of Maine

The Best Albums of 2008 (Honorable Mentions, A-K)

At long last, the list begins. To start, some commentary and qualifications.

I’ve had a number of conversations with friends about how 2008 was the year that I (we, in many cases) began to fall out of the popular zeitgeist. A tsunami of press couldn’t convince me I needed to hear Lil Wayne’s album; I’m satisfied with the three Santogold songs I know. I continue to be unmoved and confused by some indie favorites and upstarts, like the Hold Steady, Fleet Foxes, Girl Talk, Frightened Rabbit, Abe Vigoda, Crystal Castles. I get why people like and/or hate Vampire Weekend, but I don’t understand how anyone could take their album so seriously. Okkervil River’s flying off a meta-critical cliff built from Livejournal entries, and only now are people paying attention to them, calling a B-sidesy LP one of their best. That one Lykke Li song I heard was good, the one with the dance beat.

None of this is to say that the albums below define me as any kind of sage alt-bro. An honest representation of my listening habits this year would leave my pure top 10 filled with late ’07 sad bastard music (Ned Collette’s Future Suture and Phosphorescent’s Pride), along with Department of Eagles, Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, Arthur Russell, Chad VanGaalen, the Tallest Man on Earth, Grouper, and a few other worthy entries from ’08s SB canon (with a Wolf Parade thrown in for good measure). 2008 wasn’t a personally traumatic year, but I became interested in (perhaps obsessed with) the idea of comfort in music – how it’s can be created, how it can be expressed, how even terribly depressing albums can offer it thanks to a sheer knack for honesty. For months, it was all I wanted from my headphones. Maybe 2008 was The Year I Edged Closer Towards Dad-Rock, But Demanded Of It Idiosyncrisy and Some Whiff of Authenticity, Thereby Managing to Still Dislike Fleet Foxes. More to the point: I expect as years pass, these lists of mine will get nichier and more eccentric, and I’m more than okay with that.

So, I zipped through the old iTunes library and took note of every album I liked this year. The most general qualification to make it onto at least the Honorable Mentions list is consistency, which to me means that, were I a person with different tastes or proclivities, any of those Honorable Mentions would be a worthy top tenner in some year, in some world. The top 25 that will follow, listed alphabetically, is the group of albums that seriously warranted top 10 consideration. This large number isn’t so much an indication that it was a great year for music, but that it’s pretty-goodness was widespread. Seemingly strong albums I never got around to finishing (for whatever reason) are relegated to the Honorable Mentions, for reasons of authorial integrity. There’ll be notes scattered throughout the HMs, but I intend to come up with something useful to say about everything in the top 25. Hope to have all of this published within a week.

Alina Simone, Everyone is Calling Out to Me, Beware – Impassioned rock/folk covers of work by the Siberian cult hero Yanka Dyagileva.
Black Milk, Tronic
Black Mountain, In the Future – Less tongue-in-cheek than their galvanizing debut, but much more coherent and purposeful. Reviewed here.
Blitzen Trapper, Furr – Dismissed this one after half a listen; half a listen later, I was wrong.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Lie Down in the Light – Will Oldham sings!
The Constantines, Kensington Heights – Heroic Canadian rockers seem to have shifted gears, from trying to become one of indie rock’s most blistering acts to merely being one of the most undervalued (and annoyingly slightly inconsistent) rock bands around.
The Cool Kids, The Bake Sale EP – For “BASS!” as bass alone.
Crystal Stilts, Alight of Night – Imagine what this band can achieve once they get a personality.
Department of Eagles, In Ear Park – The most (personally) controversial HM here, I’ve docked it a few points despite its great heights, because it really ought to be four or five songs shorter, and it’s not all that long in the first place. Nonetheless, in a year of too little Grizzly Bear, Daniel Rossen’s project provided a fine substitute.
The Dodos, Visiter – Had I seen the Dodos in concert anytime this year, this would be a nearly surefire top 10; with Visiter, the duo (now a trio, I hear) comes tantalizingly close to realizing the effusive kick of their spartan live show on record.
Faun Fables, A Table Forgotten EP
Flying Lotus, Los Angeles
Hauschka, Ferndorf – New addition! See bottom of this page for a good primer.
High Places, s/t – Despite the album art, I don’t hate this. Its density is almost too light not to love. Almost.
The Hospitals, Hairdryer Peace – Project for 2009: finish this album. Alienating and exhilirating in the simplest of ways.
Islands, Arm’s Way – An unexpected and totally underrated, wild-eyed triumph… after a dozen spins.
Johann Johannson, Fordlandia – My go-to ambient artist, for reasons I’ve yet to make up.
Juana Molina, Un Dia – See “High Places,” except the “almost” part. I’m shocked to see iTunes telling me I’ve listened to this 15 times, so quickly and breezily it flirts by.
Kanye West, 808s and Heartbreaks – Of course Kanye’s first interesting album is his most poorly reviewed. Much better than Graduation, and I think the mere promise of West become a genuine “eccentric artist” in the Prince mode is something to get excited about.
Kathleen Edwards, Asking for Flowers – Reviewed here.
Kingdom Shore, …and all the dogs to shark – Starting to buy into the alarming chaos of this four violin onslaught.


Fleet Foxes, s/t

For a time, I found it easiest to articulate my disappointment and confusion about Fleet Foxes in dorky platitudes. They’re “Grizzly Bear meets My Morning Jacket as a wedding band,” they’re “the ‘NSYNC of indie-folk bands.” Et cetera. Neither of those are true, but they get at a fairly important point about my relationship with the band: I’m supposed to love them. Soaring vocal harmonies? Check. Rustic vibe tinged with electric guitar riffs? Check. The list probably goes on.

Only just now did I determine the, er, my actual problem with Fleet Foxes, or more particularly, their debut album. (I’m more partial to their first EP, which I’ve only heard once or twice.) They take most of my favorite tropes of my favorite genre, and use them as a bludgeoning vessel for melodramatic, self-pitying, and – most frequently – mediocre lyrics.

Most songs traipse through a strange milieu, of death and sadness looming and images of weapons and blood about. For the most part, it’s heavy stuff, but its impact is dulled by frontman Robin Pecknold’s delivery. On “He Doesn’t Know Why,” he reserves his largest cries for lines like “I didn’t understand” and “There’s nothing I can do/There’s nothing I can do/There’s nothing I can say/There’s nothing I can say/I can say.” The latter bit is essentially the songs chorus, and the wails – yes, a dead ringer for Jim James of My Morning Jacket, minus the reverb and any semblance of playfulness or perversion – are purported to be so intense that the rest of the song basically stops for it. This is a common trope of the album; the music serves the vocals, never the other way around.

No other track on Fleet Foxes gets my goat so much, but a lot of the other big rock numbers feel equally stilted. The five-minute “Ragged Wood” feels like three songs that have little to do with one another: it begins in a jaunty, almost rollicking rhythm; settles into a ruminous, extended bridge; and ends in two minutes of thudding, clattering drums and clunky rhymes (“Lie to me if you will/At the top of Berringer Hill”). The admittedly gorgeous “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” again loses itself in Pecknold’s bombast (“I don’t know what I have done/I’m turning myself ‘to a demon”), and “Quiet Houses” is built merely on a few vague (and, moreover, bland) lines and nothing more: “Lay me down,” “come to me,” I can’t make out the other one. (“Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” and “Quiet Houses” are up on the band’s Myspace page.)

If it’s not obvious, there’s something weirdly personal about my distaste for the band. I overstate their flaws because most of them bastardize the aspects of Fleet Foxes I do enjoy. And taking a step back, it’s easy to convince myself that most of these problems won’t apply to the band’s next album. (You would hope so, at least; with the rapturous reception their concerts and this album receive, they should have less to be so brooding and opaque about.) There’s not much shame in overshooting on your first effort. And forunately, the final quarter of Fleet Foxes is some of the band’s best work. “Meadowlark” is something between a forest hymnal and the atmospheric chamber pop of Beach House, and Pecknold doesn’t overplay his hand. “Blue Ridge Mountains” is the best of the album’s sweeping-melodrama numbers, held up by a tireless acoustic rhythm guitar lick. And Pecknold sounds more fragile and human on “Oliver James” than he does elsewhere here; a verse of tremulous whispers give way to the howls that pervade the rest of the song, and that one touch of restraint makes the journey a lot more appealing.

(Note: the “I” speak here won’t hang around so long, but the passion with which people write about Fleet Foxes makes me feel like such an outsider on the issue I take my qualms about them a lot more personally than I do other bands, generally speaking. I am also just insecure about my not liking them.)