Strangers Almanac: Best of 2008

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Last February, we began our first collaboration with Strangers’ Almanac, a bi-monthly tribute to our much loved singer-songwriters, including both veteran artists and newcomers to the music scene.  Slowly, we’ve been building a thoroughly subjective reference section to help you navigate your way through the best lyrical poets making music today.  Together, we’ve created our first annual “Best of” lists to honor our 2008 library of favorites.  Of course, Strangers’ Almanac artists made the list of required listening.  But, believe it or not, we do actually listen to a card catalog of various genres.  So, we’ve broken down our lists into an assortment of categories …no rankings, just alphabetical order.  Like true music lovers, it was difficult enough to narrow down the lists to only our top tens.  However, we have made it easier for you to map your course with an index of carefully written descriptions and YouTube links to songs.  So, take off your coat, pull up a chair, and enjoy browsing the Almanac’s “Best of 2008.”  

Best Songs by a 2008 Strangers’ Almanac Artist:

Albertine” – Brooke Fraser (Albertine)
A driving beat gives ultimate focus to Fraser’s eye-opening experiences in Rwanda
Cobwebs” – Cardinals (Cardinology)
An ethereal, mid-tempo standout that showcases Adams’ pleasingly vulnerable lyrics
 “Elephants” – Rachael Yamagata (Elephants…Teeth Sinking into Heart)
A hauntingly beautiful allegory about the primal nature of relationships: cold chills abound
“Find Me to Forgive” – William Fitzsimmons (The Sparrow and the Crow)
An intimate letter to an ex-wife, featuring a lush arrangement of instruments contrasted with an urgent, marching beat
 “Go to Hell” – David Ford (Songs for the Road)
A striking anthem using strings and an arsenal of personal lyrics to unleash Ford’s candid feelings
“Just You” – Jessica Sonner (All We Need)
A gentle gem featuring Sonner’s trusty acoustic guitar and clear vocals; now all she needs is you
Keep You Happy” – Tift Merritt (Another Country)
A meditative ode to change that finds Merritt at the peak of her songwriting potential
 Little Rock Star” – Lucinda Williams (Little Honey)
Written for the eccentric Ryan Adams, Williams sings of death wishes over a finishing wave of psychedelic production
Out of Time” – Jason Collett (Here’s to Being Here)
An ironically upbeat tune about the impermanency of life, complete with a seriously catchy hook
You Are the Best Thing” – Ray LaMontagne (Gossip in the Grain)
A sweet soul throwback to Mr. Otis Redding that brings the girls to their knees

Honorable Mention:
3 Stories High” – Mia and Jonah (Songs for Adelaide)
 “Another Country” – Tift Merritt (Another Country)
 “I Love You and Buddha, Too” – Mason Jennings (In the Ever)
Shadowfeet” – Brooke Fraser (Albertine)
“We Feel Alone” – William Fitzsimmons (The Sparrow and the Crow)

Best Songs by a Future Strangers’ Almanac Artist:

Acid Tongue” – Jenny Lewis (Acid Tongue)
The best taste of vintage Lewis from her genre-sprawling sophomore effort
"Alicia Ross" – Kathleen Edwards (Asking for Flowers)
Edwards’ solo electric and heartbreaking ode to a fellow Canadian who was murdered by her neighbor
"Chasing After You" – Geoff Koch (If It Feels Good, Don’t Do It)
An acoustic cut that reminds listeners of a young Jeff Tweedy, just scratching the surface
"Further to Fall" – Dan Craig (Skin Grows Thin)
A Ray Lamontagne-esque ballad that soars with Craig’s passionate and rangy vocals
"It Could’ve Been Worse" – Matthew Ryan (Matthew Ryan vs. the Silver State)
Ryan’s tale of misspent youth, complete with first kisses and mascara that was “born to run”
"Punches" – Collin Herring (Past Life Crashing)
Bad relationships linger in this country-folk gem where punches are thrown at the “night air”
Second Chance” – Liam Finn (I’ll Be Lightning)
A display of dreamy vocals juxtaposed with a barrage of kick ass drumming
Skinny Love” – Bon Iver (For Emma, Forever Ago)
Acoustic folk and a pristine falsetto create a eulogy for dissolving love
Song for Bobby” – Cat Power (Jukebox)
An eerie channeling of an idol, Bob Dylan; impersonation really is the best form of flattery
This is Not a Test” – She & Him (Volume One)
The lovechild of ‘50s girl groups and an indie folk sound brought to you by Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward

Honorable Mention:
"Easy Does It" – Bonnie "Prince" Billy (Lie Down in the Light)
"Saddest Sunset" – Lili Haydn (Place Between Places)
Weak in the Knees” – Serena Ryder (Told You in a Whispered Song EP)
"What’s Been Going On" – Amos Lee (Last Days at the Lodge)
 "You Got Growin’ Up to Do" – Joshua Radin (Simple Times)

Best Songs by Artists We Don’t Get to Write About:

Cheap Wine” – What Made Milwaukee Famous (What Doesn’t Kill Us)
Forget the cheap wine; this slow-building song alone is enough to make you smile
Electric Feel” – MGMT (Ocular Spectacular)
A sexy, indie dance nugget with a global passport
"God and Suicide" – Blitzen Trapper (Furr)
You wouldn’t believe it from the title, but this short poppy tune won’t bring you down
I’m Amazed” – My Morning Jacket (Evil Urges)
A no-holds-barred rocker that has air guitars going back in style
Lay Me Back Down” – Portugal. The Man (Censored Colors)
This band from Wasilla, Alaska has the indie-prog-vocal-sigh thing down pat
"Lost Coastlines" – Okkervil River (The Stand Ins)
You could dance to it, but it’s probably best you simply relax and enjoy its contagious groove
Something Is Not Right with Me” – Cold War Kids (Loyalty to Loyalty)
A head banging confession that confirms what the first Kids’ album hinted at all along
Shout Me Out” – TV on the Radio (Dear Science)
A chameleon of a song that morphs from a cool, electronic beat to burning rock and back again
That’s Not My Name” – The Ting Tings (We Started Nothing)
A sassy electro-pop number that double dog dares you to remain still in your seat
Ragged Wood” – Fleet Foxes (Fleet Foxes)
An alt-countrified chugging train that slips into mellow, CSNY-esque harmonies

Honorable Mention:
Wrestlers” – Hot Chip (Made in the Dark)
Call it a Ritual” – Wolf Parade (At Mount Zoomer)
Oxford Comma” – Vampire Weekend (Vampire Weekend)
The Places We Lived” – Backyard Tire Fire (The Places We Lived)
100 Years” – Dr. Dog (Fate)

Top Ten Albums of 2008:

Katie’s Pick: Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)
Sometimes when a man lives in an isolated home for a lengthy period of time, you get The Shining.  Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to get For Emma, Forever Ago.  Justin Vernon, without intentions to record any music, holed up in his father’s cabin for three months and came out with the Wisconsin band’s latest release, full of its own, unique haunting.  Intrinsically sad, Vernon’s soft voice provides a top layer to minimal folk guitar and moments of meaningful silence.  The songs are meditations on both lonesomeness and aloneness, and I have grown to appreciate the difference between the two, thanks to this album. 
Jason’s Pick: Brooke Fraser – Albertine (Wood & Bone)
Nothing this year won my heart over quite like Fraser’s Albertine, her second full-length.  The singer-songwriter from New Zealand showed that you can create pop music and still have something meaningful to say, which is a difficult feat to accomplish in my book.  Songs like “Shadowfeet,” “Albertine,” and “C.S. Lewis Song,” leave you thinking that you’re a little bit smarter for listening to Fraser’s call to own up to your responsibilities in life. Something tells me that any New Year’s resolutions that Fraser may have had for 2008, she accomplished months ago.
Katie’s Pick: Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
The Fleet Foxes took me for a ride this year down the back roads of the countryside and the mountains.  With sounds ranging from somber to sunshiny bright, I find the album appropriate for just about every mood my hormones can throw at me.  The five man band from Seattle stamped its name on the alt-pop-folk genre with plucky strings and nature themes, perfect for campfire sing-alongs.  I picture The Fleet Foxes recording this album in a deep, dark forest, their harmonies echoing back from the full moon in the sky.
Katie’s Pick: Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue (Warner Bros.)
Poor former child stars.  Most of them just don’t stand a chance.  But, Jenny Lewis has proven more times than I can count on my right hand that she’s meant for the stage.  The concert stage, that is.  On her second solo album, Acid Tongue, she embraces a multitude of genres that collectively stray from the über-focused Rabbit Fur Coat.  Despite some media criticism, I find her nods to The Hollies on “The Next Messiah,” and even The Jackson Five on “Black Sand” (it’s the chord changes, I swear) endearing.  However, it’s Lewis’ penchant for intriguing songwriting that really sets my heart aflutter. 
Jason’s Pick: Kathleen Edwards – Asking for Flowers (Zoë Records)
There are so many subtle things about this album that floor me every time I listen to it: the sound of Edwards’ trailing voice at the end of “Alicia Ross,” the unfinished, yet somehow complete beauty of “Goodnight, California,” and the way her immediate and consummate fragility takes hold during the opening “Buffalo.”  It’s true that Edwards has the charm and talent of a songwriter who will last a long time.  But, this album will be hard for her to top.
Jason’s Pick: Matthew Ryan – Matthew Ryan vs. the Silver State (00:02:59)
An overlooked artist who should need no introduction, Ryan returned in 2008 with a collection of powerful tunes that snowball into a larger message: we’re all in this together.  The cover evokes a war theme, but MRVSS isn’t a political album, it just tugs at your heart in all the fragile places where there are battles to be won.  “You were a good thing in a world gone wrong,” Ryan sings on “Jane, I Still Feel the Same.”  I feel the same way about this album.
Katie’s Pick: The Ting Tings – We Started Nothing (Columbia)
You’re lying to yourself if you consider We Started Nothing simply a guilty pleasure.  Gaining momentum from an iPod commercial that featured “Shut Up and Let Me Go,” Katie White and Jules De Martino stocked this album chockfull of undeniable dance tracks, and the effort produced a running list of summer anthems that I continuously blasted at high volume.  What The Ting Tings sell is pure, feisty fun, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I gobbled it right up. 
Jason’s Pick: Tift Merritt – Another Country (Fantasy)
Dropped by her former record label, Merritt moved to Paris to live in an apartment with a lonely piano and her lingering thoughts about what to do next.  She proves to be a fighter on this album, an overall haunting take on irreparable damage to one’s heart, and how to find redemption.  Not an easy task, but after listening to Merritt’s voice tell the truth, any victory seems possible.  Never bet against Tift Merritt.
Katie’s Pick: TV on the Radio – Dear Science (Interscope)
I’ve always admired TVotR’s ability to fly through genres with the greatest of ease.  The Brooklyn quintet mixes rock, electro, and soul in an intelligent way.  Despite such experimentation, the results are still extremely listener-friendly.  On Dear Science, the boys show a softer side with the gorgeously arranged “Family Tree,” and they retreat from the tightrope to the dance floor with “Dancing Choose.”  This is a band that always leaves me wondering: “What next?”  But, the answer never fails to delight. 
Jason’s Pick: What Made Milwaukee Famous – What Doesn’t Kill Us (Barsuk)
These boys from Austin know a catchy melody or two.  One listen to the poppy “Sultan” will have your iPod on repeat, draining its battery life from the powerful hook generating into your brain.  Only at the end of the album do the songs relax their pulse, hinting that while there is a quiet vulnerability, there really aren’t many things that can kill them off. 

Honorable Mention:
Blitzen Trapper – Furr (Sub Pop)
Cardinals – Cardinology (Lost Highway)
Collin Herring – Past Life Crashing (Sustain Records)
MGMT – Ocular Spectacular (Columbia)
Okkervil River – The Stand Ins (Jagjaguwar)

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