TOP 22 ALBUMS OF 2008
22. of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping
This is Kevin Barnes’s alter-ego
21. Okkervil River – The Stand Ins
A solid companion piece to 2007’s The Stage Names (put one cover above the other and they align to form a single painting), this album once again showcases singer Will Sheff’s strong pop songwriting sensibilities, especially on tracks like “Pop Lie” and stand-out opener, “Lost Coastlines.”
20. Dungen – 4
This is about as close to a full-blown jam band as you’re ever going to see me get, and it is definitely Dungen’s instrumental chops that are very much on display here. But unlike true jam bands, they manage to constrain their jazzy prowess to under five minutes per track, keeping 4 enjoyable no matter how few hemp bracelets you normally wear.
19. El Guincho – Alegranza!
It’s the Spanish Person Pitch! Well, not exactly. A little more fiesta than psychedelia, this sample-heavy album can feel a bit monotonous at times, but for the most part it’s upbeat maraca-shaking fun.
18. M83 – Saturdays = Youth
It’s melodramatic. It has ridiculously grandiose track titles like “Skin Of The Night,” “We Own The Sky,” “Highway Of Endless Dreams,” and “Midnight Souls Still Remain.” It contains more than one spoken segment of cringe-inducing, angst-filled, adolescent poetry. But in large part, this album somehow actually pulls off the monumental task of portraying adolescent melodrama in a nostalgic light. Allow yourself to be immersed in the shimmering reverb and sparkling ‘80s synthesizers, and you just might almost feel like you want to be fifteen again. Almost.
17. Hot Chip – Made In The Dark
Hot Chip is a little more erratic here than they were on 2006’s fantastic The Warning, occasionally straying from their established electropop sound, and at times even veering into full-blown R&B. But for the most part, they retain their charming playfulness, something most easily seen in their live performances, which inject these tracks with a new life that unfortunately makes the album seem a bit sterile in comparison.
16. Calexico – Carried To Dust
This is Calexico at their gentle southwestern folk rock best. Teaming up with Tortoise’s Doug McCombs, singer-songwriter Pieta Brown, and, once again, Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, Carried To Dust breezes through fifteen whispery, surprisingly emotive, and at times all out gorgeous alt-country numbers.
15. Army Navy – Army Navy
I picked up a self-released EP featuring early demos of four of these songs at a show way back in 2006. Then, after another show in early in 2008, I obtained a free (albeit coverless) copy of the full length album when the band was simply handing it out. Finally, it was released with such little fanfare that for a few months I didn’t even realize it. Army Navy’s biggest claim to fame remains a single track on the soundtrack to teen rom-com, Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist. Their infectious, energetic jangly pop rock deserves better. If you’re in LA, do the band (and yourself) a favor: check out one of their frequent shows at Spaceland, The Echo, or Silverlake Lounge.
14. Fuck Buttons – Street Horrrsing
Clocking in at an average length of over eight minutes, this album’s six tracks are in no hurry to develop. But given a little patience, the blaring drones, pulsating electronic rhythms, and unsettlingly surreal, processed vocals can become engrossing and at times overwhelming.
13. The Dodos – Visiter
This Bay Area duo’s sophomore effort is brimming with rhythmically charged, acoustic psych-folk, but it’s their knack for extremely catchy pop songwriting that will keep your attention.
12. HEALTH – HEALTH//DISCO
“ALL THE HITS //REMIXED,” boasts the album cover. It even goes on to list all ten tracks from HEALTH’s self-titled 2007 noise rock debut. In actuality, only seven of those tracks show up here. Two appear twice each, and “Triceratops” takes the gold with three separate remixes (two of which are by Acid Girls). But no need to fear redundancy--the songs are so chopped, spliced, and dressed up in electronic blips and bleeps, they have become entirely different (at times nearly unrecognizable) and much more interesting animals. Despite the ten separate remixers’ widely varying use of the source material, they all manage to maintain HEALTH’s noisy intensity, channeling it into a cohesive, and surprisingly catchy, synthed-up dance album.
11. School Of Seven Bells – Alpinisms
Densely layered electronic dream pop supports harmonizing female vocals that fluctuate between haunting tribal chants and graceful soaring beauty. Take one listen to the enchanting single, “Half Asleep,” and there’s no turning back.
10. Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer
Splitting songwriting and vocal duties, co-front men Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug have collectively delivered an energetic, and somewhat unsettling album. First syllable of his last name aside, Boeckner’s vocal delivery recalls that of Beck’s, while Krug’s has a more mysterious quality, reminiscent of a quieter Dan Bejar (of Destroyer and The New Pornographers). But despite bouncing back and forth between these two styles, At Mount Zoomer is uniformly compelling in its agitated anxiousness.
9. High Places – High Places
Singer Mary Pearson’s endearingly simple delivery lilts atop a dizzying array of multi-instrumentalist Rob Barber’s psychedelic rhythmical samples on this Brooklyn duo’s self-titled debut.
8. Sigur Rós – Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
Upon hearing the first single, “Gobbledigook,” a lighthearted up-tempo rhythmical romp, it seemed that Sigur Rós was charting new territory. The rest of the album, however, falls back on their tried-and-true brand of gentle atmospherics building to mammoth-sized, overwhelming theatrical triumph. It may be getting old for some, but it sure still works its magic on me.
7. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
This impeccably performed peppy preppy pop rock, packaged in African-influenced instrumentation, manages to keep things simple and straightforward enough (save its tasteful string embellishments) to have staggeringly broad appeal. Never have I witnessed a band rise from internet buzz to national attention so quickly.
6. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours
Amongst a torrent of “new new wave” acts, Australia’s Cut Copy manage to rise above the murky floodwaters. In Ghost Colours is expertly crafted dance pop, mixing in just enough electronic flourishes, ambient swells, and seamless, floating track transitions to keep ears attentive and heads nodding throughout.
5. Blitzen Trapper – Furr
Like the late Grandaddy, this six-piece Portland band has a fondness for rustic outdoorsiness mixed with new-fangled electronics. Their roots, however, are here firmly planted in ragged ‘60s and ‘70s folk rock. And singer Eric Earley lends his Dylanesque vocals to tracks ranging from heartfelt piano ballads to up-tempo dance grooves.
4. Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst
Continuing his recent folksy/alt-country kick, the perennially discontent Oberst is well suited by the stripped down, raw feel of this album. His penchant for the overly emotive makes him a divisive figure. But if you share my feeling that he has a way with words, many of these latest musings on existence, meaning, and salvation can be achingly poignant.
3. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles
This Canadian duo produces catchy electropop marred by the noises of extremely angry video games and the occasional distorted, shrieking female vocal. That it manages to come across as energizing rather than off-putting is an impressive achievement for this fantastic debut.
2. The Ruby Suns – Sea Lion
California native turned New Zelander Ryan McPhun fronts this band, dabbling in exotic world beat influences, but ultimately creating catchy, dreamy psychedelic pop songs. As it slowly meanders through ambient transitions from one track to the next, Sea Lion can bring on the spaced out feeling of having fallen asleep in the sun, and from the sounds here, that could as easily have been on a California beach as a Polynesian island.
1. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
2008 was a particularly strong year for eponymous debuts. The fifth and final on my list was also the year’s most rewarding album. Lead singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold carries Fleet Foxes’ gorgeous folk melodies with an almost shockingly strong and true voice that is ever so slightly weathered, just enough to evoke the perfect level of earnest sincerity. It’s a voice that can stand alone, as it does during long a capella sections of haunting closer “Oliver James,” or blend beautifully, as it very frequently does, with the voices of the band’s three other talented singers. The rich harmonies and rustic instrumental arrangements create a spellbinding pastoral transcendence throughout a line-up of melodies so effortless and pure, it’s hard to believe they are new creations, and not enduring traditional folk tunes from anonymous composers of long ago.