December 11, 2008

The Top 50 Albums of 2008



After scrambling through yet another early December with the rest of the music enthusiast party, I can honestly say, this shit has officially gotten out of hand. Must we all make a list? Yes. The year is our universal format and in it we need to rank everything notable that just happened. It’s a means of order that surely in some way dates back to the start of civilization.

I use the word “best”, but I have an obligation only to myself. Naturally, publications (with a staff of critics who try to serve as an authority on the big picture) have different priorities. Meaning nobody really cares if I omit Erykah Badu or Randy Newman or Santogold or Lil Wayne or
"that blind couple from Mali." I listened to more albums this year than ever before, and still undoubtedly missed a lot of good ones.

With that said, I really do love doing this. Aside from being a ridiculous “analogy challenge” for me, this is meant to be a resource
and maybe even a fun read to anyone who comes across this page.
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2008 was a good year for music. The fact that 2007 was a great one shouldn’t be held against it. 07’s mark can be seen all over 08’. Everything runs its course. As one movement matures (see: "freak-folk") another blossoms (see: electronic/experimental/grime/dub) and another recharges (see: disco?). And then there’s the straight up good music that transcends all that genre talk anyway. I think as time goes by, we’ll realize a lot more 08’ releases than we initially thought, did just that.

As much as I’m dying to do a little editorial intro that mentions Coldplay plagiarizing, Chinese Democracy actually happening, Thom Yorke drumming, Bill Murray hipster party hopping, Billy Corgan sucking, Metallica not sucking, and Noel Gallegher’s ribs breaking, let’s just get to it:

50.
Conor Oberst | Conor Oberst (it's a tradition)
49.
Destroyer | Trouble in Dreams
48.
Crystal Castles | Crystal Castles
47. B. Fleischmann | Angst is not a Weltanschauung
46.
Dr. Dog | Fate
45.
Belong | Colorless Record
44. Beck | Modern Guilt
43. Man Man | Rabbit Habbits
42.
Atlas Sound | Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel
41. Grouper | Dragging A Dead Dear up a Hill
40.
My Morning Jacket | Evil Urges
39. David Byrne & Brian Eno | Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
38. Lykke Li | Youth Novels
37. El Guincho | Alegranza
36. Hot Chip | Made In The Dark
35. Sigur Rós | Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
34. Air France | No Way Down EP
33. Little Joy | Little Joy
32. M83 | Saturday’s = Youth
31. Marnie Stern |
This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That
30. She & Him | Volume One
29. Spiritualized | Songs in A&E
28. Dan Friel | Ghost Town
27. Vampire Weekend | Vampire Weekend
26. Islands | Arm’s Way
25. Animal Collective | Water Curses EP
24. No Age | Nouns
23. Sun Kil Moon | April
22.
Hercules and The Love Affair | Hercules and The Love Affair
21. Kings Of Leon | Only By The Night
20. The Walkmen | You & Me
19. Deerhunter | Microcastle
18. Wolf Parade | At Mount Zoomer
17. Gang Gang Dance | Saint Dymphna
16. Born Ruffians | Red, Yellow, & Blue


15
Chad VanGaalen | Soft Airplane

Chad VanGaalen produces his own albums in his own basement. Chad VanGaalen illustrates his own album art and animates his own music videos. Chad VaanGaalen is not 16 years old. He is Canadian. And I do like his name. Chad VanGaalen is actually on Sub Pop records and this is his 3rd album. Chad VanGaalen is the new Beck.


Saying Soft Airplane is “its own thing” is an understatement. Both charming and morbid, it freely navigates through a bizarre stretch of imagination. He’s telling stories. He’s playing with us.

I tried to make sense of the first listen. I accepted the banjo. I thought that accordion might have been out of place, but then the laser beam effect came in and I decided to remove all expectations. Something tells me he did the same when constructing it. On "Phantom Anthills" , he definitely whistles a verse over a clucking chicken. It definitely overshadows the xylophone solo on the previous track (and that harmonica song about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).

For as scatterbrained as Soft Airplane is, something very cohesive clicks after a few listens. His self-harmonized vocal layers are a good reference point all the way through. Consider it a co-pilot.


14
Ruby Suns | Sea Lion


This is a jungle book.


In an attempt to sum it up, here's my stab at a music video for the album’s last track, "Morning Sun."
A silhouetted figure poses atop a hill. Cut to a dove flying over the sea. Cut back to the man. Cue a series of grand angles and close-ups of the man’s yoga-like postures. Cut to the dove’s perspective, just as he locks in on the man from the horizon. The dove lands on the man’s shoulder. They exchange glances and he flies away. Cue montage of time passage, sky turning a dark orange. The dove returns with a pair of wayfarer sunglasses. The man slowly puts the shades on. The dove takes off again. The man kneels down and touches the dirt (3:00 minute mark). He inexplicably chooses to roll down the hill. A cartoon-like snowball effect causes grass to stick to him as he spins. He lands at the foot of the hill, his body now draped in a florescent green tuxedo (3:45 minute mark, music hits severe change to 80s new wave). He dusts himself off and looks over the coastal sky, where the dove is almost out of sight. The camera pans down to refocus on a red convertible (a la Cruisin’ USA). In the car are three babes with feathered blond hair. From an aerial shot, we see the car speed away, getting smaller, as the seascape scene goes purple. The end.
Moving on…

13
TV On The Radio | Dear Science,

I’ve always felt like I should love TV On The Radio. Both of their past two albums triggered that “important” radar, as a music person. But, with the exception of some choice moments, my appreciation for their music remained from afar. No matter how many times I listened, the “huge achievement” label came easier to me than the “personal favorite” brand.

Dear Science is warmer than anything they’ve ever done. It’s still rooted in art-rock and political pain, only this time it branches out with more grooves. They are clearly smiling, even dancing, on this album. Optimism, while not always evident in the lyrics, is laced in every horn and handclap. I wish I could say that I connected to it like some others on this list, but at the end of the day, Dear Science is another “huge achievement”, and must be acknowledged (and the song below crossed over into “personal favorite).



12
Shearwater | Rook

Rook feels like home. It has something to do with the mystical language of birds or least an emotional relationship with nature. For as vibrant and revealing as it is, it doesn’t seem to be married to any one location. This might be why my mind shoots to an autumn and a childhood in New England (home).




11
White Denim | Exposion

This whole experience felt like the first time I heard Wolf Parade. There was something defiantly rock and roll about a band who was otherwise very “indie.” Exposion is erratic garage rock and accessible indie pop. There isn’t much overtly “new” going here, but sometimes I’d rather just hear something done very “right”.





10
The Dodos | Visiter

The Dodos are two guys that sound like six guys. My only regret this year is not seeing them live, but the caged version of these frantic songs was convincing enough. Above all, it's the intricate drumming on Visiter that did it for me. At an almost metaphysical pace, The Dodos might just have carved out their own genre: upper-folk. Listen to "Eyelids” transition into “Fools” and try to keep your right knee from bouncing.



09
Fuck Buttons | Street Horsssing

Now that Dodos “6-man” remark was strong but…

"Rarely have two men sounded so much like the end of the world" – New Noise



Confession: I repeatedly zoned-out with Street Horrrsing all year and didn’t tell a soul about it. Not one blog mentioned, not one filed shared. I dropped acid with the kid that got expelled from your middle school for making explosives out of PEZ dispensers. I joined a tribe that dances on the sound barrier. I hang-glided into a volcano of molten espresso.

I’ve never warmed up to anything like Street Horrrsing and may never warm up to anything said to be like Street Horrrsing again. And now at your own risk...




08
Cut Copy | In Ghost Colors

True story: One hung-over Saturday morning a few months back, I found myself in dire need of exercise. Lacking any real motivation to leave my apartment, the desire was silenced by facebook checking and the usual stream of music. That is until a light-bulb went off in the form of: “in-house workout!” Suddenly very into this idea, I updated the outfit (headband, shorts), cleared the living room, and got a playlist going.

Enter, In Ghost Colors. What started as pushups, turned to “running man”, which took on improvisational solo rave dance. By this point, one of my roommates, Mike, was blankly observing the situation. He left the room. He returned a song or two later with his own getup. Now in full sweaty stride, we (attempted) a synchronized "Lights and Music".

Enter, third roommate, Adam. Not much dancing came out of the guy, but he did chant, “go, go, go, go, go, go…”

Enter, Kati. She has never been one to shy from a good dance session. It was on. I recall her at one point getting a piggyback across the couch.

True I might have done the same thing to Wham. Obviously In Ghost Colors is on this list because it’s the electronic/dance album of the year. The genre is plagued with fun and good, but not often is it graced with blissful and great.


07
Bon Iver | For Emma, Forever Ago

Justin Vernon recorded this in a secluded log cabin in the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin. Though I never want to type that story again, I will choose to listen to this every 3 months or so, perhaps until I have a similar quarter-life crisis to his and do something drastic like...delete my music. In other words, For Emma, Forever Ago is an instant classic.

Since mid 2007, “Skinny Love” circulated through the music community and Justin’s story became more fabled with every recycled blog. For Emma sits on this year’s list because it was realized to its full extent in 2008 (and it also saw its proper big label release). That early version of “Skinny Love” wasn’t a demo. It had already reached its final, raw, vulnerable intention. As with the rest of the album, you could feel guitar strings shriek, maybe even, fingers bleed. In the song’s last 10 seconds, we even heard him clink a beer bottle on the floor and walk away from the take. I’d like to think he went outside, chopped down a tree, and came back for the first lines of "The Wolves."


06
Portishead | Third

Of course when Portishead released their first album in over ten years, I gave it a few spins. Although intrigued by their evolution (I always gravitate to bands that take those sorts of risks), I still moved on to the next big thing’s record of April. Then came the “Machine Gun” heard across Coachella Valley.

Third took shape for me after their performance in Indio like some sort of hopeless revelation. Shortly thereafter, I watched the 31-minute studio video called “Portishead in Portishead” (Awesome).

“Silence” is tense. “The Rip” is tragic. “Nylon Smile” and “Small” are thoroughly troubling.

So why would a guy who does “in-house “ fitness dance routines find these enjoyable? Because life needs this kind of therapy too.

Third carries a lot of weight. Beth Gibbons' quivering voice does have a light moment in “Deep Water.” But as the final “Threads” give way, everything reaches its ominous fate. The final warning horn sounded, and down it goes.


05
MGMT | Oracular Spectacular

Here we go again with the love for MGMT (I know this too registers as a 2007 release in some people’s books). Maybe I’m not a highbrow blogger, or maybe I give credit where credit is due, but I’d be kidding myself if MGMT weren’t in the top five. It’s easy to let their pin-up status eclipse the fact that it was first substance and potential that got our attention.

Oracular Spectacular opened with the three of the most badass anthems I’d heard in a long time. Yes, three, making this a certifiable hit machine. “Time to Pretend” romanticized the rockstar dream with infectious synth-hiccups, ironically making MGMT rockstars.

I once caught myself doing involuntary pelvic gyrations in the middle of my office to the first notes of "Electric Feel.” With a tribal drum punch, the cheesy serpent taming flute solo, and Andrew VanWyngarden’s falsetto howl, this was the funkiest song of year. Both that and “Kids” served up many (out-off-office) dance sessions.

MGMT set themselves up for a sugar crash though. They rounded out the album with a second half of psychedelic wandering. Still good, but a different band, the latter part was slower to catch. Songs like “Pieces of What” and “The Handshake” would eventually present themselves as downright jams. Uneven perhaps, but it showed a band just as comfortable not being on the radio (or dating the models).


04
Department of Eagles | In Ear Park

I spent October 2008 In Ear Park just as I spent October 2007 In Rainbows, causing another last minute amendment to my list. It has this unique sort of “Normal Rockwell does the future” quality about it. Daniel Rossen has a “feel-good” voice. He echoes the feathery vibe of his other band, Grizzly Bear, while adding a retro guitar fuzz and even some Motown.

Give it two more months and I might need to revise this list. It’s a grower.


03
Of Montreal | Skeletal Lamping

If loving this is wrong, I don’t want to be right. If Skeletal Lamping was a “misstep”, then I hope Kevin Barnes plays obtuse hopscotch for the rest of his career.

After a few eager (and biased freak-out) listens last summer, I forecasted a critical split for Skeletal Lamping. A review over at Drowned in Sound ended up saying it best: “Some people are going to think this is a masterpiece, the equal of Hissing Fauna. Others will call it a self-indulgent mess that pushes indie-rock somewhere it really wasn't meant to go. Personally, I think both those sound about right.”

For years, Barnes has proven that he has a great understanding of what makes a good hook and a catchy song. Even if he’s stuffed hundreds of arrangements into these 15 songs, he didn’t remove that fundamental appeal from the equation.

He described this album as an exercise in surfacing all his “puzzling, contradicting, disturbing, humorous...fantasies, ruminations and observations”, hence the term “Lamping” – when hunters flood an area with light and shoot anything that moves. Some dark, some sexual, some thrilling, these stirrings mutated into something that’s ultimately fun.

It’s like a laughing attack; if you are trying to fight it, you are not having a good time.


02
Beach House | Devotion

If someone actually lived out Devotion, I think that person would lead a strange and gorgeous life. I think they’d row little boats into island caves. They’d have lunch out in a garden while it rained. They’d air-waltz out of rooms.

"In the highest blackened moon
there'd be more life
in the right shade of our
sighs, Death!, be gone!
D.A.R.-L.I-N.G..."

Her voice sounding like Nico after some Nyquil, Victoria Legrand sings to an anonymous lover throughout the album. Beneath her breath, a bevy of organs (7 various kinds, mostly vintage) and Alex Scally’s sliding guitar turn her words into spellbinding trances.

This is laying on your carpet music. Wind chimes dude. Wind chimes.

Interviewer: "The idea of devotion is kind of an enslavement in itself, isn't it? To be devoted to something is to be beholden to it."

Victoria Legrand: "On a bad day, it is. On a good day, it's the most beautiful thing ever."


01*
Fleet Foxes | Sun Giant EP
&
Fleet Foxes | Fleet Foxes

They were over the hills and far away from anything else in 2008.

The opening lines of "Sun Giant", ‘what a life I lead in the summer’, introduced a vision and launching pad for every stop on their tour and every play on my headphones. An a cappella greeting like the title track commanded attention. But its value would have worn off if what followed hadn’t been so devastating. I suppose the fact that the next track, “Drops in the River”, would become the “most-played” on iTunes indicates that it was (for me). From there they nodded to the gods of classic folk rock, smiled in the direction of reverb-soaked “indie”, and turned to face the summit of something new.

Two swirling songs later, “Innocent Son”, would bring about the only disappointing moment of the EP: it ended. Robin Pecknold’s isolated voice faded to black, and that was it.

Fortunately, a few months later, the full-length LP opener, “Sun it Rises”, shot up from behind those hills again. This time a small town of voices united around a dusty hymn before giving way to a rich climb. Equally as bold as the EP’s, this first track established a shot of the golden old world I'd live in for the next 40 minutes.

They went big on “Blue Ridge Mountains.” The band knew it; and left Robin alone at the crest, ready to scream his last “Oliver James” into the night. And once again, that was it.

It’s hard to believe Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut album is actually a “debut”, let alone one from a couple of 23 year-olds. After seeing them live, I understand just how strict they are with their process (and they all seem like really nice, humble guys). Four of the five members create the dense harmonies (and that other guy masters a mandolin). Pecknold’s vocals in particular, sound trained to the point of obsession, stretching vivid lyrics without an ounce of pretense.

I'm being overly serious and nearly cliché’, but it’s hard to talk of such a sincere and mature album without sounding like you’re commenting on a painting at a gallery.

It’s appropriate then (even without looking at their album covers) that these two recordings* came as close to works of art as any music did in 2008.


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*Convention would have me rank these albums separately, so let it be known that each one on its own, is the finest thing I heard all year. Combining them simply opens up a spot for some other well-deserving 51st best album - your lucky day, Conor!).

Last year I had other categories like "best song"
and "best video", etc. Expect some of those to pop up soon in separate blogs. This one was long enough. Thanks for reading and thanks for making this year a great one for Stadiums and Shrines.

"Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.
®"


5 comments:

Jessica Sutton said...

one question - where's Lady Gaga???

kidding... kinda ;)

Sutton said...

I can honestly say I've been living sans Lady Gaga up until about 5 minutes ago.

"Christmas Tree" is slightly amazing.

Chrispy said...

Really nice work here Sutton, and the captions are brilliant. I've been keeping this up at work, and with the help of Rhapsody can quite nicely go through your entire list. Of course I started at #1 like a 5 year old, but seeing Conor Oberst at #50 gives me hope.

Adam said...

Great list, pretty close to my own:
10. Lil Wayne
9. White Denim
8. Crystal Antlers EP
7. Wolf Parade
6. Chad VanGaalen
5. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
4. Bon Iver
3. Fuck Buttons
2. Plants & Animals
1.5 Fleet Foxes - Sun Giant
1. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

How're you feeling about it 6 months on? I kind of feel feel like Fleet Foxes and White Denim have lost a bit of their lustre, although they're both very "2008" for me still.

Sutton said...

thanks for reading, Adam. And a good list of your own, I like Plants & Animals - definitely overlooked them.

It's always interesting to revisit lists. I generally burn out on all the year's music in the writing process of this thing. So if it stands the test of time after December's marathon, then we have a winner. I can say that Cut Copy and Fuck Buttons get more plays than any others, due to partying and working out, respectively. And Beach House is on a comeback lately with these summer weekends. I think Fleet Foxes' work is rather timeless, but I rarely indulge. It took another live performance to bring me back (coachella). With that said, I'm desperately ready for new FF stuff. At this point MGMT feels like "2007", but it's impressive how much legs they've gotten off those songs.

It is funny how some albums can feel "2008", like they just turned into a pumpkin at midnight, Dec 31st (White Denim, good call). Nature of being a blogger I guess, sort of shame. Luckily we have all the nostalgic best of the 00s decade lists coming up. Then we can make some grand scale sense of it, or at least get distracted for a while (whether I'm personally going to take on the challenge via blog is undecided).