Top 10 Albums of 2008

Number 10.  –  Black Ice – AC/DC

Sometimes it’s unnecessary for a band to change their music because their identity & style is so recognized that would ruin their legacy if they choose to play a different type of music. This is one of those albums that there is not really anything to say about. It’s an AC/DC album, unless you are either deaf or have been living on another planet for the last thirty five years, you know exactly what its going to be like.  AC/DC have been doing what they do for something like thirty years, yet so many music fans still see them as a footnote, or a flash in the pan, sure that at any moment they will self destruct. There’s no progression to their music, no rocking ballads, no sweet backup singers to subtly sway the masses.  If anything has changed, it’s the vocals of Brian Johnson who sounds down right menacing as he comes across ever louder than ever before, hitting notes I thought not possible for his range, singing like he’s part of some tent revival, and he’s only got fifty five minutes to bring you the word.  I’m not sure that these boys know the meaning of adulthood, and that makes me smile.  There was once a group called The Beach Boys, who seemed destined to go on forever as young men.  Sadly they didn’t, finding more pleasures in the trappings of age and infighting than anything else … but AC/DC [?], they’ll still be sweating it out … for those about to rock.

Number 9.  –  One Day As A Lion – One Day As A Lion

It’s a shamed that Audioslave could never hold the candle or the edge that Rage Against The Machine, however One Day As A Lion has that appeal we miss in the 1990s. It’s not just Zack’s hardcore vocals, it’s the familiar songwriting that has level of balls that never changed since Battle for Los Angeles. This self titled EP is very reminiscent of Rage Against the Machine. Essentially the key instruments used to make this EP possible are the drums and the keyboard. Although there are no longer any actual instruments played besides the drums and keyboard, this project still brings the feeling of a live recorded band. The lyrics and vocals of Zach De La Rocha have not changed a bit over the time between the Rage Against the Machine era and now. He still speaks on the various issues that plague our society, government, and economy. In their direct words they describe their music as “a defiant affirmation of the possibilities that exist in the space between kick and snare. It’s a sonic reflection of the visceral tension between a picturesque, fabricated, cultural landscape and the brutal socioeconomic realities it attempts to mask.”  The single off the EP, “Wild International”, suggests the horrors of war, specifically the war on terrorism. Those who are hardcore Rage Against the Machine fans should definitely pick this one up as soon as possible. One can only hope for the same satisfaction from their full length album, although I highly doubt that they will disappoint. Ultimately, I envision One Day as a Lion becoming one of the futures greatest artists to ever hit the charts.

Number 8.  –  Third – Portishead

Portishead’s pair of albums from the 90s are mind-slamming 5 star all-time favorites for me, music that has rattled my brain down to the smallest neuron.  I had no idea what to expect going into this third album made about a decade since the last one, but I knew it would be worth paying my fullest attention, with a proper listening position relative to my speakers.  At heart, Third is an album full of contradictions.  It’s obviously indebted to the ’60s, but it still sounds futuristic; it could easily be the work of an entirely different band, yet it still sounds like Portishead; it’s home to both their heaviest and most fragile songs yet.  The biggest and best contradiction, though, is that by experimenting Portishead are actually playing it safe.  Everybody knows how easy it would have been to offer up the album everybody was expecting, so were this to be a failure, the band would at least be commended for trying something different.  It’s a good job, then, that the songs are so brilliant.  “Silence”, “Hunter”, “Nylon Smile”, “The Rip”, “We Carry On”, “Machine Gun”, and “Magic Doors” are all more than worthy of sitting next to “Glory Box” and “Sour Times” in a back catalogue that suddenly looks very, very strong.

Number 7.  –  Microcastle – Deerhunter

Musically, Deerhunter meld together some disparate influences, from Brian Eno’s art-rock to the doo-wop of the Fifties to the post-shoegazing American indie rock coming out of places like Washington D.C in the early Nineties – but they make it truly their own.  It may be easy to say that Microcastle merely capitalizes on the accessibility and immediacy of something like, say, “Strange Lights”, from Cryptograms, but there’s much, much more going on on this record.  And there’s where sequencing comes again:  the middle and final third of the record diverge from the “Strange Lights” pattern, and that’s part of the success:  though those early pop tracks like “Agoraphobia” ease you in, it’s that they change direction one-third of the way in that makes this album awesome.  The middle third – songs like “Calvary Scars” – delves into a more polished version of the bedroom ambient Bradford Cox made in his early days as Atlas Sound; the later third gets big and noisy again, channeling that part of the early Nineties when Sonic Youth jumped ship to DGC and got them to sign Nirvana.

Number 6.  –  The Chemistry of Common Life – Fucked Up

After hidden world i was really ready for anything. I waited in anticipation for it’s release and of course downloaded it early(like an impatient ingrate). I really gave this the fairest listen while spending a good four hour session writing. I fully enjoy everyone of their releases because each album really conveys a different meaning to me. Epics gives off just pure aggression and tales of lashing out in a world of constant litany and defeat. For a genre that has been declared dead more times than hip-hop, hardcore has certainly found a lot of ways to circumvent its supposed limitations.  Their choruses, while massive, are not hooky enough for radio play, and their compositions are not twisted enough to fall under the post-hardcore label. What’s more, Fucked Up chooses to eschew the usual buzzsaw attack of hardcore guitars, instead layering their guitars until they resemble the impressionist swirling of early 90’s shoegaze.  While this combination certainly makes for an interesting listen, the concept is often better than the hooks.  Fortunately for Fucked Up, their concept just so happens to be one of the most intoxicating ones found on any release in 2008.

Number 5.  –  Symphonic Homicide –
Do It With Malice

It’s not everyday that you come across a rock band that defines its sound as “two guitar players, a Cuban, a carney, and an I.T. technician,” but Do It With Malice is not an average rock band. The group performed an incredible set at the Mohawk Place recently, proving that ska, jazz, punk rock, reggae and metal can blend together perfectly if done correctly. Symphonic Homicide is well-constructed and unique listen. The band includes a variety of sounds in throughout the album. The album features a large horn section (trumpet, trombone, and baritone, tenor, and alto saxophone all play at one point or another), though now the band only has a multi-talented wind player I believe. The use of the horns is of consistent quality but not overwhelming; often the horn lines back the choruses or bridges without stealing the attention from the crafty vocals. The main melodies are well-developed and show a significant amount of thought has gone into them. “Malicious Intent” starts the album and is purely instrumental and one of the clearest examples of how the horns work on different levels with various polyrhythms and harmonies. “Paranoid,” “Symphonic Homicide,” and “That Guy” feature exceptionally unique phrasing by the horns. Some creative use of horns on the album also include double tracking of the same saxophone, and the use of more horns than the band was physically able to play at one time. I would recommend this album to anybody and nearly have only positive comments for it. Some of the tones take a getting used to, but once overcome, you will find yourself listening to a quality album

Number 4.  –  For Emma, Forever Ago –
Bon Iver

This album is gorgeous. Justin Vernon deals with pure heartbreak and puts all of his emotion into an underground indie folk album that became an instant classic. This is the perfect album to listen to during the winter when you’re feeling alone. This isn’t a gimmick like a lot of “emotional” records today. It’s very conscious and I feel like Vernon was looking for an answer to why something like his break up was meant to happen but it goes beyond that. All of his questions wouldn’t matter anymore by the time he realized that life goes on and you can tell he feels that way from the group’s bigger-sounding second album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver. This album isn’t intense but it has an immense amount of emotion. It’s relatable when you have a big break up and think that’s why I love it so much. It’s difficult to put into words how you feel about the world after a moment in your life like that. He had the voice, the soul, and the musical ability so why not make an album like this one? I know isolation, and I know I know it because I’m not proud of knowing it. There’s no dread, no silent and terrifying feeling of empty space and total futility seeping in. For Emma isn’t a bleak album, because bleakness implies more conflict than this guy’s capable of giving. It’s just a sad record, sort of, like a continuous moan – albeit a well-produced one (I like that swooping electric in “For Emma”). To be fair, the music does occasionally move, which is more than can be said about Elliott Smith, Iron & Wine, or Will Oldham. But at the end of the day, these guys all belong in the same camp: vaguely competent self-pity. Boring music for boring people who haven’t spent enough time with Pink Moon and equate getting out of bed at noon with the civil rights movement.

Number 3.  –  Vampire Weekend –
Vampire Weekend

This has got to be some of the best debut albums of the 2000s because right from the get go, this band knew their style which lead them world-wide popularity. Nowadays, hipsters bashes this album because they feel as if Vampire Weekend should have stayed under the radar instead of having mainstream success — who are they to make that judgement? Love ’em or hate ’em – and at this point those are the only two positions I can understand – Vampire Weekend has done something pretty extraordinary here.  They’ve stuck with a purely pop medium and came up with a full album of material that never really tires itself.  Enough variation to keep you interested, but all of it enormously catchy and kind of familiar.  There are a few songs here that hint at ska influences, which is interesting.  The target audience for Vampire Weekend is probably young or young-ish (say 15-25 years old), an audience that just missed the tail end of mainstream ska acts like Sublime or Goldfinger.  And then the playful classical hook of “M79” is tough to miss as well.  I suppose there are a few neat influences that pop up every now and then, but make no mistake, this is entirely a pop release and one that will have a lot of influence on up-and-coming acts, not necessarily for the better either.  This seems so simply attractive to me that the backlash against it has me scratching my head.  I suspect that this distain, for the most part, has little to do with the music itself, which is understandable but unfortunate if that’s the case.  Listening to Vampire Weekend is just too easy and casual. This is the case where simplicity is a positive thing and it’s one of the reason why this debut album has garnered so much hype.

Number 2.  –  Saturdays = Youth – M83

M83 are the band I’ve been looking for, they do what they do absolutely perfectly. Synth pop that’s combined with a palette of other genres, influences, styles and it comes together perfectly. Anthonly Gonzalez is the brains behind the band and he creates something fantastic truly fantastic. I love them because they’re a band that borrow heavily from the 1980s, but unlike a lot of synth pop from the 1980s, it sounds fresh and interesting. It sounds so reminiscent, without being dated or trite and it sounds like something that’ll never really date. It isn’t hampered by its aesthetic or the quality of the recording at all, and the songwriting is just incredible. THE best 80’s tribute album in a long, long, LONG time. It feels retro, but it never gets old. The album passes the feeling it wants to pass: carefree youth, with happiness and sadness. Dream pop + Shoegaze + Synth sounds very good. M83’s “Saturdays = Youth” sounds definitely good in some moments. It’s nice when it sounds ethereal and relaxed on “You, Appearing” and “Skin of the Night” but also shines when it gets to its more “synth-pop happy” phase (“Graveyard Girl” and especially “Kim & Jessie”). All the tracks have a similar vibe but it’s not a repetitious album by any means.  It’s moving and catchy.  There’s an audible thread that binds all the music together here that’s difficult to describe.   They also did a decent job with the pressing .  I think some of the midrange levels could’ve used a little boost, but overall the sound is dynamic and textural. This album was a wonderful surprise. I always associated the band with instrumental electronic music before. This album is like a throwback to my favorite postpunk/dream pop bands from the ’80s – irresistible. It puts me in mind of bands like the Comsat Angels and Cocteau Twins. Maybe a bit of Slowdive as well. Overall very good sense of melody, very good indie pop.

Number 1.  –  Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes are one of the greatest emerging bands from the 2000s for a long time. Their self-entitled album is also one of the best debut albums I have ever heard. This album is very different from anything else as well as this band is too, and is it is a new sound that is emotionally beautiful that should be loved and popular someday everywhere in the world. It’s difficult to make comparisons for Fleet Foxes, given the unique vocal talents of the group, but I certainly can see the Beach Boys or Cosby, Stills, & Nash comparisons that people often draw. And that’s not a bad thing; Fleet Foxes are excellent vocalists that make great use of the different textures of musical instruments. I find that each song is really a composition rather than just a tune. Fleet Foxes can be loved by everyone. Your dad, your grandma, your dog. Fleet Foxes ubiquitous sound is a combination of classic rock, 50’s vocal harmonies, classic country, modern folk, and a dash of pop. “Sun It Rises” begins with a folky harmony as an opener. By the end of the song Robin Pecknold is enveloped by ethereal voices as a guitar softly plucks. It’s a moving moment and it happens all within the first song. The mood is broken by “White Winter Hymnal” with its mysterious lyrics and steady guitars. There is just such a variance between the songs that Fleet Foxes traverses with the skill of a band 10 times their age. Every song sounds like its own serious moment; it’s hard to describe but the album doesn’t feel like an album. Few artists strive to make derivative music.  It makes sense that music done before need not be continually reproduced.  A refrain similar to that can be heard many places over on RYM but in the case of the Foxes, that rule doesn’t really apply.  Many reviewers say that this band relies too much on the voices of other bands, but I don’t really see it.  I find the music to be both original & powerful enough. There are short and occasional moments in the Fleet Foxes’ self-titled album that feel as if they are the very embodiment of perfection – the climax of Heard Them Stirring, or parts of the melancholic Blue Ridge Mountains. ‘Fleet Foxes’ is a rare album that utilizes harmony effectively so that every song feels like a part of a cohesive and rewarding whole. Some songs do seem flat and unchanging, and Robin Pecknold’s voice does conflict too greatly with the music, possibly due to mixing, as heard in Tiger Mountain Peasant Song. But no matter what, it is an album that deserves to be heard – if you give it your undivided attention. ‘Fleet Foxes’ is an album that has clearly been meticulously crafted with great attention to detail. Within the songs lie so many short harmonies and brief segments within that it is a rewarding album to explore.

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