Women / photo by David Greenwald
Apologies for the tardiness, folks, but with some distance from the — let’s just go ahead and say it — shitty trends that characterized 2008, I feel pretty good about the year. It didn’t offer a lot of new classics to my ears, but it was a fantastic time for indie-folk (excluding Bon Iver: Shitty!) and new artists, or at least those who were fresh to me — I became a Hold Steady and Mountain Goats convert, and the debuts of Fleet Foxes, Women and White Hinterland, among others, have only aged well in recent months. A great year? Nah. (My actual favorite album of 2008: Reckoning by R.E.M.) But worth digging into, after the jump. [Ed. note: Like what you see? It’s Pledge Week — please donate!]
15. She & Him – Volume 1
It should come as no surprise to fans of the movie Elf (which is everybody, right?) that Zooey Deschanel can sing. The real shocker is that she’s a serious pop songwriter, and songs such as “This Is Not A Test” are little slices of vintage joy. Can she make a record with Jon Brion now? (Admission: Her being a stone fox presumably contributes to my enjoyment of this record, yes.)
14. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
Critics are loath to admit their mistakes, and understandably so — if we can screw up, what’s there to trust? But it became abundantly clear that I was wrong on Vampire Weekend’s “toothless” pop — although I’m sure they’re not dentist-recommended. Boat shoes and Upper West Side smiles aside, Vampire Weekend’s best feature is their contagious optimism, a sunny sensibility more California-bred than made in Manhattan. If songs could laugh, “Oxford Comma” would be giggling all the way through its strutting guitar solo. The whole thing recalls the early films of Paul Simon’s old pal, Chevy Chase — funny, and a little sentimental. While the African influence makes itself felt, the spartan songwriting and collegiate angst is purely American — and while Vampire Weekend’s New York isn’t the leather jacketed backstreets walked by the Strokes, in an era of OMFGs and Louis Vuitton Dons, it’s no less authentic.
>> Vampire Weekend – “Oxford Comma”: mp3
13. White Hinterland – Phylactery Factory
Jazzy, playful and willfully ignored last year, White Hinterland’s debut is a bizarre, beautiful blend of Joanna Newsom and the Fiery Furnaces — a pop record, to be sure, but one living firmly down its own rabbit hole. Casey Dienel has an instantly adorable voice, one that flits about with abandon on songs such as “Lindberghs + Metal Birds” and “Dreaming of the Plum Trees.” With a mere 9 songs here, we can only hope Dienel’s factory stays open for business.
>> White Hinterland – “Dreaming of the Plum Trees”: mp3
12. Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins
Okkervil River lost me with The Stage Names, an album that felt simultaneously less ambitious and more pretentious than 2005’s Black Sheep Boy. But The Stand-Ins made the rock references resonate (“Pop Lie”) while going back to the band’s strengths: sad songs and waltzes. “Calling and Not Calling My Ex” — which inexplicably strikes me as being about Jennifer Love Hewitt — is as good as any a tune about an ex-girlfriend, a mature piece on moving on set to an exuberant backbeat. Laughing through the tears is a classic pop trope; on The Stand-Ins, Okkervil has stopped singing about rock history and started learning from it.
11. Chad VanGaalen – Soft Airplane
Just as a human being, Chad VanGaalen remains one of my favorites — the guy animates his own music videos, writes about Philip K. Dick inspired blood machines and sings like Neil Young. But following 2006’s scattered Skelliconnection, Soft Airplane is a surprisingly consistent effort, the aggressive weirdness of “Bare Feet On Wet Grip Tape” and “TMNT Mask” playing nice with his equally surreal folk ballads. Can we give this guy a medal?
>> Chad VanGaalen – “Willow Tree”: mp3
10. The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride
After years of being unable to stand John Darnielle’s voice (me of all people, right?), Heretic Pride was the turning point for me and the Mountain Goats. The album finds Darnielle writing high-wire narratives as heartfelt as anything he’s ever done, colored in by John Vanderslice’s signature production. This album might’ve been a hit in 1997 — if nothing else, it would’ve embarrassed the Counting Crows.
The Mountain Goats – “Sax Rohmer #1”: mp3
9. Taylor Swift – Fearless
I put off writing this list in part because I was hoping I’d find a gem or two after the year was over, as I have in years past — well, hipsters, that gem happened to be by the best-selling singer in America. While the ongoing success of the Black Eyed Peas dims this feeling a bit, it warms my heart to know millions of teenage girls are listening to Fearless right now — to Swift’s startlingly mature lyrics, which paint a album-wide portrait of young love and kissing in the rain, small towns and big dreams; and to her faltering, human voice. If there’s Auto-Tune here, I can’t hear it, but there’s enough magic to make me pick up my guitar and sing along.
8. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – Pershing
The year’s best pop album. With nods to late ’90s emo and early Built To Spill, Pershing is a collection of sprightly guitar-pop that’ll bury deep into your head — and your heart. If I had to pick a favorite among the Boris children, it’d be “HEERS,” a song about fading dreams as tenderly strummed as the Beatles’ “And I Love Her.” SSLYBY love you.
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – “Glue Girls”: mp3
7. Women – Women
I’ve called this record the year’s most vital 30 minutes, and I wasn’t lying — far from the amateur hour “experiments” of the speaker-frying lo-fi scene, Women take a more musical approach to noise-rock. “Black Rice” is as drug-drone heavy as anything emanating from The Smell, but it rises above thanks to vocal earnestness (and ability); elsewhere, “Shaking Hand” is a frantic, cauterizing jam that puts math-rockers to shame. Women sway between song and noise, tempo and ambience, but they’re firmly on the side of greatness.
>> Women – “Black Rice”: mp3
6. Lambchop – OH (Ohio)
Warmer than 2006’s Damaged, the country-inflected OH (Ohio) might quietly be the best record of Kurt Wagner’s long career as Lambchop. Perfect for late nights, early mornings and sunny days in America.
5. Destroyer – Trouble In Dreams
As the end of the decade nears, it’s hard to find an artist who’s been as consistently great as Destroyer — from 2000’s Thief to 2008’s Trouble, perhaps only Ryan Adams (and OK, Animal Collective) has had as good a run, and that’s not counting his stinkers. Destroyer has no stinkers. Trouble In Dreams isn’t the career peak Rubies was, but that album’s newfound grasp of lush production and exuberant songcraft spills out here into some of his most adventurous material, like the stunning eight-minute epic “Shooting Rockets” and proto-shoegazer “My Favorite Year.” With Destroyer, that’s pretty much every year.
>> Destroyer – “Foam Hands”: mp3
4. Leona Naess – Thirteens
Easily the year’s most overlooked record. Leona outdid her ex (and Rawkblog hero) Ryan Adams last year with Thirteens — a moving rumination on life, love and relationships. It is a deeply sensitive record, but a happy one, too, carried by the singer’s vibrant voice and gauzy folk arrangements. This is the record Taylor Swift should dream about making.
>> Leona Naess – “Leave Your Boyfriends”: mp3
3. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
I became a Hold Steady fan shortly before the release of this album and have since seen the band twice; whether it’s their best work is hard to say, but the band’s fourth album is certainly my favorite. The Hold Steady just get it: Like Springsteen and the Replacements before them, they play rock ‘n’ roll anthems brash enough for the bar and smart enough for bedrooms. “Constructive Summer” is the rallying cry — “We’re gonna build something this summer” — but there’s also despair (“Lord, I’m Discouraged,” a song worthy of 1,000,000 lighters), humor (“Sequestered in Memphis”) and a closing epic (“Slapped Actress”). Guitars forever.
2. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
In a pretty tremendous year for folk, no other band made quite as big a splash as Fleet Foxes — a group of a singers led by the not-old-enough-to-drink Robin Pecknold, whose glorious tenor carries the wisdom of the ancients. “Blue Ridge Mountains,” an anthem that could make Crosby, Stills & Nash tear up, is the album’s best track on this fully formed debut album, but Fleet Foxes is richer than a gold mine from end to end.
>> Fleet Foxes – “White Winter Hymnal”: mp3
1. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours
One of the rare albums this year that felt like a start-to-finish album — and the only one that already feels like a classic. With its collision of hipster-ready dance grooves, New Order nostalgia, fuzzed-out guitars and painfully earnest melodies, no other album better represents 2008, but when the songs are this good, In Ghost Colours might just be timeless.
>> Cut Copy – “Unforgettable Season”: mp3
Other favorites from 2008:
16. Brendan Canning – Something For All Of Us
17. Hayden – In Field And Town
18. Laura Marling – Alas, I Cannot Swim
19. Constantines – Kensington Heights
20. Crushed Stars – Gossamer Days
>> “Spies”: mp3
21. Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak
22. The Strugglers – The Latest Rights
>> “Morningside Heights”: mp3
23. Mount Eerie – Dawn
24. Calexico – Carried To Dust
>> “Two Silver Trees”: mp3
25. The Explorer’s Club – Freedom Wind
26. Guy Blackman – Adult Baby
27. British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?
28. Al Green – Lay It Down
29. Herman Dune – 1-2-3 Apple Tree
30. Faded Paper Figures – Dynamo
>> “B-Film”: mp3
More: 2008 Rawky Awards | Best of 2008: Songs of the Year | Lists Archive