21 February 2011

Top Albums: 2008

{ How was your 2008? Well, Amy Winehouse started off the year with a handful of Grammys, Scott Weiland quits Velvet Revolver and rejoins Stone Temple Pilots (results were mixed), Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proclaims the 15th of April as Mariah Carey Day (wha--?!), Madonna releases her 11th studio album (and it's a No. 1 album), Lil' Wayne's sixth album sells a million copies in the first week, Britney Spears wins big at the MTV Music Video Awards and then goes on to sell tons more records, and Sir Paul McCartney plays Israel for the first time since being banned (yes, banned!) since 1965). }

As I've been doing this little Top Albums project, I realized that 2008 was the first time where I feel like my faith has been restored in music. There has certainly been a lot of great music here and there but 2008 really feels like a time where there is a boatload of very exciting music.

Electronic music seemed to be relegated to fans of the '80s and a massive sub-culture in the '90s and early 2000s. But the kids growing up through the waves of electronic music and rock 'n' roll have finally brought it together.

At the same time, there is a group of indie-folk-rockers that brought back beautiful harmonies and warm acoustic songs while stripping the cheese that often accompanies singer-songwriters and those of their ilk.

What is the result?

A broad range of music that mixes the old with the new, reminds me of the past while looking forward, all resulting in a familiar but unique sound that doesn't bear too much of its past on its sleeve.

Many of these up-and-coming bands ousted old music stalwarts like Oasis and The Verve. Both Oasis and The Verve released records that featured promising singles but, overall, their albums fell flat. Even though Coldplay released an adventurous record that showed a return to form, even they were pushed aside by the quality of many relatively new bands.

I hesitate to call this a new Golden Age of music (after all, when was the last so-called Golden Age?) but we're in a good place and this time is a boon for those who love music from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Here are the best albums of 2008:

5. Attic Lights - Friday Night Lights

I was surprised how quickly I fell in love with this band and this record. There is nothing exceptionally challenging about this lighthearted band but they have a wonderfully effortless quality through all of their songs.

Attic Lights and their debut Friday Night Lights have drawn comparisons to Teenage Fanclub, not surprising since Francis McDonald of Teenage Fanclub assisted with the production.

There is a bright, breezy feel to the record that combines touches of The Jesus And The Mary Chain but mostly Teenage Fanclub, some Ash and even some Belle & Sebastian. There is even some country western twang in songs like "The Dirty Thirst."

It was a struggle for the fifth spot in this list, Friday Night Lights met a lot of resistance from Coldplay's return to form and fabulous debuts by Little Jackie and Empire Of The Sun but ultimately this rock 'n' roll record squeezed into this spot.

4. Air France - No Way Down [EP]

Pitchfork darlings Air France scored some high marks with the online music mag. Pitchfork rated No Way Down (a mere six songs clocking in at less than 23 minutes) at No. 14 on their top 50 albums of 2008, No. 161 on their top 200 albums of the 20000s, and scored the EP a 8.6 out of 10.

Very high praise for an EP from a little known Swedish band with only two official releases (the first was their 2006 EP On Trade Winds).

But this EP is worth all the praise.

It's hard to think that these breezy Balearic beats comes from Sweden but perhaps it's the nostalgic and romantic longing for such climes is the reason why this record is so powerful.

The lush production drops in very subtle electronic grooves that could be just at home in a club or by yourself on a rainy day.

The nostalgic yearning in this record is what makes it brilliant. Even as an EP it lands as the fourth best record for me in 2008.

3. Friendly Fires - Friendly Fires

The combination of electro-beats with an indie-rock aesthetic has really come to the forefront and the self-titled album by Friendly Fires embodies the best in that genre.

Even today, the album feels fresh and exciting and worthy of unbridled dancing and fist pumps.

This is one of those rare albums where every song could be a hit and the album from start to finish is quality. Six singles were gleaned from this ten track album and a seventh single was released upon the re-release of the album. There are some legitimate hits on the record and it was a hit with me.

2. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours

Is there something in the water in Australia?

Electronic groups like Cut Copy, Empire of the Sun and The Presets hail from Down Under and they've been rocking the states with their infectious dance-beats.

In Ghost Colours is a stunning combination of '80s electro-bliss and the warmth of some good old fashioned indie-rock. Those analog synths hammer the nostalgia factor and the indie-rock vibe keeps the record sounding fresh from start to finish.

Of all the bands in this indie-electro genre, Cut Copy's In Ghost Colours ticks all the requisite boxes that makes this an incredible record: Unforgettable hooks, powerful drum beats, driving synths, singable choruses, enough guitars to retain a familiar warmth to the tracks, and a perfect ebb and flow and pace.

1. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago

With all the indie-electro bands coming on the scene it's a bit surprising to me that the quiet and achingly beautiful folk record like For Emma, Forever Ago is the best album of 2008.

With all the warmth and power of a dance-groove there is nothing like the warmth of acoustic guitars, poetic and heartfelt lyrics and wistful vocals.

For those that are only casually familiar with For Emma, Forever Ago, this album runs the dangerous risk of being over-hyped. For the most part, Bon Iver has been universally praised by critics, embraced so lovingly by so many hipsters and non-hipsters, and the album has been an instant-classic for many.

The beauty of this record cannot be denied.

This a capella version of "For Emma" strips the song to its bare essence and it's just as powerful as the album version of the song.

I've been asked a number of times by various people while in a sort of head-shaking awe, "Why is Bon Iver so good?"

Perhaps it's the conception and birth of the album. Songwriter Justin Vernon holed himself up in a cabin and poured himself into this album in order to decompress from the previous year. Perhaps it's that therapeutic process of music and of this album that makes it so powerful. Perhaps it's the way he recorded it: the subtle layers that keeps the album sounding full and simple at the same time. It's the sort of production that gives the album an honesty that is lost in so many great but over-polished albums.

But even if you didn't know the back story, the album speaks for itself. The longing and heartache drips off of every second of every song and from every instrument and from every word.

I could write on and on about this record and someday I'll devote an entire post to this album but the last thing that strikes me about this record is that it isn't necessarily a "mopey" record (a quality too often found in these soul-bearing records).

There are beats in the album ("Lump Sum" and "Blindsided") and there are hooks ("For Emma") and songs where you can sing along ("Skinny Love"). The powerful lyrics strike that lovely balance between vivid symbolism and blunt confession. Add that to Vernon's unconventional voice that conveys strength and weakness and lush harmonies.

I admire a well-paced and well-balanced album and it's difficult to achieve something like that in an acoustic-guitar-based folk record but Bon Iver manage to keep the album interesting with clever hooks and production without stripping away the emotion, all the while, making For Emma, Forever Ago feel like a simple album. A simply beautiful album.

2008 Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
  • Coldplay - Vida la Vida or Death and All His Friends
  • Empire Of The Sun - Walking On A Dream
  • Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
  • Little Jackie - The Stoop
  • Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend

{ It's hard not to over-hype this album but it's really that good. }

Please be sure to read my post explaining this little project and, more importantly, the criteria that I'm using. Thanks!