Monday, January 19, 2009

Top 20 Albums of 2008

I realize I'm a little late on this (being almost a month into 2009), but I'd say it's about time I unveiled my top 20 albums for 2008. There were quite a few albums that I was forced to leave off of this list, so I'll do another post featuring some of those fantastic albums that just missed the cut.
It was a better year for music than I remember, and a lot of these albums were really close together for me. Most of the albums in the 11-20 range have been shuffled around a lot since I started this list, and that's part of the reason it has taken me so long to get this up. There was even quite a bit of shuffling within the top 10 (#3 & #4 have swapped places numerous times). Even now I'm not entirely comfortable with the placing, but it has to be done.
Without further adieu, I give you the top 20 albums of 2008.

#20: The Last Shadow Puppets - The Age of the Understatement

Great dark(ish), slinky pop music backed with the London Symphony Orchestra. The entire album seems like it was taken from a James Bond soundtrack...but in a good way. Parts of this album are upbeat and catchy, but even those moments seem to have an almost sinister undercurrent. This band is comprised of Alex Turner (from Arctic Monkeys) and Miles Kane (from The Rascals). I'm not really a fan of either of those bands (sorry), so I was extremely surprised to find that I really liked this album.

Favorite Song: "My Mistakes Were Made for You"

#19: The Submarines - Honeysuckle Weeks

I loved The Submarines first album (Declare a New State!). It showed off their talents for writing a collection of perfect pop songs. While I don't think their new album quite measures up to their old one, Honeysuckle Weeks is still a great collection of pop music, and it's clear (through songs like "1940" and "Fern Beard") that they are trying out some new creative ideas. This is a good pop album, and further shows that they will be a major force to be reckoned with in the not-too-distant future.

Favorite Song: "Xavia"

#18: British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music?

I'll admit: I'm a bit late to the British Sea Power train. I listened to their previous albums, but they never really impressed me that much. That all changed on this album. When the riff for "Lights Out for Darker Skies" kicked in, I was hooked. The entire album is filled with big rock songs. Some ("No Lucifier", "Waving Flags") sound like lost Arcade Fire songs, while others ("Open the Door") recall a bit of the 60s Brit-Rock era mixed with an unknown 80s alt-rock band. There are a couple of weak points on the album (somewhere in the middle), but it opens strong and ends strong. All in all, a very good rock album.

Favorite Song: "Lights Out for Darker Skies"

#17: Jakob Dylan - Seeing Things

I've been a fan of the Wallflowers for years, so I was really looking forward to this album. When I heard it was being produced by Rick Rubin, I had a pretty good idea of what it would sound like. Needless to say, I was not surprised by the sound of this album. It is exactly what I thought it would be. And that's a good thing. It's great to hear him stepping away from his band for an album and airing out some of these stripped down songs. I'm not really too fond of "All Day and All Night", but the rest of the songs are great. I'm particularly fond of "I Told You I Couldn't Stop"; a slow-stomping, restrained blues song. It doesn't sound at all like the rest of the album, which makes it that much more striking. "Valley of the Low Sun" and "War is Kind" are great protest songs...poetic and well thought-out. Sadly, there are too few of those anymore. This album showcases Dylan's quieter side, and also shows off his stellar songwriting. Let's hope there's more where this came from.

Favorite Song: "I Told You I Couldn't Stop"

#16: Gnarls Barkley - The Odd Couple

It'd be easy to say that Gnarls Barkley has fallen a little bit. Their first album (St. Elsewhere) made was tied as my favorite album in 2006. And here we sit in 2008, all the way down at #16.
The truth is that this is a great album. Their sound hasn't really evolved since that album, but there wasn't really a reason to. The beats are still chaotic little masterpieces of music history, and Cee-Lo is still raving like a mad preacher (nowhere is this more evident than on "Who's Gonna Save My Soul?"). It would be a little higher on this list if it weren't for "Whatever"; a wretched little song about a neglected teenager, sung in a terribly whiny voice (you know, to capture the spirit of the character). The rest of the album is really strong, featuring some of the best songs of their short career. This album is shows why Danger Mouse is one of the best producers currently working (more on this in a couple of albums).

Favorite Song: "Who's Gonna Save My Soul?"

#15: Okkervil River - The Stand Ins

I was sucked in by Okkervil River's previous album, The Stage Names, so I was pretty excited about this album, seeing as how closely they were connected (it was originally conceived as a double-album). It took me a couple of listens to get into it, but, once I did, I couldn't stop listening to it. No offense to The Stage Names, but this album blows it out of the water. There are a number of great songs on this album, but "On Tour With Zykos" stands out among all the others. If you have yet to hear a single Okkervil River song, make sure you listen to this one. It's really hard for me to listen to this song without skipping back to the beginning as soon as it gets over.

Favorite Song: "On Tour With Zykos"

#14: The Black Keys - Attack & Release

I've been a fan of the Black Keys for years, and this is, by far, their best album. They stick to their blues roots, but they have also expanded their musical pallet considerably on this album. Flutes, organs and other various instrumentation show up quite often, giving them a sound that is quite different from their other albums. Danger Mouse produced this album, and I'm sure he had more than a little bit to do with this new direction. Let's hope that their next album takes this sound and expands it even further.

Favorite Song: "So He Won't Break"

#13: Amanda Jenssen - Killing My Darlings

I randomly came across this album on a blog somewhere, and fell in love with it within about 20 seconds. The album opens in full Dusty Springfield mode; bright strings, clean guitars, a nice beat...and that voice. That's really what carries this album. She rolls through a number of different styles, but her voice is what holds the album together. As I've said before in this space, all the genre-hopping can get a little distracting sometimes, but there are so many amazing moments on the album that it doesn't really matter that a couple of the styles don't seem to mesh. Being from Sweden, I don't think she'll ever make it big here in America, and that's a shame.

Favorite Song: "For the Sun"

#12: Bjorn Norestig - Hello Inside

Bjorn Norestig is a pop singer. He has a gruff(ish) voice that is usually considered to be more along the lines of a folk singer, but he is a pop singer. Plain and simple. And we can all be glad that he is. There are moments of pure pop brilliance on this album; heavy on the Hammond B-3, blaring horns that show up at key moments, and even some female hamonies thrown in for good measure. Make no mistake about it: this guy knows what he's doing.
As with Amanda Jenssen's album, there are some down moments on this album (most notably "Character Song"), and some moments that are just merely really good...but there are 3-4 amazingly perfect pop songs on this album. This being his first full-length album, I can't wait to see what he does from here. I doubt he'll ever break it big in America, but you need to track this album down. You'll thank me for it later.

Favorite Song: "We Can Make it Last"

#11: The Raveonettes - Lust Lust Lust

The Ravonettes have been making great, 50s-inspired rock for a number of years. The formula is simple; write a song that sounds like it should've been written 50 years ago, throw some reverb on it, and let it fly. It's been a good formula. But they decided to switch it up a little bit on this album.
The key elements are still there...only there's a lot more distortion this time. The songs come off as pieces of beautifully orchestrated chaos. Tons of noise filling your ears, while the voices of Sun Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo blend together in the foreground, sounding like ghostly entities rather than people.
I realize this all sounds a bit ridiculous, but, listening to this album now, it's the only thing that makes any sense.
I have listened to (and enjoyed) every album they have released, so I can say this with some confidence: this is the best album in their catalog...and it only gets better with each listen.

Favorite Song: "Aly, Walk With Me"

#10: The Raconteurs - Consolers of the Lonely

The Raconteurs first album, Broken Boy Soldiers, was pretty good, but it wasn't nearly as good as I had hoped it would be. On paper, it looked great: the main creative force of an experimental blues-revival group (Jack White), a pop singer/songwriter (Brendan Benson), and a rhythm section comprised of a blues-rock band (Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler from The Greenhornes). It came out as a bit of a mess...a band searching for their sound.
On Consolers of the Lonely, it's pretty safe to say that they've found their sound. It's still pretty easy to tell who wrote each song, but all the songs seem a bit clearer. The styles mesh together a little better. The album actually feels like an album, as opposed to a bunch of songs thrown together just for the sake of doing so. This is a great rock album, and they've shown that they'll only get better.

Favorite Song: "Carolina Drama"

#9: She & Him - Volume One

This is She & Him's first album: "She" being Zooey Deschanel, and "Him" being M. Ward. "She" being a movie star, and "Him" being an underground folk singer. It's a collaboration that no one saw coming, but it turned out to be a perfect one.
Deschanel has a very unique voice, so she needed someone who knew how to best utilize it. Ward was that person. The music ranges from jazz to country to girl-group to pop. The entire album has an old feel to it; like it was recorded decades ago and was just recently found. I can't wait for Volume Two.

Favorite Song: "Sentimental Heart"

#8: Shearwater - Rook

I have a hard time describing this album without bringing up Talk Talk. They are obviously a big influence on Shearwater, and they're not afraid to show it. Grand sweeping pop songs with hints of classical and jazz. They seem to subscribe to the quietLOUDquiet school of music. The album is restrained for most of the time, so the explosions feel a little bigger somehow.
This is a beautiful album. The music goes perfectly with Jonathan Meiburg's dramatic voice. This album seems large and epic in scope, yet still clocks in at less than 40 minutes. This album was overlooked by quite a few people. Don't make that mistake.

Favorite Song: "Home Life"

#7: Neva Dinova - You May Already Be Dreaming

Talk about underappreciated. Over the course of their 3 albums, Neva Dinova have quietly been perfecting their own brand of rock music. They're catchy and creative, yet you rarely hear their name mentioned. This album tends a bit more to the folk side of their influences, but it's still unmistakably Neva Dinova. Even though it is folk-leaning, it's still far from being called a folk album; there are elements of pop, rock, and shoegaze sprinkled throughout. This album took me a little bit to get into, but, once I did, I couldn't stop listening to it. Extremely creative stuff.

Favorite Song: "Tryptophan"

#6: Margot & The Nuclear So & So's - Not Animal

I immediately loved Margot's first album, The Dust of Retreat, so it was a bit of a shock to me when the same didn't happen with this one. The same elements were there; simple songs backed with tons of instrumentation. So what wasn't working?
None of the songs really seemed to stand out. Unlike The Dust of Retreat, when 3 or 4 songs stood out among the others, all of these seemed content to just hang out on the same plane, none of them distinguishing themselves from the other.
But, the more I listened to it, the more the songs really started to jump out at me. Listening to it now, I realize that most of the songs still exist on that same plane...but the plane is high, and all of the songs are great. In fact, I think this album may be better than The Dust of Retreat, and that's really saying something.

Favorite Song: "Pages Written on a Wall"

#5: William Fitzsimmons - The Sparrow & The Crow

William Fitzsimmon's last album, Goodnight, was an extremely personal album; it was a concept album written about his parents' divorce, as seen from the perspective of different family members.
With The Sparrow & The Crow, Mr. Fitzsimmons dialed it up a notch, and wrote yet another extremely personal album; this time it is about his own divorce. The albums kicks off with "After Afterall", a reprise of the last song off of Goodnight. From the opening notes, you can tell you're in for something different. The electronics that were so prevalant on Goodnight are gone here (barring a song or two), leaving only acoustic instrumentation and William's voice. It's a stripped down album, filled with emotion, beauty, heartbreak, and even a little redemption. The album closes on a hopeful note with "Goodmorning", an extremely positive song, showing that the entire world is not made up of gloom and doom.
This is an extremely personal album. It's the sound of an artist baring his soul. It can be a little uncomfortable at times, but it's necessary...and beautiful.

Favorite Song: "Find Me to Forgive"

#4: Beck - Modern Guilt

Danger Mouse has been a busy man. This is his third appearance in this list.
When I heard that Beck and Danger Mouse would be working together on this album, my expectations went through the roof. Beck is one of the most consistently creative artists currently working, and Danger Mouse is one of the best producers currently working. How could my hopes not be sky high?
Much to no one's surprise, I immediately loved this album, and it only gets better with each listen. This album goes back to the era of 60s & 70s psych-rock and throws a little modernity on it. And it works perfectly. It sounds simultaneously modern and easy feat.

Favorite Song: "Youthless"

#3: Glasvegas - Glasvegas

Glasvegas takes their love of 50s pop, throws a layer of reverb over it, and calls it a day. The strange thing? It works so well. They take their instrumentation and creative a massive wall of sound that would make a drug-addled Phil Spector proud. They sing songs about social workers, cheating on their girlfriends, getting stabbed, and all matter of other things. At least, I think that's what they're singing about; the lead singer's thick Scottish accent can be a bit hard to understand at times.
Regardless, this is a fantastic debut album. There is a lot to love on this album, and a lot to look forward to in their future.

Favorite Song: "It's My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry"

#2: Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago

I'll not argue as to whether this was a 2007 or 2008 release. I can do that later if you so desire. Just let it be known that I'll call this a 2008 release in this space.
This album came out of nowhere. I checked it out on a whim, after hearing it described as "TV On the Radio meets Iron & Wine". That's a bit off, but I can see where they were going with it. It's mainly an acoustic album (Iron & Wine), and he has a unique voice that can get pretty high (TV On the Radio). But that description doesn't quite catch what this album is. His sound is nothing like I've ever heard. It's stripped down and full at the same time. His double-tracked vocals bring out a depth in the music that shouldn't be there. He has crafted a sound which is wholly unique and absolutely amazing. There is more creativity in this album than most artists can summon in a lifetime. If you haven't heard this album yet, I urge you to do so as soon as possible.
For the record, he also puts on a killer live show.

Favorite Song: "The Wolves (Act I & II)"

#1: TV On the Radio - Dear Science,

Like the Beck album, this is yet another album that I had big expectations for, and then had those expectations blown away. Their previous album, Return to Cookie Mountain, was my favorite album of theirs' so far, and I expected this album to take them to another level entirely. It did that, and so much more. They took their abrasive, noisy art-rock style and fit it into an easier to digest package. With this album, they have shown that their creativity knows no bounds. They tackle Prince-esque horn-laden funk, quirky electro hip-hop, piano-and-string filled ballads, and, of course, songs that could only work in the hands of these masters. This is, by far, their best album. And it feels like they're just getting started.

Favorite Song: "DLZ"

Do you take issue with the order of these? Do you have your own top 20 list? By all means, leave comments. There's nothing like a little healthy musical dialogue to keep it fun.

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