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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.

Top Albums of 2008: 15-11

Forgive me again. I’m still really busy.

15. Joe Satriani – Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock

Since the 80’s, it’s been harder and harder to be a solo guitar god. The art of the guitar solo is dead in pretty much all genres except metal – there is less and less room in nearly all types of today’s genres for anything more than what amounts to a cursory 4 bar riff. And sadly, true metal itself – the kind that are worth listening to, and would even have guitar solos at all – is also rapidly shrinking to a niche genre full of weirdos.

Satch tries his hardest to stay the course, to limited success – a phrase that generally describes this album fairly well. It has a lot of good things in it – decent solos, reasonably catchy songs – but nothing particularly outstanding. Having been to a workshop of his before, I know that he is extraordinarily well-versed in musical theory and has almost a sixth sense for anything chordal, but it feels like he turned all those facilities in his head off for the album.

Ultimately? It’s unfortunately boring. The most interesting part in the entire album is the last track, because it is dominated by a well-written acoustic intro. Maybe that’s what he should try next.

Key Tracks: Musterion, Diddle-Y-A-Doo-Dat, Andalusia

14. Benga – Diary of an Afro Warrior

I don’t listen to terribly much dubstep, so only one album seems to catch my attention enough to make this list each year. While last year’s Burial album Untrue was a revelation in the range dubstep could – and hardly ever aims to – achieve, it really owed more to UK garage than to dubstep. Really, there are few genres that are better to draw from.

Benga is the polar opposite. This is dubstep, a fact he eagerly slaps you with at every turn, every bassline. No one has ever listened to any dubstep without hearing the anthemic Night. There’s not much more to say here: this is the raw core of dubstep. Go listen to it if you’re at all curious.

Key Tracks: Zero M2, Night, The Cut

13. Nik Freitas – Sun Down

I’ve often heard Nik Freitas described as a “happier Elliott Smith,” and while that label isn’t entirely inaccurate, I think it does both artists a bit of a disservice. Yes, he does have similar musical sensibilities, and yes, Nik Freitas is definitely more upbeat than Elliot Smith, but these two things combined don’t make the above a fair observation — rather, they serve as two very strong criteria along which to divide the two. Freitas’ music is full of a lot more of the whimsy and unrestrained glee that often comprise an “indie” release than Smith’s ever was, and shines in a different way for it.

Really though, Sun Down isn’t that much of a wonder to behold from a writing standpoint. Rather, it’s execution and Nik’s excellent singing chops that carry this album — and carry it they do. This is great music to unwind to at the end of the day.

Key Tracks: All the Way Down, Love Around, Shhhh

12. Opeth – Watershed

I’m a huge fan of Opeth — there is a poster flag of the album art for Ghost Reveries hanging on my wall, the only poster I’ve kept through moving for the past 3 years. It would have been for Blackwater Park had I been able to help it, but that proved to be too tricky to find.

The funny thing about Opeth is that their music is so close to broadly appealing in so many directions, and yet they refuse to move out of the niche they have created for themselves. Their acoustic work, while incredibly sombre and dark, is incredibly beautiful — you’d never know it came out of a progressive death metal band (part of this is likely due to their close work with Steve Wilson). Their death metal isn’t something I can comment on since I’m not a fan of the genre, but it’s also not quite pure enough to be satisfying to hardcore fans of that genre. The magic of Opeth, however, is how incredibly easily they drop from one to the other.

This is exactly why I’m not as big a fan of this new Opeth album as I was of their past works. The album is fantastically written as a whole, but something feels forced about the way it evolves. Particularly annoying are the jarring interludes that occur in the album’s longest work, Hessian Peel. The shorter song lengths overall also don’t seem to mesh as well with their writing style as did the 8-10 minute songs of the past.

Key Tracks: The Lotus Eater, Hessian Peel, Hex Omega

11. DJ Frane – Journey to the Planet of the Birds

“He made up his mind– and he wanted to fly…”

I’ve not delved too far into the worlds of trip-hop or downtempo, but if ever there was a great place to start, it would be Journey to the Planet of the Birds. I’ve stated many times before in top album countdowns my weakness for lavish and rich productions, and Birds is practically the definition. From the moment it opens until the moment it ends, there is the distinct impression that there is no detail the man found too insignificant to address.

It’s a bit of a trip, but it’s a trip more than worth taking. I don’t really want to say anything more about this album, because I almost feel like it would be overanalyzing something that’s just supposed to be – and definitely is – a good time. Go check it out.

Key Tracks: Nectar For Isis, Cloudy Voyage, Spice Convoy

Top Albums of 2008: 20-16

Forgive me. I’ve been busy.

20. Why? – Alopecia

I’ve not been quite as taken with Why?’s latest album as the critics have, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good album. Definitely not something you’d want to relax to, Alopecia is a somewhat skittish, flamboyantly experimental album which further cements Why?’s position as more of an indie band that happens to incorporate a rap-like element than any sort of hip-hop group.

The most impressive part of the album isn’t necessarily the music nor the lyrics themselves, but rather how naturally the band manages to make all the capriciously assembled elements flow together, and how catchy each hook really is. While frontman Yoni Wolf laments a breakup or considers loneliness, he does so with a certain detachment from both the concept at hand as well as concept as a whole, which ties together somewhat the generally fragmented nature of the rest of the music.

All in all, Alopecia is a fantastic piece of work, but not necessarily a fantastic piece of music.

Key Tracks: These Few Presidents, Fatalist Palmistry, Twenty-Eight

19. Logistics – Reality Checkpoint

Logistics’ debut album Now More Than Ever was a somewhat bizarre release. While Matt Gresham’s musical talent was projected very obviously in the album, and it had a number of incredible tunes – most notably City Life – the album was simply too ambitious to be thoroughly good. Putting out 24 top-notch tracks, particularly your first time out, is a grueling task, and it was pretty clear that he wasn’t up to it at the time.

Reality Checkpoint is exactly that – a return to reality for the artist. At 14 tracks long, it’s a much better album as a whole, with quite a few more catchy tunes that move Liquid Funk forward in some direction or another. Sadly, there aren’t any remarkable or super-innovative tracks that really stand out, but it’s a much better series of songs in general.

Key Tracks: Reality Checkpoint, 96, Continuum

18. Pendulum – In Silico

Pendulum’s debut album Hold Your Colour was a monster hit in the Drum and Bass world. Packed with hard-hitting, catchy songs that endure to this day, the album really made a name for Pendulum a few years back. While some people complained at how commercial and uninnovative the tracks are, sometimes that’s simply not the point. When Pendulum announced a new album drop, everyone was pretty stoked.

In Silico is… different. It still sounds definitely like Pendulum, which is good, but it also isn’t precisely Drum and Bass. It’s a bizarre yet somehow delicious mix of Drum and Bass and Rock. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it hits hard, sometimes it pulls back for no apparent reason and for far too long. Sometimes it’s fresh and exciting, and sometimes you just want to turn the thing off. At the end of the day, a couple of the songs have earned airplay on the local alternative rock station here in Seattle, so perhaps it’s a good thing that Pendulum chose this direction. In my book, it remains to be seen.

Key Tracks: Showdown, Propane Nightmares, The Tempest

17. Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman – The Fabled City

Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine fame made a name for himself by creating incredible, unbelievable sounds out of his guitar using just a toggle switch, four pedals, and a judicious amount of feedback. Perhaps this is why his first political folk rock album, One Man Revolution (which made number 14 on this list last year), was so incredibly sparse. Populated only by his nylon string guitar, his voice, his harmonica, and a smattering of other light instruments only occasionally, One Man Revolution was an incredibly successful exercise in minimalism. Stripped of his usual tools, Morello was forced to innovate and be extremely creative in order to form a collection of interesting, cohesive, pointed songs.

You can guess where I’m going. Given how he already proved himself with the last album, Morello decided to throw in a few more standard elements into his songwriting. A drumbeat and electric bass now populate most songs, and the songwriting is more conventional and repetitive. The lyrics don’t make as much sense to me. Everything is just a hair more trite. That doesn’t mean that the album isn’t still fantastic – it is, after all, on this list. However, it does mean that when choosing between the two, I would rather listen to the debut.

Key Tracks: The Fabled City, The Lights Are On in Spidertown, Saint Isabelle

16. Evol Intent – Era of Diversion

Evol Intent has long been an influential player in the Drum and Bass world. Tracks such as Call to Arms and Street Knowledge were seminal in their time and still among the greatest tracks today. Evol Intent’s record label has put out incredible artists like Counterstrike and Arsenic. But until this past year, they had never really put out that much material, much less a full LP.

Era of Diversion changes that. Very much a Bush-era album, it draws a lot of themes from political anger. And anger is a very good descriptor: there is no mistaking this album as the product of anyone but Evol Intent. Most disappointing, I think, is the placement of nearly all their previous tracks in the album, meaning that the first half of the album is the only real material. Considering how long the group has been working on this LP, actively or not, it’s incredibly disheartening to see this little real product.

Key Tracks: Era Of Diversion, 8bit Bitch, Reality Check

The 5 Most Disappointing Albums of 2008

It’s New Year’s Day, and so it’s time to begin the annual music wrap-up for 2008. Hopefully this year it will be done before April. In a fresh and innovative twist, today I present a new feature: the top 5 most disappointing albums of 2008, in order. Partially because I haven’t yet pieced together how to rank top albums number 20 through 5. Enjoy!

Children of Bodom – Blooddrunk5. Children of Bodom – Blooddrunk
It’s an unfortunate fact that from the point when you first fall in love with a band on, that irresistible urge to constantly reinvent will cause them to drift slowly yet inexorably away from what you loved so much about them to begin with. Whether or not this is acceptable depends on whether their idea of “new and improved” is in alignment with your own.
I never really loved Children of Bodom, but I thoroughly enjoy their earlier work, in particular Follow the Reaper. At least, I enjoyed them enough to sit (actually, stand) through Between the Buried and Me (whom my good friend Dylan and I have seen more times than bands we actually like by kismet) and (groan) Black Dahlia Murder to see them live. Follow the Reaper was a fairly ideal blend of influences and styles, much like the incomparable Paradise Lost from Symphony X was last year.
Unfortunately, Children of Bodom are going places that I simply don’t enjoy as much as their earlier work. While technically proficient and well-written, Blooddrunk simply wasn’t the album I was hoping for. Thrashier and angrier, it’s not the type of metal I normally listen to. It’s just a classic case of “it’s not you, it’s me.”

DragonForce – Ultra Beatdown4. DragonForce – Ultra Beatdown
Let’s face it, Dragonforce has had their day of glory. Through the Fire and the Flames has been played to death and then some, and while their other material is certainly more diverse than that one song and no less noteworthy, that composition represents a sort of culmination of what DragonForce has stood for these past few years. Beyond that quintessential song, most of what you’ll find are merely bits and pieces which are ultimately hard to distinguish from that image.
They really needed something fresh, a grand reinvention, to really capture the world’s attention again – and here they failed to deliver. Sure, Ultra Beatdown has its moments, but they’re fleeting little bits that are easily forgotten when all is said and done. At the conclusion of the album, the only thought I had was, “that’s it?”
Amusingly, nearly all the professional reviews point out this flaw of this apparently critically acclaimed album, and they all hand-wave it away, claiming that lack of innovation is a hallmark of the power metal genre. This is, of course, ludicrous, considering that DragonForce’s modus operandi of speed was in itself a revelation, if nothing else due to how incredibly flawless their execution was (at least, in a studio environment). More of the same isn’t going to cut it for a band that everyone seems to have seen enough of.

El Ten Eleven – These Promises Are Being Videotaped3. El Ten Eleven – These Promises Are Being Videotaped
After discovering El Ten Eleven’s wonderfully cathartic take on post-rock on the Helvetica soundtrack, I fell in love with Every Direction is North, their 2007 LP release. A beautiful mix of light electronics and post-rock guitar lines reverberating away into the ambient synths in the background, Every Direction is North would have made a serious run at my top 5 of last year had I known about it then.
Thus, I was excited to see that they were releasing yet another album already this year. I hoped that the transgression of not putting them on my list last year could be made up with the release.
Sadly, this was not to be. Elements of the previous album are still here, but they lie buried amidst an alien and alienating chaos of jarring electronics, beats, and lines so abrasive and repetitive that they would make tracks from C-64’s Transitional Days feel unwelcome.
It’s not without its moments, but the album completely shatters that which I loved so much about El Ten Eleven’s music to begin with: that same time-melting hypnotic sweetness which makes Explosions in the Sky so beautiful, but with a bit more drive. Instead, it seems like the duo have chosen to go all drive. And it’s a pity, too, since the album art is so nice.

Bloc Party – Intimacy2. Bloc Party – Intimacy
Bloc Party has had quite a welcome to the music industry. Silent Alarm was received with boisterous enthusiasm – for good reason – and A Weekend in the City was met with tepid response, followed by cautious embrace. Now, with Intimacy, it seems like the band has gone in yet another radically different direction – or have they?
Much of the initial response to A Weekend in the City was simply shock at how completely different it was from Silent Alarm. While people eventually accepted the second album for what it was, it seems like this reaction went straight to Bloc Party’s collective heads, and they sat down to try to write a proper followup to their debut album.
However, that sophomore album came into existence for a reason, and the band was not about to let go of their desire to write another Weekend in the City quickly.
And as well, being one of the few “it” bands of the moment means that they must have felt the need to innovate and reinvent their music on the new release.

The new album sounds like all of these things.  At once.

Simultaneously and alternatingly aggressive, placid, capricious, and altogether schizophrenic, Intimacy seems to be the direct result of exactly such a tortured writing philosophy. No two songs sound like they belong next to each other, and few of them sound like they even belong on the same album.
The primary appeal of Silent Alarm was, for me, the pure, raw energy that it had. The writing wasn’t anything terribly special, but there was something attractive about the conviction and spunk with which it was performed. On the other hand, A Weekend in the City represented a fresh aspect of the band – relatability. Suddenly, the music itself had something to cling to, rather than simply the gusto with which it’s played. It seems that with Intimacy, Bloc Party picked the writing of the first album and the enthusiasm of the second to mix into its new bastard child, and it just doesn’t work.

Junkie XL – Booming Back at You1. Junkie XL – Booming Back at You
What happened here?

I should be more specific. Junkie XL’s previous album, Today, was a delicious mix of Big Beat, Trance, and Pop sensibilities into a wholly… whole album. Lush production, good songwriting, and well constructed lines made Today one of my favorite albums to this day.

Booming Back at You seems to be the antithesis. Never mind the fact that it sounds like it was written in 1985, the album is dry, electronic, repetitive, and simply unpleasant to listen to, as if writing it was a chore and the listening experience needed to be a chore for the spite of it.
Bloc Party was probably the biggest letdown of the year, but this album takes the cake in how simply atrocious the actual album is for its own merits. What happened here?

I guess the common theme among all the entries here is change. After all, you can’t have disappointment without expectations, and you can’t have expectations without history. For all I know, all of these artists will blow me away in the next two years – for now, it’s hard to say.
Look for my top 20 album list (that’s right, going for broke this year) in the next two to three weeks. This time, that’s a promise.