My Top 20 Albums of 2008 (probably)

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26. Dez. 2008, 11:15

Picking my favourite album of 2008 was always going to be a tough one to call right from the start. I was expecting albums from some of my absolute favourites - Death Cab For Cutie, I Am Kloot, Elbow, The Mountain Goats - and was fairly certain one of them would turn up with my album of the year tucked under their collective arm. What I hadn't expected was the slew of quality albums from a whole host of artists, some new, some not so new, that made this a most difficult selection. And on top of all that there was Flight Of The Conchords - arguably one of the best musical comedy albums of all time. How do I quantify that alongside the more serious artistes? I tried my best...

20 Woven Hand - Ten Stones
I don't know why, but I seem to keep buying side projects or new projects from people whose original bands I never paid the slightest bit of interest. This new project from ex-16 Horsepower singer, David Eugene Edwards, is a case in point. What this generally means is that I now have a long and expensive path to tread in discovering all the old/main bands in question, given the quality I keep uncovering!

This is an album of light and shade and is in keeping with my general tendency towards the gloomy! Its atmospherics enchant initially but I have to confess that it's the two tracks where they press the 'rock' button (every band should have one!), White Knuckle Grip and particularly Kicking Bird where they really get me. Good stuff. Better get my wallet at the ready.

19 The Last Shadow Puppets - The Age of the Understatement
A slight drift towards the obvious here. Apologies but it will happen again later, I'm sure, but if I can avoid it, I will. I couldn't here though, simply because I love Separate and Ever Deadly and My Mistakes Were Made for You so much that it wouldn't have mattered if the rest of the album was all filler. It wasn't (just occasionally, perhaps) so well done!

I don't need to say much more about this really, do I? No? Good. Onwards...

18 Black Mountain - In the Future
I promised you (let's pretend there's more than just me reading this, shall we) back at the start of the year with the 2007 folk-centric top 20 that I was lining up the louder stuff and name-checked this January release as a definite Top 20 finish for the 2008 chart. That promise started to look more and more presumptious as the year progressed and in the end it's only just clung to Top 20 status when I would have said Top 10 was well within its grasp earlier. However, I do tend to tire of Black Mountain after the initial giddy excess fades, and In The Future followed the same path as debut, Black Mountain, did. I think I have to be in the right mood for them, to be honest, with the exception of Queens Will Play which is an all-weather song and the only one I regularly seek out in isolation. Good album cover, too!

17 The Acorn - Glory Hope Mountain
In contrast to Black Mountain, this was an album that took a while to settle in, standing nervously outside the door for a while with only its Crooked Legs on show to begin with. Slowly though, it creeps into the room, Sister Margaret laughs affectionately in the corner and you can't help but be enchanted. Hold Your Breath for a second longer and there they are sat on the sofa in front of the telly eating your crisps and generally making themselves more than comfortable. Nice.

16 Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
Again, a little obvious and making me out to be an avid Radio 1 listener or something, but this is just too infectious to turn down. And I have to admit an odd liking for bands who write songs about punctuation. Needless to say, Oxford Comma is one of my favourites, as is A-Punk, but I also go a bundle on Walcott and The Kids Don't Stand a Chance. It's like Peter Gabriel never went away.

15 The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
Now here's one I didn't see coming. Having been thoroughly underwhelmed by the much praised previous album Boys & Girls In America, I was expecting much the same this time around as the press got their knickers in a twist (again!) about just how fine a songwriter Craig Finn is (which I think is where my problem with the band lies, because I think his voice and delivery bug me a bit).

However, this time there was slightly more justification for the adulation, the title track's ace riff finding its way onto TV links left, right and centre. Whereas last time out, I could only really pick out two good songs and a handful of ok stuff, this time there are two great tracks and a handful of good ones. One For The Cutters, with its insistent 'Golden Brown'-esque harpsichord riff, is the real stand out for me, closely followed by Both Crosses. Maybe I've been wrong all these years.

14 Murder By Death - Red Of Tooth And Claw
A second consecutive Top 20 placing for this desert-crossing/bleak-americana/murder balladeering band and arguably a step up from last album 'In Bocca Al Lupa' (and seemingly a huge step forward from earlier material if the pirate-based song they showcased at Latitude is anything to go by!). Some great driving desert-rock and stories of outlaws and the people who cross their paths set this on its way, Rum Brave and Fuego even providing great big choruses to sing along to. The album fades slightly towards the end, otherwise we'd have had a Top 10 contender here. Perhaps in another 10 years, when vocalist/guitarist Adam Turla has lived a few of these tales (the other enlightening Latitude moment with this band was seeing how scrawny and youthful Turla looked in relation to his voice!) they'll have it within themselves to produce a truly great album. In the meantime, this'll do nicely. Plus, it has lots of dramatic cello in it and for some reason, I really like that, and Sarah Balliet plays it well.

13 Port O'Brien - All We Could Do Was Sing
I'm blaming The Decemberists for this because over the last couple of years I seem to have developed a fascination for sea-faring songs of all descriptions. So when Port O'Brien turned up with a whole album full of the buggers, inspired by real life sea-faring fishery type employment I was somehow morally obliged to both buy it and enjoy it heartily!

Opener I Woke Up Today was one of the catchiest openers of the year and I was sold from that point. The similarly themed Stuck On A Boat and Fisherman's Son cement the good work, and if my memory gets a little hazy on some of the later tracks, I'm prepared to accept that in all likelihood, that's more my fault than theirs. Should be interesting to see where these guys go next.

12 Flight of the Conchords - Flight of the Conchords
So this is where I almost arbitrarily put the funniest album in years. Not only funny though, but musically superb too. Quite how Brett and Jemaine are going to follow this, I have no idea, because it's damn near perfect. If I'm in the mood for comedy then it has to be the number one album of the year, the only reason it isn't is that I'm trying to keep focused on this being a music chart and this makes things confused! If you haven't seen the series, go out and buy it immediately (or stay in and buy it, if that's your preference) and enjoy the visuals that go with classics such as Ladies of the World, Think About It, Mutha'uckas and Hiphopopotamus vs Rhymenoceros. Check out the Bowie impersonations, the spot on Pet Shop Boys pastiche and Jemaine's deadpan face that will make you laugh regardless. More fun than an empty box sent all the way from New Zealand.

11 The Boat People - Chandeliers
Frustrating for Flight Of The Conchords, I'm sure, to be beaten to 11th by a bunch of Australians, but The Boat People craft fantastic pop songs (although I find the ongoing Crowded House comparisons a little lazy - just because they're also Australian and write mature pop!). Anyway, rant over, this is a real grower and everytime I come back to it, I find another track to love, which is always the sign of a good album. Another couple of months living with this one could well see it rated above some of the imminent Top 10 (calm yourselves, we're not there just yet!). As If I Could was the track that hooked me in from the start, but since then Unsettle My Heart, Hours n Hours and Babysnake have all lit up the room and there's more goodness elsewhere. Another great find in 2008!

10 British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music?
British Sea Power continue their drift towards the mainstream with their 3rd album yet, unlike most acts, still manage to retain a sense of originality that sets them apart. And you can't argue when such a drift provides moments like Waving Flags and No Lucifer with its glorious "Easy! Easy! Easy!" chant. This is a great album and, having lived with it since January, can argue to be more deserving than most of its top 10 finish. You suspect there's better to come, as well...

9 Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
Not quite as high up as it threatened to be upon release, I have to admit that my love of this album has dissipated ever so slightly since then, due mainly to Fleet Foxes now filling my plaintive Americana cup, thank you very much. This though is still a pretty remarkable album, even ignoring the now ubiquitous back-story (which I'm refusing to go into because it shouldn't really matter, should it?). Skinny Love is fantastic, re:Stacks is, too (whatever it happens to be about) and Lump Sum, Blindsided, Creature Fear and Flume contribute to an album that rarely dips in quality. Even the bonus eMusic track, Wisconsin, maintains the excellence. He looked really intimidated on Jools Holland, like he hadn't been in a TV studio before (which may have been the case, I don't know) but his performance was all the more endearing for that. Another 2008 surprise, albeit one that was shared across the country.

8 The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride
The first of the big guns stumbles at No.8. Not too much of a surprise in all honesty as John Darnielle seems to believe in quantity over quality and there isn't one Mountain Goats album that I love from start to finish. The thing is though, that the songs I DO fall for, I do so in style! Whenever I playlist my favourite Mountain Goats songs I'm suddenly confronted with the possibility that they might be my favourite band, something that doesn't happen when I have an album on in its entirety. Having said that, Heretic Pride is more consistent than most although it does fade as the album draws to a close.

However, when it's good, it's glorious, Darnielle untouchable at his peak. Lovecraft in Brooklyn sneaks in on a killer riff and subtle bass with a sinister vocal that explodes in outright and very palpable fear in the final third - it's a standout track and for a while overshadowed the rest of the album for me. Slowly though, other gems emerged. Sax Rohmer #1 with its insistent "And I am coming home to you" refrain grabs, whilst San Bernadino moves with its tale of young lovers becoming young parents behind the closed doors of a motel room and Autoclave shimmers with beauty and makes me glad that Darnielle doesn't wait for years to compile the perfect album but sends these things out so they can be heard without delay. Good man.

7 Shearwater - Rook
Back on the side project thing again, this time featuring Jonathan Meiburg who is actually now a full-time ex-member of Okkervill River after four (I think!) albums on the side as Shearwater. And that's a good decision in my book. Whilst his old band received great critical acclaim for recent album The Stand Ins (and last year's The Stage Names) they kind of passed me by a little. I don't quite get the appeal and only a handful of songs from The Stand Ins really engaged me (the most notable of which is the admittedly stunning Lost Coastlines, which just happens to have Meiburg on shared vocal duties).

In case you are still in any doubt, I like Shearwater a lot more than Okkervill River! Like their twisted evil genius half-brother, and Will Sheff must look on in bitter sibling rivalry knowing that he'll never write a song boasting a riff as subtle yet insistent as that which blesses the (almost) title track, Rooks. Undoubtedly one of my favourite songs of the whole year (I'm sure there'll be a run-down of that at some point, too!) its gothic folk imagery manages to out-Fleet Fox even the Fleet Foxes. But there are other jewels here, too. Opener, On the Death of the Waters, sucks you in quiety before exploding into life in the final minute in a manner as effective (and as jarringly loud) as Elbow managed with Starlings. Home Life burbles along for seven enthralling minutes, the steady and captivating centrepiece of the album, whilst Century Eyes does all it needs to in less than three and at a pace and volume enjoyably disconcerting on an album that otherwise takes its own quiet time to get to where it's going.

Now, about that back catalogue...

6 Crooked Fingers - Forfeit/Fortune
Sometimes my reasons for buying an album are obvious and other times there’s no discernible reason except the most tenuous of links. In the case of Crooked Fingers, it was after reading a customer review (?) on eMusic from someone who’d bought the album because they’d heard The National’s Matt Berninger singing their praises. I, being the simple fool I am, took all of this on trust, assumed Matt Berninger would have decent taste in music, assumed that the eMusic customer had something similar and promptly pressed the download button (sorry tangible product fans) and uncovered another, previously unheard of, damn great band.

There's all sorts going on here: straight ahead pop, inventive Americana, Mexicali brass, sinister rumblings and a Chinese woman who seems to be not a little irate. It all makes for a great album and perhaps the most surprising one to arrive in my collection this year. Reviews I've read since make much of the pop leanings of the album, particularly Cannibals and What Never Comes, but for me it's when the band stray from the beaten pop track that things get more impressive. Luisa's Bones and Phony Revolutions run 2nd and 3rd on the album and aforementioned opener, What Never Comes, never stays in my head principally because these two songs are awesome (in case you're wondering, Phony Revolutions is where the angry Chinese woman comes into things). There's a crazed passion to the vocals that drags you along in its undertow wondering which direction you might be headed next.

Other tracks take fewer turns but are equally impressive - Modern Dislocation is the most successful whilst Give And Be Taken has more of the impassioned vocalising and Run, Lieutenant, Run somehow manages to sound like David Essex AND Neil Diamond at the same time. In a good way, naturally. All in all, a good decision, if slightly lacking in any clear logic, but isn't that what makes record buying such fun?

5 The Rosebuds - Life Like
Yet another newly discovered band - and yet another with some kind of back-catalogue that now needs investigating. Again, I stumbled upon this almost by chance and a quick listen to the title track revealed some splendid Interpol-esque guitar allied to a plaintive low key vocal less bombastic than that of Paul Banks. The vocal was more of a clue to the rest of the album than the guitars were (although vocal duties do get shared out a little, with more girl/boy stuff that seems to permeate a lot of my current faves, too) because musically this album takes a few interesting twists and turns, straight-on indie rock on Cape Fear and Bow To The Middle : The Religion of Politics, folksy Americana on Nice Fox, a rare revisit to those Interpol guitars on Concordia Military Club and minor chord sad-eyed pop on Another Way In. I love this album - it's fresh and ego-free and one of the most complete albums of the year, rarely dipping in quality and finding its way into my head and my heart (and obviously, at a later date, my wallet, too).

4 I Am Kloot - play the moolah rouge
So the 'Kloot didn't make it to the top spot. Funny one this, because when I first got it I was really disappointed by it and it took me a few listens to really get into it (in fact, part of the discovery occurred when watching the accompanying DVD which includes a lot of the same tracks live in the studio which somehow brought them to life). Like all 'Kloot albums though, I now love it, and the only criticism is that it is a little bit lacking in variety of pace and tone and I think that's where my initial doubts came from. There still isn't any one stand out track but the album is consistently good and there's something about John Bramwell that I really can't help but like. I think of all the voices in popular music, his is the one I most associate with, the one that could be me singing (if only I could), and consequently there always seems to be a connection to be made. Or maybe they're just a great band! My favourites at present are Chaperoned, At The Sea, Ferris Wheels and One Man Brawl, but the distinction between best and worst is minimal. As the man says, it's all good.

3 Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs
I think I thought that this was going to be number one when it first came out, and I'm still surprising myself now that it's only made no.3. Not sure why, so let's see if we can find out!

Bixby Canyon Bridge does its job, opening the album nicely without over-imposing itself (I've noticed that Death Cab songs really do 'open' the album, and sometimes are so good at doing that, that I forget to acknowledge them for the great songs they invariably are - New Year is the best example). I Will Possess Your Heart then approaches with menace and is quite stunning in its scope and breadth, and an impressively bold choice for first single, it's one of the best things they've done. No Sunlight is bright and breezier than Death Cab tend to be but it's refreshing for that, and then Cath... comes in and stakes a claim for best track on the album and certainly strongest lyric (always a tough competition to win!) notably with the line, "And she holds a smile, like someone would hold a crying child".

I guess it drops off a little after this though: Talking Bird is good but unspectacular, later on Your New Twin Sized Bed does the same thing and closer, The Ice Is Getting Thinner follows the pattern (it tries but fails to match the majesty of A Lack Of Color). Other highlights exist though. Grapevine Fires is the latest in a long line of melancholic memoirs that moves and engages in equal measure, Pity and Fear broods (and ends most abruptly) and Long Division has a bold and obvious refrain (for a Death Cab song) that wins much support. So it is good, and we are at no.3 for the year, which is also good. I just guess it isn't quite Transatlanticism, and I shouldn't really hold that against it. I am pondering that no.2 spot now though!

2 Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
Or am I? I've always been an Elbow fan and it really is nice to see them receiving recognition this year. And The Seldom Seen Kid really is their best and most consistent album yet. It might be obvious to harp on about One Day Like This, such has its presence been felt this year, but it really is the highlight - just as it was the musical highlight of the Latitude festival this year (although it probably failed to surpass chasing Ross Noble en masse to a vegetarian food stall to ask for meat). But if you want a good festival sing-a-long song, Guy's yer man.

Of course, it isn't a one track album by any means, and Grounds for Divorce (almost as ubiquitous), The Bones of You, Friend of Ours, An Audience with the Pope and Starlings all shine. Garvey's lyrics show their trademark warmth and humour in equal measure (typical sample: "I have an audience with the Pope, and I'm saving the world at 8, but if she says she needs me, she says she needs me...") and I'm hoping for more Richard Hawley duets after the roaring success of The Fix, too.

Only one moment doesn't work for me, and I know I'm in relative isolation on this because a number of people cite it amongst their favourites, but I find The Loneliness Of The Tower Crane Driver is just a bit dull and I actually have pressed the skip button once or twice, may I be struck down with a black pudding to the back of the head. It's the only blip though, and Elbow keep on getting better and better.

1 Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
And in the end, it was none of the pre-season favourites but these upstarts from Seattle (and if a band isn't from Manchester or Seattle its going to have to be from somewhere nearby, like Portland, for me to seemingly like them - must be all the North West rain, whatever the country!).

Just the first snippets of White Winter Hymnal were enough and that hypnotising mix of ethereal folk and glorious harmonies is what has set this band apart in 2008. There's real depth to the music, the lyrics, the whole shebang (get ye back, Ricky Martin!), evident elsewhere in He Doesn't Know Why, Blue Ridge Mountains, Ragged Wood and, best of all, Your Protector. I can't stop listening to it.

Best of all, the best song isn't even on it! Mykonos, released on the Sun Giant EP earlier but apparently recorded after the album, is monstrously infectious and makes the possibility of an even better album in the future a tantalising possibility. I'm off to Washington now, with me brolly...

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