Part 2: Katzenjammer to Xiu Xiu

Artist: Mason Proper
Album: Olly Oxen Free
Label: Dovecote
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

Mason Proper – Out Dragging the RiverMason Proper: Olly Oxen Free

Artist: Mike Monday
Album: Songs Without Words Part 1
Label: OM
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

Mike Monday – CatnipMike Monday: Songs Without Words Part 1

Artist: Mudcrutch
Album: Mudcrutch
Label: Reprise
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

Mudcrutch – Lover of the BayouMudcrutch: Mudcrutch

Artist: Thao
Album: We Brave Bee Stings and All
Label: Kill Rock Stars
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

Thao Nguyen & the Get Down Stay Down – Bag of HammersThao: We Brave Bee Stings and All

Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Album: Ghosts I-IV
Label: The Null Corporation
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

Nine Inch Nails: Ghosts I-IV

Artist: Of Montreal
Album: Skeletal Lamping
Label: Polyvinyl
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

Of Montreal – Id EngagerOf Montreal: Skeletal Lamping

Artist: Pattern Is Movement
Album: All Together
Label: Hometapes
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

Pattern Is Movement: All Together

Artist: Sam Phillips
Album: Don’t Do Anything
Label: Nonesuch
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

Sam Phillips – Can’t Come DownSam Phillips: Don’t Do Anything

Artist: Pillow Queens
Album: Kookoolegit
Label: Monofonus Press
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

Pillow Queens: Kookoolegit

Artist: Polysics
Album: We Ate the Machine
Label: MySpace
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

Polysics – Pretty GoodPolysics: We Ate the Machine