Sunday, December 14, 2008

My top 50 albums of 2008

50. Wolf Parade - At Mount Zoomer
Maybe 2006's Apologies to the Queen Mary wasn't as good as we'd remembered it, or maybe the sophomore slump is really an unavoidable curse on the music industry, but Mount Zoomer failed in my eyes to hold the same magic. That said, it is by no means bad, and it represents well the sound of a band still finding their place.

49. Squarepusher - Just a Souvenir
Representing a more gleeful, poppy IDM than many of his contemporaries, Tom Jenkinson again delivers a good mix of exciting electronica.

48. Tickley Feather - Tickley Feather
It's spaced out, abstract, haunting, dreary and droning. But try as they might to distort it, Tickley Feather can't mask the ethereal beauty and genuinely good songwriting of this album, and the challenge makes it all the better.

47. Nine Inch Nails - Ghosts
A bold step by a bold man, Ghosts was the year's biggest, if not best, surprise. True, Reznor doesn't have his commanding voice or industrial soundscapes to fall back on, and he might not have the same talent for instrumental composition as those who have set out to do it from the start, but he still produces a nice mix of ambiance and noise. My favorite NIN release since The Downward Spiral.

46. Mouth of the Architect - Quietly
Call it metal - because it is. Shotgun-fisted, axe-swinging, city-burning metal. But listen to it for the subtle bits - the tender female vocals on "Generation of Ghosts", the intoxicating chord progression of the title track, the walls of sound erected and torn down. This is "smarter than your average metal" metal.

45. Sloan - Parallel Play
You have to appreciate a band that knows what they're good at and sets out to do it better and better. Sloan is a rock band with such enthusiasm, such earnestness, that when they belt out catchy, albeit uninspired, numbers like "I'm not a kid anymore", you just have to feel them.

44. Xploding Plastix - Treated Timber Resists Rot
Xploding Plastix never really explode in the ways many of their peers do. Like the works of Venetian Snares, Aphex Twin or Bong Ra, they construct tracks bit by bit, adding sound on sound, but unlike the more fierce and aggressive IDM acts, they don't detonate the whole thing at the end. Rather, they are like a string of cherry bombs, and the childlike mischief carries throughout. It is like a toy box of music, and it reminds me of a Icelandic band "mum" in a rush.

43. Beck - Modern Guilt
There isn't a lot to feel guilty about here. After detouring around electronica and even more alternative rock for a few years, he seems ready to head back to Odelay, taking Danger Mouse and Cat Power along as guides. Only problems is that he seems to have forgotten the way. Regardless, he arrives somewhere, making some of his most solid music to date.

42. Diplo - I Like Turtles
Never taking himself too seriously, but still putting forth loads of effort, Diplo's welded together colossus of 2007's most catchy tunes manages to rise to glorious power, and, in some occasions, show remarkable sparks of life, but still doesn't seem to do much. Despite that, it's one of the year's best party albums, and sometimes that's all you need.

41. Conor Oberst - Conor Oberst
When you ditch (temporarily?) your band to make a record you name after yourself, you know it's time for some serious soul-searching. Oberst delivers on the introspection, the song-writing, the lyrics, but one can't help but wonder how good the album would have been had all of Bright Eyes helped out. As it stands, very little of it can be denied as quality work from one of our generation's musical geniuses.

40. Portishead - Third
It's been 14 years since Dummy, and Portishead were smart enough or stupid enough to assume that their music was still relevant. Lucky for them, the market for catchy synth rhythms and airy female vocals keeps growing, in no small part because of them.

39. Grails - Doomsdayer's Holiday
Grails seem to want to wage war on your consciousness, because they feel you don't deserve to simply hear a song. They might be right. Post rock, doom, funeraldrone - it doesn't come much more standard than this, but if you can get your head behind the wild guitar, agonizing drums and a string section that I can only describe as pessimistic, you'll find a real listening experience to be had. It has flairs of Mediterranean traditional, Americana and Europop. This is world music, if the world was on fire.

38. Mates of State - Re-Arrange Us
If the indie fad in popular music is dying out, you shouldn't tell these guys. Ranking somewhere between the Moldy Peaches and the Arcade Fire in pure twee (and quality, too), this husband and wife team (how cute!) don't really do anything you couldn't see coming by the end of the first song, but it's still an absolute joy to bounce along with.

37. No Age - Nouns
This is no-holds barred rock that still keeps an ace in it's hand. It's both a triumph of overproduction and an amateurish garage band. It's the paradoxical record of the year that keeps you clawing at your face but won't ever get unstuck from your head. All you can do is enjoy.

36. Subtle - ExitingARM
It wasn't a good year for hip-hop, but it was a good year for Anticon, the underground rap label that seems so bored of the genre that they're almost taunting it by this point. The latest release from nasally-voiced Subtle and his band of shoegaze with a beat delivers on everything one could expect from the label. That is to say, the unexpected. Incredibly catchy with insightful, if hard to follow, rhymes.

35. Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life
If hardcore really is dead, really is an antiquated notion from a bygone era, left forever to inspire the present but never be fully realized in it, then Fucked Up is Jesus on Easter. One can't really say that they simply brought back the old ways of hardcore punk, that would be near insulting. This is still head-smashing music, but now they're filling it with something first.

34. Ponytail - Ice Cream Spiritual
There are bands that get all weird on you and then laugh at you while you try to sort them out, and then there's bands where they get all weird and then laugh with you because it doesn't mean anything. And then there are bands that sizzle along with an island beat before slamming you with drums from Metallica circa Kill Em All and sending out a young girl to scream her head off. Then, if you can catch your breath, you laugh at them, because they're out there being entertaining without worrying about what it means. This is the all-too-rare third type.

33. Venetian Snares - Detrimentalist
If you asked a computer to score a kung-fu movie - wait, that's too cute an analogy. If an NES established a disco - no, that's too nerdy a description. If an established IDM legend released a record of indescribable but far from unpleasant spastic electronica, and named everything after poo, and then remixed it with the stupidest samples he could find, and then made it one of his best releases to remind everyone that they were still taking him too seriously, you'd have this album. Sometimes it's just best to say it.

32. Coldworld - Melancholy2
Black metal is not my life. I don't spend summers blackpacking around Europe, asking people to burn down churches with me. On Friday nights, I don't don robes and sing with like-minded kin about the resurrection of a thousand dark ages. I don't listen to 32kbps rips of scratched up vinyl (brootal!) recordings of Burzum screaming at god. However, I don't ignore an interesting release in the genre when one surfaces, and one has certainly revealed itself in this. Sinister, cold, dark and powerful, with enough restraint to not spoil the surprise, but with enough enthusiasm to make the lead singer scream out his lyrics, demon-style.

31. Silver Jews - Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
In 2008 they were near-forgotten for approaching mediocrity. With no Pavement to be the decisive counter-argument to, the Jews looked to be doomed for obscurity as their dynamism dwindled and their creativity crashed to a near-halt. It's all relative, though, and you can't deny that this is a great release just because it isn't as brilliant as those before. If we give up on them, they'll give up on us.

30. The Legendary Pink Dots - Plutonium Blonde
By this point, they really are legends - for close to three decades and dozens of releases, they've provided a convincing argument against the societal norm. Never reaching too far into the mainstream, but never getting too weird, the Dots combine songwriting talent build from years of experience with the intelligence to evolve as music does. Cynical and mysterious, but never too hard.

29. Where Are You Liam? - A Case of Liquid Melancholy
If shoegaze is glass, then this is glass broken. It's got a post-rock flavor it picked up from the rest of Europe, but it's bitter it with pure Russian musical vodka. Still, though, you can see the subtle smoothness of the bottle smashed, and the jagged edges have razor sharp precision. Quite the experience to listen to, if you can find the energy.

28. Ty Segall - Ty Segall
If you needed more proof that the Sixties never died, look to this surf-rock treasure. It might have worse production quality than Link Wray, but that just adds to the charm. It really feels like some unknown genius from those times was frozen, set adrift, finally thawed, and then became outraged with the music today. I'm in love and I can't even tell what he's saying.

27. Autechre - Quaristice
I always imagined that Autechre and Squarepusher had an unfriendly rivalry and were always trying to outdo each other. All knowledge I have of the people associated with each act serves to disprove this, but in my mind I cannot help but award this imaginary round to Autechre. It's much more dynamic than Squarepusher's latest, pushing IDM to places it hasn't been since Aphex Twin's glory days.

26. A Silver Mt. Zion - 13 Blues for 13 Moons
Godspeed You! Black Emperor is dead and gone, and the torch passed on may be dying out. A Silver Mt. Zion, GY!BE's favorite son, seems to be going through a rocky time without his father's guidance. The experimental segments of pure drone and washing oceans of sound might be somewhat off putting compared to their earlier works, but the post-rock beast that lumbers through tracks like "1,000,000 Died to Make this Sound" cannot be stopped! Still a jaw-dropping album.

25. Maybeshewill - Not For Want of Trying
The album title couldn't be more apt. Maybeshewill expanded on the best of their EP while wisely not salvaging the more broken bits, and the result is a show-stopping affair of driving post-rock, IDM and indie-style music, all of which obviously reflect a band that has put an unimaginable amount of effort in their work. The whole thing is a lot of fun, suspenseful without ever being boring, and makes me optimistic for future releases by the group. Also has some pretty sick cover art.

24. Islands - Arm's Way
The Unicorns were too silly, and thus came the Islands. The Islands were too random, so they settled down for Arm's Way, and maybe they'll regret it. Sure, it's the same great songwriting, the same exciting song structure, and the whole thing is undeniably fun, it's just that I can almost mistake them for another band now. The band is growing up, and I'm already nostalgic for when I could hold them in the palm of my hand.

23. Mount Eerie - Lost Wisdom
They aren't The Microphones anymore, and maybe they aren't as good as they were back then, but they're still something special. And now, allied with Canadian musicians Julie Doiron and Fred Squire, two people I admittedly had never heard of before, they can finally release an album, that, if not up to the standards of The Glow Pt. 2, is a solid addition to their discography. The album leaks a subtle grace over everything it does, and the result is a warm, almost haunting collection of melodies to dream deep to.

22. Tindersticks - The Hungry Saw
This is modest rock, a delightful oxymoron of tender writing with a passionate spirit, masked only partially by some desire to make every song a lullaby. It exists as the ghost of a harder rock, a spirited journey down a winding river, playful and curious, but with the wisdom of an old man. Absolutely lovely.

21. A-Trak - Dirty South Dance
A love letter from one of the world's most talented DJs to crap rap everywhere. True, very few, if any samples used could hold up under scrutiny on their own, but this collection of brain-dead club jams, laughable gangster rhymes and catchy, if simple, house manages to be incredibly catchy, exciting, and even smart. Hands down the party album of the year.

20. Forest Fire - Untitled 2008
My apologizes if it has been given a title since I last checked. This release of bluesy indie rock, filled with melancholy acoustic guitar, is almost embarrassingly humble in presenting itself. But when they bring in a horn section, or break down the song into a vocal section, you can tell that they aren't so modest as to not know when they're writing great music. And I'm almost positive they'll only continue to improve as the years go on.

19. Animal Collective - Water Curses EP
It's four tracks, yeah. Four great tracks. Perhaps made in response to the criticism that Strawberry Jam was too pop, too easy, the Collective goes retroactive, proving that they can still write like they did in any era. The title track seems right off of Feels, and is one of the catchiest tunes of the year. "Street Flash" has the screams and spaced-out suspense of their earliest works, only with more refinement of their years of experience. "Cobwebs" would be at home as one of the more song-like tracks on Sung Tongs, and never fails to leave me on the edge of my seat. "Seal Eyeing", vapor-based and fleeting, brings the sound into a world of ambiance that the band has only flirted with before. If not the jam of a lifetime, the little EP is easily the jam of the year.

18. Talkdemonic - Eyes at Half Mast
Talkdemonic does a lot of things no other band would try, like having the audacity to call themselves "folktronic". They write beats for a rap group that could never exist. They strum a guitar like a cyborg Neil Young. But mainly, they make catchy, accessible-yet-deep instrumental music like no other band could.

17. sleepy.ab - Archive
I hear them called "The Japanese Sigur Ros" quite often, which is a pretty appropriate label. It's one, however, that they were obviously never told about. sleepy.ab gets more jazzy, more progressive than their Icelandic counterpart, and their vocals hit with a lot more power, and a few octaves lower. Sure, there isn't a whole lot of variety on this or any of their other releases, but when they can write music this beautiful, why mess with it? It's a relaxing experience straight out of the most passive romantic-comedy anime soundtrack.

16. Pivot - O Soundtrack My Heart
Pivot's previous release, Make Me Love You, is very dear to my heart. One of my favorite things about it was the hints it gave to great things in the band's future. This was not exactly what I had in mind. I love to see a band that never lets itself be content with a sound, but Pivot's reluctance to fully realize the sound they were initially making is regrettable. As it stands, O Soundtrack My Heart is a nice album, full of good exciting bits and catchy melodies, but only on few occasions can you catch glimpses of the brilliance they once proudly displayed. It sounds like this is their first album.

15. Water Fai - Girls in the White Dream
Girls in the White Dream is an inexplicably apt label for the music contained here: it exists not really as music, but as a wonderful dream about a post-rock band that makes unimaginably good music. The whole thing is blissful, soothing, melodic, a gentle waterfall of sound on your head. I really can't recommend it enough, even though I've already expended two Pitchfork review's worth of hyperbolic, pretentious praise on the thing.

14. Fuck Buttons - Sweet Horrrsing
Someday, maybe, noise will be on the radio for reasons besides a malfunctioning soundboard. Fuck Buttons makes me think so, at least. Don't get me wrong, the sound is still harsh, unrelenting and brutal, an unqualified assault on the ears, but you can catch glimpses of it falling into place as actual songs. It's outsider art done by Michelangelo, even though it's just a pile of trash, set on fire and dropped in feces, you can see that it is done by the master. Likewise, the unmistakable sound of great music being made shines through, or perhaps shines brighter because of, the raw noise through which it is assembled.

13. Dead Meadow - Old Growth
They call it stoner rock, and they try to make you think they're hard, but here you can see they're not so tough. This is sentimental, sad, heart-warming rock, backed by amazing musicianship and writing. It rekindles your love for dad's rock, the classic sixties and seventies albums he used to - and still does - throw into the car's tape deck when heading off on some big roadtrip to a relative. And even if you never had that experience, can't you just picture it, hearing this?

12. M83 - Saturdays = Youth
There was a band who once told me to lower my eyelids to die with the sun, and made me want to. There's a band of today that tells me to fall in love, but in a different way, but I want to all the same. This seems like the final evolution of eighties synth, well now into the evolved song structure and sophisticated focus of the 21st century, but it still has that eighties charm, that eighties romance, that eighties dream. It's wide open, a horizon of a wonderful land, and earnest and diligent throughout the sound. M83 was always a band to wander about in a melody, and Saturdays=Youth seems contrastingly restrained and linear, but it's no worse for it. Songs build and fall majestically, the vocals intertwine with a angelic falsetto and charming lyrics, and the whole thing might just leave you breathless and wanting more, if you let it.

11. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
I saw Vampire Weekend live this summer and was thoroughly impressed. Not just by the music, but by the exuberance of the band. I noticed, with some amusement, that the lead singer was, during all of the other bands' sets, standing statuesque at the edge of the stage, arms folded, in a formal suit, looking very intense. My only thought was, "who does he think he is?". When it was time for their set, he answered me decisively, bounding out in swim trunks and a brimming smile. I thought, how appropriate for their band, acting sophisticated, pretending to be some great lords of music, when deep down everyone, especially them, knows they're just there to have fun. And a lot of fun can be had on this self-titled release. The whole indie-rock spirit is strong still in these jams, filled with little clever and silly rhymes and tweed-out guitar. Just... why does their album say "as seen on MTV"?

10. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
Sure, there's "White Winter Hymnal", which I don't think I'm in love with as much as everyone else is, for whatever reason. Beyond that, though, is a whole album full of such beautiful harmonies and excellent singing. There isn't a whole lot to say about the affair that I haven't already heard repeated a thousand times. It's just a blast to listen to, plain and simple.

9. Deerhunter - Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.
I really am glad that these were chosen to be released together as one double release, because otherwise I would've had a lot of difficulty choosing between the two. And don't get me wrong, Deerhunter was good before, but this is the dawn of a new (weird) era for the band. The duality, contrasts and links between the two albums are really beyond the scope of what I can summarize about the releases in this space, and new, subtle connections reveal themselves upon every listen. This is simply thrilling music, something to catch and hold onto.

8. Boris - Smile
Boris has become such a tank, such a reliable output of noise rock and sludgy, Japanese metal, that even when a release only manages to capture the spirit of the band without even building much on it, it still ends up excellent. Releasing that they couldn't outdo [i]Pink[/i], Boris wisely went in another direction, an almost self-parody type look at noise and metal, with an eighties aesthetic but perfection in sound that is uniquely 21st century. It's a surging send up of metal from all eras, and comes out being uniquely entertaining and exciting on it's own merits. It's the near-hilarious constant battle between the band's hazy, stoner acoustics and their Lightning Bolt-style electrics that makes it so listenable time and time again, and the over-the-top metal jacket it wears is the icing on the cake. These sort of things don't come along too often.

7. YMCK - Family Genesis
Chiptune is a pretty ridiculous genre. This I cannot deny, no more than I can deny that, despite being generally good music, Crystal Castles has only served to make people associate the music with Alice Glass's ass, just as The Depreciation Guild has associated it with good, but gimmicky, post rock. The chiptune release that I loved most this year had no promise of sweeping post-rock nor hot chick to fall back on, and it managed still to deliver the best and purest chiptune this side of the Mega Man 9 soundtrack (although it is actually better than the Mega Man 9 soundtrack, sorry to mislead you). If this is Family Genesis, then their previous two albums must have been Family Sega Master System (ha ha). Seriously, though, the level of maturity shown here is huge, and yet totally invisible. Yes, it's still the same NES-quality melodies, mixed with sugary, wonderful female vocals. But YMCK seem now to totally have grasped the idea of a subtle progression that they noticed, but ultimately ignored, in their first two albums. The whole thing is just pure joy.

6. Raccoo-oo-oon - Raccoo-oo-oon
A young band that starts of doing whatever they want and ending up with very few people liking them usually evolves into either some sell-outs who pack stadiums or acclaimed artists who can barely get by. After that they usually sell out more, feel the wrath of their once loyal fans, and sink into a deep mediocrity, or give up on the whole music thing, ending on what hopefully would be known as their high note. Raccoo-oo-oon does the latter. There's a certain ominous quality to listening to a band who says that they will break up after the album. It's the sense that they are saying, this here is the best we will do, this is our masterpiece, after this, there is nothing. And even if later, they reunite, turn around, sell out and make crappy music for decades, there still stands this time when they thought they had hit their top. I doubt that will happen with this band, though they do sell out a bit here. Yeah, it's the same rollicking, drum slamming, bell clanging and guttural roaring of their past releases, but here they dumb it down just a bit to let us in. They have really built quite a place to enter into, as well: the wall-of-sound that makes itself obvious truly serves to beautifully mask the subtle, genius songwriting. That's how I feel, at least. It's pretty much just noise, though. Take it or leave it.

5. Spiritualized - Songs in A&E
He was once floating through space, aloof with heroin and dreaming about music he couldn't really write down. Since then, he seems to have crashed, screamed out in pain, and now lies in the hospital, dreaming again. Songs in A&E seems remorseful, sad and distant, but contains the unmistakable passion of a man writing for a reason. There seems to be a progression, an evolution taking place over the album. What starts out as frustration and self-pity soon turns to realization and acceptance. It is in the style of the Kübler-Ross model, but expands on the ideas into his personal experiences and views. Interspersed through the album as a way of continuing the flow without making tracks unable to stand on their own are the harmonies, six short tracks that, while offering very little, provide the foundation of the whole thing. It's this balance of minimalism and production, with passionless passionate writing, that makes the whole thing so interesting. And it's the brilliance of Jay Spaceman that makes it interesting. What can a man say after coming back from the brink of death? Apparently, something incredible.

4. Why? - Alopecia
Why? makes an album about suicide and names it after balding. He writes a song about hanging himself and makes you laugh, then writes about nothing at all and makes you cry. He doesn't rap much, because you're expecting him to. He sings a lot, because he's a better singer than Kanye West, and because otherwise, it would be too boring. He puts horses and clouds on the cover, because, at this point, why not? The whole album is unmistakable quality. The lyrics are great, the singing is great, the beats are great, the overall theme and cyclic nature of the album is great. Any aspect you could think to look at turns out great. By expanding the Why? name to include Andrew Broder of Fog, he increases the creative genius behind the album tenfold. The two play off each other just as brilliantly as they did as Hymie's Basement, but now tackle writing with a focused determination to make great songs. It's creepy, it's cheery, it's insightful, it's depressing. It's amazing, is what it is.

3. The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride
John Darnielle doesn't seem too sad anymore. He doesn't seem angry either. So, it seems suitable that he is done writing about himself for now. He's focused, or unfocused, again at the world at large, and his range of emotional responses and lyrical insights is impressive. Sometimes it's borderline silly, but he is smart enough never to force the importance of his work. Often, though, it hits deep and knowingly, with the kind of wonderful songwriting experience that only someone in his position can have. His characters are interesting, compelling and you're always left wondering what will become of them and everyone else. I hope he writes more books.

2. Sigur Rós - Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
Deep down, I think Sigur Ros want to be popular. Five albums in and they still haven't captured the real spirit of Ágætis byrjun again, but now they don't even seem to be trying. They're more down to earth now, playful, exciting, playing like some bizarre mix of Animal Collective and mum. They still make massive music, assembling gigantic choirs and arrays of string instruments. But now the most dramatic parts seem out of place, not the highlights they once were. What's replaced them is more experimental, peppy music, not out of place with America's beloved indie-rock. Sigur Ros seem to be edging closer and closer towards pure mainstream success, and they don't want to shy away. This choice, however, could lead to their most brilliant or detestable music yet. And although this release doesn't rank among their best, it is still very far from a disgrace.

1. TV on the Radio - Dear Science,
There's a good variety. It's well produced. I don't like it as much as Return to Cookie Mountain. but it's still very good. So good that I can't really say anything about it, sorry.

well, that's it. that ate up most of a day. hooray!

oh yeah honorable mentions!
elbow - the seldom seen kid
kaki king - dreaming of revenge
nick cave and the bad seeds - dig lazarus dig!!!

also my bonus award for my most hated album of the year:
li'l wayne - tha carter iii

1 comment:

Anonymous said...



and I was always breathing manually.