Welcome to my 2008 favourite albums list. I say "favourite"
instead of "best" because I just like what I like. In fact a lot of the stuff that I like, I like in spite of the fact that I know it's not "good." I say "Caveat Emptor" (or "Buyer Beware") because in this age of digital music I seldomly buy actual CD's, and in fact, I seldomly buy complete albums. I have become what is surely some sort of reviled lower life form in the minds of true music aficionados: the cherry picker
. I will tell you that I have downloaded the majority (if not all) of the songs from the albums in my top ten or twelve. After that it might get a little dicey. Consider yourself warned.
1. Elliott BROOD
- "Mountain Meadows
I think this is the sentimental favourite if only because they are Canadian. Like the Calexico disc, I have the complete album and there are very few songs on it that I don't genuinely enjoy. If you haven't heard Elliott Brood, they describe their music as "death country." I would describe it as rock music, played on banjos and ukeleles, so that it sounds like it is coming through some sort of traditional music filter. "Mountain Meadows" is a milder, more commercially accessible Elliott Brood than their much darker debut album "Ambassador" but it's also a more consistent, more melodic Elliott Brood. Tracks like "Without Again" and "Write It All Down for You" are downright catchy. Other excellent tracks include the moody "31 Years" and bar room rockers like the instrumental "Chuckwagon" and the simple banjo driven, sing-a-longsy "T-Bill." But there are many other gooders here to choose from. Do yourself a favour and check out this unique new band.
Bonus social media content: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrTceGxkADA
- "Carried to Dust
I was actually super majorly disappointed with this album when I first heard it. It's slick production values and Joey Burn's predominantly "spooky whisper" vocal stylings had me longing for the lo-fi indie wood-toned goodness of my favourite Calexico album, "Spoke." But, thankfully, John Convertino's drumming started pulling me in and now, after repeated listens, I am officially head over heels in love with this album. Calexico is, above all else these days, a band of great musicians. It is the jams, the little twists and turns and details of their music, that reward repeated listens and close attention, and are so friggin' excellent. They have also refound their mariachi mojo that was nearly absent from their last album "Garden Ruin." Desert flavoured tracks like "Inspiración," "Pulpo" and "El Gatillo (Trigger Revisited)" are among my favourites. But it's "Slowness" that is my absolute favourite, a beautiful duet sung with some very excellent female vocalist whose name I don't know because iTunes didn't have a "digital booklet" to offer with the album download (one of the pitfalls of virtual music I suppose).http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5ymthjitIs
3. Justin Townes Earle
- "The Good Life
I normally don't like music quite this old-timey. This album sounds like it could have been recorded during the Depression and would be at right home spinning away on a gramaphone. I imagine this sort strict adherence to a form of music must take discipline but could be liberating at the same time. (I wish the new Ryan Adams & the Cardinals disc had more of this sort of discipline, more like their excellent "Jacksonville City Nights" album. But I digress...) The JTE "character" here is a cheatin', drinkin', gamblin', boxcar hoppin' rogue with a twinkle in his eye and a yarn on his lips but with a bit of lonesome side as well. It's a thoroughly enjoyable ride! Favourites include the title track, "Hard Livin'" and (If You) "Ain't Glad I'm Leaving" (Girl You Know You Oughta Be).
(As an aside I also ended up downloading a few tracks off of his debut EP "Yuma" including the excellent track "I Don't Care" which namedrops Saskatoon!!!)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOi03zt9DTw
4. The Avett Brothers
- "The Second Gleam EP
This album really surprised me too. I sort of just downloaded it to use up some eMusic credits and thought its acoustic backporchy vibe might be nice to throw on while I was doing housework or something. But after a few plays I found myself really getting pulled in by the songwriting and ended up sitting in front of the computer, listening, dish towel in hand. Simple, catchy melodies and lyrics with just the right mix of melancholy and humour. A really great, really affecting little record. ("The Greatest Sum (acoustic)" and "Murder in the City" are my favourites but the whole thing is really solid.)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aE7rkSELM3I
5. The Walkmen
- "You & Me
I've been cherry picking tunes from Walkmen albums for a number of years now. So I can say, with no great degree of certainty, this is by far my favourite of theirs. A hundred miles off from the punky screamer "the Rat" from their "Bows + Arrows" album (according to last.fm, still their most popular song), "You & Me" is a collection of poetic, boozy mid-tempo rockers with just the right amount of swagger. Lyrically, a lot of the songs come out of a place of regret and fatalism, of knowing you really need to get your shit together and make some changes in your life but also knowing that, in all likely hood, that isn't ever going to happen. You just are what you are, and so am I. This album is so consistently good that it's hard to pick favourites, but "Postcards from Tiny Islands," "Red Moon" and "In the New Year" are some good ones.http://pitchfork.tv/juans-basement/the-walkmen
6. Old 97's
- "Blame it on Gravity
I'd heard of the Old 97's quite some time ago but I guess never really "got them" and had barely a handfull of their songs on my computer. That all changed when I heard the jaw-dropping "No Baby I" while listening to a neighbour's radio station here on last.fm this year. I immediately downloaded the bulk of "Blame on Gravity," cherry-picked many tunes from several albums in their back catalogue, and then spent the summer catching up with this heretofore overlooked Dallas, Texas band. I love their punky "I hear the train a comin'" take on alt-country and many of Rhett Miller's lyrics to me seem downright Westerbergian. While my whirlwind romance with them has now cooled slightly, I still count "No Baby I" as easily one of my favourite tracks of the year, and other gooders include "The Easy Way" and "The Fool."http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fe3vTIuGrFQ
- "Modern Guilt
Not quite on par with my favourite Beck albums ("Odelay" and "Guero") but its up there. This time around Beck teams up with Danger Mouse who, I am told, is quite famous as the musical half of Gnarls Barkley. Danger Mouse produces the album and is credited for most of the album's "beats." (If you generate "beats" on a computer does that make you a percussionist? A drummer? I am getting old...) Lyrically, "Modern Guilt" is very dark and existential, with a few musings on environmental apocalypse thrown in for relief. However, musically, the album is actually quite uptempo and upbeat, and there is also a groovy retro late 60's vibe to many of the songs, which, combined with the very modern hip-hoppy beats and production, makes for a sonically rich and interesting album. Fave tracks include the title track, "Gamma Ray," "Orphans," "Chemtrails" and the air guitar worthy riff in "Soul of a Man."http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxTLdflDe_0
8. Aimee Mann
A modest departure for the Aimme Mann "brand" from the 70's adult contemporary soft rock guitar sound of her last few albums to a more 70's adult contemporary soft rock keyboards sound. I wasn't sure if I liked this at first but the keyboards work well here generally and push the soaring melancholy in the choruses of songs like "Looking for Nothing" or "Thirty One Today" to spine tingling levels. In all, the Aimee Mann "brand promise" is delivered here, from the wisened, semi-detatched narrator coolly singing about an assortment of loser characters, right down to the beautiful CD packaging we've come to to expect from her. (Unfortunately, I only happened to see the packaging while killing time in a record store after I'd already downloaded the album... doh!)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqM6DDWCZzs&feature=channel
9. Jolie Holland
- "The Living and the Dead
I first heard Jolie Holland on 2006 's 1930's-ish sounding torchlight album "Springtime Can Kill You" and subsequently cherry-picked a few tunes off of her 2004 debut "Escondida." Holland (so I've heard) was one of the founding members of the Be Good Tanyas, but you wouldn't necessarily know it from listening to her early solo work. More "old-timey" than "traditional" (if that makes sense) these albums have slow, understated arrangements that highlight her extraordinary ethereal, warbly voice. "The Living and the Dead" moves her into more upbeat, more modern sounding territory, but the whole thing still works, and is probably much more accessible (albeit less unique) than her first two albums. "Your Big Hands" is the rockingest track here and "Sweet Loving Man" is another favourite, but there are many good ones to chose from.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0GISfiX9oY
10. Kathleen Edwards
- "Asking for Flowers
I didn't especially care for this album initially as it kind of sounded like Kathleen Edwards was losing her edge. After a few listens though, I think there's still plenty of edge here, it's just more subtle. And this album seems to really mark her maturing as a songwriter. "The Cheapest Key" is a nod to her old overtly mischievous self, as is "Sure as Shit"(well, at least the title is anyways...) But it's the keenly observed, heart-wrenching title track that had me close to tears when it came on the stereo the other day while I was driving home from the grocery store...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hJxBNZ1xlk
11. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
- "Real Emotional Trash
I seem to be in a small minority of people who count Stephen Malkmus's eponymous debut as their favourite of his post-Pavement albums. I think Malkmus is a fairly awesome guitar player but I find a lot of his trippy solos and noodling a bit excessive. While "Real Emotional Trash" doesn't completely do away with those (the title track clocks in at ten minutes) there are a handful of songs here that match the catchy, smart, focused brevity of his early solo work. Also, I think the addition of former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss helps a lot, as she at least provides a solid backbone for some of Malkmus's freestyle vocal and guitar explorations. "Cold Son" is my favourite, with "Gardenia" and "Out of Reaches" following close behind.
12. Foxboro Hottubs
- "Stop Drop and Roll!!!
I read somewhere that Green Day recorded this album under a pseudonym because they just wanted to have some fun and record some songs without having to deal with all the pressure of following up their monster 2004 hit album "American Idiot." The result is, well... fun! It is predictably punky but with lots of retro-60's garage and psychedelic influences thrown into the mix. The album includes one of my favourite songs of the year, "Pieces of Truth" with it's rip snortin' garage punk guitar riff and the reeling saxophone solo that closes it out. The Strawberry Alarm Clock-esque flutes of "Dark Side of Night" are also cool, as are the retro keyboards in the rollicking "Sally." All in all a very enjoyable effort!
13. Silver Jews
- "Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
A more polished, Nashville-ey sounding Silver Jews compared to their usual ramshackle delivery, which I'm not sure if I like or not... David Berman hasn't lost his sense of humour though or his gift with language. The hilarious "Candy Jail" will certainly become a Jews classic for me."What Is Not But Could Be If" and "Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer" are also favourites.
14. Elvis Costello & The Imposters
Did I mention that the Imposters effin' rule? I heard this album was nailed together in like a week or two or something, and it shows. No computer massaging and time correcting here. This sounds live in the studio, with all the glorious imperfections that come along with that. Full of visceral groove and feel, this is a nice departure for Elvis from some of his more "cerebral" projects of late, and demonstrates that he still knows how to rock (for an old bugger). Favourite tracks include "Drum and Bone," "Stella Hurt" and "Go Away."
15. Cat Power
(Hmmm. This one feels too far down the list but I'm not sure who to bump...) Overall, I didn't like this album of cover songs as much as her recent "The Greatest" LP but there are a few tunes here that I really like a lot. Especially "I Believe in You" and her take on the Sinatra classic "New York, New York." She also released a companion EP this year called "Dark End of the Street" that features an interesting cover of CCR's "Fortunate Son" (although not nearly as cool as the Uncle Tupelo cover I've heard of that tune!) Add in her awesome take of Dylan's "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" from the late 2007 "Being There" soundtrack, and 2008 was a great year for listening to soulful Cat Power cover tunes.
- "Dual Hawks
"Dual Hawks" is actually sort of a double album by songwriter Will Johnson. One half is recorded with his spare and haunting "South San Gabriel" project, the other with the noisier "Centro-matic." While I'm sure most music critics would undoubtedly prefer the more affecting and innovative South San Gabriel stuff, I just can't get enough of the 90's grunge and fuzztone guitars of Centro-matic. Also, Johnson's vocals on the latter are so very cool. Wisened, craggly and world weary with "the fiends and ghouls and darkness at (his) door" (from the song "Twenty-four." "All Your Farewells" and "The Rat Patrol and DJ's" are also stellar.)
17. Drive-By Truckers
- "Brighter Than Creation's Dark
For some reason, try as I might (I've cherry-picked from plenty of their albums) but I've never quite gotten the whole hubba-balloo over the DBT's. Don't get me wrong, they've got some great songs and I completely respect them as artists, and I genuinely appreciate the intelligent themes and vivid personae rendered in their lyrics, but somehow just not quite my cup of tea. Still, this album is by far their most accessible to date for me, and gems like "Ghost to Most" and "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife" may finally have me seeing the light (pun intended).
18. Lucinda Williams
- "Little Honey
I haven't given this album a whole lot of spins yet, but my initial reaction to it is quite positive, and I'm predicting some months down the road I may wish that I had ranked it higher. After several albums of generally quite morose, introspective music, this is the sound of Lucinda Williams finally having a bit of fun and rocking out. Initial favourites include a duet with Elvis Costello called "Jailhouse Tears", the honky tonk of "Well, Well, Well" and the mid-tempo "Little Rock Star" (which in a way reminds me of "Drunken Angel" from her classic "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" album.)
19. Tokyo Police Club
- "Elephant Shell
The much hyped full-length debut from the Toronto area suburb of Newmarket, Ontario quartet turned out to be mildly disappointing. After releasing two stellar EP's that were full of quirky, high energy indie-post-punk-power-pop with shades of the Strokes, Buzzcocks and GBV, this album is a more toned-down serious affair and not nearly as much fun. Still, there are a enough nice nuggets here, such as "Juno" or "Listen to the Math," to let me give it a mildly enthusiastic thumbs up.
20. She & Him
- "Volume 1
This year's guilty pleasure, I suppose. A somewhat light-weight summer soft rock/pop (but nonetheless engaging) album that joins actress/looker Zooey Deschanel (of "Elf" fame) with musical savant M. Ward. The album is a mix of 50's and 60's pop, a bit of twang, and a bit of alternative. Deschanel is actually a pretty decent, confident singer and M.Ward keeps things fairly interesting musically. Favourite tracks: "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?," This Is Not a Test" and "I Was Made for You."
Just barely missed the cut:Jenny Lewis
- "Acid Tongue"Stars
- "Sad Robots EP"Jason Collett
- "Here's to Being Here"