Sunday, December 21, 2008

My Favorite Albums of 2008 - Numbers 20 to 1

After a slight delay, I present to you, my top 20 favorite albums of 2008:

20. Phantom Planet – Raise the Dead – The band that started as a outlet for Jason Schwartzman to moonlight from acting to play the drums has consistently been putting out great alterna-rock, with the latest showing that they’ve spent a lot of quality time listening to The Bends-era Radiohead.

19. Terrible Twos – Jersey the Giant - The second album from the New Amsterdam offshoot was another great chunk of music for kids that the parents can love as well. And they have the distinct honor of being the only band to have a song called “Great Big Poop” on their album this year. (well, the only band THIS year anyways)

18. The Mars Volta – The Bedlam In Goliath – One of alternative rock’s most adventurous bands once again put together a great album with amazing instrumental performances and bizarre near-inscrutable lyrics, sounding like Santana trying to jam with a punk progressive rock band.

17. Nine Inch Nails – The Slip – One of the two albums on my top 20 list for the year that could be downloaded for free, this was once again a solid, focused effort by Trent Reznor and his cohorts.

16. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend – The album that easily wins the award for the most heavily debated and hyped release of the year, it proved to be one of the few times that the hype was pretty justified. Mixing punk, African rhythms and the influence (and shout-out) of Peter Gabriel, the band proved to be a perfect soundtrack to sunset on a lawn on a beautiful summer afternoon.

15. Raveonettes – Lust Lust Lust – Another release from early in the year, the Raveonettes again fused their Jesus & Mary Chain meet a 50’s girl group sound into an exhilarating set, with great track like “Dead Sound” and “Aly, Walk With Me” throwing their girl/guy vocals into massive walls of guitars.

14. The Kooks – Konk – This is one of the times when seeing a band live took some love out of an album for me unfortunately. Konk is a very solid set of Brit-flavored power-pop, but their bland run-through of half the album live took some of the love out of the album for me. Oh well.

13. The Gaslight Anthem – The ’59 Sound - One of the three best debut albums of the year, this was a pretty lucky find for me. I pretty much picked this one up since it was very cheap at Best Buy, and it turned into one of my favorite albums of the year. The band is very young, heavy on the histrionics a la Dashboard Confessional, with much more of a worship of the early Bruce Springsteen albums. A very solid album, I expect good things from them in 2009.

12. Kings of Leon – Only by the Night – Pretty shocking that this is already KOL’s fourth album, the band is still drifting away from their dirty southern rock that launched them and favoring the anthem heavy arena sound of their previous album. Works very well, especially with “Sex on Fire,” one of 2008’s best songs.

11. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes – Another of the best debuts of the year, this Seattle based band showed a heavy love of the harmonies of the Beach Boys at their best, while giving us a good reminder of how good the new My Morning Jacket album should have been. “Oliver James” has the most amazing vocal performance of the year, sounding like the nearly solo vocal song could have rattled the walls of the studio during the recording.

10. The Whigs – Mission Control – The last of a solid set of debut albums for 2008, this Atlanta trio brought back the power trio, with hints of Buffalo Tom and Ryan Adams breaking through in spots. The band also features one of the best new performers of the year, drummer Julian Dorio, whose kick drum forms the backbone of “Right Hand of My Heart,” another of my favorites from 2008.

9. The Stills – Oceans Will Rise – Yet another great Canadian band, the Stills put together another great album’s worth of songs giving us evidence of what The Band might sound like circa 2008.

8. Flight of the Conchords – Flight of the Conchords – By far the best intentionally funny cd of the year (and thus bypassing Scarlet Johannson and her unintentionally hilarious debut cd), the HBO comedy duo’s debut cd featured songs that weren’t just hilarious, but were also able to stand up to many, many listens throughout the year. And more importantly, you will learn the true reason why they are called “business socks” thanks to this cd.

7. Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs – For a while, this was looking like it was going to be my favorite cd of the year somehow. Not DCFC’s best cd by far (see: Transatlanticism), but it was still very strong in many spots, especially the gorgeous “Grapevine Fires” and the entrancing 8-minute-plus single “I Will Possess Your Heart.”

6. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive – This is the first confirmed case of my daughter picking out a band and liking them before me, and getting me to like them because of that. I had heard some of the Hold Steady’s music before the Pitchfork festival this year, and was underwhelmed by what I heard, despite the mounds of glowing reviews by critics. While the band was playing at the festival, Bella had me pick her up and pointed toward the stage so that she could see and hear them better.

I bought Stay Positive shortly after that, and after a couple of listens, was completely hooked. The band definitely gives off a Springsteen vibe, much like The Gaslight Anthem, except with more of a dark side and an emphasis on the darker side of town. The band somehow turned “Subpoena’d in Texas/Sequestered in Memphis” into one of the best choruses of the year, and didn’t stop there. They live up to their reputation as the best bar band in the world with fist-pumping anthems like “Yeah Sapphire” and the title track,

5. Girl Talk – Feed the Animals – I never would have guessed that this was going to be one of my favorite albums of the year. When mash-ups started becoming popular, along with dj’s in general, I laughed it off since it wasn’t “real” music played by people with actual instruments. One listen to Feed the Animals (which, as I have mentioned several times before, is still available here completely for free), and that completely blew that opinion out of the water.

Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, does an absolutely incredible job of pulling together songs that have absolutely nothing in common and making incredibly catchy and hilarious dance tracks from them. I will never be able to hear songs like Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl,” Big Country’s “In a Big Country” or NIN’s “Wish” thanks to what he has done with them on this album. It’s an absolutely amazing re-imagination of songs we have been hearing for the past 30+ years.

4. Sigur Ros – Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust – I’ve made it no secret that Sigur Ros is one of my favorite bands in the world, so I was a tad bit biased going into this one. I always treat their albums with an open mind, since you never know if it will be exceptional as usual or something more middle of the road.

I was pleasantly shocked after hearing the spirited openers “Gobbledigook” and “Inni mer syngur vitleysingur” that the band actually sounded HAPPY! Well, as always, the lyrics were sung in the Icelandic band’s made-up language Hopelandish, so for all I know he could have been singing about beating baby seals with his starving family’s last piece of bread, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t peppy and happy sounding otherwise!

The band was up to their old tricks later in the cd, with the sprawling, crawling beauty of songs like “Festival” slowly revealing themselves. The band also gets the award for Best Sneaking of Photos of Naked Asses Into Most American Major Retailers with the cd’s cover, although most stores used a very strategically placed sticker.

3. Bloc Party – Intimacy – With Bloc Party, you pretty much know what you are going to get with a cd, much like Sigur Ros, but in a completely different way. This was probably the cd I was most likely to busy a speaker with in my car this year, with their jittery and propulsive dance-rock hybrid pouring out at a spastic pace.

The opening tracks “Ares” and “Mercury” get things off to a great, breathless start, and the music only lets up in a few weaker points throughout the rest of the way. My other favorite track is “Ion Square,” which starts slowly off a synthesizer riff and builds slowly with a disco beat into a massive roar, surrounding some of frontman Kele Okereke’s most personal and revealing lyrics yet.

2. Local H – 12 Angry Months - After DCFC, this was looking to be my favorite album of 2008. I’ve been a fan on and off of Local H ever since their debut album back when I was in college, especially around their previous best album, Pack Up the Cats. 12 Angry Months takes a place in the hall of Great Breakup Albums, being fueled by the breakup of frontman Scott Lucas with his longtime girlfriend.

Lucas’s venom is apparent on humorous tracks like “February: Michelle (Again)” and “March: BMW Man,” and hits a high-point mid-album with “May: The Summer of Boats.” Lucas’s songwriting is definitely strengthened in this emotional and pain-filled year long assessment of the breakup, near reunion and eventual acceptance of moving on. A definite can’t miss album.

DRUM ROLL PLEASE: My pick for the best album of 2008:

1. TV on the Radio – Dear Science – I was completely shocked and baffled to see that the two publications whose music reviews I laugh at the most, Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, both agreed with me on the pick for the best album of 2008. I’m not sure if that means that I am losing my edge, or that they are finally coming around and getting some sense, we’ll see. I’m hoping it’s the later.

I can basically say with the latest album by TV on the Radio, Dear Science, that it was a case of love at first listen. I knew from the first time I heard the cd that it was definitely something special, and that it was definitely going to make my list of the best of the year. I’ve praised their past albums, but had a problem with the very dense nature of their compositions, since they seemed to be making a very dense mass when they could have opened things up a bit and let it breathe. Thankfully, they must have been reading my suggestions all along (I have no doubt that is the case), and the result is this spectacular album that is absolutely incredible.

Bringing to mind everyone from R.E.M. (with the speedy verses of their single “Dancing Choose” bringing to mind “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”) to Prince (with the falsetto vocals on “Crying” and the funky riffs of “Golden Age”), the band once again swirled their influences of doo wop, alternative rock, rap, and just about everything else into a mesmerizing collection of 11 tracks. The other highlights are the gorgeous and patient “Family Tree,” and the spirited closer “Lover’s Day,” which I thought at first sounded like a fantastic marching call-to-arms that would have made the perfect soundtrack to the next president’s inauguration, but just turned out to be a great song about f-cking.

This cd is an instant classic and should not be missed. Every acclaim they have received is earned, and they deserve many more for such a great work of art.

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