Top 20 Albums of 2008
As I was struggling to rank my top albums of 2008, I read Roger Ebert's top twenty films of 2008 where, finally giving up winnowing his choices down to just ten, he wrote:
If you must have a Top 10 List, find a coin in your pocket. Heads, the odd-numbered movies are your 10. Tails, the even-numbered.
This served as a moment of inspiration. Rather than ordering twenty albums, I thought, I would put them into two tiers and then write a bit of code to randomize their ordering within the tiers with each page refresh.
Perhaps luckily for my readers, in the end I decided against this. As I started to write my little blurbs, momentary preferences started to sink in. But I admit they are just that: momentary preferences. I still like my number one album from last year, but man that Spoon album, which I ranked #16, sure has been getting a lot of play this year.
So here it is: a snapshot of what I currently think are my top twenty albums of 2008. Last year, some of the recommendations in the comments became new favorites, so please tell me where I went astray.
20. Kanye West -- 808s & Heartbreak
When I heard the first singles coming from this percussively stripped-down and AutoTune-obsessed breakup album, I was expecting throwaway tracks, some filler before his next proper album. But it turns out that this is a proper album, with only the live freestyle on the final track meriting the skip button. It isn't quite Kanye at his finest, but it just goes to show that we all benefit by his persistent sincerity.
Favorite tracks: Paranoid; RoboCop
19. El Guincho -- Alegranza
Yes, it sounds like it was produced in exactly the same way as an Animal Collective album, but on Alegranza the loop components come almost strictly from the tropical realm (think steel drums and maracas). But it's never exhausting in the way Animal Collective can be, and it's surprisingly danceable throughout.
Favorite tracks: Antillas; Fata Morgana
18. Coldplay -- Viva la Vida
While I've always had a guilty pleasure like of Coldplay's singles, their past albums have been filled with aimless, tiresome songs. On Viva la Vida, they still wear their influences on their sleeves (along with colored ribbons), but the songs are rarely boring and benefit from Brian Eno's light touch.
Favorite tracks: 42; Death and All His Friends
17. Gang Gang Dance -- Saint Dymphna
How to describe this eclectic album? I could say Pure Moods meets Battles, but that really only describes a few tracks on here, and doesn't manage to explain the electronic touches or dancefloor moments. I guess I'll give up and say this is the best compilation album of 2008 by one band.
Favorite tracks: First Communion; House Jam
16. Hercules and Love Affair -- Hercules and Love Affair
Yes, 2008 was the breakout year of new-wave/disco (see also Cut Copy's In Ghost Colours). And it's not even "retro-influenced" anymore -- much of this album sounds straight out of the 70's, with the exception of Antony's voice, which has finally found a comfortable home. It started with the Junior Boys a few years ago, but I've been a sucker for this stuff ever since.
Favorite tracks: Hercules Theme; Blind
15. Why? -- Alopecia
Why? has always been a bit of an acquired taste, but they make it much easier to acquire on Alopecia. I've slowly grown to love Yoni's oddly specific lyrics and unpredictable cadence, as only he could sing "In Berlin I saw two men fuck in a dark corner of a basketball court, just a slight jingle of pocket change pulsing" -- and make it sound so present and real.
Favorite tracks: The Hollows; Exegesis
14. Girl Talk -- Feed the Animals
With each track made up of several layers of mostly radio-friendly samples, each lasting 10-30 seconds, Feed the Animals is annoying on its face. Yet how can you not have fun listening to how Gregg Gillis manages to mix samples from Avril Lavigne, Jay-Z, Aphex Twin, The J. Geils Band, and Rod Stewart all on the same track?
Favorite tracks: What It's All About; Don't Stop
13. The Raconteurs -- Consolers of the Lonely
I decided to purchase this album almost purely because it was released by the Radiohead model -- digitally (initially) and with a short lead time. And I'm glad I did, as it almost sounds like it could be a great classic rock album from the 1970's.
Favorite tracks: Old Enough; The Switch And The Spur
12. Marnie Stern -- This Is It & I Am It & You Are It & So Is That & He Is It & She Is It & It Is It & That Is That
When I first heard Marnie Stern shredding her guitar last year on her first album, In Advance of the Broken Arm, I was overwhelmed. I'm not sure that This Is It... is a better album yet, but this time I was ready for her. I dig her Van Halen-esque guitar style, her sliding screaming voice, and, of course, the Metal.
Favorite tracks: Transformer; Steely
11. School of Seven Bells -- Alpinisms
I guess I shouldn't be surprised that School of Seven Bells, especially the vocals of twins Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, remind me of a more energetic version of the Cocteau Twins, even if the latter band didn't actually have any twins in it. And I think having both twins singing is essential, as Claudia's appearances on several Scott Herren (Prefuse 73; Savath & Savalas) albums were rarely as effective as here.
Favorite tracks: Half Asleep; Sempiternal/Amaranth
10. DJ /rupture -- Uproot
From listening to his Mudd Up! radio show on WFMU, it's obvious that
DJ /rupture is one of the finest music curators out there. On Uproot, he mixes together house, dubstep, dancehall, and assorted international dance tracks together in a seamless beautiful mix that's too meditative to consistently dance to, but for the musically overwhelmed like me, it's a glimpse inside of an unknown urban dance culture.
Favorite tracks: Reef: Baby Kites and Nokea; Capilano Bridge: Jenny Jones
9. Vampire Weekend -- Vampire Weekend
There is no rock band out there who wears their New England/New York privilege on their sleeves like Vampire Weekend. It's all very Wes Anderson-y, brie/wine-chamber-music-y, yet excluding their Afro-pop missteps, I have to hand it to them for putting out such a solid debut album.
Favorite tracks: A-Punk; M79
8. Beck -- Modern Guilt
I've been a consistent Beck fan, but his last two albums have suffered from a glut of lifeless tracks that warrant skipping. Modern Guilt is short, catchy, and to the point, as if Beck was taking advice from Spoon. And songs like "Chemtrails" show a promising new direction, even if already blazed by others.
Favorite tracks: Chemtrails; Modern Guilt
7. Santogold -- Santogold
This album grabs you as soon as you hear it, single after single, to the point where I didn't even mind how overplayed some of the tracks were via television ads. Santogold has the best pop/rock debut album of the year, and I'm looking forward to her followup.
Favorite tracks: L.E.S Artistes; Shove It
6. Lindstrøm -- Where You Go I Go Too
There is nothing new here on its face -- just three slow-building electronica tracks, with influences ranging from Disco to Steve Reich. There are only three tracks on the album, the first one nearly 30 minutes long and all three multi-layered, and while I've returned to this album many times over the year, I can never remember its constituent parts. It's simple to listen to yet too big to keep in your head at once.
Favorite tracks: Where You Go I Go Too; Grand Ideas
5. Portishead -- Third
I came late to a lot of music I enjoy now, but I'm still surprised that I never once listened to an entire Portishead album before Third. What I was most amazed by this album was that the album doesn't sound like anything else, whether contemporary or from their 1990's heydey. And as I've written here before, The Rip is an amazing track.
Favorite tracks: The Rip; Plastic; Magic Doors
4. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy -- Lie Down In The Light
This is some real backporch, toe-tapping American country rock, except with Will Oldham's trademark fragile voice and stripped down instrumentation as opposed to the overproduced cheese that usually comes out of Nashville. It's all summed up for me on "You Remind Me of Something" -- tribal rhythm, finger-picked guitar, male/female duet, hoedown strings, and electric drone.
Favorite tracks: Easy Does It; You Remind Me of Something (The Glory Goes); For Every Field There's a Mole
3. Paavoharju -- Laulu Laakson Kukista
Every time someone mentions this album one of these three things are mentioned: 1) It's by a collective formed by two Finnish born-again Christians; 2) It sounds like shortwave AM radio transmissions; 3) It's creepy. All three are true, but I'm not sure it's possible to describe this album in words. Here's my best effort: It sounds like being transported around Old World Europe in a half-conscious stupor, where every time you come to you see something different: an underground Italian horror cinema, a Nordic goth club, a Roma celebration. Paavoharju has cultivated a reclusive persona similar to early-2000's Boards of Canada, and an album as satisfyingly mysterious as their (completely dissimilar) Geogaddi.
Favorite tracks: Pimeänkarkelo, Italialaisella Laivalla; Kirkonväki
2. Fuck Buttons -- Street Horrrsing
This might be the least accessible album on this list, as most of the tracks consist of a loud tonal buzz and the occasional banshee scream. If you heard a five-second clip, you might think of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, but when sustained over its lengthy tracks the tribal drumming, buried dulcet tones, and cathartic chord progressions wash over you. Probably the most aesthetically beautiful album of 2008, in a year when blissed-out noise was king.
Favorite tracks: Sweet Love For Planet Earth; Okay, Let's Talk About Magic; Colours Move
1. TV on the Radio -- Dear Science
I'm a latecomer to many bands, appreciative but often waiting for their poppier moments. Last year, I finally embraced Animal Collective and this year, after respecting but ultimately finding myself unable to love Return to Cookie Mountain, I've turned to TV on the Radio. This is for me without a doubt the catchiest album of the year (I've listened to "Halfway Home" an uncountable many times), and while the Bowie connection has always been there (even literally as a guest vocal on Cookie Mountain), on Dear Science I can almost believe it's from a Bowie comeback phase, maybe a Lodger 2008, replete with Eno-esque production. Excellent stuff.
Favorite tracks: Halfway Home; Crying; Love Dog
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