After the banner year in music that was 2007, I suppose it was inevitable that 2008 would be a let down. And it was.
It's not that there wasn't any good music released this year; after all, I was able to come up with a full list of 20 (unlike with 2006, where I wimped out at ten). But there was a lack of greatness this year, with albums that rank very highly this year that would have ranked much lower the year previous. In fact, until I seriously started to think about how this list would shape up, many of the albums on it had failed to grab me throughout the year. In part, this has more to do with the fact that I spent the year listening to older music, but still, if I loved these albums like I loved the ones that topped last year's list, I would've taken notice much earlier.
The result is a list where I'm more comfortable with the bottom half (20-11) than I am with the top half. Not because the albums at the bottom are better (if they were, they'd be higher on the list), but because those albums feel like 20-11-type albums, whereas the albums that place highly on this album don't really feel like high placing albums, but this year they are.
Honourable Mentions: Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue, Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple, Tapes 'N Tapes – Walk It Off, The Stills – Oceans Will Rise, Coldplay – Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends
20. Q-Tip – The Renaissance: It's become tradition for me to include at least one hip-hop album in my year end lists, in a futile attempt to show that I listen to more than just indie rock. Former token representatives Common and Kanye West each released albums this year, and, well, let's just say neither contended for this list and leave it at that.
Instead, Q-Tip makes his triumphant return to the world of hip-hop in the appropriately-named The Renaissance, his first album since 1999 (and first work of his I've paid attention to since A Tribe Called Quest's Beats, Rhymes and Life from 1996). If you've been missing that old Quest sound, rejoice that the Abstract has returned with an album that stacks up to some of the best that group had to offer, while staking out new territory for itself.
19. Cat Power – Jukebox: Normally, cover albums are the death of artistry, the final sign that a singer has nothing new to offer, and instead tosses out a bunch of standards, hoping people will still pay to hear them sing even after they've tired of listening to what they have to sing about. But in the case of Cat Power, real creativity is applied to the songs Chan Marshall decides to cover (it helps that they aren't all standards).
Marshall's distinctive voice goes a long way in making any song her own, but as she did with 2000's The Covers Record, she goes further in making the songs distinctive with slowed-down production that truly reinterprets tracks like "New York" (popularized by Frank Sinatra), "Ramblin' (Wo)man" (a cover of Hank Williams "Ramblin' Man"), and Joni Mitchell's "Blue".
18. Sigur Rós – Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust: The newest album from my favourite Icelandic experimental rock band was the first ever to feature a song in English ("All Alright")… and I gotta say, it doesn't matter. I don't even notice. I don't listen to Sigur Rós for lyrics, and given how majestic and inspirational their music it is, it's highly possible that the lyrics are corny for all I know.
Instead, Jón Þór Birgisson's vocals are just another instrument, which is fortunate given that he's often singing in gibberish anyway. The nice change for this album was that they went a little more playful, and a little less atmospheric, eliciting smiles with the first few tracks instead of the usual chills.
17. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend: I go back and forth with this album every other time I listen to it. With some listens, I'm instantly drawn to its catchy, quirky sounds, with its African-inspired beats and tempos feeling soothingly fresh and original. With other listens, the whole things sounds gimmicky and trite (what is "But this feels so unnatural, Peter Gabriel too" supposed to mean anyway?). And then some listens start off with me feeling one way, then feeling the other way as the album progresses (or alternating between songs).
In many ways, my reaction to the album mirrors both sides of the Vampire Weekend debate, at times echoing those who praised them early on as one of the best new things in music, at other times echoing the backlash that has many hating them.
16. The Walkmen – You & Me: When I first got into The Walkmen, with 2004's Bows + Arrows, I found their garage punk aesthetic a little sloppy at times, but I like the energy on certain tracks.
Their 2006 follow-up A Hundred Miles Off was similarly unbalanced. Which is probably why it took me a little while to get into You & Me: the energy I used to like from them isn't really there, replaced with a toned down, introspective sound that resulted in a less fun album, but ultimately far superior than previous efforts. Sometimes maturity can be an asset.
15. Lucinda Williams – Little Honey: After using the misery-fuelled West album to work through the grief of her mother's death and the pain of a breakup, Williams returned this year with an album with a little more pep. It's also one of the most balanced Lucinda Williams albums in years, showing off her versatility with cheeky songs like "Honey Bee" and the Elvis Costello duet "Jailhouse Tears", and higher energy tracks like rocking opener "Real Love". But even with the happy tone to the album, my favourite track is still the most depressing in "Little Rock Star". What can I say? I like my Lucinda with a heavy dose of misery.
14. Amanda Palmer – Who Killed Amanda Palmer: If I have one criticism of The Dresden Dolls' frontwoman Amanda Palmer's solo effort is that it doesn't sound much like a solo album at all. I realize that the album was produced in large part by Ben Folds instead of Dolls' partner Brian Viglione, but Folds was tailoring his production to Palmer's patented cabaret punk style, and thus sounds like it could've easily been done by Vigilione.
Of course, as a fan of The Dresden Dolls, I have no problem listening to another album that sounds like theirs (particularly since no one else sounds like them). Plus, as Palmer herself says, the majority of tracks here are slower ballads that would've unnecessarily slowed down a Dolls album. So it has a reason to exist! More importantly, it's pretty awesome.
13. The Kills – Midnight Boom: I'm convinced that The Kills will never be a great band: they're too manufactured and their two-piece, drum-machine created sound is a little too slight.
But, if they can never be great, I'll take consistent goodness. With Midnight Boom they threw off some of the polished veneer that made their music a bit distant, with an album that's more fun. Since No Wow was plenty fun to begin with, I'm happy with more.
12. Kathleen Edwards – Asking for Flowers: Edwards' 2003 album Failer is one of my favourites of the decade, and with her two subsequent releases, she's proven dependable without reaching the same heights of her debut. It's probably for the best, since what made Failer so compelling is the overarching feeling of despair that emanated from the album, and who wants to live life carrying that around?
So while I may not love Asking for Flowers like I love Failer, it doesn't mean that it doesn't have value. It's probably better for Edwards as an artist to expand into more playful tracks like "The Cheapest Key" or "I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory" while mixing in some of her trademark melancholy with "Alicia Ross" and "Sure as Shit". Plus, when you can produce a track as majestically sorrowful as "Buffalo", you're still cool with me.
11. Mates of State – Re-Arrange Us: Not that music need be depressing to be good, as my next few selections show. The interesting thing about Mates of State is that you can use the exact same terms to praise them as you can to criticize them. I heard one critic derisively dismiss their sound as "being pelted by candy", to which another critic responded "you say that like it's a bad thing". Because it IS like being pelted by candy, and THAT IS AWESOME.
Personally, I can relate to a band made up of a young married couple who write pleasing songs about their mature love and emerging family, but I realize that it isn't for everyone. That said, I like what it says about me that it is for me.
10. MGMT – Oracular Spectacular: There were a lot of electropop bands big in the indie world in 2008, like CSS or The Ting Tings, largely because Apple decreed it to be the sound of the iPod. With each album, I enjoyed them as I first started listening to them, but would quickly tire of them before the album was even over, relegating the fun tracks to mixtape status.
I expected it to be the same way with MGMT, but as I listened to Oracular Spectacular, I didn't tire of it. In fact, it gets more rewarding each time I listen to it. Maybe that's because the Brooklyn duo aren't quite electropop, fusing more organic pop sensibilities into their electronic sound. The result is an album of surprising depth for something that initially sounds like little more than a fun listen.
9. She & Him – Volume One: When I first heard that Zooey Deschanel was putting out an album, I was curious, but dubious. Too many celebrities treat music as something their fame will allow them to dabble in, rather than an art form that requires dedication and craft. There's also something a little unseemly about how their fame lets them jump the queue and get instant record deals or access to top producers like M. Ward (who makes up the "Him" of the band).
Sure, Deschanel has a little more indie cred than someone like Jamie Foxx or Paris Hilton and thus gets a little more slack, but a few years ago, the same could be said of Scarlet Johansson, and that didn't turn out so well. Then I heard the album, and couldn't help but find it winning. Still, I didn't take it seriously at first, dismissing it a bit as a cute collection of covers, but not a true artistic endeavour. But I couldn't stop listening to it (which helped me realize that while the songs are designed to sound like 60s girl pop songs, only two of them are covers, the rest being original creations written by Deschanel and produced by Ward).
8. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes: One way the music of 2008 improves upon the music of 2007 is in the area of debuts. Last year, not one of my top 20 (or 5 honourable mentions) were debut albums.
Fleet Foxes is one of five (not counting Amanda Palmer's solo debut), so it's exciting to have been introduced to so many exciting new voices. As often is the case with new acts, it took me a little while to open up to the Seattle quintet, finding initial listens of the album pleasant, but forgettable. Then I started to pay more attention (largely because of the transcendent "White Winter Hymnal") and quickly decided that the band was for real.
Mixing Beach Boys-esque harmonies with a campfire acoustic aesthetic results in an album that is richly rewarding when looking for an album of quiet power.
7. Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer: Of course, new albums by established favourite bands have their own hills to climb. In the case of Wolf Parade, it took me awhile to warm to their sophomore effort simply because I didn't love it like I love Apologies to the Queen Mary. So I initially met the record with some disappointment, but continued to listen to it enough to realize that while it's not up to the standard they set three years ago, it's still pretty strong on its own right.
It's hard to say why it doesn't quite measure up, the energy is still there, and the songs are all pretty great, but maybe it lacks the same sense of urgency? Or maybe it's as simple as the fact that you can only fall in love once.
Still, if you're like me, and were initially disappointed by At Mount Zoomer, I suggest you give it another shot to win you over on its own merits.
6. TV on the Radio – Dear Science: At this point, it seems federally mandated that Dear Science must appear on a 2008 year-end albums list, so who am I to argue? It helps that this is the first TVOTR album that I was able to get into right away. I eventually came to enjoy Return to Cookie Mountain, but it took me awhile.
Maybe Dear Science was easier to get into because I was more accustomed to their eclectic style, or maybe TV on the Radio were less interested in proving themselves the smartest guys in the room with this one. Or maybe it's just easy to get into an album with an opener as triumphant as "Halfway Home".
5. Aimee Mann – @#%&! Smilers: Since numbers 8 through 4 are mostly interchangeable, I decided to give the bottom two spots of my top five to two personal favourite acts who happened to perform in concerts I attended this year. It's my list, and I'll play favourites if I want to.
When you're as consistently strong in what you do as is Aimee Mann, it's easy to be ignored by people who are always looking for the next big thing. While it's true that she has yet to release another album as great as Bachelor No. 2, and that Mann tends to stick within a certain range of music, it doesn't mean that critics are right in quickly assessing her work as "more of the same" then moving on to praise some new act that's doing the same things as her, only half as well.
Besides, anyone who says that the playful cynicism of this record is the same as the spacey solipsism of Lost in Space just isn't paying attention. Even if it were true, Mann's brilliance is such that I'd take repetitive albums every few years over most other acts anytime.
4. Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs: Not that I'm immune from chasing the next thing. Although they've been one of my favourite bands for awhile now, I wasn't overly excited when they released Narrow Stairs, and didn't spend too much time with it upon its release.
I can't say why, maybe it was just the time of year, but I mostly let it sit for awhile. In anticipation for their opening gig for Neil Young, I gave Narrow Stairs another shot, and it clicked. The first thing that stands out in the album is the longer, more ambitious jam track (and lead of single) "I Will Possess Your Heart". Maybe it's the reason I didn't get into the album at first, because despite the fact that I liked the song, I worried that the band was trying too hard to show off. Instead, I've come to realize that the best quality of Narrow Stairs is how effortlessly it all comes together.
It's more self-assured than any of their previous releases, comfortably taping into levels of despair and melancholy in songs like "Cath…" and "Grapevine Fires" where in the past they may have buried some of the sentiment under protective layers of irony.
3. Flight of the Conchords – Flight of the Conchords: Normally, I wouldn't put a comedy act so high on an album list, but, hey, that's what kind of year it was. Plus, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement are a lot more talented than your average novelty comedy act, even if they're "formerly New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo".
Along with genuinely funny tracks that lose little of their humour with repeated listens, the Conchords are fantastic musical mimics, resulting in the most eclectic release of the year. This is the only album on this list that I instantly loved, and not only because it reminded me of the episodes in which the songs appeared (in truth, I love the album far more than I do the series). The only problem with the album is that hearing the types of songs they parody is now more difficult, as its hard not to think of FOTC and laugh.
2. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago: Also federally mandated: when speaking of For Emma, Forever Ago, one must tell the story of its making. This is both because the story gives the album the authenticity fans crave so desperately and because the story informs the music within.
Recovering from the breakup of both a relationship and his former band, while suffering from mononucleosis of the liver, Justin Vernon retreated to his father's Wisconsin cabin for three months in the winter. Eventually, he began to play around with some recording equipment he had around, writing and recording what became this record, playing all the instruments and overdubbing many layers of vocals, in the hopes of maybe coming up with a demo to help get a contract. The result is a wintry, introspective, deeply personal album that grabs you by the gut, then punches you in the heart, and puts you in that cabin with Vernon. Of all the albums on the list, this is the one most likely to become a classic.
1. Okkervil River – The Stand Ins: The top two were neck and neck for the top spot, with The Stand Ins earning the Album of the Year honours simply because I enjoy it more.
A sequel to 2008's excellent The Stage Names, which ranked sixth on my 2007 best of list. Frontman Will Sheff continues to write erudite, loquacious songs about pop culture and the difficulties of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, but succeeds where other wordy indie boys often fail – in that the songs still maintain their zip without getting completely lost in their naval. Thus his cleverness is still an asset, rather than a detriment, as the band's music is about more than just outlet for his ability to turn a phrase.
Basically, what I'm saying is Okkervil River are the anti-Bright Eyes. I enjoyed the album immediately, and grew to love it quickly, from the instrumental introduction to the sombre denouement. If even a down year in a music is capable of producing such a compelling, ambitious, and complete vision, then maybe I should stop whining about it being a down year.