Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008's Top 20 Albums

20) Aimee Mann - @#%&*! Smilers (Superego)
Oh Aimee Mann, I love you, I hate you, I love you. What will happen next in our relationship that seems to be penned by the staff of The Young and the Restless? Mann's last album was the holiday collection One More Drifter in the Snow, which I had absolutely no use for. (Yes, I am The Grinch with white skin.) The album before that, 2005’s The Forgotten Arm, landed on that year's Top 20. So according to this twisted soap opera design, I had to like @#%&*! Smilers. And I do. It’s yet another collection of well written character sketches that are buffeted by outstanding melodies and hooks. “31 Today” is quite possibly one of the best songs Mann has ever written. This tale of a lonely woman celebrating her 31st birthday evokes some great imagery right from the opening stanza: “31 today/What a thing to say/Drinking Guinness in the afternoon/Taking shelter in the black cocoon.” Mann is concise with her choice of words, but they’re so spot on I can imagine exactly what this woman looks like and at what bar she’ll be doing her imbibing. And once I finish these album reviews, I'm off to find her. Best Tracks: “31 Today,” “Freeway,” “Ballantines”

19) Juliana Hatfield - How to Walk Away (Ye Olde Records)
One of the saddest (yet rather unpublicized) stories in the rock world this year is that Juliana Hatfield went to rehab for an eating disorder. (I highly encourage reading her blog for an explanation about why she went in—and for some of the best self-examination of songs and the motives behind them by any artist ever.) After reading an excerpt of her new book and repeated listens to How to Walk Away, the trip to rehab wasn't surprising at all. Almost every song is an unflinching look at Hatfield’s unhealthy relationships and damaged psyche, with very few moments of levity to let up from the gloom. (“Just Lust” and its tale of a booty call is the only tune that hints at a smile.) What makes this batch of highly personal songs work is that Hatfield's words are buoyed some strong melodies and hooks. When someone can sing a line such as “ooh my baby doesn't love me anymore” and you feel like singing along every time with her heartbreak, that's the sign of a really good song. It’s also a highlight of a strong, yet disturbing album. Feel better Juliana. Best Tracks: “This Lonely Love,” “Such a Beautiful Girl,” “My Baby”

18) Old 97’s - Blame It On Gravity (New West)
That large sigh you heard coming from Brooklyn back in May was produced by the lungs of quite a few Old 97’s fans. It was a sigh of relief that the band’s slump of the past six years was a thing of the past. Memories of Old 97’s and solo Rhett Miller shows we walked out of in a state of disgust vanished after just a couple of plays of Blame It On Gravity. Gone were the less than stellar attempts to return to their roots on Drag It Up and the sickeningly slick sound of Miller’s gawd awful second solo album The Believer. Perhaps the band just needed a hefty dose of their home state of Texas to rediscover their sound that mixes twangy country rock and catchy and forceful power pop. Blame It on Gravity was recorded in their hometown of Dallas by longtime friend Salim Nourallah. He captures a band that, for the first time in ages, sounds confident in what they’re playing. They’re not afraid to dabble in a hefty dose of twang (“The Easy Way,” “The Fool”) or tinge of Spanish flamenco (“Dance With Me”). Miller’s songs are his most focused in years and filled with sparkling wordplay while fellow songwriter Murray Hammond contributes one of the most moving ballads in their catalog (“Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue”). Album closer “The One” is a humorous fictionalized account of the band’s life when they signed to a major label. Miller’s loving description of his bandmates in song shows that there’s still a deep friendship among these four guys, and makes me hope that this comeback won’t be short-lived. Best Tracks: “The One,” “The Fool,” “No Baby I”

17) Kate Nash - Made of Bricks (Geffen)
In January I was convinced that Kate Nash's Made of Bricks would be a minor hit here in the U.S. This infectious collection of songs about break-ups and relationships going all sorts of wrong seemed certain to strike a chord with young women who could indentify with a 20 year-old from the U.K. Alas, American audiences weren't ready to fully embrace Nash probably since she sounds exceedingly British when she sings and incorporates lots of British slang in her lyrics. It didn;’t help that the first single "Foundations" had Nash proclaiming “you’ve gone and got sick on my trainers,” a line which would make most Americans scratch their heads. I'm not a young woman (I did play one on TV once, but that’s another story), but Nash’s appeal to me is that she can balance the sweet (“Pumpkin Soup” is the cutest song of the year about wanting to make out) and the salty (“Dickhead” is just a vicious put down of, well, a dickhead) sides of her persona. Made of Bricks was a smash hit in the U.K. and hopefully that will give her a shot at releasing another album her in the states. Best Tracks: “Pumpkin Soup,” “Foundations,” “Dickhead”

16) The Whispertown 2000 - Swim (Acony Records)
One of the reasons I like doing this list besides the massive unloading of my ego upon everyone I know, the fantastic amounts of money it rakes in each year and the celebrity it has brought me is that I always end up discovering an album or two each year that I never thought I would like. This year that surprise was named Whispertown 2000. They’re an L.A. quartet that had two strikes against them before I slid the advance disc out of the plastic sleeve. First, their label Acony Records is co-owned by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. People have bent over backwards giving these two critical woo-has for Welch's old-timey folk tales and Rawlings over the top, masturbatory acoustic guitar solos. They're about as authentic as Appalachian balladeers as The Pussycat Dolls. So I was prepared to hate anything on their label. Second is that the press release that came with Swim quoted Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis as saying singer-guitarist Morgan Nagler was one of the most original songwriters around. Considering how Lewis has pissed away her talent the past two years with her band and her solo career by making watered down, slickly produced albums, I would not be looking for her endorsement. Yet Whispertown 2000 overcome those odds to make a very intriguing album. Nagler has a strange voice that sounds like she's singing through an old transistor radio all the time. She makes that work with the quirky lyrics she pens about living a long life (“103”), kicking addiction to keep a lover (“No Dope”) or finding love in the home of Aquaman (“Atlantic.”) Swim is a fascinating debut that delivers new surprises with each listen. Best Tracks: “103,” “Done With Love,” “Lock and Key”

15) Bob Mould - District Line (Granary Music/Anti)
Bob Mould has spent much of this decade trying to find the right balance between his loud guitar roots and his newfound love of electronic music. 2005's Body of Song showed hints of a merging of those two opposite desires and on District Line he's definitely succeeded. The bleep and boops and vocoder (um, okay, the vocoder can be a bit much at times) flow seamlessly together with his usual wall of acoustic and electric guitars. The most striking thing about District Line is that Mould sounds calmer here, at times even relaxed. That’s not to say he's lost his fiery passion. Its just that he sounds in complete control of everything he sings and plays here. Mould leaves his emotions raw in album opener “Stupid Now” as all the instruments drop out save the bass and he, well, croaks the lines “Everything I say to you feels stupid now/Feelings that I shared with you are over now.” (Imagine rolling out of bed, skipping that first cup of java, and trying to sing a really high note. That's exactly what Mould does here.) It’s a just a powerful a line as any of his most vitriolic work with Hüsker Dü, and yet another example why Mould is one of the best songwriters of the past 25 years. District Line is a great summary of Mould’s strengths as an artist. Best Tracks: “The Silence Between Us,” “Stupid Now,” “Again and Again”

14) The Hold Steady - Stay Positive (Vagrant)
Stay Positive isn’t the great leap forward like the Hold Steady's last album Boys in Girls in America. This go around Craig Finn and company seem content to not shake up their formula too much and continue churning out great meat-and-potatoes rock with wickedly evocative lyrics on top. Keyboardist Franz Nicoly is the only one to break out of his comfort zone on Stay Positive. “One for the Cutters” starts out with a harpsichord while “Navy Sheets” adds a distinctive synthesizer riff that I’m pretty sure he stole from Greg Hawkes’ old Cars moog. Finn is still writing about losers, townies, relationships with God and others and his own band. “Constructive Summer” contains two of the best lines I’ve ever heard that links people and the power of music: “Me and my friends are like the drums on ‘Lust for Life’” and “Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer/I think he might have been our only decent teacher.” As long as Finn keeps penning phrases like that, I’ll keep coming back. Best Tracks: “Sequestered in Memphis,” “Constructive Summer,” “Lord, I'm Discouraged”

13) Little Jackie - The Stoop (S-Curve/Capitol)
Four years ago in this very list I questioned why I even liked Imani Coppola's 1997 solo debut album Chupacabra. In my section of self-flagellation I wrote, “You put an album on this list based upon one novelty song (‘Legend of a Cowgirl’). Do we even own this disc any more?” The answer was yes, we (myself and the crazy guy I talk to when I'm all alone in my apartment) still have that disc. And I dug it out again when I heard Coppola sing on Little Jackie’s “The Stoop” for the first time. “The Stoop” is a joyous, piano-based soul confection that captures an essential part of hanging out in certain parts of my home borough of Brooklyn. If it’s the summer, it’s time to hang out on the steps leading to your house, a.k.a. the stoop. This chorus instantly takes me to that time, even on a cold November night. “Sitting on the stoop in Bed Stuy/Always sayin hi when the brothas walk by/Just proper etiquette/Sitting on the top step/With a bag of chips, sit back, relax, enjoy the trip.” The rest of the album is just as much fun as its title track. Coppola provides some of the wittiest lyrics of any R&B album this decade as her partner in crime Adam Pallin surrounds her with a great hybrid of old school soul and today’s beats. So I need to apologize: I'm sorry Imani. I didn't know you had another great album in you 11 years later. Best Tracks: “The Stoop,” “The World Should Revolve Around Me,” “LOL”

12) Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend (XL)
There are so many reasons I should hate Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut. They're four guys from Columbia who look about as preppie as anyone with an Ivy League degree could appear. Singer-guitarist Ezra Koenig writes lyrics that rhyme Louis Vitton and the colors of Benetton (“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”) and penned the most navel-gazing lyrics about (shudder) college in the wittily titled (...wait for it, wait for it) “Campus.” The band wears its Afro-pop influences on its J. Crew sleeves (and they probably owe David Byrne and Paul Simon some royalties as well). And worst of all, I saw bassist Chris Baio wear white cutoff shorts on stage. That alone should get him thrown in jail, not to mention the thievery of an entire continent's music. But, but...I really like it. It’s fun, light-hearted music. Almost all the songs clock in at under four minutes (the album is only 34 minutes long, which is always a good sign). And I’m still not sure why the line “but this feels so unnatural/Peter Gabriel too” works so well in “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” and I don’t care. I’m sure a backlash will be in full swing by the time their second album is released, so I’ll feel free to start hating them then. For now, I’m going to hum along to some damn catchy tunes. Best Tracks: “A-Punk,” “Mansard Roof,” “Oxford Comma”

11) Conor Oberst - Conor Oberst (Merge)
The last time I saw Bright Eyes play was back in November 2007 just downstairs from my office at Radio City Music Hall. Frontman Conor Oberst gave it his all performing yet seemed really fried around the edges, as if he was carrying too heavy of a load. Apparently Oberst recognized that himself, as he decided to set aside the Bright Eyes name when guitarist/producer Mike Mogis bowed out of their next project because of a new child on the way. Oberst shucked off all the mannerisms of the past two Bright Eyes albums and is downright relaxed on this self-titled album. He seems freed from his own legacy of penning self-loathing lyrics. These tracks have a playful sense to them. I swear Oberst even smiles when he sings a couple of these songs (“NYC-Gone, Gone,” “Souled Out!!!”). Who knew he could? For a guy who's been carrying the tortured artist mantle around for so long, it's refreshing to hear him create an album of alt-country-esque rock that is fun to listen to and seems like it was a good deal of fun to create. Best Tracks: “NYC-Gone Gone,” “Moab,” “Souled Out!!!”

10) Hayes Carll - Trouble in Mind (Lost Highway)
Full disclosure: I inadvertently had a hand in what tracks ended up on this country-rock album. In late 2007 my co-worker Dave was hired by Lost Highway to write the bio for this album and was sent a disc of all the tracks recorded for it. One of those scheduled to not make the cut was “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.” But Dave and myself dug the track so much that he suggested to the folks at Carll’s label they rethink their decision. Few months later the song destined for the scrapheap made the cut. Carll didn’t write “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” but it fits snugly alongside his own songs about boozers (“Knockin’ Over Whiskeys”), wild women (“Drunken Poet’s Dream”) and steady gigs in Texas (“I Got a Gig.”) Album closer “She Left Me for Jesus” is one of the funniest songs of the year (the chorus ends with the line, “But if I ever find Jesus, I’m kickin’ his ass”). In a perfect world, this track would be a huge hit on country radio. But as we all know, country radio would rather play shit like The Eagles than an artist who gets what country music should really be about. Best Tracks: “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” “She Left me For Jesus,” “It’s a Shame”

9) Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
I remember telling a friend of mine earlier in the fall that I was really starting to dig this album. He looked at me, cocked his head, and replied, “That’s hard for me to believe. I thought you’d hate that album.” I suppose with its layered harmonies, hippie type lyrics (“Sun rising/dangling there/Golden and fair/In the sky?” Really?) and a general vibe that could place it in the vicinity of the Graham Nash-esque portion of Crosby, Stills and Nash, Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut has all the ingredients to brew up a heaping batch of Reynolds hate. Yet I never hated them. I guess I decided to focus on their other qualities—mainly their abilities to create harmonies that would make Brian Wilson blush and to make songs that remind me of the best British folk-rock of Fairport Convention and Nick Drake. Singer Robin Pecknold has a voice that seems from a completely different era of music. It’s haunting, majestic, mysterious, moving and probably a bunch of other words that begin with “M” that escape me right now. Fleet Foxes is an album that’s essential for an iPod. The production and those voices, oh those terrific voices, sound so magical when they’re placed right next to your eardrums. I’ve never seen Fleet Foxes live, so I have no idea if they could pull off these intricate songs live. But with a band this talented, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did all of them to perfection. Best Tracks: “White Winter Hymnal,” “He Doesn’t Know Why,” “Ragged Wood”

8) Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak (Roc-a-fella)
Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak is one of the most intriguing albums of the year. Its’ sound is reminiscent of the early ’80s rap tracks that I loved growing up. Now that doesn’t make it some sort of retro album. (The auto-tune all over West's vocals places it squarely in the early 21st century.) It’s just that most of the backing tracks come off like cold and clinical electro music, as if Newcleus (“Jam On It”) had returned from one hit wonder oblivion as West's producers. The distant feel of the music matches up perfectly with West’s extreme introspection as he examines a life falling out of control. Each track is a bitter dissection of the end of his engagement (except for “Coldest Winter,” which is about his late mother), putting 808s in line with great breakup records like Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Elvis Costello’s Blood and Chocolate. Those two albums are my favorite in Dylan’s and Costello’s catalogs, so I guess it’s no surprise that 808s is my favorite of West’s four albums. There are no big beats and flashy guest appearances here. It sounds like it might have been made by West, for West, in his bedroom. For someone who’s made such a big deal about how great he is, 808s & Heartbreak is a fascinating look at how West acts when the egotistic façade is stripped away. Best Tracks: “Paranoid,” “Robocop,” “Welcome to Heartbreak”

7) The Baseball Project - Volume One: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails (YepRoc)
Full disclosure: yours truly wrote the bio for this album. When Scott McCaughey asks if you’d like to pen something for his latest project, it takes less than two seconds to say yes. McCaughey teamed up with another fabulous songwriter, Steve Wynn, to pen an album of great songs about my favorite sport. I mean, how can you wrong with songs about players like Curt Flood, Satchel Paige, Ted Williams, and Black Jack McDowell? You can’t. Since what I wrote back in the spring came out so well, I’d like to include one of the key paragraphs here: “This is album that impresses not only with its depth of both widely known and obscure baseball lore, but with its melodic sensibility, walls of guitars, and catchy choruses. No, Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails does not require a PhD in pitching mechanics or membership in three fantasy leagues to enjoy on a purely musical level. The joyous chorus of ‘Ted Fucking Williams’ would probably compel Babe Ruth to sing along. ‘Broken Man’ is about slugger Mark McGwire, yet anyone can identify with the semi-tragic tale of being built up and then being humiliated in public in such a brief span of time. And in ‘Jackie’s Lament,’ Jackie Robinson’s trials while breaking baseball’s color barrier become an anthemic call to anyone who overcomes life's obstacles.” Best Tracks: “Past Time,” “Harvey Haddix,” “Broken Man”

6) Nada Surf - Lucky (Barsuk)
I must admit, Nada Surf was in no win situation with me when it came to their fifth album. Their third album, 2003’s Let Go, has slowly grown to become one of my favorite albums of the past decade. And their fourth album, 2005’s The Weight is a Gift, is certain to have a place in my Top 20 albums of all time. (I mean, if I ever do a list like that again, for say a big anniversary or something like that.) Seriously, how could any band live up to the expectations I’ve put upon them? Fortunately, Nada Surf had no idea about my crazy thoughts and pressure I placed upon them. They just went ahead and made a damn fine album. Frontman Matthew Caws focused a bit more on the world outside of his own this time around, writing about Fox News (“The Fox”), World War 2 (“Ice on the Wing”) and ancient civilizations (“See These Bones”). Even when he’s singing about something that doesn’t involves his own life, Caws still has a knack for writing melodies you’re humming and lyrics you’re singing along to within a couple of listens. My only knock against Lucky is that the band re-recorded “I Like What You Say,” a song that appeared on a 2006 soundtrack. It’s a great song, yet I found myself playing the original more often than the album version. But that’s just a minor quibble with yet another fine entry in the Nada Surf catalog. Best Tracks: “Whose Authority,” “I Like What You Say,” “Weightless”

5) David Byrne and Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Todo Mundo)
With all the ground-breaking and experimental music that David Byrne and Brian Eno have created together and separately, who could have imagined that when these two musicians paired up again for the first time in over two decades they’d create an album of conventional and uplifting pop songs? (Well, conventional by the standards of these two. The single “Strange Overtones” would be pretty darn weird sounding in the hands of anyone else.) Byrne writes in his notes for the album that tracks Eno sent him “inspired a sort of folk-electronic -gospel feeling” and that his goal was to write “simple, heartfelt tunes without drawing on cliché.” Byrne more than succeeded, as tracks like “Home,” “Life is Long” and especially “One Fine Day” are easily the most uplifting and positive words he’s written since the days of the Talking HeadsTrue Stories and Little Creatures. And in this year, it’s exactly the kind of album I wanted to hear. Best Tracks: “Life is Long,” “One Fine Day,” “Strange Overtones”

4) The Raconteurs - Consolers of the Lonely (Third Man/WB)
The Raconteurs first album, Broken Boy Soldiers, never seemed to completely mesh the styles of their two frontmen, Jack White and Brendan Benson. It was a quality album for sure, but after seeing the band perform after a few months on the road it was easily apparent that they had much more to offer. Consolers of the Lonely definitely delivers the goods. It’s a virtual potpourri of every style of music from the late ’60s and early ’70s—Zeppelin-esque rock (the title track), country rock and funky organ dominated pop (“Old Enough”), confessional piano-based pop (“You Don’t Understand Me”), an almost absurd Morricone-like epic (“The Switch and the Spur”), sleazy sped up Stones (“Hold Up”) and, as the bizarre cherry on top, a Terry Reid cover (“Rich Kid Blues”). It makes me think that Jack White just wanted to build a messy wall of sound (and styles) that he could never do in his day job. Mind you, none of these stylistic choices sounds forced. They sound effortless. Consolers of the Lonely is a sprawling, glorious mess of a rock album. And in these messy times, that’s exactly what we need. Best Tracks: “Old Enough,” “You Don’t Understand Me,” “Rich Kid Blues”

3) R.E.M. - Accelerate (WB)
I read an interview with R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills in the fall of 2007 where he said one of the objectives the band had going into their fourteenth studio album was to write shorter songs. My goodness, they succeeded: half of the tunes on Accelerate come in at under three minutes, and a quarter of them are just over the two minute mark. In a brief, yet very effective 34 minutes, R.E.M.’s shortest album ever helps them reclaim their mantle as one of the best bands America has ever produced. Since the departure of original drummer Bill Berry a decade ago, almost everything the band has done has come off like either some sort of sonic experiment (Up), an exercise in pop song craft (Reveal) or totally overlabored (Around the Sun). On Accelerate, they sound hungry again. One might think the back-to-basics approach is an attempt to win back old fans and regain critical respect. That being said, these batch of songs don’t come off as forced or desperate for commercial success. They sound like a band pissed off about the world and their place in it. Michael Stipe sounds every bit his age, singing in a gruff, low register as he spits out lyrics about the government’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina (“Houston”) and how crappy the past eight years have been for this country (“Living Well Is The Best Revenge”). And the band (with guitarist Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin on board) has not sounded this much like a band since New Adventures in Hi-Fi. I hope this is the first of many fine late career albums from R.E.M. Best Tracks: “Living Well is the Best Revenge,” “Horse to Water,” “Supernatural Superserious”

2) Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs (Atlantic)
Death Cab For Cutie has never been an especially cheerful band, but on their 2005 breakthrough disc Plans that darkness might have been muted a bit by the “get out the lighter and let me put this on a mix tape for my girlfriend” acoustic hit “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.” On Narrow Stairs the darkness of Ben Gibbard’s lyrics shines through loud and clear. The album’s sunniest musical moment, the Beach Boys-esque “You Can Do Better Than Me,” features some of its bleakest lyrics. There's also the sham marriage of “Cath…,” the ominous undertones of “No Sunlight” and the creepy stalkerish quality to the epic “I Will Possess Your Heart.” Narrow Stairs features one depressed character after another—and I for one can’t get enough of it. If you ever doubted that people make their best art when miserable, this collection of songs will set you straight. Guitarist and producer Chris Walla does a great job of stripping back some the extra production he used on Plans. When he does reach into his bag of tricks (the keys and crisp overdubbed acoustic guitars on “Your New Twin-Sized Bed”), he shows the perfect amount of restraint. If Kayne West’s 808s & Heartbreak hadn’t debuted at number-one on the Billboard album chart, I’d say that Narrow Stairs was the most depressing chart topper of the year. Best Tracks: “No Sunlight,” “Long Division,” “Your New Twin Sized Bed”

1) Okkervil River - The Stand Ins (Jagjaguwar)
Every song is a short story for Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff. These stories are packed with delicious wordplay and are usually sung in the first person, with Sheff's at-times unhinged voice making the drama in each tale scale greater heights. On last year’s The Stage Names Sheff focused his eye on what it’s like to be a performer. On The Stand Ins (the bulk of which was recorded at the same time as The Stage Names), he contemplates the darker side of all sorts of entertainers and hangers-on: singer-songwriters (um, in the song “Singer Songwriter”), a movie star, a porno actress, an actor’s fan, a backstage fling and an imagined interview with 1970s glam-rocker Jobriath. And there’s a tale of touring band re-imagined as sailors (in “Lost Coastlines'“) who sing, “Every night finds us rocking and rolling on waves wild and white.” Sheff is fascinated by the way people willingly buy into the grand fantasy of art and culture (whether it be music or movies). The center of The Stand Ins is in “Pop Lie,” an incredibly catchy new wave-ish track about “the man who dreamed up the dream that they wrecked their hearts upon, the liar who lied in his pop song.” The lyrics are incredibly self-conscious and could come across as just a little too cute for their own good. But the uninhibited glee with which the musicians rock out behind him, like a bar band running on a few six packs of Pabst, makes it impossible for one not to sing along with the liar who lied in the song. With The Stand Ins and The Stage Names, Will Sheff has proven himself as one of the finest songwriters of today. I wonder what part of American culture he’ll dissect next. Best Tracks: “Lost Coastlines,” “Starry Stairs,” “Pop Lie”

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