December 17th, 2008 at 10:37 am
It’s that time of year again. There are only eight days until Christmas, and everyone seems to be announcing their best of albums, including Pitchfork, an AP writer, another AP writer (that list is awful, by the way), Metacritic, and many more.
Here are our choices.
And hereâs what 11 Â½ months of listening have helped me conclude: There were some pretty strong albums released this year. Below is the list of those albums that were my favorites. Itâs a fluid list; a week from now, it might look entirely different. I suspect, for instance, the newest Drive-By Truckersâ album, âBrighter Than Creationâs Dark,â would sneak onto the list.
The list is certainly different than the one I had at midyear.
So, before we proceed, however, just like last year, Iâll offer the following disclaimer: This is the best of what Iâve heard. There are an infinite amount of albums released every year, and there is no way anyone can get to them all. Youâll notice my biases pretty quickly, as this list is pretty trendy, leaning heavily on my love of alternative country and indie rock. It might have also been heavily influenced by some of the better concerts I saw this year.
Click on the ‘more’ link below to see the blog’s albums of the year.
1) âFor Emma, Forever Agoâ by Bon Iver
The name of the band means âgood winterâ in French. That should tell the listener something immediately. Here is how the blogâs album of the year happened: Justin Vernon, the songwriter who performs under the stage name Bon Iver, went through what Pitchfork described as âa grizzly bear of a breakup.â He locked himself in a cabin in Wisconsin, recording songs during his stay there. The result is haunting, brooding, deep and absolutely profound. This is one of those albums that, try as I might, I canât help but listen to every few days. It never gets old. Songs such as âFlumeâ and âSkinny Loveâ are memorable, emotive ballads that are immediately recognized by anyone who has every experienced heartbreak or loss, and the tunes keep coming, stripped-down, acoustic and falsetto-driven masterworks that tell a cohesive story of longing, lust and endearing sadness.
Click here to listen to “Skinny Love” from “For Emma, Forever Ago”
2) âDear Science,â by TV on the Radio
My goodness, is this album ever a convoluted jumble. Itâs pop, punk, art, reverb, storytelling, politics, love and so many more things. Itâs amazing, then, that it actually works. The album expands past the conceptual dance-funk of the Brooklyn, N.Y. bandâs stellar previous release, âReturn to Cookie Mountain.â The album is a sometimes exasperatingly complex work, full of ideas and musicianship. It is one of those rare albums that is capable of taking listeners on a trip, from the groove of the opener âHalfway Homeâ to the sexy come-ons of âLoverâs Dayâ to the dance funk of âGolden Ageâ and not make someone dizzy.
Click here to listen to “Golden Age” from “Dear Science.”
3) âFleet Foxesâ by Fleet Foxes
Before I ever bought a copy of Fleet Foxesâ self-titled release, I heard it described as âpastoral.â And after listening to the album 100 some times since June, I havenât found a better adjective to describe it. But itâs other things, too. Itâs â60s-era Beach Boys, or a rock-guitar-less version of My Morning Jacket. Itâs also quite good. The autumnal rock of frontman Robin Pecknold and company is captivating and grand when it needs to be, or hushed and dreamy (âWhite Winter Hymnalâ) when it wants to be, too. This is a dangerous recording. Itâs this Seattle-based groupâs major-label debut, and it leads us to expect much from the Fleet Foxes in the future.
Click here to listen to “White Winter Hymnal” from “Fleet Foxes.”
4) âReal Emotional Trashâ by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
Itâs hard to believe that Stephen Malkmus has been performing with The Jicks for as long as he was with his previous group, the highly touted Pavement. Itâs also hard to believe that his albums with The Jicks donât receive the cult status those with his other band did. In an age of diversity, where bands use a bevy of different sounds, this is probably the most straight-ahead rock record on the list. The guitar attacks start early on âReal Emotional Trashâ with the monster riff that opens âDragonfly Pieâ and continues throughout the record. Like anything done by Malkmus, the lyrics are obscure, bordering sometimes on absurd. Of course, that doesnât matter, as songs such âHopscotch Willieâ are so rollicking it doesnât matter what is said, just that the guitars are infectious.
Click here to listen to “Hopscotch Willie” from “Real Emotional Trash.”
5) âTrouble in Mindâ by Hayes Carll
The one-time Arkansanâs (he attended Hendrix College) first album for New West Records is a funny, folky masterpiece. Itâs also the type of album that Pitchfork likes to call a grower. At first listen, the albumâs tongue-in-cheek nature is what stands out. But on subsequent listens, the intricacies and the strengths of Carllâs songwriting begin to show. This is what country music â real country music â should sound like. Carll discusses drinking whiskey, chasing women, doing mescaline and being broke after a long weekend. The star track is âShe Left Me For Jesus,â a song where the singer wonders why his woman would have left him for a long-haired freak. Sacrilegious it is not, rather, it is an affirmation of Carllâs way with words and phrasing. Really. Try to listen and not smile.
Click here to listen to “She Left Me For Jesus” from “Trouble In Mind.”
6) âStay Positiveâ by The Hold Steady
The Hold Steadyâs fourth and newest album, âStay Positive,â is well, positive. Not that the Brooklyn, NY by way of Minnesota bandâs previous albums were dour. In fact, it touches on some of the same scenarios and characters that have previously appeared in the bandâs songs. Expect songs about whiskey, pills, women and more in the way that only Craig Finn, the bandâs front man, can accomplish. After the bandâs previous recording, 2006âs excellent âBoys and Girls in America,â Finn took singing lessons. But his spoken-word yelps havenât gone away, and the musicians are just as raw and can pull off stompers such as âSequestered in Memphisâ just as well as it can the thoughtful and somber, such as âLord, Iâm Discouraged.â
Click here to listen to “Constructive Summer” from “Stay Positive.”
7) âThe Midnight Organ Fightâ by Frightened Rabbit
Clearly, there was no better Scottish made, quirky folk rock album that discusses leprosy and walking backwards made this year. Against other albums, it stacks up pretty well, too. Frightened Rabbit is the brother duo Scott and Grant Hutchison, and their sophomore album is a bizarre rock record that reminds me of something Jeff Mangum might have made if he were born across the pond. Bizarre isnât meant as an insult here, of course. Tracks such as âOld Old Fashionedâ is a bit of touching nostalgia, and âMy Backwards Walkâ and âKeep Yourself Warmâ are modern laments that donât seem to leave the listener for some time.
Click here to listen to “The Modern Leper” from “The Midnight Organ Fight.” Caution: rock star language present in this one.
8) âWarpaintâ by The Black Crowes
Itâs interesting that Maxim gave this album a mediocre review before it ever got released. A lot of critics, those paid much more than us here at the Northwest Arkansas Times, seemed to agree. For me, those assessments are almost criminal. The Crowesâ first studio album in seven years was a lot of the same kind of Southern guitar boogie that earned them popularity in the first place, minus the radio airplay that their early hits such as âJealous Againâ received. The addition of North Mississippi AllStars axeman Luther Dickinson as a full-time member was a good move; between he and longtime guitarist Rich Robinson, the duo trade riffs that span blues, rock, country and folk. And Chris Robinson has never sounded better than on tracks such as âThereâs Gold In Them Hills,â a sleepy ballad that allows him to show off his pipes. Heck, this album might be the best The Crowes has ever made.
Click here to listen to “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution” from “Warpaint.”
9) âMission Controlâ by The Whigs
This is a strange album for me. Itâs not very technical. The lyrics arenât going to take listeners to some higher place. The is little pretension here. I realize these things. And yet, I canât seem to take this album from my stereo or car. This is a just a rock record, a combination of Southern swagger and snarling vocals. The Athens, Ga.-based trio offer a rambunctious 11-song set, full of energy, fun and the extraordinary drumming of Julian Dorio, who gives the tracks momentum and authority. The standout track is clearly âRight Hand on My Heart,â a song that should be played loudly, preferably from a car traveling at high speed.
Click here to listen to “Right Hand On My Heart” from “Mission Control.”
10) âRookâ by Shearwater
The market seems flooded these days with drowsy, quaint folk rock. Shearwater (founded by ex-Okkervil River member Jonathan Meiburg), however, didn’t let that stop them from sounding distinct. âRookâ succeeds as an attitude, a brooding, darkened sky kind of album. Piano tinkles clash with cascading guitar riffs, ebbing and flowing between guitar rock tracks such as âCentury Eyesâ and the bittersweet dream of âI Was A Cloud.â Not recommended for those who would like to remain in a happy mood.
Click here to listen to “Leviathan, Bound” from “Rook.”
Best Local Album: While I didnât place any local selections in the Top 10, there were several solid albums released this year by those who call this area home. Of those, my favorite by a fairly wide margin is âCome Back To Meâ by Mike Blackwell, who has since moved back to his native Oklahoma. âCome Back To Meâ is a folk album at heart, with Blackwellâs Dylan-esque lyrics and acoustic strumming at the center. But producer Emily Kaitz, well known around these parts for her own work, had a deft and appropriate touch as the albumâs producer. She recruited a group of local all stars to chime in without stealing away from Blackwellâs intent. The result is a melodic, catchy batch of songs that swing between sadness, hope, yearning and growth. And although they arenât from the Northwest part of the state, fellow Arkies The American Princes made a very good album in âOther People.â
Honorable Mention: Albums I strongly considered, but didnât include: Dead Confederateâs âWrecking Ball,â Alejandro Escovedoâs âReal Animal,â Drive-By Truckersâ âBrighter Than Creationâs Dark,â Opethâs âWatershed,â Santogoldâs self-titled release and several others.
Disappointments: âEvil Urgesâ by My Morning Jacket was good, but too spotty. “Narrow Stairs” by Death Cab for Cutie had a few strong tracks, too, but it wasn’t a great album, either.