The Best Albums of 2008: 20-11

Artist: MGMT
Album: Oracular Spectacular
Label: Red Ink
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

MGMT – Electric FeelMGMT: Oracular Spectacular

Artist: Why?
Album: Alopecia
Label: Anticon
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

Why? – Song of the Sad AssassinWhy?: Alopecia

Artist: R.E.M.
Album: Accelerate
Label: Warner Bros.
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

R.E.M. – Supernatural SuperseriousR.E.M.: Accelerate

Artist: Crystal Castles
Album: Crystal Castles
Label: Last Gang
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

Crystal Castles – Courtship DatingCrystal Castles: Crystal Castles

Artist: Fucked Up
Album: The Chemisty of Common Life
Label: Matador
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

“No Epiphany”

“Twice Born”

Fucked Up – Black Albino BonesFucked Up: The Chemisty of Common Life

Artist: Gnarls Barkley
Album: The Odd Couple
Label: Downtown
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

Gnarls Barkley – Going OnGnarls Barkley: The Odd Couple

Artist: Vampire Weekend
Album: Vampire Weekend
Label: XL
Label: Beggars
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

Vampire Weekend – Oxford CommaVampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend

Artist: Buena Vista Social Club
Album: At Carnegie Hall
Label: Nonesuch
Contributors: Ry Cooder
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

Buena Vista Social Club: At Carnegie Hall

Artist: Blitzen Trapper
Album: Furr
Label: Sub Pop
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

Blitzen Trapper – Furr (Live on Late Night with Conan O’Brien)Blitzen Trapper: Furr

Artist: The Hold Steady
Album: Stay Positive
Label: Vagrant
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

The Hold Steady – Stay PositiveThe Hold Steady: Stay Positive