Part 2: Katzenjammer to Xiu Xiu

Artist: Katzenjammer

Album: Le Pop

Label: Propeller

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Le-Pop/dp/B001GCGBCM/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=dmusic&qid=1231103281&sr=8-1

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/p/pmcover1.jpg

US Release Date: Available as import

UK Release Date: Available as import

Norway release date: 2008-09-29

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Loaded with sea shanties, Balkan gypsy folk music, bluegrass, blues, German cabaret, twee orchestral pop, and delivered with the reckless abandon of punk rock, there’s a lot to digest on the manic debut album by Norwegian foursome Katzenjammer, but the charisma of these four talented ladies always wins us over. With each member a lead singer and multi-instrumentalist, the band’s versatility is remarkable a live setting and especially on record, as Le Pop veers from raucous (“A Bar in Amsterdam”, “Hey Ho on the Devil’s Back”) to tender (Wading in Deeper”), each song boasting plenty of gorgeous, rich four-part vocal harmonies. For all their enthusiasm, the band never sounds as cartoonish as the name might imply, the performances often surprisingly restrained, making for a very accessible, enormously entertaining record. Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: The Kills

Album: Midnight Boom

Label: Domino

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/k/killsthe-midnightboom.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-03-18

UK Release Date: 2008-03-10

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Sex, violence and playground chants… after two albums of stilted (but occasionally great) blues-rock minimalism the Kills have finally lapsed into rock and roll and it’s great. Their music feels more patched-together than ever, and I mean that as a compliment. Working with Armani XXChange from Spank Rock this slim record buzzes with a groove and energy that VV and Hotel had only hinted at before, but songs like “Cheap and Cheerful” and “Sour Cherry” still sound exactly like the Kills. For that matter so do the more restrained, almost elegiac likes of “Black Balloon” and “Last Day of Magic”. The latter might be their best moment yet, evoking recent Two Lone Swordsmen and John Darnielle’s doomed Alpha couple in equal measure. The best album released in 2008 that deserves the adjective ‘trashy’, hands down. Ian Mathers

 

Artist: King Khan and the Shrines

Album: The Supreme Genius Of

Label: Vice

Contributors: Ron Streeter. King Khan

Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Supreme-Genius-King-Khan-Shrines/dp/B0017V7H98/203-9740587-6291127?SubscriptionId=1N9AHEAQ2F6SVD97BE02

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/k/khan.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-17

UK Release Date: 2008-06-23

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Bold proclamations have always been part of King Khan’s persona. He does, after all, take to the stage with a cheerleader in tow. So the self-aggrandizing title of this album – a pseudo “greatest hits” compilation of previously released material — should have come as no surprise. The real revelation, however, was that more people didn’t perk up their ears in appreciation. Perhaps it was the ensuing recession? Even though Khan does sing about feeding someone his “welfare bread”, who wants to listen to a careening and caterwauling party record when the ship is sinking? Or maybe it was the musical pigeonholing? Of all the genres, garage rock is perhaps the most maligned and oft overlooked; a novelty, gimmicky even, something teenagers play while they try to master their instruments. Perhaps that’s why, despite its implicit soul overtones and psychedelic flourishes, King Khan and the Shrines were passed by this year: A lack of money and/or ability to overlook the group’s assumed novelty factor? Then again, maybe people just didn’t want to hear a tambourine smacked like it had done something baaaad. Kevin Pearson

 

Artist: Lambchop

Album: OH (ohio)

Label: Merge

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/l/lambchop-ohohio.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-10-07

UK Release Date: 2008-10-06

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Though OH (ohio) weaves between tracks tweaked by two distinct and sought-after producers (Roger Moutenot and Mark Nevers), it is easily the most cohesive and smoothly satisfying Lambchop album since 2002’s way-overlooked Is a Woman. Whittled down to a core of eight members, Kurt Wagner’s so-called “country-soul” project continues to confound the expectations that descriptor suggests on spry, lilting tunes like “National Talk Like a Pirate Day” and the stellar single “Slipped Dissolved and Loose”. With his signature warm, clipped warble, Wagner turns nouns into verbs, memories into heartache and vice-versa, while the band’s arrangements have rarely been so beautifully accommodating and enhancing. From the rambling curlicues of guitar on “Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King Jr.” to the subtle swoons of “I Believe in You” (a startlingly prescient 1980 hit for Don Williams), each recorded element, no matter how large or small, contributes to an atmosphere of quirky grace. Michael Metivier

 

Artist: Cyndi Lauper

Album: Bring Ya to the Brink

Label: Epic

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/l/laupercyndi-bringyatothebrink.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-05-27

UK Release Date: 2008-05-27

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A Cyndi Lauper album has always contained a song or two that was remix-ready. After 25 years of recording, Lauper finally made a full-length excursion into clubland, where many of her most ardent listeners reside. The dance floor is her playground on Bring Ya to the Brink, a first-rate collection of songs that emphasize Lauper’s underappreciated talent for clever lyrics and strong melodies. The best tracks — “Echo”, “Into the Nightlife”, “Set Your Heart”, among many others — transcend their expediency under strobe lights and rank among Lauper’s best-ever material, working on a number of levels. “Same Ol’ Story”, in particular, is embroidered with an attitude ripe for two-faced politicians and toxic relationships alike. When the final Grammy nominations were recently announced for the 2009 ceremony, it was a pleasant surprise to see Bring Ya to the Brink up for consideration in the dance category. Don’t be misled, though. The album is definitely for more than those who just wanna have fun. Christian Wikane

 

Artist: Jenny Lewis

Album: Acid Tongue

Label: Reprise

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/j/jennylewis-acidtongue.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-09-23

UK Release Date: 2008-09-22

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After Rilo Kiley’s maligned/misguided Under the Blacklight, Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis returned with solo album #2, a record that boasted dangerous levels of charm and breezy wit, as well as a more street smarts than her ingénue-ish solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat, suggested. Lewis could’ve coasted on her sun-kissed, California-girl looks (siiiiigh), but those who dwell on those superficialities risk ignoring her considerable songwriting talents and warm, honeyed voice. On Acid Tongue, Lewis inspires goosebumps (the sweeping title track; “Godspeed”), blown speakers (“Jack Killed Mom”, “Carpetbaggers”, “See Fernando”), and, in the case of (at least) one particular writer (cough cough), a fervent wish to move to California. Stephen Haag

 

Artist: Love Is All

Album: A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at Night

Label: What’s Your Rupture?

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/5/51y0pd59hwl._sl500_aa240_.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-11-11

UK Release Date: 2008-11-10

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Sophomore albums are renowned for expectation unmet, but Love Is All proved on their under-appreciated A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at Night that, in skilled-enough hands, the best ones can both fit perfectly into a first-album niche and an extension of it. The new directions the Swedes push here are a stepping-out: frontwoman Josephine Olausson is recorded cleaner and easier to understand; James Ausfahrt’s saxophone solos are more prominent and more visceral. The songs themselves are as joyful and anthemic and over-too-soon as they ever were. To regard Love Is All as a web-championed, one-LP wonder would be a mistake. A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at Night may be one of those grow-on-you records, with tunes that strike you randomly, when you’re thinking of something else, months after you last heard them. You’ll think then, Oh, that’s a great song; you’ll go back to the LP, and you’ll realize, yes, it actually does vindicate the hype they received a few years ago. Kevin Pearson

 

Artist: The Magnetic Fields

Album: Distortion

Label: Nonesuch

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/magneticfieldsthe-distortion.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-01-15

UK Release Date: 2008-01-14

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The Wall of Sound has become a Wall of White Noise: feedback, reverb, atonal squall, discordance. But however submerged in sonic murk, a great pop song remains a great pop song and Stephin Merritt, alternating vocals with longtime muse and secret weapon Shirley Simms, delivers 13 of them — none over 3:10 or under 2:40, as though processed in a thundering factory with machines constantly whirring, purring and buzzing. The usual Merritt stamps are present: slippery gender roles, dazzling melodies, cunning wordplay, devastating tales of obsessive love, nods to pop history. He cops a Beach Boys title for a scathing putdown of celebutante culture, and writes a lively, lovelorn centerpiece (“Too Drunk to Dream”) that might awaken his beloved Busby Berkeley from the dead. In its sonorous juxtapositions, Distortion renders beauty, be it a song’s or a lover’s, the most defiant resistance to an increasingly cluttered, chaotic world. Charles A. Hohman

 

Artist: Marillion

Album: Happiness Is the Road

Label: Intact

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/marillion_happiness.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-10-20

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Despite a late ’80s lead singer change, the mid-’90s loss of major label support, and their late ’90s batch of mediocre releases, British rock quintet Marillion have managed a comeback in the 2000s, thanks largely to innovative marketing strategies and successful presale campaigns. They scored a Top 10 UK hit single in 2004, and 2007’s Somewhere Apart hit #24 in England. Marillion’s latest album, Happiness Is the Road, is their second great double-disc set of the decade. CD One, “Essence”, melds Floydian rock, ambient electronics, and a quest for spiritual connectedness in the modern world. On disc two, Marillion let loose with proggy rockers and Crowded House-like pop, for a deep and deeply satisfying listen. The band also pioneered their own video-embedded album leak, which explains the financial hardships of illegal filesharing. For a bunch of middle-aged has-beens, Marillion continue to blaze new trails across a stagnating music industry that once left the band for dead. Michael Keefe

 

Artist: Laura Marling

Album: Alas, I Cannot Swim

Label: EMI

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/l/laura_marling.jpg

US Release Date: Available as import

UK Release Date: 2008-02-11

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Despite, or perhaps because of, being nominated for the Mercury prize, Alas, I Cannot Swim was an odd omission from PopMatters‘ Best Albums of 2008 rundown. Slinking out of the same West Country stable as Noah & the Whale (whose debut, while we’re on the subject of last year’s laughably underappreciated albums, was ridiculously given a lowly 5 by PopMatters), Marling crafted a gorgeous, delicate and articulate album, which was perhaps the 2008’s most gently charming release. Marling claims the chief inspiration for her remarkable debut is Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s I See a Darkness. Now, I’m not sure that Alas, I Cannot Swim is quite as brilliant as that particular example of Will Oldham genius, but given that she was 17 years old when she recorded it, she’s got plenty of time yet. James Bassett

 

Mason Proper to Polysics

Of Montreal

Artist: Mason Proper

Album: Olly Oxen Free

Label: Dovecote

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Olly-Oxen-Free-Mason-Proper/dp/B001EC6JV2/ref=pd_bbs_sr_2?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1221240674&sr=8-2

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/mason_proper.jpg

Website: http://www.masonproper.com

US Release Date: 2008-09-23

UK Release Date: Available as import

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Olly Oxen Free is the kind of album that sneaks up on you. When I first heard it, Mason Proper’s low-key indie rock seemed pleasant enough, but not particularly special. A few more listens, and it had really started to grow on me. By the end of the year it was solidly ensconced as one of my favorite discs of 2008. The ten songs here are all well-written, distinct, and sonically varied, from the mid-tempo, hazy opener “Fog” to the hard-edged “Shiny” to the jittery, yelping “Alone”. But it’s the slow, mid-record duo of the emotional “Out Dragging the River” and the sparse “In the Mirror” that really puts Olly Oxen Free over the top as a standout album. Chris Conaton

 

Artist: Mike Monday

Album: Songs Without Words Part 1

Label: OM

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Songs-Without-Words-Pt-1/dp/B001CVCBR6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1227289145&sr=1-1

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/mike_monday.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-09-08

UK Release Date: 2008-09-15

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What a difference a couple of years can make. Monday’s 2006 debut Smorgasbord was a solid effort in the field of house music, perhaps leaning a little on the undercooked cheese side of things, and everything about Songs Without Words Part 1 is an improvement. The production is that much crisper, the sound design is more quirky and original, and genre classifications for each track is that much harder to pin down, the whole naturally being more than the sum of its parts. If the video for “Catnip” is anything to go by, this is acid music at its most lighthearted, bending funky techno, disco house, and chill room hip-hop to its will throughout its full-length blue magoo trip. In a world still more or less bought and sold by singles, an electronic album this charming and intriguing from start to finish is a real treat. Finally, a Monday we can all enjoy. Filmore Mescalito Holmes

 

Artist: Mudcrutch

Album: Mudcrutch

Label: Reprise

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

US Release Date: 2008-04-29

UK Release Date: 2008-05-26

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What do you do after riding the top of the charts for three decades? If you’re Tom Petty, you get your first band back together, which conveniently includes the guitarist and keyboardist of your hit-making machine known as the Heartbreakers. The result is the eponymously titled Mudcrutch, an album that manages to best its impeccable influences: the Byrds, the Dead, and even, in some strange reversal of time, the Heartbreakers themselves. Indeed, every cut is a perfect slice of Americana. “Scare Easy” is classic Petty sneer in the mode of “You Got Lucky”; “Lover of the Bayou” is swampier than the 9th Ward post-Katrina; and “Six Days On the Road” sounds like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis got together and jammed. And then there’s “Crystal River” — the trippiest jam in four decades. So, if you thought Mr. Thomas Earl Petty was slowing down, think again, man. Think again. Michael Franco

 

Artist: Thao

Album: We Brave Bee Stings and All

Label: Kill Rock Stars

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/t/thao-webravebeestingsandall.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-01-29

UK Release Date: 2008-01-28

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We Brave Bee Stings and All slipped onto the scene all the way back in January of 2008, a kind of dead zone for end-of-year list contenders, but the second album for Virginia-bred Thao Nguyen and her band, the Get Down Stay Down, couldn’t sound more alive. On songs like the keyboard-propelled “Geography” and the skittering opener “Beat (Health, Life, and Fire)”, Nguyen’s sleepy/cool vocals drawl out playful rhymes and ominous imagery with deftness and confidence belying the songwriter’s 23 years. For smarts, exuberance, and eclecticism, Bee Stings easily whips the more-hyped (though still exciting) Vampire Weekend record, in that its influences are less easily deduced and more effortlessly incorporated. But perhaps it’s a big mistake to compare Thao to any of her contemporaries at this point, as Bee Stings makes abundantly clear that her primary concern is in becoming one of those artists who sounds like no one but herself. The gloriously catchy and unsettling “Fear and Convenience” with its chorus of “Tell me / Did he hurt you / In a new way” demonstrates that she’s already well on her way. Michael Metivier

 

Artist: Nine Inch Nails

Album: Ghosts I-IV

Label: The Null Corporation

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/n/nineinchnails-ghostsiiv.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-03-02

UK Release Date: 2008-03-02

Internet release date: 2008-03-02

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Having finally emancipated himself from the industrial music industry complex once and for all, Trent Reznor showed up Radiohead not once, but twice, by releasing two new projects online: One, a two-disc set’s worth of instrumental music in the vein of his most ominous moments of the recent past sold for five bucks a download. The other, his most visceral material since The Downward Spiral, he put up for grabs completely free. And he still wound up grossing as much, if not maybe a little more, than his comrades still clinging to the majors. Ron Hart

 

Artist: Of Montreal

Album: Skeletal Lamping

Label: Polyvinyl

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/o/ofmontreal-skeletallamping.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-10-21

UK Release Date: 2008-10-06

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Musical alter egos have always been hit and miss affairs (for every Ziggy Stardust we get a Chris Gaines) so it’s easy to understand why some people were put off by Kevin Barnes’ adoption of Georgie Fruit. Never one to shy away from character-driven song structures, Barnes embraced his sinister, more deviant side on Skeletal Lamping, utilizing Fruit (an African American cross dresser, according to the singer) as a conduit for most of the record’s ADHD addled, sexually charged, and schizophrenic songs. Blending Prince-like falsetto-tinged funk with dance and electronic elements as well as facets of psychedelia and tropicalia, Skeletal Lamping was, in essence, a middle finger to accusations that Barnes had sold out after granting Outback Steakhouse the rights to one of his tunes. But if you look beyond the alter ego and the over the top stage shows, past the gender role play and the make up, take a peek behind the wordy song titles and the sexually charged lyrics, you’ll uncover a psychedelic nugget that slaloms through a slew of musical styles, and an album that history will be kinder to than the critics were. Kevin Pearson

 

Artist: Pattern Is Movement

Album: All Together

Label: Hometapes

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/p/patternismovement-alltogether.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-05

UK Release Date: 2008-05-19

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In 2001, Jay-Z and the Roots combined forces for Jay-Z: Unplugged, an enduring and energetic album. Pattern is Movement evokes the verve and spirit of that recording. All Together, the band’s first album as a two piece, taps into a unique sound that foregrounds regimented beats, bass and keys, but surrounds that core with a revolving series of surprising flourishes. Drummer Chris Ward is an unlikely synthesis of Questlove and Andrew McCulloch, capable of both machine-like precision and seemingly spontaneous invention that is alternately subtle and roaring. Andrew Thiboldeaux, who handles vocals, bass guitar and keyboards, avoids the wearisome affectations that often accompany music this whimsical. His full-throated, earnest delivery makes the enigmatic lyrics and characters meaningful to the listener. Hip-hop influences notwithstanding, All Together might seem to belong in the “travelogue pop” subgenre that houses recent efforts from the Fiery Furnaces and Sufjan Stevens. Though in just 32 minutes, this album contains the narrative and melodic heft of those artists, but none of their bloat. Thomas Britt

 

Artist: Sam Phillips

Album: Don’t Do Anything

Label: Nonesuch

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/p/phillipssam-dontdoanything.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-03

UK Release Date: 2008-06-02

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This may be Sam Phillips’ 11th studio album, but it’s the first one that she’s self-produced. The disc reveals her eclectic pop sensibilities in a mysterious, incandescent way. Sometimes she invokes the spirit of the ’60s pop (“My Career in Chemistry”) and other times she digs into gospel (“Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”), but no matter what muse she conjures, the music seems taken out of the blue sky and the storm clouds and finds itself transformed into some ethereal place where we all live and listen for signs and wonders. There’s a delicacy to the whole project with the tensile properties of stainless steel. In a year of change where everything seems the same, Phillips shows the transcendent nature of just looking at the world until deeper meanings reveal themselves. Steve Horowitz

 

Artist: Pillow Queens

Album: Kookoolegit

Label: Monofonus Press

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/p/pillowqueens-kookoolegit.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-09-02

UK Release Date: Unavailable

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Given the overcrowded, fertile nature of the music scene in Austin, Texas, it’s likely that some genuinely great music goes virtually unnoticed at the local (never mind the national or international) level. Such is the case with the solid debut album from the Pillow Queens, Kookoolegit. This band deserves a wider audience and their music functions as a welcome respite from self-important, painfully serious indie rock. The album reflects the beautiful simplicity of garage rock: the loose execution of tightly written songs. It’s an exercise in good feelings that comes off as truthful and fun as any album this year. Gems like “Wild Kingdom” and “Original Bad Boys of Crime” showcase the band’s gift for melody, humor, and Will Slack’s expressive croak. The long history of American garage rock needs new heroes. We all get a vote, and I’m voting Pillow Queens. Craig Carson

 

Artist: Polysics

Album: We Ate the Machine

Label: MySpace

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/p/polysics-weatethemachine.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-09-30

UK Release Date: 2008-09-08

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With We Ate the Machine, Japanese quartet Polysics built upon Devo inspirations and cracked their frenetic synth-pop whip to breakthrough to a larger American audience. One would think that when you cram rock, metal, Japanese and American pop, blues and all their sub-genres — and a maniacal love for Moog synthesizers — in to one album (or even one song) it would be a recipe for disaster. Not so with this or any previous Polysics album. Led by 30-year-old Hiro Hayashi and his self-described “space language” songwriting, Polysics MySpace Records’ debut is a stimulating puree of hissing and growling guitars and techno tenacity. Sometimes the well-crafted electro-quirkiness tells a deeper sequenced story and other times it’s just joyous nonsense that puts a smile on your face as each melodic new wave sonic pours, punks and pops into your ears. Chris Catania

 

Ponytail to Spiritualized

Raphael Saadiq

Artist: Ponytail

Album: Ice Cream Spiritual

Label: We Are Free

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/i/ice_cream_spiritual.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-17

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Ponytail sounds like a broken Nintendo game. Their spastic dueling guitars conjure the maximum overdrive of Marnie Stern or their Baltimore brethren Ecstatic Sunshine. But Ponytail’s riffs bounce around aimlessly, without a bass line weighing them down. Adding to the band’s improvisational sound is lead singer Molly Siegel’s yelps, howls and catcalls; she barely utters a lyric throughout the entire disc. Siegel claims to get inspiration from Stevie Nicks, but her work here has scarcely any human contemporary. The album climaxes with the sugar rush anthem “I Sing the Body Electric”, seven-plus minutes of piercing guitars and ecstatic shouting. The song is a definite standout from the excellent set of the year’s eclectic indie groups (Crystal Antlers, Abe Vigoda, Aa). Ponytail’s unusual approach caused many to scratch their heads, but their bombast alone make the band one of the most energetic and interesting act of this decade. Joe Tacopino

 

Artist: Jay Reatard

Album: Matador Singles ’08

Label: Matador

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/j/jayreatard-matadorsingles08.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-10-07

UK Release Date: 2008-10-06

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Jay Reatard’s long been a snotty punk, screaming instead of singing and thrashing instead of strumming in bands and as a solo artist ever since he was a teenager. But in the past few years his songwriting has blossomed as he’s incorporated acoustic guitars, keyboards and mellower tones into his music, and Matador Singles ‘08 — a compilation of singles he put out for his new label last year — is the culmination of the 29-year-old’s transformation from a rusty switchblade to a scuffed Swiss Army Knife. Songs like “See/Saw” and “Always Wanting More” are the power pop of a young lifer, punchy and wry and imbued with the weary confidence that comes from writing pop songs since the age of 15. The album’s last three songs, sweet yet acidic lo-fi acoustic sketches, find Reatard lamenting via bare-bones pop — his synthesis. Jordan Sargent

 

Artist: Raphael Saadiq

Album: The Way I See It

Label: Columbia

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

US Release Date: 2008-09-16

UK Release Date: 2008-09-15

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Remember all those great old Motown songs from the past, those wonderful Stevie Wonder songs, marvelous Marvin Gaye melodies, and tempting Temptation tunes that made you harmonize to the radio? If you’re not old enough, don’t worry. Raphael Saadiq has brought that music back into the present. His tribute to the Motor City magic strikes the right balance of reverence and fun as he recalls why people enjoyed the Sound of Young America even during the country’s most turbulent decade. This isn’t a nostalgia trip or collection of standards. Saadiq pens new material that understands the erotic yearnings of the past masters and delivers them signed and sealed with his own stamp. Steve Horowitz

 

Artist: Samamidon

Album: All Is Well

Label: Bedroom Community

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

US Release Date: 2008-02-05

UK Release Date: 2008-02-01

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I actually didn’t want to do a Slipped Discs blurb for this album, because I feel like a broken record. I’ve been trying to convince people of how great Samamidon in general and this album in specific is since October 2007 and I know how annoying it is when people just won’t shut up about their pet favourites. But if you like folk music or orchestral arrangements or Jose Gonzalez or love songs or murder ballads or clapping songs or Iceland or sad music that makes you feel happy or, you know, songs, then please, for my sanity if nothing else, check out All Is Well. Or at least “Saro”, still one of the finest songs performed in the last decade and a perfect example of Sam’s talents. Ian Mathers

 

Artist: The Shackeltons

Album: The Shackeltons

Label: Loveless

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

US Release Date: 2008-01-29

UK Release Date: Unavailable

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A garage band from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, the Shackeltons haven’t done any of those things that get year attention, but they released one of the year’s best albums simply by pounding away with a youthful fervency that reminds you why rock ‘n’ roll matters. They push their emotionalism and vulnerability as far as they should, making honesty a virtue once again. There are no hidden tricks, no sleight-of-hand. The band means what they say and they’ve got their soft hearts into the red. The artistry lies in their ability to make near-sentimentality not only work, but also feel like an achievement. Simple, honest, pummeling. I didn’t know that could work anymore. Justin Cober-Lake

 

Artist: She & Him

Album: Volume One

Label: Merge

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

US Release Date: 2008-03-18

UK Release Date: Available as import

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She & Him is the musical collaboration between actress Zooey Deschanel and indie guitar virtuoso M. Ward. The majority of Volume One consists of songs penned by Deschanel and they offer an assorted mix of styles that range from the classic country of “Got Me” to the girl group sounds of “I Was Made for You” to the torchy “Take It Back”. What brings these distinct forms together is Deschanel’s voice and Ward’s nimble fingerpicking and fine work on the slide guitar. Ward contributes limited vocals, but his singing on their cover of The Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better” has Deschanel letting out a giggle, exemplifying the loose feel of the recording process and in turn, the finished product. She and Him have debuted with an album of consistently well-crafted and engaging songs, delivered with plentiful harmonies, handclaps, and oohs and aahs offering the listener immediate sonic gratification. Jessica Suarez

 

Artist: Sic Alps

Album: U.S. EZ

Label: Siltbreeze

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/U-S-Ez-Sic-Alps/dp/B001BGRZ1O/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1218760456&sr=8-1

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

US Release Date: 2008-07-24

UK Release Date: 2008-07-15

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The last few years have seen a sort of half-assed resurgence of lo-fi rock. Bands such as Times New Viking left the mildly obscure Siltbreeze to join the Matador ranks as others tried to reclaim the sound of early ’90s four-trackers. With US EZ, Sic Alps brought us into the world of dusty old 45s with their tight-knit vocal harmonies and hazy recordings. The band abandoned the sludge-filled squall of their previous work and gave us a lo-fi record more awash in the psychedelic sounds of ’60s San Francisco. Songs such as “Jelly Roll Gumdrop” and “Sing Song Waitress” could’ve been AM radio nuggets. Above all, the band gave youngsters a history lesson when it comes to lo-fi recording: this stuff was going on decades before Lou Barlow imploded. Joe Tacopino

 

Artist: Silver Jews

Album: Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea

Label: Drag City

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

US Release Date: 2008-06-17

UK Release Date: 2208-06-16

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Whatever the reason, be it personal stability or the band truly gelling after touring together, the Silver Jews‘ sixth LP is, musically and lyrically, their most cohesive. The Silver Jews has always expressed poet/songwriter David Berman’s distinct vision of the world. Here all of the sadness, absurdity, and creativity of that vision are articulated particularly well, through fables, puzzles and short stories. The songs are funny, a quality too often missing from music these days, and fanciful. Yet the humor and imagination, even the emphasis on dreams, manage to never contradict a sense that life can be wearying, personified by the image of a suffering jukebox filled with the pain of humankind. Still it’s a hopeful album, even triumphantly so, and it ends on a tender note: with two wayward souls meeting, wondering if happiness can finally be theirs. Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Sparks

Album: Exotic Creatures of the Deep

Label: Lil’ Beethoven

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/e/exotic_creatures_of_the_deep.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-05-19

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Few great bands could exist for nearly 40 years and gain as little popular recognition as Sparks, the arty pop band centered around brothers Ron (keyboards) and Russell (vocals) Mael. Perhaps their outsider status is due to Russell’s near-operatic high tenor, or the strangeness of the duo’s song subjects, which have ranged from sneezing (“Achoo”) to erections (“Angst in My Pants”) to telephone operators (“You’re Call’s Very Important to Us, Please Hold”). On their latest, Exotic Creatures of the Deep, Sparks continue a 21st century career revival with another engrossing batch of tunes in which Ron combines the synthpop of Pet Shop Boys, the Minimalist composition of Philip Glass, and the art rock of Roxy Music. Russell, meanwhile, croons Freddie Mercury-like about simian chauffeurs, male pregnancy, Morrissey, and the power of Photoshop to erase all records of a former lover. In 2008, Sparks commemorated their long career by performing all 21 of their albums in chronological order, boldly asserting their indomitable rule over their own weird and wondrous world. Michael Keefe

 

Artist: Spiritualized

Album: Songs in A&E

Label: Fontana International

Label: Spaceman

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

US Release Date: 2008-05-27

UK Release Date: 2008-05-26

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Shoegazing fuzz became sublime soul gazing with Spiritualized’s Songs in A&E. Frontman Jason Pierce mined his near-death experiences after battling illness to create one of 2008’s most transcendent albums. Blues-drenched ballads and psychedelic gospel hymns tell a story of resurrected melancholy as Peirce explores relationship fall out, fear, doubt and regret while on his way to visiting a higher ground. The Spaceman brings back soulfully sweet spirituals from another planet. Brassy horns, subtle strings and cymbal taps float over purring organs and guitar as Pierce retains his touch for sweet talking angels with somber folk songs, cautionary tales and simple songwriting. Death and heartache might be themes of Songs in A&E, but life has the last breath. With respirators as rhythmic instruments guiding the way, Pierce keeps his promise through the album’s final lullaby ballad “Good Night Good Night”. Chris Catania

 

Starfucker to Xiu Xiu

Xiu Xiu

Artist: Starfucker

Album: Starfucker

Label: Badman

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

US Release Date: 2008-09-23

UK Release Date: Available as import

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With a name that throws up the middle finger to the FCC, Portland, Oregon trio Starfucker are exactly the sort of band indie kids love to worship, what with their hushed vocals, distorted fuzz, and danceable blips and beeps. They are also the kind of band critics love to dismiss, arguing that catchy and simple simply won’t cut it these days. It would be pointless to argue that there is some subtle profundity hidden somewhere in these tracks. If you’re used to listening to, say, free jazz or Wagner, then it will be hard to convince you that there’s something worthy to extract from a disc like this; on paper, these formulaic arrangements and often-cliché lyrics would lead you to dismiss the album as a guilty pleasure. But a couple minutes into the album’s modest grooves and lush vocals, you may not be so quick to pass judgment on this flawed but absorbing piece of pop. I dare you to listen to it just once. Elizabeth Newton

 

Artist: Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko

Album: Africa to Appalachia

Label: Factor

Label: self-released

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

US Release Date: 2008-07-15

UK Release Date: Unavailable

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The number of kora albums available to the English-speaking world seems to be on the rise. We can afford to be picky. Africa to Appalachia is one of the good ones, a combination of West African roots and acoustic country Americana, with griot and kora on one hand and banjo and fiddle on the other, a dexterous contrast of lights — in the kora and banjo — against darks — in the fiddle and singing. Fleet “June Apple” and the deeper menace of “Tree to Tree” are handled with equal aplomb. Anyone looking for the outstanding Afro-Anglo team-ups of 2008 shouldn’t go past Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara’s Soul Science, but Africa to Appalachia is a worthy runner-up. Deanne Sole

 

Artist: Times New Viking

Album: Rip It Off

Label: Matador

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/t/timesnewviking-ripitoff.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-01-22

UK Release Date: Available as import

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“Embrace the noise!” cry the Ohio trio’s fans, the rare breed of listener adept enough to find the pop melodies beneath it… And they are there, lurking brilliantly behind the brutal plate of tinny, razor-sharp distortion. Want proof? Check those final 30 seconds in “End of All Things”, that moment of relief. Rip It Off seems to gleefully undermine everything we’ve ever been taught about the studio as an instrument, a purveyor of the “clean” and the “sheen”. In the end, there’s something profoundly ironic about blasting the album in my quality Bose headphones, like staggering out of Brooks Brothers clutching a ripped toga. Just a memo to all who’ve ever caught a whiff of the band’s racket: yes, it’s supposed to sound like that; no, the speakers aren’t busted. File under ‘acquired taste’ — but it’s a hell of a fun listen once you’ve acquired it. Zach Schonfeld

 

Artist: T-Pain

Album: Thr33 Ringz

Label: Jive

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Thr33-Ringz-Limited-Deluxe-Package/dp/B001G7EGQU

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/6/61tqodwk4dl__sl500_aa240_.jpg

First date: 2008-11-11

US Release Date: 2008-11-11

UK Release Date: 2008-11-17

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When most stars dim, it usually coincides with a drop in creative faculties. T-Pain can blame his lost death-grip on pop on market fatigue or fickle 13-year-olds; his latest album,Thr33 Ringz was the pop album of the year. Whereas his previous full-length, 2007’s Epiphany, saw T-Pain stretching his legs and dabbling in reggae, dancehall, crunk and his screwy version of disco, the songs on Thr33 Ringz are nearly all radio-ready up-tempo R&B bangers, like he was commissioned to do a NOW compilation. Throughout the album he doesn’t so much as feature pop titans — Akon, Ciara, Kanye West, T.I. — as assimilate them into the album, which is a feat considering only four of the album’s 17-plus songs are solo. And yet, the album is T-Pain’s and T-Pain’s only, confirming that he is one of the most singular pop artists of the decade, and it has as much to do with the brilliant songwriting as the (almost as brilliant) AutoTune. Jordan Sargent

 

Artist: Trap Them

Album: Seizures in Barren Praise

Label: Deathwish

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/s/seizures_in_barren_praise.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-11-11

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New Hampshire’s Trap Them turned a lot of heads with their excellent full-length debut Sleepwell Deconstructor, but Seizures in Barren Praise manages to top that 2007 album by a considerable margin. Not only has the band’s rather unique hybrid of crust, d-beat punk, and grindcore been vastly improved by the addition of drummer Mike Justian, but this time around a little more diversity is thrown into the mix, as we’re treated sporadic, furious blasts of old school death metal reminiscent of Entombed and Dismember, as well as a phenomenal, seven-minute exercise in sludgy doom that has us falling off our chairs. Tying this glorious mess all together is the great producer Kurt Ballou, whose trademark mix sounds both warm and ferocious at the same time. Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: Max Tundra

Album: Parallax Error Beheads You

Label: Domino

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Parallax-Error-Beheads-You-Tundra/dp/B001FZ0ABI

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/6/61aieb3qt8l._sl500_aa240_.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-11-18

UK Release Date: 2008-10-20

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It took Ben Jacobs, the British musician/producer behind Max Tundra, six years to write Parallax Error Beheads You, so it deserves some careful listening. Sure, his dense, dance-music inspired atonal pop songs can be a little off-putting — they wander off in unexpected directions, or make unconventional harmonic choices that, at first, seem to undermine a song’s trajectory. But beneath all the layers of electronic affect and sly musical commentary are some themes we can relate to. “I split up with my girl today,” Jacobs tells us on the opening track, and off we go from there, into twenty-something loneliness and nonsensical free-association and, somewhere in there, a blueprint for finding happiness again. Above all, Max Tundra’s music bounces with a vitality and bright-eyed pop optimism that makes it a thrilling adventure to follow. Dan Raper

 

Artist: The War on Drugs

Album: Wagonwheel Blues

Label: Secretly Canadian

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/w/warondrugsthe-wagonwheelblues.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-06-17

UK Release Date: 2008-06-02

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Out of Philly comes an album sounding like the bastard love child of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and Brian Eno’s Another Green World. In the same way Deerhunter injected ambient bliss to punk, the War on Drugs have grafted dense layers of sound on top of a traditional framework of blues and folk. Up front, Adam Garduciel sings like a cross between Rick Danko and Joe Walsh, while the band blends the rustic twang of Ronnie Hawkins and the Band with a blissful, synthesized minimalism that sounds like Daniel Lanoise and Flood did the recording. With the guitars nodding to Mike Bloomfield and Mike Campell, the organ to Al Kooper, and the atmospherics to a Brian Eno/Robert Fripp project, you get the most innovative of the blues-tinged releases that have swamped the market in the past few years. This ain’t the Recontours; no embarrassing aping of Led Zeppelin (the kings of aping) will be found here. Louis Battaglia

 

Artist: Brian Wilson

Album: That Lucky Old Sun

Label: Capitol

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/w/wilsonbrian-thatluckyoldsun.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-09-02

UK Release Date: 2008-09-01

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Brian Wilson’s follow up to the unfollowupable Smile is another classic, a grade-A California epic that merges all together in true concept album fashion, but breezes by like the bite-sized epics that made him famous. Written with Van Dyke Parks along with Scott Bennett (a key figure in the modern Brian Wilson renaissance), the playful lyrics jibe seamlessly with Wilson’s music and vocals, which are as natural and sincere as ever, all of which reach an emotional crescendo at the “Midnight’s Another Day” finale stretch. Plenty of grumpy stuff still gets said about how today’s Wilson doesn’t quite sound like the Pet Sounds Wilson, but that’s no way to assess someone who’s 40 years older and all heart. That Lucky Old Sun does nothing less than capture Wilson stepping forward not only as the honorary curator of the California myth but also taking charge of the Brian Wilson one. Kim Simpson

 

Artist: Women

Album: Women

Label: Flemish Eye

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

US Release Date: 2008-07-08

UK Release Date: Unavailable

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Though stand-out single “Black Rice” is a decidedly good example of the depth and sharpness of the Calgary quartet’s take on psych-pop — and, speaking of slips, worth considering for best song — Women’s eponymous, Chad Van Gaalen-produced debut really only reveals its full pleasures when you soak in the full thing. Drifting from ’60s-flavoured pop tunes to rolling post-rock freak-outs, chilled-out droning to hazy dance numbers, Women tease out the common thread from more than a few disparate influences, weaving a tapestry of found pieces to create modern art. Sometimes instrumentals for people who don’t like instrumentals, sometimes expansive, boundary-free pop for people who love pop, it’s an absolutely stunning first statement, the fact it’s overlooked mitigated by the knowledge that people will be paying attention to everything they do for years to come. David Berry

 

Artist: Xiu Xiu

Album: Women as Lovers

Label: Kill Rock Stars

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/x/xiuxiu-womenaslovers.jpg

US Release Date: 2008-01-29

UK Release Date: 2008-01-28

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Last year was a reformative year in music. Recovering from 2007’s electro/house delirium, 2008 saw the music community at large playing it relatively safe. There were mainstreamed dancey-disco acts: Cut Copy; diluted folk offerings: Fleet Foxes; and a lot of comebacks: Portishead, Kanye West, Erykah Badu. Amidst all this prudence, Xiu Xiu quietly released Women As Lovers early in the year, a record that eschews any trappings of caution in favor of a frenetic recording that spills out of its seam. Somewhere between the loose discord of La Foret and the almost poppy The Air Force, Jamie Stewart and crew hold Women in a tight paroxysm of saxophones, caterwaul, and industrial percussion. Tackling, in typical form, gender, abuse, and Queen, Xiu Xiu deftly summons their trademark emotional urgency, Unfortunately, Women would turn out to be an exception in 2008 rather than a bellwether, Xiu Xiu’s album standing out as one of the most inventive and emotionally jarring products of an otherwise safe year. Erik Hinton

 
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