Smile Politely

Our Favorite Albums of 2008

Last week, we weighed in on list making. Now it’s our turn to make them. A handful of our writers and editors contemplated their iTunes library and record collections to determine their favorite albums of 2008. See what made whose top ten list after the jump. Feel free to share your own or just severely criticize ours.

Doug Hoepker, writer and editor

This year was a bit of a let-down for me, musically speaking. Maybe I’m just growing more cynical or lazy with age, but I had little interest in keeping up with the Pitchfork “it” bands. Instead, I relied on some old standbys for comfort, and enjoyed their efforts time and again.

TV on the Radio — Dear Science (Interscope)
Hype! Hype! Hype! Believe it.

Black Keys — Attack & Release (Nonesuch)
The perfect record to listen to while driving aimlessly down county roads.

V/A — Love, Peace & Poetry: Chilean Psychedelic Music (QDK Media)
The best world-centric garage-psych series going, and the best offering in the series since the Mexican entry several years ago.

Black Mountain — In the Future (Jagjaguwar)
They were far better live than I anticipated. My stoner rock album of the year (sorry Dead Meadow).

Jamie Lidell — Jim (Warp)
A great summer soul record.

David Byrne and Brian Eno — Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (TODO MUNDO)
Those expecting My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, vol. 2 will be sorely disappointed. I was not.

Destroyer — Trouble In Dreams (Merge)
Not as good as his last release, but better than the last New Pornographers’ record.

King Khan and the Shrines — The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines (Vice)
“Welfare Bread” is my 2008 anthem, and this is my favorite album of the year.

Andy Votel — Andy Votel Presents Brazilika: Subtropical Sunstroke Psych-Out (Far Out UK)
A fun introduction to the Brazilian tropicalia and psych movements of the late-’60s, served up in a spliced together fashion.

Fleet Foxes — Sun Giant (Sub Pop)
Their debut EP — even better than the full length.

Brian McGovern, writer and editor

10. No Age — Nouns (Sub Pop)
A bit of a frontloaded album from the band that is one part post punk, one part noise pop; but the front sounds pretty excellent. If they could take the first four tracks and somehow duplicate them, that eight track album would be the best thing released this year. From the in-your-face opener “Miner,” to the catchy and amazingly arranged “Eraser,” to the high point that is “Teen Creeps,” to the Animal Collective-like drone of “Things I Did When I Was Dead,” the opening of this 12-track album is flawless. The rest is good too, but it can’t match the first eleven minutes.

9. Oxford Collapse — Bits (Sub Pop)
If you could somehow combine the two members of No Age with the three members of Oxford Collapse in a new band, the resulting Voltron-like post-punk supergroup would be unstoppable. No Age does the whole aggressive noise thing great, but Oxford Collapse has the melodic area down pat. Ying to Nouns’ Yang, Bits is just as energetic and just as memorable, but wins because of the trio’s superior song writing. Listen to “The Birthday Wars.” Your head will explode.

8. Los Campesinos! — Hold on Now, Youngster… (Arts & Crafts)
Well articulated apathy has never sounded so joyous. The sarcastic, self-deprecating ramblings on Youngster spit out in-jokes and K Records references as frequently as other young bands use words like “love” and phrases like “no one understands me.” But by strictly adhering to the musical aesthetic of “More shouting! More glockenspiel!”, the fast paced pop record embraces the foibles of the young hipster generation with hooks and violins and exuberance.

7. The Hold Steady — Stay Positive (Vagrant)
“Constructive Summer” is the best song of the year, no question. With it’s drink-along lyrics and dark undertones of working class woes and death, the song puts Craig Finn closer to Springsteen than ever. On this record, however, the band plays as big a part as their vocalist, never getting overshadowed. Saying it’s my third favorite Hold Steady album just shows how good these guys are. Oh, and they’re playing the Courtyard Cafe on April 3, so start mixing those pre-show double whiskey Cokes (no ice).

6. The Walkmen — You & Me (Gigantic)
I want to marry The Walkmen. Collectively. I want to raise children with their vintage Fender Twin Reverb amps. There’s something very domestic and fatherly about the methodical and mesmerizing tracks of You & Me. Hamilton Leithauser’s wailing seems particularly sympathetic and understanding to the listener. As they roll into top rock out form on “On the Water,” it’s as if the band is giving you the comfort and support you need. When the whistling comes in, you’re in love. “In the New Year” and the beautiful “New Country” are also standouts.

5. Vampire Weekend — Vampire Weekend (XL)
Say what you will, but the reason this band got “over-hyped” was because this album is so good. It’s not good because of its groundbreaking production, cerebral lyrics or expert musicianship; it doesn’t have any of that. It has 11 amazing tracks. The Graceland-inspired record has the same feel as The Strokes’ Is This It or Weezer’s Blue Album. It’s the kind of album that if you listened to it, you listened to it a lot. I knew every word to this album by the second day I had it. “Walcott” is brilliant and I challenge you to not want to yell “Blake!” on “One (Blake’s Got A New Face).”

4. Bon Iver — For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)
Though “Skinny Love” is one of my favorite songs this year, I have to stress that Bon Iver is not a one-hit indie wonder. The whole album, in all it’s wintry, solitary wonder, is amazing. “The Wolves (Act I and II)” stands out with Justin Vernon’s multi-layered falsetto at its best. My favorite moment of the album comes right around three minutes in, when Vernon inexplicably uses a vocoder with spectacular yet subtle results. The minimalist approach really makes this album stand out in its simplicity. It’s almost jarring when horns come into the mix on “For Emma.” It’s the kind of album you need to sit still to while listening, in case you might break it.

3. Fleet Foxes — Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
These guys are great. I agree with every good thing that’s been said about them.

2. Titus Andronicus — The Airing of Grievances (Troubleman)
I can’t believe I missed these guys not only at the Pitchfork Music Festival, but also at Pygmalion … at a show I was also playing in. It’s a long story, but missing them is my greatest regret of the year. Titus Andronicus sounds like Conor Orberst grew a pair, or if Bruce Springsteen decided to add distorted guitars instead of saxophone. Their debut is so close to exploding into cacophony, but it somehow manages to avoid crashing into a wall of feedback. In stark contrast to Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes, this is the least pretty album I’ve heard all year. It’s messy, destructive and amazing. If you love noisy, screaming, curse-laden songs with literary references, then this is exactly what you’ve been looking for.

1. The Dodos — Visiter (Frenchkiss)
Visiter is a perfect album. The tracks just blend right into each other. The opening track “Walking” flows unnoticed into “Red and Purple,” just as “Eyelids” perfectly sets up “Fools.” The most logical song breaks come within songs. “Joe’s Waltz” seems to be at least three separate tracks. All of this adds to the unforgettable experience of listening to this record. The music helps, too. Wild, metal-like percussion propels the intricate guitar picking patterns, making the folk-tinged songs pump up jams. Though the record itself is cohesive, the songs stand alone just as well. “Paint the Rust,” “Fools,” “Ashley” and “Jodi” are all in my unpublished top 10 songs. The Dodos put on a mind boggling live show, too.

Bob Steltman, writer

In no particular order:

Dungen — 4 (Kemado Records)

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (Mute/Anti)
The mid-life reinvigoration continues as more than a dollop of Grinderman grit gets added to the latter days Seeds-style bombast in evidence on 2004’s Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. I am pretty sure I still wouldn’t want to live next door to him, but delivering work of this quality and energy at this point in a long career is a truly remarkable feat.

Norma — Book of Norma (Novoton)
A Swedish outfit crafting shimmering shoegazery laced with Krautrock insistence and hooks as big as the moon, Norma’s particular brand of sonic alchemy manages to sound HUGE and delicate at exactly the same time. The quality of the songwriting and the distinctness of the vocals and melodies elevate this beyond its obvious influences, making it uniquely powerful, as well as suggesting enormous potential for growth.

The Black Crowes — Warpaint (Silver Arrow)

Grails — Doomsdayers Holiday (Temporary Residence Ltd)

The Soundtrack of Our Lives — Communion (Warner Music Sweden)

Motorpsycho — Little Lucid Moments (Rune Grammofon)
It’s easy to blame their Norwegian location for their U.S. obscurity, but I think these (almost) 20-year vets are too smart, too untouched by fashion, for ordinary ears. Spend ten minutes with their back catalogue and the sheer range of styles will flat out melt your brain. Their most recent release is a real return to rock after spending a considerable amount of time psyching it up to the hilt. Equal parts Yes and Sonic Youth, Little Lucid Moments offers an astonishing virtuoso ride-along with an honest-to-goodness band intent on pursuing their collective muse no matter what. And live they are simply unbelievable.

Farflung — A Wound of Eternity (Meteorcity)

Black Mountain — In the Future (Jagjaguwar)

Seven That Spells — Black Om Rising (Beta-Lactam Ring Records)
Apparently all these guys do is make records. This is one of two 2008 releases, the other being the snazzily titled Cosmoerotic Dialogue with Lucifer (also on Beta-Lactam Ring), an equally impressive, if slightly more unhinged, foray into the cosmos. All about space, largely of the outer variety, Seven That Spells are smart enough to know a tune when they hear it, and are able to mix beautiful deep space melodies with blackhole-induced craziness. Black Om Rising also features a flipside DVD of the entire LP performed live.

Matt Fender, writer

10. Vampire Weekend — Vampire Weekend (XL Recordings)
Screw the haters. I think this album is great and deserves approximately 60% of the buzz it created (which is still a ton). I also love to wear boat shoes.

9. Hot Chip — Made In The Dark (Astralwerks)
What’s not to love about British dance music? It took everyone in the UK’s attention off the always-overrated Arctic Monkeys for a few minutes, so I think it deserves a big nod.

8. Flight of the Conchords — Flight of the Conchords (Sub Pop)
It’s hard not to laugh the entire way through this weird trip of an album. Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement are arguably the funniest guys to ever pick up a guitar. “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)” is the best love song ever written (who wouldn’t accept “high class prostitute” as a sexy compliment?), and I dig the mad beats of the Hiphopopotamus and Rhymenocerous.

7. The Dodos — Visiter (Frenchkiss)
This was my favorite folk album of the year before Fleet Foxes came around and ruined everything. The Dodos can get as crazy as Animal Collective in songs like “Fools,” yet maintain a soothing overall feel. I think this is the most underrated album of the year.

6. Fleet Foxes — Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
Great sound, just phenomenal sound. “White Winter Hymnal” is as calming as it is lyrically jarring. I missed seeing them live, but everyone continues to rave about their shows.

5. Land of Talk — Some Are Lakes (Saddle Creek)
Call me biased if you want. I got to spend a day with Liz Powell before she opened up for Broken Social Scene at Foellinger Auditorium earlier this fall. She’s as hard working as any musician I’ve ever seen, and she gave Feist a run for her money on female vocals for BSS’s set. Some are Lakes is simple, hanging on basic guitar progressions, but I really dig what they do with the simplicity. Each song is cohesive with the next, with Powell’s draining voice leading the transitions.

4. Bon Iver — For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)
I like almost everything about this album and still feel foolish for missing him earlier this year.

3. Deerhunter — Microcastle (Kranky)
I told Brian McGovern I’m a real sucker for drawn out, bass driven, progressive songs. Case in point, I listen to “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” by Yo La Tengo at least once a week. “Nothing Ever Happened” lies in the same tradition and really almost reminded me of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends.” It is my favorite song of the year on an album that was in strong contention for the same spot.

2. Hercules and Love Affair — Hercules and Love Affair (Mute)
I was raving about this album early in the year at my former place of publication, but nobody listened to me. Now all the Pitchfork brats are gonna eat it up! “Blind” and “Hercules Theme” are great disco-infused songs.

1. M83 — Saturdays = Youth (Mute)
God I love this album. Produced brilliantly and full of favorites for a long time to come, this album brought M83 back to me with a bang. While in high school, I was weirdly obsessed with ambient, frightening songs like “America” and “In Church” from Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts. This album brought back the same intensity in a much more positive way. I went from being fascinated and horrified to elated and stricken by the pop of songs like “Kim & Jessie.” I think Seth put it well when he said, “It hits on all the best parts of bands from the ‘80s.”

Tim Hayden, writer

Favorite Shows in Champaign-Urbana in 2008

Six Organs of Admittance and Mick Turner — Canopy Club
This was the night of the really odd thunderstorm in early February. Elisa Ambrogio of the Magic Markers joined Ben Chasney on this tour and played some of the most ripping and inspired guitar work I’ve ever heard.

Stars of the Lid — Staerkel Planetarium
I can see why Stars of the Lid requests to be booked at planetariums. The planetarium’s projectionist deserves high praise for improvising along with SOTL’s sound and visuals to enhance the whole experience.

Live Fast Die and Plexi 3 — Phoenix Bar
How come rock ’n’ roll and Champaign don’t get along? This show was really refreshing because I was able to see some quality rock without having to drive several hours.

MV and EE and the Golden Road — Canopy Club
I forget who the opening band was for this show. After the opening band ended, they and all three of their fans left, so I was the only one watching MV and EE. Literally. It was my own private show. Awesome damaged psychedelic blues.

Monotonix — Canopy Club
Just check out my review of the show from earlier this fall.

Yo La Tengo — Krannert Center
On top of everything else Yo La Tengo played that night, their cover of Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place” made my day. Sun Ra needs to be a deity. That song breaks it all down. “Nuclear war / is a motherfucker … It’s gonna blast your ass / high in the sky / What you gonna do / without your ass?”

Dianogah — Highdive
I didn’t expect to enjoy this show as much as I did. I ended up heartily cheering with the rest of the sparse crowd.

Robert Pollard — Highdive
Man, I really had a lot of fun at this show. I hardly know any of Pollard’s post-Guided by Voices songs, but that didn’t matter.

Trio X — Krannert Art Museum
Trio X played amongst Kyoko Ibe’s paper art installation. One couldn’t ask for a better background for watching and listening to music.

Jonathan Richman — Highdive
Jonathan Richman was fun, funny, endearing and enjoyable.

Favorite Out of Town Shows in 2008

Black Lips, Mr. Quintron and Miss Pussycat, and The Hot Machines — Chicago

Bardo Pond with Kawabata Makato, Wooden Shjips, Kinski, and Motorpsycho — Terrastock Festival, Day 3 in Louisville, Kentucky

King Khan and the Shrines, Jay Reatard, Cheap Time and A/V Murder — Chicago

Throbbin Urges, Metal Teeth, Mesa, The Menthols and Black Orphan — UFO Dictator IV in Kalamazoo, Michigan

Top 10 Records of 2008

Group Inerane — Guitars from Agadez (Sublime Frequencies)
Modern electric guitar music from Niger. Captain Beefheart guitar skronk meets North African trance.

Musical Brotherhoods from the Trans-Saharan Highway DVD (Sublime Frequencies)
This was filmed primarily in the Jemaa Al Fna bazaar in Marrakesh, Morocco, and captures jaw-dropping, trance-inducing performances. No wonder folks like Bill Buroughs, Brion Gyson and Brian Jones spent so much time there.

Menthols — The Miracle Slip/Rats and Insects 7” (UFO Dictator); Hey Hey Hey/848 7” (Florida’s Dying)
Menthols are probably the best rock band going right now. Think The Kids meet Wire meet Slant 6 meet Sonics Rendesvouz Band. Sounds like a fast car starting up. VROOOOOOOM.

The Dirtbombs — We Have You Surrounded (In The Red)
This is the creeper album of the year. The Dirtbombs somehow create an incredibly paranoid vibe through off-kilter pop-influenced rock. La fin du monde!

Flying Lotus — Los Angeles (Warp)
DJ Bozak hipped me to Flying Lotus. Great layered sounds mixed with great beats. Really cool electro mixed with hip hop sensibilities.

Antony and the Johnsons — Another World (Secretly Canadian)
This five-song EP picks up where his previous full length, I Am a Bird Now, left off. Antony goes spooky to sad to uplifting sometimes within the same song.

Free Kitten — Inherit (Ecstatic Peace)
Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), Julia Cafritz (Pussy Galore) and Yoshimi (Boredoms) got back together after a long hiatus to create some of the most compelling rock albums of the year. “Inherit” is a very satisfying listen.

Nomo — Ghost Rock (Ubiquity)
Nomo came into their own with “Ghost Rock”. They traded their afro-beat licks for amplified thumb pianos. Oddly reminiscent of some of the Talking Heads records that Eno produced.

Ya Ho Wa 13 — Penetration (Cold Sweat)
My man Preston from the Esquire hipped me to Ya Ho Wa 13, the house band of a ‘70s cult called the Source Family. Ya Ho Wa 13, lead by the Source Family leader Father Yod, make heavy, improvised free rock. Fortunately, the Source Family was a cult that ended well and more Ya Ho Wa 13 recordings are starting to surface.

Wooden Shjips — Volume 1 (Holy Mountain)
Wooden Shjips make super groovy modern psych music that combines ‘80s New Zealand psychedelia and ‘70s motorik Kraut rhythms. Mind warping, yet danceable.

Endless Boogie — Focus Level (No Quarter)
The name of the band says it all. Endless Boogie is comprised of four world class psych record collectors who play boogie-rock blooze done right.

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