Top 5 Albums of 2008

Damn that was fast. 2008 is all but over, as I type this on the eve of 2009. Last year I started compiling my “Top 5” albums. For people that ‘know music’, this is them picking the five albums out of the zillion released in a given year that they like best. For me, I can only process so much music at a time, and so my “Top 5” are pretty much everything I liked from the year, organized in order of preference.

This year was better than last year in that I had more options. I thank, largely, two people: Ian Noble, my man on the bleeding edge of the indie music scene, as well Billy from The World Forgot. The latter is a music blog that is just fantastic, and the former is a person who could maintain a fantastic music blog (I will have to get on him about such a venture). Point being, this year I had to be a bit more discerning in my choices in order to get my top five in the order I liked.

Take a look/listen, and feel free to drop me a line with your thoughts. Hope you had a good year in terms of music, as well as life. Here’s to another.


Honorable Mentions

I figured that last year was a good enough precedent for the format of the Top 5, so I’ll stick to it and only throw out two honorable mentions. That is, albums that were good, if not great, but didn’t quite make the cut for one reason or another.

Keane: Perfect Symmetry

Keane fascinates me. They busted it out in 2004 with the inaugural Hopes And Fears, their piano riffs and lack of guitars titillating emo nerds and mainstream music listeners alike. The follow up, 2006’s Under the Iron Sea, was a distinct departure from that previous sound: altogether darker, this concept album was crafted to be some type of “sinister fairytale-world-gone-wrong” according to the band themselves. This second album didn’t create the buzz of the first, I think mostly becuase it lacked the appeal-to-the-masses the previous one had. Nobody wants to play songs from that sinister fairytale world in the dentist’s office…

This trend continued when Keane released Perfect Symmetry in October with little to no fanfare. I certainly missed the release, wholly ignorant of any released singles. A little investigation yielded the first single,

Spiraling.

Trading their first album’s minimalism and the second one’s brooding for a brazen infusion of synth, the band had caught my attention once more. Someone accused them of adopting an almost Killers-esque sound, and I must admit that’s probably why I liked it so much. The album as a whole is a marriage of their classy and clear piano tracks

Perfect Symmetry
with a healthy dose of synthesizers, Again and Again

something I have a hard time arguing with. It didn’t quite make it to the Top 5 becuase there’s no clear direction to the record as a whole, and while this unique sound really stands out in Spiraling in particular, the schtick gets old after 11 tracks.

Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes

I’ve got to restrain myself a bit here, or it will seem silly to relegate this terrific album to ‘honorable mention’ status. The truth of it is, this was one of Ian’s top records of the year, since he first started listening to it during the summer. Hence I’ve been hearing about it since August, but I didn’t get around to spending any time with it until I received it for Christmas! Tragic as that is, it’s the truth.

Since Ian will be reviewing this in depth, and I already have two songs from them uploaded for his review, I’ll offer the best one he didn’t chose to post, which is

Your Protector.

I like how haunting it is. I’m also particularly impressed with how much repetition they get away with, yet the song never gets boring! Please though, read Ian’s Top 5, linked below, or at the very least the entry on Fleet Foxes. It’s quality!

Tom’s Top 5 Albums of 2008

This year was a pretty good year. I feel a little ashamed, becuase quite a few of these were shoe-inns. That is, bands I love dropped records that lived up to the image I had of them, and further bolstered the reasons I liked them in the first place. It’s hard to compete with that, and like I said, I felt a tad bad about that. It means I’m predisposed against NEW music, and biased towards things I already like. But that’s just the kindof listener I am: I’m a bit of a loyalist. (Within in reason though: please note the lack of Weezer on this list, despite me caving and purchasing The Red Album like a sucker…)

5: Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend

This was a tough one. I didn’t want Vampire Weekend to make my list. Everyone loves that band, and they love them too much. Can’t deny it though, they put together a pretty amazing collection of songs, the vast majority of which are catchy as hell:


(Above, an example, Oxford Comma, was an entry title earlier in the year. Below is another, M79.)

And it’s a funny thing, I haven’t given that album a full listen since the start of May, and yet it still squeaked onto the list! I’m not sure, in the extended long-term, if it was a momentary infatuation, or if I’ll get back into the record a few months down the line again, but damned if I didn’t spend a lot of time listening to it in the first half of ’08. My personal favorite of the entire album is the epic penultimate closer, Walcott, which tells the story of the eponymous hero fleeing for his life from something attempting to consume him.

The bit of trivia here is that it’s from this song that Vampire Weekend dervies their name. The band was formed when asked to score music to a short film of their friends concerning a vampire outbreak on the eastern cost, and the title of the film was Vampire Weekend! [NOTE: I think the real test of Vampire Weekend will be if they can put together anything nearly this good for their second effort. If they can’t, I worry that this will amount to an album equivalent of a one-hit-wonder.]

4: Mates of State: Re-Arrange Us

Numbers five and four are case-in-point that I do give new stuff a chance. Vampire Weekend made it on with their debut album, and Mates of State landed no. 4 when I’d never heard of them before! One of their tracks, Get Better, also was an entry title this fall:

This album suffers from something that I see a lot of in the music I listen to: front-loading. All the best stuff is at the top, and the weaker material filters to the end of the record, making it really hard to go the distance some days. The unique thing is, despite this problem, the “front” is basically the first 7 tracks, with one exception. What that amounts to is at least 6 songs that I’d say are “single-worthy.” They stand that well on their own, and also fit seamlessly with one another within the context of the record.

This song, My Only Offer, far and away the best on the record, initially got me interested in the album. It contains a signature feature that I’m a sucker for: the interplay between male and female vocals, executed brilliantly all over the album. Pair that with the clear preference by the band towards up-tempo tunes, and you can hardly go wrong!

Help Help

Unless the slow it down. Which they do. It seems to be this weird thing where if they drop the pace down to do anything less rapid, they trip over their own feet, and don’t seem to know what to do with all the time, and consequently the last three tracks are pretty dull and boring. Would’ve been better to either mix in the less-good ones for consistency’s sake, or drop them all together and have a powerhouse 6-track EP or something. That’s just me though, I suppose.

All in all though, anything with a distribution that lands 3/5ths of the record in the “awesome” category is certainly worth anyone’s time.

3: Coldplay: Viva La Vida

I did not want to like this record, going into it. I liked 2005’s X&Y a lot more than everyone else, plus I own the entire Coldplay catalog; it’s beginning to get embarrassing. So when the Brian-Eno-produced Viva La Vida rolled out, I crossed my arms, threw my nose in the air, and defiantly said, “So, what?” As usual though, Chris Martin and his cronies had other plans.

For the purposes of this entry, I’m going to assume every living creature on the face of the earth has heard Viva La Vida and Violet Hill. These two singles received an almost obscene amount of radio airplay, even given how amazing they both are. Viva La Vida, the title track, was also an entry title this fall.

Those two singles aside, when I first heard the album, I was taken aback in particular by the anthematic nature of Lost!, which I’m sure has since been catapulted into singled-dom since this album came out early in the summer.

Which sortof gets at the crux of the whole Coldplay experience on Viva. It’s EPIC! They go for the huge sounds: ecstatic (if somewhat reserved) highs juxtaposed with melodramatic lows. If you buy it, like I did, it works flawlessly. There is hardly a weak point in the album. If you don’t want to believe Martin and Co. though, the whole thing comes off as faux and dishonest. Like they’re putting on these emotions for the benefit of their record sales. …and while I can certainly see such a point of view, the optimist in me has to argue for the contrary.

Eno’s influence is pretty apparent throughout. Some pretty classy touches, such as the opening instrumental, Life in Technicolor and tail end of the fantastic closer, Death and All of His Friends, having the same melodies to serve as bookends make this more than a bunch of songs stuck on a CD. They’re bound together with craft, and some real thought was put into how these sounds were organized.

It’s also worth noting that I’ve got to give this album props for being one of an elite few in which I actually LIKE the closing song. Historically, I feel like bands put their worst material towards the end, but save the most boring awful song for last. (Ian has officially called me out on this, positing that I’ve claimed so many exceptions to this rule that, in fact, the inverse is true. A detailed case study is in the works, so rest assured.) Death and All His Friends, the subtitle of this album (subtitle?! Yeah, I know. Coldplay is that pretentious/awesome) does not disappoint as a track unto itself, and is polished off with the bookending melody mentioned above.

Like I said before, if you don’t buy into it, none of it will work. Give it a shot though. It took me all of 3 listens before I got over myself and was sold on this record. It’s Coldplay’s greatest achievement to date.

2: Death Cab for Cutie: Narrow Stairs

Kindof a weird thing about Narrow Stairs is that I heard a lot of these songs live before I’d even purchased the record. The second weird thing is that I know that this record’s position on my Top 5 is artificially inflated by my own personal experience with it, and I’ll be the first to admit that. I was at a point in my life this summer that I needed to get my Death Cab on, and Narrow Stairs swooped in, seemingly custom-fit to my melancholy and angst, driving in perfect synchronization my desire to mope and wallow.

That said, I still think it’s a terrific record. My favorite song, the opening track, Bixby Canyon Bridge, is Death Cab speaking much more authoritatively than they ever have before. The distortion and sheer wall-of-noise component alone are a departure from their softer (some would say whiny) tone and demeanor.

While we’re talking about tracks unto themselves, the uncut version of I Will Possess Your Heart also takes the previously mentioned tone of confidence, albeit in what others have described as a “stalkerish” way. The radio edit truncates the four-minute buildup, and I guess I can live with that. It isn’t as meaningful as the build in, say, Transatlanticism, so in that regard the song can exist without it, but the purist in me likes the full eight minutes. If for no other reason than it tried to challenge the paradigm of what a traditional ‘single’ is.

In the relative ranking of DCFC’s other records, Narrow Stairs is a decided notch above Plans, whose low points were grossly mismatched with its highs (going from ‘Your Heart is an Empty Room’ to ‘Crooked Teeth’ is quite possibly the worst transition I can think of in recent memory), whereas here there is a much more cohesive story told: Tragedy at the start, fighting it, and slowing giving up to the sadness of it all, and finally reaching some degree of understanding. It must be noted though, that this falls short of the unitary masterpieces that was Transatlanticism, which is one of the best whole albums of music in the genre in the past decade.

Long Division provides a much better seventh-inning-stretch (breaking from the sadder, slower stuff for something with a quicker pace) than ‘Crooked Teeth’ did. Grapevine Fires manages to be poignantly bittersweet without making you roll your eyes, which is a risk Ben Gibbard often runs.

As stated earlier, I liked this a lot more than most other people did, but even seeing past that, I can say with confidence that this is at least the second best album the band has ever put out, and that’s got to count for something, given that it’s their seventh album. Maintaining quality work is hard to do, but Death Cab gave it their best and was successful for the most part with Narrow Stairs.

1: The Killers: Day & Age

I didn’t know about this album until barely a month outside of its release, but within that month I crammed in all the anticipation I’d missed out on. I was not disappointed. From the powerhouse opening track to the surprisingly-not-awful-closer, this is classic Killers. Though it may not sound like it at first, they’ve reigned in the synth-fest that was Hot Fuss. Really. They have. It’s also not as ‘Big’ (in that Bruce-Springsteen-kindof-way) as Sam’s Town was. Day & Age splits the difference between the two, attempting to feather some kind of median, combining what they learned off of both albums and hoping for the best.

Surprisingly (or maybe not, considering your author here) they pull it off. If at all possible, they sound a bit more restrained and discerning, like they thought this one through to an extent previously unseen (particularly on the part of the entire band, sans Flowers, who really stepped it up a notch). Flowers belts his way through the record, the strength here being less the lyrics and more simply his voice (I’ve joked before that he could sing the alphabet, and I’d probably buy the single…). Enough talk though, the music! Joy Ride served as the entry title that marked my return to blogging after a lengthy hiatus, and its funky beats do not leave one wanting.

Then you have the single, ‘Human’, which is quite possibly one of the weakest songs on the album. It just lacks the punch of a typical Killers single, to the extent that I’ve omitted posting it. Tracks like ‘Joy Ride’ or the opener, Losing Touch are far better songs, and also do not grit on my nerves on account of grammar issues (“Are we human? / Or are we dancer?”). That’s not to say I dislike ‘Human’. I really have come to like it, and it’s companion track, ‘Spaceman’. They’re both fine songs, I guess I’m just gloating a little becuase they’re touted as the songs to get you to buy the album, and they aren’t even the best material on there.

Losing Touch

Even they less-big, lower-key songs are better. Remember ‘Read My Mind’ and ‘My List’ off of Sam’s Town? In truth of the matter: snooze fest. They’ve been replaced by the likes of ‘This Is Your Life’ and Neon Tiger, which are fantastic songs in their own right, but also server as terrific rank-and-file songs in the album; that is, you wouldn’t buy the record to hear these, but once you’re bought it, you’re damn glad they’re on there.

Hands down, the best surprise on the album for me was A Dustland Fairytale. The trademark Killers imagery of some sleezy, dusty southwest locale placed alongside this idea of a “kingdom under siege” struck me as particularly cool in the context of a rock song. The way this song is constructed is also pretty unique: it slowly builds with a stripped-down intro, then easing you into the second verse and picking up the pace. By the second chorus, you get that ‘explosion’ feeling coming from the guitar, and it all builds to the final repetition of the chorus, where the lyrics are modified to loop back to the content of the introduction, before throwing you out the backdoor of the song before you even know it’s ended.

The closing two songs are probably the weakest, which is sad, and something I’d hoped the Killers were over (Sam’s Town, for all of its alleged flaws, ended terrifically). However, they’re not awful songs, they just stray into areas that are not the Killers’ strong suit: ‘The World We Live In’ seems like an attempt at a song they’d play at the end of prom, and ‘Goodnight, Travel Well’ sounds like some sort of accidental mash-up between the Killers and Interpol. Now awful, but not the best.

Like or not, this is my band. I loved Hot Fuss the day it released, and thought I would never love another record as I did that one. While I wasn’t paying attention, Sam’s Town usurped it as my most-listened to album sometime in 2007. Given that I see Day & Age as a refinement on what was already good in that last record, I’d say it’s on track to be my favorite Killers album to date.


For another take on 2008, check out Ian’s Top Albums of 2008.