It has become a tradition for music-lovers and bloggers to compile a list of their favorite albums of the year. Last year, I foolishly devoted way too much time to a list of my top 50 albums. I decided this year to limit myself to 25, making the task much less burdensome and much more enjoyable. So here they are, my top albums of 2008!
25. My Brightest Diamond – A Thousand Shark’s Teeth
Shara Worden actually recorded this album concurrently with her debut “Bring Me the Workhorse”. This set of songs is decidedly more subtle and melancholy. A string quartet provides the backdrop for Shara’s guitar flourishes while the focal point is Shara’s incredible, operatic voice. I hope we see lots more from Ms. Worden in the future.
Key Tracks: To Pluto’s Moon, The Brightest Diamond
24. Johann Johannsson – Fordlandia
Icelandic neo-classical composer Johann Johannsson has captured my attention with each of his albums. His newest release is meant to examine the story behind Fordlandia, a parcel of land in Brazil that Henry Ford bought in the 1920’s to produce rubber for his cars. The music is as fascinating as the story it is based upon.
Key Tracks: the album as a whole
23. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes and Sun Giant EP
Not many bands can boast a debut album that was met with as much universal praise as Fleet Foxes (except maybe a couple that are higher on this list). From the opening strains of “White Winter Hymnal”, listeners realize that this band has some real talent. Harmonies like these are a rare find in the world of indie music. The band seems to effortlessly amble through their songs with genuine enjoyment. Folk music this good should be universally praised.
Key Tracks: White Winter Hymnal, Heard Them Stirring
22. Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid
When will Elbow find the audience it deserves?! This UK band has been cranking out phenomenal albums every couple years since 2001 and has been snatching up awards along the way. Still, it seems that no one has heard of them here in the US. This album showcases their sprawling sound and knack for lyrical wit. Listen to “Grounds for Divorce” and you’ll understand why people need to start paying attention.
Key Tracks: Grounds for Divorce, The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver
21. Bloc Party – Intimacy
Bloc Party rush-released this album after the demos leaked to the internet. This album finds the band infusing their trademark punk-ish sound with electronica and club beats. The result is quite good and this album has been a great one for driving home from a long day at work.
Key Tracks: Mercury, Ion Square
20. My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges
Don’t let the cover art fool you, this album is actually quite good. MMJ is a veteran band by now and you just get the feeling that they are building to something monumental. This album shows some signs, but probably isn’t their “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”. They are obviously a band that is willing to try anything and they don’t care about critics (how else do you explain “Highly Suspicious”?). While the album doesn’t feel as cohesive as their previous ones, they sure have raised the stakes and left us to wonder “What’s next?”
Key Tracks: Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2, I’m Amazed
19. Lykke Li – Youth Novels
This is an album that totally came out of nowhere for me. Lykke is 22 years old and already putting together some great electro-pop music. She hails from the still-hot Swedish music scene, but she’s got a sound all her own. Part soul, part club, her songs bounce along and listeners will find it hard to stop tapping their feet.
Key Tracks: I’m Good. I’m Gone., Dance, Dance, Dance.
18. The Fireman – Electric Arguments
The Fireman ceased to be anonymous this year. With this, their third release, the experimental duo acknowledged the identities many had already discovered: they are Paul McCartney and producer Youth. This revelation pushed this album onto the UK charts and showed the world McCartney’s secret love of electronic music. The album sounds a little like a David Bowie record, sort of crazy. But Paul’s voice and his song-writing are unmistakable. Is this what the Beatles would be doing today if they’d survived?
Key Tracks: Sing the Changes, Is This Love?
17. Beck – Modern Guilt
Which Beck is your favorite? This album is produced by Danger Mouse and features a Beck who is more songwriter than free-form beat singer. He’s still having a lot of fun with his material, but he’s noticeably subdued when compared to his last album. Personally, I prefer this more deliberate style over his other noodlings. He strikes a balance between Sea Change and Guero/The Information. And a perfect one.
Key Tracks: Chemtrails, Walls
16. The Welcome Wagon – Welcome to the Welcome Wagon
Another debut album makes the list! The Welcome Wagon are Vito and Monique Aiuto. Vito is a church-planter and a pastor who happens to be good friends with Sufjan Stevens. The couple having collaborated with Sufjan in the past on his Christmas EP series, but now the song-writing duties are theirs alone. Sufjan produced the album and helped with the arrangements and his influence is all over this disc. What’s really great, though, is the songs themselves. They are all about Jesus and what he means to the Aiutos. It’s beautiful.
Key Tracks: He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word, But For You Who Fear My Name
15. Waterdeep – Pink & Blue
New music from my favorite Christian band of all time! This is actually a double EP set from Don and Lori Chaffer (one for each of them), who assembled a group of friends and family to help put these songs together. They refer to this as a party album and that’s what it is! The songs are big and fun and the album comes complete with an activity book to work on while you listen. Waterdeep has been somewhat dormant for some time, so any new music is cause for a party!
Key Tracks: Accidents Happen, I Rolled Into New Year’s Eve
14. Portishead – Third
Not heard from since 1999, Portishead quietly re-entered the music scene this year with a new album. It was worth the wait. Their first two LPs have gained a cult following and inspired many indie bands to attempt to replicate their trippy sound. Leave it to the original artists to present perfection. This album features a band still on top of its game and showing no signs of rust. Hopefully we won’t have to wait ten years for a fourth helping.
Key Tracks: Silence, The Rip
13. Jon Foreman – The Seasons EPs
As the lead singer for Switchfoot, Jon Foreman has gained quite the following. In the midst of all his pop success, Jon decided to record a series of EPs featuring songs that don’t fall into the Switchfoot sound. What he released was four EPs themed after the four seasons. Each disc has its own unique feel and style, the common thread being Jon’s voice and distinct songwriting. The songs are also more overtly spiritual than Switchfoot’s recent output. Good, good stuff.
Key Tracks: White as Snow, Baptize My Mind
12. Flight of the Conchords – Flight of the Conchords
I remember when I first heard these guys last year. I had discovered their show on HBO and become a huge fan. Soon they were YouTube sensations and selling out shows at the Orpheum Theater in an hour. This is their first proper LP and features songs that were part of the TV show. The bands strength is in their dry humor and real musical talent. Their star looks like it’s still rising too – the second season of their show debuts next month. Which means new music and new fans. Go Kiwis!
Key Tracks: Ladies of the World, Business Time
11. Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs
Death Cab’s musical strength is in painting a musical picture of a moment in time. Their best songs are the ones that transport the listener into the moment and cause him/her to feel what Ben Gibbard felt. Ben’s creative songwriting makes that possible. This album has a measure of darkness to it, just like Plans before it. However, it also has some weak turns of phrase that don’t measure up (“You can do better than me | but I can’t do better than you”). I just don’t think they can match the greatness of Transatlanticism. But they probably don’t need to.
Key Tracks: Long Division, Cath…
10. Anathallo – Canopy Glow
This year, Anathallo had the daunting task of trying to record a follow-up to a truly great album (2006’s “Floating World”). They did the smart thing and didn’t attempt to recreate their previous album, opting instead to take a slightly different course. These songs are more compact and more traditionally structured. The instrumentation is still elaborate and the lyrics evocative. I do miss their more experimental side though.
Key Tracks: Northern Lights, Noni’s Field
9. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weekend put a face on the blog-band phenomenon. Before they had even recorded their debut, they were heralded as the best new band. However, they got so popular so fast that the backlash was equally quick. Before their album was out, they had been built up and torn down again. Beneath the hype, however, was a fresh and fun sound. I saw these guys lives and I worry that they won’t be able to sustain their popularity past this album. But hey, it was fun while it lasted!
Key Tracks: M79, Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa
8. M83 – Saturdays = Youth
It’s been three years since M83 released a proper LP. In that period, the band underwent some lineup changes and is now essentially a solo project of Anthony Gonzalez. The immense electronic sounds that he (and his collaborators) produce are often overwhelming. He is heavily influenced by the shoe-gazing bands of the 80’s and swirls his guitars and synths over his heavily reverbed vocals. The result is beautiful and often dance-able. I gave this album some serious rotation this year.
Key Tracks: Kim & Jessie, Midnight Souls Still Remain
7. Hammock – Maybe They Will Sing for Us Tomorrow
In 2007, Hammock gave a live performance of new music to open an art exhibit by Jón Þór (Jónsi) Birgisson (lead singer of Sigur Ros) and Alex Somers. The performance was so well received that the band decided to record the piece live in studio, giving it an intimate feel. As the band says, “There are no intrusions. No beats. No lyrics. Nothing to break the spell or jar the listener out of the moment.” The ambient music is lovely and perfect for reading or meditating. This CD rarely leaves its position next to my bed.
Key Tracks: the album as a whole.
6. TV on the Radio – Dear Science
TVotR really upped their game this year. Dear Science is light years ahead of their last album and has cemented the band as one of the best bands out there. Everything about this album is big: big ideas, big arrangements, big tracklist. The album is put together like a vinyl LP – side A ends with the gentle Family Tree and side B muscles in with protest song Red Dress. The album is bursting with diversity and you’re never quite sure where it will take you next. One thing’s for sure though, it’s a great ride.
Key Tracks: Family Tree, Halfway Home
5. Ra Ra Riot – The Rhumb Line
I remember hearing this band’s first EP back in 2007 and thinking they had a lot of talent, but not a lot of money. The production values where poor and the EP suffered for it. The sound that RRR is going for demands good production or a live concert experience. This disc captures the instrumentation perfectly. The strings are mixed well and the band’s energetic stage style translates well. I also saw this band live this year and was really impressed by them. With the press they are getting with this album, we should be hearing more from them in the future.
Key Tracks: Ghost Under Rocks, Dying is Fine
4. Coldplay – Viva la Vida or Death and All of His Friends
I found “X & Y” to be a huge letdown. Coldplay had distilled their sound down into a formulaic mess and added synths to cover their tracks. On this album, they did what they had to: they went big and scored big. The main difference on this album is probably the production talent of Brian Eno. From the first track, he imposes his will on the sound and pushes Coldplay to be something more. This album is huge, the soundscapes are epic. They even have a song with no piano or guitars – just drums and strings. Sure, Chris Martin’s lyrics seem to be trite at times, but that’s really the only complaint to be made. Plus, they went a little conceptual on us by beginning the album with “Life in Technicolor” and ending it with “Death and All His Friends”, which I think is cool.
Key Tracks: Lovers in Japan, Viva la Vida
3. Cloud Cult – Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornados)
It’s so cool that we have a local band that is not only gaining fame worldwide, but deserving of it too! Cloud Cult just keeps churning out great records and performing amazing concerts. Band leader Craig Minowa is the glue that keeps everything together. He provides the vision for the collective to rally around. On this album, they just keep rolling with their signature brand of electro-infused indie rock. There have been rumblings that this will be the last Cloud Cult album, but Minowa has yet to definitively comment on that. If that turns out to be true, then I can’t think of a better way to end the journey than with closing tracks “I Love You All”. But I really hope they soldier on.
Key Tracks: No One Said It Would Be Easy, I Love You All
2. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
Though it was released independently in 2007, this album gained a real audience when it was given a label release in February. Soon, Justin Vernon’s angst-ridden songs were tugging the heart-strings of music fans all over the place. The strange journey from a secluded cabin in Wisconsin to the top ten lists of music critics has not compromised the appeal of the music itself. Each listen to this album reveals more intricacies. Vernon has crafted a sound all his own and is now saddled with the unenviable task of following it up with more. But I get the feeling this album will become a cult classic either way.
Key Tracks: Skinny Love, The Wolves (Act I and II)
1. Sigur Rós – Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
Sigur Rós has been busy these last couple of years. They did a world tour, they filmed a music/documentary film about Iceland and their free countryside concert tour, they recorded a double EP of acoustic and rare tracks and they recorded this album. It’s clear that after all the busyness and intensity they have endured, they wanted to cut loose a little bit on this LP and surprise their audience. Right out of the gate, they shatter expectations with the song Gobbledigook – which sounds like an Animal Collective/hippie song. Track two continues the carefree joy of the album before they settle in for more subdued and orchestral fare (including a song featuring a full orchestra and choir that was recorded live in one take!). They even close the album with a song sung in English! All in all, this is an amazing album. One that I have listened to more than any other this year.
Key Tracks: Inní mér syngur vitleysingur, Ára bátur
So there you have it! My top 25. There were a number of albums that I hated to leave off, so maybe that’s a post for another day. Another great year for music! See you next year!