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Albums of the (Half) Year

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So I’m a big fan of lists (being a girl and all *chuckle*), and since we’re roughly at the halfway point of the year and I was thinking about this today anyway, I thought it prudent to make a list of my 10 favorite albums from 2008 thus far.

These are not necessarily in order, but close.

1. Stay Positive by The Hold Steady
Technically, this has not been released on CD yet (July 15), but it IS out on iTunes, so I’m counting it. This thing is a heartland-rock masterpiece that rivals or surpasses 2005’s Separation Sunday. The album doesn’t stray much from the band’s trademark formula of churning, anthemic guitars and rockin’ piano/organ riffs, and as usual Craig Finn’s lyrics are razor sharp, but the devil is in the details here. This is the sound of a band maturing–examining the aftermath and consequences of the youthful exuberance of their last record, Boys & Girls in America.

2. Heretic Pride by The Mountain Goats
After the relatively dour Get Lonely, John Darnielle and Peter Hughes spice things up a bit. This album finds the hardest rocker they’ve yet done (“Lovecraft in Brooklyn”), warmer and arguably more beautiful territory than Darnielle has ever written (“San Bernadino”), and even choral backing vocals (“Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident”), all while playing to the strengths the band has built up during their time in studio 4AD–more arranged guitars, gentle strings, raw drums–and the amazing lyrical detail and emotional impact they’ve had all along.

3. Rook by Shearwater
A band that seems to get better with each successive release, Shearwater have released a masterpiece in Rook, albeit a subtle masterpiece. A gentle, mysterious, headphone album, this is almost the epitome of rainy day music–Jonathan Meiburg (one of the best male vocalists in modern rock) floats ethereally in and out of arrangements that build from whispers to shouts amidst a cloud of guitars, pianos, strings and percussion that clatters and crashes like a summer storm. It’s a grower, definitely, but like any great mystery, the more one peels back, the more there is to find.

4. Parallel Play by Sloan
Although largely passed over in the US, these Canadian power pop rockers have put out another in a long series of gems with this one. Like a time-capsule from 1968 given a brasher 2008 sheen, there are garage-rock solos, multi-part harmonies, psychedelic guitar tones, punchy drum hooks, et al. Coming off their last (30 song, 77 minute) album, Never Hear the End of It, this is the sound of a band paring away their excesses and focusing on what they do best with absolutely great results.

5. Third by Portishead
Not like it hasn’t been said six zillion times at this point, but it’s amazing hearing a band that, coming off an 11-year break, manages to reinvent themselves just enough to sound fresh but still distinctive. Third is harsher than either the band’s genre-defining debut Dummy or their cryptic self-titled follow up–Beth Gibbons still emits an aching and earnest croon, but behind her the sounds are more international spy film than noir detective story. Take the overwhelming percussion of “Machine Gun” or the eastern sounds that permeate “Magic Doors.” Time has prevented the band from falling into a rut or becoming irrelevant and makes Third‘s sudden arrival all the more startling.

6. New Amerykah, Part 1: Third World War by Erykah Badu
Socially relevant soul music for a new generation, Badu has grown well beyond her Nina Simone/Billie Holiday roots at this point. Where older tracks like “On & On” and “Bag Lady” sounded like cool updates of old styles, this is what Worldwide Underground hinted an Erykah Badu record could be–an album that transcends time and place, creating a dreamy space somewhere between classicist Motown tradition and the samples, loops and rhythms of modern hip-hop. It’s not something that can be digested in a single listen–it wanders and coils in on itself–but it’s a work of astounding sophistication.

7. Shallow Graves by The Tallest Man on Earth
An album that works for its pure simplicity. Kristian Matsson, rather than relying on trying to put a spin on old sounds or coming up with crazy mixes and arrangements, instead has focused on pure strong songwriting to create ten folk songs that recall the heyday of the genre. The centerpiece of the album is Matsson’s endearingly nasal vocal, framed only by an acoustic guitar, banjo and–on only one track–an extremely subtle cello (or viola, I’m not sure). In an era where music is often overwhelming to pick apart, this album stands out for its starkness and is better for it.

8. @#%&*! Smilers by Aimee Mann
As much as I love Lost in Space and The Forgotten Arm, both those albums felt a little bit weighed down at times, where this album shares the buoyancy of her masterwork, Bachelor No. 2. As usual, her amazing, strong, slightly melancholy voice is her greatest instrument, but it’s backed up by gentle grooves (“The Great Beyond,” “Freeway”), balladeer arrangements (“31 Today”), and lazy, Saturday afternoon rhythms, (“True Believer,” “Looking for Nothing”). The words “adult contemporary” can conjure up some scary images (see: Phil Collins), but this album is a great example of why that doesn’t have to be the case.

9. Saturnalia by The Gutter Twins
A collaboration between Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age) and Greg Dulli (The Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers), there’s basically no way this could not be awesome. It manages to incorporate the best aspects of both artists, existing as an entity both spooky and sensual, both spaced out and melodic, and full of an intriguing, dirty darkness. Cloaked in oozing synths and strings, bombastic drumming, and the alternately smooth and gravelly vocals of the pair (often harmonizing in an amazing contrast), this is a night album that could be a soundtrack to getting laid or stalking someone in an alley, and that’s a weirdly interesting mix.

10. Earth to the Dandy Warhols by The Dandy Warhols
The Dandys have never been a band one could take especially seriously and this album isn’t going to change that. Likewise, any record by the band could easily and accurately be called indulgent, and again, this is no exception. This is why it’s at the bottom of this list, but I have to include it, just cos it’s so damn fun. Check out that seriously grooving riff on “Wasp in the Lotus,” or the shiny-happiness of “Love Song,” or the pseudo-honky-tonk beat of “The Legend of the Last of the Outlaw Truckers AKA the Ballad of Sheriff Shorty,” or the rock-n-roll stomp on “Valerie Yum.” It’s self-conscious party music, with all the ridiculous posturing that comes with (see: “Welcome to the Third World”), but they’ve combined the strengths of their best albums–the hazy psychedelia of Come Down, the stylistically varied poppiness of Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia and the new-wave influence that fit them like a glove on Welcome to the Monkey House and put them all together.

So I showed you mine, now you show me yours.

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10 Responses

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  1. Dandy Warhols + Portishead were great releases. The Gutter Twins thing sounds awesome! Still meaning to check out Sloan.

    Oh, dude, could I get you to remove the South Park torrent? I don’t want the blog to get busted on. :x! I don’t wanna tell anyone what to write or anything, but… yeah. v_v

    Marshall B

    June 25, 2008 at 12:21 am

  2. Awesome list by the way! I don’t even remember what’s been released this year. I’ll go check my iTunes list and see what I’d put on meh listesses.

    Marshall B

    June 25, 2008 at 12:22 am

  3. Oh, dude, could I get you to remove the South Park torrent? I don’t want the blog to get busted on. :x! I don’t wanna tell anyone what to write or anything, but… yeah. v_v

    That’s cool–it’s probably not a bad idea, actually. Already replaced it with a different (and better, really) link.

    Sarah K

    June 25, 2008 at 12:27 am

  4. Also thanks and I’m curious what you’ll come up with.

    Sarah K

    June 25, 2008 at 12:30 am

  5. I didn’t know the Hold Steady was out already.aaaaaaaaack! I really love the Hold Steady and from the way you talk about this one, I can’t wait.

    Anyway, I haven’t purchased many CDs released this year. Lately I’ve been going back and filling in hole (hence, Harvey Danger) rather than buying new things. So I don’t know if I could make a decent list. I’ll try, though.

    P.S. I love that South Park episode.

    Jacob Z

    June 25, 2008 at 12:38 am

  6. Thanks grl!

    Marshall B

    June 25, 2008 at 1:04 am

  7. Okay, so my list:

    REM – Accelerate

    REM had sort of faded with recent releases, but Accelerate was really a big return to form. It’s not as classic as their earlier releases, but it’s overall solid and I’ve definitely given it more than one spin.

    Dandy Warhols – …Earth to the Dandy Warhols…

    Like you said, they aren’t meant to be taken super seriously. Just a fun band to listen to. Earth definitely makes up for Odditorium, which, in my opinion, really sucked. Although, it does kinda bug me when bands have throwaway sort of tracks as their last song/first song. ):

    Have a Nice Life – Deathconsciousness

    I wrote about it here (https://zenmusic.wordpress.com/2008/06/01/have-a-nice-life-deathconsciousness/) already, but it is probably my favorite release so far this year. Fantastic post-punk / shoegaze. The guys in the band are awesome dudes, really nice, too. So that makes me love it even more.

    5ive (not the boy band!) – Hesperus

    Really sweet tunes if you’re into instrumental post-rock / metal sort of stuff. I think Vince might like them. I dunno if he’s heard of them or not. I’d def assume so, though.

    Portishead – Third

    I hadn’t listened to them outside of the radio until this came out and I heard all the hype. I got the CD, loved it, and then bought their other two. Really good band.

    Be Your Own Pet – Get Awkward

    Sort of like the Dandy Warhols in terms of not-serious factor, just 100000x more so. Catchy, fun tunes.

    Boris – Smile

    I really love more aggressive Boris, along the lines of Pink, and Smile was pretty intense, fast-paced music to listen to. Pretty good stuff.

    It doesn’t technically count as a CD, but that live recording of the My Bloody Valentine rehearsal show is epic, so yeah, awesomeness!

    So that’s mah list.

    Marshall B

    June 25, 2008 at 2:24 am

  8. WEB SHERIFF
    Protecting Your Rights on the Internet
    Tel 44-(0)208-323 8013
    Fax 44-(0)208 323 8080
    websheriff@websheriff.com
    http://www.websheriff.com

    Hi Sarah,

    On behalf of Rough Trade / Beggars Digital, Vagrant and The Hold Steady, many thanks for plugging “Stay Positive” (street date 14th July and advance, digital release date 9th June) … .. thanks, also, on behalf of the label and the band for not posting any pirate links to unreleased (studio) material and, if your readers want good quality, non-pirated, preview tracks, “Sequestered in Memphis” is available for fans and bloggers to stream / link to / post etc on the band’s MySpace … .. check-out http://www.myspace.com/theholdsteady and http://www.theholdsteady.com for details on “Stay Positive” and the band’s 2008 shows … .. for a limited period a play-through of “Stay Positive” shall also be available on the band’s MySpace and on NME (http://www.nme.com), although these are for promotional purposes only and the artist and labels have kindly asked fans and bloggers not to host or link to pirate copies of the full album on-line – for which many thanks in advance.

    Thanks again for your plug.

    Regards,

    WEB SHERIFF

    WEB SHERIFF

    June 25, 2008 at 5:16 am

  9. A few more posts like this and you’ll be every band managers favorite blogger, Sarah =P.

    But seriously, I happened upon an iTunes giftcard last night and I downloaded Heretic Pride, it’s reeeeeeeeeeeeally good.

    Jacob Z

    June 25, 2008 at 11:31 am

  10. Haha, apparently! 0_0

    But yeah, innit though? Have you seen the video for “Sax Rohmer #1?”

    If not: check it out

    Sarah K

    June 25, 2008 at 2:11 pm


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