Part 1: AmpLive to Damien Jurado

Artist: AmpLive

Album: Rainydayz Remixes

Label: self-released

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/a/amplive-rainydayzremixes.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-02-11

UK Release Date: 2008-02-11

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Girl Talk aside, no one seems to want to talk about mashups these days, which, as consensus dictates, are “so 2007”, or something like that. It’s a shame, then, that Rainydayz Remixes, an album-length remix of Radiohead’s In Rainbows by Bay Area DJ AmpLive, seems to have been ignored on year-end lists (ours included) by virtue of its association with mashup culture. Yes, Rainydayz Remixes is very much a product of the same forces that flooded the Internet with slapdash mashups (Jaydiohead, anyone?), but that fact does little to justify its dismissal. On Rainydayz, AmpLive works with a cast of talented contributors (Del the Funkee Homosapien, Charli 2na, Too $hort) to chop up, reconfigure and reimagine Radiohead’s compositions. In AmpLive’s able hands, Thom Yorke’s piano on “Videotape” becomes a haunting, RZA-style backdrop for Del’s laconic rhymes; fan favorite “Nude” is transformed into a late-night rumination on violence; and opener “15 Step” is reborn as a indie rock/R&B hybrid the likes of which would make even TV on the Radio jealous. Make no mistake, Rainydayz may have been offered as a free download but it was still more interesting than most of the “legitimate” remix albums that lined store shelves in 2008. Mehan Jayasuriya

 

Artist: Jason Anderson

Album: The Hopeful and the Unafraid

Label: K

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US Release Date: 2008-04-04

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Constantly overlooked by critics, Jason Anderson is one of the most prolific and affecting songwriters writing music today… and write music he does. Sometimes it’s pure folk and sometimes it’s pure rock. In 2008, he released four digital and two “proper” releases, which I am praising. The Hopeful & The Unafraid was made as an attempt to document the songs he had been playing on that particular tour. It opens with “El Paso”, a perfect example of a typical Jason song; in which he explains to his brother why he goes out on the road and plays anywhere and everywhere. Life Sucks Love Sucks Dose Out treads into darker and more personal waters, especially “I Am Like Snow to You”, choppy with emotion. His live shows are extra special and by the end of each show, he has made nearly every audience member a friend, rather than just a fan. Leigh Kelsey

 

Artist: Autistic Daughters

Album: Uneasy Flowers

Label: Kranky

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US Release Date: 2008-03-04

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The term “slow burn” was made for Uneasy Flowers, the second offering from New Zealand-based supergroup Autistic Daughters. Following the rickety post-rock of 2004’s Jealousy and Diamond, the band returned with a newfound sense of purpose and conjured a viciously imagined aural landscape that’s all the more haunting for its sparseness. Set in perpetual nighttime in what could be a depressed version of Middle America, we get a seriously fragmented quasi-story of a man named Rehana, who wanders through the record in a half-asleep, half-drunk, possibly psychotic state. Scattershot images flash before our eyes, as in a dream that isn’t quite a nightmare but still feels wrong, and human instinct forces us to make connections between disparate parts; is the kid who chooses gin over sour milk the same Rehana Jr. who hears the President caution him with strange adages? Naturally, the music is a reflection of the protagonist’s world, with shuddering guitars, Spartan pianos, fractured drums, frayed radio transmissions, and the deer-in-the-headlights singing of vocalist Dean Roberts. The densely layered closer, “Hotel Exeter Dining Room”, turns the record’s convoluted anxiety into flat-out dread: as the guitars and the voices ascend higher and higher they become no less pessimistic, bracing themselves for the train at the end of the tunnel. The musicians have captured Rehana’s inner turmoil so masterfully that we are not merely voyeurs; we are invisible presences walking alongside him, experiencing the world as he does. Relentlessly introverted, quietly terrifying and endlessly fascinating, Uneasy Flowers takes the notion of what a successful album in 2008 should sound like and burns it, slowly, through and through. Mike Newmark

 

Artist: Be Your Own Pet

Album: Get Awkward

Label: XL

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US Release Date: 2008-03-18

UK Release Date: 2008-03-17

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In a year in which the critics couldn’t get enough of introspective boys who were in touch with their sensitive side, leave it to a chick-fronted band from Nashville to provide some much-needed balls. Be Your Own Pet’s second album — and unfortunately their last — reminds us that guitars are for more than just strumming around the campfire. They can be plugged in, too. As is true of most punk at its best, Get Awkward is about being young. Sure, a song like “Twisted Nerve” taps into the darker side of adolescence (“Rip out my hair / Wish that it’s yours”), but for the most part this is a celebration. “I just want to run around / I just wish to party down”, screams Jemina Pearl on the opening song, before doing just that for the following 12 tracks and 29 minutes. The band’s exuberance is never more unconstrained than it is on “Food Fight”, a minute-long song that is both an homage to Black Flag’s “TV Party” and an improvement by virtue of meaning less. So enjoy your marshmallows and your Bon Iver tunes. I’ll be in the car keeping warm with Ms. Pearl and the boys. Kirby Fields

 

Artist: Bellafea

Album: Cavalcade

Label: Southern

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US Release Date: 2008-06-03

UK Release Date: 2008-08-25

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In a year where our most universal, and misguided, symbol for feminine strength was a mayor from Alaska, it is nice to know that people like Heather McIntire, and her band Bellafea, are out there. Cavalcade rocks hard enough to put any of the boys to shame, with McIntire’s gruff, full-throated vocals and angular guitar work leading the way. From the melodic shout of “Depart (I Never Knew You)” to the biting snap of “Bones to Pick” to the chaotic noise of “Thornbird II”, McIntire and company take on rock music from all sides with each track more ferocious and energetic than the last. But the anger on Cavalcade is not just easy pessimism, it’s a demand to galvanize and build communities. To avoid being divided. And the force with which this album pushes us to act is a physical one. Sure, Bellafea can now step into a hole left by Sleater-Kinney and their ilk, but more importantly they captured a vital feeling on Cavalcade. And Heather McIntire proved herself the perfect voice — hopeful, angry, undeniable — to put sound to that feeling. And it’s a sound more people should hear. Matt Fiander

 

Artist: The Black Angels

Album: Directions to See a Ghost

Label: Light in the Attic

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US Release Date: 2008-05-13

UK Release Date: 2008-05-12

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Tailor-made for LSD-soaked backyard happenings on moonless nights, Austin’s Black Angels have clearly chosen darkness. But they love us enough to evade tedium, though succinct they are not. Over unremitting low-end vibrations, they carve out beguiling Jimmy Page hooks (“You in Color”), lay down a groove of pure serpentine temptation (“Snake in the Grass”), and darkly compare American empire to prideful Nordic rapine (“Vikings”). Singer Alex Maas’ paranoid wail is heavily echoed at all times, and the tone is immanently apocalyptic. In a year in which hope was a political commodity, the Black Angels provided a despondent counterpoint to the autumnal glow of Obamania. In “18 Years”, Maas grins, “Something black / Answers back / From the dungeon / And you smile”; ten words that sum up the last eight years, and provide the next President’s ubiquitous three words with a whip at their heels. Ross Langager

 

Artist: Born Ruffians

Album: Red, Yellow and Blue

Label: Warp

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US Release Date: 2008-03-04

UK Release Date: 2008-05-26

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In a year when sharply crafted pop drew so much attention (MGMT, Los Campesinos!, Vampire Weekend, etc), it doesn’t make sense for Toronto’s Born Ruffians to get left in the cold. Simply some of the catchiest, but also smartest, pop released all year, it’s an album of ear worms that fire your neurons while embedding themselves in your head. Frontman Luke Lalonde paints a complex, convincing picture of young-20s life, misguided intentions mixing with youthful regret, desperate longing for something happen mingling with dreams of better times to come, all over a stomping drums, effortless guitar hooks and boisterous, infectious harmonies (and, just once, incorporating lyrics from Cat’s Cradle). Here’s hoping this one gets rediscovered when their next album starts showing up on year-end lists. David Berry

 

Artist: Roger Bryan and the Orphans

Album: Recovery

Label: Harvest Sum

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What Roger Bryan and the Orphans have is what the Replacements had. It is what R.E.M. had at one time and many speculate have lost. It is what thousands of high school and college musicians have but then tuck away in the recess of their souls when they take gigs counting people’s money or teaching eighth grade civics for a living. Roger Bryan and the Orphans have heart… and great songs… and a collective of friends in relative proximity. All of these led to a criminally under recognized release in Recovery. Recovery is reckless and loud. It teeters on the verge of falling apart entirely and miraculously recovers. It is a pure rock record in a year dominated by glockenspiels and ethereal indie clowns. It fights the good fight. Based out of western New York, Roger Bryan and the Orphans are part of the Harvest Sum collection of musicians. Among the bands there is Semi-Tough, The (now defunct) Sweetheart’s and Roger Bryan. They all share recording space at the Harvest Studio. T is a not so subtle reminder of what a rock and roll record is supposed to sound like. Joseph Carver

 

Artist: Lindsey Buckingham

Album: Gift of Screws

Label: Reprise

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/4/41ilcelr5ml._sl500_aa240_.jpg

First date: Sept. 16

US Release Date: 2008-09-16

UK Release Date: 2008-09-15

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There are thousands of fine albums that are underpublicized, underdistributed, or even unreleased because their creators are too obscure. But there’s an infinitely smaller category of brilliant albums that are underrated because their creators are too famous and successful. One of these would be Lindsey Buckingham’s The Gift of Screws. It’s the most memorable album of 2008, but, like all of Buckingham’s solo work, not a huge seller, probably because his renown as the creative force behind the latter-day Fleetwood Mac has overshadowed his individual genius. As in all his solo CDS, this one mixes two distinct styles. There are the melodic and deeply felt songs featuring shimmering, intricately filigreed fingerpicking, as in “Time, Precious Time” and “Did You Miss Me?” And there are wonderfully eccentric one-offs like the title track, which combines a great Emily Dickinson poem with maniacal laughter and somehow makes it all work. Lindsey Buckingham is the real King of Pop. Michael Antman

 

Artist: Barton Carroll

Album: The Lost One

Label: Skybucket

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US Release Date: 2008-01-22

UK Release Date: Available as import

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It took seven years for for The Lost One to come out, and that was only after Carroll started handing out copies of his solo work while touring in bands like Crooked Fingers, Dolorean, and Azure Ray. Better late than never, since it’s one of the most enjoyable singer/songwriter discs of the year. Carroll’s most immediately engaging material is spry and funny (such as the blue-collar “I’ll save you from the hipsters” vibe of “Brooklyn Girl, You’re Going to Be My Bride”) but he more often taps a vein of darkness that sneaks up on you (the obsession-tinted “Superman” and several other stalker vignettes). But his work also has a brittle and delicate complexity, exemplifed by the recalled horrors of “Small Thing”, in which a woman matter-of-factly tells her daughter about being raped during the Soviet occupation of Berlin. It’s a harrowing song, but throughout it, Carroll makes an honest attempt to explore inhumanity’s legacy — the kind of topic that too many songwriters would drown in broadness and platitudes. Andrew Gilstrap

 

The Charlatans to Alejandro Escovedo

Alejandro Escovedo

Artist: The Charlatans

Album: You Cross My Path

Label: Cooking Vinyl

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

US Release Date: 2008-06-10

UK Release Date: 2008-05-12

Internet release date: 2008-03-03

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The Charlatans spent nearly 20 years as British rock survivors. They overcame critical skepticism and all sorts of bizarre calamities to become one of Britain’s best rock bands. By 2006,though, directionless and drug-addled, it seemed they were finally about to write themselves off. So leader Tim Burgess sobered up and the band sharpened up their songwriting pens. The faux-reggae was ditched and the Hammond organ was dusted off. Veteran engineer Alan Moulder (Smashing Pumpkins, Swervedriver) was brought in to add a sharp, glimmering edge. And the taut, nervy You Cross My Path was the band’s best album in a decade. Ten lean, mean, melodic, danceable songs, and no frills. Crucially, the Charlatans rediscovered their knack for co-opting UK pop trends while retaining their own identity. While the Killers and Primal Scream tried with mixed results to add modern relevance to 1980s dance music, and Oasis made a hit-and-miss attempt at resurrecting Britpop-era tunes’n’tude, You Cross My Path excelled at both. John Bergstrom

 

Artist: Elvis Costello and The Imposters

Album: Momofuku

Label: Lost Highway

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US Release Date: 2008-05-06

UK Release Date: 2008-05-05

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After vowing to stop making albums, Elvis Costello thankfully reneged on that threat and delivered one of his spriest albums in years, with Momofuku. Named after the creator of Ramen noodles, and referencing both the quick prep of the soup and this record, Momofuku was one of the rare albums (by any artist) that favorably and accurately sounded like a musician’s “old” stuff, while still moving the ball forward — no small feat given Costello’s wide-ranging discography. To wit, the opening one-two punch of “No Hiding Place” and “American Gangster Time” could legitimately have been This Year’s Model outtakes and “Harry Worth” mixed Imperial Bedroom‘s orchestration with the noir of The Delivery Man. To top things off, album closer “Go Away” proved Costello’s still got more piss and vinegar in him than most supposed actual Angry Young Men. Stephen Haag

 

Artist: Carl Craig and Moritz Von Oswald

Album: Recomposed Vol. 3

Label: Deutsche Grammophon

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US Release Date: 2008-10-17

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Both minimalist and technically complex, Carl Craig and Moritz Von Oswald’s Recomposed: Music by Maurice Ravel & Modest Mussorgsky is a transgression into the world of soundscapes represented by two of the most prestigious artists in the electronic world. Originally commissioned by the Berlin Philarmonic, Oswald went in and took out the original multi-tracks to Maurice Ravel’s Bolero and Rapsodieespagnole, and Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in Ravel’s orchestration. He then invited Carl Craig along for the ride where they both worked meticulously on the recomposing of classical orchestrations from the mid-’80s. What came out was a world of analog soundscapes that build among old-school techno drum machines and sampled orchestrations. It’s as intriguing as Brian Eno’s work with Cluster, meticulous as Philip Glass, and ambitious as Steve Reich. John Bohannon

 

Artist: Deerhoof

Album: Offend Maggie

Label: Kill Rock Stars

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/d/deerhoof-offendmaggie.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-10-07

UK Release Date: 2008-10-13

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It may be a publicity stunt, but it’s one too ingenious to come from any other band: soliciting fan interpretations by releasing the sheet music before the song itself. Plenty of the “Fresh Born” recordings captured the group’s warped, split-second melodic instincts, but none nailed that intensely raw, noise-rock undercurrent, a brilliant foil to Satomi Matsuzaki’s cutesy “tot tots” and “rah rahs”. Offend Maggie, the group’s ninth album in about as many years, is all about that contradiction, scaling back the extravagant, proggy flourishes of Friend Opportunity. And really, to hear “My Purple Past” blast from the speakers, all visceral, noisy riffs and monstrous drum grooves, is to be reminded that the ‘hoof is a rock band first and foremost, and they do bring the rock. Glancing at year end lists, it seems the critics and indie kids alike jumped off the Deerhoof wagon as abruptly as they hopped on in ’05. It’s their loss. Zach Schonfeld

 

Artist: Department of Eagles

Album: In Ear Park

Label: 4AD

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US Release Date: 2008-10-07

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This release from Fred Nicolaus and Daniel Rossen, dedicated to Rossen’s late father, is a collection comprised of everything from intimate creaks and strums to brash, bold collages of scattered textures. More than once, scratchy chords, resigned vocals, and battered beats give way to lyrical passages of emotional force and pure intensity rivaling any alternative work released this year. Nicolaus and Rossen successfully achieve what so many of their peers aim to do but can not: they have created a work driven by eclecticism that never once feels contrived. Angsty and momentous, mournful and glorious, In Ear Park causes speakers to effuse a delicate glow for many moments after the last track fades away, as both its haunting lulls and sweeping storms linger in the ear and mind. Elizabeth Newton

 

Artist: Digitonal

Album: Save Your Light for Darker Days

Label: Just Music

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/d/digitonal.jpg

US Release Date: Available as import

UK Release Date: 2008-09-09

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Digitonal is a British electronic project whose gorgeous 2008 album flew mostly under the radar. Featuring fragile chamber orchestration and carefully constructed rhythms above sweeping waves of sound, their latest is a tour de force of genre fusion. “Ana Kata” oozes with shoegaze, channeling the note-bending of My Bloody Valentine and the calm of Slowdive. “A Lighter Touch”’s crisp electronics would delight any fan of Ulrich Schnauss or Boards of Canada. “Emberkreiss” echoes the post-rock of Saxon Shore and The Album Leaf. “Silver Poetry”’s muted vocals even call to mind Dredg at their quietest moments. What really makes the album indispensable, though, is the interpolation of small-ensemble strings, clarinet, and harp into this ultramodern sound world. Their slow, deliberate, graceful melodies evoke the heartbreaking, profound sorrow found in the “holy minimalism” of composers like Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki. In straddling the worlds of ambient electronica and modern classical, Digitonal have created a masterpiece not to be missed. C.T. Heaney

 

Artist: The Dirtbombs

Album: We Have You Surrounded

Label: In the Red

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US Release Date: 2008-02-26

UK Release Date: 2008-02-23

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These Detroit uber-garage punks have made a soul album, a pop album and now, an end of the world album, but it’s hard to say which is more fun. We Have You Surrounded is their fin du monde epic (they even have a song called “Fin Du Monde”, and it’s in French, suckas!) partying at the edge of the abyss. With these big fuzzy bass lines, exuberant “yeah yeahs”, skanky distorted guitars and pounding double drums, it had better be the end of days, or we’ll all have a hangover tomorrow. It’s all good, but the undeniable climax is “Leopardman at C&A” as sharply written as it is body-shaking and, hands down, my favorite song of 2008. Jennifer Kelly

 

Artist: The Dodos

Album: Visiter

Label: French Kiss

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US Release Date: 2008-03-18

UK Release Date: Available as import

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San Franciso’s the Dodos eschew the tropes of a traditional guitar-and-drum duo. Heavily influenced by West African Ewe drumming Singer Meric Long applies rhythmic finger-picking to his pleasant folk melodies while drummer Logan Kroeber supplies the complex tom-tom heavy beats. Of course, Visiter is peppered with an assortment of horns, backing vocals and toy piano but the songs essentially revolve around what Long describes as the “space between the beats”. It’s perhaps this reliance on the Ewe drumming method that separates the Dodos from other indie folk acts. Their single “Fools” shows the beauty of this approach as Meric Long’s gentle croon gives way to the raw underbelly of breakneck drumming. The result is a surprisingly supple two-piece. Freak-folkers everywhere should be intimidated. Joe Tacopino

 

Artist: Earth

Album: The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull

Label: Southern Lord

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US Release Date: 2008-02-26

UK Release Date: 2008-02-25

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For 20 solid years, guitarist Dylan Carlson and his ever-revolving cast of collaborators in Earth have defined metallic drone music for a generation of musicians. Following a re-emergence from a five-year hiatus in 2002, they inking a deal with influential doom label Southern Lord and recorded an amazing album in ’05, Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method, that played upon Carlson’s love for the soundtrack works of Ry Cooder and Ennio Morricone. Flanked by perhaps his strongest line-up yet, Carlson’s sixth Earth album perfects those dustbowl atmospherics merely hinted at in Hex by creating an arresting work of dark desert beauty that would serve as a perfect score for the forthcoming film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece The Road. Ron Hart

 

Artist: Alejandro Escovedo

Album: Real Animal

Label: Back Porch

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US Release Date: 2008-06-24

UK Release Date: 2008-06-24

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Alejandro Escovedo takes a sweeping, 360-degree view of his life so far, careening from downtown NYC days (“Chelsea Hotel”), to a fascination with Iggy (“Real Animal”), to a boot-knocking cow-punk era (“Nun Song”, “Chip ‘N Tony”) through to late-life serenity (“Slow Down”). Escovedo can still rock as hard as anyone, but he achieves transcendence in two of the disc’s gentlest, most lyrical moments. “Sister Lost Soul” mourns the passing of a love who wandered off alone, years ago, to be lost but not forgotten, while “Golden Bear” ponders the virus that almost killed Escovedo and persists, even now, in his blood. Poetic but never overwritten, nostalgic but not in the least sentimental, this is Escovedo’s finest album yet. Jennifer Kelly

 

Evol Intent to Frightened Rabbit

Firewater

Artist: Evol Intent

Album: Era of Diversion

Label: System Recordings

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/e/evolintent-eraofdiversion.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-03-04

UK Release Date: 2008-03-04

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Most often in collaborative electronic efforts, a dominant personality emerges and the other players work to support and accent that one vision. Pendulum is a trio and they keep making the same standard club tracks over and over, as is Cobblestone Jazz, who make solid but consistent house. With their impressive debut long-player, Atlanta threesome Evol Intent rocked the final year of King Bush II’s reign with righteous social commentary and a stunning assault on the senses.

Knick, Gigantor, and The Enemy pooled their influences to produce a full-length cornucopia of democratically approved hip-hop, industrial, IDM, and every shade of drum and bass, from angry club jungle to angelic breakcore. And they fit all that in without a single sound seeming out of place. They didn’t kowtow to the word from the White House or to a hipster niche market, like you pretty much have to as an electronic music act to get anywhere these days. They were merely true to themselves, their educations, their influences, and their fans. Long after the Girl Talk fad dries up and blows away to Macarena Land and Obama leads the world into a slightly less terrible age, the quality variety demonstrated in Era Of Diversion will still be talked about. Filmore Mescalito Holmes

 

Artist: Firewater

Album: The Golden Hour

Label: Bloodshot

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US Release Date: 2008-05-06

UK Release Date: 2008-04-14

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Lots of people talked about leaving the country when George W. Bush was re-elected, but Firewater frontman Tod A. was one of the few who actually went through with it (although a divorce didn’t help). A., however, turned his self-imposed exile into a musical journey through Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Turkey as he recorded off-the cuff sessions with local musicians playing traditional instruments. There’s no scholarly approach to world music here, though. This is a Firewater record, and that means a bigtop/barstool/goodfellas vibe with the gruff-voiced A. sounding like what you’d get if the Pogues’ Shane MacGown had been raised by carnies instead of a whiskey bottle. As The Golden Hour progresses, often bitter lyrics take us from his initial bridge-burning exit to his ambivalent return (“everything’s the same / Or maybe just a little bit worse”). Sombre stuff, but on an album where lively “cannibal drums” provide the bulk of the percussion, things never descend into pensive self-pity. This might just be Firewater’s best record yet. Andrew Gilstrap

 

Artist: The Fleshtones

Album: Take a Good Look

Label: Yep Roc

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/f/fleshtones-takeagood.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-01-22

UK Release Date: 2008-01-26

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What a golden era for the Fleshtones faithful. First, a remarkably detailed biography pops up in late ’07. Then word of a documentary makes the rounds. Then they demolish the gates of ’08 with their finest album yet, Take a Good Look (and top the year off with a Christmas record, Stocking Stuffer). Produced by Ivan Julian, Take a Good Look is a “super rock” wonder that clocks in at around 30 minutes, which is A-OK for something so well-suited for steady rotation. The thing to remember about the Fleshtones, you see, is that once they start making longish “album of the year”-type albums that give reviewers lumps in their throats and prompt them to use words like “nourishing”, they stop being Fleshtones. Take a Good Look, thankfully, showcases the fellas doing exactly what they do best and authoritatively justifies all of this brand new attention. Kim Simpson

 

Artist: Flipper

Album: Album – Generic Flipper

Label: Water

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

First date: 1982

US Release Date: 2008-12-08

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Now that it’s been reincarnated (reissued) twice, what could be the ultimate hardcore statement might show the world why Kurt Cobain and Rick Rubin worshipped this compelling, hilarious platter. Originally unleashed in 1981, with its anti-consumerist title and cover, the album was defined by the sheer wind-tunnel sound of Ted Falconi’s guitar and the biting humor of bassists/singers Bruce Loose and Will Shatter who lambasted hippies (an easy target, especially for San Francisco natives) and their own punk brethren (a harder target). As such, it became the ultimate parody and celebration of the movement. Who else could come up with a monumental minimalist spit-ball “Sex Bomb” which mostly featured the title howled over and over? Though history’s come full circle with Nirvana’s bassist has joining the band’s latest reunion & the album out yet again, rest assured that it’ll find its way out of print again, waiting to be discovered by yet another disillusioned generation. Jason Gross

 

Artist: Flobots

Album: Fight With Tools

Label: Universal Republic

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

US Release Date: 2008-05-20

UK Release Date: Available as import

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“Handlebars” is the kind of song that gets people’s attention, but this song is more than just a catchy hook and a pop culture phenomena. It is a moving critique of various forms of power. This song is emblematic of the album, which includes a variety of socially conscious tracks. And Flobots aren’t just creating music about action; they are also creating ways for people to put into practice what their music is about through their Street Teams and community building. “Same Thing” critiques foreign policy and the hypocrisy of the U.S. government. “Anne Braden” tells the story and perspectives of a little-known civil rights activist. And “Stand Up” and “Rise” uplift and inspire. With sharp lyrics and eclectic sounds (rap/rock and violin) this “experimental rap” album is an important addition to hip-hop’s social and cultural movement and a joy to listen to. Sarah Hentges

 

Artist: Food for Animals

Album: Belly

Label: Hoss

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

US Release Date: 2008-01-08

UK Release Date: Unavailable

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Not all albums reveal their strengths and weaknesses over the course of just a few listens. For this reason, we critics must concede that the process of experiencing music is sometimes too iterative to be summarized with the finality of a review. In January of 2008, I unfairly maligned aspects of Food For Animals’ Belly, a glitchy, experimental hip-hop record that I really liked but felt was held back from greatness by a handful of nagging flaws. While I stand by my statements about the album’s strengths — namely, its fractured, IDM-influenced production, rhythmically complex beats and blisteringly abrasive sound — I now realize that I was wrong about one of its perceived weaknesses, its lyrical content. After spending more time with the album and interviewing FFA’s lead MC, Vulture V, for another publication, I now realize that while Belly‘s lyrics are less overtly political than those found in the band’s previous work, they’re also less accessible. Given time, however, they blossom, revealing, in some cases, deeply personal narratives of loss, grief and uncertainty. Take for example, closing number “Grapes”, which details the death of a loved one with devastating frankness (“Every time I hear the word ‘cancer’ I need a cigarette/I’m not sure I get it yet”). After a full year spent obsessively listening to Belly, I’m still not sure if my original review accurately describes all of the album’s contours. And if that’s not a compelling reason to listen to a record, I don’t know what is. Mehan Jayasuriya

 

Artist: The Foreign Exchange

Album: Leave It All Behind

Label: Hard Boiled

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Leave-All-Behind-Foreign-Exchange/dp/B001EICD8E

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/f/fe.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-10-14

UK Release Date: 2008-10-20

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Transitioning from rapper to singer could not have been easier for Phonte. Sure, he sang some hooks on his albums with Little Brother and on the Foreign Exchange’s fantastic debut Connected. But a whole record dedicated to his crooning? Could it work? Short answer: hell yes. Long answer: The Foreign Exchange’s sophomore effort Leave It All Behind turned out to be one of 2008’s finest R&B albums. The pairing of Phonte’s sometimes-witty, honest, and personal vocals with Nicolay’s lush, soulful, and dynamic production made for an effort that begs to be played to death. Choice cuts include the heartbreaking lead single “Daykeeper”, which features a duet with siren Muhsinah, and the undeniably fun “Something to Behold”, also featuring Muhsinah and Darien Brockington. Whether you’re in the need of something fresh or want a soundtrack for your troubled relationship, make sure you do not sleep on Leave It All Behind. Andrew Martin

 

Artist: Julie Fowlis

Album: Cuilidh

Label: Shoeshine

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

US Release Date: 2008-08-19

UK Release Date: 2007-03-26

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Living in the Outer Hebrides, Julie Fowlis sings a flow of Scots Gaelic. Cuilidh is folk music accompanied by fiddles and pipes. The sweetness of this one could put some people off — “Oh no,” you might say to yourself, “it’s a nice album by a nice woman being nice” — but this sweetness is the sound of her sincerity shining through, a devout beauty rather than an artful prettiness. I was only modestly impressed by Cuilidh when I first heard it, yet since then there have been numerous times when I’ve wondered what to put on and the answer has come to me like this: Julie Fowlis, Julie Fowlis, Julie Fowlis. Deanne Sole

 

Artist: Friendly Fires

Album: Friendly Fires

Label: XL

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/f/friendlyfiresalbum.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-09-01

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As one of the many free-floating pieces of space junk meandering about in the wake of the Rapture’s big bang “House of Jealous Lovers”, St. Albans, UK’s Friendly Fires are likely to face an uphill battle against a seething wall of cynicism. Even though the band sounds like everything you might have hoped to hear out of !!!, Fujiya & Miyagi, the Klaxons, the Editors, and the like, it’s Friendly Fires’ unequivocal distinction as a pop unit that makes them stand out from their peers. There’s no incentive within the croon of singer Ed MacFarlane to be anything other than the contemporary of Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson. MacFarlane’s electronic roots (he released a solo IDM EP and the band covered Frankie Knuckles on an early single) augment the sound even further with the help of ebullient new wave synths and mountains of smartly-tuned effects on each of the album’s ten delectable gems. The sound of their self-titled debut is massive, reaching neo-shoegaze (think M83) levels of wall-of-sound earphoria throughout what seems like a consistent plateau of peaks. Yet, despite this mishmash of sounds, Friendly Fires never seem to be gagging on their influences or even breaking a sweat within the breathtaking breadth of the album’s 37 minutes. Timothy Gabriele

 

Artist: Frightened Rabbit

Album: The Midnight Organ Fight

Label: FatCat

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

US Release Date: 2008-04-15

UK Release Date: 2008-04-14

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If Raymond Carver, the American short story writer, was born in Scotland in the late ‘70s, and into playing a folk/rock amalgam injected with flourishes of R.E.M.’s early jangle, Frightened Rabbit might have been the band he formed. Head rabbit, Scott Hutchison, cribs Carver’s anorexic approach to storytelling for a post-coital breakup album that burns with caustic yet simple caution. In Hutchison’s world, naked flesh is kept under favorite dresses, wrong names are whispered during sex, and people drink to forget. Yet, despite all the drama, the heartbreaking laments are emotive but never overwrought. Talking about his own classic breakup album, Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan once said, “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean, it, you know, people enjoying the type of pain, you know?” And while it might be difficult to hear Hutchison’s own brand of dirty realism, the hummable melodies do their best to distract from the relationship woes. Kevin Pearson

 

Glasvegas to Damien Jurado

Hot Chip

Artist: Glasvegas

Album: Glasvegas

Label: Columbia

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

US Release Date: 2009-01-06

UK Release Date: 2008-09-08

Internet release date: 2008-10-07

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In the end, the year and a half-long hype surrounding Glasvegas turned out to be completely warranted, as the Glasgow, Scotland band, despite not exactly having the most original sound, defied the odds by releasing one of the most affecting British rock debuts in years. Using the Jesus and Mary Chain as a major influence is certainly nothing new, but what tracks like “Geraldine”, “Daddy’s Gone”, and “It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry” do so ingeniously is combine that already enthralling blend of distortion and 1960s pop with the bombast of mid-’90s Britpop, the end result a formulaic but sincere, deliriously melodramatic take on rock music that serves as a refreshing change from the more self-referential posturing of fellow Brits Art Brut and Los Campesinos!. Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: Nana Grizol

Album: Love It Love It

Label: Orange Twin

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/n/nanagrizol-loveitloveit.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-05-13

UK Release Date: 2008-09-15

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Conventional wisdom — which is to say, indie rock critics, music bloggers and your local record store clerks — dictates that Los Campesinos!’ Hold On Now, Youngster… was the best indie-pop record of 2008. I’ll admit to falling for the Welsh septet’s ridiculously catchy hooks and infectiously cheery enthusiasm myself at first, but it wasn’t too long before the band’s smug hipsterisms, their refusal to let a single song go by without a scenester namecheck or a wink and a nudge in reference to the band’s encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture arcana, began to wear. Fronted by their own vocabulary-happy frontman in Theo Hilton and staffed with a small army of impressively adept players, Athens, Georgia’s Nana Grizol made a similarly exuberant album with none of the Campesinos’ attitude, a quick set of witty, open-hearted and acutely observed songs that surprise as much with their depth as with their sheer tunefulness. Where Los Campesinos!’ songs are about their undoubtedly impressive record collections, Nana Grizol’s are about real people, and it is the distinction that will allow theirs to resonate long after the guardians of cool have set their sights elsewhere. Jer Fairall

 

Artist: Grouper

Album: Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

Label: Type

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/g/grouper-draggingadeaddeerupahill.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-10

UK Release Date: Available as import

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As evocative a longform player as they come, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill is simultaneously tempestuous and soothing. Intimate tapestries of droning texture line the album’s whole, threatening to remove the user completely from the experience, its faded home movie reel almost completely faded by digital dust and weathered tarnish (Harris’s own doing in a masterful production job). The album’s titles even highlight this disconnection (“Disengaged”, “Stuck”, “Invisible”, “I’d Rather Be Sleeping”). It’s Liz Harris’s plaintive and organic acoustic strumming that grounds the recording as a work of fitfully haunted beauty. Her delicate coo oscillates like kindred oneiric sirens (Elizabeth Fraser, Rachel Goswell, etc.) in a way that is both indecipherable yet urgent, like a dream beckoning you from waking thought. This tragic solitude amounts to a complete and recondite aesthetic, making the album best suited to a single sitting in which you can explore its mysteries with the full of your attention. One of 2008’s very best. Timothy Gabriele

 

Artist: Guns N’ Roses

Album: Chinese Democracy

Label: Black Frog

Label: Geffen

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/g/gunsnroses-chinesedemocracy.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-11-23

UK Release Date: 2008-11-24

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The problem here is expectations. It’s not the Second Coming. It’s a pop-rock record — call it Use Your Illusion 3 — and a damn good one at that. Regardless of how long they were in the making, “Shackler’s Revenge”, “Better”, and “There Was a Time” will be fighting for space on the next Greatest Hits record, a number that, hits-wise, puts Chinese Democracy on par with the mighty Appetite for Destruction. Granted, someone needs to tell Axl that every song need not begin with a string section or a boy’s choir, but even when he’s bad (“Madagascar”) or embarrassing (“Sorry”) he’s interesting, and a moving solo by Robin Finck on “This I Love” reminds us that, for all of this talk about the Axl Show, the end result is the product of a number of fine musicians. I’ll resist asking you to listen without prejudice, a la George Michael, but I will say that, if you have even the slightest interest in giving this a spin, don’t let all of the drama with Best Buy and Dr. Pepper deter you. And if you listened once and shelved it, give it another hype-free shot. For better or worse, there’s nothing else like it. Kirby Fields

 

Artist: Horse Feathers

Album: House With No Home

Label: Kill Rock Stars

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

US Release Date: 2008-09-09

UK Release Date: Available as import

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House with No Home is an unassuming record, full of hushed and gentle folk, so it’s not surprising that this one slipped under the radar. But this quiet album will pull you in if you give it half a chance. It pulses with life in every track, from the cresting wave of violin and plucked guitar on “Cur in the Weeds”, to the barely there beauty of closer “Father”, the album insists you strain to listen, forces you to become a part of the music. To put this record on in the background is to miss the subtle but brilliant melodies, the intricate mix of strings, the depth of Justin Ringle’s aching vocals, the earnest emotion in these songs. Because there is no “freak-folk” persona, no artifice to hide this music behind. Just beautiful songs laid bare. So pull out your finest headphones, or sit yourself in front of the speakers, and soak it all in. Matt Fiander

 

Artist: Hot Chip

Album: Made in the Dark

Label: EMI

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

US Release Date: 2008-02-05

UK Release Date: 2008-02-04

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Hot Chip’s third album, Made in the Dark, made no pretense of conceptual hijinks. Buoyed by months of honing a raucous live show, the group has become expert at constructing party-ready dance music that welcomes live percussion, chant-able catchphrases, and moments of sublime lose-your-shitedness. On the flipside, their ballads have become softer, more heartfelt, and perfect for that certain after the after-party mood. Hot Chip’s now established a strong kinship with a certain melodic construct taken from soul music, which Alexis Taylor recapitulated on his solo album. Taylor pulls it off more successfully with his bandmte Joe Goddard here, where the repeated melodic tropes make up the fabric of the band’s tongue-in-cheek approach to songwriting -– as to aggression, friendship, and love. As an album, Made in the Dark might not have the coherence of In Ghost Colours or Crystal Castles, but song for song it’s surely at least on the same level as those lauded indie-electronic releases from 2008. Dan Raper

 

Artist: Benji Hughes

Album: A Love Extreme

Label: New West

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/benjihughes-aloveextreme.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-07-22

UK Release Date: 2008-10-13

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Benji Hughes believes in love, even when it runs him ragged and beats him bloody. A hirsute indie-pop eccentric with two discs worth of super-hooky audacity, his husky voice speaks the wounds of a thousand heartbreaks and a million heartbroken benders. Though he claims to be “more alternative than Suicide Girls” (not difficult), Hughes is actually a quippy, quirky master craftsman masquerading as reclusive bedroom folkie, more Billy Joel than Bon Iver. His insular confections, full of booming drums and imposing synths, updated ’70s AM gold for the electronic-DIY age: “Tight Tee Shirt” is tasty bubblegum, “Even If” revels in warped Bacharachia, and “All You’ve Got to Do is Fall in Love” could be revised into an American Idol standard. He charts the modern rock nerd’s highs and lows — getting jilted at Dairy Queen, getting high at rock shows, falling madly in love with his radio — with singular humor and genre-hopping fearlessness. Charles A. Hohman

 

Artist: Scarlett Johansson

Album: Anywhere I Lay My Head

Label: Atco

Label: Rhino

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/j/johanssonscarlett-anywhereilaymyhead.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-05-20

UK Release Date: 2008-05-19

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Scarlett Johansson, the actress from Lost in Translation, was responsible for Anywhere I Lay My Head. That’s not to play down the production work of David Sitek, or a backing band that features David Bowie, Nick Zinner and members of TV on the Radio, but it’s safe to say that the unexpected genius of Anywhere I Lay My Head can be attributed to one person: Scarlett Johanssen. Tackling Tom Waits’s material is a risky proposition for any artist, but Johansson has studied the original material and recorded tracks that sound ethereal and graceful where they were once damaged and grizzled. With her voice swaddled in a soft, otherworldly drone of bells, saxophones and guitars, she pays tribute to these remarkable songs in a beguiling and beautiful manner that falls well outside the clichés that covers albums are so often built upon. In doing so, she’s created yet another reason for us to love her. James Bassett

 

Artist: Jamey Johnson

Album: That Lonesome Song

Label: Mercury Nashville

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/j/johnsonjamey-thatlonesomesong.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-08-05

UK Release Date: 2008-08-11

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Those who claim mainstream country music has lost its connection to the past only needed to look as far as the 2008 country sales charts to find evidence of the contrary, in the form of Jamey Johnson and his second album That Lonesome Song. He pays homage to Waylon Jennings, worries that all the true cowboys have ridden away, and shows pride in his music fitting alphabetically “between Jennings and Jones”. None of that would matter if he weren’t also carrying on the actual traditions of country, singing the heck out of songs rooted in the darkest side of the human experience. He sings about divorce, bad behavior and sadness, and does so with feeling, wit and a sense of humor. That lonesome song keeps carrying along, and he carries it, through a harrowing, moving, album-length consideration of the hard times people face, have faced, and will always face. Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Damien Jurado

Album: Caught in the Trees

Label: Secretly Canadian

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/d/damienjurado-caughtinthetrees.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-09-08

UK Release Date: 2008-10-27

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Nine full-lengths into an already distinguished career and Seattle, Washington singer-songwriter Damien Jurado is still just starting to hit his stride. On the consistently beautiful Caught in the Trees, it’s hard to miss the sturdy, hard-earned, confidence that sures up his craft. His characters often explore a harrowing fidelity to relationships that seem to offer the promise of nothing but disaster and as there are certainly limits to love, most of Jurado’s characters bump against and stress them beyond all reason. When he sings of sailing on a lover’s deep blue eyes, on the album’s show-stopping centerpiece “Everything Trying”, what in one breath feels like endless shelter from a constant storm gets turned perhaps, by the preceding obsessions and compulsions, into something else. If in the past Jurado has mined a vision of his inner-Nebraska, here he could be exploring a version of his own particular Tunnel of Love. Jurado continues as one of indie rock’s most steady and deeply rewarding songwriters; full of heartbreak but always with a view on the horizon. And here, with bandmates Jenna Conrad and Eric Fisher, he brings a kickass lead-off single, in “Gillian Was a Horse”, to boot. Jon Langmead

 
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