Monday, December 29, 2008

Dorian's Favorite Albums of 2008

If you have any good sense, your first question upon seeing this article should be: "Why the hell am I reading this?" And I will be the first person to tell you that you shouldn't. You should go out, buy the countless great albums that came out this year, and concoct your own year-end list. The band, Art Brut, has continually exhorted its listeners to start their own band. Well I'm here to instruct my readers to start their own blog. I am no more qualified than anyone else to find great music. My tastes are not superior.
While acknowledging this parity, I still aim to share with you some of the exciting, insightful, and profound musical statements I came across this past year. And I do so with the eager fervor of a child at 2nd grade show & tell. I hope to share with you sounds that made me stop and mark right where I was when I first heard them. I want you to have the opportunity to enjoy the songs that I so much enjoyed this year. I want to tell you about my 10 favorite albums of 2008.

10. Los Campesinos! - Hold On Now, Youngster

A group of irreverent, Welsh brats that write songs so lyrically "emo" and have a band name so ironically, inexplicably Spanish that Warped Tour should be calling soon. What separates these kids from the typical young, punk set is that instead of using their juvenile foibles as inspiration to progress through the same chords and the same meandering existence, Los Campesinos! explode. They pumped out two albums in 2008 (this being their first) filled with aggressive anthems of lush instrumentation. Produced by a member of Broken Social Scene, these songs burst with strings and guitars and glockenspiel and unabashed European male-female harmony that make this easily the most refreshingly youthful album of the year.

9. Horse Feathers - House with No Home

I typically turn regular people off when I tell them I listen to folk. They imagine hokey, watered down Blues Traveler or bluegrass numbers like they heard in O Brother Where Art Thou that they didn't understand. They don't hear the beautiful washing colors that bands like Horse Feathers produce. Horse Feathers are a trio from Portland, Oregon. And with a guitar, cello, violin, and a soft, unassuming voice they produce tracks as beautiful as they are inspirational. The track "This is What" is one of the best of the year -- a song filled with so much hope that it is hard to remember why folk is given such a flaccid demeanor. "Horsefeathers" is a euphemism for nonsense, but this album couldn't be further from unaffecting. It is a poignant statement filled with more than a few breathtaking moments, and with an approach that is even more effective for being so soft-spoken.

8. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

I have spent several weeks trying to figure out why this of all albums has been praised by critics on a scale larger than any other album from '08. And I think I may have an answer. This year has been a tough time for America. The only thing reliable about the economy is that it is getting worse. There is hope for "change", however, but that hope doesn't take office until January 20th, 2009. So 2008 will be remembered as the fall of housing, the fall of wall street, and the (hopefully temporary) fall of America from grace. So critics and fans across the country leaned on this album -- a folk/americana collection of songs that is nothing but American. Fleet Foxes came out of nowhere, just like the other symbol of "hope," and they too caught fire. A band filled with country, folk, classic rock, and yet are still like nothing else around. I know no other band that would place an a capella song ("White Winter Hymnal") onto their debut LP. And the strange thing is, nowhere on the album is there any insinuation of bravado. This is just them: talented, full of ideas, and classically American, at a time when such a patriotic personae has become weirdly eccentric.

7. Department of Eagles - In Ear Park

I must confess, I was going to love this album no matter what. My page has Grizzly Bear listed as my #1 artist. So when a side project of theirs comes around, I am going to scrobble it up the charts just the same. But even without my enamored predisposition, In Ear Park is great. Swirling harmonies and gentle guitar plucks play against each other to create varying moments of calm and storm. The Grizzly Bear crew know how to create and then fill a void. I have seen them blow up outdoor amphitheaters with nothing but their voices. I have listened to them build sonic moments so glorious you are afraid to listen to them with anyone else --in case you might do something to embarrass yourself while lost in the moment. Department of Eagles, like Grizzly Bear, create songs so grandiose they are personal. In Ear Park is at heart just another release by my most-listened-to artist, and it is a group of songs so great you don't want to share them with anyone else.

6. The Walkmen - You & Me

I wish I could remember more of this concert. In the spirit of celebrating whiskey rock, I ended up celebrating mostly whiskey on the night of the concert, and not much rock. It was to be the culmination of months of listening to this album non-stop. A live performance of You & Me's deep rumbles and thick croons and stories of trips and romances that I explored so deeply on headphones for so many days. As much of an ode to Rock & Roll as any proper release of '08, the Walkmen came out with probably their best total album to date. Filled with raspy yelps tossed over pianos and thick guitars, You & Me's coarse delivery (like all Walkmen albums) is best served with a side of Jack Daniels. And as much as I wish I had a little less J.D. on the night of the concert, a part of me wonders if I ever really had a choice in the matter.

5. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours

I kind of want to just introduce this album as the latest effort by a set of Australian, 80's Dance-Rock revivalists and just leave it at that. That would be more than enough to stir curiosity. But that wouldn't be fair to the band. Cut Copy are one of those bands that you have no inhibitions about becoming extremely popular and over-played. Their hooks are just that good --you just want everyone you have ever met to hear them. Song after song on In Ghost Colours makes the awkward white guy in everyone want to jump out and strut their stuff. I really hope this album is blasting at a night club somewhere, because the songs on this album are going entirely to waste if they aren't causing parties to break out all the time. This was the summer album of 2008. And I wouldn't mind if everyone on the planet shared the same sweet beats and sugary vocals to soundtrack their carefree sunshine moments. This album is shameless in its intentions to provoke a good time, and is undeniably enjoyable from beginning to end.

4. The Tallest Man on Earth - Shallow Grave

Not much is known about The Tallest Man on Earth other than it is the work of Swedish singer/songwriter Kristian Matsson. He has done little publicity, but the music speaks for itself. Heavy influences of Dylan and Nick Drake are mixed with Matsson's unique voice. This is the indie teenager's wet dream: an obscure artist with haunting guitar tunes and a voice only an open mind can love. Nerdy high-schoolers these days may be lacking the nurturing effect of new Belle & Sebastian material, but they do have The Tallest Man on Earth. And I can honestly say that with this album in hand, nerds across the universe will be able to make it the other side of teenage awkwardness captivity just fine.

3. The Dodos - Visiter

Please do yourself a favor and youtube the video for "Fools" from this album. I am but one of many heterosexual accounts of having sheer awe at watching these two dudes from San Francisco wipe the sweat off their sleazy mustaches while furiously banging out an anthem resembling an Animal Collective single. These guys are relentless. Their live show was one of the most cathartic experiences of my life. The drummer actually tapes tambourines to the bottoms of his feet in order to produce more percussion. Such intensity gives Visiter moments so purely visceral that you can't help but think that these songs were written instinctively. And even with so much commotion ringing throughout, the lead singer's full, mellifluous voice almost makes you forget how hard these guys are actually working.

2. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend

Overhyped does not mean overrated, and despite how much talk and how much airplay this album received, it deserved every bit of it. Sure it sounds remarkably like Paul Simon's Graceland. And sure, I would feel more comfortable with my girlfriend hanging out with the Jonas Brothers than I would be having her hang out with these undeniably adorable preppies from Columbia. But just because the package is so easy to swallow does not deny that every song on this album is so ridiculously catchy that it should be released as its own single. This is by far the easiest album to enjoy of all 2008, and it rightfully earned its fair amount of recognition.

1. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago

In case you haven't already heard, this album is the product of Bon Iver's Justin Vernon spending a winter in near solitude in a Wisconsin cabin. Driven there by romantic and band breakups, Vernon produced nine honest tracks about finding oneself again after losing everything. For Emma, Forever Ago is one of the most beautiful albums I have ever heard, and is by far my favorite album of 2008.
There is something strangely unifying about listening to this album that is about being alone. I was lucky enough to see Bon Iver perform twice this year, and each time the effect was the same. Seeing this big, billowy lug of a man shed his soul in songs sung entirely in falsetto enraptured the audience like a car accident. The music being pushed out of Vernon's body is as natural as tears or sweat or vomit. And all those I know who have heard Bon Iver are as touched as I still am every time I listen to For Emma, Forever Ago. This album is as organic as the woods and winter that helped produce it, and it is a stunning reminder of how music often fills the emotional voids that standard forms of communication often fail to convey.

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