Sunday, January 4, 2009

Special: Nick's Top 15 Albums of 2008

1. M83 - Saturdays=Youth
'Saturdays=Youth' is another step in the natural progression of electronic artist M83, moving from the ambient soundscapes and bombastic percussion of previous albums to synth-laden 1980s pop on this most recent entry. The album is a fresh take on a long-forgotten and much maligned genre, crafting catchy hooks and foot-stomping rythms while staying true to the etheral core that makes M83 what it is. Highlights of the album include "We Own The Sky", "Kim & Jessie", as well as "Couleurs", an 8:34 disco-era cut that is quite a treat to see live.

2. Portugal. The Man - Censored Colors
Taking cues from acts such as the Beatles, The Mars Volta, and what seems like several Southern Baptist Choirs along the way, Portugal. The Man has crafted a truly soulful and poignant album in 'Censored Colors'. Because of a shift to a folk/soul-like sound, the salt of the earth vocals of John Gourley are the focal point of the album, earning high praise on tracks such as "1989", "Created", and "Colors". If a record that combines melodic acoustic arrangements, powerful vocals, atmospheric keys, and the occasional choral backdrop sounds like your thing, then pick up 'Censored Colors'. The aforementioned "1989" and "Created" are good starting points, as is "Lay Me Back Down".

3. Woven - Designer Codes
Woven's 'Designer Codes', while bested by the two previous albums, is perhaps the most original and chilling release of 2008. You won't find any cheap hooks or recycled beats in 'Designer Codes', instead expect to find fourteen tracks that will hone your listening ear and send chills down your spine. "Perception *****" sounds like a Trent Reznor creation at its most perverted, while the CD closer "She Blows My Amplifier" is a wonderfully brilliant take on '( )' era Sigur Ros. 'Designer Codes' has drawn some underground comparisons to Radiohead's landmark 'Kid A', and I would not give it such high praise, however the originality, emotion, and complexity is certainly there to justify the claim. Do not listen to individual tracks, as you would be depraving yourself of the true experience, instead listen to the entire album.

4. The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound
Perhaps more than other years, 2008 has been a time for many bands to look back through annals of music history for artistic influence. With the 'The '59 Sound', The Gaslight Anthem has turned back the clock to a time when Bruce Springsteen anthem-rock was at the heart America's musical conscience. There is nothing particularly complex or original about 'The 59 Sound', except for the fact that it's able to meld catchy guitar hooks and rhythmic drum lines with the enveloping voice of frontman Brian Fallon in a way that hasn't been done since the Boss' hey-day. "The '59 Sound", "High Lonesome", "Film Noir", and "The Patient Ferris Wheel" are the best of the best on this consistent and well-rounded album.

5. Moving Mountains - Pneuma
Westchester, NY-based rockers Moving Mountains are utterly in touch with how to make, not to be redundant, moving alternative rock. Every one of the songs on their debut effort "Pneuma" packs an emotional punch, particularly the massively epic closer "Ode Will Bury Ourselves". Much of the instrumentation in the choruses' and bridges' uses post-rock elements such as crashing drums and sonic guitar walls, while the vocals are high-pitched and draw comparisons to Thursday's Geoff Rickly. I anticipate that fans of dredg, Kaddisfly, Circa Survive, and The Appleseed Cast will take to 'Pneuma' very well. "Ode We Will Bury Oursevles" is the best song of the year and an absolute must listen.

6. Apes & Androids - Blood Moon
About three tracks into 'Blood Moon', it becomes quite obvious that Apes & Androids are cut from a different sort of cloth than most other bands today. Catchy, non-sensical, and over-produced, the Queen-infused glam rock espoused on 'Blood Moon' is delightfully entertaining. Beat machines, synthesizers, and outlandish, Freddy Mercury-esque vocals are at the core of Apes & Androids, and help produce standout tracks such as "Golden Prize", "Nights of the Week", and "Doyle Is Dead". If you want a truly original and fun listening experience, check out 'Blood Moon'.

7. Thrice - The Alchemy Index, Vols. III & IV: Air & Earth
What do you get when Dustin Kensrue and the rest of Thrice are allowed to explore their experimental sides? The 'Alchemy Index' of course, more specifically, Vols. III & IV: Air & Earth, a double album that complements the 2007 release of Vols. I & II: Fire & Water. The first half, 'Air', contains six songs that are slower and highly reminiscent of "Red Sky", a hit off 2005's 'Vheissu'. The latter half, 'Earth', is pure acoustic and piano-laden folk. The top song off of 'Air' is "Daedalus", while "Child of Dust" closes out 'Earth' beautifully. Hopefully Thrice continues their foray into the world of experimental rock, as this material is easily some of their best.

8. Lower Definition - The Greatest of All Lost Arts
When I saw the last two songs of Lower Definition's set at a Dance Gavin Dance concert this past July, I had little idea what I was getting myself into. In the following days I listened to their debut "The Greatest of All Lost Arts" and was blown away by the versatile vocals of lead singer Matt Geise and his ability to shift from a melodic emo croon to a blistering scream in seconds (a trait which was still present live). Punchy guitar hooks, as well as chugga-chugga breakdowns are present throughout the album, and complement Geise's vocals to a tee. If anything, Lower Definition should strive to keep their versatility, but increase their diversity, as much of 'The Greatest of All Lost Arts' is hard to differentiate. "The Ventriloquist" is the stand out track, along with "To Satellite" and "If We Speak Quietly".

9. Damiera - Quiet Mouth Loud Hands
Damiera's 'Quiet Mouth Loud Hands' did not initially resonate with my musical senses, so I disregarded the album at first. Lest, upon further inspection, I found 'Quiet Mouth Loud Hands' to be a pleasing amalgamation of catchy bass grooves, quirky vocals (sung almost in a RHCP style at times), and prog-influenced guitar hooks. The album manages to stick to the same formula throughout without sounding repetitive or tired, building around tracks such as "Quiet Mouth Loud Hands", "Nailbiter", and "Teacher, Preacher", which facilitates thoughts of a Justin Timberlake pop tune. The entire experience clocks in at a manageable 31:31, with no tracks topping 3:43.

10. MGMT - Oracular Spectacular
For whatever reason I was a little late to MGMT party, only listening to this album in the last month. However, that did not stop me from becoming intoxicated by the silky smooth synth-pop afforded by 'Oracular Spectacular'. "Electric Feel", "Time To Pretend", and "Kids" each summon images of running through a field of dandelions on a hazy summer day. Other songs on the album, such as "Of Moons, Birds & Monsters" and "The Youth" give off a more Pink Floyd-esque, psychedelic feel. And yes, I am cognizant of the fact that 'Oracular Spectacular' was released digitally in October 2007, however this list goes off the date of the label release!

11. Dance Gavin Dance - Untitled
Warning: pretentious indie intelligentsia move along. Dance Gavin Dance is not for the close-minded, or perhaps even for the open-minded, they are simply an acquired taste who offend the senses of many given their grating screamer and idiosyncratic lyrics. Dubbed 'The Deathstar Album' (notice the album art), DGD's latest release doesn't quite measure up to 2007's 'Downtown Battle Mountain', however makes up for it by fusing some more progressive elements into the music. "Caviar", featuring Chino Moreno of Deftones, is a highlight of the album and shows the more mature side of DGD, while "Hot Water on Wool" is complete with a minute long instrumental intro and sounds akin to Circa Survive. There are some throwaway songs, "Buffalo!" especially, however the album does a good job of differentiating itself from much of the ubiquitous post-hardcore genre.

12. Underoath - Lost in the Sound of Separation
The Florida-based Christian rockers Underoath have churned out another solid effort with 'Lost in the Sound of Separation', effectively taking a baseball bat and repeatedly slamming the listener over the head with it. The album opener, "Breathing in a New Mentality", is the best track and provides one of the most brutal breakdowns this side of Sky Eats Airplane's "Disconnected". "Desperate Times, Desperate Measures", "The Only Survivor Was Miraculously Unharmed", and "Anyone Can Dig A Hole But It Takes A Real Man To Call It Home" continue the sonic beatdown, juxtaposing Dallas Chamberlain's abrasive vocals against crunching guitars and the occasional Aaron Gillespie melodic verse. Perhaps the main fault of 'Lost in the Sound of Separation' is that Chamberlain's vocals, while intensely satisfying, can be become tedious by the latter portion of the album.

13. Foals - Antidotes
Foals' 'Antidotes' will immediately resonate with fans of British dance-pop, notably those who enjoy bands like Bloc Party and Late of the Pier. "The French Open", "Red Sock Pugie", and "Olympics Airways" contribute to this label and succeed in making the album an enjoyable listening experience. However, Foals sewed their seeds in math-rock, and that influence is clearly present on songs like "Heavy Water", "Like Swimming", and "Tron", with guitar loops suggestive of math-rock darlings Battles. The CD is solid from top to bottom, with many good but very few great tracks, nevertheless be sure to check out "Big Big Love (Fig.2)".

14. Sigur Rós - Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
'Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust' is Sigur Rós' most accessible work to date, abandoning some of the minimalistic aspects of their previous music in favor of some more (relatively) conventional song structure. This is not to say that the ethereal aspects of Sigur Rós are lost, as "Festival", "Ára bátur", and "Fljótavík" serve as extensions of the slow-motion rock of '( )' and 'Takk...' However, the strongest songs on the record come in the way of "Gobbledigook" and "Inní mér syngur vitleysingur", tracks that are centered around fanciful and stimulating rhythms that could garner the interest of even the most myopic audiophiles. Overall, 'Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust' is another worthwhile release from the Icelandic ensemble that will appeal to those with broad and limited palettes alike.

15. Neon Neon - Stainless Style
'Stainless Style' is certainly an ambitious concept - pit Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys and electronic artist Bloom Bip together along with a host of guest musicians to create a 1980s-sounding disco anthem about famed car designer John De Lorean. The foray was largely successful, as Neon Neon has crafted a multi-faceted and danceable record that is especially strong in the first fifteen minutes, with tracks such as "Dream Girls", "I Told Her On Alderaan", and "Raquel" setting the plate nicely. From there, Neon Neon enlists the services of Spank Rock, Fatlip, and Yo Majesty for some hit and miss rap ditties, the best of which is "Trick For Treat". Anyone looking for a catchy 1980s experience should definitely give 'Stainless Style' a listen, most notably the songs "Dream Girls" and "Michael Douglas".

Copeland - You Are My Sunshine
El Ten Eleven - These Promises Are Being Videotaped
Emarosa - Relativity
Eye Alaska - Yellow & Elephant (EP)
God Is An Astronaut - God Is An Astronaut
Russian Circles - Station

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