Thursday, January 1, 2009

Special: Gary's Top 25 Albums of 2008

Another year, another list. Of course, no one is going to completely agree with any list posted on the internet, but it is definitely a helpful tool to discover albums that may have gone unheard in the past year. Compilation of any year-end list can be grueling: Do you favor newer, more recently ingrained-in-your-brain albums, or the album from the spring that has had plenty of time to grow on you? The answer: Who cares? These are 25 of my most-played albums this year, all of which do something interesting that make me come back for more.

25. Department of Eagles - In Ear Park
24. Bloc Party - Intimacy
23. Portishead - Third
22. Deerhunter - Microcastle
21. No Age - Nouns

20. Torche – Meanderthal – Taking a crude subgenre like sludge metal and making it poppy cannot be an easy accomplishment. The Miami-based band’s second record is full of lowly, droning, chugging guitars, but the “sludge” is accompanied by actual melody and sing-song soaring vocals. “Grenades” does the balancing act of pop and metal best, while “Amnesian” and the title track are unafraid to be bombastically yet entertainingly more metal-oriented. Meanderthal rocks because of its exploitation of metal as an accessible, fun and surprisingly melodious categorization.

19. Beck – Modern Guilt – Beck’s latest album combines unlikely mixtures of catchy, genre-blurring beats and lyrics alluding to paranoia and self-doubt in modern times. Standout “Chemtrails” is an atmospheric, psychedelic trip that barely sounds like Beck, while “Gamma Ray” invokes imagery of a pop gem played at a beach party. With the help of Danger Mouse, Beck does an admirable job of making a relatively fresh album with great, varied musical styles and interesting, thought-provoking lyrical implications.

18. Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III – Anyone who knows anything about music is aware of the impact Weezy has had on pop culture, especially this last year. His highly anticipated Tha Carter III was the best-selling album of the year, three of his singles were huge hits, and he has quickly become a household name. It is an album that is hard to ignore, and the hype is rightly justified. It may seem disingenuous to include Carter on a list devoid of hip-hop diversity, but it is in a league of its own. More eccentric than most, and better because of it, Wayne is all over the map. From the ubiquitous Auto-Tune otherworldly slow jam “Lollipop,” to the serious and introspective “Shoot Me Down” and “3 Peat,” to the hilarious, riding metaphor of smooth and jazzy “Dr. Carter,” to the one-of-a-kind freestyle flow of one of the most unlikely yet best singles of the year in “A Milli.” Lil Wayne’s self-proclamation of “best rapper alive” may be a bit superlative, but C3 has certainly raised the bar high for hip-hop albums.

17. The Hold SteadyStay Positive – The Brooklyn quintet’s fourth LP keeps their place as the best bar band in America safely intact, while further extending their bid as today’s classic rock band. “Lord, I’m Discouraged” is a bona fide power ballad, “Constructive Summer” and “Sequestered in Memphis” are driving, piano-laden rock jams and the title track’s powerfully positive message begs to be performed in a huge stadium with its highly upbeat, “whoa-oh-oh” backed chorus. Every song is an intriguing story that frontman Craig Finn sing-speaks, weaved together with a band that always seems to emphasize the tone and mood of each song. Stay Positive is rock and roll at its purest, churning out track after track of truly anthemic, engaging music.

16. Crystal Castles – Crystal CastlesImagine an old arcade on crack. That is the basis for the Toronto duo’s self-titled debut, actually name after an old Atari game. Supported by surprising stalwarts “Vanished,” “Untrust Us” and the HEALTH-aided “Crimewave,” Crystal Castles both lives up to and often times tests the boundaries of the ever-growing electronic categorization. Supersaturated with sonic electronica, Crystal Castles succeed in creating effective ambiences and glitchy, unorthodox electro-pop that surpass the hype and controversy shrouding them.

15. Fuck Buttons – Street Horrrsing – If you have your parents listen to Street Horrrsing, they will likely comment that it is a bunch of noise. While their conjectures would not far from truth, they likely did not really listen to the Bristol duo’s debut album. They have created a truly unique listening experience, an album that begs to be listened to from beginning to end. Utilizing both extremes of the noise spectrum, they perfectly segue from pretty, minimal instrumentals to full-blown walls of noise and literally incomprehensible muffled screaming. “Bright Tomorrow” uses this effect well: It is a simple, stuttering percussion beat with small keyboard lilts to truly paint a happy, bright tomorrow. That is, until you are unsuspectingly taken aback by the noise attack that leads to pictures of a highly chaotic, truly dark tomorrow. Throw in the aforementioned screaming to really make your bones chill. The best part is that the effect somehow refuses to get old, with the beginning lulling you into a false sense of security every time, making you unsure of when the noise will come. “Sweet Love for Planet Earth” is a pretty, shimmering piece that tempts both extremes but never goes too far. Noise music may sound like it is an endurance test for the ears, but Fuck Buttons turn this subgenre into a visceral, engaging experience.

14. The Raconteurs – Consolers of the Lonely – The White Stripes’ Jack White and his Raconteurs released their sophomore album literally out of the blue this year, with very little forewarning of its release. Those that came across the album were pleasantly surprised. Building upon their debut of two years ago, The Raconteurs continue making great tunes heavily influenced by classic rock (especially Zeppelin), garage rock, blues, folk and even a little country. The opening title track purposely sounds half-finished, creating a raw feel to make a hard-to-deny jam, especially with the solo near the end. “Salute Your Solution” is a fast-paced rocker, with White spitting words a mile a minute and a speedy organ harking back to the Stripes’ Icky Thump. “Old Enough” has its roots steeped in old timey lore, with its organ and Irish violin matching wits with a fuzzy electric guitar. “The Switch and the Spur” stands out, including horns, piano and story reminiscent of a country-western yarn. The slide guitar blues of “Top Yourself” and the apparent garage implications of “Five on the Five” further add to their eclecticism. Consolers has plenty of tricks up its sleeves, placating staunch classic rock conservatives with all of its axework, as well as those who are looking for a fun rock record that, unlike most of the schlock on modern rock radio, actually has some substance and talent.

13. Apes & Androids – Blood Moon ­– The band’s name, while bizarre, actually applies to their music: They take old school classic rock tricks from the best and merge it with shades from the future. With tongue-in-cheek bombast, over-the-top compositions, and even some sincerity, Blood Moon is pretty irresistible. It has its danceable, almost futuristic Queen moments, like “We Don’t Understand You” and the goofy “Golden Prize,” featuring handclaps, synth beeps, “la la la”s, an unexpected Arabian-sounding ending, and a falsetto that would make Freddy Mercury proud. “Nights of the Week” borrows the guitar riff from “Every Breath You Take” and spins a fun little rocking jam about “the nights of the weeks that you force yourself out of bed.” “Doyle Is Dead” is creepily minimal, using not much more than a drum machine and falsetto and sounding reminiscent of the similarly flamboyant Of Montreal. The album progresses to the slightly serious side near the end, featuring vocals that almost sound like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Definitely a band who likes to experiment and go all out, their debut certainly owes quite a bit of its sound to Queen and Of Montreal, especially because of the falsetto, but their commendable blend of influences from the past and future work in their favor. Blood Moon is entertaining and more than just a gimmick, and it will be interesting to see what is next from these guys.

12. Why? – AlopeciaThe interrogatively-named California band released their third full-length this year, and it is certainly in a class of its own. Take dry, borderline spoken vocals á la Ben Folds or Cake, have the vocals spit wordy, descriptive, stream-of-consciousness rhymes like neurotic Beastie Boys, and set it to quirky indie rock beats to comprehend what Alopecia is all about. Frontman Jonathan “Yoni” Wolf seems like a pretty neurotic dude, worried about death, religion, drugs, and of course love. Each song is more vivid description than sole story, but the words are highly entertaining and often hilarious, as Wolf spins unlikely mental neuroses together with such deadpan. Surprisingly, the math adds up well, as Why? somehow created the most unlikely pop album of the year. “Fatalist Palmistry” is the best example of this successful synthesis: Wolf half-sings/half-speaks his way through the very breezy, poppy beat and the song is constructed like a typical single. “The Vowels Pt. 2” features a chugging percussion backbone and a goofy almost-chorus, while “The Hollows” utilizes dark piano plinks and guitar plucks as the chorus dedicates the song to different highly-alliterative groups. Alopecia is strange, unforgiving, unsure, loquacious, complex and detailed. However, it is also an entertaining, humorous and unique blend of hip-pop (no way is this hip-hop) and experimental indie rock, rendering multiple listens a must.

11. Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak The typical egotistical, overproduced, rap-oriented Kanye album is nowhere to be found this year. Instead, West endured the death of his mother and the ending of his engagement with his fiancée. West turned introspective and found that he could not express what he was feeling using his typical toolset. Yes, it is hard to believe, but West experiences human emotions, too. The result is 808s, an experimental, subdued album that is unlike anything West has ever done. That alone has led to the polarizing critical response, but different does not mean subpar. Instead, West uses a Roland TR-808 drum machine and more Auto-Tune than a T-Pain album to get his raw, emotional lyrics realized. The combination is surprisingly effective. The minimalistic, repetitive synth-pop beats and robotic vocals make the album seem detached and alienated, both of which point toward West’s inevitable feelings and the universality of his feelings. While the subject matter can be a bummer, the beats manage to break out of the mopefest, like the flourishes of “RoboCop” and the near-rap song feel of “Paranoid.” “Love Lockdown” starts out laughably simple, with just West straining his under-average vocal chords to the max. Then the chorus kicks in, with the tribal drum breakdown and West somehow works a twisted, unlikely R&B jam. West’s lyrical wit is still intact, with clever wordplay and story-telling ever-present. 808s certainly shows that under all of the swagger and ego, West is just like us (sort of.) Granted, it is not the type of experimental leap that Radiohead made with Kid A or Weezer with Pinkerton, it may become like those albums and become the quirky fan favorite. Anybody worried that this is a permanent career move, fret not: Kanye has a new, more typical album coming in 2009.

10. Santogold – Santogold­ M.I.A.’s fantastic Kala came out in 2007 but it wasn’t until this year that she began to blow up from indie queen to eccentric pop superstar. Perhaps the same delayed path is in store for Santi White, whose eponymous debut certainly harks back to the otherworldly sounds of M.I.A., especially on “Creator,” where Santogold spits rhymes over an electronic, trip-hop beat. Santogold is her own woman, however, who does what she wants and is able to dabble in other subgenres such as new wave, electronica, dub and even punk and indie rock. “Say Aha” sounds almost like the next Gwen Stefani single waiting to happen, with its nonsensical albeit catchy chorus. Standout single “L.E.S. Artistes” is a slow-burning indie rock jam showing an outward disliking for the titular Lower East Side artists who White considered posers and scenesters when they tried to criticize her, making the “artist” descriptor a sarcastic jab. “Lights Out” is reminiscent of a long-forgotten soft-spoken ‘80s new wave song, with its repetitive guitar strumming and synth driving the song. White’s vocals are an instrument by itself, varying on each song to sound like a different female chanteuse each time. Each song has its own distinctive feel, and the album somehow works them all together to add up to an impressive debut album.

09. My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges The Kentucky quintet won many over with their last studio album, simply titled Z. Their follow-up left many fans confused and polarized with the direction of the album. It is certainly a step in a different direction, but it is no way a step backward. Urges is a solid album indeed stylistically unlike their others, featuring an array of sounds. They do the pretty, folksy-sounding songs like “Librarian” well, the country-tinged rock of “Look at You” and “Smokin’ from Shootin’” with ease and the classic rock guitars of “Aluminum Park” and “Remnants” like it’s nothing. They are certainly capable of genre dabbling, and the unexpected outliers are the most entertaining. Easily the most unexpected track of the year, “Highly Suspicious” is a borderline goofy funkfest, with lead singer Jim James doing his best falsetto this side of Prince. The obvious high point is the closer, “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 2,” an eight-minute, unlikely rock jam, what with its minute-long keyboard tinkers over the rumbling intro, the throbbing, persistent bass-driven beat, the eruption at the five-minute mark into a bunch of “Ohhh”s until the song relapses back to the beginning keyboard, all driven by James’ signature chops throughout the song. It’s no fun when a band sticks to the same tried-and-true formula, and MMJ boldly made an ambitious album that sifts through numerous genres successfully and that truly grows upon subsequent listens.

08. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! The Australian outfit’s latest release in their storied quarter-century-and-counting career is their unbelievable fourteenth studio album. Cave just celebrated his fiftieth birthday, but is still full of machismo swagger that may have been carried over from last year’s Grinderman side project. The inspiration of the album, and the title track especially, involves the Lazarus from biblical times (“Larry”) being raised from the dead and wandering around present-day New York City and Los Angeles and the consequences that lead him to die all over again. “Today’s Lesson” continues the swagger and snarl, featuring an organ interlude that would make The Doors proud. “Night of the Lotus Eaters” is a chillingly minimal song, but the Seeds pick it right back up with “Albert Goes West” and “We Call upon the Author,” both intriguing, garage-rock inspired jams. Cave spits out loquacious lyrics with ease, and he almost sounds like an inspired preacher at the apocalypse. Coupled with the invigorating music of the Seeds, the result is an entertaining bunch of stories backed with layers of garage and classic rock.

07. Eagles of Death Metal – Heart On Part Queens of the Stone Age mastermind Josh “Baby Duck” Homme, part Jesse “The Devil” Hughes, together these guys love to rock. Classic and garage rock influences abound on the cleverly named album, which is full of raucous riffs, macho attitude and a surplus of moustache. Heart On sticks to what these guys are good at, but also throw in some curveballs to keep the band from getting unimaginative. “Secret Plans” is a bouncy little romp, “Prissy Prancin’” is a fuzzy, sleezeball appreciation of “wigglin’ and jigglin’,” and opener “Anything ‘cept the Truth” is reminiscent of the Rolling Stones, with persistent, grinding axework, titillating tambourines and Hughes’ signature falsetto vocals. In fact, a good deal of songs sound like an homage to the Stones (Hughes eerily sounds like Mick Jagger at times.) However, they have their own sound, too: “Tight Pants” is a funky little tongue-in-cheek number, while closer “I’m Your Torpedo” is reminiscent of a Queens of the Stone Age outtake. Then there’s “Solo Flights,” an unashamed anthem dedicated to masturbation. In the end, Heart On is a fun album with a big bag of tricks and nothing to lose, and the Eagles are one of the few bands that can pull it off with a straight, mustachioed face.

06. Sigur Rós – með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust The Icelandic ensemble’s fifth album translates into English as With Buzzing in Our Ears We Play Endlessly. It is indeed an apropos title for the album, as the typically ethereal and minimalistic band broadens their horizons a bit to be a bit more playful. Case in point: The frolicking nature of the album art, and the leadoff single “Gobbledigook,” an uncharacteristically blithe song built around an acoustic guitar hook, persistent tribal-sounding drums and the simple-yet-effective “la la la” chorus. The upbeat songs keep coming, with highlight “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur.” Sure, no one in the States knows what Jonsi Por Birgisson is saying, but it doesn’t matter. The vocals are simply another instrument, a melodic vehicle that fits in so well with whatever the band seems to do musically. “Við spilum endalaust” is a prettily played piece, backed by the ever-present orchestra sounds that make all of their songs seem epic. The album still has its long-winded jams, such as “Festival” and “Ára bátur”, both magnificent nine-minute opuses that slowly crescendo until they damn near explode into a shimmering wall of musical bliss that is nothing short of captivating. It may seem weird listening to a foreign language album like this, but it manages to evoke strong emotions and paint stunning atmospheric pictures regardless of the words being sung.

05. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours Australian-born electro-pop collective Cut Copy want to see you dance. In Ghost Colours is a thoughtful, laudable effort to do just that. It is an album that references more to the past than creates anything new, but the synthesis of all of these nostalgic parts in turn result in a melodic, uptempo joyride that stands alone among their dance-rock brethren. Colours is more than merely great dance music; it is an upbeat blend of music styles with a heart and a pulse, not some derivative, robotic schlock. Each song features fantastical melodies, bursts of synthesized sonic serenity, inescapable hooks and the overall unavoidable groove that makes the album so entertaining. “Hearts on Fire” and “Lights and Music” are perfect examples of the type of synth-pop anthems present on this album, and they follow one after the other without much pause. Cut Copy coalesce rock, electronic, disco, rave and dance music into a pristine, highly effective combination that is simply unforgettable and a cut above the rest of those other electronic/dance albums out there.

04. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend From nobodies to indie household name, these four Ivy Leaguers sure grew up fast. For good reason, too: Their eponymous debut is a pop-rock gem. Heavily influenced by Afro pop and light, jazzy rhythms, Vampire Weekend created an album that is so catchy and infectious, with lyrical substance to boot. It is unabashedly poppy and fun, and they know that and run with the idea the entire album. The simple sing-along nature of “Oxford Comma” is paralleled with the laughable moot point of the basis for the title. “A-Punk” is a driving, guitar pop romp, sounding borderline punk and garage that quickly turns subtly sonic before frontman Ezra Koenig’s irresistible “’Ey ‘ey ‘ey ‘ey!” Not every song has Afro pop to thank for its basis, as “M79” is wonderfully noteworthy with its share of impressive strings section and chamber pop coupled with breezy guitar and drums and lyrics peppered with specifics that have the potential to be overanalyzed. The album is chock full of memorable melodies, hooks and lyrics, and is quite simply a fun and replayable album. It is a refreshing listen every time, with nothing quite like it out there.

03. Girl Talk – Feed the Animals – Unapologetically spastic, Gregg Gillis’ latest mash-up masterpiece is actually more tame and calculated than his previous Night Ripper or Unstoppable. On the surface, it may seem like Animals is the culmination of the core a bevy of pop songs that were thrown into a blender. Indeed, Gillis takes the best parts of a ton of recognizable songs and puts them together to make a new, refreshing experience. Opener “Play Your Part (Pt. 1)” is a microcosmic example of his extensive use of samples: UGK and Outkast collide with Roy Orbison, “Walk It Out” is met with a wall of otherworldly, minimalistic synth, and Weezy and Sinead O’Connor collaborate (something that could undoubtedly happen given Lil’ Wayne’s prolific featured appearances.) “No Pause” is the best standalone track, with the unavoidable Missy Elliot intro, the hilarious Eminem closing sample and everything in between. However, it is counterintuitive to conceptualize the album as individual songs but rather as a whole entity: The whole album flows seamlessly like one big danceable track, changing it up right when you start singing along to the words of the previous song. Some mash-ups are memorable and unthinkable (Jay-Z and Radiohead! Lil’ Mama and Metallica! Rick Astley and LL Cool J!), and no genre is immune to Gillis’ masterful mash-up craftwork. Anyone who appreciates music and wants to see it revisited, or who just wants an unpredictable, wide-ranging dance party must have this album in their library.

02. M83 – Saturdays = YouthIt was a decade that I was born on the cusp of and thus did not experience, yet I know an Eighties homage when I hear one. Electronic music guru Anthony Gonzalez strayed from crafting his ethereal instrumental electronic music and instead made Saturdays = Youth, his fourth record that is unlike any of his previous endeavors. The blueprints of his past work are still present, yet that unavoidable tinge of the ‘80s certainly makes its mark. The whole concept, right down to the stereotypical cast of any teen movie from that era on the album cover, seems cheesy, but Gonzalez treats it sincerely, creating some truly emotional and evocative music for any decade. Clear-cut standout “Kim & Jessie” is a heart-racing, propulsive pop and new-wave gem, perfectly capturing the aesthetic of a teenage relationship. “Couleurs,” on the other hand, races through its instrumental eight-plus-minutes with sonic force and epic drumwork that is too easy in which to get lost. In fact, the entire album is like that: A small time warp, not necessarily to the era and genres that are hinted at but to one’s own youth, that is what it sounds like: Painfully full of angst, ache and emotion, yet a once-in-a-lifetime experience that is impossible to avoid or ignore.

01. TV on the Radio – Dear Science – It is the dilemma that most bands only dream of: How do you top your previous, critically acclaimed masterpiece? Brooklyn’s own TV on the Radio were posed with this very quagmire, to release a follow-up to 2006’s exquisite Return to Cookie Mountain. Their effort was pretty commendable, landing them at the top of this arbitrary list, but more impressively at the top of some actually respectable publications. It’s about time these guys receive the recognition they deserve. Dear Science is an album rife with a melancholy and political agenda coupled with an uncharacteristically infectious sound. They are notorious art-rockers, but they have done much more than create some inaccessible noise and words. Rather, Science has an almost universality to it, with its synthesis of a wide array of musical styles. No matter what, the songs are infectious yet substantial, catchy yet meaningful, a rare paradox in the music universe. High point “Golden Age” is ferociously funky in the verses, and then the strings kick in for the majestic chorus, evoking imagery of a potential utopia to come. “Family Tree” shifts gears into full-blown ballad mode, seemingly taking a page out of the Coldplay notebook with the slow piano-laden backdrop and repressed vocals, discussing a sad love story held back by racism. Closer “Lover’s Day” is certainly something else: A full-blown anthem on fucking. Yet it’s very tasteful and strangely sexy, and its instrumental ending almost gets you in the mood to start your own Lover’s Day. Although debatable, Dear Science may not be the best album in their catalog, it is my favorite album in the 2008 catalog.

Before this retrospective look at 2008 comes to a wistful conclusion, here's some quickie runner-ups:

  • Best 2007 Album Getting Recognition in 2008: Oracular Spectacular by MGMT
  • Album I Wish I Heard More Than A Few Weeks Ago: Midnight Boom by The Kills
  • Album That I Thought Was Good But Overhyped: Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes
  • Most Unnecessary Comeback: Chinese Democracy by Guns N' Roses
  • Favorite Single: "Water Curses" by Animal Collective
  • Album That Would Have Ranked Very High If It Were (Legitimately) Released in 2008: Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective

That's all she wrote. Happy New Year!

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