Posts tagged: best of

Best of 2011

By , December 28, 2011 10:00 am

25. Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation

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Trevor Powers’ music makes me feel a lot of things I just can’t put my finger on. When I first heard it, the walls of reverb and slow burning melodies seemed tailor-made to lull me to sleep. Like the best dream-pop records, though, it kept bringing me back, searching for the power in these seemingly nonchalant, mumbled lyrics and those chords that surge upwards, eternally hopeful. It’s more of a feeling than anything I can write down, though, the kind of satisfaction you get from waking up from a really good dream that you just can’t remember the details of. Dream music, that sounds about right.

24. White Denim – D

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If this is what jam bands do nowadays, I need to start growing my mustache out and cultivate a stash of patchouli, because this is the kind of 21st-century music that you air-guitar along to. I don’t know what front man James Petralli is mumbling on about half the time, but that’s hardly the point – when they’re infusing psychedelic rock with prog and jazz and a healthy dose of innovative looping techniques, you’ll be plenty focused on just trying to keep up.

23. Bibio – Mind Bokeh

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A “bokeh” is literally the photographic image of a blur, or any out-of-focus area on an image. For much of Mind Bokeh, Stephen Wilkinson refuses to clarify things. It’s typical of Wilkinson’s career that he can never really seem to stay in one place, yet Mind Bokeh never suffers from a lack of focus. It’s loose and relaxed in an after party sort of way, content to drift along in a haze of summer sounds and washed out sonic photographs that coalesce wonderfully into closer “Saint Christopher.” It’s the track that most symbolizes the aesthetic of the record, continually diverging loops and cracked samples weaving back and forth, seemingly disparate, until Wilkinson ties it all together near the end. Yes, he really does know what he’s doing.

22. Feist – Metals

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Oftentimes when artists feel commercial success is threatening their artistic credibility, they may record a follow-up that often has the simultaneous goal of “getting back to my roots” and “alienating all the posers who liked me because of that iPod commercial.” I’m not entirely convinced that this wasn’t Leslie Feist’s whole goal with Metals, an album that has a bleak, unwelcoming landscape as its cover and no candidates to conveniently slide in next to “1234” at the Starbucks rack. Yet by refusing to kowtow to the single-oriented modern market and soaking all of Metals in a morose sheen of understated production, Feist has turned the spotlight back on what always made her a great artist to begin with: her songwriting.

21. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key

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I may be one of the few people who hasn’t correlated Conor Oberst’s continued growth in the studio with his decline as a songwriter. Just because he prefers an array of electric guitars and an army of multi-tracked studio tricks at his back to an acoustic guitar has never lessened the impact of his words for me, and the hooks –  “Shell Games” might be the best single he’s ever penned. “Ladder Song,” meanwhile, quickly dispelled any fear I might have had of Oberst losing his intimacy.

20. The Kills – Blood Pressures

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The Kills put on one of the most distinctive performances I’d seen all year at Coachella this past April. Stark black-and-white stage lighting, and then Jamie Hince strolls onstage strumming that wicked, chugging riff to “No Wow,” and then Alison Mosshart’s voice, practically dripping with sex, enters stage left. The drums kick in, that riff turns threatening, and Mosshart’s voice leaps out across yards of grass with shit-kicking authority. These two make a hell of a lot of noise, and there’s no subtlety here – “you can fuck like a broken sail,” Mosshart sings with an edge, and that’s all you really need to know about the Kills. It’s primal, red-blooded rock ‘n roll, and it makes you want to sleep with Mosshart except for the fact that now you’re afraid she’s going to rip something necessary off of you.

19. Cults – Cults

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I’m a sucker for twee, and this checks all the boxes off nicely: summer love lyrics, boy-girl harmonies, hooks that don’t quit and don’t overextend their welcome, either. Cults is short and to the point – when I saw the band live, they closed by saying: “This is our last song. We don’t do that encore bullshit. Good night.” It’s debatable whether this occurred due to a genuine dislike of encores or a dearth of material, but regardless it won me over. Encores suck; two-minute pop songs rule.

18. Beirut – The Rip Tide

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The best word I can come up with to describe The Rip Tide is “stately,” which is odd because I’ve always thought as Beirut as sort of a spontaneous project. Yet “A Candle’s Fire” sets out The Rip Tide’s style quite well – horns and martial drums surrounding Zach Condon’s deliberate vocals, with a clear progression and narrative arc. The Rip Tide may be Beirut’s most structured record, but that’s all to its benefit. Giving himself only nine songs to work was a calculated move on Condon’s part, and it works because all nine are tight, focused and arguably the most relatable of any in his career. This is a record that doesn’t need a fancy backstory or foreign tones – just Condon and his ability to weave an interesting tale.

17. The Horrors – Skying

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Ditching the monochromatic cover of Primary Colours for the hazy water landscape on the front of Skying was the best thing the Horrors ever did. I was never a huge fan of their Bauhaus image and My-Bloody-Valentine-meets-Ian-Curtis shtick, but Skying takes all that and adds in a healthy dose of watercolors. The guitar tone on this album is something Kevin Shields would be proud of, but it’s their focus on thick, drug-friendly grooves and a heavy dose of trippy atmospherics that make this a new shoegaze classic.

16. Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital

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Music for the Soviet factory worker in all of us. Dan Boeckner has made some stellar music in Wolf Parade, but Sound Kapital is his most fully realized statement, and the fact that he does it not with his trademark guitar wizardry but with vintage keyboards makes it all the more surprising. The entire record reeks of an Eastern European industrial club scene and the heavy, analog atmosphere of the Communist bloc weighs down on every populist lyric and old school synth tone. It’s a rewarding turn for the punk-minded Boeckner and one that lessens the blow of Wolf Parade’s indefinite hiatus ever so slightly.

15. Mister Heavenly – Out of Love

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Making up a genre and having Michael Cera go on tour with you as a bassist is a surefire way to get people to dismiss your new band, yet I was shocked to find that Mister Heavenly wasn’t just another Nick Thorburn vanity project. Out of Love succeeds because it’s not just Thorburn (who will have released three albums in a year once Islands’ new record drops) and some schmoes. It’s Ryan Kattner’s (Man Man) hoarse howl contrasting perfectly with Thorburn’s nasal whine on back-and-forth exchanges like “I Am A Hologram.” It’s Joe Plummer’s (Modest Mouse, the Shins) rock-solid rhythm work charging out of the gate like a pissed off Spoon on “Bronx Sniper.” Thorburn’s surf riffs and Kattner’s barroom piano chords call to mind music of a different era, but it’s decidedly ambiguous: when Thorburn wails, “so, you think I could ever hurt you, how? / Now, I’m gonna hold you close” on “Harm You,” it’s more Ted Bundy than Brill Building happiness. But the best part about Out of Love is that we might have the makings of an actual band on our hands than a one-off Pitchfork article.

14. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

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It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: Christopher Owens, a genuinely fucked up individual by all accounts, writes some truly terrific pop music. People who dismiss Father, Son, Holy Ghost as a mere pastiche are doing themselves a disservice – Owens is the best young pop classicist in the business right now. What really sets him apart from his peers, though, is his totally guileless enthusiasm. He’s the type of front man who can give out a little yelp as the guitar buzzes back in on “Honey Bunny” and make it sound totally authentic, totally right. Which, incidentally, is how the rest of the record sounds. Combine that sincerity with the kind of ambitious song structures Owens has flawlessly constructed here, and maybe those Brian Wilson comparisons aren’t so far off now.

13. Eisley – The Valley

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Eisley’s third album paints in broad, brash strokes, leaving subtlety weeping somewhere in a Christian coffee house. If the album title didn’t tip you off, stormy first single “Smarter” certainly will. Look at these song titles, ranging from the vindictive to the obvious – “Watch It Die,” “Better Love,” “Ambulance,” “Sad.” So things are a bit dark for the DuPree family, but as it so often works out for artists in the doldrums, it’s we the audience who wins. Eminently accessible and ripe with a melodic confidence that can only come with experience, The Valley tackles real world angst with a hook-centric precision and a weariness that Eisley never could have pulled off on their cutesy earlier work.

12. Swarms – Old Raves End

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Or, how I learned to stop worrying and listen to dubstep that didn’t predicate itself on the filthiest womps. I like that title – those mixed feelings in the hours after a rave, still buzzed and hopelessly content but also on edge after hours of partying, the mind skittering around nervously, and Old Raves End is just the kind of music to ease one after such a night. It’s after party music for those that don’t want the party to end, and in its minimal, bass-heavy tones and slithery electronic gurgling it showed me a new world of dubstep I had previously dismissed. I haven’t properly raved in a while, but Old Raves End still has a place in my heart, that consolation when I get to the end of my rope and just need something to immerse myself in. And unlike those old raves, which became increasingly more repetitive and fake, Swarms only continued to get better, every single time.

11. Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math

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I think Manchester Orchestra made a mistake when they made “Simple Math” the first single. It was too big, too epic, and most importantly, too damn good to overcome. I still slot it behind “I Can Feel A Hot One” as their best, but making “Simple Math” the first taste of Simple Math could only cause the rest of the record to pale in comparison. Releasing “Virgin,” a song that, frankly, tried too hard, as the third single only made the disparity more glaring. Yet Simple Math is still the band’s most focused collection, tightening the screws on their fine tuned mastery of pop hooks and featuring a more fearless, adroit songwriter and vocalist in Andy Hull. He might occasionally get carried away with the group’s growing faculty in the recording studio, but it’s that kind of bold attitude that makes Manchester Orchestra one of the more exciting acts in recent years, not to mention one that would be a welcome boon to dusty rock radio.

10. Givers – In Light

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It’s rare for a band to sound so fully formed on their debut as Givers do on In Light. Keyboards, flutes, saxophones, even ukuleles abound in an indie pop stew defined by the dueling vocals of Taylor Guarisco and Tiffany Lamson. It would be disingenuous to call this world music – Givers is firmly rooted in the pop tradition of contemporaries Vampire Weekend and Local Natives, with the saccharine boy-girl motif of Mates of State thrown in for good measure. But like those bands, there’s a liberal dose of world music sprinkled in; members of the band were active members in Louisiana’s Cajun and zydeco music communities, and listening to In Light is like playing a very entertaining game of Where’s Waldo, Genre Edition. There’s the afro-pop beat on “Meantime” and the island vibe of “Ceiling of Plankton” amidst many other creative pastiches, yet the band still maintain their own identity throughout it all, largely thanks to Lamson’s velvety croon and Guarisco’s more easily agitated yelp. Even if Givers fails to live up to the promise inherent here, I will be perfectly content with just listening to In Light over and over again.

9. The Dear Hunter – The Color Spectrum

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The Color Spectrum is such a ridiculously outsized (and probably unnecessary) achievement, that it’s difficult to analyze it as an album or anything that cohesive, although the gimmick of matching up colors with styles should be applauded, even if some of them don’t always work out. I was never really partial to Black, and Red comes off as a Manchester Orchestra imitation EP, but when Casey Crescenzo really branches out it’s eye opening. The sequence from Yellow to Green to Blue and finally to Indigo, that rollercoaster through indie pop and alt country and folk and the wide open spaces of Blue and Indigo, is an actual aural adventure. I love how Violet sounds like old Dear Hunter except, inexplicably, ten times better, and how White effortlessly summarizes everything with a theatrical flourish. The biggest accomplishment, though, is the final result itself – for a project that seemed doomed to collapse under the weight of its own ambition, that The Color Spectrum is a viable album of the year candidate is nothing short of astonishing.

8. Destroyer – Kaputt

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At a New Pornographers show last year I distinctly remember being taken aback my Dan Bejar. Dude just did not give a fuck. He read his lyrics from a torn notebook page, played with his back to the audience, and generally mumbled about like a drunkard. At one point he laid on his back facing the back of the stage while singing “If You Can’t See My Mirrors.” It’s always been that kind of attitude that’s attracted me to Bejar’s songs – often nonsensical, always interesting – and Kaputt is no different. “Just set the loop and go wild,” Bejar intones at the end of “Savage Night at the Opera,” and that’s what Kaputt is, really. The loop, of course, being a strangely sensuous, definitely deviant version of ‘80s pop and acid jazz with a healthy dose of Kenny G saxophone and a strong undertone of lonely, meaningless sex. The music, for all its flourishes, combines to create a strikingly meditative atmosphere, and that allows one to focus on the feelings Kaputt engenders upon repeated listens, feelings of marginalization and defeat that are as good a touchstone for Bejar and his faithful listeners in the 21st century as any. “New York City just wants to see you naked / and they will,” Bejar sings, and this is his message in a bottle, a warm and welcoming array of vintage sounds hiding a very bitter and desperate soul on the inside.

7. The Jezabels – Prisoner

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The Jezabels came to me out of nowhere, fully formed and ripping my speakers a new one with the gothic organs of “Prisoner” and the resulting cascade of drums. I had never heard their previous EPs and only knew them as “that Australian band with a chick singer,” a description that, while apt, was not particularly informative. It’s so easy to tag on a lazy analogy with the help of the Internet nowadays – “the Jezabels’ adventurous song structures and innovative drumming call to mind the similarly hyped Parades,” or “vocalist Hayley Mary’s powerful pipes and dramatic style resemble a Florence Welch or a Kate Bush with a more tenebrous tone.” Really, though, Prisoner creates its own vibrant universe distinct from genre tags and simple comparisons, and the one-two combo of the dark title track and the more buoyant “Endless Summer” pushes you in and leaves you there enraptured. The Jezabels are an Epic Rock Band, one content to explore melodies for well over five minutes on a regular basis, an attitude consistent with their defiantly DIY ethos. For a self-released record, Prisoner sounds practically flawless, all cavernous reverb, stadium ready drums, fuzzy guitar lines and, of course, Hayley Mary, who oscillates between a pissed-off Tori Amos to a more versatile Dolores O’Riordan and everything in between with the ease of a veteran. There are no gimmicks here, and Prisoner stands on its own as a complete, full-bodied album, a welcome surprise in an era where so many bands can get by on the strength of one unusually brilliant song. Prisoner is not a singular event – this kind of dynamic, consistent effort speaks to meticulous preparation and a painstaking diligence that will get this band far. “Watch it grow,” Mary sings at the close of the album, and damn, that’s going to be such a pleasure in the years to come.

6. The Antlers – Burst Apart

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At this point, everyone knows the story behind Antlers, who finally made it (indie) big in 2009 on the strength of a crushingly intimate record about an emotionally destructive relationship. It’s a narrative that has colored everything they’ve done since then, and nothing has been overshadowed by it more than Burst Apart. Peter Silberman stated in an interview, “you can put [Burst Apart] on and not feel like it had to be a severe emotional experience.” For many, this directly defeated everything that appealed to them about the Antlers. Those people missed out on one of the great records of 2011, a record that finally showcases the talents of the band the Antlers and not just the lyrical prowess (still quite strong, I might add) of Peter Silberman fronting some other guys playing instruments. Where it was Silberman’s wispy falsetto that carried all the emotional weight on Hospice, here it’s the group, exploring a variety of textures and celebrating singledom with major-key chords on opener “I Don’t Want Love.” Maybe Silberman needed to get all of that poison out of him on Hospice to make the best record of his career, because make no mistake – Burst Apart is that record, and a strong harbinger of what’s to come if the Antlers can keep evolving like this.

5. The Dodos – No Color

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No Color is so obviously a reaction to the tepid response to Time To Die that it’s easy to dismiss this record as simply the Dodos remaking Visiter and hoping nobody notices. They got rid of that extraneous third member and the superstar producer and got back to the basics, namely Meric Long’s slithery folk and Logan Kroeber’s walloping drums. But this isn’t Visiter, Redux. The songwriting is noticeably tighter, the pop lessons they learned from Phil Ek having been comfortably merged with the pair’s inherently messy folk style resulting in the most fluid songwriting of the band’s career. When there’s a flourish, like Neko Case’s guest spot on album centerpiece “Don’t Try and Hide It,” it’s seamless and natural, not calling attention to itself but instead highlighting the muscular melody at the heart of the song. Whereas Visiter seemed more like a scattershot compilation, No Color works as a coherent album, one where it would be impossible to sever any one song from another without helplessly ruining the entire concept. It’s difficult for a band to extricate itself from a style as distinct and successful as the one they trademarked on Visiter, and the Dodos don’t even try – instead, they merely set about to perfect their craft.

4. The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient

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“I’ve been ramblin’, I’m just driftin’,” Adam Granduciel sings on “Come To The City,” and that’s just what Slave Ambient invites us to do – sink in and drift along. That cover is more telling than I initially thought, an ECG of color against a cloudy background, a nice little visual of just how the War on Drugs see themselves, an image hazy through all the feedback. 2010’s Future Weather EP was okay, but meandered rather than surged forward, lost in Adam Granduciel’s smoky tenor and half-baked songs. Slave Ambient has no such qualms. “Best Night” roars out of the gate drenched in waves of reverb and the classiest of classic rock riffs, Granduciel doing his best Bob Dylan (surprise! He sounds like Bob Dylan) impression, and from there it’s an unvarnished look back through rock’s heyday as seen through a psychedelic soup. Old tracks like “Brothers” have had a fresh coat of treble fuzz applied and sound better than ever, while new ones like “Your Love Is Calling My Name” rip through the foggy production with Tom Petty-sized riffs and a rock tradition indebted to the American heartland. The guitars here don’t so much punch and kick as they do claw and scratch through the finely crafted layers of noise that drift from track to track. The overriding sensation is of being carried along, with the occasional signpost (Springsteen and Spiritualized come to mind), but mostly just you and the Ginsburg-esque mumblings of Granduciel escorting you through an abstract, stoned treatise of Americana. It’s wonderful to let go.

3. Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials

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The underrated part of Florence Welch’s success is not her set of pipes or her carefully crafted romantic image but rather her unique take on the pop arrangement. “What The Water Gave Me” is unlike any other pop song on the radio today, and frankly I doubt any other artist could pull it off. It’s the perfect mix between the progressive and the mainstream that characterizes the best of Welch’s work, that delicate interplay between oppressive goth and stadium-ready popular vocals, all coalescing into the quintessential Florence and the Machine song. It’s weird yet strangely accessible, name checking Greek mythology and playing up some heavy imagery into a pop single that appeals to the same people who buy Adele tickets and get in line for the latest Twilight movie. In essence, it’s the perfect example of just what makes Florence and the Machine such a unique success. It was so easy to dismiss Lungs as a one-off phenomenon, the perfect storm of that one-of-a-kind voice and that retro Kate Bush/prog feel, all buffeted by the mainstream press generated from “Dog Days Are Over.” Ceremonials, with its thrilling sense of continuity and the remarkable growth of Ms. Welch as a songwriter, forces us to change our perceptions: Florence Welch is the phenomenon, and we should all settle in for the long haul.

2. Wilco – The Whole Love

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Finally, the definitive proof that Jeff Tweedy has just been fucking with us for the past several years. There seemed to be a malaise on post-A Ghost is Born material, one where Nels Cline seemed awkwardly out of place and Tweedy preferred to record easy listening duets with Feist than write anything of substance. That’s thankfully not the case here. Cline feels more a part of the band than ever before, and it’s hard to imagine a song like “Art of Almost” being quite so good without the ragged noise freakout he slices in at the outro. This is a band that isn’t afraid to travel the stylistic map, something that has been largely absent since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and it’s part of what makes this a genuine Wilco album and not a dad-rock imitation that has been the band’s ball and chain the past few years. A trippy Beatles-esque ballad coexists nicely with a full-fledged rocker like “Dawned On Me,” which slides in right before the dusty, vaguely threatening folk of “Black Moon.” Wilco haven’t felt this alive in years – even an ostensible throwaway like the vaudevillian “Capitol City” has a heart and soul to it that’s been absent from a Wilco record in recent years. All this isn’t even mentioning a song that would have made this the best Wilco album in years if every other track had been utter tripe. “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” is the kind of song that most Americana bands will never write over the course of their entire careers – by my count, this is the fourth or fifth masterpiece Wilco have penned, and it might be the best when all is said and done. With just “One Sunday Morning,” Wilco would have had a firm place back in my heart. With The Whole Love, they’ve recaptured their spot at the top of the American rock heap.

1. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

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I think I will look back at 2011 and its defining sound will be that instantly recognizable opening synth riff to “Midnight City.” The way it keeps declaring in bright neon lights that the ‘80s never left, they just percolated in the mind of one Anthony Gonzalez before he unleashed a whole storm of nostalgia and good vibes on us. “Waiting in the car / waiting for the right time,” Gonzalez wails, and obviously that right time is when that sexy saxophone solo lets itself go, without mercy and without any sense of proper decorum. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has never heard of the word irony – this is Gonzalez’s love letter to the music of his youth, and its sincerity and colossal scope are something to be admired. Gonzalez isn’t interested in creating or following a scene, or catering his music to the tastemakers – he’s interested in appealing to your most basic emotions, and not just talking about it – shouting them from the tallest buildings, preferably with a choir of angels and a billion sonic rainbows. Like Dan Bejar this year, he uses the oft-disparaged palette of the ‘80s to do so. Unlike Bejar, who makes me feel like I’ve done too much cocaine in a Miami strip club, Gonzalez is all wide-eyed optimism and spotless nostalgia, the world seen through the eyes of the Breakfast Club. Could any other artist write a song like “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” and sound so damn earnest about it, like he honestly believes that the power of love and an army of sparkling synths will create “the biggest group of friends the world has ever seen / jumping and laughing forever?” That’s why he has a child saying it, of course – even Gonzalez knows that’s pure wishful thinking in 2011. But that’s why I love Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming so much – Gonzalez has made a record where that ideal is a possibility, if only for twenty-two cinematic, immersive tracks. Gonzalez might be a dreamer, but he’s made one out of all of us.

Best of 2008 – #10-1

By , December 30, 2008 12:00 pm

10.

Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs

Atlantic

Released: May 13

When I first reviewed this album, I thought it was disjointed, uneven, and lacking the sort of overall melodic pop sensibilities and good songwriting that Death Cab had been founded on. Undoubtedly, however, Narrow Stairs is a grower for the ages, and one that has only continued to improve with every listen. A record that is certainly challenging for those expecting a retread of Plans, but one that rewards its fans with a collection of Death Cab’s most thoughtful and innovative songs yet.

9.

Okkervil River – The Stand Ins

Jagjaguwar

Released: September 9

The Stand Ins, folk-rockers Okkervil River’s second half of a project that delves deep into the psyche of a performer, is a bipolar tableau of musicians killing themselves slowly on the road for the joy of their fans, celebrating the road and damning it at the same time. You have to give props to lyricist Will Sheff, who includes references from the Kinks to the Angkor Wat in Cambodia to French playwright Antonin Artaud in a single song (and makes it sound entirely normal to boot). Oh, and the music, a potent synthesis of pop-rock and country-influenced, rootsier sounds, is just as good as you would expect from the band.

8.

Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

Sub Pop

Released: June 3

Seattle fivesome take rock back to its roots; and by roots I mean down in the country, woods, and backroads of Americana folk. After My Morning Jacket’s Evil meltdown, it’s reassuring to see a fresh band take up the mantle of good ole-fashioned country rock. Taking more of a pastoral angle than MMJ’s blazing guitar solos, Fleet Foxes is an album that calls to mind more the Appalachian Trail than the Pacific Northwest, complete with church-gathering harmonizing, various wind instruments, and frontman Robin Pecknold’s unearthly howl. Yet another of 2008’s great rookie records.

7.

The Raconteurs – Consolers of the Lonely

Warner Bros.

Released: March 25

Consolers of the Lonely takes the Raconteurs’ power-pop promise shown on their sub par debut and blows it up in every direction imaginable. The title track is a bluesy, pulsating piece of blazing guitar work, while single “Salute Your Solution” is an up tempo rocker with an unrelenting bass line and a solo that would put White’s work with the Stripes to shame. From Americana to rustic country-rock to theatrical Southern-rock operas to good old-fashioned blues, Consolers has something for everyone.

6.

The Roots – Rising Down

Def Jam

Released: April 29

The Roots retain the throne of alternative hip-hop with their eighth studio album, a record that continues this collective’s remarkable run of intelligent and socially conscious rap. ?uestlove’s beats and production as polished and stimulating as ever, but Rising Down modifies their traditional jazzy sound with murkier synths and more digital techniques that embrace a fairly dark mood. It’s appropriate for the often-political and critical lyrics of MC Black Thought, and the album as a whole comes off as a logical evolution in the sound of a band that is constantly growing.

5.

She & Him – Volume One

Merge Records

Released: March 18

Most actresses who turn toward the music realm in order to diversify their image and develop yet another revenue stream usually are predestined for failure (see: Johansson, Scarlett), but indie heartthrob Zooey Deschanel’s first album has gone a long way toward dispelling that notion. She’s not the best singer, and the lyrics occasionally veer towards the simple and sentimental, but her heartfelt vocal approach and M. Ward’s (the Him) excellent backing arrangements and occasional vocal work create a timeless album of ‘60s Brill Building pop and twangy folk that bodes well for future releases.

4.

The Walkmen – You & Me

Gigantic

Released: August 19

Few bands can produce a studio record of such vintage sound and with such vivid feeling as the Walkmen. You & Me is a veritable kaleidoscope of sounds, from the Walkmen’s signature upright piano to swelling brass to the clattering drum work on any number of songs. It’s an album, above all else, that strives to create a genuine mood in the listener for each piece. And singer Hamilton Leithauser is one of a kind; his whiskey-soaked howl is at times affecting and at others grating, but for the most part, it fits in perfectly as another emotive instrument in painting the band’s canvas.

3.

The Dodos – Visiter

French Kiss

Released: March 18

The Dodos do it all on their second album, an hour-long kaleidoscope of psychedelic folk, world music beats, and an constantly-shifting array of melodic ideas and lyrical thoughts that fairly blow one away on first listen. Drummer Meric Long’s training in the West African style of Ewe drumming pays off incredible dividends here, as his hard-driving beats and ridiculous sense of syncopation turns nearly every song into a clinic of talent. Add to that guitarist/vocalist Logan Kroeber’s mellower Ben Gibbard-ish pipes and talented strumming and you have a largely acoustic world-folk record that makes for one of the strangest and most exciting releases of the year.

2.

Everest – Ghost Notes

Vapor Records

Released: May 6

Everest’s debut Ghost Notes is as timeless as the influences it clearly draws from, namely ‘70s-era Neil Young, ‘60s pop, and contemporary guitar-rock bands like My Morning Jacket. Vocalist/guitarist Russell Pollard’s yearning vocals are perfectly suited to the band’s music, and their seemingly effortless playing belies a strict adherence to the tenets of solid melodic songwriting and hooks that latch on and refuse to let go. It’s usually easy to find fault somewhere on a band’s debut release, but Ghost Notes is a nearly flawless indie rock/country/pop record, perhaps a result of the members’ long time spent in other L.A.-area bands. Just as amazing live as it is on record, Ghost Notes is appealing, honest, and, above all, refreshing. Everest has made the debut of the year.

1.

Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst

Merge Records

Released: August 5

Bright Eyes’ frontman and songwriter continues to make his case as our generation’s Bob Dylan with his first “solo” record, an album written and recorded in a scenic Mexican town and featuring country-rock and guitar-driven folk similar to Bright Eyes’ 2007 release Cassadaga. Lyrically Oberst is in top form as usual, singing about cancer-stricken children, road trip adventures, and life in the barrios with the ease of a natural-born poet. Never has Oberst sounded so relaxed and so carefree; while some of the songs are necessarily serious, Conor Oberst is at its core a fun and relentlessly entertaining album. When you hear an unidentified female voice suddenly come in early before the chorus on “Souled Out!!!” and Conor laughs in response before launching into the chorus himself, you can’t help but to smile. A record that deserves the “best of ’08 label.”

Best of 2008 – #20-11

Honorable Mentions

Best Songs of 2008

Best of 2008 – #20-11

By , December 29, 2008 12:00 pm

For an industry that is constantly and prematurely declaring their own demise, the music business in 2008 was looking pretty swell. While you still had your ring tone one-hit wonders like Flo-Rida’s “Low,” (a song made 1000x better in Tropic Thunder), and some more prefabricated pop by the likes of Danity Kane and the Pussycat Dolls, 2008 was a pretty awesome year for music-lovers, and a soothing antidote to the madness of an election year.

Some great things, as always, had to come to an end: legendary guitarist and rock ‘n roll pioneer Bo Diddley died, as did funk founder Isaac Hayes a.k.a. “Shaft,” while bands such as the Long Blondes, Ministry, Junior Senior, and (no!) the Spice Girls called it quits. 2008 also showed that all hope was not lost in the music world: Hootie and the Blowfish disbanded, Scott Weiland continued his band-disrupting ways, Apple’s iTunes finally topped Wal-Mart’s global music sales, and Flea enrolled at USC. Up-and-coming bands like Vampire Weekend, MGMT, and Ra Ra Riot proved that it was possible for groups lacking major label muscle to put themselves out there and let their music speak for themselves, garnering untold numbers of fans through the Internet and becoming blog sensations practically overnight. Old rock standbys like AC/DC, Metallica, the Offspring, and the Verve finally got around to releasing new material, with even Guns ‘N Roses (minus, uh, everyone except Axl Rose) finally releasing their long-awaited Chinese Democracy, a milestone most expected to arrive after actual Chinese democracy.

While a number of bands released music that was above and beyond the standard fare of the mainstream, the below best albums and songs and a few honorable mentions that I couldn’t stand to leave out are those that deserve to be mentioned not only for their artistic merit, but also for their likelihood to withstand the test of time and be looked back on as defining moments in each band’s history, as well as of 2008 in music. So without further ado…

20.

The Hold Steady – Stay Positive

Vagrant

Released: July 15

Hold Steady vocalist Craig Finn says the band’s fourth is about “aging gracefully,” but the righteous racket and vibrant storytelling these bar band rockers serve up seem as suggest that growing up is overrated. Slicker and better produced than their previous albums, it nevertheless retains the Springsteenian classic rock feel of their earlier work and Finn’s lyrics are as sharp and relatable as ever.

19.

Coldplay – Viva La Vida

Capitol

Released: June 17

Chris Martin and company were in danger of treading into soft-rock and piano drudgery on 2005’s X&Y, but Viva La Vida proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Coldplay weren’t content to sit on their laurels for their fourth record. Incorporating world music styles, multi-movement epics, and some of Martin’s best lyrics yet, Viva might be Coldplay’s best album yet, and is certainly their most original and experimental.

18.

The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride

4AD

Released: February 19

Indie troubadour John Darnielle’s continues an amazing streak of folk-rock successes with this, his 16th record. Heretic Pride is a delicately produced work of gentle orchestration, acoustic finger picking, and Darnielle’s consistently insightful and evocative lyrics. His vocals have always taken a bit to get used to, and when he’s feeling particularly distressed they tend to grate, but Heretic Pride is another masterfully arranged work, and Darnielle’s expressive tales continue to elevate him to a level beyond most of his peers.

17.

Taylor Swift – Fearless

Big Machine Records

Released: November 11

My guilty pleasure of 2008, country-pop prodigy Taylor Swift’s sophomore effort is a well-written group of songs that deal with what Swift knows best: teenage heartache and high school life. Nostalgic, romantic, and endlessly catchy, Swift never indulges into (too much) power balladry and the earnest songwriting goes well with the assured, always-in-the-right-place production. Mainstream and commercialized to the extreme, but give her a chance; Swift is a talent that can’t be ignored.

16.

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

Jagjaguwar

Released: February 19

If there was such a thing, singer-songwriter Justin Vernon alias Bon Iver’s debut record would surely win Most Depressing Record of the Year. Almost entirely recorded in an isolated cabin in rural Wisconsin, For Emma, Forever Ago is a cathartic expression of break-up and recovery in the bleakest terms. The minimalist instrumentation, lo-fi recording, and Vernon’s haunting vocals all paint a picture of forlorn grief and regret in the frozen north. Forget rainy-day music; this is music to listen to while snowed in by the biggest blizzard of the year.

15.

T.I. – Paper Trail

Grand Hustle/Atlantic

Released: September 30

Everyone knew house arrest couldn’t stop T.I. Going back to old-fashioned pen and paper to write down lyrics and finishing with around 50 songs for the album, Paper Trail’s 16 final cuts are some of mainstream rap’s best of the year. Hard-hitting beats combine with T.I.’s inimitable vocal dexterity and lyrics that fairly drip with venom to make an album of surefire commercial hits as well as a few that stand up to any cerebral rapper’s catalogue. And, of course, that Numa Numa sampling on “Live Your Life” was true producing genius.

14.

Thrice – The Alchemy Index, Vol. 3 & 4: Air and Earth

Vagrant

Released: April 15

Former hardcore punks Thrice have come a long way from their screamo days, and the promise shown in their early albums comes to full fruition on the second half of their Alchemy Index project, a two-disc magnum opus that takes Thrice out of post-hardcore territory and firmly establishes them as art-rock auteurs. Air is some of Thrice’s most uplifting, musically accomplished work, and vocalist Dustin Kensrue’s voice has never sounded finer. Earth, meanwhile, is an out-of-left-field experiment into acoustic folk that sounds almost like an entirely different band. Both, however, show the best of a band that is progressing well beyond the abilities of many of their peers.

13.

British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?

Rough Trade

Released: February 12

A simple question that British Sea Power answer in a suitably grand twelve tracks and fifty-five minutes. Intensely atmospheric art-rock that sounds more like the work of an orchestra than a band, Do You Like Rock Music? travels from guitar heroics to Britpop to U2-esque anthems to punk rave-ups to oddball instrumental works. The synchrony between the album’s beginning and ending tracks, meanwhile, is simply beautiful.

12.

Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

XL Recordings

Released: January 29

I always try really hard to ignore blogosphere hype that seems way too blown out of proportion, and after hearing the somewhat underwhelming opener “Mansard Roof” I thought I could safely file Vampire Weekend under “over-hyped Internet sensations.” But this is a record that grows on you, and while initially I found it amateur-ish, I can safely say that this is one of the great debuts of the year. Ivy League pedigree be damned; Vampire Weekend is a record that can be enjoyed by anyone with an appreciation for simple, catchy chamber-pop tunes.

11.

M83 – Saturdays=Youth

Mute U.S.

Released: April 15

Anthony Gonzalez, the brainchild behind electronica group M83, has always had a fetish for taking discarded, old sounds and turning them into something new. The group’s shoegaze approach to electronica, soothing sounds built atop waves and waves of sound and layers of production, are twisted into M83’s most accessible outing on Saturdays=Youth, a record that hearkens back to that cultural touchstone everyone wants to forget: the ‘80s! Lyrically focused on teen love and emo angst, the music is a blend of synthtastic new-wave pop and frothy, bubbling techno all buoying Gonzalez’s wispy voice. It would’ve made a hell of a soundtrack to the Breakfast Club.

Top 20 Albums: #10-1

More Best of 2008:

Honorable Mentions

Klap4Music’s Thirty Best Songs of 2008

Best of 2008 – Top 30 Songs

By , December 28, 2008 12:00 pm

It’s a bit tougher to separate and distinguish those songs that truly towered above the rest in 2008, as it’s a hell of a lot easier to find a great song by an otherwise sub par band than it is to find an all-around great album. The below thirty are songs that I felt towered over others on their respective records, even when those records were great, and also some songs that blew up the charts without coming off like everything else on radio nowadays. In order to keep things simple, I limited it to one song per artist. Feel free to comment/post your own lists!

30. Islands – “The Arm” (Arm’s Way)The definition of throwing everything and the kitchen sink into a song.

29. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – “Think I Wanna Die” (Pershing)Perfect power-pop that was criminally overlooked.

28. Taylor Swift – “Love Story” (Fearless)Guilty as charged with the shallow country-pop.

27. Tilly and the Wall – “Alligator Skin” (O)Tap-dancing is awesome. So are boy/girl harmonies. And handclaps. And nonsensical lyrics. And…

26. Kevin Rudolf – “Let It Rock feat. Lil Wayne” (In The City)The pump-up anthem of the year with one of Lil Wayne’s best cameos.

25. Mates of State – “Get Better” (Re-Arrange Us)Married indie-popsters find bliss in gently swelling strings, rollicking drums, multi-layered harmonies, etc.

24. The Helio Sequence – “Lately” (Keep Your Eyes Ahead)Few songs this year have conveyed emotion as perfectly as this one; never has wanting to move on but being unable to sounded so good.

23. Girl Talk – “Still Here” (Feed The Animals)The “Flashing Lights/No Diggity” mix combined with The Band over Yung Joc make for one of Girl Talk’s best tracks ever.

22. Goldfrapp – “A&E” (Seventh Tree) - Forget the dance floor; electronica diva should really spend more time writing incredibly addicting ballads about drug overdoses.

21. Kanye West – “RoboCop” (808s & Heartbreak)A song so good it makes you fully appreciate the lost opportunities of the rest of the record.

20. Death Cab for Cutie – “Bixby Canyon Bridge” (Narrow Stairs)I don’t know why I like this song so much. Maybe it’s Gibbard’s simple, affecting lyrics or the epic, cathartic sonic sludge of the ending. If I had to choose any one point where this song goes from merely cool to ridiculously awesome, it’s 1:39 in when the atmospherics cut off and Death Cab ramps up the thudding guitars and pounding drums.

19. The Dodos – “Jodi” (The Visiter)Six minutes of schizophrenic psych-folk. Yes, their drummer is amazing.

18. Ben Folds – “You Don’t Know Me feat. Regina Spektor” (Way To Normal)Spektor makes any song shine, even when she’s barely used.

17. Okkervil River – “Lost Coastlines” (The Stand Ins)Will Sheff proves that intelligent, insightful lyrics mix well with mindless “la la las” and a full-blown brass part.

16. Britney Spears – “If You Seek Amy” (Circus)Oh, Max Martin, you are so clever! Hopefully the censors will overlook the scandalous play on words to get this slice of delectable electro-pop onto the airwaves and get on with subverting our nation’s youth.

15. M83 – “Graveyard Girl” (Saturdays=Youth)The 80s live again!

14. The Hold Steady – “Sequestered in Memphis” (Stay Positive)A drunken sing-a-long for those one-night stands that go terribly awry.

13. The Duke Spirit – “The Step and the Walk” (Neptune)I first heard this song in an American Eagle store, and it ended up being the best thing I’ve ever gotten from there. The album is uneven at times, but singer Leila Moss is distinctive and the band’s bluesy swagger is very attractive.

12. The Raconteurs – “Salute Your Solution” (Consolers of the Lonely)The frantic verses and the burning twin guitar solos (particularly the air-guitar-worthy second one at 2:08) make this one of the best straight-ahead rock singles of the year.

11. T.I. – “Live Your Life feat. Rihanna” (Paper Trail)Everyone knows the Numa Numa sample and Auto-Tuned Rihanna make this song, but it’s T.I.’s liquid verses that truly elevate it.

10. Delta Spirit – “Trashcan” (Ode To Sunshine)The obvious highlight of a fairly excellent debut record and a song that owes its heart to singer Matthew Vasquez’s inimitable howl.

9. The Walkmen – “The Blue Route” (You & Me)A tough choice from a record filled with great ones, it’s the vintage sound of the instruments and the exceptional drum work, not to mention Hamilton Leithauser’s unique yowl, that make this one for me.

8. The Roots – “Criminal feat. Truck North and Saigon” (Rising Down)The year’s best rap track is a hypnotic jam about the less-than-legal lives many urban youth are forced to accept, all spit out with venom and virtuosity by Black Thought and the excellent guest stars.

7. She & Him – “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” (Volume One)Quirky ‘60s pop made extraordinary by Zooey Deschanel’s charming country-tinged vocals and M. Ward’s classy arrangement: check out the slick guitar solo at 1:05. 3-minute-and-under pop at its best.

6. Everest – “Rebels In The Roses” (Ghost Notes)Everest open up their debut record with this country-rock gem, the perfect blend of singer Russell Pollard’s emotive pipes and a blazing guitar part that stays with you long after the song is over.

5. Vampire Weekend – “Oxford Comma” (Vampire Weekend) - On an album filled with great, short pop songs, “Oxford Comma” stands out with its uncomplicated production, sing-a-long melody, and climactic chorus. A song that, strangely, always makes me want to air-drum.

4. Fleet Foxes – “Ragged Wood” (Fleet Foxes)Most critics prefer the lilting ‘60s folk melody of “White Winter Hymnal” or the galloping beat of “Quiet Houses,” but for me the prize has to go to “Ragged Wood,” a multi-movement masterpiece that begins with a driving drum beat and an anthemic chorus by singer Robin Pecknold before shifting into developing into a delicately fingerpicked acoustic groove and then ending dreamily with a soothing guitar line somewhere atop a forested hill in West Virginia.

3. Conor Oberst – “Souled Out!!!” (Conor Oberst)A song about having too much fun from Conor Oberst? I’m shocked, but the upbeat music and Oberst’s irrepressible joy coupled with the entertaining lyrics make for one of his most enjoyable songs. It sounds as if Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band recorded this in a single take in some tropical beach resort…which isn’t too far from what actually happened. Enjoy yourself more, Conor; it sounds great.

2.MGMT – “Time To Pretend” (Oracular Spectacular)The quintessential rock star song about models and drug habits with a fresh twist of techno-pop and a memorable synth hook. It overshadowed most of the rest of Oracular Spectacular with its lyrical wit and easily digestible melody, and that’s in no way a bad thing: the more people introduced to this band, the better.

1. Estelle – “American Boy feat. Kanye West” (Shine)This is not the deepest song on the list, nor is it the best song from the best album of the year, and it’s hard to say whether it will stand the test of time. Nope, this is pure, well-crafted pop at its catchiest best, a song that bounces from a deceptively simple disco beat to Kanye’s effortlessly spot-on cameo and Estelle’s very British, very sleek vocals. This is one song that deserved its success, the kind of song that restores your faith (however temporarily) in the public’s taste, even if the album paled in comparison. Here’s to cross-continental pop!

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