The Top 20 Albums of 2008

The 40 2008-stamped records I bought made up a little over a quarter of my total intake. Here are the 20 best.

20. The Cure – 4:13 Dream
19. Al Green – Lay It Down
18. Long Blondes – Couples
17. Tindersticks – The Hungry Saw
16. Duffy – Rockferry
15. Black Kids – Partie Traumatic
14. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles
13. The Week That Was – The Week That Was
12. Ladyhawke – Ladyhawke
11. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

10. TV On The Radio – Dear Science
09. Presets – Apocalypso
08. Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer
07. Hercules And Love Affair – Hercules And Love Affair
06. M83 – Saturdays = Youth

05. British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?
04. The Last Shadow Puppets – The Age Of The Understatement
03. Goldfrapp – Seventh Tree
02. Brian Wilson – That Lucky Old Sun
01. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours

The Cure’s (#20) newest was Robert Smith’s attempt to return to shorter song structures, in the spirit of the band’s mid-1980s dalliance with skewed pop (‘The Lovecats,’ ‘In Between Days,’ et al); Al Green’s (#19) was his third run at recreating his classic Willie Mitchell Hi Records sound, albeit with some modern production touches. Both got halfway there. The Cure was accessible but short on melody; ironically, the best song (‘Underneath The Stars’) was a gauzy, six-minute dream sequence that recalled Disintegration. Al Green still sounds very fine, if a bit feathery, but his record was undone by wan choruses and grade-school poetry.

The Long Blondes (#18) set was a disappointment compared to its daughter-of-Pulp debut, but the songs sounded better in concert and the record was a bit of a grower. Mostly, they missed on singles beyond ‘Century’ and ‘The Couples.’ Sadly, Blondes won’t get a chance to evolve, as guitartist and prime writer Dorian Cox suffered a stroke mid-year and the band is done. Tindersticks (#17) aren’t ever going to change, and we shouldn’t want them to. An eight-year hiatus did nothing for Stuart Staples’ narcoleptic view on romance; the band’s first noteworthy personnel shift likewise failed to spark change. Tindersticks remain a solid bet for dark nights of the soul. The songs are deeply affecting when they hit (‘The Turns We Took’ is great), although a little goes a long way. A mood piece, then.

A little Duffy, Black Kids and Crystal Castles goes a long way, too. All acquired tastes. Duffy’s (#16) celebrated debut was more style than substance, and I really think she loses in any Amy Winehouse comparison, but Winehouse is looking like a casualty and Duffy’s songs were reasonably sturdy. She hasn’t mastered live performance yet, (hello, ‘SNL’?), but when the day comes, her tear-stained approach may yet ignite a four-alarm fire. The Black Kids (#15) album is under 40 minutes long, but it still plays like a yappy puppy or an annoying cubicle neighbour, so it’s best approached in pieces. But while the sum fails to equal the parts, most of the songs are actually pretty swell. Singles and non-singles alike. Toronto’s much-hyped Crystal Castles (#14) put too much material on the debut, but in halves it’s also nice. Glitchy, distorted, unloved and ugly, I dunno whether they’ll be around in the new decade, but while they’re here we have ace shit like ‘Magic Spells’ and ‘Air War.’ And a revamp/remix pointed the way to Australia’s Van She, so I owe Castles for that tip.

Peter Brewis poleaxed Field Music and helmed a song cycle under the banner of The Week That Was (#13), an understated set that combined elements of Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Japan and screamed “intelligent.” INTELLIGENT! Like that. ‘The Airport Line’ and ‘Scratch The Surface’ are reccommended songs to sample if the antecedents noted above float your boat. New Zealand’s Ladyhawk (#12) sure floated mine. Also deeply indebted to the ’80s, Ladyhawk is as glossy as The Week That Was is matte: bouncing basslines and thrumming rhythm tracks underscore a series of choruses that recall Van Halen and Stevie Nicks, but the songs are sturdy enough to defeat the derisive cries of retro cheese. Plus Ladyhawk is a cute 27-year-old blonde, and who doesn’t want that to succeed? Especially if the visual alternative is something hirsute and corduroy-clad, like Seattle’s Fleet Foxes (#11)? The alternative media’s consensus #1 LP of 2008, I’ve got it at #11 because it took awhile for me to adjust my sights. It’s gorgeous work. Robin Pecknold drapes his Jim James pipes in swales of reverb; his able mates suffuse the songs with more harmonics than James’ band, so if it’s thick, pillowy group vocals you’re seeking, this is safe shore. ‘He Doesn’t Know Why’ has a fuck-wow melodic progression that doesn’t quit and really must be heard on headphones. Not earbuds. Headphones. The record is sumptuous.

TV On The Radio (#10) improved upon an already pretty good blueprint, making a record long on brass and verve. Literally, in the case of the former, on “Golden Age,” which introduced skittering funk to the program. Teamed with an overpoweringly intense opener, “Halfway Home,” and the restless “Shout Me Out,” which plays like three discrete songs spread over four art-rocking minutes, TVotR played the verve card to the hilt. Nothing about these guys is lazy.

Presets (#9) toured North America with Cut Copy this year, playing the cooler, harder cousin to the friskier headliner. The notion of heavily treated vocal lines shouted over a churning synthetic backdrop recalls Nitzer Ebb, but the songs have greater variety than dedicated club-floor chants. ‘This Boy’s In Love’ was an addictively straight-forward single with a falsetto chorus, fronting an LP full of mangled, diamond-cut weeble-wobbles that hold together as songs by virtue of colourful production touches. The best song is ‘A New Sky,’ deeply impressive on record and insanely driving in concert, a punishing groove made huge by the massed vocal opening and a phalanx of percussive overdubs that could make your ears bleed.

Wolf Parade (#8) made another imposing album of Big Songs, like ‘California Dreamer’, ‘Fine Young Cannibals’ and ‘Kissing The Beehive.’ The panoramic production suits the songs, too: the cross-channel guitar scrapes building to the thrilling climax in ‘Dreamer,’ the severe channel isolation in ‘Cannibals,’ the increasingly busy but ordered clamour that marks ‘Beehive’ all make At Mount Zoomer a great headphones album. But the record’s also got ‘The Grey Estates,’ the shiniest pop moment in Wolf Parade’s chaotic clutch of nervy, coffee-splattered songs, sounding like The Psychedelic Furs circa Mirror Moves, all skittering synths and chugging rhythms. Best of all, co-leads Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner sound gobsmacked by the material they’re singing.

15 years of listening to disco hardly prepared me for the sheer authenticity of the first side of the Hercules And Love Affair (#7) debut. You can slip down the rabbit hole opened up by genre bios and blogs into an underground only hinted at by “Saturday Night Fever” and “Behind The Music” specials, and there you’ll find music that sounds like this: woolly, organic horns and string charts tied to timbale- and cowbell-led rhythm tracks that appear to have been smeared all over reels of tape – not digital workstations – the culmination of untold hours of sweat and other bodily fluids spent learning the ropes of early Miami and New York clubs and the music both offered, leaping off of 12-inch vinyl, through state-of-the-art sound systems, down into your bones, turning your legs to jelly and your stomach to mush. The second side lost some of that inspiration and went for easier marks, but ohhh, that first half: “Time Will,” “Hercules Theme,” “You Belong,” “Athene” and the astonishing “Blind” – it of the starmaking Antony Hegarty vocal – are club anthems for all time.

In a year brimming with stylistic throwbacks, every ‘A’ grade review noted how eighties the new M83 (#6) sounded. I don’t totally agree. There are stylistic referents: opening piano ode ‘You, Appearing’ strongly recalls Seventeen Seconds-era Cure, and ‘Skin Of The Night’ melds Knight Rider electronic tom hits to a Kate Bush-like vocal, but the rest of Saturdays=Youth sweats off the easy comparisons with three absolutely heroic singles. Each of ‘Kim & Jessie,’ ‘Graveyard Girl’ and ‘Couleurs’ rush breathlessly from verses to choruses with an intensity that feels like rude awakenings from inertia, as if something very important is happening to you, too quickly, and too permanently, with nothing to stem the flow. Pure adrenaline. The first half of Saturdays is exceedingly fine; the second less so. Blame the fact M83 dropped three of the most brilliant songs of the year in the opening salvo. Anthony Gonzalez is reaching for the sky; a newfound sense of structure and song suggests he is almost there. How good can M83 get?

British Sea Power (#5) pumped up the volume for its lively third record, whilst maintaining the softer melodic hues incorporated into the last LP. What caught the ear was the emphasis shifting from nominal lead Yan Wilkinson to shared billing with sibling Hamilton, the latter a softer, dreamier singer lacking his older brother’s theatrical catch-in-the-throat stammer. Sometimes, this works: Hamilton’s lead on the ballad “No Need To Cry” is a lovely thing, but every BSP record needs a few Yan-fronted barnburners, and “Atom” and amazing lead single “Waving Flags” address that neatly. Hamilton’s 45, “No Lucifer,” is cut from the same cloth, actually. Whether BSP can effectively sally forth with two captains remains to be seen, but the first fruit from the rearrangement retains the likable swagger from a band that may rate as the decade’s best. In a nice touch, the record debuted at #10 in the U.K., a nice accomplishment for a band regularly viewed as below-the-radar.

The Last Shadow Puppets (#4) record did what Arctic Monkeys records could not: it made me dig Alex Turner. A side project with Miles Kane, Puppets turned back the stylistic clock to the pomp and kitchen sink drama of Scott Walker, mining a different vein from the currently popular retro flavours, delivering marauding songs with galloping kettle drums and bold orchestral swooshes. Good as the record is, it’s overshadowed by the best song of Turner’s career, and one of the best songs of the season: ‘The Meeting Place.’ Drawn time and again to the scene of his lost shot at perfect love, Kane and Turner’s tragic hero in subsumed by regret over the inexorable march of time and a complete inability to stop the Groundhog Day-like repetition from ripping him a new one every time he closes his eyes. The lyrics scan well, but Owen Pallett’s incredible, goose-bump inducing string arrangement elevates this to instant awesomeness, with hints of everything from Lou Reed’s ‘Sad Song’ to film-score caliber flourishes. The first time I played ‘The Meeting Place’ I stopped dead in my tracks and marked it as one of those very special songs you associate with a person, a time and a place.

After a pair of records that successfully explored the easy mark of modern disco with stomping glam overtones and better-than-the norm singing, Goldfrapp (#3) turned its back on charts and product placement to confuse the fuck out of the current fan base with the best record of their career to date. By God, did they nail an elegiac mood. Real-life romantic losses inform the lyrics throughout, and I can’t tell you how great it is to hear that strong, flexible voice coo lines like “I’m not your kind, I’m not your girl/See, I’m in your car, but not your life,” instead of “take me dancing at the disco when you buy your Winnebago/ I wanna ride on a white horse.” That the music occasionally hearkens back to the delicious cinematics of early wonders like ‘Utopia’ and ‘Pilots’ is most welcome. Elsewhere, exchanging gleaming synthetics for woodwinds and acoustic picked guitar lends a pastoral feel to great songs like ‘Road To Somewhere’ and singles ‘Happiness’ and ‘A&E,’ and lends genuine rock heft to the driving ‘Caravan Girl.’ I can’t wait to hear what they come up with next, but for the couple years, this’ll do.

With 2004’s SMiLE, Brian Wilson (#2) supposedly sealed the time capsule on a remarkable end-of-career resurgence that saw him headlining tours and revisiting old works before a fan base stunned into joyous servitude. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The most gifted talent in the history of rock music was able to tack a happy coda at the end of his main body of work by overcoming fear and creative blockage. And as 2004 ended, I think we all figured he was done, and anything else was gravy. First there was a so-so Christmas album in 2005. Gravy. Then he began touring some new work, which morphed into a suite-like performance constructed around the old American Songbook relic, “That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day).” It became an album proposal, which was when it started soaking up valuable concert time while the Brian Wilson band worked out the kinks. And then… Well, just let the record show that in 2008, Brian Wilson recorded an album that stands up to anything The Beach Boys recorded after 1967, an unpretentious love letter to Los Angeles that recalls orange groves and Venice Beach, California girls and starry-eyed dreamers. With unheralded team player Scott Bennett riding lyrical shotgun on most of the songs, Wilson pulled genius melodies out of his brain and hammered out winner after winner. I’d tell you how amazing “Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl,” “Southern California,” “Going Home,” and the spine-tingling “Midnight’s Another Day” sound by using words like glorious, rousing, daisy-fresh and classic, but it’s more fun to hear the songs themselves. There’ll never be a better pop record made by a sixty-something rock legend, ever. Unless he’s got another one in him. By making this album, Brian Wilson re-opened the capsule on his career. I’m almost prouder of him for this record than I am for “SMiLE.” How about that?

In a year marked by so much brilliant music, from artists old and new, and from seemingly every corner of the English-speaking world, the best record of the year and in many a year belongs to Melbourne’s Cut Copy (#1). Building on the promise of 2004’s solid “Bright Like Neon Love,” Dan Whitford turned to DFA’s Tim Goldsworthy in a production coup that resulted in both a second-consecutive Album of the Year honour for the DFA label, and Whitford’s emergence as a major player in the new pop market. Cut Copy’s appeal is easy to suss: at their best, they make youthfully romantic dance music that recalls Spoons of “Nova Heart” yore, crossed with the gleaming synthetic perfection of “Quick Step And Side Kick”-era Thompson Twins and Dubstar. It’s that good. “In Ghost Colours” runs 15 tracks together into a seamless, 50-minute sequence ripe with lung-bursting choruses and delicious melodic invention. Each of the nine full-length songs sound like could’ve-been singles, and the ones that did get the nod (in order: “So Haunted,” “Lights & Music,” “Hearts On Fire” and “Far Away”) are sublimely catchy. Cut Copy’s strength is in avoidance of repetition: guitar plays a key role in defining the bruising, euphoric “Unforgettable Season” and the swooning “Nobody Lost, Nobody Found,” but the sound and deployment are markedly different. Likewise, drama: lengthy builds before the exultant release of each chorus in “Lights & Music,” and during the cycling chorus in “Hearts On Fire.” The fact Whitford cut his teeth as a DJ likely has much to do with his mixmasterstrokes; the fact he’s a goddamned brilliant songwriter covers the rest. Lucky us, he can sing, too. Cut Copy’s lyrics won’t cost Morrissey sleep at night, but they are effective and emotive. Cut Copy made a record that sounds like love in bloom: excited, barely able to control its emotions, nor seeking to. In concert, the record took flight, with Whitford and his three mates extending sequences like ‘80s twelve-inch singles, creating a heavenly DJ mix from their own material. Jeez, it’s like finding a lovely girl who also likes hockey and action movies. What can’t this band do? After the stunning achievement that was the Album of the Year, as well as the one that begat the Song of the Year in “Far Away,” waiting for the next album will seem like an eternity.

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