Best Albums of 2008
10. Fucked Up “The Chemistry of Common Life”
When Ian MacKaye dismantled his influential hardcore band Minor Threat back in 1983, he said he ended the band’s tenure because he felt that the hardcore punk craze had ran its course. Basically, he proclaimed hardcore music dead. 25 years later, Fucked Up has challenged MacKaye’s prognosis, giving the lifeless heart of hardcore a reinvigorating jolt of life. This resurgence is due in part to the rag tag band’s twisted approach, flipping hardcore music on its head by going with a lavish, over the top approach rather than the common minimalist methods. The result is cataclysmic: layer upon layer of guitar leads, festering orchestra swells, and a grandiose horn section to boot. Despite all the glitz and epic grandeur, “The Chemistry of Common Life” still somehow manages to thrash your brains and accelerate the adrenaline in your veins. Their pudgy, bald, front man Pink Eye screams with a gravelly voice reminiscent of a caveman, but the lyrics are light years beyond the day of the neanderthal. Thoughtful and evocative, Pink Eye spends the majority of the album asking you to questions the tenets of organized religion. In a year where washed-up, has-beens like Metalica, AC/DC, and Guns N’ Roses tried recreating their 80s sound, Fucked Up has managed to take the 80s form of hardcore punk and brought it into a entirely new stratos-core.
9. Sun Kil Moon “April”
You never know what you’re going to get with a Sun Kil Moon album, but you are always guaranteed that same signature Mark Kozelek voice, speaking softly amidst a strumming guitar. “Ghosts of the Highway” was an old timey tribute to folk music of the past, “Tiny Cities” consisted of imaginative re-works on Modest Mouse songs, and the latest installation is a tribute to regrets and future hopes. Actually, “April” sounds more like Kozelek’s work with The Red House Painters, but that isn’t a bad thing. Much like the Painters, Kozelek refuses to follow the rules of a songwriter with some songs stretching almost to ten minutes in length. You would think these folk opuses would get old at the five minute point. Instead, you yearn for the music to never stop. “April” seeps with honesty and heart; the simple stories unravel before you as the songs ramble on into oblivion. The album doesn’t jump out at you, rather it hypnotizes you into a zombie trance of contemplation. And I don’t know about you, but I’d take a contemplative zombie over a hungry one any day.
8. Why? “Alopecia”
Listening to “Alopecia” is a lot like watching “Two Girls, One Cup”: it makes you feel uncomfortable and dirty, yet you can’t look away. Despite the agony in the lyrics, you somehow take joy in hearing Yoni Wolf stories of sex, drugs, heart break, and mental instability. This dark comedy of an album overpowers you with a barrage of imagery, jumping from a comparison of his head to an empty oyster shell to a description of two men having sex on a basketball court in Berlin. The songs are all performed in a droning rap style with just a tad of singing (think Cake, but instead of songs about race cars he raps about doing coke in a Starbucks bathroom). “Alopecia” isn’t just about the lyrics, with backing music that is unpredictable and intricate. And surprisingly, amidst all the brooding lyrics, there are catchy hooks throughout the album to keep you tapping your foot and singing along. While most rappers today try earning your respect through self-promotion, Wolf attains his cred through self-deprecation.
7. Vampire Weekend “Vampire Weekend”
Vampire Weekend are easy to hate- a group of ivy league pretty boys adorned on the cover of every major music magazine before “paying their dues” and cashing in on the world of commercialism. But once you move past the insults of sellouts and silver spoons, all that you are left with is an irresistibly catchy album, dripping with syrupy sweet melodies and hip shaking conga beats. Something must be said about an album I bought in January and still play in heavy rotation 12 months later. It has staying power due simply to songs you can’t help but sing along too. Their lyrics are intelligent, yet they don’t leave you feeling like they are too cool for the room. While a description of their sound conjures up images of a four car pile up on Harmony Highway (punk meets string quartet meets new wave with a touch of Paul Simon) it somehow all meshes perfectly together. In an age where it seems pop music has met its end by the hands of Miley Cirus, Vampire Weekend provides hope that there are still some untraveled roads in the world of music.
6. Bon Iver “For Emma, Forever Ago”
Justin Vernon’s debut as Bon Iver presents a haunting memoir of a lonely man left to ruminate over his past failures. This lonesome, secluded mood could be a result of the process Vernon went through to create this masterpiece. The entire album was written and recorded within the confines of an isolated cabin in the snowy woods of northern Wisconson. As a result, the songs play out like a musical interpretation of Thoreau’s “Walden”, minus all that transcendentalism bullshit. The bleak atmosphere of the album is created through the echoing layers of Vernon’s voice, harmonizing in falsetto like a folky version of TV on the Radio. The sounds will captivate you – the various Vernon voices piling up onto each other, rushing toward a crescendo of crushing confusion and loss. The album sounds like it was recorded in a cave rather than a cabin, which may be exactly what Vernon was going for, emulating the hollow emptiness he felt inside at the time. Despite such a depressingly, desolate description, you can’t help but wish yourself into Vernon’s cabin, separated from the mess of society to think for a while about your place in the world.
5. The Walkmen “You & Me”
First, let me correct the cynics: The Walkmen’s last album “A Hundred Miles Off” is incredible. Their former effort was panned by many while the critics have lauded their latest collection of songs on “You & Me”. The big difference between the two albums is that “Miles” was breezy, while “You & Me” is warm and inviting. The album is filled with passion, echoing into reverb heaven as Hamilton Leithauser’s howling voice fills up the empty spaces, spilling out toward the corners of the room. The trumpets, the organ, the plink of the piano, every little touch adds to the overall aesthetic. “You & Me” begs to be played over a booming stereo rather than via ear-buds simply because the little plastic speakers just can’t give justice to the ambiance within the music. While past albums featured a couple distinctive hit tunes, this album drifts softly from song to song, a parade of soulful spirits slowly pushing along. In our modern world where most music is tweaked and layered in effects, “You & Me” conjures up images of a time long ago when artists recorded their albums live, as a cohesive group, allowing the room to create the mood. The lyrics are filled with the same romanticism of the past, days of chivalry, honor, and love. By reaching back toward the past, The Walkmen have awakened the spirit of soul music and set him free.
4. No Age “Nouns”
To tag “Nouns” as a punk album wouldn’t be doing it justice. Sure, the majority of the songs are speedy, fist pumping anthems, but if you listen closer the guys have a lot more going on than just power chords. There is a psychedelic vibe swirling beneath the layers of crashing drums and growling guitars. “Eraser” shows No Age at their finest, melding acoustic guitars, tambourines, and a thumping bass drum into a grand build up, exploding into another raucous romp. The band is obviously more interested in creating atmospheres than rocking your socks off. The album has a DIY sound to it, resembling something recorded in a garage rather than a high price studio. While other indie bands obliterate their sound through the lo-fi approach (I’m looking at you Times New Viking) No Age tight ropes the fine line between authentic and annoying. The best moments on “Nouns” are not the energizing thrashers like you’d expect, but rather the more malleable, melodic songs, bordering on ballads. Songs like “Keechie” and “Things I Did When I was Dead” touch on an ethos that rockers rarely delve into – punk can have a heart.
3. The Dodos “Visiter“
The Dodo’s “Visiter” was a welcome surprise in 2008, a melodic gem amidst French Kiss Records roster of crazy/punk/psychotic bands (Fatal Flying Guilloteens, Les Savy Fav, The Apes). This two man band from San Francisco created an album with three alternating characters battling for the spot-light. Logan Kroeber’s tribal drumming begs for attention, commanding your toes to tapping and rambling you from song to song in a whirlwind folk infused journey. Meric Long counters Koeber’s intricate African drum-lines with his unique guitar meanderings, experimenting with open-tuning on the guitar and taking Robert Johnson’s “deal with the devil” open blues style to hell and back. The two instruments fill each song to the brim, sounding like a band of 10 rather than two. Alongside this caustic combination is the clear voice of reason in Meric’s singing. In stark contrast, the random screaming and tribal meanderings bear comparison to Animal Collective. Meric’s sweet voice and ironic lyrics are reminiscent of The Shins. The Shins and Animal Collective? Not a marriage of sounds you’d expect, but somehow these opposites attract, creating a masterful dichotomy of sound, a true match made in heaven (or in Robert Johnson’s hell).
2. Fleet Foxes “Fleet Foxes” / “Sun Giant”
These two albums (which go hand in hand) remind me of my road trip, and the connection goes way beyond the fact that I bought the self-titled album in Denver. For one, the lyrics are laced with imagery of nature’s beauty, whether it be “The sun risin’, dangle in the golden and fair, in the sky” or Robin Pecknold’s plea to “Come down from the mountain, you have been gone too long”. “Sun Giant” provided the perfect soundtrack to both of my hikes up the mountainsides of Montana and Colorado. The sound conjures up a time of the past with its a capella choruses and the light pick of guitar and banjo strings. This album is Americana at its finest. Natural, angelic, harmonizing has not been explored like this in folk music since the days of CSNY. I’ve also heard comparisons of Pecknold’s voice to Jim James of My Morning Jacket, which is quite evident, but it has been many years since I’ve enjoyed a My Morning Jacket album as much as Fleet Foxes two offerings this year (actually, My Morning Jacket’s “Evil Urges” is possibly the worst album I purchased this year…what a shame). I spent a few weeks back in Estherville after my road trip and the self-titled album received heavy rotation in my car. As a true testament of the album’s powerful aura, every time I picked up my friends to go do something, I felt compelled to turn the speakers up high, instructing them to “bask in the beauty of the music my friends”. Once the first a capella harmonizing flowed out the speakers, all talking stopped, as we all sat back, rolling silently down the country roads of Iowa, soaking in the granduer of the farmland around us. That’s really the true greatness of the Fleet Foxe’s music – it can bring out the beauty in anything, even monotonous miles of soy bean fields.
1. TV on the Radio “Dear Science”
After the release of “Return to Cookie Mountain” in 2006, it looked like TV on the Radio had exhausted all of their creative avenues, exploring every nook and cranny possible within their arty rock sound. “Dear Science” proves that the boys have only scratched the surface of where they can take music. Every song on “Dear Science” sounds distinctively different: rap, dance, house, rock, new wave, etc. But amidst these songs that tip-toe around the graves of Prince, Al Green, and Bad Brains, they all feature the same distinctive sound that is TV on the Radio: falsettos, harmonizing, sporadic pressing drum loops, and splashes of trumpets and saxophones. The band has even discovered a new outlook. “Cookie Mountain” wallowed in the agony of another four years of the Bush Administration, a sentiment that seemed a bit played out by the time the album arrived. On the contrary, “Dear Science” is uplifting and hopeful; the trumpets are no longer the backdrop to America’s funeral procession but optimistic blasts for a victorious marching band, advancing toward a hopeful horizon. Rather than depressing, TV on the Radio now sounds refreshing and alive, seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. Being released in September, a month before Barrack Obama’s presidential victory, the lyrics expose the Nostradamus in Tunde Adebimpe:
Aw feel it quake with the joy resounding
Palm to the palm you can feel it pounding
Never give it up you can feel it mounting
Oh its gonna drop gonna fill your cup and
Oh its gonna drop gonna fill your cup
The age of miracles
The age of sound
Well there’s a Golden Age
Comin’ round, comin’ round, comin’ round
In 2008 their was no bigger moment than Obama’s presidential victory and no bigger album than “Dear Science”. Let’s just hope for our country’s sake that Adebimpe’s “Golden Age” isn’t just a mirage.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy “Lie Down in the Light”
Born Ruffians “Red, Yellow, and Blue”
The Dutches and the Duke “She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke”
Love is All “A Hundred Things Keep Me Up At Night”
Fuck Buttons “Street Horrsing”
Mogwai “The Hawk is Howling”
Mount Eerie with Julie Doiron & Fred Squire “Lost Wisdom”
Ruby Suns “Sea Lion”