Top 20 albums of 2008.
OK, ready? Here we go!
1. Motorpsycho - Little Lucid Moments
I wrote about this album in detail back in August, and it's stuck with me ever since. These four songs stretch out over an hour, but there's no filler here at all. Amazing psychedelic suites of guitar-based power-pop, going from incredible hooks to pyrotechnic guitar solos in minutes, like Superdrag, Dungen, and The Wipers, all at their best, combining into some sort of Swedish-psych Voltron. Best thing I heard this year, by a mile.
Song: "The Alchemyst"
2. R.E.M. - Accelerate
I've said this before, but: at a point in their career when any reasonable person would expect R.E.M. to be a decade past relevance, they produce their best album since "Automatic For The People", and one that has more in common, soundwise, with "Document" or "Green". They've finally realized that it's OK for them to have a drummer even though Bill Berry quit the band, and that helps, but there's more than that going on here. It's like they remembered how fun it is to be in a rock n' roll band. This might just be one last gasp from a player without much left to give (see: Kurt Warner's 2008 season), but even if that's all it is, R.E.M.'s phoenix-like return is nonetheless welcomed.
Song: "I'm Gonna DJ"
3. Polar Bear Club - Sometimes Things Just Disappear
This is what we used to call emo in the late 90s, and it's just as awesome as the records being produced around that time by Texas Is The Reason, Split Lip, Samuel, and all the rest. Loud, powerful guitar riffs, topped by heartfelt vocals singing interesting, nuanced lyrics (pay close attention to the words to "Our Ballads"--they indicate a level of intelligence often absent from music like this in our post-milennial times); driving rhythm section; songs that get stuck in your head for days and, you may find, overcome you with emotion at times when you didn't expect it. This is the kind of stuff I grew up on. Records like this helped me through the tough times when I couldn't sleep at night. It's good to know that there are still bands making them, and making them RIGHT.
Song: "Our Ballads"
4. Jay Reatard - Matador Singles Comp
The first of these singles, "See Saw"/"Screaming Hand", was what unlocked Jay Reatard's previously impenetrable sound for me (as documented earlier this year). The singles that have been released since weren't as shocking to me, and therefore didn't draw my obsession the way that one did, but they're every bit the equal in quality to that first one. Jay's mix of snarling punk energy with an undeniable pop sensibility and the experimental nature of late 70s indie singles is the sound of a talent in full flower. The guy may sound completely different in another year (as he did a year ago), but this document of this period in his artistic evolution is one worth preserving even if you don't care about any of his other work. And you should.
Song: "See Saw"
5. Torche - Meanderthal
I've heard all the disgruntled commentary from the metalheads out there: it's too melodic, it's not heavy enough, they've abandoned their stoner roots, etc. I thought earlier Torche albums were losing a bit of the fire of member ex-bands Floor and Cavity, but "Meanderthal" showed me the error in my perception: those earlier albums were growing pains, a struggle through moments when Torche weren't swimming in the ocean anymore but weren't quite walking on land yet either. On "Meanderthal", they found their feet and created an original hybrid of downtuned stoner-metal and, yes, power-pop. What could possibly be wrong with that?
6. Who Calls So Loud - Who Calls So Loud
I was really into the last two Funeral Diner albums, but for some reason, I took a while to check out the new band featuring half of Funeral Diner's final lineup. I'm glad I eventually got around to it. The keyboard textures of Funeral Diner's "The Underdark" are gone, and there's a bit more of a heavy, punk edge to these songs, but the epic, emotional nature of their music is the same as it ever was. If anything, I'd say "Who Calls So Loud" is a followup to "Funeral Diner Is Dead", leaving the near-gothic stylings of "The Underdark" as more of a stylistic experimentation than evolution. This is fine with me--in hindsight, "Funeral Diner Is Dead" has been the Funeral Diner album that stuck with me the most, and a true followup to that album is very welcome. Some of these songs are longer than anything Funeral Diner ever thought about doing, but if anything, that just makes their emotional environment that much easier to surround oneself with.
Song: "What I Learned In The C.O.U.M."
7. Underoath - Lost In The Sound Of Separation
I wanted to write about this, and got derailed from it by a novel that wouldn't leave me alone. So now let me say the things I was going to say in way fewer words: this album is the closest Underoath have gotten to returning to their metal roots since they originally abandoned them on "The Changing Of Times". Thankfully for someone like me who was always more of a fan of the emo elements of their sound, they've retained the dramatic emotional content. On this album, ostensible lead vocalist Spencer Chamberlain finally does sing a good bit more than drummer/second vocalist Aaron Gillespie, and this change means that a lot of the melodies here are overlaid with screams instead of cleanly sung melodies. I know there are some out there who will find this an uncommercial and unappealing direction to take their music, but it just makes me love Underoath that much more.
Song: "Coming Down Is Calming Down"
8. Algernon Cadwallader - Some Kind Of Cadwallader
It is a surprise to me that I find an album that is so deeply indebted to the work of the Kinsella brothers so appealing. I mean, let's be honest: this is a pastiche of the best moments of Cap'n Jazz, Owls, American Football, and maybe Joan Of Arc at their most accessible. Little in this band's sound can be traced back to any band that didn't feature either Tim or Mike Kinsella, or both, among its membership. But the boys of Algernon Cadwallader write such wonderful, catchy tunes, and their singer does such a great job of capturing that spirit embodied in Tim Kinsella's technically inept but heartfelt and sincere vocals, that I just can't help but enjoy this album anyway. So it sounds like the second LP Cap'n Jazz never made. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Song: "Some Kind Of Cadwallader"
9. Counting Crows - Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings
Like I've said before, this album is the best work from Counting Crows since Adam Duritz got lazy after hitting the highwater mark of "Recovering The Satellites". On it, they found a way to replicate, not once but TWICE, the thing I loved about "Angels Of The Silences" but haven't heard from them since. I'll grant anyone the objection that the second half of the album drags a bit, being weighted down overly much with ballads. The thematic sequencing might not have been the best idea. But if you ignore that fact and just dig on these great, great songs, it's a pretty easy qualm to get past. Let's hope they can make this return to form last.
10. King Khan And The Shrines - The Supreme Genius Of King Khan And The Shrines
I'm kinda cheating here, because this album is more of a greatest-hits comp than anything, making it a not-fully-new release. That's OK, though, because I discovered "What Is" a little bit too late to include it on my 2007 list, so I'm glad King Khan and the Shrines gave me an excuse to mention them now. Songs like "Welfare Bread" and "Land Of The Freak", which were the highlights of "What Is" for me, combine with new-to-me awesomeness like "Torture", "Sweet Tooth", and "Took My Lady To Dinner" to provide what is basically a new album experience. I don't know, I'm not gonna split hairs or worry about details. I want King Khan and the Shrines on my LPs of the year list, and this record gives me the excuse to put them there. By the way, they sound like a cross between Nuggets-style frantic garage rock and Wilson Pickett-style down and dirty soul jams. The best moments of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels aren't far off, but there's something more here. That X-factor is what I love most about this album. Check it out for yourself.
11. Lemuria - Get Better
I've referenced this band in passing, but never really written about them in detail. This will have to do for now. When Lemuria started out, they were pretty much a pop-punk band, but as they've matured, they've grown into a band with tinges of indie-rock and power-pop that eventually came to overshadow their pop-punk foundation. All to the good, if you ask me, and this is a really appropriately titled album, since it documents the fact that Lemuria really have gotten better, even since their excellent splits with Kind Of Like Spitting and The Ergs a year or two ago. There's a punk-rock snarl in the guitars, but singer Sheena's well-sung vocals indicate prominent influences from singers like Juliana Hatfield and Elizabeth Elmore, giving Lemuria a depth not often found in the sometimes overly simplistic world of pop-punk. Let's hope they just keep getting better in future.
12. The Gaslight Anthem - Senor And The Queen EP/The 59 Sound
I'm picking both the EP and the full-length LP they released this year, because I can certainly admit that the LP is better for a number of reasons: more consistent songwriting, more dramatic highlights, sheer volume of music, etc. But as documented earlier, it was "Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis", from "Senor And The Queen" that won me over where this band is concerned. Nothing else I've heard from them since comes close to the love I have for that one song. So, while it's the album's mix of Bruce Springsteen and Against Me that's knocking everyone out, I just can't get past "Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis", even six months later. So let's compromise: I'm nominating them both for the same spot.
Song: "Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis" (duh)
13. Misery Signals - Controller
This didn't blow me away quite as much as their previous album, "Mirrors", but it's close. Misery Signals have found a way to mix brutal, pounding metal with emotional-sounding lead guitar melodies while never removing an ounce of heaviness or fury from their overall sound. The singer does the typical deep metalcore roar, but sets himself apart by being intelligible, unlike so many other metalcore growlers who just seem to be saying "Ruuuuuuuhhh!" over and over again. And the lyrics are excellent, stories of emotional encounters between real people. Imagine that, a metalcore band that sings about things you can relate to in your everyday life, and does so while adding in melodic emotional riffing. And yet, Misery Signals are still every bit as heavy as a cinderblock falling on your head from five stories up. "Controller" refines their sound rather than breaking new ground, as "Mirrors" did, but it's still an impressive accomplishment.
Song: "Set In Motion"
14. Sigur Ros - Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust
Once again, Sigur Ros surprises me. As said earlier in the year, I'm always waiting for these guys to jump the shark. It still hasn't happened. In fact, this album brings in elements we've never heard in Sigur Ros's sound: acoustic guitars, tribal drumming, relatively clear lyrics--in English! Who knew? They're still mostly an ethereal soundscape band, and I guess this album didn't get under my skin quite the same way that their last two have, which is why it's this far down on the list. But I do like it, and maybe in a couple of years I'll finally drown in it to the point where I regret not having put it in the top 5 now. We'll see.
15. Dungen - Dungen 4
Like the Violent Femmes before them, Dungen name an album the wrong number ("Dungen 4" is their fifth, "Violent Femmes 3" was the fourth by that band). Not a big deal, but what is unfortunate about this album is that it isn't quite the psych-pop juggernaut that their last two, "Ta Det Lugnt" and "Tio Bitar", both were. On "Dungen 4", Gustav Ejstes and co. focus more on their jazzy, psyched-out guitar jams than the pop sensibility that created works of genius like "Panda", "Tyst Minut", and "Mon Amour". The storming guitar fireworks (often supplied by outstanding guitarist Reine Fiske) are still here, the psychedelic total-immersion instrumentals just as intricate and interesting as they've always been. But with so few of the outstanding pop moments that drew it all together on previous albums, there's just not as much here to get excited about. Which is not to say that it's a bad or even mediocre album--even when focused primarily on jamming out, Dungen are still an awesome group.
Song: "Mina Damer Och Fasaner"
16. The Mars Volta - The Bedlam In Goliath
The first Mars Volta album, "De-Loused In The Comatorium", was one of my favorites of 2003, and in particular, the song "Roulette Dares" was stuck in my head for that entire summer. I expected them to continue on in the awesome heavy-alt-psych-punk direction they set out on that album, but followup "Frances The Mute" was full of noise and gunk, and really only had two songs I liked on the whole thing. "Amputechture" was an improvement over "Frances", but the songs didn't stick with me and I cooled very quickly on it. "Bedlam In Goliath" is the first Mars Volta album in five years to even approach the potential that "De-Loused In The Comatorium" indicated. Of course, it's still not quite the equal of that album, a level I've long despaired of them reaching again. "Bedlam In Goliath" gives me hope that I might have been wrong about that, and even were I right, at least on this album The Mars Volta have found a way to be a good band again, even if they can't ever make it back to outstanding.
17. Mt. Helium - Faces
When I wrote about The Apex Theory a few months ago, I acknowledged that they'd turned into Mt. Helium, the same band only with the singer gone and the guitarist singing. But at that time, I hadn't heard them. Since then I've tracked down their 2007 EP, "Lightpost", released as The Apex Theory, and this album, under the name Mt. Helium. And hey, as much as I talked in that previous entry about the "Topsy Turvy"-era Apex Theory being awesome, I had no idea. In the half-decade since, they've improved tremendously. Guitarist Art Karamian might be a better singer than their original vocalist, and the entire band has taken a great leap forward in instrumental proficiency and songwriting prowess. All those years in the garage looking for a new label? Perhaps. Whatever, point is, this album is an even better example of prog-inflected pop-metal than was "Topsy Turvy". I know this genre will always be scoffed at by indie snobs, but you guys also know that that sort of shit doesn't cut any ice with me. Listen to the song on the mix. Trust me.
18. Beck - Modern Guilt
Written about this one before. And yes, it's ended up pretty far down the list for an album I really dug when I first heard it. I still like it a lot, think it's pretty brilliant, actually. "Orphans", "Gamma Ray", those are great songs. Beck's songwriting is catchy, and the album mixes and matches a lot of previous musical stylings that he's explored, sometimes throwing them all in at once. Maybe I haven't listened to this one as much as I should have, and maybe its position on this list is proportionately low, but none of that is because this isn't a really good album. This is a really good album.
19. Minisnap - Bounce Around
Starting to run out of steam here, so let's do this quick. This is a side-project of New Zealand's long-running indie rock group The Bats, placing guitarist Kaye Woodward in the primary singer/songwriter role, filling in for absent Bats frontman Robert Scott. Guess what? She's as good a songwriter as he is, with a much prettier voice. These songs are catchy and bouncy, and feature unexpected instrumental highlights, like mandolin and e-bow. If you like the Bats, you better not miss this, but even if you don't, and you just enjoy poppy indie rock, you can't go wrong here.
Song: "New Broom"
20. Guns N' Roses - Chinese Democracy
This album deserves a blog entry of its own, just to beat back against the universal scorn that is heaped upon me whenever I mention in public how much I like this record. OK, it's not QUITE universal--my friend CT agrees that it's good, and I know horror authors Bryan Smith and Brian Keene are fans--but still. Most of my friends can't fucking believe that I enjoy this album. Sorry guys: I do. I really, really do. There are too many ballads here, and the production is way overdone, but honestly, Axl Rose can still write a great song, no matter who is backing him up, how many different studios he needs to record in, or how long he takes to put the whole thing together. "Riad N The Bedouins" has a brilliant melodic chorus that gets stuck in my head all day, "Shackler's Revenge" and the title track are awesome rockers, "Street Of Dreams" is better than "November Rain", and "There Was A Time" might be the best ballad Axl's ever touched. Sure, "Sorry" is kind of lame, and "Prostitute" seems anticlimactic ending the album after "This I Love", but for the 20th-best album of the year to have two unworkable songs out of 14 isn't bad at all, right? Besides, who would have thought Axl Rose could produce even the two-hundredth best album at this point? The guy deserves credit for this record, and I'll give it to him, even if almost none of my friends will.
Song: "Shackler's Revenge"
Finally, we have a bonus track:
Reissue/repackage of the year: Adorable - Footnotes
This album gets credit for resequencing Adorable's two-LP career, tragically cut short by band frustrations with inability to succeed, into one fucking monster of an 18 song CD. Whoever put this package together removed two songs each from "Against Perfection" and "Fake", and at least in the case of "Against Perfection", managed to pick the only two songs on that album that I didn't love. I've never owned "Fake", but considering how amazing the 8 songs from that album that made it to "Footnotes" are, I probably should go ahead and pick it up. I'm so glad that a band I loved when I was 16, who've been almost completely forgotten in the intervening years, were given this kind of fabulous retrospective treatment. It's hard to think of a band more deserving, from that or any era. I just hope this has finally earned them a place in history, rather than just a, um, footnote.
Ok, here is the mix. I'm gonna remove it on January 1, 2009 (or as soon after that as I remember to), so grab it now. Hopefully the RIAA doesn't freak out on me before then.
Good grief am I burnt. And now I only have an hour before I need to be at work, and I still haven't showered or eaten. The things I sacrifice for you people, I swear.