BAEBLE'S BEST ALBUMS OF '08
MONDAY, DECEMBER 22, 2008
So here we are, our toes dangling ever so carefully over the cusp of a brand new year. Here at Baeble, everyone's more than ready to take the big, dramatic plunge into '09. Already, artists like Andrew Bird, Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Neko Case, and Wilco (to name a few) are dangling curious recorded carrots in front of us. And there of course will always be the scores of artists we've yet to hear from who stop us in our tracks with all-impressive debuts. But before all that, we'd like to give thanks to the artists and albums that helped make '08 the exceptional year in music it was. After all, it is the ever-exciting list making season, is it not? All over the web, the healthy annual chatter of the year's crowning achievements is buzzing about...you didn't think we'd just sit on the sidelines, did you?
#25 deerhunter microcastle
Yes, like Sonic Youth, Deerhunter leans hard on mellow dramatic guitar drones and obscure rock minimalism. Tracks like "Little Kids" and "Green Jacket" are wispy numbers; the kind of ambience that allows the listener to float aimlessly around the sonic ether...with nice effects. But Deerhunter prove they're at their best on Microcastle when they sprinkle their obsession with noise into a more straight and narrow approach. Opener "Agoraphobia" is a crystal clear pop bop; a coherent piece of rock that has the band sounding oh so ripe. As is "Never Stops". Don't worry...The slightly insecure lyrics are still here ("I had dreams that frightened me awake/I happened to escape/But my escape would never come") to take solace in (if you're into that kind of thing). But Deerhunter confidently hit their stride on tracks like these, culminating in the supreme blend of riff and structure that is "Nothing Ever Happened".
#24 - m83 - saturdays=youth
With M83's Anthony Gonzalez at the ripe old age of 26, one might expect to hear Days of The New mixed with some Toadies and Spacehog (I know, I"m scaring you with the 90s references), but instead Gonzalez focuses on what a Saturday soundtrack would be for kids coming of age in the 1980's. New wave sounds and synths galore dominate Saturdays=Youth (along with ambient pop and shoegaze aesthetics) naturally. Gonzalez along with producers Ken Thomas (of Sugarcubes, Cocteau Twins fame) and Ewan Pearson (who produced work from The Rapture and Ladytron) pace the album in line with the trajectory of life as a teenager from start to finish.
#23 - department of eagles - in ear park
Produced and engineered by Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor, with Grizzly Bear's Chris Bear also providing the bulk of percussion, the album's a near carbon copy to DoE's sonic cousins...in both personnel, and musical palette. Like Grizzly Bear, there are hints of mystery twirling about the record's inquisitive song craft. Tracks like the acid washed pop pulse of "No One Does It Like You" and the slightly wicked show tunery of "Teenager" pack unique, ornamental keepsakes for listeners to hang on to. "Phantom Others", though certainly sounding a bit lethargic, unfolds at the kind of patient pace that will reward multiple listens with its' pivoting pieces of intimate guitar work and phantom vocal choruses. And the title to "Classical Records" provides what is probably the best indication of this covey's main source of influence.
#22 - black mountain - in the future
Black Mountain's sophomore effort, In the Future (Jagjaguwar), might feel a bit like rooting hand and heart for the wicked ways of the bad guy. In this, the band's bi-polar prophecy, five prog stroking Canucks rub unhinged surges of sprawling riff rock up next to minimal bouts of apocalyptic country folk. But a closer look into this epic ode to dark arts, dark deeds, and very dark times indeed, reveals a band not so enamored with shedding blood themselves, but stoically snuffing out those who desire to do so. Root away.
#21 - the black keys - attack and release
Akron OH's shaggy, retro blues duo The Black Keys never knew they were prepping their next album when they first set out to record it. All guitarist/singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney assumed was that they had been tapped by producer Danger Mouse to participate in a quick collaboration with Ike Turner. But Turner's passing last December obviously derailed the project, leaving band and producer alike a bevy of unused material to work with. Thus the foundations for the Keys' fifth and most dare deviling album to date were laid.
#20 - little joy - little joy
When bands break-up, sometimes everyone wins. Take the disappearing act post-9/11 rock revivalists The Strokes performed after their '06 album First Impressions of Earth failed to deliver the goods. As it turns out, the album would be the public's last impression of these stylish young trailblazers. And while the band's early '00 efforts were, in retrospect, kind of monumental for the genre they helped recover, The Strokes' undoing was a-ok. Not only was First Impressions, how do I put this, really bad, but the solo recordings guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. released in the band's wake helped to keep the band's original sonic aura aglow. And while Hammond's had the market for post-Stroke relevance cornered up to this point (that Converse commercial Julian participated in does not count), drummer Fabrizio Moretti recently threw his hat in the ring. And wouldn't you know it? His effervescently titled new trio Little Joy might have just upped the ante.
#19 - love is all - a hundred things keep me up at night
No, that's not Dick Dale sliding down the guitar neck on "New Beginnings"...though that doesn't mean the opening track of Love is All's excellent new disc A Hundred Things Keep Me Up At Night (What's Your Rupture?) doesn't set a totally tubular kind of tone from the get go. Devoted fans and newcomers alike: prepare yourselves for giddy gobs of party starting pop from listen one. Electric tempos, gigantic breakdowns, spazzed out saxophone lines, "ba ba ba's" galore, and Josephine Olausson's faintly accented vocal yelps all help to minister the group's second recorded outing a genuine success.
#18 - pattern is movement - all together
Rolling a rather robust "wow" factor up within the confines of its' ten crafty tunes, All Together brings with it a much needed sense of mystery, originality, and art; something the current crop of two man bands generally tend to avoid in favor of rocking the hell out. Cabaret cuts of violin, punch drunk clumps of busted piano, spooked out vocals that glide their way to unexpected places, chop shop rhythms that somehow keep the engine running; Pattern is Movement should be in over their heads. But theirs' is a sure handed, Herculean effort. File All Together next to equally inquisitive releases from Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear.
#17 - i'm from barcelona - who killed harry houdini?
If there was an award for the 2nd catchiest song titled "Paper Planes" released within the last year, it'd hands down go to this group. I'm From Barcelona are a 29+ member band (!) counter intuitively hailing from Jnkping, Sweden. Led by songwriter Emanuel Lundgren, the bands' latest offering Who Killed Harry Houdini? (Mute) is a goldmine of indie pop paradigms - vibrant instrumentation underneath intelligent, poppy verses interspersing grandiosely memorable choruses. With the manpower of a small nation, I'm From Barcelona are able to cover miles and miles of terrain across the musical spectrum with astonishing charisma and dexterity. In that regard Who Killed Harry Houdini? is the bands' own rewrite of the indie pop guidebook - only this time, its contributions are written with 29 different shades of glitter pen.
#16 - dodos - visiter
Lickity split guitar work, fractured sticks exploding across the drum rims, beefy, multi-tom percussive rhythms, and tenor-tinged vocals cycling melody after memorable melody: the parts and parcels at work throughout Visiter are enough to cloak the Dodo's in their own unique ilk. On "Joe's Waltz", Long's rusty, acoustic twang twists and tangles with Kroeber's primitive pounce on a handful of bottom dwelling drums. The result is a rich, hypnotic sort of swing...one further aided by wet vocal layering and warm bits of swirling tremolo. It all adds up to an opiate feel and unexpected depth...though that's quickly laid to rest by a foot stomping, triplet induced tussle that shakes this waltz into an inebriated hootenanny of sorts.
#15 - ra ra riot - the rhumb line
When Ra Ra Riot lost their original drummer, 23 year old John Pike, to an accidental drowning back in June of '07, somehow, the band picked up the emotional pieces and mustered enough strength to forge ahead. Not too long after the accident, the band was back on the road, following their spunky, collegiate brand of indie pop wherever it could take them...so quickly in fact, one might forgive anyone who presumed Pike's passing hadn't quite sunk in. But on their brilliantly crafted debut disc The Rhumb Line, any doubts concerning how these co-eds coped with such an ultimate loss, are quickly invalidated. Pike's death must have ripped them apart, making The Rhumb Line (Barsuk) a very touching tribute to a legacy snuffed painfully too short.
#14 - port obrien - All We Could Do Was Sing
No one should be surprised to discover that at the core of this band is a man named Van Pierszalowski, who every summer, works on his fathers commercial salmon fishing boat on Kodiak Island in Alaska (dubbed The Shawnee). And a woman, named Cambria Goodwin, who used to live in the coastal town she shares her name with. These things are ingrained, even screaming, at the heart of this record. Without them, it wouldn't make any sense. One sound clip depicts two people discussing trying to "get out" and "beat the weather" that will eventually fall on them. The alternative? "Stay and suffer." Certainly this is the dichotomy at the heart of the record.
#13 - these united states - a picture of the three of us...
With a love for line and lyric few contemporaries can match (Andrew Bird and Dan Bejar being the only two who currently come to mind), Jesse Elliot builds behemoth strings of verse that plume off in a variety of different directions. Like encyclopedic DNA, A Picture of the Three of Us finds its' genetic make up in themes of love, hope, and rebellion. Of course reaching the heart of such stories takes a commitment on the listener's part. Elliott has put too much time, too much thought, too many syllables, too much rhythm, and far too much creativity into these songs for their subjects and themes to immediately nail the listener straight across the kisser. Instead, songs like "First Site" - with its' playful, almost mischievous keyboard line kicked about like a crumpled dollar bill on a crowded sidewalk - unfold languidly. Singing "With her mouth making movements to introduce thoughts/I sat deafened by trust on the sofa across/Quietly calculating the logistics of lust - of when unspoken things could happen then between us", Elliott rewards those of focus with loads of magic and mystic to crack.
#12 - blitzen trapper - furr
Blitzen Trapper are good. Real good. As indicated by the acclaim garnered to their 2007 breakout, Wild Mountain Nation, this Portland based sextet can hang in there with the best of 'em. Their newest offering on the Sub Pop label, Furr, twangs, bangs, stomps, and coos with an Americana ferocity that's both country revivalist and, surprisingly enough, refreshingly sincere.
Singer, songwriter, and perennial front man Eric Earley sings with a disproportionate country croon and earnestness that can go from 60's Dylan to The Eels in less than one track. Overlapping a pounding, whiskey soaked piano, Blitzen Trapper crank out soulful tunes about God, nights out on the town, love, death, and rattlesnakes.
#11 - the hold steady - stay positive
Craig Finn, after the whole Lifter-Puller thing didn't work out, went on along with Galen Polivka (the bassist) to form a little band called the Hold Steady, which went from small time Twin-City based band to being Blender group of the year in 2006, and gracing the cover of the Village Voice, the first rock band to do so in fifteen years. But enough history, because even though this record is steeped in nostalgic classic rock layers, it's new and its branded with everything I love about the Hold Steady. It's not easy being accused of being "the best bar band in America." And yet, in the indeterminable mix of young, smart-alec kids with computers and beat doctors, isn't it nice to hear an organ pop out in a song about Texas and Memphis, with lines reminiscient of great American rock icons? At worst, this album is the soundtrack to your cross-country roadtrip, at best? An instant throwback forward-thinking classic.
#10 - shearwater - rook
Shearwater has been described many ways, including "haunting, eerie" and "almost impossibly majestic and beautiful" (thanks, NPR). "Rook," the title track, hits a really strong note for the beginning of the album, with a thumping bass pedal and a great guitar intro. We want to describe it as triumphant melancholy, but it might be easier to just listen to it. The trumpet during the bridge makes the texture of the song vaguely Beirut, but more grounded by the piano we heard in the beginning. The following tracks go up and down like a roller coaster (but a sad one) that layers and delayers with harmonies, xylophones, and all kinds of other things. The result is a great combination of depth and grandeur, a kind of waking dream.
#9 - lykke li - youth novels
Texturally, it's not singer/songwriter, it's minimalist sing-along melancholy. Mentor/producer Bjorn Yttling (of Peter and John fame) provides a framework of pop/soul aesthetic while allowing Li the freedom to do absolutely nothing texturally. The result is like a deconstructed bowl of cereal... you get the milk, the crunch, the sugary sweetness, all one at a time. For some, it is awkward or misappropriated. For the more progressive songster, it's exciting and fresh in its backwards approach and lack of layers.
#8 - dizzee rascal - maths + english
The whole record is ear candy, with crisp rhymes and flow that are as, if not more addictive as any of the chart topping singles out there. In a world of cheap rap, dime-a-dozen rhymers, and stale beats, this is a solid hour of delicious audio.
#7 - the airborne toxic affair - the airborne toxic affair
Any album based on the pretense of a shitty two years warrants the question: if Mikel Jollet was really possessed to write this out of the sheer agony of his life, scrapping his novel and instead writing an album, can he do it again? What we have here is an instant classic, a gem of a collection of American electric guitar pop, with Jollet's baritone destined to join the ranks of The Hold Steady and The National, bar-band iconic status and all. This is the new nationalism of American music, something we can be proud of and call our own style and flavor. Bruce Springsteen-esque epic tunes, except with more substance, more heart, less jaded by success or fortunes or being from New Jersey.
#6 - kanye west - 808s and heartbreak
Much has been made of rapper turned singer Kanye crooning his way through 808s with autotune, but that doesn't really matter. Gone are the sped-up, Curtis Mayfield soul samples and extravagant Daft Punk remixes, and in their place is the robotic minimalism of a Roland-808 drum machine. Gone are the bravado, gusto, and humor that have helped make Kanye the Kanye we've come to know (and maybe love). In their place is a stripped down, shell of a man wading through the deepest darkest depths of human emotion.
#5 - fleet foxes - ragged wood
Are Fleet Foxes hippies? By no means (although their looks could have fooled us). The emphasis on four part harmonies and simple melodies is an attempt to get back to the days of bands like Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and The Zombies. The result is an album full of lyrics about friends, family, and nature. Not to mention songs that sound like two songs in one, or long four part rounds. "White Winter Hymnal" sounds like, well, a hymnal. Then there are tracks like "Your Protector" which start with some really simple woodwinds in the beginning and build to a rousing crescendo of layers and harmony.
#4 - anna ternheim - halfway to fivepoints
Anna Ternheim's American debut Halfway to Fivepoints offers a listening experience plump full of just the right amount of mystery and wonder; and not because Ternheim's somewhat of a newcomer to American audiences. No, she's a skilled practitioner, embedding just enough subtle, temperamental moods in her songs to leave listeners slightly on edge. Opener "Girl Laying Down", for example, rides a familiar, cascading piano line throughout the chorus. But where the moment might recall the same piano line that infects Coldplay's "Clocks", the buildup during the verse is surely more theatric than anything Chris Martin has ever pulled off.
#3 - vampire weekend - vampire weekend
Given the group's Ivy League pedigree, one might expect long-winded dissertations concerning who knows what, exactly, out of Vampire Weekend. Instead, the band's debut full length plays like precious post card pop; one side beaming in picture perfect musical snap shots of Cape Cod, Khyber Pass, New York City, Old San Juan, and South Africa; the other sketched in Ezra Koenig's semi-legible, lyrical scribbles. High society escapades, beach house grope and grabs, carefree campus time, and pointless punctuation ("Who gives a fuck about an oxford comma?"); Sifting through such collegiate concerns might draw a few sourpuss sighs and "oh to be young" eye rolls from a slightly older crowd. But everyone deserves their youth...especially when it sounds this good.
#2 - the gaslight anthem - the '59 sound
Aching like the perfect blend of punk's boisterous, youth-gone-wild ways and the wild-eyed spirit of the Boss, the Gaslight Anthem's second full-length release strikes an oh so American kind of chord over the course of its' twelve, raging tracks. Steady, chugging versus, sing along choruses, massive break downs: Songs like "The Patient Ferris Wheel" and "High Lonesome" hit their stride with an effective, tried and true formula that's just too good to be ignored. For his part, vocalist Brian Fallon digs deep into his gut for this beefy batch of songs. Gnawing his way through underdog tales of blood thirsty women ("Great Expectations"), automobile pileups ("The '59 Sound"), and blue collar upbringings ("Meet Me By the River's Edge"), Fallon pens poetic lyrics that fix their gaze on topics of love and loss in the heartland...err, Jersey anyway.
#1 - bon iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
Few back stories in recent memory live as much within the art they eventually created than those circumstances that lead Justin Vernon to his father's hunting cabin in Northern Wisconsin. A dissolved love affair, a broken band, various life changes hell bent on destroying their target...Vernon never meant to record a master stroke when he retreated to a winter of solitude in the North Woods. Rather, his was a quest for a bit of personal peace...one that, true to the unexpected ways in which journeys of the heart tend to manifest themselves, yielded his stunning new album, For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar).
Aptly titling the project Bon Iver - the French word for "good winter" (spelled incorrectly on purpose) - For Emma is initially startling...be prepared to freeze up in snow covered tracks the moment the first muted strokes of "Flume" press up against the ears. Singing "I am my mother's only one/It's enough", Vernon cuts straight to the sheer delicacy of his existence. He belongs to someone. It may not be a relationship of the intimate variety, but that simple fact will do. And so begins Vernon's very public healing process. On the soulful acoustic swinger "Skinny Love", Vernon yelps "I told you to be patient/I told you to be fine/I told you to be balanced/I told you be kind" - lines that sound as if they are intended for someone else, but may actually be demands of a more personal nature. On "The Wolves (Act I and II)", Vernon slays listeners with the song's very first line ("Someday my pain will mark you"), all while simple sullen strokes of the guitar somehow evoke the tender ghost of Nick Drake. Then there is the album's title track, "For Emma" - a conversation (though you wouldn't know it without the lyric sheet's helpful "him:" and "her:") that offers up this piece of advice: "For every life/Forgo the parable/Seek the light". It's simple, but speaks to (what I imagine were) Vernon's intentions for heading into the wild. Forget the mystery and metaphors of life. Get on with it, and make of it what you will.
In the end, For Emma, Forever Ago might seem an act of self-therapy. Perhaps that is all Vernon ever intended the recording process to be. But listening on the other end, the album packs a potent push on the heart. Whether it's the striking layered vocals, exaggerated to surreal, apparitional heights, the holy solitude of the guitar, or lifelorn melodies that rend and restore all at once...the songs that live here press the ticker into the deepest caverns of the chest. To that, add strands of hair that stand on end and a sea of tectonic goose bumps driven to new heights, and Vernon demands rather startling physical reactions out of his listeners. Could this have been achieved had the record been recorded in New York or Chicago? Perhaps. But the frost and the fire; the snow and the ice; time and place undoubtedly live on in For Emma, Forever Ago. In doing so, Bon Iver has blessed us all with a "good winter" of our very own. - David Pitz