Top 10 Albums of 2008
1. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
This Brooklyn band’s 2006 sophomore album Return to Cookie Mountain was a study in measured soundscapes. No song sounded too full or too empty. The layers upon layers of noise congealed to perfection. It was bold and dark and beautiful. Yet something was missing. One listen to TVOTR’s third outing Dear Science reveals exactly what. Heart.
And where Return to Cookie Mountain lacked it, Dear Science is chock full. “Golden Age” drips with optimism about the future (’There’s a golden age coming ’round’); “Family Tree” is a breezy ballad (’Take my hand, sweet. Complete your release and bury your feet. And married we’ll be’) even as it mentions ghastly gallows. And closer “Lover’s Day” might be the sweetest song ever written about rough sex. Dear Science towers above the Class of 2008 because it manages to do what very few of the great bands of our generation have (I’m talking to you, Radiohead) - it marries weird and wistful with nary a broken heart in sight.
Highlights: “Halfway Home”, “Golden Age”, “Family Tree”, “DLZ”
2. Kanye West - 808s and Heartbreak
Divisive. Brooding. Pretentious. Flawed. And absolutely stunning. Kanye West’s beautiful boom-bip concept album was probably the most sonically understated major release of 2008 - and considering the source, that’s really saying something. West’s tortured auto-croon and hollow 808 beats seem more akin to The Notwist than to Jeezy and Weezy, two rap purebloods who make appearances on the record. Years from now, we might be talking about 808s and Heartbreak as the album that killed modern hip-hop - or at least Kanye’s career.
Highlights: “Say You Will”, “Welcome to Heartbreak”, “Paranoid”, “Streetlights”
3. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes LP/Sun Giant EP
Imagine Earth in a parallel universe. It’s 1961. Richard Nixon has been sworn in as the 35th President of the United States. East and West Berlin have announced plans to build a bridge across Spree River. And Brian Wilson is walking the shores of Puget Sound, pondering the lives of woodland creatures as a cold, Northwestern mist dampens his head.
This is Robin Pecknold’s universe. And his band shares more with Wilson’s Beach Boys than gorgeous four and five-part harmonies (see: guitarist Skye Skjelset’s licks). Comparisons aside, Fleet Foxes’ debut soars because it aspires to be nothing more than a carefree, sing-along folk album for a generation raised amid manufactured pop and mechanized mad-at-your-dad rock.
Highlights: “White Winter Hymnal”, “Ragged Wood”, “Quiet Houses”, “Blue Ridge Mountains”
4. Deerhunter - Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.
The final studio version of Microcastle leaked during the summer. But Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox refused to push up the album’s release date (from Oct. 31) because he wanted his band’s latest to be a “winter record.” You’ve gotta give it up to the man for knowing his art. Microcastle (and its companion piece to an even greater extent) is overcast with a 100-percent chance of heavy snow. From suffocating ballad “Agoraphobia” to the white noise codas of “Nothing Ever Happened” and “Twilight at Carbon Lake” the whole album feels like the soundtrack to a day when thick ice bends mighty trees into submission and windows fog with the breath of mere mortals shut in by the cold. Brrrr… Deerhunter have culled snow from the humid atmosphere of Hotlanta.
Highlights: “Agoraphobia”, “Never Stops”, “Nothing Ever Happened”, “Calvary Scars (Aux. Out)”
5. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
Lately it seems like Vampire Weekend is everyone’s favorite band to hate. They got big in a hurry around this time last year, and we all know how indie hipsters react to that kind of career trajectory (no toiling in obscurity, no love). But I’d challenge you to find a more lovable band and a more lovable sound to emerge from 2008.
Ezra Koenig and company cut their teeth playing college parties at Columbia and NYU. The band members themselves are sweater-wearing, clean-cut graduate school types. And their cleverly subversive wordplay and parsed down instrumentation reflect as much. These are true products of the baby boom. Well-reared. Well-groomed. Wealthy. And doing what they do for the fun of it. Nothing more. Nothing less. And that’s a good thing.
Highlights: “Mansard Roof”, “Oxford Comma”, “A-Punk”, “M79″
6. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
By now, you’ve probably heard the story behind Bon Iver’s debut album. Justin Vernon holes himself up in a Wisconsin cabin for three snowy months, records nine snowy-sounding songs, releases them in 2007 but doesn’t get any attention until 2008, ends up being one of the most widely-praised indie musicians since Arcade Fire caught…umm… fire in 2004. It’s a great, colorful, unique story. But not nearly as great, colorful or unique as the music.
“The Wolves (Act I and II)” packs a subtle auto-tuned lilt that would make T-Pain proud. “Skinny Love” implores a drifting lover to ’suckle on the hope in lite brassiere’. Closer “Re: Stacks” is the kind of song you’d expect to hear during a movie love scene (and it’s likely you will very soon). Vernon’s double-tracked vocals flitter as effortlessly as his lazy, thumbed guitar strums. Otherworldly background noise makes every fully pronounced syllable and downbeat seem profound. For Emma, Forever Ago is not a thinking person’s album. It is pure touchy-feely.
Highlights: “Flume”, “Skinny Love”, “For Emma”, “Re: Stacks”
7. Department of Eagles - In Ear Park
Is it a sin to like a side project just as much as the band that birthed it? Department of Eagles’ disarming In Ear Park was recorded by Grizzly Bear co-frontman Daniel Rossen and his former college roommate, with the help of every other member of Grizzly Bear save Ed Droste. And it’s as strong as Yellow House and stronger than the Friend EP - although I will concede that Droste wins the band name competition hands down. Perhaps Droste might consider ceding more creative control to Rossen in future Grizzly Bear recording sessions. Or perhaps Rossen’s former college roommate is just that good.
Highlights: “No One Does it Like You”, “Teenagers”, “Classical Records”, “Floating on Lehigh”
8. She & Him - Volume One
It’s easy to criticize artists for overt pastiche. And it happens constantly, however deserving the criticism. Actress Zooey Deschanel’s debut musical foray - with the aid of M. Ward - is all about pastiche, from the Carpenters to Patsy Cline to Loretta Lynn. And yet her homage is so true; her execution so perfect, her intentions so apparently pure; that Volume One defies the typical negativity that often greets albums by AM radio-copping peers. Deschanel’s lilting, angelic voice - first openly displayed in the Will Ferrell film Elf - conjures memories of listening to the oldies station on long car rides with my mom. Not a bad time to reminisce.
Highlights: “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here”, “I Thought I Saw Your Face Today”, “Take it Back”, “Sweet Darlin’”
9. Plants and Animals - Parc Avenue
Wait, these guys are from Canada? Montreal, you say? But they’re so jammy. I know there’s a French coda in one song. I know they spell “fairy” f-a-e-r-i-e. I just can’t get over the Southern rock tendencies of “Feedback in the Field” or the Dave Matthews-ready rhythm and melody of “Mercy.” They roll out lyrics like: “It takes a good friend to say you’ve got your head up your ass.” They close the album with a four-minute Bollywood jam-folk instrumental track entitled “Guru”. Nah, these guys aren’t Canadian. They’re breaking too many rules.
Highlights: “Bye Bye Bye”, “Faerie Dance”, “New Kind of Love”, “Keep it Real”
10. Los Campesinos! - Hold On Now, Youngster/We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed
Usually, I’m not that much of a lyrics guy. I mean, they’re important. But there are a lot of amazing artists out there that fill sweet music with nonsense (see: Radiohead, Super Furry Animals, New Pornographers). Still, I have to give it up to Los Campesinos! for dropping two of the best turns of phrase I’ve heard in a while. The first appeals to the nerd hidden within each of us: ‘I’ll be control-alt-deleting your face with no reservation’; the second appeals to the emo kid sitting right beside him: ‘We kid ourselves, there’s future in the f*cking, but there is no f*cking future’. Brilliant. And the messy chamber-punk they produce isn’t half-bad either.
Highlights: “Death to Los Campesinos!”, “You! Me! Dancing!”, “All Your Keyfabe Friends”, “We are Beautiful, We are Doomed”
1. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
Just like every other person ever, I adored this album. The solitude and reflection that permeates each track made me long for simpler times. Sometimes, living in the woods would be so much more fulfilling than living in the middle of a large, noisy city with all the activities and priorities therein.
Highlight: “Creature Fear”
2. Blitzen Trapper - Furr
I’ve been a Blitzen Trapper fan for a long time now. While this album didn’t immediately melt my brain like Wild Mountain Nation did, it grew on me in a big way and I now count it among my favorites.
Highlight: “Sleepytime in the Western World”
3. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
I thought this album was an excellent one-up for TVOTR, but then I saw them perform the majority of it live. After that, the intricacies of each track became much more pronounced and the meaning of each note and word became more intentional. This album will stick with me for a while.
Highlight: “Stork and Owl”
4. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Real Emotional Trash
Stephen Malkmus never disappoints me. Since he made the oh-so-spectacular decision to include the incomparable Janet Weiss in the Jicks family, I’ve become even more attached to his post-Pavement work. Real Emotional Trash spotlights each contributor (including Joanna Bolme and Mike Clark) and melds their styles and sounds together in a cohesive tome.
5. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
Fleet Foxes are great. We all love them. Who doesn’t love beards, harmony, and flannel? I know I do.
Highlight: “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song”
6. Of Montreal - Skeletal Lamping
I did not like this album one tiny bit when it came out. I was mentally prepared for Hissing Fauna 2.0. However, after weeks of leaving it in my car and listening to it in the background, I became attached to the goofy composition and mental imagery of Kevin Barnes in gold lycra panties. This will never be one of my favorite Of Montreal albums, but when it manages to shines, it shines in a big way.
Highlight: “Wicked Wisdom”
7. Starfucker - Starfucker
This group of plucky teenagers (or perhaps they’ve entered their 20s?) from Portland, Ore., have great energy without overdoing it. Their onstage presence is so much fun and they definitely don’t take themselves too seriously. If you’re looking for a poppy, slightly-dancey, smooth listening 40 minutes or so, I highly recommend their debut album. NOTE: Don’t confuse them with Starfuckers, the Italian soundcheck experimental group. I made that mistake… ouch.
Highlight: “Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second”
8. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
It may not be deep. It may not be authentic. It may not even be musically sophisticated. But I really do love the light-hearted summery pop that Vampire Weekend is shilling. Listening to this always makes me wish that my skin was salty from the ocean and the sun didn’t set until well after 8 p.m.
Highlight: “Mansard Roof”
9. She and Him - Volume One
Zooey Deschanel… *sigh* Talk about the whole package. She acts! She sings! She’s super adorable! M.Ward doesn’t come to party empty handed, either. Their combo makes for ethereal vocals and sensible melodies blended to indie pop perfection. I just can’t get enough of this easy-going album.
Highlight: “You Really Got a Hold on Me”
10. Santigold - Santigold
I feel like I was a bit late getting on the Santigold bandwagon, but better late than never. If you’re new to Santigold, I suggest ignoring all of the reviews and write-ups comparing her to M.I.A. Yes, Ms. Arulpragasam is a producer. Yes, she’s a fan. Yes, she was pivotal to getting this album out there. However, Santigold has her own flavor and style that is unique from anyone, to include M.I.A.