Better late than never…
I’ve been putting off making this list for a very (very) long time. Up until I actually attempted to compile a suitably succinct list I was convinced that 2008 had been a mediocre year for music.
Such ideas are, of course, ridiculous, the concept that an entire twelve calendar months of could somehow be completely devoid of genuine artistic merit is the territory of lazy journalism and single genre music fans.
If any sweeping statement could be shoe-horned onto 2008 it is that it has, perhaps, been a mediocre year for the established artist. Six of my final top Ten are debut albums; of the remaining albums, two came from long absent artists and the final two came from underground darlings. Release after anticipated release from the big names fell disappointingly short of expectations, Lupe Fiasco, The Roots, Kanye West, Nas, Sigur Ros, Bloc Party, Beck and Coldplay to name but a few all fell short of expectations and merely delivered, at the very best, OK albums.
Whether 2008 represents a generational changing of the guard, a temporary glitch in the system, or, more probably, me putting just a little too much faith in Coldplay releasing a great album remains to be seen. Regardless when pen came down to paper – or rather finger to key – the quality albums of the year soon came flooding to memory, this list is not definitive, nor in any particular order and it hasn’t been easy to create.
Before I start I’d also like to list the following near-misses for your consideration:
Erykah Badu – New Amerkyah, Pt. 1: 4th World War
Lil’ Wayne – The Carter III
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever ago
Long Blondes – Couples
Santogold – Santogold
Crystal Castles -Crystal Castles
Ladyhawke – Ladyhawke
Hot Chip – Made in the Dark
Dodos – Visiter
And many more I’ve no doubt forgotten…
Anyway, enough preamble….
10. Black Milk – Tronic (Fat Beats)
Hip Hop in 2008 was looking pretty stale until this and a similarlly synthy/electro hybrid came along and saved the day. Black Milk isn’t the most accomplished lyricist but like other Hip Hop Artist/Producers he is rather good at sculpting dense and layered beats that deviate from the norm enough to compensate from any lyrical shortcomings.
Along with the accomplished, electro influenced production, guest spots from other artists including Pharoahe Monch, DJ Premier and Fat Ray help flesh out the album lyrically and – unlike Love Lockdown and, to a lesser extent, Tha Carter III, Tronic isn’t weighed down or compromised by these appearances, it merely grows stronger, strong enough to be a surprising inclusion in this year’s list.
9. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
Fleet Foxes have, and will, appear on a lot of end of year lists, their album is one of those albums that everyone seems to find very agreeable, but fewer outright love.
I was in neither of these camps up until recently, I began to resent the popularity and warmth the band received in abundance this year. It wasn’t until the mild and wet British Summer ended, and was replaced by a cold and wet British Winter that I begun to appreciate it’s warm, mellow and reflective melodies. The soundbite I most remember being used in reference to this album was ‘Beach Boys meets Appalachian Folk’ so it probably makes sense that I may have found the album a little unnecessary, a little patronising, as I listened to it through the nonexistent British Summer.
Now however, the warm and harmony rich melodies are exactly what’s needed in the cold, dark winter months and so it finds itself at no.9
8. Hercules and Love Affair – Hercules and Love Affair (DFA Records)
Taking the best chunks of Dance music from the past 30 years, most notably 70s Disco and 90s House, Hercules and Love Affair rides the resurgence of interest in the Dance genre in the past few years without sounding stale, opportunistic or hackneyed.
By re imagining both genres, cherry picking the best from both, the album becomes something contemporary, heartfelt, intelligent but perhaps most importantly danceable. Like a highlight of last year (and a fellow label mate) – LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver – the album is simultaneously and effortlessly perfect for the dancefloor and the more introverted, critical home listener with zero apparent compromise in groove, melody or thematic direction.
7. TV on the Radio – Dear Science (4AD)
Probably one of the worst pieces of album art of the year, but definitely one of the strongest albums. Suprisingly for a band frequently, and perhaps over-enthusiastically, called the ‘American Radiohead’, I never got on with TV on the Radio until now. Their work always seemed a little bit too much like hard work, hooks were slow to reveal themselves and listening to them would often feel like a thankless task.
Dear Science changes all that, without compromising any of the multi-layed complexity of their compositions. It’s still intelligent, literate and ambitious music, but with a more than welcome sprinkling of pop sensibility.
6. Q-Tip – The Renaissance (Universal Motown)
One of the few, possibly the only highly anticipated Hip Hop album that didn’t disappoint in 2008. Where Lupe Fiasco, The Roots, Kanye West and Common (to name a few) failed, Q-Tip succeeded.
It was not only refreshing to hear such a great Hip Hop album, it was excellent to hear such a focused and fully idealised album. In a genre where ubiquitous guest appearances and guest producers constantly dilute the artists original vision, the Renaissance offers a breath of fresh air, sure there were four guest vocalists, but they are wisely and sparingly employed and never to the detriment of the album’s style which seems to sample everything good from the past 50 years of black music, from soul, funk, pop and obviously, rap.
5. Portishead – Third (Island)
I was too young for Portishead the first time around, so I won’t go on about how miraculous it is that they’ve released such an amazing album after 10 years out of the business, but it is an amazing album.
It can be a little maudlin and grey at times, the band are one of the few groups that can out miserable Radiohead – but it’s all appreciated when the music is as experimental and progressive as it is here. It takes a while for the album to fully unravel and reveal it’s charms, but the immediate and relentless Machine Gun and electro folk affair The Rip offer enough incentive to persevere with what is a uncompromising album. Songs end abruptly and without warning, Gibbons’ voice is willfully atonal, whiny even, much like the music itself at times; but it’s this uneasy unnaturalness that lies at the heart of the album that makes some of Gibbons’ lyrics that can, on paper, appear quite ’emoey’, sound, as Pitchfork put it, ‘uncomfortably voyeuristic‘.
MP3: Portishead – Silence
4. Los Campesinos! – Holy on now, Youngster…(Wichita)
And now for something completely different…Not only are Los Campesinos! a lot more upbeat than Portishead, they’re also a lot more prolific with their album releases. Sure the vocals are similarly fractured and atonal, but that’s because they’re filled with prepubescent excitement, rather than pubescent angst.
Los Campesinos! performed the admirable feat of releasing two full albums this year, but it’s this one that’s the better. The album opens with a lone, plangent guitar chord but this tone is only a momentary conceit as the album soon lifts off into the relentless and joyfully undisciplined flurry of panicked riffs – it’s a pace that doesn’t relent for most of the album, but it’s by no means a poorly written or poorly paced album, it’s just a unapologetically large dose of hyper-literate and twee Indie Pop delivered intravenously without any pretensions, and it’s all the better for it. They’re not creating art; they’re just having fun.
3. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend (XL)
Now that Indie is seemingly going through its death throes Indie Rock bands have to have a strong USP to stand out from the increasingly samey crowd.
Vampire Weekend were one of the bands that managed this feat more than admirably, by offering some preppy afro-beat stylings they managed to gain a lot of attention in 2008 and they also managed to produce quite a good album.
The great thing about this album is that it doesn’t outstay its welcome, songs are short, poppy and witty. Songs about Mansard Roofs and Oxford Commas shouldn’t be this engaging, it’s testament to the band’s songwriting ability and original approach that they are.
2. Diplo & Santogold – Top Ranking (Mad Decent)
Rarely do remixes offer something original, let alone something better than the original, so it’s a revelation that Diplo’s second artist centric (If such a thing could be said about a mixtape/album that incorporates such an electic variety of artists) ‘mixtape’ features so many. That’s not to say that the source material for most of the albums reworkings – Santogold’s warmly received debut album – was necessarily a bad album to begin with, but it did lack that certain something.
This mixtape does some admirable post release improvements to the album, giving us a souped up and improved versions of LES Artistes; a ridiculously intense and surprisingly more than bearable Grime version of Creator and a reverb drenched version of Lights Out that transforms the power pop of the original into a dream like chant.
Unlike Diplo’s previous work with M.I.A the album features a more diverse sound, it traverses many genres: Reggaton, Dub, Soul and Classic rock are all represented here, amongst others. The focus also isn’t necessarily on Santogold as it was in the more clearly promotional ‘Piracy funds Terrorism‘ mixtape. This results in some interesting journeys through the last 50 years of pop music, when Aretha Frankliyn, The Clash and Devo are mashed together the results are usually favourable.
1. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours (Modular)
So number one, or rather the tenth and final album in my list if I remember that this is not a list to be viewed in numerical order…
In Ghost Colours unashamedly errs more on the pop side of electro-pop or whatever genre would you try to pidgeonhole such a vibrant album into. It’s all pulsating synths, strutting keyboards, programmed disco beats mixed with a Indie rock aesthetic of acoustic guitars and disaffected vocals. It’s a miracle that the album doesn’t sound like Klaxon’s mark 2.0 or a slightly ironic pastiche of dance music by indie rockers. It has some of the most shamefully poppy lyrics and the music is relentlessley summery and hopeful, as you would expect from an Australian group, but it manages, sometimes merely through sheer enthusiasm, to win over the heart of even an ardent cynic like me, forcing you to join in with the ‘oh-oh-oh!’ choruses and sing what, on paper at least, appears to be the most saccharine of lyrics ‘There’s something in the air tonight/ A feeling that you have that could change your life’ It’s a irrepressable explosion of pure pop joy, if you’re ever feeling down, put this album on, it will cheer you up. It is inevitable.
That is not to say the album is a one trick pony or a cheap sugar pill to lift the mood, as with Vampire Weekend and Los Campesinos! there’s some really intelligent songwriting in how the multi-layered production intertwines and as with Vampire Weekend and Los Campesinos! there’s not quite another band around that sounds like them, it definitely makes for a nice change from all the distorted house music that is in vogue at the moment.
The band wear their influences on their sleeve, but never sound derivative. They have a clear penchant for poppy dancefloor numbers, but it’s never samey or formulaic. And most importantly, they are very, very good.