I was kind of pushed last year to make a top ten list of my favorite albums from 2007, and women dominated the list. This time, things are a little different. Not only did I do this because I wanted to, but I significantly expanded it. This year I have twenty albums and five honorable mentions – and the top twenty are even ranked. Men are very much in power this year, and guy/girl duos take four of my top twenty slots, including three in the top ten.
2008 was a huge year for music, and I’ve spent the past month or so putting my list together. In no way does this list attempt to coalesce with what other critics have compiled. I am not Rolling Stone or Pitchfork or Stereogum or NME or SPIN….and I’m not really trying to be. That said, the time I spent putting this list together was so much fun and so involved, that I decided to create a list of the best singles of the year, too. That will have to wait for another day.
For now, I’ll start off with my five honorable mentions – five albums that were great in their own right, and that I strongly considered using in my list. Unfortunately for them, they couldn’t compete with the other artists I ended up choosing for whatever reason.
Teddy Thompson – A Piece of What You Need. The last album that I really noticed from Teddy was 2005’s Separate Ways. Things have changed for him in the last three years; two albums later, his sound is more electronic, more pop-oriented, but still centered around the harmonies he does best. Here’s to growth and experimentation being successful. “In My Arms,” “The Things I Do,” Don’t Know What I Was Thinking.”
Oasis – Dig Out Your Soul. Oasis is back with some of their better music in years. The grooves can get a bit heavy on this disc, and it’s no (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, but the brazen shamelessness that characterizes Noel and Liam’s work is front and center. It’s no comeback record, but it will certainly keep them relevant, as the riffs are spot on and thundering. “I’m Outta Time,” “Falling Down,” “Solider On.”
TV On The Radio – Dear Science. A fascinating mix of beats, horns, keys, and vocal notes from all over the range. The energy is contagious and off-kilter, with pop experiments like the opening track “Halfway Home” – a song where “ba ba ba” runs can be buried by heavy guitars. The genre is all over the place, and some songs’ energy is truly contagious. “Family Tree,” “Red Dress,” “Dancing Choose.”
Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue. A haunting album that branches out from her phenomenal 2006 album, Rabbit Fur Coat. Unfortunately, it’s not as strong as its predecessor. However, songs like “Acid Tongue” stand out as particularly strong with her ability for mingling story telling with sarcasm. Not her best, but still incredible. “Acid Tongue,” “Black Sand,” “Carpetbaggers.”
Super Mash Bros – Get Euros. Fuck Bitches. Billing themselves as Girl Talk’s hot cousin, these guys are a more playful version of the mash up king. The songs they use are more contemporary and recognizable, if perhaps a little immature. Some of their arrangements could be tighter, and they can’t compete with Girl Talk’s flurry of samples, but some of their selections are brilliant. Eminem’s “Without Me” over MGMT’s “Kids,” Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” over Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” and 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” over Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” are truly genius. The best part? The album is free online. “I Fucking Bleed Purple and Gold,” “Future Dads (Platinum Edition),” “Broseidon, Lord of the Brocean.”
Top Twenty Albums of 2008.
20. Amos Lee – Last Days at the Lodge. Amos Lee has returned, and his third album isn’t his best. But he’s taken his work in a new direction, using more soul, more blues in his songs. He’s one of the most underrated artists out there, and this album builds on his already impressive catalog, lulling you into security before slamming you with heart break. The cadences he uses are inspired, and his next album should be even stronger. “Kid,” “What’s Been Going On,” “Street Corner Preacher.”
19. Glasvegas – Glasvegas. Their sound is almost like if The National were Scottish. Their use of deep, lifting vocals and sweeping sonic landscapes are moving. The piano is ghostly at points, especially in “Stabbed,” and the space of “Flowers and Football Tops” is huge, largely due to the sparse instrumentation. Besides, who else could pull off dropping Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” into the middle of an indie rock album? “Geraldine,” “Flowers and Football Tops,” “Go Square Go.”
18. Kate Nash – Made of Bricks. Imagine, for a second, that modern science could create a baby from only women. Then go even further and try to merge the cynical hooks of Lily Allen, the piano-driven beats of Regina Spektor, and the bitter soul of Adele or Tori Amos. That freakish baby would be Kate Nash, and her album really is that good. She can deliver an up beat song with painful lyrics like the best of them, and her talent can only improve from here. “Foundations,” “Merry Happy,” “Pumpkin Soup,” “Nicest Thing.”
17. The Kooks – Konk. The Kooks set out to make a pop record, and the result is some of the best Britpop of the year. They succeed with bravado where the Kings of Leon failed. There’s a bounce and energy to their sound, similar to Franz Ferdinand or The Fratellis in years past. Unfortunately for them, little has changed from their first album to their latest outing. More growth in the years to come will ensure they become the stars they so clearly want to be. “Do You Wanna,” “Mr. Maker,” “Always Where I Need To Be.”
16. Adele – 19. What can you say about this ginge powerhouse that hasn’t already been mentioned? I could make an argument that she’s Amy Winehouse’s potential fully realized, but she would need stronger material to prove that. Mark Ronson, who brought us last year’s Lily Allen and Winehouse herself, produced the superb “Cold Shoulder,” a track that merges swirling strings and a drum beat straight out of Memphis. In time, this one will be even more powerful. “Cold Shoulder,” “Chasing Pavements,” “Make You Feel My Love.”
15. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours. These Aussies really know how to cut an album. If you’re trying to reconcile dance music with indie pop, then this is the album to grab. Electronic beats meet vocal harmonies and superb music is the result. It’s like a more hyper brother of The Postal Service, or if Daft Punk met Apples in Stereo. “Far Away,” “Feel the Love,” “Hearts on Fire.”
14. The Weepies – Hideaway. How can you not include this group – they got Obama elected. One of the best songs of their career, “Can’t Go Back Now,” was used in nationwide commercials for Obama’s campaign. Ironic, since I first likened it to Hillary’s attempt to wrest the nomination from him. Marriage and a baby has certainly changed the style of Deb and Steve, and in some ways strengthened them. There’s a sense of calm in this album’s tracks that isn’t present in earlier songs. “Can’t Go Back Now,” “Hideaway,” “Orbiting,” “Just Blue.”
13. Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs. Bucking the glossy and pop-influenced sound of Plans while still expanding the detached, experimental style of Transatlanticism, this album is easily one of the year’s best. It somehow merged the two previous albums as it headed into new territory. Whereas the earlier work usually had a bright tinge to the depression, this album fully embraces the despair that marks Ben Gibbard’s lyrics, and the result is downright claustrophobic…in a good way. “Grapevine Fires,” “Cath…,” “Your New Twin-Sized Bed,” “You Can Do Better Than Me.”
12. Girl Talk – Feed the Animals. In an album from an artist that The New York Times Magazine called “a law suit waiting to happen,” Gregg Gillis hits you with an onslaught of samples. His aural hurricane is a flurry of songs overlaid each other, easily utilizing two dozen different songs for just one track on his album. His mash-up’s are so masterful that the lyrics sometimes take on new meaning, and the entire album is meant to be one long song that he broke up into individual tracks. Gregg blows the Super Mash Bros. out of the water, and truly sets the bar for the entire genre of mash-up’s. “Play Your Part (Pt. 1),” “Set It Off,” “No Pause.”
11. Ryan Adams & The Cardinals – Cardinology. Drugs, alcohol, and general miscreant behavior have overshadowed Adams for far too long, and while he has been known for his prolific writing, it’s not always as good as it could be. This album reestablishes not only his credibility but why people started listening to him at all. It’s easily his strongest in years and possibly ever. It pulls his influences of classic rock and country together, and produces truly excellent music. “Magick,” “Born Into a Light,” “Go Easy,” “Stop.”
10. The Ting Tings – We Started Nothing. With pop like this, why would you ever turn on the radio? Jules DeMartino plays the drums, and Katie White sings/plays the guitar, and together, they make first-rate electro-pop/punk. The hooks they create are ridiculous catchy, and their peppy and bouncing approach to New Wave is refreshing, to say the least. No wonder their songs were ubiquitous all year. “Shut Up and Let Me Go,” “That’s Not My Name,” “Great DJ,” “Keep Your Head.”
9. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago. The passion that pushes through in this album is outstanding, especially given the sparse instrumentation. The isolation that Justin Vernon created when he recorded this while alone in a Wisconsin cabin is palpable. The heartbreak of his shattered relationship is distinct, but without ever using lyrics for a narrative or even so much as a confession; Justin’s breaking falsetto only adds to the emotion. “Flume,” “Skinny Love, “Re: Stacks,” “The Wolves (Act I and II).”
8. Mates of State – Re-arrange Us. Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel have produced some of the catchiest pop of the entire year. Expanding their drum and keyboard aesthetic to include strings, MoS builds on their previous work to create achingly infectious tunes with head-bopping lyrics. Becoming parents have clearly changed the duo, and some of the strong points of the album have them belting melodies at each other on songs like “The Re-arranger.” Overall, though, they stick to addictive pop songs with a hint of indie rock, just to prove they still have it in them. “My Only Offer,” “The Re-arranger,” “Get Better,” “Great Dane.”
7. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes. The folk music on this record is so calming and choral that it’s practically hymnal. The multi-part harmonies wash over you and the pastoral lyrics take you away. I’ve never really heard anything like it, unless the Beach Boys wrote music in medieval times. The style is all over the place, and in this case, that isn’t a bad thing. More artists should strive to blend this many instruments and voices so well. “White Winter Hymnal,” “He Doesn’t Know Why,” “Quiet Houses,” “Ragged Wood.”
6. MGMT – Oracular Spectacular. Brooklyn, like always, comes through again with some of the best music in the world. This alternative/electro-pop is so fresh and new, you almost don’t realize how multi-layered the arrangements are throughout. Then the nostalgia of the lyrics hit you, and you’re absolutely hooked. Funk meets acid rock meets disco as Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden take the listener on a true journey. The duo can embrace youthful innocence like no other act I’ve seen, while still clinging to charming sarcasm. Even better, the beats on this record will get under your skin and stay for weeks. “Kids,” “Time To Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” “Weekend Wars.”
5. Coldplay – Viva la Vida, or Death and All His Friends. The world’s biggest band finally owned up to their title and made music for their global fan base. By snagging producer Brian Eno, of Talking Heads and U2 fame, Chris Martin and company set out to make a record where all of the songs don’t sound the same. By experimenting with exotic instruments and truly huge arrangements, the expansive feel of Viva la Vida is still…comfortable enough for any fan to appreciate. Turns out talking about actual events in the world instead of their own feelings actually worked. The bonus tracks of acoustic versions of “Lost?” and “Lovers In Japan” push it over the edge to make this the best Coldplay album ever. “Lovers In Japan/Reign of Love,” “Strawberry Swing,” “Lost!,” “Viva la Vida.”
4. Ladyhawke – Ladyhawke. Only this Kiwi could take the 80’s and make them hers, bridging styles from Cyndi Lauper to Kylie Minogue and creating the best throwback I’ve ever heard. Her synth pop embraces all that was great about the 80’s and leaves behind all of the trash. Pip Brown’s album is all over the place, from shagging a groupie in “Magic” to calling out the bullshit of her predecessors with “Professional Suicide.” The album is even more incredible given the fact that Brown was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Despite her condition, her layered beats and sublime lyrics are so old that they’re new. Ladies and gentlemen, meet pure pop perfection. “Magic,” “My Delirium,” “Paris Is Burning,” “Another Runaway.”
3. Fredrik – Na Na Ni. I haven’t seen any other magazine even mention Fredrik this year, which is a total shame, because this album is stunning. There is a Sufjan Stevens-tinged folk here, with the natural sound of Sigur Ros, and the melodies are glorious. Themes of vulnerability and good versus evil stretch throughout a dark sonic world, but the notes constantly sooth away the fear. Listening to this album can honestly transport you to a time when things were simpler and infinitely more complex, when the world seemed shaped by stories and imagination and creativity instead of greed and bitterness and ignorance. In short, this album is transcendent. “Black Fur,” “1986,” “Alina’s Place,” “11 Years.”
2. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend. Oh, Vampire Weekend, you poor bastards. You never asked for the hype wave to build so much last year that it lead to an inevitable backlash. It sucks that mainstream ass hats like MTV caught on, but why should anyone hold it against you? Your trust fund frat rock, as some have deemed it, is still light years ahead of almost anything on the radio right now. Your sunny, irrepressible pop shined through, utilizing African beats to catch music lovers completely off guard. Comparisons to Paul Simon’s “Graceland” or even Talking Heads don’t do you justice. The result is not a feeling of awe from the sheer brilliance or a jealous pang that I could have done better. The simple realization that I can’t stop listening to you for months on end is, alone, recognition of your achievement. “A-Punk,” “Walcott,” “M79,” “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.”
1. She & Him – Volume One. Zooey Deschanel’s had a big year. She had a shitty movie (The Happening), a hit movie (Yes Man – do not read as “good,” as hit and good are not synonymous terms), and she even got engaged to Ben Gibbard. But, in my eyes, her biggest achievement was creating Volume One with M. Ward – the best album of the year. Zooey and Matt fully realized what Mark Ronson wanted to do with Amy Winehouse with this truly phenomenal disc of retro pop gems. These blissful throwbacks to bubblegum 60’s pop are perfectly arranged by Matt, and all of the lyrics are written by Zooey herself. The exuberance of the pair literally jumps off the shelf, and as I have listened to it regularly since June, I don’t see this one fading away any time soon. “This Is Not a Test,” “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here,” “Black Hole,” “Sentimental Heart.”