I usually kick of my personal awards with songs of the year followed by albums of the year then, of course, the ten best movies. This year I’m going to hold off on listing tracks because there’s so many good ones and, instead, list albums, because there are so few. Lots to get to so here it goes… It just wasn’t a remarkable year for the album and I think everybody knows it. Here’s a few that didn’t totally suck. Well, actually one does suck but there’s a reason it’s on the list.
1. Crystal Castles’ Self Titled
8-bit NES sounds are an obvious inspiration. So is self mutilation. That the two go so well together, so perfectly well, is the real surprise and perhaps the most remarkable musical feat of 2008. This guttural, howling classic is not only underrated as albums go this year but the most successful effort to date of blending vocals with 8-bit electronica. It’s the best album of the year simply because it’s the most memorable album of the year.
2. Nine Inch Nails’ The Slip (and Ghosts)
To put it lightly I’m a Trent Reznor fan. His sneezes would crack the top ten. I even have a rule of not placing his albums at #1 because otherwise every year would be a Nine Inch Nails year. This doesn’t change the fact that The Slip is a Nails classic that holds a high place in the pantheon of Halos and, in my opinion, just about any album released in 2008. Short and fierce (just like Trent!) and black all over (uh, not like Trent), I have listened to The Slip over and over and over and will continue to do so more than any NIN album since The Fragile. Every song suits a specific mood. From atmospheric bliss (“Lights in the Sky,” “Corona Radiata”) to Year Zero-esq political clawing (“Letting You”) to thoughtful pessimism (“Head Down”) to good old fashion personal favorites (“1,000,000”) to the most direct and personal anthem in Reznor’scareer (“Discipline,” a song that, in addition to rocking the rehab, feels right at home as an in-game tune to the racing game “Midnight Club: L.A.”). Radiohead got the press for being there first on their bullshit “free” album despite the fact that Reznor has been talking about doing this kind of release for years. The difference is that Reznor actually put his music where his mouth, or mic, is. Oh, and on top of all this Reznor also found time to release a four part instrumental album. When it rains…
3. Super Furry Animals’ Hey Venus
Furrier than ever. This album came out last year in Europe and crawled into the states with little fanfare or recognition in 08. What a shame. It’s a fantastic album. Slight and sentimental by SFA’s blitzed out standards but the band’s warmest release to date. The album opens with the announcement that “this song is a gateway song…” and right they are as the proceeding tracks take the listener into a world of symphonicallypsychedelicpleasantries that find themselves shadowed by a 50s inspired aesthetic. With a heavy Welsh accent, Gruff announces on the second track that “This song is based on a true story… which would be fine if it wasn’t autobiographical.” It is on this wonderful song that I started to understand, for perhaps the first time, this band’s playful sense of humor and circular logic. I’m not exaggerating when I say that almost every song on Venus is a memorable event.
4. Spiritualized’s Songs in A&E
Mortal words can’t describe the beauty and sheer redemptive qualities of a Spiritualized album. The experience is a serious and cleansing affair but at the same time not a hassle or burden like the new (…or any…) Sigur Rós album. You feel lighter and freer after listening. That’s not to deny Spiritualized its darkness. Ranging from love loss to drug use to murder, the album cathartically dispels all the demons inside. One song is about a man who kills his father and a family. Horrifying, yet sad when, at the end of the song, we find out he’s run out of bullets for himself. Add to that, Spiritualized obligitory inclusion of lyrics describing “fire,” “baby,” the scary power of “Jesus” and the Devil himself and you have the full experience. A&E came about after a near death hospital stay of Jason Pierce (A and E stands for Accident and Emergency Ward) but, really, every album of his could have claimed this. The difference is most evident in a newfound freedom found in Pierce’s approach as he is willing to take challenges musically (the production is barren compared to most of his wall of sound albums) and even rejects vocal distortion. It’s just him, his music, his drugs and, thank god, us too.
5. Ladytron’s Velocifero
Look, I wouldn’t place a Ladytron album this high if there wasn’t a good reason. I’m amazed at how efficiently Ladytron is able to raise the bar on their best efforts. This album works on a whole different level as it trims all the fat of previous album to deliver a clean and accessible electro-pop experience which is what I think they’ve always been striving for. The organ play is as novel and fresh as it ever was and the band can even brag that the newest album contains the best Bulgarian language track of the year. npekpaceh!!!!
6. Neon Neon’s Stainless Style
Gruff Rhys other brilliant album of 2008. Neon Neon is, if you will, his Groillaz to Super Furry Animal’s Blur. That is to say a wild departure that finds the frontman embracing rap, DJs and indulging in a strange, sexually charged concept project. Stainless Style is all about John DeLorean, creator of that Back to the Future car, music engineer and eventual drug kingpin. If that’s not worthy of a WTF! than I don’t know what is. But it all comes together perfectly. The songs “Rachael” and “I Told Her” help make Stainless Style the best 80s synth rock record that never came out in the 80s. The biggest outta left field surprise of the year.
7. Nick Cave And the Bad Seed’s Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!
Not as epic as Orpheus/Abattoir but harder and more pressing. Brilliant even, but more of a Grinderman inspired album than a gospel rock classic. From calling upon the author (i.e. God) to explain to aww, poor Larry, the best lyrics of the year can be found in this strangely humors package. Dig!!! means a lot to me. It brings back wonderful memories and painful ones. And so it goes. Oh, and Cave kicks old-man ass when playing these songs live.
8. Steven Wilson’s Insurgentes
Porcupine Tree frontmangoessolo for the first time ever. Bad for the band, good for us because a year without a Porcupine Tree album is a year not worth living. Well, good for meat least as I have yet to find another fan. Though PT is pretty much the Steven Wilson show, one can still tell the difference in albums. While this album doesn’t have the “wow” moments as PTs last few release its caution and measured pacing is commendable. Oh, and the prog elements are so strong on 8 minute tracks like “No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun” that I could have sworn that I was listening to the most mature Mars Volta song ever recorded.
9. Beck’s Modern Guilt
Listen and listen and listen and listen and you still may not warm up to Beck’s new album. Hell, it took me two years to realize that his last effort, The Information, is one of the best albums ever made (and thatalbum didn’t even make my top twenty!). This new set is sadly, more rap-Beck than techno-Beck but it is also, perhaps, Beck at his white-rappin’ finest. Meaning: the rhymes are not self-amused, guerro shtick but a real cathartic experience where Beck gets to work with Danger Mouse to sing about –what else– death and gamma rays.
10. TV On the Radio’s Dear Science
Way better than HDTV on XM. The band’s best album. The vocals are no longer intrusive but inclusive, and totally vibing with the rock sounds. That makes TV one of the most daring rock acts working today. If you don’t believe me than check out the video for the wonderful “Golden Age” consisting of dancing cops and bird men atop a mountain and try to imagineanyone else pulling that off. I can really see why this album is making everyone’s number one and glad I found space for it in my top ten.
11 through whatever: Any of these albums could have made the top ten had I made the list yesterday or tomorrow… it was that kind of year.
- Magnetic Fields’ Distortion–From the battleax smack down of tan and blond “California Girls” to grooving with necrophilia on “Zombie Boy,” MF is bitter and better than ever. As a concept, Distorted works wonders, with each track examining, both musically and lyrically, that theme through various characters. Each track ironically clocks in at exactly three minutes in length (which is orderly not disorderly). Add to that the cover art (denoting, again, non-distortion) and you have a clue as to the wonderful contradictions at play within every facet of this album.
- Elbow’s The Seldom Seen Kid–The most bombastic album of the year. An avid follower (if not fan) of Mercury prize winners, I instantly grabbed this album when I heard it took the award over the never-won Radiohead and their In Rainbows. At first I was not sold on Elbow’s vintage rock/soul landscapes but I was soon a convert. The song “A Day Like This” is the reason. It is a sweeping love song with an undeniable emotional resonance.
- Fuck Buttons’ Street Horrrsing–As this year’s “Fuck” bands go, the Buttons are way better than “The Fucking Champs,” a good deal more interesting than “Fucked Up” and on par with “Holy Fuck.” Fucking-A!
Fleet Foxes and Dr. Dog— On the list for making me dig folk music. That I would relegate two wildly different (yet excellent) albums into one slot is further proof of how little I respect the genre. Hey, it’s a baby step forward at least.
- Jim Noir’s Self Titled Album–The best indie pop album of the year. So perfectly catchy that I’m amazed it didn’t set the world on fire. This is one band to watch out for.
- Girl Talk’s Feed The Animals–In keeping with Girl Talk’s ethos, I’m not going to bother to write a review. Instead I’m going to steal, er, sample other people’s thoughts: Though every track has a couple of grin-making highpoints, what really makes me love Feed the Animalsaren’t any of the specific mash-ups, it’s the record’s Utopian vision. As much as advocates of Greg Gillis might try to fanwank Girl Talk into a continuum of post-modern sampling whatevers, the real essence and marketability of Gillis’ music comes from the ability of the average listener to recognize most, if not all, of the samples being dropped. Girl Talk is really, really, good. Girl Talk is poo and suxxx.
- Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colours–Empty disco sex!
- British Sea Power’s Do You Like Rock Music?–Yes, yes I do, thanks for asking.
- The Mars Volta’s The Bedlam in Goliath–Still crazy after all these years. I mean that literally too for the band is fucking loosing it. I guess that’s what makes their new stuff so wild. In what seems like annual Volta release, the band reverts further and further up their own ass and into a solipsistic cocoon of multi-genre musicmaking. The difference is that this album’s many tangents add up to a collage of fascinating instability. In a strange way it all holds together. In particular, I responded to the middle eastern jazz influences that crash, and clash, head on with the prog stacatto-isms. The only downside to Volta’s new hodgepodgian epic is the lack of anything resembling a melodic single, which they usually bury a gem or two under all the obligatory sonic rubble. This album is all rubble, which is intended.
- Lindstrom’s Where You Go I Go Too–It’s been a underwhelming year for techno but Where You Go stands out not for its originality but for its beguiling minimalism. This is one of the few bands on the list that I listened to only because it made so many lists at the end of the year. Glad I did. It’s slow burning nature (one song is half an hour!) and constant brain thumping make this a perfect pick for electronica euro trash philes. As a bonus, try playing this album over “Flash Gordon” and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
- Monkey’s Journey to the West–Little heard Damon Albarn concept album. The Gorillaz/Blur singer went to China and came back with this strange, theatrical amalgam of evocative Chinese sounds. Like Mali Music, this album represents another outstanding cultural exploration from the always curious and talented Albarn.
- Death Cab for Cutie’s Narrow Stairs–The creepiest act of the year. Stalking, depression, and self hatred from what has become a mainstream indie act. I love it! “I will Possess Your Heart” is a masterpiece and one of the best tracks of the year.
- MGMT’s Self Titled Album–yeah, yeah, yeah, fine.
- Santogold’s Self Titled Album–Santo-gold, Jerry, gold!
- Four Tracks From My Morning Jacket’s Evil Urges–Love/hate is not suitable enough to describe the range of opinion on this decidedly mixed effort from the Kentucky band. It’s more like love/hate/hate/hate. Never has an album so bad at its core produced so many golden moments. Like, for real, one quarter of this album provides the best music of the year while the other three do everything they can to alienate and subvert the mastery of tracks like “Aluminum Park,” “Touch Me I’m going to Scream” parts one and two and “Evil Urges.” These songs are classics in their own right but then you hear the bad 80s sounding “Highly Suspicious” and a handful of other shitty country rock turds and the mood is spoiled faster than a chicken head in your KFC bucket (to use some southern logic). I’m so divided on this album that to not include some mention of it here would make me feel really bad about calling it one of the worst albums of the year… which it is and, um, isn’t at the same time. Damn you, be consistent!
Just Missed the List…
- Thievery Corporation, Mogwai, M83, Free the Robot (writes while doing robot dance), Opeth and The Faint.