The Top 50 Albums of 2008

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The Top 50 Albums of 2008

Every year it seems our ‘best of’ lists get even better. It seems impossible, but our humble staff of writers manages to put together lists that seem more balanced, more interesting and just plain more with each passing year. In selecting the best albums of 2008, we find that this year is no exception.

I have scarcely seen such a disparate, yet strong set of albums on one list in my life. Yes, it’s that good. Not only did every writer’s list display each person’s individual tastes, with no two lists even remotely resembling each other, but there were only three albums that were duplicated as number one choices. In other words, we had eleven different albums voted as the best of the year. Now, that’s diversity. 

And, in this time of supposed holiday cheer, minus of course the worries of a depressed economy and job slashing, there is also hope. The people of the United States voted for diversity and change this year, and in a way, so did our writers. From dance to noise rock, folk to disco, and new wave to psychedelic rock, this list has it all. Old veterans, some having been active for over three decades and one having been noticeably absent for eleven years, rub up alongside wily youngsters and relative newcomers.

But, back to that holiday cheer. There seems to be a virtual nativity scene of animals involved in this year’s list. We have foxes that are fleet, a parade of wolves, a department of eagles, and shearwaters. And, just as Santa ordered, Deerhunter, Deerhoof, and to spoil their party, a Blitzen Trapper. Let’s hope Rudolph has a flak jacket, that nose isn’t doing him any favors.

In the final analysis, it is not just the diversity that makes this list great; it is what unites all of these albums, a shared quality of greatness. Every album on this list seemed to push the limits of what could be done with popular music, in its scope, its abilities and its attraction. These are our picks for the 50 best albums of 2008.

best albums of 2008 Neon Neon

50. Neon Neon – Stainless Style

If Neon Neon didn’t accidentally predict the auto industry’s implosion, they accidentally picked the right year to fetishize a carmaker done in by his own darkness. Stainless Style, for its part, is a party record nonpareil, see what they did there? It’s also the most widely varied allocation of tastes I heard all year, satisfying club kids (“I Lust U”), hip-hop acolytes (“Sweat Shop,” “Trick For Treat”), the official Cars fan club (“I Told Her On Alderaan,” I just got the irony of this!!) and me (all of the former). Collaborations between a gearhead (OMG!) and a psychedelic fur(ry) shouldn’t be this good, but neither should concept records, although the underrated concept of Stainless Style is, clearly, WTF. Combining ’60s guitar with Casios—there’s a concept. – Anthony Strain

r.e.m. accelerate review
Warner Bros.

49. R.E.M. – Accelerate

It’s been difficult being an R.E.M. fan during these past few years. When I mention this to friends and music enthusiast amigos they roll their eyes in disgust. Since when did R.E.M. get such a bad rap? (Don’t tell me it’s all backlash because of “Shiny Happy People?”) On Accelerate, Songs like “Living Well is the Best Revenge” and “Man Sized Wreath” added a much-needed shot of adrenaline that was missing from the R.E.M. of recent years. Accelerate showcases a rejuvenated R.E.M. that you hear in Mike Mills’ vibrant harmonies, Peter Buck’s electrified riffs and Michael Stipe’s more refined lyrics which come to light on the first single “Supernatural Superserious.” The anthem for a teenage geek generation, “Supernatural” is one of my favorite songs of the year. Stipe sings “Music will provide the light/ you cannot resist” on the fiery finale “I’m Gonna DJ.” You hear this flame burn throughout Accelerate, as some songs like “Houston” burn on low while others like “Man Sized Wreath” explode to eleven. Sometimes quiet and often loud, Accelerate sparks a new phase in the life of this dynamic and enduring entity whose future is thunderously bright. Now those same amigos understand why I’ve stood behind one of my favorite bands after all of these years. Back in the glow of glorious acclaim, this isn’t a comeback. – Adrian Cepeda

best albums of 2008 Girl Talk
Illegal Art

48. Girl Talk – Feed the Animals

One of the joys that art can provide is recontextualizing things that are familiar. Assemblage and collage does this all this time, as in the works of people like Man Ray, Robert Rauschenberg, and Joseph Cornell. Such works make us ask questions about our relationship to objects in the world, serving as aesthetic delights as well as phenomenological quandaries. Less highfalutin’, they are just plain cool when done right. In the case of Girl Talk’s Feed the Animals, the medium is different but the results similar (and just plain cool). It even makes us ask questions, mainly of the “How’d he come up with that?” or “How’d he do that?” variety. – Hubert Vigilla

best albums of 2008 Lykke Li Youth Novels

47. Lykke Li – Youth Novels

Likely no artist on this list has as interesting a background as Sweden’s Lykke Li. Born to a photographer mother and a musician father, she’s lived in Nepal, Portugal and India, danced on Swedish TV, and managed to release one of the best pop albums of the year before her 23rd birthday. Youth Novels, Lykke Li’s debut, is somewhere between the elegance of Feist and immediacy of Robyn, with glamorous sass and a low-key sort of charm, not to mention exquisite production and arrangements thanks to Peter Björn and John’s Björn Yttling. In “I’m Good I’m Gone,” “Breaking It Up” and “Little Bit,” she has three perfect singles. In “My,” she does a stunning jazzy ballad. And in “Dance, Dance, Dance” she makes a compelling case for pirouetting while the coffee percolates early in the morning. And if that isn’t the coolest looking album cover of the year, I don’t know what is. – Jeff Terich

best albums of 2008 Destroyer Trouble in Dreams

46. Destroyer – Trouble in Dreams

Always the enigmatic figure, swinging from outsider artist to supergroup success with New Pornographers, Dan Bejar seems to have finally settled stride in his solo engine Destroyer with his eighth full-length Trouble in Dreams. Nearly void of the slippery, ever-shifting tones that marked 2006’s masterstroke Destroyer’s Rubies, Bejar’s latest effort instead opts for the hushed ballads of “Foam Hands” or opener “Blue Flower/Blue Flame,” and the meditative passages of tracks like “Shooting Rockets.” Firmly grounded in sustained piano melodies and crisp acoustics, yet packed with Bejar’s dense lyricism and grandiose vocal delivery—elongating certain lines while rushing through others, or breaking into a spasm of verse mid-song—Dreams is often baffling, but brimming with meaning in each turn of phrase. – Dustin Allen

best albums of 2008 Lindstrøm
Smalltown Supersound

45. Lindstrøm – Where You Go I Go Too

As its title suggests, the first official release from Norwegian disco-technician Hans-Peter Lindstrøm is a journey, an epic one that he wishes to embark on with the listener. At merely three tracks in length, Lindstrøm has evolved past simple songs and created something that moves, breathes, and changes right before your ears. The title track alone is packed with more ideas and movements than half of the albums on this list, yet never feels bloated or self-indulgent, simply alive. We may not know Lindstrøm’s ultimate destination yet, but if the journey remains this thrilling and rewarding, where he goes, I will too. – Robert Huff

best albums of 2008 Kelley Polar I Need You to Hold On

44. Kelley Polar – I Need You to Hold On While the Sky Is Falling

Few modern musicians combine classical scholarship and a yen for the avant-garde like Kelley Polar. To revive some dead terminology, he puts the ‘I’ in IDM. Tracks like “Entropy Reigns (In The Celestial City)” and “A Dream In Three Parts” are exercises in the most gorgeous space-disco while “Zeno Of Elea” is kinda Flashdance, somehow. Never losing sight of the dance floor when your arrangements are this sparse is the trickiest kind of balance but Polar’s particular minimalism celebrates the body every bit as much as it does the brain; to wit, the supple sexuality of “We Live In An Expanding Universe.” Even “Chrysanthemum,” essentially a murder ballad (“make a chrysanthemum of every human head/ make a chrysanthemum and kill them in their beds“), begins with rapid breathing and moves on to a sexual pulse about which no mistake can be made. If you don’t feel it, you haven’t got one. – Anthony Strain


43. Crystal Stils – Alight of Night

Alight Of Night is a woozy head-trip, like a buzzing Velvet Underground vivisection. Brooklyn’s Crystal Stilts affect surf-infused guitars to the brim of malevolence. Brad Hargett’s brooding vocals teeter on the edge of listless languor. Somehow it balances itself out. On “The Dazzled,” meta-physical urgings ramble restless on an insidiously catchy riff. “Graveyard Orbit” purges its slow dance with enough reverb to wake the dead. “Prismatic Room” is unabashed psychedelia, right down to the moaning organ. For all the daze, Night is fluid and coherent, a bright splash of sunshine in an otherwise dismal season. – Mars Simpson

Gutter Twins - Saturnalia
Sub Pop

42. The Gutter Twins – Saturnalia

To paint with a broad stroke about The Gutter Twins, you can get pretty damn dark and still be sexy, and you can get pretty damn sexy and still be dark. Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli have been doing it throughout their careers and on Saturnalia they are both doubly so. They live up to their billing as The Satanic Everly Brothers. They pile on gloom on “The Stations,” all smoke and slow, sinister looks. It slips into “God’s Children,” which crawls across the floor before flashing its bold bright spots like a chorus off Black Love. “Idle Hands” comes on the strongest, with a powerful riff to accompany the dirge vocals. “Bete Noire” brings the slinky groove. They close it with “Front Street,” which starts out desolate but then billows out into a bleak, frightening, hedonistic refrain of “We’re gonna have some fun.” What kind of fun? They’re going to break lovers and get boozed. They’re going to do the devil’s business. Whatever it is, it’s going to be pretty damn dark. As much as you may hate to admit it, it’s also going to be pretty damn sexy. – Hubert Vigilla

Sub Pop

41. The Ruby Suns – Sea Lion

The Ruby Suns’ frontman Ryan McPhun has traveled around the world, listening to the music being played, and what he learned he has been generous enough to share in Sea Lion. From the jangly and instantly enjoyable tribute to the Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree in “Oh Mojave” to the Maori sung “Tane Muhuta,” the songs on Sea Lion are influenced by music from around the world but never come off as generic World Music. This isn’t banal background music being played in the Nature Store, the songs are effervescent with life and there is an optimistic sense of a world community that glows within each song. The effortless and wildly entertaining blending of musical styles evoke a utopian ideal and, for even just a minute, makes the idea of a worldwide utopia seem feasible. – Jackie Im


40. Flying Lotus – Los Angeles

It takes a little bit of imagination to visualize the city of Los Angeles through Flying Lotus’ album named for the sprawling Southern California metropolis. The man does work in abstracts, after all. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. “Beginners Falafel” bubbles with lava lamp psychedelic cool, like LAX’s Encounter restaurant. “Camel” struts and swaggers with an exotic aura, like a hazy jaunt on Sunset before sunrise. But, of course, Steven Ellison amplifies the energy of the nightlife in “Parisian Goldfish,” and even its dark side in “Riot.” In the most curious of ways, by removing the marketed romance and replacing it with an avant garde IDM hip-hop tapestry, Flying Lotus has managed to create one of the most alluring depictions of Los Angeles on record. – Jeff Terich

Thrill Jockey

39. High Places – High Places

The duo of Mary Pearson and Robert Barber imagine a neon world of whimsy. High Places, in no way a misnomer, attempt an ascent to higher planes (and get there) via tribal rhythms and playful innocence, and kitchen-sink percussion pirouettes with burbling electronics. Pearson’s girlish vocals bathe in aqueous light. High Places invites toe-tapping too, a call to dance ingrained like genetics. Indelible as it feels to the soul, at heart it’s a wash of fervent, fluctuating refreshment, a daring dash to the armor of experimental music’s harshest critics. – Mars Simpson

Drag City

38. Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Lie Down in the Light

Will Oldham dropping an album from out of the blue was a grand enough surprise; that that album turned out to be Lie Down in the Light was truly cause for joy. It is probably the most hopeful record he has released, suffused with backwoods charm and wisdom gained the hard way, all of it woven together with that unmistakable, roguish drawl. There is a sense of levity permeating this record, a sense of a human soul’s resistance to the destruction by hardship of life’s strange and shifting beauty. It is present in “For Every Field There’s a Mole,” in an allusion to Hamlet sung in that voice which seems made to carry it, and in the grace of the final verse, hung with angelic harmonies and sleepy horns. It’s there in the duets with Ashley Webber, in the solemn and perishable love that they display, and in the wan outlines of “Willow Trees Bend,” trembling like so many winter-bared trunks, black, backlit silhouettes waving in a stark landscape. But most of all, it is evident on the album-closer, “I’ll Be Glad,” the resigned, holy jubilance of which failed to fully strike me until I saw him perform it live–and which now fails to escape me any time the record comes to a close. – Tyler Parks


37. Stereolab – Chemical Chords

If the conflation of genres confounds you—you’re hyphen-averse, maybe—you probably hate Stereolab, defying easy quantification since 1990. (That should be why you love Stereolab, but anyway…) Chemical Chords is (surprise!) a pop record, gently rocked by discernible melodies and actual choruses. It’s also their finest work since the loss of Mary Hansen. Stereolab’s psychological reconstruction since her death is one of rock’s underrated comebacks, but Chemical Chords finds the band in a better place than ever, making ethereal, effusive music that’s still near-impossible to categorize. “Daisy Click Clack” particularly puts the album over as some sort of feelgood apex, a rhombused roil that sent me scrambling for the sonic equivalent of ‘chortle’. – Anthony Strain

Sub Pop

36. Blitzen Trapper – Furr

Blitzen Trapper simply has to be one of Cameron Crowe’s favorite bands of all time. I know that with the release of Furr, they’ve certainly made my list, but this Portland, Oregon band seemingly has everything that Crowe tried to represent with Stillwater in his film Almost Famous. Originally meant to be a fictional amalgamation of the Eagles, the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Led Zeppelin, Stillwater seems to fall short of that musical mark in comparison to Blitzen Trapper. On Furr, songs seem to resemble not only the work of these ’70s giants, but tracks also tread territories usually occupied by Dylan, Floyd, the Dead, T. Rex, Neil Young, Springsteen and the Band. Every song is a keeper and can alternately become personal favorites, from the Josh Ritter-esque title track to the immediately following stomper “God & Suicide,” and again to the starkness of “Black River Killer” and “Not Your Lover,” before heading into glam territory with “War on Machines.” But I’m not sure that the appeal of Furr is limited to its scope of influence, its spot-on homage to a particular era or its genre mastery. Instead, I think it has something to do with its Muppety goodness. Singer / guitarist Eric Earley seems to make every track sound like it could fit perfectly into a forest tableaux in The Muppet Show with all manner of little critters providing perfect harmony. – Terrance Terich

MGMT Oracular Spectacular review

35. MGMT – Oracular Spectacular

Shortened from The Management to MGMT, the Brooklyn based duo of Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden hit it big this year with their surprise hit Oracular Spectacular. The album was among the most hyped of 2008, so much so that it became an annoyance. “Time to Pretend” could be among the most winded songs of the year whereas “Kids” is among the best. Many skeptics refused to buy into the buzz and I myself was initially among those. Somewhere among these ten tracks was a diversity, that was unrivaled by any album this year other than say Neon Neon’s Stainless Style. Oracular Spectacular is at times reminiscent of Brit-Pop a la the Rolling Stones or David Bowie, though it’s mostly a barrage of psychedelic electronica. MGMT’s sound feels hard to pinpoint though I’d classify Oracular Spectacular as cocaine-pop meeting glam, music that leaves you feeling dirty yet savory. – Tyler Weir

Arts & Crafts

34. Los Campesinos! – Hold On Now, Youngster

Hold On Now, Youngster is like a load of the most interesting bits of less immediate U.K. and North American indie, exclaimed capital letters and bold type, in full Crayola multicolour. It strikes great balance between shouted and saccharine- co-incidentally morose, frenetic and joyful. There’s an unsuppressed energy throughout that turns feeling slightly wonky into an addictively fizzy experience. Content that might seem like unpalatable despondency in the wrong hands is handled with humour and cutting adeptness. There is no detraction from wonderful melodies and fresh approximation of the likes of Help She Cant Swim, Life Without Buildings and Yo La Tengo. Hold On Now, Youngster takes the listener close to comfort with break neck exuberance. – Tom Lee

33. My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges

Evil Urges is the latest chapter in the evolution of My Morning Jacket. An evolution that has seen the band’s sound go from rootsy to rock and now, with Evil Urges, more bluesy. The band sought to make an album that catered to their live show and with songs like “Smokin’ from Shootin'” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2” they did just that. The trouble is that those songs are hidden at the back of an album largely devoid of the Jim James falsetto and to get there, one must go through the understatedly polarizing Prince homage, “Highly Suspicious.” The shortcomings of Evil Urges are a direct result of the high expectations that most have set out for the band. And it’s not that the album is a bad, it’s just a step in a new direction—one that some took to and others were ostracized by. Evil Urges will go down as the one that was gentle and warm. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. – Tyler Weir

Kill Rock Stars

32. Deerhoof – Offend Maggie

I don’t know who Maggie is, but I’d really like to shake her hand for pissing off the members of Deerhoof after hearing their retaliation. Restored to a quartet again after Ed Rodriguez took over second guitar duties from the departed Chris Cohen, the band continues to explore the pop sensibilities introduced in last year’s Friend Opportunity within the sprawling domains of the The Runners Four. The end result is a winning consolidation of strengths to commemorate a group’s successful transition to a new chapter in their career. I can’t wait to hear what they sound like when they want to impress Maggie. – Robert Huff


31. Black Mountain – In the Future

I knew some people from British Columbia who, from time to time, would somehow end up in my basement in Jersey and make all sorts of racket. Needless to say it didn’t sound as fuzzed as these guys. It’s difficult for me to accept that a band like Coldplay would ever allow a band such as Black Mountain to open for them, every anvil-heavy riff and mystical lyric screams thunder-stealer. The humanitarian in me wants to say that diehard Coldplay fans are not so self-conscious to avoid sincerely getting into Black Mountain, but it’s more satisfying to assume that they never knew a more profound source of tinnitus than that of the pummeling intro in “Tyrant.” Black Mountain’s dynamic is one of extremes that, while not very new, is well executed. A song going from a startling blast of heavy metal to contemplative elastic prog is not a freak mixture for this band who have no problem seducing a listener with celestial soundscapes while also wanting to hammer them into reality with superhuman precision. – Chris Morgan

Vivian Girls review s/t
In the Red

30. Vivian Girls – Vivian Girls

A pop girl group they are not. In fact, it appears that few saw the Vivian Girls coming, with all of their fuzz-drenched hooks exploding with a rock and roll energy not often matched since the Raincoats first made their mark in the late ’70s. In songs like “Tell the World,” soaring vocals are augmented by hyper punk-tempo hooks and ferocious percussion, while the lo-fi production feels like it comes from that punk-to-post-punk era that changed the rock and roll landscape as we know it. It’s not angry chick rock, nor is it über-masculine punk rock—Vivian Girls’ music can be defined as very well-done, infectious noise rock, full of garage riffs and synchronized, Spector-esque vocals. There’s an at-home feeling to this debut that personally makes me want to pick up a guitar and jam (no matter if I’ve done so before). Perhaps, as all the cool kids say, I shall “jam out with my clam out.” Or something along those lines. – Anna Gazdowicz


29. Atlas Sound – Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel

The perfect synthesis of shoegazer pop and experimental ambiance, Atlas Sound’s debut vibrates with adolescent urgency. Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel exorcises the icy demons of Bradford Cox’s youth, from the forced isolation of “Quarantined,” to the beautiful teenage prayer of “Recent Bedroom.” The Deerhunter front man often explores shredded avenues of a troubled past, cast pale in strange oscillations of somnambulant reverie. It feels too fully realized to be a side project, but then Cox is known for being an emphatic and wildly prolific individual. Alternately shrouded in chemically saturated electronic haze and doleful ghost vocals pinned to the mist, Feel transcends easy categorization, an ingeniously imbibed draught of ambivalent atmospherics. – Mars Simpson

Universal Motown

28. Q-Tip – The Renaissance

Q-Tip, to lift a line from “The Wire,” puts the ‘b’ in subtle. Being hip-hop’s master craftsman would be a role relished by some with the excess of a despot but Q-Tip barely even makes records, or when he does they’re not officially released (see Abstract, Kamaal The). Having said that, The Renaissance is officially in our ears, dug in deep. It’s like the best kind of urban block party, or like the locker room of the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates (if you read Roger Angell)—people shouting, people laughing, people dancing, food, games, flirtation. The elegant, affable “Gettin’ Up” finds the future in nostalgia while “ManWomanBoogie” samples Can and makes it sexier than most of that band’s posthumous usage so far. Overall the lightness of the grooves and Q-Tip’s T-ball ump’s temperament make The Renaissance the surprise easy-listening record of the year. Norah Jones is even on it! – Anthony Strain

best albums of 2008 - beck modern guilt

27. Beck – Modern Guilt

Why is Beck such a mystery in 2008? Beck Hansen is one of the most important artists in the last twenty years; he single-handedly molded elements of hip-hop, Latin, folk and rock into mainstream success of Odelay. But ask about Modern Guilt and most will say Beck, who? It’s such a shame. Though Modern Guilt may be missing on many 2008 year end lists, here at Treble, we recognize the importance of this ever-evolving artist and his collaboration with Danger Mouse. Modern Guilt is an album that percolates inside and slowly takes you over. Songs like “Gamma Ray” and the title track captivate you with their addicting back beats. But it’s the dark lyrics that linger inside: “Misapprehension is turning into conversation/ don’t know what I’ve done but I feel ashamed.” It’s as if Beck feels claustrophobic inside of his persona and he’s looking for a way out from the past that haunt him so. On Modern Guilt, it feels like Beck is slowly stripping away all of his sampled studio gimmicks that made him infamous. I’m looking forward to the next step in the evolutionary phase in Beck’s career. Who knows where he’s going, but if songs like “Volcano” and lyrics like “I don’t know where I’ve been/ but I know where I’m going…” is any indication, we’re starting to see the true Beck coming into light, and what we’re hearing is luminous and incendiary. – Adrian Cepeda

The Social Registry/Warp

26. Gang Gang Dance – Saint Dymphna

Gang Gang Dance is one of the last truly uncategorizable bands. That may sound cliché, or perhaps hyperbolic, but to listen to their newest album Saint Dymphna is to hear a work of boundless imagination. From ambient dub ether, the band births tribal funk breakdowns (“Bebey”), and from house music synthesizers come ethereal new wave pop anthems (“House Jam”). It’s a peculiar and diverse blend, with exotic blends of pulsing beats and atmospheric samples sidling up beside intense blasts of…uh, I guess you could call it rock music, sort of. And then there’s a random grime track that’s unsurprisingly spectacular. That the band chose the patron saint of mental illness as the title of the album is fitting, if a bit misleading. This music may, on some level, be crazy, yet clearly this band is anything but. – Jeff Terich

Rough Trade

25. British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?

When British Sea Power asks `Do You Like Rock Music?’, they very well could be speaking rhetorically. Of course, we all know the answer is `yes,’ and on their third album, BSP deliver just that—their most anthemic, most heroic, arena-ready, fists-in-the-air, balls-to-the-wall rock album. From Arcade Fire-like singles such as “Waving Flags” or “No Lucifer” to straight up power chord rippers like “A Trip Out,” British Sea Power offer up little in the way of subtlety, and everything in the way of a hedonistic, guitar swinging party. There are tributes to wrestlers, the admission of being “astronomical fans of alcohol,” and shout outs to football teams in the Czech Republic, all delivered with the kind of emotional high that only someone like Bono or Bowie could sell. You’re damn right we like rock music. – Jeff Terich


24. Sigur Rós – Med sud í eyrum vid spilum endalaust

Sigur Rós translate the fragile desolation of their native Iceland’s stark beauty, a hearth-bound warmth against which even the coldest hearts inevitably thaw. `Triumphant’ seems almost a paltry way to describe the cinematic sweeps of Med sud í eyrum vid spilum endalaust . Singer Jon Thor Birgisson’s elfin murmurs in his native tongue refract through the delicate snowflake of the band’s most celebratory effort to date. As if dug from beneath their homeland’s thin, frigid soils, endalaust is, in a word, organic. Acoustic guitars, bare piano chords, an intimacy set adrift on thermal drafts. Sigur Rós have evolved their dynamic crescendos with graceful gusto, at once reaching for the higher latitudes of creativity and of deeply wrought emotional resonance. – Mars Simpson


23. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive

It opens with a little Iggy Pop and closes with a little John Cassavetes. That’s proof enough of Craig Finn’s genius, which is put on full display on Stay Positive. He’s there for me like Phil Lynott, with enough wisdom to get you through the tough times and enough whiskey to see you through the good times. To some extent Stay Positive is familiar territory for The Hold Steady. Good rock songs. Literate rock songs. Occasionally seedy rock songs. Good, literate albums with occasionally seedy rock songs. Admittedly, that is one of the reasons I enjoy Stay Positive so much. Yet the album does have its surprises: the harpsichord on “One for the Cutters,” the big-time rock and roll lamentation on “Lord I’m Discouraged.” Even that thundering riff on “Slapped Actress” surprised me. Those are joined with the familiar comforts, like “Constructive Summer,” the summer song to end all summer songs, which had me from the opening simile (“Me and my friends are like the drums on ‘Lust for Life’“). “Sequestered in Memphis” also stood out, even if just for the pre-chorus and chorus. There’s murder and mystery and booze. I’m not complaining and this round of whiskey’s on me. Raise a toast, boys. To Saint Joe Strummer. – Hubert Vigilla

tom waits mule variations review

22. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

Had it not been for Nick Cave’s other substantial accomplishments, not atypical of artists his age, it would be difficult to be reminded that he is, indeed, in his fifth decade of living. While Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is being labeled as a “return to form” record, it, to me, is more of a logical continuation of Cave’s artistic vision and personality that isn’t interrupted by other bands or writing projects. Nothing is lost from his post-punk heritage, not his literate, witty lyrical style, his surreal lounge singer from Hell persona, nor his obsession with the Bible’s stranger narratives, in this case that of Lazarus only from Lazarus’ point of view in New York City rather than Bethany. The only difference being that Cave has moved from a participating madman – best known during The Birthday Party – to a sensitive, keen-eyed onlooker wherever travesty or some such thing may be. Dig!!! has gotten so much fondness from all directions it seems ad nauseam to praise it once more, but leave it to Cave & Co.’s talents to remind us that there are still some powerful tales of lost spirits in the big city to be told even after Scorsese tried to bash the concept’s head in all those years ago. – Chris Morgan

best albums of 2008 - brendan canning something for all of us
Arts & Crafts

21. Broken Social Scene presents Brendan Canning – Something for All of Us…

Something For All of Us is like the kind of conversation I have on a train that leaves me thinking “you’re great, I’m ridiculous, and this is generally good news.” It’s some sort of incredible equivalent to the best of the big budget ’90s indie rock albums. There’s no room for improvement across the board, and there’s never a feeling of too much self-satisfaction present. “Hit the Wall” has a killer bass line/chorus combination. The melancholy static and widescreen immediacy of “Churches Under the Stairs” could be the perfect tonic for anyone who had hoped Radiohead would move into U2 territory post OK Computer. “Antique Bull” takes Holcombe Waller’s Extravagant Gesture template two steps left. “Possible Grenade” acquires on a Porcupine-era Bunnymen release to great effect. “Been At It so Long” is reminiscent of Set Yourself On Fire and Al Green, and I want to walk around a foreign metropolitan business district with “Chameleon” on my headphones before my twenties end. A brilliant record. – Tom Lee

santogold review

20. Santogold – Santogold

I don’t know whether or not I should be admitting this, but Santogold’s self-titled album is one of four records in our end-of-year best list that wasn’t reviewed at the time of its release. Of course, we are rectifying that now. On the other hand, the inclusion of these four albums proves that we here at Treble keep our ears to the ground (and to the stereo) at all times, not just for assignments. But, the reason we missed Santogold couldn’t have had anything to do with obscurity. With her debut Jam cover on Mark Ronson’s Version, a string of heavily played lead-up singles and a host of songs used for adverts, Santogold was seemingly everywhere, seeing their debut reviewed by the likes of Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone. It’s just too bad that most who reviewed it got it completely wrong. – Terrance Terich


19. Of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping

Unsurprisingly, Kevin Barnes decided to follow up the success of the widely revered Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? with a trip off the map. Skeletal Lamping has polarized opinion to some degree, but the fact is that Barnes has developed a larger-than-life persona through the band’s live performances and his willingness to work through some pretty heavy shit in his lyrics, and what would have actually been disappointing would have been a failure to challenge, and to some degree perplex, his growing audience. Yeah, things have gotten funkier and freakier and some of the tracks seem like various separate entities arbitrarily spliced together, but even if that’s not your thing (which it should be), “Id Engager,” “An Eluardian Instance,” and “Gallery Piece” are all songs of the superlative and sphinx-like variety. And as far as ambiguously sexual, emotionally resonant white boy soul goes, “St. Exquisite’s Confessions” has got the market cornered. Skeletal Lamping resists easy consumption, but it is also playful and kaleidoscopic, a festival of colors and characters which it is truly pleasurable to become lost in. – Tyler Parks

okkervil river the stand-ins

18. Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins

I’d be surprised if Mick Jagger and Keith Richards solo albums made the same end-of-year best list. The same goes for almost any similar and famous rock pair out there, though maybe Simon & Garfunkel came close on particular years. But over the last few years, both Will Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg seem to do this regularly. Following last year’s astounding The Stage Names is Sheff’s companion album, The Stand-Ins. Originally meant to be paired together as a double album, The Stand-Ins instead became a second album, separated in time but not necessarily in theme. We’re still treated to songs about fame and the ups and downs of being in a rock band, yet with far more pathos, depth and literary insight than, say, Grand Funk Railroad. On top of all of that, Sheff reunites with Meiburg on the amazing “Lost Coastlines,” a ’50s style throwback that ranks up there as one of the best tracks of the year. – Terrance Terich

Hot Chip Made in the Dark

17. Hot Chip – Made in the Dark

On their last album, The Warning, Hot Chip succeeded by covering a lot of ground stylistically from their preceding work. Made in the Dark, not making a similarly large leap, builds off the success of The Warning. That is, a slew of highly accessible dance tracks intermittently sprinkled with cheeky lyrics and the signature Hot Chip quirkiness. Among the most appealing qualities of Made in the Dark is the inclusion of a number of love ballads that have Alexis Taylor channeling his inner and outer Sinéad O’Connor. The bulk of the songs address relationships, probably because Taylor was newly married at during the time of its production. That includes the bickering “Wrestlers,” which is part Al Doyle tug-of-war with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and part adolescent male nostalgia. Taylor is said to be proud of the album’s lyrics. If I were to assert that “everyone knows Monday night means wrestling,” I’d be proud too. – Tyler Weir


16. The Dodos – Visiter

The Dodos have become a crown jewel within their San Francisco hometown, where they started in small clubs as Dodo Bird and finished with random local shows in between giant, sprawling world tours. Every piece of buzz surrounding Visiter is absolutely merited, even for people who have been into the band since the beginning (i.e., no jaded “I knew them way back when, but can’t like them now that they’re popular” mentality). One of the most noteworthy aspects of the Dodos’ music is that it will be of the upbeat folk variety in one instant (such as with opening track “Walking”), but every serene turn is accompanied by an extra harsh strum on the acoustic guitar or particularly striking clatter on the drums. It’s called experimental because a band brings together aspects of music genres in less traditional ways—in the Dodos’ case, pop music becomes a new level of melodic psych-folk with Meric Long’s alternate tunings and Logan Kroeber’s metal-influenced percussive style, all the while combined with sweetly smooth vocals that juxtapose any off-putting harmonic elements. Every song is performed with sprawling fervor matched by few others, apparent in both recorded and live settings, yet always with complete control and perfect synchronization. – Anna Gazdowicz


15. Department of Eagles – In Ear Park

Daniel Rossen has always come off as the sullen one of the Grizzly Bear quartet, skulking behind his stage-right mic as he wails murky folk flourishes into the band’s orchestral swell. But as his side project Department of Eagles with old college mate Fred Nicolaus shows, Rossen has a wayward musicianship that flirts with as many diverse influences—from folk traditionals to sugary doo-wop—as idiosyncratic twists. The duo’s second LP, In Ear Park, is not just a looking glass into Rossen’s expansive potential when left to his own devices, but is also a jaw-dropping introduction to Nicolaus, who can stake claim to some of the album’s most harrowing songs, such as “Herringbone,” “Teenager,” hefty portions of “No One Does It Like You” and the easily overlooked “Waves of Rye.” Undoubtedly, Department of Eagles have felt the pressure to continue on as a steady project, but due to scant live performances and Rossen’s time constraints with Grizzly Bear, it’s likely Ear Park may be their farewell opus. Either way, here’s hoping these two find some outlet for collaboration; music like this is simply too good to pass up. – Dustin Allen

wolf parade at mount zoomer
Sub Pop

14. Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer

Whatever concessions Wolf Parade may have made with their 2005 debut Apologies to the Queen Mary to appeal to the indie rock crowd—a conventional 12-track structure with quirky but readily absorbed hooks—their slow-but-sure follow-up seems to have shed them all. A thick-skinned, nine-song blast of genius, At Mount Zoomer—or Kissing the Beehive as we finicky purists like to remember it—encompasses every nook of Wolf Parade’s pageantry, with each track ending about where it begins but only after having spanned a great distance to justify its re-arrival. Easily one of the best musicians to have emerged from Montreal’s reputable roster of recent greats, Spencer Krug brazens the album with wiry keys as he and Dan Boeckner swap mic duties, each with curiously similar, quivering vocal styles. For all their similarities, though, they create a quick-hit combo rife with possibility, more than capable of running wild with ideas, without ever wasting a moment. – Dustin Allen

Vampire Weekend

13. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

A band of Ivy League misfits formed through a handful of gigs at Columbia University lawn parties and literary society get-togethers, Vampire Weekend blow the veins of a wavering indie rock scene with their thick injection of Afro-punk blasts. At a time when world beat cross-breeds are all underground music can conjure to stay on the fringe, this New York City foursome find a way to create a sound wholly fresh without abandoning the basic pop template flirted with by greats such as The Police, Clash and Peter Gabriel. For all its apparent counterpoints, though, rarely has a band delved so brazenly into Africa’s rich musical heritage and returned with such relevance. From the harpsichord intro out “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” that bleeds over into the jubilant strings opening “M79,” or call-and-response chorus of “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)” mid-album, not one weak spot surfaces on this self-titled debut after incessant listens. – Dustin Allen

best albums of 2008 Shearwater - Rook

12. Shearwater – Rook

As you can see, there are a lot of albums that are ranked higher in our year-end writers’ poll than Shearwater’s Rook, but it was at the top my individual list. Yes, to me, Rook was far and away the best album of the year. Jonathan Meiburg has simply outdone himself, and with the majesty that was Palo Santo, that really means something. Dark and gloomy, yet freeing and expansive, Rook has everything. The desolate trumpet of single “Rooks,” the anguished vocal phrasings of “Leviathan, Bound,” the anxious strings of “Home Life” and the Neil Young-style proto-punk guitars “Century Eyes” are all highlights to be cherished. However, you’ll be hard pressed to find another song this year as beautifully dramatic as “The Snow Leopard,” or an album as cohesive and brilliant as Rook. – Terrance Terich

best albums of 2008 Hercules and Love Affair

11. Hercules and Love Affair – Hercules and Love Affair

Whereas many up-and-coming dance acts approach disco with a knowing smirk, Andrew Butler comes to it with a giant grin from ear to ear. And after hearing his troupe’s breakthrough labor of love, you’ll know he means it. With a little help from DFA‘s Tim Goldsworthy, and sumptuous vocal contributions from Antony Hegarty, Butler successfully re-ignites disco’s inferno and lets it burn with a brightness and warmth all too rare in the genre. Anyone can move your feet. Butler gets the win for moving your heart. – Robert Huff

best indie folk albums Fleet Foxes
Sub Pop

10. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

There are certain records that sound just fine on an iPod or on your laptop. Certain records can adapt to digital formats and don’t beg to be played on a record player. Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut, however, is an album that almost demands to be played on a turntable. Though it is a fantastic album regardless of medium, the warm, homey tones of “White Winter Hymnal” and “Ragged Wood” are at home with the crackles of a sturdy record player. Lead singer Robin Pecknold grew up listening to his parents’ Allman Brothers, Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills & Nash records and those familiar sounds ring through the album. Yet these songs don’t sound redundant, but rather have a freshness that belies their amber-hued tones. Even the cold technology of an mp3 player can emit the real full-bodied warmth through Fleet Foxes’ music. – Jackie Im

beach house devotion best albums of 2008

9. Beach House – Devotion

As I was compiling my year-end lists, I held marathon listening sessions trying to remember, “what music was out in 2008?” Much of my year was dictated by my first semester in grad school. There was no time for listening to music, much less keep up with the new bands blogs are heralding. When I did have time to listen to music I found that I kept coming back to one album: Beach House’s Devotion. Out of all the albums that came out in 2008, I listened this one to the most. I was trying to explain why I loved Devotion so much and why I made it my top album of the year. After failing several times to articulate what I felt, I uttered, “It touched my soul.” Devotion is an album of intimate proportions, performed with great care by Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand. Each song carries an elegant and languid charm as Legand’s ethereal vocals and Scally’s steadfast guitars transport you to an island of calm. Perhaps it was the calming effect that had me returning to Devotion time and time again, but it is the gothic-romantic longing in the songs that make each listen an intimate and profound experience. – Jackie Im

No age nouns review
Sub Pop

8. No Age – Nouns

On one of the standout lyrics from No Age’s debut Nouns, drummer Dean Spunt hazily muses, “it’s our duty to be overwhelmed.” And yet it would appear that he and partner-in-noise Randy Randall aim to return the favor with their awe-inspiring mix of shoegaze and punk sounds. Where last year’s compilation Weirdo Rippers found the Los Angeles duo punching out minute-long pop melodies between minute-long passages of distortion and ambience, there’s a greater separation on Nouns. The pop songs are poppier, from the anthemic “Teen Creeps” to the Dinosaur Jr.-like burner “Sleeper Hold” to spunky single “Eraser.” And yet the ambient interludes, like “Impossible Bouquet” and “Errand Boy,” have become even more abstract. Though there’s only two guys here, playing nothing more than guitar and drums, there are layers upon layers of stunning sound, which No Age invites you get lost in, only to writhe and shake your way out. – Jeff Terich

Bon Iver For emma forever ago

7. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

Of the many new artists to emerge this year, very few have had such far-reaching effects as Justin Vernon. By the time his debut For Emma, Forever Ago as Bon Iver was given its proper label release in February, Vernon had lined up not only the beginnings of an exhaustive U.S./European tour, but had lent a helping hand as producer to fellow act The Rosebuds, and would later go to do the same for Land of Talk’s noteworthy debut, all the while prepping a follow-up EP due this January. The truth is, if it weren’t for the deceptively bare-boned beauty of For Emma—at once intricately barbed yet heartbreakingly vulnerable—Vernon might still be toughing it out with former band DeYarmond Edison, or chopping endless stacks of firewood in his Wisconsin hunting cabin. As it stands, though, Bon Iver is Vernon’s untethered medium to his long-dormant muse and, at least in this reviewer’s opinion, the best thing to happen to music in years. – Dustin Allen

Walkmen You and me review

6. The Walkmen – You & Me

After releasing a breakout hit single like “The Rat,” The Walkmen seemed on the brink of riding their noisy train to mainstream success. They took a far more interesting path instead. After four albums (one a song-for-song recreation of Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats), You & Me offered an unlikely surprise. On a certain level, it’s everything a Walkmen album should be—reverb everywhere, Hamilton Leithauser’s raspy wail—and yet everything is subtle and warm, soulful but not overwhelming. It’s an album that demands intimacy, and every note haunts long after the music stops playing. Sure, they rock out when they feel like it (see: “Postcards of Tiny Islands”), but most of all, this is an album to which (and with which) one could really fall in love. – Jeff Terich

best albums of 2008 Cut Copy

5. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours

Whoever is responsible for shipping all of those synthesizers to Australia, I’d like to shake your hand. Muscles, Midnight Juggernauts and The Presets have all made convincing cases in the past year or so for the Land Down Under being the new epicenter of electronic pop music activity, yet Cut Copy were the ones who made the most stunning back to back album of emotional new wave pop. Taking cues from New Order and Depeche Mode while injecting elements of modern disco, Cut Copy gave electro-pop its heart again, flooding the dance floor with tears on “Out There On the Ice,” and giving a glimpse of sexual ecstasy in the breathy disco jam “Nobody Lost, Nobody Found.” Like any good dance album, In Ghost Colours works as a great stream of singles yet flows so perfectly together, it’s almost a shame to separate one song from the whole magnificent bunch. – Jeff Terich

broken social scene forgiveness rock record review

4. Deerhunter – Microcastle

All this talk of Deerhunter’s tendency to be “polarizing,” and then they have to go and make one of the most mesmerizing rock albums to be released in 2008. With the breathtaking Microcastle, Deerhunter pushed the hooks and the melodies front and center and let their impeccable and absolutely gorgeous songwriting do the talking. Of course, the distortion and effects are still there, but rather than blanket each song as they did on Cryptograms, they serve as ornate ornamentation, buzzing beneath the delicate progression of “Never Stops” and the powerful, commanding march of single “Nothing Ever Happened.” While the band gave a few hints of this sort of elegant and accessible songwriting, I can only defer to Bradford Cox’s own words as he sings, “I didn’t see it coming.” – Jeff Terich

TV on the Radio dear science review

3. TV on the Radio – Dear Science

TV on the Radio has yet to make a bad album. I hypothesize that it’s impossible for them to do so. Case in point: Dear Science, the latest in a chain of stellar albums with eclectic roots (new wave, dance, post-punk) and primo execution by way of variety. It opens with “Halfway Home,” a song that is ba-ba-ba-ba brooding yet ba-ba-ba-ba fun. Then there’s the full-force fuck you of “Dancing Choose,” which helps you dance on consumerism to keep from crying; and then there’s the lush “Family Tree,” which keeps you slow dancing while you keep on crying. There’s the shackled “Red Dress” (we’ve been screwed for too long) and the cynical “DLZ” (we are so screwed) and the utopian “Golden Age” (screw this, let’s move forward). “Love Dog” howls out at an empty sky in search of a master and the album closer “Lover’s Day” howls out because it’s rutting like a dog in heat, hot enough to melt your face off. And they pull it all off. Sex, death, love, politics, you name it—TV on the Radio tackles it with brainy lyrics and daring; unashamed, unafraid, not intimidated by the expectations. So, dear TV on the Radio, thank you for being awesome. Again. – Hubert Vigilla

best albums of 2008 M83

2. M83 – Saturdays=Youth

When M83’s Anthony Gonzalez set out to create an album celebrating an ’80s teenage fantasy, he pulled out all the stops. A Psychedelic Furs-like anthem (“Graveyard Girl”), goth poetry, a girl on the cover that looks like Molly Ringwald, a vocalist who eerily resembles Kate Bush (the amazing Morgan Kibby who sings on standout “Skin of the Night”)—it’s all there. But as audiences have come to expect from Gonzalez, added to this John Hughes homage is one part Kevin Shields, lending a layer of hazy psychedelia over the new wave gloss. That these songs, in some way, sound as if they could have been released 25 years ago is impressive, but Saturdays=Youth, as a whole is timeless. From its enormous production, to its deftly crafted songs, M83’s latest opus makes a strong argument as Gonzalez’s best. And it’s clear that he and the rest of us, like Kim and Jessie, are crazy about romance and illusion. – Jeff Terich

beak >> review

1. Portishead – Third

From the start of “Silence” (originally entitled Wicca), Portishead’s Third opens with a sample of Claudio Campos, a Capoeira master, speaking in Portuguese, reciting a Wiccan precept of the Threefold Law which translates: “Be aware to the rule of thirds. What you give will return to you. You have to learn this lesson. You only receive what you deserve…” And with those words Portishead introduces Third, an artistic achievement by a band that’s been relatively quiet for ten years. To awaken from their creative sabbatical with this greatness is a gift from up above.

Gone are the trip-hop beats, which have evolved into futuristic soundscapes that include the tripped-out prog vibes of “Small,” Moog synths in “Machine Gun,” freaked out cacophony of jazz horns on “Magic Doors” and otherworldly rhythms that perfectly back our favorite damsel of despair. If the back beats hint at an era of desolated isolationism, Gibbons angelic vocals brings some sense of struggle to find hope, in the quietly acoustic “Deep Water” as she sings “I’m drifting in deep water/alone with my self-doubting, again/try not to struggle this time/for I will weather the storm…“through the maddening soundtrack that surrounds her every one of her mesmerizing vocalized harmonies. When she croons “Oh can’t you see/holding on to my heart/I bleed the taste of life” on “We Carry On,” Beth mirrors our every day challenges to find some glimmer of promises in this age of bankrupt idealism.

If Dummy and Portishead were the sounds of the band during the Cold War/Spy era, then songs like “Machine Gun” show Portishead in the middle of sonic air assault. At times Beth Gibbons sounds as if she’s embedded on the battlefield, her angelic vocals describing the chaos she sees around her.

Portishead have become one of the most important and influential artists of our generations. So much so that even Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood recorded an impromptu cover of “The Rip” as an homage to one of Radiohead’s favorite bands. Portishead’s Third is more than the album of 2008, this is a snapshot of our unknown future. I imagine Beth Gibbons outside on December 21st, 2012 when I hear the eerie siren-like sound towards the end of “Threads.” “I’m always so unsure” is Gibbons once again singing our own insecurities. What will happen tomorrow, next year or here after? Who knows? We will find out together. – Adrian Cepeda

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