Top 50 Albums 2008
By The Staff
10 :: Azeda Booth
In Flesh Tones
It’s been a pleasant surprise to see the eyes between headphones that squint with concentration, and then widen, as the warmth and rolling toms in the opening seconds of “Ran” approach with volume; or the surprised, even briefly overwhelmed reaction, at the sudden crashes and open spaces that append “In Red”; the head gently shaking side-to-side as the beautiful rhythms that make up the last section of “Numberguts” go on, renewing themselves with each bar; the look back at the stereo when “Lobster Quadrille” switches from its Aphex Twin glitch to the solidity of its 6/4 time signature, and then back at the speakers again when its balmy synth line comes in. In Flesh Tones has been the gift that keeps on giving, playing out across the faces of friends that’ve loved it in as revelatory a way as I first did.
What makes the album great, though, is both the immediacy of each idea and the densely collected strata that follow. The strangely androgynous vocals may be an initial curiosity, a darkened corner in a familiar room, but the lyrics on the other side of that novelty are realistic and deeply substantial, gushing and restrained within moments of each other, and finally complicating the gendered assumptions behind each seemingly predictable theme. And in that voice we might ultimately understand the success of In Flesh Tones, which can best be described as a wildly swinging balance. Meaning: not the bland synthesis of poles into an easily digestible middle, but the sudden swoop between pop conventions and the occasional, required surprise; between the rhythms and polyrythms that make one think a band that created the aggressive, antisocial “Lobster Quadrille” surely can’t be the same one behind the big Cocteau Twins heart of “Big Fists.”
“Ran” may be the most immediate embrace this year, and one that is, amazingly, continuously listenable though essentially variations on a single chord progression. But “Well” is the gorgeous centerpiece to an album with exactly as many romantic surges as its title implies. The song exemplifies the band’s tendency to complicate and recast beauty by counter-intuiting it, reverse engineering recognizable rhythmic and melodic touchstones into variations on a theme. With a metallic clang and sheen over a mechanical swing beat, “Well” is a succinct timestamp of, ultimately, what is a confident announcement. This group has the scope of influences and performative literacy to evoke similarly lush reactions from future listeners, faces aglow.
9 :: Vivian Girls
(Mauled by Tigers/In the Red)
The conflation of clanging catastrophe and rough mewling with deft songcraft is something like the Jenga of music but Vivian Girls conjoin the two, not couching pop in noise, but letting noise be pop in short, panting breaths: tape hiss reverberating off the wall and ricocheting back as sweet melody. This isn’t feigned slop; the Girls aren’t shy about being a pop band with a fidelity problem, and that knowledge of self delivers the most fully formed introduction of 2008, striding to the edge of the cliff face only to playfully skitter away.
They’re staring through the wrong prescription sunglasses, but no worries, they know Lenscrafters fucked up, and that distorted vision combining with self-awareness allows them to proclaim love is a joke, a spiteful exercise, and something for which to strive. It also aids in reconciling that a one minute and twenty second blast of “noooooooo!” suffices for a hook; that the raucous shitstorm behind “Going Insane” doesn’t distract from its sweetness, but actually augments it, consoles it. That troubling dark dot above your left eyebrow is just a blemish, don’t worry, and that fragile hand with the gaudy red nail polish reaching out of the scrap heap a few blocks from your apartment is a bit of humanity creeping out of the city’s mostly gross underworld. Facts is facts: the Vivian Girls have conjured a black hole that inverts and dismantles the notions of adolescent love, noise, and all that you hold dear. Yay? Yay!
8 :: Paavoharju
Laulu Laakson Kukista
I think the most fascinating thing about this album is what it isn’t, or at least what it doesn’t seem to be, which is deliberately concocted. Almost any album I can imagine that so beautifully blurs the lines between out, electronic, hip-hop, field recordings, and folk would almost have to be trying to do that, and while that doesn’t detract from the results of attempts like this in the past, Paavoharju have somehow managed to make an album that sounds like they threw a bunch of other albums in a dutch oven and boiled them down, mixed them up, and simmered them for hours. That’s the metaphor I think works best here; Laulu Laakson Kukista isn’t ginormous for its ambition or scope but for the understated way it draws ambitious scope into a brilliant synthesis of so many aesthetics. It’s precisely the type of thing old krautrock/Euro-prog fringe acts like Xhol Caravan, Walter Wegmüller, Igor Wahkevitch, and Franco Battiato used to try to do: present an idea in diverse vignettes. The difference here is that Paavoharju do it in a way that advances a unifying aesthetic that drives all of these tracks to the forefront, making this far more of a whole than the piecemeal constructions of those 1970s bands.
Because when it comes down to it this insane, weird, wildly experimental, nonlinear, diverse album just sounds, at every turn, so simple. Pretty. Comforting. Soft. Unplanned. Easy. And each of those descriptors jars heavily with what this album actually is: a giant cluster-fuck of emotive spirituality sewn together from the scar-tissue of music’s past. And for all the hip new bands who can list a diverse slate of influences that make them sound theoretically cool, not one of them has ever actually made their music sound like that list. This is what that list sounds like, and that list sounds like Paavoharju.
7 :: The Walkmen
You & Me
This critic has recently come across more than one publication that’s referred to the Walkmen as the “elder statesmen” of New York City rock bands, a description that immediately appears ridiculous considering head moper Hamilton Leithauser just turned thirty. Still, in a blog-driven era when barrages of hype both make and break fledgling acts in the two years it takes them to craft a shitty follow-up record, the Walkmen do feel fucking ancient, unaided by how remarkably old-fashioned they set out to sound. Initially presented as members of the NYC Class of 2002 alongside the Rapture and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Walkmen never really cashed in, despite having an entire O.C. episode devoted to them (jeez, talk about old), and their having done nothing except put out consistently excellent records. Four, in fact (not counting their cover of Harry Nilsson’s Pussycats). Twice as many as Karen O.
You & Me is unquestionably their high water mark, a downright elegant record loaded with waltzes and swooning, deep blue numbers that sound best in the throes of the evening. Paul Maroon is still finding ways to make his guitar sound more like cathedral bells than anything resembling a six-stringed instrument, and their signature use of organ and cavernous reverb remains. Even better is the continued pulse of the drunken brass sections first indulged on A Hundred Miles Off (2006). Especially on back-to-back SOTY candidates “Red Moon” and “Canadian Girl,” the horns help the former find its way among the most charming ballads of the Walkmen’s career, and lend the latter a slinky R&B groove that’s crying out for a Cat Power version. Though Hamilton Leithauser no longer caterwauls like he once did on “The Rat,” he’s basically the only “white preppy kid who gets laid all the time” (fellow scribe Dave Abravanel’s phrase) who can sing exclusively about being sad and sound convincing.
So it goes that You & Me is the ideal rock record for dudes like Leithauser and this writer who were once bright-eyed and idealistic but now seldom have the time or inclination to understand what the kids are so on about these days. Seriously, I hung out with a buddy three years my junior last night who spoke of this band “Passion Pit” (who I’ve admittedly never heard) as the greatest discovery since penicillin, and when I told him that You & Me was my Album of The Year, he looked at me like I had two heads. Whatever happened to a little respect?
David M. Goldstein
6 :: Wolf Parade
At Mount Zoomer
Like the fever-dream snowstorm conclusion to Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers or the entire discography of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “California Dreamer” only really makes sense if you’ve braved a Montreal winter. The Mamas & the Papas may have been aware that their idealized vision of California only existed from the perspective of a colder place, but Spencer Krug sings from the perspective of someone in love with the narrator of the original. He knows he’s never getting there and suspects his lover is never going to find what he/she’s looking for. There’s even a suggestion in the line “you dream of seasons that never die” that this longing for escape is a longing for death.
Like everything here, the song shows such a profound awareness of the layers of mythology and language that it ends up doubling up on itself; re-gaining a heightened sense of immediacy by mapping out the isolation of constricting ideologies. It’s no wonder the band reached back to ’70s touchstones like Television and early Brian Eno—little of this mythology has ultimately changed. And they play like a band that’s just discovered concision, a reminder that the retroactively-titled “proto-punk” existed before the opting for simplicity and full-band dynamics over individual performance became a fashion statement. This dismissal of post-punk tropes is what allows At Mount Zoomer both sweeping, cinematic gestures and hairpin unpredictability. “Kissing the Beehive,” an 11-minute behemoth where little is repeated, has the feel of five or six songs patched together. It doesn’t present a tidy narrative but that doesn’t seem to be the point; with themes of being set adrift and vocals bouncing between Krug and Boeckner, it seems like a shared nightmare where both songwriter’s visions run into each other.
And yet, the response to At Mount Zoomer was underwhelming. Critics lamented that it didn’t contain a “Shine a Light,” called it “histrionic,” made a point of their exhaustion with the mix of constantly shifting parts and relentless energy, and even accused it of being weighted too heavily in favor of either Krug or Boeckner (come on people, they get four songs each and then share the last one; the Beatles weren’t that democratic). All complaints which seem to forget how powerful an album it is front-to-back. While it’s true the two songwriters have very distinct styles, it’s how they combine them that counts; maybe it lacks comparable highs but this album is far more musically focused than Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005). Boeckner’s insistent bark (“We are not at home”) finds its doubt spilling from an opposite coast into the same pool of madness that brims with Krug’s more paranoid, animalistic yelps (“Strike up the band / We have survived”). The only thing that’s certain with Wolf Parade is this profound unease, which is about as relevant to the dawning of 2009 as any record could be.
5 :: Invincible
So this is the top five; it’s nice here. In general the Glow places a pretty high value on an audacious aesthetic, even moreso in hip-hop because of its rarity in that genre (a few of us could probably subsist on a diet of Wu-Tang, Clipse, and OutKast); this explains our #2 album and the absence of something as all-around solid as Q-Tip’s The Renaissance, a better record than some of us know how to admit. Of course, we really love it when strong aesthetic is seamlessly intertwined with compelling content, which explains our #1 (I’m being a little coy about naming names but not too concerned about dropping hints because, hey, you can scroll down). On an aesthetic level there’s nothing overly impressive about Invincible’s Shapeshifters besides the fact that she’s insanely talented and a few good producers gave her some nifty beats, so her position on this year’s Top 50 speaks rather pointedly to what is Invincible’s great strength: her content is so purposeful, balanced, and true, her delivery so unflinching, she bruises her way past the Cool Kids and Weezy into this list’s upper echelon.
Not that there aren’t flashes of excellence on all levels, the best beats here the ones that blend melancholy with sprightly like a musical exegesis of Invincible’s flow, which is both embittered and invigorated by a passion for things that, like, actually matter. The record’s powerful one-two punch comes with “Deuce/Ypsi” and “Recognize”; Belief models the former on a stuttering loop and develops that in a couple parts towards overdriven, pyrrhic glory while on the latter our #2 dude melds a downward string spiral and thick synth bass with hard drums. More obvious stabs at defining the Invincible “sound” come with attempts to connect to her ethnic heritage through the Middle Eastern-tinged beats of “Sledgehammer!” and “People Not Places,” which are not at all as cheesy as they could be yet don’t achieve the more effective mood of down-tempo beats like “Ropes” and “Locusts” or the impact of the title track, an impeccably constructed piece by Waajeed. Through it all Shapeshifters shifts shapes just a bit too much, never quite able to musically cohere into that complete statement it comes so close to being.
Thing is, it doesn’t much matter. Here there be rhymes with the density to swallow the constellations other rappers build as connect-the-dots from one self-aggrandizing line to the next. And unlike conscious rappers who forget that you have to be awake first in order to be conscious, Invincible’s rapping bears the fruit of true social awareness, focused outward and treating self only as a voice within community, art as a means of reform. Gentrification, the Israel-Palestine conflict, sexual politics, the responsibility of how hip-hop’s cultural cache affects the sociological reality it in part determines…these are just a few of the cards that Invincible shuffles and deals with the dexterity of a pro who can keep everyone at the table in the game, important so that the discourse never gets stunted or one-sided. There is no mincing of words, no beating around the bush, no attempt to alleviate the pressure of what she’s feeling by way of a party track or two. This shit is full steam ahead. At the end of “Sledgehammer!” there’s a sample from the film Se7en where Kevin Spacey’s John Doe states, “Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder any more. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you have their strict attention.” And while Invincible does decry a nation’s sins (also correlating them to the sins of other nations) with such sledgehammer force, she lacks John Doe’s psychotic self-righteousness. “No Easy Answers” is a microcosm. Invincible doesn’t make moralist judgments so much as invest her rich rhyming in trying to quickly sketch the relative connections out from the core issue as far as the track time will allow her, like the spiderweb of cracks that appears when rock hits glass. Her agenda focuses her words but does not override her artistry; integrity is what makes Invincible invincible. Returning to Se7en, Invincible is Morgan Freeman’s character empowered by the efficacy of music, not just agreeing but succeeding with the second part of Hemingway’s statement that “the world is a fine place and worth fighting for” because hers is a fight made of artistic expression—and that’s something that can’t ever truly be silenced.
4 :: Women
I bet Women get a lot of shit. They must—theirs is that particular station of indie rock earned by rummaging through garage sale bins and, when that well’s dried, picking through the garbage and trash heaps of the elder landowners they respect, looking for clues and habits. After all, it’s no big deal what they end up finding (that what the Beach Boys did in short fits of glee they could sublimate into something seething, an angsty “Black Rice,” sounding as bruised as the Beach Boys should have sounded, what with all the shenanigans they went on about) or what clues they decipher (the outright noise of “Lawncare” and “Woodbine” doesn’t have to rage to hold up the top half of the album, instead it can root about like mushy worms under a pool table’s baize and let “Flashlights” do the work later), as long as they’re not caught.
So, with guilty obsessiveness they cover their tracks. Their habits they wrap in frustrating dynamics, as if they know that “Upstairs” sounds both dead serious as it collapses and too aimless to have been rigged up in the first place. Their dynamics, then, they flash about without any major courtesy for the listener, plowing through a bunch of cool but harrying noises and counter-intuitive pacing, which seems both exciting and totally senseless. Some may find their enigmas alienating and, in turn, their debut record a wintry, unwelcoming brief on all the condescending affectation that comes with being an indie rock band adorned with a moniker meant to stymie; I’d agree, but I find Women just as equally refreshing, fascinating, and raw, a record rewarding in the effort it takes to warm to and still a dish best served cold.
3 :: Gang Gang Dance
To read the reviews of Saint Dymphna is to be assaulted with a string of increasingly disparate references: ambient, dub, grime, reggaeton, My Bloody Valentine, Magik Marker, In the Nursery, Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft, Brazilian guitar, various strains of Central African music, etc. Effectively, Saint Dymphna isn’t an exercise in trendy appropriation or a pastiche, but it is a worthy amalgam and, as the Glow put it, possibly the most complex and weird dance album of the year.
I can just hear the band members’ sighs. “We just make music, man,” said guitarist Josh Diamond in November, when I asked him if he felt Saint Dymphna was more mainstream than 2005’s landmark God’s Money, which some critics have suggested. “It’s not up to us. People can decide whatever they want, if it’s more mainstream or less.”
To be sure, nobody can deny that a dizzying mix of worldly elements weave through Saint Dymphna‘s exploratory 44 minutes. A syncopated reggaeton beat drives the otherworldly “First Communion”; Tynchy Stryder brings grime to the electro-rocker “Princes”; a robotic old-school techno beat collides with vaguely Arabesque guitar licks in “Blue Nile”; new wave romanticism, rave bombast and Pro Tools-style studio trickery merge in “House Jam.” But Diamond is right: different listeners can make many different connections, depending on who they are and what captures their imagination. Streaming into my ears, this record conjured the celebratory abandon of intricate Arabic dabke (or “group dance”) beats and the cosmopolitan boldness of Bollywood, without the daring string sections. But with each listen, the associations gradually melted away. And I realized that Saint Dymphna’s slow builds, hypnotic transitions and sustained bursts of catharsis are inimitably distinct.
Naked City’s schizophrenic Speedfreaks practically defined musical pastiche. This is the polar opposite. Both are children of the composition era, in which the old ritual and consumer-based contexts have given way to a nuanced exploration of media itself. But while Naked City’s jazz-metal noisecore merely proved to be one of John Zorn’s wackier experiments, Gang Gang Dance’s raw polyglot tongue—Diamond’s incandescent and percussive MIDI-wired guitar, Lizzie Bougatsos’ wispy and echo-warped voice, Brian DeGraw’s intricate employment of crappy Yamaha drum pads and warm modular synths, former drummer Tim DeWitt’s nimble beats—seems to have revolutionary potential. Like jazz, hip-hop, and punk, working alongside the best of electroacoustic pop contemporaries Black Dice and Animal Collective, Saint Dymphna has the potential to galvanize new unities out of elements that once appeared completely unrelated. This can help create a whole new musical—if not social—framework.
Yes, I have some abstract and incredibly high dreams for society. But what I want from Gang Gang Dance is reasonable: just keep doing what you’re doing. Our associations may differ, but this is something we can agree on. “The only sort of plan is to try and move forward,” Diamond said. “To try and not rest, or like get stuck in some specific frame.”
2 :: Black Milk
After I reviewed the Roots’ Rising Down I received a fair amount of emails suggesting I had been too harsh on the hip-hop veterans for their new electrotastic sound. The simplest answer I couldn’t have given then for release-date reasons I’ll give now: listen to Tronic. My own year-end list will show I personally think Invincible had the better album, but it’s super-hard to argue with any argument that starts, “but…Tronic has better production.” It does, and the reason it does is because it’s another hip-hop album like Hell Hath No Fury (2006) and New Amerykah that takes the idea of cohesive album production seriously. To engage this new aesthetic, Black Milk does more than just slice up Daft Punk to make an electro-beat he can wear shutter shades to—he composes music in a way that rewires the expectations we have for what a Black Milk production (and, to a lesser extent, hip-hop itself) should sound like. It’s a shift he’s conscious of, too: Tronic’s “here I am posing in front of a bunch of synths on an iridescent background” cover upends his “here I am clutching my 2000XL in sepia” pose on Popular Demand (2007).
I mean, he wants you to think critically about this shift in his sound, which is pretty risky in its own way. Hip-hop producers are famously resistant to the denigration of the sampler, and they should be to an extent, but Black Milk is doing more here than just giving up some of Dilla’s ghost and moving forward: he’s taking a highly contentious position within the generic and established philosophy of hip-hop production at large. If two of the best hip-hop albums (the other being Hell Hath No Fury) production-wise of the past three years are also the most innovative, the reason they’re innovative is…(quiet voice) they don’t just rely on an Akai sampler. But where the Neptunes have their cred elsewhere, and so they don’t need to worry so much, Black Milk is taking a huge risk by foregrounding his adoption of synths—rather than just quietly using them like everybody else does. If you don’t believe me just Youtube “Akai 2000XL” and watch millions of producers tell you how it’s unmanly to use a laptop. Fuck that shit, if that even needs to be said. You can produce your entire album in Ableton using only presets and if it bumps like this? Music is music, and music-wise Tronic is the most engaging selection of beats I’ve heard this year, a gut-punch of elegantly raw, dense beats that are as experimental as they are head-bob inducing. Which is not quite to say “fuck the other way,” either; it’s just six of one and a half dozen of the other, and this baker’s dozen-plus-one will hopefully be the mission statement of a way forward for underground production.
Which leaves the one complaint made about this album: look, you can say Milk’s not that great a rapper, but that assumes that Producers make instrumental hip-hop albums and MCs make rap albums and that somehow doing both without being able to excel at both is some crisis. “Whatever,” I think. Like, if the indie community is gonna get all up in Kanye’s shit everytime he farts on record, it’s a bit disingenuous to dismiss the best-produced hip-hop album of 2008 just because Black Milk is only a pretty good rapper.
1 :: Erykah Badu
New Amerykah, Part One (4th World War)
At a tour-closing stop in Chicago, in December, while Q-Tip walked throughout the crowd like a charismatic evangelist, sharing the mic with the audience, singing “Life Is Better,” my knees nearly gave out. This isn’t just because motherfucking Q-Tip was near me, although that was part of it. It was the absolute sincerity with which he introduced this triumphant singalong: “It’s the end of another year,” he cried, as if that was something many of us gave a shit about. As a pop artist Q-Tip’s weathered about eighteen such years, and the unfettered joy with which he approached this new one was an unexpected sentiment. That show finished, for me, just hours ago, and like the rest of the audience I’m left to wonder in the coming days from what depth he pulled such exuberant sanguinity. Hours later and with a year-end blurb heavy on my mind, I think I get where he’s coming from.
That this year was the best for hip-hop since at least 2001, if not 1996, is something of a miracle. Certainly I anticipated no such thing; last year, delirious, I claimed American Gangster was better than The Blueprint. I choose to look at Q-Tip’s absence from this list as proof of this claim, that among all these haggard, vicious mixtape mutts and glossy fresh faces his unambiguously gleeful Renaissance seemed unadventurous. This, after all, was hip-hop’s best year since at least 2001, if not 1996: the stratospheric catapulting of a mush-mouthed Dadaist into pop superstardom, sterling career-strength records by trap-pop mainstays, a Detroit scene congealing with Dungeon Familial depth, a wealth of inventive underground experimentation, Kanye’s concert-only actualization into fluorescent godhead, Killer Mike, a black Hova-quoting President signaling a sea change in American thought and hip-hop’s stature therein, and, the artistic gemstone in this crown year, this, Erykah Badu’s fourth record.
Early warnings indicated that this may be New Amerykah’s only list-topping year-end appearance. CMG is okay with this. Certainly there are sexier picks—Cut Copy, or whatever. Still, we acolytes insist: are there sexier records than this? The record is one continuous deep-rutted groove, rising in elated tides and crashing into simpering quietude, at once womanly and keening and lingering and brazen, deeply personal, long, deep, satisfying. I am almost talking about fucking this record literally, but such is the passion and gratitude I have for this release that in endless sublimity moves the genre forward in quantum leaps by (first off) refusing to treat it as a genre.
In lieu of such antiquated notions, it regards hip-hop and its cultural forebears as equivalent influences, assuming Madlib and the Native Tongues and Herbie Hancock and early ’70s long-form James Brown as all part of the same aqueous body. Then it dips a big sloshing bucket in and, with a reverence for The Beat unapproached by anyone besides, well, James Brown again, pours this mellifluous stuff into tracks constructed with an ear for flow and flow alone. The result sounds more like dub than Badu’s traditionally songwriterly work, drums being the only constant but a constant in flux while sonic motifs crash against each other in fevers and cools.
These tracks, in short, are ecstasies, the actualization of Madlib’s career as a music fan (regardless of how much he touched, he looms large), and a sublimation of hip-hop’s elements into something new and complete of itself and probably impossible to follow up. Badu, aware, proffers herself as a tour guide. Her lyrics are about herself and about hip-hop, so exclusively so that they’re frequently treated interchangeably (see: “Me”), but they’re delivered in absolute deference to the music at hand, as if in an honorable attempt to bring attention to the beat they reenact the eddies and weaving currents of this wild artistic stream of thought with the utmost verisimilitude and reverence.
At this river’s end is a cold wind of emotion: that is, the loss of Jay Dee in 2006. On “Telephone,” Badu inimitably refers to death as a “transition—with a real slow fade,” and more than anything else this record revels in these transitions and fades, where both images are made new by the other, necessarily impermanent. New Amerykah smelts Dilla’s life’s work and death’s grief and adds it to the tide, as it does everything it touches: America and Erykah, genre and art, sex and melancholy, and most extravagantly old and new. Its only precedent may be Curtis Mayfield’s Curtis (1970); it is, if anything, Important. But it’s also important. The sentiment is as small as it is large, as much about Dilla as it is about me, right now, typing. New Amerykah tells us that we will miss our friends when they die, and that we never won’t, but that in time that loss turns into calmness, and that that calmness is itself a prayer. And that in this and so many other ways 2008 was a year of accepting our storied and hurting pasts and without malignance, with calm, with love, embracing change. Like Q-Tip said, life is better.