Do records even matter anymore? The whole concept of listening to an album from beginning to end – a continuous journey ala Dark Side of the Moon or London Calling? Yup, despite the decline in physical sales and the current climate – both brick and mortar and digital – for some the album is still an art-form to be fully digested, and 2008 had a ton of main courses. It’s always easier to hear a few seconds of a track on MySpace or download a few tracks from iTunes, but these records deserve to be listened to from beginning to end – one, two, three or dozens of times.
When it was all said and done, The Glide 20 for 2008 seemed to follow a pattern of somberness mixed with a delicate yearning – as artists like Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Grand Archives and Horse Feathers dominated with a chamber indie feel, and Beck delivered us his most introspective and daring album in years. TV on The Radio, and Calexico proved to be consistent hitters with albums that rival others in their cannon, and newcomers, Santogold, Dead Confederate, Plants and Animals and Howlin Rain proved that you can take parts from your contemporaries and place a unique spin on things. Portishead came back as if an eleven year recording hiatus was just a 2 week cruise and Helio Sequence let their voice be known on a crowded golden year for Sub Pop. Marco Benevento shined on his solo debut and Jackie Greene is far more than just Phil Lesh’s new go-to guy. B.B.King, like Johnny Cash before him, let us know that some of the best may be still to come and Kathleen Edwards is proving to be one of the more confident songwriters of her generation. And last but not least, let us not forget that Stephen Malkmus felt it would be right to hang his improv on his guitar neck. So without further adieu, here are Glide’s picks for the top 20 albums of 2008.
In alphabetical order
Beck – Modern Guilt
Its been awhile since Beck’s name made it onto any ‘best of’ lists, but his latest, Modern Guilt (co-produced with Danger Mouse) puts him back in the limelight with more solid production, novel beats and interesting lyrics. Traveling down some diverse sound avenues, his latest effort gains low-end strength in the bass heavy rhythms of "Orphans," "Gamma Ray" and "Youthless,” but shifts all the way to ethereal madness in “Chemtrails.” If this was Beck’s debut record, he’d be the wet spot of the blogosphere, but seeing as it’s his eighth, this veteran gem could easily be overlooked.
Marco Benevento – Invisible Baby
He may roam across a multitude of genres, but underneath it all, Benevento remains grounded in pushing the contemporary, experimental jazz envelope further and further into dark, post-rock territory. For his solo studio debut, he called upon bassist Reed Mathis (Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Tea Leaf Green)—and drummers Matt Chamberlain (Tori Amos) and Andrew Barr (The Slip) to play much more than support roles, each helping to bring the eight compositions to new heights. If this is the beginning, Invisible Baby shows Benevento moving his craft forward ala Dan Deacon and nodding towards his many improvisational influences of the past. "Atari" [mp3]
Calexico – Carried To Dust
Imaginary soundtracks of the American southwest unfold into Mexican lore with ghostly tales, mariachi-style trumpets and Sam Beam spaciousness. It’s a dramatic landscape that twists and turns like the open road with lots of hidden surprises along the way. Calexico always manages to stuff in everything but the kitchen sink, but this overly ambitious record doesn’t suffer from overkill – instead it’s like a Daniel Day Lewis movie – dramatic and accomplished.
Dead Confederate – Wrecking Ball
Aside from having the coolest name in rock right now, and earning a herald debut out of relative nowhere, Dead Confederate fills the gap when My Morning Jacket went all Prince on you. Crashing symbols, guitar distortion and slow tension and release moments rally this unassuming record to shades of early 90’s flannel atop modern post-rock. Hardy Morris evokes Kurt Cobain in wailing hoarse despair, giving the band a doomful gleam that, regardless of what influences they harness, creates a simple wow.
Dr. Dog – Fate
Remember how jubilant The Band was? Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm taking turns singing and howling with old western garb, crooning in old country barns and pink houses. Flash forward 40 years and Dr. Dog takes that vintage Waltz sound into something that resembles a masterful reinvention of timeless classic recordings. 60’s style pop hooks bleed through the danceable “Uncovering the Old,” vaudevillian “The Old Days” and even creeps into the hard rocker, “The Beach.”
Kathleen Edwards – Asking For Flowers
Edwards has once again found what works best to expose her true talents, combining gentle piano, pedal steel, and relentless guitar from her husband, Colin Cripps. We praised her debut, Failer (it made The Glide 20 of 2003), missed her sophomore slump in Back To Me, and are please to see Flowers once again intelligently attack real subjects, confront dark issues, and obsess over what is personal and what is human. It sounds sublime. From the rocking and witty “The Cheapest Key” to the somber storytelling of “Alicia Ross,” Edwards has decided to confront what is meaningful to her, with confident vocals being a piercing weapon.
Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
Uniquely introduced to the world as “harmonic baroque pop,” Fleet Foxes had previously only mustered small ripples with their EP releases, but ultimately drew a tsunami of buzz with their self-titled, LP debut this year. The uncontestable, 2008 version of CYHSY-sized hype, the band has already been pushed at Starbucks checkout counters and sang “I Shall Be Released” with Wilco. But these Sub-Pop’rs do deliver, successfully blending a little CSNY, Beach Boys and My Morning Jacket into what can be deemed an “instant classic.” A bold statement, but hopefully one of many. "White Winter Hymnal" [mp3]
Grand Archives – Grand Archives
About five minutes after you became obsessed with Band of Horses, founding member Mat Brooke just up and left the band. Thankfully he had his own agenda and quickly formed Grand Archives – a departure from the ‘My Morning Jacket-lite’ approach, and more closely aligned with the melodic pop/indie-folk of Sparklehorse or Grandaddy. The wispy hues quietly meander on the band’s debut, but still retain a powerful presence. No doubt when the Garden State sequel comes out, Zach Braff will be sluggishly walking hand-in-hand with Natalie Portman, unfazed by the chilly rain sweeping down on them, while “Swan Matches” gets louder and louder until the screen fades to a poignant black. "Torn Blue Foam" [mp3]
Jackie Greene – Giving Up The Ghost
Each of Jackie Greene’s albums, from 2002’s Gone Wanderin’ to 2006’s American Myth, has marked a definitive progression for the young Californian – Giving Up The Ghost is no exception. And his role as co-producer of the sessions along with Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin raises his stature as a recording artist in line with his gifts as a musician and songwriter. Just a minute into the second track, “Animal,” and you could begin to argue there may not be a better (or bigger) sounding album in 2008. Amazon: Album sample clips
The Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead
In most circles, The Helio Sequence are described as electronica–tinged indie rock. However, vocalist/guitarist/lyricist/ Brandon Summers thinks of his band first and foremost as simply “songwriters.” By innovating new sounds with wicked beats, The Helio Sequence is far from your run of the mill Filter bunch of experimenters. What they created here is another close to perfect album – musically, lyrically, emotionally and thematically. "Keep Your Eyes Ahead" [mp3]
Horse Feathers – House With No Home
With their second full-length album, House With No Home, Horse Feathers delivers a piece of subtle Americana that is as beautiful as it is unnerving, and as soothing as it is depressing. Justin Ringle’s vocals are hushed, as if performing alone in his bedroom, trying not to disturb anyone. In an album this sparse, it’s moments like that, where a well-placed cello note grabs you, where the true beauty of the music is realized
Howlin Rain – Magnificent Fiend
The side project of Comets on Fire’s Ethan Miller, Howlin Rain propels the magical legacy of the Bay Area’s blues-driven homebase with transcendent and epic soaring themes reminisient of Gov’t Mule and Traffic. Laidback grooves, jazzy tempos and dynamic arrangements fill the record, offering an authentic sound, both gritty and psychedelic. Having toured with Black Mountain, Queens of the Stone Age and The Black Crowes in the past year, these guys have now been schooled by the best. Amazon: Album sample clips
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
French for "good winter," (bon hiver), Justin Vernon holed himself up in a Wisconsin cabin and strummed up some soft personal songs that fall closely between Neil Young and Iron & Wine. Acoustic blends and layers of warm harmonies dominate, but unlike most albums that strive for that hush and rustic intimacy, but end up bland, this one is far from a yawner. Instead it wraps you like a hand-woven quilt in the barren darkness of a harsh mountain storm. This is a must-listen. Cocoa not required. "Skinny Love" [mp3]
B.B. King – One Kind Favor
Like Johnny Cash’s American recordings before him, B. B. King has proven that it’s never too late to visit old standards. With a top notch supporting band (Jim Keltner, Dr. John), King carefully chooses his material here courtesy of legendary producer and master of the career reinvention, T Bone Burnett. Poignant moments abound, from deeply felt guitar performances and even more gut wrenching vocal howls. This late career landmark marks a good place to start when going through a blues phase. Amazon: Album sample clips
Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks – Real Emotional Trash
Like Thurston Moore, Malkmus may very well be the guru of indie rock, aging heroically into brilliant soundscapes that tackle improvisation with quirkiness and plenty of dissonance. Never a dull moment here, as Malkmus tests out everything from a fuzzed out distortion (“Hopscotch Willie), to a lengthy music storm on the title-track, mixed with feel good, Belle & Sebastian indie pop (“Gardenia”). With former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss onboard, and a complete, start-to-finish record like this, is a Pavement reunion even necessary? "Cold Son" [mp3]
Plants and Animals – Parc Avenue
While everyone was busy twittering about how totally cute the Vampire Weekend guys looked at the Bowery show, Plants and Animals were releasing the year’s most expansive orchestral sound. Unlike their Montreal peers, Arcade Fire, P&A is rooted in a modern psychedelic realm that includes sprawling arrangements and soaring vocals that beg to be experienced repeated times. Parc Avenue stands apart from the routine trends of so many of today’s buzz bands, by pushing forward instead of leaning sideways.
Portishead – Third
After an 11-year studio album hiatus, Portishead avoided a Smashing Pumpkin and hit dead on with this aptly named third album. The whole trip-hop thing was so 90’s anyway, so it’s refreshing to see the trio grew and evolved into a dark, industrial outfit that came away truly eerie and sinister. Plus, the eleven year break allowed their mystery to unravel in the ears’ of new listeners who elevated the band to #7 on the charts in its entry week. last.fm: album stream
Santogold – Santogold
Considered the future of music today, Santi White cleverly mashed up dancehall, punk, dub, and electronics to make an energetic debut that blurs the lines between the dancefloor and the mosh pit. Sure, a number of these tracks end up saturated in everything from Bud Light ads to VO5 spots, but selling out is the new in. Although White is easily comparable to M.I.A., Santogold is much more versatile and flexes more vocal range – distinctive, atypical mainstream. imeem: album stream
Sigur Ros – Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust
Sure, we don’t understand a word they’re saying, and this is easily their most accessible recording to date (with a song actually in English), Sigur Ros is still the best music to fall asleep too. The hushed, sonic peaks and valleys evoke a trip to their native Iceland – minimal yet grandiose. Singer Jonsi Birgisson’s falsetto continues to redefine another sub-genre of music that mixes strings, keyboards and the most odd form of pop your ears have ever discovered. This blows away those old rainforest tapes. Amazon: Album sample clips
TV On The Radio – Dear Science
Three for three is what’s probably going through most listener’s minds when they finally get through a first listen of the band’s 3rd release in just four short years. At this pace, the ever-impressive Brooklyn group is churning out A+ work one project after another, keeping Radiohead in tow for their innovativeness. It seems TVotR can do wrong, and their latest keeps the streak alive. Dear Science shows up with a mischievous creation of funky beats and new wave hooks. Complex, yet ironically simple, Dear Science is a MENSA party album.
Ryan Adams – Cardinology
Backyard Tire Fire – The Places We Lived
Beach House – Devotion
The Black Keys – Attack & Release
Black Mountain – In The Future
Blitzen Trapper – Furr
The Broken West – Now Or Heaven
Bug – London Zoo
Colour Revolt – Plunder, Beg, and Curse
The Dears – Missiles
Death Cab For Cutie – Narrow Stairs
Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid
Brian Eno + David Byrne – Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
Alejandro Escovedo – Real Animal
MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
Raconteurs – Consolers of the Lonely
Sun Kil Moon – April
Steve Winwood – Nine Lives
Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer