Written by Kevin Renick Monday, 29 December 2008 08:58
1. Arizona | Glowing Bird (Echo Mountain)
How do we do it, exactly? How do music critics go through all those piles of CDs stacked up on the desk, the floor, the bed and, at my place, the coffee table near the TV, and pick out the ones that deserve to be talked about in this crazed annual ritual called "The Best of the Year"? Although it's a fun and challenging exercise, I've always maintained that a true, authoritative list would only be possible if the reviewer had heard every CD released that year. And no one has done that. Not the guys at Rolling Stone, not the Pitchfork Media staff, not even the most seasoned, traveling writers at Paste, Filter, Under the Radar, et al. It simply isn't possible if you're also gonna do that survival stuff, like eating, sleeping, going to work, spending time with loved ones, etc. Would take too bloody long.
So, these "Best of" lists are based on what a writer has actually heard and what moves him/her the most. That makes it more an adventure in personal aesthetics and evolved opining than anything else. It should be a fun, thoughtful and illuminating process, but no reader should think that one writer's or magazine's list is any more definitive than any other. With all that said, once again, I find myself with an embarrassment of riches to choose from in 2008. Although fewer albums blew me away this year than the previous year, more of them were actually equally terrific—and for that reason, I'm not ranking the albums on my list or picking one as the very best of the year. Instead, I've made two lists, the first being my own personal top ten, any one of which I could make a case for as the best or most significant album of the year. I've written a brief summary of these discs, and they're in alphabetical order. The second list is just a straightforward listing of what would constitute my "next best" ten albums. The difference in how I regard these two lists is simply that all those in the first list I can listen to any time, they appeal to me on multiple levels, and I think there is something culturally important about each of them. The discs in the second list are really good, but I'm not as personally attached to them. That's all. So, enjoy reading...and I hope maybe a few of the artists I mentioned will arouse your interest if you aren't familiar with them.
My Top 10 of 2008:
1. Arizona | Glowing Bird (Echo Mountain)
Sometimes an album is just really good from start to finish, and that's enough. This Brooklyn band (no, they're not from the Grand Canyon state) sound like they understand what makes music magical (strong vocals, blissful harmonies, inventive arrangements, instruments played with energy/inspiration, dazzling production), based on absorbing the best of past influences such as The Beatles, The Kinks, Elliot Smith and many more. So, on this second full-length album, they set out to make pop magic -- and to make every sonic detail sparkle. They succeeded, for sure.
2. Atlas Sound | Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (Kranky)
Bradford Cox is the lead singer of Deerhunter, and apparently he has so many ideas, his parent band can't contain them all. Thus, we get this dreamy, texturally rich platter of melancholy electronica, which is about as terrific a nighttime listen as you could want. Titles like "Ghost Story" and "Ready, Set, Glow" sum things up: this is a haunting and beautiful collection of eerie tunes, and it definitely glows in the dark.
3. David Byrne & Brian Eno | Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (s/r)
Two sonic wizards collaborating for the first time since the utterly groundbreaking and influential My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in 1981 results in...what, exactly? How about a surprisingly hopeful, melodic, contemplative set of actual pop songs? "I Feel My Stuff" offers a bit of the sort of dramatic strangeness long-time fans might expect, but the majority of this collection consists of sweet, openly accessible numbers like "My Big Nurse," "Strange Overtones" and "One Fine Day." It's warm, easygoing and friendly...who coulda predicted that?
4. Coldplay | Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (Capitol)
Chris Martin and Co. have endured heaps of abuse in the past couple of years for being too earnest and commercially open-faced, but criminy -- give a band credit for caring. And give 'em credit for wanting to make a more diverse, fresh-sounding album, which they did with Viva by hiring Brian Eno to produce and by serving up insistently catchy songs like "Yes," "Lovers in Japan," "Strawbery Swing" and the classic title track. So what if they often sound like U2 or Radiohead? They've always been a pretty good band, and this album finds them striving to be a really good one.
5. Everthus the Deadbeats | John Kill and the Microscopic Lullaby (Standard Recording Co.)
Gosh, do I love this quirky little platter. How a bunch of sassy, hyper-driven kids from Indiana could come up with such an inspired and original debut, I don't know...but this is truly one of the best first albums I've ever heard. With theatrical, alternating male-female vocals from John Muylle and Lisa Berlin, a sound that draws from the best of '70s art-pop, and effortlessly inventive arrangements, ETD have established themselves as one of the most exciting young bands around. Additionally, the five-song stretch on this record that begins with track 8, "Whudya" and runs through track 12, "Ignatious," is simply the most deliriously rich pop music on any record I heard this year.
6. Sofia Hardig | Dream (Filthy Records)
All hail the new electronica queen! The Swedish sonic auteur had already transitioned from guitar-based rock to a darker, more electronica-driven approach on last year's brilliant The Need to Destroy. On this new album, Hardig takes a commandeering approach to the genre, sculpting coolly dramatic synthesizer parts, edgy mechanized rhythms and her own gripping, vulnerable vocals (which are sometimes distorted) into an unsettling aural experience that's like nothing else out there. Something about Hardig's music seems to serve as a running commentary on how the human heart is increasingly imperiled in an age of technological dependency and depersonalization. She undertakes a lonely journey to the center of that technology, then seems to cry out for holding on fiercely to one's humanity. The results are unsettling, hypnotic and brilliant.
7. Lykke Li | Youth Novels (Atlantic)
The other Swedish artist to knock me out in 2008, Lykke Li has served up a crazily playful, sensual and hyper-melodic suite of songs with this disc. One song after another grabs you with those classic breathy, girlish, upfront vocals couched in eccentric, original arrangements. "I'm Good I'm Gone," "Little Bit," "My Life" and "Everybody But Me" are among the gems, but the best is probably "Breaking It Up," one of my five or six favorite songs of the year, with its huge, catchy, multi-voiced chorus that's impossible to get out of your head once you hear it.
8. She & Him | Volume One (Merge)
Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward are the title duo on this old-fashioned, ‘60s-inspired bit of songcraft. Deschanel wrote most of the songs, and her voice is tender, sweet and beguiling, while her musical partner provides just the right support and tasteful production. There are two unexpected Beatle covers, too. Charming and unpretentious from start to finish.
9. Sian Alice Group | 59:59 (The Social Registry)
Now here's an album that can't really be classified. It's chamber pop, I suppose, but there are elements of classical, ambient, drone rock, ethereal pop and other strands harder to quantify. Sian Ahern is the mesmerizing female voice on many of the tracks, but she uses her voice as one of the many elegant evocative sonic textures that adorn this disc, rather than to achieve any song-based lyrical goal. This is meandering, searching, yearning music that is half instrumental, half vocal, but all dreamlike and majestically beautiful. As a sonic feast, it's possibly my favorite disc of the year.
10. TV on the Radio | Dear Science (Interscope)
Man, are these guys on a roll! They topped a lot of last year's "Best of" lists with Return to Cookie Mountain, and now they're doing it again with Dear Science. This wildly interesting album combines Prince-like vocals, techno-funk rhythms, and some indefinable sort of space soul/prog pop direction that is endlessly fascinating. It takes work to listen to it, but this is music at a high level of artistry, from a band that means sonic business.
Another 10 Classics:
Absentee | Victory Shorts
Beck | Modern Guilt
Bodies of Water | A Certain Feeling
Fleet Foxes | Fleet Foxes
Goldfrapp | Seventh Tree
Hot Chip | Made in the Dark
Bon Iver | For Emma, Forever Ago
Ida Maria | Fortress Round My Heart
R.E.M. | Accelerate
Woven | Designer Codes
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