The Top Ten Albums of 2008

Welcome to 2008’s edition of the top albums list. As usual, these are what I consider to be the ten best albums this year. If you have differing opinions, cool! Post them in the comments. This is always an exercise in wrapping up the year we’ve shared in music together, and you’re an important part. I’ve already posted this list as a note on Facebook, but I wanted to have it here as well. I added YouTube links for each song for the top 10, so you get some bonus content if you’re reading this for a second time.

A few words in general before we start: Sophomore slump? Ha! 2008 was the year of great follow-ups. Only one of the albums on this year’s list is a debut (and it’s a pretty good one!). It’s like after getting schooled by Yeasayer in 2007 and Gnarls Barkley, Matisyahu, and Big City Rock in 2006, some more established acts decided to bring out the big guns. After review, I’m glad they did!

Before we start, here’s a quick explanation of the categories:

  • The Top Ten Albums of 2008. This should be self-explanatory.
  • Notable Omissions. These albums were in the conversation, but didn’t quite make it into the top ten list. If this were a longer list, they would follow the top ten in some order.
  • Honorable Mention. Not Top Ten quality, but these are albums that I enjoyed over the past year anyway.
  • Disappointments. I was expecting a lot this year. I got it, but not from these discs.
  • “I guess I don’t get it.” There are a lot of bands that I just don’t “get.” They may not be bad, but I don’t really understand why people have gone ga-ga over them.
  • The Jury is Still Out. I need to give these albums a more critical listen before making a final decision on them. At least one or two of these will probably have crawled up into the top ten a year from now.

With that, heeere we goooo…

10. Beck – Modern Guilt
Last year, Beck captured one of the Most Disappointing awards for his record, “The Information.” It had a couple of good songs, but it has some huge issues for a Beck album: The production seemed sloppy. It was too long. The faux hip-hop thing was tenuous at best. Overall, it seemed half-hearted. So for the follow-up, he hired Danger Mouse to turn everything on its head. The duo gets the best out of the 10 songs on the record; “Modern Guilt” oozes with Danger Mouse’s trademark 60s pop sensibilities while still maintaining Beck’s signature weirdness and emotional obscurity. This iteration of Beck’s ever-shifting persona is one of his best.
DOWNLOAD: “Gamma Ray,” “Youthless,” “Profanity Prayers

9. M83 – Saturdays = Youth
Anthony Gonzalez’s most recent album as M83 is his love letter to 1980s synthpop. He has had solid albums before (especially 2005’s “Before the Dawn Heals Us”), but no effort has been this consistent from beginning to end. It seems as if Gonzalez was so inspired by the “kids of the 1980s” theme that he took some cues from Duran Duran and Tears for Fears. Although “Saturdays=Youth” is poppier and perhaps more accessible than M83’s earlier efforts, Gonzalez has held onto the swelling synthesizers and pumping drumbeats that make M83 special. With this increased focus on pop song structure, M83 has crafted an album that Molly Ringwald would love.
DOWNLOAD: “Kim & Jessie,” “Graveyard Girl

8. Sigur Ros – Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust
I have to admit, I resisted Sigur Ros for a long time. “They’re too boring,” I kept saying. But when “Takk” came out, I started to understand what music fans loved about Sigur Ros. Songs like “Glosoli” and “Hoppipolla” were triumphant enough to catch my fancy. Just as I was finally coming around to the old ‘slowly build to a mini-crescendo’ thing and learning to appreciate each miniscule noise, the Icelandic crew took a 90 degree turn. With “Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust,” Sigur Ros has put out their peppiest, most accessible songs yet, while still keeping the intimacy that made their earlier albums great.
DOWNLOAD: “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur,” “Festival,” “Goobledigook

7. Coldplay – Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends
With “X&Y,” it seemed like Coldplay was getting stuck in a little bit of a rut. A little piano riff here, some atmospheric guitars there, have Chris Martin sing some falsetto and call it good. It worked, too; they were arguably the biggest band in the world. On “Viva la Vida,” however, they switched up the formula and began to deserve that title. Martin’s exploring the lower registers of his voice, while the rest of the band is finally exploring melodies that don’t sound like carbon copies of “Clocks.”
DOWNLOAD: “Lovers in Japan / Reign of Love,” “42,” “Violet Hill

6. Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst
Over the years, Oberst has made a pretty good career for himself as the frontman and brains behind Bright Eyes. So when he moved down to Mexico for a few months to write songs with a new group called the Mystic Valley Band, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Fortunately, his songwriting hasn’t suffered – if anything, laying in a hammock for hours every day has allowed him to be a little looser with the lyrics and more relaxed with his instrumentation. While he does build up to his trademark howl on a few songs (most notably the Arlo Guthrie-influenced stomper, “I Don’t Want to Die (In The Hospital”), Oberst sounds self-assured and nonplussed for most of the album, rather than shrieking as if a nauseated cat is trying to escape from his vintage t-shirt.
DOWNLOAD: “I Don’t Want to Die (In The Hospital),” “Sausalito

5. PANIC! at the Disco – Pretty. Odd.
Rejoice! Panic no longer sounds like a Fall Out Boy cover band. I like Fall Out Boy, but we don’t need more than one of them. Somebody in Panic must have listened to The Beatles quite a bit just after recording “A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out.” While I don’t think the Panic crew has John, Paul, George and Ringo’s gift of innovation, most of these songs would fit in just fine on a Beatles compilation (except, of course, that Brendon Urie and Ryan Ross have better voices than Lennon and McCartney). It seems like a different song from this album gets stuck in my head each week, and the subject matter is a welcome change to Alice in Wonderland-esque imagery from their previous album’s literary pretentiousness. It’s a little long, but that doesn’t seem like too much of a drawback when you start the album and just can’t… stop… listening. And then, when it’s over, pushing ‘play’ again.
DOWNLOAD: “Northern Downpour,” “Mad as Rabbits,” “That Green Gentleman (Things Have Changed)

4. Jamie Lidell – Jim
As far as I’m concerned, Motown will never go out of style. The birthplace of crossover R&B and soul music holds a unique place in music history, and has had a lasting influence upon the scene. Jamie Lidell seems to hold a similar place in his heart for the record label that brought us Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Jackson 5. On his newest record, Lidell puts on full display the soulful sounds that would fit right into those 1960s and 70s Motown lineups. He gives us the full range, too – from barn-burning dance tunes to smoky nightclub ballads.
DOWNLOAD: “Little Bit of Feel Good,” “Another Day,” “All I Wanna Do

3. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
The only debut album on this list amazingly lives up to its considerable hype. Jangly guitars and semi-ironic lyrics are not a new combination, but Vampire Weekend puts their Ivy league spin on the formula with a genuinely fresh sound. Listening to this album makes me want to wear sunglasses and sip from a cup with one of those little umbrellas in it by the poolside. Plus, the spontaneity of their rise to fame is still a fun story, and seems to come out in some of the more loosely-composed songs on this disc.
DOWNLOAD: “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” “I Stand Corrected,” “Oxford Comma” (that last one isn’t radio-friendly – such a great song, though!)

2. Girl Talk – Feed the Animals
If Gregg Gillis wanted to name his newest album after a cliche movie line, it would have been called, “That Idea’s So Crazy, It Just Might Work!” instead of “Feed the Animals.” I admire Gillis’ work for a lot of reasons, but I think that one of the biggest reasons is that he wants to revolutionize the way the music industry works. In an increasingly single-driven business (thanks iTunes), Gillis has created a new album that must be listened to in its entirety – as an album. And he does it by cutting up more than 300 other songs and pasting them together in tiny, seemingly incongruous segments. This album should be the definitive argument for legitimizing mash-ups as a genre; just wait until you hear “Come On, Eileen” paired up with Bubba Sparxxx. Put it on and just try not to dance – I dare you.
DOWNLOAD: The whole album, right here. Pay what you want.

1. Annuals – Such Fun
When I saw them live just after the release of 2006’s “Be He Me,” I was quick to anoint Annuals as the Next Big Thing. The collective looked like they were ready to break out in a big way – much like Arcade Fire did through 2004 and 2005. Unfortunately, most of the songs on “Be He Me” didn’t live up to the band’s energetic live show. On “Such Fun,” however, there’s a little bit of everything that makes indie rock great. Catchy songs that build to soaring crescendos. Acoustic and electric guitars. Influences that range from the Sex Pistols to Johnny Cash. A lead singer who is unafraid to whisper into the mic or let a true rock n’ roll yell fly. Yes, with “Such Fun,” Annuals has cemented their place in indie rock lore. It’s important to note that they aren’t just another Arcade Fire though – Annuals are chiefly their own. Even though they seem to be a blend of so many derivative elements, “Such Fun” is a unique package that truly needs to be digested over multiple listens in order to be comprehended fully. There are tracks that are ready for the dance floor, and others that are so fragile that they seem about to crack. “Be He Me” was a minor disappointment, but with “Such Fun,” Annuals have put out an album that lives up to its title.
DOWNLOAD: “Springtime,” “Hardwood Floor,” “Hair Don’t Grow

Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs
As a diehard Ben Gibbard fan, it was a little tough to omit this one from the list. A step above “Plans,” this album teems with slightly more adventurous instrumentation and fewer songs with embarrassing lyrics than the last go-round. It’s no “Transatlanticism” – but then again, what is?

Fall Out Boy – Folie a Deux
This one just came out last week, so it sort of falls prey to the dreaded “the jury is still out” label. But it warrants mentioning because FOB does so well on this album what The Killers did so poorly on this year’s “Day & Age” – they threw some little experiments in there, while still keeping their trademark catchy-as-hell power pop infrastructure.

Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple
I wouldn’t exactly call it a “sophomore slump,” but I was definitely expecting more after 2006’s “St. Elsewhere” was such a great disc. Some of their earlier catchiness is gone, but Gnarls Barkley has created a snarling album that really rolls once it gets going. You might not like it much at first, but it’ll grow on you.

Hot Chip – Made in the Dark
Some of the best dance songs of the year come from this disc. Every time “Ready for the Floor” or “Shake a Fist” comes on, I get ready to hit the discotheque. Nothing really hits the heights of “Boy From School” or “Over & Over,” but it’s still a lot of fun.

MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
You might not expect much from a band that started as a joke. Somehow, though, MGMT put out a fun, psychedelic album with some of the best radio singles of the year (“Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” “Kids”). It barely misses the Top Ten because it’s really pretty uneven. It has some great songs, and some lousy songs. I smell an amazing sophomore album coming along… whenever they get around to it.

Alkaline Trio – Agony & Irony
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
Doveman – Footloose
Flight of the Conchords – Flight of the Conchords
The Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead
Of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping
The Presidents of the United States of America – These are the Good Times People

Weezer – Weezer (Red Album)

Ben Folds – Way to Normal
Gym Class Heroes – The Quilt
Jack Johnson – Sleep Through the Static
The Killers – Day & Age

Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
Portishead – Third

Black Kids – Partie Traumatic
Blitzen Trapper – Furr
Bloc Party – Intimacy
Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours
The Dodos – Visiter
Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreaks
Mates of State – Re-Arrange Us
Mother Mother – O My Heart
She & Him – Volume One
TV on the Radio – Dear Science
Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer

(Note: I originally wrote and posted this on December 24th, 2008. Since then, TV on the Radio’s album “Dear Science” has moved from “I Guess I Don’t Get It” to “The Jury is Still Out.” No other changes have taken place – yet)

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Jan Term Journal – Day 13

My last day at St. Columbkille was a whirlwind, to say the least. During Ms. Escobedo’s class, the students were taking a standardized test that all Catholic schools have to administer to their students, so I had two hours to write my thank you note to the staff and figure out which buses to take from St. Columbkille to get to LAX for my flight home. I finished that work just in time, and headed out to recess.

It was wet outside, so the third grade wasn’t allowed to take a ball outside. Basically, the recess consisted of them asking me questions about Spokane and racing each other around the playground, which terrified me because I thought for sure they would wipe out on the wet ground.

I was supposed to supervise third grade’s lunch as usual, but Barrett came in and said I was wanted in the faculty room. When I went in, Ms. Barba, Tyler, and several other teachers said, “hooray!” They had ordered fajitas for the staff in honor of my last day. Ms. Briceno, our principal, gave me a uniform t-shirt and sweatshirt, as well as a Starbucks gift card. I was already overwhelmed, when Ms. McKinney said I should go to her classroom before the end of the day.

When I went to the fourth grade, the students were so excited to see me! They had written thank you notes to me and compiled them into a little book for me to read on the plane. I walked around the room with a U.S. map, showing them where Spokane was and giving hugs. It was pretty tough to leave them.

Leaving third grade was a similar scenario. They had written me thank you notes, and we took a group picture together. Ms. Barba said it was a blessing for her that I was able to be so helpful in the classroom, and I reciprocated. After that goodbye, school was over and I was on my way.

My flight was from Los Angeles to Oakland, then I had a short layover before flying from Oakland to Spokane. On the way out, I caught the sunset from the plane.

Los Angeles has the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen.

Jan Term Journal – Day 12

Today was my last day with Ms. McKinney’s fourth grade class. They were to have written little news articles about Martin Luther King Day celebrations that took place around Los Angeles. Some of them also wrote extra credit articles about the inauguration.

Because the students had Mass at the beginning of the day, I only had about 25 minutes with the fourth graders before it was time to go out to recess with the third grade. So, I had a few of the students read their articles to the class.

One student, Ezra, was super-excited about reading his article to the class. But when he read it, it became immediately clear that he didn’t follow the directions that I gave the class last week. A few of the other students caught onto that, and I had to do some quick damage control in order to tell the class what they were supposed to do and tell Ezra, “no, that’s not what I expected you to do,” while keeping his morale high.

I ended up telling the class about feature stories. These are stories that are usually not in the first section of the newspaper, but they may expound on ideas from news stories. What Ezra shared was pretty well-written, it just didn’t follow the conventions of news writing that I had taught the class. I explained that while Ezra didn’t follow the directions given, he still wrote a pretty good feature story that could run in the features section if the class were to put out a full newspaper.

Overall, the journalism experiment/experience was a good one for the fourth grade. They picked up the essentials and were able to start putting together some pretty sophisticated stories. When I teach journalism to a new batch of high school students in the spring, I will now have some ammunition: “Mr. Knox, this is too hard!” “Well, I taught it to fourth graders in Los Angeles, and English is their second language. If they can pick it up, I’m sure you can too!”

Jan Term Journal – Day 11

Inauguration Day was a big one for St. Columbkille. Most classes postponed their normal activities to at least watch President Obama be sworn in, and sometimes more. I was in Ms. Boegel’s seventh grade math class at the time, and she did a cool compare/contrast activity with the class to draw a backdrop for the inauguration.

Ms. Boegel had three children’s books – one about Abraham Lincoln, one about Martin Luther King Jr., and one about Barack Obama. The students were split into three groups, and each group was given one of the books. The class was also given worksheets that had a three-way Venn diagram. Ms. Boegel taught them how to use a Venn diagram, and then the students were given time to read their children’s book and write down facts about these great men in American history. They had spent time on Friday talking about Martin Luther King, Jr., so they already had some backstory there.

After the activity, we turned on the TV in time to see Aretha Franklin sing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”. We saw Joe Biden sworn in as Vice-President and the performance of “Air and Simple Gifts” by Itzhak Perlman, Yo Yo Ma, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill. The students seemed stirred by the beauty of that composition, and then the rock star hit the stage – President Obama himself, being sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.

The students at St. Columbkille love Obama, as well as the promise he represents for all Americans. I’ve heard about the hope Obama gives to nonwhite Americans and the pride they have in him, but this was the first time I’d really seen it firsthand. Although I don’t agree with all of his political ideas, I am glad that we have an inspirational president. If he does a good job over the next four years (and I think he has that potential), it will go a long way toward rebuilding our country’s image – not just internationally, but domestically as well.

Weekend Bullet List 2

If you missed last weekend, it’s right here. This weekend, we:

  • Went to another concert – this time, Ozomatli at the Echoplex
  • Had some time to socialize with Ms. Escobedo during the show. Hooray for teacher talk!
  • Got free Legalize LA shirts at the show
  • Ate chili-cheese fries at Original Tommy’s historic restaurant. I could feel my arteries clogging. (sidenote: everything seems to be historic down here)
  • Visited the La Brea Tar Pits
  • Went to the Beverly Hills Farmer’s Market
  • Got some great frozen yogurt from Pinkberry. Didier’s has some competition!
  • Window-shopped at an Apple store in The Grove, a ritzy shopping center.
  • Saw our friend Susanna (she came over to stay the night)
  • Went to Venice Beach
  • Put our feet in the ocean
  • Saw a bunch of crazy street performers, including one guy who did a backflip over five kids
  • Walked about halfway to Muscle Beach, then decided it was too far; cleary, we do not belong at Muscle Beach
  • Ate some lousy $1.99 pizza
  • Watched the sunset over Venice Beach
  • Went to Susanna’s place in Santa Clarita with Barrett and Tyler
  • Ate at a decent Indian restaurant (it’s no Manas)
  • Made up a bunch of words in a Scrabble game
  • Noticed that a few of my Jan Term Journal posts were picked up by So You Want to Teach?. Thanks, Joel.
  • Stayed the night at Susanna’s
  • Watched the sunrise
  • Took the Metrolink train back into LA
  • Spent MLK day chilling, napping, recovering from the weekend, and getting ready for my last three days of school at St. Columbkille!

Speaking of MLK, I think it’s important to watch this on his day:

See you next time. Hope you enjoyed your day and spent some time ruminating on Martin Luther King, Jr’s contributions to our country. Enjoy the inauguration tomorrow; I’m hoping to catch it live, but if not, we’ll always have YouTube.

Jan Term Journal – Day 10

Because Monday is Martin Luther King Day, all of the classes were learning about King today. During the morning assembly, there was a large portrait of King up on the stage as the students led us in praying for the needy people in the world, and that one day, King’s dream will eventually come to full fruition. The morning assembly is a great way to send messages to the entire school, and I think that frontloading a day with prayer for the community is a good way to instill a sense of social justice in students.

In addition to the assembly and some lessons, each student is doing an “I Have a Dream” project. Each student will write what they have a “dream” for, and then those will all be posted around the school. It was amazing what some students came up with; you could tell that their life experiences really led to the dreams.

One student wrote that she had a dream that all children of divorced parents would feel as loved as children whose parents stayed together. Another wrote that he had a dream that all of the soldiers in Iraq would come home safely, and that our world would see a time of renewed peace. I thought that last one was especially poignant as war rages on in Israel this week. It’s comforting to know that these students are sensitive to what is going on in the world, and that they believe in the values that Dr. King held dear.

Jan Term Journal – Day 9

Teaching elementary school students is so different from teaching high schoolers. One of the big differences I’ve seen is that elementary schoolers are very good at following directions without questions. High schoolers aren’t as quick to fall in line. On the other hand, high schoolers are much better at behaving in class. At least, most of them are. (My freshmen can be a little… energetic, to say the least.)

The third graders are finally starting to see me as a legitimate authority figure. St. Columbkille has a schoolwide discipline policy and I’ve been following it, but it still wasn’t enough to deter them from acting up when I was around. The past couple of days, however, it seems as if the students are warming up to the idea. Today, it finally didn’t take five minutes for them to quiet down before we went to recess (and five minutes is a long time for kids). It makes me think that we’re finally getting somewhere!

After school today, we went to a supermarket called El Super, which is less than half a mile from the convent. It’s one thing to be the only two white people walking down a street, but it’s completely another to be the only two white people in a grocery store. This was really the first time that I felt out of place at all. I think one reason is that everyone there was going through their normal routine, and I had never been there before. Most people who visit a grocery store they’ve never been to feel a little bit out of place. However, add on top of that the fact that we were the only two people of our race in the store. That made me feel even more out of place. One little Latino boy stared at us as if he had never seen a white person face-to-face before. And indeed, he may not have.