Part 2: Katzenjammer to Xiu Xiu

Artist: Starfucker
Album: Starfucker
Label: Badman
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

Starfucker: Starfucker

Artist: Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko
Album: Africa to Appalachia
Label: Factor
Label: self-released
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

Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko: Africa to Appalachia

Artist: Times New Viking
Album: Rip It Off
Label: Matador
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

Times New Viking – The Apt.Times New Viking: Rip It Off

Artist: T-Pain
Album: Thr33 Ringz
Label: Jive
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

T-Pain: Thr33 Ringz

Artist: Trap Them
Album: Seizures in Barren Praise
Label: Deathwish
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

Trap Them: Seizures in Barren Praise

Artist: Max Tundra
Album: Parallax Error Beheads You
Label: Domino
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

Max Tundra: Parallax Error Beheads You

Artist: The War on Drugs
Album: Wagonwheel Blues
Label: Secretly Canadian
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

The War on Drugs – Needle in Your EyeThe War on Drugs: Wagonwheel Blues

Artist: Brian Wilson
Album: That Lucky Old Sun
Label: Capitol
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

Brian Wilson: That Lucky Old Sun

Artist: Women
Album: Women
Label: Flemish Eye
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

Women – Black RiceWomen: Women

Artist: Xiu Xiu
Album: Women as Lovers
Label: Kill Rock Stars
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

Xiu Xiu – Master of the BumpXiu Xiu: Women as Lovers