2008 was a relatively disappointing year in music. My Bloody Valentine played some shows, but didn’t put out that album they promised. Axl Rose put out Chinese Democracy, and, um, yeah. Plenty of our favorite bands put out decent but inessential albums (we’re looking at you, Stephen Malkmus, Lambchop, Stereolab, Deerhoof, Destroyer, Girl Talk, Wolf Parade, Max Tundra, and Magnetic Fields), while other cherished artists hit (what will hopefully be) their nadir (Fiery Furnaces’ interminable live album, Mercury Rev’s atrocity, Silver Jews’ unfun silliness). Chalk it up to heightened expectations and an engorged sense of entitlement derived from a decade of internet piracy. Still, there were some great records that came out this year. These were our favorite. We haven’t spent much time putting them in order, but the top three are pretty concrete.
THE EIGHT BEST ALBUMS OF 2008
My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges
People kind of hated this album, but we thought it was a hoot. Sure, in a sense, it wasn’t Z Part II, but it did live up to that 2006 effort’s relentless genre-hopping. From the opening title track’s clumsy soul-singing, to the James Taylor schmaltz of “Sec Walkin,” to the Cameo-isms of “Highly Suspicious” (peanut butter puddin’ surprise, anyone?) the album is all over the place. But we like that. “Smokin’ from Shootin'” is lovely, and album closer “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream pt 2” is funtastic krautrock done right. If Ween had made Evil Urges, we’re sure it would’ve been roundly lauded. I guess there was a general concern that MMJ were serious about these songs. Give it a second (or first!) listen.
Fucked Up, The Chemistry of Modern Life
So Kevin Shields didn’t get a new MBV record out. So what? The Chemistry of Modern Life isn’t a substitution or replacement, but an extension of MBV’s signature shoegaze sound, only brought up to date for the angry aughties via vocalist Pink Eye’s hardcore vocals. Fucked Up’s record is sorta like putting all those great SST records you grew up on (early Dinosaur, Black Flag, the Minutemen, Sister) in a blender. Great result.
Gang Gang Dance, Saint Dymphna
Speaking of blending influences, Gang Gang Dance’s Saint Dymphna does a great job of mixing genres and cultures without ever seeming calculated or cynical or hackneyed. Tracks like “First Communion” and “House Jam” are fun and serious psychedelic dance music, and “Princes,” guest-starring rapper Tinchy Stryder sorta creates a new genre all together. We like.
Fennesz, Black Sea
Black Sea might be a strange counterpart to Fucked Up’s Chemistry. It’s harsher than Endless Summer, and lacks the warmth of Venice, but Christian Fennesz’s new album–like Fucked Up’s–orchestrates beauty from (cognitive) dissonance and distills some of the grim anger that’s characterized world politics for the latter part of this decade into a thick, sometimes lovely-sometimes frightening haze. A record that the listener is asked to feel.
Animal Collective, Water Curses
Sure, it’s an EP, but Animal Collective’s Water Curses was on repeat around Biblioklept World Headquarters for most of the year. The jovial title track has a pop immediacy that doesn’t wear out its welcome even after the hundredth listen, but it’s Avey Tare’s “Street Flash,” weird and beautiful and slow, that really steals the show. Water Curses is that rare gem, a series of outtakes that actually outshines the album from which they were excised (Strawberry Jam). Animal Collective have proven to be one of the best new bands of this rapidly aging decade, and the recently-leaked “Brother Sport” from their upcoming LP indicates that they will only get better with age.
TV On The Radio, Dear Science
Chock full of hooks, horn blasts, and hand claps, Dear Science should sound cluttered and overstuffed. Instead, TV On The Radio have followed up 2006’s outstanding effort Return to Cookie Mountain with a fantastic pop rock record, where all the bells and whistles (including the horn section from Antibalas) simply add to the listening experience. Where Cookie Mountain‘s songs seemed constructed out of gorgeous textures layered around Tunde Adebimpe’s sonorous voice, Dear Science comes across as a more focused album comprised of radio-ready songs. Opener “Halfway Home” builds to epic speed, “Crying” is death-disco done perfect, “Dancing Choose” channels “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in both its anger and its humor, while songs like “Family Tree” and “Love Dog” showcase Adebimpe’s cathartic voice. What many of the bands detractors might not get is that funky tracks like “Golden Age” and “Red Dress” should be pop radio staples right now–TV On The Radio aren’t experimental art rock, they’re an alternate future-now for pop music.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Lie Down in the Light
We are pretty old. In fact, we’re old enough to have thought it was weird when the Palace Brothers became Palace Music (this didn’t get in the way of loving Viva Last Blues (which we listened to on audiocassette, on our Walkman!)). So by the time Palace had become Will Oldham had become Bonnie “Prince” Billy, there were so many 7″s and Spanish import EPs and live bootlegs (oh the live bootlegs!) that it all became a bit too much to keep track of. Not to say that we didn’t enjoy Ease on Down the Road or the strange strings on The Letting Go, but Will seems to put out a new record every Tuesday. So we were slow to respond to Lie Down in the Light. Which is a shame. Because it is probably his best record. We imagine that many people interested in Oldham might be daunted by his vast back catalog. If you, dear reader, are such a person, take heed: Lie Down in the Light is a fantastic place to start. The songs on Lie Down are about family and friends, singing, sex, closeness, and a good, good God. The death, weirdness, incest, loss, and stark pain that’s permeated many of Oldham’s previous recordings might seem absent here, but that darkness is here–in Oldham’s voice. How else could he sound so convincing on the title track when he sings: “Who’s gonna hold my heart / Who’s gonna be my own own own? / Who’s gonna know when all is dark that she is not alone?”
The Walkmen, You & Me
A night album, a moon album, a growler, a grower. We listened to it once, and then put it on again. And then again. And then again. Let’s start with the music: the main instrument is Hamilton Leithauser’s world-weary voice, and the rest of the band works around it, with meticulous percussion and bass lines that carry the musicality of each song. The guitars, organs, and extra touches like horns and strings are used to grand effect, but never crowd the track. And the music is really, really great. Adding another layer of complexity to You & Me, Leithauser’s lyrics seem to tell an impressionistic story over the course of the album’s fifty minutes. The opener, “Dónde Está la Playa,” seems to tell the story of a soured affair with a married woman the narrator has while on vacation. The same narrator seems to move, quite literally, through the songs, lamenting about a life on the road while also recognizing the small joys and adventures that come with such a lifestyle. On “Seven Years of Holidays,” Leithauser cries “Well, I’ve traveled so far and I’m worn / And I’ve lived in a suitcase for too long” before conceding that “The whole world around us is too small.” On the gorgeous and lilting “Red Moon,” he pines: “Tomorrow morning / I hope to be home / By your side,” but he has to admit that “The riptide is pulling me under / I’m drifting, drifting away.” Tracks like “New Country” and “Canadian Girl” take a more positive outlook, but it’s the stellar build of “In the New Year” that best captures the feel of the album. “Oh, I’m just like you, I never hear the bad news / And I never will” Leithauser growls over a triumphant organ riff. “We won by a landslide / Our troubles are over” he continues, before taking the dream to a hyperbole beyond reality: “My sisters are married to all of my friends.” But as the song builds, the organ becomes dissonant, breaking into the sweetness of the fantasy. By the end of the album, the fantasy is totally punctured, as evidenced in the wistful closer “If Only It Were True.” And that’s when the listener hits repeat. You & Me is an album-album, not simply a collection of great songs, and we’d love to hear more works like this next year. Great stuff.