A beginning and a year-end.

Despite the pervading rumor of its demise the album remained strong in 2008. They stand tall in the face of digitization like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. We loved them once, and now they're knife-wielding and crazy, hiding in the bushes in our front yards. The album will never die, and not because it is impervious to the new digital age, but because there is a love there that transcends individual tracks. Shoot them down with hook-laden pop singles and radio hits, but watch them rise up again, horror movie style to remind us how great it is to hear a set of songs that paints a picture, sets a mood, and makes us think.

To light Gas Lantern for the first time, I'm running down my Top 5 albums of 2008. I've ranked these in order of awesomeness (the most objective property by which to rank music in any list). Put the kids to bed, grab some popcorn, and put on your reading goggles because here they come:

number 5: She & Him; Volume One

Playful and experimentally folksy, the debut by Zooey Deschanel with M. Ward opens with a candy-coated sentimentality and sustains emotional depth covering classic topics of love and loss. The collaboration hits the necessary pop notes, but doesn't drag them out into a series of belligerent hooks. The album sounds like Loretta Lynn and feels like swimming in a pool of cotton candy. You won't throw up a Care Bear from its sweetness as timely covers and ballads sync the album together so that it sums up an almost collective consciousness experience of love. Deschanel and Ward rearrange "You Really Got a Hold On Me" into an ethereal mist that both grabs and blurs the simple chord progression. They succeed by taking the over-driven poppiness away and letting the solemn lyrics show like a spotlight in a dense fog. Closing on a mournful, solidly voiced version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," She & Him impress without seeming to try.

My Favorite Track: "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?"

number 4: The Magnetic Fields; Distortion

A growling infusion of distortion typifies another excellent themed album by The Magnetic Fields. Breaking away only slightly from the usual classical instrumentation (running guitar, cello, piano and organ, along with Daniel Handler's accordion through the pedals) Stephin Merritt and company hit all the right notes to entertain lyrically and intrigue musically. My love of The Magnetic Fields may have pushed this album into the Top 5 for more than simple virtue, but Distortion remains a cohesive, witty and sparse rock archive. Biting, but funny tracks like "California Girls" and "Too Drunk To Dream" play to the best aspects of Shirley Simms' and Merritt's vox, respectively. "Zombie Boy" plays with love, voodoo and points to the intellectual side of the band.

My favorite Track: "Too Drunk To Dream"

number 3: Fleet Foxes; Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes self-titled album (which has topped many year-end lists as the best of 2008) is symphonic and heavy with warm, steely guitar strings, but even has the harmonic sensibility of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds layered in. It starts with a sunrise, literally, and each carefully selected note calls back to great bands like Crosby, Stills & Nash and Pink Floyd. Nothing on the album, from arrangement, to vocals, to harmony, to individual notes seems accidental. This album is well-planned and built to be heard from top to bottom. Songwriter Robin Pecknold offers 11 songs without contrivance. In that way, each transition feels fleet, not weighted down even when the words or the chord progression grants a song heaviness. Fleet Foxes embrace folk, indie rock, and to a great extent, a renaissance air. "White Winter Hymnal" darkens the tone almost immediately... and carries toward "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" where Pecknold attaches a haunting refrain (I don't know what I have done/I'm turning myself into a demon). And even for that darkness, "Quiet Houses" provides redemption to the story with lyrics like 'Lay me down, lay me down.../Don't give in, don't give in..." Each song compliments the last. This is a truly great album. If you haven't heard it yet, get up from the computer (or order it online if you must) and give it a listen.

My Favorite Track: "He Doesn't Know Why "

number 2: MGMT; Oracular Spectacular

I'll admit, right here, right now that this album is front-loaded. It's top-heavy like a pornstar, but what it lacks in the final 3 or 4 tracks, it more than makes up for with grittiness, and the kind of brilliance you can only get from the duo of Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden and their realist-sensibility driven synthpop. The opening track, "Time to Pretend," admits and reiterates the sometimes dismal hope of fame through artistic creation in an internet world. The fame of old no longer exists, so your best hope is to live it up while you have the chance. Occasionally, the lyrics are nonsensical, almost seeming encoded in a language for which we've long lost the cypher. The arrangements are emotional, not obvious, but motivating. These songs make you want to listen. A folksy turn in "Weekend Wars," a disco one in "Electric Feel," and a misty design on "Kids" make this one of the most fun, and re-listenable albums of the last year. Technically, it was released digitally at year's end 2007, but it's good enough to mention again this year.

My Favorite Track: "Weekend Wars"

number 1: TV On The Radio; Dear Science

My love for this album, which is young for 2008- just released in late September- has won the hearts of many music reviewers and publications. It has the number 1 nod from Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Spin among others. The best aspect of Dear Science is how it demonstrates the growth of TVotR as a band. Not only showing expansion of their trademark post-punk, indie, shoegaze sound, but also in their production. Songs remain sparse and unadorned as necessary, and Dear Science shows a confidence that precludes any faults of big label overworking. The lyrics maintain the playfulness of early albums, and don't compromise. My favorite track, "Halfway Home" bounds from giddy anticipation to regret to the hope you can only get when you're finally turning into your neighborhood after a long travel abroad. Dear Science really feels like home from the beginning. TV on the Radio does not seek to alienate, but they don't seek to please either. It's like playing games of imagination as a child. Every word and note feels right, feels almost accidental and definitely unforced. And it's a pleasure to listen to over and over again.

My Favorite Track (as stated above): "Halfway Home"

With the end of the year fast approaching, I invite you to come back in 2009 for more reviews of music, video and written words. Happy holidays.

1 comment:

  1. Yay She and Him! I feel like they're a little more mellow, a little more throwback version of Camera Obscura. Maybe not. In any case, I usually want to listen to one of them after I've listened to the other. :)