2008 was a great year for good music and a pretty good year for great music. I kept expanding my list from 20 to 25 to 30, and then back down to 20 (sort of). Deciding what would be my #10 took forever. (The top #9 have been there for a while, with the order shuffling around till seconds from this posting.) And actually my Top 5 were as close as they've been in ages. My rules: whatever year an album is first made available in any legally obtainable format (CD, vinyl, digital, etc), that is the year it's eligible. No compilations of previously-released material. So no MGMT (came out last year), no Bon Iver (wouldn't have made it anyway). Without further ado, my favorite albums of 2008:
1. Metronomy – Nights Out (Because Music) | A couple things take Nights Out to the top slot of '08. They've worked out a distinct sound that is instantly recognizable whether it's their own tracks or the remixes they do for other artists. It's manic, with a water-damaged quality to it that sounds like what it feels to be up for 36 hours straight, buzzing on espressos (or whatever) but dead tired. In a good way, obviously. It sounds like nothing else. Plus, whistling! Above all else, it's my favorite of the year because it's almost all hits. Nights Out contains at least seven single-worthy tracks and absolutely no bad songs. How many albums can you say that about this year?
2. Mystery Jets – Twenty One (679 Recordings) | If you'd told me two years ago that Mystery Jets would make one of the best pop albums of 2008, I think I would've scoffed. Here was a band who claimed King Crimson to be a primary influence, and who never met 17 disparate musical ideas that they didn't like and want to put all into the same song. Not that they didn't have some good songs before but The Mystery Jets were just too damn inclusive. But there's no denying the pop smarts and inventive arrangements found all over their new album, Twenty One, a highly enjoyable statement about being young by people who actually are young. And like Metronomy, nearly every song could be a single. It seems unfathomable that this didn't get released in America.
3. Deerhunter – Microcastle / Wierd Era Continued (Kranky / 4AD) | What a year Bradford Cox has had. Two Deerhunter albums, plus an album and six EPs under the Atlas Sound moniker. All of it good, some of it was amazing. Microcastle was the crowning achievement. I liked Cryptograms but this is a stellar album, indie rock with a pop sensibility, and showcase for Cox's songwriting abilites and studio ingenuity. And that the suprise bonus album, Wierd Era, was nearly as good is all the more amazing. May 2009 be as fruitful for him.
4. Crystal Stilts – Alight of Night (Slumberland) | The band I became more obsessed with in 2008 than any other, probably because they gave me seemingly endless chances to see them live, most of which I took advantage of. (I think I saw them 10 times at least.) Somewhere between Bo Diddly, JAMC, and The Chills lie Crystal Stilts' moody, twangy, echo-drenched sound which is even sweeter on vinyl. So many great songs, and seemingly sprouted fully-formed. According to lore, Alight of Night has been sitting around completed for four years waiting to be released! Seriously guys what were you waiting for? On the plus side: hopefully this will mean a second album will come sooner than later.
5. The Week That Was – S/T (Memphis Industries) | Field Music may have disolved but the Brewis brothers remain some of the most creative – and prolific — artists working today. 2008 provided twice as much music. David Brewis gave us School of Language, which was good but a bit too clinical for my taste. But Peter Brewis' The Week That Was is a brilliant look at our obsession with media and instant information, inspired by Paul Auster and glistening like an '80s Trevor Horn production. If that all sounds overly heady, the album is resplendent with lovely melodies and big rhythms. And with brother David and Andrew Moore in the band too, the big headline is Field Music kinda never really broke up.
6. The Muslims – S/T (1928 Recordings) | They may be now calling themselves The Soft Pack, but whatever the name this is one hot record. Like I've said before, these San Diegans aren't trying to reinvent the wheel. But they write great songs, sound raw and alive and have mountains of the one thing you can't fake: attitude. The bullet-riddled vinyl EP you see here (which included a CD with three more tracks) has sold out two runs but will be reissued under The Soft Pack name as a 10-song LP in 2009.
7. Lykke Li – Youth Novels (Atlantic Records) | Of all the Scandinavian pop singers out there (Annie, Robyn, et al), I think Lykke Li has the best chance of sustaining a career. Especially if she continues to work with colaborator/producer Björn Yttling who helped her craft such a distictive organic sound to go along with all those catchy hooks. Li's voice — fragile, understated — makes Youth Novels all the more human.
8. TV on the Radio – Dear Science (DGC) | Finally, TVotR deliver on the promise they made with that first EP back in 2003. Much like what The Associates, ABC, and Scritti Politti attempted in the mid-'80s, Dear Science is the post-punk asthetic applied to pop ideals. This is the sound of them really going for it — and succeeding spectacularly.
9. Late of the Pier – Fantasy Black Channel (Parlophone) | The craziest record of the year that still manages to hold it together somewhat within pop boundaries. Within its grooves, Fantasy Black Channel offers up post punk guitars, synth pop, g-funk, glam hystrionics, prog… often wthin the same song. Take "Bathroom Gurgle" which melds Gary Numan and Queen like it was the most natural thing in the world. Just maybe not Earth.
Fantasy Black Channel gets a U.S. release through Astralwerks on January 13, 2009.
10. The High Dials – Moon Country (self-released) | A late entry in the 2008 race, Montreal's High Dials exell at country-tinged psych-shoegaze (a sound that is timeless for me) and even though they no longer have a full-time sitar player, the songwriting remains top notch. This double-CD is only six minutes longer than thier 2005 album War of the Waking Phantoms but splitting it onto two discs makes it easier to take it all in. Plus, a sound this big kinda needs two discs. What it really needs is vinyl, but it's CDs and digital for now.
11 – 20, and more after the jump….
11. Errors - It's Not Something But It Is Like Whatever (Rock Action) | The best noisy electronic instrumental album of the year wasn't made by Fuck Buttons or Ratatat, but by Glaswegians Errors. Glitchy, with heavy doses of post-rock ambience (they are on Mogwai's label) and Kraut formality, Errors never failed to bring the groove or a good hook to the party. Great cover art too.
12. Pacific – Reveries (Astralwerks) | This duo from Gotherberg, Sweden shamelessly ape soft rock stylings of the '70s, filtered through '80s synths…and I love it. So if you aren't worried about getting cavities from all the sugary goodness or the high fat content from all the cheese, there's some great pop songwriting on Reveries (and maybe the Swedish missing link between Air and Daft Punk) to sink your teeth into.
13. Sloan – Parallel Play (Yep Roc) | Anyone who knows me knew this record would be a given on my list, but no guilt here. Like a condesnsed (better?) version of 2006's Never Hear the End of It, Sloan's eighth album finds them going strong, even if — as Chris Murphy's song says — they aren't kids anymore. But what they may lack in youthful energy (which, if you saw them on this tour, they don't) is made up for in solid songcraft. All four members brought great songs (including Patrick's best work in a long while), even dabbling in Dylan-isms and reggae.
14. Pete & the Pirates – Little Death (Stolen Recordings) | I can't quite put my finger on who Pete and the Pirates remind me of — the Bats? Billy Bragg? Somewhere inbetween? — but I can't get their songs out of my head. Spot-on harmonies, jaunty melodies, nice arrangements, funny-sad-literate lyrics, and great song after great song.
15. Sic Alps – U.S. EZ / A Long Way Round to a Shortcut (Siltbreeze / Animal Disguise Recordings) | Surprising no one more than me, I have become taken with the new crop of echoey garage rock — be it Crystal Stilts, Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, Vivian Girls, and, in this case, San Francisco's Sic Alps. (It could help that they're a couple former Slumberland indie-poppers.) For just being a duo, Sic Alps manage a sound thick as molasses on the hottest, sweatiest day of the summer. 2008 saw a double dose: A Long Way Round to a Shortcut collected EPs and singles from the last couple years, and U.S. EZ was a brand new slab 'o sludge.
16. Kelley Stoltz – Circular Sounds (Sub Pop) | The world Kelley Stoltz inhabits is one of old tape machines, vintage amps, Echo & the Bunnymen bootlegs, Carnaby street psychedelia, Ken Nordine spoken word records, and crackling vinyl. He chews it all up and what he spits out are more than recreations of his favorite things — he's an ace songwriter. Though he's abandoned the home taping productions values of his earlier records, Circular Sounds best album yet. Call it New Adventures in Mid-Hi-Fi.
17. Ida Maria – Fortress Round My Heart (BMG import) | This is not your typical Scandinavian cutesy pop. Ida Maria's debut is pure passion — be it anguish, guilt, or unbridled joy, it comes through the pixie-ish Norwegian's delivery. She's a pistol. But as good as the album is — it can't hold a candle to her live show.
Fortress Round My Heart will be released in the U.S. in April 2009.
18. Los Campesinos! – We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed (Arts & Crafts) | The second of two records these young Welsh wonders released in 2008, and this one the band doesn't even consider to be a proper album. What? I love records this dashed-off. So urgent, like a Polaroid. Where Hold on Now, Youngster was brash and overtly clever, We are Beautiful, We are Doomed applies that viscious wit to a broken heart giving us the Break-Up Album of the Year.
19. Thee Oh Sees - The Master's Bedroom Is Worth Spending a Night In (Tomlab) | More from my '08 psych-garage fixation… San Fran's Thee Oh Sees bury Byrdsian folk rock under an avalanche of reverb, echo, vibration, and way-in-the-red levels — and you can just tell they're having a blast doing so. The effects are part of the fun — just like with The Cramps, 13th Floor Elevators, etc — but the songs would work on an acoustic guitar too. But then this album wouldn't be the demented basher that it is.
MP3: Thee Oh Sees – Adult Acid
20. The Wave Pictures – Instant Coffee Baby (Moshi Moshi) | Wave Pictures' frontman David Tattersall has the angst of Hefner's Darren Hayman, and the witty wordplay of the Morrissey ("My tongue is on the run and it's only just begun" may be this year's "Bigmouth Strikes again."), and band play it fast and loose like early Modern Lovers. Yes, they're as good as that comparison implies. Tattersall's vocals may be too idiosyncratic for some at first, but so were Moz and Hayman's probably, so keep listening, because they're excellent! And if you like this, there's about five more albums where that came from. (And if the Hefner comparisons intrigue, Tattersall and Hayman have a bluegrass band too. Don't wince, it's good too.)
And 11 more worthwhile 2008 releases in alphabetical order…
Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid | "The Bones of You"
Manchester's perpetual also-rans finally get the recognition they deserve with a Mercury Prize win — couldn't have happened to a nicer bunch of fellows.
Your mileage may vary.