Colin's Best of 2008 List

So, as you'll notice, the list went from ten to twenty. Why? Because this year was that good. I wrote it out at ten and it was leaving off some really excellent albums. Even fifteen wasn't enough. Twenty kept the ones on there that I thought should be on there, but there are some that I felt were also worth mentioning, which you'll find at the bottom of this list.
I have a lot of hopes for 2009 as well. Andrew Bird's "Noble Beast" was just released, but was available for free preview via NPR's web site beforehand, and is, by far, his best work to date. Animal Collective's new album is already being flagged as the best of 2009 (and also currently available for free streaming on NPR's web site). Laura Gibson, per a drunken conversation I had with her at her show in Prescott last May, should have an album out in February or March. Great Lake Swimmers, Throw Me the Statue and The Appleseed Cast also have new albums coming out soon, not to mention the bands that should have new releases out soon. So, let's all look forward to the new year, but first look back in awe at what happened in that horrible 2008 that we'd all like to forget.

1

Wolf Parade - At Mount Zoomer

Of all the albums displaying increased maturity this year, Wolf Parade offers the best example of what a group of musicians can do given time and promise. "At Mount Zoomer," originally titled "Kissing the Beehive" until a lawsuit by the publishing company of a novel of the same name forced a change, hit me hard early on as the best album of the year, and, even though this was a fantastic year for music, it remained that way throughout the year.
I was lucky enough to see Wolf Parade when they stopped here in Tucson in July. The show was without theatrics and drama, but it was well-performed, which is exactly the sort of professionalism that I would expect from this group: they went out there, played well, and then left. The setlist was a good mix of older material from "Apologies to the Queen Mary" and this release, and, whereas the crowd seemed more excited about the former's tracks, I was very much looking forward to a few off of this one. Much to my surprise, the album's opener, "Soldier's Grin," was not the opener, although the album's closing track, "Kissing the Beehive" was its finale. And, in the end, I got to hear all of the tracks that I really wanted to hear.
Wolf Parade is one of many bands now whose influence can easily be traced to early David Bowie. "An Animal in Your Care" is this album's clearest Bowie-like track, with the beginning sounding it could have been taken off of "Ziggy Stardust." But this album isn't just Bowie. There's a lot of versatility good writing here. It's difficult for me to pick a personal favorite because all of the songs are really good. Highlights for me, though, are "Soldier's Grin," "Language City" and "The Grey Estates."
Release Date: 2008-06-18
Other Reviews: ++

Soldier's Grin, live at The Rialto Theatre, Tucson, 7-21-2008

Language City, live at The Rialto Theatre, Tucson, 7-21-2008

2

What Made Milwaukee Famous - What Doesn't Kill Us

Austin-based What Made Milwaukee Famous, in 2005, became the first unsigned artist to play on PBS' "Austin City Limits." They played tracks off of "Trying to Never Catch Up," which was released on Barsuk (Mates of State) in 2006 once the band was signed to that label. I had heard the band at around this time, and, honestly, didn't think much of them. A little too poppy and hipster for me, but still fairly good. It wasn't until I stumbled upon an advance mp3 from this album, the track "Resistance Street," that I really got into them. That track featured a use of alternating time signatures, somewhat awkward rhythms, making it hard to dance along to (something I really like), great use of the band's instrumentation and, most importantly, showed off lead singer Michael Kingcaid's vocal abilities like nothing I had heard up to that point.
That turned out to be just a taste of what really is a very good album. Aside from a couple of minor stumblings (some may latch onto these tracks, actually), the album flows so well that it sounds like a much more experienced group rather than a band only on their sophomore release.
I finally got to see WMMF at their homebase just after New Year's (2009) during Emo's (the quintessential Austin venue) free week. We watched the members walk by most of the night as four Austin-based (yes, 4) bands played before them, leaving a bit of a stunted set that led the band, as well as the crowd, to be quite drunk when they finally got on at around 1. The band surprised me though by playing quite a few covers, including, of all the random shit out there, California-based Delta Spirit's catchy "Trashcan." I was also very impressed by the drummer. That guy is something and, although he's more reserved on the albums, he really comes through live as a great musician.
Although much more produced-sounding than their debut, that fact actually works well for the group, only adding layers and intricacies to be admired and does nothing to step on the vocals of Kingcaid (originally from Katy, a Houston suburb), who, in my mind, rivals Ted Leo for the best vocalist in indie rock today. And, if you have any doubt of his ability, watch the band's impromptu performance of "Sultan" from the 16th Street Mall bus in Denver in the videos section below. What may surprise you about WMMF more than their music, general lack of notoriety, or even good sense of humor is that, aside from having a great voice, Kingcaid is a fabulously attractive guy, with the rugged good looks that may have won over Kris Kristofferson fans two decades ago (I'm not comparing the two though).
There are so many stand-out tracks on this album. "Sultan" is easily the radio favorite with its fast lyrics and quick changes, but then the softer, sweeter "Self Destruct" could do so much to bring in the teenage girls as Kingcaid swoons "I wouldn't self-destruct for anybody else." While "To Each His Own" borders on cheesy with its repetitive chorus, a simple chord change saves it for me, although a clap-along section will likely make it a favorite for some, just as "Middle of the Night," although a little over the top for me, is such a good sing-along song that others may love it. The album's closer, an acoustic ballad entitled "The Other Side," shows a side to Kingcaid's vocals that we had not yet seen on the album. My favorite though is "For the Birds," which offers an excellent peak on the band's abilities.
At the end, you're invariably left wanting more. Surely there's another track? But, no, it's over. And that's one of the things that I would knock this album for: it really should have another track. This band has shown that they're good enough to pull excellent music out of their collective asses, so they surely could have come up with something. I guess we'll just have to wait until the next release.
Release Date: 2008-03-04
Other Reviews: ~

Sultan, performed on the 16th Street Mall bus in Denver

Sultan (official video)

3

Thao with the Get Down/Stay Down - We Brave Bee Stings and All

I think that, since Cat Power effectively removed herself from the scene of intelligent rock music several years ago with a series of self-destructive moves, I've been waiting for a replacement to come along: a strong, female, singer-songwriter who uses intelligent yet reflective lyrics that everyone can identify with, over a simple layer of guitar-driven music. Thao Nguyen (pronounced "tao win"), originally from suburban Virginia, finally pulled off her Kill Rock Stars (The Decemberists, Why?, Xiu Xiu) debut in January, after quite a bit of time on the label. She not only fits that Chan Marshall mold, but exceeds it on some levels, mainly in that Thao is actually a pretty damn good guitar player and is very sociable in performing, where Chan Marshall could barely play a chord and was known for running off of the stage mid-set (at Coachella in 2004, after supposedly getting sober, she still refused to come on stage at one point, feigning a cough).
Thao and Me
I finally got to see Thao live in March in Phoenix, opening for label-mate Xiu Xiu. It was one of the few shows I can recall seeing that actually started right on time. When we pulled up, we happened to do so next to Thao's touring minivan (an older Toyota), where the band was hanging out and listening to what sounded like their Daytrotter sessions, which I heard and assumed that I was missing the show, only to get to the door and realize what had happened. I also, on the way out, had to ask the guitarist, who was dozing in the passenger seat, to close the door in order to get out. The show was excellent. Both Thao (who I was more excited to see, even though I love Xiu Xiu) and Xiu Xiu played with heart and soul. I got to see Thao again this summer, this time with openers Horse Feathers, and it was just as good, if not better.
And this album has just as much heart and soul put into it as her live performances do. It's as if Thao understands very well that this, songwriting, is her calling, and her music comes across as such. The lyrics on here are introspective but also relatable, moving between songs about childhood, boyfriends and feminism in a manner that makes the album easy to listen to. "Big Kid Table," "Swimming Pools" and "Fear and Convenience" are, for me, the highlights and offer the best of what Thao has to offer. But the album, as a whole, is just so well put together. It doesn't sound too long, nor does it sound too short, and everything flows so well, with that first dramatic snare drum intro into "Beat," into the reflective "Fear and Convenience," and out with the flowing "Travel," and closing "We Go." And then there's the lyrics.
"Beat" offers a bit of light-hearted feminism with "Beat my brow/Beat my chest/Beat the ones who love me the best/Oh, how could they be liars?/They assure me health, love and fire." "Fear and Convenience" introduces the problems of virginity and becoming a sexual being, asking "Did he hurt you in a new way?" while introducing the seemingly contradictory "I have seen fear and convenience/I have never glimpsed romance." "Big Kid Table" brings back the memories of a more innocent puppy love, "You are strong, strong, strong/Stronger than me/With a heart much more lovely."
Thao's often scratchy and jangled tone may throw some off but, in the end, nearly everything about her work is good, and this album showcases her talents like they should be shown off. After the extensive touring this year, I can only hope that she, on the follow-up, measures up to the standard set by this release.
Release Date: 2008-01-29
Other Reviews: +++

Bag of Hammers (official video)

Swimming Pools (official video)

Big Kid Table, live at some sort of marina in Virginia

Feet Asleep, live at Solar Culture, Tucson, 8-4-2008

Bag of Hammers, live at Solar Culture, Tucson, 8-4-2008

4

Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend reflects, to me, the epitome of "college music." It's intelligent, a bit catchy and the lyrics are heavily centered around somewhat trivial inter-personal relationships. In other words, it's something that would be relatively easy for any white college kid to identify with. The Trustafarian crew should especially latch onto this as it infuses various elements from various genres of African music. But that's not to discount the music in any way. It's actually quite good, which is the reason it's here on this list.
The album as a whole works very well, but there are several stand-out tracks, many of which have been made into singles and music videos. The album's opener, "Mansard Roof" represented the album's first single and video, and does a great job at encompassing what the album, as a whole, seeks to be, with the slightly dragging drum beat, happy pipe organ, jangly guitar and steady bassline. Although much of the album moves in this way, we are not left with various tracks of what is essentially the same thing. The album moves seamlessly into the next track, "A-Punk," which remains one of the more popular singles from this album. My personal favorite though is "M79," which, to me, was one of the best songs of last year. The string arrangement alone on that track is noteworthy and stands out among the group's other instrumentation.
Release Date: 2008-01-29
Other Reviews: +++

Oxford Comma (official video)

A-Punk (official video)

Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa (official video)

Walcott & One, La Blogotheque, from the streets (and a cafe) of Paris

5

Throw Me the Statue - Moonbeams

This album came out on Secretly Canadian (previously self-released) near the beginning of the year and it's hard for me to imagine that it was actually 2008 when it was released. I first came across this Seattle-based group on a Blogoteque video. Something is especially fun to me about that site's concept: get artists to play in awkward and unlikely public spaces. Throw Me the Statue played on a Puget Sound Ferry (I believe the Bainbridge Island one on its return trip). Very appropriate for their hometown and well executed. They played "About to Walk," and did so while walking through the main ferry level, picking up more band members along the way while passing by somewhat surprised passengers, and ending up on the roof looking out at the Seattle skyline on a relatively clear winter day. On a crazy music trip this April, I just happened to catch them at an intimate yet untraditional venue at the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico. The sound was terrible, the piano (which the band was excited about finally getting to play) did not work, and there were maybe ten people there. But the guys in the band were so incredibly nice, insisting that people stay after the show and actually talking to people excitedly afterward. But what about the album?
The album is full of cryptic, inside joke lyrics that may alienate those who focus on the lyrics. "About to Walk" (which, I guess, is about living in a shitty apartment) offers as its chorus "Strange nights, locked inside/I was waiting for the road ahead/I was lying in my Western bed/Clues and clues, dressed in white/Double dreams tend to land big blows/After all with the evening ghosts/They were only there to break my toes." ...WTF? Strange, but also a bit reminiscent of the genius of Isaac Brock, although certainly lacking his canny ability to provide prolific insight that's easy to identify with. Other tracks, like the cutesy "Lolita" and the more ballad-like title track, have more intuitive lines such as Lolita's "Shaking off the dusty cape/Lacing it up again/'Cause she used to love it/So I bury my shame/She was nineteen and we all rearranged." The band (or, rather, their label, Secretly Canadian) even invested in a well-produced video to the song "Lolita," which sees the flannel-donned band members awkwardly playing in an attic above a Denise Richards lookalike's bedroom while she is being fought over by two captivated suitors. Throw in some exploding pies and a trampoline, and you've got a really strange video. But, then again, Throw Me the Statue's kind of a weird band even though, personally, they seem to be so down-to-earth.
I saw them again in July at Seattle's Capitol Hill Block Party. Despite playing in front of a local crowd, there were still a ridiculous amount of "Where are you from?" yells and a girl next to me who persistently yelled "It's my birthday!" The band seemed to take it all with good humor and put on a decent set. Not to say that I don't like the band, they just seem to be one of those bands that does much better in the studio. I saw them yet again when they finally came to Tucson to play a free show with LA's Princeton although, as I found out in talking to them, they were just there for the free hotel room.
Release Date: 2008-02-18
Other Reviews: +

Lolita (official video)

Yucatan Gold (official video)

About to Walk, La Blogotheque, on a Puget Sound Ferry

Young Sensualists, live at Capitol Hill Block Party, Seattle, 7-26-2008

Groundswell, live at Capitol Hill Block Party, Seattle, 7-26-2008

6

The Dodos - Visiter

The first track on this album, "Walking," is so good that, to me, it makes up for any downfalls that could otherwise exist, but really don't. You shouldn't expect something mind-blowing from "Visiter" but you should expect an interesting and innovative collection of tracks devoted to what may be best described as electric nouveau folk rock. But, as a drummer, I'm fascinated by The Dodos, whose drummer is not only very good, but uses such an interesting set up with, most importantly, no bass drum.
What's great about this group is how likeable they are. Both of the main members (the third seems to be more of an auxilary player) seem so down-to-earth and friendly, and that's what comes across in their lyrical content. "Park Song," for instance, follows the day off of a somewhat lonely and almost painfully socially awkward 20-something: "Went to the bar they say is the most/Went by myself, but no one noticed/Wondered if I looked like a tourist/All I could think was 'Please don't blow this'"
Then there's the love ballad "Ashley," which marks itself a really pretty reflection on sought-after reciprocated affection. It sounds uncomfortable and awkward, but it's actually, again, very easy to identify with and very pretty. One of the album's later tracks, "Undeclared," is a very simple, almost high school track that almost doesn't work but, very much does here. Sure, it's cheesy, but it's that sort of cheesiness that's endearing in its modesty. It's this sort of unabashed lyrical content that makes lyrics so enjoyable and, at the same time, identifiable. And Visiter is just that: an everyperson's album that's so modest that it's difficult not to like.
Release Date: 2008-03-18
Other Reviews: +++

Fools, live at Capitol Hill Block Party, Seattle, 7-25-2008

Red and Purple, live at the NPR studios

7

Headlights - Some Racing, Some Stopping

This was an album that I really waited and had really high hopes for. I first came across Illinois' Headlights in November 2007 when I saw them perform at Austin's Fun Fun Fun Festival while waiting for another group to start. It wasn't just the music that I liked, but the band looked like they were having so much fun on stage that they were able to quickly draw in the otherwise unaware audience.
The first track released from here was "Cherry Tulips," which is very reminiscent of the group's 2006 debut "Kill Them With Kindness." However, the next track, "Market Girl," released about the same time as the actual album, didn't sound quite as good and I wrote the album off. I turned back to it later in the year and, through subsequent listens, it really grew on me. The fact is, I think that I was looking for a follow-up to "Kill Them With Kindness" and, even though "Some Racing, Some Stopping" is technically just that, it's such a growth that it shouldn't be related to that. This is a band that I still see a lot of promise in, even though I would say that they have reached a good level of maturity. It will fascinating to see where they go from here.
And, although I don't think that the band has reached their peak with this release, there's just something so good about this album. The flow is very much there, but there are also tracks that can easily be sliced off for singles. And where I found the vocals of guitarist Tristan Wraight obnoxious on the previous release, here it just works. In fact, he's on the first track of this album and it sets the stage perfectly. And on that same vein, it's here that keyboardist Erin Fein really shows off why she's here with the gorgeous pop song "On April 2" and the more somber title track, where the group's true lyrical poetry also comes out. But it's "Towers" that really shows off her chops as well as the group's versatility.
Polyvinyl also released a Headlights remix album this year featuring, among others, The Album Leaf and TJ Lipple, semi-famous producer and member of labelmates Aloha. That Lipple remix, of "Cherry Tulips," is available for listen on their MySpace.
Release Date: 2008-03-06
Other Reviews: +++

Cherry Tulips (official video)

8

Plants and Animals - Parc Avenue

"What gonna happen to you?" That's the first, abrupt, soft-spoken line of Montreal-based Plants and Animals' "Parc Avenue." I came across this group while sitting in a brewpub in Cambridge, Massachusetts just before closing time. The bartender was playing some excellent music, so I asked lots of questions. This first track "Bye Bye Bye" sets the tone for what is a really good album. Where this album dies is later on in tracks like "Guru" and, particularly, "Mercy," where a more Phish-like jam band emerges to spit out what is some fairly annoying music. But, have no fear, the album works so that you can actually skip both of these tracks and it still sounds good. And that second-to-last track, "Keep It Real," is one of my favorites of the album and is where the music emerges from a bit of an enjoyable lull into an aggressive rock track.
Release Date: 2008-02-26
Other Reviews: +++

Feedback in the Field (official video)

Bye Bye Bye (band-made video)

9

TV on the Radio - Dear Science

TV on the Radio is a band that I've never quite latched onto. The alternative music media's darling for years, I just never saw much in them except for a sort of obscure but, ultimately, predictable brand of indie rock. "Dear Science" marks a significant evolution for the group and almost seems like a falling grasp for acceptance. A lot of work appears to have gone into this album based on the intricately layered trakcs, addition of new instrumentation and complexity of the songs. This is one of the albums that comes out of bands being locked up in a farmhouse for a year, where it either ends in genius or a horrible break-up.
And this album starts out with genius. "Halfway Home," made into a double entendre. "Crying" comes in as a good track but, to me, should clearly be later in the album, especially when you start looking at those later tracks which falter a bit. "Dancing Choose" has that sort of silly screaming that turned me off to the group originally, but, this time, it works, with a buzzing keyboard bassline and a funk-inspired guitar in the background. "Golden Age" is also an exceptional track, with a nice fun, funky background cut into by a strikingly dense chorus filled with various vocal tracks, keyboards and brass, among other things. "Family Tree" is where things start to falter a bit on the album. Intended as a powerful and introspective ballad, the overt subject matter undermines its otherwise prolific lyrical content and the track, as a whole, comes off as too dreary for this album with the stereotypical string swells only detracting from it. I will say that the heavy reverb and delay on the piano is beautiful though, and works well. If it were written a bit differently, this could have worked well as the album's closer. But the album sputters on with "Red Dress," which opens with a bit of an awkward rap intro, augmented by an "F" bomb and an even more awkward chorus. "Love Dog," however, is possibly my favorite track on the album and is, by far, its most catchy. The somberness works here where it had failed before.
The album's closer, "Lover's Day" is the sort of closer you'd expect from an epic album, complete with horns, marching drums and a chorus of "Oh"'s. And maybe that's what throws me off about this one: it knows its good, so you're quicker to find flaws with it. The albums above this come across as much less pretentious and more non-chalant and, in my opinion that, in the end, makes a better album.
Release Date: 2008-09-22
Other Reviews: ++++

Golden Age (official video)

Dancing Choose (official video)

10

Mogwai - The Hawk Is Howling

I've said before that it would be hard for a Mogwai album to fall off of the Top 10 on any of my "Best of" lists, and it's more a shock to me than you that they've gotten there this year. But that's just to show how great this year really was for music. Because this is a very, very good album.
Release Date: 2008-09-22
Other Reviews: +++

Batcat (official video)

11

Sun Kill Moon - April

Sun Kil Moon is the sort of music that embodies the otherwise intangible contemporary Americana. Somewhere between Neil Young's rock and a Great Plains country singer sits a conceptualized genre of music. Music to fill the void of various movies that typify this sort of starkness.
For whatever reason, the European obsession with American-based Red House Painters never carried back across the Atlantic and lead singer Mark Kozelek remains a relative unknown here, in spite of his prominent appearance in the American film "Shop Girl" in 2005. His Sun Kil Moon project has been going for several years, now with three full-length releases, including 2005's "Tiny Cities," a collection of mostly obscure Modest Mouse covers. "April" represents a continuation of the introspective, autumn day writing style that typifies Kozelek's music. And that writing style is really where the album shines and, at the same time, fails.
"April" is not a party album. This is an album to listen to while quietly thinking about where your life has gone wrong and what a horrible person you really have been to those who care about you. That sounds depressing, but it's really not, because the tracks on here make that all seem okay and normal, as if it were providing a safe and non-judgmental environment for a therapy session.
It was one time while driving through New Mexico's Bisti Badlands on a desolate dirt road on the way to Chaco Canyon that the track "Heroin Blue" came on, and I really began to understand his vision here. The music seemed to be made perfectly for this cold, windy day as if it were being spewed from the deep, gray clouds above the barren expanse around, as we passed dilapidated Navajo hogans and isolated, abandoned buildings dotting the scrubby hills. That really sold me on this album as, in my other listens, it has come off, frankly, a bit trite. It's funny how important driving is to appreciating music.
The first track, "Lost Verses," seems to be marked as the album's single and is its most active track, but, clocking in at close to 10 minutes, this is not a song for the radio, nor is it a song to listen to while playing World of Warcraft. But none of "April" really is.
"Tonight the Sky" evokes the ghost of a drug-induced, late '70's Neil Young, with a guitar line sounding very similar to "Tin Soldiers" (yeah, I know that was a CSNY song), and is my favorite on the album. "Moorestown," possibly a nod to the town in New Jersey, serves as one of the more relatable track lyrically, with a story about spending young, carefree summers with a now lost love. "Heroin Blue," at almost 11 minutes, is reminiscent of Bob Dylan's "Ballad of Hollis Brown." With chilling repetition and Kozelek in a low register, we get a true feeling for the sort of darkness that spawned the song. When the high register accompaniment comes in, the song really emerges as great.
And those intricacies are where this album shines. It's hard to compare Sun Kil Moon's albums as they're all different enough yet none are totally outstanding in themselves. I would say, though, that I do think that this is his best thus far.
Release Date: 2008-04-01
Other Reviews: ++++

12

Stereolab - Chemical Chords

I've said before that it would be really difficult for a Stereolab release to not make my Top 10, but this is just one of those years where there's so much good music, that I just can't keep it up there.
Stereolab is one of those bands that amazes me in their talent and their ability to continuously produce new material and then tour in support of it. Tim Gane is one of the best songwriters out there today, and Laetitia Sadier is the strong frontwoman that so many others only wish that they could be.
With this album, Stereolab is still Stereolab. But what's great about this paradigm is that, even though the music has a noticeably constant vibe and flow, no two Stereolab tracks sound remotely the same. It's almost as if the group were aware that they've been going so long that people are looking for similarities and the inevitable rehashing of previous work, but this still has yet to happen with them.
And that's all I can really say about this one. It's just become Stereolab's thing to make great albums.
Release Date: 2008-08-19
Other Reviews: +++

Neon Beanbag (official video)

Three Women (official video)

13

Mates of State - Re-Arrange Us

"Re-Arrange Us" marks Mates of States' first release on Barsuk after a long tenure at Polyvinyl. The release also came at nearly the same time as the birth of the couple's second child. So there have been a lot of changes for the band, but has their music changed?
At first listen, it's clear how much less aggressive this album is. Gone are the quick tempos and fast, buzzy organ chords and replacing it is a piano with a more thoughtful drive. The fact is that the group's music has changed, but it has not necessarily deteriorated. What may put some off to this album is the sort of lo-fi kitschiness that used to defined Mates of State and was very well balanced on their last Polyvinyl release, 2005's "Bring It Back," is totally gone on this.
However, there are some beautiful tracks on here. "The Re-Arranger" is an easy favorite, "You Are Free" offers some great vocal work by Kori Gardner, and the closer, "Lullaby Haze," is simply gorgeous. However, tracks like "Now" and "Help Help" get obnoxious and, at times, sound as if they were written quickly, almost in a pinch as filler for the rest of the album.
Release Date: 2008-05-20
Other Reviews: ++

My Only Offer (official video)

Get Better (official video)

No One Wants To Be Left Out, performed on Nick Jr's own window into the apocalypse: "Yo Gabba Gabba"

14

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes are yet another group to come onto the scene just this year with a retro sound, in this case, reminiscent of the folk music of the 1960's, in a vein very much like, I think, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. "English House" is a perfect example, where the vocal harmonies that Fleet Foxes are so good at really shine. And this isn't just a studio fluke. I saw them live in their hometown (Seattle) this July and those harmonies were just as spot-on as they are on the album.
There are great tracks on this album and there are tracks that I just don't particularly like, which is why this is the only album on this list that I don't have a copy of. I just never thought it was that great and was content in hearing the singles. But, damn, those singles are good. "White Winter Hymnal" seems to be the favorite of most, and that's a good choice, but I particularly like "Blue Ridge Mountains" which, although the harmonies are kept out of it, shoots into a more upbeat, rolling vocal melody that gives you chills.
Release Date: 2008-06-03
Other Reviews: ++++

White Winter Hymnal (official video)

He Doesn't Know Why (official video)

15

Hayden - In Field & Town

Hayden sort of typifies the strange divide of popular culture that we have with Canada. It seems that both Canadians and Americans seem to believe that their pop cultures are, generally, about the same, but this is actually far from the case. For instance, Canadians are likely well-acquainted with Toronto-based singer-songwriter Hayden, but Americans, however, have likely never heard of him. When I saw him at Plush in June, there were scarcely 25 people there on that Tuesday night, but those there all seemed to have the same sort of "Hayden is awesome!" attitude and were clearly seasoned fans. It could be a matter of exposure though, as Hayden admitted that it was his, as well as his backing band's (Toronto-based Cuff the Duke), first trip to the Grand Canyon State.
"In Field & Town" begins with title track and the sort of awkward but straight-forward rhythm and scratchy vocals that exist throughout the album. We then move into "More Than Alive" which is, in my opinion, one of Hayden's best. It's the kind of song that is, in its essence, perfect in its writing and execution and so, so sad at the same time. Moving on, "The Van Song" it's a striking, upbeat, light-hearted contrast that worms its way into the flow of the album without disrupting things whatsoever.
And that's why the album works. Hayden has been doing this so long that he seems to understand how to arrange an album well so that it works well as an album, but also that the individual tracks work by themselves.
Other highlights of the album include the sixth track, in which Hayden asks "Did I Wake Up Beside You?" in a bluesy swagger, "Where and When," which is one of the album's best, if just for its odd timing, and "Lonely Security Guard," which, if Hayden were better known, could be a classic in its own right.
Although I seem to be showering this release with praise, it's hard to mark it higher than what it's at because there's nothing really that interesting here. Hayden is doing something that has been done before and, I think, that's what has prohibited me from getting too excited about his material. It's very good, but it's not great.
Release Date: 2008-01-15
Other Reviews: +++

Where and When (official video, and a pretty horrible one)

16

These United Status - A Picture of the Three Of Us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden

I first came across this group when they played an unofficial pre-SxSW thing that Tucson does to cash in on the fact that a lot of the bands going to SxSW in Austin end up in Tucson on their way to or from the festival.
This album is shocking, at the least, in its production value. The quality and the instrumentation here show what should be an experienced, and well-financed group, but These United States is not exactly that. DC-based and relatively obscure, the group toured extensively in support of this release but still managed to get off yet another full-length this fall.
There are some tracks on here that just really stand out, such as "First Sight," "Slow Crows Over" and "Jenni Anne," while others work well with the album but the album still works being skipped.
It's a fun album for a fun band. I wish I could have caught them here in March, or when they came back in August. Maybe next time. But the next album turned out to not work for these guys. I've heard a few tracks off of it, and it just doesn't come close to this one.
Release Date: 2008-03-04
Other Reviews: ?

17

Point Juncture, WA - Heart to Elk

One cold, rainy night in Portland in March, we set out to the lesser-known Mississippi Street to see a show at Mississippi Studios. It was to be two bands that I had followed for a while, since they had both come to Tucson (separately) and I had missed both shows. Portland-based Point Juncture, WA and Merced, CA-based El Olio Wolof played.
Point Juncture's music is a bit hard to nail down. I think that the Sonic Youth comparisons are the most apt, as that appears to be where they get a lot of their influence, but they also infuse vibraphones and brass into their music, and very much diverge from that nouveau sort of post-punk and No Wave label. Instead, the music meanders a bit, with heavier, more rocking tunes going into more introspective, almost jam sessions.
Honestly, I didn't think much of the band's performance. El Olio Wolof came off as a better group, and the show I had seen Point Juncture play the previous summer in Spokane was much better. Something just wasn't right. It wasn't until very recently that I pulled the band's web site back up to find their last album, released in September, Heart to Elk, available for free streaming (as well as the rest of the group's catalog), and I started to listen. I can recall these songs being played at the show I saw in March, but I do not recall them sounding this good. Something came through in this particular recording that hadn't in their previous releases. It's almost as though the band has found what was good about their live performances and their studio work and blended the two. There are some great tracks on here, with several stand-outs, but nothing that really disappoints. Instead, those lulls simply work as rest periods for the flow of the album. Where the album falters a bit is that it takes a couple of tracks for it to get started, essentially with "New Machine." Both previous tracks are intros, so one of them is just not necessary, but they do flow well. "Sioux Arrow" is one of my favorites, with its driving snare and sparse, reverby guitar, giving it a dark and almost menacing quality. The next track, "Kings Part II," on the other hand, is a vocal-heavy love ballad, with some soothing acoustic guitar. "Sick on Sugar," if the group had radio play outside of Portland, would be the radio favorite. Its upbeat, poppy nature, vocal harmonies and heavier chorus are conducive to it. What I particularly like about this album is that the band has found a good balance for their two vocalists to operate on. Male/female shared vocals are often hard to balance out, and you end up liking one over the other. Take early Camera Obscura, for instance, where you end up tracking through the ones where the guy sings, or Headlights' first full-length, where there is no real balance between the two sets of tracks, and they would almost work better on separate albums. This is not the case for "Heart to Elk." There are fun, enjoyable tracks where one sings, and others, that are just as good, that they both sing together on.
Release Date:
Other Reviews: +++

Sioux Arrow

18

Ratatat - LP3

What I love about Ratatat is what they do: a true mixing of electronic and acoustic instrumentation. Ratatat does it in a way that's almost reminiscent of heavy metal. The beginning to the first track on their latest release, "LP3" (named such because it's their third LP), sounds, to me, almost exactly like the beginning of Metallica's "Master of Puppets" album, with its emerging wall of guitar blast. I usually have to keep this album low at first, then turn it up once the guitars die down a bit. Otherwise, it's a bit much.
There are certainly good tracks on this album, and those stand out. "Mirando" is the album's best, and is complimented by one of the year's funniest music videos, a mash-up of the movie "Predator" to the beat of the song. "Mi Viejo" is also impressive in its mix of genres, with a flamenco style of guitar and a more drum circle style of percussive backing. "Mumatz Khan" also goes on a bit of genre tangent, this time, almost Arabic, and sets itself as one of the more danceable tracks on the album. The album closes with the awkward but good "Black Heroes."
The fact is that their previous full-length, "Classics," was so good that it kind of leaves this one in the dust, and that's where this one has issues. Ratatat's sound, though just as consistent on this "LP3" as on their previous releases, is no longer a novelty but has not evolved to the point where one can say "Wow." Instead, it's more of a "Pretty cool." But, also, there's still the issue of the individual tracks not working nearly as well as on "Classics." There's a more abstract-ness to this CD, almost as if the band were trying to reach out and really grab people to make an impression. The intent is admirable, but the execution, in the end, doesn't work out as well as it should. It's still a really fun album for a really fun band though.
Release Date: 2008-07-08
Other Reviews: +++

Mirando (official video)

Shempi (official video)

Flynn (official video)

19

Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago

Another darling of the press this year, I won't go into the story behind Justin Vernon's Bon Iver (because I don't even want to write it again, I've read it that much), but this, essentially, his debut album. "For Emma, Forever Ago" melds well with the sort of wintery, isolated depression that likely conceived this album. But, of course, you don't necessarily have to be depressed for this. The songs are beautiful in their own right, particularly the more famous single, "Skinny Love," where Vernon cries "I told you to be patient/And I told you to be fine/And I told you to be balanced/And I told you to be kind."
This is yet another album that was actually released in 2007 but was produced in such small quantities that it was almost impossible to get, but then re-released on a larger album. Actually, this is the second of these releases on my list this year from Jagjaguwar/Secretly Canadian, the other being Throw Me the Statue's "Moonbeams."
The album, as a whole, feels a bit bland and too low-key to be great, but the excellent tracks on it make it stand out all the same.
Release Date: 2008-02-19
Other Reviews: ++++

Wolves (Act I & II)

20

Ladyhawk - Shots

I think this album being so low is partially a bias on my part in that it doesn't meet the fairly high standard set by their full-length, self-titled 2005 debut. However, it does meet a lot of my general expectations for an album. There are some songs that seemed like the band spent too much time with the album's namesake instead of working on the music. After all, they are Canadian. But it's fun, entertaining, and, damn it, Ladyhawk's a good band. They also have an independent and hard to find documentary out on the band's recording process, which was done in a small house in suburban Kelowna, BC (the band's hometown) that has since burned down and been demolished. An New Zealand pop-punk group has also stolen their name, added an "e," and, unfortunately, likely doomed this group. So, just to be clear, this is in reference to Ladyhawk and not Ladyhawke, the latter of which sucks balls.
"Shots" begins with the track originally released as a preview, "I Don't Always Know What You're Saying." This song comes out with power and this, along with the somewhat stunted second track, S.T.H.D., serve as a good introduction to the album. But the album never really takes off. "Corpse Paint" is a gorgeous and stark track and others do well enough on their own, but everything seems to come to premature conclusion with the epic "Ghost Blues," left off the band's free preview of the album on their MySpace because of its length (MySpace used to not allow songs longer than 10 minutes). And that's it. That's Ladyhawk's follow-up.
If you knew who they were before this, then you'll likely be a bit disappointed. However, if you're rocking out to that first track for the first time now, then you may really enjoy this one.
Release Date: 2008-03-04
Other Reviews: ?

Trailer for "Let Me Be Fictional," a documentary on Ladyhawk

Unfortunately left off:

A list of albums that I really wish that I could have put on here for various reasons, but they didn't make the final cut.