The dust settles

A month into 2009, it’s finally time to pick the 10 best albums of 2008

If you have another favorite album you’d like to recommend, or you want to dispute one of these, visit RN&R arts editor Brad Bynum’s new art, music and pop culture blog, “Big Brain on Brad

I know we’re nearly a month into 2009, but here’s a recap of my favorite records of 2008. This list is, obviously, skewed toward my taste, and while I like and appreciate a wide and eclectic range of music, at heart I’m what people who post comments on the internet sometimes call a “rockist,” somebody who likes rock ’n’ roll more than other kinds of music. So while this list is relatively diverse, every record on it features somebody playing songs on a guitar. Some of the guitars are gentle and acoustic, and some of the guitars are fuzzed-out and abrasive, but guitars nonetheless. Some of the songs are short and accessible, and some of them are long and abstruse, but songs nonetheless.

I’ve been planning on running a list like this since mid-December, but my original draft included only about half of the records below, padded with some mediocre stuff just to round out the list. My first impression was that 2008 must have just been a fairly lousy year for music. But then I realized that I’d actually spent most of the year listening to older stuff and rediscovering albums that I’d previously taken for granted.

A quick side note: I use this great internet radio station, It records and archives your listening habits on your computer and on your mp3 player, and then plays you other songs popular with other users with similar listening habits. So objectively speaking, the band I spent the most time listening to in 2008: The Beatles. I guess I’m sort of a traditionalist.

Anyway, I quickly realized that there was probably a lot of great music in 2008 that I hadn’t heard yet. So I sent out a mass email to some of my music-loving friends and co-workers and asked about their favorite new albums of 2008. I got back a pretty staggering response. Nearly everyone’s response began something like this, “I thought 2008 was sort of bad year for music overall, but there were at least four or five new releases that I really liked,” followed by a list of albums. And nearly every list was totally different, and a lot of my friends were willing to burn stuff for me.

So suddenly I went from having a list that consisted of the four or five albums that I really liked, followed by the only other albums I’d heard and didn’t totally hate, to having a list dozens of albums long and being forced to make some tough decisions about what would make the cut. I even briefly considered extending the list to 20 albums. But this is a nice, lean list of surprisingly good albums.

10. Bon Iver:
For Emma, Forever Ago

This album succeeds despite relying heavily on a production device that annoys me: a singer who multitracks his own vocals in order to sing harmony with himself. I know that hardly anybody records “live in the studio” anymore, but this trick destroys my illusion that a song is a cohesive, linear, narrative thing. (It’s also one reason I’ve never been able to get that into Elliot Smith.) I guess I’m just going to have to accept the fact that songs can be built vertically as well as horizontally. And I suppose one scenario that would lend itself to this kind of songwriting would be this guy’s situation: simultaneously dumped by both his girlfriend and his band and recovering from some extended illness, he moved to a cabin in the woods to record these songs and hunt for his own food. The result is an album of a sad and lonely guy singing with himself.

9. Singer:

This is a new project featuring some of the members of one of my favorite bands, Chicago weirdoes U.S. Maple—and if you’re interested in out-of-the-box rock music, I highly recommend checking out U.S. Maple. While this new band hasn’t impressed me as much as U.S. Maple, their debut album is strange and lovely. It scratches a unique and unpredictable itch. And one listen to their soulful vocal harmonies married to discombobulating avant rock will quickly demonstrate just how overrated TV on the Radio is.

8. MGMT:
Oracular Spectacular

These guys write glam rock songs and dress them up like electro-pop, with occasional psychedelic flourishes. This is like the record I wish Prince would make. It’s an undeniably fun party record, and some of the songs, like the great “Electric Feel,” have more depth than is readily apparent at first listen.

7. The Walkmen:
You & Me

I like how this band manages to sound simultaneously anthemic and murky. It’s as though U2 recorded in a basement and spilled beer on the tapes. Great songwriting, too. I think this album might be some sort of concept album about travel—most of the songs have an I’m-far-from-home-and-I-miss-somebody vibe. Sort of Dylanesque like that.

6. Bonnie “Prince” Billy:
Lie Down in the Light

For whatever reason, I like this indie folk album, by a guy whose career I’ve been actively following for more than 10 years, way more than the more highly acclaimed and generally buzzed-about releases by other groups of the same genre. If you could even call it a genre … unusual acoustic music, “freak folk,” I guess? I like this album a lot more than, say, Fleet Foxes or even the aforementioned Bon Iver album. Is it because I’m set in my ways? Or because I value quality more than novelty?

5. Crystal Antlers:

This thing just rocks. It blends two of my favorite rock ’n’ roll sub-genres: 1960s-style psychedelic freak-outs and full-on noise rock. But the thing that really sets it apart is the hint of old-school R&B: a warm organ sound and bit of a soul groove in the bass and drums. There’s a lot of repeat play value here. I really want to see this band live.

4. Beach House:

This one took me a couple spins. My first impression was to dismiss Beach House as a Mazzy Star soundalike, but after a few listens, the nuances started to emerge. The melodies and chord changes take unexpected twists. It’s beautiful and addictive. It sounds like being depressed on vacation, like you’re visiting one of the most beautiful places on the planet, some tropical island or something, and yet you still feel miserable.

3. Silver Jews:
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea

If you care about song lyrics, and you don’t listen to Silver Jews, you’re wasting your life. Simply put, David Berman writes some of the best lyrics around. Take, as a random example, these lines from “My Pillow is the Threshold:” “Somewhere in a foggy atlas/Lookout mountain, lookout sea/First life takes time, then time takes life/Now the next move’s up to me.”

The music’s pretty good too, in a country-meets-indie-rock kind of way. I read something somewhere that described Berman’s lived-in baritone as the halfway point between Johnny Cash and Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson, which is pretty accurate. The bad news is that the word on the street is that this will be the last Silver Jews album, which just breaks my heart.

2. Group Doueh:
Guitar Music from the Western Sahara

This might not actually qualify as a 2008 release. It was released on CD in 2008, but it came out on vinyl in 2007, and it’s a collection of material dating back 20 years. But whatever, I love this album. It’s one of the best things I’ve heard in years. Group Doueh is a family band from the Western Sahara, a disputed territory between Morocco and Algeria. I have no idea what language this record is in, but the songs are just fantastic. Think African rhythms with Middle Eastern tonalities played on Jimi Hendrix-style fuzz-and-wah guitar. The earlier recordings suffer from some unforgivably bad fidelity, but the newer recordings on the second half of the disc are just amazing.

1. Animal Collective:
Water Curses EP

Is the best album of 2008 this four-song EP? Well, Animal Collective is easily one of the best bands in the world, and it might just be me, but these are four of their best songs. Definitely loads better than 2007’s somewhat disappointing Strawberry Jam. Animal Collective’s strange blend of campfire sing-a-longs and weird bubbling, gurgling electric sounds is beautifully compelling. And, by the time you read this, their new full length album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, will be available in stores and online. Onward with 2009!