• Top ten albums of 2011

    5. Feb. 2012, 2:04

    I'm really late with this, but what the hell.

    First, a few honorable mentions....

    "Go Outside" is probably about the catchiest tune of all time, and the album as a whole lives up to it. A bit on the saccharine side, though. "Most Wanted"

    Zee AviGhostbird
    Tighter than her sophomore attempt, but could do with more of that quirky edge that was so great about her first. "Swell Window"

    Steve EarleI'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive
    It's good, and I like it, but it never REALLY grabbed me. "The Gulf Of Mexico"

    Gregg AllmanLow Country Blues
    Falls off a bit in the last half, but a damn good blues album. Definitely my #11 of the year. "I Can't Be Satisfied"

    Zoe Muth and the Lost High RollersStarlight Hotel
    A bit kitschy, but solid underneath. "Let's Just Be Friends for Tonight"

    SaigonThe Greatest Story Never Told
    Well balanced, if not overly deep. "Too Long"

    tUnE-yArDsw h o k i l l
    Normally not at all a fan of edgy/avant-garde stuff, but I loved this in spite of myself. "Bizness"

    Lykke LiWounded Rhymes
    A lot of fun. A great debut, and another one that really could have made my top 10. "Get Some"

    Every year I miss a few good albums. And every year, it seems that at least one of them would have made my Top 10. Last year I missed . . .

    #1 2010 Omission: Kele GoodwinHymns
    A seductive, beautifully calm album, but one with a lot going on underneath. Goodwin's songs are intricate, woven of iconic—really, mythic—imagery. At the same time, they never seem as fragile as, say, Nick Drake—who has a very similar sound, but not half the depth. I have listened to this album literally hundreds of times over the past year, and I still feel drawn in by it. I can't recommend it highly enough, and I can't wait to hear more from him. [Full review here.]
    By the way, thanks to hengie for turning me on to this one in her Top 10 last year.
    "Snow" "Hymns" "Feathers"

    I don't really consider EPs for the full list, but it seems worth mentioning at least one . . .

    #1 EP: Crooked StillFriends of Fall
    It's not truly an EP, I suppose, with seven songs, but on the other hand it is just 23 minutes. Twenty-three solid minutes, which have me trusting that they haven't lost what they found a year ago on Some Strange Country. Their sound crystallized on that album, more than it had previously, and it retains that strength here. Their technical proficiency is as present as ever, but they also manage to make just beautiful, engaging bluegrass. They really seem to have hit their stride.
    "Morning Bugle" "It'll End Too Soon"

    And finally, on to the list proper. I'm sad to say it, but there is really only one artist here that I wasn't already a fan of from previous work. For an array of reasons, I didn't explore a lot of new music this year. And in the last few months, when I usually push myself to really find some new stuff, I just couldn't find anything that felt like it was worth the effort. So I won't rule out the possibility that it just wasn't a good year for new artists, or for surprisingly good stuff from artists I didn't like before. But more likely, I just wasn't stretching out very far. I'm hoping to do better next year, either way. Still, this is a good list, and these are certainly some fine albums.

    10.Trombone ShortyFor True
    Shorty just keeps doing what he does so well. The musical stew he puts together is as natural as ever, and a lot of fun to get immersed in. I don't mean to say that he's not doing anything new, either, but in a way it seems that that itself is simply a part of what he does. He's tightened up his lyrics/vocals on this one, which I really appreciate, because that's always been a weak spot. Strong, and getting stronger, if this album is any indication.
    "Buckjump" "Unc"

    9.Florence + the MachineCeremonials
    I liked their last album, but there was a layer of complexity to it that always struck me as artificial. This album is a bit more straightforward, and seems more genuine. Honestly, I can see how fans of the previous album might regard this one as too simplistic or something (too accessible, frankly). It does flirt with selling out, I guess, but I doubt they'll ever really cross that line. Here's hoping. The balance on this album is about right.
    "What the Water Gave Me" "Heartlines"

    8.Danger Mouse & Daniele LuppiRome
    With the help of some great work by Norah Jones & Jack White, this composer/producer combo have managed to craft a really wonderful modern-day tribute to the music of so many spaghetti Westerns. It's the kind of project I would normally find uninteresting on many levels, but the artistry here is pretty compelling. They set a real mood from the first few beats, and explore it beautifully for over an hour. If I have any problem with the album, it's probably that it is restricted to that narrow concept—it doesn't break a lot of new ground. Still, it's expertly done, and certainly not difficult to listen to.
    "Black" "Two Against One"

    7.Black Joe Lewis & The HoneybearsScandalous
    I won't be the first or last to say that this album could easily be a lost R&B classic from the '60s. I'm hesitant even to say something like that, though, because it might give the impression that there's something derivative or unoriginal about this music, which there certainly isn't. There's not a false moment on this album, as far as I can tell. It's just sweaty, fun, and desperately good.
    "Livin' In The Jungle" "She's So Scandalous"

    6.Diana JonesHigh Atmosphere
    Jones' songwriting has always been really strong, and for the most part, this album is no exception. Her vocals & musicianship, meanwhile, have never been stronger. There is an anthemic quality to many of these songs, not least the title song itself, and it tends to linger with you long after the last song has faded. [Full review here.]
    "My Love Is Gone" “High Atmosphere”

    5.Vieux Farka TouréThe Secret
    I have to admit, I was a bit concerned when I saw the list of guest artists on this one—which, by the way, includes Derek Trucks, Jon Scofield, and Dave Matthews. Not that the artists themselves were a concern (though Matthews does ruin an otherwise pretty great song), but when an artist like this starts to collaborate with a lot of established American musicians, his work can tend to get diluted in the process. Fortunately, what happens here is very much the opposite. Touré shows plenty of flexibility and competency here, and his music expands quite organically to include these disparate elements. It's his strongest work to date. (And "Gido", by the way, was probably my favorite song of the year.) [Full review here.]
    "Gido" "Wonda Guay"

    4.Gillian WelchThe Harrow & The Harvest
    Welch is really in peak form here—it's hard to see how she gets any better than this. From start to finish, this is a masterful performance—the songs are well written, and beautifully performed. The production is about perfect—textured and engaging. It's her most consistent album, and you can really sink into it. If I have a complaint, it's that the album's boundaries are narrowly drawn. Within them, though, you're in very good hands.
    "Silver Dagger" "Down Along the Dixie Line"

    3.BeirutThe Rip Tide
    After Zach Condon's last couple of releases, I really thought Beirut would just fade from consciousness. I almost didn't bother giving this a listen, and what a mistake that would have been. With one exception (the misguided "Santa Fe"), this album marks a real return to form for Condon. Instrumentally, he's back to the eastern-European instrumentation where he is so comfortable. Musically, though, he's begun to really outgrow any such easily identifiable influences. This is probably his most original album, and it's very strong.
    "Goshen" "Vagabond"

    2.Thao & MirahThao & Mirah
    Even for two such diverse artists, this album is pretty unexpected. Really, it should be considered a trio with the producer, Merrill Garbus (of tUnE-yArDs—see above). And it's a very fruitful collaboration. All three take risks throughout, and it's obvious that they weren't settling for just experimentation. Each idea is cared for, nurtured, fully realized, and virtually every one lands. The sound may be sparse, or it may be flooded with random noises. The song may be intricately composed, or have a thrown-together quality. The performance may be careful, or it may be joyfully spontaneous. But in each instance, it works. [Full review here.]
    "How Dare You" "Hallelujah"

    1.Eilen JewellQueen of the Minor Key
    I fell in love with this album right away, and then I kept waiting for that initial reaction to fade. I'm still waiting. Eilen Jewell is one of the strongest songwriters around, and she & her band give a hell of a performance. This album is a tour de force, exploring the disparate cross-genre territory that can only be called Americana. (You might say the same thing of her entire career, actually.) If there's anything that intimidates Jewell, she has yet to find it—whether on a fast rocker like the title track, a dirge-y torch song such as "Only One", or even a novelty track like "Bang Bang Bang", Jewell and her band simply don't fail.
    "Home To Me" "That's Where I'm Going" "Reckless"


    By the way, if you're interested, I threw together a playlist of all the songs mentioned here. They are in this order, so there are some pretty rough segues, but there it is.
  • Top ten albums of 2010

    5. Jan. 2011, 22:30

    First, a few honorable mentions....

    April Smith and The Great Picture ShowSongs for a Sinking Ship
    Fun, if a bit shallow.

    Carolina Chocolate DropsGenuine Negro Jig
    Title track is one of the year's best.
    "Snowden's Jig (Genuine Negro Jig)"

    Deer TickThe Black Dirt Sessions
    Would love to hear them cover "Please Don't Judas Me".
    "Choir of Angels"

    Eilen JewellButcher Holler
    No one does a better Loretta Lynn cover.
    "A Man I Hardly Know - Feat. Eilen Jewell"

    jjjj n° 3
    They can find their way to a hook, and they know what to do once they've found it.
    "Let Go"

    Good, if a bit distant.

    Mala RodriguezDirty Bailarina
    Intense, well-written hip-hop.
    "En La Linea"

    Mumford & SonsSigh No More
    The fierce younger brother in London's new-folk crowd.
    "Thistle & Weeds"

    Norah Jones...Featuring
    Just simply a good idea.
    "Creepin' In"

    Patty GriffinDowntown Church
    Gospel is a natural fit for her voice & style.
    "Never Grow Old (feat. Buddy Miller)"

    Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah DogsGod Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise
    Not as strong as previous albums, but pretty good throughout.
    "Old Before Your Time"

    Sean HayesRun Wolves Run
    Always one of the more interesting and original singer-songwriters.

    Sharon Jones and the Dap-KingsI Learned the Hard Way
    Rougher than their session work for others, which is perfect for Jones.
    "The Game Gets Old"

    Smoke FairiesGhosts
    Gorgeous, haunting blend of British & American folk styles.
    "Living With Ghosts"

    Trombone ShortyBackatown
    Manages to blend jazz & funk in a very organic way.
    "In the 6th"

    Every year I miss a few good albums. And every year, it seems that at least one of them would have made my Top 10. So I'm going to devote a little space to one, even if it is a year late. This particular album would probably have been my number one of 2009, if only I had heard it in time. Besides which, it was released in late November, so it's practically a 2010 album anyway.

    #1 2009 Omission: MotoponyMotopony
    The first song I heard from this was "Seer", and it hooked me very quickly. By the time the first verse was over, I was downloading the album. Before I had listened to the album one time through, I was recommending it to people. A year later, it hasn't lost its luster. Daniel Blue is clearly a man with vision, and the creativity to back it up. The album is thoroughly unique, but fully realized at the same time—more a statement than an experiment. Can't wait to see where it goes from here.
    "Seer" "God Damn Girl"

    I usually exclude EPs from my list, for several reasons. But in recent years, and especially with the influence of the iTunes store, there have been some pretty significant ones. I'll mention one below in the regular list, but let me just throw a little light on the one that I consider the best of the year, here.

    #1 EP: Diana JonesSparrow
    Diana Jones had one of my favorite albums last year, and I'm eagerly anticipating her next full album in 2011. I don't know the story behind this EP—it's not even mentioned on her own website, and barely rates a description on the sites that are selling it. But if you're at all interested in Americana/roots music, Jones should be at the top of your list of artists to check out. There are few who balance the twin challenges of originality and authenticity so effortlessly. The best Americana songs sound like unearthed gems—not new, but never heard before—and every one of these songs fits that description. It's gorgeous, and only amplifies my excitement for her next full album.
    "Love O Love" "Sparrow"

    And finally, on to the list proper. It was another really great year for music, I have to say. Great new artists, surprisingly good albums from artists I hadn't been impressed with before, and even great returns from artists I did enjoy before. Normally at least one of those groups disappoints, but not this year. But without further ado . . .

    10. The Black KeysBrothers
    The Black Keys seem to have created a whole new area of the blues, just for themselves. You can always spot a Keys tune pretty quickly, but they do manage to keep finding new territory to roam around in. Being only a moderate blues fan, their albums aren't always consistently compelling for me, but most of this one hit the right notes. It does drag a bit in the last third, but it's never less than good. And it's often pretty great.
    "Ten Cent Pistol" "Howlin' for You"

    9. AṣaBeautiful Imperfection
    Asa seems to be catching her stride. Her debut a couple of years ago had one really stunning song, "Fire on the Mountain", but the rest of it was unimpressive. While the new album doesn't have another spectacular song like that, it is more consistently strong overall. She has a good sense of how a song can have a hook without being simplistic or shallow. Like a lot of politically minded artists, her weak spot is lyrics which are often gracelessly blunt. But they are a bit more refined (and thus less distracting) this time around.
    "Bimpe" "Be My Man"

    8. Johnny FlynnBeen Listening
    He is a really remarkable songwriter, weaving together cynicism and cheerfulness as though they were natural complements. This album is certainly darker than his last, and there are a couple of songs in the last third of the album where the bitterness seems to win over. But for the most part it's a really great listen. It's great on the surface, and the lyrics reward a deeper look. Flynn is another member of London's new-folk scene, and his instrumentation is always interesting.
    "Lost And Found" "Barnacled Warship"

    7. Dylan LeBlancPauper's Field
    There are plenty of people these days that sound like Neil Young, and to my ear almost every one of them is an improvement on the original. But just a few of them stand out from the crowd, and newcomer LeBlanc is one. Having listened to this album a few times, I was surprised to then discover his age. There is a depth and texture to this album that isn't often achieved by experienced musicians, much less on a 19-year-old's debut. His crutches are sometimes apparent—a bit too much reliance on the steel guitar, and hewing a little close to his influences (the aforementioned Young, as well as contemporaries like Fleet Foxes and Iron & Wine), etc. But none of these is fault enough to really mar the experience, and I strongly suspect that they'll be less in evidence on future albums.
    "If Time Was For Wasting" "Changing of the Seasons"

    6. Ali Farka Touré & Toumani DiabatéAli & Toumani
    The final collaboration between these two great artists doesn't sound like a coda, or like the rushed four-day recording session it was. It sounds like two musicians at the height of their talents, with an easy ability to blend into each other's work. Touré's blues guitar and Diabaté's kora are gorgeous together, and there is a patience at the heart of this album that is truly rare. The result is a meditative, lilting, celebratory hour of music, the most fitting eulogy imaginable for Touré himself. It's incredible that in this last recording session, practically on his death bed, he was still exploring new musical styles. That the results of that exploration are so fruitful and vivid is incredible on its own.
    "Be Mankan" "Samba Geladio"

    5. The Budos BandThe Budos Band III
    I'm afraid that I don't have much intelligent to say about The Budos Band, or about the Afro-beat genre as a whole. The only criterion I really have for it is that it be compelling, and this album certainly is that. No matter where my mind is when I put the album on, I know that within five minutes I'll be in sync with where the music is going. They show some real progression from earlier releases, espeecially as they wade into darker territory with tracks like "Raja Haje" and "Black Venom". It's a more diverse album overall, but still as tight as Budos II was.
    "Nature's Wrath" "Raja Haje"

    4. Justin Townes EarleHarlem River Blues
    Justin Townes Earle is wearing his influences openly on this one, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I won't be the first person to note the sounds of Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis, etc. on this album. And Earle isn't the first person in recent memory to so openly channel such artists. But where the music of Ryan Adams or Dan Bern sound like homages at best, and rip-offs at worst, Earle's songwriting elevates his music beyond such peers. It's also common for reviewers to note the ironies of singing bona fide country songs about New York subway lines and the Harlem River. Beyond the irony, though, what shows through in those moments is Earle's confidence, his well deserved sense that this music is his. He may sound like Johnny Cash, either purposefully or not, but he's not borrowing from anyone. If the apocryphal Picasso quote about artistry & theft is true, then Earle is a great artist. He has stolen this music, and now he's treating as his own. The genre is all the better for it.
    "Harlem River Blues" "Working for the MTA"

    3. Crooked StillSome Strange Country
    Crooked Still play bluegrass with a vitality that makes it hard to use words like 'old-fashioned', and impossible to use words like 'retro' or 'nostalgic'. The songs on this album are mostly traditional, to be sure, but the arrangements and especially the performances are fresh and innovative. The best part is that the band don't rely on novel instrumentation or genre fusion to achieve this, but rather simply on their own talent. Previous releases have been energetic and compelling, if inconsistent, but this time it all comes together. The band's vision is pure and clear, and the execution impeccable. This album is engaging from start to finish, time after time.
    "Henry Lee" "The Golden Vanity"

    2. The MynabirdsWhat We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood
    The story goes that Laura Burhenn wanted to put together a band with a sound like Neil Young playing Motown. Honestly, that's not a description that would appeal to me very much. On the other hand, The Mynabirds do sound a bit like that, and it's pretty great. The reasons, though, go well beyond the novelty and genre-bending of that concept. What makes this such an incredible album is Burhenn herself. Both her songwriting and her vocal talents are unquestionable. The Mynabirds' music is muscular, beautiful, and deep—all of which characteristics only increase with repeated exposure. This would be an incredibly strong second or third album; the fact that it's a debut gives me reason to hope for the condition of the world.
    "Numbers Don't Lie" "Let the Record Go" "We Made a Mountain"

    1. The Tallest Man on EarthThe Wild Hunt & Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird
    It's not easy for me to put a Swede in the number one spot on my list. I'm not sure if it's ironic or perfectly apt, then, that this is some of the most distinctively, authentically American music I've heard. There's a rawness to Kristian Mattson's performance, and it does a great job of masking the depth and complexity behind every chord, and every word. You can, at some level, just listen: Mattson's guitar and voice break from the speakers with a timeless urgency, and it's not your head that he's calling to. I've listened to this album many, many times; I can sing along with every line, but I couldn't tell you what the words are actually saying. Not because the lyrics are cryptic or inscrutable, but because the meaning really isn't the point. The point is immersion, and The Wild Hunt is a wonderfully rich setting for it. Simplicity and directness lead directly to (and sometimes overlap) elaborate, delicate structures, all with an organic quality that makes it seem impossibly easy.
    I'm also throwing in his recent EP, Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird, partly because it's also really good, and partly because one particular song, "The Dreamer", represents a departure from TMoE's characteristic stripped-down sound. It reminds me of a similar departure on Iron & Wine's Woman King EP, which was a portent of the sound to come. Let me just say that if the same is true of this song, I can't wait. Either way though, really, I can't wait.
    "Burden of Tomorrow" "The Drying of the Lawns" "Troubles Will Be Gone" "The Dreamer"
  • Top 10 albums (and a few honorable mentions) from 2009

    15. Feb. 2010, 22:55

    Took even longer this year to put together the list than I did last year. Oh well. I’m not even going to bother apologizing. It was a really good year for music, but that only makes these lists more difficult. Anyway, here we go.

    1.The xxxx
    This one surprised me. I almost didn’t even give it a listen, because I had the feeling it would be some too much electronics & experimentation, and not enough music. Obviously, I’m glad I kissed that frog. It’s been one album this year that I could put on pretty much any time, and feel a little better while I was listening to it. It’s just good to listen to. I have almost every song ranked 3 or 4 stars, and the album as a whole is solid. If you haven’t listened to it yet, do so soon.
    "VCR", "Shelter", "Stars"

    2. Zee AviZee Avi
    Another one that I can listen to pretty much any time. Quite a bit different music, obviously, but solidly good throughout. The songs are deceptively simple, and maybe even more deceptively upbeat. She may be singing about opiate addiction, gang violence, and existential crises, but she does it in a way that you can’t help tapping your foot and snapping your fingers with the beat. Love this album, and I really hope she can maintain this balance as her career develops.
    "Poppy", "Darling", "Bitter Heart"

    3. Allen ToussaintThe Bright Mississippi
    The top two were debut albums; this one is anything but. Allen Toussaint has been releasing albums for fifty years. So why am I just discovering him now? I don’t know, but I’m glad I did. Hope to devote some more time to a lot more of his stuff in the near future.
    "St. James Infirmary", "Bright Mississippi" (and not just because it’s a wonderful Thelonious Monk cover)

    4. Diana JonesBetter Times Will Come
    I decided that my lesson from 2008 was: If the only thing bothering you is the singing, get over it and keep listening. Had it not been for that, I wouldn’t have given Diana Jones enough of a chance. I’m still not wild about her singing style (it’s very, very throaty). But she’s a wonderful songwriter, and plays some gorgeous music. Every time I listen to this album, I like it more.
    "Cracked and Broken", "Henry Russell's Last Words"

    5. Neko CaseMiddle Cyclone
    The order of the entries on this entire list is pretty much up for grabs; I like this album almost as much as I do XX.But it’s probably fitting that this one is right smack in the middle. I’m such a longtime fan of hers that I’m bound to enjoy any album she releases. This one does stand out as one of her best, but I have a hard time telling where it really belongs against albums from other artists. So here it sits.
    "Magpie to the Morning", "Polar Nettles"

    6. Dan AuerbachKeep It Hid
    I’m an on-again/off-again fan of The Black Keys, but this album sounds to me like some of their best stuff. Thoughtful and rough and catchy and urgent.Solid.
    "Mean Monsoon", "Whispered Words"

    7. The Low AnthemOh My God, Charlie Darwin
    This one starts with one of the few five-star songs of the year, and for almost the entire year it was my absolute favorite song. If you haven’t heard “Charlie Darwin” yet, then turn off the lights, take a deep breath, and give it a listen. It’s really pretty stunning. Much of the rest of the album lives up to it, but there are a few rough spots in the middle that kept it out of my top five. But man, I can’t wait to see where they go from here. Would be nice if they would alternate album releases with Fleet Foxes, every other year.
    "Charlie Darwin", "Cage The Songbird"

    8. Mos DefThe Ecstatic
    One of the other five-star songs of the year, and my current favorite: “Quiet Dog Bite Hard”. Day-umn. I was liking this album before that one, and I loved it thereafter. Nice to finally have a hip-hop album in my actual top ten, also. I always seem to have one in my honorable mentions, but this one is just a really, really solid album. Funky, and intelligent, and strong.
    "Quiet Dog (Bite Hard)", "Priority"

    9. Speck MountainSome Sweet Relief
    Honestly, this is one of my favorite albums to actually put on and listen to. The only reason it’s not higher on the list is that it is pretty monotonous. I don’t mind much, but I recognize the fault. Still, if you ever loved Mazzy Starr, you have to give this a listen. It just fills the room with a kind of beautiful, transcendental melancholy.
    "Angela", "Backsliding"

    10. Richard HawleyTruelove’s Gutter
    I’ve been really enjoying his previous few albums, but they are kind of inconsistent. There are a couple of songs on each that really just fall flat.With this one, finally, he’s kept it strong all the way through. Hawley also lives deep down in the forlorn areas of the human psyche, but he has a much different formula for expressing it. His sorrow is warm and welcoming, the kind of place you’d enjoy spending a weekend. Why, I don’t know. But trust me, it is.
    "Remorse Code", "Open Up Your Door"

    And a few honorable mentions....

    Anya MarinaSlow & Steady Seduction: Phase II
    Pleasant, poppy and fun, most of the time, without being in any way mindless. "All the Same to Me"

    The Avett BrothersI and Love and You
    I’ve not been wild about them before, but this album is pretty darn good.Reminds me quite a bit of Counting Crows, in a good way. "It Goes On And On"

    Booker T.Potato Hole
    Yes, that Booker T. There’s some damn good stuff on this album. And if it’s not consistently great, at least it’s damn fun to listen to. I’m guessing next summer I’ll appreciate it even more."Get Behind The Mule"

    Brother AliThe Truth is Here
    Just because Mos Def made the actual list, that doesn’t mean I can’t have another hip-hop album in the also-rans, right? Brother Ali is one of my favorites, over and over. "Baby Don't Go"

    Franz FerdinandTonight / Blood
    The album itself is pretty good, and the remixes are some of the best I’ve heard. "Backwards On My Face"

    IllinoisThe Adventures of Kid Catastrophe
    Wish he would have cut about a half-dozen tracks from this disk. 2/3 of it is pretty damn fun. "Hang On"

    M. WardHold Time
    OK, he’ll never have another Transfiguration of Vincent. I get it. He’s also never going to have a bad album, so that’s all right. "One Hundred Million Years"

    Passion PitManners
    Not sure why this didn’t make the top ten, actually. It was another surprise,and a damn fine album throughout. "The Reeling"

    Rodrigo y Gabriela11:11
    It’s good, but in the end I can just only listen to so much of it. "Master Maqui"


    As I said, it was a great year. I was once again disappointed with a few albums that I had high expectations for (Thao, Noah and the Whale, Vieux Farka Toure, Regina Spektor). But even those were really pretty good albums, and as a whole I couldn’t believe how much good stuff came out in2009. Hope 2010 is somewhere close to as good.
  • Top 10 albums (and a few runners-up) from 2008

    26. Jan. 2009, 20:21

    OK, I really wanted to get this done a couple of weeks earlier, but last year I just missed an album that would have been at or near the top of my list. So for the last few weeks I've been poring over a lot of 2008 stuff that I hadn't gotten around to yet. I've still missed a lot of stuff, undoubtedly. But I've discovered or rediscovered some stuff that will now show up on the list, and that otherwise I might never have given enough time to. So, here we go.

    1. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down—We Brave Bee Stings And All
    The only 2008 album on which I've given every song at least three stars. Oddly, I haven't given any of them five. Still, I have to put it at the top for being so consistently good. Plus, hey, this is the one that you won't see showing up on many other lists. Got to give it some love.
    "Bag of Hammers", "Swimming Pools", "Yes, So On And So On"

    2. Noah and the WhalePeaceful, The World Lays Me Down
    This one reminds me quite a bit of Bishop Allen & The Broken String—it doesn't seem to matter what they're singing about, it's just fun to listen to. Also like that album, this is one I almost missed. I only gave it a second listen in preparation for this list, and then I found I kept returning to it.
    "5 Years Time", "Shape of My Heart"

    3. Bon IverFor Emma, Forever Ago
    I'm not the first person to say it, but this album was a surprise. I can't remember where I first heard about it, but I do remember that when I first played it I thought, "Man, I'll never listen to this again. Even as I kept returning to it, it felt like scratching an itch or something. I had heard it a dozen times before I realized that I really, really liked it. The lesson for me this year is that if I only dislike an album because of the singing, I should give it a few more listens. All three of these top three albums initially turned me off for that reason, and I soon found myself loving them all.
    "Flume", "For Emma"

    4. Ray LaMontagneGossip In The Grain
    Honestly, I had gotten a bit sick of Ray LaMontagne. I loved his first two albums, listened to them a bit too much, and then just quit him cold. I almost didn't give this album a listen, but I'm so glad I did. "You Are the Best Thing" is one of his classics, and one of the best songs of the year. I can listen to it any time, no matter my mood, and it makes me smile. The whole album reminds me why I liked him so much in the first place.
    "You Are the Best Thing", "I Still Care for You"

    5. The Wood BrothersLoaded
    I suspect this one will continue to creep higher & higher as time goes on. I like The Wood Brothers a lot, and was really looking forward to this album. At first I was slightly disappointed, but with every listen it gets better and better.
    "Postcards From Hell", "Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor"

    6. Fleet FoxesFleet Foxes
    This one has on it one of the most beautiful songs of all time. "White Winter Hymnal" is the kind of song for which music was originally invented. If the rest of the songs all sucked, that one would pull the album's weight alone. Fortunately, they don't. There are a couple of other real stars on the album, and it's solid throughout.
    "White Winter Hymnal", "Ragged Wood"

    7. Johnny FlynnA Larum
    Here I thought I was completely over the "guy with a guitar" music. Not so much, apparently. This is yet one more that initially turned me off, for whatever reason. But I gave it another listen for this list, and found myself really liking it.
    "Sally", "Shore To Shore"

    8. SantogoldSantogold
    This one should probably be higher up on my list, honestly. For a while there, I was listening to it quite a bit. M.I.A. she's not, but when I can get that comparison out of my head I find that I really like her music.
    "Lights Out", "I'm a Lady"

    9. Natalia ClavierNectar
    South-American trip-hop. Not exactly my primary genre. But man, I can't put this one away. Very, very listenable, and an impressive debut. I hope to hear more from her.
    "El Arbol", "Tiempo"

    10. Isobel Campbell & Mark LaneganSunday At Devil Dirt
    If I'd had more time with this one, it would either have moved nearer the top of my list, or dropped off completely. We'll see how it holds up, I guess.
    "The Raven"

    And a few honorable mentions....

    Ana LaanChocolate and Roses
    Lovely when it's lovely. Not when it's not. "Kling Klang, Klockan Slar"

    AtmosphereWhen Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold
    Seems like every year, I find one rap album I like. This was it for 2008. "Painting"

    BeckModern Guilt
    Not as good as his previous one, I didn't think. But I know I'm in the minority with that opinion. "Youthless"

    Cat PowerJukebox
    I'm never gonna be a big fan of hers, no matter how I try. But I liked this album quite a bit. "Aretha, Sing One for Me"

    Martina Topley-BirdThe Blue God
    I really like her, but this album just isn't consistent enough. Parts of it are really, really good. But parts are just meh. "Carnies"

    The SubmarinesHoneysuckle Weeks
    Another fun album. And I just realized last night that it's (apparently) named after an actress I really like. Not sure what's up with that. "You Me And The Bourgeoisie"

    All in all, it was a disappointing year for albums I had been really anticipating (The Weepies, Kings of Leon, My Morning Jacket, The Black Keys, Jem, Gnarls Barkley, Juana Molina), and as always there were a lot of overrated albums (Ratatat, She & Him, MGMT). But I was surprised by quite a few new artists, and a few who were just new to me. Not as good a year as the previous, though, when all is said and done.