Many of the following are apples and oranges, thus the rankings could be somewhat interchangeable. They're all good, depending on your taste or musical openness. An excellent year in indie rock, pop, folk.
1. My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges (Ato Records). As with several of my top picks for 2008, MMJ demonstrates a virtuosity of generic flexibility, vocally and instrumentally weaving threads of classic country twang, disco, new wave electropop, 90s indie guitar rock, jam band, and, minimally, southern rock. The only major genre from the last thirty years that I hardly hear at all is punk (perhaps with the exception of “Remnants”). The lyrics aren’t transparent, but neither are they cliché. Songs creep like lava and then spring like cats.
“Evil Urges” gives you a Bee Gees-esque falsetto and disco-rock combined with bridges to a southern rock anthem. “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream” reminds one of Air’s, well, airy electropop mixed with gentle harmonies that build into slightly harder guitar flourishes. “Highly Suspicious” features a “State of Shock” bass line and Prince-like (or Michael Jackson) yawps. “I’m Amazed” is perhaps the most southern rock type number as James belts out the vocals with a rumor of Alabama. “Thank You Too!,” is a kind of twangier late 70s early 80s Bee Gees, even Air Supply (yes, sue me) vocal. “Sec Walkin” is seventies country and disco, a pedal steel guitar and a wailing Jim James.“Two Halves” vocals recall the Stones and Nick Lowe, while the music recalls the alt.country power pop of The Jayhawks.
“Look at You” is a far twangier, somewhat precious ballad. “Librarian” is delicate even if spritely guitar plucking and crooning. “Aluminium Park” has a driving piano rock to it that is clearly indebted to Springsteen. “Remnants” sounds as if it were composed after listening to Foo Fighters and Guided By Voices back to back. “Smokin from Shootin” is some twanged early 80s soft pop riff (can you recognize it?) with an outstandingly patient crescendo. “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2” serves up spacey keyboards worthy of OMD, complemented by the eerie jangle of a surf guitar, and a disco drum out of Blondie (for a psychedelic disco aura overall), combining into an eight-minute tour de force. Space-twang-jam-disco-rock? I’m not sure, but there’s a lot to like.
2. She&Him—Volume One (Double Six Records). An ironically pretentious title from a star duo that met on a movie set, this album shows masterful songwriting that supply crosses multiple genres, including classic country, pop and soul. She is actress Zooey Deschanel (a phenomenon which gives a listener pause).
Him is indie cult singer/songwriter M. Ward. The idiosyncratic folk arrangements and vocal style that have made Ward a cult fave are largely tamed to a supporting role on this album. The star is Deschanel whose wonderfully sweet and naïve voice transports listeners back to Loretta Lynn and Petula Clark hits crackling in and out of AM radio range. Case in point: beautiful country pop reprise of the Beatles’ “Should have known better than a boy like you.” Miss this at your own musical-self-development peril.
3. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwa). Another largely acoustic gem this past year. Justin Vernon goes into the Wisconsin woods to “rout all that was not life and reduce it to its lowest terms,” and like Thoreau, emerges with something spare, haunting, and profound. Like fellow indie Americana torchbearers Fleet Foxes, Vernon sometimes resembles his 90s forebear Palace and their lead singer Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy), and before them, perhaps even Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
Acoustic guitar dominates, but moving horn complements and vocal harmonies also lace the album and Vernon’s peculiar and slightly doleful falsetto. Lyrically? “When your money's gone/And you're drunk as hell/On your back with your racks as the stacks as your load/In the back and the racks and the stacks are your load.” Indeed.
4. Fleet floxes, Fleet Foxes (Subpop). This Seattle quintet seduced critics near and far with a tremendous first album sampling multiple genres of folk, country, and pop in a highly textured sound. While every instrumental detail is essential, that sound is ultimately one that privileges vocals, and songwriter Robin Pecknold’s acapella harmonies are as goosebump-worthy as the varied landscapes and emotions the rich lyrics evoke. Again, Crosby, Stills, Nash and (certainly) Young haunt this music. In a song like “Your Protector” or “Blue Ridge Mountains” one has the sense of riding on the range, faint poundings of native American drums and howling wolves in the distance; stopping to light a fire; grabbling one’s guitar. Bon Iver, you are not alone.
5. Alejandro Escovedo, Real Animal (Back Porch). Like former fellow Bloodshot alt.country artists Jon Langford and the Waco Brothers, Alejandro Escovedo’s musical rite of passage was in 80s punk. Unlike aforementioned genre-benders, Escovedo negotiated his punk legacy by cultivating a sensitive songwriter side heavily indebted to a discovery of honkytonk and outlaw country, while inevitably retaining hist Tex-Mex roots, ably shifting from song to song something more resembling his early years with the True Believers and the Nuns. His struggle with Hepatitus-C has only enhanced his songwriting content and his existential if sometimes very personal psychic musings. 2008’s Real Animal shows him at his best, giving us Bo Diddley and Iggy Pop reminiscent anthems like “Chip n Tony” and the title track “Real as an Animal,” swinging country blues like “People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long),” and tender, violin-buffered ballads like “Slow Down.”
6. Okkervil River, The Stand Ins (Jagjaguwar). Already established as orchestral popsmiths with their last album, The Stage Names (itself a staple on last year’s “best of” lists), OR met the pressure for a solid followup. One of a handful of artists that can plumb the various depths of human experience in their lyrics and meet that effort note for note in their instrumental compositions. “La, la, las” meet horns, tambourines, nimble piano, and Strokes-like syncopated pop chords—perfect with your morning coffee, or meditations from the bridge.
7. Conor Oberst , Conor Oberst (Merge). Oberst, otherwise known as the wunderkind behind the hugely successful indie act Bright Eyes, has released his first solo effort in thirteen years. It is a powerfully poetic, heavily acoustic, and frequently poppy chef d’oeuvre. Take “Milkthistle,” a song based around the figure of apostrophe, where the poet addresses an inanimate object as if it could respond. Having addressed the milkthistle, he moves on: “Newspaper, newspaper/Can’t take any more/You’re here every morning/Waitin’ at my door/I’m just trying to kiss you/But you stab my eyes/Make me blue forever/Like an Allen Sky.”
And yet he shows an emotional and intellectual maturity in this one verse. Spare him the accusations of naiveté: “And I’m not pretending/That it’s all okay/Just let me have my coffee/Before you take the day away.” More than a few of us can relate to that hardship of concern and exasperation, but could never formulate it so well. Clearly one of the brightest figures in contemporary indie songwriting.
8. MGMT, Oracular Spectacular(Red Ink). It wouldn’t be far off to speak of a new New Wave, a generation that has studied and appreciated the synth-pop pioneers of the 80s and the flourishes of 70s glam and classic rock and built upon them with the hindsight of 90s indie rock-pop. Beautiful melodies and hooks, almost all imminently danceable and drenched in a not too pretentious irony. “I'm feeling rough, I'm feeling raw I'm in the prime of my life./ Let's make some music, make some money, find some models for wives” (“Time to Pretend”). Vanwyngarden and Glasser, with the virtuoso production guidance of Mercury Rev’s Dave Fridmann, have a stellar first effort. Oh the pressure of great beginnings.
9. Raveonettes, Lust, Lust, Lust (Vice). This Danish duo is critically loved and hated. Their sound is extremely reminiscent of the wall-of-sound demigods like the Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, and Mercury Rev, with definite nods to the trailblazing Velvet Underground. Yet, I would argue they inject a kind of driving pop melody in that tradition that sets it slightly apart. Besides, some critics torpedoed The Strokes fabulous first album for being too much a derivative pastiche of Television, The Gang of Four, and others.
Yet it was catchy as hell, something Television certainly never pulled off. The Raveonettes are very good at what they do, and this album knows how to bring the fuzz to a precipice and drop it off into a “Dead Sound” canyon. Not all good albums have to consist of multi-instrumentalists mastering multiple genres on one album. There are greater things in musical heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt in your criteria of bricolage.
10. Of Montreal, Skeletal Lamping (Polyvinyl). In my opinion not as stunningly catchy as most of 2007’s Hissing Fauna the Destroyer (depression at a broken marriage had ne’er been so rocket-fueled), the follow up Skeletal Lamping is still good enough to make a best of 2008—a clear testament to the genius of singer-songwriter, wild entertainer Kevin Barnes. SL is, well, kind of nuts. Songs threaten to explode from a structure, even while they're composed of heavily structured pop sequences.
“Wicked Wisdom,” for example, begins with a kind of accelerated synth riff recalling Bowie’s 1980 classic “Fashion,” then moves into something like contemporary R&B, only to move into some bizarre jackbooted rhythm ("Anarchy in the UK"?) to erratic electronic background and a harpsichord spraying notes like an out-of-tune wind chime. A number like “For Our Elegant Caste” puts upbeat falsetto soul-disco vocals over clapping-hand rhythms and synth riffs that recall Hot Chip (if only this were as simple!), until la-la-las and a drum machine fade it out. WTF? Barnes is one of a kind. He can levitate you musically and lyrically, cut the cable on your elevator, or build a dance fire under your ass—all in one song.
Very Honorable Mention: Los Campesinos, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed. Smart twee was never so given to slam-dancing.
The Black Keys, Attack and Release (Nonesuch). Stripped down bluesy psychedelic rock, between Hendrixx and Jon Spencer.
Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer (Subpop). Lush, elaborate arrangements, seductively dark.