Top Albums of 2008: 10-1

Well, it’s the last day of 2009, and while everyone else is doing best of ’09 lists, I still haven’t wrapped up ’08 so I feel I haven’t the right yet. Here’s a marathon post to finally round out 2008. 2009 to start tomorrow.

10. No-Man – Schoolyard Ghosts

Once again, Steve Wilson captivates. No-Man is a side-project catering to exactly where one would expect his musical journey to lead him — it’s largely electronic, with various electronic styles laid over various other genres, spanning the spectrum from trip-hop to jazz. For some reason though, and perhaps somewhat unbelievably, Schoolyard Ghosts ends up even more melancholy and subdued that the bulk of the rest of his projects.

Apart from a few capricious outbursts early on, the album is contemplative to a fault, and while it’s just the right mood to set off Wilson’s delicate english croon, it just doesn’t do it for me the way that Porcupine Tree or Blackfield do.

9. A.R. Rahman – Slumdog Millionaire

Sunil Garg and I were listening to this album before the release of the film and kind of wondering why it was the way it was. Everything about the album seemed a bit off, rendering the whole album a rather weak offering. And then the film came out. And everything was perfect.

Seriously, if you somehow live under a rock and never saw the film, go see it now so I don’t have to explain myself. Hell, it makes Paper Planes a sensible and artistic choice. Who would have thought that possible?

8. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive

The Hold Steady isn’t for everyone. Their southern-tinged flavor of rock might be off-putting, and their dense style can be tiring to listen to. But somehow, their blend of classic rock and modern style is exactly my cup of tea. From the strong album opener to the sauntering, downtrodden ballads dotting the meat of the set, to the closing song, a composition that deliberately feels exactly like “hanging in there,” the atmosphere and style of their music is pretty nearly perfect.

But yeah, it does tend to get repetitive around the two-thirds point in the album.

7. The Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead

I’m in love with the closing song of this album. After forty minutes of smooth, folky, bubbly indie rock, the album finally breaks loose and lets you hear what its undercurrent has been this whole time: raw and energetic, the music of people gathered around a campfire having a great time. The vibe of this album is sublime.

And it samples sound effects from Super Mario Bros. 3. What more could you want?

6. Polarkreis 18 – The Colour Of Snow

I discovered Polarkreis 18 too late to include their debut album on my 2007 top list. Smoothly produced, with a beautifully done set of transitions from electronic beats to poppy sections to long and luscious string interludes, Polarkreis 18′s eponymous debut was an album I absolutely fell in love with the moment I heard it. And I wanted to like the follow-up just as much.

I don’t — and that’s not to say that it’s not great. But as with any sophomore release, the band did something unfortunate and unfortunately common: they stopped and looked at the debut album and tried to figure out what the formula was that made it tick, rather than just focusing on writing great music. As a result, The Colour Of Snow is a bit more formulaic, and a bit more artificial. Some of the tightening and cleaning has been for the better — Allein, Allein is a fantastic track that calls back to the spirit of the original album well. However, the album dips into the orchestral interludes far too deeply compared to the original, and as a result rather than be lost in a fantastical realm, the listener just feels like momentum is being lost as the album progresses. By the time Happy Go Lucky comes along, it feels so comparatively melancholy that you wonder where the band’s high spirits have gone.

5. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles

Forget what I said about The Hold Steady — this band is truly not for everyone. Really, it’s not for most of you. It’s electronic, and experimental, and very, very abrasive. Alice Glass’s voice is chopped up and resliced to unending lengths, and the crunched and recrunched beats do very little to ease the soul. If you can deal with a little abrasiveness in your life, though, this album will be a hell of a ride.

Somehow, all the clashing and the crashing melds together to become a truly hypnotic experience, one that slowly evolves over the course of the album until it seems almost approachable, almost palatable. And hey, the opening track samples Death From Above 1979, one of my favorite bands of all time.

4. Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground – Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground

This album has been floating around in vinyl since 2007, but since the major release wasn’t until 2008 I feel okay including it here.

If ever there was a good thing to come out of Gatsby’s American Dream’s indefinite hiatus, it’s Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground. Not being a product of the 70′s, I missed out on the easy, meandering style of psychedelic rock. Kay Kay takes that style and updates it for modern times with absolutely the perfect touch. The first song alone could very well have been 3 separate songs, and yet it drops between its segments with appropriate capriciousness and aplomb, and with such conviction that you can’t imagine that these bits of melody were ever meant not to be with each other.

I love weird, capricious music that not only draws from every style but includes every style, and Kay Kay delivers in spades.

3. London Elektricity – Syncopated City

I love Drum and Bass — I listened to very nearly nothing but it in 2007, but I never thought a DnB album would ever cross number 10 or so on my top ten list. The reason is twofold — first, the LP record, something hallowed and time-honored on this list and in my mind, isn’t a particularly respected unit in the electronic music world, which is driven instead by EP’s and singles. Second, while I love the genre, I won’t hold back from faulting its monotony. Most songs have exactly the same techstep beat these days, and few tracks really stand out — let alone a whole album of standout tracks!

And yet, genius and longstanding scene giant that he is, London Elektricity delivers, and strongly. His first music in quite a few years, Syncopated City is a masterwork of both Drum and Bass and Liquid Funk, the jazzy subgenre that Hospital Records tends to cater to. From the great RnB and poppy vocals in many of the tracks to the inventive new beats and tonal textures, this album is a breath of fresh air in the scene and a pleasure to listen to over and over again. Seriously, if you haven’t heard this album yet and are looking for something new, go fire up Attack Ships on Fire on YouTube or similar. It’s one of the best productions and greatest beats I’ve heard in quite some time.

2. Murder By Death – Red of Tooth and Claw

Number one was a tough decision this year. If I could do so without seeming like a cop-out, I would name both of these top two albums the album of the year. More on the final decision reasoning later.

Murder By Death is another album of somewhat southern influences, with imposing baritone vocals and raggedy strings wound around rattling drums and guitar. Oh, and a cello. A freaking cello. So again, if you’re turned off by those types of influences, I don’t think this album will carry much water for you.

However, if you can get past those reflexes and really listen to this album, I think you’ll find that it’s completely staggering. The sheer scope of its ambition, both musically and lyrically, and its completely uncompromising vision make it one of the most intense, visceral, honest 38 minutes of music of the decade, let alone the year. When they say in the interview that it’s a “Homer’s Odyssey of revenge, only without the honorable character at the center,” they really aren’t kidding. The scale and desperation of the main character’s downfall is so immense that you almost wish at the end of the final song, after having woken up in a rotten bed of his own blood and sick, not sure what has happened, not even sure if perhaps he’s killed someone, that instead of “I don’t know what I did/But I’ll do all the good that I can….” he concludes “I don’t know what I did/But I’d do it all again if I could….” — which it sort of sounds like, but isn’t upon closer inspection.

This album is so good that I have half a mind to bump it up to number one, having just written what I have, and I don’t doubt that in retrospect Red of Tooth and Claw will indeed shine bright as the album of the year, and one of the top albums of the decade, but for now I have my reasons.

1. The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride

In the end, it wasn’t even close, and on one criteria — for the lack of a clear decision musically, I reverted to the same criteria I used last year, and which served me well: what album did I spend the most time listening to? And it wasn’t even close — Red of Tooth and Claw is so ambitious, uncompromising, and vicious that it’s exhausting to listen to, opening the door for the lighter Heretic Pride to take the medal.

The Mountain Goats have never been about the production values, the musical showmanship, or anything in that direction of music (which makes it all the more surprising, given my obvious bias on all of these lists, that it was chosen as my year’s top). Instead, the band, which for all intents and purposes is frontman John Darnielle, is about precisely one thing: the lyrics. Indeed, Darnielle began writing music long ago to provide background to his poems — and soon found that he was writing songs rather than poems.

Having spent a few albums looking inward, especially with the particularly personal The Sunset Tree, highlighting his troubled childhood with his abusive stepfather, Darnielle returns to writing about fictional characters. Just because they’re fictional, however, doesn’t mean they’re any less flawed, twisted, or tortured — in fact, he often makes light of how he tortures his characters while performing live. And in the end, it’s these characters and their inner contemplations that make this album shine.

That’s not to say that the music itself isn’t good — it’s actually rather good of its own merit. Formerly a strictly lo-fi artist, recording on a boom-box with a tape deck, Darnielle and his band know how to get a lot of clutter and clatter out of just a few instruments. While it may sound like there is a lot of shiny production and a multitude of layers going on at most times, close inspection reveals that really there aren’t ever more than four or five instruments at once, and often only three. This skill and quality leads to an album that’s sonically fulfilling without ever feeling tiring or overweight, as many albums do these days, particularly with over-compression.

But still, the lyrics are what win you over to The Mountain Goats. I promise that no matter who you are, if you pay really close attention to what Darnielle is singing, you’ll find at least one passage that really jumps out at you, that resonates with you and that you can picture with startlingly vivid clarity, regardless of whether it actually has anything to do with you. For me, that passage in this album is found at the peak of Autoclave, sung in a major key with perfect amicability yet mean wistfulness:

I dreamt that I was perched
atop a throne of human skulls,
on a cliff above the ocean,
howling wind and shrieking seagulls.

And the dream went on forever,
one single static frame;
Sometimes you want to go
where everybody knows your name.

45 Responses to “Top Albums of 2008: 10-1”

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