Another year packed with music has come and gone. Music is a language I can’t create myself but it does me good to know that every hour someone out there is humming a snippet of a melody, returning to their seat at the bar with a head full of lyrics that just occurred to them, or tapping out a drumbeat on their leg in the car. People everywhere are trying to get it right, to get the music out just so they can be. I am glad that they do.
2008 was full of fantastic (and varied) music from all corners of the world for me. I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the quantity of music and the subjectivity that swirls around the ones that make it vs. the ones that no one ever hears. I wish I’d had more hours to listen to (and properly digest) more songs this year. As it is, these are ten albums (plus two EPs plus one carryover from last year) that affected me on a gut level in the past twelve months. These are the ones I listened to over and over, that knocked the wind out of me and made me glad I have ears.
These aren’t “the best.” These are just my favorites.
FUEL/FRIENDS FAVORITES OF 2008
Nada Surf (Barsuk)
I’ve been surprised by the intensity with which I’ve listened to this album in 2008. I guess it’s tapping into the introspective moments of my year as it pertains to “grown-up life,” which Caws sings is like “eating speed or flying a plane — it’s too bright.” The album cover hints perfectly at the feel of the music; the moment where it’s still warm from the sun but the gorgeous pinpricks of light are starting to shine through. I talked today about the cascades of glory on this album, a blazing meteor from this band that’s been around so long. I saw Matthew Caws perform solo last night and he said, “We feel blessed to have a second story,” (post-mid-Nineties buzz band). “It’s the story we always wanted anyways.” I’ve listened to this album a hundred times this year and it still affects me deeply, makes it okay to be fragile — and to be on a vector up.
[original review, interview]
Beautiful Beat – Nada Surf
Midnight Organ Fight
Frightened Rabbit (Fat Cat)
Coming from Scotland with their hearts held out for the offering, these two brothers plus two bandmates have crafted an album that is not for the fainthearted, but excellent for the honest. Over gorgeous melodies and with a thick and wrenching Scottish brogue, Frightened Rabbit guttingly dissect the moments of bravery and moments of weakness that go with a relationship ending. Peter Katis (The National) produced this lilting, rocking piece of perfection — unflinching in its intimacy.
[original review, interview]
Backwards Walk – Frightened Rabbit
For Emma Forever Ago
Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
I didn’t know when I started 2008 just how much I would need this album. Justin Vernon recorded this achingly vulnerable album in the Wisconsin woods in the dead of cold winter as he recovered from a breakup. The name he adopted means “good winter” in French, and I think the name fits the music as well as that ice-encrusted window on the cover. In winter, things move a little slower, but with more crisply defined edges, and the first time I heard this something was scraped loose inside of me. His music is wrapped in a thin skin but a current thrums powerfully under the surface. This is an album that I am unable to shake.
[watch: still one of the most perfect things I've seen this year]
Skinny Love – Bon Iver
The Hold Steady (Vagrant)
I think the thing that gets me with the Hold Steady, this year or any past year when they’ve released an album, is that they are unabashed in their belief in rock and roll. Craig Finn is a modern day prophet who flails and explodes with the force of the catharsis of these fantastic sounding songs that they must get out. The lyrics trace some of the most intelligent, evocative stories you’ll hear with characters I feel I know by now (they might as well be breathing). This is an immense album, with the pounding piano that crashes across the songs and the brass instruments slicing through. Gorgeously grand and subversively hopeful.
Constructive Summer – The Hold Steady
The ’59 Sound
The Gaslight Anthem (Side One Dummy)
If the Hold Steady filter their love for Springsteen through a lens of kids raised on punk and The Replacements, Jersey’s Gaslight Anthem play with an urgency and passion of a pre-Born to Run Bruce, young and hungry. Lead singer Brian Fallon grew up in a home four blocks from E Street, and this band is crafting songs that hold up as well when howled out ragged as they do stripped down to their bare acoustic bones. There’s a wisdom and sometimes a resignation beyond their years.
Great Expectations – The Gaslight Anthem
Ode To Sunshine
Delta Spirit (Rounder)
Delta Spirit was formed in San Diego when lead singer Matt Vasquez was busking loudly by the train tracks and he met with Brandon Young at two in the morning. The honesty and sloppiness that bleeds through at 2am is captured well on this authentic album with a vintage feel. It basks in the warmth of the surf guitars, the singalongs and handclaps and banging on trashcan lids, the tinkly last-call piano over glasses clattering.
Trashcan – Delta Spirit
Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel (Misra)
The cinematic desert beauty and chugging fuzz-rock found side-by-side on this dual album swooped in late in the year to win me over. I saw an acoustic video of Will Johnson, who helms both bands, performing “I, The Kite,” from an album I’d passed over too quickly the first time around. Both bands are Will’s and explore different dimensions of his music — Centro-matic electric like the heat in the air even as the Texas August sun has just begun to rise, whereas the more muted, spacious South San Gabriel has tones of evening and fireflies. This album was written and recorded fast and pure in a handful of days in the studio, and has a feeling of distilled essentials.
Counting The Scars – Centro-Matic
Oh! Mighty Engine
Neil Halstead (Brushfire Records)
Taking six long years from his last solo release Sleeping On Roads, influential British musician Neil Halstead (Slowdive) comes quietly back with a humble album of acoustic folk melodies that rewards the listener for their patience. This is a slow grower for me, and I find that more hues in the songs are revealed to me the longer I sit with it — a task I am eminently willing to take on. Halstead sings about trying to get the colors right, and with these unassuming tunes I think he does.
Paint A Face – Neil Halstead
The Great Collapse
Everything Absent or Distorted (self-released)
This Denver collective does things full tilt. They play with seemingly all the instruments they can find, in order to squeeze the earnest beauty out of every melody and every rhythm. They fearlessly meld incisive lyrics with a resilient hope, like on “Aquariums”: “We are aquariums — left outside, but we hold life and a bright light in our glass walls.” With eight official members (and up to 15 on stage) EAOD is a joy to watch, and that joy transmits onto this smart album of sweeping scope. Amidst banjos and casio keyboards, trumpets and pots and pans, this band is ready for a larger stage. Literally.
A form to accommodate the mess – Everything Absent or Distorted
Little Joy (Rough Trade)
It’s as simple as this: Little Joy just makes me happy. Their thirty-minute debut album is short and occasionally rough, it’s kitschy and danceable with Brazilian influences. I like the quiet Technicolor flicker of songs like the Portuguese “Evaporar” as much as the jerky fun of “How To Hang A Warhol,” and all the shades in between. Binki Shapiro’s vocal contributions on this album are especially charming, as she croons out of my stereo like an old-time Victrola.
No One’s Better Sake – Little Joy
HONORARY TOPS (should have been on last year’s damn list):
In Rainbows (physical release)
Because I was overwhelmed and ignorant at the end of 2007, and didn’t give this my undivided attention until someone sat me down in a darkened room and made me really, really listen to it.
And come on Heather. Come on.
Last Flowers To The Hospital (bonus track) – Radiohead
BONUS: FAVORITE EPs
Second Gleam EP
The Avett Brothers (Ramseur Records)
Scaling back from their potently explosive live show of punk bluegrass, the Avetts showed again this year that they can also craft devastatingly simple ballads relying solely on acoustic guitar, strings, and their pure voices that blend and compete as only brothers can. [original review]
Murder In The City – The Avett Brothers
The Confiscation EP, A Musical Novella
Samantha Crain (Ramseur Records)
Also from the excellent Ramseur label, 22-year-old Oklahoman Samantha Crain has Choctaw Indian roots and a dusky earnestness to her alto voice. The five songs here tell a cohesive story (a musical novella indeed) with shimmering, unvarnished truth.
In Smithereens, The Search For Affinity – Samantha Crain
LISTEN: Once again this year, I’ll be appearing on NPR’s World Cafe with David Dye on January 1st to talk about stuff from this list! We have a lot of fun. You should listen (online, or via your local station that carries the show), and tell your mom to listen too. I know mine will be.
[top image credit tim!]