Music happens, even in the weirdest of times.
This year brought inspired music-making in daunting quantities, from veteran operators and crazed-genius outsider types who found devoted listeners despite the industry downturn. Below, a roundup of ten recordings I returned to again and again in 2008. They’re in no particular order. As with everything here, please consider yourself invited to share your own discoveries from the year. Thanks!
TV On the Radio: Dear Science. If you’re not careful, you might find yourself singing the refrains of Dear Science over and over again, without even realizing it. That’s not terribly unusual until you analyze said hooks a little bit – they’re dark and eerie and weirdly assymetrical, and thus miles away from what allegedly works on the radio. Paired with the equally smart accompaniments – serrated-saw drum machine beats, fantastic gales of analog synthesizer – the result is a giddy dream state that renders other attempts at ‘80s-rock worship (Franz Ferdinand et al) totally irrelevent.
Radiohead: In Rainbows. The more I live with this record, the more this year’s oft-repeated media storyline about how Radiohead (1000 Recordings, pg. 627) “regained” its voice seems off. The band is simply evolving, perhaps more rapidly than our benumbed ears can comprehend, recombining devices used on the last few records in startling ways. Thom Yorke’s observations on human vulnerability come through after just a few spins, but it might take years to appreciate everything swirling around inside these stark and stunningly elegant songs.
Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago. An opportunity to ponder, at length, the risks and benefits of confronting isolation, distance, and those pockets of darkness that lurk often undisturbed within. This year brought an astounding crop of independent-thinking outsiders; For Emma is easily the most intriguing debut.
Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes. Much has been made of the disarmingly earnest vocal blends on this debut. Equally significant are the instrumental expanses that stitch those vocal episodes together. Spacious and wonderfully unhurried, the Fleet Foxes melodies describe pastoral landscapes usually glimpsed only by birds, from a distance, above the tree line.
My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges. And mixed feelings. This record’s high points (“Remnants,” “Touch Me Pts. 1 and 2,” "Thank You Too!") reach closer to the rock ecstatic than almost anything else that arrived in 2008. The low points (“Highly Suspicious”) make one thankful for the invention of the remote control. But hey, it’s an album in the classic old-school sense, and that alone deserves applause. It’s refreshing to hear a revered band (1000 Recordings, pg. 537) take so many chances.
Alejandro Escovedo: Real Animal; The Gaslight Anthem: The 59 Sound. A tossup. In one corner is a veteran (see 1000 Recordings pg. 261) who this year discovered a new hard-rocking platform for his bittersweet observations on life. In the other is a fast-rising punk trio led by a songwriter (Brian Fallon) who sounds like Bruce Springsteen and isn’t afraid to namedrop Charles Dickens. The Gaslight Anthem careens along at a heedless clip that’s ideal for these songs, which capture the moment of sudden heaviness when the stereotypical knucklehead gets his first taste of adulthood.
Santogold: Santogold. Santi White is everything that’s righteous about pop music – she’s open to and conversant in many styles (bouyant ska, shadowy electronica), has the fierce will of a punk rocker and a taste for the snarly side of the ‘80s new wave. Mostly she writes tense, high-drama songs with endlessly infectious hooks. Her eccentric debut is required listening for those who think that everything consequential in the realm of the pop single has already been done.
The Mars Volta: The Bedlam In Goliath. Here’s a case where the much-discussed backstory – about a restless spirit communicating song ideas through a Ouija board – probably kept people at arm’s length. That’s a shame, because this intricate cycle (1000 Recordings, pg. 476) is more than merely an audio representation of bedlam – the lyrics, sung in a truly freaked-out scream, grapple with the big questions (life, death, purpose), and they’re supported by instrumental wickedness that goes hurtling by at warpspeed. Only very occasionally does it sound like anything you’ve heard before.
Juana Molina: Un Dia. These journeys often begin with Juana Molina’s lone voice offering a contained, haiku-like idea that is easily repeated. From there, the songwriter and visionary layers that voice into massive chorales that move in tight synchronization, like trains running on parallel tracks. There’s lots going on, but never too much: Every element is essential to these majestic, often wistful and surprisingly hypnotic soundscapes. Like Segundo (1000 Recordings, pg. 511), this is mindbendingly great.
The Roots: Rising Down. With this blast of astringent commentary, the Roots (1000 Recordings, pg. 660-661) move beyond hiphop gamesmanship to talk violence, addiction, media stereotypes and long-festering racial divisions. Arguably the first great record of the Obama era.
Recordings of Interest, from The List
#1 from Kevin Walker, Winchester, VA - 12/22/2008 3:21
Nice list! I’m glad you included The Roots, as well; I found it overlooked on many year-end lists.
I rather enjoy your blog/book - Keep up the good work!
#2 from Jenna - 12/23/2008 2:44
Why do you list In Rainbows as one of the best of this year when it was released in October of 2007? Yours is not the first I’ve seen this. What am I missing? Great list, by the way.
#3 from Anastasia - 12/23/2008 6:46
I believe the downloadable version of In Rainbows came out in 2007 as you state, but the actual CD or LP wasn’t available until January 2008.
#4 from Mr. Bernstein, Atlanta, GA - 12/27/2008 2:00
Your list has nice diversity. That means omitting some for the sake of integrity…
I thought Santigold as average with a couple of exceptional songs.
Some overlooked were Woodpidgeon, Rural Albert Adavantage, and Shearwater…
Electronic/dance really ruled in 2008 with Hercules, Cut Copy and Crystal Castles with some stellar dance releases.
#5 from Rik Elliot, Ohio - 12/27/2008 2:43
Good to see you on ‘The Today Show’ this morning!
I like your list.
Topping my list for 2008 would be the November release from The Bronx, ‘The Bronx III’. A full-on, shot and body slammin’, metal/punk masterpiece! This is one of those great start-to-finish party albums akin to ‘Appetite For Destruction’. It’s zero to 60 instantly with the opening staccato riffs of ‘Knifeman’, as blistering speed, thunder, and primal bravado rocket their way thru the conclusion of ‘Digital Leash’. Try it in the car. You may find yourself blissfully fist-pumping your way down the Schuykill at speeds that test the mechanical limits of your vehicle. This CD makes me feel like I can do ANYTHING! Not for the faint of heart…
PS…Tom, loved having you on our show!
#6 from Doug Pfaff, Michigan - 12/30/2008 3:24
This may not be the right thread to attach this comment to, but…
This site could really use a tool that would allow us to track which recordings we own, which we’ve heard, and which we’d like to acquire. Seems like a simple spreadsheet ought to do the trick. Is there anything like that in the works?
#7 from Rich, Elgin - 01/02/2009 3:28
Nice list Tom, it overlaps some of the candidates I had on my Top Ten. I received your book for Christmas and in just this short time, it’s provided an endless source of resource and a dent in my wallet but I say that in gratitude. I’m also glad you put the artists alphabetical as opposed to genre.
#8 from Michael, Bewildered USA - 01/03/2009 6:27
NRBQ - I just found your 1000 Recordings list, and there is a simple solution to the biggest omission in your book. Have the publisher recall all the copies currently available, paste a 1,001 sticker over the title, and on the first page list a recording by NRBQ, maybe Yankee Stadium, or Grooves In Orbit - hell it doesn’t matter, any NRBQ recording will work.
#9 from Elle, Chi-Town - 01/07/2009 2:49
Why did you close the “bucket list” thread?
#10 from Elle, Chi-Town - 01/07/2009 3:24
Ok, I can’t take it any longer. I have to add in my two cents.
Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out
I encourage all to look this up.This should be on the list… One woman, one voice recorded, no instruments… just check it out. Amazing. Especially if you love the Who Sell Out already.
#11 from Henry Mortimer, Baltimore - 01/10/2009 7:44
Hi, Tom. I’m a fan of your book and this site/blog. I agree with most of your 2008 picks, though I didn’t warm up to Radiohead as much as I wanted to and just don’t like Mars Volta. Two records that I enjoyed last year (and wrote about at my blog) but seemed to be overlooked by many list-makers were “Elephant Shell,” by Tokyo Police Club, and “All We Could Do Was Sing,” by Port O’Brien. The former, a four-piece from Toronto, has a great throwback sound that reminds me of the urgency of Gang of Four and the bouncy-pounding rhythm of The English Beat. The latter, who hail from San Francisco, serve up a world-music-influenced sound akin to bands like Poi Dog Pondering and Talking Heads, infused with the jangly guitars of REM and the Gin Blossoms. If you haven’t heard them, I encourage you to check out their CDs—and let me know what you think.
#12 from tom moon - 01/11/2009 1:35
thanks for those recommendations!
I read about Port O’Brien but haven’t heard either record. will track them down.
re Elle’s query about the Bucket List thread being closed: I think after a period of time some threads are closed. the ideal would be to have a “permanent” running discussion of favorites, and we’re looking into that now.
thanks for posting this suggestion here—Petra is fantastic!
#13 from tom moon - 01/13/2009 6:02
That “What’s On Your List?” thread has been reopened!
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