The Best Albums of 2008: 30-21

Artist: Bon Iver
Album: For Emma, Forever Ago
Label: Jagjaguwar
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

Bon Iver – For Emma (acapella)Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago

Artist: Q-Tip
Album: The Renaissance
Label: Universal Motown
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

Q-Tip – Renaissance RapQ-Tip: The Renaissance

Artist: Camille
Album: Music Hole
Label: Charisma
Label: EMI
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

Camille – Money NoteCamille: Music Hole

Artist: Wale
Album: The Mixtape About Nothing
Label: N
Label: A
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

Wale – The Artistic IntegrityWale: The Mixtape About Nothing

Artist: Neon Neon
Album: Stainless Style
Label: Lex
Contributors: gruff rhys, boom bip
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

Neon Neon – I Lust YouNeon Neon: Stainless Style

Artist: El Guincho
Album: Alegranza!
Label: XL
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

El Guincho – Palmitos ParkEl Guincho: Alegranza!

Artist: No Age
Album: Nouns
Label: Sub Pop
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

No Age – EraserNo Age: Nouns

Artist: Beck
Album: Modern Guilt
Label: Interscope
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

Beck – Gamma RayBeck: Modern Guilt

Artist: The Walkmen
Album: You & Me
Label: Gigantic
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

The Walkmen – In the New YearThe Walkmen: You & Me

Artist: Flying Lotus
Album: Los Angeles
Label: Warp
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

Flying Lotus: Los Angeles