Sunday, January 18, 2009

2008 In (incomplete) Review!!!!

It's finally here! My 2008 round-up. In retrospect I wish it were more extensive, but it's been pushed back long enough, so... here we go!

Honorable Mentions:
Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs
This was on most peoples' Top 10 lists that I received, at the very least in the included Honorable Mentions. Really solid album, but I found myself only listening to half the songs and skipping the rest.
Starflyer 59 - Dial M
This album was just BARELY edged out of the Top 10. I've never considered myself a Starflyer 59 fan, but this album won me over in a big way.
These Arms Are Snakes - Tail Swallower and Dove
I'm getting hooked on these guys. Three piece semi-prog-rock that doesn't always go where you think it's heading.
Matt Pryor - s/t
Pryor's best work since The Get Up Kids broke up - and now they're back together! Highly recommended if you like TGUK, New Amsterdams, short and sweet acoustic ditties.
Reeve Oliver - Touchtone Inferno
Really great album that was originally in my Top 10 but lost its spot to Valencia, for reasons to be explained below. Can you believe the front man for Reeve was in Dogwood?
Dr. Manhattan - s/t
Crazy and inventive, but too many of the songs have similar patterns and too many deadspaces seem aimless, not purposeful.
Russian Circles - Station
Best instrumental band to come along in a while. Enter was a good release, but Station takes it to another level.
Thrice - The Alchemy Index Vols. III & IV: Air & Earth
Probably my favorite Thrice release since The Artist in the Ambulance. Both EPs are very expressive and elemental (as they are intended to be), and the Air EP is a personal favorite.
United Nations - s/t
Insane and intense, but gets kinda boring in its assault after a while...
The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
The best Get Up Kids album since they broke up. The vocals will be make-or-break for most people, but recommended for fans of TGUK, Hey Mercedes, power rock in general.
My Morning Jacket - Evil Urges
Completely solid album that just couldn't get its hooks into me, no matter how many chances I gave it.
Underoath - Lost in the Sound of Separation
Arguably better than Define the Great Line, but I didn't like it as much. It felt like the focus was less on songs and dynamics, and more on sheer brutality - which this album definitely excelled at.
David Vandervelde - Waiting for the Sunrise
Sounds like it was made in someone's bedroom - in 1976. And I mean that in the best way possible. See this guy live if you get the chance;
Good Old War - Only Way To Be Alone
While this album is a solid entrant into the world of acoustic pop, and will definitely please any Paul Simon fans, it just made me miss Days Away that much more.
Margot & The Nuclear So & So's - Animal! and Not Animal
Margot still writes good songs, but the way these albums were recorded leaves me wanting a lot more. Too much is almost clinical in its execution and sound, and lacks the raw subtleties that The Dust Of Retreat majored in.
Rise Against - Appeal to Reason
Completely solid and capable album, but sounds too much like The Sufferer and the Witness to stand on its own.
Cruiserweight - Big Bold Letters
Cruiserweight releases another fun pop-rock album. For fans of female-fronted power pop everywhere.
Mates of State - Re-Arrange Us
This album probably would have made it onto the Top 10 if it weren't upstaged by another husband-wife duo. Highly recommended.

Best Album from 2007 that I didn't start listening to until 2008:
Via Audio - Say Something
How did I miss this? Great from start to finish, stays away from predictable pop song tropes, yet remains catchy.

Top 3 EPs:
Emery - While Broken Hearts Prevail...
I've never been a huge fan of Emery; I liked them well enough, but never enough to listen to a whole album. Thus this EP seems to me like it came out of left field. Every track is a pure rock assault, only leaning towards "screamo" territory on a couple of occasions. "Say the Things (You Want)" and "Do the Things (You Want)" are perfect companion pieces, one summing up the end of a relationship, the other taking to task fairweather fans of music and art. Emery's versatility shines through on these songs and throughout the release, causing me to greatly anticipate their forthcoming LP.
You, Me, And Everyone We Know - So Young, So Insane
At first I just liked the first track off this album, the stellar "I Can Get Back Up Now"; but after giving the rest of the EP a few listens, that track fell to 3rd or 4th on my list. A 6-song EP that focuses on melodic pop/rock about relationships and friendships in general - I know the first thing most people would think of is Colored By Numbers' seminal release You Are Going To Be Let Down, but this EP is pretty damn good, too.
Deas Vail - White Lights EP
This release is held up by the vocals; the music isn't anything extraordinary, and in fact is downright awkward at times, but the vocals pull everything together and soar on top. "White Lights" and "Last Place" are the standout tracks here.

Random Songs that Would Make a Great Mix Disc if Arranged in the Right Order (Presented in Alphabetical Order by Band Name):
Anberlin, "Haight St."
Coldplay, "Lovers in Japan (Osaka Sun Mix)"
Colour Revolt, "Naked and Red"
Death Cab for Cutie, "Cath..."
Dr. Manhattan, "You Put the I In Team"
Flobots, "Handlebars"
The Forecast, "A Better Man"
Good Old War, "Coney Island"
The Hold Steady, "Constructive Summer"
House of Heroes, "Code Name: Raven" (ignore the bridge, enjoy the rest)
Jack's Mannequin, "Crashing"
Kings of Leon, "Sex on Fire"
Margot & The Nuclear So & So's, "Love Song for a Schuba's Bartender"
Marnie Stern, "Prime"
Mates of State, "Now"
Matt Pryor, "A Totally New Year"
My Morning Jacket, "Evil Urges"
Protest The Hero, "Bloodmeat"
Russian Circles, "Verses"
Starflyer 59, "Minor Keys"
These Arms Are Snakes, "Lucifer"
Thrice, "A Song for Milly Michaelson"
We Are Scientists, "After Hours"

My 10 Favorite Albums, 2008 Edition
It's too nonsensical to even attempt an objective top 10 (or any similar list for that matter). But out of the music that was released in 2008 that I managed to listen to - and multiple times, at that - here are the 10 releases that I enjoyed the most, in roughly reverse order:

Copeland - You Are My Sunshine
I wasn't anticipating being a fan of this album after not enjoying 2006's Eat, Sleep, Repeat, but from the opening words of "Should You Return" I knew I was going to like it. Though it's not perfect... what Copeland release ever is? That's besides the point; there is plenty to love here. Copeland covered all their bases here - "Should You Return," "Chin Up," and "What Do I Know?" are subdued, brooding rockers; "The Grey Man," "To Be Happy Now," and "Not Allowed" are the more upbeat pop songs, and "Good Morning Fire Eater," "On the Safest Ledge" and "The Day I Lost My Voice" are signature Copeland songs: major key, gorgeous and sad, all at the same time. The only misfires are towards the end of the album: "Strange and Unprepared" is a musical copycat of Radiohead's incomparable "Videotape"; and album closer "Not So Tough Found Out" would have been better left as the art installation soundtrack it was written for. All around, though, it makes me look forward to hearing Copeland in the future... so things are looking up!

Maria Mena - Cause and Effect
I know a lot of people - probably everyone - is going to disagree with me on this one, but this is probably the most stunning album I heard all year. A little hard to get a hold of as it was only released in Europe, this album is quite the evolution from the girl that was first presented to America as the European Michelle Branch. "Only One" and "Fragile" were great pop songs, but Cause and Effect is the sound of a girl becoming a woman - or at least exorcising a shit ton of demons. I can't figure out what makes my spine tingle more: her explicit descriptions of life as the child of divorce in album opener "Power Trip Ballad" - complete with OCD, eating disorders, and terrible parental behavior - or her bitter "Ha, ha, ha, ha" that ends each verse. Her proclamation in the chorus that "You will always be the bitter, saddest part of me" is just as powerful now as the first time I heard it. The tracks that follow don't get any lighter; often they get so heavy and intimate that, as a male, I feel really awkward listening (but not in the same way I feel awkward when I hear Miley Cyrus). The music itself is raw and, while produced well, a far cry from the glossy pop most American songstresses churn out. This allows Mena's vocals to always be the focus, which is as it should be. Clear as a bell and yet full of soul and pain, it serves as the hook for every song. It is telling that the only indisputably happy song on the album, "I'm In Love," is also the shortest. The second shortest, meanwhile, is the hands-down saddest song of the year, "I'm On Your Side." It is almost as if Mena can only deal with the highest highs and lowest lows in short bursts. Makes sense to me.

Lydia - Illuminate
Easily winning the award for "Album That Sounds Most Like Copeland's Beneath Medicine Tree", Illuminate also stands on its own two feet just fine, thank you. Each track is a perfect piece of the album as a whole, always in its right place. The only downside to each track bleeding into the next is that sometimes the outros feel too brief, but that's forgivable. Most songs reach an anthem at some point, though the subdued moments are often the most memorable: the refrain of "Don't you ever get lonely?" in "A Fine Evening For a Rogue," or the beseeching, "Stay awake and I'll stay, I try and go but your game, it waits for me and you love" in "Stay Awake." I freely admit that this was the soundtrack to a breakup, earning it a particular place in my mind, but it's still a great album.

The Submarines - Honeysuckle Weeks
I did not plan on liking this album, not at all. As a rule I never like albums that I first hear in an iTunes ad. But it's really good!! The beats are fun, the melodies and harmonies are killer, and the instrumentation is lush. I don't have much to say beyond this: if you like pop (especially as a guilty pleasure), you will love this album.

The Fall of Troy - Phantom On the Horizon

Getting into the territory people always anticipate - it's loud, it's crazy, it's almost annoying in it's spasticity. A great move by this band after the less-than-impressive Manipulator, POTH sees FOT returning to their roots - literally, by rerecording the long-awaited "Ghostship Demos". Though there are only 5 tracks, it's almost 40 minutes of craziness, and that's always a good thing. For the uninitiated, just listen to the intro to "Chapter IV: Enter the Black Demon," and that will tell you if you will have any interest in hearing the rest of this album - or the band, for that matter. Though muddier in production than previous FOT releases, it still maintains the intensity and unhinged quality that has earned the band a strong following.

Alkaline Trio - Agony & Irony
As Ek has pointed out, this is Ak3's most radio-friendly release ever - and that's probably why I love it so much. From the opening moments of "Calling All Skeletons" I was hooked, and even the subpar "Love Love, Kiss Kiss" couldn't shake me. The band still maintains its pessimism and dark themes, albeit not to nearly as stark depths as early releases, but their pairing of pop-punk melodies and rhythms with darker subject matter is unmatched by anyone short of Saves the Day. Also, Derek Grant is the best drummer in pop-punk who is not named "Travis Barker."

Valencia - We All Need A Reason To Believe
Keeping in the genre, Valencia released the best pop-punk album of the year. There are no gimmicks or tomfoolery here, just straightforward songwriting gems. Reeve Oliver lost their place to Valencia due to a subject that is near and dear to my heart: awesome bridges. Many a song with a fantastic verse and chorus has fallen apart at the bridge (see: House of Heroes, "Code Name: Raven"), but Valencia kick their bridges up a notch, sometimes several. From the rising crescendo found on "Better Be Prepared" to the huge expanse on "Where Did You Go?" and the stutter-step on "Safe to Say," the bridges are phenomenal. The rest of the songs are good, too! Anyone who loves Sherwood, The Starting Line, New Found Glory or just good loud summer pop-punk will enjoy this album.

Shai Hulud - Misanthropy Pure
I can't get over how good this album is. It melts my face and blows my mind. It rewrites the book on hardcore and defies physics. It avoids chugga-chugga moments like the plague and is still the most brutal album of 2008. It has legitimate groove and beats that would perplex a percussion major. It has more unique pieces than a Lego castle yet maintains a cohesive sound. It sounds like August Burns Red sometimes. It sounds like Further Seems Forever at others. It sounds better than both frequently. It could probably cure cancer if it weren't so pissed off. Recommended for: anyone who can handle it. Not recommended for: anyone who can't, people with preexisting heart conditions or a history of seizures.

The Mars Volta - The Bedlam In Goliath
Easily the best TMV album since De-Loused in the Comatorium, it's no surprise that it is also the most cohesive and focused (most of the song names are only one word, even!). More surprising is that it is the most varied release. New drummer Thomas Pridgen has to be given some credit, but as we all know Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez are the omniscient and omnipotent gods in the world of the Mars Volta, so we must attribute it to their recent (reputed) sobriety. The rock is more intense, the grooves are more vicious, and the wanky space-outs are hardly to be found. This means, though, that almost all of the 75 minutes is actual music - actual songs - which makes for a dense, almost overpowering experience. From the barely 2-1/2 minute "Wax Simulacra" to the palm-muted riffs of "Ouroborous", the band obliterates everything in its path. They still (to quote He Is Legend) shake their things plenty often, as well - check out "Ilyena" or "Agadez" for the craziest latin jams the band has ever performed. I still wish they would have included their cover of Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive" as at least a b-side to this album, but that's about the only gripe I have.

And now... my favorite album of 2008:

Edison Glass - Time Is Fiction
From the opening stick clicks of "Let Go" to the last fading call of "Time is fiction...", I love this album. I literally have nothing bad to say about it, nothing I would have wished to be done differently, nothing I would have done differently myself. The lyrics are poetic, hinting at the band's beliefs without overstating them. The dual vocals play off each other perfectly. The music is driving yet not overpowering, and the song itself is always the first priority. Edison Glass also easily passes my "bridge" test (see Valencia, above), almost rewriting the standard in the process. I made a partial list of other bands Edison Glass sounds like at different points throughout this album: Dismemberment Plan, At the Drive-In, Foo Fighters, Alkaline Trio, Sigur Ros, Further Seems Forever, Black Eyed Sceva, Boys Night Out, Moneen, Anadivine, Radiohead, American Football, The Get Up Kids, Copeland... and yet instead of copying any of these bands, they have created their own sound and style. Another accomplishment is relying on their main instruments - bass, drums, and 2 guitars - and keeping additional instruments to a minimum, and even then only as accents. The songs are enhanced by the occasional appearance of keys, strings, bells and even trumpet - but they'd still sound complete without them. I feel like I'm just blathering on at this point. If I had to recommend 1 album from 2008, to anybody, without knowing anything of their musical tastes, I'd recommend this one.

Register your complaints below!!


Ek said...

I intended to mention that about Derek Grant when I emailed you about the AK3 album...granted, it isn't new information that he's a terrific drummer, but it felt like he was on an extra-special mission to kick ass on this one. Other than the consistent radio-friendliness that sets it apart from their other stuff more than anything else.

Will have to check out Shai Hulud and Edison Glass at the very least. I think Narrow Stairs is a little better than you're giving it credit for, but you are right - DCFC has made some albums that you usually skip around (Transatlanticism, most of the EPs) and some that you listen to all the way through (The Photo Album, WHtFaWVY) and this one is definitely in the former category.

Lewis said...

Looks like I have a lot of music to look into now.

Personally, I would have included Evil Urges in my Top 10 list for the year, but it seems from your comment that you certainly gave it a fair chance before deciding it wasn't going to make it. I skip around Narrow Stairs a lot myself whenever I listen to it.

Looking forward to the TV/Movie Review as well.

Lars said...

So funny that Ek and I seem to have completely opposite opinions on all things music. (Of course, so do you and I, Eric). For example, I would emphatically switch Transatlanticism with The Photo Album in the DCFC "albums that you skip around" illustration. But no matter.

Anyway.... quite the list. It's interesting to see the unexpected places that our musical tastes converge. Mates of State, for example. In general, though, I haven't even listened to most of the stuff on your list. Surprise surprise. Good on Copeland, probably about the same spot they'll be for me. I completely agree with you about Narrow Stairs - it's good, just... holey. I'm surprised to see Margot on there, after your raging post regarding them a few months ago. Good pick on Jack's Mannequin - somehow he came up with one very good song and the rest of the album was a total miss. Still never got into Edison Glass... maybe I'll give them one last shot.

eric said...

My initial rant on Margot was just that; an initial rant. I knew I probably wasn't going to change my opinion drastically, but I wanted to be fair and open-minded. And after listening and comparing to The Dust of Retreat as well as the early demos for Animal/Not Animal, that's the conclusion I came to. It didn't have the grit and, if you will, humanity that I was expecting. No passion. I still liked a lot of their ideas, though.

Also in an attempt to be fair and reasonable, I guess Edison Glass really won't appeal to everyone... but it was definitely the album I was most stoked on this year overall, and anyone who asks me for a rec has to know it will be rocking...

Ek said...

The thing is, Transatlantacism might actually be a better album overall than TPA, because the best songs on the former are just so stellar. But how you get through the "Transatlantacism"/"Passenger Seat" gauntlet without hitting the skip button at some point is beyond me. I stand by The Photo Album, though - I just re-listened to it and there's not a bad song on it. Plus it is only slightly longer than a typical live recording of "Dazed and Confused," which reduces the need for skipping...

I am glad that Cedric and Omar (who I contend are our generation's Page & Plant) are reportedly sober. I was getting tired of waking up in a cold sweat worried that one of them would overdose before they finish the next Mars Volta album...we already had a Foo Fighters hiatus, I couldn't handle another major music disaster.

eric said...

I know Lars will vehemently disagree with you, Ek, and while I can see where you're coming from, I could never skip through Passenger Seat. Ever. Never never never never ever ever ever ever. And the only thing I don't like about "Transatlanticism" (the song) is that it doesn't build in intensity much; live they go crazy on this thing. But I still like it...

Lars said...

Eric covered the bases for me on that one. And to be fair, I didn't get into Death Cab until Transatlanticism came out, so I probably would give TPA a little more favor if I had discovered it first. But yeah, seriously. Transatlanticism/Passenger Seat is the reason I listen to that album. It's not a gauntlet, it's the pièce de résistance.

Ek said...

Ahh...and for me, The Photo Album was the first DCFC album I heard, so every track on it had a fresh and unique sound. I may have disliked Trans/PS because it represented the furthest deviation from what I thought of as their sound at the time...anyway, I'll have to give them another shot next time I go through that album. Although I listen to that one for "Tiny Vessels" and "A Lack of Color," mostly.

Lars said...

Ah yes, two other standouts on an album full of standouts. (A Lack of Color was my original favorite Death Cab song).

And I'm always fascinated by the way that the context in which you hear a particular piece of music affects your perception of it; this DCFC example is no exception.

Ek said...

On a somewhat related note, there are really only three albums that I can distinctly remember listening to all the way through for the first time:

Led Zeppelin IV (In my basement room in Jr. High; this is the album that got me into rock music)

Pink Floyd's The Wall (in a different basement in high school. I kept most of the lights off. Listening to "Is There Anybody Out There?" in that context was the musical equivalent of watching a great horror movie, just phenomenal), and

Coheed and Cambria's Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV (the first one) (driving up to Wisconsin by myself).

And actually Seume's album too, but that doesn't really count since it was only like a month ago.