Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Best of 2008

Okay, first things first. 2008 wasn 't quite as good a music year as 2007. So what? The best albums from this year were still really good. No promised My Bloody Valentine comeback record? No matter, betcha didn't expect a new Portishead album this year! So what if The Avalanches still haven't released Since I Left You 2? I bet you didn't count on Chinese Democracy coming out, did you? Remember The Verve?
They're back. Deerhunter didn't let a hiatus stop them from putting out another classic. And then there's Wolf Parade... The list just goes on. And the thing is, the comeback albums weren't even the big story of 2008! The vast majority of this list contains debut albums so good, it's hard to pick which band seems to have the brightest future. In fact, there were so many quality records released this year, I couldn't just stop at 50. So here it is... The 70 best albums of 2008.

1.)Portishead – Third

It’s been 11 years since the last Portishead album. Considering that one was only the band’s second album for the flash-in-the-pan genre of trip-hop, it seemed like this band was to remain a relic of the ‘90s and nothing more. But to consider Portishead as such does no justice to their art. However dated albums Dummy and Portishead may sound, they also sound inarguably good. Though they never strayed near the spotlight, Portishead has been missed and Third has remained highly anticipated by a select few. The album doesn’t disappoint. Straying from their trip-hop past, Portishead has created something that sounds fresh and new. Driving acoustic/electronic beats push the album’s pacing as sound effects flutter in and out of songs. Singer Beth Gibbon’s voice hasn’t aged a day as she mysteriously hovers around the soundscape like a ghost looking for a home. Third is haunting, beautiful, and essential. It’s the best record of 2008.

2.)Deerhunter – Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.

It seemed last year that Deerhunter’s nearly-perfect pair of releases, Cryptograms and Fluorescent Grey EP, would be their swan song. All of the typical elements for their dissolution were falling into place… Guitarist Colin Mee abruptly quit the band. Lead singer Bradford Cox went solo. The band called for an indefinite hiatus. Despite how bad things appeared to be, worries started to evaporate early on this year when Microcastle leaked over the Internet. By the time its October release came around, fans realized that not only was Deerhunter back, but they were as good as ever. And as prolific. Not only did they release Microcastle, they issued a “bonus disc” – a full-length album of equal, if not better quality as its companion. Basically, Weird Era Cont. is the best bonus disc I’ve ever heard. Where Microcastle’s hallmark consisted of mixing Deerhunter’s established textured sound with pop, Weird Era Cont. picks up where Cryptograms and Fluorescent Grey EP left off, with creepy left-field shoegaze and ambient interludes. Each of these records by themselves would notch a top three spot this year. Forget Britney - Deerhunter is back.

3.)Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

For Emma, Forever Ago is the sound of winter in the remote Midwest. It’s mysterious and haunting, yet real. This album conjures up images of snowy wooded areas with a fog setting in. It’s creepy, ghostly even, but familiar. Singer Justin Vernon’s falsetto sounds almost disembodied, as if it were coming from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Bon Iver has created the best acoustic singer-songwriter album in a while – a perfect companion piece to Iron and Wine’s 2007 summer-conjuring record, The Shepard’s Dog.

4.)Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes/Sun Giant EP

Using their fantastic Sun Giant EP as a prelude to their self-titled debut, Fleet Foxes managed to create an overwhelming amount of hype. Unlike most over-hyped bands (Vampire Weekend, Cold War Kids, etc.), Fleet Foxes not only managed to land on their feet upon release day, but they transcended expectations by creating an album of the utmost quality. Fleet Foxes sounds exactly like nothing else, though it exudes a sense of familiarity. It sounds like Simon and Garfunkle, Nick Drake, and My Morning Jacket. Except not. Their sound is unique, and their songs great. The hipsters were right this time.

5.)TV On The Radio – Dear Science

Dear Science is TV On The Radio’s follow-up to the 2006 classic, Return To Cookie Mountain. The two records couldn’t be more different. Where Return… was driving, epic, and exhilarating, Dear Science takes things slower, with a smooth sense of cool. While they’ve always sounded like a mash-up of Sonic Youth and Marvin Gaye, this record focuses a lot more on Gaye. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its intense, pounding moments – just listen to “DLZ” – it matches anything off of Return… It’s just that TVOR has matured. They’ve figured out how to correctly pace an album for maximum emotional appeal. Considering all three of their records have been knockouts, they’ve also figured out how to be the best band in America.

6.)The Rural Alberta Advantage – Hometowns

Everyone has been trying to cop Neutral Milk Hotel since they released their classic, In The Aeroplane, Over The Sea. The Rural Alberta Advantage is no different. The thing is, it’s just the sound they copy, not the work. They’ve taken Neutral Milk Hotel’s style and made it their own, creating decidedly unique songs that stand head and shoulders over 99% of new music out there. Did I mention this Canadian band isn’t even signed? Their home-recorded self-released album reached listeners via the “eMusic selects,” program started by downloading company eMusic in an effort to get unsigned bands attention and contracts. But it’s not Hometowns’ back story that makes it so great. It’s soothing, brilliant, and highly addictive. Hopefully record companies have taken notice.

7.)Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer

As the long-awaited follow-up to 2005’s Apologies To The Queen Mary, Wolf Parade’s At Mount Zoomer couldn’t feel much more different than its predecessor. Yes, it’s still the same band, led by songwriters Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner, but where are the singles? It seems that in the post Apologies… years, Wolf Parade has developed their sound, blending in the members’ innumerable side-projects to create something cohesive and bold. Without question, At Mount Zoomer is epic, with each song building off each other until the all-encompassing 10-minute closer, “Kissing the Beehive,” where each element comes together like a Fourth of July grand finale.

8.)The Walkmen – You & Me

Since 2006’s middle-of-the road releases, A Hundred Miles Off and Pussy Cats (a Harry Nilsson cover album), The Walkmen have been all but forgotten. This is unfair, considering the band formerly lived as mega-hyped bust (also unfair) Jonathon Fire*Eater, and had to rebound to the commercial heights of their first two albums. Well, they rebounded again. You & Me isn’t just a return to form, it’s the bands’ best album. Clocking in at about an hour long, it’s pure enjoyment from start to finish. Each song builds either by itself or in conjunction with its companions, creating a record that truly travels from place to place. You & Me is beautiful and evocative, and is a wonderful addition to any record collection.

9.)Atlas Sound – Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel

Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox is a busy man. Last year, his band blew up, releasing a classic LP and equally classic EP. This year, Deerhunter put out two full-length releases and toured the world with bands like Animal Collective. In the meantime, Cox took it upon himself to release several EP’s, singles, and this album under the guise Atlas Sound. The man may be busy, but the quality of work doesn’t exactly reflect that. Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel sounds like much more than a collection of songs penned in an artist’s free time. It lacks much of the aggression found on Deerhunter’s five releases, focusing instead of Cox’s interest in the ambient and abstract. Each song is like a little sonic experiment, with hallmarks unique to themselves, like stereo panning and surprise instruments like bells or xylophones. Lyrically, this is typical Cox: deep and slightly morbid, in disguise as simple cast-offs. It doesn’t appear that Cox will be changing his prolific nature anytime soon, as another Atlas Sound full-length, titled Logos, leaked earlier this year. Cox will reportedly scrap it in retaliation and record an entirely new record for next year. Fans are no doubt anticipating it already.
10.)Beach House – Devotion

Remember the Mario Bros. haunted houses? Remember how spooky the music was during those levels – with simple synthesized organs fluttering out of the speakers like the pixilated bats from the game’s background? Now imagine that with Neko singing overtop and you’ve got Beach House. Devotion is definitely their best record, combining these dubious elements with honest emotion. It’s fully affecting and compulsively listenable. Oh, and it makes for perfect Halloween soundtracking.

11.)Laura Marling – Alas, I Cannot Swim

This young British singer has already established a cult following because of this album. Her voice is impressive, but it’s the songs and the depth of the their orchestration that steal the show here. It’s as good as baroque-folk-pop gets.

12.)The Hold Steady – Stay Positive

As some of the best current lyrical story tellers, the Hold Steady seem to get better with each release. Stay Positive combines tales of small town youth and their exploits with their most creative and diverse sounds yet. This may well be their best album to date.

13.)Fennesz – Black Sea

Austrian guitarist/laptop composer Christian Fennesz takes a lot of time to release albums under his name. Black Sea, the follow-up to 2004’s Venice, is not only worth the wait, but it stands with the best of his work. The instrumental electronic symphonies take time to digest but provide more depth emotional appeal than most anything currently out there.

14.)Deerhoof – Offend Maggie

With each passing album, Deerhoof gets more accessible. While that tends to be a complaint by fans of most bands, Deerhoof finds ways to unveil more aspects of their sound than ever before. Offend Maggie proves these aspects are worth unfolding.

15.)M83 – Saturdays = Youth

While the ‘80s fascination fad is rapidly disappearing, M83 may have released the best ‘80s flavored album just in time. Saturdays = Youth adds power snare to its electro-synth-shoegaze and sets the scene for some awesomely cheesy dialogue about lonely teenagers and graveyards. It’s like a guilty pleasure you needn’t be guilty about.

16.)Beck – Modern Guilt

Sadly, it seems that the fun-loving Beck of old (Odelay) may never return. He tried to be fun on Guero to no avail. He tried again with 2006’s The Information, but got distracted by the war in the process. Now, he’s given in to the negative bug and created an album of stripped-down songs about how much things suck. The thing is, he’s as good at that as he was at being a carefree entertainer, just listen to Sea Change. With a little help from super-producer Danger Mouse, Modern Guilt stands as testament to Beck’s beautiful melancholy.

17.)Calexico – Carried To Dust

Another album by genre-shifting south westerners Calexico, Carried To Dust may be the most relaxing listen of the year. It’s impossible not to find beauty in this gentle acoustic record.

18.)No Age – Nouns

No Age writes simple, hooky pop songs and buries them under noise – distortion, feedback, tape hiss, static, etc. It’s not only fun to listen to, but interesting as well. Not to mention this is one of the most driving, propulsive rock albums of the year.

19.)Paavoharju – Laulu Laakson Kukista

Laulu Laakson Kukista is a Finnish take on pop-folk. Which basically makes it like nothing else out there. This album plays out like a dream sequence from a trippy film. At times, it’s gentle and pretty… Then it suddenly morphs into a Euro-pop electronic trance song, which is interrupted by a grandfatherly voice speaking in Finnish. Then there’s the hovering fog of fuzz and static that floats throughout the album like a storm cloud ready to burst. Yes it sounds too conceptual, but the segments of songs present here are nearly as good as anything else this year.

20.)Los Campensinos! – Hold On Now, Youngster/We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed

Yes, this band can be silly at times. Yes, they can get a little too energetic. But it’s just because they’ve got something to be excited about – somehow they discovered the secrets to what seems like all the classic sounds of the past decade and managed to combine them in two marvelous full-length albums. Really, one release would have done, but thankfully that wasn’t enough for this Welsh seven-piece.

21.)High Places – 03/07 – 09/07/High Places

Another eMusic Selects success story, High Places is one of those extremely unique bands that doesn’t quite sound like anything else. They combine elements of electronic dance music, dub, and children’s songs. Both of their full-length releases this year capture a uniquely innocent, wide-eyed look at the world and catchy melodies that stick around in the listener’s head.

22.)The Gaslight Anthem – The ’59 Sound

The Gaslight Anthem plays straight-forward, Hold Steady-esque rock music. They play it very well, which works great as a framework for singer Brian Fallon’s Springteen howl. It’s not essential, but it’s good. Really good.

23.)Department Of Eagles – In Ear Park

Grizzly Bear is one of the best bands to emerge lately. Unfortunately, it’s been a couple years since their astounding album, Yellow House. In the meantime, this side project from Grizzly Bear multi-instrumentalist Daniel Rosson will have to do. It captures the otherworldly folk his main band is known and loved for, and stands well both by itself and as an appetizer for the Yellow House sequel.

24.)Blitzen Trapper – Furr

Last year, Blitzen Trapper found their way onto the underground map with the release of the awesomely promising Wild Mountain Nation. Furr builds on those expectations with its great songwriting and oddball attitude. Much like early Beck, Blitzen Trapper plays acoustic folk blended with hip-hop, rock, and electronic sounds to create an ADD-riddled hairbrained mess that’s incredibly catchy/kitschy. Who else would write a love song from the point of view of a feral child?

25.)Vivian Girls – Vivian Girls

At lot of people would rightfully compare Vivian Girls to No Age. They share the same aesthetic – noise infected pop songs with a hard edge. This batch of songs resembles girl groups from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Sharing both style and catchy hooks. Vivian Girls is a blast to listen to.

26.)The Bug – London Zoo

As one of the most emotive, evocative, and enthralling new genres, dubstep has kept a low profile on this side of the Atlantic. Untrue, last year’s release by the then-unidentified artist Burial, succeeded in drawing limited attention to the genre, but that focus didn’t last long. It’s a shame, really, because The Bug’s London Zoo is a thrilling mix of Burial’s propulsive low-end electronics and highly confrontational Caribbean rap. Lyrically and musically, London Zoo stands as a call to arms to those embittered and disillusioned with the current state of political affairs. This protest album is as uniquely affecting as they come.

27.)Women – Women

Women is an all-male four-piece from Calgary. This self-titled debut is regarded as one of the most promising releases by any band this year. I’m not one to disagree with that statement. Women, like No Age and Vivian Girls and Abe Vigoda, uses lo-fi production techniques to add ambience and build stages for their songs. Yes it’s experimental, but the songs are really good once they sink in. Women is not just a promising debut, it’s an excellent one.

28.)Hercules & Love Affair – Hercules & Love Affair

Released by LCD Soundsystem’s label, DFA Records, Hercules & Love Affair is packed with highly danceable tracks, each one mixing authentic-sounding disco and electronics. It’s pure joy to experience.

29.)Kanye West – 808’s And Heartbreak

So this is apparently Kanye’s difficult album. The songs are sparse with little propulsion in their beats, his trademark rapping is non-existent, and he half-heartedly sings through that horrible computer-voice, called Autotone. This might not be the most fun album of the year, but it’s one of the most honest, emotional, and competent. It might have little in common with West’s other work, but it shares the same high level of quality.

30.)Destroyer – Trouble In Dreams

It’s easy to sort through Destroyer’s catalogue and find essential releases. There’s Destroyer’s Rubies, Streethawk: A Seduction, City of Daughters, Your Blues, Thief… Even This Night and We’ll Build Them A Golden Bridge were great. Some people accuse Destroyer songwriter Dan Bejar of running out of ideas, but listen to Trouble In Dreams and you’ll find it’s just as good as any of those other albums. Destroyer may be the most underrated currently active band.

31.)The Notwist – The Devil, You + Me

German band The Notwist hit the mark with their 2003 record, Neon Golden, and promptly disappeared. Well, they’re back with The Devil, You + Me. Their signature electronic pop, ripped off to great results by better-known band The Postal Service, remains largely unchanged. That makes this record sound surprisingly dated, but the good news is that The Notwist haven’t lost their strong emotional appeal. The Devil, You + Me is nearly as good as their well-regarded classic.

32.)Guns n’ Roses – Chinese Democracy

Chinese Democracy has been the punchline of pop culture jokes since its intended release was announced and cancelled several times since about 1991. Yes, the biggest draw this Guns ‘n Roses album is that it actually exists, but don’t let that or the critics fool you. Though many call it middle of the road or worse, Chinese Democracy is epic, bombastic, and absurd. It sounds as if Axl Rose recorded each song and stepped back, asking, “How can I make this bigger?” No the album doesn’t need face-melting guitar-shredding solos for its entirety (Courtesy of a man who calls himself Buckethead). It doesn’t need epic orchestral arrangements or huge gospel choirs, either. But do such elements make Chinese Democracy awesomely hilarious? Yes. Don’t forget - a guilty pleasure is still a pleasure.

33.)Abe Vigoda – Skeleton

Yet another album exploiting lo-fi atmosphere, Abe Vigoda’s Skeleton sounds similar to releases from Women, No Age, and Vivian Girls. Similar in sound, depth, and quality. I highly recommend this record.

34.)Ladytron – Velocifero

Ladytron made a huge shift in quality and style in 2005, with their release of should-be dance classic Witching Hour. Each song stood out as a highlight, and the album perfectly recreated the woozy hazy atmosphere of a hipster dance club. Velocifero maintains that style, and has its fair share of highlights to boot. Why aren’t more people talking about this band?

35.)Max Tundra – Parallax Error Beheads You

Max Tundra is obscure both in style and exposure. Parallax Error Beheads You continues that tradition, with complex song arrangements and sounds. Yes it’s nerd rock, but it’s good nerd rock.

36.)Sigur Rós – Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaus

Iceland’s best known musical export that isn’t Bjork gets all folk on us here. Don’t worry, Sigur Rós’ epic scope hasn’t changed, though. They’ve just figured out to fit acoustic instruments into their glorious sound.

37.)Sun Kil Moon – April

Hazy, atmospheric, and touching. This album really deserves more attention.

38.)El Guincho – Alegranza!

The cliché with this record is that it sounds a lot like Panda Bear. Yes it does, but it also sounds a lot like some of the best tropical music ever recorded. Try frowning while listening to this. I bet you can’t do it.

39.)Flying Lotus – Los Angeles

It hasn’t been a great year for hip-hop, but maybe that’s because Flying Lotus took all the best beats and used them for this instrumental release. Highly addictive.

40.)Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

Lot’s of people will list this in their top 10. I’m telling you here that it’s not that good. Not to say it’s bad by any stretch of the imagination, though. It’s a fun, upbeat indie pop record. That’s good enough for me.

41.)Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles

Crystal Castles make for an addictive listen. Just imagine if your NES started playing dance music. This is the next best thing.

42.)Dodos – Visiter

Visiter makes for a very nice listen. Calm and collected at times and upbeat and driving at others. The intense moments here are the best. The Dodos are also one of the more lyrically clever bands out right now.

43.)Girl Talk – Feed The Animals

Remember Night Ripper? That crazy mash up of rock, pop, and hip-hop hits you heard at like every single party you attended the last year and a half? Well, Feed The Animals is its twin brother.

44.)Music Tapes – Music Tapes For Clouds And Tornados

Music Tapes aren’t the most classifiable band in the world. Yes, they’re associated with the Elephant Six collective that spawned Neutral Milk Hotel and Of Montreal, but this band certainly doesn’t make rock music. Whatever it is they do with that orchestra, ping-pong ball and saw sounds great, though.

45.)Jay Reatard – Matador Singles ‘08

Before the White Stripes got big and bloated, they sounded a little like this. Jay Reatard makes punk that’s raw and primal, without making your ears ring. And he covers Deerhunter here for bonus points.

46.)Santogold – Santogold

Balancing the creative and accessible, Santogold should have had a hit with this self-titled album. Maybe people just aren’t ready to hear every possible genre of pop music (minus country) blended together like this.

47.)Islands – Arm’s Way

The beloved Unicorns have dwindled down so far that only this band called Islands is left. Their latest release, Arm’s Way, sounds about as far from the goofy Unicorns as it can. The songs create tension and release, feature peaks and valleys, build and convey emotions, and are generally huge. Unfortunately there are some negative differences, too. But Arm’s Way is a good record.

48.)Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours

One of the best electronic dance albums of the year, in a time absolutely filled with them.

49.)Love Is All – A Hundred Things Keep Me Up At Night

2005’s Nine Times That Same Song came out of nowhere and set the standard for female-fronted European rock groups. Its songs moved and shook while echoing all over the place. They tended to be cathartic for both the singer and listener while remaining a joy to experience. A Hundred Things Keep Me Up At Night picks up where that left off, minus the glorious reverb. A couple more releases like this and Love Is All will become legends.

50.)Mahjongg – Kontpab

Another really good arty electronic dance album. Check out “Those Birds Are Bats” and “Rise Rice” for two of the best dance songs of the year.

51.)Plants and Animals – Parc Avenue

Parc Avenue is a nice set of well-crafted Canadian indie-folk songs. This band should have a large following very soon.

52.)Evangelicals – The Evening Descends

This band is easy to compare to fellow Oklahomans The Flaming Lips. They’re weird, quirky, and really really good. The Evening Descends is their best album so far.

53.)The Verve – Forth

This legendary British band released three stunning albums in the ‘90s, though they’re unfairly categorized as a one-hit wonder for “Bittersweet Symphony.” Forth is their unlikely comeback. It not only neglects to embarrass the band, but it actually does justice to their greatness with a great bunch of songs. It is a worthy addition to The Verve’s wonderful collection.

54.)Crystal Stilts – Alight At Night

Yes, Crystal Stilts are another eMusic Selects band. Like the others, they’re really good, deserve some of the spotlight, and will hopefully have a long career. Alight At Night is a really good post-punk album along the lines of Interpol, without sounding too derivative. Well worth the listen.

55.)Times New Viking – Rip It Off

Rip It Off is the best record so far by these Pavement-like noisenicks

56.)Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins

Originally meant to be a second disc to go with last year’s wonderful The Stage Names, The Stand-Ins makes for not only a good companion to the album, but stands nicely by itself.

57.)Dungen – 4

These Swedish prog-folkers can’t seem to stop releasing quality albums from the 1960’s.

58.)Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III

Pop rap at its best.

59.)Brendan Canning – Something For All Of Us

True to its title, this quality album features a wide variety of indie rock genres.

60.)Deastro – Keepers

This electronic artist and eMusic Selectee displays talent and the ability to craft a fine album here.

61.)Titus Andronicus – The Airing Of Grievances

Although it borders on the emo side of the spectrum, The Airing Of Grievances is a well-written album that unfolds nicely with each listen.

62.)The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride

Heretic Pride is another quality album from lo-fi pioneers The Mountain Goats. “Lovecraft In Brooklyn” flat out rocks.

63.)MGMT – Oracular Spectacular

Wow, this band blew up. Their cool sound and snarky lyrics make this album a whole lot of fun.

64.)British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?

Do You Like Rock Music follows through on its awesome title with a collection of awesome rock songs.

65.)Magnetic Fields – Distortion

Mega-prolific band Magnetic Fields tries their hand at Jesus And Mary Chain-style jangle pop/shoegaze to very entertaining results.

66.)The Ruby Suns – Sea Lion

Much like El Guincho, The Ruby Suns make island music that’s actually worth listening to.

67.)Evangelista – Hello Voyager

This polarizing album is either great because of its weirdness or horrible because of its weirdness. I’d say it’s great.

68.)Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation’s Dark

Drive-By Truckers are one of the best, most unheralded bands around. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark continues their tradition of releasing consistently great albums.

69.)Vapnet – Doda Fallet

Vapnet makes joyful pop music sung in Swedish. Listening to Doda Fallet may actually make you happier

70.)Devotchka – A Mad And Faithful Telling

A Mad And Faithful Telling makes for another great Central American/gypsy-folk album from Devotchka, best known for their work on the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack.

Merry Christmas!

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