Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The 2008 Generic Awards Part Two: Albums of the Year

With apologies to Black Milk, here are the top ten albums of 2008:

10. Sigur Rós - "Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust" - The last thing I thought I wanted from Sigur Rós was change. The slowly-paced, post-rock artworks which had become their trademark had shown signs of diminishing since "Ágætis Byrjun," sure, but the formula certainly wasn't broken. However, after just the first two songs from the Icelandic group's latest album, I saw (or rather heard) the error of my thinking. "Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust" is an album full of life, one which provides new direction for the band while leaving enough of their signature sound intact to keep old fans while welcoming the new. It may not be their best album, but it feels like their most immediate.

9. Torche - "Meanderthal" - In a year in which a lot of hard rock albums drew praise ("Fortress," "The Chemistry of Common Life," "Life... The Best Game in Town," etc.), the best of all was an album masquerading as hard rock. Torche explore genres and annihilate each and every one of them. "Speed of the Nail" does up death metal while adding a hint of pop levity, "Grenades" takes the power anthem and soars it to new heights. Torche exemplifies genres while rebuking them, joke too straight-faced to possibly be kidding, and just happen to make kick ass rock music the whole time.

8. Fleet Foxes - "Fleet Foxes" - Observed from a distance, this album doesn't suggest it should be receiving its exemplary level of praise from critics both mainstream and independent. Which makes sense, since "Fleet Foxes" is such an inviting record that to hear it is to fall in love with it, thus never needing to observe it from afar. The album never seeks to blow the listener away or leave them in awe, but rather to provide a sense of welcome and familiarity. When all those hype albums fall by the wayside six months after being proclaimed 'the next BIG thing,' "Fleet Foxes" will be waiting, every bit as great as it has always been.

7. The Dodos - "Visiter" - That am album crafted by two guys on a minuscule label manages to sound this bombastic is incredible. That it can transition almost immediately, yet flawlessly, into soft acoustic rock is even more impressive. With the success of this album, both critically and commercially, I wonder what the future will bring from The Dodos. If they can make an album this inspired out of nowhere and with a lo-fi budget, with the resources it has created for them, the follow-up already promises greatness.

6. R.E.M. - "Accelerate" - Maybe I put it on here because R.E.M. is such a historic band, with a back catalogue which can match almost any band working today. Maybe I put it on here because "Reveal" and "Around the Sun" were so underachieving. Maybe I put it on here because the first time I heard "Until the Day is Done" I had to check that it was indeed a new R.E.M. song. Maybe I put it on here because its political statements were fitting without rendering the album ephemeral to its time. Then again, maybe I just put it on here because it's brilliant, regardless of history, return to form, or any other non-musical factors. Yeah, I think that was why.

5. Jacaszek - "Treny" - Post-rock is dying. Mogwai will never make another "Young Team." Sigur Rós will never make another "Ágætis Byrjun." Tortoise are no longer relevant. Jacaszek offers the solution in this eulogy to the genre. On the surface, "Treny" appears simple but encased within its songs are labyrinthine structures of sound, a plethora of tiny parts each contributing to a massive whole, then muffled to create the illusion of ambiance, a façade of peace created by constant war. Maybe it's all a metaphor, maybe I'm over-thinking it, maybe that's why I never wrote a review. Whichever way, it's certainly one of the year's finest albums.

4. Bon Iver - "For Emma, Forever Ago" - 2008 was the best possible year for this album to arrive. Auto-tuners had taken over, with Kanye, Lil Wayne, T-Pain, and Akon (among others) dominating the charts and the airplay. The raw humanity of Justin Vernon's voice is an instrument in itself. Flawed in the classical sense, yet so ideal for this album that to imagine these songs being performed by anyone else is nearly impossible. That the vocals are accompanied by compositions which fit the mold of folk music while transcending the genre through experimentation and creativity makes "For Emma, Forever Ago" that rare album which achieves importance effortlessly.

3. TV on the Radio - "Dear Science," - Time will tell what Barack Obama's ultimate legacy is and, by extension, what the legacy of this album is. At this point, it may well be a "Golden Age," and it seems beautiful and cause for hope. It may turn out to be a representation of when the United States made a turn toward progress. It may turn out to be a time capsule of a nation's naiveté if things don't end up really changing at all. Either way, it remains a profound document of our nation's collective emotions moving beyond one of our least popular presidents toward one of our most inspiring, a chronicle of finding hope in dark times. It's an important, engaging album to match an important, engaging regime.

2. Bonnie "Prince" Billy - "Lie Down in the Light" - My affinity for Will Oldham has been made blatant and obvious on this website. Albums like "Lie Down in the Light" make it easy for me to confirm why I love his work so much. In many ways, "Lie Down in the Light" is his most approachable album to the uninitiated since Palace Music's "Viva Last Blues," perhaps ever. In many ways, it sounds like an amalgamation between Oldham's alt-country and the Golden Era country music of Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, and others. It is a love letter to his influences, while also drawing the love of his fans.

1. Chad VanGaalen - "Soft Airplane" - The transition and artistic leap made from VanGaalen's first two albums to "Soft Airplane" is staggering. A singer-songwriter suddenly emerging with an album which covers every genre from dance to folk to noise rock. Just look at the list of artists I listed as influences in the context of my original review: Devendra Banhart, Talking Heads, Grandaddy, LCD Soundsystem, Beck, Destroyer, Smog, The Microphones. Try finding another album which can connect those dots! That he manages to not only explore genres, but master them in the process is simply ridiculous. Creativity, artistic leaps, variety, and masterful execution? Sounds like the album of the year to me.

And, lest we forget, the worst album of the year: "Vanilla Ice is Back!" - If I have to explain to you why an album which features Vanilla Ice covering "Buffalo Solider" and "Fight the Power" (shudder) is the worst album of the year, I wouldn't know how to make it any more obvious.

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