The Best (or Worst?) Albums of 2008
1. Portishead - Third
+ Generally speaking, it’s hard for artists that are at the head of a certain musical movement or subgenre to escape it. For all the benefits of being a figurehead, those same bands watch their careers disappear when said subgenre (you name it -- Big Beat, Ska Revival v5.0, and in this case, Trip Hop) falls out of favor. Reinvent yourself or die along with the scene. Portishead beat the game, however, by disappearing all on their own in 1998 after the release of their better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be live album. Far from the dated embarrassment it might have been in lesser hands, then, Third was a wall-to-wall triumph, proving that the real cream of any particular crop should (and will) rise to the top. Full to the brim with dramatic sounds, alternately chilling and totally heartfelt emotional swordplay, cinematic soundtrack wizardry, and of course Beth Gibbons’ singular vocal stylings, Third proved to be the most improbable--and successful--of all comebacks. I don’t mind waiting another decade for the follow-up if it's going to be this good.
- I was happy for Portishead to remain an artifact of the ’90s, represented by an exceedingly respectable and satisfyingly concise catalogue of two albums and a top notch live disc, but Beth Gibbons and cohort couldn’t stick to the script. And disappointingly, when the band reemerged this year, they left their rhythmic prowess and spy-movie intrigue behind them. On their first two discs, Portishead bolted melancholic torch songs to hip-hop rhythms so seamlessly that the pairing seemed organic. In a decade rife with instances of cross-cultural pastiche, Portishead so effectively absorbed hip-hop into their sound that more than one rap producer returned the favor, pilfering their catalogue for samples. I had hoped they might have retained their interest in hip-hop, and incorporated some of the substantial creative leaps the genre has made since the mid ’90s into their new sound, but the 2008 version of Portishead has apparently excised that portion of their history entirely. That’s disappointing, but it would not matter if they had found something interesting to replace it. Instead, when Third jettisoned the deep throb underpinning the group’s material to date, it substituted murk. The rhythms plod, and Gibbons, who once entranced with her hermetic misery, now sounds merely glum. I like the clattering beat opening “Machine Gun,” but for the most part, this is dull, dull stuff. You can’t nod your head to it, you can’t weep along; you can’t even marvel at its trickery. What use is it?
2. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
+ In this space, I've said some harsh things about this band, who still appear directionless as ever. But as their songcraft has tightened, their losing the map has grown charming. And while even supporters have mocked it as too garden-variety, too "easy," Dear Science took this hater one listen to enjoy and few others to hum. There's something to be said for "garden-variety" and "something for everyone," not because there's something for everyone but because there's few for no one. "Red Dress" and "Dancing Choose" would probably annoy more people if TVOTR wasn't Important enough for the discerning annoyed to spend the extra effort to lighten up. The Pitchfork effect has its uses.
- No one here is denying the electric drama employed by TV on the Radio. It's just that Dear Science is not the best record of the year, and yet it seems that it's been handed that distinction almost by default. True, Dear Science's art rock may most easily enable sonic parsing of any record in their collection, and it also doesn't compromise the gotcha! production of previous records. On the contrary, fizz pours out of the stereo like someone shook up a can of soda and jammed it in there. But there's a distinct sense of uneasiness. On "Golden Age," vocalist Tunde Adebimpe tarries a little too long in the verses, eventually resorting to percussive freestyle to get in another couple bars before bringing in the big hook. The record's aggressive stabs of horns, strings, organ swells and guitars seem thrown in arbitrarily in places whereas on previous releases simple swaths of fuzz bowled listener over. These guys obviously know how to write smart pop songs, but while Dear Science appears to assert the band's strengths as art-rock phenomena, it only reaffirms their tenuous and (perhaps purposefully) insecure grip on their own message.
3. Lil' Wayne - Tha Carter III
+ Maybe it's not really a rap record. There's no care to it, no - I was going to say no pride in workmanship, but then it's nothing but pride, a sprawling litany of Ways Weezy Wins pushed through obsessive, repetitive rhymes. Few of these songs have private subjects - "Mrs. Officer" does, and "Dr. Carter" has a plot, which is misdirection, but really they're different arenas for Wayne to show off the same moves, the order and approach changing the way you'll use Mario's wall jump a lot in this level and not so much in that one. Weezy's Biggie/Pac complex; Weezy's vague desire to be Michael Jackson; Weezy's touching conviction that poop is always funny; that time Weezy got shot (so now he's got cred and don't say he doesn't) - fixations reshuffled and redealt in shifty, savage, rambling language that makes a hundred different circles around the same points. All of which would be infuriatingly dull (no small trick) if (A) Dwayne Carter's linguistic facility - textured, precise, surprising - lacked the depth to be The Whole Point and (B) the beats, from "A Milli"'s bloody-minded prank to "Got Money"'s T-Pain exhibit to "La La"'s deranged childishness, weren't as willing as their rider to chase down obsessions until they can't run anymore. To say nothing of "Lollipop", which isn't about sex or dancing but about how far to the right you can turn the AutoTune knob before the universe disintegrates. Thus it's not really a rap record. Dwayne wants it to be a pop record but it's not that either. It's more of a record record, the most mazelike, rewarding meta of the year.
- Why is Tha Carter III overrated? Because “3Peat” is a lesser version of “I’m Me.” Because “A Milli,” overreaches and becomes dull after minute three. Because “Got Money” sounds like it was created in a test tube and under the influence of too much cocaine (not the good Berlin kind). Because “Dr. Carter,” is a great song but we act like no one ever heard Dr. Octagon. Because “Lollipop” is about as erotic as a prostate exam. Because “La La’s” beat sounds like it was made by a eight month-old whose vocabulary consists of the titular phrase.” Because “Miss Officer” is the least realistic romantic tryst since “Billie Jean,” and is about 1/00th the song. Because “Misunderstood,” features a seven minute coda that can only be considered deep if you previously thought Wayne had the brains of a katydid. Because if you have it in your Top 10, odds are you’ve listened to 10 rap albums this year. Or less. Yes, this is probably better than 75 percent of the major label albums released in the last 12 months.
4. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
+ What people tended to miss in the online furore (and counter-furore) over these guys was that, via Rostam Batmanglij's synths, strings and synth-strings many of these songs are just as much chamber pop as they are whatever African songform they're accused of ripping off today. And not only does Ezra Koenig write a hell of a melody, his lyrics wind up being surprisingly opaque and interesting, even moving, for songs basically about the privileged young. I'm still not sure the likes of "Campus" work unless you are or fondly remember being on an actual campus, but the result for those who buy it is one of 2008's most joyous records.
- I'm not getting all the hate on Vampire Weekend this year, but mainly because I'm not getting all the love either. I spun the record a few times, and everything after the first listen was simply to figure out why people were obsessed with writing about it. It's a pretty nothing album: not especially creative, nuanced, exciting, challenging, charming, or anything else. I don't necessarily dislike guys in preppy sweaters, so I can't really get worked up about anything that also isn't tedious, poorly executed, badly produced, etc. The only good thing here is that the band fittingly went with "Oxford" over "serial" in the great comma debate, but when a band's choice of grammar terminology marks their highwater of interesting (and there's no schoolboy charm to make it engaging), it's just not worth talking about past a second adjective.
5. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
+ A glance at this record's cover hints at its dramatic change of pace: an aggressive punch at exploitation from an R&B oracle who once spoke hip-hop fortunes in tongues. Erykah snaps out of her trance and communicates with sharply pointed words, but as the cover illustration reveals, she has obsessed over images, with a tuning fork, an ankh, musical notes in chains, musical notes in DNA chains, religion, protest, and violence all coming right up out of her hair. Fittingly, New Amerykah is just lopsided, with Alvin and the Chipmunks vocal tricks on "Amerykahn Promise" butting up against "The Healer's" Afro-Druidic chant, and "The Cell" banging a hardcore riff right after the somber tributes in "Solidier." The big single "Honey" doesn't even appear until the end of the record after the seven and a half minute ?uestlove co-production "Telephone" winds down. Her choice typifies the power of the New Amerykah: sheer balls and a worldly tenacity coming out of a performer who once seemed lost within her own ethereality.
- At first I too thought I loved New Amerykah. It felt important sociopolitically and sounded deep; after the blaxploitation-funk sendup intro, there's no surface, just mysterious splashes of color and meaning to decipher from listens and listens preferably under the influence. This was anticipatory praise. Those colors and meaning never appeared and the resulting wash of psychedelic trip-hop - indeed one of the richer gauze blankets to receive universal acclaim in this century - topped out for me in the bottom reaches of my A-list, as impertinent, pretty sonics. After Obama won, Dear Science deepened by comparison as a big, warm, technology-brushed-but-not-drowned group hug. I've yet to reach the bottom of D'Angelo's famously smoky Voodoo. But Erykah's grooves are prepared loops bent on hypnotica, and krautrock isn't half her originality or metier. Her political philosophy is as vague as Nas' but takes far fewer risks; the latter's better record was much criticized for putting tried-and-true Neil Young opaqueness on the line. At best, this record is simple, effectively making me long to hear the mantra of just four words, "hold on/ my people," breathily intoned for days and days. At worst, it's a mesa of pleasantries decorated with Here and Now neon signs to exploit the times and inflate its self-importance.
6. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours
+ From the moment the car noises and synthesized Doppler shift conjured images of fading tail lights whizzing by Cut Copy's debut Bright Like Neon Love, opener "Time Stands Still" following in hot pursuit, you had to think that Cut Copy understood something we didn't. Sure enough, their little bit of introspection calls out the subtext of ethereality in electro-pop revival. This was only made clear on In Ghost Colours, when they re-wrote the actual text.
While Neon Love constructs a bleary-eyed collage of the evening's wonders (were they too inexperienced? too insecure? too inebriated?), In Ghost Colours crystallizes the shadowy pursuits of rock stars, keyboards and dance floors. Some credit goes to DFA producer Tim Goldsworthy, who coaxed out a fearless performance out of these airy Australians. But most of the praise goes to Cut Copy, whose elusive live shows spark elation in even notoriously stoic indie rock fans and whose giddily constructed dance/pop sensations ("Hearts on Fire," "Lights and Music," "Out There On The Ice," "So Haunted," etc.) constantly whizz by. You won't hear any Doppler effect here: once In Ghost Colours enters your consciousness, it tends to stay put.
- If anyone needed more convincing that 2008 really was a great year for music even if rap and actual pop hits were, heaven forbid, lacking for a smatter of months, its most overrated record is pretty good. Everyone decided biting New Order with no new angles, barely an update (a guitar here, a 2.0 tech sprig there) and not a lyric (Alfred Soto tricking me into hearing "get so horny I'm misunderstood tonight" in the one great song only proves his own cleverness) was okay, fine. But it would be polite of them to notify VHS or Beta.
7. Hot Chip - Made in the Dark
+ I don't know, I may be in the minority here, but I loved The Warning not just for the dance beats but also the combination of that and Hot Chip's sweetly melancholic take on joy – it was the most emotional affecting electronic record I'd heard in years, and it resonated. So imagine my surprise when the follow-up not only followed up on their live prowess but also upped the emotional stakes. Not many bands can switch as fluidly as the Chip does between kinetic bangers and doe-eyed ballads – hell, most bands aren't this good at either one of those.
On the surface, it would seem that Hot Chip were still on an upward trajectory when they released Made in the Dark; touring and writing relentlessly, with critical cache to spare and an adoring public that ate up their suddenly prolific output. But outside of the confines of the live set, where they were held up by the familiar and tested tunes around them, the songs of Made in the Dark were dramatically unmemorable. Sure, they still have their quirked-out production, mixing skills, and rock-dance chops in place, but without melodies to hang them on, it’s all just wank, isn’t it? A spin through The Warning left you with more earworms than you knew what to do with, leaping for the replay button; Made in the Dark left you wondering what you missed, leaping for the replay button. I can’t give up on Hot Chip -- they’re too damn talented, and there are still a few choice nuggets here and there on the album (the title track, for instance, and maybe “Wrestlers”) -- but they need to step up their game again, just as they did in-between their lackluster debut and The Warning.
8. No Age - Nouns
+ “Punk-Pop” is such a misnomer, because punk is pop. It always has been. The ethos of getting back to basics and creating something that’s fun to listen to and fun to play is at the heart of all pop music, and punk, from the thirteen year old jamming Simple Plan in her bedroom to the intense looking kids at East Coast hardcore shows with Xs scrawled on their hands, is pop music. Scrape away the sunburnt Los Angeles gunk caked over No Age’s Nouns and you find a punk record, which is to say that you find a pop record. If you don’t believe me, I forgive you; I too was once convinced this bullshit was nothing but noise interspersed with trilling feedback ambience. Then, from out of that haze emerged “Things I Did When I Was Dead,” an actually beautiful piece of work built on gentle piano chords and hangover vocals. Call it the album’s ballad. Add to that a couple of rousing small-scale shout-alongs in “Teen Creeps” and “Ripped Knees,” plus more than a little bit of blacktop-burning guitar squall, and you’ve got a damn fine half hour of punk-pop. Now I wanna sniff some glue.
- I know I kept this around and listened to it at least seven or eight times before I deleted it, but for the life of me I can't remember what it sounds like. Poring over YouTube now, I get fragmented tracks (not necessarily songs per se) of hashed and reheated indie leftovers – the sloppiness of Pavement, the atonal opacity of My Bloody Valentine, the purposeful avoidance of meaning found in dozens of acts. Honestly, that description could have described something bracing, weird and necessary, but in No Age's execution it plays more like wallpaper music for people who listen to Wolf Eyes and Guided by Voices, the real indie rock equivalent of Feist. Mildly pleasant, but utterly inessential.
9. The Kills - Midnight Boom
+ All good art is rooted in conflict. So are all good duos. Bogart and Bacall. Calvin and Hobbes. Siegfried & Roy. VV and Hotel embody this. Who cares about will they or won’t they, did they or don’t they. What the fuck do you think this is, Moonlighting? The only tension that matters is in the serrated guitars and anxious drum machines. The snarling agro-punk with Nina Simone swagger, Allison Mosshart vs. the laconic thin-lipped Englishman Jamie Hince. When they clash, it’s nothing short of War of the Roses music. Which explains why I once saw Danny DeVito catching their set at Coachella. No tiger necessary.
- It's not that artily empty garage-rock with a hot chick on mouth sounds is necessarily shallow, or stupid, or bad. It's that the Kills seem more a fragile projection of a particular fleeting fashion than a band. A friend who adores them claims they're the band for the girls he sees in Brooklyn cafes having pre-shoot coffees with American Apparel photographers - the band, in other words, of our generation, but then from my Portland apartment the Decemberists look like the band of our generation and I'm pretty sure that's not true either. (Meanwhile the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whatever generation they're the band of, start with all the same pilfered touchstones, soundtrack the same porn-aspiring photoshoots, and find the real voodoo heartbeats in city sin.) All this is only sociology, of course, but I'd have found something else to talk about if could remember any of the songs.
10. Wale - The Mixtape About Nothing
+ The gimmick was cute at first. Up-and-coming D.C. rapper centers his mixtape around Seinfeld. Great, now a rap album that'll make my Dad intentionally laugh. Well, after the novelty of hearing Julia Louis-Dreyfuss say "motherfucka" wore off, what we're left with is a really good rap album. Amidst a soundtrack of sharp East Coast hip-hop and savvy lyricism, Wale achieves the remarkable by utilizing the mundane. Wale forges a bridge between the bourgeois concept of "nothing" and the experience of real life in the District. It's not so much about taking what's considered "white" and applying it to what's "black," rather, it reflects the hidden pathos of modern life that get lost in the context of endless rerunning. "Men as pathetic", "a vacation from us", asserting your artistic credibility when you're neither artistic nor have credibility. "Nothing" just got a lot more substantive.
- As I hinted above, hip-hop heads really gasp for oxygen to fill quotas, and 2008 is one of the saddest times for that caucus ever. The Anti-Weezy contingent (big even before he was) chose from other superstars (T.I., who's back, and Ludacris, who ain't) and some half-excitable newbs (The Knux and Wale) to laud. Me, I preferred the newbs, but as is wont in the reviewing game, found both a mite overrated. The Knux had it all together sonically, but little to say. And Wale, billed as the likeable Lupe, is the inverse. The Seinfeld mixtape was indeed brimming with unpretentious thought, fresh concepts and a healthy sense of the meta. But the serviceable go-go sound is merely a promising, song-shaped sinkhole. Right, this is a mixtape, what am I asking. But blame yourselves for thrusting him into the critical eye too soon. Lord knows "The Kramer" won't be his "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance." But if he really is a pro in potentia, we can keep the drool in the pan and wait for the output.
11. M83 - Saturdays=Youth
12. David Byrne/Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
13. Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair
14. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
15. Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs
16. Los Campesinos! - Hold on Now, Youngster...
17. Kanye West - 808s and Heartbreak
18. Why? - Alopecia
19. Deerhunter - Microcastle
20. Girl Talk - Feed the Animals
21. The Knux - Remind Me in 3 Days...
22. The Magnetic Fields - Distortion
23. Be Your Own Pet - Get Awkward
24. The-Dream - Love/Hate
25. The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride
26. Gang Gang Dance - Saint Dymphna
27. Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life
28. Santogold vs. Diplo - Top Ranking
29. Taylor Swift - Fearless
30. Steinski - What Does It All Mean? 1983-2006 Retrospective
31. Drive-By Truckers - Brighter than Creation's Dark
32. Okkervil River - The Stand-Ins
33. Ne-Yo - Year of the Gentleman
34. Martha Wainwright - I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too
35. Sam Amidon - All is Well
36. dj/Rupture - Uproot
37. Lindstrøm - Where You Go I Go Too
38. The Roots - Rising Down
39. Ashlee Simpson - Bittersweet World
40. Flight of the Conchords - Flight of the Conchords
Labels: WWIA Staff