The best albums of 2008 so far
Photo from Josh Nunn
Most years, it's somewhat of a struggle to compose a halfway-there albums list. There are always the far-and-away favorites, but rounding out the total with a worthy ten takes some extra work. Not this year. In fact, the greater challenge was culling the list to just an extended fifteen. And unlike the songs and singles bests-of, this one proved to be more well-rounded and multivariate. Dance and hip-hop works do make a deep dent, but there are also strong showings for folk, rock, soul, pop, and all the bastard hybrids contained therein. There are albums on major labels, indie labels, micro-labels, and even one that's self-released. And the list is almost evenly split between Americans and Europeans. As the music scene continues to splinter and proliferate, it'll be harder than ever to keep track of all of its developments. But if it keeps hitting such varied highs, I'm more than willing to make that effort.
15) Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust - Sigur Ros
In time, I think Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust will be seen as Sigur Ros's transition album. The one where they cautiously starting loosening their structure and inviting more pop sounds in. Even though traces of the ambient Ágætis Byrjun era linger throughout, many of the songs have become noticeably shorter and lighter. It's an tantalizing turn, especially since my favorite tracks here like "Goobledigook" and the incredible "Inní mér syngur vitleysingur" follow the newer model. It really makes me want to hear their full-length take on joyous Icelandic pop, but for now, this album only foretells possible futures.
* MP3: "Goobledigook" - Sigur Ros from Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust [Buy it]
14) Lavalogy - Hot Lava
Some people take antidepressants; I take daily doses of Hot Lava. It's that joyous and that joy-inducing, a bolt of sunshine straight to the cranium. The band's melodies are big and lustrous, with choruses that practically implore you to sing along. The lyrics are silly and surreal, often conflating love, technology and monsters with a toddler's whimsy. And the music shimmies and boogies with tireless joie de vivre like a sock-hop on coke. After a few spins of Lavalogy, it's pretty hard not to feel cheered up, let alone to resist dancing at your desk.
* MP3: "Apple Option Fire" - Hot Lava from Lavalogy [Buy it]
* Previously: You might as well be off to dreamland
13) Santogold - Santogold
* MP3: "Creator" - Santogold from Santogold [Buy it]
12) Jim - Jamie Lidell
Oh, if only Jamie Lidell were a heroin addict with a beehive and a propensity to punching fans. Then maybe he'd be getting the plaudits for giving blue-eyed soul its modern sheen. But even if his mug isn't plastered across checkout tabloids, Lidell's expanding a reliably solid genre to whole new audiences. He melds an old-school devotion with new-school arrangements, backing his croon with refreshingly funky accompaniments. But even as his music bops and bounces in the present, his voice is a ticket back to the heyday of classic soul records.
11) II Trill - Bun B
Fact is, I have trouble putting rap albums on lists like these. My favorite albums are those you can digest from start to finish, without ever once seeking out the skip button. Rap albums, on the other hand, usually operate in direct opposition to that aesthetic. They're overloaded with a mix that ranges from the incredible to the pleasant to the passable to the downright intolerable. (Paging Dr. Carter...) Bun B's II Trill is a pretty classic example of this rule, though his hit-to-miss ratio is impressively high. Knockouts like "Swang on 'Em," "Underground Thang" and the wrenching "If I Die II Night" more than make up for clunkers like "Good II You" and "If It Was Up II Me," totaling an effort that's impossible to skip by.
* MP3: "Swang on 'Em" - Bun B ft. Lupe Fiasco from II Trill [Buy it]
10) Chuckmore: The Mix II - Chuck Dollarsign
Is this even an album? An EP? A single song? At thirty-two minutes and change, it's a little of each, but whatever categorization you pick, it's singularly awesome. Even among Chuck Dollarsign's distinguished back catalog, this recent mix represents a new peak. For its entire run, Chuckmore: The Mix II bangs out straight heat like a New York summer. Seamlessly fusing his electronic, hip-hop, and pop affections, Dollarsign is making dance mixes for now--pluralistic, schizophrenic, and breathlessly ecstatic. Get on this.
* MP3: Chuckmore: The Mix II - Chuck Dollarsign [Visit him]
* Previously: Blood rain
* Previously: Chuckmore
9) The Midnight Organ Fight - Frightened Rabbit
Credit Frightened Rabbit for coining the least sexy euphemism for sex to date and then naming their album after it. Scott Hutchinson has even more cold showers in store when he declares, "You must be a masochist to love a modern leper on his last leg" and "[You] won't find love in a hole,/ It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm." Fortunately, his crippling loss of self-esteem is our gain, with songcraft that's both potent and virile. With every song, your urge to raise a pint and shake your fist will grow, as Hutchinson's voice soars and every other part of him shrinks.
* MP3: "Old Old Fashioned" - Frightened Rabbit from The Midnight Organ Fight [Buy it]
8) Rising Down - The Roots
* Previously: I I I can't help it
7) Heretic Pride - The Mountain Goats
After the disappointingly limp Get Lonely, John Darnielle charges back with a full-throated return to The Sunset Tree template. It's a further evolution of his latter-day sound, swapping out the lo-fi sound for increasingly pretty orchestrations. Not unlike The Midnight Organ Fight, these are songs that creep up on you and slowly bloom into outsider anthems. The details are rich and crisp, telling stories of fringe characters and sensitive souls freighted with feeling. It's also subtly political, capturing a troubling time and place through the lens of the troubled.
* MP3: "Sax Rohmer #1" - The Mountain Goats from Heretic Pride [Buy it]
6) Third - Portishead
Just think how much has occurred in the last eleven years. Hell, think how much has gone down in only five. That much time out of the musical slipstream usually means you've run out of ideas; a long-delayed comeback usually means your moment has passed by. If acts are lucky, they've waited long enough for the culture to cycle back to nostalgia. But Portishead wasn't content to cannibalize their old sound or go on tired reunion tours. They've not only stepped forward boldly; they've moved well past their peers. Even as Third represents a potent sound of now, it also feels so beautifully timeless.
* Previously: For I am guilty for the voice that I obey
5) Saturdays = Youth - M83
* MP3: "Graveyard Girl" - M83 from Saturdays = Youth [Buy it]
* Previously: We are right to fall
4) Pop-Up - Yelle
It's a happy confluence this album would come out as I was learning French. Even to the uninitiated, the exuberance and joy that Yelle puts into her work can't be missed. And the buoyant dance tunes and Yelle's pop persona are alone worth the listen. But paying attention to the words adds a whole other layer of charm, as Yelle brings as much manic energy to her lyrics. They also suggest a deep debt and reverence to American pop, though with Pop-Up, Yelle is leaping and bounding above her stateside contemporaries.
* MP3: "Amour du Sol" - Yelle from Pop-Up [Buy it]
* Previously: Frappe tes mains, bouge ton corps
3) Lie Down in the Light - Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Contentment should be boring. No one wants to hear how happy or comfortable others are for forty-five minutes, and the idea of framing an album around peaceful feelings sounds pretty excruciating. But Bonnie "Prince" Billy not only masterfully pulls off the positivity, he delivers one of his career bests in doing so. (The other, I'd argue, is Palace Music's Viva Last Blues.) Even as he radiates gladness, he sounds captivating. He dispenses little flecks of wisdom like a rocking-chair deacon. The spare instrumentation echoes him like a congregation. And when he sings, "Every time I look around, I am the king of infinite space," nothing has ever seemed so alluring.
* MP3: "Easy Does It" - Bonnie "Prince" Billy from Lie Down in the Light [Buy it]
* Previously: Good, earthly music singing into my head
2) Made in the Dark - Hot Chip
* MP3: "We're Looking For A Lot of Love" - Hot Chip from Made in the Dark [Buy it]
* Previously: Review #7: Made in the Dark by Hot Chip
1) Rook - Shearwater
Hymns for epic heroes, requiems for civilizations. Now that the stakes are woefully higher, Shearwater's songs have grown even more delicately rendered. The stories Rook tells, via Jonathan Meiburg's lush vocals, are richer sketches of a vicious world. The music has become even more enchanting and special, evoking arias and orchestras almost as much as indie-rock theatrics. This has yielded an album that can't be heard passingly or casually--it requires your rapt attention, and it rewards every moment of investment threefold.
* MP3: "Rooks" - Shearwater from Rook [Buy it]
* Previously: Desert shores and the forest green and a limitless life