Sunday, December 16, 2007

Andrew's Top 25 of 2008


Andrew's Top 25 Albums of 2008

Two-thousand and eight has been a breath of fresh air, a year for unprecedented change. Shut up about the recession for a second and focus on the positives: we as a country experienced a historic election (and came out on the right side!), the Philadelphia Phillies won their first world series in 28 years (and I'm still reeling) and Axl Rose finally released Chinese Democracy. (To no one's surprise, it was awful.) But the best thing to come out of the year, as always, was the music. While 2008's list is the most diverse collection of albums in the six-year history of my long-winded diatribes, as usual there is a self-imposed central theme loosely connecting each of my choices together: each album in its own way possesses that same 'breath of fresh air' that characterized this year's events. Don't roll your eyes. It's my list, and I make the rules.

And now, the to
p 25 albums of 2008.

25. The Spinto Band: Moonwink (Park The Van)

To refute the claim that there's nothing interesting going on in the state of Delaware (no doubt propagated by its nondescript locale or by a classic "Wayne's World" scene), Wilmington's The Spinto Band shuts everyone up with Moonwink. The album, their first on Park The Van, is a carnival-like celebration of pop theatrics and outside influences. Opener "Later On" is an accurate microcosm of the whole collection: A driving but slightly jilted rhythm, elegant vocal harmonies and a vaudevillian midsection. Fun and complex, with one trait never dominating over the other, Moonwink is a concentrated blast.

24. Valencia: We All Need A Reason To Believe (Columbia)

Written in the aftermath of the death of Valencia frontman Shane Henderson's girlfriend, We All Need A Reason To Believe is a heartbreaker; it's a devastating piece of art capturing a tumultuous, painfully real period in the singer's life. The band ably masks his grief with straightforward pop rock veering on the Midwestern sound of The Get Up Kids and Hey Mercedes, pulling off a winning contrast between melancholy content and soaring, hopeful hooks. Henderson's simple and honest lyrics aren't always profound, but they don't have to be, given the context of death and the unfamiliar territory that comes with it. He's given himself a reason to believe, and we can't help but hope along with him.

23. Conor Oberst: Conor Oberst (Merge)

Ditching the Bright Eyes moniker and choosing Merge instead of Saddle Creek to release his first traditional solo album in thirteen years was a wise move for Conor Oberst. The self-titled collection finds Oberst the loosest and most comfortable he's been in several albums, wonderfully relaxed and -- temporarily, at least -- at peace with himself and his surroundings. "Sausalito" and "I Don't Wanna Die (In A Hospital)" are churning country-rock songs likely conceived in the easy Mexican sun, where the album was recorded. Even the ballads have a kick to them: "Lenders in the Temple" thankfully never hits the predicted lull that's bogged down so many of Oberst's sparse recordings in the past. While the troubadour will more-than-likely put on his old hat again, let's hope it happens later rather than sooner, or at least not until he squeezes out another album under his given name.

22. Kings Of Leon: Only By The Night (RCA)

Don't look now, but it appears that the Kings Of Leon have finally broken through in the United States, after toiling away for years as one of Europe's biggest American bands. After only hinting at their stadium-rock potential on last year's Because of the Times, the Followill brothers made good on their promise and released this, their unabashedly huge fourth LP. A sonically rich affair with massive guitars and choruses, Only by the Night is a rarity; it's radio-friendly, and it doesn't suck. And really, wouldn't we rather have mainstream audiences pick up on a great rock single like "Sex On Fire" than latch on to the same Nickelback-lite trash that's populated car stereos for the last decade?

21. Punchline: Just Say Yes (Modern Short Stories)

After more than ten years together, Punchline refuses to acknowledge their supposed restrictions as a pop-punk band. Not only did their stubbornness factor into them making a great record in Just Say Yes, it also led them to leave the once-proud Fueled By Ramen with dignity intact and start their own label, Modern Short Stories. The new-found freedom is evident in daring songs like the industrial-tinged title track and the hushed "Castaway." What's always been noticeable is the band's genuine penchant for crafting great songs instead of an image that sells, a choice that ultimately buried the band under more marketable groups on FBR. But there are so few bands in this genre making music for the right reasons anymore that a band like Punchline is not only appreciated, but necessary to the species' survival.

20. Less Than Jake: GNV FLA (Sleep It Off)

Less Than Jake also eschewed the idea of the major label this year, cutting ties with Warner Bros. in search of a creative rejuvenation. Their move to Sleep It Off, owned by drummer Vinnie Fiorello, seemed to do the trick: GNV FLA is the band's best album in arguably a decade. Lyrically and sonically, the songs have a fire that was sorely missing from In With The Out Crowd. For one, the re-introduction of horns to the front of the mix has done wonders for song structures, and lyricist Fiorello has used the backdrop of the band's home -- the broken state of Florida -- to give a major spark to his writing. Don't call it a comeback, because they've been here for years, but it sure feels like one.

19. Nada Surf: Lucky (Barsuk)

Lucky, Nada Surf's fine, unheralded fifth album, is unusually bright and assuring. The songs move along at a quick pace, with ample room to breathe but little room for embellishments. And that's fine; lead singer Matthew Caws has spent the better part of the last two decades perfecting the kind of simple, assertive pop songs that make up Lucky. "Whose Authority", "Beautiful Beat" and "I Like What You Say" might be a bit suspicious in their complete blissfulness, but there are no complaints here. Lucky finds the band tickled pink at one end of the indie spectrum, having completed their transition from a more somber group akin to Death Cab For Cutie on past records to now rivaling Fountains Of Wayne in sunniness.

18. Adele: 19 (Columbia)

Those who were skeptic about how Adele would fit into the mainstream when Amy Winehouse already filled the role of "neo-soul British sensation" -- myself included -- should breathe easy now: it's painfully clear that Adele isn't only the real deal, but that she might just outlast Winehouse and the rest of the pack as the shining star of her class when all is said and done. Wino's Back to Black was an excellent record, but it wasn't as interesting as the phenomenal 19, a collection of soul-baring tracks that relies little on Mark Ronson's production flourishes but heavily on the young chantreuse's powerful pipes. The range of emotion Adele is able to convey so unassumingly is remarkable; she's the shy, quiet girl in the back of the classroom who you never knew had it in her.

17. What Made Milwaukee Famous: What Doesn't Kill Us (Barsuk)

To quote Rob Gordon in the movie High Fidelity, when he's talking about a former love: "She didn't make me miserable, or anxious, or ill at ease. You know, it sounds boring, but it wasn't. It wasn't spectacular either. It was just good. But really good." That same backhanded, faint praise can be awarded to What Made Milwaukee Famous, a band forever destined to be under the radar, but certainly worthy of more attention upon further thought. What Doesn't Kill Us is always enjoyable and occasionally thrilling, often sounding like a beefed-up Spoon album. The monster single "Sultan", which evokes Billy Joel during his late-70's heyday, is the winner here, but the idiosyncratic "Resistance St." and the rolling "The Right Place" aren't far behind.

16. Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend (XL)

Almost a year later, Vampire Weekend is still great after all the inevitable post-hype backlash. The album remains the best debut from an indie act since The Strokes' Is This It in 2001, and for good reason: it's a charming melting pot of styles and cultures that, in its short existence, has already signaled a change in the popular landscape. Yes, many of the Afro-pop sounds found on the LP were already fused with the mainstream on Paul Simon's indelible Graceland, but not to the same dizzying heights the band achieves on "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa", and certainly not for the same tastemaking, Internet-savvy audience that has fueled Vampire Weekend's rise. Add in an expert display of classical prowess (the harpsichord-laden "M79"), and new-wave smarts ("A-Punk") and you've got an utterly impressive, game-changing hybrid of an album. And now we wait for act two.

15. Girl Talk: Feed The Animals (Illegal Art)

Gregg Gillis is throwing a party for the world, you're invited, and so is Jay Z, Roy Orbison, Twisted Sister, Radiohead, Yo La Tengo and Salt-n-Pepa, yada yada yada. Now that the arbitrary references are out of the way, can we talk about how much fun this album is? Trumping 2006's Night Ripper, Feed The Animals cannot be classified as a collection of mash-ups, but rather, a separate work on its own. It takes a gifted musical ear and tremendous creativity to piece together sample upon sample and craft something entirely new, and Gillis certainly possesses both when he does things like drop Lil Mama's "Lipgloss" rap over the piercing double-bass drums of Metallica's "One" on "Like This." The album contains hundreds of moments like these, making it a perfect study for the music geek (seriously, try identifying all the samples without following along on Wikipedia) and the perfect soundtrack for a power hour.

14. Old 97's: Blame It On Gravity (New West)

Blame It On Gravity is a triumphant return from the roots rock veterans, a snapshot capturing a band of middle-aged men writing and playing like they're in their 20's again. Rhett Miller and the gang were beginning to sound slightly out of gas when we last left them on 2004's underwhelming Drag It Up, but they've regained the energy that typified classics like Wreck Your Life and Too Far To Care. Gravity is full of country/punk pearls like "The Fool" and "Here's to the Halcyon", both equally suited for the bar and the open road. There are very few, if any, missteps in the batch, proving that the band never went away -- they just needed to find their footing again.

13. Death Cab For Cutie: Narrow Stairs (Atlantic)

For all intents and purposes, Ben Gibbard could be defending Narrow Stairs's initial lack of appeal on the single, "I Will Possess Your Heart": "...You gotta spend some time with me." Death Cab For Cutie's sixth studio album is the least immediate upon first listen of the band's tenured career, but with a little persistence, it reveals itself to be their most rewarding. Opener "Bixby Canyon Bridge" lazily builds until it reaches its psychedelic climax, while the glum "Grapevine Fires" hides subtle harmonies under its bare-bones orchestration. But even if this is the band's "difficult record", it is still Death Cab For Cutie, which means the album's accessibility was never truly called into question. "Cath..." and "No Sunlight" rank among the band's catchiest tunes to date, and producer/guitarist Chris Walla makes sure not to stray too far out beyond his comfort zone. Still, give the guys credit for attempting something interesting -- on a major label, nonetheless -- and largely succeeding.

12. Okkervil River: The Stand Ins (Jagjaguwar)

Okkervil River's Will Sheff is making his case for being the best lyricist in rock and roll, propelled by the hellishly real and hilariously biting prose found on The Stand Ins. The man is a pop culture library, able to constantly dispense literary and cinematic references into his vivd portraits of failures ("Singer Songwriter" and the haunting "Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed On The Roof Of The Chelsea Hotel, 1979") with the turn of a phrase. The album, a sister collection to last year's superb The Stage Names, already contains some of the band's most enduring songs: single "Lost Coastlines" may just be the song of the year, and the synthesizer-fueled "Pop Lie" is a pub-rock nugget that wouldn't sound out of place on Elvis Costello's classic This Year's Model.

11. Smoking Popes: Stay Down (Curb Appeal)

If an unforgettable band reunited in the forest after a decade apart, made a killer record on par with anything from their classic catalog, and nobody was there to witness it, would they still make a sound? Such is the dilemma with the Smoking Popes, together again after a 10-year layoff, and their great, seemingly-untraceable new album Stay Down. It's frustrating how little attention this album received upon its quiet release in June, even though it came on the heels of a much publicized reunion tour in 2006. Stay Down is vintage Popes, from the unpredictable song directions to singer Josh Caterer's irreplacable, loungy croon. Little has changed, and I wouldn't have it any other way. But for fans who are sorely in search of fearless, daring pop-punk, they should look no further than to one of genre's most perennial, pioneering bands.

10. Kanye West: 808's & Heartbreak (Roc-A-Fella)

For the majority of his still young, undeniably brilliant career, Kanye West has spent his life on top of the world, t-top of the world, touching the sky. But the tragedies that struck the larger-than-life icon this year -- namely, the bizarre, sudden death of his mother and the dissolution of his longtime engagement -- weighed heavy on him, leading his fans and critics to speculate how the personal traumas would affect his music. The result is 808s & Heartbreak, one of the most personal, intriguing albums from a major mainstream act in recent memory. Built entirely around a Roland TR-808 drum machine and an Auto-Tune voice processor, West uses the two devices to evoke naked emotion, somberly singing over minimal, quasi-futuristic tribal rhythms. Gone are any traces of West's bombast found on previous albums; harsh confessions and paranoid thoughts are in their place. It is in no way off base to label Heartbreak as West's Kid A; it's a brave, lonely masterpiece, intensely therapeutic for one man and profoundly rewarding for the rest of the world.

9. The Explorers Club: Freedom Wind (Dead Oceans)

Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room, so as to not resort to using it as a crutch any further: Yes, The Explorers Club sound like The Beach Boys. On Freedom Wind, the band has painstakingly patterned themselves after the California giants, right down to their summer aesthetic and their reverb-soaked drums and harmonies. It would be foolish not to draw parallels between the bands, simply because of how proudly the young sextet wears their influences on their sleeves. Freedom Wind sounds effortless. It stands as a winning tribute -- and a worthy adversary -- to a seminal work like Pet Sounds. If that sounds blasphemous, don't let it. The Explorers Club pull it off.

8. Jukebox The Ghost: Let Live and Let Ghosts (Rebel Group)

Jukebox The Ghost may be the best discovery in a year full of great ones, and their debut LP Let Live and Let Ghosts is supreme entertainment at its finest. A jittery exercise in pushing the limits of power-pop, the album accentuates pianist/vocalist Ben Thornewill's lively histrionics and classical playing. The ritzy "Victoria" is an example of such, twisting and turning from quiet to loud to reserved to jumpy, borrowing dynamics from symphonies and dramatics from Freddie Mercury. "Hold It In", a Cars-tinged standout, rides a herky-jerky groove until it reaches a soaring chorus of jam-packed lyrics and enthusiastic hand claps. The band also takes cues from early-day Ben Folds Five, especially on the superb "Good Day," which bats leadoff. Let Live and Let Ghosts is electric, contagious and with any luck, the start to a long, illustrious career for Jukebox the Ghost.

7. Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)

My God, those harmonies! You'd be hard pressed to find anything this year as natural sounding as the seamless blend of vocals between Fleet Foxes singer Robin Pecknold and his band of brethren on their stunning, uncommonly assured self-titled debut. A friend of mine described the sensational feeling he gets each time he listens to the album on his iPod. As he walks out of his front door in the early morning onto a bare city street that will soon be vibrant with life, "Sun It Rises" starts to play and signals the start of a new day, each time with the potential to be a perfect one. In the last year, thousands of music fans across the country have flocked to the band looking for similar results. Fleet Foxes' rustic folk, a modern update of CSNY, has a mystical, enchanting quality to it, seemingly capable of erasing any withstanding problems and obstacles. As Pecknold's voice floats alone in the final seconds of the ethereal "Oliver James", we get washed in the rain, back to reality as the album ends. But for the forty minutes before that, we've all escaped.

6. My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges (ATO)

Evil Urges, My Morning Jacket's gloriously rambunctious fifth album, adds fuel to the notion that this is Jim James's world, and we all just happen to live in it. We're merely guinea pigs in his elaborate experiments, such as evaluating how a band's audience that is still predominantly comprised of southern rock fans might react to an electro-funk freak-out complete with Nordic chants three songs in to that band's new album (as in "Highly Suspicious", the set's most polarizing, perplexing song.) Or ending said album with a four-second snippet of applause and the words, "okay, cool." If 2005's Z was a stylistic left turn for the band, Evil Urges drives them 10,000 miles off the map. James sings entire song in a tacky falsetto (the title track), decides to emulate James Taylor and Kermit The Frog at the same time ("Sec Walkin") and affectionately seduces a bespectacled bookkeeper ("Librarian"). Some of his decisions are hilarious, but they can never be argued with, because they all work. Extraordinarily well. Yes, My Morning Jacket are now indisputably America's Radiohead, but Thom Yorke was never this funny.

5. Annuals: Such Fun (Canvasback)

Similarly riddled with musical ADD is Annuals' leader Adam Baker, who can't make up his mind over what kind of band he wants to be in. But the high placement on this list of Such Fun, the band's all-too-appropriately named sophomore album, would indicate that to have too many ideas isn't necessarily a bad thing. The hodgepodge of concepts that Baker and company throw on the table is far more thrilling than would be dangerous, and it's that no-fear mentality that allows the band to play with such strong conviction. Parts of songs transition to each other with striking ease, making seismic shifts from backwoods country to glam punk ("Down The Mountain") go down smooth. While the frequent transformations lend the songs their bravado, it's the unquestionably excellent songwriting found throughout Such Fun that gives the album its charm. "Blue Ridge" and "Hardwood Floor" are tranquil meditations that contain some of the year's richest, most satisfying melodies. While the band is clearly painting with an overflowing palette of colors on Such Fun, in no way does the album suffer because of it.

4. Why?: Alopecia (Anticon)

While only Why? frontman Yoni Wolf knows the reason for naming his band's third, genre-shattering album after a medical term for hair loss, it's within the realm of understanding that baldness is likely one of his many fears and potential undoings. Alopecia is perhaps the most uncomfortable album dealing with anxieties and neuroses since Eels' Mark Everett released Electro-Shock Blues ten years ago. Wolf, in a snarky monotone that conjures David Berman and even Cake's John McCrea, spits out stream-of-consciousness raps about sex, drugs, gay sex, bowel movements, breakups and art -- all things that may conceivably kill him -- over tightly-constructed, deeply percussive rock. It's damned near impossible to even attempt to classify Why?; neither hip-hop nor indie, punk rock nor folk. But it's an even harder task to listen to Wolf's sobering lines without first grimacing at their graphic indecency only to soon-after appreciate their sheer brilliance. It raises the question of whether or not it's perverse to find joy in other people's troubles, but Alopecia is such a complex album that to find a cut-and-dry answer may ultimately be futile.

3. Dr. Dog: Fate (Park The Van)

By contrast, there is little room for ambiguity on
Fate, the third excellent record in a row from Philadelphia's Dr. Dog. It's another refreshingly simple, nostalgic piece of pop greatness from a band set on honoring their influences and improving upon their own shortcomings. One of the band's best drawing points is their borrowing from so many kindred spirits: quite obviously The Beatles, The Band, and The Beach Boys are all apparent benchmarks, but a closer look will point to influences like Wilco, David Bowie and even James Brown. That "something for everyone" approach is what has carried the band so far in such a short time, and they don't dare mix up the formula on Fate. "The Breeze" is a lilting half-acoustic opener set against a grainy, analog backdrop, with a classic vocal from co-frontman Scott McMicken musing on life's odd contradictions. Fellow lead Toby Leaman follows it up with "Hang On", a classic rock showcase with tinges of gospel that highlights the singe's hisky, soulful Seger-esque voice. It's a flawless one-two punch to kick things off, and on the nine songs that follow the pair, the dynamic between Leaman and McMicken provides for the album's best quality. There is no hidden truth to Fate, only that it's an unblemished collection of songs, and the band's most realized to date.

2. Frightened Rabbit: The Midnight Organ Fight (Fatcat)

Had
Scott Hutchinson and Frightened Rabbit come from somewhere like New Jersey, and not Scotland, where the accents and sincerity pile on thick, The Midnight Organ Fight would only be a great record, and not the emotional magnum opus that it ends being because of the band's heritage. Lines like "...it takes more than fucking someone you don't know to keep warm" wouldn't take on half the weight they do when sungs in the vocalist's squeaky, vulnerable drawl than if they were to be delivered in an American dialect. The level of urgency Hutchinson is able to channel through his bitter words and unguarded voice is alarming, making us passionately resent the unfaithful ex he sings about with the same ferocity that he does. On the epic, arresting "Keep Yourself Warm," he bellows over pulsating open chords, "Did you really think that a fuck at half speed you'll find love in a hole?," almost immediately instructing his listeners to find the girl that caused him so much pain and ruin her themselves. But then on "The Twist," Hutchinson desperately implores the same girl to twist around him, because he "needs human heat." The words he's able to cull from such agony and heartache are astonishingly poignant and completely believable; it's as if he's fetched every emotion you've ever felt following a particularly bad split and assembled them together in 45 minutes. But lest you think The Midnight Organ Fight is an overwhelmingly morose affair, the opposite ist rue: even though malicious and lonely words serve as subject matter, songs like "Old Old Fashioned" are downright sublime, bouncing along with acoustic guitars and fiddles as a way to at least milk some happiness from suffering. By the end of the album, when Hutchinson resolves to "save suicide for another year" on "Floating In The Froth" with sweeping organs and an angelic choir behind him, the healing process has begun. We can only hope the next Frightened Rabbit album can extract half as much grandeur from Hutchinson's peace than The Midnight Organ Fight does from his anguish.

1. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin: Pershing (Polyvinyl)

In the end, there was never any contest. There was not one album released this year that allowed me to fall in love with it so quickly like
Pershing did, or enabled me to come back to it day after day, hour after hour, desperately craving its irrefutable optomism. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, a modest, unassuming quartet of indie-pop dreamers from Missouri, quietly built the album of the year out of a couple guitars and a few seasoned harmonies. Look to Pershing's opening track, "Glue Girls," which begins with an acoustic strain and no sooner develops into an aerial indie pop assault for the reason why the album works so effectively. Phil Dickey and John Cardwell's transient vocals soon enter the mix, cooperating immediately withe ach other to emphasize the simplicity of lyrical vignettes like "tongues sticking to the sun." Pendulous clean guitars appear amidst a backdrop of syncopathed rhythms, and this is all before it hits: that giant chorus. A melody so good that neither Rivers Cuomo, Brian Wilson nor Adam Schlesinger thought of it first, it briefly arrives, and teases us like a double entendre, and then is put to rest for the next minute before it comes back and lets us breathe and smile again upon its return. And that's just the start. As a whole, Pershing could easily fit right next to Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted and The Pixies' Surfer Rosa in the grand scheme of seminal indie works from the late 80s and early 90s. Rather than merely being content with these just comparisons, though, the band one-ups its elders by adding decidedly modern cues from today's playbook: the fuzzy bass in "You Could Write A Book" and the stutering hi-hat in "Modern Mystery" are taken from some of the band's contemporary kindred spirits. There's so much to become infatuated with throughout the course of Pershing's 34 minutes that to point every hook in every nook would do the entire record a severe disservice. Fall for the whole thing in one sitting -- I can guarantee you will -- and then pick up on its subtleties with every repeated listening. You'll notice the Herp Alpert horn section in "Boring Fountain," and the warped use of Pachelbel's Canon in the infectious "Think I Wanna Die." The production, both shoddy and pristine, cannot and should not work any other way. It suits the band perfectly; fitting, as they recorded the entire record themselves. To add another outside hand in the process would have taken away from the creativity the band achieved as a whole. In the process of celebrating the old and fusing it with the new, SSLYBY has set its own standard -- and perhaps every like-minded independent band's as well -- with Pershing, the best album of 2008. This is perfect pop music with delightful imperfections.

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Until next year,
Andrew Daniels


3 comments:

kelley said...

I fully agree with #1. Hell yeah.

colin said...

same here. SSLYBY has been in my cd player the better part of the last year.

Sarah Wilkes said...

Heck yeah, I keep coming back to Pershing again and again and it never dims, just shines brighter each time.