Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best Albums of 2008: #15-1

Okay, so here's the part of the list that matters:

15. Vampire Weekend by Vampire Weekend

I tried so hard to hate this album, I really did. With all the hype in its favor, I felt some sort of obligation to dislike it. And when I first listened to the album I tried to convince myself that it was just mediocre American world music. But then the songs got stuck in my head, and I couldn't stop listening to it. It would be grudgingly at first, until eventually it was genuine affection. Let's not kid ourselves, though, Vampire Weekend write some toothless music, and it's really something that's enjoyable to listen to more than it's important music. But that being said, I could happily listen to this album all day. The cheery, West African-influenced guitar and detail-laden lyrics work harmoniously together in crafting a friendly, although not particularly challenging, and excellent pop record.

14. Alopecia by WHY?

"I'm not a ladies man/I'm a landmine/Filming my own fake death." That's how Yoni Wolf and his band mates in WHY? chose to open their latest album. The rest of the album pretty much follows suit. Wolf mixes a deadpan sense of humor with intense candor, and opens up about sex, death, sex, love, sex, God, and then sex again. If the neuroses of the modern male mind doesn't sound like fertile ground for creating a hook-filled record, think again. Alopecia sounds strikingly similar to another smart ass dude, Beck circa- Mellow Gold. Like Beck, WHY? defy easy categorization, straddling the line between hip-hop and indie rock, but everything is tied together by the words of Wolf, who writes like a hip-hop artist, concerning himself with internal rhythm and enjambment, but delivers the lines like an indie rocker playing dress-up. These dichotomies are what makes the album so successful and interesting. The mix of the vulgar and the intellectual, the obtuse with the straightforward.

13. The Chemistry of Common Life by Fucked Up

I've heard this album called hardcore for hipsters, which is, to a certain extent, true. But it's still a really good album. I tend to have a hard time reading an album review by Pitchfork which name drops SST records (like their review for this record did), so it would make sense to dislike this album similar to the way one would dislike the Vampire Weekend album. But like the Vampire Weekend album, it's just too good to dislike it. What strikes me as really bizarre about the backlash against this album is that it doesn't sound too different from other Fucked Up releases. Is it a bit more polished? Well, sure. But Damian Abraham is still growling like his life depends on it, Mike Haliechuk still shreds like nobodies business, and Jonah Falco still bangs on his drums as hard as possible. Is it as hard-hitting as Hidden World? No. But it is just as, if not more, interesting to listen to. What was lost in the hardcore department was made up for in melodic and instrumental diversity. Will this be an album that will "save hardcore"? Probably not. But who ever said hardcore needed saving? Not this guy. But what I do say is that this album is a very worthy addition to the hardcore cannon.

12. Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes

I'm not going to lie. I didn't love this album the first time I listened to it, but it grew on me. A lot. This is a record that seems to reject modern music, and instead looks back to Americana, California pop, and classic country music, pulling the disparate elements of each into a thoroughly satisfying sound. At its core, though, this is a record that is about vocal harmonies. The gents of Fleet Foxes have become masters of harmonizing, and sounding about as spectacular together as any modern musical group can, and this is clear from the very beginning of the record with "Sun Also Rises," which begins with a vocal harmony that sounds straight out of a West Virginia church fifty years ago. The lyrics may not mean a whole lot, what with their constant references to rural landscapes and birds and whatnot, but the harmonious vocals and Appalachian bluegrass-esque instrumentation pull you in, so it really doesn't matter.

11. In Ghost Colours by Cut Copy

Cut Copy seem to not care about the fact that they are part of a dying musical scene. Let's be clear about one thing, the ironic and self-conscious indie dance-pop is about as hackneyed as a genre can get. And yet, here is Cut Copy's second album that follows most of the generic tropes that one can associate with the aforementioned scene (minus most of the irony and self-consciousness), and it's fantastic. I don't know if its the lack of pretense on the record that I like so much, or if its the flat-out uplifting lyrics, or if its the fact that the music is just so, well, dance-y. Either way, in a year that saw a disappointing Ghostland Observatory album and a mediocre Does It Offend You, Yeah? debut, its tough to not love In Ghost Colours' swirling synths, hook-filled choruses, and earnestness.

10. Dear Science by TV on the Radio

I don't think you can begin to talk about the latest from the dudes in TVotR without acknowledging the fact that this record is the weakest of their three full lengths. Perhaps Dave Sitek's time would have been better spent not helping Scarlett Johansson produce a whole lot of mediocrity. However, that being said, a sub-par TV on the Radio album is still a lot better than a lot of the music that was tossed our way this year. TV on the Radio have always seemed to have an uneasy relationship with making popular music, and here is no different. Even though its catchy as hell and slick as shit, there is still a temerity about fame and popularity that is here on display in the lyrics, most of which have to do with death, decline, and other cheery topics. It isn't all doom and gloom, though. "Lover's Day" might be the best song about sex since "Let's Get It On." That ability to let the lovely sit alongside the bleak that makes Dear Science a really good record. The juxtaposition of the two give both sentiments a fragility and poignancy that neither would have had alone. And since love and death are all over this record, its definitely a great and interesting listen, even if it isn't as great or interesting as TVotR releases have been in the past.

9. Third by Portishead

I went through a pretty big trip-hop phase when I was in high school, and Portishead's first two albums were my go to albums. I mean, Portishead was basically the face of trip-hop; the masters of a genre. I don't think there's any question that trip-hop is an essentially dead genre, so what makes Portishead's first album in eleven years so fantastic is how it isn't a trip-hop revival album, it's an almost complete reinvention of their sound. Beyond being a reinvention, Portishead manage to sound like they are, once again, ahead of the electronica curve. If you want evidence of this just listen to the album's first single, "Machine Gun." The starts and stops and electronic blips sound simultaneously like a throwback and startlingly new, especially when that super dirty synth comes in toward the end. If it wasn't for the presence of Beth Gibbons as the unifying factor between mid-1990s Portishead and Third Portishead I wouldn't believe that it was the same group. And yet, against all odds, it is. It's more than a return to form (really, though, they never fell from grace to begin with), it's a group rising from the ashes to become important again, demanding to be heard, even by those who thought they wouldn't want, or need, to hear them again.

8. Take Me to the Sea by Jaguar Love

When I first heard that ex-Blood Brothers Johnny Whitney and Cody Votolato were teaming up with former Pretty Girls Make Graves member Jay Clark to form an art punk supergroup I was beside myself with joy. Finally a super group that isn’t god awful! Needless to say, their debut album was highly anticipated (for me at least). Whatever expectations I had were met and then some. It’s a very hard to pin down album that is equal parts glam, punk, post, and dance rock. Likewise, Johnny Whitney’s lyrics are surreal, but have enough sentiment to not make them disposable. Some find Whitney’s almost-pre-pubescent-boy vocals grating. It is the type of singing that you can’t really be neutral about. But it fits the band and its slightly indulgent, but infectious, sound. This is a love-it or hate-it album. I love it, and I defy you to listen to "Bats Over the Pacific," and not like it. As a friend of mine has been overheard saying, open mind yourself.

7. Airing of Grievances by Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus is an emo band for people who hate emo bands. They’re also a hyper literate band for people who hate hyper literate bands. Such is the contradiction that is Titus Andronicus. They’re debut album borrows a bit from The Pixies, Black Flag, and Bruce Springsteen, but its all so convincingly put together that you barely even notice their influences. The production mimics what it would sound like to hear the band playing a basement show from the kitchen, which makes for an interesting and gritty effect that matches the band's somewhat bleak world view (their credos range from ironically shouting "good times are here again," to "fuck you!"). Lead singer Patrick Stickles has a voice that sounds like Conor Oberst yelling at a bear, which is made not only tolerable but pleasant by the manic energy of his band and the tightly constructed songs. It might sound like a mess, but it’s a fantastic mess.

6. The Stand-Ins by Okkervil River

Conceived as the second half to last year’s “Stage Names,” Okkervil River’s latest offering divided critics and fans alike. I found myself thoroughly enthralled by The Stand Ins. It isn’t as immediately accessible as its predecessor, but it is a more than worthy companion. In “Lost Coastlines” and “Calling and Not Calling My Ex,” bandleader Will Sheff has created two of this year’s best songs. They are straight forward yet elusive; cheery but with a strain of melancholy. Sort of like the album as a whole.

5. Same Old Song by Greg Baldwin & the Aesthetics

Much was made of just-out-of-college bands Vampire Weekend and Ra Ra Riot this year. Nothing was made of this still-in-college band from New York’s Westchester County. Baldwin and Co aren’t out to reinvent the wheel, they just want to make you dance a little bit and smile even more. They succeed. Their debut album is chock full of fantastically catchy (but not saccharine) power-pop ditties that you can’t help but love and then replay. Whether or not Baldwin and his Aesthetics will carry on post-college is still a question. Hopefully they will, as Baldwin has proven himself a very capable songwriter, and the band matches him every step of the way.

4. Stay Positive by The Hold Steady

In a year chock-full of bands who released albums that were weaker than past efforts The Hold Steady stand in stark contrast to that trend. Although they already have three fantastic albums under their belts, the gents in The Hold Steady continue to use classic rock tropes and implementing them in a modern setting. —“Me and my friends are like/the drums on Lust for Life/we pound it out on floor toms/Our songs are sing-a-long songs,” The Hold Steady’s frontman Craig Finn sings/speaks on, “Constructive Summer,” the opening track of “Stay Positive.” It’s almost as if Finn has reached through thirty years of recorded music, grabbed Iggy Pop by the throat, and shook him around while yelling, “We will rock harder than you.” They do. It’s awesome.

3. Feed the Animals by Girl Talk

I tend to go back and forth on whether or not some of the samples on Girl Talk's fourth release would be just as good on their own as they are mashed up with one another. To a pretty significant extent the samples that Girl Talk (otherwise known as Mr. Gregg Gillis) uses are irrelevant. What does matter is how they go together, and here Gillis uses over 300 samples and each goes together amazingly well. This is a crowd pleaser of a record, though. Gillis is less interested in showing off how obscure he can be and more interested in sharing his love for pop music as he stands above the crowd yelling, "you recognize this right? Isn't it the shit?" This is, to a certain extent, the pop version of 2006's Night Ripper, which was a bit glitchier and a bit harder to get your hands around. Either way, Gillis and his 300+ super recognizable samples all work in the name of creating one of the the greatest pieces of pop art since Warhol started doodling soup cans. Plus, there is a sort of bent appeal to hearing Tom Petty’s “American Girl” sped up with Timbaland’s “Drop” playing over it.

2. For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver

Although technically released in 2007, the incredibly poignant debut album from Bon Iver (a.k.a. Justin Vernon) got a proper release from Jagjaguwar Records in 2008. “For Emma, Forever Ago” is largely made up of demos Vernon recorded while in self-imposed exile at a winter cabin in the woods of northern Wisconsin. This is the ultimate break-up record, with Vernon’s voice exuding a loneliness and pain that it is almost uncomfortable to listen to. But, the quiet guitar strumming and delicate lyrics create such an immediate intimacy that it’s hard to not be taken in by Vernon’s openness. In an age where emotional lyrics are more a business plan than anything else, there is a lot to be admired in someone who is sincere when he puts his heart on his sleeve.

1. Rabbit Habits by Man Man

Lurking behind the circus-show front this Philly based band puts up is a wounded showman in the form of Honus Honus. While the music may be bizarre, the lyrics are positively devastating. Songs like the title track and "Easy Eats or Dirty Doctor Galapagos" both paint the portraits of relationships gone wrong in the form of three minute pop songs of the absurd. What makes Man Man’s latest offering truly spectacular is that they present songs that cover a lot of the same thematic territory as other pop songs (admittedly, the eight-plus minute long “Dear Jackie,” which imagines being murdered by a female Jack the Ripper, isn’t exactly standard pop fare), but do it in a completely original and inventive way. It’s a fantastic album that is head and shoulders above everything else that came out this year.

Best Albums of 2008: # 25-16

So, we've finally reached that time: the best albums of the year. Numbers 25-16 aren't in any order, just because in past years I've only done a top fifteen with honorable mentions, but those honorable mentions essentially served as numbers 16 through 25. So, why break with tradition? In any case, let's get this shit started.

The '59 Sound by The Gaslight Anthem

The Gaslight Anthem's sophomore release operates as an interesting thought experiment. What if Bruce Springsteen was brought up on Black Flag and Agent Orange instead of whatever the fuck Bruce Springsteen listened to when he was young? The similarities between this Jersey based quartet and The Boss aren't lost on anyone, and this is actually the most oft-commented upon of the band's many attributes. However, the comparisons are just as unfair as they are apt. The Gaslight Anthem may work Springsteen territory in their glorification of the...'59 Sound (sorry) and blue collar work ethic, but they never ape the Jersey giant. The tropes commonly associated with the acts to whom The Gaslight Anthem find themselves compared seem internalized, nothing about their somewhat anachronistic sound is forced. When they sing about a Cadillac it's because they actually give a shit about a Cadillac. The earnestness is genuine, and refreshing.

The 59 Sound - The Gaslight Anthem

Microcastle by Deerhunter

Bradford Cox has had a pretty busy year. In addition to tossing out the first Atlas Sound album he and the rest of Deerhunter gave us not one, but TWO new albums this year. As a testament to how cool Mr. Cox is, let us consider this simple fact: the reason that there are two full-length Deerhunter albums this year is that, upon hearing that Microcastle had leaked Cox decided to write and record another album for those fans who waited until the retail release. Pretty awesome. Also pretty awesome is Microcastle . I'm not going to lie, I don't like Microcastle as much as Deerhunter's breakthrough album, Cryptograms, but that being said there is still a lot to admire, from the Pavement-esque single, "Nothing Ever Happens," to the song about the breaking of childhood dreams, "Little Kids." With Microcastle Deerhunter take a step even further down the path of dream-pop, and it's a winning development.

Little Kids - Deerhunter

Hold On Now Youngster... by Los Campesinos!

I think that is is impossible to dislike Los Campesinos! Last year they threw two fantastic EPs our way (one of which landed on my 'best of list' last year), and this year they tossed two fantastic full-lengths our way. I think a good thanks to these Welsh folks is in order. The comparisons to Pavement fly around with reckless abandon, but I would also toss in fellow Arts & Crafts label mates Broken Social Scene and The Most Serene Republic as influences as well. They have the broad range of instrumentation of the aforementioned groups, as well as their penchant for bringing the emotional to the surface in their lyrics. Los Campesinos! aren't particularly concerned with hiding these influences, and their obvious love and enthusiasm for said influences is palpable on Hold On Now Youngster... Almost all of the appeal of the album is just how enthusiastic they are about the music they like, and the music they're making. Plus it sounds super happy, even if that sound is just a mask to hide the sad sack lyrics.

6 Knee Deep At ATP - Los Campesinos!

The Rhumb Line by Ra Ra Riot

I think by now the sad tale of Ra Ra Riot's past year has been well documented. Having a band member die must be one of the hardest things for a band to overcome, but Ra Ra Riot have managed to overcome the loss of their drummer and still make a record that is as uplifting as it is concerned with death. Don't get me wrong, there's death all over this record, but it's always with the caveat of recognizing that life is worth living to the fullest. Words to the wise. Plus, I can't help but love a rock band with a cellist.

Can You Tell - Ra Ra Riot

April by Sun Kil Moon

Mark Kozelek's second album of original material under the moniker Sun Kil Moon is about as chilled out as one would expect from a Mark Kozelek project. But where his first two Sun Kil Moon albums were mostly acoustic/low key electric guitar affairs, there is something about April that sounds more expansive. Just a bit. And it's lovely. Kozelek has always had a way of writing songs that aren't really stories, but come across as stories or character portraits. His strength as a lyricist, and, essentially, the album's core strength, really comes from his ability to be simple and plain spoken, and yet still seem to say more in those few words than most others could say in a thousand.

Lost Verses - Sun Kil Moon

Nouns by No Age

The DIY ethic associated with Los Angeles based band No Age (and The Smell, the club from which No Age is essentially based) is a pretty spectacular throwback to 1980s hardcore, and their music tends to reflect that throwback. Except it sounds like a dozen punk bands on the same mix, thus what makes No Age's debut album so good. They take elements that one finds typically comforting, and then buries them underneath a pile of distortion, effects, and feedback. They create a sound that is just as comforting as that original element, despite the somewhat alienating effects tossed on top.

Cappo - No Age

Saturdays=Youth by M83

M83 (really just Anthony Gonzalez)again return to their favorite decade (the 1980s) to pull out old sounds and present them in an un-ironic way. It is this aspect that sets M83 apart from most of their 80's stealing contemporaries: where most use the musical tropes of the 1980s for irony's sake, M83 are almost reverent in their approach to the music of their youth. They cherry pick only the best parts of 1980s pop and craft a love letter to a barely remembered decade. From the synthetic drums of "Kim & Jessie" to "Graveyard Girl" (which sounds more like The Edge than The Edge does) Gonzalez does create an album that, given our generation's ravenous appetite for anything and everything 1980s, really does capture the sound of youth.

Graveyard Girl - M83

The Bronx III by The Bronx

The Bronx are responsible for two of the best punk albums of the decade, and their third self-titled release isn't too bad either. It doesn't have the punch-you-in-the-fucking-face aggression of their debut, nor does it have the down and dirty (and other cliches) quality of their sophomore offering. In fact its a little bit, dare I say, poppy. The second self-titled album had some pop in it, but here it is on in full force. It's sort of bizarre to think of The Bronx as having "pop" qualities, and perhaps there is a stigma that comes with using the word pop that is inappropriate. What is certainly true, though, is that with their third album The Bronx have become more melodious, and that is definitely a welcome change. However, what is not lost is the band's energy, which inevitably carries them through the album's lulls, and makes you remember nothing but the highlights.

Six Days A Week - The Bronx

Santogold by Santogold

I would be less than forthcoming if I didn't say, right up front, that when I first heard Santogold (a.k.a Santi White) I cast her aside as an M.I.A. soundalike. I was wrong. White, a mudic industry veteran who has penned songs for Ashlee Simpson, does indeed get a somewhat global sound, like M.I.A., but instead of being filtered through a hip-hop lens, this is world music as filtered through a rock lens. And it can be pretty badass at times. "We think you're a joke/Shove your hope where it don't shine," she sings on "Shove It." But for every overtly badass moment on Santogold there is an equally heartfelt one. "Light's Out" sounds like it could be equally at home on the next Tegan & Sara album. I'm sure that the M.I.A. comparisons will haunt Santogold far into the future, but it's really an unfair comparison to make, and one which she will shake, because she deserves her own spotlight, she shouldn't have to try and fight to share with someone else.

Lights Out - Santogold

Visiter by Dodos

For a two-person operation Dodos' debut album has a surprisingly full sound, and it is a consistently surprising sound. A little bit of blues, a bit of folk, a bit of rock, and a bit of west African drumming all sit alongside one another. But they never feel like they shouldn't be next to one another. I don't tend think of quality music and technical musical proficiency as being co-dependent, in fact I rarely think of technical proficiency at all when evaluating an album. But here it is hard to ignore the fact that Meric Long and Logan Kroeber are extremely talented musicians, and this comes across beautifully in the simplistic generic frameworks within which they work. I tend to doubt that Dodos will ever breakthrough into big-time indie music success, to say nothing of mainstream success, but their debut is fantastic and I'm intrigued to see where this trio (they added a member during the course of the past year) will go. Wherever it is, I'm sure it will be fascinating.

Red and Purple - The Dodos