Boys Rule: The Top Ten Albums of 2008

From Observer.com’s intrepid correspondent from the pop music world, a top ten of the year’s best records, in reverse order of course. If you haven’t heard of some of these bands, you are probably old!

10. White Denim – Workout Holiday

To put it mildly, Workout Holiday is a retardedly infectious blend of psych, funk, and garage rock–and a startling debut for an unsigned band. Every song from this Austin trio seems on the verge of collapsing under its own manic energy, which suits nearly all of them just fine, particularly the soulful “All You Really Have To Do” and “Let’s Talk About It.” Though Workout Holiday only saw release overseas during the band’s European tour this year, Explosion–which contains nearly all of Workout‘s tunes, plus a few others, in a re-shuffled order–can easily be found state-side courtesy of Transmission.

9. Deerhunter – Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.

Atlanta’s Deerhunter’s built their reputation on drone-rock–the kind of music requiring narcotics, headphones, or a few distractions to fully appreciate. This certainly wasn’t a bad thing; last year’s deathly Cryptograms wasn’t short on ambient pleasures. But with Microcastle, it’s companion Weird Era Cont., and “Nothing Ever Happens,” one of the best singles of the year, Deerhunter have made an excellent case for inheriting Sonic Youth’s throne–a band who built a career out of finding that happy medium between noise and pop.

8. M83 – Saturdays = Youth

If M83 frontman Anthony Gonzalez didn’t have the songwriting chops, Saturdays=Youth would have been little more than a collector’s item for 80s fetishists and John Hughes fans. But while Gonzalez is certainly both of these things himself, “Skin of the Night” and “Graveyard Girl” are so perfectly executed, they turn aesthetic affectation into a kind of high art. Simply speaking, there are few people born between 1975 and 1985 who can resist a giddy rush of nostalgia after hearing those chintzy snare hints and day-glo synths coursing through “Kim & Jessie.”

7. Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight

We’re not sure if it’s Scott Hutchison’s Scottish accent or his dark sense of humor. But somehow Frightened Rabbit manage not to sound like every other band with a Telecaster and a broken heart, even when so much about The Midnight Organ Fight–the jangly guitars, the noisy organs, the bad sex–is so familiar. Instead, the quartet’s sophomore effort is pure indie-rock comfort foot-the best way to sulk and bob your head at the some time.

6. Samamidon – All is Well
On paper, All is Well sounds surprisingly innocuous—like something you might find at Starbucks or a Smithsonian gift shop. The record is essentially a series of American folk songs, all in the public domain, performed by Sam Amidon—a former fiddle virtuoso from small-town Vermont now living in New York—featuring orchestral arrangements courtesy of avant-composer Nico Muhly. But on record, Amidon’s eerily disaffected vocals and Muhly’s lush minimalism—honoring Aaron Copland one minute, Nick Drake the next—wrench every ounce of pathos from these ancient songs. “Wild Bill Jones” and “O Death” have never sounded so powerful or so frightening. And “Saro”—the lament of an 19th century Irish immigrant for his lost love back home —is quite simply the most beautiful thing we’ve heard in years.

5. Sun Kil Moon – April

At 41, Mark Kozelek (formerly of the Red House Painters) is easily the oldest musician on the list. But that’s part of what makes his music so compelling. His meditative songs are pregnant with memory and regret–with years busking in Spain and summers washed up on Florida beaches, poor and alone. Kozelek spins his tales over lush, open-tuned guitars and lazy, Crazy Horse jams. Stretching to 74 minutes, April is a long record–sometimes too long. But in Kozelek’s long career, rarely has he a created a more convincing mis-en-scene for his weary melancholy.

4. MGMT – Oracular Spectacular

It is a testament to MGMT that their music has managed to weather the shit-storm of publicity that greeted the release of their debut. Pretty-boys Andrew Van Wyngarden and Ben Goldwasser may have overstayed their welcome a tad, but “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel” remain very nearly as fresh as the first time they burbled out of our speakers. Beyond the simple pleasures of its coke-synths and sing-along choruses, Oracular Spectacular has enough brash, unbridled creativity to shame its countless competitors.

3. The Walkmen – You & Me

Struggling through a mid-life crisis of sorts, The Walkmen turned around and made the best album of their career. After 2006’s disappointing A Hundred Miles Off and its odd follow-up–a note for note recreation of Henry Nilsson’s Pussy Cuts–this New York quintet returned with a record that neatly marries their post-punk influence with their love of bar-ready, Sinatra-esque ballads. Hamilton Leithauser’s blustery tenor has never sounded better pining for lost youth or another cocktail.

2. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

To those of us habituated to indie rock–a genre notorious for sacrificing vocal clarity for ambience, atmosphere, and the dizzy pleasures of affects pedals–hearing Fleet Foxes for the first time felt like having years of accumulated wax sucked out of ears in one fell swoop. A little bit of an exaggeration, possibly, but tucking into this Seattle’s band’s rich four-part harmonies is a rejuvenating experience, to say the least. Fleet Foxes self-titled debut also flows like nothing else this year-a folk-rock suite worthy of Abby Road‘s second half or CSNY’s Déjà Vu. And to think, lead singer and songwriter, Robin Pecknold is only 22…

1. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

If it wasn’t the album of the year, For Emma, Forever Ago would surely be the story of the year. The tale, repeated in various forms by every blog and music mag in Christendom, goes something like this: Justin Vernon (a.k.a. Bon Iver) breaks up with his girlfriend and his band in Raleigh, comes down with a wicked combination of pneumonia, mono, and liver disease, quits his dish-washing job, and decamps to his father’s cabin in secluded northwestern Wisconsin. There, alone, and sick as hell, Vernon records For Emma-scrawling the lyrics on the walls and reciting them endlessly over his sparse guitar tracks until the words fit the melodies in his head.

The tunes are some of the most haunting to emerge from the well-trod singer-songwriter genre in ages. On “Flume” and “Blindsided,” Vernon balances his chilly atmospherics created from the simplest ingredients with the soulful warmth of his quivering falsetto. While on “re: stacks”–the record’s finale and one of the saddest moments of the year–Vernon chronicles endurance wrought from the deepest loss. “This is not the sound of a new man or a crispy realization,” Vernon sings. “It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away”-a fitting end to what has become a mythic record.

Honorable Mentions:

  • TV on the Radio – Dear Science
  • The Notwist – The Devil, You + Me
  • Lykke Li – Youth Novels
  • Portishead – Third
  • Horse Feathers – House with no Home

 

Boys Rule: The Top Ten Albums of 2008