a dreamlike landscape of sounds.
10. Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins
This sequel to The Stage Names picks up right where the previous album left off and dives right back into the themes of the plight of a touring rock band, with another round of hyper-literate, boisterous folk rock. Anything but a list of B-sides, every song on this album is completely solid from the jangly country-rock tune “Singer Songwriter”, stirring, melodrama in “On Tour With Zykos”, gripping rockers like “Calling And Not Calling My Ex”, and the glorious lead single “Lost Coastlines”, which is perhaps the best tune Sheff has penned yet. The lyrical narratives are as strong as ever whether it’s detailing pretentious rich kids, disillusioned groupies, and washed-up glam stars.
9. Anathallo – Canopy Glow
After 2006’s breakthrough album, Floating World, indie folk collective Anathallo experienced a number of changes. They relocated to Chicago, lost a band member, and changed record labels (they are now on Anticon), so it makes sense that with this album they would tweak their musical aestethic as well. Canopy Glow is still full of incredibly inventive with a feast of instruments and beautifully layered vocals, but the band is much more concise, choosing to focus their energies on building their songs to euphoric climaxes as seen on “The River” and “Noni’s Field” and cutting out the meandering side-steps that admittedly brought down parts of Floating World. The result is a dynamic, symphonic, and simply gorgeous album that solidifies Anathallo as one of my favorite bands making music today.
8. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
Much has been said about Vampire Weekend’s debut as well as the demo (named Blue-CDR) that came before it and I’m sure most people reading this already have formed opinions about the band whether it was based on their delightful, endlessly catchy guitar pop or there Ivy League, scarf wearing, Wes Anderson obsessed image. I say if you want to hate a band based on their socio-economic status or fashion sense then there’s a lot worse bands you should focus your efforts on. The one thing that stands out about the songs on this album, is how infinitely replayable they are. Tracks like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”, “Oxford Comma” and “M79” I’ve heard dozens of times and I’ve yet to tire of them, and isn’t that what great pop music should be?
7. Sigur Ros – með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
Like all of Sigur Ros’ work, this album is a bit hard to put into words. It’s obviously an extraordinary beautiful collection of songs but it’s also a major progression for the band. For those worried that Sigur Ros had become a bit one-trick, songs like the Animal Collective-meets-Radiohead opening track, “Gobbledigook” are a welcome departure and the sheer jubliance of the tracks that follow (including my pick for best song of the year, Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur) make this perhaps the most cathartic and uplifting of the band’s albums. Although most of the album is spent with shorter, melody-oriented tracks, the two longer tracks, “Festival” and “Ára bátur” are just as awe-inspring as anything the band’s ever done, both featuring emotional swells that elevate the soul to incredible heights.
6. Wolf Parade – At Mt. Zoomer
There was very high expectations for Wolf Parade’s sophomore release, and for me the album lives up to, and even exceeds all the hype preceding it. The album works amazingly as a cerebral keyboard-obsessed prog-rock opera, but there’s also an underlying layer of unnervingness and vulnerability that come out in both Krug and Boeckner’s vocals. They showcase their songwriting skills brilliantly throughout their album as well as their uncanny ability to manipulate the instrumentation (again the keyboards stand out) to create emotions, but it’s the fragility and urgency of their vocals that makes it sound like every line could be their dying breath that makes this album so compelling and frightening. Krug and Boeckner are astonishingly great at what they do, and will undoubtedly go down as two of the greatest songwriters of their generation.
5. Shearwater – Rook
Using a combination of delicate piano, a yearning string section, loud, crashing percussion, dissonant feedback, and perhaps the best instrument at the band’s disposal, Jonathon Meisburg’s exquisite falsetto, Shearwater have crafted one of the most stunningly gorgeous albums in recent years. Meisburg’s obsession with nature (he’s also an ornithologist) permeates the album whether it’s on the striking album art to lyrics about legendary mythical beasts to the wintry atmospherics that inhabit the album. Songs like the enchanting “Leviathan Bound” which utilizes harps and dulcimers instead of typical percussion and “The Snow Leopard” which features one of the most moving emotional swells of the year, beg to be listened to. Rook is a truly inspiring piece of art.
4. Of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping
Last year, Of Montreal made what will probably go down as the best album of their career in which Kevin Barnes channeled his feelings of isolation and depression from his failing marriage into an indie pop masterpiece, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? I doubt anyone expected such a bizarre, abstract, kaleidoscopic follow-up album. Although structure on Skeletal Lamping is basically non-existent, Barnes crams more pop hooks into these 15 “songs” then should be humanly possible. The diversity of noises is outstanding going from funk and disco and glam and noise rock, sometimes in just one song. Interwoven are lyrics that are unabashedly, and absurdly sexual and it’s all tied together with Kevin’s harmonious falsetto. It’s an extremely difficult album but after you give some of the melodies found in tracks like “An Eulardian Instance” and “Beware Our Nubile Miscreants” a chance to seep into your subconcious, it can be monumentally rewarding.
In Slant Magazine’s review they said “TV on the Radio have finally made an album that someone other than hyper-analytical music critics might actually enjoy” and what’s further is they noted this new-found accessibility in no way compromises their unrivaled, fiercely original approach to rock music that has made them one of the decade’s most revered bands. This rings especially true for me, as I was left a bit cold by the band’s first two albums which were undoubtedly excellent technical achievements but never really grabbed me. From the very first “ba ba ba” vocal line in “Halfway Home”, Dear Science had me hooked. The arrangements on the album are mind-bendingly great whether it’s on the gorgeous art rock ballad “Family Tree”, buzzy, electro-funk rockers like “Dancing Choose”, or the emotionally-charged epic “Lover’s Day”. The band has an instinctive sense of what sounds good and they inject their sonic expertise into every song, providing the most consistently brilliant release of the year. TV on the Radio, I am sorry for ever doubting you and I unconditionally succumb to your greatness.
In 2008, Fleet Foxes went from being an unsigned Seattle band with a demo at the beginning of the year, to being signed by Sub Pop Records and having the most critically acclaimed album of the year earning the top placements on year-end lists ranging from Pitchfork to Mojo to Amazon.com. I couldn’t think of a more deserving band for this to happen to.
Beginning with the absolutely captivating “White Winter Hymnal” (my #2 song this year), the band continues to impress throughout their self-titled debut album whether it be in the classic rock invoking “Ragged Wood” or in the subtle charms of “Blue Ridge Mountain”. There’s even a few moments (such as the bridge of “Quiet Houses”) that evoke the Beach Boys classic, Pet Sounds.The melodies float along beautifully, supported by simple but perfectly-toned instrumentation of acoustic guitar and organ. The vocal harmonies are the obvious star though, producing some of the most chilling, overwhelming moments of music this year. Fleet Foxes have created easily my favorite debut of the year and is perhaps the best introduction to a new band since Arcade Fire was thrust into the limelight with 2004’s Funeral.
1. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
In an interview with Uncut Magazine, Craig Finn discussed the power of rock and roll music saying, “Do I believe in the redemptive power of rock’n’roll? Absolutely. At its peak, played with the best intentions, it can be transcendent.” With Stay Positive, continuously demonstrates this idea with some of the most mind-boggling, phenomenal rock and roll music I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. The albums begins with one of the best 1-2 punches ever with “Constructive Summer” and “Sequestered in Memphis”. The first is a celebratory and nostalgic look at summers, friends, partying, and rock and roll while the second, a boisterous romp with one of the greatest sing-a-long choruses of the band’s career, sets up the main narrative of the album. It’s an account of double-homicide that’s provided cryptically in fragments along the albums progression. The album continues with epic guitar ballads (“Lord, I’m Discouraged”) and self-referential rockers (“Stay Positive”) with every song having a slew of startling great lyrics that I won’t bother writing out here (although their analysis could make up a dozen more posts).
This all culminates into the staggering final track “Slapped Actress” which shows the lines between Finn’s narratives and reality being blurred. The song is based on a John Cassavettes movie called Opening Night where an actress during a fake fight is slapped to make the performance more real. Finn’s line of “sometimes actresses get slapped” and “some nights it’s just entertainment and other nights it’s work” makes a strong statement about the perceived honesty of songwriting and the conflicting nature of performing as a rock band. Finn makes the statement universal by ending with the line, “man, we make our own movies”, about as profound of a statement as rock and roll can produce. Further proof that like Finn said, when rock and roll is done right, with the best intentions, it transcends simple words and melodies and becomes a huge, life-altering force, making you think that anything is possible.
Albums that just missed my Top 25:
M83 – Saturdays = Youth
Why? – Alopecia
No Age – Nouns
Quinn Walker – Laughter’s An Asshole / Lion Land
Destroyer – Trouble in Dreams
The Raveonettes – Lust Lust Lust
Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreaks
Portishead – Third
Bodies of Water – A Certain Feeling
The Dodos – Visiter
Albums That I Need More Time With:
Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight
The Walkmen – You & Me
Beach House – Devotion
The Mae Shi – HLLLYH
Deerhunter – Microcastle
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!
Blitzen Trapper – Furr
Vivian Girls – Vivian Girls
Born Ruffians – Red, Yellow & Blue
Women – Women
Albums That Just Aren’t My Thing:
MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
She & Him – Volume One
Thanks again to everyone for reading! I will be back in 2009…
Tags: Anathallo, British Sea Power, Cloud Cult, Cut Copy, Department of Eagles, Evangelicals, Fleet Foxes, Girl Talk, Headlights, Islands, Jamie Lidell, Los Campesinos!, Mates of State, Of Montreal, Okkervil River, Shearwater, Sigur Ros, Sun Kil Moon, The Hold Steady, The Mountain Goats, The Rosebuds, The Rural Alberta Advantage, TV on the Radio, Vampire Weekend, Wolf Parade