Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Best Albums of 2008

With 2008 in the rearview mirror, it's time to offer my Best Albums of 2008. This list most probably will shift some over the next year, and no doubt some great stuff came out last year that I haven't had a chance of hearing yet. And while 2008 wasn't quite as great a year as 2007 for music, it was better than I realized, and if there was one theme that dominated this past year in terms of music, it was amazing debuts.

1. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes - It's still as beautiful as it was when it came out, and it's another one of those albums where it works best as a whole, leaving you haunted and stunned even if you couldn't identify one particular song that made it that way.

2. Los Campesinos, Hold On Now, Youngster.../We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed - This Welsh 7-piece reminded me how great the (increasingly generic) indie rock scene can be when done right. Hyper-literate lyrics; the complex weaving of various instruments (including two guitars, a glockenspiel, and a violin) without ever coming off as too twee or ridiculous; the vocal interaction of sweet-voiced Aleksandra and nasally Gareth; and best of all, absolutely killer tunes. Los Campesinos offered us not only an amazing debut this year, but also avoided their sophomore slump by following up "Hold On Now, Youngster" with the still catchy (if increasingly angry lyrically) "We Are Beautiful." And this, all while breaking several of my "no-no" rules on music (no "los" in the title; no sharing of last names, as everybody in the band has "Campesinos" as their last name; at least they avoided misspelling their name, always a guarantor of crappy music - Limp Bizkit and Staind, I'm looking in your direction).

3. Fuck Buttons, Street Horrrsing - The first time I heard this, I thought, "...the hell?" It went everywhere from joining haunting glockenspiel-like music with fuzzed out guitars and Come to Daddy-like screams to simple, tribal-like drumming with bizarre screams and yelps offering the only "melody." Yet by the end of the second listen, I realized this was that rareset of albums - one that you didn't even realize you'd been waiting forever to have until it came out.

4. Silver Mt. Zion, 13 Blues for 13 Moons - The Montreal-based collective that rose out of the ashes of Godspeed You Black Emperor gives us their strongest album ever. The whole thing sounds like it was recorded live in the studio (and may well have been), and Efrim, whose voice isn't the best vehicle, uses what he has wonderfully in spitting out invective and, for the first time ever, beauty and hope on the closing "BlindBlindBlind." This is music as manifesto, and it's one of the best manifestos yet.

5. Vivian Girls, Vivian Girls - Sometimes, something familiar is the best new thing. Combining Ramones-like song brevity (the 10-track album clocks in at just under 22 minutes), girl-group vocals, and MBV fuzz, Vivian Girls give us something that is charming and new, yet feels familiar without ever being derivative.

6. Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles - From what I've heard, their live show is nothing like their album. If that's the case, I'm not sure I ever want to see the live show, as this album was top-knotch, with killer ambient pieces combined with Atari-freakouts.

7. The Kills, Midnight Boom - In a perfect world, the Kills' skewed sense of hooks and tunes would dominate the "pop" charts, and "pop" wouldn't be a perjorative. The world isn't perfect, but at least the Kills still exist, giving us their most diverse and best album yet, ranging from down-and-dirty rockers like "Cheap and Cheerful," haunting songs like "Black Balloon," and the driving "What New York Used to Be."

8. Nisennenmondai, Neji/Tori - Around for awhile, this Japanese Trio offers some of the grimiest, most industrial, pounding rock I've heard in a long time. Their stuff was incredibly hard to find, but mercifully, a single album of two of their EPs has been released. Repetetive, droning, pounding, it's just great, great, great, music as loud as the three women of Nisennenmondai are tiny.

9. Portishead, Third - For all the Axl Rose talk at the end of the year, this was the comeback worth the wait. Simultaneously sounding just like Portishead to without sounding remotely like trip-hop (due to Beth Gibbons' voice as the continuity), Portishead gave us an amazing, beautiful, brooding album. So good, it's almost impossible to believe they'd been away for 11 years.

10. Walkmen, You & Me - I'd enjoyed their stuff before, but it always seemed to be missing something. Turned out, it was missing the subtle, missing understatement. Fortunately, they learned a sense of understatement on this, their fourth album of original material, and it makes for their strongest songcrafting to date.

11. No Age, Nouns - An awesome mix of punk (in the best sense of the word), fuzz, accoustics, and even an occasionally ambient-sounding guitar. And the tunes are catchy as can be, even while they challenge.

12. Flying Lotus, Los Angeles - This year's Heliocentrics album, an awesome mix of hip-hop beats, techno, jazz, and soul.

13. Black Keys, Attack & Release - As great as they are, 2006's Magic Potion felt a little samey. Fortunately, they brought the ubiquitous Danger Mouse in to Northeastern Ohio to produce their fifth album, and it's the deepest and most varied yet. It still has awesome rockers like their older stuff ("Strange Times"), but DM helps them expand the texture and sound of songs beyond guitar-and-drums rockers to include slower pieces and even an excellent, slow-burn ballad ("Things Ain't Like They Used to Be").

14. Deerhoof, Offend Maggie - Last year's Friend/Opportunity was the first I had heard Deerhoof, and I liked that album plenty, but for whatever reason, Offend Maggie is even more satisfying. I can't really explain it - Deerhoof hasn't changed anything between the two albums. Still, it's an excellent combination of art-house weirdness and catchy tunes.

15. Xiu Xiu, Women As Lovers - In a lot of ways, I think this album is kind of the cliched "other side of the coin" to the Deerhoof album, alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) abrasive and poppy, avant and indie. Jamie Stewart's voice and lyrics are some of the most disturbed I've heard in awhile, but they fit the experimental musical side of the band perfectly.

Best Reissue - Gas, Nah Und Fern - Wolfgang Voigt's four releases as Gas are some of the most important and beautiful ambient techno albums ever, and until this year, they were all but impossible to find (and if you found them, they were going to set you back hundreds of dollars per disc). Fortunately, the four albums were released in this breathtaking box set, and are essential to any fan of ambient music of any style.