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…
THE TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2008
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
GUILTY PLEASURE ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Weezer – Weezer (Red Album)
Ben Folds – Way to Normal
Gym Class Heroes – The Quilt
Jack Johnson – Sleep Through the Static
The Killers – Day & Age
I GUESS I DON’T GET IT
Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
Portishead – Third
THE JURY IS STILL OUT
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)