The Year’s Best Albums (Thus Far)

Like any year, 2008 has seen good and bad moments in music: inevitable highs (R.E.M., Coldplay) and lows (Flo Rida’s, umm, “Low”) started hitting the charts as soon as Radiohead released the year’s to-be best (In Rainbows) on January 3rd. But after filtering out the schmaltz, ’08 is shaping up to be a pretty good year in music — though any record exec, including the ones who still have their jobs, might disagree. Below is my Top Ten from the first half of this year.

10. R.E.M., Accelerate
There was a time not too long ago when critics and fans alike thought that R.E.M. should be put to sleep. The band’s latter-day album catalogue was continually waning, and newer hits like “Everybody Hurts” were just a parody of older, better hits from the band that more or less invented college rock. Then came Accelerate, a great new collection of songs lead off by the instantly hooky “Supernatural Superserious.” The best part? The new disc ain’t that serious. Opener “Living Well is the Best Revenge” is R.E.M. having fun being mean; “Man-Sized Wreath,” on the other hand, is as wacky as its title. Ultimately, the eleven-song set excels at saying “don’t count us out just yet” with a smile.

9. Robyn, Robyn
There’s a smartness to seemless pop music, and Robyn’s R&B IQ might just be a little higher than yours. On Robyn, her long-delayed third album, the Swedish pop princess makes clear that her intentions are to beat your best beat — and she absolutely succeeds in doing so. There’s a song named after a Dave Chappelle skit (“Konichiwa Bitches”), one named after a Madonna track (“Who’s That Girl?”) and even one dedicated to every other actress in Hollywood (“Crash and Burn Girl”). But better yet are Robyn’s personal songs, which paint her as pop’s premier anti-romantic: first there’s “Handle Me” (you can’t), closely followed by “Be Mine” (you never will). Both mix electric beats with somber strings, and both are as danceable as they are depressing. But I guess there’s a certain smartness in sadness too.

8. Coldplay, Viva La Vida (review here)
Coldplay released Viva La Vida — their fourth and best full-length — in the height of summer, and the first line of the first single (“Violet Hill”) is something about a “long and dark December.” Then come lyrics about gun-toting priests, carnivals of idiots and, oh yeah, love. So while it’s not exactly what you expected, it’s still Coldplay — which might as well be the byline of this album. Now well on its way to international platinum status, Viva is somewhat of a tour-de-force as far as blockbuster albums go, packing more invention and ferocity into its first two singles than in the entirety of Coldplay’s back catalogue. Basically, this album is the one that starts Coldplay’s new future — an interesting note given that its lyrics, many of which criticize society and its talking heads, are very much rooted in the past. On the title track, for instance, Chris Martin details the fall of a roaming empire; on proper album closer “Death and All His Friends,” meanwhile, he’s preoccupied with his forlorn fate — the same fate that eventually buries each and every one of us. But that unending everymanism is what underlies Coldplay’s success, and it’s quite interesting to see a band sneak in criticisms of the same masses to which it caters.

7. MGMT, Oracular Spectacular
If you must, take time to scoff at MGMT’s laughably-ridiculous debut album title. Then play the thing and you won’t stop laughing ’til it’s done. After two years of hipster ridicule, Connecticut’s MGMT have transformed themselves from the band you laugh at into the band you laugh with — and the first ten tracks of their career are the source. Opener and lead single “Time to Pretend,” for one, is a rollicking look at rockstar-ism: “Choke on our vomit/That will be the end,” sings the group on the track. “We’re fated to pretend.” The rest of Oracular is a similar mockery of pretension, with danceable electronica and heavy drums making up the majority of the aural aspect. But ultimately, the band proves its mastery of the concept that making fun of other people’s good times is itself a damn good time.

6. Santogold, Santogold
On the fifth track from her debut LP, Brooklyn’s Santogold calls herself a “creator” — but she sounds much more swamp creature than creator on the album. One reason for that might be the disc’s murky production, which melds together reggae, dub, punk, electronica, trance and even a little bit of hip-hop on its twelve songs. Another might be her shaky vibrato, which sounds sinister on lines like “I’m a lady” and sweet on lines like “Shove your hope where it don’t shine.” But most likely to blame is Santo’s general presence on the record, as the up-and-coming songwriter always seems to hover above and beyond the distorted disturbia bleeding from your speakers. Never has a voice so distant been so clearly here to stay.

5. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III
If you released a mixtape-per-minute like Lil Wayne, you probably wouldn’t have time to listen to your peers’ output. But as Weezy makes clear on Tha Carter III, today’s best hip-hop draws from the past. Just check the album’s cover, where Wayne’s baby-face alludes to similar images of Nas on Illmatic and Biggie on Ready to Die. The album’s title, meanwhile, evokes the three-part CD series of Jay-Z and Kanye, both of which (arguably) culminated in the third installment. So too does Weezy’s series: TC III is a pitch-perfect rendering of all of Wayne’s idiosyncrasies, from his syrupy alien flow to his lol/omg/wtf?!? lyrics. Like any rap CD, it doesn’t all work; the “Snap Yo Fingers” rehash of “Got Money” is one particular lowlight. But not since Dr. Octagon has funk met finesse like on “Dr. Carter,” and not since beefing with Nas has Jay-Z worked so hard not to be outrapped (listen to “Mr. Carter”). Better yet? Jay is indeed outdone, as there’s a newer, better Carter in town.

4. The Raconteurs, Consolers of the Lonely
“How you gonna top yourself?” purrs Jack White to a former lover on “Top Yourself,” the seventh track from The Raconteurs’ sophomore disc Consolers of the Lonely: “Guess you better get yourself a sugar daddy to help you!” The line is both comic and cruel, not unlike White’s cynicism with the White Stripes, but it cuts deeper because Jack seems constantly involved in his own endgame to, well, top himself. Such is the case with all of Consolers, where he and co-lead-singer Brendan Benson duel to write the best song the Rolling Stones never did. And they come pretty damn close: “Many Shades of Black” swirls from traditional rhythm and blues into a manic, six-eight march; “Hold Up” draws equally from the Bar-Kays and Tom Petty; even first single “Salute Your Solution” closes with a funky, full-band singalong. And unlike with the Stripes, where Jack’s production pallette is basically limited to drums and guitars, this Raconteurs album is chock full of Sixties studio staples: shimmering tambourines, Memphis horns, dirty organs, even saloon piano. The band’s lyrics, meanwhile, are cloaked as ominous threats; even on the delightful alt-country tune “Old Enough,” Benson sings words of warning: “Maybe when you’re old enough/You’ll realize you aren’t so tough/And some days the seas get rough, you’ll see.” Put simply, Consolers is leagues ahead of the Raconteurs’ debut, and it really makes you realize just how much these dudes wish they played during the birth of rock ‘n roll. If only they were old enough.

3. Portishead, Third (review here)
On “Machine Gun,” the first single from Portishead’s third LP, Geoff Barrow establishes parallelism with percussion that sounds like shots being fired. (Talk about a little drummer boy.) But on disc opener “Silence,” the band is found at its absolute noisiest. So here’s my point: try as you might, you can’t figure out the mechanism(s) behind Portishead. Sometimes lead singer Beth Gibbons is lively and hopeful, as on “Deep Water” (“Deep waters won’t scare me tonight”); other times she’s just hopefully alive (“I am nowhere,” from “Plastic”). Her band’s only constant is its mystery, from its ever-elusive melodies to even weirder instrumentation. Third features wobbly percussive loops, tweaky horns, eery synths and battered guitars, all of which mold a sound that matches the creepiness of knowing something’s there even when you can’t see it. Perhaps that’s the comfort of deep waters: never do they leave Portishead unhidden.

2. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals
A common misconception among popular DJs is that their primary goal is to get the party started. But Gregg Gillis, the one-man mastermind sporting the mash-up moniker Girl Talk, knows he’s there to keep it from stopping. 2008’s Feed the Animals, another dose of Gillis’ everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to remixing, is his most expansive set yet — and his most rewarding for baby boomers through baby mommas, as it culls not only from modern rap but also from classic rock. Just listen to opener “Play Your Part (Part 1),” which explodes into a mindmeld of The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin'” and UGK’s “Int’l Player’s Anthem” in mere seconds. Similarly intoxicating is the entirety of “Still Here,” which goes from Youngbloodz/Procul Harum to “Flashing Lights”/”No Diggity” and manages to incorporate Radiohead, The Band, Yung Joc, Ace of Base and 50 Cent on the way. And that’s one track. In total, the whole mixtape runs for fifty uninterrupted minutes through five consecutive decades — making clear that where other DJs stress drum ‘n bass, Girl Talk stresses cut ‘n paste.

1.5. The Black Keys, Attack & Release (review here)
Omitted from my original list, and for no good reason: the Black Key’s Attack & Release is the group’s best to date. For the first time on record, the band sounds like more than just a duo — thanks no doubt to Danger Mouse’s fill-in-the-blanks production style, on display in full force throughout Attack. It’s he who provides the banjos, pianos, basslines, atmospherics and organs; the Keys respond with a heavy dose of battered, blue-eyed lyricism and Sabbath-serious riffing. (“You see me out your window,” sings leader Dan Auerbach at one point, “Even when you close the blinds”; the line takes on new meaning in the context of Danger Mouse not overproducing the Keys’ signature sound.) But with drum fills that sound like guitar riffs and guitar riffs that sound like drum fills, it’s hard to mistake this disc for anyone but the world’s only Akron-based blues outfit.

1. Radiohead, In Rainbows
Leave it to Radiohead to release 2007 and 2008’s best disc with one swift stroke: In Rainbows, released digitally in October ’07 and physically in January ’08, earned the band a second #1 album and their highest critical marks since the last #1 (2000’s Kid A). The record is a return to form with significant returns, as Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want distribution scheme generated a rumored $10 million in digital sales alone. But more important than the album’s economy is Thom Yorke’s lyrical economy; terse metaphors like “I’m just an animal/Trapped in your hot car” make In Rainbows Radiohead’s sexiest yet, and the instant gratification of the band’s poppiest hooks since ’95’s The Bends confirm the hedonism. “Bodysnatchers” sounds like early Pearl Jam, which is interesting because Radiohead debuted in the heights of grunge. And “All I Need” is ’90s trip hop in the vein of the Primitive Radio God’s “Phone Booth.” But despite those few classic turns, Rainbows is the sound of a band so ahead of their time that they already know we’re all doomed to hell. Just note the simple chorus from the Bush-aimed “House of Cards”: “Denial…denial,” sings Yorke, putting into words a greater criticism than the greatest pundit. His band, at this point in their lofty career, is as easy to like as their lyrical targets are to hate.

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