Top Ten Albums of 2008

This year’s year end list posed a problem that seems to be happening more an more in music writing-dom: with a few exceptions, I just don’t feel like I listened to full albums this year. The singles list (that I hope to write soon) will probably feel more comprehensive and emblematic of 2008 as a result, but that’s how it goes, I suppose.

In a year when two of my favorite bands (The Mountain Goats and the Hold Steady) put out new albums, I am certainly shocked that neither album tops the list, and only one of them cracked the top five.  And a hip hop group I never listened to before 2008 leapt them both?  So it goes with expectations.

Here it is, in particular order!

#10: Deastro, Keeper’s

An 8-bit sneaky dark horse that I’m just getting to know, Deastro fills the “dancey background for walking” niche quite well–well enough that it can made the list.  The second track on the album, “the Shaded Forests,” feels quite 80’s synthpop with its stuttering lyrics and quasi-overly-fake-British enunciation; when the blown-speaker guitar jumps in, it becomes even more endearing.  I want to hear this one in a club, lights blinking, music up, dancing the night to oblivion.

#9: TV on the Radio, Dear Science,

It’s got the “We Didn’t Start the Fire/End of the World as We Know It” track, the Flaming Lips-esque track, a dangling comma in the title, and some of the biggest hype of the year. But more importantly to me, It’s got a kick-ass opening track that I can put on when I need to fucking GET A MOVE ON, and “Stork and Owl” has an indie sparse-click that sounds like this year’s version of The Shins’ “Red Rabbits.”  I don’t know how long this album will stick with me, but it certainly merits mentioning.

#8:  M83, Saturdays = Youth

Can you put an album on a year-end top ten based on the strength of one perfect song and the promise that you hear in the surrounding tracks?  When the song in question is M83’s “graveyard Girl,” you bet you can.  It feels like a sequel to “just Like Honey,” and it pulls out all the tricks of an epic song:  the sorta kid-like background vocals, the curve-ball spoken speech in the middle, the stadium-ready keyboard that brings it back, and most of all, the feeling that nothing matters but this song right now. I can’t wait to hear more and more from this album and this band.

#7:  The Hold Steady, Stay Positive

I feel like the boys ran out of steam with this one, like they’ve gotten so good at dishing up lyrics that they know their audience will like (“Get hammered!”) that they somehow strayed from the dense, moving tales that we are used to from one of America’s best live bands. They did write one fantastic Hold Steady ramble-banger and smartly named the album after it, but so much of this album lacks the storytelling and meticulousness that made their last two albums great.

#6:  Matmos, Supreme Balloon

Admittedly, I’ve got this on here to fill the token “weird-ass electronic noise thingie” slot.  On Supreme Balloon, Matmos gets playful with their bleeps and whirs, creating wisdom through repetition and layers like any good experimental, dancey, electronic music will, all the while filling up your head with their version of a 2008 Yellow Submarine soundtrack.

#5:  Dr. Dog, Fate

Dr. Dog plays music that excites me in the way a good, straight up porter does–you’ve had porter before, but the differences in this one are what make it great. The brew they pour is the kind of classic-rock tinged full bandstravganza that makes you wonder why so many bands are duos or trios as we close out the aughts. “The Rabbit, the Bat & The Reindeer” anchors the album, ambulating forward with the simple message that “man you ain’t like anybody else,” while asking “Are you my curse/are you my friend?” The song is the sound of a band taking every great rock trick that they know and combining them into greatness.

#4:  The Mountain Goats, Heretic Pride

“I am coming home to you–with my own blood in my mouth,” the Mountain Goats’ lead singer, John Darnielle, fires off in the first chorus of the opening track.  “I am coming home to you–if it’s the last thing that I do!” and once again, Darnielle explores the muck between threats and love, making anyone who will listen have to decide if they can tolerate–or at least take a stab at unpacking–the violence therein.  God, unfit relationships, longing–these are the ingredients in any soup Darnielle stirs, and they are all here, again, and it’s tasty.  And then there’s the title track–wow the title track–one of the best songs all year, full of fire and a martyr and, yes, misguided pride–I wonder if Darnielle knew how much that would feel like 2008?

#3:  Plants and Animals, Parc Avenue

The story behind this album made me check it out originally–this is a band that made an album the old way, taking two plus years and a 24-track to create their masterpiece. It turns out that it also has two of the most perfect moments in song from the year.  The first comes a particularly quiet moment of “Good Friend” when, out of nowhere, we are admonished that “it takes a good friend ot say ‘you got your head up your ass.'”It’s a hilarious line delivered with the utmost importance. The other perfect moment comes during the next track, “Faerie Dance,” a track that sprals and meanders as a sort of microcosm of the album as a whole.  Just when you are jamming along to a particularly banging, noisy breakdown, everything drops out, comes back piece by piece, and you get smacked by an amazing drumbeat that ties the song together while it takes you to another world entirely.  Bands wait an entire career for this kind of moment, and this year, it belongs to Plants and Animals.

#2: Atmosphere, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold

This is an album that’s angry, and it’s hard, and it give me the chills every time I focus on it, every time I really listen to Atmosphere’s stories of good intentions that never really pan out.  And it begs for close listening–you have to listen in the same way that you have to examine the car wreck you pass, or keep reading that awful breakup note over and over again . “Dreamer,” one of the album’s best, talks about the choices a single mom needs to make as she decides to “do what you need to do to cope.”  “Go ahead and hate the world girl, you earned the right,” Atmosphere’s omniscient narrator yells during another especially powerful stretch. This is not background music–it’s a singular event, a meditation on life you have to center your mind on, and that makes it hard to take sometimes.  It’ s also one of the best albums of the year.  You won’t listen to it constantly, but you’ll always respect its ability to draw you in.

#1:  Vampire Weekend, s/t

It doesn’t feel real to write about this album, now, because there seemingly has never been a time when I couldn’t walk over to the record player, start this record, hear, “I see a Mansard Roof through the trees!” and make home feel happier, more upbeat, and, somehow, in love. Most of the album still feels so fresh–though I have almost reached saturation with “A-Punk”–and the future just looks up and up with these boys. Any album that owns my consciousness this much cannot be anything but number one.

I am sure that, had I listened to thejm more, the albums by Of Montreal, Mercury Rev, The Airborne Toxic Event, and many others could have made the list.  But then, what stopped me from listening to those more?  Hope you liked the list–I’d love to hear any arguments in the comments (adnd I’ll try to post sample tracks soon).

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