The Best Albums of 2008

Artist: Maiysha

Album: This Much Is True

Label: Eusonia

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/maiysha-thismuchistrue.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-08-26

UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 60

I’ve been waiting to completely surrender myself to a new artist, an artist who is just getting started, yet is so obviously equipped with a singular talent to ride out the unpredictable course of styles, trends, and popular opinion. Maiysha is that artist. This Much Is True, her debut, socks you with 13 tracks of undiluted soul. Producer Scott Jacoby surrounds her with nothing less than note-perfect production, allowing a bit of rawness to seep through in all the right places. Her phrasing is direct and inspired. Check out “Chase”, where she mercilessly taunts a suitor and brings you along for the ride or “Orbit”, where she makes an astronomical term sound seductive. Maiysha shows aspiring celeb-utantes for what they are on “Celebrity” and “Gods” while “Hold Me” finds her emotionally naked and unafraid to let listeners in on her private yearning for intimacy. There’s only one thing to do with This Much Is True — savor the surrender. Christian John Wikane

 

Artist: Harvey Milk

Album: Life…The Best Game in Town

Label: Hydra Head

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/h/harveymilk-lifethebestgameintown.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-03

UK Release Date: 2008-06-30

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List number: 59

“Woke up, got out of bed, put a pistol to my head.” Harvey Milk’s savage paraphrasing of the Beatles at the conclusion of the astonishing “Death Goes to the Winner” sums up the grim mood of the Athens, Georgia band’s fifth album perfectly. The darker side of human emotions has always gone hand in hand with heavy music, but not since Eyehategod’s 1996 album Dopesick has a record blended some truly harrowing lyrical content with the kind of thick, dense, monolithic sludge that could only come from the American South. The ironically titled Life… the Best Game in Town might at times lumber along with a heaviness that would make the Melvins envious, but there’s actually a lot of ingenuity in the ten songs, which run the gamut from hardcore punk, to heavy blues, to swaggering Southern rock, making for a listen that’s as bracing as it is grim. Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: Coldplay

Album: Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends

Label: Capitol

Label: Parlophone

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/c/coldplay-vivalavida.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-17

UK Release Date: 2008-06-12

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List number: 58

Four albums in, and Coldplay finally gets it right. They needed Brian Eno in the role of sonic guide and steely-eyed editor to do it, focusing their universalist ambitions into Impressionist watercolors of modern global empathy. Where previously they might have extrapolated a good concept or two into a bloated stadium ballad of unchecked ostentation, on Viva La Vida, those concepts finally get the stage to themselves. Song fragments are arranged like triptychs, and complete songs juxtapose evocatively with others on the same track. The renewed artful focus works wonders on Chris Martin, who delivers both his most effective vocal performances and his least clumsy lyrics to date. A uniformly strong record, Viva La Vida spikes to greatness with “Lovers in Japan” (the giant leap forward from “Clocks” that we’ve been waiting six years for) and the shimmering “Strawberry Swing”. But the record will forever be remembered for its monster hit title track, which finds Martin channeling his habit for epic self-deprecation into an affecting lament on the transitory nature of power and glory. Ross Langager

 

Artist: Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara

Album: Soul Science

Label: World Village

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/a/adamsjustinandcamarajuldeh-soulscience.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-05-17

UK Release Date: 2007-10-01

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List number: 57

Soul Science might be the first ritti/blues-rock guitar duet album in history. It’s difficult to see how a second one could surpass it. The two musicians — one British, one a Gambian immigrant to the UK — came together in a spirit of casual experimentation which turned out to be a miraculous fit. The music has a roughness that suits the characters of the instruments themselves, the dark thump of the guitar, and the high slangy zest of the ritti, a Gambian fiddle with a single string. Anyone who thinks that cultural crossovers invariably lead to one side being compromised and impoverished should listen to this. It might change their mind. Deanne Sole

 

Artist: Ben Folds

Album: Way to Normal

Label: Sony

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Way-Normal-Ben-Folds/dp/B001E1DJ9S

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/w/way_to_normal_cover.jpg

Website: http://benfolds.skyroo.com/se/view/music/index.html?utm_medium=epic-artistsite&utm_source=benfolds

US Release Date: 2008-09-30

UK Release Date: 2008-09-29

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List number: 56

Ben Folds has always been flawed; it’s part of his appeal. Still, he’s never really put his flaws out front quite the way he does on Way to Normal, and it’s this realization behind a mask of cocky self-assuredness that makes the album listenable over, and over, and over again. “Cologne”, at the center of the album, is really the only straightforward song on the album, and it’s utterly heartbreaking. The self-loathing is palpable throughout, as he not only faults himself, but he faults the very stereotypes that he finds himself falling into. It would all be a terrible downer if not for the execution — somehow, putting some of the best, most vibrant pop hooks he’s ever written behind all of the depression turns it into a celebration, an embracing of everything that’s wrong with all of us and the ways in which it makes us interesting. Every listen reveals a new nuance, and it’s right up there with Rockin’ the Suburbs in the fight for the best album Folds has ever put together. Mike Schiller

 

Artist: Black Mountain

Album: In the Future

Label: Jagjaguwar

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/blackmountain-inthefuture.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-01-22

UK Release Date: 2008-01-21

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List number: 55

If you thought Black Mountain didn’t sound big enough, didn’t have enough muscle mixed with its beautiful nuance, then you are a person that cannot be pleased. Ever. Still, if you’re that person, then Black Mountain made In the Future just for you. Because it is a giant of a record. Stephen McBean’s onslaught of heavy guitar riffs is on full display throughout In the Future and, on “Stormy High” and “Tyrants”, at its tightest and most infectious. But then there is the swell of soaring keyboards all over these songs and the other-worldly keen of Amber Webber’s voice, making those songs all the bigger. Elsewhere, they take on everything from acoustic balladry (“Stay Free”), to road-dusted Americana (“Angels”), to Bowie-esque space-pop (“Wild Wind”). And these are all songs that take their time getting where they’re going. “Tyrants” starts in a fury, then cools into spacious and cold verses before breaking out into a brutal guitar attack. “Wucan” glides along for six minutes on a perfectly stoned echo of a riff.

But, like Roy Harper before them, just when you thought Black Mountain had made their biggest song, you get to the end of the record. “Bright Light” is a 17-minute opus and has every element that makes this band great — hard-churning guitars, propulsive drums, haunting vocals, droning keys. And each element goes to its breaking point on the track, before giving into the next, until they finally all converge in a sound too grand and euphoric to truly describe. That In the Future can shoulder the weight of that huge track and not collapse shows how sturdy it is as a whole, how well built. But this isn’t music that is well thought out, it is music that is beautifully felt. Because, again like Roy Harper, they build intricate compositions but always surrender them to feeling, to immediacy. In the Future is a triumph, from beginning to end. It is the biggest rock record to be heard in 2008, and it is also the best.” Matt Fiander

 

Artist: Goldfrapp

Album: Seventh Tree

Label: Mute

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/g/goldfrapp_seventh_tree.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-02-26

UK Release Date: 2008-02-25

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List number: 54

Watch Goldfrapp change! The duo of Allison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory should offer consulting services to artists who can only do one thing well. This time around it’s stamping their own identity on a mix of ’80s British New Wave (smoother and more expansive than the hiccup-y North Americans) and ’90s dream pop. Seventh Tree sounds like one big crescendo with the crash coming so gently that the listener can miss it, as she soars in the clouds with the melodies. This is modern day church music for brokenhearted atheists, if the services are led by Ingmar Bergman. The cinematic feel is inherent in who Goldfrapp is, no matter what style they’re mastering or inventing. The truth is, Goldfrapp may be larger than life and no one has truly recognized that yet. They may even be our Abba. Stay tuned. Jill Labrack

 

Artist: Kathleen Edwards

Album: Asking for Flowers

Label: Zoë

Label: Rounder

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/e/edwardskathleen-askingforflowers.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-03-04

UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 53

On Back to Me, Kathleen Edwards’ 2005 release, the Canadian singer/songwriter proved she was capable of making a thoroughly enjoyable Lucinda Williams record. All the hallmarks were there: steel guitar-infused songs that rock as often as they roll; big, raggedy choruses; lyrics that are beautiful in their emotional simplicity; and aching vocals filled with gravel and glass. Asking for Flowers is the work of an artist who has come into her own. Sure, many of Lucinda’s roots rock flourishes are still present, but the result is something truly singular: songwriting that’s tight and self-assured; production that’s stark and modest; lyrics that are equal parts bite and yearning; and choruses that are filled with shimmering, sing-along hooks. Most importantly, Asking for Flowers shows a Kathleen Edwards that’s not taking herself so seriously anymore. And in a singer/songwriter genre supersaturated with melodrama and nihilism, that’s an extraordinary thing indeed. Asking for Flowers isn’t an album that shatters musical genres or forges across new sonic terrain, but it’s an album that will remain on your MP3 player for a long time. Michael Kabran

 

Artist: Opeth

Album: Watershed

Label: Roadrunner

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/o/opeth_-_watershed.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-03

UK Release Date: 2008-06-02

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List number: 52

Opeth have always been a band that can be embraced by a diverse crowd. Their death metal credentials are impeccable and they know how to lay down a devastating riff. They’re artistic and experimental enough for the post-rock chin-strokers. They fuse melody and brutality in the way that makes screamo kids cream their skinny jeans. They scream authenticity in the same breath as they beckon with accessibility — or as much accessibility as a progressive metal band known for songs regularly in excess of ten minutes can muster.

Watershed, their ninth studio album, is a much less brutal affair than their high-watermark albums from the turn of the century. In fact, it owes as much to the brains of 1970s prog-rock and metal than to death metal muscle. Yet it never feels like a compromise — it’s the most logical evolution of their metal-and-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic. With this brilliant, virtuosic effort (Exhibit A: the organ solo in “The Lotus Eater”), Opeth both guarantee their place in the metal pantheon and venture even further beyond genre limits. David Pullar

 

Artist: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

Album: Real Emotional Trash

Label: Matador

Contributors: Stephen Malkmus, Janet Weiss

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/malkmusstephenandjicks-realemotionaltrash.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-03-04

UK Release Date: 2008-03-04

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List number: 51

Leader of one of the two or three most important bands of the 1990s, Malkmus has spent the ensuing years producing increasingly idiosyncratic, densely layered, and generally un-Pavement-like material. Indeed, to the dismay of many who spent their formative years rocking out to the slacker haphazardry of Pavement’s best work, Stephen Malkmus and his Jicks have turned towards ever more tightly constructed (dare I say it: progressive rock) approaches. Back in the mid-1990s, Phish’s Trey Anastasio famously announced that Pavement was his favourite band. Well, there seems now to be little doubt that the appreciation was mutual. There is a decidedly phishy whiff about this extraordinarily fun rock record. It is exuberant, joyful, packed with electrifying riffs and fuzzy retro guitar tones, and is everywhere dripping with the kind of expository inanity that always drove me nuts about Phish’s lyrics, but curiously never bothered me much about Pavement’s. Huh. Anyway, this is the most unreservedly pleasurable listen I’ve had all year. Stuart Henderson

 

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Artist: Hercules and Love Affair

Album: Hercules and Love Affair

Label: Mute

Label: DFA

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/h/herculesandloveaffair-herculesandloveaffair.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-24

UK Release Date: 2008-03-10

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List number: 50

The songs and imagery of Hercules and Love Affair reside in some sort of alternate universe: a modernist, ancient Greek-themed 1977 New York City dance club, where sexual orientation is not even a concept, and neither AIDS nor Saturday Night Fever ever existed. Within this world, three androgynous vocalists (Antony Hegarty, Nomi Ruiz, and Kim Ann Foxman) explore emotions, ranging from boastful confidence to existential feelings of emptiness over detailed compositions, juxtaposing sounds of joy and melancholy to create moments of incredible sublimity. Andrew Butler is a true student of the cultural and conceptual origins of both disco and acid-house. Judging by his compositions, he can also be viewed as a very convincing advocate for each genre’s capacity for genuine artistry. The self-titled debut from his brainchild project can best be described as an ensemble of incredibly talented musicians trying their best to recreate the sounds which have been playing inside the head of this New York City DJ since childhood. The term “disco revivalism” might make critics cringe with visions of catchy, simplistic exploitation. Given the near-unanimous praise it received, consider Hercules and Love Affair an overwhelming exception to that notion. Anthony Henriques

 

Artist: Nas

Album: Untitled

Label: Def Jam

Contributors: Nas

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Nas/dp/B001A5074S/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1215479722&sr=8-1

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/u/untitled.jpg

Website: www.nasindependenceday.com

First date: 2008-07-15

US Release Date: 2008-07-15

UK Release Date: 2008-07-14

Internet release date: 2008-07-15

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List number: 49

Nas must be crazy. First, he says hip-hop is dead. Then he threatens to host a séance-by-album-title for the N-word as if the NAACP hadn’t hosted a mock funeral for it. But, like Prince changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, Nas removed the N-word, left the album untitled, and he let his rhymes speak from a place his former title couldn’t. In the past, Nas’s political compass has pointed in many directions, but this time he’s at his most focused and insightful. Untitled opens with a stunning verse over a piano that could’ve been transported from the ragtime era. From there, it covers the heroism, and lack thereof, in rap, alongside issues involving the media, the current impact of the N-word and language in general, and a look at where we are headed as a society. It makes you wonder what corner Nas will talk himself into, and then triumphantly rhyme his way out of, next. Quentin Huff

 

Artist: Okkervil River

Album: The Stand Ins

Label: Jagjaguwar

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/o/okkervilriver-thestandins.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-09-09

UK Release Date: 2008-10-13

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List number: 48

Will Sheff continues his deconstruction of fiction, and Okkervil River continues to flesh out its rock leanings on this follow-up to last year’s The Stage Names. Populated with lost sailors, hacks, stars, liars and, above all, the people who believed them, The Stand Ins is a jaded, but still enraptured, take on just how important we make stories in our lives. Sheff focuses his novelist’s eye on a collection of people coming to realize they’ll never find salvation in a pop song, and the band meets his dramatic touches with its most boisterious sound yet. Album centerpiece “Blue Tulip” might be the most heartbreaking song of the year, a piercing ode to anyone who’s ever put their faith in an idol — only to find them wanting. David Berry

 

Artist: Sigur Rós

Album: Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust

Label: XL

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/s/sigurr243s-me240su240237eyrumvi240spilumendalaust.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-24

UK Release Date: 2008-06-23

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List number: 47

Finally, Sigur Rós got bored with themselves. Following the massive success of the cinematic classics that were 1999’s Agaetis Byrjun and 2002’s ( ), change was bound to come for best export since Björk. Though the more grounded 2005 disc Takk… hinted at what was to come, no one was entirely prepared for this — Sigur Rós’ pop album. Even as lead track/single “Gobbledigook” gallops with furious drums that would make even the Animal Collective jealous, it’s the remarkably straightforward rock moments that garner the most attention, as if, somehow, we knew that the band was capable of crafting something as propulsive and exciting as “Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur” all along. Although songs like “Við Spilum Endalaust” could have been alt-rock hits in some alternate universe, the band never forgets what got them to where they are, and here, ballads like “Ára Bátur” are as affecting as ever. Sigur Rós has always been one of the most intriguing and surprising rock outfits of this past decade, but for them to unleash their most accessible, optimistic, and flat-out fun album to date — yeah, we sure as hell didn’t see that one coming. Well played, boys, well played. Evan Sawdey

 

Artist: The Raconteurs

Album: Consolers of the Lonely

Label: Warner Bros.

Label: Third Man

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/r/raconteursthe-consolersofthelonely.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-03-25

UK Release Date: 2008-03-24

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List number: 46

In 2008, the graying — or in one notable instance, the flamehaired cornrowing — of rock continued unabated, with respectable, but hardly essential, outings from Metallica, AC/DC and Guns ‘N Roses. Still, rock’s (current) Last Great Hope, Jack White, on vacation from the White Stripes, and with plenty of help from Brendan Benson and the two dudes from the Greenhornes, put them all to shame with Consolers of the Lonely, a gem of a record that dropped a mere week after its existence was confirmed this March. (Axl, are you taking notes?) Bigger, more muscular and weirder than the Raconteurs’ lightweight debut, Broken Boy Soldiers, Consolers commanded attention with an urgency and passion that most musicians don’t throw into their day-job bands, let alone supposed side projects. From the Led Zeppelin III-isms of “Top Yourself”, the stunning mariachi arrangements of “The Switch and the Spur”, the old, weird America of “Carolina Drama” and two of this year’s best examples of the redemptive powers of old-fashioned guitar rave-ups, “Hold Up” and “Five on the Five”, the Raconteurs proved that rock ‘n’ roll is still a young man’s game. Stephen Haag

 

Artist: Lizz Wright

Album: The Orchard

Label: Verve Forecast

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/l/lizzwright.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-02-26

UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 45

Inspired by the rhythms, beauty, and people of her hometown, Hahira, Georgia, Lizz Wright, on her third release for Verve, Orchard, captures brilliantly the distinctiveness, truthfulness, and awesome courage of the Southern black voice. Eclectic as ever, the gifted songwriter refuses to subject her sound to one genre, choosing instead to explore the rhythms of pop, rock, country, and the blues. Unpredictable musical forays and emotional shifts mark her performances. Terrific covers of Ike and Tina Turners’ “I Idolize You” and Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Hey Mann” exist alongside brilliant readings of Patsy Cline’s “Strange” and Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You”. It is clear that Wright possesses deft interpretive skills, though the brilliance of “Speak Your Heart” and “When I Fall” proves that she’s no slouch in the songwriting department. Wright’s Orchard was definitely one of the gems of 2008. Claudrena N. Harold

 

Artist: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Album: Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

Label: Anti

Label: Mute

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/c/cavenickandthebadseeds-diglazarusdig.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-04-08

UK Release Date: 2008-03-03

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List number: 44

Though Guns N’ Roses and AC/DC both reemerged with new studio albums in 2008, it Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds who delivered this year’s more fiery rock LP. Working off the edge of 2005’s Abattoir Blues, Cave brings his new Seeds lineup to a full-tilt gothic boogie, spearheaded by Warren Ellis of the Dirty Three, who traded in his Aussie gentleman look for a more fitting outback Wildman motif and plays his trademark fiddle like Neil Young pounds on Old Black. And each moment of electrified bombast (“Dig Lazarus Dig!!!”, “We Call Upon the Author”) is counterbalanced an equally poignant moment of soulful clarity (“Moonland”, “More News From Nowhere”), delivered as seamlessly as anything Cave has done since Murder Ballads, an album which, of course, this album totally blows away. Thirty years after his emergence with the Birthday Party, Lazarus is the career-encompassing masterpiece Nick Cave fans have been waiting for. Ron Hart

 

Artist: The Roots

Album: Rising Down

Label: Def Jam

Contributors: dice raw, peedi peedi, malik b., common, talib kweli

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/r/roots-risingdown.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-04-29

UK Release Date: 2008-04-28

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List number: 43

When the Roots release an album, it has become customary to see it on any critic’s year-end list. And 2008, of course, is no different. Rising Down, the Legendary’s eighth studio effort, features the group treading into the darkest and grittiest corners of the hip-hop universe while emcee Black Thought rips apart every track with a hunger not heard in years. Street anthem “Get Busy” and lyrically-poignant “I Can’t Help It” wouldn’t be as hard-hitting without Black’s signature robotic, but on-point flow. And that only goes double for “Criminal”, though Saigon nearly steals the spotlight, and “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction)”, a track akin to “Web” and “[email protected]” on which Black spits nonstop for almost three minutes. Some might hate on the number of guests, but they cannot deny the Roots’ ability to remain relevant and innovative while dropping one of this year’s best hip-hop albums. Andrew Martin

 

Artist: Santogold

Album: Santogold

Label: Downtown

Label: Lizardking

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/s/santogold-santogold.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-04-29

UK Release Date: 2008-05-12

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List number: 42

It’d be tough to come up with another artist this year who can perfectly appeal to both the mainstream and the hipsters, without backlash from either group. OK, so Santogold hasn’t broken through to the masses quite yet, but it feels like it’s just a matter of time. She can play these two worlds effortlessly because she seems to exist in dichotomy. Her record lives in ’80s ska and Missing Persons/Siouxsie land, but it also sounds as if it’s being beamed to us from the future. The real thrill of this album, though, is the intimacy captured from start to finish. It’s proof that steadfast vision is at least half the battle. This is a fully formed debut — a quirky trip down a dark tunnel that also happens to be a glittery pop gem. I may have rated a couple of records higher this year, but there is none I listened to more. Jill Labrack

 

Artist: Shugo Tokumaru

Album: Exit

Label: Almost Gold

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/5/51bqjostwkl._sl500_aa240_.jpg

First date: 2007-10-17

US Release Date: 2008-09-02

UK Release Date: Available as import

Japan release date: 2007-10-17

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List number: 41

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to see Shugo Tokumaru play a small club in Tokyo’s Yoyogi neighborhood. Upon being approached by me at the merch table, Tokumaru seemed genuinely surprised, as if he couldn’t fathom a foreigner having even heard of him, let alone coming to one of his shows. I, however, was thinking just the opposite: how had such an immensely talented and original songwriter remained both unsigned and relatively unknown outside of his native Tokyo? As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one asking this question. Earlier this year, Almost Gold saw fit to re-release Exit, Tokumaru’s third full-length LP, in these United States. And what an LP it is. Building on the maximalist, broken toy shop aesthetic of L.S.T., Exit‘s densely-layered melodies squeak, rattle and clatter their way into your heart like tiny clockwork music boxes made from common detritus. The end result is a whimsical, intricate, modest pop album that quietly stands as one of the year’s best. Mehan Jayasuriya

 

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Artist: Lykke Li

Album: Youth Novels

Label: EMI

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/l/lykkeli-youthnovels.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-08-19

UK Release Date: 2008-03-03

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List number: 40

Swedish newcomer Lykke Li has drafted a delightful debut with Youth Novels. She dexterously ties together synth pop and arty excursions, all with the underpinnings of a singer-songwriter album. Opener “Melodies and Desires” is Laurie Anderson at her dreamiest, while the single “I’m Good, I’m Gone” is skeletal and funky tech-pop. These songs represent the extremes of the album, but all the material sits comfortably together, bound by Li’s easy touch and spry sensibilities. Not as oddball as Björk or as bubblegum as Annie, Lykke Li strikes the perfect balance between art and pop. With Youth Novels, Li has sifted her way down to the core elements of modern music and built her own enigmatic, yet highly accessible, vision for the future. Michael Keefe

 

Artist: Girl Talk

Album: Feed the Animals

Label: Illegal Art

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/g/girl_talk_feed_the_animals.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-09-23

UK Release Date: Available as import

Internet release date: 2008-06-19

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List number: 39

I like to imagine an older, wiser Gregg Gillis teaching a college course; perhaps he’d call it “The Joy of Sampling”. Would he expound on the fundamental novelty appeal of Feed the Animals? That is, the coupling of two instantly recognizable moments of pop nirvana that shouldn’t fit, but do: a glorious reinterpretation of The Jackson 5’s “ABC” atop “Bohemian Rhapsody”, for example, or the Beach Boys’ and Snoop Dogg’s exuberant musical marriage. Or would he dig deeper — as his music does — and discuss songwriting as an antiquated notion, triumphed at long last by sampling technology? Feed the Animals expresses such sentiments, eschewing musical continuity to instead glide seamlessly from one euphoric moment to the next. Gillis compresses 20 years of pop music into a singular 53-minute collage, an alternate musical reality in which a sample — everything from Kelly Clarkson to Roy Orbison — is introduced, brought to climax, and abandoned. It’s an exhilarating, ‘anything goes’ game of Name That Tune! on first listen, but remains equally breathtaking the tenth. Zach Schonfeld

 

Artist: Drive-By Truckers

Album: Brighter Than Creation’s Dark

Label: New West

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/d/drivebytruckers-brighterthancreationsdark.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-01-22

UK Release Date: 2008-01-21

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List number: 38

This sprawling 19-track album contains more character studies of the people of the American South than the collected tales of Flannery O’Connor. Like O’Connor, the Truckers aren’t repulsed by the grotesques they write about, they understand the logic of lives twisted by living too close to the bone. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley pen songs about those who still bear the scars of battle in Iraq, the psychic consequences of family life, the ravages of meth addiction, as well as just painting word portraits of the odd habits of regular folks enduring the pressures of everyday existence. Now that the third songwriter Jason Isbell has left the group, his absence has been made up for by Shonna Tucker who provides glimpses of the female side of life. Musically, the album is all over the place from heavy metal style rockers to steel guitar ballads, but it’s this very variety that gives the disc so many unexpected rewards. Steve Horowitz

 

Artist: M83

Album: Saturdays=Youth

Label: Mute

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/m83-saturdaysyouth.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-04-15

UK Release Date: 2008-04-14

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List number: 37

John Hughes fixations weren’t completely atypical in 2008… malnourished 20-somethings everywhere are quite eager to embrace the dearth of responsibility (and fashion sense) most commonly associated with 10th and 11th grade. Anthony Gonzalez’s fondness for Pretty in Pink is actually a noble cause on Saturdays = Youth, however, and his fifth studio album as M83 may be his finest endeavor yet. With nods to the early catalog’s electronics focus, Saturdays packs breezy, full-band tributes to adolescent naiveté and grim cemetery romps. “We Own the Sky” is rich with Gonzalez’s signature synth-soaked melodrama, while the jangly “Graveyard Girl” is worthy of any decent Rhino Britpop compilation. Adept tracklist organization and high school nostalgia work in unison so that Saturdays plays like a Kodak Carousel, until the serene adjourning loops of “Midnight Souls Still Remain” find us hungover and almost completely regretting a feverish bout of promiscuity, if it weren’t for the promiscuous part. Dominic Umile

 

Artist: Al Green

Album: Lay It Down

Label: Blue Note

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/g/greenal-layitdown.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-05-27

UK Release Date: 2008-05-26

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List number: 36

After more than 40 years, Al Green still brings a unique quality to popular music. Often imitated but never equaled, he remains as relevant and energetic as ever on Lay It Down, reminding many an aspiring male vocalist that one must have substance to go with style. Lay It Down is a perfect illustration of the classic R&B sound so many try artists to re-capture in vain. With producers Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and James Poyser at the helm, Green imbues each song with his trademark tenor wail while the Dap-Kings Horns add some brass to the tracks. Larry Gold brings expert orchestration to the title track and the sublime “You’ve Got the Love I Need” (where Green is joined by Anthony Hamilton), making the album an even more sumptuous listening experience. Though it is by no means a comeback, Lay It Down establishes a new career height for Reverend Green. Christian John Wikane

 

Artist: Shearwater

Album: Rook

Label: Matador

Contributors: Jonathan Meiburg, Thor Harris, Kim Burke, Howard Draper, Scott Brackett

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/s/shearwater-rook.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-03

UK Release Date: 2008-06-02

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List number: 35

Delicate crooning and pianissimo accompaniment make way for crashing, bombastic drumming, reverent trumpet, and jarring feedback manipulations on Rook. Austin’s Shearwater, featuring two members of Okkervil River, involves Jonathan Meiburg’s soaring and hushed falsetto vocals amidst a heavenly elongated string section. The band also utilizes their typical array of unusual instruments (e.g., harp and hammered dulcimer). “Rooks”, the near-title track, presents itself with all the elements that characterize the whole album. Tension between loudness and softness, dissonance and consonance, and simple and symphonic pervades the song, and the dark eeriness produced therefrom is echoed by the strange lyrics Meiburg utters. Haunting “The Snow Leopard” sways with a stoic piano-mode keyboard part before becoming more pronounced and involved as the song progresses. Meiburg belts his second verse against particularly raucous drums (by suitably-named drummer Thor Harris) that melt into feedback. The track also stars in the band’s digital release of B-sides. Sarah Moore

 

Artist: Lucinda Williams

Album: Little Honey

Label: Lost Highway

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/w/williamslucinda-littlehoney.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-10-14

UK Release Date: 2008-10-13

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List number: 34

Believe it or not, folks, this is Our Lucinda’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, her “Crazy in Love” and it’s mostly breathtaking, as strong as all save one (you know which) of those records she put out back when she was (ostensibly) miserable, an almost 20-year (!) stretch bookended by 1979’s Ramblin’ and last year’s West. The opener is un-cynically called “Real Love”, and on the track from which the album title derives, “Honey Bee”, she growls like good sex about sweetness all up in her hair and honey in her tummy. In between those two songs, she cries “Tears of Joy”, and promises, “I’ll be your woman / be your everything.” All she asks is don’t tell anybody the secrets, don’t tell anybody the secrets she’s told you. Josh Timmermann

 

Artist: The Mountain Goats

Album: Heretic Pride

Label: 4AD

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/mountaingoatsthe-hereticpride.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-02-19

UK Release Date: 2008-02-18

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List number: 33

John Darnielle’s albums have always had an interconnectedness, an overarching if loose story running through them, giving him a discography full of records that are nothing short of novelistic. But on Heretic Pride, each song pretty much stands alone. While there are themes that run through a lot of the album, particularly one of frenzied isolation as many of his narrators are simply not cut to fit the worlds they live in, the songs don’t come together to create a whole story. But the album loses nothing by setting aside narrative cohesion. In fact these songs, cut free from each other to run around wild-eyed, all surge with a dangerous and infectious zeal. We get tales from and about Halloween‘s Michael Myers, someone channeling H.P. Lovecraft’s creepy misanthropy, pulp novelist Sax Rohmer, the elusive Tianchi monster, and many others. But the album, despite its menagerie of Comic-con friendly characters, never gives in to the kitschy side of writing about these monsters.

Darnielle, every step of the way, channels the humanity in the other, finds slivers of hope in the expanse of darkness. We get the apocalyptic “Craters on the Moon”, but we also get the heartbreakingly sweet birth story of “San Bernadino”. And along with lyrics that never look at mania the same way twice, that mine quotidian details for the stuff that make us fall in love or fall apart, we get a set of songs full of musical variety. From the raggae breeze of “Sept 15, 1983” to the cinematic string-swelling of “Michael Myers Resplendent”, we never hear the same sound twice. Darnielle takes full advantage of Jon Wurster’s propulsive drumming and Peter Hughes’ thumping, sometimes funked-out bass to make Heretic Pride the most full-band record we’ve seen from the Mountain Goats. It is yet another compelling variation on Darnielle’s clear artistic vision. But, maybe more importantly, it is a brilliant, crazed, blood-pulsing, full-throated howl of a record from start to finish. Matt Fiander

 

Artist: My Morning Jacket

Album: Evil Urges

Label: ATO

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/mymorningjacket-evilurges.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-10

UK Release Date: 2008-06-09

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List number: 32

My Morning Jacket always said they wanted to be huge, do everything they desire and never get pinned down. Until Evil Urges, that was mostly evident through a take-no-prisoners live show, unlikely (and unironic) pop/R&B covers, and off-album moments where they took their dusk-and-dawn rock in more eclectic directions. With Evil Urges they pulled their disparate tastes into one cohesive, especially dynamic LP. Their atmospheric rock got a serious jolt of fun, via soul-dabbling, easy-listening balladry, countryside wandering, dream-funk meandering and the oddball-pop jam of the year. They play everything to its ridiculous hilt: an exercise in excess that generates that feeling of awe they are always searching for. Yet the songs are also humble, thoughtfully considering the range of human instincts, positive and negative; the ways we fight against our own interests, and others’. The concept gels with the overall approach they take, to push themselves many directions at once while still moving forward and upward. Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Jamie Lidell

Album: Jim

Label: Warp

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/l/lidelljamie-jim.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-04-29

UK Release Date: 2008-04-28

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List number: 31

Don’t be fooled by appearances… this white boy’s got soul. Lidell’s slick, self-assured follow-up to 2005’s uneven Multiply represents the Brit’s full-blown transition from avant-garde electronica producer to blue-eyed soulster. Wearing his influences unabashedly and reverently, he lays on the chicken-scratch funk guitar (“Little Bit of Feel Good”) and executes a pitch-perfect Stevie Wonder impersonation (“Figured Me Out”). Elsewhere, stripped-down ballads like the acoustic ditty “All I Wanna Do” showcase the singer’s capable falsetto and ear for a pretty melody. Sure, it’s nothing we haven’t heard before, but that doesn’t make Lidell’s earnest, cheerful R&B any less enjoyable. Even the most principled indie hipster might have trouble listening to the lush pianos and hopeful lyrics of “Another Day” without breaking into a grin and letting loose in the clap-along chorus. Adam Conner-Simons

 

30-21

Artist: Bon Iver

Album: For Emma, Forever Ago

Label: Jagjaguwar

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/boniver-foremmaforeverago.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-02-19

UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 30

It’s not often a collection of songs so humble and uncompromising come along in today’s trend-obsessed music market. Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) found himself in an honest battle with life’s confrontations and how to put them into musical form. For Emma, Forever Ago shows that no amount of glossy production and formulaic songwriting can compare to a man with a six-string and real feelings. These nine songs of lo-fidelity that capture everything from the creaks of the floor to the echoes of the room are not the type of songs you can play as background music; they demand your attention with every sitting. Bon Iver is the type of songwriter for those that liked Townes Van Zandt better than Bob Dylan. Rather than being analytical about lyricism, Vernon confronts you emotionally whether you are ready or not, and 30 minutes begin to feel like the beginning of a very long, endearing relationship with an artist. John Bohannon

 

Artist: Q-Tip

Album: The Renaissance

Label: Universal Motown

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Renaissance-Q-Tip/dp/B001GRTPKC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1228320700&sr=1-1

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/q/qtip-renaissance.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-11-04

UK Release Date: 2008-11-03

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List number: 29

Being a prime architect of one of hip-hop’s most influential sounds and possessing one of the greatest and most distinctive rapping voices ever will always put Q-Tip at significant risk for an eventual slide into lazy self-parody. The Renaissance could have very easily have been an uninspired retread of where Tip and A Tribe Called Quest were at musically in 1992 and, honestly, it would have been good. Older hip-hop heads would have eaten the thing up, but one would not have found it on many best-of-the-year lists such as this one. What makes The Renaissance great is the fact that it feels like classic Q-Tip and I don’t mean “classic” in archaic, throwback terms. What I mean is that the Q-Tip’s major-label struggles over the past decade seem to have inspired a similar artistic hunger to whatever hunger youthful struggles may have inspired to create People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. The initial joy of discovering The Renaissance is about as close as we could realistically get in 2008 to feeling once again what it was like to hear a record like The Low End Theory for the first time. Anthony Henriques

 

Artist: Camille

Album: Music Hole

Label: Charisma

Label: EMI

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/c/camille-musichole.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-04-08

UK Release Date: 2008-04-07

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List number: 28

What exactly is the “music hole” of Camille’s third LP? The French singer’s collection of “a cappella pop”, scarcely relying on piano and electronics, would suggest that it’s “the mouth”. The suggestion is supported by Camille’s singing and how convinced she seems that the noises she makes — her humming, panting, gasping, groaning, beatboxing, body smacking, meowing, barking, and baaing like a sheep — can properly be called “music”. Then again, one might argue that the ear is the “music hole”, as the listener interacts with the work. Actually, I think Camille aims for a more symbolic location. That’s why her right hand covers her chest as her head is raised in song on the album cover. That’s why she sounds so earnest when she’s obliterating her vocal chords to make you feel what she’s feeling. This lady’s got a lot of heart. Quentin Huff

 

Artist: Wale

Album: The Mixtape About Nothing

Label: N

Label: A

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/w/wale-themixtapeaboutnothing.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-05-30

UK Release Date: 2008-05-30

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List number: 27

The ingenious premise behind Wale’s endlessly inventive The Mixtape About Nothing finds the DC rapper tackling the complexities of racism and racial identity in post-millennial America through the bizarre prism of Seinfeld star Michael Richards’ notoriously inflammatory 2006 nightclub freak out. Woven around a handful of hilariously relevant sound bytes from the classic series, Wale approaches the issue in a deftly Seinfeldian manner, drolly obsessing over personal anxieties: his unsigned status, his stature within the hip-hop community and, most poignantly, his ability to eventually rise to the challenge of fatherhood. He does this all while avoiding the elephant in the room until it finally explodes in the form of the still-disquieting Richards rant. Radiating with pop culture love and far from actually being about nothing, The Mixtape About Nothing is a genuine meta-text about locating and exorcising the heart of darkness that resides within even the most exuberant of our popular entertainments. Jer Fairall

 

Artist: Neon Neon

Album: Stainless Style

Label: Lex

Contributors: gruff rhys, boom bip

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/n/neonneon-stainlessstyle.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-03-18

UK Release Date: 2008-03-17

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List number: 26

This concept-album collaboration between Boom Bip and Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys, which tells the story of DeLorean DMC-12 creator and playboy John DeLorean through the musical language of mid-’80s electro-pop, is elbow-deep in the world of pastel yuppie accessories and Tron special effects. The two stick their tongues in their cheeks almost begrudgingly. It’s a record steeped in ’80s affection and affectation, ironically distant, perhaps, but never ironically intentioned. And yet, all talk of ’80s life and concept aside, it’s a record about girls and cars. Just like “Rocket 88”, Born to Run, and “Little Red Corvette” before it, Stainless Style gets to the heart of popular music’s motivation through one of its oldest obsessions, following roads that lead somewhere and nowhere with desire and drive stashed in the trunk. Zeth Lundy

 

Artist: El Guincho

Album: Alegranza!

Label: XL

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/e/elguincho-alegranza.jpg

First date: 2008-03-04

US Release Date: 2008-10-07

UK Release Date: 2008-10-13

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List number: 25

The sentiment was universal: cultural unification via pop music. It was the sound emanating from the speakers that was altogether new and exciting. Whether you happened to be fluent in Spanish or not, Alegranza!, the debut full-length from Pablo Díaz-Reixa (aka El Guincho), with it’s endlessly catchy barrage of earworm samples and wordless hooks, quickly established itself as not just another foreign language pop record, but as the most welcoming and celebratory fiesta of the entire year. We all reached for the nearest Person Pitch comparison, but in the end, influence was sidestepped in favor of sheer infectious energy. Songs such as “Fata Morgana” and “Costa Paraiso” took the indie world’s recent fascination with Tropicália inspired beats, tribal rhythms and deftly woven yet unnamable sample material and brought them to their most logical and inspired conclusions. To Díaz-Reixa’s credit however, Alegranza! never felt alien or overtly cerebral, as there was always a ridiculously uplifting or familiar chorus to ground the listener in the here and now. Despite it’s trans-Atlantic locales, Alegranza! felt like home. Jordan Cronk

 

Artist: No Age

Album: Nouns

Label: Sub Pop

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/n/noage-nouns.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-05-06

UK Release Date: 2008-05-05

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List number: 24

Nouns excels to the max at concealing its structure and intelligence. Sure, these songs are busting open with an unheralded force for just two guys. But for all of its abrasive energy, there is a visible craftsmanship in the way the band inserts melodic pop ditties in their mesh of distortion and rapid drum rhythms. The rough texture that coats songs like “Sleeper Hold” and “Cappo” gives way to a sun-speckled catharsis that matches the best of Sonic Youth. Even when the band is seemingly exhaling on expansive numbers like “Keechie” and “Things I Did When I Was Dead”, the irony is that it keeps the listener even more tightly wound, precipitating that next joyous eruption. Hail No Age if you like as the foundation of a LA art–punk scene takeover, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t get better than this. Cause Nouns sets the bar pretty ridiculously high. Gabriel Baker

 

Artist: Beck

Album: Modern Guilt

Label: Interscope

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/beck-modernguilt.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-07-08

UK Release Date: 2008-07-07

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List number: 23

Modern Guilt is proof that Beck doesn’t have to get depressed to mellow out. Nobody would mistake Modern Guilt for a party album — not even a “dark” party album along the lines of Guero or The Information — but it’s also not a cryin’ in your coffee album like Sea Change, or even an acoustic campfire confessional like Mutations or One Foot in the Grave. What Modern Guilt is, is a sneaky album. On first listen, it doesn’t sound like much. On second listen, you start nodding your head. On third listen, you start humming along to some of the catchier melodies. On fourth listen, you’re already looking forward to the fifth through 20th listen. Danger Mouse, who produced the disc, shows an uncommon level of restraint with Beck’s sound, making it clear that the album is a truly collaborative effort, and even if he does recycle a couple of his old beats, a little bit of reuse can be forgiven when the recipient of the old beat is something as great as the title track (on which he uses his proven beat from Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”). This is an album that doesn’t blow you away, it just makes sure you don’t forget about it. Modern Guilt is a modern classic. Mike Schiller

 

Artist: The Walkmen

Album: You & Me

Label: Gigantic

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/w/walkmenthe-youme.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-08-19

UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 22

You & Me beams with what’s become the reliable characteristics of a Walkmen record — glassy, ringing guitar filtering through second-hand amps, an overheating organ — but they’ve gone quieter on their fifth offering, swapping A Hundred Miles Off‘s clamor and even nods to DC hardcore for sentimental fireside drinks and vacation narratives. Trimmed in sparse violins and trumpet, the Walkmen’s fifth album is adorned with impeccably subtle songs that crest in confident, grandiose declarations. Try on “Red Moon” for starters, and see if its classic moonlit melody and tempered brass don’t lead you to the same conclusion. The inclination toward “turning up” materializes in a couple of corners, but the band spends it thoughtfully on blasts that cap off “In the New Year” and the raging “The Blue Route”. Unfolding wonderfully around sometimes just a handful of chords, these are the strongest Walkmen efforts to date. Dominic Umile

 

Artist: Flying Lotus

Album: Los Angeles

Label: Warp

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/f/flyinglotus-losangeles.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-10

UK Release Date: 2008-06-09

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List number: 21

The influence of J Dilla has spread far and wide, and if his tragic death has had any positive consequences, there are now more listeners admiring him and more musicians attempting to continue his legacy than ever before. Enter Flying Lotus (real name Steven Ellison), a fresh young producer with exuberance, smarts, and an undeniable love of Dilla’s signature off-kilter hip-hop beat. On Los Angeles — FlyLo’s exponentially more focused sophomore effort — he shoots his boom-baps up to the asteroid belt where they’re coated in cosmic debris, like Dilla caught in a torrential game of Space Invaders. Indeed, Ellison has stated the influence of video games upon his music, but their relation to each other here is somewhat tricky. Forgoing blocky 8-bit synthesizers for all manner of thumps, twitters and whirls, Flying Lotus tapped into the hyper-stimulated, video game-playing youth of the ’80s and ’90s and created something to be heard by the neurotic and overcaffeinated adults they became. Beats feint and noises swoop down from god knows where, almost as if they know they’re presenting to listeners with shot nerves and short attention spans. And yet, somehow, Ellison’s L.A. doesn’t feel apocalyptic or even all that tense; it’s swift, likeable and livable, with lush undercurrents of melody suggesting a core of serenity lying just beneath the surface. Mike Newmark

 

20-11

Artist: MGMT

Album: Oracular Spectacular

Label: Red Ink

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/mgmt-oracularspectacular.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-01-22

UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 20

Andrew Van Wyngarden and Ben Goldwasser never took their band seriously. A late-2008 SPIN cover story detailed how the duo behind MGMT tended to pepper their early shows with random songs sung over iPods, remixing them to the point of absurdity (topping out with a 40-minute extended cover of the Ghostbusters theme song). Yet when listening to Oracular Spectacular, that sense of some kids singing over an their favorite songs still rings true: here are two smart-alleck college grads who try their damndest to compress the whole of modern psychedlia into 10 concise songs, ranging from the thumping keyboard workout “Kids” to the Flaming Lips-styled grandstanding of “The Handshake”, the whole thing painted with Day-Glo synths and a vibrant devil-may-care energy. It’d be a stretch to call it innovative, but it makes perfect sense to call it what it is: the craziest, trippiest, most exciting pop album you’re going to hear all year. Evan Sawdey

 

Artist: Why?

Album: Alopecia

Label: Anticon

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/w/why-alopecia.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-03-11

UK Release Date: 2008-02-25

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List number: 19

Seeing Yoni Wolf, the mastermind behind Why? in a live setting can be a bit disconcerting. As he performs, his eyes remain fixed on some faraway point, as if he’s reliving the deeply personal narratives that tumble skillfully out of his mouth. His stage persona is by turns unsettling and emotionally vulnerable; as an observer, you don’t know whether you should hug him or keep your distance. Why?’s latest and best album, Alopecia, is sure to elicit similar reactions. A romantic post-mortem that’s unflinchingly candid, the album finds Wolf navigating dense, wordy landscapes full of grief, self-loathing, disillusion and uncertainty. Dialing back the full-on, Pavement-esque indie rock of Elephant Eyelash a bit, Alopecia finds Why? embracing its hip-hop origins even as it delves into dense musical compositions that are as sinister as they are complex. While hip-hop heads and hipsters will argue incessantly about whether this is a hip-hop or indie-rock record, both camps should at least be able to agree that this is one of 2008’s finest. Mehan Jayasuriya

 

Artist: R.E.M.

Album: Accelerate

Label: Warner Bros.

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/r/rem-accelerate.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-04-01

UK Release Date: 2008-03-31

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List number: 18

In 1955 Charlie Wilson, CEO of General Motors, famously said “What is good for General Motors is good for America.” In this context, the modern corollary could be, what’s good for R.E.M. is good for alternative rock. Considering their status as the godfathers of the whole damn indie-alt-college corpus, the fact that they’re still producing relevant music is something of a miracle. That they spent so long wandering in the proverbial desert only makes this hard-earned triumph all the sweeter. Now, to be fair, this is clearly not R.E.M.’s best album, but it’s still a damn good album –- and second-tier R.E.M. still sits head and shoulders above the majority of everything else. Time will tell, but I think it’ll probably age at least as well as Document or Out of Time. Most importantly, this album is good in a way that makes you want to forgive a few lapses. It sounds less like a definitive statement than a prelude, a band stretching their muscles after a long coma, tentative in places but on the right track. They’re back, finally. Tim O’Neil

 

Artist: Crystal Castles

Album: Crystal Castles

Label: Last Gang

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/c/crystalcastles-crystalcastles.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-03-18

UK Release Date: 2008-04-28

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List number: 17

Strong, EP-tested singles don’t always predict a great album. So when Toronto-based remix masters Crystal Castles made the leap in 2008 to full-album debut, the question wasn’t whether they could produce solid, individual tracks — they already proved that with “Alice Practice” — but whether they could create an engaging, all-around sound. The result, while not always cohesive, is nonetheless relentlessly creative. The album is stuffed with 8-bit sounds and console flourishes that act as an electronic backbone. The remix choices range from intelligent tune-ups (“Vanished”) to occasionally brilliant adaptations (“Crimewave”). But what’s often overlooked is the duo’s resourcefulness. “Good Time” creates a lush, hypnotic sequence out of a single phrase, while the abundantly quirky “Air War” matches a plodding electro-beat with vocal dribble before opening up to anthemic proportions. In a year full of fractured sounds and new directions, few bands proved to be as adventurous as Crystal Castles. Gabriel Baker

 

Artist: Fucked Up

Album: The Chemisty of Common Life

Label: Matador

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/f/fuckedup-thechemistyofcommonlife.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-10-07

UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 16

One of hardcore punk’s most admirable characteristics is its unwavering dedication to the music’s formula, but at times, the limitations of the genre’s self-imposed parameters can make for a hell of a lot of repetition, so the fact that Fucked Up has come along in the last couple years and blown the sound wide open is the best, not to mention most polarizing thing to happen to hardcore in a long, long time. Arriving on the heels of 2006’s masterful Hidden World and last year’s daring Year of the Pig EP, The Chemistry of Common Life offers yet another completely unique take on punk, this time with producer Jon Drew leading the way, adorning 11 already scorching songs with layer upon layer of guitars, synths, percussion, orchestration, and guest vocals, the mix massive but never impenetrable, making for a surprisingly comfortable “headphones album” that never overshadows the songs’ incessant hooks and the eloquent rants of raspy-throated vocalist Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham. Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: Gnarls Barkley

Album: The Odd Couple

Label: Downtown

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/g/gnarlsbarkley-theoddcouple.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-03-21

UK Release Date: 2008-03-31

Internet release date: 2008-03-18

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List number: 15

With its satisfying mélange of paranoia, rage, and introspective soul searching, Gnarls Barkley’s highly anticipated release, The Odd Couple definitely lived up to the avant garde’s lofty expectations. Lining his secular hymns with the precision of the most seasoned church deacon, the duo’s soulful mouthpiece, Cee-Lo, plumbs the depths of his inner pain without the slightest hint of self-absorption. His naked truthfulness on “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul”, “Going On”, and “She Knows” represents confessional songwriting at its finest. Our culture loves simple narratives with clearly identifiable heroes and villains, but Cee-Lo and his producer sidekick, Danger Mouse, steer clear of that well trodden road. Enveloped by titillating beats, melodic pop hooks, and soulful vocals bred from the church and the streets, The Odd Couple presents an image of life in which fragmented beings endure and inflict pain, squander freedom, and then find deliverance. Claudrena N. Harold

 

Artist: Vampire Weekend

Album: Vampire Weekend

Label: XL

Label: Beggars

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/v/vampireweekend-vampireweekend.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-01-29

UK Release Date: 2008-01-28

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List number: 14

Earlier in the decade, a group of privileged New York kids got together, called themselves the Strokes, and helped usher in a new era of indie rock. The fact musical tastes will mutate slowly over time is a given, so it should come as no surprise that a late 2000s replacement for the Strokes has arisen. On their self-titled debut, Vampire Weekend display the same affable indifference and bouncy guitar rock as their predecessors. They offer a new groove, however, with their Graceland-like incorporation of African highlife melodies and rhythms into their Clash-checking dorm room chamber pop. Cool enough for the indie kids, plenty peppy for their parents, and insidiously addictive, Vampire Weekend is one of the year’s most flat-out likeable albums. Michael Keefe

 

Artist: Buena Vista Social Club

Album: At Carnegie Hall

Label: Nonesuch

Contributors: Ry Cooder

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/buenavistasocialclub-atcarnegiehall.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-10-14

UK Release Date: 2008-10-13

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List number: 13

Buena Vista Social Club’s eponymous debut album, as curated by Ry Cooder over a decade ago, was single-handedly responsible for reinvigorating the popularity of Afro-Cuban music around the world. But this trend was sparked by pure musicality paired with nostalgic romanticism, something no other son ensemble could convey. The long-awaited release of their documented 1998 Carnegie Hall performance, though, trumps anything put out under the Buena Vista moniker. This has to do entirely with an indescribable aura enveloping the musicians, audience members and historic concert hall all captured on the recording. Palpable electricity erupts into cheers when the opening melody of “Chan Chan” is recognized and every time Barbarito Torres unleashes another laud solo, octogenarian Ruben Gonzalez tickles the ivories or Ibrahim Ferrer croons a bolero. The music is vivacious and visceral, tugging at one’s emotions in inexplicable ways. Most symbolically, though, this enthusiasm is all directed at Cuban nationals whose very performance mitigates the idea of diplomatic tension: tacit cultural diplomacy at its finest. Thomas Hauner

 

Artist: Blitzen Trapper

Album: Furr

Label: Sub Pop

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/blitzentrapper-furr.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-09-23

UK Release Date: 2008-09-22

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List number: 12

Arguably the best kitchen sink band in the business, Blitzen Trapper throw everything they have into each of their records. The result is stylistically uneven, thematically jumbled, and sonically bewildering. Which is what makes them exciting as hell. Imagine Steve Miller and Big Star playing twister with Sloan in the basement at Big Pink. On peyote. This is their finest record to date, surpassing the lofty heights of last year’s triumphant Wild Mountain Nation. In terms of songcraft, these scruffy boys from Oregon have come up with some of the year’s most dazzling melodies, even if their lyrics resist easy connections. While there’s still a bit too much samey-sounding lead guitar for my tastes, the vocal work on standout tracks like “God and Suicide”, “Sleepytime in the Western World”, “Furr”, and “Not Your Lover” is more than enough to make up for it. A big, messy, American masterpiece. Stuart Henderson

 

Artist: The Hold Steady

Album: Stay Positive

Label: Vagrant

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/h/holdsteady.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-07-15

UK Release Date: 2008-07-14

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List number: 11

From the shouted gang vocals on opening song “Constructive Summer” to singer Craig Finn’s pleading in the bridge of final bonus track “Two-Handed Handshake”, the Hold Steady’s latest album is all about the details. Nearly every song on Stay Positive seems to have a little push in just the right place to make it stick in your brain. “Sequestered in Memphis” has the horn section and the perfectly placed handclaps. “One for the Cutters” effectively works in a harpsichord, but it’s Tad Kubler’s ascending minor-key guitar riff that gives the song its oomph. “Lord, I’m Discouraged” has a spectacular false ending following a classic power-ballad guitar solo. The title track has those impeccably placed “Whoa-oh-oh”s and lyrics that reference both the band and the song itself. “Magazines” has a great chorus, while “Joke About Jamaica” piles on the Led Zeppelin references to the point of comedy. And fantastic closer “Slapped Actress” brings back the “whoa”s but actually manages to one-up “Stay Positive” in intensity. Combining these myriad hooks with Craig Finn’s conversational story-lyrics make Stay Positive one of the most exhilarating listens of the year. Chris Conaton

 

10-1

Artist: Los Campesinos!

Album: Hold on Now, Youngster…

Label: Arts & Crafts

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/l/loscampesinos-holdonnowyoungster8230.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-04-01

UK Release Date: 2008-02-25

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List number: 10

British indie lacked many things in 2008, with inspiration, direction and overseas acclaim being chief among them. Albums from supposed big things like Foals and Friendly Fires left us cold, and proved that even though the rest of the world has moved on from post-punk and nu-rave, young Brits thought that the best way to get that Bloc Party money was to poorly rewrite Silent Alarm. Hold On Now, Youngster, the debut from seven Welsh teens, is like 20 million breaths of fresh air, indebted to the hooky roots of indie’s past by drawing in spirit from bands like Pavement and Belle and Sebastian. Each song is no less than orchestrated, with guitars and glockenspiels and violins and keyboards coalescing into precocious and energizing pop. At the center of it all is leader Gareth Campesinos!, whose caustic and hilarious lyrics take the piss out of his peers and himself with a sniper’s precision. Someone get these guys an NME cover. Jordan Sargent

 

Artist: Elbow

Album: The Seldom Seen Kid

Label: Fiction

Label: Geffen

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/e/elbow-theseldomseenkid.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-04-22

UK Release Date: 2008-03-17

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List number: 9

Perpetually underrated as an outfit for the last seven years and three albums, The Seldom Seen Kid was the one Elbow needed to make, and yet perhaps always looked like making. Their fourth record was comfortable, in a way, finding the quintet sure-sounding, debonair and at ease. But rather than treading water, The Seldom Seen Kid was the sound of a band justifiable confident. It took what made the Mancunians’ first two such understated masterpieces — the warmth, the nuanced melodies and the subtly evocative lyricism — and opened them up to something altogether all-encompassing. It surprised no end of people who’d tagged them as kinsmen of Snow Patrol, Coldplay et al; people who never saw coming the beefy, ironclad riffs of “Grounds for Divorce” or the self-effacing gorgeousness of “Tower Crane Driver”. The sweeping orchestral grandeur of “One Day Like This” nabbed all the slow-mo Olympics montages, but there was delicate beauty concealed at every turn: on “Mirrorball”‘s precious piano solo or the heartbreaking simplicity of the elegiac “Friend of Ours”. Long overdue commercial success duly followed. But to a certain collection of devotees (and there have always been quite a few), The Seldom Seen Kid wasn’t the least bit surprising, it was merely Elbow fine-tuned nigh on to perfection. Chris Baynes

 

Artist: Lil Wayne

Album: Tha Carter III

Label: Cash Money

Label: Universal

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/l/lilwayne-thacarter3.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-10

UK Release Date: 2008-06-09

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List number: 8

“Since I am human, I am good and bad, as well, but I try my hardest to stay good… some of things I do and say may be bad, or just not too good—but I do try.” So says the ubiquitous man of the hour, near the end of the finest proper record of his career, as part of a long-winded soliloquy that touches on topics ranging from racial double-standards to drug laws to the Reverend Al Sharpton (“just another Don King with a perm”, per Weezy). However broad or convolutedly worded, it’s a rather striking, and perhaps revealing, statement coming from a very public figure known for both his elusive, schizophrenic mic persona and his much-reported legal woes. And it’s a sentiment that, in retrospect, actually echoes throughout Tha Carter III, from “swallow my words, taste my thoughts / and if it’s too nasty, spit it back at me” to “he so sweet wanna make her lick the wrapper / so I let her lick the rapper”. Josh Timmermann

 

Artist: Deerhunter

Album: Microcastle

Label: Kranky

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/d/deerhunter-microcastle.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-10-28

UK Release Date: 2008-10-27

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List number: 7

When it came to online leakage, Deerhunter/Atlas Sound mastermind Bradford Cox experienced the kind of issues that would most likely send Lars Ulrich into heaving convulsions. After seeing a less-than-faithful fan hack into his Mediafire folder and unleash not only Microcastle, but the surprise bonus disc of material entitled Weird Era, Cont. along with an in-the-works Atlas Sound LP slated for 2009 onto an unsuspecting blogosphere, a lesser artist would’ve hurled themselves off the top of the Google building. However, the music on both discs is so good, a beautiful butterfly of amniotic dream-rock emergent from Deerhunter’s caustic noise-pop cocoon, that just about everyone who helped themselves to a free copy online went out and picked up the physical copy anyway. Cox is a fine testament to the concept that you don’t have to be a major marquee name like Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails to give your shit away online (be it intentional or otherwise) and still move units in the brick-and-mortar record shops. If the music is good enough, people will still want to hold it in their hands. And maybe it’s the Smiths-esque salmon jacket art, but Microcastle/Weird Era, Cont. is worth blowing your milk money on at your local mom-and-pop. Ron Hart

 

Artist: Cut Copy

Album: In Ghost Colours

Label: Modular

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/c/cutcopy-inghostcolours.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-04-08

UK Release Date: 2008-05-05

Australia release date: 2008-04-08

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List number: 6

These Aussie synthie stalwarts must have absorbed a busload of music between 2004’s Bright Like Neon Love and the trip to meet with the DFA’s Tim Goldsworthy to discuss their fond affections for Electric Light Orchestra and Manchester-sounding bass grooves. That trip found them recording In Ghost Colours, their phenomenally long, exhausting, and persistently stellar 2008 electropop gem. In Ghost Colours blisses out on M83/ MBV earphoria, finds love in the nu-romantic street lantern glow between early ’80s Madonna and New Order gyrations, and delights in taking analogues and digitals to their twinkliest peaks. Orchestrated scientifically for maximum effect, the album contains a glossary’s worth of tiny phrases, micro-bridges, and measured textures that cite the ghosts of the stroboscopic dancefloor past (Doo-wop backup crooning, house vamps, Britpop distortion effects, etc.). But none of that really matters, because the record’s compulsive beats and mindlessly catchy vocals will hook and infect any random passerby. Timothy Gabriele

 

Artist: The Bug

Album: London Zoo

Label: Ninja Tune

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/bugthe-londonzoo.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-08-12

UK Release Date: 2008-07-07

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List number: 5

From reggae to electronica to grime to dancehall to hip-hop to dubstep, London Zoo is a thick, thumping musical fog; a monstrous tour de force that was simply unmatched this year. Monumental bass and apocalyptic drums are couched in smooth, deep melodies, with subtle bursts and flourishes supporting the mayhem going on elsewhere. At the top of the mix, the likes of Ricky Ranking, Tippa Irie and Warrior Queen tell harrowing and disquieting tales of life in 2008. Paranoid, politically-charged and brutally rewarding, London Zoo is a truly global record, the kind that could only have come out of the planet’s only truly global city. London Zoo represents these corrupt and crumbling times every bit as well as OK Computer captured the pre-millennium blues. James Bassett

 

Artist: Erykah Badu

Album: New Amerykah, Part One

Subtitle: (4th World War)

Label: Motown

Label: Universal

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/baduerykah-newamerykah.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-02-26

UK Release Date: 2008-03-03

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List number: 4

A journey through the creativity that resides beneath Erykah Badu’s funky Afro makes for an amazing ride. Ever since her debut, Baduizm, she’s been working her mojo of mystical lyricism and soul tingling harmonies into a one-woman revolutionary movement. New Amerykah is an epic achievement about positioning oneself in the world, and being participatory in its paradigm shifts. While its political leanings suggest an attention to family, community, and national identity, the album is most potent in the personal realm. Ms. Badu is not afraid to explore her own struggles and shortcomings. Heady stuff packed in aspirin-sized lyrical doses, New Amerykah pays homage to artists J. Dilla and Ol’ Dirty Bastard as well as hip-hop culture in general. Badu’s cinematic vision drives this tour de force of jazz stylings, hip-hop swag, and R&B — everything a soul sista needs to keep you groovin’ to her righteous rhythms. Quentin Huff

 

Artist: TV on the Radio

Album: Dear Science

Label: Interscope

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Dear-Science-TV-Radio/dp/B001EOQTSI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1221700085&sr=1-1

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/t/tvontheradio-dearscience.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-09-23

UK Release Date: 2008-09-22

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List number: 3

Things are clearer and muddier than ever on TV on the Radio’s superb third LP, Dear Science. The NYC band still plays at times like a twisted nightmare of Princely funk, but they could fill stadiums with the breadth and finesse of their new songs. As far as art-rock goes, TV on the Radio has always been more concrete than (similar critical darlings) Radiohead, more willing to trade in rock’s recognizable cogs and gears; their paranoia and alienation embodied not in a wailing, inchoate voice but in aggressive and intelligible metaphors. Dear Science, might be the group’s most accessible look at that alienation, but it compromises none of their dour outlook for all the new/shiny production and strings/horns that accompany dual frontmen Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone. In this sense, “Golden Age” was a false promise as first-taste –- things aren’t, despite the “there’s a golden age coming round”, all milk and Cookie Mountains. And TV on the Radio are still fascinated by that ragged edge, the intersection of mechanics and technology and its haunting effect on our lives. Like Return to Cookie Mountain, Dear Science invites adoration and interpretation. For something that sparkles so immediately and so brilliantly, that’s treasure worth cherishing indeed. Dan Raper

 

Artist: Fleet Foxes

Album: Fleet Foxes

Label: Sub Pop

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/f/fleetfoxes-fleetfoxes.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-03

UK Release Date: 2008-04-08

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List number: 2

One of the year’s most striking, unique, and magical releases, Fleet Foxes was pure synergy from the beginning. A 22-year-old writes songs in his parents’ basement in the Seattle suburbs. He and a childhood friend move to the big city to look for jobs. They form a band instead. Those basement songs are transformed into ethereal, majestic, sweeping anthems that are nonetheless intimate. This hirsute, flannel-wearing crew’s influences were readily apparent. But somehow, Robin Pecknold and his mates took the block harmonies of Crosby, Stills, and Nash and the Beach Boys, the haunted atmospherics of My Morning Jacket, and the whole of Brian Wilson’s “Teenage Symphonies to God” esthetic, and synthesized them into something with a life all its own. Fleet Foxes was rooted in the forests, riverbeds, and expanses of the Cascade Mountains, but the appeal of its songcraft, sincerity, and transportive power transcends time and place. John Bergstrom

 

Artist: Portishead

Album: Third

Label: Island

Label: Mercury

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/p/portishead-third.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-04-29

UK Release Date: 2008-04-28

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List number: 1

Sure, it wasn’t a hiatus of Chinese Democracy proportion, but Portishead’s decade-long lapse between albums two and three meant that Third was scrutinized more intensely than most albums released this year. Luckily, the English trio came back with a record that wasn’t a mere return to form, but a complete reinvention. In essence, it shouldn’t have worked. The band returned with a dense, richly layered record to a blog-saturated world where songs are judged in snippets rather than as a full, satisfying whole. Mixing folk and jazz inflections with krautrock rhythms and Beth Gibbons’ smoky, off-kilter vocals, Portishead cooked up a sumptuous, painstakingly created, musical feast. And, like any good meal, this time-consuming concoction had to be digested slowly, soaking in the subtle shading, textures, and flavor, in order to appreciate its full effect. As challenging as it is rewarding, Third is an album that gets better with every bite. Kevin Pearson

 
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