Monday, December 08, 2008

Favorite Albums of 2008

The usual disclaimers apply.

Disclaimer #1: No, I haven’t heard all 8,000 albums released this year. I’ve heard somewhere between 600 and 700 of them, which makes me at least 93% likely to be wrong. But hey, this isn’t math class, and I make no claims to objectivity. These albums are my favorites from 2008. You might think that the one you’ve heard that I haven’t heard is the best album of 2008. And you might be right.

Disclaimer #2: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just get it out of your system now and be done with it. I am deliberately trying to be obscure. Who the hell has even heard of these people? I am a sell-out who includes ridiculously well-known artists such as Bob Dylan on his list. Who the hell actually believes that Bob Dylan could make the best album of the year when he’s, like, 87 years old? So go ahead and vent, then read Disclaimer #1 again.

Disclaimer #3 – “Biggest Disappointments” does not translate to “Worst Albums of 2008.” Don’t go there. “Biggest Disappointments” means “I like these folks, but they didn’t come up with their strongest material this year.” Yes, Britney Spears and Nickelback released new albums in 2008. Yes, on some lists they might qualify for Worst Album of 2008.

Disclaimer #4: Factoring in cultural relevance, innovation, and aesthetic impact, I eventually throw up my hands in despair and use the only objective measure I know to evaluate music. I figure that if I play it a lot, I probably like it. These are the albums that have spent the most time in the CD player and blasting over the iPod earbuds this year.

1. Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs – Rare and Unreleased 1989 - 2006

These are the leftovers, the orphans, the stray live tracks and soundtrack tunes that didn’t make it onto the albums of the past twenty years. And if anyone has actually paid attention, you might have noticed that no Bob Dylan album has ever topped my Favorites list before. So how did the rejects make it to the top? Because Bob Dylan has thrown away more masterpieces than almost any other songwriter has ever written. Because Daniel Lanois, Dylan’s go-to producer, and the man whose suffocating sonic gauze can make Bob Dylan sound like U2 sound like Emmylou Harris, is nowhere in sight. And because the old geezer, left to his own raw, stripped-down devices, sounds utterly and fantastically compelling, marshalling his fine blues-based band, and tossing off tunes like “Red River Shore” and “’Cross the Green Mountain,” songs of such luminous beauty that they amaze in their rueful truthfulness. He has no peers, and he keeps schooling the kids.

2. Son Lux – At War With Walls and Mazes

Ryan Lott, who records under the name Son Lux, is a classically trained pianist and hip-hop and Radiohead fan who makes upside-down music. The eleven songs here consist of lyrical fragments – short phrases repeated, like a mantra, like rosary beads – that serve as the musical anchor, much like the rhythm section traditionally serves as the musical anchor. The froth, the variety, comes from the ever-changing rhythms and tempos, the synth blips and beeps, the Rachmaninoff sturm and drang, the found sound effects, the stitched together samples – including a virtual Maria Callas aria painstakingly constructed note-for-note from previous Callas recordings. The result is an electronica collage that is a bundle of contradictions; noisy and meditative, hypnotizing and endlessly, continually evolving. If Beck recorded in a monastery, this is what he might sound like. This is the best debut album I’ve heard in years.

3. TV on the Radio – Dear Science,

Art rock meets the dance floor. Return from Cookie Mountain, the previous album, was a fine album that only critics could love. Dear Science builds on those strengths – insightful songwriting, inventive soundscapes – but adds the pop hooks and funk rhythms of Prince and Michael Jackson. Essentially a scathing commentary on the plastic McWorld in which we live, the social barbs are wedded to impossibly infectious music. The result is the dance soundtrack to the apocalypse.

4. Anathallo – Canopy Glow

To steal what I wrote in Paste:

Sufjan Stevens propped open the door to the marching-band practice room earlier this decade, and since then several of his band-camp compatriots have strutted out onto the wider field of popular music. Chicago septet Anathallo is at the head of this geeky class, and the band upholds its reputation on sophomore album Canopy Glow.

Like its predecessor, 2006’s Floating World, the band’s latest album mixes sensitive folkie singer/songwriter fare with strings, horns and all manner of hand percussion, creating a dizzying and frequently gorgeous mashup that splits the difference between Animal Collective, the Salvation Army band and the neighborhood glee club. It’s the same approach Stevens has employed so masterfully on albums such as Illinois, but there are some important differences. First, everybody sings, and although guitarist/pianist Matt Joynt and autoharp player Erica Froman handle the lion’s share of the vocals, there’s a marked emphasis on choral harmony that’s mostly absent from Stevens’ albums. Second, almost everybody bangs or pulls on something—bass drums, glockenspiels, Velcro, balloons—and there’s a primal rhythmic focus here that nicely offsets the egghead sensibilities. I’d call it an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, but the members of Anathallo are probably inclined to bang on the kitchen sink, too. All of which would make for an idiosyncratic but disposable effort if the songs weren’t so well constructed. “The River” is typical: Starting with pensive piano, the song builds layer upon layer, first adding contrapuntal vocals from Froman, then a trumpet, then a cello and percussion before building to a cascading, swirling climax of strings and horns and multi-layered vocals. It is sweeping, symphonic and breathtakingly beautiful.

The lyrics are quirky and mystical (one song ruminates on a Cool Whip bowl used as a baptismal font); the song structures are endlessly inventive, constantly subverting standard verse/chorus/verse construction. And it’s all elevated by a transparent focus on beauty and wonder. This is a marching band that’s veered way out of formation, and is making utterly original music.

5. Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight

To be truthful, this is the album I’ve played more than any other in 2008. So why can’t I elevate it to the top spot? Because of those nagging qualities I noted above: cultural relevance, innovation, aesthetic impact. All of which is to say that you’ve probably heard this kind of thing before.

But so what? What we have here is a Scots trio that loves those anthemic early U2 albums, complete with a lead singer with an impossibly affecting, mournful brogue. But what they do with that familiar musical template is utterly bracing and fresh. The songs here, chronicling self-loathing and the desperate search for meaning, for human contact, are so transparently raw and vulnerable that they startle in their intensity:

Twist and whisper the wrong name
I don't care and nor do my ears
Twist yourself around me
I need company, I need human heat
Let's pretend I'm attractive and then you won't mind
We can twist for a while
It's the night, I can be who you like
And I'll quietly leave before it gets light

That’s from a song called “The Twist,” the furthest thing from the Chubby Checker classic. In this dance, people get hurt. It’s a remarkable, intensely written album that is matched by the musical theatricality.

6. Sun Kil Moon – April

Another near-masterpiece from Mark Kozelek, which means that the songs are too long, seemingly interchangeable, and damn near perfect. Nobody does elegiac ballads better than Kozelek, and he offers 74 minutes of them here (even the electric songs are ballads), mining the golden regret of lovers come and gone, childhood memories, recollections of adolescent friends long disappeared. The songs, albeit a little too uniform, are uniformly lovely, and the sense of yearning and sadness is palpable. This is music for 3:00 a.m., when all the lights are out, and the ghosts of the inaccessible past come knocking.

7. Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit – Alarum

Actor Johnny Flynn goes slumming on his fine debut, adopting a Dickensian ragamuffin persona to explore the lives of London down-and-outers. In the process, he marries the Trad sensibilities of Martin Carthy and Richard Thompson with the biting wit and contemporary concerns of Billy Bragg. His folk/Trad band The Sussex Wit contributes extremely obtrusive accompaniment, and I mean that in the best sense – soaring like The Waterboys at their most anthemic and occasionally approaching the manic Celtic punk energy of The Pogues.

8. Jamey Johnson – That Lonesome Song

Outlaw country with a conscience. There’s the usual Outlaw debauchery chronicled here, delivered in an Alabama drawl that is equal parts honey and whiskey. There’s also regret, fury, helplessness, despair, and a nice dollop of gallows humor. It must have been a hell of a breakup. On the final track, Jamey notes that his music can be found in the racks right between “Jennings” and “Jones.” That actually sounds about right.

9. Josh Garrels – Jacaranda

Garrels is a gentle, meditative Christian folkie, a latter-day Bruce Cockburn who finds God while sitting on a riverbank and watching the rippling water. He’s also a tough-minded social protest singer who rails against the casual indifference of those who exploit the poor to make a buck, who rape the planet to line their own coffers. He writes about the birth of a child, the death of a grandparent, the wonders and trials of a new marriage. He sounds like a real human being. He also sounds like Ben Harper, which helps considerably, and his third album is a reminder why soul – in all its sonic and spiritual senses – will always be a welcome tonic.

10. Ezra Furman and the Harpoons – Inside the Human Body

There have been four great rock ‘n roll geeks: Buddy Holly, Jonathan Richman, David Byrne, and Rivers Cuomo. Maybe it’s time to add Ezra Furman to the list. Furman’s sophomore (and sometimes sophomoric) album is a bit of a letdown from last year’s stunning debut Banging Down the Doors. But only a little. He’s still hopelessly geeky, impossibly romantic, and entirely over the top in his approximations of early Bob Dylan and early Violent Femmes. He’s also loud, brash, and a very fine songwriter, and his band cranks up the amps to 11 this time just to keep up with the wordy motormouth.

Honorable Mentions

The Acorn – Glory Hope Mountain
Adele – 19
The Baseball Project – Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails
Marco Benevento – Invisible Baby
Black Francis – SVN Fingers
Blind Pilot – 3 Rounds and a Sound
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Lie Down in the Light
The Botticellis – Old Home Movies
Eddie “the Chief” Clearwater – West Side Strut
Hayes Carll – Trouble in Mind
Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel – Dual Hawks
Damien Dempsey – The Rocky Road
Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
Dub Pistols – Speakers and Tweeters
Justin Townes Earle – The Good Life
John Ellis and Double Wide – Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow
Firewater – The Golden Hour
Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
The Fleshtones – Take a Good Look
The Frontier Brothers – Space Punk Starlet
Jacob Golden – Revenge Songs
Hacienda Brothers – Arizona Motel
Headlights – Some Racing, Some Stopping
Malcolm Holcombe – Gamblin’ House
Jolie Holland – The Living and the Dead
The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
Chris Knight – Heart of Stone
Laura Marling – Alas, I Cannot Swim
Adam Marsland – Daylight Kissing Night
Nico Muhly – Mothertongue
Okkervil River – The Stand Ins
Old 97’s – Blame It On Gravity
Matthew Ryan – Matthew Ryan and the Silver State
Mando Saenz – Bucket
Darrell Scott – Modern Hymns
Shearwater – Rook
The Spinto Band – Moonwink
Mavis Staples – Live: Hope at the Hideout
The Tallest Man on Earth – Shallow Grave
Waco Brothers – Waco Brothers Alive and Kicking at Schuba’s Tavern
Loudon Wainwright – Recovery
Watermelon Slim and the Workers – No Paid Holildays
Steve Winwood – Nine Lives

Best Reissues and Box Sets

Ed Askew – Little Eyes
Elvis Costello – This Year’s Model
Fairport Convention – Unhalfbricking
Genesis – Genesis 1970 – 1975
Roy Harper – Stormcock
Nick Lowe – Jesus of Cool
Mogwai – Young Team
Otis Redding – Live in London and Paris
Rez Band – Music to Raise the Dead
Ike and Tina Turner – Sing the Blues
Dennis Wilson – Pacific Ocean Blue

Biggest Disappointments

Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs
Shelby Lynn – Just a Little Lovin’
Of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping
Sigur Ros – Med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust
Lucinda Williams – Little Honey


nikkip said...

glad to see drive by truckers at the top of your list and sigur ros at the bottom.

sad to see death cab for cutie at the bottom.

p.s. your wife rocks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for putting the Son Lux album back on my radar. I think I am going to go ahead and get it. Same for Anathallo.

Natsthename said...

I have you to thank for checking out the wonderful Johnny Flynn cd this year. It's in my top 10, too. I can't number mine this year, though. I just don't have it in me.

And I, too, was disappointed by Lucinda's cd, as well as Ryan Adams.

I know you write for a mag and get the opportunity to hear far more cds than I do, but, man, WHEN do you have the time?

Andy Whitman said...

Re: when do I have the time to listen?

It's challenging, for sure. Those 600 - 700 albums I mentioned were the ones I've actually heard. I've received many more this year -- maybe another 500 to 700 -- that I literally have not heard. It's a pleasant problem to have, and I'm certainly not complaining about it, but it really is impossible to keep up. I wasn't kidding about the 8,000 albums released this year. I only receive a fraction of them, and listen to maybe half of the fraction I receive. That's why the whole "Best of 2008" approach is kind of ludicrous. There's nobody -- nobody -- who has the time to take it all in and comment intelligently about the entire scope of popular music.

I have a day job where probably half my day is spent on repetitive, somewhat mindless tasks. Somewhat. I do have to think, but for at least part of my time at work every day I can plug in the iPod earbuds and listen to music. And I do. But that's the only way I can listen to 600 - 700 albums per year. And many of those are cursory listens. I listen once -- or I listen to snippets of the songs -- and decide that I'll never revisit the music again. Of course, there are also those wonderful discoveries. And certainly if I'm reviewing an album I'll do my best to listen for as many times as it takes to really absorb the music.

But it's difficult. The albums on the list I posted above -- maybe 100 of them -- were the albums I came back to multiple times because I heard something that I thought was worth revisiting. Obviously that's only a tiny portion of what's out there.

Andy Sedlak said...


I'm sorry to try and get in touch with you via your blog, but I couldn't find an email address.

My name is Andy Sedlak- I'm a junior journalism major at Wright State University in Dayton, OH. I'm interested in your interning for Paste and what it takes to do so.

I've got experience. I write for a local entertainment weekly in Dayton and for my college newspaper. I am also the Marketing Director for our campus radio station, WWSU 106.9 FM.

More so, I've got recorded interviews with two members of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band (Clarence Clemons, Nils Lofgren) and New York rock icons Jesse Malin and Willie Nile.

If any of this is as of interest, please let me know. I respect Paste, and your writing in particular. Tell Tale Signs was indeed the album of the year, and so far, your list is the only one (to my knowledge) that has ranked it where it ought to be.

I'm at home over break, in Circleville, so I understand we're close on the map.

If you can point me in any particular direction, I'd be grateful for any opportunity.

Andy Sedlak
(740) 412-2189

Unknown said...

Great list, Andy. I concur on the excellence of Dylan's castoffs. I really wanted to like somebody else's new music more, but the crazy old coot keep dusting off the undiscovered classics. Such haunting beauty.