Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Satin in a Coffin's Top Ten Albums of 2008

As usual, there were plenty of albums of note released in the calendar year. This was a particularly hard list to narrow down, and I am exhausted, so let's get right to it! At the end, you can find my full list of the Top 25 Albums of 2008.

For now, however, here is the cream of the crop, in my humble, humble opinion.

The Top Ten Albums of 2008:

Life and love and loss for college-aged hipsters is about as interesting as it sounds. Categorically speaking, Vampire Weekend were probably the well-dressed, girlfriend stealing know-it-alls that you wanted to punch in the head during college, anyway. Or…that could just be me. Nevertheless, their self-titled debut balances their preppy, Chamber Pop basics with some truly organic tones rarely found outside of some sort of South African Afro-beat collection. But these sounds are delicate, too; both completely accessible, and about as raw as polo shirts and English literature courses can get. If not for the breezy way about this pitch-perfect little album, one could get caught up in the intricacies of its inception. Instead, you come away struck by how unassuming it truly is, and how it just won’t get the fuck out of your head.

With all the disco hubris that they could muster (while still conveying a pretty damned affable personality), Andy Butler inc. introduced themselves to us this year, and their inexperience was evident to no one. Crippling little club stompers and markedly disparate heartbreakers clash and cavort, telling a story of electronica and pop that doesn’t cater to either genre with any sense of pomp or entitlement. Hercules and Love Affair earns its disco moniker with finesse and vibrancy. You even forget about the DFA rep behind it all (kind of ), and take it for what it is: a happy little convergence of times wasted and times well spent while…shaking your ass. A better dance record has not been made in years.

In 2008, while overcoming some brief and mostly ill-conceived M.I.A. comparisons, Santogold emerged as a sharp yet inviting voice in her own bouncy and subtly bold way with her self-titled debut. It’s just as much Pop as it is Dance; just as safe as it is provocative. Her allure lies not only in her unique sex appeal, or her howling vocals, or the complexity of talent found amongst her many collaborators; it’s her splendid confidence charming you through honesty and a damn fine delivery. There is much good yet to come from this one.

As far as unfiltered hip-hop goes, it really doesn’t get much better than this. The Roots have spent the latter half of their career expertly living up to their own reputation amidst illogical cries of sellout. Rising Down incorporates all the elements that have made them compelling in the past, but refines them with a finely tuned cynicism under the low hum of sonic synth muffles and ?uestlove’s bass beating, controlled ruckus. It is this raw clarity (with all the rage but none of the anger of empty rhetoric) that ups the ante from words to motion; from flippant to focused.

Like the bearded members of some Midwest commune singing songs as fables around busted pick-up trucks and rusty lawn chairs, the Fleet Foxes found a way for the folk-inspired dreaminess of their self-titled debut LP to take off and fly without even really trying. Dimly lit ballads, and fantastical images of old time Americana backs the dulcet acoustic tones and ghostly vocals like a dream not yet woken up from. And when the structural signatures border on run of the mill or matter of fact, they then give way to something more simultaneously grand and natural then would ever be expected. An exceptional exercise in mood and aesthetic, Fleet Foxes is an effortless and wonderful journey.

Craig Finn’s aim has never been to be an aging rocker, but a learned one. Well-versed (literally) in the ways of getting hammered and forgetting the larger picture, he and The Hold Steady use albums like Stay Positive to come back full-circle to the point. Because drinking atop water towers is always the START of a good summer, but rarely the finish. Stay Positive pounds its classic rock aping with hardcore riffs and up-tempo flourishes--not to mention some existential malaise thrown in for good measure. Remember that unified scene? Yeah, that’s kind of the point.

The second LP from L.A. DIY duo No Age sets out (much like its predecessor) to find places full of layered sound and sampled texture through a vessel of pure, would-be punk, noise core. It’s the kind of loaded list of aspirations that bloggers drool over, because we get to use a lot of pseudo-hip jargon while discussing them. However, Nouns makes it a point to go beyond the shock and awe of actually having context for its ripping, and unfolds a sometimes hypnotic, sometimes shred-heavy, sometimes overly naked story of power-chord genocide that puts to shame every other loosely labeled rock record in 2008.

With a viciously engaging faux-funk palate and a confidence that seems other worldly, it’s hard not to turn some heads. Silver tongued lashings and Afro sporting is just the surface; there is a swirling mêlée of anger and bitterness amongst all the Neo-Soul cascades--not to mention those fleeting little morsels of hope and realism down at the core. New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) is eloquent and elegant, but also totally fucked up and carefully calculated as a far more soaring war cry than this siren has ever let loose before.

Like a letter fashioned to those nothing-gods of everywhere, TV on the Radio’s third album proper looks for answers without questions, and finds doors that lead to windows. Scaling back the unhinged dramatics of Return To Cookie Mountain--leaving behind about half the charming pomp--Dear Science brings a big bad sound that can be just as limitless as it wants to be without losing its focal point. It’s this all too earnest meandering through genre trickery and carefully drawn out musings that surpasses its own heaps of disenfranchisement and languishes in good will for its October surprise. A digitized, funk-based, post-punk laden, indie-pop opus that provides an already lauded band with their first true masterpiece.

Reconciling the equally boastful and self-loathing portions of an emotional identity crisis, Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak takes a hell of a year for West and puts it in under the fractured light of deconstructed techno and auto-tune indulgence. It would have been so easy for this to get away from him, as Emo-Rap is hardly a thing of the now, but West's production is strikingly minimalist at the right tempo, and sharp as knives at the perfect moments. It is a hell of a thing when an egomaniac is forced to look at himself through the clarity of shattered moments and cold winters. The untimely and tragic death of his mother, as well as a nasty break-up with his fiance' sets the scene but doesn't really tell the story. 808s is purposely universal, even when it is pointed. There is control and vision here that West has seldom demonstrated in such abundance, and it makes for the most memorable and resonant album of 2008.

*****Top 25 Albums of 2008 (Full List)

01. Kanye West, 808s & Heartbreak
02. TV on the Radio, Dear Science
03. Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
04. No Age, Nouns
05. The Hold Steady, Stay Positive
06. Fleet Foxes (self-titled)
07. The Roots, Rising Down
08. Santogold (self-titled)
09. Hercules and Love Affair (self-titled)
10. Vampire Weekend (self-titled)
11. Gang Gang Dance, Saint Dymphna
12. Fucked Up, The Chemistry of Common Life
13. The Mountain Goats, Heretic Pride
14. Deerhunter, Microcastle
15. Drive-By Truckers, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
16. Q-Tip, The Renaissance
17. Atlas Sound, Let the Blind...
18. Jay Reatard, Singles 06-08
19. Health, Health//Disco
20. Crystal Castles (self-titled)
21. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals
22. Titus Andronicus, The Airing of Grievances
23. Times New Viking, Rip It Off
24. French Kicks, Swimming
25. Marnie Stern, This Is It…