Sunday, January 4, 2009

Top 15 Albums of 2008

I don't really wanna talk much, on account of the Philadelphia Eagles ending the Vikes' season, but here is the long and short of this very, very long post. Rob and I wanted to up the ante so we did a team-composed Best of 2008 in albums list. We asked a few folks whose thoughts we think highly of, had them write their own Top 15's, then averaged the lists, and here's what we got. (Tragically unincluded is Los Campesinos' Hold On Now, Youngster..., which has a song on it that should basically be the PaRMLoT National Anthem--"My Year in Lists". In other news, PaRMLoT is it's own nation now. It exists everywhere. And nowhere. Like God.)

Thanks to Shruti Kumar, Phil Primason, Jeff Schwartz, Pitr Strait, and James Williams.

15. Saturdays = Youth – M83

Saturdays=Youth is the soaring soundtrack to the high school drama movie about your teenage years. It uses M83's characteristic cinematic style -- epic synthesizers, vibrant beats, and irresistible melodies -- and points it towards celebrating universal teenage emotions: angst ("Graveyard Girl," "Too Late"), naiveté ("Up!," "Kim and Jessie"), and false immortality ("We Own the Sky", "Highway of Endless Dreams"). All three are conjured up in the album's stunning opener, "You, Appearing" with an elegant piano line, warped synths slowly rising, and, over and over again in beautifully harmonized falsetto, "It's your face / Where are we? / Save me." -- JS

14. Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea – Silver Jews

When I worked as a research assistant in a social psych lab, part of my job consisted of coding people's taste in music and movies. If there's one thing I learned with statistical certainty from that job, other than that I will be pursuing other career options (sorry Peter!), it is that country music gets a shitty rap. People love dismissing the entire genre as outdated and corny, but what's great about real country music is how it can be moving and self-consciously funny at the same time. The Silver Jews are definitely not a country band per se, but on Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea David Berman sings like he knows that all the wittiest and most poignant songs were written by guys like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Hank Williams. Even on his darker albums (Lookout Mountain is not one, by the way) Berman has always toed the line between the inventiveness in his writing and the strong roots influence in his music, and what makes this album good is that despite the relative lightness, the band preserves the ratio even as they go further than before into their country roots. -- PP

13. Re-Arrange Us – Mates of State

The danger with Mates of State and their married-couple-rock-duo schtick has always been their potential to become precious and devolve into cutesy romanticism.  Their fifth album rises above this by filling out the band's instrumentation, normally more sparse and eccentric, into a powerhouse sound that carries them safely out of precious territory.  Their impressionistic songwriting, not quite telling a story and not quite not, effortlessly transform cliche into sincerity.  The lyrics are simple because they can afford to be; the energy and honestly behind Mates of State's charged harmonies pack more genuine emotion into a phrase like "He's treating me right" or the word "free" than most bands can muster up for a whole album.  The album does occasionally fall prey to a disease that plagues other Nonsense-Lyrics-Over-Stacked-Harmonies acts, aka "New Pornographers Syndrome" (phenomenal hook disrupted by a lackluster bridge), but the occasional misstep is worth it.  If nothing else, the album gives us "You Are Free," which captures the sorrow-tinged-triumphalism of 2003's Team Boo without sounding like a retread.  Re-Arrange Us may dissatisfy purists with its more polished sound, but if it produces anthems like that, the polish might be a good move. -- PS

12. Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst

This is a really consistent, evocative record that captures what it's like to think about a place when you're at a safe distance from it; the production is great, and there's some really solid country-rock experimentation that never sounds insincere or forced. None of that is the best part of this album, though. The best part of the album are the super-intense, kind-of-overwrought, quivery-voiced tearjerkers that could easily be (probably the best) songs on a Bright Eyes album, but since this isn't a Bright Eyes album I don't have to pretend not to like them. Just kidding, kind of. -- PP

11. Santogold – Santogold

When we were first sending out emails regarding this list, some folks had yet to listen to this fantastic album. That was quickly remedied. And then the list-edits rolled in… These tracks are the very definition of infectious. And yeah, okay, Santi White has toured with M.I.A. and her songs are tight, let’s leave the comparisons there, though, okay? She’s her own woman. (Okay—while writing this, the “L.E.S. Artistes” remix just showed up in that friggin’ Ford commercial. But here’s the deal, nerdos—if this is the kind of music the zeitgeist has chosen to be ubiquitous, I have absolutely no problem with that.) -- PMS

10. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

A scan of the rest of this list will reveal that, as far as music that could genuinely be called "rock and roll," there is only one album above Cave's--the Hold Steady's Stay Positive.  So how did a 50-year-old man make the second-rockingest album of 2008?  Well, it didn't hurt to be rejuvenated into the rock-and-roll mold by last year's side project Grinderman, which saw Cave return to a guitar-heavy sound like his main band rarely does.  Speaking personally, I like the Bad Seeds most when they focus more on guitars and less on pianos and ballads--on the Abbatoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus spectrum, I'm much more of an Abbatoir Blues guy.  But Lazarus saw Cave bring a level of songwriting to his guitar-based work that was significantly higher than on Abbatoir, keeping that sound and energy but coming up with stuff more memorable than on any album since Let Love In.  And his lyrics, as always, are reliably great--taking for the title track the idea that Lazarus has been unwillingly raised from the dead and left to wander in sinful modern America. Poetic, intelligent, and gripping, but most importantly, rocking. -- RT

9. With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly – Sigur Ros

An air of mystery hangs over Sigur Ros records. What is it about Icelandic music that makes it so uniquely beautiful? How is almost operatic post-rock at all vital in 2008? Would these songs sound as heartbreaking beautiful if they were in English? Should the band have gone even deeper into this more concise song-writing direction, or should they have kept their songs further up in the clouds? We'll never know the answers, but Sigur Ros has again proved the questions strikingly relevant. Mystery aside, Sigur Ros's tighter songwriting paired with their signature otherworldly production make With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly possibly the most, in a purely aesthetic sense, beautiful recording of 2008. -- JS

8. Oracular Spectacular – MGMT

This flashback to glam and late great Brit pop might at first listen scream cliche, but MGMT's self awareness wipes away that impression. The lyrics are sarcastic and, somehow, empowering at the same time-- and if you ever get a chance to see them perform live, their surprisingly earnest delivery translates their catchy pop tracks into anthems for our generation. It's hard to pinpoint the right proportions of synth and electro infusion that still preserve the music underneath, and this band has done a good job of that. MGMT has found a balance between their trippy musical experimentation and their contagious melodies that allows you to respect them as innovators while still fighting to get their four-beat hooks out of your head. Oracular Spectacular is undeniable ear candy. You'll dance to the songs akin to 'time to pretend' and 'electric feel', you'll sing along and (sincerely) raise your lighters to 'the youth' and 'pieces of what', and throughout, you'll assuredly find yourself clicking 'repeat' more times than not. Finally, I think we have a guilty pleasure without any real need for guilt. -- SK

7. For Emma, Forever Ago – Bon Iver

It is pretty much a given that if you talk to a music fan geeking out on For Emma, they will geek twice as hard for the mythology that spawned the album. “Aw crap, you know how he wrote that shit, right? Dude broke up with his former band and then he hiked up to Wisconsin, holed up in a cabin for a winter, and composed that glory!” I mean, yeah. That’s the story. And it’s affecting. But not anywhere near as affecting as the music itself. I’m a sucker for boy-and-his-guitar stuff and these melodies and musings do not disappoint. Justin Vernon positively loses himself in his musical and lyrical thought, then, without warning, he emerges from under waves of emotion with a sing-a-long worthy chorus or line that simultaneously gives you hope and tears you apart (like, “Come on, skinny love, just last the year”). Am I guilty of geeking on this? Certainly. Am I alone? Not a chance. Are we alone? In moments, yes. Ultimately, never. -- PMS

6. Heretic Pride – The Mountain Goats

After concept, auto-biography, and theme, John Darnielle circles back around to basics on Heretic Pride, and while the man does have a shocking talent for composing entire albums around one idea or story, it's great to have another record from him devoted to balance and variety.  We get quite arguably the best opening track of the year in "Sax Rohmer #1," a horrifying vision of summer in the city from America's leading pioneer of horrifying visions in "Lovecraft in Brooklyn," and a crushing oh-jesus-is-this-song-triumphant-or-devastating-oh-wait-it-is-the-Mountain-Goats-it-is-obviously-both anthem in "Michael Myers Resplendent." Far from the emotional rut of Get Lonely, this album shows off Darnielle's storytelling range in style, each vignette propelled by his never-failing sincerity.  People looking for a widescreen, overarching idea that binds the album together will be disappointed, but ever since he discarded the bedroom studio sound and retired the prefix "Going To" this is the closest we're going to get to old-school Goats: a collection of stories delivered with heart, sometimes broken, sometimes on fire, always full.  He is coming home to you, with his own blood in his mouth. -- PS

5. Feed the Animals – Girl Talk

When the mash-up culture, long a feature of the DJ scene, began to take cohesive form on the internet, its complexity typically topped out at Beyonce+Nirvana or Interpol+50 Cent, more complicated mash-ups tending to sound bloated and cacophonous.  Girl Talk's 2006 Night Ripper raised the bar by making Mariah+Ludacris+Pixies+Oh Snap What Is That Song I Remember Hearing That On The Radio In '93+Nas a completely viable format, effectively rewriting the expectations for anyone looking to make their mark on the mashup map.  Even though similar sounds are more common now, like DJ Earworm's annual "United State of Pop" or E-603's manic Something For EveryoneFeed the Animals proves that Girl Talk is still the best at what he does.  His impeccable sense of humor allows him to make new jokes out of old lyrics, his blue-balls approach to denying you the hook keeps the tension taut, and the album as a whole is nothing so much as a reminder that music is great, plain and simple. Cramming nineteen dance parties into 54 minutes, Greg Gillis proves himself again as the custodian of pop and the king of ADD audiophiles everywhere. -- PS

4. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

You know that feeling of coming home after a long time and being reunited with the sofa, now probably relocated to the basement, that essentially raised you? Well, the rich four-part harmonies woven throughout Fleet Foxes flood you with that feeling over and over again. Though the five guys from Seattle are complete strangers to most of us, their album provides the comfort of people you've known your whole life. For many of us, these songs might take us back to the music that our parents played in the house or during road trips when we were growing up. But while they invoke all sorts of rural, countryside ghosts of folk music past, the band still somehow maintains a strong sense of originality--  the way in which they brought the bits and pieces of their influences together results in something entirely new. Above or embedded in the harmonies are chilling melodies; the lyrics are great, but this album is the first in a long time that clearly showcases good music and musicians more than anything else. And wraps you up in fleece and makes time seem completely irrelevant. Seriously. Fleet Foxes pretty much makes everything in the world okay. -- SK

3. Dear Science – TV on the Radio

In a strange way, Dear Science sounds like 2008. It's aggressively hopeful and ambitious, but it feels like it's on the verge of falling apart at any second. You can hear it in the album's first ten seconds -- it opens with a melody of Beach Boys-esque ba-ba-ba's, but over a sonic landscape of what sounds like blaring sirens. Sirens that somehow are musically exciting and un-abrasive, and that's what makes Dear Science so extraordinary -- within all of the tension, chaos, and revolutionary hybrid of musical genres, lies an incredibly listenable pop music record. Some have difficulty classifying TVOTR's fiercely original sound, I say it sounds like 2008 in pop music form. -- JS

2. Stay Positive – The Hold Steady

Earlier this year, I was reading a New Yorker review of the surprisingly tolerable, nay possibly enjoyable You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. In this review, David Denby used a phrase I have become obsessed with: “un texte obamiste”. Although I’m not totally certain of what those three words mean precisely, I can say without a doubt that Stay Positive fits the same mold. Kinda. It is way, way, way, way more than an album about aging Minnesotans who still wanna rock-slash-party all-night and/or everyday, even though their fans have started having kids. It’s an album about the upheaval of cynicism, it’s an album that yearns to be part of something—whether it’s a movement or a mosh-pit. It’s also an album that knows it’s own history—the “four corners” approach (treat the album as a record—your four best songs should be the side A and B openers and closers) hasn’t been used this well since Springsteen. From the triumphant blast of “Constructive Summer” (“We’re gonna build something this summer!”) to the cinematic bombast of “Slapped Actress” (“We are the actors / The cameras are rolling / I'll be Ben Gazarra / You'll be Gena Rowlands”), this is the most open-armed, optimistic album of 2008. (And frankly, Ben Gazarra doesn’t get name-checked enough.) -- PMS

1. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

I put off listening to the band Vampire Weekend until after they had already generated a good amount of Columbia buzz.  I kind of refused to believe not only was a band from Columbia good (you just like them because they're from your school, right?), but also that a band with the odious label "indie rock" was any good (honestly, I don't think a band since Franz Ferdinand in that "genre" hasn't made me want to kill myself).  But a few months after everyone else, around when the actual album came out, I listened.  And what I heard wasn't a mediocre "indie rock" album, it was a great album, and a great pop album.  Honestly, pop music hasn't had melodies this good since sometime in the 80s, the era of Michael Jackson, good Madonna, and yes, because everyone's so keen to point it out, Paul Simon.  But really, it's the melodic sensibilities of Paul Simon that carry over most strongly, not just the African guitar and percussion (which yeah, okay, are there if you listen hard enough).  Eleven songs, and every single one of them has been stuck in my head without me wanting to get it out at least once.  Name me a pop album that good in the last ten years and I'll eat something I don't want to eat.  This is the album I've listened to most in 2008.  This is the album of 2008. -- RT



El Gigante said...

Woo! I have every single one of those albums. My taste is validated.

Colin said...

Next year, Peter. Next year.