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.


Grizzly Bear at Boston’s MFA, 8/14
Photo by Tim Bugbee, for the Boston Phoenix

Photo by Tim Bugbee, for the Boston Phoenix

In the four times I’ve seen Grizzly Bear in the past 18 months or so, neither their set list nor their songs have changed a lot. But a sense that the band continues to grow, improve, and enjoy their rapidly elevating status remains. The band got a night off from a recent stint opening for Radiohead to play in the courtyard of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts two weeks ago. Clocking in at a little over an hour, it was the longest and perhaps the best set I’ve seen the band play. (The surroundings, all brick walls and ivy, certainly helped.)

The one fairly valid qualm one could levy about a Grizzly Bear show is that a lot of their songs sound the same, which would be problematic if they weren’t all so complicated (and not to mention, if the band sounded much like anyone else). My favorite Bear, Christopher Bear (seriously), is a drummer of immaculate technique, mostly styled on subtle jazz technique but also tapping cymbals with his hand and (if my friend is to be believed) using a delay pedal to create special effects. Chris Taylor, as ever, is everywhere at once, laying effects on his guitar (and others that he’s not playing), planting background vocal loops and clarinet lines. Ed Droste is a giant, lanky and awkward, with the choir boy voice and hard to identify instruments. And Daniel Rossen’s got the glorious baritone guitar and the voice you probably like better that Droste’s more technically impressive pipes.

The MFA show found most of their Yellow House material in peak form (I’m especially fond of what they do with the album’s highlight, “On a Neck, On a Spit,” beginning with a new intro that renders the song unrecognizable before its careening climax). Tracks from the Friend EP (which has some dispensable remixes, but too many essential originals to ignore) were more hit or miss. Their cover of the Crystals’ subversive pop song “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” has grown tired – the bassy guitar lines pop up often in better songs – but “Little Brother (Electric)” continues to be a galvanizing rocker.

The band played at least four new songs, one which I don’t recognize, one which is too plodding and repetitive (bad video/audio from All Points West here), and two other golden cuts you may have heard before. “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait for the Others” are the best indicators of the sound of Grizzly Bear’s forthcoming “pop” album, simple, familiar tracks elevated by killer vocal harmonies (best in the business, for my money). I always get a chuckle out of Rossen’s bridge on “While You Wait…”: “I’ll ask you kindly to make your way.” Almost goofy, but he pulls it off, and the band’s confident enough in the song (and their web-friendly audience, I suppose) that it’s already an ideal set closer. You can download nice recordings of those two songs from Gorilla vs. Bear.

Openers Violens, featuring members of Lansing Dreiden… meh. I can see why the band chose them – Smiths-y emotional new-wave pop/rock – but they were about as generic as that descriptor.

– Elsewhere, Gawker’s got a heart-felt and intersting post about Harper’s, the magazine I most encourage you to subscribe to (both because it’s big and cheap – about $15 bucks a year for monthly issues – and because it’s super liberal without being dumb, which is rare IMO). Follow the link to the “Moby Duck” article, one of the more memorable pieces I’ve read in there since subscribing.