The best albums of 2008 (or so says us)

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 here’s what 11 ½ 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. It’s a fluid list; a week from now, it might look entirely different. I suspect, for instance, the newest Drive-By Truckers’ album, “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark,” 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, I’ll offer the following disclaimer: This is the best of what I’ve heard. There are an infinite amount of albums released every year, and there is no way anyone can get to them all. You’ll 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) “For Emma, Forever Ago” by Bon Iver
The name of the band means “good winter” in French. That should tell the listener something immediately. Here is how the blog’s album of the year happened: Justin Vernon, the songwriter who performs under the stage name Bon Iver, went through what Pitchfork described as “a grizzly bear of a breakup.” 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 can’t help but listen to every few days. It never gets old. Songs such as “Flume” and “Skinny Love” 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) “Dear Science,” by TV on the Radio
My goodness, is this album ever a convoluted jumble. It’s pop, punk, art, reverb, storytelling, politics, love and so many more things. It’s amazing, then, that it actually works. The album expands past the conceptual dance-funk of the Brooklyn, N.Y. band’s stellar previous release, “Return to Cookie Mountain.” 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 “Halfway Home” to the sexy come-ons of “Lover’s Day” to the dance funk of “Golden Age” and not make someone dizzy.

Click here to listen to “Golden Age” from “Dear Science.”

3) “Fleet Foxes” by Fleet Foxes
Before I ever bought a copy of Fleet Foxes’ self-titled release, I heard it described as “pastoral.” And after listening to the album 100 some times since June, I haven’t found a better adjective to describe it. But it’s other things, too. It’s ’60s-era Beach Boys, or a rock-guitar-less version of My Morning Jacket. It’s 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 (“White Winter Hymnal”) when it wants to be, too. This is a dangerous recording. It’s this Seattle-based group’s 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) “Real Emotional Trash” by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
It’s 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. It’s also hard to believe that his albums with The Jicks don’t 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 “Real Emotional Trash” with the monster riff that opens “Dragonfly Pie” and continues throughout the record. Like anything done by Malkmus, the lyrics are obscure, bordering sometimes on absurd. Of course, that doesn’t matter, as songs such “Hopscotch Willie” are so rollicking it doesn’t matter what is said, just that the guitars are infectious.

Click here to listen to “Hopscotch Willie” from “Real Emotional Trash.”

5) “Trouble in Mind” by Hayes Carll
The one-time Arkansan’s (he attended Hendrix College) first album for New West Records is a funny, folky masterpiece. It’s also the type of album that Pitchfork likes to call a grower. At first listen, the album’s tongue-in-cheek nature is what stands out. But on subsequent listens, the intricacies and the strengths of Carll’s songwriting begin to show. This is what country music — real country music — should sound like. Carll discusses drinking whiskey, chasing women, doing mescaline and being broke after a long weekend. The star track is “She Left Me For Jesus,” 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 Carll’s 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) “Stay Positive” by The Hold Steady
The Hold Steady’s fourth and newest album, “Stay Positive,” is well, positive. Not that the Brooklyn, NY by way of Minnesota band’s previous albums were dour. In fact, it touches on some of the same scenarios and characters that have previously appeared in the band’s songs. Expect songs about whiskey, pills, women and more in the way that only Craig Finn, the band’s front man, can accomplish. After the band’s previous recording, 2006’s excellent “Boys and Girls in America,” Finn took singing lessons. But his spoken-word yelps haven’t gone away, and the musicians are just as raw and can pull off stompers such as “Sequestered in Memphis” just as well as it can the thoughtful and somber, such as “Lord, I’m Discouraged.”

Click here to listen to “Constructive Summer” from “Stay Positive.”

7) “The Midnight Organ Fight” 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 isn’t meant as an insult here, of course. Tracks such as “Old Old Fashioned” is a bit of touching nostalgia, and “My Backwards Walk” and “Keep Yourself Warm” are modern laments that don’t 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) “Warpaint” by The Black Crowes
It’s 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 Crowes’ 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 “Jealous Again” 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 “There’s Gold In Them Hills,” 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) “Mission Control” by The Whigs
This is a strange album for me. It’s not very technical. The lyrics aren’t going to take listeners to some higher place. The is little pretension here. I realize these things. And yet, I can’t 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 “Right Hand on My Heart,” 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) “Rook” 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. “Rook” 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 “Century Eyes” and the bittersweet dream of “I Was A Cloud.” 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 didn’t 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 “Come Back To Me” by Mike Blackwell, who has since moved back to his native Oklahoma. “Come Back To Me” is a folk album at heart, with Blackwell’s 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 album’s producer. She recruited a group of local all stars to chime in without stealing away from Blackwell’s intent. The result is a melodic, catchy batch of songs that swing between sadness, hope, yearning and growth. And although they aren’t from the Northwest part of the state, fellow Arkies The American Princes made a very good album in “Other People.”

Honorable Mention: Albums I strongly considered, but didn’t include: Dead Confederate’s “Wrecking Ball,” Alejandro Escovedo’s “Real Animal,” Drive-By Truckers’ “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark,” Opeth’s “Watershed,” Santogold’s self-titled release and several others.

Disappointments: “Evil Urges” 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.