Monday, December 1, 2008

Matty B's Top Ten Albums of 2008

10. Okkervil River- "The Stand Ins"
After 2007s "The Stage Names", I was just about done with Okkervil River. It's not that The Stage Names wasn't a good record, I just felt at the time that it wasn't a worthy follow up to what I thought was an absolutely brilliant record- 2005s "Black Sheep Boy". Stage Names felt far too jangly and more over a decisively pop record as compared to the grandiose cinematic aura of Black Sheep Boy. Stand Ins is supposedly a companion piece to The Stage Names however I find it both to be a superior record and at the same time the songs here seem to exhibit a nice balance between the pop songs of Stage Names & the abstract grandeur of Black Sheep Boy. Divided by 3 instrumental movements "The Stand Ins 1, 2 & 3", the albums 2nd track "Lost Coastlines" has a nice dramatic build with dueling vocals between lead singer Will Scheff & Shearwater singer Jonathan Meiburg & sets up the rest of the record with a real sense of purpose. The jangly pop songs are here still however these come off very naturally & don't seem the least bit forced. To me the real secret of this album lies in the more dramatic & slowed down tracks- "Blue Tulip" & "Bruce Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of The Chelsea Hotel, 1979". Bruce especially is a beautiful broad reaching build that explodes into an incredible symphonic finale for this record. Bonus with this record is the guest versions of the songs that popped up on various blog sites featuring the likes of AC Newman, Bon Iver & others doing covers of the songs on the record.

9. Crystal Castles- Crystal Castles
I've long been a major proponent of the theory that the way music sounds is more often than not a directly and hugely impacted by it's physical environment. From classical music that mimics the sounds of nature to hard rock taking on the loud pipes& raucous tones of the city. The artists environment is an ever-present source of tonal inspiration.
For Crystal Castles, this environment was video games....lots & lots of video games....
8-bit-Nintendo-esque-dance-core is about the best description I can give of this band. Named for the classic Atari game, Crystal Castles are by now among the most well known band in a movement of "8-bit artists" that's starting to really gain traction. (ironically CC's notoriety is in part due to a controversy within the 8-bit community accusing them of lifting other 8-bit-ers tracks...I remain skeptical of any significant wrongdoing....and's a pretty great record no matter where it came from...). 
Where the Castles really break apart from other 8-bit inspired artists lies in 2 areas.  To start, where many of the other 8-bit artists tend to cut off into awkward tangents,  the tracks here are incredibly danceable--designed to be cranked up & not just a sample showcase....real dance songs here.  The second level of success here is the very successful intertwining of the uber familiar electronic bleeps & bloops of 80s Nintendo juxtaposed with the sometimes manic, howling intensity of lead singer Alice Glass, whose unhinged vocals alone would be nothing short of disturbing if there wasn't the ole-factory uber-familiarity of the video-game samples pulling you back to the subconscious memory being a kid playing nintendo & sega in your parents basement.  This album is a pure electro-feast....  highlights are the body-moving "Crimewave", hugely intense "Love & Caring"  and my favorite track...right out of the Dungeon levels in Zelda "Courtship Dating". Very cool record controversy or no....

8. Margot & the Nuclear So & So's- Animal
Margot & The Nuclear So & So's is an Indianapolis symphonic-indie collective revolving around lead singer/songwriter Richard Edwards. For their major label debut, Margot came out with 2 releases with some overlapping tracks... "Not Animal"- the formal release & "Animal" which came out on vinyl, download & promotional copy only. The rumor being that "Animal" was the release the band wanted to put out & "Not Animal" was the release that the record label wanted to put out. Regardless of who wanted what where, without putting both on the list, I'm inclined to recommend "Animal" for my list as I think it might be just a hare better than "Not Animal".
The record boasts some just amazing pop songs & though at first Edwards' vocals come off a little too clean & produced, this is off-set by some incredibly dark lyrics & themes paired with really soaring, symphonic instrumentation that at times is deceptively sparse only to crescendo in high drama with vast sonic landscapes featuring strings, horns & any multitude instrumentation. The topsy turvy ups and downs of many of the songs here are really compelling & carry with them some of that genuine wide-eyed intensity that made early death cab for cutie so endearing (which unfortunately is all too absent these days from that band). By a longshot, the standout track on the record is the final track "Tall as Cliffs" which starts out with just a very light suite of horn, handclap, acoustic guitar & Edward's vocals. The track builds into something really incredible & the lyrics & verse here are just so relatable & have a real sense of raw teenage melancholy...(in a good way) which eventually lifts the song up to a really triumphant anthem backed by this strangely engaging undertone of a toy piano being played for the last few bars of the song. "Tall as Cliffs" might be worth it alone. Check out the brilliant "W" themed video below....

7. Cut Copy- In Ghost Colours
Aussie trio Cut Copy put out an exceptional record this year with "In Ghost Colours" that even though it borrows heavily from 80s synth pop (and even some elements of disco), it would be a mistake to label them as solely originated from those genres. While many of the songs here sound like they could have come right off a Pet Shop Boys, New Order or Human League record, there's something really triumphant in these songs that goes beyond just embracing this pseudo-retro mentality & crosses more into the territory inhabited by bands like Radiohead & Pink Floyd. While every single one of these songs sounds like the pulse pounding soundtrack to the last New Year's Eve Party on earth or something it goes beyond what the lions share of their electro-pop peers have done (such as the incredibly disappointing "Ghostland Observatory's-Robotique Majestique") the base-line for Cut Copy rests one foot in 80s dance music & the other very firmly in the more ambitious territory of a Radiohead or Floyd. I think that's the real success of this band.... while they may have adopted a specific space that takes on the initial impression of what the band is about, there's this whole other level that commands in-depth & repeat listenings of the record. Specifically tracks like "Hearts On Fire" exercises this duality in brilliant form where even though it's clearly a song that could find a safe home in any club, there's this dark, unresolved underpinning that emerges & reemerges throughout the course of the song. Other standouts include "So Haunted" & the hugely triumphant "Lights & Music"

6. Blitzen Trapper- Furr
Few records got as many repeat listens from me this year as "Blitzen Trapper- Furr". One look at the horrid album cover for this one paired with admittedly cheesy band name might be enough to make the uninformed listener turn the other way....but what's the saying about books & covers?
Blitzen Trapper's Furr expands nicely on the bands previous release "Wild Mountain Nation" for a well crafted dose of easy-organic rock, southern fried guitars & Neil Young/Byrds/Dylan-esque songwriting with a distinct sense of originality that doesn't tread on any of the aforementioned inspirational sources.
While lyrical quirkiness abounds this record (ex. songs featuring "moonwalking cowboys, god fearing psychos & breakdancing wizards"), it somehow works naturally here & whereas other bands might not be able to get away with, there's a certain sense to it that makes it all seem incredibly classic. (sort of in the same way Grateful Dead lyrics work....why do they work? idea dude...).
The element that is entirely new here for the band (& pulled off very successfully) are a number of what might be construed as folk ballads & shuffles on the record like "Black River Killer", "Not Your Lover", "Stolen Shoes & a Rifle" and the title track "Furr" which pulls together some pretty amazing imagery which is a stirring metaphorical journey relating the narrator to a member of a pack of wolves.

While Grateful Dead averse listeners might not appreciate some of the more Dead-esque moments on this record, I think it's pretty hard to deny that Blitzen Trappers promise & potential makes this a band that looks likely to put out reliably great releases for a long time to come.

5. Lykke Li- Youth Novels
At just 21, Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li came out with just a brilliant record this year in "Youth Novels". The album kicks off with the spoken word piece "Melodies & Desires", which outside of the context of what turns out to be an amazingly endearing record could have turned out to be a real misstep, save for the fact that it tees up an album full of sweetly playful pop gems that are just innocent & quirky enough to have it make good sense here.
Lykkes paper thin voice has this sort of graceful & haunting quality to it that though never remotely overpowering, is clearly the centerpiece as she weaves the lead in and out of harmonies sounding sometimes spritely & occasionally even evoking the likes of Nico.
It's funny how appealing non-native english-speakers can get away with lyrics that a native speaker would never get away with. In Lykke's case, this is exemplified on both tracks "Complaint Department" & "Breaking it Up"which would under any other guise come off as contrived & awkward. Lykke makes them charming....but then's really tough to not be charmed by Lykke Li....that's kinda what the whole thing is about.
Overall Youth Novels front to back is an incredibly listenable record that takes some daring chances & achieves beautifully without ever once looking contrived. Standout tracks for me are "Dance Dance Dance" "I'm good, I'm gone" & "My". At 21, to me it seems like Lykke Li is poised to gain a level of popularity reserved for very few in the indie world & deservedly so.

4. Frightened Rabbit- Midnight Organ Fight
The tortured vocals & at times pained, labored pacing of Scotland's Frightened Rabbit might come off as a little tough to pull through at times however on the band's latest record "Midnight Organ Fight", that's just what makes the band so exciting & interesting to listen to.
Aligning to it's namesake, the band brings a certain level of nervousness & uneasiness to each song here but roots itself in these distinctly Scottish dirges that unfold as these brilliant little requiems that reveal themselves to be far stronger & confident that we initially perceive them to be.
With lyrics & themes that border on darkly morbid, however there's power here that extends beyond that. Although it's easy to put on in the background, it's far from rainy day music & Midnight Organ Fight is the kind of record that if you let it, pounds you into the ground & just within moments of giving up on life, it lifts you up just high enough to see meaning & then of course resumes with the desperation, pain & yearning. It's this sort of building up & destroying it all that kind of makes this a great record.

I really love the songs "Heads Roll Off", "Modern Leper" & "Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms" & "Keep Yourself Warm" has garnered a lot of attention for it's provocative/disturbing lyrics, however I'm really drawn to the somewhat epic yet all too short track towards the end of the record "Backwards Walk" that ends abruptly & unsettlingly so.....but then again, that's what it's all about.

3. Fleet Foxes- Fleet Foxes
When they first emerged this year, Fleet Foxes garnered loads of comparisons to My Morning Jacket. I even heard one critic that was unhappy with MMJs most recent offering "Evil Urges" suggest that Fleet Foxes had made the record that My Morning Jacket should have made. While I see the comparison to My Morning Jacket, I think the level of depth, variety and sheer vision that Fleet Foxes have delivered with their first full length is done no justice when you try to make those kinds of comparisons.
The real story here are the dizzying vocal harmonies & the lush landscapes whereto created. The level of discipline that must have been exercised to create this record is awe inspiring. With stunningly powerful songs that seem to draw inspiration from the unlikely sources of medieval & baroque influences, Fleet Foxes create a truly beautiful, organic & original work that injects an incredible level of intensity with the sparsest of elements. These are afterall seemingly songs of travel & adventure that while at times frightened & stressful, it's all about the uplifting beauty of the journey through life. The fullness & beauty of this record comes a little bit at time until you've listened to it 2 dozen times without realizing how effortless it is to truly appreciate this brilliant work of art.
Tracks here like Blue Ridge Mountains, Ragged Wood & White Winter Hymal might be standout tracks here however this ones a classic, front to back.

2. Girl Talk- Feed The Animals
Hundreds of samples (many you don't even notice), no legal permission, fair use gone wild.... all in rapid succession at a breakneck pace....oh & did we mention he's letting people pay whatever they want & selling thousands of tickets everywhere he goes for the most raucous & insane live show you've ever seen.... this guy is the RIAA's worst nightmare....and it's pretty damn awesome...
Girl Talk (aka "not a dj" DJ Gregg Gillis) has put out one of the most audacious & mind bogglingly brilliant records of the year. Rapid-fire transitions & mashups of Sinead O'Connor, Lil Wayne, Metallica, O'l Dirty Bastard to Kraftwerk that revels in the raunchiest of the raunchy lyrics while juxtaposing them against the inexplicably familiar hits from anywhere & everywhere....and shockingly no lawsuits (although anybody that would want to sue this guy would have to be insane).
But what is it that makes this a great record? I do have to admit, when I first heard his last record "Night Ripper", I felt like it fell into the perils that many so called "Mash Up Djs" tend to give into in which it felt more like a series of amusing jokes that gave you that "hey remember that!?" feeling but did nothing to advance beyond that.... "Feed The Animals" is nothing of the sort.... racing at a dizzying pace, "Feed the Animals" is undoubtedly a complete work that brilliantly creates a sonic narrative that unlike it's predecessor is in every way shape & form a fully connected & formulated piece.
Running a larger gamut of emotions than imaginable while seamlessly fusing the sample equation here, Gillis' artistic voice shows through loud and clear as if he was gremlin in the machine pulling & pushing every imaginable lever & button and there's a staggering sense of meaning here inside of this overtly brazen celebration of everything that basically shatters the conventions of just what original music is......

oh and did i mention it's a fucking party?

1. Bon Iver- For Emma, Forever Ago
For a moment I considered including this Bon Iver's "For Emma, Forever Ago" as an honorable mention on this year's list because I was handed a leaked copy of it literally at the time I was making my 2007 list (and should have hypothetically put it on that list then).....then I came to my senses....
Bon Iver's "For Emma, Forever Ago" is compelling to me in every way. From this captivating story of Justin Vernon's (AKA Bon Iver) soul searching retreat into his fathers cabin in the cold Wisconsin winter to the sheer beauty on this record....If I really sit down & think about this year's albums, I don't have to think too hard to realize that at least in my mind "For Emma" was indisputably my favorite record of the year.
Recorded in ultra-lo-fi methods & with very little outside help, there's a sadness, timelessness & feeling of redemption that exists on this record that is incredibly rare. Vernon beautifully captures the solitude & quiet calm of this deep retreat away from life & emerges with the sounds of these ghostly harmonies & a spirit of triumph over pain. Though the themes here appear to be deeply personal, there's something that is incredibly universal in the sentiment. These thick haunting layer upon layer of vocal harmonies & patient, impactful (mostly acoustic) instrumentation paired with this omnipresent genuineness Vernon displays makes this record feel like you're hearing the heartfelt, painful confessions of a close friend or family member.
There's much to be said about capturing a moment in time. If you can do that through art, then you've achieved something really special. Justin Vernon has absolutely captured a moment in time with Bon Iver "For Emma, Forever Ago" and he's done it with incredible grace & beauty. There's already conjecture as to whether his next record will live up to "For Emma" and I think that's a fair question, because how often in life do we find that perfect moment? On the other hand if you really take a deep look at what "For Emma, Forever Ago" is really about, I think you'll find that that's not the point. This isn't are record about being locked in the solitude of a snowbound cabin in Wisconsin or loss or anything like that...this is a record about life, love & survival that was captured in a perfect moment. Maybe that perfect moment has passed, maybe the moment didn't have anything to do with it at all.

thanks for reading.

Honorable Mentions

Cool Kids-Bake Sale Old School Hip Hop....uber talented MCs, playful rhymes....way good.

Deerhunter-Microcastle Oh man...i already regret not finding a way to squeeze this into the top ten.....probably just need to give it more time. dreamy indie rock from the previously too abstract for me indie buzzers

Why?-Alopecia Sly, sardonic & ironic. Not really hip-hop, not really rock...very cool listen I recommend the track "The Hollows"

School of Seven Bells-Alpinisms Just got this but really liking it (can't quite bump anything for it though...) dreamy electro-charged pop....

thanks for checking out my list! Looking forward to seeing yours!


Daniel said...

Nice list. A few names I'll be checking out.

I love the Crystal Castles album as well. In interviews they have said they are named after the castle in She-Ra. This info is on their myspace page as well. They have also said they never played videogames, they hate videogames, they break them apart and modify the soundchips to create new sounds. Lastly, the controversial sample they took was only used in a track the guy made years before meeting the girl. The track was not on the album and was made 4 or 5 years before the album. Here's his Pitchfork interview regarding the sample:

Top Ten Albums said...

thanks for the comment daniel. i've read the Crystal Castles- "we don't play videogames & named the band after the castle in she-ra" and although i guess possible i think a little more plausible that the band is being sort of coy & evasive about the whole (because come on....really?)

although the pitchfork explanation did shed some light on stuff. these kinds of things tend to get a little out of hand in terms of people piling on.

ghostsuz said...

Cut Copy's release is fantastic. It's the perfect music for a spontaneous dance party.

Top Ten Albums said...

I'm with ______, the guy who says the Fleet Foxes are overrated.... but I am an idiot for not putting Bon Iver on mine... great record.

So 07 was The National...06 was Bright Eyes.... 05???

Dave Rudey