A month or two ago I was thinking that was a strikingly weak year for music. I already said yesterday on my list of top songs that this held true there. In terms of albums, however, I think 2008 turned out to be quite solid. There were tons of records this year that were solid from top to bottom.
Even more than usual, the cautionary note must be offered that these are only a snapshot of how I feel in this moment. Trying to compile this list this year was extremely difficult because every time I’d listen to a record I’d feel confident it simply had to be at least three or four slots higher. Until I listened to the ones above it and thought they had to move up.
I could easily have stretched the list out to 30 or beyond, but in the end I felt confident that these were the ones I could recommend utterly and completely without any hesitation. I listened to all of them a lot, and will likely continue to do so well into 2009.
25. Headlights – Some Racing, Some Stopping
Some Racing Some Stopping is all about exploring sound, finding nooks and crannies where you’d never expect them to be. With a series of tracks that would feel right at home on an OC compilation, they reveal that this genre possesses far more depth than it’s normally given credit for. It’s funny, because one thing I’ve always heard about their live shows is that they are blisteringly loud, but this is precisely the sort of record that you’d think would be best appreciated on high quality headphones in a quiet room.
Still, while you don’t want to complain too much about such a nice album, you also can’t help but wonder if it would have ruined things to include one barn-burner. Or, at the very least, build in a little bit more oomph throughout the record. Especially since their debut record was so good largely because of the stunning propulsive force of a few gauzy shoegaze-driven rock songs.
24. Mates of State – Re-Arrange Us
Another 2006 standout who’s following record failed to meet expectations. I heard “Get Better” before the rest of the record and was full of anticipation. It sounded like they were refining their sound to bring in a little more sophistication (strings and a piano instead of the old-fashioned strictly drums + keyboards combo) without losing any of the magic. Unfortunately, the rest of the album didn’t quite follow through the second part.
Where they could get away with some simplicity in the past on sheer force of will, it doesn’t quite work this time around. The tiny studio touches everywhere only serve to highlight how little heft there is to some of these tracks. It’s a minor issue – this is still a VERY enjoyable record – but there’s not a lot of margin for error with these sort of songs. The tracks that work best are brimming with vitality. The ones that stumble quickly veer into preciousness or pop snoozeland.
23. The Felice Brothers – The Felice Brothers
A ramshackle affair, smelling of fir trees in the fall and hearts that were broken long ago. This is a woozy folk album the way it’s meant to be done. Over a sprawling 15 tracks there are a few that don’t quite work, but there’s enough great songs here (including the awesome “Frankie’s Gun” which was the first runner-up that missed out on my top songs list) to produce a very enjoyable record.
Highlights: Frankie’s Gun, Wonderful Life, Radio Song
22. Mogwai – The Hawk is Howling
Possibly their best record yet – it’s a lot bigger than anything they’ve done before. They’re still constructing intricate sonic landscapes but where in the past these would pass by in a whisper and only occasionally catch fire this time there is far more stormy weather. The metal and electronic influences exert a far greater presence, producing tracks like “Batcat” and “The Sun Smells Too Loud.” You get the feeling that these tracks are snarling beasts waiting to rampage out and only held in check by the relentless layering of sound upon sound. It’s a great record from one of the titans of post-rock. Mogwai also have the honor of being the first of a number of Scottish bands to make my list.
Highlights: The Sun Smells Too Loud, The Precipice, Batcat
21. The Magnetic Fields – Distortion
Another solid entry into the Magnetic Fields catalog. The combination of Stephin Merrit composed pop songs and the sound the Jesus and Mary Chain is hard to turn down. Especially when Shirley Simms (by far my favorite vocalist for any of Merritt’s projects) is back and given a chance to take frontstage. When the hook of using endless distortion works, it produces a number of beautifully dense songs. It’s also the funniest record he’s come out with in a long time (“The Nun’s Litany” in particular).
20. The Walkmen – You and Me
Everything that A Hundred Miles Off failed to be. A triumph of energy, excitement, and power. The raw texture has been buffed and the songs are more refined, but all of the passion remains. And, importantly, there’s a strong current of happiness that runs through it. Not a facile happiness, but a cathartic one. You and Me rings out with the sound of lives of deep meaning. For the first time, The Walkmen have produced a great album.
19. Collections of Colonies of Bees – Birds
It dances and lilts like a scrap of paper in the wind. It batters your senses like a drenching rain, and shatters like a crystal glass errantly cast aside. It calls to mind a collaboration between Mogwai and The Six Parts Seven, or perhaps the melding of cool blue and fiery orange in Joseph Mallord William Turner painting.
It’s the sound of water flowing through a thousand underground caverns, echoing, reflecting. And with each passing second it grows, expands until you think you simply cannot take anymore. But still, you can’t tell whether the inevitable release will be gentle – a smooth sled-ride down an endless hill in the clear blue morning after a heavy snow – or if it will be an absolute catastrophe. The tension is maddening and yet…not knowing is part of what makes it so exhilarating.
Highlights: Flocks I is mediocre, Flocks II and IV are good, and Flocks III is stupendous
18. British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?
It suffers in equal parts from an attachment to a too-epic-for-its-own-good style of stadium rock and from and overindulgence in art-rock pastiche – effects for the sake of effects – which distract from the underlying music. The problems occur when one of these two elements dominate. However, like matter and anti-matter, when they meet in the middle they produce an explosion that makes good on all the promises. The most obvious example being “Lights Out For Darker Skies” which is easily their best song to date. It’s epic, beautiful, and clear demonstration that they’re at their best when they drop some of the reverb and let the notes shine through with piercing clarity.
17. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog – OST
Joss Whedon’s musical project begun during the writer’s strike. It’s a spoof (or, it’s sort of a spoof) on the superhero genre, featuring Neil Patrick Harris as Dr. Horrible, trying to win the love of Penny (Felicia Day) and find a way into the Evil League of Evil, all while fighting off his nemesis: Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion). While I had my problems with the story (I get it that Joss likes to kill off characters, but usually there’s a point to it. Here it turned Penny into strictly a plot element – which is frustrating and stupid for someone who’s usually so good at writing female characters with some depth), there’s no denying that the songs are fantastic.
They’re insanely clever and quite funny, which is to be expected. But they’re also quite good musically. “My Eyes” is ridiculously catchy and contains some of the most wonderful harmonies of the year, for example, while “So They Say” is a great ensemble number. Finally, “Everyone’s a Hero” features perhaps the best line from any song all year: “Everyone’s a hero in their own way, in their own, not-that-heroic, way!” Or: “It’s not enough to bash in heads, you’ve got to bash in minds!” Damn right.
16. The Tallest Man on Earth – Shallow Graves
As a music writer, you never want to invoke Dylan, because it’s simply too large to really be useful. Early, mid, or late Dylan? His guitar or his voice? The lyrics? Or do you just mean “folksy singer with a mediocre voice who’s obviously not as talented as Dylan”? Usually it’s the last option.
With that caveat in mind, let me say that Shallow Graves sounds more like Dylan than almost anything I’ve ever heard. It’s partly in the fantastic imagery, it’s partly in the voice: nasally and raspy at the same time. But mostly it’s because this is a record that uses simple means (just a guy and his guitar, and occasionally a banjo) to provoke a sense of utter astonishment. The one notable difference is that Kristian Matsson is an excellent guitarist. Where Dylan was content to strum, Matsson displays astonishing pickwork (see “The Sparrow And The Medicine”), not to mention a talent for playing with chords and for moving back and forth between the higher strings while holding the basic notes the same (“I Won’t Be Found” or “This Wind”).
15. The Raveonettes – Lust Lust Lust
The sounds are large, they overflow the speakers, the distortion constantly threatens to drown out the words. There are songs that rush past you in a torrent of guitar swells and drum cascades (“Dead Sound,” “Blush,” “I Want The Candy”). There are others that opt for a slower pace, but maintain the same fulsome character (“I Closed My Eyes,” “Black Satin,” “Expelled From Love”). And underneath all of it is a melody that would do The Ronettes proud. The result is a record that scoffs at restraints, that explodes like fireworks, that is gone before you can hardly tell.
14. Loquat – Secrets of the Sea
Secrets of the Sea is chock full of character. Of knowing glances and shy glances. And above all, it is smooth beyond all belief: gliding, seemingly without effort, through eleven exquisitely constructed songs. It’s a record without peaks and valleys – instead you’ll find ebbs and flows. It’s a delicate mixture of organic and electronic sound, a lush soundscape – the sort of record you want to simply let wash over you. It’s not a record that gets you humming the tunes. But it is one that works its way deeply inside your head. So much that it can sound both mysterious and completely appropriate at the same time.
13. Bombadil – A Buzz, A Buzz
This is a gently-wrought record, a weather-beaten path on a crisp spring morning. With none of the trappings of the city, it’s free to meander and follow the counters of the land: here crossing a stream on an old wooden bridge, there running alongside a patch of trees. It’s filled with bumps and holes, the occasional branch. You wander in and out of the shade as the leaves rustle in the wind above. And if you look back over your shoulder you can see your own steps and light swirls of dust settling gently.
A melange of instruments are deployed: guitars, banjos, xylophones, organs, trumpets, and many more I can’t even guess at. And while they don’t shy away from electrical instruments, those never intrude. They lift up, spread out, and open space for each sound to fully express itself. The result is an absolutely enormous sound. Now, sounding “big” is nothing all that special, but they way they go about it is. Instead of compressing everything to drown out the gaps and create the illusion of size, each sound here is crisp and full – contracting and expanding as necessary to suit the context. The result is a record that would be perfectly at home anywhere from the smallest coffeehouse to the Colosseum.
12. Sigur Rós – Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
You know what Sigur Rós sounds like. Now imagine if they were happier, and more interested in producing melodies. Add some honest-to-god propulsive drum and bass supports. Then just set them free and watch the magic… “Við spilum endalaust” is an absolutely splendid piece of New Wave/post-rock fusion. “Ára bátur” is nine minutes of melodrama so expansive that it almost seems to touch the whole universe. And, after you step lightly through four minutes and a half minutes of warbly singing and organs in “Festival” you get the pay-off of a second half that is positively cataclysmic.
Highlights: Við spilum endalaust, Festival, Með suð í eyrum, Ára bátur
11. The Submarines – Honeysuckle Weeks
If Declare a New State (my favorite album of the glorious musical year that was 2006) was about redemption, Honeysuckle Weeks is about the time afterwards when the more mundane issues seep back into your life. There are plenty of moments of sheer wonder, but those are infused with a widespread sense of easy comfort. It’s less emotionally raw and without the hook of a deep pain, the music loses a bit of focus. Still, it’s a sign of just how good they are that are modest step down from their debut is still this good.
10. Cloud Cult – Feel Good Ghosts
The #11 record is the follow-up to my favorite album from 2006. It’s only fitting, then, that this one follows my top record of 2007. Once again, it’s a bit of a let-down but still manages to pack a serious punch. The subject matter follows from The Meaning of 8: the bizarreness of our everyday lives, the universality of suffering, our attempts to find meaning in the chaos, and the way everything we thought we had left behind stays with us in the most unexpected ways. That final point is the underlying motif for the whole record, with its constant references to ghosts, figurative and literal. It’s a bit too obvious at times, but remains incredibly powerful.
9. Hello Saferide – More Modern Stories from Hello Saferide
This is a beautiful, engaging album. Often corny, occasionally hilarious, and never failing to demonstrate a keen awareness of how preposterous human beings truly are…it’s the sort of record that you wish would fall in love with you, but you can tell deep down inside that you’re both just a little too awkward for it to work out.
8. Marching Band – Spark Large
This record shines. Swedish electro-chamber-pop via the Shins, it surges and flows through intricately layered harmonies. It wraps itself around you, swirling and dancing, held aloft by an army of instruments that dart in and out of the scene. These are campfire songs for the 21st century – intricately designed but sung with a sense of joy and community. It’s the polyphonic explosion of sweet songs and shared loves…the type of of experience that was sorely missed from the sophomore record of their Scandinavian compatriots: I’m From Barcelona.
7. Okkervil River – The Stand Ins
There’s not a lot to say about Okkervil River that I haven’t already covered. Let’s just start with the fact that this is my least favorite record of their past four – and it’s still among my favorites for the year. That they can produce a new, unique, fantastic album that blows most of the rest of the competition out of the water every year or so is frankly astonishing. It’s like they’re playing a completely different game from everyone else. Combine that with a preposterously good live show and there’s no doubt in my mind that they’re the best band in the world right now.
The Stands Ins is a partner to last year’s The Stage Names. A little looser, a little more rock and roll, and as clever as ever. “Lost Coastlines” is the clear best track, but the finale “Bruce Wayne…” packs a major punch – and serves as a suitable bookend to the entire project. “Calling and Not Calling My Ex” is also one of the most straightforward (and best) songs they’ve released in a long while. And one of the single best moments of the year is in the delightfully ironic “Pop Lie” when Will Sheff sings with all his heart: “He’s the liar who lied in his pop song / And you’re lying when you sing along” – and you can’t help but join in.
6. m83 – Saturdays = Youth
It’s a shimmery soundscape, full of glitches and beats that glide along in perfect time. This record is what it sounds like in our dreams – or in an alternate universe filled with crystal spires and rain that falls upward. It is relentlessly forthright, unashamed of its passion or its madness. It imprints itself deeply into your psyche until you’re not even sure if these are your own memories, or simply the remnants of a wild imagination.
5. Amy MacDonald – This Is the Life
Apparently Amy MacDonald is huge over in the UK, but I hadn’t heard anything about her until a couple months ago. There’s nothing particularly astonishing about this record. It’s simply a very, very good take on the folk/rock/pop borderlands. And to top it off she’s got a wonderful Scottish accent, which is an easy way into my heart.
She was only 19 when this was recorded which is definitely discernible in the youthful exuberance, and in the way she can make the dream of being a rock and roll star sound so fresh. But it’s also far more sophisticated than you might initially guess. “Footballer’s Wife” deals with the current crop of WAGs (wives and girlfriends) who dominate the British tabloids, putting them into stark contrast with the halcyon stars of yesteryear. It’s particularly funny because she is now engaged to a footballer herself. Then there’s “Poison Prince,” about ex-Libertines frontman Pete Doherty, which features the line: “I’ll tell you this my Poison Prince, you’ll soon be knocking on Heaven’s door.” Ouch. Or “Mr. Rock and Roll” with the strikingly honest admission that “it’s so rock and roll to be alone.”
Mostly, though, this is one of my favorite records of the year simply for the dynamism of the music. These songs carry a kick. “Barrowland Ballroom” in particular is potentially the most energetic song of the year. It bursts out at you, offering tangible proof of the magic in a rock and roll show.
4. Grand Archives – Grand Archives
It will never provoke that same sense of astonishment and wonder that I experienced the first time I heard Carissa’s Wierd, but Mat Brooke’s new band may offer something else. It’s fun, loping and dancing in a way that Carissa’s Wierd never did. And maybe it’s a sign that there’s a time to embrace the opportunity to go somewhere new. The ghost of past loves will always drape themselves over the new, but who says that must be a negative? There is a sense of freedom on this record, and beyond that, a simple, almost ineffable happiness. After hearing countless songs from him about lost love and broken hearts, in some way I’m just happy to hear one of my favorite artists feel the freedom to express the sheer joy of making music. This is the sound of a group of friends singing their hearts out with eyes open wide and hopes high. There’s something incredibly powerful about that.
3. Caithlin De Marrais – My Magic City
The best record of the year that no one has heard of. Caithlin sings in a dusky voice over introspective, organic music. The maturity of sound and perspective hinted at by the later Rainer Maria records is now here in full force. There’s an openness to ambiguity, a gentle tension. It allows for a sense of warmth that is impossible in records with a less sophisticated emotional core. The songs on this record breathe like living beings. They move at their own pace, and reveal themselves slowly. In each of them you can sense an indescribable looseness, the feeling of newness etched into the air.
The great power of this record is the way it imbues the most simple, mundane moments with just a touch of magic. The point is not to create fantastical stories or overpowering emotions, but rather to tread lightly, to focus in on the spaces in between. In that respect it succeeds wonderfully. My two favorite records of the year both go big. But My Magic City is beautiful precisely because it holds you quietly, with a whisper and a tender kiss.
2. The Gaslight Anthem – The ’59 Sound
They’ve tapped into the same wellspring that The Boss drew from: finding a power in rock and roll that can speak beyond particular stories and evoke some larger meaning. There are certainly echoes or even direct references all over the place, but it’s important to note that this is not a band simply trying to graft “the Springsteen sound” onto something else. It’s a natural evolution, and a perfect joining, between sounds. They also hail from Jersey but they come back to Springsteen via a trip into a more Chicago-punk sound. And most importantly, this a band who genuinely cares about the people in their songs – they are not mere props to spit out some formulaic lines about highways and the working class. These are stories that feel real, evocative, and purposeful.
There’s also a self-awareness that’s necessary to set apart the good songs from the great. The wishfulness, the way that this sound is leapt into out a pure love for the music of their youth but also out of a desperation to keep a sad and lonely world from spinning out of control. It’s the sort of album that you can’t be shy about. You won’t appreciate it if you don’t jump in completely. Accept that it is a flawed but beautiful record, don’t read too deeply into the countless references, and just let the feeling of growing up in a world of rock and roll wash over you. You won’t regret it.
1. Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight
I can’t think of another band in the world right now who could have found the balance necessary to make this record. It’s suffused with a terrible fragility. Part is in the timbre of the vocals, which enables lines like “I might not want you back, but I want to kill him” or “it takes more than fucking someone you don’t know to keep warm” to sound entirely believable. Part is in the way they play: ranging from a shattering percussive blitzkrieg in one moment to a delicate interplay between swooping slide-guitar and punctuated bass notes in another. Finally, there’s the songwriting, which is incredibly intimate, like being deep down in the soul of someone – a place that even they can’t fully tap into. It keeps you absolutely spellbound, as you get sucked into the tragedy, the deep regret, the pain that feels like it will drag you under.
The songs convey a sense of the agonizing clarity that can accompany our worst decisions, as well as the kernel of hope that we hold on to in order to keep ourselves afloat. The pain doesn’t go away, but it becomes something else, a reason to keep breathing, a catalyst. And so, after all the heart-rending, you emerge, shyly, into the sunshine, squinting a bit at the bright lights but with a smile beginning to form. It’s a delicate subject and in the hands of another band could easily feel cloying or artificial. But here, on this marvelous album, the hope doesn’t feel false.
It’s fitting in a way. After all, in this year of all years, we were reminded that there has never been anything false about hope.