At the beginning of December, I wiped my iPod clear and loaded it up with only 2008 releases. I found a list of 535 acclaimed albums and listened to samples of them all on iTunes in order to find any gems that may have eluded me up to that point. I wound up with 147 albums released during the year to choose from so I had a lot of listening to do. I wanted to be serious about this list and I am. I’m sure there are still some things that will become favorites later on that I have yet to hear but I feel pretty confident that the list below encompasses the year for me as much as possible. I’ve posted tracks you can listen to if you’re so inclined to listen and I hope you do. There’s good stuff here. Without further ado…
Honorable Mention. The Green Album – OMER SAAR
I decided not to include this in the top twenty because it’s an album of mash-ups. Do I consider mash-ups an inferior art form to regularly crafted music? Possibly. All I know is that the combination of lyrics from hip hop classics with Al Green beats by DJ Omer Saar created some of the hottest jams of the year, but they are can’t miss songs to begin with and that has to be taken into account. If I messed with “Sgt. Pepper”, there’s only so much damage I could do, you know what I’m saying? The whole album is available for free download here.
20. Yancey Boys – ILLA J
Younger brother of J Dilla, one of the best underground hip hop producers ever, who died tragically at age 32. Unused Dilla beats provide the backdrop for Illa J to pay tribute to his older sibling and he steps up with precision and power. Great hip hop album that more people should know about.
19. Alt-Ctrl-Sleep – ALT-CTRL-SLEEP
Without a doubt, the worst band name of the year. And an unattractive cover to boot, which are both things that I take into account when evaluating an album. That it still makes the list is a testament to the beautiful, dreamy shoegaze that this North Carolina band can produce. Not as dark as My Bloody Valentine and not as syrupy as Zero 7. Just right.
18. Sea Lion – THE RUBY SUNS
Indie pop/rock as shiny as their name suggests, this New Zealand band makes music that feels like the soundtrack to a hipster yacht party. In all the right ways. Saw them in concert and was disappointed because the live show didn’t have the manic energy of the studio tracks. Go figure.
17. Vampire Weekend – VAMPIRE WEEKEND
Speaking of hipster yacht parties… This album came out relatively early and caught fire like few do these days. A couple of songs shot up the most played chart on my iTunes but the album as a whole didn’t get much play. I feel like there are a few throwaway tracks but still, it’s a completely unique and enjoyable record. If this is who plays at the MTV awards shows these days then the youth are in good hands.
16. House With No Name – HORSE FEATHERS
It’s gonna be hard for Portland to feel like anything but Gus Van Sant and Elliott Smith to me, but between Kelly Reichardt, Keegan DeWitt and this band, there’s definitely another side showing. The album cover represents the sound better than I could explain and you’ve got to be in a hot chocolate sipping kind of mood to really experience the record at its fullest, but I happen to love hot chocolate, so…
15. Kleerup – KLEERUP
If you happen to love trashy europop (and why would you not?) then there’s few records released this year that can compete with Kleerup. I’m not talking like Justice or Crystal Castles that might have a tad of eurotrash influence. We are talking hard core, Eurovision kind of stuff. Like, turn it down when you get stopped at a light next to someone with their windows down. It’s shameful. But it’s brilliant.
14. The Seldom Seen Kid – ELBOW
One of my favorite bands and another great album to add in their discography. Not quite as good as “Cast of Thousands” but few things are. This opening track is all I needed to hear to be sold on the album during the first listen.
13. Keep Your Eyes Ahead – THE HELIO SEQUENCE
This one I had for a while but didn’t really appreciate until I put myself on that strict 2008 diet in December. Songs kept popping up on shuffle that I dug and every time I checked what it was, I saw this. Particularly the track posted below, which doesn’t quite fit with the feel of the rest of the record but is definitely indicative of the quality.
12. The Malady of Elegance – GOLDMUND
Goldmund is the instrumental, minimal side project of Keith Kenniff from Helios, already an instrumental, minimal group. It’s just a guy and an old piano and since there wasn’t a new Stars of the Lid album, it’s the best thing to write to that came out in 2008. Terribly beautiful stuff.
11. Cut the World – MOSCOW OLYMPICS
Gorgeous shoegaze from the Philippines that joins “Citrus” by Asobi Seksu as the only contemporary albums that can hold a candle to early Slowdive and The Jesus and Mary Chain. A bold statement, especially since I’m no expert on the genre but I’ve heard my share. My only complaint is that at 28 minutes, it’s over before it’s even begun.
10. In Ear Park – DEPARTMENT OF EAGLES
Aaron Katz told me to check these guys out and I thought he was talking about the Queens of the Stone Age side project Eagles of Death Metal. Whoops. Luckily, other sources echoed his sentiment and I made the distinction in my brain long enough to hear for myself. Great record.
9. Saturday=Youth – M83
Everybody wants to compare this to a John Hughes movie soundtrack but since I hate John Hughes movies, I’ll resist. Except Planes, Trains and Automobiles is good. I will say that the tunes represent a far sunnier direction than I thought M83 was capable of taking but a welcome one nonetheless. It’s a post-Obama world after all. Things are looking up!
8. Seaside Rock – PETER BJORN AND JOHN
I downloaded this because I was a fan of their first album. When I realized it was all instrumental I discarded it and wrote it off. The track below came along and made me re-evaluate everything. Now I like it much better than their previous album and can listen to it front to back on repeat all day. Moral of the story? Don’t know.
7. Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends & Prospekt’s March – COLDPLAY
Let me throw indie cred right out the window and say that this is my favorite band. If you know me well, you know this. I like this new album a lot and I like that new EP too. I can recognize that “Yes” is not a great song and sounds a bit like Chris Martin doing a bad impression of Collective Soul circa 1994. I don’t care. It’s like seeing your brother perform a horribly ill-conceived dance to “Black or White” in a 1991 talent show with half his face painted black (true story). You gotta love him so you focus on the positive. The positives here are that Coldplay are trying to evolve and succeeding, baby step by baby step.
6. Swimming – FRENCH KICKS
I vaguely liked the 2002 French Kicks song “Close to Modern” and that’s the trigger that prompted me to download this album. Either I haven’t been paying attention to them since or they wildly improved and tightened their sound because this album really took me by surprise. A grower not a shower.
5. Little Joy – LITTLE JOY
You gotta root for a band named after your neighborhood bar. Excellent debut album featuring possibly the song of the year below. Effortlessly sounding like a Velvet Underground and Nico joint at the height of their powers is no easy feat.
4. The Odd Couple – GNARLS BARKLEY
I think people liked to poo-poo this album when it came out because there was nothing as infectious as “Crazy” on it. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite of “Crazy” and one of the gloomiest albums of the year. It almost sounds like a band actively trying to alienate all but their biggest fans and I can respect that.
3. Fleet Foxes – FLEET FOXES
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everybody and their mother thinks this is one of the best albums of the year. Because it is.
2. Street Horrrsing – FUCK BUTTONS
My Mom does not approve of this band’s name. She probably wouldn’t approve of the music they make either. At times relentlessly aggressive and other times relentlessly beautiful. It’s easily the most experimental of albums on this list but that makes it one of the most re-listenable as well.
1. 808s and Heartbreak – KANYE WEST
I honestly don’t understand how anybody could not like this album. I was a huge fan of West before but now he can do no wrong for me. The auto-tune is a non-issue for me but if anything, I think it adds to the beauty of the record. His singing is criticized for being terrible. If that’s true, I can’t tell. The big picture though, is that Kanye West is the only person in hip hop who could have possibly made this album. The only person in hip hop capable of altering his sound so dramatically and stylistically to fit his content. The only person in music who cares so much about what people think about him, yet alternately can trust his own instincts over any negative reactions. Lil’ Wayne might have the sales and the lyrical prowess but Kanye is still the most interesting thing in popular music to me, hands down.
There it is. Not satisfied? How about thirty five more hot tracks from albums that didn’t make the cut. I would feel terrible leaving them out entirely so why not post? Who cares if it makes this page impossibly slow to load? Who cares if it risks the wrath of thirty five more record labels? Not me. I serve the people.
Eden Was a Garden (Acoustic) – ROMAN CANDLE
Gobbledigook – SIGUR RÓS
Going Up the Country – KITTY, DAISY & LEWIS
I Woke Up Today – PORT O’BRIEN
June: Brooklyn, NY (Sadness to Relate) – KEEGAN DeWITT
The Box – JOHNNY FLYNN
Up on a Mountain – THE WELCOME WAGON
Walking – THE DODOS
Geraldine – GLASVEGAS
Bang On – THE BREEDERS
Eyesclosed – BLANK BLUE
Galaxy of the Lost – LIGHTSPEED CHAMPION
Miniature Birds – GRAND ARCHIVES
Mother Mary – FOXBORO HOT TUBS
Elevator – FLO RIDA
Hairy Candy – TOBACCO
Nattöppet – DETEKTIVBYRÅN
Springtime – ANNUALS
Bruises – CHAIRLIFT
Do the Panic – PHANTOM PLANET
Button – SHUGO TOKUMARU
Family Tree – TV ON THE RADIO
I’ve Seen Rivers – NICOLAY & KAY
Love That Girl – RAPHAEL SAADIQ
Grapevine Fires – DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE
Olé – J-LIVE
Yeah You – N.E.R.D.
The Strongest Person I Know – THE STREETS
Vanished – CRYSTAL CASTLES
You’re the One – DAEDELUS
Randi – DAMU THE FUDGEMUNK
Behind the Sea – PANIC AT THE DISCO
Don’t Waste Your Love on Me – THIS IS IVY LEAGUE
Sonnrise – SONNY J
Sweet Darlin’ – SHE & HIM
Phew! Three more orders of business. One is that I have to mention these two albums. Both are good, but are hard to take seriously because of the god awful cover art. Seriously people, hire a graphic designer. It’s 2009.
Next, my favorite live music experience of the year. Har Mar Superstar. Easy question.
Last but not least, my award for video of the year. I hardly saw any but it doesn’t matter. This one’s the best. And you know what it is. And you know you like it. So put a ring on it.