I listened to a lot of music this year. A whole hell of a lot. More than probably anyone would ever want to listen to in an entire lifetime. Much of it, I didn’t care for, even though I very rarely play an album just once. In the end, it’s gratifying for me, and kind of fun. Believe me, this is about as crazy as I get…
Before I move along, I want to mention that I wrote this list and first published it on my Record Geek Heaven blog towards the end of December. I still feel good about most of it, but if I could do it again, I would definitely replace Attic Lights with Deerhunter’s “Microcastle”. Cheers!
Record Geek Heaven’s
TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2008:
20. The Republic Tigers—Keep Color
The Republic Tigers should be repeatedly thanked by anyone involved with music in the Kansas City area for the amount of heads they have caused to turn in their direction, but they should also be praised for making such a great debut album. Lead singer/songwriter Kenn Jankowski has proven his love and knowledge of great music over the years, being the influential hub of his previous band The Golden Republic. Albeit boasting a less classic-rock influenced approach, the Republic Tigers’ music is denser, with various types of influences, and in the end a more rewarding listen. Keep Color opens with “Buildings and Mountains”, and with its layered, ethereal vocals and dreamy guitar and synth soundscapes, it’s not hard to tell why it’s already a bona-fide smash. I’m sure 2009 will see a couple more of those for the Tigers.
19. The Week That Was—The Week That Was
First off, I am not familiar at all with Peter Brewis’ day-job band Field Music, which apparently houses enough prolific songwriters to warrant a side project or two. The thing is, The Week That Was sounds involved enough to have spent years completing. Actually, it almost sounds like a sort of magnum opus someone spent their whole life perfecting. Everything is so deliberate on this record—every element carefully placed, every drum hit to string strike there for a reason—that at times it sounds coldly calculated. But more often than not, like a glint of sunlight off a glacier, bright moments occur. “The Airport Line” is the should-be hit of the year, wielding an army of militant yet melodic strings and some brilliant dual-drummer rhythmic battling.
18. Attic Lights—Friday Night Lights
Not since Teenage Fanclub has Northern Britain given us such a good time. Glasgow’s Attic Lights have made one of the most unabashedly poppy records of the last few years, Friday Night Lights. At times, it borders on straight up sugar pop, like something you’d hear on a Saturday morning TV show, which can be a bit much. But there is also a certain dark beauty to this record that is foreshadowed in its title, a passion for the mysteries of youth while at the same time a cynicism towards anything that lasts. Not to mention there are a ton of kickass Beach-Boys inspired background vocals and killer melodies which, admittedly, I eat up like India Palace buffet.
17. My Morning Jacket—Evil Urges
This is probably the biggest disappointment on the list for me. Just three years ago, MMJ held the top spot on my year-end list with their finest contribution to rock music thus far, Z. Then, in 2006, they released the amazing double live album Okonokos, which showcased their best early material alongside their groundbreaking later work in a truly ass-kicking set. But Evil Urges, like Z when compared to the band’s previous albums, was not what anyone was expecting—in a bad way. At times mercilessly funky, while other times brooding and folky or, paradoxically, bordering on hair metal, Evil Urges is definitely unfocused. Even still, with mind-melters like “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt. 1” and straightforward, Creedence-like rock like “Aluminum Park” and “Two Halves”, My Morning Jacket still offers up plenty to fall in love with on this record.
16. Wolf Parade—At Mount Zoomer
Wolf Parade is a synth and guitar-based psychedelic-blues-rock band whose biggest fault is too often are they weird just for weird’s sake. Oh, and they are Canadian. Just kidding—one of my favorite bands (Sloan…you’ll see them here is a bit) is from Nova Scotia. Canada does rock, and Wolf Parade continues to further prove this theory as law. At Mount Zoomer, while only 9 songs long, is bursting with densely layered and complex rock music that somehow doesn’t stray too far from the realm of the coherent. Probably every era of popular music has been incorporated into Wolf Parade’s influential realm, which can result in some confusing moments. Even though there is a lot to take in musically, the production of the album is relatively minimal, seemingly not too different from what a live show would sound like. Room sounds are incorporated whenever possible, allowing for lots of breathing room between instruments. This dichotomy makes for a very welcome hybrid of the entirely familiar and the entirely not—just listen to “Language City”.
One of my favorite bands from the Kansas City area, Ghosty has always been hell-bent on being different. It’s been said that when writing new material, they will spend hours upon hours on a single song, just trying to figure out how they can make it weirder. While that may result in moments that sound a little too predetermined, it’s an approach that also makes for some truly original bits, as is the intention. Their first album, Grow Up or Sleep In, was a poppier affair than Answers, so it seems those practices have gotten more involved and perhaps even longer. Turns out it pays off—“Junior Grows Up” has all the charming paranoia of Woody Allen wrapped into a three-minute pop song alongside guitarmonies that would put a nice smirk on Phil Lynott if he were alive today, and “I Tried” is a heartbreaker that beats Randy Newman at his own game.
14. Sloan—Parallel Play
Although a disappointment when compared to the rest of Sloan’s catalog, Parallel Play still managed to be better than 90% of the music I heard this year. Why is it that these Canucks can phone in an entire record and it still ends up being pretty damn awesome? Are they really that good, or am I just that much of a Sloan geek? I think the answer is I am really that much of a Sloan geek, but it’s only because I am saddened by how little my fellow Americans have noticed this amazing band during their 20+ year career. On the plus side, Sloan’s 2006 release Never Hear the End of It saw their first appearance on the Billboard’s Heatseeker’s Chart, so maybe things are looking up around here for my buddies. Long story short—killer power pop with a heavy emphasis on guitars and vocal melodies, and all the songs run together in what has become popular Sloan fashion.
13. Nada Surf–Lucky
Again, in a situation where the new album is just not up to par with previous ones, Lucky by Nada Surf fell a bit short in comparison to 2006’s The Weight Is a Gift. But in all fairness, that was the best album of Nada Surf’s career, or at least the biggest. A band can’t really be expected to follow up an album like that when they are already five albums deep. Also, Lucky still has some incredible tunes on it. “Beautiful Beat” is Nada Surf’s attempt at another “Inside of Love”, and they succeed at recapturing that song’s bittersweet essence. The real winner on the record is a side two standout, “From Now On”, with a runaround chorus that circles itself into pop upheaval. Some more experimental numbers are ill-advised, but don’t take all that much away from the overall enjoyment of the record.
I am a sucker for these psychedelic Swedes! How’s that for alliteration? Dungen fell short for me with their last release, Tio Bitar, as it seemed far more meandering and less produced than the album that was my Cupid’s arrow for this band, Ta Det Lugnt. But 4—with its more mellow, lava-lamp-friendly approach—completely won me back. The people who make this music must have a deep affinity for all things sixties and seventies psychedelics oriented. They have to live and breathe this sort of thing every day to be able to consistently make records that sound like they have been brought to us through time warp. Since they sing in Swedish, it’s impossible to understand what is being said or what any of the songs are about if you don’t have some background in the language, but this adds even more possibilities to the free-spiritedness Dungen’s music evokes. Fuckin’ hippies!
11. The Young Knives–Superabundance
One of my favorite British releases of 2008 is Superabundance by The Young Knives, a band that broke out of obscurity with their 2006 outing Voices of Animals and Men. After getting so into Superabundance, I went back and checked out the previous one. It almost sounded like two different bands. The first album showcased a band with an unstoppable rebellious spirit and sense of adventure, but no sense of how to harness and defragment their wildness, and an almost complete lack of hooks. Superabundance shows the Young Knives pulling a complete one-eighty, boasting a newfound sense of urgency to their playing, as well as an incredibly tight batch of tunes. They have a very militant pop style and have often been compared to the Futureheads because of this, as well as their prominent use of complex vocal harmonies. I have to say, though, that the Futureheads did put out an album of their own this year, and if it’s a good Futureheads album you want, Superabundance by the Young Knives is the one to get.
10. Supergrass—Diamond Hoo Ha
My other favorite British release of the year, Diamond Hoo Ha is a flat out great time, and a much-needed return to form for Supergrass. This is essentially Supergrass’ attempt at a party record, utilizing the less-serious aspects of their groove-oriented self-titled release of 1999 and the more successful elements of 2002’s riff-fest Life on Other Planets. The title alone should leave no mystery in the band’s intent with this album—to rock out with their glammed-out cocks out. They do this in droves, best and most notably on the album’s opener, “Diamond Hoo Ha Man”, and “Rebel in You”, both equal parts T. Rex and David Bowie while still retaining that Supergrass swagger we’ve come to know and love.
9. Fleet Foxes—Fleet Foxes
This band, although adored by most critics, has been rabidly compared to My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses, as well as other southern acts that have risen to prominence recently. These comparisons aren’t unwarranted—there really are similarities between Fleet Foxes and those bands. But it’s not like these bands got popular and Fleet Foxes were like, “Hey, we can do that” and decided to make a record. I guess that’s a possibility, but with how well these songs are put together, and how much love one can tell was put into their creation, it’s really not likely this was the sequence of events. When these new sounds become popular and similar bands emerge, this is the doing of the record companies—one band gets successful, so record companies look for and invest in bands that sound similar, because they want the most for their buck. Then after awhile the backlash hits, and people resort to making final judgments after listening to twenty seconds of a song because it sounds too much like something else they have heard and they are too intimidated by the vast output of music out there. By the way, this album is really damn good.
8. Deerhoof—Offend Maggie
Another band that spends massive amounts of time perfecting their weirdness, Deerhoof seem to be a little more effortlessly weird than most other bands trying to be weird these days. It’s truly great, then, that they would try their hand at making an accessible rock record. Offend Maggie shows how truly committed they are to trying new things, even if one of those new things is not trying as many new things. Granted, they are still plenty weird, and not shy about it, but it seems they have figured out a way to wave the finger at us without giving it away as much. I still liked it when their finger was right up in my face mercilessly, but I’m always up for hearing how a band like Deerhoof will interpret “straight-up” rock and roll. The album’s opener, “The Tears and Music of Love”, seems almost like an unconscious comment on this, repeatedly churning out some sort of mutated classic rock riff. There’s still plenty of the old Deerhoof sauce, as evident in the effervescent title track and the guitar panic of “Eaguru Guru”, but one of America’s most progressive rock bands continues to progress quite gracefully.
7. Magnetic Fields–Distortion
Distortion was one of the most daring releases of the year, as it features the universal production traits of guitars overdriven to the point of feedback, vocals drenched in reverb almost to the point of incoherence, and drums that sound like trash cans. Every song is produced in this manner, giving no real hope for anything other than limited college radio airplay. Obviously, the Magnetic Fields aren’t bothered with such petty things, and would rather focus on making a kickass rock record full of songs as drenched in heartbreak as they are feedback. Not just heartbreak, though—resentment, anger, lust, paranoia, or any other emotion that is only heightened by the sound of loud guitars—they are all represented in some way, as is the usual case for a Magnetic Fields experience. Stephin Merritt’s songs are as witty and set as deeply as ever—while he’ll have you laughing and chanting along with the soon-to-be-pub-classic “Too Drunk to Dream” one minute, he may have you wondering some things about yourself by the time “The Nun’s Litany” comes on.
6. Death Cab for Cutie—Narrow Stairs
I have not been a big Death Cab listener in the past, but it’s hard to ignore the widely-scoped triumph that is Narrow Stairs. Commercial success aside, this is an extraordinarily well-made album. It’s very rare that a record which accomplishes so much artistically sees enough light of day to become the number one album in America. I mean, this is America we’re talking about—give us the Macarena and we’re good for about a decade. It’s not like Narrow Stairs is an album chock full of obvious hits, it just so happens Death Cab have been around long enough to have anything eaten up by the public. They are working their way to solidifying themselves as a band that will stand the test of time and be recognized for years to come, and with a killer one-two punch like “Bixby Canyon Bridge” and the 8-minute-plus “I Will Possess Your Heart”, Narrow Stairs is a potential classic.
5. The Whigs—Mission Control
The Whigs may not be aware there was a band rather recently called the Afghan Whigs that has proven to be pretty important and influential over the years, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to rock some asses. Mission Control is brimming over with rock sauce. Every song has at least two guitar or bass riffs that are like branding irons to the brain, and singer Parker Gispert has a passionate drawl reminiscent of an early, pre-douchebagian Dave Grohl. The record has a great sound, with tight, straightforward production (thank you again, Rob Schnapf!) that remains loyal to the immediacy of live rock shows. And lastly, but most importantly, once the songs start to sink in, they become as necessary to the day as sleep, food and bad reality TV shows.
4. Sun Kil Moon–April
My favorite album of 2004 was Sun Kil Moon’s “Ghosts of the Great Highway”, a record that could go on to be one of my favorites of the decade, so one can imagine how highly anticipated April was for me. Indeed, when April 1st rolled around and I started my two new jobs after a stint of unemployment, I was ready to be wowed again. While it didn’t do it right off the bat, April really got into my head (or my soul, or whatever happens with those things) after a few spins. It’s hard to get around an opening track that’s nine and a half minutes long (“Lost Verses”), but after listening to it repeatedly and realizing it only feels like about five, that’s actually quite a feat. The magic lies in Mark Kozelek’s voice, as usual. It seems that he has realized that a little too much now, though, and takes his golden pipes for granted. However, the songs on April that are fully realized, like the entrancing “Lucky Man” or the perplexing closer “Blue Orchids”, rank among some of Kozelek’s best moments.
3. Vampire Weekend—Vampire Weekend
I’m calling myself out—yes, this is, like, the most overhyped album of the year. I still love it, though. It’s just so relentlessly upbeat, so mercilessly joyful and optimistic. That’s the sound of a bunch of Ivy League rich kids for ya! Seriously though—haters, quit hating long enough to hear something other than the first twenty seconds of “A-Punk” or whatever the hell you’ve heard on the radio, and take a few minutes to listen to the startlingly original middle portion of the record. Some of the production and string arrangements on these songs are astounding, and the songwriting is, for lack of a better term, unclassifiable. Sure, you can hear bits of ska and world music and reggae and rock and orchestral pop, and you can say yea or nay to any or all of the above, but can you pinpoint what kind of music this is or where it stems from? There is a harder task, indeed. “Bryn” is one of the best love songs of the year, and it even has a shout-out to my good old home state of Kansas (albeit kind of a negative one).
2. Dr. Dog—Fate
Fate was the creeper of the bunch for me this year, meaning that when I first heard it, I was unimpressed. But slowly, as certain songs continued to come up on shuffle, I got to the point where I had to listen to this record all the way through a ton of times. It’s an album full of songs that rely on the power of their thematic and melodic qualities, and people don’t always have a lot of patience for that. It helps to have something in a song that really sticks out at you right away, like a really crazy, thumping beat of some loud, swirling guitars. It would be my guess that the members of Dr. Dog are not attention hogs; rather, they focus all of their energy into crafting genre-hopping, interesting rock music, layered with influences from the blues to the Beach Boys. But, it’s all very subtle, as they blend their influences together carefully enough to create something all their own. Fate has a funny way of letting the listener in slowly, as if Dr. Dog themselves were standing behind a door to their world, opening it only a little bit at a time as to allow us listeners only a sense of what all is in there.
GHOST ENTRY aka The Ghost at Number One
Starling Electric—Clouded Staircase
I feel I need to explain myself when I say that my favorite album of the ones I heard in 2008 actually came out three years ago. Starling Electric’s Clouded Staircase was originally released in the Ann Arbor, MI area (the band’s stomping ground) in 2005, but only this year did it finally see a national release. I would like to thank Bar None Records—still one of the coolest purveyors of quality noise-make around—for that one. Try to imagine Lou Barlow joining the Posies as their new lead singer, and their first release is a concept album dedicated to the genius of Robert Pollard. Then throw in a little orchestral Beach Boys action and a dash of Byrds to round it out, and you still only have a faint idea of what Clouded Staircase has in store.
1. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin—Pershing
Worst band name ever; best album of 2008. Who could have known? SSLYBY may turn off potential listeners at the mere mention of their bloated moniker, but that doesn’t keep their sophomore effort Pershing from being the most consistent, most fun, and most memorable collection of songs put out this year. My goal is to come up with a new name for this band that will convey to people how much they kick ass rather than cause them to yawn before they can even consider going to a show—not a good start to the night, usually. Oh well—there have been many bands who have been lost in the shuffle due to inabilities to cope with or indifference to a terrible name (thankfully, I have no first hand experience with that whatsoever). Not much to do these days but shake it off and be thankful that we’ve found one more amazing record. These Boris guys love their power pop, but are loyal to their indie rock as well. If James Mercer and Juliana Hatfield went out on a date, these guys could provide a pretty agreeable soundtrack to the evening. “Glue Girls”, the album’s opener, is an instant winner, not to mention an anthem for the romantically stressed. “Modern Mystery” is like the “Float On” that should have been, a dance rock ode to humans and all their glorious flaws. But it’s the album’s closer, “Heers”, that really leaves an imprint. As the chorus “I wanna see you again” is repeated, it’s hard not to feel that way about Pershing itself—even harder still not to hit repeat.