As I’ve been scrounging through the musical scraps and successes of 2008 these past few weeks, I’ve kind of modified my initial negative assessment of the year. Given that I had trouble reducing my list to just 10 records (and as such, have a sizeable “honourable mentions” list), 2008 was just as wide a musical ocean as any other year; it just wasn’t nearly as deep. There were a lot of good records, just not many great ones.
As such, this year’s list doesn’t feel nearly as definitive as last year’s, where the sheer volume of great records was near overwhelming. It just feels like a number of solid and semi-memorable releases that made their way through my stereo this year, without any pretense of a long-term shelf life. I honestly can’t say if I’ll be listening to any of these in five years (with the exception of perhaps the record holding my top spot).
Then again, as I start slotting my “Decade List” (yes…I’ve already begun pondering it), I’m surprised by how my assessment of certain records has changed over time. So while 2008 echoes a bit disappointing at first, who knows how the future might view it.
For now, though, this is the year that was.
The following are records that I enjoyed, would recommend with qualifications, but which simply did not merit inclusion in the final list. They are presented in alphabetical order, and reviewed in 10 words or less.
Coldplay – Viva La Vida (I close my eyes and pretend it’s not Coldplay)
Fuck Buttons – Street Horrrsing (Largest “band name to album quality” gap in 2008)
Girl Talk – Feed the Animals (Mash-up king makes party album of the year)
My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges (Sprawling, inconsistent, but charmingly ambitious)
Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst (Better in vibe than in song, but great highlights)
Portishead – Third (Not my style, but too impressive to ignore)
Sigur Ros – Med Su I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endulaust (Loses steam, but superb first half)
Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer (Too disjointed by two, but fleeting moments of brilliance)
10. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
Out of all the “good, but not as good as their last record” bands this year (My Morning Jacket, Sigur Ros, Wolf Parade), the Hold Steady probably fared the best, if only because Stay Positive feels like a continuation of Boys and Girls in America, just without the precise lyrical conceit.
As always, the band knows how to open and close a record – “Constructive Summer” and “Slapped Actress” remain two of the year’s best tracks. In between, the band’s experiments (“Both Crosses,” “One for the Cutters”) don’t fare as well as their bread-and-butter tracks, which is a bit worrisome going forward on future records. But they’re forgiven amongst spectacular songs like “Lord I’m Discouraged” and the title track, which blister with pathos, punk and pop perfection.
Watch: “Stay Positive“
9. The Walkmen – You & Me
I had kind of written off these guys after A Thousand Miles Off disappointed me, so colour me surprised by how much I fell for You & Me. The funny thing is that it largely eschews the rapid-pace rock songs that brought the band to my attention in the first place. In their place are quieter, more contemplative ballads about life and love.
Recipe for disaster? So I thought, but the songcraft is the best the band’s ever brought to the table. The album feels disconnected from any one place, traveling loosely through stories across North America and around the world. Hamilton Leithauser’s throat-breaking vocals are once again the highlight, guiding us through story after story until it all flows together into a surprisingly complete whole.
Watch:“In the New Year”
8. MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
The Internet went nuts for these young New York lads this year, which makes sense: their album is like an indie nerd’s wet dream, alternating between club-ready dance tracks, Pixies-esque alternative rock, Beck-like funk and old-fashioned pop music. It’s their lack of originality that kept me from jumping on the bandwagon, but alas, here they are on my list.
What can I say – the band is just so darn efficient in their song-stealing. I can’t say that it really gells too well together as a record, but songs like “Kids” and “The Handshake” are just too good. It’s the classic case of an album doing next-to-nothing original but emerging out the other side with raves because of just how well they do it. So throw another one on the pile, then.
Watch:“Time to Pretend”
7. R.E.M. – Accelerate
The “comeback” narrative is so overused in popular music these days, but with apologies to Britney (who I don’t care about) and Portishead (who came back from seclusion, not terrible record making), I’m giving R.E.M. the comeback of the year award for Accelerate. As one of my all-time favourite bands I’ve always given them the benefit of the doubt, but for ten years doubt is all they’ve given me in return.
Not anymore. From its first blistering chord until its final one only 34 short minutes later, Accelerate almost never lets up (with the exception of “Until the Day is Done,” undoubtedly the record’s weakest track). In its distortion-filled jangles and raspy, spitless vocals, R.E.M. have once again found their voice: a mesh of discontentment and joy that feels like the most fun they’ve had in years.
6. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
All too often the word “overrated” is used for “a band I hate that everyone else likes,” but I feel like I kind of want to calm its use a bit. So in an attempt for moderateness, I hereby present to you the most overrated album of the year…at number six on my list.
Clearly, I dug Fleet Foxes – the band has an incomparable gift for melody and harmony, as well as for wrapping traditional folk in a more progressive veneer. The record’s highlights, like the glorious “White Winter Hymnal” or the haunting “Your Protector” – roll and ramble effortlessly through the eardrums. But I confess that the record’s modesty holds it back a bit for my tastes. I kind of feel like the reason it’s topping year-end lists at places like Pitchfork and Stereogum is because it’s a record that’s almost impossible to dislike, and therefore ends up somewhere on everyone’s list. It’s just not as high on mine.
Watch:“White Winter Hymnal”
5. The Dears – Missiles
Usually when a megalomaniac frontman fires people from his band, something is lost in the process. Even in evident dictatorships like the Smashing Pumpkins or Weezer, the loss of band members changed the dynamics so much that the quality of their output never really recovered. When I heard the news that The Dears had been reduced to only its two original members, I feared the worst.
Ironically, the stripping down of The Dears to its core produced one of the best albums of the band’s career. I don’t know whether Murray Lightburn just needed to make a record on his own, without a band dynamic, but whatever the case it amounts to the sound of The Dears finding their edge again after a few years in sonic exile. A few cringe-y lyrics don’t wreck the experience (they never have, in the Dears case) of a record that is truly hyper-dramatic, as powerful as it is restrained.
4. The Kills – Midnight Boom
Most of the other records on my list are showing up on other people’s year-end lists around the Internet. This one, somehow, seems to be missing the party, which surprises me. It feels like just the kind of thing that online music nerds would salivate over: raw, authentic rock and roll with a healthy dose of electronic rhythm pushing it along, sung by a smoky-voiced sexpot. Kind of sells itself, doesn’t it?
But for whatever reason, it falls to me to remind everyone how shockingly consistent Midnight Boom is. The band doesn’t rely on its limited aesthetic as a crutch; instead, they build overtop of it a series of impressive songs that could stand on their own without the visual and sonic conceit. Nowhere is this more evident than in the record’s two ballads: the haunting “Black Balloon” and the touching “Goodnight Bad Morning,” which wouldn’t feel out of place on, say, an Iron & Wine record. Beyond the surface, there’s more to The Kills than meets the eye.
Watch:“Last Day of Magic”
3. Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs
Often in rock and roll, comfort is the enemy. Comfort is the word used to describe bands that are resting on their laurels, content with delivering exactly what its audience wants in mass-produced little packages without any sense of danger. Now, no one would ever accuse Death Cab of courting danger (although “I Will Possess Your Heart” is easily the closest they’ve come to that ledge). But Narrow Stairs is undoubtedly a comfort record, where the band’s sense of melody and mild taste for soundscapes mesh easily together.
In this case, though, that’s not a slight; it’s a compliment. After a few records where things felt a bit imbalanced or inconsistent, Death Cab have finally found their footing and delivered the record of their career thus far. It hits on every one of their promises thus far: the jangly melody of “Cath…,” the ace storytelling of “Grapevine Fires,” the waves of sound of opener “Bixby Canyon Bridge.” More significantly, the band’s heart-on-sleeve sentimentalities no longer sound awkwardly post-teenage and self-indulgent. This is a sad record, but it’s undoubtedly an adult one, as coated in dread as it is in despair.
2. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
The year’s greatest victim of indie backlash culture, and to some extend I understand where it’s coming from. I’ve stopped tracking down Vampire Weekend’s live performances because, frankly, I can’t stand to watch them anymore. It’s like they’re offering themselves up in sacrifice to their detractors, performing their songs with a detached playfulness that makes every note sound trite and superficial.
It’s maddening because Vampire Weekend is a bloody fantastic pop record and its songs deserve to be treated as such. For all the sounds that have been co-opted into the indie rock world, Paul Simon really hasn’t gotten his due before now. It’s about time: on their self-titled debut, Vampire Weekend effortlessly melds African beats with reggae hooks, orchestral strings and traditional pop melodies. There’s not a miss in the bunch, and its hooks have barbs that hang them in your eardrums, joyously, for weeksn on end. Screw the backlash, forget the veneer and just let the record work its magic.
1. TV on the Radio – Dear Science
A predictable choice? Perhaps. A safe one? Probably. Deserving? Undoubtedly.
My co-worker Charles was challenging me on this one last week, saying how surprised he was that it was ending up so high on everyone’s year-end list. I must have spent a good five minutes trying to explain it, and I’m not sure I ever came to a satisfactory answer. Part of it is that Dear Science sounds like the record I’ve always wanted TV on the Radio to make, with their taste for pop music in perfect balance with their affection for abstraction and dissonance. In part, it’s that it’s first record the band has made that’s easy to love and not just to appreciate.
But ultimately, I think the answer I come to is that Dear Science feels definitive. Its genre hopping is so extreme that it’s as if the band has no tolerance for the concept of genre in the first place. And yet, it never feels like “hopping” – somehow, the funk songs make perfect sense beside the ballads, which match up perfectly with the punk stylings and alternative soundscapes. Everything feels in its right place beside everything else.
Perhaps that’s why it feels like the right album for this right time: a new inter-racial American president, a destructing economy that needs rebuilt and a new generation trying to find its footing amongst the sentimentalities and sounds of its predecessors. At their finest – and yes, I consider Dear Science the band’s finest album – TV on the Radio sound like everything and yet like nothing else at the same time. And that feels exactly as it should be.