Unlike years past, I had an oddly difficult time naming ten albums to list as personal favorites. Last year, I had to go with a top 15, something I wouldn’t normally do, but it would have stung me deep to my core to not give certain albums their due. It’s not that this was a bad year for music, per se, but maybe just a bad year for my tastes. I’ve seen lists from friends who I respect, and they are bountiful, like a Christmas day booty of meats and spices. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps I’m just more particular than I used to be. A grumpy old man who longs for the olden days when music was king. You know, like back in 1993 when Faith No More’s tasty bass grooves ruled my soul. That, my friends, was a good time.
It didn’t help that artists I enjoy and have listed as “best of’s” in the past, like Ray Lamontagne, Jenny Lewis, and Margot and the Nuclear So-and-So’s, put out albums I only casually enjoyed (Lamontagne, Lewis) or down-right hated (Margot). This has become a trend, though. The same thing happened last year. I found myself appreciating new artists more often, and shunning those I loved in the past. Out with the old, in with the new. That kind of thing. Let’s hope those at the top of this year’s list don’t disappoint with future releases, because the top 5 or so I genuinely loved. Don’t disregard 6-10, though. You yourself may find something worth falling for. And……….we’re off:
10. Horse Feathers – House With No Home
I have a hard time not lumping Horse Feathers in the “Sounds Just Like Iron & Wine” category, with the hushed vocals, minimal instrumentation, and haunting songs-as-short-story lyricism. It doesn’t help that Justin Ringle sports the same style o’ beard as Sam Beam. It’s all kind of similar: acoustic guitar, violin, cello, vocals from quiet looking white people, the country, the end. It’s a beautiful combination if done well. If a wrong turn is taken, this formula will bore you quicker than a Ingmar Bergman film marathon. House With No Home takes the first route. Perfect for late night drives with the windows down, but not if you’re susceptible to random bouts of narcolepsy.
9. Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew
Technically, this comes out in the U.S. in January. But I’m a tricky bastard, and I got a copy of the Ireland-only release, so it counts for ’08. Take it up with the authorities if you got beef. Ms. Lisa makes the list almost by default. This album could be 90 minutes of guttural yelps and flushing toilets and I’d still give it 5 stars. I have what we call in the biz a “raging crush” on this woman. Nothing big, really. Ever since she backed Damien Rice on his album O, I’ve been the smitten kitten with her voice. And when she was conspicuously absent from most of his sophomore effort, it was no coincidence that the album was mediocre. I was hopeful she’d eventually put out her own album, and wouldn’t you know it, here it is. When all you really know about Lisa is her hauntingly distraught vocals from the Damien Rice albums, you would expect her album to be on par with the “let’s all drink some cyanide” style. But that’s not what it is — it’s shockingly upbeat, even giddy at times. This might actually be who she is. We only knew her as the wispy looking brunette standing behind the dimunitive Irishman, but now? She’s optimistic, despite the distance between her and her love (“An Ocean and a Rock”) and despite the fact that she’s yet to even meet her love (the adorable “I Don’t Know”). Her songwriting comes across as coy, yet in control. This is not what I expected, and I’m hopeful it does well when it’s released across the sea.
8. Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer
I was a musical fool in regards to Wolf Parade. I ignored the critical acclaim of Apologies to the Queen Mary, writing them off as just another Pitchfork band with an animal in the title, i.e. Deerhoof, Deerhunter, Sea Wolf, Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Emmet Otter’s Jug Band, et cetera, et cetera. Friends would tell me to give it a listen, but I held my ground, refusing to admit that I was wrong. But, for whatever reason, when At Mount Zoomer came out, I felt the pull of the thirty second sample on iTunes, and I immediately went, “You dumb bastard.” Wolf Parade is just an old fashioned rock band, with a twist of electronic bliss thrown in. The dual vocals of Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner play off each other perfectly, with Krug’s keyboard spacey-ness and Boeckner’s guitar riff explosions going back and forth. Since I started this relationship with the second album, I tend to lean toward it as the superior record. I’m told this is incorrect thinking, but it is what it is. Perhaps people don’t enjoy the prog goodness of the 10-minute closer “Kissing the Beehive” as much as I do. It’s just jam packed with the rock, like Tim Raines’ back pockets (That’s my favorite reference ever). You know what else helps in loving this band? Boeckner’s uncanny resemblance to Nic Cage in Raising Arizona:
7. Juliana Hatfield – How to Walk Away
Oh, Juliana Hatfield. How far we go back. How long it had been since you didn’t suck real bad. After 2000’s excellent Beautiful Creature, Juliana had a streak of awfulness that could only be topped by an 8-year meth binge, which may have actually been the reason for her troubles. She put out record after record, each more wretched than the last. She leaned toward heavy, dirt-filled guitars, and it just didn’t suit her. Her best work has always been straight up pop. Of the you broke my heart, now I’m going to break your face variety, but, you know, in a cute way. This album is the best example of how well that can work for her. Songs of heartbreak and scorn ran rampant, but you won’t find yourself depressed, or sad for her. Instead, you’re hopeful, if not positive, that she’ll be fine, because she don’t need that asshole anyway. Juliana can craft one hell of a pop song, and I’m glad she regained that ability after being lost for so long.
6. Vampire Weekend – “Vampire Weekend”
Another example of, “God damn it, I’m not supposed to like this over-hyped nonsense!” But it’s just so good, so much fun. With the references to Benetton and Peter Gabriel, mixed in with the playful afro-pop, I was immediately hooked. It took like 30 seconds for me to go, “Yeah, it’s good. It’s really stinking good,” as I held my head in shame. Will the record hold up over the years? Eh, maybe not. It’s not exactly Remain in Light, but I get the feeling I’ll still get all giddy when “Walcott” comes on in 2018.
5. The Tallest Man on Earth – Shallow Grave
The Tallest Man on Earth is just a silly band name for dimunitive Swede Kristian Matsson. All that comprises this outfit is one 5’4″ dude with a knack for plucking a guitar and sounding like Bob Dylan. It would be misleading, and a disservice to Kristian, to simply call him a Dylan clone. Simply stating that Guy + Guitar + Poetry + Mumbling = Bob Dylan would be ignoring the little things that make artists unique. For example: if you said Guy + Piano + Homosexuality = Elton John, then what would we do with Rufus Wainwright? Elton and Rufus are light years different, as are The Tallest Man on Earth and Bob Dylan. Each song is unique on Shallow Grave; it’s like hopping from pad to pad, finding a new place to explore. Some songs sound like they were recorded in a panic room, but that just adds to the allure. And after seeing him perform earlier this month, I have a deeper respect for his talents. His fingers plucked that guitar like he wasn’t even aware they were moving; it was effortless. He was expressive, vocally and facially. The audience was part of the show. Without them, his songs served no purpose. It felt like grown-up storytime. What also helped was a tiny man singing the words, “So I could stay the tallest man in your eyes, babe.”
4. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
Here is the token entry that I’m sure most pretentious jackholes, you know, like me, will have on their pretentious jackhole end of year lists. Mostly because it’s just a really good album. From start to finish, it has a sound all it’s own. Sure, you could classify it as baroque pop, or even Beach Boys v. Renaissance Festival ’08, but whatevs, just sit back and take in the harmonies, maaaaaaan. Munch on that tasty groove. This album, as you can tell, makes me embrace my inner hippie I never knew existed. My cosmologist mother would be so proud. Now, if only I bought her some dope for Christmas. Only THEN would she truly love me. Anywho, I’ve heard from a few people that they just couldn’t get in to this album. To those people I say, “Hey, don’t harsh my mellow.”
3. The Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead
I bought this on a random visit to iTunes. They said I’d like it and who am I to disagree? I clicked that purchase button, downloaded it to my iPod, listened to it twice, and then disregarded it completely. It’s not that I thought it was awful, per se, just not something I wanted to like at that time. It wasn’t a melancholy folk album, and that’s really I needed to know re: The Helio Sequence. A few months later, a friend asked if I could make her a copy of the album, and by “maker her a copy,” I mean, “go to the store and buy her a copy.” She gave it a few listens, immediately declared it terrific, and I realized what a mistake I’d made. And boy did I. I have not stopped listening to this thing since October. It’s a straight-up electro-pop album of the indie variety. Driving guitars, banging percussion, sound effects from video games, you know, that variety. For a band with just two guys, they sure have created a lush sound. You have your electro-beats (“The Captive Mind”) and your debbie downers for us depressive types (“Shed Your Love”). For a bit of everything meshed into one song, sample “Hallelujah” below. It is, by far, the stand-out track on the record.
2. She & Him – Volume One
Okay, okay, okay. I hear you. Yes, I am a Zooey Deschanel fan. I enjoy her. And, yes, I was genuinely excited when I heard she was putting out an album with M. Ward. But did I ever expect to actually love the album? No. I really didn’t. I thought it would be another celebutante attempt at musical acceptance with maybe 2 or 3 decent songs I could hang my hat on. If anything, Ward would add his expertise in production, put on a few coats of professionalism, and make it shiny and awesome. What actually came out of the process was a work of flat-out brilliance. Sure, that’s a little hyperbole for your ass, due to my previous infatuation, but it really is a great album. It’s full of girl pop, country ballads, Motown, Beatles covers, indie jams, and everything under the sun, sans rap metal and Catholic chant. You can see the songwriting ability in this collection. It kind of makes me sick, one person being so talented and what not.
1. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
So, imagine your heart breaks. But while it’s happening, someone records the event and plays it back for you on a loop. This, my friends, is the only way I can describe the Bon Iver album. Oh my god, is it an experience. How it came to be is a similar story: some guy named Justin Vernon needed to escape the world for a while, due to something that hurt him deeply, so he holed himself up in a cabin in the woods for a few months. He spent that time chopping wood and recording music. The final result was For Emma, Forever Ago. It sounds exactly how you would imagine: sparse instrumentation, haunting vocals, words about loss and recovery, kind of like a winter alone. This is an emotional release, a cathartic expulsion of everything that holds us down, that keeps us from moving on with life as usual. I highly recommend this album to everyone and anyone. Put “re: Stacks” on repeat and call me in the morning.