Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Best Albums of 2008

When I was a senior in high school. I made my first ever mix CD. This wasn’t a romantic gesture for a girl (although, er, that might have happened at a later date) but just a way to consolidate some music that I liked. Fifteen tracks long, it included such erstwhile hits as Don McLean’s “American Pie”, Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl”, and Tom Petty’s “Free Falling”. In addition to a thoroughly enjoyable compendium of songs, the CD (which eventually grew to possess the imaginative title of Beck Mix I) also functioned as an indicator of sorts, a beacon broadcasting one unavoidable fact: I knew absolutely nothing about popular music.

This wasn’t really my fault. Growing up, the dinner-table music at my house generally alternated between Rossini, Dvorak, and Les Misérables. I never listened to the radio. I never bought CDs. Short of hearing popular songs featured in movies (the first time I heard The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” was when I watched Almost Famous in 2000), I suffered no exposure to the corrosive, addictive influence of pop music.

This finally changed this past year for two reasons. First, my friends Brian and Pat – both extraordinarily learned audiophiles (that is, musical snobs) – simultaneously encouraged me to developed a more extensive library. Brian had previously introduced me to the exquisite Pandora, which served as a gateway of sorts, introducing me to a variety of artists and sounds, if not full albums. Armed with a pair of quality headphones (thanks Dad), I listened to Pandora constantly at my job, often for over 10 hours a day.

Then, in March of 2008 (after finishing the most recent Manifesto), I finally bought an iPod, approximately five years after they’d gone mainstream. In the past, I had acquired and listened to music on a track-by-track basis; the iPod allowed me to listen to albums in their entirety, the way artists intended. It’s one thing to appreciate Band of Horses’ “Funeral” as a great song – it’s quite another to see how it fits into the schema of Everything All the Time.

And I was off. With the help of Pando (a spectacularly useful file-sharing program that’s actually legal), Brian and Pat gave me a kick-start, supplying me with some of the best albums of 2007. I foraged for more myself, using Pitchfork Media and other elitist Internet rags as a guide. My iTunes now includes more than 5,000 songs – not a great number, to be sure, but it’s a start.

Of course, I don’t pretend to pass for a music critic (whereas I certainly pretend to pass for a film critic). I still don’t really know how to listen to music and think critically about it – I just, you know, listen to it. I also tend not to actively dig into an album’s lyrics. If certain lyrical phrases pop out to me during the course of listening, I’ll happily absorb them, and there are certain bands for which I aggressively attempt to learn the lyrics, but that isn’t always the case.

(This may be an admission of guilt as a lazy listener, but it also gives me pause when considering the integrity of pop music as an art form. If comprehending a song’s lyrics is critical to comprehending its meaning, then shouldn’t I be able to understand what the fuck the lead singer is saying without resorting to pressing my ear against the speaker or looking the lyrics up on the Internet? Is it some sort of vaguely artistic decision to cloak lyrical meaning in a haze of sound, thus providing it with a tantalizing ambiguity? And isn’t it a little weird that for a number of my favorite songs, I barely know any of the words?)

Regardless, listening to music became an important structural component of my psyche this year, so it’s only fitting for me to provide a year-end overview. As for how I selected the forthcoming albums, it’s really pretty simple: My favorite albums were those I revisited again and again. That seems to me to be the best criterion for determining great music – how often do we keep coming back for more? Now, you could argue that this simplistic approach imparts a certain Plebian sensibility to my evaluative methods. You could also argue that it proves I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. As long as you actually read the post, I won’t be too picky.

(Disclaimer: The following list is necessarily incomplete. There are two major issues at hand. First, there’s the quantity issue: With dozens of albums released every week, there are only so many I can consume. Second, there’s the awareness issue: Whereas with movies I can generally keep abreast of all of the major releases of the industry, there is no “paper of record” for the music industry (although Pitchfork sure tries hard enough), so I can’t keep aware of every successful album. If anyone feels I missed anything specific, by all means send your suggestions my way – I’m always looking for more music.)

So here goes. With a Rotoworld-style tiering approach, the Manifesto presents the Best Albums of 2008. (Albums within tiers are listed in alphabetical order. Also, albums can be provided via Pando upon request.)


Tier 5: Wow Do I Wish These Albums Were Better

Counting Crows – Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings: Look, I think this is a good album. I just haven’t become obsessed with it yet. And anyone who knew me in college knows that I was at one point unhealthily obsessed with Counting Crows. I went to one concert in four years of college – it was Counting Crows. I listened to “Round Here” approximately 725 times in a year. I knew every word to “St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream”. Sure, I got into them about 10 years after they became popular, but they were still my band. So when I learned they had released their first album since the grossly underrated Hard Candy, I got all psyched up to become obsessed again, and it just hasn’t happened. Yet. Frankly there’s still time.

Jewel – Perfectly Clear: Ibid.


Tier 4: These Are Appealing, Just Don’t Ask Me Why

Mates of State – Re-Arrange Us: A series of male-female duets, each oddly catchy if completely inoffensive.

Nada Surf – Lucky: An album that opens with more punch than it can ultimately sustain, there are some terrific songs on here. “See These Bones” is a gorgeous opener, and the follower “Whose Authority” is everything a pop single should be. I tend to drift after the groovy midpoint of “Weightless”, although “I Like What You Say” is impressively straightforward and earnest.

The Notwist – The Devil, You, + Me: Hovering just outside the grasp of cognitive relevance, I can’t quite understand this album, but it sets an engaging mood. “Sleep” always snaps me out of a reverie, only to draw me into its own.

R.E.M. – Accelerate: If Counting Crows was my band in college, high school was devoted to R.E.M. (“Losing My Religion” kicked off the aforementioned inaugural Beck Mix). Accelerate is too short and modest to be a great album, but there’s still some great stuff on here. “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” is an ass-kicking opener, with hard-driving electric guitars backing a furious-sounding Michael Stipe, while “Supernatural Superserious” builds and swerves giddily. Sadly the album ends in a whimper, with its final three tracks offering minimal substance, but there’s plenty on here to herald R.E.M.’s return to relevance, if not quite greatness.

Rachel Portman – The Duchess: I know I shouldn’t put a movie score on here, but Rachel Portman’s work for The Duchess is so lush and exquisite that I couldn’t help myself. Whenever I read in my apartment, I always put on instrumental music because lyrics interfere with my concentration, and this score has quickly become my go-to choice. (Oh, and if you’re interested in reading about the movie, by all means check this out.)

Sigur Rós – Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust: Don’t ask me what it means. I have no idea. I just know that after listening to the nine-minute “Festival”, I want to change the world.

Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer: I haven’t been able to fully absorb this album – frankly I think it’ll take several more years – but that hasn’t stopped me from being intrigued. “California Dreamer” builds so insistently that it cannot be ignored, and the closer “Kissing the Beehive”, clocking in at nearly 11 minutes, demands consideration at the very least for its epic ambition.


Tier 3: Albums I Return to Again and Again

Does It Offend You, Yeah? – You Have No Idea What You’re Getting Yourself Into: This isn’t a great album. It might not even be a good album (although I guess any album with a song titled “Attack of the 60 Ft. Lesbian Octopus” has to be pretty good). But here’s what I know: Whenever my job gets me angry – I mean, sends me into a pure, homicidal, “I want to pick up this ping-pong table and hurl it through a plate-glass window” type of rage – I turn on this album. And trust me, it helps. The instrumental opener “Battle Royale” – a power-punk bass-and-synth combo backed by a pumping snare drum and even overlaid with a blaring siren – spills into “With a Heavy Heart (I Regret to Inform You)”, a venom-laced assault that unleashes pure fury and seems to include backing vocals from the Rancor from Return of the Jedi. By the time it gets to “Dawn of the Dead” (the only track on the album that bears any resemblance to a standard pop song), I feel better.

Hot Chip – Made in the Dark: Wildly inconsistent yet resolutely independent, this electro-dance-pop album could be even better than it actually is. The band’s refusal to conform to any standard archetype might score them some points for individuality, but it also makes any attempt at a cohesive album impossible. Tracks such as “Shake a Fist” – which jarringly breaks down halfway through – and the sluggish introduction of “Bendable Poseable” unquestionably march to the beat of their own drum; that might be commendable philosophically, but it sure doesn’t help listeners dance to that beat. Still, there’s a hell of a lot to like on Made in the Dark. “Out at the Pictures” is a great mood-setter, building slowly into a propulsion of jittery syncopation. Later, “Ready for the Floor” is helplessly catchy in its simplicity, “Touch Too Much” instantly magnetizes listeners, and “One Pure Thought” fluidly combines punchy dance beats with steady choral arrangements. The title track is the most memorable on the album, a haunting composition of aching, heartfelt beauty. Made in the Dark may not be perfect (or even try to be), but it’s more than enough to make me eagerly anticipate Hot Chip’s next album.

Keane – Perfect Symmetry: Sometimes, subtlety is overrated. Keane used to draw comparisons to Coldplay – now they’re pretty much U2 filtered through Jerry Bruckheimer. The opening outcry of “Spiralling” (“ooo!”) announces this album as a jubilant, grand expression of joy, longing, and undiluted emotion. Check out the goofy lyrics on the chorus of “Lovers Are Losing”: “You take the pieces of the dreams that you have / ‘Cause you don’t like the way they seem to be going / You cut them out and spread them out on the floor / You’re full of hope as you begin rearranging.” Make sense? Didn’t think so, but Tom Chaplin sings that chorus with such sincerity that I can’t help but get caught up in it. By the time Perfect Symmetry progresses to the desperate plea of its title track (“Wrap yourself aroooooooound me”), I’m hooked. The album may not be finely textured, but it sure is a blast.

The National – The Virginia EP: I’ll freely admit that The National are one of my favorite bands, and I’ll also admit that this is a lesser work. But hey, it is an EP after all, and it still has all the hallmarks of what make The National so great – Matt Berninger’s velvet mumble-croon; stark, often astonishing lyrics; soft-pedal guitars that build momentum even as they channel Americana-style folk-rock. I can’t listen to “Santa Clara” or “Tall Saint” without becoming fully absorbed. “In my city, I didn’t make a sound / When I fell over and cracked my crown / Heard a woman say, ‘Stay down, champion’ / ‘Stay down.’” I don’t care what it means, I still get the chills.

Okkervil River – The Stand Ins: One of my all-time favorites albums is Okkervil River’s The Stage Names, an homage to cinematic spectacle that bounces between tonal shifts like an acoustic pinball. There’s the epic anthem of “Our Life Is Not a Movie Or Maybe”, the bubbly rapid-fire delivery of “A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene”, and the equally epic elegiac sadness of “A Girl in Port” (among others). The Stand Ins possesses a similar desire to capture a variety of moods, but it lacks the graceful fluidity of The Stage Names. Whereas on the earlier album, every song mattered equally, here some are just filler, biding time until the band get to their next great slice-of-life. That’s disappointing (if perhaps expected), but it’s also worth mentioning that there are no fewer than four truly great songs on here. “Lost Coastlines” is a gorgeous travelogue that ebbs into “Singer Songwriter”, a jaunty jab at a life of disaffected privilege (“You got taste / What a bitch, ‘cause that’s all that you have”). Later, “Pop Lie” is a meticulously constructed piece of, well, pop music, and it bleeds beautifully into “On Tour with Zykos”, a far more sensitive portrait of the disaffected, this time – naturally – a pop star (“I wonder who you’ve got your hooks in tonight? / Was she happy to be hooked / And on your arm did she feel alive?”). The rest may be insubstantial by comparison, but albums with four legit showstoppers don’t come along very often.

The Rosebuds – Life Like: Imagine Screech helping Zack Morris to pick up a girl, and you can envision how unlikely it would be for me to introduce my buddy Brian to a great album of which he was ignorant. As such, one of my finest achievements in life was uncovering Night of the Furies – last year’s delectable treat from the Rosebuds – then learning that Brian had never heard of it, sending it to him, and watching from afar like a proud father as he fell in love with it. It may never happen again, but it sure was fun. Anyway, this year’s effort from The Rosebuds isn’t as perfect as their prior album, but it’s nevertheless an agreeably solid set of tunes. Even better, it intersperses its best songs throughout; the opening title track sets the dark mood with a rippling, creepily insistent bass, while five tracks later “Another Way In” offers a chorus of desperation disguised as hope. In between are the uppers, the buoyant “Bow to the Middle” and the playful “Nice Fox”, while the closer “In the Backyard” sends us on our way wanting more.

The Stills – Oceans Will Rise: It’s tempting to dismiss this album because one of its songs – the super-powered, no-holds-barred single “Being Here” – is so much better than anything else on it. But that should hardly count as condemnation, especially since there are a number of good songs on here. “Snow in California” suggests its alarmist message of incongruity with literal alarms, “Hands on Fire” crescendos until it threatens to crack, and “I’m With You” easily embodies steady, hard-driven rock. But let’s not fool ourselves: “Being Here” is the real reason to listen to Oceans Will Rise. Every time I listen to it when I’m driving, I suddenly find myself going 85 in a 55 while screaming the chorus. Pure euphoria.

Santogold – Santogold: I’m not sure when I started to enjoy dance-pop, and I’m still not sure I fully embrace it as a sub-genre of pop music. But there was a stretch earlier in the year when I had to listen to this album every single day. Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta has to stab Uma Thurman in the heart with a needle loaded with adrenalin? The opening pump-pump-pump of “L.E.S. Artistes” – one of the catchiest fucking songs I’ve ever heard – kind of feels like that.


Tier 2: Rock Me the Fuck Out

Coldplay – Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends: It may be that, for all of the great music they’ve produced over the past decade, Coldplay’s legacy will be their derogatory inclusion in the classic “You know how I know you’re gay?” scene in The 40 Year Old Virgin. And that’s fine with me – any time one of my favorite comedies gets more press, that’s a good thing. But it shouldn’t diminish Coldplay’s emergence as one of the truly iconic bands of the new millennium, a band that has carved out its niche in musical history through the composition of tightly crafted (if oddly inaccessible) pop songs. My favorite thing about Viva la Vida is that it’s suitable for any mood. From the instrumental opener “Life in Technicolor” to the bombast of “Lost!” to the invigorating hooks of “Viva la Vida”, the album strikes a remarkable blend, a harmonious merger of soothing emo and urgent alt-rock. That it’s such an effortlessly appealing set of songs may lead naysayers to label it as innocuous, but that isn’t the case. Both universal and intimate, global in ambition yet personal in scale, Viva la Vida is everything a big pop record should be.

The Gaslight Anthem – The ’59 Sound: To be fair, this album isn’t exactly replete with variety. Of the 12 tracks on The ’59 Sound, 11 of them sound pretty much the exact damn same. But they all sound really fucking good. Building from a reliable verse-chorus-verse-chorus template, each song drives forward insistently, generating an up-tempo rhythm that is refreshingly old-fashioned. It helps that the hooks are fantastically catchy. “Old White Lincoln” and the title track each make their case, but my personal favorite is the nostalgic refrain from “High Lonesome”: “And Maria came from Nashville with a suitcase in her hand / I always kinda sorta wish I looked like Elvis / And in my head there’s all these classic cars and outlaw cowboy bands / I always kinda sorta wished I was someone else.” Any time you pay homage to Counting Crows’ “Round Here”, you’re going to get my attention.

TV on the Radio – Dear Science: This album is being heavily hyped by a lot of snobbish indie rags on the net; odds are it’ll be #1 on Pitchfork’s prestigious (if oft-horseshit) year-end list. Listening to it, I’m weirdly reminded of a line from “West Wing”, when someone asks Toby if he believes the Bible to be literally true. His response: “Yes sir, but I don’t believe either of us is smart enough to understand it.” Well, that epitomizes my feelings on Dear Science – I recognize that it’s great music, even if I’m not musically savvy enough to understand it. (Not that I necessarily feel that way about the Bible, but never mind.) What I do know is that it’s a thoroughly active record, melding a great variety of sonic avenues into an undeniably compelling mixture. It takes some effort to sift through the jangling before the underlying texture emerges (and I haven’t even started with most of the lyrics yet), but Dear Science is a true grower in that it happily rewards repeated listens. As for those lyrics, I certainly intend to dig deeper in the future because on one listen I randomly caught the opening lines of “Red Dress”, and golly look what I found: “Hey Jackboot, fuck your war! / ‘Cause I’m fat and in love, and no bombs are falling on me for sure / But I’m scared to death that I’m living a life not worth dying for.” Bob Dylan just got a whole lot funkier.

We Are Scientists – Brain Thrust Mastery: “We all recognize that I’m the problem here.” That’s the opening line of “Ghouls”, the moody, darkly atmospheric leadoff hitter of this album. It might portend a record laden with regret and self-loathing, but it’s really misdirection, as Brain Thrust Mastery pulls a complete one-eighty with its second act, the deliciously poppy “Let’s See It”. In fact, the majority of the album is hugely entertaining precisely because it is defiantly unapologetic. The band’s gung-ho attitude – one that fully embraces the pure pleasure that the best pop music can provide – is never more evident than on “After Hours”, one of the most enjoyable songs of the year. Surrounded by a vibrant bass that acts less as accompaniment than as propeller and electronic guitars that simply rock, Keith Murray implores, “Time means nothing, say that you’ll stay!”. If you insist.


Tier 1: The Top Five (Plus One)

Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours: Talk about unapologetic. There’s something profoundly satisfying about listening to a record that aims purely to, well, satisfy. There’s no pretension in Cut Copy’s energetic new-wave beats or gorgeously shifting synths, only earnestness. “Lights and music are on my mind” Dan Whitford informs us on the head-bob-inspiring “Lights and Music”, and honestly, what else would be on his mind? It’s the music that matters here, not awards shows or politics or literarily significant allegory. And so Cut Copy have fashioned an album that simply pleases, and it does so with such grace that listening to it results in the involuntary sensation of bliss. Tracks flow into one another effortlessly, such as the way ethereal “We Fight for Diamonds” breathes life into the triumphant “Unforgettable Season”. The record isn’t just cohesive, it’s alive, and it transfers that vitality to its audience. Try listening to “Hearts on Fire” without shouting the “Ay! Aha!” interjections that form the pathway to the song’s refrain. You won’t stand a chance.

Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs: Everything I have to say about this album, I said here. Nothing has changed. “Grapevine Fires” still stops my heart every time.

The Hold Steady – Stay Positive: When I wrote earlier that I tend not to focus on lyrics when listening to music, The Hold Steady serve as the primary exception (perhaps along with Death Cab). Minnesotan Craig Finn is less a singer than he is a storyteller, and to him, the words seem to matter more than the music. This is not to say that the band is lacking sonically – on the contrary, their bar-punk, street-wise sound is impatient and forceful. “Our songs are sing-along songs” Finn declares on “Constructive Summer”, and so they are, full of rip-roaring hooks and seductive yowls. Such participatory spirit has never been more palpable than on “Slapped Actress” the album’s closer that concludes with an exultant series of “Whoa OH! Whoa-oh-Ah-oh” cries. Singing along isn’t a suggestion, it’s compulsory.

But it’s in the stories where The Hold Steady truly distinguish themselves, and it’s the stories that bring me back again and again. There’s “Sequestered in Memphis”, the colorful tale of an ill-fated pickup (“In the bar light, she looked alright / In the daylight, she looked desperate / But that’s alright, I was desperate too”). There’s the agonizing desperation of “Lord, I’m Discouraged”, a religious man’s last gasp at salvation after a woman’s repeated spurns have nearly drowned him (“And I come to your altar, but then there’s just nothing / And she keeps insisting / The sutures and bruises are none of my business / She says that she’s sick, but she won’t get specific”). And then there’s “One for the Cutters”, an utterly terrifying narrative of a good-girl collegian mucking about with townies that is made all the more frightening for its stark realism. There’s murder, mayhem, and not a remedy in sight. “Mom, do you know where you girl is / Dad, do you know where your kids are?” Finn asks. The answer will keep even the most confident of parents up at night: “Sniffing at crystal in cute little cars / Getting nailed against dumpsters behind townie bars.” Best of luck looking Princess in the eye after listening to that.

The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride: The Mountain Goats’ front man John Darnielle could be mistaken for a long-lost cousin of The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. Both possess unorthodox vocal styles (Finn tends to speak as much as sing, while Darnielle’s delivery is a tad nasal), and both place an inordinate emphasis on narrative structure when composing their music. That’s where the similarities end though, as The Mountain Goats offer a far more delicate and laid-back sound than the Hold Steady, although they can turn up the volume every now and then. But Heretic Pride is mostly content with being small-scale, and it just so happens that nearly every song on the record is beautiful. “San Bernardino” is a sweetly touching profession of love tinged with sadness (“It was hard, but you were brave, you are splendid / And we will never be alone in this world / No matter what they say”). The guitars pick up a notch for the title track, a defiant defense of individualism and a solemn promise to enact revenge (“They pick me up and throw me down / And I start laughing like a child / And I mark their faces one by one”). The steady strum of “Autoclave” introduces a tormented man full of self-loathing (“I am this great unstable mass of blood and foam / And no one in her right mind would make my home her home”), while “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” – the closest the album comes to a true rock song – rushes and tumbles to a paranoid frenzy (“Woke up afraid of my own shadow! / Like, genuinely afraid! / Headed to the pawnshop to buy myself a switchblade”). These myriad tones might suggest an overall impression of inconsistency, but Darnielle has such a canny knack for the universal – his songs are specific stories and yet can be about anyone – that Heretic Pride unites its disparate narratives into a cohesive whole. It may be an intimate record, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be for everyone.

Shearwater – Rook: By turns haunting, opaque, eerie, and gripping, this is assuredly not an album for everyone. But wow does it grab me. The vocals are the real key. Jonathan Meiburg (formerly of Okkervil River) slips effortlessly in and out of falsetto, lending an epic aura to the band’s shimmering woodwinds and ceaselessly shifting percussion. That shifting is emblematic of the album as a whole; the opener “On the Death of the Waters” begins as a whisper, only to explode halfway through with a guitar-powered avalanche. It’s a jarring transition, but it firmly announces that the record will not be constrained by adherence to genre. “Rooks” and “Leviathan Bound” may be simplistic in structure, but Meiburg’s voice elevates them to grandeur, while “The Snow Leopard” coils and prowls as restlessly as its subject, bulging toward passionate release only to retreat suddenly to stealthy quiet. As a singer, Meiburg is revolutionary; as an album, Rook is everlasting.


And my favorite album of the year:

M83 – Saturdays=Youth: Spellbinding. That’s really the only way I can describe it because, quite frankly, I can’t describe it. Unlike any album I’ve ever heard, it doesn’t even seem like an album, or if it is, it was created in an alternate universe that possesses vast, alien technology, then was beamed to our planet to see if we were capable of processing it. I understand that sounds melodramatic, but you have to understand that listening to this album is an utterly transportive experience for me – it brings me into a different world. When I turn this album on, I don’t really listen to it – I let it surround me, envelope me, overpower me. Its soundscapes are so lush and expansive that I’m tempted to label the album cinematic in that it could fit snugly in the context of a film, but that’s somehow demeaning, because Saturdays=Youth is so richly textured and fully realized that it’s almost a movie in and of itself. It has its own characters and its own stories – the lovers of “Kim and Jessie”, who live in a secret world of their own creation; the death-obsessed, wise-beyond-her-years teenager of “Graveyard Girl”; the girl yearning for flight beyond all physical limits in “Up!” – and they’re all encapsulated within this endlessly coalescing sonic lattice of sound and speed and beauty. Saturdays=Youth is music at its apex of power.

If you have to listen to one album from 2008, make it this one.