By: David Schultz
Mostly owing to December’s drastically reduced release schedule, most writers turn their creativity towards quantifying and evaluating the best and the brightest albums of the previous year. No matter how persuasively anyone tries to present their list as a scientific undertaking, it really is a purely subjective endeavor. Rather than add to the quagmire and confuse Donald Rumsfeld with Earvolution’s Albums of the Year, the following are the albums that will most likely be the ones we think of when we look back at 2008. Like them, love them or hate them, we’ll likely remember them.
Girl Talk: Feed The Animals
So good, it might possibly be illegal; DJ Greg Gillis’ mash-up galore of classic rock, eighties riffs, pop fluff, hip-hop and rap pushes the fair use doctrine to its limits. On each track, Gillis provides fodder for a fast paced game of name that tune by transforming anywhere from ten to twenty songs into one. Anyone who thinks DJs just spin records needs to listen to Gillis’ mix-and-match and take stock of their beliefs. It's tough to listen to Gillis' work without smiling in acknowledgement of his creativity and Feed The Animals is one of the most entertaining records of the year.
Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend
Incorporating African rhythms into briskly paced indie-pop songs with an ease that unsettled many traditionalists, the Ivy league foursome scored a modest hit with the formal release of their self-titled album. Over bouncy ska-punk beats, Ezra Koenig and his Columbia University classmates wax rhapsodic over the thrills of fleeing Cape Cod and revel in their knowledge of obscure punctuation. In January, this was the album with the most buzz and at year end, Hot Chip revived interest by enlisting Peter Gabriel to namecheck himself on their cover of "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa."
The Raconteurs: Consolers Of The Lonely
With Consolers Of The Lonely, Jack White helped turn his (don't call it a) side project into one of the best bands in America. The Racs are a group effort but the dirty keyboards of "You Don't Understand Me," the tongue-in-cheek misery of "Rich Kid Blues" and the Southern saga of "Carolina Drama" bear all the hallmarks of Jack White's love for revved-up blues and electrified Americana. Dropping this bombshell just three weeks after recording it, Brendan Benson and The Greenhornes' rhythm section show the glorious heights White can reach when he gets to work with a fine bunch of musicians.
Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago
Lo-fi atmosphere was all the rage this year with Department Of Eagles, Beach House, Deerhunter/Atlas Sound and Fleet Foxes (see below) recording powerful albums that evoke a cerebral and viscerally emotional response without pumping up the adrenalin. Infused with the aching vibe of the wintry Wisconsin solitude in which it was recorded, For Emma, Forever Ago gets it meditative and pensive vibe from Justin Vernon's haunting vocals. One of the more talked about indies of 2007, Jagjaguwar gave For Emma a proper release in 08 and it's appeared at or near the top of practically every major year end list.
The Hold Steady: Stay Positive
The impulsive, reckless characters that populate Craig Finn's fictional universe get a bit of a come-uppance on Stay Positive. While playfully mocking the hardcore ethos of unifying the scene, Finn sardonically catalogs the consequences of impetuously motivated bad decision making while Tad Kubler and the rest of The Hold Steady revel in arena-rock bombast. Longtime fans of will argue that Stay Positive isn't The Hold Steady's best; even so, it surpasses much of the rest of 2008.
Guns N' Roses: Chinese Democracy
After 13 years, Axl Rose's eagerly anticipated, long awaited and often ridiculed Chinese Democracy finally received an ignominious release at Best Buy stores nationwide. The overwhelming liner notes detail Rose’s meticulousness and while the scrupulous attention to detail didn’t detract from Chinese Democracy’s impact, it surely didn’t add anything either. The album has its moments - namely "I.R.S." and "There Was A Time" - but for the most part GnR fans waited more than a decade for a dud.
Lil Wayne: Tha Carter III
And now we all know Auto-Tune.
(Someone wipe that schmutz off the kid's face)
TV On The Radio: Dear Science
When Prince dreamt about partying at the apocalypse, this was the house band he envisioned. With critical ears gravitating towards lo-fi fare, TV On The Radio put out the year's best that possesses a funky soul and a definitive pulse. One of the wildest rides of the year, Dear Science is also one of the hardest to describe. Creating populist art rock out of ambient synths, elaborate bass lines and Tunde Adebimpe's hipster-howl vocals, TVOTR's follow-up to Return To Cookie Mountain has them poised to reign as the band of 2009.
She & Him: Volume One
Scarlett Johannson’s box office appeal may dwarf Zooey Deschanel’s but in the world of indie-rock, the busty blonde’s album of Tom Waits covers wouldn’t even get her on the same sold-out stage as She & Him. While easy to damn the album with faint praise by pointing out how Deschanel doesn't suck, Volume One deserves much better. No vanity project, Deschanel (She) more than holds her own with M Ward (Him) on this compilation of the actress' wonderfully written folk songs. A throwback to an older era, Volume One is a quaint little pearl.
Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes
Notwithstanding the plaudits received by Bon Iver and TV On The Radio, the Fleet Foxes debut album is pretty much the consensus “2008 Album of the Year.” The opening salvo to “White Winter Hymnal” may have reached the supersaturation point but the rest of the Foxes rustic, fireside harmonies are as timeless as those of the Beach Boys. Even more remarkable, the Seattle collective is barely out of their teens. Pastoral folky music hasn't sounded this good in years.
My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges
In a perfect world, My Morning Jacket's fifth studio album would be the runaway album of the year and the band would be continuously gracing the cover of Rolling Stone instead of Britney Spears. Alas, shaggy looking Kentuckians don't sell as many magazines as pseudo-psychotic starlets. Evil Urges briskly mixes together psychedelic Southern jams, Crazy Horse inspired rockers, a firm grasp of the absurd, a surprising aptitude for funk and a fine knack for light country fare but that no longer sets you at the head of the class.
If Pineapple Express hadn’t mainstreamed M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” Santogold would have been the M.I.A. of 2008. With the exception of the bizarre “I vomit gold dust” cover, Santi White, a former A&R rep puts her own advice to good use, creating an urban album without resorting to traditional hip-hop or R&B. Santogold is at its best on songs like "Creator" and "L.E.S. Artistes" where White lets her trenchant wit flow and discourses on poseurs and the creative act - observations that she may have been holding in check for quite some time.
Hercules & Love Affair: Hercules & Love Affair
If Santogold played the role of M.I.A., Hercules & Love Affair stepped into the shoes of LCD Soundsystem for 2008. Bolstered by the ethereal, haunting vocals of Antony Hegarty on “Time Will” and “Blind,” H&LA's suave dance beats would have sounded just fine blasting through the haze of Studio 54. Hercules & Love Affair is a cut above the disposable dance music that populates the clubs but that probably won't stop everyone from finding next year's model in 2009.
The Black Crowes: Warpaint
Returning to the studio after a seven year absence, The Black Crowes may not have recaptured the greasy majesty of Amorica or Southern Harmony and Musical Companion but they did resurrect the ghosts of their glorious past. By finding a spot in the nest for North Mississippi Allstar guitarist Luther Dickinson, the Crowes kick started their creative juices and seem rejuvenated and reinvigorated. Perhaps a little too excited over the Crowes' return, Maxim jumped the gun, seriously criticizing Warpaint before listening to it.
The Black Keys: Attack & Release
Long the XX chromosomed version of The White Stripes, the dastardly duo from Akron, Ohio broadened their sound beyond the drums and guitars to create a virtual swamp of Delta blues. With Danger Mouse behind the board, The Keys (Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney) kept the raw material earmarked for Ike Turner before his death and transformed it into their own viscous stew. Raw and gritty, Attack & Release does for Midwestern blues what No Age did for L.A. hardcore: remind everyone it still exists.
Oh what a difference a name makes. Nas’ proposed title for his unnamed release prompted such a virulent response from Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and other African-American leaders that Def Jam may have refused to release it under its original name. The resumption of the debate over a word, which received renewed vigor after Michael Richards' ill-advised rant, worked in Nas' favor as the mainstream media paid much more attention to Nas and his impracticably titled album than it normally would have.
The Felice Brothers: The Felice Brothers
The band of brothers from upstate New York offer raucously paced, Americana-style rock and roll much like Bob Dylan & The Band in their Basement Tapes days. Rollicking and gregarious storytellers, the Felice's first major league release is a freewheeling affair with songs like "Frankie's Gun" and "Love Me Tenderly" sounding not that far removed from the street corners and saloons that are their birthplace.
Dead Confederate: Wrecking Ball
Is it wrong to refer to an album as a grunge classic if it wasn't released in the early 90s? Hopefully not because Dead Confederate’s passionate debut album may be just that. Lead singer Hardy Morris’ tortured howl insinuates itself into the very fabric of each song and his passion equals that of Kurt Cobain. Guitarist Walker Howle gets "Shadow The Wall" working on the same wavelength as Pearl Jam's finest and "The Rat" and "Get Out" are cut from the same cloth as Neil Young's epic sagas of the Seventies.
Vivian Girls: Vivian Girls
Every year the blogosphere anoints at least one band as the saviours of rock and roll. Enough visions of the second coming have been declared that we're up to something like the thirty-ninth resurrection. This year's recipient of Internet love was the estrogen laden trio from Brooklyn known as the Vivian Girls. Their self-titled debut is full of quick punchy tunes that are long on girl group harmonies and reverb laden guitars but short on refined recording techniques. They definitely struck a chord as "Where Do You Run To" was the de rigueur mp3 for all the hip blogs.
IT SEEMS UNSATISFYING to do a year end wrap-up post without mentioning a bunch of my favorites from the last 12 months. I'm not one to indulge in self denial, so . . .
White Denim: Exposion
One of the freshest and best albums of 2008, White Denim takes everything that is great about the blues, garage psychedelia, art-school pretension, punk rock and hardcore, distills it down to its essence and lets it burst forth in concentrated three minute bursts. Exposion exposes the method to their madness by forgoing the careening free-for-all environment of their live performances and showing a dedication to songcraft. "Shake Shake Shake" is an earth shattering two and a half minutes and the epic "Sitting" that closes the album is as much Television as it is Beach Boys.
Blues & Lasers: Blues & Lasers
The most outstanding classic rock album of the year has its roots in the granola filled mountains of Vermont. In the five songs that stretch out over the album's forty-five minutes, Scott Tournet leads Blues & Lasers through a Delta blues odyssey ripped from the Seventies AOR era. Evolving out of the Scott Tournet Band, Blues & Lasers has Tournet and his fellow Nocturnals Bryan Dondero and Matt Burr teaming up with Vermont’s Benny Yurco and Steve Sharon to unleash a grandiose dose of juke joint heat and revive a genre that has long been MIA.
Tyler Ramsey: A Long Dream About Swimming Across The Sea
Released in mid January, Ramsey's debut album got lost in the shuffle of all the phenomenal lo-fi releases that followed. Exploring different ranges of quietude, Ramsey draws just as much power from the silence between notes as he does with his exquisite acoustic guitar. "A Long Dream" and "Ships" drift dreamily along and "Please Stop Time" seems like it could implode on its own gentle fragility but it's the multi-part "Once In Your Life" that concludes a Harvest inspired mid-section that turns A Long Dream from atmosphere to accomplishment.
A.A. Bondy: American Hearts
Bondy's wonderfully compelling debut revels in its contradictions. Religious imagery overshadows a great deal of American Hearts but the talented Alabama born guitarist doesn't seem interested in conversion or salvation. A warm and inviting album, Bondy's masterful skill at utilizing the vagueness of language works wonders on "American Hearts," taking American slogans of indomitability and turning them inward on their purveyors in a plea for compassion. NPR knew what they were doing when they slated Bondy for their SXSW showcase before the album's release.
Marco Benevento: Invisible Baby
On his completely instrumental album, Marco Benevento creates a collection of creative and challenging arrangements that borrow equally from classical orchestras, jazz and electronic music. In assembling Reed Mathis, Andrew Barr and Matt Chamberlain to complete his vision, the majestic keyboard maestro creates accessible Vince Guaraldi-like melodies with the same facility as he does the solitude of Tom Waits at his most whiskey-fueled.
Leroy Justice: Revolution's Son
A staightforward rock and roll album, Revolution's Son percolates with brawny barroom rockers played with 70s era Rolling Stones finesse. Oozing the same authoritative boozy charm as Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Gallagher barks out the title track like a grizzled Southern rock veteran and turns "Belt Buckle" into a lost Skynyrd classic. You may not have heard of much of Leroy Justice in 2008; I imagine that will change in 2009.
Backyard Tire Fire: The Places We Lived
Capable of rafter-shattering, bar band rock and roll, The Places We Lived catches Ed Anderson and the Tire Fire in a more reflective mood, taking stock of what's changed around the old home town. Getting a wonderfully acoustic sound without unplugging, BTF broadens their repetoire with a collection of heartfelt country-blues tunes. It's not all nostalgia: there being enough heavy riffage on "Welcome To The Factory" and "How In The Hell Did You Get Back Here" to carry you through.
The Whigs: Mission Control
Along with Dead Confederate, The Whigs helped make this a banner year for young bands from Athens, GA. On Mission Control, Julian Doro's drumming will get your blood pumping but it's Parker Gispert and his plethora of guitar hooks that make The Whigs better than your average bear. It's unfortunate that "Right Hand On My Heart" didn't come out in a different era. If it had, MTV would have turned it into a summer anthem and The Whigs into a true sensation.
Tea Leaf Green: Raise Up The Tent
Tea Leaf Green’s fourth studio effort is their most well-rounded album to date. Focusing primarily on Trevor Garrod's melodious keyboards, mellifluous voice and thoughtful lyrics, Raise Up The Tent bounces merrily along. Where their live shows emphasize their musicianship, the album stresses the song. "Let Us Go," "Don't Curse At The Night" and "Red Ribbons" make for a frisky opening trio but it's "Slept Through Sunday," "Keeping The Faith" and Josh Clark's "Stick To The Shallows" are the true treasures.
The Secret Machines: The Secret Machines
Emerging from a long hibernation in which they recovered from the departure of original guitarist Ben Curtis, The Secret Machines woke up from their dormancy and rebooted themselves as a heavier, more industrial outfit. Secret Machines 2.0 sounds more akin to industrialized Floyd and Peter Gabriel's mechanized prog-rock than they have at any other time with "The Walls Are Starting To Crack" and "Fire Is Waiting" carrying a ponderous heft. It's not a dramatic overhaul: "Atomic Heels" and "Last Believer, Drop Dead" still have a little rattle from the old days.
BuzzUniverse: LiveVibes From The Donegal Saloon
In the age of the LiveArchives, the era of the live album may be entering its sunset years. That doesn't mean it's dead. Recorded on the Jersey stage they consider their home, LiveVibes consists of choice covers, prog-rock inspired jams, funk and a little country hoedown. This is first true release of BuzzU since they gelled as a 6-piece and with excellent renditions of staples like "In The Sun" and newer material like "You And Me" it serves as a fine introduction to this ever-entertaining band.
Licorice: A Million Grains Of Sand
Recorded in Brooklyn, Licorice’s initial foray into the studio nicely showcases the fine musicianship that has become Licorice’s calling card. The eminently talented New York City foursome makes some subtle revisions to some live staples and give some Coldplay-derived keyboards a tryout. The only regret is that you have to see the band live to get the coda of the disc's title track en regalia.
THOSE OF YOU THAT HAVE ever read my ramblings on Rotoworld.com in The Week That Was are familiar with my not-so-profound theory that "people like lists." So as not to disappoint, here are some year-end lists for you to digest.
AARP List Of Those Getting Better With Age
Al Green: Lay It Down
Richie Havens: Nobody Left To Crown
Randy Newman: Harps & Angels
Steve Winwood: Nine Lives
B.B. King: One Fine Favor
The Chinese Democracy List Of Other Albums That Failed To Meet Expectations
Cold War Kids: Loyalty To Loyalty
The Killers: Day & Age
Lenny Kravitz: It Is Time For A Love Revolution
Ray Lamontagne: Gossip In The Grain
The Nightwatchman: The Fabled City
Oasis: Dig Out Your Soul
Tapes ‘n’ Tapes: Walk It Off
At this year’s SXSW Festival, duos, whether they be guitar and drums or more electronically based, were all the rage. They produced some fine albums this year too with the best being:
The Dodos: Visiter
Fuck Buttons: Street Horrrsing
The Helio Sequence: Keep Your Eyes Ahead
MGMT: Oracular Spectacular
No Age: Nouns
Their Genius Escaped Me In 2008
Deerhoof: Offend Maggie
Elbow: The Seldom Seen Kid
Hot Chip: Made In The Dark
Lil Wayne: Tha Carter III
Mates Of State: Re-arrange Us
Conor Oberst: Conor Oberst
of Montreal: Skeletal Lamping
Sigur Ros: Med sud ieyrum vid spilum endalaust
Throw Me The Statue: Moonbeams
Tokyo Police Club: Elephant Shell
Encore: I guess this is the Honorable Mention list of albums that definitely deserve recognition but didn’t get mentioned above. If you missed any of these in 2008, resolve to remedy the situation in 2009.
Black Mountain: In The Future
Bodies Of Water: A Certain Feeling
Catfish Haven: Devastator
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
Jason Collett: Here’s To Being Here
Deerhunter: Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. (deserving of more than this)
Delta Spirit: Ode To Sunshine
Drive-By Truckers: Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
Jenny Lewis: Acid Tongue
The Magnetic Fields: Distortion
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks: Real Emotional Trash
Okkervil River: The Stand-Ins
Plants & Animals: Parc Avenue