Music  |  Features

Andy's Favorite Albums of 2008

December 8, 2008  |  3:05pm

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 Creaton’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


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Check out Paste's top 50 albums of 2008 here.

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