Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"It's about vampires, ostensibly, you know. But underneath, it's actually about the reunification of Germany..."

Top 25 Albums of 2008

<note: playlist coming soon>

Keeping with my vendetta against the ultra-pretentious Pitchfork (admittedly, about 85% of this is me resenting having to look up words in a music review)--no doubt begging the question: why not just stop reading it? Shut up, that's why...--I'm going to run some of the more egregious Pitchfork reviews in '08 alongside my own picks. Enjoy (or, as it were, don't enjoy)!

25. Viva La Vida | Coldplay: The best song on the album ("Life in Technicolor") isn't even a song so much as an interstitial, bound to be used as a musical cue for European sporting events for the next 30 years. Make no mistake, I don't hate this album by any means, it's just, I dunno...

There's this excellent exchange in "The Two Bartlets" between President Bartlet and Toby Ziegler that goes like this (h/t to "West Wing Transcripts," an invaluable resource):
BARTLET: What do you think?
TOBY: I was a telemarketer for about a week. I can't remember what we were selling, but you worked off a script. 'Hi. Good evening. My name is...' And 'Toby Ziegler' was okay for New York, but once I got into the other time zones, I needed a name. I wasn't gonna bother anybody.
BARTLET: Toby, if you have something to say, please say it.
TOBY: Ritchie's good for all time zones.
BARTLET: My family signed the Declaration of Independence. You think I've got an ethnicity problem?
TOBY: Well, the line isn't between light skin and dark skin.
TOBY: It's between educated and masculine... or eastern academic elite and plain-spoken.
BARTLET: It's always been like that.
TOBY: Yeah, but a funny thing happened when the White House got demystified. The impression was left that anybody could do it.
BARTLET: You're not telling me anything I don't know.
TOBY: It's one thing that Ritchie came out for the Pennsylvania Referendum today, but the manner in which he articulated it. His presence, the clear sign he wasn't personally engaged with the facts.
BARTLET: Toby...
TOBY: His staff was cringing, I promise you, and we let it go.
BARTLET: It wasn't the moment to go.
TOBY: You were asked the question.
BARTLET: [pause] Do you have anything else?
TOBY: [sighs] Sir, I don't think I need to tell you that the level of respect with which the staff speaks of you doesn't change, depending on whether or not you're in the room.
TOBY: Well, there's always been a concern...about the two Bartlets. [beat] The absent-minded professor with the 'Aw, Dad' sense of humor. Disarming and unthreatening. Good for all time zones. And the Nobel Laureate. Still searching for salvation. Lonely, frustrated. Lethal.
And, to me, that pretty much sums up Coldplay at this stage. They're good in all time zones, but totally toothless. And there isn't a thing about that that doesn't make me sad.

24. Walk it Off | Tapes n' Tapes:
PITCHFORK SCORE: 5.9: By nearly all accounts, though, this album could be much worse. Many of the band's best features remain intact, especially their total lack of pretentiousness and austerity. You won't find any symphony-backed lumps of schmaltz or ill-advised stabs at dire social issues, and hey, they even named a very serviceable track here "The Dirty Dirty". However, Walk It Off attempts The Loon's indie patchwork using fewer and larger pieces, causing less-than-stellar ideas and riffs to suddenly become load-bearing pillars for painfully linear three-minute pop songs. As opposed to their ramshackle debut, TnT don't unknowingly stumble upon infectious choruses or head-turning transitions anymore, they contort flimsy songs to contain those elements.
Comment: well, fuck you very much, Pitchfork. I like this album.

True, it's no Loon (which is an absolute gem), but it might be the catchiest album of the year released by someone not named Kanye West. Of particular note is "Hang Them All."

23. Dear, Science | TV on the Radio: like Rob, I'm not ready to anoint this as the second coming of The White Album, but I do think this is a pretty solid outing for TV on the Radio (though, at the risk of sounding too much like my dad, I do find that some of these tracks are just too noisy--melody, please!)

22. Santogold | Santogold: Carrie turned me on to this album, and it's very, very good. Next to "Sex on Fire" and "Electric Feel," "L.E.S. Artistes" might be my favorite track of '08.

21. Vivian Girls | Vivian Girls: I must admit, I'm remiss to include a ten-track album that is twenty-two minutes long (seriously), but damned if they don't remind me of a younger version of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs...and not for the superficial reason that both are girl groups...and are from Brooklyn...ok, fine, it's partly that. Also: + 1,000 cool points for the band name.

20. Third | Portishead: I'll admit that I've never really "gotten" Portishead, but I did enjoy this album, particularly, "Machine Gun" (track #8) which, deliberately or unintentionally (I'm guessing the former) channels Vangelis's work on the Blade Runner soundtrack. Very cool.

19. Forth | The Verve: question: does this album really hold together beyond the awesome "Love is Noise" (track #2)? Answer: Insofar as I had to re-listen to this album to determine precisely what tracks 3 through 10 sounded, not really. The risk of this album being confused with, say, Urban Hymns (or even A Northern Soul) is pretty damn remote, but, hey, it's not a bad disc, and I'm awarding them points for re-uniting at all, which is something that seemed impossible as recently as four years ago.

18. Narrow Stairs | Death Cab for Cutie:
PITCHFORK SCORE: 6.0: On Narrow Stairs, Death Cab move from the undergraduate longing of their earlier work and the looming mortality of Plans to a more generalized existential angst. But they're most successful when they don't switch up their style to match; the sound of settling, as Transatlanticism maintained, is a peppy "ba ba," not the krautrock pulse of this album's synth-touched remainder metaphor, "Long Division". Elsewhere, the tabla on "Pity and Fear" sounds out of place, not far-out; as Indian-instrumented songs about an apparent adulterous one-night stand go, this one's no "Norwegian Wood".
Comment: I literally don't understand what they're trying to say here (other than that DCFC isn't as good as the Beatles). Have they changed too much? Too little? Too obviously? Were they wrong to change at all? This isn't supposed to be a riddle, people!

Of course, that same review features PF at its very best:
Speaking of singles, Narrow Stairs' first is the eight-and-a-half minute "I Will Possess Your Heart", a decision that's likely to be more successful as brand repositioning than it is as rock music. Death Cab get uncompromising-artist points for the four-minute intro that builds up with vamping bass, sprinkles of keyboard, and atmospheric guitar, but it's hardly essential to the standard-length pop song that follows, about how a well-intentioned man can turn into a de facto creepy stalker. "You gotta spend some time, love," Gibbard sings, as if by explanation for the song's length.
Yes! Anyway, I don't have much to add, except to say that this is a good (not great) addition to the DCFC canon. If they could somehow manage to make their next album sound exactly like Plans, it'd be greatly appreciated on this end.

17. Live at Massey Hall | Matthew Good: a nice return to form for Matt Good, this two-disc set (which also includes some cool acoustic stuff near the end) allows me to officially discount 2007's Hospital Music as an unfortunate misfire (and not a sign that he's on his way down, down, down). Looking forward to 2009's Vancouver.

16. The Slip | Nine Inch Nails: still haven't had a chance to unpack this like I should, but what I've heard, I like considerably. (And that's the best you're going to get from me on this album--sorry.)

15. Parc Avenue | Plants and Animals: a very interesting album, in that it starts out as a Frames album (as noted by Carrie) and then veers off into some sort of free-flowing jazz odyssey near the end.

808s and Heartbreak | Kanye West:
it's perhaps fitting that the first Kanye album that I can legitimately say I like (as opposed to all the other times, when it was purely to boost my street cred) is the first one to get mixed reviews. I'm ok with that. I really am.

13. Cardinology | Ryan Adams and the Cardinals: I'm pleased to report that this album is more in line with Easy Tiger and Cold Roses (aka good albums) and not 29 and Jacksonville City Nights (ehm...bad). He's never going to be a chart-topper, but every album (even his lousy ones) is good for at least two beautifully written songs. Here, it starts very strong, with the first four tracks-- "Born Into the Light," "Go Easy," "Fix It," and "Magick"--providing as good a run as he's put together in five or six years, peters out for a bit, then builds back up to a strong finish ("Like Yesterday" followed by "Stop," a very solid closing track).

12. In Ghost Colours | Cut Copy: now, it's pretty rare for an electropop/dance-punk outfit to release an album that's strong from start to finish (usually there's a track or two that is almost unlistenable). For a long time, I thought the only exception was LCD Soundsystem (who, much to my dismay, didn't release an album in '08), but now I think I'll have to add Melbourne's Cut Copy to list, as each of the fifteen tracks here are almost perfectly crafted. Even if this sound isn't really your thing, I think you should check them out.

11. Saturdays=Youth | M83: a gorgeous record from a group that wasn't even on my radar until they released a cover of Bloc Party's "Pioneers" back in 2005. I bet you thought we didn't even need a Tangerine Dream for the 21st century. Well, I'm pleased to report that we do...and they're kind of awesome.

10. Intimacy | Bloc Party: Interestingly, as recently as four months ago, this was in danger of becoming the first Bloc Party album that I not only wasn't wild about but actually actively hated (to the point where I openly groaned when they busted out two new tracks at V-Fest), but I turned a corner in November. Do I wish Intimacy sounded more like Silent Alarm? Oh, absolutely...but I'm beginning to appreciate their foray into dance-punk. Which isn't, of course, to say that I'm altogether thrilled with this record (I think that "Mercury" is an especially poor--and, ultimately, completely empty--first single.) But Intimacy's saving grace is that for every forgettable or misguided track there's one that knocks you flat on your ass. (in this case: "Signs," which is dazzling).

You didn't ask, but, yes, I am somewhat concerned that my favorite band is, with each subsequent album, straying further and further away from the material that made me fall in love with them (given that their three albums have gone #1, #4, and now #10 on my year end lists, I do feel a bit like Murray defending the Crazy Dogggz in the season two premiere: "they're making hit after hit! "Doggy Bounce"...#1 "Doggy Dance"...#5, "In The Pound"...#37. It's not going to stop. It's never going to stop! They're a hit making machine!!"), but as long as they provide me with a couple of "Signs" moments, they'll remain in my good books.

9. Chinese Democracy | Guns N' Roses: my thoughts on the album can be found here (scroll down to Misha's 2008 entry). I'll admit, I wasn't bowled over initially--as near as I can recall, it went something like this:
Listen #1: didn't register.
Listen #2: hated it.

**This was followed by a 45 minute conversation with Misha (during which I spoke for approximately seventeen seconds) wherein he described the album in minute detail and explained how it was unequivocally amazing.**

Listen #3: hated it.
Listen #4: starting to come around.

**This was followed by me attempting to sing "Shackler's Revenge" for the first time in Rock Band 2.**

Listen #5: really digging it.
...and so forth. I'm probably on listen #15 now and, while it's not exactly "The Waste Land" set to music (note to readers: this sentence only makes sense if you realize that I really, really like T.S. Eliot), it's pretty flippin' good.

8. Oracular Spectacular | MGMT: great record, horrible title (as opposed to Coldplay's latest, which, you know...). For whatever reason, despite listening to this album at least once a week between its release in January and September, I ignored it for the better part of three months as the year wound down, and then, when I came back to it, it wasn't nearly as good as I remembered. This happens once a year (last year it was Modest Mouse's We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank and, three years ago, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's self-titled album) and, despite my best efforts, isn't really explainable. Ah, well. Here, the problem seems to be that the non-showcase songs (basically, anything other than "Time to Pretend," "Kids," and--my personal pick for song of the year--"Electric Feel") are considerably weaker than I previously thought. No matter, as there's nothing here that's skippable, I'm slotting it at #8 (and if that seems to be setting the best album of the year standard a little low, so be it...).

Dead Calm Horizon | Ketch Harbour Wolves:
shout out to Rob for introducing me to these guys. Fabulous album, which I'd knock for being tantalizingly short (seven tracks) were it not made available for free on their website.

6. Flight of the Conchords | Flight of the Conchords:
PITCHFORK SCORE: 7.2: But the concept gets muddled, especially on their first full-length studio record. Where do they draw the lines between the real-life band, the band we see struggling on the show, and the band that the struggling band wishes it could be? They bill themselves as New Zealand's fourth-best novelty act-- so should we laugh at the songs, or with them? And their love of AM radio love songs shines true-- they thank Barry White in the album liner notes, probably not ironically-- but are we supposed to congratulate them for trying to do the same thing?
Comment: this doesn't strike me as an even remotely valid criticism. You find the dissonance between unsuccessful fictional Jemaine and Bret and successful real Jemaine and Bret confusing? Really?? Allow me to clarify: it's a fucking TV show!!

This almost shouldn't be here, since it's as least as much of a comedy album as it is a proper album, meaning that it doesn't exactly lend itself to multiple listens (and is next to useless as musical accompaniment to reading, not because it's not great--it is--but because you spend the whole time listening (and laughing along with) the lyrics). But even if I treat it like a real album, there's a lot to love here: "The Most Beautiful Girl (in the Room)" (responsible for one of the five best moments at our wedding), "Foux Du Fafa," "Robots," "Business Time," "Inner City Pressure," "Hip-Hopopotamus vs. The Rhymenoceros," "Bowie" (which, I must admit, despite it's popularity, I'm fairly lukewarm towards), and "Think About It" (which contains my favorite FotC lyric...which doesn't translate all that well in print so click's the part about the sneakers, particularly Jemaine's brilliant aside). As an added bonus, if you get the album through iTunes, they throw in "Brett You Got it Goin' On" (my personal favorite). Goddamn...that's great stuff. (Yes, I just cued it up.)

5. Feed the Animals | Girl Talk: apparently, GT has been around forever (by which, of course, I mean: since 2002), but I only stumbled across him late in '08 (and only then because he was featured on NPR's All Songs Considered). At the risk of the being hyperbolic, if you can't groove to this disc (even a little) than you have no soul.

Stay Positive | The Hold Steady:
if I were being shitty, I could probably fault this disc for being a bit too similar to (the superior) Boys and Girls in America, but, no, that's crap. This may put me in the minority, but I'd rather a band release multiple quality albums (I said quality albums, Brandon Flowers) in a similar vein than attempt to re-invent themselves every time out. Agreed, they haven't exactly re-invented the wheel here, but I don't care. My God, are they ever good storytellers.

3. Fleet Foxes | Fleet Foxes:
when I'm feeling uncharitable, I'm inclined to think that this is, secretly, an only ok album wrapped around a drop-dead gorgeous track ("White Winter Hymnal"), but every time I think that, I cue up the disc and find something else to admire (Meadowlark, Blue Ridge Mountains, even the-pretty-damn-weird Red Squirrel).

2. For Emma, Forever Ago | Bon Iver:
the CD I can't seem to stop listening to. As Rob deftly noted: how shitty does it feel to be Iver's ex-girlfriend (for argument's sake, let's call her Emma) right now? Not only does he use your break-up as fodder for a gorgeous collection of songs (which, I think it's safe to say, would make any number of women weak at the knees), but this same collection of songs (again: largely about you) has vaulted him onto countless top ten lists, made him at least moderately wealthy, and turned him into an indie darling. Ouch.

1. Only by the Night | Kings of Leon: not at all surprising, is my guess, since this was my pick for the Best Album of 2008 in our twenty-seven four part series on the best albums of our lives (2004-2008 entry found here). I'll close with an excerpt from what I'm fairly certain is the worst Pitchfork review of this (or any other) year:
#1 PITCHFORK SCORE: 3.8: After years spent building a career on the enduringly romanticized Stillwater archetype, Kings of Leon have laterally shifted from one easily understood linear narrative (festival band) to another (arena rock band). Dropping the transparently hayseed act, the band could have turned an artistic corner; yet the first single from Only By the Night is called "Sex on Fire", so if there was any debate about whether Kings of Leon are in on their own joke, I think it can be put to rest. If we're misreading them, we're missing out on one corker of a comedy album based on an "SNL"-level premise: What if Bono got lost in the Blue Ridge Mountains and was replaced by a local yokel? (Suggested band name: Y'All2.)
Comment: wait...what? That's so stupid.

I won't lie, their hate for this album (3.8!) is baffling, so I'm not even going to try to parse the statement. Look, do you like things that are awesome? Yes? OK...then you'll enjoy this album.


Sandy said...

"... not 29 and Jacksonville City Nights (ehm...bad)." You're kidding, right? If not, you must be deaf.

Sean said...

I can agree with most of your selections here, although I find myself in stronger agreement with your hostility towards Pitchfork. Pitchfork commonly reviews albums on the simple notion that if more than five people are familiar with the band, then their latest album probably sucks. They revel in the marginalia of the music industry and, as such, they are always dangerously orbiting a vacuous mass of irrelevance and obscurity...

The R.O.B. said...

I gotta say, I think its almost to the point where the amorphous Pitchfork - whoever he/she is - revels in the fact that they can make or break the careers of different bands.

That aside, a great list - but I'm not sure I can get behind this Kings of Leon pick at number one....

looking forward to the mixtape...