The Best Albums of 2008: 40-31

Artist: Lykke Li
Album: Youth Novels
Label: EMI
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

Lykke Li – I’m Good, I’m GoneLykke Li: Youth Novels

Artist: Girl Talk
Album: Feed the Animals
Label: Illegal Art
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

Girl Talk – What It’s All AboutGirl Talk: Feed the Animals

Artist: Drive-By Truckers
Album: Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
Label: New West
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

Drive-By Truckers – Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife (live)Drive-By Truckers: Brighter Than Creation’s Dark

Artist: M83
Album: Saturdays=Youth
Label: Mute
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

M83 – Graveyard GirlM83: Saturdays=Youth

Artist: Al Green
Album: Lay It Down
Label: Blue Note
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

Al Green – Lay It DownAl Green: Lay It Down

Artist: Shearwater
Album: Rook
Label: Matador
Contributors: Jonathan Meiburg, Thor Harris, Kim Burke, Howard Draper, Scott Brackett
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

Shearwater: Rook

Artist: Lucinda Williams
Album: Little Honey
Label: Lost Highway
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

Lucinda Williams – Real Love (Live on Letterman)Lucinda Williams: Little Honey

Artist: The Mountain Goats
Album: Heretic Pride
Label: 4AD
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

The Mountain Goats – Sax Rohmer #1The Mountain Goats: Heretic Pride

Artist: My Morning Jacket
Album: Evil Urges
Label: ATO
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

My Morning JacketEvil Urges promotional videoMy Morning Jacket: Evil Urges

Artist: Jamie Lidell
Album: Jim
Label: Warp
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

Jamie Lidell – Another DayJamie Lidell: Jim