Ahhh, finally! It feels good to finish up my year-end lists while we’re still in January! I can see I started a little too late again, or maybe I added one too many last minute list ideas, but it’s certainly far more on time than the year before last. Anyhow, there was certainly a plethora of good albums released last year, so many that I could never hope to include them all in this list, but also not a whole lot of great ones (luckily, 2009 seems to be setting itself up for a serious explosion of greatness). I listened to many and inevitably failed to get to many others, but here are my twenty five favorite albums from 2008 (along with a fairly sizable list of honorable mentions). Enjoy and please feel free to post your own lists or accuse me of leaving out your favorite album from last year in the comments section.
10. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
Wait, don’t stop reading here!! I know, I know… it’s the band that many love, but plenty of others love to hate (some because so many love them). And I can understand that. It’s easy to get caught up in a number of factors, especially those outside of Vampire Weekend‘s actual music, and disregard them as obnoxiously overhyped. I’ve wrestled with my own opinions of this album like someone on a twelve-step program, from initial excitement, to knee-jerk backlash, to gradual reacceptance, finally settling in complete conviction of its value. Yes, it may be very precious and bourgeois, but its with rich instrumentation, undeniable melodies, and genuinely interesting integration of new wave, chamber music, and African guitar-pop, their self-titled debut is also quite good. Maybe not for everybody, but within the rigid landscape of indie pop it’s a surprising achievement.
9. El Guincho – Alegranza
Technically self-released in 2007, this breakthrough sophomore record from Barcelona’s El Guincho largely spearheaded the momentous surge of tropical sounds of last year with an early, widespread leak and eventual worldwide release in 2008. With its relentless blend of electronics, tropicália, calypso, afrobeat, and psychedelia, Alegranza is primed to push any dance party over the edge for the duration of its entire 40 minutes. However, these party jams still hold up off the dance floor. In your headphones, Pablo Díaz-Reixa’s layered sample work strongly recalls the music of peers Animal Collective, Panda Bear, and The Ruby Suns, all the while obeying its own tribalist gravity with infectious, overlapping rhythms, dense percussion, and transcendent chants. [Original Post]
8. Portishead – Third
Portishead‘s Third was perhaps the biggest surprise of 2008… not just on account that it even happened, but also because it was a surprisingly awesome record. After an 11 year absence, somehow they’ve returned with material every bit as good as that on their first two releases without really falling back on their past sound. While Beth Gibbons’ vocal work maintains its same allure and grounds Third in her typical hopeless alienation, the familiar trip-hop of Portishead is filtered heavily through lo-fi electronics, percussive industrial, and (most notably) spacey psychedelic rock. “The Rip”, a clear standout even amongst this collection of excellent tracks, is one of the most devastating in their entire discography; Gibbons’ tortured, ethereal voice floats gracefully like mist over a frozen lake, as the fragile guitar melody ultimately transforms into surreal, moody electronics. I don’t want to call it a comeback, but Portishead have certainly returned unexpectedly to fill the void they’d left that no one else seemed able to fill.
7. Women – Women
One of the many exceptional debuts of 2008, Women‘s self-titled record is a murky swath of hissing ambience, crushing noise, clattering percussion, guitar jangle, and muffled psychedelia. Recorded on “ghettoblasters and old tape machines” by Chad VanGaalen in his basement and crawlspace, the album’s striking production ranges from profoundly spacious to claustrophobic, allowing melodies to soar and walls of static and feedback to suffocate. Women impressively balance these elements, jumping back and forth between, and at times blending, harmony and cacophony before devolving into the record’s dissonant, chaotic finale. Amidst this larger vision, they also managed to write one of the best songs of the year. “Black Rice” is at once catchy and off-kilter, leaving you feeling like this psych-pop gem was ripped from some slightly warped vinyl. Vocal melodies drone and bend as guitar riffs churn over driving glockenspiel, the song swelling and dissolving, barely allowing itself to resolve at its close.
It got a fair amount of attention, but I still feel like Women was underrated. If you haven’t heard it, make sure you check it out as soon as possible. I can’t seem to get enough it. [Original Post]
6. The Very Best – The Very Best Mixtape
Many aspects of the ongoing globalization of our world are ripe for criticism, but there’s no question that our increasing interconnectedness has distinct cultural benefits as well. The music of the world, both that of legends less-known in the West and currently rising stars, is rapidly becoming available with just a few clicks of a mouse, raising visibility and genuine interest in America and elsewhere. It’s difficult to imagine another world in which Esau Mwamwaya could relocate from Malawi to London, open a used furniture store, by chance hook up with U.K. producers/DJs Radioclit, and then take the world by storm with a pre-album mixtape (sung mostly in his native Chichewa) that pulls from Afropop, baile funk, dancehall, Western pop and indie music, electro, and hip-hop. Whether putting his own often more-compelling spin on African-influenced indie favorites, reinventing Beatles songs, or taking the listener to uplifting highs on his monumental original tracks, the ridiculously charming Esau has established himself as a refreshing and authentic voice in this new movement of “world music” (which actually lives up to that seemingly broad labeling). The Very Best plan to release an official debut in 2009, but right now it’s hard to believe it could be better than this. I’m looking forward to them proving me wrong. [Original Post] [#2]
Download: The Very Best – Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa
Download: The Very Best – Dinosaur on the Ark (Feat. Ben Brewer)
Buy: Like any self-respecting mixtape, The Very Best’s is available for free over at their myspace.
5. Deerhunter – Microcastle / Weird Era Cont.
The most recent effort from Atlanta psych-rockers Deerhunter was, unfortunately, at the center of 2008’s most publicized leak drama. First, Microcastle was posted online in its entirety five months prior to its October release date, which is probably what prompted the band to make it available on iTunes well before the slated physical release. As if that wasn’t enough, frontman Bradford Cox then inadvertently directed readers of the Deerhunter/Atlas Sound blog towards his unprotected MediaShare folder, which contained an unmastered version of the album’s secret bonus disc (Weird Era Cont.) as well as unfinished recordings for the next Atlas Sound album and personal photos. However, no amount of drama could overshadow the sheer excellence of this record. Cox may share some of his vocal duties with guitarist Lockett Pundt this time around, but his hand is still obviously the guiding force of the band. With some of the most rewarding guitar work of the decade, Microcastle is defined by its rich layers of sound and enduring melodies. And even though Deerhunter is still traversing dark thematic territory, this record rises to more pop-friendly heights than previous works. Meanwhile, Weird Era Cont. submerges the listener into the depths of fuzz, most of its hooks buried underneath dense, foggy production. It operates as a perfect compliment to the brighter and smoother Microcastle; both albums could easily stand on their own, but become even stronger together. [Original Post]
Download: Deerhunter – Nothing Ever Happened (Microcastle)
4. Lil’ Wayne – Tha Carter III
After spending his time flooding the mixtape market in 2006 and 2007 with a multitude of releases, including the acclaimed Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3, Lil’ Wayne returned last year with Tha Carter III. His latest creation is nothing short of classic, marked starkly by it’s impressive conceptual breadth as well as Weezy’s incredible performance as an MC. In these sixteen tracks, he’s able to touch on everything we might expect and more, moving from boastful verbal assaults, to shameless club anthems, to Hip-Hop 101 lectures, to meditations on Katrina and it’s aftermath, to quasi-experimental bizarro bangers and beyond, littering his remarkable vocal performances with mind-boggling rhymes and unmatched passion. Even the missteps on Tha Carter III, scarce as they are, are intriguing on at least a couple levels. And I’d like to say that 99% of the rap game can consider this album a lesson in originality, creativity, flow, candor, commentary, and marketability, but because Wayne is such an enigmatic figure it’s difficult to imagine what his peers could really gain from such lessons… other than a realization that they’ll probably never be able to balance this kind of commercial vitality and miles-ahead-of-everyone artistry.
RZA once characterized fellow Wu-Tang Clan member Ol’ Dirty Bastard as “an expression of pure freedom”. With O.D.B. sadly gone well before his time, it seems that in many ways Lil’ Wayne is the heir apparent to his throne. Rumors are already circling around his upcoming releases: supposedly next up is the experimental “new version” of Tha Carter III, or maybe he’ll actually be making a rock record, or maybe it’ll be Tha Carter IV, which Wayne says he “wants everybody to love”. Whatever it is, we can probably assume that it’ll come straight from his ever-baffling core and be the most interesting thing going on at the time of its release.
Download: Lil’ Wayne – A Milli
3. Rafter – Sex Death Cassette
A jarring pastiche of bubbly bedroom-pop blurbs, Rafter‘s Sex Death Cassette is perhaps his most successful and realized work to date. This aptly-titled opus strings together 19 tracks of introspective meanderings, both playful and pensive, like an unpolished mixtape. Ideas fade away almost as quickly as they appear while Rafter spews out candy-coated hooks awash in experimentalist tendencies and 4-track immediacy. Like a kid who can’t sit still, he adopts a number of approaches with wide-eyed wonder, interweaving supremely hushed, minimalist indie pop, lo-fi dance oddities, disjointed noise-jams, and the occasional plaintive, dreamlike dirge. Stream-of-consciousness is a risky undertaking; most of those who harness its strengths ultimately have to deal with its shortcomings as well. But here it all works brilliantly with the aesthetic of the record, giving Sex Death Cassette an affecting intimacy that provides both initial charm and lasting appeal. [Original Post]
Download: Rafter – Zzzpenchant
Download: Rafter – Chances
2. WHY? – Alopecia
It’s pretty easy to get the sense that most listeners stand on either side of the fence with this band, perhaps with a smaller, confused middle ground all scratching their heads wondering if this is indie rock or hip-hop. Well, WHY? are back again to prove that they’re capable of capturing something from both genres, all the while becoming increasingly difficult to categorize. Like 2005’s Elephant Eyelash, it took me a few listens to really be sure of how I felt about Alopecia, but after it all sinks in this album reveals itself as another masterpiece of bleak absurdist-pop. Yoni Wolf’s dark, spoke-sung poetry swirls around cascading piano, catchy guitar riffs, droning synth, and an arsenal of intricate percussion. Beyond it’s genre-bending, the record seems to be engaged in a constant balancing act, whether between laughable hyperbole and painful honesty or the bright and humorous and the morbidly depressing. The results are like a walk through Yoni’s subconscious, at one moment worthy of a chuckle or beaming grin, the next of a shudder or legitimate concern, all framed within some of the most interesting and original indie pop being recorded right now. Let’s hope making records remains his therapy of choice for at least a little while longer. [Original Post]
1. No Age – Nouns
In 2008, lo-fi was king. Like one concerted assault against a mass of worthless, overproduced pop music, they attacked in many forms: from fractured bedroom recordings, to sugary, fuzz-laden noise pop, to grating experimental punk anthems. Somewhere in between these styles sits No Age, an integral force in the thriving noise rock scene centered at Los Angeles’ D.I.Y. venue/artist’s center The Smell. On Nouns, their first proper album and excellent follow-up to 2007’s 7-inch collection Weirdo Rippers, Randy Randall and Dean Spunt display their deft ear for melody and push a simple guitar/drums line-up to its limits. Whether smothering their saccharine power chords with blankets of feedback and a forceful racket of drums and cymbals or constructing passages of tranquil, crescendoing ambience, No Age is clearly thinking bigger than their aesthetic might suggest. These aren’t just fantastic lo-fi punk songs, they’re dense soundscapes of noisy euphoria. [Original Post]
Download: No Age – Eraser
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order):
Abe Vigoda – Skeleton [Myspace] [Buy] [Original Post]
Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) [Myspace] [Buy]
Flying Lotus – Los Angeles [Myspace] [Buy]
Girl Talk – Feed the Animals [Myspace] [Buy]
Grouper – Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill [Myspace] [Buy]
High Places – 03/07-09/07 [Myspace] [Buy]
Paavoharju – Laulu Laakson Kukista [Myspace] [Buy]
Ponytail – Ice Cream Spiritual [Myspace] [Buy] [Original Post]
The Ruby Suns – Sea Lion [Myspace] [Buy] [Original Post]
Subtle – ExitingARM [Myspace] [Buy]
Chad VanGaalen – Soft Airplane [Myspace] [Buy]
Vivian Girls – Vivian Girls [Myspace] [Buy]
Zazen Boys – Zazen Boys 4 [Myspace] [Buy] [Original Post]